Categories
gratitude

Be Your Own Badass

I fear I am a one-note writer.

So many of my essays are expressions of gratitude — although sometimes I bury it deeply enough that readers simply think the piece was about eating pie (blueberry up my nose) or getting new shoes (don’t touch: MINE) or loving my kids (Have you met them? They will gaze silently, listen intently, disappear into a book, and two weeks later drop a devastatingly astute observation that reveals they got it.).

Often, I write from gratitude because it’s safe. No one will object to positivity and affirmation. No one will tell me I’m wrong or out of line or inappropriate if the point of a story is a happy glow capped by a heartfelt swoop and a wave of peace fingers.

When I skid into areas that are raw, challenging, anti-gratitudinal, people get uncomfortable. It’s the rare reader who seeks distress. Most folks object to a perspective that grates. So there is an erosion that happens: the writer edits her ideas before she ever edits the punctuation.

I write safe.

It chafes.

It’s okay if I point out my own foibles and tell stories in which I’m the dunce. However, the second others enter the narrative, they have rights, too. An uneasy tension between I’m telling my story and I’m telling their story crops up. From there, it gets murky and complicated. I’m just trying to write what’s in my head, and if my right to do that only extends to myself, then I’m hobbled.

Every time I sit down and stare at a blank screen, these are the things that are on my mind. Many simply leave others out of their writing: they crank out snappy anecdotes about the fungus thickening their toenails or make listicles of ways parents are actually toddlers. Others, and I admire their courage and ability, own their story and write all the things in their heads, consequences be damned.

There is also the cover of fiction. Elena Ferrante, an author who has deliberately chosen to remain private and unknown, has acknowledged that the only way she can tell her truths is behind the veil of fiction. “She writes with hard-won honesty about subjects that people don’t feel they can write about with their own identity,” says Megan O’Grady, one of the first American journalists to interview Ferrante, which she did via e-mail in 2014. “She writes about hating your mother or your child. She writes about betrayal and sex.” No one is completely sure who Elena Ferrante is, what she looks like, where she lives, and every time she asserts that writing should stand separate from the author, the public becomes more wild to pin down who she is — so they can better probe her fiction for the non-fiction behind it. Readers are desperate to correlate the fiction to reality.

No matter what, it’s risky stuff, the business of putting words to page.

It’s risky stuff, the business of feeling compelled, from a deep, pounding place, to put words to page and to know that most of the recipients of those words have never engaged in the blood-and-sweat process of writing their own stories. Unquestionably: I became a better, sharper, more appreciative and understanding reader once I started trying to figure out how to write.

Unquestionably, I have had personal moments of reckoning when readers have reacted to something I’ve written, moments in which it is revealed I’m an asshole. I have been an asshole; I am an asshole; I will be an asshole. What flummoxes many is this: I’m okay with being an asshole. When my assholery occurs, it’s not on purpose, necessarily. But I learn from the reactions; subsequent to the lesson, I hunker down even tighter. The reactions erode future content. I edit myself. But still: I am okay with being an asshole. At least it feels real, like I’m willing to caress something prickly.

All of this is what I’m thinking about as I run along Brighton Beach on the first truly warm day of the year. This is what I thought about the day before when I ran up Seven Bridges Road, blinded by sunlit diamonds dancing across the surface of Amity Creek. This is what I considered the day before that, running the streets of the Lakeside neighborhood, my musings skidding along the loose gravel lining the newly exposed sidewalks.

Recently out of an immobilizer after shoulder surgery, I’ve been easing back in to running. Some days, the arm swing results in ache and swelling; other days, it feels great. At first, I just walked. Then, eventually, I started trotting for a block or two. Now, wanting to grab hard at this phase of  “free” recovery — leaving behind those days of constant icing, help with showering, thanks when my kids snapped me into my seat belt, groans when I tipped from left to right in the night, frustration at trying to put a liner into a garbage can, struggles to pull up my pants, sighs at how hard it was to open a yogurt container, sobs at the sensation of my bones splintering as red-hot screwdrivers were driven into them — I am running and running and running, outpacing those fragile and tentative weeks.

To feel my feet moving, both arms swaying, is powerful, particularly as Spring hits the city. Sunshine makes my soul sit up straight; the water rushing over waterfalls dazzles me. I am propelling myself from darkness to light.

As I run, I listen to podcasts. My brain is pipping with voices floating into my skull and, always, with the voices that live permanently inside my head. I hear interviews, benefit from people explaining their work and lives, and, always, my thoughts veer towards the analytical. I think about people, their choices, their behaviors, their intersections with their communities. And, always, I have notes. Always, I have observations. I have probing questions. Always. It’s the downfall of analytical thinking: the brain tangles with endless angles.

Often, when I’m running and my brain has had a good perk, I take the ideas and pour them into an essay. Teetering on the line between extrovert and introvert, I need to express externally, but in selective ways. Writing cleans me vein-deep.

Except when my brain has been percolating on matters of raw honesty that would offend.

I can’t put such stuff into writing. I lack the courage, the cleverness, the ability to say all that I would say. It’s frustrating.

I can put such stuff into my husband’s ears. He is right for me that way. I can unleash with a torrent of “And why did he have to…? Plus, wouldn’t it make more sense if…? How is that the best…? Does she ever question…? Isn’t it weird that they…?” — and he, an analytical thinker himself, provides responses that couple emotional with intellectual without being defensive or reactive. He is not threatened by stripped-down perspicuity, something that can strike others as brutal.

Thus, the things I ponder the most deeply and with the most oomph float across oral turf, across the stovetop in a kitchen with a stool next to some spatulas, an ephemeral exchange with a controlled audience.

As well, they live inside my running head, a special space governed by rhythm and unconstrained whirls.

Every day, I am running.

Every day, I am trying to riddle out a way to write about all the things, not just the easy positives. I play around with scenarios of using a pseudonym, simply writing fiction and telling everyone they’re wrong when they claim to spot themselves, or going balls-out and alienating everyone I know. Then I laugh, only a little ruefully, at the appeal of that final option.

Every day, I am returning to myself after some months of struggle. In every way, I am working at increasing my mobility and range of motion.

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The sun makes the pine trees pop bright green, every needle distinct. The bright yellow of the sky illuminates the pebbles I carefully dodge because the single helpful thing the surgeon told me when I saw him a few weeks ago was “Just don’t fall.” The golden cast to the world energizes my cells.

As I hoof down the road, soaking up warmth and glory, I am ramming through frustrations. So many thoughts without a repository.

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.

The trees are a blur, the creek a reassuring burble. Finally, I am starting to feel strong and able again. Never will I be a fast runner; I’m not made for it. Yet I have been fortunate enough to get to a place in life where I don’t care how fast other people can run. All that matters is my own body, part of the landscape, witnessing the world from the intimate vantage of foot travel. It’s complete joy, this feeling of independence and control, and from my diaphragm a notion wells up: “I love being a badass for myself. I missed this.”

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Arms swinging. The miles tick by.

I am so lucky. My body is working. My brain has bones, clutched in pointy claws, to gnaw on. The air is smiling.

Everything is a happy glow, a heartfelt swoop, a wave of peace fingers.

Just as readers would have it.

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Categories
gratitude

In the Bag

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I had quite a tussle in the kitchen the other day, and Mario Batali wasn’t even trying to abscond with the dark chocolate. 

(Good thing, too, for I am not above take-down by pony tail).

Rather, I was attempting to demonstrate my General Maturity by making dinner.

Planning began at 10 a.m., moved through a stop at the grocery store at noon, and transitioned into pre-meal preparation at 2 p.m., at which time I measured out and stirred up something called “steak spice” before dissolving it in balsamic vinegar. Dramatically, I hefted two pounds of pork loin and anointed it in

a marinade.

In the moment, it seemed practical that the recipe recommended plunging the meat into a plastic bag full of the marinade. The bag would be malleable, letting the juices work around the hunk of protein for several hours, permeating every pore of the pig. Throughout the afternoon, whenever I stopped by the kitchen, I would be able to squeeze and adjust the pounds of meat–much like my strategy for packing breastual tissues into a bra–and swirl the marinade around a bit.

There was just one itsy problem.

Once I poured the marinade over the meat and sealed the Ziploc bag, the thing became Mount Etna: several holes in the bottom of the bag created channels for the marinade to ooze out, bubbling over the counter top. Yelping a loud %&*@#!, I grabbed the sponge and a handful of paper towels before scrabbling into the drawer for a spoon: so much marinade had seeped out in thirty seconds that I was able to scoop it up and, illogically, dump it back into the holey bag. Gathering my wits–both of ’em–I changed the order of attack.

With my less-sticky hand, I pulled open the drawer where we keep plastic bags and riffled around for another big one. As quickly as possible, I transferred the loin and remaining marinade into the new bag. Cussing one more time at the holey bag, I threw it into the garbage and set about scooping and mopping the gunk off the counter, musing that the recipe hadn’t listed “sweat of your brow” on the ingredient list.

Daunted, I considered slurping the liquid off the counter but, instead of getting licky, bolstered my spirits with a personal affirmation: “It took the great Oscar Wilde an entire cast of characters to construct a comedy of errors, yet you have always manged to achieve states of nonsensery without a single assist!”

Finally, I deposited ten more paper towels into the trash and gave the sponge a thorough rinsing. There.

Now I could toss the loin into the fridge, ignore it for a few hours, and get down to grading some student work.

…or, as it turned out, I could spend another ten minutes wiping up marinade off the counter. Because holes. In the replacement bag. That invisibly damaged mo#^erfu@@er.

By the time I was done prepping the first stage of our “quick and easy dinner,” I was tired, sticky, and fed the hell up with plastic bags. Flippin’ stupid micro-punctured Ziplocs.

But then I sat down and started working through students’ paraphrasing activities, and because their work failed to hold my attention (Who assigns this stuff?), my brain took a meander down a path of memory, to the year we lived in Turkey.

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After an evening of dinner and movies at a friend’s, we were putting on our shoes before walking back up the hill to our 400-year-old Greek house. As I zipped my jacket, our hostess came out of the kitchen waving a plastic bag we’d forgotten on the counter after unpacking our dessert offering.

“You don’t want to leave this behind; this thing is like gold. Not only is it a Ziploc, but I’ve never seen one this big before. It’s a treasure.”

The bag was a treasure. It had slipped into our sweaty clutches a few months earlier, when friends from the United States had come to visit during our year in Turkey. Before their departure, my friend Pamm–true to form in both generosity of heart and desire to shed random tangle of Stuff–had gone through her bag and sculpted a clump of unwanted items that she thought we might find useful. Among other things, there was a comb she’d picked up in a hotel somewhere between Istanbul and Cappadocia; multiple bottles of shampoo; a few note pads; a nail clipper; a specialized implement for starting the peeling of an orange; hotel slippers; a pair of Crocs. All of her discards were handed to us in an enormous Ziploc bag.

Like a preschooler who spends Christmas day playing with the cardboard box his new scooter came in, we were most excited about the packaging.

A ZIPLOC BAG? IN TURKEY?

Golden. Treasure.

It speaks to the fine character of our hostess that she didn’t let us leave it behind. A lesser woman would have shoved the thing into her silverware drawer while calling out a hasty, “Don’t trip on the uneven stones on your way out! Keep the kids close because, you know: feral village dogs!”

Gratefully, I took the big bag from her and hugged it to my chest. In a pinch, I could slip it over the head of an aggressive dog and zip it shut.

Fortunately, the return home was uneventful (only one near miss as a sixteen-year-old with Flock of Seagulls hair on a motorcycle came within half a foot of our second grader). Tenderly, we tucked Baggie in that evening, assuring it of our love, its value, and a long future together.

The next day, as I started to make cookies, I pulled Baggie out and set him on the counter. He was always more accepting of inserts if he knew their origins, so I let him witness the baking and ready himself for action during the cookie cool-down period.

Naturally, because this was Turkey, and because dumb situations crop up wherever I set my feet, shortly after I got the first pan of cookies into the little oven (essentially a toaster oven the size of a microwave), the power went out. Since the cookies only needed a few more minutes of baking, I decided to let the remnant heat in the oven finish them off.

As I waited in the dark, walking tentatively since the door frames in Cappadocian stone homes top out at five feet, I decided to call a friend and have a chat. After all, she was on her third Turkish husband, and if we missed a day of catching up, I feared the announcement of a fourth might slip by. Thus, when it was time to remove the pan of cookies from the oven, I was laughing, hunching, and stumbling (just another Thursday, really). Stabbing around in the darkness, holding the phone to one ear, feeling around for a dish towel to wrap around my free hand, I located the door of the oven and pulled out the baking sheet. Sweet Martha Stewart in menopause, but was hot!

I slammed it onto the marble counter top, grateful that the stone surface could handle heat.

What couldn’t handle heat was the enormous Ziploc bag I’d just set the pan onto, there in the darkness.

Immediately, huge holes melted into Baggie, rendering him unusable, fit only for the huge trash heap outside the village–where the feral dogs gathered before pack hunting my husband when he went out for a run. RIP, Baggie. Choke not a doggie.

Standing there blindly, unable to see the melted bag, I ran my fingers over the holes and felt a genuine sense of loss. That bag had come all the way from the United States before joining our family. That bag had once held a specialized implement for starting the peeling of an orange. It had gone to movie night. It had held bread, leftovers, cookies, and little crumbles of our hearts. A true treasure, admired by others, Baggie had come to us as a glamorous piece of “home,” one that made our year abroad feel the eensiest bit less foreign.

That Ziploc bag had been a great deal more than a Ziploc bag.

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Although it could be argued that the world would be better off if plastic bags didn’t exist at all, that’s not the point. I realized, as I sat not grading paraphrases while recalling Adventures in Ziplocs, that the point was gratitude. If I was lucky enough to have something, and if I was happy to have that thing because it was useful, then I should forgive its failings and appreciate that it had tried to help.

My attitude thusly adjusted, I stood up, cracked my back, and walked into the kitchen. There, I stuck my head into the garbage can and yelled, “Thank you for your service, you holey bastards. You make me crazy, but what a privilege it’s been to have you.”

With that, I took a quiet moment to massage my loin.

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Categories
gratitude McNuggets New Year NPR Oprah pork

W.W.O.D.?

 

If there is a circle of life, that circle just might be the “O” at the start of “Oprah.”

It all starts and ends with Her Royal TalkNess, dunn’t it?

If we need a book to read, she tells us what to buy, and invariably we’ll find ourselves gratified to have paged through yet another tale of an abused foster child in the American South.

If we need shoes to ogle, she marches out in a pair of brown suede Louboutin ankle boots, rousing all viewers to a fevered pitch.

If we find ourselves feeling politically undecided or veering towards independence, Ms. Winfrey-If-You’re-Nasty tells us for whom to cast our vote.

If we need to buy Christmas gifts, she details a list of several thousand dollars worth of her Favorite Things, never minding that we can hardly afford to buy Panini Presses for twenty-four of our closest friends, much less fit such a thing into a stocking.

And if we find ourselves spiritually hollow, she recommends we keep “gratitude journals,” catalogues of our internal thank you’s which spur on greater appreciation and, subsequently, result in renewal and abundance.

Feh.

Frankly? I’m not sure how challenging a gratitude journal is when you sleep on 700-thread count Egyptian Cotton sheets, own six homes, and have a personal chef flavoring your gnocchi with truffle oil. And personally, I feel the time I would spend on a gratitude journal is better spent clinking the spoon into my nearly-empty ice cream bowl, as I–deliberately and gratefully–swipe out every last remnant of the Moose Tracks.

Plus, I can hardly make it through a day without at least a two-minute weeping break simply for the wonderment of it all: my robust health, my children’s intelligence and beauty, my husband’s steadfast adoration, my dynamic job, my gracious house, the stack of books on my nightstand, the readers of this blog, the chance to see Juno, the espresso maker, the fleece socks, the gentle curve in the handle of my toothbrush.

Every day is full. Every day is amazing. I don’t get over that.

So I don’t keep a journal of my thank you’s, as a rule. However, since the new year has just launched, it does seem a fair moment to take stock of the bounty that plumps up my life and waistline.

Of course, I am also bountiful in years, and since I’ve hit forty, the memory ain’t what she used to…

Crap. I trailed off there. What was I saying?

Something about losing the power of memory. I can’t recall the rest.

At any rate, since my memory would be hard-pressed to cover the entire year in review, I’ll limit myself to Recent Days of Gratitude:

1) Saturday: Thank you, Little Pork Pies. When Groom rolled out that pie crust and brought the muffin tins up from the basement, I knew it was still the giving season. Of course, I’m almost better at receiving than giving, so thanks for the receipt of those warm, crusty, flaky pies stuffed full of pork and onions and sloughed-off skin cells. Every bit of it was yum.

2) Sunday: Thank you, Zamboni, for being the perfect distraction. Most wondrous of machines (save the hot air balloon, if we can count that as a machine), you were there at the hockey rink in Lester Park at just the right time, re-surfacing the ice as Girl and I, tired from an hour-and-a-half ski around a groomed loop, hit that last long, steep hill. Knowing we’d break limbs if we attempted the descent, our pretended interest in you, Zamboni, gave us cause to take off our skis and let them slide down the hill, unpersoned, as we chased after them. You kept up your work as we retrieved our rogue skis from the bushes, chere Zamboni, so we could point at you and marvel at your prowess instead of considering that we might be spineless wimps, too cowardly to hurl our bodies into the open, white softness, preferring instead to hoof it down Everest there.

By the way, Zambon-er, through the twirling of your brushes, did you get a look at that Girl of mine? Did you see her chugging along all that time, over hill and dale, before she de-ski-ified? Could you believe she’s only seven and just kept going and going, so good-naturedly? If you are ever fortunate enough to spit a little Zamboodlie out your junk, Ms. Zamboni, you’d count yourself doubly lucky to have one like my Girl.

3) Monday: Thank you, Chicken McNuggets, for providing the leverage to get my kids to agree to play in the YMCA’s “Kids’ Club.” They have been burned there before by a scary babysitter lady named Judy (as Girl described her a couple of years ago, “Even when a kid hasn’t done anything wrong, she talks at them like they have”), making them reluctant to hang out in this “club” so that their mama can get in a workout on the days when Pappy is at work (good thing he’s a lazy slouch, and that’s a rarity in our lives). But as soon as I slip the words “Happy” and “Meal” and “McNuggets” and “new Bionicle toy” out of my mouth, along with the caveat that these things find life only in the Kids’ Club, the deal is struck; the deed is done; the fries are ketchupped; the mother is sweaty and giddy with endorphins.

4) Tuesday: Thank you, NPR, for talking in my ear whenever I run or ski or cook. Sure, as happened today, you freaked out some onlookers who passed me on the Superior Hiking Trail. They couldn’t figure out why the redhead running on snowshoes was sobbing as she puffed along. It didn’t look that painful, after all, and she seemed to have a choice about what she was doing. So why the tears?

Because your stories move me, NPR. When you pour into my ears audio essays about people’s lives–as a man weakens from cancer and passes away in a hospital bed placed in the living room; as a father of a child with mental delays notes, “My son has so much to give, but unfortunately there are very few takers”; as a transgendered individual explains why a life on the streets as a “working girl” is the best she can expect for happiness–I am reminded of my copious luck. These vignettes, peppered with the sublime counterpoint of Pavarotti’s soaring tenor, keep my cheeks frozen with tears of salutation.
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So you see, Ofrey Winprah Steadwoman, my hours are breathing entries in an unwritten journal of gratitude. You can tell me what bra to buy, how to network with angels, and how to lose weight by dragging the fat out onto a stage in a Little Red Wagon, but the truth is that you can’t tell me how to live my best life. I’m on my own with that one.

Providentially, 2007 offered up 362.5 days of grace and acclamation and awe.

The other 2.5 days sucked fudge crackers, of course.

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