Gratitude

I’m in Alaska at my writing residency. It’s lovely here, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to be here. My tourist day in town — the day before I came up to the residency itself — was studded with random moments when I’d be walking around and suddenly “Thank you,” would just bubble out of me. Out loud. Literally just saying it aloud as I walked on the beach, as I stood in the museum, as I sipped mead, as I stared up at the mountains. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve never had gratitude burst out of me before. It’s a curious feeling. I’d like to experience it some more!

I’m here to write. I’m here, most specifically, to work on “Fat Talk” essays. I am determined to shape that series into a collection. And, while I haven’t been away from the project for long, I kind of have, too. I did some writing in November, but never cleaned it up and posted it. I’ve been thinking about the project, but haven’t gotten any words on paper.

So these two weeks are time to pull this project back to the front of my brain and see what’s what.

And that’s hard and stressful because a lot of what I want to write about it hard and stressful. Having to put into words the ways in which I have been mistreated is hard. Having to put into words the ways in which I have mistreated myself is harder. It’s good to be here to do this. To have time and silence to push through the rough pieces. To have a group of writers to sit with at dinner and feel embraced and heard. This. THis is why “thank you” just kept bubbling out of me on Saturday. The understanding and anticipation of the gift of this

I came up a day early so that I could recover from a 20-hour travel day and play tourist in Homer for a minute. I wish I could have come up a full week early. I enjoyed my day of wandering in the cold and rain, however. I was exhausted — arrived at 7:30 in the morning but couldn’t check into the hotel until 5, so I had to stay awake and do something all day. And I did. Walked on the beach, stared at the mountains, had a really good omelet, went to the very excellent and inspiring Pratt Museum — if you’re going to be in Homer, for-sure visit the Pratt. It’s small and lovely. After the museum, I walked over to the Sweetgale Meadworks to try mead for the first time. I sampled all the meads ( 😉 ) and even got pics of a visiting moose before it was time to head to the hotel. On the drive to the hotel, we passed a coffee klatch of bald eagles — six of them just hanging out on the beach. And then I discovered that I’m not too early for late daylight! I thought I’d miss the whole midnight sun extravaganza … and I will, but the sun sets after 10pm right now, so daylight just goes on and on. It’s magical.

Here are some pics from the last few days:

My first good look at Kachemak Bay, taken from the back deck of the hotel where I stayed the first night.
The flights of meads I sampled. The flight on the left had my favorites: Sweetgale, Nagoonberry, and Wildflower.
One of the two moose who came by the meadery as I was sipping mead.
The view from my hotel room … at about 9pm. Crazypants that it was still this bright out!
Hanging out at the Salty Dawg Saloon before heading out to the residency. (That Stella Cidre was good stuff!)
A piece of the view from my cabin window here at the residency. That’s Cook Inlet.
Running away to write. 10/10 highly recommend
A mated pair of Sandhill Cranes who were hanging around outside the main house when I walked up for breakfast yesterday.

And now it’s time to get back to work! ❤


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Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Disposable

In my early 20s, I did a fair amount of hitchhiking. (I’ve written about this several times on this blog. I survived, clearly, as I am here to write about it. Nevertheless, this isn’t a means of travel I would recommend in this day and age … and I probably shouldn’t have been so casual about it back then, either, but I did have plenty of great rides and got to travel a lot more than I could have if I’d had to pay for transportation on every trip.)

On my first long hitch, I traveled with my friend Rachel. We were in England, on our way south from Scotland. It was getting late and we needed a place to stay. Our driver brought us to Blackburn in Lancashire to a big, rambling house. He said it was a hostel for girls. I suppose it kind of was, but it was more accurately a halfway house or group home of some kind. It was run by an older, kind-but-flinty woman who was exactly as you might imagine an almost-elderly British matron of a girls’ home to be. She wasn’t thrilled to have us dropped off at her door, but she didn’t turn us away, either.

The house was full, but not. Some of the girls were away visiting family, so there were a few empty beds. Rachel and I were given a room to share for the night. We had adapted to our vagabond life by that point in our trip, so climbing into strange girls’ beds didn’t faze us. The room was small and cozy, the house felt safe, we had made it through another days’ hitch. All was right with the world.

The bed I chose for the night was surrounded by evidence of its owner’s fangirliness. The walls at the head and side of the bed were plastered with magazine spreads and publicity photos of various bands. If I had any question about her favorite, it was answered by the ceiling décor: a bed-length poster of Simon LeBon of Duran Duran. Simon and the rest of the boys were featured on the walls as well, but that poster basically had me sleeping prone beneath him. Oy.

*

I’ve often thought about that house, wondered who the girls were who lived there, how they wound up there and how long they stayed, where did they go when they left? It was definitely not a hostel. Those girls were home for however long they needed to be. But they also clearly had families with whom they had successful enough relationships that they could go for sleep-over visits … but with whom they couldn’t live year-round?

I like the idea of that house, the kindness of it, the awareness of its need to exist, and that woman giving over what had once been her family home to make it a reality. Yes, she surely worked with and hopefully received funding from some government service agency to make that house a going concern, but it still spoke of compassion to me. Rather than have those girls be destitute, they could live in a pretty house with their album posters and newspaper clippings on the wall. They weren’t thrown away.

We do a lot more throwing away here. It’s much too easy for us to see young people as disposable. Especially the unhoused. Especially girls.

Yes, there is foster care, but not every kid who might need to foster is in the system, and kids age out of the system. We need more and better options for young people who can’t live in their family homes and aren’t yet ready to live on their own and take full care of themselves. Such places exist, but they seem few and far between. And are there set-ups like the house in that quiet and pretty little neighborhood where I slept under Simon LeBon?

In the town where I grew up, girls were often sent away. They were sent to mysterious, anywhere-but-here places where they lived until they could return to town without the babies they’d been carrying when they’d been hurried off. Were they sent to places as kind and welcoming as that house where Rachel and I stayed? I have doubt. And the house where we stayed wasn’t for pregnant girls. It was for girls — the youngest we met was 15, the oldest 19 — who had nowhere else to live.

*

When Rachel and I hitched around Europe, we weren’t homeless, of course. We both had families on the other side of the ocean who eagerly awaited our return from our travels, who were ready to welcome us home, safe and sound. I can’t imagine that not being the case. I have always had a place to go home to, no matter how far away from it I’ve journeyed.

When we were hitching, however, we were absolutely in the hands and at the mercy of strangers. We weren’t always found by kind drivers who went out of their way to drive us to safe places to sleep, but we did always wind up being safe. Strangers, for the most part, treated us with care, with the understanding that we had value and were deserving of kindness.

Whatever became of the girl whose bed I slept in that night? When she came back from visiting her family, was she told that a random American had been in her bed? Did she scent me when she went to sleep that night? How long did she live in that house and what life did she walk into when she left it?

I was 20 when I stayed there. When I went home, I was embraced by my family and absorbed back into my entirely sheltered existence: living in a college dorm, living with my family. I worked on campus, but not to pay my rent or tuition. I needed that money, but my room and board was paid for by financial aid and loans. Yes, I was poor, but I rarely felt it, and it didn’t dictate how or where I was able to live, who I lived with or the level of kindness or safety I was afforded. At least not in ways that I had to be aware of … which was, of course, a big part of that kindness and safety.

*

Why does it seem so difficult to create places of refuge for young people? Or, perhaps more accurately, why are we usually not interested in doing so? We get emotional about that song, “The Greatest Love of All,” and sing passionately how the children are our future, but what we clearly mean is that some of the children are our future. The rest we see as chaff … when we see them at all. Years ago, I was in a meeting with Geoffrey Canada. He talked about the difference between thinking about “at-risk children” and “our children.” At-risk kids are somone else’s kids. They’re not our responsibility, so it’s easier to ignore their needs, to accept sub-standard outcomes from them. But when we think of our own kids, we are more invested. All kids, he said, should be our kids. If all kids were our kids, would we discard them with such ease? Wouldn’t we make more effort to see to their care?

*

My grandmother ran, for years, two large houses for adults who couldn’t live on their own. They weren’t halfway houses, they were residences, more temporary for some people than for other. I was young then, so not overly clear on the life circumstances that landed people in Mom’s houses, but nothing about her managing those houses or people needing to live in them seemed odd to me. Part of that was surely because Mom’s house had been full of people my whole life — first foster kids and then older teens and young adults. People needed places to live, and it made sense for them to live in houses like Mom’s — a giant, many-bedroomed home with a dining room large enough for a dozen folks to eat around the table. The two houses she eventually ran were an obvious extension of the care she’d been providing in her own home for hears. And the fact of people needing places to live continued to make sense, continued to be an obvious truth.

I know — or at least I insist on believing — there are many other people like Mom across this country, people who make homes for folks who need them. Maybe they, too, have enormous cooking pots on their stoves, constantly simmering in preparation for the meals they’ll serve every day. I believe these living arrangements exist, but they still seem rare, are still not nearly enough.

*

Rachel and I ate breakfast with the girls in England. We had coffee, eggs, toast and juice. When we left, we followed their careful directions to take a local bus to a place that everyone thought would give us the best chance of finding a ride.

We didn’t worry about where we’d sleep that night, just hopped off the bus and put out our thumbs. We landed hours later in Betws-y-Coed, Wales, at a youth hostel down a winding, tree-lined road. We had stopped on the way at a jumble sale in a church yard where, for no discernable reason, I dropped two pounds on an small bellows camera that has decorated bookshelves in my homes all these many years since. We spent the night in that hostel with many random, traveling young women, and then we continued on our way. We rode on, confident that we’d be fine, that we’d end up somewhere safe and suitably comfortable, that we could continue relying on the kindness of strangers.

Why is it so hard to reshape our society so that all young people, all people, can rely on that should-be-basic level of kindness?


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.

Under the Sea

Okay, one last Grand Cayman story. At the end of yesterday’s post, I mentioned that there was a lot of snorkeling on that trip. It makes sense, of course. We were in the Caribbean, of course a lot of our activities would involve the water and seeing what was in the water with us.

I’m not a great swimmer. I can swim, and could probably swim well enough to swim out of trouble if trouble approached me slowly, but Diana Nyad, I’m not. I’m fascinated by the ocean, however, and by sea creatures.

Backstory on me and snorkeling: The first time I went to Jamaica, I was excited to go snorkeling. My friends and I got gear and marched ourselves into the water. And the ocean didn’t disappoint. I saw lots of fish — including a beautiful moment when a school of silversides swam around me. I saw sea urchins, a conch, lots of coral … After I’d been paddling around a while, I was annoyed because there was a terrible noise that was distracting me from my leisurely sea-gazing. It was a loud, rasping noise, as if Darth Vader was about to tell me he was my father. I kept looking for what could be the source of the nuisance. Finally I realized that I was the source. What I was hearing was the sound of my own panic breathing, loud and terrified, amplified by the snorkel and maybe by the water. I don’t know, but it was LOUD.

Panic breathing even though I was totally fine … and would always have been totally fine because I was snorkeling in such shallow water I could just stand up when the going got too unnerving. Seriously. The second place we snorkeled on that trip was a sand bar. I couldn’t even swim there. I just lay on the ocean floor and looked around.

Why panic breathing? Because I am fascinated by the ocean, but I’m also pretty entirely afraid of it. And when I’m fully in it, swimming around with the beings that live there, I’m out of place. I’m the alien, unable to adapt, inserting myself into someone else’s territory. The landscape is foreign, the atmosphere is inhospitable — I can’t breathe there unless I have special equipment — and no one speaks my language.

And being underwater in the ocean, I discovered, makes me feel claustrophobic. Really, really claustrophobic.

All of this adds up to panic breathing. I consciously calmed my breath and forced myself to keep going. There was so much I wanted to see. And I got to see a lot, but my snorkeling fear took hold from that first day. I snorkeled a few more times on that trip — even had a barracuda swim on his own leisurely path right in front of my nose! I kept snorkeling, but my fear didn’t abate.

So when I agreed to be a chaperone on the Grand Cayman trip, I knew there would be snorkeling on our agenda. I figured it would be like what I’d done in Jamaica, and I’d make it work. I also figured that, with two other adults sharing the chaperone duties, there would be times when I could opt out of being in the water. And then the other chaperones announced that they had no intention of swimming because they couldn’t swim and were terrified of the water. So I would have to do all the snorkeling. All. And keep a brave face on while doing it so the kids who were nervous would feel better about giving it a try.

Our first outing, we got on a boat, and motored out further from shore than I’d ever snorkeled before. Our captain and guide announced that the spot he was taking us to would be great for seeing lots of things … and would be between 75 and 80 feet deep. And, while the kids were oohing and aahing at the thought of such deep water, I was repeatedly confirming for myself that no, in fact I wouldn’t be able to just stand up if I was freaking out. I’m tall, but I am woefully human-sized, so no toes on in the sand and head above the waves options there.

We put on our gear when we reached the designated spot, and our guide and his crew began helping the kids into the water. I descended the ladder and pushed off from the boat and, before I even put my face in the water, I could feel my panic breathing start. Under the guise of monitoring the kids, I treaded water and did some deep breathing exercises to calm myself. I finally got my breath back to something that could pass for normal, and went under.

And I saw lots of fabulousness, including rainbow parrotfish, who I fell in love with instantly, and gorgeous, enormous sea fan coral (gorgonia ventalina), which is one of my favorite corals. I also saw how far the floor was below me, and I had to fight back the panic breathing again. And I saw a stingray … and I decided to swim back to the boat … which at first I couldn’t find but located before a full panic attack could erupt.

I don’t remember how many snorkeling outings we had during that week. At least five, including one day when we snorkeled at two different venues. Vidalys, one of the older girls who had held my hand across the aisle on the plane because she was terrified of flying, told me she was excited to get better at snorkeling because she could see how much I loved it. I almost laughed. Then I realized that a) my “Whistle a Happy Tune” approach to being a snorkeling chaperone had worked for both Vidalys and for me because b) I was loving the snorkeling. I was loving seeing all those rainbow parrotfish and seeing corals and seeing all the other underwater-world things there were to see. And by the last couple of excursions, I no longer had to calm myself because the panic breathing had stopped clawing at my throat.

I’m still not Diana Nyad, nor will I ever be. I am, however, making some undersea plans. I have a gift I want to give myself when I hit my 60s, and it involves some serious undersea activity. Just thinking about it calls up the old panic, but Grand Cayman taught me the cure for that: I just have to keep diving in.


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

Unlocking Doors

Whoo, in a much better mood than last night. Thank goodness. 🙂

Sometimes it’s just like that. You get cranky, and it is what it is. I can’t do anything to change people who get on my nerves, but I can for-sure change how I respond. Again, thank goodness.

Today I started a writing, meditation, and self-care challenge (yes, because I have soooo much time on my hands, while working more than time and trying to write these poems and keep up with the forever essay challenge … yeah). I started thinking about two vacations I took with my mother years ago and how wonderful it was to see her slide out of herself and into a woman I’d never seen before. The trips were very different, and what I saw in her was very different one trip to the next, but both pleased me enormously. So I thought I’d write today’s poem for the me who did that traveling with her. Then I realized I didn’t want to cram both trips into one poem, so I’ve pulled them apart. Tonight is the first trip, a week on the southern coast of Jamaica. Just thinking about it makes me smile.


Dreaming inside Her Dreams
Forty-seven, traveling with my mother

The first morning in Jamaica
you found her on the verandah
her eyes full of the sea
her face soft and open.
Yes, you thought. She understands now.
Yes, she said. I see what you meant.
She relaxed into the heat,
chatted up fishermen
played dominoes
drank from a coconut fresh from the tree
drank in the quiet
drank in the comfort
showed you a face you’d never seen
so still, so at ease, so beautiful.

Maybe she was the woman you would have met
had she chosen that road not taken.
You watched her, fascinated
in love
and also sad
denying that life not taken
made your life possible.
Did she give up ease to give you everything,
to give you the chance to find this place
to dream a life so different from hers?

But here, this perch above the waves
this lavender heaven,
this you can give her
can share with her
and watch her sigh and smile,
be waiting for her when she arrives
whole and happy
sun glittering through her silver curls.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have 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. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

Slipped Loose from My Moorings

In January I took a teenty tiny holiday, a few days away from my life and down to Martinique. Before I bought my plane ticket and booked my Air BnB, Martinique had receded to the back corners of my brain. It had only existed as a place French people were always thinking I might be from when I was living in Paris. Young foolish child that I was back then, I’d never even taken a moment to learn anything about the place, not even where, exactly, it was. I just knew I wasn’t from there and wished annoying French people would stop asking me.

But then someone shared a link to Parisian airfares that were crazy-low … and I almost bought a flight until I remembered how dreary Paris is in January. So I checked other destinations and found that the sale extended to Martinique and Guadeloupe. And my brain smiled. The Caribbean in January? Yes, please.

But how to choose between two destinations I knew nothing about? Yes, naturally I took a crash course at the School of Google, clicking through articles and photo galleries. It turned out to be less helpful than it should have been: both islands are, of course, beautiful.

And then I read the piece of information that sealed the deal, something so extraordinary and captivating there was no way this first trip could be to anywhere but Martinique. (And I say “first” trip because, with fares so low, I will surely be going back!)

The magical object of my fascination was a statue that graces a park in Fort-de-France, the capital. A statue of the Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, whose family was ensconced in Martinique, enslaving people and living the life. And in her honor, someone at some point saw fit to erect a statue in the capital.

<cough>

And someone else at some other point, saw fit to behead the statue. And I have to assume this artistic revision happened after the period of enslavement had ended, after Martinique established itself as a Black country for good and true. And I have to assume these things because deftly-beheaded Josephine still stands in the park. Someone — maybe the original swordsman but perhaps not — dashed her with red paint. Just enough for her decapitation to appear a bit … fresh.

I read about that, and I knew I had to see it for myself. Ticket bought, hunt for the right lodging began.

Seriously, though. If there could be a better illustration of the difference between a country that embraced its Blackness after slavery and a country that contorted itself to find new ways to codify the condemnation of Blackness, I feel it’s that Josephine statue. We don’t even have to imagine how such an act of vandalism would go over in this country, this country where we have held fiercely to our reverence for and protection of the monuments to our ugly history. We don’t have to imagine because we’ve seen the violence and swift law enforcement response to merely the suggestion that the statues be removed. The call for removals was the rallying point, the excuse used to organize the white supremacy protest in Charlottesville.

So a country that leaves a beheaded slave owner on display … well that was a place I needed to visit.

And Martinique didn’t disappoint. Josephine didn’t disappoint.

 

I have done a decent amount of traveling. Not anywhere as much as I’d like, but I’ve gotten myself out there. And I like to think I am a good traveler, that I go prepared, that I don’t further anyone’s negative opinions about Americans abroad and all that. I try to know stuff, try to have basic phrases mastered to show some good will.

I didn’t prepare for this trip, not really. I used to speak French, so I figured I’d just pick it back up when I got there, as if that was a real thing. And I did check the weather to be sure temps would be high enough for me to wear my summery-est summer dresses. And at the last minute, I checked to see if there was a time difference. That was really all I did.

And then I arrived and realized I didn’t know anything, realized how not ready I was.

Examples of this glaring not-knowing: Yes, there is a time difference. Martinique is an hour ahead of New York. I read that information, but I couldn’t process it, couldn’t make it make sense. Why is Martinique an hour earlier than New York? did it have something to do with them not setting their clocks back in the fall? That was the best I could do. The travel-Stacie I used to be would have gone to look at a map … novel inventions, those maps. They show you where land masses sit in relationship to one another. I did finally look at a map — after I got home — and saw that Martinique is much further east than I was picturing, that it is practically in Venezuela, and of course it’s an hour earlier than New York.

I knew before traveling that Martinique uses the Euro. I knew this because the cost of my airport transfers and the day tour I’d arranged were given in Euros. But I didn’t bother to understand why Martinique — a small Caribbean island — would use European Union currency. It seemed odd, but I didn’t dwell on it. After I arrived and started getting to know my host, I learned that Martinique is considered France. Not a colony, not a territory or protectorate, but part of the country of France. It is one of the official departments (states) of France. What? Seriously? My brain is still wrestling with that. This tiny, shining spot in the Caribbean is part of the EU. Not EU-adjacent, but the EU. Full stop. That seems beyond wacky to me, but there it is.

These aren’t the most dramatic pieces of information in the world, to be sure. But they are important, basic bits of info that it would have made sense for me to bother knowing before I got on the plane. They are things I would for-sure have taken time to learn before traveling in the past. My brain really just didn’t get on the right track for this trip. So much on the wrong track that I headed to a tropical location and didn’t bring a single one of my fans. I was sorry without them the whole time.

I’m just surprised by what seemed a complete lapse of understanding how to travel. I felt as if I’d been asleep from the moment I booked the trip to the moment I arrived in Fort-de-France.

And I’m realizing as I write this that one of the things I didn’t do before my trip was have travel anxiety dreams. Seriously. Every time I plan a trip, I have dreams that feature the parts of my travel plan that haven’t been arranged and settled. I’ve had dreams where I’m on the plane and realize I don’t have my passport. That kind of thing. But I had none of that before this trip. I think I had too many things to focus on between booking and traveling and, in some way, my brain forgot about Martinique. Despite the fact that I was telling everyone I was going on this trip, my brain treated that like random small talk, didn’t let the information take any space in my active consciousness. Weird.

Weird, and I hope that doesn’t happen for trips in the future. I was so disoriented in Martinique. “On the back foot,” as old-timey novelists would have said. I had a lovely trip, but I kept feeling more than a little off, couldn’t shake the sense that I was lost, unmoored. So very odd.


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 decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

It’s March, so it’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! Twelve years and going stronger than ever. Click over to read a few slices, see what that eclectic group of bloggers is up to. And maybe write some slices of your own this month!

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