The article I wrote showed up in the Guardian today:
How can we solve the problem of teen parenting? By recognising it is a choice, not a problem.
Somewhere in the middle of last night I was walking arm in arm with Paul when he remarked that it was good he didn’t have meetings until late the next afternoon.
I replied I’ll be up at eight to attend a Church of England primary school Easter service!
The morning started with music blasting and Jeffrey telling a story about how he tried to convince everyone that Elliot Smith’s Either/Or is a Christmas album (I agree, or at least, I listened to it a lot during the recent festive season), then we were out the door and on our way, improbably, to church.
Before the children even started to sing I’d managed to spill scalding tea all over my hands and the floor of Great St. Mary’s. Jeffrey offered me his banana to cool my singed fingers and when I refused proceeded to fondle and play with it, hiding it in my gloves and snapping photographs.
Byron texted If I misbehave will you take me out of here?
Jeffrey answered out loud When I finish this coffee I’m going to have a conniption fit! Then the noise all the babies are making won’t matter!
I kept shushing them but all three of us were completely restless while most of the other parents sat and beamed at the adorable English children acting out scenes of crucifixion and resurrection.
Though Richard was sitting in the pew in front of me and I did see him smack his forehead during the sermon.
The minister (pastor? Priest? Byron grew up with a minister father and he doesn’t even know what the proper honorific is) started an elaborate story including the query How much water is there in a man’s body?
Jeffrey hissed What about whiskey?
It is good that I’ve lost my voice from too much laughter, as I would have been giggling uncontrollably throughout the entire service.
My brilliant son surprised me by singing a solo – he didn’t tell me he would be performing at all!
It was a shocking thrill to hear his pristine voice ringing through the huge old church.
Last night we met friends at the Pickerel, where I explained to Jeff that I like Josh because he is the only person in town other than me who illustrates an opinion by making the wrist flicking jerk-off motion so beloved by my working class compatriots.
Greta, as a woman, is another enjoyable rarity in the realm of mad scientists – though I never knew that as a child she trained to be an Olympian speed skater! She served up an entertaining account of scaring off attackers with with her shiny, dangerous skates – highly amusing!
On December 1 Jeffrey posted a public challenge on his Crush of the Week blog that declared So bring it on. Have a crush on something good for you for once. If you do it I will.
I formally took him up on the dare, but haven’t checked on his progress since.
His original (drunken) observation was about truly nice folks being passed over by those who like to fuck danger more than people.
We defined the rules of the dare as: Jeffrey cultivating a crush on someone who can play a meaningful role in his life, with the hope that the emotion will be reciprocated.
How am I participating in the scheme? I could probably win the race if I had any sort of crush at all.
But Jeffrey points out, correctly, that he has never met a woman as disconnected as me. I would prefer to flirt, but learning how did not lead to something I can describe as infatuation. Though I disagree with the parallel Jeffrey assessment that I find snipers hot; no, more worryingly, I find them amusing.
Also: Jeffrey is literally the only person in the world (let alone Cambridge) who would dare chew on my shoulder:
I fell behind schedule preparing for the most recent guest. When he arrived I was still in my jammies and vaguely wielding a sponge – but Jeffrey just laughed and said At least you have your lipstick on!
I scrambled through chores and got dressed and we walked to town. Crossing Jesus Green Jeffrey remarked (as all of my NW friends have within twenty minutes of arriving) You live in, like… fucking Disneyland!
The city delivered a foggy, sunny afternoon of wandering through college gardens; we even got lost in a part of Trinity we were not authorized to explore.
Jeffrey crushed out on half the people we saw and placed an order for a brainy brunette. Too bad Rachel is in Montreal at the moment!
Jeffrey is one of the key figures in the conspiracy of adoration that rules my Seattle existence – my ears are bright red from all the compliments today – and it is just so much fun to hang out with him!
My week will be spent marching around quaint English scenes with two boisterous six foot six American men dressed in black. I’m going to pretend they are my bodyguards!
On Sunday the weather turned from grim to lovely and I took advantage of the sunlight to throw the first picnic of the year.
Unfortunately the temperature was not amenable to this plan, so after shivering through lunch we retired to a cafe to read. I was browsing through an interview with Michelle Yeoh when I absorbed the startling fact that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out seven long years ago.
I remember standing in a long queue (at the time I would have said line) on NW 21st with James and Byron quite distinctly because it was one of the rare times I let anyone other than my two companions babysit either of my children, ever.
The experience was also unusual because a stranger came up and started to heckle us because he did not approve of the way people were flocking to see that particular film.
We three just sort of stared. When he asked why we had chosen to be part of the herd-like crowd I answered reasonably Because we have tickets!
James had run away from home to live in my basement, where he spent his days arranging broken objects and taking photographs. At night he walked around the city. I do not recall spending much time with him at all during that sabbatical from his real life.
Other times with James are much more distinct in my mind – our first meeting, during a small-town parade. Sitting together in the high school hallway, admiring his leopard print shoes.
We toasted a New Year with Denny’s coffee as lonesome teenagers, my infant daughter propped between us. He says that he would not have gone to college unless I pestered him to apply, and this is true; I deliberately dragged him away from his childhood home.
I remember his dorm kitchen, and long crazy conversations in the musty garage bedroom at the Dundee house, and the music he played while making dinners in the yellow cabin.
We once drove a hundred miles with a car crammed full of my belongings, a huge clear plastic box containing a trophy baseball hat belonging to my in-laws improbably wedged between his lap and the dashboard, talking endlessly about existentialism and silly television shows.
One night when I was pregnant with my son we wandered in the Arizona desert with a woman who disliked me in a striking way, who would later tell him to choose between her love or my friendship. He said No.
During that trip he introduced me to Jess and I can even pull up a clear image of the napkin dispenser on the table of the restaurant where we ate lunch. It was a magical moment – she was the first adult I’d met who had also survived a life-threatening childhood illness and could talk about it without dissolving in tears. We laughed and laughed and eleven years later, she is still a good friend.
There are also many difficult and painful memories, and a whole lot of growing up over the course of twenty tumultuous years. I remain amazed that we are friends, through all of the strange changes and across such long distances.
In the last seven years we’ve seen each other exactly once – and he was ill and dosed up on cold medicine. We didn’t talk much during that visit, we just sucked down pho and sprawled around my Seattle living room.
But we write to each other pretty much every day, a constant fact for twenty years, and it is likely that we always will. James is one of my closest friends ever despite inconvenient geographic separation, and as such is the namesake of my son – he may even inherit said child if I depart too soon and Marisa decides that Ann Arbor is a good place for my kid to live.
James is also tasked with organizing whatever celebration marks my death. I do not want a funeral, and it will be his job to figure out what to do as a substitute. This is of course my logical response to the fact he told me he would not cry when I die – if everyone else is distracted by pesky emotions like grief, he may as well be the one renting a hall.
A few weeks from now we’ll meet up in Asbury Park to watch Jess marry Brian. Two nights and three days in New Jersey will not be anywhere near sufficient to catch up on everything that has happened in this adult lifetime, but that is irrelevant. Our friendship is not predicated on anything except love for each other.
Cambridge is without exagerration the most difficult place I could have chosen to move to (if you recall that I will never go anywhere featuring sunlight). The culture of the place is so fundamentally antithetical to the way I’ve always lived it generally feels like I’ve taken up residence in a diorama. A very nicely arranged and pretty scene, but still – false.
This is largely a function of history and assigned value. I’m a working class rabble rouser wandering in a world that is the very definition of elite – without any academic affiliations or desire to acquire them.
I’m surrounded by people who care about status more than almost anything else, and I do not register on their scale, nor do I care. When asked what I do I honestly shrug and say Nothing.
Even if pressed I will not admit any of the numerous items on my CV that would impress a famous academic. People are welcome to believe whatever they like.
Life in the NW was and is all about community and friendship, a huge overwhelming truth that I didn’t have the skills to appreciate when I believed myself a permanent resident.
Life in Cambridge is about isolation and work, and although I do not belong here, I am thankful every day.
Recently at a dinner party I was talking to a psychologist who somehow managed to solicit my clinical diagnoses. I’ve never met anyone in her profession who talks shop at a party, but I shrugged and told her: PTSD and OCD (while one is often an aspect of the other, mine were precipitated and diagnosed separately).
She thought that I was far too balanced and comfortable to have ever been as sick as I was, and said so. I replied that I honestly could not even make eye contact until I was twenty-nine years old. She wanted to know more – how did I recover without therapy, drugs?
I shrugged and said I had everything I needed.
The truth is that submitting to a course of treatment would have been an additional trauma – I was hurt by doctors, even if they kept me alive. I couldn’t get better unless I fixed myself.
It took ten years of diligent work, and there is a lifetime of more ahead of me, but I have made enormous progress.
I remember being so reserved I practically did not talk. Lately I hardly ever stop.
In fact, I am no longer the cold, lonely person described in the first three-quarters of Lessons in Taxidermy. Yes, I have both metaphoric and literal scars. But my slightly demented mutiny against the past worked in a fundamental way.
I’ve changed so much I hardly know myself. I have fantastic adventures but I also have feelings. How confusing!
Last night I asked Byron if I have changed beyond recognition, and he said You’re just growing up.
Rushing out to a photo shoot I realized that it was raining and grabbed the first umbrella that came to hand – a big, tattered, broken old thing that a random friend left behind.
I own a substantial number of umbrellas that are stylish and attractive, but it would have been far too clever to dig one out given that the brolly became a major prop for the photographs.
Since the article is about my experiences as a teen parent, the elder child consented to let us exploit her.
This is rare to the point of nonexistent; through the ten years of promoting my magazine and books books I’ve never willingly allowed the children to be depicted. But my daughter is officially a grown-up now, and makes her own decisions about these matters.
We stood about Parker’s Piece in the rain and wind chatting as the nice man from the paper snapped away. At some point he commented about the article They say it is a jolly story, yeah?
Well, no. I would describe it as a long fractious rant about discrimination, but replied Um, okay.
My daughter provided a constant stream of hilarious stories and we laughed and laughed. On our way to the next destination the photographer commented She is a lively one!
That would of course be an understatement.
Fetching up at the Arts Picturehouse cafe, we asked permission to shoot more and then arranged ourselves at a table by the window. The fact that it was a Saturday afternoon meant that the place was crowded with people staring and openly eavesdropping.
My cover, in other words, is officially blown. From now on I will not be able to get away with claiming that I do nothing when asked about my work.
When we finished and said our farewells the photographer turned to the girl and said What bribe did you get for this?
It hadn’t occurred to her to ask for a bribe, or that the process would be simultaneously fun and unnerving.
I sighed and handed over thirty quid.
On Wednesday I woke up at six but the morning somehow managed to spiral out of control, finding me rushing as I smacked on tricky new mascara purchased the night before just as the car was supposed to collect me at eight. The basic concept never change beauty routines when pressed for time has obviously not taken hold.
My hands were shaking as I wielded a potentially disfiguring cosmetic wand near my eyes and this was quite puzzling. I’m never nervous before these sort of events – instead, I fall apart after. I reviewed my mental files and decided the recent roster of bereavement was the likely source of the shakiness: two family members and one friend have died, and a close relative was institutionalized after a near lethal suicide attempt. All within about ten days.
Facts of that nature are difficult to contemplate at the best of times, let alone when circumstances dictate charisma be exercised. But my childhood taught me how to efficiently ignore unruly emotions and this proved useful for once: I finished getting ready and dashed out the door.
My publicist met me in the lobby of the BBC and we chatted with the other guests before being whisked into the studio. The show was highly entertaining though I made a fool of myself in front of a national audience, as is my habit.
I feel extremely lucky that the archive of Midweek disappears after a few weeks, since I am reliably informed that the recording includes something along these paraphrased lines (I’m not going to listen so I can’t provide a true quote):
Libby: Bee, why didn’t you speak to your therapist?
Bee (flatly): Working class people don’t do therapy. Talking about feelings? What are those? As far as I know I didn’t have feelings until last year.
After the show ended we had a lively short chat about radiation and nefarious government research projects (Hanford, anyone?) and then surged away to our various destinations.
The publicist guided me on to the next radio studio, but we were early and I fell into conversation with two bikers who were hugely entertaining. We chattered about assorted topics and they somehow extracted my version of what Lessons in Taxidermy is about, probably to the dismay of my publicist, who might wish that I giggled a bit less about things like childhood cancer.
The bikers, however, were great fun and not at all fazed even when we lurched across existential and metaphysical topics. It was in fact a lot like hanging out with my extended family. Later I was informed that they have a television program – they are literally Hairy Bikers.
The further chats with BBC regional programs went fantastically well and I stayed on form, remembering all of my media training and also what the book is about. Then it was took me to a series of bookstores to sign copies of the book and have charming conversations with book sellers, as always one of the best parts of my job!
We met Kate, my editor, at RIBA for lunch. They toasted me with champagne and we talked and laughed. The restaurant tables are arrayed around a central installation, this week a large strange wooden object, the bit nearest me offering the statement Learning within a reality that is messy needs to be a little messy itself.
Back at the radio station I chatted with the bikers a bit more before going on the air with BBC West Midlands, talking to a host who was significantly interested in my double vision story (or at least the gory bits of it). He asked about life on the boat, and why I decided to buy one so precipitously without any knowledge or experience. The answer is easy: I fell in love.
I said goodbye to the publicist and spent a few hours attempting to work on a newspaper article, with no success whatsoever, until Iain texted to ask if I fancied a drink. I met him near Oxford Circus and he took me to a very odd goth pub, where I told the tale of my day and we caught up on sundry things before setting off to a sushi dinner.
I’m not exactly sure how I met Iain – I suspect it had something do to with the Chloe fundraiser at the Horse Hospital – but our friendship is one of the best bits about living in this country. He also read my book and gave it to his agent, who in turn became my agent and sold it to Orion – meaning Iain is directly responsible for all of the fantastic things that have happened in my career this year.
I am endlessly thankful to have so many good friends.
Back home in Cambridge I flung myself on the floor of the boat, curled into a ball, and cried for two hours.
My life is sometimes rather strange.
Just as I was about to depart for London I opened a message from Mash informing me that a childhood friend died.
I’ve written about this person before; he was one of the other sick kids in school, and in Lessons in Taxidermy he shows up crawling through the springs of my hospital bed.
We were never particularly close because his house was on the other side of the forest, but there was definite kinship and secret camaraderie because we were abysmally different from the other children.
Later when we learned to hide our illnesses he became a popular metal kid while I was hanging with the outcasts and punks. We never talked much but we respected each other from a distance – and defended each other when appropriate.
I lost track of him seventeen years ago, but I often wondered where he was, if he had married or had children. The fact that he is gone, that his loved ones are bereaved, is extremely sad. On the train to the city I stared out at bucolic fields dusted in snow, thinking about home and the woods where we used to play.
This morning my nerves should be shattered but I am just sad. This seems like an appropriate emotion as the book is launched.
Tomorrow is the official UK release of Lessons in Taxidermy.
Tonight I’m holed up in a swanky London hotel under orders to write an article about the experience of being a working class teenage mother.
Cognitive dissonance is my new best friend.
It is one of the many charms of this book that Lavender is not only aware of the conventions of such autobiographies but that she consciously rejects them. Her powerful, elegant memoir should be read by everyone…. as an example of what truly well-written and unflinching self-examination can be like. –The Sunday Telegraph
Happy Mothering Sunday if you qualify for the title!
I was very happy to receive Linda Ronstadt: Greatest Hits as my present. That album is the one that I most remember my mother singing along to as we drove around the county when I was a child.
Plus I think the cover of Love is a Rose is brilliant!
Tonight I went to the pub with various people, forgetting for the third year in a row that going out in Cambridge on St. Patrick’s Day is not the most congenial choice.
We were lucky to snag two stools and a bit of wall at the Pickerel, where we were crammed up against each other. I had my back to the room and strangers kept jostling against me and actually pushing my body back and forth as they struggled through the crowd. At some point a posh young academic insinuated himself in our trio, put his face right in front of mine, and shouted I love your glasses!
That never happens here though it is a routine part of life back in the states. I patiently had the stock discussion about where I purchased them, where I’m from, whether or not Frasier is an accurate depiction of Seattle, etc.
Then I had a highly entertaining conversation with my friends that skipped across various topics and briefly settled on the case of a mutual acquaintance who has a Play While Away policy that his spouse does not know about.
One person took the position that the antics are justified because of various domestic complications. I of course believe that telling the truth is of paramount importance.
Beyond that, if we all know about the infidelities the wife is going to find out eventually. But our opinions on the subject are not particularly relevant, other than my statement I’m still not going to introduce him to any of my hot friends!
Later in the evening I received email from an old friend that read I found a job – now I can divorce my wife!
From what I could discern the end of the relationship was not precipitated by an event, just a long slow drift away from whatever mattered when the couple met thirteen years ago. It would appear that the split is amicable, the only real point of concern being custody of a much loved dog.
This struck me as quite civilized compared to what other people I know are dealing with.
A few months ago I met another friend in a cafe in Paris and listened as he told me that his partner had embarked on an affair. He was desperately unhappy about the situation and after talking for hours asked How can I make my wife love me again?
My instinct was to deconstruct the ideas behind make and my and wife but he needed support, not my ongoing sociological research inquiries. I answered She does love you. She is staying with you, you have children and careers and a home, you share a life.
He shook his head and said No, that isn’t enough. How do I make her fall in love with me again?
His pain washed over me and I knew that I could not help him, that I’d never experienced the sort of love he was talking about, or if I had, it was so long ago the memory is buried in the wreckage of my youth.
I wanted to cry. I shook my head and replied I’m sorry. You can’t.
Out with the East London Massive – and look who received the best gift ever:
There are two new things that have vastly improved the experience of life in Cambridge.
First, a fruit and veg stall in the market square is selling fresh carrot juice every single day!
Second, a theoretically Mexican restaurant has opened on Regent Street – and while not good, it is better than anything in London.
We expats exchange the information in hushed and reverent tones.
This morning I stared at my feet for twenty minutes, baffled by the fact that my toe is a solid yellow and brown bruise. Several hours later I remembered Oh yeah…. it is broken….
Today was officially the start of sunblock season; I’ll be slightly sticky from now until next autumn!
As I cycled across Jesus Green in my standard summer costume of black, black, and more black some gutterpunks shouted Oh, my, goth! at me and I laughed and laughed.
Except, are they called gutterpunks in this country?
On her last night in town Marisa and I went on a long walk out to Fen Ditton, traversing muddy fields and listening to birds sing. We stood at the river’s edge and watched the light fade from the sky, the colors reflecting on the calm water.
Back in town we stopped at a pub to toast each other with Guinness and observe the population in their natural habitat. We’re both given to quizzical behavior of this kind; it is good to hang out with someone who has an equal need for silent assessment.
At some point when we were not analyzing the group dynamics at the table next to us Marisa informed me that I exercise a high degree of femme privilege.
I objected But I’m a thug!
She answered Yeah, but you get away with a lot because of the hair, lipstick, and skirt!
This was interesting in part because she has only known me in my current incarnation. For most of my twenties I wore military surplus trousers, tattered tshirts, and a black hoodie. I dragged my gear around in a bike bag, and although I didn’t wear patches professing love of gardens, I definitely dwelled within the North Portland bike punk aesthetic.
Before that I had the complete kit of a bureaucrat, including beige skirts, blazers, and ugly shoes. My hair was cut in a very proper bob and I even had normal spectacles (for the first and only time since my mother selected my first pair at age ten).
During my teens and even my childhood I was of course a fashion oddball, with a clear and inappropriate tendency to wear mismatched and brightly colored vintage clothing layered on top of longjohns despite my mother’s best efforts to make me look decent.
Throughout these switches I’ve never been more than vaguely aware of how my clothing is perceived by others. It is true that I deliberately wear costumes, but only for my own idiosyncratic reasons – not to convey some kind of message about my identity.
I’m not very good at the whole girl thing. My hair is an uncontrollable mess, my clothes are generally in a state of profound disarray, my nails are clipped to nonexistence. I’m wearing the lipstick Sarah-Jane picked out for me seven years ago because I am too frightened of make-up counter ladies to seek out a new color.
The rest of the stuff I smack on is just several layers of sunblock to ward off new tumors, even if it appears that I’m trying to look like a china doll. I’ll concede that I do paint my eyes… but I make them look bruised! Mark Mitchell helpfully points out that my shoes are too frumpy for the average nun (and that I have thick ankles; it is true, I’m a peasant).
If I’m exercising what Marisa refers to as femme privilege I do not see exactly how that manifests, since in all of my travels someone has offered to carry my suitcase up the tube stairs exactly once.
The assorted chivalries accorded ladies never come in my direction. I’m admittedly oblivious, but very few people would even dare talk to me.
When I pointed that fact out to her she said Yeah, exactly!
The UK version of the book includes a reading group guide. This is of course odd for me, and hilarious for my friends. Marisa gleefully read out a question that starts with a quote from the chapter called Make-believe:
‘It would be easier not to care about anyone.’ Do you think that Bee ever thinks this, or do the benefits always outweigh the negatives for her?
I winced and asked Yeah, so what is the answer?
Marisa said You think that all the time!
She is correct.
We were up most of the night talking and I walked her to the bus at five this morning. Our friendship is based on the routines of daily life: running errands, making food, hanging out with the children, wandering in and out of each others houses. We pick it back up again when we are together but there is never enough time.
The fact that I care means that saying goodbye hurts.
Mark is leaving the Bus Stop and this is excessively sad. Tonight is his last turn behind the bar – if you are local stop by, and tip well!
A woman’s life is hard
Even with a Union Card
She’s got to stand on her own two feet
And not be a servant to the male elite!
We’ve got to take a stand
Keep working hand in hand
Cause there’s a job thats gotta be done
And a fight that must be won!
-Union Maid, as performed by the Amalgamated Everlasting Union Chorus Local 824 (we never did sing the Guthrie version)
Marisa is here ostensibly to look after my son while I dash around doing press stuff, but she also says that she is familiar with the concept of emotional support.
That is something I clearly need, as the absolute oddity of the week has nullified most of my practical skills. The other night I found myself in the vegetable aisle at the grocery store muttering What do I know how to cook? What do I even eat??!
My dear friend took over and sorted out dinner, and my kids shouted with joy It smells like Portland!
In the evenings we’ve been working a lot – I continue to toil away on secret new projects, the boy has schoolwork, Marisa is putting together a book about Rock Camp.
The fact that we each sit here on dueling shiny white Mac laptops is in fact surreal, given how our friendship started, as members of the Chorus.
We used to sing together every week, lovely friends gathered in the living room of my house, M trying to keep the raggedy group in order, Stevie throwing pop-its into the circle when she was bored, my daughter singing faster than anyone could keep up with.
There were performances around town and on the road, most notably at the first Ladyfest, when Stevie and Erin Scarum accepted a challenge to wrestle in beauty bark right before we went on stage and then spent several hours wailing I have splinters in my ass!
I asked Marisa to guess how old my daughter was when she did the solo that night and she reckoned twelve or thirteen.
No; she was nine, still just a little kid, a fact that becomes more amazing as the years pass.
Rallies, zine release parties, movie premieres, bookstore events, a Mudwrestling Hoedown, everyone crowded into my basement raiding the costume collection – I do sincerely miss the good times with those friends.
I refused to accept a Chorus name since I’ve been burdened with a nickname since birth but that just meant they had to torment me in different ways, mostly by chanting things like Be aggressive! Bee is aggressive! while I tapped my foot and rolled my eyes.
Everything has changed so much since then, in every possible way; I don’t even have a wardrobe any longer, let alone an eight-hundred square foot magical thing-breeding basement full of elaborate costumes for every occasion. Not to mention the way that life has me spinning wildly away from everything I’ve ever known.
But I still have friends, and I can still sing, even if it only happens when Stevie or Marisa visit. We trawl through the record collection and something familiar comes on and my daughter and a friend set off on a song.
I don’t even sing when I’m alone but when they are here I follow their voices, and remember, and it is profoundly wonderful.
Today is my great-aunt Rosemary’s funeral.
Rosemary and her daughter always wore their hair in matching towering black bouffant styles and served coffee and cookies to guests. She was gentle, sweet, always mildly surprised by the antics of those around her. Rosemary loved her husband, daughter, and house, and I was happy to visit when I was in town.
I feel sad for my cousin, who has buried a partner and two parents in a few short years. I feel sad for my surviving great-aunt, the last remaining sibling of a raucous crew. I feel sad that my family has nearly vanished.
There is no way I will be able to make it home for the wake. This is the first time I will be separated from my people as they drink to the dead.
The last time I saw Rosemary she had given up whiskey in favor of champagne. Tonight I’ll raise a glass in her honor.
One night at an Irish pub in France (not my choice of venue) I was telling Josh fractured skull stories. The rest of the table stared in consternation but the two of us laughed and laughed.
When I finished talking he grabbed my head and started rummaging around, looking for evidence. I patiently pointed out the permanent stain on my forehead, then guided his fingers to the bit at the back, hidden by my tangled hair.
I did not let him palpitate the orbital fracture under my right eye; that would have been just a shade too familiar.
It was only hours later that I realized I let someone touch my head. Without noticing, or caring, or feeling anything except the bubbling hilarity of the encounter.
Until recently I would have jerked away reflexively before the other person had a chance to so much as reach out a hand.
My aversion to touch was never theoretical; it was a residual side-effect of three separate head injuries (and more than my share of fights) that left me dealing with what can be summed up as a really bad headache for more than half of my life.
If you’ve been whacked upside the head often enough you learn to keep your skull clear of danger. The brain does not differentiate between pavement, doorframe, hand of a friend – any solid object represents risk. Simple.
The first few times I travelled to Europe this caused social problems, because I flinched away from the cheek kissing custom. I was, I am sure, spectacularly rude – particularly when Gabriel took me to visit his friends in Rome.
In fact, up until I met Iain and Xtina last year, I would have done almost anything to avoid that introductory moment, no matter how much I liked or trusted a person. I flinched the first few times they greeted me in the standard, friendly, appropriate way – and then I got over it.
How? There is no special trick.
Three years ago I visited Barcelona and experienced breathtaking views, and near-paralyzing fear, following the children as they dashed up and down the stairwells of the Sagrada Familia.
We took a gondola up a mountain to see a fortress, and I suffered from white-hot anxiety so severe I could not open my eyes – and very nearly walked back down the mountain rather than face the return ride.
That, however, is not consistent with my beliefs. I got back on the gondola and kept my eyes open.
Last autumn I rode another gondola up a mountain in Trento, Italy, leaning against the glass and staring down in wonder at the scene below – without any trace of fear.
A few weeks ago I stood at the top of St. Paul’s in London, unconcerned with either the climb up or the imminent return to the cathedral floor.
The way to face your fears is simple: face them. And when you can’t? When it hurts, when everything feels awful and impossible and you want to give up? When you fail? Just keep going. Stand up. Walk out. Stare it down.
If you can’t do any of those things? Just stay alive.
Everything will change, if you wait long enough.
Given that three-quarters of Lessons in Taxidermy was written in response to questions posed by Marisa, it is not surprising that our conversations over the last few days have inclined toward the intense.
Discussions about life, love, and work spill across breakfast, lunch, and dinner, concluding late every night when I send her off to her bed with a hot water bottle. She has an uncanny ability not only to sense what is on my mind, but also to sum up complicated issues I’ve been pondering for months.
Where writing is concerned we almost mirror each other – but she is always more succinct in describing the process.
Mostly, though, we laugh. We also read newspapers and books, lounge around, check email, listen to music, play with the boy, go for walks, work.
Normally when someone visits I feel that I haven’t done enough as a host. But Marisa isn’t a guest: she is family.
The other night my daughter was chattering with us about thirty-seven different topics at once and at some point said I have a blog for my internet junk and a paper journal for my private thoughts.
I replied I don’t put my private thoughts anywhere.
Her response was instant: Your private thoughts are boring!
Back in Portland Marisa was an important part of my daily life. We lived in the same neighborhood, shared meals all the time, and performed together; I went on tour with her band, and we’ve done solo shows.
If someone in the family needed help she was always dependably present – she even typed Byron’s thesis when his arms were injured. She is the designated executor of my will and the person who will decide where the children live if they are deprived of their parents.
Beyond the pragmatic details there is also emotion. My daughter points out, correctly, that Marisa is the only person who makes me literally jump with joy. She is beloved by the entire family and has an intense and extraordinary friendship with my son.
I do not regret moving away, but I miss my friends. The fact that Marisa flew all the way across the world to help me this week is beyond amazing. I am honored to know her and have this time together.
Yesterday we went to Ely to see the Cathedral and climbed the Octagon Tower to look at the view across the Fens. We listened to a classical orchestra rehearsing for a concert in the nave. I showed her Oliver Cromwell’s house, and the place I moor when I take the boat out, and we walked through muddy fields watching rabbits hop in the distance.
We laughed and wandered. People change – she arrived with a mobile phone and laptop, something I could never have conceived of back in Chorus days, and shocked me by using the words “bluetooth” and “youtube” correctly. I am almost not recognizable as the person she met at age twenty-eight. But the friendship is as strong as ever.
Sitting at the Cutter Inn, legs splattered with mud, we watched the sun go down and the full moon rise over the River Great Ouse, talking about the past and the future.
Later, back home again, we walked out to the Jesus Green to see the lunar eclipse. My son ran in circles around us, spinning and laughing with delight.
Marisa said Wait – I’m in Cambridge looking at the dark side of the moon – I’m totally having a classic rock moment!
This week I’ve been waking before the birds to ponder assorted tricky questions. Early morning has typically been the end of my day, not the start, but the adjustment happened naturally and mysteriously. I’m enjoying the change even if it might be temporary.
Seeing something routine in a different way is fascinating.
Right now I’m bouncing around in a state of bliss because Marisa just called from the airport – she will be here in a few hours!
I love her so much even if I never use the word often enough.
The current edition of Publishing News contains a full-page interview with me that describes the book as an unflinching, beautifully written memoir of a childhood lost to illness.
It goes on to say that in person Lavender… talks about trauma after trauma in a disconcertingly cheerful way, often punctuating her sentences with a trilling, girlish laughter. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile the happy, healthy person in front of you with the life she describes in her book.
This morning James was sorting through his archives and found a photograph he took when we lived in a narrow rickety yellow house on the edge of a forest.
My misplaced husband sent money, James cooked the meals, Byron gave me rides to the hospital. We three adults living in the house took turns watching my small daughter. I was recovering from the last miserable round of radioactive isotopes, and I was so sad.
Though I never mentioned it to anyone. Why would that be interesting?
Three of my friends are pregnant again, approximately eighteen years (mathematically half a lifetime, culturally an entire generation) after giving birth for the first time.
I’m thrilled for them – and I can’t wait to see and hold the infants they produce. Babies are remarkable small people. The three families are very different in terms of construction, but each will offer an amazing life to the children they produce.
The choice to have a child at any age is a serious proposition, requiring an amount of work that can never be anticipated. I respect and admire anyone who takes the challenge, particularly those who know exactly what it means.
When I look at my own children I am thankful that the years of primal need are over, that they are big and strong and independent. There will be no more babies in my life unless I become a grandparent.
I’m in awe of the fact that my friends are so hopeful and have so much love to offer. I send them congratulations and best wishes.