Category Archives: reviews

On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.

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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.

 


Writing Illness

English: Detail of plate 4, figure 4 of Pathol...

Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease. Last fasciculi published in 1838. Depicts Multiple Sclerosis lesions before the disease had been described by Charcot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was the only one sobbing at Bellevue Literary Review‘s AWP panel.

Poet Hal Sirowitz, who writes honestly and humorously about his experience with Parkinson’s disease, had me crying.

He stood up at the podium with his wife and read in a deadpan voice, sometimes struggling to get out the end of the line.  His wife stood next to him and I didn’t know if it was to help him along with the reading, or to help him stand– or even if he needed or wanted any of these things.  But I guess in this case, needing and wanting really are two different things.  Sirowitz read poems, and it seemed planned that his wife would finish his lines or sometimes she started the lines and he would finish them.  His wife, composed, smiled at his humor.

I chose to sit near the front so I could quickly thank the poetry editor after for publishing my poem in their prior issue, but I ended up staring at the presenters, wiping snot from my upper lip, imagining that they looked at me strangely.  Mortified, I left immediately.

I’ve written two poems about Multiple Sclerosis.  I’ve written essays that I don’t really care for about the disease–essays that feel too self-deprecating or too self-pitying or too removed.  So, I try to work the disease in other ways.  When a peripheral character in a story needs a disease, I give them MS, and then I make them really tired all the time, or I make them walk with a cane, or I make them die.

What else should I do with these characters?  How should I write a protagonist, a mother, who has MS?  What else should be in her life besides her disease and her family?

Bellevue held another panel at AWP: “In Sickness and In Health: Literature at the Intersection of Medicine, Science, and the Arts,” where I teared up, but didn’t sob.

I took notes.

Sure, the title of the panel sounds clinical.  But that was the rub–how something so intensely personal like disease, something that makes itself so much a part of the body that we sometimes don’t even recognize we have it, can steal away the most human aspects of ourselves.  So much time in the panel was discussing how “medical-ese” takes the primal, human, messy parts of disease and sterilizes those parts into vocabulary terms that the patient can’t understand without a medical dictionary.

So I went to the human side when researching the history of MS for this novella.  I am determined to explore it in a way that lets me control its every appearance, though not my character’s.  I suppose that I should be an entirely different being from my character.

I read mostly archival news articles from the 40s through the 70s.  I wanted to know what the public knew about the disease then, to understand how little was understood.

From the Toledo Blade, June 12, 1947:  “Patients suffering from the ‘brutal’ and always fatal disease, multiple sclerosis, are getting an answer to their plea, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about this disease?'”

I thought about this.  When I was diagnosed, my friend told me it was a “trendy” disease.  As much as I didn’t understand the diagnosis, I didn’t understand what my friend meant.  Benign?  Fashionable?  Cool?  Preferable?

I re-read the line: “brutal and always fatal.”  My great-uncle Tony had MS, and in his time, I wonder, was he devastated in ways I couldn’t know?  The disease isn’t thought of as “fatal” anymore.  Hardly even “brutal”–at least less-so–for people diagnosed today.  Though there are days I might describe it as “brutal” (certainly episodes of vertigo), I’d feel too guilty to use that term.  There are days I don’t feel diseased at all.

From reading his poetry, it’s clear Hal Sirowitz is living his disease–I imagine he feels the steady decline with every one of his senses.  I’m sure he can tell when disease is taking his life from him because he might find something he used to do that he can no longer do.  His poetry tracks disease, treats it as fact, but still prods at the unknowing, bravely looks it in the face.  Even if the face with that disease is his.

The most common word associated with MS in the old news articles is “mysterious.”  And I get that.  Doctors and scientists didn’t know what caused it, how to fix it, how people could be either unable to walk or walking just fine, or how–the scary part, still–to predict its course.  It is mysterious.

Dare I call it like I see it, how it presents itself in my life?  A nuisance?  A ghost?  A threat?

Even though some articles refer to it as “a crippler?”  Because sometimes, it is.

I’ll write into the mystery of it.   And it’s still a mystery to me how to do that…even as I finish this blog post that I wrote to make sense of writing and illness.  Of story and disease.

–a poignant essay by Rafael Campo, “Illness as Muse,” from Bellevue.


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.


The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors

What’s better than being both compelled to, and compliant in, sharing your work as a writer?

A vintage ice cream truck

A vintage ice cream truck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thank you, Lizz Schumer, Goddard Alum, for tagging me, linking me to your visceral writing that awes me and scares me at the same time.  I will tag two people to do this who are so alive with writing energy: Anne Panning, an award-winning writer of fiction, my writing mentor, and unofficial life-coach.  And also Sarah Freligh, whose poetry rips me away from myself, and whose Poetry Bootcamp rocks my world.

I’m lucky to have them in my writing community.

Writing, for most of us, the sitting at a keyboard, pecking away at keys and at our brains, is solitary–and almost looked down on for being solitary.  I love the solitary act of writing, but writing is not engaging unless the writer does some real work, investigates their presence in the world, becomes a private eye–not just to their own lives–but to the mysteries of the lives and places around us, what’s between the shingles and the dry wall.  To use a bit of my father’s love of the insulation world, to jump into the fiberglass and the cellulose until you’re itching in your sleep and you wake up with bleeding nail scrapes and hard scabs for picking.

So here it is: a way to propose what we plan to offer, a way to support writers whose work we admire and whose process we are curious of.

What is the working title of your book?

My project is a collection of short fiction based on news articles unearthed from archives in Brockport, NY, so I have an inkling that the title will arise from one of the stories that I am in the process of writing.  The title is important because it cannot alienate those who aren’t from Brockport.  These are stories inspired by a history that all towns have lived through.  It just so happens that I’m obsessed with examining Brockport as a way to explore the human condition, how a small-town university, a canal, a former center of industry, how all of these things unique to my own roots, creep into the world.  That said,  I’ve considered a couple–The Local Rag, From Where I am, but ehh, it probably won’t be either of these.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Wartime housewives, untethered college students, rogue pets, and barnstorming doctors wave up from the history of a town, each meeting, and often battling, life on their own terms–in grief, anger, tragedy, surprise and love.

How long did it take you to write?

It is still in the works, but as far as I’m concerned, this love of community and sense of place has been growing since I was child beneath the noontime siren of the village and the ding of the Skippy truck’s bell or the mesmerizing spill of the bubbled puddles that fell from rain outside of the Kleen Brite factory.  I can’t honestly say that I can separate any part of me from this project.  It is as much in my bones as marrow.  I linger extra long in Java Junction’s restroom to read the newspaper ads from The Brockport Republic that plaster its walls.  I nearly slept with a collection of local ghost stories called Valley of the Ghosts under my pillow when I was ten.  I refuse to leave SUNY Brockport, the college I attended for six years because I love earth beneath it.  I, admittedly, have spent hours researching the lives of strangers on Ancestry.com simply because they were “murdered” by a dog in Brockport’s Erie Canal in the 1930s.  So I guess that is how this all started, as an obsession that I finally realized.  These are the stories that inform my writing.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See above.

But I have two little boys for whom I want to preserve every bit of their history–family, local, anything to do with where they come from–just for them.  I want to be sure that writing, which keeps me away from them physically and mentally, comes back to them to show how the people we love are not as bound up in place and time as we might think.

Also, my husband, who is just completely supportive and way more generous with patience (and I am ashamed to say this) than I am.

My family is supportive of  me writing a book, and the energy that I devote to it, even though I am sometimes skeptical of it myself–a recognized addition.  Though my mother does wonder why I am consumed with people who are already dead.  For me, there’s real guilt there.

What genre does your book fall under?

Realism.  I struggle with labeling it as historical fiction because it spans from the 1920’s-1980’s, which feels almost too recent to consider history.  But, I can’t deny the historical research I’ve had to do in order to write these stories, so yeah, of course, there’s history.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a move rendition?

Ha.  My favorite character in any of the pieces I’ve written so far is, strangely enough, the college-aged version of Joel Rifkin before he “became” the serial killer.  He attended SUNY Brockport for a bit in the late 70s, and stole bottle of soy sauce from the Convenient Mart next to the train tracks.  That was the only thing on his record when he was arrested for murdering 17 women much later.  I imagine his character to look like a cross between Wes Bentley  from American Beauty and Michael Cera.  Their impossible love-child.

What else about your book might pique readers’ interest?

These are the quirky anecdotes that have been lost in everyday life.  These are the stories we wish our great grandparents told us.  These are the parts of our world that we don’t know enough about, so we have no option to forget.


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.


How to Make a Mess

just one of many exercises from Kerri Smith’s “Mess”

My mother is the anti-mess.  The careful super-heroine.  The best worrier (or warrior?) ever.

She gets angry when a child falls because she, or someone around her, couldn’t stop them from falling.  She tells them “rub it,” when they smack their foreheads on the corner of the coffee table.  It worked for me growing up.  It works for me now.

But, lately, I’ve learned, sometimes there is nothing you can do.  At first, this was scary for me.  With MS, I tried medicines, then abandoned medicines, drank green tea, then drank coffee, took cold showers, took hot showers, slept not at all, or slept all I could.  I took every prescription the doctor gave me and none of the prescriptions the doctor gave me.  My MRI showed what my brain wanted to do, regardless.

With my sons, I followed them around the house with a batch of paper towels, arms rearranging whatever they had displaced.  I “picked up” the house over and over again everyday, not stopping to make messes with them.  I  rarely joined their “picnic” in the middle of my living room floor, which simply meant they dumped every toy from their bin on our area rug.

Everything was the end of the world.  A misplaced throw-pillow.  A Cheerio in the corner.   I saw it coming when my son took off his socks many times a day to pick the “fuzzies” from his toes.

I write with my teeth clenched if I can’t wash my dishes before I begin.  I feel like I have two jobs running at one time, two songs playing in discord from one speaker.  Everything is too much.

I found this book, Mess, by Keri Smith.  After reading the introduction, I realized that, aside from being nervous and unhappy,  being consumed by this need for order hinders my creativity, gives me unearned headaches, and a lot of guilt about missed picnics.

As far as work, I never would have been excited to cut apart a piece of fiction with scissors, yet when I actually did it, I almost cried with the connections I had made, the ties of emotion I arranged simply by disconnecting what I had thought, at one time, was whole.  It hadn’t been whole, at all.

This morning, I did the dishes.  But I left the coffee spots on my desk, opaque brown splats on a thick sheen of glass.  While I might have wiped them up before, now, I let them rest, the little buggers, spots like those on an MRI.

Mess, by Keri Smith

Instead, I went to work again, cutting apart the story I had taped together with scotch tape yesterday afternoon, and re-taped it in new places.

I’m trying.  I drink coffee, take my prescriptions and even a vitamin (as my mother takes daily, with water she drinks from a small plastic tumbler that she hides next to the paper towels).  I sleep hard (with a prescription) and cry warm, fat, tears when need be and write drafts more imperfect than I had originally realized, but I’m happier because of it.  And now, on top of it all, I make messes in meaningful ways.  I tape my son’s paper alligator on the living room wall and fight him when he takes it down.  I argue that I like his abstract self-portrait on our kitchen cupboard.   And I’m slowly becoming okay with the messes that have been made, like an indecipherable MRI, my own abstract, self-portrait.

Now, when I go to my mother’s, I will open and reopen her kitchen cupboards, the only messy part of her house. Besides the pantry closet (SHH).  Her socks might be neatly tucked one inside the other, but she does leave a basket of folded laundry in front of her closet, next to a dresser.  Still, you will never find a dirty dish in the sink for longer than ten minutes.  They’re clean before she eats dinner.  This happens more often than I’d like to admit in my own house.

“Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader

Watching  “Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader, a video that Keri Smith writes about in her introduction to Mess,  I both laughed and gritted my teeth, unsure which was the right response.  At first, I wanted to pluck him from the branches and set him down safely.  But I bet, as times goes on, I will want to flick him off the branch and listen to the splash.   And then, when he stands up with a scrape on his knee or a knot on his forehead, I will tell him to “rub it.”