A Year and A Half (or Thereabouts)

Last post April 2017.

I should have known the year was going to be a doozy when I ordered this coffee.

Oh dear. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I have excuses. Some of them are good ones. Others, maybe not so much.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been forever. It feels as if just yesterday I was waxing rhapsodic on this very blog about my yellow flats (who are still in my closet, unlike their blue fraternal twins which fell to Hippo’s patient watch a few months ago).

See, the year of 2017 had started rough. Adam’s grandmother passed in February and the timing meant I needed to cancel an event that was really, really important to me — speaking at my alma mater as a “Real Author” type. Hippo was recovering from her first knee surgery. And then things really started to roll. There was illness and weirdness and chaos and travel. Dutchess had a cancer scare. A close friend’s life fell apart and I tried to be closer to help. I felt useless and hopeless.

And so 2017 teetered awkwardly onward, the revolting political climate darkening any horizons of escapism. I traveled more than I wanted to. I was tired. I was burnt out from my second novel and the demands of editing and nonprofit were at least finite, so I threw myself into them, hoping I could still call myself a writer. I took teaching gigs on the off weeks I managed to be home.

By June I’d managed to wind up with a nasty case of pneumonia, diagnosed at a walk in clinic when I finally got scared of not being able to breathe. But Adam’s family was incoming for a visit and Hippo’s second surgery was in the hopper. There wasn’t a ton of time to rest.

My grandmother went into the hospital around that time, saying she had something stuck in her esophagus. The ER docs said it was steak and sent her home with orders to see her doctor. She didn’t. In October I flew home to take her to the doctor myself, but she’d already been admitted to the hospital with extreme blood loss. She was stable and happy to be waited on when I arrived, but it wasn’t long before her doctor pulled me aside to show me that her cancer markers, which are normal under say, 45 or so, were in the 300s. We didn’t have much time. We needed to make her comfortable. She was very, very angry when I finally managed to explain it to her. She threw me out of her hospital room.

Mama’s dogs, Leo and Nova, at her bedside. They were adopted by old friends in GA.

I moved home to Billings to live with her, leaving Adam and the dogs behind. Those of you who’ve nursed cancer patients don’t need me to go into the mud and blood of it all. The palliative care was fair, although she didn’t want hospice and the clinic was not understanding of that decision, asking me to lie to her that I couldn’t take the burden. She was feisty and active until the very end, and there weren’t any problems that were rocket science save controlling her nausea and pain. And that we managed eventually.

My relationship with my grandmother was (and is) complicated. She was a beautiful woman with many gifts. She was also abusive and narcissistic and cruel, turned so inside of herself that she was unable to trust love or friendship, believing there was a finite amount of both. She gave me the gift of raising me, though she never stopped reminding me of what it had cost her. She kept my mother and I at odds in ways small and enormous. She pushed away so many of those that wanted to say goodbye.

And yet. I wouldn’t trade those three months at her side for anything in the world. I wasn’t angry at her anymore for her lies, her insults, the slaps of her bejeweled fingers, her ability to twist the truth into a narrative that made her at peace. She was also human, frightened, angry, dying. And maybe it was the opiates, but she seemed to have a larger capacity for love in those last days. Not that it was a picnic for any of us. But she did hold our tiny family close in the end and she loved us in the ways that she could.

I am thankful for her motherhood and her loyalty. I am thankful for her mistakes, too, so that I can love those things within myself and grow them into something else.

The grief has been complicated, too. As was the estate. As was taking guardianship of her brother. As was paying the bills and selling the house and sorting the possessions. All of it eating away 2018 as if there’d been no break between this year and the last. I’ve been mildly sick a lot. I’ve been away more than I’ve been home this year. In all this year’s chaos there’s been a kitchen remodel that tested the bounds of sanity, sickness and emergency room visits (yes, plural, no not mine), and more death and more cancer and a septic tank disaster and subsequent impending basement remodel. I lost my editorship at my magazine because the publisher decided we didn’t have a clear vision and wanted a hiatus to rethink.

The shoes don’t stop dropping from the skies. Perhaps they won’t. Maybe this is just how life works and before this I’d been lucky. Perhaps this is my Jobian test (which I have most assuredly failed.)

But, in the last week or so, I feel I’m finally emotionally able to get back to the table. I’ve managed not to drown so far. So I must be able to try again to put all this into words. Not these words, but story words. To write, like Adam says, “back when you were happy.”

I go through this, dear reader, not to bore you with the mundane details, but more for the selfish reason that I must account for a year and a half of my life that I misplaced in a maelstrom. I did that. I own the responsibility, or perhaps the blame. And what I can do now is move ahead. Write more passionately than before. Take back my own artisanship. My time. My space. Try again. Anything else is giving up.

That, I will not do.

I will not do that because in part, I did not go through this time alone. My network of support and friendship is deep and wide and for that I am at a loss for words. Grateful does not begin to describe the swell of whelm when I think about who showed up: in person, virtually, on the phone, through the mail, in ways tiny and ways I cannot repay. Each and every time, I was stunned into humility. This was love I might not have deserved then — or ever deserve. And yet, love isn’t a meritocracy.

My relationship with my remaining family grew in unexpected ways, as well. Adam’s family showed up in sisterhood and parenthood and constant care. From Germany, my cousin Valeska gathered up a miracle of resources to bring her four children to say goodbye to their great grandmother and be at her funeral. Mama was reticent about visitors until those children walked into the room and she could not help but love them.

Adam’s sister Sara and Hippo, February 2018.

My mother and I are healing in ways I never dreamed… I’ve always known she loves me, but there was a point when I had no idea if she’d ever like me, like my company, like who I was. That fear is mostly gone. I’m so proud of her and us and the ways we’ve begun to grow as a mother and daughter, even though we weren’t left much for blueprints. Likewise with my uncle, artistic, hilarious, beautiful Bruce, who I adore, but worry I am too much for sometimes. He was there the night Mama died and so many other nights when we went through things words don’t work to explain. We had to rely on each other in ways we hadn’t before. And I love him even more, if that’s possible, and I no longer wonder if that’s mutual (even though I’m sure I periodically work his last nerve).

Living apart from Adam had its own set of challenges when we reunited. There was sadness like molasses that had to be warmed. There were misunderstandings and resentments, choices we’d made with the circumstances at hand that hurt and festered. I’d made a choice to deprioritize our life, and had to make amends. But that, too, ultimately found us in a space for more empathy, more understanding.

All of us, we came out okay — broken, for certain — but like the cliche, certainly stronger, with love not exactly bigger, but a different shape. One that encompasses us and allows us to trust. Those lies, the animosity, the unsure-ness of it all. It’s gone now. What’s left is raw soil for us to cultivate.

And me, I have this garden of a life. These people, these dogs, this blank page, and this cup of coffee. It’s time to put them to use.

See you soon.

xx

 

Best Summer Books

bblogo_summer-reads-2015Last week I had a wonderful surprise when I learned Letters to Zell had been named one of the Summer’s Best Books by Publisher’s Weekly. You can see the feature and peruse the rest of their recommendations here. I’m thrilled and incredibly humbled to be included.

I’ve been working a lot on promotional materials for Zell and I’m so looking forward to talking in depth about the book and the characters and inspiration for the project. The coming months are sure to be very exciting. More soon!

xo

Cover Reveal: Letters to Zell

A belated happy 2015, dearest readers. I’ve been quiet here for a variety of reasons — some good and some not so good, but I’m back with something that will hopefully make up for the long absence: The gorgeous cover for Letters to Zell, my first novel, forthcoming July 1st!

Griep-LettersToZell-19807-CV-FT-V7

I  couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful realization of an idea I’d had for the cover — looking out on the LA skyline from Grimmland. The wonderful folks at Cyanotype Book Architects, under the direction of 47North’s Editorial Lead (and my acquiring editor), Jason Kirk, realized this gorgeous collaboration over the last couple months. I’m honored and thrilled and could go on and on and on. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll let you know you can pre-order the book here, whenever your sweet heart desires.

Still curious as to what I’ve been up to? See what I’ve been helping with alongside Empire Lascaux over at Easy Street.

AMERICANA

As I write this post, I’m sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching the May snow fall thin and fine. It’s not sticking, but it’s as Montana as the weather gets. I wrote “Pros & Cons of Montana” as paean to my home place, the land that pulls me like a magnet, the sky that I still dream about — wide and unforgiving. Synaesthesia‘s lush new issue features countless writers I admire and I couldn’t be more humbled to be among their words. Grab a drink and a spot on the grass and read with me. Share what the bones of this great big beautiful country sing to us in the silence.

Sunday

I’ve never had a day like Sunday. It was almost comedic in its bounty.

It didn’t start out hopeful, with A leaving for Boston again — this time for a month. When I got home from the airport, I had an email. My story, “The Spider,” was chosen third in the thrice-yearly On The Premises contest marking my first official pro sale.

I was so busy celebrating that I was almost late to rehearsal. And rehearsal smelled like feet. And I wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere where people cared that I had sold a story, not whether I had scissors or bobby pins.

During a break between acts, I checked my email again. An email from my favorite online magazine Used Furniture Review notified me that my column proposal had been accepted, so I now have a monthly gig that I completely adore. This morning, when I opened my email, the box was full of writing related work tasks and I can’t believe that I’ve been lucky enough to turn this into my vocation. Now, back to writing…

Homophobe

Back here in Montana, my grandfather has been taking stock of things. Though we still don’t have an *official* diagnosis — that will happen Monday — we’ve vacillated between insisting everything will be fine to envisioning the worst possible scenarios.

He has been reflecting a lot. We get hilarious tales of life in the army — how they hid the burned creamed corn from the angry sergeant who’d been looking forward to eating it to how he and his brawny friends harassed the owner of the neighborhood’s first compact car by picking it up and wedging it between trees and dumpsters. He’s supposed to gain weight so we talk a lot about food. And then there was this conversation:

“What exactly is homophobia? Does it mean that you hurt people who are gay?”

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What I’m Looking For

The whole mess started when I began to look for something. It was an important thing. It should have been in the important place. And because it was so important, I most likely put it in an even more important place that I now can no longer remember.

And so I unearthed a pile of boxes. My own past, time capsules of memory. Interspersed through 30 years of correspondence, were theater tickets and scraps, stickers and programs. Letters from people I no longer know. Letters from people I wish I still knew. Letters from people who are essential to my daily life. Sometimes, one can sit with these things and feel elation. I simply hope that these people who touched my life felt as appreciated by me back then as is the reality now.

When I think about the quality of people in my life, I am heartened. I’ve really had the pleasure of knowing some amazing people. And those not so amazing people… I’ve probably forgotten them, blocking out the unpleasant as I have with a great majority of my history. I don’t remember liking high school particularly, but I don’t remember it being painful either. I just don’t remember it at all.

But these letters. They bring it all smashing back like a face full of cold water. Some of the great mysteries of life, now so obvious. Yes, he loved you. No, she wasn’t your friend. These are the people who cared for you forever. Amazing realizations, really. It feels much like turning on faucets after a long absence. I am feeling more and more, watching the rust fall down the drain.

And now I’m to the last bag. I still haven’t found what I was originally looking for, but I think maybe that’s alright now. Maybe I found what I needed instead.

Is there room for happiness?

Yesterday I postulated on Facebook whether there is room for happiness in literature. Some people answered that indeed there was enough tragedy in the world and that they wanted to skip that in their literature. Others answered that indeed there is no happiness without sadness. And while I agree in an absolute sense, I am still puzzling over the implications.

As I struggle with my own project, balance must be the key. I am not writing a tragic book — that just isn’t the story. There’s intrigue and mischief and the kind of pain that normal teens and adults feel in their lives (sorrow, loss, death) but there is no abuse or rape or murder. And I wonder if my original postulation should have included a delineation of pain.

I am left with this, though. It is sobering to think about how happy I am and how generally dissatisfied people seem to be on the whole. To believe that happiness is somehow must be only a temporary state of existence… After personally working so hard to be in a constant state of happiness where problems no longer have the ability to derail me, it’s downright terrifying. It’s not that I don’t think that life has the capacity to completely suck or take terrible turns, I just think that going forward, I’ll choose to face it instead of to hide. But only time will tell.

I have to laugh though, as I write this, because once a very long time ago I was written a letter in response to telling someone how unhappy I was. He wrote that if I was indeed that unhappy then no one (including him) was safe. At first, I couldn’t get my head around the statement. How could he have been so satisfied? Wasn’t everyone miserable? And though it took years for me to right myself mentally and that friend is a great distance away from me and my life now, I credit that as being the point that I learned that one didn’t have to accept unhappiness as the status quo.

Maybe it’s for that reason that I want to write about people who aren’t sunk in the miasma. Because I don’t think it has to be that way.

Pursuit.

 “We’re in pursuit of happiness

Order of the day

And we’re on, on a mission to make it true

We do it almost every day”

Pursuit of Happiness – Weekend Players

Part of the reason that I wanted to return to writing full time was to explore happiness and its true forms and causes. I have so many friends who are in so many different places right now and I am curious, as I grow older, how exactly we begin to reconcile the lives we have with the lives we wanted.

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