New Beginnings

It is springtime, finally. My clematis is beginning to bloom and all the trees are filling out with leaves. So far we’ve had two nighttime thunderstorms roll through the city. All the parts of the state that were experiencing drought are now experiencing flash flooding. The wind keeps bringing down tree limbs that have been barely hanging on since last year’s ice storm. No tornadoes yet, though we usually save those up for the month of May. I think I’ve lived here long enough to recognize humidity. It is still a thing I smell before I feel.

My husband was laid off from his long-term job a few months ago. For years we had discussed this possibility, seeing as the oil and gas industry has been schizophrenic as of late. It was to be our ticket out of Oklahoma, this layoff. A way to start over somewhere else, maybe, but without the responsibility of having to decide to quit a stable job for something that was a big, big risk. When you don’t have a job, you don’t have the risk. Or so I thought.

Any change is still a big risk. The kid is finally happy here. Ridiculously happy, I might add. A move to any part of the country will, for her, be dramatic, traumatic, devastating, etc. My husband is fairly easygoing, but as the sole provider of the family for the last four years, he carries a lot of stress these days. He has had to consider moving to a city that he would never live in otherwise, if he has a choice. Which, hopefully, we still have for a while longer. What are the pet laws in other cities? We are not separating our family, dogs included. It is something we didn’t think about before. We never had to. And I have decided to put graduate school on hold. When you are calculating your savings into how many months your mortgage can be paid on time, a master’s degree isn’t a priority.

Yet, I am ready to go. Somewhere. (Almost) Anywhere. It is exciting, and a bit terrifying, to see what happens next. Where will it be? Are we staying? Are we going? Will it be different? Will it be the same? Will everyone be okay?

Until then, we have been going on with our lives as though we will be staying in Oklahoma City. Elle has submitted her high school electives for 9th grade (this fall – can you believe it!?). I planted tomatoes and eggplant and multi-colored bell peppers that I hope to be able to enjoy.  There are no plans for a summer vacation. Maybe a weekend visit to Hot Springs, Arkansas, or Dallas. But a vacation anywhere else seems irresponsible, frivolous.

The writing cabin is mostly finished. There are just a few things that need to be done – namely the ceiling panel boards. I spend about 3-5 hours a day in here doing reading assignments and writing short essays. I am currently finishing up a research paper and looking forward to only one more week of school. Since October I have been steady working on Russian trauma, Nazi atrocities, and the black experience in America. It’s all been very depressing, but I’m more than halfway through my degree work.

I have watched baseball games, gymnastics championships, and a show about alien abductions in my cabin. I have also read novels in here, for fun. I have fallen asleep with the windows open and woken up to birds and squirrels chattering away. It’s my favorite place, this cabin. And, if we end up moving, it is definitely coming with us. That’s the only thing we are certain about right now.

I love this little cabin. And I've already had a sparrow family move in to my petunia basket! They're quiet neighbor's, so far, until the kids get hungry. #Scissortail #cabin #tinyhouse #sheshed #writingstudio//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

There once was a girl named Julie

When I was ten years old, I learned my best friend had died from leukemia. Her name was Julie, and she once was my favorite person, in the way little girls choose their favorite person. We met in Italy in the first grade, in Mrs. Pendleton’s class. Or had we met in kindergarten and carried our friendship over into first grade? I don’t remember. Actually, after thirty-plus years I don’t remember much about Julie at all, but I do still remember how much I missed her not going on our class field trip to the zoo.

That morning I sat on a double-seat bench in the middle of the bus and didn’t talk to anyone else. Then I waited and waited and waited for Julie to climb aboard and sit next to me, except she never came. The bus started up, and Mrs. Pendleton and my mother, who had volunteered to be our class chaperon that day, whispered to one another a few seats in front of me. The engine was running; my classmates were being told to sit down. And I started to panic. Where is Julie? Why isn’t she here? I told Mrs. Pendleton that we couldn’t leave yet. We had to wait for Julie. Then Mrs. Pendleton and my mother had another quiet but short conversation. They invited me to sit up front with them where I was told, sympathetically but without much fuss, that Julie had moved away.

It wasn’t unusual for friends to move away. It wasn’t unusual not to have a chance to say goodbye to each other. Julie and I both lived in Italy not because we were Italian, but because our fathers were in the military. This is how life as a military kid works: you move, you make friends. Then you move again, and you make new friends. Sometimes you get to stay and your friend has to move and make new friends. You do this so much that it becomes second nature, but as you get older you recognize the importance of saying goodbye to people you might never see again.

This is not, however, the moment I learned that she had died. That moment came much later, when I was in the fourth grade at a new school, on the other side of the world from where Julie and I had become best friends. And when I learned she had died, I was devastated. Julie, it turns out, had moved away because she became sick. I was never really lied to, but her family had to rush her back to the states in order to get her the best treatment possible. As my mother stood in the kitchen telling me this, I was stopped midway on the stairs, not sure whether to go upstairs or down. So I just stood there. My mother asked me if I was okay. Yes, I was okay. She asked me if I had any questions. No, I didn’t have any questions. Then she asked me if I even remembered Julie. No, I didn’t. I didn’t remember Julie, my best friend. And that’s why I was devastated.

I remember there once was a girl named Julie who I absolutely adored. I remember there once was a girl named Julie and I missed her terribly on that class trip to the zoo. I remember there once was a girl named Julie and we were such good friends that we would sometimes hold hands. I remember there once was a girl named Julie, but I don’t remember her. Not her face, not the color of her hair, not the sound of her voice, or even the feel of her hand.

I remember nothing about her, yet I often find myself thinking of her.

“I feel more at home with the landscape…”

Everything I read and everyone I know says to “write, write, write!” I find I have a difficult time focusing on writing something unless I’ve been given a deadline and a specific assignment. I’m a better writer of history, of threading facts together to build a narrative. Because of that, I cannot wait for my master’s program classes to start. Two years of nothing but Civil War, Civil Rights, and the rebranding of the New South? BRING IT.

Well,  Colonial America and some Constitutional law will be sprinkled in throughout my studies. For the most part, though, I’m inching evermore toward a degree in American History with the help of a Florida-themed thesis. Why Florida when I’m so far away? I recently read this line in a book, a memoir written by a woman who ran away to the sea: “I feel more at home with the landscape than with the people.” These are words I have apparently been waiting years to read.

I won’t pretend I don’t enjoy the hell out of my current easy access to free-roaming bison and farm-fresh foods, because bison are awesome, but truth be told – You Are Temporary, Oklahoma. And while I’m sure I’ll look back on my Oklahoma years fondly (I don’t hate you anymore), right now I have other things to work on and other places to be, even if it is mainly inside my own head.

In the meantime, I have been writing, writing, writing! FINALLY. And Morgan Freeman is spending a lot of time in my head, too, but only because he’s the imaginary narrator to my short story. It involves a Seminole princess, the Devil, and a giant hole in the ground. It’s a real place, too.

more moss

boardwalk...going back up!

lovely moss

Versions

When I was five years old, I decided I wanted to be a writer. My mother still has the “books” I wrote in kindergarten. They’re nothing more than lined pages folded over with illustrated construction paper covers, but I was always proud of those stories. One in particular involved a girl named Kathrene who bought a free puppy for .05 cents. A free puppy for .05 cents? What a deal! Obviously I was in need of an editor, as any five-year old author would be, but that puppy story was a work of fiction and creative license says anything goes.

In fact, I think the name of that book was A Puppy Story. I’m telling you, sometimes the creativity just oozes out of me.

It hasn’t been lately, though, and I’m hoping to fix that. The good thing is that I get to be around a lot of writers, or writer-types. Some of my co-workers are writers (which isn’t unheard of in a library).  A couple of my museum volunteer friends have written books. And I joined a writers’ group back in January, a collection of historians and fantasy world creators and novelists gunning for a spot in the competitive world of Young Adult fiction. One of our members just won a national award for an article he wrote that was featured in Oklahoma Living.

Writing is not easy for me. I don’t know if it’s my lack of an attention span or my interest in so many things that makes narrowing down a topic so difficult…and then sticking to it. Even my own inability to not make a plan gets in the way – how can I justify spending all those immeasurable hours ignoring the world, my family, my responsibilities, just so I can write something that might turn into nothing? All of these are part of the problem.

But nothing is still something.

I was sharing some of my frustrations with my co-workers this afternoon, mainly about my poor timing. It seems I have a habit of developing an idea and putting it down on paper (virtual paper, these days) just before learning that a similar, if not exact, story has already been written. This has happened enough times that I honestly wish Jodi Picoult and Claire North would just slip into a short-term coma or something, long enough for me to get ahead of them for once.

My co-workers, though, being the friendly and supportive bunch that they are, simply reminded me, “Their version of the story has been written. You just haven’t written your version of it yet!”

Sound advice! I think I’ll be working on my version from now on…

Edited to add: WordPress thoughtfully suggested I use “free puppy” as a tag for this post. Psssh, why not?

The Beginning of Something

I wrote an essay a few years ago that kind of knocked my socks off. That doesn’t happen often – knocking my own socks off – but it’s happened a handful of times in my life. They are especially good moments for me. I use them mostly as a way to remind myself to get off my duff and do something (or, in this case, get on my duff and write something).

My memories of growing up in Upper Michigan pretty much wrote that essay on their own. I remembered in detail the hill in the deep woods, the snow that shook off the windblown pine trees, that frozen lake we stupidly walked across. When I wrote the essay I didn’t remember everyone who was there, but now I can remember Heather and Tammy. Tammy’s family was from Georgia and she talked like one of the Sugarbakers from Designing Women. We were only in the fourth grade but that southern accent of hers made her seem very worldly to me. I had only ever grown up around people who talked like they were from Northern Wisconsin and the U.P., because they were.  Anyway, her dad kept a bottle of peppermint schnapps in their winter coat closet. The four of us huddled inside that tiny closet and took sips of it, straight out of the bottle.

Back here in Oklahoma this morning, far away from Gwinn, Michigan, I woke to a wind chill of 15 degrees. This after having been lulled to sleep by last night’s blustery winds. Winter is officially here and I’m not horrified by the feel of it all, either. Strangely enough, this morning’s venture out into the freezing cold is what prompted me to think back on that bottle of peppermint schnapps. The biting winds helped me remember the red scarf I wore that day twenty-five years ago. I had red mittens, too, and a knit hat with a pom on top.

Maybe this winter while the temperatures fall and the snow blows in, I can get back to writing about those stupid, stupid girls on the ice. And I always relied on scent to bring back old, forgotten memories. Whodathunkit? I’ll certainly try to use winter to my advantage this year.

Melancholy

Lately I have embraced my introverted nature, even so much as to use the term “introvert” as a verb: I’ve had enough socialization for the night. It’s time for me to go introvert for awhile.

I think it works. The word itself and the act of introverting.

Other parts of my nature have been on my mind more recently, though, namely my pessimism (I prefer realism, but few people seem to accept that) and my melancholy. When all three elements are working in sync, I am unbearable to be around. Even I don’t like being around myself when I’m feeling weighed down by all three. Yet I am stuck with me so I have had a lifetime to learn how to tell myself to shut up without getting offended. Other people aren’t so lucky. Most of the time I’m presenting only one of those three (introversion, pessimism, or melancholy) and I’m still not considered to be a fun person. It’s a running joke in my family, how un-fun I can actually be even if I am having an absolutely blast doing whatever it is I’m doing.

Case in point: I was at a Def Leppard concert years ago with my friend Carolina (she, an lovable extrovert, was put on this planet to make people happy). We were both enjoying the show immensely when a group of guys made their way into our tiny space. Carolina had a fabulous time with them, chatting and laughing and singing aloud. I ignored them and retreated into my own headspace. When Carolina went to get a beer and disappeared for 45 minutes, the guys then turned to me to keep them entertained as Carolina had been doing. But little did they know that I am hardly entertaining and after awhile they gave up, asking me “Damn. Where did the fun girl go!?”

Even Sarah Vowell has declared herself to be “not fun”, so I’m in good company there.

I’ve unburied most of this because of an essay I recently read by Susanna Kaysen, a fellow depressive and the author of Girl, Interrupted. When I’ve tried to explain to people that I’m more of a realist than a pessimist, I get confused looks. My interpretation of the world isn’t necessarily that we’re all going to Hell in a handbasket (I don’t believe in Hell, just as I don’t believe in Heaven, but that’s another discussion), but more that I can understand why we might end up there. I have always calculated X, Y, and Z in any situation and most of the time the end result doesn’t look good. When I’m wrong, though, and things end up perfectly fine, I am pleasantly surprised. I’ll find myself reveling in relief. To a constant worrier like myself, relief is a damn good feeling.

An excerpt from “One Cheer for Melancholy” (featured in a collection of essays called Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression):

The transient nature of happiness, beauty, success, and health may come as a shock to the upbeat person but it’s old hat to the depressive. And, I think depressive people have more fun. Human nature being what it is, we enjoy more whatever is hard to get and in short supply. Happiness is certainly both, and nobody knows that better than someone who spends half the time sunk in gloom.

I do believe that happiness is contagious because it is difficult for me to be so woebegone around certain kinds of people. Optimists don’t bother me, but they do wear me out the same way extroverts do. I don’t dislike either of them, just as I don’t want them to dislike me. But I know that some people are born happy, their jovial disposition is sometimes set in their genetic code. I am not one of those people. My genetic code reads differently, riddled with the marks of a worrier and an anxious person who thinks too much.

There is a silver lining here (see, realists – like me! – can see the good in things, too): When an optimist is disappointed, it’s a hard blow. I sometimes wonder if they experience a level of sadness that floods their psyche with more regret or even disillusionment than a pessimist/realist would experience. Most of me thinks so. Part of me worries that an optimist will have to live with emotions with which they’re hardly familiar. Sadness? Sorrow? That careful teetering on the ledge of depression? I’ve got a leg up in this scenario. I live on that ledge, all the time. But being an introverted, depressive pessimist doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy life. I just means that I appreciate it more when I can. That’s my silver lining.

Human nature and its defense mechanisms. Tricky things, they are.

My Pre-Frontal Cortex is Exploding

One of the more exciting things about writing is also one of the most frustrating things about writing. One discovery leads to another! My thesis topic began as a research project to discover myths in the American narrative and why we continue to believe them, or not to believe the truths that are often uncovered. What it has turned into, however, is a research project depicting just how these myths are contributing to inequality in America, and how they continue to write this narrative for which our country is almost being despised, at least on a global scale (as Americans seem not to care as much as, say, the citizens of Palestine or Somalia or, even, Canada).

I’m not worrying about this too badly, only enough to know I want to fix it. Although my final pages are due in some cohesive form in about five weeks, I’m totally okay with having to do rewrites. My friend is reading my shitty first draft as is and will let me know which direction I should move toward. And in the meantime, I am staring out my front window waiting for the pizza delivery guy because we are hungry and impatient. Also, it finally looks like Fall is happening, so it’s kind of pretty outside – save for some cringe-worthy overcast skies.

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I’ve been sleeping a lot lately. If I am not sleeping, then I am thinking about sleeping or trying my hardest not to fall asleep. A part of me feels like a bear in pre-hibernation mode, except instead of gathering food and storing up fats, I’m gathering a list of vitamins and minerals that I need to present to my doctor so she can write me up some prescriptions. The goal is for me to suffer through the upcoming winter with, well, less suffering. I really don’t want to experience the level of depression that hit me last winter. As I climbed the back steps to my house earlier this afternoon, I finally admitted to myself that as a Floridian, fall colors are a thing we chase during a weekend road trip or possibly make time to plan a vacation around. Some of my extended family take an autumn trip to the mountains of North Carolina. Once I drove to Tallahassee in December just to catch a glimpse of fall leaves.

I’ve decided to stop apologizing for not being able to adjust to this change in seasons. While I had spent the majority of my childhood and late teens moving  all over the world, my adult life was spent in Florida. It is where I started college so many years ago. It is where my daughter was born. It is where my grandparents lived and died. It is where I fell in love with my husband. It is where I got married. It is the place I will probably call home for the rest of my life.

I’m not sorry.

Florida has my heart. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time there cannot possibly leave unchanged. The whole place has a hold on me. There is something about the towering oak trees, the interconnected waterways, the way the sky changes colors before a tropical storm. The Nor’easters that chill you to the bone, the Spanish moss that drapes down from the oak limbs, the way the air smells like salt or fish or a combination of both. I’ve stood in the shadow of a flock of pelicans. I’ve been bumped hard by something in the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it was a dolphin. Maybe it was a shark. I don’t know. But I do know that I have had the opportunity to see alligators and manatees in their natural habitats. And while I’m sure such places like Illinois or Indiana or Arkansas have their own charming ways, it’s not like someone who lives there can just drive a few miles south to watch a seasonal migration of right whales.

Florida has that kind of magic.

Oklahoma has a certain kind of magic, too. There are bison that roam these plains and, let’s be honest, I can go see them in their natural habitat whenever I damn well please. I like that. I like that I often see cowboys shopping at Target or Homeland. I also like that I can sit for an hour in the Dodge dealership while my Space Rocket gets an oil change and have a gut wrenching conversation with an 80-year old woman who was born a few miles down the road and is still terrified of tornadoes.

I like that my inability to get used to tornadoes as a part of life in Oklahoma won’t affect my ability to enjoy my life in Oklahoma, for however long that may be. Isn’t it strange that I have been waiting for that kind of validation and I didn’t even know it?

Anyway, now that I’m deep into my second year of experiencing a real Fall, I like that I’m still in awe of how pretty it is. There is magic in Oklahoma, too.

But, I must admit, I am ambivalent about her kind of magic. I am so ambivalent that I reached out to a friend of mine asking for advice. It was more like a desperate cry for help, really, and there was a lot of crying. I came out of it with a better understanding of how lonely my parents must have felt when they were shipped off to an air base in Northern Italy. For four years they were too poor to afford plane tickets back home to visit Florida. Things are not so dire for me, but it doesn’t make the pill any less difficult to swallow.

Part of this is because I have been holed up inside for the good part of a year and a half, working through the final year of my bachelor’s degree with a double course load for five straight semesters. As if that weren’t enough, I tend to worry about things that don’t exist or even have no business being worried about. I have been sleeping without the aid of sleeping pills, wine, or the white noise machine to block out other creatures’ snoring spells. All Google searches led to a vitamin deficiency or stress. A few weeks ago, my chest started becoming tight and my heart felt like it was skipping beats. All Google searches led to cancer.

Can I just say this, without having to say any more? Fuck you, cancer. Fuck you and all the stress you have caused me. Can my family just get a fucking break for…oh, hell, a year? Fuck you. (That last one is simply for good measure.)

Let’s go back to the very first line of this blog post: One of the more exciting things about writing is also one of the most frustrating things about writing. My point often changes which leads to other points I feel I have to make. You should hear me tell stories. Oh, hell. I suck at telling stories. Or maybe I’m so good at telling stories that I can tell three at one time…?

It’s alright to rant. It has actually become quite an effective writing exercise for me, this whole honesty thing. Maybe I shouldn’t be so frustrated by it; I should just embrace it. All that willy-nilly nonsense that’s been living in my head for most of this year is out now. If you’re confused by my feelings about leaving Florida, you should know that I am, too. If you’re confused by my feelings about living in Oklahoma, you should know that I am, too.

I am also confused about my thesis. And this entire blog post.

Places I Have Slept

Last night I fell asleep on the couch next to my snoring dog. I was watching my new favorite Netflix show called Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment. It features nine volunteers who have been dropped off somewhere in the Alaska interior. Their mission is to find their way back to civilization. They have to hunt and fish to feed themselves, keep themselves out of danger, and follow a map as closely as possible so as to end up after most day hikes in some kind of strategically placed shelter. They’re usually really excited to find any covered space in which to sleep at the end of every day.

I get being so exhausted that you could sleep anywhere. But, truth be told, I, like most people, love my bed. I love my bed so much that, after moving from the couch to my bed, I slept nearly 12 hours last night which. I must clarify something – that is extremely unusual for me. What’s more unusual are the stories that involve other places I’ve slept over the course of my life. We all have a list of them. Here’s mine:

  • In the Sturdiest Tent in the World: As a young child I went camping with my neighbors in Italy while my parents stayed home. We pitched our tents on a cliff overlooking a gorgeous lake. The boys braved the cliff’s edge and the girls chose to set up camp farther back near the cliff wall. That night a brutal storm blew in, scaring the boys into our tent just before a gust of wind uprooted theirs and sent it, and all their belongings, over the edge. We spent the next morning picking up what we could from down below.
  • Cabin in the Woods: During my Girl Scout days our troop spent a weekend in the Upper Michigan woods once a year. We trudged through snow that came to our waists, always with a bathroom buddy and safety whistles (in case of bears), and only fell asleep after the last girl stopped yammering on about how Ted Nugent lived nearby. (Ted Nugent was just as terrifying to little girls as Jason from Friday the 13th was.)
  • In a Parking Lot: Hundreds of us were evacuated from our homes to the center of our military base during a massive wildfire. After an evening spent playing hopscotch and basketball, most of us kids just hunkered down in the grass with jackets or crawled inside our parents’ cars. The evacuation was finally lifted in the middle of the night, closer to early morning. It was exhausting.
  • The Church from Hell: I was once invited to a church lock-in by my sixth-grade friend who attended services there, but she bailed right after my dad dropped me off. Left without her and not knowing a soul, I agreed to play along with the group’s hide-n-seek game. I can’t blame them for not coming to find me, especially since they didn’t even know who I was (or that I was missing). The church group leader finally let me into the locked church after much door-banging (It was winter, by the way, in Upper Michigan. It always seems to be winter in Upper Michigan). As I later cozied into my sleeping bag and watched The Parent Trap with the rest of the group, the kid next to me started horking up Doritos all over the place. Oh, screw this shit. I’m out!  I called my father around 2 o’clock in the morning and went home. WORST SLEEPOVER EVER.
  • In my Best Friend’s Bed With Three Other People: In high school I woke up to find a huge, rude cop had busted into her bedroom looking for another friend of ours who’d run away from home that night (but told her mother where she’d be, like a horrible runaway, but lied about that, like a good runaway). There were cops all over her house. Her sister had just come home from the hospital the day before and was recovering from massive sinus surgery. She kept staggering around in the hallway doped up on pain medicine and begging everyone, “Please don’t touch my face! Please don’t touch my face!”. After it was determined that the girl they were looking for wasn’t with us – and that the sister was, in fact, NOT a victim of child abuse, or drunk – we were left in peace. BEST SLEEPOVER EVER.
  • A Backyard: It was after a party during which I imbibed a bit too much, I guess.
  • Under a Coffee Table in A Strange Man’s House: My friend knew him well, but I’m pretty sure he was a gang member. Anyway, see above. Note to the Internet – it was on this night that I was deemed by said gang member “one of the coolest white girls on the planet”. Psssh…yeah.
  • In a Hurricane Evacuation Room: Hurricane Floyd was battering the east coast and my hotel served as an evacuation center. I was the front office manager but the auditor and I agreed to share a room so the hotel would be very minimally staffed. I fell asleep early; he went out and got drunk. When he returned hours later, he professed his undying love to me for an hour while I pretended to be asleep the whole time. Have you ever tried not to cringe while fake-sleeping? It’s difficult.
  • At Work While Typing a Memo: Sometimes I am able to fall asleep – or, perhaps, my mind just falls asleep? – while the rest of me keeps going. I woke up at my desk once having finished typing a memo to the board members of one of our ritzy island home communities. The content regarding some of their balcony reconstructon? “We are young. Heartache to heartache we stand. No promises, no demands. Love is a battlefield.” I like to work with music playing in the background. Pat Benatar’s lyrics must have seeped into my subconscious while I was snooze-working.