Letter to a Stranger

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This was written from the prompt: Write a letter to a stranger. It made me realize I miss this stranger, whom I always saw around Carrboro.

Dear Sir, I love you, and now you are gone, and I didn’t tell you I love you before you disappeared. That’s because when you were here, I did not love you. In fact, you were always annoying to me, but I miss you now, and I think I love you, and I wonder what happened, where you went and can only imagine that you have died.

The way it happened is that one day I noticed you were gone, and realized that I had not seen you for a long time. I don’t know your name, but you, sir, were  a damn good character, and Carrboro, the town we shared, has become so gentrified. There are no good characters here anymore. They can’t afford it. And so I miss you and feel love for who you were.

I miss seeing you in Harris Teeter blowing that one note on your harmonica. It was always one note. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. It never varied. You never played two notes or a different note. It was like your lips were glued to the one place on the harmonica you always carried and always blew into. You never breathed in, only out, and you walked around Harris Teeter playing your one note. It used to annoy me so badly, but today… today I miss you. Perhaps I’ve grown a little.

I miss your harmonica, but even more than that, I miss your car. It was a big green car, long with a big hood and on the hood you’d glued a huge rag doll in a crucified position, and there was a bumper sticker on the back that said, “Be Patient. God Isn’t Finished With Me Yet,” and on the top, just above the driver’s door was a bunch of bananas. The bananas were always there. They were real bananas too, and they were always fresh and yellow and they weren’t glued down. People would drive up beside you and roll down their windows and point and say, “You have bananas on your car.” And you’d nod and smile and say, “I know.”

You used to run a junk shop out at the county line. It was in an old white house. I stopped in a few times. I even sold you some things. I never bought anything. There was a lot of stuff, inside and outside, and after a time the neighbors complained about your place. They said it was an eyesore, so you lined up barrels along the roadway so they wouldn’t have to see it. They complained about that too, and finally you were forced out and they tore down your house. There’s a Walmart there now, but that’s long after a series of other businesses in a series of other brick buildings. They just couldn’t get that corner right. I wonder if you cursed them.

I think now you knew more that I ever gave you credit for and I’m sorry. If I knew where your grave is, I’d go there, clear the weeds of it, maybe put a jar of wildflowers on it, maybe a harmonica.

I want you to know that I think you wouldn’t annoy me now. I think I’d be happy to see you. I’d love to hear your one-note harmonica in the aisles of Harris Teeter. I’d be happy to see your big green car gliding through the traffic of Carrboro, people staring at the crucified rag doll. I’d love to pull up behind you at a stop light and watch the person in the car next to yours roll his window down, point, and say, “You have bananas on your car.” I’d love to watch you nod and smile and say, “I know.”

Sincerely, Nancy

 

Mute

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How do I carry on when I feel mute?

How do I create art and to whom do I offer it?

Does art even matter anymore?

The answers are:

How do I carry on when I feel mute? I don’t know. I just do.

How do I create art and to whom do I offer it? I don’t know. I just do.

Does art even matter anymore? Yes.

The truth is, even though it seems the world is escalating and spinning out of control, even though I feel closer to the brink of street fighting and/or ecological destruction than I ever have before in my lifetime, even though I know more about my own and other’s suffering than I knew before, these have always been the answers to these particular questions.

Yes, art matters.

You don’t know how you make art or whom to offer it to, but you just do it anyway.

You don’t know how you’ll carry on, but you just do.

Stay as grounded as possible. Notice nature. Make art. Find the things and people that will help you not despair, because despair is not an option. The world needs you and your voice, and this has always been true. And will always be true. And on this you can count. This is truth. Art is a steady and stable place to stand. Artists are often known for being flaky and unstable. The truth is, we are very stable. Because we have to be.

 

 

Reading Books in the Age of Madness

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A few years ago, I sat on a public bench, waiting for a friend and reading a book. A woman interrupted me. (Please note: Do not interrupt a person reading a book!) The woman wanted to know what I was reading. I showed her the cover, and then the woman said she couldn’t read anymore. She used to read. She used to read a lot, but now she can’t. She can’t concentrate. Things have become so unstable lately, so volatile that she can’t concentrate on reading.

“Read,” I told her. “Go read a book. You’ll thank me later.”

After she left I muttered under my breath, “You think it’s hard to read in this environment? You should try writing.”

I know a lot of writers. We plug along. We ride the waves of self doubt and the waves of cultural madness. We have no choice. Being a writer, or an artist, requires a little unplugging. So we unplug. And then we plug back in. And our blood pressure goes through the roof and we unplug again. We write. It’s incredibly selfish of us. It’s incredibly hopeless. And it’s incredibly depressing as we watch the celebrity-titled books fly off the shelves while ours, and those of many authors I know, linger and gather dust.

You want to help the world be less crazy? Support the arts. Support a writer. Buy a book that does not have a flashy familiar face on the cover. And be seen reading it. And then buy another.

 

 

Hurricane

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Hurricane Florence is bearing down on North Carolina. If you’re reading this you’re likely in the path of it, or at least of a part of it. We all know the drill – get food and water, gas up the car, tighten down the hatches, get ice. It sounds easy when listed like that, but it’s not. There are lines at the grocery stores and the shelves are empty, lines at the gas pump and people cutting in front of you, or bags over the pump handles, the freezer is void of bags of ice, your mind is constantly scanning for what else needs to be done.

Is the patio umbrella down? Should it be brought in? Do we need to take down the porch swing? Is there something I’ve forgotten? Something I’ve forgotten? Something I’ve forgotten? The echo goes on until it’s over. The question can never really be answered.

Twenty-two years ago Hurricane Fran hit NC and came inland. I lived in a cheap apartment in Chapel Hill in an area that was prone to flooding. My neighbors in one apartment moved out in a rush that very night, taking everything they had with them and not cleaning the apartment and digging up the irises they’d planted and taking the bulbs. I made sure I had plenty of food and cat food and candles. I put the legs of my furniture in plastic cups and hoped that if my apartment flooded it wouldn’t rise above the rims.

The hurricane came at night. Neither I nor my cat could sleep. I stood at a window (which was pretty stupid) and watched the trees whip around against the streetlights. Then the electricity went out and everything outside was dark and all I could hear was the wind. Around 2:00 a.m. there was a knock on my door. It was my neighbor Dawn. Water was coming into her apartment. We decided to vacate and see if we could stay in another friend’s place, up the hill from us. But first Dawn needed to move her car. Water was creeping into the lower parking lot. I called my friend and got the wrong number and woke someone up. I put my cat on the refrigerator and told her she could jump up there if need be (as if she needed my permission) and we walked up the hill with our flashlights to Tift’s place. Tift wasn’t home. We walked back and knocked on the second story apartment of another friend, and he said we could stay there through the night. Unbeknownst to Dawn and me there were fallen live wires all over the place during this walk. The wind had died down but it was still raining. We were lucky. It was pure dumb luck. The best kind. Sometimes I think the only kind.

The next day we returned to our apartments to assess the damage. Only a little water in Dawn’s. None in mine. My cat was fine and happy to be let out. The sky was clear. The air smelled like pine from so many snapped trees. The ground was covered in green needles and green leaves.

My first novel was published two weeks later. In the days preceding this event I was living without electricity. One day a neighbor came by to tell me there was a truck with free ice at University Mall. I got in my car and managed to snag a five-pound bag. I made rice and beans for a group of neighbors and gave candles to others. I got fired from a cleaning job because I’d mouthed off when my client complained about Duke Power taking three days to get their electricity back on. I’d said, “It’s an infrastructure. There are crews from other states up here helping us out. Maybe you haven’t noticed but there was a hurricane.”

There’s no moral to this story unless you want to read it as a cautionary tale not to mouth off to a client. But the real point is this – be patient with people. We’re all stressed out. Be patient with yourself too. After going out into the world of commerce, with varying degrees of success and failure, to get ice and gas and another cooler and butane canisters for the little one burner stove I bought after Fran, I forgot to put water in a pot in which I was steaming vegetables last night. I burned the pot. I berated myself for doing this. I don’t usually make such mistakes. “That was stupid,” I said to my husband.

“Yes,” he answered, “but you did a whole lot of smart stuff earlier.”

That was nice.

In the store where I bought the extra cooler, I thanked the clerk and said, “I’ll see you on the other side,” right when he said the same exact thing to me. We smiled and laughed.

Be safe. Be wise. Be patient. I’ll see you on the other side.

Holding Onto a Young Heart

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I am at an age where I look back on my younger self with great tenderness. I wonder what happened so early in my childhood that my confidence-slate was completely wiped cleaned. There are of course institutions and people to blame: parents, adults, church, school, advertising, TV, other children, teachers, etc. etc. etc. We’ve all suffered something.

What happened to my confidence was no one person’s fault. It was a system, a tsunami of cultural messaging that I couldn’t untangle from, that wrapped its tendrils around my feet with every step I took, that pulled me backwards, or down, or away from expressing my own heart. I knew my heart, but I could not speak it without experiencing ridicule, or arguments, or someone denying its truth. As a result, I became an extremely silent child, a child afraid of being wrong, a child afraid she was wrong. A child who felt stupid, and bored, and who retreated into herself more and more as time went on.

I loved the woods. In the woods no one asked me to point out Taiwan on a world map, and no one asked me to recite multiplication tables, and no one asked me to give my life to Jesus. In the woods I could trust something. I could trust the woods. I could trust myself.

I used to fantasize about living in a cave – a furnished cave with a bed, and rugs, and a cat, and books. But what would I eat? I wondered. Cereal would be good, I thought. I could sneak back home and steal boxes of cereal. But I’d need milk. How would I keep the milk from spoiling? In the end, it was the lack of refrigeration, not the lack of a good cave, that kept me stayed put.

I stayed with my family and I stayed in school and I became a teenager with the usual teenage concerns. One day a boy said to me, “You don’t talk much, do you?”

“I guess not,” I answered, taking in what I perceived as criticism.

“It kind of pisses me off,” the boy said.

So it was criticism.

I talk now. I’m 64 years old and I’m a novelist and I can carry on a conversation with a stranger and I have a public life. Some days I wake up a little panicked over this. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child I knew that books were written by writers, but I noticed that I didn’t know anything about the writers themselves. If I ever saw a picture of a writer it was on the book jacket. Becoming a writer seemed perfect for me. I could present a book, but not be seen. Well, things changed, and here I am, a writer with a public life. It’s not bad though. It’s helped me gain some confidence, but I sure didn’t start out with it.

So these days, I look back on that child, the child I was, the child with her confidence-slate wiped clean and I look at who I am now, and I see that tender skinny child with the long, gangly legs and the soft hair on my young arms, the arms that I never raised in school when a teacher asked a question, and with which I hugged myself down in the woods. I see that young girl trying to please everyone by not existing, and not speaking her heart, and I feel sympathy for her and I also feel a smidge of pride, because I know that while she did not speak her heart, she did hold onto it.

 

Writing a Letter to a Character

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I wrote a letter to my character today. I told her that I thought we’d gotten off on the wrong foot. It was my fault – all my fault – or the fault of social media. But I’d made the choice to be on, and overuse social media. And as a result, I was fractured. My inability to focus, to nurture, was no way to treat a young work just trying to take hold. As a result, our travels together have been rocky and strange.

My inattentiveness did not strangle her, which tells me she is a strong character. But I cannot say she wholly trusts me. Or maybe all those fissures at the beginning of the work are fissures carried through, the way a crack in porcelain will spread until the whole white surface is a web of thin grey lines. This is not what I want for my work, and not what I want for my character or for me. I wrote a letter saying all this, and apologizing. It was a sort of “I’ve been a bad boyfriend” letter. Will you please place trust in me? Will you please help me be a better writer of your story?

I kind of despised myself as I wrote that letter. I’ve been with this kind of man, and I’ve let this kind of man beg his way back into my graces only to be dashed by the same sort of bad behavior he apologized for in the first place. Why should my character trust me? Why should she open up to me? What have I done to prove I deserve it?

Well, to make my case: I’ve stuck with it, even through my own inabilities and frustrations. I’ve written 306 pages. I’ve shown up every morning and written – well, most mornings.

So, is she speaking to me? Or am I blocking her with my own ideas or doubts? What if I keep writing and the end never comes in sight? What if I declare an ending, even though I know it’s not right? What if I wrote a letter to myself reminding of all the beautiful things in this novel, the rich fictional world I’ve created? What if my invitation for her to tell her story in this world is already being answered? What if I can’t hear it? What if I hear it but doubt its sincerity? What if? What if? What if?

Some novels come on full force. Some characters grab you and say, “Listen up,” and you have no choice. Some characters are quieter than others. I have a quiet one here. I should understand that, since I’m quiet myself. I have a woman’s story, and because of our society women’s stories are complex and sometimes mysterious. I should understand that too, since I’m a woman.

I think what I will do now is write another letter. And this time I will let her write me back.