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 at 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.

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.