Danger comes easy

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The best beer I ever drank was a Sol tallboy
from a styrofoam cooler in a neighborhood park
in Merida. It was Carnival in Mexico
but that particular block party could have been simply
someone’s birthday. Still, a teenage boy
sold me the can, ice cold, almost

frozen. There was a parade that day — floats
for hours blasting pop music. Drag queens
in tall wigs and short skirts threw kisses
like candy. You wouldn’t think there’d be
so many queens in Mexico, or maybe it’s no
surprise. And ordinary, too, how the police Continue reading

Christine Hale publishes a masterful memoir

Originally published by Mountain Xpress

Chris-Hale

Throughout her book A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A memoir in four meditations, Christine Hale recounts penning and reworking a novel. It’s a detail she returns to over and over. “I was a fiction writer [and] weirdly, given this book, I’m quite a private person,” she says. But following the deaths of her parents, Hale’s focus on fiction shifted and she was compelled to write not just about the passing of her mother and father, but their relationship and her own life growing up in Appalachia. “The memoir hijacked me,” she says.

“Working with a lot of memoir projects [over] the past 10 years, it’s not unusual for it to just come out and insist,” says Hale. She teaches writing in the Antioch University Los Angeles low-residency MFA program and the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC Asheville.

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Sometimes it snows in April

I can’t remember the exact reason my cousin Andy quit speaking to me — it was twenty-eight years ago — but it had to do with Prince. I vaguely remember the argument. We were in front of the lockers before band class and we disagreed about some finer point of the musician’s genius. We both liked Prince. It was 1987 and really, who didn’t. But Andy, who was a dedicated musician when I was on the verge of quitting band, liked Prince more.

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Prince came to me through my sister. She was nearly three years younger and usually I discovered music first, but she discovered Prince. She told me his real name was Prince Rogers Nelson. She learned everything she could about Minneapolis. She talked about going to college there. She bought the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon. My sister probably had other Prince albums, but that’s the one we listened to most together. Continue reading

Arrival

I’m working on a series of linked short stories around the theme of travel in India. I recently came across this essay that serves as a sort of jumping-off point for the short stories.

Jaisalmer, 2001

Most people on planes and in the bleary pre-dawn of airports are fine with anonymity. With remaining strangers. Not Celeste. She adopted Mom and me somewhere between de-boarding and baggage claim. “Watch my stuff,” she said, and we did while she ran into the bathroom. It was still most of a year before 9/11. You could watch a stranger’s bags. And Celeste was instantly familiar.

“I’m not going back to the United States until George Bush is out of office,” she said on the way through Customs. He’d been in office for less than a week. I still felt the shock waves of his election. Clinton was the first president I’d been old enough to vote for. I naively thought the optimistic flush of the ’90s would continue Indefinitely. 

But Celeste wasn’t interested in giving the new president a chance. She had a shaved head, a septum ring and a full-sleeve tattoo. “That’s cool,” Mom said, nodding at Celeste’s arm. “Maybe I should get one.”

“You should,” Celeste said. “Tattoos are cheap in India. Everything is. You can live here on, like, $1,000 a year.”

I wasn’t sure if that was true. There were people in India who lived on far less. People who lived in boxes, drinking dirty water and eating scraps, ephemera and dust. I’d taken a trip to India seven years earlier and had gone six weeks with $200 in traveler’s checks. It was stressful, but everything about being young and stupid and 12,000 miles from home was stressful.

Celeste, in her gold harem pants, teal tunic and giant hoop earrings, looked like she stressed over very little. Plus, she told us, she was meeting friends in a few days. Her friends were in India studying contortions and tightrope walking.

“So basically you’re running away to join the circus,” I said. She shrugged. We collected our backpacks from the luggage carousel — I still had the pack from my college trip. I’d imaged becoming a world traveler after college, but then I found out how much a round-the-world ticket cost. I realized that being college-broke was nothing like being real-life-broke. Instead of flying to Nepal or Kenya, I got a job and a housemate and a dog. I wasn’t exacly selling my soul for the American dream, but I sure wasn’t running away to join the circus.

Celeste reminded me of how wild I wasn’t, but Mom saw her as one of us. Celeste was a shaven-headed, tattooed, harem pants-wearing exPat, so therefore Mom was, too. Why not? “Do you want to share a cab?” Mom asked our new best friend.

“You can’t just hail a cab in India,” I said.

“Of course you can,” Mom said. “I can see them from here.” It was true, they were lined up outside baggage claim, just beyond the doors. Drivers in turbans, drivers in sweaters and flip-flops. There were motorcycle rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws and Ambassador cars. But what I knew that my mother didn’t know was that the moment we walked out of the airport, we’d be descended upon. We’d be mobbed and grabbed and and shouted at. Our bags would be snatched from our hands and thrown into one cab or another. Maybe different cabs. The drivers would promise cheap rates, special deals, and tours of places we didn’t want to tour. And despite our best intentions to be resolute, we’d be led like idiot children. The confusion would be compounded by our jetlag.

“We need a plan,” I said. “We need to know where we’re going and how much we want to pay.”

Celeste and Mom both looked at me expectantly.

“We should go to the old city,” I said, only because that’s where I stayed before. In the Navrang Hotel, a dreary, multi-level place that used to be a prison. All of its rooms looked into the same concrete courtyard, voices ringing in the central space all day and night. The truth is that I couldn’t imagine my mother in that dive of a place, with its bucket shower and squat toilets. But I hadn’t stayed anywhere nicer. I looked in my guidebook for a hotel nearby, something with a balcony and a Western toilet. I picked the Hotel Ganesh, and we all repeated the name like a safe word.

Somehow we got a cab. Our bags were ripped from our hands and tossed into the trunk of an Ambassador. I continued to chant “Hotel Ganesh! Old City!” Until our bearded driver eased away from the airport and into traffic.

It was four in the morning. Delhi was a blur on the horizon, a haze of light pollution and smog. It welcomed us with a cool shrug. January in northern India, it turned out, was chilly — too cold for sandals and the thin pants I was wearing, even though I’d obsessed over my outfits for weeks. I’d just assumed it would be hot. Celeste had sweaters in her bag because she’d packed for going everywhere, forever. But Mom and I were only traveling for three weeks which. At four a.m., from the back of an Ambassador cab careening into Delhi’s sleeping guts, three weeks seemed far too long.

On my first trip to India, which was also my first trip out of the U.S., I existed in a sort of culture-shock-panic-attack-uphoria. Everything was simultaneously wonderful and horrible. The madness of the market — sari silks, butchers, flower sellers, tea stalls, accountants, motor parts, tailors. Everything you could need, and all the brutality and beauty of the world concentrated and sped up. I smiled at cows decorated with marigold garlands and startled at beggars distorted by leprosy. Cute children pleaded for coins, but if I gave them one, an insatiable mob suddenly emerged from out of nowhere, grabbing at my clothes and clawing at my purse.

It took years to get over India, to dare to go back. It was my mother’s idea to take the trip together. Our sometimes-strained relationship improved with her offer to pay for the plane tickets.  She wanted to go, and she thought I could be her tour guide. 

I quickly realized that the India I’d first visited had vanished, morphed into a different India. All the streets had shifted. The small places I’d visited before had gone and new places appeared in their wake. Of course the big places were still there. The famous places: The Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. The Kamasutra temples and the Palace of the Winds. But the sandal sellers, chai wallahs, noodle shops, and flower peddlers I remembered were nowhere to be seen.

The Navrang Hotel had disappeared, too. At least I never saw it again. I also never saw the Hotel Ganesh. Instead, our taxi pulled up to the Ganesha House. “I don’t think this is right,” I said.

“Yes, is right!” said the driver. 

“But it’s not the Hotel Ganesh.”

“Ganesh, Ganesha. Same thing in India,” said the driver. 

I was pretty sure it wasn’t, but Mom and Celeste were already getting out of the car.

“I just want to get some sleep,” Mom said, wandering toward the front door. It was dark, and locked, but with some banging a sleepy clerk let us in and looked half-heartedly at our passports. We were given two rooms.

The cold was pervasive. Instead of sweating in long skirts, Mom and I shivered under a thin blanket on our shared bed. In the morning, which came soon, we could go to the market and but sweaters, shawls and socks. Whole new wardrobes for a few American dollars. That part of India still existed: everything, almost all of the time. 

But in the weird in-between, in the dark chill and absence of everything familiar, we waited for sleep that didn’t come. We waited for the light that would carry us into the next world — maybe a market, maybe a temple, maybe a circus full of runaway ex-pats.  

Lee Smith on writing

 

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Lee Smith, left, signed my copy of her latest book, Guests on Earth, and then agreed to this photo. I got overly excited and made a crazy face.

If you believe in the regionalism of writing (I’m on the fence — books don’t have accents so can prose really sound Southern versus Northern?) Lee Smith is among the most important contemporary Southern writers. She’s certainly among the most prolific and delightful of living writers. Not that I’ve met all of them, but Smith is effortlessly hilarious, mirthful and smart without losing an ounce of sass. She gave a keynote address and a lecture during the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference. The following are notes from those presentations.

• I have come to believe, over the years, that I could tell the truth better in fiction.

• When you’re writing fiction, it’s the real stuff, but you up the ante.

• You put everything about your life, up to that point, into your first novel. [Then] you really should wait awhile before you write your second novel. My second novel was terrible. …I’d used up my childhood at that point, I was happily married, and I had nothing to say. I finally made that imaginative leap, which was a real necessity because most of us writers can’t be out there, living like crazy. …We need to stop writing what we know.

• You just can’t make up anything as fascinating as real life. Reality will trump imagination every time.

About her forthcoming memoir, Dimestore:
• As soon as the actual places were gone, I felt this tremendous need to re-create them in words and people them with those of us who were there. …I don’t want to live an unexamined life. I want to make a record of all I’ve loved.

• Read like a writer. Take it apart. If it works for you, see why it works.

• In memoir, you have to develop yourself as a character. You need to develop a little distance from yourself. …To develop character is to up the ante.

• The very act of writing makes me remember more and more. …Writing is self-repair. It doesn’t necessarily have to be writing for publication. There are many reasons to write, and publication may be the last.

Window shopping

Like many of you, my heart aches for Paris. It’s a place that inspires and confounds me from afar. I spent a week in Paris alone — my 40th birthday gift to myself —  and discovered that the Paris of my dreams didn’t always match up with the city’s actual moods and quirks. But the stories it gave to me and the secrets it revealed continue to stir my dreams and unfold in my writing. While the following essay is hardly an answer to the violence that played out last weekend, it is a collection of moments captured and relived on the page. Moments of a place in which I was happy, sad, moved, inspired and undone. Vive la Paris.

The French for window shopping, léche-vitrine, translates to “lick the windows.”

I only buy two pieces of clothing in Paris: a cheap T-shirt dress from H&M, and a scarf from a stall in a clutch of tourists stores selling post cards and Eiffel Tower key fobs. I buy the scarf because the weather keeps turning cold, even though it’s May, and the scarf I packed is too thin against the sudden rain.

In the Paris of my mind, I spend whole days shopping. Trying on wonderful things I can’t afford. In my mind, couture happens in boutiques, in proportions that make sense, and with a readily available vocabulary. In the Paris of reality, I only see couture in magazines and I have a vocabulary for ordering coffee, and even then only with moderate success.

I do try to shop a few times in the second hand store near my hotel. It’s a revelation. I love a good thrift shop anyway, and that such a thing exists in Paris strikes me as pure genius. Cast off sweaters and skirts, previously worn by stylish French women; surely the garments retain some of the aura of their previous owners. The clothes are heaped into bins on top of long folding tables, and the shoppers — a mix of coolly disheveled younger women and shrunken grandmothers in head scarves — muscle through them. There’s no order, no system to define by type or size or quality. And half way through my first bin, one passable sweater in my free hand, the shop closes.

In Paris, stores (at least low-end ones) don’t close in a, “We’ll be closing in 15 minutes. Please bring all purchases to the register” way. They close definitively, in an instant, with the lights off and the shoppers rushed out the door. If you didn’t get to pay, you’ll have to come back for it. I don’t make it back, though. The store is closed when I pass, first thing in the morning and after dark as I leave and return to my hotel.

There are other shops in the neighborhood — the twist of streets just outside of Montmartre. I picked the hotel believing it was in Montmartre, close to the Lapin Agile and the Sacre Cour. Instead, it’s one neighborhood over, next to the Cimetière de Montmartre and inhabited by young families who shop for groceries and walk children to school. There are bakeries with confusing hours and unpronounceable pastries, and there are tiny boutiques packed with the sort of clothes you’d buy in the mall, at Wet Seal or Icing. Cheap things, too short and too bright.

In Paris, there are tons of these stores, selling bandage dresses, miniskirts and gaudy t-shirts. Faux-leather boots and giant earrings. No one wears that stuff, though. Nor do they wear vintage clothes, as far as I can tell. Nothing twee or retro or rescued from a free box on the sidewalk. Everyone wears slim-fitting jeans and jackets in dark neutrals. Black, gray, navy blue and chocolate brown. Endless variations on the same basic theme. It should be boring, but it’s not, because it’s Paris and in Paris even boring things like jeans and jackets are cool.

Booksellers along the Seine

 I spend a lot of time watching people in their jeans and jackets. I sit in Cafés and in bars. I sit in bars that are also cafés. It’s hard to tell. Indoor smoking has been banned, so everyone sits in the outdoor seating, protected from the rain by plastic sheeting. To get inside, you have to walk through the smog. I order tiny glasses of Sancerre and Cotes du Rhone, sipping at the cut-gem wine while making meticulous notes in my journal about what everyone is wearing.

Not art or philosophy or slicing insights to be posted, later, on Yelp. Just clothes. My whole travel legacy comes down to notes on clothes.

I’m happiest when I’m sitting at a wicker table drinking something. I know what to do then. The rest of the time, in Paris, I’m lost and directionless and wearing the wrong thing. My hair is wrong, too. The persistent rain ruins my flat ironing, and then the flat iron overheats even though I’ve plugged it into an adapter. My hotel room reeks of scorch.

There’s nothing to do but carry on. I dress and leave the hotel in search of coffee, shedding a trail of burned hair slivers in my wake.

Surprisingly, the French don’t wear sunglasses. Hats, yes. But even when the sun comes out, no one but the tourists pulls out sunglasses. I go for as long as I can without mine, feeling conspicuous when I slide them on. Like I’m showing off. But it’s not like, without them, I blend in. Everywhere I go — to the fashion museum, to the Louvre, to the gardens and the Seine — I stand out, not in a good way. I’m the only one on the Pont Neuf with no one to kiss, the only one alone in line for the Eiffel Tower.

The only time I’m not alone is on the subway. Teenagers girls, hard and mean, leap out of nowhere to press behind when I go through the turnstyle. It’s a scam that only works in a crowd. But after the turnstyle, the long, confusing passageways leading to the trains are mostly empty. There’s the occasional busker or baffled-looking Englishman, and infrequent signs that sometimes reduce me to tears. But when the trains come at rush hour, the crowd swells and presses forward, filling in every space. There are so many people, it’s impossible to fall. I hold my bag close to my body and let myself be tumbled and borne to my stop. I body surf on personal waves of repulsion and exhilaration.

The last thing I buy in Paris is a raisin brioche. I never eat pastries at home, but this isn’t home. I discover the raisin brioche at the cafe near the Place de Clichy metro station three days before the end of my trip. It’s soft and just the right amount of sweet with something like custard cooked into the dough. Even if I haven’t found friends, or fashion, or enough words to order an omelet without embarrassing myself, I have found the carbohydrate equivalent of a torrid affair.

The memory of things

Unitarian Church cemetery, Charleston, S.C.

Unitarian Church cemetery, Charleston, S.C.

Walking up the loose bricks of Lexington Avenue, passed the Shady Grove florist shop, I thought for the first time in years about the series of gift cards I used to produce. It was 1997 and, in a bout of entrepreneurial motivation, I designed a number of collages from old issues of National Geographic.

The magazines came from a turn-of-the-last-century house tucked into an overgrown wedge of land at the far end of Montford. The property had the feeling of being at the edge of the known universe (just past the treeline was a steep hill that bottomed out on the interstate) and also lost in time. It was too ornate for a farmhouse but its rambling garden, wire fence and white-washed siding all nodded to farmhouse-ness. I took a weekend job helping to clean it out after its owner — a hoarder and chain smoker — passed away. A friend of my mother’s was the realtor and needed to remove a lifetime of ephemera in order to put the house on the market.

Morning glories

Morning glories

I loved every moment in that house, despite its nicotine-stained walls and claustrophobic floor-to-ceiling piles of boxes, books and newspapers. The tall windows were all blocked by layers of blinds, yellowed lace on top. The carpets were in various stages of decomposition and the few valuable antiques were damaged by cigarette smoke and neglect. Proud objects slumped in obscurity beside rickety TV trays and overly cute knick-knacks. Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, a nursery rhyme in a horror show.

At the end of the weekend I took a box of National Geographics and an oversized faux-fur coat in payment. The coat, on, looked like half of a bear costume and smelled like furnace. I eventually gave it away to a drag-queen co-worker at a late-night hotel job. But the magazines I kept and cut, slicing new stories out of old. A picture is worth a thousand words, and then it can be repurposed for a thousand more.

I made eight collages and had them color-copied at Kinko’s, back when Kinko’s was a destination. It was an all-hours, fluorescent-lit bastion of office drudgery and rare creativity. Paper clips, three-hole punches, lamination, clear plastic sleeves. You could run off a report (I never did) or reproduced your chapbook in double-sided print pages with a center staple. The color copies were pricey at a dollar a page, but if I combined four collages onto a letter-sized sheet, I’d get four prints for my dollar.

One of the oldest houses in Hot Springs, N.C.

One of the oldest houses in Hot Springs, N.C.

The greeting card production consisted of glueing a collage print onto the face of cream-colored cardstock and signing the image title (“Sisters,” “Tropical Fruit,” “Travel Dreams”) and my name on the back, like it was high art. (It was, at least, medium art.)

I sold the cards, eight at a time — one of each print — to flower designer Perri Crutcher whose tiny shop was tucked into a Lexington Avenue storefront. The shop itself was barely larger than a closet, but it smelled dark and mysterious. Damp, exotic, slightly dangerous and deeply enchanted. But the true magic of the place was that its side door led to an alley that opened into a back lot where once a building might have stood but had long been left to return to the wild. It was a large open-air room shaded by a giant maple tree. Narrows paths led to rusting metal benches and wooden furniture in stages of collapse. It all felt at once diminishing and expanding, dying and caught in the act of being reborn.

My entrepreneurial spirit ended there. I only ever sold my cards to Perri and when he moved away, I quit making them. Things change, it’s the nature of being. Creativity ebbs and flows and takes on new forms. But I think, when I pass Perri’s old shop — now Shady Grove — about how the secret garden still exists out back. It’s not closed off to visitors, but it’s the kind of place you have to know exists. You have to make an effort to get there. And then, when you do, the garden reveals its strange magic without ever rousing itself from its own tangle of dreams.