The real you and the fictional you

Sometimes the cure for writer’s block is reading. I just finished reading a bunch of my students’ responses to a series of questions I gave them to answer in both fiction and nonfiction.

Most did much better on the nonfiction assignment, which doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always been better at nonfiction. If you’re an honest person and don’t have too much to hide, you basically just have to be able to interrogate yourself, and most writers are really good at that.

Writer’s block is when you start asking, who cares about me? Why would anyone care what I’ve done or what I think?

They would care because you’re being honest with yourself and them. It’s a skill, maybe a talent. Not everyone has it. If you’re really good at it, someone will be able to relate to what you’re saying, and that’s why they’ll care. So that’s nonfiction.

The fictional world is a bit more complicated, for me anyway. This story from The Atlantic says British children’s stories are better than Americans’ because, frankly, British stories are less realistic and moralistic. They usually include some element of magic. The writers are better at suspending disbelief, which must have something to do with cultural differences between Americans and the British.

Does that mean Americans are better at memoir because we’re so good at describing the harsh realities of our existence? Have the challenges we’ve faced collectively since coming over on the Mayflower caused us to shed all those polite formalities and illusions that make for good tea parties and fairy stories?

For me, a big part of writer’s block comes from the fact that sometimes reality is just plain gross. I don’t want to lie, but it’s better not to be too honest, either.

That’s where you can take refuge in fiction or “fiction.”

There’s the real you and the fictional you. If you feel like the fictional you is basically a social media profile, then I’d say that’s a problem, because the fictional you could be the person you want to be as well as the one you actually might be someday.

Years ago I was talking to an editor friend, admitting that I might have some delusions about my own abilities. But maybe, I said, self-delusion isn’t always a bad thing?

Maybe, he said, self-delusion is the only thing.

I’d like to think there’s a difference between hope and self-delusion, however thin the distinction.

The real me is a woman who lives in a suburban Colonial that needs a new coat of paint in every room, with too many animals. When I think of the time I could have without all these litter boxes, my blood boils.

The fictional me lives in a Tudor-style cottage with a grandfather clock and a free-roaming lop-eared rabbit named Bianca. I reserve the right to change her name, because what fun is having a rabbit if you don’t get to change her name from time to time?


Books you want to read and books you have to read

Good writing makes you feel less alone. You recognize it when you read about a thought or feeling you thought only you had ever had. It makes you realize that not only did someone else have the same experience, but this other person, the one whose name is on this cover, was able to articulate and distribute it in a way that you only wish you could have and suddenly it is not just a thought you had alone, but this perfect, crystalline truth that fear kept you from speaking. You thought maybe you were actually such a deranged individual that none of those normal people – the ones who came off the assembly line without any dents or dings – would not be able to relate. They would have said that you needed help, that there’s medicine for those feelings you described. So you didn’t say what you felt and you didn’t tell your story and the next thing you know, you’re reading it in someone else’s book and saying, with a sigh, “dang, that was good.”

One of those crystalline truths which I read years ago in a Gillian Flynn book came skating through my mind this morning as I was making coffee. The next thought I had was that maybe I should read another Gillian Flynn book. But then I thought, no, I’ve got some classics I’d better choke down before the next lunch table conversation where everyone starts talking about a book I haven’t read and was hoping to avoid for eternity. One such book is “Night,” by Elie Wiesel. I don’t want to read it. But I should read it. But I don’t want to.

I am sure you can understand why I don’t want to. Is there anything more depressing than the Holocaust?

But it’s kind of awkward when you’re an English teacher and you’re eating lunch with your coworkers and they are throwing out references to a book you’ve never read. You feel you should read it, as well as every other book considered a classic in the canon of American and British literature, plus some of the Russians we don’t read in high school but people still talk about. Plus you should probably read all of the best-selling young adult books – the ones students might actually WANT to read as opposed to the ones people read so they can say they’ve read them.

I think that’s one reason I majored in journalism instead of English – because I was more interested in the practical application of modern language than reading books written by men who died hundreds of years ago.

Yet of all the mistakes I’ve made in life, majoring in journalism instead of English might be the one that has haunted me most. It was really bad when I was looking for a job as an English teacher. Did you know that some principals think majoring in English makes you more qualified to teach it? I mean, go figure. I could have tried making the argument that the state’s standards actually require students to apply practical language skills rather than be well-read scholars of classic literature, but the thing is, people like categories, labels, and “majors” because it makes things more manageable, easier to understand. So they want English majors to teach English and journalism majors to be journalists. If only life were that simple and everyone could decide what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives at 18. This is also why you sometimes have people who majored in English teaching journalism when they wouldn’t know a campaign finance report from a real estate transfer or a planning commission from a board of zoning appeals. Not that anyone would want to know these things any more than they would want to read “Of Human Bondage.”

While I’m on the subject of literary shame and regrets, one of the dumbest things I did this summer was take a bunch of my books to Books-A-Million because they had a sign that said, “We buy used books.”

So I thought, OK, I’ve got all these books I’ve already read taking up space in my house. I’ll try selling them to Books-A-Million.

Now I’ve sold books at used bookstores before. It usually isn’t worth the gas money it costs you to drive across town. You’d feel better donating them to a library for their used book sale fundraiser.

But I thought because Books-A-Million is a big company, maybe it would be more … lucrative.

Well, it was different because instead of just looking at the books and then declaring that I could get $5 for all these great books still on the best-seller lists like the owner of a used bookstore would have done, the guy working at Books-A-Million had to scan my books and get my email. I then had to wait half an hour to receive a text, at which point I went back to his counter to find out what he could give me for all of my awesome books, which included Shirley Jackson’s classic, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” and Marie Kondo’s contemporary best-seller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” After waiting 30 minutes with my kids in the Books-A-Million coffee shop, where we spent $15 on snacks and beverages, I was informed he could give me $6. I should have taken the books and left, but I took the $6.

That was dumb. I bet one of my friends would have liked to borrow my copy of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I doubt I could talk any of my students into reading “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” but I still wish I had kept that copy. Kids today are more into books like “The Hate U Give.” When I let them choose, they go for modern books with references to conflicts, clothing, and music they recognize. Go figure.

The clove of seasons

The crickets are really loud right now because it’s nearly dawn in September in Virginia and the insects want it to be autumn almost as badly as the humans who live here. We are in the clove of seasons, a phrase I am borrowing from James Hurst’s classic short story “The Scarlet Ibis,” which takes place in North Carolina sometime in late summer, before the temperature and leaves have changed.

If you haven’t read “The Scarlet Ibis,” you really should, probably today, because if you don’t, you will likely forget. It is seasonally appropriate. Be forewarned, it’s a tragedy, one that, despite being written before the invention of the internet, manages to make an impression even on a classroom of fidgety 14-year-olds, and they are hard to impress. It’s about a boy who is ashamed of his disabled younger brother. To me, it’s about sibling guilt. Most of us who have siblings know something of what that feels like, especially if you were the oldest.

The transition from summer to fall is the most nostalgic and bittersweet of the season changes. It’s the last stage before everything freezes up and dies. We want autumn because we’re weary from the intense heat and humidity of summer, and because it is clear and beautiful. And at least where I live, fall is by far the most pleasant season in terms of weather.

But there is a sadness, a minor chord in the soundtrack, as the sun gets stronger and stronger before it fades. Here we have the cemetery walks and ghost stories, the emphasis on dying. Or is it that what we’re hoping to believe in is actually something after death?

It occurs to me, when I haven’t written a blog post in awhile, that I haven’t written a blog post in awhile. I wonder if I should keep it up. One of the main questions for writers is, what’s the point? I am one of thousands of voices trying to articulate something meaningful about the human experience.

Another pressing question is, what can I actually write about that won’t get me fired, disowned, or otherwise ruin my life? What can I write about that won’t annoy people because of its narcissism? Why would anyone want to read my thoughts?

There’s always a risk with writing. It doesn’t feel like as a big a risk as saying something aloud in public, but it’s a risk, nonetheless. You may publish something and get your feelings hurt when you hear the crickets chirping as loudly as they are outside my window at this moment.

But the bigger risk is that you’ll write something that strikes a major chord, find you’ve gone viral, and get yourself blacklisted. I know people who’ve experienced that and survived, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk for me. I’ve been called a feminist and a communist and wondered if my very small reputation in that direction was the reason an invitation to my kid’s birthday party was declined. (It probably wasn’t. Wanna-be writers always think people know who we are and what we said, but they don’t.) Recently I decided I was relieved after I got a rejection email for one of my essays because what I wrote was too personal and it’s probably better if it’s not on my permanent record.

So you think, OK, since I don’t want to be honest enough about my personal life to really get any attention, and I’d rather not be blacklisted for political reasons, maybe I’ll just write fiction.

For me, writing good fiction is a lot easier said than done, and based on what I’ve read from the kids I teach, it’s true for them, too. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read better fiction by high school students than what’s in some of the popular young adult books on the shelves, but all that means is that something doesn’t need a lot of merit or credibility to be marketable, which is obvious in every market. Think about restaurants: Do you choose based on quality? Not always.

You know what high school students write best? Poetry. Because they can finish a poem (or two) within one class period and it doesn’t infringe on their time as much as, say, writing a 50,000-word novel or memoir.

Also, the experiences of adolescence often make for better poetry than the experiences of midlife. Your first love hits you harder than what you feel on your 14th anniversary. Most of us are lucky to even have a 14th anniversary, and if we do, to feel good about it.

Teenagers can usually be honest about their feelings without getting disowned, fired, or blacklisted. Sometimes, they are even rewarded for taking that risk with some kind of recognition or award. I wrote a poem about sex when I was 14 and got a third-place award which led me to continue down the angst-ridden path of the wanna-be writer. Submitting that poem to a contest was the only time I remember my creative writing teacher ever acknowledging me or giving me any feedback or direction, other than writing a one-word prompt on the board every day and turning us loose. To say that expectations for teachers are different now than they were when I was in high school is an understatement.

Usually the worst thing that happens for teens when they write about their feelings is that they might have to talk to a counselor, which, let’s be honest, is something we all need from time to time. Most adults just wish we could afford it. We don’t make time or spend money on our own therapy, but we’ll do it for our children if we think they need it, and we’ll do it for our students.

Living vicariously through the next generation is actually a stage of adulthood for most people. It might even be the definition of adulthood for some and I’m not sure there’s any shame in that. At some point you realize that maybe what you have to say isn’t as important as … someone younger, or maybe, everyone younger. You had your chance, and maybe you still have it, but you don’t want to take it at someone else’s expense.

So I wonder what I can write about if I keep blogging. As my children get older, they can’t always be the main characters of my stories because I have to respect their privacy. Recently, I considered writing a parenting column comparing head lice in elementary schools to STDs in college, but I scrapped that idea because of how it could affect my kids.

Maybe I’ll write more about aging, like Nora Ephron in “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which is usually in a pile of books by my bed in the guest bedroom, where I sleep more often than not because of my raging insomnia, which is almost as annoying to my husband as it is to me. I haven’t started having hot flashes yet. Based on my mother’s experience, I might have another decade before they set in.

It is not unusual now for writers to chronicle their dying process, although I’m not sure if I’ll be up for that challenge.

But aging, I can talk about. I do feel bad about my looks. At 40, even if you don’t look any worse than average, it still sucks because you don’t look like you did when you were 25. And I definitely don’t look like a lot of the beautiful girls that surround me every day. I never did. I’d say I get the wicked stepmother thing, although I’ve never committed an act of premeditated evil against someone just because she was younger and prettier, or because she was older and richer, for that matter.

Truly, the aging process is a goldmine of grievances, from little disappointments to aches and pains, elective surgeries and medical bills. Midlife is tragic in its ennui, and that’s if you are lucky.

It is the clove of seasons between youth and old-age. The only part of it I’m looking forward to is writing about it.




Little Liar


Illustration by Cammi Sanders

Once there was a beautiful girl with black hair that hung in ringlets down her back, orange-hazel eyes, and ruby red lips shaped like a Cupid’s bow. She was kind, intelligent, and had a wonderful mother, father, sister, and brother. At school, she always received high marks and had many friends. The little girl had only one problem, which was that she sometimes told lies.

Sometimes the girl lied to help others. Once, she was walking to school and she noticed a small boy a bit younger than her sitting just outside the school crying. When she asked what was the matter, he told her that he had eaten no breakfast, had no lunch to bring with him, and he was very hungry. The girl reached inside her bag and took out a large muffin made with oats and sweet berries.

“Here,” she said to the boy, “Take this. I have two.”

The boy stopped crying, took the muffin, and was happy.

At other times, the girl lied for fun, but not to hurt anyone. Sometimes she told her teachers she needed to go to the bathroom so that she could leave the classroom and take a break from boring lessons such as writing and arithmetic. She would wander through the hallways at school and even walk around outside, circling the school several times before returning to class. Because she always made high marks, her teachers never questioned her.

Still other lies were not even real lies exactly, but more along the lines of polishing the truth so that it shined more brightly. She often used berry juice to brighten her lips and cheeks. When friends asked why she looked so suddenly warm and cheerful, she just shrugged and said it was because of the crisp air and sunny skies.

It wasn’t until she was sixteen that she began telling lies that would not be forgiven. One day, while she was working in her mother’s dress shop, her friend came in to try on dresses. Her friend found a beautiful gold dress that fit perfectly, but she did not have any money, so the girl told her friend she could have the dress for free.

The next day, the friend returned with three other girls, and they all wanted dresses. The girl wanted everyone to like her, so she gave each girl a beautiful dress of her very own.

When the girl’s mother discovered that four dresses were missing, she asked what had happened.

“I took them to school to use in a play,” the girl replied. “I was going to bring them back, but there was a fire and the dresses burned.”

The girl’s mother thought it was odd that there had been a fire at school and no one was told, but she decided to believe her daughter.

As time went on, more and more girls and women would wander into the store, hoping for free clothing. The girl wanted to be liked so much that she always gave them something for free – a scarf, a bag, or a dress.

It seemed that the dress shop was the most popular in the village, and yet the girl’s parents complained that it continued to lose money. Eventually, the losses became too great for the business to continue and the family had to close the store.

Without the income from the dress shop, the girl’s family became destitute, and each member had to leave the house for a long time each day in search of work. The girl’s father found work as a shark fisherman. He left on a ship headed for the South Seas, and was never heard from again.

Her brother, a master swordsman, went to into the town each day to give fencing lessons. He began to buy, trade, and sell swords and knives made of fine jewels and metals. He was on his way home from a trading fair one night when he was robbed and killed. He was found face down in a puddle the next day. His poor ear had been cut off.

The girl cried and cried for her brother, who had been her closest companion. By now her mother had developed arthritis in her hands, and could no longer sew beautiful dresses to sell. Her sister worked long days as a governess, earning just enough to buy the discounted fruit sold at the market, and she would bring home leftover crusts of bread not eaten by the children she taught and cared for during the day.

Determined to survive, the girl went into town looking for work, but everyone she asked refused her. Some recognized her as the girl from the dress shop, and although she had given them some lovely things, they were afraid to help her after hearing of her family’s many struggles. They were afraid that the sadness and the heartbreak were contagious, and they turned her away.

Years went by and the girl and her mother and sister worked hard to survive, taking whatever jobs were available. They cleaned houses and tended animals, always working for low pay and in secret since the townspeople had become ashamed to associate with them. Instead of wearing her beautiful black hair around her shoulders, the girl would tie it back in a bow so that it didn’t get in her way while she worked.

One evening when she returned home after a long day of tending sheep and pigs, she looked into the mirror and saw that her hair had become coarse and unruly. Her face was spotted with age and lined with worry. In a fit of sadness and despair, she gathered all of her hair into one handful and cut it off, throwing it out the window before collapsing onto her bed into a pool of exhausted tears, followed by a long sleep.

When she awoke, the sun was shining and the girl knew that she had to begin again. She wrapped her head in a beautiful scarf left over from her mother’s shop many years ago, and she used the juice of berries to color her lips and cheeks. She walked into the village and waited outside the doll shop for the owner to go upstairs for her afternoon nap. Then she crawled in the open window and stole six porcelain dolls, which she doubted would be missed. Each of the porcelain dolls had long hair that hung in ringlets, large jewel-colored eyes, and ruby lips shaped like Cupid’s bows.

The girl sold the dolls at the market, earning enough to buy her family food for the week, but they remained poor and continued to work hard for the rest of their years.

It is said that if you have a porcelain doll with black ringlets, orange-hazel eyes, and ruby lips, the doll will bring you happiness, but you should never leave it alone, for it fears loneliness too much, and so it can not be trusted.


Mama Mia

After watching the 2008 movie “Mama Mia” a few hundred times, my daughter has developed a deep interest in Meryl Streep. I know it seems like a somewhat unusual obsession for a 9-year-old, but look, Meryl Streep is a much better role model than Axl Rose, and I was obsessed with him from age 10 until 14 or 15.

So I am thinking of launching a Meryl Streep film festival in our household and taking suggestions of favorite Meryl Streep movies. I know that somewhere in my possession is the 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada” based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. Wikipedia classifies it as “Chick Lit,” which apparently is its own genre. I will not go into the discussion among literary snobs about how and why anything written by or for women gets less respect than, well, anything else. However, my husband did scoff when I suggested we all watch “The Devil Wears Prada.”

I contend it’s an excellent book and film that I would have classified as realistic fiction. Anyone who’s worked in publishing has definitely dealt with some demanding, ego-centric editors and anyone who’s ever written fiction knows that this kind of story is basically memoir with some of the details changed. Best to label it fiction and hope you lower your risk of getting sued.

I started this morning by waking up at 4 a.m. because it’s important that I get up at least five hours before the rest of the world. At 8 a.m., it was finally time for my yoga class to begin. Going into the yoga classroom made me realize where I’d seen a boy who offered me a gummy fruit snack yesterday when I was on lunch duty at the school where I work. I wasn’t in the mood for a gummy, so I declined. It was just before the bell was about to ring for students to go back to class and I was standing by the doors. He asked, “Are you just standing back here to keep people from leaving?” I said that yes, basically I was, then he shrugged and went back into the cafeteria.

So I realized this morning that I think I’ve seen him before in my yoga class. He’s usually with his mother and he’s one of the few males in the class, which is mostly women 30 and older. Generally, teens don’t frequent the same gym as me, I think mainly because they get their exercise playing sports and video games. Now I want to know more about this kid because I know he’s a true individual, a transcendentalist even, and he likes yoga. But what if I go up to him and ask if I saw him in yoga class and he gets embarrassed?

My own son is in 7th grade and he’s pretty well aware of social expectations and obligations, what you have to do and how you have to act to be considered normal. Just yesterday we went to a potluck dinner and I was going to try to hang out on the playground with the kids because I didn’t know any of the other grownups. My son told me that I needed to walk up the hill and talk to the other moms because I was going to look sad if I didn’t. It was hard, but I did it, and I think I made the impression of someone almost normal.

Not long ago I tried to have my son practice making small talk with me. I said, “Pretend you don’t know me and we have to make small talk.”

Sometimes I do struggle to make small talk with teen boys because I don’t really like sports or video games. I do like some rap music, but everything I know about is at least 20 years old. I’ve never been a boy so I don’t really get some of their behavior. Like why is a trash can always a basketball hoop? Why do you need to jump up in the air and smack the ceiling when I am trying to tell you something? Who do you need to tie and retie your Air Jordans 30 times in 30 minutes?

I’ve never asked any of them these questions and I know if I did, they would not have an answer. So when I tried to get my son to help me get better at small talk with boys, he countered that we probably wouldn’t be chatting if we didn’t know each other because I am so much older than him.

“Well,” I said, “Come on. Humor me. Talk about what 40-year-old women like. What do 40-year-old women like?”

“Starbucks coffee,” was his answer.

“Actually,” he continued, “most grownups like Starbucks coffee.”

Maybe I should not be too proud of exposing my kids to all this pop culture, but I’m telling myself that coffee and PG-13 musicals aren’t the worst vices.

After yoga, I was carrying some cleaning products up the stairs to start on the bathrooms when I saw my daughter run out of the kitchen with something orange hanging out of her mouth.

“Don’t run with a carrot in your mouth,” I yelled, thinking it was a choking hazard. But I shouldn’t have worried. It was only one of those cheese curls with the texture of styrofoam.

Tell me something good

3151B47F-8116-4CCD-B73B-248A15ACDDD4There are a few reasons I don’t travel much. First of all, it’s expensive. Second, it’s a hassle; in most of my travels, I spend about as much time in transit as I do at the destination.

Finally, there’s the issue of a great many experiences being highly overrated. You’re supposed to visit a place because it’s a famous landmark, or order the signature dish at this “amazing” restaurant, or have this certain experience in this certain place because people go there from all over the world to do it.

But then you do the thing that was described as “life-changing,” and guess what? Your life doesn’t change.

Sadly, it didn’t take me 40 years on Earth to develop this attitude. I might have been born with it.

This week I went to New Orleans for what is called a writing marathon. Basically, a bunch of teachers (and a few other people who want to write), get together and walk around the city, sit and write for a bit, and then share what we’ve written. I’ve done this where I live in Winchester, Virginia, with other teachers I met through the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project, and we’ve done it in the high school English and creative writing classes I teach.

In addition to participating in the writing marathon, I wanted to see my dad, who lives in Mississippi, two hours from New Orleans, because I haven’t seen him in several years, and he hasn’t been feeling well at all recently. He has COPD and has to use oxygen, and he suffers chronic back pain.

I didn’t want to go to New Orleans by myself, so I asked my sister to go along. She hadn’t seen Dad in years either. I planned to do a couple of days with the teacher-writers, see New Orleans with my sister, and visit my Dad in Mississippi, all in four days. I knew I wasn’t really going to have enough time to get the most out of any of it, but figured I would do the best I could under time and budget constraints.

I will say New Orleans’ French Quarter is captivating. I had been there once when my father took me almost 30 years ago and I originally hoped he could join me on this trip, but he wasn’t up to it. Like New Orleans, Winchester, the city I live in, has a historic southern charm, but in Winchester you won’t find crowds of people partying on every street corner, eating, drinking, and listening to jazz music all night long.

My sister and I went out to take in the sights of New Orleans when we arrived on Sunday evening, and then again on Monday morning. We had cafe au lait and beignets at the famed Cafe du Monde and then shopped for souvenirs on Decatur Street.

That was when a random guy spit in my face.

Just out of nowhere, this guy passing me turned, spit on me, and kept walking down the street, looking angry. He never said a word.

By that point we had already seen several groups of people begging for money. I heard one ask, “Can you spare some money for whiskey?” We saw a guy passed out with his pants halfway down his legs, exposing his entire hairy backside, on the street corner in front of an expensive restaurant. We saw a woman, probably in her 20s or early 30s, wearing tattered denim shorts and a tiny half-shirt laying in the park at Jackson Square with her eyes closed, rocking back and forth and murmuring to herself.

So it was obvious there were some troubled people trying to survive among the throngs of swindlers and tourists everywhere. I guess the guy who spit on me had had about enough of us all.

It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if he hadn’t managed to get some of it in my eye.

Logically, I knew it wasn’t personal. It happened so fast, I’m not even sure it was premeditated. The guy could have been certifiably insane. But I do think it’s a lot less likely that it would have happened to me if I were a man.

I have often wondered aloud if I have a sign that says “doormat” on my forehead.

Sometimes people ask me for money on street corners in Winchester. Students at the school where I teach often ask me for bathroom passes, explaining that the teacher of their last class, or their next one, won’t let them go.

When I asked my friend Beth if I have “doormat” written all over me, she said, “No, you’re approachable.” But Beth is one of the most well-adjusted people I know. She can put a positive spin on almost anything. I see a doormat and she sees a welcome mat.

Anyway, I tried to put the spitting incident behind me, and my sister noticed a fortune teller’s sign for palm and tarot card readings. At first I didn’t think we should do it.

I’d been to three different psychics in my life. The first two had what I thought were some valid insights. The third was one I interviewed for a newspaper article, and I wasn’t sure anything she said applied specifically to me.

Mainly, I decided to try a psychic reading in New Orleans because I wanted something more substantial to write about than just my general observations of the city. One of the main objectives of the trip was writing, and I didn’t want to sum it up with the spitting incident or the fact that I saw a lot of tacky fashion statements in the French Quarter.

When we were kids, my sister often claimed to be psychic. It was kind of a game we played. She would tell me that she envisioned a certain thing happening. Quite often, inexplicably, her prediction came true. It got to the point that, when I had a question or problem, I’d say, “Susie, I need your psychics.” Usually, I’d want to ask her questions about a boy I liked.

Sometimes she would cooperate and other times she would tell me that her psychics weren’t working because she was too tired.

Lately, my sister hasn’t had much psychic inspiration. We’re both feeling the drag of mid-life that includes chronic pain and regrets. She’s still recovering from major back surgery last year, and I had a recent X-ray diagnosing a back problem that got me a referral for physical therapy.

So I decided I would give my next psychic a challenge: I would ask them to tell me something good. I wanted something to look forward to other than the inevitable losses,  wrinkles, gray hair, pain and ailments that come with getting older.

Well, my psychic didn’t like my little challenge.

“If you’re going to try to control this process, it might not be the best idea for you,” said Geoff the psychic.

He was a tall and lanky 41-year-old with a red beard.

They say things happen in threes and apparently that was true for Geoff in terms of his customers’ names. The two who had come before me were named Star and Stella, he told me.

Once I’d decided to consult a fortune-teller in New Orleans, I figured I’d find an old lady behind a curtain of veils, with a candle and a crystal ball. But the first one I ran into during my writing marathon walking around the city with the other teachers was this guy. He was sitting in a shop inside a cinderblock building selling candles and crystals.

The four other teachers I was with agreed to leave me with him for the 30-minute reading and then come back and get me to continue with our “marathon.”

“I’m just going to lock you in here,” Geoff said as he closed his shop and excused himself to go to the bathroom before we started. At that point it hit me again that he was, in fact, a man. Maybe this was a bad idea. But I didn’t feel scared. Geoff didn’t seem aggressive or predatory, and I’m pretty sure he was gay.

He came back from the bathroom and I followed him to a back room, where he lit a candle. When he got out the tarot cards, I told him I didn’t like them. I’ve had some negative experiences before – pulling a bad card that turned out to be, unfortunately, pretty accurate. Then I asked him if he could tell me “something good” that would happen to me. That’s when he said that frankly, no, he couldn’t promise any such thing.

He described the process he goes through with all of his “clients” and asked me if I was still in.

Sure, I said, figuring that if he said something I couldn’t handle, then I’d just have to add this psychic reading to my list of regrets.

So then he told me to close my eyes and imagine myself in a pleasant, relaxed state. He stood up and started fanning me for several minutes, doing a sort of guided meditation. Although I’ve done this sort of thing before, this time I could not really picture myself in a “happy place” where I am safe and comfortable. I couldn’t really let my guard down all the way and get into the zone, so I just sat there with my eyes closed.

Then he sat down with his eyes closed and proceeded to describe what he saw.

He saw a man in a canoe being swarmed by butterflies. The man was annoyed and batted the butterflies away because he saw them as a distraction and a deterrent.

Then he saw a woman standing in front of a campfire putting her hands to the fire. She had to get “precariously close” to the fire in order to feel its power.

Finally, he saw some men on the roof of a church building. There was hole in the roof letting the light in. The men were trying to decide whether to close the hole for safety reasons.

After that, Geoff shuffled his stack of tarot cards and asked me to shuffle them myself. One of us (I can’t remember if it was me or him, but I think it was him) pulled five cards and he spread them on the table in front of us, explaining the meanings of their positions. This spread, he said, could be used to forecast my opportunities and challenges for the next six months.

Then he started talking about how the cards might relate to the scenes he pictured when he closed his eyes.

He told me one difficulty for me over the next six months will be trying to balance creative inspiration with security, most likely with regard to my job.

He’d pulled the hierophant card – which often represents large institutions, he said.

“It’s time for you to express yourself and express what’s important to you, even if you feel like there will be consequences,” he said. “For you to have this courage, you kind of need institutional support. The obvious thing to do is to find an institution that will support you.”

I hadn’t told him I’m a teacher, but what he was saying sounded valid. I often second-guess a lot of things I’d like to write about or say in public because I worry about the ramifications, socially and professionally. All the teachers I know, even the ones who aren’t doormats, talk about wanting and needing more institutional support. And while I’m mostly comfortable with everything I teach, I know there are some conservative religious folks who would absolutely object to some of the books and discussions we have at school.

He said he thought his vision with the butterflies was about the fact that what others might see as opportunities, I see as distractions, and I push them away because I am afraid of compromising security and stability.

Finally, he told me that the vision with the workers on the church roof was about this need to balance inspiration and creativity with safety.

“It’s kind of no right answer in a way,” he said. “I look at that and I say let the light in. You can always clean up the mess later.”

I saw his point, but I am not so sure taking more risks is possible for me. I have friends who can switch jobs every six months and seem not to burn any bridges. I know people whose friendships and lovers are easy-come, easy-go, and it does seem like those folks know something about living in the moment and enjoying life that has eluded me for a long time.

But I just don’t think I am one who can get away a lot of reckless behavior. I don’t think I’ll ever be the free spirit that my name implies. I walk a line partly because a lot of other people don’t.

“There is a little carpe diem here,” Geoff said. “If you put it off, you may not have the leverage you need further down the road.”

Then he asked if I had any more questions, and he seemed interested in my response to his advice.

“Well,” I told him, “I get what you are saying about the carpe diem thing. Without being too morbid, I think that’s what it is to be 40. It’s kind of like a mid-life crisis, even though my idea of a midlife crisis is painting my nails with glitter polish.”

I shook his hand and left.

Looking back, I’d call what Geoff did more of an intuitive counseling session than a psychic reading. He didn’t tell me anything specific that might happen or how I should react in any situation. Still, with almost no personal information about me other than my name and age, he did hit on one of my big internal conflicts.

Later that evening, my sister paid $20 to a young woman sitting at a card table in the street with a few crystals in front of her. The girl read her palm and told her to stop worrying and being a helicopter parent, and she mentioned something about hand sanitizer. My sister didn’t think what the girl said was particularly useful or accurate.

So I wonder, do all the psychics in New Orleans tell people to stop worrying and cut loose? Is there some NOLA association of psychics where they learn these strategies?

On the way home from the airport, after we’d been driving and flying for about 12 hours straight, I was so tired I didn’t talk much. At one point, my sister turned down the radio and looked at me.

“It seems like you had a good time, other than a few things, but you’re not sure you’d do it all again,” she said.

I still think she’s more psychic than your average palm reader on the street.

Going south

This summer I’m taking two trips, which is a lot of travel for me. My mom used to tell me I should be a travel writer, but as far as I could tell, that wasn’t really a full-time job, and besides that, I soured on packing a suitcase after my parents divorced when I was a teenager and I had to go back and forth between their houses twice a month.

I haven’t been on an airplane since I got married 16 years ago. But this summer I will because in another week I’m going to New Orleans for what is called a writing marathon. The idea is to write with others so that you get a shared experience, but also to incorporate the setting into what you write.

You would think it would not be hard because if you can’t write about what is in front of you, then what can you write about? But for a lot of us, the thing that makes writing hard is not that we have nothing to say, but that we have too much. If we say it all, we will surely offend someone. People do not like when you write about them unless it’s a flattering portrayal, and if you are being honest, you can’t always be complimentary.

One way to avoid that risk with setting is to write about nature. I admire people who write about hiking and the environment, but it isn’t really my thing. I prefer culture and dialogue. I like a good quote with a double meaning, a shady undertone. I like overthinking why people do what they do, say what they say, and wear what they wear.

Currently, I am in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with my husband and two kids. My husband works for a woman who owns a condo here, and he trades his labor for vacation time.

Dan and I are feeling our age some. You notice it when you travel with kids and you realize how, once you’ve seen something before, it can never be like it was the first time. It reminds me of E.B. White’s essay Once More to the Lake.

Just before we hit the road for the 9-hour drive on Interstate-95 from where we live in Winchester, Virginia, to Myrtle Beach, my 12-year-old son asked if we could stop along the way at a gas station we stopped at last year because it advertised clean bathrooms and peaches.

“I liked that place,” Oliver said, “I liked how it had palm trees and little pools of water with fish in them.”

My impression of that particular gas station was a little different. First of all, the peach stand was closed both times we passed through. Second, the convenience store with the “clean bathrooms” isn’t particularly friendly in terms atmosphere. Located alongside a secondary road, it’s a desolate little place where the employees don’t smile. Single men on motorcycles might be inclined to stop there for a six-pack before pulling off for the night. It kind of like a Hotel California of roadside markets.

But we stopped there again, just because Oliver wanted to. He hopped out of the car as soon as we stopped, saying he wanted to take a picture of the mud puddles and palm trees.

Then, of course, we arrived at the beach. After months of what seemed like endless rain at home, clear skies, sand, and the endless ocean were a refreshing change.

Maybe every beach has its own culture, but all of the ones I have been to are more relaxed than anywhere inland. People walk around in various states of undress with tan lines and tattoos on display. Some are tan and toned, but thankfully, others aren’t so much.

When I am at the beach, I could do without a lot of the expensive tourist activities like the all-you-can-eat buffets, and especially the arcades and amusement parks that my kids love. If the weather is good, just the beach itself is enough. For my kids, no trip is complete without a souvenir, which is all the better if it’s alive. So now that they have purchased a couple of hermit crabs, maybe we can all relax for a bit.