Can You Do the Fandango?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Last night, I took my son to see Queen, the 70’s glam rock band once fronted by the iconic Freddie Mercury. Because my son is headed to Vermont next week to be a camp counselor and won’t be in Detroit for their local show in July, we traveled to Chicago to see them open their North American tour.

The trip to Chicago isn’t easy as I have lots of memories of Kevin in the city—from the times he visited me at Northwestern, and from the many trips we made while he was sick and receiving treatments in Evanston. I love the city. If it were more affordable, I would consider living there, despite the fact that the drive west on I94 is sometimes emotional.

Yesterday’s trip was laden with its own emotion, the result of being in this city and taking in this particular band’s concert. Most who know me know of my undying love for this rock group. It’s not always rational or understandable, and certainly wasn’t always easily understood by Kevin, who came to abide my love of Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon. 

This was my eighth Queen concert (in one form or another), and the second one that I’ve shared with my son. I saw them first when I was only fourteen—too many years ago to count. Just barely a high school freshman, I attended with my two best friends, Sharon and Susan, who were twins. We told our parents we were spending the night at each other’s house and convinced my sister to drive us to the show and drop us off in downtown Detroit. I saw them five more times, and met them twice. Shortly after Freddie Mercury's death, Kevin and I saw guitarist Brian May while on a solo tour.

How do I explain my enduring love and fascination with this musical group except to say that they are a part of me, a part of my adolescence, my teen years, and my adulthood, woven into my life like threads of actual DNA. 

Together, Sharon, Susan, and I did all of the typical teen girl activities—we joined the fan club, collected magazines and pictures, hung posters on our bedroom walls and bought all their records. Memories of the band are connected to so many facets of my life. They were smart (four degrees and one PhD between them), good looking, and formidable musicians. And they were more. They quoted Tolkien and Shakespeare in their lengthy songs; they wrote about time travel, fairies, and other mythical creatures. It was rock music for geeky bookworms like me. It felt like home. The music, especially that sung by Freddie Mercury, was sexual in an androgynous way that I didn’t quite understand, but knew I liked. It was dangerous in a way that made us brave enough to lie to our parents about where we were. It was bigger than the four walls of our small houses and even smaller-minded schools. It was black nail polish (but only on one hand), costumes, song lyrics in Japanese. It was sensitive and rebellious. It was campy spectacle with a metal edge. It was loud and romantic and rhythmic and rock and roll.

By the time I finished high school, my tastes had changed and I had moved on to punk music and its slightly safer cousin new wave. My clothing, haircuts, and multiple piercings reflected this change. As Kevin and I began dating, my Queen records were dusty, but still maintained an important place in my collection. I often had to defend my love of the band as they fell out of favor. I continued to collect their records—some rare bootleg albums, both of Mercury’s solo efforts, Roger Taylor’s solo album, and even a signed copy of a very rare 45 cut by Freddie Mercury on the day he met the other members of the band and they became Queen. I didn't listen to the music nearly as much, and I completely lost touch with Sharon and Susan.

It wasn’t until ten years later, as news of Freddie Mercury’s imminent death became public, that I revisited my enduring affection for him and his music. By that time, I was married and eight months pregnant with the son I would later take to concerts. The memories, mixed with the hormones racing through my bulging body, put me into a deep funk. I cried for days at Freddie’s passing. I sat in front of MTV for hours, watching as fans lay flowers at Garden Lodge—Freddie’s home in London.

I believe it was the first time I took stock of what it meant to have a full life and to lose that life  senselessly and painfully. I mourned the too-early passing of this man and was utterly devastated by the way in which he died—the way in which AIDS took from him his voice, his sight, the very essence of his creativity. How awful I thought, to struggle so much at the end. I realized that he had filled his life so whole-heartedly while living, that he had lived many lifetimes in the span of his forty-five years. But of course, that’s no trade-off. He still left us too soon and was far too young. I thought a lot, in the months after his death, about what it means to leave a legacy, especially one of creativity; of dedication to craft, of choices we make. Conversely, I thought of regret, and how one’s life impacts those left behind.

On a family vacation to Switzerland in 2002, I made Kevin take a detour on our way from Zurich to Paris in order to stop at the bronze statue of Freddie in Montreux. I left roses at the statue and had a few photos taken. I thought about him again, about the significant impact he had on my life, and about this separate love I had that was somehow woven into my family life but was also a part of the me that existed separately from my husband and children.

In the years since Kevin’s passing, I’ve become fascinated with the stories of other widows, especially those in music. Contrary to belief, Freddie Mercury wasn’t gay, but was bi-sexual. He had a relationship with a woman named Mary Austin that lasted for many, many years, starting when the two were in their early twenties. She was his soul mate who stood beside him despite his many transgressions. She is the executor of his estate, maintains Garden Lodge today, and is the only person who knows the whereabouts of Freddie’s remains (which he did not want to ever be made public). She has taken abuse over the years because she maintains her position to the chagrin of many who have tried to lay claim to some part of Freddie’s legacy. I admire her strength and the love the two shared. She is, absolutely, his widow.

It was with a certain amount of ambivalence though, that I purchased tickets to last night’s show. They are touring with American Idol Adam Lambert, who sounds like Freddie, but who seems to me to be lacking in style. John Deacon has retired from music and refuses to even be seen with Brian May and Roger Taylor. So it was just those two—a bit wider in girth and grayer of hair—that performed last night, along with anonymous back-up musicians. 

Despite the second thoughts, it only took the first beats of the bass to put me right back at the very first concert. I stomped my feet, I screamed, I danced, I shouted their names. There is something about feeling the beat of that very loud music tingle the bottoms of my feet, pierce the tip of my spine, and travel upward and outward through my body that makes me feel alive in a way that nothing else can. The campy spectacle and over-indulgent light show was back! The show included a few nods to Freddie, including film of him from old concerts. I couldn’t watch without tearing up—for the lost loves in my life, including him, and for the never slowing passage of time.

It was a joy to be there with my son, to see him enjoying the music too and to see him mouthing the words to the songs. I’m not certain what my legacy will be, but if just a tiny part of it is that I passed along the love of this music, then I think I’m ok with that.

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My Writing Process Blog Tour

Friday, May 23, 2014

I’ve been asked by my friend, the astute and very courageous writer Dania Rejendra, to participate in the My Writing Process Blog Tour. Dania is a fellow Spalding MFA’er, who writes about issues very close to my own heart: labor organizing, social justice, and food as art, craft and sustenance. She is now also a published poet in Alimentum and her lovely blog is here (

The request to consider my writing process seemed serendipitous as I am spending a great deal of time thinking about the work of writing, namely how to change a manuscript heavily influenced by  real-life people and events, into a well-written, plot-driven, character-centered, page-turner novel. I’m also always thinking about how to create a life in which I can call myself a writer.  I’ve written previously on this blog about defining myself anew given my current uprooted-ness. Writing has always been a part of my life, but the degrees to which I nurtured it ebbed and flowed over the years, like tides rolling in and out. It wasn’t until just before Kevin’s diagnosis that I realized how important writing was to my happiness and really staked a place for it in our lives. This isn’t an easy discovery or admission for someone who has a wonderful husband, two beautiful, healthy children, many friends, a great job, and a charming home. How could I need something more?

For me (as with most writers and artists), practicing this craft is nourishment, it is air and water and food and manna. As Kevin’s health declined over the summer of 2010, I often found myself in a very unusual place in my head. The window in Kevin’s hospital room on the sixth floor overlooked Fuller Park and I would stand at it for long minutes while he slept, watching kids run up the slide and slip, carefree and ecstatic, into the pool. Parents lounged on blankets or chaises, arms folded behind their heads, in their own contentment of summer. So many hours spent at that window with the impossible questions of why, and what was going to happen when this was no longer; not wanting it to go on, but not being able to bear the thought of it being over.

I often found my mind wandering to a place in our yard, with me seated in a wicker chair, overlooking our garden, with bright red heaps of floribunda roses climbing the picket fence, and bean plants and Brussels sprout stalks all pregnant with color and fruit. In this vision, I sat with my laptop and wrote at a furious pace: words spilling out of me in some fit of creative fertility and productivity as though in competition with the plant life around me. Coming back to reality, I knew what had to happen between the now and the time when I would sit alone and write. It frightened me that I would sometimes think about “after” in this way, with a wordless and dreamlike (but very vivid) vision. I told a friend about this once and she felt strongly that it was my mind’s (or possibly God’s)  way of getting me through this otherwise unbearable time; of removing me, for just a few minutes, from the hell we were in.  Other widows have told me they often thought of what they would do, both practical things like bank accounts and home sales, but also life changing things like dating and relocating. I never let my mind go to those places, but instead had this one and only daydream.

So I write now; sometimes furiously, but more often in a calm, centered way. And in keeping with the My Writing Process blog tour, I will now tell you a little bit about how and what I write. Thanks again, Dania, for this opportunity.

What am I working on?
As I mentioned, I’m deep in the work of revising a novel. The word novel still feels new on my lips and in my head. I’ve always thought of myself as a nonfiction writer, mostly an essayist. For a few years now I’ve been working on the story of my grandmother, Mary Blanche Wynn Huskey. Blinded at age 7 by her brother, she was sent to a school for the blind where she lived until the age of nineteen. She received an extensive education which largely went unused in her life. She married my grandfather in 1921 and, when he died in 1933, she raised her three children on her own, in a fairly rural area, during the Great Depression. Hers is a pretty miraculous story, and I feel a strong need to bring some form of it to life.

In revising the book from its original version into a novel, I’m challenged to use the best and most important aspects of fiction writing—conflict, tension, intrigue, action. Never again will I utter the phrase “those fiction writers have it so easy, they just make it up!” I'm certain some of my struggles come from the karma of having made that proclamation once too often.

I’ve been on a writing sabbatical for the past few months while I work only on structure and on divorcing myself from the actual people and constructing new ones from my imagination. The real challenge is to fall in love with these new, made-up characters in equal measure to my love for those who inspired the original story.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This question was more easily answered when I was writing the original piece which was a fictionalized work of nonfiction. I had taken my grandmother’s true story, and added dialogue, descriptions, emotions, and other elements that, of course, I was never privy to as her ancestor. In this way, I was creating a mash-up of fiction and creative nonfiction. It confused me, it confused my MFA mentors, but if felt right. Now, I’m revising that work to become a novel. Hopefully, it will be a novel that fits quite neatly within its genre.

Why do I write what I do?
The simple answer is because I love true stories. I love life at its emotional messiest and feel it all needs to be recorded. I love stories of strong women, of flawed family, and of love that somehow endures because it grew up from the muck of shared biology. I love the way a really good essay takes individual experience and deftly juxtaposes it with universal lessons, obscure facts, and little jewels from other writers or thinkers, in order to pose questions that rarely have clear-cut answers, but instead send the reader off on adventures of thought and debate. I’ve had discussions with friends who write fiction that is very much autobiographical. I’m always curious about their process. What is it that makes one writer want to exist in the world of “he” or “she” and another feel comfortable only in the realm of “I”? Is the fiction writer a little too afraid of confronting personal truth? Is the nonfiction writer imbued with a little more ego? Curious.

How does my writing process work?
Answering this supposes that there is a process. Not sure that I have one, at least not one that is regular and reliable. Usually it is a topic that gets me moving—almost anything about music, Detroit, or human trajectories and intersections will start wheels turning for me. I like to let things sit in my brain while I talk about them with others. I think this allows me to see what the emotional connections are, and to determine whether they can be mined further. 

In working in fiction, I currently have a collage of the “blind woman” (for lack of a better title) story tacked to my office wall. A 4x4 paper graphs out the story arc, the points of conflict, the course of the narrative arc to its pinnacle and denouement. I have photos of a blind woman who I found on ebay (ha!), and Post-It notes with lists of tactile words and ways in which to describe something you can’t see. A narrow strip below this lists historical information. Finally, on bright blue paper tacked to the bottom, a bit of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
I WAKE and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

All this organization and visualized structure feels more like a straightjacket than a guide. But alas, it is helping me find my way despite my own blindness, into this world of fiction.

And now to pass along this inquiry into process to a new writer.
In addition to being one of the best writing mentors ever, Louella Bryant is also the author of Full Bloom, a collection stories, While In Darkness There Is Light, a book of nonfiction set during the Vietnam War, and three books for young readers. Her award winning short stories, poems, essays and articles have appeared in magazines, anthologies, and online. For a dozen years Louella taught in Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program and currently mentors students in the New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf in Vermont. Visit her website at, or her blog:

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Getting my Fun Back

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I’ve heard often how tragedy, trauma, and grief change a person. I’ve been told by grief counselors and others who’ve had experiences similar to mine that I’ll come out on the other side a different person than who I was before. I understand this to be true, but I wasn’t really certain how I am different. Although I can say that I have participated in much more self-reflection in the past three years than at any other time in my life, I don’t know that I've spent too much time focused on the ways in which I am a different person. Am I stronger, better at letting little things go, do I have a better understanding of living every day to the fullest? I suppose so.

After making a New Year’s resolution to get out more, I’ve had several opportunities recently to be out with friends, both in one-on-one situations and with groups. A few of these interactions have prompted some thought in the days afterward. What occurred to me most was that, though I had a nice time, I still barely felt like myself—the self that existed for many years before Kevin became sick and died. Where had that essential-self gone, I wondered. The essence that most seemed to be missing was the part of me that made things fun. I can still make a few jokes, I can have a glass of wine or a cocktail and loosen up a bit, but I don’t seem to be quite able to shake the sense of seriousness that has come to fully inhabit my personality in recent years. I've written before about being happy, and I think I am generally a happy person now. But being fun is different. I really want my fun back.

If I think back to the last time I felt fully carefree and funny, it would be during the residency of the first semester of my MFA program. It’s hard to imagine a better setting—sequestered in an opulent hotel, in the company of writers, spending hours in bourbon-fueled discussions of our lives and our craft. That first semester I connected easily with a few other students; we laughed, we danced barefoot in fountains, we were by turns flirtatious and silly. It was a joyful time. Of course it was also in the months just after Kevin’s first diagnosis, when he had completed treatment, we believed the doctors’ stories of 90% success rates, and his first scans were clear. I was learning to enjoy every minute, and now had new friends with a most beloved common interest to share in this elation.

I recall also around that time, publisher parties and other get-togethers for work, gatherings of neighborhood friends, and the occasional reunion of co-workers from my days at The Ann Arbor News. In remembering all of these events, I see myself at or near the center, joking, laughing, telling stories with a lightheartedness and an ease that seem now to be tarnished at best, even worn away. I went to dinner last April with a work colleague who said very directly that I had become so much more serious than I used to be. “You’re not sad,” she said, “just serious; as though you carry this great weight. I just want you to have fun and be happy again.” And yes, she and I had shared some very late nights that included long stories of our youth, dares, and even a bit of carousing with Dave Eggers and Father Guido Sarducci.

Little did I know how much some of these memories would come to mean to me; how they would nourish and sustain me during a time of hibernation.

Like all forward movement, trying to have fun and be fun comes with tinges of guilt for still being here having any experiences. But I know that Kevin would want for me to be a fun person again. It was, after all, the girl he fell in love with—on our third date, a picnic table at a park in Dearborn, Michigan, clear September night, bright moon, over a six-pack of Stroh’s Signature (one of which I still have because he kept it), with a cassette tape of the Psychedelic Furs playing on his car stereo. We talked about how we would each be better parents than our own, and laughed at a goofy impersonation I did of our English professor who clearly had no understanding of the Ibsen play he was trying to teach. 

In thinking of this new me and the old me that even others are missing, I at times feel as though Old Me (who is actually not old, but young) is locked away somewhere, with her hands bound and duct tape over her mouth so she doesn’t say the wrong thing or act inappropriately. If her kidnappers released her, Old Me may not know what to do, or where to go. The sunshine as she leaves the secret hide-out would cause her to squint and withdraw. This isn’t just the pre-widowed me, but perhaps even the pre-kids-mortgage-career-etc. me. I understand that responsibility and maturity wear away some of the sheen of wild youth. The Lori that danced at bars until 2 a.m. in a mini-skirt, or sang Me and Bobby Magee at the karaoke lounge, or jumped onto a band’s tour bus, has grown up. That happens to everyone. But I believe I retained a bit of the essence of that mildly wild child as an adult. That is, until recently.

So how to get it back? Is there some remediation process by which I can remember to laugh and joke, to sing and dance, to take small chances even?  How do I train myself to occasionally release the tangled yoke of only-parent responsibility and survivor guilt long enough to simply enjoy myself? And how do I work at becoming fun again? Is that kernel of comedic playfulness lying dormant, or am I truly a different person on this side of grief, one that knows too much about the seriousness of life to ever again be carefree? I suppose there's only one way to find out.

Karaoke anyone?

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The Bands Play On

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It is difficult to explain exactly how important music is to my life. My earliest memories have music in them, as though life has always had a soundtrack. I work in and among writing and books, which are dear to me, but popular music is my first love.

I have a distinct memory of being 4 or 5 and going to the zoo with my babysitter. I remember sitting in the back of her green Mustang Fastback convertible, speeding down Woodward Avenue, with Martha Reeves on the radio. It is certainly a Detroit memory, and perhaps my Detroit upbringing has something to do with the intrinsic connection of popular music to my being.

I’ve been thinking about music for a few reasons lately. I recently spoke to a colleague about working on a music book project this summer. I’m terribly excited by the prospect. The book has to do with widowhood, so it feels perfect in many ways. I’ve also been reading Facebook posts by friends who share the “top 10 albums that have stayed with you over the years.” I don’t think I could narrow it to ten, but I’m thinking and trying.

Then I had a conversation with another friend about the music of our childhoods, during which we discovered a mutual love of Neil Diamond that comes from the fact that our parents loved and played Diamond’s music when we were young. Like the memory of cruising to the zoo, I can put on Diamond’s Holly Holy or Cracklin’ Rose and, with the first strums of the guitar, I’m immediately taken back to springtime Saturday mornings, doing chores while these records played on the turntable that was built into a stereo cabinet the size of a VW bus that occupied most of our living room. The windows were cranked open to let fresh air in and the volume was cranked up as loudly as my mother felt was respectable. 

Having now lost my mom just over a year ago, I’m also reminded of the several times that my sister and I took her to see Neil perform in concert. Mom worked on an assembly line for GM, cutting and sewing the fabric that would become car interiors. She worked forty-plus-hour-weeks and then worked another several hours each night with household duties. We always had a full meal for dinner (which we always ate together), and the house was pristine. My memories of Mom at those concerts, standing with us, swaying to the music, her arms raised in the air, are now some of the few times I really remember her feeling and acting carefree. They are powerful memories that sustain, and that come back to me readily after the first notes.

Oliver Sacks’ fascinating book Musicophelia, and Daniel Levitan’s equally interesting Your Brain on Music, both address the idea of music from a neurological perspective, including how we remember music, from individual notes to complete symphonies. For me, music is so closely tied to memories that—with older songs especially—the two seem intertwined in my brain. That has certainly been the case where music and memories of Kevin are concerned. I can’t consider our meeting, dating, marriage, or the time of his illness without also thinking of the music we shared.

We first connected over our mutual interest in the Clash. He borrowed albums I had purchased from the import bin at Dearborn Music and told me about going to their concert at a high school gym in Grand Rapids. When we moved in together a year later, the amount of duplication in our record collection spoke of two people with very similar tastes. They differed at some points, and Kevin quickly learned to accommodate my enduring love of the music of Queen and other 70’s rock bands that he had come to disdain. We also attended concerts together, some twenty or so over the years: everyone from Echo and the Bunnymen, to the Rolling Stones, to David Bowie, U2, and Bob Dylan. We made mix tapes for each other and for our kids—the first one for our son made while he was still in utero. We hung out at record stores like Schoolkids and Wazoo. We visited Johnny Cash’s grave and the bronze statue memorial to Freddie Mercury in Montreaux, Switzerland. We named our first puppy Mustang Sally.

So when Kevin was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo treatment, it wasn’t surprising that music was part of that as well. At first, he made his own mix lists on his iPod, some songs soothing, some closer to battle cries. The radiology technicians plugged his iPod into their speaker system while he lay on the table bolted in under plastic mesh, and he put his headphones on as soon as he walked into the chemotherapy room. For round two, he solicited music from the many friends who read his carepages blog, agreeing to add anything that was suggested, even country songs and rap. The suggestions poured in and the list--over 200 songs which are still on our iTunes program--include Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong, Bill Withers’ Lean on Me, Mama Said Knock You Out by LL Cool J, a very fast version of Amazing Grace by the Dropkick Murphys, and Beethoven’s Symphony #3 in E Flat, Op.55, Eroica.

Kevin absolutely loved this list. It connected him to everyone that was out there supporting him during his worst days. The music cheered him, strengthened him, calmed him, and gave him nourishment as certainly as any food. He listened to these songs as the anesthesia took effect before his two spinal cord surgeries. He spent forty-five days in the hospital before his last two weeks at home. Every night, the last thing I did before leaving for home, or curling up on the chair next to him if I could stay overnight, was to put his earphones on and turn the iPod to “Chemo List #2.” The drugs knocked him out each night, but the music allowed him to sleep.

He told me that he had two favorites on the list: Dylan’s Ring Them Bells and Three Dog Night’s Shambalah. It was the closest thing we had to time spent planning a memorial service—I took that conversation as an indication that he wanted those songs played in remembrance. They were, along with several others. It was a music-filled service, as he would have wanted.

Of course I could not listen to this playlist, or even one or two of the songs on it, for the past three years. It’s still difficult to listen to Ring Them Bells or Shambala or Wonderful Life or Joe Strummer’s version of Redemption Song. I wondered sometimes, if those songs were lost to me forever, their tunes and words just too painful to have in my life. I knew my relationship to music was forever changed. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. So much of what we shared is just all around me, waiting for me to deal with on my own without any choice. But songs can be turned off or avoided altogether. It has taken some time, but I'm gradually putting the headphones back on and making music a part of my everyday.

I've managed, I suppose, to come to a different place. Now, when "Kevin songs" pop up on my random playlist, I simply let the tears come and embrace the time as a few minutes that I can spend in the comfort of memories. 

And I know that the memories will always come along with the music. Someday I’ll put the music on and dance, but for now it’s ok to just sit and listen.

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