Making a Run for It

I am a great fan of stories in which a woman decides to run away from her life. Think Shirley Valentine. It’s one of the first versions of this genre that I recognized as a Runaway Lady movie. My all time favorite, however, is an Italian movie called Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips). In the case of this film’s heroine, she doesn’t make the decision to run away from her life until her life walks away from her, but she embraces the change in circumstances in the most beautiful and pleasing way.

So yes, it was a while before I recognized the pattern of my fascination with these stories, how drawn to them I was. I don’t have a life that is even a little bit like the lives of the women in those stories. I’m not married, have no children, don’t feel trapped and invisible in my world. And yet …

I said Pane e Tulipani was my all-time favorite of this genre. And that’s true … or, it has been true for years. Last year, in my Covid-inspired just-watch-every-streaming-thing life, I found a new movie to add to the list, and it quietly slipped right into the number one slot.

The movies that fill this category for me all have one clear thing in common: the star player is a white woman. Always and always, the sad, lonely, beleaguered, undervalued, tired, frustrated woman who chooses to walk away from her world is white. She goes somewhere, often someplace “exotic” and finds new happiness. I’m not casting aspersions on my much-loved plot line. I’m just saying that these particular plot details stand out in their sameness and in how much they aren’t like me.

Yes, there is gorgeous Angela Bassett as Stella getting back her groove, but Stella didn’t run away from her life. She went on vacation, that’s not the same at all. No.

Pane e Tulipani is still bathed in golden light and still holds a warm place in my heart, but the movie that smiled and laughed its way to the top of my list is Juanita, starring the incomparable Alfre Woodard. Juanita has so much going on, quietly and charmingly, and juggles all of its pieces skillfully and beautifully.

For me, the chance to watch this completely regular woman – not someone who can afford to buy an Italian villa (Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun) – decide to just pack her bag and go is an invitation to breathe deeply, to settle in and enjoy. And yes, the fact that Juanita is a regular Black woman makes all the difference. She’s no Stella with a high-powered job as a lawyer and a big, gorgeous home. She’s a caregiver, working in a skilled nursing facility. I can look at Juanita and see myself, which I could never do with Bassett’s Stella or Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert (in Eat, Pray, Love, one movie in this genre that I really, truly don’t care for).

*

I am not dreaming of running away from my life. Not in any significant way, at least. I would happily run away from the mountain of fertility treatment debt I continue to pay off, but I rather like my life otherwise.

So, not running away, but definitely wanting more opportunities to get out of Dodge, to escape, even briefly, from the miles-long lists in my bullet journal and actually sit still and quiet and have time to breathe, to think, to write.

A few weeks ago I gave myself such a getaway. A friend and I decided to make a DIY writing retreat. We went to the woods somewhere in Pennsylvania and were surrounded by woodpeckers, blue jays, mourning doves, and goldfinches, surrounded by trees and trees and trees … and with nothing to do by get the worlds out of our heads and onto the page.

This was my fourth DIY retreat, the third that I’ve done with friends. I had let myself forget how important this kind of time is to me. After all, I’ve been sitting alone in my apartment for 18 months, shouldn’t I have been able to use some of that time as a mandatory retreat or some such? But, of course, no. That’s not the same as taking myself away for dedicated writing time. Sitting in my home means being surrounded not by chatty birds but by all my undone chores. They mock my attempts to stay focused, reminding me of everything I have to do around the house.

I do write at home. Of course I do, right? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much to show for myself, since I spend the bulk of my time in my day-to-day life and not on vacation.

Still, respites are gold and so very necessary. They give me a kind of reset with my writing, and I need that whenever I can get it. A chance to recommit, to remember my writer self.

*

This most recent getaway was the first time I’d drawn even the faintest line of connection between my retreats and my obsession with runaway-middle-aged-lady stories. It’s not the location that’s inspiring me. If I were to flee my life, it wouldn’t very likely be an escape to the Pennsylvania woods.

My guess is that, rather than a “running away from,” what’s connecting for me is the “running toward” that is at the heart of each of these stories, that’s at the heart of my insistence on turning every vacation into a writing retreat. The women in those stories need to turn away from something in order to get closer to themselves, to their most authentic selves. I don’t need to turn away from my life, but I do need to remember to always move in the direction of my writing, always make and find space to do what I do when I go on retreat: sit still and quite. Breathe. Think. Write.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Drifting: The Slow and the Curious

So ask me why yesterday turned out to be the day I would start watching the Fast franchise? What in the actual crazypants hell? How many years have these movies been in the world? How much have I never had any interest in watching them? And then yesterday …

I was thinking about Paul Walker and the farewell video with him and Vin Diesel taking different forks at the end of the road. Why have I seen that video when I’ve never seen the movies? And why was it in my head yesterday? #TheEternalQuestions

While I certainly wasn’t a Paul Walker hater, I was never a fan, either. I often confused him with other generic-white-guy actors (Ryan Reynolds primarily … yes, I know, they look and are nothing alike). And I was pretty much unaware of most movies he was in. I knew about the “Fast Family” (as, apparently, some people call it), but not much. I love a good action movie, love car chases and crime capers and all that. Still, the Fast movies have never called my name.

Until they did yesterday.

There’s a moment pretty early in the first movie where Walker gives a smirky smile and delivers his line, and a lightbulb came on over my head. “Oh,” I thought. “So these are just really not good.”

(Because, well … yeah. I mean, isn’t that why I knew not to watch them in the first place?)

But I kept watching that first one. And then rolled right along into 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is a clever naming thing, but that’s not enough cleverness when there’s a whole movie to watch. Not by half. But Devon Aoki with her can’t-be-a-real-girl face is in it, and Ludacris’ afro is in it, and Eva Mendes’ mole … I watched it. Of course I did. I had bought in, wanted to understand how the whole Family was going to be corralled into one crew, wanted the backstory that would lead to Tyrese’s social media meltdown over Hobbs and Shaw. Sure.

It’s good that yesterday was Tuesday. That meant I needed to draw the line, close the curtain on this nonsense before it got too late in the night. I did, however, start watching Tokyo Drift. Because yes, now I’m totally bought in. I watched this overseas Part the Third through the opening plot device that gets Sean, the lead character this time around, sent to Japan. Watched a long chunk of it as I ate dinner tonight. Pretty sure I’ll watch the rest before I sleep.

Aside from being all-in with this nonsense, I’ll also watch because of Lucas Black, the actor who plays Sean, because of the mind-blowing realization of who Lucas Black is. All through that opening sequence, I tried to work out where I recognized him from. When his plane landed in Tokyo, I paused the film and turned to Google for the answer. And immediately saw that yes, of course I recognize him because he’s on NCIS: New Orleans. Okay … but then I got dope-slapped by the not-actually-believable-but-clearly-true reality of him being the boy from American Gothic. I still can’t process the fact of that. I spent at least 30 minutes scrolling through stills from the show and having to admit that yes, that boy’s face is obviously the same face as the man playing a boy in Tokyo Drift. I have to admit it, but it’s just entirely impossible.

So yes, as long as I can find them for free, I’ll keep watching these movies.

But … WHY?!

I keep watching, but I can’t lie and say that I’m enjoying them. Paul Walker had a great smile, and his face in these movies was definitely the face of a guy you’d have fun hanging out with. He looks and moves like a nice guy. Maybe he was a jackass. I have no idea. But he doesn’t look like one. It’s sad that he’s dead and that he died young. It’s still not enough of a reason for me to be watching these movies instead of the many other things I could and should be doing, could and should be spending my mental energy on.

Oh.

That last bit is the missing piece. Yes, of course it makes sense that I would choose this moment to submerge myself in something that will wash over me with little impact (aside from the Lucas Black shock).

Because so many things are whirling together in a vortex of awful, and so many of them are imploding and exploding very particularly in this moment, and it’s more than I can manage. The destruction of our system of government, the earthquake in Haiti, the building wave of delta-Covid, the instant and catastrophic collapse of Afghanistan.

It’s too much. My heart and head just … can’t.

And, frustratingly, I can’t seem to do any of the things that usually distract me from the world. I just sit and stare at my Spanish homework. My writing projects collect dust. My apartment has still not been organized into a home. …

But I can watch these movies. I can stare at these things in which I have no investment, stare at the screen and not have to think. And it didn’t have to be this franchise, of course. It could be any series, any set of movies in which I have no stake. Somehow, this just happened to be the one this time.

And it has perks. Paul Walker was cute. And this third installment has introduced me to Sung Kang, who is also cute. Eventually the Rock will make an appearance, and he’s always a pleasure to look at. Perks.

*

I’ll have to start reading the news again. And before too long, too. I’ll have to find the strength to step back into the maelstrom that is this moment in our history. But I’ve got six and a half more of these distractions to go. And I welcome the oblivion of that. I’m not completely submerged, but there’s a buffer space around me that I hope is deep and high and wide enough to give my head and heart the time they need.

I’m on the drift … and it’s exactly the ride I need.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Time to think about my name change …

I visited Mexico for the first time in 1989. I went to visit my friend CJ who had moved there a few years before. During my not-nearly-long-enough stay, she arranged for me to spend a day with a colleague of hers. CJ thought we would like each other because she liked us both so well and because we were both creatives and because we were both tall. CJ was right. This incredible woman has become one of my dearest friends, one of my best-beloveds. Because I don’t like using people’s real names here, I’m going to call her Milagros.

Milagros and I liked each other immediately. I can’t speak to what she saw in me, but I will say that anyone meeting Milagros for the first time would be captivated by her. She walks with the sun, is so full of light and energy and curiosity. For me, her magic lies in the fact that she is like my Aunt Mildred, she is a shining example of fully embracing yourself and living as exactly who you are. ( And I am happy knowing that, when my mother and aunt traveled to Mexico years ago, they were able to spend some time with Milagros. If ever two people were meant to meet, it was Mildred and Milagros!)

We hung out for a day, and that day cemented the friendship we’ve shared for the 32 years since.

One of the things we did on that day was visit a museum. I don’t know the name of the museum. I do remember that it felt very much in the middle of nowhere. It was some kind of popular culture museum, and the main exhibit during my visit was chilies. In the more-than-a-block-long main gallery, there were more chilies than I would have imagined existed. At each end of the gallery, there was a beautifully-lettered floor to ceiling scroll with two columns of names of chilies. The lists weren’t copies of one another. They were two completely different lists. Because there are more chilies in Mexico than seems possible.

I just came across this article: What dried chilies do fresh ones become? This is a question it would never have occurred to me to ask because I had no idea chilies change their names when they are dried! The fact of this fascinates and pleases me. I’m going to go ahead and assume that this isn’t news to maybe anyone else, but it was definitely news to me.

And it made me think. Should this be a thing people do, too? As we age, should we change our names? We’re going through some dramatic changes, so why not? The ways we contribute change, just as the way a dried chili is used in a dish differs from the way a fresh chili is used. I mean, I have grown to love my name, but is it time to think about life as Esmeralda, as Zelda, as Persephone?

Another pepper story with Milagros happened on my second or third visit to Mexico. She drove me to a market to try the squash blossom quesadillas sold from a stall there (they were delicious!). As we walked through the market, I saw ahead of me a stall that seemed to sell sausages. It had long ropes of links hanging out to entice shoppers. But the sausages didn’t make sense in my brain, as they were all a bright, brilliant green. I asked Milagros about them, and she nodded and confirmed that yes, they are green because they are made with chilies and tomatillos. And, although there was meat in those casings, I certainly couldn’t tell from looking. I mean, come on. Green chorizo. A whole other, far more vibrant and engaging world is obviously mostly hidden from me.

I have other chili stories, at least one of which is with Milagros. She is also responsible for some excellent and delicious fruit discoveries. And each of those moments is interesting and delightful, but I’m circling back to that museum exhibit of chilies and the enormous scrolls at either end of the gallery. Now that I’ve read this Gourmet de Mexico article, which barely scratches the surface of Chili World, I’m wishing I could magic myself back to that day in 1989. I am wondering if the scroll at one end of the room listed the names of fresh chilies and the scroll at the other listed the names of those chilies when dried. Or maybe one column was for fresh and the other for dried.

It’s no different, of course, than grapes and raisins, plums and prunes. Of course. I guess what I’m discovering is that I am a narrower thinker than I’d have liked to believe. It would never have occurred to me that the raising/grape situation existed with other foods than the ones I already knew about, as if I already knew everything. Sigh.

It’s a good reminder to keep my eyes and mind open. Just as I need to be thinking about my crone name, I need to be thinking about being on the lookout for new things to learn, being on the lookout for newness in familiar things.

Everything Old Is New Again

I haven’t thought of that song in forever, but it came immediately to mind when I queued up WordPress to post tonight. I spent a couple of hours yesterday and many, many hours today unpacking boxes and loading up my newly-assembled bookshelves. It was nice to rediscover my things. There’s a lot more work to do, but what’s already been done has been seriously transformational.

I am, in fact, so pleased to have done such a large chunk of unpacking, I decided to write tonight’s poem about it. The source text is Lucille Clifton’s poem “grief,” even though I am feeling anything but grief about the work I’ve done these last two days.

Unboxing

My world on pause.
No email, no tasks -- then
just one task, one job of work for
my heart. I keep the
rhythm going, simple, human.
Not instinctual, not animal.
Methodical, focused in
letting each treasure tell its
own story as I wipe the dust from its coat.

National Poetry Month 2021: the Golden Shovel

As I’ve done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. The “Golden Shovel” was created by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned about it from my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma). I’ll be using Lucille Clifton’s poems as my starting point this month. Here are the rules:

  • Take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire.
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for each line in your poem.
  • Keep the end words in order.
  • Give credit to the poet who originally wrote the line (or lines).
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the poem that offers the end words.

If you pull a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long. If you pull a stanza with 24 words, your poem would be 24 lines long. And so on.

Should be interesting!

When life was slow and oh so mellow …

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no-one wept except the willow
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow

Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow

I was talking with a friend this morning. She was telling me about a party she’d been to in the Before Times. We were laughing about the situation she described when she said how much she missed parties like that, how much she was looking forward to being able to go out like that again. And I agreed … but then I realized that I couldn’t actually remember what it was like, going out to parties, getting dressed up to go out, seeing my friends in small and large groups without a second thought, laughing and drinking and dancing and flirting. This afternoon, another friend texted me to ask what things I miss because of Covid. She was missing, among other things, travel. I miss travel, too. When I read her text, I thought about travel and going to the movies and not having to use hand sanitizer and … everything.

And still I am struck by how completely I can’t remember how to do any of the things I miss doing. I can’t imagine planning a trip. Can’t imagine getting on a train or plane. Can’t imagine dancing with a stranger (I mean, okay: I didn’t do a whole lot of that pre-Covid). Can’t imagine sitting in a crowded bar laughing and talking with a bunch of friends. Can’t imagine sitting in a crowded theater and leaning over to whisper snarky asides in my friend’s ear. Can’t imagine holding hands. Can’t imagine kissing.

I’m approaching the time when I’ll be able to slowly try anew some of the things I’ve had to go without for the last year. And that feels both long overdue and impossible. It’s certain that I can’t “go back” to anything. There is no “back.” We’ve left “back” so far in the past, isn’t it pretty much in another world at this point? Isn’t there only whatever’s next? Yes, I will start to find a way to do things I used to do, but will I ever do them in the same way? Will it ever be casual and easy to stand next to another person? Will I ever shake hands again?

I keep hearing “Try to Remember” from The Fantastiks. That song makes the past sound like a soft-focus, satin-smooth dream. My life pre-Covid was hardly dreamy, but the cruel space of this pandemic year makes that life feel ever out of reach. So what does that mean? We can’t go back, so what do we make of the future? How do we shape what comes next?

… it’s nice to remember
Without a hurt, the heart is hollow

No danger there, right? Plenty of hurt, so my heart is anything but hollow? Is that a lesson I’m supposed to be taking from the last year? That’s … frustrating at best. No, my heart isn’t hollow, but it wasn’t hollow before Covid, either. Is it all of our hearts, our hearts as a human race, that I should be thinking of? Has the world had to find its way through this horror show so that we can (finally) learn that every single life is “wild and precious,” that we have to fight for everyone in order to save our individual selves?

Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow
Follow

It’s all of it, of course. I (we) need to start figuring out how to live among people again. And I (we) need to find a way to stretch out into my (our) whole self again. And I (we) need to keep fighting for everyone, for every single wild and precious life. It’s the only way.

I still can’t imagine holding hands, still can’t imagine kissing. But I have to figure it out, find a way forward that includes all of that and more because our closeness, in all the ways that we should and need to be close, is what will save us.

__________

* Also, I swear I’m not always trying to put ear worms in your heads, dear reader. I can’t seem to avoid thinking of songs that fit in some way with whatever I’m posting, however. Sometimes I manage not to include the song in the post, but other times …

And more also? It’s Pi Day. Hope you had some. ❤


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot