The Prediction of a Personal Essay of Major Proportions, called, “How we Finally Disposed of Dad’s Ashes”

It’s going to be all about how I finally talk my stepmother into parting with my father’s ashes. She will agree that it is about time; they’ve been in her closet since 1988 and this trip she’s taking me and my son on to Kauai in a week, is the perfect opportunity to release his ashes in a place he would have loved to have been able to visit.

At least, I hope she will agree.

I just sent her the email and entitled it, “Idea.” The content is only one sentence long, and not my usual five lines–more like one and a half, and it’s a simple question, though the depth of its meaning is voluminous and historical in our little circle. There should be no need to elaborate on why it’s a brilliant idea; he loved the ocean, the beach, the surf, shells, rocks, the hot, hot sun, and would have loved nothing more in life than to split to a place like Hawaii and spend the rest of his days beach-combing and drinking beers at sunset, on the sand.

A closet is the wrong place.

If I’d had my way, I would have had some of those ashes a ways back, and spread some in places I’ve visited and maybe had epiphanies about life and death, like Zion, or Tulum, Mexico. He would have loved the layers of blue, blue water and the sun-bleached, worn down ruins of the Mayans, the iguanas, and drinking Corona’s at dusk by the sea, but my stepmother was firm about not “taking some out.”

So, it’s been the closet.

Over the last twenty-plus years, since I’ve moved three thousand miles away, we haven’t been able to come up with a plan for my father’s ashes, though we have discussed it several times. She mentioned Key West, a place he would remember fondly, were he still here, or out at sea in the Atlantic somewhere, and it was definitely mentioned that a vacation somewhere together might be an appropriate time.

That was maybe twelve years ago. My stepmom has come out to Oregon to visit me almost every year since I have lived here, I think. That is like close to twenty times. Never once did we discuss spreading his ashes in any of the wondrous places we have traveled to, like Mt Hood, or the Redwoods, or the flower studded cliffs of the wild Oregon coast. I never mentioned it; I guess I thought she would feel that the west coast didn’t really fit into her narrative of him, that he somehow belonged on the east coast.

But now, it’s been so long. I’ve even lived on the east coast for two years recently, not an hour from my stepmother, and somehow, during that time, it didn’t come up, even though we visited some of our old beaches. I might have made a remark about the box when she was cleaning out her closet, but I can’t be sure. Sometimes my commentary only runs in my head, thankfully. I don’t think we were avoiding it. I think it has been so long now that avoiding it isn’t even an issue.

We are headed to Kauai in just six days; me, my stepmom, and my twelve year old son.

And maybe, my dad. If he can make it out of that corner in my stepmom’s closet, with the shoe boxes on top of him. And we will take him down the Wailua River in a canoe, because he loved canoeing, and we will take him to the volcano, and the beach, and we will prop up that brown-paper wrapped box with us while we watch the sunset, sipping beers, and we will say meaningful things about him and tell stories to my son, who will laugh and feel sorry that he missed knowing such a wonderful person, and we will release his ashes to the wind and sea, and later, back at home, I will reflect deeply and write about it, and have some kind of closure about his death.

Hopefully.

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The Twitter Thing: I’m so Green

Twitter for blogpost

I’m no ingénue, but I am new to it. It’s a strange party. When I first went on there, I was like, “Holy shit!” The place was brimming and humming with activity of every kind, a total over-load of mind circuitry buzzing at me from the 14 inch screen. It was like a wave closing over my head.

It was an editor that led me to it, really. In her acceptance e-mail of a piece I’d written she said, “Are you on Twitter or Facebook?” and I didn’t answer that particular question right away, I went on Twitter and attempted to open an account instead. I typed in my email and up springs this jaunty message telling me there is already an account associated with this email. Turns out I’d already attempted to join Twitter three years ago, but only got so far as following Roger Ebert and Margaret Cho before I gave up and went back to a book, or YouTube videos of talking ravens.

So I go back on and spruce up the profile and all that business that takes way goddamn longer than it should, hemming and hawing over what info to put down so I don’t sound like some idiot and embarrass myself in front of…in front of whom? Roger and Margaret? And I find a picture that doesn’t make me look like a corpse and I start looking for people to follow.

So, back to that wave simile. Who to follow. I put my toes in the Twitter-water, waded in a bit. A couple of hours went by like a flash, my kid tugging my arm asking for food and I’m laughing my ass off at some cartoon of a girl humping a boy who’s trying to shave, marveling at old photos of Miles Davis, Helen Keller, looking at recipes and sites dedicated to ridding the world of plastic, crying at the injustice of the NYPD, cursing at the screen. “Heat some pizza!” I told my kid, and kept right at it for an undisclosed number of bad-mother hours.

I e-mailed with the editor again to send my little bio-thingy, but this time I’m ready for her; she’s like, “Are you on any social media, like Twitter, by chance? Because you could promote your story, and us, and we could promote you!” And I send an email back telling her the deal; that basically, no, I don’t use those–I’m a WordPress girl, but that I’ve found my account, I’m all over it and putting up a pic and crafting a profile.

I also tell her I am a neophyte and have no followers, as well as no clue. She e-mails back right away and tells me, “Great! I know lots of writers and editors, just go to my page and check it out!”

And I do that. I go to her page. I click where she says click….and….presto! I have just what I need–right there in front of me, in clever, witty, bold print, sprinkled with hashtags like happy confetti, all the fucking proof I need that there is not one single reason any sane person would keep writing and submitting and hoping and listening to all that workshop bullshit with all these insanely brilliant writers running around loose out there. Just forget it. I mean it. What was I thinking?

Ok, it wasn’t really like that. The initial shock wore off a bit and I started following those people, actually, and in turn, they followed me back. I went to the champagne fountain of Twitter and stepped right into the flow, I let myself surf in and out and get drunk and drenched on poems and essays, flashes and micros, banter, haikus and humor, and just reveled in it completely for a few days. And man, it was like a binge. It’s a river, roaring by–it could just sweep you right up and carry you away. But like a magic river, because it got me into a head-space where I just want to write all the time now. Maybe I even realize I don’t have a choice! It can have that effect, if you let it–the Twitter thing.

If You Keep Your Mouth Shut the Flies Won’t Get In

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by Heather Murphy

I am a child with no boundaries. It’s best to start that way; with the complete truth just out there, in your face, right off, bang. Because that is the crux of it. It is the result of something it would take hundreds of pages to elaborate upon—and maybe I will do so one day—it certainly does bear examination, but I can only bite off little pieces at a time.

Speaking of biting off pieces, this is about that remarkable muscle which hides in the mouth. The tongue. Sometimes mine seems to operate independently without my true consent, and like a dog unwittingly leading a bear back into camp, incite a ruckus.

Let me tell you how my complete lack of boundaries with people is getting me into trouble in the here and now. But let me also make a disclaimer about how I will be doing so using metaphor, possibly impersonal, universal examples, hypothetical situational psychology, (I just made that up, doesn’t it sound good?) and other totally anonymous tools to get my point across. I have to show some restraint to reach the grace I am ultimately seeking or my words will brew me more trouble, after I’ve already had my fill.

Words have such magic, such power. They can do whatever they want with you, really. They can change your mood and your feelings—just like that. Once they are on the page or out of your mouth, they go out into the world and have their own life. Regardless of your intentions. You totally get that part, right? Regardless of your intentions? It’s like the Venus/Mars thing, where that author talks about how you say one thing but it passes through a filter like thingy in the brain and comes out as something else for the person, something you may not have intended, unfortunately.

But back to the point of no boundaries. I let people in too far, because I’m hopeful, and I don’t set proper boundaries for either of us. It’s sad for me, because it’s already in there, in me, and I don’t know how to un-do parts of me now that I don’t like, I’m already in my forties, though a lot of work in alanon has helped. I realize that what I have to do is just make the adjustments based on what I know about the other person who is disappointing me or pissing me off once I have gotten sort of close to them. I have to realize that it is something in them, and about them that I have reached as an obstacle because this is just how they operate, and it’s for a complex variety of reasons. Not because of some special grotesque and unacceptable fault of my own, but because this is how they roll, baby. Then, I don’t have to take it so fucking personally, I can cultivate some kind of logical neutrality that will ultimately defuse the situation.

So, hang on, are you into this astrology crap? Because sometimes, I swear, there are just certain people—regardless of how beautiful and amazing they might be, who rub you the wrong ass way. Do you have that? Why is that? All the components can be there, everything you need for some juicy material, something you could sink your teeth into…a friendship, a lover, a project, an idea, fantasies, but then…there is just this bad chemistry. Emotions run like roller coaster cars in opposite directions, wool grabs on sandpaper, oil floats atop water, blue and red don’t go…and some people just don’t mix.

Even when I want them to.

I could go off on a tangent about the strange and wondrous dynamic of meeting people and feeling the opposite—feeling instant camaraderie and familiarity, the fun idea you knew them in a prior life, all that good stuff. But this is not about that. This is the dark stuff, the people who are opaque to you, who are like a furnished room with no lights on. The people who tilt their heads to the side quizzically when the others are nodding. Because they don’t get you. And I told you, it’s nothing personal. Even when you like them and they can’t like you back.

But how are you going to handle them? If you’re like me–stupid, you’ll get miffed and run your mouth. The boundaries you’ve set for yourself—out the window. See where that gets you. There’s a big laugh out loud. Because no one of value wants to hear you running your mouth, or making drama, or any of that Jerry Springer shit. If they do, run and hide—find new friends, quickly.

Everywhere you go, you will run into these people. These people you might rub the wrong way. You say potato, and they will say you said, tomato. You will see the glass half full and they will see smudges on the glass. You will read something to them that you have written and they will look at you with pity or anxiety, with puzzlement, perhaps, or even outrage. Since you have no boundaries, you will take this badly and ruminate over it, like a squirrel with a nut, until you have decided you are unfit for human consumption and should live under ground with moles, or in another country where you don’t speak the language.

But wait. You don’t have to. Just because some people don’t get you at all and even think you’re an asshole doesn’t mean you don’t have amazing insights and talents. It just means your signal isn’t getting through to them because of wiring issues. No biggie. Let it be impersonal, please. It’s just like those chemistry experiments in high school. When you mix certain things together, nothing happens. You just sit there, staring, with your protective eye-wear, next to the beaker, but nothing happens. Or, there is this huge explosion. And it leaves a big mess.

I warned you it would be all hypothetical and anonymous and universal, didn’t I? This blathering around the bush. But, I’ve been miffed and pissed and misunderstood and misinterpreted and looked at funny. But because I am a former card-carrying Buddhist who’s been around the block a few times and just wants some freakin’ peace, I am taking the high road. I am thinking of my difficult situation as being an opportunity for growth. I am remembering that certain people will just not get me, and that’s okay, and I don’t have to take it personally or badly when things go awry, and unleash the tongue monster, I just have to find some grace in myself to get through it without looking like an asshole. And I don’t have to name names or point out times he has disappointed me, or she has misinterpreted me, or he has failed to respond to my sound logic, I just have to remind myself to get through it without blowing it, Jerry Springer style.

Making Stuff Up

story

by Heather Murphy

This should have a subtitle that says something like “Why Fiction Rules and Non-fiction Just Sits There,” because of my bad attitude. I get one of those when I’m feeling defensive, regardless of whether I’ve been criticized or not. But I do believe it, too. Fiction rules!  It can make animals talk and create entire houses made out of chocolate if it feels like it, because fiction is the bomb diggity. Hmmmph, so there.

You might have guessed. Someone has recently been making remarks about fiction as if it perhaps had a little too much fun at the party, maybe laughing too loudly, having too much wine. Remarks that might possibly have hinted that fiction was basically a K-Mart shirt, and non-fiction was a stately building, made of stone.

It wasn’t a big deal, really. I think I’m taking it too personally. But I don’t care. The comment was from a fellow writer, feeling stuck, or feeling exposed because of how nonfiction had left her with no emotional privacy. It wasn’t really directed at me, it was  just sort of off-the-cuff. She said that she might just start writing fiction. She’s said this before, like she was saying “I should have gotten a business degree instead, this isn’t working out,” but with no intention of getting a business degree, because that would be soul-killing and it was just something to say, something outrageous. But this time she said, “because then you can just hide,” afterwards.

And something in me recoiled in anger. The righteous wheels started spinning in my brain as I immediately began an inner dialog that kept me from hearing much else that night. I was thinking things like “if this line of thinking is logical, then cameras should have rendered painting obsolete,” and “nonfiction writers are self-centered narcissists! They just tell their own stories and express their opinions and perceptions, endlessly! They don’t have to create jack shit!” And even, “this is why reality tv is the dominating genre on the tube and there aren’t as many creative shows like “Northern Exposure,” because people prefer to peek into your fucking closet!”

Crafting fiction is not easy. Writing poetry doesn’t exactly allow you to “hide.” Recording what has happened to you or to the world and putting an interesting spin (opinion) on it is probably not easy either, and I love a good essay, but I’ve grown tired of countless memoirs and interviews, tired of the constant rehashing of reality! I need to escape! And reality is not a place people escape to.

See how I got all rattled and ended up mouthing off, here on my blog? It’s not because I have anything against nonfiction–I write essays and micro-autobiography all the time! In fact, it never would have occurred to me to make these remarks had I not felt defensive about crafting mostly fiction as opposed to non. I just do what I do. But it got me thinking and I do see this pattern of obsession with other people’s dirty laundry and I do see the increase of narcissism. Not in my friend, but in the genre of non. And I see why it has taken the lead in the publishing world. The thing is, fiction actually has the ability to completely nail down the quintessence of the human condition. Fiction is still watching when everyone else has left. It knows why you do the things that you do; the things you would never record or reveal. Fiction keeps going when you’ve decided you’ve had enough. It doesn’t leave certain parts out. It takes notes while you are dreaming and constructs collages with your experiences, your history, and makes art of them.

LMAO@(##) wtf?! Or: How I Used the Word “Hash” as a Tag on WordPress Unwittingly, and Got Freshly Pressed!

hashtag

by Heather Murphy

That the above means something to almost anyone who reads it causes me undue stress. Not just the symbol (though that is producing some major stress) but the entire first part of my title. The descent into electronic grunting has got me down. The second part of my title will make you laugh when you discover my naïveté and how it led to a Three’s Company moment for me that caused my friend to actually physically drop her smart phone when the laughter took over her entire body and the phone was just in the way.

Ok, so I wrote a post called “The Case of the Missing People” and amazingly, it was freshly pressed and put on the front page of WordPress. I was new and had very little idea of what it meant to be freshly pressed. It was my third post on a multi-authored blog called Letters to Pomona.  It had been up for a couple of weeks or something, when suddenly, one day my gmail inbox was crammed, pages full, with comment and like notifications from WordPress concerning this post.

At first I thought there was some error and my post had somehow created a tidal wave of spam via some new virus. I worried that people I knew would be affected and get mad at me. My posts had never been read by more than a small handful of people, so something had to be amiss. I looked more closely at the avatars and names of the people and they looked…totally on the up and up. I was flummoxed. I wondered how the hell they found the post, why so many?

I logged onto our WordPress “Stats” page and began the process of decoding it. It had little maps of where traffic was coming from, a table showing the flow of traffic, and even a spot that showed from whence the traffic came, Internet-wise. I looked at the “Referrers” section and squinted.

I slowly realized I’d been freshly pressed. I thought, “Holy shit, this is like that thing on flickr, where they “explore” the best photography, through some mysterious algorithm and you hope they will pick yours up so it can be seen by like a jillion people all over the world and you can get tons of feedback from all kinds of characters and be thought of as not-obsolete for awhile and perhaps bask in it and feel groovy.” That’s what I thought. And I started to get excited.

Now, goddamn google had changed my inbox situation not long before this whole thing happened. They decided to put mail that wasn’t personal into two other folders, and I just went along with it and was like, “Oh, that’s probably a good idea,” or something like that, so I never got any letter from WordPress explaining what happened to me. I had to sleuth it out on my own. It was days later that I found the nice email from a WordPress editor named Cheri, hiding in another folder. The one that explained everything.

I found the “freshly pressed” page and decided to read some of the posts and damn, they were good. This was way cool. Now we were getting followers, people who would become an actual audience to consider. I started checking them out, these followers and comment makers and reading their stuff. I saw the little maps on the stats page showing that they were reading it all over the world, including countries I have never heard of. Or maybe it was a couple of islands with new names.

I was deeply curious about these people who had taken the time to read my work and I wanted to reciprocate. One night, while playing this fun game of spying on the likers, I noticed someone had clicked on one of my tags that was the word, “hash”. I read her blog and it was some young woman from a city who likes to smoke marijuana and make love to men and write poetry about it while smoking marijuana. It was good stuff. The use of the word in my post that led to it being chosen as a tag was something to the effect of, “When my parents held court with their hash and quadrophonic stereo…” so it wasn’t like I was discussing hash or anything. But I do like to use lots of tags, so it just got sucked in.

Next day, same thing, another interesting person who clicked on the word, “hash”. I didn’t think much of it. There were other words that got the real clicks, like “memoir” and “writing.”

So, finally to the funny part. With a preface, of course: I don’t currently have a cell phone because I live in the mountains and blah blah blah, and when I did text, on my last phone, I might have said “lol” and “ttyl” but I’m over forty and that is as far as my wisdom of using the choices on the pad to abbreviate my electronic communications go. I don’t employ symbols. It’s because they mean nothing to me, unless I am using them as answers because an automated voice has prompted me to do so.

That being said, I have no idea wtf a hashtag is, okay? It’s ironic because I just wrote a little story from a kid’s point of view where they assume “draft dodger” has something to do with baseball. I really identify with this kid.

Ok, the totally, really real getting-to-the-point-part is now. I went back onto freshly pressed again because now I wanted to read all that good stuff, and I came across this one freshly pressed post, and it’s actually right near mine and it’s this guy talking about how people have to do the dumbest things to get noticed and he’s using all these clever metaphors and it’s good writing and then he says something like, “and if you have to use hashtags to get noticed….” or something like that, and I think, “Oh my god! What? Does he mean me? Like I got noticed because I used a hash tag? Does he really think that? Only like four people clicked on that word, come on!” and I was hot-cheeked to write a response to his post, I hastily banged out, “Hashtags? I resemble this comment! Is it a coincidence that I read this post?!” wondering how long it would take him to respond.

And then I went to my edits page and I deleted that goddamn word, “hash” in my tag section, feeling like a small town slut in a room full of virginal Smith graduates, all squirmy and looking for someone to punch. Who the hell was he to judge me?

That was a month or more ago. The other day, was it today? I don’t know where, I heard it spoken aloud–that word that I never knew was a word, or is it two: “hashtag”! Was that from the television? On the phone with my text abbreviation expert of a best friend, though I had no clue yet what text abbreviations or phone pad symbols had to do with anything, I asked her, “Have you heard of a ‘hashtag’? What the hell is it?” I suddenly knew there was a blogger out there who thought I was nuts. No wonder he never responded to my comment.

She told me about the little tic-tac-toe symbol and the use of it to preface a tweet or something, and I didn’t know what the hell she was on about. It took a while to explain it, and how if you used two of them it was like grabbing someone’s arm instead of just yelling, like one hashtag denoted, and when I told her about my post and the use of the word hash and that guy who was ridiculing me, she dropped her smart phone, like I told you. She ROFL@me, just like when we were kids and she had to tell me that ‘soap boppers’ were shows grown-ups watched in the day-time, not something you take in the bathtub.

Epiphany and the Moose

–by Heather Murphy

Suddenly, stories are surrounding me, invisibly reproducing and hatching in the dark, fecund places of my mind, unceremoniously swarming my days and nights like the termites that overtook that rental I lived in on 3rd Street in Jacksonville that time, when they were suddenly everywhere–flying, walking, dying in teacups in the kitchen sink, mating in a frenzy of orgiastic desperation on my very pillow. The stories are coming back to me like that, and the only way to fight them, is with a laptop.

But there could never be enough time and the memories are coming fast like monsoon rains, and the deluge leaves me with so many impressions, the ideas left scattered on the beach of my hard drive like flotsam washed ashore—that I become overwhelmed with the task at hand.

The stories of those who have passed through me and through this world are coming home to roost, and my own stories, piled up like goodwill bags on the floor of a closet, call out for me to find them and reclaim them, accessorize them with the flourishes that might give them form, and I bring them out to play amongst the old stories of people I used to know as I drive the winding mountain roads of my little valley, with the radio off, and suddenly I understand that our stories are now inexorably tied. When I tell you their story, I will be there. My own story will unfold.

Like the time I drove up that road in the middle of nowhere in Montana when it was getting dark, in that old Mustang of Robbie’s and it started to snow. I should write about that someday. I remember I was wearing clogs and I was embarrassed because when the friendly hunter and his sons had to help me get the Mustang pointed back the right way on the icy, snow-packed dirt road, I slipped and they stared down at my shoes, the final proof that I was insane. And in a sense I was.

I don’t have time to tell you the whole story because all time and thought are being siphoned away now by other stories half-told in Word documents, but I want to tell you quickly, about where I was going, about what I found. I was going to see Jim and Sondra and the girls on the mining claim they were living on in their old school bus, so I could tell them about the car accident I’d had while trying to go see M in Pennsylvania and how I’d almost died and how my heart was truly broken beyond repair, and how I wished we were still travelling together to the hot springs in Idaho so I could soak and heal under the jeweled night sky then sit around all day reading The Wind in the Willows to the girls, but when I got there they were so busy butchering a moose they’d shot, I couldn’t tell them anything. I finally realized it and stopped talking. There was just the sound of meat being separated from bone, and the important beating of my heart, nothing else. And the universe was still for a tiny moment.

The dog whined piteously and strained at its rope and the family huddled over the moose, speaking to each other in low, elated voices. I stared down at my clogs in the firelight. My hands, folded into the pockets of my coat were suddenly, not my hands. They were idle workers, sleeping under a tree while others toiled.

I want to tell that story and tell you how I had an epiphany then, as I watched them hacking at the carcass by lanterns and firelight( how the warmth of the split open moose mixed with their labored breath to form a fog around them), an epiphany about the self and death, and how you can never truly understand another person, or be truly understood because the timing is always wrong and everyone has something important happening, not just you, but there are too many other stories right now, they just keep coming and never enough time, and it gnaws at me to think of me then and how it was–me so self-absorbed around people who knew actual hunger, and wearing those stupid clogs in the wilds of those unforgiving mountains, thinking someone would confirm the extreme importance of my existence if I just got in a car and drove somewhere, regardless of the weather or the fact that I was just another person stumbling around in a beautiful torture chamber called life and not that important after all, not really.

You have to understand, they had to get the meat in or the mountain lions and the bears would get it. No time for hanging it and no way to do so. I took the kettle from the woodstove on the bus and poured hot water into the basin, where cold water waited, and washed my hands and wrists methodically, like a surgeon before an operation, then lit another lantern, took up a knife, and joined them, spattering moose blood on my favorite jacket, and those Bass leather clogs. They were ruined.

Of course I spent the night–in the guesthouse; Jim had turned their old Econoline van into a sleeping nook with a bookshelf and a tiny cast iron stove, and I laid there for hours, watching its flame cast flickers on the metal roof, thinking about the stories they’d told after the work of butchering, stories I damaged my wrist frantically trying to get to paper while I laughed with them, incredulous, thinking, “I have to get this crazy stuff down!” I wondered about the lives of the wild creatures that would come to sniff the bloody blanket of snow and Jim’s meat locker, just feet from where I nestled under heavy blankets. I thought of the people I had met, out on the road like me, people who told me things I know they never told another living soul. I knew I had to write their stories and the ones I heard that night, after the moose. I felt over-excited at the prospect of getting them all down.

I still do.

Time collects the dead but does not tell their story. That is left to the people. I go from feeling like an intrepid archaeologist, gripping my maps and photographs, my journals, eager to begin the work–to a somber miner, wearily clutching a tiny pick in a dark and deep place, where somewhere before him deep in the earth treasure hides, but there is no help in finding it, nor extracting it from the impenetrable stone.

One word at a time, I’m chipping away.

The Case of The Missing People

Letters to Pomona

–by Heather Murphy

When I was young, it was not unusual for my father to “crash” at the apartment I lived in with my mother and stepfather. I used to picture him smashing his blue car into our living room when I heard the adults talking about him coming over. He often missed it when they held court, most weekends, with their hash and quadraphonic stereo, preferring the bar instead. He would come over later in the evenings to play cards and talk, or, he would come over drunk, in the middle of the night, and get into my bed–dressed–with his boots on, smelling of old spice and beer, and he would tell me stories about his days at school with the nuns and how mean they were, and we would play animal, mineral, or vegetable, or name that tune, until he would start snoring. I hated it when he…

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