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.

An open letter to Twin Shadow

An open letter to Twin Shadow

Image from

Dear George Lewis Jr. (aka Twin Shadow),

The main thing I can’t forgive you for is that every time I hear your voice with all of its melodramatic angst and longing, and those boomy atmospherics, synthy drums and shimmery keyboards, I’m instantly transported to Newark, New York, circa 1987. The parking lot of the gym where I sat on the curb and waited for my friend Kim to finish aerobics class. I’m all torn tights, black eyeliner and leather jacket, hunched over my journal. And across the lot two boys on skateboards swerve lazy arcs toward me and away again.

John Henderson was the one I liked even though I mostly talked to his blond and obvious friend. Between us, John and I probably said enough words to fill one journal page, if that. We were both shy, insulated by our loneliness and our chatty friends. But in our minds — I believe this — we were all strobe lights and white-hot dance beats, the one-two pulse of wanting and not having. Wanting to be understood, wanting to scream, wanting to get the hell out of our small towns, wanting each other and not saying it.tumblr_nhh2o92Rna1r2gfato1_400

Or maybe I was alone in my wanting. You tell me, Twin Shadow. Clearly you’ve found the portal back to those feelings. The sharp demand, the shrill fear that to want and not have equals utter annihilation. The vivid longing for things that can not be named. The breathless rush to grow up, get better, stop slicing away the despair with shoplifted blades. The longing to replace emptiness with something better than stolen Vodka in a cold garage — and the knowing that there’s nothing better than bad booze with best friends.

Knowing there’s nothing better than five minutes sitting on the bed of a boy who can’t even meet your eyes. To dream of slow dancing is better than all the actual fast dances, all the downhill skateboard races, all the leather jackets — even the one stolen by the greasy-haired jerk who was supposed to replace John Henderson and could not. You know the one I mean, Twin Shadow.

But if we don’t grow past the shuddery anguish of being 15 and desperate over a boy with sad eyes and slow smiles, if we don’t shut down that particular ache, stop revisiting that singular wound, how can we get on? There’s so much to do and the world asks us to be adult about things. To buy groceries, pay bills, turn in assignments and return phone calls. No time for 12-page letters about nothing, about everything.
Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 5.43.07 PM
That’s what happens to everyone, right? You get some perspective. You think maybe someday you’ll drive back past his house and he’ll just happen to be there, visiting his parents or something. You’ll stop the car, get out, hug him. The substantial feel of him — the familiar softness of a flannel shirt; the unfamiliar self-assuredness. You think it’ll hurt just a little to hear he’s married, has kids. That back then he thought about it, too. Slow dancing. The breathless, sweaty throb of it. The woozy chemical reaction that still flares between you.

You can still close your eyes and see him move in a fluid arc, weightless on wheels. Your index finger, chipped black nail polish pressed against his mouth, stifling a laugh and not daring a kiss.

I say you, and I mean me, Twin Shadow. You’re the conductor of memories and the fanner of flames — for this I blame you — and you’re the instigator of a litany of phantom pains. That you sing of us as we were (and us as we didn’t dare ourselves to be), that you sing the slow dances we didn’t dance, that you smolder and rasp and promise to wait, to stop, to start, to go, to drive all night. And it’s always night, and it’s always the moment of reckoning.

You might think that it would be sad for the story to end that way, John and me middle-aged, decades away from skateboards and ripped stockings. The you of your songs, Twin Shadow, would never stand for simply moving on: You move to the rhythm of the perfect ache held up to the black light and suspended in time. But the alternative ending is that I  casually ask about John in the early days of Facebook and the obvious blond boy (now a wearer of ties, a driver of mini vans) tells me that he did try to call but my father only said I didn’t live there anymore so no one ever told me. And just like that, the beautiful sad-eyed boy is lost to the garages and parking lots and flannel-strewn bedrooms of another lifetime. And you can’t mourn someone who’s been gone for more than a decade.

Cover image of Twin Shadow's new album, Eclipse

Cover image of Twin Shadow’s new album, Eclipse

But then there was you, Twin Shadow. With the way you look like John and the way you sing the things that should have been sung. With your sonic portal, your mirror held up to my teenage self. “Five seconds … straight to your heart” and all.

So now I’m that girl again. You can find me in the corner of the gym, in the darkest shadow of the bleachers. Ask me for the slow dance. Wound me with your soulful glance, your scarred wrist, your secrets, your doomed beauty.

I can’t forgive you for that, Twin Shadow. But that’s okay. I didn’t really want to shed this oppressive crush. I’ll keep waiting for that first kiss. I’ll keep fanning the flames. We’re all forged at the fires of love anyway; as long as we continue to burn — our rash and molten hearts — we can still be formed. We can still bear the impression of all who touch us.

. . .

The new Twin Shadow album, Eclipse, was recently released. I feel pretty certain that unless you’re dead inside, it will change your life.

The bus to Glasgow

A rare sunny moment in western Scotland, 2013

A rare sunny moment in western Scotland, 2013

Leaving Edinburgh is an escape only for the sake of escaping, not because it’s a place to run from. Edinburgh is both immediate and eternal, with its tangled old city and, in its not-so-new new city, the spacious Georgian apartments, shoulder to shoulder, fused into tidy rows.

Still, there’s more of Scotland to see. It’s highlands and lochs, its dramatic scenery and gritty, student-filled cities. And there’s the two hour stretch between Edinburgh and Glasgow — a suburban no man’s land where people live the kind of lives that probably don’t involve tartans or soundtracks scored by bagpipes. Or maybe they do.

The bus departs from the station in a belch of diesel exhaust. Only the locals board there. Tourists are oblivious to the city buses as they wait for their carefully mapped day excursions. Some plush coach that picks up at the Quaitch Guest House.

Quickly multistory apartment buildings give way to squat stone cottages with neat white doors. A pair of bay windows on each, because light matters. Old mixed with new, sometimes gracefully, but the city’s growth at its far reach is an ugly gash of mud and large equipment. Power lines across a gray sky, bus shelter at the end of the world.

Cemetery behind St. Mungo Cathedral (Glasgow).

Cemetery behind St. Mungo Cathedral (Glasgow).

Norton House Hotel, Ratho Station. A guy boards with a short Mohawk and someone’s initials — perhaps his own — inked behind his ear. D.W. in script. Villages rise and fall beyond the bus window. They are stunted and napping, like villages everywhere. Towns don’t buzz like cities do. Cities never sleep. Towns keep hitting the snooze button.
A sudden slice of sun. A bulbous black cab muscles along a dirt road. In the distance, rounded hills sit, iced thickly with snow. Roadwork at Livingston. Traffic crawls. The bus driver has a shaved head with the ghost of a widows peak and a pale scar. Stands of pines and bare trees ring a snow lake. Fields of snow rest, undisturbed by traffic or sun.

Bathgate: smell of the bus heater, which is too hot. The guy one seat up blasts Bollywood music through his earbuds. Witburn, Falkirk, Newhouse. Ruins of an elaborate stone bridge. Small town of two-story sandstone buildings, all unembellished. It’s like a housing development, only hundreds of years old, and town-looking because it’s not trying to look like a town.

Robbie Burns (foreground) and Sir Walter Scott (background), both wearing seagulls as hats. High style for statues in George Square, Glasgow.

Robbie Burns (foreground) and Sir Walter Scott (background), both wearing seagulls as hats. High style for statues in George Square, Glasgow.

Signs for rooms with en suite, fish with chips. There’s always the option for less (a room with no bathroom, fish without the side of fries) because here you actually can have less. It’s a viable option. Smaller cars, smaller refrigerators, less personal space.

A church on a hill with its tall steeple and floor-to-ceiling windows presides over a rectangle of ruler-straight graves. The rows could have been planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Airdrie, Motherwell: a very old man in the front seat clutches a ruffle of newspapers. He’s dapper in his pocket sweater and striped scarf, occasionally smoothing his haircut with his hand.

Chapelhall, Holytown: The sprawl begins. Warehouses, factories, a clutch of suburban homes. New houses, all tan with red roofs. Billboards and exits. Skinny white birch trees, cows grazing 11 kilometers from Glasgow’s city center. Signs about everything and nothing. Industry is a dream, but not a satisfying dream. It’s the construct of the anxious mind rather than the restful vision of meadows and groves.

There are no more meadows and groves. Instead: Car lot, church yard, graves that run a mile alongside a housing development. The mingling of past and future dead.



For a writing assignment on Western New York memoir

Dad builds us a tree house — a nice one with with a rope ladder into a tall sugar maple. The sides open. There’s a mattress where we can hang out and read books. We never do any if that, though. The tree house is a few yards into the woods, which are dark haunted by eerie creaking sounds.

The pastures, though, are full of happy discoveries and the best kind of mysteries. Milkweed with its dry pods of silk; gall balls left on tall, brown weeds — temporary homes for metamorphosing insects; fronds of goldenrod and purple asters; puff balls, if we’re lucky. Continue reading