A few days ago, this vehicle showed up outside the front door of my townhouse building, right next to my mailbox —
To the best of my knowledge, it’s a 1930 Chevy sedan, and I really wish that I owned it. Here’s a picture of the seats in the vehicle right now —
I just really love this old car. It speaks to me. Sometimes we find things in life that look on the outside the way we feel on the inside, like spirit animals and totems and specific landscapes. In a world that praises youth, scantily clad teens, fashion models — and rarely holds forth on aging as anything more than “the horror” — I find an increasingly resonant space in myself when I’m around old, humble things. Like this gorgeous car.
What a story I’m sure that Chevy could tell, if its front grill became a mouth and spilled words. I often feel the same way about trees I pass by, the giant ones gnarled by time, with so much bark ripped off by weather and animal life it seems a miracle to see the tree thriving, sporting a brilliant canopy of leaves that are bigger and more vibrant than any found on the younger trees growing nearby.
Age can bring frailty and brittleness, but it can also bring a hard-won resilience. I’d argue this Chevy came out on the side of resilience, which is no doubt why this particular car appeals to me. Not as an object that “needs work,” but embodying a simple perfection just as it is. This car is broken and rusty and a beaten hulk of its former self, but it is still an essential whole. There is a working engine in this body, a beating heart that will run this beast down the road.
That kind of narrative — to turn to the world and see a perfect whole reflected back to me — is often quite challenging. It’s not always a story I can recite in my head.
A friend who recently had a baby was loading some groceries into her car. We were talking together, and a woman who knew my friend came over. She was in her late fifties or early sixties, she wore a light grey pantsuit, a flashy wristwatch, and her hair gave off fragrant wafts of importance. She interrupted our conversation, started addressing my friend, and proceeded to tell her that she looked “pretty horribly fat” now that she’d given birth, that she was “obviously struggling with baby weight” and ought to “eat healthier food” and “start an exercise program right away,” or she might “end up fat and ugly for the rest of her life.” The warning that my friend’s husband would probably develop “a wandering eye” due to her “chubby appearance” was shared more than once, along with the words, “you really need to take care of that.”
I stood there in horrified silence, then I said to this woman, “How about YOU take your own advice and exercise yourself right on out of here.” I really wanted to call her an asshole, but my friend was upset and I didn’t want to make it worse. The woman did leave, and I’m sure she hopes I get run over my a semi-truck or eaten alive by fire ants. Which might end up happening to me one day, who knows.
The moment the Prophesier of Baby Fat Doom was out of sight, my friend burst into tears and sobbed. Hard. I held her till the baby started to cry, at which point I picked up the baby, and we were all a hot sweaty mess in 87-degree heat that felt more like 96 in the shade.
Of course I rebutted what the woman had said, and of course that would never be enough to heal the wounds that had suddenly been exposed. No words of mine could eliminate my friend’s pain — not her self-shame of her body or her sense of self-image. No matter what I or anyone else tell my friend about her incredible beauty, including how proud we are that she is a mother — she has to own those words, believe those words for herself, or they’re just empty sounds in the air.
We live in a world that doesn’t celebrate the great majority of the changes in life that come to a body, unless those changes involve being a super-toned athlete or letting the world see your rib bones. What passes for “glorious transformation” in our society is clearly defined. A baby belly is great. A post-baby-belly is not. The fat tissue a woman accumulates during and after pregnancy is viewed by many as some sort of evil, a failing, when any scientist can tell you it’s a biological imperative rooted in survival. But we relabel this event as a moral shortcoming, then give the change the title of “ugly.”
My challenge in finding perfection, however, doesn’t lie inside my friend’s body. That could never be a challenge because her perfection is automatic for me — she is my friend, and she is beautiful. She was beautiful before she gave birth, and she is even more beautiful now that she’s had a child. I don’t need to compare her to a teen girl in a bikini to know the measure of her infinite loveliness.
What’s profoundly difficult for me in this situation is to see the other woman in this story as an aged and glorious whole. A resilient survivor. To listen to the negative judgments she shared and see the world mirroring back to me a great, damaged beauty, as significantly mutilated as the ravaged bark of old trees and the layers of rust on that Chevy sedan.
What would that woman’s heart say, if her blood became words?
Did her own husband leave her after she gave birth to their children? Did she watch a best friend go through that pain? Did this woman perhaps survive years of struggle as a single mom, bearing the world’s excoriation and shame, while boyfriend after boyfriend announced she was too fat, too ugly, to stay with and love?
Did she have to watch the men she’d pinned all her hopes on walk out the door? Because of her body, because of her post-baby-belly, because the world has specific ideas about beauty and goodness and who is worthy of love?
Was the oracle in the parking lot, with her important hair and aggressively flashy wristwatch — perhaps truly acting in love toward my friend, by sharing her own savage fears? The fear of the loss of attractiveness, the loss of worthiness, the loss of love. Was that the story she would tell in her layers of rust, her knotted bark, in the wisdom she held in her skin. Was she perhaps really telling my friend, “I have suffered. I have been beaten and ruined and left for dead. And this was how I learned to survive. To lose the weight. To exercise. To make sure the next man I loved didn’t walk out the door.”
Conform. That was the word this woman should’ve used. Submit and escape the great terror.
Maybe, if I’d really been listening, I’d have heard the woman say this — “I never learned how to love myself. And there is nothing scarier, nothing more terrifying, than never being able to look in the mirror and tell yourself you are perfect.”
Some philosophers believe all negativity and judgment are rooted in fear. And some people insist that cynicism is the chitinous shell against pain, as vital to aging as cragged tree bark and rust.
I have a hard time believing in absolutes, and I really hope I never adopt cynicism as my armor. Sometimes we do terrible things not because we are cynics, but in a genuine attempt to help those we love. Like perhaps crossing a parking lot to warn a new mother that her post-baby-belly will lead to the end of her marriage unless she “does something about that, and soon.”
We have fears we pass down across generations, as intimate to our bodies as our own DNA. I think the same is true for pain. So much of the time, I see people as pain bodies, as vessels of the peculiar tortures known as conformity, and submission, and the emptiness that comes when you can never measure up.
I wanted to call that woman an asshole because she made my friend cry.
But the unspoken truth is so complicated.
Who knows what that old tree might’ve lived through. That old rusted car. That woman and her ravaged heart.
In writer news, my friend Blair and I are still busy preparing for the writers conference we’ll be hosting in Silverton, Colorado, this summer, on Saturday, August 13. You can find the Facebook page for the Writers and Scribblers Literary Retreat here. If you have a Facebook account, I hope you’ll consider liking this page and sharing it with your friends. I have a fantastic piece of quartz we’ll be using as a mascot, a rock packed with silver and zinc and gold, straight out of the old Sunnyside mine close to Silverton. And we’ll be serving root beer. Plus we have a lot of AMAZING poets and writers presenting and hosting workshops all day. It’ll be a GREAT lit retreat! I hope you’ll come!
My current work in progress, a YA fantasy set in the ocean, now has over 62,000 words that aren’t complete barf. Awesome. All those words have even been alpha-read by my friend April, and some have even been beta-read in critique groups more than once. In the last ten days, I’ve added over 20,000 words to this manuscript. Which is a normal output for Stephen King, but for me, it feels like a lot. I revise and revise as I work, wishing I knew where I was going, but willing to be surprised by the story regardless. My goal word count for this book is 80,000 words, so I’m closing in on the mess that is Trying To End A Book Well. This novel is titled The War in the Sea.
I’ll be working with my graphic designer to make a cover for my almost-finished vampire book, Bloodshade of the Goddess, in August. That novel is just waiting on feedback from a few more beta-readers, and then I’ll make my final revisions and publish.
And I’ll be driving to Denver this fall, September 9-11, to attend the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference. I wanted to have the opportunity to meet with a literary agent in person, something I haven’t done since 2011, so I took the plunge this year and bought a ticket. My friends Adriana and Hannah will be coming with me.
And my sci-fi novel, Mark of the Pterren, now has eight rave reviews on Amazon!! Some friends have reviewed the book on Goodreads as well as Amazon, which is awesome. My second book, Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems, has also had a good year so far. Thanks to a friend from church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship I attend, two local book clubs read the novel this spring, and the book earned five more positive Amazon reviews. Such good news!
I’ve been giving my husband Greg a lot of extra hugs lately. He is my Patron Saint of Noveling. Plus he deals with all the general crazy. Good thing he is tough.
The stories about the old chevy, the old tree, and the woman with baby fat were all beautifully written and show your piercingly psychological insight into life. You are a beautiful person and a beautiful writer.
With profound admiration,
Thank you, Ed! Your kind words are appreciated. I hope you are writing today, and enjoying a walk along the river. ❤
Hi Melissa- I am interested in the Writer’s andd Scribblers group. I understand you are a member and they meet the 2nd Weds. of each month. I saw online that you meet at the Pine River Bank in Durango- but it’s not the Pine River Bank anymore and they said the group hasn’t met there in over a year. So- where are you meeting and when??? I also don’t mean the event at the commons. I want the writer’s group info- thanks.
Yes, I oversee Writers and Scribblers, and that is the group that meets in the Commons. That is also the group that met at the Pine River Bank when their community room was still available. When the bank changed their meeting space, Writers and Scribblers relocated.
Here is the Meetup page with more information on Writers and Scribblers —
Getting to Know You: The Art of Building a Great Character
Wednesday, Jul 13, 2016, 6:30 PM
701 Camino del Rio Durango, CO
11 Writers and Scribblers Went
Check out this Meetup →
And here is the Facebook page for the Literary Retreat I am helping coordinate this summer —
If you were asking about the critique group I run, that group is currently closed to new members. My critique group is a small, intimate group that meets at my house, and members must beta-read manuscripts for each other. Writers and Scribblers is open to the public, meets the second Wednesday of every month at the Commons, and does not function at all as a critique group.
If you’re interested in forming your own critique group, you’re welcome to attend Writers and Scribblers meetings and let people know you’d like to join up with some beta-readers. That is how my critique group began.
It’s free to become a member of Writers and Scribblers — you just sign up on the Meetup page I’ve shared, and you’ll receive updates and notifications about future meetings.
Hope that answers all of your questions.