dark.light.

dark.light.

The fireflies used to lead us down, single-file, through the woods. Onto the bridge. Over the lake where Kelly tried to save the fish she couldn’t bear to see die after one of the campers took to long on the release part of the catch & release policy. Past the amphitheater lit up paranormally, as if the light was coming straight out of the core of the wooden slab benches and the cross itself. Past the empty cabins that would soon be filled with campers who had found their way back by the light of the fireflies.

The sound of a firefly darkness is a thing I can’t describe with words. Maybe not with paint, either. Nor song. Maybe it takes all these things. The sound of the silence that isn’t really silence–if you listen closely, you hear the bullfrogs down by the lake and the buzz of insects you don’t want to know the names of and the shuffling of shoes through the dirt and the sniffling of someone trying to stop crying after leaving the tabernacle and the rustle of campers reaching for their new friends’ hands. But for some reason, your brain still lets the silence claim these sounds. They belong to it, they are right at home with the silence and the dark.

The dark that isn’t really dark. There are stars in the sky and that ephemeral glow of the cross that seems to come from nowhere and the reflections of it all in the lake and, of course, the fireflies. The fireflies that belong to the dark. The fireflies so small and dainty that you can only notice them when it is this dark. So dark that you swipe three or four times before you make contact with your best friend’s hand. So dark that the lake seems magical in the way it can grab onto the smallest of light and propel it back out into the world to be seen. So dark that the light is almost an offense.

Only in a dark, silent night like this, do you even notice the fireflies. Only here, as you make your way back to your empty cabin from the joyous tabernacle, do you realize how amazing the smallest contrast to your surroundings can seem. How little you actually need, to find your way back to where you’re supposed to be. How big the light can seem, once you quit being afraid of the dark.

lost.letters.

lost.letters.

Remember when people sent actual letters? On paper? They had to know how to craft sentences and piece them together in aesthetically pleasing ways. They spent all day–hell, maybe all week–stitching together their thoughts because they had to make them good. Whatever they were going to say was going to take days or even weeks to arrive at its intended target’s doorstop, and the reader would’ve been looking forward to these thoughts for a long time, and you did not want to disappoint.

And besides that, after everyone died, the letters would remain unless they were lost to fire or flood or ritual sacrifice of some kind. Even the literature of dead writers who have their works published into the annals of our history end up with said works (on which they toiled away for years and years) still end up in anthologies next to letters they wrote during their lives. They were that important, that sacred.

Letters allowed a writer to say things without interruption. The writer could craft an entire story of thoughts and feelings and summary without someone interjecting or questioning, without expecting an immediate response at all. The writer could purge her soul, thoughts, stream of consciousness onto the blessed purity of the page, knowing there would be a reprieve, a delay in response resolution. Sometimes that is all we crave, that space between the purge and the resolution.

And maybe that’s the real problem these days. When things can be sent so quickly and responses demanded just as immediately, the messages somewhat lose their meaning. Easy come, easy go. Because let’s face it, these days, no one takes the time to write letters. Everyone is in a hurry, everyone can have a thought and send it near-simultaneously to whomever they please. Just stepped in dogshit? You can tell the world about it via text or Tweet or Instagram or Facebook or Whatthefuckever. And it can all be deleted and lost in an instant. Denied. Delayed. Validated. Shunned. The options are endlessly maddening.

But, I have this friend. He has always known how much I like old things. He knew maybe I’d been born in the wrong decade, or maybe that I’d lived too many decades already. We used to go antiquing together, and talk about different time periods. Sometimes we’d go to museums and we’d just wander and stare, wander and stare, without really having to talk too much. It was like that. That kind of friendship.

And he’d bought a box of old things someone had no use for anymore. Then one day, he had no use for them, either. So he gave them to me. And in this box, were letters and letters and letters. All from the era of World War II.

“Maybe you could read them and write a story. I bet they’re really interesting,” he said.

“Did you know any of these people?”

“No. But look, don’t they just look like they’d be interesting?”

They do look interesting. But I haven’t opened any of them yet. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll be too envious of the simplicity of life before the internet. Maybe I’m afraid of the drop in my gut when I compare those letters to my own terse, unthought-out texts. Maybe I’ll be ashamed of the sloth Convenience has hammered me into. I used to have actual thoughts. I used to be able to write letters. I used to be able to sit, patiently, waiting for the thoughts and feelings to come. The ingredients for a good letter.

I used to write letters.

 

 

scary. things (part.two.)

scary. things (part.two.)

“Let’s go around and everyone say their name, where they’re from, why they’re here.”

“I’m Becca, I’m here by accident, I thought I was taking a writing class and I’m absolutely terrified to be here.” 

“Great!” 

 

It’s astonishing how quickly you get comfortable with a group of strangers when you’re all thrust into the same uncomfortable situation. The writing class I’d signed up for a month ago was cancelled due to low enrollment, and the center had called me a week prior, asking if I’d like to take another class that was at the same time on the same days, but would be improv in the morning, and writing in the afternoon. I said No the first three times the admission’s person asked. But at the last minute, right before hanging up, I’d blurted, “Wait! Okay I’ll do that one. The improv/writing one!” I figured 1.5 days of writing instruction was better than none at all. And hey, maybe I could just be late to the improv mornings, or make up some excuse to only come in the afternoon. After all, I’d already booked and paid for the hotel and train ride. I’d been looking forward to this. But there was no way in hell I was interested in doing improv.

By the time I realized, on the first day of class, that I’d been accidentally put into a third class option–the all day improv class–I’d already emotionally bonded with my five fellow hostages and couldn’t imagine starting over the next day with brand new people who hadn’t traversed my awkward dance activity with me. Hadn’t encouraged me through a round of gibberish. I’d already learned important aspects of my fellow weirdos and I didn’t feel right saying, “Um, excuse me Second City people… I think there’s been a mistake. Please put me in the other class where I’m going to have to bond with new people who already bonded with their own people.”

There was some legitimate panic. I’m not an actress. I can’t even lie very well. I was making the decision to stay in this class so far out of any comfortable activity I’d ever decided to take up, but I was terrified to do it.

One of the first things our improv teacher for the weekend told us was, “You are all going to be okay.” I’d be lying if I said I believed him when he said this. I was pretty sure that if there was such a thing as dying of embarrassment or discomfort, even if no one had died of that yet, I would be the first person in history it would happen to. Medical people for years to come would study it, the Becca Syndrome. Poor lady died in the middle of a black and green film room that was inexplicably air-conditioned in the middle of fucking winter in Chicago while trying to come up with a new, funny way to portray the sad side of a fish market. The textbooks would offer a little picture of me in the corner in black and white, looking, myself, like a dead fish too petrified to move. Medical students reading about my tragic demise would laugh to cover up their own insecurities, the worries they had about their own mortality when facing uncomfortable situations in their sought-after profession. What if an elderly person or a baby pooped on them? What if a really ill person pre-quarantine spewed blood all over their face? What if they were asked a hard question during medical rounds that they couldn’t answer or were asked to perform a procedure that, done wrong, would surely kill the patient? Would they die of Becca Syndrome?!?

Luckily, Sean, our instructor, was right and everything was okay. We all made it through the three days without any of us dying. There were two or three times I thought, this would be a good time to burst into tears, but luckily, I was able to refrain from doing that as well.

So, in the absence of a desire to move classes, and with a newfound sense of camaraderie with my classmates, I stayed. I decided to see how this all works, this improv bit. How do people get onstage and somehow, coherently create one scene together on the fly. How is this sausage link made. How do people become so comfortable with themselves onstage. Maybe you had to be born with certain criteria that I lacked and always would… but maybe there were tricks you could learn. Maybe by being here, I would learn how to let go a little. It was worth a shot, anyway.

 

 

stop.touching.

A writer friend and I have a joke (that maybe isn’t really a joke) about how, when we’re too happy, we can’t write anything worth reading. For us, there seems to be some kind of lock in our brains that is only wrenched free by pain or complicated emotions. And it’s not like we’re unique in this regard. Think of all of your favorite songs and books and stories. Sure, maybe some of them are happy. But I’d wager a guess that most of what we think of as the best in literature and music has at least a hint of sadness, loss, grief, pain.

Why does our brain hold onto pain so readily? Even in memories? My earliest memory is of baking cookies with my mother in our tiny kitchen in the first house I ever lived in. I remember her scraping the cookies off the cookie tray and setting them on the cooling rack. As she placed the last one on the rack she said, “Don’t touch that tray, it’s very hot.” I don’t remember not believing her. I don’t remember being angry at her, or wanting to prove something to her. I don’t know what the thought process in my noodle-brain was, all I know is that I reached out immediately and slapped my hand, palm-flat, right on the tray and then proceeded to scream my freaking head off.

It was a perfectly good day. I was baking cookies (I loved cookies!) with my mom, and then I went and ruined it by purposely burning the shit out of my hand after being told not to do that very thing. Just to see what it felt like, maybe. Just to see if what my mom thought of as hot would be the same thing I thought of as hot. Maybe I was unsure if we all perceived reality the same way, maybe I wanted to have a frame of reference for when my mom said something in that stern voice again in the future.

Maybe I was just an asshole kid trying to make her mom mad.

I told this story to my writer friend one day, after he explained that, sometimes the trouble I find myself in is a result of me saying things in real life that would make great lines of dialogue in stories, but probably shouldn’t be said to real people in certain situations. I try it out to see the reaction. The “writer in me” can’t help herself, God love her. She just keeps saying and doing things to see what it feels like, to evoke some sort of emotion, to be able to write again. Maybe I’ll never get over this whole, touch it just to see if it’s as hot as everyone says bit. Maybe I’ll never tire of trying on personalities and borrowing others’ emotions so that I can spin them all into sad stories.  Maybe I’m still an asshole.

 

 

get.lost.

get.lost.

I’ve written previously about my proclivity for getting lost. Unlike some people, this doesn’t cause me too much anxiety, I just factor Getting Lost Time into my commute. My friends are no longer surprised when I’m late, or have some zany story by the time I finally do reach my destination. Just a month ago, one of my friends stood outside his new apartment, calling me five minutes before I was supposed to arrive, because he knew he was going to have navigate my dumb ass around his neighborhood so I could find him.

Last night, I was driving to a gig at a venue I’d actually been to before, and still somehow, I was able to get lost out in rural Midwest America. The sky was overcast, just bruised to hell with rainclouds and a sad-looking horizon warning of shitty weather. I wasn’t in a bad mood, per se, but the sky wasn’t making me particularly jubilant, either.

Another thing not making super excited about the commute, is that many of the roads aren’t marked where I was driving. Also, halfway there,  my GPS stopped talking to me. Also, even if it hadn’t, history predicts I still would’ve missed that road I was supposed to turn on. Also, when the GPS did  start talking to me again, it kept telling me TURN RIGHT over and over again when there was not a damn road in sight for miles and I really didn’t want some farmer to shoot me for driving through his field.

So I just kept driving straight into gray skies, looking for a place to turn around.

When I did find a place to turn, I had to immediately pull over (you can do that on old country roads, because no one else is on them) because the sky that had been behind me this entire time, was insane. It felt like God had finally gotten fed up with all us wannabe artists down here and was saying, “Look, that’s cute. But I can do this better than you. Here you go, enjoy.”

It felt wrong to take a picture, like I was stealing someone else’s work. Or like there was no way in hell the picture would ever live up to the real thing, so it was sacrilegious to create this mockery out of the sky.

I mean, I did it anyway. But the pictures really don’t do it justice.

For a little while I just sat there. I’d built enough Getting Lost Time in, I wasn’t going to be late. And when I drove back the way I came, I got to watch the brilliant sky the entire way.

Maybe sometimes you get lost so you can arrive at your destination from an angle with a more appealing view.

 

do.that.

do.that.

I used to go to bars and while the band was playing, the singer singing, I’d think, “I could do that. Why aren’t I doing that? I could do that.”

And so I did that.

Today, after trying to write a freaking novel–just finish one damn novel–for the better part of the last 3.5 years, I went to a book reading by an author who had already finished her novel. In fact, she’d finished more than one novel. She was articulate and intelligent, charming and well-spoken. As she sat in her stool on the little stage, answering question after question as graciously as possible, even when one idiot in the back asked her, “Why should we learn about math? Math is stupid and we’re just here to have fun and it’s idiotic to have to learn about it?” I thought…

“I could not do this.”

Right now, my friend Emma, who lives across the pond and is my biggest writing cheerleader in the world, is reading this thinking, “BECCA YOU CAN DO THIS!” and maybe cussing at me a little bit. She was the one who saw the advertisement for this event (yes, from the UK, someone this event landed in her orbit before mine) and sent me a message, “This anywhere close to you?”

I will fully admit that part of the reason I even went to this event was out of a small amount of guilt I knew I’d feel if I didn’t go and she asked me, “So. Did you go?!?”

Also, the fact that someone across the globe saw this event, thought of me, my geography, and sent it to me was maybe something I considered a sign. Add in the fact that it was being moderated by a literary magazine I’ve been stalking (and am currently submitting stories to) and yeah, I figured maybe the universe wanted me to go.

But maybe the universe has the wrong girl. I don’t have a fellowship from some fancy school. I can’t take six months off to travel around a foreign country for “research.” I don’t have three hours a day to devote completely to my writing in a room I can consider my office. I have two kids, a full-time job, a husband, and a band (because, if you remember the first part of this… I really DID DO THAT).

Towards the end of the Q&A session, someone asked, “So how long did it take you to write this book?”

The author laughed. Said she hated this question. “It took a long time, people never like my answer. I’m slow.”

I rolled my eyes. My idea of slow is nothing like anyone else’s idea of slow.  I thought to myself, “She’s going to say it took her 18 months, or at most, 2 years, and I’m going to puke. Right here in this conference room, I’m going to puke all over myself. Or maybe I’ll just burst into tears and run out of here like a crazy person.”

She said, “It took me five years. I started a first draft, finished it with the main character being totally different. And after I finished it, I had to start all the way over and change everything.”

I bought the damn book and waited in line for her to sign it.

When I got up to her I said, “I’m really glad you said it took five years to finish this. I thought you were going to say something like two years and I was going to cry.”

She laughed. “Are you a writer?”

“Aspiring.”

“It definitely takes longer. Especially if you have other things going on?”

“Like two kids and a full-time job and a husband?”

“Yeah, like that. Who should I make this out to?”

I told her my name. She started writing.

“One of my friends took ten years to write her last book,” she said.

“Donna Tartt only writes a book a decade, I think.”

She smiled and handed me back my book. “Exactly. It takes time.”

I thanked her. Waited til I got out to the car to open it up and see what she wrote.

 

For Rebecca, 

Good luck with your novel – take your time!

Okay, okay EMMA.

Maybe I can do that.

pull.over.

Sometimes I get restless and develop an itch to drive up the river road here and just watch the Mississippi chug by. The midpoint of this trip is usually a woodshop I like to stop at before turning around and heading back home. The shop has lumber from different wood mills around the area, as well as little scraps of misshapen wood, interestingly sliced branches, reclaimed driftwood, and tree stumps you can imagine being turned into chairs or yard signs or any damn thing your heart could think up.

Also in the shop are creations other people, more talented and handy than I, have carved into intricate wall-hangings or furniture. Really magnificent pieces of art that take into consideration every knob or imperfection in a piece of wood and make those little things other people might think of as flaws, into a feature of the work. I like to wander around and look at it all. At one point I had convinced myself I could do some of it, too (much to the chagrin of my family, when I brought home a backseat full of weird-looking wood… out of which a weird-looking bug crawled and infested our house at one point).

I’m not sure what is so calming about walking around all the milled wood, the different varieties, the colors, textures, densities, and shapes. Not sure why I am so interested in seeing all the planks lined up, one after the other. Or seeing all the furniture someone else has already crafted. All I know is that, when I’m driving up the river road towards this place, I am in a hurry and I don’t slow down, I don’t stop and pull over on the side of the road, where there are many places I could pull over safely, and take pictures of the sun slicing off the water, or the bluffs baring themselves to the sky. I tell myself, “Yeah yeah, that’s great, I’ll take a picture on the way back.”

I’ll feel better on the way back. And I will slow down and pull over.

Today when I went to the wood shop I was met with a surprise: it had been cleaned out.

Not totally cleaned out. It was still there, it was still operating. But all the artwork I’d admired last fall was gone, as if its creator had quit showing it there. The back of the building, which used to seem like a labyrinth leading to a treasure hunt of furniture and that perfect scrap of artsy wood for whatever the hell it was I used to imagine I’d make, was organized and clean and held nothing but giant, tree-height planks of wood. No scraps, no cutesy signs or old chairs. Nothing.

I might be the only person in the world to be saddened by order.

I left the building, it having nothing I wanted to look at now. (Plus if I bring home anymore wood, my family will probably kill me.) Got back into my car. Drove back the way I came, fully intending to pull over somewhere and snap some pics. To slow down.

The sun was out, the weather was perfect. But there was nowhere safe to pull over on that side of the road. Sometimes life is just like that. You want to slow down and take it all in because you didn’t before, because you were anxious to get to a place you weren’t even sure would be there when you arrived. And now you can’t.

There’s nowhere to pull over.

no.roots.

no.roots.

Traditions are held up as the gold standard of society. People described as traditional often evoke images of stoic, genuine, pure people. Immune to corruption. Immune to the progression of society. Or at least, the unsavory parts of it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything wrong with any of this. I come from a long line of traditionalists. Family on all branches of my tree have shaped and molded me through traditions that I’d never trade for anything else in the world.

But there’s something seductive and freeing about the thought of having no roots, isn’t there? Something that says, “You can do whatever you want and no one will care.” It plucks free the guilt like a popcorn kernel stuck in your teeth. If you want to go on a cruise for Christmas, you can do that. If you want to bake cookies and go caroling through your neighborhood, you can do that. No one expects any certain behavior from you if you have no roots.

So I’d be lying if I said I never thought about what it would be like to not have such tethered roots, especially during the holidays. The bustle and busyness of it all, the way we’re expected to do too much with too little, the unrealistic bar to which we’re all held by others or maybe only by ourselves, can get exhausting year after year. Sometimes we need a break. Sometimes we need to say, “Yes, Tradition. We see you. But we’re going to sit this one out so we don’t hurt ourselves irreparably for what’s to come later.”

For some of us, the exhaustion builds over time. We know it’s coming. We know that it’s been years since the last breakdown and we’re due for another. We know that the memories of those who are no longer with us are too heavy this year and are bound to break our thread-bare sanity when they’re dropped, one-by-one, throughout the holiday season.

Other times the exhaustion comes out of nowhere, blindsiding us with its strength, the way it so effortlessly and viciously knocks us off-balance. We have to stop. Catch our breaths. Remember that traditions are important, but they’re not everything. Sometimes, we have to be okay with the knowledge that others are carrying the traditions on in our stead, holding the torch until we can catch up again.

And that’s okay.

Last year, for me, was a no-roots type of holiday season. Everything was wrong. I wished we could go for a cruise and never come back. I wished no one expected anything of me at all. Even this past Thanksgiving, I still felt it. That hole where tradition should be. A hole that wouldn’t be there at all if no one had started the traditions in the first place.

Then yesterday was another Christmas. And some parts of the day were missing major players. Some sections of my day would’ve been made infinitely better by a brother or cousin or nephew. Some parts of my day could’ve been cheerier or lighter. I could’ve been cheerier or lighter. I could’ve gotten more done, baked more cookies, addressed Christmas cards, made more homemade gifts, been more thoughtful and present.

But I didn’t.

Not gonna lie, I wasn’t feeling much like hitting our last stop of the Christmas Day. I was tired. I was missing people. I felt like I hadn’t done enough, hadn’t settled into tradition enough this year. I had decided that maybe this was just going to be my new normal, and that decision covered me in a sadness I thought unshakeable.

And then I got to “the hall.”

The hall for those who aren’t aware, is a VFW Hall where my mom’s side of the family meets for Christmas. It’s tradition, since I was little. I have fond memories of running around the VFW with my cousins, singing Christmas songs and opening presents. Watching my uncle balance chairs and canes and books and anything we could find on his chin. Being able to skate or bike inside. The hall was a Christmas haven for us kids. We could do anything, it seemd.

Eighty of us were there this year. I know, because my aunt makes us count off before we can eat. Tradition. There were so many of my cousins present, cousins I see only once a year. We sang the Hallelujah Chorus, something we’ve done in the past, but had neglected to do last year. At the end of the night we went through old treasures of our grandma’s, on a table marked “Grab-Bag.” Another tradition that had died out, but recently came roaring back. This year we had an entire jar of old buttons and pins on the table. My grandmother’s. We went through them all, my cousins and me–the cousins who used to skate and bike and build with me but who now have kids of their own to do these things in their stead–laughing and remarking about the significance of each of the buttons. Demanding someone take a pin that suited them even if we wanted it too. Running our fingers over the sayings that were our roots. These ideas and sayings that belonged to the head Root-Planter who helped start it all.

I read each one. And I thought, “You know what? Maybe having roots isn’t such a bad thing, after all.”

cook.book.

cook.book.

Before the invention of the internet, people had to find recipes in magazines and newspapers, on the backs of boxes and plastic wrappers and jars, in cookbooks and handwritten on recipe cards. There was no Pinterest. There was no Google. If you lost that scrap of paper your grandma had scratched her wisdom on, you were screwed forever.

Around Thanksgiving, I tried to make my mom’s pumpkin bread. But I couldn’t find the recipe, it was no doubt already packed up in a box, in preparation for our impending move. I scoured the internet, but couldn’t find anything that looked right. Finally, I settled on one that seemed close enough. But it wasn’t. Pumpkin bread was ruined. I didn’t even attempt fudge.

Tonight, we unearthed the box of recipes in our new kitchen and took our time going through some of them. Most of them were from my mom’s house, saved from the dumpster after she died. We sifted through the scraps, the thin paper and plastic ripped or carefully cut from the various media my mother relied upon for information of the domestic sort. We found handwritten recipes stuffed into books, dog-eared pages for meals she wanted to make at some point. Carefully folded pieces of paper containing my grandmother’s sweet dough concoction. All of it causing a swell of bittersweet goodness in my chest. The pumpkin bread recipe! The fudge! It was all here for me to make at Christmas, scrawled in Mom’s perfect handwriting.

And there were other recipes, too. For casseroles and pies, spicy jerk chicken and pasta salads. Fancy appetizers and tarts. Meals and desserts she lovingly sought out and saved for her family.

All I could think, as we put the books on their new shelves where we can always find them from now on, was, “My mom never made any of this shit.”

So I guess I, here from the Pinterest generation, am not so different from my mother after all.

 

the.foundation.

There’s a little street I usually run down when life affords me the opportunity to do so. I’m not sure if I run down this street because it is a reasonable path to where I want to end up, or if it’s because there are two houses on that street in which I made fond memories as a young person. But at any rate, I run down this street 2-3 times a week.

For the last year or so, on this street, there has been a giant empty lot for sale. I don’t know how much it was selling for, I’m not sure who owned the land. I just know it was for sale for a very long time.

Then suddenly, a couple weeks ago, the For Sale sign was gone. The week after, a foundation was laid. Right in the middle of all this green, sprawling grass.

A foundation.

I slowed to a walk as I passed, inspecting it. The lot is not huge, but the foundation seemed so small, so insignificant. Just this slab of concrete. I walked more slowly.

What kind of house can be built on such a small slab?

Who would buy this big lot and lay down this tiny foundation?

There isn’t even going to be a basement?!!? What kind of house will this be? 

All thoughts I had as I strolled by, staring at this new development on what I’d started to consider my street (even though I live nowhere near it). I picked up my pace and finished my run, not thinking about it again until the next week.

When I ran by this lot again and… the frame was up.

An entire frame for an entire house. It was all there, already, standing firm on this foundation. I could see where a living room could go, a bedroom. A kitchen. I could see where there was room for a bathroom and a hallway. Maybe even a pantry. Once the lines had been drawn, the frame erected, it was easy to see that this foundation had been big enough for a house all this time. I just hadn’t seen it.

Foundations can be funny like that.