Month: October 2013

She had a point.

San Francisco has a lot of homeless people. They’re everywhere, screaming on corners, sleeping in doorways, and pooping on sidewalks. They have cavernous faces, and are often in varying stages of being undressed and unhinged. You never know what you’re going to get when you walk past one, or when one approaches you to ask for money. I have lost all sympathy for them over the years, and they can tell. So I don’t get approached anymore.

Or at least I thought. I was waiting for the bus today on an empty sidewalk. A few people walked past here and there, but for the most part it was tranquil. That’s why I noticed the figure out of the corner of my eye, because it was moving straight toward me with no obstacles in the way. I looked over to see a limping, caved-in woman with gargoyle eyes, fixed directly on my face. I clutched my iPhone and put my other hand on my bag.

She stopped right in front of me and pointed at my face. Her own face was grey like crinkled newspaper, and folded in at the mouth. She spoke using her lips as she would use her teeth, if she had any.

“I know you’re a police officer,” she said.

I wondered whether I looked like a police officer, with my sneakers and bright green sweater. “Uh.”

“You’re going to arrest me. But you gotta like the job you do.”

I laughed out loud. “Yeah, well.”

“You gotta,” she said. “Because if you don’t show up for five days, you lose it.”

I’d never heard this pitch before as a request for money, so I didn’t back away. Yet.

“You LOSE IT. Then you go to the unemployment office and you tell them you want to retire. They put you in a psych ward.” She was still pointing at my face.

I nodded. “Okay.” Right, sure.

“That’s how you get free food and free room and board. Forever.” She changed her focus and her finger, pointing toward the intersection closest to us. As she walked off, I actually smiled.

I smiled. And I thought, You know what lady, you have a point.

The story that most of us live

As a writer, I was disappointed to learn that there are no new stories. My original plan was always to write a story that would make me filthy rich – but more important, it would convince everyone on earth that we need to live differently in some way. My story would change civilization.

Cut me a break, I was twelve.

The point is, I can’t write a story like that. All timeless stories about humankind have already been written (and ironically, many of the writers made no money on them and achieved no fame during their lifetimes, and generally had terrible lives). They are the stories about falling in love, going on long journeys, and killing dragons. Coming afterward, writers are left to retell different versions of them. Once a generation or so, a story shoots to fame when someone successfully hides the fact that they’re copying something thousands of years old.

Except Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s totally original, 100 percent new material we have never seen before.

All stories – original or not – have something in common: there’s always a problem that seems impossible, but which the main character has to overcome – within herself, within society, or against nature. In children’s stories, the problem is straightforward: a main character has to fight a dragon. She searches for the dragon, fights it, and defeats evil. She returns to her city, which is filled with parades and rainbows to welcome her back.

Sometime after childhood – or for some people, during childhood – we learn that dragons are not as easy to fight as we thought. Our grown-up stories have to adapt to this grey area. A main character is attacked by a dragon on her way to work, but she is unarmed against it. She blacks out after a big blow to the head.

When she wakes up, she is perched a thousand miles away on the edge of a cliff. She looks down to see that she was half-eaten by the dragon and she has no map to get home. In that story, we watch her as she bandages herself, listen to her as she talks herself through her own healing, and see what she makes of herself in a world that looks different to her now.

She finds that after being half-eaten, she has much scarier things to fight than dragons. People stare at her mangled frame while she walks down the street. Her bosses don’t expect that she’ll be able to get things done with only one arm. She has to fight for everything she has, forever after.

It’s the same story of overcoming, but not by killing a dragon. It’s being forever changed by something, and finding a way around it so that we can go on. Living with our scars and bite marks, and deciding whether to show them to others or cover them up. It’s the story of redemption, the truest human story in western culture.

It is the story that most of us live. And because we are living it, we don’t always see the beauty in it. We just face the hardship, whatever it is, and move on. As a writer, that’s why it’s so hard to tell it in a new way: it is just normal. It’s the way life is.

That’s why there are no new stories. Because for thousands of years, we have spent much of our lives fighting to succeed after being half-eaten by a dragon in our past. 

What looks like death

Since I moved in alone, I’ve been filling my life with plants. One person told me that I had so many, my apartment looked like it was closing in on me.

“That’s the best kind of suffocation,” I said. I have absolutely no intention to stop.

Over the weekend, I fed my addiction at a nursery devoted to succulents. They’re sculptural and stiff, almost aloof. Their leaves don’t move in the breeze and the flowers don’t fill a room with fragrance. But their soft colors create a soothing effect. And they’re often ugly and almost always very strange, which draws me.

As I walked through the nursery, I stared at plants like this, this, and this. I wanted all of them, which felt like a problem. To narrow it down, I decided to buy a plant that looked healthy. I leaned in to each pot and looked closely, but soon noticed something strange. In every pot, leaves were shriveling and turning brown. The undersides of fronds were curling up on the ends and falling off. They looked like they were sick from the inside out, and the bases of the plants seemed to be the worst.

Maybe they weren’t being watered enough here, I thought. I’d buy something expensive, take it home, and it would die. I finally chose a delightfully ugly, wart-like plant with very few trouble spots, and walked it up to the front counter.

“I want to buy this, but I’m not such a fan of this action,” I said, pointing to the dying leaves. “Do I get a discount for this?”

The woman behind the counter looked down at the plant and up at me. Her hair was pulled back and pieces of it fell into her face. “A discount?”

I nodded. “This plant doesn’t look healthy. I think it’s dying.”

She smiled. “That plant isn’t dying. It’s reproducing.”

I stared at her.

“In autumn, succulents kill off the bottom leaves. The leaves dry up and fall off. In the same spot, a baby succulent grows. A lot of people think their plant is dying when it’s actually creating new life.”

“Oh.” I stared down at my plant.

“If you lift up the dying leaves,” she continued, “you’ll see the baby underneath. See?” She plucked a shriveled leaf from the bottom of my plant and sure enough, underneath a small green wart stuck out from the base. She pointed to it. “That’s the baby. A whole new plant will grow from that.”

She paused, and looked at me. “See, the babies have nowhere to grow if the leaves are still there. The plant has to kill part of itself to make a new plant.”

As I paid and left, I was struck that I hadn’t known this very simple thing about how succulents reproduce, without seeds. I spent my entire childhood learning about seeds. As far as I knew, it was the only way plants grew. I wondered how many people with succulent gardens never learned this about their own plants. And I thought about how easy it was to miss the baby plants, tiny and tucked underneath in the least likely place.

When I got home, I kept looking back at my succulent, which looks like it’s covered in warts. It made me think about cycles, and growth, and assumptions. When autumn comes, things begin to die. The first frost shocks the petals from flowers and colors begin to melt from green to orange, then yellow, to brown. Winter is coming, we think, the symbol of death. Meanwhile, an entire family of plants is growing furiously underneath us during this very time. But as it reproduces, it appears to be dying just like everything else is.

I wondered how many times I’ve misunderstood the cycles of growth in my own life. I’ve scrambled to preserve leaves that seem to be dying off. I’ve done anything and everything to save them.

But it must be that sometimes, it may not be the death of something at all, but something new and more beautiful, growing sneaky as a succulent in the “wrong” season, the “wrong” way, and the “wrong” place. There’s no room for the new plant if the old leaves are still there.

Yesterday

I’m in the UC Berkeley Extension writing program, and I was invited to read a piece of my writing at an event yesterday. I’ve done a few readings before. They always give me a ton of anxiety, but I love doing them. This one was different, because my piece was different. It was a highly personal essay, about the journey I’ve been on the past few months. I’ve never shared anything so personal before, and parts of it were scary to read.

But I knew it would be that way – I planned it that way. I don’t see much point in sharing something that feels comfortable. The whole time I read, I wondered if people were bored and sitting politely waiting for me to finish, wondering why I was reading some version of my personal diary out loud. Since I’ve never shared anything personal that didn’t have a plot of any kind, it’s hard to know what others will find interesting.

After the event was over, a dark haired woman approached me and told me that she’d like a copy of my piece. “When it’s finished,” she said.

I was struck dumb that anyone would want to read it again, or share it with anyone. It was about me. All about me – no other characters, no plot, nothing. Just me, and something tough that I’ve gone through in the past six months. “You can have this copy,” I said, holding up the printout that I’d brought for myself.

She smiled big. “Really? You’ll give me your copy?” I felt like I’d done something for her personally, changed the course of her day, helped her, without even doing anything. I handed her the stapled pages, so surprised at the conversation I’d just had that I didn’t even ask her name. She asked for my blog address, which I gave her.

As soon as she walked away, I felt like an idiot. I suddenly hoped that she would never visit this blog. The only things I’ve posted about here are utter crap, and I couldn’t imagine them inspiring anyone. I started this blog with such a sense of obligation and frustration. I wouldn’t want her – or anyone – to be inspired by something I’ve written, only to feel disappointed upon further investigation into my work.

As I sat there by myself, I realized that I should be writing in this blog. If I inspired her, then it must be true that pieces of writing, about people, can help other people. So I’m going to start posting, and I mean REALLY posting. Before I went to sleep last night I realized that I had thirteen ideas swirling around. So, Ms. Brunette, if you do end up coming to my blog and reading this, I want you to know that you inspired me. Thank you.

I’m doing a little research, though. I may migrate to Blogger in the next few posts. I’ll update if that’s the case.

Onward and upward for me now. I’m not resisting this process anymore. Maybe this project will get some good work out of me.