I’m eavesdropping on the people at the next table. The woman is telling the man the name of her five pets: Otis, Milo, Lucky, Fritz, Lola. At first I thought she was being interviewed for a job. Now I wonder if this is what an iHarmony type date sounds like.
I love southern food. I love the smell and feel of the air. I love the voices of the people here.
We went to my old grade school, Sacred Heart. A small brick building with palm trees out front.It is odd to have a memory for so long and then finally see that remembered thing. I went to another Sacred Heart too, in Savannah, and it is where Flannery O’Connor went to the school. I told Chuck that her writing is influenced by her Catholicism, but I couldn’t explain how. Each of her stories has a moment of grace. I remember reading that but, as I explained to Chuck, it’s often hard to see what that moment of grace is.
Indries Shah says we have forgotten how to listen to stories. Do you remember reading stories as a child? I want to read like that again, like nothing else matters.
I grew up near a small woods in Greenville, South Carolina. I played there everyday, almost always alone. That was before everyone was afraid and stopped letting their little girls go off by themselves. When I started Catholic school in first grade and found out about sin, I was afraid that what I was doing in the woods was a violation of the First Commandment. I was afraid that I was putting the woods before God. At any rate, when I was in the natural world it was like I was an animal, a fox or a bird, with just my body and my senses and a feeling of belonging. I can’t feel like that now. Now in the woods, I’m mostly in my head. Sometimes I think about murderers. I think my husband still feels that way, the childish way, when he goes into the forest. I love that about him.
I was reading about lyric essays. I think my essays are lyric essays and not just because they are disorganized. I only learned the term when I went back to school. People do things and don’t even know those things have names, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t know what we’re doing. I kept coming across the name of a particular lyric essayist and I looked her up. The first thing I saw was a controversy about a poem by Tony Hoagland, which she considered racist. I read that poem. First of all, it was in a collection called WhatNarcissism Means to Me. Which should give the reader some kind of clue. Second, who is to say that the narrator of a poem is the author? Really! And THIRD the poem seemed to me to be playing with ideas about race, but that doesn’t make it racist. And IF the poem is racist, which it isn’t—it is racist against whites.
I was taught by nuns. I learned to hate the censorship of thought. Give me a government that simply makes laws against expression rather than the insidious self-censor, fearing the wrath of the easily offended. Anyway, regardless, it was a poem that moved you, even if you are not a poet, even if you don’t know poetry but only what you respond to.
Tony Hoagland has a Wikipedia page. And Tony Hoagland is born on my exact birthday. Tony Hoagland grew up in the south on military bases just like me. He picked fruit in the west and so did I. Winters, California, apples. He dropped out of college and hey, me too. Only he went back and is teaching at Warren Wilson and I just now went back, decades later, and wish I could to go to Warren Wilson. Chuck said I should write to Tony Hoagland and tell him this. I said no, but I will blog about it.
At a reading at Eastern Oregon University, someone in the audience asked what books I read as a child, but I wouldn’t answer. I could only think: Gone with the Wind, three times, and how could I explain that? I read Gone with the Wind and I read, accidentally, what I think must have been Naked Lunch, which I found on my older sister’s book shelf.. I read The Group and then had to hide it from my friend Kathy Walsh, who wanted to read the sex part over and over again. I loved fairy tales. I read plays out loud, pretending I was an actress. I read about Bonnie and Clyde. I read a book by a priest who had left the church and Sr. Agatha told me she once knew a girl who thought she could read anything she wanted and she ended up becoming a Communist. During one particularly religious period, I read the Bible every night. I read trashy books and I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Scarlet Letter. I read Pearl Buck and I read comic books. I loved Archie and Veronica.
Someone in the audience pointed out that I have a theme of shame in my novels. Do I? My readers are sometimes much more observant than me. Well. I do think shame and guilt are underrated. The nuns gave them a bad name.
Today I posted the first page of my new manuscript, Watching Rhonda Honey, on my website. The first page is about being raised Catholic. I’m glad I was raised Catholic, let me say that right now. It did three things that I like. It made me psychologically complicated, which is useful for a writer. It gave me a sense of shame, which is not a bad thing, I realize now as I’ve gotten older. And, best of all, the Catholic church taught me that, when you strip everything else away, at heart it’s all a big mystery.
Along with the first page of the novel, I posted a photograph I took in a Catholic Church in Mexico. It’s a picture of Jesus’ bloody, nailed feet. I think it’s a sign of the repressive times we live in, and the way in which we’ve internalized that repression, that I hesitated: would someone be offended? Was it in bad taste? Was I being disrespectful? —I hesitated, even though I knew that it it was right image, that if I could take a picture of what it felt like to be a little Catholic girl, it would be that picture.
> I wonder sometimes if my old Sister Agatha didn’t serve me well by warning me against reading too much— you know what can happen if you read too much of the wrong thing? You could get pregnant. You could drop out of the church and become a communist. Wow. Talk about enticing a young girl to read!
I went to Sacred Heart Elementary School in Savannah, Georgia, which is the same school that Flannery O’Connor attended. Sister Agatha was my fifth grade teacher, and I like to imagine that she once taught Flannery as well. Sister Agatha told us vivid stories about the torments of Hell. She terrified us, especially Shirley who was Protestant and, even though she was still in elementary school, had a boyfriend who was a sailor. Sister liked to describe the flames of Hell, the horror of dismemberment, an eternity of suffering. I like to think that from moments like these, a person might later construct great literature.