The Idiot’s Garden

A new friend in my pottery class gave me a box full of plants for my garden today. I have to say, of the six or so different species she gave me, I can only name one: the lambs ears. And I remember those because I specifically asked for them. The others are a mystery. There’s a beautiful dripping succulent, a lovely smelling mat of ground cover, some droopy leaves, another with round and wavy leaves, and one brown leafless specimen that I think I planted upside-down, with the roots sticking up in the air. I honestly couldn’t tell which end was up. I have splinters in my butt and pollen-induced snot in my nose. But I planted them, watered them, and wished them luck. “I don’t know what you are,” I said. “But I’m glad you’re here, and I hope you survive.”

A similar event happened last year, when friends gave me extra veggies they didn’t have room for in their garden. I knew nothing. I stuck them in the dirt and watered them and talked to them and hoped they would keep growing. And miraculously, they did – mostly, except the worm-infested cauliflower, which I finally gave up on. The generous donors asked me if I had Ph tested the soil or included compost tea, and I looked at them as though they were speaking Swahili. Because to me, they were. So this is my second year for what I call an “idiot’s garden.”

I’m learning, though. I now know what Ph-testing is, though I don’t do it. And I have a composter and compost tea. I knew enough today when I was digging to be careful and nice with the worms and indifferent (if not outright hostile) to the ants. But if you asked me what I have growing in my garden, I would point to the lambs ears and name them and then admit I have no idea what else is in there. I really do wish those little guys the best of luck. With me as their caretaker, they’re going to need it.

But here’s the thing. I love it. I LOVE IT. I love to garden and plant things and watch them grow. I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But for now, I don’t really care that much. Mostly because I’m just lucky, and I have friends who do know who are willing to teach me. And because life does seem to hang on, even in the most trying of circumstances. And what’s true in the garden is true, I think, everywhere else.

Take pottery, for instance. And poetry. And Zumba. These are all things that I love, love, love to do. And I think I can safely say that I suck at all of them. But I don’t care. I used to care. I used to care a lot. When I was in high school, I wouldn’t even try something if I even thought I may possibly not be awesome at it. I “lost interest” in any number of things because I wasn’t already good at them, or if I didn’t pick them up very quickly. I stopped horseback riding after one year, because you know what? That shit is *hard.*

But you know what else? LIFE is hard. Living is hard. I’m not a defeatist. I don’t think it sucks or isn’t worth living. Not at all. Life is full and beautiful and challenging and boring and thrilling. It is all of these things, but one thing it is NOT is easy. And maybe I just had to live long enough to learn that lesson, so that I no longer give a shit if I look foolish in Zumba class or my pottery flops over or looks wonky. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity. Or just acceptance of my own imperfections. So now I’m taking pottery and Zumba because *I LIKE THEM* and not because I’m waiting for someone to praise me for being so amazing.

I may not know what I’m doing, but the plants seem to, and so does the clay, and so does the music. So when I surrender to those things and let them carry me away with them, that’s when I *feel* amazing. And that’s what counts the most.

 

Addiction

Now I need to write about something lighter. That’s a joke. Dark humor. Here goes.

I was in a waiting room the other day and saw a People magazine with Philip Seymour Hoffman on the cover. I have so many feelings about this, I don’t know where to start.

When PSH died, I had assumed at first it was a heart attack. I saw him in the second Hunger Games movie, and he didn’t look good. He had gained weight, and his face looked red and blotchy. I hadn’t ever known about his drug addiction. When I found out his death was a result of heroin, I didn’t feel sad. I just got angry. How dare he waste himself like that? He was so talented, such an artist, so gifted. How dare he deprive the rest of us of his presence? See where I’m going with this?

I have many friends who were all much more sympathetic and sad and supportive of Mr. Hoffman’s life and addiction. All people whose opinions I respect. How could they see such a different picture? All I saw was someone who threw his life away. What about us, yes, but what about his children? What about them? Didn’t he care about them? How could he choose to waste himself with such a notoriously dangerous drug?

Yes, I have heard that addiction is an illness, not a choice. But he had chosen to stay away from heroin for twenty years. At some point, it’s a choice. At some point, you have a needle in your hand, and you can choose not to put it in your arm. But in the face of my friends’ responses, I had to ask myself some questions. Why am I taking this so personally? Why am I so personally angry with a man I have never met? And why do I feel so rigid in my condemnation of addiction as weakness?

If you are at all considering the role of my father in my life, you win the prize. Ding, ding, ding! As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was an alcoholic. I have said many times before and will say many times more what havoc that wreaked in my life. A couple of years ago, a friend talked to me about a woman in his life who drank too much. He said it didn’t bother him for his own sake so much. He just didn’t want it to affect any children they may have. I think I may have even stopped the car. I turned to my friend and said, “I am here to tell you that it will definitely, definitely, affect your children.”

My father never hit me. He never left my mom and me. He never lost a job due to his drinking. He was what many call a functional alcoholic. He was never lying in a gutter, singing songs to himself. But he drank every night, and he drank a lot. And the only time he stopped was when he got a DUI when I was a sophomore in high school. He stopped drinking for four years, then. Cold turkey. He was court-ordered to attend AA meetings for six months. He started drinking again when his mother had a heart attack and became bedridden. He never stopped again. When he was dying, he told the Hospice nurse that he drank six to eight drinks a night, every night.

Dad was there, in the house, but he was rarely actually there. I can intellectually understand that he used alcohol to manage his emotions, to medicate the constant pain in his legs from Polio, to salve the horrible wound of having lost my mom. But I don’t know if I will or can ever forgive him for it. My childhood is riddled with the holes made by his piercing addiction. When he was drinking, he made cruel jokes about my weight. He forgot about important dates and events in my life. He interrupted me when I was trying to share something important to me, to make jokes at my expense. He never let me finish a story. He ignored my needs, usually because he was so consumed with his own. He left me millions of times, even though we always lived at the same address. And I don’t know if I can ever let that go.

But then I need to look at myself. I am not an alcoholic. But I use sugar and food as drugs. I sit at the computer when Jack is in the room, so often keeping this wall of laptop screen between us, compulsively looking for news and drama online. It may not kill me as quickly as a heroin overdose, but it may pierce holes in Jack’s childhood that I can never repair. So the rage I feel at a stranger who has left his family and life work behind is really meant for the dad who left his family, who left me. And for myself, who leave my own child in big and small ways all the time.

Maybe it is a weakness. But maybe it’s a weakness that needs care, not rejection. I wonder if I can make room enough in myself for that.

The Things That Don’t Go Away

A year ago this weekend, I had an argument with a friend that basically ended that friendship. Every time I think about her, I feel sad and also still a little angry. I feel like I was unfairly treated. She felt like she was unfairly treated. My guess is that we were both right. But then she left town, moved out of state, without telling me, so that was that. But it’s one of those things that will probably always make me feel bad, guilty, hurt, etc.

Here’s another one. I recently hired a babysitter I had misgivings about, whom I didn’t investigate thoroughly enough. We’ll call her S. I had hired her through Care.com, an organization that charges $34 per month so you can search for caregivers for children, pets, and adults. I had assumed – stupidly – that the verification check they do on all of the registered service providers was equivalent to a background check. It’s not. They offer a background check, starting at $59 for the most basic one, and the cost goes up from there. I figured it would be overkill. So I thought this woman was a little bossy. That doesn’t mean she couldn’t be good for Jack. And Brian would be here at the house a lot of the day, working downstairs. I am so ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t even ask the woman for references. Didn’t even Google her.

And she turned out to be a very angry person, indeed. As far as I know, she was always gentle with Jack. I *assume* he would have bolted or cried when he saw her if she had been unkind. But you know what? That’s shameful. Because it’s not up to him. He’s just a little boy. And with autism, to boot, so he can’t verbalize very well. In the four weeks that she worked with him, though, he did start acting out and having more tantrums. I should have known. I should have protected him. I should have followed my original gut reaction and hired someone else.

But I doubted myself. I figured I was just defensive because the woman was a few years older than I am, with grown kids of her own. And she was working on a Masters degree in Psychology, focusing on child development, and she wanted to work with autistic kids. She was willing to keep a log of the work they did together every day. It was only seven hours a week. The excuses mounted. And then there was always, “Well, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll know in a couple of weeks and replace her then.”

Fuck. Me. First, there was the e-mail telling us to change Jack’s diet. Then the e-mail informing us that she was changing her hours, because it was “better for Jack.” When I argued that the hours we had originally set out were still what we preferred, she responded with, “Sorry, I have another client in Loveland. I have to leave by 2:30.” This “new client” was certainly news to me, particularly since it conflicted with our previous agreement. There was more. The implication in many small acts and comments that I didn’t know how to raise my son, that I was doing a poor job of things.

I’m raising an autistic child. I question every single fucking thing I do. Everything I say. Could I be doing more? Should we use brushes for OT or a weighted vest? Is he getting enough support at school? Did he have enough protein today? Jesus Christ. I already have a voice telling me I’m not good enough, pretty much all the time. It’s just usually in my own head. For it to come from the outside was a blow I hadn’t expected. And it worked like an ignition, pressing the button for all of my inner demons to rush to the surface and join the chorus.

Even in the midst of all this, I said to Brian, “Maybe it’s good to have someone who pushes my buttons. Maybe she’s still the best person for Jack.” Brian looked at me for a long moment. “The best person for Jack wouldn’t push your buttons,” he said. “Not like this, anyway.”

So we set about finding a replacement for S. We had interviewed two other candidates, both of whom were good options. One of them had her own transportation and had brought a resume with references. We called her. I’ll call her M. M came by for a “trial run” with Jack, and he really seemed to like her. She agreed to the hours we needed, asking if we could adjust slightly because she has class until 12:15 on Mondays. She actually asked, so I was OK with that. Once that was all set up, we were starting to prepare for Jack’s birthday party. Family coming into town, etc.

It was after the dust had settled from the birthday that I emailed S and let her know that we had found someone who could more easily accommodate our schedule needs. She replied with one of the more scathing e-mails I’ve ever received, calling me “tacky” and unprofessional. She referred to both Brian and Jack as “slow,” which made me realize that she obviously wasn’t paying attention. I responded that I’m not a business person, I’m a mother. She had no right to judge us as parents, and she would do well to work on kindness if she wanted to work with children as a career.

Her follow-up e-mail I never saw. Brian deleted it and blocked her account before I could see it. He shared some details with me, including that she called us both “idiots.” Throughout this e-mail, she referred to Brian as “Brain,” and she also said that he was “creepy” because he “stares at people when they talk.” And this person wants to work with autistic children? Is she aware that people with autism, including just mild autism, stare at people when they speak, because communication is difficult? Had I not already emphasized that communication was an issue for Jack? And also: Seriously? How old are you?

It was the following day that I heard from my mother-in-law, who had been aware of some of these proceedings. She had Googled S and discovered an arrest record from July of last year. S and her husband were both booked with charges of domestic violence. This wasn’t something that had happened twenty years ago, in her heady youth. This was less than a year ago. She and her husband had fought so ferociously that the police got involved. And she has an eleven-year-old daughter.

In a way, this discovery was immensely liberating, because I can hardly take seriously parenting advice from someone arrested for beating up her husband in her own home, possibly in front of a child. But the follow-up was fierce. I let this crazy person into my home. I hadn’t even Googled her. If my mother-in-law could find this out about S, why didn’t I bother to do so two months ago and save myself a lot of heartbreak? And what about Jack? He’s just a little boy. It’s my job to protect him from nut-jobs like her, and I failed him. He can’t speak up for himself against bullies. But I can. And I didn’t.

I feel so ashamed to admit all of this in a public forum. It makes me cringe. But I can only hope that my transparency will help someone else. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes. Maybe I can, too. And the pragmatic side of me says, “Well, she’s gone, now.” But this is going to be one of those things that will never go away. That time the crazy babysitter came in. Like that time the friendship ended. That time things went wrong and I wish I could go back in time and make them right again.

But I can’t.

Gentleness

I’ve been attending a Shambhala meditation center here in Fort Collins, where they teach tenets of Tibetan Buddhism philosophy and practice. My attendance is pretty sporadic, but I’m trying to get into the routine of waking up and getting dressed and driving downtown, so I can sit still for an hour or so and stop spazzing out all the time.

Going to a Buddhist center was the only thing that felt honest to me. We tried going to Christian churches, and we tried the Unitarian congregation, and nothing quite fit. The Unitarians were frankly boring, not what I had hoped for at all. I thought to myself, “You have generations of beauty and wisdom to choose from! We could be reading Rumi, Anne Sexton, Salman Rushdie. Why are you telling me about your trip to England?” It just felt dry and overbaked and blah.

Then we found a liberal Christian church where the people were very friendly and welcoming, the community vibrant and lively. But I couldn’t get past the Jesus stuff. Can you believe I used to be the Director of Christian Education at a church? I used to want to be an Episcopal priest. But the reason I never went to seminary is the same thing that has turned me off of Christian doctrine. Women seem marginalized, even in the best of circumstances. No matter how liberal your interpretation, you can’t change the fact that in a Christian church, you’re working with male-dominated literature from a male-dominated culture. And I’ve done enough research about the ancient Goddess religions to have even less favorable opinions about the Judeo-Christian track record with regard to the treatment of women and the demonization of the Divine Feminine.

But I digress. My whole point in starting this was to share a recent experience at what seems to be my new spiritual home. (That’s a phrase I haven’t used in a while!) During the discussion portion of our Sunday morning meditation session, the time-keeper/leader of our little group brought up the topic of gentleness. “What does gentleness look like when focused on ourselves?” she asked. She mentioned that in her experience, it seemed only to be an absence of self-abuse and criticism that she usually heaped on herself. It led to an interesting discussion.

I’ll say here that the word gentleness didn’t and doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve long equated the idea of gentleness with timidity and even weakness. I’m sure that says a lot more about me (and my upbringing) than it does about gentleness itself. But for the sake of our discussion, I substituted the word kindness. It feels stronger and less passive to me, somehow. And it works well enough for my purposes here, as well. The consensus of the group was that gentleness/kindness can take many forms, and that it doesn’t only entail not doing something. For instance, if you’re feeling exhausted, the kind thing to do for yourself may be to rest. But sometimes the kind thing isn’t about rest. It’s actually about effort. Getting up and getting dressed and driving downtown and parking and walking on a Sunday morning so I can attend group meditation practice is a kind thing to do for myself. I need that stillness, and I need the community. I also need the break from our daily routine at home, which can be anything but still. But it takes effort to get there. Likewise, the kind thing is often to take a walk, rather than a nap. My body needs that movement and fresh air. These are kind things. Not always easy things.

I may have mentioned before that Brian’s had some health problems. An odd, indefinite fatigue that seems to have vague causes that seem more mild than the symptoms would lead us to believe. Meanwhile, we’ve begun private speech therapy with Jack, and his therapist is sending home weekly assignments for us to work on between sessions. At the same time, I’ve been trying and failing to get back to a writing project very close to my heart. All of these things demand of me great kindness — and yes, gentleness — to myself and my family. But none of it is weak or timid. Not one bit of it. These are daily efforts that I don’t always feel like dealing with, but which will help each of us separately and all of us together feel more whole.

Wish me luck. And kindness. Amen.

Cow Town

When I was in college, I dated a guy from Fairfax County, outside DC. He and his friends from UVa made fun of me and my hometown of Winchester, VA, saying we were a cow town. I was incensed and offended. They pointed out that at one location, there were cows within the city limits. They thought this was worthy of derisive laughter.  And I supposed I agreed with them, or I wouldn’t have been embarrassed.

Now I live in a town with numerous horse trailers, paddocks, sheep, and chickens within the city limits, or at least very close. I haven’t seen cows, but a sign on the ridge west of town warns drivers to watch out for roaming cattle. When I left pottery class yesterday, I noticed that one of my classmates had hay in the back of their car. Several of my new acquaintances raise chickens and eat and sell fresh eggs. And it occurs to me — not just because of the eggs, but it helps — what exactly is wrong with living in a “cow town”? In what ways and why is it inferior to living amidst suburban sprawl, where nearly every square inch is paved over or subdivided?

I may have recounted this before, but it bears repeating. The university a mile from my home is known as an agricultural school. Temple Grandin, the famous autistic woman who redesigned cattle handling facilities across the country, works there. At football games between Colorado State and the University of Colorado in Boulder, the Boulder kids shout at their rivals, “Go back to your cow town!” To which the Aggies reply, “Go back to California!” Since the Buffs are infamous out-of-staters riding into Colorado on trust funds, the retort rings true (though obviously not for everyone).

This response also makes me proud of my neighbors, the Colorado State kids, most of whom came from a farm somewhere in rural Colorado, who exhibit the typical careless drunkenness of undergraduates everywhere, but who, when sober, always wave and say hello when they see us walk by. They’re in general a very polite, down to earth bunch, for college kids. I compare them mentally to the often spoiled, beautiful, and less-than-genius undergraduates at UNC Wilmington, where we used to live, and they definitely come out ahead. Maybe that’s unfair, and of course I’m generalizing. But so were the snobby kids from UVa who teased my friend Joy, whose pronunciation of the word pie rhymes with the sound sheep make.

I find that the people I have met here are durable folk. My pottery teacher told us that when they lived in a cabin in the mountains, they had no electricity. Her children did their homework by the light of a kerosene lantern. Does this make those children less intelligent than their better-heeled counterparts in Great Falls, Virginia (median home price: $900, 000)? I doubt it. But it does make them more resilient and better able to handle adversity, because they already have. What happens when the lights go out in the high-end suburbs?

Please understand. I’m not knocking my friends who live in cities and suburbs. I own a house in one of those suburbs. I lived in the DC area for twelve years, and it has so much to offer: music, theatre, museums, excellent schools. But the city hasn’t cornered the market on culture. If you look, you can find art and music pretty much everywhere you find people. And I like this better. I like fresh eggs and the smell of horse shit and the grubby integrity of people who live in the country. You can call me an Aggie if you want to. I don’t mind.

Racing the Sun

I’ve mentioned before that we live near a mountain range, right? And have I mentioned that the sun makes a big difference in temperature? Well, that’s true in the cold as well as the heat. The sun shining on me at 11:15 this morning, for example, made me doff my coat in forty-five degree weather. And I was perfectly comfortable. But the ridge closest to our house hides the sun at about 4:05 pm these days (and getting earlier!). So I find myself racing to get out the door to get my walk in before it gets shady and cold in these here parts.

Now, something I’ve also probably mentioned once or twice is that I have a son, yes? You’ve heard about this? Yes, he’s a rip-roaring three-year-old, and he pretty much wears me out every day. When I put him down for his nap at 2pm every day, I have to take a nap, or I will die. I think that may even be a verifiable medical fact. Not sure. I haven’t had the guts to test it.

Are you getting the idea here? I have to nap at two (to avoid death), and I have to finish my walk by four. I’ll add into the mix the fact that I’ve had insomnia for the last three nights. So today, I lay down at 2:15, tried to read for about thirty seconds, and then fell asleep. I didn’t wake up until after 3:30. When I saw the clock, I sat bolt upright in bed, like I was having a heart attack. I remember waking like that on mornings when I had to catch a flight or get to work on time, but this was getting a little ridiculous.

To make matters more complicated, I decided to go out without a coat, since it had been so warm earlier. Dumb, dumb, dumb. And because I was still disoriented from the nap, it took me nearly twenty minutes just to get my shoes and scarf on. And even though the sun was technically above the ridge when I left the house, I walk in a neighborhood with houses in it. (Shocker, I know.) And they blocked the sunlight. So I was in shade most of the way, shivering and beating myself up for being so lazy, stupid, selfish, and Communist. (May as well throw in everything.)

It occurred to me on this chilly walk, which I admit I shortened to avoid the cold, that what I have been doing with my walks, I also do with my life. I’m racing the sun, trying to fit in everything before I die. Or before bedtime. Or before the first of the month. Or whatever deadline exists, either real or imaginary. I don’t fool myself. Many of my time limits are self-imposed and arbitrary, but death is one I can’t fudge. That’s for real, and whether or not my conscious mind admits it, that deadline – no pun intended – runs me.

I guess it runs a lot of us. There’s even a country song about “rushing, rushing, till life’s no fun.” And that’s a country song, one of the more laid back musical genres in existence. But maybe we – I – are rushing and panicking about all the wrong things, because we don’t want to look at the big thing. We have so little time on this planet. I didn’t even realize it until I turned forty, and now it seems more true every year. Every month. Every day. It doesn’t really matter if I get the cranberries cooked in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Or if I get in a thousand words of writing instead of nine hundred tonight.

What matters is this sense of urgency deep inside me to live my life to the fullest, to stop wasting time, to pay attention. Lately, Brian has been very tired. Not normal tired, or even normal-with-a-kid tired. His energy levels are way too low. He’s seeing a doctor about it; two, in fact. He thinks it may still be the Paxil withdrawal, but his biggest fear is that he will never find out what’s wrong, and he’ll never get better. This is a pretty serious development for someone who wants to climb mountains for a living. And I don’t know what to do. I can’t help him. I don’t have the answer. And I want to fix him.

I want to fix him for my sake, so he can rush around alongside me, doing all of the things that make our household run. I want to fix him for his sake, so he is happy and strong and hopeful again. I want to fix him for Jack’s sake, so he can be tickled and joked with and chased and held. But I can’t fix him at all, and this is causing me more anxiety than I have been willing to admit even to myself.

But maybe what I really, really, really need to do is slow down. Listen to my husband and hold him and cry with him and let him know, over and over, that we are in this together. Because that is the only truth I am sure of, right now.

And maybe, maybe, this slowing down thing will be enough.

Full Circle

Today I visited a place I haven’t seen in eleven years. It’s called Betasso Preserve, west of Boulder. My friend Ginger took me there in November of 2002, when Colorado and its harsh beauty were brand new to me. She was a friend from college, smart and wise and kind. She felt an intuitive tug to take me to this park, and it changed me.

At the time, I was still very close to the grief from my mom’s death, only a year and a half before. I had spent most of my summer terrified into paralysis with the fear that my father would die soon, too. I obsessed over it, fretted, lost sleep. I didn’t want to lose anyone else. I still lived alone and worked as a technical writer at a big government contractor. I had recently changed offices, making my daily commute twenty minutes longer than it already was. That fall, a sniper was driving around the DC area in a white van shooting people in parking lots. Life just felt too unstable and terrifying.

Meanwhile, I worked with computer programmers, a lot of them young single men. Some were interesting, most weren’t. And the ones who were interesting were often not interested, but a couple of them had potential. Then a few days before I left to visit my friend Ginger, this tall blond guy walked into the office. I knew him. I thought his last name was funny. He was shy but had a nice smile. He would be working on my project, and no one had met him at the door. He didn’t even know where to sit, let alone where to set up his computer, etc. So I ended up being his welcoming committee. I brought the IT guy over, helped him get set up, introduced him to our team.

During my visit with Ginger, she said two things that stuck with me. First, she said it seemed like I was thinking of a romantic relationship as a reward I would get — like an ice cream sundae — for getting all fixed and being perfect. “It doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Relationships just offer us new and different opportunities to keep growing and learning.” When I told her about the few potentials at work, she said, “It looks to me like you have several doors available to you. Why not just walk through one and see what happens?”

It was good to see my friend. But really, the biggest moment of the trip arrived that afternoon at Betasso Preserve. I looked out over sloping fields and the overlapping layers of evergreen in the canyon, down into the town of Boulder, and I knew deeper than I could say that I belonged there. Those are the words that came out, as I laughed and cried at the same time. “I belong here, I belong here.” I laughed and cried like that — loud, embarrassing, gasping sobs and laughter — for a few minutes. At the time, I thought it meant that I belong here on the planet, despite my mother’s death, despite the sniper and my dad and the fears of this life.

And I think that is still all very, very true. But it turns out that my innermost self also knew a second truth. Because here I am in Colorado, an hour’s drive from that very spot where I cried and laughed and found myself. I followed my friend Ginger’s advice and walked through one of those doors. That shy, tall guy with the nice smile made me laugh and won my heart without even meaning to. And he’s the one who has brought me here to Colorado, full circle.

betasso_1

Today I drove to Betasso alone. I stood out on that same meadow, looking down at the rolling fields and canyon trees and the flat plains beyond. I acknowledged all I’ve done since my last visit there. I have married and created a new person, a son who lights up my life and challenges me daily. I have a master’s degree and three unfinished books. And the thing I feared so intensely in 2002 has come to pass: my dad is gone, too. I looked out over that beauty and told him and my mom that I miss them so much. I wish so deeply that they could be here in the world with me and with Jack and with their dear son-in-law, Brian. It will never be OK that they’re gone.

But I am OK. I will be OK. I still belong here. And here I am.

Conflict

I will never forget the fiction writing workshop I took in undergrad. I remember the first story I turned in was called “soporific” by the instructor. I had to look it up. It means “inducing sleep.” Um.

OK, so it was about two sisters at bedtime in their grandmother’s house. But I didn’t take it as a good sign. Enter piece #2, a fictionalized version of my boyfriend trying to teach me to drive a stick-shift car. I hoped maybe the non-fiction foundation would make it more interesting. “There’s not enough conflict here,” said pretty much everyone in the workshop. And on, and on.

In my mid-twenties, I worked with an Episcopal priest who was only a few months older than I was. She asked me once, “What do you think of when I say the word conflict?” And without thinking, I cringed. She shook her head. “OK, there. That’s the problem. Conflict can be good. It can teach you. Why do you avoid it?”

“Because it sucks?” I answered.

My fiction doesn’t have enough conflict, because I don’t want anything bad happening to my characters. Truth is, I don’t want anything bad to happen to me, either. But the “bad” stuff that happens to us is the meat and potatoes of life. I don’t want to tempt fate, here, but I know it to be true. When my mom died, I didn’t want to keep living in a world that didn’t have her in it. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to go to work. When I did go to work, I didn’t want to do anything. What was the point? But my dad, and my meditation teacher, and my coworkers, and my friends, at different times and in different ways, kicked me in the ass and got me moving again. I had an hour-long commute, and I cried through every minute of it. I lived alone with a cat in a townhouse, and I cried a lot there, too. And I took my little red wagon of grief wherever I went.

But I went. I’ve said this before, but it’s still a great idea. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger, it just doesn’t kill you. And you have to believe, or at least hope, that that is enough. And I kept moving, kept going, dragged myself out of bed day after day. And eventually, I did feel stronger. Because there wasn’t anything that could happen at work, for instance, that was harder than what I’d already been through. I joined a public speaking group at work, and I was never nervous about getting up in front of people and talking, because hell, what could they do to me? I took a graduate English class at George Mason because, well hell, what could happen? The worst had already happened, and here I was.

At one point when I was still unable to leave my house, my meditation teacher said to me, “If you saw someone who had been beaten to a pulp lying on the floor, you wouldn’t blame them one bit if they just kept lying there, would you?” No, of course not. “But,” she said, “What would you think — what would you feel — if that person got up?” And my brain went back to the opening sequence from the movie The Matrix, when Trinity is running from the bad guys and tumbles down a flight of stairs and is lying there, looking up, and says, “Get up, Trinity. Get up, Trinity. Get. Up.” — I knew she was talking to me.

It turns out, I come by this aversion to conflict honestly. I learned it at home. When my dad died, my dear friend Cindy rescued a manuscript of a short story he had written decades ago, when I was only eleven or twelve. I only just read it a few weeks ago. It’s not a great story. It could be the outline of a much longer and more interesting work. But reading it gave me a great insight into my relationship with my dad, and how alike we really were. Like in most of my fiction, his characters were likeable, the dialog was interesting, but nothing happens. I mean, stuff happens. But there’s no conflict, no difficulty that the main character has to face, no growth, no change in him. Aha. I see a pattern here.

My dad and I did the same thing with each other my whole life. We tried so hard to protect each other (and ourselves) from conflict that we never grew past a superficial understanding of each other. We knew some things — favorite foods and movies, sense of humor, etc. But we never got underneath that, because we didn’t let ourselves engage in real, healthy conflict. Oh, we fought. We definitely fought. But it wasn’t like a real battle, more like two walls banging into each other. Somehow, miraculously, maybe because of Mom’s death, or maybe because of all the help I got afterward, but eventually, I learned about conflict. I’d say conflict is one of the better aspects of my marriage with Brian. We argue, yes, but we really engage, and nine times out of ten, we learn something we didn’t know about each other — or ourselves. We resolve the conflict and actually grow as a partnership. I love that about us. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t convenient. It’s hard work.

So now I need to create a story with a hero who suffers, and I’m balking. I still don’t want anything to happen to this guy. I like him. But I also want him to grow. I want him to change. I want him to learn something about himself and human nature that he didn’t know before. And it occurs to me that I know the answer now to my meditation teacher’s question from years ago. What would I feel if someone bloodied and beaten, lying on the floor, showed the gumption to finally get up? Hope.

 

 

The Other

In grad school, I took a Research course with my thesis director. She invited several guest lecturers to come and speak to our class about their process of researching for a piece of creative writing. One guest, Daniel Nathan Terry, was a recent graduate of the program, and had recently had a book of poetry published about the Civil War. Titled Capturing the Dead, the collection follows a well-known photojournalist of that era who photographed battlefields and soldiers—dead and alive—to document the events (and horrors) of the war. The poet addressing our class was a gay white man born in twentieth-century South Carolina, who previously knew almost nothing about the Civil War. But his subject, a real man, fascinated him, and he pursued the story that would win him the 2007 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. From the historical personages, Terry extrapolated and created a fictional character whose story he follows most intimately. For the poet, it involved a synthesis of real historical fact, his own fictional plot, and the various forms and rigors of poetry.

One student asked Terry if he ever doubted his ability to deliver a faithful account of people and an era he had never known. Terry’s response rang true for me. He first discussed the issue as a larger argument in poetics: women writing as men, men as women, black writers as white characters and vice versa. “It’s done all the time,” he said. “Sometimes, yes, it’s done badly. But when it’s done well, it opens our eyes and our hearts to a different perspective previously unavailable to us. I think that the moment a writer is no longer willing to see ‘the other’s’ perspective, the moment we become unable to at least consider a point of view different from our own, our hope for world peace is gone.”

A Discovery-Times Channel documentary (produced in 2004) follows four former Ravens who return to Laos. They’re looking for closure, for peace of mind, for some resolution from their time at war. At least one of them wants to sit down with the surviving Hmong natives and apologize for leaving so suddenly. When the peace agreement for Vietnam was signed in January of 1973, the United States agreed to pull all personnel out of Laos as well as Vietnam. Many who had fought alongside the Hmong felt very deeply that they were abandoning their friends to a most cruel fate. (And they were right on that count. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled Laos and took refuge in camps in Thailand. Many were sent to “re-education” camps by the incoming Communist leaders.) Many of the Ravens felt ashamed of themselves, of their country. The United States left the wars in Southeast Asia, in large part, because the American public was so violently against the action, and it became an untenable political position. As one former Raven said, “It’s a very dark and shameful chapter of our history.” Not only did they face the brutalities of war, but they weren’t allowed to speak about it for over twenty years after they left Laos, when the work they did there was finally declassified. So these four men returned to make what peace they could.

The Ravens were led by a Laotian interpreter and guide, a retired military officer in the Communist army. Their guide was, in turn, monitored by a government “minder,” who made sure that the visitors would not cause trouble, or see anything they shouldn’t see. One large problem they encountered was not being able to visit Long Tieng, the site of their home and headquarters during the war. The issue was safety. Guerrilla troops had recently attacked a vehicle on the road near Long Tieng, killing four people. These guerrillas were likely Hmong, still fighting the Communist government after forty years. Instead of going to Long Tieng, the Ravens were rerouted to a city in northern Laos, near the Communist stronghold of Sam Neua. Here, they faced recriminations about the damage left by their forces during the war. At one ruined temple, the monk blessed them but also scolded them for staying away so long without an apology.

Finally, the guide led the Ravens to a village of natives who were supposedly Hmong, but Laotian interpreters examining the video back in America realized the villagers were from a different group, and not Hmong at all. The Communist minder had suggested this group. Watching the video, I felt enraged and betrayed on behalf of the veterans who had only wanted to make amends to the people they’d been forced to abandon so many years ago. One of these men also told about returning from Laos to his wife and children after five years overseas. “I was absent from my family for five years,” he said. “And when I came back, I was a stranger. And I lost that family.”

It is this tragic side of the Ravens’ experience that I am so drawn to. I have never been a soldier. I have never fought in a war. I was barely an infant when these men came home. But I am a human being, and my heart breaks for men who lost friends, lost families, lost parts of themselves in a war they could never win. And despite my comfortable civilian life, I was raised by a man scarred by his own war. I know what it’s like to try to reach someone, to strive endlessly for resolution, for peace, and be denied.

Lord, Here Comes the Flood

I wanted to look up this song by Peter Gabriel before using the title, to make sure it was appropriate. Then I did, and I cried. Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0GcqYGv1AA. I’m not even quite sure what the song is about, but one site I came across suggested it was about World War II. Knowing that Peter Gabriel’s political conscience often enters into his music, it made sense to me.

Just to clarify, I’m not writing this post about World War II. But I am writing a larger work about the Vietnam War and the concurrent CIA operations in Laos, and war is war, and it pretty much sucks for everyone involved (except maybe those who have the power to send other people to war, but I digress). And for years later, it haunts people. In the case of the men who served in Laos, they’re also haunted by having to leave their mission and go home, abandoning the native Hmong fighters to hold off the North Vietnamese Army by themselves, without our air power or even our equipment.

It seems like a strange segue, but I’m really writing about an actual flood, here in my backyard. It happened nearly two months ago now, and I feel guilty admitting that for us, in our part of town, it was really a non-event. It rained for a few days, and our grass got really green (an unusual occurrence in Colorado). But around us, people were reeling. The local school district had students in the mountains on a retreat, and they had to get them out by helicopter. Farms were destroyed. The road up to Estes Park, one we’ve taken before, is gone — completely washed out — and isn’t expected to be drivable until spring, at the soonest.

Yesterday, I drove to Boulder to meet a mosaic artist whose work I love. (See her stuff here: Kasia Mosaics.) Her work was up in a gallery in downtown Boulder, but I had missed the show, so she generously invited me to her home studio to see the pieces I had missed at the gallery. Now, I don’t just love the work, I love her! It was a selfish errand, but I learned a lot along the way. Kasia lives about seven miles up a road called, ironically, Fourmile Canyon Road. It’s a side road off of Boulder Canyon, an area hit very hard by the September floods.

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Kasia and her neighbors were forced from their homes by the flood and weren’t able to return until over a month later. And the work continues. On my slow journey up the canyon, I passed at least three crews hard at work, replacing the road bed with fresh dirt and gravel, clearing debris from the sides of the road. And by “debris,” I mean uprooted trees, furniture, tools, laundry baskets, and in some cases, homes. Two houses had fallen into the creek behind them, turned sideways and backward. And that’s just what I saw from the safety of my car. Kasia assures me that the area looked many times worse the first time she saw it. “I was walking (because we couldn’t drive in), and the pole of someone’s mailbox was nearly even with my head. That’s how much of the road was gone. It looked like a dinosaur had come and just eaten sections of the road.”

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Boulder County is wealthy, and they can afford three or four crews to repair a damaged road and restore a sense of sanity to the people who live there. But I think of all the places in the world that can’t recover from a disaster like this. Too many to name. And even here, life changed in an instant. No amount of money can repair the inner damage that can do. And despite the strange connection, I can’t help but keep coming back to this idea of water and war. In either case, Gabriel’s lyrics ring true.

When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls
In the thunder crash
You’re a thousand minds, within a flash
Don’t be afraid to cry at what you see
The actors gone, there’s only you and me
And if we break before the dawn, they’ll
Use up what we used to be.