December 3, 2011

another laura

Blogger's note: I am pleased to welcome my co-worker and friend Phil Stake to the blog. I hope you enjoy reading his post about another Laura as much as I did.

By Phil Stake 
Guest blogger

In College, I met this other Laura... Laura T. She had all the symptoms of Mediterranean genetics: black hair, dark features, brown eyes. I never confirmed the diagnosis but later I learned something else about Laura T.: that she suffered from persistent epileptic seizures, hundreds of miniature tremors each week, and occasionally something bigger and more dangerous.

Before that knowledge was mine, however, I met Laura T. at a writing conference in 2006. We did not spend a lot of time together, a few  59-minute blocks of prescribed poetry groups and prose critiques. Still I knew I had her figured out. She wore subdued earth tones and spoke sparingly. When she did speak, it was usually to say something sunny and mild and at a low volume. I had her pegged as a Connecticut yuppie paying penance. Someone blessed with all the privileges of wealth, who lacked the discipline in high school to hoist herself into upper-echelon academia. And so she was here among the proletarians, biding her time. I did not mind it. She was a pretty girl with light skin and dark features. She had a calm about her that drew people to her, but she seemed always to be alone or in prescribed groups. Laura T. got on fine with anyone, but it was a rare person who penetrated her sunny surface.

I learned about her epilepsy when I walked her home the last day of the conference. She told me, I remember, as we strolled among café tables on the sidewalk outside the E.F. Lane Hotel. I was watching a string quartet tune their instruments in the window.

Laura T.’s candid admission was like a surprise layered on a surprise. Or maybe inside a surprise so that you have to melt the first one in order to digest it. She said it so matter-of-factly. She said it with the same soothing calmness that she said “Hello,” or “Beautiful day outside, isn’t it."

I remember that I fancied myself an astute observer, able to divine in minutes, motivations, frailties, handicaps and talents — all the substance that lives inside a writer's psyche. But with Laura T., I was wrong, and looking back on that time in my life I have to admit that I was wrong about more than that.

An hour before we walked from campus down Main Street, beyond the shops to her house near Beaver Street Market, the conference had culminated with readings from each participant — a real punch in the gut. I gave up on listening when this retired woman named Gina read the standout poem in her literary canon. It was about her favorite sounds. I remember the phrase “chirp, chirp, chirping little birdies,” washing over the audience like a wave of polite disappointment.

In my mind, we had undertaken a grand endeavor … saved for, planned for and finally attended this intense, introspective week of bleeding on the page, suturing, letting scars form as new knowledge. And here was this woman, Gina from Tampa, an alleged travel writer, who had vacated her surfside condo for the week; and after all our intellectual sparring, and toiling into the pre-dawn hours of the night, Gina the travel writer had produced something so hackneyed and insubstantially gleeful that it confirmed all my suspicions about her. It also confirmed another suspicion. That the conference was never about talent. It was about tuition.

I was convinced of this. Mentally, I shut down. I gave up. I took my hostile temperament to the refreshment table and fed it cheap pastry. Meanwhile, Gina dismounted. Laura T. stood and took her place. Laura T. filled the space where Gina stood, only lower.

Laura T.’s reading was of a poem, too. It opened with the narrator’s flesh pressed hard and heavy and burdened. It was moist and stuck in places to linoleum. Fleetingly, hysterically, the narrator focused and lost focus, searched around a room. Intensity burned an unkempt toilet and moved to a dirty tub. Fluorescent lights glared urgently. One bright place on the wall was the epicenter of rage and confusion, then another and another. Then the focus moved to the Ajax cylinder. Overturned, its powder piled on the floor. The grit of it stole the focus. Its grainy texture muted the buzz of the bathroom fan, dimmed the overwhelming brightness, dried perspiration, led to something still and calm but only for a few seconds. Everything was buried in a volcano of Ajax on the floor beside a bottle of bleach until sudden tension returned and in the narrator’s hand there was a knife, shining at angles against the fluorescent light.

It wasn’t about suicide. I thought that, too. Somehow, Laura T.’s reading allowed me access to something, an experience that I could not otherwise have, let alone understand. I noticed her voice for the first time. It was no longer sunny, but wavering as if her voicebox produced trembling sound waves.

In her poem, the narrator cut her forearms and thighs. Peace came in the form of blood-stained Ajax. I choked on a piece of danish, coughed. Nobody noticed. Laura T. stopped reading. The room fell silent and then grew loud with applause.

Afterward, as we were walking through the café tables, she mentioned casually that she had epilepsy. I inquired further. She said that she had suffered between 20 and 30 undetectable seizures during our walk from campus. She could not do anything to control it. Things made more sense. Something foreign became familiar.

And I guess that is the point: good writing ought to bring an audience to greater understanding. It should create an access panel to the depths of otherwise inaccessible human experience, which is something I learned that day, from Laura T.

Phil Stake is a journalist. His website and blog, www.philstake.com, is under reconstruction and will be available in spring.

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