I remember phrases from childhood travels, not images or events.  Glass-bottomed boat.  Lion Country Safari.  Circus Circus. The musicality of the words meant more to me than the actual experiences.

All I remember about the glass-bottomed boat was my incredulousness.  How could a boat have a glass bottom?  I pictured a little motorboat with a slab of window for a bottom.  Wasn’t that dangerous?  Wouldn’t it break?  Couldn’t ladies shatter it with their high heels?

I don’t remember the actual boat, or the coral reef, down there in the Florida keys.  all I remember is those four syllables, and the fact that my dad went snorkling instead.  Snorkling.  What a word that was!  I couldn’t imagine what he was doing.  Dads did mysterious things, though.  My dad went to an office downtown most days, and I had no idea what he did there.  Snorkle.  Glass-bottomed boat.

We went to several outfits like Lion Country Safari.  We visited one in Florida, and one in Texas.  They strike me as ill-conceived now.  You stay in your car.  “Wild” animals wander around.  Giraffe, deer, maybe even ostrich.  The lions, my father insists, were actually in cages that you drove by.  I remember you could get your photo taken with a lion cub for an extra charge.  My parents disapproved of this on the grounds of both safety and thriftiness.  I did not get a picture. I just kept the name of the place, forever.  Lion Country Safari.

Circus Circus, I’m told, is still there.  I visited Las Vegas when I was three.  My grandmother paid for me to be made up as a clown.  I was only spoiled for my first few years, the ones I have the fewest memory of.  Afterward, I kept the red foam nose, with a sprinkling of glitter.  Sometimes I put it on my nose again.  You needed glue to hold it there, though, and I didn’t have that kind of glue at home.  You actually need souvenirs to remember trips when you are a child.  You actually will forget.  Circus Circus. I either saw, or thought I would see, trapeze artists in the atrium.  I’m not sure which.

We also visited Muir Woods.  We ate Chinese food in San Francisco, which I liked as a city name only second to Cincinnati.  You would think the Hearst Castle would impress more with its architecture than its name, but my world was made of words, not marble.

Even Ground

Like most sensitive and interesting people, before I was twenty-two, I had got me to a therapist.  I was not getting out of bed, and sticky with unhappiness about the end of my growing-up love affair, and I was ready to have someone talk some sense to me.  She said, “If you don’t want to be on drugs, you can try to manage your moods yourself.  But you can’t let yourself get so low like this.  It’s too hard to climb back out.”

I had been moody and crazy, but at that point in life, I’m not sure calm and secure is a possibility.  Twenty-one, in and out of college.  That was hard.  At least I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and that I didn’t want to be an alcoholic or a lunatic.  Alcoholism and lunacy weren’t appealing to me: I had that in the family, hidden from me, to protect me from it, but used as a cautionary tale.  It didn’t look romantic.

So I read Thoreau, his solid , stubborn, if nonconformist sanity.  He was all about building things and being alone.  Natalie Goldberg, who practiced Buddhism to become saner, really saner, not conventional or conforming.  And Madeleine L’Engle, who described an artistic work ethic that funneled passion strictly into the work.  See plays, play piano, talk to smart people, make babies, make dinner; read, write.  That sounded good to me.

This is why I roll my eyes every time people love the Charles Bukowski painting at the bar.  Wouldn’t it be easy as pie to abuse yourself and numb your feelings?  Can’t anyone, with enough training and practice, down a whole bottle of whiskey in a short period of time?  Even I’ve learned to drink two or three.  It’s easy.  And I’m not interested in the easy thing.

Yesterday I went hiking. Two and a half miles out, two and a half miles back.  I met three huge deer, three does.  The first one stood and looked at me forever.  I stood and looked at her.  Her body was a huge mass, a wall that made me feel like a pencil sketch.  She shifted her weight and looked around several times, that’s how long we hung out together.  I was unhappy when I set out on my walk.  Agitated.  Unsettled.  The deer helped.  Every time.  They amazed me.  But then I was back at my car, and I was just tired, not enlightened.

The next night, rather suddenly, I was ready to paint.  Wine, brushes, Marvin Gaye station.  I planned some squares and rectangles out on the floor.  I dragged out this canvas that I’ve been messing with for two years, and some of its issues resolved themselves.  I could do something to this picture.  So I did.

What my mentors, Thoreau and Goldberg and L’Engle, would say, is that you make yourself a solid life, get your head on straight, and then you have enough room to wack out while you’re making things.  You have to every day bulldoze a straight, flat place, like wide enough for you and a large deer to stand on, so that you can build something, and if you get really psyched, praise the Lord, then you could dig foundations and bury some steel supports and get something significant that other people could live in.  They were good voices for me to hear when I was very young.  I grew up wearing those comforting messages so close that I hardly read them anymore– they are my skin.

This is kind of sad fun.  Cheers.  http://listverse.com/2008/01/22/top-15-great-alcoholic-writers/

The Creature

There are many, many things that I would never write here.  Some bits are too delicate.  If I opened up my hands, they would blow away.  I would lose them.  And many of my judgments are too painful for the interested parties.  Too painful, and also ridiculously temporary, as fallible as all human conclusions.  There’s no sense in upsetting people with one moment’s verdict.  They might be rendered “not guilty” the next time, and then nobody’s better off.

I do like to pluck up a weed in my brain and try to praise it.  Or smack down an insect of my own dervish craziness.  Nonfiction is good for examination.  Maybe someone else can look at it, as awed as I am by its construction and its invasiveness.

Fiction is different.  I’ve written four long pieces of fiction– none of them, perhaps, the least bit publishable, languishing as they do in the netherworld of “novella.”  Since fourth grade, I have wanted to write a novel.  My fourth grade version was also too short.  It was made of diary entries by a black girl in the Jim Crow south.  Whatever possessed a privileged midwestern white suburban girl to write about such things in a big blue binder, during the Reagan administration, is a question I won’t bother going into here.  The point is, after all those years, I’m still waiting to write a novel.

I loved novels from the first ones I read, the way they were more real than reality.  They were my friends, sometimes more reliable and calming than my human friends, and my drug, and my lovers, before I had been in love.

Every time I have tried to build a novel, zap up my own Frankenstein monster, I stitch the final stitch and realize he is about four foot five.  The pieces I had stretched that far.  They made what they had to make.

Four long pieces, over fifteen years of writing, seriously, like scribbling and typing and reading and asking, and semi-seriously, like wearing red lipstick and appearing troubled.  Three-ish years of crafting, and one-ish year of interesting myself in scraps of dead things, collecting.  I’ve been in a collecting phase, lately.  Letting some pieces rot.  Some fall out of my pockets.  Some still have veins in them.  Some are ready to bloom with fresh blood, impossible as that sounds.  Some muscle will wait, energy invested, never drying, never weakening, ready to be stitched and struck alive.