Archive for the ‘Memoir/Autobiography’ Category

Carson McCullers

“But the point is that when I had enjoyed anything there was a peculiar sensation as though it was laying around loose in me. Nothing seemed to finish itself up or fit in with the other things.” — Carson McCullers, from her story A Tree A Rock A Cloud

The road I run on is beside a small municipal airport and reminds me of a small highway. For a moment looking at mown grass on the road today, I imagined my feet were touching grass on a stretch of the road ahead of me and not on the part I was running on.

On Saturday, I participated in my first race, the Sunrise Stampede in Longmont, a 2-mile/10K run walk. I ran two miles in 28 minutes and placed 287th of 468 finishers.

The race was very casual. Many families participated, running and walking through shaded streets in Longmont. This was my first race, and I didn’t know what to expect.

As a group turns a corner together, as you listen to a woman encourage her daughter or a man pace his son, you become part of the child’s response as their lives begin to finish inside you.

How difficult is it for the overweight son trying to finish the race for his father? Is the man trying to save his son or win him? As the boy looks up, does he hear something about endurance or enduring or is he trying to live his life through the eyes of another man?

Will the boy remain the person trying to lift his knees higher? Will the small girl who seemed to drift through the streets as if it were a magic mountain become a mother who will encourage her child?

You climb and fall together, knowing that one day they will remember this day on the other side of a life when they stopped in the sun for a photo beside the water table.

There are moments when I run now that I vanish. I don’t feel my lungs working or my legs pounding the pavement. I am not a tree trying to grow from the earth, I am not a rock unmovable and alone. I am a cloud, floating for a moment above the earth, able to see the part of the road I touch now and the part of the road that is ahead of me, touching all parts of the road at once.

Read Full Post »

I have heard the echo of my heels, in the cool light, in the darkness. —  Ezra Pound

A woman said to me recently she walks faster than she runs. That’s true of me too. I began running recently and plan to run part of the Bolder Boulder 10K on Memorial Day.

A neighbor who lives in these condos is a running coach. In a discussion on running, he mentioned sub-130s and sub-145s. I finally realized he meant people who can run half marathons, 13.1 miles, in less an hour and 30 minutes.

My dog Scout and I did a trial run of the Bolder Boulder race course this week. We discovered we are sub-120s. We go 6.2 miles in a little less than two hours.

The Body Wheel

Danny Dreyer, in his book Chi Running, reminds us to maintain correct posture as we run, to align the ear, shoulder, hip and ankle as we take each step and to visualize our feet as if we were turning pedals on a bike. That requires lifting the heels.

I don’t have a wheel. I barely lift each foot from the ground, but when I see pros running in town, their knees do follow a circular pattern. Dreyer illustrates ideal running technique with photos of children. They have perfect alignment, lean, heel lift, arm swing, cadence and stride.

We lose ease in running as we become adults because it takes more effort. We no longer run with smiles on our faces. As children much of what we do is perfect because we’re not fighting something in ourselves that wants to get it right.

700 Breaths

I am only a few weeks into this and can run about a mile. Today I took about 700 breaths during my run.

Sakyong Mipham suggests we count our breaths to take our minds off discomfort in our bodies. In his book Running With The Mind of Meditation, he compares running to forms of meditation that direct you to calm down the mind by focusing on the breath.

Today, as I finished my run I found cottonwood and maple seeds on the ground. I collected cottonwood seeds as a child, wondering if they were like cotton in the fields of Tennessee where I lived.

We called the wings of the maple seeds whirlybirds. Whenever I throw one into the air now, I realize how few people remember me as I was then.

I try to remember. I try to become less mechanical, less worried about technique, to become the person I was as a child when I watched the seeds drift through the trees at twilight.

Even as a beginner, I realize that something about that has more to do with running than trying to be technically perfect or finishing a race.

Read Full Post »

Somewhere in my house now a metronome beats 120 beats per minute in 4/4 time. It runs continuously and can’t be turned off, only muted. That’s how it’s designed.

I purchased the metronome when I started playing classical guitar recently. My life is now measured with a rhythm I can’t hear but only know is there, steadily beating on with accented and unaccented notes.

I suppose clocks tick away that way too, but they aren’t designed with music in mind.

When you walk through the front door of my house, the music stand is the first thing you see. If the Chinese system of Feng Shui is correct and our houses are set up along a compass of energy, the energy in my house passes only two things as it flows from my front to my back door: the music on my music stand and the paintings in my back room. Perhaps somewhere along the way I should post some poems as well.

Unlike poetry and painting, music is more standardized. The right hand notes of guitar music are plucked in a certain PIMA pattern, and the left hand presses particular frets. The musical notes and rhythm remain the same, and it is all counted with a metronome.

I am recently unemployed, and music is one of the only things in my life that arrives each day in a predictable manner. Maybe that’s true for everyone. We rise in the morning not knowing what a day may hold. Our bodies change, friends, jobs, finances, homes. It can all change in an instant.

But somewhere for me music is waiting on a music stand. It helps calm down the rattle and chatter in my mind and a general feeling of being disconcerted.

No concert yet, just the warming up of strings, flutes, oboes, horns and distant drums. They clash together, not yet forming music or melody.

And the metronome beats on.

Read Full Post »

The last few days I’ve questioned the value of freedom. What if it meant giving up the woman I wanted to spend my life with.

I had a Romanian student last semester who lived under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu before he was executed in 1989. She said, “It was a diseased society, where the inmates had taken over the asylum. Neighbors were encouraged to spy and report each other. So were children about their parents.”

Growing up in that country, she realizes the value of freedom in ways some don’t in the U.S.

Perhaps something in our childhoods keeps us from moving beyond the dark part of ourselves that wants to sell our freedom short. The voice must be the same, we say, the voice of the person I come from must be the same voice of the person I become. My future rises out of my past, and I cannot empty myself of it.

I will be something else one day, but not now, not now. I must be the same thing I was born into, the empty room where I had no name and waited in corners for morning to come so that I could open the door and leave the room again.

Somewhere the lost tribes of the earth keep walking. Somewhere the lost tribes of our world live alone and die and wait to be born into a freedom they can only watch others have. What things, they ask, could I have if only I had freedom. This is the opposite of me, they say, but how can I change it.

From each of us this desire sets out in life. It is born in us and lost, and the lost tribes come. We look for them and they are gone. There is no tracing them. They have clung to promises that never come and now they have no way to recognize their dreams.

I lay in bed the last few nights wondering how I could keep my soul alive without freedom. I lay listening to people stand outside my window, wondering if they would leave or what I would do if they tried to enter my room. If they leave, will they come back, I asked myself. And if not tonight, what about tomorrow.

Even now as I write this, they are above me and beside me. They are home tonight.

I know the walls that listen. I know a place that listens and watches me walk out my door and across a parking lot and through the streets so there is no place I can walk without being seen.

This is something I thought I would always have, the freedom to stand in my own home without being heard. It’s difficult not to sit as still as possible so that no one hears me.

But tonight I type these words. Not even you tonight beyond those walls can keep me from typing, not you who stand on street corners and take photos of me from cars and ride past me on bikes.

You think you have my heart. You think you can walk beside me and fly out like birds from every bush, but even in the stillness of these rooms I grow. I grow and keep on growing. Freedom is the only image of me you can never take. It doesn’t come and go from rooms at regular hours, it doesn’t stand or sit in certain places on the street, it doesn’t open doors or close them at specific times. It lives inside me.

You have your own stories. You look around for someone else to become, but there is no one else. What we have inside is all we’ve been given. Freedom is a dream that’s born even in animal’s eyes, and there’s no use looking for it in someone else’s face.

Read Full Post »

Painting by Charlie Baird

The story’s not in what people say — it’s in what they don’t say. That’s what you listen for and write.former editor

My mother left Memphis in 1988 to be near my brother’s family in Austin. She was 60 at the time and had lived in Memphis her whole life. She wanted a new identity after my father’s death the year before.

I’ve often wondered how much money she had after she sold the house she and Dad lived in for 30 years. I do know the car she arrived in, a mid-80s Oldsmobile Cutlass, was the same car she was driving 15 years later when she died. She prayed the car would last one day longer than she did, and the night before she died my niece saw the car abandoned on the side of the road, left by whomever mom sold it to. Realizing what that meant, I rushed back to my mother’s apartment, finding the hospice nurse already there.

Mom at age 46

I see now the move my mom made to a new city at that stage in her life was a journey of faith. She left friends, neighbors and the church community she’d help create to start over again. Whenever I need to move forward to some new place in my life, either geographically or emotionally, I remember this. My mother didn’t know what words to use to encourage me along the paths I needed to take, but her endurance and perseverance remain with me.

After she moved, she lived in a duplex a few streets from my brother and sister-in-law, who had two daughters ages five and nine at the time. In some ways, it worked well. She became part of the girls’ lives, started a new job and developed new friends. But she missed the friends she’d made as a hairdresser in Memphis.

The rituals of hairdressers die hard, and these women had worked in the same shop 35 years, raised children together, helped each other through disabilities, diseases, accidents and widowhood. I don’t believe any of them divorced. This was characteristic of women in my mom’s generation but was also due to lunches the women held at each others houses.

The lunch bunch reupholstered living room furniture, painted walls, shampooed carpets, polished silver, mowed and edged lawns before the lunches began. From inside my treehouse, I could hear them giggling and clinking glasses in the house as they ate the deviled eggs, sliced cheeses and scooped honeydew and watermelon balls my mother and I prepared before they arrived.

Georgia, Dot, Oresa, Mozelle, Mary Francis, Roxie, Rosie and Helen — I’m reminded of the honeysuckle vines that grew along a fence behind our house. The smell of the ladies’ hugs remained on me for hours after they left, as mom and I carefully washed the crystal and china and slipped the silver forks, knives and spoons back into their special compartments inside the velvet box.

On Wednesdays as mom and I drove home from Oresa’s pool, still in our swimming suits and still smelling of chlorine, she was always relaxed and happier.The women took from each other what they needed to move on, my mother’s determination, Oresa’s business savvy, Mozelle’s humor, Roxie’s candor, Mary Francis’ tact, the divinity in Dot’s face and the grace in Helen’s.

I don’t know what they talked about when the children were sent away, but I do know as the women sat beneath the table umbrellas, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, they began to resemble each other. Through the bawdy jokes and tears and baskets of flowers, they’d learned to listen to each other, not only what was said but what wasn’t said and what needed to be heard in the silence. Mom never found that again after she left Memphis.

Three of the women drove to Austin to visit mom after she moved away. Standing in her driveway, they noticed fig trees overloaded with ripe figs in a neighbor’s yard. Early the next morning, they woke, slipped into the yard, stole the figs and carefully returned to my mom’s house, stifling laughter all the way. In her kitchen, they meticulously sorted the figs into four sacks and tried not to eat any. Fig preserves were a specialty among the lunch bunch — figs, a fruit that symbolize fertility and the feminine world, women both as goddess and mother.

Read Full Post »

There is no city that does not dream from its foundations. The lost lake crumbling in the hands of the brickmakers, the floor of the ravine where light lies broken with the memory of rivers.Anne Michaels

This week, I went to an all day seminar on the environment and sustainability put on by the newspaper where I work. It’s a difficult day, remembering who people are, where they work, if we’ve written articles about them and what the article said. You don’t want to forget the name of a bank president sponsoring the event.

We host one event a month at the newspaper. As print subscriptions and ad revenue decrease, we must come up with new ways to support the print media the business was founded on. We host events celebrating women, health-care workers, entrepreneurship, businesses with innovative ideas and privately owned companies growing fast.

I’ve been at the newspaper seven years and attended many of these events, not only ours but those put on by chambers of commerce, halls of fame, universities, service organizations and nonprofits. Our office job at the paper might be in editorial, production or advertising, but we have event planning duties too, from printing and stuffing name tags to organizing speakers and catering.

The events are put on to generate revenue, but in the end the round table discussions, seminars and awards ceremonies bring the community together in ways that wouldn’t happen otherwise. As leaders in bioscience, banking, health care, green business or natural products sit together at a table or mingle at an after-hours event, connections happen that make the community stronger.

Lesbian, gay,
bi-sexual or transgendered

In my other life, I attend LGBT events. The Boulder-Denver area has many lesbian groups. There are lesbian hiking clubs, mountain-bike clubs, dancing groups, pot lucks, ice-cream socials, barn dances … lesbians who bird watch and lesbians who play board games.

When I first came out in Memphis in the early 90s, my only choice was a lesbian bar full of drug dealers. The last 20 years have seen many changes in the gay and lesbian community, and I’m very grateful.

It’s my privilege to see these two parts of the city grow, the mainstream business sector and the LGBT community. What I see on both sides of that coin is the work that goes into it. Whoever organizes an event, someone must sell tickets and man registration and put up banners and booths and tables and take it all down again once everyone’s gone. It seems like the people who do the work, who come out of their insulated lives to bring it all together, feel more connected to each other and themselves and the world beyond than those who don’t.

Oat fields

One Hundred Years

It’s also my privilege to work on a history of Boulder County. As I do this, I think of what Thornton Wilder said in Our Town, “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

Families settle, begin farms, a city is platted, a bank forms, a town square, a grocery, a school, a fire department, police station, hospital and church. The city is incorporated.

Wars come along, babies are born, more houses are built, streets are paved, sidewalks are put in. Some people want paved streets and sidewalks, and some people don’t. The issue is voted on.

Manual laborers receive more rights, the city plans low-income housing and libraries and better sewer systems. Electricity brings power plants. People no longer need coal sheds or out houses in the alley out back. Technology lends a hand with phones, radios, television and the Internet.

Now the Old Town area needs renovated, business parks are formed, roads are widened and new hospitals, new police stations, new stores and new subdivisions are built. The new subdivisions have recreation centers and golf courses and parks where festivals are held to celebrate the peach orchards, oat fields and cotton plants that once lined the roads.

I think about all this as I sit on the edge of my bed each morning, I can dream too. As long as I can dream, the time and the land and the people and the things in my life will change, and the change itself is what holds me together.

Read Full Post »

This semester I asked my students to keep a timeline journal. Beginning the year they were born, they wrote in significant events in each year of their lives. Other writing assignments were designed around the timeline.

I asked them to extend the timeline out as far as they thought it went, writing in hopes and plans for the future. One student asked, “You mean you want us to continue it out to the year we think we’re going to die?” Yes, I said, not realizing the boy in the second row only had 11 more weeks.


I don’t know that I teach well. I prepare lesson plans, I lecture, I sit down as much as possible to let my students talk. I tell them what is expected in the program, how to write research papers, where to place commas and periods and capitalization. They want to capitalize every word at their age and place exclamation points behind each sentence. Lectures on tone and voice quality escape them. They just want to pass a course.

I assign creative writing exercises to help them rediscover how to put words on the page so that the gears are are turning by the time they write their research paper. The class is set up on a point system. You receive points for attendance, turning in homework assignments and turning in essays. If you receive a certain amount of points by the end of the semester, you receive an A.

It solves the age-old problem. Who deserves an A more, the person who enters class with adequate writing skills but skips lectures and doesn’t pay attention or the person who begins with inadequate writing skills but never misses class and works hard with a tutor to revise essays. That’s the A student in my opinion, but I can’t ding the kid who comes in able to write but doesn’t pay attention.

A Brick On A Wall

In one creative writing assignment, I ask my students to write about a brick on a wall. It’s a straightforward assignment but always puzzles them. “That’s it, a brick on a wall? That’s the whole assignment?” Yes, I say, write about anything that comes to mind.

John, the boy in the second row, entered class with strong writing skills. He was a sandy haired, freckled-faced, 20-year-old boy with a thick Chicago accent who had been educated in private schools. Even though he had strong writing skills, he paid attention in class, always had something insightful to add or funny to say. Much of the energy in class centered around him and his earnestness to participate. The night we discussed a student essay on Hinduism, he discussed his own interest in that religion and research he’d done, which was extensive. I was impressed by his story Flugzeug, which I posted on this blog a few days after he died. 

In the writing assignment on the brick wall, he wrote, “A brick on a wall has seen some of the greatest events in history, symbolized some of the worst, and has been around since the beginning of human civilization. The brick can be many colors, gray, yellow, clay, usually red. All in all, we’re just another brick in the wall. Drug dealers will hide a brick in a wall. A “b” in a “w” can also represent bricks in a wall, bird in a wall, beast in a way.”

In a writing assignment on success and failure, he wrote, “Since early puberty, I’ve gone through cycles of successes and failures that are all self-generated. I have the ability to achieve so much, and if I work hard I can exceed anybody’s expectations.

Conversely, I have the tendency to destroy myself and cause more harm to my success than any external factor. In sixth grade, I was almost kicked out of school, disowned by a large portion of my family and thrown into juvenile court. In seventh grade, I made high honors every quarter, was the only person from my school to go the state science fair, and changed my lifestyle.
My first semester [in college] as a freshman I had a 3.5 grade point average while taking chemistry, calculus and junior-level German. Last year, I failed two classes and almost went into drug rehab. Now, I’m back on track. I have been going to therapy to break these cycles, and I look forward to the future.”

I didn’t see the words, drug rehab when I first read this. I read the paper quickly along with 23 others and paperclipped it away on my desk. When I received the phone call from one of his friends that he’d accidentally overdosed on heroin, it took me completely by surprise.

The Timeline Journal

In the timeline journals students turned in, goals for the future included plans for jobs, family and children. The timelines extended until the students were in their seventies or eighties or only into their thirties if they couldn’t see beyond that.

The night I told them John died, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell them how he died, but I assured them it wasn’t suicide. He had shared with the class earlier in the semester when his twin brother Mark had attempted suicide, and they all wanted to know if Mark knew yet. His parents were telling the brother that same night.

In the next class, a student brought a card they could sign and give to the family. I didn’t think of that myself. I couldn’t seem to pull it together those final few classes. When they gave me the card to mail, I tucked it away in a folder and didn’t look at it again. I realize now even as I type this, I still haven’t signed it.

John had been in the hospital the week before school ended with a virus that left sores on his face and in his eyes. The virus had started in Chicago when he was visiting his family for Easter, and the doctors weren’t sure what the virus was or how contagious. They prescribed several medications and kept him in the hospital two days on IVs. His trip back to Colorado was delayed, and I had to ask him for a release before he could be admitted back into class.

The night he showed up I was in the hallway having individual conferences with students about their research papers. The damage to his face was considerable. In e-mails from the hospital, he said he felt grotesque. He turned his head away as he looked at me and reached for the door knob. I reached for the door at the same time to enter the password, and when his hand almost touched mine I jerked it away.

I couldn’t look at him then. I unlocked the door and let him into the room while I continued the conference with my student. When I entered the classroom a few minutes later, he was sitting in his usual seat, staring at the other students and not knowing what to say. I could see how awkward he felt, but I had to ask him for the doctor’s release.

In Flugzeug, he writes about a man
trying to escape East Berlin in a
homemade airplane, after receiving
a letter from his wife.

The Face

It is that face I see now, not the face of the happy boy who always had something bright to say in class, but the face of the boy turning his head to the wall as he passed me later that night, saying sorry as he passed because he had to walk by me again.

It was that face I remembered as I told my class he’d died. They sat in their desks crying, not knowing what to say and wanting me to say it for them. And I didn’t know how to respond or how to hold them when they came to me wanting to be.

In conversations with his mother later, I learned he didn’t die from a heroin overdose as his friends suspected. The drug was discovered in his dorm room but not found in his body during an autopsy. Pathologists believe his death may have been caused by damage done to his heart from epileptic seizures in childhood in combination with the virus he’d had the week before they were unable to identify. His family may never know.

Final Letter

Three days before he died, he wrote his brother Mark, “At times, when I lose hope and feel trapped, I have to keep reminding myself that I have an indispensable intellect. We both do. We are tortured souls who have hit some bumps in the road. Nevertheless, we must keep living so that one day the world can benefit from what we have. You are special in so many ways. You have an amazing sense of humor, are quick witted, and have unparalleled insight. You have to recognize that we aren’t your average joes. Grades and the legal system aside, we both have the potential to change the world. Get this shit over with, so that you can fulfill your destiny. I would be nothing without you, and I need you to be strong for me, [for our family], and all the people whose lives you have touched. I love you bro. Keep at it.”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »