Friday, February 29, 2008

Understand What I've Become (It Wasn't My Design)

-The Cranberries/Ode to My Family

Working on the "novel" (or whatever it is!) about my family has become too hard. I thought I might reach a point like this, where trying to talk about the history of my family would go from therapeutic to harrowing, and it did. Sherryl, my godmother and mom's best friend from college, came up to visit a few weeks ago, seeing my house for the first time, and her pain and pleasure combined when she saw things of my mom's intertwined into my own. We talked a lot over a bottle of wine - never directly about the novel, but more recounting stories, which, usually, spurs me to writing even more in that story. But somehow the truth of who my family was, each individual person, I just couldn't handle the complexity anymore of fictionalizing them.

So two projects have become of the novel. One is a novel that came to mind late one night, a few steps away, but where I can direct a lot of my pain and energies about the role of family and being an orphan - "Orphano" (working title), a book that, now that I've read Parable of the Sower (thanks Steph!) reminds me a great deal of the gist of Butler's masterpiece. A book told from the perspective of only orphans. Without getting into all the details, as it's too early to recount them without putting the novel in the way of other's interpretations, the only folks alive are not only parentless but also incapable of reproducing, from the same cause. Struggling with what family means, what parents mean and being children - not just young, but coming from someone - has come SO MUCH "EASIER" (read: emotionally) writing in total fiction. The emotions don't feel fictional, but the story, which edges on science fiction, certainly is. I think I needed to write half the "family novel" in order to get to this. And who says the "family novel" won't come back? It likely will, some day when I can get far enough away from it. Right now it's just too close, and the wrong kind of close, a claustrophobic kind of close.

The second project is a memoir. Natalie Goldberg finally put out her memoir book, a fitting "follow up" to Writing Down the Bones , called An Old Friend From Far Away. In an interview in the Shambhala Sun, she points out that younger and younger folk have been coming to her workshops on memoir over the last few years, and that she has gone from believing that only those in their fifties or older can write memoir to believing that, if done right, even a teenager can have enough material for a memoir. If there's one thing I've got, it's material. Jesus.I realized after reading the article how hard it was to keep myself out of the "family novel", and it was killing me a bit to do that. So I've begun a non-fictional memoir, the exact opposite of the "family novel" project. It feels really, really good, very clean and clear, and sure. I am excited about writing again, instead of feeling like it's my "job" to write out my family's history.

This has also lead to me making a mix (it's been years since I've made a mix!) to entertain me and help me ponder how music has contributed to my relationships to my dead parents over the years (this year it will be 18 YEARS since my dad died - I have lived "an adult" amount of years without him). Suggestions are welcome!

Here's the rough draft: (copies available of final draft for those who ask!)
Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World - Johnny Clegg and Savuka
Mommy Says No! - Asylum Street Spankers
Mothers Talk - Tears for Fears
Roses - Kanye West
Kyles Mom's a B**ch - Eric Cartman
Deadbeat Daddy - Alix Olson
Mother Stands for Comfort - Kate Bush
Oh Father - Madonna
(Every Woman I Go Out With Becomes My) Mother (In the End)- The Police
Look Mama - Howard Jones
Digging in the Dirt - Peter Gabriel
My Father as a Guitar - Martin Espada
Ode to My Family - the Cranberries
Angry Any More - Ani DiFranco
I Am Weary (Let Me Rest) - The Cox Family
Tell Your Mama Come - The Black Eyed Peas
Mama, I'm Coming Home - Ozzy Ozbourne
I Will Never Forget - Kimya Dawson

Other potentials - that great Mama song by Phil Collins/Genesis - I need to track down a copy, but ever since the This American Life episode where Starlee Kine interviews Phil Collins, I've been thinking about that song...

Finally, this might sound kind of funny, but for so many years I hesitated to use or think of the word "orphan". There's a lot of history around this, but for the most part I assumed that "true orphans" had two characteristics: both parents died before 18, and that they are only children. The first part got debunked in a study I was a part of a few years ago, which in theory was going to turn into a book, though I have yet to hear of any results. The study's thesis was that if a child loses both parents before THE AGE OF 30 (my age) the results are as deleterious as losing both parents before 18. I was a part of many discussion groups about this, and the results the participating "orphans" decided on were that, yes, in fact, 18 means little in terms of actual adult life, and that 30 is a better gauge of when one becomes a "real adult", so losing one's parents before this age causes just as much confusion as losing them before 18, though, in most cases, fewer "complications".
Second part of the "inner definition" I had made me feel "guilty" about using the word, because I have two brothers, both older, and so I've never really been going it alone. But one of my characters in the Orphano novel is very curious about what it means to *be* an orphan, so she looks up the definition and, lo and behold, so did I, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE.
Parentless. That's all it means. Of course, dictionaries aren't common usage, and are often an inaccurate representation, but somehow reading this validated my feelings of loneliness (maybe a false ground - we all feel lonely a lot, with or without parents!) for a small moment. Not like I'll start using the word more often, but it's good to know some kind of external, "unbiased" authority validates that even though I lost my mom at 19, I can still feel lonely about it, with brothers or not.

Funny how hopeful all of this feels. I described to Dylan that dealing with my parents as real people, especially my father, coming to terms with what it is I actually lost, is hard, not easy, and yet, when one is ready (and I feel more ready all the time to get at the nuances, with time) it feels a bit more like a styrofoam wall than a plastic bag - something I can work with and through, rather than fight against with little success.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Record breaking

Yesterday we got the two inches that push us over the record for snow for the season.

When I was a kid, Josh (my neighbor friend and super long-time childhood crush) and I would build these forts out of the snow in the front yard - that's right, not out of the curb snow, but the actual yard snow - into which we could sequester ourselves, though not at whole body height, in comfortable crouch positions. As I have told folks that we did this for years on end, and how Wisconsin winters have changed, anyone not from here or younger than I am has said "Well, you were so little, so of course the snow seemed deeper." You kidding me? Look at the stuff we've gotten in the last few years! *Mice* couldn't make a decent crouching fort out of it!

But not this winter. Finally, not only did we outdo my own personal records, but also the State record for our recorded history so far. Wow. And now I am ready for it to be done. Not "run off to Tahiti cuz I hate the stuff" done (or even a wedding in Aruba, wink wink) but just worn out. I was reading back over a few entries and I saw that in August I was fading under 90-something degree heat. Now it's February and under zero again, with windchills well below. Hmmm. Well, I guess I can't love all the seasons all the time.

It's been since the holidays that I have posted. I quickly finished up my WCATY class for the term, after the holidays, then immediately began commuting to Milwaukee once a week to teach the inaugural class of Miksang at Marquette University. This in itself, though a big chance to schedule, life and energy, wouldn't have been such a time suck, but I also was working a lot of hours at the Overture, my part time job, as this is our busiest bus show season. And then, there's the weather, Milwaukee regardless of the weather, a snowstorm every Thursday for weeks on end. In there, my godmother visited my house for the first time and we finally saw Dan and Sus again, but otherwise my weeks mostly consisted of a January of shuffling from one job to the other, one of the main reasons I left my other fields of work.

I also have had lots of insights about pretty important things in the post-holiday season: that in fearing becoming my mother, I often embody the less savory aspects of my father; that I tend to isolate a lot when I have time on my hands and get lost without structure; that I pretty much hate driving; that up until now I have still had a hard time valuing my own work (so I gave myself a raise and promised myself two days off a week, which has helped a lot!); and that I need more visual art in my life - making it, seeing it, even just looking at books of it. So it's been a strong time of growth and nurturing, which I am now implementing, as Overture has slowed down...

So the latter part of this isn't as record-breaking in the traditional sense, but here's one record I'd like to think I am breaking - the karmic record of my family, with its self-and other abuse, bit by bit, postcard by phone call by quiet moments with the cat and a book of Andy Goldsworthy's work. Nothing huge, but very significant.