Book Review: Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me

Abandon Me (Memoirs) by Melissa Febos

Raw. Vulnerable. Intelligent. Insightful.

Didn’t I use these same words for her first book Whip Smart? Yes, and Febos has built upon that first book by offering us another look into her life in a way that is just as honest. Her gift with words and stories takes us into the darkness of an obsessive love. In Abandon Me, Febos creates a work that we can relate on one level or another. Who hasn’t lost/ found something magical through such an absorbing love? I’ve drowned and learned to breath underwater for another’s attentions even as my friends were throwing me a lifeline.

Febos has a fearless look at herself and it’s done with insight and intimacy. At times, it makes me want to put the book down and say, hush, hush, it’s okay. (Yes, my reviews are personal responses, not academic studies: I’m okay with that.)

The line between love and obsession here is woven within a framework taken from many sources. She writes about her struggles using psychology, historic and current culture, literature, music, and other influences such as Bowie, Jung, and Borges to understand her actions within a broader context. So well read she is that it comes naturally and it is easy to understand her references. There is fluency to her thoughts and how she expresses these links and echoes. The layers bring out universal truths lying within a complex lover relationship, her childhood, and a birth father that she builds a connection with throughout the book. As such, her essays are poetic and intelligent.
They are also heartfelt.

“If we break up,” I said slowly, “Everything you’ve give me will be ruined, transformed into shrouds of miserly.” I smiled.

Of her birth father: I was a curious child but I was never curious about Jon. Jon was Jon. She had known of him, her mother had spoken of him, yet they had never met.

Febos writes of finding him, her first impressions and how over time, she came to know or at least accept him as a flawed man and was okay with that. She developed a genuine compassion for him in her essays.

Mostly though, Abandon Me describes the stages of Febos’ flawed obsession with a lover. One that asked of her to make peace with a temper and mind that subtly controlled her: I didn’t care if I was right or wrong. I’m sorry, I whispered.

In this memoir, Febos once again takes us deep into her emotional struggles, seeing how desperately she wanted that love and how she was willing, or rather for a long time, unable, to say anything but yes to her lover, needing that connection, woken up by it in ways she’d not known. It’s addictive that love, that obsessive need and intense connection, especially for those who’d not yet known any other like it. The sensuality, the raw emotion, the incredible highs and lows, it’s all part of it. And when Febos writes, looking can by the truest kind of love, I thought of how she has looked so keenly at her own actions and emotions. I sense a deepest kind of love of self: She’s taken us with her, into dark times, compulsions, anger, loss, fire, passion, and come out the other side with a hard-won love for her own flawed vulnerable and heartfelt self. It’s quite a gift.

 

COVER-abandon-me

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MFA: well, I’d wanted a challenge

“Those blanks to be filled are like the variables in an algebraic equation, a network of complex relationships, their meaning determined largely by superposition, juxtaposition, and a literary order of operations that requires the computation of successive disparate parts individually first and then in small groups, and finally as one large whole-a lyric equation of the quadratic order, the results of which depended upon the data provided by the reader, but which all reside on the same curve of meaning, subjective iterations of the primary form envisioned by the author.” Joey Franklin. (An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay.)

Oh boy…

The old borrowed time motif that ticks on relentlessly

The snow didn’t melt, would not melt for another three months and you’re scared, scared to sit with yourself, the memories slamming away, keeping you up at night, haunting your eyes so that the barista hands over the coffee with no chitchat, she takes the money and turns to the next in line with a glance of relief at his normality, the average build, short brown hair, brown eyes, winter hat and scarf from Walmart up the road, nothing unusual to him. Your Russian fur hat and ski instructor jacket from the seventies with the words Polite written across the back and your accent, that not-quite-right English accent, it’s too much, so you sip a mug of dark coffee and stare out the window onto main street, unsure what to do with yourself for the next few months, next few days perhaps, you are restless but why? Why when nothing is different but for that clock inside, the one with the loud ticking relentessly reminding you that you live on borrowed time, too many died the last few months, eight to be exact, eight friends and you’re only fifty, for fucks sake, you’re only fifty but you’re scared that time is running out, speeding past and you’ll never get all the words out before you die, never get the stories out and onto paper, onto screens, that they’d end up rattling around in the afterlife but as an atheist, that’s no help, not for you so you sit and sip coffee, take notes of conversations around you, twist them up to make them warp and burn in your brain, and then you trudge home through the snow drifts in sub-freezing weather, up the hill and back to your desk. You’re living on borrowed time and someone might knock on that door stop that clock inside and be done.

MFA Writing and Publishing: week one

Reading lists. Essays. Critical responses. Creative responses. Research. More essays. More readings. Editing. Writing.

Well, yes, it’s began folks and I thought you might like an inside view as to our first week at VCFA, the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The campus dates back to the 1800s, huge imposing brick buildings with columns, ten foot windows, a lawn with a fountain, and steep roads leading into Montpelier, with trees, more trees and a ring of low lying soft hills and mountains. Tis idyllic.

The class is held in a basement though, overlooking the parking lot outback and I feel gypped! Why in here? When there are such great classrooms upstairs, unused with these inspiring beautiful views? We sit, all eighteen of us, around a collection of tables back to back, creating that family mealtime, all facing each other with our books and laptops spread out. First class.
Julianna Baggott is here. Our faculty director and teacher, an inspiration herself, a powerhouse of words and action. Tuesdays we have five hours with Julianna, a focused five hours with a dynamic writer of all genres, she is forward facing, industry facing, with a desire to bring us into the craft of writing wherever we each are as individuals as well as help us find our places and careers as writers. Just what I need. I’ve done as much as I can on my own, in the vacuum of a small mountain village in New Mexico, with a determined pushing and presenting my work as often as possible to the larger world, to the community out there, here. Yes, I’m here. In graduate school and it hits me this week. I’ve not felt this fully myself before. I’m a writer. I’m a grad student. I can do this. I will do this.

  • 3 x33: a short fiction collection that is 1200 pages long. And yes, I’ve read it.
  • The Subversive Copy Editor
  • Story by Neugeboren
  • Forgotten Places by Johnson
  •  Three poems to be reviewed.
  • Five essays to read over for a journal I work for.
  • Owls by Norden
  • Tra Bong by O’Brien
  • My Man Bovanne by Bambara
  • Masked/ Unmasked by Hunger Mountain
  • Upstreet #13

And for my own pleasure and research for a new book idea:

  • Columbus Was Right! by Barbara Toy
  • Descansos by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
  • Solo, a collection of travel essays
  • Susan Sontag
  • Grace Perry

Forms Class with Julianna gave us three short stories to read with critical essays to write, three creative responses as essays, one on our own muse and process, a free associative writing exercise, and another on six random words and how it provokes memory.

Professional Development class gave me a smaller assignment of writing a cover letter and to research small presses, their submission processes.

Publishing Class gave me the three poems and six essays to read and review, one to copy-edit, and a mere 36 pages of a copy-editing book to read. Was there something else? Oh, I hope not.

First week. That’s all. Just a few things to take care of. So what did we all do, us students, after class on Friday? Yep, pub. We went to the pub.
And bumped into Tom. Thomas Christopher Greene that is, the President of the college.

It was all in all a good week. Now I’ve got some reading to do, forgive me. I’ve got to go.

 

Time Management for the Middle-Aged! 

Starting graduate school as a grown up is a tad scary. I have plans though. Ways to organize my days. I thought it would help.

  1. Buy black chisel tipped markers.
  2. Get paper 24 x 24 minimum. The local print shop gave me rolls of cut-offs.
  3. Tack paper to wall either near windows or under lights.
  4. List days of week and fill in deadlines for the next week. 
  5. Mind-map projects, loose tangents, ideas, questions etc. The benefits of this style of brainstorming is that it’s fluid, non chronological and you can keep adding to it. 
  6. Lastly for me, I have a list by priority of ongoing projects. It reminds me to bear in mind how important (or not) that deadline is. 
  7. The best part? I don’t need to find my bloody glasses to read these to do lists.

What am I doing here?

Cold damp air washed over me, doused the happy day I’d had, that inspiration from the classes attended. The dogs ran it to the kitchen, Harold howling for his dinner, his tail thumped on the fake wooden floor, Rosie checked out the bucket. Stevie wound in and out of legs. Within ten minutes, all ran back outside into the rain. Harold sat in the front seat. Stevie sat underneath the front bumper. And Rosie? Rosie hunched on the grass in the drizzle before squeezing under the campervan. They hate it in here.

What am I doing here? I grabbed Stevie, needing to cuddle his fluffy belly. He scratched me, claw stuck in my left cheek.

What am I doing here?

Quitting isn’t an option, isn’t it? When is it time to give up? Say enough is enough and walk away? The Santa Fe speak for this persistence is that it’s meant to be, you deserve this (as long as it’s good and if not, then this phrase is quietly ignored), and the inane something better will come along and don’t ever say this to me – god wills it. The idea is that someone or something godlike has determined what will and won’t happen. A notion that confuses me, well – it pisses me off actually. Lame. Suitable for good times and not so surprisingly forgotten in the bad. Who’d say, you deserve this when you lose home, job, or worse, a parent? My parents are both dead, sorry to be blunt, though and so right now it’s just home and job. Without a job, I can’t get a home. Without a home, I can’t get a job. Funny that. Catch 22, or in my case 22 1/2:  the van, I like living in this van of mine, don’t I? But I can’t leave the pups and Stevie inside all day while working for another. Can I?

I scroll through Craigslist looking for work, for pet-friendly homes, anything but this, a dark little dungeon that is mine for another ten days. The dogs are in the camper, Harold on the passenger’s seat, Rosie on the bed in the back. Stevie hides underneath. I’m sitting on a camp stool under the eaves of the garage, staying out of the rain as being inside the basement apartment wets me down to a soggy pile of rotten leaves. Even the paperwork on the table in there curls in the damp air. The smoke alarm beeps every few minutes, the moist air short-circuting the wiring inside, well, it did until I tore it off the ceiling, ripped out the wires and threw the fucking thing into the creek downhill.

Walking along a riverside dirt track outside of Montpelier is the one time the dogs play. The one place Harold will shit. He holds it in, constipated by these changes in our life. He’s not happy. The road is empty, absolutely no-one there, a full river rushes by, and Harold and Rosie run into the trees, eat grass, poop, eat more grass and speed off ahead. Strolling along under the dense leafy greenery that suffocates me, the rain trickles down. Oh, it’s pretty, it is. The understory is chocked full of grass, shrubs, flowers, and who knows what they’re all called, I don’t care. Not really. It’s too much, too green, too dense. I crave the open space of mountains or meadows.

Mad Dog River valley appeals, just as Anne from the college had guessed. It’s wide open, with fields and flushed muddy banks deep in the flash floods from a month of rain. This rain that doesn’t stop, it drizzles and storms in both the afternoons and mornings. Mid-day, when I’m here, driving around the lanes, the sun shines and so do I. We stop in Middlesex first, leaving fliers at the cafe looking for a home, and then back onto Hwy 100B, along another smaller river and past different styles of wood-sided houses with small yards. I take note of rental signs and for sale. In Moretown, again, I stop at the General Store, drop off a flier, search for others. Nothing pops. I drive on. We stop at a picnic area under some trees, dogs run to drink from the river. The views along this valley are wide and my breath loosens. My anxiety loosens its hold and so we walk around the next town along, Waitsfield. It’s a tad too far for a commute to college and (hopefully) work. A sandwich, a soda, and then time to drive again. The afternoon was sweet, the valley open and views expansive.

College inspires me. Invited to drop in and out of lectures, I’ve found academics and writers who speak to me, remind me that yes, I’m a writer, there’s nothing else. How do I align my interior life as a writer with a lifetime of writing? How do I make this into a professional career? I’m doing my best but this, the community of writers and poets, they can help. They’re teaching me of all that I know and don’t. How else will I find my way into the publishing world and to become a better writer both? Ada Limon talks of how she found a balance as a poet and editor/copy-writer, and to mix the introvert and social sides of herself. Flexibility was a goal of hers, workwise, one that not just appeals but is necessary for me, and her lecture on personal process, making it in the world by knowing when to be the artist writer self and when she needs to step out of that, to be professional, she can do that, knowing it’s temporary yet needed.

My toes are damp. The foundation seeps and puddles in the kitchen. With a towel to two, I sop up the worst next to the fridge and stare out the highest little windows as the rain keeps coming down.  The dogs spread the dirt and mud from puddles inside, outside, onto my bedding, into the garage and into the camper van. Dog hair, those shedding beasts of mine, run through a downpour, shake it off inside the dungeon, and jump onto my bed again. Stevie steps across the table, my papers, and I admire the little paw-prints, so perfectly formed. Thunder crashes out. Lights go out. Electricity down. Nighttime. Bedtime. It’s seven o’clock. Oh, why not, it’s not like I have anything to do.

When does it become time to stop? To walk away? How do we know? Competitive I am not. Does that mean I’m a quitter? Do I give up too easily? Those friends who decided to believe another with a reputation for lying instead of me, the most bluntly honest one? What did I do? I walked away, not going to waste my time trying to remind them of the value of reputation: if they didn’t believe me why should I make them? So, no, perhaps that was giving up too early? I don’t know. I’m okay with it, in that case. This though is different. I want this. I want to be here. It’s just…

It’s just that it’s not easy. Moving across 2100 miles to a town where I have no back-up, friends, or sense of community.  The home rental fell through. I found another, paid, moved in a few things and then the landlady changed her mind. The job that’s meant to start tomorrow, there’s a technical hitch and they can’t take me on for a few months. I’ve sent out resumes, stopped in at so many local businesses, I’m tired of selling myself, or trying to. No leads. And I find it’s more lonely to be here in a town than it is to be in the mountains alone. Loneliness/ alone, they are such opposites but easily confused.

A night in Maine, the fire crackled and dogs ran free. The van doors were propped open and Stevie sat in the stoop. My laptop sat on the wooden table with notebooks, pens, papers, reviews and phone. The cookstove took over the other end of the table and a pot of soup bubbled away. The birds cackled and ravens taunted Stevie as he climbed a pine tree behind us. The 35 acre lake reflected back a growing cover of stormy clouds. Finally I could breathe deeply. With such dense forests, there was no shortage of firewood and I made the most of it. Glorious. Absolutely glorious. The words pour out and remind me that writing is why I’m here in Vermont. Tonight I’m inspired by both journey and conversations had with random people as I drove around Maine. Life is good.

Give it a chance I tell myself. I know why I’m here, trying to find a home and work in Vermont so that I can spend three years on a Writing and Publishing MFA. How often does such an offer come up? Rarely. One that is exactly what I want and need as a writer on the edge of finding herself? I’m here for all the right reasons.

What would happen if I walked away? I’d regret this, this lost opportunity to find a community, to step into a world of experienced and published writers that inspire me. I’d miss the possibilities within reach. I can see them, touch their words, and listen to their voices as they talk of how they got to this point. I see myself one day, giving such a lecture as Ada’s, talking of my process and path, with confidence and ease talking to a room full of strangers, making them laugh and hopefully inspiring them to keep going, keep writing and to trust themselves. I see myself talking of agents and publications. Process and challenges. It’s clear to me. The goal. I’m here for the right reasons. I am.
I open the door to the dungeon. A wave of cold damp air hits me, the dogs run back to the van, Stevie scratches me. Bleeding, I break down again, crying into fists, sitting on the stupidly soft mattress on this shitty little single bed in this fucking bunker. Why am I here? What am I doing here? I don’t know. It’s time to sleep, I can’t deal, unable to cook a decent meal, read or write. Fuck it. It’s seven thirty.

Mid-life Fun times/ Crisis?

 

Part One: Well, what is it? A crisis? Or fun times? I can’t tell. Mid-life is often described as a challenge at best and a crisis for the rest. So where am I within that spectrum? I don’t know. I honestly don’t really know. Bloody moody though…

Mid-life, yep, I’m turning 50 next month. The number doesn’t worry me. But. What is the “but”? I’ve been restless for a few years now, needing more stimulus than a small village can give me, new conversations, new challenges. So what did I do? Apply for Graduate School. Me? The not so great student of my twenties applied for a masters degree without  telling many. I didn’t want to explain the rejections I envisioned, ego got in the way. I’m glad though I kept it quiet.

Months passed, I worked on my home, finished a new outhouse, painted floors, fixed fences, and planned my escape. Just like when I was a teenager. I feel very much like a teenager again, all grown up and leaving home for new adventures. Sorry, Mum, I’d needed to leave home then. Sorry, Madrid, I need to leave home now.

It’s not an escape, not purely a running away, but with the acceptance to Vermont College of Fine Arts with their relatively new MFA in Writing and Publishing, I’m leaving home. My home that I built, foundations, walls, windows, electric, plumbing, stucco, all of it done by my rough hands and impressionistic nature. I did it. Now what’s next? The thought of spending the rest of my life here doesn’t appeal. In fact, it scares me, there’s such a huge world out there, I can’t stay in one place any longer.

So how did I decide on a masters degree? It was tough, a rough road to map out. The application process is draining yet inspiring. My biggest challenge was finding references as most here know me as a gardener and writer. They don’t know of my educational background, my time at London University, or Freiburg University, or studying spanish in Valencia. The classes I’ve taken over the last twenty years here in Santa Fe or San Francisco. My cover letter focused on a full life of making my own stories, communities I’ve been part of, what I’ve done with myself, self-taught, and productive on a daily level. It was enough aparently, and I’m offered a place at Vermont in Montpelier.

One of the faculty wrote me to introduce herself, praising specific lines and images from the writing sample I’d sent in. Julianna spoke highly of the emotional undercurrent and how it intrigued her, and that she was looking forward to working with me. I wrote back, “But I haven’t been accepted yet, have I?”

“Oops,” she wrote. “Let me check.”

Yes, I was in, a final reassurance and yes, I’m going to grad school! At fifty! In Vermont! Only 2100 miles away, the complete opposite climate to here, five months of snow, bugs the size of black beans, and… well, I don’t know what else. I’m trying to find out by spending hours online researching the area and the curriculum.

I’m moving. Oh wow, I’m moving. When I finally told my friends and neighbours here in Madrid, Andrea squealed, others hugged me and one focused on how she’d miss me. I get it. It’s like I’m jumping ship. I am, but I’m a good swimmer. I’ve been practicing once a week at the Chavez center in Santa Fe.

The logistics though are becoming a nightmare for me. Trouble sleeping most of my life, this level of anxiety and excitement is draining me with dreams of disasters, or rather details. Too many tangents to grab hold of, each with its own alley way to wander down, looking for loopholes and issues. One or two vehicles? How would I take my stuff across country? Do I fill the 4Runner with stuff and have a friend drive it while I follow in my camper van? Or do I drive the 4Runner with my pets and fill a Uhaul trailer?
I look at rentals. Well, not one offers a place for two vehicles. That limits me then. So what do I do with the van? Mary and Stacy will take it, keep it at their place inside a gated yard, with them using it every so often. That’s the latest plan. Open to changes.

My weakness has been for vehicles so it’s not just two: I have four. I need to take care of four. Oh shit. I can’t just sell them. I like them. Well, okay, I’ll have to sell one, I need the money to cross country. The motorbike then, I’ll sell that. Try to. The Land Rover though, I should pass that on. But the day I decided to sell it, five random conversations all mentioned Shorty and how cool it is to see me in it. Damn.  It’s too cool to sell for school. Can I take it? Nope, but…? Nope, I have to store it somewhere safe, off its tires with the hood open, to keep it mice free hopefully. But where? Who’ll keep an eye on it?

Logistics, is this what stops others from making such dramatic life changes? Probably. Finding a home rental is the other biggest challenge. Who wants to rent to someone you haven’t met? I don’t. I’m going through the same problem with renting my own homestead. Sheesh. It’s too much. My days are highs and lows, with numerous naps between tackling the internet and filling out forms. Fun times, fun times, right?

Traveling with two dogs and a cat. Finding a rental. Finding a renter for my home. Vehicle madness. Yard sales. Craigslist. Scholarships. Funding. Moving. Packing. Decisions one after another. Where’s my dad when I need him? I crave sitting at the dining room table with my notes and brainstorming with him over a beer. Or at the kitchen table with Mum and a glass of wine, playing with ideas and options.
I’m not a teenager after all. I miss their help.  I miss my mum and dad.