Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Orange Is The New Green And Red

I found my Christmas cards the other day, in the bottom of a bag where I keep my hopes and dreams for becoming an organized person. They were addressed and ready to go. I went ahead and dropped them by the post office. It’s an election year, so I figure people will welcome wishes of good cheer, even if the wishes come months later than I meant for them to.
I love the holidays. I really do. There is a certain cheer—an ineffable magic—in the air that I can’t ignore. Children are excited, it’s scarf weather, and we get to enjoy all those delicious holiday beverages stirred all syrupy and sweet into red cups that may or may not be sending us straight to hell.
But, there is one thing about the holiday season that I can no longer stomach, and that is the Holiday Letter. Cards, I can handle, but those letters have to go.
They are long epistles on pretty paper depicting the Currier and Ives lives people want us to see.  They abound with stories of promotions, new houses, and accomplishments about how little Suzie made straight As (again) and Junior finally made the winning goal in the All Star regional soccer championship in Where-Do-They-Live-Again?, USA. And lest we forget that epic Memorial Day Family Reunion at Gulf Shores, they graciously include a 5x7 color photo of the entire clan emblazoned with “#blessed” across the bottom.
I vow every year to do an honest holiday letter:
Dear Everyone,
 I’m sorry this letter is 12 weeks late, but I couldn’t remember to get ink for the printer. We’ve had a decent year, but we were overdrawn in our checking account at least three times. The cat continues to pee on our bed, but we finally got a new vacuum (#doghair). The kids are fine. They are constantly on some type of screen and argue too much. They have donuts and Sprite for breakfast multiple times a week. Love, The Walkers
Maybe I’ll get to it next year. If I can remember to send them out.
The truth is, I haven’t been able to take a holiday letter seriously since our family Christmas dinner involved getting a pat down by a rather large corrections officer.
A few years back, my family gathered at the Tennessee Prison for Women. We weren’t there to do a Christmas meal for the inmates, or to participate in an act of holiday service. We were there to visit my sister. She was in the middle of a five-year sentence.
It turned out to be one of my favorite Christmas memories.
After our pat downs, signatures, and rule reviews, we stepped into a tiny room and a heavy door closed behind us. In front of us was an identical door, big and solid, waiting to be unlocked. For a long moment, we were left standing in between the outside and the inside, with only little windows to show us where we had come from, and a sliver of the room to where we were going. I remember thinking that must be exactly how it was for my sister—the constant awareness of being in a tiny space where all you can see is where you’ve been and only a sliver of where you are going, and not being 100% comfortable with either.
Eventually, there was a loud buzzing, then a series of clicks and tugs, metal on metal screeching, more buzzing, and the slow pull of the door sliding open. We stepped into the prison rec room and scanned it for my sister.
There she was, across the way and on the other side of yet another barrier, smiling, waving, excited to see us. But when they opened that door for her to finally come through, she was focused primarily on one person: her daughter. She quickly made her way over to my niece, picked her up and held her close. Soon, she was introducing her to the guards and the other inmates and their families. Prison doors and protocol seem to melt away when it comes to the business of proud mothers and their daughters. My sister may have made her share of mistakes, but she knew her sweet girl wasn’t one of them, and she was delighted.
The rest of our visit wasn’t unlike our usual family holiday gatherings. There was barbecue, even if it did come out of a vending machine. There were efforts to get my daughter and my niece to settle down, and quit climbing on furniture. Again, a typical family dinner. There was singing and loud laughter and stern looks from a guard. (And if you substitute a corrections officer uniform for a Cracker Barrel uniform, it felt like a regular Sunday.)
There was Uno and soda and story-telling and remembering. There were hugs, and a few tears, and finally, goodbye.
Each year, I think of that Christmas and how our family was able to be in that moment, even as the big, heavy door slammed behind us. I am struck by how my parents, in their sixties, are raising my sister’s child, and how, now that she is out of prison, gets to be part of her raising her, too. I’m struck by the fear that there are no guarantees, that the Currier and Ives moments of our lives are fleeting and imperfect.

It doesn’t sound good in a Christmas letter, but the truth is, we all just seem to be standing in that in between place of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, waiting for the door to slide open.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Farewell, Pat Conroy

Hey, out there.
That is how Pat Conroy began every blog. But last night, we lost our most affable writer, our wordsmith, our storyteller, our low country hero, whose narratives broke our hearts and told our truths in ways no one else could.
We gave Pat Conroy a lot of power. We allowed him into our core wounds, and let him use his pen to slay our dragons. His characters lived big, unwieldy, trauma-stricken lives in places where poetry was born, where God alone created beauty. If you finish one of his novels and don’t smell like a salt marsh during low tide, then you haven’t read it right.
I recently finished my first novel. The finishing was a powerful and moving feeling, but it was the writing it that proved what I could do. When I first got the idea for my novel, I sat in front of a blank screen typing and deleting pages of aimless words, paragraphs adrift in a story-less narrative. But somewhere along the way, I began to act as if I could write a story in the vein of Conroy’s prose. It is no secret that I hold him in highest regard, and that his prose has been my bible. I have learned much about my craft from him, and have been inspired to write what I was never sure I could. And, like other Conroy fans—who are legion—I find myself in the truth he is never afraid to speak.
Last fall, when I told Pat Conroy that he makes a cameo in my novel, and the protagonist asks him to join her at Fleet Landing in Charleston for a fish sandwich, he told me to send the manuscript to his editor. I haven’t yet. I will, but I haven’t. I regret that I will never be able to actually make good on that fish sandwich.
In my book, the main character explains that she loves Conroy’s writing, and in this thinly disguised fictional account, is reading The Prince of Tides, again:

I meandered to a bench by the rose garden and pulled out my worn copy of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. I had read and re-read the book many times since college and it was falling apart. I had recently duct taped part of the cover. Dog-eared pages marked sections that I had read over and over again, relating to protagonist Tom Wingo as he narrated the tumultuous history of woundedness that lead him to that inescapable encounter and conversion with Dr. Susan Lowenstein.
I loved to read new books—I had just finished one on the merits of whole-food nutrition— but I never tired of the ineffable beauty inherent in Conroy’s prose. I connected with it, somehow. I knew there was significance and value in hundreds of other literary giants, most of them more prolific and time-honored than Conroy. Literary types made careers of critiquing the works of bigger, more influential writers, but I found my muse in stories by a military brat whose move to South Carolina, and failed attempt at teaching, yielded stories of the human condition as experienced by a low country boy whose verbose yarns always moved something inside me.
– from The Water Birth

It is true. When I reread The Prince Of Tides or Beach Music (as I am wont to do every year or so) I find that I both make sense of my wounds and tenderness, and find the creative fire that lives in my belly, stories waiting to be told. Conroy’s stories do not skip over the pain of human existence; they do not lie to the reader about deep truth, profound sadness, or bottomless pain. But when the sun rises on them—when we see what beauty unfolds—we are awed by the power of his decent fountain pen and yellow legal pad.
In My Reading Life, Conroy perfectly explains the writer’s life:
Safety is a crime writers should never commit unless they are after tenure or praise. A novelist must wrestle with all mysteries and strangeness of life itself, and anyone who does not wish to accept that grand, bone-chilling commission should write book reviews, editorials, or health-insurance policies instead. The idea of a novel should stir your blood, and you should rise to it like a lion lifting up at the smell of impala. It should be instinctual, incurable, unanswerable, and a calling, not a choice...A novel is my fingerprint, my identity card, and the writing of novels is one of the few ways I have found to approach the alter of God and creation itself. You try to worship God by performing the singularly courageous and impossible favor of knowing yourself.

His writing helps us know ourselves, and more, it helped us to know him. It has been the great pleasure of my reading and writing life to have Pat Conroy as a teacher. If Thomas Wolfe ignited in Conroy the call to become the writer he was meant to be, then it was Conroy who did the same for me.
In the epilogue to The Prince of Tides, he says, “There are last things to say.”
It will take me a while to find the last things I need to say to such a champion of words. Perhaps I never will. I am grateful I had the chance to thank him for his work, his influence, and his vulnerability. He signed my copy of My Reading Life with To Kristi, for the love of story. And I do. I love the story.

Thank you, Pat, for every word.