Essay :: Stripped for Parts

Stern man in Homburg hat staring at camera in black and white photo.
Courtesy of the Australian Maritime Museum.


I lived next to a boy, years ago, who did time for stealing cars.

When he got out, he worked at a restaurant downtown.

He wasn’t the first person I ever met who had a story to tell, but he was the first boy I ever met who bought his girlfriend flowers every Friday afternoon on his way home from work.

His kitchen whites were splattered with an astonishing amount of raw ingredients. He smelled like pie crusts and warm milk.


Like many folks you meet, this boy’s life was bifurcated by a singular event.

There was a before and an after made up of two different sets of choices, two different lives.

He stole cars. Then he went to juvie for three, four years. Afterwards, he got out and he did not steal cars. Instead, he made pastries.

He didn’t even like cars. He liked his job in the kitchen of a small upscale bakery. He liked his girlfriend. He liked to sun himself like a house cat on the steps of the turn-of-the century porch attached to the ancient duplex where we lived.

What this boy did as a teenager was not a secret— otherwise, I would not be telling you this story now— neither the stealing, nor the part afterward, where the boy that smelled like pie would sit in the sun and wait for his girl to get home.


You see, writers tend to steal little things off of people—

a complete set of figured naval buttons on a man’s patched pea coat; a certain way a woman pushes back her bobbed silver hair; a child that can whistle with two fingers like a man.

Writers pocket these moments and pull them out to look at later under a lamp with a notebook. This is fine with me— it’s magpie stealing. It is general and gestural and often sweet.

There’s another kind of stealing that happens, though, where a writer will pick the lock on your life story, touch a couple of wires together, and roll your life down the driveway before you even know your story is gone.

One day, your life may turn up in a book— it may have a new paint job and four white wall tires, but you’ll know it’s your story. You’ll know. Trust me. And you’ll feel mugged.


Joan Didion once said that you’re not a writer unless you’re selling somebody out.

In theory, that makes sense. Writers tell stories about people.

But when Didion says these words, it sounds even more tough and souped up and justified. Like they had it coming to them. Those people. For talking and telling their stories.

She was young, or youngish, when she made this pronouncement in the prologue of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I was young when I read it.

I believed, and believe many things Didion said, and says, but I never bought this one part, not really.

And I wonder, sometimes, I really wonder what it cost Didion to sell out so many people’s stories with a practiced flick.


This boy from all those years ago did not keep this side jaunt from his own story a secret from anyone.

And I’ve met people before, and since, who have done more astonishing things than stealing a car with a team of teenagers in the middle of the night for a living.

What I like to remember about that boy is a moment every Friday when we would have the same conversation.

I lived behind the house in the old servant’s quarters above the garage. Most days, I would back down the driveway with the windows down. And most days I would stop because the neighbor boy would wave at me and pop his chin in my direction.

“Hey girl! What’s up? A— ‘s gonna be home soon.”

“Lotta nada! Gotta work.”

“You’re always working.”

“Don’t I know it. You need me to bring you all anything?”

“No, I got dinner for A— and I bought her some Zinnias today. Gonna sit here in the sun ’til she gets home.

“Lucky you! Give A— my best.”

His eyes would close. His smile would widen, and his chin tilted back to the sun. He knew what lucky was.


I once lived next to a boy who stole cars and went to jail.

But, this? This is not the remarkable part of the story.

What is remarkable is that he bought his girlfriend flowers every Friday afternoon, without fail.

Zinnias. Orchids. Gerber daisies. Tulips.

He never bought her roses. Not once.

He said that roses lacked imagination, and he loved his girl too much to be lazy.

So he bought her Calla lilies— blooms that smelled as rich as a warm Friday afternoon spent daydreaming, daydreaming in the sun.


Young woman with bobbed hair looking off into the distance in black and white portrait photo.
Photographer William Hall. Courtesy of the Australian Maritime Museum.

This story has been revised. Originally published on May 4, 2012.

Essay :: Dogs and words

 

Brightly colored collage with medieval painting and Allen Ginsberg's head.
Die Melancholie Bluebird


What is a dog but the lovely wagging of his tail?

I am a writer: I live in my head most days, and if I do not set timers and automatic devices, I would forget to eat on time or consume adequate amounts of life-giving coffee. When I am writing or thinking about writing (which is almost all of the time), I live not outside of time but between time—I wake to a thin straw of light poking through the barkcloth blackout curtains The Husband built. At night, I go to sleep when it is dark and quiet and the arterial whoosh of cars gives way to the surreal winter bark-amidst-silence of a dog in a backyard two miles away.

Or rather, I should say this is how I think I live—suspended in a neural web of spacelessness and placelessness. Instead I live amidst life in all its screaming glory for I live with dogs, who are the natural champions of joie de vivre. Dogs don’t merely enjoy your presence, they require things of you throughout a given day. The needs of each of the three dogs who live with me (with whom I live) vary, but they more or less follow some pattern—a daily shape that helps me to pay attention, to step out of my own mind and the story unspooling (hopefully) through my fingers onto a page, either digital or physical, but no less real in actuality.


What is a dog but the lovely wagging of his tail?


My dogs keep me anchored here, sunk into my own real-life narrative of meals and tamed caffeinated vices and phone calls and clean laundry, and not that other here where the story has formed a ripe and tempting surface that begs to be sliced open like a pomegranate to allow the seeds to spill forth. That here lives in a luminous fugue of fog over my head—but that here can wait for me to bathe or to return that phone call. It will pause and swirl in place so that I may get down on the floor and roll around with Abelard, a dog who’s been known to grab you by the neck with his single polydactyl front paw to draw your face into a broad lick that swipes your schnoz.

If you’re wondering, that here and this here are not the same here. They don’t really shift and mix into a single soap bubble the way most people imagine writer’s reality and real reality to commingle. Most modern mistakes about writers begin with montages from b-grade movies and end in bad soft jazz. In these movies, you never see the writer writing, you see the writer moving about. They’re speed-walking with a neighbor. They’re browsing through the cozy bookstore. They’re talking over dinner, and it’s all okay because they’re writing in their heads again, all while wearing this year’s trouser and next year’s watch with an unstudied elegance that makes me ball my inky hands into inky fists.

There are reasons that writers have rooms with doors that lock. There are reasons why writers wake up at 4:23 in the morning to write while the rest of the household sidestrokes through a five-fathom sleep in tousled warm beds. There are reasons for the battered sweaters and the old shoes. (Who wants to get ink and newsprint on your good clothes, if you can avoid it?) And there are other reasonable things a writer does not mention because to mention them is to discuss the mechanics of the close magic that maps out the place where writers write. (It has little to do with speed-walking, I assure you.)


…the story has formed a ripe and tempting surface that begs to be sliced open like a pomegranate to allow the seeds to spill forth.


Regarding that close magic, here’s the hardest trick: To even get to that other here takes work. In order to write something new, a writer must put herself into a space akin to a trance state, which can be achieved by the following means: a daily routine that is never broken, a ritual space and/or time to write in which one is not disturbed for the duration of the writing experience; noise or silence—there’s no between on this aspect of writing—you either write with music or white noise or the only music you want to hear is your own words in your own head. And time. Lots and lots of time.

It is irregularity that will destroy the writer’s hyperfocused state— intermittent events of no particular pattern, e.g., the sounds that people make doing all sorts of ordinary everyday things as well as the normal goings-on of dogs. At our house, Abelard lives in the nowest of nows. He’s the most physical of our three canines. When we go to bed at night, it’s Abelard who will fall back into my or The Husband’s arms and asks to be spooned and skritched. It’s Abelard who flea-checks my hair every other day; Abelard who wobbles his girth into most of my desk chair while I sit and write on its precipitous edge. It’s the drowsing Abelard’s damp adenoidal breath deposited directly into my ear that levitates me into the deepest sleep I’ve ever entertained, night after night. As a result, Abelard walks through my dreams and into my stories in a variety of guises.


Abelard lives in the nowest of nows.


But it’s not just him—it’s Ilsa’s cold nose and her warning bark at the door (“Visitors! Visitors! Visitors!”); it’s Monkey’s soft, questing nudge on the leg—(“May we go out now?”; “Will you feed me?”; “Can I sit in your chair?”; “Do you know it’s time for bed?”; “Is this something I can chew up?”). It’s the day and it’s The Husband and it’s the words I will set forth, which live in that supraliminal space between my head and my heart, my inner eye and my outer sight. It’s word meshed to action and action braided to word. It’s the part of my person that knows to get up once an hour from the wrecked Hollywood Regency desk to reach and shout and move around the house. It’s the dogs barking at glossy black Sapo the fence-jumper who never barks back. It’s reading a poem from a book out loud in my office and Abelard sauntering into the doorway to hear it because he thinks the poem is for his ears, and in a way, it is.

It’s the metronomic beat between idea and expression, betwixt thirst and glass and water, behind every gesture I make, even the ones I make at my desk, especially the ones I make at my desk: I studied dance for 20-odd years of my life and to live with dogs and words is to live in the constant space of the dance studio and its sweaty, silent rituals punctuated by the shouts of the teacher in the room: “HIGHER!” “FASTER!” “DO IT AGAIN!”.  And so we do.


PHOTO CREDIT: Allen Ginsberg’s black and white mug was provided by Wikimedia’s own Michel Hendryckx. (Dank u wel, Meneer Hendryckx. Votre photo est trés belle!)

In Memorium :: Even the rivers have rivers where he shall go


Santa_Fe_R.R._crosses_the_Colorado_River_into_California_between_Topock1a34756v

Some stories are more impossible than others.

  Take the story of my friend Mark. I’ve been trying to write something about him for nearly three weeks.

Ever since I received the quiet phone call from my friend Phillip regarding Mark’s death, I’ve sat at my desk at varied hours in different arrangements to do just this one thing.

To this end, you would find me here in the morning staring at the French gray walls of my office, and again, in the afternoon, holding my $5 fountain pen over my $2 notebook.

Late at night I remain rooted here— hunched forward, scowling at the screen while a 70 lb. three-legged dog attempts—in a show of loyalty—to co-occupy my office chair as I write.


You could, if you liked, measure him in cultivated silences—because he was a man who considered your question with judicious care before offering an answer.


Or not write, as has been the case, about Mark and Mark’s life.

My stalled fingers hover and tremble at the keys not because of the dog in my chair and not because I’m constantly losing my $5 pen in my cluttered office, and not because I don’t know what to say—because goodness knows I have yet to run out of things to say about everything and everyone, even if it takes me all night or a whole year or a flaming hot deadline to figure out what to say and how to say it.


What has halted me again and again are the facts and the figures.

There is so much of Mark to know, and so many shared experiences with Mark to consider, the tenure of our two-year friendship creaks and wobbles under the weight of all the abundance that is Mark himself.

If you wanted to find the shape and substance of a man like Mark, you could measure him by his heavy shelves of wonderful books or the many gorgeous frames of film he shot in his storied travels.

You could, if you liked, measure him in cultivated silences—because he was a man who considered your question with judicious care before offering an answer.


A person’s life is not a playbook, you see, or a morality tale or a pithy epigram . . .


You could easily measure Mark by his stories, which were legion and inclusive, or by the sweet banter he shared with the love of his life, Dawn.

Many of you will study the length and breadth of the man based on the size and shape of his strong friendships, or maybe just one friendship, the one he had with you.

I know I will measure him by the conversations we did not yet have, the notes for which I’d ferreted away for a sunnier day when Mark was feeling well enough to talk, and I will also measure him through the books he introduced to me and I, to him.


But this is where I leave off the checks and balances and the counterweights because what has occupied the center of my sadness at the loss of Mark is the Mark-shaped hole in my heart, and that absence cannot be measured or weighed or explained with ease.

A person’s life is not a playbook, you see, or a morality tale or a pithy epigram; a man like Mark is not solely the sum of his stories, his books and his papers, nor is he a proof to be deduced solely by his devotedness to his family, his spouse and his friends.

Mark was Mark, and he is Mark still. I would give every book in my library to hear the sweet scratchiness of his voice again; to listen to him tease Dawn and Dan and his parents in his funny, gracious way.

But no one’s offering me an exchange rate on my books for the width and breadth of this dear man’s life.


I open the chrome and glass doors of the diner and clatter inside, searching for faces I’ve only seen in pictures.


Instead, I’m left to my office in a crooked little suburb in a cranky old city, standing upright but leaning against my desk.

I am paying close attention to the rain that burbles against the panes of my dusty aluminum-framed windows, and the darkness outside seems unceasing at this time of night.

Still, the dog with three legs slumbers on the floor, running the length of the room in his dreams. Still, this house sleeps on and on.

All the while, one part of my mind continues to cross and re-cross a single moment in another November, when I walked into a local diner ten minutes late to meet Dawn and Mark and Dan and Mr. and Mrs. A— for the first time.


But no alchemy of mere words will bring you back from the places you had yet to go.


Here.  Look.The noonday sun holds up the sky. I open the chrome and glass doors of the diner and clatter inside, searching for faces I’ve only seen in pictures.

The cashier, seeing my confusion, steps from behind the counter to lead me around a wall of sturdy glass blocks. The first person I see is a bespectacled and smiling man rising from his seat to greet me, followed in no short measure by his brother and his father, while his spouse and his mother look up and offer me two equally lovely grins.

 

Oh, Mark, I am so very nearly embarrassed to tell you how much I’d be willing to give up just to have this one moment, with you, again. But no alchemy of mere words will bring you back from the places you had yet to go. And there is no way to measure and shape the entirety of you into a single, small story. Trust me, Mark, I’ve tried. You know that I’ve tried.

 

If a man’s life is a river, your life is—and was—a place where even the rivers have rivers of their own.

I believe your rivers have reached their headwaters now. Godspeed, Mark.

 

 

 

Essay :: Names: Some secret, some not


The foster dog looks at The Husband

1.

I have been caring for a foster dog for five weeks and I have not given him any name, even a temporary one on which we all can hang our future hopes for him. Instead, I have called him “Bub” and “Junior” and “the baby” and “darling” and “you.” When I croon to him, the foster dog has heard himself named “sweetie” and “good boy” and “good dog” in the dulcet sing-song I use with babies and young dogs. And when the foster dog requires correction, my stentorian tones linger on “mister” and “sir” and “buddy” — as in “Buddy, you had better leave that power strip alone or we’ll all get a shock today.” and “Sir! Compose yourself.”

In these five weeks, I have called the foster dog so many random things that he does not know when he is being called except that I routinely clap my hand twice across my breastbone and whistle to bring him in from the darkness at the edges of the yard. When he races on three legs from out of the shadows of the loquat trees, I drop to my heels to catch him in my arms and call him “good dog” and “sweet baby” and “love.” While he sighs and presses into my shoulder, I massage his cheeks with the palms of my hands in the circle of brightness from the security light by the back door. And there it is: I regret another day in which I have not named him.


2.

I myself have two first names—a public name and a private name. Nearly four decades ago, my mother asked her mother to drive her to municipal libraries in three cities to look for names for the spark she carried between her small hips. It was my grandmother who told me this story first—with an equal amount of amusement and wonder and respect—because she, herself, would not have gone to any wild trouble over a name—names came to you, she believed, not you to them. You did not, as my grandmother put it “hunt them down” or “track a name to the near-ends of the earth.” But this is exactly what my mother did when she was six months pregnant and beginning to show a little, even when she wore her car coat.

Put another way, my mother didn’t require someone else to climb over the fence of the witch’s garden patch next door to settle her craving for green spring peas like the pregnant woman in the fairy tale. She herself launched over that garden wall with a leg up from my grandmother. Only my mother knew what she was craving, and only she could find it. And woe be to any witch who threatened my mother —she was the hero on a quest. Everybody knows you don’t mess with the hero of the story. You drive them to the library to hunt for names, or you get out of the way.

My mother, the hunter. My mother, the hero. My mother, the sorceress. My mother, who gave me two first names, one secret, one not.

To know my true name is to conjure me on the spot.


3.

In fairy tales, one’s name is the source of great power. Think of the hapless promise the terrified miller’s daughter makes to an opportunistic imp when she must spin straw into gold, or die. The imp can fix these matters if the miller’s daughter will promise him her future first child. She agrees, tout suite. True to all fairy tales, there is a twist to the promise: Should she can somehow discover the imp’s true name before he claims the child, he must forfeit her firstborn. Straw becomes gold; she lives to marry the king. When the imp arrives a year later to take her newborn child, it is the wind that finally saves the queen by carrying the imp’s name across the mountains. At the last minute, when the imp is about to lay hands on the infant, the former miller’s daughter calls him by name—Rumpelstiltskin!

Shocked, he blips out of existence. End of story.

Or is it? What has history taught us about names and naming that’s any different than the terror experienced by Rumpelstiltskin when the miller’s daughter speaks his true name? It’s the same old story, rewritten so the broken promise of the queen in the third act will appear gilded and heroic. But still: A broken promise is a broken promise. But still: The queen named names. But still: There is no Rumplestiltskin.


4.

We don’t speak our names to strangers: We give them our names. Our names are also our surest currency: We can put our name behind a venture; we can let someone work under our name to get ahead in business. That’s assuming we have a good name to start with—meaning an acquired set of respected traits that people imagine when one’s name is conjured in conversation. For bad or for good, someone can act in your name because that’s the name of the game, but if your name is mud you may have to clear your name. Even so, your name may remain tarnished beyond recognition.

Regardless, I answer to the name Courtenay. But I am also called ________, which means almost no one is on a first-name basis with me.

Besides, I will probably not catch your name for the first six times I hear it. It’s not that I’m rude—I’m just terrible at names.


5.

Names are the architecture on which we build the self. Names are the conqueror’s last word on an occupied space. Names lift and fall and bury and rise at an equal rate at which we speak those names aloud. Some names are magic. Some names are mysteries. Some names are crystalline structures that blow down at the first breath. Some things are felt to be so terrible are named ‘unnameable.’ Some names can never tbe spoken aloud or one will be seen as using that name in vain—or worse.

A name is a tailor-made burden. A name is the bright electric torch that illumines our way through everyday darkness. A name is a stamp and a trademark and a wish. A name is what we use to recall ourselves to ourselves long after the ones who named us have left the room. Sometimes we are named after someone and must live up to that name. Sometimes our names are our own to make or to destroy.

When we marry and take someone else’s name, we can even disappear.

There is no greater sleight-of-hand than a name.


6.

I am standing in darkness; the foster dog hops along the fence line, bending the branches of the loquat trees as he goes. His paralyzed foot drags across the dead leaves, which then crackle and pop. In a few weeks, the cicadas will wake from their seven-year sleep and rise from the ground to sing in chorus during the watches of the night. It’s time to go inside. I thump my breastbone and whistle out to the dog. I can hear him turning around beneath the trees, considering my call. I thump my breastbone again and whistle twice: I am the only one outside tonight.

He turns to run to me; my hands are open. He runs; I will catch him in my arms.

Every dog deserves a name.




Essay :: The Ouroboros chain



Painting of partially nude woman in shadow by Franz Von Stuck - "The Sin." Oil on canvas, 1893.




Wise men say, and not without reason, that whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.

Niccolò Machiavelli


In the last month of winter, I bought a clock from a man in Latvia who deals exclusively in time. I say he deals in time and not clocks because he is a master watchmaker who forges the instruments that measure and mark the physical hour, much like a maker of the sea-bound sextant fashions objects that illuminate the actuality of place. Each instrument measures what was once beyond the grasp of exactness; each is an idea and an object; a tool and a weapon. Empires were forged in steel as a result of the sextant and the clock. As a person whose private life is unlatched from both time and place, it seems fitting that I remain in awe of those who can latch and fix east to west and noon to midnight.

 

In any which case, I bought an alarm clock from a clock-seller in Latvia, a country close to a principality by a sea I’ve never seen where a man I cannot know boarded a ship to avoid a war I barely understand. He came to this country and bore a son who bore a son who bore a daughter whose lips have never tasted the salt air of the sea. And this is why I purchased a timepiece from a Latvian watchmaker, which arrived in a heavy swaddling of bubble wrap and tape, safe inside of a box that was wrapped with crisp brown paper, on which my address and the watchmaker’s address were written in a fine English hand with a charming trace of the native speaker’s Cyrillic, using a fading blue ballpoint pen that was carefully set down next to a vast handful of small stamps the color of old Wedgwood plates.

 
Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra

The world is circular north to south and east to west; time is supposedly linear, but it depends on what you’re measuring. The numbers remain the same in one cycle or another. It does not matter whether you count each hour up to 24, or count twelves and twelves, you return to where you began in a rather brief amount of time. Seasons also bend back to meet themselves at the beginning; all four manage to remain in their natural order despite our messing about. The body ages from the moment it is born to the moment it dies, but in its ever-dying midst the cycle begins again with another child slipping anew into the hands of this world, so the story is carried on. There are always endings and beginnings. There is, for the moment, always time.

 

In the last month of winter,
I bought a clock
from a man in Latvia
who deals in time.

 

Exactness eludes me, but my fading memory brings me to the Ouroboros, my beloved snake-that-eats-its-own tail, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, a creature that seems to have wound itself around every story on every page I’ve ever attempted to write. I am lucky the Ourboros stays around to connect me to myself. Otherwise, what would happen to me? My blood is divided neatly in half, east and west, each side facing a different troubled sea, each side known for its storytellers and its cliffs and lowlands and its natural aversion to the empires that rolled through and decided that this country was a good buffer, an excellent place to set down the guard gate and man it with the threat of beasts and war.

 
Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra

I am east; I am west; I am nowhere; I am in-between. The gate drops and my story does not get told. The gate opens and I flee, leaving the accumulated wealth that is history behind me. Quetzalcoatl opens one sleepy leonine eye and marks my passage across two brisk edges of the world. He will meet me in the middle—he always does. He meets everyone, but not everyone meets him. In me, the trail of two stories fades off and tapers to a thin knife edge of memory that lingers before it cuts. My story lacks the exactness of time and place. No compass can find me; no clock can mark me; no sextant can pin me to any center of the always-shifting ever-turning fortune of the world.

 

What I have instead is two of each of these: the sea, the hunger, the war, and the escape. Only the Ouroboros knows my true names. Only Quetzalcoatl knows my story. I am the daughter that slipped through the dark reach of two empires; I am the riddle that eludes each still-grasping fist. I am born from the union of transgressor and trickster—I can hear the war drums beating in the distance, but they do not beat for me.

 

…no sextant can pin me
to any center
of the always-shifting,
ever-turning fortune
of the world.

 

I write to the Latvian time-maker: How do I care for this strange Soviet clock? You must wind it every day, he replies in his beautiful, cautious English. Do not overwind, he says. I cannot stress this enough. In five years time, take it to a master watchmaker to have him put oil to the stones. It’s a tiny touch. A master knows how much. There is a pause, and in that pause, lands the tick of this clock winding down to ring and roar. There is silence before action: Everyone can hear it. It’s the ending of a story rolling up to meet its beginning again. It is so quiet, I can hear my blood pulse a beat inside the deep curve of my ear.—The master watchmaker writes back in a hurry: Do not forget to wind the clock today. If you do not hear the tik-tack, you must shake the clock gently. Only this will make it go.

 
Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra
 

NOTES

Artist Franz von Stuck painted The Sin—”Die Sine” in 1883.

The illustration of the Ouroboros (alternately titled Uroboros) is by the 3rd or 4th century figure Cleopatra the Alchemist, whose real name has been lost to war and to time.


Essay :: Hesitancy

Carl Spitzweg's butterfly hunter in dappled sunlight with blue butterflies.

SOMETIMES I forget to breathe when I’m trying to sort out an idea in my head. It’s as though my brain cannot handle an autonomic task and an intentional one at the same time. Breathing is something your body is supposed to do without asking your consent, but mine doesn’t do that. Mine thinks it’s either one thing or the other— you can either breathe deeply or think deeply, Courtenay, but not both— and I keep trying to tell my autonomic brain that I cannot think at all if I’m not breathing. But no one is listening to me.

When I’m feeling whimsical about it, I think the head foreman of my autonomic brain is always out to lunch when I come to make my case. The secretary too. I’m knocking at doors within myself, asking the central nervous system and the pulmonary folks if they’ve seen the foreman, and no one will say a word. Isn’t that just like a body to not speak to you with words.


THE CITY of my birth has grown an exurb, a city on its tip-toes, a Lego town against rough-cut cliffs, ready-grown trees, and wide, congested streets. I find myself driving on the freeway that circles the exurb the way I drove when I lived in L.A., which is to say smoothly and a little viciously. My sight extends three cars ahead in every direction, my posture bolts upright. I am attuned to my anticipation of unexpected movement. I thought I’d dropped this habit when I left California. I thought I would put my tense shoulders and my indignant face in a box out in the garage and move it around with the other unused things from time-to-time.

Despite myself, I did forget my tense shoulders and my indignant face for several years. But then, the city of my birth released its borders to the doctors and the lawyers and the businesspeople and their collective spouses and children, who rushed out to claim a little space away from the circular medieval streets of the 300-year-old city that raised them. Now they have good jobs and they drive terribly, sort of like Los Angeles drivers, if those drivers had just gotten smacked in the head right before taking the wheel.

Cars out here go 40 miles per hour on the 70 mph freeway while the drivers jabber on their phones. Drivers around here turn around and talk to their children during rush hour while their cars scrape up the curb. The local drivers break at yield signs and roll stop signs and do everything in their power to find new ways to flout the laws and confound common sense. These exurban drivers would know all of this if they could hear me shouting at them— because I talk in my car as if we are standing right in front of one another; I feel like a vicious fool: “What are you DOING?” I shout. And: “You aren’t—no, you aren’t! You’re really going to do that? What the %*# is WRONG with you?”


LOCAL DRIVERS shrug and eat hamburgers and laugh and toddle into oncoming traffic as I give them the ol’ bug-eyed stare. I’m not breathing. I am so focused on this dance we’re doing together down this tricky little exit on a dangerous street that I’ve forgotten to inhale. Every other time I take this route I see a three-ambulance accident. My reflexes are tuned like harp strings—an insignificant wind will set my nerves neatly on point. I am moving in the right direction away from danger before I even know I am moving, and yet I do not know well enough to breathe.

There are traditions where the breath mates naturally with action. Barre work in ballet requires body, mind, and breath. Certain forms of mediation owe their shape to body, breath, and mind. Even firing an arrow at a target begins with mind, body and then, finally, a breath: an inhale for form and focus, an exhale to release the arrow shaped like a lean idea from one’s taut grip. There are songs and there are stories that we use to describe the body that deprives itself of its own breath. And none of these songs, these stories, end well.


I AM driving through the exurb in the afternoon after an errand; at a stoplight I see a man with a sign. I roll down my window and call to him, “Hey! How are you?” The man, slim, small, careful, threads his body like a needle through the tense knot of traffic. I have money folded in my palm. We shake hands; I release the folded dollars from my hand to his like a magic trick. “How are you?” I say again—and I mean it. “How are you, sir?” He smiles at me so sweetly it is a shock. The man has the mild eyes of an Italian Renaissance Madonna, and he starts to thank me, but I pat his hand and I do not break my gaze.

“I’ll be okay,” says the man. “When the VA takes this out of me in a month.”

He points to a lymph node between his neck on his shoulder that is so enlarged it is the size of two fists held together. I gasp. I am not accustomed to missing essential details on the street. This man is an essential detail to me. “I’m so sorry,” I say, and I mean it. I regret the meagreness of the dollars I handed him. I regret the meanness of my driving that day. I tell him that I will keep him in my thoughts, and I will do it, but now I have put him in yours too because he needs all the good thoughts to land on him like a cache of butterflies. Because he needs a breath and another breath and you can help give him that. And I mean it.


GREEN BURNS the stoplight. I leave the curb and the man, but in a way, I do not leave at all. I’ve left my breath there, and it takes a moment for me to reorient myself. Here I am: I am a 39-year-old woman in a mid-range car in a well-to-do neighborhood thirty minutes from home. I am a driver moving through a stoplight, turned red, now green. I am my hands, steering my vehicle into traffic. I am my eyes, watching three cars ahead and three cars back and side-to-side— I am my breath, which burns in my throat. I am my nerves: I change lanes, I accelerate. I am my ears: an SUV behind me hurtles into a van. I am my foot, depressing the gas pedal, which moves my car out of the way of an accident.

The streets are still for a moment— hesitance is the natural child of shock. I check behind me to see whether the man whose hand I just shook a moment ago is all right. He is standing far away from that disaster, unshaken. Cars in two of three lanes move again, swarming around the accident, passing without hesitancy. The exurbanites drive these streets like white blood cells encircling foreign matter when they pass the wreckage of one of their own, but no one stops to see. I inhale; I exhale— but I do not look back again. I, too, arrange my thoughts, and move on.


ABOUT THE PAINTING: “Der Schmetterlingsjäger” (The Butterfly Hunter.) German painter and poet Carl Spitzweig. He’s the master of illuminating a particular kind of alert aloneness. It’s not sad at all—it’s poignant. I’d never heard of him before today, but I love his point-of-view and his composition style, and I think you’re gonna love him too. Whoa.

Essay :: Better and more

Little girl in Australia curtseying in a dirty black dress.

It was my grandmother’s wish that I not be taught to cook when I was a girl. It was more than a wish—it was her dictum. Because my mother was a good daughter and a strong woman, she bowed to her mother’s desire even if she didn’t fully understand the vitriol behind it. There was no drama to it; I was never actually banned from the kitchen or anything so strange as that. In fact, I was taught how to use the stove quite young out of necessity to warm up soup and boil eggs. (I was the child of a single parent, after all.) And in the by and by, I learned how to make a few fundamental dishes—roasted chicken and steamed vegetables; eggs, of course; a pretty little stir fry that would do for any day of the week. But no more.

 

For all the while, my grandmother actively discouraged me from cooking or any sort of fancy housekeeping: It was ever my grandmother’s feeling that once a girl learned how to cook and how to keep a nice house, everyone would expect her to cook and to keep a nice house. What followed after that, she observed, were husbands and children and the dull burden of domesticity. The life my grandmother wanted for me— what the women and the men in my family wanted for me— was an education and a career, a chance to step out in the world. Choices, she felt, were denied to her and her mother’s generation. So I was routinely shooed out of the kitchen and sent back to my books and to my lopsided secondhand piano; shouted back upstairs to my dance shoes and to my grandmother’s father’s kneehole desk, where I sat and wrote every single day, and where, if I sat quietly, I could hear the clink of glass and stainless steel and the small splash of warm water being heated downstairs on the stove.

 

I didn’t think much about the ways of my family, or that in our house, my grandfather, a robust and blond former football player in his youth, preferred to do the cooking in his elder years, canning preserved figs while he watched the ball game; rising before dawn to roast a turkey or start cornbread in the oven, humming tunelessly and happily to himself. At our house, we cleaned, but the room didn’t exhale the hot scent of bleach when you walked in the door the way some people’s houses did— our house smelled of books and dust and a little rust and soap. And when we were alone, my mother cooked sometimes and sometimes not—more often not, because there were plenty of foods that could be bought pre-prepared and warmed up without trouble, leaving one free to work or to read or listen to music or drive one’s child to dance classes four days a week at the edge of town. Or even take dance classes of one’s own.

 

There were things my grandmother said regularly that I didn’t put together until I was an adult. Her mother, she told me again and again, rose at dawn to make biscuits for her spouse and three children because her husband believed homemade biscuits were healthier than store-bought bread. Her mother, she routinely whispered as we sat side-by-side in the backseat of the car, had a college education but never complained a day in her life about the hard work she had to do when she married and moved out to the country. Her mother— my grandmother tapped my hand to get my attention—wouldn’t let her learn how to milk the cows because her mother believed that if her daughter learned how to milk the cows, she’d get stuck sitting out on a stool with those old cows every morning for the rest of her life. Her mother, she said, all the time, like a song, a verse, a magic word, wanted better and more for her daughter, my grandmother, and thus, that woman, my grandmother, wanted better and more for me.

 

Even as a child, I knew I had better and more because I could see strange developments for myself amongst the girls at school. Starting in kindergarten, some of my friends were treated at home like “little mothers”— expected to run after their younger siblings, called in to help in the kitchen, trained to clean and clean and clean after their brothers and fathers until their knuckles were red and raw like their mothers’ knuckles. These girls came to school with their jumpers pressed every day, and hair braided tight and straight as a picket fence, or curled in ringlets, if you can believe it. These girls smelled of starch and lavender laundry water and hard work. They looked tired. I stood behind girls like that in every schoolyard line— me, with my half-grown out pixie cut mashed wildly to one side of my face and my school jumper dotted with early morning schoolyard dirt; me, wearing my frayed hair-ribbon (I’d been using it as a lasso) around my neck like loosened-up necktie. I couldn’t help but gawk at those well-kept girls because they looked like the stalwart daughters in storybooks, the kind that were sent out into the forest to pick berries or take their sick grandmothers vegetable pottage in a basket, and these girls couldn’t help but gawk at me—there was no explaining me, I guess. Maybe I looked like the monsters in their storybooks, or like those other girls, the ones that didn’t listen, the ones that wander down the road away from the village and never come back.

 

It was my grandmother’s wish that I not be taught to cook when I was a girl. And I bowed to my grandmother’s wish, as my mother bowed to her mother, and on and on. But when I grew into a young woman and a working writer, I chose a man with a similar demeanor as her husband and her brothers— a man who liked to cook and to clean, a man who had an easy masculinity and an unworried brow, and then, I learned to cook from that man. It was all to a greater purpose: When my grandmother became very old and very small and nothing tasted good to her anymore, she would come stay at our house, where my husband would entertain her as I put out little dish after little dish of the foods she loved: the gumbo she used to make when she was young or a smoky eggplant caviar with a side of thin baked garlic crôutes; Hoppin’ John with apple-smoked bacon or chocolate pecan tartlets topped with crème fraîche. She’d say, “I can’t possibly eat that much!” But she did eat that much and more.

 

Tonight, it’s my turn to cook, and is my wont, I am making dinner while dishing up this story. My ink-wreathed hands are bathed in the steam of a turkey-and-roasted-shallot soup; my eye is on the pears and Mission figs poaching in a little pot; and my mind has wandered far off to the kitchen of my childhood, where my grandmother, my grandfather, and my mother are stepping around one another in a pas de trois of rattling pots and shouts and dinner plates. As always, I am standing just outside the door, and my grandfather has begun to sing, “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah. Someone’s in the kitchen with Di-i-inah. Join me, Courtenay!”

 

Essay :: The Good Luck Bonne Chance Raspa Stand


Four raspa sizes at Bonne Chance

I’m standing in the parking lot of the rundown shopping center by my house. I’m here for my weekly run to the kiosk where I fill my distilled water bottles. And while I’m grimacing at the water glugging into the five-gallon jug, I feel the tiniest wisp of a cool breeze tease a finger along the back of my uncovered neck. I stop grinding my teeth at the too-slow water machine to look up because maybe I can see where that breeze is coming from, right?

As if on cue, a gaggle of migrating geese make a wobbly arrow across the lean blue late afternoon sky, and I note that the Good Luck Bonne Chance Raspa Stand has got a short line tonight. The bottle of water burps to tell me it’s full. I screw on the cap, plíe, and scoop the heavy bottle up to my shoulder, so I can walk over and set it on the front passenger seat of my car.


The Good Luck Bonne Chance Raspa Stand is selling Cucumbers On a Stick tonight, covered in chili powder and lime. There’s World’s Best Corn in a Cup and Hot Fritos ‘n’ Xtra Cheese if you want them, and for a limited time only, you can get a Double Tiger’s Blood Raspa, Everybody’s Favorite Sno-Cone Treat.

The dinner rush at Good Luck Bonne Chance is short right now, so I do what I never do: Close the door to my car and walk over to get in line. The woman inside Good Luck Bonne Chance has to bend down and stick her head through the window to take my order when it’s my turn. Her gold hoops glint brightly against her dark curly hair. The scent of fresh-steamed corn on the cob and sno-cone syrup clings to her clothes like a summer perfume.


Shaved Ice at Bonne Chance

“Tell me,” I say. “What is a Double Tiger’s Blood Raspa?”

“Oh, that.” She shrugs, a little embarrassed. “It’s just a regular Tiger’s Blood Raspa with some extra syrup.”

“May I have a single Tiger’s Blood, a small, please? And another small, but could you make that one Peachy Vanilla? And I would very much like—” I pause, realizing just how hungry I am. “I would very much like a Cucumber On a Stick. With extra chili and lime. Please.”


I hand her my cash. She drops my change expertly into my cupped hand and leaves me to stand at the window and wait while she peels the cucumber and puts shaved ice into two cups. Everyone else has already finished eating and gone home, even the young grandfather who put his hand on each of his grandchildren’s heads when he ordered their treats. (“She will have… and he will have…”)

Another cool breeze makes a delicate crown of cool air around my bare head.

“Autumn is coming.” I say out loud.

The woman running Bonne Chance tonight says, “What?” She can’t hear me over the air conditioner and her ringing phone and the little radio she’s got playing just inside the counter by her tip jar. She’s putting all my things in a little white cardboard box with the old-fashioned tabbed corners.

“Thanks for making my order,” I say as she walks back to the window.

“Oh! You’re welcome,” says the woman. She puts my box on the counter, and looks around the empty parking lot.

“Looks like autumn is coming, don’t you think? Just feel that little breeze.”



Bonne Chance Ordering Window

PHOTO CREDIT: Bluebird Blvd.