James sent greetings from his new home in Ann Arbor. The card features a photograph of light coming into a dark room facing a brick wall.
He said Michigan is cold cold cold but reports he still has the alpaca gloves from the farm we visited outside Portland nearly 8, 9, 10 years ago….
It has actually been eleven years since he bought Maki an engagement ring and took photographs at my secret wedding. Eleven years since we stood on a dark windy sidewalk outside the Flying Saucer and I confronted him with the fact that after the accident he said my death would not make him cry. Eleven years since I did in fact make him cry.
We were impossibly young but twenty-five felt so old. It is a mystery how our friendship has survived so many reckless and misguided choices, but we’ve always offered each other shelter when running away from home.
For twenty years, even when not speaking to each other, even through moves to different states and countries, we have remained correspondents.
It is an honor and privilege to know him, as a person, as an artist, as a friend.
Another blizzard immobilized the Denver airport on the day they were scheduled to fly home and the boys spent a tense afternoon watching as flight after flight was cancelled. But their pilot managed to get the plane in the air – and they arrived safely at the other end, exhausted by the whole ordeal.
My mother wrote to ask if I remember the year we lived in Tracyton and my father took me out on a drive to look for Santa, and all the presents were under the tree when I got back.
I do: that was the year I got my Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. She asked if I recall the strange and funny time her younger brother broke into the house and played with all of my toys before I had a chance to see them.
My mother said it is only a day.
It is only a day. There will be others.
Jeffrey sent along a movie of him singing Blue Christmas, and I cried.
It feels like my heart is broken, but at least I have feelings.
My daughter and I roasted a turkey and made all the fixins; I think that I have finally figured out gravy. Then we sat down together, just the two of us, and ate a feast.
An informal survey confirms my suspicion that this is the Worst Christmas Ever.
I hope that everyone who is stranded, sad, intentionally orphaned, or otherwise unhappy gets a special treat or adventure very soon.
Best wishes to all this winter weekend!
Yesterday I made desultory efforts to finish shopping for a celebration that has been cancelled. Even without a big dinner to prepare there are tasks that need to be addressed; all the shops will close for the duration of the holiday and it took several bike rides to haul in provisions.
I had just settled in for a long and gloomy night listening to sad love songs when Rachel (the historian) texted. We met at the Maypole and she indignantly said that I quoted her out of context, in a way that did not reflect her extensive understanding of identity politics and queer theory.
She pointed out that the larger conversation was about how people read various social cues.
True – in the earlier post I forgot to add that the crowd demanded to see my tattoo and then took pictures of my arm.
Cambridge is not my natural habitat.
Then Rachel asserted that I am a better social anthropologist than most of the trained practitioners around here. To prove the point, she turned to Kaushik and asked him to describe my identity based on available information.
I rolled my eyes and hurriedly started to tell tour stories.
Jean showed up and there was much scathing hilarity as he said things like Monogamy to her means one penis in each orifice.
Though I won’t say which brilliant academic he was talking about.
Rachel grabbed my phone to do some sleuthing but she always does that so I had cleverly erased all of the messages before setting out for the pub, even though my inbox is pure and innocent. Since she couldn’t find any trouble she decided to create it, sending racy messages to faraway people.
It is good to have friends.
The boys are officially stranded until the end of the month.
The little one still believes in magic, and I know for a fact that Santa will not be delivering items from the wish list to him in Denver.
I’m sure that there is some kind of lesson to be learned from the grief that made me cry all morning, but it is awfully hard to identify.
He is safe, and warm, and staying with dear family members. Missing a holiday celebration is really not a tragedy. But knowing that doesn’t make the situation hurt any less.
He has requested that I not write about him in detail so I will refrain from saying more on the subject.
When Gabriel heart that I can travel in January after all he wrote So wait, does this mean you can do New Year’s in Colorado?!
It would actually be lovely to run away to the mountain house and spend time with the artists, even if I refuse to join their yearly ritual of jumping naked into banks of snow. Though the last time I went (could it be five years ago – perhaps six?) stands out in memory as the worst winter of my entire adult life. The manuscript had been stolen, my tailbone was freshly and brutally broken, and one of my most beloved friendships had ended. I was sad.
But I replied that if I were going I’d be there already: both boys are currently trapped in Denver by a vicious storm.
My son is pleased to go sledding and says Wait until my friends hear about this!
I do not share his joy. With both Denver and Heathrow closed or impossible there is a good chance that he will not make it here before Santa.
The other night I went out with a few friends and a mixed lot of posh young academics. Rachel tried once again to coax stories about the trip out of me, but I didn’t feel like sharing. She wondered aloud why I am such a magnet for trouble, given that I dress like (in her exact words) a boring straight girl.
I thought that it would be obvious that I wear different clothes elsewhere; the outfit for Cambridge is utilitarian and organized to sustain life on a boat. In this town my most ambitious aesthetic challenge is washing the coal smudges off my face after I build a fire.
Though honestly it doesn’t matter. Chaos finds me wherever I have friends. Cambridge is only unique in that there are so few people who fit that description.
Not content to leave the evening without some kind of story, Rachel cleverly asked me to describe my craziest relative. I delivered a long recitation about ravines and revenge, watching as the intensity of the tales made mouths drop open.
It is too bad the best bits can’t be published.
I arranged to send surprise packages to many people, but completely failed to put my name on the box. If you got a mystery gift mailed from Seattle that has a big heart on it, that would be from me, and I send it with best wishes for a new year.
It has been very hard to keep the secret.
Since many of the boxes have not arrived yet I’ll refrain from saying more about the objects, except to offer a huge thank you to Greg. He made the whole thing happen against tremendous odds, not least of which was the historically bad weather.
This particular mad scheme has been on the agenda for more than a year though I was never able to organize the resources. To watch one of my work plans be executed efficiently and professionally over just a few scant weeks was amazing.
A couple of days after I left Venice I found out that Luca had been there at the same time. It was too bad that I didn’t know, as it would have been fun to see someone other than mad scientists. I kept tripping over the East London Massive every time I turned a corner.
I’ve never been particularly good at notifying people of my plans, and then of course there are the stalkers to avoid, which means that I often miss connecting with friends. If I made New Year resolutions I would put be a better pen pal high on the list.
In an effort to rectify the problem slightly I should report that I will not be in Sweden as planned in a few weeks. In fact, my schedule is open – all requests for my presence will be considered. I can go almost anywhere…. but I have to be in France later in the month.
Normally the only thing in my post box is a bill addressed to the former occupant. But today I was very pleased to pick up a whole stack of stuff, including a zine from China, a mystery package, and a letter from my agent that reads in part: I would recommend you attach this to the original agreement – if I didn’t know you had already lost it!
That was an excellent guess on her part.
Back on the boat I opened the package to find a hamper of organic treats from my UK publisher. How surprising; working with a big press offers many interesting new experiences. I can’t even depend on my US publishers to send royalty statements!
In a less desirable turn of events, I am homesick and lonely. I would like to poke these feelings with a sharp stick.
Prompted by my mother, who can sense these things even from another continent, I have performed the obligatory winter survey of my medical status. The results show that I am:
Three months overdue for tests to detect a swift and lethal cancer that has no symptoms.
Six months overdue for gene sequencing.
One year overdue for maintenance blood tests to calibrate cancer suppressive drugs.
Two years overdue for the follow-up appointment after the last biopsy.
Not because of waiting lists or referrals; oh no. I made the appointments and then elected to run away to Seattle.
And, the best yet: I have completely failed to schedule the high-tech non-NHS cancer screening that I already paid for.
If I bothered to open the letters from the clinics I could presumably come up with a few more examples.
I’m not tempted.
The only reasonably grown-up thing I’ve managed to do is to refill my prescriptions before the chemist went on holiday.
A few days ago my agent wrote and asked if I wanted to play The Cruel Game. I didn’t even hesitate before saying yes.
When I mentioned the matter in passing to Gabriel he was astonished. He wrote back Ahh… the agent has it in for you. Wish I could see that.
I was puzzled and explained the question to Byron. He stared at me in shock and then said Bee. That is the sort of event you would never in a million years attend!
Later while talking to James I mentioned one of my new research projects and he asked Whyever would you do that? With the emphasis on you.
The people I’ve known longest are in agreement that I have in fact changed in fundamental ways… and I’ve been trying to figure out when it happened.
Tonight I went looking for something in my email and stumbled across traces of a painful, stupid incident that nearly made me walk away from a valued friend last year. I did not understand why the person in question betrayed a trust, hurting me as they pursued something they wanted. For once I asked. The answer read like this:
People are not nice. No-one is. Except you perhaps. You look out for the sick & needy. You are very stern but also very fair with people who are in trouble. You would not allow someone to take advantage of you, but you are also quite kind. Other people are not this way. I’m sorry.
This was offered as an apology but more significantly as a justification.
Interpretation: my ethical code was cited as the reason why someone could choose to be destructive. They knew my reaction would always be fair. I would see every side of the issue, and I would give advice and material assistance, without considering my own needs. Or I would cut and run. My desire to avoid conflict was ascendant.
All too true. In the past I would have either fixed the underlying problem, or stopped talking to the person, either way secure in the certainty of my judgment. But last year I realized that would just confirm the prediction.
Instead, I decided that nice was boring.
The other night I was telling a whimsical anecdote to some people at a pub when this academic type of fellow interrupted to ask a question that was at best off topic.
Rachel said she doesn’t answer those!
He was confused and I had to say explicitly I do not answer any questions about my identity.
He furrowed his brow and said None?
So if I ask you if you are a woman, would you answer?
He shook his head and I went back to telling my story.
The truth is I do not answer any categorical questions if I can avoid it – not about my occupation, offspring, orientation, education, relationship status, political affiliations, hometown, or name. I’ll talk about any and all of those subjects – but never in a way that allows an audience to apply a tidy label to my life.
Or rather, people are welcome to believe what they like; I refuse to provide the definition.
There are many reasons for this stance, from the smart (a desire to avoid sketchy people from my past) to the pathological (my love of secrets is perhaps not the healthiest aspect of my character).
I’ve never been particularly sentimental about the holiday season; my cultural heritage favors the macabre and mystical over the jolly.
Except of course I became a parent before I was an adult. To compensate for the social stigma I have always made extra efforts to guarantee that my kids are not missing out on whatever material or symbolic elements are required for a happy childhood.
I have always put in the time to give my kids a reasonably fun celebration including treats and surprises and excursions. We’ve done the standard tree lighting, parade-going, Santa photograph thing every year. I do not understand the British tradition of panto but we have incorporated theatre outings and the Frost Fair.
I put the John Denver holiday album on high rotation and pull out the Cary Grant movies. We have a good time, strictly according to protocol.
But my daughter is a grown-up, and has elected to choose her own gifts instead of letting me bungle the job. She is focussed on her own social life, on the dance later this week, on the world outside her home. In other words, she is launched.
If the younger child were here I would be on the standard holiday routine, but he is away visiting his grandparents.
This is the first December in my entire life that I have no responsibilities, no plans, nothing to tether me to the world. This feels strange and sad; I am tempted to listen to music that renders me suicidally depressed over lost youth. But at the same time I am filled with tremendous joy to have achieved this age, to have this family, to know my friends, to continue forward.
This month I can do whatever I like, exactly when I choose.
I’m going to read Orwell and ride my bicycle through the flat green countryside.
My daughter just turned to me and said accusingly I have a hot lady body! Why did you do that to me? It’s your fault! It’s like genetics or something!
While I agree with her that it is inconvenient to find clothing that fits, that is about the extent of my relationship with the concept. I pointed out that the world is an easier place when you do not worry what people think of your appearance.
The kid does not approve of this stance.
She tells me in great detail about her evolving experience of adolescent mating rituals, including insights like Most boys like weakness – they want girls they need to protect. Only a select few like confidence.
Then she said that several of her friends, male and female, have commented that they want to sleep with me.
I clapped my hands over my ears and hummed.
At least I know the teenagers are just chattering.
In my grown-up existence I am experiencing culture shock – a month back in the states running around with my own sort addled my conversational capabilities.
In my community the level of innuendo and double entendre is almost oppressively constant. In fact, I have always been considered repressed by the standards of that group.
I keep forgetting that lots of British people think that racy discussions mean something. For clarity: no, people, telling scandalous stories is not a proposition. Where I’m from even explicit offers of sexual favors are often just tendered as compliments.
Yesterday I had lunch with some people who deal with the business side of book selling. It was quite an enlightening afternoon – I am intrigued by the differences between the publishing world here and back home.
We chatted about various entertaining subjects and then one of my companions (who has not read the book) asked if my cancer is in remission.
I replied I have a rare genetic disorder and two different kinds of cancer. One has been in remission since the 80’s. The other is ongoing but it doesn’t really bother me that much.
This was delivered with a huge smile and followed up with laughter – the way someone else might describe a happy adventure.
My conversational style upsets lots of folks back in the states. But the British people I’ve met take it all in stride. They nod and agree that my attitude is sensible.
From my perspective there is no other choice.
What do any of us know about one another? And what does a writer know? Writing, perhaps, breeds even more distortions and uncertainties…. The ambiguity persists. — Sybille Bedford, Quicksands
Recently I had to look through Lessons in Taxidermy to prepare for the UK release. I did not remember exactly what was included- there were a few discarded chapters and many incidental cuts, revisions, last minute additions. The final version is also substantially different from the stolen book, which is more clear in my mind because of the loss.
I expected to be mildly baffled to read the book years after writing it. I would not have predicted that the most difficult thing about reviewing the material is seeing my friends appear as characters in a narrative.
Of course I changed many names, particularly in the segments concerning my early life. Or where naming someone would start a blood feud. Several people generously gave permission for me to use their real names. Many, however, are missing.
It is difficult to write truthfully about other people. I tried to be respectful. I resisted the urge to settle scores. Particularly when describing episodes that happened before anyone knew me as a writer, I protected the privacy of the individuals concerned.
But putting real people on a page is inherently problematic. Choices are made about what to say, how to say it. Because Taxidermy is a book about danger I selected stories that illustrate certain points. What I put in the book is not necessarily the thing I remember best about any given year or person.
When I talk to Ana Helena nowadays I do not think about how she helped fix my broken body; we are too busy chatting about our hectic new lives. We meet erratically in odd places and I see her as a catalyst, someone to appreciate in the moment and learn from.
If Stevie is around I do not reflect on her accident- I just enjoy her presence and laugh. When I am far away I think about how she used to cheerfully act as my date for work parties and weddings, about the adventures around town and on tour.
James has been mixed up in my life for nearly twenty years and he says I am not a fiction writer because I am obsessed with the truth. He points out that I have always needed proof of the relative meaning of any given experience. He is correct; in the past I always walked away from things I did not understand. I’ve never been afraid of hard work but I always needed to know the plan. My tolerance of ambiguity is a recent development.
But nonfiction is just another kind of script – facts can be presented to support whatever version of the truth is being promoted. James is arguably one of the most important people in my life but he doesn’t show up by name in the book at all. Not because he isn’t important – in fact, he was one of the most visible and significant people in my teens and early 20’s. There are certainly stories worthy of publication from those years. They just didn’t belong in this book.
Most of my life remains strictly off the record; I do not provide a running tally of everything I think and do. Instead I write about the episodes that strike me as pertinent to a given topic.
I have nothing particularly wise to say on the topic. It was just very strange to read the book.
The morbid months have officially begun. Naked trees, short days, sad music on the stereo.
I need to schedule five or six exhausting medical appointments. The weather is already too cold to tolerate; my hand is numb with shattering pain. I miss my old life and this town suddenly feels very small. I’ve been waiting for the seasonal depression to take over.
But instead of feeling low I have been preoccupied with work, friendship, watching my children grow up, riding a bicycle through the countryside. There are parties to attend, people to see.
January is fast approaching, no matter how hard I try to ignore it. But Jeffrey wrote to say I definitely think your birthday should be a national if not world holiday!
When I posted the new publicity photo I received email from a novelist friend informing me that I am beautiful. I found this puzzling, as people do not tell me such things. I proceeded to check with various other people (who might not be exactly impartial) and they all agreed with the assessment.
Then I reviewed my mental files and tallied all the mad encounters with total strangers this year. I know that my clothes and hair play to a certain demographic, and my appearance has not changed recently. But I’ve been getting lots of attention from people who would never before have dared.
I am excessively confident and do whatever I like. But this attitude is predicated on the fact that I’ve never cared what anyone thinks of me. I couldn’t afford to – the scars ensured that I would never have access to the normal concerns of adolescence. I skipped both the good and the bad parts of being a girl.
I did not hear insults, did not feel injuries. I became a self-contained person who never risked emotions that I could not control. The tradeoff was never hearing compliments, never allowing anyone to say nice things to me.
Or I did not hear if anyone tried. But mostly nobody did – I looked like I would put the smack down because I would. That facade flickered on and off; some people saw me differently but they were a trusted few.
At some point this year there was a dramatic inversion of my public self. Now the defensive side is the bit that is only intermittently visible.
I’ve had a deeply confusing remedial crash course in being human and I do not know the etiquette for this new life. All of my secrets and statistics have been stripped away.
Stella wrote to say that I look good in the new picture because I am happy. She is correct. I am also bewildered, displaced, delighted. I have proper human emotions that I never knew existed. Like the ability to enjoy it when someone says I look nice.
My mother sent a message to the photographer that read Thank you, I haven’t seen a picture of my daughter (the real person) since before she got cancer.
Of course beauty is a social construct. I am no more or less attractive than anyone else. Arguably this belief is my best feature. Aside from the lipstick.
Today I was working without my glasses on and something floated by outside. My macabre brain automatically thought body … but closer inspection revealed a log.
Then my phone beeped; it was a text from a friend to say that the police were draining the upper river to look for a missing boy. The water displaced to our side of the lock had all the boats floating too high.
I checked my lines and pulled out the flood poles.
I think that I hide it well, but I was once an art student. I was trained as a photographer and printer and spent many years of my young life obsessed with visual images – my first year of college was funded in part by an art scholarship.
When I eventually realized that I would never be Ralph Eugene Meatyard I abandoned my pretensions and wandered away to study fiscal policy.
The only lingering remnant of those years is a compulsive desire to control how I am represented.
I do not enjoy being photographed by other people; most who try just get a shot of me holding my hands up in front of my face. Whenever possible I take my own publicity photographs – I shot the one for Taxidermy sitting on the edge of the tub in a house I sold a few years ago. But although I find it amusing, my UK publisher asked for something different.
Rifling through the archives I only came up with an image James took to promote Breeder. While it is technically very good and I look ok (though far too sweet) the photo is now five years old. A quick survey of friends revealed divided opinions. James had the decisive vote – he said that I should get new photographs, and offered to fly to the UK to shoot. But it was short notice and I was about to fly off to Italy and then the states.
In Seattle I explained the problem to all of my photographer friends, hoping that someone would offer a solution – because I’m too superstitious to ask for such things. I had no luck with this scheme until one late night at the Bus Stop when Zack (you might remember him from the Hunt for Bad Boys and Lumberjacks) overheard my tale of woe. He paused playing a video game for a moment and casually offered to help.
On my last full day in the states I took the train from Portland to Seattle, feeling raw and distraught and unkempt, to meet Zack in an old apartment building on First Hill. I dragged along the only two fancy outfits I had available but got caught in a rain storm along the way.
He opened the door wearing pajamas, hungover and hands shaking. At various points in the shoot he blew out a bulb, blinded himself with a flash, and managed to get a big wad of tape stuck to his head.
The whole experience was hilarious and I hoped we would at least get something better than what I could manage pointing my own camera at my head.
We retreated to the Bus Stop where I told Ade stories and Zack made the first edits. When I looked over his shoulder I was startled to find that he had somehow managed take the best photographs of me so far this century – or perhaps ever.