writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

Period piece

We had crab cakes for dinner last night and roasted salmon with a dilled potato chip crust, along with baked potatoes and lemon butter broccoli. I unearthed the crab meat from our freezer on Saturday while making room for popsicles. No one could remember how long it had been there -- maybe 2012, from one of my mother’s summer visits? Leaving it in the freezer seemed like a waste, so I added the crab to an already seafood-heavy meal. And we ate most of it. Even the boy had a cake or two.

I am heavy with nostalgia this month, for parts of my life long over, for worlds that were intact when I was born but have now crumbled into anachronism. So when a friend posted an article to Facebook about a house for sale in Toronto, the place a period piece of 1960s decor, I felt a stab of recognition. Reader, I knew those rooms and that furniture. They were as familiar as family Polaroids.

My past is becoming a museum of styles now enshrined in dystopian Mad Men sets and houses decorated in the gap between Sputnik and the Bicentennial (and let’s not even get into the checkerboard patterns of the 1980s). Still, though I can remember using rotary phones and watching UHF channels on heavy wooden console televisions, I am not yet a dinosaur. I am an early mammal, still connected to the here and now, but ultimately an insignificant creature, scrappy enough, but doomed to be overtaken by evolution. It is best to get used to my fate. Time does not go in reverse.

In this wistful, slightly melancholy mood (which, to be honest, maybe I am in all the time), silly and not so silly things bring tears, music in particular. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor (the upheaval of 1978/79). “Would I Lie to You?” by the Eurhythmics (waiting in line at my high school snack bar during a basketball game halftime). The Oakland sunshine and me all in black (punk lives). Herons perched on the roof of a fast food joint, hunched over like old men (DC and the herons fishing in Rock Creek). The boy’s combination of savvy humor and kid imagination (a temporary mix).

Life unfurls all around us, each moment slipping away into the next. So I defrosted the crab meat. I mixed it with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, an egg, breadcrumbs, and parsley. I formed the patties with my hands and set them in the over to bake until they were lightly browned. We ate them alongside tender salmon, fluffy potatoes plied with butter and sour cream, and bright green stalks of lemony broccoli. The dinner was a small, good thing, tangible, another piece of life lived and stored up for later.

Image of living room furniture circa 1976, almost all of which resembles my grandparents’ early seventies living room suite, from Retro Renovation.
Image of wooden console TV, similar to the one that dominated my grandparents’ family room (theirs had a channel dial), from
A Girl and A Puppy.

The world as it existed

Return to the river’s clamshell-strewn edge. The sun hangs across the water, considering its commitments on the other side of the earth. Walk in slowly, feel the sand turn to mud. Shallow dive to avoid touching bottom, and swim out to the rope. Tread water. Float on your back. Splash your cousin. Make the slowpoke swim back to shore, keeping your body submerged as long as possible. When you finally step out, shivering, the sun melting into the trees on the opposite bank, grab a gritty towel from the bench. The river has left its trace upon you, your skin dusked in a brown film, an earthy mustache just visible above your lips. Wipe it away.

Lie under the shade of maples, and dip a wiffle ball bat into the mystery pipe, fragrant with muck, that emerges out of the lawn. The bat makes a tantalizing squish in the ferment of water and dirt. Nauseated by spring’s rich, heady earth, you do nothing but tap the bat against the edges of the pipe and listen for the squelch below. Soon, still sick with spring, you will sit on the circular plastic swing and push against the rough trunk and the hard dirt below to fling yourself into a canopy of branches, holding your breath as long as possible to keep from breathing in.

The old couple that is no longer a couple, with their separate rooms and long-dead love, each work at their tasks. In the shop, the man angles a two-by-four into the jaw of a circular saw, filling the air with the fresh-cut aroma of wood recently violated. Sunlight angles through a window, showing up the sawdust, which gathers in drifts on the floor, while curls of wood surround the dormant lathe. Meanwhile, sitting in the main house, in your room, the woman, solid in a striped muumuu, croakily sings “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” as she presses her foot against the pedal of a humming sewing machine, stitching a length of bric a brac into the hem of a summer dress.

If someone had told you how thoroughly this world would disappear, the seven-year-old you would not have believed it. Even at nine and ten, disillusioned and angry, you thought the backdrop to your childhood was eternal, that the scarred man would always limp through the house to his wood shop on his way to make Canada geese and mallards out of wood and tin. The Slaughter’s farm stand on 213 would exist in perpetuity, and his whirligig waterfowl, their metal wings made to turn in the wind, would be permanent fixtures, available for sale, hanging amongst the fresh corn, cantaloupe, and tomatoes. Your grandmother might have died before the seventies bled away, but the mildew hidden behind the paneling in her house, intermingled with the remains of Pall Mall smoke, would aggravate your asthma until the end of time, and Ming, Nicky, Frank, and Liz would live forever.

It doesn’t work like that. But the memories live as long as you do, so you write what you know. You return to the moment and fill in the blanks. You bring them back to life.

Image from Exit Realty.

Enjoying being a girl

It’s only Wednesday, the halfway point of the week, but I’m feeling good. I’ve gotten a lot of work done, have one successful (and fun!) girls’ group under my belt, and feel OK enough about the case consultation I have prepared for tomorrow’s supervision group. I started some paperwork. I finished some paperwork. I made an appointment with my advisor to discuss the fall semester and I made reservations at a B&B on the Eastern Shore for early July.

And I submitted two “stories” to Glimmer Train’s
very short fiction contest. The pieces, The thin line and The voyeurs, are well under the 3000-word limit. As blog posts, they do not necessarily have a traditional story feel. My expectations of either being selected are low, with a golden thread of hope glimmering on the edge of my peripheral vision. Submitting my work, even the unrevised, un-revisited stuff is a start, a small step toward getting more concrete about my writing, though I probably need to put more effort into it to be successful.

Back in the pre-MFT days, when I thought seriously about becoming a writer, I always focused on the things I could not do, like come up with viable, non-autobiographical story ideas, extend a narrative beyond a few pages, or slow the pace of my stories down. I am an amateur who has much to learn about craft. I also have a distinctive voice, though I often move too quickly in my haste to express it.

My stories are like rushing creeks fed by off-season downpours. As the rain falls, silver water obscures and then tumbles the rocks. One of those creeks could sweep me in with it and hurl my frail form from bank to bank along with the leaves and dead branches and bits of trash. When the sky clears, the water recedes. The rocks dull as they dry. Over time, the earthen creek bed breaks into a thousand desiccated pieces. It feels like the water will never rush again. But the clouds return eventually, heavily laden and ready to pour.

I might as well accept it. I might as well accept myself.

So, at 5:01 p.m. on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, all is well. I fully occupy my contentment, knowing things could go downhill tomorrow with six clients, another girls’ group, and my case consultation. And there are things I am avoiding that will haunt me more intently over the coming weeks. But for now, I will sit back, contemplate the beer I will soon be opening, and let
Phranc’s 1989 campy, ironic version of I Enjoy Being a Girl continue to spin through my head. If only I could play it for my girls’ groups . . . .

Instead, I offer it to you.

I Enjoy Being a Girl by Phranc on Grooveshark

Image of Doris Day from Color My Bliss.

Back East

Flat, mucky, muggy wetlands. Patches of feed corn and soybean fields accented with thick stands of deciduous woods. Brackish water, saltwater, freshwater. The muddy Elk and cool Sassafras flowing into the shallow, wide-winged Chesapeake Bay with its islands and beautiful swimmers. Chicken-neckers, their crab bait tied to a string dangling in the water, net at the ready. Pulling up crab pots on the pier to see somebody else’s catch. Being a chicken-necker no matter my birthright.

Flocks of Canada geese fouling the fields, making their bagpipe sounds as they point south. The rich scent of cow and chicken manure worked into spring’s tilled earth, and every so often, a farm where you could put sugar cubes on your outstretched palm to feel the soft, warm lips of a horse taking her contraband. Delicate-limbed deer nibbling on the edge of day and night, the sky glowing pink, peach, purple, the trees melding into darkness.

I am homesick for
Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for the water and fields and animals. From my California perch, with its redwoods, live oaks, and comical palm trees, the Eastern Shore seems both exotic and familiar, a strange land I once inhabited. I was back last year, there and gone, one day of the Bay Bridge, Chestertown, and Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge and the usual cut through the woods where we used to chant “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” on our way to my grandparents’ place. It was just enough to remind me of where I came from, of who I was. It wasn’t enough.

But . . . we’re going back for a longer visit this year! Instead of going to England, we’re making an East Coast trip this summer, the three of us, starting from my dad and stepmother’s place in New Jersey, bopping through Delaware to Maryland and Baltimore to hang out with my mom, and heading down to DC, the city of the boy’s birth. We’ll see family, friends, and fauna. It will be the family’s first trip to the DC area in five or six years.

Though he was born “back East,” as they say in these parts, the boy is a thoroughly San Francisco Bay Area kid. His bay is a place of strong currents, red rock crabs, and
leopard sharks, his Pacific ocean beaches rocky and cold. He has walked through the pine forests of the Sierras and the redwood groves of Oakland and Marin and has almost forgotten the mosquito’s sting. Through his fabulous after school program and summer camp, Trackers Earth, the boy has developed a thoroughly West Coast sensibility, learning of healing herbs and invasive plants, how to use a whittling knife, make a fire, walk silently through the woods, and survive the zombie apocalypse. He is now of this place. But I will always be a bit of a stranger in these parts.

It’s time he saw where he came from -- where
I came from -- and learned the ways of Chesapeake and her rolling Piedmont farmlands. Maybe we’ll even show him Hollywood Beach, the place where my childhood lived and died. What happened there is now just a sad story of times past. Still, it is part of me as much as the landscape. I was a blessed child and then circumstance tore at my sense of self. What happened to me in the land of cornfields and winter wheat will never happen to him.

But he doesn’t need reminding of that. I do.