writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

Wide enough to walk through

Long ago, I attended a large land grant university that straddled two towns surrounded by flat fields of corn. During storms, the thunder echoed as it bounced between green plain and sky, sometimes intermingling with the thuds of my apartment complex neighbor’s fists against his girlfriend’s flesh, their young one crying in the background. I lived within walking distance of a liquor store, a grocery store, and campus, and so my world was circumscribed by need and duty. I wanted for nothing but peace and other people, the two things that were hardest for me to find.

My graduate work was in a subject so easy and boring that it enabled me to drink to excess and sleep in frequently, as well indulge in a breakdown of sorts, one of at least two I had in those college years when I was closer both to the origin of my wounds and the bottle’s deceptively soothing heft. My job indexing federal environmental statutes for the Army was remote, pointless, and soon to be outdated. The best things about the year and a half I spent on the prairie were my practicum at the Women’s Studies library, where I met a woman who remains a good friend, and the Women and Language class I took with this friend, taught by Cheris Kramerae, one of the editors of the excellent feminist dictionary
Amazons, Bluestockings, and Crones.

The Women’s Studies library is where I first read cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For books, compilations of her smart, funny, and feminist comics about a group of (mainly) lesbian friends. Earlier this week, I randomly came across her most recent graphic memoir Are You My Mother? in the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, something that in retrospect seems like no accident.

Between excerpts of her psychoanalysis and texts from pediatrician, psychoanalyst, and object relations theorist Donald Winnicott’s work on the true and false self and the lasting effects of the relationship between mother and child, the book seemed to be sending me a multilayered message. One, while there are reasons I struggle with what I do and who I am, change is possible. Two, if that is true for me, it is true for my clients, though at the moment I am somewhat blinded to their needs and potential for change by my own struggles. And three (the post-therapy appointment addition), I can remain connected to my mother while simultaneously being aware of the push-pull nature of my feelings for her, the seemingly contradictory mix of love and anger. My ongoing internal crisis of competence, confidence, and presence is no illusion, but I am not doomed to remain stuck forever. It is OK for me to change.

However, change takes more than conviction and knowledge. It takes remaking, what one of my textbook authors, citing psychoanalyst Franz Alexander, calls a
corrective emotional experience, an ongoing interaction and relationship (in this context, with a therapist) that rewrites the script we first author in childhood.

Perhaps you understand, have been through the same situation in various flavors, trying to relive that which went before only to relive it too well, to reinforce the pattern? We seek healing by recreating early relationships, often reinforcing the lessons we sought to forget. When we do change the script, the feeling can be too unsettling to maintain. Nothing about change is easy or simple. And I am afraid that it takes other people, kind, open, aware, and accepting, to help us change.

For me, letting other people in is the hardest thing. It’s what I want so badly. And it is within my grasp. The wall I constructed long ago to keep me safe, even through those beery days in the town on the prairie, is pierced here and there with holes. I can see the wild woods on the other side and the cabins in the clearing, the thin fingers of smoke floating from their chimneys. And so I pull at the brittle stone, the powdery mortar, with scratched, bloodied hands. I call to the people on the other side to join in. We’ll pull it down. We’ll make a space wide enough to walk through, even if it takes a lifetime.

This is a rewrite of a post, with a new title. Wrote the first one before therapy, the rewrite after.

Another day home and one blood test later, the boy was feeling better enough to go to school today -- just in time for us to NOT cancel another night out. Phew! on many counts.

Middle image from Are You My Mother? taken by Karl Dotter.
Bottom image
cc_icon_attribution_smallcc_icon_noncomm_small Some rights reserved by west.m.

Pursuing the pointless

In the moonless dark of post-dusk, in the moments after the gloaming, I saw your ghost. It was you, the real thing, as you were a quarter century ago, no longer solid but ethereal, a translucent dream. The witching hour had just passed and yet you were there before me, wearing an oversized thrift store coat over a giant woolen orange turtleneck, with the baggy jeans and Doc Martens that were in fashion when I knew you.

It frightened me how quickly I could conjure you up, how I felt the slow tingle of addiction course through my veins. I wanted the thing I should not have. I had to be crafty to get it, to be a liar, a sneak. It was the feeling of getting away with something, the cool burn of whisky sipped from a flask in a car doing 90 down a one-lane dirt road and his hand was too high on my thigh, and all around us was dust like smoke, and it was only that moment that mattered, the moment before I got what I so badly wanted.

I could never possess you. I did not really want to. You were a symbol, a sign of my arrested development. At 18, I had the romantic maturity of a middle schooler with the body and quasi-freedom of a college freshman. It is only lately that my emotions have caught up with the rest of me. And I am so sad right now, so sad and slow, that for a moment I conjured you back, a boy with whom I barely spoke.

For I am slipping into the trough again, feeling low, incompetent, and bleak. I have accepted that I will never feel that frisson of danger again and am ok with that. Been there, done that, should have gone for therapy and antidepressants first. But as I slip, I wish there was another way to feel the thrill of pursuing the pointless, to get a little pick-me-up from the other side of the abyss.

A Helmut Lange 1967 fashion photograph from an article at the Daily Mail.

My illusion

If you are wondering if my curiosity about people from my past ever dies, here is your answer.

Last week, I did one of my periodic Internet searches on a guy I had a crush on in
college. College the first time around, freshman year, when I was 18 and the bruises were still fresh and my roommate dropped out midyear to get the help she needed. C was tall, dark-eyed, and mysterious, the kind of guy who dressed in thrift store overcoats, drank whiskey, and smoked cigarettes while listening to Joy Division. In fact, he was the one who introduced me to Joy Division. He was a senior with a mysterious past, including a year spent slumming the streets in some Portuguese town, running drugs or laundering money or some such impossibly romantic story.

I became obsessed, as I was wont to do. My interest was obvious. I was rewarded with one awkward night in which God’s existence was confirmed, but things between me and C clearly were not going anywhere. I wrote a short story about him that got a good response from my English professor (“Carl* is tall, dark, and handsome” was its killer opening line). I tracked C down one drunken night after I had dropped out of school and he was in graduate school in a faraway city. I haven’t talked to him since, or if I have, I have also blocked the humiliating memory out of my consciousness.

In the age of social media, we are sometimes inadvertently exposed to our past. Hook-ups become Facebook friends. Exes show up on LinkedIn. And sometimes a yearly search gives a girl more information than she expected. So I did a search of C’s full name and the college we both attended and – boom – there he was. My first response was –
this guy?

Granted, it’s been 25 years. If C was still dressing in thrift store overcoats, a tangle of dark curls piled above his furrowed brow (and those brown eyes), an unfiltered cigarette dangling from his pouty lips . . . well, that would be strange. Instead, he looks perfectly pedestrian, another surprisingly well-preserved guy pushing 50. And he has a lot less hair.

I have no desire to reach out to C. That would be even stranger than looking him up in the first place. My curiosity is satisfied. But he remains another character for the borrowing, someone whose lips once touched mine, whose breath was bitter with tobacco and sweet with whiskey. He wrote poetry in Spanish and preferred girls with accents. So he took off for France in the early 1990s with a woman and no thought for the country he left behind.

I can still conjure him, real as the fire that slowly dies in front of me.


*Not his real name or his real initial.

Title borrowed in part from a line in the Joy Division song

I have not yet made a decision about grad school. I keep on thinking, talking about it, and lighting fires that I can stare into.

Image of Joy Division from

The shirt stays in the picture

What I am wearing may look like a shirt. But it is not. It is an era shrunk down to a men’s size medium. It is a friendship long over. It is a bygone place and time, Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland circa 1988. It is the first few paragraphs of a story filled in by decades of other peoples’ lives.

The shirt belonged to a crush of a college friend of mine. I don’t remember how the friend gained possession of it or why she passed it on to me. Perhaps it was the spoils of war, plucked after a lucky night. Perhaps she simply borrowed it and never got around to the return. The friend left WC after freshman year. The crush dropped out too, after impregnating a sorority girl (with twins!). I was gone by the almost-end of sophomore year, my mind and heart already in Washington, DC. No one has worn the shirt since the 1980s, the decade to which its fabric pattern and loose cut rightfully belong, though I sometimes take it out and ponder the sartorial possibilities. It has been my companion since I was 18, moving from dorm room to first shared apartment to efficiency to brick Victorian, from Maryland to DC to Illinois to Ohio to Virginia to California.

Going through closets this week, I came across the shirt, took a picture, and posted it to Facebook, where I got advice to make a pillow cover out of it, take a sample of the fabric and toss the rest, or simply get rid of the whole thing.
Lighten your load was the tenor of the kindly response. If I was looking for a gentle way to say goodbye to the shirt, if possessing it was a burden, these would be excellent suggestions. But I do not want to jettison this artifact of a different time and state of mind. I just want to share my sentimental side, the one that holds on to stories and people long gone (and their shirts). Its presence comforts me, a reminder of a time when I was young and foolish and just starting out.

I occupy a house of stuff. I occasionally divest the household of things and tire of the constant accumulation, particularly with a boy who collects items from the sidewalk and wants to hold on to every toy he’s ever owned (and somehow uses those items in his play, too). Most of our stuff isn’t new, but it does take up room, both mental and physical. So sometimes out it goes, like more of my work shoes and clothes from my librarian days just did.

But the shirt stays in the picture.


Image of me and the shirt by me.

Joy, sadness, fear and all

The last time I did this, I lived alone. I went to school to home to work to home. Sometimes I parked myself at a reading room in the Library of Congress or I sat by myself in the student lounge at CUA eating a homemade lunch and reading philosophy or Shakespeare. On weekends, I went to Chestertown to see Martha or took a Greyhound bus to a dotpoint town on the Eastern Shore to meet J for a weekend of touch and go.

I didn’t have much of a life then, though I was busy with work and school and preparing for comps that last year at Catholic. Once I got to Illinois, where the library science classes felt basic, the coursework easy, and my time ample, I had even less of a life, and so I started to crumble before I regrouped and tiptoed out into the world.

Last night, after the elementary school open house, when my husband came home from a different, work-related meeting, we each deconstructed our night to the other. My role at home is changing, life is expanding, and his new job offers him so much more, and in the middle is this beautiful, growing boy opening up to the world as I return to it.

Wednesday night, my head spinning with thoughts on racism, prejudice, and privilege, on Bay Area women of color in the fetish lifestyle (the openness, the potential for emotional healing, the tricky power differentials, the sheer variety of identity and preference) on bilingual elementary school education and the perils of standardized testing, I got home and could not stop talking about my day. Wednesdays are long for me. I leave the house at 7:30 and get home about 13 hours later after a commute that includes being packed into the humid heat of a San Francisco city bus with the young men saying hella this, hella that, their dragon boat paddles tucked into backpacks, and elderly Buddhist nuns electing to stand when offered a seat, and little girls who are separated from their mothers but keep calm even when the crowd between mother and daughter is five deep. Last Wednesday night, the sunset over Oakland was incredible, this expanse of pink-tinged clouds spread above the cargo cranes of the harbor like a beautiful explosion, the pastel remains of an
airborne toxic event. Like the sunset, my day was intense. I had to unpack it when I got home.

Life is rich and complicated. I crack myself open on a daily basis, feeling things that I’ve kept hidden for a long time. Even after the dreadful awkwardness of parental chitchat under the fluorescent lights of the boy's elementary school classroom at night, a time and place when I am often at my worst (classrooms seem to do it for me – it’s still hard for me to feel comfortable in my own classes), I was able to see the whole situation, the social set-up, as a way to stretch myself, to allow myself to be uncomfortable knowing that some day I would be comfortable again, or close enough.

Within this life, this complicated life, I have so much now, so much more than I did 20 years ago. Part of it is luck in being partnered with someone who totally supports me, part of it is the result of hard, emotional work. I am so very grateful for this life, for my husband and son, who are a huge part of the reason that I have a chance to try things over, to bring the dormant and suppressed back to the surface, joy, sadness, fear and all.


Image by chrissam42 taken in 2006 from BART in West Oakland, just about the spot from which I was watching the sky on Wednesday night. The sunset I saw was similar but more spectacular.

I'm going to try updating the blog about once a week during the semester. My apologies for not answering emails or visiting blogs. Even writing this feels like an unauthorized use of time, but so necessary.

Changing spaces

bar toilet image by Dot and Charles Steck http://dcspacegallery.com/content/dc_032_large.html
You made the teetering walk from the bar, two dark claustrophobic rooms, one with a stage and everything was 80s black and 80s cynical and blurry anyway because you were usually drunk by the time you got there. You made the swaying, syncopated stroll up a wide set of stairs, once grand, maybe, though the place was a firetrap, it probably always was, even back in the Civil War days when it was new brick. The stairs were covered with grey distressed indoor/outdoor carpet marked with cigarette burns and unidentifiable stains, and you always wondered why they made people go upstairs to the bathroom when everyone was drunk and slippery on their feet anyway. But there was nowhere to put a bathroom down there and it was a relief, too, to get away from the noise, the cacophony of punk or rockabilly.

One stall, of course, with a toilet that was constantly clogged, that you hovered over while letting loose, closing your eyes in relief. If you were lucky, your friend came up with you and could guard the door, which never latched properly, or perhaps you would make friends with someone behind you in line who would be your sentry or maybe you were so drunk that it didn’t matter anymore. You were so drunk you might sit on that stained toilet seat.

Yes, (dc) space was the place. You ran into Peter there once, from Chestertown to Silver Spring to Washington, DC, a bike messenger in the city (now a cross country ski pro in a faraway place). You met the bassist from the Thangs there, leaned on him after their set and danced to the twanging sounds of the band that played after them. That relationship is truly blurry. You don't remember how it ended, you were drinking so much and everything was so dark and maybe you were depressed even then, or dealing with delayed grief and self-hatred. Maybe that was just how it had to be with you, isolated, wanting, covering everything over with alcohol and ill-advised sex.

One of salient questions in that first visit with the new therapist two weeks ago:  has this pattern of isolation been in place for a long time? You thought, remembered cold empty rooms and the strangely barren college years (yes, you had friends, close ones, but they didn't know everything; you didn't reach out), the oddness of graduate school, the times in the early years when you almost broke down from grief and loneliness, from the feeling of having no footing, nothing within you or without to hold onto. Even in the busiest years in DC, you so stable and professional, with the job and the occasional dinners out with friends:  yes. This has been you since fifteen, keeping close, holding yourself safe.

Yes. dc space, where your roommates left you one night, you drunk and belligerent and insisting you were fine. On the prowl, in search of something, someone. The boys, the men, the lying down and standing up, the going along. The desperate searching. The turning away from that life, an act of will and of choice, to something flattened and grey but safe. The way you've kept it grey, as if that were the only option.

You are learning that it doesn't have to be that way. You are not destined for this aloneness. You have a shining core.You are true and real, damaged as we all are, but not cruel. You deserve to be in the world.

So you write about it to understand it, you capture the past and see the rambling narrative, to let it go, let it loose. Of course these feelings are not all of you. But you will not deny them, for denial gives them strength. You write and you feel it and give yourself footing before you turn to something else.


Image of a toilet at dc space by Dot and Charles Steck.

From a photo prompt that has nothing to do with this. For some reason, the stairs and bathroom of dc space came to mind last night, that long-gone world. Today dc space is a Starbucks, all light-filled and caffeinated.

The bitter scent of coming winter

Back when I was dating my opposite, the racist homophobic conservative hunter J., I was a regular reader of Gourmet magazine. I would prepare special meals for J., smoked salmon ravioli, pissalidière crisscrossed with anchovies and dotted with bitter black olives, pears braced with crystalized ginger and honey and baked to a custardy finish. J. and I had chemistry, an easily bruised love, so we each tolerated the other's differences, limped along even though he lived in another town and had very real reasons to keep me at arm's length.

I remember prep
aring a meal for him in the decay of autumn, after the leaves had dropped from the trees and lay rotting in the gutter and the breeze was turning cold and harsh. I was just 21 years old and could focus on the kitchen, had the time to think about cooking, and it was all still new, too, love and cookery. There was a recipe in Gourmet for roasted fall vegetables. I skinned and hacked a heavy butternut squash, added knobby shallots, garlic, and chunks of red potato, then tossed the vegetables with olive oil and roasted them in the oven. Near the end of cooking, I added slivered sage leaves, the bitter scent of coming winter.

Sage takes well to butter and olive oil, get crisp and intense, medicinal over gnocchi, tucked among thick slices of potato. My husband and I grow sage in our front yard. The plant sits between the flat-leafed parsley and the lemon verbena, its silver green leaves upright, purple flowers still drawing honeybees. I’ll have to trim it soon, deadhead the flowers and clean off the spider webs in preparation for the feasts and sadness of fall.

Here is the original recipe, from
Epicurious. Add 2 tablespoons slivered sage in the last ten minutes of cooking to recreate my more winter-scented dish.

Roasted Autumn Vegetables

1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes
1 pound shallots (about 24), peeled and trimmed
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
fresh thyme sprigs for garnish, if desired

In a bowl, toss together the potatoes, quartered, the shallots, 4 tablespoons of
the oil, the bay leaf, the dried thyme, the garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread the vegetables in an oiled large roasting pan and roast them in the middle of a preheated 375°F. oven, shaking the pan every 5 to 10 minutes, for 25 minutes. In a bowl toss the squash with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and salt and pepper to taste and add it to the pan. Roast the vegetables, shaking the pan occasionally, for 10 to 20 minutes more, or until they are tender. Discard the bay leaf and garnish the vegetables with the thyme sprigs.

October 1990

Image: Attractive sage bush, much nicer than ours, from eHow.


Beware of Estonians bearing basil *recipe not included*

Peter was only after the blender.

I was working in the college bookstore, propped up on a stool behind the register, when he came in to buy something small, a pack of gum, a used book, a cassette tape, I don’t remember. As I passed his change over the counter, brushed my fingertips across this stranger's calloused palm, Peter said “I know you from the newspaper. You told it like it was.”

A month earlier I was one of five or six people chosen to answer a question for
The Elm: what did we think about the proposed student fee increase? Below my photograph was the statement “I know nothing about it. I have no opinion.” Ignorance and flat honesty prevailed. It was my statement, my stand on nothing in particular that got me the boy.

Or maybe it really
was the blender. After asking my name and relationship status, Peter went straight to appliance ownership: if I had the blender, he had the basil. He knew where to score pine nuts and a fine wedge of pecorino romano. Peter wanted to come back to my place, make a little pesto.

The blender sat on the stained linoleum kitchen counter in the small college apartment I shared with my roommate Martha, right beside the coffee percolator that she filled with Folgers each morning. Martha bought it with plans for soup-making, warm vichyssoise in winter, refreshing gazpacho during the humid summer months, but in reality we used it make frozen drinks. After the Piña Colada incident the appliance went fallow, gathered cooking grease and flour dust.

Peter's basil source was a garden across the Chester River, a plot of rich soil courtesy of his employer, Anthony's Landscaping. We rode there one sticky June night, pedaled his tandem through a landscape defined by moonlight and shadow, moved our legs in time to the percussion of crickets. The basil had formed a moat around a pair of tumbledown beefsteak tomatoes. Rabbits and groundhogs had ravished the rest. As I smoothed my fingers over the soft leaves, pale in the semidarkness, the basil sighed, let out a breath of spice and earth and warm sun, a promise of pasta sauce and anise-tinged kisses.

When you are 18, most of the world is still a mystery, or it should be. I already had a boyfriend, and Peter knew it, but something about his earnestness – his habit of tossing rocks at my window for midnight bike rides, the fact that he was as aimless at 24 as I felt at 18 – made him irresistible. He was an English major whose literary mind had been muddled by deconstructionism, an Estonian-American who later taught me the best places to go in Washington, DC for Ethiopian food and the blues. Peter liked to pass things on. It was insider information: the slightly off-kilter notes of Thelonius Monk; the tuneless pounding and punk bands of d.c. space; the Biograph movie theater; linguini with pesto sauce.

His pesto obsession was endearing. And it
was an obsession. In circa 1988 Chestertown, Maryland, pine nuts were an exotic foodstuff. Without a car, Peter had to finagle his way 75 miles and back to DC to procure one expensive cupful. He arrived at our place on the appointed night, clutching two bouquets of basil, a greasy paper bag half-filled with pine nuts, and a crumbling hunk of cheese. Martha and I had already peeled the garlic, purchased a good-enough olive oil. We had wiped down the blender. In the kitchen, I started grating cheese while Martha opened beers. Peter began tossing pine nuts and knobs of garlic into the machine.

The blender turned out to be an inferior pesto-making tool, or perhaps it was all in the technique. Crammed in the bottom, the garlic and pine nuts slowly turned to paste, while the basil calmly refused to be pulled into the fray. Peter finally grabbed a wooden spoon. The high-pitched whine of the blender was interrupted by a thunk as the bottom of the spoon splintered against metal blades. Too late to go back now. He picked out the shards.

Twenty minutes later, Peter offered a fingerful of the final product. Eyebrows raised in anticipation, I kept a cheerful expression, gazed past the green film coating his glasses to look directly into his eyes. The pesto tasted of garlic and more garlic interrupted by a heady nip of basil and the punch of sharp cheese. Raw pine nuts, resinous and rich, just barely kept the other ingredients in tune. As olive oil ran down my chin, I carefully deflected a splinter with my tongue, a little kick from Peter's secret ingredient.

(First image: Me, Chestertown, MD, Summer 1988, taken by "Martha." Companion picture of Martha not included. Second image: Basil plants, from Vultus Christi.)


Heathen can wait

If I couldn't prove it, why should I believe?

There was no other conclusion. I couldn't believe in God. This wasn’t a question of whether or not he existed, but was a question of my own belief. No proof was sufficient and I had no faith, no religious background, no desire to hide behind the wimpy safety of Pascal's wager.

Shortly after I reached this conclusion, a product of a paper I wrote on God’s existence in a Philosophy 101 class, I dropped out of college. It was the middle of the second semester, sophomore year and for a while I kept it quiet, kept on accepting my father and step-mother’s checks, which were enough to cover my half of the rent. My roommate, in shaky recovery from an eating disorder, was working as a waitress. As the money dried up, she got me a job waiting tables.

It fell apart. We drank and drank, put ourselves in dangerous situations. I was moving to DC, she didn’t want to come. She slept with my longtime boyfriend, I abandoned her for an Eastern Shore boy who lived with his brother in a place called the Sugar Shack. That fall, my mother drove me and the cat to a small rowhouse in NE DC where I was renting a room. I was starting a new life as a sophomore at Catholic University.

This was the atheist’s choice? Catholic University? I was thinking of majoring in education and Catholic had a good program. The school was located in Washington, a city I wanted to live in. My decision was sealed during the interview, when my interlocuter -- Miss DC 1988! -- told me I was in. But on that first day of school, I jettisoned education for philosophy. It was the most interesting thing going.

Amy, my housemate, was 30 years old to my 20, a Peace Corps survivor. Amy counted her potatoes and onions, and even recorded the shape her peanut butter was in -- the knife slashes, the peaks and valleys and indentations -- before she put the lid on the jar. I found her tallies of produce, her vivid peanut butter descriptions, recorded in tiny script on a piece of paper hidden in the pantry. When I moved in, she had envisioned late night bull sessions with her new gal pal. What she got was an unhappy, underage semi-alcoholic, quiet and removed. She coped by counting her vegetables, a safeguard against (non-existent) theft.

I found salvation on the second day of classes, while taking notes for the History of Ancient Philosophy. N., a Basselin scholar, started up a conversation with me and his fellow Basselins joined in. They were men my age, in the seminary and on the road to priesthood, in addition to being philosophy majors on steroids. If it weren’t for N., who pulled me in, supported me, got me a job when I was desperate, and on occasion gave me food "donated" from the seminary kitchen, I’m not sure I would have survived. He was -- and is -- a good friend.

N. is happily married now, to a kind-hearted, amazing woman. They have five kids. He and his wife have accepting of me, of my quiet atheism. They approach me without judgement.

But am I still an atheist?

I don’t have faith, but I am not as slavishly devoted to proofs. For those who believe, God is real. As for me, I’ll have to be content with not knowing.