on what must be said of Salem, Mass.

I adore the people of Salem, Massachusetts. Flat out adore them. I have been coming to this town via library ships since 1995 and via plane or automobile since 2006—thanks to the generous hospitality of dear friends who call Salem home, plus one signal institution that began as a project of the East India Society in 1799, the PEM (Peabody Essex Museum). Technically (and actually), Salem is a city, but it shall ever remain a seafaring and thus global ‘town’ in my history-hobbled heart. I am writing a great deal more about the people of Salem and Essex County in a book project now, because they created the ship on which much of my historical research is centered (US Frigate ESSEX), but for today I just have to say this one thing to something besides my fieldnotes:

The people of Salem are signally friendly and welcoming, curious and happy to converse (and not simply in superficial ways), and they approach the world in a wide-armed and congenial manner that makes of even the rankest stranger—irrespective of social class or ethnicity or profession or religion or nationality or quirks of personality—a neighbor and friend. Working people here run the gamut from the very wealthy to the very not, and fine neighborhoods are still dotted—deliberately so—with more affordable housing, so that, on even the least errand you meet folks from all walks of life, nearly all of whom make eye contact and exchange genial greetings and sometimes long talks. This kind of stance is a downright rarity in these united states at this point in time (or ever), so it deserves mention. Notice. Emulation, to at least some extent.

I treasure each one of the days I have been privileged to spend in Salem. For a southern Mississippi farm girl raised far from the sea but born into a small community called Friendship, I have found myself at home in Salem in unexpected ways. These people’s nows are rooted in their long past of plying trade routes across the world’s oceans, and it shows, for they have made of diversity this community’s life-blood. We could use more Salems—of this particular ilk—in our world.

The Friendship of Salem

The Friendship of Salem, dockside     October 2014

~

on vows and being alive

Having made a vow in August never again to stay up all night for teaching prep or work, I find myself now, once more of a winsome morn, having broken it nearly in two. Although it is just the second time for this semester—a fair-sized achievement in itself, I suppose—I’m in re-vow mode now. If there’s one thing I’m sure of in the contemporary US-of-A? It’s that our never-stop-working stances are a huge part of what’s killing the world (or whatever’s worth living for in it). Graveyard dead. Next footfall of mine to hit the floor? Is aiming higher than that. I intend to leap straight over comatose, too, and get to where I’m walking upright on both feet. Sound asleep when night claims the sky or close to it? And wide awake with the dawn. Why does failure remind us so readily of what we love?

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Staying up all night to write? Now that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. Feeds the soul so well that the body follows suit, refreshed, happy, ready to face whatever the day may sling our direction. There has never been any need for me to make a vow to not write at night. Doing so opens the bay on my soul and drops anchor at home, lifting the flap on the envelope of one more of yesterday’s tomorrows so that I can read the mail of my existence. Fully, skin-tinglingly alive.

~

on the brandings of now, may we thrive?

My lovely silent retreat this week got impinged upon, by two things from opposite ends of life’s spectrum: 1) a chance for a Skype conversation with my granddaughter (whom I adore and would never miss a chance of hearing her increasingly lively vocabulary begin to lay out what’s in her heart and mind!) and 2) yet another PR-related thing to do (bio, etc.).

The bios we have to write in this world are my least favorite genre of writing. They’re presently part of the odd notion that we all have to ‘brand’ ourselves (a practice that has always seemed barbaric to me, whether for livestock or humans). For anyone who’s fine with such a thing for themselves—sizzling hot iron rod slapped to skin—I’m fine with their being fine with it, and I would never dream of judging someone in any manner for burning a tattoo of ownership in their own hide, but as for me? I can’t get over the cognitive K2 involved in the touting of my own horn: it feels uncouth, more than a little snooty, considerably demeaning, as if words and accomplishments are being turned into walls between me and everybody else in the world.

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I have tried a slew of tactics to make my bios not seem off-putting: for example, setting folksy, nerdy tidbits cheek by jowl with one or two accomplishments that I care about (though I can never include the things that matter most to me, of course!). These let people who believe in hierarchies and use folksiness as a meter for lower placement on their scales feel condescending to me, though, and I’m pretty sure that’s not helping them one bit. (It does, however, let a person get way up in somebody else’s kitchen: the whole business of being condescended to for some superficial reason like language or clothing or body size: when somebody’s busy judging you and feeling superior, you almost always have a wide open door to their being. Which means you have to work much harder not to cause offense to them, because it’s not at all uncommon for them to be offended that you simply exist!) I have tried different tones, too: terse, friendly, droll, approachable. These should let people walk alongside me, but I have heard from some that it had the opposite effect. A couple, full-grown people have told me that my bios alone make them feel they have done nothing at all with their lives! Which is beyond-my-wildest-dreams-ever not the effect I would hope to have on anyone breathing. Beyond every pale and then some. So I have tried to turn bio writing into my own master class for prose: the single genre most detested is the one that must be tackled most rigorously. Nothing works. Nothing lifts my inherent distrust of this medium of communication. Bio writing at this point in time and in our celebrity-crazed and -haunted culture flat out runs counter to my most prized values: that of non-hierarchical, collaborative and compassionate connections. Bios (like academic introductions in content, except nowhere near as long, which is always so frustrating when you just want to hear what the person has to say) get read whenever you show up, too, so there it is every time: the great big ugly monster defying my core values before I even open my mouth!

Bios put me back in the throes of primary-to-secondary school: straight-A student and always heartsick over my good grades. Parents and teachers loved them, of course, but for all the wrong reasons, if you ask me, because grades never demonstrated jack siccum re: what I actually knew; I could just remember and reprise exactly whatever I’d seen, and thus didn’t have to know anything to get a perfect score. The other children would sometimes write things on pieces of paper or their hands, desperately trying to do what I could do by just closing my eyelids and reading off the backs of them, and they would get licks and zeroes for their trouble while I sailed through not just unassailed but praised (for the exact same act of cheating as theirs, except with a different instrument). Ferociously angry about the whole system, even as a very young child; trapped alone in my terrible guilt (not a soul but me knew), but knowing if I came home with anything less than an A I’d get a whipping and people would be praying for me to knuckle down and do my ‘best’ for lord only knows how long; perversely wanting good grades myself, too, and finding it hard not to blink on tests or to put down some wrong answers to even the odds some (though I later did this on tests like the GRE that were so badly unfair to people whose learning milieus were so different from mine that I just couldn’t live with myself otherwise): I understood the whole system from the outset to be rigged and wrong. Nothing about it is fair to anyone, not those of us who test well, not those who test poorly, not anyone in between.

Unfair advantages do not even help the advantaged, provided they are paying attention to the whole field. I did not—to this day still do not—want anyone else to feel less because of me or what I have done. I want people to feel good about themselves and simply walk alongside me. I’m happy for all our accomplishments and have never seen the point in competing with anyone else, since everybody needs to win sometimes, everybody needs to excel on occasion, everybody needs to feel okay in the moment, but I have never been able to find the words to express this in bios. I have to talk about me there, and that never winds up as anything but self-aggrandizement. I’d much rather talk about content, ideas, concerns, issues, plain experiences, anything that honors us all and not just one. So I hate the genre. It sucks up enormous amounts of time and energy and talent for me, and I have often wished I could pay somebody to write mine, but when that  has happened, I have sounded like even more of an accomplished freak than when I do it myself! (There is a fair to middling chance, I suppose, that I’ve simply been alive so long now that there’s just too much to be recounted, which in itself sounds impressive?)

So the bio and website preparing and the selling of one’s self as a hunk of unnecessarily dead cow down at the market in order to do the work one was put here on the planet to do? Yegads. It tests all my corners of perseverance, hurts my hard head, breaks my heart. Let us all thrive is how I live and breathe. Let us all thrive. The typical bio sets me off in a sad way, too easily made to appear heroic based on the actual events of my life and my responses to them, and I come at it throwing knives of regret, slinging slingblades of fury that I cannot seem to figure out how to write one that can’t hurt anyone’s feelings. And yet I know that people genuinely are interested in the writers behind books, and so surely there is a way to do this without such angst. Surely. I just haven’t found it yet.

Talking to my granddaughter was a beautiful reprieve from silence. The new bio and website prep is not. Yet even my start on silence has been valuable, for it occurred to me late last evening—wrestling again with bio-hell so I could get back to the quiet place so needed before fall starts—that I could write a short photo essay instead, connecting images of me across the decades and sharing a stylized, but truer story of me to now than bios manage. It could be blog-like, available on the website: people could ignore or read it, as they will, take what they want or nothing, and genuinely walk alongside me (though the exchange is still uneven unless I get to hear from them, too). I can pepper it with what really mattered, too, which puts any accomplishments into sharp perspective. For example, in the year my first book was made into a movie, I can mention that this happy, unlikely event coincided with my son being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and nearly dying all year long. That’s the real story of my life. I have never had a great accomplishment or triumph without—immediately or sooner—having some wrenching, terrible event or happening show up. Never. At this point I no longer even hope to. When something great happens, I know to be ready for hell. The bio cannot hold such intensity: like a great deal of our PR-nessing today, it belies reality and truth.

So there it is: one more writerly task that isn’t quite the writing I have to do now. I’ll hold up on the short bio until I have the photo essay up, and then I may be able to write the bio without diving so headlong into its hell? Fortunately such tasks can be put off, for brief spells anyway, one more chance to watch deadlines I’ve set go whooshing by! So there’s time. I have a manuscript to complete first. And silence to fall into once again, for going on with. There is so much beauty in this pain-ravaged world. So much sorrow-swept wonder. So much being all about. Let me contribute my small part to that, to reaching out and touching others so that we can walk alongside one another for our time here, I ask of the silence, let me contribute to bringing this great hope better to pass: Let us all thrive.

~

on the tools of this trade

Tech things which make me smile today? That, when faced with an initial Time Machine Backup, my 1T Passport drive gamely provided an estimate of the time this task would take. It started with “About 15 days” and then, a few minutes later, revised that downward to “About 14 days.” And then it thought about the matter a little more and came back with shorter periods successively until it reached “About 2 days,” on which it has apparently decided to settle. Two days, little black box: sounds more than fair to me. There are things about now that are really quite remarkable for someone born in the mimeograph, manual typewriter era.

Of course, the moment reminded me of an ongoing task: search again for a typewriter like the one I first learned on. For I value now and its tools, but I still pine for those which served me first. I keep on hand at all times: a box of fine pencils, actual erasers, an old wall-mounted pencil sharpener, ink pens and inkwells and bottled ink, Chinese brushes and rice paper and ink stones and sticks, ballpoint pens, onionskin paper, linen envelopes, three-holed lined notebook paper, and stacks of bound journals and notebooks from every country I’ve ever entered. Plus one old Big Chief lined tablet like the first one I got as a child for writing my stories. My writing shed is crammed with books, these tools, and others not yet obsolete in my time: microfilm and micro-opaque readers, paper punch, shredder, and then all the things that make now’s technology function (computers, multifunction printer, and so on).

I keep a dizzying array of style guides (for English and French in particular) and dictionaries in every language I’ve studied (minus, so far, the 20-volume OED that I want so badly) and about 15 Gregg shorthand books (because I’m determined to keep up the skill). It’s all the detritus of a writing life and I adore every jot of it, knowing full well that on my death it’ll likely get carted to the nearest landfill and the people having to do the carting are liable to cuss my memory with some heat. Still, I build and maintain it and dwell close to it even when far away, and in all ways I am heartened by its existence. I have not yet located a manual typewriter like the one I learned on in high school, though, and that’s the latest quest. Banging on those keys opens floodgates into other parts of a soul.

on the writer being written

And the words at last roll in, drenching the shores of conscious endeavor, mighty rivers o’erspilling their banks and soaking wide valley bottom fields, segmented by time and place and purpose. Graceful and boisterous sentences pour in, whole and unbidden and better than any I might craft with all my steady will and intent, tying fast together the many small boats stuffed with fieldnoted survivors and hazarded guesses as to what narratives might possibly come once the living was done.

All prior guesses were off, wrongheaded, not meant to be. This one? Having shaken off the heel dust of trauma and loss and what is not now nor ever can be? Just long enough to catch and ride those towering waves one split second more anyway? Rounds the bend toward home.

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on handwritten letters and the fissures in self-reliance

Last week I received a handwritten letter, four pages long, in a cursive genetically kin to all the women in my line. Despite writing quite a few of these missives myself in the last two decades, I cannot remember the last time I got a handwritten letter.

I have savored this one for days. The three-holed, blue-lined white notebook paper bends beneath the weight of the letters, capturing pauses and indecision, excitement and memories in black ink and the colloquial language of home. Via the reassuring paper medium that marked the happy start of every new school year for me, I can smell a newly cut watermelon, taste a warm just-picked fig, feel the smooth orange skin of a persimmon from high in the tree across the road from my grandparents’ home. The rustle of the paper when lifted lets me hear us all singing old-timey gospel in four-part harmonies on somebody’s front porch after sundown, a flat-picked guitar working up the beat and twenty pairs of feet tapping out the rhythm on the tired wooden planks.

The sentences from one side of that treasured paper press hard against the other, like the stories we would all be telling (simultaneously) were we in the same room and not already singing or praying. (Some of our prayers, of course, had stories also built into them, not just for God’s edification but usually one or the other of us, whichever one had most recently done wrong.) I can have this irreplaceable gift because my cousin, from whom I have been distant since a small dustup over religion and truth after my mother’s death in 2010, took the time to sit down and write a letter to me in her own hand.

Mama (on left) and her twin sister

Mama (on left) and her twin sister

Our mothers were identical twins, my cousin and I the first child of each, and their deaths hit us both equally hard. As the oldest sibling in each of our remaining tribes, we grieved these two foundational women in our own ways, telling the stories that helped us make sense of the loss. Now here’s the nub: most of my family are southerners to the bone and you won’t catch one of them speaking ill of the dead, even when there’s nothing else to say, but I am not that southern, never have been. I persist in remembering the grim and inexplicable right alongside the good: this is, in fact, what I value most about anybody: that they are whole humans and not just one skewed set of traits. I don’t know anyone, myself included, who doesn’t have equal potential for great good and great evil. I don’t know anyone who turns out mostly good and honorable in the long run who didn’t struggle a while to figure out how to get there, either. Most of us carry all within and it’s a tossup each day what gets let loose. I like flawed people. What other sorts are there? I mean no disrespect, but I don’t want to tell just part of the story for anyone I love as fiercely as I do my kin: I want to tell all I can remember, no holds barred, for anything less lets eternity creep in too soon. The world kills us all in the end: yes, I know this: I just aim to give it a run for its money on my way to that line, to lob word and meaning and memory cannonballs into the throat of the abyss just as long as I can.

I am also not cut out for anybody else’s notion of a god and especially not the one in charge of the church of my childhood. From the age of five on, I had questions nobody there could or would answer, which boded well for exactly no one, but then some of its members (including a minister and his wife) helped to abduct and harm my children when they (and I, too, to be blunt) were young, and that settled the religion question for me once and for all time. There are some good people in that church—this cousin has always been one of them (and many years ago got the front screen door of her house rattled some by the men looking to find and force me back to my abusive first husband, solely because they thought she might know where I was)—but I’m not ever going to pass for one of the redeemed in their midst. I have serious issues with any god that lets meanness pass as righteous or vile doers as tares that must remain in the field (wholly unimpeded) till god, in his own good time, sees fit to run the bush-hog.

Equally to the point, perhaps, I can’t get on the right side of these churched: I wear short sleeves, short hair, and trousers in public; I do my praying solely in private; and I will never bow down to a deity that has all power and refuses to fix nearly everything that’s most wrong with the world. I respect other people’s faiths—I genuinely do and try hard not to cross up with people in their own spaces—but anybody who walks into my neck of the woods has to agree that I have a right here to be exactly who I am, say precisely what I feel needs to be said, and live it out as I alone see fit. We can disagree, yes, and I will change when proven wrong and apologize if needed (lord knows I do this plenty!), but nobody has a right to tell me to speak only their truths in my corner.

Disagreements in our families, however, were rugged things, severing ties for years sometimes. You didn’t even have to say something for that to happen either, because the church set the terms of all doings and brooked no argument (or reasoning or logic or independent thought, for that matter). Half the time I got in trouble for just looking as if I disagreed with whatever was being said. The other half I probably earned, for ample cause. The women in our line were an especial trial to me, and I returned the favor with every cell of my being most days. Part of the time I tried very hard to get along with them; the rest of the time it was all-out war of the variety that drew what I disliked most: they disapproved, tut-tutted, punished, prayed for and talked about me, and I got more obstinate and withdrawn every year.

Here’s the thing, though. You can’t win with an obstinate, silent person. No matter what you do to them, you can’t win. You might control every single aspect of them in reality, but you don’t have what really counts. My mother and her sister and I were like fire and ice. Periodically we would grow tired of the struggle or glance over and remember that we were, indeed, genuinely fond of one another and for good cause, and we’d take a brief respite. Then it was on again.

Fortunately for us both, my aunt and I had an unexpected moment of rapprochement right before her death, one that gentled and transformed our previous anger toward one another—laying it bare and showing its relevance and how necessary it was for helping each of us to be who we needed to be while also playing our indispensable role in helping the other to get there without blinkers—but there was no such miracle with my mother and me before hers. She liked this girl cousin better than me all my life, and took to taking the time to make the point repeatedly in her last decade: calling me on the phone to say things like “Oh, I’m trying to get her to write a book. She’s the best writer I have ever read in my life! What a success she would be if she would just publish it. Nobody writes that well anymore.” (Having never once complimented my writing.) And “You know, she does better in college than anyone I’ve known. I am so proud of her.” (College was considered a sin by the churched when I first enrolled, years before this cousin did. Given that she was one of the saved, college became a blessing and honor. Just not mine.) And “She is such a good mother to those children. I’ve never seen anyone do a better job of it. And successful at her career, too.”

No matter how well a child can carry on her sinful behaviors, a parent’s approval still matters. When my mother made a point of calling me to tell me these things, her voice had a steely tone to whatever small talk she was using to get to the main point. I knew what was coming from word one. That’s how attuned an oldest daughter can get to a parent with whom she is ever at odds and a disappointment, an embarrassment even. (I’d divorced the man who abused me and then married again. More than once, though only the one time was enough to put me in “double marriage,” one of the church’s cardinal sins. So I was irretrievably bound for hell, and nothing else really mattered.) These little accounts of my cousin, from the woman I couldn’t get to approve of me no matter what, hit like heat-seeking missiles. The small person in me always wanted to crawl in a hole—from my harried grad-student, single-mom, no-security-but-what-you-your-lonesome-self-can-wring-from-things life—and never see daylight again after these calls.

The woman in me from my line of women? Stuck out my chin, propped it up on my fists (or the damn floor) when needed, and wished my cousin well and lots of success: nary a word otherwise slipped my lips to my mother in part because that would’ve let on about my hole-crawling side (which neither of us would’ve found attractive, but one of us might have enjoyed more than the other). And in part because the stubborn in me didn’t want to let her know I felt anything anymore. Besides, I said over and over inside my own head afterward, I’m not going to get anywhere decent by wishing someone else ill. Mean thoughts might rub off on my life, and isn’t my road hard enough already? (It’s as if I was Hitler in a previous life, I used to think. The conditions of my existence warrant such a notion, play to it even: put karma up for consideration no matter how unchurched I might be. Seriously: one of my favorite professors in grad school once called me Job!) I can’t afford more meanness in my life, just can’t. And I said this all long enough and fervently enough that I genuinely did wish my cousin well. In everything. (She’s actually a really neat person, and only a total knucklehead could wish someone like that ill.)

At my mother’s funeral, I hugged my cousin and hoped for some meaningful family to materialize. At first it seemed likely. We shared some photos and stories, connected on Facebook and spanned the distance with happy memories and talk of some sort of reunion. But I remember our mothers whole: like their own mother and her sister and their mother before them all, these women are HUGE in my life, staggeringly lovely and ferocious and witty and strong. They lived hard lives in outsized ways, making most of the women I have encountered since (including myself) seem pale and tepid by comparison. Next to their astonishing graces, though, strides the sort of lady who can verbally stab you in the back one minute and the very next draw out the butcher knife and wipe your dripping blood off on the hem of her A-line skirt, while asking sweetly and sincerely if you’d like a sprig of fresh mint in your julep. These are not women to be trifled with. Compared to them I am now—and have always been—three shades of a sappy wimp. Once in a rare while, from grade school to the present, I’ve managed to get as effective as they were in dealing with knuckleheads or bullies, but most of the time I am a pale excuse for their descendant. (Though I must say that turning 50 has upped my resolve to be more like them and less like me for my final years, and I am working hard—with some notable successes thus far—to get there.) I said something along these lines on Facebook while everybody else was remembering only the cooking and the sayings and so forth one time, though, and the religious de-friending sparks flew, and I found myself disconnected from family even in this limited space. Usually I ponder departures and, whenever possible, get around to asking people about them. Not this time. So be, I thought, and went on.

After our dustup, distance seemed the better part of whatever cowardly valor I might conjure up. I missed this woman cousin, just a few years older than me and my mother’s confidante in her final years. Heck, I missed them all: we are a funny bunch, with quick wits and keen radars for the quirky and unstable parts of ordinary days, and I have laughed till I cried nearly every time I’ve ever been around her (even when things were not at all objectively funny). But I’m tired of religion and cleaning things up so other people can stomach them and my mother is dead so why on earth should I have to keep doing it to keep the ever-retreating peace now? Can my generation not just evolve a smidgen beyond the ways things have always been done? So I set off on my own and told myself it was better this way, and for a while, on most days at least, it actually was.

Years ago, though, this cousin had compiled a recipe book of all our favorite family recipes and sent me a copy: I was so thankful and said so, but never was that book more used than after my mother died. There were a few missing lines (in the original recipes) and once in a while I’d think I should call Mama up and ask if she knew what might work there, but Mama, of course, after May of 2010, was gone. So I’d consider briefly calling this cousin—she and I, after all, being girls and such ought to have some usable insights into the recipes that formed the comestible spines of our families—but pride or stubbornness or something else unnamed always had me at the door: so I made do and improvised on the cooking just as I’ve done with everything else in my whole life. My family belongs to their God; I don’t. There’s no middle ground and bridges can’t be built steady over brimstone: I know, because I have tried. So I stay off to myself and have even come to see that as wise.

Then a few weeks ago, abruptly staring my own mortality in the face and finding my self-reliant self a little over-much, I began collecting all the images of our shared pasts, transferring 8-millimeter films to DVDs, scanning photos, and recording stories and sayings. This would go to my brother and sister, their children and mine, and our dad. It’s not a close family—thousands of miles apart and 90 percent not on speaking terms with somebody else 95 percent of the time was the way it worked while Mama was alive and now that she’s gone we’re just plain distant. That’s our family line, intensified by religion: hot with it even, but the roots go back deeper than that. Into some backwoods Scots Irish patterns, I suspect.

We had one great-uncle who fell out with our grandfather on the other side (Baptist, which Mama’s side counted as straight sinners) before I was born and at Pappaw’s funeral, I heard four of his children repeat this story with easy laughter and no little pride: ‘Those two old coots didn’t speak again to the grave. Fell out over something nobody could remember—even them—and stopped speaking then and there. Lived right down the road from each other and never once said one more word. They didn’t even look at each other. Same as their daddy and his brother before them.’

I was young then and grieving my grandfather and asked my parents about it. I don’t remember what they said, so it didn’t help. I asked my grieving grandmother, too, one day, and she said something along the lines of ‘They just didn’t have any use for each other anymore.’ The next time I saw my great-uncle, I also asked him. He waved his hand and grunted, then walked out into the yard and handed me something to eat. I remember it as a pear, off the tall tree in his yard, but it might’ve been something else: a fresh ear of corn, maybe, or even a peach. Once he cracked open a handful of newly fallen pecans and pieced out each half for me as we sat on the edge of his porch in the sunshine. We probably didn’t exchange 50 words in my whole life, but this grand uncle’d always been good to me, finding his daddy’s fiddle in the attic and letting me have it to fix up and play, thoughtful things like that. He’d been good to his wife, too, who had a stroke when I was little and then she laid up in the bed in their house unable to move one eyelash for many years until she finally died. What would make two brothers not able to comfort one another over big troubles like that? We’re rarely at a loss for words in my family. Why couldn’t they find some and just let them lie in between the troubles? Bridges for crossing over?

‘Words can’t fix things,’ my father once said, curtly. That was the last time I asked about our family’s tendency to just leave people while they’re still alive. I vowed I’d never do it, that was all, and went about getting strong enough that I could follow through on my vow.

Self-reliance, Emerson should really have said, is a beauty of a trait and a curse of epic proportions. When we make do too long on our own, we forget that having the assistance and company of others (without having to pay them) is part of being human: it humbles us, brings us down to size, keeps us from getting overwrought about the solitude that succors the lone little soul well until one day the refuge strangles its only occupant, and the fight of every cell is for existence and connection and the right to be wrong and wronged by imperfect beings and to love and be loved by them, too. I’ve been disowned so many times now that I’ve learned how to be alone. I even like it. It saves me a good deal of money and travel hassles on holidays, for one thing. But as I packaged our family movies for my siblings, something kicked at the feed trough in my brain hard enough to cut into my rut. I hunted up the last email I’d gotten with my cousin in the cc line and sent a message along asking if she’d like a copy, too. And when she said yes and filled me in a bit on her family (a remarkably loving, non-disowning group of folks, by the way, most of whom attend my parent’s church every week that rolls in), I sent one to her.

Getting a handwritten letter, though? That I wasn’t expecting. She’d tucked in her family’s home videos and a slew of photos and extra copies of the cookbooks for my children, too—every last thing a greater treasure to me than could be all the crown jewels of all the heads of states ever. I’ve pored over and copied and saved them in four places. I’ll print out and hang some as well. But it’s the letter that I keep coming back to. That breaks into my habits. Sticks a long, pearl-headed hat pen into my pride’s noggin. (Emerson, of course, would’ve understood this clear to the bone, and I have given him short shrift above by suggesting otherwise even for a moment.)

I am gathering my pen and ink (actual pen and actual bottle of ink), my onionskin paper, my linen envelopes, and my thoughts, for I intend to answer this letter with all the heart I can muster. No, wait. I’ll leave those treasured tools aside—purchased years ago for a life I’ve never had and likely never will—and pull out the last stack of ruled notebook paper I bought for myself in a back-to-school moment the autumn after I’d finished the last year of school I will ever attempt. Three-holed, blue-lined, plain white paper: the same as the pages she used. Grace cometh in the morning, somebody once said or sung, and I feel it hovering o’er us already. It is in her letter. Can it also be in mine?

My cousin is the teen seated third from the right; I am the white-headbanded and -collared child next to her.

My cousin is the graceful and lovely teen seated third from the right; I am the white-headbanded and -collared child next to her. Our expressions suggest that someone had just said something slightly across the regular line to our left. Likely my Uncle Pete (Ellis for a given name), who’s sipping the sinful coffee that neither of us could have in that house (I got it from my grandpa on the Baptist side pretty regularly, though, which may account for at least some of how I got along with the other side’s church). From Uncle Pete I gathered a good deal of my strength and more than a few of my methods—and expletives and colorful metaphors—for resisting the churched, too. He was a real  hellion and proud of it. Would god I had a smidgen of that in me!

on the segues between trauma and memoir

Seven years. That’s how long it has taken me to write the eight-sentence segue that opens my Kalahari and Namib tracking memoir. Nestled between two bookends—a hair-raising encounter with a puff adder near the end of our journey abroad (an incident I opened with to help readers begin to think about sensory perceptions and the blindspots involved in rational thought early on) and the day we left the U.S. to get there (the year before)—this little segment has to carry all the weight of a trauma- and celebration-riddled spring season from long ago. Has to hold so many things for which I struggle to find words that are not over-wrought: children abducted with the assistance of both a sitting judge and a church and that not the worst of it, for what came next nearly broke us, worse in many ways than outright battering or stalking, and then my graduation from college complete with turning out a disastrous thesis but being elected to Phi Beta Kappa anyway despite spending way too much of my final semester at the DA’s office trying to secure my children’s safety, and then being offered and accepting a Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellowship to study tracking in Africa and Australia: memorable to the bone, it was truly not a spring I ever wanted to remember. In my first book, I whipped through all that like a racehorse on steroids to heaven, no thought for tomorrow or today. But life had other plans.

I’ve written all around this segue for years, the tracking manuscript long overdue because it was always in pieces. I could not weave those vicious personal strands into the narrative without triggering the waking nightmares that signal a trauma lived well and fully, even beautifully through during any crisis, but not yet dealt with in the tag-along mind or heart. The body does trauma like a champion. The soul carries trauma around like a toolkit for omnipotence. The spirit treats trauma like a moon-kissed, migrating butterfly bound for the sun or bust. The mind, the heart, the fibers of being unnamed? These stumble on broken bones and cut tendons and the words intended to control and kill; they insist that you seek reasons for the madness and, in the doing, re-take the hits again and again, just when you least expect them, too, so there’s no ready prepping for the lot. No wonder so many of us do as I did in my first book, Point Last Seen: we clean it up, leave it out, zip through the bloody ugly and haul out the concisions of prose to tell the damn rest and move on.

But if you tell a true story and leave out its meanest underbelly, you’re doing worse than lying to yourself: you’re guaranteeing that someone else will have to struggle down the same path with the same terrible results and just as alone as you did. I’ve had my one pass to ‘clean all this up’ for readers and reasonable reasons for that decision: Point Last Seen has done and is still doing its work in the world. But I’ve known from the moment I picked up my pen for its sequel that this book requires more: now it’s time for me to walk through the fire and name as well as I can its colors, its sizzle, its devouring hold, because only then can readers come to terms with what it means to track in a place far from home, safe in the world for a moment, just long enough to realize that suffering has a universal, multiversal face and that triumphs are strewn will-nilly amidst it? Wholly human. Deserving of its story.

I couldn’t get this part on paper, though, even though it strode through the other events as my children and I lived them—the nightmares of relapsing fever and typhoid and malaria, of seeing women and children battered and hungry and not being able to help, of understanding that social and economic systems the world over are set up to ensure that our own memorable spring is the norm and not the exception. I couldn’t stop the reliving either, not even now, despite a full and productive life: it comes unbidden when I am well and thoroughly safe myself. Despite expert help and long spells of being too harried to feel safe (which means that the waking nightmares have no space to function), I cannot sidestep them when all is reasonably well. I handle the trauma better than fine, have learned to function right through it and to speak of it in words on a page, which helps me to get a grip on the next rung of the ladder out of despair, but I can’t stop it from coming. When it does, I deal with my daily responsibilities better than usual, but then I retreat to a space where the visceral terrors cannot be seen by anyone but me: alone I wrestle with my demons. Once upon a time I sought to vanquish them, sure it could be done if I could just will myself to press on, but now I have learned better. Now I seek simply to coexist with them, without either of us tearing the other apart.

Writing is my best tool. Telling the truest stories I can is how I manage. Distant family members—people who have never been present for one whit of the hell, nor anything passing for something equivalent in their own lives—have made fun of me for this, pointing out that some people handle trauma well enough not to speak of it again while others (me included apparently) just “wallow there.” Such attacks were, of course, not just unkind, but deeply inhumane, deeply out of touch with the reality that PTSD is for those of us who work our way through it without ever sharing our darkest times. My books don’t dwell on trauma, but they also do not deny it. Readers—strangers from all over—have been gracious enough to let me know that they have found succor in what I’ve shared. I’d never planned to publish anything, but once it happened, even I was surprised to find that this work was a hand in proverbial glove for my singleminded life goal: to do whatever necessary to take all the horrible things that have happened to me within myself deeply enough that I can forge them into something of value that will help someone else. Horror and wonder walk apace in the world I inhabit: writing is a way of smithing them so that they can be touched, endured, survived, loved even, and not just now but long beyond.

This book on tracking is a natural next project, filled with adventures and beings (both human and not) who surprise, delight, disgust, or simply traipse off the page into the world we all live in because that’s where I first met them myself. I composed most of the narrative right after things happened, in copious field notes that are fun even for me to revisit. The book’s been promised to my agent for seven years now. I’ve worked on it most of that time. But I couldn’t get anywhere near this critical segue—which lets readers sail over all the traumas that set up our trip and get to the easier, more palatable, merely skin-tingling and mind-blowing adventures—until now. I’d get to that point and the waking nightmares would take over again: pouring over me in waves, rendering my words toothless and my body no sensation at all beyond stumbling along an ocean floor miles below the surface, suffocating again just as surely as I did when my first husband placed his hands around my throat and tightened them until I could no longer breathe. Or see or hear. Or know myself as still present in the world. I was never supposed to wake up from being choked unconscious, but I did. Every time. I woke up, I got up, I carried on and made a good life anyway.

No one has choked me like that in 28 years. Anybody else that plans on trying it had better show up bullet-proof and wearing a tank and hit me graveyard dead on the first run, too, because I have had my fill of being battered and won’t stand for it anymore (my vows of nonviolence not having served me at all well in those previous rounds). A good deal of this stance I learned in the Kalahari Desert among people who are way better trackers than I’ll ever be. It’s a story worth telling, and I’m finally ready to do it. Complete with the eight-sentence segue I just wrote to help make a bridge between our long-ago spring and what came after it.

Now that the losses are permanent and no salvation is to be had, I finally understand that the triggers for my kind of PTSD are all over the blessed place and cannot be sidestepped. Out of stubbornness, I press on every day. Failing as often as not at the things I attempt in my efforts to bring stability and safety into my life or my children’s. They are, of course, fully grown now, both in their fourth decades of life (30s) instead of the adolescents who made this journey with me. They no longer need me at all. Writing at this point is not for us. It won’t help us or make us whole. Writing is bearing witness, breathing and taking note of the wonder of that and all that exists—trauma and beauty alike. Writing is human. It is my message in a bottle, released from where I stand on the sandy floor of these oceans above. Little segues contain whole worlds.

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