A Quick Brush of Wings

Sonoma County, 1991


If I wanted to be a writer, I realized, I would have to go where the writers were.

I had to find these people.

These writers.

I had to seek them out and be in their presence and inhale the air they exhaled.

I had to learn from them.

And here was my chance. I saw the ad in the local alternative weekly: An evening with Anne Lamott and Amy Tan. These were maybe the two most powerful thirty-something or forty-something women in the San Francisco literary scene. Anne Lamott and Amy Tan. They would be my foremothers, my teachers. If only I could share this evening with them. Yes.

I had to be there, obviously.

Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

$150 per person.

I hardly ever drove into the city.

It meant getting Lance to watch the baby. He’d come to California now, too. He lived four blocks from us, was suing me for custody.

It meant the gas and the bridge toll.

It meant tapping the dashboard three times and praying that the Dodge would make it.

This time, it also meant $150.

$150. Just over a quarter of my monthly income.

But what was $150, really? What was a quarter tank of gas and a quarter of my monthly income and a $3 bridge toll when it would make me a writer?

I would meet these women and they would see me—they would see the writer in me and they would lean into me and they would whisper the secrets that writers whisper.

The ad—even seeing that ad—had been destiny. Clearly. I hardly ever read that weekly paper.

I had $21 in the cookie jar for my gas and electricity bill. I only needed another $129 for the ticket. The gas and electric company could wait. If we had to live in the dark for a week or three weeks—what did it matter? This evening was the thing that mattered. An evening with Anne Lamott and Amy Tan.

I showed the ad to Mary, the old woman who’d recently moved into my neighborhood in Petaluma. I bounced Maia on my knee as I opened the newspaper on Mary’s formica kitchen table. I pointed. “Anne Lamott and Amy Tan,” I hummed. I’d been helping Mary around her little government apartment, putting away groceries for her, pulling weeds in her tiny front garden. We’d shared Christmas dinner. I’d invited her over after the man from the food bank called to tell me I was eligible for a free turkey. When I went to pick it up, it turned out to be two chickens—they’d run out of turkeys. But I had some vegetables in the fridge, so I made chicken soup for Christmas dinner and I didn’t skim off the fat. Chicken soup for me and Mary and the baby. We sat in the little dining alcove in my apartment, and she told me this and that about her life. She was Athabaskan Indian, she said. Born up in Alaska but her mother died of tuberculosis and she was adopted out to a white family down in Seattle.

Mary. She had short, black hair and laughing eyes. She looked at the ad for the evening with the writers and said, “sounds like a lot of money.”

But what did Mary know?

She was poor, she was old.

I knew what I had to do.

It was a clear-sky day in Petaluma.

I got Lance to watch the baby.

I used my bill money for the gas and the bridge.

Tom Waits sang “Hang on St. Christopher” on my car radio.

I used the rent money for the ticket.

Amy Tan read something unpublished and showed slides of her grandparents.

Anne Lamott said she’d been a black-belt codependent and had just broken up with a man who wasn’t fit to drink her bath water.

Afterwards, the writers drank punch around a table and people approached them and told them they loved their work and told them they’d changed their lives and told them they liked the talks they’d just given.

I stood against a wall and watched.

I stood against a wall and watched the light change as the sun set over the bay.

I stood against a wall and bit my fingernails.


I cried at Mary’s kitchen table the next morning, cried at what an idiot I’d been. The rain poured outside, flooding the streets and walkways. I would never be a writer, it was true. That counselor in her drab brown office back at the junior college had been right. What was I thinking? I had to come down to earth. This wet earth. I had to figure out how to make a living. I had to figure out how to live. I had a child to take care of.

Mary just smiled at me, shook her head the way she did. “Ariel,” she said. “You are with the writers. Right now and right here you’re with the writers. And here we’re doing the things that writers do. We’re washing the dishes and we’re putting away the groceries. We’re helping each other. We’re paying attention, aren’t we?”

I thought she was sweet, old Athabaskan Mary, but obviously she was kind of doddery. Helping Mary around her apartment was all good and fine, but it was hardly where the writers were. And I wanted to be a writer. My mind wandered. I was back at Fort Mason. Back with the writers and thinking of all the things I might have said to them if I wasn’t so afraid. If they had looked at me.

“I have something for you,” Mary said, interrupting my writer-thought. She stood up, left me there to breathe in my self-pity.

A few minutes later she came back with a slim volume. A Quick Brush of Wings by Mary TallMountain. “My new book,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to give you a copy.”

I looked at the title and I looked at the author’s name for a long time before I let it sink in.



And with that she leaned into me and she whispered the secrets that writers whisper. And I breathed her in and I became one. 


Feminist Review on Bluebird

This short but meaningful book is a smart combination of self-help, memoir, and academic study. Gore does not surmise a remedy for the blues, she does not use her life as an anecdote to overcome defeat or as a guiding light toward beatitude, nor does she use statistics and theory to expose her education. Instead, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness is a collection of wise womanhood, the crannies of optimism that are too often ignored.

With eloquent emotional pacing, Gore forms a convincing argument that happiness, particularly among women, has been historically understudied and oversimplified in her academic field. She asks, “How is it that psychology— once envisioned as a great healing art—has gotten to this place where our neuroses are considered so much more valid than our resiliences?” Gore bravely takes on the secret of joy by combining her personal memoirs with history, science, and first person accounts of real women experiencing real happiness. Her words have the contagious effect of positivism without the obnoxious, evangelistic ethos found so often in the self-help aisle.

Papergirl flow

I fold newspapers in the still dark morning. I fold them in three and snap a rubber band around the middle.

I am the first in our neighborhood to know that Mount St. Helens has erupted, that Ronald Reagan has won the presidency by a landslide, that John Lennon has been murdered.

My fingers black with ink, I pack the newspapers into the metal basket of my sparkly blue three-speed bicycle. I pedal fast. I spread the news…

Read more…

gnash your terrible teeth

Maurice Sendak is cracking me up.

from Amy Graff at sfgate:
Maurice Sendak tells parents to go to hell

This Friday, October 16, the movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are opens in theaters.

The poignant 10-sentence book about an angry boy who is sent to bed without supper and sails to a magical land overrun by wild creatures has been made into a full-length feature film with a script by director Spike Jonze (recently interviewed by the Chronicle) and local boy Dave Eggers.

Ever since the media got word of the film, reporters have hounded Sendak, Eggers, and Jonze. One of the main questions reporters are asking is, Will this film based on one of the best children’s books of all-time be appropriate for children?

The creative minds behind this film have seemed to dance around this question in most interviews, but Sendak freely spoke his mind for a Newsweek story, appearing in the October 19 magazine. Sendak, Jonze, and Eggers were all interviewed for the story.

Reporter: “What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?”

Sendak: “I would tell them to go to hell. That’s a question I will not tolerate.”

Reporter: “Because kids can handle it?”

Sendak: “If they can’t handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it’s not a question that can be answered.”

Jonze: “Dave, you want to field that one?”

Eggers: “The part about kids wetting their pants? Should kids wear diapers when they go to the movies? I think adults should wear diapers going to it, too. I think everyone should be prepared for any eventuality.”

Sendak: “I think you’re right. This concentration on kids being scared, as though we as adults can’t be scared. Of course we’re scared. I’m scared of watching a TV show about vampires. I can’t fall asleep. It never stops. We’re grown-ups; we know better, but we’re afraid.”

Reporter: “Why is that important in art?”

Sendak: “Because it’s truth. You don’t want to do something that’s all terrifying. I saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child’s eyes. So what? I managed to survive.”

Big Red

I am sad this morning because my Gammie Evelyn died. Here’s a picture from when she came to Portland last month for her 91st birthday. (with Maria, Shannon Wheeler, my mom & lil’ tuxedo Max)… And an incomplete story I wrote a few months ago…

Big Red

My Gammie Evelyn drives a big red Cadillac. She calls it Big Red and it smells like Coco Chanel.

We speed all over Orange County because Big Red can handle the speed bumps and the police never stop my Gammie when she’s driving Big Red. It’s summertime, of course. It’s always summertime in Orange County because I’m on break from school and the sun is shining. It might be summer break or Thanksgiving break or winter break or spring break. It doesn’t matter. It’s summertime when she picks me up at John Wayne Airport and my Gammie says, “You’re beautiful, Ariel, but you’ve got to be kidding with that hair. Can’t you put it up? I mean, honestly.”

“You’re marvelous of course,” she says. “Do you have a beau?”

“No,” I tell my Gammie. I don’t have a beau.

And she says, “Well, not now, but soon the fellows will want to take you out and just remember, you don’t pay. When a fellow takes you out, he pays the bill.”

I am 12 years old and I listen intently because my Gammie is beautiful and she wears red lipstick and she paints her long fingernails red and she wears her hair in a bun tied with a bright red scarf as she speeds down the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Red.

My Gammie Evelyn’s house is painted coral orange.

Inside, there is soft, plush coral carpet, and in the guest bedroom soft, plush yellow monogrammed towels.

How are her towels always so soft?

On the low black coffee table in the living room there’s a big crystal bowl full of mint and chocolate candy.

How is the candy never stale?

I sit on the plush carpet in front of the coffee table and I eat and I eat and I wonder how my grandmother keeps the bowl full, how she keeps herself from eating it all when she gets up in the middle of the night to pour herself a glass of milk and bourbon.

thinking about Revolutionary Letter #19

by Diane di Prima

(for the Poor People’s Campaign)

if what you want is jobs 
for everyone, you are still the enemy, 
you have not thought thru, clearly what that means.

if what you want is housing, Industry 
(G.E. on the Navaho reservation) 
a car for everyone, garage, refrigerator, 
TV, more plumbing, scientific 
freeways, you are still 
the enemy, you have chosen 
to sacrifice the planet for a few years 
of some science fiction utopia, if what you want

still is, or can be, schools 
where all our kids are pushed into one shape, are taught 
it’s better to be “American” than black 
or Indian, or Jap, or Puerto Rican, where Dick 
and Jane become and are the dream, do you 
look like Dick’s father, don’t you think your kid 
secretly wishes you did

if what you want
is clinics where the AMA
can feed you pills to keep you weak, or sterile,
shoot germs into your kids, while Merck & Co. grows richer

if you want
free psychiatric help for everyone
so that the shrinks,
pimps for this decadence, can make
it flowers for us,

if you still want a piece 
a small piece of suburbia, green lawn 
laid down by the square foot 
color TV, whose radiant energy 
kills brain cells, whose subliminal ads 
brainwash your children, have taken over 
your dreams

degrees from universities which are nothing
more than slum landlords festering sinks of lies,
so you can go forth and lie to others
on some greeny campus

THE ENEMY, you are selling 
yourself short, remember 
you can have what you ask for, ask for