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?

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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.

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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.

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Blog That’s Really a Cigarette Butt I Found on the Floor of My Car the Morning After Someone Broke Into It, Rifled Through the Glove Compartment, and Possibly Leafed Through A Library Book on Allosaurus

I know what you thought–that I’d ghosted you, as the youth say. An Irish Goodbye, if you will. One minute here, regaling you with tales of burrito selfies and de-sebumed pores, then–POOF! In the wind, on the lam, a dame with no regard for the heart of a sap like you.

It’s not that, though. It’s not you, and it’s not me. It’s This Modern Life. I’m Virginia Slim, come a long way, baby, but now I’m out of breath and de-passe. What I’m trying to squeeze through the 1980’s advertising slush pile that is moonlighting as my brain is that I am fucking tired. And I am also so, so grown-up, in all of the un-fun ways that word means.

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A candid of me in the office.

But first, let me say that while I did not abandon my project of trying to do a new thing every day, I amended it to “try to do some new or special things sometimes.” Every day, even as part of a one-time countdown to Liver Spot Lane in lovely Oldsville, Cronesylvania, is just too much. So, what I did instead was, whenever something came up that I kind of wanted to do but usually say no to because it takes too much coordination and/or furtive soul exchanges on a dirt lane outside a German village, I said let me see if I can make that happen, and sometimes, I did. That has led to me enjoying or participating in the following:

  • a manicure
  • a haircut (I have what can be euphemistically described as “complicated” hair and should get these frequently, but see previous entries for why not)
  • a Sunday run with Runners Borrachos, a gang of smart types who get together and do a 5K then drink beer. I never go because of child care issues, but this time I did, and while I enjoy neither running outside in weather or the spirit of athletic competition, I did like the beer and talking at the end.
  • babysitting my niece for no damn reason other than I volunteered because I think I need to make a deposit in the Karma Bank. Also, I looooooooove her.
  • making dinner for my mom on a weeknight like I just entertain or something
  • wearing yoga pants out of the house as actual pants
  • buying a cake mix my son picked out for his school cupcakes instead of making them from scratch as I usually do. This actually works out because 5-year-olds don’t give a shit about my ginger lemon buttercream. Children have the palate of Las Vegas manhole cover.

I feel like it should be more, but one thing I didn’t like about this project was how any failure to fulfill the dictates led me to feel guilty and shitty about my life. And I am already on top of that, project I made up.

Another issue possibly interfering with my whole-hearted embrace of the countdown to, well, you know, is that I am not at all excited about this. I tried to trick myself, tried to see the transition as a positive, largely out of a sort of guilty adherence to some perversion of feminism I must have glommed onto when I was young and felt totally comfortable making pronouncements about how I wouldn’t freak out about aging because women are worth more than our appearances and whatever happened to valuing the wisdom of older women and my self-worth isn’t centered on society’s estimation of my beauty blah blah blah. I thought I was so smart. I knew nothing.

It’s the physical deterioration, of course, that bums me out, but even more so it’s the feeling that I’ve simply transitioned beyond getting to have certain kinds of experiences. It’s being treated as irrelevant by people who are younger and invisible by most everyone. It’s being an “emerging” writer only now achieving some small success alongside people born in the late 1980’s while writers my age are firmly mid-career. It’s wishing I could have overcome a lack of both economic privilege and self-worth to try this all sooner. It’s aging out of eligibility for writing contests. It’s needing to take an author photo but finding the image of how I think I look crashing up against the reality of the older woman I’m becoming. Perfectly attractive in a firm 6.8 out of 10 kind of way (number subject to fluctuate depending on the city), but with a face that is lined and dulling and yet still at the beginning of so much.

To which you may say, no shit. What did you think was going to happen? That the ravages of aging wouldn’t apply to you?  But that’s the crazy thing about this that you cannot know until you’re in it–you know it’s coming, and it’s still a fucking surprise. Maybe if I was somewhere more satisfying professionally and artistically, I’d greet 40 with a sense of triumph. I’ve had several women in their 60’s and 70’s tell me that their 40’s were the best decade of their lives, but to a person these women had children much, much younger than I did, so being in their 40’s meant they were free, free of kids at home and first husbands and the constant pull of others’ need. That won’t be the case for me at all, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s that this seems to be such a pivotal time in most women’s lives, and I just can’t figure out what it will look like for me. I fear I’ll exit it with things much in the same place, that I will have spent the time buying increasingly expensive dolphin sperm face creams and in a job I care about but which offers exactly zero opportunity for advancement or raises. (Bounty hunting is adventure-heavy but not for the upwardly mobile.)

I’m not alone, I know, in these fears, but what do we do with them? How do I talk about planning to for my parents while also shopping for kindergartens? Can I say that the specter of menopause freaks me out? Can I say that I’m sad I don’t have the chance to have another child, even though I don’t think I want one? There’s an inevitability that 40 connotes for women but not for men–a kind of ending. See what Gloria Steinem recently said about aging women–we lose power in so, so many ways, even if we didn’t have that much to begin with.

But as I’m posting this on the day my son turns five, the night before I turn 40, I want to end with, if not positivity, then appreciation. I have loved people who didn’t make it this far, who fell sick in the body or the head or just had shit luck and didn’t get to bemoan the sags and crags of aging. I don’t believe in sucking it up and shutting up (obviously), as it’s the unsaid which wields a shadow power in our lives. I think it’s okay to say this thing we’re doing is hard because then we can help each other out, help each other move on. And I am moving, in the immortal words of whoever sang the theme song to “The Jeffersons,” on up. To 40. I hope to see y’all there.