An Evening with Pam Houston

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Pam Houston was in Salt Lake last week. She gave a reading at the King’s English Bookstore to promote her new memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. My friend, Beth, attended one of Pam’s writing workshops and had a great experience. Apparently Pam is attentive and supportive and really liked Beth’s work (which isn’t a surprise; Beth’s work is beautiful.) I’ve never read any of her work, however, so when Beth called and asked if I would be her date for the reading I jumped at the chance to add a new writer to the mix.

Pam is a shy speaker, but very authentic and down to earth. She joked about her friendship with Cheryl Strayed (one of my favorite writers) and how they thought this memoir was, in some ways, fit as a life’s journey follow-up to Wild. She said they even had a laugh about calling it Tame.

I wrote down a few quotes I liked. This one reminded me of my own journey.

“Turning 40, for me, was permission not to have children. 50 was permission for everything else.”

Then she said something about the different between writing memoir and fiction, and I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind ever since.

“The action of fiction is very vertical. Memoir is like a creek: horizontal. And the meaning comes from the saturation. Sometimes you have to sit and stare at it long enough, and then good things will happen.”

I love this so much and I am not going to pretend for one moment that I understand what she meant. As I have thought it over I have made my own sense of it using pottery as a metaphor.  I picture that with fiction, it is like having a slab of clay pre-cut from the earth and placed at my waist level for me to shape to my will. I can add and remove as I build it up, letting my imagination devise what might happen next, and shifting the shape between my hands until I am happy with it.

Memoir is the clay that is still in the ground, on the banks of the creek. And I have to get down on the ground and dig for what is there, collecting it piece by piece.  It is not an exercise of imagination, but of excavation. I have often found with memoir that I am writing something that I thought was in the past, only to discover that the events are ongoing. That is the saturation process. You must to sit and watch the creek as it seeps into the earth, making more clay. And it will make its own progress in its own good time. After all, you can’t write a memoir if you haven’t finished living the story, yet.

Which is not to say that fiction is easy and memoir is hard. They are both hard to do well, in my experience. But I agree with Pam, that it feels like a different process.

The reading was wonderful.  Pam’s writing is stark and furrowed, like the weather-warn mountains that are the background of her story. She lays bare, with gritty detail, a story of abuse and neglect at the hands of her alcoholic mother. I was sucked in immediately and stayed captivated by the way Houston discloses her story, without excuse or apology, seeking a truth, but asking nothing of the reader but to witness. The thought of giving pity to the narrator or her mother never crossed my mind. It simply wasn’t the point.

After the reading we waited in line to get our books signed. Pam immediately recognized Beth and asked about the progress on her manuscript. I could tell Beth was flattered to be remembered and I was thrilled for her. I had just met this woman and had yet to read one of her books, but nonetheless, I found myself star-struck.

I’m finishing up I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays by Sloane Crosley right now (which is awesome and so funny!), but I’ve added Deep Creek to the “next to read” stack by my bed. I can’t wait to dive in an witness more of Pam’s saturation process.

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Netflix & Chill

This is a prescription that my chiropractor wrote.  It says, “Ice 20 on 20 off / Netflix.”

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If you are a chiropractor and you wonder why people refuse to think of you as a real doctor, this might be something to bring up at the next convention.

Yes, I threw out my back early in the week. I was dusting and straightening my nightstand when I picked up… wait for it… a tube of lip balm. BAM! Pain, starting from my lower spine, shot down my left leg and I was stuck in place unable to move. Obviously I did manage to get in to get my back cracked and I’m doing better today. But I woke up this morning with a bad head cold, and I’m wishing I hadn’t just gone back to work after leaving the chiropractors office.  I should have taken the Netflix advice. Sometimes, your body wants you to slow down and chill out. You can ignore it, but then it will remind you who is really in charge.

BTW I do know that this is not what the “chill” in “Netflix and chill” means.  I’m old (as evidenced by the damage a one ounce object can do to my spine), but I watch TV.

The funny thing is, this would have been great news a few weeks ago. I was furiously trying to finish the throw that I was making for my baby sister’s (gasp) fortieth birthday, and I was behind. Where were you when I needed you, sciatica?! We could have done Knitflex for a week and I would have made my deadline! But, as it happens, I got the package in the mail the day before my lip balm related baccident. Here are a few photos of how it turned out.

I was trying to do *artful staging,* something I realized successful bloggers do at the conference I attended two weeks ago. I put the throw on this chair and took several pictures, trying to figure out what was missing.

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Then Wensley hopped up there because apparently if you are in this chair you get my attention, and I realized what was missing.  Cuteness!

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This is a free pattern from Lion Brand called “Lovers Knot.”  I’ve made it a few times.  It is complex but fun. I especially like the XOXO cable. I didn’t use Lion Brand wool, however. I have developed this addiction to Malabrigo yarn; I can’t work with anything else these days.  It’s pricey, but I don’t care. I’m not going to spend 80 hours of my life on something and use cheapo shit yarn. No way. I’ll eat in August, it will be fine.

Here is the a little more information on the specific weight (Rastita) and color (Solis). It just happens to match the book I am reading perfectly.  Also, I added my mala beads because I do *artful staging* now.

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When I got up this morning and realized I had a cold, one of my first thoughts was, “but I just finished a project and I haven’t started another one, yet!”

My very first thought was a question. “You know that statistic that says the average American gets six colds a year? I used to think that was high, but now I know it is because when you have a child living with you, you get twenty colds a year and spend the rest of your life evening out your average.”

So I got up and went shopping for orange juice and yarn, but I didn’t design this planet so I had to go to two stores. The amazing thing is that I went to see my crack dealer… er… local yarn store (Blazing Needles), and only bought yarn for a new project!  That is a first! Except for that time I went in, saw several things I wanted, only bought the yarn I needed for a baby blanket, then rewarded myself by going back the next day and buying the other things. I’m telling you: yarn is crack.

Here is my idea for my new project. I’m going to start a basic hat – brim first with an entrelac cable pattern – but then (here’s the crazy part), instead of reducing I just keep going until it is the length of a scarf, and then add a second brim / edge. So the scarf is like a long tube with no “wrong side.” Plus it would be doubly cozy, right? Is this crazy? I’m going to try it; the crazy will out itself in due time. I will have to post pictures, especially if it goes all sorts of wrong. Those are the best projects, at least when they happen to someone else, who is everyone but me in this case. And I am happy to share.

Here is what I picked out. It’s three more skeins of the Malabrigo (of course). The weight is Mechita and the color is Impressionist Sky. Blazing Needles always winds your yarn and wraps it up like a gift. Or like illicit drugs… it’s just occurring to me.

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And here is the artfully staged photo of my new blue yarn… But keep in mind, I’m new at this and I’ve taken a lot of Day Quill.

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I’ll keep working on it.

An Update on Frog

Last year, I wrote about my nephew, who we call Frog. He was born early, at just 25 weeks, weighing about 2 pounds. I had just come back from meeting him and was feeling assured by his fighting spirit.

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I’m happy to report, a little over a year later, he is home and thriving. He had is first birthday over the holidays, when he was still wearing 9 month old clothes, but he’s happy and goofy and a delight to be around.

My sister just sent me this photo of him playing with the felt activity book I made for him last Christmas. Apparently he is a big fan of the red shiny buttons. Can’t say that I blame him; they are mesmerizing.

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I don’t know if activity books (I’ve also heard them called “busy books” or “quiet books”) are a thing everywhere.  When I was growing up, it was something you gave a baby to keep them occupied during long church meetings. I had kind of forgotten about them until I was looking for a good DIY present for Frog and Matt’s nephew (who also turned one over the holidays) last fall. I purchased the pattern on Etsy from LindyJDesign. I thought, “Oh… that will kill a cold autumn weekend or two.” But I’m not great with the sewing machine and making the books turned into a part time job for a couple of weeks.

Don’t let that deter you, however. It was a lot of fun. Here are a few more photos of some of the pages:

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And as long as I’m doing a humble-brag post about my Auntie craft projects, here is another recent photo of Frog wearing a hat I made many years ago for his older brother. This pattern is by Mamachee and can be found here (what would I do without Etsy?). I don’t know how much he weighs now, but look at those gloriously chubby pink cheeks! I know I said I made the hat for his brother, but it really suits our Froggie.  He’s a warrior, for sure.

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Bad Trip

Not that long ago, I often traveled for work. This was when I was single and lived alone. Traveling for work became routine after a while. I would even say I got to the point where I enjoyed traveling solo. I remember one conference in particular. It was in San Diego and I didn’t know anyone at the conference or in the city, but I explored and found fun things to do. I even blew off the “networking” session of the conference because I saw a sandwich board advertising, “One Night Only: John Cleese Live!” It was a great choice; he was hilarious! I just wish I would have bought one of the t-shirts that read, “I saw John Cleese perform RIGHT before he DIED!” (This was in 2008, by the way. He is still alive.)

This was also the trip where I accidentally ordered veal because I thought “scallopini” meant “little scallops.” I felt terrible once I realized what I had done, but it wasn’t like I could give the little guy CPR once it was on the plate. So I ate it. (And goddamn it was delicious.) Then there was the supposedly haunted restaurant in Old Town with the margaritas the size of bird baths. Well, the first one is a bird bath. The second one threatens to become a facial. But I wasn’t driving, and I was without a companion to judge me, so I enjoyed both, completely.

As I said, this was 2008, over ten years ago. Many things have changed. I’m in a relationship. I have a stepson.  I had Wensley in 2008, but now he is an older dog with some health issues. (He will be fourteen years old this month.) That’s a lot of comfort and responsibility to leave behind, especially when I haven’t traveled on my own in years. It didn’t actually occur to me that I hadn’t exercised those muscles and therefore had lost all the tone until I went to Austin by myself last weekend.

I made a New Year’s goal to do more with my blog and I searched for learning opportunities. I found an online community of blogging women with a conference coming up in Texas and I bought tickets and booked a flight. I was anxious about the trip, but I have acute anxiety. I am anxious about everything.

The morning of the flight, Ethan (who is six) told me he was worried that I might get lonely on my trip and asked if I would like to take one of his soft friends (his word for stuffed animals) with me. It was such a sweet gesture and it touched me. I even took out an extra top to make space for the soft friend he selected, which was a black bear featuring a radio collar because it was purchased at a national park where bears are tagged and studied.

As soon as I buckled in for the flight, my anxiety went to work. “Why are you doing this?” It asked. “Can you even afford it? What if something happens to your extremely old dog while you are gone and you aren’t there to comfort him?” Tears welled up behind my eyes. I fought them back, but they pretty much stayed right there for the rest of the weekend.

I want to be completely clear: the conference was great and the ladies I met were lovely. I might even go again next year. That said, it was a hard experience for me. From the moment I entered the first event (a cocktail party on Friday evening), women were reaching out to me to help me feel welcome. Obviously they picked up my introvert vibe and reacted by inviting me into their conversations, metaphorically putting an arm around my shoulders and saying, “You’re good; We got you!” But I was not prepared for what a room full of female Texas bloggers (who refer to themselves as “influencers” and “momtrepreneurs” would be like.

These women are poised and glamourous. They are fit and fashionable, and they wear lipstick and high heels on Saturdays. Where I come from, Saturdays are for skiing, or biking, or hiking (depending on the weather). There are definitely no high heels. There may be tinted chapstick, but it has to be SPF 15 or higher.

They sell their makeup and outfits and home décor ideas on their feeds and they make serious money doing it. They have class and style and they will help you have it, too. All you have to do is click and add to cart. And that is exactly what thousands of people on Instagram do, every day. You have to see the photos of their picture perfect lives to understand it. I felt like a fraud sitting with them and taking notes on what makes the perfect Pinterest board.

I know what you are thinking. “Oh, Rachel, we all feel that way! I’m sure half of them thought you were the one that had it together! It’s just a bad case of imposter syndrome, that’s all!” No. Wrong. I can prove it. Here is a photo I found on the photographer’s site (@mandiroachphotography) in a collection of pics from the event.

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In case I have to explain, I’m the one in the center dealing with, I don’t know, an entire chicken wing or similar stuck in my back teeth. If you could zoom out you would see one hundred more women just like the ones surrounding me here. Lovely, lovely, stinkin’ lovely. Not one giving themselves dental work.

Feeling out of place just made me feel even more homesick. And then, the last day of the conference, I made the mistake of checking my email and discovering that the coverage I had set up for my day off to go to the conference hadn’t been adequate. I realized that I was in some trouble with my boss and that sent me into minor crisis mode. I felt like the whole trip had been a mistake. This was just before the smaller focus group session where we discussed questions and takeaways. I had been conspicuously quiet, so the group leader asked me to share my thoughts.

“I’m totally overwhelmed,” I blubbered, the tears that I had been holding back breaking forth in a torrent and hitting the floor. “I don’t even know what an ‘instagram story’ is!”

Again, the lovely ladies enveloped me and told me I was okay. They reminded me I just needed to get one actionable thing out of the conference and hold on to that. And someone else told me something that did stick with me. It isn’t about followers, it is about authenticity. What is your “why?” That is, why do you blog? What are you bringing to this space?

So I went to the loo and washed my face. Then I went back to the table and sat down with my notebook to draft a mission statement. I didn’t figure out exactly what it was, but I realized that I do have a “why” (aside from needing a place to write and hoping someone who likes my sense of humor will read it). I want to live an examined life. Writing helps me do that examining. My hope is that sharing what I unearth will help others, too.

Whew! I got my one thing, just before the conference ended! But then it was over, and all the ladies headed off for home. I, however, headed back to my hotel. I wasn’t able to find a non-red-eye flight, and my red-eye days are behind me.

Or so I said when I bought my tickets. My hotel had a spa and a gym, surely I would be able to find something to do that last evening before catching a reasonable morning flight, right? But then I was in the hotel with sixteen hours to kill, completely stressed out about work and needing a cuddle from each of my boys, human and canine alike. As good as it would have been for me, I wasn’t going to go to the gym.

I went down to the hotel bar and started texting a friend to ask her how she got 10k Instagram followers, but we ended up talking about the conference instead. The tears came back and I couldn’t make them stop, not even when my amazing mac and cheese with brisket tips arrived. My poor waitress probably thought my best friend died. I snapped a tearful selfie and sent it to my friend, but I’m sharing it here also in the spirit of authenticity.

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And the mac and cheese… (that’s cornbread and bacon butter in the background)

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Throughout the trip, I kept an eye out for good spots to pose Black Bear so that I could send photos home to Ethan. I looked through them back in my hotel room and realized that, based on the photos, the bear was on the trip that I hoped to have. It seemed significant and apropos of the conference and the idea of sharing an authentic experience, versus and idea of perfection. I can’t do what those other ladies do. I am not here to tell you how to have the perfect vacation because I don’t know how to do that. I’m here to tell stories about why I spent last Sunday ugly crying in public places. I’m here to talk about how living with acute anxiety is hard. I have learned that it is possible to live a full life with anxiety, but you have to work at it. It won’t always go according to plan, and sometimes you have to force yourself to get out and do it. Luckily, there are also stuffed bears to cuddle while waiting for planes, and there is love and kindness waiting to reassure us on both ends of the trip.

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Insight

I’m at a conference in Austin for the weekend. Yesterday, I got back to my room to discover that the caps for my contact tray were no where to be found. I can only assume the maid thought they were trash? Bottle caps, maybe? My fault for leaving them on the counter, like I do at home?

Anyway, they were gone. Rather than sleep in my contacts for the next three nights I MacGyvered a solution, using the baggie I packed for my unchecked liquids.

I used to think that traveling for work sounded so glamorous. Then you do it… and you face the consequences of dry contacts (or blindness) and your dog is too far away to cuddle.

I’m going home in the morning. The sun can’t rise soon enough.