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While I’m Supposed to be Doing Packet Work…

Goddard College Clockhouse

Goddard College Clockhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I learned at my first Goddard residency.

Right now, I should be reading The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck, as prescribed by my advisor, but after a week since residency, I need to describe my experience–even if it is in vain, but especially if it helps anyone decide whether or not to go for an MFA.

I knew this: when I came home, my living and dining rooms would be different colors. Life before the residency would have warm tones–my living room was a shade of beige that I would title “uncolor,” and my dining room was a mistake from the first year we bought our house–not pink, as my husband likes to call it, but “rosedust.”

I can’t say what I expected of the residency, specifically, only what I thought would happen as a result of it. I wondered if my youngest son would stare blankly at me upon my return, forgetting the crevice of my neck and shoulder where his little peach-y head sat just a year ago; forgetting the night I held him in my great-grandmother’s rocking chair as my tired eyes followed a single firefly around his bedroom; or forgetting my name that, when he said it this way, made me wonder if it was accidental: “mum-mum.”

I wondered if my oldest son would cry himself to sleep every night and both hate me and love me more for it.

I wondered if my mother’s worries were true: if I’d be abducted–by anyone–locals, college students, or aliens, then sold into a jam or potholder-making business, and with my cell phone stolen and memory erased, cease to exist as I once was. Or worse, I could have just ceased.

I thought maybe I would realize what a marvelous genius I was, that I would sit at my Formica desk in my building that smelled musty (as though Raymond Carver had really never left) and type away on my old Mac that I’d romanticize was an Underwood typewriter and emerge on the last day of residency with a manuscript that would exempt me from the next 3 residencies. And didn’t we all, really, wonder this? No, me neither.

Here’s what I realized.

There is a large population of people with dietary restrictions and a host of glorious food at the Goddard cafeteria to meet them. There was probably leftover bacon at the end of breakfast every day. Yes, there was bacon at breakfast. Every. Day. And there should never, ever, be bacon leftovers. Seriously, I ate more than I ever did at home, and I feel like I lost weight while I was there. Mystical.

Regardless of how long it’s been since I’ve been in school (6 years!), I could still find my inner “student.” I took up the director of the program when he advised us to break from workshops on occasion. Sometimes I “skipped school” and Skyped instead, feeling strange in my room while those who walked in and out of the building overheard me talking to my son about three-year-old matters like superheroes, potties, and bunk bed sleepovers. Sometimes I sat on a hill with the sun overhead, reading. Sometimes I ate slice after slice of homemade bread with fresh butter from the cafeteria between meals. Once, I took a nap. Being a student again was, in fact, easy.

Every college has a frat house. Goddard has the Music Building. Behind it is a seemingly perpetually lit bonfire. Behind that is a forest that friends tell me is reminiscent of the movie, The Village. There are also fireflies.

Every college has a ghost. I wasn’t the only Goddard student set on capturing evidence. I will say that I found what the cast of Ghost Adventures would consider solid evidence: my camera would not work in the Martin Manor (the haunted building), but would once I left. There were orbs in the upstairs hallway. There was an opaque film over photos I took and retook in the allegedly haunted room. This is just my evidence. And also, Ouija Boards work. (Disclaimer: these are views of the blogger and do not reflect the views of Goddard College.)

Every college has a student from Western New York. Or Appalachia. Or Central Iowa. Or [insert your little-known place here]. Really.

I realized this: writers are just fun to be around. I made friends like I was in Kindergarten–every person had no clue who I was–I could have been someone I’d never met.

I met a vegan shoe-hound from Brooklyn who prides herself on being mistaken for a drag queen on the NYC streets. I met a blond-haired teacher who can sing Journey in front of strangers at the request of any playwright. I met a potato-bug of a guy, a beanie-wearing, screen-writing, skeptic-turned-believer. I met a woman who lost someone in her first few days of residency, but sucked it up and stuck it out, and was there when I left.

When I got home, both of my sons knew who I was. They hugged me and smiled and hugged me and smiled and then asked me for a snack. My oldest showed me the two rooms, now painted in cool tones. The very walls had changed–a muted turquoise called “Emperor,” and some kind of quiet charcoal color.

For the first few days, my oldest son asked me if I liked the new walls, and then he reminded me how much he missed me when I was gone.

Still, a week later, as I write this, the residency colors everything. I can still smell the fresh paint in the house.

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Snow, late.

Blizzard in Rillington, North Yorkshire, Engla...

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It was half-through January, and my promise to Johnny that he’d wade through snow or sweep angel shapes with his arms and legs against the cold-burning flakes had still not come true.  Our Christmas tree had gone up and come down.  Even before Christmas, the festive lights looked like they’d been strung up too long, that they’d already served their purpose.  There had been barely any measurable snow.

Finally, on January 13th, Johnny perched at the window, watching the tiny patches fall from the sky in a real-life snow globe.  The window opaqued with breath, and then he drew wet lines to see through to the outside.  At three, he wasn’t a weather veteran yet–he wasn’t nostalgic for the comfort of sweaters and mittens or the sting of wind strong enough to drive retirees to Florida.

Of course, neither was Sammy.  This was his first winter ever.  Belly against the couch and my arm, he watched the scene, pointing with his hand’s five fingers.  The salt trucks were at it, layering their crystals heavy on the road.  This would be the demise of my cognac-colored leather boots, I knew.  Sammy gazed at the blinking lights of the tow trucks, how they alerted themselves, shining false emergency into homes like ours.  Warning beeps I had never questioned in all my life suddenly made me wonder.  Sammy and I had much the same questions.

A large delivery Mack growled down the road so loud that Johnny jumped.

“It’s okay you little munchkin,” Johnny said to Sammy.  Sammy hadn’t been shaken, but Johnny ran his hand over Sammy’s hair to soothe himself.

Sammy’s eyes followed tires taking their time over the salt crust, then turned to the plow truck fanning dust down the opposite lane.

Then he saw them: a flock of birds, breaking from the trees in synchronized waves.  The birds had blended in before as part of the still-life, small black knots and bends on giant twigs.  Sammy drew air in deep through his nose and let out a breathy scream.  Of joy.  His arms flailed, and I imagined the tapping made the same sound as wings on air.

The birds flew, oblivious to the snow, as though they were just another line of traffic.


textbook covers, in memoriam

Doodle-a-Day sheet

Doodle-a-Day sheet (Photo credit: CaZaTo Ma)

When I have my students complete a writing exercise, almost half of them have a caricature of themselves, or flowers, or deep pen scratches in the margins.  They’re telling stories in their own ways, unprompted by me.

I don’t doodle anymore.  This is sad.  I should doodle.  One class, everyone should tell a story in doodles.

The word is nostalgic for me, and fun to say.  Say it: “Doodle.”  You’re smiling, aren’t you?

For me, doodling passed with high school lunches, notes slid in the slots of lockers, or mix cds for birthdays.

It was considered a homework assignment during the first week of class to have your class textbook covered, as though the paper would protect the book from the threat of real damage.  I did it, though, because I followed institutional rules.

The smell of the paper bag itself was wonderful– a soft smell like crayons, a kindergarten classroom, the musk of a tree.

It only took a week or two for the wearing at the corners to begin, the fibers unraveling like the math problems inside or the pop quiz scores that made my mouth dry up and my teeth clench.

I doodled the initials of my crushes on the paper that folded over the textbook’s cover and tucked around the front.  Often, if someone was being nosy, I’d slam the book shut after I finished the second initial.  I still won’t tell it.

Then, I got a boyfriend.  I drew hearts around his name on the brown cover and wrote 4-ever just like everyone else, though I hated numbers.  The hearts never had arrows on my books.  Sometimes, when I would break up with my boyfriend for a few days, I would put a heavy X over the heart, or write a large N in front of the “ever” in “4-ever.”  By then, the cover was slit near the spine,  softening around the edges like a soggy cracker.

The annoying person next to me wrote obscene words on my book cover so I scribbled over it with cross-hatching.   I should really change the cover, I thought.

I folded the new paper bag over the book and taped around the corners this time and wrote my boyfriend’s initials in pencil.  When I erased it a week later, the eraser left permanent gray feathers on the cover.  Next time, I decided, I would turn his initials into pretty flowers or trees.  I would doodle them into oblivion.


Applications, Out.

List of state highways in Vermont

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MFA letters are the most difficult damn things to write.  I had at least three versions of each essay I sent to each school.  If I am rejected, it’s not because I didn’t try.

Maybe I’ll post my sample after I hear the results, just for others to look at.

After the third proofread, I was afraid that if I looked at the piece again, I’d find an error or some better way to say something.   So I stopped myself.  I would have been revising until eternity.

Confession:  I sent my application to Bennington with a spot of coffee on the back of one of the pages.  I was just too tired to print it all over again.  Maybe the reviewer will think they dribbled their coffee.

They’re gone, and since they’ve monopolized my last few weeks, I am giddy with the expanse of time that’s opened up.

Now, I wait.

Dear Goddard, and Bennington, and Warren Wilson,

Please accept me for study at your MFA program along with my hefty application fees.

Please disregard the coffee stain,

Sarah


The ‘M’ in ‘MFA’ does not stand for Mother.

 
Play-Doh Retro Canister

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My Vulnerable MFA Adventure

Technically, you could say I’m still in college, right?  I mean, some students even think I’m their fellow student. 

Students older than I am can’t conceive it’s an insult when they say, ” You’re the instructor?  Gawd, you look like a baby yourself.”

No, my nine-month-old is a baby, I think.  But outside, I’m smiling.  It’s an awkward smile, like I just opened the door on a stranger in a public bathroom.  But it’s still a smile.

Yes, I’ve complimented the instructor, they think.

I shouldn’t be complaining.  It’s not that I’m unhappy with my job.  Everyone should be lucky enough to look forward to work the way I do every day. 

This feeling, the need for more–more education, more writing, is an internal tugging at my heels that mirrors my son’s grasps at my ankles.  I can’t shake it. 

There is a place for me still, in this world of motherhood, as long as I occupy it. The young me who needs to write in order to make sense of life, isn’t disappearing the way she might have sixty years ago, when I would have been solely the mother figure.  Mothering, without a doubt, is the toughest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had.  It’s a life demanding of reflection, yet doesn’t offer much time to reflect.

Here’s why I’m writing this:

After years of considering more school, I finally abandoned the notion that I couldn’t.  I am applying to low-residency MFA programs.  Low-residency means I can leave for about ten days every six months, and then work on the rest of my degree from home.

It’s vulnerable to blog this.  Even as I’m typing, I want to delete every word I click out.  There is the chance I’m not accepted to even one of the three programs I’m applying to: Bennington, Goddard, and Warren Wilson.  

People I really care about will know, I think. 

People I don’t even know, will know, I think. 

I am blogging the process regardless, as a promise to myself that I will see it through. 

I almost changed my mind a few weeks ago, when I told my mother.  She wasn’t surprised.  Every time she thought she knew what I would do, I did the opposite.  She always thought I’d do exactly what she would do. 

When I told her, I had to clear my throat and take deep breaths and stutter, all things I thought were clichés of breaking into hard news, the icy sheet we don’t want to touch. 

When I told her, she said, “We are just two different people I guess, Sarah.”

Obviously, I thought.

“What about the kids?”  she asked.  We both looked at Johnny, who was making Play-Doh pizza.  Red caked his nails, smushed up against the pudge of his fingers.  He was oblivious.  His face crinkled.  This blob was the most important fun of his day.

The other morning, I’d asked him what he would do if I had to go away on vacation for a week. 

He’d said, “I’d be sad.” 

I often tell him I love him, and then immediately ask him what it means.  He’s still wading through language.  I want to know when his feet bury themselves in the grain of the sandy floor.  When he comprehends what life is made of.   

“It means you are nice.  It’s hugs,” he said.

That day he said he’d be sad when I left, I couldn’t ask him what that meant.

“Mom,” I said. “Cory will be here.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to watch the boys,” I spat.  I didn’t know where the anger came from.  This is what heartburn feels like, I thought.

“That’s not it, Sarah.  You know I would watch them,” she said.  “You should have thought about this before you had kids.”

 This is the woman who stayed home with me until I went to kindergarten.  She taught me how to (sort of) do laundry.  I still don’t iron.  When I make sauce, I can’t make it any other way than how she taught me–slivers of onions so that my dad doesn’t get chunks, nearly a cup of parmesan cheese, and always more garlic.  She gave me everything she had: brand new sweaters she’d bought for herself from a department store, rings I might never have worn but kept because they’d hugged her fingers for so long, and her nose, I have the wide bridge of her nose, how it flattens slightly as it reaches her forehead. 

 She was smushing her gum, always Wrigley’s Doublemint, against her teeth with her thumb.  She pulled it away, letting it draw out just a little, like mozzarella cheese, and brought it back to her teeth.  This is a habit for her, like biting her nails.  Her other arm bent at the elbow, propping her face away from me. 

“I don’t even want to talk about it anymore,” she said. 

This is how I knew she was really upset.  I’m usually opposed to qualifiers, but I mean really.  I stopped talking. 

My mother is okay with it now, but that’s not the interesting part, so I’m not going to write much other than she’s offered for Johnny to come stay with her when I leave for the 8-10 day residencies. 

In the end, she’d been upset because she didn’t want me to leave for the residencies alone. 

The only time I’ve ever really been alone was when I withdrew into my head. 

I need to do this.

Cory has been so supportive, which is the best part.  He actually is the one who exhumed the discussion from beneath about a million doubts that had sprung up like weeds.  I’d planted them all myself.

So that is the beginning.


Santa Magic

Santa in the snow

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We don’t have a real Christmas tree.  Our tree is a pre-lit, no fuss, Big Lots bargain tree.  I like it though, and I’ve never really known a real Christmas tree, so I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything.  Johnny and Sammy will probably never have real Christmas trees, but I’ve plugged spruce or fir or pine-scented warmers into the outlets, so they still have the smell of Christmas.  Every time they wash their hands with my green alpine-scented soap, they will suds Christmas.

There’s no snow yet.  This is so odd for Western New York.  Instead of boots, I wear flats to my last class of the semester.  I shuffle my shoes on with no problem while Johnny begs, “Mom, when is the snow coming?”  His face presses against the cold of the glass, as though he can wish himself out there, running and sledding amidst the snow flakes.  I crave the snow, too.  Here it is as much a part of life as the drained canal, the fallen leaves, the gasp the chill sends running from your mouth.  The white blanket softens the blow of winter.  It’s too beautiful to hate.

When school ends and my Christmas shopping is nearly done, Johnny and I go to Wegmans for a few last-minute Christmas-season items: wrapping paper for “Santa’s” gift (Johnny is too smart to risk wrapping his North Pole gifts with our farmhouse paper), hot chocolate with marshmallows (à la Polar Express), and candy canes to dangle from our tree limbs.  When we leave the house, Johnny pokes at a tiny ball of frost on the stone walkway as though it is a pea on his dinner plate.  The snow dusted down upon us like confectioner’s sugar the other night, and it’s disappeared since.  Johnny analyzes the snow fall.  Maybe he will be a meteorologist.  Maybe he just wants to see it sprinkling down like confetti.

At Wegmans, Johnny and I settle into our routine.  I buy a coffee for me and an apple juice for him.  He sits in the cart to help me decide what to buy, but really it’s so I can make sure he stays put.  We use the little cup-holders, and he calls his “a juice-holder.”

He talks about the train that Wegmans has displayed since Thanksgiving.

“I want to see the train.  It will go around and around,” he says, his hands dizzying themselves in circles.  When the train was first set up, Johnny walked over to it, and his friend from his old daycare was watching it too.  When it came time to leave, I was impressed that Johnny complied.  “Why is he crying, mommy?”  Johnny tugged at my hand.  “The train will be here again,” he said.  Johnny is just three, I thought, deciding that maybe he wasn’t as spoiled as I had dreaded.

I gave in to the traditional Santa threats this year since it’s the first year he understands.  When Johnny is naughty, I warn him that Santa is watching.  When he pulls down his pants and pees on the dining room wall,  I tell him that if he’s not careful, he will be on Santa’s naughty list.   If he throws the wrappers from his peppermint Hershey kiss on my living room floor and refuses to pick it up, I say the same thing.  In general, it works, but I worry I’m touching something that belongs to him, that I’m stealing the magic from his Christmas.

The chefs at Wegmans always talk to Johnny, always ask him if he wants sautéed mushrooms, or pomegranate seeds, or pork roast with carrots, but he usually will only eat a cookie from the cookie club, calling out, “Thank you, Wegmans” before he takes his first bite.  When I was little, my Sundays were marked, not with church, but doughnuts from Wegmans.  Religiously, my father and I would pile our dozen into the white boxes: apple fritters, glazed rings, raspberry or lemon-filled for dad, custard-filled for mom, apple filled, sugar-dusted for me.   One Sunday morning when I was five, my father’s pick-up truck wouldn’t start after we bought the doughnuts.  It coughed, but wouldn’t turn over.  It was January, and Western New York was Western New York that year.  Snow had piled up heavy the night before.  My mother had no car and no license then.  My siblings were still too young to drive.  He looked down at my feet, in their small white bobo sneakers with thin lace socks.  My father carried me home, our breath chugging ahead of us.   I don’t remember if we brought the doughnuts home that morning or not.

Now every childhood memory of doughnuts from Wegmans is caked in snow.

“Can we go see the train, mommy?” Johnny asks when we’re picking out his hot chocolate.

“Remember, the last few times, the train wasn’t working,” I say.  I had cursed out Wegmans under my breath when Johnny pulled me over to the train table again and again.  Every train car has the Wegmans logo with perhaps a sliced ham printed on the side, or gum drops, or maybe Santa himself.  I must admit, I would buy it if it weren’t nearly $200.

“We can get batteries.  That’s all it needs,” Johnny says.

How practical, I think.

We make it past the train without Johnny even asking again.  He is holding his package of hot chocolate with marshmallows.  Today will be the first time he tries it.  I imagine setting him up at the kitchen table with his mug of hot chocolate, and I will have my mug of coffee.

At the checkout, Johnny tells the cashier that Santa is coming.  I’ve hidden the North Pole wrapping paper, a candy-cane striped tube, under the cart, and I whisper to the cashier not to let Johnny see it.  She ducks to scan the paper on the cart’s low rack.

I used to watch my parents closely, looking for clues that Santa was real, instead of clues that he was fake.  I believed for a short time, but I rode the school bus, so it was short-lived.  One year, my parents forgot to leave a present under the tree from Santa.  That was the last of Santa for me. That’s when my mom started using the phrase, “God is watching you,” when I was acting up.  Santa no longer held consequence for me.

After we check out, I see a man with a white beard and a red shirt coming towards us. Otherwise, he’s wearing blue jeans and tennis sneakers.

“Johnny,” I whisper. “There’s Santa.” This man has to know what he’s doing this time of year, I think.

“Hi, Santa,” Johnny calls out over the beeping registers.  The customers hear him and start laughing.  For a minute, we are all looking at Santa.

“Merry Christmas, young man,” the Santa says.  He disappears behind the door to the men’s room.

While I load the groceries in my car, Johnny grills me about Santa.  “How is Santa here?” he asks.

“He came to make sure you were being a good boy,” I say.  “He probably had to pick up some groceries for Mrs.Claus.”

“Santa is magic,” he says.

“Yes,” I say, relieved.

“Look, mommy.  There’s Mrs.Claus,” he says, pointing to an older woman in the car across from us.

“No.  Shhh,” I say.

The Santa is walking by our car.  “Hey there,” the Santa says. “I got something for you.”  He keeps walking.

“Johnny, you must be a really good boy.  He’s bringing you a present on Christmas Eve,” I say.

Before I finish loading the car, the Santa comes back, and hands Johnny a stuffed elephant.  I imagine whose it was before.  A grandchild, maybe?  His own child?

“Thank you!” Johnny says.

I’m reluctant to let Johnny take it.

“You keep believing,” the Santa says.

There are exhaust fumes trailing into the cold air from my car, and I wish it were snowing for Johnny.

“Ho ho ho,” the Santa says.

I smile curiously at the Santa.  He takes out his wallet and shows Johnny a picture of himself dressed as Santa.  I see a photo, tucked next to it, of the Santa and his wife.

“An elephant,” Johnny says, looking at his new and worn stuffed elephant.

“Merry Christmas,” says the Santa.

“Thank you,” I say.

“This is what it’s all about,” the Santa says.  Johnny has made his day.

I’m sure Johnny is in his booster seat before his eyes can follow the Santa to his car, where he drives away from the parking lot, leaving a trail of smoke behind him.


Found: Wallet

It was not in a shopping cart in the old Clancy’s Big M parking lot.