The stories of Girls in the Grass emerged between 1977 and 1989, and the piece that made the invention or re-imagining of all others possible is not included. “Catch You Later” appeared in Ploughshares in 1987. It’s a simple story: a woman dumped by her boyfriend and dizzy on downers staggers into a restaurant, hoping for a glass of white wine and a moment’s peace. The revelation for me, the rupture, came through her voice: Leo, I don’t think what you did was right. Five years ago you jumped on top of me and made me squirm till I thought my own bones being crushed into my lungs and liver might kill me. I realized that if I listened to that voice, if I paid attention as each detail flowered, Carol would tell me everything I needed to know.
She didn’t speak in my voice, hadn’t lived as I did. I was the waitress who encountered this woman, and I persisted in trying to tell the story from that familiar perspective—but something she’d said the day I served her wine continued to haunt me: she thanked me for being so polite to her, and then she thanked me for treating her as if she were human.
By the time she said this, I’d realized she wasn’t a woman at all—not in the strictly biological sense of the word—but as quickly as I apprehended the disguised masculinity of her emaciated body, I understood she was a woman—to me, in my mind, in her own mind. I wanted to deliver the reader to the same recognition, swiftly, without fear or judgment. And I wanted to expose her vulnerability in the world, the terrible, never ending danger of trying to survive on the streets as a transvestite. If we are willing to interrogate our own terror, to extrapolate, to enter experience from a different perspective, to imagine life in a body very different from our own, any one of us is free to enter a world of holy mysteries where every human and more-than-human being opens itself to us very tenderly, amplifies our capacity for love, offers magnitudes of joy we never dreamed possible.
Many of us, myself included, deprive ourselves of this rapture. We’re afraid of others’ pain; we lack the patience to witness. For me, writing is prayer, daily practice, turning my attention to wonder, to leaves so green they writhe like flames where I see a black woman dangling. 1858, and the slave called Lize has been lynched for the murder of her master’s son. The motherless girl who watches, the slave owner’s daughter, will spend her whole life unraveling the centuries of crimes that led to her brother’s death and the brutal execution of this woman—she will come to know and bear her own transgressions.
This is the story I explore in “Punishment.” I could not have found the faith or stamina to enter Selena’s unmitigated grief if I had not discovered the mercy, the grace of staying still and listening.
Mother Teresa prayed: Lord, let my heart break open wide enough for the whole world to fall inside. No wonder she suffered! No wonder this woman who comforted the afflicted, who offered up her life to care for multitudes of others, found herself besieged by doubt and despair. It is the doubt that keeps us working, the despair that leads us back into the prayer of attention. In A River Runs Through It, Paul Maclean says: All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn't even visible.
The Kingdom is here, on Earth, waiting for us to step into it. Ansel Adams says: I believe in beauty—I believe in stones and water and air and soil—people and their future and their fate. If we believe in these things, then the love and patience required to evoke them for our readers becomes sacred. Art is an Affirmation of Life—not only our separate lives, but our lives within the endless body of all living things, our lives as they are connected to stones and clouds and wolves and spiders. There is nothing to fear: there is an infinite cosmos of miraculous beings and potent entities—clouds and stars and churning rivers; black holes and dark energy; lizards whose tails fall off and regenerate; a naked bird that falls from its nest and somehow against all odds, through a boy’s desperate desire to heal and be healed, survives.
What could possibly be more pleasurable than living among these beings—watching, listening, waiting, awakened moment by moment as they un-conceal their glorious secrets?