No One Puts Baby in the Corner

It’s true. In loss there is gain. Closing down 4th Street Studio freed up a bookcase for my writing shed, where the floor had started to serve double duty as a place to stack books.

I put the bookcase in the southeast corner of the shed, and then pondered which books would find a home there. I had thought about putting books by women writers in one place. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to fully execute that plan.

So, I culled through my books, selected those written by women, and placed them in the new bookcase. They filled three shelves.

I stood by the door and gazed over my rediscovered floor. I looked at the bookcase that covers the back wall, the one that faces me as I enter my writing shed. I looked to the southeast corner, pleased that I had executed my plan to have women writers in one place.

I turned, opened the door, stepped into my garden, and closed the door behind me. With the click of the latch, I realized I had put women writers in the corner.

Thanksgiving, 1960. I was eleven, so was my cousin Patty. We had dinner at her house, the only child of my Aunt Lucille, my mother’s older sister. Our two families lived in the same town.

Patty and I had been gleeful before dinner because it was my brothers’ week to do the dishes. There were two of them, one to wash and one to dry. That’s how we did it at my house. One of us always had the week off. These were the days before we had dishwashers.

It was as we were finishing the last bites of whipping-cream-laden pumpkin pie that the sword fell on us. My aunt told my brothers to go out and play, brought Patty and me into the kitchen and ordered us to do the dishes.

“This is what a woman’s lot in life is,” she said as the piles of dishes, glasses, greasy pans, serving platters, bowls, silverware, and cooking utensils loomed over us. “Get used to it.”

My brothers went out to play, my parents and aunt and uncle moved to the living room where they sipped cocktails, and Patty and I sat at the kitchen table, arms folded, furious with a ferocity that our eleven-year old bodies could barely contain.

I don’t remember doing the dishes. But I have a visceral memory of those moments Patty and I sat with the ferocity of our folded arms — it was my first experience with impotent rage.

The message had been dutifully delivered to me by my aunt: domestic life was a drudgery to which women were chained by divine decree. To step outside it was to betray the sacrifice generations of women in my family had made: the nourishment of their spirits.

My aunt’s resentment for her sacrifice came across loud and clear. If giving up the nourishment of her spirit was good enough for her, then by god, it was good enough for my cousin and me. Impotent rage was what defined us as women – it was the tie that bound us together.

I think I was in my thirties before I discovered the joy of creating a home, cooking a dinner, sharing it with guests. I even have come to learn there is pleasure in cleaning up after a meal – learned that it can be the period at the end of a well-written sentence.

What has been more of a learning curve to me is feeling entitled to nourishing my spirit.  Writing, for me, comes from my spirit – that animating energy that allows me to experience my life in this unique human body called Karen Hogan. It is that spirit, that animating energy, that leaves when we die, so to not nourish it is to – well, I think it’s a sin to not nourish it.

When I first saw Dirty Dancing, I was a little embarrassed when Patrick Swayze confronts Jennifer Grey’s father (the wonderful Jerry Orbach), tells him, “No one puts Baby in the corner,” then leads her to the stage where they dance a dance that revels in the joy of bodies moving to music.

I wasn’t embarrassed the last time I watched it, just a few months ago. This time, I saw that when Swayze approached her, she really was sitting in a corner as music swelled around her. The corner left her no room to move to the music, and moving to the music had awakened her spirit. It had been her coming of age as a woman.

After leaving my writing shed that afternoon, I argued with myself about whether it really mattered that I had put my women writers in the corner. It was just a place in my writing shed I tried to convince myself.

It was not a night of restful sleep. I would say that it pretty much fit the description of fitful sleep. It was near dawn when I realized, it really did matter when women writers are put in the corner.

The next morning I returned to the shed and rearranged my books. The books by women writers now face me as I enter. The energy in the room feels clean and light.

The article in which The New York Times announced that Jennifer Eagan had won the Pulitzer Prize also noted that Jonathan Frazen had not won it. The photo accompanying the article was of Jonathan Frazen, not Jennifer Eagan.

It’s time to stop putting women writers in the corner.

The Train Passing Through

I think it is in the film Black Stallion that a character in a voiceover says that Picasso didn’t paint the horse — he painted the memory of the horse. He says that as the underwater camera captures the image of the black stallion being lifted out of the water — the image of the horse becoming increasingly distorted as the camera stays still with the horse rising above the surface until it resembles a horse Picasso would paint.

That’s what the sound of the train passing in the distance is to me — the memory of the sound. It seems elegiac to me, a mournful horn surrounded by air being purposefully pushed aside because the thing pushing it has a destination in mind.

I didn’t realize I had forgotten the sound until I returned to Livermore, the town in which I spent my pre-teen and teen years, where I hear it late on summer nights when the windows are open. Or, unexpectedly as I walk through the Arroyo. Or, sometimes in the early morning before anyone else rises. Each time, the sound jogs my memory of it, as if I had forgotten it.

I had also lived in Southern California, Oklahoma City, Saudi Arabia, and Chico. But, Livermore is the closest thing I have to a hometown. Each move to Livermore was a traumatic uprooting from the place I lived before. The best and worst things in my life have happened in Livermore. Perhaps that is why I think of it as my hometown. I think that might be why I had to return to it — so I could understand something about the mix of best and worst.

I had been gone for 34 years, since I graduated from high school. Over that time I had wrestled with, worked on, and dealt with memories that haunted me. I thought I had exorcised all the ghosts.

I was not prepared for what it was like to return to the place where memories took root. I read through a journal recently where I wrote that the memories had stirred a raging out-of-control forest fire in me. But on reflection, I think it was more of a burn that nature makes — a lightning-struck fire that burns away the underbrush to clear the way for new growth.

We moved back here barely two months after that Tuesday in September 2001 — 9/11. My parents are both gone now, as are Tom’s. That coupled with 9/11 has made the world seem very different to me now. The loss of innocence has not made me cynical so much as it has taught me how to take the bitter with the sweet.

I think that the innocence I lost was really the last vestiges of a child-like trust that I had held onto because it was too painful to let go of. I wanted someone to save me from my life experience, and holding on to the trust was holding onto hope that the past could have been different.

What I found by losing that innocence was my life. My story.

My high school English teacher, Ed Brush (he is one of those I lost shortly after I moved back here), used to talk about the macrocosm and microcosm in Shakespeare’s history plays — about how one reflected the other. I’m wondering if my microcosm of growing up so I could embrace experience is happening in the macrocosm as well.

At least in the debate in this country, it seems to me the forces pulling in opposite directions are one that insists we are innocent and need to retreat, while the other is experience — an even more insistent force that says we need to expand our understanding of the universe so we can embrace how small our world has become.

I have tried pulling back from what passes for news and journalism. These media are no longer trying to find the story that connects us as humans, but the element of a story and presenting it as the story.

I’m a news and political junkie, so this isn’t easy. I want our system to work. I believe that the idea of America, recognition that our right to our lives is our birthright, can let collective stories unfold into one that contains them all.

But, I don’t hear that now. I don’t hear anyone leading us out of this wilderness of change. Perhaps we need to do it as individuals working together right now. Nikos Kazantszkis wrote in his memoir Report to Greco that when he returned from Mt. Athos, he understood that Jesus was wandering alone and hungry in the wilderness and it was mankind’s turn to save him.

Time for us to embrace compassion for being human and extend that compassion to ourselves as well as the world at large.

I think embracing my experience let compassion through for me. I think it allowed me to forgive myself for being a victim, and to see that I had also been a victimizer, and forgive myself for that.

I have come to feel at home here in my hometown. The sound of the train reminds me that life is happening here, while moving onto somewhere else at the same time.

The sound of the elegiac horn surrounded by air being pushed aside by a moving force reminds me that the train passing through carries away baggage lost and found.

Throwing My Heart Over the Fence

Horseback riders who jump the Grand Prix fences of terrifying heights talk of ‘throwing their heart’ over the fence so their horse jumps after it. We must do the same.”

Julia Cameron in Walking in This World

I made a very conscious choice to remain silent during the month of May. That is I decided not to write for public consumption.

I spent the month of April closing the studio in which I had hosted a monthly literary salon for over seven years. I locked the door, delivered the key to the landlord, and soaked in a bath to soothe muscles that were tired and sore from packing, lifting, and carrying.

I was relieved to have the completed the task, surprised at how easily I had been able to dispose of “stuff” I had accumulated. I think it’s called letting go.

What followed was a weeklong journey wrestling with doubt. I had dubbed the studio Livermore’s  Literary Arts Center, with the belief that if you build it – it will be. I mean how cool to have a literary arts center in a town?

I wondered – had I failed? Or more, was I a failure?

And then I faced the great looming prospect of life without a center in which writers could congregate, read their work, listen to other writers read, and communicate in the language familiar to those who take the leap into believing that they have something to say and want to say it well.

I was also sad. Sad because even though I had built it, it had not come to be. It did not seem to take root. I explored starting a nonprofit, but came to realize fairly quickly, that I had just run out of steam. I needed to focus on income – inviting money to come in for my own personal safety and security – and just didn’t have the wherewithal to create a nonprofit, find a new place for the center, bring in income, and do my own writing.

Closing the studio brought chaos to my home. We turned our guest room into our office; I added books to my writing shed; we stored furniture destined for a garage sale into our library; and put boxes into a garage that was already overflowing with stuff.

I freaked out, fretted, and generally consternated. At some rational point, I consulted my inner adult, who told me that I needed to get my domestic house in order first, and then determine whether freaking out, fretting, and consternating was productive.

We spent the month of May deciding where to put things – and then putting them there. In some cases that meant putting things that had been there, somewhere else until we could decide where to put them. We cleaned an embarrassing (I mean really embarrassing) wealth of dust that had accumulated throughout the house. I created chaos in my writing shed and then cleared it up. And, perhaps most satisfying, we cleaned out the garage. We opened boxes that had sat unopened for ten years and realized, we didn’t need what was in them. We pulled up the gnarly carpet that had been gathering dust and other crap for thirty years.

I came to appreciate the beauty of handy haulers, small dumpsters that for some reason I wanted to call tater tots.

Yesterday, I finished. I emptied the last of the boxes of office supplies, and then went to see the film, Everything Must Go. Good choice, though I didn’t even put two and two together until I just wrote that I went to see that particular movie.

Earlier last week, as I saw the end of May looming, I did some freaking out, fretting, and consternating. What, I wondered would I do without a literary arts center?

“Maybe what you need to do,” my friend Mary Ann suggested, “is to be alone with your writing.” We’ve been friends for over 50 years; you don’t take lightly a suggestion from someone who has known you for that many years.

I had told myself to just take a break from writing until June 1st. Today is June 1st.

And so, here I am writing.

My home is more welcoming to me than it ever has been. My writing shed, more than ever, provides a shelter in which I can write.

The things I freaked out about, fretted over, and consternated about have not gone away. We seem to be living in a time where young, foolish men seem to believe that adopting Ayn Rand’s philosophy is both courageous and a commitment to reality. Simple minds with simple answers to the complexity of being alive.

I am the unofficial godmother to a seven-year old girl with autism. Once a week, she rode horses at an adaptive riding center.  She spoke her first words while riding a horse. Other programs at this adaptive riding center pair wounded veterans, including those suffering from PTSD, with horses.

The horses at this center are big hearted – they seem to have the patience and wisdom to carry heart-wounded humans to moments of peace and healing: two sentient beings connecting on the field of what it means to be alive.

I’m not so much afraid of horses as I am in awe of them. I have ridden a horse exactly once, and was overwhelmed with its power. But I am drawn to horses – to the life force they embody.

Yesterday, I found the quote about riders  “’throwing their heart’ over the fence so their horse jumps after it.”

So that’s what I’m doing today, June 1st, after two months of cleaning and clearing and letting go.

I’m throwing my heart over the fence so that my life force jumps after it.