Category Archives: opinion

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.

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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.


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.


This Is My Love Letter to Goddard

little-cupidThe first love letter I ever wrote was in Kindergarten to a boy I won’t name (because I’m friends with his wife on Facebook).  I wrote some in high school, to a high school sweetheart.  By the time I was in grad school, and met my husband, I was too cool for love letters.  I knew so much about myself that a couple scratches on a napkin or the back of a receipt would suffice.  I didn’t need to write long, scrawling pleas for love and for attention.  I had met my match, and he knew I loved him, so I didn’t need to write a big fat love letter sealed with a kiss.  I could draw a heart on his hand and call it a day.

When I imagine writing love letters–the type that declare love–the instinct, for me, is a need to confess it or lose it.

This is my love letter to Goddard, to the faculty, to the process (a process I “trust”), to the program that has sustained and nurtured my creative addiction for the past two years.

Goddard, I don’t want to lose you.  (“you”= the faculty and the students who come with the same love in mind, a shared goal of seeking humanity, of living the creative life, and the history, the place that wraps its arms around all of us.)  And the good thing is that education is not possessive, monogamous, closed-hearted, or self-seeking.  Goddard, especially, is none of those things.

Goddard, writers everywhere and anywhere cannot afford to lose you.  Your students recognize that the program requires sacrifice–a magnificent sacrifice of fear and doubt that sits in the gut of every writer–and every human!– and gives back something so big there isn’t a word for it, this new way of learning and teaching and being.   It makes this creative life possible.

For what it’s worth to the administration: understand what’s at stake for the students and faculty of all the Goddard programs to live and eat and breathe the practice of teaching and learning.  It’s the most fundamental and fulfilling of human exchange.

There is no number you can put on what comes in and goes out of these residencies.

We stand together as teachers and students.

 

 

 

 


On Writing Fiction from History, Place, and Depression

993526_10151673190772254_753025867_nThis week, The Missouri Review published an interview with me for their Working Writers Series on their website!

It’s sort of like when you watch those horror movies, and there’s the disclaimer at the beginning, “Inspired by true events.”  Every story I write begins with a piece of history I’ve researched extensively: either a setting, like a home for unwed mothers; or a conflict, like a boy who was drowned in the canal; or a character, like a woman who worked in a Quaker Maid canning factory; but then the stories take their own emotional bends.  The history is only the construct, really, and the emotional truths — which I sometimes struggle with capturing and sometimes takes drafts and drafts to do — are what actually make the stories come to life.”

Click here to read the rest.

 


The Messy Mind

Anxiety - Stress ... Time management vital for...

While my family was in a discussion about depression (that I was trying to listen to, of course), my sons were whipping around my parents’ driveway on a Plasma Car and a scooter, then my iPhone beeped with a new email, and while I was trying to understand why my son desperately needed me to move my mother’s car to the bottom of the driveway right this minute, my phone rang and it was my husband updating me on the paperwork about the sale of our house.   I’m not the only one with this experience.  We likely all do this all day long.

By the time I’d moved my mother’s car, snapped at my husband over the phone, ignored two new text messages that were urgent (read: not urgent at all), and totally missed a conversation that I so wanted to be a part of, I was cranky.

I am chronically anxious.

What I wanted to say during the conversation about depression that I missed out on was this:  Yes, we are all varying degrees of sad at different stages of our lives.  We all get tired and overwhelmed and lost.  But for some of us, it doesn’t end there.  For some of us, it goes to a whole different place, and how we deal with that place is unique to each of us.  And I say “us” not as someone on the outside, but as someone who has dealt with alternating depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, though also as someone who’s learned enough to live fully with it, and still needs help to learn better.

I had a friend who wrote me a suicide letter when she was twelve.   She was angry when I told her mother.  And then I lost her forever after that though she’s alive today.  How could I have known that telling her mother was such an offense that I would be kicked out of her life?

I had a student whose plea for help I missed.  I read her poems awkwardly–not knowing how to behave.  Some were not poems at all, but paragraphs of emotional outpouring.  Some of what she wrote seemed eerily similar to my friend’s letter.  She committed suicide the next semester.  What was the difference between the me I was when I was twelve and the me I was last fall?

I remember my friend’s suicide note vividly.  I remember how she made the letter ‘s’ with a curved bottom and a slanted line on the top.  I remember how once she stashed an orange in the cedar chest in her bedroom and we found it, hard as a baseball, crumpled in a mass of 70s dresses we used to dress up in.  We used to dance around her house to “The Nutcracker Suite.”  We spent hours telling ghost stories and holding seances.  We picked our scabs and put the wounds together so we could be blood sisters.

Have I become jaded?  Am I skeptical?  Did I judge my student as seeking attention or as not serious or as melodramatic?  Did I just get distracted?  Did everyone in her life get distracted by something else?   Was I looking for something to distract me?

I’ve been on many meds.  I’ve been on high doses and low doses and have seen counselors and therapists and sometimes wonder, why?  I’m familiar with wanting to believe I’m cured and then stopping meds.  I’m familiar with the despair that comes after.  I’m familiar with going off meds during college and self-medicating with vodka.  I know not all meds are helpful and that some, in fact, make you worse.

I also understand that I can control my situation to an extent.  For me, I’ve learned that if I stay busy–super busy–I will not be depressed, so I choose anxiety that keeps me up at night over a depression that makes me wonder if the people who commit suicide are braver than I am.  I still need meds, but this constant work keeps me stable.

I’ve learned this: that I cannot play roulette, guessing if someone else who’s depressed wants attention or is serious.  I cannot judge another person’s despair or state of mind.  Their mind is as much theirs as their fingerprint–it’s exactly why copycatting doesn’t work, and sometimes why I think my therapists are bogus.  How can you really ever “get” anyone?  All any of us need is to be “figured out.”

Once, when I was anxious to the point of sobbing and shaking, a friend shared this Natalie Goldberg quote with me:  “Stress is an ignorant state.  It believes that everything is an emergency.  Nothing is that important.  Just lie down.”

I keep this on my bulletin board because ‘ignorant’ is a dirty word for me and I’d rather be anything before I’d be ignorant.  Sometimes, I still live my life as though everything is an emergency.  My son needs a drink.  The dog needs to go out.  Responding to a work email.  Listening to what’s going on around me.  Paying the bills.  Multi-tasking is fine for the hands but tough on the brain.  Sometimes I can’t prioritize, so I do it all at once.

I don’t know when this started.  I find myself going to the worst places when any threat presents itself.

I am thirty-one.  When I was 27, I taught a night class for a friend.  Flakes were flying hard, and by the time class was over, my mother had driven to campus and cleaned off my car.  She didn’t want me alone, at 9 pm, cleaning my car off on campus.

The thought that prompted my mother’s action was probably a worst-case scenario: Me, alone, cleaning off my car, a gloved arm grabbing me from behind, putting me in a strange vehicle that I would not emerge from alive.  Or maybe this: I, not cleaning off my car properly because I was cold and in a hurry, pull out of the lot and into an oncoming truck.  Or it was both.

I believe this is where my mind is at all times, too.  But if it were at this place last fall, would I have missed my student’s plea?

In an article I found on a friend’s Facebook wall last week, The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric, it explains some of why some minds are more emotional, overstimulated, and goes on to explain why the creative mind leads to “strangeness.”

Part of the reason people with depression and anxiety are viewed as “strange” is because those who are rational or logical-minded don’t understand why the emotions can’t be reasoned with, can’t be “handled” or “controlled.”  These are the people, likely, who have vague memories, who don’t remember mundane moments of their childhood with the vividness of milestones.

My son will recall any little afternoon outing with such specificity that it stuns me.  He is sensitive.  He is perceptive.  I’ve joked that he will be my writer.

Sometimes, my husband says to me, “God.  How do you remember that?”  when I recall one weeknight three years ago when such and such happened, and the article helped me understand that it’s the same part of him that wonders why I can’t just turn my mind off at the end of the night to go to sleep even though I’m tired, or why I insist there are ghosts all around us.

When I tucked my son in tonight, I said to him, “I’m sorry I was upset earlier, I just have all this stuff on my mind, all this chattering from this person and that person and things I know I need to be doing that I’m not, and when you said the same sentence for the third time, I just couldn’t listen any more.”

And sometimes, all it is, is that I don’t know how to stop listening.

 


For Boston, One Month After We Met

Boylston Street

Boylston Street (Photo credit: COB Landmarks/Archaeology)

One month and two blocks ago, I was at the site of the “twin explosions,” as were many writers, AWP attendees.    Anne and I joked, looking down on Boylston Street from the hotel window as bits of snow fell from Storm Saturn that we teased in all our western-New York toughness, that this? This was what they were afraid of?  After a couple of minutes, we skeptically bundled up for our walk to the conference center.  The wind blew us to the center–I grabbed hold of a lamp-post to keep from stumbling into traffic.  Anne turned, letting the wind pummel her back, the air holding her up.  We laughed and squealed like little girls and that’s what we felt like when we got to the conference.  We recognized that our lake winds were not ocean winds.

Today, I walk into my parents’ house with three Wegmans’ subs tucked under my arm.  My four-year-old meets me at their screen door.

“Mom, there are bombs all over Boston,” he says.  “Every human is dead.”

Good lord, I think.  Are they letting him watch Sponge Bob again?

My mom tells me what’s already broadcasted all over Facebook, all over the news, behind the WordPress window I type in now.

The horrors we have to hide from our children.  How do we know when it’s okay for them to look?

We wait to find out what will happen next.  My son hears bits before my parents can change the channel to the Jodi Arias trial.  A leg flown through the air.  Two people dead.  He knows I was in Boston not long ago.

He says, “Mom, I was hiding in your bags when you went to Boston.  You never knew it.”

My father bites into his ham sub, he remembers air-raids, underground bunkers, but never a marathon of tragedies, an ongoing battle we don’t know we’re fighting until it’s lost.  Two years ago today, his father died.  He’s thankful his father misses this, and then looks at my sons, who never miss a thing.

Anne and I learned quickly that Boston was no joke.  We gave in, we took the train to the conference center when the snow fell like wet lint around us, and admitted we needed the scarves and mittens we’d packed.

The night before we left, we stood beneath the city waiting on something called the T, and I looked at the couple on a bench a few feet away, cuddling.  It could have been their first date, or their last date.  The next day they could be enemies, or just friends, or married.  I was wondering what a life it must be, to live waiting for a train, waiting for a cab, negotiating all those buildings to get to your friends.  We had walked the same six blocks on Boston’s Boylston Street during the past week, wishing Nordstrom Rack had been open while we were there, stopping for sale boots or glasses of wine, missing our children at home, who were waiting for us to come back, one long train ride away.

We were romanced for a week by a city in heat, a city with secrets unknowable to its own stone steps, a city with a secret, waiting for a moment that will never be right.