I met Penelope when she was recently separated from her husband; she married as a Texas teen and came to Philadelphia as a newlywed. They would separate and reconnect and re-separate (they divorced as he was becoming a somewhat celebrated rightwing author and pundit). She moved away and returned, trying different things: crime reporting, Occupy, investigative reporting on a corrupt Caribbean island, ill-fated love. Through each misadventure, Penelope would become more disillusioned and more radical, but never hopeless. And after each supposed failure she’d show me a better piece of creative writing. She now has multiple publications and her first novel was published by Scarlet Leaf Publishing House. For some of us, our failures drag us down; Penelope’s seem to drag her up.
—Christopher Munden, editor
Every time I see you,
you look so different.
I almost don’t recognize you.
I see a pretty woman in the park,
and I think you are late,
so late this time. You might not
even show up. But, just in case,
before you do, I should go up
to the pretty lady and tap her
on the shoulder and warn her
you are coming, that I have
an appointment I can’t get out of,
but, for her, the pretty lady, it might
not be too late.
So, I do, and then you turn
around, and then I realize
it’s you, the pretty lady;
you were early. Then
I can’t run away from your
awful, radiant but
same-old face. It would be
awkward to run. It would
I apologize for being late
to our meeting, and then
you are polite to me
while you knife me
in the groin.
“It’s all right,” you say.
A twist and a thrust later:
“I knew you would come
Until next time…
Different time? Same place?
P.S. I love what you’ve done with your hair.
Every time I move somewhere I evaluate my surroundings by asking what would a nervous breakdown look like here? I ask that question in the same way that other people ask: what is the feng shui of this residence going to do for my waistline? Or will the rent go up due to gentrification? Or where is the nearest green space or Whole Foods? I think about who is there, the neighbors, and the accommodations, and I think of them all in terms of madness. I have a commute, back and forth, about a three year long commute. It helps not to have roommates. I look for wider than average streets, old buildings with good architectural bone structure. A river nearby is like finding a vein in the body of nature which we all share. Lower density is best, too.
When I was 25, and my mom was kicking me out of the house, I had to call my uncle, her brother, to come assist, to cool things off. I was barefoot in the backyard because she had locked me out of the house before I could put shoes on. I had my cell phone and my cigarettes. She had just attacked me in the kitchen. I had been living there, again, for two weeks. I was broke, attempting to leave my husband, “bipolar,” unemployed and carless. I was putting away groceries. We were fighting. I had borrowed the car when she didn’t want me to, to go to the store. And I had failed to put the toilet paper roll on the thing when it ran out, and I had not placed the bathmat over the lip of the tub, which had to be done because otherwise the fourth cat—the forlorn, clearly autistic, runtish low-man-on-the-feline-totem pole—would vent his rage at his status by peeing on it. (You’ve seen the movie Misery with Kathy Bates? Well, the penguin always faces 45 degrees Southeast! She loves you dearly; she’s your biggest fan, but you can’t leave with both your legs on.) Plus I was ignoring her. So she came up behind me and threw me onto the floor and tried to wrest my iPod lanyard off my neck, like, through my neck, because my neck was in the way, and my head and my face. It wasn’t exactly strangling, but it wasn’t exactly not.
When my uncle came, as we were putting some of my bags in his truck, he said, “There has to be a novel in this somewhere.”
He was trying to be sweet.
Over and over again, people have called me “resilient.” At this point, I think, I’d rather be called “diligent” or even “succulent.”
I am like that old mobster who must sit in a restaurant at a table or booth facing the door. I am waiting for myself to show up. I am an importer/exporter of the past at the same time that I am a refugee from it. I write little these days, but most of my current stuff is my real life revisited. I must admit I think of them as puny consolation prizes compared to my fiction. Like this essay I kept trying to write when I was running at a local park and instead I got the above poem to come out first. It was a precursor work. The essay is about the time in the Virgin Islands when I dated a drug dealer who told me that he had killed three people and then gaslighted me by fucking me up the ass and texting me that I/he/we were HIV positive.
Misadventure. Yeah. You must, you must, write about it. It’s so much fun. The same way you must endure poverty, have bouts of mental illness, go to the tropics or die an expat, live in a boarding house, be a journalist, be wildly sexual or at least pretend to be in print, work for social justice and befriend at least one Communist leader in your life. You must collect and absorb and obey clichés until one day you look down and you’ve grown a dick and people are calling you, in Spanish, Papa Hemingway. Misadventure, disgrace, I call it now, is a cliché you must collect in order to be a “real writer,” which is itself a cliché.
As suicide is the last cliché, you must earn that, too. Ain’t no such thing as a free career in this world.
But first you must live it: misadventure, disgrace. Which means that in order to write about it, the drama in your life must be two things: strong and worthy of words, even when you yourself are not, even when the pain and humiliation feel unspeakable.
I’m talking about the time I was arrested in the deep backwoods of Kentucky for public intoxication but I actually thought I was still in Tennessee. And I wasn’t even drunk. And I mooned my arresting officers. They added the charge “resisting arrest.”
I’m talking about the time I was so manic I wandered in the middle of the night into a tent of Evangelicals, then thought I was levitating—hell, I think they thought I was levitating—because a storm came in and the strong winds uplifted the tent flaps and some of the flimsy benches they were using as pews. I went to sleep on such a bench by the woodburning stove, and a woman from the congregation came up to me, put a blanket over me and asked me: “are you an angel?” And I said, again, manic, “Ma’am, if I am, I don’t know it yet.”
I’m talking about a completely undocumented spiritual life underneath the life you think you live. Friends and family who have been in the military have said this line to me: “They break you down completely and build you back up again.”
But you can leave the military.
I’m talking about escaping from a mental hospital and hitchhiking back to home in nothing but a hospital gown, panties having been taken from me, no buttons or zippers, just homely sheets split down the back.
I’m talking about my best friend calling me in the midst of a similar misadventure— she was running away from Girard Medical Center in a sweatsuit, security guards in tow—and asking me, “What should I do?” and me telling her, as I am getting dressed for work, “Run faster.”
I’m talking about same best friend calling me years later and telling me about the poetry scene in Philadelphia becoming claustrophobically bipolar and academic at the same time. “D. and C. and A. shredded up Kafka texts and made suppositories out of them. Also, they are smearing monuments and statues of Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin with their menstrual blood and semen in some bizarre invocation ritual. These people have PhDs, Penelope.”
“This is why I don’t do poetry anymore and live in Connecticut,” is what I said.
Some scenes are heavy on misadventure. They are not to be missed, but not to be embraced either.
I think I read somewhere that in his stories drawn from his real life, Hemingway managed to make everyone around him, particularly rival writers, look like twerps and sniveling, uppercrust cowards and intellectual tightwads and himself look like a manly hero. Supposedly this is historically inaccurate. Imagine. The ego.
Let me be clear here, I’m being arch. I’m not an advocate for this pattern of self-destruction and self-excoriation and self-redemption through art. As a writer, I’m not an advocate for self-anything, at all. Because it’s all cyclical, and once you start on this path it hooks you the way Benzadrine got Kerouac and heroin got Burroughs. And because there’s a tendency to develop a tolerance.
But you can quit drugs. To live this kind of life is to be bested over and over again by demons of your own making. The last thing you want to do is to develop a tolerance to that.
For the longest time, I was a self-help book junkie. I hated them. I thought they were vile, inferior products. I couldn’t stop buying and reading them. I think my baseline happiness level jumped a few increments when I quit that shit. Same with therapy, which is proof of its success.
In my twenties, I hated myself. In my thirties, I tend to hate the world. Maybe in my forties I will hate just…men? You see how this is progress, in that old, “awful rowing toward God” sort of way?
In kindergarten, I was a hyperobedient child because, again, white trash violent parents. My first day I peed my pants. Here’s how: The teacher had explained the rules of kindergarten to us. One of the rules which was different from pre-K was that we had to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. We couldn’t just get up and go. We had to ask silently, by the use of a hand signal. We had to make a fist and put our thumb through our fisted fingers and hold our arm up in the air. When the teacher touched your thumb, it meant you could go to the bathroom.
After she explained the rules to us, she gave us an assignment to do. Then she sat with her back to us. I had to go. Really bad. I used the hand signal. My powers of five-year-old logic told me that this would not work, given the logistics of the room, but if I had just had the rules explained to me, and if one of the rules was that you did not voice your request, and if another one of the rules was that you did not get up from your chair without permission…Well, I waited, fist raised, until all the blood drained out of one arm, then the other. Then I pissed myself in front of everyone. Then the other children told her what had happened, she turned around and made me fetch paper towels and clean it up myself. She made everyone else watch. The next day I was transferred to another class, which I thought had to do with the peeing but was more likely because I had tested out of that group in reading ability. Still. For the rest of the year, I refused even to sit down in a chair for long periods. Damn private school. Damn school.
When I wrote the essay about the drug dealer trying to convince me I had AIDS, it was the first and last time that I had ever written anything and felt a cathartic release from it. I resisted it, the feeling of having calmly conquered something painful through writing, because that seems to be another clichéd idea non-writers have about writing: that it can do that, that there are selfish benefits, writing as therapy, etc… I had never bought into that idea. Writing was always about what I could bring to an audience, not the other way around. But it’s not always one or the other; they are not exclusive categories, and there are some misadventures, disgraces, so deep that, potentially, everyone stands to benefit. Just like sometimes, in real life as opposed to fiction, there are real villains and cowards and intellectual tightwads.
It’s very barren in psychiatric wards. The humans there are very barren; the mind goes barren there. This is called healing, by some, because they are barren, somehow. They already were, and they are in charge, and this is how they got to be in charge.
A disgraced person is a hundred times more likely than everyone else to question authority, and that can be a great boon to an artist. But the greatest thing I have learned from my misadventures is to seek unadulterated joy and fulfillment (fulfillment is different from achievement) and to know that I must cultivate a life that only includes writing. I used to include quotes from Hemingway in my personal essays about my mom, my family life, the drinking, the fights, the psychiatric disorders: “stronger in the broken places.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger bullshit. That was before I met Jackson ‘Jax’ Teller, the Hamlet-like protagonist of the TV series Sons of Anarchy. ‘Jax’ is heading up an organization of community-minded, gun-running motorcycle club outlaws in a made-up town in Northern California called “Charming.” They are fiercely opposed to franchise outfits such as Starbucks getting into “Charming,” which is kind of like Bridgeport, Pa, which is kind of like walking out into 1968, replete with Pabst-swilling, Gadsden flag-flying white supremacists and it’s weird. Anyway, ‘Jax’ writes letters to his sons, as his father, the patriarch of the motorcycle gang, did before him. To pass on wisdom. In one of these letters, he writes:
“Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold onto these simple moments—appreciate them a little more, there’s not many of them left. I don’t ever want that for you, finding things that make you happy shouldn’t be so hard. I know you’ll face pain, suffering, hard choices, but you can’t let the weight of it choke the joy out of your life. No matter what, you have to find the things that love you. Run to them. There’s an old saying—that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—I don’t believe that. I think the things that try to kill you make you angry and sad. Strength comes from the good things, your family, your friends, the satisfaction of hard work. Those are the things that will keep you whole, those are the things to hold on to when you’re broken.”
This is the truth: the things that try to kill you just make you angry and sad. They don’t make you stronger, or a better writer. You have to be that from the get go, and give a damn about yourself and other people, in equal measure. In the end, it’s happiness, highly unoriginal but highly selective in who it endows, happiness, happiness and caring, neither danger nor vainglory, that is the most bad-ass thing.
Run to it. Send notes back.