Sunday, April 13, 2014

Writing About Writing

I may have been seven years old when I wrote my first story. I remember the story largely because it continues to embarrass me. In it, two sisters fight over what color dress to buy for their mother. The older sister is adamant that the dress should be blue, "like Mom's eyes." The younger insists on red, her favorite color. For days the two remain at an impasse.

Do you see where this is going? Sigh.

One day, a light bulb. The girls realize that they can buy their mother a purple dress! Red and blue make purple! What an ingenious compromise!

Mom loves her new purple dress, of course, and the family has no choice but to live happily ever after.


When I was little I wrote fantastically happy things, and I watched every episode of The Brady Bunch multiple times. These two facts are doubtless related. If my own life wasn't going the way I'd imagined it, I could write my way out of it, making sure to draw beautiful circles atop my i's and have all the stories end happily ever after.

Childhood gave me my first clue that writing was power, that I could shape a narrative one way or another, with no one but me the wiser.


Later, teenaged and affecting ennui, I decided that I preferred the unexpected ending. This had to do with my love of all things Ray Bradbury. I read The Illustrated Man over and over again, hoping that some small part of Bradbury's genius might eventually accrue to me. If the story in my head was sad, I would give it a happy ending. Happy story? I would add a devastating postscript, unsubtle as it was catastrophic. But I was no closer to writing about my own life, my own truth, than I had been as a child. It would take years and years of living before I understood that my own story was worth telling, and a few more years besides before I was brave enough to try telling it.

Now I write memoir. I also write about parenting. I place my childhood on the same page as my children's so that I can better understand my complicated past and possibly improve my own parenting at the same time. Assets against liabilities. I also write poetry, when I have something to say that for whatever reason doesn't submit to a declarative sentence structure.

I cannot say that I have a writing process. I am not that organized about writing. I save hyperorganization for the rest of my life. Generally an idea comes to me, or a fragment - two words, a line, or a story from my past that all of a sudden is just begging for release. At this point I would choose to drop everything to write on the spot. Of course most often I can't drop everything, and the writing has to wait, but I am never able to put it off for longer than twenty-four hours. It is an itch I have to scratch; it is a young child tugging ever more frantically on my sleeve.

StilI, I may go weeks between such bursts of inspiration. I'm busy, with work and children, and I don't view the in-between times as worthy of comment or concern. No writer's block 'round these parts. I have never tried to write a novel, so I don't know how that would go. Short-form writing, as I do here, suits me. 

As to where I write, I have to laugh. On the couch? Using an iPad? Nothing fancy. The 'room of my own' is - has always been - inside my head.

To the question of why do I write what I do, I can only shrug. I write what I have to write. I do not view myself as having all that much choice in the matter. And as to how my writing differs from other bloggers' writing, well, it's probably more penetrating and certainly more painful to read. Lately I have reconciled myself to the fact that many of my readers do not know what to say after they read my posts. I used to fret about that. Now I get that my writing makes people think and feel things they might rather not think and feel. Those who can bear it, and believe they can learn from it truths to apply in their own lives, stick with me. Those who can't should look elsewhere. There are all kinds of blogs out there, blogs for all kinds of people.

Two blog authors who make me think and feel are Maggie at Magpie Musing and Alejna at Collecting Tokens. Maggie is my sister. No, she's not; she has her own sister. But in odd, symbolic ways, she and I share essential elements of our childhoods. Our mothers, both dead now, were uncannily similar to one another. Maggie writes about anything and everything, and her writing is intelligent and compassionate. She is an observer, like me, drawn to quirks and oddities. Read her. You will learn much about all kinds of things. Alejna, too, is clever and witty, which draws me to her and her blog, a blog as much visual as textual. Alejna is a talented photographer, and what she chooses to photograph is always interesting and surprising. Also, she shares my love affair with words. Indeed she is a doctoral student in linguistics. Visit her, too. I have asked both of these women to write about their own writing processes. Their responses will be posted on their blogs on Monday, April 21st.

(If you've learned nothing else about me via this meme (ahh! the truth will out! this is a meme, called My Writing Process: A Blog Tour), you now know that I am drawn to smart women.)

Thank you to Amanda (yet another smart woman who blogs these days at Amanda Magee) for inviting me to participate in this project. I hope that my take has not disappointed. You may read about Amanda's writing process here, but do read more of her work than the one post, because Amanda writes beautifully and poignantly about life as a person, a professional, a wife, and a mother, and the tension inherent in juggling those four roles, so often at odds with one another.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

In the Twilight Zone

I keep worrying about the plane. A whole plane, lost, as easily misplaced as a set of keys? If that isn't enough, there are the oceans, which we may as well rename dumps: the Atlantic Dump, the Pacific Dump. ("Off to surf in the Atlantic Dump!," the girl, towel slung over one tanned shoulder, called cheerfully.) As much junk in the water as in space, the debris orbiting aimlessly and infinitely. Some days it's all too much.

A boy in my classroom tells me that he is making a necklace for me. "Triangles or rectangles?," he asks. I blink, puzzled. "It's a paper necklace," he explains. Of course! "Triangles," I choose, fortified by this burst of clarity. He beams. I have chosen wisely. Sense-making: perhaps the only real goal there is.

My family spent one winter weekend watching perhaps twenty episodes of Twilight Zone. Afterwards we spent weeks primed for oddities. My youngest child has started sending photos to a Reddit site called "Mildly Interesting." The other day he noticed that when you turn a Sonic cup upside down, the logo reads "Dinos," thanks to a faint vertical line bisecting the 'c' in Sonic. He spent a restless few hours before checking on the status of his submission. 2 upvotes, and 1 downvote. He shook his head, acknowledging defeat. "Not mildly interesting enough," he declared.

(Sonic: we finally tried it. For years the company has run commercials in our market, although the restaurant is located nowhere near us. For years we've been unwittingly building up this fast-food establishment. It was bound to disappoint. Particularly the onion rings; their peculiarity lingered. If there were such a thing as an onion donut, it would taste like a Sonic onion ring. Mildly interesting, maybe? Worth more than 2 upvotes?)

One episode of Twilight Zone that stuck with us concerns a single man surviving what appears to be a nuclear holocaust. After digesting the fact that he is to be alone for the rest of his life, he is overjoyed to find a library, walls blown away, but books mostly intact. And then he steps on his glasses, shattering them. Alanis Morrissette would call that ironic, wrongly. More of a pitiable coincidence, I'd say.

At a motel near Philadelphia we arrive tired and hungry. The little shop by the front desk has only dessert for sale. We resign ourselves to dessert for dinner. It is very late. My husband buys a pint of ice cream for himself. No, not a pint, not anymore; ice cream manufacturers are hoping that we don't notice. Oh, we notice, but what can we do? So. We get up to the room, which is designed in ways large and small for the physically challenged. "Do they know something we don't?," muses one brother. "Oh, you're physically challenged all right," retorts the other, setting up a round of tiresome and predictable squabbling. We change for bed, and eat our sugar. Except for my husband, who lacks a spoon. "Just lick it,"  one of the boys suggests, pragmatically enough. My husband declines. He grabs a glass from the bathroom and uses it as a makeshift shovel. It works. No one judges. We've all been there. And we think of the last man in the world without his glasses. A container of ice cream without a spoon. Not nearly the same degree of tragic, but interesting conundrums nonetheless.

We live in a crazy world. Making sense of things may come naturally to humans, but damned if we aren't all playing make-believe when we write our to-do lists, drag our trash to the curb and watch it disappear down the street, tend to our tidy lawns, and assume that tomorrow the sun will rise, because it did today, yesterday, and the day before that. 

The Great Wizard of Oz was never more than a short, balding man with a stammer. People believing otherwise didn't change the fact.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

What to Expect When You're No Longer Expecting

One problem, among others, with professionalizing parenthood is that all its full-time employees are bound, after eighteen or so years, for unemployment. Today we approach parenting as if it's yet another school subject in which we might earn an A, if we apply ourselves with seriousness of purpose. Doubtless this is because many of us have chosen parenting instead of that high-powered career we once assumed to be our destiny.

But parenthood is not a profession and never was. It is, at most, a condition in which we live for a protracted but finite period. And while we may speak of good parenting versus bad parenting, I don't think we can or should attempt to judge our performance as parents with ever finer metrics of success or failure. In parenting there are variables entirely out of our control: of course these variables are our children themselves, with their own temperaments and trajectories, their own wishes, fears, strengths, and limitations.

As I live through the final years of parenting, I begin to suspect that this generation of parents is wholly unprepared for what comes next. We are so caught up in the day-to-day of it all that we forget to wonder how we will fill the hours once our children are out of the house. And if we do consider those hours, it is with na├»ve eyes. We think we long for that time. Will we really? 

We also fail to set aside a thought or two for the adjustments our marital relationship will require when not buffered or buffeted by the demands of children. The cartoon depicting husband and wife staring at each other in shock and alarm after they've waved goodbye to their son in the parking lot of his college dormitory? "What now?" Not far off the mark, that cartoon.

Obviously our children do not cease being our children once they stop living with us. But tides will shift. To deny the fact would be foolish and might also set us up for emotional distress on a scale we hadn't thought to anticipate.

Remember those first few blurry weeks of parenthood? When the world seemed turned upside down and shaken once or twice for good measure? Why wouldn't we expect the climb out of full-time parenting to be just as jarring? 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In the Third Month

Bare and spare trees tip towards the sun,
Soldiers standing at attention, well past
Ready to be counted. They clutch at stray
Crisped elderly leaves, tattered tickets
To this, the changing of the guard.

In the streets mothers unclench their grip
On squirmy progeny who spin and skip
Before casting furtive looks at grown-ups
Whose faces soften when stealing secret sips
Of such fine and misty raindrops and drips.

The man who serves me coffee
Wants to tell me all about his cold --
It's lingered for weeks now.
This from someone who prefers
To slide my drink down the counter,
To avoid the brush of hand on hand.
Impropriety's such a stubborn stain.

I know, I know, I murmur, as
He waits on my reply, It's been 
A bad winter, a long one. He nods.
This is what he'd hoped I'd say.
He blushes candy pink and blinks.
And I see -- his face another tree --
Angled, expectant, at anemic light.

Shh, it won't be long. March, they say,
Comes in one way, goes out another.
Sandwiched between: a minute, 
Perhaps a second, a sudden shift.
The trees, the mothers, and the man --
They've placed all faith in waiting.

The brittle sunshine soothes:
No, it really won't be long now.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

What Eight-Year-Olds Know

"We are so alike, Mrs. Piazza," the boy exclaimed, and I smiled at the thought of it. Nearly forty years younger than I am, raised in a rural, not urban, setting, an inveterate talker at the most inopportune times versus a little girl who scarce opened her mouth, so reserved was she, well. Hard to fathom, really, the similarities between me and this boy with big black hair, lanky body, and a tendency to share all the secrets without realizing that there are in fact secrets: this boy who dreams in the color of football.

But then he added, "Because we're both left-handed, used to live in Chicago, and prefer Choice #1 on the lunch menu!," and I thought, Well of course we're similar. How did I not see it before?

His child's criteria for similarity are so much more flexible and forgiving than my own. Let it be a lesson. According to an eight-year-old's standards, any two people in the world are similar, even if only because they both prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla.

What we could accomplish as a community, a nation, and yes, a world, if we recognized every other person on the planet as being more similar to us than different. How we might effect the most significant change if we used an eight-year-old's eyes to see other people.

A thought on a Saturday in mid-March of 2014, a time when we have all the tools to improve the lot of every human being but seem to lack any sense of imperative: Find another person. Revel in your similarities, using my little friend's rubric. Help that person because he or she could be you, after all. Enjoy how it feels to suss out commonalities, not differences. Go from there.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

What Parenting Is, and What It's Not

I have this kid. He has a gift. Always has. He can do things with numbers that would dazzle you if you could follow him as he swings, lithe and carefree, from branch to branch, tree to tree. He is, I think, a math magician. I admit that I cannot understand his mathematical thinking most of the time, and I consider myself relatively skilled at math. He once told me that for him numbers have their own colors. Personalities, if you will. I nodded, acknowledging, but without the slightest comprehension of what it must be like to live in his world.

When he makes use of his gift, when he shares his insights with others, I am proud. Why wouldn't I be? But I do not deceive myself. His talents have nothing to do with my parenting. He was born that way. I may have provided him with an environment that hasn't discouraged his skills, but I will cop to no more on that front.

Do you want to know what makes me really proud of him? It's the way he has worked on the things that do not come so easily to him. No, I will go further: it's the way that we have worked on the things that do not come so easily to him. It's how he spent a Friday night at a hotel with his math team. It's how he didn't need to call us. It's how he wasn't even homesick. It's how he talked comfortably to strangers. It's how he didn't worry about his upcoming performance. It's how he got himself to sleep easily in an unfamiliar setting with none of the comforts or crutches of home. It's how he didn't lose anything -- didn't leave belongings at the hotel or on the van. 

So forgive me if today I am beaming. His team placed first in a state competition, and that is amazing, truly. My son's brains will take him far. But my smile is wide because my kid had a wonderful time away from us and did not suffer even a flutter or jolt of anxiety. If I take a moment to pat myself on the back on my child's behalf, it will be because when the first great opportunity arose, he embraced the world instead of shying away from it.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Priest at the Cocktail Party

Sunlight filters down through the skylight and stripes the carpet. The color of the carpet is the place where lavender and gray tryst late at night. It is soft but thin against my baby fingers. If I press hard, I can feel the floor beneath. It is not a carpet that forgives falls. I have learned this truth through experience. I am crawling up the stairs to my bedroom. The slant of the light tells me that it is early afternoon. I am concentrating hard, placing hands and knees strategically. The carpet prickles the flesh at my kneecaps. I am neither content nor fretful. I am focused on my goal of making it to the top of the stairs.


This is my first memory. It is also the last memory I have that is not invested with emotional content, amd for that it continues to reassure me forty-five years later. I am something of an emotional weather station. I can tell you the emotional temperature in a room, sure, but I can also gauge the emotional wind speed and barometric pressure. I am able to predict whether emotional fallout will arrive as rain, snow, ice, or that wintry mix of which we all despair. Being me is tiresome indeed.

One of my sons is incapable of predicting emotional weather. He believes himself not disadvantaged but advantaged by his inability to read another person's subtext. He swims through life as if it is the climate-controlled water of a swimming pool: no waves, currents, danger. Just make sure to use your arms and legs to propel you forward, and you will always get exactly where you want to be. Like the horses who drive carriages in New York City, my boy wears blinders that obscure all but the view forward. 

Sometimes I yearn to be him. I didn't ask to be the way I am, after all, to be able to sense who at the party is clutching at a painful secret, who is fantasizing about having a relationship with another person's spouse, or who is furious at the once and future best friend. I might choose to keep silent about what I see, but that's never enough. The other half of the story is that people, even strangers, gravitate towards me. They know. They share their stories, the unprettier the better. Afterwards they look relieved, the sky scrubbed clean and new after a storm.

But I am left alone, gulping down the dregs of my wine. It's no wonder that I hate parties, that I dread them as soon as I scan the invitation that heralds their arrival. I am the priest in the confessional, only I never once chose to open my door to you. You open my door to me, and try as I might cannot close it. It is your Pandora's box, and ends up mine, too.

So if you, elderly lady at the supermarket, are telling me about your long estrangement with your son who lives in Phoenix with his second wife and her four unruly children, and I happen to close my eyes briefly, do not mind. I am crawling up the stairs to my bedroom, one dimpled hand here, one chubby toddler knee there. I have somewhere to be, you see.