On Writing, Short Stories

Somewhere Among the Mountains

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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.

Journey to Health, Overcoming, The Anxiety Files, The Work of Becoming

How to Undo Fear: On Fear, Fearlessness + What’s In Between

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When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a social event and not know what to do, AND that there would be a social gathering and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a shooter at his high school, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

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In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford another car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I’ve feared becomes the thing that’s real, and takes its own seat at the table.

 

Bruised Land, California Novel, On Writing, Storyteller

When The Magic Moves: Putting Away My First Novel for A Second

FullSizeRenderYesterday I put away my first novel.

Packed up the printed drafts that I work off. Collected all the scraps, post-its, note cards, ideas scribbled on the back of receipts. I folded up the timeline and scene lists. I emptied the table I work on, and I arranged the entire life of my novel in a folder, and before I closed it, I cried for a few minutes. Said goodbye to my characters, to the world they’d been living in (the world I’d been living in). And I closed the folder. Put it on a shelf.

Literally, physically, viscerally put away my first novel.

I wrote the first lines—the first of only two things that have remained constant through this story’s different incarnations—nine years ago, in the back of my parents Volkswagen bus. I was fourteen. It would take me five more years of writing in fits and starts about this girl, Ana, before I started the Word document that would, eventually, become the first manuscript of my first novel.

This story followed me through high school, through college, through the first years of my adulthood. This novel was my writer’s rebirth. It was the rediscovery of my first love after I began to think I wouldn’t be a writer in my adulthood. It taught me small things, like how to use the Oxford comma correctly and what keystrokes turn formatting into automatic habit, and it laid the foundation for my written life.

This novel taught me about writing and rewriting, and about shitty first drafts and how all “all writing is rewriting.” It taught me to show up on the page, to force difficult characters forward, to write above all else. To not shy away from death or unlikable women. To be okay with the mess of creation.

This novel, which was never truly given a name, though it was called everything from “She Breathed Deeply” to “Overland” to “The Thing I’m Writing (?),” gave more to me than I gave to it, and I never expected thought I would put it away. Especially not when it was still unfinished.

I’m calling this “pausing,” not “quitting” my novel. Not because quitting sounds ugly, but because I don’t know if I’m done with this story or these characters. All I know is that I need time. I need a break. I need a new start. I’ve become the girlfriend who speaks in cliques, who needs to start seeing new people. My first novel has become the first love who gave me the courage to go out into the world.

When It's Time to Quit

The decision to pause my first novel has been months in the making. At the start of the third draft (i.e. third full rewrite) this spring, I found myself paralyzed, unsure whose story I was telling. In any given scene, the perspective shifts between characters—I try to tell everyone’s story and can’t commit to anyone’s. I re-read the whole manuscript again, wrote narrative synopsis and character sketches, but still couldn’t figure out my story.

Is it the story of the family—everyone gets their share of the narrator pie—or is it the story of one girl? Do I have to make my other, equally beloved characters shut-up so Ana can take center-stage? If they are quiet, will she talk?

As I struggled with these questions, the work involved with reorganized the complicated, epically messy timeline became overwhelming. In the face of it, I turned away from the still not-started rewrite to write a short story. Then a second one, then a third. When I started writing a fourth short story in as many months, I realized I was practicing a highly productive form of procrastinating on my novel. I soldiered up and went back to it. More duty than love.

Still not started on the act of re-writing, I began reading articles about when it’s time to quit, give up, move on. Lots of “quitters are lazy,” “quitters aren’t writers,” “you never quit, you only finish.” Then I read this, about a novelist’s first novel, scrapped for something worth writing. Then a writer friend talked (emailed) to me about her decision NOT to quit her novel. I began to realize that this could be an option.

I could move on. If it was really time.DeathtoStock_Clementine6

I think most writers have that vague “next novel” lingering somewhere behind all the detritus of their current novel. For a while I’ve had two ideas. Each unformed, unstructured. Interesting, but not important. Diversions that I jot down a new note about every few months. They each had a Word document on my laptop, but they never held more than unfinished sentences and question marks.

Vietnam War? Brother in Vietnam? Male (maybe female? Not sure?). Girlfriend writes letters. Girlfriend breaks up with him. No girlfriend? Sister named Alice. Check out [book, documentary, historical document, newspaper article, etc.].

As I grappled with my First Novel (it became a capitalized thing), I had a scene idea for one of the two “next-novel-ideas” that I wrote down and expected to file it away. Then I had another idea. I bought a notebook to capture these details. Kept telling myself that I was working on the third draft of my First Novel. That I could turn to this Next Novel only when I finished my First Novel.

I read about a gruesome, 1959 murder, and during my long commutes, I started to think about domestic violence and California. I found this podcast, and listened to twelve episodes on Charles Manson. I thought about the West Coast and how houses hold onto their memories. How people can be shaped by what they don’t understand.

I began to think about characters, and one afternoon, three of them came to me. Each with a name.

It’s hard to ignore a person with a full name.

Yesterday, I put away my First Novel and this morning, I typed out the first eight pages of my next.

Part of me does feel like I quit my First Novel too soon, for all my calling it a “pause.” Another part of me feels like a sham for calling my stories novels at all, because in my head, a novel is only validated when it is purchased by someone else. (Cousin to the popular lie that a writer is only a writer after they’ve been published).

The louder part of me is excited. Electrified. I’ve found a new story, and it’s on me. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I wonder if this is why. I’ve shut off the television to research a state I am not familiar with and an era I don’t live in.

I am barely comfortable admitting that I’m “on a break” with my first novel, and I am intimidated as hell by what I’m taking on with the next. All the fears I’ve ever had about writing are converging—what will I do if it’s another disaster, if it’s hard, if it loses its magic, if it’s never finished, if it’s never published, if I’m never published—but there is that thrill. It’s going to take me a while—maybe months—to get the feel for the place, to really hear my character, to find writerly momentum, but right now, it’s all magic.   Dark butterflies and fireworks.

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It’s this kind of coast that’s taking hold of my imagination.
Bookshelf, On Writing

Summer is for Books: A Reading List for Summer 2015

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Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remember—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question have you read all these books? Manages to miss this point. The tense is all wrong: No have you read all, but will you read all.” – William Giraldi

I love books. That’s vague and general and obvious to anyone who has been to my house, but it’s true. My books are friends to me. They’re bodies that occupy physical space within me and within my home. They are my comfort, and my solace. They’re chroniclers of my life and my interests, and they’re my oldest, deepest hope.

They also fuel my writing more than anything else. It took me three weeks to read Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons,  not because it’s a long book—my hardcover copy clocks in at 326 pages—but because the writing was so vividly, deliberately compelling that I could only read a few pages at a time before I was stumbling back to whatever it was I was writing.

As this new summer starts, or thinks about starting—it’s 50 degrees when I’m writing this—I’ve been trying to compile a “to-read” list for the summer. (What’s more conducive to summer fun than structure?) I want more to be intentional with my reading diet. I tend towards homogeneity—specifically, literary fiction novels written by white women, usually published between 1980 and 2010. If I’m not careful, and I only draw from this well, I miss out on the bigger world of diverse writers, forms, genres and stories. Therefore, I’ve tried to mix authors and levels of fame and genres and subjects. I’ve tried to draw heaviest from what’s already un-read on my bookshelves (because as much as I love the institutions of libraries, I love owning books that I read more), but there are a handful of books on here that I’ll need to go seek out.

To create this list, I also had to lay aside my stress over the number of books that have been written, and the number of books that I want to read, and the preciously finite time that life has given me. At times, when I was scanning my titles and scanning my lists and scanning other people’s books lists, I felt at turns hopeless, at turns maddened knowing that I will never get around to reading it all. I will finish this summer with unread books, and someday, I’ll finish my life with the same. It’s an impossible task set before bibliophiles. We will never read everything we want to read, and for those who collect books too, we’ll never read everything we own.

But that’s part of the beauty of books. Reading it all has never been the point.

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Summer 2015 Reading List:

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Every summer, I try to read a classic, one of those 100-books-to-read-before-you-die books. Last summer, my mom and I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and this summer, The Color Purple feels like an extension of that. Alice Walker’s love of Zora Neale Hurston led to her to reclaim Hurston’s nearly lost work in the 1970s.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

I’ve finally gotten the message: Marilynne Robinson needs to be read. I’ll start here.

Life Work, Donald Hall

This is a book that I know almost nothing about, but when I saw it on a book list, recommended by Rebecca Stead, I was so intrigued. Work is such a complex thing in our society—as we come out of the recession, it’s a miracle every time a young graduate gets a job. At the same time, it’s the thing that we’re always complaining about, or trying to get away from, or reading endless articles about how to balance it, manage it, enjoy it, maximize it, leave it, love it, and on and on. A book about the need to work, about industry being happiness, and vocation being joy? That’s something I want to know more about. 

Ordinary Sins, Jim Heynen

Not only was this book written by a man who I’ve known my whole life, and who is very dear to my family and I, it’s also a genre I rarely read, and one that I don’t think I could ever write. Flash fiction. Ordinary Sins is this impossibly slim, impossibly elegantly slim book that gets overwhelmed by the bulkier tomes on my shelf. It’s indicative of the stories themselves: Jim packs the full force of human life into these miniature packages. In a few hundred words, he brings alive full people, with fully formed lives. It’s a skill and a talent that I want to learn.

This summer, I’ll be reading this—probably in one sitting.

The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton

I’ve held off reading this book until summer, because even though I’ve never read it, there’s something about The Outsiders that seems quintessentially summer to me. It has always seemed like a book written for that singular lonesomeness of warm nights and empty time and the confused, on-rushing adulthood on which adolescent summers are founded. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, I’ll finally understand the full force of Stay gold, Ponyboy. 

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

This will actually my third time through this most-beloved book. I want to re-read it to answer this essential question: Do I really like this book? Because after two readings, I’ve never been convinced that I do.

Before Janeites come to club me to death with Austen’s own books, let me explain. The first time I Pride & Prejudice, I read it immediately after reading Sense & Sensibility. I loved Sense & Sensibility, and when Pride & Prejudice wasn’t a replica of Sense & Sensibility, I didn’t like it. The second time I read it, I was a bratty fourteen year old, and really liked being able to say I didn’t like this book that every other well-read girl my age seemed to love. (I told you I was a brat).

Because neither reading was a fair reading (and because I want to stop getting the death glares from people when I say I wasn’t a fan of Pride & Prejudice), I’m re-reading it this year, giving myself a third chance to appreciate a classic.

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Samaritan, Richard Price

This book is tied with Tiny, Beautiful Things as what I’m most excited to read. I watched The Wire this winter, and have never seen anything like it before. I was captured, and compelled, and broken by the television show, and when I learned that the writer who wrote some of the most brutal and powerful episodes wrote novels too, I almost ordered his entire bibliography on the spot. In the interest of fiscal responsibility, adulthood, etc., etc., I did not do that. I only bought this book. I’m reading it to get a fix of whatever it was that gripped me about The Wire. 

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, Rob Lowe

Celebrity/cultural figure memoirs are my brain candy. They’re my beach-read, my chick-lit, my romance novel, my hide-under-the-cushions guilty pleasure read. About once a year, I let myself read one of them, because, like real candy, these books are perfect when they’re an indulgence, and they’re very bad for me when it’s all I read. Also, I love Rob Lowe. (Sam Seaborn! Chris Traeger!)

Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

I, and every other woman mature enough to read Strayed, love her. I read Dear Sugar (inconsistently) when it was still an anonymous, internet column. I, of course, read Wild (and saw the movie, and saw her speak, and got my books signed, and hunted down every podcast on iTunes featuring her).

I’ve read a handful of these letters before, and I even carry a copy of “Write Like a Motherfucker,” but this is probably the book I am most excited to read. I control my consumption of Cheryl Strayed like a mother controls a child’s consumption of candy, because I want to savor her words. She writes with this hard, heavy beauty that does my writing good, and does my soul better. 

Volt, Alan Heathcock

There are two reasons I want to read this collection. One, is because even though I write short stories, I rarely read them. Two, because when I listened to Heathcock read from his collection four years ago, I was blown away. The passage he read (something about a fire, I think?) was elegant and violent and haunting, and I bought the book immediately. I don’t know why in the world it has taken me so long to come back to it.

The War of Art: Break Through Your Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield

I’ve started this book a handful of times, and each time, I’ve felt so helped by the compact wisdom that Pressfield doles out, I’ve stop reading it in all my newfound, enlightened empowerment. I have a feeling that if I read past page twenty, I’d get a whole lot more out of it.

This list feels both too short, and too ambitious, and I’m walking into June 1st, Torrie Jay’s decided start date of summer, knowing that I probably won’t finish all these books, that I’ll probably go off my list and read something else, that I’ll probably buy more books that I end up reading. Whatever else is true, this will remain: “Books, like life, make life worth living.

What about you, what are you reading this summer?