Ten Books I Love (in the order which I encountered them)

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
When I read this book, I knew I wanted to be a writer. A delicious concoction of the sorrows and delights of life.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
I love hard stories that are told sweetly. A perfect book.

3. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, Kurt Vonnegut
For me, this book captures Vonnegut’s gift for making a reader lament and laugh in the same instant. This is an example of how we use art and storytelling to heal from the tragedies of life. Here’s another example of perfection.

4. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
This book was so painful to read, but it changed how I perceive the individual’s relationship to the Creator and how intimate the experience of Faith is.

5. Anaïs Nin’s Diaries
Technically there is more than one volume and I’m still working through them, but I admire that she wrote with the intention of telling herself the truth.

6. Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
Another book that I revisit often and get swept away by. Rilke’s explanations of creativity are intoxicating. His description of relationships is visionary. Not just for poets and artists.

7. The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray
I love playing with the exercises in this book. It’s one I revisit to find new angles, to set the ego aside and access the unconscious mind in the creative process.

8. The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, Baha’u’llah
This book creates an ecstatic mystical experience. I like to see how slowly I can read it and try to become one with every word. Reflecting on the Valley of Knowledge has helped me heal my heart probably more than anything I’ve read. “Glory to the watchman … .”

9. The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo
This is one of the books that if I start re-reading it, I have to finish it. It calls me to it like a kiss on the wind. Swoon.

10. The Unconscious Actor, Darryl Hickman
Performance as a mystical practice? What’s not to love? Writing, performance, mysticism, philosophy, collaborative creation. A great book to dig into.

Late-20th-Century Selfie: Camping ’94

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Camping with Elsa, ’94

Spring Break 1994, Elsa and I went camping. This was our last spring break as students, since we were both completing our master’s degrees in education that year. I had already started working as a long-term substitute teacher in the school district where Elsa and I had met and become friends in the late ’80s. I had married the previous fall, so things were already becoming so very different, so very “adult.” We weren’t the girls we had been when we first became friends in Madame McCoy’s French class where I learned that elle s’appelle Elsa and that she had the most joyous laugh I’d ever heard.

We were friends through all of our crushes on boys, through difficulties and illnesses in our families, through the transition from high school to college to adulthood. She taught me about quetzals, Chapinlandia and malas. In high school we rode around Duncanville listening to Morrissey. On one drive, we ran over a bottle. She was run over once too by a car in the school parking lot and limped for what seemed like months. We loved James Dean, kitty cats and movies with Edwardian ladies.

In college, we lived together for three years: first in the quiet wing of the women’s dorm at UNT where we got in trouble for listening to violin music too late; then at our very first apartment with Jessica and Akhenaten the cat; then in the funkiest apartment ever over the Clock Shop (no longer there) in Denton, Texas.

We both studied English and were on the same teachers’ scholarship. I watched her consistently score a few points higher on assignments we had in the classes we shared. We watched movies a lot: a Janis Joplin documentary, “Beaches,” “True Stories.” One time we ate so much Flying Tomato pizza that we had to take a bus home because we were “too full to walk.”

We student-taught in a frightening, urban middle-school together, where one of her students—probably drunk, probably high—shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette at a party one night. We shared one bad professor and other great ones.

In graduate school—in the months before I married—we were neighbors one last time at the Normal Street apartments where we lived near a pot-bellied pig named Saucy, a member of Brave Combo and a man who mooed like a cow.

Over the years, we travelled together. In France we walked on stones by the Mediterranean Sea and had a crush on a boy who worked at a bookstore in Cannes. It was in St. Tropez where she started calling me by my all-time favorite nickname: Cindycat.

In Mexico, we bathed in the waters by Tulum, drank hot coffee in the hottest heat I’d ever experienced and lounged on the beach while she read “Gone with the Wind.” (Sometimes Scarlett and her contemporaries did things so shocking she had to stop and tell me about it. Of course, I read the book later at her suggestion…and loved it.)

On our way to my grandmother’s church convention in Texarkana, we ate way too many Oreos and Funyuns. But on this particular day, camping at Pedernales Falls, after driving across Texas listening to Nirvana, we went to “bed” early to read stories we loved in a field near cows where we took this late-20th-century selfie.

Late-20th-Century Selfie: Thanksgiving, late 90s

Happy Thanksgiving from the late 90s

Happy Thanksgiving from the late 90s

Some holidays are so much like all the other holidays that they run together with the other ones in a big holiday soup. It’s difficult to distinguish one from the next. This late-20th-century selfie was not from one of those holidays.

I’m posing here with my brother, Tracy. This was the Thanksgiving that my half-sister, Paige, brought her daughter, Kelsey, to my mom’s house. Paige, who shares a father with me, had been to my mother’s home a few times, mostly just to pick me up for a visit at their home in East Texas. Only once or twice had she actually been in my mother’s home before. And this time she had come for Thanksgiving and brought her little girl.

This foreign feeling came from the fact that we were all together…under my mother’s roof. My mother was very charming that day, shining brightly in the way that she can, where the light of who she is can fill the room where she happens to be. That is my mother when she is happy, and that was my mother on that day when my sister and niece came to Thanksgiving.

My sister is 10 years younger than I am, and at that time I was beginning to struggle with whether or not I wanted to have children. I had been married for a number of years and was approaching 30. The proverbial clock was ticking, but I didn’t have that urge, that calling that so many women seemed to have. At that time, I was more infatuated with the idea of motherhood and raising a child than actually having one. My mind told me it was something I should do, that as a teacher who was married to a teacher, we were perfectly equipped for the responsibility of parenting another person. But my soul held back. It wasn’t until I spent time with Kelsey that day, that the urge started to become real for me.

It was a foreign feeling for all of us to be together. It’s not that we hadn’t been together before for holidays. We had spent many holidays together—many that blur and blend into one—with our father and her mother. My stepmother’s family was always very welcoming to me. Though they weren’t my biological family, I felt cared for by them which is my main holiday memory of my times with them…that feeling of acceptance and love.

I’m not sure how my sister felt about that Thanksgiving. I can only speculate that she was worried about what we would think of her, a teen-ager who had a little black child with the features of our family. But I was fascinated by this little girl. I could see my grandmother’s features and my stepmother’s features in her beautiful face. She was glorious with her dark skin and African hair. I didn’t know the story of her father. I’m sure Kelsey would want a holiday with that part of her family too and to have that feeling of acceptance.

Even though that day felt so different from other holidays, in my memory now it’s one of my favorite Thanksgivings, one where people who could have easily chosen differently. Instead of choosing to hold onto past perceptions of what family is and who is welcome, we chose to accept and to love. We chose to be happy; happy enough to take a late-20th-Century selfie. I want to take the feeling of that holiday with me out into the world: the feeling of even though we are not the family we expected, we belong to each other.

Late-20th-Century Selfie: December 1989

 

Santa and Me

Santa and Me

Who doesn’t love a Santa Selfie? I remember explaining to this particular Santa what I wanted to do because the term selfie didn’t exist yet. “Can I take a picture of us together, but, you know the kind where someone holds the camera out like this, and the picture is just two big faces?” I even held the camera out at arm’s length to demonstrate how the photo would be taken. Knowing me, I probably also showed him an exaggerated version of the smile I would use in the proposed photo…my standard “cheese.”

It was quite spontaneous, this picture. My brother was working at a Sam’s Club somewhere near Dallas, and his co-workers were having a Christmas Party/Talent Show. My brother played his base guitar that evening on the make-shift stage where we also heard songs sung, instruments played and a display of other gifts people had been quietly working on at home.

There are little stages like this that spring up in unexpected places, a little sacred space where we observe what others have done with their gifts, where we dare to share the things we’re compelled to do, the art we can’t help making. And this particular evening, the sacred stage was a space beside the closed-out cash registers, in front a few rows of folding chairs, by a table overflowing with food made with ingredients from Sam’s Club.

I wandered around the space, as I do, observing the humans in their natural habitat when something wonderful happened.

Santa Claus showed up.

I wanted to be first in line, but I knew I had to wait for the young children to go first. I was, after all, 19 now and not his intended customer. But he didn’t seem to mind me perching on his knee after handing off my camera to the person who was taking the pictures.

Cheese!

Before the next person had a chance to pose with Santa, I hopped up, grabbed the camera and made my proposal. And Saint Nick was very jolly indeed to pose for what would come to be known as a late-20th-century selfie.

What to Do When Bears Return Unexpectedly From an Outing (a Poem)

We packed your bag today.
I told you the stories of when I went to where you are going now.

The deep, dark woods of life.

I told you about the night I got cold and hungry and found a bears’ house to sleep.
About the time your uncle and I left breadcrumbs to the old witch’s house.
And about what I found in grandmother’s bed while visiting her in my red-hooded coat.

You dug around on the floor of your closet, searching for your favorite pair of shoes.
“What about your boots?” I asked. “The waterproof ones.”
You emerged with a pair of pink flip flops and dropped them into your bag.

You sigh, asking, “Can’t you tell me the glass slipper story instead?”
“That one again?”
Now I sigh.
“To be honest, I made it up when I wanted you to be okay
with scrubbing the floors.”
“But I like it.”
I breathed deeply and looked around for what else you will need.

“Do you have sunscreen? Bug repellent? A tent? Trail mix?”
You packed several scents of lip gloss, some that sparkle.
Around your neck, you placed a small vile of glitter, your amulet.
I draped you in chicken bones from my altar.

Then your sweet voice:
“You know the story I want to hear?
The one with the apple
and the prince.”
“Yeah…I made that one up, too.
Just trying to get you to go to sleep one night.”

We moved things around in silence for a while,
A quiet battle raged in the bags we were packing.

I considered telling you the story
I want you to remember most of all.
The one where…
Never mind.
You were texting.

Then just when I thought I had lost you, you looked up.
“You mean, how you met daddy was a lie?”
“Well, I twisted things a little.”
“So how did you meet him, really?”
“At a bar. We were drunk. Really.”

You sat stunned for a moment,
then read a Tweet and smiled;
“Justin Beiber is in Bangladesh.”

I tried to be satisfied
with what geography you were learning and
slipped a few things in your bag when you turned away.
Ten thousand band-aids,
A map, a compass,
And a loaf of bread so you can make your way back to me.

Your bag packed, I handed you a flashlight and
watched you walk through
the gingerbread threshold a final time,
whispering spells in the dark for your protection.

The Name of Woman (Part 1)

“I may yet be worthy of the name of woman, in the purist and noblest sense. Yes, I will be if resolution and perseverance can accomplish anything.”
Alice Marshall Finch, May 1866

This is a line from my great-great grandmother’s journal. She was 18 or 19 when she wrote this and living near Richmond, Virginia. The Civil War had recently ended, and her family—whose business was tobacco—would be moving later that year farther south to Monroe County, Alabama.

I’ve spent a great deal of time with her journals that she dutifully wrote in 1866 and her later journal that she sporadically kept when she was a mother of six children in the 1880s. She was about my age when she died, early forties. The 1880s journal she wrote in her thirties came to me when I was a young woman of about 19.

For about two decades of my life, I often pondered the entry where she sat under a tree writing while her children played in the sand. She seemed like a prisoner to me, and I was afraid to have that life. I had often heard women profess to the joys of motherhood, but Alice spoke more of the woes and worries. The strain and defeat. She was honest and eloquent, and I admired that about her writing. I related to her laments about not writing more and could feel the distress of her overwhelming life that ended so soon.

Around my fortieth birthday, my mother told me of another journal of Alice’s, her 1866 journal. If I had heard of or seen that journal before, I didn’t recall it. But a photocopy of it came to me at the perfect time. I was on the lighter side of my second divorce and still not a mother. My body craved tiny bodies and tiny voices that sprung from my own, but there was only silence.

The 1866 journal, the musings of a young woman on the other side of a war, with Alabama/Marriage/Motherhood/Texas all still ahead of her, was a different Alice than the one I read about before. Young Alice, living with her family, attending Academy and receiving tutoring in Latin, Logic, World History, and the Classics was opinionated, had a passionate curiosity for life, and more than anything wanted to contribute to the knowledge of the world. I’m told she did become a teacher before she married (as did I). In this journal too she laments of not taking more time to write. But instead of only writing a line or two to satisfy her need to know and to be known through the pen in her hand as she did in the journal of her Wife and Mother Years, her youthful words and ideas overtook her. In one of my favorite entries, the one that made me fall madly in love with her, was the entry where she begins:

“Tuesday Morning, June 27th, 1866
I have only a few moments to devote to my dear book this morning, and indeed this, not my proper time for writing, still I have so many things to commit to its leaves that I cannot refrain from the pleasure even if my time is limited. I am reading a book called “Scenes in China” and as I have gained a good many facts worthy of my attention, I will note them down before reading further.”

Then—deliciously—she writes 15 pages in her beautiful longhand writing of “a good many facts” about China culminating in a climax of her Reconstruction-era rant about the treatment of women on the other side of the world. It’s clear from the quick strokes of her pen, by the intensity of the lettering in this section that she was impassioned by the thoughts she was writing about … the “cruel custom of compressing the feet” of Chinese women.

She wrote:
“By this act of inhumanity the poor creatures are made cripple for life. The females of China are very degraded & neglected. Seldom can a Chinese woman be met who can read the simplest book in her own language & while much money is spent in education of the beloved son, the daughter is suffered to grow up in ignorance…. She is disposed of by her parents for that sum of money which they see fit to request. She is conveyed to the house of the man to whom she is to be wedded & perhaps sees him for the first time in her life. And though separated from her parents, she shares not the pleasures or privileges of a wife. Her husband looks upon her as far inferior to himself & she receives from him corresponding treatment. By all classes of males in China, females have been regarded with contempt. Religion is denied them. Rise, run, work, eat little, spend little, be silent, kept out of sight, obey, bear, & rather bleed & die than complain, is the language of the rules laid down by their treatment.”

Are you in love with her now too? I know I couldn’t write like that when I was 19. I’m still trying to write like that. It makes me wonder about Alice’s parents—John Robert and Frances Cunningham Finch—and how they viewed and treated the woman in their home. Clearly there was some expectation for the education of girls.

My mother and I researched the family to further satisfy our own curiosities. There’s a special lineage of mothers to be traced there, to know one’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s, etc. From womb to womb we are linked, a string of pearls through time and space.

Alice had two younger brothers, we found, Louis and James Finch. Both boys had daughters of their own. Louis had a little girl named Louise Finch, who I’m told was quite a character. James had two daughters, Frances and Alice, named after his own mother and his older sister, both who had died not long after he married his wife. Frances had two extraordinary daughters of her own—Alice Finch Lee who practiced law in Monroe County, Alabama until she was over 100 years old; and Nelle Harper Lee who wrote the book “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

My Alice never met the other Alices in this story, but there’s no doubt that the tone that was set in the family of educating daughters has had a huge impact on the world. It makes me wonder about how the world would change if all the girls had a chance like them, if every girl was given a pen and paper and the charge to be free to write and explore her mind. What if every girl could freely use her power of expression to enlighten others of the unjust treatment of her sisters and brothers? How long after that until we are living in another world of a new level of consciousness?

From the perspective of a woman living now, I have my own home, I study what I like and create art every chance I get. But never enough to satisfy me. I, like Alice at 19, am unquenchable in my desire to create, to know, and to be known. I look at Alice from 19 to 40-something and see how she changed. She and I flip-flopped places in time and space. The older version of her spoke to my younger self; her younger self spoke to me as I am older. I can see the shift from the optimism of youth to her world-weariness, and the tragic loss of what she longed to become.

I do not accept that same fate.

I thank her for her journals and showing me that maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I don’t have children of my own, that I’m not trapped under a tree with only a few minutes to scribble and lament.

I visited Alice’s grave in Old Waverly, Texas. I visited the graves of her parents in Evergreen, Alabama and the graves of her brothers and their families. The Miss Lees, I’m told, are in ill health and unable to share any stories their grandfather told them. (Might there be other journals yet undiscovered?)

But Alice and her journals still tug at me. “Write,” they say. “Go! Do! Make!”

And nothing in those journals pulls at me more than the opening quote which I’d like to explore more:

“I may yet be worthy of the name of woman, in the purist and noblest sense. Yes, I will be if resolution and perseverance can accomplish anything.” 

Questions for the Sphinx

The Sphinx of Lanuvium, British Museum, 120-140 AD

The Sphinx of Lanuvium, British Museum, 120-140 AD

I spent about half an hour gazing at the Sphinx that’s a part of the British Musuem’s internationally touring “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece” exhibition now at the Dallas Museum of Art (through October 6, 2013). I had seen the exhibit a few weeks ago and dutifully read all the descriptions and spent time with each piece, as I like to do. But when I awoke one day this week, one of the pieces was calling me back to spend more time with her—The Sphinx.

This marble Sphinx was at one time—it’s believed—to be a table, and from a distance just beyond the rope and under the watchful gaze of people seen and unseen, I feasted on her magnificence. Since I had been summoned by her, I approached without fear. As I circumambulated her curious body and sought out her secrets, I let the light reveal to me the perfect angles at which to stand to see all the places I missed at my first viewing. The back of her neck where it connects the loose bun of her hair would have been lost to me had I not taken the time to look for it. I love her lion’s body and the claws (part of one toe missing) and the hidden tunnel under her rump and tail. The joints of her hind legs have a beautiful bend where our human knees would be. Judging by her nippled underbelly, this Sphinx may have sublimely terrible cubs (eaglets? babies?) somewhere nearby.

And, ah, her eagle wings. I considered counting her feathers, making note of the layers of each. But instead I imagined how thrilling it would be to run at great speeds and ferocity like a lion then suddenly at will to lift up onto the winds. Could she fly as high as an eagle? Could she see the curvature of the earth? Could she soar above the clouds and storms? From her great height, could she behold a morsel of food (mouse, bunny, me) on the ground below?

No one could answer my questions, so I faced her head on with hope that I could hear the voice of the one who had called me there. I looked into her eyes—their paint long lost—and tried to hear her riddles. Would I know the answers to her questions? Would I survive our meeting if breath filled her lungs?

But she said nothing.

I tried speaking with the artist who made her over two thousand years ago, in case there’s something left of him in the ether to be heard and known. I wanted to ask him about the choice he made of giving her lopsided hair. I imagined this explanation: “If it’s too perfect, too symmetrical, it would seem like a lie, an impossibility, a Myth. I wanted her to seem real, perfectly-imperfectly real.” Then the thought came: it was the artist who was imperfect and unable to achieve symmetry in his attempt to create the waves of a woman’s hair in marble. I have these same problems with my own hair with which I have spent decades, so I am sympathetic to his challenge. I heard the artist’s voice again. “It’s just a table,” he laughed.

But still, I wish I had brought a flashlight and binoculars so I could examine her shadowed places. What did I miss that I could not see? The Sphinx keeps so many secrets, standing guard at the gates of graves. I walked and paused, walked and paused around her to find new things each time round. And as I got to know her better, I noticed my own limbs changing, becoming Sphinx-like. I prowled around her with these lion legs of mine; I fluttered my eagle wings and felt a little lift. But did I dare even try to fly? Certainly, it would be too much of a shock for the ones watching me on monitors and quietly in corner of the room.

Nonchalantly I walked, pretending to still be human. My belly rumbled, craving all the stories of all the Sphinxes (Sphinges, if you prefer) throughout all time. Not just the Grecian ones but the Egyptian, the Asian. Ones I have never heard of nor seen. “What have people said about her over time? What will they say?” I wondered.

Oh, Sphinx. Where have you been all of your life? Where were you 570 A.D., in 1066, and during the World Wars? Who else has gazed into your eyes and pondered your sinew and mysteries? How many places have you hidden, hungrily composing riddles in the dark? Where were you the day I was born? And all the times I needed you the most?

I try to adjust my thinking to the thought of you, the strange shape of what you are. I behold you, and I hold you in my being.

When I came here today, answering your call, I only knew your name and a rumor of you, but I leave you a sister Sphinx of flesh, pondering the structure of questions and how devastating they can be. Yet I walk away preferring questions that serve a different purpose; riddles that act more as flashlights and binoculars.

Before I left the side of the Sphinx, I looked again into her eyes and silently supplicated to ART. And when I no longer cared who was looking, I bowed.