I’ve never been addicted to heroin or drink. My habit has been idealism. I’ve ridden on high horses more times than I care to admit. I’ve been quixotic and delusional. The other day I remembered a student of mine that I had tried to fix. His parents (from where I sat on my high horse) were neglectful. My student read who I was and got all of the mileage out of my “heroism.” In the end his parents may have been rotten, but the kid knew how to get out of schoolwork with only the hint of a tear and sad tale.
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
Edgar Allan Poe
Like Edgar, I lug a knapsack of desperation and doom into every new relationship, but my addiction is a little more hidden to the untrained eye. I’ve heard it said that addiction is seeking escape by means of a lesser god. My addiction is my attachment to being a god. All delusion. Addicted men adore me. Maybe I will be the god to replace the god that is killing them. I’ve never felt like a martyr. I am more a shadow. I can hide behind the BIG stories of a mate’s chaos. I can feel maybe a little more perfect — but this too is chasing a first high with decreasing returns.
My very first boyfriend, John, still haunts me at times. I don’t know if he is dead or alive. I saw a picture in my friend’s eighth grade yearbook when I was fifteen and spent the entire summer before high school imagining his perfection, staring at his beauty. Out of all the boys on those pages I was drawn instantly to the boy destined to overdose more than anyone else in our high school. I have a sixth sense about those things, though I was obviously innocent of any self-awareness at the time.
It’s no surprise then that my first novel is about addiction and the main character’s name is John Weldon. But would it surprise you that, as I wrote the pages, I had no inkling that I was idealizing all of the addicts I have ever loved? The idea of a strong female heroine irritated me back then. I didn’t like the idea of it at all. I could not relate. Katherine Weldon was the shadow I needed her to be. She was truth for me. She still is sometimes.
Have you made peace with your inner critic, fellow creatives? Just imagine him as a cute puppy and get on with your work. Any other ideas to get us through the rough spots? Share away in the comments! We need all the help we can get on some days!
My mother named me after a popular cheerleader from her high school days, but I discovered recently that I shared the name Adrienne with a patron saint of the military. This may explain why I’ve always been so drawn to soldiers’ stories. I bet there’s some deep psychological need lurking beneath this life-long interest, but I want to keep this post light for a change.
A jaunty, devil-may-care spirit runs through these three memoirs/diaries bringing to life the everyday happenings and mishaps of a soldier of the Civil War period. All three feature illustrations done by the soldiers themselves (in the case of the first two) or by a veteran (the last). Today we take for granted the ability to capture life’s visuals so easily. So many soldiers struggled to put into words their experiences, but not these three. The ordinary details of life in the Union Army burst from every page of these books, but what I find most appealing is how modern they all seem.
In between battles, the men and boys find ways to enjoy the grand adventure of their lives. They do what young people do; they get drunk, play games, seek the attention of the opposite sex and complain about their superiors. I suppose the men who crumbled under the enormous strain or did not find ways to make the best of things would hardly be the ones to write memoirs.
Sneden joined the army in the summer of 1861 and saw a few small engagments before being given the coveted position of mapmaker in the Potomac Army. His illustrations are beautiful and intricate in detail. They’re so quaint that even his illustrations of ANDERSONVILLE PRISON can’t help be a little pretty. The harrowing account of his time there sets the record straight. He gives daily weather reports and other details a research nerd like me really appreciates.
As a New Jersey native I found Bellard’s stories especially appealing. I knew exactly where he was running off to every time he took leave while waiting to be sent South. His illustrations of bloody battle wounds and falls from wagons make up for in enthusiasm and candor what they may lack in accomplished artistry. His stories never shy away from the trouble the boys get themselves into when looking for a good time. Bellard’s openness is extremely endearing.
This one’s not quite a memoir, but it has the same spirit as the other two. Billings wrote this charming book to answer the many questions he often received from young people about the details of soldierly life during the war. What was it like sleeping in a tent with other men? (disgusting when the men did not share common hygiene practices). There are so many amusing anecdotes mixed in with great detail of army life. Billings almost makes being a soldier look like a lot of fun. The illustrations by fellow veteran Charles W. Reed add to the sense of merriment throughout the book.
How about you Civil War buffs? Any favorite memoirs from the time period? Let me know in the comments.
My mother had a recurring dream while we lived in the cottage beside the river. Great rains would come and she’d wake to find the house unhinged upon the flooding water. Her brand new sewing machine sat upon a porch the real cottage didn’t have. The machine’s weight tilted the house to one side and she must throw it overboard or lose everything.
My uncle slept on the top bunk in our bedroom for a while after my grandparents died only a week apart from each other. While serving as a Seabee during the war, he had put my grandmother in charge of his Navy pay in hopes of buying his own house and starting a family upon return. The lure of buying a house of her own had been too much for my grandmother. My uncle returned from the Pacific to find himself broke and forced to live with his siblings and parents. What could he offer a wife? When my grandparents died my uncle was distraught over not having been able to forgive his mother. He then had a nervous breakdown.
That is my first memory: my father yelling at a grown man in a bunk bed.
The television on the formica kitchen counter flickered the black and white moon landing. I rushed outside with my visiting cousins. The idea of space suits and adjusting to a lunar environment terrified me.
My cousin, Lucy, wore canvas smiley sneakers that she’d just gotten from Valley Fair (the department store our parents shopped at when they couldn’t afford Sears). I envied Lucy those sneakers. It’s funny to think that a four or five-year-old could envy anyone, but I did. We snuck into the dark, swampy woods alive with mosquitoes and skunk cabbage, Lucy complaining of the mud inching up the rubber soles of her sneakers.
Far off and partially hidden by trees lurked an abandoned Volkswagon Beetle with the windows down and Virginia Creeper running riot over the interior. My older cousin, grabbed us by the shoulders. “There’s someone in there! Run!”
We tore back through the woods, our shorts catching on blackberry brambles until my cousin screamed. I saw my younger sister far ahead of us breaking into the light of our spongy but mowed yard — always the tattle tale.
My poor sneaker-clad cousin had trodden through a muddy patch. My older cousin yelled, “Quick sand!”
How we knew about quick sand is beyond me now, but there was Lucy crying and wallowing; afraid to move forward or back. I stood on the edge of the unfolding tragedy. My cousin might be lost forever, but this didn’t seem to trouble me. I only thought about the sneakers. Of course my older cousin, a boy, had to have known that his sister would not die in six inches of mud. I may even remember him smirking.
There was my little sister again, furtively glancing back, only once, at the light from the adult world of the yard. She carried three pale blue bathroom towels in her arms, the corner of one trailing through the muck of the undergrowth. Do skunks eat skunk cabbage? My mind wandered. My sister and two of my cousins pulled Lucy, sobbing now, to safety — minus one of the sneakers. They did their best to wipe off the remaining one, but even my older cousin was unwilling to attempt fishing the other from the depths of the quick sand. The towels were tossed beside a moss-covered stump teeming with creepy white worms.
The cousins were loaded into their boat of a car soon after, Lucy still crying over her lost sneaker. My uncle was squeezed between my cousins in the back seat that afternoon. My father had enough of his wallowing. He must go back to the family house he never wanted and make peace with his bachelorhood.
That evening it rained, the spongy earth bled into our basement again. My father spent all night like a crew member on a sinking ship pushing water with a big broom out the door of my parents’ newly finished bedroom. My mother read to us in our bedroom, the bunk bed ours again.
What I didn’t know back then was that my father blamed my mother for the cottage on the flood plain located so far from his parents’ home — a home he would have gladly stayed in (even after marriage) if it meant it would have prevented his parents’ deaths. My mother had saved her money to buy the house while he was away in Germany. He hadn’t spoken to her in months.
From the bunk bed I sometimes worried about the house tipping over. I thought about my cousin nearly vanishing in quick sand. The world felt so wet and slippery. The smell of mildew was everywhere.
How about you? What’s your first memory? Let me know in the comments!
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has looked with favor on His humble servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of His servant Israel
for He has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise He made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum;
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo,
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus,
Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo;
Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel, puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae suae,
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini ejus in saecula.
I put my question to the earth, and it replied, "I am not he";
I questioned everything it held, and they confessed the same.
I questioned the sea and the deep,
and the teeming live creatures that crawl,
and they replied,
"We are not God; seek higher."
I questioned the gusty winds,
and every breeze with all its flying creatures told me,
"Anaximenes was wrong: I am not God."
To the sky I put my question, to the sun, moon, stars,
but they denied me: "We are not the God you seek."
And to all things which stood around the portals of my flesh I said,
"tell me of my God.
You are not he, but tell me something of him."
They lifted their mighty voices and cried,
"He made us."
My questioning was my attentive spirit,
and their reply, their beauty.
The Saints have so much to teach us. I’m grateful for my stint in the Protestant churches, but they get it wrong by lowercasing the saints. There seems to be a decidedly self-focused take on a personal relationship with Jesus and the Bible. At first I found this refreshing. I did not like knowing that there were people who were “better” or further along spiritually. I loved the devotionals that coached one to “listen to one’s inner voice.” That came in quite handy at times — especially when I wanted to do something a bit un-saintly.
Stripped down to my personal relationship with God, within a white-washed church building devoid of elevating beauty, and listening (half-listening) to a witty pastor’s weekly take on a Bible passage, I often left church thinking I could definitely do this whole thing at home by the fire with my dogs. People sang rousing sort-of modern tunes with guitar hooks borrowed from the latest pop-rock songs on secular radio and raised their hands above their heads caught up in a personal thing with God, I guess, but I was never feeling “it” that strongly.
I made a few really good friends attending those churches and know for a fact that, in many ways, they are far further along the spiritual path in thought and action than I am, but there really was no point (as far as I could see) in showing up. The table was just that. A table with cubed rye bread and grape juice. Sometimes I went to church hungry and vied for the biggest cut of bread and gulped down the sickly sweet juice with a less than reverent relish.
Maybe it’s just that simple isn’t always best. Where in creation is there any simple? Are sunsets simple? How about kittens? A pomegranate? Melancholy (or for that matter any personal feeling I happen to be having at this moment)?
If simplicity were the greatest good then we would never get past basic multiplication in third grade. The early church, despite the seeming simplicity of the Nativity scene, came out of the Jewish Temple with an insanely rich and complex tradition — a tradition thrown away or underexamined by my Protestant friends. Oh, so much they miss!
When I briefly became a missionary (for about two seconds), I stood with the others, inside a Catholic Church in a Nicaraguan town square, as if the group of us were heroes penetrating Hell. My fellow missionaries murmured about Catholics worshiping images of saints and even worse, the Virgin Mary. As a cradle Catholic I knew this was an untrue over-simplification and misunderstanding, but at the time I deferred to them because it suited me.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
Catholics don’t worship the Saints. The Saints are beautiful creatures, like eagles and elephants, who point us to the Creator. When artists and writers create beauty, they too, point to some longing for eternity; a longing for truth, goodness and beauty that comes to us now only fleetingly: When we stand watching waves lash the shore. When a person halts traffic to let a raccoon and her babies cross the road. When we stand in a cathedral contemplating the talents of the hundreds of creators it took to bring Heaven down to mingle with the frail beings on earth.
The BIG Saints tap into that something deep, eternal and essential. You don’t even have to be Catholic to accept this. We have no problem capitalizing our own names or applauding the idols that our secularized society puts before us.
The Saints are beautiful creations. They are a treasure to embrace for the richness of their wisdom and experience. I will not deprive myself of them any longer:
“But what am I loving when I love you? Not beauty of body nor transient grace, not this fair light which is now so friendly to my eyes, not melodious song in all its lovely harmonies, not the sweet fragrance of flowers or ointments or spices, not manna or honey, not limbs that draw me to carnal embrace: none of these do I love when I love my God. And yet I do love a kind of light, a kind of voice, a certain fragrance, a food and an embrace, when I love my God: a light, voice, fragrance, food and embrace for my inmost self, where something limited to no place shines into my mind, where something not snatched away by passing time sings to me, where something no breath blows away yeilds to me its scent, where there is a savor undiminished by famished eating, and where I am clasped in a union from which no satiety can tear me away. This is what I love, when I love my God.”
Only yesterday, I called my adult daughter to ask her to tell me I was an okay writer.
My mother once knitted and donated an entire barnyard full of stuffed animals — a grey horse with glorious mane and mini bridle, a cow with black spots and pink udders, and pigs with soft, felted snouts — to the annual Christmas fair at the Catholic school we attended. I remember the timid pride in her eyes as she lovingly tucked the animals into their special boxes and brought them to the organizers the night before the event.
It was my first year at the school — fifth grade — and the atmosphere of the gymnasium on that Saturday morning was as unsettling on the weekend as it was during the week. The smell of boiling hot dogs and warm popcorn filtered in from the adjacent cafeteria as a cute boy from my grade brushed by. The popular girls stood under the basketball net in their cheerleader uniforms having just come back from an away game, their cheeks rosy with the health that comes from being part of an accepted clan.
I trailed a few steps behind my mother who browsed disinterestedly at the lacy plaques and decorated wooden spoons. Even then I had an aversion to frills and cheap prettiness like my mother. I don’t know if she had ever said a word about such things or if she’d passed it through blood into her children. Just like my mother I sought the knitted animals, hoping if they didn’t sell that they would come back home.
Not a single person said hello to us, and we made no effort either as we wound down the crowded aisles of holiday shoppers. After a pile of “seconds” socks my mother stood still. I came beside her and followed her gaze. There were the animals, bent and thrown about like useless cattle in a muddy feedlot. One of the pigs lay on the floor muddied by someone’s boot. My mother’s face showed no expression whatsoever. After a moment she scooped up the pig, brushed it off quickly and set it down on the table, as if she were ashamed to have anyone see that she had given her heart to this project, before pulling us away to get promised hot dogs. She never made animals again.
My father, a brilliantly funny and smart man, took codeine once before public speaking to ease his anxiety. His thirst was so severe and his mind so benumbed with the drug, he could not connect with his audience and came home in shame.
My poison of choice has been a sort of misguided humanitarianism. I profess to love the world but have real trouble with the individuals. The world does not beat me down, but individuals do and have. Don’t get me wrong, I have many wonderful relationships, but when I’m in poison mode I unwittingly seek the drowning man who in his own panic and self-loathing drags the rescuer into the murky deep.
I think sometimes that one of the reasons some readers express frustration and annoyance when reading about BUCK CRENSHAW in my novels is that he’s so blind to his self-sabotage. Time and again he makes such stupid decisions. He can also be cruel — not the best thing in a lead character. Yet I’m cruel, too, when I feel unloved.
Our genealogy bequeaths us with some pretty annoying habits: silence, explosive anger, neediness, reticence, inability to give an honest compliment or honest criticism. My sister didn’t speak to me for years because she knew that I had married a mess of a man (it had seemed easier than losing a good man’s love). It would have been nice if someone had told me what they were thinking back then.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born.”
Since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about all this stuff again because as a family for generations we’ve let our hurts define us. I’ve spent years being just like Buck, blind to the patterns that come with being overprotective of self. As a child it makes total sense, but as an adult it dampens out creativity and joy. How many more holiday dinners will I spend racing through a meaningful story because I’m afraid of the response from “my audience”? My family around the table seems so distant in these moments, like the shadows you see when you’re on stage.
I read this a few days ago:
Travel and tell no one,
live a true love story
and tell no one,
people ruin beautiful things.
I’m not sure I completely agree but I understand the advice.
As some of you know, we adopted a profoundly traumatized child from foster care. I’m going to be honest and say that part of the reason for me taking her on was to prove that I was a valuable person despite not selling a ton of books. Of course at the time I wasn’t fully aware of my underlying reasons. I did truly want to help her “get better.”
Here’s another truth: she doesn’t want to get better. It’s easier to stay the victim. I understand. It is easier in a way. But it’s terrible. She’s like the living embodiment of all the worst case self-sabatoges. And because of that she becomes quite often extremely unlovable. It makes me think of Buck. It makes me think of me.
Of course there are moments when we are all lovable, when the drama, the noise, the self-doubt, the picking at wounds still can’t shut out the beauty of a human soul. I think all of my Buck Crenshaw stories are treasure hunts. Behind all of his self-protection is a boy who had hoped to be loved but wasn’t. Spolier alert: he finds love.
We have all experienced being unloved at some point. Sometimes we invite it in and sometimes it just crashes into your house like a wayward airplane. We idealize home for the holidays because in that womb we still hope it is safe even if it never has been. We want our little barnyard menagerie to be cuddled. We want our books to be read, our dreams to be understood and for our family to come with a clean slate and endless patience to put up with our egos and idiosyncracies. In short we want to be adored.
But two ways are offered to our will – Toil with rare triumph, Ease with safe disgrace: – Nor deem that acts heroic wait on chance! The man’s whole life precludes the single deed That shall decide if his inheritance Be with the sifted few of matchless breed, Or with the unmotivated herd that only sleep and feed.
~ Lowell, p.36, The Cloud of Witness, emphasis mine
What is too sublime for you, do not seek;
do not reach into things that are hidden from you.
What is committed to you, pay heed to;
what is hidden is not your concern.
In matters that are beyond you do not meddle,
when you have been shown more than you can understand.
Sometimes I get in way over my head. Everyone is suddenly a commentator or inquisitioner, all knowing and easily hoodwinked. We evangelize to each other offering theories and statistics — statistics that can seem to prove the opposite to opposing factions. I’ve never once won the day by being snarky to my children and try not to bring that side of myself to my interactions with friends online — though this has been tough. I’ve failed a few times to step back a second before diving into debates that are pointless.
When the proud are afflicted, there is no cure;
for they are offshoots of an evil plant.
For a long time now we’ve glorified self-esteem. As if having special feelings for ourselves would bring peace on Earth! The opposite is true. When we think our limited intellects are capable of digesting propaganda and at the same time able to realize our personal blindspots it’s called pride. Of course sometimes we might hit on a truth, but in this swirling new world of endless ideas and imagery we kid ourselves if we think we have all the answers — for ourselves or the people we judge without taking the time for backstory.
Over Thanksgiving I realized that one of the harsh opinions I shared with a family member may have actually hurt her though I hadn’t meant for her to take it personally. My first thought was that she was being ridiculously sensitive and basically stupid. Now I love this person, but that’s where my mind went. I knew in order to save the holiday I had to address the situation with her — I did it grudgingly. She had to be convinced to answer my call. Yet when we spoke it became impossible to remain unmoved. The voice on the other end of the phone was human, familiar. She was making her best effort too. We didn’t try to convince each other of anything. We agreed to disagree on some pretty significant issues.
When she forgave me there was a little part of me that felt annoyed that she didn’t ask me for forgiveness — that pride again. We promised to go for lunch after the holidays. We said we loved each other.
Pride is a horrible affliction. It’s more contageous than any virus, more repulsive than the worst politician because we all have it. There is no cure, only home remedies that sometimes allow for hurts to scab over.
I love the internet. I love pretty pictures and captivating stories. But I also feel drawn to controversy and foul play. Even though it’s not the end of the year yet, I’m resolving to leave alone online debating. Unless I can be face-to-face or at least hear the voice of a real human over the phone I’m going to keep snarky commentary to myself.
The kindness people have done crosses their paths later on;
should they stumble, they will find support.