In my book Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I have a character named Rhondalee LaCour who is absolutely insufferable. She’s a frustrated busybody who gossips and spies. She rains down storms of accusation and judgment on her husband. She pulls her granddaughter around by the arm, and possibly by the hair when no one is looking. She’s TERRIBLE. I can’t even describe how fun she was to write.
Now, not everyone can enjoy Rhondalee as much as her creator does, I understand that. But everyone who reads her identifies with one part of Rhondalee. And that is…
The Invisible Committee is a board that sits in judgment of Rhondalee’s actions, appearance, words, ambitions and marriage. Its existence is established during a very early scene in the book, while Rhondalee is vaccuming the courtyard of the trailer park’s clubhouse (it is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting). “She ran the Kirby with ferocity, sucking up every trace of dust while laying our her thoughts to an Invisible Committee she’d mentally convened to hear her evidence and render a judgment as to her fitness as a wife and Tender’s failure as a husband.” The Committee hears her complaints, but stays silent as it becomes clear that Tender LaCour is indisputably in love with another woman.
I’ve been asked over and over who Rhondalee is based on, and the answer is, no one and everyone. She is a creation of my twisted sense of humor, written to satisfy the unadulterated glee I take in women behaving badly. But as distasteful as she is to so many readers, everyone seems to identify with her Invisible Committee. And why is that? Do we all believe there is some committee in the sky, watching and judging and issuing pronouncements on our lives?
After listening to my friends talk about it, I’ve decided that we do. It’s just located in different places.
Please understand, I was raised without the concept of Heaven and Hell. I was pretty creeped out when I found out about the idea at age eight. I remember sitting in a basement rec room, wood-panelling and all, with some Catholic friends explaining the lake of fire, and the Devil, and sin in great detail. I kept saying, “You really believe this stuff?” and shaking my head. You can’t imagine how absurd it sounded. The Devil was a Halloween costume, nothing more. And sin? The whole idea of sin? I went to church and Sunday school each week, I learned my Bible verses and sang my hymns, but I had never even HEARD of sin. But to my Catholic friends, this was all part of an invisible world, inhabited by unseen beings that included an utterly unfamiliar God; one who sat up in Heaven on a throne, watching and judging and somehow controlling the world with his judgment.
I am aware that a lot of people–a LOT–believe this way. I never could.
There is a modern, spiritual-not-religious alternative to the big man in the sky, which is the Universe. People need to listen to the Universe and these same people believe that the Universe speaks to them. The Universe is always trying to tell these people something, mostly around how important they are and how needful their endeavors are, be that a line of handmade stained-glass earrings or a CD of drumming and chanting or the like. The Universe isn’t as judge-y as some of our invisible committees, but it’s still out there–vast, concerned, instructive.
The Universe is infinite. I have a limited ability to comprehend infinity, but I know it’s BIG. I have a hard time believing that the cosmos is personally invested in my self-publishing endeavors. I remember watching The Tree of Life, a brilliant, baffling film that features the endless stream of prayer and supplication that pours from humanity into this cosmic infinity; all the guilt and hope and supplication and anguish we send up as a species, alternating with gorgeous shots of nebulae and stardust.
That’s the universe. I don’t think it cares whether or not I leave my e-books on Kindle Unlimited or not. But some believe the Universe is ALL OVER IT.
You don’t have to go into the Cosmos or up to Heaven to find invisible judgment. There are much more localized sources. In the olden days, in the fifties and sixties, the question was, “What would the neighbors think?” This concern seemed to spring up after the uproar of what Great Depression and WWII, when so many expectations were set aside in the name of survival. Women donned coveralls and made decisions and worked in factories and men were–gone. At war. Scarce.
When the men came home, America embraced conventionality like a religion. We invented the nuclear family–a great failed social experiment, in my opinion–and created suburbia. With suburbia came that old saw of a line, “What would the neighbors think?” Those neighbors didn’t have names or faces or any kind of distinct identity to add value to their judgment. But streets full of those invisible neighbors observed everything. Everyone was SURE of it.
I’ve read some beautiful, difficult books that deal with the judgment and oppression of early Suburbia.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – The suburbs can be lethal.
The Weedkiller’s Daughter by Harriet Simpson Arnow – This novel is a perhaps overwrought and cliche-ridden, but it’s trying to convey something about the smothering sterility of suburban life. I like the author more when she’s writing about Appalachia, but I still feel this one is worth a read because it took on the burbs fairly early, and from the viewpoint of alienation from Nature.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham – This heartbreaking book is about several women through the generations, but the runaway suburban mother just grabbed me by the throat.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody – A depressing look at WASPy alienation.
Three of these novels have been made into excellent movies. Then, there’s TV, specifically Mad Men. Who could forget the moment when Betty Draper went outside with the shotgun and started picking off ducks? Betty was such a casualty of suburbia. I waited through the entirety of the shown for her awakening, which never, ever came.
“What would the neighbors think?” was already more of a punchline than a true concern when I entered my teens. If you watch the movies of the era, there’s a general mockery of the idea. Some Bohemian young woman is always turning to her mother, to say, “Oh MOTHER, I KNOW, WHAT WOULD THE NEIGHBORS THINK?!?!?” Because this young woman with her center part and her miniskirt is liberated, and her dotty, repressed mother still cares, which makes her quaint at best and ridiculous at worst.
I always wondered who those neighbors were. I’m fairly certain that none of our many neighbors gave a damn what my family did when I was a kid, and if they did, we moved so often that we didn’t provide much interest for long. People my age would like to think that the women’s movement, the Watergate era and general consciousness-raising resulted in dismissal of conventional standards. And in some ways, things have changed. Though my novel The Iris Files is set in suburbia, nothing’s been the same out here since the 70s, and that’s a good thing, especially for Iris.
But our need to assume judgment never really went away. Because, now we have…
Welcome to our current social media parade, in which we are obsessed with how our lives come across to others: how they appear visually on Instagram, how eventful they seem when we check in on Facebook, how well our thoughts read on Twitter feeds. Why, some people even have BLOGS.
And for the first time, we have actual feedback, by way of likes or comments or replies. But we don’t know most of those people. They are not our neighbors, our coworkers. They are for the most part, invisible in our daily lives. All over the world, people are curating and preaching to and performing life for the eyes and ears of unseen, unknown strangers. The larger the following, the larger the performance.
It’s obvious to me that we crave the judgment of invisible others. If not God, then the Universe. If not the Universe, then the neighbors. If not neighbors, then the Internet.
Rhondalee is a middle-aged woman who manages a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. She has had her dreams crushed. Her life is tiny. It only matters to Rhondalee if her marriage falters, or her daughter never goes back onstage, or her community newsletter column goes unread. But when the Invisible Committee is watching, Rhondalee feels important. Her anger is forceful, her rage impactful. Her struggles matter.
I think so many people come up with the equivalent of an Invisible Committee because the alternative is humbling. The alternative to invisible judgment is your own invisibility. No one is watching you. No one has much of an opinion about how you live or who you love or where you shop or what you wear or drive or eat or consume for entertainment. No one outside your immediate family cares whether or not you have children. No one worries about when you’re going to finish your novel or make a success of your career or travel to New Zealand, or whatever metric you’ve set up to judge yourself against. No one is watching, no one is judging, and you are free to live your life just as large or as small as you choose to.
To some people, I imagine this feels terribly small and lonely. It’s just them, dancing for their dinners, trying to convince each other that their actions and opinions are terribly important to someone, somewhere. But to me? It is a calm, liberated place to be.
So if you have an invisible Committee, consider shutting it down. I am not sure what Rhondalee is going to do with hers, to be honest. She’s experiencing something like personal growth in book two. The days of her Invisible Committee might be numbered.
How are you sleeping? my friends and I ask each other with honest concern. We don’t just mean how well are you sleeping, we want to know the exact mechanism by which sleep is attained. Because we are all crazy for sleep right now.
I’ve shocked myself by sleeping steadily for the last three nights. I have a sick little dog, and she’s been waking me up for over a month with various needs and tiny but terrible episodes (she is a tiny but terrible dog, that one). But for the last three nights, she’s slept soundly. So have I.
I have waltzed into work each morning and bragged about it like a total sleep whore. Some people brag about promotions, grandchildren, vacations, sex. I brag about sleep. “I got such amazing sleep last night.” Of course, my friends are actually envious. Sleep is so elusive and alluring.
Most of us have severely disrupted sleep. Much of the time it’s cats. Snoring is another culprit, our own or that of our bed partners. Then there are the hot flashes. And once we’re awake, going back to sleep is impossible. Our lives are full of midlife worries and woes that keep us up when the dreaded awakening comes at 3 or 4 AM.
One of my friends does a mental shopping trip when she can’t sleep. She imagines going through the aisles of a store, and finding things by alphabet. Like, Apples, Benadryl, Coloring book, and so on. I have tried this but I invariably start to worry about how much it’s all going to cost, just like in real life.
I have a breathing trick I do. You can read about it here: How to Fall Asleep Right Away I forget about this trick sometimes, and then remember it and think, “I might as well give it a try.” The entire time I am breathing and counting, I’m thinking how stupid this trick is, and how it will never work, and why do I even try these dumb internet things anyway, and right about then I fall deeply asleep and there you go.
I went through a time in my life when insomnia had me in its grip. This was ten years ago, and I made the decision to start taking Ambien. Ambien is a miracle, at first. You take it and stay asleep for eight hours. For a single mother in her forties gripped with the stress of work, finances and children, that’s unheard of.
The problem is, of course, you can’t vary your schedule. You have to plan movie times and leave concerts early to make sure that you won’t be driving less than eight hours from when you take the miracle drug. You start arranging everything in your life so that you’re in bed with the pill on your tongue by 9:30 PM. And you get suspiciously grumpy when anything stands in your way.
There’s also the fact that you become completely addicted to this little pill. To fend this off, doctors are only allowed to prescribe you 11 pills for each 14 day period. I actually remember standing in the pharmacy tech and whining, “What am I supposed to do on the other three nights? Just not sleep?” in this horrible, crabby, mean way. It took about a month to become a complete Ambien addict, shambling around the drugstore in my yoga pants and UGGs, scowling, waiting for my scrip.
After four or five months of this mess, I decided it was time to go off. Maybe six months. So I took 2/3 of a pill each night for a while, and then I took ½ a pill, and by gosh I made it down to ¼ of a pill and was sleeping fine. I told my doctor I took ¼ a pill and she huffed, “That’s placebo effect. Go without it, you’ll be able to sleep.” And she was right.
My sleeping was fine again until 2014, when I became some kind of wild-eyed hot-flashing menopausal cliché of a person. For over a year, I had ten hot flashes a night, bad ones that woke me up. I didn’t think I needed sleep so much as I needed euthanizing. Really. I would lie there and think, “Why do I need to go on? I’m clearly useless and just a drain on the world’s resources. I’ve done my part, I’m in the gene pool. Can’t someone push me over a railing and put me out of my misery?” But no one ever did.
This is a good thing, as all that passed, and I have slept decently since. Unless some little dog needs something. Or I have heartburn. Or the man snores too much. Or the moon is too bright. Or I’m in an unfamiliar bed. Or I forgot to apply my Carmex. Or…you get the picture.
As I said, none of my friends sleep well. I have friends who take Ambien, and friends who take ZQuil, and friends who take Melatonin. I have friends who swear by smoking pot, and others who swear by exercise (what is wrong with those people? the exercisers, I mean). Others drink red wine to go to sleep, which is just courting some kind of hot flash heartburn nightmare, in my book.
How about you? Are you sleeping? How are you sleeping? Tell me, friend. I care.
Introverts are rarely bored when they are alone, and often bored when in the company of other people. What interests an introvert are the contents of her own head; ideas, memories, mildly obsessional interests and crooked musings. This is why introverts all have blogs.
Introverts invented blogging. Extroverts ruined it.
The introvert has grown up hearing that she is ”aloof,” ”uncaring,” ”self-absorbed.” She is none of these and all of these. She probably bridles at being called self-absorbed, because she doesn’t think of herself as all that interesting. She doesn’t think anyone else is all that interesting, either.
Introverts greet the friendship advances of emotional extroverts, who initially bring a lot of caring and fun to the table, with confusion and some relief. These friendships can feel to the introvert like inclusion in a private, wonderful club.
The lack of emotional displays on the part of the introvert are too often interpreted by the emotional extrovert as an “all-clear” to stage some histrionics. The first time this happens, the introvert will probably fuss around and try to help. This is, after all, human nature, and polite. This gives the impression that the introvert is a good listener. The introvert actually is a good listener. She is listening to everything you say. She is also, unfortunately, listening to everything you don’t say.
Introverts are not nearly as patient as they have to be.
Eventually, if you talk about the same problem too often, the introvert will start a slight emotional withdrawal, marked by practical statements concerning your situation. The extrovert wants supportive statements. She is always confused by the emotional pragmatism of the introvert. The introvert is always confused by the conversion of friendship from spending time together based on mutual interests and enjoyment into a completely different kind of arrangement based on the introvert’s always “being there” for the extrovert.
There is possibly no one on the planet less interested in your pain than a bored introvert.
When an emotional extrovert feels inadequately heard, she might be spurred on to greater levels of agony in order to elicit a proper emotional response. This is a tactical error. While the tantrum takes place, the introvert quietly moves herself out of range. The extrovert’s pain become something happening elsewhere, an overemotional puppet show on a faraway stage.
Introverts are very good at being quiet.
What does it mean when an introvert is quiet? It depends on the introvert. Most of the time, when an introvert is quiet, it means she’s thinking. If she were interested in sharing what she was thinking, she’d probably have told you.
Occasionally, a quiet introvert is wondering what your deal is. This doesn’t mean she’s angry. If an introvert is mad at you, you’ll know. In fact, it might be scary, it will be so clear. Do not interpret silence or preoccupation as anger, unless it is also accompanied by a visible exercise of self-control. An introvert in this state is a ticking bomb and best avoided at all costs. Whatever you do, don’t try to ”talk about it.” Do not expect her to ”share,” do NOT ask what you’ve done wrong. Why? Because she will tell you.
Sometimes, when an introvert is being quiet, she’s simply thinking about how much she wishes you would be quiet. At other times, a quiet introvert is quietly studying all the exits. She is studying them in a metaphorical and a literal sense. She is also considering a tunnel. Whatever it takes.
If you are an extrovert and you notice a certain silence or wandering setting in with an introverted friend, you might think the answer is to amp up your emotional needs. I can tell you this with 100 percent conviction: whatever the answer is, it does not involve amping up your emotional needs.
Introverts enjoy quiet spaces. Extroverts fill those spaces.
Sometimes, while an emotional extrovert is rehashing an emotional event in which she perceives herself as the victim, the introvert will say something that seems uncaring. Do not ask for clarification. The explanation is bound to be even more harsh than the original comment.
Withdrawal signals what those in the introversion trade call a “sea change.” That means the introvert’s desire to be polite has been overridden by the introvert’s desire to not hear any more about the situation under scrutiny. Since the extrovert has never doubted that her emotional distress is top number one priority for the introvert, this withdrawal can occasion feelings of betrayal. Please do not take this withdrawal personally. It is simply that the introvert can no longer stand you and doesn’t know how to politely say so.
The introvert likes hugs when she’s happy, not when she’s sad.
Because the introvert is so emotionally self-contained, she is often mistaken for a person who has no emotional needs of her own. This is a misconception. The introvert has many emotional needs of her own, most of which involve you not bothering her with your emotional needs.
When an extrovert needs emotional tending, she will burst into hysterical tears and hyperventilate. When an introvert needs emotional attention, she will ask if you have any antacid. Other signs an introvert is in deep emotional distress include arriving with a bottle of wine and stressing over a misplaced back issue of the New Yorker that had a feature she wanted you to read.
Introverts almost always respond to life’s biggest blows with silent, stoic endurance. And they really, really wonder why extroverts don’t react the same way.
Once in a while, a friendship between an introvert and an extrovert survives their mutual disillusionment. It helps to live in different states. If you are an emotional extrovert who somehow has managed to remain friends with an introvert and she’s been through hell and she finally does want to talk, she does not want what she says about her life to make you cry. She also does not want you to hug her. She wishes you would knock that off and just listen. This is not about you.
Introverts can get lonely, believe it or not. This happens partly because introverts are often quietly slipping out of friendships with needy people as soon as possible, and partly because introverts are sometimes so self-contained that they forget to make friends in the first place.
Introverts have a built-in breed recognition. They are like wolves. Their packs are invisible.
Watching two introverts make friends is kind of sweet. It is a very quiet, gradual process, marked by awkwardness and the equivalent of parallel play in toddlers. When these friendship bonds finally cement, they are generally unbreakable.
A confirmed friendship between two introverts has the constancy of pi. Neither asks for much, but both would give anything. These friendships endure geographical separation and long periods of no contact. They generally take up right where they left off.
If an introvert asks you to return a book, you are dead to her.
And I am too sick at heart and full of grief to do it.
But I’m still here, plugging away at the work of my life while my country’s constitution goes up in flames. Writing, submitting poems, figuring out cover art for my next project, playing with the dogs, making dinner plans, getting snowed in and dug out.
Part of me wants to be like Achilles, to cut my hair and pour dirt on my head and drag a dead body around the city to demonstrate my grief. As much as I would like to, I can’t do it. It won’t help.
I will blog again soon. When I can bear to. Until then, hold your shield high, America.
And that is really all I have to say. Happy Holidays!
Christmas travel is happening this year. I’ll be visiting a daughter who is working on the east coast. She doesn’t have enough time off to make the trip home and I really miss her, so I’ll be leaving home for the holidays. I have to trust that Christmas will be okay without me, which is difficult for the self-appointed Fairy Godmother of Christmas Celebration.
In my first marriage–my starter marriage–we always traveled for Christmas. Often we went by car, barreling through the northern passes on our way back to Montana, where he would drop me with my family in Missoula and carry on to his own family and their opulent gifting in Bozeman. Once we moved back to Montana, I’d drive my own way over the passes on my way to Portland. In a tiny Datsun. With barely an ounce of fear, really, because that was how I did it in those days. I believe that in the six years I spent with this man, we spent one Christmas together. It was the only year we had a tree.
My second husband and I announced our intention to stay home and create our own Christmas traditions when our second daughter was born. My mother didn’t mind, as she hated Christmas (yes, such people exist). His mother was a mighty domestic potentate, and demanded appeasement. We calmed her by coming to her home for Thanksgiving and Easter each year. Again, my mother wasn’t upset. She didn’t so much dislike Thanksgiving and Easter, as she simply had no interest in hosting them. As long as I made plenty of non-holiday visits, my mom was fine with not seeing us.
My mother made some tentative Christmas visits to my house over the years. Mom approached the holidays with such a high level of wariness, and so much suppressed fury, it wasn’t always easy to have her there. She was tense and suspicious and ready to spring out the door at any moment. She could be persuaded to partake in a meal, but this had to be handled very gently. Just, you know, the idea, the aroma, the possibility. No pressure. And she’d have a plate, but then they’d need to go, down and back in one day, eight hours of driving for a short visit, but it was all she could handle.
As a child, my mother’s attitude about Christmas (which started in about 1970–before that, I remember her enjoying it) was a crushing disappointment. All I wanted, as a kiddo, was to enjoy the season without reservation. I didn’t care so much about presents–our home was not one for opulent gifting–but I was excited about the tree, driving around to look at lights, Christmas cards, Rudolph on the TV and carols on the radio. How baffled she felt as we raptly watched Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, loving every moment, while she felt nothing. She didn’t get it. That made her angry. She called it “Holiday depression.” We called it “Christmas rage.”
My mother’s holiday tirades left me feeling tremendous guilt over how much I enjoyed all the trappings of the season. But as I got older, and created my own Christmas holidays, I no longer felt guilty. I felt smug. I was doing things right. And yes, I went overboard, compensating for what I wished I’d had as a child. It was manic, what I did to the house, how many gifts I wrapped, how intently I played the music, planned the menu. And then it happened–a string of sad, bad holidays. No details are needed, because these events aren’t even funny in retrospect.
I realized after a few rough years, that my excess of Christmas cheer was not contagious. It was, in fact, oppressive. No one else but me seemed interested in setting aside the difficulties of family life for the space of two days in order to have a “perfect” Christmas. I had turned into the sister in the green dress in “Home for the Holidays.” I felt sad and incredibly stupid.
I also started to feel sympathy for my mom. The trappings of the season infuriated her. I could imagine how awful it was as all around her, people blindly wrapped themselves up in mindless commercial cheer, staggering through malls like holiday zombies.
But once the pressure to provide a holiday was lifted from Mom’s shoulders, I think she came around. She could go to a friend’s house and have turkey, or stay home and watch Masterpiece Theater with Dad, or come to my house for a tense visit, or ignore it all entirely. No prescribed steps, no have-tos. I hope it got a little bit better for her.
I have toned it down, people. But my baseline Christmas cheer has been a tenuous saving grace this year. Like so many in America, I am deeply concerned about the four years ahead. So I have retreated into holiday mode; decorating my home, planning my seasonal celebratory activities, listening to CDs that are supposed to cheer me. The wrong song can plunge me right into maudlin. It’s been a conscious choice to concentrate on the holiday. My other alternative is to fill up on despair while reading about disastrous cabinet appointments and wondering if public education, civil rights and the Earth’s atmosphere will actually exist for any future grandchildren I might have.
So if I’m a little quiet, it’s because I’m girding myself for what’s ahead. I won’t be buying many gifts this year, because I have other plans for my money. I’ve doubled my United Way gift and dedicated all of it to Planned Parenthood. I’m going to make a monthly contribution to the ACLU. And by God, I’m going to start eating Kellogg cereals again. I wonder if any of it will make a difference, but I have to try.
For now, I will light the candles, trim the trees, inhale the scent of cinnamon, open my heart and close my eyes. They will be opened soon enough.
Happy holidays to all of you. Let’s hold each other in our hearts.
Over the course of four weeks this fall, I had an unexpected amount of contact with four exes. It was a concentrated dose of visitations from my past, and just like Ebenezer Scrooge, I found it uncomfortable. But you know what? I’ve decided to view it as an opportunity for personal growth. Growth is never comfortable.
I have one person blocked on Facebook, and the first ex who contacted me is that one person. He’s blocked on my personal profile, but I received a lengthy letter from him at my author page. Eyebrows up, user banned. That is all I have to say on this matter.
I’ve been submitting a lot of work over the last few months, which involves sorting through writing, old, new, in-progress and best forgotten. It’s all part of building up the inventory.
I found a group of poems and a piece I wrote about an affair that ended years ago. It was on-and-off, adolescent in its furious breakups and emotional reconciliations. It’s difficult for me to track just how long we carried on like that. Two years? Three? I honestly don’t remember. I look back on it with a distant amusement. Who was that woman, mowing down the traffic cones, having all the Big Feelings, writing those tortured love poems?
Yes, love poems. I write very few, because I’m not in love all that often. But I read this flaming little bouquet of poems, and I thought, wow. Look at that. I was totally insane.
Despite all the stormy crashings and thunderation of our time together, this man and I have remained on friendly terms. It probably helps that we live in different towns. I found him online, said hello and asked him if he wanted to see the document. He did, very much. It triggered a bittersweet rush of memory and emotion on his part, just as it did for me. The exchange was short, pointless, sweet. And over.
So, then, contact number three. A year after the breakup, I received a long email from my most recent ex. I actually woke up to this email. What a way to start a day. It was a catalog of all the ways that he was perfect, blameless, faultless, selfless and giving, while I was mean, cruel, uncaring, selfish and inconstant. He backed up his claims with copious evidence, including a list of every single time I’d changed my mind over the course of three and a half years, including something about my dining room table. I change my mind a lot, it appears.
After thousands (yes, thousands) of words, he pronounced that he will never be able to love again for as long as he lives, for which he blames me. And not to write back as he is “completely done” with me.
He signed off, “GOODBYE FOREVER.”
Just a thought, here. If, after a year of silence on her part, you have to create a new email address to write to someone because she’s blocked all your other email addresses, maybe it’s not necessary to write her to let her know that you’re completely done with her. Maybe this is redundant. Maybe you can just write the email and delete it, rather than sending it.
Because if you don’t, you’re going to get one hell of a scathing reply.
A week before that email hate-bomb arrived, I’d decided that I might like to try dating again. I know, I know, I wasn’t going to DO that, but apparently this old grey mare isn’t dead yet. I like having a man in my life almost as much as I don’t.
So, I signed onto a site to create a profile. I’d not used this site before. One of the features? When someone is looking at your profile, his face pops up in a circle with a little ‘boop’ to say hello.
The very first face that popped up was a familiar one. I dated this man ten years ago, and I thought at the time that we broke up for really good reasons. I realized within a few months that they were really stupid reasons, but one must live with one’s actions. He’d gone on to get married, and I’d gone on to do whatever it is I do.
But there he was, and I said hi! and he said hi! and we started to chat and we started to laugh. I remembered how funny this man is, and how smart, and how well-read and deep and intellectually curious. He is so many wonderful things, plus the additional wonderful things added by ten more years of living a full and interesting life.
Reader, I’m dating him.
I will write sometime about the fluttery, intense, eerie feelings around this reconciliation. But for now, just know that little birds are circling round my head, trailing ribbons and chirping songs of happiness. My stomach dances with delight and anxiety. I smile like a fool. I’m happy.
I change my mind a lot, remember?
Here is one cup of silty coffee
reflecting a clouded sky.
Here is one handmade ceramic vessel
holding a precious succulent.
Here is one pale, unsexed arm
covered in doodles. Sorry, no. Tattoos.
At least they are artistic on Tumblr.
An open tent flap, foot-clad socks, a cotton rug.
In the distance, a mountain. A lake. A cliff.
Railroad tracks, canoes, and is that a Bible?
At least they travel on Tumblr.
So many roads with no one to walk them.
So many beds with twisted, greying sheets.
So many windows looking out
on sooty rooftops, trees, lakes.
So much time alone on Tumblr.
So many boys with beards and axes
and bespoke leather boots.
So many girls wearing hats wrapped in blankets,
by glaciers, by rivers, by mountains.
They must be so cold on Tumblr.
Tarts, plums, oatmeal, granola,
whiskey and bourbon and pour-over coffee,
cheese boards overrun with triple creams,
waffles topped with sprigs of rosemary.
At least, I tell myself, at least
they are eating well
Aren’t these beautiful? And how could you choose one pie from so many? Would you just stand there, dithering and exclaiming and asking questions of the young person behind the pie safe? Would you even say, “It’s a shame to cut one, they are so pretty!”
On Mother’s Day, I posted something about mothers on Facebook; my own, and me as a mom:
This is a day of sweetness and happiness as a mom, as I look at the three women I’ve raised and, yes, I appear to have done all right. Because it’s a hard job, no one wants to hear or know that, we want some vision of aprons and home canning and endless cheer and devotion. Are there mothers like that? There must be, but I wasn’t one of them and neither was my own mom.
I don’t know if it was in response to that post or what, but my friend Julie penned a mind-boggling tribute to her mother. Julie’s mother is just that kind of mother. The kind of mother I thought only existed in novels. Quiet, kind, tireless and strong, living happily on well-tended acreage, sewing and scrubbing and gardening and canning and persevering selflessly and…baking.
How much of our idea of traditional motherhood is tied up in baking? And though it is bandied about that I have been a decent mother, the truth is, I really can’t be. Why? Because I am not a baker. I don’t like to bake.
I’m a master at rummaging through the fridge and cupboard (and I’d like to point out just how insufferably Midwestern those terms, “rummage,” “fridge” and “cupboard,” sound to my own ears) to find the makings of a meal. All I need is three ingredients and a vegetable. I do some kind of laid-back alchemy. It fills a plate and a stomach in a pleasing way. This method of cooking could stand as a metaphor for my entire life, actually. I look at what’s available to me and assemble a palatable and acceptable offering. That’s actually depressing, so let’s go back to baking, which I don’t do. There is no level of improvisation in baking. It’s a temperamental undertaking. It requires a functioning mixer, and there’s measuring and all of that math-related stuff.
Nope. Not for me.
You may ask, well, what about birthdays for your three daughters, Karen, didn’t you bake for them? What kind of a mother doesn’t bake birthday cakes? Well, the kind of mother I am, I guess. The kind of mother who takes her birthday child to Baskin & Robbins and has her pick out an ice cream cake, or takes her to the bakery counter at Fred Meyer and lets her select a bakery cake, any cake she likes except for that weird one they made for a while that looked like a giant hamburger. I did draw the line there. When we were all younger and the family was much broker, I took the child with the imminent birthday to the cake mix aisle and let her select what she wanted, and I baked it in an aluminum sheet pan and put candles on it and Boom, cake.
These were all time-honored methods of obtaining a cake, and none of them involved recipes, thank you very much. So, yes, I was that kind of mother. I didn’t bake pies, either. Even though I LOVE PIE. I love pie so much more than I have ever loved cake, which exists, for me, mostly as a vehicle to bear cream cheese frosting to my mouth (cinnamon rolls have the same function). And cookies? You can buy cookies at the store. Why would you mess up your entire kitchen baking them?
I can’t blame my lack of baking on my own upbringing, as we are all so wont to do. My mother didn’t make pies, but she did bake. Cookies, she baked one cookie, the Tollhouse from the back of the chocolate chip bag. It was the One True Cookie, and no others existed. My grandmother made all sorts of cookies, including little powdered-sugar dusted walnut cookies, lemon cookies, ginger cookies and (I will spell this wrong) pfeffercocken.That was far too strong a flavor sensation for me as a child–a dangerous cookie.
I remember only two cakes from Grandma; a raisin cake with raisin sauce that she had to give up baking because no one sold canned raisins anymore, and a delightfully tart lemon bread that was actually a cake. She made rhubarb pies often, and apple pies occasionally. I loved the rhubarb and hated the apple, because she wasn’t careful about removing the seed casings. It was like encountering a fingernail while you were chewing–I flashed right back to this when I watched “Sweeney Todd.” It’s never good when food connects in any way to “Sweeney Todd.”
Perhaps my lack of baking stems from the fact that for the majority of my youth and most of my teens, I didn’t like sweets. My high school boyfriend/first husband introduced me to blueberry pie when I was fourteen, and it was all over. I escaped donuts, cakes and cookies, but I was ensnared by pie. But I never learned to bake the damn things, or anything else.
So, this adds to my imposter feelings when people praise my mothering. I’m being judged by final products and given credit I don’t deserve. When people look at my beautiful, intelligent, poised girls, they tend to burble about what a great mother I must be. These people never saw me lose my temper and loose the hounds of hell (or rather my sharp tongue) on my daughters when I’d had enough. The fact that they turned out at all is not due to my skill or natural talent. I wasn’t planning on motherhood or even drawn to it, but I had my first girl and she was completely amazing. So then there were three completely amazing daughters, and there you have it. A mother was born.
I raised my daughters on a steady diet of three-ingredient meals and motherly mistakes. I gave them more love than they needed and less attention than they wanted. Somehow, that struck a balance and they turned out. Oddly enough, one of my daughters is a baker. Despite the cake-mix cakes, the Fred Meyer cookies and the cornbread from a Jiffy box, this daughter taught herself to bake, and bake well. She makes pies as beautiful as those in the photo above, in crust she makes from cold water, white flour and butter. That’s it. She takes ordinary ingredients and produces the most extraordinary baked goods.
All I can say is, she didn’t get it from me.
I am Karen Berry. And, oh, all you other Karen Berrys, there are so many of you. I mean, just do a google image search for Karen Berry. I don’t even pop up until the fifth or sixth row, where a slightly distorted photo of me announces my inclusion in the Impractical Cats anthology (a tiny book I absolutely love, where all the poetry is in the shape of cats–mine is called “Murder”). I pop up again a few rows down in my glasses, linked to MyWriting.network. But in between are all the other Karen Berrys of the world, with all their different ages and hair lengths and smiles and professions. And guess what?
Oh yes, Karen Berrys of the world, I get your email. I get your purchase receipts from New Seasons. I get your notes from worried committee members who need to find out about community service options. I get your worship leader schedules and your prayer chain reminders. I get your sternly instructive letters from your Doms. I get your heartfelt letters from long-lost fathers, and four different letters from one mother, who, when I write her back to tell she’s not writing to her daughter, she writes me again to tell me about the funny lady who keeps writing back to her. I get reminders from your dentist.
I get lists of Florida events from Ticketmaster, and no matter how many times I go in there and change my preferences to Portland, the opera and indie-folk concerts, I continue to get notifications about Florida, monster truck rallies and Toby Keith concerts. Karen Berry in Florida, you have the WORST TASTE in entertainment events.
I get an impressive amount of soccer-related email meant for a Karen Berry in Virginia, who has a son named Ryan. Four or five emails a day, inviting me to enroll my son Ryan in camps where he can be seen by the best college soccer coaches in the country. I wonder, sometimes, if Ryan is disappointed not to be contacted by any of these coaches. I bet Ryan wonders why no one sends him any notifications about soccer camps when he so diligently signed up using his mother’s email.
These are some of the professions of the other Karen Berrys: lawyer, nurse, eye doctor, coffee shop proprietor, nun, private investigator, student, nurse, horse trainer, college professor, college student, summer camp administrator. Those other Karen Berrys belong to gyms that want to talk about membership cards, and they sign up for marathon training clubs, and they purchase extended appliance warranties that are on the verge of expiring right now unless immediate action is taken. One of them is looking to buy a home somewhere in England and there are realtors who send listings in Bristol with the price listed in pounds, using a cool symbol that I don’t even have on my computer keyboard.
One Karen Berry has a son that periodically needs payday loans, resulting in a sporadic barrage of email from shysters who want to loan me money at exorbitant rates. I have received banking documents, employment documents, documents that contain names, birthdates and social security numbers. When this happens, I send them right back, letting the sender know that he or she has just sent this sensitive information to an absolute stranger. Then I delete, delete. It’s gone. Someone else might not be so careful.
I will never know, other Karen Berrys, if you are the problem here. I will never know if it is you who enters my email instead of your own while paying for your organic pork chops, or if it’s an error on the part of the person who is entering your email from a form. I don’t know who to blame. Back when it first happened, and I had more time to screw off in my life, I would occasionally write back and pretend to be a different Karen Berry. I admit it, I was a prankster. But there are simply too many of you to prank at this point. I only very occasionally reply, and it’s to tell someone they didn’t reach the Karen Berry they wanted. Usually, I unsubscribe, I filter, I block.
But there are so many of you other Karen Berrys. And I’m glad beat you all to the punch with Gmail.