The Moment Between

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The night is over but the morning hasn’t arrived. I can tell because the roosters are crowing. If it was 2 a.m. or even 3, there’d be no sound. At that hour, the cars have stopped whizzing down the nearby arterial, and the wild chickens haven’t started up. At that hour, it’s as if even the second hand stops its advance.

How do I know this? Because I often wake up. I read that my segmented sleep was once normal, when, before electricity, people went to bed not long after dark and got up during the night to think, write or even visit friends.

I used to argue with myself about whatever was on my mind, harrangued myself “go the f*** to sleep.” Then I played yogi and tried to think relaxing thoughts — which may be part of the problem, since a yogi would know you can’t “do” relaxation.

But now I just listen. First I listen for the cars and chickens, so that I know what time it is. Then I listen to my husband breathe. A few weeks ago, he sounded like a slide whistle, starting on a higher pitch and sliding a few notes lower. Every so often, he changed keys. It may sound annoying but it wasn’t. I was smiling, next to him, almost giggling. I picked up my iphone, recorded his little symphony and thought about posting it on my social media. I thought the better of that idea — his revenge might be too sweet since I’m the snorer — but in the morning I played it back for him and we laughed about it.

Most nights, my husband’s breathing is heavy and regular. Listening to him breathe, I stop worrying about sleep, about the approaching day, about all the problems I can’t fix. His breath surrounds me.

 

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Night Reflections

Mimi Chiang reflected image

It’s 2:51 a.m. and I can’t sleep. About an hour ago I emerged into consciousness with the lingering memory of a dream. It’s short — perhaps three seconds — but it keeps repeating. The frame is small, just big enough to show my legs standing on a patch of grass out of which a tree trunk is poking, in one of those planted strips between sidewalk and street.  I look down and notice that the ground in front of me is sprinkled with small white spheres. They’re about the size of Pop Rocks and maybe it’s that association that makes me want to put one in my mouth to explore its taste. In my mouth I realize that the ball isn’t perfectly smooth; it’s rough enough to abrade the tender lining if I’m not careful. It bumps against the ridged roof of my mouth when I press and roll it with my tongue. Salty, I realize, very. The salt stings and makes my mouth water. Poor trees, I thought, poor grass, to survive such an acidic assault.

Now that I am awake enough to review the little movie, I realize the image is layered. I see round typewriter keys lighting up individually as I imagine writing this account; a close up of the ground littered with the white balls; and mid-range, as if across the street, a shot of the tree, its roots blanketed by sod. The images are simultaneous. I can pull back the film of one to study the one beneath, or choose to look at them all at once, the keys on top of the grass on top of the street scene.

Which made me think of photos I took at my dear classmate Mimi’s memorial. Her death was unexpected, and a stunning loss to her family and friends. Around the perimeter of the garden setting, someone had framed enlarged pictures of Mimi at different points in her life. As a child, with her sister. As an alluring young woman. As a mother. As a breast cancer survivor.

When she lost her hair, she decided to mark her battle by sitting for professional photographs. In the large image, she faces away, her arms gracefully folded atop her head, her sinuous spine bending to the side. Her dark skin is bold against the white background. Although I don’t know what process the photographer used, I imagined silver nitrate concentrating in the shadow along her spine and in the dark hair follicles on her smooth skull. Below the big photo is a smaller horizontal one of Mimi gazing upward, as if considering her transformed body. I took a picture of the picture.

When I checked the image, I realized I’d captured a reflection. A quietly composed woman, seated on a chair, appeared in a patch of light on Mimi’s back. Now I had a picture of a young woman embedded within the original one. I thought, even when she was ill, healthy Mimi was inside. And Mimi, the warrior, was always inside the healthy woman.

In a David Menaker story, the wife is described as having a poor memory of conversations. The narrator-husband writes, “They seem to light up the neurons in her brain and then fade away quickly and entirely, like subatomic particles in a cloud chamber.” I’m like that. I come away from things with a fuzzy impression, often failing to store the details, which is a decided weakness in someone who aspires to write.

But the dream makes me wonder if I’m perceiving but failing to stop and notice. Perhaps the triple vision of the dream means that we have the potential for multiple perspectives: the close-up exploration, the mid-range sense of ourselves in a space, and the distant assessment — all three at the moment that something is seen or heard, tasted or touched.

Something happened when I posted the photos of Mimi’s memorial on a private page where my writing classmates share news and musings. I uploaded eleven photos and posted a short report on the memorial. The photos showed up in Facebook’s collage mode, five images with a “+6” that indicated there were more. I folded my computer and attended to a small chore. When I returned to my computer a half hour later, one image had posted separately, seemingly by itself: a photo of Mimi dancing. Her arms are again raised, but blurred, caught in movement. Below a short white jacket, her stiff skirt flares, fluffed to fullness as she spins. In the original image, the focus is on Mimi, dancing in the dark, the only other detail being the nose of a black Mercedes. In my image, a white peony is attached to the framed photo, and the image is altered by a new element: the reflection of the garden where her friends gathered to celebrate her life. She seems to be watching the gathering, or perhaps hailing her friends. After I recovered from my shock, I thought perhaps Mimi decided to have the last word: remember me like this.

Mimi Chiang dancing, with reflection

 I will, Mimi. And now I must sleep…

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The Hat

the hat by betsy campbell stone

The bicyclists, on their one-speed beach cruisers, passed us with a ting of a bell or a polite, “on your left.” Surfers crossed and waited their turns while their dripping fellows lugged boards up the narrow staircase. Little dogs walked big people on long leashes. It was just your usual weekend day in Santa Cruz when my husband and I caught up with the little woman in the photo.

Something about her stride attracted my attention. Her bright white cross trainers kicked out behind her. Though old — I could tell by the osteoporosis in her back — she walked firmly independent of the middle-aged man at her side. The teal track suit and her broad straw hat merged, suddenly, with a long forgotten memory.

My mother, walking ahead of me on a rural road, stops to examine something green in the dirt shoulder. The hat rotates like a daisy that grows toward the light. I know she is examining the plant’s size, its shape, the lobes of its leaves. Unlike me, she is in no hurry. Now I follow her arm and notice she clasps the hand of her grandchild. The hat tilts down. She addresses my daughter, whose curly hair shines in the sun, whose face shines up at her Nana. The hat wiggles as my mother talks, stills as she listens to questions. There are many questions. My mother has time.

On our car trips over the mountains to visit my grandmother, I used to sigh with annoyance when my mother asked my father to pull over so she could identify something. When she climbed back in the car her cheeks would be pink. At the time I imagined them flushed from the cool air of the Cascades. Now I wonder. There was joy in that moment of discovery, love in the the moment of naming.

What I wouldn’t give to see my mother’s face framed by that halo of a hat. To pick up the phone and hear my mother say, “Betz.”

Eileen Campbell

 

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Gestures

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This week I’ve been thinking about gestures, the tiny little “tells” that say so much without uttering a word. When I wrote about visiting my family’s longtime home, I suddenly remembered how my father tended my mother’s beloved rose garden after emphysema and dementia made it impossible for her to do so. My father began to clip perfect red buds that he presented to my mother and then placed in a small crystal vase at her place.

Writers often look for small physical actions to define a character. In her chapter on gestures in “Reading Like a Writer,” Francine Prose writes that properly used gestures “are like windows opening to let us see a person’s soul, his or her secret desires, fears or obsessions, the precise relations between that person and the self, between the self and the world, as well as… the complicated emotional, social and historical male-female choreography that is instantly comprehensible…” (213)

I thought about how a husband reaches across the bed for a kiss before going to sleep — such a small thing, so unimportant. The husband and wife go on like this for years, always the kiss before sleep, until one day the kiss is forgotten. And then another day and another day. Perhaps the missing gesture isn’t even noticed, not at first, and later didn’t seem worth complaining about.

When people grieve the death of a person or the demise of a relationship, it’s not just the what-once-was that is mourned. It’s all the gestures that were barely noticed, hardly appreciated… until they were gone.

 

 

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Visitations

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This week, I’ve had two vivid dreams about loved ones I’ve lost.

The first was Monday night. I startled awake at 12:30 a.m. and had no idea why. I ticked through what might have disturbed me: not the cat, who was locked in the laundry room; not my son, who recently moved out. Once I was certain the house was secure, I gathered the cottony threads of an image: my father swinging his glasses. The black frames dated back 40 years or more. “A man should always have glasses,” he was saying. In the dream, Dad performed his old routine. He pushed his glasses down his nose and eyed me until I squirmed. Then he removed his glasses and reversed them, jabbing the stems to make a point. Finally he leaned back and began swinging them from the ear piece while smiling a lopsided smile. “You see? I don’t have to say a word.”

In last night’s dream, my family was boarding a plane to… the outer planets. I carried a tray of unbaked spinach lasagna and asked one of the flight attendants if I might be able to cook it in a microwave later. Sure, she said, but first find your seat. The plane was huge, Donald Trump huge.

Looking for 37B, I soon found that the rows and seats weren’t arranged in a comprehensible order: I saw 36, then 38. Later I found row 37, but not seat B. Finally, finally, when it seemed everyone was seated and we were beginning our takeoff, I found 37B. Just then, a few rows over, I spotted my friend’s mother. “Did you see Deb?” she asked. I thought Deb had died several years ago, but the rules on this aircraft were obviously different. “She went running,” she said, flicking her head in the direction of the plane’s bow.

As soon as passengers began to mill about, I jumped out of my seat and began running in the general direction Deb’s mother had indicated. Deb was a runner and it made sense to me that she would take advantage of the plane’s gigantic size. The plane morphed into a long narrow island with cottage-lined lanes. No cars, of course. Passengers who’d booked cottages for passage had pulled out lawn chairs to watch the walkers and runners stream by. After I’d been running for about 90 minutes, I thought my legs would fall off. I didn’t think I could go much farther, but I was nearing the tip of the island/aircraft. As I ran, I kept my eyes on the stream of runners returning on an adjacent lane. Just then, I saw a woman in yellow shorts passing. Her short hair, her fit physique — I thought for sure it was her. I started screaming my friend’s name. When she turned, she was a stranger. I described my friend and asked if she’d seen her.

“She’s getting an iced tea,” she told me, pointing at a cafe rest stop. The cafe was so crowded that patrons’ bodies and cheeks were pressed against the windows, steaming them up. I opened the door and yelled. In the back of the shop, my friend stood. She threaded through the people until she reached me.

I dropped to my knees and sobbed, clinging to the the edge of her shirt and saying her name over and over. She lifted me by the elbows and said, “Why are you crying? I’m right here.”

When someone I love dies, I pray they will visit my dreams. What I really want is an on-demand dream. I just want to see them again, just once. It never works that way, of course. My unconscious follows its own muse. This week’s double feature was a rare gift. My father reminding me he doesn’t have to say a word, my friend telling me she’s right here.

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Memoir and Missed Connections

cat

Perhaps Pasha the cat noticed Peter Trachtenberg’s “Another Insane Devotion”

 

We’ve all experienced it, that feeling of “what if” or “if only.” I just never expected it would apply to my reading life. I’ll admit that I never gave memoir a chance, not really, until I tried to write one.

I’m five months away from completing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College, something I never imagined. Though I once thought I would finish the book I’m writing about my relationship with my father by this June (such a special snowflake!*), I now know that’s not true. It’s going to take time to make it sing. But in the course of being absolutely, completely focused on my goal — a lifelong habit, and maybe a bad one — I accidentally fell in love, thanks to amazing reading matchmakers including authors Dinah Lenney, Joan Wickersham and Peter Trachtenberg (as well as my classmates).

Read 100 books, write one, indeed.

The best memoirs invite the reader into the writer’s world through fine observations of character and place and situation. They do so economically, by selecting just-right details that stick in the reader’s imagination. They elevate the mundane, pull the extreme within reach. They avoid sappiness. Sometimes, not always, the reader experiences that smack-to-the-head moment of recognition. Memoirs are stories.

Can’t the same be said of novels? Well, yes, but memoirs are written by real people, a veracity that gives them added dimension. I’m not suggesting that the memoirist isn’t a character; no, no, the narrator is a construction. The best tour guides show us enough of their doubt and wonder, the workings of their minds, for us to trust them. As Adam Gopnik put it last week in The New Yorker, “We like an author who gives it to us straight, no matter how fancy his prose style may be.” Writing about two re-released memoirs by Henry James, he continued: “…(H)is purpose in his memoirs is touchingly transparent: to say how the big moments of his life felt exactly as they happened. Each page is lit up by the bright light of memory, then is crumpled by the aging hand of scruple, only to be smoothed out again by the comfort of fine old feelings: It looked like this! Did it really look like this? Well, it sure felt like this while I was looking. The simple end of offering a recreation of one life’s moments remains, if guarded by enough ironic intelligence, perfectly attainable.”

I’ve got some distance to go to achieve “ironic intelligence,” not to mention illumination and sense-making of my story.

But here’s a quote that makes me feel slightly more heartened, from Patricia Hampl, one of my heroes: “Because everyone has a memoir, we all have a stake in how such stories are told. For we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something — make something — with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.” (from “Memory and Imagination,” an essay in, I Could Tell You Stories)

I know I’m a far better writer now than when I began my MFA. I know I have some distance to go. I don’t know if I’ll get “there,” wherever the hell “there” is. But this is as certain as the coffee table under my feet: I’ll keep reading, and this time I won’t ignore nonfiction, especially memoir.

For great reviews of nonfiction books, check out the Los Angeles Review of Books nonfiction section (LARB, by the way, is a nonprofit). As an example, I am salivating to read The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin, written up here. And for one of the best books, ever, about reading and writing, I recommend Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It will change the way you read and maybe your life.

Gulp. Here’s a list of memoirs that have blown the top of my head off since entering my MFA program:

Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Krista Bremer’s My Accidental Jihad

Mary Carr’s Liar’s Club

Bernard Cooper’s The Bill From My Father

Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave

Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face

Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter

Dinah Lenney’s The Object Parade

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk

Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping

Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion (plus: cats!)

Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index

 

*Credit here to Charles Bock who read from his soon-to-be-released novel, Alice & Oliver and commented on the mistaken belief of many MFA’ers that they will finish their book by the time they graduate.

 

 

 

 

 

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My Father Was Never “In The Military”

Then-Cpt. Henry S. Campbell, circa 1944

Then-Cpt. Henry S. Campbell, circa 1944

My Dad had a few quirks. One of them was correcting anyone who thanked him for serving “in the military.” Once, he explained why, in a recorded conversation:

“I’m not a member of the military. I was never in the military. I did have 22 years in the Marine Corps. Most people think of military service as kind of a rote performance. You marched and you stood and you saluted — nothing that required any brain work. People who think of soldiers as robots show a remarkable failure to appreciate what military service is about.  Your orientation, your commitment, your camaraderie, your identification, go with your fellow Marines, the group you fight with. Brothers. CLOSER than brothers.”

To all who serve and served in the Armed Forces, men and women, thank you for your dedication. Shout out to my godson, Alex W., and to the family veterans, my brother Bruce (U.S. Navy), my brother Scott (U.S. Army), and my niece Sandy (U.S. Air Force).

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