3-2-1: Launch!

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We’re just weeks away from launching The Ghosts Who Travel with Me. The first review is in, I’ve been interviewed for a web site call Queen Mob’s Tea House, and the reading schedule is shaping up. Important things to think about: What will I wear at the book launch reading? Do I need a new pen for signing books? You know, crucial decisions.

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Since You Left Minneapolis

Ivy hedge in Minneapolis sculpture garden

I turned thirty in Minneapolis. I wanted to celebrate with my girlfriend-at-the-time on the patio of the Loring Park Café, where a musician played saxophone from the roof. But it rained that day – a pummeling thunderstorm – and we ran from our apartment across Loring Park to the restaurant. We were seated at an inside table, and I ate, damp and miserable.

Nothing was going right. I didn’t want to be in Minneapolis, but my girlfriend had taken a job there. I didn’t have much to show for my Master of Fine Arts – no publications, certainly not a novel worth sending to agents or publishers.

I made myself cry over and over that year listening to Iris Dement’s song about her father’s death: “I’m older now, and I’ve got no time to cry.” I had lots of time, and I did cry, abundantly.

Recently I attended a writer’s conference in Minneapolis, and several writers – Cheryl Strayed, Barrie Jean Borich, and Amitava Kumar – appeared on a panel called “The Past is a Place: Former Minnesotans Remember.” They had given themselves a task. Upon arriving in Minneapolis, each had gone to a place fraught with feelings for them and written an essay. All of them had been up the night before the presentation, writing. Their pieces were vivid impressions of isolation, missed connections, and loneliness.

I only lived in Minneapolis for two years, so my fraught places there are few. Still, I visited them while attending the conference. They cluster around Loring Park: the apartment building on one corner, a short block of businesses on another, and, across the freeway, the Walker Art Center and its sculpture garden.

The first year in Minneapolis, my girlfriend and I argued more than we ever had. After about six years together we had developed some resentments, and my new resentment – moving to this city — leaked into every discussion. Eventually, we found a counselor, and every week we walked from our apartment to her office, spent an hour talking with her, and then went into the sculpture garden. In the winter, it was often too cold to be outside for long, but the glass conservatory was warm and humid. We would sit and talk on a bench in the central room, where a huge glass fish arched toward the sky, and little trees in pots bore tiny oranges.

Now I crossed the pedestrian bridge over the freeway and saw the glass roof of the conservatory. I had forgotten all about it. Here was the tunnel through vines, the pots of ferns and lillies, and the glass fish, designed by Frank Gehry. The orange trees were gone, and the space was duller without them, but the air was still pleasantly warm on this early spring day, making my glasses fog as I walked in. I sent my ex- a photograph of the fish: where am I? But she didn’t know.

It’s easy to want to send consoling thoughts back to that thirty-year-old: don’t worry so much, don’t cry. There will be other birthdays on other patios in the sun. You are learning how to communicate with your partner, and those skills will help you collaborate in your future job and work things out with the woman you will someday marry.

But, on this trip to Minneapolis, the one where I was now past my fiftieth birthday, I was having new worries. Not the existentialist crisis of a post-MFA, temporarily employed thirty-year-old, but the kinds of worries that gnaw and bother and make me have to wear a mouthguard at night. Everyday worries about living up to obligations and dealing with conflicts and finding time for myself and my writing. More consequential worries – about a world where another Black man was shot by a police officer and where most panelists at the conference sessions were White.

So I didn’t send a consoling message to my young self. Instead, I sat in the conservatory and admired the overlapping glass plates that are the scales of the fish. I consciously breathed the humid air and relaxed my jaw. I thought of my friend Jennifer Rose, who tells me to take the time to breathe deeply for two minutes every day. Because our life is lived in breaths, and mine tend to be shallow and inadequate. The conservatory had, decades ago, been a place of warm respite, and I wanted to take that in, to hold it and release. For two minutes, that’s what I did.

“Since you left Minneapolis” is from the Lucinda Williams song, “Minneapolis”

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Pre-Order The Ghosts Who Travel with Me

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You can now pre-order The Ghosts Who Travel with Me from Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You have the option of having the book mailed to you or picking it up at the store. Faculty and students get a 20% discount but must pick up the book at the store and show identification.

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New Publication: “Twenty Hours and Ten Minutes of Therapy,” The Gettysburg Review

Therapy Tape, March 11, 1986

Therapy Tape, March 11, 1986

The Gettysburg Review has published my essay, “Twenty Hours and Ten Minutes of Therapy,” in the spring 2015 issue. In 1985-1986, as I was coming out, I spent about six months in therapy. It was almost thirty years before I could bear to listen to the cassette tapes of the sessions. This essay is about that experience.

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Silent Tide

Surf foaming over feet

Puget Sound, Fort Worden

In the year after we moved into our building, we never met the reclusive white-haired woman down the hall, and then she was carried away on a stretcher and didn’t come back. Some months later, Arline offered to periodically check her apartment and run the faucets. In a co-op, everyone owns the whole building, so we have a communal responsibility. I followed as Arline went on her first visit.

Arline turned the key in the lock. The wood in the door frame had splintered when the medics broke in. The door opened to a dark, aquarium-blue room, the blinds closed to the afternoon sun. A walker stood near the door, no surprise, but beyond that was a tandem Rodriguez bicycle, a high-end custom brand that is made at the bike shop down the street and sold nowhere else in the world. Suddenly, a life sprang open like a paper accordion. She was not just a frazzle-haired old woman bent over a walker; she was an adventurer bike-rider who had pedaled the city with someone on the second seat. Who was that someone?

The dim, abandoned apartment made me shiver. I wanted to quickly move through every room, flicking on each light to make sure there were no moldering bodies, which made no sense because, of course, the owner had not died here but been rescued. She was presumably resting in a place where nurses regularly checked her pulse. Still, the apartment felt haunted.

It took me awhile to figure out why. On the dining room table were bird books and a pair of binoculars. Everywhere, there were birds: a ceramic owl, a dangling mobile of mallards, a framed sheet of bird stamps. In the second bedroom, two more bikes, single-seaters, hung on a rack. In the kitchen sink were her breakfast dishes.

The apartment was haunted by a living woman. She may not have ridden one of those bicycles lately, but she had surely lifted the binoculars to her eyes and looked through the dining room window at the trees along Ravenna Boulevard. Maybe she had been doing just that when her heart or her brain seized, or whatever had happened that had drawn the medics. And in a moment, she had been carried away from this life she had spent years making.

We returned to our apartment, and a heaviness settled. It wasn’t the things themselves that made me sad, the bicycles that gave evidence of a more robust life, the dangling mallards that must have made her smile. It was the sense of her things being set down with the intention of picking them up again. She had put down her binoculars. She had set her breakfast dishes in the sink. She had closed the book of birds. Later, her hands would grip the binoculars again, would wash those dishes, would open that book. But they didn’t.

Whenever I grieve for someone, I know I’m grieving for myself and for everyone I’ve loved and lost. Age spots, like fat freckles, have appeared on the backs of my hands. They remind me of my paternal grandmother, whose early-grey hair I inherited. I used to watch her spotted hands play the baby grand piano while I sang, “Lightly row, lightly row, o’er the glassy waves we go. Smoothly glide, smoothly glide, on the silent tide.” Twenty years ago, her hands stopped moving, and someday, so will mine.

A couple of years after Arline started checking the woman’s apartment, a city caseworker was assigned to manage her affairs. People moved out the ceramic owl, the bird stamps, and the breakfast dishes. Workers painted the walls and sanded the floor. And then we got word that she had died. The apartment no longer feels haunted.

But her birds and bicycles are out there. And somewhere there is a reel-to-reel tape of my grandmother and me. My grandmother’s hands make the notes, and my little girl voice trills the words. Into eternity our music glides, on the silent tide.

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Ghosts on Pinterest

The lovely team at Ooligan has made a Pinterest site for my book. How about that?

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Four Writers Writing

Writing Group 2011

Alma Garcia, Donna Miscolta, Jennifer D. Munro, and me in the back

The secret of my success? My writing group. Over on her blog, Straight-No-Chaser Mom, Jennifer D. Munro tells the story of how she joined the group and I started writing what would become The Ghosts Who Travel with Me. Happy Valentine’s, Writing Group. I ❤ you.

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