Musings on language, images and life

Month: July, 2010


After dinner tonight, I stepped out onto the back porch to escape our over-air-conditioned home (“the meat locker,” as I call it– Michael and I seem to be compatible in almost every way except for temperature) and feel the Minnesota summer’s eve humidity on my shoulders. I don’t often sit on our back deck alone at night. I should. As soon as I stepped out the door, I was overcome with a sense of peace and gratitude. I looked up at the stars and thought about my friends in far away places (don’t worry, I realize and fully embrace how cliché that sounds).

I sniffed our basil and mint plants. I turned around and peered through our kitchen window into our home. I looked past the pile of dishes in the sink, past the empty wine glasses and invention prototypes on the table until my gaze rested on the marble mid-century lamps we inherited from my parents. I thought about how most of the things in our home have a story behind them, like the Danish modern table we were given by friends of Michael’s Dad (a charming couple who made the trip out from New York to our wedding 3 years ago) and the canvas image we have on our living room wall, a photo Michael took in Aix-en-Provence last summer. This is my home. I hope it will be forever.

When did our house become a home? I knew I loved this house the first time I visited it, but it wasn’t a home to me. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t mine. For the first three or four months we lived here, it still wasn’t a home. Though I was excited, ecstatic to have our own space, I had a hard time settling in. As time went on, we started hosting dinner parties, BBQs, our first Thanksgiving. We started creating memories.

Friends who were having a rough time of it eating chocolate and sipping tea on our couch.  Hilarious children inadvertently locking themselves in our bathroom (I’ve gotten good at picking locks with a paperclip). Lilac bushes going up in flames due to a BBQ mishap (no one was injured, just a few lilacs). Ruthless hearts tournaments with my family at our kitchen table. Our favorite people at our 4th of July picnics, laughing and chatting. These are the memories that filled my mind as I peered through the kitchen window this evening. Here’s to many more.


Better Every Day

I remember the first week I spent with my (now) husband like it was yesterday. I still don’t know if I believe in the concept of a “soul mate,” but what I do know is that I have never felt more comfortable with and simultaneously more intrigued by anyone. I remember being so happy the first time I visited his apartment (the bachelor pad of all bachelor pads that would eventually become our temporary lodging as a couple). Aesthetically speaking, it was god-awful. But it felt like home.

He cooked me an amazing meal and we talked into the wee hours of the morning (little did I know then that this would be my reality for the next five years… and the rest of my life, I can only hope). The next day, we went to a Shakespeare in the park performance in Hermosa Beach. After the play, we were throwing our folding chairs into the back of his truck when he grabbed me by the arm of his flannel shirt that I was wearing and turned me toward him. His eyes were wet and he was laughing. “I’m not sure why I’m crying. I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m happy I’ve found you.”

Five years later, I can tell you that my eyes well up often when I look at him. In the three years we’ve been married, there has never been one moment when I’ve questioned my decision to spend the rest of my life in this relationship. For someone who questions everything, constantly, this is huge. No, this is right. This is home.

I came across a car accident the other day. The paramedics were helping a man about Michael’s size out of a crushed red car (the same color as Michael’s Hyundai). My heart sank and my pulse raced for a moment until I discerned it wasn’t him. I realized that, since the first night we met at Susina in West Hollywood (the beginning of a progressive date that would last— well, it really hasn’t ended yet, I guess), I had never imagined what my life would be like without him. I still can’t bring myself to do so. All I know is that it’s important to live in the moment. To appreciate him every day, which is not difficult to do. I never take for granted how fortunate we are. It just gets better every day.


“What do you think of my sexy new nightie?” Grandma said slyly, scooping a heaping spoon-full of noodle salad onto my plate.

“Hello!” I responded as I picked up the brand new purple silk lingerie set that was draped over her kitchen chair. “That’s cute… it’s short!”

“Yes, but still appropriate.”

“Yes, obviously, it’s classy.” I recovered, wondering what exactly she meant by “appropriate,” considering I’m pretty sure nobody sees her in her nightgown (though I guess one should never assume too much).

As we sat down to lunch, I was reminded of the time we went shopping together 2 weeks before my wedding. We picked up the accessories she needed for her outfit and were making our way back to the car when she suggested a stop in the “intimates” department to “pick up a new robe” (or so she said). Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a conversation I never thought I’d have with my (at the time) 82-year-old grandmother.

“Have you thought about what you’re going to wear on the big night?”


“Think of your future husband. What would he like?”

“Ahhh…. I seem to do pretty well with cut-off sweatpants and a tank top.”

“Suit yourself. But I’ll tell you, I still remember the nightie I wore on my wedding night… it was so lovely…”

To be completely honest, I can’t really remember the rest of the conversation (part of me wishes I did). All I know is I left the mall that day with a silk “pyjama” set unlike anything I’d ever owned before.

We giggled about this memory the other day while finishing up our noodle salad. Eventually, the conversation turned to what section of her memoir we should work on for the next hour.

“I think I want to talk about dating and my wedding,” she said.

“OK, like when you met Grandpa and the period of time leading up to your wedding?” I clarified.

“Well, I dated people before your grandpa!”

“Right, of course, so you want to talk about them, too?”

“Yes, I think I would.”

“Perfect, here we go, pressing record……”

Intentional Transcendence

The other day I was having a beer with a good friend who also happens to be an author and editor I respect very much. A mother of two young (amazing) children, she mentioned the almost overwhelming need for artistic inspiration in her life (yet another aspect we’ve discovered we have in common). She used the specific example of going to a play at the Guthrie– she’s realized that nothing gets her creative juices going like experiencing live theater. After reading some of her work, this makes so much sense to me. Her narratives are incredibly theatrical (in a very realistic, not “over the top” way) — I can hear the voices of her characters in my head and see them fighting, running, painting, or whatever they happen to be doing at the time.  As for me, I become inspired to write after viewing art (typically contemporary) and traveling (put the two together– like visiting a contemporary art museum while in San Juan a few months ago– and I soar). Which also makes sense, I guess, because (for better or for worse) I’ve been told that I’m a visual writer.

I wrote an essay on catharsis a few years ago that details what I would call a “transcendent experience” I had at the Walker Art Center’s Frida Kahlo retrospective in 2007. I re-read the piece after our talk about the artist’s need for creative stimulation and sent it to my friend. We both agreed that we derive inspiration from our daily lives (interactions, conversations, tiny quotidian droplets that accumulate to become narrative deluges). However, we also agreed that those “transcendent moments”— the ones that grab you by the throat and make you forget you’re made of flesh and blood, the ones that make you see (even for an instant) the world in a different way, that practically force you to create, to think, to go beyond— don’t happen frequently enough.

At times getting out of one’s normal physical space is the key (or at least a necessary step for me to vacate the cluttered head space I typically inhabit). I’ve also had “transcendent moments” while my derriere was planted in the familiar indentation of my chair in our living room, paying bills (I can’t think of a less inspiring activity). Of course, we can’t always predict when a moment of inspiration will come— that’s the beauty (and agony) of it. But I firmly believe that we can make intentional choices that favor transcendence. For example, committing to going to one play or gallery opening a month, come hell or high water. Easier said than done, especially in light of overburdened schedules and relationship commitments. But really, don’t we owe it to ourselves as artists/writers/creators/humans? When I look back on my life in 50 years, the transcendent moments will be the ones that count.

Narrative Choice

“Your mom took me to my friend’s funeral in Minneapolis today,” Grandma said nonchalantly while spitting a cherry pit into her perfectly manicured fingers. “She started crying in the middle of it. She was thinking of me, I would suppose. I mean, she didn’t know the lady who had died.” She glanced off into the distance for a split second before turning to look me straight in the eyes. “That’s why we’ve got to get to work, honey,” she laughed. “Where’s that little iThing you record me on?”

As we recorded the second hour of fodder for her memoir (I love that she’s always referred to the project as a personal “memoir” and never the more straightforward and structured genre of “autobiography”), I began to think about how we choose to represent ourselves, our lives, through narrative. Like it or not, we are defined by the stories we tell and those that are told about us.

Of course, there are some stories we would rather not remember… like the ones my parents bring up at family gatherings with an annoying sparkle in their eyes, the ones that elicit a hand- across- the- throat gesture and a terse “okay, moving on” from me, even at age 31. Then there are other stories we perpetuate ourselves, often times the ones that make us seem grander, quirkier, more sophisticated or more humorous than we really are (or were).

One aspect of working with Grandma that has been particularly striking is her “full-throttle” approach to storytelling. It’s no holds barred; the good, the bad, and the hilarious spill out of her mouth effortlessly, even when I can tell she’s getting tired. Whether she realizes it or not, she’s defining herself as fully and completely as possible, and it’s amazing to witness. Her recordings are peppered with stories of success (told in a very straightforward, non- glorified manner), hard work, and deliberate choices to help others (including many good deeds she rarely admits to having done).

There are also stories like this one, that both evoke a bygone era and round out her life’s narrative. These are the moments that are especially rich.

“Have I told you the story about the American Legion award?”

“Ummm, I can’t remember.”

“Well, I was slated to receive the American Legion award, given to one graduating senior per year. One girl and one boy. My parents were so proud of me. Boy, did I mess that one up.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Well, I was caught smoking in the girls locker room. Not many people had access to cigarettes in those days because of the war and rations. But, since I worked at the drug store, I could get as many packs as I wanted. All I had to do was put my name on a slip of paper in the cash register drawer and they would count them up at the end of the week and take the money out of my paycheck. My friends and I loved smoking. That’s before we knew it could kill ya’.” [laugh]

“Anyways, it was after the school play and we had it all worked out. I told my friends to talk to absolutely everybody, all the parents and all the teachers who would have wanted to congratulate us, before coming back down to the locker room. Well, the gym teacher, Ms. Woods –who I liked a whole lot– was on to us. She knocked on the locker room door and said she wanted to congratulate us in person, that she hadn’t talked to all of us. My friends sent me to the door, because she liked me real well– she thought I should go to the U of M and become a cheerleader. Anyways, as soon as I opened the door, she knew. She reported us to the principal and the next Monday 3 out of the 4 of us admitted to smoking in the locker room that night. The one who lied ended up getting the award that they, you know, revoked from me. I was so angry about that. I don’t think I ever forgave her for that. My parents were so disappointed. They were really involved with the Legion. That’s how that went… can we take a quick break now?”

I was in high school when I first heard this story, and she told it just like that. There was no moralizing, no trying to justify what she had done and no overt warning —just straightforward “cause and effect.” I remember loving the story the first time I heard it. I identified with her, the “good girl” with an experimental streak (or so I fancied myself). I remember being surprised by her honesty, and the fact that she didn’t end the story with “so that’s why you shouldn’t smoke” or something condescending like that. That just wasn’t her style. I also loved that she admitted to being really pissed (perhaps still) at the other girl, the liar.

The narrative was–and still is– so vivid, so simple, and I understood much more about my Grandma by the way she chose (and still chooses) to tell it. Does it make her look especially good? Yes and no– it was obvious by the fact that she had been given the award that she was an exemplary student and young citizen who made a choice and suffered the consequences (both not getting the award and of feeling resentful toward the liar, which may have bothered her as much as not getting the award). Does it make her look human and honest? Absolutely. And let’s face it– from a narrative perspective, who really wants to read about the “good girl” all the time anyways.

Time Capsule

“I’m just going to do a quick test to make sure the microphone is close enough to you.”

“What is that?”

“Oh, this is my iPad. I’m going to use to to record our sessions together.”

“Technology is amazing.”

“Yes, it is! OK, here we go, can you just say a few things?”

[blank stare]

“This is just a test. Start off with where you were born, Grandma.”

“I was born in Wadena, Minnesota in…”

“That’s good, let me check to make sure it’s picking up your voice.”


“Oh, the sound of my voice is horrible!”

“No, it’s one of my favorite sounds. OK, here we go, for real, I’m pressing record.”

[blank stare]

“Start with where you were born, Grandma.”

“That’s good, Jen, you’ll have to keep prompting me. I was born in Wadena, Minnesota in…”

As it turns out, I didn’t have to prompt her (this will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows GP). In fact, when I turned off the recorder an hour later, the only audio evidence that I was in the room was an occasional chuckle or gasp. During that hour we traveled back in time. She told me stories of growing up in small town USA, working at the soda fountain, smoking behind the bleachers, The Depression, WWII, late nights working at the V.A. hospital, beauty pageants (“I didn’t win either, even though I stuffed my bra [throaty laugh]. I was too short, I guess. Long legs are a real asset.”), love, loss, raising kids in the 60s, caring for ailing parents. As I pressed “save,” she smiled and sighed. We had finally begun the “epic” memoir project.

“I was just rambling. I can’t believe I talked for that long.”

“No, you were archiving. And I can believe you talked for that long. There’s a lot in there. You’re like a time capsule.”

“Haha! Whatever you say. How are you going to write all of this down? How are you going to make it interesting?”

“I was thinking of organizing it around central themes that have run through your life: faith, community, family, travel, etc.”

“I like that idea.”

Last night I was looking for something to read. I have a habit of buying most of my books in French (good intentions…). To tell you the truth, reading in French is the last thing I want to do right before I go to bed (unless it’s Colette, I could read Colette all day and all night). I paced between my three bookshelves for about fifteen minutes, pulling out volumes and shoving them back into their “spot” (“abstract random” seems to be my dominant organizational style). Finally, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies caught my eye. When had I purchased that? I had just finished Bird by Bird, so I was primed for more of Lamott’s evocative, personal prose. I slid it out from its position wedged between two West African novels. Still confused as to when and why I had bought this (I’m typically not a big consumer of spiritual books), I opened the front cover. In her unmistakable script I saw: “To Jen, Merry Christmas. I love you. Grandma Pat.” As I sunk into Lamott’s narrative of her spiritual journey, my mind filled with ideas of how to shape GP’s memoir. Keep it honest, keep it focused, but not too focused. Retain her voice, make it a gift, a tribute in her own words.

As I listened to her stories today, I realized how fortunate I am to be working on this, what a gift it is to me. We are creating a time capsule (both audio and textual), a way to remember not only her story, but the stories of her parents and siblings, her children, us. It is her story, it is our story, and it will live on through our children someday.

I can’t imagine a better way to spend Tuesday afternoons.