CHANCE SYNCHRONICITY & MIND-WRITING:
Write About a Hero
Smoking with Lucai
by Elizabeth Geoghegan
Lucia Berlin was not PC. And she was not New Age. She never talked to me about “recovery” or “karma.” We never spoke of the Twelve Steps. It was understood: she was sober now. No need to talk about it. Especially when she could write about it. Her stories, populated with alcoholics and addicts, are rendered with an empathy, disgust, and ruthless wit that echo the devastating circumstances of her own life. She’d moved from isolation to affluence to detox and back again, and Boulder, Colorado—inundated with massage therapists, extreme athletes, and vegans—was an unlikely place for her to end up. Yet she spent much of the last decade of her life there. First in a clapboard Victorian beneath the red rocks of Dakota Ridge; later, when illness nearly bankrupted her, in a trailer park on the outskirts of the pristine town.
News of the trailer depressed me until I managed a visit, finding her at ease amid the shabby metal homes stacked on cinder blocks. It’s likely Lucia would have felt more comfortable watching a bull be gored in a Mexico City arena or huddling among winos on a corner in Oakland than she ever felt at her first place on posh Mapleton Hill. But that was where we spent nearly all of our time together. Usually at her kitchen table.
Before I’d ever met Lucia, she left a message on my answering machine about a story I’d written. Her voice was breathless, sultry, and sweet. It made me fall in love with her a little bit—as in her writing, it’s her voice that pulls you in. When we did meet, I was shocked to discover she was decades older than I’d imagined. Like the protagonist in “B.F. and Me” who says, “Now I have a really nice voice. I’m a strong woman, mean even, but everyone thinks I’m really gentle because of my voice. I sound young even though I’m seventy years old. Guys at the Pottery Barn flirt with me.” Men definitely flirted with her, but Lucia was never mean, although her voice masked a devilish streak. Read more...
I wait for the flight to Mexico City. Maybe she's exaggerating, as usual. Maybe I won't get there on time. Maybe she will live a year, and here I've just quit my job. The Mexican flight crew heads toward the entrance. Not like American pilots who go just get on the plane. First the pilot himself, moustache and white scarf, his raincoat dragging like a matador's cape. Two paces behind, banderillero co-pilots and then the male flight attendants, in step. Reluctantly follow the sleepy, heavily made up stewardesses. Glamorous, hating to come back to work. It's only Americans who smile unnecessarily.
From the story Strays from So Long by Lucia Berlin, Black Sparrow Press, 1993.
. . .
Earth is the same
Sky is the same
From lake to lake, forest to forest:
which tribe is mine?
—I ask myself— where’s my place?
Perhaps I belong to the tribe
of those who have none;
or to the black sheep tribe;
or to a tribe whose ancestors
come from the future:
a tribe on the horizon.
But if I have to belong to some tribe
I tell myself— make it a large tribe,
make it a strong tribe,
one in which nobody
is left out,
in which everybody,
for once and for all
has a God-given place.
I’m not talking about a human tribe.
I’m not talking about a planetary tribe.
I’m not even talking about a universal one.
I’m talking about a tribe you can’t talk about.
A tribe that’s always been
but whose existence must yet be proven.
A tribe that’s never been but whose existence
we can prove right now.
by Alberto Blanco
translated by James Nolan
Though I didn’t have the language to describe it or even the desire to perceive it as such at the time, my student self's relationship to art was decidedly conservative. Narrative was my form of choice, though I often chose to mask it within the lyric; even when my images or topics were abstract, the way they flowed from one to another within a poem still described a fairly straighfforward emotional journey. What I didn’t yet understand was how complicated even the simplest narrative is (because at heart the act of narration is an act of faith in a world that can be followed), and also how complicated both my own life already was (though I wanted to believe it was simple) and how even more complicated it would yet become through my attempts—spiritually, emotionally, rationally—to understand this life.
Despite my deep-seated belief that there were certain things I would always suffer from (a low self-esteem; a belief I was ugly and unlovable), writing my memoir did help me close the door of some of these beliefs. How? Because my loyalty was to my writing (writing was how I learned to be loyal: I’d never considered it in regards to myself, or been given ample chance to apply it to anyone else), I was determined to produce not an account of my own victimhood, but a respectable piece of writing. And the only way to do this was to apply the same rigorous honesty to my life that I’d previously applied to abstract images and themes, to language. It was only when forced to place my own life under the microscope of my aesthetic that I realized two important things. One: that I’d undergone an extraordinarily difficult set of circumstances, something I’d previously never been willing to admit in my attempt to diminish and normalize those circumstances. And two: that I’d actually done not only well, but very well, considering those circumstances.
From the essay “The Story So Far” in As Seen on TV: Provocations by Lucy Grealy. Copyright © 2000 by Lucy Grealy. Reprinted courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.