Drawn in MS Paint whilst at work.
Loosely titled: RAAARRWGLGLwawajjshWSHOOOOM
I art so hard.
I work on posts for this blog a couple of times a week.
Reading the blog, you would literally never know that. There is zero indication on the actual blog itself of the countless woman hours and stray hairs pulled in frustration that go into this thing. (Or rather, *don’t* go into this thing, which is the problem.) I’m forever inventing and discarding ideas for posts. Beginning posts and then deleting them, or emailing the partial remains to myself along with a mantra of “I’ll finish this one when I can figure out how to make it suck less.” (I must have six thousands words of unfinished blog posts, not counting the ones I never bothered to save.)
In the interest of achieving actual productivity one day (rather than the illusion of productivity) I sat down over a lunch of taco lasagna and analyzed my bizarre, perceived inability to blog. I mean, a mantis could blog, given the right, tiny, specialized tools. Therefore, I can’t actually be incapable, which means that somewhere, in the corn maze, haunted house of my brain, I’m really just unwilling.
So I wrote myself some advice, because that’s the kind of person I am. The writing, self-advising, making-uncomfortable-subjects-comfortable-through-the-nerdy-lens-of-LOTR type person.
Quick side note: I have anxiety. And a simplified version of the conversation I had with myself could be summed up as “Your anxiety is holding you back; take some steps to overcome that anxiety.” If you’re reading this and you don’t have anxiety, I don’t think that necessarily means parts of my experience won’t be relatable. I suspect that many of them are pretty common thoughts and attitudes, and the real difference comes in degrees. If I’m wrong, well it won’t be the first time and feel free to let me know.
Also I am hella not a mental health professional.
1) I need to stop the cycle of negative self-talk.
I’m going to spend the most amount of time with this one, because it represents my biggest roadblock. Examples include: “No one will find this interesting.”, “This has been done a million times before.” and, “Oh God, my blog posts sound like something a twelve year old Saruman would have written on his Livejournal.”
All of which are thoughts that are totally unhelpful. They were originally meant to serve as a “healthy kick in the ass” style motivation. But it turns out that negative mantra’s only end up feeding off my imposter syndrome, growing bigger and meaner, like Shelob getting fat on gritty old goblins.
It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. I can’t think of anything cool for a post because I’m telling myself I won’t be good at it, and then I feel affirmed in thinking I won’t be good at it because I can’t think of anything cool for a post. I’m trying to create something under the assumed certainty of failure, which is kind of ridiculous.
It’s like my negative thoughts are the eye of Sauron, right? (Are you ready for the sheer cheese of this metaphor? This is twenty-four carat cheese coming up.) And he’s bearing down, trying to immobilize me by making simple projects seem impossible, and if I give in to his crabby, negative thoughts all the time, I’m never going to make progress. I’m gonna just lie on the couch, marathoning Criminal Minds on Netflix until Sauron destroys the world.
I need me a Samwise. A positive voice picking my cynical ass up off the ground. And it can start as a friend if I need it to start somewhere external, saying nice things to me and giving encouragement, but from there I have to internalize that positivity (as I have certainly internalized the negativity) so that it can generate change in my behavior. (In this case, giving me enough confidence to follow through on the small act of writing a regular blog post.)
How does a cynical grouch like me internalize positive things? By telling them to myself over and over and over. “My ideas are valid and legitimate, and I have just as much a right as anyone to voice them.” “I’m totally cool and people think I’m funny.” “I find this topic interesting, and this is my blog blblblblb” “I AM THE DARK LORD AND I WILL RULE OVER ALL.”
Okay maybe not that last one.
2) I should stop holding myself to ridiculous standards of perfection and let the blog be imperfect.
I gotta give myself permission to suck occasionally. I’m not going to get any better at blogging (or at anything) by sitting around and waiting to get better. I need to let the blog evolve naturally. Let my craft evolve naturally.
As a sidebar to that, I really need to start taking everything a little less seriously. I’m in the (rather unwise) habit of treating everything I write (from stories to emails) like it’s heart surgery. Which it isn’t. Like, at all. The only thing living or dying by this post is my ego.
Ways to help myself take this thing less seriously: Write the blog post like a wild fire, just burn right through from one end to the other instead of hyper-analyzing every paragraph as I go. Then, go back and edit the Big Suck out of it at the end.
Remind myself that this isn’t trying a work of literary genius, or even a marketable story. Which isn’t to say that some people’s blogs aren’t, or that some people aren’t blogging toward that goal. But in my case, I’m aiming for a blog that’s a little more casual than my stories. And as a result, I don’t have to go into every blog post asking myself “WHERE ARE MY CLICHES AND ARCHETYPES AND HOW CAN I DESTROY THEM?”
I’ve also started writing the blog posts directly into the site text window (you know, the box where the words go before the magic makes them appear on the webpage? whatever that thing is called?), rather than perfecting it in Word first. This sort of tricks my brain into chilling the fuck out.
Finally, I don’t need a freaking road map of all the places I intend this blog to go. Because it’s not a story. It’s a free-wheeling expression. A fly the the seat of my pants endeavor. So it’s totally cool if I figure it out as I go along.
Not all those who wander are lost!
3) I should embrace the fact that I have literally no idea what I’m doing. That’s a GIFT. It will be a light in dark places, where all other lights go out.
Having no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going gives me license to make mistakes. And mistakes are how craftsman improve.
So yeah. That’s cool and I should remember that.
4) I should worry less about writing what I *think* people want to read.
I’m forever slowed down by trying to figure out how to turn lead into gold. How to make this blog entertaining and enjoyable. Which is still a good thing to strive for, but I’m probably using some really strict, unfair criteria. Because, first of all, I have literally no idea what other people want to read. The market has no idea. Publishers have no idea. Gandalf has no idea.
And moreover this is my blog, on which I do me things. And if at the end of the day, I’m the only one that’s entertained, so what? I’m happy. No one else has been hurt by it. And anyone who thinks I should be doing me differently can just deal with it. Because I don’t have to worry about them.
So for fun, I thought I would finally do one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges. I wrote about half of it and then life butted in and I zoomed right past the one week challenge deadline (while simultaneously falling pathetically short of the required word count.)
But I wanted to polish up and post here what I did manage to spit out, because I actually wrote one of these in high school as part of an independent study (w/ the cheeky title “Chick Lit”, run by a truly great English teacher and attended by myself and two of my fellow writer-friends), and I still remember how much I enjoyed writing it. I wish I could track it down and see what’s changed in my answers. Unfortunately, I suspect the poor thing fried a long time ago with my mom’s old Gateway computer. (Why the cow motif Gateway? What about a bovine implied high-tech future-machine?)
Why I Write:
I write because if I don’t, the stories will keep me up at night.
I write because sometimes I can’t help it. I see words on the inside of my eyelids and when I open them I’m already at a keyboard, throwing them down like fire-crackers.
I write because it keeps me sane.
And also because it keeps me from becoming too sane.
I write because as a kid, my life was dictated by monsters, curled up under my bed ready to snap jaws closed like a bear-trap, prowling the roiling landscape of my constant nightmares, and now it is my turn to dictate them. I pin them down on a page and put them in my monster zoo for other people to look at.
I write because I want to.
I write because I love to write.
I write because if I wasn’t writing, I honestly couldn’t say what else I would be doing. Rewatching The West Wing an unhealthy number of times, probably.
I write because when I don’t write, I get very cranky. So really I’m writing for the benefit of the people who must suffer my presence day in and day out. You’re welcome.
I write to make sense of the world.
I write because the world makes no sense, and I need that fractured landscape of revisable qualities to straighten out my crooked vision.
I write because I love stories, and because I think stories are important.
I write because I want there to be more, infinitely more, stories with women who do not slide out from between the pages like pressed flower pedals: fragile, fragrant-less, and already dead.
I write because the genre needs some fucking revision.
I write because, whatever the popular adage says, there are countless untold stories in the world. The people who say otherwise are confusing “story” with “trope” in my opinion. And when they say, “Every story has already been told”, what they mean is that more than one white western man has starred in more than one retelling of a Shakespeare play.
I write because most stories have never been told at all. But they should be.
I write because I can’t find a good enough excuse to do anything else.
I write because I’m a writer. Full stop. End transmission.
I have nebulous plans to write an autobiography someday.
Not today though. Probably not tomorrow either. But in the meantime, I’m thinking it might not be a horrible idea to chronicle the weird little occurrences that are forever popping up in my life. Not the huge events that are going to mark the milestones and chapter-titles later on, but the small universe-hiccups of you-gotta-be-fucking-kidding-me that I’m sometimes asked to recount at parties.
I don’t have hard proof, but I feel more or less justified in saying that one of the ways my friends probably describe me to people I haven’t met yet is: “She has some really weird stories.”
“All the Ingredients for an Axe Murder”
New Hope, PA is a tourist town right across the river from New Jersey. It’s a strange little place full of bright yellow buildings and freshly painted doors: ice-cream parlors, biker bars, and magic shops.
And on the bank of the river, in a basement accessible through a side door down a sloping alley with several stairs, is an antique shop that deals in Victorian funeral memorabilia and other hella freaky shit. It’s the kind of place you visit with two or more friends and—despite the crowded, relatively small layout of the shop—browse together as a single clump.
I went with my cousin Sara and her wife Sam (then her girlfriend) one summer in my early twenties. We talked about horror movies on our way there. Sunlight raged all around, so it didn’t feel like much of an omen at the time.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the antique shop entering was the wall of skeleton keys, hanging on a grid of rusty nails just inside the door. One of the keys caught my eye, for no good reason at all, I just liked the look of it, but I couldn’t imagine what I would do with the damn thing if I bought it, so I passed it by.
Next there was a tall, glass cabinet full of mysterious medical instruments, glass vials, and an old syringe that was longer than my hand, laid out in a black velvet case. I stared, and tried to imagine what some of they could be for, then decided I was probably better off not knowing.
Display cases ran around the edges of the room, and inside were old dolls and bouquets of dried flowers, photo albums and framed pictures of men and women who sitting up right in chairs, sometimes alone, sometimes with pets, often with other family members standing around, while the subject staring glassily off into space, looking like he or she was bored to tears.
He or she wasn’t of course. He or she was dead. The Victorians were a morbid bunch of whackos in many ways, and if you’ve never heard the term “Post-Mortem Photography” I encourage you to Google it. When you’re done googling you can come back here and tell me what I bad person I am for inflicting that knowledge upon you.
The windows of the shop clung with dust and let in only enough light to keep me from tripping on the antique bicycle leaned against a doorframe, spokes still slowly spinning from the motion of the last passer by. Taxidermy animals were tipped over and propped up in the back room. An old wedding dress hung on the wall.
Hanging scattered across the ceiling were numerous empty, rusted birdcages.
Ain’t nothing sets the mood for a possible murder like numerous empty, rusted birdcages.
The shop owner, who stood behind one of the display cases as we browsed speaking with other customers, was tall, old, and had a voice like the flipping pages of an ancient book. He seemed, for a mortal, to be unusually well versed in the personal opinions of God on all matters great and inconsequential. I’m told that sometimes he is in a good mood and talks to people and tells jokes. And sometimes he’s in a terrible mood and all but chases them out the door.
We avoided him. We perused. We made to leave, our thoughts turning to important matters of ice cream and waffles.
On our way out I paused and looked at that key again. I took one step out the door, paused once more, and looked back at it again.
“I’ll catch up,” I said to Sara and Sam. “I keep looking at this stupid key and I think it’s because I want it.”
Sara and Sam agreed to wait for me at the top of the stairs. I left them there, standing in the lovely sunshine, and went back into the basement to pay for my key.
The other customers had just left and I was the only person, other than the owner, left in the shop. I carried my key to the main display case, which doubled as the shop counter, and set it down with a click on the glass.
“Ah, decided you wanted it after all?” the shop owner asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I just kept coming back to it and I figured it must be a sign.” I laughed, meaning it as a joke. The shop owner smiled.
I fished my wallet out of my purse and pretended with every ounce of pretending I had in my twenty year old body that I couldn’t feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, and the breeze from the half opened door brushing against them.
“Would you like to know the history of this key?” the shop owner asked as he filled out a yellow paper receipt by hand.
My key had a history? Of course I wanted to know.
“Yes please,” I said, interested.
I’m interrupting here briefly in order to solemnly swear to Santa that all the following events are exactly as I remember them with no hyperbole or exaggeration. No really. I’m serious.
The shop owner held up the key into a shaft of dusty sunlight and turned it over in his fingers a few times.
“This key is from the early nineteen hundreds,” he said slowly. “Around 1910. It would have opened a door, probably to a garden shed or a basement, possibly also to a bedroom. This key was used in the large farm houses of the time and would have been carried on the end of a pocket chain.”
He handed it back to me.
“Wow,” I said. “Fascinating.” I took my key and looked down at it. That wasn’t so bad. A friendly little farmhouse key. I liked it more already.
The shop owner slid over my receipt.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling politely. Before I could turn to leave, he asked suddenly, in a honey-quiet voice:
“Do you like stories?”
I froze and looked up to meet his gaze. I was still alone in the shop. The empty birdcages creaked in the circulating breeze from the door. And it wasn’t like the movies, where the protagonist ignorantly flounces into danger. I knew right away exactly what kind of moment I was standing in, and I made a conscious decision.
“I love stories,” I said firmly.
Because I do. And what the fuck else was I supposed to say? I’m a writer, I couldn’t just walk away from pure-gold horror shit like that when it happened in real life.
“Come with me,” he said.
I followed him over to the glass display case full of ancient medical equipment. He unlocked the cabinet and pulled instruments out one at a time, explaining them to me.
The first was a long, curved metal wire at the end of a handle. The sort of tool that would have been used, the shop owner explained, to treat an anal fistula in the time of King Louis the XIV. I will spare you the gory details because I’m eating breakfast as I write this (mmm, yogurt) and because Google will always be there to fill in whatever gaps you feel I’ve left behind. But given the design of the object (long, slender, curved) I’m sure you can make your own hypothesis that will be close enough to the truth.
The second was a wide mouth glass vial, of the sort that would have been used in blood letting to cure (using that word in its loosest possible definition here) yellow fever. The shop owner told me about Benjamin Rush, a physician in the late 1700’s, who had a theory that the human body contained roughly 25 pounds of blood, and that it was medically safe to remove about 80%.
He went on to explain to me the state of Rush’s blood-soaked yard in Philadelphia (I’ve finished breakfast now) during the height of his practice.
That’s when the other part of my brain (the one that to this day can’t believe I would answer “yes” to such an obvious fucking precursor to horrific murder as “Do you like stories”) realized that I was standing alone in a dusty antique shop with a man wielding sharp, 18th century medical implements. As a result, I don’t recall at all what he said about the last two objects he removed from the case. I waited, skin buzzing, for him to put the four inch needle back down before explaining that I really probably should run because my friends were waiting outside.
The shop owner peeled a grin across his face and shook my hand.
“Of course my dear,” he said. His hand felt like a dried out orange skin. “Come back any time. The stories are always free.”
“Thank you. Uh, have a nice day,” I said and literally backed out the door.
I felt sunlight against my back like a hearty slap from a friend and looked over to see Sara and Sam, still waiting.
“We were starting to wonder if you’d been murdered in there or something,” said Sara.
I pocketed my friendly little farmhouse key.
“Not super positive I almost wasn’t,” I answered. “I’m ready for those ice cream waffles now though. Like, so ready.”
Your writer is evolving!
Your writer is getting published! (And also possibly transmogrified into a biologically unlikely water dragon.)
Confession: I started this blog so I could get some practice blogging before/if I had to start blogging for real (in the event of publication.)
Which isn’t to say that the blog you’ve been reading is only a figment of the mind, and that you’ve just been dreaming for the past several centuries. You have no friend/family member/acquaintance named, Peri. In fact, you’re about to wake up and find yourself in the long, silver, cigar tube we froze you in. The year is 3095 and your name is Winston Churchill.
I entered into this blogging thing with the idea of using it to beef up my online snarking stats, but it turns out that even being a proto-writer means writing almost all the time. So now here we are: I’m going to have a short story published in the near future (which literally everyone reading the blog at this moment, now, in March 2015, knows already–I couldn’t have spread the news more widely if I’d airlifted town-criers into each of your neighborhoods) and I’ve only put two posts up on this thing.
In my perfect brain-world, I hit the ground running with the shoes of Mercury and blog just like Chuck Wendig, who happens to be my idol of bloghood. He’s hilarious. He’s a feminist. He gives good writing advice. And when he spits, metaphors of hysterical genius splatter all over the computer screen and form a perfect Jackson Pollock smudge.
In real life reality world, I write about thirty sentences of seven different blog topics over my work lunch-break while mashed potatoes dribble down my chin, and then never finish them. Meanwhile, a little imposter-syndromed, hyperactive chinchilla who lives under the couch in the back of my psyche runs around in circles shouting,
ARE YOU NUTS? WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. IF YOU WRITE THIS EVERYONE IS GOING TO KNOW THAT YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND THEY’RE GOING TO SEND YOU UGLY POSTCARDS ABOUT ALL THE WAYS THEY’RE JUDGING YOU.
Of course, the chinchilla is full of shit. I know quite a bit about writing (I should do, considering the amount of hours I spend shut away over a keyboard, sucking the dregs of my social life through a straw threaded under the door.) But there are lots of things I don’t know, too. Buckets full of stuff waiting atop doors I haven’t walked through yet.
Subconsciously, I (and I think a lot people) live with this delusion that there are two states of being a person: person in progress and person completed. Like one day the latter group woke up to the sound of a microwave timer binging in their brains and now they get to skip through the rest of life in a state of perma-bliss, flinging frisbees of self actualization at the world while the rest of us try to catch up.
Obviously that’s not the case. But I often find myself behaving as if it is.
So rather than holding off on this blog post until it’s photoshopped to flawlessness, or perfecting my blogging game in a dark corner somewhere before punching my way in through a wall, I’m going to do here what I do with all the other projects in my life that don’t have anything to do with writing and
buy seven pounds of yarn before I even have knitting needles, attempt to melt silver on the stove without a working knowledge of blacksmithery, learn the rules as I go.
And now, apropos of nothing, and because I spent like forty minutes compiling this next part before I knew what the rest of the blog post was going to be about…
This is what it’s like trying to read and make sense of your first ever acceptance email/letter:
Thank you for…
I would be pleased…
…ext issue of…
…ve questions feel fr…
And then, when you finally manage to jigsaw a coherent meaning out of all of that, it feels like this:
Yeah, it’s awesome.
Well apparently, they’re both requirements to become a really successful writer.
I’m talking about the kind of rock star writer that gets to bask in the sweaty, melanoma-inducing spotlight of fame, and shake hands with fans, and go crowd surfing across the internet on the backs of his own bloops and blurbs.
His own, I say, having I have just spent an hour and a half looking for the blogs of some successful women writers and coming up almost completely empty handed.
Not one witty blog. Not one hyperactive twitter account. All my favorite badass story-slinging ladies are slinging no words on the internet. They’re non-presences. They’re ghosts drifting around behind the fogged up windows of brief biographies and events’ calendars on their websites.
After twenty minutes of Googling, I stopped looking for the blogs of writer-ladies I liked, and started looking for the blogs of writer-ladies I just knew. Then, writer-ladies I’d read maybe one short story by that I sort of enjoyed. In the end, I even looked up Stephanie Meyer and Sherrilyn Kenyon, who used to be the kind of writer-ladies I lived to bitch about, because they wrote the kinds stories that academics revile and the media expects women to read. The mush and the gush stories with sketchtastic borderline-emotionally-abusive-yet-weirdly-accepted-and-romanticized male love interests. (I’m looking at you Heathcliff and Edward.)
After the long, caffeinated search across the vast, .com wastelands for evidence of the female voice on fiction, I’m wondering what plague of Dutch-Elm disease came along and wiped out all the women’s blogs? The male fiction writer is still blogging strong. He’s got entire forests of blogwood all to himself.
It occurs to me that I have attempted to read the books of ten times as many male writers who are guilty of exactly the same sins of fiction as Stephanie Meyer (and worse,) but I’ve never heard someone burst into a twenty-minute rant about them. People say, “Oh, I didn’t finish his book.” Or, “It wasn’t my kind of story.” Or, surely the most painful of all insults to the writer’s-ego, “It was boring.”
That’s the shape of the cat-shitapult projectile that gets lobbed at a male writer. “You’re boring. And personally, I didn’t like your story.”
Stephanie Meyer gets called a “dumb bitch.” A traitor to the female sex. A “a self-obsessed, narrsisistic, hypocritical and infantile woman.” (Thank you cracked.com.) She sits at the very tippy top of many a fiction-snob’s hit list, and will for the next decade or so at least, and all she did was write a mediocre story.
My shock at learning that Stephanie Meyer didn’t have a blog seems suddenly pitifully naïve. And she is only one, magnified example of the same verbal attacks and criticisms that all women writers receive. Every writer is guaranteed some amount of negative feedback. Even authors with the kind of social currency that, for example, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have, are going to find themselves on the pointy end of somebody’s opinion.
But women in the business get it faster, get it harder, and get it meaner. This isn’t news: I’m a saber-toothed, foaming-at-the-mouth feminist for a reason. But now that I’ve got a sense of the magnitude, I’m discouraged. I’m disgruntled. I’m more disinclined than ever to behave and keep my mouth shut and my bad language to myself.
Nearly every blog of a male writer I follow talks at some point about the necessity of having a presence on social media for success. “Self promotion sucks,” they say “but it’s necessary. And if you do it right, it can be fun!”
The women don’t say anything.
I don’t think it’s because they have nothing to say.
I think it’s because women aren’t encouraged to have real confidence in their voices, where men are taught that voicing their opinions is an inherent “human” right. I think it’s because women become storytellers so that they can tell stories, and instead are expected to defend and categorically prove every single assertion they make in public, while simultaneously producing work that is absolutely perfect in every way and if they don’t, well, that’s not surprising, because, you know, they’re women.
I think it’s because they told a story, a fictional story, and what must feel like half of the literate world jumped down their throats with spears, over every misplaced comma and recycled archetype.
As a proto-writer (a writer who has not yet become published, but who fully intends to do so) I have always had this really, really huge decision to make. One which I am painfully aware is not the kind of decision my boyfriend has to decide on before he can get published.
It isn’t: Do I publish under my name or under a pseudonym? Although it should be, since that’s the kind of decision every writer has to make. Instead it’s: Do I publish under a man’s name, or a woman’s?
Because even now in 2014, I know that I am grossly more likely to have my writing accepted by a publisher and recognized by readers if the market thinks that I am a man. I am vastly less likely to be burned in conversational effigy for writing a carbon-copy of Harry Potter called Larry Flotter. I am entirely more likely to have my opinions listened to and respected.
But I don’t I have any interest in becoming another women writer’s specter on the internet. I have less interest in cosplaying as a keyboard with a penis just to get published. I have no interest at all in being perceived as a reclusive, never-makes-public-appearances male WASP, whose background is a mystery but whose diction is always perfect.
Maybe as a wasp…
(Vespula germanica Richard Bartz CC BY-SA 2.5)
Buzz, buzz, publishers.
I am shit at blogs.
I am the blogger equivalent of a one-night stand. I pick out the witty title and the cute URL to wear and then twirl around in front of the “preview” page for a while before skipping off to a slightly awkward first post, which ends in a slightly awkwarder climax (since the blog and I don’t know each other very well and so our pacing is all off). Then I spend the entire next morning thinking things like “oh god, I talked about myself way too much” and “wish I hadn’t spilled that entire glass of ice all over my face,” so I cheat on the blog with a good book to get my mind off things, and by the time that fling is over I’ve long forgotten the password. Which is just as well because Mr. Blog and I hardly had anything in common anyway.
To reiterate: I am shit at blogging. I never call that blog back.
But my friend Martin (who is already a *real* writer; in that Martin is published and continues to publish and is just fine at blogging) tells me that the blog is a part of the business. It’s a thing you do if you want to be a writer in 2014. It’s like, you can’t really be a grave robber without a flashlight: you can’t really be writer without a blog.
Well, I wanna be a grave robber in 2014. But I’m still shit at blogs.
I’m pretty decent at telling stories though.
So here’s a story about grave robbing. And it’s a real story. About me. Which has to get me at least 35% of the way up Blogger Mountain.
How To Rob a Grave with a Box of Crayons
*Please note that no actual graves were
robbed during the making of this story
In my Junior year of college, the dean of Liberal Arts called me to his office, sat me down in a cushy chair across from his desk, put three peanut M&M’s in my hand and said, “I need a favor.”
Because I was a stuck-up snobademic little asshole in college, this wasn’t an entirely uncommon occurrence. I munched my candy, threw one leg over the other, and answered, “Sure,” without even hearing the proposal.
“I need you to go live in Wales for five months,” said the dean. A saxophone played in the background. (Which is not my way of setting the tone, the dean was just always playing saxophone music. In his office, in his classrooms, in his car…I imagine that even when he went to the grocery store, that saxophone music trailed behind him.)
“Uh?” I said. And three months later, I went.
It was part of a budding study-abroad program for which the school needed a guinea pig student (who wouldn’t accidentally burn down the historic little town of Carmarthen trying to light a blunt in the wind) to scope out a new college. There’s no real reason you need to know this information, except as a way for me to explain how the hell I went from studying Literature in Dunmore, Pennsylvania to (allegedly) robbing graves at St. David’s Cathedral in Wales.
I didn’t actually rob any graves. That’s important.
I didn’t actually want to rob any graves. That’s important too.
At no point during the study-abroad student trip from Carmarthen to Pembrokeshire, did I even say the words “grave robbing.” I did make a few friends while I was there. In retrospect, I think this story says more about them than it does about me.
St. David’s Cathedral was dazzling, in the way the only really old buildings with really old stained glass can be. We visited on one of the two days out of the year in which the sun actually shines in Wales. Sunlight wobbled through the windows and fell across the wooden benches and marble marked graves in the floor. It puddled on the engraved names and dates in different colors and dripped from the walls in a sort of “we’re painting the roses red” atmosphere. Except that the high, dark ceiling made it quiet, and the yellows and blues made it somber (though for all the building’s right angles and towering severity, no less—like waking up to the sound of your name in an empty room—a little bit mad.)
Outside, scattered across the grass and lining the path down the slope to the cathedral doors, old grave stones tilted left and right. I mean old gravestones. That kind of storybook old that we don’t have in the US. Really just very, very freaking old. All weather worn and lichen covered and nearly impossible to read.
At the end of the tour (which consisted of our study abroad chaperone bopping around on his own while we students wandered freely) we stood on the road and looked down at the Cathedral. I said to my shiny new study abroad friends, “We should stop somewhere for paper and crayons and come back later to do some grave rubbings. It’d be cool to have for a scrap book for something.”
They looked at me as though I had just vomited up a rude, talking frog, that kept telling jokes nobody thought were funny.
I shrugged, because, yeah okay, maybe it was a little morbid. But it’s not a thing that’s unheard of. Still, they were new friends, I didn’t want to scare them away by being weird and insistent at the same time. So I let it go. I said nothing else. They said nothing else. We went and had lunch. It was large and delicious and came with beer and was in all ways totally normal.
Seven hours later, seven hours later I finally learned what the rude talking frog had said to them.
Gina (tall, blonde, sang the word “fuck” in an operatic falsetto whenever something when horribly wrong) turned to me with a question in her eyebrows.
“It’d be pretty easy to get a bus back to Pembrokeshire,” she said. “What was it you wanted to go back to the Cathedral for? Grave robbing?”
“What? No. What? Grave rubbing. Like with crayons so we can read what the names used to say? I just… grave robbing…I said that hours ago! You guys have been hanging out all day with someone you thought was a grave robber?”
I was bamboozled. I was flummoxed. I also knew right then that we were going to be actual friends. The kind that keep being friends later even if they don’t see each other very often. Because they had chosen to spend all day walking around a tiny town (and eating lunch, and riding the bus, and standing blinking in red-stained puddles of historical sunlight…)
with a grave robber.