Friday, May 30, 2008

Each one, teach one

Katie reports she's eaten kangaroo and emu, explored Sydney's public transportation system, and discovered that a 12-pack of diet coke costs $15.

When I was in Minneapolis helping her get ready, I had a sudden flash that every minute we'd ever spent together had been leading to the one where she got on that plane. And every minute after will be leading to the one where she walks away from scattering my ashes.

Might sound morbid, but it's not.

My job, since the moment our caseworker placed that 5-week-old, little bald darling in my arms, has been to help her move away from me into her own life. The real purpose of everything I've taught her, everything we've done together, is to prepare her for life on her own.

We've built beautiful memories, my girl and I. We've had excitement and laughter, happiness and tears. We've faced down some really scary shit together. We've had crazy fun. We've learned.

On Wednesday morning, she handed me a small sewing kit and a new pair of jeans. Without a thought, I hemmed them. When I finished, I looked up and laughed. "Last pair I do for you," I said, "Next time it's your turn."

"But you always hem things for me," she said.

"Yeah, but you're going to need to do it for your kids some day. Might as well learn while I can help."

And there it was, the thing that's been my job all along: to teach her what I can, while I can, so she can pass the same things to her own children one day.

The goal of mothering is to make myself redundant. I can live with that.

So can she.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Katie is on a plane now, bound for San Francisco and then Sydney. We spent most of the past 96 hours shopping and packing, checking and rechecking her to-do and packing lists. We signed up for Skype and tested it. Watched a couple movies together. Sniped at each other once or twice.

She promised to call from San Francisco. I'll stay awake, just to say hello.

Early Tuesday morning a friend, my best friend in the world, and I went to the MN Arboretum while Katie slept. We drove the 3-mile loop to see everything, then parked the car and walked through our favorite areas. We walked along, mostly together but not always. We talked a lot, but not constantly. We noticed things, some of which we pointed out to one another.

We've seen one another in person only a small handful of times in the last three years, maybe 5 or 6, but it doesn't matter. We say hello and immediately fall into the rhythm, the deep comfort, of being with someone who knows the best and worst about you and can be trusted with the truth of your life. We don't need to live in the same city, not even in the same state, to remain in one another's hearts.

Good to remember while my girl flies halfway cross the world.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


She's almost ready, this daughter of mine. Her bags are mostly packed, her to-do lists marked off. Her nerves are frayed and her spirits dampened.

She's going to do this thing. In less than 24 hours, she'll be in an airport, alone, headed for another life on another continent. And she's scared. Can't remember why this sounded like a good idea. Wonders if there's any way to get out of it.

I'm pretty sure Katie will get on the plane tomorrow. She'll land in Sydney, Australia 22 hours later, ready to spend 6 weeks working in marketing for an international environmental agency. She'll make new friends and see new things. She'll laugh and cry, be despondent and filled with elation, by turns. I'll bet that, 6 weeks from now, coming home will feel as incomprehensible as leaving does right now.

As her mother, I'm scared for her and for myself. I'm also so proud I can barely contain myself. She'll find her way, this girl of mine. She's got good, strong wings, strong enough to carry her wherever she wants to go. And home again, thank God.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Honest-to-By-God Writin'

Bryan said he's loan me his copy of The Prince of Frogtown when I get to Minneapolis Sunday. I meant to take him up on it. I meant to wait. I did. But Bragg's words called to me, whispered from the aisles of B&N so loud, I couldn't do anything but follow them to the cash register like the cat followed the snake charmer's flute music in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons.

In my own defense, let me say that I need to own this book. For me, a Bragg book is like a how-to manual. When my own writing gets stuck or I lose the voice in my head, anything the man has written will jump start me. His people choked on cotton dust in mills, mine on coal dust in mines, but love for them and their history is a cable that transfers energy from his work to mine.

Bragg is a master of the specific, and so his stories are universal. My daddy did not drink and never got so much as a traffic ticket that I remember growing up, but Bragg's stories of his father on a chain gang rattle inside my bones until I can feel the town's eyes burn his back worse than the Alabama summer sun. When he lists the toys lost between the cushions of a sofa, my own children dance behind my eyes, playing with those same silly things. And when he writes of his fear for a boy too soft for the world he knows, my own fears bobble in my blood, tiny icebergs calving from an ancient glacier.

Anyone can describe a brother as driving like a little old lady. Bragg says of his brother's driving, "...most people who drive like him are wearing pillbox hats and pearls." Describing the last year his father lived with them, he says, "It was the year I realized TV preachers' rants on hell were all wrong, that the devil lives in Alabama, and swims in a Mason jar."

Maybe you need to have known people who drank from Mason jars to properly appreciate that sentence, but I did and I do.

Yes, I loved The Prince of Frogtown. Bragg's reporting is slightly less transparent than in previous books, but he was constructing his father's story almost entirely from the memories of others. And after a few chapters, I did scout all the way to the end, reading every one of The Boy stories before going back to read straight through. But those are minor quibbles.

When I first read All Over But the Shoutin I could no longer tell anyone I was a writer, even though that was my official job title at the time. It just didn't seem right to use the same word to describe Bragg and me. It feels different now, though. Reading The Prince of Frogtown sends me back to the stories of my own family with new eyes. It makes me promise myself to write every day, to learn more, to get better. I'll never be Rick Bragg, but I can be me, the best and bravest ways I know how.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Prince of Frogtown

Bryan e-mailed yesterday with exciting news: Rick Bragg has a new book out and B. had one in his hot little hands. Oh joy.

Later in the afternoon, B called to read me a few passages. Discovering new books is one of the great joys of our long friendship. We used to sit in coffee shops and book stores, reading aloud from time to time. Now we have to do that by phone, but it works. When I moved to Missouri, we sorted out our libraries and returned carloads of books to one another.

Oh, but I'm writing about Bragg's new book. Where was I? the part where I say Rick Bragg is one of my favorite writers and his first memoir, All Over But the Shoutin' is one of my all-time favorite books. His sentences are so lush you want to set up a tent and camp in them for the weekend. To thoroughly mix my metaphors, his words paint pictures you could hang in a museum.

Bragg's approach to memoir is the antithesis of narcissistic. He doesn't focus exclusively on his own life. In fact, he's kind of a supporting player in most stories, not present at all in many. His books are portraits of others—his mother, his grandfather and now his father—and he's a necessary part of the picture. In Prince of Frogtown,his stepson joins the rogue's gallery.

I haven't read the whole book yet, only the introduction. With a holiday weekend ahead of us, it feels like I've got a safari planned, one where I'll ride out into another life to see exotic creatures in their own habitat.

Will send word back.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Yesterday I overheard a conversation between two women with 8-year-old kids, one a boy and one a girl. The boy likes the girl, but she doesn't like him back, not as a boyfriend (!) anyway.

So, it seems another boy in their class decided he likes the girl, too. The first little boy heard the news and went to the new suitor with a warning, "Stay away from my woman or I'll kick your ass. Nobody messes with my woman."

The little girl's mother relates this story accompanied by giggles, obviously delighted that her 2nd grader is so popular with boys. The little boy's mother says, "Isn't that cute. That's something his father would say. It totally is. He's protective of me that way, too."

Cute? It's cute to threaten other kids? Cute to insist a girl belongs to you, even though she's been telling you she's not your girlfriend since kindergarten???

Later, at the salon, I had a conversation with a man whose daughter had her hair done for prom, calling to complain that his credit card had been charged twice. He was totally irate, threatening to have our credit card privileges cancelled and so forth. As he spewed, I gathered the necessary paperwork to investigate and asked several questions. I could hear his keyboard clicking as he checked his transaction list online. Trying to answer a question, he clearly discovered he was wrong. The transaction was confusing, but he had not been charged twice. There's some question whether he was charged at all.

Suddenly, he had pressing business elsewhere. When I asked for his number, he dissembled. Said he's very hard to reach and he'd call me back instead. I gave him my cell number so he could reach me directly.

He did not call back, and I'm pretty sure he never will. This guy raged on and on with his righteous self, then just dropped-it-like-it's-hot when he realized he was wrong. No apology. No acknowledgment, even. Just lots of yelling followed by silence.

I'll bet his mother thought it was cute when he threatened others, too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Just so you know, David Cook is from Blue Springs, MO. Yeah, American Idol's David Cook.

Every business in town (including our salon) has signs in the windows and on the marquees. You can't turn around without bumping into someone wearing a David Cook t-shirt.

Last night I was out and about during the show. There was hardly a soul on the streets, but the parking lots were overflowing at every bar in town. The whole town is supposed to be a party tonight.

I might be the only person in town who hasn't watched this story unfold. But even I wish him luck this evening.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Strange Inspiration

Debbie Rodriguez (Kabul Beauty School) spoke at the Literary Festival in Kansas City this weekend. Barb and I wandered into the main stage tent, not sure who she was or what she'd written. In moments, we were riveted, held fast to our seats by a mixture of fascination and skepticism.

Debbie is what is called in polite company a "strong personality." My perception, quickly formed, was that the biggest thing standing between her and obnoxious is her ability to laugh at herself. She's large (not in terms of her body but of the psychic space she requires) and loud, perfectly represented by the dyed red hair cascading down her back to her knees.

We walked away in total agreement: "That woman did not write a book on her own."

Anyone who attends readings very often can tell you that not all great writers are great—or even decent—readers. Many are terrible public speakers. Years ago, Bryan and I attended a year-long series of readings. Of the twelve incredibly strong writers who spoke, only Rebecca Wells, a trained actress, held the audience with the power of her presence. The others kept us in our seats with the power of what they had written, and some barely, at that.

So it wasn't that Debbie didn't speak well. In some odd ways, she did. But watching her mind work, listening to the way she described things, people, and situations, I did not believe that her powers of observation and description alone produced a memoir people would pay to read.

Not surprisingly, Amazon and Google revealed 1) a co-author, and 2) huge controversy. The controversy involves how much credit she takes and how much she deserves for establishing the school, whether some of the individual stories told in the book are true, and whether the book endangers the Afghan women described in its pages.

The book was a best seller and the movie rights sold for "high six figures." Things tend to fall apart when boatloads of money pull up to the dock. I have no way of knowing where the truth shakes out of all that.

But here's the thing I'm left with: Kristin Ohlson, Debbie's co-author, is a talented, multi-faceted freelance writer. She has written everything from scientific articles to essays for Salon Magazine. Plus a book of her own, Stalking the Divine. Her life has not been easy. She raised a son who has substantial neurological challenges and an NT daughter. She and her husband divorced after 22 years of marriage.

One essay that appeared in Salon, "Faith in the Baby" is as good as any I've ever read. Another from Brain, Child, "Big Words," rocked my world.

Kristin inspires the hell out of me. Reading her essays taught me huge things about writing and about living. I may not know much about the controversy surrounding Kabul Beauty School, but I can tell you this for sure: Kristin Ohlson is the real deal.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Reading Red

Went to something called LitFest in Kansas City yesterday. Tents were erected on a blocked-off street of the Plaza, tents filled with books and writers and readers. Yeah, that's the stuff.

But was it?

From the poetry stage, a red-faced man with a jumped-up Southern accent read his poems to a sparse crowd, so impressed with his own cleverness he could barely see around his ego to the page.

In the main tent, a red-haired woman described experiences that led to a best-selling memoir. Her manner of speaking left no doubt she did not write this or any other book herself. Later, Amazon reveals a credited co-author and bizarre reverberations from the living and the telling of these tales. Google reveals huge controversy wrapped in shiny marketing-department packaging, tied with the ribbon of a movie in the works.

And then, we come to the literary writers. Ah, yes. Red-eyed men and women who make words dance for their own pleasure, who seem to believe that impenetrable equals good. Their worst slams include the words "commercial" or "mainstream" or (God forbid) "popular." They hold panel discussions on "advancing beyond meta-language."

I just want to tell stories, stories that entertain people and maybe show them parts of themselves they don't usually see but recognize instantly. I want to write sentences that draw pictures, clear pictures that make sense. I want those sentences and those stories to be real and true and mine.

Today, that seems like a lot to ask.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Time Travel

Uncle Carl came to visit while Grace was here. I haven't seen him for nearly 30 years but would have known him anywhere. Like, in line for a snow cone at a national park. On the moon.

Spending the afternoon with Carl and Mom's other brother, Charles, and Grace was like stepping into custom-made clothing. Like pulling on running gloves on a cold Minnesota morning. Like. . . . Heck, come to think of it, reconnecting with family is like nothing else on earth. There's something so fundamental, so elemental, so real, something so important and true about it that everything else disappears. All that's left is blood and bone, history and future.

Somehow, talk turned to cars. Carl mentioned a Plymouth that Grace and her family once owned.

'58 Plymouth Fury. Garold Banks had a 57 and they come back home with that 58. That one they had, they only made 13 of them cars. Be worth a fortune today. Boy, that was a pretty car. Blue and white. Big old long car. Pretty.

Nearly 50 years have come and gone since Grace and Bud parked that Fury in front of Grandma's house, but Carl's eyes glaze and he sees it as clearly as he did that first day. One marriage, two daughters, no telling how many cars of his own, 10,000 beers, hundreds of thousands of miles as an over-the-road trucker. All of it falls away, and the old man hunched in a wicker chair becomes an 18-year-old boy lusting after a car.

The conversation moves on.

I remember that '49 Ford pickup Chuck bought. Had it over in front of the garage Grandpa and Milford Worley had. Let me drive it and I got it stuck in the snow in front of the garage.

Dad says,

That’s the one we went to California in, the first time. We were driving up a mountain and got into a cloud. I woke Nora up and said, "Honey, we’re driving in a cloud." She opened her eyes and said, "Oh, we’ve had our heads in the clouds for a long time."

Time doesn't exist as they tell stories of cars and clouds and nickels from a dead girl's eyes. Support hose, trifocals, blood sugar monitors and surgery scars disappear. In their places, clear eyes and new dreams.

I tried to take notes as they talked, but ended up lost in the mists of memories with them. And what a pleasure it was.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Just a Little Less Awful

Throwing up makes me sick. And I have to do it alone. A-L-O-N-E. All that tender nonsense about a guy holding your hair while you're sick. Uh, no. If I'm gonna kneel in front of a toilet, it's gonna be by myself.

Except, turns out that kneeling in front of a toilet is optional. Not to get all graphic or anything, but who needs that? Crouched in the bathroom floor, water splashing around and all. No thanks.

Spent most of Sunday night vomiting into the kitchen sink. Big target. Easy cleanup. Accessible from a standing position. Still hate to throw up, but moving the party makes it just a little less awful.

Decided that's my goal for odious things from now on: find one way to make them a little less awful. Feels like progress.

ps--feeling much better today, thank you.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Thanks and Love

To my children's birth mothers:

You are not forgotten. Wherever you are, my deepest thanks, my truest love are with you.

I pray that your lives have been blessed, that you are happy. I pray you are at peace. I pray that the gratitude I send winging into the Universe finds you somehow.

Our children are well and happy. I pray that you are, too.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Fascinating Photos

Recently came across a collection of photos from the Farm Security Administration.

Describing the photos, the curators say, "Created by a group of U.S. government photographers, the images show Americans in every part of the nation. In the early years, the project emphasized rural life and the negative impact of the Great Depression, farm mechanization, and the Dust Bowl. In later years, the photographers turned their attention to the mobilization effort for World War II. The core of the collection consists of about 164,000 black-and-white photographs."

These photos are a window into times and places most of us can't imagine. Here's one I simply love (Don't worry—no copyright restrictions):

For me, this captures something incredible about the human spirit. There's not much that's cheerful about kitchen walls insulated with layers of newspaper, but someone took a break from washing clothes on a scrub board to cut scallops into the papers above the window.

That, my friends, is hope-on-a-stick.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Grace arrived yesterday.

Mom's Aunt Grace, that is. 86. Nearly blind. Nearly deaf. Not able to walk more than a few feet at a time. She got on an airplane and flew from CA to MO. Alone.

Mom and I saw the porter wheel Grace out of the gate but didn't catch up to them until the baggage carousel. Mom touched Grace's shoulder and she beamed, sure we were there, even without seeing or hearing us. "It's wonderful to get old," she said. "People wait on you hand and foot."

Grace sees light. Macular Degeneration has robbed her of most of her sight, but nothing will ever take away her ability to see the light.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Nine Pounds of Wild Rice

Yesterday's excavations revealed 9 pounds of wild rice in unmarked tins in my pantry.

Wild rice, native to northern Minnesota, is a staple there. Soups. Casseroles. Quiche, even. After 28 years there, I came to love the stuff.

Here in Missouri, it's not so common. In fact, I have to drive 56 miles (roundtrip, to the Kansas side, where the only Whole Foods in the ENTIRE metro area is located) to get wild rice. And then it's priced like Bush-era oil. So, when I'm in Minnesota, I always buy a bag or two. Apparently, many bags disappeared into unmarked tins, unremembered.

I've been craving a favorite wild rice dish—dreamed of it the other night, even—but thought I was out and haven't had the time to make the trek to Whole Foods. I've ranted a bit about the poor quality of the grocery stores here. I've complained about living without Whole Foods or Trader Joe's or any good alternative. I've griped about how little free time I have and how much gas costs.

What I didn't do was thoroughly search the pantry. Funny how we so often have exactly what we're looking for, if only we look in the right place.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pantry Archeology

Cleaned out the pantry this morning. Excavations revealed:

1 sack of potatoes seriously past their prime
2 open boxes of elbow macaroni
3 open containers of corn meal
4 food tins waiting to be painted
5 boxes of black cherry jello
6 cans of mandarin oranges
7 candle stubs
8 empty food jars waiting for to be transformed into storage containers
9 pounds of wild rice in an unmarked tin
10 colored bottles waiting to be used in a glass mosaic

Baking staples were accounted for, of course: Crisco, flour (unbleached, whole and cake), salt (table, rock and Kosher). Brown sugar, powdered sugar, superfine and turbinado. Honey, molasses and corn syrup.

Beans, dried and canned. Black, white, pinto. Cannellini.

Rice, basmati, jasmine and plain brown. Nine treasured pounds of wild.

And tomatoes. Can we talk about the number of ways tomatoes can be preserved? Sauce, paste and puree. Diced, stewed and whole. With herbs and spices. Without salt. All present and accounted for.

More than anything else, my pantry illustrates that I have never, ever been hungry. Not truly hungry. Not for a day, probably not an hour. My mother, who lived through the Depression, stockpiles staples. She always knows what's in her pantry and feels uncomfortable without multiples. One is enough for me.

I barely give the pantry a thought most days. Hell, when I started this morning it held almost as many empty containers as full. It also held funky potatoes, a jar of peaches past expiration, and a zip-lock bag full of tortilla chips that should have been eaten or pitched long ago.

Not advocating waste, but it's a strange kind of luxury to have so much that losing a little isn't a crisis. Which brings me to familiar territory: gratitude. Many go without, but I have a pantry filled with food.

And it's clean.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Walked by the river last night. Couldn't tolerate the i-Pod for some reason. The only music I wanted surrounded me: A jet rolling barrels through the sky. A dog-tag tambourine keeping time with tiny steps. Birds singing green into the grass.

My little doggie and I watched water hurl itself over metal culverts, driving toward the sea. I became a rock in the river, my day the water streaming past. No power to stop it. No need to try. Only here. Only now.

I need to unplug more often. Listen to the river's song. And my own.