I’ve just re-posted blog posts from a series called “Alphabet: A History.” I have to thank Christine Hyung-Oak Lee for getting me involved in this series many years ago. Go explore.
I began a Blogger called “Heather’s World” a little over ten years ago. I wrote some really funny, sad, insightful, angsty stuff there; I was 24 and floundering in the world. I met some fellow bloggers (because it was a smaller group back then) with whom I am still friends. But, since then, I have recreated, renamed, re-platformed, etc., a bunch of different blogs–essentially recreating myself–but not really–every time.
You see, I do this thing where I reinvent the wheel all the damn time–even on a daily basis, when I’m teaching. It’s a problem. I also save everything… so I have a file for every first day class I’ve taught, every semester, since Fall 2006. (No joke. Are they all the same? No. Are they pretty similar? Very.) I also do this thing where I have Great Big Ideas and then don’t do anything about them and give up and have really awesome pity parties about failing when I have not even begun to act. The past two years have featured a lot of hurt, a lot of pity parties, and worse, a lot of inertia.
But…I’ve been thinking. I’ve been reading. I’ve been doing some serious self-evaluation. I’ve hopped back on my bike and back on my yoga mat. Seriously. In the spirit of action, I have created yet another blog after abandoning one about a year and a half ago. But this time, I started going back through the saved texts of past blogs. I wanted to see what stories I could find in those posts, spanning ten years. I’m thinking about the young writer then and the still-sort-of-youngish writer now. I’m thinking about what I can write about, rather than the things I can’t. Most importantly, I’m writing–even if it’s total gibberish, it’s something.
Bear with me while I edit some old posts, write some new ones, play with the theme, and get this beast up and running. “Alphabet: A History” will return (yay!). You can follow the blog via all the usual social media ways, WordPress, email, or just by dropping in.
Welcome, friends, old and new.
I’m copping out a little, but I recently found this post from my very first, now-defunct blog. It’s too good not to share. I’ve done some minor editing, but it’s pretty much the same. What you need to know, in terms of setting: I lived at home post-graduation for about three years; my 2003 silver VW Golf was named Otis (and hence why the 2012 charcoal one is Otis, Jr.); and, if you haven’t figured it out yet, my family is crazy.
May 16, 2004: Otis in the Scotch Broom
…I got home about an hour later than I predicted yesterday. I had planned on helping my mom and grandmother plant some scotch broom (a relative of the heather plant), and a mini crepe myrtle in the front garden. I came home, apologized for running late and getting stuck in traffic. So, I go out to help. My mother, incensed that I promised to be home at noon and came in at one, tells me to fuck off. I tried to reason with her and she goes off. I mean, we started a tug-of-war in the middle of the front yard with a heavy old shovel. And instead of being the rational good adult I tend to be, I lost my shit. I tend to cry when I’m angry. So I start sobbing… the big, breathless type with tears that blind you.
I grabbed my keys and got in my car. The driveway was blocked by my grandmother’s red Oldsmobile. I revved the engine as my grandmother repeatedly tried to “reason” with my mother and me. My mother comes over and tells me to get out of the car and just help. They kept saying, “What are you going to do, leave? You can’t leave. All you had to do was do what you said and apologize.” Continue reading
“Why don’t you change your name back?” I asked my mother. “You’re not married to him anymore.” I was six, I was eight, I was twelve. I asked this question often because I hated my last name. My father was out of the picture.
“I want our names to be the same,” she said. Later she would explain she once read that sometimes children felt separated from their mothers if the mothers had a different last name.
“I don’t care if you change it,” I said. “Why would you keep it? He’s a jerk. He’s not even around. Let’s change mine, too.”
“It’s not that simple.” Well, it probably was that simple, but I wasn’t going to win that battle. And thus, my surname stuck.
I remember once telling a friend, “If I ever get married, I’m taking the guy’s name. I can’t wait to get rid of ‘McDonald’.” Back then, I saw it as the ultimate freedom—changing my name to sever all ties to the past. (Changing it would have the added benefit of no more stupid jokes about farmers and clowns.)
As I entered my twenties, and my friends began getting married, I didn’t think of how that question would apply to me. I’d ask friends, “Why are you taking his name?” I was fascinated by people’s reasoning on why they did or didn’t adopt their soon-to-be husband’s last name. One would think I would have thought about my answer carefully, given my recent curiosity and past desperation.
We were at dinner with some friends a few weeks or so before our wedding. (It’s possible we may have already been married.) One of them asked, “Are you changing your name?”
“Um.” I put my fork down. John and I stared at each other. We hadn’t ever discussed it. Our friends immediately began backtracking, realizing this was possibly a touchy subject as it is for some people. We are not those people.
“Hadn’t thought about it.” I paused. “No.” I went back to eating before thinking I may have done something horribly wrong.
“Sorry. You want to talk about this later? We probably should….”
He shook his head. “It’s fine—Hadn’t thought about it either. I think I just assumed you weren’t going to,” he said. “Besides, ‘Heather K.’ sounds kinda weird.”
I wrinkled my nose. I thought briefly about bringing up the issues involved in why I would or wouldn’t change my name based on the socio-political issues inherent to doing so, or on the concept of one family/one name, or the history of cultures with matrilineal names. Instead, I nodded.
And that was that.
* * * * *
“I’m finally getting published. I even won a contest.” The phone was silent. Breathe, I told myself. I held my breath.
“That’s—that’s great. Wonderful,” my mother said. “What’s the essay about?”
It wasn’t a question, it was a demand, an accusation.
“It’s about when J. was sick, and food… and stuff…” I trailed off. Writers know how terrible this question is when it is an honest question, much less a leading one. I sat down, waiting.
How much weight can one syllable hold? How many meanings can it have? Relief, disappointment, suspicion all in two letters. It wasn’t about her.
“Wow, well, that’s great. That’s really great. I am so proud of you.” I wanted to believe she was trying her best. I did the best I could, she always said. Again, there was silence before she spoke.
“Yeah, so I had a really bad week at work.”
In writing, as in life, it’s all about my mother.
Just about every story and essay I submitted to grad school workshops had elements of her, or was about her. Almost every single critique—probably around 60 over three years—said, “I want to see more of the mother.”
But how much space must I give her? How much space must she take?
Joan Didion wrote, “That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” The part of me my mother won’t let go, that I won’t let go, feels guilty. But I don’t think Didion is saying that to the writers. It’s a statement of fact, and it’s a warning to those the writer knows. You may be faced with the brutal truth of your actions and their consequences. The writer must face hers, as well.
You can’t write about me. You wouldn’t do that to me. That’s not fair. That’s not yours to tell.
Yes, I can, and I will. It is, in fact, mine to tell.
There was, and is, one panacea for all wrongs.
Back in the day, when one was crying, her friends were in charge of getting her to the Super Wal-mart. One would buy lip gloss–preferably Bonne Bell Lipsmackers. Sometimes the three-pack, if whatever it was, was really bad; but every breakup, every betrayal, any hurt whatsoever, however minor, however lame or pathetic, counted.
The rule was enacted when C. began crying in front of the lip gloss section at the Super Wal-Mart one day. Why doesn’t matter. A tradition was born.
Call us shallow, but a little lip gloss goes a long way. Continue reading
Heather Ross Miller inspired terror and love in her students. Who better to teach Southern Women Fiction Writers than the woman who reminded us all that Appalachia is pronounced, “I’m gonna throw an apple-at-cha!” followed by her permanent squint and grin?
I sat up quickly. I couldn’t remember if I had done the reading. That happened a lot in those days. She stared me down. She knew. She paused and then asked me a question.
“Do you know why the government won’t legalize marijuana?” My friends snickered behind me.
“No, ma’am.” My voice was weak, tinny. She smiled one of those Cheshire cat grins.
“Everyone would be too happy to pay their taxes!” She cackled, turned to someone else, and the discussion resumed. I sunk into my chair. After class, I tried to sneak out of the room. Again, I heard, “Miss McDonald!” Continue reading
Sometimes you just have to bang one out so you can keep going with a project.
When I walked into the tiny plant store, a rather bitchy woman greeted me with a curt “hello?” Clearly, grungy 23-year-olds did not frequent her store. But my apartment needed plants, or it would not be home. I planned on buying a few succulents, and a few African violets. Those were forgotten the minute I walked in. The store smelled like heaven.
“What is that scent?” I asked.
“The gardenias?” I shook my head. The heady scent of the gardenias infringed on the initial perfume that welcomed me. Gardenias, in their cotillion-like grandeur, give me headaches.
“The jasmine?” She lead me to a medium-sized pot, overflowing with small, bright green leaves; miniature trumpet-like flowers covered the bush–pure white, dotted with a quick stroke of yellow in the middle. I leaned over to breathe it in.
“Yes.” With that I carried the plant to the counter, and bought it with all of my tip money from the night before. The jasmine was my favorite roommate from that moment, when I moved home, and when I moved into my next apartment. It died about a year later, unable to survive the dry heat and cold draughts.
* * *
Entering the Bangkok airport, jet-lagged and wobbly, I took a deep breath. Unlike the canned air of most airports, I smelled something familiar. I smiled. Everywhere we went in Thailand, jasmine was there. Teas. Gardens. Garlands. Soaps. Body lotion. Anything. The products did not feature the cloying, floral scent posing as the flower found in U.S. products. I might as well have had a bouquet of the flowers behind my ear at any moment. It is delicate. Perfect. The only perfume I would ever need.
I search for jasmine wherever I go.
The first words that come out of the foreperson’s mouth inspire hope. The defendant’s eyes widen, a smile creeps across his face, his shoulders relax: not guilty, not guilty. And then the list begins: guilty, guilty, guilty.
The system says we are innocent until proven guilty. Yet a jury does not decide you are proven innocent, they decide you are not guilty. There’s a difference. One is not guilty when the prosecution does not prove its case, or, perhaps because one really is innocent.
The young man is baby-faced. He has perfected the blank stare, one that he thinks betrays nothing, except it does. He is angry. He is scared. As the charges are read, I zone out; I don’t look at anyone but the judge, except for a moment. As the guilties roll in, he looks stunned, then furious. He curses under his breath.
In a few years, he could have been a student in my class. But in reality, in a few years, he would likely be right where he is now: in his neighborhood, in a trial, in a jail, not moving further from where he was born.
Sitting across from him, I realize that my innocence of his world is a mix of dumb luck and naïveté. There’s intellectual skepticism that people like me harbor: the system is rigged. By claiming that, people like me can sleep at night. Deep down, however, we believe that the system will work, because we want it to.
The defense polls the jury—do you all agree?—and all 12 of us say yes. My stomach drops. I do not doubt our verdict, but I doubt my innocence.
A woman stands over me, tells me to stay still, and I insist I’m okay; she responds her friend has called 911.
“What? I’m fine!” I realize I’m having trouble speaking and that the lower half of my face feels searing pain and numbness all at once. I raise my right hand to my mouth. She gently tells me to stop talking, that my mouth is cut up badly. I start rambling.
“Are you from D.C.? Are you visiting friends?” She tells me she’s from North Carolina. “My husband is from North Carolina! From near Burlington! Are you a Tar Heels fan?” I cannot stop talking.
A man asks me for John’s number; I can’t see him but I can hear him. What’s my work number? John once asked me. I can’t remember numbers ever. It’s in my phone. Why do I need to remember it? John looked dumbfounded. What if your life depends on it? I laughed.
I can’t remember his work number. I can’t remember it. I tell the man this, and he says it’s ok, asks if I know John’s cell number. I say a few numbers first before getting them in the right order. He never answers his cell at work. Continue reading