Tag Archives: Parenting

The Intersection of Drawing and Writing and Living

photo (2)Last night, I drew a charcoal picture of what I meant to be my parents’ golden retriever, Buddy (with two eyes), before next Thursday, when a cancerous mass will be removed from his skull, along with one of his eyes.

I’ve just graduated with my MFA in fiction, and am writing a short story about a pedophile bicyclist, but was, after reading Adam Gopnik’s “Life Studies” early on at Goddard, compelled to buy a $5 charcoal set from a close-out store and since, have been drawing pictures that resemble animals and people, but in actuality, all feel like drafts of a story without a true epiphany, without heart or breath. I post these to Facebook and send them in text messages to my best friend because they feel like immediate gratification, as though in one glimpse, someone can see what clearly is a dog. Although perhaps too unpolished to illustrate the sadness Buddy can’t know exists when two eyes become one eye. Soon, he will see the world one-half at a time. The drawing was in-progress, in much the same way my fiction was, a father struggling to realize his fears for his son, who’s way closer in proximity to a pedophile than he’s comfortable with.

I talked through this charcoal drawing of Buddy last night while sitting next to my husband, Cory, who watched the sequel of “Taken,” a movie I couldn’t watch because I didn’t find it believable. How could members of one family be stolen two times? I asked him.

How do I know? Cory said.

It’s hard to draw something you know personally, I said. I can mess up a squirrel, or impose my own ideas of my mother’s face in a portrait of her from the 60s (because it’s not how I know her today), but Buddy’s nose, the fattest most bulbous blackest nose I’ve ever seen on a dog has to look both natural and true-to-Buddy-as-he-is-tonight and believable. I spent most of the two hours I drew Buddy just trying to get the shadows on Buddy’s face accurate enough to craft his nose as horrifying and endearing and entirely normal.

In 2008, my parents lost their first golden retriever, also named Buddy, suddenly, because of a mass that put pressure on his heart. And now, this Buddy, too, has a mass. My father and I chatted briefly on the phone last night, discussing how unfair and unbelievable it was that both Buddies could have such a fate. But life, it turns out, is not about what’s believable, though we hold art to a standard of making life somehow believable and sensible and controlled. Workshops discuss sequence and plot and structure as though life relies on this instinct–and perhaps because it doesn’t. Maybe it’s controlling fear that makes art worth the hours and thousands of dollars we spend on it.

Cory looked over and commented on the shadow and angles cast on Buddy. How his ear didn’t have the shading it should and how it didn’t follow his snout entirely.

Why is everything about angles and math? I asked.

He was right, and slowly, I erased the charcoal enough so that I could recognize Buddy in the drawing, and I said, Hi, Buddy, when his nose looked about right. I guess it’s really all about light and dark, I said, trying to oust math from the art. This morning, while continuing the pedophile story, the father materialized, petrified for his son, and at the same time damaged by his own experience with a pedophile, all while realizing that souls are souls and bodies are bodies. I hope, in the final draft, he captures how simple math and unbelievable life have the potential to wreck us.

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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.

 

 

 


10 Reasons You Fear Your Son Will Become a Writer

desk1. While you’re at residency in Vermont, your son tells his Kindergarten teacher that his sister died in the army. Your husband texts you a photo of the note Mrs. C sent home.  Primary colors don’t ease the word “died.”

You turn to your fellow writers, and say, “Oh no.  He’s going to be a liar.”

You imagine his future will become filled with therapy sessions, or his friends will abandon him when he lies about his favorite movie–or worse, his marriage will fail when he loses his job after his employer realizes he falsified the degree on his application.  Of course, you’d never say this out loud.

“Oh, a fiction-writer,” they say.

2.  At the age of three, your son tells you that before he was born, he was an old man who built houses.  There are whole descriptions of who he was before he was born– a gray hat, a red hammer–and then, he tells you how he died when the tornado came through.  

3. While you and your spouse discuss something boring in the kitchen–like the state of your finances or travel arrangements to Vermont, you catch just the tips of your son’s fingers peeking from behind the refrigerator.  When you call his name, he giggles.  Eavesdropping.  You wonder how he knows all your tricks.

4. When you were younger, you wrote stories about babysitters who went missing.  You read book after book of scary stories–or just a few books, over and over: Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories that Go Bump in the Night,  and Shirley Cox Husted’s Valley of the Ghosts.  And now your son proclaims, “I’m going to write a comic book–a scary chipmunk book!  I just need you to draw the cover and write all the words,” and you realize he means it.  He works on this book, which he turns into a solo venture, every day.  He talks about it fleetingly and sporadically, as though the story is always on his mind, “Oh! An idea!” he’ll say, or “I’ll put a volcano on the next page!”  He sits on the couch next to you with the book in his lap and the colored pencils at his side.  He is serious.  

5.  When he doesn’t know the truth, what reality is, the hard stuff that you’re thankful he doesn’t ask you about (well, not always, anyway), he makes it up.  When his school bus drives down the dead-end street in the afternoon, he tells the kids on his bus that his great-grandmother went to the High Street Cemetery to die.  A detail you steal for one of your stories.

6.  He spends hours writing words that make no sense, and you begin to wonder if he’s been watching you in the middle of the day at your keyboard.  He writes the letters K-B-I-V-A-P-W, and asks, “What does that spell?”  You could probably find that same word typed somewhere in your manuscript.

7.  When you drive by the house you moved from last fall, he recalls things about it you don’t remember–that once, he built a fort in the bathroom, and after you pass the house, his voice breaks and he says, “I really miss that house.  I’m sad.” It’s the kind of emotion whole novels are built on.

8.   In the summer, when you walk to Main Street for ice cream, he gives a tour of the town, relaying the setting in a  narrative history.  “This,” he says, gesturing toward the brick house on State Street, “is where a plane crashed and a boy died.”  He revels in details, and you make a note that he is always listening.

9.  While reading Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing, you see your son’s face during her descriptions of a writer’s childhood.  How a curious child clings to the parts of life they don’t know (the scary, the threatening, the unknowable), and then mulls those parts over and over until that focus resides alongside memory and lived-life, and so the mind has somehow forged its own recollection.

10.  His nightmares–the kind of dreams a creative mind spins wildly while the dreamer should be resting.  His mind never stops.  When he wakes up, he narrates every movement that he’s slept.  He tells you his dreams as though he’s lived them, and there are times when he cries at their dark premises–his new friend turned into a lizard by a monster.  You tell him these things aren’t real, and when he calms down, with his head on your shoulder, you wonder what you can tell him that you know, for sure, is true.


What to Say When There is Nothing

Kiddie Pool 01

Kiddie Pool 01 (Photo credit: katherine lynn)

Yesterday, the WHAM13 news alert popped up on my cell phone while my sons splashed in the kiddie pool in my mother’s backyard.

That night, my two little boys would spend the night with my mother so I could clean our house for a real estate showing.  I had just yelled at my four-year-old, Johnny, for splashing the water too hard, speckling my phone with droplets.  He and his little brother, Sammy, had been playing a game they play often, whether in a pool or not–one lies down, hurt, and the other saves him.

The news alert: Toddler Dies After Drowning in Daycare Swimming Pool.  I clicked the link.

Now, I cannot sleep.

The first thing I did after reading the text, was tell my father that the home-daycare was in Sweden Village–the small tract that my sister jokingly referred to as “Snob Hill” when I was a teenager, a name I hated–some of my best friends lived there.  We knew the owners of the daycare in our community, their family a part of our lives in small ways.  I thought my father might cry.

The second thing I did after reading the text, was call one of my best friends whose son attends daycare where this tragedy occurred, a brave move since I had no idea what to say or ask when she answered the phone.  He had not been at the daycare yesterday.

The third thing I did was sob with her on the phone for the pain.  We all want to understand the unthinkable so we might draw a circle around ourselves, some thin line to signify that we couldn’t be the family tragedy had struck, but there was no line.  I almost enrolled my two-year-old in that daycare.  And we’ve all been in charge of another’s child at some time.

The fourth thing I did was help my mother bail the water out of the plastic pool while Johnny and Sammy stood, wrapped in towels, giggling, eating Flavor Ice in the sun.

My mother had said, “Let me do it.  You don’t want to do this.”

I said, “No, I want to.  I have all this anxious energy.  Let me use it for something.”  I took the small pink tub that Park Ridge Hospital had sent home with me after the birth of my first son almost five years ago, a tub they now use to rinse the grass of their feet before they get in the pool, and scooped the water up, then heaved it out.  I tried with ferocity to grab more water than the tub could hold, to empty the alligator-printed pool in one movement, but every time the water splashed out of the tub, it still only looked like the small amount of water I could manage.  When the water was low enough for my mother and I to dump out, we tipped the pool over and soaked the lawn.  Nothing had changed.

The fifth thing I did was watch the news.  The boys put on their dry clothes and rode their bikes in my mother’s driveway.  We park my mother’s  little red Honda at the end to keep the boys from entering street traffic: two cars per hour.  Sometimes, John scoots his Lightning McQueen bike out past the red car, and I scream frantically at him:  “Get on this side of the car!”  He looks at me, bewildered, from beneath his helmet, as if he had the phrase, he might say, “Get a grip.”

I did many things then, but I only remember uttering parts of phrases, still crying a little.  Still wondering what things a mother does after entering this tragedy.  How could I be sure it hadn’t been me?  How didn’t I lose myself in her grief?  I stopped my imagination, so many times, from going to that moment, the horrible moment that will replay in the poor family’s life for years.

After I left John and Sam with my parents, I drove past the house that held the daycare, though I knew the only thing anyone in this tragedy needed right then was privacy.  I wanted to hug them all, to ask where God was, but I said little prayers in my head, and though I know few, I made something up in my mind that sounded good enough, and what could ever be good enough for these families anymore?

At home, I cleaned with bleach and Lysol.  I went on Facebook to look up photos of the child after they released his name, and sobbed to see the two-year-old’s smooth chubby face, his blond hair, the private moments eating popcorn from a Spiderman tub in front of the flat screen with his four-year-old brother, who would wake every morning to remember that someone was missing.  I cleaned more.

I called my parents to tell them what news I had learned.  I considered going to my childhood home so I could pick up my sons and hug them, bring them home with me and tuck them tight in their beds.

My parents told me not to let my mind “go there.”  But when I told my father that the toddler had a four-year-old brother, he said, “Oh God.”

My mother said, “Jesum.”

When my husband got home from work, I told him everything I knew about everything in the world that day, which was mostly the tragedy.  No one could give any answers to the questions I didn’t know to ask.

At 3:30 a.m., I went in my sons’ empty bedrooms on the way to the bathroom and, terrified, thanked God for them both.


Gifts From My Father

Clutch Cargo

Clutch Cargo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, I placed a bid on a toy from my childhood: a Fisher Price Discovery Globe that lights up and has a viewfinder to “zoom-in” on a location. (Please don’t out-bid me.) Imagine a tangible Google Earth. Life really was cooler in the eighties.

This was the toy I loved most as a child. I spent hours peering into places I’d never see in real life–the countries and cities with their animals and culture and scene. And when I win the auction, I can’t wait to revisit that world. Can’t wait to share it with my boys. When Ebay asked me to enter a maximum bid, I turned melodramatic: How do you enter a high bid on your childhood? So I “x’d” the window.

I could always tell the Christmas gifts my father chose for me–besides this globe: a wood-branding kit, a full chemistry set with pipettes and chemicals, an amateur microscope complete with slides of fly wings and ant feces (or something as gross), a build-your-own-kaleidoscope kit, and a photosynthetic developing kit that I made maple leaf prints with while he blared Simply Red on the living room stereo.

My father used to bring me with him to houses en route to becoming homes, structures without drywall, with see-through staircases that I refused to climb, that I watched him climb with ease. In the process of home-building, it was his turn to add insulation. I loved the saw dust smell and the look of a structure vast and transparent as the woods around it.

Last night, on Ancestry.com, I found a census that showed my grandfather as living in LA when he was six, and my father said, “Huh. I didn’t know.” I frowned. Our realities are what we deem important, what stands out to us as remarkable or noteworthy. My grandfather had never told my father this in all his life. How can I tell my boys everything? How can I let them hold it in their hands?

What happens when life goes undiscovered? We can live a full day without a single moment of it embedded in our memory. There are whole weeks in our lives that we don’t ever speak another word of.

One day, when I was little, I fed bologna, my dad’s favorite lunch meat, to Cricket, a life-sized, blond-haired, blue-eyed doll that talked, because she’d said she was hungry. Another day, uncooked pasta. Her mouth moved when she “talked,” so why couldn’t she chew? Neither worked. I left her side for Teddy Ruxpin, who still refused to eat. (These dolls are now labeled as “vintage” on Ebay.) They could only be so real. Perhaps these failures led me to my microscope or globe? Perhaps these moments lead me to Ebay for my long-lost globe?

I give my parents a lot of grief for not hanging on to my toys. My husband has everything from his childhood! His old toy box sits in my son’s bedroom. They play with his super hero action figures–multiple versions of Spider Man and Batman. They can wear his old denim jacket.

Probably, I coaxed my parents to throw out my old dolls and science laboratories, to let me be a grown-up with lip gloss and purses and cassette tapes.

Last night, my parents showed up with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle truck for my sons. We watched Disney, and then I put on Looney Tunes, a throwback both my father and I remembered. He quizzed me on the character names.

Then he asked, “Have you ever seen Clutch Cargo?” This was a question he’d asked me before, and I still hadn’t looked it up on my own. I still had no vision when he said “human lips on a cartoon face.” Before I knew it, he had his Iphone in his hand, and had pulled up an episode on YouTube. He was eager to show us all–especially my boys.

After we took a peek, he sat there, mesmerized, in his YouTube childhood, watching the episode.


Boys at Home

Superman (comic book)

Superman (comic book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I tell my four-year-old on the way home, “Johnny, you have to calm down at Grandma’s: you can’t jump on her sleep-number bed or track mud on the floor, or look at the pork roast and then comment that the gravy smells like poop, or sit on the windshield of her car, and when we have to leave, you can’t cry behind the standing antique mirror you always almost break in your fervor, because she will stop inviting us over.”

I know she won’t.  She smiles baring all teeth, shaking her head, she says, “They’re boys.”  I smile, bearing anything at all.  How does my mother not mind?

Who doesn’t like gravy?

Sammy is two and threw my mother’s butter potatoes to the floor, swept them clear off her table before he began jamming out with his spoon on her new slate-tiled kitchen set.

Last week, a little girl ahead of us in line at Wegmans said, “My name’s Angelina.”

Johnny said, “My little brother’s name is Sam, and he’s not an angel.”  We all laughed, but he didn’t understand what was so funny.

My sons are not devils.  They are ragamuffins.  They are toughies, my mom says.  My mother-in-law says God only gives you what you need.  He forgot to give me muscles.  And many days, patience.

I did imagine that Angelina went home and combed her Monster High doll’s hair calmly and smoothly with attention to snarls and then smelled her doll’s hair and then cuddled her like a good Monster High doll’s mother would.  I imagine Angelina potty trained in two days.  She ate everything her parents put on her plate, with gravy.  She took ballet classes and tiptoed down the stairs after waking, never before 8 a.m.  I imagined.

I have to exert all my power to hold two boys down with force enough to put their shoes on while they spin like tornadoes, but not enough force to hurt them.  It is a hard practice, like yoga, this strict control of muscles.

And yet I see the same restraint in Johnny when he wants to wallop Sammy in return for the bite on his forearm.

They love as hard as they live.

We get home, and Johnny says, “I don’t like to come home.”

So I tell him that makes me sad, that I want him to love our home, to want to be here.  He starts crying and tells me he doesn’t want to leave this house, to move, that he wants to take the “for sale” sign down.

When I am almost in tears, Sammy says, “It’s okay, Mommy.”

At night, we are finally settled, the three of us on the couch, watching Chicken Little, and I’ve finally stopped holding my breath long enough to remind them how much I love them.  We share popsicles.  And if they fight by pushing hard and leaning against each other, growling, it’s over the space on my lap–which is my space, and I don’t mind if they each take it all.