Tag Archives: New York City

Dear Diary: Connie Rodriguez and What I’ve Realized About My Blog

Student Biking

Student Biking (Photo credit: University of Denver)

I stopped keeping a journal when I graduated from high school.  My journal was a daily escape from ages eight to seventeen.  Upon graduation, I stopped keeping a journal because its contents would then become volatile.

Before that, I journaled compulsively, usually to Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing cd, which spun at such high volumes in my stereo, I could hear the hum of my parents’ hardwood floors.  I didn’t do it because I wanted to.  It became something I couldn’t forgo if I wanted to, like the trail of my parents’ cigarette smoke.

Today, I sit here with a paper plate full of Triscuit crumbs and smears of cream cheese, wondering why I cannot continue writing a series of flash fictions for Goddard without first writing a blog post.  I’ve wondered why I had to do this after the Boston Bombings, the Newtown tragedy, the loss of Alexandra Kogut last semester, and other experiences I’ve had like wishing I could call my grandmother on her birthday.

The blog has become, in some fancier way, my diary, which is why, for weeks, I am able to not write a thing, and then some days, I can’t not write.  My blog entries typically come out in an hour or less of writing.  And now I understand why.  It’s the same muse in action that has you jotting down story ideas on a fast food napkin.  I blog because I cannot continue my daily routine without writing about whatever it is I’m obsessing about.

For the past few days, it’s been Connie Rodriguez, one of my students from this past fall, who died over the weekend.

My husband scolds me after tragedy, as though he expects me to react any differently:  I am as guilty as anyone who grips the controller to watch the terror unfold before them.

I found her old submissions from my creative writing course.  I needed proof.  I couldn’t believe she was my student just last semester, it wasn’t so long ago, and I hadn’t seen her since.  I read a Facebook friend’s page religiously, but not for posts about her daughter like I usually do, but for photos of Connie, who was her friend.  I Googled her name to see if her obituary had been posted yet or if anyone had written about her.  Just before writing this, I found a university news article about her.  I had to write.

As her instructor, I knew these limited things about Constance Rodriguez:

She wrote one hell of a short fiction piece for her portfolio–a story about twin sisters who would not stop battling each other, who would wake each other in the middle of the night to physically and brutally terrorize one another.  The story ended with a blaze, the house catching fire, the girls running away.

She was the first to share her writing on the first day of class.

She lost her mother.

She had seen things and lived a life that I could not ever fathom– a life she wrote in her poetry and essays that I will not post here.  She was a survivor.

From reading the article, from looking at pictures, Connie was a bubbly girl, a forgiving friend.  What I can’t stop thinking about is this: the pain beneath her pretty smile.

We like to think we are heroes, that we can save the world, that the future is ours for preserving.  I wonder if I could have done or said one thing to make her life, then, easier.  I couldn’t have healed a thing for her, a tough girl enduring a tough time who’d lost her mother just before she started my class.  Had I known her deep state of grief, would I have been able to be fair?  Should I have been able to be fair?

I haven’t stopped thinking about her since Sunday, when I learned of her passing.  I printed her poems that had been archived away in my college email, the first creative essay she wrote for class.  I read them at 10 o’clock on Sunday night.  I re-read them at 4 pm on Monday, and not more carefully than I did when I graded them, but differently–with the urgency to pull her back, to prevent the loss of her after it happened.

I grieve in a different way from her friends, from her family, who grieve the loss from their guts.  I am sad about the small part of her I knew, the small part of her that pulled back into herself towards the end of the semester, who veered away from school into sadness.  But I remember her as something bigger, as part of a future unknown, as part of a difference we are afraid to make.


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.


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.