stories

Revolutions

Me [waltzing in, whistling]: Gone from the blog for more than a year? Don’t know what you’re talking about. There never was a Time stamp. Nope. Wrong! Sad! Enoguh with the FAKE NEWS!!!!!! ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE! Believe me, I am a Excellent Writer and know Exactly how to use capitals for emphasis. Your pour liars and you have low IQ and very small boats.

Ugh, just typing that in jest nearly made my head burst into flames.

Yes, I’ve been away from the blog for Reasons, as the kids say, if they even say this anymore. I don’t know. I’ve been away. It’s been more than a year since my last post, and longer than that since I wrote anything besides links and announcements. That depresses the hell out of me, although I’m trying to be kinder to myself these days. Okay, so I slacked on my all-things-writing blog. Sue me. Oh, what’s that you say, you’re too busy suing the US government for putting babies in cages and banning people based on their religion and purging voter rolls? My bad.

Obviously, we have bigger fish to fry.

I started this post on July 4, a day when Americans usually are off floating in pools and snarfing hot dogs and apple pie, and I gave up at about this paragraph. I’ve never been so conflicted about my country and a large swath of its voting population, even though I know our history; I know the blood and shame that runs from sea to shining sea. Still, I have always believed we strived to be good, to move forward from that past and become better. I’ve always traced that long arc of justice like a talisman. Now it seem we’re sliding ass backward into the worst version of ourselves. People are reveling in their ugliness and ignorance and violence, propelled by the Orange Malignancy in Chief and his craven, morally bankrupt congressional enablers. It’s terrifying, enraging, stupefying, mind-numbing, and exhausting. The chaos has skewed time, too. Hours feel like days, weeks like months, as if the Earth morphed into a galactic tether ball, swatted and spun until we’re all careening into doorjambs and trying not to barf onto our shoes. Or someone else’s shoes.

And holy ever-loving hell is it hard to write.

So, in the ensuing days after I started writing this and couldn’t, I knew I was spinning out. I need to make some changes. I deactivated Twitter and Facebook (I kept Instagram because I find it less taxing, even tho’ yeah, it’s still owned by FB). Twitter was hardest, partly because I’d gotten addicted to the speed of information and as a place find a salve among like-minded people (I’m not crazy, right? That was completely f-ing bonkers, right? This is not normal, right?), not to mention the savagely witty, smart, literary people who took the edge off. In fact, when I first deactivated, I thought I could log back on in a few weeks if changed my mind. Nope, all my followers and my follow list are gone. Whoops. But it’s for the best. (It helps to remind myself that the Orange Malignancy has turned the platform into his bully pulpit, a place in which people of color and women are terrorized, one that equalizes and normalizes white supremacists and their sympathizers.) Plus, it wasn’t really an outlet for my rage; all it did was send me reeling deeper into anxiety and depression. Now I can call my reps without seizing up every time I log in. I can still volunteer and donate and protest. I’m a longtime news junkie, and we subscribe to/support a number of print outlets. My head is a little clearer since logging off, though my heart is still a mess. We’re still spinning, spinning, spinning, with no end in sight except for a glimmer in the distance (NOVEMBER 6, MIDTERM ELECTIONS, YO).

Perhaps it’s not a surprise, with all this whirling, that I’ve had the word revolution on my mind. Obviously, it has a sense of rebellion or political overthrow (yes, please) but also of dramatic change or transformation as well as turning or rotation—as in a wheel, or the earth in orbit around the sun.

I first started this blog in 2010, almost exactly eight years ago. I was not yet forty years old, I was living in rural Alabama and teaching at my first academic job, and I needed an outlet to keep me honest in my writing as I struggled with time, doubts, anxiety/depression, and enormous stress. If I couldn’t immerse enough to write fiction for several months a year, if I failed at not one but two novel drafts (gulp), I could at least keep writing in small ways, pushing myself onward with rough mini-essays and ramblings about my writing and reading life. Yes, I was creating an “online writing presence” (it smells like vanilla beans, pencil shavings, and despair), but I also discovered a genuine solace and pleasure in this weirdly public-private space with my mostly imaginary audience (except you! you’re real!), even if it was squirmy to put messy work up, even if some days I spun in the chair as I tried to untangle the mental knots.

I never really saw these digital scribbles as a social activity. No offense, but I didn’t expect or need a response or comments or followers (though, yes, sure, it was nice to receive a note or connect with someone afterward). No, it was the act of writing, a purposeful puzzling with words and meaning and understanding, that brought me a psychic and physical release, a jolt of joy and of accomplishment. Knowing the work was rough and unfinished and potentially riddled with (gasp) typos taught me not to be too precious about “being done” and just revel in practice and play. I would finish my little post, click Publish, and leave the desk knowing I had showed up. And that was not nothing. It was enough to get me to the next day, to remember that writing mattered to me on more than a published-work level. Writing it out, getting it down helped kept me rooted amid all my internal lurching. Yet I strayed from this old place as other demands crept in and I let my energy get siphoned off into other forms of media, forgetting that carving this time for writing practice was one of the ways I was able to write and finish books in the first place.

Now I am pushing into my late forties, I live in urban North Carolina, I teach in a supportive academic environment, and I have published two books of fiction with a third in the early stages—and still I struggle with time, doubts, anxiety/depression, and stress (though lord help me, I have fewer and fewer f*cks to give about the petty stuff). Big personal transformations have collided with large national and global ones. So many revolutions around the sun, countless turns on my own little wheel. I’m dizzy just thinking of it. Technology evolves and accelerates, making spaces like blogs seem quaint or obsolete. I keep turning back and looking at old posts, already squinting at the person and writer I was, wondering who I’ll be in the next revolution.

I know this: I want to be here, writing on this strange scrolling space and in the world, even if I stagger my way through. I want to get grounded, brace myself, push back until we’re moving forward again. And I want you—imaginary readers, real-life compatriots, other writers and artists— here with me. Spin your magic. Hold fast to what’s right and true as we grope our way through the dark.

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.

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.