Finding My Inner Calamity Jane

Calamity JaneCalamity Jane lumbered around Deadwood in fringed buckskins, spitting, cursing, and waving her whiskey flask in the shadows of the Black Hills. And I want to be more like her.

Guns scare me, of course. Animal skins give me the willies, and more than a sip of hard liquor gets me coughing. Deadwood’s very existence on Sioux land, let alone its rampant gambling, prostitution and murder, screamed lawlessness. But crazy Jane loved. Not with a quiet, corseted, motherly love, but a fierce, table-flipping passion that even she didn’t seem aware of. Which, of course, makes it the best love of all.

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the Old West because often the fiction was the fact. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, a show he refused to call a show, celebrated the “legend” of the West in real time with sharp shooting, staged robberies, and cowboy/Indian attacks. Calamity Jane joined the production later in life as a storyteller, exaggerating her tales with each performance.

Most historians say it’s hard to know what parts of her autobiographical pamphlet, The Life and Times of Calamity Jane, are true. But there is a general consensus that regardless of whom she shot or saved and when, and if, and whom she married and birthed, she wrestled gender expectations to the ground with her adventurous activities and attire and fought alcoholism to the grave. [Read more…]

Drive-By Memory

nastroeniya-cvety-cvetkiMy first memory takes place in Lakewood, CA, a small suburb south of Los Angeles. Lakewood, the nation’s first planned community, also happens to be the subject of D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. “In a suburb that is not exactly middle class,” Waldie writes at the beginning of the book, “the necessary illusion is predictability.”

Because the families that settle there are anything but predictable.

After they married in 1969, my mom and dad bought one of those small, square dream homes from my father’s parents. It was my dad’s first marriage and my mother’s third. Heidi, my sister born during one of my mother’s prior lives, was in junior high. The street, Maybank, figures nicely into the Facebook formula for “my stripper name,” along with Penny, my first dog.

On August 4, 1972, Penny Maybank took the stage. [Read more…]

Where to Hang Your Grief

Ross Laycock MemoryMy daughters Lydia and Becca, ages 12 and 10, are thoroughly delighted by the contemporary art collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum. They hurry to the Warhol soup cans and Lichtenstein comics they recognize from art class, a large sculpture made entirely of clear plastic buttons, and plenty of outrageously “simple” pieces they insist they can paint themselves and henceforth make millions of dollars.

During our last visit this December, however, we encountered a work we’d never seen. On the floor sat a large stack of sheets approximately two by three feet in size. Terrified that my kids would touch the art, I half-dove in front of them as a bodyguard of sorts. Then a ponytailed security woman stepped over.

“You may take one if you like,” she said.

I stared at her for a moment. “Like, to keep?”

“Yes. That’s what this art is for.”

Still only partly believing her, my girls and I each lifted a sheet printed with gray scale light seeping through clouds and a small silhouette of a flying bird. [Read more…]

Autistic Lives Matter

4121837708_b3d12f0f30_oWhen I first met Daniel Bowman Jr. at the Festival of Faith and Writing, we both experienced that you’re-not-how-I-pictured-you-from-Facebook moment. While he may not have felt self-consciously compact, I became quite aware of my own awkward, lumbering stature that banged into a book table or two. Still, I tried to make a good impression while obsessing over the fact that I wasn’t wearing earrings twenty minutes before my appointment to read a poem at the chapel.

“I’ll feel naked up there without earrings,” I told him. “Wanna come with me to the campus store to find some?”

Nice to meet you. I’m neurotic and say inappropriate things.

Dan, on the other hand, was fighting a whole ninja army of thoughts: What do I say to de-escalate the anxiety rising up from standing in the middle of a conference with hundreds of people? How can I be endearing and likeable? If I’m witty will she want to get to know me better?

We not only survived the encounter, but over the next couple of years, grew in our friendship. We shared our writing, spent time with mutual friends at retreats and conferences, and even set up a co-reading at a local coffee shop in my area. Meanwhile, I began to observe some quirky patterns in Dan’s behavior—nothing too worrisome, since we are, after all, poets. But he often avoided eye contact or had trouble transitioning to hellos and goodbyes. Sometimes he became agitated during unpredictable social situations. [Read more…]

How to Win the War on Christmas

Santa editAfter thirteen years of parenting, my husband and I still know virtually nothing about raising children. But one thing we’ve always agreed on, since even before the first one was conceived, is not including Santa in our Christmas celebrations.

Now don’t get me wrong. We’re not one of those families. I don’t homeschool in a jumpsuit and make my kids play with Old Testament action figures. In fact, for evangelicals, we’re pretty theologically and culturally liberal. And we don’t hate holidays. Our kids dress up for Halloween and make each other Valentines. Christmas sees the usual tree, presents, and lights. We just don’t invite the guy in the red suit down our chimney (or through the heating vent or DSL box, I guess, since we don’t have a fireplace).

I mentioned those people, didn’t I? Those. The ones I don’t want you to associate with me because I want you to keep on reading. And to like me. Even if I didn’t mention, um, them, I would have worried about it, worried you would have placed me in that category of lesser, unenlightened, believers.

Or perhaps you felt judged by my comments about Santa, the creepily omnipresent, omniscient stand-in for God who judges us on our works. And visits only the families with discretionary income. [Read more…]


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