Pliers: Part II {The Fairy Tale Ending}

(Note: This is a follow up to my last post on setting up a hide-a-bed for my grandma.)

A week after Grandma and I tested our mechanical skills on the hide-a-bed, I got a call from Grandma saying they were having trouble opening it. I drove over and found my mom, aunt, great-aunt, and grandma, surrounding the bed looking sweaty and frustrated. Apparently, they had been at it for some time, using their combined might to open the bed, with no luck, and Grandma claiming all along that I had pressed some sort of magic button to get the thing going. (Right, no pressure.) Well, I got in there and tugged once on the blasted bar, which responded about as well as a bar set in cement. I tried a second time, bracing the weight of my other hand on the bed instead of the bar, and the damn thing popped open like a bag of chips, exploding into action.

I walked away a hero that night.

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Give a Girl Some Pliers

Imagine being asked to play the keyboard, inside a dark closet bursting to its hinges with discarded shoes, having little prior experience with playing a keyboard or any musical instrument, with colors rather than musical notes as a guide.

That’s how I felt when I went to help my grandma put sheets on her spanking new hide-a-bed, only to completely fail at opening it and discover a cryptic diagram and instructions (basically this but with extra, useless words): Locate pliers. Remove staples on bars.

First, how to find the staples? And the bars?

We located pliers and I set to work, with more determination than skill, on removing the four staples once we had located what we believed to be the two correct bars. (It seems like there was a lot of locating going on, doesn’t it? But I am using the word loosely here; according to Merriam-Webster, to “locate” is “to determine or indicate the place, site, or limits of,” so perhaps “to guess, blindly and with sparse background knowledge” would be more accurate.)

Picture the raw grit of it: one girl in jeans and a sweatshirt, one surprisingly complex hideaway couch and one grandma in the role of cheerleader and provider of wisdom. I managed, with some helpful suggestions from Grandma, to take off the first staple fairly quickly. As Grandma entertained us both by reading aloud from Mother Angelica’s book of witticisms (don’t feel bad, I hadn’t heard of Mother Angelica either), I attacked the remaining staples with little visual aid, little space to move the pliers, and little success.

“Boldness should be the eleventh commandment.” I boldly attacked the left top staple, having momentarily given up the bottom right (how do they expect a person to fit in there and take off the metal “staples”? Seriously? For one thing, they’re more like tiny metal clamps of doom than “staples”; for another, I began to question the intelligence of whichever company designed the hideaway), and as I turned my hand to an unnatural angle and squinted towards the little metal exercise in patience, I couldn’t help but laugh. The whole thing was hilarious, and I acknowledged my ineptness. This was one of those rare situations where I was actually more amused than frustrated while it was actually happening. Did the manufacturer need to make it so damn complicated? And what kind of independent woman was I, unable to properly maneuver pliers on a hideaway couch?

“If you’re breathing and you’ve got two legs, you are called to holiness,” Grandma read. “Mmm,” I replied, my pliering efforts growing desperate. “So what, if you’ve lost a leg, you’re off the hook?” Grandma asked with a laugh. I began to think about all the different, breathing two-legged creatures there are, and about the stigma of disability. Okay, I’ll be honest, I thought of that a bit later. Right then, I was thinking about my beloved, sixty-some year old grandma wrestling with the purportedly ninety-something nun Mother Angelica, and it was making me grin.

Grandma brought me a different set of pliers and I made good progress after she suggested I pull out the bed to get at the back staples. The whole time, we were half joking about the staples I was confronting being the wrong ones, so when I finally got rid of all the staples and bars and pulled on the part that said “lift,” I was frankly stunned that the dang thing actually worked.

All told, it took us an hour to do the pliers thing, get the bed out, make the bed, and put it away. Grandma said she was proud of me (hey, I succeeded with pliers after having no clue what I was doing), and I admitted I was pretty proud of myself as well. “You give a girl some pliers, and….” I began, “…and back off!” finished Grandma.

For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table

In church on Sundays, I often find myself reflecting on the power of song. As a reader and a writer, words hold the most weight for me; I am most drawn to songs whose lyrics are rich in meaning. That being said, though I couldn’t tell you anything about the musical composition of a piece, I appreciate the the way that music magnifies the impact of the lyrics, making the song entirely more moving when sung and played than when read. The church I attend at home has lovely if old-fashioned lyrics, but the quality of the singing (no musical accompaniment) is lacking. Mass here at the university, however, is alive with beautiful, resonant music, the kind that fills you up from your bouncing toes to your vibrating lips, your whole body leaning into the music, one with the community.

Last Sunday, we sang this song:

For everyone born, a place at the table,

for everyone born, clean water and bread,

a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,

for everyone born, a star overhead,

and God will delight when we are creators

of justice and joy, compassion and peace:

yes, God will delight when we are creators

of justice, justice and joy!

For woman and man, a place at the table,

revising the roles, deciding the share,

with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,

for woman and man, a system that’s fair,

and God will delight when we are creators

of justice and joy, compassion and peace:

yes, God will delight when we are creators

of justice, justice and joy!

I was staggered by the power of this: How radical, how audacious, to declare for everyone born, a place at the table, to call for a system that’s fair for both women and men. This is one of the most exciting aspects of faith: calling forth the radical notion that everyone, everyone, everyone, is equal and deserving of shelter, safety, sustenance, respect, justice– that God will delight where we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace. The social justice call of the Catholic Church is one of its biggest redeeming factors to me, the drive that keeps me committed to my church despite the lack of woman leaders and its official stance on things like homosexuality. I grew up with this faith, and it comforts and sustains me– or rather, I use my Catholic faith to communicate to God, and God is the One who is my support. The call to social justice, to helping those in need and working for social and economic equality for the most downtrodden, which is being led by the Sisters, is inspiring and exactly what we as humans should be doing. The motto of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet is, Caring for the dear neighbor without distinction. What a wonderful reminder.

When I looked up these lyrics online, I found an additional, optional stanza that celebrates the “rainbow” of diversity across genders and sexualities, a note that is especially powerful in light of Pope Francis’s recent comments about finding balance in the Church. I think it is important to remember that, while the pope sets the tone for the Church, we as individuals have always been called to make moral decisions; I realized long before Pope Francis’s compassionate focus that I was going to treat everybody with love and respect, as is their right as human beings. I do not hold with this nonsense of hating on gay and transgender folk, and anyone and everyone else who does not fit society’s mold. It wasn’t so long ago that women were marginalized by society, and African Americans and Native Americans– and let’s be honest, these groups and many others (immigrants, LBGTQA) are still not receiving fair treatment today.

These are the things I think of when I hear a hymn like “A Place at the Table.” I am reminded of why I love my church, and inspired to work for God to bring justice and compassion into the lives of others. I am thankful to live at a time and a place where people are working hard to make social justice a reality for all. This Sunday, let’s all remember to to our part in making a place at the table for everyone.

Of Herons and Feather Dusters

Watching blue herons brings me a great sense of peace and serenity. They are the most graceful creatures, all slender, curved lines and elegant, muted colors. Catching a glimpse of a blue heron’s silhouette, I am struck by the beauty in the simple lines of its tall spindly legs, smooth gray-blue feathers, and long regal beak. Standing in water, the heron exudes stillness and calm, but stretching its wide, powerful wings in flight, the heron is pure grace and superiority, a sight of perfection. One day this summer I saw a heron standing so deep in the water, its legs were not visible, and facing the shore so I could not see its beak. It looked like a feather duster. After minutes of watching this strange, ungainly creature, the heron turned its head towards me and stepped into shallower water, regaining its natural grace. I was oddly pleased to see the bird I consider to be the epitome of grace looking so ludicrous. It reminded me that life is a matter of perspective; if I think of myself as a feather duster, and others as herons, then I should learn to look at myself from a different angle. Another lesson: the most graceful or successful person you know has his or her feather duster moments, more than you would expect. And more importantly, the people you think of as irritating or incompetent feather dusters have their moments of grace as well.

Courage

Courage. There are many different types of courage. There’s Harry Potter slowly, bravely walking knowingly to his death to save his friends, Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars facing her own death and the deaths of her friends from cancer, and in real life, firefighters going to work everyday facing danger for the wellbeing of others. There’s standing up for another like Atticus Finch, standing up for yourself like Jane Eyre, and standing up for what you believe in, Martin Luther King Jr. style. And there’s that moment that comes in TV detective shows, movie thrillers, and books of all genres, when the hero or heroine are in great danger and they could freeze, cower or faint—but instead they stand up with backs iron-straight, or trembling limbs, or brave, desperate words, and they charge or shoot or cover another person. All of us who have not encountered these varieties of courage look at the screen or the page with admiration and wonder quietly to ourselves, Would I have done that, if it was me? And the answer is usually Yes, of course I would be brave, of course I would stand up to the Nazis or take a bullet for my friend. Of course. But we don’t really know, do we?

I know what I would do. When that horror story closet door creaks open, I’ll be the one screaming.

One evening, I was in the back seat of my friend’s car as we drove around Minneapolis. The driver had a protected green light and was watching traffic as she turned right. The girl sitting shotgun was navigating, and the two in the back with me were talking animatedly, so I was the only one who saw him: A man dressed in black was walking diagonally across three lanes of traffic, coming right toward us, and I knew that no one else had noticed him. I didn’t think, didn’t calmly or intelligibly warn my friend, I didn’t use ninja moves to stop the car. My instant reaction was to scream and cover my face in my hands. Blessedly, the driver heard my scream, looked up at the man just in time, and threw on the brakes.

She was shaken up of course, and hugely grateful for my scream, but it had nothing to do with me. I understood at once what the books meant by “the scream was ripped from her throat”, because I had done nothing consciously, I had just let my body’s reaction take over, and apparently that was enough. I know now that if I get into a physically dangerous situation that requires courage, I will be less in control than my body’s instincts. What I don’t know about are those special kinds of courage that require sacrifice for others’ sakes and great strength of character. Would I have the courage to face a painful, lethal illness with grace? There are some things we truly cannot know until we face them, but we can trust that the grace of God and our own instincts will give us enough courage if we try.

The Silence {Writing and Self-Doubt}

“The Silence”

Bastille

Tell me a piece of your history
that you’re proud to call your own
Speak in words you picked up
as you walked through life alone.
We used to swim in your stories
and be pulled down by their tide,
choking on the words
and drowning with no air inside.
Now you’ve hit a wall and it’s not your fault
my dear, my dear, my dear.
Now you’ve hit a wall and you’ve hit it hard,
my dear, my dear, oh dear.
It is not enough to be dumbstruck;
(Can you fill the silence?)
you must have the words in that head of yours.
And oh, oh, can you feel the silence?
I can’t take it anymore,
’cause it is not enough to be dumbstruck.
(Can you fill the silence?)
Tell me a piece of your history
that you’ve never said out loud.
Pull the rug beneath my feet
and shake me to the ground.
Wrap me around your fingers,
break the silence open wide,
and before it seeps into my ears,
it fills me up from the inside.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00p2FW7ZLVo

The creative writing class I am taking is forcing me to examine the habits and quirks of myself as a writer. For the first time, I am really taking my writing seriously, and writing or thinking of writing consumes me. One of my first assignments* in class was an exercise in self-doubt: Let your inner critic with its insistently negative voice have its say by writing out all your flaws, fears, insecurities; all the reasons you can’t be a writer. Then answer that voice by explaining why you write, what you want to write about, and how amazingly creative you are, and let your positive voice take over. Describe the desire to write that fuels your efforts. This exercise was a wonderful way to confront my doubts and affirm why I write.

As I wrote, the above song came on (by Bastille, one of my current obsessions) and the lyrics seemed as though they were written especially for me. This is the beauty of good art: it speaks to us, never mind what the artist’s original intent was. I don’t know what inspired “The Silence”, but to me it is about the journey of writing. The song reminds me of the stories I used to tell, and encourages me to write more, because “it is not enough to be dumbstruck”– brilliant story ideas mean little if I don’t write them down.

I want to be a writer. I hope to someday be a writer. I want to write. I talk and talk about writing more than I actually sit down and write. I talk about the shimmering, wonderful plots I am developing in my head and I live in a created world for days and weeks at a time, but rarely does that world make it onto paper. I daydream but I do not act. I want to write books someday, someday, but today and all the days that have come before I have been unable to finish a story. I get smug sometimes, pleased with a fancy turn of phrase that ends up being hollow nonsense. I write in my journal every day, but many days my journal entries read more like a diary than the clever observations of an aspiring writer. Aspiring writer—that just means that I have been too lazy to write thus far. I don’t practice writing enough!

I do what I know I should not: I compare myself to others, and I realize that I should have been writing more all along and that I should be writing more right now. I hold myself back; there are things I am afraid to write. I am too self-conscious. I write with a gang of cynics, prudes and naysayers lurking over my shoulder. Only once have I really managed to make a character come to life for me. I cannot determine what of mine is actually good writing and what is not. My writing is not poetic or metaphorical; it is prosaic as a kitchen table. I just sit down and write without technique or mapping. I do not want to share my writing with others most of the time because I cannot distinguish my writing from myself.

I feel like I have no time to write, but procrastination and distraction are probably closer to the truth. I use far too many words to describe things and I tell more than show. I am a good reader and editor, and I fall headlong into the worlds of other authors, but I don’t see how I could possibly do the same in my writing. I lack the discipline to keep on writing. If I don’t write now, will I ever be able to? There’s so much knowledge and life experience that I am lacking; how can I make my characters and their worlds authentic? I’ve never written a plot twist. I let fear and self-doubt barricade me so that I cannot reach the pen or keyboard.

But when the words fall over me like rain and I climb over that barricade and cling to my pen or keyboard like a life raft, I write without pause, without care, almost without thought. I write because the words follow me around until I pin them down on the page. I write because of the feeling of words flying out underneath my fingers in a steady stream, clicking into place and building something new. I write for that moment that comes after minutes or hours of staring at the floor, when a sentence unfolds like the life of a plant sped up bizarrely through time capsule photography, and the words fit just right. Sometimes I come up with an idea that begs to be written down; I compose a paragraph in my head and when I write it down, it looks nothing like I planned. That used to frustrate me, but now it delights me. I have learned to let the words flow and override my best intentions, and the result is often better than my original idea.

I love living in the world of my mind’s eye for days at a time, based on some inspiration; a book or song, a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, or a conversation. I take meandering walks along the river; when I return, I have words to put to paper. I write to make room for the little snippets of everyday life that call out to me: oddly named street signs, a mysterious bend in a creek, some family drama, the shimmering path made by the moon rising over the water. Writing calms me and exorcises my demons better even than reading does. I am learning to put my fears into my writing and banish them that way.

I was right about one thing in my self-doubt mode: I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I am a creative person, but my creativity comes out in different ways than in other people. I have a strong voice in my writing; when I write, it sounds more like me than my other forms of self-expression, and more like me than anyone else. It is awe-inspiring to realize that, as Pablo Picasso said, anything I can imagine is real; I can call up any scenario that I have the courage to write. I did, after all, earn entry into an honors society for my writing, and reading a selection out loud to an audience was an empowering experience.

I do write every day, and that is its own reward.

I am a strong written communicator. I always trust that I can make my point in the written word, whereas I often struggle to communicate the soul of my ideas in speech. I rely on writing to reveal what I hold inside. All my life, I have lived wrapped inside my favorite books, and all my life, I have dreamed of being the one to tug on the imaginations and emotions of readers, and that is why I write.

When I am writing, I never want to be anywhere else. Writing is a part of me and that alone is enough to make me a writer.

*Check out The Poet’s Companion (Addonizio, Laux) for the self-doubt assignment and more.

On Writing, and Fear

I think a major part of writing is writing out our fears, insecurities, inadequacies and disappointments. We all do this natural form of therapy: artists pour their torment and their loss into drawings and paintings and sculptures, musicians exorcise their demons in musical notes and complicated melodies, athletes grind up their anxieties in physical challenge and sweat, and writers call forth the agony of insistent, living thoughts, bringing them closer, embracing the guilt and doubt and uncertainty, and locking them onto pages, word by word, imprisoning the words in paper in the hopes that the haunting will cease. The true beauty of art is in the sharing. Writing out my fears, putting words to the terrifyingly abstract void, I confront the quiet dread of my heart and bravely walk through to the other side. In art, the audience shares the fear, and the banishment of that fear, in songs and paintings, and, just maybe, in the words I dare to put to paper.

I woke one morning this summer with the soggy remnants of a blessedly forgotten dream fixed in my mind in the disturbing image of a white cooler full of grayish water and dismembered, floating white dolls’ heads and arms. That’s it: just the heads and arms (and staring eyes). I was filled with the compulsion to write a horror story to go with the image, anything to get it to leave me alone, like an image I saw online of a woman’s dark silhouette behind foggy, shabby glass, hand outstretched against the misty glass pleadingly. I’ll write anything, just leave me alone. Embrace your fears. I had a dream of clinging to the sketchy, spindly bamboo structure, miles above the sea and town, terrified of moving, of staying, and most of all of going down. Trapped. Not courageous, not mighty or noble or anything but fear and goosebumps. Isn’t that the way of it, in the end? We dream and dream of fighting dragons, but when our fears face us at last they are not dragons and we are not knights. But this life is no dark tunnel, no shattered glass. There is always hope where there is love, and one day you turn around and realize you are not alone. You had help fighting your battles all along, and maybe you didn’t need to fight after all. Maybe all you had to do was grasp the offered hand (I will give you strength) and give a small, brave nod in the direction of your fears and keep walking. Keep walking. Because the thing is, we always forget when we read daring adventures and watch heroes dashing across our screens, we are watching the legend, not living the journey. The journey is uncomfortable and scary, with unexpected moments of light and beauty, and the true heroes are just ordinary people who refuse to give up. True heroes aren’t fearless; they have the wisdom to be afraid, the courage to go forward anyway, and the support (my friend, I am here) to see it through.

So when my life overwhelms and my spirit lags, and I am sitting on my own at the bottom of a dull gray well that probably dried up around the time the men lined the muddy, mustard gas-filled trenches, and when I am wondering what more there is for me to do, I pick up the only tools available to me and begin to construct a spiral of stone steps made entirely out of words. You see me typing at the keyboard but do you know I am building to the clouds? When I am done I will mount these steps and reach out my trembling fingers, straining for a touch of the stars. Will they be as cold as they look or will they burn as hot as science tells me? I cannot grasp that the stars are anything more than tiny, glittering dreams, steadfastly refusing to go out. When clouds come out I know the stars are there just beyond my sight, and when the sun is shining I do not think of the stars, but only tilt my face toward the gentle caress of the sun’s warmth. (And when the rain pours out steadily and without an end in sight, I dash across to the nearest dry place like the rest of them, disgruntled by my saturated shoes, but somewhere inside me I know the water is washing out the dusty corners of my soul and making me someone new in the beautiful slow way of a plant growing when watered.)