Sunday, January 13, 2013

Where the past went

“[...]How that time has passed away,
grown dark under cover of night, as if it had never been!”

- Beowulf

There is a family story that, upon his engagement to my grandmother, my grandfather built a fire in the yard (of wherever he was living—probably in an apartment in northern New Jersey with his mother, already a widow) and burned all his old love letters. Since he was 36 at the time, there may have been quite a few of these, but I grew up knowing little of his history—and nothing about his loves—before my grandmother. It was as if that point in time was when his life really began.

When I’ve thought of this story before, I saw his action as a disciplined, rather Sicilian gesture that I admired, but would never imitate. And I haven’t. I’ve clung hard to my past, dragged it all over the country with me from state to state and relationship to relationship, through the ambiguities of marriage, divorce, and parenthood. Over the past few years such “baggage” was taking up a lot of room, so the love letters et al. migrated to a large plastic bin in the laundry shed behind my apartment, where they waited to be perused and ignite old feelings. But I discovered yesterday that someone in the city of New Orleans has decided to relieve me of them.

It’s a bizarre, creepy crime because the person(s) did not take other items in the shed that, unlike the unwieldy storage bin, have material value: a TV, boxes full of crystal glassware. Instead he or she removed only the happiest or most meaningful parts of my past. This includes not only the love letters (since I came of age in the 1990s, these were on actual paper) but my first stuffed animal, a beat up, mournful-looking dog I named Georgie Porgie and used to talk to and take everywhere; a framed photo of my ex-husband Chris and I, in the first flush of dating, taken in a restaurant in Albuquerque; and years of notes my high school best friends and I randomly, often hilariously wrote each other. God knows what else was in there, but I never will, because it’s gone (to where or for what purpose, I cringe to imagine).

Since discovering the theft yesterday, my feelings have ranged from rage at whatever creeper would steal someone’s memorabilia, to tears as I imagine delicate Georgie Porgie, who I’d wrapped in tissue paper, in a trash compacter somewhere. When I was in preschool my grandmother sewed a collar, bright red with a pattern of stars and hearts, around his neck (he was always mysteriously getting holes worn into him); and I wish I still had this reminder of her. But regardless of how the tangible past may be purged from us—by act of will or natural disaster, by our choice or someone else’s—a lot of mine just was.

Maybe I finally have to process that many of the positive and negative remnants of who I used to be, who and what I used to love, need to be decisively left behind. That they were stolen or they faded, were misplaced, abandoned, or yielded to something else; or the feelings I used to attach to them fled, shifted, transferred onto other objects. This is a natural process. In igniting those letters, my grandfather was embracing it and welcoming the new, making space. Or maybe he couldn’t bear to be reminded of some things.

My grandmother Olinda (circa 1940s)... a woman worth burning stuff for

Monday, September 10, 2012


There has to be something still
At the center of the swirl—
Ask any hurricane—
An everlasting, an all-powerful,
A Let’s grow old together and die
In each other’s arms—
Or the one left back dies soon of grief everlasting,
A no-matter-what.

-James Galvin, from "Dying into What I've Done," X

The first time I fell in love, at 18, I felt sure it would last forever: a joy to light the dingy, daily corners of life. So many forevers later, I am still looking for that, rightly or wrongly.

...I recently experienced my first-ever hurricane in the form of Isaac, the storm that tediously spun over Southern Louisiana for days, dumping wind-lashed rains, cutting power, strewing debris, straining people’s patience and attempts at cheer. I’d just left a 4-month relationship with a man who was super-smart, creative, kind, ambitious, a good lover. He was willing to introduce me to his parents and spend weekend nights with Sara and I, making her laugh by saying we were going to turn into giant raspberries, or that he liked spiders in his ice cream. And yet I wasn’t happy; remained in some way apart and alone. So after months spinning in my own mental turmoil, I ended it, a week before the storm.

By Saturday, I was starting to feel better and even a little empowered. I spent the night with 2 women friends—dining on avocado slices with olive oil and blue cheese, the three of us watching Eat, Pray, Love for the umpteenth time. Like Liz Gilbert, I had felt irrationally unfulfilled in circumstances that would make other women swoon. Yet in initiating the breakup, I’d listened to my feelings and instincts, though they struck me as crazy—as they really have my whole life. The decision, though difficult and painful, felt right and was starting to make me reframe my similar-feeling split with C., my ex-husband. Then, too, I listened to my gut and left the security and camaraderie he offered, in search of something Else, some further, deeper aliveness. I regretted and essentially whipped myself over that choice for years. Maybe, I began to glimpse, all the self-punishment was not cool? And then a hurricane—what I’d been dreading for the 3 years I’ve lived here—hit, and the thoughts I had wrenched toward the positive turned dark. You thought you could stand alone? Take this.

As Isaac neared, I holed up with a friend and his wife, having sent Sara to her dad’s on the Northshore. She and her two stepsiblings had their picture snapped against the ominous grey waves of Lake Pontchartrain, a day before landfall, with the Facebook caption: “Our first hurricane as a family!” Despite going through a couple bottles of wine the first night, my friends and I weren’t feeling festive. We passed that Wednesday—Hurricane Katrina’s 7-year anniversary— sitting dejectedly in their dim living room, framed by heavy drapes over long windows, with one of their dogs, old and sick, panting in the unaccustomed, stale heat. I’d woken at 3 AM to find the power newly out, and thrashing trees outside the guestroom windows about to become projectiles, it seemed, with each roaring gust. 

A surprising thing brought me comfort then: a cologne sample torn from a magazine. In a fit of New Agey activity, I’d glued it into a journal along with words and images that moved me, that I somehow wanted in my life—the phrase “Give Wildly” and pictures of a whole cooked chicken in a wreath of herbs, and of a well-stocked pantry replete with sardines, molasses, Worcestershire, and apricot halves; and this shred of scent, Polo Blue. I don’t even know any man who wears this. But my first love wore the Polo that came in an identical square glass bottle, green instead of blue, featuring a tiny gold man on horseback. As we were leaving Colgate’s campus at the end of our freshman year, he dabbed some on the sleeves and collar of a flannel shirt, which he gave me so I would have part of him: the part he would not (presumably) be giving to his hometown girlfriend. I clung to his smell on the shirt for months, and that scent-fingerprint brought tears, comfort, a hit of beauty beyond any words I would have to describe it.

The week of the hurricane, I had $70 in my bank account. My daughter wasn’t with me; I’d tearfully hugged her goodbye at her dad’s workplace, feeling that she’d be safer with him and his fiancé, who’s been through all this before, than with broke, hysterical me. I had to ask a couple different friends to take me in—fearing the unknown, and not wanting to be stuck by myself—and each of them said that they would have me, but either my child or cat would pose problems. I felt like a problem. And luckily I was received, plus cat, minus one supportive boyfriend whose presence, during that time, I sharply missed. I had nothing, in a sense: no job, funds, partner, nearby family. But I had the whiff of Polo Blue... and it made me feel, absurdly, as if there was someone with me. Into that dark, eerie room, it brought rich sense-memories of the past and intimations of a future yet to materialize except as molecules, released from a paper strip, that registered on me physically, bypassing my anxious mind. 

Over that week, intending to maybe write, I produced a few bleak fragments:
I don’t have money, but I’m sexy

Sept. 1: I heard a truck on my street and felt a surge of hope—Entergy?[New Orleans' energy co.] When I looked out the window it was a Miller Lite truck.

The second observation encapsulates what it’s like to live in New Orleans, where partying trumps efficiency: something I’m strangely proud to have learned more about, the way so many others have over the years—by being sweaty. And bored. And not knowing what will happen next.

August 31: Sara and I at Rock 'N Bowl Mid-City Lanes, escaping the crushing heat of my apartment

Sunday, March 18, 2012


For years now, I’ve been going to restaurants, bars, movies, and parties alone—a practice which is not as supported in our culture as you would hope. Sometimes I am ignored by waitstaff to whom a woman sitting by herself is invisible; other times I get free drinks and food at places where I’ve come to know the people who work there and they, in turn, know me as that Girl Who Always Comes in Alone—who brings a poetry book or philosophy essay out to the bar. Sometimes this practice scores me a boyfriend for 3-6 months. Most of the time, anymore, I don’t even bring a book because it feels too weird/sad to sit and read while conversation and laughter swirl around me, as if I’m a rock in the stream of human sociability.

I spent much of my marriage alone in a room at the opposite corner of the house from where my then-husband lay on the couch in his office, both of us writing (he seemed to find a lot more pleasure in this process than me, for whom sitting all day trying to make a poem produced angst). In the first years after C. and I separated/divorced, I spent many weekend mornings at Café DeWitt (in Ithaca, NY) on a bench in front of a wall of fish tanks, feeling like a fish myself suspended in a glass wall of isolation visible to all the couples and families brunching around me. I would sometimes glimpse a guy there with whom I’d formerly had a one-time, athletic sexual encounter. He and his girlfriend, a stunning blond, would be sitting at a table across the restaurant dressed as if they were about to work out or had just rolled out of bed. How I envied them as he read the newspaper and they both sipped coffee and looked totally relaxed. It seemed incredible, to me, that there were people who could take such casual intimacy for granted; there were women who inspired in their men a desire not just to have sex but, afterwards, breakfast at a cute café. Oh, I did have a boyfriend at the time but as is so often the case in my life, he was not there. I don’t even know why anymore. When we did go out in public together, I would try to grab his hand and he would drop mine. (He did other, nice things, like attempting to make a banana cream pie for my birthday. But in my mind our relationship was often characterized by my feeling alone and unsupported.) It was only 6 months after our breakup that he decided he really wanted to be with me and by then, I’d had enough.

On the night, this past fall, when my last relationship ended, I took myself on a date to see Midnight in Paris at the fancy-pantsy cinema downtown (they serve dinner/wine in the theater). Before the movie started, I walked in my high heels through the surrounding empty mall and ended up staring out a wall-length window at the lights of Canal Street; palm trees whipped by breeze and the city extending in a soft, twinkly darkness beyond my line of sight. I remember being concerned that the tears on my face were ruining my eyeliner and would be visible when I headed back into the bright lights of the lobby, where I would be deemed not only sad but unattractive.

What to make of this ongoing pattern of loneliness? In part it can definitely be attributed to me. Like many writers, I tend to get my sense of meaning and reality more from what is going on inside me than what’s happening out there. I avoid opportunities to volunteer, or host, and any social events I’m not sure will be fulfilling; and I feel a smidge suicidal when called upon to stand around at a child’s birthday while my daughter jumps in the bounce house. These behaviors/attitudes help to keep me outside of things. But this whole issue of painful or missing relationships goes a lot deeper than that, to places in my past I can’t even disclose here because they are scary and painful; things that only leave me numb, now, when I think of them.

As I am now in another relationship (?) in which the other person has dropped out of sight, I was dreading the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, when couples, families, and groups of friends wear (sometimes outrageous) green outfits, drink, and joyously converge on my neighborhood in a way that just highlights my sense of separateness. Typically of the way I usually experience this event, as I walked to the store yesterday morning I was the only person on bustling Magazine Street not wearing a shred of green. However, my tacit “fuck your parade” message did not give me a sense of empowerment. So after I put my groceries away, I suited up in a sequined top, shorts, heels, and a strand of green beads (there are plenty to choose from in a glittery sprawl on the mantle in my daughter’s bedroom, like a Mardi Gras altar), and walked out, thinking of getting a beer and just being part of the festivities. And so with a go-cup of Blue Moon, I walked down Magazine toward Jackson,figuring walking would give me something to do (rather than stand around alone). I passed several parties going on at bars and houses; musicians playing on porches. The street was closed but the parade hadn’t reached us, so green-clad groups were walking down both sides of the street. I noticed that whereas I'd pictured most of the parade-goers as families or couples, there were a lot of younger people strolling in loose assortments. My hair grew heavy and sweaty and I draped it over my shoulder, scanned the crowds on the sidewalk through sunglasses, and actually felt kind of powerful, like there was a caption in my mind reading: “A beautiful woman walks down the street…” That is what I would want it to say. And I was also giving myself a pep talk so I wouldn’t feel pathetic for being there without a friend or lover, which went something like this. That this was like a birthday or other personal celebration for me because no one could know how much it takes, sometimes, for me just to leave the apartment, be brave, and try to have some joy...that I could think of this parade as representing what my future is going to be like, as opposed to a lonely and sad past...that at this time next year I absolutely WILL NOT be alone, and I am sure of that. (Though no, I’m really, really not sure. But I so want it to be true.) And when the edges of my happiness began to feel stretched and I could feel the other awarenesses, a current of anxiety and despair, starting to push in, I kept telling myself that the bad feelings are temporary and soon I will kick ass.

...I was telling myself this when my daughter’s father called, pissed because the closed/blocked streets made it difficult for him to deliver Sara to me and get on with his weekend plans with his fiancé. After that, I spent the rest of the afternoon depressed, though Sara and I did stand at the corner of my street, amidst a profusion of garbage including shreds of cabbages thrown from floats, and I caught her some beads but, to her vocal disappointment, no toys. And that was that—for now.

Monday, March 5, 2012


Today my ex got engaged; I got drug-tested.
That is all.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Seeking home

The ideogram portrays a heart and a boat between two shores, enduring in the voyage of life.- from the I Ching Ideogram 32, “Persevering”

Almost 7 years ago when I left my husband, moving 1,000 miles north with no job or friends waiting, I had come to a few conclusions about myself. That I am a person who probably shouldn’t be married, but should have a series of passionate flings like Anaïs Nin (though she was, uh, also married); that I am too restless and curious to be satisfied by one person forever; that I would prefer to provide security for myself, and find excitement through my relationships.

The conclusions I drew then turned into a reality that, at this point, I long to escape. But I don’t know how.

This is from a journal entry written when I was soon to move away from the house we shared in Auburn, Alabama:

I feel very sad at the prospect of leaving this street, which I love. It is lush & chirping. The crape myrtle is blooming all over town and outside my office window. After 2 yrs of hating this place I have to admit I’ve become attached to it. This street is so quiet & peaceful—it’s been a haven and a retreat. I feel grounded here—God, I have spent so much time in this house, on this street, it’s like I’ve put down roots. Even though I spent so much time looking out the window at the neighbor’s blue mailbox with the weeds or swamp grass or whatever growing around it. I like Victor’s yard & the mysterious gate—like something in the English countryside—that leads into his backyard and which I’ve never seen beyond. The stump in the across-the-street neighbor’s yard from where a hurricane knocked their tree down. The stump always makes me sad because the tree protected their house from view, it’s so naked over there now. I’ll miss the porch & sitting with Gretel [my cat] in the sunlight, & the Pin Oak in our front yard, which I thought for a while was dead but then one day was full of little leaves. I’ll miss the nighttime insect sounds which I hear right now. And all the birds—birds love our crape myrtle & I would always see cardinals hopping in its branches and hear birdsong all day. & watching the bushes in our front yard grow and how they get tall & unruly & give us more privacy behind them. & the curve of our street and the neighbor’s chalked-in basketball court, how he put a basketball court right in the middle of the street & he’s always out there with his dog and little boy & he acknowledges me with a wave and a look when I drive by & sometimes his boy does, too.

I concluded, These things didn’t make me happy, but they were there for me, they accepted me into them, they did no harm.

So what would make me happy? This is what I thought, then:

I want to be on a date with someone I’m wildly attracted to. To stay up all night with someone—to have that intimacy & specialness. To have extreme and intense experiences of aliveness (not extreme like bungee jumping). I want to be buzzed & laughing at a dinner with friends. I want to go dancing to 80s music. I want to go camping and talk around a fire, and drink. I want to make love so intensely I feel the whole universe coming into it and lose all self-consciousness. I want to scream. I want to have FUN.

Well, I can honestly say that I’ve experienced those things since. Except the camping. And even my most ecstatic moments are tinged with self-consciousness...but a lot less than before.

After I announced who I thought I was, and left—a conversation which happened the day after I’d graduated with my MFA, with trees outside our dining room window thrashing in a tropical storm-grade wind—I missed my ex-husband for years. And sometimes still do. Not just the things we did together habitually, like making Indian food or traveling the country by car—but his presence as a person. His light-blue eyes, and the care he took parting his hair after showering; the piercing way he looked at me when I was upset and sulking, like he was frustrated but wasn’t going anywhere.

…I do think C was right in saying that I’m too young, didn’t know what I want, need to have more experiences. He said he wants someone who’ll be there at his deathbed. I said, “I just want to feel alive.”

Oh, maybe I should see the past 7 years as a success. Instead of thinking words like lonely, grief, failure, unstable, scary, I should think, ALIVE!

...Four years ago, my ex remarried and now has two sons with his wife, another poet like him. I’m not even a poet anymore or at least, not a practicing one. Despite my having put years into the MFA, I am not writing poems, not sending any out. I’m a stressed single parent; I've been dating someone for two months, so things are uncertain in a way I've become accustomed to.

I’m training as a mental health counselor to spend my days listening to others’ stories of brokenness, which reflect my own. That role and being mother to my 4-year-old offer me glimpses of the stability I’ve lost in the vicissitudes of romantic relationship.

And yet I feel pretty damn sure I want what my ex-husband offered me, too early in my adulthood for me to accept it—that secure love which, now that I feel I’m being denied it, looks like the only path toward wholeness.

C. and I at my MFA graduation ceremony

Monday, December 12, 2011

The waiting

I made fun of online dating on this blog ( a while back. But now I’ve decided to try it, using a free site. Some thoughts a few days in:

1. As in life, the men I like and those who like me are two different categories.

2. Being a 36-year-old baby mama does not make me part of the most popular demographic in men’s eyes.

3. I seem to fare better in bars, where my age and parental status are not immediately apparent. Online, it's like they are written on big signs that people see before they register anything else.

4. But I have to try it because all the couples I know met online.

5. Because relationships that start in bars are unlikely to lead to feeling loved.

6. And Christmas break is coming up—the time when my grad-school friends leave town. Might as well go out with strangers so as not to asphyxiate of boredom.

7. Dating sites subject you to a lot of junk-email from folks who CANNOT SPELL OR USE GRAMMAR.

8. Yet they also increase your odds of having an important encounter with someone you wouldn’t have met otherwise.

9. If love is a hotel, online dating is like the hallway. As you walk through, checking out the people passing by or beckoning you toward slightly-open doors, you think: “In the past, I have always just rushed into a room in this hotel. And then I woke up 12 hours later, bruised, robbed, and with no real idea what happened...”

10. It would take only one really good date to make this worthwhile.

And this, from T.S. Eliot (in “East Coker” from Four Quartets):

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? -Mary Oliver

Recently I got several boxes in the mail from my mother, mostly full of stuff from my daughter’s 4th birthday party over the summer. It was like Christmas for Sara as I opened each box, and toys emerged that she thought she had lost or maybe dreamed of—a mermaid doll that changes colors in the tub, Buzz Lightyear, a few plastic Smurfs (which she calls “Smurths”).

My mom also sent along a surprising item: my passport, not used since I lived in London for three months on study abroad. The photo was taken when I was 16, and I always thought it was awful. In it I sport a puffy, shoulder-length perm,un-groomed eyebrows, braces, and no makeup. But now, I see something different—for instance, someone who could go without makeup and still look OK. But the picture doesn’t matter.

See, I have a flying phobia—circa post-9/11. And I have “had” depression circa way before that. More than the fear of airplanes or terrorists, depression has kept me far from the world I began to explore in high school and college; from connecting to other places and people outside my own sadness. And yet the stamps on my passport remind me that I was once in Vaduz, Lichtenstein (where I remember climbing many stairs to the top of an old Olympic ski slope); Heathrow and Gatwick airports; Greece; and back in New York City on November 30, 1995, when I returned from my months in England. I had also visited Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and a tiny, ancient part of Turkey, where I bought a little souvenir keychain: a brass figurine of a man with a disproportionately large, erect penis, some kind of fertility symbol. But I wouldn’t say my life after that was very fertile.

Depression creates an inner, and eventually outer, landscape inhospitable to life. Basically, in this state of mind it’s like there is an immovable obstacle between me and anything I might want or need to do, whether it’s to take a walk at the park, play with my child, do homework (I’m a grad student), make plans for the weekend, work a job, write a poem, cope with normal feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety, or even open my mail. And the most frustrating or debilitating thing is that no one else sees that I have an illness that is walking and talking for me; not even me. Instead, I beat myself up for my lack of motivation, my inability to do this or that.

A couple months ago, I had a vast realization—this is really how it felt—that this identity, of being a depressed person, actually doesn’t have to be permanent. I am 36. And I have struggled through depressive episodes for 18 years now, since my grandfather died of lung cancer during my second week of college. But what if in the next parts of my life, I am going to be an essentially different person: one who isn’t depressed? I was walking in my neighborhood when I first had this astounding thought...It had been a bad weekend. The previous day, I’d spent all afternoon lying in bed. That was Sunday, and my daughter kept wandering in from where she was playing in her adjacent bedroom, probably wondering what was going on with me. As I walked over the broken, tilted old sidewalks I thought about the kind of parent I want to be: one who is not one day remembered by her child as having spent days in bed. I suddenly conceived of the depression as a separate thing—as not really “me,” but as something else that had been added and could be un-added.

At this point on my walk, I noticed a house that I have passed many times since I moved to this neighborhood two years ago. Whenever I’d previously seen it, the house—white, two-story, over a century old, with a dark-blue mansard roof—was under renovation. There was a dumpster out front full of materials being discarded in the process. (This is a common sight on the streets of New Orleans.) The house, I now saw, was done; the dumpster was gone. I could see into the row of tall front windows, made of wavy old glass, into a spacious room whose walls had been painted a delicate, vibrant shade of yellow similar to egg yolk. It looked like no one was living there yet. For some reason that glimpse of color through the glass moved me, and tears came to my eyes. The empty yellow room was somehow my hope of not being depressed—what it would look like. Bright, and lively…I could move into that, and there could be a whole new life. And then, because I didn’t want anyone to notice me staring at this house like someone with mental problems, I walked past, but glanced back a couple times to re-experience that flash of feeling.

When I opened my passport for the first time in so many years and looked at my 16-year-old face in all its awkwardness, and the dark stamps on the blue pages, I was again moved. It struck me as an invitation that had arrived at just the right time: to explore this earth, live in this world and be at ease in my skin. Though I may have to update the photo.