Check out my student-inmate’s latest piece published nationally: Ugly Beauty
Short story writer Lydia Davis on letters, lovers, mishaps and misgivings, and I don’t know where I’d be without her. I love her style: witty, curt, and I’ve adopted much of my writing after hers. I met her once. I drove 10 hours, traversing four states, running out of motor oil along the way, coming to a screeching halt on I-90 when confronted with a deer in the middle of the interstate. That trip, I felt like a laid-off clown. Lydia greeted me and other writers with a warm smile, and she shared her new stories and some old ones at an Ivy League school in Pennsylvania, and I was better for it. She’s my writing mentor, a lover of the country, cows, trees that sway in the dark; how she mystically describes light when darkness wants to park. When I’m in a bind, when silence sits in the air like mosquitos on a muggy day, and I need some good cheer I turn to Lydia Davis, or on a rainy night, ready for winter, tap, tap, tap on my rooftop, when words sink into me like rain and teardrops, a crackling fireplace, its smell filtering through the house, writing about a log cabin like Lydia Davis would, and her book in my hand, and I must stay now and linger, because I’m safe again.
The drowning of my imagination led me closer to a house. One year ago, I used to tell myself I wanted to go to the country, a specific town, after reading a story. I also imagined, though I was probably wrong, that I’d get a better sense of things: viewing the country road I’d only read about in newspapers; the small, empty white house. Then, when I was assigned to that town – I didn’t want to go anymore. I didn’t want to see the bareness, the plain brown hills, the empty house. I worried now – I’d still be left wondering about things.
In those days I dreamed of some peaceful asylum in the country: dust drifting off a dirt road, leaves whispering on a tree. Nothing made much sense, and everything seemed to be a revelation. The fact that I was sitting outside in the blazing heat surprised me. I couldn’t hear any birds – only chatter from strangers seated next to me at a winery in the country. One lady said this to her friend: “That night, no one was really that drunk.” I overheard another lady say this: “I think she’s tired of seeing you sit on a phone in your room. It’s not healthy.” The thing is – I had stories to share, too. When I went inside, I told the cashier it was crowded. She said: “Must be a full moon. It brings out all the wackos.” When I left, a couple cheered me on: “We’re outdoor wino warriors.” I’ve received many compliments before – but I’m not sure this was one.
Once again she found herself in another predicament. Tired but still sleeping 9 hours per night. She texted a friend who knew about things; she couldn’t understand why people run in the hot sun or why she’d just heard the announcement over the Walgreens intercom: Someone needed help in the fitting room. A fitting room? At Walgreens? The night before she’d went out. It was a sort of loose or wild look, watching everything, missing nothing, like a person who has four cell phones. Rudeness and wildness were comfortable to her at that point, and she could never quite finish a book. She left Walgreens with a bag of XXTRA Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, lighter fluid and a bottle of Pinot Noir. Still – she knew from the conversation from the night before – things could only get more interesting.
Hateful things: Running behind for an appointment and now further behind whilst waiting at a train crossing; a paper cut; blood; roosters crowing at 3am; dogs barking; dog chasing you as you grip the iron-fence at the Julian Center as he tried to take your life and the realization: you are not athletic nor bright to be scaling a fence in the middle of the night; bruises; bombs and deadly weapons; a slow-operating Android phone; skiers at a ski resort; mac-n-cheese without enough butter; screeching sounds; a wedding with no alcohol; false friends; Lunchables; alarm clocks; an old wine cork; blood; paper towels; trash cans.
At the intersection of Moon Road and U.S. 40 sits 1,600 imprisoned men. Eleven are in my writing class. When they leave class at 7:48pm, they return to a dank, white-walled cell, whilst the world sputters around at a fast pace. And that hurts like blades. Blades sharp as knives as I shuffle in and out of prison at night. Their fire for the class. They are dancing in the dark forest, their faces flickering in the light, and already our lives have changed, leaving me speechless. When I looked over their stories last Sunday, I stumbled across a word I taught them: whilst. To the American ear whilst sounds quaint. Some British and Canadian speakers think it sounds literary or old-fashioned, but many British speakers prefer it to while. We play with words. Life is not a digital dream. It’s a dust-bowl drought. Dare to see. Dare to dream of how things could be. Here, I envision everyone with a pen and paper jotting things down like the sound of a guard’s key, scurrying about to re-learn and recondition oneself to see the world differently. I can hear a pin drop as they describe the shape of a frown. A place where intellectuals meet to sharpen ideas and shape the thinking of the day. Outside there is rising rapids. Should we be upset? Yes. I think we should all be shouting in the streets. “Don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget…us.”
There’s a small tack shed along the far side of a mountain in Utah: two windows, one door, and while it remains open – it is unused in the winter months. Fluffy marshmallows (snow) form into a large pile at the front door. A pick-up truck is nearby, also knee deep in snow, and I try to imagine the owner. Does he have a beard, long-hair, or is he clean-shaven? This is a stereotype I must remember – picturing a person by a simple scene. After all, I could be the owner, a middle-aged woman, mother of a six-year-old, wife, living in solitude – the sound of a whistle competing with the cry of a sparrow. Away from sorrow, joy, recognizing my shadow against the snow, and when the sun appears I see only the outline of footsteps. Those passing through on I-80 would stop in to say “Hi” and come see me in the tack shed. What happens when you try to create a life by looking through someone else’s window?
My mind clung to some hearty laughs and stories shared on the inside. I spent New Year’s Eve with my student inmates inside prison, amid snow, desolate gray roads, sky alive with sinister clouds, no wonderful sunset, moving in silence, hit by the smell of a poorly ventilated basement, only a sliver of orange glow coming from a distant farmhouse on Moon Road, passing my favorite female guard after a full-body pat down, her raspy voice, tired blue eyes. Talented, creative, smart people do terrible things. At the base level, that is what is insoluble. But there’s much in life I can’t figure out. Last Sunday one of the guards called me on the prison phone to tell me my guys couldn’t “walk” yet because another group of inmates was outside. She asked that I tell them to sit down. “Please sit down,” I said politely as they gathered to leave. “Sit down!” I said. They did right away. Then I laughed. I always seem to laugh at inopportune times. I am exposed to depths, suffering, hidden opportunities for achievement, during what others would describe as bleakness. It’s surprising that in those depths we find only human qualities, exposing vulnerabilities. I’m thankful for each moment on the inside.
Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, I still have a difficult time tying my shoes. It started in adulthood; not when I played soccer in elementary school, nor when I ran the 100-meter dash in high school. My shoes come untied when walking through streets in third world countries, running through cul-de-sacs in suburbs, passing construction workers, kids running, their shoes tied, a boombox of disruption coming from cars, and the strum of a guitar out a window as I stroll by – shoes untied.
Doing some purposeful research, instead of finger-pointing to the latest trend or fad, the University of California at Berkeley has discovered how and why your shoelaces come untied by themselves. The answer, the study suggests, is twofold: stomping and whipping forces acts like an invisible hand, loosening the knot and then tugging on the free ends of your laces until the whole thing unravels. I still needed a better understanding of knot mechanics.
Researchers also found that a shoelace knot unties like this: When running, your foot strikes the ground at seven times the force of gravity. The knot stretches and then relaxes in response to that force and the knot loosens.
I could run a nail file on my shoe laces. I already double-knot my shoes like my six-year-old.
I must be a hard-walker. A complex walker. That explains another question I’ve had on why I must purchase new shoes each winter. It boils down to this: I do not take my time to tie my shoes.