Not writing at the Melrose

I recently turned 49.

Not long after, I had this dream where I hid my kids eyes as a middle aged (49? You be the judge) woman jumped from the roof of a building in front of us, impaling herself on a street sign that read Melrose, and losing her right hand on the way down. It was a disturbing dream, made all the more poignant when I remembered that Melrose is the name of the diner back in Chicago where I used to write for hours and hours next to a gigantic chef salad. For the price of a chef salad I bought myself a writing studio and I was there at least three days a week and countless nights, working longhand.

I had forgotten about the Melrose until that dream.

Around that time I did another thing: I started reading Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her early years in New York.

Oh, Patti.

Talk about an artist. You think she looks like a man? Whatever. (That’s Patti speaking. I channel her now. But only in my head, and here on this blog.) You don’t like that she tells the truth on paper and reads it out loud to whoever cares to stop and listen? That’s cool. Keep walking. I love the idea of living at The Chelsea Hotel , writing songs and collecting little bits to make jewelry for my maybe gay boyfriend. And I think I may need to tattoo my knee.

So, because of the dream, and the number 49, and because I had fallen hard for Patti and wanted to impress her, I put together a little writing group.

The three of us started meeting at Jude’s apartment because there are no pesky adorable children, so we can think and muse, and drink wine if we want.* Or we can write. We do all of these in equal parts, at least so far. I didn’t tell anyone else about the group or our goal of writing 30,000 words our first month. The truth is that I knew how it looked, three white middle aged women in the San Fernando Valley, rediscovering themselves with their ipads and snacks from Trader Joe’s, so I kept it pretty secret. What can I say? I was embarrassed.

Patti Smith would never be embarrassed. But then, she probably wouldn’t have joined a writing group. Although, maybe she did. I haven’t finished the book. But she certainly wouldn’t have spent this much any time thinking about what people thought of her writing practice.

Also, she would not have been scared to read her work to real live people, but I was. My writing pals and I agreed, in the beginning, to read at least some of our work out loud to each other. I could hear their thoughts: poor Maggie, what with that huge desire to be an artist and no talent. It would quiet the room. Who would say it first?? It was too dangerous, so I simply refused to read.

Here’s the thing with a tiny writing group. There is no fading into the background. If you’re lucky, and have chosen your circle wisely, they call you on your shit. They will insist that if one of you wears a bikini then you all wear a bikini. (we never have done this, it’s a metaphor— how writerly!).

So, I read. And my face got hot and my voice shook and I couldn’t get quite enough air, and that was it. That was the worst it got and now I can almost read out loud without drinking wine. Happy Birthday to me!

But there was still the problem of the 30,000 words.

That month, I tried to keep up with my word count. We’d worked out how many words we’d need to write per day, and I obeyed the rules.**

The light in my dining room is perfect for writing, and I clocked a lot of my words in that room, with it’s bright green walls and yard sale dining table. I do sometimes have to make my grocery list before getting down to the actual work, so I decided that a grocery list counts, and that upped it a few hundred. Then I found that all the seats on the dining chairs were loose and must be screwed back in, otherwise I could have gone flying off onto the floor at any moment and that would never do. And I often need Chapstick before writing, so there was that.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her. Sitting on the stone steps near her apartment, drawing people to her because she was fucking on fire with her pen and paper! Of course Jimi Hendrix chatted her up! Of course Janis Joplin confided in her and Sam Shepard fucked her. She was the real deal. Well. Some of us have to watch the little word count thingy and just cheer it the hell on as we sip our green smoothie. It’s a different time, Patti.

About ten days in, I was falling behind. I bargained with myself and thought a lot about what actually constitutes writing. It’s like Clinton asking what the definition of the word “is” is. Since grocery lists count, then so does journaling, right? (Obviously!) What if I type wordswordswordswords over and over? (Oh shit— that didn’t have any spaces so it only counts as one word!) All the while I am doing complicated figuring in my head. I see a sentence that needs to be cut in order for me to make my point more clearly, but I don’t cut it because then I’d be down one, two, three, how many words? Twenty-seven!? (Twenty-seven words? Forget it— no way.) The description of the baloney package stays in.

What would Patti think? Did she ever feel blocked? Did she feel like a fraud? A narcissist? Did she ever just want so badly to give it up and go home? If so, she doesn’t speak of it.

I never made my goal of 30,000 words that month. The big chunks of uninterrupted time were too few and the distractions too many. My dining room, with it’s dusty bookshelves and family foot traffic, was never going to be The Melrose Diner. I thought of packing it in. It was hard to schedule our group meetings and, when we did meet, we sometimes talked about writing more than we actually wrote. As Amy Poehler says in her book, “Talking about the thing is not the thing. The thing is the thing.”

But I also thought about that dream, the woman who had given up, and that it was so awful that I didn’t want my boys to see…

Now, I write at my kid’s basketball practice. I write while waiting at the skate park. I write when I’m supposed to be running errands or returning phone calls or having my lip waxed.**** And I do it knowing that, most likely, I will not end up with anything that will have a life beyond what I give it here. I started this blog, a form of “reading out” that fits my life right now and I have to think Patti would totally dig my process.

________________________

*** Patti Smith lived among some pretty heavy drug users but when she used drugs she did it mindfully, and not very often, as far as I can tell. She steered clear not because she judged it, but because she had work to do, damnit. The gals and I drink wine most times we meet, just because it’s fun and tastes good. In this way I am nothing like Patti Smith and I’m cool with that.

**Another way Patti and I are different. She worked and wrote and created with absolutely no need for rules or homework assignments. Jesus, she’s a badass.

*** Although, maybe not. Maybe she’d hate it and laugh at me and throw her box of baby teeth (she has one– isn’t that weird?) at me. That would still be pretty awesome, Patti throwing something at me.

****Do I really have to tell you what Patti would think of the choice between lip waxing and writing? No. I didn’t think so.

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High Sierra Static

I am folding laundry while my eleven year old perfects his front flip on the bed beside me. “Hey, dude, can you knock it off, I’m trying to fold here.”My phone rings and it’s my sister, Cinda. Her voice is tired. “So, Mama fell and broke her hip. She’s ok. Sort of. Who knows where they got my number— I’m sure she didn’t give it to them.

“Uh-Oh,” I say.

It’s an admittedly lame response to hearing the first real news of my mother in many years. But my emotions are on lock-down, at least where Mama is concerned, and reaching those feelings is like trying to ice-fish with a Q-tip. I know they are there, under layers of frost and years of running, but there’s just no way in.

“Her case worker called. Apparently she won’t be able to live by herself anymore, so they’ve moved her to a little place in Reno.”

Growing up, our mother’s mental illness and alcoholism meant car rides to school with her drunk at the wheel or learning how to walk in high heels on the icy stairs outside our apartment at midnight (a skill she decided should not wait until morning). Our father, in case you’re wondering, willing to take us to James Bond movies on occasional Sundays and pay for summer camp, was hard pressed to provide a home, and in those days, no one thought to argue. She was all we had, until finally, in the summer of 1978, the same summer my sisters left for college, she packed her car with clothes and the sculpting tools she cherished, and disappeared for good.

So, thirty-five years later, I listen as Cinda tells me that Mama will not be going back to her government subsidized apartment in California, and that someone will need to clear out all her belongings within the next two weeks. I wait for her, as usual, to say she will book a flight and do it herself. This perk of being the baby, even at forty-eight and the mother of two, is one that I’ve come to expect and fully enjoy. But she stays silent.

“I guess…I can go?” I am as surprised as she is to hear me say this and, at that moment, my son lands a perfect back flip, right onto the folded shirts. As any mother of young children will tell you, four days alone is dream come true, and if my dream has to come wrapped in a cloak of family disfunction, then so be it.

“I could use some time to myself,” I say to friends who reach out. “And anyway, it’s easier for me to do it. I’m not emotionally connected to her at all.”

Over the past three decades, both my sisters have spoken to our mother a handful of times, but I, claiming to have no feelings for the woman who abandoned me to live alone just before starting the eighth grade, never felt the need. Needing my mother was, quite simply, not on the menu.

So I rent a car and pack boxes, garbage bags, rubber gloves and cleaning supplies. Ever the optimist, I also pack books, wine, my journal (freedom to write in peace is but a distant memory) and running shoes. I will do this and maybe have a little time left over to enjoy the Sierra mountains. Like any busy mom, I’m a boss at multi-tasking.

After driving ten hours to Mama’s small apartment in Quincy California, I am met by Bill, the building manager, who hands me the key. The group gathered behind him looks like a casting call for “Dog the Bounty Hunter”.

“If you get rid of any of that in there that’s hers, I could come take a look!”

“We did talk, me and her, about me taking that desk, what she don’t need.”

“I know people steered clear of her, but me and your mom got along good.”

Moments later, I am inside the apartment that has been my mother’s home for twenty plus years. The walls are covered in her charcoal drawings. Across the room from the dusty television, an old plaid couch is piled with magazines, pill bottles and plastic tubes. “No tears?” Bill says, with eyes so kind I almost wish I could cry, just for his sake. “No I’m fine.” I reassure him.

Her sculptures are everywhere. Animals and women, some broken or with drawings taped to them, clearly works in progress that she hoped one day to complete. From what Bill (who seems to be both manager and de facto care-giver to the residents here) says, she’s been in no shape to work for years, but here they are, waiting. “Careful who you let come in here.” he says softly, before closing the door behind him. ”Not all these people knew your mother.”

By day three of packing, hauling and sorting I am physically and mentally exhausted. In all her belongings there isn’t one photo or mention of me or my sisters, but I find this oddly comforting. I always joke that I was raised by wolves. I picture my own photo albums at home and imagine how a stranger looking through them, seeing no pictures of a mother or father, might assume I am an orphan, or maybe, instead of being born, simply crashed to earth like a tiny meteor. If Mama has erased me, well then at least I did the same to her, I think, filling yet another garbage bag and throwing it hard into the dumpster.

It is early morning, hours before I am finally ready to head home, when my phone rings. This time it is my other sister, Emily. They are twins, and have always handled family business by tag teaming, which used to make me jealous. “Ready for this?,” she says through the High Sierra static, explaining that my mother needs to sign papers, in front of a notary, that give me and my sisters access to her medical records and doctors. “In person, if you can—” and the call is dropped.

Damn mountains. I grapple with the possibilities. I could ask the people at her board and care to handle this, but they had made it clear already that taking Mama out was problematic and unsafe, due to her “acting out.” Reno is only a few hours away from Quincy and no one has actually seen this place where the social worker placed her. I roll my eyes. Maybe it’s the altitude, but I can’t for the life of me see a way out of this without revealing myself to be, as my boys are fond of saying, a total wuss.

I text my husband: Hey baby. Gonna be a day late getting back. Kiss the kids. Remember Chester’s game.

The six bed board and care where Mama lives is located on a treeless cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Reno. I follow the calm voice of the GPS, aware that she seems to be handling this much better than I am. “Who can I get to do this for me?” I say out loud to the carload of terra-cotta figures I had carefully packed in pillow cases and towels. Sweating, I think about the unopened wine on the floor of the backseat, but digging out a bottle and opening it on the curb with my son’s Swiss army knife makes me feel more like my mother’s daughter than I care to admit.

I ring the doorbell and wait, reading the handwritten notes taped to the doorframe: Please don’t visit if you have a fever or flu symptoms. If you think you may be ill at all, please wear a mask or come back another time. No smoking. No cats. Just as I’m fairly certain I feel those pesky flu symptoms coming on, a short man appears behind the screen door. “Evalyn, someone here to see you!” he calls.

She is wearing lipstick, her shoulder length hair pinned back with a silver barrette. She is so thin and small that my first instinct is to pick her up and hold her. I am completely unprepared for this, the cracking of ice beneath my feet. Plastic tubing reaches from her nose to a tank of oxygen that rolls behind her. I could use a little of that myself, I think. I consider hugging her, but it is horribly awkward, and neither of us knows how. The man who has answered the door says his name is Cody and goes to gather the few suit cases of Evalyn’s from the car. Clothes I packed for the cooler weather and simple art supplies.

“Well, my hands don’t work” she declares, when I pull out the drawing pad. “But I’ve had ideas. You get ideas here.” I’ll bet you do, I think, noticing a Phillipino program blaring from one television, CNN from another.

“I have to get to the goddamn dentist, people!” She has become completely convinced that her teeth are loose and falling out, like, right now, and makes her way to the bathroom, in pretty good time. “Evalyn, your teeth are fine,” Cody says, smiling. “You saw the dentist last week, remember? He put a crown on that one that hurt you.” “Oh, right.” She calms at once and sits down between us. “He was a good looking one, that dentist. Remember that? Divine!” Cody laughs, adjusting the tubes.

I have never seen my mother so willing to be soothed. Little tantrums like this were an everyday occurrence when I lived with her, especially when she wasn’t drinking. But instead of passing quickly, they would gather intensity for hours sometimes, ending with her crouching in a corner in tears, driving away (for how long we never knew) or worse.

A few excruciating hours later the notary arrives, and she ushers my mother through the stack of papers, several of which Evalyn tosses aside. “God almighty, I’m not that old!” she says, truly angry. But most get signed with her shaky hand, and that will have to be enough, for today. I can’t wait to get on the road and back to my life and I check my watch again.

Then, the notary (a woman I decide is just a little too pushy for her own good), pushes the stack of papers over to me and hands me a pen. Apparently, there is an empty space that needs filling and, while I’m aware that this suggests a level of responsibility and connection that I haven’t come close to making peace with, I’m also aware that I’m doing this not only for Mama, but also for my sisters. Our mother was a wild card who hated the sight of us so, eager to please, I learned to become invisible, while Cinda and Emily took the bullets for me. After coming this far, I know I am strong enough to take one for them.

She’s right about one thing, you get ideas here.

As I go through the papers, signing my name next to hers, I wonder if my mother knows that she saved me, when she disappeared that early summer weekend so long ago? Was it her way of giving me a chance, however slim, of having a normal life? Or did my mother, like a therapist had suggested when I was in my twenties, just not think of me very much at all?

I watch her amble once again to the bathroom and peer nervously into her mouth. It is clear to me now that I will never know the answer; the truth is that either of those scenarios could be true and probably is. The mother who once held me after a nightmare, whispering “bless her heart…bless her heart” over and over is the same mother who, accusing me of being a selfish brat, set loose my pet rabbit during the night. And the little girl who stayed locked in her room, hoping to be forgotten, is also now a mother with a temper, who sometimes reaches for the wine too early and struggles to hold a space for her own creative life. I won’t leave just yet, I decide. Instead, I reach for her hand, cool and papery in mine.

“This way, Mama.”

“…and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about.”

cropped-img_1526.jpgWhen I was in kindergarten, my class would have singing time in the morning. We would stand in a circle together and sing songs from the bible (it was the early seventies in the south) and classics like Jimmy Crack Corn and If You’re Happy and You Know It. It was expected that we would all join in the singing and also in the little dance steps and hand motions that went along with the words. It was expected that, being carefree kindergartners, we would love this! What could be better?! And everyone did seem to love it. Everyone joined in and giggled and skipped in a circle and everyone (except the girl with the dark hair who was allergic, which was a weird thing back then) got a cup of juice afterward and, I suspect, a nice warm feeling somewhere inside that told them they were Right On Track.

But not me. Why wouldn’t I join in, I still wonder. Why did I absolutely refuse to clap my hands with the others? Even if I wasn’t happy and knew it all too well, was it too much to ask to just give it a whirl??

But giving it a whirl, when it is a required whirl, a whirl that everyone else seems to be doing so I should too, a whirl that I may or may not be any good at and which could leave me looking sort of dumb and babyish, has never been my thing.

And, by the way, no one really cared that I sat out the hand-clapping songs. Alone, I held my graham cracker and watched the kids hoot and holler it up to the one about David and Goliath, and thought that it might have been sort of…fun to give it a whirl. I considered jumping in, maybe only singing but not clapping, maybe clapping (but barely, like only really soft clapping), or just for the Father Abraham song. I went through the pros and cons of circle singing while I stood, silent, by the coat hooks and galoshes.

Time marches on. Now no one sings bible songs in public school (I’m good with that, btw) and I am a middle aged woman trying to get her creative groove back by starting a blog. Have you ever heard of such a thing??? Of course you have. One of us gals starts a blog every 2.3 seconds and this, plus the yoga pants I’m wearing qualifies me as a cliche to many, I know. But those people are not my business and the rest of you are too busy being part of the circle to care if I look a little awkward or spill orange juice on my coolotts.

This blog might be a way to find my voice again. It might be a place to share some creative writing with a few people and motivate me to write when so many other things demand my attention. I don’t know the words, the tune, or the goofy hand motions

but it looks kind of fun,

so I’ll give it a whirl.