I finished the first draft of the memoir this week. After thousands of words and hundreds of hours revisiting the past, I ended my trip to the old days.
It was uncomfortable going back into devastation. It would be tempting to slant the story and describe my character with a positive history. But healing requires honesty.
It’s important to tell your real story. Shame is a heavy burden to carry. When we tell someone the worst of ourselves, we open up our lives. I was once in a prayer group when a woman confessed that she wasn’t the mother she wanted to be. She regretted her harshness. Did we attack her and feel superior? Not at all. We could all relate with ways we had failed as well. Her confession released an honest conversation for the group.
What it feels like
I feel light with my story out. Lighter than when I started writing. Lighter than when I lived it.
On describing the past, I had to pick which scenes to describe. Would I bring up the awful things, or stick to the more palatable? How to narrow down years into pages?
Writing the memoir was like a spring cleaning for the mind. I aired out the shadowy memories, like opening a door shut long ago on a stale room.
I am old-school and still like paper; I went to the copy shop to print off the first copy. As the clerk ran off my 225 pages, he asked me about the title, “Broken hand to pray with.”
I explained it was a story about my youth and how I broke my hand. He said he broke his hand on a car window that his soon-to-be ex-wife had bought with his credit card. After she had been sleeping with his best friend. Can you relate? Perhaps not in detail but in heartbreak!
That is the power of telling the truth about the worst of us; we all know the shame of stumbling. By giving it to God, we can start clean. As long as we hide our weakness, we separate ourselves from one another and stop the Spirit from working through us.
The memoir looks substantial printed out. Now that the draft is done, I will let it rest—like letting bread rise—as recommended by Stephen King in On Writing. Then I will punch it down and form it into a readable book through the magic of editing.
I’m so thankful for all of you supporting my writing process. Your backing goes a long way to give me confidence in my writing being public! What worth is a writer without a reader?
Lord, bless us with the strength to tell our truth
to each other. Lift the shadow of shame from our shoulders.
Forgive us for failing and help us
let go of wintery memories.
May the warmth of your love melt our frozen blocks so
your goodness can flow through us.
Some days we don’t have to win. We just have to finish.
Lord, let us endure.
We can look back and tell our story.
We can walk forward with honest steps.
Tell me your thoughts!
Is there a story in your past that would be healing to tell? What trusted friend would be willing to listen?
If I met her today, I would raise my eyebrows. They’d be the same eyebrows: thick, rogue and ready to go off on their own. That would be the end of what we have in common.
I’m 80,000 words into my memoir, and I have about 10,000 words to go. I waded through more than 100 journals to get my story. Through listening to the echoes my earlier self left on the page, I got to know who I used to be.
I didn’t like her.
My beloved half-Chihuahua Cookie struggles with social anxiety that she expresses through growling.
In a kind voice, her vet once explained to us that he was going to write “fear biter” on her chart so she would be treated with extra-gentleness. It didn’t mean she was a bad dog. It meant she needed special handling so no one got hurt, including Cookie.
We had a pet blessing at my church last weekend. I brought Cookie.
People make her nervous. Other dogs make her nervous. Loud voices make her nervous. Vultures make her very nervous. All these things were part of the event.
Between the nervous shaking and the growling, Cookie almost trembled her way out of her skin. She was blessed anyway.
Even the nervous, growly ones need blessing. Maybe they need it most of all.
I had a hard time making sense of the early journals, in part because I went through a period of not dating them so one day ran into the next, but mostly because I wasn’t making sense. I recorded things people said to me next to my own ideas. Like untangling a knot in a fragile gold chain necklace, I pulled apart the snippet of a conversation in a café from a song lyric.
An exchange overheard on a bus went next to my plans for the future and a list of foods I got from the health food store called the Food Bin but affectionately called the Food Binge.
Pages rolled on without explanation or context. For hours, I worked to draw a single clear thought out of anguish mounded in dark scrawls, a glass bead in a neglected corner crowded with dust bunnies. The memoir grew.
I acknowledge the person I was 25 years ago. It’s true I ran around and bounced off the walls of the city. Nightclubs seemed too small, and each time I saw the ocean, I was tempted to dissolve in it.
I didn’t believe in goodness.
I was prickly and unpleasant while wanting to be praised, needy but unable to accept affection. I cussed and walked in the street, rejecting the sidewalk’s offer to keep me safe. I slept in my clothes due to apathy, drunkenness or lack of ability to choose a different outfit.
I saw no point in hoping.
I refused joy or couldn’t find it. I don’t know if I was looking.
As I extract a story from raw materials, I see my past in a new light. I realize I need to break up with the person I used to be.
Like a dysfunctional friendship you only hang onto for historical reasons, I’ve been carrying around my old self. I’m ready to let go.
I acknowledge my differences with who I was and end it with grace.
We need to say this to the past: “It’s over.”
And we need to pray: “God, bless who I was, who I am and who you want me to be.”
Because even the nervous, growly ones need blessing. Maybe they need it most of all.
Good news! I reached my 10,000 words goal for July. I want to thank you for urging me on. Whether it’s a public comment on this blog or Facebook, a private comment or a quick word just mentioning that you got something out of my writing, you make this journey worthwhile. Your thoughts matter to me!
I thought it would be perfect to post this excerpt about turning 21 since this is the week of my 44th birthday. Enjoy!
The morning of my 21st birthday I woke up and looked out the sliding glass door that served as one of the walls of my room. Outside on the bench sat a mango.
It’s a mango from God! I thought. I slid open the door and held it in my hand.
The green fruit blushed with red on one of its curved sides. It gave ever so slightly as I pressed it. I knew it would be ripe and sweet.
In my first moments of being 21, I was happy.
I came to mangoes when I came to Santa Cruz. The view of my first mango at age 19 seemed unremarkable. Warren handed me the fruit. I held the green bulbous thing with a questioning look.
“It’s a mango,” he said. “Have you ever had one before?”
I shook my head no. Warren took the mango back and brought it into his kitchen. On the tile counter, he cut off one side of it and handed it back to me.
“Eat the yellow part.”
I bit in. The rich juice tasted of islands and sunshine. It covered my tongue with tangy sweetness, like an apricot and pineapple mixed together.
“Do you like it?”
“I think this is my new favorite fruit!”
From then on, I kept an eye out for mangoes in the market. In May, they dropped down to less than a dollar a mango and I gorged myself.
Warren said that you can’t waste a mango. You have to eat all the flesh. His family had a house in Jamaica with a mango tree.
“Even if all the mangoes on your tree ripen at the same time, you can’t waste it.”
I called the inner seed the bone and chewed all the fruit off until it was stripped of any goodness and left with frayed ends. The fibers stuck in my teeth. A mango made me appreciate floss.
There are some foods that are happy foods for me. I don’t remember any sad times eating them. Ice cream, popcorn and mangoes.
Later in the day on my 21st birthday, I found out Warren had left the mango for me, early in the morning before sunrise. I still believed it was from God. I was starting to understand that God worked through people.
When it rained, I took the bus instead of my motorcycle. By bus, I mean buses. I walked two and a half miles from the bus I called home to the Lompico bus stop. I took the Lompico bus to Felton. From Felton, I took the bus to the metro, the main station in Santa Cruz. From there, I could go anywhere.
The bus back from Cabrillo College where I took general ed and a poetry class (and an English class with lamps) was a slow ride. It seemed to stop every block. People would attach and detach their bikes from the front rack as if they had the whole afternoon free instead of a bus load of impatient passengers sending them hurry-up glares.
While taking the bus back from Cabrillo and heading to work in Scotts Valley, a tall man with a briefcase got on the bus and sat next to me. Uncommonly handsome with mussed dark hair and blue eyes, he had the look of someone who was used to getting attention. He seemed comfortable with admiration.
He opened the briefcase. I peered in. Inside he had a square bottle of thick mango juice and a stack of blue fliers, hand drawn with a Sharpie pen and photocopied. I wanted to talk to him.
I ran over possible lines in my head. Your mango juice might spill. No, too negative. Don’t see a lot of guys with briefcases on the bus. How was that a good thing to say? I settled on this: “What are the fliers for?”
He handed me one. “I’m in a band. We’re having a show tonight. Want to come?”
“I don’t know.” I hesitated but I was tempted.
“I could put you on the guest list.”
I longed to be known. I longed to be wanted. Being put on the guest list satisfied both longings. I was in.
“OK, I’ll come check it out.”
I spelled out my name for him. He wrote it down on the back of a blue flyer. He said it was a pretty name. He took care to tuck the flyer with my name on it in one of the inner silky pockets and closed the briefcase. His was the next stop. Uncurling his length toward the bus ceiling, he stood to go. He gave me a gargoyle’s smile as he shook my hand and told me he’d see me later that night.
It had been just a bus ride before the man with the briefcase boarded. Then it became an adventure.
The show was in a café that was seedy and charming, heavy on the seedy. The front door was kept open to the night air. It took a moment to orient myself to the atmosphere when I first got near the café. It was a world unto itself with its own smell, sound, look and culture. I could smell it and hear it before I could see it. French roast wafted out to mingle with the ocean air that carried strains of music, conversation and clinking dishes.
The café faced the metro station and the buses motored by at regular intervals. Next to the café, a whirring machine blew bubbles into the darkness. They rose, shining with tiny orangey reflections from the orangey street lights.
The café cockroaches knew martial arts and took no guff from the patrons. They sauntered over the floor during business hours without fear.
They didn’t matter much. It was so dark inside that it was hard to distinguish the cockroaches from the years of coffee stains and gunk built up in layers on the floor, like levels of civilization that an archaeologist could read in the future: We can tell that in 1988, someone spilled their soy latte here in this area. Then later in the afternoon, a vial of patchouli broke when a girl dropped her Guatemalan woven bag under the table.
I was peeling my Doc Martins from the sticky surface more than walking.
I walked through the front part of the café where the espresso machine hissed. Cool people draped themselves over furniture that had seen its heyday decades before. None of the tables matched and the chairs were metal folding chairs with different patterns of rust spots as if they’d been pulled from a soggy dumpster. Which they probably were.
I walked to the back room where the shows were. A big-bellied guy with a ZZ Top beard sat on a stool, a silver chain swinging from his wallet when he moved. He held a stack of money on top of a clip board.
“I’m on the guest list,” I yelled. “Genevieve.”
He looked at the clipboard and thumbed his way toward the room.
“OK, enjoy the show.”
My first time on a guest list, I felt like a mini-celebrity. I pulled my shoulders back as I entered the room. Once in, I scanned for a familiar face. I didn’t see anyone I knew so I joined the crowd standing around the stage.
The opening band was long on enthusiasm. Their vigorous playing only made up part of the gap between reality and talent.
I listened with a waiting ear. It wasn’t the music I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear him, the mysterious stranger with the briefcase from the bus. Would he be guttural, crooning or falsetto? Would he see me?
His flyer campaign and personal charisma had paid off. The room was full. Leather jackets dominated the dress code, with thrift store finds coming in a close second.
The walls showed art from a local artist. By local artist, I mean, one of the majority of the population. You couldn’t throw a rock in Santa Cruz without hitting an artist. The art was done in a neon cartoon style but with a gruesome subject matter. It might have been an ironic rebuttal to the ever present fact of mortality. Or it might have been the Technicolor vomit from a sick mind on drugs. Like the crowd and the decor, it was a mixed message and difficult to decipher.
Soon enough the group with the robust lust for performing was off the stage and his group was on.
His presence dominated the room. Screams replaced the polite clapping that the first group received.
I stood enraptured. With my youth, my impressionable nature and my ability to glom on, I was primed to be a groupie. He sang love songs and I took them personally. Did he see me? I pretended he did. I imagined he could see only me. The crowd blurred away. It was only me standing below and him, above on the stage.
The last song of the set was a cover of Lights by Journey. A blue spotlight lit his face and hair. It shone off him in a holy glow. His voice, sonorous and smooth, filled me with longing.
I had found my charmer. I swayed in fascination, a cobra transfixed. He held the mic in both hands, closing his eyes and telling about how he wanted to be back in the city. I started to miss home myself. Home as I had never known. Home as I could never find. I felt a melancholy so massive that it filled my mouth, like icing that is too heavy but still sweet.
I stood in a transcendent moment, pulsing with joy and connection, filth and shabbiness, beauty and harmony, sorrow and homesickness.
He found me after the show. I was standing to the side and he came up, sweaty with his eyes shining.
“Hey, it’s the girl from the bus. You came! How did you like it?”
“Wow, you’re amazing.” I looked up at him and could almost imagine him still haloed with a blue glow. I was star struck.
“We’re having a party at my house. It’s off Mission Street. Want to come?”
Me invited to his place! My stomach twirled as if my gut had a hamster running in a wheel. I managed an answer, “Yeah, that sounds good.”
“OK, see you there.”
He snaked his way through the crowd. I peeled my boots all the way outside but I hardly noticed. In my mind, I was flying.
A guest list. A rock show. A party. What more would come out of this bus ride?
I returned from Europe and moved to Santa Cruz, California, in 1988 where I could rent my brother’s school bus as a place to live. I was nineteen.
The school bus was a model from the late 1960s. The seats were taken out and the inside was redone with shelves and a counter. A blue captain’s chair toward the back offered seating.
I went in and out of the bus through the emergency door at the back of the bus. It served as my front door. When I opened the door, a whiff of kerosene and storage shed smell greeted me, with a top note of dank mold.
The bus was parked in the Santa Cruz mountains, in an area called Lompico.
Mountains are known for being slanted. The mountain this bus was parked on was no exception. The back of the bus was the lowest part. The bus slanted upward toward the front. When I say I climbed through the back of the bus, I really did need to climb.
I didn’t much use the front of the bus because it was filled with my brother’s storage. He had boxes stacked up thick so it was impossible to get up where the driver’s seat was.
The bus came with electricity, supplied from a very long orange extension cord running from the house. I had to chose what I wanted to plug in because it only had two slots.
I could have my lamp on and my music, an 8-track player. Or I could have my typewriter and my lamp.
For music, I had two 8-tracks. One was Simon and Garfunkel, the other was the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange.
I had a rule about dancing in the bus. Whenever Cecelia came on the 8-track player, it was time to dance. It didn’t matter who was over, or if I was by myself. That song was a cue to get up and dance.
I developed a dance style unique to the bus. Because I was a six-foot-tall woman and the bus roof was six feet high, I could only stand and dance with my knees bent and my feet spread.
For heat, I used a kerosene heater. Even when the heater wasn’t burning, the bus smelled of kerosene.
My bed was on the roof of the bus. A hole had been cut in the roof and a small structure, just large enough for a queen-size mattress, was built out of fiberglass and plywood.
I didn’t have an actual mattress. I had an old four-inch thick piece of foam with a large piece of brown fake fur on top to use as a bed. The foam had seen better days. Possibly in the 1970s. It had gone from being soft to being hard and crumbly. The foam crumbs stuck in the long brown fur of my bed and in my hair.
My process for going to bed was simple. I twisted the wick on the kerosene heater until the flame went out. I turned off the lamp.
There was no ladder to get up on the top level. I put a wooden crate on its small end so I had the maximum height from the crate. I stood up on the top of the crate so my hands could reach the metal rooftop.
Then I jumped off the top of the crate to get enough momentum to push myself up to the top of the bus roof and crawled on top of the fur-foam bed. The structure was three feet high, so I couldn’t sit up. I had to stay low.
In the morning, I repeated the process, dangling over the sharp metal roof edge until my feet found the top of the crate.
The worst was when a vigorous jump at night toppled the crate over. It meant a morning drop where I tried to land on my feet without getting caught on the fallen over wooden crate.
I often slept in my clothes. The damp cold that settled in the redwoods surrounding the bus pervaded the metal bus skin, plywood and fiberglass.
I dressed in layers and usually in black. A typical outfit would be black leggings, a black skirt, a purple tank top and a ribbed black wool sweater with black suede on the shoulders. For shoes, I had black wingtips.
I was growing my hair, still black from London, from a bob to past my shoulders. I often got twigs caught in it. It suited my style as a woman who lived in a bus in the Santa Cruz mountains.
I’m putting my writing hours into the memoir so this month I’ll post raw excerpts from what I write. We’ll return to our regular blog posts in August.
Today’s excerpt is from high school, not the happiest of times for me, as you’ll see. I welcome your feedback and appreciate your support! Thank you for hanging with me as I tell my story—sad, ugly and trying as it was at times.
Broken hand to pray with (excerpt six)
High School Christians
There were those in high school who wore clean clothes and started a bible study group together. They stood smooth and uptight. They wrote one another notes with bible verses and words of encouragement. They went on mission trips that seemed like glorified vacations where they could bulk up their do-gooder resumes.
I was not part of this group.
Their problems seemed trivial to me, something to confess to one another as weakness but nothing too gritty or scary. This one had argued with her sister. Another envied her friend’s car.
“We’re all sinners,” they said but in the way that left no doubt that some–like me–had more sinnerness than others.
Their saccharin attitudes alarmed me.
Christians, I decided, were fake, sugary mouth-talkers. They acted earnest but were meaner and more judgmental than anyone. They made it clear that they knew who was saved and who was going to hell. By an amazing coincidence or convenience, they were the ones who were saved. Their teaching about loving your neighbor seemed conditional. Love your neighbor unless she is too weird, slutty or badly dressed to be loved. In that case, talk about her.
They smiled as they took out their words to cut people down to size. They looked down on me, living in sin with a boy, and gossiped about our relationship.
“They’re fornicators,” one said in a whisper to the other when my boyfriend and I walked by hand-in-hand. Then she looked up and caught my eye. “Hi!” she said with a bright smile and embarrassed look.
Go fornicate yourself, I thought.
I felt outside of them.
I would never be so clean. I would never fawn over my daddy and want to be like my mom. I wouldn’t know when was the right time to wear white shoes.
I would never belong. I would never feel so sure of my place as God’s favorite, so secure in my supremacy.
They seemed to own God, part of a group who lived in an illusion, the Youthful Christian Club where I wasn’t welcome. They shook their head when they looked at me.
I answered their disapproval with tighter clothes and deepened my kisses with my boyfriend in the hallway. I pressed my tall litheness on his long muscular form against the lockers. I kissed him hard to dismay the Christians and their prissy sensibilities.
Even with my eyes closed, I could hear them tutting as they walked by.
Pleasure, distraction and obsession became my religion. My only focus was my boyfriend and how I could keep him. I was possessive, jealous and crazy. Trying to tame the violence and lust of a strong eighteen-year-old boy was a full-time occupation. I was crushed when he flirted with other girls and furious when he passed out in the afternoon from too much mid-day partying.
His temper made holes in the walls where he punched next to my face. Flecks of drywall scattered through my permed blond hair. I swore I would end it the next time he punched me or kicked me. Yet each time it happened, I felt I deserved it.
How could I live without him? I didn’t want to live alone. I couldn’t live alone. I could barely live.
It was hard to breathe.
Every day was chaos.
In the swirl of drugs, liquor and an abusive relationship, I continued to live on my own, go to high school and work at my job. I consider this fact proof of God’s grace in my life despite my lack of membership to any visible group of Christians.
I didn’t die. No matter how bruised, bloated and bewildered I was, by God’s grace I kept going.
Good news! I reached my goal for 25,000 words in April toward the memoir. My two writing friends also reached their word count goals.
This go-round, I used Scrivener writing software (free trial from Literature and Latte) to lay out the book before I wrote. Wow! It was a world of difference to have an outline and a plan before I wrote.
I wrote about half the speed I did in November. It could take me hours and four cups of tea to get to 1,000 words. It might be the difference between free writing (November-style) vs. writing something another person can make sense of (April-style) but I’m happy with what I have from both times.
I’ll take my draft from November and fill in pieces of April’s draft and see what I end up with. For example, I really liked what I wrote about my childhood newt in November. (You had a childhood newt, too, right? Doesn’t everyone?)
Thank you, everyone, for the encouragement. Your belief in me and my story means more to me than you know.
I’ll keep writing and editing the memoir. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Next week we’ll return to regular blog posts!
As we were wiping up at the end of our shift, Mike asked, “You need a ride, hon?”
I said that I did. We made plans and punched out with our time cards on the top of the time clock.
Out in the night air, we walked together to Mike’s red sedan. He opened the passenger door for me.
He drove me up to the 24-hour truck stop just on the edge of town.
We slid into one of the booths. We looked over the stained paper menu
“What looks good?” he said.
“It is after midnight, so I guess technically it’s morning. Maybe I’ll get some breakfast,” I said.
“Breakfast does sound good,” he agreed.
We ordered full breakfast platters and we weren’t disappointed. Our gum-chewing waitress served us long ovals plates of fried eggs, shredded hash browns, hardened bacon strips, shiny sausage links and toast cut into six triangles with a scoop of light margarine on top. Drops of grease dotted the plate edges.
At the counter, a truck driver leaned over his food while his cigarette sat in the ashtray. Outside his truck lights glowed in the mist coming off the St. Croix River next to the diner. He made small talk with the waitress and the cook behind the metal counters.
Mike and I ate our food and laughed. We pretended to fence with our bacon; it was as stiff as swords. He teased me for putting sugar and creamers in my coffee and I called him crazy for drinking it black.
We finished our meal and left the waitress a huge tips. People who have worked in service leave the biggest tips because they know how hard the work is. I can always tell when someone is stingy with the tip that they are spoiled and don’t know what it is to have aching feet.
He opened the car door for me. As we drove, I looked through the patches of cloud and saw a shooting star.
“Quick! Make a wish!”
We talked about shooting stars.
“You know they’re not real stars, sweetie.”
I didn’t. I was disappointed to learn I had been wishing on space debris all that time. But if there was anyone who was going to tell me the truth about shooting stars, I wanted it to be him with his soft eyes and gentle voice. He didn’t tease me for being stupid or not knowing much about how things worked in the world.
“Keep wishing, Gen. Keep wishing on them and hoping for things in your heart. That’s one of the things I love about you, how you get so excited and wish for things.”
* * *
I still wish on stars, 25 years later. Even if it is on space debris, I’m still making wishes. I still hope for things in my heart.