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Three Ways Home

Land

It’s Connecticut for an eternity, or if you are coming from Canada, it is Vermont.  But when it is Connecticut it is Connecticut for ages, it seems, and just as you are getting used to the billboards and the walls of rock with dynamite lines etched in them and waterfalls of ice over them, just then you see Fenway Park.  And before you know it the city is there, in rapid succession.  It is Fenway and it is your old high school and it is your friend’s alma mater and it is dark, dark, a tunnel.  And you emerge where you need to, and you barely notice the way home from there, because you’ve gone this way your whole life, you can do it in your sleep, and you do, because invariably it’s nearly midnight.

 

Air

You feel the subtle descent before you can see a break in the ocean below.  And then the boats become a little bigger.  You start to see the trails of white behind them, and then you see the color of the water begin to change.  You can see the dark sapphire give way to lighter blues, almost green as the sand beneath rises closer to the surface, as you are coming closer to the surface.  You look ahead and you see Boston, all glass and stone and clear blues and reflections of the sun and clouds.

It’s a wonderful trick of civil engineering that you think you might land on the sea, because that is where the runway ends.  But you always catch the land.  Just not before you can see the ripples in the water under your window.

Water

We were maybe 9, and I was new at sailing.  We three were the only Bostonians at our summer camp in Cambridge, and that felt monumental.  We conversed with other campers about normal things like stickers and embroidery floss and face paint, but we had the farthest to go home and the earliest to wake up in the morning.

We set out in our little sailboat, our most confident with her hand on the rutter, the other girl minding the boom, and me in the bottom, head between my knees so that I wouldn’t be knocked out of the boat when the wind changed, armed with a milk jug with the top cut off, to bail.  It was a cloudless day on the Charles, and we were halfway across the river, the brick castle of MIT behind us, and the Esplanade ahead.  There was a gust of wind, the boom swung over my head,  and through my fingers, pressed as they were over my eyes, I saw the rutter escape my friend’s hand.

I thought of the dreaded word mentioned in our short sailing class: capsize.  I thought of how I used the elementary backstroke for my swimming test, so that I could take this class.  It was so easy it felt like cheating. How could I ever do the elementary backstroke halfway across a river?  A river that even then I knew divided the two largest cities in eastern Massachusetts?  How could I swim to a city?

While I whimpered, bailing out the two inches of water that had accumulated around my pink Chucks, my friends righted the boat.  We sat, holding all our respective tools tightly.  I don’t remember who said, “Let’s sail to Boston.”

Along the Esplanade, I only know of one small public dock.  It’s kind of hidden, and it is about twenty feet of wood that is weathered and grey. It was directly ahead of us, and at the time I assumed there were plenty just like it all along the river.  We cheered, more with relief of touching land again than with pride in the act of sailing from one city to another. I wanted to get out of the boat, to make a small mark in the dirt to commemorate our crossing, but instead we pushed off the dock once more.  This time I kept my head above the rim, watching as the dock, the trees, and the townhouses receded in the distance.

I will probably always be new at sailing.

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Send in the clowns.

“One thing you’re going to need to do is stop comparing yourself to other people,” she said.  “You can’t measure success or happiness or progress by other people’s standards.  Nobody can.  But especially not you.  You’re never going to fit.”

Her name was Pam, and she was doing a psychic reading for me.  She looked at my soul, she said, and while most people’s souls look like philosophers or sages – calm, collected, focused – she said mine was a circus performer.

No, not a circus performer.  The whole three-ring circus.

“I see you on the trapeze,” she said, “and swallowing swords.”  I told her that explained a lot.

She had told me to come prepared with a guiding question or two, and I told her that I was often uncomfortable in my own skin.  There were so many things I loved to do, learn, make, and talk about.  A little insight into which direction I should be moving in would be helpful.  When she was led to my soul by her spirit guide (bear with me, okay?), she started laughing.  I made a face.

“Is it that bad?” You don’t want your psychic to laugh at your soul.

She caught her breath.  “I’m sorry, Tessa.  It’s just – you have led so many hedonistic lives, and you are obviously trying not to do that in this life.  But your soul is your soul, and it wants experience.  It wants to experience everything, and you have to let it.  For a little bit, anyway.”

Just when I think I’m ready to grow up.

I’ve lived my life in a swirl of phases.  I learned the clarinet, no, the oboe, no, the violin – because I just had to.  I wanted to be an actress, a writer, a veterinarian.  I wanted to live in Ireland, in France, in New Mexico, and each time I got wrapped up in a new obsession I thought it might be the thing where at last I’d found my niche.  I thought each would bring me some kind of peace, some feeling of belonging and expertise.  There are many people in my life who take my interests as jokes, almost.  These next big things are fleeting, best left alone, never to be encouraged.  I understand the sentiment.

So my soul’s a circus.

“Don’t worry, you’ll feel really comfortable and settled by 45,” said Pam.  I think she saw my lip twitch.

“That long?”

“We’ll put it this way: you’re a three-ring circus now, and you’ll settle on one ring around 35.  But there’s still a lot going on in that one ring.”

And I wondered what this meant for all those normal life goals that people have.  Even I, a circus, have them – marriage, kids, a house on a farm with a horse.  Or at least the marriage, kids, and a place I call home all the time.  I didn’t ask her about these things, because I thought that finding my niche would lead to the comfortable settlement that leads to these things.  That’s what people do.  In fact, that’s what many of my friends and family have done, and I feel I’m falling behind.

But according to her, I’ve been spending too much of my life trying to fit pegs into holes, because they just don’t.  They won’t fit.  I won’t fit.

So all this energy I’ve spent trying to figure out how to be a grown-up, now that I’m 30, is just short of a total waste.  I have to think of what to do with my five years’ reprieve.  She told me to travel, to write, to work in a theater.  These have all been tugging at my insides for months, causing such anxiety as I tried to numb them.  I told myself to shut up, to be reasonable, to think clearly and rationally.  Whenever I tried to think of a five-year plan I was intimidated by a blank page, not sure what to do when there were so many impractical desires clouding my mind.

As usual, I was doing it wrong.

“You need to know that your soul wants to experience everything – art and travel and everything else that makes your heart race,” said Pam, and I nodded, teary.  “And you need to stop thinking that’s a problem.”

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And the third theme of 2014 is…GROWN(-)UP.

I’ve been keeping a deck of tarot cards on my bedside table (Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck, for anyone interested in knowing).  It’s been a source of inspiration sometimes, as well as a starting point for much-needed introspection for me.  Also, oddly enough, it makes me take the time to pray.

I haven’t been a prayerful person in years, and I’m still trying to work out what prayers are and whom they serve, but it has always been my habit to say some sort of prayer before drawing a card, doing a reading, consulting someone (or something, in this case) for better perspective.  It all started when I bought my first deck of tarot cards.  I was in middle school, I think, and my mother took me to Seven Stars (back when it was in Harvard Square).  After poring over many beautiful decks I chose one that was painted in watercolors, big fat lines and blurred edges.  I had three favorites: the Star (a naked woman in a lake, surrounded in varying shades of black and green), the Six of Cups (two chubby-legged children playing with the fairies and rainbows that spilled from golden chalices), and Death (partly because I felt badass to know it wasn’t a negative message, partly because it was a skeleton with a butterfly floating from its pelvis).

In the car, my mother reminded me to put on my seat belt, then asked me to promise her that I would always take a moment to say a prayer before a reading, for the benefit of the seeker, of myself.  In deference to God or some other higher power as I dabbled in esotericism.  I took this tarot thing very seriously, and I always said a prayer.  Something solemn but perfunctory.  God, let this go well.  Or, God, I don’t mean to offend.  Something like that.

The other night I asked the air for advice, for insight, before drawing three cards to see what I needed to know at this stage in my life.

Tonight I held the deck to my heart and thought of all my fellow Kindreds, some whom I know quite well by now and others whose expressions in this project give me a better understanding of who they are and how they work.  I wished for you, specific wishes and vague, but always concentrating on you.  I drew this card:

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I had never seen the Six of Cups reversed before!  Upon reading some more about what this means, I learned this card can suggest that one is clinging to one’s past in such a way that you inhibit yourself from experiencing the present and moving into your future.

This particular guide said something that really stood out to me:

“The Six of Cups is a card of nostalgia, childlike love and generosity, and a carefree, naïve outlook on life. Reversed, it suggests that you may have had unrealistically rosy ideas about a particular stage of life, based on your dreams and ideals from when you were younger. For example, you may have always pictured yourself as married with children by 25, only to realise that once you hit 25, you had other goals in mind. Or you may be disappointed that you have reached a particular age but have not fulfilled your childhood dreams just yet.”

When I said it stood out, I mean it sang to me.  I keep making fun of the idea that, at age 30, I’m still not an adult.  My expectations of myself as a child were so huge that I may never be an adult.  And the more I complain about this, the more I realize that most people feel this way, at one time or another. But it’s not that we’re all living in the past, and it’s not that we haven’t matured (do you see how my tarot prayers and uses have changed?) – we just aren’t living the lives we expected.  And frankly, who does?

So I ask you all kinds of things: are you living up to your own expectations? What have you wanted for yourself?  Has that changed over time?  Do you feel like you’re moving forward?  How might you be holding yourself back?  And if you’d rather this weren’t so introspective, tell me this: what is a grown-up?  Who are your favorite grown-ups?  Make one up for me.

I say this as a person who just bought a Little Prince sweatshirt, as a person who just caught up with her best friend from elementary school (over drinks!), as a 30-year-old who lives with her father, as the girl who first stood up for herself because she wanted to be Peter Pan in the school play, as the college dropout who is taking an acting class simply because it is impractical.  But also as the woman who just bought a juicer, as the woman who is trying to commit more to yoga…

That’s actually all the adult stuff I’ve been up to of late, but you get the idea.  But good luck!  And let this go well.

Jess Mullen

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Week 4: Reminder

It is late at night on the day I am supposed to post the new theme.  I had played with a few themes over the last week, and decided on this one this morning.  The word reminder is not good enough at describing exactly what made me think of this theme, but it will do.  And I suppose it will keep options open, which is always a good thing.

I feel like there must be a German word for what I am thinking of.  Something specific, with at least twenty letters in it.

The reminders I was thinking of were of the more fleeting kind.  The kinds that cause a spark or twinge.  Here are some examples…

  • When, as you are dreaming, you realize that you have the most brilliant idea possible and concentrate on soaking up every last detail, but then when you wake up you can almost hear it spilling out of your ears as you scramble to find the pen that rolled under the bed after you knocked it off the nightstand in your sleep. You are devastated.  And then, either three hours or three weeks later, someone says a word on the radio and you at least have pieces of the dream back.  And okay, maybe now that you’re thinking about it while awake, it’s not as brilliant an idea.
  • When the opening note of a song can make you travel through time to one very specific and probably uneventful day that you wouldn’t have had cause to remember otherwise.
  • When maybe you’ve had too much to drink, or were too tired to go out but you went out anyway, and weeks later you find pictures on your phone of events you thought you had dreamt.  And suddenly you remember the next thing that happened, and the next, and you either grimace or sigh.
  • When you write a note to yourself and lose it, then find it later and realize that even that is not enough to make you remember why you did that.  Why did I write “Smart Alec” in the middle of a page in my notebook?
  • When a scent brings you back to a specific time in your life, or when it reiterates that the life you are living is reality, and not just a plan you have thought of for months.
  • When you see someone write something down on a piece of paper and realize they have the same handwriting as your first boyfriend, and anyway where did that mix tape run off to?
  • When I was little I was a very eager student, who always wanted to get a word in with the teacher, whether it was a question, a related story, or an answer to a question.  Naturally my teachers wanted to give everyone a chance, so I would wait to be called, sometimes feigning patience.  How humiliating it was to finally be called upon and completely forget what I was going to say.  My mind’s eye would strain, and I could picture a window that was open, like in the school attic in The Neverending Story, with curtains blowing in the wind, suddenly shut.  Suddenly quiet.  Suddenly the thought was locked outside and I was fogging up the glass as I breathed.  In retrospect I would pray for one of these reminders that I’m talking about.

I cannot wait to see what this theme produces.  I could probably write a series of books on this.  Also, if anyone either knows the right word for this (in English or otherwise), or would like to make one up, please share!

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Fear and Loathing

I admit it: I am afraid.

When I learned this theme I felt cold, hardened, contorted.  As a feminist I am totally ashamed that on more than one occasion I have said that I hate girls.  It isn’t all true, I don’t hate all girls.  I don’t actually hate anybody.  But I have some deep-seated anger and resentment for many girls who have passed through my life, who have shaped me into someone less confident than maybe I might have been.  And even that much isn’t fair.  I can’t blame other people for bad choices I’ve made or behaviors I’ve adopted, but if I’m looking for someone else to blame, that person, those people, are inevitably girls.
 
And I have so many strong women in my life, and throughout my life I have been surrounded by more than my fair share of truly wonderful girls.  I know this.  I know that I would be in such a different place without the incredible support system that I have – of girls who get it, who get me, who love me.  My hope this week is not to dwell on the negative, but to release it.  I hope that maybe, by breathing these hostile memories into the ether, they can dissipate.  That I don’t have to hold an unfair resentment against girls.  
 
I am one, after all.
 
I hope this is the last time I hold these girls responsible for things they probably didn’t even realize they did wrong.  
 
I blame the friend I had in kindergarten, the one who had the most beautiful cotton candy pink dress for dress-up, the one who, when a pretty new french girl wanted to wear it, told me I couldn’t anymore, because it wasn’t for me.  The one who never invited me over after she chose the other girl as her best friend instead.
I blame the girl on the bus in second grade who said my fingers were short and stubby.
I blame the girls who were my friends, but only during the week. The ones who, every Friday, when I left lunch early for band practice, started rumors about me, or at any rate told me they did. I cowered in fear until Monday, when we would be friends again.
I blame the girls who made me feel like I was less than them because I didn’t own a pair of penny loafers.
I blame the girl who told the boy I liked that I liked him, all as a way of getting closer to him so that they could go out (again).
I blame the other girl who told a different boy I liked that I liked him, and who then told me that he said I was hideous.  He was a jerk – don’t worry, I blame him, too.
I blame all the girls in the boat one day when I was coxswain, who rowed opposite of what I said even though it meant we would end up on a sandbar.  
I blame the girl who told me that my sense of style was unique, but hard as I tried I couldn’t bend the meaning into something positive.  She didn’t mean it that way.  She didn’t.
I blame the girl who caught me singing to myself in the hallway, the one who told me I looked possessed.
I blame the girl who told me not to quit my day job.
 
The girls who betrayed my confidence.
The girls who stood me up.
The girls who put me last.
The girls who told me I was weird.
The girls who thought that weird was bad.
The girls who talked and laughed until I came into the room, or on the bus, and all was silent, and everyone stared.
The girls who made me feel as though there was a reason for us all to compete against each other.
Even (especially) the girls who don’t remember me.

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The Dangling Conversation.

It is remarkably silly that I suggested last week’s theme, sage, and am only responding to it now, a day overdue. It turns out that the biggest reason I chose that word – that it is full of possibilities – is what has held me back most of all. There is just so much to write about! When I think of sage, I consider my mother’s home in the high deserts of New Mexico, my favorite pizza at the place where Dylan and Baez used to sing together, my first year of college when a friend used a smudge stick in her room – something I should have done that year, even though the green linoleum and cinder blocks had made everything seem all the more hopeless. The word came to me as I was trying to think of ways to purify and detox different aspects of my life – the way I eat, naturally, but also in my habits as a writer, as a student, as a sometimes insomniac, and as a grown-up (a title I will have to live up to one of these days).

In an effort to home in on an aspect of sage that inspired me to share something here, I looked up the healing properties of the herb. A homeopath might recommend it for any number of my chronic physical complaints, but what struck me most of all was what it can do for the mind. It is an anti-depressant, it eases the pain of grief, it calms a hyperactive mind. And it’s used in all different ways to heal wounds, physical or emotional – as a tincture to be taken, a scent to be drawn in with a deep breath, and as a salve spread on a burn.

In my life what I have used most to calm my mind is music, and these days the music that works the best feels like a salve. I love music that washes over you, tingles, massages the scalp in slow ripples. A friend told me not long ago that my taste in music is too slow, boring. And, barring the fact that he ignored my penchant for 60s pop and anything good for dancing like a fool, I can almost see where he’s coming from. But he doesn’t need to be entranced in a beautiful sound that is almost as natural is nighttime rain on a window, or lyrics that are as musical as the instruments that accompany them. When I need to be calmed I listen to Andrew Bird and get lost in his labyrinthine words, or I listen to Nico and imagine the shadows of the clouds over the heathered hills of Tralee.

When I lived in France, I came home from a long trip to Scotland and felt broken. That’s how homesick I was. And I felt so helpless, and no matter how anxious and sad and useless I made myself, I couldn’t bring myself to sleep. Until I listened to Simon and Garfunkel.

When I listened to them at first I was brought back to those nights when I was 13 and just started slacking off in school, almost always feeling like my mind could be read. The anxiety that I put myself through then so that I would have more time to – not do homework, at any rate. I drove myself crazy, afraid that I would be found out, as a liar and a constant daydreamer, all the while listening to what is still my favorite of their albums, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” The effect of songs like, “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” was the same as what I look for now when I have a glass of wine and stare into the fire after dinner. It washed away the gadflies of the day, and propelled my daydreams upward with a buzzing hopeful feeling – all mental flight.

That blanket of a Lyonnais January, unseasonably cold and grey and sparse, was sometimes hard to endure, but that loneliness and uselessness was salved by a healthy dose of acoustic guitar and hushed harmony. And from listening to Simon and Garfunkel I progressed to watching Woody Allen movies, laughing, pining for New York if you can believe it, and from there I could start to plan my next adventures – Ireland, and home. School, and the writing that I had ignored that whole year.

And so this week when I think of sage it is only natural that I think of Simon and Garfunkel. And I leave you with what I still think is one of the loveliest songs ever written.

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by | January 22, 2013 · 9:00 pm

Week 3: Sage

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To propose a theme so early in a project such as this is nerve-wracking.  Ashley told me not to overthink it, to which I responded, “but that’s what I do best!”  And I’d like to say that I was half-kidding, but I wasn’t.  I am an expert in overthinking.  More than once in the last week I found my thoughts racing, swarming.  Something like this:

HOORAY I get to choose the next theme! We have had such good themes so far! I get so excited when it’s time for a new one!  And now it’s time for mine! And everyone will be so excited for my theme, which is…which is what?   Oh no, which is what? Thinkthinkthinkthinkthink.  Come on, Mullen, pull yourself together.  I mean, we had been talking about doing themes that were more like object writing, I mean this is object writing, sort of, but I’m thinking of objects – ocean, dolls, horses, glasses.  I did kind of like that idea, but I also like these broader, deeper topics, too, which are almost as flexible.  Well it’s my turn, I can choose dogs or headbands or telephones if I want, but we’re already on a roll with this broader, deeper stuff – do I really want to break that streak? But maybe other people would like to write about more concrete stuff, too.  Maybe they just need a voice.  But maybe they don’t! Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way! Maybe…

At about this point I would breathe into a paper bag.  In my mind.

This morning, I was reading “A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves, and one word stood out to me as the solution to all my indecision.  On this week’s topic, anyway.  As you may have gathered, I am lousy at making decisions of any scale.  This word, which was not part of her prompts, allowed me not to decide.

The word is sage.  I’ve posted a picture of the sage in Taos, New Mexico, but sage can be so much.  A plant, yes, and a cooking ingredient, but also a wise person, a word describing a wise person, and so on.  This is a word that has such a broad spectrum of meaning in so few letters, and I want you all to run with it.  Sagely.

Best,

Jess

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