Monday, September 13, 2010

Call of the Thrift

It’s fall in Seattle. We got in on Friday and in Indiana it was still summer, so I didn’t feel bad about wearing white capris, even though it was after Labor Day. But then I looked around and people were in jeans. And sweaters. And UGG boots. So summer is over here for sure and I need to try to remember where I packed the woolens.

We’re still in the unpacking stage. Everything other than the CDs is out of boxes, but only about half of the items have told me yet where they’d like to live, so there is some chaos. Last night, some of my books insisted they wanted to live on one shelf and then, just as I settled into another project, they started chattering and insisting I move them to the other side of the room. They are very indecisive and self-involved.

This morning I had to drop off our rental car, where Tor, the manager, always greets me by name and makes me feel special. (I have close personal relationships with at least two of downtown Seattle’s car rental agents. Tor is the more sophisticated of the two. The other is called Johnny and looks and acts like Denis Leary if Denis Leary had jailhouse tattoos on his hands and rings on every finger.) There’s no story here. I share this description only for texture.

Before I took the car back, I stopped at the thrift store to drop off two bags of detritus that we don’t want but that seemed just this side of too good to throw away. When I got there, the store wasn’t open yet, so I pulled into the tiny lot and waited. Next to me was an old Toyota that had a Japanese man and his aged father-in-law in the front seat and the man’s wife in the back with a huge cardboard box. An eager older man with a sporty backpack stood at the door peering in. Periodically, someone would walk up, try the door, read the sign, and then back off sheepishly, as if they’d been tricked. I sat staring at the other sign reminding me that it is illegal to dump items and wondering if it would still be illegal when clearly the thrift workers had already arrived and so I wouldn’t technically be abandoning anything.

I had what I thought was déjà vu until I realized I was simply remembering waiting in line in the wee small hours outside of a Ticketmaster purveyor in the days before online ticket purchasing. Oh, the anxiety that came before those doors would open up. What if they never opened? What if someone tried to butt in line? Or, in the case of the Ticketmaster on my college campus, what if when the shade went up on the window the woman with only one arm was standing behind it? She was remarkably fast, typing with that one hand, but in a world where a single keystroke could make the difference between second or tenth row, we all desperately hoped it would be another two-handed someone taking our orders. The people outside this particular Capitol Hill thrift had that same desperate, slightly crazed look on their faces.

I had no real need to go inside and buy a set of mismatched plates or a globe on which half the countries have been renamed in the forty years since it was sold, but the agitation of the door-watchers led me to believe that something truly amazing had to be going on inside that shop today. When the door was finally unlocked, the ten or so people who had been waiting, rushed inside, including the ancient Japanese man who was propping himself up with a cane in one hand and his daughter’s arm in the other. I walked in and handed over my donation and perused the perimeter of the store, trying to see what everyone was so excited about. It looked exactly like it always does: a whole lot of dusty VHS tapes, banged up furniture circa 1980, some seriously worn out shoes, and a tangle of electronic equipment. Today, there was a table with some unopened bottles of peroxide for some reason, but other than that, nothing unusual. I poked at the handbags and considered one until I thought about how it used to belong to someone else and then I got kind of icked out and started toward the door. The guy at the counter thanked me for the donation and because he seemed friendly, I asked what the hubbub was about. Turns out, every Monday is like that because that’s the day the prices drop. I looked up just in time to see the ancient Japanese man pushing his new (old, dented, and dusty) wheeled walker. He had a massive smile on his face, like that single item had been calling to him earlier through that locked door. I can’t say why, but seeing his joy made me terribly happy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Freedom Trail

After the speediest MFA residency ever, I graduated on Saturday. Z snapped pictures, my friend Meghan waved the arm(s) of the giant, fluffy starfish she got me to celebrate, my mentor cried a little and gave me a huge hug, and then I woke up the next morning exhausted, hung over, realizing I’d failed to say goodbye to at least six people, and wondering what exactly is next. Seriously? What next? I’ve been so busy reading, writing annotations, writing essays, sending in packets, revising, writing a critical thesis, a creative thesis, presenting my work, reading my writing publicly, that I realize belatedly, I have no post MFA plans in place. I mean, I was a writer before I started the Great MFA Experiment, but now I either have to REALLY be one (discipline, production, revision, submission Submission SUBMISSION.) Or I have to admit that I’m too lazy or easily distractible to produce. There’s a huge part of me that wanted to leave the residency, set up my new writing studio in Seattle, and write my heart out before the fall teaching semester starts. But Z and I had travel plans, so what I’m doing right now will have to be classified as field research. Here are my notes so far:

• Don’t travel with an over-sized, congratulatory Smiley face balloon because it will wriggle out of its restraints and make its way to the front of the car, blocking the driver’s vision.
• Celebratory hydrangeas and irises (a gift from Z) do not like to travel down the coast of Maine in the summer.
• Wait staff will offer lobster-eating pointers if needed.
• US 1 is not unlike US 40 in that it seems to be made up of a series of dilapidated buildings, closed businesses, fruit stands, and Check-n-Goes. It could be the Midwest minus the occasional glimpses of the sea.
• Not all in-door dining establishments and gas stations have restrooms.
• Probably the air conditioning in your hotel room will give you a cold. Resign yourself to it and buy a big box of Puffs.
• Don’t even try to play the license plate game in Maine. All the plates you’ll pass are from New England. And you can tell because of the way they hoot you, change lanes rapidly in front of you without signaling, and generally have their own system of driving that was not covered in your driver’s ed class in 1983.
• Boston may be in the U.S., but the city planners were European. You will never know where you are. You will be hot, you will be crabby, you will hate Boston. And then when you are back in the cool, sneeze-inducing hotel room, you will start to remember it differently, as a city that you might actually want to visit again.
• The red line connecting the historical sites on the Freedom Trail disappears, so don’t get too used to it.
• The swan boats you’ve heard about your whole life are not built for two, but for an entire, extended family. Way less romantic than you imagined.
• Boston Common isn’t so huge, so don’t expect Central Park, Kensington Park, or St. Stephen’s Green.
• For every forty-five historical sites you visit, one will mention that a woman was involved in shaping the country’s early history. (They really dropped the ball, those Ladies of Antiquity, who were apparently just sitting on their asses, eating bonbons, while their husbands did all of the hard, hard work of nation building.)
• Harvard looks surprisingly like the college in Ohio where you got your M.A. so it should probably get over itself.
• Au Bon Pain has restrooms. They aren’t always clean. But the toilets flush.
• Even though as a child you loved the Bewitched episode when Samantha visits Old Salem and is followed around by an enchanted bedwarmer, your husband will likely not see this as a reason to drive an hour in the wrong direction.
• When Z’s friend’s wife looks over the tops of her four year old twins’ heads and mouths that you might only want to eat half a cupcake, don’t be greedy. Listen to the woman. The children helped make the delicacies and while she was out of the room added ingredients that may only have been extra baking powder but could have included copper sulfate.
• You don’t know why, but seeing the place where the Declaration of Independence was first read does not make much of an impression (you are thirsty and tired and would gladly give up a little independence for a Hop-on-Hop-Off Trolley tour at this point), but the Old North Chapel chokes you up.

Two if by sea, baby. Two if by sea.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Shakin' It

On the three day journey to Maine for my final MFA residency and graduation, Z and I stopped in New Hampshire at the Canterbury Shaker Village where we had lunch and visited the gift shop. The meal was served family style, and we were lucky that we were seated with a couple from Brooklyn, who were chatty, and a local couple in their late seventies who were trying the restaurant out for the first time. The wife was obsessed with finding a short cut home, because she hadn't appreciated the bumpy route they'd taken in.

As a child, I went to the Shaker village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, twice and was taught to see the beauty in the craftsmanship and simplicity of the furniture. (Always, I felt relief that I was not Shaker as their dedication to hard work seemed like something at which I was destined to fail.) As a young adult, I learned to appreciate some of their more feminist principles and commitment to a belief system, and if I did think about their celibacy, it was only in a romantic way--I wondered about the Shakers who were unable to resist temptation and imagined tumultuous, secret meetings in hay mows and pastures, bonnets hanging on fence posts, flat brooms cast aside. As a bride, I smiled wryly as Z and I marched down the aisle to "Simple Gifts" because the rest of the evening was a testament to excess and kitsch--once you put zebras and polka dots on your wedding cake, all attempts at plainness and simplicity have been abandoned.

Since I was a teenager, I've had recurring nightmares about accidentally joining the army or a cloistered convent, and then having to live out my days on someone else's schedule, doing the jobs assigned to me by some overseer. To the best of my knowledge, Shakers weren't big evangelizers, and even if they had been, given their abstinent lifestyle, you can count the number of Shakers still living on one hand. Even so, I worry about things like accidentally becoming Shaker and having to abandon my current way of life. So I stood looking over these tidy buildings and manicured lawns and considered the married couples who joined the Shaker communities and dissolved their unions--their families--because they were so committed to their beliefs. When I was a child (and later, a single adult), I never considered the wrench and pull of moving away from a couple and into a collective, but this time--as Z ushered me away from a $700 sofa table in the gift shop and towards my MFA destiny—it seemed unfathomable to un-tether the self from a beloved familiar. Would a fellow Shaker remind me to take my Prilosec each morning or tell me that I’m excellent during moments of self-doubt? Would he or she buy me surprise candy bars or do the laundry solo when I have a writing deadline? (Would a Shaker sister or brother have the spare time to do such a thing even if he or she were so inclined?)

As I slid into the too-warm seat beside Z and our car crept along the gravel road, the village got smaller in the rearview mirror. It somehow felt like a narrow escape. Give or take a century and a little geography.

Next stop: Maine.

Saturday, July 03, 2010


This is a just a warm-up, to see if the engine still has life.

Z and I just opened what is likely our last wedding gift, and I’ve written the last thank you note, so I’ve got no more excuses for this blog sabbatical.

I never meant to be gone so long, but it turns out getting married is exhausting. I had all of these big plans to blog about the months, weeks, and days leading up to the big event, but in the end, I was doing well to remember to leave the house with shoes jammed on my feet. In the end, did you really need to read about me scouring the countryside for the perfect cake, worrying about whether the chicken parmesan would end up down the front of my dress, begging a DJ to play an African-Irish mélange of music instead of the soft jazz he kept insisting would be a hit, or fretting about how my tea-totaling relatives would react when they discovered that Zimbabweans (and Zimbabwean brides) like to drink? Nah, not really. It all seemed terribly important seven months ago, but now, not so much. No doubt this is why people kept telling me to relax and enjoy the experience (and then I would look at them like, are you kidding me?) It’s over in a blink.

What you need to know is this: minus the light-dusting of snow that Z and I had requested, his pants being approximately six sizes too big and in need of serious safety pinning, a momentary short-term memory lapse that left me confused about my vows, and an over-zealous uncle who cut in on our first dance, the evening was perfection. It was an auspicious beginning to this union. Yay!

Z and I are packing up for five weeks “back east,” where I’ll finish my MFA program, we’ll visit some traveling Zimbabwean relatives, and pack up my worldly Hoosier goods for the movers, and see my family. Probably the new juicer is going to miss us.

The engine has caught and now seems to be idling just fine. Let’s see how much mileage this blog can get out of it in the next two months. If it doesn't get past the first turn, then it might be time to junk it.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Daily Post

I should probably change the name here to “The Dormant Blog.” It has a certain ring, doesn’t it? Like “The French Gourmet” or “The Flying Dutchman.”

I’ve been busy with my degree and wedding planning, but I have had a wealth of material to write about since May, including living in Seattle for six weeks and trying to cope with the noise of sleeping between a major thoroughfare and the Virginia Mason ER; Z’s getting a tenure track job; taking a trip to Portland where Z & I saw a parade of naked bike riders; a trip to Ireland for my degree and then ten day tour with my American cousins and a visit with my Irish ones, during which I was fairly certain I was having a heart attack; a visit to a nurse practitioner once I was back home only to be assured that you don’t have heart attacks for three weeks solid and here, why don’t you try these nerve-calming pills because your bridal nerves are all jangled; Z’s joyful return from Zimbabwe with a “more better” visa; meeting the 14 year old pastor who will both counsel and marry us, despite his looking like Opie Taylor and my certainty that at some point he’s going to call for his Aunt Bea and Pa to come assist with the counseling; the beginning of my blissful semester-long sabbatical; three weeks back in Seattle where Z and I picked up the rings we’ll wear for the rest of our lives (a commitment to Z I can fathom, but a commitment to a single piece of jewelry is a bit more difficult for me to wrap my mind around); a chat on the phone with one of my favorite authors, Jeanne Marie Laskas, who graciously agreed to help me figure out my thesis; a reuniting with my Scottie god dog who is practicing being a groomsman; various wedding tasks.

Today I am writing because last night my mother and I slapped stamps (very expensive stamps) onto the invitations she block-printed and slaved over while I was off on my various summer adventures. I love them. Love the verses on them. Love that they do not say anywhere “Today I will marry my friend” (even if that is the truth), love that they do not have hearts, doves, wedding rings, or a cursive font. Love that they are on brown paper instead of fine Italian linen stationery. But oh, what a struggle they have been.

Several years ago I fell in love with a wedding invitation of a family friend. He and his wife-to-be were artists and had artist friends make the invitations, and it was the first time I’d seen anything so unique. It was a block print with some verse from rural antiquity that started, “Marry me why don’t you?” and was, essentially, a list of reasons from a farmer to his darling explaining why she should give up her single life and come live with him and his cows. It was so sweet.

For months I poked around looking for “the thing” that would be unique and clever enough, because surely the quality of our love would be judged by everyone if I ordered a box of invitations that looked like every other set. One day I glanced at a plaque on my wall that I’d bought in Ireland in 2001, two months before I met Z, and I realized it was the thing. It is a representation of an old Irish carving of a man and a woman meeting under a tree with various bits of scrollwork around the happy pair. When I bought it, I was attracted to the plaque because of the verses that were attached to the back about the mystical way some people are destined to meet. I had been single for too long and was feeling ready for love, and then, voila, there was Z in front of me and the certain knowledge that he was my guy.

Because one of the verses was attributed to Emerson and because I’m supposed to be a good scholar, I spent days trying to find the quote—I wrote to my old college professors, asked colleagues, googled Emerson—and what I came up with was nothing much. Maybe it was Emerson; maybe it was someone who worked for Hallmark Ireland who had penned the sentiment. Then I googled the image itself to make sure we wouldn’t be flagrantly breaking copyright laws, and sure enough, it was fair game—a carving on a rock from an ancient site in Ireland, and it was called the Marigold stone. The “tree” the happy couple stand under was really some sort of giant flower. How quirky and fun, I thought.

My mother and I tried to ink up the plaque and use it as a sort of block print, but it didn’t work. She decided she could probably carve a version of it. While she carved, I searched Seattle for stationery to put it on. Z and I made what felt like two hundred trips to the Bellevue Paper Source in an attempt to find the quality of paper needed for the prints and complimentary envelopes. On the first trip he pointed out brightly colored envelopes that were marked down and I turned my nose up at them. On something like the tenth trip, I “discovered” the clearance envelopes and declared them perfect. (Poor Z, never getting credit where it is due.)

Mom sent different versions of the block print for us to choose from. “I tried to make the one look more like a girl,” she said, because the two figures did look suspiciously similar and suspiciously androgynous. “Also,” she added. “I had to give her a nose job. She looked kind of Egyptian instead of Irish.” I showed the samples to Z and he said, “They both look kind of Egyptian to me.” I assured him they were 100% Irish, and googled the Marigold stone to show him how very ancient and Irishy-y they were.

I don’t know why I hadn’t bothered to read about the Marigold stone earlier. First, I should say, no one really knows for sure what it represents, but what the historians speculate is that it is not a man and a woman under a tree so much as it is St. Peter and St. Paul, meeting under a flabellum to discuss, I don’t know, how in another few centuries God will plant St. Patick in Ireland to drive out snakes and make Irish people feel guilty. Apparently, flabellums were sort of fans attached to long poles that were used in ancient Egypt, but also in early Christian times, to keep flies from landing on the Host. What Mom had spent days carving--instead of a perfect visual depiction of Z and my magical journey of love—was actually a couple of Egyptian-inspired apostles of Christ waving flies off of some communion wafers.

Z and I couldn’t quit laughing. Tears rolled down our cheeks. We called Mom and told her, and though at first bewildered by our howls, she too cracked up. And then we found we were kind of in love with the thing because it was so ridiculous. Plus, we’d gotten engaged at the Luxor in Las Vegas, and what better testament to our beginnings as an official couple than something with roots in Egypt? So Mom printed them up, and then she pasted down the invitation bits, and then she stamped verses on them that may or may not be by Emerson, and then she addressed them in her beautiful calligraphy to people who are scattered across the U.S and in ten different countries, of different faiths and political ideologies and understandings of flabellums and Emerson.

And now it’s time to drop them in the mail. Farewell, my single life. Hello destiny.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

One Ring to Rule Them All Part Deux

Behold! Last weekend my mother & I flew to Seattle to pick up the ring (and see Z, of course). This is it. It looks even better in person and more at home on my finger than I imagined. Though I have had no trouble committing to Z, the thought of wearing the same ring for the rest of my life made me feel a little queasy. I like rings. Quirky rings. Weird rings. Sundance-y rings. So how do you find a ring that fits all of those moods?

Answer: you don't. But like a good man, when the right ring comes along....

Amber at Greenlake Jewelery Works did an amazing job figuring out what I wanted and finding the perfect stones and putting it all into a package that makes me smile every time I look at it. I felt a little sick when we went to pick it up because I feared the finished product wouldn't make me happy and though they swear they'll work with you until you are satisfied, I am a woman who is often NOT satisfied with purchases once in my possession, so the odds in favor of me being content were slim. When I saw it there, nestled in this gorgeous little oval box, I almost cried. Other than needing a quick size adjustment, the thing felt right at home on my finger, as if we'd been waiting for each other all these years. I'm sure it's wrong to compare seeing this ring for the first time to seeing Z for the first time or the stories my friends have shared about seeing their babies for the first time, was on the verge of that good.

And I don't feel a bit like Gollum, though I suspect the next 48 hours were trying for Mom & Z, as I insisted every fifteen minutes or so that they admire the ring, and God help the people at work who have been tortured with me stopping to admire my own finger and then shoving the Blue Jewel under their noses and demanding that they sing its praises. My productivity level has gone way down since I got it.

I'm on my way to meet Z in Chicago for a conference and then on to Seattle for five weeks, where there is a whole host of people I can demand look at the thing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

One Ring to Rule Them

I’m in a plane, zooming from Maine, where I just had my second, ten-day MFA residency, to Seattle to spend a few days with Z before the semester starts. The residency this time was in a Hilton instead of a dorm-room, which improved my disposition from last summer markedly. Not only were there the fresh, travel-size toiletries each day (which, in the end, cost me money because I had to check an extra bag and Northwest has ludicrous baggage charges) but every evening when we would get “home” there would be fresh cookies waiting on us. The peanut butter cookies were my favorite. Also, every night you could go downstairs with your friends and have supper or a cocktail and charge it right to your room, so it was almost like free.

(Regional note of interest, I suggested to a friend that we have “supper” and she laughed her head off. Apparently “supper” is quaint and I should have asked if she wanted “dinner.”)

The ten days were so packed full of information and activities (and drinks after the hard work of the day), that they are all a blur in my mind. We workshopped. We went to presentations. We went to readings. We trudged through the Maine snow. At night, we staggered down the Hilton hallways, looking for booze-soaked camaraderie in the rooms of friends, where we would dissect the day’s events, talk about our writing, and essentially behave like irreverent college students though more than a few of us haven’t been in college for over a decade.

I had been meaning to apply to this program the year before I actually did, and as if the universe needed to make a point of how I must never question my initial gut instincts, it turns out the people I click with and care about the most in this program graduated during this residency—when I would have graduated if I had not hemmed and hawed and put the application back in a drawer for a year. So it was also an emotional week. I found myself getting teary-eyed at readings and full-out weepy at the graduation ceremony, and it was no easier yesterday saying goodbye as each person lugged their suitcases out of the hotel’s automatic doors until the residency dwindled down to nothing but a memory (and a suitcase full of travel-size soap). If I were younger, I’d think it was just the beginning and we’ll always be friends and isn’t the future exciting, but I know the likelihood is that in a few year’s time we’ll just be names on our friends list on Facebook and we won’t REALLY know each other anymore. Hopefully not.

Instead of worrying about the future, I’ll focus on this residency and how thankful I am that I didn’t leave that application in a drawer for another year, missing the chance to know these people at all. On Tuesday, I went to the “Commune” where they all gathered—adjoining rooms—and they leapt out with silly string and balloons and shouted “Happy Birthday” and put a tiara (another tiara!) on my head and fed me cake (and homemade booze). Later, one of them forced the faculty and students to sing happy birthday to me.

Semester Two begins and the writing should have commenced about four hours ago. Next residency: Dingle, Ireland in July.

And so now I am in Seattle where I am supposed to pick out stones for my engagement ring, but decision-making has never been something I excel at. I’ve created a ring journal with sketches of my favorite rings and I’ve created a weblog at Greenlake Jewelry in Seattle (a wonderful place with big leather couches and designers in blue jeans who make me feel I’m in good hands) with images of rings I like, and still, I can’t make up my mind. This should be the most fun thing I’ve ever done—I love rings! I love Z!—but instead, I’m turning it into a torturefest. What if I get the “wrong” ring, hate it two days after slipping it on my finger, and then have to look at it for the rest of my life and hide the grimace? What if I get white gold and then realize gold is the only metal I really like (or vice versa)? What if get a colored stone instead of a diamond and then everyone else starts shunning diamonds so it seems like a trendy choice instead of a thoughtful one? What if I get a natural stone and am suddenly awash in guilt that someone had to climb down into a miserable hole to dig up a rock for me to wear? What if I get a “created” stone and one day look at it and think, “fake”? It goes on and on and on.

The residency was like an engagement-ring orgy and ice-breaker. I’d walk up to women I’d never spoken to before and demand to see their rings and then have ten minute discussions on how they made their choices (if they made their choices) and what they now wish was different. Initially, I’d vowed that I would not talk about rings or weddings because I have friends both at the residency and in my “real” life who aren’t afforded the right in this country to marry and it seems the equivalent of telling an African American in the 1954 how good the view is from the front of the bus, and also, because talking about rings and weddings makes a person seem, maybe, too shallow to be taken seriously as a writer. But I am like a magpie and so I’d see someone’s ring sparkle in the light and without even thinking about the political or professional ramifications, I would scoop the woman's left hand up in my right one, and examine yet another ring from every angle. I was like a woman possessed. Sadly, all that hard work did not pay off as I’m still no closer to a decision now than I was in November when Z and I got engaged. I must try to remember to go with my first and strongest gut instinct, though unfortunately my first and best instinct over Thanksgiving was huge and $16,000. Perhaps my first, smaller and appropriate, instinct would be best.