Today I’m attending a 10-year anniversary party for a local bar, Poison Girl. The first week it opened, in August of 2004, I walked in with my boyfriend. He and I had just driven a U-Haul truck from Washington D.C. to Houston where he would spend a few days helping me get settled in before I began MFA classes at UH, and before we would part ways indefinitely. We entered the bar sweaty, hot, love-worn and hollowed, his dark curls foamed out from his face by the humidity. The bar’s cool, shadowy interior, red walls, and cushy stools offered us temporary reprieve from our inevitable cleaving from each other. It would be painful, our leave-taking; we were so desperately in love, and we needed a stiff drink.
So, in addition to celebrating the bar’s 10 years in Houston, I’m marking my own decade back in my native city. I was gone for 10 years. Now I’ve been back for 10 years. The latter weren’t the best 10 years of my life–at least not the first 5 or 6. While I loved learning to write, and I appreciated the privilege of spending 3 years honing a craft, my time in the creative writing program was largely an unhappy time for me. In my early to mid-twenties, I had lived in six cities and three countries, moving every two or three years, and spending summers elsewhere. Three years in Houston–a city I’d sworn I’d never return to when I left at 18–felt like an eternity to me, and the switch in my “career” focus as well as learning to live as a single woman after experiencing very true love–all these changes left me feeling, more than anything, untethered. Too free, too loose, and at the same time, stuck.
I don’t need to catalogue in great detail the horrible ways I attempted to cope with my unhappiness. Suffice to say, I bounced around from boy to boy, many times without much integrity. A few of those relationships were serious, but none of them were true. I had been spoiled, you see. I knew what it felt like to have a man love me fully and kindly: there was no way I could have settled for anything less than spectacular and the less spectacular the relationship the more I raged at it and hurt myself and others. I dyed my hair a million times. I started friendships and then retreated from them. I threw myself into workout plans as though my body might save my psyche. I wrote wretched short stories, and even more wretched poetry. In the meantime, the world suffered too. My twenties started with 9/11 (if that won’t mess up someone’s early adulthood, I don’t know what will) and they peaked with the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, a tragedy that became intimate for many of us in Houston, the city that received the most Katrina evacuees of any other American city. I still can’t write about the two days I spent volunteering at the Astrodome in the wake of that storm, and I was only a volunteer, not a victim. Those years were also not great years for my family in various ways I won’t mention here.
Anyway, I showed up every week on the week to the barstool, from that first day I wandered off Westheimer into Poison Girl with my heart broken. The bar offered me reprieve in many ways during that time. It wasn’t just the alcohol (although, sometimes, that was enough), but I met friends there outside of the writing world and my own, navel-gazing drama. When I graduated from the MFA program, I forged my new life–the one that would redeem the decade for me–from friendships and opportunities I lucked into there.
When I saw the flyer for Poison Pen’s anniversary, I couldn’t believe it. 10 years? I’d been here 10 years? I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that all week.
The last five years of the decade, of course, were much better for me. My friend, Tina, saved me from myself (she doesn’t know she did this and would deny it, but it’s true). I met my husband, bought a house, got a dog, found a job I love, started writing well again, and now, this baby boy. I don’t have time to show up at Poison Girl much. I’ve been re-civilized.
Still, I have to fight off my flight instinct. And that’s what I want to really say today. It’s hard work to stay still for 10 years, to tough it out in a place where you might run into people who knew you when you weren’t so great. I still have to fight off the instinct to avoid my friends who knew me during the first part of the past decade. I hate having to inhabit the past they knew me through. My husband said to me the other day, “I feel sorry for you. You have a past here that I don’t have, and you sometimes have to collide with it. That must suck.”
I teach Homer’s Odyssey every year to 15 year-olds. It’s a book that renews itself for me year to year; like a deep well, I return to it and it offers me new insight from its deep pools. Odysseus spent 10 years away from Ithaca at war in Troy, and then it took him another 10 to return home. Twenty years. As I write this, I can’t help but think of Stephen Dunn’s poetic re-imagining of Odysseus’ journey:
He had a gift for getting in and out of trouble,
a prodigious, human gift. To survive Cyclops
and withstand the Sirens’ song––
just those words survive, withstand, in his mind became a music
he moved to and lived by.
How could govern, even love, compete?
They belonged to a different part of a man,
the untested part, which never has transcended dread,
or the liar part, which always spoke like a citizen. The larger the man, though,
the more he needed to be reminded
he was a man. Lightning, high winds;
for every excess a punishment.
Penelope was dear to him, full of character and fine in bed.
But by the middle years this other life
had become his life. That was Odysseus’s secret,
kept even from himself. When he talked about return
he thought he meant what he said. Twenty years to get home?
A man finds his shipwrecks,
tells himself the necessary stories.
A woman finds her shipwrecks, indeed.
My students often display surprise when they realize that Odysseus arrives, naked, on the shores of Ithaca halfway through the epic. What else could Homer have to say for hundreds of pages after he returns his hero home? The real story, I tell them, is not the adventure on the sea. The real story is not how long it takes him to get home, but how long it takes him to be home. And it’s a long, ugly process.
My mother, a few months ago, expressed some envy to me. She said I was lucky to have had time in my twenties to travel, to date various people, to get to know myself and experience lots of things. Because she gave birth to me at 23, she didn’t have that kind of freedom. While I recognize the rich (and indulgent) opportunity of such time in one’s youth, I tried to tell her that I mostly feel empathy for young adults I see now who “float around” trying to land somewhere. While they’re “free,” they’re also anxious, often depressed, their feet dangling over a ground that they can’t feel or see.
It’s hard to float, I think. But harder still to land. Toward the end of Homer’s epic, Odysseus watches his old father, Laertes, plant a tree. It is an important lesson for a man who has depended on deception and words for too long. In an essay he wrote the year I was born that claims the Odyssey is really about marriage and the household and the earth, Wendell Berry describes the moment, “In a time of disorder [Laertes] has returned to the care of the earth, the foundation of life and hope.” A dear friend of mine once described marriage to me as “the most difficult soul work you’ll ever have to do.” She’s right. Any endeavor that requires you to commit–to plant trees–is a spiritual endeavor of the highest order. Real communion requires much from us: it asks us to stay.
All that time I spent floating around looking for a crack in the window, an escape route, I didn’t realize that I longed to return–not to D.C. or my former love–but to the bravery it takes to settle down, to stay in a place that doesn’t buy your bullshit and remembers all injuries. It was a bravery I had once and then lost and then had to find again after the world stripped me bare and washed me up onto the hot shores of my home.
Happy anniversary to Poison Girl, who has stayed, and to me.