Sometimes you know that your life is a prison, but you can’t figure out why. Maybe something has made you trapped — responsibility, bad health, a pandemic, bad weather, anxiety.
That’s how I felt on Thursday when Shaun told me that the housing inspector was coming to our home that we live in, which also has a vacation rental permit for the years where I don’t make enough to make me feel safe enough to not rush off and live in a camper to rent our house to strangers.
That’s not happening this year. It hasn’t happened for a couple of years, but it lurks over me. A threat. A possibility I could return to only now there are two dogs, four cats, a snake, a kid, a husband.
So, when he said the inspector was coming to check on things — a totally nice guy — I panicked. And I felt trapped. There was no escape. I had a bunch of deadlines and a house that wasn’t perfect.
“The house is a sty,” I yelled.
“Baby girl, the house is not a sty.”
“A pig pen!”
“Baby girl — ”
“There is dust on the stairs. There is a paper towel on the counter. There is a ripped blanket on the sofa! I need to clean the toilets!”
“He is not going to look in the toil — ”
“Oh my banana bread! The kitty litter boxes!” Full disclosure: I did not yell “banana bread.” I yelled something else.
I frantically cleaned, mumbling, “It’s a mess. It’s a sty. It’s a mess.”
And Shaun said, “Baby, nobody would think this house is a sty but you.”
“I am slovenly!”
“No. No, you aren’t slovenly.” He stressed the word like he thought it was funny and then saw my glare apparently and paused. “Is that what matters? That you feel slovenly?”
Yes. Yes, it was. I felt like a slob and I needed to escape that feeling. I felt like I’d been too busy working and living and going biking with Em who was home for the week to notice the dust on the stairs. To be fair, it wasn’t dust. It was dog and cat fur that decides every day to collect like tumble weed and sit in wait on the stairs.
I grew up in a family where we cleaned as a family every Saturday and put away laundry and dishes and clutter every single day. Beds were made. Pillows fluffed. Clothes did not wait like Shaun’s shorts do, folded on top of the dresser. They were in the drawer. I am a relic of this past, of making sure that even though we weren’t rich, we weren’t filth. Those moments of control over our house’s cleanliness were sometimes the only bits of control we had.
My house would not have met my family’s inspection. I had a tea mug on my desk, for banana bread’s sake. The shed in the back has some sort of green stuff growing on it. Pollen maybe? Dirtying the sides.
The inspector came over. He did not lift up the toilet seats. And when he was gone, Shaun said, “He said we had a really nice house four times.”
“He did not.”
“You’re lying to make me feel better.”
“I swear. Four times.”
Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate what we have, you know? Sometimes, it’s really easy to slip into a space where you worry about being judged even by super nice people. Sometimes, it’s hard to move past the things that cut so quick and so deep — like being pretty poor in a town full of pretty rich.
My town is like that now, too. On my way back from a chamber event, I stopped and talked to a couple people who were running for office. There were funny and kind. They worked hard. One talked about all her jobs, about hoping to find a new room to live in, about hoping that soon seasonal workers wouldn’t have to crash in their cars and that more year round workers could find year round places, too. I fell instantly in love with both of them.
Today, I took a break in work to scrub at the pollen (or whatever) that was on the fence, on the shed in my backyard. I have pretty wimpy hands, so they ache about this sort of thing pretty quickly.
But I realized just then just how lucky I was to have a house, about how excited both of those cool women could potentially be to have a shed to wash, to have a place to call their own, to have that housing stability where you didn’t have to worry about a landlord. But also, how grateful I am that they have someplace at least. But damn, I want them to have somewhere better. I want them to be able to freak out about their house being too something or other. I want them to be able to paint walls, to make plans and improvements if they want — to have that stability if they want. Housing insecurity is big and it’s real and as property taxes increase, it’s happening to people on fixed incomes, too, or people like me who don’t have a set salary, who wonder if they’ll have to take off to a campground or a boat or a tent or something in the summer to make ends meet.
My house is not a prison. My house is a gift and a blessing that I worked really hard for and that I have to appreciate while I have it. What was a prison was my way of looking at it. I made that prison. Me. And I’m feeling that way about the painting below (that negative way), but I’m trying to push past that and post this anyway.
So, here’s to finding security when it comes to shelter and it comes to our own brains, and to breaking free from those prisons we construct for ourselves.
It’s all about texture and culture and why Shaun doesn’t like okra or tomatoes. Come hang out with us as we discuss how a lot of Americans don’t have words for food textures and how that might be changing.
DOG TIP FOR LIFE
The music we’ve clipped and shortened in this podcast is awesome and is made available through the Creative Commons License.
There are a couple excerpts in there that I’ve fallen a bit in love with and I wanted to share it with you.
This book is for what they are calling public-facing writers, which seems to be a distinction that doesn’t include novelists, which I find pretty interesting.
Novelists are also public facing writers. All writing except diaries or personal journaling is. That’s because the act of writing is the act of communicating.
You are always communicating to someone else. That someone else is not your pinky toe. That someone else is the reader.
Anyway, she writes of Clark’s advice:
Repeat your key points, but in different forms
“Tell ’em what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them,” is an old adage in writing. Clark spruces it up with advice to vary the forms of repetition: The same information in a quote, a graph and an anecdote, for example, can reduce the feeling of redundancy.
Interpret what you see into themes and make connections
Part of the job of a public writer is not just to report but to interpret: What are the emerging contained in the news event or situation? How can we help readers make sense of the world? To do so, Clark says writers should continue to learn from multiple schools of thought — science, anthropology, political science, economics, literature and more — in order to find meaning in the news, and also to explore the deeper reasons why something is happening.
It’s fun to think of these bits of advice. Often novelists are told NOT to repeat information by their agents and editors, so we too have to mask the ways that we are actually repeating something to the reader. We show them that our character is insecure, let’s say, in how they react to situations. Then we show how they grow.
But as novelists, we also have to not just lay out the facts of the story, we have to interpret those bits and images and dialogues and moments of cause and effect to make an entire world that our reader makes sense of. There’s a real push and pull that happens in this communication.
A piece of writing — any kind of piece of writing — is a contract between us and the reader. There is a moment when you hit PUBLISH on an article or a moment where your book is picked up by a reader and all your control? It’s gone.
That’s kind of beautiful (though occasionally scary) because it’s a leap of faith and trust in ourselves as writers and our readers to get it, to have explained it well, to have created it well on the page and then for the reader to create it in their own brains and hearts.
That’s pretty damn beautiful.
That’s not an AI thing. That’s a human thing. That connection. And it’s important.
Three prizes of $2,000 each and publication in Ploughshares are given annually for a poem or group of poems, a short story, and an essay. Each winner also receives a consultation with the literary agency Aevitas Creative Management. Writers who have not published a book or a chapbook with a print run of over 300 copies are eligible. Using only the online submission system, submit three to five pages of poetry or up to 6,000 words of fiction or nonfiction with a $24 entry fee, which includes a subscription to Ploughshares (there is no entry fee for current subscribers), between March 1 and May 15. Visit the website for complete guidelines.
Ploughshares, Emerging Writer’s Contest, Emerson College, 120 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116. (617) 824–3757. Ellen Duffer, Managing Editor.
Marsie: You’re afraid of failing, of being vulnerable, of exposing yourself to the world, am I right? Or worse — What if nobody even notices you? Or worse — What if there is suddenly no catnip in the house?
Me: How do you know so much?
Marsie: I am a cat. Therefore, I know all things. Plus, I know about fear. But I don’t care. I live my life. Look at this photo. I am on the dog bed and right there — it is the evidence that the dogs destroy things! That was a perfectly good owl toy and it is dead now. That dog has jaws of steel and could eat me in a second for daring to be on her bed. But do I care? No! I still claim the dog bed. You, human, need to claim the dog bed.
Marsie doesn’t understand that sometimes it’s hard to claim the dog bed. I wrote about this on Instagram awhile ago because I was thinking about one of my grandmothers.
She wrote so many poems and made so many paintings that she never let anyone see.
She couldn’t handle the scorn. But she couldn’t NOT create things.
She was afraid of the ocean, thought it was this massive, beautiful deadly force.
Men can be like that too sometimes, she told me. I don’t know why we are expected to be so strong. Why must we be so strong and vulnerable?
I was like ten when she asked me that so I didn’t have an answer.
This painting is inspired by one of her paintings that she left unfinished. I don’t know if she had copied the original or if it was her own, but the woman walking across a realistic earth, approaching the sea all huddled and afraid and then reaching out for the unreal sky makes me think of her. Afraid but reaching out.
I am not an artist. I have absolutely no training at all except for a high school art class, but all I want to do is paint.
I am not a great philosopher, but still I’m compelled to share what I think.
I sound like a Muppet and slur my s’s, but still I’m making podcasts and I’m in charge of a really intensive online writing class that forces me to talk on video to 12 people every month. And the whole time I think — I am so afraid to do this. People will hear my voice and laugh (not in a good way).
All these things scare me so much.
And every time I write a book, I think:
What if nobody reads it?
What if nobody likes it?
But life and creating is all about vulnerability. It’s about saying yes to experiences even though it’s so scary. Yes, just writing a blog post is scary to me because it’s vulnerable. You can do that, too.
Really. I’m not very exceptional at all, but I try to become better. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I have to make my cat talk to have a blog post, but that’s okay. Because it’s something.
You are something, too.
So, maybe think for a second:
What is it that makes you vulnerable?
What is it that makes you scared to say ‘yes’ to things?
Because here’s the thing (cue meditative Stuart Smalley music from that ancient SNL skit): You are enough. You are good enough and real enough and authentic. Your story matters.
And if other people don’t see it? Their loss. What matters is that YOU see it.
Marsie is right about that. Not so right about the cat nip.
Seriously, this is what happens when you have too much cat nip.
You Have To Believe in The Good–Living Happy Roundup
My mother spent a lifetime hugging other people. Meeting after meeting, interaction after interaction, for the entire time that she was alive, she would hug people when she saw them and hug them when they left.
Her hugs were many.
Her hugs were long.
She would open her arms wide, her eyes would twinkle, her dimples would show and it was almost impossible not to step toward that 5 foot 1 frame and hug. She’d often smell like vanilla and brown sugar on top of her perfume, a fancy kind that she’d ask for every Christmas. It came from Jordan Marsh, which was a big deal store decades ago. It was fancy, too.
She would open her arms and you would step into them.
My mom always wanted to be a teacher, but life got in the way. Love with my stepdad when she was still in high school became a big deal drama. He was run out of state. She was desperate to leave home. She married my little hobbit down and though she was brilliant—impeccable at math and grammar, the fastest typist anyone in Bedford, New Hampshire had ever seen—she settled for a life without college. She raised her children. Felt unloved. Unfulfilled. Had another child and a scandal. That child was me.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you are less, Carrie,” she’d tell me before I knew even what less meant. “You are good, so good.”
“You are too, Mommy,” I’d say back for years and years.
You are too.
My mom often felt judged by people who were richer, who had less drama, who weren’t addicted to Marlboro Lights or canned tuna, who got to go to college, by ministers who cheated at bowling, by men who cheated on their wives but didn’t get caught, and women too. She’d dance around the house when she vacuumed or did dishes singing about the “Harper Valley PTA” a song about a women judged in her small town for loving wrong.
But even then. She would throw her arms open and let people hug her. She’d know everything about everyone—she became the town clerk, a real estate agent, an office manager, organized her class reunions—and people told her things.
“We all have secrets,” she’d tell me. “You have to hug your way through them.”
My mom died over a decade ago. On her hospital bed, two days before she left, she tried to share her hospital ice cream with all of her surviving kids. She insisted.
“Good,” she murmured, “it’s so good.”
Hugs come in different ways. My mom knew that. Sometimes, people have personal boundaries and didn’t want one. She always respected that, too, but she’d find other ways to give them. In the offer of ice cream, in listening without judgement, in a dimpled smile, or in words. Sometimes her strongest hugs were words. Words like “You are good, so good.”
Despite all the drama in her life, despite her missed opportunities, my mom lived her life with purpose. That purpose? It was to hug. It was to remind people they are loved. It is to remind them that they are good.
So, in honor of her this Monday, let me share her purpose for a hot second.
You are worthy of hugs. You deserve them.
You are worthy of love. You deserve that, too.
And the inside of you? That part that sometimes feels too raw to share? It is good. So full of good.
injustice often came from not taking care of the earth and then not taking care of each other.
This year, I’ve been talking to a lot of people that I used to be a little afraid of.
And it’s been?
It’s actually been lovely.
People that I was intimidated by, I now message on Facebook.
People that I would stress about seeing because they had no problem telling me uncomfortable truths? We talk on the phone.
People that were so beautiful and confident that I would sort of gawp at and run the other way? We smile and talk now. We make eye contact during meetings when other people are being dorks.
And this? It’s kind of a beautiful thing and a lucky thing. It’s all just because I stopped being a wimp and started just going into everything I’m afraid of with the goal of being nice no matter what.
Tomorrow is the tenth year anniversary of Richie Havens’ death. This man was a talent, an enhancing talent, but also someone who spent a lot of his life making the kind of music that preached love and kindness for each other and the environment.
Next week it will be the tenth anniversary of my little hobbit dad’s death. He was no Richie Havens, but he, too, dedicated so much of his time in love and kindness for other people, for the environment, breaking into song or whistling because the music of the world meant a lot to him and was a part of him.
And both of them seemed as if they could be skeptics; they were comfortable and familiar with unease.
And I think both of them believed (at least at some point in their lives) that injustice often came from not taking care of the earth and then not taking care of each other.
Today, I decided (again) that I need to rededicate myself to humanhood – to the hope that I can find a way to see everyone as part of a great, big human system that we are all in together.
There is magic in the earth. But it has to be tended to.
There is magic in humanity. But it has to be tended to, too.
I am tired of enemies. I am tired of thinking in a way that makes other people enemies or the earth, an enemy. I want a world that doesn’t have that, yet I still think that way sometimes. Recently, someone who has some issues and has been kind of mean to me, asked me, “How can you still be nice to me? I don’t understand how you can still be nice.”
It’s the only way I want to be. And, I TOTALLY fail at it sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I am going to stop trying. I want a world of nice, or magic, or tending to, a world where we celebrate each other being brave even when the result is sort of a mess (like my sketch below).
I can’t control anyone else, but I can at least partially control myself, so I’m going to try.
I’ll call it the Nice Experiment. It’s starting now. Fingers crossed that I’ll do okay with it. Fingers double crossed that people like Havens and my dad are still here, paying homage, creating music with words and thoughts and guitar riffs and hobbit voices (my dad, not Havens) that matter.