Nashville’s First Pedestrians

Too hot for pictures in Nashville. Way too hot.

I read Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” just before leaving for Tennessee, and it set up our new landscape perfectly.  Not really for the regional dialects or the social commentary or the geo-racial politics. Simply because of the way she describes the God damn heat. Or maybe it’s the way she just describes everything else in the story that makes you sweat. It’s sort-of a head-first-into-the-deep-fryer type of feeling. Motif of internal punishment…damned to eternal flames and gnashing of teeth? Fine, whatever, please just don’t leave me here to slow roast like this BBQ.

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You can’t win.

And it’s hot.

It looks like the town’s on fire already, wherever you go, on every street, with crape myrtle trees and mimosa trees blooming their heads off. And a thousand cops everywhere you go, almost too young to start shaving, but streaming sweat. I’m tired of cops.

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But we made it to Knoxville, too, and it was a little less hot. I brought Sylvia Townsend Warner and Janet Hobhouse, so I cooled myself with Gothic English countrysides and anxious New Yorker apartments, respectively.

Overall, I really enjoyed our Southern jaunt. The luxurious smell of savory biscuits in the morning, the eerily vacant sidewalks, the gratuitous use of mason jars and second person plural….ya’ll know what I’m talkin’ about. From the day we packed far too many light cardigans in our luggage tagged for BNA to the day we tossed our ‘what would Dolly do?’ tote bag into the overhead compartment of our flight back to SEA, I’d say we were as happy as two stuffed squirrels drinking miniature bottles of bourbon and playing cards.

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“The coldest winter I ever spent…

…was my summer in San Francisco.” Thanks for the heads-up, Mark Twain. Any witticisms about the public transit?

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Actually, it was in San Francisco where Twain wrote “Jim Smiley and the Jumping Frog,” which, apparently, first catapulted him into stardom. I have my own associations with that story, specific to when I first read it at age 14. More specifically, when I was wearing spaghetti-straps like a boss and taking “hella tight” grammar classes on the Sacramento State campus in the summer.

Yes, I did use this bad boy to get me into R-rated movies in Davis.

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Anyway, enough about how amazing I was and how much of life I had figured out at 14.

What I was trying to transition to was that no number of literary jabs could keep me from loving San Francisco any less than I did when I was a teenager. I probably was as obsessed with San Francisco as much as I was with myself. She was my city upon a hill. The Golden Gate through which I saw the end to my graceless adolescence. She was beautiful, and I loved her, all of her. Her Twin Peaks, her Coit Tower, her North Beach. To me, San Francisco never left the 60s. She kept Howl in her back pocket, didn’t care what her parents said, and was BFF’s with Joni Mitchell and Hunter S. Thompson. She taught me about dim sum, Jack Kerouac, public transit, and thrift shopping for dirty shoes and tight pants. She took me to Stern Grove for the first time, bought me an Assata Shakur t-shirt, and told me she liked my poetry. She didn’t care that I was some sad, Vitamin D-deficient girl from the suburbs who just discovered Conor Oberst and therapy. She was love and love was Haight.

In many ways, San Francisco really was my first love. And, as my first boyfriend at age 14 once dramatically said after I roller-bladed (wrist guards, no helmet) to meet him on the North Davis greenbelt; “You never forget your first love.”

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Wait. Was he breaking up with me?

I guess it’s just you and me again, SF.

Sometimes a Great Notion

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I first read Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, one of my all-time favorite novels, just after I moved to Seattle in 2007. It wasn’t easy. The reading, the dreaming, the living. But, looking back on it, Kesey’s depiction of the Pacific Northwest (specifically Oregon) was the perfect introduction to my new geography. I, too, dreamed of moss covering my eyelids in my sleep. I, too, watched rust appear on metal objects even though I couldn’t remember ever seeing rain. Yes, that lumber-cutting, slumber-abbreviating, log-chipping, calf-rearing, Hank’s bell-ringing, bootless book I assume was both only ever written and read in the dark got me good.

Of course, I wasn’t wading through any rivers or hauling lumber or even sleeping under the stars. I was eating trail mix in a dorm room and tossing textbooks up to my top bunk and passing out without remembering to remove my glasses. But at night–and in the mornings when the sun took its sweet time to rise–I thought I knew exactly what he meant.

I was reminded of Kesey’s novel when we passed through Oregon and stopped to visit my brother, Tim, in Ashland. Sometimes because of the scenery, but more often because of Kesey’s braided narratives; the swift switching of first person between characters done so seamlessly you lose yourself in a melange of thoughts and voices that eventually become one tired, restless mind in the wilderness.

Years from now, looking back on this trip, I don’t expect any of us to remember who said what. Llama Del Ray or fairy ponds? Pot-holed, backwards truck rides into town? I don’t know. But I am fairly confident we will recall how we all felt, in this place, in this time, all braided and bound up together in Ashland with Tim.

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“Look…Reality is greater than the sum of its parts, also a damn sight holier. And the lives of such stuff as dreams are made of may be rounded with a sleep but they are not tied neatly with a red bow. Truth doesn’t run on time like a commuter train, though time may run on truth. And the Scenes Gone By and the Scenes to Come flow blending together in the sea-green deep while Now spreads in circles on the surface. So don’t sweat it. For focus simply move a few inches back or forward. And once more…look.”

– Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

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Life, A User’s Manual

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If you really want to make it so, you can condense Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual, down to a series of lists. Truly extraordinary lists. Not your average grocery store or ‘shit to do before I get on the plane’ or ‘reasons to give up booze’ lists. Lists mostly of things–things that tell the stories of his characters’ lives more adequately than their own monologues or actions ever could. The novel is brilliant for many other reasons, but you don’t need me to tell you that. And, of course, the lists get at something very personal about Perec himself. They tell the story of an author who lost both his parents at a young age, and somehow found his way through the terror of the Holocaust; through it all, he developed associations between tangible things and intangible realities, pasts, hopes, despairs…

Instead of swooning over his literary labyrinths, I’ll add another list to Perec’s User’s Manual.

Third floor, apartment next to the main stairwell, first room, living area. A record player is propped up, with its needle on a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood LP. The girl who lives here, Lindsay, is fairly certain that this record was given to her by her friend, Joey, who also gave her Perec’s novel, and therefore may actually be responsible for this passage. To the left of the record player is a roll-top desk, crowded with two Swedish children’s books from the 1950s (Lillingarna och Trollen, and Tomtebo Barnen), a book that was once a romance mystery twisted back and its edges cut and pasted together so that it forms the shape of a vase with two hand-sized American flags sticking out from its neck, a flashlight, an empty water bottle, Mod Podge, pay stubs from a book store and a non-profit, a shot-sized beer stein from a past Oktoberfest with the words ‘Seattle Weekly’ printed on the bottom; it now holds coins (mostly pennies), a ceramic mannequin of a child in a rabbit costume playing the guitar with one foot missing, Bananagrams, papers from the Department of Homeland Security, pens, a metal slinky with a twist in its center, keys with a rectangular, purple tag that reads in black ink; ‘Treaty of Neerlandia,’ thank you notes, and a crumpled black and white series of photos from a photobooth of four people smiling in front of a zebra-print background. Lindsay has never met any of these people. Next to the desk is the first of four bookcases. On top of the bookcase is one Swedish children’s book (Puttes Äventyr) with cover art that depicts; blueberries, a snail, and a yellow border, two tickets to the San Francisco County Clerk in a gold frame with a cardboard background, a wooden elephant her Aunt Georgeanne gave to one of her siblings on a trip back from Africa in the mid-1990s, a large gold-framed photograph of her and her older brother at young ages in masks and pirates clothing, and two hand-size American flags sticking out of two boxes covered in German reklam book pages that once were cereal boxes but now are stuffed with all of her favorite postcards, newspaper clippings, photographs, and letters. Propped up against the wall are seven framed butterflies pinned to a framed piece of Styrofoam. Her favorites are The Common Jay, with robin’s egg-speckled blue against its black-tipped wings, and The Tawny Rajah, with an auburn color that bleeds from its thorax out across its wingspan.

Next to the first book case is another bookcase, and a chair, and another bookcase, and between the third bookcase and the couch where Lindsay sits while typing now is a wooden statue about the size of a small child, of a woman with an ornate, pine cone headdress. She stands with one hand pulling up at her dress, which appears to be silk or something quite lightweight, although it is really just wood. This statue was given to her by her maternal grandmother, although before that it lived in her grandparents’ household for many years. As a child, Lindsay would offer the wooden lady imaginary tea and treats during the day. At night, she hoped the wooden lady kept her peace offering, as she stood silently over the end of a long, narrow hallway, always staring (eye-to-eye) at Lindsay.

I confess I do believe in Nabokov

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Awkwardly ashamed and a little sad that I have not written in so long, I have decided that I need to share that Nabokov has kept turning up in my life in unlikely ways recently. I’ve twisted his name about in my brain and found myself bringing up lines from his novels or snippets of things I’ve heard about his (to me, eccentric, exhilarating) life in otherwise unremarkable conversations. In the ways that I may sometimes even force his name or works into a conversation, it has come to remind me of the first signs of a school crush. So, I thought there may be no better place to write out a bit in his memory than through this aptly titled blog. I also realized that I never formally introduced Nabokov into this blog at all, despite the name. So, here is an excerpt from his memoir, Speak, Memory. About four years ago, while reading Speak, Memory for the first time, I underlined most of the words and phrases in this paragraph before just circling the entire section and scribbling a dark exclamation point in the margin. I’m holding the same copy that I received as a gift four years ago, and read almost entirely while pacing in my bright, empty dorm room in Germany. With the exception of more markings and wear, it’s still the same light, smooth-to-the touch tomb that I can only assume will always evoke the very same unable-to-sit-down-while-reading enchantment every time I remember to pull it from the shelf.

“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness- in a landscape selected at random- is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

Brooklyn is my neighborhood

Carson McCullers wrote a cute, brief essay on Brooklyn that was published in Vogue in 1941. Since I’m sure absolutely nothing has changed in Brooklyn or even New York in general since then, I thought I’d share a piece in honor of Mia’s new home, and, more importantly, give me a taste of something to look forward to when I visit in August.

“Miss Kate is a good woman,” this competitor said to me. “But she dislikes washing herself. So she only bathes once a year, when it is summer. I expect she’s just abut the dirtiest woman in Brooklyn.” His voice as he said this was not at all malicious; rather, there was in it a quality of wondering pride. That is one of the things I love best about Brooklyn. Every one is not expected to be exactly like every one else.

I could have quoted Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I think McCullers is one of the few authors Mia and I both read and liked, so it seems a little more apt. Now, onto the photo montage of the home and memories Mia left in Seattle. This is gonna be better than a mixtape! There are so many pictures of Mia on this blog!

Dear Mr. Sendak,

I’m sorry I never wrote before this, and I’m very sorry to hear that you have passed.

Most people I know read your books or had your books read to them when they were quite little. And, as they grew older, they never really got over them. This must have been what led so many people to call your works timeless.

I wasn’t really one of those kids. I remember “Where the Wild Things Are,” of course, and your illustrative style is so familiar to me now it feels like it was penned from my own hand. In reality, though, I fell in love with you last year.

Imagine me, Lindsay You Don’t Know, working in a bookstore, trying to make big decisions. So I make a friend. She happens to be 65 years old and loves scrap-booking. She loves storytelling and crafts and things that remind her of days past. She collects vintage Penguins and hand-drawn postcards and I think she must be God. So I ask her questions and I tell her about myself and she brings photos of the places she’s been in her life and when she talks she often wells up with tears or reaches to touch you like a cat. Except that I mind cats and I mind touching, but I don’t mind this. This goes on for a year or so.

This is where you come in, Mr. Sendak. It’s the day that we get in this extraordinary book. The Art of Maurice Sendak by Selma G. Lanes. I pour over it, touching the pages with the palms of my hands because my fingertips are too dirty and I just can’t resist. It’s big and it’s heavy as art books are. Because my friend assumes the best in all people she tells me that she loves that I love you.

She didn’t know that I was just getting to know you. That you were securely pinned somewhere in the back recesses of my memory and she would be the one to bring you out.  And, since she is God, she already knew that I was to love you.

I’ll speed up the story a bit now, because I know you don’t have time for this. You don’t even know me. Basically, I get to know you so well all at once and in all the right ways. My friend brings me a copy of Higglety Pigglety Pop, or There Must Be More to Life. And I find myself reading, re-reading, and quoting aloud from a children’s book as though it’s gospel. Then, at home, on my wood floor in front of the heater, I read the story behind the Higglety Pigglety Pop, and Jennie, your dog. I am so sorry to hear about her passing. I know how hard losing a dear friend can be. I’m sure she would have loved the story, too.

I also read much more about your life, but I won’t be one of those weird people who pretends like she knows you because she’s read your works or something someone once wrote about your life. That’s the last thing you need right now. What I’m writing to tell you is just how much you inspired me at a certain time in my life. Maybe for most kids it was at an earlier time, and not at twenty-two.

So now we’re getting back to why everyone calls your works timeless. I suppose because what you write and draw has everything to do with time. It has everything to do with understanding what it’s like to be a child—particularly by bringing out the often eerie, haunting experience of childhood. It also has everything to do with a deep-seeded understanding of mortality that transcends both time and age. It has everything to do with mischief and monsters– with being trapped in unruly nightmares, and finding adventure in the solitude of our imagination. Somehow, in all your sketched oddities or three-worded prose pieces, you manage to recall the momentous courage found in insatiable hearts.  The Odysseys that stretch between dream and reality.  The nakedness of our thoughts. The child, maid, monster, or dog who loves salami finding wonder and meaning in the wilderness we inhabit…both together and entirely alone.

So there you have it. Now you know me, or at least you know of me what you so graciously gave to me. Thank you, Mr. Sendak.

Always,

Lindsay

 

“Two pillows, two bowls, a red wool sweater, eyedrops, eardrops, two different bottles of pills, a thermometer, and he even loves you.”

“That is true, ” said Jennie, chewing more leaves.

“You have everything,” repeated the plant.

Jennie only nodded, her mouth full of leaves.

“Then why are you leaving?”

“Because, ” said Jennie, snapping off the stem and blossom, “I am discontented.I want something I do not have. There must be more to life than having everything!”

The plant had nothing to say. It had nothing left to say it with.