Writing tapped a part of me that is fearless and yearning to connect with other people. I was always a dancer and my dominant way of communicating was largely nonverbal and intuitive. And yet, since I was very tiny, I always knew I was a writer. I would write philosophical tomes on scraps of paper and my best childhood girlfriend would insist that I saved them. Her praise and recognition benefited me greatly.
I recently found a stack of letters I’d posted on my mother’s bedroom door in 1974-5 when I was four – the year I was being sexually abused by a neighbor boy, my girlfriend’s brother, from our church. I wrote pleading messages asking my mom to wake up, comfort me, “attention me”. I told her how I felt like I was going to barf, like I was going to die. I was shy, but I was determined and precocious. Writing helped me get my needs met, and to let out the tension of being very sensitive to human dynamics.
From age seventeen I had a wonderfully adventurous life, moving forty-two times before I was forty years old and living in foreign countries. A dear friend named my standout quality as “mischievous”, and my journals were filled with curiosities about the people I met while traveling. I kept journals and wrote long letters by hand and did well in English class.
School was detestable, miserable, and stultifying, especially high school in Indiana. The exception was drama class, where I learned about character, empathy, and perspective. I felt totally straightjacketed and socially stressed out at school until I got to Yale for graduate school. At Yale I got to write creative research papers for a wide variety of topics, and I got a thrill from piecing together far ranging topics. During this time my eyes got really bad from overuse, so I got Lasik right before I entered Iraq in 2004 for my job, in case I was taken hostage. It was such a miracle to be able to see that I decreased my reading and writing, to preserve the gift of eyesight.
After my first master’s degree I took a series of bureaucratic jobs in order to continue to travel. I joined the military and later the Foreign Service. My life was good overall but work was stultifying. I didn’t dare try to be a journalist, a publisher, or a writer because of financial fears. And I didn’t like rules. I was a nonconformist who needed structure. The idea of taking a job writing for someone else’s needs and interests sounded bad.
In 2009 I was living in Hawaii working on a Ph.D. that was rapidly becoming disinteresting, and I was recovering from serious injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a Foreign Service assignment in Afghanistan. My mother was dying of a glioblastoma brain tumor in Florida, and I tried to be with her every few months. My life felt very bizarre and lonely.
A friend suggested I go to Port Townsend Writer’s Conference. I went, and I found a whole new world of creative writers. Finally I was writing the kind of things that really occupied my head. I enjoyed the challenge of selecting and organizing the memories to say something with a gut punch. I think the biggest thrill was when I read aloud and I got hoots and hollers from people who identified with what I wrote. There is nothing better than eliciting a deeply felt response from readers, knowing that you articulated something that can be universally understood. After that first writer’s conference I started writing for soul clearing.
Cat Shirt – There was No Life (2007-2011)
The cat shirt ended up at the castaway store because I had wanted to have babies that looked like the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and it never happened. I disposed of it quickly and rumpled at the bottom of a stack of still-tagged blue, grey, and black business dresses. I gave myself half an hour in my storage shed, throwing the lot into a chicken bag – one of those thin plaid plastic bags from Chinatown that had served to lug new acquisitions from thrift stores whenever I visited strange places. I had long acquired unusual used clothing from the heaps found at markets in poor places – Monkey Bay, Malawi, Leh, Ladakh, and Bamako, Mali. At this burial of a particular disappointment, I backed into the stall that said, “5 minute Delivery Only” outside the bargain store in Honolulu, and drove quickly away. I had many misgivings about my surreptitious disposal of the cat shirt, which only intensified my memories of how I got it and what part of me I was trying to kill.
“You’re such a magpie” a boyfriend said fifteen years ago in the Blue Mountains of Australia where the passerine birds had recently pecked out the eyes of a tourist. “Attracted to glittery objects”. He counted 65 pair of used blue jeans in my apartment during graduate school, not counting the colored jeans, the decorated jeans, or the pants like jeans that were not quite jeans. “Una donna dei borse” (bag lady), they called me when I was an au pair in Rome. My need to have options, clotheswise, like the wardrobe in the back of a theatre, had existed since I was four years old, and would pack my suitcase full of all my outfits. With each change of clothes at the top of my swing set, on the bridge beside the teeter-totter, I was in a new place. It was there that I contemplated whether the Netherlands and Holland and Europe were all one place, or different places, and how my Dad could be from all three. I wasn’t sure if traveling amongst them required more than one change of clothes. It was the same as the digital clock and the clock with hands. How did the two represent the same time?
The cat shirt didn’t glitter. It was patterned in morose colors of black and tan, except for the green of the cats’ eyes. Beside the cats there was Japanese Kanji, because by the time I got it I had already been living in Hawaii for a while, and had turned partly Japanese, according to Ilia.
For ten years I had hung on to a slip of paper that said Herrang Swing Dance Camp – Herrang, Sweden. It was matte and in a European font that would be considered too plain by American standards. I hung on to the idea of attending this camp for all those years. I imagined that there would be a lot of blondes, and I would not attract any attention. It would be a pleasure to be inconspicuous after years of living places where people gawked.
At Herrang they had rescued abandoned bicycles from the streets of Stockholm and made them good enough to rent to the dancers. I had a boy’s bike from the 1940s with push back brakes. On this particular morning there was to be a tour of the animist churches, from before the Lutherans, but it was raining. Ilia was the only other person to show up. I had noticed him the night before at the late night dance. His cheekbones and torso were unmistakably Russian dancer. He had a mole by the side of his left eye. His teeth were crooked and he danced with joyful enthusiasm, as one does who lets the music enter his soul. This was when I fell in love with Ilia.
I brought my music player on the bike ride, and when I bored of the flat terrain played a fast waltz with a buoyant French singer, got off the bike, and waltzed with myself until I got dizzy. This was when Ilia fell in love with me.
Ilia’s visa allowed him a week in Copenhagen. He left. We had one night in my tent where we explored one another’s touch. A day later a message was passed to me from a young Russian boy that I must call him. “Come to Denmark,” he said over a scratchy line. “Or I’m coming back there.”
We went to the swimming pool in Copenhagen. It looked like a Renoir painting. The children strode nude with their mothers in the saunas and they all had beautiful bodies, like angels with cherubs. The mothers left their infants in the pool with strangers while they took their exercise. There were bicycle racks everywhere so people didn’t need cars. We rode the giant Ferris wheel and ate in places where there were blankets available to sit cozily outside. A jazz festival afforded us continuous music to dance on the cobblestones.
I returned to Herrang and Ilia went back to Moscow. Now it was me who was enchanted and had to pursue. I sent my passport to a service that would acquire a visa to Russia and laid out a hefty sum in Swedish Kroner.
I had to buy a suitcase in the airport in Stockholm to carry all the used clothes I had acquired in Sweden. Not knowing what to do with it all, I stored some in the airport lockers and took the rest to Moscow. The baggage claim in Moscow was a filthy chaotic place full of smokers and without toilet paper. After two hours my new orange Eurofag suitcase trundled down the belt, cracked. Ilia paced and sweated and railed at me that I had brought so much stuff. We squeezed in a minibus taxi and hauled the bag over broken sidewalks. There was a metal door to pass through, where a drunk man slept and rats scurried to the side. This was his sister’s runaway apartment, where she would come if her older boyfriend cum sugardaddy cum pimp beat her. The carpets were greasy shag. Ilia told me not to drink the water, especially not the hot water, as the pipes were lined with something poisonous. Everything was scarce and broken and dirty. I pushed it all out by squeezing my eyes shut when I laid my head on the shiny greasy bed.
For three days I traipsed the city with Ilia’s mother while Ilia worked. He gave her cash and she spent it as if she had to hurry. We saw Lenin’s tomb and many staid monuments commemorating tragic endings. We had tea with Stalin’s granddaughter’s widower, which Ilia had arranged to prove to me that there were wealthy Russians in Russia. The widower showed me his DVD of Elvis in Hawaii, a weird juxtaposition of home to which I nodded my head to the beat of Blue Suede Shoes in thanks. The sexy Polyneisian greeter girls wore bright orange polyester miniskirts in A-frame shapes. Everything in the apartment was a weak approximation of western luxury. Stalin’s granddaughter had been a nuclear physicist with Ilia’s mother in their hometown, a community of physicists, and had died of radiation exposure. I was glad I had not read the whole book about the gulags.
We went to the physicists’ town next. Again, a metal door, and vomit in the entryway. Upstairs was pleasant enough. The toilet was housed alone so that I had to draw my knees up to close the door. In the adjoining cubby the sink held curlers and cucumbers soaking in vinegar – a mix of things that in a larger home would be divided by bath and kitchen. Ilia’s young mother combed out my Rasta surfer hair with a real wooden comb. It was harsh. She was intent on cutting off the salt frayed ends, and I could not impart that it was pointless, that when I returned to the ocean my hair would be wet and dried several times a day, and not on display in any set. Goats bleated below the window, where they tried to find enough grass to live.
Ilia’s job was at some kind of Internet company. The shadiness of it reminded me of the Mafiosi under the subway tracks at Coney Island. Sugar cubes poised in teeth, sucking the tea through that. He made every effort to impress me with what he imagined were similarities to home, swimming in the Volga River and staying for a waterski jumping contest, won by a supposed American who bore the name of a cartoon character from Looney Tunes. After that there was a fireworks contest, where three teams competed to coordinate music to explosions in an elaborate display. The riverbanks were packed with people smoking and spending as if the end of the world were near. There were no baby carriages, and few people under thirty years old. When it was over we walked through the storybook weeds and brambles where I could imagine bears once were. Their lousy car guarded by a man paid to prevent vandalism. They couldn’t afford gas and it was rarely used.
The next day we swam there, Ilia’s mother giggling like a schoolgirl. Ilia was responsible for her, and his thin sister with her stilt high heels unable to earn her own money in Moscow without supplementing it with some version of prostitution, as well as his ailing grandmother in Chechnya. A call came from Chechnya “If you don’t send the money we’re not going to feed your grandmother anymore.” Ilia complained of stomachaches and leg pains and pushed me away when I tried to touch him.
Every few years Ilia’s father would call, an alcoholic belonging nowhere, and ask Ilia for money. Ilia didn’t drink. He had learned English from the Baptist missionaries during the Cold War, when it was illicit to believe in God. After years of extreme poverty in the 1990s when there was not enough to eat, he developed a distaste for all things American, and told me then that he had a dream of marrying a Spanish girl, for he had once been allowed a two week visa to Spain. He had been denied entry to the United States three times. Raised an atheist, he had become Eastern Orthodox on his own when the Cold War broke, and was going to take me to Sergi Petrogad to the seat of the Orthodox Church, to show me the mushroom topped buildings.
We took the train to St. Petersburg. We went to see an old collection of medical specimens of malformed fetuses. We visited the mirrored ballroom in the Hermitage. Ilia refused to dance there. In our small narrow hotel room I bent down to pick up a small package of tablets. It was the morning-after pill. I thought nothing of it. A woman would be missing her pills, and everything was precious here. I’d heard that the average woman had six abortions.
“That’s mine.” Ilia said, and grabbed the pills out of my hand. Then ensued a bitter battle for control of the packet, as it dawned on me that he carried the pills to ensure that he left no seed that would grow, either in me or in anyone else. I needed air and packed a bag to leave the hotel room and go for a walk. Ilia barricaded the door with a chair and his body. I became a penned bull. “Don’t.” he said. “You’ll be kidnapped. You don’t speak a word. I’m responsible for you.”
I got out and marched headstrong down the road, titillated by the danger. I spotted a boutique that stood out from the ancient heavy stone walls, and bought the cat shirt. Illanya Fortzanova, the label said. The fabric was fine and the design was rare. There was only one on the rack. I felt I was catching the beginning of a secret Russian lead in fashion, which would come unexpectedly to people who couldn’t afford the time and trouble to come to this place. Surely those coming off the cruise ships would never have time to discover and peruse the cat shirt store.
Ilia caught me on my way out. We went to the riverside. “I’m never going to see you again, am I?” It had dawned on me that he had wanted to prevent my visit but it had gone too far by the time he realized it. He said nothing.
In the early hours of the next morning we walked to the bridge to see the gates open and allow the enormous ships to pass. The magnitude of the waterways and the engineering moved me to imagine Napolean. My family tree included Napolean, possibly just to account for the genetic origins of extreme determination.
We left St. Petersberg and visited the Eastern Orthodox monestary. The rules changed there, and I was not allowed to touch or look at Ilia. He handed me a scarf. He walked first. We kissed the preserved corpse of some dead saint, laid to rest in one of the mushroom buildings.
The bunks on overnight train back to Moscow were too narrow. I felt lonely and tried to reach across the berth to touch Ilia’s hand. He waved me off. When we arrived in Moscow in the early morning hours the commuters bunched up at the broken gate, where nobody could exit. “Let’s jump it. Why are they standing there?” “No”, he said. “There are cameras”. Civil disobedience posed too large a threat. The gate clapped shut, then open, then shut and the few who attempted to go through were injured.
We got to the airport hours ahead of time. There was a TGI Fridays. Ilia ordered Southern barbeque, and I knew the bill would come to me. He told me that my best part was how I didn’t think the rules applied to me. He told me that renegade spirit was what made me. I told him I resented the bill for the barbeque.
The queue for the airplane snaked around. I was separated from Ilia, who stood for a while watching me be pushed back further and further in the queue. I had all my suitcases from Sweden. I was pulled out of line and charged $800 dollars cash. The new standard was 15 kilos luggage. If I did not pay I would be held back and miss my plane. I would then have to re-register my stay with the police, which had taken me three days to arrange when I had arrived. I paid.
I only wore the cat shirt a few times. My shoulders changed as I surfed more, and the bodice of the cat shirt was too boxy for my frame. The shape was no longer flattering. I took it to a consignment shop with a load of other clothing a few years later. The owner picked it out as the only piece of value in the things I was trying to sell. I pulled it back, because somebody else had recognized its value.
Ilia got married to a dark haired girl. I found out on Facebook. He sent me a message when I left Russia that said my temper tantrum made him not want me. I developed a lung infection from the pollen and spores in Sweden and sweated out my sorrow for a few weeks at my parents’ house in Indiana. My mother said I’d changed. When I returned to Hawaii I recovered.
I wanted to forget Ilia, because he was the first person that had I had felt in love with in fifteen years. The cat shirt reminded me it was impossible.
Ouday and Kousay’s Tigers
“I am your female mentor” a dyke-y lady with a severe haircut informed me in a private office in my third month in the Air Force. She outranked me. I knew enough to know that by now. I looked for the exit behind her blonde bubble of hair and thought I would never aspire to emulate her in manner or dress. She listed specific infractions. My “wrinkly pants” had attracted complaints. I was sticking to my plan to never wear polyester, and had found an ancient version of still-regulation 100% cotton pants in the Salvation Army that zipped up the side in a fairly feminine style since replaced with the front zippered man-a-likes. The tag says, “Trousers, Female, Blue, FDU, 12.” That morning I had woken in the frozen tundra of my dusty wood-heated adobe rental in Rancho de Corrales and wrestled a spray can of starch with an iron and my rebel cotton thrift shop regulation pants from 1965. By the time I had driven from movie star world in Corrales with the pinon smell and hot air balloons and expensive horses to the drab and enormous base known for nuclear weapons, it was true that I had a mountain range of creases where my legs had bent when I sat to drive the car. I thought my battle with the toxic spray can had been deserving of praise, not this uncomfortable one upswomanship. She dredged my entire being for some sign of respect, if only an acknowledgement that she herself wore the polyester and it worked.
And so my military career went – me as voyeur and anthropologist, learning to mask expressions of disdain with a poker face. I received demerit here for a green barrette, many refusals for transfers, and slow seeping of all the utopian ideas I had believed in during graduate school.
By the second year I was called in to a judges’ panel as I had been nominated Company Grade Officer of the Quarter. Six bigger wigs aimed their gaze at me. “How do you feel about your uniform?” I had very clear opinions on this topic, and was eager to talk. I had lived in Italy not long ago and had always been a fashion maven. “The women’s uniform sizes are nearly two sizes larger than they should be. It makes a woman feel badly if she is really an 8 but the Battle Dress Uniform must be a 12. The rise in the trousers was never adjusted for a female body. The seam hurts when I sit down. The suit coat would be much more attractive with a belt, which is commonplace in the NATO country’s uniforms for women. The fabrics are cheap, which I especially don’t like as we are the only country where officers have to take out a loan to pay for their own uniforms on their first day in the military.” The judges grew silent. I asked the other contenders how they had responded to the question. “I said I felt proud and like a Real American when I wore my uniform.” said my dear and super gay and multiple award winning colleague Jim. “That’s what they were after.” “I can’t say that”, I said. “The fabric.”
I won that award. Jim had already had it twice and they needed some variety. The likely reason for my nomination was for keeping Colonel Frogworld out of the limelight. Colonel Frogworld was my only superior officer in a group of forty people, and he was RAD – Retired on Active Duty. He had a few months to go when I arrived. They had given me an enormous private office with an expansive view of the Sandia Mountains. I would shuffle around and look in the filing cabinets and learn the personalities of the enlisted people assigned to me and Colonel Frogworld. I soon learned that this sergeant would take the beeper and be found sleeping, the other one would steal ice cream bars every time he inspected the commissary, that one had had three cars repossessed so far this year, the other had smoked through her entire pregnancy so her kid had asthma and now she had several doctors appointments every month, and I was expected to bring cupcakes for the “divorce party” of that one. About the actual job, I remained puzzled, and called my father for advice. I shut the door to my giant office. “Dad, what am I supposed to be doing? “ “Alex, you will always have time or money. You’ll never have both at the same time. Try to enjoy it. Here’s what I did: Pick up the chair you’re sitting on and turn it over. Count the boogers on the bottom of the chair from the last guy. This might give you a reading on how bad it’ll get.”
I received the award more likely for fortitude in burying the hospital’s senior Non-Commissioned Officer, Kelly. Kelly had shot himself in the chest in a dramatic showing in front of the people in my office after being told that his affair with the Commander’s wife was going to ruin him. He was our secretary’s husband. The lowest-bidder funeral had begun with a blown out tire on the hearse on the way to Santa Fe and involved a drawn out negotiation with the prison, where Kelly’s four brothers were released for their short appearances. Many children accompanied his four former wives. I had to drive to Teresa’s house, his current wife and my secretary, and cover her Poison perfume to mask the pot fumes. She had been playing us the cassette tapes of Kelly and the Commander’s wife that she had obtained by concealing a tape recorder in their car during their lunch break trysts. Teresa had been begging us to stop him and I had thought it so strange that me and Colonel Frogworld were apparently expected to be privy to the most intimate disasters, financial and otherwise, of our grown charges.
Much later and after much more of the same, my illustrious military career put me in a category of special consideration for a State Department assignment to Iraq. I was dragged out of my Foreign Service orientation class and on the fifth day I was on a plane to Dubai. There were many problems with my entry, beginning with my orders, which stated the wrong country, actually no country at all, “Packingstan”. They had been prepared after 4:30 at night when Washington D.C. had emptied. The preparer had multiple disabilities, blindness and deafness, and a translator who refused to be involved in any details tapped her foot as we squeaked out this document so that I could eventually claim per diem. Alas, there were many errors.
For five hours I was shuttled between emirates and hotels, looking for the correct hotel and a reservation in my name. I had been confused with a KLM stewardess who had a similar name, and the taxi driver insisted on driving me to the next emirate in the United Arab Emirates to make sure I was not supposed to be at the Hilton over there. Eventually the hotel was found back in Dubai where I had started. When I turned the television on, it showed that they had captured Saddam that night, and I realized I had arrived at an inconvenient time, and it was no wonder there was no welcoming entourage. My room had six cameras that I could count from the bed. At breakfast, the one other women was a Saud, with a only slit in her black abaya and black gloves up to her armpits. She slid a spoonful of egg under her abaya at her waist and drew it all the way up her covering to where her mouth was.
The waiter brought me a telephone to my table, which I had only ever seen done in movies. It was the Chief of Misson’s right hand man at the State Department Office in Baghdad. I was given the coordinates for the six-seater that would fly me into Baghdad. I had to hurry.
I got to the private runway and there was only one other passenger. She introduced herself as if I should already know who she was. Later I learned it was the daughter of the Hunt Ketchup fame from Texas, who was huge supporter of “W” and who had been given special status for a women’s program. Our little paper airplane circled down in tight loops to avoid heat-seeking missiles. The mysterious snotty lady was whisked off, and I was left with the Nepalese Ghurka guards for three days until the airport finally re-opened after the Saddam catching splash.
A man in a bullet-pocked pick-up hauled my bags to the Green Zone. He dumped them in a pile in the dust outside the conference center. “Go figure out where they’re putting you. And get the keys to a truck.” He said. They put me in a house on the fringe of the Green Zone, which was lit up when no other house had electricity. Once I saw a trail of black move up the wall from the socket and realized the wall was on fire between the panels of drywall. On Christmas Eve the “tank killer” helicopters were in a battle for eight hours right above my house. I had seen the tapes from my friend who was a heli pilot that were recorded from their night vision goggles. And so I knew that They didn’t know Who was Who. I huddled by my radio and waited for occasional encouragement from one of the South African contracted bodyguards. But I was in the center of a blossom of fire.
By day I worked with my Iraqi assistant Siham, my refuge. I loved to find chances to take her out and see her own country, which she had never seen. At four o’clock we would go to Ouday and Kousay’s lion den, where they fed the lions a donkey each day. It was rumored that Saddam’s sons had kept these pets for the purpose of disposing of their ex-girlfriends. It was hard to ever tell what was true. We would let the babies drink from our water bottle. Their paws were powerful and left permanent scratches on our hand. Along the way there are antidotes to the absurdity, Jim, and Siham, and Ouday and Kousay’s Lion Den.
July 19, 2011
off the margins contributors are asked to respond to three questions that will be asked of all featured writers to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?
In what way(s) do you identify yourself as a woman writer?
I think that the type of topics I write about appeal most to women. I have had an exciting life as a tomboy, traveling extensively, experimenting culturally, working in male-dominated fields, and living beyond some violent and dangerous experiences. But always I have been searching for closeness and warmth, something I am just approaching now.
I think that I write mainly to organize my thoughts and feelings around human relationships, and to sort through all of the varieties of existence I have seen. Before it was writing mostly observations, shock value material, and strife – very yang. Still, the style was concerned with relationships in a feminine way. It drove some male readers batty the way I wrote about the feel of situations. Now my style is still very intuitive but I would say is more yin, more feminine.
I am very aware of how being a woman influenced the writing-worthy experiences I’ve had. For example, when I was working in Afghanistan, I was welcome to meetings with politically powerful men, but also into the rooms in the hospitals where women were giving birth. I think being a woman made me less of a threat, and continues to give me access to the widest range of human intimacies. And it’s true, I am mostly just interested in people’s stories for the observations and experience, not to judge or control.
At this stage of my life, middle age, 43, I am just accessing the side of me that likes to nurture. It is all new to me, and I am excited about it – having finally found a stable and happy relationship with a widower my age, being a stepmother/friend/authority figure to three teenagers, trying to have a baby, having pets, gardening, staying home more often than searching for a social life. Once I found my true love, there was suddently all of this time on my hands, all of this energy I used to spend on firsts – first dates, first time trying new activities in order to meet people.
Nurturing and staying put is all new to me. I’ve felt really open to ditching almost everything on my bookshelves – the self-help books, the philosophy, the books which describe ugly, raw aspects of living. I definitely want to write about becoming cozy and content, which is what is happening. I would wish this kind of peacefulness and happiness for every adventure seeker of any gender.
Whose voices have carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
I started out loving travel writing. Some of my favorite writers are Isabelle Eberhardt, Martha Gellhorn, Moritz Thomson, and Alexander Frater. I like George Orwell’s essays. He was in the diplomatic service like me and wrote very funny descriptions about the preposterousness of bureaucracy.
I like them all because they are witnesses to interesting phenomena, honest and funny. I can access the tone of the situations as I read and I don’t have to sift through a difficult personality or affected writing. I can imagine myself as the character and I can experience the places they write about similarly to how I would in person. I found these writers years ago in my twenties. Nowadays I rarely read a book straight through. I listen to audiobooks constantly. Sometimes the beauty of the writing can be experienced best through a good reader.
I test a lot of nonfiction, but it is hard to find a fascinating topic put in a well written story. I like The Box, about the history of the shipping container. I also liked Twinkie, Deconstructed, about all the petroleum products in Twinkies, organized by an ingredient for each chapter. I typically would buy every book I could find about the topic du jour that interested me. Three percent are gems, and the rest I sell. Now I am at the point where I feel I just need to write my own books and spend less time on the hunt for excellent expression.
When my mom was dying of brain cancer I read everything I could about brain damage, and then about grief. Now that I am in a stable relationship with a widower and I am integrating my life to live with and enjoy stepkids, I’ve read everything on these topics. Books on these topics were disappointing except a funny memoir called The Package Deal about stepmotherhood (but in a divorce situation) and an old book from the eighties called Second Wives, Second Best?
The books I found on the topics that I wrestled with raised some ideas, but most of the material didn’t apply to my feelings or situation. For example, the Alzheimer’s literature and memoir did not match my experience of my mother’s memory loss after two brain surgeries. The stepmother books were full of bitterness and regrets and custody battles with the living ex-wife. My boyfriend’s wife of 22 years died suddenly of undiagnosed leukemia. She was never “sick”. While grief plays a steady part in our lives, what can I possibly feel for her but gratitude that she gave him a good experience of being married and of love? I don’t want to waste my time commiserating with naysayers. I just want to write my own stuff and hope it hits home with somebody. I am thankful to the courageous writers who worked as mentors, writing about unique experiences beautifully.
What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?
I stayed in programs forever – graduate school programs and institutions like the military, corporate jobs, certificate programs, the Foreign Service. It was like limping along in costume with this dream in tow of writing creatively, even though I felt, I knew from an early age that I was a writer. It is hard to undo this persuasion to join and get off on acceptance and recognition. I feel I need to un-become a program person, and to sit with myself with no particular audience, and it’s hard. This is the first time my writing is on a blog, and I feel so honored and grateful for the push, but what to submit or write anew became a kind of obsession.
The pressure of not trying to express myself grows pretty intense. The unstructured time I live with now can become uncomfortable. Then I know that I’d better write and see how it comes together, not run around gathering more information and clutter up my feelings with what filters in from other people. I know I am hyper-sensitive and a sensation seeker. I rarely rest, except in yoga or the ocean. I need to regulate the stimulation I expose myself to and mine all of the fascinating experiences I have each day for writing, where it will be appreciated.
I got a big boost from going to some writer’s conferences and workshops. I loved meeting people. I loved sharing my writing and feeling compelled to produce. I think it is great that in some cities there are serious, intensive writer’s groups. I’ve never had that experience and it is harder to create where I live in Hawaii. In Hawaii it seems like every moment is interconnected with the weather and nature. It is very hard to live by a strict schedule. I always long for community in writing but I think that living set apart and having to rely on myself may help me discriminate about what really needs to be written.
Recently I threw out some of my journals. I thought they were negative, whiney, and someone I didn’t want to be. I ruminated about experiences I struggled with, relationships mostly. I feel good about letting go of those past ruminations. I feel that my own process and growth as a writer requires psychological space – clear space unhindered by someone I once might have been, feelings I once might have felt. I need to allow myself to be the happy person, the fortunate person, and to describe these experiences to encourage others.
There are sometimes physical obstacles to writing. Write despite them. I have a lot of back pain. I don’t have thumb joints. I am like the princess and the pea when it comes to finding a properly Feng Shui writing room. I like the light, temperature, equipment, body position just so when I write. It makes life hard. But I’ve got to write, because I am not so good at speaking on the spot. I need to organize my thoughts in writing in order to be understood.
Being so sensitive, I make a lot of trouble for myself and often procrastinate, go to another yoga class or swim. I need a lot of time for things to percolate. What goes on the page usually comes in a daydream. I see it written there, what landmarks will set the tone of the piece.
What makes me write when I am stagnant is an obligation to somebody, or a manageable goal, or such intense boredom that I can no longer but plop down wherever and just get to it, hopefully finding a groove where all the aches and pains and pickiness falls away. I still want to write longer pieces. I am always thinking of how to kick in my motivation to make writing take precedence over daily fluctuations of hunger, pain, and the need for company. It is important to remember that there are people out there whose lives will be enriched by my efforts.