Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Writing Process

I've cut a ream of paper into strips and organized them, best I can, into a chronology. Two reams of paper, years worth of my writing, to go. What I've discovered is that I can chunk stories, photos, letters and stuffed animals into general categories, like sixth grade or the Lee foster home, but when it comes to order within each category, I'm at a loss. I spent sixth grade in three different schools, but which when and how long exactly where?

 In my twenties, Granny, my paternal step-grandmother, gave me a fat manila folder filled with family and school pictures, first and second place ribbons, report cards, my fingerprints- registered with the Round Rock, Texas police, and court documents. A copy of a visitation schedule between my grandmother and bio father. A later copy of a restraining order containing affidavits from Granny and Juliet, my bio mother, detailing his violence and their fears of it further escalating.

 What I find most grounding about these documents, aside from the fact that my grandmother held them in her hands and gave them to me before dementia stole her brain, is that I have dates, names and addresses, of important events in my life. The beginning of a chronology, which naturally made me wonder if, maybe, I ought to take another look at my case file, sent from Texas in May of 2010. 

Now, I'm four hundred pages in with eight hundred pages to go.

 Why now? A matter of converging events.

**About one and half years ago I received an un-redacted copy of my file, from the state of Texas, on disc. It's twelve hundred pages, separated into thirteen files. I spent a four hour period, the day I received it, opening, dipping in here and there and reading what was decipherable. That was enough to last me awhile.

 **This spring, I visited my bio mother and my bio uncles and their families in Austin, Texas. It was the first I'd seen my bio mother in fifteen years.

 **In June I started taking anti-depressants; I wanted to have fun, with a capital F over the summer with my boys. Crying most days, working on this book project was not doing the trick. 

**My bio father died in August at the age of sixty-four. Complications of kidney and heart disease. Something about his anti-rejection meds not working well with a pacemaker. He's had at least one kidney transplant, though I thought two. Thanks to genetics, I have a transplant or two in my future as well. My father's death has filled me with grief and relief. No chance ever, for some fantasy reconciliation and slim chance now, that he'll bring a libel suit against me from beyond the grave.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Impressions of Juliet

I met her in Austin, Texas at a table outside of Whole Foods at Sixth and Lamar. The usual cacophony of grackles and doves was partially drowned out by whole foods radio. I was inside the store, heading out, as I spotted her. She was standing next to a table, in the sun, her hair was wavy, grey-white, all one length, parted down the middle and hanging half-way down her back, which was turned to me.

I approached and realized she was especially short, from the added height of my three inch clogs. She wore an off- white cotton dress, high-waisted and sleeveless with a textured button-down front. A simple prairie kind of dress. Black knee-high socks and sandals with a one inch wedge completed the look. After fourteen years apart, I hugged my petite sixty-eight year old mother, who oddly, did not reek of patchouli.

We made small talk; me, Juliet and Roger, her husband of thirty-two years. Small talk included Roger’s opinion on communism, and how my perspective on the subject had shifted given my marriage to an East German who was a teenager in November 1989. Roger was sent away and four hours of conversation unfolded, during which we covered Juliet's life history from age seven through the beginning of her fifth marriage.

Tepoztlán was not a place I expected to have in common with Juilet. She spent two months living there around 1979 with Gerard (or Gerhard, she’s not sure which), a German professor whose invitation she accepted to move to Mexico and start a new life. This was a romantic period between her fourth and fifth husbands, cut short by an emaciating case of dysentery.

From Tepoztlán, she was dropped off at her trusty white Cheve-something, at the dusty border in Laredo, and it, the car she named Augusta, was untouched, and not only that - it started. She made her way back to Austin, pausing in the telling of her story to ask:

“Did you know that cops won’t let you sleep in your own car?”

I nodded and asked, “Was that a Cheve-Impala?”

“Don’t remember, but that’s how I ended up in the tree,” she explained. “A tree not far from here.” She gestured to her left down North Lamar to a place that no longer exists, “off Eleventh and Baylor.”

She had some friends who lived in a house next to a lot filled with brush and trees. In the middle of that lot was a tree and she would climb a long ways up. Eventually a friend built a platform, way up in the tree, big enough to sleep fetal.

“I would tie myself to the tree,” she said, “so I wouldn’t fall out.” When she got tired of that, she slept curled at it’s base. “But down there you had to deal with mosquittos.”

For me, decades later, Tepoztlán was an optional day trip from a graduate school course I was taking in Cuernavaca, about poverty and oppression in Mexico. I understood that my mother was a case study in poverty and oppression, but she was too close, too real, too needy, too crazy and visiting her once a year, for six years, during my bachelor's degree was a swift kick in my own ass about staying focused on school.

I told Juliet I enjoyed spending time with her in trees. She smiled in appreciation.

I told her that my earliest memories were of beatings; her black-haired self, thrown against the white kitchen walls. She nodded, not surprised.

I told her I thought of her as a person with a broken picker. I don’t know if she understood, or if that hurt her even. But I said it. I mean, five marriages, even if one of them was to help out a friend?

She swore my dad, her second husband, didn’t start hitting until after they were married. She also swore that she was never a whore.

She mentioned that I was quite a handful as a little girl. That I never wanted to go to bed. I mentioned the roaches, endemic in parts of Austin, and the rats. She said she made friends with those cute little rats.

She mentioned that she didn’t find her voice until she was in her forties. I replied that I was born with a voice, and I’ve used it incessantly since. A few notable gaps, but still, mostly.

When I was eighteen (ish) Juliet told me that I should always masturbate before going on dates. This time I’m thirty-eight and her closing advice is to use a water-pic. She has all of her front teeth, its molars that are missing, a gaping darkness in her mouth. I explained that I brush and floss daily, love having my teeth cleaned and that all the cavities from my childhood have been filled. “But still” she said, “you must use a water-pic.”

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Characterization Exercise- May

May is 77 and her toileting consists of refreshing her wavy, silver-white pin-curled hair, gargling mouthwash, brushing her one top tooth, polishing her lavender-rimmed glasses, and smoothing on a berry-shade of lipstick.

Tolstoy is a favorite Russian author of hers. She's read War and Peace three times but doesn't like the last few chapters, "A big downer," she said. President Carter turned her onto it. "It took him three years to read it" she said, "and though I'm not educated, it didn't take me that long."

I thank her for the copy of Anna Karenina, a Christmas gift, along with the ornament-sized garden gnome. She thinks she's got me pegged with garden gnomes, and she might be right. I now own four, each from her, two outside and two inside. Though I want to know her thoughts on Anna Karenina, and why she had to buy a copy for me, instead of letting me borrow hers, she's launched into the cat report. It turns out Miss Kitty, who is two and a half, had to have some teeth pulled.

"I thought she was turning into an affectionate cat again," May said. "But no, it was her teeth. When she stopped eating, I knew it was a trip to the vet."

A few weeks before Christmas, I called May on the fly and invited her on a trip to Target. I'd promised at least five months before that I'd take her with me next time I went. I hate Target. But I hate Target less than I hate Walmart. This time it was Zhu Zhu Pet shopping for Christmas. Last time, my son had nothing to wear to the Colorado Ballet, so we bought a pink and white pinstripped shirt, with black dress pants, socks and shoes.

May, a consumate non-driver, swears that walking everywhere she goes maintains her girlish figure so she can keep wearing the dresses she loves, but Target is not within her usual range, and Target has affordable jarred yeast, superior to all the single-serve packets (they're ruined so easily) and essential for a fixed-income baker. May bakes cinnamon rolls, strawberry-butter cookies, peach pies and whatever else is in season. She's befriended many of the downtown Golden merchants by delivering homemade baked goods, especially merchants that might have items in her favorite shade of lavender, like Baby Doe's or Chelsea of London, a lingerie boutique.

If I had to confess one thing to May, it would be that I don't eat her food. It's not that I haven't, under pressure, but me and my stomach prefer not. May has a dim-dusty, cat-lady kind of place with German style, white lace curtains. Her bedroom is at the front of the house, and her bathroom is at the opposite end, through the hallway, living room and Pepto-pink kitchen. Not long ago, it was impossible to walk all the way through. Baby-dolls, boxed Barbie dolls, doll houses, plastic horses (like Secretariat, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown), and all the Disney Princesses are now stuffed, with care, into her collection of display cases and dark bookshelves. Her last broken hip, when she was on the floor, cats keeping her warm, reeking of urine and worse for three days, really changed her attitude about cleaning up. During the hospital stay she was pressured to give up her home. Her cats were blamed. It got ugly. So, she's really been working on it, vacuuming out the horse-sized, cat-hair, dust bunny in her ancient floor heating vent, for example.

Anna Karenina, it turns out, reads like a chaste soap opera laced with the minutia of Russian ruling class life during the late 1800's. Boring? Until now, frankly, yes. But it is masterfully written, and I find that I'm connected to the material in a few hard to ignore ways.

My interest in the ruling classes has been raised a few notches recently, say, from zero to seven. Betty Mays Lancaster, attorney-at-law, is the reason why. Betty seems to be on a bucket-list kick, though she wouldn't put it that way. She has thirty percent use of one lung and seventy percent use of the other (pleurisy), along with recent shoulder replacement surgery; though body parts are failing, her brain seems very much intact.

I met Betty eighteen years ago, in 1993, when my grandmother Assunta died. Betty was executrix of Assunta's estate and though I thought she was ancient then, she's more ancient now, and wants to write a book about my grandmother. She wants my help in writing a book, to be exact, and here I am, reading Anna Karenina, wondering truly, what that must have been like, a child member of the pampered, ruling class. And she was; my grandmother's title was Archduchess of Austria, (aka: Princess of Tuscany). She spent her early childhood, up to age seven, in Vienna. She was the Emperor's great neice, living in Schloss Wilhelminberg, with layers of servants, dedicated to her care. Her mother, the Infanta Blanca of Spain, dealt with her at a distance, through nannies, a governess, tutors and cooks not to mention the distance of of being the eighth child of ten. Assunta would disapprove of name dropping, but never-the -less, my maternal grandmother, Assunta Alice Ferdinandine Blanca Leopoldina Margaretha Beatrix Josepha Raphaela Michaela Philomena Hapsburg-Lothringen, grew up in an Austrian castle and died in a Texas convent, which at least partly explains how I came to grow up in central Texas foster care.

The second way in which I'm connected to Anna Karenina, the soap opera part, is the soap opera part. The story itself. Anna, it turns out, is an adulteress who throws herself in front of a train, a successful suicide, to escape the mess she'd made of her life.

I'm not an adulteress, but on bad days I want to be. To tell you the boring truth, in a non-original way, I'm a two-year old trapped in a thirty-eight year old body, with the episodic sex drive of an eighteen year old boy. (If we get drunk, you might refer to us as Texas Peach. That cute little drawl comes out, right along with her two-step, farm-girl sweetness.) It's a little crowded in here, humid even, like the inside of a fogged up car. So let me repeat, I'm not an adulteress, but on bad days, I want to throw myself under the fuck-train and get rammed into oblivion.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Where to Start? First Draft of First Chapter submitted to The Lighthouse Crowd

“Pathology comes from a story untold.” Carl Jung

I should have seen the postpartum thing coming, at least a mile away. I’m a social worker and it was a roiling storm front on the horizon, spiked with auditory and skin-prickling warnings of lightning to come. But I didn't see it, not because I hadn't considered the possibility, but exactly because I had. Ego said, “Considered it. Covered it”. As though mothering can be boiled down to a series of checklists.

The busyness of work and the excitement of checking doll-sized items off my arm-lengthed list entirely absorbed me. Pick up gently used crib from a stranger’s front porch. Check. Assemble crib. Check. And then it happened, labor. Slow starting really, on a Sunday morning. I had used a double electric breast pump to stimulate my nipples, because Dr. Jensen was threatening induction, and within hours of pumping, contractions eased their way into my consciousness. I went shopping at Whole Foods for the casserole ingredients, pausing with contractions, my hand on the zucchinis, pausing again beside the eggs. I baked my casserole through contractions, but then it was 2am, and they were coming two and three minutes apart, and nothing soothed me anymore. No bouncing ball, no tub of warm water, no back massages or stretching on the bed.

Outside, the early afternoon drizzle had turned into a world blanketed in white. The white showed no signs of stopping and we had half an hour of driving, on a good day, up two-lane Highway 93 to Boulder Community Hospital. Thank God for all-wheel drive. I begged my baby boy every 2 to 3 minutes, to please wait, just a little bit longer. Hans kept his eyes glued to what he thought was the road, wipers tracking back and forth across the windshield. From the back seat, Rigpa soothed, as best she could, with her voice and touch during contractions. “Run the red lights,” I said. My cervix was 8 centimeters dilated when we arrived and hour later it was at 10.

Through the first two hours of pushing I refused pain medication. Purist bullshit in some ways, but still I wanted to try. After five hours of pushing, in every humiliating position possible, vagina big as Texas, I had nothing left, I just wanted my baby out. During the C-section, tears trickling out of my eyes, Hans stroking my face, I joked with Dr. Jensen about monkey blood, a Texas term for iodine. Strange pressures in my nether regions, seven layers of cutting I’m told, and cone-headed Max came into the world. A railroad of staples one ker-krak at a time, closed the last layers of me. And then shivering in post-op recovery, buried under heated blankets, memories of my foster father began moving insistently out of my mouth and into the successive exhausted faces and ears of my doula, husband and friend. "He pulled me down on top of him", I kept saying, "and would've kissed me, if I hadn't jerked my face to the side." Then the trailing thought, as they brought my swaddled son to me, both of us dazed and squinting in florescent light, 'Why is this coming up for me now?'

If you believe that place makes a person, Hippy Hollow and Vernon, Texas might best begin to describe the dichotomy of my early childhood. It was 1976, and I was three going on four years old, 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 new 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 for them 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 adjusted both of my yellow arm floaties and jumped in.

The first good parts I remember leaving out were in Kindergarten at Chillicothe Elementary. Any school paper that contained an A+ or 100 was hidden in the bottom drawer of my baby-blue desk or trashed. Somehow I had it my head that A pluses and hundreds were bad. Which means that really, I was trying to leave out bad parts, when in fact those bad parts were good.

Chillicothe, Texas is about as far north in North Texas as you can live, without bumping into Oklahoma or the Texas Panhandle. Though we lived in Vernon, sixteen miles west, where my grandfather worked as a doctor, I commuted with Granny to her teaching job in Chillicothe, a commute whose highlight was the gas station, which contained a tiny rat in an equally tiny aquarium. I don't remember the faces of the nice white family who ran the place, just the rat. It impressed my five year old self greatly that they would wipe the rats tiny-little rat ass with a cotton ball. I remember the smear of shit contrasting with the pristine white, and wondered how else they spent their time.

In Austin, it never snowed, but in Vernon I made my first snow angel in the front yard of the unassuming house that accompanied my grandparent’s unassuming life. Except maybe, Granny was making a few assumptions. She had no idea, for example, that when Grandpa died of cirrhosis, she would be worse off than a pauper, she would be a debtor; up to her eyeballs in debt, she would say.

I made that snow angel in a blue parka with red furry edging around the hood and a red bow tied beneath my chin. Granny called it a parka and not a winter coat because she had lived in Alaska with Grandpa along with Daddy, Uncle Allen and Uncle Bill and Alaska was home to some real cold, requiring the purchase of real coats, called parkas.

Granny was a teacher, through and through. In the eight hour drive between Austin and Vernon, I learned how to count to 10 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 I learned to see noses and horses and make stories out of the clouds. Stories that would drift together, and inevitably drift apart.
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