Flynn Resigns (Not the Flynn you’re thinking of)

(An example of how a headline can open your mind to old memories and help you write toward surprising connections.)

I don’t want to talk about the General Flynn who just resigned because he might have lied about what he said to the Russians.

I want to write about Jim Flynn, my father’s friend.

My father taught delinquent boys history during a time when we used the word delinquent to describe young men incarcerated for a crime(s). Delicate language as though they were simply late returning their library books. A time when we invested in the hope of rehabilitation. In this place where my father taught history to delinquent boys he met Jim Flynn, the man who supervised my father.

Jim Flynn was an Irish-American like my mother and her family. I was too young to notice, but my father told me that when Jim Flynn slipped into an Irish brogue, there was always a wee bit of Irish whiskey in his belly because, you see, Jim Flynn had never lived in Ireland.

We lived in a rented apartment, sort of a duplex in a maze of identical rented duplexes, when my father first took me to Jim Flynn’s house, an old Victorian he had fixed up. Now that I have grown up words at my disposal, I can say “the house he renovated”. Or, better yet, rehabilitated. Just like the delinquent boys under his and my father’s care.

And in this gangly relic of a house with its narrow hallways and half-lit stairs leading to impossible rooms, a ten-year old girl might imagine stumbling upon an imprisoned princess or the castle’s resident dragon or monster of whatever type.

This rambling and a little bit creepy house with its velvet chairs and lace curtains, contained Jim Flynn’s collection of things from the past. Things my grandparents sometimes talked about but I had never actually seen.

We sat in Jim Flynn’s parlor, the kind of room that my grandparents as children would have wandered into and would have been shooed out of, being too precious for the swish bam boom of a child’s love.

Jim Flynn eyed me and said “Do you know what this is?” pointing toward the center of the room. “A Victrola?” I said as a question.

Yes. A Victrola. The word filled, no – drowned my mouth, with the long “ohhhhh” of it. Delicious. Full. Round. Yet, the sounds hissing from the morning glory shaped horn of this odd grandfather of a machine bristled and scratched their way through songs I had never heard.

When I grew up and went away from my parents’ home, I asked about Jim Flynn from time to time. At some level, I worried if there would come a point when they no longer kept in touch – maybe a fight or just plain old forgetting.

Then, one day, when I asked about Jim Flynn, my father replied, “Oh, he died a few years back.”

Unknowingly, I had been living in a world without Jim Flynn in it.

Jim Flynn Resigned.

Last year, my father died but in his case, I knew exactly when he was in my world until the minute he wasn’t (except I am doomed to remember that at the moment of his death, I stood in line at Walgreen’s buying lip balm for my mother and wine for me.)

I miss Jim Flynn. I miss my father. I miss the me who lived in their world.

Tattoo on My Forehead

This is not going to be a political post although to news junkies, it might seem like it at first.

Last week, a well-known political commentator talked about how some people will never be employed because they “have tattoos on their foreheads.”

I thought about it. Then looked in the mirror.

Do I have a tattoo on my forehead?

Yes. Yes, I do.

It is invisible and it probably changes every day. But it still stops people from seeing the real me.

The tattoo distracts to the extent that I can’t even see the real me.

I’m going to generalize and guess that maybe we all have tattoos on our foreheads.

Mine says I’m a bad daughter, bad mother, overweight and aging wannabe writer who is misunderstood by everyone and never invited to the party. Ahh, poor baby.

Yet, some people do love me, even my children occasionally say nice things about me, and I am surviving cancer. Those things don’t seem to show up in my tattoo.

Where is the doctor? I’m going to get that damn tattoo removed as soon as possible.

Then when thinking about the tattoos marking me, I wander over to the sticky web of love and traps.

Love traps. Loving someone but knowing that she is caught in a trap that prevents you from being able to help her without getting caught in the trap yourself. I realize the trap of my own making is the one of feeling helpless and out of control. (Hence all of the bad things screaming out to me from my invisible tattoo.) I don’t want to sweep the people I love into that trap. I will have to get out of it myself. How?

By letting go and accepting what is, I suppose.

This trap theme is something I need to keep front and center in my writing. Making my memoir and other stories look back to this tragedy of not being able to change the fate of the people you love.

Now, back to the ink. Is there a tattoo on your forehead keeping you from getting what it is you think you need? A tattoo that tells us something about the trap that has caught you?

Looking Glass

In an open air market, somewhere in central Mexico, renown author, Gail Sheehy stood a few feet away. With her back to me, she didn’t see me gazing at her reflection in the mirror she held. It looked like she was deciding whether or not she would buy the earrings dangling from her lobes.

Sheehy had been a keynote speaker at the annual writer’s conference held in San Miguel de Allende, a town in Mexico that has kept it’s colonial drama while being a distinct retirement destination for thousands of citizens from north and even way north of the Mexican border. There is enough of an English speaking base in San Miguel that a writer’s conference focused on American and Canadian authors can attract hundreds of attendees, mostly Americans, to this outpost a few hours north of Mexico City.

To someone like me, Sheehy has been everywhere and spoken to everyone. Her book, Passages, is cited as one of the most influential of recent times. Though Petite, she seems like a giant to me.

I had a chance to glimpse this giant simply as a woman wondering if something looked good on her. This is a woman who has interviewed Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill and Hillary Clinton and so many others that it seems silly to single any out.

There are deeper questions hidden in this moment. When we are looking at ourselves, what does our reflection reveal to the unnoticed observer? Would we be surprised? Or, what if no one sees our reflection except for ourselves. Worse yet, what if we don’t take a minute to look closely at what is in that mirror. Ignoring what is before our eyes when the truth tries to reveal itself.

I turned away. It isn’t polite to stare. A few minutes later, we passed each other going in opposite directions. I blurted out, “Did you like them?” She didn’t hear me or she had no idea what I was talking about. She didn’t respond. I wondered why I opened my mouth at all, slapping an imaginary hand to my forehead. And what a weird thing to say. Maybe that is why I have not made a career for myself sitting down and chatting with world figures.

Two days later, I listened to Joyce Carol Oates give her own keynote at this same conference. Gail Sheehy was in the front row and asked Oates a question when the microphone was opened up to the audience. I don’t remember what she asked, but I realized that Sheehy looked up to Oates. In that moment, Sheehy was a fan. Just like me.

As I’m working on my memoir, I spend most of my time reflecting, but without a mirror. I try to sense when I’m avoiding deep excavation of the truth, instead focusing on the good story resting on the surface. I guess it is a balance. I do want to make sure the story is good. But, it also has to penetrate some greater truth.

When I am in the company of titans of modern writing like Sheehy and Oates, I’m tempted to look at them instead of myself. I think this is common for writers who are finding their way. Letting fear of never shining as brightly as the great ones get in the way of ever shining at all.

When to Know the End

In the writing of my current project, my instinct for a long time has been to let the reader in on the end (or the end of one character) at the beginning of my own story. I mean, if you are reading this blog, you already know what happens to one of my main characters. So, I’ve already blown any suspense. But everyone advises me against it.

I have read two books in the last month in which we learn from the very beginning that one of our main characters is dead. The books are A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

And looking at these two books, it now seems evident that I might need to include the word “prayer” in my title.

The first sentence of A Book of Common Prayer, “I WILL BE HER WITNESS,” sets up the story with a declaration of purpose. Our narrator is the only one this other main character can count on. Our narrator is a person we will get to know because she uses first person. But, the story is primarily about someone else.

John Irving starts his work out with, “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God….” It is a complicated sentence structurally that tells us a lot about the end and nothing at all.

And there is immortality at work in that sentence. In both sentences actually, including Didion’s. Our memories are immortal as long as we are alive to remember them, even if they get locked away in a vault of numberless boxes and the keys are nowhere to be found. Our memories live.

Replay “I am doomed to remember” and fill it in with your own slices of your life that will never die in your memory until you do (die). Starting a few sentences off today with “I am doomed to remember,” will make your day an interesting one I would imagine.

So, I am still left with the nagging feeling, that I need to start my story by letting the reader know that this is a book where we will lose someone that we get to know and like and sometimes dislike. We will watch her grow up before our eyes on the page and then poof, she will be gone.

Now that I am working on draft two, I am about to delete (remove to a file I won’t use again) about 80% of draft one. It is painful, but I have a better sense of the voice for my story. There are still many chapters to write, but now I know what needs to be in those missing chapters. If I am a writer, as I say I am, then it should be no problem to start from scratch. I can’t be in love with my words. They are just words.

It has to be the meaning. I can’t stop until I am in love with the meaning of the words. That’s when I will know I have been the witness that I am called to be.

****

Here is a poem I wrote at a workshop taught by Judyth Hill. I took one line from a piece by Mira Bai, a Hindu mystic poet from the 16th century. I also call out with my own name at the end, the way Mira Bai does in her work. This poem tries to capture some of Mira Bai’s ecstatic energy but this is based on me, my life. Yet, if you have ever been confused by someone you will love until the end of the world, maybe you can find pieces of you in here too.

“They live century after century,
and the test I set for them they have passed.” Mira Bai (with pronoun edits)

Were you alone when I met you?

Or, was she with you then?
All along.
The whole time.
Does she dance around you now like a honey bee returning to the hive?
For your eyes only?
Is she there in the mirror even as we speak?
I tell you I can’t see her.
You blush as she whispers in your ear, tickling your fleshy lobe.

So, are you alone or not?

You slip in and out.
Disguised. Robed. Walking
in the moonlight.
Your back to the world.
Your face unseen.
And she is a mystery too.
Except to you.
Lovers coupled in the shadow,
charmed by the cactus in silhouette.
Stiff sentries fending me off.

I follow. Searching for you
in the low lying mountains.
And there you are.
Pleading with her at the end of the unlit path.

I shout to you.
“There is no one at your side.”
Your face falls, but then you smile.
I reach for you, begging.
You recede into the spines of the saguaro.
Protected. Removed.

You beckon me to join you
in the house of god-cut crystals
where the horizon glows.
“Look at how she glistens” you tell me.
I stumble. I bleed.
“Yes,” I say.
and then, “Anything.”

Kelly says: Lead me under the stalking moon. Veil me like a bride, blind to what you see.

No More Scandal

I’m going to give up Scandal.
The TV show.
I’m going to give up The Blacklist.
Another TV show.

Really, I am going to stop watching those two TV shows. The ability alone to say that gives me freedom from myself. Freedom from the self that finds connection from watching something rather than doing something.

Both shows have lost me. They are just moving from week to week with threads that are silly. I didn’t feel that way when they first grabbed me.

In fact, Scandal was the show I started watching right after my spouse and the parent of my children – Allison, died suddenly one early morning in March. I started to binge watch it on Hulu with my mother at my side.

My mother came to be with us after Allison’s death, to help keep us tethered to the ground and to sanity. To be there so my son and I would not attack each other. We hurt each other in the deepest ways in order to distract ourselves from the savage wound left by Allison’s fresh death. With my mother at our side, we didn’t let insanity and rage and grief find a lasting bed inside of our house, our meager fortress.

One way to keep the infiltrator at bay was to watch Scandal. It had politics. (I was a political science major.) It had beautiful actors. The story centered around forbidden love and power. Here was a place where I could safely lose myself. My mother left me for her own home, knowing that I had found one small way to stay calm and not spin off outside of gravity’s pull.

I kept watching as the seasons progressed. I added the Blacklist. There was a time when being blacklisted meant you were shunned; not that you were hunted, according to the definition implied by the TV show. The mystery of the Blacklist and the antics of the lead actor James Spader made me feel like my brain was at work.

Scandal engaged my heart (and my political heart). The Blacklist made me feel like I was solving a problem.

But now I know, I am not thinking when I watch these shows. There is no creative composting occurring during my mind numbing sessions in front of my “smart” TV.

NO WRITING happens. Not even in my head.

And now: I am done.

But, not with this piece of writing. In the following paragraph, sh*t gets real.

You see, fear of real life scandal and being blacklisted dominated my life for years. And exactly twelve hours after telling my youngest son that one small positive change I was making was that I was going to stop following Scandal and the Blacklist; exactly 12 hours after telling him, my sons made me realize that scandal and being blacklisted were more than TV shows. More than entertaining fiction. It happened yesterday when both of my sons were with me in the car, driving to visit their grandparents – Allison’s parents.

They both said that they now regret that we weren’t more open about Allison. About how the person everyone knew in our small town as their father was living openly as a woman in a city just down the Interstate. Allison’s journey of shedding the life of Scott began its final stage seven years ago. Long before Transparent, Orange is the New Black and Caitlyn Jenner. It was a lot lonelier back then.

My children said they had been following my lead in keeping it quiet.

Ironically, I thought I was the one following their lead.

At which point they said they were just barely teenagers at the time and that they didn’t know anything. So, why did I listen to them, they asked. My shoulders slumped, curving away from the driver’s seat and my knuckles whitened as I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. There was truth in what they said. And some revision. But, mostly truth. Now I know I could have done better. Back then, I didn’t.

Yes. We weren’t open about Allison. Especially at first. But, little by little the boys introduced her to their closest friends. Allison even took them and their friends out on occasion. In our small town. Of course, when they were in Seattle, they did lots of things in public. There was no hiding.

Our boys bravely entered a new family reality and were in the process of coming to terms with the changes that confronted them. They were learning the real meaning of pride.

Yes, sometimes I made mistakes. And sometimes I did the right thing.

Add together all of the sometimes, and you end up with gray. Not black and white. Not silver and gold. Just tin.

And if we had known she would die so soon, we all would have done many things differently. Even Allison.

But what had stopped us? Stopped me? Scandal. Being blacklisted. Fear of isolation. Fear of ridicule. Fear of no longer being who we thought we were. We slipped into a closet of our own making and endured a self-imposed isolation. No one did it to us except ourselves. Except me. I am the parent so I have to take the responsibility. Buck stops here and all of that stuff.

As I neared our offramp, all I could tell our children is that Allison probably wouldn’t have chosen to live in our small town even if she had lived openly as Allison instead of as Scott. Allison loved us but she needed a bigger palette from which to paint her life. And that little by little, we had been shedding the secret. Doing the work. Standing up to scandal and blacklisting. Finding that as we grew stronger, there was a lot less to fear.

We just thought we had more time.

We always think we have more time.

Set in Stone

Two years ago we set a stone to mark the grave of the person who had been my spouse. The one who I wedded and then divorced. The one who made our children with me. Allison.

Death caught me by surprise. Death pushed me to write. Death reminded me of how much I had loved my husband. Of how much I loved Allison though she confused me. Death scared me. I’m still scared, but now I understand it all a little bit better.

Being ready for death doesn’t mean worrying about it. Being ready for death brings new life to my heart and my thoughts.

I’m sure I’m not saying this right.

I don’t want to die. But being ready for it to end and always saying thank you just in case your last breath is your next, that is peace. After being diagnosed and then treated for ovarian cancer, I glimpse it from time to time.

But when Allison died, cancer wasn’t a known entity in my life. I thought I had known grief. I thought divorce and Allison’s transition from living life on the outside as man to living fully and openly as a woman was like experiencing a death. I didn’t know what I was talking about.

At Allison’s funeral, I said nothing. I let my children, Allison’s siblings and parents and nephew and uncle and her fiancé do the talking. I made myself small and quiet. This was Allison’s moment. Not mine.

But, when we left the chapel and walked to her gravesite, my knees buckled. I tossed a rose atop her lowered coffin. My sister’s hand gripped my forearm. I brushed against her. She kept me standing. All I wanted to do was sink into the grass.

Still, this wasn’t my moment. My tears couldn’t be the loudest. She hadn’t belonged to me at the end. She wasn’t mine. I was just someone who had loved her once.

Her headstone was ready seven months later. When we dedicated her grave under a gray and leaderless sky, this time I was ready. There would be no more waiting. She would never understand if I just stood silent.

During her life, she always had something to say. I didn’t want to let her down now that she couldn’t speak for herself. I couldn’t be the coward who thought she (meaning me) didn’t have a right to speak. I couldn’t be the one who stood in my way.

I wrote the following while flying from Houston to Mexico City. My hand grazed my cheeks in a futile attempt to hide my tears from the man sitting next to me. Finally, he asked me, “Is everything all right?”

“I’m writing something sad. I’ll be OK,” is all I could say.

I didn’t tell him that it felt like my dead spouse was sitting next to me instead of him, the concerned passenger, and that she was helping me write her own tribute. She disappeared an hour later as I arrived into the arms of my own fiance waiting for me in Mexico City. Into the arms of someone who was alive.

A week later, I stood in front of the carved granite with Allison’s chosen name.

Here is what I said at Allison’s graveside two years ago. I wrote from my heart. Is it too much as a piece of writing? Is it too emotional? Too private? Writing that could not win an award because it is just too sentimental? I hope so.

Ode to You

I never see you in my dreams. But, you visit me every day.
You sit with me as I think of you, as I cry because I miss you and as I scream and thrash and pull because you’re gone.

You tell me that all you feel now is love.
Your two selves are together in a healing union.
You are at peace. This is what I hear – when I listen.

We had a catch phrase. A code.
“Maru means submarine in Japanese.”
It was something you said to me within 10 minutes of our first meeting.
A secret knowing we shared through the next 27 years
reminding us of how a random encounter and a chance comment could connect two people for decades.

Remembering our days together on the water, we would wake in the morning to see the shoreline at a safe distance, relieved that our anchor held for the night. You would leave our berth to return with a cup of coffee. The steam rose from our cups and the children slept as we plotted our course for the day.

You were our captain. Together we navigated the waters at our bow.

We will share the passages of our boys lives. Please guide us as they steer through their own rough patches. Stay with me for those moments when their happiness swallows them whole.

You now rest upon the calmest waters. I watch you from the shore – knowing that we will meet again.

Maru means submarine in Japanese.

Oh Baby

Class is about to start. I haven’t done my homework. How old am I? 13?

I signed up for my second poetry workshop in three months, but not because I am a poet. I hadn’t written any poems when I walked into my first workshop last August in Taos. In fact, I hadn’t realized it was a poetry workshop at all. Once it dawned on me that I was among poets and it would be all about poetry, I wondered how I would make it through the week.

So here I am at my second poetry workshop. This time in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, but with the same inspiring teacher/leader/poet Judyth Hill. The background for this time together is Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead). It is something of a national holiday here.

I knew that this is where I needed to be.

***********

Yesterday we were free-writing after reading several poems, including “He” by John Ashbury and “Little Infinite Poem” by Federico Garcia Lorca. Judyth encouraged us to build off of lines from some of the pieces we read, using their art to launch us into our own infinite space.

I am now a believer that we all have poetry inside of us. And though I am writing a book, something that is daunting and takes a good deal of time, I have discovered the joy of having poetry be part of my toolbox.

Here is what I wrote yesterday based on Judyth’s prompt (mentioned above). Note: Still learning formatting on WordPress so the formatting below is not exactly how I want it, but, oh well.

We Are Always The Last to Know.

We drive the car.
The baby cries when we stop.
We move forward,
Only to stop again.

We soothe the baby
With woosh woosh hushing
sounds that don’t sound
anything like the engine’s low growl.

White noise they call it.
The noise that quiets the baby.
The only noise the baby wants to hear.

We don’t know anything.
We get down on all fours.
We ask the baby what he wants.

We don’t understand
that we will never know.

Kelly McVicar Gordon

(With Some borrowing from “He” by John Ashbury and “Little Infinite Poem” by Federico Garcia Lorca)

Flower of the Dead

Does not sound like something pretty does it? And what on Earth does a flower have to do with writing?

I’m in Mexico and I just celebrated the Day of the Dead by parading around with a bunch of exuberant and voluptuous marigolds searching for someone to share them with. Marigolds which are several sizes larger than the marigolds in my mother’s planter box when I was a little girl. In a cemetery jam packed with the living to be with the spirits of their loved ones, I clutched my bouquet of this golden flower of death and the juicy merlot red of another flower whose velvety pattern resembles a delicate brain. But instead of a brain, I read that it is suppose to resemble the blood of Christ. Still, it looked like a brain to me.

As I brandished my blooms and picked my way through the mass of hundreds of observers, I found a few bare grave sites. Maybe their relatives were just running late and in a few hours the final resting places of these departed souls would be as ornately festooned with flowers and other offerings as their adjacent neighbors. But in case these marooned spots were indeed going to remain naked and unattended this day, I sprinkled some blossoms on the dirt mounds or stuffed a thin bouquet in the permanently affixed vases which up until the moment I arrived remained empty.

No one wants to be forgotten. So, for today, this Day of the Dead, I, this visitor with no formal connection to these souls, would have to do. I said “hello” to no one there and told each one that they had mattered.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

I’ve lived through the death of Allison, the person with whom I had spent the majority of my life. Hers was the first real death to cross over my threshold and invade my space. It was sudden and not expected.

My grief and shock imbue my writing. Death is so ordinary. So simple. So final. And really very plain.

That plainness is the part I have a hard time getting over. We go on. We perform our daily tasks. We file our taxes. We get our groceries. We go through our loved ones things. We send death certificates so that we can cancel the deceased’s phone. We live. Sometimes that doesn’t feel right. The world should have stopped. But, it didn’t.

Grass still grows and it grows over the graves of the people we loved.

I am writing through this grief. Grief honors the past. I write so that grief doesn’t become fear. I use this grief to find the truth about the life I have lived and the life that I will live.

And for the first time ever, though I’ve traveled to Mexico close to a hundred times, I walked with others and left something behind for people long dead and who I had never met. I celebrated. Well, I can never celebrate what happened, but I can embrace the next passage for those who have to move on.  I can honor the time that I had with them while they were alive. They live on when we remember them. Remembering Allison, my grandparents, my Aunt Roby – remembering them is my job. I would like to think that they want me to continue my own journey on this planet with a smiling heart instead of a shredded one. I would like to think that they were with me in this place with a bright November sun where I knew no one.

Remembering September 11, 2001: We were married still.

I had a blog going a few years ago and nothing moved me to return to writing in a public space until a recent morning when I turned on the television to see a replay of the TODAY show broadcast from September 11, 2001.

Watching the broadcast fourteen years later, I was not filled with fear anymore. Instead of thinking about the incredible loss of life and terror instilled in us that day, the crumbling buildings, the revenge being planned, all I could think of is that my first husband and I were still married, living an almost idyllic life in our mountain home with our two young children, surrounded by thousands of tall and swaying redwoods and protected by a gate at the end of a dirt road. Removed. In our own world.

Of course, we weren’t in our own world at all, but we pretended otherwise. There was a lot of pretending going on. More than I knew.

Four years after the terrorist attack, my husband revealed to me that he was living a secret life. During the next few years, after the initial reveal, he fought back his true identity, but ultimately made the decision to live as the woman she really was. I had married a transgender person without knowing it. And we suffered alone. It didn’t feel safe to discuss it. It wasn’t a trending topic.  There weren’t multiple hit television series starring transgender characters and actors and there hadn’t been a major magazine cover with a 65-year old former Olympian introducing her to the world as her female self.

After finally understanding that we couldn’t stop the family earthquake that results when one makes the transition from one’s lived identity to one’s true identity, we divorced. The divorce and my forced entry into a different kind of life prompted me to start a blog. Not this blog. I was singing an anthem of finding joy in later life and breaking taboos.  My spouse broke all of the rules. Why couldn’t I, I reasoned. Oh well. I was being immature I suppose because none of it was really about breaking rules. My spouse had a journey that was too difficult for me to traverse. My spouse wasn’t trying to hurt me. I know that now.

The harder part was coming but I didn’t know it. My former spouse died suddenly at 56 and I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just as our youngest child left for college. All in the space of three years. 

I had to finally grow up. I learned that I am loved. I try harder to be ready every day for the end (feeling only love and happiness) while at the same time trying to live each day as I want to live it. Not an easy feat. I try. I try. I try.

This new blog space is part of my growth. This is where I will use the craft of writing to birth new adventures, new longings and new perspectives. The old blog is gone. I liked what I wrote, but that isn’t for me anymore. I’m not even that same me.

So, I guess I should circle back to the 9/11 tragedy where I started this post?

No. We were married then. We aren’t anymore. We don’t even share this earth. But, we shared that terrible day when we were scared and vulnerable and we shared many other great days, many of which were great.

The rerun I was watching? I said a prayer for everyone. Then. I turned it off.

And, about all of those rules I was going to break…that was silly. What I need to do is write my own.