Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Deep End

For our first class assignment, my first academic assignment in over five years, we are asked to bring three pages, three pages of exemplary work we admire, three pages of work that we are proud of, or three pages of work that we are struggling with. I chose the last, a struggle. The rest of the class clutches books by Dostoevsky, by Bernhard, by Walcott, by Sebald. Foolishly, wrongly, I assumed we would hand in our pages, silently. After the class shuffles in, young and old and somewhere between young and old, tired and carrying the weight of our days, some stooped slightly, others acutely, the instructor announces that we will take turns reading aloud the passage we selected. Trial by action. A toss into the pool.

When was it that I had last read aloud, before a group? Definitively, I recall a time, a Sunday morning, possibly late spring, in church, reading a passage from the New Testament before my congregation, my voice clear and steadfast, despite, even then, a wavering, a skepticism, questioning the rhetorical argument, questioning the philosophical and scientific validity of organized religion, the cultural impact of such dogma. Afterwards, the people gathered in a large hall, the foyer to the house of worship, swallowing cheap sugar cookies and sticky lemonade like communion, swapping gossip about the achievements and failures of their children, the illnesses of their parents. They grasped my hand, expressed their gratitude, their compliments. I enjoyed standing before them, reading to an audience, even though it was not my words. My father smiled.

Now, I must read three pages and pretend not to struggle through it. The pits of my arms grow warm, palpitate with a new dew, as though my heart has split, a large cell at the end of mitosis, and migrated to live, one chunk under each shoulder, in the cave crevice. I try to read slowly, deliberately, though, I cannot gauge from the stares of the others whether my pace is appropriate, my words compelling. Sentences seem too long. This is always my tendency, in spoken and written word, to effuse, to string clause upon clause like copious beads, to qualify, to intersect a sentence with a related tangent, an aside. I try to read deliberately. I try not to slice my tongue along the long length of clauses, of sentences, of pages of woven words. Some of the imagery, inked in my memory like a tattoo, still seem strong, to me, and I desperately pray that the class agrees, finds some truth or some beauty or some something in them. 

When I finish, the instructor poses a question: why am I struggling with this piece? What am I struggling with? The question seems obvious, though, I do not answer this way: I struggle with all of my writing, always. When I write in my head, mentally, and when I take the dare to commit those words to paper, the struggle, the fear, tantalizing, persists. 

(image taken from This Recording)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Shifting Contents

It is an evening in early November, somewhere between chilled and frigid, and we are house sitting for a pilates instructor. Situated, snuggled, along a slope towards a gorge, geographically characteristic of this area in western New York, the house features an impressive yet unassuming tiered porch, complete with steaming hot tub. We sit together in the tub, sipping cheap red wine, swathed in steam and our sweat. Above our heads, the black quilt of night sky is dazzling with patchwork clusters of stars, constellations of our own imagining we draw with fingertips. We talk and laugh, slowly, lethargic from the effort of staying awake in the warm water, lethargic from our dinner of wicked and delicious frozen pizza. A girls only sleepover, a welcome respite from the typical weekend evening of too much plastic vodka, too much beer, dancing until the moon sets, cumbersome sexual stumblings with boys we do not like and will, more than likely, forget about, or have a hard time remembering names, fuzzy details, a year from now. Fights with friends, angst toward stubborn parents, stress over difficult classes, fear of never being noticed let alone loved by him, all slowly dissipates, becomes as ephemeral and intangible as the lazy paths of steam, winding and ambling, disappearing into the dark. The future as unreal and benign as the steam, rising from lapping water in the tub. We are comfortable, in this beautiful house, in beautiful woods, wrapped in dark warmth.

Although exploring the demise and the birth of two separate romantic relationships with two very different men, using a fascinating and fluid travel log structure, detailing accounts in various cities, crowded and remote, most compelling in Pam Houston's novel Contents May Have Shifted is the span and depth of the fierce bonds between the narrator and her female friends. The women spend weekends together, reunited, at hot springs spas in the west, write thoughtful letters to one another between visits, travel to the far reaches of southeast Asia to explore spiritual havens, untouched, together imbued with potent feelings of heritage and calm. They embark on adventures, gunning down water rapids in rushing rivers, coaxing teams of dogs to guide and glide them along snow-covered paths, trusting in the physicality, in the confidence, of the other. The narrator invites these women into her home, a secluded ranch in a small town, time passing, but not, between cups of tea, glasses of wine. Amidst constant change, shifting jobs and partners and cities, the women are true to one another; their love is admirable, and is enviable.

At the finish of this novel, I was inspired. Inspired to explore the unknown, inspired to confront my fear, fear of unknown in friendships, fear of unknown in strangers, fear of unknown in alien lands, majestic and mundane alike. Inspired to travel, beyond the comfort realm. Inspired to work harder to continue to forge deep, meaningful bonds with my female friends, to seek comfort in their strength, to be proud, internally but also vocally, of the beautiful and wonderful things they do. Inspired to write more, and specifically inspired by her fluid narrative structure, short vignettes passing through temporal and physical space, single molecules beautiful on their own, but organic and fascinating when woven together collectively.

(image taken from The Women's Eye)