Blog in a Blue Sky, Blog in a Green Sea

My mother came to America by boat. She wasn’t really an immigrant, and definitely no refugee. Born to an Air Force serviceman in England, she came to the States at six. It was the 1950s, and England was bombed-out, post-war, rations and wool. But still, the cottage she’d lived in had a name, Thornsbane or something, and there was an occasional nanny who knit and prepared tea and smelled of scents I don’t have the names for. What is camphor? Are rosehips not the whole rose?

Totally accurate depiction of normal British life.

I don’t know the America she saw when she landed. It was New England, a place I’ve only recently seen, as foreign to me as the Old England. She’d go back to the UK to live again before coming back to Massachusetts to graduate high school. Eventually, and strangely, she ended up at 21 in the small New Mexican town my father was born in. He was over 14 years older, twice divorced. It is impossible for me to imagine them falling in love–now split for nearly as long as they were married–so instead I put them in a booth, say 1974. The seats are black pleather and there are white candles in thick red globes on a laminate table. They are drinking a lightly yellow beer in mugs and she imagines she is seeing what her life will be. I suppose they had to have been laughing or something else but the image grows fuzzy where I need it to. The point is that she decides to take this life, but then she gets pregnant and that’s not the life she gets.

This is the story of your mom too, probably. Before just the past year or two, I didn’t know anyone who came from homes or communities where people had many options, and some of these people I’ve met recently have mothers who, even in the last quarter of the 20th century, lived intentional lives. It’s weird. I don’t fully get it, what it must do to you as a person to see that every day. How it has shaped you in ways it hasn’t shaped me.

As usual, I am talking about someone else as a way to talk about me. I thought I had outsmarted the trap of the poor town I grew up in, that I’d found books and feminism and couldn’t get pulled down, but I think now the town just moved into me. Part of why I quit writing, as I’ve said, was that nobody seemed to care either way. Of course, I have to see and claim my part in that, but I also understand now that my values were shaped, sneakily, by that place, by that example. Why write, I thought, when you can just be happy?

For the metrics of my town, happiness was firmly rooted in coupledom, in marriage, in children. There’s a picture of me at 16 with three friends at the Boy We Love Jesus So Much We’re Gonna Sing About Him All Week Bible Camp. We are all 15-17 and had started a “music group” that week that mimicked They Might Be Giants. We called ourselves Les Dents Noir. The picture is a fake album cover taken in front of a church van. Within a couple of years, two of us would be mothers, the third just a bit after that. I have to emphasize this is not a judgment. I promise. I swear–one of them may be reading this now. (Hey J!) This is just one picture of any number I could choose with any number of high school friends and tell a similar story.

That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spot-light.

And the thing is, I was kind of judgmental for awhile. How smart my choices are, I thought. How great that I lived in Prague, poor and lonely, while my friends nursed or packed kindergartners’ lunches. I went to graduate school, I learned and forgot Polish. Look at my modern independence. Look at how I’ve escaped. In Greek drama, this is when the stabbing starts.

My grad school experience was, at best, mixed, and I left with not much desire to write. Moreover, I returned to New Mexico knowing that I would have no writing community, no writer friends, no one to read any work I may create or to discuss with what I read. To be clear–these people exist in New Mexico, but there’s not too many and I didn’t know them. I once had a brief pseudo-relationship with the neighbor of a well-known poet in Santa Fe, but that’s as close as I got to knowing who to turn to in case there was a poetry fire and I had to pull the alarm. (Seriously–how can a poet be this bad at metaphors?)

Where I’m going with this is that I made a calculated choice: go elsewhere and pursue writing options or stay in NM with my boyfriend and try that life. I chose B.

What I am not saying is that I regret that choice. That would mean the erasure of far too much good. But what I am saying is that I wish it hadn’t been either/or. Or that I hadn’t seen it that way. I am saying I worked so hard not to do what my mother had done, I never noticed that I had just updated that narrative for a new century.

Just about one month ago, my mother’s youngest brother was killed in a fairly gruesome car accident. I was on Poetry Mountain and only shared this with a couple of people I’d grown close to. My mother said there was nothing I could do if I returned, and because of various complicated legal issues in his life along with his expressed preference, he would be cremated and there wouldn’t be a funeral. I wasn’t close to him (he’d become a disaffected right-wing agitant), and while I worried for my mother, she insisted I not leave.

Certainly I am selfish for having stayed, but yet I know her well enough to have also heard in her voice Don’t you leave there. We don’t get chances like this.

A couple of weeks later, a small obituary for my uncle, penned by my mother, was published in Texas. It handled gently a troubled man’s life, and then this line:  “Danny will join his father in lovely, desolate New Mexico. Someplace where the lonely rail tracks rumble.”

I mean…

She had once wanted to write. She says she doesn’t regret her family, the way I don’t regret mine, but in both of us there is an imagined other life where someone said You should do this thing you love and are good at and then we do.

If this is a blog mostly about writing, let this be about writing. I write more and more, as often as I can, fitting it into the spaces I once used for companionship or self-care. And yet I gain no traction / nothing seems to be working. Fellowships and prizes have an age maximum, a tradition so sexist and classist I’m shocked it still happens. And yet. Each of these tell me I have no worth. That my voice doesn’t matter. What’s worse is that I listen.

Part of what kept me from writing before was fear, and yet now that’s what keeps me going. I fear the small town inside me unlatching until I am inside it. I fear not becoming my mother so much as I fear not fulfilling what she wanted for herself.

I love bemoaning personal setbacks, but only in private, so I have to ask myself what is the service performed in sharing these thoughts with all four of you. I don’t know that I know. I think at its heart is the desire to yell out into the lovely mass of award-winners and fellows and prize-winners and ask not for what they’ve earned but for a bit of space, room to share and breathe. That has to be earned, certainly, but it also has to be allowed for.

Mostly I am in this desert talking to rocks. They say nothing. Or maybe I am not listening.


Blog in Which I Consider the Humanity of Joyce Summers

During each winter holiday break, I shift from high-powered education cyclone to apron-wearing cookie carybdis. I am the holiday cookie, the holiday cookie is me. I am propelled by some primeval force to fill my hands with nuts and fruit and offer them up to the white gods of flour, of sugar, of baking soda, salt. I spend the days in what feels like a marzipan haze but is in fact the crust of sugar over my eyes. I bake until I am worn, but then there are jam thumbprints, gingersnaps, peppermint bark, and the exhaustion is delicious and makes people love me.

This past break, I decided to begin rewatching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a way to fill the time in-between rolling and baking and crying over charred batches. This is the fifth time I’ve undertaken watching the whole series, the first just over 10 years ago right as I was beginning grad school and just after the show had ended. I had resisted watching the show because of a deep-seated antipathy towards grown people making monster noises. I’m not buying it, Steve, I want to say. You fool no one. I had been uncharitable toward the genres of fantasy and sci-fi since I was a kid and searching for what to lose myself in. I’ve often gravitated toward books and media that I could picture myself in, create a part for me to play. I was a child and then an adult unsatisfied with the reality of my life, but my solution wasn’t to then enter into a radically different world but instead one pretty much like this but tweaked—a little thinness here, a scoop more love there.

But “Buffy” was different. A bit younger than most of the actors but a bit older than the parts they played, I could see myself inserted into this world of monsters and star-crossed love. The pull of “Buffy,” as has been well-documented, is that the vampires and witches and werewolves and vengeance demons are window dressing for a compelling tale about what it is to grow up. The conflicts stem from what it is to love and lose and learn to try again. For a show about monsters, it is deeply human.

But in watching it again over the past seven weeks, I’ve noticed something disturbing. I no longer identify with Buffy or even Willow, whose awkward smartness is much closer to who I am than the perky blonde slayer. I no longer get where Xander is coming from or even find Oz enigmatic and cool. Instead, the character with whom I most identify and want to know more about is Joyce, Buffy’s mom, because I am now old.

To be fair, Joyce, as portrayed by the stunning Kristine Sutherland, is not exactly old. The first season of “Buffy” was filmed in 1996, making the actress about 41, a year older than I am now. However, the costumers do a terrific job of dressing Joyce in the very best of mid-90s mom drag. She owns just so many turtlenecks. This, along with Sutherland’s dead-on mix of parental exasperation and concern, renders the character of Joyce as every inch a Mom. People passing her on the street see her and feel certain that she’s used her own saliva to clean chocolate off of a small human’s face. Joyce is a woman who carries extra tissue in the pockets of her tapestry vest.

The mom hair is strong with this one.

To the end that Joyce must be believable as Buffy’s mom, the character is a raving success, but what I’m noticing this watch-through is that she is not much else. What do we get to know about Joyce? She is a divorced art gallery owner with a bottomless capacity for denial. She likes a flowy blouse and has bad luck with men. This has also been written about by others, but until now, it’s never bothered me. From a plotting point, the choices make some sense—she’s the only parent we really get to know and her role serves as both a support and a foil for the main character. But suddenly, that’s not enough for me. I want more for Joyce than one maniacal robot boyfriend and a passive aggressive book club friend who gets killed by zombies then becomes a zombie ultimately possessed by a Nigerian demon spirit before getting a shovel to the eyes courtesy of Buffy. Is that so wrong? As an aging woman increasingly invisible to much of the world, I want her to have more than that final date before her unacceptably ordinary death. I want her to be a woman and not just a mom.

Therefore I propose a supplementary series to flesh out and fulfill the promise of this loving and kind character. I propose “Joyce!” No, not the right title—close, but too ‘70s, ala Rhoda! or Maude!

Maybe “Re-Joyce!”

Nailed it.

And what would we see on “Re-Joyce!”? Well, what do you think she was doing all those weekends Buffy went to go see her dad in L.A. before the series decided that a slayer with daddy issues was more compelling than a slayer with a caring if geographically distant father? The way Joyce is depicted in the show (outside of the occasional Schnaaps drinking) would have you believe that Joyce spent those weekends using the bath salts she’d saved up special and drinking tea from giant mugs painted with flowers the colors of a Southwestern sunset. And while that doesn’t sound horrible to these aging ears, as a mother myself I know that when you get some time away from your child, you are going to use the chance to tear shit up. Maybe Joyce is an early noise music enthusiast and spends her weekends going to Iron, the Bronze’s scuzzy rival bar. She could do roller derby, work as a part-time private eye, haunt karaoke bars with her husky rendition of “The Monster Mash.” The possible antics from these scenarios are rich and endless.

But we also have the chance, in “Re-Joyce!” to see that this title heroine is also a badass at work, a legend among art dealers. Others try to top her, but the joke is that there can only be one. Speaking of jokes, turns out Joyce is a card, though she only uses that term in jest—she’s self-aware and wry, this one. She’s great at impressions and nurses a powerful hatred for Albert, the haberdasher next door who is always parking six inches into her space! What does she do about it? What doesn’t she do, is more like it. She is fucking unpredictable.

Since “Buffy” is told through that protagonist’s perspective, it makes sense that we don’t see what else fills her mom’s life. After all, how many of us as young people were capable of seeing our parents as fully formed people, full of lust and envy and heartbreaks? The Joyce we get in “Buffy” is the Joyce that Buffy saw—her mom. But I’m a mom and don’t want my story to be only of that relationship, so I don’t want it for Joyce, either.

Joss Whedon—since you’re probably not busy—give me a call. I’ve never written for t.v. so therefore have no evidence that I’m not awesome at it. Let’s talk, let’s plan. Let’s Rejoyce!