What Makes You Happy?

I was recently talking to someone who claimed to have been happy only six times. This person listed life changing events like a wedding as the only happiness inducing events. Of course I wanted to quarrel with this. Major milestones may by definition be few and far between. But these are not really moments of happiness. Or, not the only moments.
I tend to be happy about six times a minute–and unhappy too. I’ve grown to understand my nature as mercurial—and I am easily pleased.
“You get a lot out of a little,” my friend Kath observed when we were in Iceland. She was commenting on my enthusiasm for a pot of chives in the alley between our apartment and the convenience store. I just loved that pot of chives, blooming away in the long Arctic days. I loved the charmingly Icelandic store, too, with its salted fish and knitting supplies. Of course I loved the volcanoes and the black sand beaches. But I do love the small detail.
My father, may he rest in peace, was a high energy and focused traveller. But he cared only for major monuments—cultural icons. I remember being a sullen teenager in a foreign capital, dragged from cathedral to cathedral. I saw a little cafe, with yes, an alley behind it, and a grey cat cleaning its paws. All I wanted to do was buy myself a hot drink and sit at a round table and watch the world. But alas, this was not on my father’s agenda.
I did grow up, however. And set my own pace. When I was an artist in residence in the Everglades I’d drive down to the end of the park (where there wasn’t much, post hurricane) and buy a bad cup of coffee at the bait shop and sit on the dock. I was rewarded by numerous crocodile sightings—those scary shy reptiles that like brackish water. And I was rewarded by very little, just that moment.

I’m Still Alive

I’m still alive,
unlike several
people in my stories,
those I loved
or half loved,
and I’m at the intersection
of Juanita Street
and Paseo
yellow leaves blowing
as the keyboard intro
to “Super Freak”
comes on the car radio,
and for one moment
I have the intense
although possibly misguided
insight
that this
is the greatest song
ever written,
and for that
one moment
it’s true,
because who doesn’t love
the kind of girl
you read about—
and then it all floods in
all the other songs
I love
and also believe
to be the greatest song
ever written,
and I wonder
who the fuck am I?
and really
I don’t know.

Jane The Widow

Jane The Widow

I prefer my widows cheery, although God knows I was beyond morose. When I was newly widowed I wept constantly, blowing my nose, rubbing my eyes. When asked how I was, I responded “I’m fucked,” over and over. However, even at the start, I craved some role models of widows who hadn’t completely collapsed, who had some kickback to life. I did find them—and found one inside myself—but it took a while. I wish that all those decades ago I’d been able to watch “Jane The Virgin.”
Usually television doesn’t have a profound effect on me, and “Jane” was no exception. Funny, cute, full of great Latina actresses, and some meta riffs on telenovelas and narrative—yes. But not much more. Until, to my shock, Jane’s new husband Michael DIES. Leaving Jane a widow. And in a very clever move, three years passes in the middle of a season. So we don’t have to watch Jane grieve. We get to see her recover.
“You’re in a long term relationship with grief—but it has to evolve.” That’s what Jane’s abuela tells her. Abuela herself is a widow—something we know but don’t focus on. I felt like Abuela was talking to me. I wrote it down.
Grief, despite our investigations, our systems, seems to have a life of its own. It’s like love or hate—it doesn’t yield to the purely rational. Sometimes I feel a door open and find myself prostrate sobbing on the floor—for my first husband, for those I lost to AIDS, for a high school suicide. These griefs have not gone…anywhere. Not away, not under. They are here, as fresh as they were when I preserved them like rose petals. They are part of me.
The one thing I still can’t stand is other people having opinions on what a widow can and can’t do. Remember Scarlet O’Hara, widowed, dancing with Rhett Butler beneath disapproving eyes? Even today there is some kind of allowable social opinion on when widows can date, or love again. Jane The Virgin nicely sidesteps this with a decorous passage of time. But, shocking as this may seem in our buttinsky world, what a widow does is no one’s business but her own. Smoke cigarettes, lie in bed eating ice cream, marry again, sell your house, join the Peace Corps—the truth is, you get to do what you want as a widow. And that is because—get this—grief does not make us stupid.
It may make other’s uncomfortable. But so what. For those of us who grieve…in our own ways, it makes us wise.

Father’s Day FB Post, the Extended Version: Some things I learned from my father. By Devon Miller-Duggan

I read Devon’s post on Facebook, and was very touched by it. Here is a somewhat expanded version for Miriam’s Well. I’m grateful to have it, because this past Father’s Day I didn’t feel up to writing about my own dad.
This seems like a good time to express my gratitude to Devon for being a contributing writer here. One of her fans recently told me that she was struck by DEvon’s ability to write about things as they were happening. As little in life is ever truly resolved, I am continually impressed by Devon’s ability to express ambiguity, and levels of meaning.
—Miriam Sagan, editor Miriam’s Well

***

Father’s Day FB Post, the Extended Version: Some things I learned from my father.

1. There is no end of interesting things to look at in the world: no museum too small, no scenic turnout not worth stopping at, no person whose story isn’t worth collecting, no restaurant someone else has recommended not worth trying.
2. Knowing how to do lots of things, both random and specific to your main focus, is great fun. He was a splendid dentist, and his huge hands (think Michelangelo’s “David”) could finesse the smallest, most precise work. He could also fix all sorts of stuff, ski, shoot, cook, butcher, raft, wrap gifts exquisitely, and when he was young, excel at most sports.
3. Craftsmanship doesn’t just matter, it MATTERS. I’ve had to unlearn this one a bit—perfection isn’t always useful or necessary, but that which is done beautifully is a benediction to the world. He also regarded this as a matter of character. I pretty much do, too.
4. The pleasure of arguing. He raised me to be very aware of politics, but was not altogether happy about how my politics turned out. My husband and his wife used to leave us to it and go talk cooking in the kitchen in peace.
5. Very good people can also be very bad people and still be very good people. (work that one out…) My father did a lot of good in the world. He was perhaps happiest when he was saving someone, or helping someone save themselves, or giving gifts. He was very much the person you wanted around in an emergency—calm, competent, reliable, and decisive. But he was also other things.
6. Love looks pretty weird sometimes. Sometimes it looks like extraordinary generosity and great warmth. Sometimes that generosity can become a form of manipulation (for both parties), and that warmth can turn frighteningly cold, or turn violent.
7. Never to stop living or looking for new things to learn. When he had to give up skiing, he took up whitewater rafting. He also read all those historical markers along roads.
8. He taught me that men are unsafe and capricious. My maternal grandfather taught me that men are strong and loving. My husband taught me that men are human.
9. It’s both possible and good to love people even though they’re much more complicated than they want to be.
10. Communication is a good idea. Argument is not necessarily communication, though sometimes it’s all you’ve got.
11. Even if you’re a hard-core introvert, it is possible to enjoy making yourself act like an extrovert for chunks of time. He was both charismatic and genuinely interested in the other folks in the room. I’m interested in the folks in the room, but would mostly rather not have to talk to any of them until I’ve been in the room with them lots of times and talked to other people about them—not gossip, research.
12. Beauty matters–everywhere and in everything. And he could never quite deal with the fact that I wasn’t—at least not as far as I knew. Near his death, he told me that I was for at least some part of early adulthood. You could have knocked me over with a gnat’s breath.
13. Never tell your children they’re not good enough.
14. Your children are not there to make you look good. I lost track of how often folks would tell me how proud of me he was of me, my artwork, my brains, my skills. I took up poetry partially because it was an art he couldn’t show other people. Mostly he told me what a disappointment I was.
15. The joys of storytelling.

I miss him. I didn’t for a long time, but I do now. I hate his not getting to meet his great-grandchildren. I hate his not getting to see how wrong he was about so many things in my life, and not getting to tell him how wrong I was about so many things in his. I also regret never getting to forgive him face-to-face. It would have done both our hearts great good. So, for today, I wish him great peace.

How Is Your Day Going So Far? (Please Do Not Ask Me That)

Contemporary life has it’s annoyances. I don’t like the superficiality of “how are you?” I found it particularly difficult when I was bereaved as a widow. Did the person really want to know? Should I lie? I still brush it off—charmingly I hope—with the answer “I have no idea!” Sometimes people laugh. Mostly they just ignore the unexpected.
At 8 am at the dentist’s office, I was asked “How is your day going so far?” So far? Well, I had coffee and psyched up to be injected, numbed, drilled, crowned, and charged a king’s ransom. My day was mediocre, headed for bad. Why ask?
“What can possibly have happened so far?” I said. I was unprepared for the answer, which in true New Mexican fashion looked at potential disaster with both resignation and humor. The speaker answered: “You could have been pulled over by the cops. Busted. You could have gone into labor. Someone else could have gone into labor…” I had to laugh. This sounded like some of the more plausible excuses I used to get in English 111 about why an essay was late.
So I enjoyed the exchange. Until the next time I got asked. At the airport. At 6:30 am. I’d had coffee, and psyched up for TSA, lines, turbulence, and strange landing gear noises.
This time, I didn’t say much of anything.
Next time, please don’t ask.

Inside Story by Julia Goldberg

1. Julia–you’ve just published your first book–INSIDE STORY. The focus is a guide to writing creative nonfiction. I found the tone and approach very helpful. What in particular can the reader expect to learn?

My hope is that the book has appeal to many different types of creative nonfiction writers, from students to working writers and everyone in between. Inside Story delves into various categories of nonfiction—from memoir to journalism to the lyric essay. Each chapter endeavors to provide explanations about craft, writing exercises as well as references and resource lists. So, it’s a way to both learn more about the genre but also very much a practical guide to reporting and writing creative nonfiction. I have read many craft books myself, so I tried to distinguish my book in terms of it sounding like me—it has, I hope, much of the information one might find in a textbook, but it has a voice as well.

2. Was it easier–or more difficult–to write a book than you expected? You’ve been an editor in numerous capacities, including the Santa Fe Reporter but this is a different kind of endeavor. What surprised you?

I was surprised at how challenging it was! I’ve written on deadline my entire adult life and have written many long-form reported pieces. I worked as an editor on another book (Best Altweekly Writing, 2009-2010 from Northwestern Press). So I am familiar with many of the components needed to write a nonfiction book, such as research, reporting, organizing and, of course, the actual writing. But the accumulative process—writing for hours every day, day after day, and still not being finished, was a challenging—invigorating and difficult—experience. It set a bar in terms of my appreciation for the stamina it takes, for sure.

3. Anything else you want to add?
The book isn’t just my take on reporting and writing. I’ve been lucky in my career to both meet and read many amazing writers. I interviewed and reference numerous people for this book, whose own perspectives and experiences are in each chapter, and I’m very grateful for that.

4.How can readers buy a copy?
If readers are in Santa Fe, they can buy it at Collected Works. The book also is available on Amazon and all other online retailers. I’m also doing a giveaway on Goodreads May 24-June 23, so they can enter and maybe win one!

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Story-Everyones-Reporting-Nonfiction/dp/0997020776

Goodreads giveaway link: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/237632-inside-story-everyone-s-guide-to-reporting-and-writing-creative-nonfict

House Dress

I spent the majority of Sunday cleaning house and watering the yard, warring with the omnipresent Chinese elm seeds, and feeling virtuous. And I was properly dressed for the occasion—in a housedress. My grandma Sadie always wore a neat little flowered duster of a dress to do housework. It was practical, differentiated home from the outside world, and looked tidy. As I prefer unconstricted clothing—sometimes even drawstring pants are too much—I’m happy in my one piece items that range from classic housedress (snaps, pockets, puffy sleeves) to a colorful short caftan that works just as well.
My mother loathed the look. She hated Depression era fashion, particularly on me. We fought for years about my favorite dress—a black 1930’s styled cotton dress patterned with red cherries. She would have bodily ripped it off me if she’d dared. I wore it to college interviews against her imprecations—only to have interviewers say: what a cute dress! It was a cute dress, and flattering, and modest. In an era of micro mini skirts I have no idea what my mom was freaking out about. She just hated that it reminded her of her mother.
Before she died, my mom sent me a clipping of me receiving the first poetry award I ever acquired while wearing…the dress. In that photo, I recognize the girl I was, the woman I would become. My expression is pleased if bemused—I look happy if slightly confused by life. My hair is bad—lank and unstyled. My dress is sweet. This is how I will remain for the rest of my life—bad hair, good dress, nice smile, mixed attitude. My mother enclosed a note saying—I don’t know why I carried on about that dress.
I don’t know either. My grandma Sadie came from poverty and oppression in the Ukraine to Boston. She was a seamstress, a union organizer, and a woman who loved clothes. She could crochet and trim a hat and judge a garment by its seams. She had a beautiful heavily embroidered silk kimono that never fit any of us as she was well under five feet tall. My mother also loved clothes. But I think she was ashamed of her roots in some way—she disliked the handmade, and the fashions of her childhood.
My paternal grandmother Esther also loved clothes and wore brilliant brocades and rich fabrics and patterns as her family ascended the social ladder. From her my sisters and I inherited a love of massage,hot springs and exercise. Influenced by the European physical culture movement, she did calisthenics naked and swam in the ocean every day. When I went to massage school, my father was as upset as my mother had been over the dress. “It’s all Esther’s fault,” he said.
My parents wanted to be modern, assimilated, American. But the counterculture—and cultural style itself—brought back everything from Swedish massage to shoulder pads.
Thank you grandmothers for your influence and sense of style.