Shakespeare and Didion

My mother, daughter and I went to see a production of Othello. My daughter is young, but she’s seen at least three Shakespeare plays so far–Falstaff (fat shaming), Othello (domestic violence) and then Romeo and Juliet in a few different forms.

In the middle of Othello, my mom whispered, “Why is Iago evil? Do we know?”

Some people ask, I think. I never ask.

It’s a quote from Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion: “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”

 

I tell my mom, “We don’t know.”

 

Travels to Tulsa

I use the plagiarism checker at Grammarly.com because “reuse and recycle” works to help the environment, but maybe not your English assignment or your glorious novel-in-progress.

 

A Beautiful Thing

I’ve been thinking about the book tour I went on recently with Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain, the three of us in our pajamas, telling stories. The first place we brought this rendition of the show, Bedtime Stories for Adults, was a public library in Tulsa.

It’s a library that’s closed for the next two years, ready to be demolished and remodeled. Without any books, it was a beautiful though dystopian setting.

It was the library of some terrible future where the Native American Resource Center had no resources, only rows of empty shelves.Tulsa Native AMerican

One central wall was graced with golden letters proclaiming the eternal value of books! It was a quote–maybe most of a speech–called “The World of Books,” by the author Clarence Day. In his words, “…Monuments fall…Nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out and after an era of darkness new races build others but in the world of books are the volumes that have seen this happen again and again…and yet live on…still young…”

Tulsa Lib World of booksYoung or old, there weren’t any books in the building. They were gone.

If they were living on, it was in storage.

But we brought our books, and read and met the audience and had a party. Because the building was scheduled for demolition, we had permission to invite the audience to write on the walls. Chuck invited them to write things they wanted to let go of, things they were ready to have demolished.

In the documentary, “Kicking the Loose Gravel Home,” by Annick Smith, the poet Richard Hugo talks about “putting words on the page to amuse” himself. He says, “That’s writing…”  In the most fundamental way, that’s what writing is.

On the walls of the Tulsa library, people wrote a lot.

Some wrote in ways that weren’t about letting go at all, but about celebrating the moment, having a fleeting voice. We all want to let go, and we want to hold on.

They wrote names and wishes and the word “love.” They wrote curses, obscenities and prayers. “Cunt” came up with a little too much redundancy, and “taint” seemed to be a crowd pleaser, but I was more interested in all the big dreams articulated, and there were plenty of them. It was beautiful. There were people who wrote about the extremely personal drama of struggling with health concerns, and life. Others wrote about public drama–and by public, I mean things like Breaking Bad. That public: on TV.

Tulsa Library Wall 2

Now, a month later, maybe the building is entirely different inside, gutted and in rubble.  Hopefully it’ll come back around and be a fantastic place full of books and events. Books will live on, still young! Or not. Either way, for now, we have our memories, and they’re good ones.

At least there’s that.

Cheers, Tulsa! So glad to meet you!  An honor and a privilege, just to be alive.

 

Hillbilly Bread Factory

In the 1970’s we took a field trip to the Hillbilly Bread factory, a place where everyone had a job and the world smelled like fresh baked bread, a warm place in the middle of a blizzard-marked winter. I was in grade school in Michigan. Serious women in wispy hair nets ran the machines, everybody dressed in shades of blue in my memory. After showing us the factory, a representative gave each child a fresh loaf of Hillbilly bread to “take home.”

None of those loaves made it home.

We opened our bread bags on the bus back to school, smashed gummy white bread between our grubby palms until it was half the size, or tore light, fresh pieces into small strips. We handled that white bread until it was dirty and we ate until it filled our stomachs, bloated against our eight year old ribs. It was the best. Each one of us ate an entire loaf.

Mmm…

Now I see Hillbilly Bread seems to be a subsidiary of Aunt Millies with the slogan, “At Aunt Millie’s, we bake more than bread–we bake memories.” So true! I remember that as one of the best field trips ever, even if we all overindulged, ate bread until our stomachs turned to knots, ate light and lovely bread until it was heavy in our guts.

These days everyone I know is swearing off gluten. We have gluten-free crackers, gluten free pizza, and it’s kind of crazy. What’s gone wrong with gluten?

We were once gluten gluttons, I know, I know.

Today my daughter and I swung by a bakery–she’s the age I was, in the days of Hillbilly Bread–and bought a loaf of homemade Italian. She told me it was good, swore I’d like it. She offered me a sample at the bakery and I waved it away, though bought the bread for her anyway. It was for her, for this skinny kid.

At home, I broke my gluten-free binge. This Italian bread is chewy and light, marked with bubbles, and springy. It welcomes a slather of butter.

It’s time to pull out the cookbooks, the old James Beard, Beard on Bread, the book my mother gave me back when she moved out, when I was a junior in high school, the year I learned the drive a car, the year I was freezing, the year I had to drop out–the year I baked bread so many nights, to stay warm in a cold house, when the snow piled against the windows and the furnace had no oil.

My daughter and I? We’ve eaten half the loaf, this evening. We’re overindulging, watching movies, ready for the first day of a new school year tomorrow, third grade looming large. I remember that day of Hillbilly Bread, how young I was.

Inside that cookbook my mother left me with, she wrote, “For we hope that your life will be full of many things as good and pleasurable as homemade bread. Love, Mom.” That was Christmas. Then she packed the car, collected together my sister and brother, and together they drove away, west, before New Years.

Bread is still good, and yes, somebody is baking memories. xoxo

 

Whiskey Prayers

 

True Story:

I was camping in the desert of Arizona, just a North of the Mexican border. I’d been living in Arizona for three years already but still came at it like a tourist, always looking for places to camp, wander, drink, talk to strangers. So this night some friends and I were in the middle of nowhere, a spot I couldn’t find on a map exactly now but could approximate.

It was blasting hot in the day,  then the temperature dropped with the sun, and we were freezing by night, in our shorts and tank tops. We had whiskey. We had lightweight tents. If you’ve been in a desert like this, you know what I mean—it’s deceptive, how hot it is in the day and how cold at night. It wasn’t the same as in town, in Tucson, or even in the campgrounds around Tucson. We must’ve been at a higher elevation. I think we were just past Bisbee.

We went looking for wood, to build a fire, but there’s hardly any wood on the ground in the desert. Saguaro skeletons are lightweight and porous. They aren’t worth building a fire with. Any bushes were mostly covered in spines, and besides they were thin and alive. The rest of the ground is rock and gravel.

I kicked around in the dark in the desert for a while, with all the stars overhead, then went back to camp and made the tiniest fire with a few twigs, while my friends looked for wood. I could hear their voices, off in the dark. I poured a shot of whiskey and huddled near my tiny flame. The whiskey was warm, the moon was full. Bats darted and swooped after bugs, stylized darker spots against a blue-black sky, a curtain full of stars.

I poured a shot of whiskey, took a sip.

A bat hit me in the side of my head. It got tangled in my hair. Before I could sort out what was happening, it freed itself and flew away.

I put a hand to the side of my head, where I had felt it scramble. I was so cold, I leaned in closer. My fire was disappearing.

“Weneedwoodweneedwoodweneedwood,” I chanted to myself, teeth chattering, under the full moon in the dark, alone.

Two red lights showed up on a high ridge, with the sound of gravel sliding, tires, a car braking to a halt. There was a road up there. Somebody else had stopped at this abandoned spot.

It’s weird in places like that—better to be alone, than to have a stranger show up. We used to joke that there wasn’t much difference, in Arizona, between the state prison and the prison state. There were prisoners and parolees all over the place.

A man’s voice called down. He said, “Hey!”

I didn’t answer. I just kept an eye on his figure in the dark, up on the ridge.

He called out, “You need any wood?”

I wasn’t sure I heard right. He said it again.

I called back then. “Yes!”

It was too strange, too coincidental, and I gave in to it.

I walked to him in the dark, his feet and my feet feet crunching dry ground. My friends came in too, they’d all heard the voices. When I got up the hill to his truck, I saw he had a tidy bundle of what he called extra fire wood, split and dried. “All yours,” he said.

It was like he’d heard my quiet whispered chant, my prayer, my wish.

We unloaded the small stack from his truck bed. I kept thinking, what does he want, for this? Money? Our time? Is he going to sit at our fire and get drunk, turn nasty? It happens.

He said, “Take care,” and he got back in the truck, pulled out onto the highway. We built a perfect fire, sat around it, put it out when it was time to put it out. It was exactly right. We never saw that man again. It was a minor miracle of hospitality, the kindness of strangers. It was a whiskey drinking, bat swooping, full moon night prayer answered.