January 29, 2010

Stones up Mountains

I fear that it is complacency that keeps me from writing as much as it is anything else at this point. I threaten myself with media blackouts and various punishments to motivate myself to write, but in the end there is just me and myself and I am the only one who can make myself write anything worth saving, or writing at all. It is hard to describe what it is like. I feel like water against a drain stop, swirling and pressing and filling in every little bit of space just waiting for the stop to be pulled and to fall rushing forth into something new, something else, even if it is just a drain pipe. I have made progress yes, and I have written words and paragraphs and pages, yes, but none of it seems enough to make up for all the time I lost writing nothing. Reading nothing. Living almost nothing. It is amazing that humans may live entirely without life, and that is what Santa Cruz felt like, that last year before I evacuated. There was no drain; I was a huge unchanging stagnant pond with no hope of escape--no streams or rivers to lead me from myself.

I remember, my sophomore year, doing free writing exercises in an intermediate creative writing workshop. The professor said begin and I began and pages, pages, pages fell away from my fingertips like sand and I barely had to stop and think and wonder what to say. And the professor said stopped and I stopped but I didn't want to; I could have carried on forever, it seemed. I wrote recklessly and lushly, peppering phrases with adjectives and similes without concern. My time in the concentration taught me restraint, and I emerged spare, like my writing had been corseted. And from then on the laces grew tighter and tighter until there was nothing left to squeeze. No words to pick away or punctuation marks to delete. Just broad empty pages staring back at me, as if to say, Was this what you wanted? I crave proliferation. I crave abundance. To write ten pages in an hour and keep writing beyond that, unaware of page numbers. There should be so much to say, shouldn't there, after so long silent. It's like Susan Orlean said in the film Adaptation.

I want to know how it feels like to care about something passionately.

I think that what is hard for me is that I do know, or I did know, or I do know. I just want to remember how I knew, and what it was like, and who I was when everything seemed so essential and immediate, like burning your hand. All the energy you have focuses in on that one thing and it's happening and you cannot stop it from happening. Being passionately driven to create was like being in pain. An inescapable state of being. But you're in that state or you are not and there is no pathway and no door. You wake up and find yourself there with no way out or wake up and don't with no way in. I look at pictures of myself from my junior year in college, a time I fondly remember as some sort of a personal creative Renaissance, and catch myself scrutinizing the image as if the secret to all of this is somewhere on my own face. A, what did you know that I don't now remember? As I was reminded yesterday, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. While we're on that subject, wouldn't such a claim mean that living, in of itself, is an insane act? We know where it ends and yet we all keep trying, self-deluding our way into believing we're some sort of immortal. But this Sisyphean dilemma is not the topic at hand. Or is it? Hell. I just want to write something so good and so beloved that something explodes inside of me and I never stop writing again.

January 26, 2010

Miss Mary Quite Contrary

Today I have been thinking about secret gardens. No, I am thinking about childhood, really. As a child I fiercely loved the 1993 film adaptation of The Secret Garden. It is an oddly mournful film, to be about children. It is also a very lonely film. While watching the scene from Mary’s dream, in which a toddler version of herself gets lost in the tropical plants in an enormous garden and is left by her mother, who later dies, I always cried. When I watch it today I feel old panic crawling up the back of my spine. The whole story has the feel of a ghost story, and Holland’s film shows it. The soundtrack, too, is unnerving. Mutations of Greensleaves weave and trill, overlaid often with the sounds of the howling wind on the moor or the resonant screams of Mary’s cousin, lost in the gothic labyrinth of Craven’s mansion.

How did I know to like such a lonely thing? Sometimes when I look back at my early tastes in film they only make sense retroactively, as if I knew somehow who I was going to be. Maybe I was that person already. The little girl who would rather rent Sea Prince and the Fire Child or Wild Swans weekly than Lion King, or Home Alone. I feel like if I could have the chance to speak with then-Carolyn I might understand more, better.

I bring up The Secret Garden because it evoked the same emotions in me as Virginia always did. A sense of antiquity and wonder, almost fearful. The forest here thrilled me in my childhood, the dark tangles of branches and blackberry vine menacing and magical. I would like so much to have retained more of myself over the years. I feel stirrings, now and again, more here than anywhere else. It’s maddening to think that all the drive and talent and knowledge you had as a child is still in there somewhere, all entombed in layers of experience, like dry skin. I remember trying to start secret gardens everywhere, digging up plants here and there and transplanting them there and here. Few took, but the satisfaction was in the secret, I suppose. I could spend a lifetime trying to recapture the intensity of youth. Maybe that is what genius is. Maybe that is the best life project anyone can really hope to pursue. Maybe we learn to layer life around ourselves because it is too hard to be a child, so quick to rage and to love. I suppose that is a seductive aspect of The Secret Garden: Craven is freed from the physical and emotional shackles of his life by the stubborn will of a child. It seems unfair that we should look to something so fragile and strange as children to redeem us. All this boils down to a wish I’d like to grant then-Carolyn. A garden, secret or not.

January 20, 2010


As a child I was enrolled in an amateur bird watching program at Coyote Hills regional park. Some of you may not know this. It's true. I was a "Birder." Our ranger guide went by the moniker "Dr. Quack" and claimed to have webbed toes. I can neither confirm nor deny that the man actually had webbed toes. He weekly led a small pack of misfit elementary school children through the hills, valleys, and saltwater marshes of Coyote Hills, identifying birds and teaching us nature-themed songs. My personal favorite:

It starts with an S
And it ends with a T.
It comes out of you
And it comes out of me.
I know what you're thinking,
But don't call it that!
Let's be scientific
And let's call it: SCAT!

I quit birders sometime in mid-late elementary school. I don't remember why exactly. I never became a "Hawk" which probably disappointed young, fiercely competitive me. For the record, being a Birder left weird, lasting effects. For example, I can still identify most California birdsong by ear, and can sometimes tell you if the bird is male or female. Some friends may have experienced this whilst walking through UCSC campus, when I would suddenly find the words, "Hark! A female Junco!" leaving my mouth. Useful, no. Oft embarrassing, yes. Although I never find myself singing the scat song anymore, I still love and appreciate the natural world and can't help but notice the feathered fowl that frequent it. Living here has enabled my Birder-dom to a new and frightening degree. There are so many birds here. With winter came a new influx of unfamiliar birds which apparently only arrive with cold weather. Why anyone would come here to escape the cold, I do not know. Birds are illogical.

Anyway, this is all a lead up to a really ridiculous bird. There have been bunches of these little diving ducks around lately, and they are really, really cute. They are black and white and striped with round little bodies and bottoms and big poofy heads and they whistle. They have never come close enough to the house for me to identify them, until this afternoon. I looked out the front window and noticed a small group of the little things in the shallow water and grabbed my binoculars, running outside barefoot to identify ducks. Yes, I got that excited. Binoculars revealed them to be even cuter than I had previously thought.

I came back inside and grabbed my Eastern Field Guide to Birds (yes, I own this book) and flipped through. After some back and forth (there are a lot of small black and white ducks, unexpectedly), I identified them as Bucephala albeola. Common name? Bufflehead. Bufflehead. This discovery led into what was probably as much as thirty minutes of me giggling ridiculously while imagining the process by which the bufflehead achieved its noble name. I like to imagine very serious, European naturalists with white powdered wigs in a large conference hall. A particularly distinguished gentleman stands and says, "I present, the bufflehead." They all clap earnestly, with gravitas. Honestly, it's like naming something the cutesy-bootsy-face. Just say the word to yourself. Bufflehead. Anyway. Over a decade later and I am still a complete nerd.

January 19, 2010

Happy Hour

This week, with the end of the uncharacteristically long spell of cold (cold) weather came the beginning of something new and unexpected: contact. It's as if, by surviving one of the coldest winters on record for this little patch of dirt, I have gone through some kind of right of locals' passage. I now exist. Though I am still, without a doubt, a come-here, the from-heres have starting saying hello in a more substantial way than hesitantly waving from their cars.

It all began with what seemed like a perfectly innocent phone call one Saturday morning. My neighbor's wife called to ask me over for a drink that evening, so she and her husband could "get to know me a little better." I said yes, of course, friendly young woman that I am, but I did have some anxiety. It has been so long since I have really had to hold a conversation with anyone who I haven't known for years or am a blood relation of that I feared I may have forgotten how to do it. How does one small talk, again? At 5 PM I idly brushed my hair and ambled across the driveway to the neighbor's house, giggling slightly as I hopped the tiny fence separating our yards. Then, of course, I knocked on the wrong door (I have such problems with anything relating to doors--opening doors, unlocking doors, properly closing doors, locating doors, etc.). This resulted in a mild kerfuffel, but I was not to be undone. I had spent most of the afternoon mentally prepping small-talk-conversation-points; I was armed and ready.

What ensued was one of the strangest reintroductions to humanity I have experienced. I don't know if I am overreacting. It could be that after six months of near total isolation people just seem bizarre. But they were a little bizarre. The wife got extremely drunk by the time I made my exit, so much so that she had a great deal of trouble walking me to the door (a different door than either previous door, I might add). The husband seemed only interested in discussing the fine points of his local artwork collection, comprised mostly of wooden models of sandpipers and a tiny replica of a light house ("The frequency of this lighthouse light is an exact replica of the frequency of New Point Comfort light's light!). They had a cat the size of a small dog (Sinbad) who constantly licked my feet, probably because he sensed my shoes were brand new and the apples of my eye. At one point, tipsy wife explained to me the plans for the house once her husband died while he, the husband, stared adoringly at his tiny lighthouse. She says that they've been discussing it a lot lately. When I said I was a writer she asked, "Do you write mysteries or romance novels?" When I said, no, not really no, she stared at me like she didn't understand. "What else could she possibly write?" They were nice enough people, and surely gracious in having me, their much younger semi-unfriendly new neighbor, over for a drink. But, man. What an evening.

This was the first of my encounters this week, and by far the strangest. Since then I have met another neighbor from further up the road. She says that she knows some young people I might like, and I'm planning on making contact with one girl sometime this week. Talking to my neighbor I had to squelch the urge to grill her with what I think are very important questions about these so-called young people. Did they in any way support Sarah Palin during the last election or now? Do they have a confederate flag on or around their person or personal items? Would you describe them as progressive? Do they watch Fox News? I refrained from asking these questions, and am hopeful that I will not regret my restraint when I do meet one or any of these young Virginians. Who knows, maybe I will happen upon a random liberal enclave of young atheist Democrats in Mathews County. We can discuss gay marriage rights and the merits of independent cinema when I have them over for evening drinks.

January 15, 2010

Rock me mama like the wind and the rain.

As the outdoor temperature has slowly warmed my mood has improved considerably. I think I was seriously missing the exercise I was used to getting from my bi-daily bike rides. As soon as the temperature hit 40 degrees I was out the door and on my rusty old bicycle, sailing off down Gumthicket to the post office. I had guests over the weekend, which probably helped my mood as much if not more than the weather. Jessica and Travis were lovely as usual. It is funny to think that we're probably living in places that foil each other perfectly: downtown Brooklyn in a many-person house vs. on an island in the Chesapeake Bay by oneself. Both are good, but certainly different.

Current irrational/impossible dream: an enormous Laurel houses reunion on the island. Old Crow Medicine Show plays on the front porch in the waning evening while we all drink whiskey and sangria and dance barefoot under paper lanterns in the lawn, fireflies flashing above the dingle. We eat fried chicken and spoon bread and butter beans and swim in Milford Haven all afternoon, emerging only to drink glass-bottled Cokes and sit in the rocking chairs, listening to Alex and Travis jam. We go running through the forest, vaulting patches of poison ivy and mosquito-pools, and tip toe, breath held, through the abandoned houses, gleaning non-treasure treasures from the dusty piles of left-items.

Sounds pretty good, right? My desire for it to be summer lately has been verging on the insane; I wake during the night having dreamt of the sound of osprey screeching only to realize they haven't come back yet, and the trees are empty. I bike around in 50 degree weather and try desperately to pretend it's summer, despite the tell-tale signs of winter everywhere. Ice and snow still linger in the ditches and the woods are bare and gray but I close my eyes and pretend.

It's funny how your habits change and intensify when you live alone, and spend almost no time in public. I do the dishes before I eat and turn off the lights in a certain sequence when I go up to bed every night. I don't bother closing bathroom doors and have taken to swinging over the staircase banister onto the downstairs couch, rather than walking down and around like a civilized human. Every morning I try to do one useful thing, like email a professor or pay a bill or clean my room; this enables me to do nothing for the rest of the day while justifying it by saying, Well this is my reward for ______. I barely wear makeup anymore, something people who know me well will think is a lie. It's true, world. I even go to the grocery store without my face on. This week I've stopped brushing my hair, which is getting long and shaggy. Brushing it seemed only to accentuate the fact that it is a hurrahs nest. So now I wander around looking like a fuzzy wavy poofball, a human thistle, makeup-less and wearing threadbare jeans. And can I say, for the record, that it is all amazing. It is amazing not to give a shit- to never look in a mirror or even wonder if what you're wearing matches at all. This is probably all helped by the fact that I don't walk past Cafe Pergolesi everyday, withering in the scrutinizing gaze of the hipster pack.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I love living here. I wouldn't want to forever, but being the stranger in a strange land, particularly one as strange as this, has its perks.

January 13, 2010

Personal Statement:

I never intended to write. Words came trickling down my neck and arms out through my fingers, unbidden. It was the nearest thing to singing I could ever manage. My sister was a writer, too. She died on October 3rd, 2008. I wrote the eulogy. I didn’t write anything else for almost a year. Strange to have one’s life neatly cleaved into a before and after. Strange to have to try so hard at something that used to be so easy. There wasn’t much to be done about it; years like that are going to be hard no matter what you try or think or pretend. After that year was over I up and left Santa Cruz, where I had lived for five years. I moved to tidewater Virginia, where my father’s family has lived and died since the 17th century. I am writing again, about blood that is thicker than water. It isn’t easy, but sometimes I can feel it in my arms and fingers and I know I love it, and have to try, even when it’s hard. I want to return to school to learn how to do this thing I love again, after.

I may have always written, but I believe I learned to write as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz. The fiction concentration was small and tightly knit; it taught me focus and drove me to improve. I learned how to pull the right words from the tangle. I liked that it was hard. I left with a clear idea of what it is that I write, and want to write. My work is inspired by my childhood’s summers, all spent on an island in the Chesapeake. The forest here hides abandoned houses, salt-worn and broken-windowed. The headstones of my ancestors grace the lawns of my tidewater neighbors. The past’s presence here is tangible, and I write with that in my mind. I write about families—about the ties that stay tied from one generation to the next, through love and turmoil and death. Blood that is thicker than water. I write about sisters, and the knots upon knots that bind them. I write about aging, a thing more apparent in the south than in California, where things tend to reek of newness. I write about death, and what it leaves behind. I am learning what it leaves behind. Life is a more ephemeral thing than I would have imagined. I write to remember and I write about places where memory exists tangibly, not just as photographs, tying people to one another or to a house or to a silly slab of dirt for lifetimes. I write about the true stories people tell until they aren’t anything like the truth anymore—until they are tongue-tangled myths, funny and sad. I write about, and for the sake of, remembrance.

Or I try to. Strange, to feel you have more words than ever jostling around inside of you, but to write so much less. It is how I felt before I went to school, before I knew how to write what I wanted, to tease words from the tangle. I know it could lead me all over the map. In Santa Cruz I studied film, wrote and produced a play, wrote screenplays, and directed short films. I found joy in all, as long as I could write. It all seemed to circle back around and make my fiction stronger. I pursued the same themes, no matter what the medium. I don’t care so much about professional goals now. I want, more, to write for its own sake—to do this thing I love. I crave a workshop and the community of peers it would provide. Deadlines and scribbled critiques and the one person who says, I don’t like this, breaking your heart and making you better. I want it to be hard. I want to write a novel about grief that isn’t stricken, a book about pain that doesn’t leave you hurt. There is a lot to sort through. Writing is different than it was before my sister died. I am still the same person but some days I wake up and it seems like the sun is rising and setting on the wrong side, painting everything in the wrong light. I want to be able to write about that, but I need help to learn.

That is what I ended up sending. I thought it was only fair to share, after the entry I wrote about writing the thing. Luckily, unluckily I managed to get myself to the point where I just didn't care anymore--where it all seemed unimportant. Repetition doesn't suit: another element in the mystery as to how I live here. It had been a long time since I'd attempted to write anything on a deadline, and it was hard, and it made me afraid of what I may not be able to do.

In other news, I am well. I say this because I think it is important to admit. In my life I have often had trouble owning wellness; I was better practiced at being not okay. To be well always seemed boring-more not okay than okay. For the first time in my life I feel proud to be able to say that I am feeling well, and maybe even some kind of happy. I want to hold it. I want to tell everyone I've ever known. Instead I go and watch a romantic comedy at the local cinema (45 minutes away, I'll have you know) and wish to rewrite it so it was actually romantic, or actually a comedy. I wish for the thrill of new love, but stand it. I am willing to wait. It's all so small, it seems. How to tell people what I have spent six months doing.

I have learned to be well by myself, when there is no one else there to pretend for or about.

January 6, 2010

Long Winter Hours

The hours have been feeling long lately. Especially in the evening, between five and midnight. With all the windows closed against the cold and the absence of humming cicadas or the sounds of my family in the rooms below, in winter, is almost oppressively quiet. I've taken to building fires and maintaining them all day, if only to provide some sort of sound to live with. I have trouble focusing in winter. My mind wanders. A new sense of surreality has introduced itself into my little world. I have never been here in January before.

Last week a cold front arrived and hasn't left. 20-40 degrees for days, and sometimes colder at night. The pond and ditches are frozen solid. I woke one morning at sunrise to the gabbling sound of a flock of canadian geese outside. I looked out the window at the water and saw them, twenty or so, flapping there wings, panicked. A low tide during the night had left the haven out front so shallow that it had frozen hard, trapping them by their feet. The sun arrived to free them soon after, but for a moment there I felt responsible, somehow. Like I should take an ice pick and walk out across the water to free them. It is almost laughably depressing, some mornings, to look out at the frozen water and see one sad blue heron, standing statue-still on the ice. Too cold to bicycle; my ears freeze. I yearn for summer, for sunshine at eight in the evening and the buzzing undertone of the woods, the screeching racket of the osprey family next door. I daydream about the hot thunderstorm that caught me unawares while out on my bicycle in August, soaking me like a hot shower. I biked up and down Gumthicket Road laughing uproariously, inexplicably ecstatic to be there in the pounding rain. I suddenly understand why people here talk about spring so reverently.

The tips of the narcissus are just beginning to peak out of the frozen dirt in the yard, and I wish I could hurry them along. Build little fires beside them to warm them, to coax green from the earth. Every year, as a birthday gift, my grandfather plants 100 bulbs for my grandmother. He has done this for some years past, meaning that every spring now hundreds of spring flowers erupt from the soil all over the yard. I have never been here to see it. It sounds like something out of a film. But it is only January, and winter can be long here. I suddenly understand the groundhog fixation. It makes you wonder how people manage to live in places where winter outlasts everything else, where summer is only a bit warmer and the world is only a bit greener. My friend Flavia always said that that's why Iceland produces so many stellar musicians: when you are trapped indoors for the majority of the year you have to find something to throw yourself at. And you're likely depressed as well, which always makes for a better musician. I think I would rather live in a place that isn't frozen solid most of the year, and never learn to play an instrument.