Fierce Truths. Necessary Stories.

Two young girls chase each other exuberantly, flush with the thrill of play and life and laughter. A writer watches them from a distance:

“In them, I glimpse the girl I fleetingly was. I want to take them by their small, sweaty hands, sit with them on a stoop littered with bubble gum wrappers and cigarette butts and show them where I’ve been and hope my words may offer some protection. Give them a story that is confounding, contradictory, and truer than any other stories they will hear.”

“Girls Run Circles” from I am a red dress, by Anna Camilleri^

Last fall, I bought a book in Portland. I bought it almost at random: the famous bookstore was famous; the resonant title was resonant.

Or maybe a whisper in my bones told me I needed it.

“Give them a story that is more true, most true, true blue. I would say: You may lose yourself. Life is about finding much of who we once were and there are many lost girls who eventually find something of themselves again. I would tell them, you are precious and special and beautiful, not because you are girls, good girls, pretty girls — just because you are.”

red dress_book jacketAnna Camilleri’s I am a red dress: Incantations on a Grandmother, a Mother, and a Daughter was the first (and final) book I read last year. The first book I had read in over 18 months. I hadn’t made it past more than a few pages of anything since the ethnographic and cultural study of African-American women’s politics I read in glassy-eyed panic during the long nights of June, 2013, spent in Unit 6 — a book I read mostly to prove I was not crazy.

I was not like the young woman in the room across from the admitting station, who stabbed a nurse in the arm with the three-inch pencil she’d been given to fill out her meals-request form for the next day. (Though after the first day spent alone in my silent room — I too mighta stabbed myself in the leg with a pen, if they hadn’t all been taken away together with my shoelaces.)

I was not like the large man in the flapping-open hospital gown, who migrated about the dining area eating pudding cups off the trays of anyone not yet arrived. (Though after the second day of eating only institutional food — I too was eyeing other patients’ unsupervised desserts.)

Crazy people, I reasoned, don’t bring critical feminist analyses of race and politics with them to the psych ward. 

Continue reading “Fierce Truths. Necessary Stories.”

Red Dresses

I spent last week in Portland, Oregon, with my friend B, whom I have known since junior high. Although B has lived in Portland for over 20 years — and despite our frequent agreements we’d like to see each other more — I have never made a trip out before now.

B filled most of our evenings with places she wanted me to see, people she needed me to meet, or artwork she’s been waiting to show me. Long, slow mornings we spent conversing over coffee: three cups-worth of dissecting families, relationships, and our own creative processes, before tabling the discussion in time to get dressed for each day’s appointments.

During an early klatsch, I griped about a recent article on a site for professional writers and how it had struck me as yet another fluff piece of the “here’s what makes writers…writers” variety. Pushing against what most irritated me in the piece, I tried to refine my own, more affirmative takeaway.

“Language, memory — these are distinctively human skills,” I said. “We are — all of us — creatures that tell stories.”

“We are creatures that make meaning,” B suggested. (She herself is a visual artist, as well as a writer.) “We make symbolic systems. Language is just one of many.”

We went out for a late brunch in Montavilla shortly thereafter, followed by window browsing along SE Stark. We stopped in at Union Rose, a small artists’ boutique where B shopped for dresses. I liked the red one she tried on first, though I could see why she found the heavily cowled neckline cumbersome. She finally decided on a black shift that will certainly be easier to accessorize.

Later that day we returned to the topic of creativity. B brought up Twyla Tharp’s guideline: “Always find the spine in your work.”

“She first said it referring to dance, but it works for all artforms. Whether it’s a painting, or an assemblage, or something I’m writing — I always make sure I know what its spine is. As long as I know the spine is there…even if people don’t know what the piece means, they’ll make a sense of it.”

I nodded slowly, feeling for the shape of my own spine running along my back.  Continue reading “Red Dresses”