rebecca

It seemed incredible to me now that I had never understood. I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. This was what I had done. I had built up false pictures in my mind and sat before them. I had never had the courage to demand the truth.
— Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
rebecca daphne du maurier

I borrowed a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier from my friend Ashley. I couldn't tell you how long I'd had the book before I finally nestled into bed with it one unseasonably warm night in December. Usually I am more selective when choosing a new book to read, but I felt considerable guilt for hoarding her copy as long as I had, and I read Jamaica Inn several years ago so knew more or less the dark, brooding text with which I was about to engage. I plucked Rebecca from my bookshelf without much fanfare, knowing only that it was not the romance novel its red satin imagery and gold, scripted lettering suggested it to be. Ashley purchased this copy (she has two) from a used bookstore conglomerate in Harbison. The cover fell slightly off the spine and there was a Snoopy stamp on the back of the jacket with the name (Laura, perhaps?) scribbled across the signature line. I wondered who this Laura was who'd once owned the book. Used books are so interesting. Why had she gotten rid of the book? Was she the one who'd traded it in? Or had she released it to someone else? Perhaps Rebecca wasn't the recipient's taste. Perhaps it had been a boy. Perhaps she had insisted it was not the book it appeared to be, just give it a chance, please, you won't regret it. Perhaps he had tried and failed and then they'd broken up and he was left with this book he still insisted was a romance novel, not knowing exactly who Daphne du Maurier was, not caring enough to find out, just wanting to be rid of it and her and this asinine idea she'd had of him as a reader. Perhaps.

But I'm getting off topic. I did, at some juncture, get around to flipping through to the first page of the novel. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again... Can I just say that the second Mrs. de Winter knows my love for whimsically poignant language? A few weeks into the book, for it took me over a month to read, I brought it onto the balcony of a mountain cabin with a glass of wine while vacationing with my parents. This was the afternoon we'd arrived, and they'd gone out to the store for salad dressing. When they returned, they found me on the balcony, and my mother lifted the book from the wooden end table where it was sitting beside my wine glass, and began to read the first page. After a few minutes, she let the cover close and set the book back down. "That's too depressing for me," she said. I looked at her. "What do you mean?" "It sounds like something happened to her husband." "Nothing's happened to her husband..." I took a sip of wine, reconsidering my words. I was not very far along at the time. "...as of yet." I placed my glass back on the table and picked up the book. "Although the narrator is very solemn, sometimes erratic. Her anxiety in narrating the story does suggest a tragic climax." "Mm." My mother doesn't talk to me very much about books. I think I come off a little precocious in my discussion. I'm not sure how to correct this or if I should. I can't help the way I talk about literature. It is much like not being able to help the shape of your nose. At least not without forced, artificial restyling, which I don't go in for.

I did not read much of Rebecca while we were away. Traveling always seems the perfect backdrop for reading, but it rarely ever is. It can't be the kind of travel where you're doing very much. You have to be reclining on the beach or waiting for your flight in the airport or once you're on the plane and you have the next two or three hours at your leisure. But when we were in the cabin I felt I should spend time with my parents and when we were in the car the roads were too serpentine for doing much of anything except looking out the window. The bed was not comfortable. There was no back support in the headboard, which was styled as a row of clunky wooden columns, and the pillows were not firm enough to withstand them, as they would sink through the spaces between the wood. I would have to lean against one of the columns for support, which was quite painful. So I waited until I returned home, back to my own bed, which wasn't all that comfortable itself due to the low-sitting headboard but was at least manageable with a stack of pillows propped against my back. Usually in my own bed, the tension will gather between my shoulders and work its way into the base of my neck. I roll my head back and forth toward my chest throughout the day to relieve those muscles strained by escape. I wonder how many of my aches are from things like gymnastics or dance and how much germinated from improper reading posture.

I'm sure its lent itself to a fair amount of soreness--partly responsible, then, for me taking up yoga several years ago. But a lot of that came from the overwhelm of depression and seeking ways to alleviate the weight it put on my body. This was shortly after college when the melancholy hit me so hard I couldn't see how I'd make it through. There were days when I thought I'd go to bed at night and disintegrate while I slept, or that I was perpetually disintegrating and that one day I'd take a step across a parking lot or grocery aisle and collapse into a pile of dust. (Haven't we all stood on a small balcony overlooking our dreary past while a Mrs. Danvers-shaped demon urged us into oblivion?) Reading was such a struggle then and I never fully recuperated. Before that I would glide effortlessly through books and now I linger in the spaces between sessions, almost as though I'm afraid of them. I don't think it's the book, though, I'm afraid of. But there is a wedge prying between us--me and what I consider to be my first love, the book. Any book. Its paper white mouth that smiles at you just before splitting it open, its covers that extend like loving arms against your hands, and all the conversations resting in-between--useful ones, hopefully. Maybe it is mere self-sabotage, the fear of becoming someone my former self doesn't recognize. Or maybe the fear stems from becoming someone my family doesn't recognize, that through literature I'll grow out of the skin they raised and into a foreign skin, one they can't understand. Alas, whoever I am cannot be helped.

Much the way the second Mrs. de Winter would argue her love for Maxim could not helped. It was as though only one path had been forged for her, though many smaller veins surrounded it. Maxim was a bruise, and instead of running from the hand that struck her she grabbed the hand and followed it back to England. We always seem so stupidly brave in the beginning. We launch ourselves into the air, not quite sure where we'll land. We want to believe in the one path and that no other way could reap the same rewards. We forget that it is by our own actions that happiness emerges and spend quite a long time sifting through the puddle of self-pity we've deposited at our feet for not knowing what we've done or how to rectify the outcome. Like this new Mrs. de Winter, we wander through our days in search of some lost item to be found and repurposed; we worry over people instead of confronting them; we become victims of our own apathetic nature. It took an entire book before Mrs. de Winter could unearth her husband's cryptic behavior. Even then he had to take the first step. But I don't think we can always count on other people's conscience to inspire them into action. We first should inspire ourselves. If we cannot do that, we will only be looking into a dreary, shapeless mirror when we are faced with opposition. And the opposing form may not even realize he's opposed. We will have personified our idea of him and dressed his physical existence in unfit robes, conversing with this fantasized caricature rather than the man himself.

Don't our delusions create such a fine tapestry of lies under which we shelter ourselves? It is rare that we should notice the mirage and smooth it clean. And yet, this is the only way to live--by burying ourselves deep within the tombs of our own mental caverns with nothing but a small ember of courage by which to find our way out. So long as we keep stepping forward our smaller, meager light will be met with a brighter exterior light, one beaming down from a separate source, one that absorbs our own glowing ember into colorful hues of enlightenment. We will find that we are still in the same place, but at least now we can see our interior and we can furnish ourselves accordingly. This I attain through reading--my soul the swelling ember, the book my exterior light.

The Immeasurable Passage of Time

Artwork by Emily Jeffords | “Cadence No. 4” | Canvas print | 10x10 | 

Artwork by Emily Jeffords | “Cadence No. 4” | Canvas print | 10x10 | 

Maybe there was still time for that,
like they said.
She tried not to worry so.

It was hard not to look out of this dirty window square at the little bird on the roof,
and watch it take flight with her dreams.
Nay, her expectations.
The life inspired by convention.

She found herself wanting things she grew afraid not to want.
Had she ever even wanted them?
See, now she couldn’t be sure.

But she could feel the steady tap of her heart against her ribcage,
like her nail-bitten finger against her father’s writing desk,
or the gilded hand of the old hall clock,

tick,

          tick,

                    ticking...

becoming a writer

By the simple means of refusing to let yourself fall into indifference and boredom, you can reach and revive for your writing every aspect of your life.
— Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer
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Why do I write? It's a necessary question for the writer to ask herself. I think there is a discord between what is happening to us and the way we experience it. I think experience itself is disorganized. Writing is how we bring order to that experience.  Am I making the argument, then, that everyone should be writers? In a way. I believe the more we write the clearer our thoughts become, and the clearer our thoughts become the better we can engage with empathy. Empathy is how we bridge the various shards that make up these disconnects. Empathy requires a kind of death to the self, so that we may peer through another's eyes. But it is common for us to go blind. It is even more common for us to go deaf. When I am drowning in my emotions, I can barely make out the sound of my own voice. I don't use it enough, for one. And that is because I am often too enthralled with self-pity to make the appropriate sacrifices.

Too many of us allow ourselves to go about wrapped in our personal problems, walking blindly through our days with our attention all given to some petty matter of no particular importance. The true neurotic may be engrossed in a problem so deeply buried in his being that he could not tell you what it is that he is contemplating, and the sign of his neurosis is his ineffectiveness in the real world. The most normal of us allow ourselves to become so insulated by habit that few things can break through our preoccupations except truly spectacular events — a catastrophe happening under our eyes, our indolent strolling blocked by a triumphal parade; it must be a matter which challenges us in spite of ourselves.

This dullness of apprehension to which we all submit spinelessly is a real danger to a writer.
— pgs. 111-112

Lately, I I've found it difficult to write. The last short story I composed I completed last summer. It took me several months. Dorothea Brande discusses an interesting idea in her book, Becoming a Writer, that I've found helpful in trying to organize a successful routine for my writing. She says, "creative writing is a function of the whole man." What she introduces in her book is the idea that humans are dual-sided creatures, artists especially, and that the only way we can hone a productive writing life is by acknowledging that we are hosting more than one character in our bodies: the unconscious and the conscious mind.

The unconscious must flow freely and richly, bringing at demand all the treasures of memory, all the emotions, incidents, scenes, intimations of character and relationship which it has stored away in its depths; the conscious mind must control, combine, and discriminate between these materials without hampering the unconscious flow. The unconscious will provide the writer with ‘types’ of all kinds...the conscious will have the task of deciding...which of them are universal enough to be useful.
— pgs. 45-46

I am not exercising any writing routine at present, but I'm brainstorming one that will hopefully provide better working conditions than what I've given myself in the past. "Brainstorming" is one way to elude the idea of procrastination, but I've been struggling with that for some time now. Before, I was precious about having absolute privacy and silence whenever I would write, but those times could only be found in the mornings, which I would often use for journaling. But I would try to fit too much activity into my mornings before leaving for work. I would get up early--before 6:00--to journal, leaving myself too exhausted to write by the time I got home later that day. I am now considering journaling after I've had my breakfast at work with lunchtime used for creative writing. I typically write these blog posts when I have downtime in the office, usually in the afternoons, so that will most likely stay the same.

If it seems, then, like I will always be writing...well, that is the general idea. I don't think we can have too many outlets or mediums for expressing our thoughts and organizing them into constructive material. I think if we do it with honesty and dedication it can only further us creatively, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, even physically. Because if I'm trying to create order out of the disorder of my mind, then I'm disengaging with fraught and utilizing process. What I mean is that I've gotten into the habit in the past of being controlled by my emotions and now I try to control them instead.

For example, I faced a private disappointment toward the end of last week, but I had been so consumed by it for so long that I was no longer willing to let the experience of my emotions dictate the way I handled myself. I decided instead to think with more nuance of what I was feeling, so that I could understand better my susceptibility to certain resulting behaviors without being tempted by them. Composure, then, would come first; emotion second. I acknowledged the normality of the experience and the various emotions it invited. I peeled back each layer to discover the foundation of my reactions until everything felt more easily digestible and I could swallow the disappointment in spite of its previous overwhelm. I've learned not to underestimate the affect a dispirited conscience can have on the body. For years I've tried to master my mind so that life's incessant blows won't hinder my ability to work. I think if I'm going to be my best self then I have to stay in contact as often as possible with the activity that most fuels it: writing.

In the long run, it is your taste and your judgment that must carry you over the pitfalls, and the sooner you educate yourself into being all things to your writing-character the better your prospects are.
— pgs. 93-94

In most instances, I can't bring reason to this disappointment. We always want to ask, "What was the point of that?" But I don't think life is supposed to be about reason. I think life is supposed to be about overcoming hardship. We are to gather what we can from it, in spite of our inability to make sense of its cosmos. My biggest mistake as a writer has been in letting these disappointments seize my resolve. I have yet to find a way through life's harder seasons without them dismantling my writing life. But it is the disappointing periods in which we learn from our own wayward behavior. Brande writes that you should "learn to hold your mind as still as your body." So for the necessity of my present and future spirit, practicing meditation may be useful. Because if I'm not writing I don't feel like I'm truly living, and that, I think, is the point--to build a life in which we feel of use, not just to others but to ourselves.

Through meditation it is possible that I can come into clearer contact with my unconscious mind. Because I'm not writing regularly I'm not sifting out the finer details of that abyss, which it remains--if I was writing, it would be more of a treasure chest. I think I always assume that the way into writing is through our conscious efforts, but Brande suggests something very different.

Now the unconscious is not, in its entirety, either below or less than the conscious mind. It includes in its scope everything which is not in the forefront of our consciousness, and has a reach as far above our average intellect as it has depths below. ...

The thing to realize is that the unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid from a higher level than that on which you ordinarily function. Any art must draw on this higher content of the unconscious as well as on the memories and emotions stored away there. A sound and gifted person is one who draws on and uses continually these resources, who lives in peace and amity with all the reaches of his being; not one who suppresses, at the cost of infinite energy and vitality, every echo from the far region.

The unconscious should not be thought of as a limbo where vague, cloudy, and amorphous notions swim hazily about. There is every reason to believe, on the contrary, that it is the great home of form; that it is quicker to see types, patterns, purposes, than our intellect can ever be. Always, it is true, you must be on the watch lest a too heady exuberance sweep you away from a straight course; always you must direct and control the excess of material which the unconscious will offer. But if you are to write well you must come to terms with the enormous and powerful part of your nature which lies behind the threshold of immediate knowledge.
— pgs. 150-151

This is why she says it's important for the writer to both engage in morning journaling and set aside a designated writing time. Through our journals, we can unearth the underlying interests of our mind and use those realizations to inform the stories we choose to write.  Our conscious mind, then, taps our unconscious one for material. We are allowed to let the erratic human experience have its way with us except for that small space of time in which we sit down to work. In those hours, we must be strict and unmerciful with ourselves. It is helpful to understand how the unconscious mind is dangerous to us here. Brande writes:

The important thing is that at the moment, on the dot of the moment, you are to be writing, and that you teach yourself that no excuse of any nature can be offered when the moment comes. ...

There is a deep inner resistance to writing which is more likely to emerge at this point than in the earlier exercise. This will begin to ‘look like business’ to the unconscious, and the unconscious does not like these rules and regulations until it is well broken in to them; it is incorrigibly lazy in its busy-ness and given to finding the easiest way of satisfying itself. It prefers to choose its own occasions and to emerge as it likes. You will find the most remarkable series of obstacles presented to you under the similitude of common sense...

But you must learn to disregard every loophole the wily unconscious points out to you. If you consistently, doggedly, refuse to be beguiled, you will have your reward. The unconscious will suddenly give in charmingly, and begin to write gracefully and well.
— pgs. 78-79

This is especially important to remember as Brande argues that "the first step to being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm." But we can only do that through practice and learning about ourselves in a way that only writing can enlighten. Brande calls this our "Debt of Honor." We must choose the hour in which we will write and then write in it at whatever cost.

Your agreement is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. If you must climb out over the heads of your friends at that hour, then be ruthless...
— pg. 77

My trouble in the past has rested in my reluctance to take myself seriously. People are quick to judge, criticize, diminish, and dishearten us for our dreams and the efforts we put forth to make those dreams reality. This is why Brande urges: "...keep still about your intentions, or you will startle your quarry." It is fine to discuss your writing at length with those who best understand you, but even still we may do better to keep that part of ourselves private in the early stages of structuring a new routine. When I was still working on a draft of this article, I wrote out my brainstormed routine before I had ever even implemented it as though it had been in practice for weeks, this being with the idea that by the time I posted this article it would have been, but of course I had to go back and edit that paragraph, since as written it would've been a lie.

I've found for this purpose it is best to be honest that my writing life is out of breath. I read this book in hopes to rejuvenate it. And certainly it has given me a lot to think about. Had it not been for this book I would not have known how to engage with myself as a writer. I would have continued on in the throws of spiritual and creative malpractice. I want to use this post to commence a record of my journey into the writing life.

lula drake

We thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well being and delight.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
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I feel as though I haven't given you an accurate verbal illustration of my personality since my first post earlier this month. It has not escaped my notice that my writing here lingers on the side of morosity, something I would like to rectify before I lose my voice entirely to an overinflated sense of self. So for that reason I'm going to take a moment to shine a brilliant, sparkling cyber light on a little wine parlour ('u' because my inner-eye is English, also because that's how they spell it there) by the name of Lula Drake.

Upon first entering Lula Drake... Nay--before one even walks through the door, standing outside amid a sharp wind, observing a pair of stately brass handles as welcoming as a gentleman suitor's strong hands above a bathroom tiled-entrance, one is aware that one is about to embark on a delightful interior odyssey of the senses.

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Unlike many of her local competitors, Lula Drake values the comfort of her guests. I mean, look at these plush oxblood chairs, look at this (probably faux-) marble coffee table, the decadent flower arrangements, the laminated menu gleaming under the intimate lighting, the candles glowing like the eyes of a newlywed society girl. And that mirror. Is it not just majestic?

The answer is yes--yes, it is.

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This is the quaint nook in which Ashley and I sat Thursday night over three glasses of wine and a sherry (she had the sherry and a fruity Chardonnay; I was brave and drank two glasses of red--one of which was described as Paul Bunyan in a miniskirt, so of course). We discussed everything from Friends to Donald Trump. Mostly because we relate EVERYTHING to Friends and I think most people in America (the world, even) are talking about Donald Trump right now, so.

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These pictures really don't do the place justice, and I never turned around to get a shot of the bar and the small seating area in the back. Ashley got a wonderful shot of the table that better illustrates the mood of the lighting than my pictures do, but I think you get the idea here. When you wine at Lula, Lula actually enjoys your company and wants you to stay, evidenced by the cozy seating, velvety jazz tunes, and so-friendly sommeliers you'd swear you hung out with them on a daily basis. And if Lula doesn't really enjoy your company or really want you to stay, she is so well-bred and refined that your oblivious country ass would never even know it.

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Basically, Lula Drake is my Mind Palace. She is also Queen of my deluded inner world and I never want to leave it. God save the Queen! God save Lula Drake! GOD. SAVE. WINE.

PS: On occasion, I am textually obnoxious.

the women's march

With growth, it is true, comes differentiation and separation, in the sense that the unity of the tree-trunk differentiates as it grows and spreads into limbs, branches and leaves. But the tree is still one, and its different and separate parts contribute to one another. The two separate worlds or the two solitudes will surely have more to give each other than when each was a meager half.
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea
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I had imagined something a little different than what I experienced at the Women's March on Saturday. Perhaps my expectations would've been better met if I lived in a bigger city. When I thought of a march, I imagined people holding a long sign out in front of them as teems of other humans crowded behind in support of the cause. I imagined more of a demonstration. This is not to criticize the Women's March on Washington at all, or the many sister marches and rallies that took place in states and countries across the world. If anything, it is more of a dig at my own city's lack of organization, the over-choreographed chanting that left our voices sounding hollow and stiff. Part of this was due to my own unfamiliarity with vocal participation (I was always poor at speaking up in school), but part of me wishes they would've worried less about the rally and allowed the people who came out to actually walk the city. Regardless, the rally did do its part in raising awareness, and at the very end, Nikki Finney read a powerful protest poem that emboldened the crowd's spirits.

One speaker whose message resonated with me during the rally was Mollie Williamson's warm-up method for youth who participate in Girls Rock Columbia, a music organization that teaches teens how to assemble songs for performance. During the rally she asked, "Who here plays guitar? Who plays drums? Who plays the keyboard?" And after everyone hollered in accordance to their instrument she asked, "But what's our most powerful instrument?" Adults and children, along with Mollie, familiar with this chant yelled, "Our voice!" Very camp-y, but very true.

The reason this stuck with me is grounded in my vocal awkwardness. It's not that I can't be loud or that I never grow impassioned by anything, but that my own youth was egregiously misspent believing that this voice of mine didn't amount to much. I grew up in the midst of a right-wing family. Their views were highly conservative and still are. They don't take well to differences of opinion and a lot of this seems to stem from a lack of interest in sincerely considering the other side. Or sides. This is why I feel it's so important to face opposition head on. My early, meager disagreements as a child met me with a lack of support for my developing ideas. Either I would grow out of them (my mother still hopes this may occur) or I would be met with harsh realities that would force a different way of thinking into my mind.

I'm not writing any of this to criticize them, but context is necessary to explain this deeply personal uncertainty that has hindered me since I was young. Which is part of the reason I felt so strained during the protest at the State House Saturday morning. I still feel as though I'm not allowed to have my own voice. I still haven't given myself permission to believe, with the unique brain I was gifted at birth, that I have a right to my own thoughts, regardless of what my family thinks. Regardless still of what my family thinks of me. And, yes, my parents criticized my choice to attend the march. I tried to have as collected of a conversation with them as possible about my reasons, but it wasn't very constructive. My father was simply uninterested in hearing about it at all, and my mother more or less questioned my comprehension skills. My father's disinterest hurt much less, but it was the idea my mother thought I must not fully understand the situation and what I was supporting that I felt the most condescended. It gave me the impression that she must think of me as a bit of an idiot who simply follows the tide of social and political trends because it's popular with my generation. But it has taken a lot of reading and lot of observing my family and a lot of observing others to get me into the mind-frame I'm in today. This is no one's fault; this is just what it means to be your own person.

And that is where the issue lies. This person I have become through my own eyes and ears is constantly accused of being misled rather than developed. As though all the work I've done--the books I've read, the words I've written, the degrees I've attained, the experience I've gathered--have been but accidents stumbling into the person I am now. As though I haven't sought every book, pained over every word, and molded myself into the person I want to become by my own design. My family doesn't know I feel this way, and sometimes I worry that my frustration with being shrugged off and unheard has made my attempts at speaking my mind sound harsh and callow. I think at some point it would benefit all of us for me to open up about the severity of my feelings, but I am going to work on not apologizing for the particular way in which I want to hone myself and my future. I have to remember that loving people is very different from obligating yourself to them. They are not always one and the same.

Love is an Oft-made Remark

Artwork by Christina Baker | "Still a Child" | Mixed media on paper | 8x8 | 2015

Artwork by Christina Baker | "Still a Child" | Mixed media on paper | 8x8 | 2015

What can we say about
l
ove? This far-flung thing, I

know not what makes it stir.
They say it is not always

like the moon, bathing the
night tide with its solemn

curtain of reflected
sun--pulled back to show just

how firm yet soft its rump.
Rather, it is like diving

headfirst into a vague,
scabrous ocean, hoping

the spray of ashen mist
does not tar our fresh-made

lungs from the want of it.

 

*2014

happy weekend

A new world hangs outside the window,
beautiful and strange.
— Alabama Shakes, "Sound and Color"
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The inauguration is today, the women's march tomorrow. And Sunday evening, after all the cleaning is done and the laundry washed, the groceries bought and the week's food prepared, I'll be sitting down with our 35th President, absorbing whatever insight and courage is to be found in service to the next four years.

Yesterday morning I was listening to Obama's final interview as President, thinking about how so many people in my workplace said they went to bed after they realized Donald Trump had captured the flag. Their voices came in waves of relief, which baffled me. How are these people relieved? How could they possibly feel safe? My cousin told me a horrific story about a girl who was groped by a Trump supporter near campus a few months ago, because she said she'd voted Hillary when he asked. His response: "You better get used to that." As if women haven't been on the defense their entire lives already.

So of course I'm marching tomorrow. Ashley and I will be heading to the State House for Columbia's sister march. If you are planning to attend in DC or elsewhere, make sure to read this guide to preparing. Also, take some time to watch Ashley Judd's Ted Talk, which gives a wonderful suggestion at the end on how to better empower other women. It's wonderfully reminiscent of Monica Lewinsky's speech on online shaming from 2015. You might also give Jonathan Kirshner's article on Trump's rise to Presidency a read, today especially. A few years ago I may have called this alarmist journalism—I'm trying to shy away from the impulse of paranoia, inherited so egregiously from my mother, while also teasing out the truth of our new reality—but today it represents the severity of the present American experience. Finally, and most especially, before the weekend is up, make yourself a cup of coffee or tea, find a quiet place to sit, and read Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from a Birmingham jail cell.

...time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

His musings on time echo heavily through the decades into our current social economy. I wanted to share this passage specifically because it is something I have struggled with in the past, not wanting to provoke the questions of critics for fear my answers would be found wanting. But it is important to provoke questions. It is even more important to answer them. Without curiosity, whether given sincerely or with dismay, we will never grasp the opportunity to stimulate the kind of change that alters hearts.

survival as a sate of mind

But by means of their suffering, he rescues those who suffer. For he gets their attention through adversity.
— Job 36:15
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I rode to Gatlinburg over the long weekend with my parents. Looking back, we didn't do all that much except drive into town and walk the street. We ended our days at Harrah's so my parents could gamble. I played a few of the slots, but by the second day I decided that gambling, or at least the slot machines, weren't all that interesting. If anything they were incredibly stressful. But my parents found some luck a few times and walked away with a few hundred more than what they started with.

As we drove you could look out the window and see marks of the fire. The trees were dressed in black ash, many of them cut down and strewn across the forest floor, branches reaching into the air like arms. There were patches of mountain where the devastation was so dramatic you could see the charred tree trunks clear across the ravine. My mother couldn't stop talking about it. Every few miles she would say, "Those boys should be punished to the fullest extent of the law" or "I wonder how long it'll take for these trails to open back up." After a while, my father would sigh and ask her if she had anything else to talk about.

We stepped into Sugarland Cellars the first day, and I convinced my parents to do a wine tasting. Well, Mom and I did the full wine tasting. My dad sipped from our glasses here and there, not being much of a wine drinker. My favorite was their Century White, akin to a Pinot Grigio. It was the driest white they offered, so I bought a bottle and the tasting glass before we left. Somehow I did not develop a taste for sweet wines, even though they were my introduction to oenology. Using "oenology" as the descriptor of my relationship with wine is probably being generous, if not slightly precocious. But it is one of my interests and I'm a precocious writer anyway.

On the second day, our last day walking downtown, we passed by a shop with mannequin trunks propped in the window. They were mostly themed with Gatlinburg and Tennesse and the Smoky Mountains, but down at the end there was one with a Rebel Flag design. The text read: "Never apologize for being right." Maybe it is because I've grown up in the south this did not altogether surprise me, nor was I very moved by it. I felt a stale texture of disgust married with learned desensitization. But that was my first instinct. My second was resolve.

The significance of this trip, though, did not ferment in the wine or appear in straight sevens, nor did it show its face through the shop windows of downtown Gatlinburg. Much of what I found rose up out of the mountains or lingered in the cabin, places where I was less distracted. I've been preoccupied by emotional excess for many, many months now. I scrub myself clean only to push the dirt around. I think cleanliness is mere delusion. But I am sticky with discomfort. The last year has been a test of spirit, and I don't even believe it's the worst to come. I think there will always be things in our way, testing our durability. It's made me realize that survival isn't something that you do. Survival is a state of mind.

happy weekend

I swear it is true
the past isn’t dead
it’s alive, it is happening
in the back of my head.
— Agnes Obel, "It’s Happening Again” from Citizen of Glass
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Chimney Rock , NC // December 2016

Chimney Rock , NC // December 2016

Hello, friends.

Is it just me or has this felt like a long week? I've had so much on my mind I don't even know where to begin untangling this knot into sense-making thoughts. I've been waking in the middle of vivid dreams I've forgotten by breakfast for the past few weeks. The interrupted rest caused a migraine Wednesday night.

But that may have also stemmed from anxiety over Obama's final address. And in the midst of oncoming change, I've noticed a deeper struggle with managing my emotions. I had a particularly foul morning Tuesday before finally making myself a cup of red chai that magically revitalized my brain. I use an adorable coffee cup printed with first lines of famous novels, given to me by my cousin, for such occasions at work. At home, though, I've been sipping peppermint tea from these minimalist literary mugs my friend, Ashley, gave me for Christmas. (Their tea towels in the same prints are on my NEED list!)

I've also been taking solace in LA-based photographer, Bonnie Tsang's, business advice Instagram series, these delightful illustrations that pop up on Cup of Jo each Friday, this repost of Maria Popova's On Being interview from 2015, Agnes Obel’s fall album, Citizen of Glass, which somehow bypassed my notice for three months (I can’t shake the hauntingly honest beauty of "It’s Happening Again"), and this unearthed offering of emotional relief written by Paulo Coehlo.

And have you heard about this Anti-aGin gin? I laugh-cried. Also of copious humor is this imaginative painting of young George Washington. (Would you totally swoon if he hit on you? I mean, he does pull off the man bun better than any flesh-and-blood male I've ever seen...)

This weekend, I'm traveling to the Smoky Mountains with my family for an extended holiday. The cabin we're staying in has gorgeous views, so I of course can't wait to snap some pictures upon arrival and clog everyone's Instagram feeds. This will make the third month in a row I've taken an out-of-state trip—from Savannah to Asheville and now on to Gatlinburg (I tried to convince my family of Nashville, but they like what they know, you know?). If you are blessed with the Monday holiday, I hope you enjoy your time off. I think I may commend Martin Luther King, Jr. by re-watching Obama's speech on the ride home. Whether you've appreciated his presidency or not, President Obama is an inspiring speaker with powerful rhetoric. I greatly needed the dose of hope he offered during his final account Tuesday night.

Happy Friday, everyone.

thanks, obama

Let’s be vigilant, but not afraid.
— Barack Obama
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Teenaged Barack Obama

Teenaged Barack Obama

And I mean that. Thank you for your rhetoric, your heart, your belief in not just a country but an entire world of people who are striving for love over hatred, empathy over hardness,  faith over despair. I can say but very little to contribute to the already generous praise you have received during your presidency. Your criticisms, while fair in the eyes of the critic, were always handled with compassion and grace, with the understanding that through another’s eyes lay a different perspective. Even while you disagreed, you gave your critics the gift of respect. I did not appreciate you enough.

I love these photographs of teen Barack before he became the leader and icon he is today. They are fresh and vibrant, displaying an unhindered emotional presence that has since been refined with time and trials. President Obama’s stirring final address did something for me that I require every now and again. Revitalization. It’s too easy to become caught in the webs of our inner existence and forget that outside of ourselves there is a need greater than we could ever imagine, one we are probably ignorant of on a daily basis without giving it much thought. That’s our attention. Gripping, fervent attention. We don’t give it very easily and we often don’t like to be demanded of it, but our attention is what’s needed now.

One passage of Obama's speech that resonated with me was his discussion on minorities. His parallel of the treatment received by Pols and Italians and Irish immigrants in the early to mid 1900s to that of Blacks, Hispanics, Indians, and Asians today was incredibly inspiring. I've been witness to the ignorance born of fear cultivated in Americans who resent the immigrant population. They forget immigrants have always been the backbone of our economy, that even who Obama referred to as "natives" in his speech are born of ancestors who were at one time immigrants themselves, and that no matter who you are you should be afforded the right to human empathy. Because when a minority is lifted up it actually reestablishes the values this country was founded on, which is that, regardless of our biological genesis, we are creating opportunity for a better world.

as good as spring itself

We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.
— Ernest Hemingway
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Lately I've been having trouble distinguishing my thoughts. I didn't write for some time toward the end of the year and now I feel crippled by that absence. I hardly know what to say. Except for that I'm tired, and because I'm tired I can't make out what words are there. When something does manage to come out it is long-winded and taxing.

Sometimes I think I will never write another story. Sometimes I wonder if that's so terrible. I've been having such trouble applying any kind of writing schedule there are times when I think maybe I should stop trying. If it's not happening maybe it is not meant to be. There are more than a few things in my life I could apply this to. I want to go with what is natural. I'm tired of trying to force things that don't want to happen.

These floral arrangements were designed and photographed by Wild Folk Studio owner Caroline O'Donnell. I'm sharing them because they are the visual epitome of what I'm trying to accomplish. They remind me that the marriage of light and darkness bring forth a beauty that cannot emerge with just one or the other, and that by allowing them to work together we can reveal parts of ourselves that resonate with another's heart. It is why, even during the gloomiest of days, we must make the effort of kindness.

In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, which I know I've already quoted once but is rife with such quotable wisdoms I will continue to quote as many times as is necessary to my good health, Ernest Hemingway writes of the kind of person I think it is imperative we all make aims to become:

The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Maybe I'll adopt a yearly passage the way some take on resolutions and theme words. This would be an apt one, to be a human as good as spring itself. I think my trouble might be that it is not enough for me to be a writer if I cannot first manage being a person. I don't think a lot of us realize what that actually entails, but I think it may be the jewel that is missing from the crown. We cannot hope to be astonishing if we do not first attain the means to astonish.

Trial & Error

He was simply impatient for his life, the real story, to start...
— Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Liliana, 2014

Liliana, 2014

It was a weekend much like any other in our 90s-era household. My mother was in my room making my bed and I was playing with some Beanie Babies on the floor beside her. (As an only child, this was often my privilege.) It struck me for some reason, while my mother moved around the bed tucking sheets under the corners of my mattress, to stick an orange, bean-filled goldfish down the front of my pants. I pulled off my shirt and leaned over, gazing curiously at the small bulge rising underneath the zipper. "Look, Mom, I'm a boy." I poked out my belly. My mother--a steadfast traditionalist Republican--was not amused. "Lauren. Michelle. Put your shirt back on and take that thing out of your pants. You are not a boy."

This is not a story of gender conflict. This is, however, a story of identity and a woman yearning to feel at home in her own body.

Life is a series of restarts. We leave home, we leave school, we change apartments, we change jobs. Presidents come and go, and seasons, the various moons. But every day there is the same sun. And every day we are the same person. Except we're not. Not really. We are constantly shedding skin, re-growing it. We lose hair, we grow that back too. Our bodies are redeveloping on a daily basis. From the time that we are conceived we never stop changing. Change, of course, is a polite word for evolve. Among the other things this story is not, evolution is one of them. But I do think it's important to understand that, even for Christians and your strict traditionalist Republicans, evolution isn't just physical. It's mental and emotional as well, and it affects everyone whether they want to believe in it or not.

I bring this up because evolution is a scary concept to many and as a writer I consider it an obligation to discuss that which is not easily discussed, which brings about my purpose for this project. The Coffee Journals was something I started several years ago on Tumblr before moving it to Squarespace with the idea of turning it into an online literary landmark. At the time, I was experiencing tidal waves of depression that, instead of being properly dealt with, went ignored. I used this blog as a distraction. I wrote essays, book reviews, interviewed authors. I take full responsibility for these writers' time being wasted. One of my more unfortunate habits when slithering out of projects is wanting to eradicate them entirely from existence. It is a failure, yes? We don't want those to be seen. I'm going to take this moment, though, as an opportunity to forgive myself for all of them. I'm also going to take this moment to refresh and start again.

In the years that I've been on social media I've found it incredibly difficult to maintain a single identity. That's not to say I pretend to be different people completely, except for that one time in college when I tried going by the name Alice (don't ask). But I have had a lot of trouble keeping one handle or one URL or one account running. I think the trouble is that when you're young, and especially if you come from a sheltered household, you're used to being told who you are, what you think, how you feel, what you believe, who you can spend your time with. I'm an only child and it's only been in the past few years that I've really felt entitled to my own mind. I come from a family with little tolerance for differing opinions, something I struggled with through college as I began to separate the thoughts I'd been told to think from the ones that were truly mine. In some ways, social media gave me the freedom to further tease out this independent economy and I've taken the reigns on that freedom quite aggressively. If I feel like one identity isn't aligning well with my personality--or the personality I want to cultivate, at least--I've been known to ditch it in favor of trying something else. I'm 26 now and I'm still guilty of doing this.

It's odd to me that this has even been a problem in my life. Embarrassing, really. But I think, for writers anyway, identity tends to be pretty important. Ford Madox Ford, actually, was born Ford Herman Hueffer and first published as Ford Madox Hueffer before ditching his surname entirely after leaving his wife in Germany and moving to Paris.  Ernest Hemingway wrote about this in his memoir, A Moveable Feast:

’There were many reasons. He changed it after the war.’

Ford had started the
Transatlantic Review. He had once edited The English Review in London before the war and before his domestic trouble and Ezra told me this had been a really good review and Ford had done a splendid job of editing. Now under his new name, he was making a new start.
— pgs. 200-201

People--but artists especially, I think--are in the habit of perceiving themselves as a series of trials and errors. It's practically Biblical. Whenever we shed one shameful skin we want to wield something that signifies this personal evolution in hopes that this will be the trial that ends in our favor. Naming is perhaps the most significant aspect of our person for this reason. It's not only what we want others to see when they think of us, but it's also how we want to see ourselves.

The other day, one of the men in my office--we'll call him James--asked me if my real name was Lauren. I elected to go by Wren at my new job when I started the summer of 2015, even though no one ever called me this and had only been used a couple of times as a pen name for my writing. I told him yes, it was. "So where did Wren come from?" he asked. When I first made this decision people wanted to give me a hard time about it. I told James I had used it when I had some stories published in a couple literary journals and ended up liking it better. Which is true, to an extent. I didn't fully justify my reasoning. This was because I don't know James that well. He's older, early 60s maybe, and I had a feeling I was already coming off fairly odd to him. The larger reason is that I wanted some agency over the person I aged into, and where Lauren is a nice name I wanted to control not only the way I was seen or how I felt about myself, but I wanted to commit to the work of becoming a better person and, as I said before, naming was the best way to signify this evolvement.

It wasn't so much that I expected to have people call me this and suddenly I would be this whole different person. For the first six months of my job I felt like a complete idiot, questioned my decision, and wondered if I'd made an inglorious mistake. Hearing people call me a name that wasn't actually mine began to sound irksome, but that was only because I didn't feel I deserved it. Some people who already knew me as Lauren went so far as to tell me it was akin to lying and that I was tricking people into thinking I was someone I wasn't. I took this criticism very seriously, as writers do. But I stuck with it and worked through the insecurity born of these disagreements, mostly out of stubbornness. Though I worried over the same things they were accusing me of I stood by my right to reinvent myself if I wanted to. From there, feeling truly like Wren was a combination of time, repetitive association, and learning not to give a fuck what people thought. It also helped, though, to hear certain people call me Wren--people who knew that wasn't really my name but were kind enough to humor my effort.

There was also a bit of professional calculation to my decision. As a mortgage assistant, I was told I'd be accompanying loan officers to open house events and to meet with clients. Wren, though entirely southern, is not a widely used name where I'm from and certainly not as common as Lauren. I felt there could be a certain distinction in using a name that not a lot of people had, especially in a business that uses name association so fervently. I thought it would be especially beneficial if I ever decided to become a loan officer myself. Unfortunately, due to the business's ever-evolving nature, that all became a moot point. I no longer go to open houses nor do I accompany loan officers on client meetings. But I don't regret the decision. I feel more at home in this name than I ever did as Lauren. Not least because I chose it and work very hard to own it.

We cannot Name or be Named without language. If our vocabulary dwindles to a few shopworn words, we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator. When language becomes exhausted, our freedom dwindles—we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than ‘the way things are.’
— Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Earlier this year, I was crossing Main Street for a short walk one afternoon. Bourbon was still open for lunch then so the sidewalk was crowded with diners. There was also a man sitting on the bench in front of the restaurant. He was large, scruffy--I couldn't really tell what he looked like due to the salt and pepper beard fluffed out over his chest. He wore a brown coat and baseball cap. He wasn't sitting with anyone, just leaning alone against the window watching people pass by. As I came to the other side of the street and began to veer left around the black iron tables he called out to me, "Hey Wren-girl, how are you?" My confusion as to how this man knew my name, or at least knew me by Wren, shifted me into polite robotics. Hello, I'm good, how are you? I didn't stop to talk. My mother's anxious nurturing, and not to mention an unpleasant encounter with an older man at a Books-A-Million the year before, reminded me that a lot of the time when men take interest in you it's not always innocent. But I couldn't stop thinking about this encounter the whole way up the street and he was gone, of course, when I walked back down the other side.

I don't believe I had been in any danger with this man. Actually, my instincts told me something very different, which was that he, whoever he was, had a warm and friendly nature. It's sad, yet helpful in this way, that I've experienced enough unsettling situations with the opposite sex that my intuition has developed a sense for innocence versus malice. While I think that people can be manipulative to the point where that instinct becomes compromised, those realizations take time and I had been judging the situation off a passing greeting. There was something unsuspectingly mysterious about his presence--that he would be there this one afternoon in which I'd been stewing on my identity and wondering if it would become another error. Both the beauty and the ugliness of experience is that we can decide from there what to do with it. It is beautiful if we use experience to further our humanity; it is ugliness if we use it as an excuse to shrivel ourselves and each other. That I felt I could be better as Wren rather than Lauren was a personal decision. At that point, it had nothing to do with career. It wasn't so much that I wanted to forget who I had been, more so I wanted to build off of her. I needed to lose some of her weight, though. She had been a part of my life, but she no longer had to be my life. I could move on and I could do it however worked best for me.

Something useful that I've learned this year is that you can't always compartmentalize your life. Things usually have to work adjacent to one another, if not smoothly. But one of your selves' turmoil is another of your selves' artwork. After so many failed attempts, I finally understood how to work through chaos. Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk becomes relevant here. Regardless of what is happening, you have to sit down and do the work, you have to show up and be a part of it, and then that mysterious other will join you to solidify your intent. It will sidle up beside you and fill the spaces you have no control over. Together, despite the lingering madness, you will create something someone else needs. In the words of Sarah Manguso: "If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job." And that, essentially, is why this project exists, why it is Wren who must be the one to keep going.