odds + ends: holiday weekend edition

I had something else entirely written about the five day weekend I’m starting today, but my partner showed up as I was leaving work yesterday, and whisked me away to the North Shore.

The days are passing fast, and while I loathe the refrain of “I’m so busy,” it comes to mind frequently. We’re in single digits for weekends left in Minnesota (including this one). Three before traveling, then one before we leave with a trailer. Alongside all the work of moving (packing, sorting, donating, selling, measuring, etc.), I have an almost anxious desire to soak up as much of Minnesota as I can. I love my home. I love being from here, and as excited as I am to be leaving (for a while), I sometimes can’t believe I actually will.

We’ll be north today. Being here, in places that have grown sacred to me, I feel sensitive and humble. All this beauty, all this history, all these places my own ghosts haunt. There’s so much more to say, but I’m not saturated to find the words. Already I’ve yelled for Chris to stop the car so I can walk the fields of lupine.

I’m finishing researching our upcoming trip. I’ll forever love my Lonely Planet guides, but I’m scouring travel blogs for the spots the guidebook missed (or, on the flip side, the guidebook hotspots that should be avoided). I love reading travelogues, but dislike prescriptive advice. Hand-Luggage Only is my go-to for quick lists + recs, followed up by A Lady in London for, as the name suggests, all things London. For food, I’m hounding friends to give up their favorite joints, and checking out everything French Foodie in Dublin + Canal Cook recommends. I’m whittling my list of literary haunts, because if it were up to me only, we’d spent all fifteen days chasing literature’s ghost. I’m not researching New York with the same fervor, as that leg of the journey will be a different beast. We’re visiting friends, and soon we’ll be on the right coast to visit more often.

Chris laughs at me when I explain to him that I want our trip to feel like the freedom to play. Turn down that street, take a rest in that cafe, visit this bar or church or open gate. He knows how much I crave a plan, and how badly I manage change. Maybe a better way to say it is: I want to know everything while maintaining the freedom to do anything.

I’m slogging through Star of the Sea, which started promising, but is dragging on, while craving the slimness of short stories. Elsewhere, I’m reading career advice to alleviate the fears of leaving my first job, catching up on the newsletters I subscribe to (then fall behind on), and building an at-home yoga practice (because that studio life is expensive). An essay of mine was published to the Invisible Illness site, and I’m starting to feel the stirring of fresh creative life after finishing my novel. I’m scribbling down fragments of sentences and stories, hoping they’ll become something.

Finally, because it’s Independence Day, let’s take a moment to feel patriotic. Last Saturday, demonstrators gathered in 700 different places to protest inhumane immigration practices. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s workout is intense (because fighting fascism takes work, y’all). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the face of hope this week, and midterms are coming soon.

can i tell you what i’ve been working on + why it scares the hell out of me?

Last weekend, I wrote  complained about the business of creativity in the age of the internet. All of the social media and the metrics and the followers and the numbers. Basically, all these indicators I didn’t care about, because what could a “follower count” have to do with the stories I write?

Clearly, I’m behind the times, but, people, I didn’t get hip to Instagram until late 2016. My best friend in college was all over it right away, and I watched all the filtering and the sharing, but she was so much trendier than me. Leave that for the cool kids. Until last week, I didn’t know how many followers I had anywhere.

In sixth grade, a classmate told me “nobody likes a try hard” after they saw the score at the top of the “descriptive essay” I wrote about my house at Christmas time. 98 out of 100, and my teacher docked those two points because I used the word “scintillating” to describe the lights on the tree. He said he didn’t know what the word meant. I needed a dictionary, why wouldn’t you? This was year I was called “dictionary” instead of by my name, because classmates caught me with an OED during homeroom.

What does this have to do with promoting my writing? I’m not sure, but it’s what I think of every time I hit send on a new essay or post.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I was four when I told my best friend that I wanted to “make books.” When I love something, I love it hard, and when I go after something, I go after it hard. I think I’m so hesitant to share, promote, beg for readers, because at some point I began to conflate earnestness and effort with something to be  ashamed of. Another mark against Torrie, the weird kid who read the dictionary, who keeps sharing even though can’t she take a hint, nobody cares.

I have Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls in my head: “[Least Complicated] is a song I wrote thinking about my little boyfriend Danny in 6th grade. He was so cute, and I went to Woolworth’s and I bought him a ring with my allowance. And as soon as I gave it to him, I knew it wasn’t the cool thing to do. And that was just the beginning of the rest of my life.”

This is the locked room I’ve been circling.

I know in the deepest parts of me what I want: To write. To have a readership for my writing. I want my writing to find life outside myself.

I spent this week getting fired up about the whole of the “writing life.” My strategy so far has been to hit send and see what happens next. I’ve gotten a few short stories out of this strategy, but that’s about it.

So here’s where I am now. I’m working on upping my game, expanding my repertoire, building myself a brand new bag, if you know what I mean. I’m sharing this both as a request for support if you like what I write, and as an explanation if you’re feeling spammed.

Learning: Above all else, I’m learning. The goal here is steady, practical education. While I love the accumulation of knowledge, I don’t (yet) enjoy the process of learning new skills or systems. I frustrate easily, and want to skip ahead to the part where I know what I’m doing.  Since I can’t do that, I’m trying to avoid my usual pattern of obsession + burn out.

I’ve downloaded half the Jenna Kutcher Goal Digger library, and am listening between episodes of The West Wing Weekly and My Favorite Murder(a woman can only hear the word “girlboss” so many times in a row). I’m reading Jane Friedman for the smart truth that it is, and have subscribed to Felicia Sullivan’s newsletter (though her wheelhouse is geared towards freelancers and brand/business strategists). I’m vetting a handful of other resources tailored to education I’m looking for. Other recommendations? Send them my way!

She Breathed Deeply: Did you know I changed the name of my blog last year? I’m upping how frequently I post. You know what I write about: what I’m reading, what I’m learning, how I’m growing or healing. This summer, you can expect some travel, lots about leaving home, lots about living in the DMV. Other perennial topics include mental health (anxiety + depression remain my specters), creative writing, the odds + ends of what’s capturing my attention. If you’re a frequent reader, let me know what you like and what you don’t like! I love feedback. I need feedback.  Seriously, give me feedback.

Medium: This is basically a different and more elegant form of blogging. I’ve read voraciously on Medium for several years, but have only published sporadically and without strategy. I’ll be sharing more essay-length pieces here, as well as some of my fiction. Check out one of my favorite essays I’ve ever published and follow along over there too.

Instagram: I’m going to be all over Instagram, and I’m going to be uncomfortable as hell about it. I’ve talked about followers, and while I understand the value ascribed to followers from a “platform” standpoint, I’m not looking to just jump my number.  I’m learning about the vibrant communities on Instagram, about how it can be a platform for connection. Follow for flowers, Ferris wheels, and the occasional photos of me.

Creative Writing: I have a few short story ideas I’m developing, but my biggest focus is still what comes next after I finishing the latest draft of my novel. I had several kind people ask to read my manuscript (gift upon gift, people), and those who finished had positive, constructive comments. The resounding response is don’t stop now.

I won’t lie, that’s pretty amazing to hear. I was ready for a “good effort,” and a polite suggestions that I throw the towel in. I want to hear from a few more people (offer still stands – you want to read 272 pages about a woman finding her way back home, I’ll send you the PDF) before I fully commit to a fifth draft, but I see that on my horizon.

Elsewhere, I’m focusing on the ideas I have for what I want to write about. Already, I’m finding myself granting “permission” to explore aspects of my writing I wouldn’t have pursued before. Why not write about what I’ve learned about money? Why not submit essays to suitable publications? Why not respond to requests for books reviewers, for help reading submissions? I’ve had so many rules — fiction writer only, submit short stories only, stay inside your zone, why would anyone want to read that?

The great permission I’ve granted yet? The permission to stop asking these stupid questions.

Maybe nobody will want to read that. Maybe I am wasting my time on something that I’ll never receive traditional success for. Maybe I will stay outside the circle, and my metrics will stay low, and that will mean something for my writing career. Maybe, maybe but maybe not. Years ago, I listened to Cheryl Strayed interviewed about the success of Wild.

“There’s a long history, of women especially, saying ‘Well, I just got lucky.’ I didn’t just get lucky. I worked my fucking ass off. And then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky. You have to do the work. You always have to do the work.”

I think about this a lot, because I know I can’t control the luck, but I never want to wonder what would have happened if I’d worked harder. So here’s me digging in the to the work. Want to give me feedback? I’d love to hear from you. Want to follow along? I’d love for you to join me.

what i’m reading lately

on my bookshelf.jpgRight now, this country is all jagged outrage and impotent heartbreak. I wrote about my bookshelf before yesterday’s Supreme Court decision (although, obviously, after the waves and waves of coverage on detained asylum seekers, babies in cages, and outrageous government-sponsored human rights violations). Books can be escape in desperate times. I hope, instead, they’re lightposts, wisdom to combat all this injustice and pain.

There was a time when books were my safety. I read constantly, voraciously. Friends would joke: I can see from Goodreads that you’ve read four books in the time its taken me to read one. Do you do anything else? I brought books to parties, because knowing I had one near was enough to stem the anxiety that crowds created for me. I referred my bookshelves, in unguarded and un-ironic moments, as my oldest friends.

In college, I made my roommate wait while I ran back into our apartment. When she saw me tucking a novel into my bag, and she laughed. We’re running errands. What do you need a book for? What if something happens, I tried to explain, and I have time to kill?

So you’re saying that we get into a car accident. I’m so badly hurt I can’t carry a conversation, and you’re going to whip out a book while you wait for an ambulance?

Last year, my reading life shifted, and it’s taken me the year to acclimate. When I stopped needing books to smother my pain, I stopped reading. I wasn’t the walking wounded anymore; I didn’t need the band-aids.

It’s been a joyful process to rediscover one of my earliest loves. It’s led to a deeper relationship and, antithetically, less attached relationship with the texts. It’s not an anesthesia, so I’m present for language and wisdom and plot development in ways I wasn’t. I’ve been rereading books to savor them in new and cleaner ways. I’m purging my shelves of what I don’t like, expanding my diet to explore what I do, getting more life of everything I read.

In other words, I’ve found my groove again.

Under the Tuscan SunBella Tuscany, Frances Mayes: I didn’t read these books when they were released a decade ago, didn’t see the movie, wasn’t old enough to get tired of the Tuscany-as-lifestyle frenzy they created. My mother passed them to me in a stack she was discarding, and I grabbed the first before a work trip I wanted some “light” reading for. Mayes is a fantastic writer. A poet, she operates at the level of the sentence, and I get why these books (the first, in particular) sent the world into paroxysms of Tuscan-fever. Everything is beautiful underneath her pen.

But beneath the language, and all the talk of wines and linens and the cucinia povera and the Etruscan walls (as an aside: I found this all fascinating, even if it was extraneous and vaguely pretension), I found in these memoirs a meditation on home, and who we are when we locate ourselves elsewhere. I’m moving this summer, and Mayes did for me what I ask literature to do: Her memoirs provided shape and language for the hopes I have for our move, for the dreams, the anxieties, the questions, the reasons.

The Good Mother, Sue Miller: Like the Mayes memoirs, The Good Mother is decades old, scavenged during one of my $0.50 per title book bin benders. This novel about a woman who became awake: After a dispassionate marriage, Anna Dunlap begins to lay a new foundation upon which to build a life for herself and her daughter, only to have this new life thrown into chaos by a decision made by her lover. The central crisis of this novel isn’t as nuanced as Miller likely meant it to be (although I’m speaking from a vantage point of thirty years), but the intensity of character’s experience is. Miller writes  a traditionally “female” story without any of the traditional sentimentality. Motherhood brings deep, radical love, but also compromise and limits. Romance is obsessive and consuming, but there’s no prince charming who will save a woman’s life. Familial ties are complicated. Love, in all its forms, is complicated. It’s a story that embraces, but doesn’t try to smooth, the rough corners of our experiences.

Vida, Patricia Engel: This is best book I’ve read this year. Engel is a sharp, beautiful writer who knows how to make language detonate. I read this very short collection of interconnected stories (140-ish pages) during an April snowstorm that left me snowed in. There’s nothing Engel won’t touch, and nothing she can’t make both beautiful and broken: prostitution, domestic abuse, death, immigration, heartbreak, girls who feel out of place, boyfriends who let you down. I read this book months ago, and still haven’t gotten over it.

This spring, I also reread Felicia Sullivan’s superb Follow Me into the Dark, Cheryl Strayed’s gorgeous memoir, Wild, and slogged through a few so-so titles that immediately wound up in the give away pile.

Currently, I’m reading Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Connor + The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison. The first, a novel I’ve had on my shelf for years, is one of my pre-move “read now or toss” books. I will haul the books I love across oceans without regret, but I really don’t want to get out to DC with boxes of books I’m going to disappointed in when I finally read them. So far (as in 50 pages in), Star of the Sea, historical fiction about a passenger ship crossing from Ireland to New York, is better than I expected.

The second, I’m reading slowly. Do you ever “save” the books you’re most excited for? I’ve wanted to read The Empathy Exams since it was released, but even though it’s been on my shelf for a year, I was hesitant to start it. When I buy a book, I put it on my shelf and wait for months, maybe years, for the “right time” to read it. I’m not sure if this is a sweet piece of my character (the anticipation builds my love) or another way I reinforce the beliefs that I don’t deserve to have I want. Either way, I’m finally reading Jamison’s essays, and they’re as gorgeous as I expected. I’m savoring each essay, one at a time.

Other books on my “to be read: special moving edition” pile: Joyland, Stephen KingIn the Country We Loved, Diana Guerrero, The Wonder Spot, Melissa Bank, A Box of Matches, Nicholson Baker.

What are you reading? What should I be reading?

thoughts on the business of creativity

Torrie June 2018 605 (2).JPGDo you ever become obsessed with productivity? The need to keep vaulting forward? Believe me when I tell you that, as I write this an hour after waking, and already I’ve felt myself pitching into the anxiety of industry.

I tried to explain this to my partner: I feel like I’m fragmenting. My brain is this hive, a colony of operations, except I’m the only bee inside and can’t visit every chamber. There’s the business of leaving: the leases and the jobs and the moving boxes and what you do with all the stuff you own when half of it you love and half of it you hate, but it all seems to necessary. But then there’s all the stuff that has nothing to do with moving, and everything to do with just living.

How do you make enough money to earn the freedom of unencumbered hours to create? If, by some miracle of economy and privilege, you have that freedom, how do you cut away the noise of the world to let ideas populate your wilderness? If by all the miracles of economy and privilege and focus, you actually create something, how do you get anyone else’s attention?

I sound like I’m complaining that “no one” reads me writing, but really, I’m not. More people read my writing than I can even imagine. After I wrote about finishing my novel, several people emailed asking for the PDF. What a gift that was. Doubly, triply so when those miraculous readers wrote me to say they saw the kind of beauty in my story I’ve worked so hard to create.

No, it’s all the business of creativity. The social media presence and the digital analytics and the “cultivating community” (versus the actual, valuable process of finding people who are as excited about the same things as you). We’re inundated constantly with all these stories about people who “hustled” their way into their careers, who built brands and followings and presences and parlayed them into other opportunities. I want to write, and I’m not saying I should be be able to do this without any work (because I’m shouldn’t), but I’m saying what does my Instagram following having to do with the stories I write about broken people? And if one means something to the other, how do I marry those bright squares with the emotional excavations of my fiction.

I’m creatively restless in the blank spaces that finishing my novel opened, and I’m uncomfortable and confused by the landscape of digital creativity. (What even does that mean? Again, I write. Does that make me a digital creative? Does simply being creative in 2018 mean you are, automatically, a digital creative?)

Yesterday, I sat in a garden for two hours, and finally left, because I couldn’t still my mind. These two trajectories, moving away and building my writing, are linked, because I’m looking at this move as an opportunity to refocus my time and energy. My brain is a to do list a mile long, and it’s an internet browser left open on too many tabs. 

I’ve questions I want answered and stories I want told. How do I drill down past all the extra stuff to think as deeply as you need to write? And then how do I pop back above the surface, and make space for myself in the already crowded room?

somewhere among the mountains

luke-pamer-26747.jpg
I. Maria Elena   

Now that they’d finished negotiating the streets of suburban Tucson, the busy, distracting noise they’d made had fallen away. Silence rose up in its place, a third sister, ready to ride with them all the way to California.

Maria Elena adjusted the mounted GPS, and accelerated to pass a groaning pickup truck. Cecilia had been useful in relaying the GPS’s direction when they were making their way from their mother’s former home to the freeway, but now that they were on the road that would take them all the way to San Diego, she’d gone quiet, her eyes unfocused and her fingers plucking absently at the waist of her jeans. At least she was driving, Maria Elena though. Cecilia hadn’t protested when they’d retrieved the keys from their mother’s old neighbor, and she was double glad of that now. It was the natural order, that she should drive and Cecilia should ride, but it also have her hands something to do. Maria Elena checked her rearview mirror again, then her left and her right.

“Have you talked to mom yet?”

Cecilia rolled her head towards Maria Elena. “I texted her when we got to the car.”

“Thanks.”

“She told me to call when we got close.”

“Sure.”

Maria Elena nodded, shifted lanes. It had been five years since she and Cecilia had last seen each other. Christmas, with their mother, at the rented house in Tucson. An unremarkable holiday. Maria Elena brought cookies from the grocery store she managed, and Cecilia’s daughter Jamie, seventeen and weeks away from the inseminating incident that would make Cecilia a grandmother, spent the long weekend flipping through beauty magazines. The four woman got pedicures, exchanged gifts, watched a movie, and after three days, left. Cecilia to Fort Worth, and Maria Elena to Colorado Springs.

They’d spoken with more recently—they were sisters, of course—but their conversations were never more than perfunctory. Maria Elena providing Cecilia with a bulleted version of her separated life, and Cecilia doing the same.

They were only together now out of duty to their mother, because keeping her car was the condition upon which their mother had agreed to move into an assisted living facility with her own sister. If she moved, someone would drive the car from Tucson to San Diego. After the deal had been made, Maria Elena and Cecilia decided to make the drive together. Turn it into a long weekend, and help their mother settle into her new home.

Fighting back a beat of irritation, Maria Elena now wished she’d insisted upon making the trip alone: It didn’t need to be a two man job. Her palms tingled in the silence. As children, Cecilia had been the talker, the storyteller, the show. Maria Elena had always ceded attention to her sister, letting Cecilia take up all the air in the room. Why wasn’t she filling their silence now?

“Does mom like her new place?” Maria Elena asked.

“Seems to. She likes living with Tía Irma.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah, I’m glad.”

Cecilia let the conversation drop, and Maria Elena went back to focusing on the road. Traffic was dissipating the further they drove from the city. Maria Elena knew, from a childhood spent bouncing around the desert southwest, that they were driving into the mountains. By the time darkness fell, they’d been among them, their car one of the only ones crossing the cracked and buckled roads.

“How’s the grocery store?” Cecilia asked, rousing herself for the first time since they’d hit the freeway.

“Fine. It’s a grocery store. Last week, we ran a coupon for avocados, and ran out four hours after opening.”

“That’s crazy.”

“It was.” Maria Elena flashed her brights at a semi angling into their lane. “How’s Jamie?”

“Good. Pregnant again.”

Maria Elena sucked in her breath, making a sharp noise that she regretted as soon as Cecilia whipped her head around. “Wow! Her second?”

“Third.”

“Third?” Maria Elena colored. She’d been in the delivery room when Cecilia had birthed Jamie. She’d shared a bedroom with her bassinet. She’d poured baptismal water over the baby’s downy head. “How far along?”

“Still in the first trimester. She’s sick as a dog, though. Something about her boyfriend. My pregnancy was a breeze, but all three of hers have been bad.”

“They’re still not married?”

“No.” Cecilia’s fingers twisted her waistband. “But you know. It’s different now.”

“Of course.”

II. Cecilia

The sun shifted, and the sky split open, a violent, dusty orange. The sun hung, for a suspended second between the clouds and the mountain. Beneath its nakedness, everything glowed. Orange, red, gold, shot through in the dirt. Each sister exhaled.

“I’d forgotten—”

“How big?”

“How beautiful.”

Cecilia leaned her elbows into the dash, drinking in the light. They were driving into a bowl that would life back up into those mountains.

“Texas does not look like this”

“No?” Maria Elena laughed. Cecilia watched as her sister edged the speedometer a few miles higher. They were going ten over the speed limit now. As the cruise control beeped, Cecilia wondered if Maria Elena was trying to shorten the time they had to spend together, and alone. The engine growled softly underneath her. Cecilia cast around for something else to say.

“Somebody once told me,” she said, leaning back in her seat,” that the sun doesn’t set on the other side of the mountains. Only really good girls get to live on the other side, and they don’t have to go to sleep.”

“Why didn’t they have to sleep?”

“Because the sun doesn’t set.”

“But why doesn’t the sun set?”

Cecilia watched her sister’s eyes cycle from the road to the rearview mirror then back to the road. Maria Elena asked her question like Cecilia was posing a riddle, not telling a story. She kept an irritated sigh deep in her diaphragm.

“Because the girls on the other side of the mountain are good. They get more playtime, because they’re good.”

Maria Elena’s lips split open slowly, a smile finally pulling itself over her teeth. She moved slower than Cecilia remembered. Like she wasn’t used to having someone in front of her to respond to.

“Who told you that?”

“Patricia.”

“Mom’s friend Patricia?”

“Yes.”

“She did not.”

“She did too. Several times. That summer she lived with us in Jerome.”

“When did she tell you that?”

“Oh you know,” Cecilia waved her hand, remembering the season they’d spent with their mother’s friend in Jerome. Loneliest place in the world, and at eight years old, Cecilia had thought that even the wind in that town sounded sad. “Anytime I misbehaved. She didn’t like me very much.”

“You’re kidding me.” A produce truck passed the on the left. “She never told me that.”

“Yeah well, she liked you.”

Maria Elena didn’t say anything else. Cecilia looked over at her, and rolled her eyes. Her sister still had as much grace as a rock. Even as a little girl, Maria Elena had held herself in close. When they were teenaged, Maria Elena told Cecilia that she needed to say no more often, and Cecilia, loose from empties she’d been swiping from the bar that Maria Elena worked at, had laughed and told Maria Elena that she needed to say yes. Cecilia could see that her sister still kept herself rigid, so tight within herself that nothing could get out.

“Why did mom let her live with us? She was so awful to me.”

“We lived with her,” Maria Elena said.

“No, she lived with us.”

“At the house in Jerome?”

“Yes.”

“We lived with Patricia. It was her house, not mom’s.”

Cecilia took her feet off the dashboard. “Why did mom always tell me that was her house?”

“She wanted you to think she owned it.”

“Why?”

“Because she didn’t want you to think we were poor.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Maria Elena was being glib, Cecilia though, her own irritation growing.

Maria Elena laughed, and shook out what was left of her short hair. “You never asked me.”

“Mom’s told me recently that she owned that house.”

Maria Elena laughed again. “She lied to you.”

“I don’t believe it,” Cecilia muttered, “I swear mom owned that house.”

It was a small thing, Cecilia knew that, but she didn’t like not knowing. That had been the first years of her adulthood, after her mother had kicked her out and she and Maria Elena had move away from each other. It had come for her like cold water, everything from which her mother and sister had protected her. Struggle and pain, violence, want. She’d been a young mother by the time she’d had to confront the world, had to learn about it. Even in the darkening car, Cecilia could feel her own foolishness and ignorance. Twenty years old now, but still hot.

“Cecilia,” Maria Elena, said, gentler, “we didn’t have shoes that summer. How could mom have afforded a house?”

Night was coming down like a blanket across the desert, stars beginning to push themselves through the velvet. Cecilia made herself busy watching them out the passenger window. She knew, vaguely, that her irritation towards her sister was not about Maria Elena herself, but the idea of Maria Elena that Cecilia projected, but she didn’t know how to separate the two. It had been too long since she’d truly known her sister. What she assumed Maria Elena thought of her was all that Cecilia knew of Maria Elena. And, Cecilia realized with a sinking in her throat, all that Maria Elena likely knew about her. She watched as Maria Elena adjusted the GPS again, and the embarrassed anxiety of the movement made Cecilia twitch.

“What I remember about Patricia is her giving me Mexican candies,” Maria Elena said, returning to the subject like fingers to a smoothed stone.

“Sticky things, right? With chili powder on them?”

“Yes! You remember them?”

She made a gagging noise. “I remember them making me sick.”

Maria Elena laughed. “They didn’t make you sick; you already were sick. I gave them to you because you wouldn’t stop crying. I pretended they were medicine.”

“Then I threw them back up onto you.”

“Yeah, and I didn’t get a new nightgown until after we moved out of Patricia’s two months later.”

Cecilia smiled. Maria Elena wouldn’t know this, but Cecilia had told her daughter this story when Jamie was sick. When I was a little girl, Cecilia would say, smoothing back Jamie’s hair or rubbing her back, I didn’t have a Mami who took care of me like I take care of you, but do you know who did take care of me, mija, your Tía Maria Elena did…” Cecilia thought about asking Maria Elena if she remember the other stories she’d told Jamie—about the fever that Maria Elena had tried to break by making Cecilia swallow ice cubes, or about the chicken pox that Maria Elena treated by rolling her up in a bedsheet to keep her from scratching the sores—but Maria Elena starting speaking again.

“Mom didn’t actually buy me a new nightgown. One of dad’s sister made me a new one after we moved in with her.”

“We moved from Jerome to Escondido?”

“Yeah, into that little blue house.”

“With all those little kids. That’s right. I’d forgotten about that house. I didn’t think we moved to Escondido until after Abuelita died.”

“No, we moved into her house after she died, but we lived in Escondido for at least two years before that.”

“Yes. With all of the tías.”

“The house of whispers.”

“Who called it that?”

“Mami.”

“Why?”

“Because dad’s sisters were always whispering about us.”

Cecilia leaned her head against the window, looking back through her own memories with as much visibility as she had looking out onto the darkened highway. She had forgotten about the house they’d shared with so many members of their father’s family. She marveled, not for the first time, at the flytrap way Maria Elena had retained the details of life.

“There’s a lot I don’t remember.” Cecilia said quietly.

“That’s ok.”

“I’m serious. There’s so much I’ve forgotten. Like that house. Poof. It just not there.”

“Come on. It’s not like you forgot a trip to Disneyworld.”

Cecilia laughed. “That’s true.”

“You were young, Cecilia.”

“So were you.” Her sister spoke in the way she did when she tried to make something better.

Maria Elena nodded reluctantly. “Yeah. Well.”

“What I do remember about Escondido is lighting our curtains on fire when I was sneaking one of Mami’s cigarettes.”

“I remember having to wait outside for the fire department to come and turn off the fire alarm.”

“Mami was so mad.”

They began to climb, a slow ascent that brought the mountains close to them on either side. The sky opened up, a whole galaxy expanding above them. Cecilia felt her sister’s tension ease, and she too let herself mellow.

“Do you remember the car that Mami had with the front doors that wouldn’t open?”

“The one that she got pulled over in because the police thought she stole it?”

“That piece of shit. We always looked like fools climbing in through the backend.”

“What about Tío Ruddy’s funeral? Do you remember how that priest that ran up and down the aisles touching everyone?”

When you feel the wind,” Cecilia mimed, “Or walk through a pocket of warmth on a cold day, that’s your friend, your brother, your son…

“He touched me,” Maria Elena said, “Do you remember that? He skimmed my shoulder with his hand, and Mami yanked me away, and then burst in to tears.”

Nobody had given the priest the same warning that all the young girls received about Tío Ruddy.

“I think that night is the only night I ever remember seeing Mami really, really drunk.”

“That was the night she chipped her tooth, right?”

“Yeah. Falling down the steps outside the bar.”

That fall had changed their mother’s face, taught her how to talk and smile with her lips held tight.

Cecilia and Maria Elena ping-ponged their way through their shared childhood and adolescence, playing their memories like cards laid down in the quiet gulf between them. By the time the GPS chirped that they were halfway to their destination, the darkness had grown so thick that it seemed to expand around them each mile they drove.

“What was the name of that hotel you worked at? After we moved out?”

“Hotel Lotus or Crocus? Hotel Flower Something. Why?”

“Just curious.” Cecilia stifled a yawn as the clock rolled over into the new day. “I was thinking about it the other day. How young we were when we moved out.”

“We were young, but we kind of had to.”

She’d been pregnant. That had been the reason why they had. Jamie was still a secret she’d told only to Maria Elena when they’d packed up their shared bedroom and left.

“Still. I can’t believe that Mami didn’t fight us on it at least a little bit. If Jamie had tried to pull that shit when she was pregnant with the first one.”

“Mami didn’t have it in her to fight us anymore.”

“Fight me. I don’t think you ever gave her any problems.” The heads flashed on an exit sigh, and Cecilia pointed, “Gas station. I need to stop.”

“But at that point, it was both us. She couldn’t have kept me without keeping you. Mami knew that,” Maria Elena said, turning on her blinker.

Cecilia exhaled, almost laughed. She needed a cigarette if she were going to stay awake. As she pulled off the freeway, the lights of the gas station marquee reflected on Maria Elena’s face. Cecilia watched it shift, purple, then red, then hollow white. For a brief moment, the lights erased her wrinkles, and Maria Elena looked like a girl again.

But then she turned off the car, and the dome lights came on. Cecilia looked away quickly, but not before seeing her sister, middle aged and gaunt, in the thin, blinking light.

III. Maria Elena, again

After the gas station pit stop, quiet grew back up between them, sleepy and soft. Cecilia had tried to keep up the thread of reminiscence, but her voice had grown heavy, syllables slowed down. She’d finally nodded off, and Maria Elena had pushed on, reminding herself of all the childhood nights she’d lain awake, worried or hungry or simply sleepless, next to Cecilia.

To her left, a flotilla of lights rose up out of the darkness, then sailed away. Her headlights caught on the glare of a sign: “State Penitentiary,” and underneath it, “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” Maria Elena shivered, and the mountains pushed in closer, immense, and razored, and indifferent. If she veered off the road right now, they wouldn’t crash, but would be subsumed into the chasm of limitless black opening up in front of her.

Maria Elena turned on her brights, and rolled her shoulders up towards her ears, trying to bring energy back to her sleep soaked body. Next to her, Cecilia stirred.

“You still okay driving?” She’d asked the same thing when they’d stopped at the gas station, but Maria Elena had shot down her sister’s offer then too.

“Yep. Still good.”

“Are you?” Cecilia’s voice was barely louder than the hum of the car engine.

“Good to drive?”

“Or in general.” She uncoiled herself from her seat, blinking heavily. Maria Elena stayed silent, forcing her sister into an extended pause. “It has been five years.”

Maria Elena took her eyes off the road, and sought the mountains. She found them in the pitch, a deep, jagged sheath of black cut away from the charcoal sky. Orion the Hunter hung above them, his bow reaching towards the horizon line. She repeated Cecilia’s question to herself, and focused on what she could barely see. There were no lights out here. Just what came from the car, and what came from the stars. So black that the whole earth could have emptied of all its contents except for she and Cecilia. Maria Elena exhaled.

“I’m lonely, Cecilia. Most days, I feel very, very alone.”

The quiet expanded around them. Maria Elena felt the sadness she kept inside start to seep from her, the way that cold seeps from bones. Cecilia’s hand brushed against her leg, the quiet pronounced.

“I’m sorry.”

Maria Elena blinked back the hint of tears. “It’s okay. It’s life.”

“It is.”

She waited Cecilia’s breath to fall back into its metered pattern. Her sister had barely roused herself from sleep—she’d be asleep again soon. It was like when they were children, and Cecilia woke with a bad dream. Maria Elena would like awake and pray that Cecilia would sink back into sleep quickly, that when she woke, she’d have forgotten the night.

“After Jamie told me she was pregnant again, I stayed in bed for a week.” Cecilia said. “I couldn’t fucking believe it. I felt like I’d rewound the tape twenty years, except that Jamie was me, and I was mom.”

Maria Elena sucked air slowly through her teeth before speaking. “Did you tell Jamie?”

“That the news of my third grandbaby made me so depressed I couldn’t bring myself to eat for two days?” Cecilia shifted towards the stars, her voice its own quiet fire. “No. What could I have said? ‘In twenty years, you’ll be a grandmother, and your own daughter will be pregnant, and unmarried, and surviving on scraps. You’ll regret every decision you’ve ever made, and you won’t be able to change a single goddamn thing?’ No. You can’t say that stuff. Not out loud.”

Cecilia’s words burned in the small car. The darkness made a wall around them, and the car became like a cloister, a confessional. Like, to Maria Elena, their bedroom back home.

“Do you regret Jamie?”

“Yes. Every day. I regret who I had her with, when I had her. How I raised, what I gave her, what I didn’t. I love her, but yeah. I regret her too.”

A black grief filled the car, crushed the sisters on each side. They both felt its squeeze.

“Don’t you think that everyone feels that way though?”

Cecilia laughed, a hollow, guttural sound.

“God I hope not. That’s miserable.” She paused. “Do you think mom felt this way about us?”

Maria Elena watched the road bend away from the face of a mountain, and followed its curve.

“I’m sure she did.”

Cecilia sunk into her chair like a popped balloon, and Maria Elena trained her eyes on the highway’s dividing strips, counting them as they rushed beneath her. This was it. Each sister retreated into her own castle of quiet. This was what they had to say to each other. Outside their car, the darkness was shifting, monstrous nighttime creatures pulling their matter up from the unformed black. Maria Elena looked out on them. The mountains, unending. They reminded her of Mission, Texas. Another great, unending landscape.

That’s where she and Cecilia had come undone. Nineteen years earlier. Maria Elena had driven through the night for Cecilia them too.

Jamie father, a boyfriend who’d disappeared before Cecilia’s stomach began to swell, had resurfaced, the baby, by this time, was nearly walking. He wanted them both—Cecilia and Jamie. He had a job on the oil line, a trailer in Mission, Texas, he was ready for them now. That’s what he’d told Cecilia over the phone. That’s what Maria Elena had mocked. That’s what they’d split apart over

The night Cecilia told Maria Elena her decision, they had raged. They did battle, first in whispers, so as not to wake the baby, then in shrieks that Jamie had added her own voice to. They’d split the night open with their fury. Maria Elena refusing her sister her decision, accusing Cecilia of helplessness, spinelessness, foolishness, forbidding her to leave, and Cecilia defending her independence, her competence, enraged at Maria Elena’s dominance.

You tell me no like you think it means something, Cecilia had yelled, Like that word is fucking magic. You’ve been making my decisions for me and my baby. No, no, no. No to everything, but this isn’t about you, Maria Elena. It’s about me and Jamie, and my family.

I’m your family, Maria Elena had screamed back. I’m the reason life hasn’t been hard for you. I’m taking care of you and Jamie. I’m the husband and the father and the provider. I’m your family.

Cecilia, smoldering, hadn’t responded, and after a minute that scraped each of them like a bed of razors, Maria Elena had screamed, then collapsed into great, weeping gasps. The next morning, she helped Cecilia pack, and then she took the driver’s seat, and drove Cecilia and Jamie 1300 miles to Mission, Texas.

Before hugging goodbye in front of the dusty trailer Jamie’s father had presented as Cecilia’s new home, Maria Elena had whispered, He’ll never be your family. Cecilia shoved Maria Elena away, and took Jamie into the dark home. When Maria Elena drove away, she felt a great fissure split wide the earth, and separate her, for the first time, from her sister.

In the pressing blackness of night, Maria Elena remembered how her sister had felt to her in the days and weeks after their separation. Like Cecilia had been sucked away into some unreachable land. The world had never felt so big, nor she so small. Cecilia had become an absence only, a crater removed from her own body.

Maria Elena looked across the car at her sister, asleep again, and instead of the warm swell of intimacy, a gutted emptiness slashed through her belly.

The GPS lit up the car, spitting out a new set of directions. Maria Elena realized that the darkness, so unrelenting only a few minutes before, had broken in front of her. A sheet of gridded lights, dense as fog, shimmied and danced in interlocking ribbons. They’d reached San Diego. They were twenty minutes from their mother’s home.

Cecilia stirred, unfurling her body into stiff angles. “We there?”

“Almost.” Maria Elena said. She heard a sharpness in her voice. “Call Mami. Tell her we’re close.”

Cecilia nodded, and pulled herself back to wakefulness, and the stiff quiet of the previous evening stole back into the car. Their midnight intimacy had vanished.

Cecilia fumbled with her cell phone. Maria Elena listened to the faint ring on the other end of the line, then the sleepy sound of their mother’s voice. Her sister spoke for less than a minute, then hung up. “Mom says that the night staff knows we’re coming. They’ll bring us to her apartment when we get there.”

“Okay.”

Cecilia yawned, and plucked at her waistband one more time. Maria Elena asked her to watch for their exit, and together they murmured street names out loud as they passed them.

Tomorrow, Maria Elena though, her brain suddenly seized with exhaustion, they’ll take their mother to lunch, and then to the supermarket, and the next day, to lunch again, and to the zoo, or maybe the wharf. She and Cecilia would operate in tandem in order to serve their mother, their sisterhood a muscle flexed only for her benefit. That would be all they’d muster. Despite the flare up of their childhood intimacy somewhere in the mountains behind them, too much time had passed for anything else. Too much time and too much sorrow. Too much separation. When she and Cecilia split their shared life, twenty years earlier, they’d broken it.

Her sister pointed out their exit, and Maria Elena turned on her blinker. She thought about crying, but then—decided not to. It had been twenty years since she’d felt the earth crack. If she didn’t focus on it, she didn’t feel what was on the other side anymore.

what stories do I want to tell?

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Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain, and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero-in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

how to start 2017: intentions for a new season

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I love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness, and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself, and the year that came was strange, disorganized, and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before Christmas, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (this language makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It helped in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking for myself instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.