Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Flannery O'Connor at home

It's cold in Bellingham, 20 degrees in mid-afternoon, and the downtown library, where I'm writing this, is overheated. That's the sum of my complaints, yet it's one of those days when everything seems wrong, a good day to remember Flannery O'Connor, who carried on when very little was right. 

Last summer I attended an Image Magazine seminar taught by Bret Lott in Charleston, South Carolina. Afterward, my husband and I travelled to Savannah, Georgia, where we visited, among other places, the house Flannery O'Connor lived in as a child. On Lafayette Square, the house is modest but solidly middle-class, grander than the prospects of Edward O'Connor, Mary's Irish, salesman father, would have suggested, provided for them by an aunt. It satisfied O'Connor's mother, Regina Cline, for a while.

O'Connor's bedroom in Savannah

While Mary Flannery, as she was called then, certainly invited friends over, the twin beds in her bedroom are a little misleading, suggesting a kind of slumber-party life that she did not have.  Her mother was particular about whom MF befriended, and MF herself was shy. She was more likely to be writing in the margins of her books, or drawing, or in the backyard teaching her pet chicken to walk backwards (a feat that was filmed and shown in pre-movie newsreels in 1932) than socializing.  She attended the not-so-modest church across the street, where she preferred the adult to the children's services, and the parochial school next door to the church.  She also spent a fair amount of time parting the curtains at the window that looked out on Lafayette Square, taking in the movement and talk outside--although this last has the ring of legend.

The church across the street: the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. 
Regina pushed for a move to Atlanta, but MF wasn't happy in school there, and her father fell sick with what turned out to be lupus, the disease MF herself would later contract. Regina cared for Edward  in the Cline family home in Milledgeville, about two hours inland from Savannah, until his death in 1941, when MF was 15.  MF attended college in Milledgeville, then graduate school in Iowa City, where she first enrolled as a journalism student, but soon switched to the new MFA program, the first one in the U.S.

O'Connor found Iowa City, crowded in 1945 with returning veterans, a little "blank."* After graduating, she spent time at the Yaddo writer's colony and in the home of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, The blankness of Iowa City gave way to fellowship with other writers, yet she wrote in 1948 that "there is no clearcut road for [the young writer] to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process; lifelong and lonesome."*  Before 1951, when she too was diagnosed with lupus and resigned herself to returning to Georgia to be cared for by her mother, she had written the novel Wise Blood and some of the short stories that would make her reputation. She managed to live away from Regina for only six years. 

Regina had inherited a dairy farm from an uncle. When Mary Flannery, now just Flannery, took up residence there, she mysteriously named it Andalusia.

Andalusia's farmhouse
The farmhouse is unoccupied now. We found a tiny sign marking a left turn about two miles from central Milledgeville, out a road lined with strip malls. A foundation is fixing what's broken, returning the farmhouse, the hired man's house, the barns, the pump house, the grounds to the way they looked when Flannery lived there.  When Warren and I visited, four peacocks (maybe some were peahens) lived inside a pen behind the house. I don't know if anyone ever let them out, as Flannery did hers, taking them for strolls on the grounds, walking with the help of arm braces. The braces stand upright in the bedroom where she spent much of the rest of her life, 13 years, dying at 39. During that time she wrote more stories, collected in Everything That Rises Must Converge, and the novel The Violent Bear It Away.

Flannery's room at Andalusia

I'm sorry you can't see more of the bed. It's a twin again, but with no partner.  

Reading O'Connor's fiction gives me no pleasure.  Her characters suffer beyond reason. The grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," that old bat, is a manipulator and a narcissist, but should she really end up dead, and responsible for the deaths of her whole family? I tremble, reading O'Connor's stories--surely what she intended. I also see where they came from.

*See Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.

Color photos by Warren Miller.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Inoculation Accidents

I stood beside my friend Barbara while she gave birth to Annie, her second child. Barbara’s family lived around the corner from mine, and because she and I were such good friends, I saw Annie almost every day when she was little. I dragged a chair next to the stove so she could watch me stir the playdough.  I set a place for her at every birthday table.

Annie was the caboose, six years younger than my youngest, Mary.  Unlike her older brother, Joe, whose food preferences showed up on my grocery list, Annie found her second home with another family in the neighborhood. When she was twelve or so, my husband and I moved away from Palo Alto, the nesting culs-de-sac that were so child-friendly, and I lost track of Annie-time for real. It was a shock, therefore, to learn that Annie has (appallingly) grown old enough to drive, and not only that, last week she passed her driver’s test.

I have a lot invested in this kid, so here's what I hope: I hope she has an inoculation accident.

Just as pathologists introduce substances into our bodies that boost our immunity to certain diseases—and sometimes those substances are low, weakened doses of the disease itself—my teenagers were lucky enough, armed with new licenses, to run into parked cars, back into trees, get bumped forward when they appeared to be making a left turn but at the last second changed their minds. All these were excellent accidents for kids just hitting the streets. Nobody got hurt, and they had to hear the horrible crunch of metal against metal, a sound you don’t forget. They had to leave a note, tell us what happened, call the insurance company and in some cases the police to report the accident, negotiate costs, renegotiate driving privileges, all of which made enough of an impression that next time—as far as I know, none of the three of them has again been involved in an accident they caused.

It’s risky to hope for any kind of accident. I’ve been thinking all day about how risky.  I worry about my own kids plenty--skittishness and introversion must go together--but in terms of making decisions on the ground, my husband has always been the more cautious parent.  I’m thinking of the time I let the kids scale a wet, rocky wall next to a waterfall—until Warren made it down the trail and removed them, one at a time, to the other side of the creek.  I’m remembering the time he hiked at top speed across the Golden Gate Bridge, with a dads-and-daughters group from the Y, keeping Mary on his shoulders all the way.  I would have been satisfied to hold her hand. I would have stopped halfway to let her watch the sailboats. 

You have to let things happen, send kids to school when a virus might be going around, let them swim in public pools, obey the three-second rule when they drop their goldfish on the kitchen floor.  You have to—don’t you? 

Last summer, the one kid-like being I’m still responsible for, my beautiful smooth collie, Alice, got hit by a car on the border of Broadway Park in Bellingham.  She was chasing squirrels. Broadway Park is not an off-leash facility, but the whole neighborhood, except my husband, lets their dogs run free there.  Warren drove Alice to the vet, while I nearly hyperventilated in the passenger seat. 

Alice is fine now, and she minds better.  So was that an inoculation accident? If so, it was a painful one, for everyone concerned.

So, Annie, I don’t know. Maybe you should be careful from the very start, on every turn, in every parking lot, on every on- and off-ramp. Maybe you should realize that some of us don’t know what we’re talking about. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Saying "Panties" on Television

Thursday, Feb. 17, Bellingham YMCA.  While I was in line at the drinking fountain, a man approached me, holding out his hand. “My name’s Frank.”

He was wearing a flannel shirt over pastel tie-dye, so I figured he must be nice. “I’m Jo Ann.”

“Do you work here?” His eyes were brighter, maybe, than they should be.

I wore my Y clothes—my old orange Bookshop Santa Cruz T-shirt and sweatpants. “No,” I said, “I just work out here.”

Frank had thin white hair, lifted by static electricity from his forehead and cheeks. The tail of his belt traveled so far beyond the buckle that I couldn’t see the end, and his khakis were a couple of sizes too big. “That’s what I meant,” he said. “I work out here, too. Are you in school?”

Frank didn’t appear to be blind. He couldn’t be suggesting that I looked so young I ought to be in school. “No, I’m a little old for school. I’m 57.”

“Oh!” he said. “I’m still working on my vet degree.” He moved down the line of people waiting for a drink. “My name’s Frank,” he said, holding out his hand to whoever was behind me.

I drank some water, grabbed my book from its cubbyhole, and headed for the treadmill, where at first I didn’t read a word.

I wasn’t worried about Frank. I didn’t know whether he was older or younger than I was, but either way I was pretty sure I hadn’t hurt his feelings. He’d made an announcement—he was going to be a vet—and whether he still had time to become a vet, or was currently in vet school, or was well enough to be thinking about doing much at all seemed to have no bearing on that announcement, just as my remark did not.

What was ridiculous about what I’d said, though, was that I’d been a student myself as recently as 2009. I no more believed there was an age limit on learning than on staring at the moon.

On Tuesday night, I’d read a poem in front of a TV camera for a spot that would run between programs on a local channel. I was one of several people doing this, but we taped our spots separately, and they would run one at a time. The people who did the scheduling, set-up, and filming—and my husband, who came along—were all encouraging and kind, but I was full of dread. I read my poem, “How to Stay,” with just one thing in mind—not rushing through it. But in trying not to read it too fast, I made it sound funereal, and the expression on my face in the first take suggested that the funeral was my own.

In the second take, my reading was livelier, maybe too lively, but we couldn’t use that one because I’d failed to stare into the camera long enough after the last line for what the director called the “fade out.” The third time around, I thought I’d delivered the poem pretty well, about as well as I could. When I viewed the tape, I saw that I had indeed read these lines from “How to Stay” in a celebratory spirit:

Spin the clothesline like a tetherball.
Hang your panties above the fence line.
Let the birds have the strawberries
and the squirrels
the one best bite
of every plum.
Bathe the cats in rosewater.
Line the drawers with mint . . .

But now I saw what I’d missed before, what I must have been dreading all along. I looked old, really old, older than 57, certainly too old to utter the word panties on television.

While on the treadmill, I realized that in saying to Frank, “I’m a little old for school,” I was trying to make an announcement of my own, loud enough so I’d really hear it—that some doors aren’t open anymore, that there are some things I’ll never do, some graces I’ll never recover. Frank didn’t pay any attention to what I said. And you shouldn’t, either. But I have to.

Added March 2: If you have the stomach for it, you can watch this video:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

William Vollman among the Homeless

View Larger Map

I didn’t know that celebrated author William Vollman lived in Sacramento, California—about three miles from the schools I attended, the two houses I grew up in, and my parents’ graves—until I read his article in the March Harper’s, “Homeless in Sacramento: Welcome to the New Tent Cities.” It goes some way toward revealing the quality of life enjoyed by people of whom, as a bookish kid, the well-watched youngest child of older parents, I remained steadfastly unaware.

Vollman lives in Alkali Flat, an elite neighborhood in the nineteenth century, in “redevelopment” since the 1970s, and claimed now by urban garden projects, artists’ collectives, business and government offices, the down and out, and the organizations that serve them. The confluence of the Sacramento River (flowing south on the map above) and the American (flowing west) isn’t far away, and the banks of both rivers, according to Vollman, sheltered the homeless of the Great Depression, as they do the homeless of today. The first of several photographs accompanying Vollman’s article shows a section of the Jibboom Street Bridge ("A" on the map), so familiar a sight that in an instant I was riding on the Sacramento in the back of my friend Sylvia’s motorboat on a hot day in 1970.

Vollman, author of about twenty books (how many depends on how you count his multi-volume works), attributes his involvement with Sacramento’s homeless to the accident of having acquired a parking lot along with the old building he lives in, the exterior of which “cultivates an abandoned look.” Because he doesn’t drive, Vollman parks no vehicles of his own on this “giant rectangle of worn asphalt.” He rented parking spaces to commuters and a local body shop—until homeless people began to show up. The smell of human excrement and unwashed bodies bothers him, and fear of burglary keeps him from inviting the homeless into his house, but he lets his guests stay, some for months at a time. “Who should take care of people in need? . . . While you and I are disagreeing in good faith, what’s happening to the woman the police carried off from my parking lot in a squad car who now has returned to spend the night in a wet blanket . . . because she can’t find a better place?”

When civil charges are brought against Vollman—creating a public nuisance and failure to landscape—he meets advocates for Safe Ground, a “shelter” that moves with the homeless as they are evicted from one location after another. Safe Ground provides clean sleeping bags, tents, a place to stow belongings for short periods of time, and rules that prevent theft and violence within camps, enforced by elected elders. Vollman begins spending occasional nights among Safe Grounders, on the American River, at a Lutheran Church, under the 12th Street Bridge. He recounts some of the stories they tell, changing the tellers’ names.

Vollman is a big-deal writer, a category in which I place people, usually men, who write extremely long, unnecessarily difficult books, most of which I start but don’t finish, like Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and—don’t string me up—James Joyce. But in this article at least, Vollman all but disappears. We hear the uninterpreted voices of the people he talks to and overhears. Whether we come to care for them or not depends on us, not on Vollman’s presentation. Read the article to hear those voices, not because you grew up watching the American River flow into the Sacramento, or because you are an introvert inspired by other introverts who walk out into the world.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bellingham, or Where I Moved To

Zuanich Point Park, on Bellingham Bay. Photo by Warren Miller.
I lived in Palo Alto, California for a total of 32 years, with short intermissions in Berkeley and Sacramento. Around here, that’s what people want to know: where I’m from and how I happened to come to Bellingham, twenty miles shy of Canada on the coast of Washington State. The tone of these questions is not always friendly. Natives would prefer, I think, that Bellingham were an island in a nameless sea, like Never Never Land, rather than visible on maps, certainly not maps that Californians are allowed to consult. I regret to say there’s a good reason for that.
Housing used to be affordable here, until Californians started cashing out their equities and moving north, driving prices up for all.  Oregon and Washington residents have never been enthusiastic about visitors from the overpopulated south. “Welcome Californians!” says the occasional billboard. “Enjoy yourselves, then go home.”  And they become less enthusiastic with every passing year.  A new condo complex goes up in Bellingham on what used to be forested land, and I overhear “Californians!” at the nearest coffee house.
Bellingham, like Palo Alto, sits on a bay, but our new, 100-year-old house is 100 feet above sea level instead of seven, as our house in Palo Alto was. We can’t see the water or the closest of the San Juan Islands from our windows—views cost money here as everywhere—but if we walk a couple of blocks, blue pops over the horizon. Coastal winters are long but not harsh, and summers are glorious.  Mount Baker, visible out our back windows, is snow-capped year round. 
On our walks, my dog Alice plants herself in front of houses—lots of them—with backyard chicken coops. I can hear the freight train down at the docks whistle late at night. The middle school a few blocks away, which caught on fire last year and is being rebuilt, still bears the motto, Waste Not Thy Hour.  The owner of our independent bookstore chartered a bus to Gary Snyder’s reading in Seattle last year and poured wine for the passengers all the way home.  (I can tell you that he didn’t spill a drop.) My writing group meets in the Unitarian Church. There’s a drop box at the grocery store for public library books.  We can get anything we really need on foot or by bus. Bellingham is a real town. That's one answer to the question, why Bellingham?
When people ask me where I'm from, I disclose my state of origin in a stage whisper. Sometimes that’s enough to disarm. To the question, why Bellingham, I tell them that my brother moved here more than twenty years ago, and so now has my sister. We’re a family reuniting.
The man at the Department of Licensing wasn’t mollified. “So your brother told you about Bellingham, eh?” He slid a piece of scratch paper across the counter.  “His full name, please. I’m afraid I’ll have to revoke his license.”
My brother is still driving.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What About Bob?

There’s always a chance that the stranger you decide to talk to won’t let you get away, that he'll develop an instant desire to put you in a container and hang it around his neck, as Bill Murray does with his goldfish in What About Bob? As Angelina and Billy Bob did with their vials of blood.
You’re on an airplane and you wave at the two-year-old peeking over the seat in front of you. He waves back, you smile, he bats his eyelashes, you bat yours. Pretty soon you’re committed to interacting with him all the way to Atlanta. If you stop, he cries, and his parents, along with the rest of coach, wish you’d minded your own business.
While walking your dog you strike up a conversation with a woman digging in her flowerbed. Your dog smells her dog’s rear end and in ten seconds they’re fast friends, bowing and barking and running in circles on their leashes. So you go on chatting, and you don’t mind at first, because she’s friendly and forthcoming. She’s lived in the neighborhood for twenty years—one of the first things she tells you--and you, a relative newcomer, want to learn some of its history.
Then she starts delivering set speeches, stories so perfectly worded, sentences with so many clauses that you know she’s told these stories the same way hundreds of times. Maybe they make her look a little too good, a little better than most of us really are. Maybe they involve certain judgments about others that you’re not comfortable with. In any case, you’re not part of a conversation anymore. You’re an audience.
Now what?
Before I map your escape route, I would like to pose a question.
Have you and I never been this child, this woman? Have we never tried someone else’s patience, or told the same story over and over, each time in a rosier light? Have we had no tiny narcissistic moments in which someone we just met, because she’s listening, because she hasn’t yet insisted on any reciprocity, seems like exactly the right person to confide in, to learn that our mother’s dying words to us were, “Aren’t you overdue for a haircut?”
Enough soul searching. Here’s what you do. You remember that you have to go to the bathroom.
In the case of the kid on the airplane, you head down the aisle as soon as possible and after using the facilities at length, you chat with the flight attendants or migrate from empty seat to empty seat until the two-year-old’s face is no longer visible, until he’s disappeared into a parental lap, settled down, maybe even fallen asleep.
In the case of the woman, you just say, I’ve got to go. And you won’t be lying, because you do have to go, at least some time soon. Bob might invite you into his house to use his own facilities, but the woman with the flowerbed and the dog probably won’t. And if she does, you just say no, thank you, that you’re weird about some things. Which of course you are.

Friday, February 4, 2011

NOT Talking to Service Dogs

Seaside, Oregon. When Stephen Kuusisto, author of Planet of the Blind, joined the faculty of Pacific University’s MFA program in January 2009, he naturally brought along his seeing-eye dog, Nira. She was new to him then, youngish, and distractible. Shelley Washburn, our director, emailed some behavioral instructions in advance of our winter residency:  When Nira has her harness on, she is working and must not be flirted with, talked to or petted. She is trained to focus at street corners, not look for people to schmooze with. And when she is in a lecture, she is trained to sit still, not go searching for fun.
I was beginning my last semester in the program, wondering how (and if) the stories I’d written so far would turn into a thesis. Hanging out with a dog seemed like the perfect anti-anxiety medication. Nira, a golden lab, drew me like a magnet, whether she was sitting in the next row or on the other side of the lecture hall. I was very close to ignoring the ban on student-dog communication when the issue of tsunamis came up.
The hotel where we spent our winter residency sits on the promenade that runs alongside, and only a couple of feet above, Seaside’s two miles of straight, sandy beach. Development of the continental West Coast’s tsunami warning system began in 1997, but it was the Sumatra tsunami of 2004 that rattled property owners enough to take their own precautions. Our hotel posted instructions in fine print on the walls of our rooms about what to do when a warning was received.
Some seeing member of our group joked one morning that these instructions seemed unnecessarily complicated. Yes, we all agreed, the important thing was to head for the hills, away from the water. The rest was—I’m not sure we actually said this—academic.
Stephen raised his hand. “How will I know which way the hills are?”
I think he may have been joking, too, at least in part, but Shelley and others were quick to reassure him that, should a warning sound, we’d find him immediately and all head together toward the hills. I tried to picture that, but what I saw was Nira leading Stephen through the streets of Seaside amid panicked, jostling crowds, of which the rest of us were merely a part. Nira’s learning to focus was not one bit optional.
Stephen must have guessed that some of us were dying to interact with his dog because one afternoon about 4:00, I heard a roar coming from upstairs. I ran up to the fourth floor and found about forty people taking turns throwing a rope toy for Nira to fetch. It was nice of Stephen, I thought, to share.
The other night, in the parking lot of my grocery store in Bellingham, I met another service dog. I don’t know what kind of dog Lucky is—short in height, long in torso like a dachshund, but with shaggy black and white fur, a flat face, and hair in his eyes. I asked his companion, a man in his thirties wearing a reflective vest and thick glasses, but clearly not blind, if I could speak to Lucky. I said I knew there were rules about such things.
“Oh sure, right now it’s okay,” the man said.
Since I was embarrassed to ask him why he needed a service dog, I asked Lucky instead. (Lame, I know.) “What’s your job, Lucky?”
Lucky lifted his head and shot me a look so dark that I took a step back.
“I suffer from depression,” the man said, “and seizures.”
“And Lucky knows when there’s something wrong?”
“That’s right,” the man said. “Don’t you, Lucky?”
The look Lucky gave his human was positively intimate.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Going Cuban

My husband is involved in Transition Town work, building local community for hard times ahead. I participate, too, but not much, and not very often. I hate meetings, for one thing. I believe in consensus building but sitting through it gives me restless leg syndrome body-wide. Potlucks would be okay if they didn't require a whole evening of blurting things out (See How to Talk to Strangers below). Work parties can be fun, but I often fall behind the thirty-somethings, who appear to move compost as effortlessly as they pick up their children’s toys.
The saving grace of transition folks: they show a lot of movies. I’ve seen The Age of Stupid, What a Way to Go, and The End of Suburbia—all of them recipes for sleepless nights—but missed some of the cheerier offerings, like Mad City Chickens. A few nights ago I decided to walk out with my husband (that’s what they call dating on the BBC) to watch The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-1990, Cuba’s supplies of imported oil and food were drastically cut, causing widespread hunger and desperation. Cuba’s agricultural sector had previously embraced the “green revolution”—cash-crop farming requiring petroleum-based fertilizer and petroleum-fueled machinery. Their “peak oil moment”—many people believe ours is near—arrived suddenly, and they responded rapidly. In just a few years they were able to switch to organic methods of farming inside and around cities, producing enough food to feed the population. How they did this so fast and so expertly makes for a film full of fascinating interviews, too many shots of the backsides of oxen, and small but gorgeous gardens.
After the film, a woman who’d traveled to Cuba (illegally) during the latter Bush years showed her own photographs. She’d biked into countryside the filmmakers didn’t get to. Her impression—and mine, after listening to what she had to say—was that Cuba’s transition to local, organic agriculture worked throughout the country.
I sat there thinking how ironic it was that forty Americans were watching, in a room above a store,
a film in
which Cubans accomplished quickly and effectively what might take us decades to work through and may come too late to help much. How the worm has turned.
The thing about introverts is they tend to sit on questions so long, the stuffing goes out of them. What’s left isn’t carefully couched but flat and bumpy. I raised my hand. “They have a centralized government,” I said, “that provided experts, training, public policy. We’ll probably have to do all that ourselves.”
Which led to a discussion of HOW CUBA WORKS, in particular of Castro’s neighborhood watchdogs, the CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), who organize things like blood banks and hurricane preparedness but also keep an eye out for those who, say, have a tendency to hoard supplies.
One man remarked that living the way Cubans do requires a level of maturity Americans haven’t developed. I wondered if I could develop that kind of maturity alone in my house, and given the treatment of outsiders in Cuba--gay men, for example--whether I wanted to. Talking to more strangers about this, about anything--I'm pretty sure it can't hurt.