“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people
wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I drive the same way home every day. When I emerge from a bend on the freeway, circling on I-280 South past Page Mill, I see a breathtaking view ahead of me. On my left there are the domes of three hills, lush with small blades of grass today, a forlorn deeper green tomorrow, turning brown and patchy another day. On my right there is a towering house hidden behind trees. On an afternoon that blooms as an afterthought to rain, clear and clean, tufts of cottony clouds seem to be hovering above this house. On stormy days, the trees are swaying in front of the topmost tower's topmost windows. In winter, thickets of fog seem to leech on to the ocher exterior of the house and the naked tree limbs. In summer, the house looks bright, the trees full and fat, the sky glitters in the background. It's the same road, the same house, the same age-old trees, but they look different every day. As I merge on to the freeway, I wonder how the house past the bend in the road will look like and how it will make me feel, because it does evoke something different in me every time I see it. These feelings are colored by the successes and set-backs of the day, tinged by the bitterness of failure sometimes, flavored by the aftertaste of disappointment. Sometimes, I am able to find absolute beauty when I look at this house in the heart of the hills, because I bring my happiness with me. It may look like it is crumbling in a winter storm and I may still find it to be a metaphor for resilience, because despite the stony rain and the whipping winds, it stands like it always has, sand-colored with red trimmings around the window glass, peeking through the shivering trees. I find a new story during my drive home this way, and the image of the house makes me bookmark them.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
There are so many stories I haven't told. Messy stories. Stories of fear and heartbreak and failure and disillusionment and strength and grit and joy. I don't even know where to begin to tell them. It's odd that I feel so full of these stories, but at the same time, I am so distant from writing one down on paper. To talk about just one, I want to shape a poem around an afternoon during my childhood that taught me a hard and menacing lesson about this world. I want to transport myself to that nine-year-old's body with the two pigtails and the new frock, the hammering heart, the small feet running past the iron gates, into the heart of the house, the trembling hands not knowing what to hold on to, the trimmed fingernails finding a sagging wax candle on a pillar near the stairs, scratching it, clawing at it, breaking it down. The mother looking at that nine-year-old girl curiously, pausing on her way downstairs, "What's wrong?" "Nothing," a croak from the child's parched throat, and all the while her soft nails cracking while shredding the candle to pieces.
How much does a writer choose not to tell in her story? How much should she tell? Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, suggests telling everything, but she also doesn't pretend that it is easy to do so. I can see how telling some stories that I have chosen not to share yet will be therapeutic, but I am afraid of the walls that I will run into over and over. I have built concrete mazes around these stories over the course of many years. How do I start breaking them down, how do I start peeling away the paint that is supposed to hide the ugliness of truth? How do I make myself remember...
Every day, when I come upon that house on the freeway, it makes its way into my story for that day. I package it into memory and put it away. I imagine different people living in it, caring for it, I embellish it in my mind, and sometimes I deface it. Today, having decided to write about the house and about the fear of sharing the other more sinister stories, I kept my eye trained on the hills, but I couldn't find it. One bend after another I searched the landscape, but I could not locate that house or the mounds across from it. I must have simply missed it as I was trying to merge with the oncoming traffic. However, this meant that I had to reach into the recesses of my memory and dig out the images I had filed away, unconsciously, for many days. I closed my eyes and I saw that house again when I began to write this post. I saw it as I had seen it on those wintry days, on rainy evenings, during high summer. I saw it and I wrote about it from memory. I must reach back to that nine-year-old girl. I must touch her bleeding fingers. I must hold her and tell her, It's alright. I can't make her say to her bemused mother, "I am so scared," but I can convince her to breathe, to close her eyes, to remember. I can look into her terrified face and say, Let me tell our story, and then somehow muster the courage to live up to this promise.
Photos by Rebecca McCue
Perhaps I should wish in writing more often - it has been raining all day. It started as a drizzle in the small hours, I imagine. When I left for work, it was falling at a steady, gentle pace, like one's speed when one is taking a stroll. Coming back from work, it had become more like a brisk walk. Right now, the rain is how I love it most - I just heard the distant rumble of thunder and the vent pipes clanging loudly in the chimney because of the wind. It finally feels like winter now.
I know a lot of people don't like this weather - it confines you. But that's what I love about it. I have always associated it with happiness. It feels like a celebration. I take it as explicit permission to do my favorite things. Today, I read some poetry, wrote a poem, watched The Lion King and a chick-flick that will remain unnamed, spent a lot of quality (cuddle) time with the baby, and did some cleaning and organizing. I know this spurt of activity was not because of the rain, but I also know that I am happier because of it, which is in fact conducive to productivity - at least for me.
I probably shouldn't admit this, but just because I am thinking I shouldn't makes me feel like this story is worth telling, so here goes - I also associate rain with romance. I know, I know, Bollywood left a deep hypnotic mark on me when I was a child, all those musicals with women in beautiful sarees dancing in the rain like there's nothing in the world better than that while their brooding beaus stood awkwardly beside them, seemed to my impressionable mind the epitome of romance. But it's more than that. In Pakistan, when the summer monsoons came, my sisters and I would play on the rooftop, get soaked to the bone, and hurry downstairs to be toweled off and admonished by our mother. We often had relatives staying with us and someone would invariably suggest we go to the market to buy samosas. But the roads would be flooded with water reaching up to our knees or even higher. So, we would resort to scavenging ingredients from the pantry and the fridge and somehow manage to make a helping of breaded fries or potato fritters or chana chaat or even goll gappay. Sometimes, if my father had an outdoor assignment, it would get postponed because of the weather and we would sit together in his room watching movies all day as he wrote, or he would decide to cook something for us and two hours later, the kitchen would be in disarray, spice jars scattered, pots and pans lining the floor, my mother just standing back, enjoying herself, enjoying him at the helm of the stove. How did it not drive her crazy, I wonder. How could she stand him poking around in her kitchen like that? That says something about me, doesn't it - the way I say her kitchen. The rain used to give us an excuse to bond as a family. And I didn't realize this back then. I didn't know that those were some rare opportunities for us to spend quality time together as a family - it happened naturally, organically, much like the rain. We all came together in the kitchen. Or we huddled on sofas and cushions and my father played vintage Bollywood films for us. It was a happy time for us kids, but I think it was romantic in its way for my parents. They each had their own career to worry about, so a surprise break from work and a relaxed day at home must have been such a welcome delight for them.
Now, here in Northern California, there is no question of playing in the rain. It's February and still the middle of winter. But the rain still has its way of making me happy. There is no water flooding our streets, but I have these old habits that mandate a day at home when the weather takes a surprise turn like today. I sit on my sofa underneath my fleece blanket and hear the raindrops hitting the kitchen window. We chose to stay in tonight and play with the baby. My husband offered to put the baby to sleep so I would have a few moments to myself. When you have had a busy week at work with a particularly irritable disposition, and you've spent a lot of effort masking this sour mood because you would hate to admit that it's because of the lack of rain, and then you're rewarded by not just the first real winter storm of the year, but also your husband offering to take over bedtime, well, that's pretty damn romantic if you ask me.
And perfect segue into....February - yes, it's February, the official month of love and romance. Goll Gappay will once again honor this month with posts about love and loved ones, so stay tuned.
I'm off to admire the rain while it graces my balcony so I can bottle up some inspiration for the proverbial rainy days (although, I have already demonstrated that as far as I am concerned, any kind of stocking up is required for dry weather only). Good night.
Photo by Rebecca McCue
I am moved deeply by weather, which is why living in Northern California is such a beautiful thing. We get one or two heat waves over the summer, but living only an hour's drive away from the coastline and within viewing distance of the gorgeous mountainside has a calming effect. When I first moved to California, I was completely unnerved by the winter rains. I was used to the fierce monsoons, the temperamental storms of humid summers that caused power outages and floods. But here, the rain was different. It raged from time to time, goaded on by one cold front or warm front or something of the sort, but usually it just fell at a steady pace, often for several days in a row. Even the rain in California was temperate.
We are in a drought this year. There has been almost no rain, and water conservation efforts have taken on a new importance and urgency. The winter has been uncharacteristically warm and dry. I wonder if the lack of rain somehow caused a drought in my writing, too. I have felt disconnected from it. While this is ordinarily a cause for alarm, this time I have just been apathetic. This morning, though, the clouds shivered ever so slightly and we got a tiny bit of rain. The roads were slick in the morning as I pulled out of the driveway later than usual. In the office, I was quickly swept into meetings and discussions, having very little time to appreciate the view from my window - the overcast sky, the juxtaposition of vibrant and muted colors, the brief rain making everything sharper while the haze in the air and the coverlet over the sun making it all distant, almost sepia colored. But now, I have a momentary reprieve, and I find myself getting drawn to this blank page (no longer blank), some odd compelling force swelling inside me, willing me to write - anything. And so, I do.
I find myself wishing for a real winter storm, for the clouds to erupt and end this drought, end this state of unease and disuse in me. I am wishing for winds and heavy rain and thunder and the sound of all of it, the whistle of the wind, and the prattle of the rain, and the deep cough-like hum of the thunder. And as I wish for this I close my eyes and imagine the smell of such weather wafting with the wind through the kitchen window, a pine-scented candle burning on the counter, a steaming mug of cardamom chai, my baby playing with her books, the Food Channel playing in the background, and the death-grip suffocating my writing finally loosened because of the sudden release of winter rain.
Photo by Rebecca McCue