moving

When the brakes fail, and other metaphors

The US election and its fallout coincided with our move across town. We’d spent ten months searching for a place in a bonkers housing market, which ran parallel with a total-barking-bananas election season. Finally we found a little house we could afford; we were thrilled and optimistic, even though the timing stunk (how could the semester get harder? Hey, let’s move!), even as we watched the country convulse and howl as the election neared.

As a writer, I dwell in metaphor, in double meaning. In both the move and election, I couldn’t help but see beyond the literal: houses, divided. On the threshold of a new doorway, hoping for a good life on the other side. Work, repairs, and changes, yes, but progress toward something better.

And then the Night of the Orange Terror struck.

Amid my weeping and gnashing and blaring of punk rock late at night out the windows of my Kia Soul (!) in hopes of waking sleeping neighbors (WAKE UP, YOU F*CKERS, I yelled, WAKE THE F*CK UP!), and trying to face my students to give them something worth holding onto (Art, I told them. Stories. Language.), I was glad to have something tangible and practical to do with my hands. I wasn’t ready for social media. I appreciated the calls for standing and fighting, but I had no fight in me yet, only despair and rage, a deep darkness that dredged up the 21-year-old grief of losing my father, of the days post 9/11, when I would look around at the bright desert sky and wonder how the world kept spinning on its axis. This time, I wrapped cheap plates and glasses in newsprint and stuffed them in bankers’ boxes and plastic bins. I tugged black trash bags over hanging clothes. I wrote in marker on the sides: Kitchen. Office. House (Fragile).

On moving day, two days after the election results came in, our movers, two young men, showed up in a truck. Strong, strapping young men, ready to heft our many boxes of books, our poorly manufactured bedframe, our shitty particle board shelves, while we middle-agers schlepped the smaller bins and blankets and scraggly bags. But the guys had forgotten the parking wedge for the 26-foot-moving truck, which apparently had a dodgy brake, and so they parked on the street, a long haul down the long slope of our driveway. I offered to drive and retrieve the wedge, to save their backs and legs, to save ourselves time. I felt a thrum of optimism when I found the wedge in the company’s empty lot, when I held it up to them through the windshield upon my return. A small triumph. In the face of the past few days—nay, eighteen months—of our country’s dumpster fire election, I’d take it.

They backed the truck up the drive, stuck the wedge under the wheel, and they were off. Lifting, loading, sweating. I suspected one of them was hungover (I’ve held enough office hours post-Thirsty Thursdays, y’all), but I was grateful for their strength and youth. I loaded our vehicles, making goo-goo eyes with the neighbor’s puppy (he was in a laundry basket!), trying not to think of the shaky voices of my friends and coworkers and strangers, the raw fear and anguish I’d seen in my students, especially my students of color. I tried to think of all the ways we’d fight back (donations, protests, calling Congress, newspaper subscriptions, local volunteering—things I’ve done for years), but right then all I could do was cling to the dumb metaphor I tried to cobble: moving forward. I embraced words, stripped down to the elementals: Books. Bed. Home. Belongings. Be. Longing. I looked in the young men’s faces, black and white, tendons and muscles strained with the weight in their arms, and I thought, Strength. Carry. Stand.

The truck grew heavy, three-quarters full with the burden of our belongings. It creaked and shifted as the young men went up and down the metal ramp. We were close, only a few boxes, a mattress, odds and ends.

But then: the small wedge under the tire, our safety barrier, my earlier triumph, wasn’t enough. It gave way. From inside the house, I heard the scrape of the ramp on the concrete, the shout of the hungover kid. I ran to the door to see the driverless moving truck flying down the driveway. It plowed over bushes, plunged into the busy street, ran up into the neighbor’s yard, and finally rolled back down into the street, rocking to a halt. In the tumult, our neatly packed possessions tumbled loose, their fragile parts splayed and jumbled on the floor.

We stood for a moment, speechless. Finally, I said, Is any one hurt? Is everyone okay? They were, we were. No one hurt. Cars pulled up and stopped in the road, inching forward with impatience, unaware of their near miss. The hungover kid, wide-eyed and awake now, got in the truck and managed to pull it to the side of the road. The cars rolled past. All that remained as testament were maimed bushes and tire tracks in the grass. Otherwise, like nothing happened.

Rattled, the young men finished the last of the load and drove the truck across town to our new house without any other hitches. Unloaded in a hurry, filling our garage and dropping most of the furniture in the living room since we’re having the floors done in the bedrooms. I gave them a hefty tip (but still need to call the moving company to tell them to fix their g-d brakes and stop endangering their employees). So far, all we’ve found broken is our footboard, with a ding and a crack. A cart missing the weird little plastic thingys that hold it together.

For the past three days, as we wait to finish the floors, we have slept in the dining room. Mattress on the floor. We’d laughed about it when we’d planned it. Just like college! Kids again, like those young men who’d hefted our furniture, who’d come close to a tragedy.

Each night, I wake around 3 or 4 a.m., groggy and aching, my shoulder seized, terror and rage and despair in my throat, haunted by what could have happened in our driveway and what actually did in our country. I look around in the dim light of this strange place that is now ours, at dressers and desk and day bed muddled in the living room, our clothes in duffles on the fireplace brick, our beloved books and art supplies absent, languishing in the garage. A metaphor, I think, in my sleepy rage. Who knows what else we’ll find broken. Who knows when we’ll ever pull ourselves together again.

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.

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.