Friday, May 17, 2013

dear memphis ...

a few days ago, a friend posted  this article about memphis on facebook.

the article's author used the now-successful, formerly-failing memphis grizzlies nba team as a catalyst for a discussion of the city itself. the article is a high five to the city's diehards and a middle finger to its haters. i couldn't help but see in it a reflection of my own convoluted emotions about memphis.

as i read the article, my opinions and recollections began to build up. i tend to visualize my thoughts, turn words into tangible things and such, and through this process i eventually landed on the image of memphis as termite's nest. it sounds bad, i know, but bear with me. if you've never seen a termite's nest, look up a photo. they're pretty fantastic. i saw a photo of a nest that was over six feet tall. termites are amazing architects, it turns out. their nests are incredibly complex, with parts above and below ground, connected by numerous tunnels and compartments. that's why i think memphis is similar. there's the memphis that's in plain sight: a city with a complicated history, a celebrated musical tradition, and a crime problem; there's the part that's underground: its beautiful parks, restaurant patios galore, and inspired grassroots movements; and then there's a complex community within that keeps both parts connected as a whole.

the grit and imperfections of memphis were what first intrigued me. i wanted to live somewhere different than the places i'd previously called home. (while exhilarating, south beach and nyc were never places i would call "homey.") i wanted a city that could reflect both who i'd become and where i came from. the south felt right. in memphis i envisioned a combination of big-city options and down-to-earth living. i imagined work that was plentiful and eclectic; live music pouring out of every barroom and living room; lazy weekend afternoons spent roaming my hip neighborhood; peaceful mornings on the coffee-shop deck and lively evenings on restaurant patios; handsome men with
rough beards, rough edges, and broken-in hearts. memphis turned out to be partly what i imagined, but—as my imagination can't be bothered with details—i wasn't prepared for the reality of the grit and imperfections that had initially seduced me.

i've been absent from memphis for nearly two years now. to me it feels like a lifetime ago, or it feels like last week; it depends on the day. regardless, my connection to the city is ever-present: i keep in contact with dear friends and with newer friends who would've likely become dear had i stayed. i get weekly emails from the memphis flyer. memphis weather is still on my iphone. until last month, my bank persisted in attaching my memphis address to my debit card. i still work with clients in memphis. my son has memphis in his blood.

the city has grown so much since i left. i see it mainly on facebook, with friends checking in at new restaurants, taking photos at events, and talking about what's on the verge. even in absentia, i feel happy for memphis. at the same time, i feel resentment, for it was in memphis that i embarked on the most frustrating social adaptation of my life. of all the places i've lived, none were as tormenting as the revered southern city hanging on the edge of the great mississippi. i've analyzed the social apparatus in memphis as much as i analyze anything that intrigues or irritates or inspires me—and that's a lot.

i've been mad at memphis for not changing. i wanted people there to be the same as people i grew up around: candid. forthcoming. honest even when the truth sucks. i wanted people to stop saying yes when they meant no; i wanted them to stop being disloyal to each other (because if they were doing it to each other, they surely were doing it to me); i wanted them to stop telling white lies about inconsequential things. i never got resolution of those issues. when i pulled onto sam cooper boulevard for the last time, i took with me the impressions—from liberating to bewildering—that memphis made. i left behind my mark on memphis, too, which i hope is a good one but i know is a malleable one, shaped according to the individual beholder.

only after reading that article last night did i finally get it: memphis is what it is. it's deeply flawed. intensely self-preserving. wildly charismatic.  it's in the south, where people will invite you to their parties even if they don't like you. i can't get down with that, but i don't have to, nor should it soil my overall perception. i love memphis for the many gifts it gave me. it's where my career flourished; where my beloved pit bulls were accepted and had in shelby farms a place they could run free and swim in a pond for the first time ever; where i met some of the most delightful, colorful beings; where i became a woman who could repair the baseboard chewed by her anxious foster dog, stay alone through holidays, and give the utility-company man bent on shutting off the power a run for his money; where my writing found its wings.

i grew up not exactly in the north but north of tennessee. i brought many pieces of west virginia with me to memphis, and while some of them didn't fit, i can't continue blaming memphis for a cultural divide. in a wide-lens view, my home state and my former home-away have more in common
than being a dot on the map of my life: each is a region of this country plagued by stereotypes and socioeconomic woes. and each remains fiercely proud in the face of disrespect. 

my apologies, memphis. i'm on your side. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

love, from art to artifice.

you're the kind of girl people write songs about.

said my friend, referring to me. she's right, too. there have been songs about me. and poems. and paintings. my ex-boyfriends were the perpetrators of these senseless acts of adoration.

why am i that girl? well, it's simple: art follows chaos (nearly exclusively so, in my estimation). and i am chaos. i want what i want with a burning, seething, impenetrable passion. i am equally as forceful in expelling from my life those things that i don't want. these two extremes make relationships into white-hot fireballs that eventually burn holes into the diaphanous drape that is love, until nothing is left but the ashes. in the afterglow, art rises up from the hearts of men. love, the magnificent phoenix.

there have been three men whose love for me was certain. not in the time i needed it to be or in the time they needed it to be, but certain as in verifiable at some point on the relationship spectrum, that point often being after the end. is it just me, my experience, or is the end of a relationship less of a resounding slam of the door and more like when the credits roll after a film? you know, where for all intents and purposes it's over, but you linger because you like the song playing in the background. or something. each of these three men said remarkable things: one told me i'm like a box of stars. another said, in retrospect, how he thought i shined when i walked into a room. the third, when asked when he'd like to take me on our first date, gave the most perfect response ever: yesterday.

my mom wants me to be married. i should try to be more patient with her, especially because what she doesn't know is that my aversion to the marriage conversation is purely practical, a way of avoiding explaining to her that no, of course i don't want to end up alone, but yes i am currently unwilling to be afraid enough of that prospect to do anything differently, and furthermore, i'm not convinced that doing anything differently will yield the commonly desired result of love-->marriage-->happily ever after. i'm not convinced that doing things my way is wrong. i never have been.

in all my years of traveling to places traceable both on a map and in the annals of my mind, i've met many people with smart and interesting and heart-wrenching things to say about love. relationships have been, like politics or a great brand of face cream, a topic of debate. not angry debate, just a lot of back and forth—is it or isn't it? should it or could it? that sort of talk. anyone i call a friend knows, if not in detail then in general, my magnum opus of failed relationships. it may not be a grand achievement to continually lose relationships, but it's more than grand to become something better than failure would have you be.

i am friends or at least friendly with every man i've dated, except for the witty singer whose path i never crossed again; the shallow, self-absorbed quasi-frat boy; and the silent wrecker. that last one, i was warned about. "he is the worst of the worst," one friend said. turns out she wasn't exaggerating. upon hearing his name, every.single.person. had a telling reaction: men would either smirk or scowl, and women would invariably respond with "i know alllll about him," because they or someone they knew had been involved with him. every woman in town had been involved with him, it seemed. he was a peculiar case; not your typical bad guy. not arrogant or mean, but negligent. abysmally so, as in merriam webster's definition 1c: immeasurably low or wretched. negligent in telling the whole truth, in being monogamous, in being grateful, and possibly in comprehending the grand canyon-like awesomeness of the hurt he caused. he had dire circumstances in life: "don't feel sorry for him. he'll do it to you, too," a few friends said. except i couldn't fathom not feeling sorry for him. i gave him so much rope he could've swung from here to eternity. some fools will hang themselves if you give them enough rope; others keep on swinging. my past with that man could torment me completely were it not for this: the grand canyon is both a product of destruction and a vision of magnificent beauty. it is infinitely better than the many failures through which it came to be. 

the other day, the theme song from the movie tootsie came on the radio. i picked up my son and twirled him around and around in the small space between the counter and his high chair. he threw back his head and giggled, those two big front teeth peeking out. we danced, while whoever sang "something's telling me it must be you/i've got a feeling it'll just be you/all of my life." as i swung and dipped and kissed my giddy little boy, those lyrics were inescapable, and all i could do is what i do best: i wondered, about who my you might/could/should be or maybe the only one i'll ever need is here in my arms right now. then i chastised myself for humoring the ulterior motives of a stupid love song. so on we twirled, me and the best dancing partner ever.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

the art of being.

you know how people say, "i'd give my right arm if i could only ... " well, i wouldn't give my right arm for anything. or my left. or either of my legs. but, i was thinking the other day, man, i'd totally sacrifice a toe if i could sing.

i was born with ten fingers and ten toes. it's hard to remember to be thankful for that, until you're writing about it. so in this moment i'm aware i should consider myself a lucky girl. my upper digits have bequeathed to me more abilities than i can list, like the ability to hold my first rattle; pick my nose; clap my hands; push my big brother when we'd play football in the living room and mom would yell at us to stop; write my name with my sparkle marker on my pencil box in the classroom of the second-grade teacher with the long-ish, sandy-blonde hair that was straight as point A to point B; do flip flops across the mat at phil hickman's gym, the original, tiny one in the neighborhood where i grew up; grasp the steering wheel of the red pontiac sunbird i drove at 17; turn the key of my first apartment in morgantown in 1994; strap on my roller blades so i could glide to work in south beach, miami; push the subway token into the slot on my way to work on gansevoort street in new york city; type my 30-page senior thesis for my BA in english; spoon frothy milk over two ounces of espresso at blue moose cafe; stroke the snout of my kaiser, then my phaedra, then my joker; hold a can of bud light or a mug of coffee on numerous patios and porches in memphis; pack and carry moving boxes 14 times between the ages of 18 and 35; stroke my baby boy's face for the first time; create blogs that help me organize my cluttered thought-closet.

to my lower digits i am grateful for things like balance and the ability to not look freakish in flip flops.

one of the above lists is clearly much longer than the other. that's what brought me to the conclusion that i could get by without a toe, if only i could sing. my mom can sing. my brother, too. dad sings in church, but he acknowledges the limitations of his skill. if i could sing, i'd feel like i was 50 feet tall and made of thunder and lightning. i know this because when i'm singing in my car, i'm transported to a place of being able to tear a teeny, tiny corner off the page of how the real thing would feel.

when i'm driving, my son gets an education. we listen to jeff buckley, john prine, steve earle, ryan adams, lucero, the replacements, the decemberists, sam and dave, avail, the pogues, george jones, and whatever else i can salvage from my shamefully battered cd collection or whatever is playing on my various pandora stations. i don't own an ipod. neither does keith richards. <—i read that in an article recently. i feel vindicated.

nowadays, i catch zion in the backseat "ahhh uhhhh ohhhh"ing along with the music. it won't be long before we're the best duo that ever traveled the streets of clarksburg. i hope when my son is older he'll play his favorite songs and feel the music from the inside all the way out, the way i do—not because i want him to be a reflection of me but because that feeling signifies a symbiotic relationship between one's self and the maker of the music. a harmonious connection between strangers. that's a rare thing. animals get it. humans, we're too complicated.

... and that's why we make music. why we design clothing and jewelry. why we write poems and fiction and nonfiction and creative nonfiction. why we paint canvases and make sculptures of wood or steel or ice. why we make films and take photographs.

ants don't make ant hills because they're angsty. birds don't make nests because someone broke their heart. they're compelled to do it by virtue of being what they are. in that sense, we complicated humans can relate.