Tag Archives: #writinglife

Going Home

North Cascades Loop

North Cascades Loop

This I wasn’t expecting: a homeless man on the shoulder of the North Cascades Highway, so settled that his encampment included a small Weber barbecue. But there he was in Marblemount, the last place you can get gas before making the push over Washington Pass and descending into Eastern Washington.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I had just slowed down to 25 MPH, mindful of the ticket I got the last time I exceeded the speed limit on a country road in Washington. Ahead of me on the gravel shoulder was what I can only describe as a contraption: a metal framed cart on wheels piled high with stuff. As I pulled past the cart, I saw what lay beyond it: a container perhaps six feet long and four feet high, covered with a grey plastic tarp, and in front of it, a man sitting cross-legged on the ground, his wiry gray beard extending down the front of his jacket.

Then he was behind me. I’d rounded the corner but couldn’t get the image out of my head. Was he a local who’d come on hard times? With only 200 people in the whole town, why wasn’t someone helping him? Had he rejected help, preferring to live outdoors? Or was he a stranger who’d been dropped there by some trucker, who then decided not to move on? Should I stop and ask?

I didn’t. By then I was a mile down the road, anxious to begin the climb into “the American Alps.” The old man (who for all I know was my age) was someone else’s problem.

I’ve read about the tent encampments under the freeway in Seattle. Homeless activists in Sacramento have been protesting a no-camping ordinance. But somehow I expected the North Cascades Highway to live up to the legend I’d built around it.

My parents sometimes took this route when we visited my grandmother in Yakima, my aunt and uncle in Wenatchee, or my mother’s best friend in Colville. Taking Highway 20 added time to the trip, but my mother turned it into a seasonal pilgrimage — stopping to cut vibrantly-colored branches for her fall arrangements, or to harvest mounds of wild blue elderberries, plump with juice, to make into jelly.

At first, driving east on the North Cascades Highway, I’d seen what I’d expected: clapboard houses dwarfed by candy-colored rhododendrons, jade colored rivers sliding past moss-covered railings, white dogwood blooms on branches reaching as if for alms, grey exhalations of mist drifting up tall peaks. My past was intact.

Before long I noticed things that hadn’t been there in the 70s. The modern Armed Forces Career Center occupies choice real estate in Burlington. A few miles along, parked in the driveway of a farm, is a semi-trailer wrapped with an image of three silhouetted soldiers next to the legend, “Never forget.” When my father last drove through, with his military identification sticker, no gas station attendant would ever have told him, “Thank you for serving.”

The drive-through espresso shacks are new, along with the Indian casinos and chainsaw-carved statuaries. (Bigfoot and eagles seem to be popular.) And — this being Washington — prominent green crosses glow next to dispensaries with names like the Skagit Valley Collective and the Marijuana Mercantile.

But the Douglas firs and red cedars and white dogwoods and purple lilacs and monster rhododendrons and mom-and-pop donut shops and pasturing sheep and black cows and sleek horses and blossoming blackberries and galloping rivers and proud peaks are still here. So I embroider them into my mental tapestry: my father in the front seat, piloting; my mother next to him, arm resting on the door, eyes scanning for wildflowers or birds; me in the back, the skin of my thighs stuck to the vinyl below my favorite cutoffs, the ones with the suede side laces and butterfly applique on the back pocket.

For more information about the North Cascades Loop click here.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Ghost Story from the Hoosier Hills

Frank Campbell and Mary Sharp, wedding photo, 1877, Crawford County, Indiana

They used to be big on telling stories in Crawford County, Indiana, where my grandfather was born — down in the Hoosier hills, which, in the 1800s, was a poor and sparsely populated area. Folks in the region were especially fond of ghost stories.

You might say this is one of them.

My father was haunted by the memory of his father. “Why didn’t he want to spend time with me?” he often asked.

Because he was a jerk, I thought to myself. I knew he’d kept a mistress for more than 40 years until my grandmother finally divorced him. Dad always told his father’s story almost exactly the same way. Here’s a version I recorded in 2000:

“He never talked about home. As near as I could pick it up, he was one of seven siblings. They grew up on a dirt poor, hard scrabble Kentucky farm. But he was under a very severe father, which explains some of the harshness with which he treated us. When he was 13, he ran away from home. Went to Chicago. Growing up on that farm, he was a fairly independent guy. He could have fought for himself. He picked up bottles on the street in Chicago, washed them and turned them over to bottlers to make enough money to eat. He was very much living on the street. Somehow he got a job on the floor of the Chicago grain exchange when he was 17. When he was 18 or 19, he caught the eye of one of the traders on the floor who made him his assistant. By the time he was in his 20s, he had made $100,000. That was in the 1890s. When the crash came along, he lost most of what he had, but he saved enough to go to dental school. So he went to dental school in Chicago. After the first year, he was made an assistant to one of the professors, which paid his tuition and board the second year. He left there and went west to Seattle.”

Someone, maybe my grandfather, read a lot of Horatio Alger stories.

He wasn’t born in Kentucky. I don’t think he was poor. I’m not sure he ran away from home, though he may have, but if he did, his mother may have been the cause as much as his father. I’m almost certain he didn’t make a fortune in Chicago, and I know he didn’t go to dental school there.

I started to suspect the story when I was doing some research for a memoir project. My grandfather’s death certificate lists his birthplace as Louisville, KY. In 1940, someone gave the Yakima census takers the same answer. But when my grandfather was two, in 1880, the census listed him as born in Indiana.

The year before my grandfather’s birth, his parents married in Crawford County, though they drove over the state border to get a wedding portrait in nearby Louisville, KY. Frank, my grandfather’s father, had been in the area for some time. After his first wife died, he had four children to care for — two boys and two girls. In 1877, he married Mary Sharp, a widow. She had two children — both girls. Five years after my grandfather was born, another boy came along. They named him Zenor, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

In 1880, whoever talked to the census taker said Frank’s occupation was “bricklayer.” They also affirmed that he was “maimed, crippled or bedridden.”

Seven children and the father couldn’t work.

Two months before my grandfather was born, in 1878, Frank applied for a license in Jennings township to sell liquor in “Mary Sharp’s property.” An E.M. Tracewell filed a “remonstrance” against Frank on the grounds he was not a fit person, since he had violated the liquor law before. The town commissioners listened to testimony from 18 people, after which Frank withdrew his application. When he reapplied, the Board refused him the license due to a petition Tracewell had submitted with 44 signatories. At the time, fewer than 1,000 people lived in the area, but the temperance forces were active.

A year later, William H. Dean filed an application to sell whisky. E.M. Tracewell filed another remonstrance, but Dean prevailed. His saloon — to be located in “Mary Sharp’s room” — was approved. Who, I wonder, was the brains behind the original scheme, and the end run around E.M. Tracewell?

Dean’s attorney’s was W.T. Zenor. Was it Mary or Frank who chose to name their youngest after him?

By the 1900 census, Frank ‘s occupation was listed as “farmer.” Perhaps the temperance movement finally put such a damper on the business that he figured he needed a more dependable source of income.

Admiral said he ran away from the farm when he was 13, in 1890. Was he escaping his father’s cruelty, or his mother’s? Were eight mouths one too many? Was he longing for an education, but forced to work the farm?

School, in those days, cost money, about $2 per term. The four oldest children were listed as attending school at the time of the 1880 census, which suggests Frank and Mary had both the money and the inclination to educate their children. In 1900, when Zenor was 16, he was listed as “at school” — probably one of the state’s “Normal” schools, which offered a broader curriculum and a better teacher-student ratio.  Around the time Admiral might have attended, Normal schools cost $6.00 per term plus $2.25 for boarding .

Let’s get back to the question of cruelty. In Frank and Mary’s wedding portrait, neither one of them look like people you’d want to cross — but of the two, Mary looks less pleasant. Beady eyes (like Admiral’s), downturned lips.

What about Mary? In 1880, whoever answered the census questions said that she was 33 and Frank was 38. In 1900, she is listed as born in 1846 to Frank’s 1840, although the census taker was told she was 63 and he was 60.

On every census, Mary was listed as being unable to read or write. Apparently, she couldn’t do arithmetic either. To recap, by this juncture she has claimed to be five years younger than Frank, six years younger, and three years older. At the time of the 1920 census, he is listed as 82 and she is 73. Now she is nine years younger. The Cedar Hill cemetery in Jennings, Indiana, lists her as born in 1847 and Frank in 1837. She enters posterity as younger by a nice round decade.

Mary would hardly have been the first woman to fudge her age.

Admiral’s half-sisters, photographed around 1915, obviously prospered. They sat for formal portraits in expensive gowns. One, my father remembered, eventually lived in La Jolla.

Maybe Admiral didn’t run away at all. Maybe Frank and Mary paid for his secondary education and supported him through dental school.

More things about my grandfather’s story that don’t add up:

He was listed as a junior at the Ohio College of Dental Surgery for the 1898-99 term. The program indicates he graduated previously from the Louisville College of Dentistry. If his specialty training took two years, and he spent one or two years training in Louisville, he may have started toward dentistry in 1896. When he was 19.

His was a great story — washing bottles, working his way up to stock trading, amassing $100,00 and losing it all in the panic of 1893 — but he’d have to have accomplished all that by the time he was 15.

He did begin practice in Seattle, probably in 1900, where he worked for the Florence Dental Parlor. After a year, he arrived in Yakima and set up practice.

He soon had everything he wanted — a growing practice and a lady friend. Everything except the upper-middle class respectability that goes with the Horatio Alger myth. So he courted my grandmother, Jessie, the daughter of one of the most successful men in town. By telling her he’d run away from home and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, there was no family to correct the record. Perhaps Jessie’s father appreciated his gumption, since he, too, had come west to make his fortune.

But I still don’t know why my father’s father didn’t spend time with his sons.

1 Comment

Filed under #memory

Atoms of the Soul

Dad sleeping

I dug this little piece out for a friend who is beginning a writing project. Pick an image, I told her. This is one of the first bits I wrote almost year ago with that same prompt. For some reason, the piece ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe I’ll bring it back:

I think I’m done actively grieving, and then I open my eyes. On top of my white king-sized pillow is a smaller one in a rose-colored pillowcase. When I open my eyes in the morning, lying on my side, it’s what I see first. A rose-colored world.

My husband says it barely qualifies as a pillow. It’s a suggestion, a flattened wisp. If I fluff it out and smooth it with my palm, it rises above the bed less than three inches. Strange when I see it that way. It almost looks normal, a utilitarian object that happens to be enclosed in a mismatched bed linen. Its wonder is its malleability. It can be curled into a ball, or laid softly across my chest like a cat.

I wonder if it began its pillow-life full of stuffing and somehow, as it was carried from one bed to the next, it lost a feather here, a feather there. If its diminishment fell beneath notice.

This is the pillow that cradled my father’s head when he died. I remember it from my mother and father’s house in Tacoma. I remember it – or one just like it – on my mother’s bed when she died. If it is the same pillow, I imagine it was encased, then, in a cover with yellow roses. My mother loved yellow. The pillow followed my father to his assisted living apartment in Seattle, then to my house. He tucked tissues under it each night. By morning, he had compacted it into a tight roll. Toward the end, when he was half-conscious in his recliner, I lifted his head and molded it around his neck.

I cannot let go of the pillow. A superstitious person might feel it is bad luck to keep something that came into such direct contact with death, that in those sloughed off skin cells, now reduced to dust, atoms of the soul remain. When I clutch it to my chest, I cradle the little bit of my father that remains.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Why Don’t People Write More Poetry?”

Why I Wake Early book cover by Mary Oliver

That’s the question my friend G. asked me today. She’s just a few years older than me and has had a dozen strokes; the doctors don’t know why. She struggles with words — fidgets with her hands as if trying to create  words out of invisible clay — and her short term memory is shot. But she gets poetry.

During my visit today, I brought along “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver, the poet known for revealing the marvelous in her minute observations of nature. For some reason, I’d dog eared the poem “October.” When I started to read it, I immediately thought I’d made a mistake. It’s written in seven numbered sections with abstract imagery in which Oliver seems to hover above a scene. Gail was intrigued, had me read it seven times. As she listened she closed her eyes, enraptured.

When I read “Peonies,” she picked up on the phrase “beauty the brave,” and repeated it over and over. That one we read three times. Then “Goldenrod.” She loved the language of it, the assonance of “rumpy bunches,” the alliteration of “dumb dazzle.” She rolled the phrases around in her mouth like marbles. I don’t know how many times we read that one.

When I read her the last few lines, in which the goldenrods “bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,/they rise in a stiff sweetness/in the pure peace of giving/one’s gold away,” I told her that she has gold to give — her unfettered love and sense of humor. Though her abilities have changed, her value has not. If anything she is more cherished than ever by those who love her.

We almost didn’t make it past the first line of “Blue Iris”: Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

Each time I started down the 15-line poem, she laughed and stopped me.

Why don’t more people write poetry, or at least read it?

 

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Foot Fetishes and Objective Correlatives

I don’t much like feet, but it’s hard to get around without them. These days, my bunions bark at me when I try on shoes with heels over two inches, shoes without arch support, shoes that bind across the inside joint. (In other words, most footwear I might fancy.)

But my much maligned metatarsals do not explain why shoes are on my mind. Earlier this month I learned a new word while attending my second residency at Bennington MFA Writing Seminars: objective correlative. Lisa Doublestein defined it in her graduate lecture as “a symbolic article used to provide explicit rather than implicit access to emotion in art.” An objective correlative offers a shortcut to the feeling the author wants to convey — connecting readers, stories and characters. An objective correlative says it without saying it.

Objects, I realized, are my way in: objects lead to memories, and memories lead to feelings. My mind — racing to the next thing and the thing after that — rarely stops to consider feeling. But objects, real or imagined, can pull me to a stop.

When I looked back at what I’ve written over the past six months, I was astonished to recognize a recurring thread.

First I wrote about walking with my father:

“Remember to pick up your left foot, Dad, I reminded him as we proceeded. I listened for the telltale scrape of his left shoe brushing the sidewalk. A year after his stroke, he still had to think to swing his left leg all the way forward and strike with the heel.

Then I described “the puddle of his feet, seemingly devoid of bones.”

This past week, I wrote about how he ministered to his shoes:

Every weekend—Sundays I think—my father would assemble his kit: a brown towel, an old nylon stocking, Aqua Velva aftershave, thin rags coated in polish, two horsehair brushes (one for brown, one for black), shoe black, and several cans of Kiwi shoe polish—cordovan brown, black, and clear.

On the floor in front of him he lined up his shoes—at least two pair and sometimes three. His shoes were of high quality, leather that would last, in enduring styles: wing tips, I remember, with thick soles. After laying the brown towel across one knee, he began his standard operating procedure: remove laces, wipe with damp towel, twist open lid of brown or black shoe polish, apply thin coat with previously used cloth, set aside to cure. Repeat with mate. Returning to the first shoe: buff the tongue, inside, heel, outside and toe with the brush matching the shoe polish; repeat application of polish; when ready, buff: swipe shoe with aftershave to harden the polish. Then: rest shoe on the cloth-covered thigh, heel toward the belly, grasp nylon with two hands roughly 18 inches apart, see-saw across the nose of the shoe. If necessary, tidy up soles with shoe black.

I wrote about the shoes he was reduced to wearing in very old age:

He hadn’t polished his shoes for at least ten years before he died, having exchanged his oxfords for sensible shoes, most recently black Brooks Addiction Walkers. Their wide soles helped stabilize his balance, or in the manufacturer’s promotional language, their “energy-returning MoGo midsole cushioning… provides study support mile after mile by supporting low arches and keeping pronation under control.” I replaced them every six months, inserting the orthotic that shoved his collapsed arch — (the left or the right? how could I forget?) — into a shape resembling a normal foot.

When I met with the Academics Officer at Officer Candidate School in conjunction with research I’m doing, he told me they can tell something about a recruit’s commitment from the way he or she selects his boots on day one. Footwear, again.

I remember how my father loved to recount how his flat feet almost barred him from consideration by the Marines… how my mother was inordinately proud of her shapely feet (a former I. Magnin shoe model)… how my father rubbed my mother’s feet at night. She had bunions just like mine.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Egg Beater Drawers

 

egg beater drawers

There it was this morning, my mother’s voice. In my head, of course, since it’s been 15 years and counting since she passed away. But I heard it, clear as her prized Waterford crystal: “Dammit, Betsy, my drawer looks like you’ve gone through it with an egg beater!”

She was right. Her underwear drawer did look a mess after I got through with it. My mother wasn’t particularly neat — she considered piles a perfectly appropriate organizational system in the kitchen — but her drawers were another matter. That woman knew how to fold. And the neatest drawer of all was her underwear drawer. I know because I raided it every time I needed a half slip.

Her underwear was practical but silky with bits of lace on the bras and panties, camisoles and slips. All of it was folded into neat squares — the slips set toward the back, the underwear and bras toward the front. Bras were folded in half and stacked on top of one another, a miniature mountain in a landscape of lingerie.

Some people hear their mother’s voice critically — there she is again, bitching at me from the grave — but (thankfully) that’s not what I heard. She sounded exasperated, to be sure, but loving. As if wondering how she was going to survive my teenage hood while in her mid 50s. And just that phrase — her distinctive “dammit!” — was like having her back again, if only for a minute.

I never did master underwear folding, and my underwear drawer does look like it’s been mixed with an egg beater. But at least I stowed my stuff, Mom, so it doesn’t look like it’s been spread from “hell to breakfast.” And, by the way, Merry Christmas… and I miss you. Thanks for stopping by.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized