Category Archives: opinion

A Letter to my Grandmother Regarding Feminism on Her Birthday

Dear Grandma,

I start this letter on your birthday.

When you were younger, you lost a sister to a milk truck.  I know nothing of her.  I tried to look it up in the news archives and I couldn’t find it.  Her name is Bernice, and her short life becomes a thread now, a dwindling string from a threadbare shirt that you wore and washed and took off and put on and grew tired of and passed on.  I can’t find the article in any newspaper, though I watched her name disappear from the census records.  I know her name because it is your middle name.  I wrote a story loosely based on that pain.  You were smoking cigarettes on a porch with a husband who loved you like Grandpa did, with the kind of love that left him whimpering, in a way that he didn’t even realize he was doing, after you passed.  In the story, you and I are one.  You moved a lot Grandma, but I hate moving.  Your character cries hard for the death of her sister every day, and I am there, in you, crying over losing a house.  The silly things that matter to me.

Had I cared enough at all about these things while you were still breathing, I would have asked you about Bernice during that round of Apples to Apples–the first and only I would ever play with you–but, instead, we talked in code about Hilary Clinton, who, you lamented, shared your first daughter’s name.

I find in this way that I love people much more after they’re dead, and that’s just not fair of me to do.  Last night, Grandma, I spent two hours on the “Find A Grave” website, trying to corroborate a mother and child’s graves with a news article from January of 1861.  The mother was murdered by her husband when she was very pregnant.  The story disappeared after that, and in the following issues of The Brockport Republic, I can’t find a single article that discusses identity, tells who this poor woman and her forgotten child is.  I tried to look them up by death date, but then I wondered:  About the baby, can it have a death date if it was never born?  Can I call it a “forgotten” child if it was never known?

I know you went to college for biology.  You starred in plays.  You had a director’s chair with your name–Jody–on it that has been lost in piles of bankers lamps, and old paintings and crackled glass.  You died on New Year’s Eve.  My father jokes that he cried harder when he lost Buddy, his first golden retriever, but that was a one-time cry, Grandma.  He cries for you every time he breathes whether he knows it or not.

I found out I was pregnant with my first son, John (named after your second son), two months after you died.  I debated telling anyone I was pregnant at first because it was my sister’s birthday, and she already shares her birthday with her son, so I didn’t want to steal it away from her.  But, Grandma, what I wish I could have talked to you about, was this hard thing called motherhood, that pregnancy comes with this guilt that any thing you do for yourself is somehow not good for your children.  I am getting my MFA and spend a lot of time writing.  I spend a lot of time in stories set in tumultuous times when women hid their bodies away from public while they were pregnant.  Back in the day, you didn’t have Ted Talks to tell you how to interpret the responsibility of bearing life.  You did have a bible, but Grandma, how do you know the right answers to a text that has as many interpretations as words?  Is that why you majored in biology, Grandma?  I hate science.

So, I guess what I want to say is this.  This space of being a woman.  For having odds of 1 in 2 to be a woman, why do I still feel like being a woman is something strange?  Something that needs to be managed?  Handled with birth control and anti-depressants and coffee and credit cards?  No matter how far you came Grandma, and you saw so much of it, women still have work to do–mostly amongst themselves.  My mother is the only woman I don’t have an inherent competition with, the only woman I have unbridled admiration of, the only woman who I know, without one doubt in my mind, feels the same way about me.  Mothers are special things.

Women don’t love each other the way they should.  There are fights between sisters and friends and mother-in-laws and what happens is that we’re left in this lonely place.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.  I wish I would have asked you these things sooner.  I know you fought long and hard with your sister.  We hear from her less now.  We are afraid to visit her because we all wonder if she wants to be left alone, or if her house is dirty, or if she’s become a werewolf.  I should be asking her things that I will regret not asking her later.  I am writing to you, instead.

I want a daughter, Grandma.  I feel so guilty typing that, so I backspace it, or I add this in front: “I love my sons, but…” I took that part out because that should go without saying.  Who would ever think a mother would not love her sons with every part of her?  We all worry about this, though.  We all struggle to show how much we love.

I look at your pictures and see my eye color there,  and something else too, but I can’t be sure because I never knew to ask.

When I had my sons baptized, Aunt Hilary and Aunt Jill gave me an old bible of yours.  The Mother’s Prayer had fallen out and was so worn that I could hold it to my face like cotton.  I did.  You had taped it in the middle.  You used it often, and I wonder if it was the act of looking at it that gave you peace or actually reading what it said?  I am a pro at analyzing texts, but I need your help.  I love that where the prayer says: “teach them to love God alone,” you have covered the word ‘alone’ with a thick line of lead.  This, Grandma, tells me more than the prayer itself.

Every night, I cover Sammy, who was born the day after Grandpa died, with an angel quilt that Aunt Hilary made for the boys out of your shirts.

Grandma, now it’s two days after your birthday, and I am many years too late asking these questions.

Love,

Sarah

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Dear Alice Munro,

Leisurely Summer Reading: Child's Play

Leisurely Summer Reading: Child’s Play (Photo credit: Madison Guy)

Dear Alice Munro,

The space you write within, the WWII and post WWII era, the train stations, the sanitariums, the surge of GI students to universities–is the world I’m finding to have preceded me.  At times, when I read a story of yours, for example, “Tell Me Yes or No,” or “How I Met My Husband,” I feel as though I’m researching, still, the history of Brockport.

You know, you are Alice Munro.  The last four pieces in your latest collection, Dear Life, are what you call “the closest thing to autobiographical,” as anything you’ve written.  I know this is both true and not.  But who’s going to argue with you?  You’re Alice Munro.  Did you ever think you would tear a reader’s life to shreds because when the text fades, there is no way to see the world as it was before?  When I finish reading your stories, I cannot get back inside, it’s like a life that’s already been lived.  The bald scalp after a relentless haircut.  The lower back after a pink kanji tattoo.  What’s done is done.  History, as Alice Munro has written it, has been.  Reading it a second time does no justice.  There are no do-overs.  Your stories, like all other stories, are not cats.  We all only have one life.

I’m writing you this blog post–which I’m sure you are waiting to read–because my mother-in-law told me to write a story about a little girl.  This will be the closest thing to autobiographical fiction I will ever write.  And I am no Alice Munro.  I am leaving behind, at least for this one story, your world of barnstorming planes and Quaker Maid factories that I have been squatting in for months.  The setting I write will be entirely my own era, but my life is not something made for fiction.  I only live in a world suitable for it.

It will be some sort of ghost story, and I don’t know, have you written a ghost story?  A real, true ghost story?  I will Google this when I finish your post. It is something I should know.

The world I enter now has factory-induced rain bubbling down the cuticle of Spring Street.  Soil that may or may not give a little girl MS.  The story will have a cast of Cold Storage workers on their way to and from shifts that seem to begin and end every minute.  The little girl will walk down a street with a car prowling next to her, its passenger will reach to pull at her skinny arm.  She will not run away.

I am sending this out into the blogosphere (an ugly word), where you will not see it.  If I were in your Canadian town with a copy in hand, I would place it under your Welcome Mat or tuck it behind the cover of a book you might check out of the library.

Sincerely.


Thumbnails

I am still planning my syllabus.  I rake the shelves in my study for samples of poems and stories that my students will hopefully either love or hate–better off not being anywhere in between.

English: A vintage ampere meter. Français : Un...

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

I searched for a poem that would make them unafraid.  I picked up a copy of Ploughshares from 2005, wondered briefly how and why I have this, then flipped through.  I stopped at Adrienne Rich‘s “Life of the Senses.”  I stopped for a number of reasons.  But mostly that I had heard a faculty member at Goddard’s MFA program read about her recently.  I had found this poem right then for some reason.  Magic, my 4-year-old would say.

Adrienne Rich’s “Life of the Senses” will alert my students to what they are hopefully not missing out on, or perhaps make them aware of the white space of life before constant interruption.  I tell myself that being aware of this helps, but it is a strange compromise between control, and loss of it.  The hope was this poem would make them unafraid of poetry, but the more I read it, I become frightened, myself.

Here’s how she begins:

1.

Over and over, I think

we have come to a place

like this,

dead sound

stopping the soul

in its eager conversations

Or, a classical theme

repeated over and over       interrupted

by a voice disguised as human:

Please

stay on the line

Your call is very

important to us

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

In 2005, I was in the middle of my grad degree at Brockport.  I had just started dating my husband.  I had free time.   I had just joined Facebook.  I had no children.  I had time to write, and didn’t.  I had time to read when I wasn’t.  I didn’t yet know I was sick .  At the same time, I revised stories about failed marriages and car mechanics and the Chinese Immigrant who answered the phone at the take-out on Main Street.  It’s still there.   And I edited papers under a desk lamp in my strangely trendy Main St. apartment–in Brockport.  I was making mentors, but Googled shortcuts through my education.  I still do, sometimes.  That knowledge is hard to erase.  It’s 2012–no, 2013, suddenly–and I have two boys who don’t know Facebook except for when I post them there like little entertainers.  I type this on my blog when I should be writing for packet work or watching cartoons with my sons, or recovering from a bad injection, but sometimes I crave social media like an entire bag of microwave popcorn that I inhale before bedtime and then curse at the heartburn when 2 a.m. comes and my children are already sleeping.  If it isn’t already, I know that tomorrow all of me could be numb.

3.

No, it’s worse than I’m saying:

Have you ever woken on a hot night

tangled in a sheet you’d been trying

to throw off

wanting to clutch the dream

you’d been wrapped in

as long as possible?

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

After I finished the last section of the poem, I closed the book.  The cover wore a pale sticky note from a friend, and I read it: “For you.”  I imagined the first time I picked up this book he had given me, how this person had been a mentor, then, but now, how much had changed, how life goes on without us knowing, and how I know only Facebook posts of so many people.  People who were once in the flesh are now thumbnails.

When I spread the pages of the book to make a copy on my printer and the spine cracked neatly in half, I promised myself I would concentrate fully on the hum of the machine.


Dark Side of the Mind

Cover of "Dark Side of the Moon"

Cover of Dark Side of the Moon

Two nights ago, I knew I was taking the last of my antidepressants. I heard the echo in the orange bottle when the single pill clicked the side. I knew it would be empty in just a second.

My mind was somewhere else.

I was researching my next story–inspired by a news article from the late 60s, a Brockport native, Harris Tuttle Jr, whose daughter, Susan, had been “mentally kidnapped” by the “Moonies,” a group I knew nothing about.

Manson and his followers horrified me for years, but I couldn’t stop watching A&E specials on this group. My husband would look at me skeptically, sipping a beer, while I hid my face in my hands. The screen, aesthetically tinted “vintage” in rusty hues, showed parents who raised children in the compounds. Their young round heads were lit with fine strands of blond hair. A faint melody played in the background.

The phrase “Helter Skelter” alone makes my stomach hurt.

When I was growing up, my father played Pink Floyd’sDark Side of the Moon” on our living room speakers. The televisions were all off, a single light glowed in every room, and I would dance around in a nubby Rainbow Brite nightgown while my mother popped popcorn in a large pot, shaking it noisily on the stove.

When “Time” came on, I froze, running to the couch, covering my ears in terror. The clicking and gonging of clocks in the beginning made me cover my head with the brown tweed throw pillows, and even that couldn’t calm me down. I had a similar, though less intense response to “Money,” with the cash register slamming. This combination of quotidian noises and silence followed drum beats and a single voice, brought any life beyond eerie. Even now, I can’t explain this fear. My father would skip the song in concession to my shrieks.

Last night, I went to bed without my prescription, expecting I would pay somehow for being so unaware. I woke with a raging headache, a gong in my head, and need for quiet and peace, and something else that I didn’t have to make me calm. The prescription.

Ted Patrick, the “deprogrammer” who assisted the Tuttle family, invested himself in saving their daughter, but couldn’t pull Susan from the grasp of the “Moonies.” This was one article of many that a member of the museum found for me, but the only one I brought home. Perhaps the girl had lost her mind for good.

This morning my husband was home, luckily, and I cried to him while shaking, feeling my senses abandon me. I should have known, I scolded myself. The prescription’s absence made me sob for no reason at all. There was no pain to attribute it to, no immediate loss, nothing I’d let go of that tied to this gap of peace in my mind. I felt completely controlled by the pill, and that made me cry harder.

During Johnny’s preschool and Sam’s nap, I though a lot about the “Moonies,” using anecdotes friends donated on Facebook, looking at the photograph of Susan Tuttle, the beautiful young woman who left her family, her own mind and being, to become part of something unknown. She gave herself up.

I’m not sure what I will find in the other articles. The mind is unwieldy, molded as much by the past as the present, by what’s inside as out. I hope I will read that Susan Tuttle somehow “came to her senses,” and I know that if that is possible, it couldn’t be complete.  She could never fully have arrived at her senses, wherever “her senses” were, because wherever else she’d been–that eerie loss of self–is still there, however the paint chips in abandon, whatever windows are boarded, it can always be reached.


Where We Find Our Children

"This vehicle has been checked for sleepi...

(Photo credit: fedira)

I slept with my amethyst rosary wrapped around my hand last night.  I curled up in my son’s bed, hoping I wouldn’t alarm him, but knowing that if I were him, I would be alarmed.

But he was asleep, breathing deeply as though he was absorbing all the life from every corner of the house.  I would have given him all I had.

When I was 17, in 1999, Columbine happened.  The Monday after, we all went to school, but looked a bit harder at those around us.  I told my mother not to worry, that she was crazy, smoking cigarettes one after another, inhaling hard as though she could suck away all the smoke and horror so far away.  She could not stop staring at the screen, watching trails of students running from their lives, any one of them or every one of them, one of her four children.

When I looked at my mother after Columbine, I knew she was right to worry, or at least that she was normal.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear the news until 2:30.  I hadn’t turned on the TV all day.  When I heard about it, my son was at preschool in Brockport‘s Ginther School, and I was in my kitchen, on the phone with my mom, who said, “God, are you watching this?”

She told me in brief, and I turned on the news, knowing I had to get all I could, grab my own sense of it because not five minutes later my 4-year-old and his best friend would bound through the door with Spiderman backpacks and light-up shoes and zippers and gloves and hats and I would be a parent, calming myself so I could handle the chaos of fun, the lightning fast chirping and questioning and squeals of kids being just what they are, what they should be, breathing, running, vibrant kids.

By the time they came through the door, exactly the way I’d expected, I’d seen and heard enough to be changed, to hope the red of my eyes and nose would go away before the boys would notice.

I turned off the TV.  I was scared, let alone these innocent babies.

We all are children at our core, after all.

This past week, absentmindedly, I had The Morning Show on, not thinking about how horrifying the news could be until the report came on about the mall shooting in Oregon.  My son sat across from me with a buttered english muffin, licking the butter off before biting into the bread itself.

He stopped chewing.

“Why is he naughty?  Why did he shoot?”  Johnny asked.

I wish I’d been paying attention to the TV during the lead-up instead of fixing my coffee.  I had to say something when I couldn’t comprehend it.

“I don’t know, Johnny,” I said.  “I just don’t know.  Some people are not nice,” I said.

“Well, will he go to jail?”  Johnny asked.

“Yes, Johnny,” I said, not going farther into the story than I had to, shielding him, as much as I could, from all the death.

I wanted to save him from this horror.

He would ask me about the mall shooting again after lunch.  Again, I’d shift away.

Is this what it is?  What we imagine: the pulses racing, the terror inside, the prayers we know they’d be saying if they could think about anything other than survival.

Yesterday, Johnny and his friend, Sam, clomped down the stairs to ask me to help them construct the train set, to get it back on track and make the engine run.  I did what I could, listening to them consider how to piece it together.  I looked to their innocence to negotiate my own thoughts.

When I came down, my husband whispered updates to me, turned the TV down low, and we distracted Sammy, our toddler, somehow too young to be scared, with trucks.

I’d just read the latest piece of fiction, “Creatures,” by Marisa Silver, in The New Yorker about a couple whose son is expelled from preschool for biting his classmate.  I thought, when I read it, these poor parents, their poor son, and I wonder today, how I’d read it, what might change, where my son might appear in the text, where the story would write itself from the end.

My sister-in-law came over last night for coffee, and we talked about the news as though it was just that–news, but we knew how much more it was.  We said we were sad the way everyone in America said they were sad, the way we all feel it in our guts and not in our brains because our brains can’t touch it.

Then we agreed that we should do anything to prevent this, as anyone in America would give their right arm, or more, their own lives, to prevent this from happening again.

If only we could be superhuman.

When Johnny came to the kitchen with his older cousin, he wore his blue Transformers helmet.  Every time he laughed, the noise escaped the awkwardly large dome like a robot, as though he was some machine, but from below it, I saw his shoulders wobble and peeks of human skin.

Later last night, I folded my sons’ laundry–their mini socks, their small pants with worn knees and shirts thin at the elbows from bending and jumping and dancing.

Later last night, I picked up their toys, tucking them in drawers and stacking their books on the table.

Later last night, I gasped at every moment my children entered my mind, and soon, gasping was all I could do.

We find them everywhere, and after they come, we are not only ourselves.

If only.


The Last Day of Class

Sharpened Palomino Blackwing Pencil, April 25,...

Sharpened Palomino Blackwing Pencil, April 25, 2012 (Photo credit: Maggie Osterberg)

Today, my students met me in the computer lab to revise their work for the end of semester portfolio.  It was that strange course session when I run out the door after arming each student with a number 2 pencil and a scan tron sheet for my evaluation.

Evaluations are awkward.  I always try to guess what my scores will be when they come back a few weeks later.  I never guess right.

I always feel a sense of relief when it is over, when a student retrieves me to come back to the class, the evaluation time having elapsed and, my god, does the air always feel clearer after, the barrier lifted.

Today was the first day my four-year-old begged and cried and fought not to go to preschool.  Usually, he asks many times each morning when it will be time for school, but today, I arrived home from teaching just before I had to drop him off at the Ginther school to another scenario.

First, he wanted to wear his black shorts to school with the Spiderman shirt he’d slept in.

It might have been near 70 yesterday, but today, I had been caught off-guard, walking to my car from class, pulling my sweater tight and cupping it against my elbows.   Flakes drifted around me.  “It’s God’s dry scalp,” my father had said to me many times.

In front of the Christmas tree, I argued with my son to get him to put on his pants for school.  I said all the things that would make him insecure, horrible things that give me  nightmares, let alone Johnny, a little man in the making, a mind probably sculpted in ways I won’t realize until it’s done, until I will find myself, wrenched with anxiety and sleeplessness, fielding calls from my sweet boy, then a man, eyes peeled at 3:30 a.m., too, waiting for some terror that will never come.

What did I say?  I told him this:  I could not send him to school in shorts on a 30-degree day, that I would get in trouble for not taking care of him, that they would take him away from me, that his legs would not be protected by pants from the white-hard air and would go numb, they would turn black, and finally, that we’d have to take his legs off.  This sounds worse as I type it than it did at 11:45 when he had to be at school by noon.

No wonder he wanted to stay home.

When I was in college, I lived next door to my parents in the college house my father owned.  I’d call my mom at 3 a.m., crying because my then-boyfriend had disappeared in some drunken stupor and had ignored my phone call.  I pictured my mother, who was only next door (where I could have seen her from my landing window, through her kitchen window), smoking a cigarette and drinking rewarmed coffee in the yellow glow of the old wall sconce, while she told me, “I know, Sarah.  Just breathe.” And then she’d ask, “Do you want to come home?”

Though I laughed then, it would be two more years of these late-night calls.  During one call, I would tell my mother, “It’s okay.  He finally answered and he told me he is with lesbians, so I have nothing to worry about.”   Many nights passed before I learned my lesson, before I sobered to the clench in my jaw, the spite in my muscles, the sigh from my mother’s tired throat.

How many times had she tried to protect me from my will?

Today, my students were perplexed by the computers in the lab.  The computers sit below the desks, peering from beneath plexiglass windows, and then, shielded from above, still, by black plastic cubes.

“It’s to prevent cheating,” I told my students.  I only kind of knew this.

It took at least five or ten minutes for the students to adjust, to look down at the computer and all its words so far away, while refining what they had held so deep inside them that I had to pry it out.

I’m guessing they forgave me the non sequitur, when I admitted this:  “I get a strange separation anxiety at the end of every semester.  I spend more uninterrupted time talking with you guys than I get to with my family.”

When I looked up, they were all typing.

By the time I pulled into the parking lot at Johnny’s school, he had jeans on, and a coat, and he wanted to be in school, as usual.  On the two-minute drive from our house to his school, he asked me why he had to go.

I’d told him all the practical things–about going to work, living in our warm, pine-filled house with applesauce and hot chocolate and warm jeans and a selection of superhero t-shirts, how all of these would be impossible one day if he didn’t go to school to learn.

I wanted to tell him what he won’t learn for years now, but is as true as anything I know:  that he will never stop learning, that when he least expects it, he will learn, whether or not he’s at school.  He will learn from his little brother during a food fight or wrestling match where they tumble like puppies.  He will learn from me, incorrectly, being over-protective and rash, but he will learn it anyway.  He will learn from his father, the texture of his voice, the ease in his step.   I wanted to tell him that the fact that there is more to know, that there is something out there he hasn’t discovered, some person he’s never met, a book unread, a game unplayed–that will keep him living.  He will reach and push and urge his way forward until he will have learned everything there is to know, which is never.  And then he will stop.


Old News

One thing I miss about living with my parents: the Democrat & Chronicle that arrived outside their screen door every morning.

When it didn’t arrive–snowy mornings, especially, or came late for whatever excuse the deliverer had, there was an absence, some missing constant. I was an adolescent and read the paper with my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Some days, if on the front page was a sports-related headline, like the Super Bowl Champs, or a particular legislative conflict, say, the Monica Lewinsky debacle, I might have skipped to the ‘C’ Section: Living, where I could read my horoscope to see what magical or melodramatic event my day would hold, or Jack Garner‘s review of Armageddon, where I’d decided that any movie with astronauts would at least get 8 stars. If the paper didn’t show up, it was today’s misplaced cellphone. A can emptied of all its coffee grounds. Or, imagine, if the Facebook site crashed.

As I grew up, I became more concerned with the ‘B’ section: Local, the (mostly) miniature catastrophes, the small-town news. A page or so in, I would find the Obituaries, and read them, looking for familiar last names, which, if I did recognize them, would mostly be the great grandparents or grandparents of my acquaintances.

Now, when I go “home,” to my parents’ house, I instinctively reach for the newspaper that was usually folded and in the center of the table (except for the Sports section, which I never read, but was always next to the toilet, anyway), but now they only get the weekend paper, which is a strange option to me, as though all important stories are saved for the weekend. Sadder, to me, is when I recognize that people either don’t have time for a daily paper, don’t have the desire to handle its unwieldy pages, or, like me, refuse to pay for what they can now get for free. The problem is that the paper determined what was important to me, so now, in this information-age, how do I find what’s important in the face of so much else? The whole internet full of triumph and tragedy intimidates me, and I can close the window easily enough.

Idaho, a news photo of the dog who was tried for murder. Here, he is situated at a typewriter.

Lately, I’ve spent at least two hours a week at the Emily L. Knapp museum in Brockport, the old Seymour Library that sits a block away from my childhood house on Spring Street. The building’s first-story once held the library and has since been turned into the village hall, but when I was little, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to on my own. The sidewalks on Park Ave were uneven tiles, and I remember looking down nearly the entire way to be sure I wouldn’t trip. When I arrived at the building, I would find the same librarian, a woman with a long straight ponytail hanging at least to her lower back. Then, I would check out the same book nearly every visit: The Valley of the Ghosts, book with a strange corpse-like figure on the cover with anatomically correct breasts that made me slightly self-conscious to check the book out, but I suppose not self-conscious enough.

“It’s a book of ghost stories,” I’d tell my mom when she looked at me funny.

So, every Wednesday for the past couple months, I’ve gone to this museum, the richest resource I’ve found for the anecdotes of Brockport’s village, and carefully turned page after large page of musty old newspapers bound together by year. There, a committee of researchers, archivists, historians, or citizens preserve these papers. They alert me to topics in old newspapers or photographs that I might find “interesting,” they say and laugh a little, that it involves murder or death.

One day a committee member said, “Here, Sarah. Here’s a picture for you.” Across the Brockport train tracks lay the dead body of an unidentified man, and the look on his face was, as awful as it was, peaceful. I made a copy of the picture, which I nearly had to pry out of the clerk’s hands at the Walmart Photo Center after he argued that it might be copyrighted. He hid the photo away from my sons, who sat in the cart next to me.

“I will not reprint it,” I said. “I just want to look at it.”

I persisted, unlike myself. How could I write about something I couldn’t hold centimeters from my eyes, couldn’t prop up on a mini-metal easel on my desk to refer to (the stones piled up against the ties, the angle of his shoe, the way his face was restful, but his body was not)? How could I write about what I couldn’t fold into origami or rip to smithereens if I wanted to?

I had to have a hard copy, I just could not look at it on my cell phone, where the image of the photograph was stored.

The word “microfilm” intimidates me because I’d rather read something I can touch. For example, I printed every article about Idaho, the dog charged with murder, from the Brockport Republic’s internet database before I could begin the story. I wanted to turn pages.

A lot of the stories I research for my fiction come from scrapbooks–the collection of news-clippings that Raymond Tuttle, one prominent resident, clipped with scissors and glued into a notebook with stitched binding. A layer of what the Brockport resident found notable or quirky. This is my favorite way to research, it’s almost as if he’s pointing these stories out, calling on the residents to tell them. It is a built-in filter, so I do not cower away from the years of newspapers bound in volumes, or feel incompetent in the face of boundless years captured on the internet.

One Wednesday at the museum, I sat down and asked the village historian, Jackie Morris, for more information on the houses that were razed or moved to expand the campus in the 1940s or 50s. We sat for a little while, talking about the families whose homes were moved or dropped to the ground, and when I moved a newspaper or two that had collected in front of me, I found a random scrapbook page, the clipping of a Brockport Republic article with a dotted line around the campus, denoting the space where the razing would occur, showing the houses that were scheduled to be moved.

“Oh my god,” I said to Jackie. “Where did this come from?”

She said, giggling, “I told you, sometimes Seymour likes to help us out up here. Sometimes he gives us what we’re looking for.”

There is a pile of The Stylus, Brockport’s student-run newspaper, on my desk, and I recognize some of its writers to be my current or former students.

My mother brings a copy of the university paper home to my father every week, and she prods me, too, when she finds an article especially interesting–this week, she made sure I read the article about a disgruntled student who’d been expelled and brought a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition to the SUNY Brockport campus one year ago, who was arrested before any tragedy occurred, and while I read the story in terror, my heart thumping, I was thankful that this one-year-later-article was all that came of it. Long after I stopped reading, I was still transfixed in that time, stuck wondering what the campus looked like that day, imagining the exchange between the expelled student and the officer. And the students, I thought most about the students, the how, the why and the who of the community on that day.

This semester, in the ten or so awkward minutes before class begins, I mention stories to my students that, with time, have become just plain interesting, but at one time, were much more. They are captivated by details like a pile of 10,000 tomatoes in the parking lot of the Cold Storage, the horror of the dead man on the train tracks, instances like a dog on trial for murder, and, with all their intrigue, I hope it’s proof that this tangible “rag,” this ghost of an era and all that it stands for, is not on its way out.