coyote, sunrise

Woke to the sound of coyotes before dawn. Instinctively, I tried to curl around Roo, and instinctively, he flung himself from the bed and pointed his snout to the ceiling, sniffing. He’s from the city, he’s never heard coyotes. I wonder what it was like for him to hear this wild shriek that was all at once alien and yet somehow perfectly familiar. If he tried with his mysterious dog language to unravel the doggish thing being said and came up blank, was stupefied. It’s not hard to stupefy Roo. He twists his head almost completely off his body when you make a strange noise.

Roo twisting his head off because someone whistled.

I couldn’t go back to sleep with him jingling his tags up and down the small house like Jacob Marley’s ghost. I threw the covers off and tap-danced across the chilly concrete floor to look out the window at the blue-gray sleeping desert. Quick movements between the bushes: the panicked black eyes of rabbits. Again a coyote whooped. Stay low, guys, I told them, and scooped up Roo and tumbled both of us back into the still-warm bed. He carouseled himself into a ball against my stomach and we lay there dreaming of wilderness.

There is a stillness and simplicity to my life now that’s completely absurd; something they tried to capture in 1980s comedies where, weary of the rat race, a high-powered executive/famous writer/whathaveyou moves from the big city to the country and finds everything so derned hokey!

I now watch the sun’s entire journey across the sky. The passing of a day becomes its own event. We are in a bowl with hills on all sides and stern blue mountains to the south. I tell time by whether or not the tall palm in the front yard shimmers, or which side of the house glows. On some days, I feel lulled by the constancy, safe to relax and accomplish nothing, because the day will come and go regardless of what I have done inside of it. And if I didn’t get something done today, I will awake to a day exactly like this one tomorrow. It’s Groundhog Day territory; real dangerous stuff.

This part, though, might be the biggest transformation I’ve gone through ever ever ever: I now wake up at sunrise. :O

Me! Me who made retching noises whenever other people reported waking up early to write before work or go to the gym or because of kids or any of that other madness. I, who preferred sleep and dreams over any kind of reality, who had blackout curtains in NYC, now sleep with them open so I can see if the light outside has become pink enough to get up and make coffee and watch what happens to the sky. It’s also a great time to check out the birds: Western bluebirds tend to visit the feeder early, cactus wrens rattle from the tops of the yucca trees, and California thrashers get their thrashing business done under the creosote bushes.

Oh, that too—I am obsessed with learning the names of the high-desert flora. I take pictures with my phone and come back to my computer to see if I can ID them, then I draw them with the watercolor pencils Nat gave me before we left the East Coast. I can differentiate between teddy bear and silver cholla cacti. I’ve plucked and pondered cheesebush (so called because it smells like watermelon, le duh), cat’s claw acacia (so called because it’s pretty but wants to murder you), and desert willow. I am currently enmeshed in a riveting mystery over how goldenrod and rabbit brush differ, and if what I am seeing is Mormon tea or arrow grass.

From top: Desert trumpet, Mormon tea, Cholla, Rabbitbrush.

It may be that obsessing over the local shrubbery is preferable to writing about trauma. This could be another way in which I run from things. Or is it that obsessing over local shrubbery is part of my creative process? It’s most likely my way of feeling comfortable and in control of my new, utterly foreign environment. In either case, I remain vigilant about writing, yet not self-flagellating. I’m done with all that. I’m done beating myself up, letting others beat me up, and beating others up. I mean, it still happens, but now I catch it and shake a finger at it: NO.

I have been revising a piece for submission to a magazine. But it’s a hard one, guys. It’s about the last time I saw my mother alive. It’s about how it feels to have no idea what harm is about to come, and then suddenly, on some level, to know the exact moment it is happening, many miles away.

I dipped my toe into it and realized I’d need more warming up in order to truly put myself back into that time. I’d have to rewatch the video of the last time we were all together, the week before she was killed. Watching this video shears the skin off my neck every time, because she’s only in it for two seconds at the end.

This 25-minute video and my mother is in it for only two seconds.

It’s all me and my boyfriend and my uncle and grandparents, joking around and telling stories, which is nice to see, really. And it’s the man who killed her. He gets more than ten times the screen time she gets.

She gets two seconds. He gets 30.

The significance of this disparity has detonated in the midst of this barrage of reports of abuse by powerful men. Every day now I awake to a fresh new horror (or the same old horror, rather, but now much harder to be in denial about). I really liked and trusted many of these men and considered them allies. I need to feel like the men around me are mostly allies, the way I need to know the names of the plants in this new, possibly hostile desertscape.

Maybe because I need to believe things aren’t “all that bad,” my first instinct when I hear some of these names is to consider how this will affect the actor/comedian/comedian-turned-senator that I liked, to read their apologies with sympathy and to say, “Well now, do we have to dump them in the garbage, willy nilly?”

She gets two seconds of my thoughts. He gets 30.

It occurs to me that I was pretty well baked into a cement of patriarchal, misogynist culture (not as much as my foremothers but more than my Millennial friends), and this discomfort is part of my metamorphosis out of that.

After I lost my mother to a violent man with a history of violence towards women, people, including me, said, Well, they were both…you know…drinkers. Or, They were a toxic combination. As if that man and any woman would have been a healthy combination. As if she was asking for it. By wearing that smirk. By shoving him. By telling him to get out of her house.

When a man physically attacks a woman, he will most likely get to continue breathing air, receiving love and support from his family, a chance at freedom. She will most likely lose her life. Her life. Over. The odds are stacked against her. One of those men I liked and considered a deeply helpful and important ally pointed this very thing out not long ago, and in a way that I quoted often. Or as Margaret Atwood said: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.”

It’s the same shitty odds when a man sexually abuses or intimidates a woman: He gets to keep his job, his reputation, the benefit of the doubt, and she loses credibility, support, opportunities, faith in herself. That game, friends, is rigged. And it’s rigged by us, not nature. Time to un-rig it. I can start, in my own way, by giving her those 30 seconds instead. How is she doing? Thank her for speaking up. Wish her the best. Get her back.

I can start like this: I can watch this video of my mother and the man who killed her and I can sit in the hard feelings that it brings. I can go to the window and look out at the wilderness until I understand those feelings and can channel them into a work that is a howl that is heard and joined by other howls.

Sunrise from my front door.

Evernote This

While hanging out with other smart women with smart women problems (anxiety, rage, misshapen molars from grinding), my friend Sarah concluded that we’re miserable because we used to milk cows and plant food gardens and build houses. “We wouldn’t have time to freak out,” she pointed out. “We’d be dropping into bed exhausted at sundown.”

And we three enjoyed a few seconds of imagining a prairie front blowing the hair from our unadorned faces as we walked out to the well, no phone’s insistent blurping with text messages; no anxieties about whether to Tweet, Facebook, blog, or fart the idea we just had; and no agonizing whenever someone showed up on Tumblr doing the thing we swore we were just about to do.

Of course, frontier life had its disadvantages, such as miniscule life spans, chronic dry skin, and—oh, yes—being forced into a sow-like state of constant breeding and suckling for as many times as your husband could put it to you. (Which some people would be very happy to see return!) But our collective longing for simpler times is part of why pickling, DIY, knitting, and all that is making a huge comeback. Men, too. We’ve all had it with this stupid Information Age. What do we do with all this information, anyway?

I copied a few Moleskine journals’ worth the ideas into Evernote thinking it would create action, but I ended up just forgetting I even had the stupid program. (Still, I highly recommend Evernote as a great place to see all your ideas and inspiration and sketches and to-do items in one clean place.) I love Pinterest, but can see how it would get terribly out of hand if I decided to have whole boards dedicated just to the color yellow or interesting oil slicks or other random reasons to avoid doing anything of substance.

Is anyone actually using Evernote and Pinterest to enrich and facilitate their creative endeavors? If so, fuck you. (Just kidding, please let me eat your still-beating heart.) I’d like to know how people are getting things done, or if they are just better and better and putting things between them and getting things done.

I can’t imagine that particular ability would help you win Frontier House.

For you, from my favorite essay in Mr. Vonnegut’s Man Without a Country:

Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that.

Your dreams will come true sort of in this way

This is exactly what my writing career has felt like:

At first, I dreamed it—and I dreamed it so strong and big I thought there’s no way it can’t happen.

Then I invested in it: time, money, energy. Grad school was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, and if anyone wanting to write—SERIOUSLY write (can do nothing else and will die otherwise and strives to write the best that the world has ever seen and known)—is entertaining the thought, I highly recommend low-residency programs like the one I went to.

Then I waited for the giant burst of self-actualizing success to come: I’d dash off a brilliant memoir the likes of which had never been written before! Something like Mary Karr’s poetic treatment of her fucked-up childhood meets Amy Hempel’s sparse, startling sentences meets Miranda July’s fearless multiform art! I’d land an agent in a heartbeat and be the first graduate picked up by a major publishing house!

But instead came doubt. And doubt tied my hands. And the memoir moved from the page into my head, where it farted and belched with a noisy stink that I ignored, but which curled my lip into a perpetual sneer.

And I downplayed my strengths. I worked for nothing. I worked very hard for a little more than nothing (although this was, in itself, a kind of training. A writer must learn to cut wood—heaps and heaps of precise timber, hundreds at a clip, with no room for imperfection or thinking. It’s how one becomes an expert whittler—which is what many of the finest writers are.)

I never lost my momentum, though, and one day I rolled into the right situation, where my value was seen and my talent fully appreciated. And then again…and that gave me even more momentum, and then more…

And then my prices went up.

The End.

(Writers will notice this clip is also a metaphor for the process of writing. Elusive, elusive, elusive, then bang! Things happen and make children scream.)

Discussion Questions:

  • What is the driving ethos behind almost every Coen Brothers film?
  • Even “Raising Arizona”?
  • …really? Okay, I can see that. Yeah, you know what, I definitely see it.
  • Should children be allowed to roam the streets freely after school?
  • Define the shopowner’s decision to raise the price of the hula hoop in terms of capitalism: Should health care and education be privatized, according to your findings? Discuss on Facebook until people start blocking you.