Tag Archives: writing about parenting

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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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.


Dark Side of the Mind

Cover of "Dark Side of the Moon"

Cover of Dark Side of the Moon

Two nights ago, I knew I was taking the last of my antidepressants. I heard the echo in the orange bottle when the single pill clicked the side. I knew it would be empty in just a second.

My mind was somewhere else.

I was researching my next story–inspired by a news article from the late 60s, a Brockport native, Harris Tuttle Jr, whose daughter, Susan, had been “mentally kidnapped” by the “Moonies,” a group I knew nothing about.

Manson and his followers horrified me for years, but I couldn’t stop watching A&E specials on this group. My husband would look at me skeptically, sipping a beer, while I hid my face in my hands. The screen, aesthetically tinted “vintage” in rusty hues, showed parents who raised children in the compounds. Their young round heads were lit with fine strands of blond hair. A faint melody played in the background.

The phrase “Helter Skelter” alone makes my stomach hurt.

When I was growing up, my father played Pink Floyd’sDark Side of the Moon” on our living room speakers. The televisions were all off, a single light glowed in every room, and I would dance around in a nubby Rainbow Brite nightgown while my mother popped popcorn in a large pot, shaking it noisily on the stove.

When “Time” came on, I froze, running to the couch, covering my ears in terror. The clicking and gonging of clocks in the beginning made me cover my head with the brown tweed throw pillows, and even that couldn’t calm me down. I had a similar, though less intense response to “Money,” with the cash register slamming. This combination of quotidian noises and silence followed drum beats and a single voice, brought any life beyond eerie. Even now, I can’t explain this fear. My father would skip the song in concession to my shrieks.

Last night, I went to bed without my prescription, expecting I would pay somehow for being so unaware. I woke with a raging headache, a gong in my head, and need for quiet and peace, and something else that I didn’t have to make me calm. The prescription.

Ted Patrick, the “deprogrammer” who assisted the Tuttle family, invested himself in saving their daughter, but couldn’t pull Susan from the grasp of the “Moonies.” This was one article of many that a member of the museum found for me, but the only one I brought home. Perhaps the girl had lost her mind for good.

This morning my husband was home, luckily, and I cried to him while shaking, feeling my senses abandon me. I should have known, I scolded myself. The prescription’s absence made me sob for no reason at all. There was no pain to attribute it to, no immediate loss, nothing I’d let go of that tied to this gap of peace in my mind. I felt completely controlled by the pill, and that made me cry harder.

During Johnny’s preschool and Sam’s nap, I though a lot about the “Moonies,” using anecdotes friends donated on Facebook, looking at the photograph of Susan Tuttle, the beautiful young woman who left her family, her own mind and being, to become part of something unknown. She gave herself up.

I’m not sure what I will find in the other articles. The mind is unwieldy, molded as much by the past as the present, by what’s inside as out. I hope I will read that Susan Tuttle somehow “came to her senses,” and I know that if that is possible, it couldn’t be complete.  She could never fully have arrived at her senses, wherever “her senses” were, because wherever else she’d been–that eerie loss of self–is still there, however the paint chips in abandon, whatever windows are boarded, it can always be reached.


How to Make a Mess

just one of many exercises from Kerri Smith’s “Mess”

My mother is the anti-mess.  The careful super-heroine.  The best worrier (or warrior?) ever.

She gets angry when a child falls because she, or someone around her, couldn’t stop them from falling.  She tells them “rub it,” when they smack their foreheads on the corner of the coffee table.  It worked for me growing up.  It works for me now.

But, lately, I’ve learned, sometimes there is nothing you can do.  At first, this was scary for me.  With MS, I tried medicines, then abandoned medicines, drank green tea, then drank coffee, took cold showers, took hot showers, slept not at all, or slept all I could.  I took every prescription the doctor gave me and none of the prescriptions the doctor gave me.  My MRI showed what my brain wanted to do, regardless.

With my sons, I followed them around the house with a batch of paper towels, arms rearranging whatever they had displaced.  I “picked up” the house over and over again everyday, not stopping to make messes with them.  I  rarely joined their “picnic” in the middle of my living room floor, which simply meant they dumped every toy from their bin on our area rug.

Everything was the end of the world.  A misplaced throw-pillow.  A Cheerio in the corner.   I saw it coming when my son took off his socks many times a day to pick the “fuzzies” from his toes.

I write with my teeth clenched if I can’t wash my dishes before I begin.  I feel like I have two jobs running at one time, two songs playing in discord from one speaker.  Everything is too much.

I found this book, Mess, by Keri Smith.  After reading the introduction, I realized that, aside from being nervous and unhappy,  being consumed by this need for order hinders my creativity, gives me unearned headaches, and a lot of guilt about missed picnics.

As far as work, I never would have been excited to cut apart a piece of fiction with scissors, yet when I actually did it, I almost cried with the connections I had made, the ties of emotion I arranged simply by disconnecting what I had thought, at one time, was whole.  It hadn’t been whole, at all.

This morning, I did the dishes.  But I left the coffee spots on my desk, opaque brown splats on a thick sheen of glass.  While I might have wiped them up before, now, I let them rest, the little buggers, spots like those on an MRI.

Mess, by Keri Smith

Instead, I went to work again, cutting apart the story I had taped together with scotch tape yesterday afternoon, and re-taped it in new places.

I’m trying.  I drink coffee, take my prescriptions and even a vitamin (as my mother takes daily, with water she drinks from a small plastic tumbler that she hides next to the paper towels).  I sleep hard (with a prescription) and cry warm, fat, tears when need be and write drafts more imperfect than I had originally realized, but I’m happier because of it.  And now, on top of it all, I make messes in meaningful ways.  I tape my son’s paper alligator on the living room wall and fight him when he takes it down.  I argue that I like his abstract self-portrait on our kitchen cupboard.   And I’m slowly becoming okay with the messes that have been made, like an indecipherable MRI, my own abstract, self-portrait.

Now, when I go to my mother’s, I will open and reopen her kitchen cupboards, the only messy part of her house. Besides the pantry closet (SHH).  Her socks might be neatly tucked one inside the other, but she does leave a basket of folded laundry in front of her closet, next to a dresser.  Still, you will never find a dirty dish in the sink for longer than ten minutes.  They’re clean before she eats dinner.  This happens more often than I’d like to admit in my own house.

“Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader

Watching  “Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader, a video that Keri Smith writes about in her introduction to Mess,  I both laughed and gritted my teeth, unsure which was the right response.  At first, I wanted to pluck him from the branches and set him down safely.  But I bet, as times goes on, I will want to flick him off the branch and listen to the splash.   And then, when he stands up with a scrape on his knee or a knot on his forehead, I will tell him to “rub it.”


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.


Dear Johnny: To My Son as I Pack for Goddard

English: Colargol with a suitcase.

English: Colargol with a suitcase. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Johnny,

On Thursday, I leave for Vermont.  Specifically, Goddard College, for a residency in creative writing.  Remember this when you decide that your Silly Putty masterpieces are worthy of a career in sculpture, that your crayon drawings or chocolate-syrup-fingers are on to something artful, or when you want your comedic presence to be shared with a room of people in the dark, who laugh at your will.  Art is often thought of as the least-practical route, but is looked to, by everyone, for meaning, when reason ultimately fails.  And it often will.

Today, you told me that the “countdown chain” I made you was “reawwy awful” because I put you in timeout.  When I was little, Mrs.Ewanow, my Kindergarten teacher, had us all make chains with 25 Lick-N-Stick links, alternating red and green.  I brought mine home to my mother.  We hung it on the door to the basement, and I tore one away each day, though when I felt really anxious to unwrap the presents under the tree, I wanted to take two links away.

Today, when you told me you didn’t like my chain, I thought, Well, it serves me right for thinking I could compare to Santa.

I’ve tried to tell you so many ways that I am going.  Here’s how it went the first time I broke it to you:

“Johnny, I’m going to go to work.  For a whole week,” I said.

“Yeah?” you asked.  “Are you going today?”

“No,” I said.  “Not for two weeks.”

“Okay!  Well, wanna build a train track?”  you asked.

Sammy is so little, Johnny.  Today, you tried to knock him over with your whole left side.  You scratched him on his back like a cat would.  You hugged him with so much love you left ten little white fingerprints on his tan back.  He loves you, too, so he just smiles.  Promise me this will not change by next weekend.

You get your dramatic, sensitive side from me.  Your grandmother is our opposite.  Her fingers are split and calloused.  Her eyes are darker and stronger than her coffee.  She is so small, but like the trunk of a tree, she is unwavering.  As a mother, she did whatever she wanted.

Her first day of work was the first day I went to Kindergarten.

And now, I am vanishing for a whole week.

So, what does one week equal in pre-school years?

I will be home in eight baths.  Or seven re-runs and two new episodes of Phineas and Ferb.  Or in ten chicken nuggets.  Eleven juice boxes.  Nine pairs of Spiderman underwear (if you don’t have any accidents).  Eight bedtime stories and missed-kisses goodnight.

It is hard for me to understand.  I am doing what I want, too.

Someday, you will tell me it was right.