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Let’s forgo the easy way.
In October, I found myself at a funeral for a friend’s daughter, who was just shy of her 19th birthday. She’s just a kid. It’s the phrase that played on repeat the whole day. At the service, two things were emphasized that struck a deep, reverberating chord in me:
— Finish your unfinished business
— Learn as much about life as you can while you have the good fortune to have breath in your lungs
It made me think about what it meant to be an 18-year-old girl again. I can’t quite fit into the shoes of that girl anymore, but I remember the world had endless potential then. There was a promise of things to come. I still think there’s my whole life to do all the things I wanted to do when I was just a kid.
I’m not just a kid anymore–even though I don’t feel like an adult, either. I’ve had 18 more years on the planet than this girl did, and I can’t help feeling as though I have unfinished business. For all the hard (and necessary) lessons I’ve learned in my life, I’ve not learned enough. I’ve not done my part.
I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life sorting myself out. It’s been necessary. I believe in the power of self-reflection and brutally assessing oneself. I’m self-aware, sometimes to a fault, and I believe in the power of self-reflection and internal struggle. While suffering matters – it means something – I’ve nearly out-suffered myself.
But I’m not a kid anymore. The thought is as sobering and final as the closing of a coffin.
And so when I started thinking about how to enrich my life, the one thing that kept coming up was travel. With the exception of a “go me” solo excursion to Alaska and some side trips here and there, travel has been on the backburner for quite some time. It’s too bad, because I feel a sense of freedom and euphoria when I experience a whole new world.
And oh, where to go. There’s so much ground to cover (literally). The immediate bucket list is chock full of mountains and/or glaciers and/or snow…the very things I do not have in my corner of the world. Nepal and Iceland are the top two international contenders while the national parks in Alaska, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming are calling my name stateside.
The details will come. It feels good to make an 18-year-old promise to myself to continue to learn what I can about universe. After all, I’m not a kid anymore.
Sun dreams! You are naughty, wakeful spiteful dreams!
Leaving no trace but a whisper, a whisper
Uttered by those who know but stranger to the one whose fate is sowed
In sun dreamed dreams
My writing origins are murky at best. As an early elementary-schooler, I remember writing things like “Happy Easter, [heartsign] Loria” with my name going off the edges of the Bunny-shaped construction paper gift meant for Mom and Dad. As is many times the case, my writing history begins with my reading history, which begins in second grade. I was a slow reader, mainly because I couldn’t hear. They make you read aloud in second grade, you know. Scarring from years of ear infections and tubes, I had a real problem connecting the words that I heard in stories (which were muddy to begin with) with the words I tried to read in class. And they interrupt you EVERY time you mispronounce a word. I never comprehended what I was reading. Is there essay writing in 2nd grade? If there was, I was probably in the low writing group as well. They probably didn’t bother with the three of us in that group since we were hopeless anyway.
The good news is that something clicked in me in third grade. I became a good reader—promoted from the low group to the middle group and, finally, to the high group—and it occurred to me that I could create a world of my own. By fourth grade, I had won fame and glory with my honorable mention of the essay, “What Reading Means to Me,” in a county-wide contest. I received 20 bucks and that was no joke in the mid-80’s. A writer’s work is never done, however. I decided to embark on a serious project that would require all the skill I had developed in the past two years: the writing of a suspense series called “Mystery of the Masons.” I don’t remember much about the series except it involved a protagonist named Lori, haunted houses, and copious amounts of plagiarism. It remains a shining achievement, though the actual pages of the novel did not survive my mother.
From fourth grade to my first year in college, I wrote stuff. It was important stuff at the time. Poetry, English essays, letters to Oprah. During my second year of college, I transferred to Arkansas State University to become a journalist. I loved the form of the writing and still do but hated the material I had to work with. I knew I couldn’t be a reporter when I was forced to write an article about food sales for Super Bowl Sunday. That article did make it into the school newspaper, which was a feat for a first-year journalism student. Then there was the time a vice chancellor came to see me after class about a story I wrote, which was true but unflattering. I didn’t need the stress. So I decided to become a psychology major and dabble in creative writing. I wrote heartfelt poems about hard-core depression, which I only now understand. I wrote poems about vampires and George Michael. I managed to get published in the school literary magazine, the Foliate Oak.
After receiving my B.S. in Psychology, I went to graduate school for School Psychology and for the next two years, I perfected the art of research writing. Research papers gave me an excuse to get in touch with my third-person self and use some of those journalism techniques. During this period of time, I learned a lot about writing organization and pace.
Since 2003, I’ve been writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for publication. I embarked on this journey to obtain a Master’s in Professional and Technical Writing for the sole purpose my own pleasure. My classes have pushed me to write differently than I have in the past. My essays in Nature Writing weren’t particularly good but I learned a lot about avoiding clichés and muddy water. One professor I had, Dr. H., said she liked my writing but she had no idea how she would teach anyone to write like me. I think that might have been a compliment. I wrote an essay called “Civil War” in Charles Anderson’s Healing Narrative class at UALR circa the mid-2000s. His class encouraged my inner decay to leap forward into the bright lights of criticism (no one actually criticized, by the way). I finally wrote the depression story of my life and it was dreary enough for Dr. Anderson to publish it in an academic journal he edits, Literature & Medicine. One of the reviewers of this essay insisted Dr. Anderson not publish it because it didn’t have a happy ending. I smile with pride when I think of that. I don’t write happy. I write forlorn and melodramatic.
Which leads in nicely to my current crowning achievement, the publication of my first book of poetry called sob. Sob’s content is literally about 3 years of ugly wailing in my life and chronicles my breakups, makeups, grief, death, and depression along with an ode to my favorite Greek heroine, Antigone, and a commentary about Pop-eye’s dating life. And this is my epiphany: On August 6th, I had a book launch shindig in which I read from the book. My past haunted me—I bombed at the reading. Still, the writing stands for itself and my epitaph when I die will say, “Buy my book on Amazon.” How’s that for a happy ending?
My publisher has notified me in writing that I am contractually obligated to say I did a reading (a little ditty called Pub or Perish) on Sunday that corresponded with the Arkansas Literary Festival. Rumor has it I did not perish.
Thank you to the menfolk who made that reading (and writing) possible. Except for the one manfolk for whom I have no affection and who will remain nameless because I’m still pissed. It’s only been 3 or 4 years.
There is nothing quite as uniquely satisfying as a good book. A book of the soul, writing that just clicks with some inherent voice in your head. You won’t find me talking about authors’ love sonnets and classics, reciting flowing language that sags and droops like the lost, loose skin that falls in defeat when it’s shed the fat and the filling beneath it.
Perhaps it is enough to say that I like the words and the way the words string together a lullaby, reminding me there are kindred spirits in the world.
I’m a writer or something like that.
I will regain my status as a tap dancer soon.
I had a boy, lost a boy, got another boy. Loss pending.
I adopted a dog, adopted another one, and adopted another one (the last of which was in part due to my fondness of odd numbers, 3s in particular.
I was born. Death pending.
I got a degree, got another one, and am working toward the end of the third one.
I have a momma and a dad and a granny and a grandma and a brother and a sister in law, 9 aunts and uncles, and approximately 17 first cousins.
I have a doggie gate that I don’t understand how to install. I have no knowledge of an Allen wrench.
I’m cursed/blessed with tragedy.
That blamed bicycle stole my virginity when I was but a girl. Ouch.
I encourage people to save the world.
I have a history of passing out. For this reason, I should not give blood but still have the urge to because I could save your life, dear reader, because I have O-neg blood. I would gladly pass out to save your life. I might vomit a little when Bryan comes to pick me up from saving your life but it’s okay, only a little will get in his air vents.
I have kneecaps and calves of steel, though I might have just cracked my kneecap just now.
I love to read. Some favorites are the Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion), Young Men and Fire (Norman MacLean), Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer), I Know This Much Is True (Wally Lamb), October Light (John Gardner), As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner), Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt), Devil’s Knot (Mara Leveritt), East of Eden (John Steinbeck), and my current read, the Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Anne Fadiman).
A good date is always a bad date for a writer. I get a rush of delight when I realize things have gone horribly awry and I’m stuck in a situation that I will be forced to endure for another 53 minutes. It’s sweet, the taste of the meat of him, the reassuring thought that I own this story now. I can twist and spin and create a reality of terror and delight for myself and, hopefully, my readers.
I had a date yesterday. It was very awkward until we started making out. He had squinty eyes and was a bad kisser. He wore a pimp ring on his finger. I admit to liking it.
I’ve been crying since I was eight years old. Blame Lurlene McDaniel. I do.
In the summer of 1987, I found death on a shelf at the Lee County Library in Sanford, North Carolina. I had been looking for those pre-teen romance novels, the ones where boys didn’t have naughty intentions and girls said no to drugs even in the midst of the popular kids. I had devoured these sorts of books all summer and had finally exhausted the library’s moderate selection. So, as any other little girl would do, I began perusing books for the coolest, hippest teenage girls on the cover, the girls I wanted to be.
It was time to go and I was desperate to find something to read. By chance (or was it?), I saw a really pretty blond girl, whose hair was crimped and massive, sitting with her mother. I hastily picked up the book and ran to the check out.
Later, I examined the book more closely. The book was called Mother, Please Don’t Die. Which, of course, meant Mother was, in fact, going to die (but I wasn’t a savvy reader back then so I held out hope things would end well). The book followed a girl’s journey through her mother’s dying and her own grief as well as the difficult transition from being a little girl to being a teenager. Megan made sense of her mom’s worsening symptoms as best she could as a young girl; she told me about the terrible pressure and the anger bubbled to the surface at baseball practice, resulting in her consequent suspension. After her sister’s wedding, Megan sat with her mother and they had the first truly frank conversation about death that I had ever read; Mother was not going to be there for Megan’s wedding. She was dying.
And when she did die, my heart was shattered and I sobbed out loud. I’ve been reading and sobbing ever since. I developed a voracious appetite for the dying genre. Through my middle and high school years, I learned about living with diabetes, juvenile arthritis, kidney failure, and AIDs. I felt enlightened with each page. I groped for all the empathetic artifacts in the words that were written. I began to live with all of these hardships. I felt I knew what it was like.
The year before, 1986, had been a bad year. In January, my grandfather died of lung cancer. It was the first death I’d experienced. It was scary flying from North Carolina to Arkansas, only to see a dead body, dressed in blue and not breathing in a wooden bed. Two weeks later, I sat forward with the rest of my class, eyes glued to the television as the Challenger exploded and everyone on board was killed. They sent school counselors around to speak to us about dying and grief. I felt terrible for the teacher on the Challenger, but I cried terrible, painful tears for my grandfather.
Weeks later, I randomly asked my mother if she had had any other children before my brother and me one night before our bath. She hesitated and told us she had given birth to a little girl when she had been previously married, but the girl had died when she was a toddler from cancer. I nodded and soon forgot about it, as children will. It wasn’t long before my subconscious mind kicked in and I began to wonder if I had cancer, too, and asked my mother if I was going to die. Months I asked her and for months I must have drove a stake in her heart.
Little girls don’t understand these sorts of things. I didn’t. By the time I held a copy of Mother, Please Don’t Die in my hands, I needed to read about grief. The only problem is I never stopped grieving. The reading and the grieving is a question of insignificance; no matter if the chicken came before the egg, the chicken and the egg exist.
When I was eighteen, a very receptive former teacher gave me Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt as a graduation gift. Since then, it’s the real stories of laughter and pain that have touched me the most. Into Thin Air. Devil’s Knot. Young Men and Fire. Books about the Holocaust, 9/11, surviving freak accidents, OCD, alcoholism, depression. The stories are compelling but they are most important to me as conduits for processing my own life (and grief).
In a nutshell, I read books that are too sad for other people. A book is deemed good if I cry. It is deemed brilliant if I can still sob thinking about it a year later. There are many brilliant writers out there.
Right now, The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger is impatiently waiting on my bedside stand for me to finish it. The sojourn will be short and I will soon return to form. Stacked in the corner are my standard fair, books about the Taliban, mental illness, murder, the Mormon lifestyle…all await me. I can only think greedily of the sobs I am soon to cry.
I can’t help but think I’ve made Lurlene proud.
A continuation of my interview series with bloggers. Patrice is an artist who I deeply admire and wanted to give her what exposure I could.
1. Patrice, how long have you been blogging? How has your own blog changed your life and how have other blogs changed your life?
I arrived in blogland via a side door about four years ago. I’d been trying out online dating (I don’t recommend it) on a site called Matchdoctor, which is actually a pretty neat place – it’s free – no really, it is, and one of the features there was a blog option. Timidly at first – and then with accelerating zeal – I began to write. After a while it became apparent to me that making connections through my blog posts was much more gratifying than exchanging inane emails and dodging instant message types. A man that I fell for introduced me to Blogger, even setting up my first blog. To this day emails notify him of my new posts via his old email addy. They are always returned as undeliverable… Undeliverable – just like he turned out to be – just like the promise of finding a good man online.
Has it changed my life? Absolutely. Living alone in the Deep South with its mostly narrow and negative view of differences and resistance to change or alternate points of view can be stifling and intellectually lonely. Yes, I’ve friends, but my circle is small and my politics and religious beliefs are radical compared to those I know. Add to that my precipitous financial state, and it’s a recipe for isolation. But online I find peers, kindred spirits, fellow artists and creative people of all ilks. Though I can’t afford trips to Atlanta to the galleries and museums, I can see incredible artwork every day and interchange ideas, ideals and methods with those who “get” me. I’ve even sold a few pieces online! But it’s the connections that have meant the most to me and which continue to challenge and inspire.
2. In the beginning, things happened, the world was created and all that. And then artists were created to communicate the things that happened. How did you become an artist? Did you always see things others couldn’t/wouldn’t? Is art innate? (This is the Powerhouse Question.)
And in the beginning, (before photography), civilization depended upon artists to accurately portray events from history, legend and fiction. Art for arts’ sake is a relatively new phenomenon, where the creative and unique aspects of art are more important than absolute realism.
Oh me! Such a tiny, timid little girl, frightened of other children, and so, so shy. The only thing I could do better than anyone else was art. Even at age seven, I could paint a realistic Meadowlark – and the praise and attention for that first masterpiece (heh) gave me a new confidence. I had found my niche. And, yes, I did see things that others couldn’t. I was a solitary child who reveled in nature and insect life and spent hours and hours observing. Most people think art is about drawing. But being an artist is about SEEING. It’s about looking at things with fresh eyes – as if seeing a thing for the first time. You look and look and analyze and only then do you begin to draw. Drawing – and the ability to draw – is more of a technical skill. Learning to see means overcoming the symbolic language that is the first language. You have to trick your brain out of its old patterns. That’s why you often see an artist turn a painting upside down to check composition or value or accuracy of design.
And then, when you learn to see and can draw, paint or sculpt accurately, then it is time to think more about being creative than rote copying. I mean, if you want a perfect copy of something, take a photograph. Don’t get me wrong, one needs the techniques, but they are less important than verve. Technique alone does not make for dazzling art with its own point of view. To me, this is what separates an artist from a tradesman. I can teach anyone to draw better, but I cannot teach them how to be uniquely creative. That is the true challenge of being an artist.
3. In a cage fight between Popeye and Ms. Piggy, who would win and why?
This one is easy. Ms. Piggy would win hands and hooves down. Why? Because we women have the ability to talk and talk and talk. We pummel men with words and reasons and knock them silly with our command of language until they’ve no stomach for battle. Hey, we’ve all seen their eyes glaze over right before they head for the exit.
4. What are your feelings about using “Goddamn”?
As a non-believer, I’m neutral. I can’t condemn it anyway because cussing is important. One needs outlets for rage and pain and cussing is perfect as it harms no one whilst allowing venting. I may avoid the cruder forms of expletive outbursts (such as “you cunt” or “he’s a fucking shit-faced prick”) in mixed company, so as not to offend those who feel differently, but hey – it’s only words. My personal favorite cuss phrases (the ones I utilize when I slam my arm in the gate or stub my toe or whatever) are “Jesus Fucking Christ” or “God Fucking Damn.” As reading this blog is an elective activity, (and it’s not my blog after all), I’ll let you worry about the offenses herein…
In addition. I love italics. You probably noticed I answered all your questions in italics. Italics make me feel like I am having a dialogue. It’s thinking visually expressed. I’m quite sure authors like Proust thought in italics. Total stream of consciousness dialoging with the subconscious.The only problem with italics is that one can’t re-italicize for emphasis. Someone should invent a font for re-italicization.
5. As you know, I’m a fan of bleeding trees (Note: I’m buying one of Patrice’s paintings), what are you working on now?
And now and now and now…
My (now your) “When Trees Bleed” (http://patricelynneyoung.blogspot.com/2009/05/had-to-get-this-one-out-of-my-system.html) is probably the highpoint of a series of paintings about the earth and its glories and phenomena. It’s definitely my favorite painting done this past year. (And by the way, thank you for recognizing my serious work! It’s an honor for me as an artist to feel that there are those who honor what I do.)
As you’ve surmised by how long it took me to send you my answers, I’ve been keyed toward survival. That means I’ve taken a bit of a break from what I consider my serious work (such as the bleeding trees) to do some commissions and some more readily saleable smaller pieces. It’s paid off in that I’ve survived the past two months, but it’s frustrating to feel that my best work is not what the public necessarily purchases. I’m not saying the smaller works are just fluff; they’re important to me. It’s just that I like to work larger. I’m working toward a January show where I will be one of the featured artists and the broad theme is one of “branching out.” Thus I’m gearing some imagery toward literal branches and trees – but also allowing for a more expansive definition such as going in new directions, following the light, seeking ones own space to fill, etc.
So you see, I am not just a person of many images, but a person who likes to expound with verbiage.
Check out Patrice’s blog at http://http://patricelynneyoung.blogspot.com.
a sharpened pencil
literally to the point
the one I have becomes dull after the first stroke
I bear down too hard
my point is more unfocused than I mean for it to be