Wednesday, October 7, 2015

It's a beautiful life.


I read those words. Although given the Internet's propensity for hyperbole, I didn't take them seriously. So I clicked the play button on the YouTube video and proceeded to watch. It was an abortion in which a very young yet clearly human-looking fetus was pushed out of an anonymous vagina and then put into a metal bowl and prodded with a pair of scissors as it continued to move. I'd seen still photos of aborted babies. Unsettling as they were, they didn't have the staying power of a live video. Some things you can't unsee. And as that image played itself over and over in my mind, my thoughts picked up speed and began spinning and swirling. What to do? I started a post on Facebook and then hit backspace through all the sentences I'd so carefully crafted. It wasn't the right place. I thought about not saying anything at all, but the tornado in my mind wouldn't have it. 

So I landed here. My haven.

I generally avoid discussion of abortion. My inborn desire to discuss hot topics, to challenge beliefs—including my own (although that happens more internally than visibly)—ends at this subject. I know too many people with strong feelings on either side of the debate, people I care about and don't want to upset with my beliefs on a subject that isn't one of my core causes. (I'm more the animal-welfare, healthy lifestyle, education-is-power, dabbles-in-politics type.) I've never felt the urge to share my multi-layered thoughts on abortion.

Yet here I am. I'm not sure where to go from here.

Abortions happen to other people: acquaintances and friends and close friends. I have never and will never know intimately this experience. My first exposure to it happened fresh into my first year of college. My good friend, let's call her V, told me her roommate had terminated a pregnancy. No, that's not how she said it at all. As I leaned against a counter under the sharply angled ceiling in the tiny kitchen/living room of V's attic apartment in a grungy, gray college town somewhere in West Virginia in the mid 90s, watching her gathering whatever to take to her boyfriend's place, a moment arrived. Mid-scurry, in a low, semi-deadpan delivery, V said these words: I guess Sandy had an abortion. I found the papers. 

Although neither of us had prior known anyone who had been pregnant, much less ended a pregnancy, we took in the statement without much to say. Sandy had an abortion was ingested like cold pizza for breakfast. 

Is here where I should say what I think of abortion? Or should I pile on more tales and metaphors in the spirit of building an effective narrative? Well I can't now. I've gone and ruined it. So here they are, the words that come to mind: Sad. Confusing. Conflicting. Empathetic. Agonizing.

There. Done.

But wait, you say. Are you for or against? 

It doesn't matter.  

I've supported friends through abortions. I never gave my opinion. Because it didn't matter. 

Ah, that's not good enough is it? Fine. Here's where I'll say what could've happened that never happened: Had they been late-term pregnancies, I would've struggled to be the good listener I was at the time. I would've had to try to change their minds. 

Still: It wouldn't have mattered.

I've never had to choose a side. No one has ever asked my opinion on their choice. I don't vote according to a candidate's stance on when life begins. So I'm off the hook. And I think it's okay to be glad about that. 

I can only fathom abortion through the eyes with which I see my world and my world only. In my world, right this minute, I'm surrounded by ornate woodwork: built-in shelves, beadboard, pocket doors, and hardwoods heavily scratched by the landlord's giant Old English Sheepdog (more like Joydog, because when I met her, her sloppy, overgrown-Fraggle appearance made me endlessly giggle). The room is filled with all the things I've gathered over the years, plus a few new ones, namely my boyfriend's banjo and two framed photos: One of him with his boxer and one of him holding my son at eight months old.

My first son, I should say. As of recently, I'm a mother of two. Two boys. Two pregnancies. Each unplanned. Each shook me, straightened me, altered me. Each, as they say, a gift. 

I have a family. I never thought I'd have one. Didn't ache for it. Didn't think much about it, other than general curiosity about the logistics of having one, which would occur occasionally when confronted with families belonging to other people, friends or family members. Now I'm a full-blown family woman. A mother of two boys who embody all the adjectives any loving mother will use, all of which seem generic in expressing the singular love I feel for them. I have a partner whom I love in a way I didn't think I possessed, and he loves me in the way I always knew it should be. The old me, I don't miss her as I feared I would. I remember that girl, though. Fondly. She's who got me here, after all. Here, to this place called Content. 

Now that I've gone down this road, I'll tell you more of my feelings about abortion: I know why women have them. I know because I've had unplanned pregnancies. I've had those moments of Holy shit. This is happening. What's going to become of me? And I wish I could impart to some of those women the happy endings of my own experiences. But I can't. Not because I don't have the words but because it's not my place to push that on them. 

My place is here. Here is where my thoughts matter. Here is a safe place where any woman is free to take in my opinions and let them settle in her mind wherever her gut guides them—maybe in the forefront, or instead far down in the deepest, darkest folds to be forgotten. 

Pregnancy and motherhood aren't anything we imagine or are told before we actually experience it ourselves. We hear parents say I don't remember life before my children. It's the thing all parents are supposed to feel, isn't it? Well, it's not true, not for me, at least. I remember life before my kids. I remember how easy it was to go to the grocery store. I remember being able to run six miles a day. I remember when the weather didn't matter. I remember sleep.

For me, two pregnancies came with few certainties: I knew I'd love my children. I knew my first pregnancy wouldn't involve the father. I knew my second would. I knew I'd have to give up more and more selfish luxuries. 

In the end, the little I knew didn't matter. 

In the end, I ended up with motherhood and a family that I never expected. A love that is at times ordinary, at times extraordinary. A love whose complications are outshone by its rewards. It's a beautiful life. 

On the subject of life, I believe my story is more powerful than my opinion. May it help whomever wants or needs it. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Throwing stones.

The environment resembles the pages of an upscale bohemian home-decorating catalog: sandalwood flooring, an indoor "tree house," unadorned except for a strand of lights strung around a cluster of long, smooth tree branches; a cozy reading nook with pale pillows surrounded by a waterfall of creamy gauze fabric; two wooden tables set with clear glasses and stark tableware for a minimalist meal; a large, rectangular table with a frosted Plexiglas top lit from underneath by environmentally friendly bulbs. 

 Two of the interior walls are mostly windows. 

It's through those windows that I watch my three-year-old boy as I leave him in the care of others in the mornings, early enough that I cringe when the reflection in the glass shows the circles under my eyes have yet to catch enough daylight. He's been in preschool for a few weeks now and has never shed a tear. Aside from the slight and irrational fear of Is he already done needing me? I'm proud that he's becoming the independent soul I aspire to raise.

Last spring I wasn't sure if I was serious about sending him to preschool. Then I discovered the preschool of my dreams: no schedules, nontraditional teaching methods, and not a Fruit Loop or chicken nugget in sight. As dreams do, it came with a price. As dreams go, cost didn't matter.

My gut said go for it, so I did.

Know this: The gut is a laconic speaker, and unforgiving when not acknowledged. We all know those times—when listening is prohibitive, no fun. When I've ignored my gut, trouble was soon to follow. But be heartened, for this isn't a cautionary tale. Trouble, I've found, is like the wind: Although it blows for a while, by law of nature it will eventually stop. So let's not lead lives that assume we should never get into trouble. How boring that would be. 

I wonder about my son, if he'll be like me: a skipping stone, at times gaining impressive distance and other times hitting the water with a plunk! painfully short on its mark. Mind you, all people are not skipping stones. Some are pebbles happily moved by the current; or behemoth, begrudgingly moved boulders; or coarse like gravel. Rocks are made of minerals, and three categories of origin — sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic — create rocks with differing degrees of fortitude. With this in mind, we should reconsider the common use of rock as symbol of strength. Some rocks, it turns out, won't withstand a burden.

You are not anyone's rock. Nor are you your own. You, human, are made mostly of water. You are not buoyant but embody buoyancy itself. Your strength arises not from a predetermined source but from how you flow through the experiences of your life.

There are rocks of all sizes and compositions in the yard at my son's preschool: plastic rocks, a dry "creek bed" of smooth, flat stones; and large boulders for climbing. One afternoon as I entered the yard and approached a wooden 10-foot teepee to fetch my firstborn, I heard "No girls allowed!" and watched a dirty blonde future ward of the principle's office take aim and hit a female classmate in the head with a plastic rock. She screamed. I set my jaw. My son froze, wide eyed. I led him away, quickly instilling the virtues of not throwing rocks and being nice to girls. I also told him to not to play with that miscreant, whose apt name I won't divulge and whom I'd seen showing his colors a few times already. 

Be the water you're made of, son. 

I experienced my own version of "No girls allowed!" as a kid. Even have a scar above my left eyebrow as proof. I wanted in on the rock battle my brother and cousins were having in front of grandma's house, but they wanted none of me. I forget which cousin did the deed, but to fit my narrative I'll tell you he was a frequent visitor to the principle's office. This is creative nonfiction, not autobiography, after all. I also don't know if mom pulled my brother away and gave him a talking to about how to treat girls and whom to befriend, but as his sister I can verify he's fared well in both areas over his 44 years on Earth. Anyway, it wouldn't be the first time a rock and I collided.

Over the past year, stones and pebbles have found temporary shelter in my purse—additions to my son's revolving rock collection. A few of them we've painted; the tiny choking hazards I've surreptitiously tossed into the trash; the larger accidents waiting to happen have been forcibly removed from his unwilling grasp. Is my son's affinity for rocks merely a byproduct of childhood wonder, or a burgeoning curiosity of the natural world? It's early to tell, so I'll continue to guide him toward the latter. My boy isn't the only one with interest in rocks. Twelve years before he came along, a rock lived in my purse for months, maybe longer. It came from my therapist's office. She was a psychology grad student at West Virginia University. I, considered a nontraditional undergrad student at the age of 22, wasn't much younger than this person charged with helping me navigate life. She was a strawberry blonde with sparse freckles, skin the color of a newborn piglet, and a welcoming resting face. Green as she was, she did a good job of helping me understand my anxiety, a burden I'd carried for years without knowing its name until I met her. On our last visit as her rotation ended, I remarked about her rock garden. She gifted me a stone from it before I left. Twelve cycles of 365 days later, I still wonder who'd I'd be today had my gut not succeeded in pushing me through her door.

Perhaps more so than anywhere I've lived, Memphis, Tennessee, showed me who I came to be. My experiences and relationships in that city brought to life the fierce self-assurance that previous years had been cultivating within. It's only fitting that I recall the presence of stones. A time or two during that first year or two, I'd sit on the bank at Mud Island near downtown and skip stones into the mighty Mississippi with my best gal pal, EW. In the past year, her initials have become unfortunately onomatopoetic, in a reverse way: Ewww didn't create EW, but EW came to embody that sound to me. Last year, she drew back her pitching arm and fired off a handful of rocks, taking great care in her aim. Of occurrences like this, people will say Don't let it get to you. So tell me, you givers of empty advice, how any human can accomplish this feat of not being gotten to. Does it mean discovering that elusive emotion off button? The one that rests on the tip of a unicorn horn or in the pocket of the boogey man or sits in perfect balance on the Scales of Justice. Of course EW got to me. EW, the girl who signed my going-away gift with these words: Keep on being bright, beautiful you. Her chilly demeanor on a particular day last year elicited in me a perfect storm of rage and heartbreak. It still does, particularly when I see photos of her on Facebook through mutual friends. To this day I want to tear into her. Then in steps my gut, the sage: Let her have her comfort in self-preservation. Those cold, judgmental, self-righteous words she slung my way were merely her way of making herself feel okay about wanting to move on from a friendship she no longer needed.  

Do you feel okay, old friend? 

I thought of EW last night as I was transfixed by the latest memoir to grace my eyes, At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard. The more Maynard recalled the chaos of her younger years, the more I felt at home in my own skin, the more I remembered that I've been called to be this exact woman and this writer and that those who doubt me only make me more certain of and satisfied with who I am. There is no self-destruction in my past, only self-construction. Joyce Maynard, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Jeannette Walls, Patti Smith—I've read all their memoirs. All these women took the pieces of their lives of chaos and tribulations and made them into monuments of success. In each of their life stories, I see reflections of my own path. Throughout their experiences arises an awesome message about this minuscule, unglamorous word: gut. Learn its language. Ignore it at times. It's okay. Your gut is the only home to which you can truly always return.
In a couple hours I'll pick up my darling from the room with the ethereal reading nook and the barren tree house and the unsweetened oatmeal for breakfast. I'll ask him what he sang and who he played with and what he ate, and he'll tell me he doesn't remember. That's how it goes every time. And eventually, right about when we hit the interstate, he'll say, Hey mamma, I missed you while you were gone today. It never gets old. Motherhood is the ultimate manifestation of the gut speaking. Mine told me that the little one within was worth changing everything. After forty-one scary, exciting, sad, life-shaking weeks, he and I finally met. 

And in the years to come, I would realize my gut had been right about everything ever. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

The language of stoplights.

On a spring Tuesday in Morgantown, West Virginia—a classic one with its bright skies; 60s temps; and sidewalks sprinkled with dog walkers, stroller pushers, leisurely lunchers, and college clique-ers—there was one particularly interesting creature under the overpass of the university's Personal Rapid Transit System, or PRT as townies call it—which, by the way, was modeled after Walt Disney World's PeopleMover.

As I approached the nearby stoplight, I noticed Underpass Guy right away. Average height, skinny, shaggy haired, and wearing a tee shirt and baggy jeans a la college quasi-hippie, he was the only person in the intersection, although that's not what kept my gaze. I had to watch the strange gestures he made with his entire body, movements that became all the more clear to me as the red light didn't bark its typical Stop this instant! but something more like You're Welcome, have a good day. (If you've never decoded the language of stoplights, I encourage you to pay closer attention.)

See, this particular light was beckoning me to enjoy a small piece of the immense Universe that is filled with reasons to smile, especially on sunny days. Because, see, Underpass Guy wasn't having a medical emergency or a severe hangover. He was dancing. To whatever was playing on the earbuds connected to his smartphone of whatever brand. He was dancing like no one was watching. And it was a magnificent moment of Simple Pleasure. I don't take those moments lightly, largely because I'm generally as high strung as a Wallenda, except thankfully, like that clan of rope-walkers, I'm aware of the necessity of balance.

As I watched Underpass Guy, I was grateful. Hey man, thanks for being you.

I wish I could be like Underpass Guy. I'm not entirely unlike him. In my past life—the one in which I had close gal pals around—I had a penchant for stoplight dance parties. Sidewalk grooving in UG's style, however, isn't likely. Because I don't walk with earbuds. I prefer to hear the cacophony of birds, kids, woof!, beep! beeeeep!, vroom!, and the rare whoosh! of the wind if you listen closely enough.

As I watched Underpass Guy, I wondered if he saw me looking. If he did, I bet I entered and exited his consciousness as fast as the lone bit of litter that was kicked up and dropped with the soft breeze near his feet.

How we see others is as varied a view as how we see ourselves. Our collective eyes form a kaleidoscope whose colors and shapes are always changing. Some of us will see ugly where others see beauty, and vice versa. Sometimes we'll see nothing at all, because maybe we aren't looking or we aren't even aware that we should or could be.

On that same Morgantown Tuesday on which Mother Nature donned her seasonal best, I took a walk, as I do nearly every day when Mother's mood permits. My place is merely two minutes from the bridge in my lovely neighborhood that leads into town. On foot, I took in even more of the sights of spring in University City.

The tall, thin, old man whose skin matches the miniature pine cones my son loves to gather from the neighbor's bushes:

He's often walking the main street in town, distinguished by a slight limp and primed with a friendly greeting for all. Recently I was told he's homeless and that he found a place to stay that's far from town, too far to walk for someone without a car. A home, yet no means to get downtown where he makes his mark on the vast universe by spreading smiles. What a happy-sad situation, I thought. I was glad to see him that day. Maybe someone gives him a ride to town now. There are people who do those things.

The proprietors of the barber shop that is almost exclusively patronized by young men:

They stand outside the door in couplets or occasionally in a group of three. Each time I pass them by, which is often, none of us acknowledge the other. It's not an uncomfortable silence, although next time maybe I should say a simple Hey or raise my chin in that way youngish people do to say hello without actually saying it. Is 38 still youngish? I think so. My soul feels so.

The motley crew that hangs on the steps of the Baptist church:

As I pass them by, I'll usually hear "That's a beautiful dog you have," of my slender, spotted canine love, Private Joker. Or "Pretty soon he'll be pushing you" of my three-year-old son, who might be smiling or scowling in his stroller, depending on the day...or the hour, or how I broke his piece of cheese the "wrong" way, or the fact that I didn't praise him enough before flushing his potty masterpiece. Three-year-olds can have as many personalities as that crew that holds court on the church steps, with a few exceptions. The step-dwellers, they're typically smoking, usually cursing, often unkempt, and occasionally unruly—even slightly frightening in cases like the twentysomething kid who has obvious rage issues—and rarely infuriating, in isolated instances like the young mother smoking in the face of her baby captive in a stroller. Overall, my interactions with them are pleasant or at least innocuous.

We have to take care not to let our eyes do the work of our minds. What we encounter through sight is unrefined. It is the mind that processes those images and—if our souls are so inclined—allows us to see under the surface.

Underpass Guy and all the others I've described, they make my world a colorful place to behold. I consider myself fortunate to see them that way. Life gives us so many reasons to look at others with disdain, so any time—or the many times—we overcome that urge, it's a win for humanity.

We aren't all destined to become the old man threatening kids to get off his lawn. It's possible to become more tolerant with age. I believe I'm doing it. And I owe it, I believe, to intolerance I've encountered in my own life. Pain is a wise teacher. If you allow it. If you're able, or perhaps just lucky enough, to find yourself in discovery.

Do the work. Find yourself disappointed in yourself. Resolve to do the work some more.

There's also this: A beaming sun, bright skies, and balmy breezes make living in the world much easier. Maybe we should all move to the beach.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Freelancers and Unicorns.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time with my Nanni and her two sisters, my great-aunts Judy and Phylomena. My dad would drop me off at their house when he went to swim laps or we'd visit for dinner or Dad would go over to fix a drip or a leak or a broken something. They lived in a small, extremely tidy brick house situated on a mostly yard-less corner lot in the heavily Italian-populated Glen Elk neighborhood of Clarksburg, West Virginia. 

Benedica! they would say. You're so pretty. Marry a man with money. 

My great aunts and grandmother all lived long enough to see me go off to college and get married. Except I only did one of those things. I didn't marry that man with money. Or any man. I remained mostly single throughout my twenties, dating rarely and dysfunctionally. In all those years, the Calabrian threesome at the house on the corner lot met exactly one boy I called mine for a time. Or they may not have met him at all. Memory is tricky.

During my last year of college—which wasn't a typical last year because I'd gone back to finish my degree at age 22 when most people are ready to graduate—Aunt Judy died. Then after college, Aunt Phyl. When I was thirty-seven, last year in this very month of April, Nanni slipped away at the age of 98. Along my formative 20s, the threesome had watched me navigate the eccentric path of my life: Moving from house to house, city to city; starting college, then stopping, then starting again; celebrating my eventual graduation with high hopes for my eventual settling; re-settling into being onlookers of my Adventures in Job Hopping.     

None of them ever had much to say about my life—to me, that is. I imagine my gypsy ways were a topic of conversation over plates of spaghetti with meatballs accompanied by either a tomato or lettuce salad. At the corner-lot house in Glen Elk, salad was always the green or red leaf variety, never romaine or iceberg, and always dressed with olive oil and not much else. My tastebuds have vivid recollection of that romaine salad whose blandness was uncharacteristic or perhaps simply unexpected according to the high standards bestowed upon old-school old Italian ladies in Clarksburg. My great-aunts, over pasta and tasteless greens, would've barked harsh assessments of their sister's wayward granddaughter, whose high GPA and good looks should've propelled her onto a more traditional path in life. The three were highly neurotic, a trademark of Italians from Clarksburg, I think. Nanni, despite her habit of peeking into my car windows to later chastise me about tempting thieves with things like tennis shoes, was always tender when it came to my nontraditional traditions of being me. The details of my life—like lack of stability in work or love or location—never seemed to sway her opinion of me. Nanni always believed in me. Any time I had an accomplishment—and I had many despite the Basquiat-looking work of art that was my life—she always told me she was proud of me. In the late years of Nanni's life, I returned to West Virginia unmarried and pregnant with her first great-grandchild. I was worried about her reaction, but in typical style, she had none. And when my little darling arrived, she was nothing but overjoyed, adoring him in her scratchy, squeaky, nonagenarian voice. Maybe Nanni didn't understand the vision of my life the way I did, but somehow, in her own way, she got it. 

I think that's all most of us expect, for others to somehow get it. In real life, it turns out more like Spit in one hand, wish in the other, kiddo. What I've learned is that it's unrealistic to expect every person in my life to be on board with my vision. That has been a dry piece of toast to choke down; luckily, I've also realized that sharing my vision comes quite easily for some people. And while it has been a painful shedding of layers to learn this lesson—those layers often being humans I liked very much or even loved —it's worth the reward of knowing that there are a precious few who will hang on for the duration.

When I graduated from West Virginia University in the winter of 2002, holding a degree in English with a creative-writing concentration and a cum laude designation, I wasn't well on my way to whatever it is that parents hope for their children. (Although I'm a parent myself now, I'm still not sure what I hope for my son, other than for him to be honest, perspicacious, independent, and to have a heart more refined than the one I'm still cultivating—one that has compassion and patience and wisdom.) At 26 years old, new college grad, I didn't have a clear target in mind but instead an inkling of what I wanted to be: A woman of words. So that's what I set out to be. Adventurous, it has been. 

Shortly after landing in Memphis, I landed my first job in advertising, as a junior copywriter at a small agency in a hip, rehabbed warehouse downtown. I had zero experience but endless confidence and ambition, and I guess somehow the latter came through to get me the job. I was handed a Mac laptop, which I'd never used before, and given a corner of a wall-length L-shaped desk. I quickly learned how to download iTunes playlists from coworkers, which gave way to Headphones All Day, Every Day; not so conducive to making workplace friends. There was big money involved in the jobs we handled—big corporations like FedEx and multinational medical-device makers—and while my supervisor was cool and patient and helpful, I was largely on my own, learning the strange language of copywriting, which was unlike any writing I'd ever known. I nearly cried the day I was assigned to write a hip replacement surgery manual. The phrase "It's not rocket science" didn't lend much perspective, because it was a surgeon's manual, after all. Kinda serious stuff. I got the hang of it and wrote a piece that I assume hasn't killed anyone. My first job in advertising was an invaluable teaching tool and foundation for my eventual career, but at the time I hated every minute of it. I lingered for about seven months and then returned to being a filament on the breeze. The official term for it is freelancer. 

Upon leaving my full-time job, I began working toward becoming a freelance writer and editor, which I'd already done a bit in years before moving to Memphis. But I was very green and so took on whatever jobs I could find in the meantime. I worked in the office for a large Memphis festival operation; I became a production assistant in TV and film production. Little by little, I wriggled my way into my chosen field again, finding freelance work with a big agency, a gig that introduced me to a woman looking for a copy editor for her magazine. Eventually, I became the managing editor of that  magazine, a long-running health and fitness publication distributed throughout Memphis and surrounding areas. The operation was small, with no central offices and a staff of five. Pay was enough to get me by, and sometimes not quite enough, so I continued working in TV and film.

A few years passed and I was ready to move on. One day I discovered a magazine online, a super-cool, funky rock-n-roll rag published in Mississippi. So I sent the editor a line and he called me for an interview, which took place in a small, raggedy looking yellow-sided house on the side of the road just across the border in Mississippi. Turns out my interviewer was the boyfriend of the daughter of a famous 50s rocker and maybe he fancied himself the coolest cat in town. A week or so later, he hired me and I quit my then-current post. Turns out cool cat was also a crazy cat, and when I inquired about my start date, he didn't recall hiring me. Needless to say, he was busier cultivating his cowpunk look than his professional demeanor, so I was left jobless. The magically disappearing job was certainly frustrating but an occupational hazard to which I'd become fairly accustomed. Onward, little filament. 

As Fate tended to do in my life, she handed me a new opportunity in the nick of time. "Must be nice having that comfy job." That's what a friend said of my new gig with a big ad agency in downtown Memphis. It was a part-time freelance position that paid very well—every freelancer's dream. It was indeed comfy strutting into Dollar General knowing I could pick out whatever brand of toilet paper I wanted—without even checking the unit prices!—I was movin' on up for sure. But there was something snide in my friend's comment, as if I'd been handed the job without having to work for it. 

As I've come to realize, the general population understands very little about freelancing. They seem to think it's a hobby, a side job, or a silly dreamer's occupation. They believe that because a freelancer might not work for periods of time or works odd hours, this person is not a worker by definition. Or, when we do make it, they think we're lucky jerks who didn't sacrifice to get what we got. Sadly, many business owners who use freelancers understand very little about it too, showing their ignorance in such detestable acts as asking us to work for free. In one such case, an editor told me that they need writers to provide a first article for free because that person's work might turn out to be sub par. Oh, I see. Free labor is like an insurance policy. Except there's actually a better solution, one I believe is practiced in the business world at large: When you hire someone, you pay them for the duration they work for you, and then if they don't perform well, you fire them. It's interesting that this doesn't occur to business people who use freelancers. No, I'm kidding. It does occur to them; they just use a loophole about paying people that has somehow come to exist in certain areas of business. I'd like to close up that hole. With cement. And anyone who trespasses against it will be shocked with high voltage. 

Unlike herding unicorns or guarding pots of gold beneath rainbows, freelancing is a real job. Those of us who choose it would love it to be recognized as such. Here are ways you can do that: Don't ask us to work for free, ever (unless it's for charity). Give us the respect that's typically naturally given to those who work in offices. (Translation: Please return our calls and emails. Please follow up rather than leaving us hanging after we've spent hours of our valuable time creating proposals for you.)

I read an article recently that discussed a new trend in parenting in which passion—for a given area of expertise—is being pushed upon children and is touted as the only way to success in life. The article went on to espouse the notion that passion isn't always present, can't be forced, and isn't altogether necessary for success. At first I was miffed, given that passion has been my modus operandi for most of my adult life, but objectivity kicked in before my heart could break. It's true: Passion isn't for everyone. Some people need not love what they do. They go to work for a paycheck and they're cool with that. Others are like intuitive, sensitive little forest creatures who are easily scared off by That Which They Cannot Feel, and when forced into non-nurturing spaces, they turn into raging, caged beasts. The world has room and need for all of us. This is not to ensure balance in the universe, because really such a thing doesn't exist. Rather, it ensures  continual motion. In and out, up and down, like the tides.

There was a time when my freelancer's dream became real. I lament its short life, quite often, but luckily, despite being shaken up my vision is still intact. Job possibilities come in and then back out of my life as surely as the water that flows through my body. The goal remains: To get "it" back. It's coming. And when it gets here, I admit I'll think I told you so with a few people in mind. But even better: I'll be able to afford things like childcare and car insurance and the occasional facial. I'll know that I'll have set the example I wanted for my son. I'll give my parents a sigh of relief. And Nanni, up in the heavens, will still be proud. 

To all you freelancers out there: High fives. And may you always get paid. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Thanks for the Memories

The clock says 8:44 a.m. Why am I awake? This could be a highly unusual day. I should be sleeping after roaming the land all night long. As vampires do.

That's what she said I am. A vampire. An Emotional Vampire, to be exact. Well, she didn't say it outright, but she sent me a link to an Internet quiz, exhorting me to read it and change my ways before I destroy my life any further. She said it with such genuine concern. Clearly it would behoove me to oblige her request.

"She" being an old friend of mine. We haven't spoken in well over a year, and our last interactions weren't much in the way of friendly. They weren't outwardly ugly either, but then, Ugly has never been a master of disguise. We haven't spoken because, according to her by way of an Internet quiz (and who doesn't believe Internet quizzes are accurate gauges of the human psyche?), EVERYTHING IS MY FAULT. According to the author of the quiz, if I answered yes to half or more of the questions, I better drop everything, read on, and learn how to stop being such a miserable piece of shit. (Full disclosure: I did not answer yes to half, and I did answer honestly.)

As I write today, I find myself buried in bull manure so deep that I'm struggling to find the proper syllables to begin digging myself out. Do I start by accusing my former friend of being a total jerk? Tempting, but least-common-denominator retorts aren't my thing. Do I list the ways in which I don't fit the criteria for emotional vampirism? Likely at some point, since I am prone to providing supporting evidence. Do I skip writing and instead search for an Internet personality quiz to send her? Or buy her a set of emotional bifocals? Man. The possibilities. 

Here's why I'm waving in public the smelly socks of my personal life: Self-awareness. Be aware that when something goes wrong in a relationship, there are two parties involved. Believe this: You contributed to the dissolution of the relationship.The divvying up of blame can lead to a degree of self-pity, but in the end, only the one who feels hurt will care. Life doesn't dole out results according to our individual senses of justice. 

To be fair, I have to reveal that Former Friend did throw in "We both failed each other." Magnanimous, right. To be even more fair, after reading her fake-earnest attempt at helping me cure myself of being myself—via the Internet personality quiz—I wasn't without the ability to see some remnants of myself in there, not specifically listed in said quiz but in an overall sense: I can be difficult to deal with. I'm not incapable of recognizing this. However, I abide by this revolutionary idea: I expect a true friend to deal with it. In Former Friend's world view, I am self-destructive. This assessment befuddles me in relation to how I see myself. Or maybe we have differing ideas of what self-destruction entails. To me, if a person isn't abusing others, smoking crack, trading sex for money, neglecting the well being of children, or suffering from an untreated mental disorder, they're doing okay in life. To do that confessional thing I like to do: I surely haven't led a drama-free life, have a habit of talking my feelings to death, have been financially irresponsible at times, and have dated four poor choices, give or take one. I also have difficulty with intimacy, both romantic and platonic. Uh oh--maybe it is because I suck, literally. I suck dry the emotional reserves of those I selfishly expect to love me unconditionally. Or this: I've spent a large amount of my adulthood living alone and being single--largely enjoying my solitude, by the way--and in that time I've come to discover a myriad of contributing factors to my troubles with other people, which cannot be neatly packaged into a box labeled "Emotional Vampire." 

While I've spent the bulk of this blog mocking the total-crap effort of Former Friend to address with kindness or compassion the rift in our friendship, beneath it all lies a lot of hurt. I loved her. She was the first friend I made in a new city, and we had great times together. She said she hopes that I don't believe those times were in vain. I don't, but that doesn't erase or address the latter part of our friendship. She is convinced that part is my fault, because I'm flawed. Because I possess a victim mentality. The inanity of that accusation shows an incredible lack of insight into the woman that is me. If anything, I'm given to inordinate amounts of self-blame, or, in an objective, healthy way, I attempt to uncover my part in whatever is happening in my world. In the event I conclude that someone else has done wrong to me—and—gasp!—this actually happens—it doesn't diminish my own self-awareness. I assume FF takes as gospel the word of Internet quiz-writer, who asserts that Emotional Vampires are responsible for how people react to them, that they cause people to hurt them. This is incredibly irresponsible and downright terrible advice. It's true that humans can possess qualities that other humans find impossible to tolerate. No one is required to remain in anyone's life, not for reasons of history or blood relation or legal certificates. This doesn't diminish a simple truth: One person is never responsible for another person's behavior. We are each individually responsible for how we treat others. 

I'm well aware of the picture of my life. I don't make traditional choices or take the easy or practical path. I see those aspects of my personality as ones that make my life as charming as it is complicated. Part of me would like to encourage FF to practice some self-awareness herself: Look back, my former dear, and consider that your attitude is not often kind, that your approach is not often conducive to productive discourse. Part of me knows it doesn't matter. Because people only discover themselves if and when they're ready.

Why am I wasting valuable time justifying my own existence to a callous, cold somebody? I'm not. Her mind is already made up. I'm sharing because I need to vent and because maybe someone else can benefit from hearing it. 

There is nothing in my life that has altered my perspective like motherhood. Not motherhood in particular, but single motherhood. And not single motherhood in particular, but a situation that compelled me to pick up my life in one state—a life that had finally started to fall together—and start anew elsewhere. My past few years have been rife with challenges. I've had my meltdowns and my triumphs. I've dodged quite a few daggers of judgment all along the way. We all judge, by the way. I'm no less guilty of it. When judgment is placed upon us, it naturally becomes personal and perplexing. Infuriating. Insulting. Through this journey of my past few years, my mind has been opened. My capacity for compassion has matured. 

There's one person I always think of when I talk about how people treat each other. A girl I knew many years ago in college and with whom I became very close. She led a troubled life, and for most of our relationship I was the only person who seemed to stick around for her. Our friendship was volatile, ending abruptly a few times. Two of those times, I let us both down. I said hurtful things, lashed out. It's been a few years since our last earthquake, and in that time I've felt a great deal of guilt. I don't regret my feelings or thoughts about her, and I think that's important to recognize. It's equally important to own my behavior, and I do wish I'd taken a kinder approach to handling our problems. So last year I wrote her a letter of apology. She never replied. Maybe she didn't get it. Maybe she didn't care. That bothers me, but I continually remind myself that an apology is meant to live alone, stand on its own with no external affirmation. 

In the spirit of equity, I'll add that above-mentioned friend didn't treat me well at times either, finding what I saw as a troubling sense of enjoyment in pushing my buttons and taking it upon herself to re-assess my beliefs for me. Here is the point where it gets tricky. It's okay—and necessary, I believe—to recognize how others treat (or mistreat) us. However, we have to remember to redirect our thoughts, lest we forget our own end of the teeter totter of relationships. My friend's unsavory behavior did not excuse mine. We each did what we did, and we each must reconcile ourselves with it. Such a pretty centerpiece, that last sentence there. In reality it's put together with great toil and up close you can see the duct tape and cracking glue. But that's okay as long as you make it and put it out there.

I lost a friend this week. She was already gone, really, but this week it became stamped and pressed onto a page in the history of my life. I don't get the feeling she mourns the loss. I do. As cliches and Internet memes and common sense urge me to do, I'll have to let it go. I don't like to harbor anger, but sometimes it's more productive than pain. If I stay mad at her, I won't miss her. If I keep inhaling the putridity of the assertion that I'm fatally flawed, I won't want her in my life. Flawed I am. Even messy at times. Emotional and impractical. An ultimate act of self-destruction I am not. 

If you believe in yourself, if you know there's a method to the madness of your existence despite whatever obstacles and objections remain, don't let anyone take that from you. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

To All The Dogs I've Loved.

"What kind of dog?"

I'm asked this question by many curious and friendly strangers on walks downtown, and I'm happy to oblige with an answer. Private Joker, ever the darling despite his odd nature, is equally receptive to unfamiliar hands reaching for his head and giving gentle pats on his rump.

"What kind of dog?"

When asked by a potential landlord, this question is the death knell of my housing dreams.

Normally an eloquent speaker, I find myself reduced to bungled phrases and stiff pauses: "Um, well, he's about 55 pounds...some kind of mix...some sort of bulldog...almost five years old." And then my attempt at a save: "I can provide a reference."

While my fumbling does me no favors, it's not an indication of brewing deceit. Truth is, I don't know what my Private Joker is. I was living in Memphis in 2010 when a friend called, asking if I'd foster a puppy his friend had rescued. A day later, Amanda, the rescuer, arrived at my house with a skinny, scabby, damaged boy she had been calling Jake.

Amanda came at me on my front lawn in an explosion of color: blue eyes against burnt caramel skin surely helped along by a bevy of bulbs or a spray booth and whitest-white teeth flashing each brief second between big smiles and bursts of Southern-drawl-dripped, light-speed syllables.

She was all caffeine to Jake's chamomile.

My boisterous new acquaintance and I walked my meek foster boy through the front door of my rental bungalow in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood in Midtown Memphis to meet the rest of the family. Kaiser and Phaedra, my two "pit bull types" of a decade, greeted Joker with not too much interest, but not too little. Seamless, I'd call it.

"Jake" wasn't my style, so I christened him Private Joker and didn't do much in the way of getting him adopted. And it was seamless, the relationship between my three quadrupedal kids--that is, until the tumor in Phaedra's neck grew to the size of a grapefruit and rendered her intolerant and defensive. By that time, we'd moved back to my small hometown in West Virginia and were temporarily living with my parents. Unexpectedly, Kaiser beat Phaedra to the grave, in 2012, four months after my first child was born. My big brown love was the victim of cancer that had invaded his lungs and very suddenly erased him from our family portrait. Phaedra continued to fade. Could she have spoken a word, she wouldn't have uttered one in complaint; rather, her way was fierce independence. She fought for life for another year and a half. The death of my dogs, as death will do, branded my soul with an everlasting essence of our time together.

Seven months later, Private Joker, my son Zion, and I found our first home together: a two-bedroom apartment in a four-unit building. Our place was perfectly situated in my dream neighborhood in my second home, Morgantown, WV, only 40 miles from my hometown but light years ahead in culture and opportunity.

Since my college days at WVU,  Morgantown had become sadly inclined toward breed profiling, and my rental search had been long and arduous, littered--tainted is more like it--with that miserable telltale question:

"What kind of dog?"

Surprisingly--and beyond thankfully--I was able to acquire my apartment without much fanfare about Joker. The property manager was a dog person and previous owner of the much-maligned "pit bull." Mind you, the quotation marks aren't to express irony or disdain for the term; they're purely functional, because there is no such breed. "Pit bull" is a blanket term used to describe different breeds, such as American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and American Bulldogs. And these days, due to over-breeding and cross-breeding, it's hard to determine the breed legitimacy of any pit bull-looking dog, unless it comes from a reputable breeder, I suppose. It's my opinion that there are very few reputable breeders out there, so let's just scratch that last part.

Breed discrimination—like its racial- and gender-based counterparts—makes it hard for me to flow like water over a stone, to achieve that general state of transcendence that I desire. Instead, it makes me feel like a tiny volcano, capable of spitting fire and catapulting molten rocks in the direction of breed haters. Of course, like bigots and misogynists, breed discriminators don't see themselves in a negative light. Rather, they fancy themselves pragmatists and protectors. People like me—who are often denigrated as "crazy" animal advocates—know better, not because we believe differently but because we're armed with facts and experience.

While I have an obvious emotional stake in the plight of the pit bull-type dog (from here on called pit bull for brevity's sake), my defense of the dogs isn't limited to the confines of the left-hand side of my chest where my bleeding heart resides. One doesn't become a seasoned debater by making emotionally based arguments, after all. Making a solid case requires objectivity and perspicacity, and—despite that dormant volcano that resides within me—those qualities have permanent residency in my soul.

We crazies want to know this: Do lawmakers and insurance companies exercise provident thinking as they're drafting policy that aims to ban pit bulls? It seems impossible that they could, or else they'd realize the utter mess they're creating in the communities they purportedly want to support and protect.

There are so many layers to the issue. So many possibilities, and none of them good. What happens to these displaced pit bulls? Are they all euthanized? Who foots the bill and who houses them in the meantime? If animal control is the answer, that's laughable. County animal control departments already have their hands full from countless irresponsible, inhumane residents who neglect and drop off their pets. It's unlikely they have extra funds to take on another burden, which could range from a few pit bulls to hundreds. Will they ship the dogs to rescues? Again, laughable. Rescues too are overburdened because of the irresponsibility and inhumanity of humans.

Breed bans are not merely a local issue for individual communities. For one, breed bans aren't isolated occurrences—they're widespread and common—and their very existence indicates a desire for the breed to be eradicated entirely. So let's look at the big picture: There are millions of pit bulls in the United States. Now, lawmakers, insurance companies, and concerned citizens: What shall we do with them all? Millions of living creatures that you've deemed—hysterically, mind you—deserving of displacement, or, more accurately, death.

What, precisely, is pragmatic about disrupting the lives of not simply nameless, faceless dog owners but contributing members of communities in which these dogs are banned? Many owners would sooner move than give up their pets, which creates a host of problems like broken leases, displaced families, and loss of income. Do lawmakers want to lose residents? Do insurance companies want to lose customers? There is and will continue to be backlash, in the form of lawsuits, grassroots movements, and business opportunism—savvy insurance companies will see a gap and lure clients from pit bull-unfriendly providers. It's already happening.

Then there's the core issue with which we crazies are very familiar: the utter disregard for living creatures—both the dogs and the humans involved. We can't appeal to law or policy for leniency on this aspect, but we'll continue to make it known. Because that's what you do for love.

Those who support breed bans should spend some time researching the pit bull, particularly in respect to the sickeningly high number of abuse cases. Humans are harming these dogs far more than they're harming humans. Furthermore, these dogs are remarkably resilient and, to anthropomorphize, forgiving. Unlike humans, who often don't fare well following years of abuse and neglect, these dogs quite often go on to become wonderful pets.

The problem with pit bulls is not that they're innately dangerous. The problem is one created by humans: People have over-bred and cross-bred, abused and abandoned these dogs, leaving a massive population that requires rehab, re-training, and re-homing. People get pit bulls as status symbols instead of family pets, not giving them the attention and socialization due any dog, much less a type of dog that has added pressure to prove itself due to social stigma. In our current climate of pit bull fear mongering, these dogs can't afford to fail. Even so much as a growl from a pit bull is interpreted far differently than a growl from, say, a Golden Retriever.

It took me many years of raising pit bulls to build my understanding of these dogs. For the most part, I was on my own; I had no experienced owners to guide me. I made mistakes along the way, but none of my dogs failed while I learned. After becoming a mother three years ago, I found a new responsibility as a pit bull owner, which was to oversee and guide the relationship between my son and Private Joker. I'm devoted to giving them both a life filled with love and attention and boundaries.

I want this country to re-assess its attitude toward the pit bull. As my go-to pit bull resource, Pit Bull Rescue Central, says: Educate, Don't Legislate. Breed bans are more problem than solution.

I'm presently mid-search for a new rental home, and I fully expect the dreaded question to come up every time I make an inquiry to a potential landlord.

"What kind of dog?"

Next time, maybe I'll answer this way: The kind that makes me smile. The kind I naturally include in my life decisions. The kind I vow to protect. The kind that has been an invaluable companion. The kind that is a member of my family.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

strangers, writers, and kingpins.

another saturday night at the tavern. this time i didn't test my comfort level with seating and headed straight for the corner bar stool. two searches through my wallet for the free-beer promo card later, i ordered my brew and my black bean-quinoa burger and laid out my ipad to start my first e-book, Just Kids, a memoir by punk-rock legend patti smith.

like a novice solo-dinner goer, instead of the pro i should be by now, i made the fatal error of making eye contact with the guy two stools over, whose eyebrows were very bert, as in ernie's other half. i don't think i exude "knows football," but bert asked me if the panthers won. assuming that a shrug of my shoulders paired with "i dunno" wouldn't suffice as a shut down, i looked up at the flat screen above the back bar and noticed the team-mascot icons and accordingly gave him my prediction: cat's gonna eat the bird. from now on, this is how i'll gauge the outcome of sport contests, not that i expect anyone else to ask.

i thought i'd managed to secure my invisible bubble, but once again, i found myself next to a person who wouldn't shut up. on my last trip to the tavern, which is not a tavern but a gastropub, i was challenged to ignore the high decibels of the half-drunk half of the unfortunately looked-down-upon interracial couple. this time, my neighbor was not as loud as he was odd. as the night went on, i realized he didn't need me to participate in conversation since he was mostly mumbling to himself. it brought to mind a recent visit to starbucks that ended in the arrest of a similarly odd neighbor, a young kid who persisted in poking my arm to get me to respond to various conversations he'd been having with himself. of all the places i've lived, like memphis and miami and new york city, i'm reluctant to say my home state leads in stranger danger. i remain hopeful that future visits to coffee shops and gastropubs will yield more positive results.

sitting at the bar and then on my couch later that saturday night, i read most of Just Kids, finishing it sunday morning along with a cup of organic hazelnut coffee; two free-range, cage-free scrambled eggs; and homemade drop biscuits from my freezer, whose ingredients are shameful given i'd run out of butter halfway through and had to finish with blue bonnet—a.k.a. not-butter—my arteries cringe—which was brought to me last minute from another person's kitchen (this + butter imposter made the whole biscuit situation strange). patti smith's descriptions of her world in late-1960s new york city didn't invite me in as many memoirs have; rather, it made me feel like an onlooker, as if i were sitting in a theater watching it on the big screen. this wasn't an unwelcome feeling. it couldn't have been, given the wonders of her world: andy warhold, salvador dali, kris kristofferson, allen ginsberg, janis joplin, and other characters who were not infamous but were no less streaks of lightening and splashes of color.

i am utterly addicted to memoirs—not just any, though. i'm drawn to the stories of people who have lived outside the lines; who have overcome dysfunctional upbringings, poverty, or repeated failures; who have achieved success by following their dreams and instincts. my addiction began with maya angelou over 15 years ago. in 2001-ish, i found audre lorde. in 2011, it was d. brown, who isn't a famous writer and whose book is likely still far, far underexposed. d lives in one of memphis' satellite cities, and i know about her memoir because she hired me to edit it. (a copy editor who writes in all lowercase, i've found, is an affront to the pedants of the world. i'm hard pressed to say i get that, because, really, do they think i don't know how to use capitals? clearly it's a stylistic choice, which i think should be respected. that said, if i were offered publishment [<— hey, neologism] i could be moved to use proper caps.)

when i first spoke with d. brown to discuss the project, i knew we'd click.

we met for the first time at a starbucks on her end of town. a few minutes into my wait at an outside table, she appeared, and i was naturally drawn to observe her from the bottom up, like one would a sequoia or a sunflower or anything rooted in the ground and driving your gaze toward the visual splendors at its highest points. she wore her jeans slightly tight, enough to show the slight fullness and strength in her upper thighs; a shirt whose boundaries were gently expanded by large breasts; and her hair in a modified afro. her smile—which expressed a genuine "hey" without spilling the actual words— showed one gold tooth. d had never written anything but had decided some years prior that her life story was worth telling and so spent those years writing—literally on paper—later transferring it to electronic format. her story was more than tell-able, it was intoxicating: middle-class, church-going california girl falls in love with a pimp/drug dealer, leaves for texas where she becomes a prostitute and he goes to prison for murder, transforms herself into a drug kingpin, and goes to prison. without even knowing she was being a writer, d did this thing that is a thing of great writing: woven into the scenes were gospel hymns that she sang to herself while going about the criminal acts of her everyday life. it was brilliant. the happy ending? it really happened this way: she ended up in tennessee married to her former pimp, complete with day jobs, a house in the suburbs, and children in college.

i spent an afternoon at d's house that spring of 2011, working out details of a particular prison scene. toward the end of the day, in walked her husband: former pimp. convicted murderer. redeemed human being. he nodded and said hi, and i smiled and said the same. the moment felt like a scene in the movie of my own life. although d couldn't pay me much and thus i couldn't dig into the project as much i wanted, it was by far the best project of my career. not only did i love every minute of working on her book, i also made a friend. d and i talked, about prison-room perimeters, diaper drug stashes, and unrelated existential things. i told her about a man i'd been dating on and off for a couple years, about how his shy demeanor and mysterious ways never made sense. a few months later, captain thumbs down and i would make a baby—and he would unfortunately continue his pattern of making no sense, which is a gracious way of putting it. i can't remember what it was, but d had given me some wisdom about him that day at her house. of course i didn't listen. no one ever does, you know.

d self-published her book, not printing too many copies. she sent me one after i moved back to west virginia. i told her it should be a movie, and i meant it. i can't decide if quentin tarantino or memphis local craig brewer should direct it. either way, i'm certain it would be a hit. the thought that it may never happen gives me a sort of sadness, that a work so deserving of attention might never rise above a few shelves in tennessee and one in west virginia.

like d. brown, i feel an urge to write stories about my life. someone once asked me, in earnest, "why do people want to read a blog about your life?" my answer: the same reason they read books. hopefully, if i'm good enough at it, my words will lead people inward—into the tales i tell and, if i'm really good, into themselves where they'll think about...whatever. who knows where a particular turn of phrase of mine might lead other human beings in their own discrete mind spaces. that's the wonderful thing about writing and about reading: you go where your mind takes you.

d. brown's book is called Kept. i googled it today and couldn't find it. it felt like a loss. i hope she's still writing. i hope i always will.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

i shall be moved.

i sat with my back to the door, an unusual choice for me, and one i made purposely to see how i felt about it. i felt wrong. however, after hanging my wool pea coat—which is black by nature but had become threaded with fine white pit bull hairs, even though i'd cleaned it the day before— and my scarf and my purse on the bar stool, and after laying out my ipad, to write a letter for a client, and my book, to shove my nose in after finishing work, i didn't feel like moving all of that around the corner and a few stools up, which was the next empty seat. so i settled into my uncomfortable spot.

there were two couples on either side of me, one who is looked down up on because they are interracial, according to the half-drunk female cohort who went on to turn up her volume to an unworkable level. "that's unfortunate," i said, sincerely meaning it and sincerely wishing i knew the whereabouts of my headphones so i could give her the universal sign for "i'm closed for conversation now." the other couple was probably around my age, late thirties, that is, and seemed happy, just plain happy to be at the corner of the bar, eating locally sourced burgers and fries with three kinds of dipping sauce. when they left, i relocated. the looked-down-upon couple had gone too, so i had solace, but my back-to-the-door felt as huge as a billboard. with my side to the door in my new seat, i felt small and unnoticeable again.

work moved quickly and i felt a thrill as i finally settled back into my recent fix, The Glass Castle, a memoir by west virginian jeannette walls. since first opening its pages, i had been mesmerized. it's been so long since a book has made me feel that way; the only word that suffices to describe it is love. for a while i've largely neglected books in favor of more academic reading. i've gone on thousands of online knowledge adventures, digging up bits about every thought or question that has crossed my mind, like henry kissinger, quantum theory, sinn fein, the middle east conflict, the former yugoslavia, the krebs cycle, fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers, peaberry coffee beans, the history of punk rock, petroleum, "uphill" breast feeding, phytic acid, treasury bonds, rococo art, bee pollination, and more, more, and more—most of which i'll have to re-research, or already have, because i only retain a chunk of each bit of information, and i'll drive myself crazy until i go back and remind myself where that chunk fits.

over the past few weeks, my reading time was mostly devoted to jeannette walls. as i read the details of her life—one absolutely gorged on both tribulations and triumphs—i was transported not just into the world her book created but into myself as a writer. as my eyes devoured every word, my soul was rapturous. reading the words of another soul moved to write, i felt alive. i felt like me. i didn't want that book to end. end it did, last friday as i was curled up in the glider chair at my parents' house, the same chair where i spent many cold winter days nursing my january-born boy, singing him "yoshimi" by the flaming lips, and snuggling his tiny, new body as he slept. as i reluctantly closed the covers, i thought, i'm so glad someone from west virginia wrote this unforgettable book. i wonder if jeannette walls sees herself as unbelievably resilient as her readers do, or if she considers her experiences mere facts of her life. it's a brilliant fact of life that books can move us.

i can't live without being moved. i search for it everywhere—in the music i listen to, the clothes i wear, the food i cook, the way i raise my son, the people with whom i spend my time. my inspiration began, i'd say, from the moment of conception, my father being an english teacher and my mother a singer, not by trade but by irrepressible habit and talent. as i grew, my big brother became a model of one who must be moved. his room was a wonderland and served as my education in musical passions; from walls to desktop to dresser-drawer contents, i learned about stevie ray vaughan, rush, primus, deep purple, john bonham, zildjian, and jeff buckley. and knives, i learned about them too, the kind with a compass built into the handle and or with tools that disappear into the metal folds. my brother wasn't a violent guy; i'd say he was more  passionate about the idea of survival. i don't blame him. me too.

muse as tool for survival. yes, i'll buy that.

i've been chasing muses for many years now. there are large-scale muses, like life goals, and small ones that are like paint splatters added to a white-canvas day. some days, the muse might be nothing more than what i'm wearing. that's why i like to own old things: vintage; antique; gently worn. while the euphemisms tend to change, the fact remains that they're old, and they have character and stories, and that makes me feel good. i used to have quite the wardrobe of old things; many of them were lost to the relocation war of attrition. now that i'm hoping to move fewer times, maybe even only one more time—into my home sweet home that will hopefully be somewhere in the neighborhood where i live now, my warm little jewel among these whimsical victorians and stately stones—i wish i had held on to more of my old things. then again, new-old muses are always finding their way into my life, as family hand-me-downs and garage-sale finds, and less often thrift-store scores, seeing as this town has mostly done away with the places where i found so many treasures during college.

music moves me too. over the past fifteen years or so, it's been a current that has carried me to people and to places. yesterday, i was reminded of one of those such drifts. in 2004, i went to a bar in morgantown to see a band from indiana called magnolia electric company with my best girl erin. she and i were the tightest of tight back then. still are, though it's been years since we've been near enough for a hug. the singer of that band was jason molina, who had grown up partly in southern west virginia, not far from erin's hometown. after the show, they chatted about that part of the state. jason was a small man, and his voice was not big either, but how it had a presence. it was the voice of moonlight coming through the window of an appalachian mountain home.

a year after that show, i went to another at the same bar to see a band who shared a member with magnolia electric company. my friend gave the band a place to stay after the show, and i made a new friend that night. j.e.g. and i have stayed in touch through email and facebook for a decade now, only seeing each other once when magnolia played memphis. a guitar player by night and historian by day, j.e.g. is a good-spirited, talented, driven guy topped off with a head full of crayon-orange curls that give him a distinct appearance, especially when they flop around with his impassioned guitar playing. like his bandmate jason molina, j.e.g. has ties to west virginia, having married a girl from the very town where my father taught school. sometimes the world truly does feel as small as that shiny, textured globe that spun around on its metal axis in various classrooms throughout my early education. in 2013, jason molina died from organ failure due to alcoholism. j.e.g. wrote a beautiful tribute that was posted online two days ago, and it reminded me that i'm so glad to have met a guy like him along my way.

i've met many inspiring people by way of music and travels. they are a bowl of mixed nuts: musicians, filmmakers, photographers, skateboarders, social workers, and entrepreneurs from all over the country, with even an oscar winner among them. they are mostly men, and of these men, all except one i have never so much as kissed. that one, he was a byproduct of circumstance: he was around and i was around. as the lead singer stamped by countless tattoos and endowed with a handsomeness not near classic but sufficient enough to enhance the built-in allure of being a guy with a guitar, he had a surplus of interested women, and so he never entertained any sort of serious cavorting with me. although that became occasionally frustrating, since i am human, overall there was no harm done seeing as i hadn't actually entertained the facts of actually catching him. my path at the time was consumed by a desire to be part of something, to feel energized, to be taken away from a place that tried to hush my spirit—all forces far more powerful than an aimless crush. my goal, even subconscious at times, is to be moved.

and what about, instead of being moved, being one who moves? as the grateful recipient of inspiration in the form of people and places, i'm also lucky enough to have been the giver of inspiration too. i know because i've been told. what beautiful revelations. i tuck those word-gifts into deep folds of my mind for safe keeping. i've decided there is no contest between being moved and moving. both are wonderful and essential to a life of purpose.

as i spend the first morning of this new year eying my shamefully chipped, sparkly black nail polish, writing from my desk that used to house my grandmother's sewing machine, sitting in this funky throwback chair i plucked from goodwill, humoring my littlest love's endless journeys to and from my lap, i hope for the coming year to brings gifts of inspiration. i wish for fortune and progress to shape our days in 2015.

i keep silent thank yous on reserve, ever grateful for the gift of being moved.