Marking time


Is it okay to be me? … the answer was yes often enough that I went ahead and became her: the writer of plainspoken prose who would not shut up about her grief.”–from Dear Sugar, “The God of Doing it Anyway”


Today is the day my father died. On this day, twenty years ago, his heart up and stopped in the ICU, four days after falling ill with what we thought was the flu. Today, like every year, I mark it by the markers of fall: porch pumpkins, yellow and red leaves rusting on still-green lawns, yards trumped up like graveyards, cobwebbed and skull-strewn. Today, as every year, I wonder what to do or say with this private grief that spans two decades, that morphs with each year, rising and falling like a tetchy barometer. What’s there to say about it after all this time? And who wants to hear about it again? Not me. I want to be done.

But that’s not how it goes, it turns out. It turns out, the grief sticks around, showing up on my doorstep each year, holding out its pillowcase, begging me for an offering. Many years, I don’t open the door. Turn off the porch light, hide inside.

Today, because it’s a “big year,” a big fat marker, I suppose I feel obligated to say something, to commemorate, to note it officially: today he would have been 72, he would have been gray and bald and funny and irritating and argumentative and giant-hearted. He would have been fixing things, always fixing, Mr. Fix-It, as it says on the bench that commemorates him at the ballpark in my hometown, where new generations of Little Leaguers dart past with their stale nachos and sodas from the snack bar whose finicky ice machine he fixed and fixed and fixed.

But he couldn’t be. Every year, that fact stays fixed.

And I can’t fix it, either. Not with words, not with stories, not with memories.

But here I am, anyway. Trying to make sense of the insensible through words, through the world of language.

This year, I am struggling to find my words. All I can get at are questions: Twenty years–how is that possible? Who would he have been now? Who would we have been together?

Next year will be better. No milestone, no marker. I’ll open the door more easily, hand out Dum Dums to baby superheroes. I won’t have to think yet of the next marker, five years from now: the year I’ve lived longer without him than with him. I have some time to forget.

Today, twenty years on, stumbling to find words of my own, I thought I’d let poetry, quotes, and images do the talking.

Here’s to you, Alan Lee Chancellor (1942-1995): Beloved Father and Husband, In Our Hearts Always, as it says on your grave marker, our final note, as if that could capture all the wondrous, confounding, unknowable parts of you. Our Mr. Fix-It: hope things are good in the Big Garage in the Sky.


Dad, 1965

Dad, 1965, at a house in Berkeley, CA (I think).

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.—  from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman


Dad and me, 1993 or so, rockin’ the outfits, at home in Sedona, AZ.

…This morning I couldn’t get up.
I slept late, I dreamed of the single
sheet of paper, which I never managed to reach
as it stuttered and soared over the grass
and a few flowers, so that I woke
with a sense of loss, wondering who
or what I had to mourn besides
my father, whom I no longer mourn,
father buried in the earth beneath grass,
beneath flowers I trample as I run.
— from “In Dreams,” by Kim Addonizio

Dad, 1995, his final Father’s Day. We made the tie with my nephew’s baby footprints. (My nephew, now a gorgeous, brilliant junior in college.)

I buried my father

in the sky.

Since then, the birds

clean and comb him every morning

and pull the blanket up to his chin

every night…

— from “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee

What noisy cats are we

Those who know me know that I have a deep and abiding love for R.E.M. (both the band and the sleep cycle). That title, a lyric from Swan Swan Hummingbird, popped in my head the other day as TW and I were driving, and I sang it out as if it were still 1986 and Life’s Rich Pageant was in the cassette player as I clattered along in my Tercel, traversing the back roads of my hometown.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a song analysis or rank albums or howl for my lost youth (you’re welcome). I’m simply thinking about how art sticks around, how we adopt it and translate it and make it part of ourselves.

Lines come to me a lot: random bits of songs, poems, short stories, novels, movies, plays. They often return out of context, removed from their original state, little fragments that I add to my trove of language. Sometimes I understand why these bits come: the sound or rhythm, the image borne within, the humor. Sometimes it’s a mystery, but there they are anyway, like a flash of sun in the eye that forces me to squint, to take time to look closer.

Perhaps I’m pondering something that is screamingly obvious: People like to quote stuff. Along with porn and cat videos, the Internet is mostly just sites devoted to quotable quotes with hazy attributions (“I like Web sites”– W.B. Yeats). Perhaps, too, such a line-hearing habit is detrimental; first, it’s a bastardization of someone’s art, and second, it’s a colonization of my own imagination. Shouldn’t I remember the whole work? Shouldn’t I be drumming up lines of my own?

I guess if all I did was run around babbling quotes I might be in trouble. But for me, I’m not just repeating them to repeat them. If it’s about language or image, I’m examining that language or image, putting it on repeat or in freeze-frame in order to study it more closely, to understand its effect. Some recent examples: Shakespeare’s “How now, wit, whither wander you?” from As You Like It; Whitman’s “I depart as air/I shake my white locks at the runaway sun”; “They is, they is, they is” from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I turn them and turn them and turn them, and I never tire of their beauty and wonder.

Sometimes, though, these little flecks transform into my own little metaphor. Take the most recent reincarnation of”what noisy cats are we”: It returned to me as I was stopped in a car at an intersection, gazing out at the suburbs of Birmingham, which teemed with gas stations and food chains and exhaust fumes. Whatever the song’s intentions, over time, and removed from its source, it has become something else for me, a way to process an abstraction: something about the desperation of the masses, of how we find ourselves mewing and clawing at the state of our lives.

If I have a point, which is doubtful, I guess it’s that I find the possibilities of such fragments both remarkable and deeply reassuring as an artist and as an audience member. A song, even just a slice of it, can return unbidden to a person more than fifteen years after its first hearing, and allow that person to name and articulate a confusing, unconnected moment. These parts of the whole pulse and shimmer across time, gathering the dust of the universe, just waiting for a space to land.

We Are Go

August? AGAIN? I’m starting to think I don’t understand how time works.

Anyhoots, here I am. I’ve been fairly MIA this summer from ye ole blog town, and the Intertubes in general, in major part because I was neck-deep in another kind of writing. That is, I was writing a novel. Which I finished.

I actually finished the draft in late July. I initially thought that in my euphoria, I would hop on here and go bananas– like, type in all caps or use Comics Sans or something. And in truth, I was euphoric, but quietly so, down deep, a strange quantum sort of humming. That initial moment felt so intensely private that I was afraid to voice it even in the space of my room. Still feels that way a little. So, I’ll cut this short by noting for the record: Draft 1: 370 pages, 97,528 words. Am in process of sending to readers for Round 1. Terrifying.

My euphoria found an outlet instead in the Mars Curiosity Rover landing on August 5. Holy Cats! TW and I sat glued to NASA TV starting at like 11 p.m. Central time and late into the night. That was one of the best dramatic moments I have ever witnessed. Here, watch it again:

I love this video because it cuts in the real-time reactions of the Blue Shirts, those immensely talented science folks at NASA, as they learn that their gorgeously complicated, seemingly impossible feat worked. They did it. Whoever edited that video with the animation understands storytelling: it’s all in the people’s faces, their bodies, their reactions. Wonderful.

After those wild eruptions of joy, of course, things at NASA and the JPL settled down. As awesome as it was, the EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) was only the first part of the mission. The scientists immediately started gathering data and examining it. They ran precise, slow checks on the safety and health of the rover. They updated software. They cautioned patience and mapped out the long journey ahead for Curiosity. This wasn’t to detract from the success, only to remind themselves of the larger mission.

Am I making a connection to writing? Oh, why the heck not, even though it seems beyond narcissistic to see myself in a planetary landing. Of course writing the first draft of a novel is not a feat on par with landing an SUV-sized rover on Mars. It isn’t. Yet, in those scientists’ faces, I do recognize, on a much smaller scale, the sense of joy and wonder at my own little EDL, which is then tempered by the recognition that much of the work still lies ahead, that it will demand patience and careful study and steadiness as I rove through this newly discovered world.

Mission Control, we are go for Draft 2.

These aren’t the droids: The feint of fiction

Confession: I recently re-watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back — or as I call them, Princess Leia Buns and Princess Leia Braids. Much to TW’s chagrin, I now have been walking around the house imitating Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick, complete with that awesome hand sweep: These aren’t the chips you’re looking for. These aren’t the ice cream sandwiches you’re looking for. I also asked him, “Don’t you have a Boba Fett doll?” He stared at me. “It’s not a doll.” I think he’s regretting his decision to invite me to that particular viewing party.

Aside from making me remember that I rode my Gold Fever Huffy (hello, handlebar tassles!) down to the one movie theater in my small Arizona town to stand in line to see it, that droid scene has made me think about fiction-writing and all of its myriad trickeries.

I really should just post Tim O’Brien’s wondrous essay “The Magic Show” here and be done with it. Seriously. Here’s one passage: “For a writer, and for a reader, the process of imaginative knowing does not depend upon the scientific method. Fictional characters are not constructed of flesh and blood, but rather of words, and those words serve as explicit incantations that invite us into and guide us through the universe of the imagination. Language is the apparatus—the magic dust—by which a writer performs his miracles. Words are uttered: ‘By and by,’ Huck says, and we hear him. Words are uttered: ‘We went tip-toeing along a path amongst the trees,’ and we see it. Beyond anything, I think, a writer is someone entranced by the power of language to create a magic show of the imagination, to make the dead sit up and talk, to shine light into the darkness of the great human mysteries.”


O’Brien also emphasizes the mystery that lies at the heart of this writing trickery, and I think that is what appeals to me about my jimmy-rigged Star Wars-fiction-writing analogy: Obi-Wan makes Luke (and us, the audience) believe because his trick is mysterious. We see the reality before our eyes: They are the droids! They are! Nonetheless, they are utterly fooled, and we blink in amazement. We see the trick performed, but we don’t understand it — and not understanding, counter-intuitively, is at the very core of why we believe.

Yet, the trick is no easy sleight of hand. Finding that exact language, as powerful and mesmerizing as it might be, gets complicated by each story that we set out to tell. I am thinking now about my current project, in which one of the characters is a young woman living in the mid-to-late 19th century American South. (I have written some about my imperfect process, including here.) As I (re)imagine her world, the choice of language suddenly becomes alien — because it is not my present language. She does not speak in this time or place. My trick is to make the reader believe that she is absolutely of that time and place. At the same time, she must be a fully fleshed-out character, with desires and longings and peculiarities and flaws, who speaks in her own specific voice.

In other words, to poorly mix a metaphor, I have a lot of Jedi mind tricks to pull out my little writing hat. Which means another kind of belief: in myself. And that’s the trickiest one of all.

Where we find ourselves

It’s Halloween night. On my dash to the store to pick up bags of Kit-Kats and Dum Dums, I saw Princess Leia, Episode 4, out having a smoke on the front porch, which made me cackle with glee. As I jump up and answer the knocks from the costumed, wee, sugar-amped scamps running up to my doorstep, I am thinking, of course, of my own childhood Halloween lore– falling into a cactus while dressed as Casper the Ghost, toting a daisy-embroidered pillowcase as a trick-or-treat bag, sorting the crinkly loot in the middle of the bedspread, sinking into a queasy, luscious candy coma. (I’m also thinking of Rick Moody’s Demonology, whose title story knocks my socks off every time I read it.) But I also find myself, more and more — in this moment and beyond — thinking of the parents.

Those parents. Look at them out there, hovering in the darkness of curb, waving and smiling their thanks as their robots and Spider-Men and princesses and  teary-eyed vampires pluck chocolates from the bowl. I wonder: what was their day like? Are they exhausted from work, from their co-worker’s malarkey or the 40-minute commute? What days led to this day? What came before? Are they holding it together? What’s going on out there in the dim light of the crescent moon?

The truth be told, I am thinking of my parents.

October is the month of my father’s death — as of yesterday, he has been gone 16 years, a timespan that I can barely fathom. I was 24 then. I am 40 now. (A whole teenage life has lapsed — she’s got her license now, and a gleam in her eye.) I am not that young woman anymore. I have grown into a new self — grayer, heavily lined, puffier in strange places, but happier, somewhat wiser, changed in ways that I could never have predicted. I can’t help but wonder: What self awaited him? Who else would he have become? His former self, the life he lived before my entrance, is unknowable. What remains is old yearbooks and file-cabinet documents and photographs of people I never knew.

But who am I kidding? Wouldn’t he still have been unknowable? Wasn’t he allowed his private self, his secrets? Aren’t we all?

(Good grief. Why can’t I ever just write about candy?)

My mother turns 68 tomorrow. She is healthy and exuberant, and she travels at a dizzying clip; TW and I are the homebodies. She lives across the continent from me, in the desert state where I spent 28 of the first 34 years of my life. She packs a shotgun and wears flip-flops in winter. I last saw her face in June, and I will see her again in December. Two times a year: it’s not enough.

Of late, I have been carrying a certain image in my mind, one of those that Joan Didion says “shimmer around the edges.” It is this: My mother, who was about the age that I am now, sits on the front steps of our small, northern Arizona home, whose only illustrious feature is its backdrop: the astonishing red sandstone rocks, the caves where bats flew out at dusk. I am a teenager, and I come home to find my mother there on the steps, sobbing her eyes out. My mother rarely cried, not like that, and not on the front steps next to the ice plant, under the spindly shade of the mesquite, in full view of the street. I don’t know where my father was. I don’t remember what she told me; she probably waved it off as nothing, just a bad day, and maybe that’s all it was. So why does it haunt me?

I am not sure, but I wonder if it isn’t because that day I started the process of recognizing that my mother, a title assigned to her by virtue of my existence, was also this whole other woman, one chock-full of mysteries and secrets and lies and worlds to which I had no access. My mother, well, she wasn’t mine. What tugs at me here is this: there is a very good chance that she was crying that day about where she found herself. I say this not as a selfish child but as a woman of the same age, who has at times found herself unexpectedly sobbing in public spaces, full of longing and grief and regret.

On this night of display and ritual, I am tender and nostalgic, longing not to be a child again but instead to peer at the mysterious lives of those people, my parents. I traipse up their street and I look in their lighted windows. I catch glimpses of the selves that I knew: they curl up in the corner of the couch with a paperback, hunch under the hood of a car in the garage, smooth the hair of their candy-fueled children. I press myself closer to the glass, straining to see the selves that I do not and cannot know: the people they once were, the ones they hoped to be and couldn’t, the ghosts who follow us all.

A love letter to the short story

Hey Short Story:

(I’d address you as “Dear” but “Hey” apparently is the American greeting of choice these days. You know, it’s sort of like, what-evs.)

This kind of comes out of the blue, I know. You might have wondered where I ran off to (although, maybe not, since you’re inanimate and all). Anyhoo, after our years-long love affair, I took a turn into Novelandia, then detoured off into Academiaville, found in the middle of the DeepSouthistan. But I hope you know that I never really forgot you. I didn’t abandon you as many have, adopting the novel as the form for “serious” writers, as though length equals depth, even as you plod on as the workhorse of myriad writing workshops. Not me. It’s true that I love novels, and films, too, anything that tells a story. But I find myself turning to you again and again, as a reader and writer. Why is that? What is this hold that you have on me, Short Story?

You’ve been especially on my mind these past few weeks as I teach a contemporary short fiction class. It’s all story, all the time, a kind of language immersion — REPETE, S’IL VOUS PLAIT, AVEC MOI– and boy howdy are the students tired. But I think they’re starting to see, as I do, all of the worlds and beauty and mysteries that you contain in your tiny, ever-evolving body, how you twist, contract, expand, fragment, and still somehow come together in the end, like origami or animal balloons or a math proof (or none of those things). You’re pretty fearless, now that I think about it. I admire your chutzpah, Short Story.

The point, if I have one, is that I feel that I owe you a declaration: I love you, Short Story. This isn’t a drunk dial, either. I’m perfectly sober, perfectly clear-eyed. I love you like I love the sky: for your seemingly endless permutations, for your sly ability to surprise after all these years, for your moments, those small, fragile turns that haunt and move me in incalculable ways.  How do you do that? You’re a mystery, I tell you. It keeps me coming back. In short, Short Story, you’re fabulous. You’re the one I’ll never get over.