Saturday, November 28, 2009

Eve Tai's 26-Minute Memoir

I am a Midwest Girl. It all began there -- the place where I was born (Illinois), where I was raised (Detroit), where I grew into a grown-up (Chicago, Madison, WI). I may live in Seattle -- 10 years now -- but my heart is in the Heartland. My native Detroit is hardly salt of the earth - steel of the earth is more like it -- but that's where I was honed and tempered, in the cauldron of jazz and assembly lines and people who talk straight because that's the only way they know how to talk. When I was in college at the University of Michigan, I dreamt of moving to New York City to become a rock journalism star. But my star guided me to Chicago instead. You could call Chicago the New York of the Midwest, but you'd be mistaken. Chicago isn't trying to be anybody else and neither am I. I am a Midwest Girl. The oak trees steady me, the thunderstorms howl my anger, the snow brightens my dark days and invites me to play in its icy softness. The moraines and eskers left by the Ice Age wind sensuously across the prairies and plains. Life may call me to Boston or Bombay, but the Midwest is the center of my unirverse. It's my soft place to fall. I will always be her daughter.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bill Engle's 26 Minute Memoir

I Was 17 She Was 18 – We Were in Love

It was the first of our last two dates. I borrowed Dad’s new Olds which I had cleaned inside and out and polished – it was perfect the way Janet loved our cars. I picked her up after work which was sundown – I was still working at the Country Club as an assistant to the pro. I’d called her earlier in the afternoon so she knew what time I would be there. When I got to the house and pulled up in the back she was waiting and literally flew out the door and down the path with her dress flowing in the cool evening air. Her mother came out the door behind her, looked at me with the same penetrating eyes that Janet had and said “Have her home by 10 Bill”.

By the time I responded affirmatively Janet was already in the passenger seat. She leaned over as she always did and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I wanted to cry. The tears were welled up inside. I knew I would go crazy when she was finally gone and we only had one more night.

I put Dad’s car in drive and headed down the alley. She took my right hand off the steering wheel, kissed my fingers as I touched her lips and then placed my hand on her bare leg just above her knee and slightly under her skirt. I felt her shiver just a little. Then with both hands free she took over the radio and tuned us in to 1400 on the radio dial – KOMA Oklahoma City’s night time all music station. As the music came up we were transported into the world of 50’s rock and roll.

I looked at her with my sad brown cow eyes – she smiled and said “I love the car”. We both cried.

We cruised through town in our own little private world in silence except for Elvis singing “Teddy Bear”. We went up 2nd street and caught the highway to the Deer Creek turn off. Finally just about a mile down the two lane dirt road I found a secluded place and moved off the road into the weeds and out of sight. I turned off the lights and left the radio on. We sat in the dark for about 2 seconds before all our clothes lay randomly scattered in the back seat like freshly fallen snowflakes.
We held each other in love’s warm embrace, made our special kind of love and fell asleep in the cool air of the late, Wyoming summer night. It was the last time we would ever be together like that in the pure freedom of just the two of us and no other commitments. About an hour later Janet woke with a chill; we dressed, checked the time and headed home. Just music all the way home – it was way too sad to talk.

I went to the front of her house which I did occasionally – it seemed a little more formal and just kind of fit the mood. I parked the car and we held a kiss one more time before we got out. It was hard, it was long and maybe it was even a little desperate. Then I walked her to the front door – something I hardly ever did. We walked through the front gate and along her mother’s garden path and when we reached the front step we stopped and just looked at each other for the longest time. I touched her face and told her I loved her one more time. We kissed again, I said I would call her tomorrow afternoon and I turned and walked away. I heard her mother say something as Janet went through the door and it was done.

Monday, November 23, 2009

26-Minute Memoir from Abigail Carter, author of The Alchemy of Loss

Center of the Universe

“You’re not the center of the Universe you know.” I was eight. It was Christmas and a hard lesson. My sister had gotten more toys because it’s easier to buy presents for a three your old than and eight year old. It was on the stairs of my gram’s house. Only years later did I learn of my aunt listening down below, lips pursed. I had been moody, uncommunicative, shut down. My son now does a perfect imitation and although it infuriates me, I sometimes smile, knowing what its like to be in that state.

“What’s wrong?” they ask, but you cannot honestly say. The mood has simply taken over and consumed you. The Flintstones can sometimes take it away, but Fred always gets in trouble with Wilma, always doing the wrong thing, so sometimes it makes things worse. At Gram’s it was always Bugs Bunny Roadrunner Hour, right after Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Sometimes we only got to watch Wild Kingdom before being called for dinner. Gram would always make me laugh, with her dislike of garlic and wormy applesauce and knew how to coax me out of the mood.

We lived for a while at Gram’s house and we drank powdered milk and I took the bus to school and was given a dime for real milk that we bought from a tiny cooler at the back of the cafeteria. But Senior Kindergarteners had to eat lunch in the classroom.

It was a bad snow winter and so the school was shut for a week and we were snowed in. I built long tunnels in hid inside, strangely warm. When the weather got nice again I would swing on the swings of East Garafraxia Township Public School and let a shoe quietly slip off my foot whenever one of the older boys was near. I knew he would pick it up and hand it to me and I would smile at him.

In the summer, I begged my mom to make a dress for me that matched the one my Raggedy Anne doll wore. It took a long, long time. My Gram could make a dress in half an hour, but she was teaching my mom to sew. I had to be patient, but I wasn’t. I wanted to wear it. She finally finished it on a Saturday night. I put it on, along with the white tights. I was so happy. The next day I walked by myself a quarter mile to the church on the corner of the road at the end of my grandparents’ apple orchard. I took Raggedy Anne for comfort. They told me where the Sunday School was in the basement and I sat with the other children in my new dress and white stockings. The teacher talked about God, which scared me a bit. Still does. Later we got cookies and juice and then I walked home by myself.

Gram taught me to quilt when I was ten and would take me to that same Church down the road. All the old ladies would sit in hard wooden chairs around a square of quilt that had been rolled onto two by fours and all four sides and clamped in the corners. The frame sat on saw horses. Everyone sat around the frame, two or three to a side and chat and sew, one arm above the quilt, one arm below. I learned to gather ten stitches on the needle before sending it all the way through. When you stitched as far as your arms would go, the quilt would get turned once more on the two by four and we would start again. The women drank burnt coffee from the urn and talked about a boy who was shot dead in a hunting accident. My first exposure to the perils of life, nothing I could ever imagine being applied to my life.

My Gram died one December of the flu, too frail to cough. “Let me go,” she begged my aunts. I got the call at work from my dad. Everyone was at my Gram’s house, just milling around the house. I helped my aunt make sandwiches on hand cut white bread with thick slices of ham and mustard. There was more coffee and nobody was quite themselves.

At the funeral, I cried and then laughed when the bagpipe started up in the back room of the church behind the alter, like a slowly dying cat, its scream reaching a crescendo until the bagpiper finally appeared and walked down the aisle playing Amazing Grace. He exited the church and the cat died a slow squealing death.

Amazing Grace played again many years later for my husband and for the thousands that died along with him in the World Trade Center.

Those early years prepared me for what lay ahead. I was not the center of the universe. I could distract my bad moods. I could do what scared me. I could handle death, make ham sandwiches, hear Amazing Grace again. I learned what it meant to let go.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Daniel Mount's 26-Minute Memoir


My friend and writing teacher, Theo Nestor, author of How to sleep Alone in a King Sized Bed said to me the last time I saw her that I should write a book about old people, because I am always writing about old people. I was puzzled and shocked. But as I ran my finger across the flip file of my mind tracing the umpteen stories I wrote since beginning to write 5 years ago, I realized most of the stories were about old people. The one story about a young person was about an old flame, Bahram Najafi, who was 30 at the time. He was old both culturally, he is Iranian, and at the time spiritually, he had lost both his parents and niece and had fallen into a deep depression, which made him slow and cranky...old. I, having just turned 40 and under Saturn’s influence, living in the Old World ( I had set up camp in Cologne for a few years) was feeling “old” myself. It was a momentarily perfect fit, except that Bahram was the type of lone wolf that is not feral.

When I returned to the States after “things fell apart”, I found everyone here a bit annoying. Like being dropped into a room full of texting teenagers. I got used to it and back into being an American, whatever that means, but still wonder about this fear we have about getting old.

My parents are old now. Of course they were always “old” but now they are really old. And as much as I avoided patterning my life after theirs, as much as I resisted their lessons, especially the one about frugalness; oh, and the one about stick-to-it-tiveness, there is also a great deal I absorbed. I became them in a way. And in becoming them I realize I am becoming old, too. It is inevitable I know but my childish mind puts it’s two impudent feet down and refuses to budged. After all isn’t zen mind beginners mind? Didn’t Jesus say “Such is the Kingdom of God”? I guess he was talking about child-likeness, not childishness.

I am guessing again, when I say my fear of growing old is childish. Is it something inherent or learned? Cultural or personal? I remember when I was very young, truly a child, hearing about Second Childhood. I was not a child looking forward to being an adult. But Second Childhood, that sounded promising. To get childhood again after all you learned from adult life. Wow! I guess Second Childhood has become Alzheimer’s or Dementia in our modern parlance, like my prolifically knitting grandma would probably be told she had OCDC. I like the old terminology.

I recently called home and asked my father, who has Alzheimer’s, what he was doing. When I was growing up he was always doing something (did he have OCDC, too?). He said, in all seriousness, “I am sitting here watching the leaves grow on the apple tree?” Remember the child-like freedom of laying on your back and staring a clouds? I wouldn’t try it today there are no pictures to be seen in our nearly seamless gray sky and you’d get a face full of water. But you get my drift.

The other morning as I drove down the asphalt road through Carnation Marsh a scrawny coyote ran in front of my truck. He scurried frightened from the road, plunged into the water filled ditch. He must have been 100 years old in dog years, gray and crippled with arthritis, I could see it as he pulled himself out of the ditch nearly slipping back in. I don’t think of fear as a good motivator, but for him, then, fear worked. I felt a strange kinship with this lone coyote, I attached a part of myself to him and ran into the marsh.

I could not get the image of that old coyote out of my head until later in the week when I saw him dead on Tolt Hill road. I nearly cried, but there were caffeinated commuters behind me pressing me on and no turn-out in sight. I wanted to stop, I had to go.

In this moment, both crucial and absurd, I threw up my arms (not literally, I was driving) at the rapidity of my life, slower than most, especially the commuters behind me. The passing of time, as I flew past the coyote at a speed he could probably run as a youth, weighed heavy on me. And eventually a few tears fell.

When I got to work I yanked out summer: moldy marigolds, salvias, dahlias. Leaves fell in the sporadic gusts of wind. The summer party dresses are off the hermaphroditic garden. What is left they say are “the bones of the garden”. I find the thought rather macabre. For me the bones are the the mineral aspects the stones, the soil, the asphalt if need be. What I see in the bare trees, the hedges and shrubs is the musculature. There is something erotic in brawny trunks and the vertical posturing of conifers. The garden also looks “old” too, stripped as it were of its charms. But it is a beautiful old. Like the old coyote was beautiful, even his crippled escape seemed beautiful as I followed him into the marsh away from the work-a-day world, the bills and the chores and into the venerable soggy marsh. Not a garden at all but a graveyard of snags, impenetrable with browned grasses, bare branches, flood debris and peace.

Maybe the coyote wasn’t running out of fear but toward peace, off the asphalt into the subtle undefined world of wildness. Maybe all my running out of fear of not making ends meet or keeping up, or getting old is also more a running toward the subtle victory I think my father feels when he sits and watches the apple leaves grow.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Marika Holmgren's 26-Minute Memoir

I am 5. I am having ice cream in one of those cones that are not much more than air and I remember the cool feel of linoleum under my feet.

I am 12. I am in Iceland. I worry my grandmother, who has taken me on the trip of a lifetime, by staying out with a friend on our stop (we are on a cruise) and not telling her where I am.

I am 13. I am terrified by everyone at school.

I am 15. My first kiss. It’s not very good.

I am 16. I break my first heart. It feels too easy.

I am 18. My parents drop me off in Vermont for college. I barely look back as they drive away. I’m ready for freedom.

I’m 21. I’m madly in love.

I’m 23. I’m no longer in love.

I’m 25. I begin to notice that I have panic attacks. I no longer feel like a child, but instead realize that my mother has passed on a gene to me that will make me flush with fear at nothing.

I’m 26. I know true fear when I learn my brother has a brain tumor.

I’m 27. Everyone is getting married. I feel old and young at the same time.

I’m 28. The unthinkable happens. I lose my father. This event sets off a series of changes that will alter the course of my life. It will bring my brother and I closer. It will be the first of many early deaths in my life, and it makes me leave everything I know in California as I head to Colorado to find something else.

People say that 28 is your Saturn return, when everything is turned on its head. That sounds right.

I’m 30. I feel young and old at the same time.

I’m 31. Old friends are dropping off, and new ones are taking their places in my life.

I’m 31. I start a business.

I’m 32. I feel I have all the time in the world.

I’m 33. I’m in the best shape of my life. I am strong, lean, and powerful.

I’m 34. I crash on my mountain bike. My shoulder will never be the same.

I’m 35. I buy my first house. I do this with my brother. We don’t fight, argue, or disagree, and I remember again that I’m lucky to have this.

I’m 36. I am the last person to be with my grandmother before she dies. I’m broken, again.

I’m 37. I hear the words that you never want to hear, and that you never think you’ll hear. You have cancer.

I’m 38. I have no hair. I have no eyebrows. I have no eyelashes. I have no breasts. And yet I feel wealthy beyond my measure. I’m alive and loved.

I’m 38. I hold my mother’s hand as she passes away. Once again, the loss washes over me like a fog.

I’m 39. I weep with joy on November 4. Two weeks later I’m “reconstructed” over 15 hours of surgery. At midnight on December 31, I tell 2008 to go fuck itself and welcome 2009 in with open arms.

I’m 40. I celebrate the birthday with friends and family. The police show up to tell us to turn the music down and I thank them profusely. 40 no longer feels like something to dread, but rather a well earned gift.

I’m 40 and 3 months. I’m alive and whole.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Natalie Singer's 26 Minutes

As much as the house I grew up in, the cars my parents drove, the cold classrooms and school hallways I roamed for years – as much and more as these touchstones, when I think of my childhood, I think of the mall.

I can see myself there now, standing at the end of the low brown, brick building, under a dull flickering fluorescent.

I have just walked through the glass doors near the entrance to Eaton’s, the Canadian department store where we bought our boots and underwear and where, in its heyday as an upper class destination, my grandparents had taken me to lunch at the cafeteria. I still feel the cheese lasagna steaming my eager little face, my Mary Janes knocking the post underneath the laminate table.

But now I am 14. It is snowing outside, the big new flakes of another winter. My hair is puffy, my coat is wide open, a plain gray school uniform rumpled underneath. I am walking with a couple of girlfriends, gossiping about boys or the bitchy geography teacher. But even as I nod and swear perfunctorily, I am fielding my own private thoughts.

We walk past the windows of the stores, Jacob, Roots, Mexx. I study the mannequins, who are wearing the kind of clothes that I don’t own. They pose in their short black skirts, leather boots, bomber jackets. I cannot have these things, because they cost money my mother doesn’t have.

I marvel at the mannequins’ smoothness, their creamy unblemished robot skin. I am the opposite of them, me with my frumpy sweater from Reitman’s, where the mothers and cleaning ladies shop, where my own mother drags me when I desperately need something new and berates me. “What is wrong with this?” she asks, urges, waving a polyester thing in my face. “You are so spoiled. Money doesn’t grow on trees. And I don’t see your father offering to buy you kids anything.”

When the mannequins become too much, I turn my focus to the other groups of girls and boys my age roaming the grubby mall floor in little cliques. I pass right by some of them but they do not look, as though I am the air itself.

These girls seem to defy their very DNA – they almost all attend the private Jewish day schools nearby. But they are crowned with shiny gold hair, glossy and straight down their backs or gathered in sexy/messy ponytails jutting out the back of their small well-shaped heads. They wear uniforms too, but their skirts have sharp, black pleats, their tights patterned, their boots laced high. They have diamonds in their ears and gold nameplates hanging down their neck.

These girls, who sometimes knock into me as they brush by, walk with boys. Beautiful, unreal boys with longish hair and letter jackets and white teeth. Boys who put their arms around the girls and grip their small waists. Boys to whom I am invisible.

I stand in my puffy, gaping coat and study the mall floor tiles as they move by, as though I have important business down there and my ears aren’t red. This is how it is for me, how it always has been. I am fine – I look ok, not beautiful but not horrifically ugly, a little pimply but not covered from chin to forehead in fat blackheads like Andrea Betamun in homeroom. I know the requirements for fitting into the world around me – stylish clothes like the mannequins, glossy hair, manicured nails. But I don’t have the key to get in. I can’t get through those windows. I need to be perfect, I know that, but I can’t.

So I walk with my other invisible friends through the mall, past the colored cement indoor playground my grandparents took me to as a child, past the deli where the bubbies in their fur coats order challah and eggplant spread, past the Cattleman’s where the glossy girls and sometimes me stop for wide golden steak fries stacked like thick pencils in their oily paper cups.

The voices of the mall travel and echo like a train station, muffled, a sort of engine revving to take off. I am here, but not a part of anything. The thrum of the mall, as with life outside its walls, moves past me. I stand in place and watch it go, feeling slightly drugged, unable to keep up with the action, the requirements. I think about the walk to my bus stop, the icy wait, trudging through the slush piled up on the sidewalk, the cracked steps leading up to our sagging duplex.

I think about the other girls, ponytails, gliding up their pillared walkways into golden lit hallways and sitting rooms painted red. In my loose-fitting coat, in the middle of the brown mall, I am cold. Cold and unperfect. And, as usual, alone.