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I dreamt I was standing in the back of a church with friends. It was an informal gathering, the preacher in work clothes, chin unshaved. The congregation began singing a hymn I didn’t know, then faltered between stanzas. My voice filled the silence with an aria, as it never would in waking life. Reaching the top of the crescendo, I realized I was singing alone. Clasping both hands over my mouth, eyes wide with embarrassment and shame, I searched the faces of congregation members who would not meet my eye. The preacher spoke. “Obama wants you to find your voice.”
Don’t ask me what I think that means. Two possibilities. I have been more outspoken in my support for Obama than I have been for any cause in my lifetime. I am willing to risk differing with a close friend because there is so much at stake. What’s crucial is that we have a Democrat in office. But I feel strongly that Obama offers hope for healing our country that the Clinton machine can’t. Hillary, with her dirty tactics, snide remarks, lies that make her look “silly” to the global community, is not what we need. Obama’s on higher ground.
The other possibility is my acute awareness that I have not found my authentic voice in the book I’m writing. I don’t feel I’m writing with authority, a clear vision of where I’m going. I’d always thought if I didn’t have to work full time I’d spend entire days writing. Now I find I need to steal bits of time where I can, to write quickly, to get something down before having to stop to do something else. I find it impossible to balance my need for exercise, social interaction and promoting my business with my true goal of writing.
My voice has never been strong, and with age it gets weaker. It cracks, doesn’t have the breath behind it to hold a long note or even to finish a sentence at times. This would be the time to use my voice on paper, bring stories and characters to life on the page, gather the wisdom I’ve gained through the years to inform my readers with deep insight. But words escape me, fall flat on the page. Where’s the sparkling prose, the story building gradually and dramatically toward a climax, then bringing it around full circle to a satisfied “ahhh.”
My deepest fear, one I know is common among writers, is that I have gained no wisdom nor useful insights to share with my readers, if indeed any exist. I fear being shallow on the page, having nothing to offer. It’s this very fear that I coach my clients to master, telling them, as Brenda Ueland did in
If You Want to Write
, “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say…” I believe those words when they refer to someone else. Why can’t I believe them for myself? My life has been interesting. I have stories to tell.
I picked up a used copy of Judith Barrington’s book on memoir writing and it has helped to clarify the focus for my book. I have a clear direction and purpose now. In addition, I began a memoir I’ve wanted to write for some time, regarding the relationship between my son and my mother. I now know how to frame it, how to limit it so it doesn’t sprawl into the swampy territory of other family grievances and regrets. I feel renewed and invigorated. Yesterday I was into the flow of it. Today I haven’t touched it. So it goes.
It’s time to move on, concentrate on electing the Democratic nominee in the general election. Before I do, I must express my total disgust with Hillary’s petulant, childish, arrogant behavior in not acknowledging her defeat, her refusal to congratulate the winner and put her support behind the man who had been nothing but gracious and generous with her. It was his hard-won moment. It was historic. Her final insult, keeping her supporters, the media, and viewers, who took time out of their Saturday to watch her speech, waiting for 45 minutes, no apology, showed no class. No style. Spoiled brat.
I introduced a cat into our relationship. Bill has never owned a pet nor wanted to. I built up to it for a year and finally made my move. Off to the pet shelter, a room full of cats, some rubbing against his leg, one jumping into his lap, a needy black female named Oprah Winfrey constantly reaching out with her paw demanding attention. We chose a 9-month-old black-and-white, calm, curious, playful, a little aloof. Bill is head-over-heels in love with little Gracie. She adds a new dimension, a clown that makes us laugh and expands our love to three.
Kitty reality intruded on the honeymoon period with Gracie. She threw up on the bed last night. Twice. I found a corner of carpet she had pulled up and strands of carpet pile strewn about (possibly the cause of the mess on the bed). Kitty discipline is a must—firm, immediate and decisive. This required some training of Gracie’s male parent. Picking her up, stroking her lovingly and saying gently, “No, Gracie,” won’t do the trick. She doesn’t understand words, she understands tone of voice and a dominant finger on her forehead. A cold shoulder in return, but then compliance.
At a streetcar stop in downtown Portland a young woman approached carrying a black presentation folder. She opened it, took a pen out of an inside pocket, leaving papers inside, and thrust the folder firmly into the trash can. She then opened a spiral notebook, revealing pages filled with handwritten notes, and tore them out one by one, thrusting each into the trash. There’s a story here. The streetcar was in sight. I wanted so badly to stay behind, take the pages and the folder out and read them. But it was 53 degrees and drizzling, and I was late…
I think I know now why so many writers drink. I’ve been so buttoned up, the right side of my brain making lists, creating spreadsheets, making decisions based on best bid. Tonight we went out to dinner and I had a glass of wine, something I don’t often do. The random music selections over the sound system covered the bland decades, 70s, 80s, 90s—the time immediately following divorce from my first husband. It was a time of euphoria, emerging from under a black cloud into bright sunshine, seeing colors in sharp contrast, experiencing the full range of emotions. (Continued)
It was a Dire Straits song that triggered it, The Walk of Life. It brought back that time in the sunshine, when my life was my own, I was free to make my own decisions. I was young and pretty, it wasn’t hard to find dates. It was also a difficult time with two boys, one 12 the other 5. One blue-skied crystal cold morning, with light flooding into my apartment I decided to sign my older son and me up for skiing lessons. We went on Friday nights after work to Mt. Hood and learned in the icy dark.
On the way to the mountain Peter would turn the radio on to his favorite station and I heard Bon Jovi, Cindy Lauper, Boy George. My husband liked to brag that if Ferrante and Teicher didn’t play it he didn’t know it. I tuned out much of the music Peter played, but certain songs became attached to the time and that wonderful feeling of freedom, that fleeting time we shared something special. Now when my defenses are down, sipping a glass of wine, one of those songs can send me back, awash in memories of feeling so alive and optimistic.
In that moment at the restaurant something opened up inside me and I felt that I had rare access to the kind of emotion that has been missing from my life and from my writing. I felt the colors, the electricity in the air that cold January morning when anything was possible. I stood at the top of the mountain with my son, the one I’d always had a difficult, fragile relationship with, and together we sailed down the hill. He was fearless, I was terrified. He teased me and we laughed—he had the upper hand for once. (Continued)
Life wasn’t always as clear and sunny as the days on the mountain I so fondly remember. There were dark times, with little money, job problems, loneliness and difficult relationships. It was during those same sparkling winter days that my closest friend and mentor died. My grief was as profound as the heights my joy soared to, but even then I savored the gift of more intense, wider ranging emotions. I recall one evening while sitting in my rocker overcome with grief for my lost friend, Peter went to the kitchen and made dinner. Hamburger patties and macaroni and cheese.
If I talk more about Peter, it’s because my relationship with him is more complex than the one I have with Adrian. I was not married when I had Peter. I met and married LeRoy when Peter was three. He was a harsh and abusive stepfather. Soon after we moved in together, Peter came to me and said, “do you remember when it was just you and me and you loved me?” That was the beginning of a difficult, painful childhood for a sweet, loving but challenging child. My mother tried to make up for LeRoy’s cruelty by spoiling him.
I let her spoil him because I felt guilty about his treatment at home, but soon it got out of hand. I would set limits and Grandma would erase them. If I wouldn’t give Peter what he wanted, he’d go to Grandma knowing she’d give it to him. One New Year’s day when Peter was seven, I was resting while the baby slept and the phone rang. It was the police telling me they’d found Peter on I-205 walking to his grandmother’s house. My guilt dug deeper. My angry husband warned, “You’re going to have big trouble with that kid.”
I don’t know exactly what prayer is, but I have an urge, leftover from my Baptist childhood, to seek direction, forgiveness, or simply a sympathetic ear in which to pour my longings and fears. Those prayers always begin with the word please—please grant me this favor, that this pain will not be cancer, that I get this job I need so badly, that my son will finally find his way. But I no longer believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing being who manages the intimate details of every life on earth, or at least the lives of those who send…
…their pleas heavenward. What about the woman who has prayed regularly, done good works, helped those less fortunate who now prays to be found in the rubble of an earthquake, her breath caught in her throat letting no oxygen through to her lungs? These are not the details that keep me from believing. I don’t want to argue—I’ve heard it all, examined the reasons to believe. When I went to work for a Presbyterian conference center I thought, “Maybe this will bring me back to my parents’ religion.” I opened myself to it and it drove me further away…
…I don’t know exactly what prayer is but I still need to say please. Please let the killing stop. Please may there be a conscience that rules. The past seven years have deepened my doubt that any supreme intelligence influences events on earth. The brutality and cruelty of mankind toward each other has been evident since earliest time. The fight for survival, control over resources, domination over the earth and lower forms of life has created built-in obsolescence for our species. That there are people who believe the end should be hastened, counting on heavenly rewards leads me to despair.
But still, deep in my heart, I believe it can be turned around, that an enlightened leader will emerge and bring sanity, harmony, equal rights and enough food for all. This leader will heal the earth, science will move forward again, our schools will have the best teachers and students will all have the opportunity for higher education. There will be no need for wars; conflicts will be settled by peaceful negotiations. Evolution is still in an early phase and we will grow beyond this primitive state. This is a flesh-and-blood human leader, not one that requires faith in impossibilities.
Bill, on the other hand, envisions himself held in a prison camp for dissenters. His knowledge of history is better than mine—there’s peace in ignorance and naïveté. Still, when you look at the depth of malevolence in our current leadership: the torture and rendition, the disappearance of people with no proof of their guilt—often with overwhelming evidence of their innocence. Now we learn they are testing drugs with side effects leading to suicide on unsuspecting troops returning from Iraq. On troops who served in an illegal war, who were maimed, psychologically damaged for life. Now they’re guinea pigs.
This is the thanks we give those heroes who selflessly served two, three tours in a combat zone without adequate equipment or protective gear? Are the people who dreamed up the idea of using them as guinea pigs the same ones who sit complacently in chambers and vote against the new GI Bill because it might encourage enlistees not to serve as long? As if they might have wanted to re-enlist and live under the endless threat of more deployments to the hell hole that Bush and his tribe created. And now they want to bomb Iran. Just say no.
If all our hope is tied up in this one candidate, I’m beginning to be afraid. I put all my trust in him, he’s so inspiring. But since the moment he became the presumptive nominee he has made one decision after another that sends up many red flags: a Wal-Mart executive as economic adviser, tax cuts for middle class (we can’t afford tax cuts!), pro-NAFTA, and now, the ultimate sin, voting for the FISA bill. Is he beholding to telecoms? Is he a neo-con in disguise? Is he just trying to get elected so he can institute his progressive changes?
Would anyone in their right mind have a houseguest in the midst of a full-swing kitchen remodel? Of course not. Which explains exactly why that’s what we’re doing. No sink, no counters, no appliances.
Nancy is a dear friend from Tennessee I met while living in Asheville. She’s a most versatile artist, a Renaissance woman, and she inspires me to branch out from writing, to pick up my flute again, experiment with water colors. She teaches me to shop for designer bargains in thrift shops and dress like I’m one of the elite; to exchange drab for “look at me!”
Nancy has positive energy, sees the world as a fresh creation each day. She opens her arms wide to take it all in, fluffs her curly hair and breathes deep. The world looks at her—there’s something special there, what is it, how can I find it, where does it come from? Did she one day make up her mind to look at the full glass knowing that by the end of the day it would be overflowing? It didn’t come from a privileged childhood, that I know. I’d drink from the source if I knew where to find it.
The perfect house guest is self-sufficient and, once acquainted with the routine, fits herself into it. That’s Nancy. But even better, she pays her own way, is never a burden and contributes drawings of us, watercolors of the bouquet she bought for us at the farmer’s market, and gives us flute and painting lessons. Her energy is so much greater than mine; I feel guilty because I can’t keep up, am not in shape. She thrives on being constantly with people, on the go. I need to refuel by being alone, quiet time reading. I can rest after she leaves.
The kitchen remodel grows tiresome, wearing. The living room jammed with stove, dishwasher, kitchen table and chairs. The dining table covered with dishes, silverware, all the debris that clutters kitchen countertops and drawers that you can’t throw away. We squeeze past the dishwasher with its foil-covered insulation to eat carry-out at the table, move things aside on the coffee table to do our painting lesson. But it’s so…so…unlovely. It’s not how you want to present your new life to an old friend. Even one who’s so forgiving, so willing to roll with it. Kitchen remodel? No problem. A great adventure!
Oregon does have heat waves; usually not until August, though. 101 degrees in June is a record, an unfortunate anomaly for visitors from out of state. We trimmed down our agenda for the day, accomplishing as much as we could in the early hours so we could stay inside with the AC on when it got seriously hot.
Inside, where the house is topsy-turvy. What was I thinking? The long-delayed remodel was launched spontaneously when my son, doing the general contracting, found contractors with gaps in their schedules and got super-good prices. It’s moving at record speed, cheap. Who’s complaining?
Why do I feel a need to remake myself when I’m with Nancy? Have I still not accepted who I am? I’m not an extrovert and that’s OK. I’m quiet, low key. My interests are reading, writing, going to concerts and movies. I’m not Nancy; I can be friends with Nancy and remain who I am, can’t I? I sometimes feel I need to remake myself in her image. I end up buying clothes I’ll never wear, putting on jewelry I haven’t worn in 30 years, applying eye makeup timidly so it’s barely visible. I’m just me and it’s OK.
The Tip Jar