The Lost Girl Lets Go

There’s something about the midday nature of the appointment that gives it a furtive cast: The putting on of mom-like clothes, stockings and “better” shoes, garnet lip gloss and a comb pulled through my hair, to give the appearance that I am a more organized person than I actually am.

The keys clatter in the quiet as I lock the door, get in the car, and drive out of the neighborhood, careful to make sure I have the directions and the insurance card.

All the empty houses appear deserted and drowsy: everyone’s at work or school, and even the homeschoolers are hard at work by the kitchen table, their younger siblings laid down for early afternoon naps.

Then I’m on the ribbon of highway that carves through the as-yet-ungentrified decay of Washington, D.C.’s East Side—blessedly empty, with neither traffic nor construction, the now-obsolete RFK Stadium spun out on the right like a spectacular piece of road kill.

I love the steadying narcotic of driving like this: “[T]he freeways become a special way of being alive…the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical” reads a quote from Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which I found in an essay on Joan Didion, whose novel Play It As It Lays is what I am trying to remember as I plow through the Nation’s Capital.

Then, before I know it—because there is no traffic—I’ve spun off myself—off a cloverleaf and onto a surface road that is clustered with mid-century, mid-rise apartment towers. Collectively, there are perhaps hundreds of these, off every exit of the Beltway, and aside from the barest variations—Virginia looks marginally newer and more big-boxy, Maryland grittier and more industrial—you could be in Chevy Chase or Springfield and not know the difference.

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Honor Thy Mother

It came to me one quiet afternoon, a couple weeks after we were home from the hospital, my newborn son asleep on my chest, the flicker of memory sharp and quick: I see my mother’s mouth wagging, furious, the garbage can full to overflowing, my brother’s task left undone.

“Are you stupid? Is that it?” she screams, stepping toward my brother, who can’t be more than eleven, his mouth torn open by sobs, the light passing through the windows flat, gray, engulfing. “Answer me!”

I step in front of her, hot with fear and rage, and everything goes blank.

When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I was about to begin another series of careful negotiations; the lines I had drawn between myself and my parents would have to be crossed and redrawn, possibly many times over.

What I did not know was how hard parenthood would be on my memory, how the bits and pieces of what I remember would hurl themselves at me with such raw, shocking force.

I did not realize how becoming a mother would turn me into a child, or at least, return me to my childhood, my own mouth torn open in recollection’s rush and grief.

As a writer, my subject is my family and personal history. I spent most of high school writing short stories that were really just veiled nonfiction, the narrators always teenagers who watched their parents self-destruct. When I began writing nonfiction, my essays were dotted with words like “codependent” and “emotional trigger,” phrases that my mother strung around her like a rosary, a self-help litany of protection against what she couldn’t face about herself.

As I wrote more, the focus became clearer, and my parents began becoming more themselves on the page, less psychological study or sensational stereotype, more fragile and demanding and dangerous.

That is how my parents are in real life, too—as they get older, their wounds and trespasses seem to multiply, and it can be a daily fight to interpret their intentions, their capacity for both impotence and causing hurt.

[Read more...]

All I Needed to Know I Learned from the Phonebook

Sing in me, O Muse: That like Navin R. Johnson—the “I was born a poor black child” character played by Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk—I might cry aloud: “The new phonebook is here! The new phonebook is here!”

Time, of course, to cue the requisite twenty-something hipster joke:

What is a phonebook?

I have been a longtime phonebook reader, from way back when I first began to read—a reflection of either the value or detriment of a childhood marked by lots of free time and/or boredom.

With a hometown of only about 10,000, the phonebook was tiny, perhaps six by nine inches, neatly divided between the white residential pages and the yellow pages in the back. This was before the practice of including government listings in blue pages in the middle, but I do remember the standard instructions that applied to types of phone calls that existed back then: party lines (my aunt who lived on an isolated cotton plantation had one), operator-assisted calls, and, most mysteriously, station-to-station calls, which conjured up—for me at least—the idea of connecting to other worlds. [Read more...]

The Narratives We Need, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Recently I sang Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with the Seattle Symphony. In his adaptation of The Requiem, Britten juxtaposes Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the Latin mass. The male soloists sing Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young,” the story of Abraham and Isaac, right up to the angel and the ram. But in Owen’s poem, Abraham kills Isaac, “and half the seed of Europe one by one.”

Turning an ancient story on its head, using a corrupted Old Testament story to represent the terror of the world wars, is horror at an elemental level. The depth of this horror shows how much our stories are knit into our bones; ripping a story apart rends us in two. How much then, must these stories be making us whole?

I believe in being intentional. But I wonder at our desire to make our own decisions about what these formational stories should be—to suppose our individual sensibilities might do better than centuries of a more collective wisdom—instead of holding ourselves accountable to discerning the wisdom in the stories that make us up. [Read more...]

The Narratives We Need, Part 1

“Tell me a story,” my son has started to say after reading his bedtime books. The first time he made the request, I looked at him as I don’t do often enough, seeing the soft cheeks and hands already changing so fast for his three years, blue eyes looking at me with trust more complete than I could understand anymore. I looked at him with awe, awe for who he was, that he was, that somehow I had been given such a gift without deserving, and such responsibility.

“Tell me a story…” The first time he asked I was charmed; a moment later I felt a flash of panic.

The stories of childhood sink deep, said Kim Todd. “Each word falls like a stone to the muck at the bottom of the mind, unimpeded by currents of distraction or critical distinctions.”  These are the stories that will inform our lives, help us write the narratives of our lives, frame our experience, give us direction for grief. [Read more...]


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