Saturday, December 19, 2009

first love

"In your life I see everything that lives," Pablo Neruda.

At seventeen, when the world was still new, and just ten months shy of me getting the chance to take it on, I fell in love. He wasn't someone I had known. We were in school together, but our paths hadn't crossed. I asked about him through a friend. We were introduced, and that was it. I was swept up and away, just like any of you who have ever been in love.

Every love is unique. There's platonic love, can't-keep-my-hands-off-you love, bad-timing love, for-the-time-being love, you-are-the-sun-moon-and starry eyed love, jealous love, innocent love, I-can't-quit-you love. Donald and I were starry-eyed. He sees himself imperfectly, but not me. In high school he was big brother to all the girls. He took the time to listen until they were done, until they felt better. He had a hug waiting without fail. You knew he would be there, and while he was by your side you were filled up in his warmth. This was his capacity for others. For me, the one by his side, it was more intense. Quite simply it was the best, he was, our stolen moments were.

When it was time to go to college, life took its natural course. Eventually, we pried ourselves apart. By junior year, we moved on.

Over the years, there have been others, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes heartbreakingly. I've had the good fortune of reconnecting with Donald twice, once at the ten-year high school reunion, and again now that another ten years have passed. Each time I am overtaken with emotion and I wonder how it's possible to still feel so much. Beyond that first gift of being able to love before your trust gets crumpled in someone's hand, beyond sitting in the newness and anticipation of what life has waiting for you, what was this person and his love about?

I said that I don’t see his imperfections, but I do. I know they’re there. Donald battled the world, not me. He battled himself, I think, because he wasn’t able to rest until he lived up to his own expectations. But he didn’t battle me. He let me take off his bandages in the quiet of his room; he let me care for him; he let me in.

We carried each other; nothing was broken; there were no cracks. We kept each other whole. He wanted goodness in the world and for those around him, and in his life I saw everything that lived (Neruda).

A love like ours was no small miracle. I keep it with me, to the stars and back.

Mr. Starling, me, Donald

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

miracles on larkin street

Do you find things, or do they find you? Writer Heather Sellers has an opinion on the matter. She says, "I don't think we look or don't look for love; the heart is a receptor, always working. In spite of our best efforts to protect or hide it, love looks for us, regardless of how we orient ourselves." She's talking about love, but I'm thinking in general terms, about things. Miracles are happening this December, and I wonder if they've come looking for me.

Miracle #1: I'm getting off the couch.
Miracle #2: Inspirations, solid ones, are swirling about and continuing to find me, or I'm finding them.
Miracle #3 (which has been there as a constant for many, many years): friends keep appearing, the kind who add another branch to your family tree.

I had a feeling the other day. It was true happiness. I recognized it from before, but time has passed by for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like. Good times, don't get me wrong. But true happiness is different. It's unique, like true love.

The meaning of these items will reveal themselves in good time, but why not take a peek?

{from littlebrownpen}

{from love, jenna}

Dessert and tea? A trip to Morocco? Maybe, if you ask nicely. And another inspiration: this writer she calls herself, from NJ, who does stints in Paris for three months at a time, taking in the scenery, "the unique juxtaposition of ancient and modern, the appreciation for beauty, the attention to detail, and of course the food." Her name is Nichole Robertson and she writes a blog called, littlebrownpen. Some people call it taste level. I call it restrained, precise beauty. You have to remember to pause. Within the pauses is the space that allows us to see, to taste, and to feel.

{allimages from littlebrownpen, from Paris}

Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and a lovely next decade. My love and blessings to you.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

my mom's not a slut

I don't subscribe to the notion that you should wait until you're married to have sex. No surprise there. But somehow folks are surprised (and by folks I mean some women), when I reveal that I don't believe you should tell young girls not to give it up.

One fine day I was sitting in my living room with "Oprah" on in the background. The topic had to do with women and sex, not really sexuality or empowerment, more like the bad stuff. A few people in the audience seemed to be standing up giving testimonials. As Oprah grew more intent in her responses I started to listen. She seemed offended, set off, like you could see the heat rise up in her. Then she began to preach. Her basic message was that a woman's virginity, or her decision to have sex with a new partner, was a pearl to be placed in a box, tied with a bow, and put on a nice shelf. As I listened to her the heat started to rise up in me.

Girls: have you ever felt like your sweater had a big red "S" on it? "S" for "slut," of course, a nice badge of shame both you and your peers gave for taking the box off the dusty old shelf one night after you had too much vodka. And, girls, how long did it take you to shake the feeling of that brand for all the world to see?

Boys: I'm going to let you in on what it's like be raised a good girl. If you do things the right way, there's the promise of salvation. If you stray, it's Hell on Earth. Two paths. Your choice. Make it a good one. For the teenage brain this is a little too much weight to carry. Some girls get out from under the burden by choosing to save themselves. Others become high rollers, taking their chances with whatever the consequences may be, oftentimes bigger risks than they might normally take because there's no turning back.

The problem I have with all of this is that we draw a line in the sand and tell girls they are either good or bad, saved or sluts. While there surely must be fortitude that comes from saving yourself for marriage, or perhaps to a lesser degree for "the right person," there is also the by-product of making the rest of us into a bunch of sluts.

Every year a close group of my friends and their husbands/boyfriends congregate for a Christmas celebration. We break bread and open presents from our Secret Santas. This past year during the present opening, us girls got onto the topic of waiting until marriage. I quickly found myself the only one arguing to go ahead and do it. Why wait? I couldn't imagine any good reason. They wouldn't budge even though I kept pushing. I shouldn't have been surprised, really. They all grew up private school, and I'm a public school girl. But like I said, I kept pushing until one of them asked: "Wow, Vanessa, is your mom a slut?"

We aren't sixteen anymore, not twenty-five either. We're in our thirties, and we still carry the "slut" word in our back pocket like a trusty boomerang. It does the trick every time.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


I don't know what I'm doing here. It took thirteen hours to cross 800 miles west on I-10 up 285 toward Ruidoso, New Mexico, to pop a squat at a little spot on the tail end of the Rocky Mountains. Besides wanting to stop one thing and start another, I'm not sure what else to do. The problem is that I brought myself with me, and it would be really nice to get a break. Coworkers: Vanessa. Roommates: Vanessa. I'm looking at the woman in the mirror all the time and asking her to make a change, so I took her to the mountains to see what we could do.

The other day I caught a marathon of "No Reservations" on The Travel Channel, a show hosted by Anthony Bourdain, chef, writer, restauranteur, and pugnacious critic. Tony is really a philosopher, which makes his profession perfect--he immerses himself in visceral and anthropological pleasures by day and night. (The woman in the mirror just perked up.) Tony's show follows him on world travels, often to remote parts of Malaysia or whatever country he is visiting at the moment. He is an observer and participant, simply there to experience what he hasn't known before. At the end of the Malaysia episode, he gives an audio commentary that runs over scenes of him watching a helicopter come to pluck him from the longhouse where he's been staying. It's a summation of where he's landed by the end of his journey. He says that living in the village for those days had changed him. He says that travel should do that. He says that a place so far away and different than the world from which you've come is intoxicating. As you watch his mind traverse all that is new and see the twinkle in his eye, you want to know all the more what he's thinking. What's it like? And why is Tony so smitten, this world traveler and purveyor of the tastiest cuisine, from five-star to street vendor? Malaysia looks ordinary, the water muddy. It must be very close to the other side of his moon, and by definition, then, the apex of the journey.

The monotonous can be good, though. Habits can be good. People say it takes 21 days to make something stick. Hopefully you've chosen mountain biking instead of meth. What I know of this is that if you busy your body you can free your mind, through repetition of action you get a release. I'm sure we all experience this on different levels. For some, being surrounded by the comforts of home can shake off the stresses of the day. Others meditate. I'm more like Bourdain. It requires flipping me upside down like a salt shaker to find that release.

Getting back to the "changes you" part that Bourdain whispered, going some place new changes you, he says. Like this is religious wisdom from a guru, I eat it up. Or maybe it was the unmistakable look of blissful satisfaction on his face that told me it was true. Actually, it was simple recognition. I know it. When you get away from what you know for awhile, you see the world differently, see yourself differently. Possibilities expand so that you might have some new thought or direction or experience or feeling. Like Italy, don't you just want to dive right into it? Take me away! Escapes are not as much about what you leave behind as they are about what you gain. Progression, simple motion, is a guide to the apex.

And that brings me back to these mountains. It's not as different as I need it to be. Coworkers: Vanessa. Roommates: Vanessa. But, when I leave these four walls, slowly, trepidatiously out on my own to find the lake at the Inn of the Mountain Gods, and run along it, or chat up the locals, have a meal by myself, and open a new book instead of sitting in front of the television, a little something something happens. I'm going to keep at it a while longer.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Saturday, July 04, 2009

design yummy enough to eat

top image: watermelon blu dot strut tables in powder-coated steel

bottom image: duravit vero washbasin; reminds me of the ice cream in the middle of an ice cream sandwich.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I said goodbye to the one-hundred and twelfth one tonight. Of course not to his face. Via text. Something about leaving his stuff by the door. There doesn't seem to be any time for goodbyes anymore. Life's busy. Not like in airports where you see plenty of people lapping up farewells, but they are in love, not out. The first goodbye was Ian when I was four. When I was four I thought his name was "N," because that's what I heard people say. It's the South, and folks tend to add a few syllables to their letters. He was sweet, had dark brown hair and glasses and somehow had that magical quality of bringing out the experimenter in me. In Kindergarten it was Brock. He and I had a tumultuous relationship that centered around the playground. Skipping ahead, I have to give a shout out to Josh, who is still a very dear friend of mine today. We never made it official, but we've carried a torch for one another for almost thirty years now.

Truth be told I've had many relationships like the one with Josh. They're friendships, really. They make me feel safe. I like a male companion by my side. If it happens to remain platonic, I almost like it better because it's easier and more constant. I've never been good at making love last, even though I've gotten feedback as stand-out as, "You're cool as shit." When I was a young woman I wanted the world more than love. When I was thirty I wanted to be loved more than anything. Now I think I'm ripe for something that just might work. But what do I know?

The thing I think about today is how many people come and go. It's swift. They're gone before you've had the chance to figure out what your song is, what kind of Scrabble player you are, what your parents are like or where you come from. They take you in parts, until your whole self shouts loud enough to push them away again. I've adjusted to the piecemeal way of life. Romantic notions are more timid. I certainly don't expect much more from number one-hundred and thirteen other than some laughs. But if it happens, I'll be ready.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

travel journal (circa 1999)

Today is Monday, and I'm on my way to Dover Priory by train. Last night I stayed in the Hyde Park Hostel in Bayswater. It was a brief visit but a bit more lively than the last hostel. The place was full of French people who played Eminem and Lauryn Hill loud and smoked cigarettes, putting them out on the floor. In my room was Stephanie from Toulouse, Danilo from Sao Paolo, and Ash from South Africa. We talked about capitalism and desire, slavery and normalcy. My Spanish was better than I expected. I can understand everything. I'm just reluctant to form sentences of my own.

Danilo and I went for a walk and coffee last night. We talked some more about leaving home, stepping outside of routine and comfort, searching and challenging ourselves. I was restless all night. Didn't sleep well.

Coming back from Paris now. Had to take the Eurostar so that I could stay longer to have a chance to see the city on Tuesday. I love speaking French. I love the food and the architecture. We had good experiences with all the people --se bon. JT and Marie met us out for dinner last night for Basque food. The water closet had no toilet. Odd. I didn't eat enough food while I was there. We went to the Picasso Museum and the Pompedou. Great views of the city. A moment alone.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


My plan to churn something out at least once each month tanked in April. I actually crafted a little number called "Crazy Bitches" (inspired by my client), but it didn't make the cut. Truth be told, that New Year's resolution to get something published, yeah, I've only made one pitch. You have to keep pitching. It's like acting. You try out, audition, stand in long cattle call lines, usually to hear "no" at the end. My cousin-in-law chatted me up one night about what it takes to be really great at something, a Cracker Jack. Apparently, according to some 20/20 segment he saw, it requires at least four hours of dedication per day to be great. That sounds about right. Think of Olympic athletes or Dancing With The Stars contestants, to excel it takes lots of practice. Most of us dabble. You need time for all the other things. We choose many instead of just one focus.

So, I'm wondering what it takes to make you sign on the dotted line and set all other things aside in favor of one endeavor. This one endeavor could be lots of things--medical school, a start-up business, trying out for American Idol, even marriage. I think it starts simply, with the idea that you want to be something. But what if everything is going great, the status quo is treating you right? That seems to be my problem anyway. I remember the point at which I chucked the career path and went to grad school. The thing that made me do it then was that I'd hit a wall at work. The promotion wasn't coming soon enough to suit me, and I had also always wanted, intended to go on for more schooling. That was the foundation, but it was the obstacle that made me do it. And it was no small endeavor; it was one of the toughest challenges I've experienced, but I never wanted to quit. I was committed. I wonder if that was because it actually was the right thing.

I don't doubt that this little wish of mine is right, isn't something I could do or be, but I do ask myself if it's the right time. I can write whenever. I can be a writer in my 40s or 50s, later in life when I have a New England cottage and a writer's nook overlooking a snow-filled meadow, hmm, when I have something different to say, a different vantage point maybe. Why now?

For those of you who know me, you know that I'm really not talking about writing at all. The things that hold us back or make us say "yes" without wanting to take it back, what are they? In May I'm derailed, a bit.

Monday, March 09, 2009

finalmente y otra vez

I wish I could reach the place I'm longing to go. I have been waiting. But then it seems the thing I have been waiting for no longer matters after years pass without it. Other things bring happiness in surprising ways. Writer Monica Ali describes the fickle nature of our desires in a revelation about different kinds of love. She says there is "the kind that starts deep and slowly wears away, that seems you will never use it up, and then one day it is finished. Then there is the kind that you do not notice at first, but which adds a little bit to itself every day, like an oyster makes a pearl, grain by grain, a jewel from the sand." Do you desire a well with fire that burns until it goes dark, or an ember, slow burning by your breath upon an open slate?

It's likely true that I don't have to choose, that Ali's two kinds of love inform each other and work as one. How would you know when the sand becomes the pearl if you didn't know what a pearl was? That doesn't mean that the two are ultimately the same. They fill different needs. The delight of running bare toes through cool grass is something I can feel now, just by remembering; it awakens you, but everyone eventually puts their shoes back on and steps onto the sidewalk. That pleasure is different from emotional constancy, building each day by another's presence. But the day-by-day can be a chore. Each one falters, and each one holds the other up.

I've gotten off on love, and I started with dreams and the happiness that fills empty space. That happiness feels good; it's a satisfaction with today. I used to battle longing for the things that weren't there. Now when I think of the future, if people ask me or if I ask myself, I'm okay either way. Both kinds of life are good. But even with that, I sometimes want more and wonder if I'm living in the in-between places. When your dreams don't find you, do you forget them, or do they disappear? I wonder if I'm supposed to remember something that slipped away long ago. And here I am again.

(artwork by Joy Young Shannon, RHS alumni; title inspired by Kate Zaluski's journey to the D.R. and back)

Monday, February 02, 2009

a dedication

I'm finally starting to feel my age. This next birthday I'll be thirty-seven. I've lived a selfish life when you think about it. It's been for me, not for a partner or for any children. The only time I understood what it was to give every day for the good of someone else was when I taught school. Everything that was in me was for them, and it was an easy gift, easy to give. They needed me.

When you give like that--all day and into the night--encouraging successes, soothing failures, mending hurts, anticipating questions, preparing answers, preparing people for tomorrow and the next day, it takes a toll. I aged in those years, on the inside, but it was short-lived. I reached for a lighter life again.

Even in the midst of this lighter life, I can't stop the scenery from changing around me. Friends are tending to their sick baby every few hours through the night, picking her up from her bed and rocking her back to sleep again. Friends are separating; friends are divorcing; friends are sticking it out after infidelity. Family, once made, binds you to others.

It's such an enticing idea, making a family, finding a partner. Happiness. For so many, the idea lives as a dream bestowed upon their chosen, but one that eventually they cannot find in the person sitting in front of them anymore. Those revelations often find you in your thirties. My friends call it "the reckoning," a term a little too cute to me for its impact. Aging happens on the inside, through heartbreak and loss, traumas, or simple care for the good of someone else each day. You breathe in life. You breathe out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Once I took a road trip through the South. My favorite spot for viewing was the low mountains near Chattanooga, Tennessee, dark mountains where the clouds wind through them like roads. You may find yourself driving through cloud or just under it, like down covers resting over you with the light breaking through. I was there in the morning, the brilliant holiness of morning, with the Tennessee River looming. I floated down that river, gazed up, and lingered in the in-between places, lines on a map between Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee--secret places with no name, only slips on dark currents that have been there always.

the old neighborhood

When I was a little girl Texas was all around me. Limestone riverbeds plumped up the landscape. Chalk rock crumbled in my hand. Carlos Castaneda books, Mexican dresses, Santana music, toe sandals, nude hippies at watering holes, deep blue spring pools, and my house on top of a hill in the middle of a whole neighborhood full of where I came from, we never left. I grew up in The Four Seasons on Berrywood Drive. We missed being named a month of the year by one street. A slight that didn’t matter, we were a line right down the middle of the world, rolling down into a furious creek. The spring of ’82 brought a flood that killed rabbits in a cage that had been propped up on stilts behind a neighbor’s house. It swept the sound and fury along with it, maybe my fury that I never felt, or don’t remember feeling. The neighborhood was filled with kids and surrounded by fields, undeveloped on the outskirts of town, hidden from the interstate by large pecan and oak trees like shawls around us.

We used to follow the trails that wound through the outlying fields on our bikes, sometimes on foot, trails marked by a civilization before us, the 70s kids maybe. We lived the afternoons in forts along tributaries of Walnut Creek. Our next door neighbors, an elderly couple, got shot by Henry Lee Lucas at their liquor store along I-35 and Braker Lane. We used to break in to find their ghosts or killer, the reincarnation of their deaths, for years afterward, on into high school. By then we had lost reverence and were only looking for a cheap thrill heightened by lame pot or cheap beer. My older brother, Jeff, was my best friend then, since we were tots bundled in snowsuits in Grafton, North Dakota, a place my dad took us after graduate school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was born. When I was six Jeff and I moved into that house on Berrywood Drive, at either end of a mottled brown hallway. When we arrived my parents explained to me that my bedroom had a lock on it. I was so young, and they didn’t want me locking us out. Even with that I accidentally locked it shut one day. My parents got mad. I remember holing up in Jeff’s room. He wasn’t mad.

Jeff told me to beat up Chuck, a boy one year older than me who lived caddy corner from us. I don’t know why he wanted me to hit him other than it would be funny. He believed in me, and I would do whatever he said. I don’t remember beating up Chuck, but I probably did. We made horror films with our friends using a Kodak video camera. We climbed fences and snuck out our bedroom windows at night. He stole a car, I stole clothes, he sold fake pot, I made out with boys in cemeteries all before we got to high school. We were arrested and banned from our friends, and decided rebelling wasn’t worth it because we didn’t hate people and we didn’t hate ourselves. We hated what was missing.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


I usually write a new year's post. Usually I feel a contagious sense of possibility from getting to start over. January 1 coming around again is like a do over. What will I do this year? What plans can I hatch? This year my mind is elsewhere. It's too early for a backlash, but it's found me.

It's been, what, half a year since gas prices got to $4 a gallon, since we realized we're in an interconnected heap of trouble like a figure eight of standing dominoes that have been tipped? Since then activism is back at the front of the line: collective responsibility. Its manifestations are take out cups made from corn, fair trade chocolate bars, and coupons that you can buy to erase your carbon footprint.

I like people. I am against poverty and pollution. I am heart sick about the polar bears. And simultaneously I feel annoyed by so much goodness. If I were a child, I would be pinching the goody two shoes and getting sent to the corner. As a professional adult female, I am currently suppressing urges to physically push people when they offend by, oh, let's say staying in the women's restroom longer than the standard slow pee and hair correction require.

I read a soothing article published on recently about this very subject. I'm always soothed when made to feel perfectly normal for being my imperfect self. The article, entitled: "Well, Excuuuuuse Meee! Why humans are so quick to take offense" explains that "the evolutionary forces that have made us cooperative and empathetic are the same ones that have made us prickly and explosive." Writer Emily Yoffe goes on to reveal a Darwinist benefit of seemingly undesirable traits. She says: "gratitude allows us to expand our social network and recruit new allies; vengeance makes sure our new friends don't take advantage of us." We want to be treated fairly, and it is up to us to make sure this is so.

So, we pay close attention to social nuances, like "who's doing what to whom and what [it] means to [us]," says Yoffe. Why does the goody two shoes offend? Well, you've got to ask yourself more questions: Why is she such a goody two shoes anyway? Something's up. Does she want special favors? Down with goody two shoes! Keep her in line! I'm not sure that someone who buys carbon coupons to make up for a deluge of carbon emissions needs to be kept in line, but then again maybe he or she does.

Sometimes when there's so much jumping on the bandwagon I want to reject it for the simple reason that there's too much. There's something suspicious there, some subtle nuance I'm picking up on. It takes a lot of thinking to figure out what danger may be present, to sift it through. While I continue winnowing away I'll be a gruff little misanthrope, doing my duty.