The Secret Place in the Library

There’s a special secret hidden place in the library at my school.

My best friend told me about it before she graduated, before she moved away to England.

To get to the hidden place, you leave the first floor of the library to go up the stairs and cross to the right through the tables and the uncomfortable wooden chairs and the soft padded chairs that it’s impossible to do homework and stay awake in, and you enter the forest of bookshelves. You walk through the bookshelves all the way till it looks like you’re at the edge of the building, till the rustling of pages and the gentle flirting of students and the clicking of pens fades behind you into nothingness, and just when you think you’ll never find the hidden place, the wall opens out more, just in the back corner, and there are more bookshelves. And if you walk past them, very quietly so no one follows you, you can see the hidden place tucked away in the very, very top back corner of the library.

It’s just a little ugly wooden desk in the corner all by itself, hidden away in the back corner behind the last of the bookshelves, with a misplaced-looking antique lamp that’s actually rather pretty on top and an ugly gray swivel-chair to go with the ugliness of the wooden desk. But the afternoon light comes drifting down soft and mellow and burnished gold through the bookshelves and touches that hidden place with magic, and somehow the ugly gray swivel chair doesn’t look ugly anymore. And you can go sit in it and lay down your heavy book-bag and pull on the chain of the lamp, and an amber-honey glow lights up the desk and touches your face and makes you glad to be alive.

It’s quiet there. So quiet. But a good kind of quiet.

It’s not the silence that rings in your car when you’re driving home from finding out you didn’t make the cast list. It’s not the silence that yawns around you when you finally realize that a friend has betrayed you, made you look like a fool. It’s not the silence that sinks in the pit of your stomach when you’re alone in your room and hungry and miserable but you won’t eat because you’re starving on purpose.

This quiet isn’t empty. It’s a quiet filled with the silent voices of all the books keeping you company on the shelves. It’s a quiet filled with the scent of their book glue, old and safe and sweet in the air, and with the sights of the book-spines in leathery gold-embossed straight rows, begging for you to trace your fingers softly across them.

And you can sit at that desk and pull your brown sweater closer around you and open your thick hardbound anthologies and be glad there’s such a thing as required reading. And even your annoying little paperback textbooks that you don’t care about and wish you hadn’t had to buy, seem a little more worth your while.

And every once in a while, if you lose yourself far enough, you can feel for one moment like you’re in England.

Or every once in a very, very long while, if you’re very lucky and if the light falls just the right way and the books with their silent book-voices are in just the right mood, you can think for an instant that you’ve made it into a faerie-tale.

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bobby pins, broken hearts & stuff

Found a couple of her bobby pins in my drawer today.

I could always tell which ones were her bobby pins, because hers were curved and could hold hair better than my straight ones could. I used to like it when she’d lose her bobby pins around my house, because then I could find them later and use them myself.

Funny how constant a role bobby pins played in our friendship. They were like currency.

“Hey—do you have a bobby pin I could borrow?”

After a school day we’d take our bobby pins out and let our hair tumble down onto our shoulders while we huddled on her couch watching Doctor Who on the MacBook resting across our laps. That was a long time ago. I used to think she had the weirdest taste in television.

Or we’d stand in front of my bathroom mirror in the morning and put bobby pins into our hair while we brushed and teased and braided and talked about good stories, old books, and cute boys. Most of the time we’d have spent the whole night before sitting up on my bed eating popcorn and laughing and crying about our dreams, our triumphs, our fears, our griefs.

Three days before she left, I did her hair for the first time. We both thought it was sort of weird that after years of Best Friendhood and hundreds of hairdos done together, neither one of us had done the other’s hair. We’d only done our own. I used so many bobby pins that she texted me a picture of the pile of them on her counter when she took them out.

The last thing I did before she boarded the plane was to reach out and fix a bobby pin in the long auburn braid she’d twisted around her head, because it was coming undone.

Even though it wasn’t a permanent goodbye, even though I was (and am) prouder of her and happier for her than I can say, even though if I’m honest with myself I’d never ever want her to give this up, it was hard to say goodbye. It’s hard to say goodbye to the person whose voice was on the other end of the phone when you called crying the first time a boy broke your heart. It’s hard to say goodbye to someone who brought you an old wooden treasure-box of books and treats when you were bedridden from sickness, or who sat on your kitchen counter and talked to you while you made coffee in the middle of the night trying to stay awake to study for finals the next day, or who brought you more soy chai lattes over time than you could possibly count.

She’s gone now. The terminal swallowed her up and the plane whisked her away. I looked up how many miles away she is exactly, but the number is big and I don’t like it. So I’m not going to put it here.

But some of her bobby pins stayed behind on accident, and I found them in my drawer today. I like to think that maybe one or two of mine found their way into a pocket in a bag, or a fold in a carefully-packed sweater, and traveled with her across the ocean.

Maybe she’ll find one of them by chance when a stray section of hair won’t stay put, and she’ll use it the way I’m now using one of hers I just found.

And like always, it holds my hair perfectly. Much better than one of mine would.

Came home from the airport after saying goodbye and drew the memory I won't ever forget.

Came home from the airport after saying goodbye and sketched a memory I won’t ever forget. You can sort of see the braid she was wearing.

breaking the rules

Don’t write about your heart
in poems,
they told me,
the professors
and the workshops
and the texts.
It’s too cliché,
passé,
too abstract.
Don’t write about your heart
in poems.

So then
what do I say
when my heart
breaks?

What if my heart
is breaking
and I know it is because
the beating muscle
in my chest
is bruising
and yearning
and leaving
a hole
inside me—

there’s nothing
cliché
about how
that feels.

What if
with every pump
from the breaking heart
the blood
in my veins
carries
the longing
along
and it hurts
to my fingertips—

there’s nothing
passé
about that.

What if
I know
my heart is breaking
because I feel
the searing
seams
where it’s coming
undone
and I know
exactly
where they are—

there’s nothing
abstract
about that.

Don’t write about your heart,
they told me.

But I’m writing about mine
now,
which I guess
makes this
a
bad
poem.

His Name Was Zach: a memory.

I still remember the day I first got engaged.

His name was Zach. Zach Evans, I’ll call him. His last name started with an E, but I don’t remember exactly what it was. Maybe that’s for the best. There was another boy there, too—Daniel, and I don’t remember his last name at all—but Daniel wasn’t as handsome as Zach, and besides Daniel didn’t want to marry me anyways.

I guess Zach and I were old enough to make our own decisions. After all, we’d made it to preschool. We were both all of four years old. And we saw each other every single Sunday in preschool class at church, so we had, you know, a pretty solid relationship with one another.

One fateful Sunday, Zach and I joined our four-year-old hearts together forever. I don’t remember if I asked him or if he asked me, but I do seem to remember goldfish crackers being involved. After that, it was simple: when we grew up, we were getting married.

Daniel the Other Boy was less than thrilled about Zach’s engagement (since of course all girls had cooties), but he tolerated me fairly well. After all, engaged or not, preschoolers have got to play. Although Daniel was quick to remind Zach of his duty to Boy Code if ever Zach grew too twitterpated.

I remember the day Zach and I reached our first big relational crisis: the day the Lions and Tigers Game came up. In the Lions and Tigers Game, see, Lions were the boy animal, and Tigers were the girl animal. Lions were kinda cooler than Tigers, but no girl was allowed to play a Lion. The problem was, the point of the game was the enmity between the Lions and the Tigers. We’d prowl around on all fours. Roar at each other. Sometimes, we might even kill each other. Lions vs. Tigers: a fight to the death.

How could I play a Tiger and be against Zach?

I presented the case diplomatically to my fiancé, working hard to convince him why Tigers could be just as cool and manly as Lions. Zach, in turn, understood the problem and initially agreed, gasp, to play a Tiger so he could be with me. For a moment, I thought I’d won the day.

But then Daniel stepped in. Zach play a Tiger? Unacceptable. Lions were the boy animal, and Tigers were the girl. End of story.

Zach weighed both the arguments and agreed to my dismay that his playing a Tiger would indeed upset the balance and negate the point of the game. In the end, he made the difficult decision to play a Lion after all to uphold the order of our preschool world. (He may or may not have worded it a bit more simply.)

But he also told me something that impressed me so strongly that seventeen years later, I still remember it in direct quotes.

“Don’t worry,” he said to me. “I’m still going to marry you.”

At that, I knew that he was the One. I was only four, but I remember how affirmed I felt, and how fantastic it seemed to me that a person could care about another person so much that he’d set aside societal norms and expectations in order to protect and further relationship with that person.

I didn’t think it in those words, exactly, but I remember how it felt.

Then seventeen years fled by. I haven’t seen Zach since preschool. I have no idea where he is, and we’re definitely not still engaged. At least, I hope we’re not. Since I’m the one whose family moved first, I guess I’m the one who walked out on him. I don’t think he minded too much. It was a whirlwind romance, anyway. And he had goldfish crackers to console him.

When I was first drafting this post, this is the part where I started saying things about how far removed I’ve become from that four-year-old paradigm, and how life is now way, way more complicated than that ridiculous Lions and Tigers Game.

And then a question struck me, and I think it changed me a little bit inside.

What if life isn’t way, way more complicated than the Lions and Tigers Game? What if it just feels more complicated because the Lions and Tigers Game has different, more sophisticated names now?

What if I need to be a lot more like Zach was?

Or, I mean, maybe life is way more complicated, after all. And maybe this is just a silly memory from long ago that makes me laugh when thunderstorms send bolts of iron lightning cloud-to-ground and my family comes together to brew hot tea and talk about old things while the rain streams outside. That’s okay too.

Storms over the Florida ocean this summer, the kind of storm that calls for hot tea and old memories and thick books.

Storms over the Florida ocean this summer, the kind of storm that calls for hot tea and old memories and thick books.

opening night

opening night my
stomach’s in knots as
my heart keeps on
racing
racing
racing
backstage in a trap
of light
and nervous
laughter
with a
cast who
will soon
be under
the spotlight
four
three
two
we’re on
lights off
door opens
oh God
in heaven
help
me

Class-time Drawings

I used to feel guilty about drawing pictures during lectures. Ever since my kindergarten teacher caught me doodling and got me in trouble, in fact.

Then somebody told me Norman Rockwell drew pictures in the margins of his class notes too, and his papers are still around to prove it.

So I kept drawing pictures.

Anyway, today turned into something of a study on three-quarter portraits. Both are in ink, since whenever I’m drawing in class I only ever use whatever I’m also using to take notes. Which is usually a ball-point pen.

Here’s a small one from the corner of a page of theology notes:

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This larger one took up her own whole page of notepaper:

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I’m getting bored of the blank, sort of melancholy faces I’ve been drawing lately. Up next in the art category will probably be not a face and something a bit more, I don’t know, drastic. Not sure in what way, yet. But that’s one of the best things about art—it surprises you. Even when you’re the one holding the pen.

The Girl in the Notebook

“Will you take notes for us?” my good friend said, holding out her pen and notebook to me.

I’d seen this notebook before. It’s a treasure trove of my friend’s story ideas, philosophies, academia, and (my favorite part) pen-and-ink drawings. (The friend in question is one Dorothy Timmerman, whose blog you can visit at dorothytimer.wordpress.com for a taste of a few of said story ideas, philosophies, academia, and drawings out of this very same notebook.) Would I take notes in The Notebook? Psh. Yes. (Not the Nicholas Sparks kind. Sorry.)

Dorothy and I were at something of a production meeting to discuss a video shoot that would involve a scene of domestic violence. Since I’m not the media brain in this friendship, I got put on chronicling duty, listening to and noting the decisions the real media people made for the upcoming shoot. While Dorothy and the film’s director walked out punches and choke holds and discussed angles, lighting, and whatever other stuff cool media people discuss, I added my own drawing to the collection in the notebook in between the notes I was taking.

And here she is.

It was 104 degrees that day and school hadn't started yet, but I drew her wearing a thick sweater and carrying books because, I don't know, I guess I missed school or something.

It was 104 degrees that day and school hadn’t started yet, but I drew her wearing a thick sweater and carrying books. I may or may not have been going through severe school/fall/sweaters/books/coffee withdrawals. A pen and ink drawing.

The Other Side of the Fairytale

Addressed to His Majesty the King.

Dear Father:

By now the scandal will have reached you, or anyway some version of it told by servants who should hold their tongues.

I will tell you the truth of what happened. Last night at the ball you threw me that I didn’t want, I found a girl. She called me Charming, but that didn’t catch my attention. She didn’t know I was the prince. That did.

We danced because that’s what’s done at a ball, and I think she liked it, but that didn’t matter. After we danced, we went out into the garden and talked for a long time. I told her what I could of my life without letting her know who I was. She told me it sounded boring. I agreed.

Then I told her things I swore I would never tell anyone. I don’t know why I told her. I told her about Mother’s death long ago. I told her more about it than I have told you. I am going to tell you now, even though as I said before I swore I wouldn’t. I think I am half mad.

Seventeen years ago, I accepted a gold coin in exchange for putting white powder into my mother’s wine. After the deed was done, you hanged the cupbearer even though he was innocent because I never told you I was to blame.

You remember who the assassin was, the duke I will not name. He befriended me and took me under his wing, and I came to trust him until he asked me to play a secret game. If I could get the powder into Mother’s glass after the cupbearer had tasted it, a gold coin would be my prize. I played the game and won. I did not know it was poison, but I should have.

I sold my mother’s life for a coin.

I am not a failure because I cannot succeed. I am a failure because I have had a millstone chained about my neck since I was seven years old.

After I told the girl these things, she answered in such a way to give me a hope I have never before known. My life is not to have been extinguished before it could spark. I am not doomed because a murderer took advantage of my youth and stupidity when I was seven years old.

Then last night the clock struck midnight, and the girl ran away. And I ran after her, and that was the stupid scandal. But I never found her.

I have come back now to write this letter and then set out again in earnest to find her. She lost a shoe on her way and I retrieved it. I am going use that and search until I find her. I will not return unless I find her and bring her back. If I do return, my life will be much different.

Now I will bring this letter to a close. I suppose it’s too long a letter, but then that’s no surprise, since as you’ve always said I’m too much a writer and too little a prince.

Regards, and farewell.

Disney-Princess-Screencaps-Prince-Charming-Princess-Cinderella-disney-princess-32398380-4368-3240

***

Last night, my little sister and I started Operation: Watch Every Disney Princess Movie in Order. It was quite fun, although we only got through Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. (The operation is ongoing.) But one thing that really bothered/fascinated me, and has bothered and fascinated me for quite some time, is how very little we know about the princes in those movies and in the original fairytales they come from.

Take Cinderella. Her prince is just there to dance with her, kiss her, and marry her. He has hardly any lines and no character development. And this is no accident of technique. He’s purposely formulated as a stock character to simply reward Cinderella, the heroine who suffers the real burden of the plot. He’s deliberately kept bland and unspecific.

In the Grimm brothers’ version of the tale, the prince is slightly slyer than in the Disney version (in fact, the reason Cinderella loses her shoe is that he sets a trap for her, smearing pitch on a stairway so that when she runs, her shoe gets stuck)—but even still, all he does is dance with Cinderella and insist on marrying her and nobody else.

So I started wondering. With so much of the prince’s character left blank, there’s quite a bit of room for speculation. Why does the king want his son to be married so badly? What has the prince been doing with his life? Is he lonely? What’s going on in his mind? Is he really as bland and boring as he seems, or is that a defense mechanism? Has he been hurt? Has he killed somebody?

What if we heard the fairytale from the prince’s perspective? What if Prince Charming has a darker side?

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The Other Side of Prince Charming, a drawing in graphite