Tag Archives: writing about Brockport

Dear Brockport, an open letter:

imagesI’ve come to recognize a low-level anxiety in myself, not unlike I’m holding my breath, scared for something that makes me come back here to blog. Especially at the start of the fall semester at SUNY Brockport, I find myself preparing for something to happen. I warn my students they are not invincible, that they have to take care of themselves, to be vigilant, that those who come here (and are without their parents for the first time) don’t always know better (or act better) to look to faculty and staff and peers for guidance to make their vulnerability a little less-so. This is not just a college campus, it is still the real world.

Everyone knows about last weekend’s so-called riot after SUNY Brockport’s Homecoming game, when there were unfounded rumors of stabbings and vandalism and reports of Brockport cops threatening students with lines like “I will end your college career.” I try to find in myself an advocate, an even-minded person who defends the students I teach every day, and say, “They were chanting USA. They were displaced from the bars with no explanation. No one got hurt. There were no named victims of anything.” But the flashing emergency lights from the media pictures argue otherwise, and with that, the tensions between college (my alma mater, also where I teach English) and “townies” (a derogatory term, a term I use to define myself), have taken off, and not for the betterment of anyone.  Social media has blown up with negativity.

Last night, a Brockport High School student was beaten with a baseball bat after the high school’s Homecoming game, and this morning, the only press I can find about this is a Facebook post issued by the victim’s mother pleading for any witnesses to come forward, and none of the witnesses who were at the game had called the authorities, and what good is a frightened mother without a lead? Where is the press? I Googled and re-Googled for anything I could find. These criminals–and they have committed a violent, egregious crime–have escaped, and there is no Brockport Blog/WHEC News 10/WHAM 13 news item anywhere. What are we afraid of? If there’s a victim, there’s a crime, there’s a criminal. Our students aren’t criminals, but after this weekend, there’s a criminal out there.

My son had been at that game with his friends and his friends’ parents, a game my husband and I were so bummed we couldn’t attend with him. They played soccer in the patch of grass under the lights next to the families who were there to cheer on their student athletes and next to the high school students who cheered for their best friends. I hate to think of the narrow escapes from danger, how narrow they can be, and the threat that some time, they might not be narrow enough.

For these news events to occur on Homecoming weekends, how can this feel so unlike our home? It’s an out-of-body experience, almost, yet you feel the wound because it’s you, it’s your community. And when that happens, they are not just news events.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband, Cory, and I, sat on our porch and watched the children who live across the street sell their late-September lemonade, an act of suburban bliss. College students and high school students alike pulled over on Park Ave to support the enterprise. They were showing the younger kids how to be in the world.

At 2:30 and 3:45 and 5 this morning, I was horrified to think that the perpetrator(s?) of this baseball bat beating were still out there and still dangerous and very little was made public about it. I thought about my students, who were the “criminals” last week, their homecoming cheers, how they were likely in their beds at 4:30 am. And by the next morning, when they woke, they saw themselves all over the news.

One of my students said in class on Friday that one of his high school teachers “hated him,” and I said, skeptically, “That doesn’t sound like a healthy feeling to have toward a student.” I explained that, to me, it felt congruent (although a smaller congruence) to hating your child. How do you give up on someone you have responsibility to? But I can’t say the feelings any of the parents or community members in Brockport would feel anything less that hate for whoever beat that high school boy last night. In that boy, we all imagine parts of our children. We all just want everyone to act in a way that is as human or humane as we feel.

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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.

 

 

 


How to Leave a Home

When your husband shows you the house, recently re-listed on Zillow, complain that he’s been cheating on your home again.  And worse, on the Internet.  You thought you’d agreed to stay here, to stay home, in this sweet corn-yellow colonial, but instead, you find yourself clicking through the photographs, imagining your children at play in the fenced backyard, their growth ticks on the moldings (original to the house!),  watching rainstorms from the screened porch.  You have arranged your furniture in the living room.

You go to the open house with your husband and both sets of parents.  Your mother gushes as though you don’t own a beautifully remodeled kitchen in your house with tall cream-colored cabinets, rich hand-scraped floors, a farmhouse sink, the kind of kitchen your colonial always dreamed of.  You and your husband spent hours deciding on details and he, weeks making it come to life.  It is as full as it could be.  It needs no second-helpings.

The dining room in the Open House is yellow like the outside of your home.  The sun glints off the walls just right, the hardwood floors are original, too.  Outside there are sidewalks that are fast-paced to your job at the university, to your sons’ schools, to the canal.  You spent days researching the yards around the house, the Quaker Maid factory, the train tracks.  You can imagine both sons’ eyes lighting up at the whistle.  Or the Halloween doorbell.  Or summer’s Skippy truck.  These are the sounds of your childhood village, and in many ways, at the open house, you are home.

You return to the home you own, stinking of betrayal.  When your sons run to you and cry, “Mommy!” the sound of their feet on the hardwood aches in your stomach.  Your husband is smiling because he has made a decision he believes in.  His mind reels with numbers and plans and a new kitchen remodel!  He is giddy with housework.  You are grief-stricken.

Run upstairs and look out the bathroom window at the west-facing pines that have a strange place in your heart though you’ve never even touched them.  Perhaps because, as a child, your parents had a row of pine trees in their backyard, a canopy of gnats and dust and, in the late summer, pine needles you’d sift through your fingers, alone.

Nearly fall down the stairs in a hurry, and say, “We’re not moving.”

Change is not easy for you.

Before you decide to list your home, you do a quick search of the address in the village’s old newspaper, just to see.  See what?  You don’t know, you never know what you’re looking for, only what it is when you find it.  There were no violent murders in this house.  There were no crazy shenanigans (a word you love) of any kind.  Just a professor and his wife who held social meetings in the 1950s, their daughter who grew up to own the house.  This house is a home kept for family.

The offer you make is contingent on the sale of your current home.

You hardly see the flaws in the home you own anymore; it becomes like an ex-boyfriend you want back.  Your husband snaps you to reality.  “Here’s what we have to do,” he says.  And then lists: paint the hallway and the mudroom (that you actually call “the dirty room”); paint the stairs; fix the bathroom fixtures; move your books (gasp!); move the dining room table…  you are lost already, and he’s not finished.

The hallway is the first large project you feel invested in, though nearly every room in your home has been remodeled since you moved in.  While you paint the stenciled hallway a neutral tone, you think of the Thomas Hardy poem you explicated freshman year at your parents’ kitchen table–the last full paper you ever wrote with a pencil on lines.  Every stroke of paint feels like an eraser.  You paint faster because you are tired.

Your father lived in many houses growing up, your mother lived in many states, and you, you lived in one house.  In one village.  You wish the same for your boys, that they can pinpoint home, that they know its insides and outs like their own guts.

On Christmas, you went into your parents’ basement and found an old canning jar in the crawl space.  You had just finished a story about the Quaker Maid factory at the end of Spring Street in the 1940s.  You wonder if that’s where the jar came from, and before you finish the thought, you make it truth.  From now on, that’s where the jar came from, it traveled from the factory you wrote about to your parents’ cellar.  “How have I not seen this before?” you asked your mother.

You took it home and put it on top of your refrigerator and bouquet-ed your mother’s old monogrammed silverware  inside.

The other day, you packed the canning jar and the silverware in an MBS box marked “kitchen.”  You will take it with you.

And now, painting the treads of the stairs is a burden.  Three-quarters of your pictures have come down from the walls.  This Friday, the realtor will take the pictures of your house.  Friday, it will go on the market, like some fresh piece of meat.  You resist the urge of nostalgia, how your sons’ cries came down the hallways in their early days.  How the sun shone in the large windows behind their highchairs at dinner.  How much you will miss the place you made.  You examine the lines of your palm to see if there is a veer in your lifeline, if leaving a home could be it.

Though, somehow, by convincing your son how wonderful the move will be for him, you recognize those words are meant for you, too.  Be sure to tell the realtor to pass on that the frogs call beautifully in the summer nights, that the early fall air is full with cricket chirps in the afternoon, that the home calls out with love.

 


Dear Alice Munro,

Leisurely Summer Reading: Child's Play

Leisurely Summer Reading: Child’s Play (Photo credit: Madison Guy)

Dear Alice Munro,

The space you write within, the WWII and post WWII era, the train stations, the sanitariums, the surge of GI students to universities–is the world I’m finding to have preceded me.  At times, when I read a story of yours, for example, “Tell Me Yes or No,” or “How I Met My Husband,” I feel as though I’m researching, still, the history of Brockport.

You know, you are Alice Munro.  The last four pieces in your latest collection, Dear Life, are what you call “the closest thing to autobiographical,” as anything you’ve written.  I know this is both true and not.  But who’s going to argue with you?  You’re Alice Munro.  Did you ever think you would tear a reader’s life to shreds because when the text fades, there is no way to see the world as it was before?  When I finish reading your stories, I cannot get back inside, it’s like a life that’s already been lived.  The bald scalp after a relentless haircut.  The lower back after a pink kanji tattoo.  What’s done is done.  History, as Alice Munro has written it, has been.  Reading it a second time does no justice.  There are no do-overs.  Your stories, like all other stories, are not cats.  We all only have one life.

I’m writing you this blog post–which I’m sure you are waiting to read–because my mother-in-law told me to write a story about a little girl.  This will be the closest thing to autobiographical fiction I will ever write.  And I am no Alice Munro.  I am leaving behind, at least for this one story, your world of barnstorming planes and Quaker Maid factories that I have been squatting in for months.  The setting I write will be entirely my own era, but my life is not something made for fiction.  I only live in a world suitable for it.

It will be some sort of ghost story, and I don’t know, have you written a ghost story?  A real, true ghost story?  I will Google this when I finish your post. It is something I should know.

The world I enter now has factory-induced rain bubbling down the cuticle of Spring Street.  Soil that may or may not give a little girl MS.  The story will have a cast of Cold Storage workers on their way to and from shifts that seem to begin and end every minute.  The little girl will walk down a street with a car prowling next to her, its passenger will reach to pull at her skinny arm.  She will not run away.

I am sending this out into the blogosphere (an ugly word), where you will not see it.  If I were in your Canadian town with a copy in hand, I would place it under your Welcome Mat or tuck it behind the cover of a book you might check out of the library.

Sincerely.


How Children, and Fiction, Grow.

Auerbach covered the Lindbergh Kidnapping as a...

Auerbach covered the Lindbergh Kidnapping as a reporter/photographer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’m writing right now is my worst fear: a story, born from fact, of a woman who loses her son in the Erie Canal, drowned by a really large puppy.  This actually happened, though the particulars are fictionalized.

Stalled, and re-started, and re-stalled on this story, I figured what I need is
actually more emotion because I tend to avoid emotional avalanche in my fiction.

I’ve read conflicting accounts of the story from national newspapers, local newspapers, anecdotal histories, and then corroborated with Ancestry.com, obituaries, and yes, sometimes I feel like a stalker.  I mull through histories that aren’t mine, like shopping at an estate sale, buying photographs with unnamed faces and features that aren’t mine, so I last night, before I fell asleep, I imagined it to be mine.

I listened to the late-summer bugs and scared myself with thoughts about how vulnerable my children were.  My oldest son’s fingers were twitching with sleep, his mouth slightly open, and he was sweating in the humid air, refusing before bedtime to remove his Disney comforter for some sort of security.

Lately, before bed, he’s been asking about monsters and ghosts and something called the “silly silly gumbo” from a cartoon, and THAT scares the business out of him.  He drapes his arms around me, having asked for a hug, and his grip is tight because he’s not letting go.  I refuse to pull away and leave him with his arms open and empty, so I just sit there, waiting for him to say something like, “You know, mommy?  Superheroes protect us.”  And then I say, “Yes, but policemen do, too.  And so do the walls of our house, and Molly, and Mommy and Daddy do, too.”  And then he asks where the naughty guys live, and I tell him they live far far away.  And he says, “In the woods?”  And I think hard, because everything matters, and there are woods around our house, so I say, “No, not around here.  I’ve never seen a naughty guy.”  And I lie like that until he feels safe enough to loosen his grip, to give me his kiss.

God.  And he’s just three.

So my husband was snoring beside me last night, and I thought, what if I were Mabel, the mother from my story?  It is something I hesitated to think, but my mind had already gone there.  What would I miss most?  Mabel is consumed with the Lindbergh baby, and so my mind wandered to that, how the family was unaware their child had been kidnapped from his bedroom window.  When I hear on the news that that’s happened, I turn skeptical, imagine the parents are neglectful, drunk, or involved somehow.

My mind reeled around the conversation I had with Johnny before bed, and then Sammy, my other boy, who’s just learning to sit still while I read him bedtime stories about fireflies, that his thick fingers turn the cardboard pages for me.   How, when he curls up to go to sleep, he still pushes his butt high up in the air with his knees underneath.  For security.

Every night, before my husband and I go to sleep, he peeks in on the boys and latches their doors closed.

I got out of bed before I could stop myself, and tip-toed down the hall to see for myself that everything I’d imagined about my boys asleep was true, that they were there.  And they were.

I left their bedroom doors open, not worried about noise, wanting to hear everything that happened in their rooms, every breath even.