What is the longest thing you know by heart (for example, a prayer, speech, commercial jingle, etc.)? Why did you learn it?

The Village Blacksmith
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And bear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter’s voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

For many years, this was the longest thing I knew by heart.

When I am not distracted by other things, I have a weirdly sharp memory.

I learned this in Fifth Grade, apropos of nothing, because I was bored one day.  My Fifth Grade teacher was a nut for Mathematics, and I Was Not.   I am not bad at it, per se, I am just intimidated by it.  And I am particularly reluctant to do things that others try to force upon me.

So I worked out a deal whereby each time he tried to force numbers upon me, I would have equal and opposite “luxury time” to do the things I liked.  Which typically meant sticking my nose in books; reading and writing stories and poems; etc.

(I was as difficult and precocious a child at school as I was at home.)

I learned the poem, and I was trotted out to recite it from memory to all of the Fifth Grade classes.  What was remarkable, really, was that I learned it by heart in just a few hours time.

I can’t say that I can recall the whole thing by heart anymore.

These days, the best I can do from memory is the 15th Psalm (King James Version), or the lyrics to pretty much every 70s cheeseball love song.

What would it have been like if your life had turned out the way you wanted when you were a kid?

Sundappled Sunday on left and right coasts,
Beautiful from
Griffith Park to
the Battery;
Sunset strip
To
SoHo.
I rode a painted pony in the sand.

Saddle slapping tender in-thighs,
I endured your stings.
Silent father shouting
At distant mother
Loving
Present daughter;
Riding roughshod on a tender mare.

Slow stumble upon whip-worn trails,
Round and round
We go again.
Carousel horses;
Sundappled, Sunday ponies;
Perfectly painted; ready to ride.

Fears come in different sized packages. Tell the story of a time you had to face a fear, big or small.

You’d never know it now, but I am terrified of being alone.

When I got married, my best friend gave me an exasperated look in the basement of the Cathedral and said: You know you don’t have to do this.

Time passed.

When I decided I was going to move out of my husband’s house, I was in Las Vegas, crouched on the window sill of a hotel room, staring down at the Strip from the thirtysomethingth(?) floor; listening to Andrew fake-vomit in the toilet; watching my entire life crumble around me.

So my best friend said, When you are ready to go, come home to Los Angeles.

So I did.  I called my parents, and I had them come meet us, and I went back to Los Angeles with them.

Well, first, I called my psychiatrist, who was a former Vogue cover model, and a former Pantene girl, and, at one point, Richard Avedon’s muse.  Her father had been a lawyer, and sometimes, our sessions felt like I was the one doing talk therapy on her.

I’m in Las Vegas for a wedding in which my husband thinks he’s the best man, but he’s not, and when he found out he was not the best man, he took to bed, I’d said.

Shit, she’d replied.

Then we discovered that in Nevada, you can still call in a prescription for Valium over the phone.

The next day, I’d left with my parents, who had done that Thing they do, which was to stop in Baker, CA at the World’s Largest Thermometer, and also, to order gyros at the drive-thru at the Mad Greek.

And then I found myself back in LA.  Jade was still married at the time, and her mother hadn’t yet gone off to Melbourne.  So we got on the horses, and we rode the canyons.  We saddled up, and I rode.

That night Jade, James and I went out for drinks and music, and I didn’t bother to change clothes.  I was out in Hollywood, smelling of sweat and horses and hay.  Still in jeans and boots with barn on them.

But I was Free.

Scared and Free.

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Jade snapped this photo of me that night, as I was laughing.  We were at a bar on Sunset — a place we had gone to as teenagers, when it had a different name.

It was the night after I’d left Las Vegas; left my husband.  I’d gotten a job offer; I was leaving New York for at least nine months.

Nobody knew any of this.  Nobody but me.

You would never know that I am not particularly fond of being alone.  But until I had made the decision to leave, I had always been in relationships — my entire teenage and adult life.  I had never been without a boyfriend, or a husband.  One after another, I was a serial monogamist. 

I love to talk; I love to check-in with people.  I love to have guests and company.  I love to host dinners and parties.  I love FaceTime and Skype.  My parents installed my own phone line in my bedroom when I was a young teenager, and I have happily chattered away ever since.

Filling the void of time with the sound of my own breath and the clatter of my own footsteps was terrifying.

But, strangely, it was less terrifying than being lonely.

We exert control over ourselves and others in many ways. Talk about a time when you lost that control. This can go beyond the obvious emotional control into things like willpower, tidiness, self-discipline, physical prowess – any time that you felt your autonomy slipping away.

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I’m complicating your life, he said.

You’re complicating your life, I replied.

But there was then, and is now, nothing I would’ve done differently.

Post a photo of yourself from before age 10. Write about what you remember of the day the photo was taken. It may not be a full story—it may just be flashes of event and emotion—but tap into the child you were as much as you can.

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I don’t remember anything about this.

My mother had captioned it “Two Geniuses in Conversation.”  I had stolen it off her vanity when I left California over a decade ago, and I stuck it in my jewellery box.  If she noticed that I made off with it, she never said anything.

This picture hangs above my desk in my home office.  Which, admittedly, is just a nook off my kitchen where my desk resides.  Which, in Manhattan, qualifies as a “home office.”

What I have found over the past few months is that the reminders of moments we don’t recall very well at all can be the mementos that sustain us the most.

Those that went before us have walked paths that we may never fully understand. Talk about a time when you learned something important about your family history.

My family spends every Thanksgiving in Yosemite National Park.  We have for many years.

When we were younger, the test was always to bring boyfriends to Thanksgiving.  They’d be vetted by the family; tested to see if they were fit for purpose.

My father was always the one who created the tests.  He and I are kindred spirits in that we genuinely like to mess with people.  Make up stories.  Lead people out into the Sierras in the middle of the night and take their lives in our hands.

So when we were younger, the boyfriends would be vetted on Thanksgiving night when they were three (or six!) sheets to the wind, when they’d be led out to the woods and forced to walk without a flashlight to the door of a little cabin that was literally The House at The End of the Road.

And someone would inevitably shout, or make noise, and scare the hell out of everyone.  The boyfriend’s reaction would determine whether he was Worth It.

Needless to say, my ex-husband failed this test many times over.  I think one year, he even refused to go on the walk.

I digress.

Anyway.  In recent years, the dynamic of the clan has changed.  Everyone has been busy procreating, or getting sober, or divorcing.  And this year, it was a peculiar year because everyone came down with the norovirus, and it turned the cabin into a veritable vomitorium.

However, we are reaching a state of stasis.  Everyone’s done having babies.  And I feel…normal…again.

Life is starting over.

The first glimmers of this came when I was driving up to Thanksgiving with my brother, back in November.  I was sitting shotgun in his Honda, and when the radio reception faded as we crossed into the foothills of the Sierras, I flipped through the stack of CDs he had in his car.

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Is that…mine? I asked him, incredulous.

Yeah, he grinned.

I had bought the album when it had first come out — the disc in my hand was a first edition.  So I slid it into the CD player, and we drove through the hills listening to my teen angst.

It was funny, that moment, because when I was growing up, I felt like nobody had ever grown up before.  It was like I was the first person ever to ever do any growing up.  No one had ever gone before me, and nobody would ever go after me.  But then there Matthew and I were, on the other side of an era, and it dawned on me that he had probably known exactly what it had been like, growing up in our house.

Growing up with our parents.  Driving around our hometown; listening to Alanis Morissette; wishing to be anywhere but There.

History, you know, is just a moment.  That he’d held on to that stupid CD made me realise that I hadn’t lived those moments alone.

Write about an experience you had that was so strange or incredible, it sounds like it could have been made up.

I am somewhat obsessed with handwriting.

I send a lot of cards; letters.  But I am also mad about having handwritten notes of and from others.

Sometimes I wondered if I fell in love with Frederic because his handwriting was identical to my first love’s.  I’ve kept almost everything Frederic and I ever exchanged — but all the words are typed out.  Oddly enough, I never kept a single scrap of paper he wrote by hand.

And to this day, I keep books with George’s handwriting scrawled in the margins — his outlines; his margin notes.  He wrote me a few cards and letters which I have squirreled away somewhere, too.  We would see concerts together — Chris Isaak; Lyle Lovett.  There were even notations made on the backs of the tickets.

I have so many things covered in my mother’s neat teacher handwriting that I never worry about keeping an archive of her notes.  But I have no reason to have things of my father’s — mostly, he makes to-do lists; he doesn’t exactly write cards.  So over the last few years I began pilfering his old textbooks from my parents’ house.  There, I found his few margin notes are made in his loopy, left-handed scrawl.

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And until very recently, I kept all of the wedding and bridal shower cards I had received.  I could not part with them.  Yes, I loved that they were samples I had of the handwriting of all of the people I loved.  But they also made real some of the more peculiar parts of having been married.

When I talk about my marriage, the bits of it I do discuss publicly sound improbable.  The stuff I talk about privately, however, often seems impossible.  It reads like fiction.

The years I spent with Andrew are like a dream sometimes.  But they happened, and I lived them.

I suppose hanging on to the paper — the Engaged Encounter notebooks; the deck of cards from my bridal shower; the wedding invitation and save-the-date card — helped make real an incredibly surreal near-decade of my life.

But life went on, and so have I.

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After I snapped this photo, I realised that I didn’t need this stuff for it to be real any more.  I’ve been throwing these things away, bit by bit, over the last year or so.  But I didn’t make up the marriage narrative.  And I couldn’t have fabricated these letters and cards, and printed materials.

I was once a woman who was a wife; who wore left-hand rings; who had a different life.  The Improbable Wife once existed — as unbelievable as it now sounds.  So it has been hard to part with the evidence.

I’m all about evidence.  Which has had me thinking about creatures throughout history whose existences have been doubted, but they have nonetheless been real.  For instance, people always ask why, in my bedroom, I have a picture of a narwhal, and a picture of a giant squid.

The answer is:  Giant squid exist — and they don’t need papers to prove their existence.  Eventually, people find them; find evidence of them; discover the markings of their might and find their remains washed ashore or in the bellies of other animals.

Maybe I’ll wash ashore.  Maybe you’ll find me in the belly of another animal some day.

Or maybe not.  Maybe I’ll continue to live this strange and charmed life.

Regardless, I’ve discovered that, while I love having writing-on-paper to reify the experience of being human; of being loved; of being familiar — I no longer need the promotional materials of marriage to justify and explain the strangeness of having been a wife.