Bugs

In our front yard, there’s an abandoned treehouse.  I was going to the mailbox, and I looked past the ash tree, toward the treehouse.  I never look that direction.  The mailbox is, you know, business, and not pleasure, and also you don’t really look at the place you live.  The treehouse is left over from previous residents.  The kids– whoever they were– didn’t personalize the place at all.  Or if they did, they took their ropes and magic-markered manifestos and popsicle wrappers with them.

I heard that the house and treehouse had been abandoned for a while, and I don’t know anything about the people who abandoned it.  Lost it?  Ran off to South America?  There are two boards still nailed to the tree, the first one up a little too high to make for a comfortable ascent.  I wondered if the first rung had been deliberately removed.  A year ago, late at night, I took a notion and climbed up there, and got covered in spiderwebs and probably even spiders.  I haven’t been back up since.

On the supports, cicada shells are planted.  It’s that time of year.  Cicadas are the first things to molt.  Much later, the trees, and even my cats, who start shedding with cruel and unusual fury.  Cicada shells are scary.  Hair in the shower drain– even a hair in the shower at the gym– doesn’t bother me.  I know some people are really grossed out, but I just pull it out, wipe it off.  Cicada shells are more like empty costumes than shed hair.  Empty costumes are daunting.  Who was in there?  Who could be?

I’m feeling my shell, I guess, and wondering what I will be wearing when I wiggle out of it.  Recently, a friend introduced me, during this getting-to-know you game, and said, “She teaches, and she writes, but I don’t know what her plans for the future are.  What are they?”  I was startled to realize I didn’t know, either.  Maybe I should run off to South America…?

This week is the feast of Joseph of Arimathea.  After Jesus is pronounced dead, Joseph asks for the body, so that it can be properly buried.  Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan believes that Jesus’ body was probably either left on the cross to rot, or buried in a shallow grave, where it would be dug up by animals.  That makes more sense to me, as far as how a criminal’s body would be treated.  The stories tell us Joseph, who is not the most assertive guy otherwise, steps up to provide loving treatment for Jesus, and that makes sense, too.  You never know when people are going to step up.

Tolstoy wrote: “The whole trouble lies in the fact that people think that there are conditions excluding the necessity of love in their intercourse with man, but such conditions do not exist. Things may be treated without love; one may chop wood, make bricks, forge iron without love; but one can no more deal with people without love than one can handle bees without care.”  Maybe best to handle everything with care, even wood, bricks, iron– as it is not always clear what is alive and where the living will creep out.

Advertisements

Money (That’s What I Want)

There’s this scene called “Dad paying the bills” that we all know.  (Yours might be called “Mom,” or “Grandpa,” but it’s quite similar.)  In this scene, you have a note from your teacher at school that explains how you have screwed up, and Mom tells you, “Oh, not now.  Dad’s paying the bills.”  What does this mean?  Dad is sitting at a desk he doesn’t normally sit at, and there are papers spread around.  My scene has a buzzing and spitting adding machine.  Should you interrupt Dad with your note from Teacher? Dad grumbles.  Dad sighs.  What is wrong with Dad?

Now I am my own Dad, so to speak, and I’m amazed by how nervous and ashamed I can feel about paying bills.  Especially in the last year or so, I read stories about people losing their jobs, eating through their savings, losing their houses, their health insurance, needing soup kitchen meals or utility assistance.  These scary stories make me more ashamed: how can I even stress about money when I am so comfortable, in comparison?

Shame isn’t like that, though.  Shame doesn’t listen to reason or gratitude.

Money is a great target for shame, especially for Americans.  In the U.S., capitalism and up-by-bootstraps mythology put money front and center in our idea of success.  You can be thrifty and “good with money,” or a bold investor, or a financial climber, or a dutiful saver.  I am sometimes thrifty, occasionally good with money, and pretty hopeless at the rest.

Paying bills is a great spiritual opportunity.  Great spiritual opportunities are things that terrify you, hurt like hell while they are happening, and then scar you in ways that might or might not be attractive.  I try to tell myself, before I go to pay the bills, that whatever happens at the desk, it is not a test of whether or not I am a good person.  Finally, I sort of go into a tape loop about what does make you a good person, which Christianity tells me is not the point, and Buddhism tells me is crazy.  (Hitler was good with money, right?)

I sat at the breakfast table today and looked at all the bills and fretted over some of them.  Barked at myself for how something had been handled.  Why had you not…?  Why did you…?  How did this…? My perfectionist voice says, If you were really good, you could save all your money and live like one of those air plants.  Why don’t we try eating ramen noodles for every meal?  We could pay off these student loans lickety-split!

You’re not supposed to talk about money, except to say that you have plenty, and that you manage it just fine.  I don’t usually explain that I’m not going out, or ordering a glass of wine, because my monthly fun-money allowance is spent.  You’re not supposed to talk about that.

I read a piece of Pema Chodron’s before I got the checkbook.  The gist of it was: be honest and non-judgmental.  Be honest about your money and what you really do with it (or don’t), and being non-judgmental with yourself (so that’s what I did, huh).  It’s a tall order.  I’m going to practice it, again, possibly after my next paycheck, or whenever I get around to it.

That’s a Dealbreaker

Every month, I spend at least an hour or two wandering the bookstore and reading the first couple pages of a lot of different volumes.  All those books are sitting around waiting to be touched, and there are only a few I want to spend time with, holding them in my lap and caressing them with my eyes, carrying them around snuggled up in my bag.  If you choose to get close to a book, you will spend hours and hours together.

Finding a book you can love means constant nitpicking and rejection.  It means lots of disappointments on my part, as I search, but at least the books don’t get their feelings hurt.

That said, it sounds tough, but if I see any of this on pages one through three, there will be no page four for us.  You’re out.  Dead to me.  And death brings us to number one:

1. Dead people revealing their secrets.  Ghosts of any kind are a red flag.  (Exception: Hamlet.)

2. Crime of any type.  If I wanted crime, I’d watch “Law & Order.”

3.  A setting or location other than North America, Europe, China, Japan, or India.  I’m just not that exotic in my tastes.  Ideal locations: England, Russia, New York City, Paris, London.  For Kundera, I’ll allow any of eastern Europe, usually iffy territory.

4. Lady problems.  Including but not limited to: gynecological and modern dating problems.  If these is the most interesting thing about a lady, she shouldn’t have a book written about her.  (Marriage problems are not dating problems.  We leave in all the great novels about finding a husband.)

5. Man problems.  Including but not limited to: romantic alcoholism and avoiding commitment.  Zzzzzz.

6. The first page is one long paragraph.  That’s tough to plow through.

7. The word “planet.”

8. The word “America” or “American.”

9. Cute children.  (Exception: A Prayer for Owen Meany.)

10. Pets.  My pets are fascinating, but everyone else’s pets are boring.

11. Sports of any kind, no matter how metaphorical. (Exception: The Chosen).

12. Magic of any kind.  Including but not limited to: witchcraft, fabulous wacky nearly unbelievable coincidence, and anything vaguely “Halloweeny.”

13. Long description of the scenery or history of the place.  I’m not big on geography, and I don’t care about the history of your people yet.

Contradictory Desires

 

I have the desire to plow out into the world and explore like crazy.  Go places I don’t belong.  Find countries outside and inside myself. 

 

Also me: I move into a new apartment.  Every day when I come home, I am seized with revulsion.  This is not my home.  My home is the way-too-small apartment I just left.  That’s where I live.  That’s where I’m refreshingly miserable.

 

You can ask me to run off to a foreign country and I will say yes.  This has happened three times.  Once an acquaintance said, hey, you want to go to Juarez Mexico and build a house in four days?  Okay, actually, this happened twice, but the second time it was a stranger who asked and said, hey, I hear you’ve been to Juarez Mexico and we want to build another house.  Another time my cousin emails, hey, you want to visit me in Qatar?  I’ll fly you over.  I say yes. 

 

Although I have eaten some Kraft macaroni and cheese in my new apartment, overindulgence in carbohydrates has its limits as a coping strategy.  Although twice in the last two weeks it seemed like a good idea for me to have three drinks in the course of one evening, raising my blood-alcohol level produces mixed results, too.  The first time, my exhaustion caught me with a snap and I almost fell asleep in the car on the way home.  (I wasn’t driving.)  The second time, I fell asleep on the couch.  When I woke up, my anxieties gushed back. 

 

I can act with such I’m-not-shitting-you power at times.  Only this afternoon I walked into a group of teenagers, gave them a relatively mild version of The Look, and they dispersed demurely.  The problem with such power is just like the alcohol problem.  Unpredictable results, inconsistent successes.

 

I can’t tell you how lovely the new place is.  It’s my favorite of all the places I have ever lived.  If only I could feel like it was real.  I was waiting for the first bath or the first dinner or the first weekend or cry or nap or floor-sweeping.  Now I’ve been through all those.  It’s so cute here, too.  Cute windows.  Walls painted my favorite colors.  Plenty of room to spread out.  Not so much room that it looms around.  Amazing lines.  I read about architecture while I’m here, and I’m like, yep, somebody designed this 104-year-old structure.  And I know the guy’s name.

 

I’m concerned.  What happened to Poor Lonely Liz She Lives in Poverty?  True: I still hear gunfire.  True: paint is peeling, windows do not shut properly.  But from some perspective, it seems I have to live with the fact that maybe I have a great, affordable place to live.  I miss Poor Lonely Liz.  I knew what she was about.  She was weak, tired, abandoned by everyone, easily freaked out.  She wasn’t going to score career coups like going to three all-expense-paid professional conferences in a year.  She wasn’t going to nourish her writerly ambitions by attending two retreats packed with supportive colleagues.

 

The trouble is, I guess, that I haven’t just moved geographically in the last year.  I wrestled with writing issues and relationship issues and career issues last year, ready to make some giant changes.  Although I tried to manipulate and force these changes, they actually crept up on me through the back door.  I threw myself at my old boyfriend in August, not really expecting anything.  But we kept spending time together.  I stuck with the yeses, and ended up thrown into another retreat, a new summer job, and a conference opportunity.  I’ve gone to present at another national conference, and am, titularly at least, the English Department Head.

 

When there is this much change, I’m like the Cowardly Lion.  Everything, no matter how good, makes me want to hide under the bed.  Everything seems scary, regardless of the fact that I was the one who got the ball rolling in the first place.  I see my career going zoom through high school English teacher ambitions, and I wonder, do I even want to keep doing this high school English teacher thing?  How much responsibility will I take on as a Master English Teacher?  Will my comfort and knowledge catch up to the expectations of my coworkers and boss?  And once that happens, won’t I be thrown back into a fit of boat-rocking again?  Once I felt comfortable at my old job, I moved on.  I needed more challenge. 

 

I need challenge.  I like to feel like I can bite my teeth into my job, bare my canines to show the task is impossible and I know it, then squeeze down my jaw on the task.  Shake it side to side.  Today I took the essays I needed to grade out to a coffeehouse.  Once I had read through them, I wanted to kill myself.  I was supposed to be getting these kids ready for college, and they are writing like Sarah Palin drunk on Ebonics.  Seriously.  What the hell was I supposed to do about that?  Not only do I not know, actually no one on planet Earth knows how to get kids who are at the bottom of the pecking order writing clearly and firmly.  I wanted to run away.  I went by the grocery store on the way back to work and bought a piece of pecan pie, to return to carbohydrate overload again. 

 

At least when I find a place to live, I know how to be comfortable.  That’s good news.  If I can just be patient and adjust to the new place, I won’t have the same itchy ambition about moving that I have in my creative life, my love life, my career.  When I find a spot to rest my head that feels like home, I’ll stick with that like nobody’s business.  Last time it was a mostly-sweet eight years. 

 

 

The Man Made Out of Wood

PINNOCHIO (opening of an almost-novel)

There once was a man named Gepetto who lived with his loneliness every day. Loneliness slept in the corner and sighed and kept him awake. Gepetto became older; his hair grew in white, and his teeth wore down dull, and his ankles started creaking in the morning, and his lips that were once sweet and rubbery became feathery, dry, and rude. He had always lived alone, in a woodshop where he made his money carving clock cases and inserting the works to sell them. The aloneness of the shop wore into him, until he could not face the continuing mornings of the worktable, and the coldness of his carving blades. The windows were closed when he came downstairs, and he began to leave them closed through the day.
On the worst morning, he could not proceed. He had managed to the breakfast table, to the dresser, and down the stairs, but once in the shop, he was useless. Loneliness had died in the corner, and was stinking up the whole place. In the precise location of his blankest hopelessness, Gepetto was graced by one idea.
His feet began to move, twitched with the slightest energy, suddenly. They took him to his woodpile, and his arms decided to get in on the act, dropping his withered hands around the choices, and lifting a few pieces of wood. Without permission from his broken heart, his renegade hands took delights in tool and subject, and he was fashioning an arm. A leg. Two legs. Another arm, a torso, and, cradling in one hand and slicing with another, he carved a loved face.
With hinges and screws, he put the small body together. He took out vials of paint and gave the sculpture proper shoes, proper clothes. It took him a good hour to finish the face: nostrils, curly ears, a glib mouth, and open eyes, irises blue as Gepetto’s own.
In fact, he had begun at his morning hour, and when he could look at the creation with satisfaction, it was dark night. He knew no one was watching, and so he lifted the wooden doll into his bowed arms. “If you—“ he said, since no one was listening. He touched the tan, wood-veined cheek he had sanded soft. “If you were—“ he held it closer, and the cheek matched the curve of his poor chest.

THE FIRE
I think the house was poorly designed. There were two gables in the top, Siamese twins. One set of eyes was Ellen’s bedroom, veiled in white gauze, and the other was her parents’ bathroom.
The front steps led up to a suggestion of a porch, with crude stone supports. No one ever put furniture out there, but sometimes someone sat on the steps.
The doorbell lit up, as if it had a soul, and when you pressed it, the chimes sounded lush. I rang it a few times before I left for San Diego—then I had a key of my own.
The house was built with sections of brick and siding. In the 50’s, the wooden parts were a hospital sea-green. In the ‘40s, the wood was a brown red, close to the brick. Finally, Ellen’s parents painted it white. The white of 1975 was bold in photos, but by the time I met Ellen, it had been blasted with dirty snow, autumn leaves, and clouds of pollen. It was the color of a Bedouin’s turban after a monthlong trek.
I met Ellen in the spring. Middleton has regular electrical storms in the spring, cracking the back of winter and shaking us all. The spring of 1997 was when I was finishing my undergraduate degree in the school of social work. I went to get a hamburger and read a textbook chapter, and Ellen was sitting with a friend of mine, in the table by the door. We all talked, and I didn’t read the chapter. Three weeks later, I saw her there again. I didn’t remember her name.
It was four years later, it was spring 2001, when lightning struck the house. This is how it burned: first the roof, which needed repair for a leak above the stairs. Then the attic started to get it, of course: Ellen’s unseasonable clothes, all her airy rayon and cotton sundresses, and leather sandals and t-shirts of every color, some with slogans, inside two yellow plastic bags. First the plastic had to melt, then the clothes could burn.
I think it spread to the master bedroom next because that leak in the center hall would keep the wood damp. It was also the easiest path because Ellen had spread out some sheets of aluminum and pipes, all stolen from construction sites, along the other side of the attic. Those wouldn’t burn well.
The master bedroom would go up in a rush: Ellen’s parents’ scrapbooks, her father’s collection of sheet music, and copies of the papers settling their estate, many carefully lettered in Ellen’s block writing.
The room Ellen and I slept in, that she shared with me, was on the other side. The windowsills, ceiling, and bookshelves were populated with her origami creatures, which all caught fire easily. Some dropped to the bed, and caught the blankets.
The downstairs burned, too: living room and piano, Ellen’s great-grandmother’s dining table, the pictures of vegetables framed in the kitchen, the dull-colored couch in the living room. Downstairs the trouble was the firefighters’ ammunition—everything ablaze was quickly asea.
We watched it burn, Ellen and I. Then I returned to California, this time to L.A. Ellen moved to the east coast. We didn’t see each other for a long time, though we wrote occasionally.