Friday, August 31, 2007

My Knee, Our Cathedral

One of my favorite Zen stories (told by Joko Beck in one of her books--I don’t remember which one) tells of a woman sitting in sesshin with a number of other beginning meditation students. Unable to hold the lotus position, she fidgets on her mat, and her constant movement disrupts the concentration of those near her. Eventually, a monitor gently asks if she could sit a little more quietly. My knee hurts, the woman says. Well, a number of people here probably have hurting knees, counters the monitor serenely. Yes, replies the woman, but it’s my knee.

I relate to each side of this scenario. Of course the woman does not have the right to draw so much attention to herself, to hijack everyone’s focus. Yet, she’s right; it is her knee. It’s hard to ignore one’s own knee, especially if it hurts.

I bring this up in the context of writing. Personal writing, to be exact. And zooming in even further, my personal writing, my individual commitment to exposing my hurting knee.

For a while now, I’ve regarded myself as my best and dearest subject. My fiction is a sham, and I’ve never felt the magical ease with poetry that I do with narrative. Still, I struggle with giving myself permission to write this stuff. Hurting or not, why do I insist upon making everyone aware of my knee? Why do I hope and/or assume that others will be interested in it?

The recent writing workshop I took focused on creative nonfiction. The workshop leader, from whom I learned a lot, discussed the perils and rewards of essaying oneself. “What are you doing besides exploring your own nerve endings?” he asked us. He said he had a piece of paper taped to his computer that read, “You are not important.”

From what I can tell, the greatest goal of personal writing is to use your experience as a way to discover a connection with others—by traveling to the deepest, remotest, and most singular part of you, you paradoxically find the place where you end and everyone else begins. You dig down into the earth and reach a vast, continuous pool.

Whatever I write, then, should make clear that my story is tremendously general in the most exquisitely specific terms.

Coincidentally, I just assigned a personal essay to my first-year college students, all 47 of them. (I haven’t done this for a while; such writing was out of vogue at the last place I taught.) I can look forward to 47 stories, 47 sets of nerve endings, 47 hurting knees. I’m excited.

I gave them Raymond Carver’s "Cathedral" to read, not because it’s a good model (it’s fiction), but because it has interesting things to say about the writing process. In the story, a man entertains a blind friend of his wife’s for dinner. After she goes to bed, the two of them watch television. It’s an educational program, probably PBS, on cathedrals. The blind man asks his host to describe what a cathedral looks like. The host fumbles around verbally for a few minutes and then realizes that he can only use visual terms or rattle off the program’s empty, academic facts. He becomes frustrated and embarrassed, and he confesses that cathedrals don’t mean anything to him—a cathedral is just chatter and fantasy on late night TV. The blind man says he understands.

The blind man makes a suggestion. The two get a paper bag and a ballpoint pen from the kitchen, and under the blind man’s direction, the host begins to draw a cathedral. The blind man holds the host’s hand, the one with the pen. In this way, they draw the cathedral together. The host is deeply affected; he reflects how he “didn’t feel like [he] was inside anything,” and the story ends on this intimate, transcendent note.

Perhaps I can’t aim for anything better than this in my stories. I want to sit on the floor with my readers and build cathedrals. The touching of our hands is what will make this building possible.

(to be continued, most likely)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Essential Choices

Ten Things I Couldn’t Do Without

• Really cold water (to drink)

• Democracy

• Good books

• Writing

• Sex

• My marriage

• Friendship

• A freshly made bed

• The Internet

• Mechanical pencils

Ten Things I Could Do Without:

• Quinoa

• Cancer

• Clothes I shouldn’t have bought

• Global warming

• Sudoku

• Petty arguments

• Harry Potter (That’s right, I said it.)

• Splinters

• Stuck windows

• Doubt

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Riding with the Fat Man, Part I

***Hey all:
Since I'm at a writers' conference this week, I thought I'd share some nonblog writing.

This is part of a (believe it or not) short piece related to a larger memoir project I'm interested in. My thanks again to the members of The Typing Class for their feedback!


The form the funeral home gave me for my father’s death notice listed three publications: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Camden Courier Post, and The Gloucester County Times. No one read The Courier Post. Their telemarketers used to call doggedly at every dinner hour at both my parents’ houses. We generally offered a terse “we-get-the-inquirer” before hanging up.

I chose the Gloucester paper. My dad had worked for the Gloucester County Jail as the director of rehabilitation services. He taught convicts how to read, do basic math, and prepare for the GED. I hoped some of his “boys from the jail” would see the write-up.

As a child, I learned how to read and write from the partially used workbooks Dad brought home from the jail. My shaky letters sat on the same pages as his students’.

Although my father grew up in Philadelphia, his parents moved their family to the South Jersey suburbs when he was in his 20s. They chased a better life “across the river,” as we say. Sometimes people don’t realize that until only recently the segment of New Jersey between Philly and the Atlantic Ocean was mostly farmland. The folks who live there are modest, countrified. They like bacon and eggs for breakfast. They hunt and canoe in the Pine Barrens. They cheer for the Eagles (pronounced Iggles) and the Phillies although they’re never surprised when the Phillies don’t make the World Series. The women like when truckers beep their horns at them as they walk along Mantua Avenue. The kids belong to 4H, and the prom is a bigger deal for its attendees than the dead-end jobs that await them afterwards. This is the landscape of my father and his inmates.

There was never any question that I would plan the funeral. I was an only child, and my parents had been divorced for many years. My aunt had washed her hands of my father long ago. She’d done enough for him in life, she seemed to feel. And he was never grateful—he had acted as if her scrupulous attention was entirely his due.

I arranged a priest strictly for her sake. Dad had no use for religion; blind faith was alien and silly to him. The perfunctory service was modestly attended, and a group went to Charlie Brown’s Restaurant afterwards. People that I hadn’t seen in years surrounded me; I used to hug some of their knees. These former childhood giants, their faces grayish-white with age, told me what a wonderful and intelligent man Rick had been. The whole dining room looked golden and sepia to me, the same hues as my seventies toddlerhood, the same as when I had last encountered these faces. The dry white wine in my glass glowed in the table’s lantern light.

The previous year, I had spent a strained Thanksgiving with Dad at Charlie Brown’s. He doesn’t have anyone else, I had decided sheepishly, turning down my mother’s dinner invitation. We said little as we ate lukewarm turkey. Dad was strangely placid. It was the new medication he was taking for his bi-polar disorder, which was severe enough to put him in a hospital every couple of decades. Did I prefer him docile? Was this better?

David, my father’s best friend and a Christian missionary, waited until most of the plates were cleared and then took the empty chair to my left. He had a good anecdote about Rick that he wanted so share with me, he said. He’d already made me laugh that day when he told me how my father used to telephone him and pretend to be Billy Graham looking for a donation.

I had highlighted my father’s humor in my eulogy, along with his prodigious intellect. I wasn’t sure what else to say. Who wanted to hear about lithium? Slammed car doors? The surveillance and chronic mistrust of his daughter, whom he hadn’t wanted to begin with? Instead, I simply told the small crowd that Richard was a man more comfortable with the ideas of the world than the world itself.

David told me that he and my father had taken the Speedline into Philadelphia one evening for a concert. Two drug addicts boarded the train at one of the Camden stops. They were out of control, David said. I wasn’t sure what "out of control" really meant, but I didn’t ask. My father recognized one of them as someone from the jail. He began talking to him in a calm, friendly voice. In five minutes, he took what could have been a dangerous situation and defused it.

As I listened to David, I pushed wet lettuce around the bowl of my Caesar salad and wondered what my father had said. The inmates had called him the Fat Man--there was a gleam in my father's eye when he told me this one day when I was in high school. He seemed not to mind the name; he almost looked amused.

Your dad was a man of many gifts, David said. I sipped my wine and said, yes he was. The knowledge that I had not been privy to more of those gifts pricked me.

What had my dad said? He likely did not pretend not to know the kid—anonymity wasn’t a part of jailhouse life. But he probably didn’t go out of his way to bring up the circumstances of their relationship, either. No need to remind the spiller of the milk.

I suspected he wouldn’t have preached. There would have been no “You don’t have to do this to yourself…your parents must be so sad…you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else.” Dad was not a man for platitudes.

What if I had grown up to be one of those junkies? Dad had routinely dumped the contents of my 8th grade book bag onto the cushions of the couch in the den. He examined the bag's seams closely. He looked for drugs he never found.

What would I have wanted him to say if he stumbled upon an alternative version of me in a train car, a druggie sweating through a rough patch? I imagined feeling engulfed in a red-pink electric cloud, seeing funhouse faces, and worrying that at any second the whole car would explode into flames. My hands would have shaken, and the pores of my face would have seemed to expand. I would have asked myself why this was supposed to be fun. My teeming brain would have quickly abandoned that line of questioning and tried to retreat into itself, like a turtle.

But then I would have seen the Fat Man sitting nearby, his big belly hanging over his pants—the khaki pair he endlessly tried to hitch up. His blue eyes, the ones that always reminded me of a gas stove flame, would have kindled benignly. I might have temporarily confused him with Santa Claus and decided that the train was his sleigh. How cool that Santa wore glasses, like me.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Little Sister

Little sister, I knew you were in trouble.

He was an odd choice—a math teacher from South Africa eager to master American slang and customs. He consistently made diction errors, like calling a place a “stop” instead of a “spot,” and using superannuated terms like “fuck buddy” instead of “friend with benefits.” He was fairly handsome, but nothing to write home about. His wardrobe was three years too young for him. You asked me not to laugh when you confided your crush.

We were all stuck in the mountains for three weeks, on a pretty, isolated college campus. What else was there to do?

At breakfast one morning, he plunked his tray down next to you and puckishly asked if you were hung over. You thought he was impertinent. The TAs get drunk and carry on at night, not us! Instructors are too busy communing with their subject matter. You pushed your sunglasses higher up your nose and pretended he hadn’t made this gaff. A lot is forgivable in a tight, temporary community.

He started following you around. He’s not shy, and you’re not the first woman to receive his attention here. Still, he made you feel newly desirable, like a long-forgotten silk scarf.

He teaches chaos. You cringe a little; this detail is too insipid even for you. Sitting with Chaos on a bench outside the library, you give him your patented naughty smile. He lets his hand rest gently upon yours.

Such encounters between strangers thrown together (highly educated and relatively young strangers at that) have all the ingredients to alchemize into pink and sparkling memory. It starts to feel like a memory even while it’s happening. You and Chaos could have been a Noel Coward play, or a Cole Porter song, except…well, except.

In your room that night, with the door closed, the Cocteau Twins playing, the joint lit, Chaos may have played with your hair and stroked your face. What you remember most vividly is him asking, “Do you want me to leave?” He had to ask a couple of times before the question took.

After he was gone, you curled up on your bed. The sheets were pulling away from the twin mattress.

You spent the whole next day hiding and throbbing with guilt. You went to neither lunch nor dinner. You avoided all common areas in the faculty dorm, especially the first floor lounge, with its elegant wood floor, brass lamps, and antique chaises. Much too romantic.

This dorm was for the teaching staff only. Why not? We were adults; we didn’t need our behavior monitored. We didn’t have to stand a minimum of eight inches apart like our gifted young charges. Our handbook did legislate that “Relationships between staff must be conducted with the highest degree of discretion.” But since the students slept all the way over on the other side of campus, you weren’t sure who this rule protected.

It’s tiresome to be the wife of the Great Man, you said during a walk we took to the Seven Eleven. You’re not married, but it feels like it—you’ve been together five years. Not that you are eager to commit. You both remember the scene when he thoughtlessly installed a toothbrush and a razor in your bathroom.

His philosophy dissertation is a Ceylon sapphire; yours in literature is a Hummel figurine a despised late uncle bequeathed to you. Your mother makes you keep it. Concepts that ceased to fascinate you a long time ago continuously roll from his mouth. He points out cultural incongruities in The Simpsons while you raise the television’s volume in a passive-aggressive attempt to silence him. He forgets his own birthday. You hate that.

This is why someone would cultivate an active fantasy life, I observed, hoping you were listening.

Unfortunately, you couldn’t avoid the farewell dinner. You tried the shabby excuse that you did not RSVP, but I assured you that no one would check. Your suitemate wanted you to go, too. She thought you do not socialize enough.

You wore your sundress. Its spaghetti straps exposed your bony shoulders and your breasts. You picked at some salad and ignored the special steak dinner.

Chaos arrived. After all, he never missed a meal, and he talked to everyone. There was no room at our table, but he sat as close to you as possible at the next one over.

You mumbled that you were going back to the dorm to change. You’ll be back, you promised. But this was the last time I saw you.

I opened my own suite door at around two in the morning to use the bathroom across the hall. At the same time, Chaos was leaving your suite. We kept our heads firmly down.

Perhaps you really did change clothes when you went back—you may have genuinely intended to return to dinner. But there was a knock on the door, and Chaos’s welcoming, coarse face with its big nose and thick eyebrows appeared through the peephole. He had noticed your dining hall exit.

Once he was inside, you offered him some additional marijuana. He lay down next to you, and the two of you examined the cracks in your ceiling. You decided that they made a map of continents, which the two of you then named and described. This one’s major export was the honey produced by its indigenous purple queen bees. The adjacent island was known for the aphrodisiacal properties of its spring water.

He kissed you. It was innocent and exploratory. You almost imagined that you could tell the Great Man about it. It was an epistemological experiment: I made out with the math teacher for you, my dear. I wanted someone to compare you with so that I could love you all the more. But you know you don’t have the intellectual chops to convince the Great Man of this.

Your jeans crumpled off. So did Chaos’s. But your shirts remained on. These dorm rooms are drafty even in the height of summer.

He left, and you hastily packed. Some time before dawn, you slipped your keys under the main office door and drove off down the mountain. You couldn’t face Chaos again. You couldn’t face anyone—not me, not your suitemate, not the TA you lectured about snogging. What a shame it was, you thought, that you couldn’t drive away from yourself.

The Great Man wasn’t expecting you until early evening. He planned to take you to dinner at your favorite Eritrean restaurant. First of all, you wanted to shower. Again, the banality was crushing.

All of her stuff’s gone, your suitemate told me later in an alarmed voice. She left without saying goodbye! She sounded so sad and surprised.

I wish I was surprised, little sister. But I wasn’t.