The Rope Swing by Candace Kearns Read

After recently re-reading The Rope Swing by Candace Kearns Read, in my Facebook memories from 5 years ago, I noticed photos of friends around the country posing with copies of the book to celebrate its 2016 launch. Perfect timing to post 

Happy 5th birthday to The Rope Swing!

Candace Kearns Read is my friend. We met in 1999 at the MFA program at Antioch Los Angeles. My focus was fiction. Back then, I was mystified by those who wrote creative nonfiction and especially memoir. How could a person handle the vulnerability of writing personal stuff without the protective veil of fiction? I was intimidated, and in awe of these humans. Although I have kept a journal most of my life, but this writing of personal stories for others to read was another continent.

As The Rope Swing evolved toward publication, I had the pleasure of reading various iterations, and was so happy to cheer this book on. It was deeply gratifying to revisit it again recently, with a fuller understanding of what memoir is and can do, and what it takes (for the writer/human) to survive the doing. Brava to Candace for making this beautiful book!

In pondering the memoir this time, a notion took root…in the form of subtitle, or how I might articulate some of the generous humanity contained in the narrative: 

—How To Survive Loving Someone Who Is Broken and Complicated*—

(*Here I need to say that I consider many humans, myself included, broken and complicated. Some are more broken and complicated than others, but/and/so I am not judging anyone! May we all do our best as we navigate the messy endeavor of loving each other.)

This memoir makes me feel my own humanity, and it gives me some hope that despite how messy things can be, we humans tend toward mutual survival…and I find this a comfort.

**

Some thoughts on craft:

The book is skillfully woven of child and adult narration. The impact of the story accumulates via these dual voices. (That inner sense of still feeling like a kid, despite the mileage of adulthood…so rich and poignant.)

In particular, Candace has an uncanny ability to write in the voice of childhood. Experiencing that thread of the narrative—that close lens and naïve curiosity—reading the child’s experience is both grounding and unsettling. We have each been children in the past, and a reader accessing this strata of memory is reminded of what it was like…that vulnerability, the lack of full understanding of adult ways…this layer loops me back again, somehow, toward how children survive the challenge of childhood.

For instance, on p. 25 (when the narrator is age five, attending an adult party):

“I stay close to Irene all night. She sparkles, wearing her pink and orange party dress that shows off the tops of her boobs. She has freckled brown skin and thick brown hair and wears lots of Mexican jewelry. She is always so happy that it makes you happy just to be around her.

 She is very friendly with all the men at the party, but doesn’t seem as friendly with their wives. When Sammy goes into a corner to tell a joke to a bunch of men, she goes with him. When I try to follow her, Sammy waves his hand for me to stop. ‘It’s not for little girls to hear,’  He says. I go a little ways away so I can’t hear a thing, but I watch them all the see what they do. After Sammy tells his story, everybody laughs real hard, especially Irene, who laughed so hard she has to wipe tears off her cheeks.”

While later, on p. 106, we see another shade of vulnerability from the adult narrator (helping her mother, whose cognition is wobbly) in this sweet/bitter moment:

“She squints down at her feet, then looks up and smiles kindly at me.

‘Where are you from?’ she asks, like she’s making polite conversation with a stranger. She is mistaking me for a nurse. I know how she loves to engage strangers in conversation, find out where they’re from, what’s their politics are, and if they don’t have any, to make suggestions. This is what is happening now— my mother thinks she is meeting someone new. 

Where am I from?

‘I’m from your womb.’

She chuckles, and then I can see a wave of remembering cross her face.  She knows, not exactly who I am, but that whoever I am, I might just be from her womb. In all my life, this is the first time my own mother hasn’t recognized me. It’s like the core of me has just been carved out, and I’m left hollow.”

**

And please revel in the emergence of a young witch in these pages! The child narrator holds powerful magic, and thusly strives to order often her chaotic corner of the world:

On p. 183:

“One morning I am in my room with the door closed and I see Tiger outside my sliding glass door, moving back and forth and meowing like she wants to get in. Before I can go over and let her in, she has somehow magically come inside. I look for a hole in the wall, a vent or something, but I can’t figure out how she got in. She looks at me with those big green eyes and I can hear her saying, ‘I have magical powers.’” (And later, the child’s friend says, “She must be your familiar….all witches have one.”)

Not only the cat has magical powers: 

On p. 97 (when the narrator is six, and she and her mother are staying in a motel—having fled home to escape the mother’s abusive boyfriend):

“I dream that our house is burning down, in a bad fire.  All my toys and clothes are being swallowed up in the flames. The fire gets bigger and bigger until it burns up our whole house.

I wake up to the sound of a phone ringing. It’s early in the morning, not really dark but not really light out either. I can tell it’s before the time when people are supposed to wake up. The phone is on the floor between our two beds and my mother picks it up finally. She says hello in a sleepy voice, and then she doesn’t say anything for a long time. Then she asks, in a scared voice, ‘Down to the ground?’ And that’s when I know our house burnt down, just like in my dream.”

**

I’m so grateful that Candace has crafted this book, used her alchemy, produced this “truth, artfully arranged” (as Dinty W. Moore has defined creative nonfiction).

Please read this book. You can learn more about her writing and coaching here: https://candacekearnsread.com/

Let’s Talk about Healthcare

I’m grateful to The Grey Zone for this thoughtful post. May we evolve toward treating each other with at least basic respect—and despite whatever flurry of stress we may be experiencing, and whatever trauma we may be carrying, may we slow down well enough to ensure we do no harm to each other.

The Grey Zone

A disclaimer or two and a note before I get started: This is most definitely a rant. I am seriously done with being told to be more patient about my lack of patience with healthcare. People who subtly shame those of us who struggle just to get through each day apparently have no idea how hard that can be and how, sometimes, we’d rather just not be here than have to try. They also have no idea how damaging their attitude and words are. How it can take days to recover from an unkind word. It’s interesting how many people will accept and defend atrocious behavior from professionals, but condemn any attempts to manage it on the part of the rest of us.

I actually DO know how hard Jobs in healthcare can be. Some of my hardest work was as a nurse, treating psychotic and criminally insane patients. This…

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Consent by Vanessa Springora

Consent, by Vanessa Springora, describes the author’s history of being sexually abused (starting at age 14) by the writer Gabriel Matzneff who was, at the time, age 49.

This memoir explodes the structures & strictures of keeping secrets and carrying shame. It’s a reckoning on behalf of those who have been fondled, lied to, controlled, terrorized, gaslit, manipulated, damaged, and otherwise abused by pedophiles. (Good!)

(I recommend this book. And this book may bring up past/un-metabolized/unhealed trauma. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, and you choose to read it, please find ways to take care of yourself as needed.)

& may we all find our way toward healing and wholeness.

A couple resonant bits:

p. 181:

            “It’s incredible. I’d never have believed it possible. After so many romantic disasters, such a struggle to accept love unhesitatingly, the man whom I eventually met and with whom I now share my life was somehow able to heal my many wounds. We have a son who is just entering adolescence. A son who has helped me gro. Because you can’t remain fourteen years old forever once you become a mother. My son is handsome, with a gentle expression in his eyes, a bit of a dreamer. Fortunately, he never asks me much about my childhood. Which is just as well. In the imaginations of our children, at least when they’re young, our lives only began with their birth. Perhaps they sense, intuitively, that there is a shadowy zone it’s better not to venture into.”

p. 184:

            “By setting his sights on young, lonely, vulnerable girls, whose parents either couldn’t cope or were actively negligent, G. knew that they would never threaten his reputation. And silence means consent.

            But on the other hand, to my knowledge, not a single one of his countless mistresses has ever chosen to write a book recounting the wonderful relationship she had with G.

            Does that tell us something?

            What has changed today—something that men like he and his defenders complain about constantly, excoriating the general atmosphere of puritanism—is that following the sexual revolution, it is now, at last, the turn of the victims to speak out.”

When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter memoir

by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele

If you want to better understand how systemic racism affects humanity, please read this book.

Here are some specific passages that resonate, for me, and help me see more fully.

On p. 93: Discussing the pitfalls of over/sole focus on personal responsibility as the solution for addiction, within the overarching structure of systemic racism:

“It was easy to understand that when race was a blatant factor, a friend says to me in a political discussion on afternoon. Jim Crow left no questions or confusion. But now that race isn’t written into the law, she says, look for the codes. Look for the coded language everywhere, she says. They rewrote the laws, but they didn’t rewrite white supremacy. They kept that shit intact, she says.

I don’t know if I ever convince my father of this line of thinking. A decade of 12-stepping has ensured that he only really knows how to hold himself accountable. Even with all my speeches and his engagement with me at the Strategy Center, I sense when we talk that everyone and everything else kind of gets a pass.”

p. 98: On the flagrant injustice that is knit into the “justice” system:

“I have never seen him high before but I refuse to turn away. If he matters to me at all then he has to matter to me at every moment. He has to matter to me at this moment. Seeing him like this feels like my soul is being pulled over shards of glass but I do not turn away. His life is not expendable. Our love is not disposable. I will not be to him what the world has been to him. I will not throw him away. I will not say he has nothing to offer.

I tell him that relapse is part of recovery.

I ask, What if we wrote off every person who fell off a diet? We laugh at that, but just briefly.

My father’s addiction and the stigma that attaches to it have made him so deeply lonely, forced him into a world that cannot ever be fully shared by anyone who loves him. I love him. I tell him I want to share his whole life with him. He sighs and expels air. He deflates. I move closer to him. He lets me. I tell him I won’t leave him and I don’t. We talk or we don’t talk, for the rest of the night. We hold each other on and off. We cry.

Two months later my father is sentenced to three years in prison. He is able to avoid the seven-year bid because he volunteers to go to the prison camp fire, a program where convicts are made to serve as front-line first responders when the California wildfires break out. They are the ones who go in before the trained firefighters do.

My father risks death for a faster shot at freedom.”

And p. 143:

“There is rarely discussion about the trauma that often drives chaotic drug use and addiction. And there is no discussion about the fact that fully 75 percent of the people who use drugs never develop addiction. (For some drugs, like marijuana, fully 90 percent of those who use never become addicted.) They wake up, go to work or school, pay their taxes, raise their kids, make love with their partners. They live. They live regular old boring lives. But for my father, my brother, others I know, chaos was a factor before drugs were a part of their lives. Why does no one ever address that?”

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Heavy by Kiese Laymon is hypnotic. So much richness in the truth Laymon offers, so much vulnerability, so much powerful toppling of shame. Among other gifts, Laymon’s memoir deepened my understanding of the insidious and varied damage that systems of white supremacy cause on Black bodies and psyches. Of the pressure Black people are under, 24 hours a day, every day. Of what—to me (as a white-bodied person)—may be invisible in the classroom (and world). I’m grateful to Laymon for helping me open my eyes and see.

Please read and re-read this book. And meanwhile, behold some illuminating passages. (“You” in these passages refers to the narrator’s mother.):

P. 123: “In class, I only spoke when I could be an articulate defender of Black people. I didn’t use the classroom to ask questions. I didn’t use the classroom to make ungrounded claims. There was too much at stake to ask questions, to be dumb, to be a curious student, in front of a room of white folk who assumed all Black folk were intellectually less than. For the first time in my life, the classroom scared me. And when I was scared, I ran to cakes, because cakes felt safe, private, and celebratory. Cakes never fought back.”

P. 140-141: “I now knew what ‘patriarchy’ was.  I could define ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’  I could explain ‘intersectionality’ to Ray Gunn.  I understood gender was a construction and there were folk on Earth who were transgender and gender-fluid.  I went to abortion-clinic defenses.  I marched in safer-sex rallies. I made photocopies of my bell hooks essays and gave them to my friends. I had new lenses and frames to see the world. I called to those new lenses and frames ‘Black feminism,’ but I didn’t really have the will to publicly or privately reckon with what living my life as a Black feminist meant.”

P. 180: “‘The world was out to smother me and my kids,’  you told me a week after I arrived at Vassar. ‘ My job as a teacher was to help them breathe with excellence and discipline in the classroom. The ones that love you, they become what you model. Don’t forget that. Help them breathe by modeling responsible love in the classroom every single day. The most important thing a teacher can do is give their students permission to be loving and excellent.’” 

P. 180:  “My first week of class, I understood that none of my students, especially the black and brown ones who gravitated to me, wanted to be treated as noble exceptions to their communities. They wanted to be loved, inspired, protected, and heard. They didn’t want to be punished or unfairly disciplined for navigating the craziness that came with leaving home to sleep, eat, and drink with people they didn’t know while learning in haunted classrooms and dorms. Like nearly every black professor I knew from the Deep South, I expected to protect my students from security, police, and malicious administrations. I expected to pick them up from the police stations, train stations, and emergency rooms. I didn’t expect to fail them as much as I did. I mis-gendered my students when they asked if I could help push the college to cover the cost of transitioning because they’ve been disowned by their parents for being transgender. I made my students engage with art that attacked them for being queer, femme, black, and poor. I came into my James Baldwin lecture after the Virginia Tech shooting and told the one Asian American boy in the class, who happened to be Vietnamese, I was free if he ever wanted to talk about violence. I asked one of my Chicana students who told me her family had been deported if she knew when they’d be back, and if she wanted to publish an essay about it. 

I found more ways to fail and harm my kids than I ever imagined. Every time I failed them, I knew I thought I was doing something you would never have done.”

P. 228: “‘We all broken,’ I said. ‘Some broken folk do whatever they can not to break other folk. If we’re gone be broken, I wonder if we can be those kind of broken folk from now on. I think it’s possible to be broken and ask for help without breaking other people.’”

essay at LA Review of Books

shadow of writer at Long Pond, Omega Institute, October 2017
shadow of writer at Long Pond, Omega Institute, October 2017

Here’s a link to my essay, “A Trampoline,” recently published at LA Review of Books.

This essay is part of my memoir-in-progress, 318, about my childhood home that the fire department burned down as an exercise. Gratitude to all who have lent support, especially those who read & helped with early drafts; to Nick Flynn for Memoir as Bewilderment; and to Gina Frangello, for publishing this piece.

May we all find our way, as we work our way back up.

Cover reveal

Thrilled to unveil the cover of my debut novel, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival! Grateful to Ash Goodwin for design, and to Gronk for the beautiful art, and to Rod Val Moore and everyone at What Books Press. (Please treat yourself by perusing the work of Gronk!) Also grateful to the generous humans who read and provided blurbs (Jim Krusoe, Gayle Brandeis, Ariel Gore, and Nick Flynn). It takes many hands & spirits to do this work.

The novel is forthcoming in October. Stay tuned here for more information!