stars in my hands

take it in. give it back. deglobalize.

What My Sister Does Now October 31, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amanda McRaven @ 1:27 am

Winner of 2013 New Southerner Nonfiction Prize – published in December edition of the New Southerner…

 

My sister Ashley pots tiny lettuce plants in her livingroom. Black soil spills across the wood floor, mixing in and among the pieces of toys and clean laundry. They are making a farm and a family in the fields of Augusta County, Virginia. They grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, zucchini, watermelon.

When I arrive, my four-year old nephew runs up to me before he even says hello and thrusts a yellow watermelon at me. “We are eating this,” he tells me. And we do, scooping the meat out with our fingers and licking the juices off our arms and out of the bends in our elbows.

Daniel, my brother-in-law, is a pragmatist. Right now he’s overwhelmed with his delicate heirloom tomatoes. Though they are all the rage at farmer’s markets and gourmet restaurants, he’s not convinced that, to the average buyer, they actually taste that different from his far more straightforward Sungolds. “I’m giving Amanda a taste test,” he says, doubting I will be able to tell the difference.

We have been bent over the heirloom vines all afternoon, picking them gently. These are the tomatoes I was thinking of last week in Los Angeles as I picked through a box of some like them at my neighborhood farmer’s market. My father had been telling me about helping Ashley and Daniel plant them. He had never heard of an heirloom. Raised in The Depression, my father considers food merely sustenance – a tomato is a tomato. But on the phone he was telling me how beautiful these were. And how people seemed to love what my sister had grown. And as I stood there, at that market, three thousand miles from my family, those California heirlooms, striped in old ways, made their way through the relentlessness of things.

Now I am holding the ones my father spoke of, but Daniel is convinced they aren’t worth the time. These we pick are overripe. And there are hundreds more green ones. By the time they get to pick those, they too will be overripe. There are only the two of them to farm here, this first year. They can’t afford to hire any more help. My sister is skinny. Tall and thin, she’s still skinnier than I’ve ever seen her.

So I close my eyes and hold out my hands to Daniel. He places chunks of all the different tomatoes he grows in them. I report my findings as the afternoon sits still for a moment. That one is a little sweet. That one has a tang. That one tastes like I expected. That one like fruit. That one acidic. He gives me the last two again. But I can still tell the difference. The acidic one is the Sungold. The fruity one is the heirloom Brandywine. It is delicious, like plums. Still trying to disprove me he says, “Yeah but with a little salt and some olive oil and fresh mozzarella, it wouldn’t matter.”

But it would. It would matter.

It matters that tomato doesn’t mean one thing.

It matters that I picked it, here in this field.

It matters that in each row there is a different variety growing.

It matters that someone knows how to grow each one of them.

Driving endless miles on the Los Angeles freeways, the radio keeps me company. Recently I heard director Jason Wise talk about making his documentary Somm, about people trying to pass the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam, perhaps the toughest exam in the world. The reporter marveled at this. But Wise framed it this way: “think about it. I’m not going to need to consult an expert in real estate or accountancy every day. But I’m always going to want a bottle of wine and I want the person selling it to me to know exactly what he is talking about.”

Yes, I thought as I searched for a parking spot. My poet heart has always loved to hear wine lovers parse out the red into earth and smoke and cherry; the white into straw and lemon and honey, as if those things are really in that glass – distilled essences from great alchemy vats.

Just as at my favorite coffeeshop there are six different roasts of espresso listed on the board. When I asked the barista about them, he offered the most sumptuous descriptions. And I forgot which was which, I just listened to all the words that described the thing I drink every day that I thought I knew.

That matters. It matters that someone knows what he is talking about. Not an economist or a military strategist or a conflict negotiator – just a guy who makes coffee. We used to be a world where everyone knew everything about what they did every day. Where we chose what to do with our lives because we were good at it and we had learned our trades working beside our fathers in the waning afternoons.

Now it seems we do what we do because we can make a living with the least amount of effort. Home Depot doesn’t know anything about me. Target doesn’t care about adjectives and the way flavors dance. At Starbucks a button makes the coffee.

But it matters that someone still knows how to run the espresso for exactly the right amount of time, to steam the milk until the steel pitcher is hot to touch and not a second more. It matters that the guy selling me wine can also tell me a story.

It feels as if stories should always be tucked into our days, where we are not expecting them. It feels as if we should always want to place what we grow into someone’s hands, stretched out in August sunlight.

 

Too Poor To Die May 19, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amanda McRaven @ 9:25 pm

This is an excerpt from my book project – Georgia In Her Mind, a memoir. In 1997, Georgia shot the man who was trying to rape her and got twelve years. In 2002, I walked into a classroom at Troy Correctional Center for Women and she became my student in a writing and performance class. This is the story of her life so far.

A small excerpt:

 

I know your life on earth was troubled
And only you could know the pain
You weren’t afraid to face the devil
You were no stranger to the rain

–Vince Gill, Go Rest High On That Mountain

Vince Gill just made headlines for choking up on that song while he sang it at George Jones’ funeral. In 1995, it was coming over the cheap speakers in Thompson’s Funeral Home in Eden, North Carolina, soundtrack for country grief.

How are you like your mom? I ask her. I wonder if this question will be too turbulent. But I should know after all this time that Georgia doesn’t get angry at recognition, at patterns. Sometimes she breaks them, sometimes she just watches them go by, but she can’t afford much emotion around them. Still, she takes a sharp inhale and holds her breath for a bit, then, “I’m harsh like her. I remind myself of her when I’m being loud.”

She takes a drag from her cigarette, the double-wide trailer fills with more smoke. The stinging in my eyes is pretty constant by now, but has ceased to bother me. This is where we are.

“She smelled like cigarettes. And Vanilla Fields. No, no, it was Blue Navy and Aviance Night Musk that she smelled like. …I stole all that stuff for her from Kmart, Food Lion, Krogers. She taught me how to steal. Her and Rog’s sister Di – they got me shoplifting when I was seven, eight years old. I wouldn’t get in trouble as much as they would. Everything I stole: shoes for the boys, Christmas. On up until my adulthood life. Everything would be on my body – big baggy shirt and tight pants – that holds it in. I’d steal electronics then take it back and get the money for it. Cartons and cartons of cigarettes wrapped around my waist.”

Martha died like all die in Georgia’s life, swiftly or harshly, with no reverberations. Her death in a car accident at the age of 47, was the beginning of Georgia’s swift tumble toward prison. She was 21 in 1996. After she buried her mother, she was to bury her brother, and then her eight year-old daughter.

It seems like in the years before she died, Martha was finally learning to be something that could love better. “You know what’s weird?” Georgia tells me. “With Mike’s (Martha’s last husband) kids, my mom became a pretty fuckin great mom. It was like me and Jamie were the estranged children. You would never believe that my mother was the same one. Everyone in Eden (North Carolina) loved her. What a great mother they said. Something changed in her. I saw it. But Mike was always afraid we would take her away. But Mom did try. We had to sneak to see each other. She was keeping Christian (Georgia’s second child) for me at the time and she was really trying to have a relationship with me near the end.” So in someone else’s universe, the next twenty years would have been new ones, mended. But Georgia didn’t get that.

Though it was a car accident, Gladys swears that Mike killed her on purpose: “I mean, them boys know how to drive. They learn how to drive on ol dirt roads and big ol hills and stuff. He was passin her on a curve. He clipped her bumper. He knew what he was doin.”

The last time Gladys and Georgia talked about this, Gladys told her, “You know what Daddy wanted me to do after Marty’s funeral? He got the rifle. Told me to go in and shoot him. I’ll go around the block and pick you up he said.” They laugh a little. Georgia says you shoulda done it.

“I said no, God with take care of him.”

I don’t know if God did take care of him. He’s still alive, not too far away from Little River, still drinkin, Gladys says. Rog, too is still alive. In Georgia and Gladys’ world, the standard demographic trends are reversed. The men get pickled by beer or drugs or sex and fester on. While the women get older and smaller. Or just disappear.

Georgia says, “They say Rog is big as a porch and got two little girls – 8 or 9. But you know I wasn’t his kid so maybe… men do things to other people’s kids that they wouldn’t do to their own. You know what I’m sayin?”

“Not ok for a man to do anything like that. Period. Do it to one, do it to another,” Gladys says. And starts to talk about her sister again: “she just had to be loved.”

When Martha was dying, the hospital provided a priest for all its intensive care patients. Georgia says “priest” and I say doesn’t she mean preacher? No, priest, she says. “That’s what they had.”

Georgia had him read 1 Corinthians 13 every day that her Mom held on. Most of us know the ending: the greatest of these is love. But Georgia had him read all of it because, she says, “it explains what love is and what love should be and what I desire to have in my life.”

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 

“Sometimes it was good with her. She let you stay home from school when her back went out – stay home and take care of her. She couldn’t get off the couch. We watched soap operas together. I drank mountain dew.”

But most often she’d just take off so she wouldn’t have to hear her Mom and Rog having sex. Eventually, they started sending her off instead of having to call the police to find out where she was. They would drop her at the movies, swimming pool, skating rink. And because she was afraid of what Rog might do if she ever brought friends over to the house, she never had any real friends. So in those long afternoons in public spaces, she would just be there, on the edges, a tiny girl trying not to get noticed. “The feelin I felt the most was loneliness at those times. Surrounded by so many people and not being able to buy any of it. I could only afford the admission.” Some days she would get out of the pool, walk out the gate and then keep going. When Martha did remember to come get her, Georgia was gone, on the road again until the ache got to be too much, or until it dulled. It depends on which ache – its source and its size.

She says the first time she ever felt settled or relaxed was when she met her first husband, Joe. She was fifteen. It was Joe’s mother, Phyllis, who taught Georgia how to be a lady, as she puts it. “She did the motherly stuff. At ours, Jamie and I were the ones who had to cook and clean, get them beer, make them a sandwich. It’s probably why I’m so fucking good at cleaning now,” she says and does that little smile that says, can you believe this is my life. …She pulls out another Doral.

Sitting there in the hospital those seven days, she says she never let go of Martha’s hand. Told her that she was recording all her soap operas so she wouldn’t miss anything. And she took out her nose ring because her mom always hated it. As if that was some kind of promise. Those small desperate gestures, the things we do to make life last a little longer. They broke Georgia’s heart though. She had never drank or picked up a needle. A year later she was indicted for cooking crack and second-degree murder.

To pay for the funeral, Georgia wrote bad checks: a deposit on 13,000 dollars. In the end, she was the only one to do it. Mike didn’t have any money, or says he didn’t. Jamie was incapable of planning and executing something so sad. He’d fallen apart so badly when Martha died that he was useless to help. So the director of Thompson’s Funeral Home let Georgia pay in installments. What she paid for were the things she believed needed to be done right: the funeral costs – casket, service, obituary, flowers, but she also bought her mother funeral clothes and clothes for the family to wear for the funeral. That mattered to her.

Of course, those empty checks just bought some time to create something normal. To end a life the way Georgia believed it should be ended. Martha’s life insurance policy eventually came through and covered the rest of the costs. And then time sped up: “Before they could get me for the checks, the statute of limitations had run out and I was in prison for murder.”

After Martha died, Mike was all that was left. Jamie went back to his life in Virginia and Georgia didn’t know where her own husband was. She moved in to her mother’s old trailer to take care of Mike, whom she despised.

“Mom worshipped the ground he walked on. She made me promise to take care of him if anything happened to her. So I did. He was insane with grief, became obsessed with me. I did it as long as I could, then I got out. He was a piece of shit just like the others. Always had been. Ha. The first words I ever said to him were if you hurt my mom I’ll fucking kill you. …But I didn’t. I took care of him. That’s what she would have wanted. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Years earlier, when her mother’s aggressive neglect started to overwhelm Georgia, she knew if it wasn’t going to crush her, she would have to contain it, shape it into what was manageable. She said to herself “one day one of us is gonna die and I don’t wanna be the one regretting not having a relationship.” And eventually it worked. And today it’s the only thing that keeps Georgia from desperate sadness: aggressive neglect lost to a fierce will to hope all things and endure all things.

Now, eighteen years and a prison term later, she’s doing the same thing for Martha’s sister. Gladys died last night. I read Georgia’s post on Facebook and call her. She never calls me when something bad happens.

“What can I do?” I say from California.

“Nothin.” Same as she always says.

“Well what do you have to do?”

“Everything. Her family doesn’t want to pay for anything if they don’t get their way. They want her buried in the cemetery in Rosemont. That’s not what Gladys wanted. And Michelle, Gladys’ daughter, is getting a divorce, so she don’t want her ex at the funeral, but he loved Gladys and she would want him there. Amanda, I’m so fucking tired of taking care of everyone. …I gotta find 2500 bucks from somewhere. That’s what it costs if I do everything but burn her. I get the urn, Christian is gonna do the service. I write the obituary.”

In Horry County, South Carolina, where Georgia lives, the 2010 Census reported that 16 % of the population is under poverty line. Out of a total population of 282, 285, that’s 45,165 people. 45,000 funerals that no one can afford.

“Obituaries cost money!?” I don’t know why I assumed that words would be free. “Well let’s write it. Would that help?

“Yes. Yes that would help a lot.” I am so relieved to have something to do besides just write this book. Something I can do in ten minutes that would take her shifting half the day and three children and looking for quiet time and then staring into a computer screen too tired to think and worried about how much each word costs.

She’d already thought it through of course. She sent me to some websites with templates, so I’ll do it correctly. “Just talk, I’ll type,” I say.

I go through the list that the websites prescribe: what were her favorite activities, what will she be remembered for, what volunteer work did she do – questions that seem silly to ask about someone who’d spent all her years just trying to stay alive and not get beaten or conned. It’s hard for Georgia to answer some of them. In the adding up of the days of a life, there wasn’t much that stood out. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “She was just there for everyone.” Then she remembers that Gladys loved plants. I think back to the day I met her, sitting in a dirt yard trailer park on a washed out white porch next to a rusty swing, she herself small and colorless. I wish her lots of green in heaven.

 

Gladys is survived by children Michelle Richardson and James Richardson, and son-in-law, Richard Hawks; grandchildren Michael Kidd, Brittany Richardson, Sean Richardson, and Candice Hawks; siblings Kathleen Maxie and Barbara Dyson; and dear friend Jim Wilson. She was preceded in death by sisters Martha Bowman and Pat Roop.

 

I don’t know why Georgia doesn’t mention herself. I think she sees herself as the invisible one – Gladys wasn’t her real mother. She doesn’t get to claim her. There are codes that must be followed.

 

The service will be held Friday March 20, 7:00 pm at Lee’s Funeral Home in Little River. In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to help cover the cost of services. Checks can be made payable to Lee’s Funeral Home.

She talked the funeral home into letting her pay after. There aren’t any bad checks anymore. And from this side of her life. Georgia doesn’t want to write them anyway.

 

“Gladys, we know you are no longer in pain and were welcomed into heaven by so many of those we have lost and loved so dearly. Go fly with the angels.”

So Vince Gill sings Gladys out too: Go rest high on that mountain, your time on earth is done. And I think it’s right. I remember her telling me how much she loved the mountains where she came from. She doesn’t leave much of a shadow. Her thin, weary body ash now.

Georgia asks me for the recording I made of my interview with her. I ask why. It’s hard to hear and so much of it is about Georgia. “People just wanna have something,” she says.

In hardscrabble lives, the decorations, even the photos, which seem so essential – they get swallowed up in the move to the house where the rent is cheaper, in the car that caught on fire, in the box that got left at so and so’s when so and so went to prison. I am the one, here, way on the outside, in a California afternoon, holding on to someone else’s story.

 

September 28, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amanda McRaven @ 11:32 am

I am invigorated and ashamed. Invigorated that my sister in theater is making sure we keep talking about this. Ashamed that I have become complacent and forgotten that I care as much about this as she does.

Songs for the Struggling Artist

Listen. I try not to let institutionalized sexism get me down. While I certainly notice it, I usually manage to keep my frustration in check. But tonight, as I watched Peter and the Starcatcher, I think the well of goodwill was finally drained. Drop by drop, over the years, the multitude of all male productions, or shows with only 1 or 2 women (good sometimes, if you can ignore the lack of humanity written into the women’s parts) or all the shows with eight men and two women, never the opposite, had depleted my stores of goodwill, so there wasn’t much left by the time I saw this show. So this is not just about Peter & the Starcatcher. This show was just the final drop out of the well.

And listen – I could have managed with this one, even as I counted the number of men…

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High Waters June 19, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amanda McRaven @ 7:12 pm
Tags: , , ,

It’s just been too long since I posted. I have been working on composing some really profound ruminations. But sometimes I think it’s better just to write. Not compose. Just give you words. Then you can do the ruminating. I get stuck in a brain spiral. That doesn’t do anyone any good.

One of the aims of this blog is to get us to make the world smaller. To listen to each other better and look people in the eye. So in honor of that, I will share my favorite thing I’ve heard this week. A new person who has come into my life, a friend of my sister’s, is a true kindred spirit. As soon as I met her I knew we spoke the same language. We have the same goggles on when we look at the world – a kind of floating rootedness. I don’t know what that means. But I know what it feels like. This is what she said on Sunday when our conversation turned to fashion:

“I love rolling my pants up. It makes me feel like I’m really living.” 

I knew exactly what she meant. How delicious. Those simple acts that shift a whole day – a breeze on the skin of your ankles is like a whole new adventure. One of the tiny ones that we have to squeeze in between the big ones. If I didn’t love LJ before, I am now hopelessly in friend love with her. 

Tonight on my ride home, I spiraled into a yucky place – thoughts of death and loneliness and lots of tired self-pity. PATHETIC. But all I have to do is roll my pants up and set off. Take off my shoes. Drink my sister’s homemade lemoncello. Discover The Greencards on iTunes. Eat fried chicken with my parents. Read some Shakespeare.

And there you go. I’m really living again.

 

June 12, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amanda McRaven @ 9:08 am

Good words.

anna brones

Mediocre wine is excellent if you have a view, coffee is exponentially more delicious when brewed after a night in a tent, and trail mix can compete with the fanciest hors d’oeuvre when you’re in the middle of a hike. It’s simple: food always tastes better outdoors.

I was thinking of this in the process of drinking a mug of wine, overlooking a horizon of red rock formations last week. Dirtbags, sunsets and merlot do go hand in hand after all.

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full moon. me. April 5, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amanda McRaven @ 10:22 pm

Full moon hanging over Topanga Canyon. One week ago I was sitting in my living room in New Zealand having mojitos with my friend Liz. Then I got on a plane, watched a few movies, and am back in a house that is as if I never left it. Perched on the side of a canyon that slopes down to the ocean. Ten minutes from the incredulity of Malibu, fifteen from the flatline of the San Fernando Valley.

I am alone tonight. Profoundly. Like the aloneness is the ball in Jai Alai – the sport I just discovered while doing my crossword. One that is way too hard for me, so I am in a perpetual google search. But I never mind that. What I lack in mental fortitude I make up for in curiosity. Anyway, the alone is vibrating the room with its force.

Outside there are coyotes. Under that full moon. Not like the southwestern prints. There are trees here. And me, in a little house. I’m not lonely. I have the overwhelming sensation that right now I am very cool. I have an adorable hair cut and cute little skirt. I cooked a really good dinner. And I am doing cool things like listening to Brett Dennen radio on Pandora and alternating between reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and finishing my really hard crossword puzzle with Irving Berlin songs as the theme. Also, planning my trip to the farmer’s market in the morning. Come on, that’s all really cool.

On top of that sensation is one that at any moment someone could walk in and say “Oh hi. I have this camembert and this syrah from a boutique vineyard in Santa Ynez. Do you want to try this recipe for mango sticky rice with me? Brett Dennen. Cool.”

And then I realize that that does not, at all, happen. Unless you live in the Australian outback at the turn of the century and a stray traveller wanders up to your homestead seeking shelter in your shearing shed. But, barring that, it will just be me, alone on this couch, for the rest of the night. Feeling acutely satisfied.

What if I were to get in my car and drive to some establishment where people are who might potentially want to come sit on this couch with me and rub my feet and watch quirky documentaries? It would never turn out the way it was in my head before I made the effort to go. I would have ended up hugging a corner, too shy to say anything to anyone. And then have realized that, wait a minute I am surrounded by weird hippy alcoholics who don’t have any insights into the human condition at all! I should have stayed on the couch.

So this is me. Very cool, emitting cool into the night, wriggling around in cool. This is what I’ve got. Get older. Love it. Be alone if that’s what you  are. You spent the last three years forcing yourself to not be alone. And you fell. And there was no one to help you up. But you got up anyway, lighter.

Anyway. I’m not actually sure that solitary traveller won’t show up. People get lost in the mountains. Hmm, 93 Across is Change Partners.

 

I’m considering place April 2, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amanda McRaven @ 4:03 pm

and home. and our conceptions of home. what earns that title? besides kids and a partner. What if you don’t have those things? How do we know where home is? Where is the place where we won’t wake up each day and think, what’s this for? Sometimes I think that life is the act of creating a series of distractions to keep us from thinking too much. But the distractions are so beautiful. So I’ll take it.

Because I sit here in this summery day, California light on the canyon trees, doors open onto my rough board porch, the quiet of a small place. Really good music. Time to do and make. And all that matters. And I don’t know if it is Home, but it may be something close to it.