Skunks in Pittsburgh

Yesterday I heard a same-sex couple interviewed about what it means to be married. The women spoke of how they in part resist the normality of marriage. When you have been an outsider for so long, she explained, it seems wrong to fit in somewhere, to become part of the normalized structure. 

 

That I am meant to fit within certain structures because I have a husband/baby. I don’t fit. I suppose most of us don’t fit, but I chafe at the mantle.

 

Maybe I prefer being an outsider. As I’ve been for so long.

 

Someone on Facebook wrote a “joke” about what you should do the first day you arrive in a mental institution. He also “jokes” about getting out of prison. These are to him the two worst-case scenarios.

 

"This is what you should do," a young actor friend said last night, "Teachers who look like you should—"

He was telling me to shame the students in my class, to shame them out of texting. That my ample chest, curvy figure gets in the way of my authority. He has a point. What if I just bring you to class with me? Would that work? This is my confident-white-male-authoritarian-sidekick. See him for authority; see me for knowledge / empathy / thoughtfulness.

 

The other day a doctor asked me “What brings you joy?” and I was able to list so many things without thinking very much about it and this brought some satisfaction. That my daily life provides access to joy. This was not always the case.

 

One night some years ago I laid in a dark room with Magoo and his fellow four year old cousin as they tried to fall asleep. Every so often one would question the other, apropos of nothing at all: “Are there skunks in Pittsburgh?” or “Do old-fashioned cars go faster than convertibles?” or some other perfect bit of 4 year-old musing & inquiry and I wished for a moment that Magoo would be four years old forever, or that I could sit in this room with two four year old boys forever. It feels like heaven, sometimes. To have this life.

 

"

Step 8: Be grateful.

Tonight, as I write this, I am in that familiar zone of uncertainty. One-third optimism, one-third depression, one-third holding ground. It’s gray and raining out here where I’m teaching in California. I’m 39 years old, childless, living alone in a sublet house with somebody else’s furniture. There is a poster over the washing machine that says “Christ Loves Me Just The Way I Am, But Too Much To Let Me Stay That Way.” And on my bathroom mirror, a sticker I can’t remove that says “I Can’t See You, But I Know You Are There.”

I don’t have the comfort of my ranch, the nestling mountains. My therapist is traveling in South America this month. Sometimes I cry for long periods. Sometimes I wonder, How did I get here? Sometimes I get on my knees and thank whoever I thank that I haven’t found a way to stop feeling any of it, and I pray that, while I breathe, I never do.

Last week I went on my first date since Randy left and the man liked me so little that by 9:30 I was back in my car driving home. I got a call yesterday from the veterinary cancer specialists saying that my Dante is due for his three-month chest X-ray. I have been talking, in the car, to all my dead friends again.

Am I frightened by the precariousness of my position? By the possibility that one more bit of bad news will send me plummeting past some nebulous but encroaching point of no return? You bet I am.

But tonight Dante and I will crawl into bed together. Tomorrow, if the sun is out, I’ll get on my big yellow bike and ride to school. This weekend I’ll drive down the coast to see a dear man named Martin who made me laugh six times on the phone today and who belongs to the same tribe of human beings that I do, the ones who are both sad and grateful. The world around me will be as bright as Venus on the evening horizon, and I will be awake, every moment, taking it in.

"

— Pam Houston

Angels

I was out with a group of women the other night and was generally trying to enjoy myself but also feeling the way everyone felt at the unTurkey Thanksgiving at the Headmaster’s House, not quite relaxed and yet smiling so hard that my cheeks ached. The topic of religion came up. Someone asked if I was converting to Judaism (we’re raising Magoo Jewish, sort of). I explained that I’d been raised Catholic and while I’m far from an atheist, I can’t quite imagine converting to another religion, let alone one so equally complicated/patriarchal. 

Later, saying goodbye, my relatively new mom-friend M (it was her shower; she just adopted her second boy) said to me: 

“I want to tell you something. I know that you say you are not religious, but I’ve always felt— Well, I think you are one of the most spiritual people I have ever met.”

I looked at her. No one has ever said this to me, but then people don’t generally talk about things like this. It was a compliment, I knew, but one I don’t really deserve, I wanted to tell her.

“Really?”
“Yes, I’ve always thought so.”
“Well, thanks. I’m not religious but, you know: books, art. Reading and writing. There are other ways to be spiritual.”
“Yes. You know: I don’t always go to church. But some mornings, taking care of my two little boys, I think I am in church. That god has given me the chance to watch these little guys grow and become before my eyes. These little miracles.” 

This is one of those cliches that also happens to be true. That watching your child grow is miraculous. How it feels to see Magoo, every day. His smile. To watch him become something. My little church not made with hands.

I felt myself shift from feeling alienated among these women who all seemed competitively intent on letting us know where exactly they’d lived in Paris so many years ago before they’d decided to get married and have a child; what else they did before having kids (which insecurity I too am guilty of, nearly all the time) to an awareness that I had been given an enormous gift:

That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.

This (Easter) Sunday: I get to read with Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi & Peter Markus & Sara Davis

Danielle Dutton (and Dorothy, a publishing project)

It’d be easy to praise Danielle Dutton’s writing by contrasting it with less inventive contemporary fiction. Fiction in which the writer doesn’t understand that inept similes snag in one’s minds (“his tongue moved quickly in her mouth, like the little men on a foosball table”). In which characters are dutifully described from haircut to shoe laces, as though when we meet somebody, we do a full TSA scan. In which the author’s primary ambition seems to be shallow acclaim (in many cases, to evaluate fiction by its success in current publishing is like evaluating a giraffe by whether it’s a shoe). That is, fiction that is sure to disappoint a poet.

Dutton’s writing doesn’t, though it’d be better to praise it for what it is. Permit me blurb? How about: In the portraits, tales, and figments of autobiography in Attempts at a Life (Tarpaulin Sky, 2007), in the poignant farce and onrushing suburban lyricism of her novel Sprawl (Siglio, 2010), Danielle Dutton shows that precision can be giddily disorienting, that the voices we are made of soar in and out of narrative, and that’s the real story.

Here’s a passage from Sprawl:

“It’s bewildering, the way faces pass in and out of my line of vision as I sit in the car and wait for the light to turn green. This place tends to take on a benevolent glow when birds peck at the grass in front of the gas station on the corner. I turn left, then right, then left again, right, left, and then I go straight for quite some time, and then I take a right, another left, a right, and then I’m home: driveway, garage, linoleum, a flight of stairs, a river leading west, south, south-east, east. It’s so old-fashioned, a memory, unimportant events. Lisle and I once heard a branch fall to the ground.”

Dutton is the editor of Dorothy, a publishing project, a press “dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women.” The press seeks “to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.” Dorothy is among my favorite publishers of current prose; I’m eager to see what they publish next. (You can read a review of two of their recent books, both by Renee Gladman, by Elaine Bleakney in KROnline.)

"The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself."

— Robert Walser, Eine Art Erzählung (via litverve)

(via thecryingofblog49)

snpsnpsnp:

Duras, to Xaviere Gauthier, on reading for wholeness versus not.

snpsnpsnp:

Duras, to Xaviere Gauthier, on reading for wholeness versus not.

selahannsaterstrom:

 

Agnes Richter was a German seamstress held as a patient in an insane asylum during the 1890s. During her time there, she densely embroidered her straightjacket with words, undecipherable phrases and drawings which  documented her thoughts and feelings throughout her time there. This remarkable object was collected by Hans Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist who ardently collected the artwork of his patients at a Heidelberg psychiatric hospital in the early 20th century.

selahannsaterstrom:

 

Agnes Richter was a German seamstress held as a patient in an insane asylum during the 1890s. During her time there, she densely embroidered her straightjacket with words, undecipherable phrases and drawings which  documented her thoughts and feelings throughout her time there. This remarkable object was collected by Hans Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist who ardently collected the artwork of his patients at a Heidelberg psychiatric hospital in the early 20th century.

"Sometimes you find that what is most personal is also what connects you most strongly with others."

Grace Paley (via theparisreview)

theparisreview:

PEN has announced its 2013 Translation Fund winners, including Daniel Borzutzky for Chilean poet—and Paris Review contributor—Raúl Zurita’s El País de Tablas (The Country of Planks).
from “Villa Grimaldi Prison”
This is how the chilean prisons were emerging   the snowpeaks of the Andes were nothing but planks nailed to those barracks
In the middle of the ocean’s abyss   as if they had wanted withtheir shredders to remind us of the infinite pain of the campsthe quarters   the infinite sheds where they killed us
When the Pacific opened up and we carried one anotherwe saw the stakes of a cordillera and then a dead skysinking into the slit of the sea until it became the final silencethat covers our remains   still nailed down   still brokenour eyes still open   looking out from those barracks thedead gaze of the ocean

theparisreview:

PEN has announced its 2013 Translation Fund winners, including Daniel Borzutzky for Chilean poet—and Paris Review contributor—Raúl Zurita’s El País de Tablas (The Country of Planks).

from “Villa Grimaldi Prison”

This is how the chilean prisons were emerging   the snow
peaks of the Andes were nothing but planks nailed to those barracks

In the middle of the ocean’s abyss   as if they had wanted with
their shredders to remind us of the infinite pain of the camps
the quarters   the infinite sheds where they killed us

When the Pacific opened up and we carried one another
we saw the stakes of a cordillera and then a dead sky
sinking into the slit of the sea until it became the final silence
that covers our remains   still nailed down   still broken
our eyes still open   looking out from those barracks the
dead gaze of the ocean