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#scintilla13: distance is a long-range filter

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I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 3 prompts, Talk about a time when you were driving and you sang in the car, all  alone. Why do you remember this song and that stretch of road? We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

(First, and importantly: When I thought of this prompt I almost rejected it or smoothed it out, took out the song request, took out the “all alone.” Maybe I should have. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive. But then I thought that if you had one of these memories, or something close enough—maybe with someone else in the car, maybe without remembering what was coming out of the speakers—you would know why I wanted to write it, and more importantly why I wanted to read your story of being on your way somewhere, simmering in dread or happy anticipation or simple enjoyment of the moment. We don’t usually talk about why we chose the prompts or where they came from, but since it’s so specific, I wanted to give it some background. Now, on with it.)

I was a hesitant driver at first, and frightened of accidents. My family had been in one when I was a kid and it had lasting repercussions. So I panicked through learning to drive, panicked through the day I got my license, and then eventually worked through the panic by driving. A lot. I had an old used Escort that I drove all over the valley and to work and into Pittsburgh, with friends and on my own. Gas was so unspeakably cheap back then. I remembered a day when my aunt Ramona picked me up and drove me across the state to stay with her family for a week in the summer (when this happened) and she told me how she just got sick of driving, that it wasn’t fun for her anymore. Instead of feeling guilt that she was in fact doing just that for hours in order to bring me to her house, I was astonished. How did anyone get sick of driving? It was the time when I felt most in control of anything.

I traded up, to a 1992 Geo Storm in Bennington Blue and put more miles on it, more and more. I commuted to college through snowstorms and sunshine, half an hour each way, and then the last year I moved to my college town and commuted to my retail job, selling shoes on commission. I loved the people I worked with even when they worked my last nerve; we were family in a way that I never found at any other job I held. I didn’t mind the drive either way. Through those years, that daily hour of solitude centered me, rebuilding any parts of me that had been rubbed raw by the day. Even today, when I stream NPR from the United States, I stream it from WPSU. That last year, the one where I wrapped up stray GenEd credits and sold nine pairs of the most expensive sneakers in the store to an entire basketball team in one record-breaking transaction, I haltingly put together my plans to leave Pennsylvania after graduation and head south. Winter was for suckers.

Problems: I had no job. English lit degrees do not prepare you for the most lucrative or in-demand careers.  I knew no one there. “Heading south” encompassed an enormous swath of the US and I wasn’t particular about where I landed. I wasn’t afraid of having to meet new people, but I was afraid that this new start would take more imagination, money, or determination than I actually possessed. I had never been tested, not yet. And I had read enough contemporary fiction to teach me that freedom and control were meant to be seized half an hour at a time behind the wheel of a car, but in the rest of life they were often illusions.

Those of you who have held retail jobs know there were certain times of year that you just can’t take days off. In the shoe business, Easter is one of them. Hundreds of white patent squeaky t-straps come in the store, destined to be scuffed as soon as they’re put on children Easter morning. A Saturday shift during the lead-up to Easter is commission gold; the shoes haven’t hung around the store long enough to be marked down and commissions are epic. If the child is old enough to wear adult sized shoes, all the better. It’s insane to ask for time off around Easter—you’re putting pressure on your coworkers, you’re missing out on the best money you’ll see until back-to-school, and you put the manager, a 28-year-old moppet of a Deadhead named Todd, in the position of having to tell you no. But I needed to spend spring break driving south and getting lost in new cities and figuring out where I wanted to spend the next part of my life. My apartment lease would be ending a week after graduation. I didn’t have time to waste. So I turned in my two weeks, selling as many tiny wingtips as I could before I left. And then there was nothing else to do but head out for the road and find a place that spoke to me.

I was petrified. Somehow—and you see this buildup, these years of traveling between places, these years where my cars brought me to places of my own choosing—I was always driving distance from a home of some kind. My jobs. My apartments. My family. My friends. Even if I felt the need to get lost until I was driving on fumes, I had a place to go when I turned off the car. I felt spoiled, coddled. Even though I knew I was hardly taking a huge risk, I had never done anything like this before.

I took that Geo to the highway and put in a mix tape. It was one that my then-mostly-ex boyfriend had made. Side B, first song. Rush, of course, always Rush.

I knew all these songs, his songs. That’s the pleasure of a mix tape, that someone else has made choice after choice for you.. Sometimes in the midst of a dizzying blast of freedom, you need someone to make a choice for you, even a small one. And there is no better song to start a roadtrip with than “Dreamline,” and there never fucking will be. 220 South to 80 East, faster, faster. We’re only at home when we’re on the run. I sang it and was no longer doing this alone.

swaddled and celebrating

Years ago, years and years, long enough that I’m over it in lots of ways, we buried my brother on a December 31. At the same time, there are lots of ways that I’m not over it. I learned the difference between being gouged by pain and being beheaded by it. I am gouged by the fact that I could not call my mother yesterday and sing her birthday song or tell her that prime number birthdays are special ones, but my head is still here and she is not and I know the difference.

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This is what you’re supposed to do after a loss. You differentiate. Eventually it becomes a story you tell from time to time, and a frame of reference, and some days it is the thing that takes you down. When you go a long time without being taken down, that’s something to celebrate.

This year, I have a tab open in my browser that counts down the days until Myron comes back, with his bag full of sanity and his way of looking at me that silently says how deeply I am seen. There is another countdown that numbers the days until I walk into our new house and let it wrap itself around me. In the meantime, I dodge the pile of boxes in my kitchen and uncork prosecco and allow the love of my friends to wrap itself around me. There was a time when this would suffocate me, but at this moment, it just feels warm.

I will be happy to see the end of 2012. I will be happy to have this manufactured fresh start dictated to me by the calendar and the rotation of the earth. I will be happy as I laugh loudly enough to hear my own echo off these walls, which are only mine for a handful more days. I will be happy when plans large and small come to fruition in this new year. And maybe this is the closest I come to prayer, to say that I will be happy and that I wish happiness for you in everything the year brings you. We’ve earned this one.

brimstone and phosphorus

When my littlest brother was in nursery school, he came home with this book about death called The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. I read it. Freddie rustles in the breezes and offers shade for picnicking old people and then October comes with the cold and wind, and everyone changes color. A kindly leaf tells Freddie that everybody dies, and at the end, even though Freddie said he was absolutely not going to die, wheeeeeeee Freddie falls and it’s as orgasmic as that saying about skidding into your grave at full throttle shouting What a Ride!

My tree has gone Freddie, all yellow and autumn-smelling and on its way to its annual nakedness. It’s a big tree, lots of leaves. Lots of raking. Next year I may not even have a tree at all to clean up after. The little girl in me who learned wrong lessons about death too early does not like autumn or falling leaves or anything that speaks of endings. The rest of me tries to talk some sense into that little girl and to be the kindly leaf. Life is change. You’re alive, still. You change, and everything changes around you. You are not the center of the storm. You are made of it and every time you breathe you stir things up some more.

I have been quiet in a lot of ways since spring, mostly because to talk of the minutiae of this life (the packing, the loneliness, the damn shoulder) feels one-note to me, and though I fail a lot, I try not to be one-note. I myself am sick of what I have to say. I wish, instead of bagging up all these leaves in environmentally sound paper leaf bags for the city to haul away, I could be piling their dry husks into an old metal barrel and tickety-boom setting them on fire. This is what I need right now, a good hot blaze instead of a slow decay.

The good news: I swear I smell it, just a hint. Mixed in with the clean chill of the air and the musty fallen leaves, overpowering the parade of pumpkin-spiced this and pumpkin-spiced that, and in concert with geese flying south: sulfur and phosphorus, a freshly struck match. Maybe it’s some kind of anticipatory hallucination, maybe it’s hope or a memory, and maybe it’s someone down the street with more balls than I have. It gives me nerve. It smells better than I can tell you.

February, 2012.

Hi again. I missed you, and I even kind of missed writing. But the break was so good for me. It was a relief to think about other things, even the ones that were winter-grumbly and sad and annoying. Mostly, though, it was a lot of reflection, a lot of optimism, a lot of looking ahead. A lot of why and attendant answers to why. Maybe not very good answers, but enough to keep things moving.

I saved about 80% of my posts from The Deep Old Desk, not including photo Fridays (which you can now find here, and which Heather and I are both still updating). When I moved them all here, they lost their tags and categories. While I read back through the posts to re-tag them (and that’s really still a work in progress), I could see the evolution in what and how I wrote here. In the beginning, the posts are very careful and rarely go below the surface; as time went on I started to go deeper in a way I hadn’t since Ye Olde Pseudonym Days. I know even this depth is nothing compared to what a lot of people manage to put down before pressing publish, but it is as close as you get to Me in a public forum.

Which brings me to now, and more wondering. It’s possible that I don’t have much more to share, because my life is neither fraught with tragedy nor filled with soul-deep meaning. I have no advice for you about anything. It’s possible that three months from now I will think the layout and the re-tagging and back-and-forth were pointless. I don’t know what belongs in this new blog. And I don’t want your pshaw about that, although I love it if your first instinct is to pshaw me. (I do. I’d probably pshaw you.)

But sometimes you buy a thing and you bring it home and wonder what the hell am I going to do with that thing? Where will I put it, where will I hang it, what goes inside?

UncleTypewriter did not know that I love hex signs when she sent me this box. (It’s not the kind of thing that comes up in conversation.) It landed in the right place. Someday I’m going to figure out exactly what belongs in it. In the meantime, it’s a joy on a little table in my bedroom, it’s happy color on gray days of ice storm after ice storm, and it’s there, just in case. Maybe that’s what this site is, too.


If you find anything weird in the next few days—comments that won’t save/show a captcha, broken links, anything that doesn’t look right on your computer, let me know on twitter or by using the contact form, okay? I refuse to believe that this whole effort went perfectly. (Maybe I should add a ‘pessimism’ tag too.)

less is more

Watch this. Watch me write for you without a single picture put in here as shorthand. It feels as cool and sweet as spring water. August Break was lovely, a break in almost every sense, but this is my milieu, and it’s good to be home just in time for September and transition.

Growing up, this time of year wasn’t quite autumn yet. September was still a month for jacketless days, when the back-to-school clothes I’d fought over were still too hot and teachers closed the classroom blinds against the heat of the afternoon. The air turned crisp in October, or maybe during the last shreds of September. But I’ve seen the weather forecast for this week, and though I can’t trust Environment Canada any farther than I trust (that bastion of reliability) Canada Post, the trees tell all the story I need. Yellow leaves, orange leaves. Empty branches already! The tree I shot back in early August is nothing but sticks and bark and chipmunk jungle gym today. I prefer the other trappings of September—monogrammed pencils and notepads (the pleasure when my name finally started showing up on those racks!), a lunchbox with its cartoon characters still intact, the launch of The Big New with all its attendant possibilities. September feels much more like a fresh start to me than January does. 

But we are human and we create fresh starts at our whim. I think animals are not aware that diets start on Mondays and weekends start on Fridays (Thursday nights in some places) and January first changes everything.

Last year for a Reverb10 prompt I wrote about things I wanted to get rid of for this year. I haven’t shed nearly as much as I wanted to. For today’s holiday Monday, we are moving rooms and furniture (again) and somehow boxes of things will once again migrate from one room to the other. I am so tired of these migrating things. They aren’t unlovely, but there are so many of them. Sunday I came across this post from Jennifer at Open Book, and she helped to strengthen my resolve:

Because, in truth, I feel these things weigh me down with a near-oppressive anchor to the past. I feel these things tethering me to moments gone by, or failures owned, until the act of looking forward - much less moving that direction - becomes difficult, and the safety of sitting in what’s already been takes on an air of false comfort.

There are all sorts of mechanisms by which we connect ourselves to our pasts. But I need the connections to be flexible, so that they bend with me. I don’t buy things the way I used to, and almost everything that comes into this house is either something that can be used up or a book. And I find that I like living this way; I never see commercials so I don’t even know what I’m missing. So not much is coming into the house, but that doesn’t mean I need to hold on to the rest that’s already here, the ponderous collections of items that I was afraid to release, in case they had meaning.

I have had enormous holes inside. Nothing I ever bought did a thing to fill them, unless you count the people that computers have brought into my life. Here is what has filled holes for me: A life with purpose. Hard work. Strong hands and love. Truth-telling, even when it’s hard. Being truly known by a another good person who wants nothing but the best for you. Good sentences and sunsets and, yes, the smell of fallen leaves while they’re being raked and bagged. Pruning a bush and polishing a mirror. My grandmother’s laugh. Love, did I say that? Of course I did. Love. Time. It may have taken me thirty-eight years, but I do know what to throw away and what to fight to keep.