The last time I remember having a $50 bill, I got it from my Uncle John. He came to visit me at work when I was 15, showing up unannounced on a Saturday afternoon after years of no contact. I was beside myself with excitement; we always had a special bond and I was crazy about my dad’s oldest brother.
That money meant so much to me. For weeks I agonized over what to buy, not wanting to waste such a precious gift. It wasn’t just money – this money had meaning. I eventually spent it on jeans, and I wore them until they started to shred.
Two years later he killed himself, and when I think of him now I think of that afternoon, our last one forever, feeling like the most important girl in the world.
I have a $50 bill in my wallet now, from selling my almost-new tablet to a very polite gentleman on Craigslist. This Saturday, my husband is organizing a yard sale and packing our things. With any luck, we’ll have a couple more $50 bills by the end of that so he’ll have cash on hand for the 16 hour drive back to Texas, where we will start our lives over, all over again. Everything must go.
Welcome to life! You will be betrayed; marriages end, families divide and secrets come out; loved ones die, by choice or by chance. People grow old and fat, and tired of trying. Life is wonderful and full of joy, but it isn’t easy and there are no real breaks for you to stop and catch your breath. As my sister once told me, “Life happens, and you have to keep up. If you’re not keeping up, you’re falling behind.”
Not everyone is up for the chase, and some of us just aren’t built for fighting. I am.
I hate poetry. This is not an amazing revelation: as far back as I remember, I have always hated poetry. I’ve read a lot of it, written some of my own (my 1999 classic Cereal deserves its own matting and frame) but never, ever took a liking to it. I have a very smart friend, Drew, my only writer friend. He introduced me to Abuelito rum, Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, and a cute little bar in Denton, Tx with a bathroom made up as a library. I love him, but not his poetry. I will admit to liking parts of poems – I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life! – but only the parts, not the sum.
Poetry is heavy on suggestion, but light on content. You don’t get a whole story, only bits of feelings and things, with the rest up for interpretation. I hate it.
I like books.
There is one exception, however. The Hollow Men, written in 1925 by T.S. Eliot. It was meant to be primarily a comment on the War, Guy Fawkes and other political matters, but I don’t read it that way. My reading of it is the disillusion in mundane life and the constant seeking that is our nature, never satisfied, together yet alone. First impressions are hard to shake. (Fun fact: On The Beach by Nevil Shute, the single most powerful novel I’ve ever read, borrows from that poem for its title.) Every time I read it, I get chills.
I wish I knew why, and what it is about it that moves me so much, so that I can find more like it and fall in love with poetry. I’ve been looking and waiting, but so far there’s just the one. I hope I get lucky again, and find more of it that speaks to me. I like feelings and things, generally.
My criteria for buying books is as follows:
- Did the title catch my eye? If so…
- Is it longer than 200 pages? And finally…
- Does it cost less than $4 (preferably less than $3!) with tax?
I spent many a weekday evening combing the discount sections of my neighborhood used bookstore, so massive we called it The Warehouse. It was practically my entire social life. On our very first date, my husband and I spent an awkward hour in that very bookstore – he exclusively reads politically themed non-fiction, I’ll read basically anything but politically themed non-fiction – and he found for me a book I’d been looking for for three years straight.
(Ladies, that’s how you know he’s a keeper.)
After moving away from the wonderful Warehouse, I expected to have a harder time finding books. These days I buy words on a screen, not tangible text. My Kindle and I are inseparable. I admit, I sometimes miss the smell of old paper, the strange company that prowled the rows with me at 9:30 on a Friday night, the odd bookmark or photo forgotten between pages. Still, I have no regrets. I can shop in my underwear! Surely that counts for something?
My criteria for purchase is basically the same, with one caveat: What do the reviewers think? Having pages of reviews available on any given book still gives me the tingles. I only read a couple reviews per book and only if the first three requirements have already been met. Most times, the reviews posted persuade me to give this book or that one a chance. Other times, I purchase in spite of them. For example:
I enjoyed the overall story very much, but I did not enjoy the explicit sexual discriptions. I also did not like the homosexual references.
Blast from the past time: When I was 17 years old, I contributed several short articles to a website called Ickle. (tagline: it’s the little things that count). The site’s long gone, but through the magic of Wayback Machine, you can view most of it here.
All the articles are worth a view, but here’s the three I kicked out, back when I expected to be published and decorated twice over by now. Reading these ten years later, I’m still unabashedly proud. We all started somewhere! I am particularly pleased with Monaco. I remember at the time thinking I was pretty clever, getting everything to rhyme…
ASHES: Ashes. The end of what once was. The proof of what used to be. Whether tapped from the slender end of a cigarette or dashed mournfully across a wide, blue ocean, ashes are the remnant of a fire long gone. Ashes are often clung dearly to, placed in urns that rival shrines. Or dumped carelessly outside, along with butts and nicotine smears. Or used to cross foreheads and hands of the faithful world wide. They even have their own Wednesday. Do you have your own Wednesday?
MONACO: Located a sneeze from France, Monaco is a speck of a country that lives on music, money and romance. From any given Monacoian tree, you can see this ickle country in its entirety. Behold, the 0.76 sq mile land of culture and dignity.
US: If you think of things on a grand scale, we are the ickle of the ickle. In a human’s selfish views, we are masters of our planet. But who is the master of us? When you look to the sky at night, past the smog and the streetlights and the flashing neon signs, there are millions of planets with millions of moons. And somewhere, out in that great large space with it’s great many nooks, someone may be looking back down at you.
Cora had believed that living built a cumulative bank of memories, thickening and deepening as time went on, shoring you against emptiness.
The present was always paramount, in a way that thrust you forward: empty, but also free. Whatever stories you told over to yourself and others, you were in truth exposed and naked in the present, a prow cleaving new waters; your past was insubstantial behind it, it fell away, it grew into desuetude, its forms grew obsolete.
The problem was, you were always still alive, until the end. You had to do something.
I’m 93% finished with London Train, a little gem I picked up on my Kindle last month and am just now getting around to reading. It’s so wonderful, sweet and sad – and full of lovely imagery, like that.
This morning, I sat with my client and talked about grief.
She was holding an iPad, which had been her late husband’s. She’d made an hour’s drive to learn how to use it, suddenly seized by a desire to know how it worked. That had been his thing, before he had died – knowing about computers and technology, so she’d never bothered. When the clerk at the store could not help her, as she had not properly signed up for a class, she was overcome with sadness. She turned away and stared out the window until she could control herself. “I had a big cry,” she told me, “Nobody knew it but me.”
He’s been gone just over a year. “I don’t know if you’ve ever known grief,” she said, “but it’s very unexpected. Everything’s fine, everything’s fine, and then…”
And then you smell something, or taste something, or hear a song on the radio, and then it’s all over.
From my perch on the corner of her desk, I watched her work through her story. When she was finished, and looking back at me, I told her that I understood. I lost my uncle, very suddenly. He was a Marine, long ago.
I will never forget that strange phone call, right in the middle of our morning rush at work. From the very first word my father spoke, his voice heavy and soft in a way I’d never heard before, I knew something was wrong. I did not tell her, My uncle robbed a bank; my Uncle shot himself; he died alone. I did not share how I’d spent the rest of the day reading the story, shaking and crying, over and over, hoping to learn something new.
All I said was, I lost my uncle very suddenly. “Oh! You must have been very close?” I did not see him very much, but we were close, in a way. He was my favorite. There was something, I can’t explain what, that made me very fond of him. It took me a year and a half before I could speak his name, and talk about him as something in my past. And then I told her about my buddy, serving in Afghanistan. He died there, fighting in our war, and three years later, the thought of him still makes me cry. I hadn’t seen him for several years before he was killed. But I remembered who he was to me, and the pain was there, hard and fresh.
It doesn’t matter how physically close you are, because they’ve always been there, living inside you. They exist in your memories, and then your memory of them is all that’s left. It hurts; it never stops hurting. But the sharp pain become a steady ache, and the steady ache gives way to a dull throbbing, when you run across their photo, or smell or taste something you shared. Then, suddenly, there they are again.
“And sometimes, you have a cry in the Apple store,” I told her, shrugging. “And that’s okay.” She smiled at me, and I smiled back. What can you do, but go on living?
Guess what I’m watching?
It sucks that they mute out all the curse words, but that’s it’s really the first thing that’s been wrong about today. I feel like I’m coming out way ahead here. And since my job was not like, Yeah, I’m gonna need you to come in on Saturday, mmkay? this week, life is extra good.
Eating pizza, feeling free.