Saturday, May 3, 2014

Skin and Bone: A Farewell of Sorts

It was a September day so balmy that it carried regret on its back, the sense that summer had come and gone without enough respect paid to the great outdoors. The children were in school. The little one had not cried at drop-off, and I was feeling relieved, and daring to be hopeful about drop-offs to come. Across from the preschool was an abandoned train station and its tracks, covered over now by nature's restorative efforts. The parents of children attending the Montessori school typically scrambled down and then up the other side of the trackbed, a shortcut enabling them to reach their cars faster, and start their days sooner. 

Somehow I skidded down into the base of the channel. My thong sandals were flimsy. There must have been morning dew. I don't really know. I didn't pay attention to the chain of events that would seem important only in retrospect. My right leg made contact with the bottom of the U-shaped ditch, and I heard the snap of bone. And then, incredibly, a second snap.

I sat stunned for a minute. I assessed my predicament through a sudden fog. I stared at my right foot, which was angled in a grotesque and improbable way. I looked to both sides of me. Where were all the parents? On the road to my right I saw the short school bus that had disgorged, minutes earlier, a small group of kindergartners. The bus driver sat lounging in her seat; the bus' accordion door was folded back to welcome the warm air.

This story is not about my broken leg, although the leg was in fact broken. Both tibia and fibula. Accidents happen. Even freak accidents happen. They happen to healthy 37-year-old women on sun-kissed days when all one's ducks seem to be in a row (no tears at drop-off!).

However, this story is about my broken leg, in one sense: during my six-month convalescence (a period including three surgeries, two plates, eleven screws, near-total bedrest, and excruciating sessions of physical therapy), I began to write.

Why, then, did I make a point of telling you about the bus driver? Because when I was sitting frozen in that ditch, having recognized that I was unable to move, I could scarce muster the courage to raise my voice, shout, "I need help." My first reaction - not horror at my twisted leg, not pain-fueled hysteria - was embarrassment. Shame. I did finally yell for help, directing my volume toward the bus driver, but I found doing so as agonizing as my injury. As for the bus driver, good soul, she went into the preschool to fetch the director, and call for an ambulance.

Soon teachers were at my side, and parents too. I remember wondering how they could have appeared so quickly, when a moment or a lifetime ago they were nowhere. A clutch of women made a circle about me, clucking sympathetically, chatting about their own history of broken bones, ailments, and accidents. As women do. Never in my life before or since have I wished so fervently to spit out ugly, venomous words and scatter them like seeds, to stop these women from speaking about nothing when there was so goddamn much pain, which had flown up and off the scale, finally, and was now sending streaks of lightning across my visual field and causing my stomach to knot so fiercely that vomiting felt a foregone conclusion. Instead I smiled and nodded and felt for all the world as if I were hosting a coffee klatsch right there on the weedy, pebbled trackbed. There would be no speaking my truth, not on that day.

When a month later I began to write - encouraged by a blogger friend - it all came tumbling out, the mess I'd kept closeted for years, so thoroughly closeted that I'd completely forgotten about the existence of the closet. I wrote and wrote and wrote, publishing every day and sometimes twice in a day. You thought I was prolific, readers of my blog, and I was, but only because there was so much pressure behind what had been stopped up for too long.

I 'found myself' (as much as I detest that expression) in my forties, and I couldn't have done that without blogging. I had articulated a divide: between my thirties, when I dared not speak my truth, and my forties, when I wasn't so much speaking my truth as shouting it. But this divide was artifice - a literary device. The real divide came before I reached forty years old. It came on September 14, 2005, when I broke my leg and realized that even in duress I was apologizing for drawing attention, for causing trouble, for creating a fuss, for being me.

I am grateful, so very grateful, for blogging, for you, the people I've grown to love through blogging - you who never turned away from me during my metamorphosis but instead embraced me. At least one of you will surely laugh and accuse me of crying wolf, claiming to be done with blogging when in a few months I will prove otherwise. At that accusation, which we all know to be well-founded, I shrug. I can write only what I believe to be true at the time I'm writing it.

But hey, that shrug? Means that I am finally comfortable in my own skin. It's taken forty-six years and a lot of experiences I'd rather not have had. And yet: God! I am so thankful to be here, now.

My leg has healed. The two plates and eleven screws, they will remain inside me for the entirety of my life.

I like to think that some of us just need a few screws and plates - and a blog - to help us become ourselves. 





Thursday, May 1, 2014

Vote For Our Future

I live in a small town. The main business of the town is education, whether it is the education of small people or relatively larger, college-aged people. Education: its Latin root means to draw out from within, or to lead forth. Given that so many of us here a) are in the process of being educated; b) have children who are in the process of being educated; c) have returned as retirees to a place where we or our loved ones were once educated; and/or d) work in the field of educating others, we ought to be especially sensitive to the laudable goal of 'leading forth' our community's children. At a time when society's burdens and challenges are acute (global warming; overpopulation; drug-resistant bacteria, among others), it would seem especially important for us to raise creative thinkers who will meet these burdens and challenges with aplomb.

In order to do that, we must have learning environments that facilitate, not hinder, a twenty-first century education. We need spaces that encourage collaboration and "out of the box" problem-solving, interdisciplinary instruction, and technological innovation. At present we have a high school that enables none of these things. The high school is far outdated. Its condition has so deteriorated that students must prepare for extreme heat in a classroom, extreme cold, and/or the possibility - very real, sadly - of flooding. Classrooms are small, isolated, and not technologically 'smart.' High schoolers must walk back and forth across a busy street multiple times in one day to attend their classes, some of which are in one building, the rest in another. What a waste of precious learning time!

On May 20th the referendum to build a new high school will come up for a vote. I honestly can't see why anyone would vote against this referendum. One visit to the aging high school should convince even stalwart opponents of the dire need for action. I have listened to naysayers' complaints: these are predominantly about increased property taxes to finance the construction of a new high school. I wish I could help such people see bigger, broader, further, help them see the need for a new high school not as a choice but as a moral imperative. It is not about the adults among us, or it shouldn't be. It is about the legacy we leave our children, our friends' children, our grandchilden, our friends' grandchildren.

For it is these children who shall inherit the earth.

Vote yes on May 20th. Vote for our future.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Field Trip

Faith has a face. Today it is stubbled and lined, weary. Faith wears a baseball cap artfully placed to conceal a bald spot, or two. Faith wears jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. Faith keeps a Diet Coke by his thigh, the bottle tipped, too skinny to fit properly into the vehicle's cup holder. I implore Faith to drink that Diet Coke. Faith adjusts the side view mirrors and sighs, a bone-deep sigh. He coughs and clears his throat. I wonder: has he slept? Has he slept enough?

Forty children on this bus. No, they are not children. They occupy the uncomfortable space between children and teenagers. A gum-smacking, malodorous, coltish space. He, Faith, sees a mass of pimpled, noisy, rude riders. I see the toughest part of youth, so tough that this age group is segregated from older and younger kids into a three-grade outpost we unironically call middle school. I see the tears each and every one of these awkward bodies shed at night, when they believe no one is looking. I see diaries with scrawled secrets, especially poignant because in reality the secrets are not secret at all.

And I beg Faith to keep these incipient people safe, to bring them home, in all their lovely unloveliness. They are becoming. Think of the hideous cocoon that encases the chrysalis. Remember what comes next. These forty kids, they are all potential.

Perhaps, Faith, as you drive, you flash back to your own unlovely years. Did they scar you? They enabled the best years of your life, whenever those were, however many there were. I guess by your appearance that for you those best years have come and gone. Still: they survive in your head, don't they?

Your cargo is precious. Today I will go to work and fear getting a phone call. I will consider just how often we call strangers by the name Faith. I will encourage you to go ahead and take a second sip of that Diet Coke. 

And when the tweens are stomping on that last nerve of yours, find the empathy I know you possess, because you lived there once, on that bus, in that school, in that no-man's land where you are no longer cute but not yet interesting.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter

 I've spent the better part of my forties attempting a wholesale rejection of the person I once was. The people pleaser. The faithful one, who always remembered everyone's birthdays and all the other milestones besides. The careful, conscientious worker, the attentive, solicitous friend.

It is not lost on me that most people shed familiar roles and try on new ones when they are in their teens, not their forties, but I was late to my emotional adolescence, and that is that.

Of course I came into these past few years angry and hurting (the death of a parent will do that to a person), and high emotion like that does not reconcile itself to good sense. I knew perfectly well that you can't escape yourself, and yet I think that's exactly what I was hoping to do.

So here I am, on the other side of all the turmoil, and I am more or less the same as I was then. I have learned to put myself first when I need to, and even if that's all I've learned, it was something worth figuring out.

Writing in this space was part and parcel of shedding old skin and may even have facilitated the process. Rather obliviously I wrote my truth without care or concern for its effect on other people whose stories I might coopt in the telling of my own. I imagined you, my reader, as a stranger and thereby safe. 

Yesterday I found out that my writing has shocked certain members of my extended family. 'Shock' covers a lot of territory, doesn't it? But you have to admit that all the territory it covers is ugly: squat buildings set against a dry, dusty landscape. 

In hearing this news I felt, in order: guilt, shame, and surprise. Of these the surprise was the most illuminating. Had I been living under a rock, not understanding that what I wrote publicly would have repercussions? Did I think my writing exempt from those repercussions? Did I believe that pretty words couldn't wound?

No. In the thick of my belated adolescence I suppose I didn't much care. I was, for the first time in my life, being selfish. 

Now, though, now. I am fully capable of considering my writing and its impact, even if it is on only a small circle of people.

I may decide to continue doing everything as I have been. I may choose to thin my body of work, shuttering writing that might cause pain now or later. I don't know.

But whatever I end up doing, I sense an awakening in myself that coincides happily with the awakening of the earth after a particularly cold, challenging winter.

I am cleaning house, opening windows, airing out rooms. It is the kind of work that feels like work's opposite. I grow a little older. I grow a little wiser. I grow.


Friday, April 18, 2014

The Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini

The summer I was sixteen, my father rented a house near Ocean City, Maryland. My parents had been divorced practically as long as I’d been alive, and my father had remarried when I was seven or eight. I’d understood from very early on that I’d be seeing him and my stepmother for a few weeks every summer, and, alarmingly obedient, even docile, I was only beginning to feel the tiniest bit cranky that these yearly trips were required of me. I grew crankier still when I found out that the house was this seventies monstrosity with bright orange panelling hidden in and amongst some severely mosquito-ridden woods. I’d expected it to be a beach house. And why not? Ocean City, see? I felt cheated from the first moment I saw the rental unit, though no one had ever said a word to me about its proximity or distance from the beach. Sixteen-year-olds are especially adept at feeling cheated, aren’t they?
It was a week during which more than one of my expectations was defied. My much older half-brother and half-sister were visiting my father, their father, at the same time as I was, an unprecedented occurrence, and they taught me more than I think they’d intended. My sister bought me a string bikini in a shop on the boardwalk even as I protested that I could never fill out such a thing. But she knew better. To my astonishment, I looked good in it. Damn good. And when the next morning I put it on and stood before my father, I saw shock in his eyes, and I felt oddly powerful. It was the first time I realized that my body could be used as a tool. My sister, I think, had been hoping to shock my father all along. Though I’m not completely sure of that; I never asked her. In my family we leave lots of things unsaid. Especially the important things.
Later in the week my sister dressed me up in some Middle Eastern pants of hers, these billowy red cotton pants, and a halter top, and I looked and felt like Jeannie, the genie of whom Captain Nelson dreamed. My sister then proceeded to transform my face with the aid of some gold eyeshadow and the deepest of red lipsticks, and together we drove to the boardwalk. That night I turned heads. Strangers’ heads. Oh, yes, my sister was teaching me things. As was my father, though Lord knows his things were different from her things. In the mornings, he was taking me out for driving lessons on the private roads leading to the rental house, and as I recall, he was incredibly patient as a driving instructor, which stood out, it really did, because even at nearly eighty, he is not a particularly patient man.
I knew that at sixteen I understood nothing about the opposite sex and only the tiniest bit about driving. But I also prided myself on my ability to pick up subtle (and not so subtle) emotional cues from others. So when that August I witnessed several sharp and bitter exchanges between my father and stepmother, I assumed their marriage was in trouble. I watched my stepmother drink more than I’d ever seen her do before. I caught the sarcasm, the cold silences, the terse words. Until I couldn’t stand to catch anything more, and I retreated into my room to read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Its ambiguity suited my sixteen-year-old self, innocent but desperate to be taken for jaded.
Now I know that sixteen-year-olds, no matter how savvy in isolated and often irrelevant ways, lack so much in the way of context. I saw things, sure. I judged them accurately. But I was missing some of the puzzle pieces, and a few of these were corner pieces, pieces essential for anchoring the whole damn puzzle. My stepmother had had breast cancer. That I did know. She’d undergone a mastectomy. What I didn’t know was that her cancer had returned. Fear was motivating her drinking, and my father’s helplessness in the face of the disease was behind each and every unkind word he uttered. He wasn’t used to being unable to control things.
My stepmother died two years later. And only after her death was I able to understand the week I spent in Maryland and marvel at the awful juxtaposition of my body blossoming into womanhood, becoming something I could manipulate, and hers turning the tables on her, manipulating her, betraying her. Do you appreciate the irony inherent in my developing breasts at the same time as she was forced to give hers up in order to save her life, only to have to cope with the knowledge that she hadn’t managed to save anything after all?
Context. It’s essential.
I wrote this piece in 2008, many blogs ago. Today the same brother is visiting me, and together we spoke on the phone with my sister. Suddenly I was reminded of this long-ago, pivotal summer.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

These Things May or May Not Be Related. But They Are Still Things.

The presumption in my last post has bothered me ever since I published it. I am a writer only in the sense that I write. I am not a professional writer. There. I feel better now.

Every day my children are finding better and more ways to activate my pride in them. We all believe our own children to be special snowflakes, but mine really are. Cough.

The first set of students I helped teach is due to graduate from elementary school in June. I feel as weepy and nostalgic as if they were my own children. Well, in a way they are. I hope they fly.

My brother is visiting us over Easter weekend. My children are thrilled. Relatives who are living, able, and willing to visit us are in short supply. I lament my inability to grant my boys the gift of piles of relatives to dote on them.

I have been ill. I am reminded to celebrate good health rather than take it for granted.

One of our neighbors is currently standing atop a 20-foot ladder to trim branches off of a border tree shared between us. He has placed the ladder on our lawn. If he falls, my husband and I will be liable for whatever injuries he suffers. Also, the neighbor has not asked our permission to work on the tree. This irritates me more than it should.

A colleague's husband has just been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. He was showing no symptomatology. I am heartbroken for her and her family. One life. Make it count.

The smell of spring makes me smile and wish to hug strangers. May it do the same for you. So many people are in need of a hug. Even a virtual hug will make a difference. Now and then it will make all the difference. I promise.


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.

Groan.

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.

The question of why I write what I do puzzles me. 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.