Present Ghost

Telling stories



Why I Write

Written before the blog was active, August 6, 2013.

My mother told me that my first words were “baby bear” and “Barbie dar,” and I don’t remember saying them. The first words I actually remember saying were indignantly strung together as declaration and defense:

“I can do it myself.”

Much to my detriment, whether in matters of art, career, spirit, or relationships, these defiant words have defined my resistance to hearing advice and taking help from people far wiser than I am for most of my life. I’m lucky I’ve learned that despite the promises in sprawling sections of self-help books in every corner book store, I certainly cannot do it myself—it being as simple as moving a queen-size bed up a flight of stairs or keeping hardships locked inside. Moreover, even if I can manage to get it done, it’s not always best to do it alone. Continue reading “Why I Write”

Fairy Godmothers II: Working It

Throughout the rest of high school and all through college, I didn’t attract any more fairy godmothers. By the time I moved across the country for graduate school, I was long overdue for a visit.

One night early in the first semester, a cohort of mine and I were leaving our GA assignments. We were already discussing our insecurities and disappointments about our lackluster prospects in academia. Although he was more insecure about his aptitude for scholarship, he defended the scholar–teacher role.

I divested myself of all defenses when I admitted what no literature major ever should. I am why every college humor Web site earns thousands of hits, and I knew it, and it slipped out: I wanted to write. Still delusional and warily optimistic, I argued that literature programs should value creativity in writing more than they champion dry jousting matches between worn-out historicists and whatever new literary theorem that would-be professors were inventing to stay relevant.

We agreed and argued unnecessarily, exposing our fears of never becoming our idols until he spit it out:

“Well, not everyone can be a Virginia Woolf.”

I admitted defeat there. Standing at the bike rack, holding the crossbar in one hand, I waited but did not expect the force of the next blow. He took me down another step, eyeing the black motorcycle jacket I was wearing,

“Don’t you think you’re trying just a little hard?”

Trying too hard—the words hit me. At 23, I was being called a poser for wanting more and for wearing something that seemed too edgy for a conservative Texas environment.

For weeks, I wore the jacket in rebellion against my fears of letting the venom of his comment sink in. I varied my wardrobe as much as possible to expand the scope of my protest and feigned confidence whenever showing up to mixers and lectures.

When I wasn’t pocketing food and rubbing elbows at department functions, I entertained myself with weekly visits to the grocery store. The trips presented me the opportunity of satisfying my desire for a modest yet private adventure where I could gather observations about Texas produce. I drew my chief excitement from selecting exotic tubers or wild fruit to prepare and eat.

Going to the grocery store also encouraged my wardrobe exercises because I could peruse aisles of foreign foods anonymously while wearing brightly colored semi-formal wear without unwelcome judgment.

red shoes

One afternoon not too far removed from the aforementioned incident of jacket shaming, I ventured to the H.E.B. in a party dress—a faded black A-line littered with cherries and graying tulle. To match, I paired it with red shoes with more glitter than Dorothy’s ruby red slippers.

It was that outfit, exactly, that brought her to me.

No longer alone in the grocery store, I met my second fairy godmother. I was inspecting some cucumbers when I heard,

“Hey! Girl! You, in the dress!”

I turned around. She was petite and carrying a sack of tomatoes on the vine.

“I saw you from over there, and I was like, ‘I have got to tell her. I got to.’ Girl, you are working that dress. Um-hm. With those shoes, too!”

Shocked to receive such loud affirmation in the vegetable aisle of the H.E.B., I could feel myself turning my toes together.

The woman grabbed the attention of another shopper passing by.

“Isn’t that dress cute?”

The arrested customer concurred and I volunteered that I’d had it almost a decade at that point, and that I thought that the black was fading. I didn’t tell her that it had been a dress I bought for a homecoming dance that I was never asked to attend, or that I’d worn it out the night of that forfeited dance to meet my future step family at Bob Evans in Medina, Ohio, just so I could get some use of it. It was, in effect, another attempt at repurposing my disappointment.

That was forgotten that day, because she told me that I was lucky to look so good in something I bought 10 years ago.

I thanked her again for her spontaneous, enthusiastic compliment and walked away stunned so senseless that I found myself dazed in front of a wall of noodles.

An aisle over, a girl on a ladder stocking soups stopped me.

“I love your dress!”

It must be a catching disease, I thought. All of a sudden on my way to the car, I was slinking like my cat used to after we’d shave all the burrs from his fur. I felt naked and stupid for standing out. This grocery store was haunted with an eerie amount of goodwill and I wished I could escape before being accosted again. Despite feeling awkward for drawing so much unexpected attention, it was better to know that being myself wasn’t considered “trying too hard” by everyone.

In front of the cucumbers and to the side of the tomatillos, I wasn’t trying anything. I was working it. Whatever it was, I do not know, but it was enough for me that day to forget that I might not be able to make it as a serious writer or an academic.

A few months later when I was chatting with another colleague, the two of us were recalling our first impressions of each other. She mentioned seeing me at orientation and listed what I’d been wearing: big, yellow hoop earrings, a bright orange halter sundress, and my voluminous red hair pinned high on my head and off my neck in an updo.

“You just came right up to me and were so friendly that I thought, ‘God, there it is. Now, that’s a native Texan.’”

Not being a Texan, I understood the implication: to her, the emblem of my joie de vivre had placed me lower on the intellectual totem poll. I was offended by the suggestion of obnoxious exuberance in my personality and style.

I almost defended myself, having ready at least 5 examples of why I am nothing like the kind of Texas woman she was stereotyping, but I refrained from doing so. Instead, I smiled at her, thinking, “Well, at least I work it.”


Stage left and out the side door, the front man leaned on a speed limit sign in the rain. It was raining hard and misting intermittently, the drops pouring from his face under the city street lights. I hadn’t quite succumbed to feeling too old to wait around to tell bands I liked their sets yet, so I strategically pretended that I didn’t know who he was. He was just some black man on the sidewalk late at night in downtown Dallas—nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly, I was too old, too married, too over being obvious to be so direct.

So a young wiry early twenty-something beat me to it because he was so nervous that it was hard to tell whether or not he was shivering or trembling in the downpour. By the time I reached him and my chance interview, I could tell that he was looking for more than an autograph because the singer was glancing from side to side, looking for his band mates and finding no escape. If I hadn’t seen him inch toward the pole and look just one more time toward the heavy stage door, I would have given up and kept walking. There was no need to look like I actually cared enough to offer a paltry congratulation; yet I paused because I heard the frantic guy, sucking in air and spitting out his depression, asking his idol for advice about how to keep from killing himself when he felt so low day after day. At that moment, I wasn’t sure who I should pity more: the guy who was being so imposing with his struggles, or the man now unwillingly accountable for choosing the right antidote for his distraught fan.

“Just take it day by day, man—one day at a time,” was the answer, and seeing my husband and me, he told the guy that all he had to do was just make it one more day and turned to address us with thanks in his eyes.

It was still raining, and all I could say was that it was a great show, and we shook hands. He thanked us for coming out before ducking inside.

He didn’t need to know that, to me, it was more than a great show. It was the first time I’d felt like me in months. Even if it were only to last for those three hours, it didn’t matter. In the street, on the way to the car as we walked away from the venue, I felt my skin again. The rain sneaking inside the collar of my jacket, my fingers locked and swinging with my husband’s, my feet sore from dancing through the opening act and the headliner.

At that time, no matter how many church services I attended, I couldn’t sing a hymn without bursting into tears or leaving the sanctuary fuming. I wasn’t sure how long this would last or if it would end, but I kept going anyway, believing that maybe someday I’d feel differently.

But that night at one of those fast food chain music venues, among hundreds of the lost, I felt free, and closer to found than I’d felt for a long time. I’d gone from dry bones to wet, uncovered raw organs, and hit then a plateau. Not even I knew I was healing, and the skin that had been ripped off my back was growing again.

I don’t think I found the answer in the rhythm of the music or that there was some mysterious power in the corporate worship of rock’n’roll in a crowd of too many people high on overpriced beer and other substances. In a way, I felt guilty about knowing that the first time I’d been able to sing a word to God in a year was right after the lead singer of the opening act dropped an enthusiastic “F” bomb into a sentence introducing a song.

Even now, I sometimes wonder if I’m not “Christian enough” because of things like this. I’ve had some people tell me that it’s not that exactly. It’s that I’m not “mature in the faith” enough to be offended or to find such joy in secular music is a sign of being too immured in the world. I don’t know, but I’m more open to criticism these days than I used to be because at the very least, it gives me something to think about. It challenges me. I do know, however, that there are some times when knowing God is there in times of pain doesn’t make life any easier. In those moments, simply knowing that the God of the universe cares and that the injury remains somehow targets every little tangible thing you cling to and it tears it away. All earthly protection from the things that ache disappear. Then, more than naked, you’re rubbed down to pulp or almost burned up and exposed to the Elements right when eternity is too big, too holy, too awesome, and too terrible when contrasted with life here, as is, broken, and unable to return.

That night I needed my skin back, and God gave it to me in a rock hall. That night, there was a young man waiting outside, looking for a way to throw off the desperation of his flesh so he could brush against something transcendent and meaningful.

It’s a funny dichotomy, this dual life. Although I’m not sure how, I know we need our skins just thick enough to know we’re here and just porous enough to know it’s all temporary.


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