Too Close for Comfort

Yes, I’m still plugging along at the memoir. It’s taken forever to get through the second draft, something I was sure would be faster than the first. Unfortunately it took me two months and four workshops to get Chapter One to a place I could call good enough.

Who knew it could be so hard to be truly honest in your writing? Anyone who’s published (or even written good) memoir knows that it’s all about being honest about your shortcomings, your emotional responses, your actions. And that’s hella hard.

The first draft I took readers through a leisurely stroll in Hanoi, around Hoan Kiem Lake, to a local grocery and through a classroom visit at an English school. Not once did I stop and tell (or show!) how overwhelmed I was in this huge metropolis, alone with two kids and a handful of borrowed money. Instead, I gave readers a travelogue, appropriate for their first trip to Vietnam’s capitol. But I am not trying to write a travel guide, I’m writing a family travel memoir. It’s just taking me a while to get it right.

As I struggled through the re-writes and edits of Chapter One and the bi-weekly therapy sessions that our writers’ group was turning into, I was forced to deal with my own actions (and more so my inaction). It was painful and ugly. The fact that this was only the first chapter has made me want to seek a new way to do it. Perhaps one that is a bit less of a time-suck.

Then a few days ago, I stumbled onto Salon’s Guide to Writing Memoir and Darin Strauss (author, Half a Life) gave some brilliant advice:

“[S]ince the details will be so persepective-wreckingly close, work hard to increase that distance. Here’s ho. Change your narrator from “i” to “she” (or “he”). Write the whole thing in that third-person voice, and then — after typing your final period — do a word-replace to get yourself back in there. You’ll be amazed at how freeing that is.”

I think I’m going to give it a try; I find myself bogged down by my own embarrassment at being me. Maybe this will give me an out, a way to talk about how it was that I could be so in love with someone I’d move 7000 miles even though I knew it was unrequited, a way to talk about it without being humiliated in the midst of writing.

 

 

Does the editing ever end?

I am fairly certain that the answer is no.

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It’s amazing how many times I have revised sections of the book. Now, in anticipation of having a professional editor read it, I am petrified that I am doing it all wrong.

The real struggle is keeping the voice, my voice consistent. I fall back into business writing sometimes–cold, but detailed. I can write scenes just fine (even Cheryl Strayed told me that when she read an excerpt) but getting the emotions in there is a different story.

That’s the thing about memoir; it’s all about admitting your weaknesses, your pain, your failings. Without them, it isn’t nearly as enjoyable to read. But putting them in is a constant struggle for me.

Rest assured, dear reader, you’ll know more about me and the things I have done, both right and wrong, by the end. You can thank the myriad writers and friends who have made me promise to edit and add and re-word until the pain shows through. I thank them profusely.

Weekend Away

One of the real perks for being with the GuyFriend is that he forces me to slow down sometimes. I tend to have twenty-plus irons in the fire at all times and rarely feel like I can take a breath, let alone a day off to do nothing. My to-do list isn’t getting any shorter that way, y’know.

But it’s amazing to me how great it is for my body and soul to just not worry about that list for a little while. We got home late Sunday afternoon from a three-day trip to Waldo Lake in central Oregon, a respite I needed.

It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized just how much sitting at a desk all day is impairing my healing from the rear-ending accidents. Despite walking for nearly 7 miles on Saturday, my neck didn’t hurt (though I’ll admit to a slight back ache). Even on Sunday, after two nights on the cold, hard ground, my neck could still move without pain. The two stiff bands of muscles that have failed to stop seizing for months, relaxed. There was none of the non-stop ache I’ve come to expect. There were no painful headaches that are a nearly-daily occurrence during the work-week.

I wanted to stay out there longer, avoid going back to the tasks that make me hurt, ache and rely on pain meds. But here I am, back at a keyboard and already my shoulders have tightened, the right side of my neck is aching and the headache is back. Luckily, I have pictures to remind me of the peace that comes with leaving a to-do list at home.

Telling the Story

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Three years since starting my memoir about our adventures in Vietnam, it’s time to get serious about finishing this enormous project. Today I pulled out the myriad versions of chapter after chapter, hoping to bring some order to it all. Seeing it all lying there made me realize just how much writing I have done and think slightly less about the amount of work left to do. Sometimes it feels like an overwhelming idea, compiling all of this, baring my soul in the process. But really, how can I quit after all of this?

Isn’t Life Just Weird

Well, we finally made it back to our house–Audrey and I spent two months with our friends and Stuart spent nearly three months away. The last bits of work (floor, priming, painting, trim) being done by us so we could finally just get him back in the house and living with us. So incredibly frustrating. But he’s back. Sort of.

The weekend after he moved back then he took off to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Luckily, I got to go along, too, to chaperone since it was a school trip. Four days of hanging out with high schoolers was plenty, though I can’t complain much. They’re great kids, some I’ve known for years. And I got to see top-notch plays, which I would have never had the chance to do otherwise. We saw “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Imaginary Invalid,” “Measure by Measure” and “The Language Archive.” I bailed on “Julius Caesar” one night thanks to just not feeling good. I think it was a mix of elevation and loneliness, neither of which I am used to. But the plays were marvelous. It was wonderful to hang out with my son again, it’s been a long three months without him around. Of course, he left again, two days after returning, to be an Outdoor School counselor yet again. I’ll see him again on Friday and this time he’s sticking around for a little while.

I’m still looking for work, but decided to put my skills to some use while I hunted for a “real” job. The results are at my new Etsy store: Crinkle Dreams. Crazy and fun and everything I really love to do. I hadn’t really thought about how the crafty movement had used to Internet to blossom and truthfully, I wish it had happened just a few years earlier when I’d had Girly Girl Aprons going. I’d worked so hard to make that a viable business. It did well, but I grew tired of trying to convince people to wear aprons. And now, six years later, everyone is wearing and selling them. Oh well. Now, it’s mixed fabric specialties, mostly. Purses, wallets and my time-consuming favorite: baby quilts. Two more are in process, one a custom order and the other, an overly pink one. Sweet.

Vietnam still calls my name, but I’ll be heading to Belize this summer with the GuyFriend instead. Vietnam for the long-term next year, I think. Audrey can start high school in Hanoi and it will make me so very happy.

And Stuart? He’ll be graduating in just two weeks. So strange. All of it.

another chapter down

You’d think I just wouldn’t want to stop writing about our travels in Vietnam, but truth be told it’s been almost a month since I went to task on it. The process is always a tad bittersweet for me. Vietnam was wonderful and it was hard. Some days I miss the place so much I can barely breathe for the ache of returning. But those are the days when life here is especially hard, when the money is scarce and the singleness turns to loneliness.

When I write about our travels, though, it always brings back the ache. I want to be on the train again. I want to eat bun cha at the Thanh Hoa market. I want to sit on the porch breaking open red watermelon seeds with friends.

So sometimes I avoid writing, like I have for all of September (the month I hate). But today I forced it. Did some editing, some writing and made a small amount of progress on a first draft I really must finish.

Here’s a blip from today’s output about how it really felt:

Through the dust-stained window of our train compartment, I watch as the sun breaks over the horizon. It casts a blue tint across the sodden rice fields that stretch as far as I can see. The bunk above me creaks with Stuart’s shifting weight. Audrey is still asleep in the bunk across from him, her bare feet poking out from under the woolen blanket. She faces the wall, hiding from the light as it floods in through our eastern-facing window.

We are due to arrive in Hanoi in only an hour, with sixteen hours and a handful of bunkmates already passed. The bottom bunk, across from mine, is empty again. When I’d fallen asleep it had been occupied by a grandfatherly fellow, white hair and sporadic beard, reading a local paper. Sometime during the night, as we’d tossed and swayed alongside Highway 1, I’d awoken to find a woman sleeping there; slack-jawed and breathing loudly. But as the sun rises, the bunk is empty and the blankets are tossed aside under the bed lamp.

It’s just the three of us here, bumping along the train tracks into Hanoi. We are truly on our own; no one to house us, feed us, drive us where we need to go. No one to set a schedule or make hotel reservations. It’s all up to me from here on out. And I can’t confess to anyone just how utterly overwhelmed I am by this.

I spent countless hours at the Internet cafe searching for houses and jobs and still couldn’t find anything that would work for us. Nothing. So here I am dragging my children northward to be homeless and unemployed with me in the overcrowded capitol city of this Third World Country because I’m too bullheaded to admit defeat. This move will surely seal my win for the 2007 Mother of the Year award.

Sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing this or why I’m so hellbent on staying here. I don’t even truly understand my determination to get here in the first place, besides the obvious win-him-back and show-the-kids-the-world reasons. But, really, what kind of mother makes her kids sell all their toys then moves them halfway around the world without any sort of back-up plan in place? A lousy one, like me.

It’s taken me eight weeks in-country to realize the magnitude of what we’re doing and it isn’t going to get any easier. We’ve managed to give up all we knew to experience this and I’m sure I could take the kids back to the States, fully satisfied with all they’ve done over the last two months. They’ve seen more of this big blue marble than most kids and the time with the orphans in Tam Ky has truly been priceless. It wouldn’t be a shame to go home. But it would feel like giving up.

I’ll give it a month. I have enough money in the bank from the recent tax refund to get us tickets back. If I haven’t found a job by the end of March, I promise to swallow my pride and take the kids home.

Hammock

In the last few days before we left Thanh Hoa last September, I asked Mr. Thanh to help me with some shopping. I really wanted a hammock. They are all over Vietnam, in all sorts of styles. In Hanoi, street vendors try to sell them to the Westerners–“Silk. Very nice. You buy only $20.” I never took them up on the offer because one, I think they were lying about the silk part and two, I wanted the green one with a stand.

the streets of Thanh Hoa

Mr. Thanh drove me on his motorbike from one shop to another, our helmets perched, unbuckled, on our heads. We finally found a shop that carried them and Mr. Thanh asked the price. 250,000 VND. A good chunk of change in those parts. I couldn’t bargain with any grace, so I asked Mr. Thanh if he would ask her to take 150,000 VND. I remember he looked a little worried; they talked back and forth for a bit and he asked if I’d pay 200,000 VND. Of course, I would. So we exchanged cash for hammock and I climbed on to the back of his bike again, holding the hammock to my chest.

“Sorry, Miss Teresa,” he yelled to me.
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Day Eight: Los Angeles or Bust

Odometer Reading: 1025

I’d hoped to take the Pacific Coast Highway down to my sister’s, but after talking to Uncle Dennis and my brother-in-law Will, they convinced me that it was foolhardy to think we could make it down there in one day. It would slow-going and expensive, two things I didn’t really want. So, instead, we rose early and got back onto my least favorite highway: I-5.

Eight hours later, we rolled into Los Angeles swarming with people and pollution. Just being in LA makes me a little insane and I’m sure the kids were completely baffled by the dramatic rise in my stress level, but the highways just mix and mingle and get all backed up and I feel like I might just lose my mind. I’m sure it has to do with the fact that I’m the driver; I didn’t stress out in Bangkok, Hanoi, Boston or New York City, but I never had to drive there. In LA, I really feel like I’m gonna blow my top. Music turns off. Kids keep quiet and my knuckles turn white on the steering wheel.

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Day Seven: Sardines and San Juan Bautista

Odometer Reading: 878

Moving everything up a day, we decided that we’d visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium while staying in Gilroy since it was close enough and besides, then we wouldn’t have to pull out all that camping gear yet again. So, for an hour I bugged the kids to get up and at ’em, hoping they’d be a tad more excited about seeing what is supposed to be one of the world’s best aquariums. We managed to get out on time, though and headed further west to the ocean.

California beaches aren't what they're said to be

Unfortunately as we reached the shore, there was nothing great to be said about it. It looked remarkably like an Oregon beach: cool, grey, cloudy and it stank. Luckily, we weren’t going for a day of sunbathing, we were there for the aquarium, but it sure would have been nice to see the supposedly-beautiful California beaches that people ramble on about.

Pictures after the jump
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Day Six: On the Road Again

Odometer Reading: 738

There was no rush to hit the highway again, so we took the morning as it came: repacking our bags and then the car. Every time it’s like a game of Tetris, making sure that each piece fits as tightly as possible into the previous bags with no gaps. Somehow we got it all back in and by 11 a.m. we were pulling out the driveway of Aunt Diana’s place and heading to I-5 yet again.

barren and boring

If you’ve driven I-5 in Oregon, you know how green and beautiful it can be, trees nestled up to the highway’s edges and mountains in any direction it seems. Let’s just say that California’s I-5 is nothing like that. Here it’s dry and brown and barren and flat. In other words, beautiful for about 10 seconds then as boring as all get out
for the next 200 miles.

Lilyana and Audrey kung fu-style

We stopped somewhere along that golden highway to take photos, a viewpoint with this sign designating it as Orestimba, Dry and hot, the kids didn’t want to stay long and I can’t imagine why anyone would live out there, but apparently they do. The flatlands are sprinkled with farm houses and plots of irrigated fields. Still not for me.

The drive to Gilroy, as I may have mentioned, was pretty boring, but we listened to a couple episodes of our new favorite podcast, Radiolab to kill the time. And at the rest stop the girls came up with their own entertainment–using the car door as a funhouse mirror. I checked out the map to figure out how many more miles of dry grass fields we’d have to get to see and they took pictures of themselves in all sorts of poses. Stuart just waited, patient as always.

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