Tag Archives: flash nonfiction

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Project Whimsy Part I

I’m a project-oriented person. Life isn’t about philosophy, religion, politics, economy–unless those subjects are related to the current project. In fact, you’ll be enlightened to know that this blog post is simply one of my smaller, nested projects in a day of projects. At a certain point, though, life isn’t about small, nested projects. It’s about a larger, overarching project that tastes like rain on my tongue. I can’t exactly describe it to you because I don’t know what it is. Until I know, I replace it with large projects such as earning degrees or writing books that satisfy my need for projects, albeit not entirely.

As that one ultimate project eludes me, my farce at filling in the gaps fails me at times, and I become scattered, not certain where to focus my attention. Nothing matters, you see. Everything is meaningless except that elusive distant project I can’t put my finger on. This is when it’s necessary to take on what I like to call Project Whimsy. Life is absurd. Humans are absurd. Nobody makes sense. Human vision is covered by a web of irrationalities that most of us pretend to be able to penetrate. Not surprisingly, those who suppress their emotions are the least aware of how irrational they are. They don’t understand that suppressing emotions or being, as pop/pseudo science would call it, left-brained doesn’t always correlate to being rational. Men are famous for putting on this pretense, but women will also wear it and pretend their post-enlightenment dresses aren’t shaped in that draping way that Mr. Darcy finds attractive (Mr. Darcy being a prime example of an unemotional male who pretends to be rational).

Project Whimsy isn’t a project with a plan, so much as it is The Plan to Ditch All Plans. In my childhood years, my elder sister Jenny often left me out of her plans (as one would expect), but when we were young adults, we swung full force into Project Whimsy–at my insistence. Most of the time, I had to drag her into my attempts at spontaneity, which were carefully planned out. That may sound paradoxical to you, and, well, I don’t have an excuse. I had notions of what it meant to be whimsical, and I needed to fulfill them. Coffee, as a notion, was a prime whimsical beverage. In my head, I knew what a whimsical coffeehouse looked like: it was down a country back road, had windows adorned by checked curtains in red or blue, and if I peered through the gaps in the curtains, I would spy pies that were so sloppily homey their heaping pie tins would be barely covered by slipping crusts.

I had seen a cafe such as this along Highway 26 from McMinnville to Seaside, and I had determined that Jenny and I would go there together when she deigned to visit me at Linfield College. We would be whimsical. We would have to rely on whimsy because neither of us owned vehicles, and the buses didn’t run in that direction. And so, in the settled heat of a summer evening–the kind of resonant heat that resembles deep dish pie–we set about to walk several miles in hopes we would find pie and coffee and maybe other delicacies, such as sandwiches filled with thick slices of meat. I had no idea what was on the actual menu, aside from the sloppy pies I’d glimpsed one time through the window. But that was part of the fun–the finding out how terrible or lovely a cafe with checked window curtains is.

As we passed the rolling hills of Oregon’s wine country, we sang our favorite songs. We could feign a carefree spirit even if neither of us actually possessed it. My sister does to some extent–as in, she chooses to remain positive–but she also has a strong sense of responsibility that prevents her from being too adventurous. Together, I suspect we’re a sorry crew, but we did manage to entertain ourselves by skipping and dancing up the highway for mile upon mile, until we were utterly exhausted–at which point, we stumbled across the cafe with its empty parking lot. When I say empty, I mean dismally empty. I mean that a state of emptiness hung over the dark ramshackle building that, in my imagination, was bustling with a clatter of coffee cups and the fragrance of blueberries baked in crust. It wasn’t simply closed. The cafe had been closed for quite some time. The windows were dark, and a newspaper article about their closing, dated two months back, was taped so that it was visible in the gap of the checked curtains.

We mulled over our options. It was now almost completely dark. We couldn’t go forward; walking farther away from McMinnville along the highway would be devastating once we had to trudge back. There was only one answer, and that was to turn around with our stomachs empty and hope our strength held out until we arrived back at the Linfield campus, where I might have had a can of tuna in my room. Thankfully, after we navigated a third of the miles, a couple in an Oldsmobile offered us a ride. They dropped us at the Shari’s Diner in McMinnville, where we drank acrid coffee by the side of bland sandwiches and onion rings, all of which tasted like heaven when pitted against the gnawing hunger ever-present in skinny girls who have walked for miles in the shade of summer trees.

That particular Project Whimsy didn’t work out as I had planned, and that’s exactly why I hate spontaneity. Of course, my husband, who is truly spontaneous, accepts that spontaneity will never meet planned expectations. That’s kind of the point. I suspect, even after all these years, I have a lot to learn about projects, projections, and whimsy. In any case, I’m half crazy today because this nested blog post project doesn’t at all resemble the ultimate project, the one that still waits for description like the taste of rain.


I May Be Stupid, But I’m Not Clever

You can’t fool me. The sky is a bowl above me, the earth dry and broken. I sense the world on fingertips, eyes closed, the wind around my index. I touch the sides–I feel them. You can’t tell me the rain has disappeared. It’s outside this globe of sun.

I used to live outside, where the rain beat without end. I used to live at the edge of the sea, where grey water surged and white-edged waves cut into bare skin and rain shot stinging sand against fleeting foot. I lived there, where men dug in and fell under the weight of rain and couldn’t prevent the vines from easing through their open mouths, any more than they could prevent the rain.

They gave this inside place a name, as if that would help: New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. And for many years, we were enchanted–or at least, I was. I gave up my senses to it and felt the heat and heard the cicadas whine at midday, the exact pitch of heat. And I explored the meaning of light that entered through the retinas and penetrated the mind. With the excess of luminosity, the neurotransmitters produced an abundance of serotonin, and my gut moved, and my memory improved. I could remember the names this place threw at me. I could remember more than I wanted to.

I recalled the rain, and I cut off access of sun to my senses, except to my fingertips, where I felt for the truth. The wind obscured the effect. But it was there. I was–am trapped in a sun globe, and I can’t see a way out. Such a dry truth is difficult to swallow.

Some say we’re fish trapped in a bowl of water, floating without reason and staring at the waving photons that break the surface. We, the fish, see the photons as stars–but when I say we, I don’t include myself in that number. I see one star–the sun of this globe called New Mexico. And it’s as dry as shriveled cholla arms in here. The photons light the dust, and the dust waves around us, and the senses call it water, but the senses are often wrong, and this desert is dry.

I’m an alien. I’m a fish gasping in a place without water, and I’m pretending it isn’t so. I’m pretending because I can name things, as I’ve said. I can remember the names that call this place home: family, husband, children, degree, summa cum laude. With highest praise, I call them.

You can’t fool me. I’ve seen it, or I’ve read it in a book, but it’s all true. In that place, the globes were broken. The globes of sanctuary that captured the sun–the rain smashed them. And the rain will smash this one and prove that I’m an alien in this place, and that I belong to the rain.

And then I remember something so primal that it frightens me. I was an alien in that outside world, as well. That was a place with a name, too–Oregon–a place with big ears to detect the sound of rain versus sea, and to detect the sound of outsiders in their midst. And I was that. And so I suspect I don’t belong to the rain, either.

I don’t want to be trapped any longer. But I need a place to call home. Do I have to float, belly up on the air, in order to go home? Do I?

I call this love, that faith because those are the only names that matter any longer. I call this globe home. But I’m no fool. I know what this isn’t.

I may be stupid, but neither am I clever.


The Devil’s in the Details

Most of us are lost in Plato’s Cave, though some of us are more firmly shackled there, and those who refuse to turn to the right or the left care only for watching the passing shadows on the walls. The shadows give us enough “substance” to discuss, argue, predict, and expound our great understanding of what we refuse to know.

I’m in Plato’s Cave. I’m not shackled there, except by my own self-limiting thought processes. I’m shackled by my own need to understand what I can’t see from my perspective. I woke here, on this damp earth–I woke facing red flesh, and my face is still planted there. I scrape at the flesh with a sharp rock. I peel off a pale green substance and hold it in my palms and sniff at it. I dig around the perimeter of the red-fleshed beast–I dig, and I search. I listen, I smell, I taste. I feel the soft dampness, feel the prickles that dig into my skin, feel the dampness in the space around me.

I’m confused. I’ve used my five senses, and I can’t figure this out, any of it. I can’t determine a name, an understanding. I can only chart my observations. I can chart them for the benefit of future understanding.

And just as I begin this lengthy process, in which I gather my wits and the materials around me and begin scratching out my data, I hear an irritated voice speak to me: “Are you still there?” the voice asks. “Are you still in the same place you were when you were born?”

I force my body around, even though it’s both painful and difficult. I look at the man who towers above me. “As soon as I figure this out, I’ll move,” I tell him. Without constant interruptions, such as his own, I might have finished years ago. There are interruptions, too many–they sway above, patter below, shriek circles around my head.

“It’s a tree,” the man says. “It’s a cedar. Look around you. You’re in a forest, and you’re missing it because all you can see is the bark of one tree.”

I’m a little irritated by his need to explain this to me–typical man. I could have figured it out on my own, eventually. But I rise, anyway, and admit that not only am I in a forest, but I’m in a forest with an entire eco-system at its floor. Beyond that, the ocean stretches with its own systems, and to the south, the sand hills stretch with worlds within worlds. Soon, I’m lost in these worlds, and when the man finds me again–he does, every once in a while–he shakes his head at me. I might as well have remained at the base of the cedar because I don’t get it, and I never will.

If I were to create myself as an archetype, I would be the researcher. Sadly, the researcher is a lost soul–not the hero, no, never the hero. The hero deigns to visit the researcher and discover certain facts important to his heroic mission, and then leaves the researcher in his cave, in his darkness, in his web of cryptic knowledge that can’t fit itself into a larger picture, at least not in the researcher’s mind. Meanwhile, the hero uses his instincts to save mankind, and nobody cares that the researcher translated the archaic language on the ancient map that leads the hero out of the cave.

At this point, I’m not about to change my archetype. In fact, I don’t think it’s a possibility. But I’m ready to circumvent the labyrinth. I’m ready to stop wasting my time planning, thinking, reading and researching in order to, at some point in the distant future, begin.

How have I come to this? Recently, I read Tolkien’s biography, and his method of writing was so eerily familiar to my own that it made me physically ill. He researched. He wrote. He edited. He edited again and again and again and conducted more research. I don’t want to edit and re-edit and research and dig deeper. I don’t want my magnum opus, whatever that may be, to remain incomplete at my death because I couldn’t wade out of the details. I don’t want the process to replace the work, and I’m firmly convinced that, to Tolkien, the process of creating legend was more important than any completed work of literature.

I need my story to have an ending. No longer ask me how far in I want to go, because I don’t want to go in. I want out. Some of us, deep inside, are asleep, and others are awake and studying shadows on the wall, convinced the shadows are truth. And others have left the cave. I want that to be my story, my end.


Cracking the Life Code

For as long as I can remember, I’ve viewed life as a series of codes that must be cracked. Relationships, school, physical activities such as competitive sports–I was barred from these life situation by mysterious codes that others seemed to possess. Why did I, of all people, not have access to the necessary cryptic information? Would I never enter into the secret fellowship of humanity?

In my immaturity, I viewed any success as a cracking of the life code, an entering into the world that others inhabited. I have a very early memory of this: I don’t think I attended preschool, but I visited a preschool for, perhaps, one day. Despite my inability to connect with others, two girls fought to sit next to me during circle time. I solved this problem by explaining to them that they could sit on either side of me. I was elated by this. I thought I had finally cracked the code. I would thus be able to exist as others did. Later, not surprisingly, I discovered I was mistaken. I filed the experience away for further meditation, but as with other minor and inexplicable successes, it never made sense.

The only way to be as others, I discovered, was to mimic them–mimic their behavior or dress or pretend to be in rapture over their flavor of music, even if it left me cold. But this method only worked through junior high, and it didn’t actually work if you want to get right down to it. By the time I was sixteen, I had been smacked over the head so many times and called stupid so many times that I knew my mimicry was a pale imitation of what it meant to be a human, or more precisely, a teenage girl.

Fast forward to adulthood, and I’m desperately attempting to crack the code of being a wife, a mother, and a success in the world. And because my success as a human came to revolve around writing, it was clear from my general lack of acknowledgements that I would never crack that code. Don’t misunderstand me–when I won a short story contest in my twenties, I thought I had finally cracked the code, but it became painfully obvious that I had only cracked the code for that moment, with that story, and with one judge due to the poor quality of the other entries.

I’ve experienced other moments of elation–other moments when the universe coalesced into illusive veils of success–moments in which I could convince myself that I belong to the same human race as others–that I belong, and that I deserve the answers to the codes that have barred me for decades.

I bring this up for an important reason, and not merely because I need to give voice to my thoughts. Recently, I felt I cracked an important code. I cracked the code of the book I was working on–where to begin, where to end. And as with all past experiences with my code-cracking abilities, I believed in that moment that I had finally cracked the code to life.

But I haven’t, have I? Do you want to know why? There is no code–that’s the horrifying truth. I will never find the answer that will allow me entrance into the secret society of human beings. There isn’t a handshake. There isn’t a secret numerical list, a selection of words that rents the curtain.

The truth is horrifying, but it’s equally liberating. I no longer need to find the answers that will make me human. I’m already that. I’m weak. I’m broken, and God has reached me through my weaknesses. His veil was rent, not simply for those around me, but for me. Do I need more proof than that?

Do you feel as unsettled as I do? Do you feel uneasy with my answer? God has reached me, but if there’s no code to be broken, no answer to be found, then the problem with humanity was always in my head. And that leaves the problem squarely with me, with a version of me so little, so young that the answer is incomprehensible–no code, no answer, no fix.

Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be, after all.


Los Espacios–What Rises From the Music of the Heart

Me he creado un espacio para mí misma, y es mi propio espacio.  Vea – no tengo ni origenes ni raíces.  Me siento como si fuera perdida en la marea.  Mi mente es mi espacio. Es mi único lugar.

Accordion music is the grandest of inspirations for me, and I wish others could understand why.  It’s a versatile instrument that can simultaneously breathe happiness and sadness.  How can it evoke both emotions at once?  I believe it’s in the depth of sound that a wind instrument produces, a wind instrument that’s capable of depth because of its size, and the manner in which it’s played.  The Columbia encyclopedia gives this description of an accordion: “musical instrument consisting of a rectangular bellows expanded and contracted between the hands. Buttons or keys operated by the player open valves, allowing air to enter or to escape. The air sets in motion free reeds, frequently made of metal. The length, density, shape, and elasticity of the reeds determine the pitch. The first accordions were made in 1822 by Friedrich Buschmann in Berlin. Bouton added a keyboard 30 years later in Paris, thus producing a piano accordion. The accordion is frequently used in folk music.”

This begins to get at the heart – or the lungs to be more exact – of the accordion.  “The air sets in motion free reeds,” says Columbia, and this is mainly responsible for the unique sound that gives me insane rushes of joy, feelings of wistfulness, and nagging sorrow.  Also, as this encyclopedia points out, accordions are frequently used in folk music.  This is entirely because of its diversity in sound.  The accordion can take the place of an entire band – one musician is less costly than four or five.  And, after being established as a sound that encompasses the existence of regular people, it can never be removed from its place there.  It will always appeal to peculiar elements of North American society – in Louisiana, in Scottish Canada, in little pockets of Czech and German settlements, and in Spanish-German Texas and Mexico.  In the latter, the Norteño and Tejano, I discover my favorite use of the accordion.

My obsession for the accordion has led me to write insanely long research papers on Tejano music, to run away to Mexico for little trips, and to waste all my money in order to take my family to San Antonio for vacations.

And here is a lasting image of an accordion in my mind: The San Antonio river walk was strung with lights in November, lights that waved and rippled in the water.  The air was muggy, warm with little breezes that moved the palm leaves.  Along the walk, hundreds of people sat in the patios of restaurants, eating food and drinking beer and coffee.  Down the river, guides drove quiet tourist barges full of weekend people.  I had come to San Antonio to experience the culture of ‘Texas,’ which includes the Alamo and many types of people, but that also largely includes Texas and Spanish settlements.  For example, one night, we ate in a mom-and-pop German restaurant and listened to polka music, and the next, we ate in an over-priced Mexican restaurant along the river walk.  

But I’ll return to my image: We took a ride on a river boat, and the evening was just chilly enough to be pleasant, yet held warmth in its core.  We listened to the guide and learned that Jennifer Lopez stood on that bridge in the filming of the movie “Selena,” which is (as you know) about a Tejana superstar who popularized the Cumbia within the traditional Tejano conjunto.  

A fine white mist rose from the water and appeared as billows under the lamps.  After living in the harsh desert southwest for several years, the beauty and gentleness of San Antonio mesmerized me.  I looked out, and the people drifted as misty to my eyes as the fog did. I was overwrought from night after night without sleep.  My mind was numb.

And then I saw the true ghosts, a band of men who emerged from the fog as specters might have risen from a moor.  They were under a bridge – three men – one with a bajo sexto, another with a single drum, and a third that filled the air with the breath of the accordion.   It was one pure moment of magic – and gone, like that!  We drifted past, and I had fleeting thoughts of jumping from the boat and swimming to shore so I could listen for a few minutes more, and also to make sure they were real, but I didn’t, even though I knew the water was only a few feet deep.

That was that, a complex beginning and ending a la vez.  I can listen to accordion music anytime on my radio, play the CD’s of my favorite bands.  Still, though, there are things that are unattainable to me, so far out my reach.  I think of a song by one of my favorite accordion players, Ricardo Muñoz; I can hear his deep, melodious voice in my head singing, “Eres aire que da vida, y mi alma te respira; eres aire que me alienta, una brisa que alimenta.”  That’s what I have to sing to el acordeonísta: you are the air that gives me life, and my soul breathes you; you are the air that encourages me, a breeze that feeds me.