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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.


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Memoir and Missed Connections


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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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.

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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.

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“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?



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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.

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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.



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Finding Your Own Voice: O’Keeffe On Writing


Here at Ghost Ranch, there’s a library that’s open 24/7, chock full of books on geology, Native American culture and traditions, poetry… and of course, all things O’Keeffe. I’m reading C.S. Merrill’s “O’Keeffe: Days in a Life,” a collection of poems written, with O’Keeffe’s permission, based on her experience of working for the artist as librarian, secretary, cook, nurse or companion, from 1973 to 1979, the last years of O’Keeffe’s life.

Here in number 77, Merrill describes an exchange about writing for a community.

Sunday morning O’Keeffe and I

discussed how to find your own voice,

your own vision.

I argued a painter can get off

alone and work in color 

but a writer must use words

which requires a community

of minds, you write to a community

of minds, I said.

She spoke harshly, very loudly,

“Do you think that

community of minds cares a moment

for what you have to say?

Of course they don’t!”

She answered herself.

She said I was writing

like others told me

said it was a very difficult

thing to listen to yourself

and write from that

said the key is free time.

Give yourself an hour or two a day.

all to yourself

everyone has free time

but they don’t use it

I said I have time when I am walking

to school — she said that wasn’t free

yes I was walking, but I was walking to

that wasn’t free time.

March, 1978

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Dream Weaving

The Walloomsac Inn, Bennington, VT

For the last four nights, I’ve had vivid dreams… and remembered them, which I rarely do. Maybe it’s because I wrote a piece based on a recurrent dream — well, nightmare — I had as a child. The whole Freudian listen-to-your-dreams thing has always struck me as a little goofy, but let’s have a little fun. Play along with me, won’t you?

  • Night # 1 – The tale of the tumbledown house: I am doing a walk through of a house in terrible condition with a realtor and my husband (always the value real estate shopper). The location alone makes it a potential good investment (in Minnesota?) , but the place was built strangely and has lots of negatives: probable mold, harlequin red and green stained glass windows that make the interior strangely dark, and flooring in such poor condition that my stiletto heel (me in stilettos?) pokes through the subflooring spearing a chunk of pink insulation. I am in an increasing state of disbelief and finally say it’s too much of a mess. We walk away.
  • Night #2 – Three dreams in which I arrive late, two in classrooms where poetry is being taught: In the first, a nonprofit board meeting, I am late and frustrated because I can’t get through the line to get in and then I don’t have a seat; in the second, I am late (again) and can’t understand the pattern of the list that the female teacher, a poet, is writing on the board; and in the third, I come in as class is wrapping up and seek out the teacher, a poet, after class to talk to him about the semester assignment to write 320 pages. I tell him I’m a Bennington writing student and he says, “You guys are the worst.” When I asked why, he said that we can write but we can never figure out how to pull the packet together. I tell him I’ve lived a little, that I want to explore The Word. He smiles and says I’ll do fine. I am relieved.
  • Night #3 – Rainy season: The house on stilts where I am living with two children is safely above water level as the rainy season begins, but as I watch the waters rise slowly, I worry the road will flood and become pestilential. I am ticked at the base housing manager who is supposed to address the road drainage problem.
  • Night #4 – A busy night of dreams: In the first, I recover in the hospital from a cracked spine injury and get out of bed to go to the cafeteria after the nurse tells me they ran out of food on the unit; then, after a vacation at a resort, I end up driving the bus with my fellow tourists down a narrow levee and then successfully (and confidently) back it down a switchback; finally, I go for a run alone along a drainage ditch in Davis.

Hmmm. Houses. Classrooms. Teachers. Late. Flooding. Driving. Running. There’s a story, isn’t there? At least one.

Turning to the wisdom of the Internet, here is one possible interpretation:

I am leaving behind my old attitudes (run down house) and expanding my knowledge (classroom), better late than never (late) and ready to learn (teacher). The good news is that my worries will soon be swept away (gentle flooding), I am healing (hospital) from some weakness (broken bone), have accepted the challenge before me (driving), have faith in myself (water), and am determined and motivated in the face of my goals (running alone).

Here is another:

I need to update my thinking (run down house) and I am learning an important life lesson (classroom). I am ambivalent about a new opportunity (late) and I have childhood anxieties that have never been resolved (school) and am looking for approval (teacher). I need to release some sexual desires (flooding) but am afraid of losing control (hospital) and there is a weakness in my plans (broken bone) plus I am facing setbacks (driving backwards). And finally I need to make a decision (running) and stop wallowing in my negative emotions (muddy drainage ditch).

You decide. And leave my sex life out of it. 😉

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Dear Natalia Ginzburg


Dear Natalia Ginzburg,

I feel like I know you. We’ve never met, of course. I’d never even heard of you back in 1991 when you died. Maybe it’s that “we” you take as your point of view in so many of your essays. It makes me feel like you were talking to me. I’ve never written a letter to anyone dead; not my mother, when she died in 1999, not even my father, who died just twenty months ago. So I hope you won’t mind if I reach out to you across the decades, across the veil that divides us, to tell you how disturbed I am by your description of aging.

In your essays, I found we had much in common, you and me. You, like me, were anxious about the world of adults in which we lived as children; alert to their changes of mood (and in my case, their health), we feared for the very stability of the ground we walked on. Their anger was an earthquake. You, like me, escaped into fantasies. Yours were a lot more interesting than mine, I’ll grant you, your chorus of invisible persecutors (the “we’s”) and imaginary prince. My dreams were about longing for true love – would Johnny McNutt be mine? (he loved me, he loved me not) – and the desire to be special, truly special, which would surely lead to the admiring attention of my parents, my teachers, maybe even the world at large. And adolescence! That terrible self-consciousness, self-interrogation and self-centeredness. And then marriage and motherhood. The day that my daughter was born, I felt as if my skin had been abraded, leaving me stripped of the membrane that protected me from the world. Forever after I was a quaking, bleeding mass of love and fear. You said it better when you wrote, “We never knew our bodies could harbor such fear, such fragility; we never dreamed we could feel so bound to life by a bond of fear, of excruciating love.”

Writing when you were younger than I am now, you refer to yourself as “old now.” Old now? You say that you are more patient but you find this new state of affairs disagreeable and feel only self-contempt for it. You say you see the future as “a cracked, rutted stretch of road where no grass grows.” You say you are tired.

You mention – mention – that maybe your loss of imagination is freeing you to “tell what really happened,” what you learned from the experience of others and your own. I read this while I am waist high in the lush landscape of your essays.

Perhaps I am confused because I met you as the freeway of the Me Generation petered out in a thicket. We “me’s” (not to confused with your “we’s”) see old age as a choice. We may mourn but we are not haunted by the dead. We haven’t suffered many losses, not yet. We’re ready for our Second Act. We’re ready for our close up.

You lived through the terrible war. You met “the right person” and married him when you were twenty-two. He was torn from you before you were thirty, thrown into prison by the Fascists in 1944. There he suffered and died alone.

Your experience, so different than mine, lies across a canyon I don’t know how to cross. You were old before my time. You were old before your time.

I miss you, and I’ve never even met you.

To “meet” Natalia Ginzburg, read “A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg,” chosen and translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, a writer and faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars.

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