We May Sink and Settle

DP158099.jpgSomeone told me even numbers of bamboo stalks are unlucky, so I bought another pot with three stalks, bringing my total to 9.  I had 3, that was good, then 6, disaster, now back to 9.

“What does that have to do with?”my coworker asked.  I was carrying my bamboo.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Chinese numbers?”

Because obviously my life is ruled by Chinese numbers.

“You just have to be careful with it,” she said.  “It takes over.”

“You seem unhappy,” someone said.  Unhappy, and suffering, is not the same as inauthentic.  Like at the end of the “Muppet Movie,” “We did just what we set out to do.”  I set out to be a New Yorker, because I knew I was one, I am one, it fits.

Everything else has been disastrousish: deserts of loneliness, boiling panic on 7th Avenue, back on the “rescue” drugs, back on the antidepressants– not that I mind the antidepressants, so much, they did me so right before, and going off only taught me they had no ill effects, and that going off them was easy.  As long as sertraline and I fall back in love, I’ll stick with him forever.

You lose your job but have to keep doing it for months, you get bad doctor news, you sell hard your life’s work: a lot for a brain.

This time I knew to keep my eyes low, not to look up at tall buildings, of which there are, you know, a few, in Manhattan, and this time I was cool enough to walk through an Old Navy and look for t-shirts.  I was at 9.  Last time an H & M overstimulated me so bad I wanted to rip my chest open like Superman rips his suit off.  I was at 10.

When I said I wasn’t that bad, that with my first bout of anxiety I was afraid to leave the house, my therapist said, “Let’s not let it get that far this time.”  Right.

This round is much easier, as I understand the drugs, and the drugs help.  To do what I intended to do, just do it with medicine.  To not let my brain get the grooves carved that say, freak out here.

I have a brain that acts out this way.  And I don’t give in to it.  I still move to a new city, I don’t quit my stressful job, I don’t stop writing.  I get medicine.  I don’t know if therapy for this has helped me at all, but I like therapy, so I go.

I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.  – Virginia Woolf, The Waves.

I  marched in the Mermaid Parade last weekend.  Marched?  Walked with everyone, stopped and started, blew bubbles, waved ribbons around.  I painted myself blue, which was much more work than I thought it would be, four big tubes of blue, four layers of paint.  I had trouble with my face.  I am experienced with Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras always means masks.  My sister helped make my face something.  I didn’t know how to feel, there, handling the chiffon tails of my costume, the gangbusters of people, my first time at anything I am so self-conscious.  I wanted to be the sea.

Sequins are still being found on the bottoms of my roommates’ feet, and in the cat’s litter box.  For a minute I was the sea.

Image: “Ocean Swells,” Arthur B. Davies, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Get and Take

DP210179The woman was pleased that I was buying an umbrella.  I had just splashed through Rockefeller Center, in three inches of rain, this made me laugh.  Nothing was making me laugh at all, only actually wading in my sandals, running between the buildings there.

“Once we sold almost every umbrella we had, to this whole bus of people from China,” she said.  She was so pleased, and so pleasant, I wondered if she had stock in the store, or the umbrella company.

That afternoon I was going to meet all these agents who could either tell me my life was worth living or not.  So I thought I would try to calm down.

Under the red umbrella, I crossed the street to the cathedral.  They were starting a service.  I didn’t have time to stay for the service.  I stopped at the St. John altar.

I did not believe in anything, except maybe I did believe in St. John, I felt nothing was his fault, not that I was again without a job, my career a mess, or that my ovaries had given up, or that, the previous evening, after I got home, I flossed and a crown popped right out of the row of my teeth.  I don’t belong here! the crown said, just as I had crowned a whole afternoon of def con anxiety and thirty read-throughs, editing every other time and making marks for pauses and longer beats, then careful ingestion of exactly one and a half glasses of wine while I waited to go on so that I could stand in front of people and look and sound spontaneous and fresh and people could say to me, “You’re a natural performer.”

They were being kind, I know, but I was ungrateful and wanted to hear, “You worked really hard and persevered through the train you wanted to take not running and having to walk extra blocks, as usual, going the wrong way first, in the rain, in heels, on the brick and uneven streets of downtown, and you showed up late even though you thought people who are late for their own readings ought to be shot, what disrespect, what disrespect, why can’t you get it together?”

The sign at the St. John altar said candles $2, I realized I didn’t care what the sign said, I took out all my change and plunked it through the slot and took the candle and lit it, and God, the church universal, or St. John himself could take it up with me later that it wasn’t $2.

I got a pew and started the service with everyone, sang the parts.

I lost my St. John medal about six months after I moved here.

On my way out of the cathedral, I turned into the gift shop and in a revolving case there was a St. John medal, a heavy one on a heavy chain, right there.

I went to the counter and asked for it.  The woman brought back a Joan of Arc medal, which was more than a little weird because the novel I was trying to get an agent to want to sell, thus telling me my life was worth living, the novel is about Joan of Arc (obliquely).

“No,” I said, “John.”  Then I wondered if I should have bought the Joan one.

She brought back the John, I gave her a credit card because I am so out of my mind with exhaustion my checking account has too much money in it, I don’t know why, but I’m expecting that means any moment I will be overdrawn because of something I forgot.

I went back to the agent meetings.  They went well.  I enjoy talking about my work.

At the end of the meetings, a woman I had been talking with was suddenly a friend and we walked to an outdoor cafe and ordered drinks.  She talked very fast and so did I and we had plenty to talk about.  The waiter asked us to pay because he said it was about to rain.  Then the heavens did open up, we leaned back under our umbrella and still we were misted.  Heavy rain in New York City means nothing.  When you are from tornado territory, nothing less than Shiva-level destruction impresses.

I got back to Brooklyn and in the last block before I was home, I looked over at a huge rainbow, I could see because there is a school across the street from us, an open piece of land, giving us some sky, and a huge rainbow.


Happy postscript: the crown that fell out was just a temporary one.  Dentist stuck it back on in five minutes and $50.

Image: “Man With Umbrella In Times Square,” Ted Croner, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


When we came out of the bar in Iowa City, there were still twenty people on the other side of the street.  They were holding signs and chanting in front of the Old Capitol.  We had had nice cocktails at an upstairs bar.  We had participated in a round of applause for the bartender called for by someone we thought to be a regular, a guy I would later learn had actually never set foot in the bar before.  It was still light outside.IMG_1469

We looked, we didn’t look.  Someone said, “It’s so complicated,” and we looked and didn’t look, and people wondered what each other were thinking, who might feel sensitive about this, and we were tired and cheerful and going to dinner together and a little in love with each other and ourselves since we had brought our novels and no one cares about your novel, but these people did, they read part of it and talked to you about it– if for years you had vivid, poignant dreams every night and no one, ever, ever wanted to hear about them, but then, someone asked and actually wanted to know, it was like that.

I can only speak for myself but I was not in the mood to deal with world affairs, in fact, I was pretty pissed that the people of the middle east could not hold off on their insanity while I was on vacation, goddamnit.

They chanted and chanted.  We waited to cross the street, but I don’t know why.  It is a college town, and three-fourths empty in July.  I wanted to go.

After Iowa City, I stopped in Hannibal, Missouri.  I looked at the river.  It was too hot to look at it under the sun.  I walked up and down the road by the river and the train tracks, looking for a place that would sell me an apple.  They were all antique stores and ice cream shops and empty places.  I went into one tourist shop and they did have “fresh produce”: ears of corn and tomatoes.

I ate a sandwich and corn chips on the deck of a restaurant that was closed and a wasp floated in a corner.

I asked a couple to take my picture in front of one of the preserved buildings, Mark Twain’s dad’s law office.  The man took my picture.  He put his finger over part of the lens.  He asked me to take their photo. I did.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Russia,” he said.

“Oh, far from home.  How is your trip so far?”

“Good,” they said, and immediately walked away.  I wondered what they knew about Mark Twain.

I went into the gift shop and while I was looking around, a man told the woman at the counter that they were going to open the floodgates tomorrow, and I realized I didn’t know what that meant, that it was a real thing to do, open the floodgates.  I took a book and some stickers to the counter and the woman asked where I was from.

“Brooklyn,” I said.

“Oh,” she said.

“But I used to live in Kansas City, so I was nearby.”

“Oh,” she said.

I took my book to the coffeehouse down the street along the river, ordered a latte which came in a handmade mug.  I washed my hands in their bathroom, and the sink was handmade pottery, too, a shallow round bowl with blues and browns.  I opened my new book and read this:

The human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys– yet he has left it out of heaven!…From youth to middle age all men and all women prize copulation above all other pleasures combined, yet it is actually as I have said: it is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place.

I had to pee for a very long time of driving across Illinois, and pondered stopping and peeing in many, many cornfields and ditches, but finally came to a town barely big enough to have a gas station.  There were fifty motorcycles parked around it.  I rounded the corner to the bathroom and there were already six women in line.

The line for men was even longer, and a guy with patches on his leather vest that said Iraq, joked, “We knew that blonde lady would be coming in, and she really had to pee, so we all rushed in here and lined up.”

I asked where they were going.  He said they were on a ride to some memorial for someone who had died.  I was too shy to ask about this person who had died, but I liked that everyone there was in some informal community.

A little girl walked by, stood next to her mom, and the guy said, “You gotta get some on this wrist so you won’t fall over.”  He was pointing to her bracelets.  She didn’t say anything.  “You know, so they won’t be too heavy.”  The mom smiled and the girl didn’t say anything.  The girl walked away.

“Someday she’ll be like, what did he mean?” the mom said.

Eventually I got to pee and I thanked God that I had gotten to pee and didn’t buy anything at the Casey’s.  I just left.




Twain quote from Letters from the Earth, edited by Bernard DeVoto HarperPerennial, 1962.


moma astronautsMagritte made me think about vocabulary.

Magritte works in trunks (the human kind), tubes, clouds, wood, ball bearings, music, chess pieces, rocks.  Blues and browns and blacks and greys.

I work in animals, stained glass, shoulders and brown hair, houses, and glasses (the kind you drink out of).  I work in fairy tales and Bible stories.  There’s sparkle and glow and never a pastel in sight.

What you say is maybe less interesting than what you use to say it.

Once I got a rejection letter that read, “I think I know what you are trying to say, but I have no idea why you’re trying to say it that way.”  That’s right up there with, “Why don’t you tell us a story?”  I hated that teacher, cried twice a week after his class, and proceeded to spend the next twenty years following his advice.

My imagination is too active to like surrealism.  I have to work to get into this world, to touch real things.  I don’t need to be pulled out of my body, except for comfort.  Surrealism is supposed to be jarring.

Magritte paints a neck as a leg, a neck as a concrete pipe, and rearranges limbs in a way that reminds me: this is not inevitable.  The integrity of the body is delicate, always delicate in a way we don’t want to admit.  The hands of the little boy are growing, and the shoulder will bend forward, down.

What does he mean about trees, though, trees being made out of music?  How does he get away with superimposing his music trees in front of regular old painted trees?  With a shoe filled with hair instead of a woman?

Just playing with his vocabulary, perhaps.

The vocabulary becomes the precious thing, too.  Emily Dickinson’s garden, her flowers and bees and grasses.  John Irving’s bears and condoms.

Hard to know, though, when you are trapped in your usual materials, when they are crutches, when you have to go looking for new ones.

I went to St. Patrick’s after seeing the Magritte show.  It is nearby.  St. Patrick’s is choked with scaffolding right now.  When I walked in, a man handed me a bulletin and I found a plastic chair behind the wooden pews that hadn’t yet been removed.

Once I sat, I saw that I had chosen the same row as St. John’s altar.  I was going to go by there anyway.

About twenty years ago, I was in Manhattan, and my shoes started to give me a blister.  Oxford kind of shoes, black ones.  I bought some espadrilles, because they were cheap.  When I got up to leave, I accidentally left my old shoes.  I always wished someone was sitting there praying for size 8 shoes.

Image from MoMA lobby on that same visit.  The Magritte show doesn’t allow photos.  Link below to images of show.



Told there would be a dance, I tried not to get too excited.  The crowd is mostly white, and writers are pathologically tangled in their heads.  Yet at the first sign of music, several white haired ladies are dancing all around like they’re at Woodstock.  Then more and more folks.  The DJ loves Stevie Wonder.  Gee.  I danced with him (the DJ, not Mr. Wonder)– he knew how to twirl, spool out and back, and narrated the process (let’s send you out, and then you do this), which was as odd as it was appropriate, in this town.

My main partner in crime was a woman from Argentina who was lusciously beautiful, simply dressed and robust and loosely postured, as we always imagine exotic, cultured women.  She was a short story person.  I had to write down my name so she would understand it.  “Ah, Lis, like from Aylissabet.”  Seeing us together, someone asked me, “Are you from Buenos Aires, too?”  Uh, not exactly.  One of my classmates teased me for chatting up the only black guy there.  I corrected (even better!): Egyptian guy.  I did not find out if Egyptians dance.  He pleaded injury.

A few of us chatted after DJ closed up the laptop.  I am old enough to contribute: classical musicians are really uptight.  Don’t try to be like them.  You can’t judge your own work.  And: you can’t worry about making yourself create something great, all you can do is keep yourself in shape, and churning things out, and do the best you can with what you are given.  You may not be given what Shakespeare was given, but that doesn’t mean your little work, or your mediocre book, won’t be critically important to someone else on the planet.  Lots of mediocre books, books somewhat clumsy in the writing or problematic or predictable of plot, are precious to me.  You just never know.

A younger writer brought up some of these issues, and it was again nice to see what I have learned, and how I’ve lived like I believe it.  Also: if you’re in the arts to feed your ego, you’ll only get more and more unhappy as time goes on.  If you’re in it to shave the ego down, you’ll get happier and happier.

We walked down to the river, and around and around, crossing and crossing, chatting easily.  There were four of us, two women, two men.  The younger couple split off to look for fireflies.  I hoped that he would kiss her.  I thought he might.  I walked back with the older guy–who is coupled anyway– so nothing was at stake.  We had a great talk, and the comfort I’ve gotten here from talking with so many people who are so much like me is almost, almost better than falling in love.  It’s less scary, that’s for sure, and almost as exciting.

Days 2/3 (Not two-thirds)

The important thing is that my teacher is nice.  You didn’t care about niceness, and then you do.  Then it’s really all that matters.

Coffee and work, lunch and reading, class.  Day two I snagged some people to have dinner with– long, easy, witty, long-lost relations banter we had over wine and martinis and food that never got to go nowhere but a few miles, field to table.  How sad for it.  We toasted our future fame and talked about how we all fantasize about our book jacket photos.  It was just so comfortable.  I’ve never felt like I was part of a group of serious writers without feeling threatened and awkward and self-conscious.  So just that was probably worth the grand I’m throwing at this.

Day three I went dreamier and wandered about.  Didn’t try too hard to pick anyone up, and didn’t.  Explored: junk shop, bookstore, river.  They have lots of fireflies here.  I think I’ve caught fireflies before, somewhere, sometimes.  Don’t remember.  Tonight I spent a good long four minutes up close and personal with one.  He was standing aloft a blade of grass like it was no big thing.  They also have ducks in the river, which pleases me a great deal.  Ducks are just precious to me.

We tried to show our teacher we were not dumb on day 2.  I tried to show I was brilliant, funny, and easy to get along with.  Check.  Today we “workshopped” (awful verb) the first piece.  We all watched carefully to see if our teacher would be kind.  He was.  I told Exhibit A why, personally, I connected to the material– her story resembles my father’s, and in certain ways, my own.  It’s kind of a girl thing to do, but seriously, why did you write something?  Not to have people tell you how to fix it.  People seem to want our teacher to “teach” us.  He seems to do only as much teaching as he needs to, maybe a wee bit more.  Mostly people should teach themselves.  He never makes us read our exercises, which is odd.  At Writing Project we HAD to read, right away, and it hurt bad, real bad, until I didn’t care anymore.  Like how guitarists get left-hand callouses.  Like how boxers toughen up.  It was ultimately good and incredibly quieting to the ego.  I wrote it.  Whatever.  I wrote it.

We jockey to see who gets to talk the most.  There are six of us.  Three of us barrel on (me included) while three are quieter.  I couldn’t be sure I’d be a loud one.  Usually it takes me a long time to get comfortable with new people, but I’ve worked with so many people on so much writing now, I think I know what’s helpful and how to do it.

Mostly here I am finding that I was right: getting an MFA, or studying your art in college, is expensive, and for me, would be a waste of time.  You would meet people.  You would get to drink with them, bond.  But I learned to write from reading, studying paintings, movies, my life, traveling, teaching, crying, screaming, my friends.  I haven’t heard anything here that was news to me.  It’s just about having company.  Here it is very normal to be sitting and writing, or marking up manuscripts.  It’s so normal, it’s kind of scary.  When I was younger, this much fitting in would really threaten my ego.  Experience managing the ego is critical here.  I’m glad I have a pretty solid leash on the sucker.  Down, boy.  Back.  Smile.

Writing Teacher Contract

This is what works for me, and I think it will work for you:

1. I won’t read your first draft.  I don’t ask anyone to read mine.  As  Aaron Neville would say, “Baby, my time is too expensive.”  I’ll give you points for those first few paragraphs, and then send you off to write more.  Tricking the ego into doing the annoying repetitive work is critical to human progress.  That’s why I get a special delicious coffee drink before I confront that stack of grading.

2. I will write “good” on your paper somewhere, even if I have to keep rub my temples and wail like Job to come up with anything that is even slightly good about it.  You are where you are, and everybody needs a warm-up of encouragement before they get suggestions.  (Exception: you clearly, clearly threw the assignment, and I know you well enough to know that.)

3. You want love?  Show me love.  The more you work, the more I’ll work for you.  I’ll give you several opportunities to hand in early drafts, and if you do it, I’ll read it immediately, even if the class is only sort of on task.  It’s more important to give you timely, thoughtful feedback– even one minute of it– than to yank the yahoos back.  The earlier you get pointed in the right direction, the better off you’ll be.  And I like to reward slow and steady.  It works.

3. I will only consider your ideas in your early drafts.  If your ideas are lame, or don’t make sense, no one cares about the other stuff.  I don’t need to correct grammar on student papers to feel smart.  I have the New York Times crossword for that.

4. I won’t tell you a hundred things to fix.  I won’t fix the same thing ten times if you did it ten times.  I did not go to college to do the same work Spellcheck can do.  And four suggestions are more likely to be absorbed than a dozen.

5. I won’t sit and ponder your work for hours.  (In the real world, no one will, unless they’re trying to sleep with you or get added to your will, or until you’re famous.)  I’m a great skimmer, so if I don’t quickly get what you’re saying, it’s almost always because you didn’t say it very well.

6. I will spend way more time offering suggestions than evaluating (in edspeak, formative rather than summative).  You getting a number grade does little to improve your writing.  If you’re skillful, it makes you arrogant.  If you suck, it just discourages you.

7. There will be time in class to work, especially at the beginning.  A shop teacher doesn’t assign students to build birdhouses at home. If you are learning a process, you need help while you are doing it, not just when you are done.

8. As much as possible, I’ll write in the margins, underline and circle, rather than cross out or otherwise deface your work.

9. I will write with the pen that is most convenient for me.  Red shows up better because you didn’t write in red.  No one did.  If having red ink on your work strikes you as traumatic, then get down on your knees and thank God that you’ve had such a charmed life.