RK CornfieldYou’ve been awfully quiet today. What’s up?

I’ve been thinking of my attraction to bardo spaces. The in-between places. I suppose I’ve been dancing there since my early 20s when I left organized religion and began formally pursuing the visual and literary arts. An early exhibit of oils and monotypes called Between featured quasi-mythological, autobiographical figures knee-deep to chest-high in water, both on land and at sea at once. Looking back, it isn’t a surprise that ten years later I would begin seriously studying Tibetan Buddhism where this concept of the between figures prominently. It’s a natural fit for me. Any philosophy that makes a practice out of living beyond duality and with the concept of both/and feels like home.

On the first day of 2006, I left my bad luck tied to a tree outside a famous shrine in Tokyo.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting rid of, only that when my new friend, Ema, unrolled the tiny fortune and read it, she giggled nervously and said in accented English, “You unlucky this year,” then she pinched the corner of the paper between her thumb and index finger, waved it back and forth and said, “Is very bad, you leave it here.”

Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.

                                            —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

 

 

In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.

1991

By Matthew Aquilone

Memoir

I had the chance to kick Gregory Corso to the curb. Could you blame me for mistaking him for a homeless man who had wandered into the gallery that afternoon? He had on a more than well-loved down jacket, one side hopelessly stained with what I hoped was coffee, and beneath it the left pocket had been completely torn away, exposing the white stuffing inside. He had barely a tooth in his head by that time, and his hair was matted as if he had just woken from a Rip Van Winkle sleep. He appeared in my tiny office, mid-sentence. I didn’t hear “hello,” or “what’s your name?”; maybe the world “lunch” was in there somewhere. Standing, I hoped to encourage his departure. I had grown up in Brooklyn and had had my share of experiences with street people. No direct eye contact was an important dictum, one that applied equally to madmen as it did to babies and dogs. Be firm and say little. Shut it down, and fast.

I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I give or throw away things a bit too easily. A favorite skirt and T-shirt among bags of donations, my wedding ring with a pile of junky jewelery, expensive pieces of furniture. While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away.

Not so with stories.

* * *

I paid a long visit to Bittertown this winter.

In his memoir, Half a Life, Darin Strauss describes the treatment for Complicated Grief Disorder:

[T]herapists force patients to relive the details of the death, making them repeat the minutiae of their pain into a tape recorder in front of an analyst. The patient then replays this tape – this doting agony chronicle – at home every day. . . .It’s not about making the tape, or listening to the tape. It’s about possession, about having the story in one place. “The goal is to show that grief, like the tape, can be picked up and put away,” [a New York Times article] said.

It’s a little like Buddhism (at least according to the very little I know). Imagine your grief is your hand; trying to smash it down expends effort; moving it is easier; it’s part of you but you can control it. But whereas in Buddhism, you’d release your grief and leave it behind you – your hand would become once again, just your hand – putting away that tape means keeping that tape. Keeping your grief. For writers, Strauss says, our books are our tapes.

No wonder being a writer is one of the most depressing jobs in America.

* * *

In 2004, my husband had an affair. Had an affair and got the woman pregnant. Just like John Edwards. I haven’t written too much about it here. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I blab all about it elsewhere on the internet, or maybe because now, more than a year after I’ve started writing TNB, I feel like I know people here. And for me it’s always been harder to tell difficult things to people I know than to faceless strangers.

Anyway, so this is what my memoir is about. This and our whole relationship. Twelve years. A full Chinese zodiac cycle.

At the time of Joe’s affair, I could only write fragments in my journal:

July 3, 2004: Joe did the most terrible thing. I don’t know what to do.

July 8, 2004: Didn’t sleep again.

July 11, 2004: Felt better this morning but now I feel awful again.

Six months later, I could only write about it in third person.  It was only about a year later, after I finally decided to leave, that I could write about it fully, from my own point of view.

* * *

“This can’t be good for you,” a guy I dated for a (very) short time once said of my memoir writing.

I shrugged, but inside, resented his comment.  One, I wasn’t some delicate flower who could be undone by the mere act of writing. And two, I wasn’t the one who still cried when talking about my breakup, who was so anxious to be friends with my ex that I fell into a depression when an outing soured. I cried enough while it was happening, and I had no desire to be friends with my ex. I didn’t need to prove that I was over him or that I was “grown up.”

In fact, I needed to be far away enough from what happened in order to write about it well.  To see my life as a story and myself as a character.  I needed the grief to be outside instead of in.  My hand, you could say, instead of my heart.

But while I certainly haven’t fallen apart while writing (and revising and rewriting) my memoir, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring up those old feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness.

Paying a visit to Bittertown.  Even after you leave, you still smell like it.

* * *

This winter I rewrote my memoir again, taking advantage of NaNoWriMo (and part of December) to flesh out the parts of the book that I had rushed over, and I was surprised to find that unlike with revising, as I rewrote I was plunged deep back into my past life, even more so, it seemed, than the first time I wrote about it.

I was 21 again and falling in love. I was in China. I was with someone for whom nothing was good enough. My parents were worried. I was hiding something terrible from them.

Even after I stopped writing, my head was still back there.  I started to think my boyfriend Alex was like my ex (he’s not). I wanted to go to China again. I was furious again at my brother-in-law’s fiancee for telling me I should wear more makeup, for thanking me like a servant for helping my own ailing mother-in-law, for getting the bigger engagement ring, for snubbing my parents at a party because they were merely Chinese and not Korean.

When I talked to my mom, I worried that she was worried, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t, that she sounded happy, and I remembered that I was no longer with someone she hated.

For some reason, that same rage and hatred towards my ex and his mistress didn’t come up again. Maybe because my anger and hurt were so intense at the time that when it was all over, I had nothing left. Or rather, I simply couldn’t continue living with that rage, if I wanted to survive.

As for the other sections, why was this time different? Maybe because I’m in a relationship now. (My crazy is less obvious when I’ve no one to bounce it off of.) Maybe because those conflicts were never resolved. I never told my ex I felt nothing I did was good enough though I did let loose my fury at his betrayal. I never got into it with my brother-in-law’s wife the way I did with the mistress – calling and hanging up several nights a week, screaming messages on her machine, and one live phone call (Me: “Did you keep the baby?” Her: “Yes.”).

Maybe because it’s been a while since I looked this closely at the memoir. Maybe because in rewriting an already finished thing, I’m fiddling with something already alive. A jiggly green alien blob if you will, that out of nowhere scurries up the stick I’m poking it with, over my arm, and onto my face.

I’m glad to say that as I finished each section, I was able to shake the resentment blob. I booted 21-year old me to the curb. I quickly lost the desire to return to China (in fact I dreamed that I got a teaching job with the same school, then realized I really didn’t want to go back), and couldn’t care less about the woman who was my sister-in-law for a mere two years.

* * *

But remnants of the bitterness remained.

Or I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I can blame the rewriting of the memoir, the whole reliving the past process.

Because I got jealous. Over some woman. Who I don’t even know.

A writer. A successful writer. A successful writer who, quote, oh my god, never wrote before! and was a lawyer for 10 years! and decided one day, what the heck! she was gonna write a best-selling novel! and guess what! three months later she had an agent! and a well-accepted novel that’s making all the top 10 year end lists! and who is Chinese American! and lives in San Francisco! and is not me!

HOORAY!

Yeah.

Bittertown: I’m baaaaaack.

And eating chocolate cake. In my pajamas. Followed by Doritos.

I know I shouldn’t care what other writers are doing, beyond work that inspires me. I know I should just read this author and be inspired by her work, her story. Or I should I realize her story is bullshit, or at least that she is the exception and not the rule, just like every couple who meets by chance, whose hands touch while reaching for the same book, or who get their nonfat chai lattes mixed up, or who see each other across a crowded subway car and know, just know, they’re listening to the same song on their iPods – I know all of that is only the stuff of romantic comedies created to fuck with our heads.

I should remember the quote I saw on a girl’s tote bag on the bus: Jealousy does the opposite of what you want. I should remind myself it’s okay to feel this. (It’s my hand. I can move it. I can let it punch me in the face, or I can let it feed me cookies.) It’s okay to wallow for a day or two. But then I have to let it go.

* * *

Bittertown is a difficult place to visit. There are bad memories and old worries at every turn. The residue of insecurity. And don’t forget those alien blob things. But it’s also familiar. It’s that damaged yet well-known relationship. It’s what kept me from leaving my marriage for almost a year. Do I stay and make do with this awful familiarity, or leave and enter the – possibly more awful – unknown?

Well, I think it’s time to pack my bags. To leave and visit a new place, tell a new story. It’s time to give the tape away, once and for all.

The Milk!

By Ryan Day

Humor

It is a Spanish custom that women who appear in films must spend at least half of their screen time topless. My girlfriend is a radical. She spends half her time in a bra.

My girlfriend is an actress.  Recently we attended a screening of a short film in which she plays a woman from India who is held captive by a well-built Spaniard for unknown reasons (unknown to me, because though my Spanish is pretty good, I always miss some crucial plot elements). My favorite part was when she attacked the door with a hammer, screaming in a Hindi accent. My girlfriend is badass, I self-congratulated.

My least favorite part was when she seduced the well-built Spaniard in order to put him off his guard and escape. She really seduced him. She’s a hell of an actress. This is all make believe, like the transpirings on the other side of Mr. Rogers’ magic trolley tunnel, I told myself, squeezing her hand for reassurance.



Let me back up to the moment of our arrival at Barbú, the bar where the short was screened. I’ll translate literally, to maintain all of the awkwardness to the Guirri (that’s the Spanish for Gringo) boyfriend, and to indulge my own inner Hemingway wannabe.

“Hello, gorgeous woman!” says the actor, Pablo, who was soon to be straddled by the person with whom I share a sleeping space.  Pablo and my girlfriend, up on a giant screen, every man in the room psychically projecting himself through the magic of the cinematic suture into Pablo’s position. He grabs my girlfriend firmly by the shoulders and plants two kisses.

“Man!” she says, as if this needs any reinforcing. “Handsome! How handsome you are!”

Here in the bar, they continue holding hands as they speak from a distance of four inches. I linger awkwardly to the side. This is Spanish talking. I learned long ago not to stare straight into a conversation.

“Fuck! Man! How many people, no?”

“Yes! How many people. Fuck. It’s true.”

“Let’s go! And you? How are you? How do you walk?”

“Come on! Good. Good. I go good. I mean, I’m not working with any beauties like you, but it’s work, no?” He makes the ubiquitous Spanish gesture of sliding a hand back and forth through the air, like a salute that departs from the chin, but keeps getting sent back to retrieve additional whiskers.

“Yes. Working with you was the milk. Man! The milk!”

“I know it! This job today, ufff. I shit in the whore ocean!”

She puts a hand to her heart. “What pain that gives me.”

“I shit in everything!”

“What pain!” she says.

“Well, let’s go! There is to find seats and the people they are filing in like one testicle [or egg; readers’ choice]!”

“Fuck!”

“Fuck!”

Hands finally part. Two more kisses are exchanged. Guapos and Guapas abound. Venga. Vamos. Nos vemos despues. Vale. Ciao. Hasta ahora. Un beso. Otro para ti. Hasta luego. Adios. Vaya que bien verte, no? Vaya. Hombre. Tia.

Two Spaniards parting can be a lengthy process, even if it is only to cross the room, watch a short film and reconvene immediately thereafter. As a foreigner I never know when to hang up the phone or walk away from a friend on a street corner. I almost always feel as though I’ve cut the other party off before they are permitted one of their customary goodbyes. I think a definitive number needs to be chosen — 3, 5, 7.  It doesn’t really matter, but there must be certainty.

So the movie begins, and shortly thereafter, the passion unfolds.  My girlfriend squeezes my hand, smiles and rolls her eyes to make me feel better. Not that I feel all that bad. It’s more disembodied than bad. Watching the person you know more intimately than any other person in the world change into a violent Indian warrior woman and make passionate love to a muscular, mustachioed member of the Guardia Civil challenges some strange dissonance between what you know to be so, and what is ‘happening’ right in front of you. It’s sort of like free Buddhism lessons. Everything is an illusion. Reality is formless. She tickles my palm with her fingernail. I’m split in half. I’m floating through the room in a meditative bliss.  Well, maybe not bliss, and maybe not meditative.  More like stunned ambiguity. I float to the other side and see the dreaded Pablo. Joder!



What is the writing equivalent? Writing a sex scene? Writing a kiss? Not a fair comparison. While it certainly involves some level of dissimulation, it lacks the embodied bits that make it so disconcertingly real.  I think writers should get to practice their scenes with other writers. At least writers who date actors. It’s only fair.



When the movie ends, Pablo returns to our side of the bar.

“Hello, Aunt,” says Pablo.

“Uncle!” she says.

He ushers a slender fellow in solid black to his side. “He is Javier my boyfriend,” says Pablo.



Still, though…



1. Most cats are smarter than most Americans because most cats like Vegemite.

2. Mothers are always right. Getting orthopedic surgery on a body part on the same day as your partner will make for a really funny (and drugged out) 48 hours. Then the drugs will wear off, whereupon you will discover the futility and pain of trying to have sex with each other and wish you’d listened to both your mothers when they told you that you were completely crazy for scheduling surgery on the same day.

3. Drinking Smooth Move™ tea when you don’t really need to is not a good idea. Drinking two cups is a disaster of leviathan proportions.

4. After witnessing someone throw something wasteful on the ground, particularly a cigarette, it is really fun to chase them down the street and politely say “Excuse me? Excuse me? You dropped something back there.” The offending litterbugs are invariably worried about their iPhone/keys/wallet for about 5 panic-fueled seconds, then really irate/apologetic/apoplectic/embarrassed/amused/abusive. It’s just as much fun to try and guess their reaction beforehand.

5. When handing out your resume at job interviews it helps to have the right phone number included. It’s best to check as soon as you write the resume, and not after an entire year.

6. Sometimes the most counter-intuitive things are the best for us.

7. Crutches suck. There is a reason humans have two legs instead of four.

8. I don’t know what I believe in anymore. Am I an atheist? An agnostic? A Buddhist? A tree-hugging, dice-rolling, naturist?

9. Buying chocolate eclairs earlier in the day in preparation for visitors who will arrive much later is not a wise move. There will be no eclairs. None. And you will want to throw up on your guests. Try not to.

10. Not being able to see Sarah Silverman’s inspired TED talk in which she tries to destabilize the PC world by mentioning the word “retard” over and over again is going to piss me off for quite a while. The fact that TED are not putting it online makes me want to revoke my membership but has resulted in a few good emails to their ‘technical issues’ email address inquiring about “the Sarah problem”.


That’s all. What about you? Anything good?