Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Writing Exercise: Dis.man.tle

Write a paragraph or page where you literally build and or take apart something for your reader.
Dis.man.tle
He died of AIDS in prison.  His height didn’t strike me, because of the metal one-size-fits-all table he was lying on.  His veiny thinness struck me.  I learned that plastic caps are made specifically for eyes and eyelids that won’t stay shut.  The cap is smooth on the concave, eye-cupping side and intimately barbed on the other.  Pop it in, adjust eyelid slightly forward, then back to hook the flesh in place, and if this doesn’t work-- super glue.  
He died of AIDS in prison, and it’s a mortician’s job to prepare the body for viewing, burial or cremation.  A cranked water valve attached to a red hose, and water flowing down the slanted table.  A long incision, cut artery protruding- forced entry and exit.  Then dark sheets of blood draining.  He had defecated, as bodies do, in the end.  It looked healthy for AIDS.  This moved down the table with the blood, as scrub-brush and soap were applied.  His knee bent and lifted easily as rigor mortis had passed.

He died of AIDS, then he ran clear.  Edward’s aquifer water flowing through this man.  His deep coal blackness struck me, and I wondered at the family who would be at his grave, at the food they would eat and the stories they would tell.  But, at that moment, there before me was the shell.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Next in line Ungrateful Bitch Stories


I have my writing on the wall. Now I need to layer case file notes, pictures, letters- no small stack.  




I don’t want to get this out of me.  I want to walk away and ignore it some more.  If only I could throw it up.  Get it over and out like a 24 hour bug, oh yeah baby.  I’d do that.

I’m tired of the weight of it.  How many times to I have to read that the truth will set you free, and yet before the free is some serious horror, with attendant grief and sadness. M
y neighbor warned me not to go too far down the rabbit hole.  Too late it seems.  I grew up in the rabbit hole, so how could a walk down memory lane be any more disorienting?    



I’ll start with recent notes to myself:



“The truth makes me an ungrateful bitch.  Get over it.  
I have to tell the Next in line ungrateful bitch story.  And then  the next.  
What am I avoiding most?  Dive in.  
Ungrateful bitch stories.  
I whored myself for experience and education.  
This section spans the end of book one and the beginning of book two.”

Jesus, just get this out of me.  
Point a Browning Hi-Power at my intellectual capital and threaten something; something bad.  Like having to befriend my actual mother.  My dad still has me all wound up about that, and he’s dead.


I’m an ungrateful bitch.  I know I’m an grateful bitch too, but I have to get through the ungrateful parts first it seems.  It’s just so impolite to be so ungrateful and tell my truth.  It really is, and I’m getting over it, through it, under it, around it, above it and it’s a shit ton of work.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

book-writing learnings, for today


1. One chapter due at a time.



2. Life happens.  Reforecast, without losing the learnings.

3. I’ve been advised that if I ever want to publish outside of blog-land, I shouldn’t put more than fifty pages of material, --rough draft or not-- out there.  Only the first page and a one paragraph summary for the remaining chapters, which in the end, looks something like a book proposal.

4. Editing ain’t cheap, but its necessary.  I’ll have more time to work on that fifteen chapters from now, and eventually I’ll explore editing help by working on one chapter with two to three editors, to see how we work together, and to see how things turn out.  I’ve been quoted $50 a page- which looks like $500-$1,000 a chapter.  So conceivably, it could cost ten to twenty thousand for one book.

5.  Once I’ve completed the first draft twenty chapters, I’m interested in seeking input from some of the people in my stories, some of the helpers and guides in my life.  Sounds messy, but that might just be the point.  

6. In researching one of my grandmothers, I came across a book called:  "The Unknown Habsburgs" by David McIntosh. There are some serious royal watchers out there, which reminds me that I should keep a list of potential audiences for the book(s). So far, Foster care alumni, national child welfare community members, social workers, therapists, cult survivors, cult members, ’royal watchers’ round the globe, Texans, Austinites, Coloradans, Goldenites, Native peoples, and all the German, Greek, Spanish, Austrian relatives.   


7.  Its fine for friends to be distracted by comments on my blog, but not me.  Did I mention that friendships are priceless?

8.  As a writer, my version of linear takes lots of twists, turns and loop-de-loops.  

9.  Friendships are priceless.

10.  http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/11/20/daily-routines-writers/

My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

Monday, April 15, 2013

First Draft of Chapter Five


Chapter Five:
Lee and Lisel, Apart

learning the ways
she wonders
what is it
that they
do
in the
rooms
the furious
touching
the licking
spitting &
spewing
pounding
of flesh
heavy clank
of the armored
feet
back &
forth
why is the
man so
inside
the woman’s
eyes
rolling

the eagle
overcomes

-September 1, 1976
j.a.


It’s a strange thing to read a poem about my mother watching me watch her have sex, and yet there it is, reaffirming memories of times at houses, like the one on Tower Road, facing  that little triangle park. I was just- turned four, she was almost thirty-four and her mother seventy-four.  Amazing how a mother’s poems and a twelve hundred page case file will do that-- both inform and reaffirm. My older half sister, the red-head, gave me a copy of a fifty-nine poem collection, penned then typed by my mother in the nineteen-seventies, bound in kelly green. Juliet sent the collection to her mother Assunta as a gift.  There are no titles or page numbers.  Some poems are dated, many are signed-- elisabeth, lisel, juliet maria, j e m a  h-b, juliet, Juliet, j.a., maria assunta,  j.

Juliet worked at the Humanities Research Center on the corner of 21st and Guadalupe. Her part of the University of Texas at Austin campus was surrounded by low brick walls and viney flower beds.  A bank of oaks shaded the walls I walked, staring at the squirrels and laughing with the grackles, who tilted their heads and spoke. She held my hand, my mother,  even if it was just the tippy-tip-tips, and helped me feel tall.   

She was part gypsy to me.  A painter, a student,  a teacher, a worker bee. An explorer of men.  She was heat and babyoil at Hippy Hollow.  She was magic and color at home, and all her places felt like home. Walls were her canvas and trees her haven. She had a bearded friend who built tree houses for a living and I would ascend--in wonder and mild fear-- every time, round and round the trunks of huge oaks, one winding platform leading to the next.  Once settled, the breeze and swaying movement were divine.  The dappled light and twerpy chirpy birds, my kind.
What helps me appreciate my mother is being a mother.  What helps me understand aspects of her marriages and eccentricities, are having a few of my own.   In reading Juliet’s following poem, as she sat and listened to her mother Assunta explain an upbringing, which spans World Wars I and II, the dimensions of my family puzzle expand.  

she gave me a small
packet of cigars,
to smoke on my way home,
she also enjoyed me
writing and smoking my pipe
while we sat in eula’s backyard

she told me of how her
mother, infanta blanca,
was a woman who did not love her
at all
i can feel she was glad that I now
understood how she didn’t know how
to love me, having me at forty
being a nun an archduchess
the woman with joseph my father

she remarked
one puff and it gives you thought
she played with her cigar and crocheted
a habit while talking
watching me watching me

-juliet 1976

In my grandmother Assunta’s lifetime, born in Vienna 1902, she was the pampered and distantly parented, eighth child of ten.  In her early teens, when World War I turned her imperial lifestyle upside down, Assunta, her parents and seven of her siblings fled Austria, in disguise, with jewels sewn into their clothing.  Two of her older brothers, Rainer and Leopold, chose to stay behind even if it meant dropping titles, and her Spanish mother, the Infanta Blanca, swore not to support any future Carlist efforts which allowed the family entry into Spain.  The Habsburgs settled into a sweat-equity kind of life, working and parsing out jewels to pay bills, and do their best to educate the remaining children.

At twenty-two, Assunta, fluent in at least German, Spanish and French, did her part and formally entered the convent of Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites in Tortosa, southwest of Barcelona-- a cloistered sect of nuns.  She prayed and served for twelve years, until the end of 1936 when the Spanish Revolution put a massive fork in the road of her divine path-- a forced absolution of her vows. Assunta was a drop in the flood of friars and nuns fleeing the Spanish monasteries, which led to Pope Pius XI releasing any and all with means or family from their vows.This was another once in a lifetime event, which left  Assunta, at thirty-four some version of an old-maid beauty and godly-divorcee, delivered to her mother who lived in the small  Italian vineyard where life, it seemed, had carried on.  According to Assunta, it was not a re-acquaintanceship either of them wanted, after all, her mother didn’t love her-- at all.  

“When can a person belong to herself?” I imagine her asking.  Apparently not in 1936, with the egregious name Habsburg. Two and a half years later, Assunta married  Dr. Joseph Hopfinger on the seventeenth of September 1939 in Ouchy, an area in south Lausanne.  Despite her hopes, she said decades later, the marriage was yet another curse of her name.  Dr. Hopfinger who would be Habsburg, was a thin-lipped aspiring Jewish-Polish doctor with a temper and a need to emigrate-- anyone and anywhere off continent would do.  My aunt Maria Theresa was born in Barcelona 1940, and my mother Juliet Elisabeth was born in New York City 1942.  

I have a black and white picture of the sisters on a pony, they’re five and seven.  My mother is in front, a dark, curly haired cherub, and their faces are a mix of concern and delight.  The saddled shetland munches from a feedbag, no weeds in sight on that  New York City street.  It’s all concrete, metal, pony and children.  I adore them.  I want to cuddle and love them, but they’re not those little girls anymore.  

Assunta found motherhood and mortal marriage difficult so she sought guidance at the Convent of the Sacred Heart.  No longer a nun, but connected to her sisters, her mothers, her people. The very people who eventually helped her escape an unbearable marriage. They found her a place, out of reach, yet within her means, so she could settle into life as a single, working mother.  Maria Theresa and Juliet Elisabeth were transplanted from living a rather posh Manhattan life, daughter of a doctor and reluctant socialite, to San Antonio, Texas and St. Teresa’s Academy, a catholic boarding school for girls. A boarding school that understood Assunta’s situation, and would let Maria Theresa and Juliet Elisabeth work off part of their room and board, through chores.  Never a shortage of chores, it seemed, especially for daughters of a defrocked and divorcing nun. Once a nun, always a nun? Every one nun, nun.
My mother, at twenty-two in 1965 had two curly red-heads, my older half brother and sister, and realized that the life of a rancher’s house-wife wasn’t going to work.  Nothing about single parenting, working at Frost bank and going to SAC at night meant footloose and fancy free, which was part of what made the offer of her own place in New York City so enticing. Her father, Joseph Hopfinger, and Helen, her step-mother, offered to set her up in New York, help with an apartment, a phone, and clothes for the kids.  By September 1967 my mother settled into life as Mrs. E. S. Richardson at 160 E. 27th St., Apt 5A, New York, NY 10016. Just not for long.

“I ended up loving Helen, my stepmother; she met me at the airport in New York and said:
“Oh, thank god your children aren’t ugly”.
I thought, Oh, this is going to be fun. I did forget to say about dad, a week before I was going to marry Glenn, he found out somehow and called me. He said “Why don’t you skip the wedding and come go to college in New York?”
“Oh well great, a week before I was going to marry and I didn’t even know him. I wasn’t as crazy like I am now  about reading and knowing everything. Looking back I think, why didn’t I jump? I had my whole life ahead of me.  No kids, no marriage. My whole life would have different. I may never have gotten into painting, I love painting.
I got a good job though, the first month I was in New York at The Academic Press.  They
made textbooks for college and it was a great, great place to work.  I was an executive secretary in the advertising department.  I loved it.  I loved it there, but dad drove me crazy and Helen.My dad didn’t treat Helen right when I was there, or didn’t treat Helen right once I got there. It was like ‘Helen you’re second, Juliet you’re first.’ But I wasn’t Juliet then. I was Elisabeth. Elizabeth was first.
He said one weekend we could go to Europe, you and me, and Helen could stay here and take care of the kids. I thought, well there goes his marriage.
I was smart enough to realize that wasn’t a good idea, and I thought it better that I go back to Texas.  It was already 1968 by then.  I went back to San Antonio and Glenn asked me to marry him-- I said no.  I lived with him for a little while in an apartment he rented, for us. He proposed again, and so I moved again.”
(personal communication with Juliet, April, 2011 Austin, Texas)

My mother met my father, Lee through her older sister Maria Theresa, who went by Terry at the time. Terry, who was working through her own share of divorce and single motherhood,  introduced Juliet to one her boyfriend rejects, who was stationed at Lackland Air Force base.
“I want you to meet a guy I’m dating, he’s not my type” Terry said, “he’s your type.” And I married that one too. He was in the service.  He never was sent to Vietnam, because he knew someone, but  it kept him at a desk job that he hated.  Lee was quite handsome, and I never kissed, kissed, kissed with my first husband. He was nice still then, never hit me then, was never bossy, that was after we were married.  I was going to school, SAC, living on a tight budget, child support, north part of SA, But anyway soon as he got out of the service, he said, we’re leaving. What? To get away from relatives, my relatives. We sort of picked Oregon together-- they had to have pre-med.  And off we went in a little VW; what fits goes, what doesn’t, doesn’t.” At least Timmy and Tracy fit.  
(personal communication with Juliet, April 2011, Austin, Texas)

My mother tells me that when she learned of the big bang theory, she couldn’t sleep for five days.  She also said that Lee was her first real love, for good or for bad  and there wasn’t anything clean about the ending.  

Case File Quote:

Medical:
1) Child was born from a fourth pregnancy.
2) Child’s mother miscarried approximately 1 to 2 years prior to Leigh’s birth. Allegedly this miscarriage occurred subsequent to a blow to the mother’s stomach by Mr. Lee Barr.
3) The first two births were normal deliveries.
4)The mother was 30 years of age at Leigh’s birth.
5) Mother claims no major illnesses during pregnancy except some vomiting and diarrhea.
6) Mother denies use of drugs during pregnancy for recreating or prescribed use except possibly something for the vomiting.
7) Mother reports the child developed normally.
8) Mother reports no problem with toilet training.
9) Child has not been hospitalized for major illnesses.

My mother filed for divorce in Travis County, Texas on August 15, at 11:22am in 1974.  I have a copy of her petition.  

The Parties were married on or about June 1, 1969.  On or about July 15, 1974 they separated and ceased to live together as husband and wife.  

There are no court ordered conservatorships, guardianships, or other court-ordered relationships affecting the children in this suit.  The child(ren) now reside with Petitioner.

Name: Leigh Stephanie Assunta Barr. Sex: Female. Birthplace: Eugene, Oregon
Present Residence: 502 W35th #101 Austin, Texas

No community property has been accumulated during this marriage other than personal effects.  Petitioner requests that these be awarded to the person having possession.  

Petitioner presents to the Court that more than one-half of all expenses are borne by Petitioner and asks that federal income tax exemptions for the parties’ children should be granted to petitioner.  

Petitioner requests a change of name to Elisabeth Stephanie Richardson Barr.  

Signed: Elisabeth S. Barr

Of my mother’s third marriage, to Dallas Sylvester Langford IV, Ph.D. I don’t remember him in particular, which I take to mean he didn’t do anything to scare me. Was he a gentle soul? Maybe.  What I do remember is concentrating on an ad for Avon products, scrounging for days and filling up a clear bag with coins. I left the coins and a carefully cut-out order form hanging from the mailbox. I waited for the mailman with a yearning --so many  afternoons on the front porch-- or peering through the screen door out to the front porch, or waiting around the edge of the yard, staring over the edge of the front porch-- I wanted my very own lipstick and compact with a fierce and focused determination.

In a letter to her mother, my mother recounts her marriage:

“Sunday 12-15-74
Hi Mom, Merry Christmas!
My new address is:
208 N. Blair
Round Rock, TX 78664
Kept my name- oh yes! I asked the kids to call you and tell you Dallas and I got married- still can’t believe it.  I left San Antonio on a Friday- Dallas proposed Sunday night- I accepted and we got married the following Tuesday November 26th- I certainly thank you for driving over to the kids to visit with me.  I love you, and am feeling happy.  
Love Lisil”

Another short piece from the collection:

each morning he would
go under the covers lick
me wet flip me over come
go take a hot bath suds up his face and hair
put in his mouth an egg
straighten his tie go off to teach
come home at four
get stoned and then we’d both come
cup your face in your hands
like a child used to

Juliet said Dallas had cold feet, with so many kids around, but decided to dive in. A nice schedule they seemed to have, judging from the poem above, but then Dallas wanted to have one of his own.  Then it went something like this: One of his own? Does every man want to have one of his own? Not this time, not again... and another marriage dissolved. Blink. A few conjugal visits with Lee.  Blink.  
If place makes a person, Hippy Hollow and Chillicothe, Texas might best begin to describe the dichotomy of my early childhood.  It was the mid-seventies, and I was insistently barefoot and following my mom on a pebbly-dirt path, noting the brief shade of scrubby trees that opened up to flat stretches of rock. We picked our way past a lounging walrus-man, a fist-full of newspaper shielding his eyes from the sun, his penis mercifully buried between belly and fur, then a woman leaning back on her elbows, with glaring-white triangular patches centered around the darkness of her nipples.

Hippy Hollow smelled like baby oil and crackled with heat and conversation. Occasional shrieks, splashes and laughter pierced the lapping rhythm of the water. I remember thinking that Hippy Hollow wasn't really a place for kids. Not so much because of the nakedness spread out and sunning everywhere or my developing Granny-induced aversion to resting my eyes on private parts, but because there was no beach. Adults could stand, one ledge down, chest high in the water. But chest-high, even for my not quite five foot tall mom, was too high for me. Given the choice of frying on the rocks or freezing in the water and with much cajoling and promises of safety, I jumped in.

Welfare smelled like baby oil, but tasted like powdered milk.  A foul packaged thinness, a commodity beverage with one relevant instruction-- add water. They should have said, add milk.   I must have been picky, having tasted the opulence of fresh whole milk, whenever I visited Granny and Grandpa, the ones who were moving from Florence to Chillicothe, Texas.  Milk seemed to begin and end meals of orange juice, bacon, anyway-I-wanted-them eggs, and hot toast with jelly islands floating in butter lakes.  I would eat-drain the toast down to the dipping-dimensions of the milk glass. Nothing else tastes quite like that first milky crunch.  

Once we visited a friend of my mother’s who lived in a commune.   We could see her on the second floor of the soon-to-be main house.  We climbed a wide half flight of stairs, the sound of hammers pounding, dusty men walking with buckets and lumber.  We turned and climbed another half flight to find a very pregnant woman sitting cross legged, and deep-breathing in her space.  The space of a few layered blankets and pillows spread out.  The space of her breath, as she willed the busy-ness away, and her baby out.  
I smiled and crinkled my eyes at the other little person offered for the task, and his Mamma too. “Pretend like you’re a baby” said Juliet, and he will too, she said pointing at the boy. You’ll both be babies and your job is to nurse. To suck. On her nipples. That’s all.  If you both do it, at the same time, it will help the baby come out.    We both nodded such agreeable children, and moved to either side.  We didn’t get the hang of it at first, and giggled.  We looked into each other’s eyes, tilting heads from side to side, making funny faces, but soon settled into the business at hand, or rather, in mouth.   

The house on Tower Road, across from the park, had a green bamboo backyard encircled in part by Johnson Creek, which made it gurgly and separate from the rest of the world.  Johnson Creek also ran through the park and held my favorite source of clay.  I found and mined a vein on the far-side bank and spent hours digging and shaping a collection of works.

My mother claims that I would wear my midnight-blue velvet dress with the white eyelet pinafore-- into the creek, and that I was a little beast who wouldn’t fall asleep until at least eleven at night.  I believe every word.  Things that mattered I never wanted out of my site. That and the roaches.  I didn’t notice them during the day, but at night they would develop a boldness I didn’t appreciate.  They would want to see what lovely crumbs might lie in my bed.  What loose bit of carob-chip might have escaped my notice.  I hated it.  I know hate is a strong word, but those roaches were longer than my fingers, and I didn’t want them in my ears, or anywhere else. My nights were clickysticky,  fluttery, scrapey and most of all, hot.  

After one such night, I remember standing on  the living room couch, facing the park with a tennis racket in my hand.  I preferred real-pretend guitars, to the plain-old air variety.  But the tennis racket was no longer a guitar, it was a weapon.  I was standing on the couch, screaming at my mother. Craving my mother. Raving at her to choose me, like I had chosen her. I screamed and watched my mother disappear into her back room, again. “I'm a teacher”, she would sometimes say.  “I teach people how to make love.”  
“Mother reported that child had vivid dreams.  One that sticks in her mind: Child, mother and father are in a crowd.  Child is with mother.  Father is ahead of them in a crowd. Child and mother can barely see him.  Child reports that father has a bag of candy.  Father is half-looking back at them and holding tight to the candy.  Mother and child are trying to get to father but cannot as feet and legs are undifferentiated and bloody.”
-Case File Quote
I learned early on that my father was a windbag, which is the compound word my father’s step-mother, Granny, used when she was avoiding the phrase full of shit.  Just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is genius, and Granny did not consider my parents geniuses in the parenting department, or really in any department for that matter.

Granny was a teacher, through and through, and in the forty-five minute drive between Austin and Florence that became the eight to nine hour drive between Austin and Chillicothe, I learned how to count to ten in Spanish. I learned about Disco Duck and John Denver, with his rocky mountain high. I learned that the smell of skunk meant immediate teasing that somebody had cut the cheese, and we had to find out who.  I learned to see noses and horses and make stories out of the clouds.  Stories that drifted together, and inevitably drifted apart.


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