Tonight. Atlanta. Kavarna. True Story. BOOM.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that the outside world and I don’t often get along, so I am not often out in it.  But tonight?  Tonight, outside world, it is ON.  I’ll be participating in Show and Tell, which was my favorite class in grammar school, and reading an essay about an awkward date and my feet at the True Story! Reading Series.  It’s at Kavarna Bar and Coffeeshop in Atlanta (well, the Decatur part of Atlanta), Georgia.  It starts at 8 and Charles McNair and Benjamin Carr are reading too, which is very exciting but also makes me feel the need to breathe into a brown paper sack.  But in, like, an awesome way.

The folks at True Story! posted an excerpt from one of my essays as an incentive.  I figured I’d double that incentive and post the next bit of the essay here.  This isn’t the essay I’m reading tonight, but it IS the story of the most traumatic moment of my grammar school life that didn’t involve gym class.  It also tells the story of why I didn’t get to go to the Young Author’s Conference in 1988, which was totally a big deal.  Also, I should let the Internet know that all of the people involved in this situation ended up totally okay.  No one’s brain actually fell out, and Christopher beat me in the egg race at Field Day every year after this.  Enjoy.

            In that second I imagined what would happen: he’d thud to the floor and look up, startled, and regret with the force of ten thousand Acts of Contrition the great and torturous pain he’d caused me for months.  I imagined that he’d look at me as if for the first time, admiring my bravery and also my ability to be bad, really bad, as bad as he and Edric and even Johnathan Damiani were at their very worst, and stand up and kiss me the way he and every other boy on the junior varsity pee-wee football team, according to rumor, kissed Jennifer Williams when no one was looking.

It started the way it was supposed to start: Christopher’s knees bent. Christopher fell.  His eyes rolled upwards and then, for a second, leftwards at me.  Then his body thudded to the floor.  And then there was another thud.  And then I realized: he had hit his head against the corner of the desk behind him.

There was motion. Miss Hanks blurred into a run from her desk to our desks, then picked up Christopher’s head.  Christopher’s eyes rolled around like he was dying.  Jennifer ran for paper towels.  Miss Hanks yelled “what the hell were you thinking” and the whole class gasped.  No one knew what was worse: Christopher dying or Miss Hanks saying hell and not meaning the place in which we could spend all of eternity suffering.  She pulled Christopher to stand and said that none of us, not a single one of us, were allowed to move or speak or anything while she was gone, and then there was the space on the floor where Miss Hanks and Christopher and his rolling eyes had been.  And then I saw it: blood.  Three small circles of blood, and inside of one of those circles, two small brown specks.  They were from his brain.  They had to be pieces of his brain.

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There is no Frigate like Book

There are a few small but appreciable benefits from dealing with Circumstances, and all stem from the fact that Circumstances tend to make one re-evaluate and re-think — and Circumstances often give one the time one needs to re-evaluate and re-think.

That sentence was hella awkward.

In less vague and oddly formal third-person terms, I guess I could say that, every so often, it seems like I go through Circumstances that require me to sit back and think about what I’m doing with and in my life, about what really matters to me and on/with what I need to spend the precious-beyond-precious time I have.  And for me, time and time again, the answer is always the same answer: words.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

I think that most, if not all, writers come to write because they love words, which means they love to read.  Most, if not all, of us have a moment tucked inside of us, a moment when words suddenly became more than words, when words unfurled inside the mind into something as enormous and wonderful and even slightly frightening as Jack’s beanstalk, and with its power to transport.

That’s the frightening part — the power — and also the tremendously beautiful part.  It’s what every writer, I think, is, in the end, chasing: the power to transport herself and someone else, in the same was as she herself has been transported, through words.  When I was a little girl, my father took me to the library every weekend, and I remember walking from shelf to shelf, pulling books off the shelves and opening them into Vs, reading random paragraphs to find which ones I wanted to take home.  I always knew when I found the right one: the shelves vanished, the library vanished, the entire state of Alabama vanished, and I vanished with them.  It was just the words, the world that they made.

The Circumstances through which I’m currently moving and living have given me, wondrously, the quiet time I needed to spend with words — both with my own and with others’.  It’s the kind of quiet time I need, from time to time, to recharge.  I think it’s very easy, especially if you’re a person who’s trying to get published or whose job related to words, to get discouraged, to let the rejections overtake you, to lose faith in your own language.  Or, at least, that’s what happens to me, and it happens far more easily and frequently than I often admit.  It’s also very easy to get so wrapped up in publishing and competition and ego (or lack thereof) to the point where your own words aren’t necessarily your own.  It’s easy to forget the small miracle that happens every time a pen hits a page.  It’s easy to forget that more often than not, the writer isn’t the one in control.  The words are.  A writer’s place isn’t in speaking.  It’s in listening.

Reading — living, for a few hundred pages or so, in another’s world, living and listening and loving through and in their words — is the way I remember this.  It’s the way I return, again and again, to the sense of awe that made me begin writing myself.  I mean this in several senses of the word: amazement, yes, but also fear, and the sense of reverence that comes from wonder and terror.  I mean this in the sense of respect of language itself, of how letters and words and sentences build upon themselves, seemingly of their own volition and power.

Though the Circumstances I’m dealing with this summer aren’t necessarily the most pleasant Circumstances, I’m very grateful for them.  They’ve given me the space I need to sit and be quiet and read.  They’ve given me the space I need to remember: I’m still the girl standing somewhere in the vacuum of vanished space and time, a book an open bird in my hand.  I’m still there, in awe of the words, of the world they make.

The Accidental Professor

When I was a little kid and we went to the beach, I always had this strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting moment where I’d think to myself this is our first day at the beach; we have four more days at the beach, and then this vacation is over.  That sentence, I now realize, doesn’t look strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting at all; the only difficult thing about it, at first glance, is knowing where to put the punctuation.  But

This is a gratuitous photograph of a beach inserted to give my blog entry more visual interest.

This is a gratuitous photograph of a beach inserted to give my blog entry more visual interest.

when I thought it, I was completely overwhelmed with the realization that time passes, and that time in fact was passing, and in a few days the hotel room and the breakfast place downstairs with all of its impossibly tiny jars of jam and the ocean outside and the sand would pass beneath my feet, and everything would be over.*

That’s the same feeling I always had at the end of every semester of school.  This is my first day of exams; I have four more days of exams, and then they are over.  All year, time had been passing, and soon my gray locker and bulky typewriter and Trapper Keeper and goddawful erasable pens would pass beneath my feet, and I’d be another year older.**  This feeling would be even more strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting than the beach feeling, as it also meant I was one year closer to having to figure out what the hell, exactly, I planned to do with my life.  Thankfully, I was able to answer more school! for a long time — long enough for me to at least find, my second year of graduate school, a term that describes this feeling: mono no aware, the Japanese aesthetic idea of things having the feeling of time passing.  I’ve read a lot of different translations/interpretations of this concept, and most of them seem to fall in one of two camps: either mono no aware describes an image that represents the passage of time, like falling cherry blossoms or autumn leaves or a rotting Halloween pumpkin, or it describes the very feeling of the beach and the end of the semester, when one can literally feel that time is passing around, above, and beneath them.

I wonder, sometimes, if this is why I chose to teach at the college level: I was able to answer the question of what are you going to do after school with more school! and then FOREVER SCHOOL! 

Even as I type that, I know it’s wrong.  It’s wrong because I never really chose to teach.  It just happened.  I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be able to have things like running water and electricity, so I knew I had to find some way to make money.  I started noticing that most writers also taught, and so I thought to myself, ok.  That’s what we’re going to do, self.

When I fell into that decision — I can’t say I made it — I didn’t even particularly know what professors did.  I remember being pulverized by this realization during one of the very first conversations I had in graduate school, a loose sketch of which appears below:

Emma Bolden: Hi, I’m Emma Bolden, and I’m a new TA.
Someone, I Can’t Really Remember Who: Hi, Emma Bolden the new TA.  Welcome to your first college-level teaching job, where you will be teaching Comp.
Emma Bolden: What’s Comp?S,ICRRW: Ha ha ha ha. (Pause.)  Oh, you’re serious.  (S,ICRRW explains Comp to Emma Bolden).
Emma Bolden: Ha ha ha ha ha.  (Pause.)  Oh, you’re serious. Please excuse me. (Emma Bolden heads to the nearest bathroom to cry, then drives herself home with mascara still all over her face to tell her mother she’s terrified and thinks she won’t be able to do this ANY OF THIS.)

Though I do still have my I-won’t-be-able-to-do-this-ANY-OF-THIS moments, I finally feel more comfortable in the classroom because I finally remembered what my best teachers did: they talked.  They listened.  Most importantly, they learned.  I learned the most from professors who were learning along with me, reading and reaching to understand, who were willing to think in front of us, alongside us, with us.  And I learned that perhaps the even-more-most-important thing is to learn from my students, who have, in all honesty, every single day, taught me more than I could ever teach them.

Mono no aware in action. Or, well, lack of action.

Mono no aware in action. Or, well, lack of action.

At the end of every semester, I walk out of the classroom after picking up their portfolios.  I turn off the lights and turn to look at the empty tables, the empty desks, the windows looking out into the world we’ve all just re-entered.  And while I do still feel a tinge of that mono no aware moment, I also feel firmly rooted, as if I’m being held to the ground by my students and their words, which wait for me in the paper-clipped pages of their portfolios.  And then it hits me: a semester’s end isn’t an ending.  It’s a beginning, and the one we’ve all been working towards all semester long.  It’s the beginning of each student’s life outside the walls of the classroom, the beginning of each student walking into the world and taking their words with them, the beginning of their words in that world.  Suddenly, I’m happy about what we’re all leaving behind, because it means we’re all taking with us what we need to take with us, the knowledge and hunger and language, to make our own beginnings in the outside world.

Suddenly, being a professor feels like the happiest accident I’ve ever had.

*It’s entirely possible that my mother and/or father are reading this at the moment and thinking to themselves Oh and So that’s what all of that was about.  It’s also possible that he and/or she is rolling his and/or her eyes.  I’d therefore like to take this moment to say I know, guys, I know.  Also, I apologize for that time I spat out my bubblegum while floating in a swim-sweater in a crowded hot tub.  Also for sneaking into that crowded hot tub to float around in my swim-sweater in the first place.  Also for all of my childhood.  Thank you.

**Actually literally, since my birthday coincides with the end of the school year.

Home, Where My Love Lies Waiting, Silently For Me

I’m about to write something I never thought I would write.

First, some background: I love Lia Purpura. Like, LOVE. Her On Looking is on the list of Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read And I Mean Seriously. It’s the book that led me to write nonfiction. It’s the book that taught me what nonfiction could and should be, that gave me a glimpse at all of its gorgeous, glimmering possibilities. It’s a book that changed my life and the way I look at it, and therefore changed my very world. I won’t say how many times I’ve read it by now because the number is probably not healthy. I will say that I mention her in my classes at least once a week. I will also say that when I found out she had a new book coming out, I put it on my Advanced Creative Nonfiction syllabus immediately, no questions asked, done.

And then I read it.

There’s no question that Rough Likeness is a gorgeous book, full of the kinds of lyric twists and turns that make you know, and deeply, exactly what Dickinson meant when she wrote that good writing makes her “feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off.” It’s the type of writing that changes the way you think. I was overjoyed to dwell in Purpura’s world again, to be given the gift of it, to see the world as she sees.

And then I got to the center of the book, to an essay titled “There Are Things Awry Here.” And this is exactly where things, for me, went awry. It’s then that the world Purpura looks at is my world, the world I grew up in, or at least a highway’s short stretch away: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s the world where I ate lasagna and banana pudding on holidays, where I learned to call the adults I loved deeply Miss or Mister and then their first name just so they’d know, every time I saw them, how dearly I loved them. It’s the world where I learned when to wear summer white and winter white, where I had so many aunts and uncles that it was sometimes hard to know who I was actually related to, since family went beyond that. It’s the world of my family, of all the love and struggle that word contains, a world of hills ever-tinted green and mountains sliced open to reveal their ribs of iron ore. It’s the world I’ve seen for all of my nearly thirty-three years, and now, it was the world I was seeing as Purpura saw it, and all I could think was no, oh no, no Lia, not you too.

Here’s how it began:

Here is a farmer entering a black field.  He’s a proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery, with a serviceable rope looped over his arm.  But the farmer comes out of a logo’d truck and the rope links up to a ChemLawn can [….] He pisses I don’t know where during his long day in the sun.  His hat’s a tattered, red, GO BAMA cap.

I won’t go on.

God knows I don’t need to: the image of the Southerner as field-hand is common enough, though I’m not sure why it’s derogatory.  It takes a great deal of education and intelligence to work a field, though that matters little, anyway: why should any person’s life turn into an insult? Why can’t a field-hand be smart and kind and generous enough? And why is any person seen somehow as not enough, based on what they do or where they are from?

I read quickly through the rest of the essay, hoping she would transform it, hoping she would give to my home the same kind of miracle her writing had so often given to me, hoping she wouldn’t instead add insult to a town that has so strongly and gracefully dealt with very literal injury (see: the tornadoes of April 2011, almost exactly two years ago now).

Here is how the essay ends:

I wanted to know what happened here, on land like this.
Now I know.
People learn to fly through it.  And then they go home.

Is it too much to say my heart broke?  And more than a little?

On my first reading, I told myself her work had done its trick. I told myself she had turned this place into a metaphor for all places, for the transformative power that could be found every- and anywhere. But on my second read, I was unsettled. I could no longer shake from the language its implication: that the place I call home has worth only as a way-station, not as an end but as a means to teach visitors what they need to know and how not to be — she mentions again, near the end, the man working with fertilizer, her “farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose).” And if the worth of the place is as a means to teach outsiders, well, then what about insiders?  What about the people who fly in it, and stay there, as home?

The thing about implications like those are that they, simply stated, hurt. They imply that Southerners are unintelligent, are somehow lesser because of where they were born.

I’m not here to deny that the South has a cruel and terrible and terrifying history, which is often not history, in a way that grieves and hurts me.  I’m not here to say the South isn’t complicated, isn’t often a boiling mix of hate and love of appearances.  I’m also not saying that my own relationship with the South isn’t complicated.  I do write as someone who flew away, but also as someone who flew home.  I write as someone who believed that she wasn’t good enough because of where she came from, and wouldn’t be any good unless she moved away. Even as a little girl, I swore that as soon as I turned eighteen, I’d move away. And I did, to New York, where I went to school and found a lot of people who were very kind, but also a lot of people who were very willing to back up all I’d believed.

Take my roommate, who, on day three of my first week as a freshman, admitted she’d cried for weeks when she found out her roommate was from Alabama.

Take the fellow student in my American Social History class who said I didn’t have the right to talk about ethnic groups because I was from the South and therefore had to be prejudiced against them.  We were discussing Irish and Italian immigrants.  My mother’s maiden name is Lanza.

Take all of the professors who asked how I’d learned to read so well and what my people farmed. And take the fact that this was the school I went to after my disastrous interview at another New England school, which began with the admissions director asking if I had had any contact with people of other races or who were part of other ethnic groups, because New England College X prized diversity and worried about admitting a Southerner, since they worried a Southerner wouldn’t – and couldn’t — value diversity.

You might say I’m being oversensitive. Fine. I’m being oversensitive.

But imagine this: you’re at orientation for your first academic job, back in your home state. You spend all day with people who ask if their students will be able to read, and if so, if any of them can read above a grade-school level. They ask if students chew tobacco in the classrooms. They ask if they know how to speak, really, since most people don’t really speak English down here, do they? They sigh and say that they just have to do what they can, and not expect too much. Sit in a room and have everyone joke about how, in Alabama, you have to set your watch back a century instead of an hour. Then, have to tell them you’re from Alabama. Deal with the questions: how can you do this job? I mean, how did you learn to read?

Or go out for a drink with a group of friends. Get pulled into a corner conversation where someone has gotten wine-weepy. She’s crying, she says, because she has to wait until she moves to have children. She doesn’t want her child to be a Southerner. She wants her child to be educated and tolerant and smart, which — it isn’t even implied, it’s said — can’t happen in the South. She doesn’t want a slack-jawed idiot.

Repeat these situations. A lot. As in, on a weekly basis. Sometimes daily. Exchange the players, the sayers. Add some of the men who have said they’re in love with you. Add your dearest, closest friend. Add the writer who changed your life.

Tell me I am oversensitive.

Tell me it doesn’t hurt.

In the end, I think, perhaps Purpura’s essay did transform me.  Perhaps it did teach an important lesson, showing me something new about looking, how once you’ve lived inside something, it’s never easy to look at in one way.  The story becomes multi-faceted, complicated.  Or, perhaps, the story becomes something larger, becomes something that has so little to do with you.

When I think of Tuscaloosa, I look at parts of my own story, parts which, once looked at, become large.  It’s the place where my grandmother spoke her last words to me, where my mother and father watched her die in one of the country’s best Hospice centers, where we were taught about that terrible and beautiful moment when we all must leave our home, this earth, and where it was calm and peaceful and she was allowed to die with dignity. That’s what this place has taught me, and I will fly to it, again and again, as my home.