A Series of Goodbyes

The universe doesn’t let up, and it doesn’t play favorites.  Entropy just continues: a snowball rolling downhill.  One death followed by another.

Someone said to me, in an effort to provide some comfort, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  But I’ve seen no evidence that this is the case, whether or not there is a god.  I see evidence that we just keep on going until we don’t.  And we all hit the point that we don’t.

Until we get there, we have little rituals to ease us from one moment to the next.  Rituals of goodbye.  We are always saying goodbye.

So here is a goodbye:

Analog: Second Hand Stories
My grandmother was
a hard-edged
Depression-era
woman.
The corners of her mouth
turned down.
The glass was not half-empty
because there was no glass:
you drank from a pot,
a ladle,
your hand.
Make do.
Save the tin foil from
your lunch wrappings.
My grandmother told me
stories.  Like: 
how her mother owned a bakery and
made cakes for the children after Sunday school,
and how she frightened her sisters
with the snakes she found in the brush,
She told me:
     “My grandmother was
     a real live Indian woman!”
as if her grandmother
were a unicorn
or a primitive on display
at a World’s Fair
     (see, they’re not like
      us, ci-vi-lized)
It was hard to look at
that hard-edged face
(corners of her mouth
down-turned)
to admit, then,
that I loved her.
It was hard to see 
what was written
in the wrinkles of her
skin, to know it is
not her alone
I’m seeing.
Her world is there,
etched in the creases near her eyes
which saw the water fountains
“colored only.”
It was not my world.
It was not my world.
We invented continuity

with the radio.

An Offering to the Desert

They are in the desert, 
under a dusty sun, in a place I will know to be
home,
holy,
whole.

They have flown miles, day and night,
running from the winds of a hurricane,
driven like leaves on the breath of the sky
to a place where there is a temple waiting to be burned.
And I ask you, what comes after rust? Even suns
burn low, even hydrogen runs out.

And I will answer,
I am the spirit of reckless abandon.

All I ask this universe is one holy moment,
just one. I don't want it all
to stay still. All I
want is it all to blow away
in a puff of smoke and
ashes like a temple burning
in the desert.
I want
us to decay like
good loam turned under
like the corners of our
sheets when we remake the
bed in order to retain some
semblance of stasis.

Vishnu never loved us: little
pockets of breaking desire,
Shiva's children who shake the
earth with dammed rivers and
drills. This is not wrong.
They're only endings.
We are always saying goodbye.

Though Thanks Is Not Enough

Dear Body,

Thank you. Thank you for being there with me through all of these things. You are the only one who’s seen all of it. Who knows what really happened.

Thank you for putting me into shock that night when I opened my skull on the brick below the wood burning stove, shivering against my father’s body as he cradled me in my favorite blanket and took me to the hospital. It was the only way a child so small could be still long enough to make it through.

Thank you for my freckles, dark constellations on my pallor. Thank you for skin like a wick, that takes Sharpie well, and the bizarre markings I make connecting the dots, or scribbling a phone number, or inking designs over calloused hands used to work and roughness.

Thank you for my terrible brown eyes that in their nearsightedness have afforded me the sweetest odd intimacies, unable to see until my lashes scrape the faces of the ones I love.

Thank you for flexible quadriceps and unholy tense hamstrings. Thank you for untamable wavy hair, and tiny sinuses that clog so often that on the few clear days I have, the whole world smells new. Thank you for keeping records with my scars.

Thank you for reminding me to eat, for throwing fits and shakes when I want to disappear myself in tininess. Thank you for not letting me be too tiny, for demanding glucose.

Thank you for my reflexes, which have let me live another day. One more inch, body, just one more inch, and it would have been different…

Thank you. That’s all I wanted to say.

Lit Bit: Thank You, Mr. Bradbury

It’s always personal. But then, a good writer takes these characters, these places and ideas, breathes into them, fills their lungs with air, fills the hearts with yearnings using only a pen or a keyboard, and gives these strange people to us. And they come to mean something. These people, made-up and and make-pretend, become as real as our own families because that’s what a writer does: spies on his or her own family, and those nearby. That’s how these ink-on-paper people become real. No blue fairy. Just careful watching and a lot of thought.

And that’s what Ray Bradbury did: he made Martian boys, careless of their parents’ warnings, sucking down lungfuls of thin Martian air, wild and exuberant and unself-conscious, blind to the irony of the bones and ruins that made their games, he made them real. He made me one of them. He made it so that I could see myself among them. That is no easy thing.

For years in SF I’d felt like an outsider. There were never stories about me, this tangly weird girl-thing. But Bradbury was so sharp about catching childhood by the toes, holding community in his arms, capturing what is the very human, that I never felt excluded, even though he mostly wrote about men and boys, through he eyes of men, about men’s lives. I could see myself in almost all of them. He never shied away from tenderness, which is common to us all.

Lit Bit: When I Was Wild

Mr. Sendak, it has been five years since the last time I cried for the death of a person I never knew personally.  It was  on June 15th 2007, when Don Herbert died.

I have loved your books and art since I was small, like many an American child. But even when I was little, I noticed something about your work that wasn’t present in so many other books aimed at my five-year-old head. It was a basic thing, though I couldn’t name it until I was older. It was a thing that Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her writings about writing, something she implied was missing in C. S. Lewis’s writing, when she reviewed The Dark Tower; he one-upped his readers, condescending slightly to write for them. Mr. Sendak, you trusted me. Respected my intelligence. Fuck, you trusted me to read, identify deeply with Max, and to go on his journey with him, trusted me enough to show me that place of wildness and release, unleashed, you trusted me to cut loose, to break free, and arrive back with Max safely. Maybe not safely, but at least mostly whole, and better for the experience. You trusted me, and all of the other children who would read your work, to get it. Because we never didn’t get it.  But try to tell that to all the adults running around.

Don Herbert gave me a sense of empowerment in my ability to do; you gave me a gift just as powerful. You acknowledged my humanness, and instead of moralizing, sugar-coating, or sanitizing, you let me run wild in your pages, fierce and free, and trusted I would do right with this gift.

I hope I did right with this gift.

Eulogies: Everything I Wanted to Say

I do not write this as an offense.  I do not write this out of spite.  That’s not true.  I write this out of spite, but not for her.  It’s spite for a system of glossing over all the bad things, spite because we are encouraged to remember things in black and white: the good old days, the simpler times, the people who hurt us who are now deceased.  We never want to say bad things of the dead.

My aunt was nothing so bad as that.  She was my aunt.  She was human.  I wanted to go to her memorial when she died in 2007 and say, “She was a brick-headed ox of a woman.  She was a Republican, and she was very good at not listening.  I think Rush Limbaugh himself taught her the art of the shout-down.”  I wanted to say, “She never read fiction, but she read mine, and liked it.”  I wanted to say, “Once she sent a children’s story I wrote off to Scholastic without my knowing in order to get it published.  I was both honored and offended that she hadn’t asked first.”  She told my mother I worshipped Satan, even after I, the mysticskeptic, explained to her about goddesses and mythic reinterpretation.  She had a hard time learning chess from me.  Maybe I was just a bad teacher, but she dutifully wrote down all the ways the pieces moved and their values, and the rules of capturing en passant. I was proud of her.  I was proud of her tenacity.  She had such tenacity.

She died of a broken heart.  When she was young, her first husband drowned.  And then, in 1994, a car struck like lightning through a red light, through her husband, my uncle Carl, and rattled her heart in its ribcage.  It never recovered.  Not with a piece of it dead in the driver’s seat.

It’s a slow death that takes thirteen years to get you.  Scarring in her heart tissue.  Not supposed to have wine, but she did.  It was cardiac arrest, but I know better.  She’d told me how empty all those years were.

I felt like a traitor to my cousins’ pain there in the hospital room, but when I had my time with her, I told her, “I know how hard it’s been on you.  I know your sons want you to stay.  You just do what you need to.  We’ll love you no matter what.  Immortality lies on the lips and tongue; I promise I will speak of you.”

I keep my promises.

Eulogies: Prologue

I never liked the traditional eulogy. “Eu” from the Greek, meaning “good,” and “logos” meaning “words.” Good words, softened by death, for those who have passed. Velvet syllables meant to erase a person, so that the absent sit easy in the minds of the living.

I would rather speak true things of the dead, because in that lies their immortality: to live on the lips and tongues of friends, to pass as stories from loving mouths to open ears. Forget nothing. Smooth over no detail. This is how we can honor their works– to never forget their mistakes, their cruelties and pettinesses, their triumphs and struggles, their joys, their pet peeves, the things they did to piss us off, and the ways they made our lives better.

If we speak only good words of those whom we’ve lost, we are no longer speaking of people. Forget gods and heroes and legends. Remember what was real: I could not understand my grandmother’s harsh critique of dying my hair; I shuddered at the infinite cruelty of beheading the coconut cake lamb every Easter; I was grateful when she kept my secrets; she had no mercy for small cuts and scrapes and was never gentle when brushing out my tangles.

Valuable

I am a man. Now you may think I’m mistaken here, or maybe that this is a trick, being that monthly I bleed, I wear skirts on occasion, or that I’ve in the past had to take EC in order not to become pregnant (cheers to having that option), but I assure you that I am a man– only not for all the same reasons that Ursula K. Le Guin told readers that she is a man.

A few years have gone by since I first read Le Guin’s The Wave in the Mind, and the collection begins with those words, “I am a man.” And I am a writer, like she, and so I am a man, as the archetype “the writer” is always “he.” But I am man even deeper down than this.

Peel back the layers and years and you’ll see I chose to be a man when I was just a little girl, even though they had invented women by this time, and this was because men are valuable. And because, mostly, well, you hear things growing up:

“You throw like a girl.”

“Don’t be a sissy.”

“Only girls cry.”

“Don’t be such a girl about it.”

I didn’t want to be those things! I am valuable! My mother said so. So I am a man. Or for now, a boy. But I will be a man when I grow up! So I pronounced. My mother laughed.

The teachers called on the boys who raised their hands. They praised the boys who called out their answers. Boys are brash creatures. They said it directly. I wanted to be valuable. So I was a boy, and I called out my answers, brash, and they said, “Learn to wait until you’re called upon!”

But the boys got praise. Maybe if I called out the answer louder… maybe if I was quicker… I never thought of stopping. Because I wanted to be valuable. And boys were very valuable. And they called the answers out of turn.

Boys love to rough-house, the grown-ups said while laughing. They laughed a great deal despite their frustration at grass-stained knees, their worry over bumps and bruises and broken bones. And so, because I was a boy, I loved to rough-house too. Climbing trees, rolling down hills, the tackle version of tag– yet, the admonitions were harsher toward me: “Not in a dress! Don’t be such a tomboy! That was terribly unladylike.”

And so too with tools: boys love shop class, but girls don’t. And so with video games: boys love them, benefit from good hand/eye coordination, but girls don’t. And so with comic books: all the boys love them, but girls don’t. And so, and so, and so.

All that girls seemed to be were negations. Girls don’t. Good girls don’t have sex. Good girls don’t break their diets. Good girls don’t slop food on their “little black dresses”– because I disagree with you Ms. Le Guin– I don’t think they’ve really invented women at all. No matter how old they get, they are always girls. Boys at least have the option of growing up, of becoming men.

So I’m all grown up now. And by all reasoning, I should be a man, having liked shop class quite a bit, having rough-housed, having called the answers out of turn, having loved my video games (just dad and me, playing Wolfenstein 3D, hot seat between the levels, “Dad, I want to play the secret level, can I trade you the last one?”– it still warms my heart, father and daughter, shooting Nazis together, and their ugly pixelated dogs, too). I should be a man, except that… well, Le Guin already said it: I don’t have a beard and my sentences are long and looping (and filled with shocking parentheticals!), and I don’t intend to die young. I mean, I could yet. I could give that a really good shot– except my aim is a bit off, not having been to the shooting range since I was twelve and all. Realistically, I think I’d rather not.

So I’m not a man, they tell me. But I’m not a girl, either. At least not a good one. I have sex (I did need that EC, after all). And, really, I’m not that fond of diets, either. And because I tend to slop food everywhere, the “little black dress” uniform doesn’t work very well for me.

After having worked so hard to grow up to be a man, and certainly not being the girl the advertisers envisioned, I don’t know what I am. I thought for a while I was a mouse, a tiny thing, but I was wrong about that too. For all I know, I could be a manticore. I only set off on this endeavor because I wanted to be valuable, but when you’re told since very young that you can’t be valuable even doing valuable things, it leaves you high and dry.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Introducing Myself.” The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambala, 2004. 3-7.

(My apologies for accidentally having omitted the citation when I initially published this post; I had intended for it to be there, and simply rushed through)

And So Thanks Where Thanks Are Due

Namely, thank you Nina Gordon and Louise Post. For Veruca Salt. Even if it ceased to work out ages ago, and fell apart so awfully. For years, the fact I’d liked this pop band disguised with fuzzed out guitars as grunge had been a guilty secret. I don’t feel guilty about it anymore, though. If it hadn’t been for them, I realized music would never have reached inside and struck me the way it did. During my early childhood all the popular songs I came in contact with issued from Paula Abdul and Madonna and their ilk, hyper sexualized, with lyrics that granted no agency. The women I saw when I snuck peeks at MTV never played any instruments; they were only voices and gyrating bodies in videos. And then the 90’s came and you know what was different about Veruca Salt? These were women, who looked like people who played guitars instead of just singing, and it wasn’t all about being sexy for men. There were songs about relationships, breakups, men and whatnot, but with those guitars came power. And it wasn’t a matter that no women had done this before, rather one of my own limited scope. I never realized until today that this was the foundation for my musical tastes, and I never realized what a refuge it was, listening to music from other women’s perspectives instead of being hailed and addressed as some kind of “bitch goddess whore” to be alternately placed on a pedestal and then spat upon.

I remember my mother and father buying me my first CD for my fifteenth birthday. It was years and years after the album came out, and I had already gotten it on cassette. But my cassette was worn through, and I knew it wouldn’t survive many more listenings– and let’s face it, though I love technlogy, finances always prevent me from being an early adopter. Especially when as a teenager, one lacks a job to procure those finances. I searched through the bins at the music store looking, and at last, there it was, one last copy, American Thighs. It was not a feminist manifesto. But it rocked as hard as any of the music put out there by the boys, and it was finally, finally a pair of voices I could relate to.

My parents said, “You already have that on tape–are you sure you want to get this?”

Without skipping a beat, I answered, “Yes!” So I took it home, and listened through it again and again and again. “You’re going to laze the bumps off the damned disc,” my dad joked, as I got to the thirty-second time. It was among the best birthday gifts I’ve ever received.

So thank you, again, Nina Gordon and Louise Post. Thank you for paving the roads of my mind with chords and verses so that I could later find the back alleys that led, eventually, to Ani DiFranco. There were cobbled walks that led me, later still, to Le Tigre. Thank you for leading me down that road to that intersection– so when my head turned, I encountered Rasputina. Thank you for helping me get my feet under me, and all those times in putting my head on straight. Thank you for a beginning. I had to start somewhere.

Playing Black

It was a little over a year ago that my aunt died. A little under a year ago that I first wrote this, before editing it here. Today, I’m reordering and rethinking this. It’s true now, a year later, that I still want to sit on the huge chess board in the crease between the two dorm buildings at New College. I want to sit there when I write about my grandfather. He was the one who started to teach me to play this game. I had insisted on playing black. He died when I was twelve, and only now, fourteen years later, can I sit and write at least passingly well of his passing, even if I can’t play worth a damn. I am going to have to write for Aunt Linda too, now that she’s gone. She had a chess set– it was stone, pink and grey, the kind you can purchase in Mexico, and I think that’s where she found it. My mother called me and told me about it a week after my aunt died, when she was searching through her sister’s house, cleaning out the dead woman’s things. She gave me the chess set, because… because I had started to teach my aunt to play just a few years ago, when she still lived in Miami. With that very set. And because there was a note attached to the board when my mother found it. It said, “Play chess with Story.” Only that.