On July 14, 2020, my 2005 collection of essays, Above Us Only Sky, is being reissued by Counterpoint in both paper and digital editions. To the original essays, I’ve added 22 new ones, 17 of them written for this column. That’s why the new edition is dedicated to Baltimore Fishbowl founder and publisher Suzy Dunn – without her support, most of this new work would not exist. And you Fishbowl readers, you too get credit. Some writers produce masterpieces in isolation, but I can’t write 500 words without believing that somebody will read them, and soon.
I used to think the most unbearable feeling in the world was being misunderstood. Now I am misunderstood so often that it must be I who misunderstands. Most problematically, I seem to misunderstand myself. The big thing that’s happening now, where white people who didn’t think they were racist are finding out they actually are? That is happening to me, and not just on the social justice front. In the end, it may turn out I was a very deluded Shetland pony or a Catholic nun in the grip of a fever dream.
Last month I got a whole column out of the idea that I had nothing to say, and I still feel that way, only more so. The mental disconnect continues. Perhaps you know what I mean.
I found myself thinking about something the poet William Stafford wrote in his essay, A Way of Writing. “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” In this month of blankness and difficulties, I searched for such a process to guide my way. Stafford’s own approach, daily writing pages, seemed unlikely as I felt unable to put together even one honest sentence.
In the face of a bizarre disaster that has derailed daily life everywhere, in the face of isolation, fear, disappointment, and a constant flood of bad news, a spring-green fuse of creative energy is sizzling and popping all over the world. The memes and parodies, the YouTubes and TikToks, the Italians singing to each other from their balconies, the New Yorkers pounding pots at 7 pm. The Getty Museum art challenge, the family in London with their adorable rendition of Les Mis, the spandexed mom doing her Jane Fonda workout to I Will Survive. The Israeli woman in dark glasses ranting in Hebrew about online elementary school.
In the late 1980s, after struggling for years to write fiction and poetry, I stumbled on the possibilities of the personal essay. I was inspired and energized by the possibility of telling the truth about my life and experiences. It was a challenge to see how honest I could really be – how far I would go. There were things it seemed impossible to discuss in public. What the hell, I thought, and did it anyway. And once I did, I experienced the redemptive and sometimes thrilling powers of confession, which is what this essay celebrates. Later, after “Telling” became the title essay of my first collection from Random House, I experienced some of the less fun aspects of baring one’s life and soul, like being criticized for being exhibitionistic and seeking only to shock. Reading this essay 30-plus years later, I think I may in fact have gone a little overboard. Welcome to the “Oy Vey” edition of Telling, with illustrations.
Toward the end of winter break, my daughter Jane and I took a one-week trip to Sevilla, Spain, with a detour to another Andalusian all-star, Granada. In the olden days, I would have written a piece called Ten Reasons to Go To Sevilla or Thirty-Six Hours in Sevilla or What’s New in Sevilla for a newspaper or magazine travel section; unfortunately, here in 2020 both my freelance career and print-media travel sections have fallen on hard times. But you know me, I gotta write it down. And now it turns out, Jane’s gotta take pictures of it. And so the spunky little Ten Reasons story lives on, with about twice as many words as I would have had in the days of ink and paper.
I don’t know if I’m going soft in my old age or what, but I didn’t hate the holidays at all this year. From the morning I ran outside barefoot in my bathrobe to give the garbage men a twenty-dollar bill, it was just one sweet moment after another. Since my children don’t live here anymore, it was lovely to have a couple of them return. Jane helped me get the Christmas tree and Vince found Chanukah candles for 89 cents a box. Then I cooked their favorite dishes as they sat side by side on the couch joyously playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch. Hayes and Maria were in Ecuador with her family but showed up on Facetime at key moments.
My neighbor Pam has three wild boys, and all have begged for years to get a dog. Particularly Rocco, the middle one, a born animal lover. But who will take care of this dog? asked Pam, knowing perfectly well who it would be. Sorry boys, no dog. It’s already too much around here.
In February 2019, about six months into my empty nest lifestyle, I realized how many more hours there are in a day when you live alone. I thought I might need a hobby. Since I already speak a little Spanish and have been wanting to improve, I signed up for online lessons at Berlitz.com.
I was having a fine, if ordinary, summer day until two things happened, both right outside my front door. The first time I left the house, I discovered a hit-and-run driver had lopped off my rearview mirror. That afternoon, I briefly left my iPhone in the car, and by the time I went out to get it, it was gone. That iPhone was one of the only working parts of my brain, and it was not even halfway paid for.
I picture them like evil dots on a GPS map, miscreants on the move, turning on my street, stopping at my house, dropping off a random to-go order of misery. Small and medium for me this time. But just as I was ruminating on the terrible power of bad people, the universe gave me an opportunity to notice just the opposite, a couple helpings of positive vibes I had done nothing to deserve.