Guest Post, Mary Sojourner: What a Hard Fall Taught Me About Boots on the Ground Community

Mary Sojourner headshot photoSolstice light silvers and goes gray. The air is heavy with the scent of a desert river. My friend and I carry some of her partner’s ashes down a rocky slope to the Verde River in Central Arizona – more accurately, we brace and skitter our way to what we hope is the shoreline. We want to give part of him back to the river he loved so much.

A soft rain begins to fall.  What might have been shoreline is muck. There is no way to get to the water. “No good,” she says. “Let’s go back up to the bridge in Camp Verde.” We start up the sandstone we’ve just descended. It’s now nearly dark. I’d thought this would be an easy crossing to the river and hadn’t brought my hiking poles. My friend grabs my arm. I step up on a shallow ledge and feel my foot sliding in mud. My friend holds my arm tight, but it’s no help. There is nowhere to regain balance. I crash down on my left knee. I manage to turn on my back. The pain is a nauseating jolt. The world has become a movie.

Two hours later, a kindly Emergency doc with worried eyes says, “I’d hoped it was just a bad bruise. I’m sorry. It’s broken in three places. We’ll have to keep you here and you’ll need surgery.”

“But it doesn’t hurt unless I move it,” I say. “I don’t want surgery.” I don’t tell him that I’m terrified of general anesthesia. I’d had it twice when I was a kid and the memory of the cold, dark, pain-filled galaxy I’d found myself in has never left me.

“You don’t really have a choice,” he says. “If you want to walk again…”

I write here two weeks later. There are metal staples closing the eight inch incision in my leg, and two metal pins and a cable in my knee. I’ll be on a walker for at least four more weeks. No driving. I live alone. There is no room for error. If I drop something, I have to use a mechanical reaching tool. If I hobble from one room to another and forget something, I suspect the neighbors can hear me cursing out Fate and Whatever Dolt Runs the Universe. And – I have learned what it means to be a real friend in a real community.

I grew up in a little farming town on the shores of Lake Ontario. We had a party-line phone with a live operator. Almost all neighbor/human contact was face to face. I escaped a sometimes terrifying home by exploring the hills and creeks around the town – and hiding out in the tiny local library.

Forty years later, I moved to another little town – in Northern Arizona to write and fight for the earth. My best friend lived across the street. I hung out with hard-core enviros – think Earth First!, river runners, climbers, social activists, artists, writers and scruffy freaks. We all took care of each other through break-ups, deaths, injuries and arrests. There were 11,000 students at the local university. There was no internet. There were no smart phones. There were only land-lines and the Freak Telegraph. And there was my journal and me being faithful to the words I serve.

Then the Southwest became the place to be: to find yourself, to be wannabes, to open charming little coffee shop after charming little coffee shop, to invest, invest, invest and cover the desert and forest with acres of red-roofed houses and trophy mansions. Flagstaff’s population has grown by 189%. There are 25,000 students at the university. Every six minutes a trendy hipster restaurant opens. My friends and I avoid what was once a genuine Southwestern downtown with old-time diners (not cute replicas), bars with boards across their windows, trading posts and local bookstores. Even though the coffee at Macy’s Café is still killer, it’s just not worth the drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic or the fight to the death for a parking place. More and more, most of us connect by text, email and social media.

As soon as word got out about the fall and the surgery, friends showed up at the hospital. Roxane took my mud/blood- filthy clothes and washed them. Larry brought a stuffed animal raccoon to keep watch. Christina sat with me and told me what I could expect in the weeks of recovery to come. She’d had knee surgeries and her empathy and practical advice carried me through more than a few rough hours. She drove me home in a white-out snowstorm and stayed the night to guide me with the basics of the walker and the dangers of moving spontaneously.

My local neighbors, Jim and Dawn, showed up the next day and continued to show up every day. They emptied cat litter, fed the four cats, lay down plywood in front of my desk so I could easily roll my desk chair. When intestinal flu struck on my third day home, they got me through all that involved. Roxane helped me wash my hair. Diane and Bob drove a Trader Joe’s run and filled my cupboards and freezer. Margaret called from Reno and offered to come down to help. Vickie and Kit brought a case of cat food; Kelly, Rajean, my radio producer Gillian, William, Karla and Ann all called and said the magic words: “What do you need?” They didn’t put me in their prayers. They didn’t send some vague amorphous healing energy. They asked, “What do you need?” and they showed up – In three-dimensional, all five senses physical reality.

A few days ago I found myself feeling happier and safer than I have in a long time. I was hauling myself up from my desk chair, telling the walker to stay steady and getting ready to hobble to the kitchen. I sat back down and looked out the living-room window to the snow lying thick on the Ponderosa branches. The late afternoon shadows had gone long and blue. A soft winter sun cast shadows on the trailer next door. For an instant, I imagined that I was back in the wallboard and scrap lumber cabin I had lived in when I first moved to Flagstaff. There would have been only a land-line phone, a few neighbors in the shacks around me and my clan scattered through the little mountain town. I would have felt that I was in the heart of a community – and I understand that the hardest fall I’d ever taken had landed me back in that heart.

I turned to the computer and wrote a message to my friends and neighbors:  I write in my journal – not about morning light soft on fresh snow or cat prints threading across the yard or deep spiritual insights gained from it taking five minutes to hobble from my room to the kitchen because of a broken kneecap. I write about impatience; forcing myself to stop thinking I’m being punished for something; living with (to put it delicately) stomach troubles when I can’t move fast enough. I write about using a commode, wearing adult diapers, feeling steadily embarrassed by all of it. I write about how grateful I am that I am not using. And I write about the physicality of physical community, physical love.

A kneecap is physical. Fractures are physical. Stomach flu is physical. These days in my life are not hypothetical or etheric or possibly even transformative. I don’t need thoughts sent to my knee or good wishes sent to my bowels. I need precisely what I’m being given: tender, ungrudging care given by tender, ungrudging friends. I won’t name them because every one of them would say, “I’m just doing what friends can do for each other.” I can tell you that they have helped me give Spokescat Ruti, the Red his twice-daily pills (without which, he would die); they have washed my clothes, stayed overnight with me and listened each time I’m sure a fatal development has occurred. They have made me laugh and are teaching me how to re-enter a community I thought I had lost. But more than anything, they steadfastly remind me that I’m not as alone as I too often tell myself.

Guest Post, Mary Sojourner: The First Teacher, My Perfect Imperfect Mom

Mary SojournerThe little girl in the picture is a serious child – and already a woman. By the time the picture is taken, her mother has suffered her first psychotic break and survived her first suicide attempt. These days her mom would have been diagnosed with postpartum depression, barbiturate addiction and bi-polar psychosis. In 1945, the psychiatrists named her a hysteric and depressive, and told her she liked her depression because it got her attention. They prescribed electric shock treatments (a terrifying and brutal regime in those days) – and the family doctor prescribed sleeping pills.

I grew up with three mothers: the bright-eyed mom who played jazz piano, drew abstract designs for me to color, learned to stencil the folk-art of her Pennsyvania-Dutch origins, hand-painted Easter eggs and turned our home into a candle-lit shrine during the winter holidays; the sallow mother who grew more and more silent, who took to the living-room couch on long winter afternoons, who burned our dinners and closed the cover over the piano keys; the thing that looked like my mother but contained a howling void.

All three mothers were the perfect teachers for what I do best, for that which seems to be the only act that fills my soul, for what I do in this perfectly imperfect moment – writing. My bright-eyed mom read, not just to me and my brother, but for herself. She took me to the library when I was six and introduced me to the librarians. She told me they held the keys to magic – and since she had introduced me to Scheherezade, the women who told stories to save her life, I knew the librarians were guardians of an endlessly replenished treasure chest. When I begged off washing dishes or doing chores because I had a book to read, my mother shrugged, laughed and said to my father, “You know Liz. She always has her nose in a book.” And when I began to write my own stories, she read them. She never pushed me to write them or snooped in my diary. But when I brought her my writing, she read it carefully and told me what she liked.

My silent mother gave me more than she could have ever guessed. When she came home from the hospital, she, my father and I must have believed that it – the “nervous breakdown” – would never happen again. We were wrong. Two years later, the color began to leave her face. There was strained quiet at our dinner table. I came home from school to find my mom stretched out on the couch. And then, I was waked in the middle of the night to the sound of her retching. I pulled the pillow around my ears and struggled back into sleep. In the morning, my mother was gone. My father told me she was back in the hospital. Then, for reasons I can’t fathom to this day, he said, “She took too many sleeping pills. She wanted to die. I made her drink a quart of milk so she would throw up.”

In that instant, I became a radar screen. I learned to pay scrupulous attention, to monitor people and surroundings as accurately as any creature who relies on external information to survive. And I learned to store away what I learned. It would be years before I would hear the political slogan: To Understand the Present, Study the Past. At eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen and eighteen, I became an encyclopedia that contained every nuance of my mother’s face, moods, laughter and silences.

The mother skin bag that contained a black hole gave me the third great gift. I was five. I’d been kept home from kindergarten. I sat in my parents’ big bed with a coloring book in my lap. I didn’t read yet. My mother was in the kitchen. Someone was singing, a tuneless, wordless high-pitched croon. Then there were footsteps coming toward me. I knew my mother was the only other person in the apartment. I tightened my hands on the coloring book and stared down at the page. There was a tree, a little house, smoke coming out of the chimney. I began to tell myself the story of whoever was in the house. That’s the last thing I remember of that morning.

My mother and I made peace when I was fifty-five and she was eighty-three. We were brought to a sisterly ease with each other through miracles, hard work and, as we would have told you, “Who Knows What.” For the next two years of her life, we talked openly and with love about our time together as mother and daughter. She died at eighty-five. I was with her a few weeks before her death when she gave me the second most valuable thing she has given me.

She was drifting in and out of consciousness. I held her hand. She came wide awake, looked into my eyes and smiled. Her eyes were wet with tears. “Oh Liz,” she said, “I don’t have many regrets, but the one I have is so big.” I waited. “It breaks my heart,” she said, “that the god-damned depression robbed me of being able to be the mother I longed to be.” We were quiet. Her hand was warm in mine; mine warm in hers. “I know,” I said. “Thank you.”

And the greatest gift? The writing. My bright-eyed mother gave me trust in what I write. My silent mother unwittingly taught me to become a gathering net. The not-mother jolted me out of the ordinary and into the world of story. Trust, curiosity, infinite possibility. And one regret – I wish she were here to read this post.

Lillie Foltz Mammosser, thank you.
Note: This piece first appeared in my former Psychology Today blog. I thought I might re-work it, but as I read it, I knew I would not change one word. All of it is even more true today than it was in 2010 when it was published. And, as I read it I found myself paraphrasing an old saying: “That which doesn’t kill us makes some of us writers.”
You can find more of my work – and weekly writing tips and exercises on my new website: http://www.breakthroughwriting.net

Guest Post, Mary Sojourner: Review of The Third Law of Motion by Meg Files

Meg Files

The Third Law of Motion, by Meg Files, Anaphora Literary Press, 2011 (reviewed by Mary Sojourner)

Newton’s third law states that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It is one thing to open a book and find yourself deep in a movie of the story; it is quite another to open a book and realize that you have become the character. Meg Files brings us into the mind, heart, body, longings and profound confusion of Dulcie White, a ’60s teenage girl too quickly becoming a woman.

You may have been Dulcie. I certainly was. She is a smart, curious, sensual young woman caught in a time when it was perilous to be both curious and sensual. She meets track star Lonnie Saxbe at a dancing class her friend has persuaded her to attend. The trajectory of their connection, or more accurately dis-connection, is predictable. Any woman who has gone into an abusive relationship or marriage knows the arc. Rather than describe Dulcie’s careening out of her own life, her own self, a discussion of Files’ craft in shaping Dulcie and Lonnie is more germane.

So often, the young are cursed by what they believe are their informed decisions. They are meteors propelled by desire and the longing to be desired. Files gives us in her perfect pitch renditions of conversations – both outer and inner – an exploration of the deep, intelligent and connected love between Dulcie and her college room-mate; and the hot and dissonant passion between Dulcie and Lonnie. By shifting point of view from Dulcie to Lonnie throughout the book, we are forced to know the young man’s inchoate violence and tangled driven mind.

Files brings us into intimate knowledge of two young people who most resemble the chaos of smoke. It is often easy for women to blame other women for entering and being unable to leave abusive relationships. Any of us who have found ourselves trapped in our own terror of being abandoned – “What if there is no other lover? What if I destroy my lover by leaving? I don’t want to grow old alone.” – whether we are gay or straight may know the sensation of being mired. We may know the equally energizing and terrifying rush of fresh air when we pull ourselves free. We may certainly know the descent that follows the liberation – and how old and new voices from our childhood and the society around us begin to natter in our minds, telling us to return to the mire.

To read The Third Law of Motion is to understand more than why a woman might find herself trapped by her past and present. As Dulcie and Lonnie tell their stories, the reader comes into contact with greater notions of cause and effect. We understand the degree that Second Wave Feminism – Files never preaches ideology – provides light for a dark and potentially deadly path. I imagine some of Files’ younger students reading the book and wondering why Dulcie didn’t go to a women’s shelter, to Planned Parenthood, to an empathetic woman OBGYN. Those of us who lived through the ’50s and ’60s can answer that question. There was nowhere to go. We were alone with what we believed were our choices. We didn’t yet know that there were few choices – and that all of them were part of the swamp that held us fast.

I found myself wanting The Third Law of Motion to be required reading in all academic women’s and gender programs. Meg Files has given the gift – subtle and sorrowful – of a woman’s truth.

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– Mary Sojourner

Writing Circle with Mary Sojourner

Issue 3 contributor, Mary Sojourner, is hosting the Spring Jumpstart: A Writing Circle at the Changing Hands Bookstore on March 1st, 6:30-8:30PM.

The Jumpstart Writing Circle is “for those,” says Mary, “who have always wanted to write and haven’t, for blocked writers, and for writers who want to move to the next level of their work.” The Jump Start Circle is not designed to be a lecture, but rather an interactive opportunity for participants to write and develop their writing.  Each Jump Start Circle varies. The cost is $25 and those interested can register at 480.730.0205.

Writing Workshops with Mary Sojourner

Pima Community College West Campus is hosting a wide array of weekend writing workshops ranging from Memoir Crafting to Poetry Workshops. Led by authors and professional writers, these workshops offer an opportunity to get hands-on experience and explore a variety of creative writing topics.

On April 13-15, Mary Sojourner, Issue 3 contributor, will lead the in-depth writing workshop, w(Rite): A Workshop in Deep Writing and Craft. The workshop will feature exercises and activities that help writers craft and “move personal writing into publishable work.”

Mary Sojourner is the author of novels Sisters of the Dream and Going Through Ghosts, and short story collection, Delicate. Sojourner is also known for her essay collection Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest and memoirs, Solace: rituals of loss and desire and She Bets Her Life. She has appeared as a commentator on NPR and teaches writing at colleges, universities, writing conferences, and privately. You can read her blog at marysojourner.com, or the November SR interview with Sojourner here.

If you’re looking to hone your craft or gather tools to eliminate your writer’s block, check out Writing Workshop Spring 2012 at Pima Community College.