Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

Take It With You: Exploring Transition

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

Do you pack your computer?

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

Do you sneak something with you?

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

Do you cry?

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

Do you remember?

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

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

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

Do you leave?

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

 

 

 


Look in the Same Direction You’re Moving

Upon finishing an MFA, you’re surprised to discover that exactly what you thought would happen, actually does. It’s anticlimactic the same way that, at the end of this week, your teaching semester will end. Students will fall away to summer vacation, grades will post, and life will yawn out before you.

In Fiction Workshop, regarding a story set in a coin-operated porn booth, you say, “I’m sorry to ask this, but what is the climax in this piece?” After a few labored giggles, a student ventures a guess: “Is it when the main character flashes back to when his daughter was hit by a car?” and you discuss if a climax can happen in a flashback, and what does it mean for the story if it does? You don’t know what else to do but to care deeply–almost too deeply–about this.

After class, you and Sam feed the ducks bread that’s not yet stale, bread you could’ve turned into a peanut butter and jelly, but you birdlike the stretchy afternoons when you and your three-year-old dawdle down to the path of the Erie Canal and throw balled-up white bread at aggressive mallards. The two of you analyze the knobs of their heads for brown, looking for the mama ducks, but their babies haven’t hatched yet, so they’re at the nest, you tell Sam. Only the dads swim up.

Confess to your husband that, yes, you always suggest walking to the canal, and Sam’s always game for it, but once you near the bridge, which you know Sam takes entirely too long to cross (a childhood fear that you hope you conceal), you find yourself pulling him along, telling him, Come on, or You can’t stop in a cross walk, or Look in the same direction you’re moving, but inside, you completely understand how a person can be tied to what’s behind them.

Some of your students had been okay with a climax in flashback, but you were not. Then why not just tell the story of what happened in the flashback? you asked. Put more focus on the present scene, you said, sounding a lot like your MFA advisors.

Sammy doesn’t pull you ahead the way Johnny does.  Instead, you find yourself acting the part of child or the poor-mannered mutt. Why are you so eager to get a move on? There is no deadline. Your stories have been edited to the brim and wait for you to forget them so you can read them again and pick them apart like a vulture.

You and Sam sit on the stoop of Java Junction, a spot he’s chosen because there’s an ample pile of bird food surrounding the small tree just in front of the coffee shop and a legitimate aviary in its branches. Sam is happy to sit, watching the birds, so you humor him, taking a picture of him with your iPhone and watching the same car pass three times, its driver having completed a list of errands you no longer have.

Sammy loves birds. He knows the names of more birds than you do. In fact, this is true for all animals. When Sammy is in the bath, and you say, “If you dump that whale-ful of water out of the tub one more time…” he responds with, “Mom, it’s not a whale.”

You coerce him to leave the birds by promising to draw pictures of birds when you get home, but after dinner, when Johnny has come off the bus, and you have fed the boys cheese pizza, and then have promised to play outside, you will not have drawn a picture of a bird. Tomorrow, you think.

At 7, it’s nearly dusk, and you open and close the issue of The Writer that you’ve dog-eared on “Going Postal: A new book helps writers achieve success after an MFA” while trying to drink a coffee in the warm and fleeting spring sun amidst Sam, who is slow-going to understand the logistics of bike pedals, and John, who bikes dangerous circles around your house, so you give up. You crawl on all fours behind Sammy, who lets you cycle his legs until he gets the rhythm of the pedals, leaving your magazine on the porch to blow open in the wind you wish would go away.

The teenager next door, a sensitive thirteen year-old you only hope will stick close to your boys, calls the three of you over and points at what he thinks, at first, is a dead worm on the driveway. It’s too big to be a worm, he realizes.

“I think that’s its heart,” the teenager says.

“It looks scientific,” John says.

You and the teenager agree: it’s a baby bird.

When the three boys bury the bird, you help. You remember burying a bird you found in your childhood backyard not even a block away, and how you wrote about it years later.

Before the burial, Sam had reached slowly for the smushed bird, and you stopped him. He wasn’t sad, as you’d feared. It was a beautiful and gross thing–the colors like acrylics on the black pavement. And by the time you’d finish staring at it, Sam had given it a name.

 

 

 


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


My Late Grandfather’s Literary Debut

My grandfather, Thomas Lotze, pushing me on a swing, 1984.

My friend and I talk about these strange things that happen after someone you love passes.  We share these moments that transcend realms partly because it validates them, makes them less a figment of the imagination, somehow more real, if shared.    And partly because it heals.

For my grandfather, this image is an elephant.  I see them everywhere.  My aunt had a license plate staring at her from the car in front of her that read: L AFONT.  I sometimes pause for a long time at the bedtime pictures of elephants in my son’s books–and it seems each one has at least one elephant.  The page will always swing open to it first, in any book, before the other pages.  Perhaps I’ve creased it harder.  I also saw more pregnant women when I, myself, was pregnant.  I’m aware that the mind is always at work, but there is a magic, too.  And no harm in believing.

In class the other day, I shared the news that my grandpa’s piece was accepted for publication with my students.  He was on my mind.  Twenty minutes later, as class was ending, I described the upcoming assignment: that students would be required to experiment with the craft elements that poet Bruce Smith used in his book, Devotions.  Only, I said, “You will experiment with the craft elephants–”  and giggled before saying, “Let me try that again.  Craft Elephants.”  I’d said it again.  The entire class laughed with me, and I simply said, “Elements.  Craft Elements.”  And excused my misspeak by explaining that my grandfather appears at the least likely moments.

So here’s Grandpa’s literary debut, “File No. 209,” from The Diagram Magazine.


Weathering Parenthood When Your Son’s Smarter Than You

Johnny Lightning Hummer: Bumpy Ride

Johnny Lightning Hummer: Bumpy Ride (Photo credit: Phil’s 1stPix)

My mother over-cautioned me about leaving the house today to buy snowsuits for my sons at the mall.  “It’s supposed to get bad,” she said.  “Make sure you buy batteries for your flashlights.”

On the way to the mall, Johnny alternated between asking the world’s questions and bopping along with me to my mix CD, which was playing his anthem, “Don’t Stop” by Foster the People.

“Mom, why is it raining?” he asked.

“Because it has to rain some time,” I said.

“But why does it?” he asked.

“Because nothing would grow, and the oceans would dry up, and we’d have nothing to drink,” I said.

“And we’d be thirsty?” he asked.

“Yes.  Very thirsty,” I said.

I had to admit, this morning, while watching the twenty-four hour news that is as constant in our house as breathing and blinking, in an election year, I fretted over the tsunami in Hawaii, the impending hurricane Sandy barreling towards NYC, and realized why I never watched the movie 2012.  I just wanted it to be the day after Christmas to know we already had made it–regardless of the sad feeling that follows it–the limp, unblinking string lights, the empty stockings, brown snow, balled up wrapping paper, hunger.

The leaves were nearly off the trees, and Johnny had been asking me constantly, “Is it Halloween yet?”  And then I heard him play this game after I told him no, it wasn’t Halloween.  “It is.  It is Halloween,” he said to himself.  “And today, I will be Iron Man.”

I made him a paper chain to count down, but it hasn’t helped.  Except this morning, when he told me, “Mom, I took the day off today,” I thought he was imitating Cory, that he had taken the day off from school, so I said, “Really?  That’s amazing.  How did you get Mrs. Johnson to let you have the day off?”  and he said, “No, Mom.  I reached up as high as I could, and I ripped the paper.  I took the day off.  Halloween is in three days.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling bad for thinking he was just playing, that he didn’t know what he was talking about.   I thought that he’d probably gone beyond that point of mimicry, that now he only said what he knew he meant.  But even I couldn’t say I did that.

At the mall, Johnny stared at the hats on the rack next to me while I picked out his new gloves.  He tried on a furry bear hat that was too small for his head, already as large as an adults.  Larger than mine.  One of my friends told me I should be careful about Johnny, that he would be the type to bully others.  I clenched my teeth at the thought, but it hadn’t left my mind.  At the time, I didn’t know whether to be angry or scared.

In the store, he tried talking to children he obviously didn’t know, and they walked by him.  I thought about last month, when I’d worried he was having a hard time making friends in pre-school, and spent hours awake at night imagining scenarios of him swinging by himself or chasing after kids, running in a line that he thought was just play, but felt sick that maybe the joke was on him, that they were running from him.  But, no.  That wasn’t the case.  He was as social as they came.

I would not be a helicopter parent, I thought.  I knew what that meant, I dealt with them in numbers throughout high school when parents spread rumors about me and my then-boyfriend, or when a college freshman’s mother called the bookstore three times to get the dollar amount of their textbook order, or when parents emailed to discuss students’ grades.

“I am controlling,” I’d said to Cory one night.

“Yes.  You are,” he’d said.

“I am working on it,” I said.  Still, the amount of times at the mall that I said, “Johnny.” and then, “John,” and then, just a minute later, “John Alexander, do not make me put back your Transformers truck,” piled on enough to make me wonder if the parents around me were as annoyed with me as I was.

I bought a book called Mess, a journal in which every page requested that you intentionally made a mess of it.  Page 171 instructed the writer to bury the book, and then, three days later, dig it up.  This was part of my reform.

At the checkout counter, the woman wrapped a frame while Johnny said, “My name is Johnny,” and when she didn’t respond, said, “My name is Johnny,” and then, a few seconds later, “My name is Johnny,” and again, “My name is Johnny,” until I looked at her and said, “He really is not going to stop.”

The woman behind us in line laughed hysterically, and said, “Hi, Johnny,” but he smiled at the woman behind us and turned around to the cashier.

And then he said, “My name is Johnny.”

“Hi, Johnny,” she said.

“See my Transformers truck?” he asked.

I’d promised him we’d go to Burger King if he’d been good.  When we were in line, a man stepped in front of us, and Johnny pulled me forward.

“Mom, when am I going to get my chicken nuggets?”

“Johnny everyone has to wait in line,” I said.

“Yeah?  But why?” he asked.

“So everyone can eat,” I said.

“But I’m so hungry,” he said, and pulled me again.

“Be patient,” I said, loud enough for the man in front of us to hear.

Johnny told me he loved me about twenty to thirty times a day–as many times as he asked me, “Why?” in response to any answer I gave him to anything, as though he needed more and more and more.  I bought him a children’s encyclopedia a couple months ago, but then realized he couldn’t read yet.

The rain still came down, pounding the skylights of the mall’s food court.  “Why is it still raining,” Johnny said.  It wasn’t a question anymore.

“What is your name?” a woman came over to me as I sat next to Johnny.  She was a small elderly lady, and pretty, with blond hair and bright skin.

“Sarah,” I said, looking up at her.

“My name’s Johnny,” Johnny said.

“Well, hi Johnny,” the lady said. “That’s a nice Spiderman hat you’re wearing.”

“It’s just a hat,” Johnny said. “I’m not Spiderman, I’m just a boy.”

The lady asked me to watch her things–a newspaper, a travel mug, an umbrella and a cloth tote bag.

“It’s so crazy in here,” she’d said.

“Oh I know,” I said, gesturing to the birds.  “I still can’t figure out why it’s okay to have birds flying in a food court.”

“And this weather,” she said, almost as if my mom had sent her.  “I’m nervous about it.”

“Well, I don’t think it will be as bad as New York City will get it,” I said.  “Stock up on batteries.”

“Oh, but my husband dropped dead on our bedroom floor two years ago and I get so Oooooh nervous without him,” she said, raising her hands to her mouth.

“Oh,” I said.  I didn’t know what to say, and for once, too busy chomping on his nuggets, Johnny wouldn’t interrupt.

On our way out to the car, after Johnny informed an old man we encountered in the food court that he ate his boogers, I let him splash in some puddles.

“Mom,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“What were you and daddy eating this morning again?”

“Bacon,” I said.

“Where does it come from?” he asked.

“Pigs,” I said.

“Noooo,” he said. “The piggies have to live!”

I went on at length about the food chain, talked about links–birds and mice and insects and cats, things I wasn’t sure about–and wished Mrs.Johnson had told me what to tell him when he insisted we shouldn’t eat animals.  How could I justify that we would have pork chops for dinner?

Then, he changed the subject.  “Is it my birthday?” he asked.

“Not until after Halloween,” I said, thinking about another paper chain, and all the days after, the days he had, one by one, to convince himself he could be whatever it was, Iron Man, the birthday boy, or whatever, at all, he wanted to be on that day.


The Vacancy of Noise

Apple fruit

(Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Life is noisy.

My house is never quiet–even when I’m sleeping–the radios in my sons’ rooms buzz with the campus radio station‘s DJ, my cat scratches at the headlight’s casts on the walls, the clock in my dining room chimes the familiarity of time passing.  My husband snores.  The late-night truckers haul by.  Occasionally, someone coughs.  I sigh.  My dog whimpers in time with her legs, galloping horizontally on nothing.

Today I ate an apple in my house alone.  I sat on the couch with a steak knife and a gala.  Usually, my son would be by my side, asking me to skin the apple, and instead, I cut off an entire chunk and snapped it under my teeth, gnoshed the white meat from around the core.

I almost made plans with my husband to go to lunch instead of coming home, alone.

I almost asked the new hair salon to trim my ends.

I almost tried to make the college archivist’s business hours.

If there is one thing this first semester in Goddard‘s MFA program has taught me, it is the absence of moments like this, the sacredness of them.