Friday, September 29, 2006

Sunday Scribbling-Skin (two short vignettes)

Here are two short vignettes, voices that came to me when I started thinking about "skin." Note: mendhi is the henna tattoos traditionally applied to Indian brides' hands and feet.
I always know when it’s a bad day at home. I can feel it somewhere inside, the part that knows more. So it’s usually not a surprise when I walk through the door and the nurse is sitting there, already with her coat on, rolling her eyes, aiming them at the bedroom door.

“She’s a handful today, son.” She reached out to touch my shoulder. I kept waiting for her to say something else, something about staying longer, or all night, maybe. But instead she just shakes her head, pats my cheek, and walks out the door, shutting it behind her. Gone, just like that.

No matter where you are looking in our house, it feels like you can see the bedroom door. Like it’s breathing.

I’m slow today; I know it. She hates it when I do that. But it’s hard to move towards her, sometimes. Sometimes I want to stay myself, the way I am at school. I’m on the football team, you know. Special teams. I like to wear my jacket all the time, the one that tells the world that I’m a Hawk. It’s like a second skin now. Like a better one.

She hates it when I wear it at home. “Where you going now, Michael James? Why you always leaving me?”

“I’m not, Ma. Don’t get upset.”

“If it’s cold in here, you can turn up the heat, you know. We can still afford that.”

“I know…I know.” And then I take the jacket off, and I’m home for the day.

So I make myself a sandwich, flip the TV on. I keep an eye on the door. I don’t want her to know I’m home yet. If she’s sleeping, let her sleep.

“Michael James?”


I shove the rest of the sandwich in my mouth. I don’t like to eat in her room. She thinks I live on junk food (I do) and then I gotta hear a lecture on how she’s still around, I’ve still got a mother, and she’ll make me dinner soon.

Sometimes she even tries to get out of bed. Then she cries all night.

I open her door. She’s lying there, just like always, flipping the remote every second. Change, change, change. Magazines are scattered all over, a bowl of soup by her bed, so cold it’s got skin now.

“I didn’t hear you outside. Have you been home long?”

“No.” I hate to lie to her.

“Did you eat?”

“Nah, in a bit.” I never used to lie to her.

I start the way I always start, trying to clean up the room, trying to change the sheets. She leans on me, hard, as I walk her to her chair by the window. Her hard is pretty soft, these days.

“You gotta eat more, ma. Didn’t Mrs. Percy make you some soup today?”

“Eh, that’s sludge. In my day, we wouldn’t give that soup to the cat, forget about people!”

“I’m sure it’s not bad. She’s just doing the best she can.”

“People say that all the time.” She leans herself towards the window, like she’s trying to catch the last bit of sun. “I don’t think it’s true.”

It’s time for her bath. I heat the water just above room temperature, just how she likes it.

“I wish you didn’t have to do this. It’s not right.” She crosses her arms across her chest. I look away.

Her skin is like wadded up paper, like someone threw her away. I take the washcloth and try to smooth her back out.

“It’s not right.” She says it again, and I can feel it coming, the red anger—the one that makes me want to grab her and shake her back to health. The one that makes me run and run around the track until my mind is blank.

I don’t want her to feel it, that red anger that pushes against my skin so tight. I don’t want to burn her.

She leans her back against my hand, for just a second. She looks down into the water. Her skin looks like fish in an aquarium.

“I should be taking care of you.”

“You are, Ma.”

I hold up the towel, quiet, and quiet, she steps inside.

Music plays everywhere, the Punjabi drumbeats that always sound exactly like happiness to me. My feet itch to dance, but it’s my mendhi party, so I sit instead, as the three mendhi artists write my fate on my hands and feet. I’m a bride. Finally, as my parents would say in relief. Finally, as my aunts and uncles would sigh. Finally, as my whole culture would shout, one collective shudder of joy. I had escaped that horrible fate, the one everyone had predicted when I went away to college. I wasn’t going to be some rebellious American girl, like Dadiji had predicted, staring balefully into her chai cup. Every relative was full of stories that had to be told. Warnings that had to be delivered. They tried to convince me. “Not that you shouldn’t go to college, beta. It’s important for you to be a smart, well educated girl. But…go closer to home. Stay with your parents. Lots of crazy things happen in this world. It’s not like home, you know. I see what it’s like. I watch the news.” I only managed to escape by promising that I would always remember who I was. Who I had to be.

Since all I could move was my head, I concentrated on watching the partiers, these people who came together for every wedding, naming, funeral, then scattered themselves to the winds again. These people who had seen me grow up in steps at each event. Family that never seemed to change, that seemed to exist only to celebrate, dressed in fine silks, bent by heavy gold jewelry. I couldn’t connect these people to the mundane tasks of life any more. It was like we kept them into storage and brought them out for parties.

I know how much my parents saved and scrimped for today. I remember my mother tracing her hands on the big motel ledger, muttering numbers to herself, chanting prayers for our prosperity in Hindi. They wanted to step out of the day to day too…everyone here was pretending to be in a Bollywood movie, or else back in India. Outside this hall might be gray Atlanta skies, but inside, we were all in Bombay. For a few days, my whole family stepped back into their native skin, speaking their language, eating their food, telling the same old stories and jokes, and singing the same songs that had been sung at their weddings.

All of the women invited were sitting around me on the floor, getting less elaborate mendhi on their hands, laughing as they tossed compliments and teased each other. Babies and toddlers ran around their mothers, sitting on the floor, thrilled to be taller than Mummy for once.

So I watched them, these mendhi women as they held their cones of putty like pencils and concentrated on covering every inch of my skin. They tucked their mangal sutras into their buns and wiped the tips of their cones carelessly on the old cotton saris they wore for their work. The green goop feels cool on me, like cucumbers on your eyes after a night at a smoky club. Not that I would know anything about that, ha ha. My brown skin turns into a canvas, full of swirls and pictures and lines. Telling the ageless story of every Indian wedding through my skin. I tried not to shift too much. One false move and everything that was so clear now, would smudge and become unrecognizable.

They continue to write on me, to draw the ancient wishes that would help turn me, for one day, into an incarnation of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Good Fortune.

And I wanted to be that. I wanted to make my parents proud, to take the seven steps that would turn me into a woman, into a wife. To wear the bridal sari and the sacred markings on my forehead, the jeweled bindi of a bride.

I wanted the mendhi to write over everything that had come before this day. The tumbled kisses as we danced, he and I. The feel of his calluses on my skin—hard meeting soft. The way his skin grew whiter when I told him, harsh so he would leave, that I would never choose him over my parents, over everything I’d was.

The way I felt it in my skin when he left and slammed the door.

My parents were surprised when I told them I was finally ready to be married. But they tugged on the family network and before I knew it, I was engaged. I like him, my betrothed. Like my parents would say, “He’s a nice boy. Good family.”

The mendhi was done. The women stood up, wiping their hands on their laps and stretching. Everyone crowded around me, their bare feet sounding like the tabla drums beating through the speakers. This was their favorite part of the ceremony.

“Look and see, Nisha…now you have to try to find his name in your mendhi. That's how you know he's the one who is fated for you!” I looked down at my hands, covered now by a gorgeous intricate design.

I tried, stared intently at hands grown beautiful and foreign. And they waited, these women I’ve known forever, waiting for me to become one of them.

I tried, muttered something. The aunties laughed and shouted, "She's just too modest, a proper blushing bride!"

But that wasn't the truth.

The truth is, I couldn't find it.

For more layers of skin, go here.


Continue reading...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The post I didn't want to write

I don’t know how to begin this. I’ve written about my family many times on the blog, sensing that there was a knot there, constricting me somehow, and I needed to loosen it. They’ve snuck into so many areas, into stories which are not at all biographical, and yet…some unexpressed emotion from my life with them works its way into my fiction. I suppose the same is true, to an extent, for all creators. Everything you are thinking about, or trying very hard NOT to think about, works its way into your work.

Medialess day was curiously noneventful. I was so busy with Madam and the house and the laundry that I never really sat down and meditated, as had been my intent. But throughout the day, I was very conscious of missing something. My books, my blogs, my email. A little sabotaging voice kept telling me dolefully that I couldn’t do it, after it, I would absolutely have to pick up a book, or turn on the television. At times that voice had such authority, it felt almost like an objective fact. Of course I would stop, of course I would let myself down. I always do.

Well, not this time. I think I am most proud that I managed to stick it out, in spite of the voice and the constant temptation. I am proud that I took an ordinary day and gave it meaning, created my own project, and took myself seriously enough to listen to whatever impulse had led me to declare Monday a medialess day in the first place.

But I still wondered where the grand revelation was. You know, the reward for having finished something so difficult. Yes, I am aware that perhaps enlightenment takes slightly longer than one day, and that perhaps a big part of my problem with such matters has always been my impatience.

Tuesday morning found me actually working on my morning pages in the morning, for a change. Usually I wait until Madam is napping in the afternoon before I give myself wholeheartedly to the pages. But she was busy walking around and around the room. (Yes, we have walking, people. Pray for me.)

As I scribbled away, I found myself writing, “Stop hiding. What worked for you as a child doesn’t make sense anymore.” That arrested me. I knew I’ve been hiding; I’ve been talking more and more about how I keep quiet, and then feel like I’ve betrayed myself. But what was interesting to me was the idea that this attitude had worked for me as a child. That seemed to contradict my idea about my childhood.

I pause here for a moment to mention a completely maddening feeling that has lurked around me for a few weeks now, something almost like deju vu—the precise combination of coziness, security, vague melancholy, and straining that categorized the way I used to feel in the fall when I was younger—9, 10, 11, 12 and after. I’ve been poking at the feeling, asking it to explain itself. But it only persisted, and I decided that it must just be my first fall with a toddler, in a new city that feels paradoxically like home.

But it all started to make sense in my morning pages, as I began viewing a different version of the home life I always remember. I remembered other things, too. I’ve written about Punky Middle Sister here before, written about how much of an influence she has been on me and my desires for a certain kind of free spirited, creative, artistic life. I also mentioned how strongly my parents disagreed with her choices.

Well, I started to remember the beatings. They weren’t constant, but they happened often enough. My sister would do or say something, shout in their faces, try to make them SEE something or the other, and my parents, mute in their strangling rage, would lash out in the way they felt made her stop. They hit her. Hard. With a belt, with pots, with fists. I would sit in the next room, sometimes, with my hands over my ears to drown out her screams. It never worked. I would rock back and forth to the rhythm of my question, “Why couldn’t she just BE QUIET? Why did she have to provoke them?” For you see, I blamed her for bringing it on herself. I suppose it was easier to do that than to see how wrong my parents were, because I adored them. How could my father, the man I admired more than any other, the most important person in my life, be the same person who threw things at my sister, who banged her head into the dining room, who flung a knife at her? How could my mother, elegant and funny, be the same one who became a fury at my sister’s disobedience, who took a frying pan and bashed it into my sister’s head with all of her strength?

I would creep over to her when it was done, huddled in a corner, and offer my mute sympathy, trying to wrap her in my small, inadequate arms. She would push me away, angry, hissing that the reason that my parents loved me more was that they didn’t really know me, because I pretended to be a good girl, pretended to agree with them, pretended I wasn’t my sister’s doppelganger.

The thing is, she was right. I was terrified of them when they got like that, and I didn’t want to face my sister’s fate. So I linked it all up in my head—not that my parents were wrong, but that this is what it meant to be an artist, a creative. It meant being literally beaten into submission until you stopped. And the way to prove you were the real deal was to take it—to keep shouting your truth in spite of the fists and the blood.

I couldn’t do that. I was a coward. I couldn’t save my sister (although I tried, but not often enough). I couldn’t measure up the way she did. She was the one who sacrificed everything for her authenticity. I couldn’t do that, therefore it meant I wasn’t the right kind of person. I accepted everything my sister said about me, in hate, as my due. I would never succeed, because I was a weak kneed coward. I would never be good enough. She was being punished because she was strong enough to take it, to be herself.

I was not strong.

So I tried to live the middle life, please everyone. I kept my most essential self in my head and lived out of the placid little place that my parents approved of for me. I just wanted to make them happy, true, but I also wanted to be safe from them.

A rush of compassion surprised me, for my sister, of course, but also for that little girl of 8, 9, 10, 11 and on, who thought that she would keep herself safe by keeping her dreams totally in her head. Who wanted to be just like her big sister, even as her sister pushed her away for not being good enough. And even for my parents, who were only acting out the way they had been raised, and who were startled by my sister’s strangeness, which seemed to encapsulate this country, where they didn’t matter at all. Where they had no control.

So. I see now, so clearly, that my issues with manifesting things, with deserving things (because my sister told me again and again that I did not deserve my parents’ love because I was a fake), with being an artist, come from this stifled period in my life. Because I couldn’t see then that my parents were wrong. By accepting their beatings as a fair response to my sister’s provocations and choices, we both conflated being ourselves with an almost intolerable danger. Physical danger.

It was easier to tie all of that together, then to think of my parents as abusers. And they were. And yet I still love them, we all do. Even my sister, although she still struggles so much with it, with wanting their approval and with wanting herself as well.

I didn’t want to write this. I didn’t want to know this. I’ve never suppressed that period in my life, but I suppose I took on the official family version of it—that my sister somehow deserved it for being so difficult. This is the first time I’ve really thought, there is no justification for it. She is talented, and smart, and when she needed their support and their applause, they not only failed her, they tried to beat those traits out of her. Yes, she was rebellious, a smart mouth, disobedient. But there is no excuse.

I guess I’ve always focused on the effect on her, because she is my sister and because I love her so much and felt so sorry for her when it was happening. Sorry, so damned sorry I couldn’t stop it. It feels selfish to admit that it had an effect on me as well, to see that, to hear it, to have my sister turn against me because of it.

But it is also honest. God, I have so much trouble writing that—that when my sister was beaten, somehow, it hurt me, scarred me too. It seems like claiming something I have no right to have, something I don’t even want. I am cringing as I write this, but it’s true.

An important knot has unraveled. I don’t know what to do with the pieces of it left in my hands, though. So I put them out here, outside of me, until I can have them make sense.


Continue reading...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Inspired by Laini, a small story

I wouldn't quite call this a tiny story, but reading Laini's latest inspired me to try my hand at something shorter. My medialess day led me in strange directions, and some things are better examined slant, with story logic, first.


She had a secret coat hidden in her room. When she put it on, she could feel herself growing and flowering like a wisteria vine. Ribbons of stories spooled from her mouth and twined around her head like a turban. However. Every time she wore the coat, she noticed that her sister would get locked away in a dungeon and beaten severely until she took it off.

It took a while for her eyes to see this and make the connection.

But soon it could no longer be denied, and so she placed her secret coat in a lead box, and buried it out by a fast-moving stream. Of course, then she promptly stopped growing at all, but she took comfort in the fact that her sister ‘s suffering had come to an end, even if hers had just begun.

One day, though, she couldn’t bear the strain of being stifled and stuck any longer. She stole away to the mound where the magic coat was buried and wept bitterly. Some visiting Gods heard her lamentation and were moved to pity. They knew her story, being Gods, and after conferring for a time said, "If you can ask us the right question, the coat will be yours once again and your sister will be safe from harm’s way. But if you do not know the question, you’ll both wake every day with misery, eat your bread with sorrow, and lie down every night with regret."

So she went home and pondered their challenge until the night kissed the morning. She called her sister and together they waited for the Gods.

When the Gods returned for her answer, bearing the lead box between them, she asked them simply, "Why must it be a choice, at all?"

And the coat flew out of the box and both sisters took refuge under it. They spent the rest of their life under its protection, growing into the beauty of knowledge and flourishing like wisteria blossoms.

And they learned that the Gods will always listen to those who ask the right questions.


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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Fall, again


Fall presses down on me, calls forth a buzzing in my blood similar to that experienced by the animals as they prepare for another long winter. Only my every instinct says "change, change."

It feel as though so many of you are writing and thinking about this—this desire to become who we know we MUST be, somewhere and on some level. So why is it so hard? I sense my other Self just ahead of me, impatient, waiting for me to move forward and merge with her. So why can’t I? I think part of it is that I really DO believe it should be easy. I know, I know. But if it’s an effort to do certain things, then doesn’t it mean that they are not natural to who I REALLY am? And yet I long for them, long for beauty around me despite the fact that I know nothing about interior decorating. Long for gorgeous clothes that feel like ME even though I barely have the energy (and the time) to shower most days. Long for a vibrant community of artists and writers around me, even though I don’t always find the words to comment to you all, the artists and writers I actually HAVE around me.

So...if it’s all such work, then does it fit into my life? I don’t know. All I know is that my life feels small lately. TEG thinks that I censor myself too much, am too dependent on approval and validation from the universe. I think he’s right, especially on the first part of his statement, but for some reason I can only really see all of that hindsight. I go over conversations with my friends, my parents, and am shocked to see how much I hide of myself, and then I despair that they don’t really know me. But, again, hindsight. Why can’t I catch this as its happening and take the risk?

I’ve also been thinking a great deal about an old, old dream of mine...something that is difficult for me to articulate in its fullness. I dream of a bohemian life for myself, a life full of travel and art and literature and unconventional friends and an unconventional ME who is always learning, always working, always writing. It sounds trite when I put it into words, incomplete somehow. And because I can’t really imagine it into fullness, I can’t seem to make it happen. I know that part of it is that I fear that it’s black or white—either I am in the mainstream or deliberately outside of it. And I do love aspects of the mainstream, and I don’t want to turn away from Project Runway or America’s Next Top Model. I don’t want to have to walk away from my family—can be the kind of mother, the kind of wife I want to be even as I pursue a different path? Why does it feel like I have to be alone in order to be who I want to be? Am I creating a false choice?

The other problem is, honestly, I can’t seem to attract this community into my life—I don’t know if its my ambivalence, or my fear of speaking boldly, or what, but I meet people I would love to get to know better, and...they never seem to want to get to know me. Ugh, that sounds whiny, but I have to be honest. That's more of an Eat, Pray, Love hangover...I was fascinated by her ability to attract all of those interesting people into her life. I kept waiting for her to share her secret, but alas, none was forthcoming.

All of me wants to give Madam the chance to see her parents engaged deeply in their work, in a life well lived. I am grateful that I saw my parents abandon themselves to joy, to dancing, even when they couldn’t always climb up that American ladder towards the Dream. They were passionate, loving people who overflowed into the lives of so many others. I don’t want Madam to see her parents living an arid life.

Tomorrow is my media-less day. I can feel myself trying to fill my mind with words in anticipation for tomorrow. But I know what I need is to really delve into the emptiness that I am forever rushing away from here. Maybe there I will find some of what I seek.


Continue reading...

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Sunday Scribblings-How to become your own person (a story)

Here is another longish rough draft of a story. I think I need instructions on how to make these shorter. I need instructions for almost everything these days. Well, in my story, my main character gets instructions from an unexpected place. And what she does with it astonishes her.

I got it in the mail the other day, which surprised me. It followed me from dorm room to first apartment to house, always seemingly missing me by one or two steps. Which is as apt a description of our relationship as any. I have not had any contact with her in a long time. To say we were estranged was to imply that at one point we’d been stranged. And honestly, I don’t think that was ever true. I came out of her, true, but I wasn’t really OF her. And I think she knew that.

It was a short list, written in her uneven, girlish hand. It was the sight of her writing that gave me pause—brought back the memory of a thousand lunch box notes and grocery lists. It looked that unassuming.

But this wasn’t any grocery list. No introduction; it read simply, "How to become your own person."

1) Leave that place that stifles you.

The bravest thing my mother ever did was to leave my father; everyone knows this. They had absolutely nothing in common but background—both Boston Brahmins, both youngest children, the period at the end of long Episcoplian sentences. My father was brash, big and handsome. Someone who preferred to do things, usually without much thinking involved. My mother, on the other hand, was the acknowledged beauty of her clan, but someone who suffered from what would have been a century ago as "religious melancholy"...basically clinical depression. So her family was thrilled to marry her off...a family known for "talking only to God" was horrified when one of their members displayed a passion for doing exactly that.

They married in the fall, fashionably, and bells pealed all over Back Bay when they came out of the church. A wind swirled my mother’s cathedral veil around her face like a cloud, and some leaves, in vibrant color, were trapped inside. I love that picture of her, looking like some kind of wood fairy from the cover of my favorite fairy tale book. But she always flipped past that page, muttering something about "death tangled in life on that day."

You can see where I get my sense of humor.

I try to be fair; try to imagine what it must have been like for her after that. Living a role for which she was almost comically ill-suited. My parents must have looked at each other blankly, waiting for the instruction book. My father did the expected thing; he bought her a big house in one of the approved areas of Boston and presented it to her, a living dollhouse. She told me she was unnerved by the emptiness. "Just like the void of nonbeing." She tried to answer his grin with her own and whirled around in the great room. "All I saw was whitewhitewhitewhite. It was like being trapped in a snow storm. All I wanted to do was run."

But she tried—she knew what was expected of her. Basically, me. She focused her energies on the nursery to keep from becoming overwhelmed; spent her time shopping for the perfect crib and changing table. And as the piece de resistance, she hired a muralist to draw a fantasy land motif on the walls and ceiling. No more white for me. But she wanted to paint it herself; wanted to feel like she was doing something concrete to prepare for me. So she paid the muralist extra to create a giant "paint by numbers" mural for her to complete.

That sums my mother up right there.

I wish my birth had brought them some joy—my mother swears it did, but you know what they say about actions. I used to escape their fights by sneaking into their bedroom and reading the books on Daddy’s nightstand. He saw himself as a Benjamin Franklin type, so all of his books were full of pithy inspirational quotes and exhortations for a more moral life. It was hard to avoid that pressure, that relentless pressure to improve, to be better. Mom tried for a time, tried to improve her character, read classics, share the tentative hard-dreamed knowledge beginning to intimate itself into her life.

Daddy didn't understand it, or her. He pulled away, or she moved beyond.

No wonder Mom finally had to give up. She would never find a way to measure up to his books. We were both too close to the ground.

When we left home, we were faced with another set of white walls. Mom went blank herself, for a while. I stood by her, hand on her shoulder, waiting for her to tell me, tell us, what we were going to do. But she never did. She was waiting herself. Not for her family, which had resolutely turned their backs on her, counter-waiting for her to "grow into some sense."

2) Find the right teacher.

It turned out she was waiting for Guru Ma—an unassuming woman who shoved a flyer under the door of our new apartment—a woman who taught Indian meditation classes that were soon being held in our living room. Soon Mother was sitting in blissed out ecstasy in a crowd of 20 or so disciples, fervently repeating the chant over and over.

But all I could hear were my own doubts. Who WERE these people? Who was this woman who I saw increasingly, morning, noon, night? Mom was proud that she was "finally not listening to some man" but who was she listening to instead? These questions marched into my ears like ants.

"You just don’t know until you know." She said things like this all the time—things that sounded profound and you could wrack your brain on them all day. She said that my mind was flat like those old maps of the world—the ones with the dragons at the edges. Not enlightened like her. "I thought once you had found peace, you’d be calmer." She’d grow red, and do some breathing exercises, and mutter something in sanskrit.

I disliked her, Guru Ma. I can admit that now. She was always sweaty, always mopping her forehead with the edge of her sari, as though her meditation was such hard work. I thought people who had become one with the universe were destined to drift effortlessly through the ether. But not Guru Ma. Her prayers were strenuous; her chants were swung pick axes by ditch diggers.

If anything, Mother was the one who seemed like the textbook student—her face swallowed by her smiles, her eyes closed to the world around her. I wondered what she could see behind those eyes. Not me, that’s for sure. She was obviously dancing on the pin with all of the other angels. I wanted that certainty too; wondered why she couldn’t share it with me, her daughter. There I was, floundering through acne and hand me downs grown tight and worn, and she was conversing with Krishna and dancing with Shiva.

3) Let her go.

You know what happened next, don’t you? Guru Ma was taken in by the authorities. Something about tax evasion. I never really wanted the details, and Mother never gave them to me. I just wanted to forget the whole sordid saga. I thought that now we could put that unsavory part of our lives behind us and get to the business of figuring out how to fill the Daddy-shaped space in our home.

But she couldn’t seem to let it go. Sure, we never saw her again, never watched the space around her grow oily with her perspiration. Mother said that Guru Ma was shedding her earthly coil, growing translucent. "But why does she have to do it here? Why do I have to clean up after her?"

Never did get an answer for that one. It made me feel quite smart, to get the last word for once. Of course, now I know that it’s because she wasn’t listening.

I stumbled upon my mother one afternoon after school, meditating alone in the living room now, tears streaming down her cheeks. I’d had enough.

"She was a fraud! Why can’t you see that?"

She sighed, "I’m not like you, Jane. I’m no good out there. I used to think that was a fault in me. Certainly your father and my family thought so. But now I know that in the outside way lies death. Only inside can you find life."

"But...I’m outside of you!" I wanted to clutch her, convince her of something...I’m not sure what.

"Yes." She turned back to her work.

4) Drink in the truth wherever you find it.

That’s when the crack between us grew and the cosmos rushed in. We became like two roommates matched up by an impersonal service. I got more and more involved with school, band, drama, anything to avoid being at home with her. She withdrew completely from the world, ordering everything by catalogue and waiting for me to handle the bills and deposit the checks that came from the family, too embarrassed to see two of their own starve.

Even though I applied to schools as far away as California, I ended up staying right here in Boston. But it was understood that I would live in the dorms, even if I lived next door. And it so happened, I almost did. I wrote a long pleading letter to my Aunt Betty, and was granted permission to board with her.

As I packed, I wondered what I would say to her. Would she see me as a traitor for choosing to live with the family? Nah, why would she choose now to see me at all?

She crept into my room, perched on the bed which was strewn with clothes, books, everything I owned. As always these days, she seemed otherworldly, like she was deigning to visit this world reluctantly, on my behalf. The hair hanging in her eyes made me want to sweep it away.


"Almost." I wasn’t really looking at her, moving piles back and forth.

"I know you don’t agree with the way we live our lives."

"That’s an understatement...and it's the way YOU live your life." I had to correct her.

She blew her hair out of her eyes, exasperated. "Anyway...I want to give you something before you leave."

Silence. I managed to keep myself from extending my hand.

"Sometimes the truth comes from a liar."

I stared at the paper, unwilling to remember what I had been unable to really forget for these past five years. The paper is limp, folded and refolded. I can see the pressed crescents of her fingers on the edges. I slip my finger into one. Of course, it fits.

So here it was. My mother’s legacy—paltry and profound, notable for what was absent as well as present.

What I did next surprised even me. I found a pen, wrote a note on her list. Her instructions don't make a lot of sense to me, yet--her final words to me didn't either. She’d always had a monopoly on illumination, but it turned out the record was full of gaps, vague. Unfinished.

I’m surprised to discover that I want to be the one who expands it for her. I want to be the one who adds to the list.

5) Sometimes you receive the truth in all of its fullness. And people won’t understand. Sometimes the story emerges bit by painful bit, born in struggle. And people won’t understand.

Both are fine.
For more instructions, go here.


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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

All about books, a meme

I've been tagged by my dear friend at Earnest and Game, and as the meme is about books, and as I've never done one of these, I thought it would be fun. Unfortunately, I absolutely CANNOT just leave it to one book, so...

1. A book that changed your life:
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Sacred Contracts by Caroline Myss
Yo by Julia Alvarez
Of Women Born by Adrienne Rich
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Howl and other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

2. A book you've read more than once
See all of the above (except the Estes, and I am working on that...) and...
I could do anything, if I knew what it was by Barbara Sher
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

3. A book you'd want on a desert island:
Women Who Run with the Wolves
A collected Shakespeare

4. A book that made me giddy:
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Writing a Women's Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun
The Treehouse by Naomi Wolf
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Succulent Wild Woman by SARK

5. A book you wish had been written
How about the “No, seriously, THIS is how you live” book?

6. A book that wracked you with sobs:
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebald
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

7. A book you wish had not been written
Mein Kampf by Hitler

8. A book you are currently reading
Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels
Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin
Letters to a Young Artist by Julia Cameron

9. A book you've been meaning to read
Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan
The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

I’m tagging Jessie and Ally Bean and Beansprout. And anyone else who wants to play.


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Monday, September 18, 2006

Pray, with a little eat and love

I have to stop.

This week’s Sunday Scribbling really brought something home for me. I am an inveterate researcher...I simply LOVE to read and learn and research forever and forever, amen. And I’ve learned so many wonderful things, from books and the internet and all of you.

So why is it so difficult for me to finally shuck off my insecurities and my doubts and just try to BE who I want to be? I don’t even seem to have the vocabulary to describe it...when pressed, I mutter vague mealy mouthed phrases about "being a writer" or "being more creative." But those words don’t seem to capture the force of my desires, the strength of my dream to change. So why can’t I even put words to it? Am I so fearful that even the idea of formulating the exact combination of the elements that would make up my ideal life makes me quake? Or is it that it all feels silly, somehow, adolescent?

And so I become convinced that if someone else hits upon the perfect combination of words and deeds and philosophy and action, then I’ll be able to step into their blueprint and create from there.

I have to admit, some people come very, very close.

All this by way of saying that I finally finished Eat, Pray, Love and I really enjoyed it. Whenever I found her words obscured by my own haze of envy, I stopped to ask myself, "what exactly do I envy here? Do I envy her power of expression? (yes) Do I envy her freedom? (yes)" But I realized that above all, I envied her honesty—she undertook a fearless examination of what her life was, and decided that it needed to change. And that’s possible for any of us, even those who are not well-heeled magazine writers whose craft is justly well-praised and remunerated. It took a lot of courage for her to say, "No, I want more," to circumstances that many of us would see and say, "We-ell, this isn’t quite so bad."

What struck me most about the book was the "Pray" section, set in India—for those of you (there have to be some) who have not read the book, Gilbert spends four months essentially meditating in an ashram. This seemed like an incredible luxury to me, this time to sit and think and ponder.

Then I really thought about it, and realized I would last about five minutes in that kind of environment. What would I think about, if left to my own devices, devoid of entertainment and books and blogs? How could I survive just sitting?

I’ve never been able to meditate; as soon as I start trying, my mind goes insane, rattling off a million thoughts a minute, all seeming to pull me in different directions which are anywhere but the place I sit. I’ve always rationalized this by saying that there are many different ways to enlightenment, and clearly my way would involve lots and lots of books.

Well, since moving here, I’ve been reading lots and lots of books, devouring one right after the other. And frankly, I’ve enjoyed it. But this frantic pace has left me almost enervated, like someone who has drunk a whole lot of coffee and then followed it with a few pots of tea (um, not that I would know anything about that). I don’t feel like I’m digesting anything, just accumulating a lot of knowledge I barely understand that never seems to go deeper into my bones and my life. It feels a lot like the futile clicking I used to do before I started a blog, bouncing from one website to another growing frustrated. I was looking for something, but I couldn’t even articulate what.

I think what I am looking for, most of all, is possibilities. One of the things I love about this wonderful blogging community is the variety of experiences and lifestyles and ideas that you all discuss and live out. I love seeing how many different ways there are to make a life.

But that formula, that exact way of life that will fit me perfectly, seems to elude me. I can’t find it online, or in a book, or hanging in a store.

And maybe that’s the whole point. Stubbornly, I keep waiting for the answers to come from outside of me. I keep stockpiling knowledge without action, information that is barely understood, because I don’t stop to think about it. I fancy myself a thinker, but in reality, I suppose I am a consumer of other people’s thoughts. And while this keeps me entertained and allows me to feel like I’m always learning, in reality, I can barely remember most of it.

So I’ve decided to take a radical (for me) step. One day a week from now on, I will not read any books, or websites, or newspapers, or watch any television. Instead, I’ll use the time to actually think, to get to know how my mind would work if I stopped entertaining it or "educating" it for a few minutes. Can I finally learn to meditate?

I mentioned in an earlier post that most of the decisions in my life can be made simpler if I answer the question, "Does this make me like myself more or less?" This is true, but it’s made me realize that I’m still essentially just reacting to circumstances—seeing life as a binary proposition. Maybe I don’t like my choices anymore. Maybe I want to create more for myself.

Now, I have no idea how to go about this, yet. But I’ve decided that, just maybe, the answer doesn’t lie in more research, more information, more books, more blogs.

Maybe the answer just lies, undiscovered, somewhere in me.


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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Sunday Scribblings--Google Magic (Anne Sexton)

Photograph taken by Rollie McKenna
This was a difficult prompt for me this week, as I'm someone who obsessively researchs anything that strikes my fancy. So how to think of something new to dive into? But I managed to think of a poet who has always interested me, and yet I knew nothing about her. Well, a little Google Magic fixed that.

So I wanted to write a bit of a mythic "soul biography" for her--Anne Sexton.

Once upon a time there was a girl, for they were all girls back then--these women who stood stiff in crinolines with eyes that laughed hard through curls. This girl wore her beauty like normalcy, like a mask of grins. But her greatest gift was her way of seeing around corners and through the cement of society’s placid main streets, endless in their sameness. She could see the shadows at the core of everyone’s bones, the tales told hushed around so many kitchen tables. She sat, fearless, in a scene of dozy domesticity, and wrote her jagged lightening strike poems as her daughters patted dollies down for noontime naps.

Felled, and felled, and felled by depression relentlessly dragging at her guts and filling her lungs with coalsmoke despair--she tore herself open on the page, spilling forth her base confessions and her truth-giving voice to her woman’s life with its blood and messy yearnings--saying, "yes, this is important, your life, even you who have no education, who have no power...this can also be a voice, your experience. You can also be heard." She searched and found a tribe of listeners, muses, teachers and the taught--groups that fed her even as home life left her empty.

Soon she was toasted and celebrated by a world fascinated and caught up in her. She tried to use her words like bricks to wall off her depressions, sought therapy to make peace. But none of the accolades centered her as her life force scattered like so many dead Boston leaves. She drank, took lovers, obsessed, and fell into trances. Nothing brought relief.

Finally the girl sighed and breathed deep, but it was not air around her. And she was no more.

But like all good fairy tales, this one stretches back into hazy time and forward into all of our tomorrows. Because this girl pulled back her mask, because she grew too fierce and alive and prophetic for it, because she had to chant her truth loudly--she left her words. And those words are you, and they are me, and they are anyone who sheds her skin again and again at the kitchen table, lit by a fluorescent bulb of hope.

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

From "Her Kind" by Anne Sexton
For more Google genius, go here.


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Monday, September 11, 2006

Sunday Scribbling--I would never write... fiction-y work. Well, I tried here. Sort of. Note the disclaimers and uncertainity...I must have done the assignment correctly. Hope this makes a little sense, and excuse misspellings and everything else. I am not on my machine, and I had to steal and sneak time in order to do this.

I write this to glorify the Most High, Most Real Ruler of all Known Glaxaies...the world will sing His name forever and always, and forever we will bow...

The Council instituted that bit above as the official beginning to all of our stories, tales, and correspondence...inspired, no doubt, by the Neuromuses. Everyone wants their words to glow in the dying light like stars. But I don't want to speak that way anymore. And I suppose, I have no reason to. Not that I don't believe--I DO. But I want to speak, plainly, here and now. I want to see if I can share my life tale, one last time, without her--the Neuromuse they call Maia. I won't say I don't wish to speak like that, naturally, without her aid. But I won't say I don't, either.

But I am getting ahead of myself again. This all takes some getting used to.

I was a soldier in the Glorious Revolution, my father and I both. For the years of my youth, we were all muddied together--inter-consorting between the Real and the Unreal was at an all-time high. My father himself...but that is his story to tell. I won't use my time in idle gossip. The Larkians, the stately Ghosts, the lyrical and always-dancing Dryads, all manner of myths and machines...these were as familiar to me as your arms and legs would be to you. We all lived in a certain form of peace...the peace that comes from not-thinking.

But soon, it started to become confusing--who were we, after all, those of us who could proudly say we were Real? What did being Real mean? These creatures lived in our colonias, stood side by side during our festival of Blackened Night. Were we all the same? What if we were as Unreal as they were? If we were all equal, and free, well, then we had to be more so.

These questions grew as whispers, then as fevered letters passed alongside to the other Real, then as shouts, then finally in a series of proclaimations that led to the Glorious Revolution. The War between the Real and Unreal. It was war as prayer, as convultion, clouds of exhaust and exhaustion and rivers of grease and ocean water and blood flowed. The Real would perish with a blood bubble on their lips and a final groan, while the Unreal would destruct with a mighty shake.

This was how you could tell us apart.

My father and I lived, it's true, but not without our own sufferings. Myself, I lost that which men would prize above all things. It is an ache that shadows me truly, but it purifies me--keeps me solid on the clods of earth.

The war ended with the final triumph of the Real, and the Unreal, those still existing, skulked off to I-know-not. New colonias were established, new governments formed, careful to keep our eyes on the eternal gravity of our own being-state--our fingers and toes, what could be seen and discovered with five senses.

I have never cared for the praise songs of other people--I do my duty, only. But my father does not see life as either/or; he grew fat with hosannas, and I do not begrudge him that. He rose swiftly in the new organization, often pulling me alongside. Some would say it was more equal than that--I was known as a fighter, a great sacrificer. I do not say this to brag to you. Only so that you might know who you are dealing with.

I do not know when the Neuromuses returned to our lands. Some say that the Valettians, those great poets of the South, would read tales written during our Co-mingling time and weep at the beauty of it. But I never saw that, myself. Some say that even men, the Most Real, missed the flow of that gentle river, Inspiration. The Neuromuses might return, it was said, if they knew their place as Servers. They could be like medicine, curing even plodding men like myself of dull speech and thought.

But again, I go ahead of myself.

More and more, the authorities of the colonias started speaking in the high tones of those who were consorting with the Neuromuses. Soon, it became more difficult to find one who wasn't. And that one, was usually me. I resisted...after all, hadn't we just fought to liberate ourselevs from all that? My father began to shout at me, to be competitive in this new world, one needed the Neuromuses. He insisted, and I was enough of a son to want to make him happy. With all the new rules, it would only a help, never a danger. As long as I abided by these rules, consorting only at specific times and places, and always with a different Muse. That way you don't get attached.

I tried. I sincerely did. I tried to follow all of the regulations governing Neuromuse/Real relationships. I suppose that should make me feel better, more justified. But, honestly, it doesn't.

At first, it all went well. The Neuromuse came in her guise as Server, and soon I found my pen flowing forth with crystalline, gorgeous prose of the poets. How exactly to explain how it worked? Some men said it was like a visitation in the night, like a Ghost fog showing you as you wished to be, not as you really were. Some said it was like making love to the most delightful woman, and having the words come and come in endless esctacy.

To them, I say--it is both more than this, and simple.

Ideally, the Neuromuse has no will of her own, acting instead as a sort of divine editor--rewriting your mind and pointing you towards higher horizons. I think maybe most of them worked this way. But Maia is not most. Does it matter what she looked like? It was so little of who she was...very well, I will try what was always beyond beyond my power.She was ethereal as thought, familiar as breath. She formed herself not as a small speck of light, as did most, but as a full woman--hair like corals, eyes like wet grass. She would dislike such a plain description, and no doubt she would do a better job with it herself. She was, simply, Maia and could be no one else in all the world.

She came to me, and I could feel her presense right away, as I sat in the posture of receiving--eyes closed, hands at sides, mind blank like a field...waiting for the words to sprout up. Instead, there came a question. "Who are you?"

"I am a solider, a leader of men..." and so I began, waiting for her to move the words and guide them towards magical realms. But instead, another question, impudence really...but I was curious now. "No, who are you, really?"

I expected her to be passive, just decorating my thoughts in her language. But that was not Maia. All I got were arguments, questions, "Are you sure that's what you mean? What about...?" And I'd answer and she'd rebut and we were off. Maybe I should have been angered by this overstepping. But the truth is, no one had ever asked me anything like this before and no one ever cared so passionately what I thought.

And so began our conversation. For, despite what the authorities always said, it was nothing more than conversation. Her presence in my mind became as familiar to me as my own hands...and as necessary. She inspired me in every way a man can be inspired...I was surprised that one like me had such depth, to be honest. I never saw a hint of it before. I was forced to re-examine everything. She claimed I did the same for her, my plain clear ideas igniting all of the scope of her imagination, not as a Server who can only speak in other's thoughts, but as Herself. As someone almost...Real. Our conversations were a different kind of war--one that brought life, not death.

I was no longer the dutiful son of the republic, even as my name grew more known and exalted. I was becoming famed for my oratory throughout the land! It would make you laugh to think of it now. Then again, maybe it would not.

Alas, my new position did not make everyone happy. My father allowed himself to be poisoned against me, and he noted the rules I had broken with a sad triumph. I had consorted with a Neuromuse. I had been seen in her company more than once. I had allowed the strict line between Real and Unreal to be blurred again. I was a menace, and needed to be stopped.

She knew almost before I did, furious speeches full of grand passionate eloquence giving way to promises of how we would spend our lives together, somewhere in I-know-not. She pressed me to be open, to try and change what I had already changed once before. But..could I turn against what I thought I knew, in favor of what I scarcely imagned? I can only be what I am. And I believe in the Glorious Revolution, even as it prepared to take one more gift from me.

Our last night together, we came together as two forms of the Real. She restored to me what the Revolution took. I won't try to describe it, not without her. It was a current, pulling and pushing and endless and circling. She was within me and without me, above and below me. She was me.

I won't say there were no difference between us--but what they were I could no longer tell--not even with her help.

I wanted to hold on to her forever, and am not ashamed to say I wept. But then, with hands that frankly trembled but with steadfast resolve, I did the thing I swore I would not do. Could not do.

I called my father.

Her screams from the room below the guard station were heard throughout the colonia, and dragged like nails across my bruised skin. I knew the punishments that awaited her...I helped draft the treaties, helped create this new world. I can't seem to find the words to describe them, maybe I don't want to. Suffice to say, it was brutal and then she ceased.

Don't believe what the authorities will say about her...that she was a corrupter, using me to plot an overthrow of the colonia, that she was a spy sent from the Unreal. I don't believe it, even if it was once true. We were both doing what we needed to do, and then what we needed to do changed. Maia would have something to say about all, to be sure. Maia always had something to say.

My own punishments seemed but a trifle, in comparison. There would be exile, of course. Sanctions against my estate and my family.

But public outcry rose, and rose, and more people came forth, claiming the Glorious Revolution had robbed them of a life they had once loved. That the Real was a Tyranny, and a small, mean way to live after all. That instead of having the Elite Real and the lowly Servers, we could all commingle as one, once again.

My father knew what he had to do. I know, too. I hear them, downstairs, finally. But I have defied them, after words snake through your mind, don't they? My words, plain as they are, will live on in this story, even as I will not. I have tasted Maia's power--mixed the Real and the Unreal. I, who fought in the Glorious Revolution, have discovered that sometimes the only way to move into a better life is to find your way back to it. And so I say it now, finally. The Unreal taught me that there are always more things than we can see. And those we can see are still more than that. I wish that I had her gift for words--I fear my story will be lost without her eloquence. But I wanted to tell you that she was perhaps more Real than either you, or me. I wish I could have told her.

I do not know whether history will judge my story as an important one--it is just my story after all. But in speaking for myself, I speak for her as well. There are many different kinds of life--and "Real" and "Unreal" are only one of the many ways of dividing them. Maybe not even the most important way.

If anyone asks you to tell them about me--about who I was, make sure to tell them one thing.

I Serve.

For more things you would never write, go here.


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Friday, September 08, 2006

Fall brings energy without direction

Pretty picture from my alma mater.

Well, I had a brilliant post all written up, but Madam chose to shut my machine down and alas, the post explaining the meaning of life has been lost to the ether of hyperspace.

All right, I suppose it probably wasn’t that brilliant, but I really wanted to post something before I left for the East Coast tomorrow. My MIL had a bit of a cardiac scare, so we’re going to make sure she’s fine and hearty.

It’s definitely beginning to feel like Fall here, and my mind is full of plans and lists and self-made curricula—I’m an eternal scholar, after all. I want to read the world—I catch myself staring at people as they walk by, imagining dark mysteries and passionate doomed love affairs and valiant heroic quests for them. My shelves are overflowing with books I am dying to read, and I am racing to devour them before the library claims them. I want to eat the world, put it in my mouth with both hands. And I am officially the last blogger to get her hands on Eat, Pray, Love—what can I say? There are a slew of people in Minneapolis with a library card looking for enlightenment.

Fall brings with it another mania—I want to talk, want to write, want to communicate something (but what?) desperately. Words crowd behind my eyelids, push past my lips, unspool like ribbons down my chin. But it’s an urge to babble without necessarily having anything deep to say. So I walk in a cloud of language without meaning. I suppose as the leaves change, my thinking will become more disciplined, and this relentless pressure will find some sort of a focus. I hope so, anyway.

The latest victim of my logorrhea was Jessie, who by the way is much more charming, wise, and cool than she comes across in her blog (which is a feat, since her blog is also charming, wise, and cool). And, she has fantastic hair. I managed to bribe Madam with a stream of Cherrios and fruit and water and yoghurt, and she was generous with her good behavior while Jessie and I had coffee and chatted. It was wonderful to talk to someone who was over three feet tall and could talk back. I was practically at the point of buttonholing strangers to talk about "cabbages and kings."

Alas, so many words, and yet the poetry muse has refused to visit to me. Unlike prose, which can be wooed with a moment or two of silence and reflection, poetry seems to come almost as a visitation. I suppose I should be grateful she comes at all...I never wrote poetry until I started blogging. But it’s certainly making me a bad Poetry Thursday participant.

However, the List-making Muse is happy to take her place, so here is a completely impromptu list of things I’d like to try in the next two weeks or so.

1) Read Eat, Pray, Love
2) Actually PULL OUT my novel and face it
3) Plot out a story with Beansprout
4) Get back on track with my mirror mediation

Even though I’ve been remiss with my mirror meditations of late, I still feel the effects—a sense that most dilemmas in my life can be solved by a simple question—does this make me like myself more or less? A sense of wooing myself—a realization that I actually do like myself most of the time, especially when I’m not viewing myself through the eyes of society, or TEG, or my family. And a feeling that maybe my values are worthy, even if they are not affirmed by mainstream society. And knowing that I don’t mind that, after all.

I hope I can find enough time nibbles (and imaginative prowess) to write something for Sunday Scribblings on my travels. If not, hopefully I’ll get to feast at your tables.

Have a wonderful weekend.


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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Sunday Scribblings--Fortune (a story)

I really WILL learn to write short SS stories...but not this week. Sorry. This is a quick first draft of a short story, about a woman who is always drawn to what she doesn't believe she has inside, and her husband who believes that growing up means shutting the door on his passions. And the half-eaten fortune that changes both of their minds.
She sat hunched in the passenger seat of their car, counting the telephone poles as the lines swooped by her. One...two...three...four. Anything to quell the rising nausea in her throat. She was six months should have faded by now. But the black bile was relentless, and never more than she was in the car.

She turned towards her husband, watched his profile as street lights washed over him, in rhythm. Tom was in the spotlight again.

Tomandsue...that’s what everyone called them, as though it were one word. Sue liked to see the word hanging in the air, her husband’s name assertive on the breath, her own dissipating like a sigh. No one really remembered when one ended and the other began, and she usually liked it that way. Usually.

They passed a sign for a service area, and Sue’s stomach gave a small protest of hunger. Was that Miranda in there, asking for food? Sue realized that they’d been driving almost continuously all day and into the night. Tom leaned into the wheel, clutching it, determined to get to Sue’s mother’s house that night. Sue couldn’t understand his determination. She wasn’t in any hurry herself. She hadn’t been in any hurry for the last five years.

"I want to stop." Why did her voice sound so alien?

Tom turned to her, briefly. "Where?"

"That rest stop...the one in five miles."

"Do you really want to give the baby Burger King?" That’s how he referred to her, the baby. He didn’t want to know the gender of his child. Sometimes Sue wasn’t sure he wanted to know Miranda at all. Could someone really be happy about changing his life for someone else?

"Not Burger King...the Chinese place. I have a craving." She didn’t have a craving, exactly, but she’d learned that was one way to get whatever she wanted.

His lips tightened into the cold sterile line they fell into more and more these days. Tension, he said. From the new job. Sue stopped asking after a while, knowing she’d never get the right answer.

"You want to eat that fake Chinese slop? Full of MSG? That’s stuff is just..." He trailed off, unable to find a word to capture his horror.

Inauthentic, she thought. Maybe that's why I like it. She closed her eyes, guilt stretched taut over them. She had learned not to bring up China.

"The day I first landed in Beijing, I knew I was home. I knew that I was doing the right thing with my life, in the right place." That was one of the first conversations they’d ever had. She’d been watching him, struggling through their college classes together. He’d walk around campus like an abstraction, his mind clearly back in his beloved China. He was older, carried himself like a man, confident. His passion magnetized around him, his blue eyes like search lights as they scanned her face. They sat in the quad that day and talked for hours, about his deep faith in humanity and the Word of God, about his plans to go back to China permanently, as soon as he could swing it, convince his parents and save the money. He brought it all to life for her, painting a picture of the majesty of the history as it smiled serenely down on people who were intensely engaged with each other, with life, and struggling with their rulers. He took her on bike rides in endless traffic, stopping for rice and squid, the chopsticks clanking against the metal plate as the cook shook spices over it, the fire soot melding with the dense air. Colors and passion and pageantry throbbed in his stories, filling her with a longing for life she had never experienced. His faith was as forthright as his blue eyes, expansive, alive. She turned it over in her mind, searching for the darkness in him. She couldn’t seem to find it, just joy. And she wanted to be near his certainty, even if she couldn't share it. She
wanted to sear herself on his flame.

It became more than love, more than attraction. She craved him after that day, decided with a breathless force that she would marry him.

It was the only time she could remember getting what she wanted. Until Miranda.

"You don’t have to eat it." She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice.

"You shouldn’t either. Who knows what that will do to the baby!" His voice and face hard like steel. The boy missionary swallowed.

"I think starving will hurt the baby more." Why was everything a fight lately? Hadn’t they been working towards this for years, this miracle baby?

Lately she felt the vast space between their names—the and between them growing wider, breaking.

Silent, they sat alone in a vast food court, lit up whitely as though for a party.

Sue picked at her food, the taste like pouring salt into her mouth. Tom had been right.

"I guess it’s better in China, huh." It wasn’t a question.

Tom sat nursing a diet Coke, staring at the neutral table. "Any Chinese person I met there would laugh at how wrong this is!" His eyes lit up, momentarily, and Sue found herself leaning forward, like a child wanting to hear a bedtime story for the fifth time. Usually that was all the encouragement Tom needed to go on with his stories, to lose himself in that world. But today he pushed himself back from the table, mumbled an excuse about the bathroom.

Sue closed her eyes, rubbed her belly absently. She could almost hear Miranda’s voice reproaching her. "You have to fix this, Mommy. I don’t think I can live like this."

But she wasn’t sure she could fix anything. She wasn’t sure she had ever learned how.

In her eyes, Tom had always been sharp while she was blurry, her boundaries fluid. Easily breached.

He returned now, eyes red rimmed with exhaustion and driving and something else she glanced away from. There were two fortune cookies on the table, and absentmindedly, she picked one up and bit into it. The paper slid down her throat before she realized it.

Tom smiled wanly. "Still that hungry?"

She tried to match his lighter tone. "Let’s see what I didn’t eat." for all the things that came before That was all. She couldn’t tell if it had begun or ended with that.

"Well, no one said fortune cookies had to make any sense." But she wished she’d gotten a coherent fortune. She could use some guidance.

Hours later, they arrived rumpled and exhausted at her mother’s house. Sue’s mother was always pristine, her surface polished and every detail accounted for. She’d always been that way, and she’d always expected Sue to follow.

It was incredibly tiring to be there again.

"My darling! How I’ve missed you!" She barreled towards Sue, who put her arms around her belly protectively. Her mother softened. "God, you must be so tired. I suppose I should have given you a night off, sweetheart. I just wanted to share this bounty with..." she trailed off, for once unsure.

Her mother turned towards Tom, nodded coolly. They’d never gotten along. Too much alike, although neither of them could see it.

"Sit, sit!" Sue was shocked by how little the room had changed since she had left. Her mother had been fond of frequently redecorating, watching the shows on HGTV and stretching her secretary’s salary to make sure the room could be photographed at any moment.

"My first grandchild..." her eyes grew misty. "Thank you for calling me."

"It was Tom’s idea."

"Well, thank you, then, Tom."

Tom was pacing restless around the room, stopping in front of the bookcase with a look almost like pain. The shelves overflowed with titles by Paul Tillich and Albert Schweitzer—books about Christianity and faith and doubt. Books on China, the culture, the languages, the food.

"I wanted to understand." She said simply.

Sue felt small, insignificant before the hunger in Tom’s eyes. She hadn’t seen that light in them since he’d started his new job. "Just a cog in the wheel." He had complained on that first day. "I’m nobody now. But it’s all for the baby. The baby needs a daddy who’s a grownup. I had my time."

"But we can go to China...all, together, once the baby’s born." She had said as she cradled his head in her arms, tasting a comfort in comforting him. Wanting to want something the way did. Something besides him.

"No. My parents are right. I can’t subject our child to my whims. I need to make money. I can find God in my life in other ways."

And he hadn’t brought it up since. And here they were, all those dreams, crowding her mother’s bookcase.

She wanted to leave him to them.

Sue went outside, leaned against the porch doorway, overwhelmed. The kitchen door swung open, quiet. Her mother.

"I am trying, Susan. I want to be a part of your life again. You are all I have."

Wearily, Sue nodded. "I don’t even remember why I left."

"Because you were headstrong and furiously in love with Tom and your romantic vision of what life would be like with him."

Sue shook her head. "That doesn’t sound like me." She paused, considering. "I guess I’ve always been attracted to special people. Like Tom."

Like you, she added silently, to her mother and Miranda both.

Sue’s mother hugged her suddenly, fiercely. "You ARE someone special. You have a secret inside of you, Susan. You make people better than they are. You inspire. Can you inspire yourself now, as well?"

That night, lying in her childhood room, Tom curled around her like a question mark. She leaned into his closeness, responding to a different charge in his air. Tenderly, softly, they began to make love, a wave, a sigh that gasped with tension and release. Sue sobbed his name with relief.

Some moments later, Tom spoke up. "I want to go to school...divinity school." He said in a quick breath, sudden and shy. "I thought I could live like this, serve God another way,’s not in me, Sue. I need this. I need to find a way to go back, if not to China, then at least to that work. Everything in my life has led me to this point." For all the things that came before.

What had come before for her? What had come before Tom? Her mother, her history. What would come now? Miranda. And somewhere in all that, Sue. She felt her name separate from his, float free in space. Sue and Tom. Together even in their division. It ached like a limb long unused...with pins and needles. With life.

"This is going to work, you know." Sue tested her new fierceness, conviction. And it was right. "She’s going to be so proud of her divinity student daddy. This is our time. "

She hugged Tom closer to her, laughing as he bumped her belly. "She’s going to be beautiful," he whispered to her. "Giving strength...just like her mother."

I have a secret inside of me. She’s going to help me find my China.

Sue smiled in the darkness, warm with possibilities. Her baby drowsed, content. And her fortune lay within her too, half read, half unknowable.

For more fortune telling, go here.


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