Knitting through.

Things are hard right now, my friends. I’m casting around for some kind of distraction, some kind of destruction, something to take my mind off, or at least away. My options are limited, since I don’t actually want to make bad decisions.

So this time, I’m taking up my knitting needles and working on a thing of beauty.

I knit because it lets me remain in my head while blunting the sharp edges of distress. It calms me, interests me, the repetitive motion is soothing. I am always getting somewhere. One more step in the spiral, one more link in the chain. It’s a labyrinth, built and explored by my fingers. It’s a path, a journey, there is a beginning, middle, and end, and so much can happen along the way.

A dropped stitch, an error in the pattern, a lapse in concentration. Terrible fates to befall one. I don’t use markers to portion the way, and I don’t weave in lifelines in case something goes wrong and I have to rip back. I just pick up needles and yarn and go. Of all the parts of my life, I am least anxious about knitting.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not anxious. Worry over whether I’m using the right needle size can plague me, fears that the product will be too big, too small, it won’t feel right, it’s not soft enough, it’s too stiff, too loose, it can take me an evening of swatching and choosing to make sure it’s going to be right. (And this is in the least anxious bit of my life. I think I need lavender oil, or maybe gin.) But once I get it right? (“Right” is, of course, subjective.) Once I find the combination, it unlocks my enthusiasm and I fly.

I’m flying on the project I’m knitting now. It’s so gorgeous, pattern complicated and engaging. The colors in the yarn look like fallen leaves from oaks and maples. The yarn even makes this wonderful crunchy, dry-leaf sound as I slide it along the matte gray needles. It’s a lace shawl, but I’m knitting it in heavier yarn. It’s going to be very big when it’s done. A roof. A house. A safe place. An autumn day to spread over me whenever I want one.

So this is me. A maker of beautiful things, in sadness, grief, in confusion and need. Dancing through my days as well as I can even though my heart is heavy. Wrapping the yarn around the needles like my arms around the ones I love.

Grief/Love

Today is the birthday of someone I recently lost. I didn’t lose her, exactly, what a silly thing to say. She’s not misplaced. I know exactly where she is. She’s not here anymore.

So, like I said, today is her birthday. No e-mail, no phone call, just this ache where someone I love used to be in my head and my heart.

I was in the neighborhood of the church where she got married. I was in her wedding there, over ten years ago, now. I saw the restaurant where I met her husband, someone else I love very much.

I thought I would go in to the church. I thought I would cry. But then the church was closed for a convention, so there was no crying for me. Not then.

She was a mystic, and she had many things to teach me. This is one of them. You can’t do everything exactly when you want to. Nothing waits. Nothing stays. You can’t engineer a moment of healing, all you can do is wait and let it find you when it will. If it ever comes. Maybe it won’t. Even if it doesn’t, that I want to remember, and grieve, and heal, that has to be enough.

This is the moment, and it is enough. I miss her and I love her, and that is also enough.

Perfection isn’t possible. Why seek it? She said to seek the center, and in the eye of the storm of sadness, and anger, and loss… there will be peace as well.

Happy birthday, Grandmother. I never called you that while you were alive, and now I’m sorry. To be closer would have been better, even if we didn’t know exactly how, and you’ve taught me that.

Dear Teenager

Hi, teenage girl.

I remember that. Oh, my god, I was miserable. I felt like every other person wanted something different, and all I wanted was someone to love me. Me, for who I was right at that SECOND, and then a second later when I was somebody else.

It was a mess in my head. Sometimes I wanted to punch the wall, sometimes I wanted to break down and cry. I had all this power, and no place to put it. I wanted sex, I wanted rock ‘n’ roll, I wanted to throw myself onto a motorcycle and ride. I wanted to curl up on the couch watch a Disney movie, holding a stuffed animal.

I never knew if I was doing it right. Whatever “it” was. My parents didn’t understand, because nobody could understand what it was like in here. The confusion, the aching, the extreme joy and the bitter darkness. It was all in there, and I was so small. How could I hold it all? Where did it come from?

One minute I was a pretty happy kid, wandering along, and the next I was this freakish thing with body parts I didn’t know how I felt about, and desires I really didn’t want to think about, because who the hell was I, anyway? Suddenly I was careless and argumentative, and I didn’t call when I was supposed to, and I stayed out too late, and I kissed people because it seemed like a good idea at the time, even when I knew it wasn’t, and all the time it felt like someone was shrieking at me. Only that was me, too.

And all the time, the question, the brutal, endless question: Who was I going to be when it was over?

Because intellectually, I knew this was only going to last a few years. I was a teenager. My brain was crazy. But I was so alone. Sometimes it felt likeI was trapped in a box, only the box was still myself.

It was very lonely. I didn’t know how to talk about it, because it sounded stupid. Sometimes people were assholes to me, and it felt awful. But I thought if I said anything, my parents, or my teachers, or my friends would just tell me not to let it bother me. But it did. Oh, it did.

This is going to last a few years, babe. I’m sorry. I really am. We all go through it. Every adult around you was a teenager once, and honestly, they just want it to be easier for you than it was for them. That’s what they’re trying to say, whenever they give you advice you don’t want, or yell at you because you didn’t call when you were supposed to, or your grades dropped, or you started to scream at them when they asked you if you did your laundry.

They just want it to be easier for you. They just want you to avoid as much pain as possible, because they love you more than they ever thought they could.

But don’t listen to them. Listen to me. I did this ten years ago, and I was a lunatic. I have the chops.

You are lonely because you have realized the stunning, terrific weight that is your self. You are like no one else, but you are similar in a lot of ways, so you can build on that if you have to. Maybe you dance. Maybe you draw. You have things you love. Hold on to them. They’re going to save you.

Read books. Go to movies. Listen to music. Do your goddamn homework, do your goddamn laundry. You can be miserable and angry while you clean something. Work with that. Lie on your bed with the pillow over your eyes for five minutes every afternoon and listen to a song or two on your iPod, and just let it all go away.

You’re going to make mistakes and hurt people, you’re going to make mistakes and hurt yourself. Do not make any of these mistakes fatal. I’m serious. Do not drink too much. Do not smoke any pot you haven’t grown yourself. Do not trust the people who know how attractive they are. Band together with the confused ones like you, who are also driven by the things they love.

People are going to want you to do things. It’s okay if you don’t want to do them. Your cousin Miranda, who knows a thing or two, is here to tell you that you don’t have to do them. No matter where you are, or what time it is. Just pick up the phone, and call your dad, and tell him you want to come home. Tell him you need a rescue.

Even if they aren’t good at showing it the way you need them to, there are people who love you so much. Who want to help you more than anything. Who would throw themselves in front of this train if they could, but it’s your train, and your tracks, and I’m afraid no one can cut in on this dance. But they can help you. Let them help you. Let me help you.

You’re smart. You’re beautiful. You’re funny. You’re silly. You’re big. You’re little. You’re graceful. You’re clumsy. You can hurt. You can help. You’re the world. You’re an insignificant speck on a planet that is itself an insignificant speck. But you are the world. And you can make the world better by smiling whenever you can find it in yourself.

You’re going to make it through this. You’ll stop feeling so raw. And you’re going to have fun, too.

Love,
Miranda

Nora Ephron: 1941-2012

"You were the only person I knew in New York."

Nora Ephron died this week. Our long-suffering correspondent broke the news late Wednesday night, reading it off the BBC app on his phone. He didn’t really know who she was, only that she was a writer and I’m a writer, so maybe I would care. He didn’t expect to have his arms suddenly full of soggy girlfriend, firing quotes at random through her tears.

“Men and women can’t be friends! Don’t cry, shop girl! You were the only person I knew in New York… She wrote my favorite movies,” I wept. Concerned and off-balance, (suddenly crying girlfriends are, I am assured, the worst kind of crying girlfriends) he did the only thing he could think of: he tried a joke.

“Yeah, but she also wrote You’ve Got Mail.” Only too quickly did he realize his mistake.

“That’s one of my favorite movies!”

He says he was about to start in on me about my bad taste in movies, but decided to hug me instead. There was nothing for it. One of my teachers was dead, and I needed to cry.

Nora Ephron taught me about love. She taught me about being a woman in a complicated, post-feminist world that doesn’t know what to do with you, but has a lot of ideas about what you ought to want. She taught me about being a good friend, having lunch, eating ice cream, talking, laughing, but always understanding that another person’s heart is ultimately unknowable, and you can’t really make anyone change. She taught me that being independent was the basic expectation. That you don’t need a relationship, you only want one very very much. You have to be hopeful, and smart, and aware of your choices, and you have to laugh. It’s not all a joke, but most of it can be really fucking funny if you let it.

She also told me you had to write it all down. I can’t say she made me a writer, but she taught me that you have to tell the truth, you have to borrow from life, and she helped me see that you can write the pain and it’ll get easier, that you can write through the joy and let more people share it.

She taught me that you have to pay attention to who drives you crazy and who makes you feel at home, because someone who does both at the same time might be the trouble you don’t want to get out of. She taught me that love is always a possibility, that if you have the feeling it might be love, you get on a plane and fly three thousand miles to find out.

All of these lessons were hidden in her movies. (Some more obviously than others.) Maybe she didn’t intend to teach anybody anything. She was writing for her contemporaries and for the women coming up just after them. Maybe she had no idea that a little girl would watch You’ve Got Mail, Mixed Nuts, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle a hundred times while she was growing up, that she would pore through them for wisdom, because these men seemed like men she wanted to be with, and these women seemed like people she wanted to be.

That girl watched those movies on the couch with her mother, talked about them, quoted them all the time. Each one was a right of passage. (Except Mixed Nuts, which was a fluke, but one of the best flukes in the world.) When she was about to go to college in New York City, she and one of her best friends went into the city for the day and she decided it was the right decision when she saw the Washington Square Arch and realized where she was. She was where Harry and Sally fell in love, where Joe and Kathleen had their bookstores. It was home.

When her mother had cancer and they sat on the couch in more dire straits than they ever thought, out came the Nora Ephron movies. They laughed and cried through them, too, and knew it was going to be okay.

And when I was a young woman in a relationship and realized that I was thinking of these movies as nice fantasies instead of possibilities, I left. And when I was on the edge of something and had the feeling it might be love, I got on a plane and flew three thousand miles to find out.

You need to believe in love, Ms. Ephron told me. That you have power, that you can change your life, and that your life matters to the people who know you. Maybe love is flying three thousand miles, maybe love is carrying a Christmas tree, maybe love is hiding a body disguised as a Christmas tree. But you have to believe that even if it isn’t easy, it can be yours.

I am so sad that this is the end. Sad for the people who actually got to know her, sad for the writing we won’t get to read, and see. But so grateful that she was… that she was. Because she gave me so much. And there’s not much more you can ask of a person than that.

Adulthood

About two years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t know if I’ve ever really talked about it here. She was healthy, she felt good, we’d been living in the city for less than six months and she loved it. She was writing, she was exploring the city, and suddenly none of that mattered any more. She had breast cancer, and she needed surgery and chemotherapy if she wasn’t going to die sooner rather than later. I remember the first thing she said right after she got the phone call. (And I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you which call that was.) She walked out into the kitchen and told me, “I don’t want this to interfere with you finishing school, you hear me?” Yes, ma’am. I heard you.

She had surgery later this month, two years ago. She scheduled it so that she would be in good enough shape to come to my college graduation. My mother has priorities, and damned if she’s going to let anything get in her way.

I had a crash course in adulthood that spring and summer. I figured out how to take care of a family and keep a three-bedroom apartment clean, and get dinner on the table nearly every night. It’s no mean feat. I don’t think most people who’ve grown up with a dedicated parent and household-wrangler appreciate just how much work goes into it, until they have to do it themselves. Being a housekeeper is a full-time job. I took care of someone recovering from major surgery, and then someone going through chemo. It wasn’t easy, and I needed a lot of help. But then I needed less help. I figured out what to do.

I’m telling you all this because as the weather gets warmer, I feel residual dread. Attacks of nausea for no reason. Headaches, which I normally never get. My body remembers stress, it remembers pain, it remembers fear. But right now I want it to remember the pride.

We did it, she and I. We got through it, and I think we did it well. I had just graduated. We watched lots of movies, lots of Jeopardy, I knit her this enormous blue shawl. We did puzzles, figured out meals, and went for walks. Every time I got her to the top of the hill in the park we cheered.

When you’re a kid, you think of adulthood as a switch being flicked. Suddenly you’re big, you’re aware, you’re sure of yourself, you know how to balance a checkbook and you know how to cook. You immediately know how to change the oil in a car and you know what all those mysterious settings on the washing machine are for. Doing taxes and buying houses come naturally. There’s nothing you can’t handle.

The reality is, and it’s a reality we don’t see often enough, really, is that only the last sentence of that paragraph is true. That’s how I feel about it, anyway. I know I can handle anything that happens, even if I have no idea how I’m going to do it.

Keeping Track

I keep track of the books I read.

It started because I home schooled, and my mother recorded everything I read against the day we’d have to prove that I was an educated human being instead of some kind of feral sociological experiment. At some point early on in high school I took over the recording, and at some point during college, I took all my faithfully kept Word documents and turned them into one large spreadsheet of my reading habits, a monument to Bibliophilia run amok. (I do not remember exactly when I did this, but I have a strong suspicion I was avoiding a paper at the time.)

Whenever I turn the final page of a book, I open my spreadsheet and enter the author, the title, and the date it was completed. There are other columns for rereads, for whether I read it on my Kindle, whether I’ve entered it on Goodreads, or if I got the book from the library. This ritual means something to me. It makes finishing a book more final. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment. Sometimes the only reason I finish a book I’m not loving is so that I can add it to the spreadsheet. It motivates my otherwise fickle reading brain. I read a lot, and I’m usually reading, and I know I will forget otherwise. On three memorable occasions, my spreadsheet stopped me from buying a book I’d already read. On one even more memorable occasion, I realized I’d bought and read a book two separate times while I was entering it, for the second time.

It isn’t just a list of what I’ve been reading. It’s my biography. A small sampling is below.

November 2003: I read The Crimson Petal and the White, my favorite book, for the first time during a bout with pneumonia.
2004: I wasn’t recording dates that year, but I read Timeline (Michael Crichton) and Oracle Night (Paul Auster).
August 2006: The last book I read before I start college is Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel.
August 2008: I blast through the first four books of A Song of Ice and Fire in a week, only managing to finish the fourth one out of sheer momentum.
January 2010: I read Swan Song and love it so much I am late to things on purpose because I’m hanging out under a streetlight.
June 2010: I find the Pendergast series, and love it so much I read all ten books in twenty days.
January 2011: I only read the first two Harry Dresden books. I was living in another country, so much newness going on I can’t bear a new book for the first couple of weeks. Then I read Shogun and The Gunslinger. Stories of feeling alone.
January 2012: I read Wodehouse, Pratchett, and Bujold, all for the first time, all on the recommendation of our affectionate correspondent.

There are a few books I only read because someone I really liked at the time wanted me to. I know how much I like an author’s writing based on how many of their books I read in a row. There are a couple on this list I don’t remember at all. I’ve read some a dozen times or more. I used to leave all the rereads off, but I add them now. This is about more than simply recording what I’ve read. My spreadsheet has become the witness to how I’ve spent my time, and what I cared about. Every entry is a story.

Books hold memories for those of us who read them religiously. They are our palimpsests, our reliquaries. They know our secrets. A book is a time capsule of everything that happened while we were reading it. I look at the book, and it sets off memories. I keep track of the books because I’m writing myself down.

It’s about time.

The holidays ate my brain. I’m back now. All I have left to go is New Year’s, and that’s my favorite one. It doesn’t feel like a “holiday.” New Year’s feels like a celebration of time itself, respect for its power. We don’t do that often enough in this culture. We’re always talking about how we don’t have time for this, or that, or the other thing. We have all these gadgets and gizmos designed to help us get stuff done faster, we focus on teaching kids good “time management” skills, (always have the image of someone trying to herd a gaggle of old-fashioned alarm clocks) we obsess over how we’re spending our time as if someday we’re all going to be asked to give an accounting of our days, and we better have made good choices.

“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”  – Mary Oliver

The truth is, the only person who’s going to care what you do today is you. Well, you and Mary Oliver, maybe. A lot of writing books talk about the importance of walks, the importance of boredom, the importance of letting ideas come to you, of sitting and really puzzling over an idea or three until they come together. I bombard myself so thoroughly with outside noise (present company included although, blog, I love you) that those pieces of perfectly useful advice are usually laughable. There’s e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Ravelry, online journals of friends, blogs of strangers, so many opportunities to fill my brain with other things! Even worse, the things I should be doing

I Should Be: (A short list*)
– writing a story
– keeping a paper journal
– writing a blog post
– working on the novel
– researching for the novel
– controlling myself from starting new stories just now
– revising something
– reading a “good book”
– reading a “fun book”
– reading the paper
– watching a movie
– catching up on that TV show I like
– knitting
– cross-stitching
– quilting
– tidying this mess of a place
– doing the laundry
– figuring out dinner
– running errands
– making lists
– keeping up with all the little Shoulds that crop up in a day
– seeing a friend I haven’t seen in a while
– boxing some stuff up to give away
– losing weight
– doing research
– volunteering for a cause I believe in
– looking for ways to make money with my art
– looking for ways to make money
– searching for a job
– deciding what I want to do with my life
– thinking deep thoughts
– being brilliant

And somehow, I should do all of this today, or I am an utter failure. A frowny-face on the Good Behavior Chart stuck up on the front of the Refrigerator of Life, looking vainly at the gold and silver stars all the other kids got. (Because of course I think everyone else is better at this than I am, oh how I make myself laugh.)

Nothing on the list above is insurmountable. Shoulds aren’t necessarily bad. Like jealousy and lists on the internet, Shoulds just mirror what we want, so that we can see it clearly. But Shoulds are insidious. Even if I’m doing one thing on my list of Shoulds, I’m not doing any of the others at that moment. I struggle with this all the time, (there’s that time-word again!) the physical inability to be in two places at once. Some of these activities are easily combined. I can write in my head while I do the laundry, and then go run and transcribe some thoughts when I finish. But mostly, I need mental space to do a lot of these things, and many of them don’t combine so easy.

We all have our own Shoulds. I, for one, would like to release myself from their tyranny. To stop making the things I love into mere boxes to check as I try to justify what I’m doing with my life. Join me, and together we will rule the galaxy! (At least, we should…)

So in celebration of time this coming year, I will do my best to enjoy engaging in its passing, no matter what I’m doing. I only get this time once. I am determined to make the best of it, even (or perhaps especially) when I’m sitting, doing nothing, staring up at the sky.

“Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”  – Shel Silverstein

In the end, no one really cares what I do but me. I’ll live my life, as well as I can, within the constraints and possibilities offered by each day. So, off I go into the wild blue yonder. First, though, I think I should eat something and put a book in my bag. In case there are queues in the wild blue yonder.

*I edited this post half a dozen times so far to add items to the list.

I am a woman.

I started writing a post about an hour ago. I had eleven hundred words before I knew it, and they were some of the angriest words I have ever put to page. Writing about nerd male privilege and being a “geek girl” just after seeing Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is perhaps not the most effective recipe for a balanced response to my subject. I am an angry person, it turns out, but after a first very ranty draft about the dregs of behavior geek girls have to put up with, I took a step back and established what I am truly angry about, in my little corner of the big and angering subject, “Women in fiction and its environs.” What I’m most angry about is the stories. Angry about the way women are treated in the stories I love. I should know. I am a woman.

I am betrayed by the stories I love. Betrayed, belittled, ignored, used, punished, raped, tortured, and killed. I have little clothing, and less agency. I am a plot device, a cliche, as much a part of the hero’s journey as the Totem or the Mentor, and about as well-rounded. I have worn many names and many outfits, my hair has been raven, fiery, chestnut, and golden. I have been femme fatale, ingenue, princess, whore, with and without the heart of gold. I am reviled when I am strong, I am ridiculed when I am weak. I am a woman.

I am betrayed, too, by the world I inhabit in my life outside of stories. The world of geeks and nerds, the world of swords and sorcery, ships and starships. The realms of fantasy, science and fiction are still a boy’s club, though it gets better. Oh, how it gets better too slowly for me. I was raised on Batman and Star Trek, a legacy that brings me joy to this day, this very minute of writing. But there are shadows in the corners of my eyes, monsters in the alleys of the City of Invention that I love. For I am not striding down the streets, chest thrown back, my chin raised. My hand is not on the hilt of my sword, no challenge to all comers is present in my eyes. I am a woman. I am in danger here.

My presence as protagonist is bewildering to the men around me. As a woman who loves what they love, I am a woman, who loves what they love. I have no right of my own to their inheritance. I am a victim of my genetics. I am here on sufferance. It took Star Trek three separate series and nearly seventeen seasons on the air before someone had the guts to write a female captain. Janeway is the most reviled of the Star Trek captains, for reasons that in other series made Picard and Kirk heroes. She, on being born a woman.

My opinions in the outside world are suspect and apparently easily shot down. I am accused of minding the shocking objectification of women in games, movies, and TV shows just because I’m a girl, as if there is a whole class of problem I just wouldn’t have to bother about, if I were not female. That, in fact, my concerns and questions about the role and treatment of women in geek media are so much noise to be listened to with a long-suffering expression and an uncomfortable shift of the shoulders. As if to say, “I know this is wrong, but I don’t want to have to stop loving what I love…” I understand you, you know. I understand all too well. I am a woman.

My love of so many stories is a double-edged sword. They mean the world to me, and yet I am forgotten. Tintin, Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, they are nearly bereft of women. As if there is only, or ever could be, one woman. “The” woman. Is it any wonder women are at each other’s throats, when the wisdom of stories tells us there is only room for one of us? In rich and vibrant worlds, expansive enough to hold dragons and magic rings, or spaceships that soar through the air, technology as if by magic, there is no room for more than two or three female characters?

I exist on the edges, in the subtext, and behind the scenes. I am a cackling crone when I work magic, an untrustworthy minx when I am clever. Perhaps I am unbalanced, insane, a slave to my urges and emotions, like Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Harlequin. Perhaps I am Lady Macbeth, forever washing my hands of the sin of ambition, rotting in the dungeon of public opinion with Cersei Lannister. Or Desdemona, proven trustworthy too late, as death is the punishment for even the imagined indiscretions.

I write, and I read, and I try so very hard to be brave when I come to my keyboard. Brave enough to write complex, capable people. Brave enough to say that a character can be a woman and not spend the entire book being a woman. That she, like her male counterparts, can simply be who she is. Brave enough to define a woman by what she does and says, rather than by how other characters perceive her. Brave enough to make her more human than a Disney Princess with a dark past. But it is a frightening place in the City of Invention. I must be special, but not too much. I must be likable, but “strong.” To survive, to have any hope of surviving, I must make men want me, and women want to be me. But not too much, or else I will be accused of being a fantasy. I have news for you. All of this is a fantasy.

I walk through the streets of the City of Invention with my chest out, and it does not matter what size or shape that chest is. My chin is raised, and there is a challenge in my eyes to all comers. Try and stop me. Try and distract me. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will resurrect me. We must fight this fight until we win. We who claim to represent truth more fully than life itself.

I am a woman. This is my story, still untold, though such things get better. Oh, but they get better too slowly for me.