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.