Satisfied and tickled, too

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 16, 2016 (last essay for this paper!)

 

The only fan letter I ever wrote was to the novelist, Tom Robbins. No eye rolling, please. It’s important to note that I happened to be working for his publisher in New York City at the time (1982), and I happened to be selling cover art rights to his many foreign publishers. In essence, I was really working for him. So. It was a fan letter to my awesome boss.

The job itself is not at all glamorous; in fact, when I leave the position, my day-to-day boss, a tough woman VP for whom I type letters, asks me if I want to know why I will never amount to anything in the business. It does not help that the friend I make in that department becomes such a close friend (and is, still) that our desks have to be moved apart. Meanwhile, I gobble up the Tom Robbins novels, and on several occasions see him in the elevator looking adventuresome, approachable, and out of place; combined, these are enough to loosen New York City’s monopoly on my spirit.

I have blocked out whatever I might have tried to pull off in that fan letter. It had some history, probably. Having grown up in Seattle, I had already dragged the parents on a “tulip viewing” pilgrimage to the little town of La Conner, Washington, where the legendary creator of Sissy Hankshaw is known to live (and still lives, at 84).

I do know this: at the time of typing the letter on my old Royal, in the fabulous walk-up railroad flat I rent for more than two-thirds of my take home pay, I am thinking if I land a comment in this author’s ear, at least I will have done something in life. I probably gush out of every pore, because I am still in recovery from Catholic girls’ high school PTSD, for which gushing is not just the antidote but also the cure.

I drop it in the mailbox, thinking “There. Done. Did it. Now, move on.”

A few weeks later, despite the miniscule odds, I receive a letter postmarked La Conner. On the back of the envelope is an image of a duck and man with their heads down and submerged in water, along with the caption, “Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?” Inside, is a photocopied anatomical diagram of head and alimentary canal with word bubbles coming out of various mouths. “Dear Michelle,” it says, “I would be satisfied (and tickled, too) if yours was the only fan letter I ever received. Bless your heart for that. Love & Luck. Tom Robbins.”

Sometimes, we do smile big, gaping smiles with our hearts. That I have fired off a letter to a winsome, frolicking, woman-loving, psychedelic-seeing, longhand-writing genius and gotten it answered is almost more than I can bear. It makes me float for a while and then it makes me wonder, Well, what keeps us afloat, though? Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?

When I finally do drop out in search of something else, something imaginative and at the end of the road, there is no shortage of Robbins bubbling in my brain and fueling my fire. I take my father’s bequeathed computer and start tapping away, for hundreds and hundreds of hours at my first attempt at novel writing, which is — of course — about a roadside attraction. My prose is a far cry from Tom Robbins,’ but I like to think my characters might feel right at home reading his novels.

Fast forward 30 years.

A friend is over and is reading the famed, framed letter, as others have done, with a little smile. A diehard blues lover, he tells me he most appreciates the “satisfied and tickled, too” reference to the Mississippi John Hurt song. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have never been aware of any allusion at all, which somehow utterly charms him because of this new layer, a layer that brings him right into the story.

Some time later but not so long ago, this same friend and his wife tell me they have a surprise for me, which is a present, a book. They’ve just been to Tom Robbins’ reading and book signing in NYC — of the memoir he said he would never write. And though they’ve all been told by the author, whose handwriting and eyesight are bad, that he cannot write personal notes, Barry and Christina, committed, stand in a long line in order to squeeze out my story in 12 seconds flat — the story of the only fan letter a girl has ever written, and the response she unexpectedly gets.

Below the shaky inscription to me and above his signature, he finds it in his heart to add: “Satisfied and tickled, too.” Which is a nice enough mantra in life, when you actually think about it.

Bow tie

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, September 18, 2016

 

A near perfect September day, you know the kind. We are about to witness a young bride walk down a path lined in pinecones and dusted with rose petals, a pathway of lightly mowed weeds and grasses, nothing too civilized or slick — in fact, all of it a little bit rough. The light breeze, the intense heat of the sun’s kiss on the backs of necks, the first yellow leaves on the aspens, these wrap us in late-summer sweetness.

It’s wedding season, you know: something you mostly hear about until you are actually there, looking on, squinting through the prisms of welling tears. Two people are about to make promises. This is something that feels big — as if silent forces are willing the entire cosmos into alignment, from stars and compasses to leaves on family trees to the micro-flutter of butterfly wings. All of it converges to a tiny crucible, a moment in time that brings human speck soldering to human speck.

Her dress is elegant and simple, off-white with a short train. Her flowers are native, carefully unceremonious. The sound of the breeze through the aspens ushers us into a deliberate moment of silence; and there is nothing to think about — and everything to enjoy. At attention, every fiber of our leaning in towards love makes us feel more vibrant

Hypnotized by this sound of the wind in the aspens, we allow ourselves to be drawn into a story about to begin. The words are good. The importance of friendship and of respect in a marriage. The value of constancy, and patience, and being present, and of never forgetting what it is that has sparked this fire to begin with. The two of them stand there, riveted, nodding, eager to quench a basic thirst for ritual, for the tying of bonds, for the making of meaning, for union. Their vows are fresh and easy versions of I-don’t-know-how-I-got-so-lucky meets I-promise-to-honor-and-respect.

But, I mean, they had us at saying each others’ names — saying names the way we all like to hear our names spoken. As if there is no other name in the world, weapons down, bare to the bone, a word that signifies one being and one being alone.

I notice that the four groomsmen’s ties perfectly match the flower arrangements. Gold, apricot, sage, eggplant. Later, when I ask if it this is a deliberate act, they look at me as if I’m insane. We were told fall colors, one says. That was all, says another. Well, I answer, you look great. Pretty ties — men forging order through the hand-over-hand of fabric-y knots — make me want to fall to my knees. Is it the tenderness of taking care?  Marking moments by dressing up for them? Is it the oddness of the tie itself combined with the time we take to tie it?

More and more we seem to be leaving it casual, moving through the world comfortably, sometimes even a little sloppily. Our shoes don’t have thirty buttons, our shirts don’t require ironing. We don’t wear overcoats and gloves the way we used to. Ties take it up a notch, especially in the mountains.

Last summer about this time, in a quirky workday moment selling cashmere sweaters, three men from a wedding party come in search of someone who can tie a bow tie. They are carrying tumblers of cocktails, wearing untucked tux shirts.  Charmed, I step up and use one of my motley skills. They have more friends, they venture, could they bring them by? A couple of hours later, I have fourteen dressed-up men in bow ties standing before me, and, eyeing the tie-scape in the small shop, I feel a great sense of absurdist accomplishment and joy. Something will be witnessed today.

At this very moment, the groom, in relaxed, country-life shades of tweed (but buttoned up nicely at the top), has just told his bride how much he loves her. How much he wants her to rely on him. How he hopes he will live up to everything she deserves. She has already said to him how all she has ever hoped for in a man, she has found in him. And more.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the two fledgling spouses are told that, as a matter of fact, because of this union the world will be just a little better of a place. That in union is much more strength and potential for love — that really anything on earth can be done from this starting point.

And as we wait in the noonday sun, wait for the groom to kiss his bride and for her to kiss him back, we cannot help but feel smitten, tenderized and completely renewed.