The Writing Life

The Bee in the Window: On Friendship and the Creative Life

The bee, a faux stained-glass sticker, hangs on the corner of my home office window courtesy of Gigi, my college roommate and forever soul mate and all-around crafty gem. Poor old thing (the bee, not Gigi) has lost its buzz over the past decade as I’ve peeled it off for—count ‘em—three cross-state moves. Its wings and body are worn thin with holes, the yellow and gold colors faded from years in sunlight, one antenna lopped in half. On the surface, nothing remarkable. Just a kitschy gift from a funny, dear friend.

Except for the story that goes with it.

*

One night, about fifteen years ago, Gigi and I went to a gathering at the downtown Phoenix apartment of a fellow I was dating. Gigi, lovely, thoughtful person that she is, brought alcohol and a festive little gift: a homemade window-cling bee, which she stuck in that fella’s kitchen window over the sink. At some point, we partygoers left our things and walked to a nearby bar. Long story short, at some point that fellow started ignoring me and flirting mightily with another woman. Ugh. So we beat it the heck out there—only to realize that Gigi’s purse, with the car keys inside, was back at his apartment. No way was I going back in to ask him for a g-d thing. What could we do?

“Break in,” Gigi said.

“No, wait,” I said, half-running to keep up as she launched herself back toward the apartment. The girl cheetah-walks, even though she’s only 5’2 on a good day. Despite this height fact, she also always believes she’s as tall as the tallest person in the room.

At the apartment, Gigi rattled the door and then tested the window. Jackpot.

She slid the window open. “Gimme a leg up,” she said.

“No way,” I said. “We’ll get in trouble—“

She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “Bryn. Give me a leg up.”

You don’t argue with those eyebrows. I leaned down and cupped my hands. She stepped into my palms, and I hoisted her up. She scrambled inside the window in full view of a busy street, tumbling over the stereo on the way down. She grabbed her purse and started back toward the window but then stopped. She turned back to the kitchen. She ripped that bee off and then climbed back out the window with what I recall as one badass, long-legged, superhero hop to the ground.

She slammed the window shut and pressed the bee into my palm. She nodded. “Let’s go.”

Yep. She was taller than everyone who ever lived.

*

That little bee has traveled with me from Phoenix, AZ, to Nashville, TN, to Montevallo, Alabama, and now to Charlotte, NC. It’s always in my writing window, right in my line of sight when I look up from typing.

Of course the literal story never fails to make me laugh when I remember it, but as Flannery O’Connor said, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.”

On the eve of my first book’s official publication, I find myself heart-swollen with what that bee reminds me, sometimes exhorts me:

  • Writing is solitary, but you are not alone. You have a hive, and all your people are (ahem) the bee’s freakin’ knees.
  • The families and friends you love are far away, but they are not gone.
  • The families and friends you love who are gone are still present. In memory, in imagination, on the page.
  • Call your friends. Call your mother and siblings. Send them an email or card just for the heck of it. Tell them, now, what they mean to you. (I love you to the tops of the tulip poplars and beyond, past the broken eggshell of a moon, past Pluto with her giant waiting heart, you splendid, lovely sons-of-guns.)
  • Stare out the window. A lot.
  • Don’t take shit.
  • Fight hard for what’s important, for what you love.
  • You are as tall as those others in the room, so keep on writing, love.
  • Sometimes the world will sting hard and mean in the tenderest of places, and there’s not a thing you can do but weep.
  • “There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.” –Leonard Cohen
  • You will be afraid. Do it anyway.
  • Give someone a leg up when they need it. Reach back and offer a hand.
  • Say thank you and mean it.
  • You live in a house.
  • You live in a house where you have your own window.
  • You live in a house with another human being who makes art across the hall and who also makes you mixtapes and greets you over dinner with stories about starrrrr stuff and news and jokes and other miraculous things from his bright bonfire of an imagination.
  • “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” –Walker Evans
  • You are g-d fortunate to be here, bumbling around this bewildering honeycomb of a life.
The bee.

The bee.

Maps and legends

Oh, little blog, I’ve neglected you so. If you were a garden, you’d be a shriveled, gasping mess of brown stems and dry soil that loose cats have turned into a litterbox. Oops.

As usual when I sit down here after an absence, I’m all over the place, squirming and twitchy, struggling to make order out of my disordered thoughts, coherence from chaos. My tumult this time is in part because I have literally been all over the place of late. This year has thrummed with newness: new job, new city, new book coming out, new draft of new book under the belt. Since May, I’ve traveled across or touched down in eight states, including maneuvering a clodhopper of a moving truck through rush-hour Atlanta traffic during record heat. All of this has been wonderful, fortunate news, every last crumb of it, even the ATL at rush hour.

But I’m also reeling, disoriented. In my new city, I have to map every errand, every restaurant outing, and even my walks around the neighborhood. I’ve taken more than one wrong turn (even though we adopted the motto “no wrong turns”). When I get lost, I pull over and pinch back tears at the frustration of missing a turn AGAIN, of not recognizing street names or buildings or skylines. At the same time, my internal map is something of a palimpsest, onion-skinned, with scratches and traces of my past rising beneath. In my new streets, I see the places I know, where I’ve been and what I’ve left behind. I sink colorful thumbtacks into their familiar, soft cork spaces to make myself feel lodged, safe. Simultaneously I miss them, wistful and melancholy for what is no longer there, for what I have to let go.

Come to think of it, the whole moving-to-a-new-place thing feels a little like — wait for it! — fiction writing.

At first, every story is a sprawling unknown, a big blank page of a world. You land in this alien story place because something good lured you here: a voice, maybe (As a child, she slept with the cats), a word (gristle? apple butter?), or an image, say of an old woman digging in her garden and cursing at the neighbor’s cat. But who the heck is she? Where is she? What the hell kind of tree is that? Who knows! Not you! Nothing makes sense. You have no idea what you’re doing here or how you’ll ever figure it out. You drive in circles, spin your wheels.

But then you spend a little more time in the story. You get out of the car, shuffle down the avenue of its particulars. You look around. You look closer. The tree, what could it be? Mesquite? So maybe we’re out West — maybe northern Arizona again. Look again. Look closer. That woman digging in the garden next to the mesquite and cussing out the cat? Let’s see. Maybe she’s recently retired from her job as a grocery store manager and lost her own cat recently. You notice her hair, yanked back into a messy bun. She’s younger than you first thought. Late forties, early fifties. Why is she alone? Where’s her family?

You wander around in the opening scene, getting down the details of the yard, the physical struggle of digging in dry dirt with a bent spade splintered along the handle. You’ve done this before, this wandering, in the last story, and the story before, and the one before that. You know these mean streets. It hits you then: Daughter, gone. Dead? No, not dead. Just grown, moved away. Empty nest for a single mom. Okay. Okay. Recently retired woman who’s newly grown daughter has left her alone, feral cat driving her nuts. Thumbtack there and there. What else? What’s the engine? What could happen? What about that next door neighbor, owner of the cat?

New scene: Woman — at wit’s end because of cat, lonely, hands covered in garden soil — bangs on neighbor’s door. The door opens. And who might this be?

There. You’ve got the barest sketch of a map, a legend penciled in the corner. Fold it, put it in your pocket, and take it with you when you step out the front door and explore more of this place. Soon you won’t need it. Soon you’ll walk out the door and know where you’re going. Eventually, you’ll find your way.

Final days at Jentel: Draft 1, Done!

Yesterday, in my fourth week at Jentel, with three days left in my residency, this happened…

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Draft 1: Done! Clocking in at about 250 pages (77,500 words), about 150 of them written at Jentel. It must be official if it’s in dry-erase marker.

…while I was working here:

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The Sunset writer’s studio at Jentel.

So today, I did this to celebrate…

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Lake DeSmet, about 5.5 miles from Jentel up Lower Piney Creek Road. That fine little bike’s name is Genevieve; she belongs to the awesome writer and artist Jill Foote-Hutton, who was kind enough to let me borrow her.

…knowing that I still have lots and lots of work to do to before the book is actually finished.

Still, this place…

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View from Jentel, looking toward Lower Piney Creek Road.

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The endless permutation of clouds and sky.

…has been a little bit of magic, and I…

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Walking out on “The Road.”

… am forever indebted and grateful.

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Radio interview, more Jentel pics

I recently spoke with the wonderful Anne Kimzey, Literary Arts Program Manager at the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and the radio interview has been posted. I was super fortunate to receive an ASCA fellowship for 2015, which has been such a boon. A million thanks again to ASCA and to Anne for taking the time to talk with me–and for all that she and ASCA do on behalf of the literary arts statewide.

You can hear me talk about the fellowship, read a little, and ramble on about who knows what else here.

ps I’m still at the Jentel Artist Residency. Working at a fast and furious pace here in my final week. Have written 100 new pages (!!!) so far, trying to get the rest down. The pages are MESSY, but they’re there. The bones of a draft.

For now, here are a few more pictures from Jentel. No way I can describe the view and do it justice.

 

Writing studio

Writing studio

Studio and story board (with extremely comfy recliner).

Studio and story board (with extremely comfy recliner).

Jentel mailbox and entrance.

Jentel mailbox and entrance.

A querulous-looking-but-actually-happy me out on a walk. We have to wear orange vests to be visible on the road. Quite the fashion accessory.

A querulous-looking-but-actually happy me out on a walk. We have to wear orange vests to be visible on the road. Quite the fashion accessory.

The cows are very curious and skeptical of pedestrians. And vocal!

The cows are very curious and skeptical of pedestrians.

Sunset while walking in "The 1,000," ie the 1,000 acres behind the residence.

Sunset while walking in “The 1,000,” i.e. the 1,000 acres behind the residence.

Moon over The 1,000.

Moon over The 1,000.

My view from Jentel

I have arrived at the Jentel Artist Residency for my May 15-June 13 writer’s residency, and all I can say is: Holy smokes.

I’m attaching some photos to give a sense of the place; I will try to post more in the next month although it might not be until I’m home because I’m going to keep my head down and write as much as I can on this book thing I’m trying to make. Right now, I’m about doubled over with gratitude for the chance to be here. Thanks again to the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for this tremendous opportunity.

Here’s a look at where I am:

My beautiful writer’s studio:

Jentel writer's studios

Jentel writer’s studios

The writer's studio where I'll be for four weeks

The writer’s studio where I’ll be for four weeks

The view from my writing studio

The view from my writing studio

The living quarters, a gorgeous space that houses six residents:

Jentel living quarters

Jentel living quarters

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Jentel shared living room, with views–and a telescope!

 

Jentel kitchen

Jentel kitchen

Jentel residents' shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

Jentel residents’ shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

View from the bath

View from the bath

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

 

The cusp, or, I am not a tree

I’ve had the word “cusp” — “a point of transition between two different states,” according to my handy-dandy New Oxford American — floating around my brain for weeks now. I say it under my breath, savoring its punch, its shift from hard to hissing to plush. This is partly to blame on my morning habit of writing about what’s outside my office window. In the past few weeks, all I could see was a world on the cusp as bare branches grew knobby with buds, as early bloomers (a term I never understood until I moved here) poked their heads out of the earth, shivering in the still-cold dawns. This short, taut moment between winter and spring is one of my favorite things about the South. As I watch those ripening buds, the hints of yellow-green shoots and blooms, I swear I can almost hear a thrum in the air as dormant life stirs, ready to awaken.

The cusp also is a state in which I find myself living these days. Long story short, I recently accepted a new creative-writing teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and so TW and I will be moving to Charlotte this summer. We are selling our sweet little house and leaving our little town, our friends and colleagues from the past six years, my teaching position at the University of Montevallo. This offer and decision has been full of stunning loveliness and gratitude and humility and excitement and tender sadness all at once.

Oh, and don’t forget the anxiousness and fear.

Now that I think about it, perhaps “cusp” isn’t the right word for my state. Maybe I’m just after “uncertain” or “upheaval” or “night terrors.” I’m stressed in small, practical ways and large, existential ways, which means that I’m eating my way through carbohydrates like bleach through cotton. (Oh, and I’m turning 44 in a couple of weeks. Something about being divisible by 11 is freaking me out.)

Ultimately I am not a tree (as far as I know), and here’s thing about trees: they are not terrified about their transition (as far as I know! Maybe they’re like, holy shit, the buds again!). By the end of the change, they’re still trees. As for me, by the end of it all, I will still be human (sadly not a tree), and so I have a few teeny, tiny, cusp-y human questions: What kind of human? Who will I be there? The same as I am here, or was before? And who the heck am I, anyway, here at 44, divisible by 11? How did we all get here? What does it all mean?

Perhaps the word I want is “midlife.”

Okay, okay. Then I remember to breathe for a minute. Oxygen, carbon dioxide. Tree-like but in reverse. I get out the notebook, write it down. I scratch off a few tasks on the to-do list.

What I need to learn to do is trust the cusp. In writing, this is essential: learning to wait, learning to see and listen to what the story wants to be, not what I want it to be. The tree will be a tree.

I look out my window at a natural world no longer in transition. It’s fully spring now out there now, fully awake, bursting with bright, brassy newness. Soon I will have to say goodbye to this view that I have grown to love, that has become part of who I am in ways that I don’t even understand yet. But I know, I know, I know that soon, I’ll find a new view. A new season. And who knows what I’ll see.

Dispatches from my window, or, adjusting the blinds

Early in the new year, I got up too early (after duking it out with my old pal Insomnia) and watched the sun rise. Squinting in the dawn light, I started writing in my notebook, a crucial activity that I had let slide in the past few months as I tumbled down the hole of work and living. Both my fingers and mind were stiff as I scratched at the page. I wrote, M Jan. 5, 2015, 6:30 a.m. Watching the sun rise through the bare oaks. The sky gray as a dog’s belly, bare trees falling out of silhouette and into being. This is not my land but it is my view now. Just a little description, no big deal, but for some reason it clicked for me, and I decided then that I would do this every morning. Every single day, I would start the day here, looking out the same window, the same exact view, before I am fully awake, before anything else (except coffee, natch). I would do it first, no matter how much the day’s demands pounded at my door.

And so I have. For the past 41 days, I have gotten my coffee, opened the blinds (even when it is still dark), sat down, opened my notebook, picked up a pen, and started writing. I often begin just by staring out the window, trying to note what’s out there and get down a few details. I mentally termed this Dispatches from my Window. Among the scintillating things I’ve noted on various days: Lopsided moon still hanging over sky to west. Hoof prints in neighbor’s grass. Sky whitens, tinged with orange low behind trees. Trash bins hunkered on side of road, ripe with neighbors’ lives.  Clear husk of a spider, hanging from old web, trapped in storm window. Rawness of winter trees, so exposed and still. Sky pale blue, clean as a plate. Cats running loose, investigating drainage holes, crouching for mice.

Now, who the heck knows if I will ever use these details. Maybe I can cherry pick or pluck them out whole; we’ll see. Or maybe they’ll spark something else. Actually, they already have. Though I begin by detailing what’s outside, I have found that the act of writing and describing leads me inside, including to the novel that I’m working on. At one point I wrote, Rain-soaked free newspapers lay in driveways like dead fish. Makes me think of butcher shop at [parents’] store, waxy white paper, slabs of meat. Speaking of stores: maybe get into some of those shops more [in new novel]. More than half of the entries so far include notes and questions about characters, brief scenes and possibilities. I’ve actually done some good outlining and the ever-amorphous “figuring out” in those notes, which I hope to bring into the writing later.

Of course, not every morning is particularly productive. I’m mostly comatose during the first cup of coffee, doing all I can not to drool. Some days, my stressed brain is in overdrive, thoughts jumping and spinning until I fall into a kind of paralyzed nausea, my pen frozen above the page. When that happens, I’ve started getting out of my chair and adjusting the blinds for a new angle. The first time I did this, the metaphor practically boxed me on the ears, and I started laughing. Adjust your blinds,  you worried ol’ nincompoop. Take a deep breath and refocus. Get out of your pesky head and look around. Look outward. Tweak the light and get a new perspective.

Such note-taking doesn’t supplant the writing-writing, for which I am struggling to find time right now. But it helps clear the path to it, whacking away at the weeds of inactivity and doubt and fear. At the very least, I open the blinds and sit down to the page first, and that reminds me of what it means to put writing first. Then, I peer through the slats to see what in the world might be out there.

The dog will always bark

God damn dog is barking now and it is time to get to work anyways. … the amazing thing is that the work goes on. And one day it will be through. — John Steinbeck, from Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath

I first read Steinbeck’s Working Days, the diary he kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, many moons ago, when I first stumbled into this writing life in my late 20s. In rereading excerpts, I again found myself both fascinated and comforted by the mundane irritations and stunning insecurities that plagued Steinbeck as he, you know, WROTE A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Of course he didn’t know he was writing A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and that’s the beauty of it. He was just writing — puzzling out characters and timing, figuring out which scenes he’d tackle next. The notes about his doubts and insecurities, as well as the complaints about visitors and interferences and the neighbors’ g-d dog, are among the most reassuring things I have read as a writer. Not because the book turned out to be A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL but because of his persistence. Must go on, he writes after getting down what plagues him. Must work now. Might as well get to work. To work now.

That passage about the dog has stuck with me all these long years. In part this is because certain noises (barking dogs, leaf blowers, chainsaws, roaring trucks, clattering keyboards) drive me totally barking bananas, hitting my nerves in a weirdly primal way, making me want to screech and shake the trees of my habitat, hiss and chase and claw at the offending sound. I have since learned the wonders of high-speed tornado fans, earplugs, and headphones, but reading that a well-known writer struggled with noise made me feel less alone and crazy — a feeling I fight much of the time, as some (a lot) of us writers do.

Over time, I have come to think of Steinbeck’s dog more metaphorically. The dog is the day job, whining for you to take it out for a walk again. The dog is the rejection slip, pooping on your rug. The dog is your Inner Critic, snarling behind the fence. The dog is email and social media, yip yip yipping and biting your ankles. The dog is the blank page, wounded and yelping with a burr in its paw. The dog is envy. The dog is pettiness. The dog is white-hot fear. The dog is time, loping fast into the long distance. The dog, always barking, always keeping you from your day’s — your life’s — work.

Blocking this psychic barking is harder. There are no headphones (Sony, get on this, please). No fans on high will do the trick.

Some days will be bark-free; some days, the dog sleeps in the corner, sighing softly, chasing rabbits in its dreams. And there you are, bounding off into your imagination, unleashed.

Other days, well.

BARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARK.

I wish I had tried-and-true tips, a handy-dandy checklist of how to quiet the noise. As with so much in writing, we have to figure out works individually. For me — and this is so bloomin’ obvious that of course I always forget it — it helps to write about it. Like, duh. Steinbeck’s journals are a model of this; they not only depict the struggle but also show how he worked through it. Write down the fears, the irritations, the questions. Get them out of your mind, onto the page. Let them go. Feel the tension dissolve as the dog slinks off into his corner.

Music’s good, too, something to distract the part of your brain that has zeroed in on the barking. Reading helps sometimes, going back over your own words, lulling yourself into a quieter state.

This doesn’t mean that we ever will have perfect quiet, the perfect setting or circumstances. To demand that is its own kind of dog, one who will go hungry.

We just need to find the point at which we can say: it is time to get to work anyways. Must go on. To work now.

Wishing everyone a creative, joyous 2015. To quote Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan: Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes.

BC

The light at the window

As a longtime wake-in-the-night insomniac, I have become obsessed these past few hectic months with the edge of my bedroom window. Not the whole window, just the right vertical strip that I can see from behind the blackout curtains when I’m lying in bed. This slip of window has become my gauge. No light: too early, go back to sleep or woe to you the rest of the day. Soft blue-gray glow: almost daybreak; if no more sleep, day sucky but survivable. Brighter gray glow: sun mostly up, okay to get up. Bright yellow glow: A sleep-in! Must be a holiday. From that light, I know almost to the minute what time it is without clicking on my bedside clock.

I have been ruminating about this strip of light for two months, as I wave the white flag at the to-do list, as I scratch random notes and read through what I wrote back in late August/early September to try to keep it close. I wanted a neat and tidy controlling metaphor here: The light at the window is writing! Look, a story comes into focus just like the dawn! Or the light at the window stands in for the surprising goodness in a cracked world (see Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”). Or it’s knowledge, it’s awareness, it’s dawning, it’s seeing anew, etcetera, etcetera. I’m wading deep in the territory of cliche and oversimplification, fumbling about for meaning, reaching for something to hold onto.

That fumbling seems the truest now, both in the sense of writing process and also importantly for negotiating the space of American culture. Because even as I have been watching this tiny strip of light in my own tiny writing world, I also have been watching large, terrible stories unfold about the shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown and the fallout in Ferguson, and even more recently twelve-year-old Tamir Rice– stories that bring forth past stories of Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Amadou Diallo, and countless Black and Brown men and women whose lives have been brutally stolen from them without repercussion because of systemic inequality in our legal and justice system, in all of our American systems, built right in from the ground up. I have watched and read stories about rape and sexual violence and trolling threats and plain old misogyny. I have watched health crises and plundering politicians. On my own quiet and lovely Thanksgiving, shared with the loveliest of human beings, I wept into my green bean casserole as I thought about the empty places at other people’s tables, of people with no tables to go to at all.

So I here I sit at my dusty old blog, floundering with what to write about that g-d light at the window, about the darkness of the world. Light and dark, black and white. Too much freaking symbolism, and too much literal division. I desperately want to make meaning. I desperately need to make sense of it all, to fix it, to make it okay. Write a g-d happy post for Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! How hard can it be?

Hard. Which is how it goes sometimes, in writing, in the world. Even if we wish it weren’t so.

Writing is about telling the truth; who knows who said that first? Not me, but it’s worth repeating, mostly to myself. Because the truth is, too often I fear the truth. I fear that I will get it wrong, that I won’t do justice to what needs to be said, that someone else has said it better, that someone will rip me to shreds, that I will be banal and unwise and downright idiotic. I fear that I don’t even know what’s true anymore.

But not writing is worse. Silence is worse.

I wrote last year on Thanksgiving about my gratitude for reading, and this year that still holds. Even more, I am grateful these days for other writers’ writing, when I can’t seem to get my own down. I have been pouring over poems, essays, diatribes, tweets, articles, images. Some of it is complex and well-researched, some sputtering and imperfect and hot with rage, but all of it is a bright glaring spotlight on injustice, refusing to let it fester in the shadows. And there it is again: the light, the dark, not binary but fluid: both, all at once.

I have set myself up for failure in this post: how to resolve my controlling idea, the light at the window, when there can be no true resolve. To force meaning would make it untrue, when the truth is that I cannot wrangle it into cohesion yet because I’m all tangled up on the inside. And so I fumble my way through instead, with no perfect answers, but waking up to something, peering at the edge of the blinds, trying like hell to see.

The many voices of baseball

I  always seem to want to start my blog posts off with a remark about how much time has passed since I last wrote a post, even though as far as I know, no one’s keeping tabs on my productivity — aside from my bratty Inner Critic, who today is tapping her watch and sighing loudly and rolling her eyes. Pretty soon she’ll start snoring. Twit.

Speaking of time, this summer TW and I finally got around to watching Ken Burns’ Baseball, a mere twenty years after its initial release date. (Next up: the films of that hot young director, Alfred Hitchcock!) All 18.5 hours of it. Numb bums aside, it was totally worth it. I learned so much, even as a fan who has more than a passing knowledge. But it wasn’t quite the soaring, euphoric tribute to the game that somehow I expected. Sure, there was plenty of rhapsodizing about monumental moments, about the deep emotional connections within families and communities. But it also tracked the darker side of the game, which of course is entangled in the injustices of American history. Burns famously knows how to tug at the ol’ heart strings, and I often ended up in tears. Most people know about Jackie Robinson, but the film highlights the Josh Gibsons, the Satchel Paiges, the Buck O’Neils, the Curt Floods. So many men with such talent, and the god-awful things they endured. Their faces clear as day, their voices retelling both the lows and highs. At one point, TW patted my back as I wept into my hands, and he said, You know this history. This isn’t new. Exactly: It was old, and persistent, and rooted, even in this game that I have always loved. Of course it was; no part of this country’s hands are clean. Not then, and not now, even as we progress.

But then again, it’s baseball, a game that is nothing if not contradictory: perfectly linear and logical and yet twisting and chaotic; individual and collective; sad and joyous; tiny and grand; defeated and triumphant; grounded and mythical; certain and surprising. Games are like stories that way. No wonder writers across the years have been so enamoured.

And so in my own meta-baseball-watching, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was surprised by something that, ahem, came completely out of left field.

As we started watching, I kept listening to the narrator, thinking he sounded familiar but unable to pin it down. When the credits rolled, there it was: John Chancellor, the legendary NBC broadcast journalist.

And my father’s first cousin.

My dad’s father was the youngest of eleven children, and John’s father was one of the older siblings, so John and my father were several years apart. My dad had always hoped to meet John someday, but alas, he never did. (My dad died in 1995; John died in 1996.) In our family, though, we always knew the connection. Everyone always noted how they looked alike. When we’d see him on the news, my mom would say, Yep, just look at their faces.

Here’s a couple of pictures of them:

John Chancellor

dad1

Alan Chancellor (my father)

Indeed, I can see the resemblance, in the shape of the face and around the eyes. It’s one of those things that I have always known.

What I didn’t know until watching 18.5 hours of a baseball documentary is that they sound alike, too.

Over time, I have lost the sound of my father’s voice. This is a normal part of losing someone, but I think it’s one of the harder parts; it’s like that person disappears all over again, years from the initial loss. About a year ago, though, we found some old home videos. There, on the screen, my father moved and spoke and laughed. And there was his voice in my ear again. At first I worried that this would be a setback, that seeing and hearing him again would send me into sadness, but ultimately it was comforting.  His voice: a little high, reedy. A twinge of his native Chicago even after living most of his life in California and Arizona. A twinge of me.

Well, it sounds a bit like this:

As we sat this summer watching so many hours of the history of baseball, the narrator’s voice eerily evoking my father’s, I felt my personal history colliding with the collective history. All of those stories coming together in one space– the injustices, the beauty, the grief, the joy — and sharing it with someone I love.

In short, baseball.