I don't have any brothers or sisters, but Marisa comes as close to kin as possible without sharing DNA. We've known each other so long we often forget how we met, but the answer is music, the neighbourhood, life. We've traveled, toured, performed in strange places, had huge fun. The only point we ever disagree about is the nature of time. She thinks there is plenty available and tells me not to worry. I'm convinced that there isn't enough to accomplish everything that needs doing. Somewhere in the middle of that debate, we find each other, even if we have to fly across the world. When I die, she will be in charge of my notebooks. While I'm alive, she is the only person who knows (or guesses) what is written inside.
It would be impossible to exaggerate how important her friendship is to my entire family; we love her, and miss her every day, even nine years after we moved away from Portland. One week wandering around London was not enough, but it was excessively awesome:
The other night we were watching videos from the 90's, and I remain amazed.
Now that my daughter is 21 I have had many opportunities to test my theories in a practical environment. Summary findings: I would never treat anyone the way I was treated in my youth. The fact that there is a filmed record of those years is fantastic because it demonstrates that I wasn't crazy. I was just in a very bad situation.
Of course if I were a different sort of person I would go on about how those years taught me empathy or some shit like that. But honestly: poverty and cancer were more than enough, thank you. I didn't need the rest of it. The fact that I made it out alive is truly puzzling. The fact that I not only saved myself but thrived and prospered is a deep mystery.
Recently I was at an event populated by aspiring writers who, although they all possessed fresh MFA degrees, have for the most part neither published nor worked in the publishing industry.
They were so. . . adorable!
The sweetest bit was the fact that they shared a collective belief that placing pieces in specific literary magazines, getting an agent, and publishing a book would not just represent career status but also somehow engender a state of complete and perfect happiness.
I listened and smiled beatifically. Why destroy their illusions?
Over here in a state I like to call "reality" those achievements have never been emotionally rewarding. The stories you have heard from writers telling you that the only sane reason to do it is for the money? True. Except we are living in a time of global economic recession, so there isn't much money around.
Though I am admittedly a purist; while it is true that I earn a living doing this, I do not prostitute my work by writing for certain (fill in the blank) heinous corporate news outlets who can afford to pay market wages but choose not to. I can't be bothered, no matter how often they ask. Why associate myself with people I would not even invite to dinner?
Though I do enjoy one of the trappings of visible success, namely a fancy literary agent. Except she seems to think I should actually, you know, give her a new book.
Sometimes she tries to confuse and coax by saying that I am glamorous, but usually she texts from irritating industry events with comments like "This is what I am reduced to when proper talented writers like you refuse to send me their work!"
The other day a huge mystery package arrived in the mail, and when I opened it I found to my enormous delight coffee! But not just any coffee - excellent high quality espresso beans from all the best roasters in the NW! So much coffee from so many places I am officially spoiled!
Sharing will be difficult, but I will persevere. Mmm, coffee. . . .
The package was from Lindsey, who we met during her recent student exchange here in London, and Leslie, a friend of youth.
In fact I first met Leslie when she was a barista at the Smithfield, a cafe in downtown Olympia. It was the haunt of the punks, poseurs, and intimidatingly hip (a ridiculous observation to make of a small town scene now that I live in London, but there you go) and most definitely not my kind of place. I preferred the Asterisk, because they had gummy bears and my kid could be bribed to sit still long enough for me to actually drink the coffee instead of chasing her around the block while balancing a leaking paper cup.
But my housemates and KTS loved the Smithfield so I spent enough time there to acquire a working familiarity with the menu (the muffins were from Costco, people. Costco.) and the staff. Time and life have drawn a curtain across most of my Olympia experiences, even those including future rock stars, but I do remember Leslie - because she seemed so genuine, in a sea of youthful pretensions.
Still, when we all graduated and moved on I didn't keep track of her or, honestly, anyone at all. It was a surprise over the years to see that some of the people I knew (or should have known) in that tiny college town are amongst my dearest friends.
Leslie is definitely in that category. We met unexpectedly years later in Seattle, and it has been a delight to become acquainted as adults. Recently she came to visit and it was an honour to show her around my new home, neighbourhood, and city.
Could it really be possible that twenty years have passed, and that through all manner of mayhem and change we not only know each other but honestly like each other? That is amazing. When we met we were just larvae - squirming and waiting to hatch - but look at us now!
Guess who I'm picking up at the airport? We are all so excited. Marisa is here for a European tour - check the web site for details: click for more.
One of the immediate and idiotic proposals after the riots was to bring back mandatory national service for all kids. I asked - will the prime minister's children get a free pass on that? Because I know that I will not let my children serve in a quasi-military organisation, ever. They will be in school.
I grew up between an army base, a naval shipyard, a facility that builds nuclear warheads, and a submarine station. Most of my cousins either served or married into the services. I was a military wife for five years, during which time we were so poor we qualified for food stamps. Even when his pay swelled to represent duty in a war zone. This seemed dramatically unfair and illogical, but I did learn what service means, on a visceral level. I committed my own life to saving my children from that particular Faustian bargain.
If they wish to join the armed services they will do so after they reach the age of consent and finish their education. By that time they will have formed independent ideas about the world, and the skills to navigate it. They might not agree with my ideas, but neither will they be pressured to go to war by economic necessity.
I suspect this feeling is shared by parents right across the political spectrum, but I know that rich parents don't worry about it. Their children have never been cannon fodder.
My second and more pertinent question was, how will the country pay for that kind of program? Armies are not profit centres. If we can't "afford" to pay for the program that helped poor kids buy bus passes and books, how can we afford to build safe barracks, training grounds, buy equipment, and hire appropriate staff? Oh right - we can't.
Though what a fantastic and dreamy notion if we could. Perhaps the UK, instead of looking to the military and prison industry for inspiration, could look at programs like Job Corps, a voluntary work training scheme for underprivileged kids. It isn't perfect, but it is a valid option that has helped a lot of youngsters sort out their lives.
In the United States these make-work programs are common and scattered throughout history. VISTA is another adequate example. Not something our senior politicians would allow their children to do, but a real lifesaver for the rest of us regular folk who want to get an education, get a job, and get ahead. Without picking up a gun.
An even better example is the Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps and its various departments. That organisation did everything - painted murals, built bridges, kept a generation of people working in the face of profound economic devastation. If you live in the United States, stop and look around. No matter where you are I bet you can find a sidewalk, park, or road marked CCC.
The point is these programs did not, do not, and will not earn a profit for their government sponsors. They get people working in an effort to stimulate an economy and stabilise communities. Radical historians would even argue they were just a panacea to prevent riots and civil insurrection.
But I'm enough of a pragmatist to vote for jobs over anarchy. Come the revolution I might be first against the wall, because fundamentally I just want my family and friends to have food, shelter, and medicine. Government has evolved over the centuries to redistribute wealth and prevent abuse of all kinds. In the last ten years it feels like we've lost track of that fundamental idea.
I want government institutions to make sure that the population is protected from catastrophe. I want every baby born to be safe, every child to see life as a spectrum of possibility, every family to have the basic ingredients required for survival, every citizen to enjoy civil liberties.
Yesterday I went to see a display of London street photography. One of the images was of an accident from the 1930's: crumpled cars and trucks, shocked bystanders, and a man sitting on the sidewalk with his head in his hands, bleeding.
If that man is still alive I bet he remembers exactly what that moment smelled and looked like.
Looking at the photograph reminded me of my accident, twenty-three years ago this week - all the details came back with piercing pain and I had to sit down and close my eyes against the sickening spectacle.
Though maybe the man in the photograph forgot, maybe he never knew, maybe his head was hit so hard it smashed all the memories away. The other people in my car on that day in 1988 have no memory at all of the impact - or the aftermath. One of them doesn't even remember too much about that year, a mercy, a small miracle, because when I wrenched my head around and looked at her that day her forehead had been sliced off.
One of the mysteries of life is the fact that an event so discrete, blinding, momentary, can control so much. My body is still damaged, we're all still damaged, in profound ways.
When I was seventeen years old I felt so old, had survived so much - hundreds of biopsies, two cancer diagnoses, the life sentence of a rare genetic disorder. But looking back over the years I now appreciate that while stoic, I was impossibly young.
Watching my own children grow I have no idea how I survived, or how my mother endured the pain of what happened.
The accident taught four optimistic young scholars that the world is erratic, harsh, horrifying, that your best friends will betray you, that it is possible to lose everything you love and never recover. The accident taught me how to talk against pain, testify, become an ideal witness. The accident also taught me to hate, and hit.
My right hand is still only just barely strong enough to type these words, and the injury will never heal.
Four people were in the car that day. We're all still alive.
"This is a war between the people and the government."
Four nights ago London erupted in spontaneous violence, rippling out from a council estate north of my home to gradually encompass every borough. Riots and looting were widespread. Cars, buses, and buildings have been torched.
I'm writing this from from the relative safety of a third floor flat in Hackney, east London. Over the last few days I've listened to nonstop sirens, watched armoured vehicles rumble past, helicopters hover overhead, as cops partitioned part of the neighbourhood. I have watched from the window as kids streamed down the alley toward or away from danger, watched on the news as riot police charged and bashed their way through crowds of angry, frightened teenagers armed with bricks.
The weekend my daughter turned three I was at loose ends - she wanted to hang out with her grandparents, leaving me stranded in a small college town without any idea of how to entertain myself.
School was closed, there were no shows on, and I didn't want to see what was playing at the dollar theatre. I was bored, lonely, angry, and twenty-two years old. Without any discernible thought or planning I did something reckless and completely normal: I hooked up with an ex-housemate.
It didn't mean anything, I didn't like him; in fact, I had evicted him from the house we shared. But he was the perfect candidate for a one-night stand for all the same reasons he was a terrible housemate (fyi: sleeping with the girlfriends of the people who control the phone bill is never a good idea in a shared housing situation), and I didn't need any complications. I had an official boyfriend somewhere around. Not to mention the husband I had misplaced but not divorced.
Messy, but logical - and I never wasted time on sentiment.
The small detail I had somehow missed was the fact that the awful ex-housemate imagined he was in love with me. How was I to know? I was clueless and busy, completely overbooked, working three jobs and going to grad school and taking care of a fleet-footed toddler. And I was so young I had not yet learned that some people flirt by lurking around looking wistful.
Besides, what is love? What does that word mean, and does it matter anyway? My life had been trenchantly difficult. I had barely survived, and I was marked - physically scarred and emotionally distorted - and in my experience, anyone who fell for that was at best a freak. I didn't want to be a symbol, or inspirational, I didn't want to know anyone who fetishised pain. I didn't need or want to be taken care of. I had tried that, and the relationship ended with a loaded gun at my temple.
I've always done whatever I liked, whenever I wished, acting on the principle that you aren't breaking rules if you don't make promises. Along the way twelve people have declared undying love. Six have proposed marriage. Four have stuck to me like barnacles on a rotted pier. I married two, though strictly for access to health insurance. Emotions? That is another matter entirely.
I've always said true love is discipline and hard work. In my life, precisely one person has turned up every day, everywhere, no matter how difficult or sad the situation. One person has helped me raise my kids. One person has had the tolerance and conviction to care, even when caring is dangerous and frightening. One person has done the hard work to help me keep this family together and raise us out of poverty. One person has the ability to make me laugh even in the midst of chaos.
In forty years of turmoil and trauma, mistakes and misadventure, I've been tangled up with and looked after hundreds of people. I've been a daughter, a mother, a friend, but never a girlfriend or wife - because those roles do not suit my character.
I treated all of my dating relationships as a sort of pantomime, something to ponder and write notes about. I scribbled in my little black books when people were enamoured with me, but I was not especially interested, unless it was an amusing diversion. Imagine my surprise then to watch the years accumulate and learn that I actually do love, really love, passionately love, heart thumping hard in my chest love, precisely one person. The same person who wandered in eighteen years ago and just never left.
I still view marriage as an economic contract, but in my old age I have mysteriously developed maudlin and sentimental notions - to the extent that I started wearing a ring a few months ago.
Life is difficult for everyone, and mine has been quite colourful. I never choose the easy option or the shortest path. I'm not faithful or forgiving, and though I am reasonable I am not rooted. I'm forty now but my priorities are the same, and this is a tricky way to live, especially when you mix in the madness of politics and immigration.
I often feel like I have not made any choices at all, but that isn't true. I chose this life, I made this life. This is what I know: eighteen years ago I spent a lost weekend with some punk kid, never guessing that he would become a world-class research scientist, excellent life partner, and awesome father. Eighteen years ago I did not believe in love, but now I know that love is not only real, it is an improbable and mighty force of invention.
Eighteen years ago I did not expect to live to see the new century, but here I am, here we are, in an extraordinary muddle of a life, so very far from home.