dreams

Letter to a Young Self

Dear Little Brynnie,

Oh, dear.

Oh, dear.

It’s been a letter-y semester in my classes this fall as students try forms as a means of storytelling and essay-writing. I thought I’d give it a shot, too, because the truth is, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. Mom just turned seventy a couple of weeks ago, which meant I was sorting and compiling – pardon my French, honey, and the slang – a crap-ton of old photos. Suddenly there were scanned images of our family all over the screen: Dear God, the haircuts! The polyester! The collars! And there you were, that tiny past version of me: mop-topped, squirrel-cheeked, round-tummied, gazing solemnly, squinting, grinning. I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but we are old now, a lifetime removed from the story that inspired that “little” nickname, our family inside joke. I have known these pictures our whole life, but for some reason these days, I can’t stop staring.

I find myself wanting to tell you everything about what’s coming — as if I could prepare you, which of course I can’t. Our life has happened. There’s this trite saying, which you don’t know yet: You can’t change the past. More and more, Little Brynnie, I’m not sure. I’m starting to think we change it every time we see it again, every time we take the time to reconsider – to remember, to imagine, to re-see – what once was there. It can’t help but change, thanks to our infallible memories and our persistent desire to wonder.  And so here I am.

In the interest of time and keeping your attention — we’re both going to need a nap soon — I won’t go into all of the gory details. To sum up: You are going to be an odd kid. An odd teenager. Introverted, smart, melancholy, dreamy, too empathic, worrisome. All those emotions ride right out there on your skin. This will coalesce into a niggling sense that you don’t fit in. That you are on the outside, even with your friends and family. Don’t worry, honey (although I know you will). It’s not all bad. The fact is, you will navigate that tumultuous stream of childhood and adolescence mostly intact, with much love and humor and sunshine in the mix. Some dark things lurk and will snare you, and I’m sorry for this. I cannot stop it.

The good news: you make it. The mixed news: You have transformed into… an odd adult. Well, let’s call it “quirky.” It’s hard for you to be “out there,” as a good friend put it once. Introversion creeps into reclusiveness. Though it may seem that childhood and adolescence are the hardest parts, it’s these later years when the real complications set in. We forge ourselves in this fire. This is where we become who we are.

The really bad news— well, I’ll just rip it off like a Band-Aid: We lose our father, when we are 24. Though we will lose other dear family, friends, and co-workers, and we will tumble through a kaleidoscope of romantic heartbreaks, this will be the thing that upends us, leaves us untethered. It is as though someone has replaced the crystalline lenses of our eyes. Everything is filtered through his absence: the world no longer contains him, but his presence persists at the corners of our vision. That contradiction will not cease.

I am leaving so much out, all of the extraordinary fine-grained details, which is ironic because that is how we have come to try to see the world. It’s one of the perks of being on the outside: you learn to see differently. You watch and listen and peer and squint, and you see nuances and strangeness that others miss. The good news: Some people in adult life actually encourage this. The great news: we are married to the loveliest of human beings who also sees this way, who understands and embraces our quirks, partly because he is an artist and writer, too.

I guess I didn’t mention: We are a writer. A teacher, yes, as I did note, which as a job in this country is more quantifiable, easier to explain. Sometimes I forget to mention the writer part. Sometimes I forget this part of us, because adulthood? It’s a busy, busy place, full of pressing obligations and mundane demands. Writing takes a lot of time. Believe it or not, just this rambling little letter has taken hours! We don’t always have that time, or the space in our minds for thinking up stories. At your age, you think of writers, if you think of them at all, as the people who make those wondrous books that Mom and Dad have read to you since infancy, the ones that you start reading yourself at age 3 or 4. Oh, how we loved reading stories. Making those stories – and trying to get them into a book form for other people to read – is another thing altogether. While it can be inspiring and joyous, it often makes us feel desperate, and alone, and no good.

Which brings me (I think) to why I’m writing to you in the first place. It’s about this writer part of us. Sometimes— well, often; well, all of the time— I wonder about the path that brought us here. All of the twisting ins and outs, the moments we could have decided to take a different route.

What I want to tell you, Little Brynnie — adorable child; overwrought, melancholy teen; sad, messed-up, harrowed young adult; fretful, frizzy-haired middle-age woman— is this path that we chose? Remember first that you chose it. Lately you have been trudging along, your eyes on your feet. Look up, honey. Look around. Remember why you chose it. Remember? It’s because you were once, and have always been, the odd little girl who dreamed in stories, who couldn’t stop going into her imagination. She couldn’t stop puzzling and wondering about the inner lives of her family and friends and neighbors and strangers. She couldn’t stop seeing the beauty and awfulness of the world and asking, what? why? how? She couldn’t stop trying to figure it out. She couldn’t stop. She just couldn’t.

Love to us both,

Me

Staying inside

Mercy. It’s grown a bit cobwebby here at U-Leaves HQ. I think I just saw something scuttle under the floorboards. Apologies to the spammers who keep landing on the same old posts. I know that you are awaiting more of my “extreme informational posts that exceed great influence.” I appreciate the “A+ for simply excellence composing.”

I have been keeping my head down, trying to keep up the rigorous summer writing pace I set for myself. I gave myself until Aug. 1 to work this way, to ignore the outer world that is starting to tap on my locked door. Alas, that deadline hits tomorrow.  That means I’m about to get jiggy (is this how one spells jiggy? Quick: to the Ridiculous ’90s Slang Time Machine!) with all manner of fall teaching prep. I will keep writing, of course, but will have to add other tasks. The ever-precarious balancing act.

Despite the intensity of the semesters, I am ever grateful for the summer to work, for the uninterrupted time to immerse, which can be difficult, if not impossible, at other times. All told, factoring in travel and other whatsits, I had about eight solid weeks of immersion: sitting down every day, getting quiet, thinking, typing, rereading, taking notes, stringing story boards across my office, staring out the window with “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as the poet Elizabeth Bishop called it. Some days were a bust, but most were productive, and I met my self-imposed goal.

Even if I hadn’t finished what I planned, I think (hope) I would find myself mostly content as I transition back into a different pace. Because it’s not really about the tally. It’s about the extended time that I got to spend in my fictional spaces, dreaming and puzzling and mucking about in the stories I created.

In the study of a second language, immersion is commonly understood as the best way to reach fluency. Live in a place where everyone speaks the language. That seems analogous to creative writers: Our place is the page (or stage or screen), and we, too, must live there. Primarily that means 1) years of reading and studying others’ books/plays/films, absorbing the craft of storytelling; 2) years of practicing our own stories, poems, and plays; and 3) hours daily/weekly going inside individual projects — going inward to the imagination, to the heady twilight space of creation.

For all of it, we need to carve out time from this insistent world, the one that will always tap — knock, rap, pound — at our doors and call us outside. Some days we must heed the call — some days, the outer life trumps, as it should. But some days, we must resist. Keep the door shut. Stay inside.

The only downside was that I didn’t get to spend time on the first part of the immersion: the reading. I normally devour one book after the next in the summers, nary an annotating pencil in sight. With travel and work through the days and into evenings, I kept to mostly to shorter nonfiction: pieces in the NYT and the New Yorker, mainly. Here’s what I did, happily, get a chance to read:

All of them were good —  heck, look at the writers — but I was engrossed/delighted/left a little breathless by Bender, Goodwin, Livesey, and Saunders. This fall, I will be digging deep into the short story, both for a sophomore lit class and a Forms of Fiction workshop. Another kind of immersion, I hope.

As for fluency: um, I think my analogy may fall apart here. I have no idea at what point anyone reaches this, if ever. Does any writer ever feel mastery? Perhaps. I don’t foresee it in my case. Regardless, I will keep struggling with the strange syntax of this writing life, stumbling over its irregular verbs, its subjunctive tenses, hoping that one day I will dream in the language.

The pedestrian view

Lately I’ve been doing some (half-assed) research into the concept of psychogeography. At the moment I’m reading (in short snatches) Merlin Coverely’s Psychogeography and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Both have lots of great history about this somewhat amorphous subject, whose roots and contexts are heavy on the French, heavy on the urban environs, include Charles Baudelaire and the flaneur, Guy DeBord and the derive, and currently Will Self and his many walking adventures.  In an interview with 3 a.m. Magazine, Coverley gives a nice catch-all definition: “[Psychogeography] in its most general term, the main components: the political aspect, a philosophy of opposition to the status quo, this idea of walking, of walking the city in particular, the idea of an urban movement, and the psychological component of how human behaviour is affected by place. You can read that into many writers but especially Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, this idea of the dream, or some psychological imprint overlaid on the landscape.”

It’s clearly more involved than that, but it’s that last bit, about the poets and writers and “this idea of the dream,” that has been at the heart of my interest. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t pretend to be a heavy thinker or scholar, even when I am in professor mode. But one thing I am, and always have been — long before I was a writer — is a walker.

My first experiences were not urban. I grew up in a small town in northern Arizona. From a very early age, probably 7 or 8 and till I was 16 and bought my first car, I walked everywhere. To school. To and from the bus stop, a mile from the house: up Coffee Pot Drive, cut through gravel Grasshopper Lane, over the fence, up the trail, and onto my street, Farmer Brothers Drive. I can see every step of it.  In a town with no bus system save for the tourist trolley, and parents who worked full-time, I walked home from friends’ houses and swim practice and the movie theater and the creek. In a town ringed by a famous red landscape, I walked up the sides of rocks, sometimes without shoes on, so smooth and climbable was the sandstone. From an early age, I saw the world from a slow, rock-kicking pace, a world of sun-heated hair and swarming gnats and mating grasshoppers, my cheap rubber shoes scuffing the edge of pavement.

It’s only looking back (of course!) that I see how much of that time trained me in solitude. Back then, I just wanted a freaking ride, to get home and sneak in some TV before my folks got home. But that walking was also very much a time of dreams. As my body worked externally, moving me forward, I went inside my head, into imagination. I remember, very clearly, wondering who lived in those homes on Grasshopper Lane, what their furniture looked like, what kind of dinners they had, if I would get in trouble if I stepped into their yard. I can still remember the shapes and spacing of houses on my routes, the shortcuts. I still remember the gray gravel, the powder-soft red dirt, the cat claws and foxtails and tumbleweeds that tugged at my pant cuffs.

Later, living in a small-sized city, a sprawling desert metropolis, and then a large Southern city, my walks were more recreational. Walking and hiking remain my two favorite modes of exercise. That urban environment indeed changed how I walked and how I saw, especially because otherwise I was driving everywhere. When I walked, I felt a little closer to the “traditional” psychogeographists, who are often working in resistance to what cities present. And at some point, I want to think more about those walking experiences, too.

But right now, I am going back to those early days, in part because I find myself again living in a small town, this one across the country from my original environs. The landscape here is softer, with towering trees that blur the horizon, a misty-heat. I am long into being a writer at this point, and I am conscious of how much walking plays a role in my sanity, as well as my creative process. During long weeks at my job, I find myself desperate to get outside, to slow down and breathe, to become aware of my feet hitting dirt and pine needles.

I don’t think of walking and writing as a direct connection; I’m not necessarily solving story problems or coming up with plot answers out there. It’s more, in some ways, that the physical act mimics the creative act. In both cases, I peer in windows. I gaze at the trees and clouds. I note weird things on the ground. I listen. I wonder.

(These are just some initial notes; I see more walking notes in my future.)

Confessions of a piranha heart

It’s a lovely March day outside my writing window.  The pear tree is in early bloom, with tiny white flowers that flutter down like confetti. Pollen dusts the windowboxes, and the lawn has erupted with blistery clumps of weeds like acne on a teenage forehead. It’s a junior high dance out there, everything tender and green. Spring has not yet sprung, but it’s coiled, quivering.

Yet, as I sit here, trying to scale the rust from my writing fingers, I find myself uninspired. I’ve been staring out the window for a good part of an hour, trying to settle down, to think of what has interested me lately, to think about what I’m thinking about writing-wise, to with any luck slide into the dreamscape.

What keeps creeping in instead are the petty annoyances of the past week or so. The details don’t matter; the key word here is “petty,” both in the sense of “of minor importance” and in the sense of my own “small-minded” attention to them. I can’t help but think of David Foster Wallace’s wonderful Kenyon commencement speech, in which he talks about our “default setting,” “which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self”; his point, which he makes far better than I can, is that we must choose to work to free ourselves of this default state and learn awareness, and that “it is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.” Plus, he uses the best fish metaphor ever.

I realize that I have been stuck in my default setting this last week. Guess what? It’s an ungenerous, unimaginative place, turbid and rank with grievances and resentments. Guess what else? My default water has water moccasins, which have been known to climb into people’s canoes, and piranha, which swarm and feed indiscriminately, leaving behind cow-sized skulls. When I finally come up for air, I am missing chunks of my own heart.

It’s no place to begin writing; what’s more, it’s no place to be if I aspire to live a good, meaningful, empathetic life.

And so: I remind myself to look outward, again. To look for– as Carver might say — the small, good things, but to not, in my heart, be small.

In other words, Get over yourself. And get back to work.