For years, I could see the Indian Peaks from the deck of the little cabin. My life was oriented east-west. The sun rose at my back and set in front of me. And the mountains to the west—always the west along the Front Range of […]
Mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves, and when the archangel comes, they throw he cigarettes away: that’s when you get shooting stars.
I spent late Christmas day and the next morning with Lucia Berlin. Greg made a present of her recently published memoir, Welcome Home, and I picked it up immediately. As I read the book not once but twice, Lucia’s voice came back to me–earthy and rich, but delicate, pure, plainly beautiful, like the thinnest of glass. In the passages describing the places on the map of her peripatetic childhood, especially the dark list “The Trouble With All the Houses I’ve Lived In,” what I heard was Lucia’s wicked laugh, a deep bubbling sound that could be described only as naughty.
Reading Lucia was fraught. I missed her, of course. And I wanted a do-over. I didn’t have much contact with her at the end, convinced that she never really liked me much or my writing, even though she’d directed my thesis and been a favorite dinner guest. She’d read my palm and my cards dozens of times, and we used to share a forbidden smoke—she a cigarette and me a clove—back when she was on oxygen and had to turn off her machine, so we could light up. The pleasure was not in the smoking but in the transgression. Then we’d gossip and tell stories and laugh and laugh.
In the years of our friendship, I wouldn’t hold onto these moments as much as I’d hold on to the pointed things she said to me: Once it was “This isn’t a story,” when I handed her a piece that had been published and later placed in a fiction contest. “Well, there you go,” she said, shrugging. It was true that I was pursuing poetry at the time and not calling myself a fiction writer, but I thought inexplicably, Shouldn’t she love everything I did? Another time it was “What did you expect?” when I complained loudly about a cleaning job I’d taken because I’d desperately needed the money only to spend so many hours on it that my pay was minuscule and then, the client, a friend of a friend, complained I’d done a shitty job. “Never work for people you know,” she said. Now it seems like good advice, but back then, I was stung that she didn’t share my outrage. I know Lucia had been poor like me in her life and I expected her to sympathize with my rock and a hard place plight.
But Lucia never indulged such things. Life was hard and lonely and brutal, and you just got on with it. If you were lucky, you could tell a story that made others laugh, not in a slapstick kind of way but in the “Death is often the point of life’s joke” way of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. At the time, I pretended to be so tough, nothing touched me. But Lucia could.
The last time I saw her, she’d moved to a tiny trailer in Boulder and had to give up her beloved white cat, Cosmo, because the park didn’t allow outside pets. I was on my way to grad school again—this time a PhD in fiction and I was saying goodbye. I had Elvis in tow, a dog I’d had difficulty naming until Lucia said, “Wait for him to smile when you call him, like the Eskimos do with babies, then you will know that’s his name.” I’d spent the day in her yard on Mapleton Hill calling the dog, “Loki” and “Sailor” and “Levi.” Weeks later, I hit on Elvis when I was listening to The Sun Sessions in my Gold Hill house, the dog dancing around with me as I crooned along to Elvis’ freakish rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Visiting Lucia in the trailer park was sad; it was depressing to see her there in such a small, inelegant place. She couldn’t afford Boulder rents, even on her teaching salary, and her health was in decline. Still, we smoked, and Lucia read my cards and then she handed me a beautiful wood Missoni bowl, a possession of hers I’d long admired, along with a note: “For your Wisconsin dinner parties, darling. Love, L”
Lucia was no saint, but now I see that I let the belief that I was unlovable get in the way of understanding that Lucia actually saw me. She encouraged me through all those long conversations—gossip and lunches, cigarettes and breakfast–to mine the pit fires of my own life for stories. You can do better, she was saying. She was trying to tell me to be more true with my work at a time when I wanted to be anything but myself. I wish I could go back and say, “Thank you.” I wish we could talk about “looking for home” –the current that runs through both of our lives–a revelation that struck me for the first time as I read her memoir. I wish I could say “I know how hard it’s been for you, too.”
I first fell in love with Lucia when I heard her read “Melina.” The story is about a lonely wife who meets a her “first beatnik,” Beau, and their friendship revolves around stories about a bohemian woman named Melina who “covered all the rooms in the apartment with fabric” and transformed them with exotic canopies. The stories of Melina enchant the narrator, and her conversations with Beau bring light and revelation to the routine of her life. When Beau leaves, she says,
“I was sorry…. He was like an angel in my life…When he was gone I realized how little Rex [her husband] ever talked to me…I felt so lonely I even thought about turning our rooms into tents.”
“Aw” I cried out loud when Lucia read the last line. And the room of faculty members and earnest grad students erupted in laughter. But it didn’t matter, I had fallen under the same spell of story. I’d been transported too.
I think we can’t help but have fraught relationships with our mentors. We expect so much—unconditional love and praise, all the right advice, and of course divinity. In my case, I was also seeking mothering. It is as natural as it is ridiculous that we expect so much. I was too busy with whether Lucia loved me to see what she was teaching me. What she taught me. And it’s taken me all these years to put it into place in the story I tell about my life.
I recently ran into an ex-student. I am embarrassed to say I would not have recognized him if he hadn’t introduced himself. “I want to shake your hand,” he said, “you changed my life.” I asked his name and he referenced a story he’d written and still the memory was vague. He was so happy to see me. “Thank you, thank you,” he said.
In the same way, on this first day of the new year, I’m lighting a candle in thanks for all the dirty, rambunctious, naughty moments I shared with Lucia while I imagine her like Nabokov’s Margot, “supine, smoking lustily,” in the dark of the afterlife and laughing and laughing.
A reader recently called Rough Beauty—a fairy tale. She was not being kind. At first I laughed. Anyone who knows me knows I am no princess; not once have I been a damsel in distress. The course of my life has been a dirty mess, traversing the scarred landscape of family and fire, the misery of isolation and working too much for too little. I could go on, but you get the picture.
And yet, I’ve had the kind of year that you get in story books: I published my first book to critical acclaim and I bought my very first house—a real beauty on an acre and a half of land where I wake every morning to a tree-house view of the forest through French doors in the bedroom. That I never thought either event was possible makes 2018 sparkle with fairy dust. And I recently agreed to marry Greg in the 7th year of our courtship. This small thunderbolt arrived in the most unexpected way, as we were hiking a new trail near Rollins Pass, and for the third time this year, my landscape shifted. I can’t decide if the fact that these firsts have come now—when I am in my fifth decade—makes the tale more saccharine or sweet, but it does write the not so traditional nature of my life large.
Lately, I’ve been mindful of the late summer blooms, counting every sip of color, each delicate petal—savoring the last of the season. And so it is as I watch the course of my days, as I seem to be coming into the kinds of things we call milestones rather belatedly. I recently read Rick Bass’ memoir The Traveling Feast in which the writer, now sixty and ending his long marriage, wonders how many more books he might be able to write, and, I think, if he will ever love again. Does he have either in him? is the subtext of what is a beautiful but mournful book. My trajectory is almost the opposite of Bass’, a writer whose first publication came early and in The Paris Review, whose champions were Gordon Lish and George Plimpton. Just like the aster, which doesn’t imagine itself tardy to the riot of summer; growing instead according to its own sense of season and instinct, I try not to be bothered by time or the question of what I’ve been doing all these years.
Clearly, mine is the tale of the late bloomer, written about most poignantly in the last lines of Sylvia Plath poem, “Poppies in October”:
Oh my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a field of frost in a dawn of cornflowers.
The circumstances of our lives are made more beautiful by context and timing. Here, Plath finds the astonishing—made even more so—out of season and surrounded by death. That my life has burst forth with so much now is a kind of miracle. But that doesn’t make it mythic. No one’s life is easy—it only seems so from the outside looking in. What’s true is The Story is Ours. And like the poppies in Plath’s poem, it can be “a gift/a love gift” if we’re willing to see it for what it is, if we have the guts to tell the tale.
Join me for From From Memory to Memoir, a 4-week class at The Light House North beginning September 11th.
August in the mountains and I can feel summer begin to ebb. At the prairie house, I‘d be staring down the barrel of at least two more months of way-too-hot-for-me weather, while nearly 4000 feet higher this morning’s temperature registered in the upper 40s. Already […]
Like a lot of people, I’ve celebrated the 4th of July for the fun, the food, the fireworks. Not today. This year I am reveling in what for me turns out to be a profound sense of liberation and there won’t be one flag or float in sight: Back in May, the artist-lover and I bought a house (a first for both of us) and just a little over two weeks ago (in a lull between book events), we moved up out of the steaming heat of the prairie and back to the blessedly cool mountains.
I’m back at 8600 feet where I belong.
Always cash poor, I’d never thought I’d own a place of my own, so frankly, if nothing else ever happens in my life, settling in on this acre and a half in a home Greg and I may have to call The Tree House for its view through French doors of the upper half of aspens and pines will be one of my happiest and proudest moments. Not even publishing a book tops this.
I have been candid in my memoir about my tumbleweed childhood, the way my family rolled from place to place, and my deep yearning to put down roots. I’ve always wanted to be from somewhere, always wanted a place to call my own. But too often, my place shifted with seasons and jobs and school, along with the inherent instability of renting, something I’ve been doing for thirty-five years.
Putting that all behind me is like unhooking a heavy backpack after a long hike. There’s a feeling of weightlessness, relief and a cooling down, a coming to blessed rest.
Owning a house is perhaps my biggest dream, and those people who know me know what it means for me to be back in the woods, with dirt beneath my feet and a shock of stars above at night. “YOU’RE the mountain,” my friend Jim shouted, wrapping me in his huge arms, when he saw the place.
Yes, and it’s good to be home.