Once I was an alien living here. A child brought here by my parent. Like so many of your neighbors brought here as children, I didn’t choose to live in this country, but this was where I lived. It is my country and I love it as much as you who were born here love it. Seven years ago I became an American citizen and then became one of the privileged, the voters. It took me longer than it should have to become a citizen. It was, clearly, not a decision I took lightly but it’s one I’m happy I made.
Even before citizenship, as one who resided within this country, I still had rights, paid taxes, paid social security (even though I would not have gotten it back), and loved this country. I could have also served in the military, had I chosen to.
I don’t take the power to vote lightly. It is, indeed, a privilege. What I will be considering when I make my vote in the Massachusetts primary today is which of the candidates has the best record on issues of gun control, social justice, equality, the environment, education, health care, protecting and caring for the disadvantaged, and peacemaking.
As for you, I know that if you are in a Super Tuesday state, you will vote with your heart. I know you will make a choice based not on fear, but on creating a better world.
Citizens: You have the power.
Where there are walls, I know you will break them down.
I know you build a bridge and hold out your hand to those on the other side who need you.
For the past couple of years I have been posting a year in preview as opposed to a year in review. It was meant to be both tongue-in-cheek and hopeful. Clearly, I had no idea how much hubris was involved in these posts.
In my defense, I never posted absolutes. It was mostly about the emotional life of a human. But even that, as we know, is not so easily plotted.
In fact, the beauty of malleable human emotion is why I am a writer. We are both predictable and unpredictable. Done and undone in a moment.
In the last half of this year, people have approached me with dismay, with pity, with compassion, with anger, with empathy, with sadness, with disdain, with happiness, with warmth, with love, with fellowship.
Then there are those who have simply drifted away as though that had always been the best choice. Maybe it was.
I am both ghost and bleeding human. My heart beats and is extinguished. As does your heart.
All I can tell you right now about the year ahead is that the people I love best are alive and living. That our lives are full of lightness and dark. Happiness and anguish. Our lives are like all human life: Both extraordinary and blissfully ordinary.
All I can tell you for sure is that we are in a constant state of becoming.
So my wish for 2016 is this: Become with me. Become.
Blessing. Bless you. Blessed. God Bless. I am blessed. You are blessed. Bless.
The word, in its many forms, is overused. Hashtagged. Blown into the wind like an air kiss. Tossed away.
Get up off your knees and walk.
Use your hands to climb, to build.
My arms are open and ready to receive you. Not as a god would, but as one with faults and bruises.
You are blessed. God bless you. Bless.
A word, useless.
Instead, take these words of blessing and use them: For every one who discards you, another will hold you more tightly.
Today, and every day, I hold my hand over your heart.
I bless you.
You would cry that night and it would take a long time for anyone to hear you but when she did, you mother would listen about the overdue library book and what would happen if you weren’t well enough to get to school tomorrow? What would happen? What?
You never got over that library book. That you had made someone else suffer by being sick and by not getting that book back onto the shelf when it was meant to be. That you had been the source of another’s pain.
But this. This time of waiting was about being sick on the couch when you were a kid. Actifed. Your mother spooned it into you, laced with codeine so that you slept a brilliant, bejeweled sleep. Your nose tight. Your stagnant breath, still sweet to your mother only.
Sick on the sweaty couch, you never believed you would feel better, that this would end. You’d hear the kids outside at the end of the day and feel worse. Earlier, you’d been entertained by Match Game and The Doctors. By Coronation Street. You hadn’t thought about the other fucking children enjoying their lives and yet there they were out there doing things that you could not do.
Even though you felt so much better now. Your forehead wasn’t even hot.
Fever spiking. Weary mother, making dinner for the others, offering you a popsicle with the wrapper tight around the stick to keep the sticky ooze from your fingers.
Your mother with her cool cloths and her vaporizer and her cigarettes.
You felt weak when you stood up to go pee. Saw fireflies, spinning around. Fireflies in the tall grass at the edge of the lake. The sun pushing its flat palm down onto the water, asserting itself. We are done. Go to bed. The day has passed. But the fireflies became their own suns. The fireflies, reaching, seeking, the grass, an escape from the sweaty hands, clutching, wanting to hold onto something beautiful and finding
Your weak legs and the voices in the street outside playing kickball and the kids in the apple trees and your fucking mother and the pork chops.
And the fireflies. We are here. We. We. We. Are here.
When I started working as a content producer for an onilne portal in 1997, I didn’t understand the people who hung out in our chatrooms and on our discussion boards. What were they looking for?
It wasn’t until 2002 when I joined an online writing workshop that I understood. They were looking for people like themselves who felt out of place in the non-virtual world. They were looking for a connection. They were hoping to finally join the conversation.
When I joined that writing workshop, I joined the conversation. I made friends all over the world. Most of the people were great, but there were a few interlopers that we all became wary of. Those who were adversarial for the sake of being adversarial. Those who faked their identities. And, worst of all, the plagiarists (who usually also faked their identities and were adversarial).
There was a level of trust we had in sharing our work online. We trusted that the person on the other end of the screen would treat us fairly, would not steal from us, would not lie. Usually this worked out but sometimes we got burned.
Still, most of us kept coming back. Now, I interact with most of those same writers on social media instead of in that writing workshop. We mostly all migrated to social media and picked up our conversations there. And our conversations broadened and included other people, many other writers.
Social media is, in my mind, an excellent resource for writers. It is there that we can hold conversations in the way the rest of the world does. It’s where we use our skills with the written word to debate, to communicate, to make people laugh, cry, whatever. It makes sense.
And yet, it is an imperfect world. There are the people who take on the identities of others. There are people who portray themselves as happy when they are dying inside, or as dying inside, when they are happy.
It can become difficult to know what is real.
In part, valletta78 is about living one’s life in such a fractured way. The real life is one in which the protagonists marriage is hollow, her desires unspoken. She is bored, distracted, numb:
“Distraction is the blanket that goes on top. When I brush my teeth, I look out the bathroom window. When I drive, I listen to the radio. When I scratch at mosquito bite, I chew the inside of my lip. When I talk on the phone, I press the letters of the alphabet into my palm.”
And then there is the virtual life in which she takes on false ailments out of a sense of boredom and to garner sympathy. She even goes so far as to create a sick brother, because she,
“…just wanted to make sure a voice was heard.”
So, in part, her motivation is to be heard, even if that means lying to do so. She wants, I believe, to feel something. To peel away the layer of numbness and experience true emotions and yet she is incapable of showing her true self.
However, there is one person to whom she shows her inner self and tells the truth (at least partially). She even goes so far as to show an actual photo of herself instead of a photo of how she would like to be seen. What she does, finally, is trust this person. So much so that she sets out to meet him.
What we learn in the end is not something that is exclusive to the virtual world. What we learn is that opening ourselves up to others can be scary and we might end up broken by it. But even if we do there is an opportunity to come back to ourselves and the world we create can be as wonderful or horrible as we choose it to be because,
“One of the currencies of the world below the clouds is the truth.”
While this book does, unflinchingly, hold a mirror up to our online lives and force us to look at them; it neither judges us nor does it provide us with an answer for how to live better. It is not, then, moralistic. This is no cautionary tale. Instead it is a beautifully, tautly, written tale of modern life and how the cycle of despair leads us both closer to and farther away from our happiest selves.
Reader, I hope you seek out this book, read it, and spend some time thinking about what it means to you. I believe you will be better for having done so.
I wrote an Undercover Soundtrack for THE BOOK OF LANEY.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is Myfanwy Collins @MyfanwyCollins
Soundtrack by Jessica Lea Mayfield
Before she was fully formed on the page, I knew who I wanted Laney to be. She would be 15, tall and gangly, with a face that would not seem immediately beautiful to the young world but an astute adult would know how she would bloom fiercely and beautifully one day. Laney would not be an obvious intellectual, but she would think long and hard in an emotional way. People would often say to her, ‘You think too much’, a sentence she would find curious and staggeringly ridiculous. Yes, she does think a lot but…
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Here the overture for my upcoming Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week has just one musician in her book-s arsenal – a singer who perfectly, wholly, uncannily embodied the character she was searching for. The story is a young adult novel – a new departure for the writer, who has had other works published in the adult market and in literary magazines. Anyway, the emotions run high – and also the fragility. Stop by on Wednesday when Myfanwy Collins will be sharing her Undercover Soundtrack.
I can feel the skeleton that is me beneath my face skin. It becomes closer and clearer each day. Breaking me down into less than human. Skin and bone. Skull.
There was a china cabinet and angel hair in our playroom. There was no other place to put it. It did not move with us when we moved. It must have been his mother’s.
The cabinet glass was a wall between us and its treasures. The angel hair. The tea cups. Keeping us out. This wall.
What I know now:
If you build a wall, morning glories will find it. Their heart-shaped leaves reaching out to you and your wall. They will break that wall down with their beauty. You are not trapped by it. Push your vine up and over. Let go your wretchedness. Let go.
As a child you are kept out of these mysteries. The angel hair. The tea cups. Your walls. You.
You are your own mystery.
You believe your parents feel all that you feel and you all that they feel.
You do not know. You only see these walls and wonder how to break them down.
Break them down, you. Break them down.
Reach your vine up and over. Your beauty. Your beauty.
Remain your own best mystery.
It was hot and breezy yesterday. My run should have been more difficult than it was. But it just keeps getting easier. I came back to running a month or so ago.I had forgotten how much joy it gives me to use my body this way. To propel myself forward.
I also forgot about the joy of stopping and witnessing the beauty around me. The rivers and the fields. I am at home in the natural world. As a child, I took to the woods to explore, to escape. I’ve not changed so much.
The end of my run is always hard because no matter which direction I take, I have to run a hill to get to my street. It’s a brutal ending. A necessary evil to get to where I’m going.
Yesterday, I could have run and run but I decided to let myself stop. I don’t need to punish myself. I just need to keep moving forward and push myself up the hill and find my way home.
The road leads through the marsh. The Parker River spins and spins its way out and back. In the summer, kids jump off the railing into the water below. It’s not far but it is a leap of faith. The river is tidal, the depth not set. The bridge is compromised and was shut down over the winter.
Some authority put a sign up on the bridge:
NO JUMPING OFF
Not a poem. Not a haiku. But the line breaks seem significant. A message to those in need. A reminder not to try. Not to take chances.
It’s not a message I want to hear. Telling me to stay as I am. Telling me to let the bridge be the bridge and that is all. Just keep moving in the direction you are moving. The water is for itself. Not for you. Write as you always have written. Take no chances. No chance.
No Jumping Off.
Stay as you are.
I will not jump off this bridge but I will jump off.
I say to you jump off with me. Take your chances. Swim. Bridge, bridge, and bridge your way into where you are going.
Jump off. Swim beside me.
I could say that the shell is thinner than a fingernail but that would not be true. The shell is a shiver. It is a slice. It is the color of the veins beneath the skin of my wrist. The color of the veins at my son’s soft temple.
The shell is cracked open and whatever was within it is now gone. The albumen. The amniotic fluid. The fluid. All gone. Beneath the shell, darkness spreads.
The mother may have tossed it from the nest in a fit of cleaning or another creature got it and gnawed through to the tender bone within.
The shell is always left behind. It belongs to the sky.
Not to you.
Never to you.
That winter I dreamed that my father was in his car, his jeep, and that my sisters and I had been called to say good bye to him. He said good bye and that he loved us and he waited for a machine to come and crush him. I woke up in a panic but refused to tell anyone about the dream.
It felt too real.
This week my dad will have been dead for 37 years. At some point in the future he will have been dead for longer than he was alive. We all will.
Now, I remember the day he died more than I remember him. It was a day like today, sunny and cooler. I walked home from school for lunch and saw a strange car in the driveway. I thought it might be a new company car for my dad. Maybe he had gotten a new job.
But he wasn’t there. A priest was.
My mother could not tell me. My godmother told me as I sat on her lap.
What I said was no.
I said no.
The days after that are filled with people and smoke and drunken laughter. Tight hugs from adults who needed them more than I did. Shopping for a dress I came to loathe.
A wall of lilacs across the back edge of the lawn. My cousin and I sat on the edge of the patio and squished ants until I realized that what we were doing was killing them. That they were now dead and that we had done that.
A few weeks before everything happened, I stood in the yard and watched a plane fly overhead. I thought about how there were people on it. People I didn’t know going places I had never been. I didn’t know why but I felt everything was changing and that terrified and thrilled me.
Later that summer everything was dull-edged and grown and you were no longer a child. Now, there is nothing in my mouth. A taste. Burnt coffee, singed. There was something to say but no words to say it. So much happened next. Hold on to that, if you can.