Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Stuff and Treasure

I have a book of Guy du Maupassant stories. On the cover is an impressionist painting of a woman coming out of the bath, drying her feet. I assume it’s by Degas because he’s the impressionist I did my high school French class report on and, as far as I’m concerned, all impressionist paintings that aren’t famously and obviously by some other painter, were painted by Degas.

Degas started going blind at the end of his career. Tragedy. Tragedy for him and for us. I am legally blind. The tragedy is merely personal. The world does not mourn a loss over the fact that reading, for me, is slow and difficult. I have to be choosy about what I read because it takes so much time and effort. In college, I chose to read that book of Maupassant stories. After college, I chose to read it three more times.

Those stories can be a little like Far Side cartoons. Sometimes you don’t get it on your first shot. Sometimes you need someone to explain the world and the ending to you.

My junior year of college, I had a little time between this and that, who knows—I don’t remember the obligations, I only remember the time in between. There was an in between place on the Vanderbilt campus where four paths met in a sort of pedestrian roundabout. At the center of the circle was a planter overflowing with the campus’ signature Spring gold tulips. At the center of the planter was a blossoming dogwood, shedding its white, covering the ground in floral snow. The circle was bordered by ancient shade trees and magnolias. There were antique style street lamps dotted around. At night, they cast pale blue efficiency light. There were glossy wooden benches.

I was alone in the circle, in the in between time, in the in between place, sitting on one of the glossy benches. I was reading Guy du Maupassant.

I read a story about a man who observes another man’s gaudy, worldly treasures and also his beautiful daughter and wife. That’s the whole of the story—the observations of the one man and the bragging of the other on all his gaudy, worldly possessions. It’s the kind of story that, when it ends, you flip the pages expecting another ending and find only the beginning of another story. Maybe the printer made a mistake.

I stood up from my glossy bench, chewing on it. I went to my other obligation. I went back to my dorm room overstuffed with the detritus of a busy college career. I called my mom.

I told my mom about the story and asked her what she thought it meant. She said it was quite obvious, wasn’t it? The treasure was the women. In all that house full of stuff, (I looked around my own room and was embarrassed), in that house full of stuff,, (I thought about how often I had walked through that in between place circle with its gold tulips and dogwood snow and ignored it on my way from stuff-to-do to other stuff-to-do and was embarrassed), in that house full of stuff, the women were the treasure. The family bond was the precious thing,

I thought about how often I neglected to call home in favor of some seemingly more pressing or interesting stuff. I was embarrassed. My life was stuffed with such stuff.

I told my mom she was an epiphany. I asked her how her day had gone.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Baseball. Ellipsis.

Talk about a period where you have not read.

Ellipses immediately come to mind. Periods where I have not read because there was nothing there to read. Periods where I have not read because what is missing and what I could fill into that emptiness would be too frightening. I have large parts of my life that are ellipses in that regard. I have large parts of my life that trail off on the page. I have large parts of my life where the lips stop murmuring along with the text. I have long periods in my life where the face turns away, where the throat clears, where the mind starts wondering what’s for dinner, where the legs pick the body up, stand, and walk away.

The devil is in the periods I have not read. The devil is in the missing details.

I went off to college at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN. I had three beautiful years of freedom there. I read a lot. I didn’t read anything I was supposed to read all the way to the end.

I had a teacher in high school who warned us that our study habits wouldn’t change when we went to college. He told us we better get our stuff together now, because if not now, never. He was right. My study habits didn’t change. I never read anything I was supposed to read in high school to the end, and I didn’t in college either. What he failed to mention was that in college, high school habits may not have the same outcome as they do in college. In high school, my writing ability covering all the periods I did not read didn’t carry me through. There was busy work to be done along with it. An A on a paper did not overshadow all the pages of definitions I did not dutifully copy. In college, however, where all that busywork is stripped away, where you are left to your own devices as far as the final product is concerned, my talent carried me gloriously over all the periods I did not read and my grades went from strikeout to home run.

It makes me think of a team carrying their star player around after she wins the big game for them. My words were like that. They have carried me that way. They have poured Gatorade over my head. They have slapped my ass in encouragement. They have depended on me showing up for each and every game.

I could not finish the game.

Three years of freedom in college, periods I read and periods I trailed off, and periods I did not read at all… then darkness. Abuse. Bad men. A dead, dark stop in an otherwise bright and promising life. Three hard periods. An ellipsis. Nothing to read here. End of page.

Seven and a half years of end-of-page—ellipsis after ellipsis after ellipses—periods the whole world turned away from—weeping that was never recorded.

Until now.

The words tap me tenderly on the ass. Pre season starts soon and, quick as wink, we will be finishing the game we started so many years ago, and this time, I have no excuse not to show up, not to play to the final inning, even if we go into overtime.

I’ve mixed baseball with ellipses. One of my favorite lines of poetry, “Dear God, we lurch from metaphor to metaphor.”

I’ve spent plenty of periods not reading while watching baseball. There’s a rhythm to it, to not reading and to baseball. The head nods. An exciting moment is sure to come… eventually.

A baseball is sort of like a period. (We must connect the dots.)

A baseball is sort of like a period, only it comes at you at nearly 100mph. It’s the end of the ellipsis, it’s the call to action, it’s the what now, brother? Do you swing or do you miss? Do you play or do you cower? Do you lean into it? Do you want to win the game badly enough to risk brain injury?

The pitcher winds up. The pupils dilate The muscles tense. The final period is hurled. All muscle memory. Not a conscious thought.

New page.

Swing.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Life, Writing On Writing

Perhaps I Should Stick to Writing

What have I carried and gnawed over?

I was going to be a film composer. I had a stack of Film Score Monthly tall and leaning as Pisa’s tower. I looked forward to that mag coming each month the way you look forward to unexpected money in the mail. I carried it with me wherever I went until it was read from one end to the other and back again. I knew all the current composers. If they had trading cards, I would have owned them all and memorized all their stats.

I bought a Korg electric piano for my first apartment. It was the first thing I ever bought on credit. It was $1,200. The credit card company called me to make sure I meant the purchase. Oh yes. Yes I meant it. I was $1,200 and more worth of serious.

I took piano, violin, and theory lessons from a Hungarian who escaped Communism and had almost more stories about that than he had musical wisdom. I didn’t mind. I was in it for the long haul. I did composition exercises from his Hungarian music university textbooks. I couldn’t read the explanations, but I could do the musical math.

I wrote songs for each of my family members. I wrote songs for each of my friends. I wrote a song for Clementi from whose sonatinas I learned keyboard basics.

I made a giant packet of all my composition exercises and all my songs and put it in the box of the head of the composition department at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. I swaggered back to my apartment and my credited piano and awaited his call. When he did call and invite me to see him, I strutted confidently into his office, ready for my new career to begin in a bright flash of praise and appreciation.

The professor brought out my composition exercises first. He showed me every mistake I made. He said I didn’t know anything about something called “voice leading.” He pointed out every crooked stem on every not perfectly round note.

He went for my singing next. He had me sing a major scale and I came out with it easily. He asked me to sing a minor scale and I faltered, reverting to the major on three different attempts. He said he would have to tell me someday why that happens.

Finally, he brought out my Clementi. He said he didn’t understand why I started it on what was clearly not the downbeat. He said it sounded nothing like Clementi. He said he had composition students who could do Clementi in their sleep.

He said, “You obviously have a love for tonal music, but a complete lack of the talent necessary to create it.”

He broke my world.

I wrote him a letter the next day. I told him in two pages how I was going to prove him wrong. I wrote something about the shining prize on the top of the hill that I would do anything to attain. I said a lot of inspirational things. I was on fire.

He wrote back that I had a great talent for writing. He wrote that I should, perhaps, stick to writing.

Every time I sit down to write, I gnaw on that.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Writing Exercises

Matchy Matchy on Anyone Else

At some point my mom stopped wearing closed-toed shoes. At some point she went entirely to sandals. California girl gives up on formality. In retirement, she retired fancy footwear. Men ditch the noose. My mom ditched confining shoes.

Hobnobbing with high powered lawyers over million dollar medical malpractice cases, her working life shoes were stunning—more for the sound they made than anything else. Strident strides. Authority on pavement come from the parking lot into the courthouse to win the day and withhold the money.

When my mom came to visit me for the first time in my first apartment as an adult, I heard her long before I saw her. She parked in the visitors’ lot, under my window, and clicked her way through the security gate somehow before I got down there to let her in. The gate yielded for her, or whoever was holding the gate, because of course it/he did.

She was wearing a pale yellow dress and her shoes matched. They matched the dress exactly. Her purse matched too. Matchy matchy on other people looks sickening. On my mother, matchy matchy looks like all is right in Heaven and Earth and nothing evil can touch you here. Her jewelry was gold. The stones in her jewelry were yellow topaz.

All is well. All is well. Heaven and Earth can rest.

She rearranged my apartment during that visit. She had gentle suggestions and the place got a major undoing and redoing. The couch went from the wall to the middle of the room creating a second space against the wall for my desk and piano. The artwork got frames and was properly hung, not puttied to the walls as it had been in my dorm room, my home before this one. Bad adolescent decorating habits carried over. She fixed that.

She bought a purple decorative pillow for my couch to match the purple in the decorative rug I had under my glass coffee table. She made sure my accidentally contemporary living room flowed seamlessly into my accidentally country bedroom. The purple flowed through from pillow to pillows. The floral arrangement on the dining table matched the flowers on my bedspread. The drapes, different colors but the same style, were made and hung by the same pair of hands.

When she left—when she clicked her way back through the gate and went back to my childhood home more than a thousand miles away to knock heads and pointed heels with lawyers who weren’t expecting so much trouble from a woman, I looked at my newly gorgeous apartment and cried. I missed my couch and everything else up against the wall because I didn’t know any better. I missed the curl of the art posters pulling away from their putty.

I missed her clicking more.

I kept my apartment the way she left it: objectively beautified. With only my soft sneakers to scuttle along the scuffed floorboards, the beautiful quiet was too quiet and would have been quieter had I reverted entirely to me. Emptier. Emptier and quiet.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Reality on Her Fingers

My dad, divorced from my mother for more than ten years at that point, told me that what she really loves is jewelry. She has the bling gene, as we call it. That’s not what he said. That’s a little too clever, a little too kind.

She loves costume jewelry, but has a grounding in the real. Always reality on her fingers. On her left hand, she always wears a blue topaz ring she had made. The topaz is set in a simple, modern swoop of solid gold. It’s meant to show off the stone, bold as a blue diamond. The way she wears it, you would swear it was a diamond.

On her right hand, she wears a ruby set in a cluster of diamonds. The ruby is her birthstone. It is pigeon blood red. It is the best you can get. She had this ring made too.

She wears a little silver ring I gave her. She wears a simple gold chain bracelet on her left wrist.

A touch of reality around her neck too. A shy diamond set in another modern swoop of gold, smaller, more delicate—a stylized teardrop. It sits against a black backdrop, created shadow. The diamond is from her mother’s engagement ring—her mother’s first engagement to my mother’s father.

They took that necklace off my mom when she went into the hospital so it wouldn’t interfere with the MRI. They took her rings and bracelet too.

She had to be in the hospital alone because of the virus. She was there a week. I called her every day, at least once a day. She told me many times about how they had taken her jewelry. She told me many times she was sure she would get it back. She had faith they were good, honest people, and that she would get her jewelry back even though she couldn’t quite remember where they had put it in her room. It seemed she thought about that more than she thought about her infection, her surgery, the second attempt at her surgery, and what life would be like after.

She recovered enough to come home. Once home, it took her another two weeks to recover enough physically and mentally even to want to put her jewelry on again.

She fished it out of her purse. It was all jumbled up in a green, semicircular plastic holder that looked like something you would put false teeth in. All that reality. All her reality. All those gems.

She put the topaz on first. This was what she earned—her badass career—the woman she was before retirement—the woman who made male lawyers quiver and go limp—the woman who could afford a topaz like that and all that swoop of gold.

She put her ruby on next. This was the woman she was born, badass in essence from the start. The little girl who chopped down an entire row of bird of paradise in front of her mother’s house because she didn’t like the way they looked at her when she got home from school. She planted snapdragons there instead. Their fierce little faces were sweeter.

The gold bracelet. She fastened that on herself. She bought it somewhere borderline seedy while on a Caribbean cruise—her first. First of many with a group of globetrotting women, badass as she was, exploring everything, planting their flags everywhere.

She needed help with the engagement diamond necklace. I tried for more than fifteen minutes and couldn’t get it. The clasp is so tiny, I wondered how she ever got it on in the first place as her well kept fingernails are long and lustrous and mine are bitten to the nubs. It should have been easier for me having my actual fingertips to work with, but it was impossible.

She sighed as I handed it back to her. She looked down. “I don’t like to be without it,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how easily the nurse took it off.”

Finally, she slid the little silver ring with the created pink gemstones I gave her for her birthday on to her little finger. The ring had turned black. Something they injected her with had burned her inside, leaked out of the injection site, run down her arm, and burned off whatever real silver there was on the ring. This was before the MRI. Before the box. Before she was bereft of everything. Before it was all protected.

That silver ring I gave her—the timid whisper that is my life’s contribution to hers, turned black in her illness—she wears it anyway. Right alongside her gold and precious. She wears it anyway.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Natively Unquiet

Tell me about silence.

If you threw the Empire State Building into a raging sea, no one would know the difference. Deepak Chopra said something like that, advocating for meditation. I bet the people of New York would know the difference–their skyline sadly quieter again.

But not silent.

There is no such thing. Like time and god, it’s something we conceptualize, track our lives by, aspire to. But there is always some sound. There is always some imperfection. Our own breath. Our own heartbeat. The mortal body regulating itself as it slowly, calmly perishes.

And that’s not a bad thing. Humans will never be gods and humans will also never know silence or be silent. We are the creatures we are, natively, and we are an unsubtle, noisy lot.

When I try to be silent, movies related to the logistics of eternity flicker across the insides of my eyelids. I’ve learned (sometimes) to watch and not participate, like seekers of silence and stillness are supposed to do, but even when the films are silent films, there is still the sound of the flickering, still the hum of electricity to projector that bolts through the physical brain. The slapstick of memory and trauma and dream and inspiration plays itself out and I laugh. As silent as I am, as unmoving as my belly and throat are–still there is the laugh.

That’s probably the foundational sound of the universe–the breath and heartbeat sound even she can’t get away from when she curves back into herself to resettle before birthing herself, from herself, again.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Writing Exercises

Boys at the Window

What was outside your bedroom window?

(Doing this exercise from the phone today as our TV broke and my family has commandeered my iPad to watch Star Wars. A little weird, but I like it because I get to be lazy and lie in bed while I write. On to it.)

I’ve lived in three of the four bedrooms of the house I grew up in. I started at the end of the hall, moved across the hall to the front of the house, then back across the hall to the biggest of the little bedrooms, at last. When I lived in the bedroom at the front of the house, my window looked out on the walk, the lawn, the sidewalk, the streetlight that was supposed to be orange but was always broken, the street, the across-the-street neighbor’s house, and the across-the-street neighbor’s house’s front windows–their living room and a little square bedroom just like mine.

I slept with the head of my bed up against the window. I liked to look out through the blinds at night and contemplate the mysteries of junior high vis a vis the mysteries of the mostly empty street, an unhurried car passing once in a great while.

One night, my boyfriend and two of his friends came to the window. They whispered and laughed and sang and coaxed me out without permission. I think it might have been all of 10:00pm. We were doing what good kids walking the razor sharp line between good kids and slightly less good kids do. We thought we were stealing the world. It’s good we thought that.

Just now the thought: I have had romantic experiences in my lifetime after all, or at least this one–and the several times after that it also happened once they figured out I was so easily persuaded. Once they figured out I was just bad enough.

I came to expect them. I prepared myself for it. I dressed. I made sure my hair was ok, but not too ok. When my best friend came to my house for a sleepover, I made sure her clothes and hair were also ok, but not too ok. She was the best of the good kids. To her, we really were stealing the world. She looked afraid when I told her they would come. She went along anyway.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Exceptional Vehicles

Let’s talk about driving. What goes unnoticed? What do we take for granted?

All you people take driving for granted.

I can’t drive because I’m legally blind and it is one of the most horrible kinds of crippling, or at least I imagine it is. Having never been an independent driver, I wouldn’t know.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a notion to go somewhere and just go. Cold night, playing Freeze Out like my dad used to do with us girls in the car—all four windows down, whoever rolls theirs up last is the winner—but with only myself as competition. I’ve never had to keep myself awake with only myself and the double yellow lolling out endlessly before me in the dark dark desert between here and Las Vegas.

I don’t know what hitting 100mph is like on that same highway, in the middle of the night, when I’m sure the CHP isn’t watching.

Yellow line, lulling you to sleep. Blaring the radio to fight it, Botts’ dots rumbling your eyes open again. The danger. The responsibility. The irresponsibility. The win when you get there somehow, miraculously, safe.

I wish I could stand somewhere alone that I drove to alone that I decided to drive to alone, and that no one but me, alone, would know about it.

Freedom. A grass is greener freedom as my side of the fence is on foot or riding the bus or in a cab or mooching rides from patient friends.

It’s hard to be independent when your broader movements are, by necessity, dependent—when, at the very least, the bus driver is going to know where you came from, where you went, and, if you ride enough, most of what your story is.

I sound bitter.

I am a little bitter.

No one to blame but the DNA. I was born wing-clipped in Southern California. Apparently my genetic material never heard the song “Nobody Walks in LA,” or heard it and thought we would be the exception.

Special genes do make one exceptional.

I am exceptionally half-sighted. I am exceptionally good at scheduling my errands around my friends’ errands so I don’t trouble anybody too much.

I am exceptionally blessed with the gift of the gab and, by lack of automotive freedom, have gained masses of unlikely friends all over the country because of it. There is not much else to do when you’re stuck in transit together, breathing each other’s air, than to become compatriots.

Rwandan refugee cab drivers in Nashville—that ride share guy in DC who asked me what color palm trees are—the Uber lady whose dog just died yesterday—the bus driver who wouldn’t take my ticket without putting on gloves first (she was new and we weren’t virus-stricken yet)—the disability cabbie who brought his family along at eleven at night to pick me up from work, his wife sweetly piping up into the conversation from the back—the Pakistani guy who asked me to marry him—the Russian guy who also asked me to marry him—that other guy who asked me to use my employee discount to buy him a coffee pot “for church.”

I suppose all of these, in truth, are my own kind of exceptional vehicle and, once-in-a-while bilious drivers’ envy aside, my clipped-freedom grass is brilliant green because of them.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

It Grows and Grows

Talk about disease.

It puts me ill at ease when my mom starts talking about my grandparents’ cancer—how they were dying at the same time, in hospital rooms next to each other. Lung cancer.

They smoked together. I’m sure he lit her cigarettes when they were dating. A sexy gesture. A sexy pull. Firsthand smoke to firsthand smoke. Breathing in each other’s breaths. Secondhand to secondhand. Thirdhand smoke in each other’s clothes. They breathed it in when they were dancing close.

Thirdhand smoke in their clothes still, even their clean clothes that my mother had to divvy up amongst relatives or donate after they passed. You never really can get rid of the smoke, the breath, the illness, the cancer. It grows and grows.

My mother’s marriage was falling apart as her parents were dying. My father was useless.

One day, after having worked a full day and spending most of the evening sitting at her parents’ bedsides, my mom came home to find that my father had put my sister and I to bed in our day clothes. She tells me he didn’t even bother to take our shoes off. That’s the part she couldn’t get over.

Unemployed and couldn’t be bothered to take our shoes off.

Unemployed and he would do the laundry at three in the morning with all the lights on in the house and Hank Williams roaring from the record player.

She wasn’t spending her evenings with him. He couldn’t throw a toddler’s tantrum, so he chose Hank Williams instead and, “You did say you wanted me to do the laundry, didn’t you?”

The cancer grew and grew.

My grandparents died and my mom got a divorce in the same year.

I once asked my mom if she was glad my grandparents weren’t around to see her get divorced. I asked her if there was some relief in it for her—in their passing. I don’t remember how she answered. I know she spoke, but all I really remember is the silence while she thought about it.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Prose, Writing Exercises

Lesser Sickness

Tell us about a sickness you once had.

My pediatrician just about whalloped my mom after listening to my lungs and determining I had pneumonia. My mom hadn’t believed me when I said I was sick. I had asked to stay home from school, day after day, and she pushed me out the door anyway, thinking it was just another case of chronic truancy, from which I had suffered mightily my freshman year.

I remember geometry class. I sat at a group table by myself and put my head down in my arms. I coughed and sweat and almost fell asleep before the coughing woke me up again. Two dudes I didn’t know walked by on their way up to the front of the room to talk to Mr. Wahl. One dude said to the other, “Why is she like that?” The other one said, “Because she’s sick. Can’t you see?”

Weird my mom didn’t see.

That makes me want to get into all the other things my mom didn’t see, but then we start getting into blind Freudian territory and I don’t particularly want to go there.

Tell me about your mother.

I don’t want to go there.

I’d rather focus on how I felt vindicated when my doctor announced I had pneumonia and not a case of the terrible truancy. One of only a handful of times I can remember actually being happy to be sick.

Speaking of psychoanalysis:

Have you ever wished you were sick, like physical sick, so you would know for sure what the hell was wrong with you? Have you ever wished you were sick, physically sick, so you would have a clear explanation for why you feel like shit all the time and a clear method to fight it?

Sometimes, when I’m very blue, I imagine myself in the hospital and…

I just realized how gross and self-indulgent it is to talk that way when people are dying of the virus. Why my mind didn’t go there first is beyond me. Blind Freudian territory again. Perhaps I’ve quarantined my head too far up my own ass to remember why I’m quarantining in the first place. It does things to the mental health. It brings a lesser sickness, or, in my case, exacerbates the lesser sickness that already was.

Truancy, I suppose, is a lesser sickness than pneumonia. Tough loving your children is a lesser sickness than ignoring them completely. Depressive narcissism is a pretty bad sickness, but a lesser sickness than the actually dying have.

The actually dying of the virus at hand. We are all actually dying. Most of us aren’t newsworthy, at least not to the nation.

This took a darker turn than I intended it to. Mostly I wanted to champion myself to the world that, in 1993, in the autumn, Michelle actually was sick despite what her mother thought.

Let it be known.

-M.