Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Waiting For Anne

I’ve been sick for what feels like a week when it’s only been for a few days so I haven’t been writing like I usually do. I did spend most of Sunday in the yard and gardens. It was so immensely satisfying to clean up my lovely plants so the new growth was revealed. A few things didn’t make: a couple of relatively hardy things which really surprises me when meanwhile my Pinks wintered over and a couple of delicate hard to grow perennials are thriving. The fruit trees have started to bloom and Wally even noticed how beautiful they were on his run this afternoon. We are leaving for Texas on Thursday and when we return it will be just the right time to clear mulch and prepare soil for the expanded veg bed. I’ve ordered golden beets and English cucumber from Burbee along with the usual suspects: Cosmos, Zinnias and Hollyhocks. My friend, Charlie, has a small green house and has started our heirloom tomato plants. Sometimes, I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve such generous friends. I will gift him and his wife a large tin of my special herbs d’Provence blend and a couple bottles of tarragon and rosemary oil. I’m already looking forward to playing with the herbs. I swear, the weeds are worse this year and I spent two hours pulling stupid little weeds out of the rocks and out of the garden. It seemed like they would sprout up behind me as I walked away. If I were really talented I would do a CAD piece a la where I’m walking away as dandelions sprout up behind me. The dogs (Buddy was visiting Sunday while his mama went on a ski date) enjoyed each other’s company while I worked. Those two yard apes crack us up. They charge the fence whenever a dog walks by (frequently on a warm weekend afternoon) and act like they are going to kick some dog ass any minute. After they have finished “taking names” they run around one another in a sort of victory dance. If they were people, I swear those two would be trash talking at the fence and then doing airborne chest bumps like a couple of fraternity brothers on a bender. I must say, spending the day in the yard was a two-edged sword. The sun was good for me but the pollen, not so much.

I actually called in sick to work not one but two days. I never call in. My paid time off is too precious and is really just for vacations, right? Screw using it for actual sick leave! Had there been someone to replace me on Thursday I would have stayed home sick that day, too. I slept most of the two days I was supposed to be working. On Friday I resurrected myself from bed just in time to pick up Beav from school and managed to pull it together and go to Annie LeMott’s reading at the our big and famous indie bookstore. A couple of times I just wanted to slide off my chair and curl up on the floor for a little nap. Not feeling well saved me from spending any money. I sat on the floor in a corner waiting for my number and wrote in my journal. Writing in public makes me feel extremely pretentious and a little fake. Complete projection on my part because I think most people who sit and write in public are completely fake and pretentious. Writing is a private act and in order for it to be work worth reading it must be preformed in quiet isolation. So no one can see--at times--my desperation.

The reading was at the downtown version of our well known indie bookstore for the reading Friday night, plopped on the floor with my notebook out and head buried deep in my own thoughts and almost oblivious to the people around me. I felt like a “wadded up piece of paper” and really didn’t want to engage with the other LaMott fans. Besides, this bookstore intimated the Hell out of me what with the uber librarian type clerks. It’s not like they treat those of us from the suburbs like a hick at the Saks jewelry counter they are nice and helpful folks. The customers are mostly well-heeled “downtown types” equally intimidating to me. My assumption is all the customers and all the clerks hold a couple of MS degrees and a PhD or two so I feel like I can’t intellectually keep up with them and I just duck my head and go to the back of the line and sit on the floor with my moleskine and scribble madly hoping I don’t look as goofy as I feel. The other night as I was scribbling, I realized when Anne LaMott wrote Bird by Bird she didn’t have a degree. I’m not sure if she does now, either. This cheered me because there isn’t anything that makes me more discouraged than the back flap of a book lauding the author’s work at University Of Iowa, Princeton or Brown. So I it gave me hope that a college drop out was READING at this fancy bookstore and I was going to hear her read. Finally after six years of admiring her from afar.

I found LaMott late, I didn’t read her blog at Salon nor did I read Operating Instructions Wally is just a year younger than her son, Sam, and I didn’t read books about babies when Beav came along. But a few years later, I did read Bird by Bird and it changed my feelings about my own writing and made me realize, just like nursing, I am called to write. And all you have to do is read the archives of this blog to see how I feel about LaMott’s Christianity and her idea of Grace. I was very nervous about even speaking to her if I had the chance. My biggest fear is I would have some sort of fan girl melt down resembling a ten year old girl at a Jason Bieber concert. The notebook was my shield against getting all worked up with the people around me. Because the people around me, were complete fan girls and it was a little embarrassing.

As I waited for the reading, I started reminiscing about the other signings I had attended. The first one was Rita Mae Brown and I was mesmerized by her. Of course, the book was forgettable but it was still a big experience for me to hear her soft accent intoning the details of her fictive universe. Next up was William Least Heat Moon. I was so crazy about Blue Highways I carried a copy of it around with me for a few months and talked Ward into taking a small dirt road off a highway near Missoula Montana because a placed named “Rivulet” was at the end of the road. I wanted to see a town called Rivulet and it felt like something Moon would have done. Rivulet was a ghost down with a few shacks but the road through the deep forest was worth it. Besides, Rivulet is one of my favorite words. A few years later, Velkram Seth read from his book which followed a A Suitable Boy and it was a delightfully personal experience. There were very few people there and he had conversations with each one of us. He was completely charmed by my story of cutting his 1400 page novel into two pieces because the hardcover edition I had was just too heavy. His disappointment I didn’t bring it to be signed was endearing. My least satisfying experience at a signing was Joyce Carol Oates. Such a strange little woman who seemed to work at appearing affected and otherworldly. Oh if you are so utterly precious and ethereal spare us your drama by staying at home.

I do like to watch the people at these things; despite not wanting to engage with them. My fears of being an overwrought fan girl were in vain because the very idea of carrying on like a couple of the women who had been there since lunch time (it was six-ish) to be the first in line made me want to reach for a vodka martini with a Xanax garnish. The woman sitting next to me was in her seventies and terribly elegant: tall, willowy with her lovely white hair pulled into a chignon. She moved and looked like a dancer. She was sweet and did try to talk to me a couple of times but I wasn’t forthcoming. Mostly because at that moment a wave of malaise had swept over me and I wanted to lie down on the floor in the fetal position and sleep. I imagined this ballerina beside had once been Balanchine’s mistress; never fully recovering from the brief but passionate affair. When the affair ended, devastated, she left dance and moved to Marrakesh where she organized the first micro loan group. Sure, we would exchange phone numbers and after one coffee date she would realize I was too ordinary and offered nothing to her life and would then find it necessary to spend a few months avoiding me while I continued to try and set things up with her, blind to her disinterest in a friendship with me. Behind me were the quintessential 30-something housewives, over earnest and over thinking. These women make me wistful that I didn’t enjoy my children when they were little; they make me wishful for my youth. These women were way more self-confident than I was at they age, too. Not one single hand wringing comment over preschool. The last woman to enter the room had the most self-assured and thoroughly together continence I’ve ever witnessed. She was like Harrison’s character Dalva in the flesh. Her hair was wildly curly and swept back in a simple pony tail and she had on the hottest red Frye cowboy boots I’ve ever seen in my life. Had I not been sick I think I would have tackled her and stolen her boots; forget the reading.

Surrounding this crowd of adoring women and the few men who were good sports were pictures of the writers who had read at the bookstore before. The first picture my eyes landed on was of David Sedaris. Of course. Because I want to be the lesbian version of Sedaris. Regrettably, I’m almost the lesbian version of his mother sans cigarettes and alcohol. I do have terrible fantasies about just letting myself go, drinking gin out of a white coffee cup and locking my kids out of the house in the snow so I can be alone. I’m not sure I’m qualified to be the lesbian version of Sedaris because my childhood wasn’t messed up enough either. Nor did anything funny like the Miss Coppertone contests happen. There was not a photo of Raymond Carver, one writer I regret discovering shortly after he died. Carver is the reason why attending readings by favorite authors is important to me. The tenuous quality of life is one of the lessons I’m learning this year. It is becoming important to me to seize opportunities when I can do and see those things which matter to me. Seeing LaMott read is one of those things.

I am happy to see I didn’t cry or squeal or say something asinine or stalker-ish which has resulted in a restraining order against me in Marin County when she approached me (as she did many people) and asked if she could sign my book. She looked me straight in the eye and fully engaged with me for about thirty seconds with a presence that seemed natural without pretense or force. I could feel her pray a silent prayer for me. She was probably begging God to please not let me breath on her.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This is my first garden report of the season. To say I'm excited I have things returning to life and blooming and actually coming up is an understatement. I'm pretty gobsmacked some things are actually coming back, too.

I have spinach which has perrenialized. It tastes a little bitter but that's ok, winter makes me bitter, too and I don't have to live outside in the dirt.

I have daffodils!


The apple tree is budding!

And I didn't kill the lilac!

What I want to know is why the Hell can a four year old grow peas in a styrofoam cup but I can't get them to grow outside in the dirt? A question for the sages.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What My Hands Remember

My hands are mannish and rough. If the rest of me were not visible you would name me as Crone rather than Mother. But even as Maid I had old hands. My hands are wizened by years of hand washing and hand holding and they are not strangers to work or dirt or other hands. They have been the first hands held by countless new humans, fresh from the peaceful lair called womb. Tiny hands gripping my mawkish, oversized crooked index fingers. I hope my hand was the first of many held, for safety, strength and passion. The trust those new humans put into my hands was pure reflex response: put something in a baby’s palm and watch how the fingers close around it. One of the many subtle signs of fully functioning human-ness: you can hold hands at birth.

My hands are care worn, like my heart. My heart and hands are covered with sunspots, wrinkles, finely etched crevices from the burdens they have carried. These Icabod Crane fingers are part of a last hand held. Ugly but strong they sought the hand of the dying to offer up comfort or courage to take those last breaths. A human touch to ease the passage but whose ease is still unknown: mine or theirs? Some have gripped with powerful strength afraid to let go of this familiar plane of consciousness no matter how hostile it has become. Others offered me a quiescent clasp of mottled warmth more to assuage my own regret and sense of loss knowing they must travel to the next place and reunite with near forgotten hands, eager to welcome them and love them once more.

That’s a meditation I wrote as a response to Luis Alberto Urrea’s writing prompt he offered on his fan page at Facebook. What a gift to have a 21st century master respond to my writing. I don’t even care if he tells me to never ever EVER write anything aside a shopping list, my name or a mortgage check again. This prompt: “What My Hands Remember” could be the first step towards moving my life’s work into the right brain place of the metaphysics of Care, and away from the left brain place of tasks and deadlines. The weight of burn out I’m suffering threatens to reduce my patients to disease states rather than fellow human beings who are suffering. I hope this sticks because I am rapidly becoming the nurse I have absolutely no respect for and frankly hold in contempt: The nurse who doesn’t care. Yeah, the job is done, it’s done correctly but it’s done by an automaton and not a flesh bearing warm blooded human with a soul.

“Today's Blessing: ‘I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.’ Neruda”

Naruda always manages to say it just right and I stumbled on this lovely line today which describes how I felt last night contemplating the prompt. Only I’m not a poet and couldn’t frame my emotions in such a beautiful image.

I’m not sure if I’m to the point of “singing through the world” but I’m humming and the tune is catchy.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Watch Out For That Clown Doll Holding The Window Envelope!

Today a conversation started about the fear of window envelopes. Seriously, someone mentioned they were irrationally afraid of these things coming for them in the mail. I share this fear because once upon a time in my more hapless days I would receive them regularly and they were usually asking where the hell their money was or explaining the many ways my credit sucked. Nowadays, I get window envelops and they are usually trying to look important and scary when really they want me to borrow more money or save on insurance. The only thing I owe is a mortgage but my heart still leaps into my throat and I open these envelops quickly with shaky hands. I’m wondering if I can sue those stupid asshats at BOA for causing this phobic reaction. I’m figuring it’s good for a few million of their bailout monies. This whole Fear The Envelope thing made me realize I’m sort of an anxious type because I’m afraid of a lot of ridiculous things.

I’m afraid I’ll be driving on an overpass (one of the crazy high one’s in Dallas Fort Worth or San Antonio) and the road will inexplicably end, hurling me and mine into oblivion where we will be smashed on the road surface below: with only dental records to prove we existed.

I’m terrified to pass a semi truck on the right because the minute I am in the trucker’s blind spot she will fall asleep and swerve into me throwing us into the ditch where we will lay for hours until help arrives.

I’m terrified when a semi passes me on the left. See the above scenario.

It freaks me out to come home and the dog isn’t yapping at me from behind the garage door. Because if he isn’t barking-- like someone is pulling his tail--he is certainly dead.

I’m terrified of snakes. I don’t just mean afraid of seeing snakes in the yard or the field. I’m afraid of pictures of snakes. When the kids were too small to go into the reptile house by themselves I wouldn’t take them in because I would have a panic attack the second I walked into the door. I can’t imagine what is going to happen when I inevitably pick up a small grass snake rather than a handful of leaves of mulch in the garden. Two weeks after we moved into the house, a bull snake -- 25 feet long and 4 feet around--was spotted crawling towards our house. We had trash trees, and all sorts of dead stuff back in those days. I called animal control much to the uproarious laughter of my friends and coworkers who told me I should have just tossed it over the back fence. Um…that would mean I actually went into the backyard with the snake. I would attempt to disarm a terrorist before I actually touched a snake. When I was a kid, my terror is what kept up and out of the water when I would water ski because I was sure my father would no doubt put me down in a churning bed of angry water moccasins. I finally stopped water skiing because I didn’t enjoy it and could avoid the whole snake thing. (Please DO NOT leave comments about your favorite snake story and yeah, I probably exaggerated the size of the bull snake)

I’m unreasonably afraid of the dark when I’m alone. I have to have a light on when I walk through a room unless someone is with me. I can’t go through a darkened room. I’m also afraid to sleep in a dark room with the door closed if I’m alone.

I can’t leave my feet out from under the covers. When I was a child I was convinced there were monsters living under the bed and they would snap my toes off in the night. It unnerves me to have my feet uncovered.

Thunder and lightening. It’s loud and bright and electricity that could kill us all.

Encountering a UFO late at night on the highway between here and Texas. No doubt all those unsupervised late nights of listening to this guy rotted my brain and sense of reason.

I dislike clowns but am really afraid of clown dolls. Like the doll from Poltergeist or that awesome USPS commercial where the carrier is supposed to rescue the family from the clown doll. But really who isn’t afraid of clowns.

And if you aren’t afraid of clowns? That’s scary.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spring Threatens

image found here
This morning, I took Wally downtown for a job fair. It was tricky to find and in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and one of the places referred to as "The 'Hood". It was the first black neighborhood in the city and the houses were all built sometime during the last few years of the 19th century. Once upon a time it was a stop over for jazz musicians, porters and waiters on the cross country trains and then the thrill seeking Beats. Our little city had it's own artsy Harlem. But then the trains stopped running as frequently... Twenty plus years ago, I stumbled into this neighborhood and the once festive store fronts and club entrances were either boarded up or in shambles. The houses had sagging porches, peeling paint and trash in the yards. The cars lining the streets were as dilapidated as the buildings and houses. I had a few co-workers who lived there and they told me I was foolish to go down there and stay there even if it was an accident because any given time you could hear people shouting at each other, gun fire and squealing tires. I’m still naive enough to think a white woman would have only garnered curious stares rather than attracting violence. A few years after that, community groups started a re-gentrification project, the gang violence was under a little better control and a sense of pride had returned to the neighborhood. My co-worker who had once been so negative about the place was now passionate about saving her home and making it something to be proud of. The old jazz clubs re-opened and the soul food restaurants started advertising. The light rail moved in and the neighbors could get work on the other side of town and the white folks from the SE could come and gawk and spend their money. Ward, me and the boys went down there one Sunday afternoon many years ago. It was a chance to ride the train--something the boys loved--and a novel way for me and Ward to see something other than our Fabulous Suburb. Besides the restaurant I wanted to try was one of the oldest restaurants in town.

The train wound its way through the deserted Sunday afternoon streets in the financial district downtown before moving past the train yards and to Five Points. We got off the train at the end of the line. We stumbled off the train a little disoriented; neither of us had been down there on foot. We walked a couple of blocks along the main street and I spied the houses down the side streets, most of them still looked a little shabby but more hopeful with old mass plantings of heavily scented purple and yellow iris, old spirea, snow ball and forsythia heavy with blooms all surrounded by patches of bright green grass. We stood on the raised platform and looked around below us. The street was empty but the businesses had an efficient rather than derelict air about them. There were a few men sitting on the sidewalks in the shades of awnings, some were asleep some sitting on their haunches and staring at us. There was a kid standing near the train stop and he was hunched over with his hands jammed into the pockets of his over ample pants. We stepped off the platform and I started walking towards the young man. Ward was about to stop me but I was too far ahead. This kid didn’t give me a chance to ask him a question before he was questioning me.
“Whatchu want?” He leaned back, took his hands out his pants and crossed them over his chest like some kind of Biggy Small wannabe. I think he was trying to intimidate me but he didn’t realize I had a long history of working with gang bangers, junkies and your average street thug so nothing shook me up too much. Especially on a Sunday afternoon, in a city with the reputation of being more Cow Town than Mean Streets.
“I’m looking for Mamma’s; it’s supposed to be around here.”
“Over der. Good food , too. “ He relaxed a little and continued to size me up, his head nodding up and down, still unsure I wasn’t a cop or a warrant officer or a social worker or a bounty hunter disguised as a white suburban housewife.
I tossed thanks over my shoulder as I walked towards the family and we approached the poorly marked restaurant with a rickety and decrepit door.

We walked into the restaurant and the contrast between the bright afternoon and the dark room temporally blinded us; my guess is we all looked stunned for a few seconds. Once my eyes adjusted I noted we were the only people in the restaurant except an elderly gentleman and an older woman in a smock apron. The room was simple and painted a industrial/institutional green. Each table had four chairs and red checkered oil cloths. Near the back, the only thing on the wall was a picture of Jesus. Predictably, it was white Jesus. The people were sitting at the table under the picture of Christ. The man addressed us after he stood up using a cane for support. He had a suspicious tremor in his voice, and probably had good reason to distrust white people. He was old enough to remember the danger of making eye contact with a white woman or not duck his head in the direction of a white man.
“You folks lost?”
“No sir, we heard about your restaurant and would like to have Sunday dinner here if you are still open.” Ward was respectful but direct and completely nonplussed by this adventure I had taken us on. His parents had been incredibly liberal and politically active in the 1950’s and 60’s. Had they not had teenagers at home, my guess is they would have been registering voters in Alabama and Georgia; marching on Washington, the whole deal.
“We open?” he turned his entire body towards the seated woman who was looking us up and down and up and down again.
“We open.” Was her quiet answer. She heaved herself up and went into the kitchen.

All I remember before we had our delicious food as the kids were thankfully and remarkably well behaved; and the buzz from the window air conditioner was so loud if you had wanted to tell secrets you didn’t dare. I do remember the man coming to our table asking why we had bothered to come all the way across town for dinner. We explained we had heard what was happening in the neighborhood and wanted to see it. His daughter (the chief) came out every few minutes and joined in the conversation, warming up to the idea of white folks coming in for lunch. He told us there were still people living in the houses they were born, some close to one hundred . He was proud of his home, a pretty place with old iris blooming in the yard and big leafy trees along red stone sidewalks. The roasted chicken was smothered in gravy; the greens were smoking hot with cayenne, the mashed potatoes buttery and the corn bread sweet. My then three year old ate a quarter of a chicken and his picky eating older brother had almost that. The food was simple and straight forward but there was enough different about it I felt like I had stepped into another part of the country when I got off the train.

I grew up in Texas but don’t remember eating southern style food as a kid. Years ago, my black co-workers thought it was because I was a racist until they figured out I had never had opportunity to try it. So they would bring crazy things for me to try just to see if I would eat them and then have a big laugh over the white girl from Texas who loved chitins but didn’t much care for the pickled pigs’ feet and gushed over mixed greens. I can still hear one of them saying: “Baby, those ain’t nothing’ but weeds that grows in the ditch!” (I remembered that line when I fixed our collards last summer) So my palate had a bit of a swagger to it that afternoon at Mamma’s.

Today, I drove down that same street and the restaurant is still there. The front has been repainted and the tiny sign has been replaced with a fancy new sign. It cheered me to see one of the oldest restaurants in town was still open. The notorious jazz clubs from the thirties and forties were there, too. I wondered if the now famous jazz names would stop in and jam after their real gigs, like they did fifty years ago. Inviting benches lined the sidewalk and invited people to sit and watch the world go by. It wasn’t terribly early in the morning nor was it cold but their weren’t kids skulking around on the corners or older guys sitting against buildings like there had been in the past. I drove the side streets and the yards were clean, the houses were painted and had many had been carefully restored. The Queen Anne style homes rivaled the one’s I had seen in San Francisco a couple of years ago. All of the yards had shrubs and plants threatening to bloom and there were even a few scraggly and ancient cherry trees already in bloom. Spring was threatening to return to Five Points. I knew I was going back one sunny spring day armed with my appetite and my camera.