On Tests, on Failure…

scansTomorrow, I’ll go in for my eighth MRI. I’ve only had one MRI with positive results. Usually, there are more lesions. Usually, there will be new meds. These are tests I fail regularly. When I was in middle school, I got a 65% on the long division test. In high school, I failed a chemistry test. Later, I did not do well on the LSATs, but I didn’t really want to be a lawyer, anyway, did I? Life is too ambiguous to insist on being so sure.

This past month, I filled out an application for a new doctor. “I don’t know if I can handle anymore rejection,” I said to my mother. I had received three manuscript rejections the day before. Still, I detailed my c-sections and my multiple sclerosis and my depression on the papers. I was accepted. It was a thrill! At my first appointment, I was polite. I tried not to seem overly needy. He explained to me about depression. I remembered my melancholy adolescence and drinking through college and nodded to him when he explained about the brain and chemicals. I thought about my grandmother. I wanted to explain to him what I knew about science and feelings. I’ve tried to control my brain chemistry with thought, and when I can’t–unsurprisingly!–have found the ultimate illusion of failure. Emotions and science have a complicated relationship.

Last month, when I opened the email from my servicer that my grace period was ending for my student loans, anxiety spiked. But I don’t have a full-time job yet, I said to the email. I have not yet received all the rejections from my manuscript! I needed more time to redeem myself, and I still continue to spend all the time in the world arguing this in my head. How easy it is to forget the many people in my shoes, also in the muck of the temporary plight of the humanities, people I don’t consider as having failed. To believe in failure assumes that the chances for success are finite. I feel like I’ve realized something as I type this, yet I know that in the face of a particularly hard rejection or a disappointment, I will forget again.

I have read all the articles about how to make an MFAW worth it, how to survive post-degree life, how to make the degree count for something, and though I do all these things because I love them, I wonder, as I always have, what defines a writer? How do you meet whatever measures and hurdles? How do you pass that test? To my students, I say, If you write, you are a writer, but do I believe that for myself? Sadly, not right now. Right now, I believe that if you can publish a book, if you can pay back the loans for your writing degree with a job you acquired as a result of that degree, then you are a writer. I don’t hold these beliefs about other people who write, but these feelings haunt me about myself. Feelings are not rational. And who knows how that will change with time? In ten minutes, while I’m jotting down notes about the novel I’m afraid to start, I might change my mind. Or I might be 80 years old with dozens of manuscripts and no books, and then, I might even consider myself a writer. There is something to be said for keeping on.

Around some people, I become unsure, and I feel like I am not who I am, or that I am flawed and my body is weak because it is diseased, or that I am doing the wrong things. Some people are just so sure. I ask my husband, “Why do I stay quiet? I don’t want to pass their tests. I want to politely disagree. I do not always want to be the world’s little sister.” And as I say this, my mind is back in the conversation with my mouth closed and my insides quivering with dissent. I don’t want to be told everything. I want to tell, too. At some point in my life, passing the test became about following directions, meant allowing myself to be told. How to fail, now?

A month or so ago, I took a Buzzfeed quiz that, in some psychic way, told me my biggest fear was failure by analyzing my favorite pictures from a selection. Yes, I chose a photo of a hand beckoning out of the dark. Yes, I chose the photo of a woman staring into an overgrown field. Sure, I chose the picture of a couple standing under an umbrella in the rain. Somehow, Buzzfeed was right, and they, whoever they are, passed the test: I am afraid of failure, and then I wondered if I had passed the Buzzfeed test by answering the questions right. Hey, who’s testing who here? I wanted to know. Buzzfeed has also told me I am sensitive, that my outgoing personality masks my introversion, and that if I were a hippie, my name would be Flower. They always pass, or I always pass. The thing about the pain of failure is that it’s a smack in the face to hope. I remember the initial failure I felt after each c-section, and how now, the failure of my body to do what nature intended has become gauze-like in comparison to my sons, who, in my mind, could not fail me if they tried.

While I’m in the MRI machine tomorrow, I will have an IV–my least favorite part. This is for “contrast,” something that makes me imagine neon hi-liter fluid coursing through my arms and legs and brain while I try to keep still. “Try not to swallow for the next minute and 40 seconds,” the radiologist will say over a speaker while the machine does its thing, sounding like ten squirrels dropping acorns on a hollow log. I will try not to breathe. I’ll hope not to gasp for air. Or heaven forbid, sneeze. No vivid thoughts, even. I might decide, at that moment, that I am not taking the test, that I am the object, the machine is the writer. This will not calm me. In a day or two, I will know if I passed.

This month, or this week, or tomorrow, I will be rejected from a literary magazine or a book contest. Usually, I will submit somewhere else. This month, I will reject someone’s manuscript with a softened heart. As a writer and editor, if I do what writers are supposed to do, and keep on, thinking to myself about Beckett’s “fail better,” I will be rejected far more times than I will actually reject. I will write something nice in the writer’s email, and what I really would like to do is take their address off the manuscript and mail them a personal letter on stationery with a blue Pilot Precise V5 ballpoint, telling them how close they were to being accepted and not to feel like they failed. After all, I’d made it to the end of their piece and had taken time to write that letter. In this way, I will tell.


A Note on My Last Post

I want to take a moment to clarify a few things in light of my post “Dear Brockport, an Open Letter:”

I am not a journalist, I am a creative writer, and my post was not meant to break a news story, rather to call into question the recent issues in our community by filtering it through my own concern as a mother, a lecturer and alumna of SUNY Brockport, a lifetime resident, and a concerned community member. I turn to my blog in order to make sense of things that frighten, frustrate and confound me. These posts fall entirely in the genre of creative essay. It’s not an outlet I use to cast judgements on people, and hardly ever do I present journalistic hard facts. My concern was that a violent crime went unreported for whatever reason, by a slew of media outlets, and not just one in particular. As a creative writer, I respect and rely on the truth that reporters bring to our community, and perhaps my frustration grew because I had no report to turn to in order to discover the truth.

I am happy to belong to a community with many voices.

I appreciate those of you who did read this post, and hope you appreciate my genuine concern for our community.


Dear Brockport, an open letter:

imagesI’ve come to recognize a low-level anxiety in myself, not unlike I’m holding my breath, scared for something that makes me come back here to blog. Especially at the start of the fall semester at SUNY Brockport, I find myself preparing for something to happen. I warn my students they are not invincible, that they have to take care of themselves, to be vigilant, that those who come here (and are without their parents for the first time) don’t always know better (or act better) to look to faculty and staff and peers for guidance to make their vulnerability a little less-so. This is not just a college campus, it is still the real world.

Everyone knows about last weekend’s so-called riot after SUNY Brockport’s Homecoming game, when there were unfounded rumors of stabbings and vandalism and reports of Brockport cops threatening students with lines like “I will end your college career.” I try to find in myself an advocate, an even-minded person who defends the students I teach every day, and say, “They were chanting USA. They were displaced from the bars with no explanation. No one got hurt. There were no named victims of anything.” But the flashing emergency lights from the media pictures argue otherwise, and with that, the tensions between college (my alma mater, also where I teach English) and “townies” (a derogatory term, a term I use to define myself), have taken off, and not for the betterment of anyone.  Social media has blown up with negativity.

Last night, a Brockport High School student was beaten with a baseball bat after the high school’s Homecoming game, and this morning, the only press I can find about this is a Facebook post issued by the victim’s mother pleading for any witnesses to come forward, and none of the witnesses who were at the game had called the authorities, and what good is a frightened mother without a lead? Where is the press? I Googled and re-Googled for anything I could find. These criminals–and they have committed a violent, egregious crime–have escaped, and there is no Brockport Blog/WHEC News 10/WHAM 13 news item anywhere. What are we afraid of? If there’s a victim, there’s a crime, there’s a criminal. Our students aren’t criminals, but after this weekend, there’s a criminal out there.

My son had been at that game with his friends and his friends’ parents, a game my husband and I were so bummed we couldn’t attend with him. They played soccer in the patch of grass under the lights next to the families who were there to cheer on their student athletes and next to the high school students who cheered for their best friends. I hate to think of the narrow escapes from danger, how narrow they can be, and the threat that some time, they might not be narrow enough.

For these news events to occur on Homecoming weekends, how can this feel so unlike our home? It’s an out-of-body experience, almost, yet you feel the wound because it’s you, it’s your community. And when that happens, they are not just news events.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband, Cory, and I, sat on our porch and watched the children who live across the street sell their late-September lemonade, an act of suburban bliss. College students and high school students alike pulled over on Park Ave to support the enterprise. They were showing the younger kids how to be in the world.

At 2:30 and 3:45 and 5 this morning, I was horrified to think that the perpetrator(s?) of this baseball bat beating were still out there and still dangerous and very little was made public about it. I thought about my students, who were the “criminals” last week, their homecoming cheers, how they were likely in their beds at 4:30 am. And by the next morning, when they woke, they saw themselves all over the news.

One of my students said in class on Friday that one of his high school teachers “hated him,” and I said, skeptically, “That doesn’t sound like a healthy feeling to have toward a student.” I explained that, to me, it felt congruent (although a smaller congruence) to hating your child. How do you give up on someone you have responsibility to? But I can’t say the feelings any of the parents or community members in Brockport would feel anything less that hate for whoever beat that high school boy last night. In that boy, we all imagine parts of our children. We all just want everyone to act in a way that is as human or humane as we feel.


“You Hear Night Sounds,” a New Piece of Fiction, at The Rumpus



nightYou Hear Night Sounds,” my short fiction, has been published at The Rumpus. This piece is inspired by serial killer Joel Rifkin, who attended SUNY Brockport in the seventies.

Note: the piece is entirely fiction, and is only inspired by history, which means many liberties have been taken with details of the story.  While the story is speculative, that doesn’t mean certain elements of the story aren’t true. The characters in the story are fictionalized, the fabric of human emotion is real. I do not know Joel Rifkin, nor have I spoken to him or know his family.

Read it here:  You Hear Night Sounds


The Intersection of Drawing and Writing and Living

photo (2)Last night, I drew a charcoal picture of what I meant to be my parents’ golden retriever, Buddy (with two eyes), before next Thursday, when a cancerous mass will be removed from his skull, along with one of his eyes.

I’ve just graduated with my MFA in fiction, and am writing a short story about a pedophile bicyclist, but was, after reading Adam Gopnik’s “Life Studies” early on at Goddard, compelled to buy a $5 charcoal set from a close-out store and since, have been drawing pictures that resemble animals and people, but in actuality, all feel like drafts of a story without a true epiphany, without heart or breath. I post these to Facebook and send them in text messages to my best friend because they feel like immediate gratification, as though in one glimpse, someone can see what clearly is a dog. Although perhaps too unpolished to illustrate the sadness Buddy can’t know exists when two eyes become one eye. Soon, he will see the world one-half at a time. The drawing was in-progress, in much the same way my fiction was, a father struggling to realize his fears for his son, who’s way closer in proximity to a pedophile than he’s comfortable with.

I talked through this charcoal drawing of Buddy last night while sitting next to my husband, Cory, who watched the sequel of “Taken,” a movie I couldn’t watch because I didn’t find it believable. How could members of one family be stolen two times? I asked him.

How do I know? Cory said.

It’s hard to draw something you know personally, I said. I can mess up a squirrel, or impose my own ideas of my mother’s face in a portrait of her from the 60s (because it’s not how I know her today), but Buddy’s nose, the fattest most bulbous blackest nose I’ve ever seen on a dog has to look both natural and true-to-Buddy-as-he-is-tonight and believable. I spent most of the two hours I drew Buddy just trying to get the shadows on Buddy’s face accurate enough to craft his nose as horrifying and endearing and entirely normal.

In 2008, my parents lost their first golden retriever, also named Buddy, suddenly, because of a mass that put pressure on his heart. And now, this Buddy, too, has a mass. My father and I chatted briefly on the phone last night, discussing how unfair and unbelievable it was that both Buddies could have such a fate. But life, it turns out, is not about what’s believable, though we hold art to a standard of making life somehow believable and sensible and controlled. Workshops discuss sequence and plot and structure as though life relies on this instinct–and perhaps because it doesn’t. Maybe it’s controlling fear that makes art worth the hours and thousands of dollars we spend on it.

Cory looked over and commented on the shadow and angles cast on Buddy. How his ear didn’t have the shading it should and how it didn’t follow his snout entirely.

Why is everything about angles and math? I asked.

He was right, and slowly, I erased the charcoal enough so that I could recognize Buddy in the drawing, and I said, Hi, Buddy, when his nose looked about right. I guess it’s really all about light and dark, I said, trying to oust math from the art. This morning, while continuing the pedophile story, the father materialized, petrified for his son, and at the same time damaged by his own experience with a pedophile, all while realizing that souls are souls and bodies are bodies. I hope, in the final draft, he captures how simple math and unbelievable life have the potential to wreck us.


“A Moon Story,” in Hippocampus Magazine

“A Moon Story,” in Hippocampus Magazine

Hippocampus Magazine has published my nonfiction piece, “A Moon Story,” a piece about losing life, giving birth, and surviving in nature.

 
3.11.11 There is an earthquake in Japan, and I hold my hands on my belly that…
 
Click HERE to read more
 
HIPPOCAMPUSMAGAZINE.COM

 


Take It With You: Exploring Transition

hartwellScenario: You’re moving from the bell-towered historical building, Hartwell, which is haunted, and is named after the first president of the university you attended for six years and now teach at, to a shiny new building acronymed LAB, a term meant for scientists, but stands for Liberal Arts Building. You are an adjunct instructor of English and sometimes teach composition, and sometimes teach creative writing, and always become attached to students.

Do you pack your computer?

It’s not really yours, though you type this blog post from it as a farewell to the building you’ve become irrationally attached to, as you become irrationally attached to everything–a house you outgrew in just five years, the Steve Madden boots that trudged you through grad school, failed nuances of siblings and friend and exes (that can never quite achieve what reality did), or a coffee mug at a diner. Some people think you are crazy. You’ll pack it, a Dell, though you worry it might not boot up when you plug it in again. You spend the entire blog post wondering if there are instructions somewhere on how to pack a computer. Some items are scary to pack– you remember from when you moved last fall–like the antique lamp your mother gave you. You make a note to look, again, for the bronze lamp you fear you left behind.

Do you sneak something with you?

You’re not talking about something that’s specifically yours or specifically not yours, but that belongs to the building: a window pane, a brick, a light fixture (no: they were all replaced during a renovation in the 1990s, and are fluorescent and tick constantly and when you type for longer than ten minutes, because typing hardly registers any motion–your brain moves more than your body, the light turns off and it’s not the ghost, and you have to wave frantically to have light again).  You were instructed to pack the phone.  You pack the phone, and when you unplug it, wonder if anyone will call. You wish you could keep your key. You’ll pick up a small rock from the garden outside the building on your way out.

Do you cry?

No. Because that would be irrational, and you’ve considered turning over a new leaf, taking on the role of quiet neighbor and silent sister and wondering who you’ve become.  Last night, you read an article on your news feed, which is so full you feel like you could live for days on just water (you can’t even remember which publication the article was from), but it mentions the five regrets people have on their deathbeds, and one regret of the dying was that they wish they’d stood up more, spoken out more, and lived their lives the way they wanted without regard to money or other people’s emotions (what’s wrong with stirring emotions?), and you know you are on a good track because you have stacks of student loans and degrees and are a part-time faculty member at a school you are irrationally attached to, and you have or will upset more than a few people in the next few days.  You swear you just now heard a knock at the door to the office, and when you back up, you hit a huge empty box that you have been told is a good size for your computer, and when you manage to crane your neck to see who’s there, there is no one at the door.

Do you remember?

Bringing your nieces in for a tour of the building, telling them ghost stories about how there once was a pool, and people still sometimes heard splashing, and how a man had died in the cistern, and how the previous Collegiate Building had burned, and how the first Principal, back when it was a “normal school,” had a heart attack at the age of 35 in his office, and how ghosts were everywhere.  You had been their favorite aunt, scaring the wits out of them, and when the heavy wooden door closed just behind the three of you on your way down the stairwell, they shrieked, and you did too.

Remember your mother, who has just retired, at the café downstairs, having lunch with her at the tables, sitting with her on the benches outside the building while she smoked, how she fed your boys chocolate milk and bagels and huge cookies whenever you brought them in for a visit.

The time you hid under a desk one cubicle over because you mis-heard the PA announcement: “Active shooter in room 31″ and thought you were on the brink of your death, grateful your son was at daycare and your husband at work, but the shooter, actually, was on Route 31, where you lived at the time, and the man with the gun was not in Hartwell–not just a room or floor away–but had been your neighbor, and your house stood small and proud in the news pictures while you were in Hartwell, safely away, and your family, too, and you laughed because you’d called your parents in what you thought were your last moments, under the desk, sitting next to this very computer, but then it became more horrific when you realized the man with the gun had been just houses down from your son when he slept last night.

Do you leave?

You’re tired from this tour you’ve taken and have one last thing to pack, though you’re still not sure it’s yours to pack, though you know you will need a computer in the LAB, and if you don’t, will it stay behind with all of your files? Then you stop for a minute because the sun shines through the window, and too much more comes to you, like how you and your husband spent hours reading in the Writers Forum office when you had been just friends and then the classes you’d taken with professors you now call friends, but you go too far back, and so everything turns into something else, and before you know it, time is nothing.

 

 

 


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