What Kay meant to me – June 7, 2017

I knew of Kathryn Stripling Byer long before I ever had a conversation with her. Back in 2001, when I was a freshman at WCU, Kay was something of a superstar to baby English majors and aspiring writers like me. Long before I ever spoke to Kay, I fantasized about impressing her, winning her approval. I had never met a “real” writer before I came to Western, let alone a woman who had been published and honored for writing about the mountains. To me, Appalachia was not a fitting subject for poetry–it was simply the backwards part of the country where my ancestors had settled after the Revolution, that my parents and aunts and uncles had fled in search of better jobs, greater prosperity.

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At Western, naturally, those particular cobwebs got swept from my brain quickly enough. I was exposed to a wider world of literature there, and for the first time my ears were unstopped to the music of my grandmother’s dialect and my father’s accent. And I drew new life and strength from the mountains that surrounded WCU’s campus, connecting for the first time to the natural world that had sheltered my ancestors since they first came to the New World. Alongside all of this, at WCU, I was supported for the first time in my life by people who understood and encouraged my determination to be a writer. When it came time for me to return to my parents’ home in Raleigh at the end of my freshman year, I was sick with dread at leaving it all behind.

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Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

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(My grandmother holding the first quilt I made for her, Christmas 2008.)

My grandmother, Hester Ferguson Preston, passed away on October 27th. Her funeral was yesterday, and I was asked to write and deliver her eulogy, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Eulogy for Hester Preston

31 October 2016

When my grandmother celebrated her 90th birthday a few years ago, my mother and my aunt asked everyone who attended her party to write something for her to put in a keepsake book. I write for a living, so I thought, “This will be a piece of cake!” I wanted my contribution to be perfect—I was going to impress Granny with my writing skills and tell her all kinds of things about me and about the example she’d set for me as I was growing up. I was raised in North Carolina, so I mostly saw Granny at Christmas, and we were usually too busy to sit down and have long conversations. Most of the stories I heard about her from when she was younger were told to me by other people. She didn’t really talk about herself to me all that much. So I wanted to make sure she knew that those stories had had an impact on me, and I was going to use that birthday letter to tell her, because I wasn’t sure if she knew or not.

Unfortunately, I tripped over my own good intentions—I tried so hard to come up with the perfect letter that I gave myself a classic case of writer’s block. By the time her birthday party came around, I didn’t have anything to show for myself. But just a few months ago, I had a moment where I realized that there was a chance I wouldn’t get to see Granny again before she died. So I made myself sit down then and there and write her a short letter. It didn’t live up to my ambitions for the birthday letter, but it covered all the important stuff, and I sent it off feeling like I’d told her everything I really needed her to know. Obviously, I was really grateful that I’d done that when I got the news on Thursday that she’d passed away.

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What Is Invisible

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Solitude is a habit with me, a byproduct of anxiety and distrust that I haven’t really figured out how to get rid of. Since high school, I’ve used the internet as an adaptive tool to help me manage my isolation, but now that I’m in my early thirties, it isn’t as effective as it used to be. The friends who were once available on chat for hours and hours over the course of the day have differently structured lives than when they were finishing up their degrees and looking for full-time work—whereas I’m working from home, still sitting in front of the computer for eighteen hours a day, still just as available as I always was. I used to harangue myself into at least taking my laptop to coffee shops, but since my car got stolen and my damaged tendon started severely limiting the distance I can walk in a day, my already narrow world has shrunk considerably.

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The 2015 Good Things Jar

I have traditions now. Which is strange to me, because the very idea of doing the same thing over and over again used to freak me out, be it from day to day or year to year. Literally every mental health professional you talk to will emphasize the value of routines in maintaining mental health. But the idea used to make me panic. It was like I’d channeled so much energy into making myself infinitely adaptable to handle the chaos in my life that I’d never learned how to function without chaos.

I also felt rebellious about the notion of routine/tradition/orderly time management because in my imagination it felt so much like submitting to the control of another person. Why? Leftover teenage hypersensitivity, I suppose. Gradually, it dawned on me that establishing some repetition in my life, along lines I was comfortable with, was actually a way of taking things back into my own control. Seems obvious enough, but you try reasoning with my panicky hindbrain some time.

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I’m really proud of the things that I’ve managed to accomplish this year. Which is nice, because pride in myself is not something I’ve felt for a long time. I wrote about some of them in my recent Medium post, but apart from major life events like starting a freelancing career, I’m also proud that I kept a daily planner all year long, and made a 10 point to-do list nearly every day. When I close that planner for the last time tonight, I’ll be able to look back through it and see exactly what I did with my life over the last 365 days. I’ve never been able to do that before.

A lot of good things happened to me this year. I can tell, because for the last few months, I’ve been having trouble stuffing any more folded-up sticky notes in my Good Things Jar. When I first started keeping the Jar last year, I intentionally picked a tiny one. My life was a wreck, I reasoned, and my pathetically small quantities of goodness would seem less pathetic in a smaller jar.

I think I’m going to graduate to a larger jar in 2016. Maybe a Mason jar. We’ll see.

The Second Annual Reading of the Good Things Jar

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Artifacts

(Trigger warnings for discussion of child abuse and suicide below.)

For various reasons, I am a person who doesn’t own a lot of stuff. Just for example: I have three pairs of shoes. One pair of flip flops, one pair of ballet flats, and one pair of Batman Converse high tops, which explains everything you need to know about the current state of my right Achilles tendon, according to my podiatrist. I own a bed, a lamp, a small book shelf, a card table, and about 150 books. My car is 15 years old. The most valuable thing I own is my Macbook Air, which was a gift from my literary agent. And while I would like to, say, own more clothes (and therefore do less laundry) I am mostly okay with all of this. When you’re poor and you have to move a lot, minimalism is convenient. But when you’ve lost things you care about, it makes you more materialistic, not less. Everything I own is important to me, because I had to make an effort to keep it.

My books are the best example of this. When I became homeless in 2012 I didn’t have much, but I had a personal library of about 700 books, and giving away so much of it was nothing less than heartbreaking. Every gift of money I got as a kid went into my book collection, every Christmas and birthday, every $20 bill I wheedled out of my parents. My library was to me what a varied and stylish quality wardrobe is to some people, a way of presenting to the world the image of myself that I wanted to project. I often sat and looked at my books and took pleasure in the thought that a stranger walking into my room could get a sense of my personality, my interests, even my abilities, just by looking at my book cases. I dreamed of the day my own published novels would join them. The books in which my name appears in the acknowledgments had a special shelf of their own. Ego and memory and history and sentiment and accomplishment were all wrapped up in that book collection. Disbanding that carefully curated bibliography felt like an act of self-harm.

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(The author, age 6, Christmas 1988. The box was full of books. My 3 year old cousin is baffled and intrigued. What do they do?)

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The 2014 Good Things Jar

I can’t remember where I got the idea now, but it was almost certainly from a Tumblr post with eighty thousand reblogs or something. I didn’t save the link.

The project was to write down everything good that happened to you over the course of the year on small slips of paper. You put them in a jar, watch the jar fill up as the months pass, and then open the jar and read everything back on the 31st of December.

I really like these kinds of  incremental, year-long projects. In 2013 I did the one where you take a photo every day (and made it as far as July!). I wanted to do this one, but the way the last few years have gone for me, I knew there was a chance that my results at the end of the year might be disappointing.

So, I did the clever thing, and used a really small jar.

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(I’m not sure what else you’d keep in a jar that size apart from folded up post-it notes Pickled quail’s eggs maybe?)

It’s like how eating from a smaller plate makes it look like you’ve got more food on it. I can truthfully say that I filled my jar up! I could have squeezed some more in there, but I think I made a respectable showing, especially since the jar was packed away with all the rest of my things between April and June. It’s also worth pointing out that I didn’t write down every single that made me happy, like “today the froyo place had marshmallow creme!”, even though marshmallow creme is very important to me. I saved the jar for the things that were extraordinarily nice. Some of them are more private than others, but here are the highlights.

4 January – I saw Rachel today for the first time in ages and met her daughter Hannah for the first time. 

4 February – My productivity system is working. I read and write and do things every day.

March 17 – Saw the Welcome to Night Vale live show in Durham.

30 August – My essay was accepted for publication by The Toast.

13 September – 15,000 words on the new novel in four days.

17 September – Rachel came to stay for the weekend . We drove new places, had good food and alcohol, and good conversations.

31 October – Discussed Measure for Measure with a group of cool, smart people.

14 November – My roommate Nitah invited me to be a surprise witness at her wedding.

8 December – Sold another essay to The Toast, will appear in March.

15 December – Found a home for the support group I started.

17 December – Got two bags full of Christmas presents from an anonymous family who “adopted” me through my therapy clinic.

I regret that I didn’t make a point of digging the jar out and keeping up with it while I was moving place to place over the spring and summer. On the one hand, that was definitely the low point of the year, but I’m sure nice things must have happened to me. That’s the point of the jar–to preserve the memories of the small things you’ll forget about otherwise.

I did take some pictures while I was traveling, though. This one is the hotel room where I lived in Richmond, Virginia for two weeks.

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Living there was awfully depressing, but the photograph makes me feel like there was something interesting about it, maybe in a mid-century male novelist travelogue sort of way.

I plan to start the jar over tomorrow. I actually got a bunch of glass jars for Christmas; maybe this time I’ll be optimistic and go for a bigger one.

Happy New Year’s to everyone, and may your projects yield fruit.

my dear acquaintance, a happy new year

It’s Christmas day, the chief delight of which, for me, is that Christmas is now practically over. I can finally stop stiff-upper-lipping it and settle in to enjoy my actual favorite time of year: New Year’s.

New Year’s has been my preferred holiday since 2010, when I made a resolution for the first time (finish my novel by May) and succeeded in keeping it. Also, my birthday is on the 22nd. Having a January birthday kind of reinforces the sensation that everything starts over fresh in the first month of the year.

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(The author’s mental image of January, as a concept. Peaceful, no?)

2014 was a strange year for me. I remember it starting off well. I did a lot of reflecting last Christmas, and I came to some sobering and potentially useful realizations about myself. It felt like the beginning of a new period of sanity. I was optimistic about what the next twelve months would bring.

That didn’t last.

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