Tag Archives: identity

Mask as Identity or as Hiding Place?

I’m always thinking of a mask as a means to an end–that which hides someone or someone’s face. When I meet someone wearing a mask I feel very uncomfortable–much like when someone is wearing dark sunglasses or is in a car with darkly tinted windows. I feel at a disadvantage. I am on the outside and can’t look in.

Maybe it’s because of all the scariness that hides behind masks. Think of the Anonymous Hackers mask. One minute they are ruining people’s lives with their hacking and the next they are trying to save us by hacking ISIS (Daesh, ISIL, the Islamic State–sorry I had to point out that all these names are another form of mask). So masks scare me.

But I noticed this mask my kids have hanging on the wall, left from a long-ago trip to Italy, and suddenly it occurred to me that the mask itself speaks volumes. The mask is a costume, an identity that can be donned.

And that made all the difference for me.

This mask is from the Carnival of Venice. I love costumes, theatre, and a chance at a temporary and different identity.

Duh, I guess that is why I am a writer. When I was a kid I wanted to be one of the “3 As”–actor, author, or archeologist. They are all about different identities, in one way or another.

How do masks seem to you? What mask would you choose right now? I think there’s a writing prompt in here somewhere . . . .

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I’m behind with responding to comments because . . . um, because. But I will catch up this week! Thank you so much for your kind wishes about Doll God and your advice about resting or writing!  And Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends!!! I don’t think I’ll be able to post again this week, but I’ll be blog reading!

51 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, Art and Music, Nonfiction, Writing, Writing prompt

For the Birds

A year ago, I posted this piece about the place of birds in my life. I wonder if you have threads like this that run through your life.

I stand on a chair to reach my grandmother’s birdcage.  My dress and petticoat flip out in back, as I balance on my palms, my sturdy toddler legs straining toward the parakeet.  The parakeet contemplates my nose poking between the bars.  I want it to sing.  It’s all I want of this place, this apartment which rattles like death when the El rushes by. I think how much I miss my own home.  Unless the bird will sing.

Maybe it’s something that happened to me even before I was born.  I started reaching out for the word music with my baby fists, if only to rush them like a bottle to my mouth:  “Little Miss Muffet”; “See You Later, Alligator”; “A Fairy Went a-Marketing.” I recited and sang them repetitively—until my mother screamed at me to stop.  Even then, I slipped under the bed covers and sang “My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea.”  My breath billowed up the sheet.

Only a fifteen-year-old can make the leap from puppy love to bird lover.  That’s what happened when I became fascinated with a boy with a bird’s name.  My girlfriend and I followed him oh-so-subtly-and-cleverly in the halls, only running into him “by accident.”  On the weekend I couldn’t wait for school to begin anew on Monday, so we went to the mall.  Woolworth’s had a department with birds in birdcages.  An arched cage so much like my grandmother’s parakeet cage held two lovebirds.  I paid $9.99 for the lovers.

When my husband and I got married in an ice storm, we drove from the hotel reception in a burgundy Marquise Brougham with a prayer on the dashboard.  Songbirds flew after us into the dark.  That’s the way I remember it.

I sat in Grandma’s old oak rocker, holding my baby son in my arms, murmuring:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot

Whitman‘s poem managed something the others hadn’t been able to—it crept into my body, spreading out and occupying my flesh like a snakeskin it merely tolerated.  I still can’t get rid of it.  The poem and I battle inside like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but if it decided to leave, I’d be as empty as that snakeskin, discarded and colorless.  It’s a poem about a he-bird who loves and loses the she-bird.  Or it’s a poem about the curious boy who observes the bird and his troubles.  But really it’s about a rocking like the surging of the sea and the hissing and whispering and all manner of delicious delicacies of words and rhythm.

When my parents put Grandma in the nursing home, she had to leave her parakeet behind.  Not that yellow parakeet she had when I was a preschooler, but the green one she’d had since then.  Dad brought the cage to our house and put it in the family room where the bird could watch TV.  I kept changing the food and water, but the bird refused a single seed and died within a week.

Richard Siken told us wannabe poets never to write poems with birds in them.  “It’s been done to death,” he said.  I think he said that the bird as trope for poet was old after Whitman.  Or maybe he said before Whitman.  I went home and wrote a poem about Andersen’s Nightingale and the Chinese countryside and didn’t use the word bird.  That’s what you call a writing constraint.

We had such a problem with roof rats and teenagers.  The latter we knew would eventually move out.  My husband called in the pest control people for the former.  The man the company sent shuffled and mumbled, so we let him go about his business.  That afternoon my son ran into the house yelling his head off, and since he’s a mild-mannered young man, I scrambled to get to him.  He led me out to the back steps where three baby birds hung on a glue trap like Jesus and the thieves.  We poured a sort of holy kitchen oil to release them.  One had already died and a second stilled the instant it rested in my palm.  The third one regarded me with one black eye, vibrant as a drop of ink.  We hustled it to the veterinarian where the techs hustled it out of our sight.

My daughter writes songs that come out of her fully formed.  I don’t know how anyone can do that, but then she sings them and her voice sounds like warm magma flowing.  She sends me links to private songs on Myspace so I can listen before anyone else.

Over ten years ago cats started showing up at our house, looking for food and, later, shelter.  We only had a couple of dogs left.  The birds had departed long before for their heaven.  Now the cats outnumber the humans, and they think they have an equal vote.  They vote that anything with a fast heart rate can be considered prey.  So no more birds for our family.

This house in Arizona has a tile roof, and the pigeons think it’s a rocky hillside, like their homes before humankind. While pigeons have those pleasing round breasts and iridescent feathers like abalone, they excrete their body weight every day—and always from the eaves above my exterior doors.  I asked my neighbor to stop feeding the birds, but she doesn’t speak to humans.  We put up screens to stop them from roosting in the obvious places.  But a stubborn contingent stay put, and from my fireplace I hear them cooing.  My brown striped cat purrs on the hearth, in rhythm with the pigeon coos.

A young pigeon dances on my patio, with his wings akimbo across his back, like a child stuck in a shirt he’s attempting to put on.  Two adult pigeons watch from the roof.  I put him in a brown bag and drive him to the pigeon lady.  She has big man hands and examines him brusquely, but listens with her eyes closed, like a good doctor.  She says, “I’ve never seen this before.  It’s not a broken wing.  He’s twisted his wings together across his back, like you twist a twisty on a bag.”  She carefully and surely untwists his wings and puts them flat against his sides.  “I’ll keep him for the winter and release him in the spring when he’s healthy.”  I write a poem about the pigeon lady and through it she becomes a religious icon in my religion of one.

In the summer, I bring her another pigeon.  This one acts odd, walking around the yard, but only flying a few feet at a time.  She tries, but can’t save this one.  “He had an illness, and I don’t know what it was.”  She wants my permission to do an autopsy.  That’s the way she learns how to take care of the living pigeons.  When I hang up the phone, I can see through the window that another pigeon resting at the edge of eaves is breathing rhythmically as its body empties and fills and empties and fills in an unbroken pattern.

My grandmother outlived her parakeet in the nursing home for a year.  I told my parents that if she had had the parakeet in her room, she and the parakeet would both have lived longer, but they explained that she died of uremia from renal failure.  “The bird died because it didn’t eat, Luanne,” my mother said.  “Stop trying to connect things that are not related.”

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In June, I wrote about the pigeon lady in another post. Birds and trees are two of my writing obsessions. When a motif turns up repeatedly on this blog, I can tell it’s another obsession ;). What are your obsessions . . . um, motifs?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

Through the Woods in My Cape

Since I’m the new kid in town, I was thrilled to get an invitation from LouAnn at her blog, On the Homefront , to attend her Virtual Christmas Party on December 15.  Ok, I admit it: it’s true that she’s invited virtually everyone (or everyone virtual).  But I choose to think of it as a personal invitation since I enjoy her blog so much.  We’re simpatico (says me) since we share the name Luanne (which technically is the correct spelling, but please don’t mention that to LouAnn).

Party-goers are to come as their favorite author or character from a book.  We’re to bring a 1970s appetizer and a song request selected from specific artists.  As if I were planning a costume for a costume party, I’ve been obsessing over my masquerade identity for days.

It didn’t take me long to realize I want to attend as Little Red Riding Hood.  She’s my writing alter ego.  I figured this out after reading Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story.  In this fabulous book on writing memoir, Rainer describes how each writer (read: person) inherits a myth which forms a pattern for her own life.  It’s our duty as writers to understand this and not to get trapped in old patterns to the extent that we follow them to an unhappy conclusion.

IMG_5289

I could see right away, that though I was the princess who felt the pea under 4,000 mattresses and feather beds when I was a kid and Cinderella when I married a rescuing prince, my main storyline has been that of Little Red.  In my journeys as Red, I have travelled from the family home back to my grandmother’s home to save grandmother from her own sad story.  I’ve dodged the wolf many times.  There are hundreds of Little Red versions around the world, and they all have different endings.  I like that Little Red–whether she gets eaten, kills the wolf, or saves her siblings—remains tough and spunky.

Little Red is the pattern for my memoir Scrap.  In this first draft of my book the narrator describes this connection: “This past year, a girl in my kindergarten class had brought her doll for Show and Tell.  The little cloth Red Riding Hood was three dolls in one.  When you turned Little Red upside down, you pulled her skirt over her head, and on the other end you got Granny.  When you took off Granny’s cap and turned her around, it was the Wolf’s face on the reverse of Granny’s.  The difference between Granny and the Wolf was like the difference between Dad’s two sides.  I, of course, was Little Red Riding Hood.”

Facsimile 3-character doll: Little Red and Grandmother

3-character doll: the wolf

Facsimile 3-character doll: the wolf

For years I collected Little Red dolls, without understanding why.  When I taught college-level children’s literature, we read and compared many versions of the fairy tale.  I’m not sure if Red’s story became mine because reading the Little Golden Book version was one of my earliest memories, although it’s certainly possible.

What I do know is that I won’t be attending LouAnn’s party as Nancy Drew or Judy Bolton, as Catherine Earnshaw or Lucy Snowe, as Emily Dickinson or Muriel Rukeyser.  I’m going as Little Red Riding Hood and if my cape and hood look particularly Christmassy, that will just be the frosting on the Christmas cookie.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

For the Birds

I stand on a chair to reach my grandmother’s birdcage.  My dress and petticoat flip out in back, as I balance on my palms, my sturdy toddler legs straining toward the parakeet.  The parakeet contemplates my nose poking between the bars.  I want it to sing.  It’s all I want of this place, this apartment which rattles like death when the El rushes by. I think how much I miss my own home.  Unless the bird will sing.

Maybe it’s something that happened to me even before I was born.  I started reaching out for the word music with my baby fists, if only to rush them like a bottle to my mouth:  “Little Miss Muffet”; “See You Later, Alligator”; “A Fairy Went a-Marketing.” I recited and sang them repetitively—until my mother screamed at me to stop.  Even then, I slipped under the bed covers and sang “My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea.”  My breath billowed up the sheet.

Only a fifteen-year-old can make the leap from puppy love to bird lover.  That’s what happened when I became fascinated with a boy with a bird’s name.  My girlfriend and I followed him oh-so-subtly-and-cleverly in the halls, only running into him “by accident.”  On the weekend I couldn’t wait for school to begin anew on Monday, so we went to the mall.  Woolworth’s had a department with birds in birdcages.  An arched cage so much like my grandmother’s parakeet cage held two lovebirds.  I paid $9.99 for the lovers.

When my husband and I got married in an ice storm, we drove from the hotel reception in a burgundy Marquise Brougham with a prayer on the dashboard.  Songbirds flew after us into the dark.  That’s the way I remember it.

I sat in Grandma’s old oak rocker, holding my baby son in my arms, murmuring:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot

Whitman‘s poem managed something the others hadn’t been able to—it crept into my body, spreading out and occupying my flesh like a snakeskin it merely tolerated.  I still can’t get rid of it.  The poem and I battle inside like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but if it decided to leave, I’d be as empty as that snakeskin, discarded and colorless.  It’s a poem about a he-bird who loves and loses the she-bird.  Or it’s a poem about the curious boy who observes the bird and his troubles.  But really it’s about a rocking like the surging of the sea and the hissing and whispering and all manner of delicious delicacies of words and rhythm.

When my parents put Grandma in the nursing home, she had to leave her parakeet behind.  Not that yellow parakeet she had when I was a preschooler, but the green one she’d had since then.  Dad brought the cage to our house and put it in the family room where the bird could watch TV.  I kept changing the food and water, but the bird refused a single seed and died within a week.

Richard Siken told us wannabe poets never to write poems with birds in them.  “It’s been done to death,” he said.  I think he said that the bird as trope for poet was old after Whitman.  Or maybe he said before Whitman.  I went home and wrote a poem about Andersen’s Nightingale and the Chinese countryside and didn’t use the word bird.  That’s what you call a writing constraint.

We had such a problem with roof rats and teenagers.  The latter we knew would eventually move out.  My husband called in the pest control people for the former.  The man the company sent shuffled and mumbled, so we let him go about his business.  That afternoon my son ran into the house yelling his head off, and since he’s a mild-mannered young man, I scrambled to get to him.  He led me out to the back steps where three baby birds hung on a glue trap like Jesus and the thieves.  We poured a sort of holy kitchen oil to release them.  One had already died and a second stilled the instant it rested in my palm.  The third one regarded me with one black eye, vibrant as a drop of ink.  We hustled it to the veterinarian where the techs hustled it out of our sight.

My daughter writes songs that come out of her fully formed.  I don’t know how anyone can do that, but then she sings them and her voice sounds like warm magma flowing.  She sends me links to private songs on Myspace so I can listen before anyone else.

Over ten years ago cats started showing up at our house, looking for food and, later, shelter.  We only had a couple of dogs left.  The birds had departed long before for their heaven.  Now the cats outnumber the humans, and they think they have an equal vote.  They vote that anything with a fast heart rate can be considered prey.  So no more birds for our family.

This house in Arizona has a tile roof, and the pigeons think it’s a rocky hillside, like their homes before humankind. While pigeons have those pleasing round breasts and iridescent feathers like abalone, they excrete their body weight every day—and always from the eaves above my exterior doors.  I asked my neighbor to stop feeding the birds, but she doesn’t speak to humans.  We put up screens to stop them from roosting in the obvious places.  But a stubborn contingent stay put, and from my fireplace I hear them cooing.  My brown striped cat purrs on the hearth, in rhythm with the pigeon coos.

A young pigeon dances on my patio, with his wings akimbo across his back, like a child stuck in a shirt he’s attempting to put on.  Two adult pigeons watch from the roof.  I put him in a brown bag and drive him to the pigeon lady.  She has big man hands and examines him brusquely, but listens with her eyes closed, like a good doctor.  She says, “I’ve never seen this before.  It’s not a broken wing.  He’s twisted his wings together across his back, like you twist a twisty on a bag.”  She carefully and surely untwists his wings and puts them flat against his sides.  “I’ll keep him for the winter and release him in the spring when he’s healthy.”  I write a poem about the pigeon lady and through it she becomes a religious icon in my religion of one.

In the summer, I bring her another pigeon.  This one acts odd, walking around the yard, but only flying a few feet at a time.  She tries, but can’t save this one.  “He had an illness, and I don’t know what it was.”  She wants my permission to do an autopsy.  That’s the way she learns how to take care of the living pigeons.  When I hang up the phone, I can see through the window that another pigeon resting at the edge of eaves is breathing rhythmically as its body empties and fills and empties and fills in an unbroken pattern.

My grandmother outlived her parakeet in the nursing home for a year.  I told my parents that if she had had the parakeet in her room, she and the parakeet would both have lived longer, but they explained that she died of uremia from renal failure.  “The bird died because it didn’t eat, Luanne,” my mother said.  “Stop trying to connect things that are not related.”

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Poetry

The Study of Faces

A face reflects differently under each new light.  It seems to me that faces are holograms.  To compare them with still photos or even other faces is a futile task.  One day I look like one relative and my mother like a relative from another branch of the family.  The next day someone will see my mother’s face in mine, although I look nothing like her aunt who seems to have cloned Mom.

Certain people think I am the female image of my father who, with his vaguely southern European looks, could never be confused with my mother’s Dutch relatives.

I didn’t start to think about faces and relationships until a day in 1976 when my grandparents entered the front door of my father’s store and I wandered up from the backroom to greet them.

Grandpa approached the glass case of men’s leather goods.  “Here ta get me a wallet,” he said.  “Got a good deal?”

Grandma smiled at me with her sparkly eyes and timid grin.  “Hi, Lu.”  She rolled out my name as if she didn’t want to stop saying it.  “How is school?”

“It’s fine.  I have an exam next week, though.”  I grimaced and walked behind the case, slid open the door, and pulled out a wooden tray of $10 billfolds.  I was a senior, a double major in marketing and history at WMU, the same school where my parents and grandmother before me had graduated.  When Grandma attended, the big university had been a little teaching school.

Grandpa took hold of a Moroccan leather, stiff and durable as iron, with a surface like grains of sand.  He examined the price tag, then opened it up and checked out the pockets.

I wished they had picked a different day to come in.  My headache was paired with nausea because the night before Marshal and I had gone to a party and I’d gotten completely plastered.  I hadn’t shampooed my hair that morning as I was running late and had to take the bus to work, so I’d pulled it back into a crocheted snood on the back of my head.

Handing me the first billfold he examined (“Ring this one up”), Grandpa looked down from his 6’1 height to peer into my face.  His blue eye bored into me as he did so, while the blind green eye wavered uncertainly.

“Man alive.  You look just like my mother.”  He looked at me with more interest than usual.  “I never saw that before.”

The person I’d grown up compared with was my mother, a pretty brown-haired, blue-eyed Jeanne Crain look-alike.  I knew I wasn’t as pretty as she, but the association based on our hair and eye color was made often.  When I was in kindergarten, she bought us matching baby blue and white gingham dresses.  Her mother and sister wore dresses made from the same fabric, and the four of us went to the Mother-Daughter Banquet at the church downtown.  We won a prize for our matching outfits, but I never believed that I looked like my mother.

Two weeks after Grandpa bought the wallet, I was at their house, examining a box of 75-year-old family photographs and glass negatives.  Grandpa handed me a black and white professional portrait of his mother:  blonde, austere.  Not brown-haired me, the girl people said reminded them alternatively of Susan Dey, Barbie Benton-sans-bustline, and the anonymous girl in the new bra commercial (unfortunately, accentuating my flat chest).  I said, “Oh, I don’t look like her.

Grandpa set another photograph in front of me; in this one, her hair isn’t pulled back as tightly.  Now I could see it–the long slender neck and arms, narrow chest, and her face, tipped down and looking at her lap, is long with good bones and just short of being too ascetic or prairie-wife-ish.  This could be me dressed in a stiff Victorian dress with puffy sleeves.  Me sitting on the front steps of the brick house built by Cora’s father in his signature style, with the light brick line breaking up the dark brown exterior walls.

I felt as if I were seeing my own body from afar, objectively.  We were both young and thin.  I imagined her with the same blue veins at her translucent temples.  Pretty enough, but not physical, a bit detached from the world.

It’s hard to believe that great-grandmother Cora was the woman who heard a man beating his horse in front of her house and rushed outside where she grabbed his whip and hit him with the handle.  Or the woman who, besieged with leukemia which had begun a vicious attack on her mind, threw all the books in the house out the windows, then gathered them into a bonfire.

That day Grandpa hauled the box of photos and negatives out to my car, said that I should keep them for the family.  I still pull out the images of Cora, to remind myself and to look for anything I’ve missed.  Now I see that in the 2nd photo her dog Bobby is with her.  In many of her pictures, she is with one or two of her dogs.  There’s another similarity as I, too, spend a lot of time with my animals.  I notice that she holds her body tightly, as a shield against the world.  She appears more gentle than fragile.

Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t worry about my resemblance to an ancestor whose history and health seem plagued by problems.  Now that I am the same age she was when she died, I realize things could have gone differently, that I have so far been spared much of what she endured.

I pull out another photo, one I haven’t noticed before.  She’s standing near a shed in the yard, wearing an apron over her dress.  Little bangs curl over her forehead, her hair certainly brown, and she’s smiling.  Here, I see a diaphanous mask of my mother’s face floating across her-my features.  Another slight shift of the hologram.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir