The Pie I Didn’t Bake

It’s that time of year again — and I’m re-running this post, which first appeared as an essay in the East Bay Express 20 years ago.

My thoughts are with all those who suffer from addiction this Thanksgiving, and with those who love them.

**

A week before Thanksgiving, and I’m making a list. Canned pumpkin. Evaporated milk. Nutmeg, allspice, and – after double-checking the cupboard – cinnamon: spices I won’t use again until next year. I flip through The Joy of Cooking to a page stained with flour and butter, and after reviewing Basic Pie Crust, lift the sack of flour next to the Special K to feel if there’s enough in it. There is. I multiply all amounts by three, stick the list to the refrigerator, and decide to go to the store one day on my way home from work. I’ll make the crust dough on Tuesday night so it can chill, and do the baking on Wednesday. I’ll find a flat box to carry the pies to Redwood Center, a resident drug rehab program, on Thursday morning before going to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. That’s the plan.

But the list stays on the refrigerator, where I forget it each morning as I leave for work and avoid it when I get home. Its six ingredients stare at me—“evap milk,” canned pump,” “Crisco,” and the three spices—familiar in my own handwriting but somehow foreign, too, as I feel increasingly uneasy about not following through on my own good intentions. And then, on Monday night, with only one shopping day left, I know why. The image rises in my mind: a group of men, standing in the sunshine on the front steps of Redwood Center, smoking and joshing nervously as they wait for visiting relatives. I see myself drive up, greet them, carry the pies indoors. I see myself leave, lifting my hand to signal good-bye, good luck, and pulling my car up the hill to head north toward the freeway, to drive away alone. My brother won’t be there to fidget, to hug me, to eat my pies. He’s the reason I’ve written down those ingredients and planned this baking session, and he’s the reason—I suddenly realize, as I pull the list from the magnet – that I can’t go through with it.

Four years ago, my brother was a resident at Redwood Center. He’d been in rehab before, but this was the first program he took seriously. I drove down to spend Thanksgiving Day with him, and we talked, for the first time in years, about our nervousness around each other, about our mutual hurt and love, about our childhoods. It was the first time we were able to connect in many years. He was sober, clean of alcohol and cocaine for two months that day, and his racing adrenaline, his nervous jumpiness, had slowed down. What he called his humor mask had slipped, and he was just himself—gentle and sweet and a pleasure to be around. We hiked behind the center and played badminton outside the main build. We sat on a picnic table and talked. We hugged, and cried, and we laughed and cried some more. Relief and joy coursed through me that day. I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving, but that year was the best ever, and it had nothing to do with turkey. That year I had my brother back.

My brother had been using drugs – every day, he told me – since he was fourteen. He was then 25. As we climbed the hill behind Redwood Center, ducking beneath low madrone branches and pushing past manzanita, he explained to me one of the lessons his recovery had taught him: that his maturity had been stunted at the age he started using. He was physically 25 and emotionally fourteen. That’s why, he told me, he was lashing out sometimes, impatient other times. “I’m still an adolescent,” he said, with a rueful but not sad smile. “I’m making up for lost time.” He explained how the security of Redwood Center had helped him in this, helped him to feel safe. “Out there,” he said – and we both knew he meant our family living room as well as the streets – “I don’t have that safety, I’d be too tempted to get high as a way of dealing.”

I thought of how a psychotherapist had once told me, “You can’t have a relationship with your brother because your brother is an addict, and an addict loves only thing: his drug.” Her words had seemed so harsh when I first heard them, but now I recognized their truth. I thought of all my short-lived romantic relationships, my unstaunchable sadness and loneliness, and thought how I too had been held back for all those years by loving someone who couldn’t love me back.

My brother died three years ago next month. After Redwood Center, he relapsed onto the streets and into crime and crack, and then found another good program, a program that supported his struggle for sobriety for several months before he slipped again—over the holidays in 1993. His sobriety ended, again, but the connection we reforged that Thanksgiving Day at Redwood Center did not weaken: over long-distance collect phone calls from street corners and jails, over diner breakfasts and sushi dinners, we talked and shouted and swore and cried and laughed. Until the day he died, we were back in each other’s lives again.

I think about the men in Redwood Center this year, catching up with their demons, and would like to feed them something homemade, a sweet tasty pie baked in a crust rolled out by hand. I don’t like backing down on my good intentions. But as I stand in the kitchen holding my crumpled shopping list, I remember those years of silence and anger and confusion and desperation. His, OK—but mine too. I remember watching my brother across a holiday dinner table to see if he would meet my eyes, and I know I’m angry again. Angry at him for dying, for not staying clean, for leaving me. I’m tired of being the good girl, of doing the right thing, of putting out effort for someone who isn’t even alive anymore. There’s a whole piece of loving an addict, a chunk of anger and resentment that buildings from watching the one you love slowly kill himself. This piece doesn’t negate or deny the love, but sits right next to it – a hard, black nugget. It’s rough-edged and painful and not pretty, but claiming that nugget has something to do with being able to move on, a move I have dreaded since that day I first knew I’d have to do it.

There are thousands of addicts in the Bay Area this holiday season, and there are the people who love them. For alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer at a crowded AA meeting, there is a mother who is trying to keep the turkey from drying out, worrying that there will not be enough under the tree and that her daughter will show up high to Christmas dinner or husband sneak a drink at the neighborhood open house. For every junkie skulking in a doorway, there is a son who sits quietly through the family meal, stomach in a knot, because he wants to throw a plate against the wall and yell at the sister who is using, the mother who pretends everything is fine. Our pain is quieter than the destructiveness and rage of the addicts and alcoholics we love, and it shapes us into who we are. We don’t crash cars or break into liquor stores or hide cocaine in the underwear drawer. We maintain. We are used to maintaining.

And maybe, just maybe, that maintaining can move into forgiveness. Once again this year, my parents and I sit together and remember the son and brother who made us laugh, whose eyes sparkled with humor and kindness, who woke me every Christmas morning of our childhood so neither of us would be first at the tree, who smiled at me over the passed Brussels sprouts. Once again I look at the picture taken at Redwood Center four years ago, of my brother and me standing next to the madrone and manzanita, and I remember the words with which we found our way back to each other. And, throughout the holidays, I think of how many of us there are, working hard as we trim the tree and light the candles, as we close our eyes and whisper our prayers and wishes, as we roll out pie crust and open greeting cards, as we stand together in our invisible circle of silent, resilient love

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Morning After

I started to write this morning about the shock and disappointment and fear that I, and so many people around me, feel. I started to write about the weird quiet when I awoke this a.m., the way people looked at each other on the bus — with kindness, like after 9/11, but also with a jittery attention to the screamer on the street, the conspiracy theorist speaking too loudly to ignore — the way my office feels like a morgue. I started to write about how I grew up feeling proud of my country, and how I still get misty-eyed during the jury-duty movie, even though I know the system has enormous flaws. I started to write how I cannot believe that — however left out and angry and disenfranchised many voters felt — enough of them made the choice they made, how I cannot believe this is the same country that voted eight years ago. And then I recalled a poem I first heard when I was too young to completely understand.

So here, in words almost 100 years old, is a poem by Langston Hughes. Don’t stop at the first line — he’s not saying “great again.” Keep reading:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

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For Your Listening Pleasure

Ten of my short stories are now available as audio books on Audible!  Several of the stories were published almost 20 years ago, and the others more recently.

It’s wonderful to hear talented narrators bring new life to words I first heard only in my imagination.  I’ve read many of these aloud myself, so I’m used to them as “mine” — hearing them anew makes them work as stories.  Not just my stories, but stories out there in the world.  For that, I’m grateful.

Last night I drove from Rainbow Grocery to the Sutter-Stockton garage in about 18 minutes, just the amount of time to listen to Tiffany Morgan read “The Art of Fiction” — “a great story, a writer’s story,” according to one reviewer.   Another day, on a longer drive, I listened to installments of “What Her Sister Wanted,” remembering how long it took me to figure out the pivotal scene of a nine-year-old having a meltdown at Marine World.  And, this morning on the Muni bus, I listened to colleague Jessica Barksdale Inclán’s wonderful “Sneakers.”

Love short stories?  Drive, walk, run, ride public transportation?  Combine a daily task with the treat of being read to.

Here’s the giveaway part:  First three people to leave a comment will get a comp copy of the story of your choice.   Lengths are listed next to each title, and if you “mouse” over the cover art, a brief blurb will come up giving a description of the story.  If you like what you hear, please leave a review.

 

 

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The Pie I Didn’t Bake

You know those seasonal columns that get repeated each year?  Maybe it’s a cleverly rhyming send-off to the year, or a list of what the writer is thankful for.

This Thanksgiving, for the second year now, I’m posting an essay that first appeared in the 12/27/96 issue of East Bay Express.

**

A week before Thanksgiving, and I’m making a list. Canned pumpkin. Evaporated milk. Nutmeg, allspice, and – after double-checking the cupboard – cinnamon: spices I won’t use again until next year. I flip through The Joy of Cooking to a page stained with flour and butter, and after reviewing Basic Pie Crust, lift the sack of flour next to the Special K to feel if there’s enough in it. There is. I multiply all amounts by three, stick the list to the refrigerator, and decide to go to the store one day on my way home from work. I’ll make the crust dough on Tuesday night so it can chill, and do the baking on Wednesday. I’ll find a flat box to carry the pies to Redwood Center, a resident drug rehab program, on Thursday morning before going to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. That’s the plan.

But the list stays on the refrigerator, where I forget it each morning as I leave for work and avoid it when I get home. Its six ingredients stare at me—“evap milk,” canned pump,” “Crisco,” and the three spices—familiar in my own handwriting but somehow foreign, too, as I feel increasingly uneasy about not following through on my own good intentions. And then, on Monday night, with only one shopping day left, I know why. The image rises in my mind: a group of men, standing in the sunshine on the front steps of Redwood Center, smoking and joshing nervously as they wait for visiting relatives. I see myself drive up, greet them, carry the pies indoors. I see myself leave, lifting my hand to signal good-bye, good luck, and pulling my car up the hill to head north toward the freeway, to drive away alone. My brother won’t be there to fidget, to hug me, to eat my pies. He’s the reason I’ve written down those ingredients and planned this baking session, and he’s the reason—I suddenly realize, as I pull the list from the magnet – that I can’t go through with it.

Four years ago, my brother was a resident at Redwood Center. He’d been in rehab before, but this was the first program he took seriously. I drove down to spend Thanksgiving Day with him, and we talked, for the first time in years, about our nervousness around each other, about our mutual hurt and love, about our childhoods. It was the first time we were able to connect in many years. He was sober, clean of alcohol and cocaine for two months that day, and his racing adrenaline, his nervous jumpiness, had slowed down. What he called his humor mask had slipped, and he was just himself—gentle and sweet and a pleasure to be around. We hiked behind the center and played badminton outside the main build. We sat on a picnic table and talked. We hugged, and cried, and we laughed and cried some more. Relief and joy coursed through me that day. I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving, but that year was the best ever, and it had nothing to do with turkey. That year I had my brother back.

My brother had been using drugs – every day, he told me – since he was fourteen. He was then 25. As we climbed the hill behind Redwood Center, ducking beneath low madrone branches and pushing past manzanita, he explained to me one of the lessons his recovery had taught him: that his maturity had been stunted at the age he started using. He was physically 25 and emotionally fourteen. That’s why, he told me, he was lashing out sometimes, impatient other times. “I’m still an adolescent,” he said, with a rueful but not sad smile. “I’m making up for lost time.” He explained how the security of Redwood Center had helped him in this, helped him to feel safe. “Out there,” he said – and we both knew he meant our family living room as well as the streets – “I don’t have that safety, I’d be too tempted to get high as a way of dealing.”

I thought of how a psychotherapist had once told me, “You can’t have a relationship with your brother because your brother is an addict, and an addict loves only thing: his drug.” Her words had seemed so harsh when I first heard them, but now I recognized their truth. I thought of all my short-lived romantic relationships, my unstaunchable sadness and loneliness, and thought how I too had been held back for all those years by loving someone who couldn’t love me back.

My brother died three years ago next month. After Redwood Center, he relapsed onto the streets and into crime and crack, and then found another good program, a program that supported his struggle for sobriety for several months before he slipped again—over the holidays in 1993. His sobriety ended, again, but the connection we reforged that Thanksgiving Day at Redwood Center did not weaken: over long-distance collect phone calls from street corners and jails, over diner breakfasts and sushi dinners, we talked and shouted and swore and cried and laughed. Until the day he died, we were back in each other’s lives again.

I think about the men in Redwood Center this year, catching up with their demons, and would like to feed them something homemade, a sweet tasty pie baked in a crust rolled out by hand. I don’t like backing down on my good intentions. But as I stand in the kitchen holding my crumpled shopping list, I remember those years of silence and anger and confusion and desperation. His, OK—but mine too. I remember watching my brother across a holiday dinner table to see if he would meet my eyes, and I know I’m angry again. Angry at him for dying, for not staying clean, for leaving me. I’m tired of being the good girl, of doing the right thing, of putting out effort for someone who isn’t even alive anymore. There’s a whole piece of loving an addict, a chunk of anger and resentment that buildings from watching the one you love slowly kill himself. This piece doesn’t negate or deny the love, but sits right next to it – a hard, black nugget. It’s rough-edged and painful and not pretty, but claiming that nugget has something to do with being able to move on, a move I have dreaded since that day I first knew I’d have to do it.

There are thousands of addicts in the Bay Area this holiday season, and there are the people who love them. For alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer at a crowded AA meeting, there is a mother who is trying to keep the turkey from drying out, worrying that there will not be enough under the tree and that her daughter will show up high to Christmas dinner or husband sneak a drink at the neighborhood open house. For every junkie skulking in a doorway, there is a son who sits quietly through the family meal, stomach in a knot, because he wants to throw a plate against the wall and yell at the sister who is using, the mother who pretends everything is fine. Our pain is quieter than the destructiveness and rage of the addicts and alcoholics we love, and it shapes us into who we are. We don’t crash cars or break into liquor stores or hide cocaine in the underwear drawer. We maintain. We are used to maintaining.

And maybe, just maybe, that maintaining can move into forgiveness. Once again this year, my parents and I sit together and remember the son and brother who made us laugh, whose eyes sparkled with humor and kindness, who woke me every Christmas morning of our childhood so neither of us would be first at the tree, who smiled at me over the passed Brussels sprouts. Once again I look at the picture taken at Redwood Center four years ago, of my brother and me standing next to the madrone and manzanita, and I remember the words with which we found our way back to each other. And, throughout the holidays, I think of how many of us there are, working hard as we trim the tree and light the candles, as we close our eyes and whisper our prayers and wishes, as we roll out pie crust and open greeting cards, as we stand together in our invisible circle of silent, resilient love

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Now Sit Right Back

Something’s up. Twice in the past week, I’ve done something I rarely do. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did it, before last Thursday. I watched a TV show. Last Thursday found me scrolling through Comcast on Demand for Wolf Hall. Last night, I went to iTunes and downloaded The Americans. For many of you, this may seem either inconsequential (=dull) or too little, too late. I’ve never watched Breaking Bad, Homeland, Girls, or Downton Abbey; I’m hopelessly out of it when lunchtime conversation turns to Game of Thrones or House of Cards. I’ve heard of most popular series because I do not live in a cave. But watch them? Aside from Mad Men (which now feels stale although I’m dutifully finishing up the final episodes), I just haven’t caught the bug.

So what’s brought me back, in this small way?

“Back,” I write because I grew up, like most people, watching plenty of TV. Not only the good stuff from the 70s, like M*A*S*H* and All in the Family and Fractured Fairy Tales, but the inane situations on Land of the Lost and Run Joe Run and Three’s Company. I loathed Gomer Pyle, but I adored Gilligan. And I still remember, with a kind of time-deferred contagion, the excitement I felt in planning a sleepover for Friday night. Not only would Dad make his pancakes the next morning, but Stacey (or Tara) and I would get to watch the ABC lineup, getting more grown-up as the clock ticked from 8 to 10—Brady Bunch, Partridge Family, Room 222, Odd Couple, Love American Style.

I’m veering into dangerous “good old days” territory, I know. Who doesn’t recall her favorite episodes, hum to herself the theme songs of shows gone by? Haven’t the previous SNL seasons (ahem, decades) always been much better than the current? And who hasn’t tuned out reflections on what it meant to come of age while watching Murphy Brown and Kate and Allie? I’ll spare you all that. (Although I would welcome any insights into the intended audience for shows such as Gilligan’s Island and Hogan’s Heroes; could they really have been designed as children’s shows? And yet, did any adults ever watch them?)

What kept me watching then, and what’s brought me back now, is narrative and character. The same things I grapple with as a fiction writer. I’m late in jumping on the bandwagon, and perhaps because of this I’m starting with just two, Wolf Hall (on PBS) and The Americans (. Intrigue at King Henry VIII’s court; intrigue with Soviet spies living like suburban Americans. I’ve watched only the first episode of each, and I’ve been pulled in by top-notch writing and acting.

As I’ve noted before, I’m revising a novel. One of the elements I’m thinking (and rethinking) about is back story – how much we need, how little we can get away with, how to present it.   I tend to get attached to back story – much as those late nights in the dorms gained for us intimacy with a new friend (or lover), much as those sleepovers bonded us back in fifth grade, back story is how I got to know my characters. So the reader needs it too, right?

In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell’s wife urges him to go see his father, from whom he is estranged. After the wife dies, he shows up at a stable. We already have heard, from those who malign him for being of common birth, that he’s the son of a blacksmith, so when we see an older man at work on a horse hoof, we know why Thomas is there. And as Cromwell watches his father work on the horse’s hoof – the old man doesn’t yet see him – we get a flashback of his younger self being beaten bloody. The father looks up from the horse’s hoof, sees his son, spits. The reunion does not go well.

In The Americans, Elizabeth and Philip hide a kidnapped KGB defector in the trunk of their Oldsmobile. She’s especially brutal to him, and we learn why when we go back to Moscow 1960 and see her beaten, tied up, and raped by this man.

I didn’t choose Wolf Hall or download The Americans to learn something helpful for novel revision. Maybe that’s the pleasure, unlike the planned-out research, say, of picking up a book on plotting. The story seduces us, the characters charm or fascinate us, and we learn by a kind of absorption. Just as we learned, decades ago, about character and story from Roald Dahl and Laura Ingalls Wilder, from Fractured Fairy Tales and Alias Smith and Jones. Why should it be any different now?

What about you? What TV shows inform or inspire your writing? Which captivate you in their worlds?

 

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