Tag Archives: publications

On Tests, on Failure…

scansTomorrow, I’ll go in for my eighth MRI. I’ve only had one MRI with positive results. Usually, there are more lesions. Usually, there will be new meds. These are tests I fail regularly. When I was in middle school, I got a 65% on the long division test. In high school, I failed a chemistry test. Later, I did not do well on the LSATs, but I didn’t really want to be a lawyer, anyway, did I? Life is too ambiguous to insist on being so sure.

This past month, I filled out an application for a new doctor. “I don’t know if I can handle anymore rejection,” I said to my mother. I had received three manuscript rejections the day before. Still, I detailed my c-sections and my multiple sclerosis and my depression on the papers. I was accepted. It was a thrill! At my first appointment, I was polite. I tried not to seem overly needy. He explained to me about depression. I remembered my melancholy adolescence and drinking through college and nodded to him when he explained about the brain and chemicals. I thought about my grandmother. I wanted to explain to him what I knew about science and feelings. I’ve tried to control my brain chemistry with thought, and when I can’t–unsurprisingly!–have found the ultimate illusion of failure. Emotions and science have a complicated relationship.

Last month, when I opened the email from my servicer that my grace period was ending for my student loans, anxiety spiked. But I don’t have a full-time job yet, I said to the email. I have not yet received all the rejections from my manuscript! I needed more time to redeem myself, and I still continue to spend all the time in the world arguing this in my head. How easy it is to forget the many people in my shoes, also in the muck of the temporary plight of the humanities, people I don’t consider as having failed. To believe in failure assumes that the chances for success are finite. I feel like I’ve realized something as I type this, yet I know that in the face of a particularly hard rejection or a disappointment, I will forget again.

I have read all the articles about how to make an MFAW worth it, how to survive post-degree life, how to make the degree count for something, and though I do all these things because I love them, I wonder, as I always have, what defines a writer? How do you meet whatever measures and hurdles? How do you pass that test? To my students, I say, If you write, you are a writer, but do I believe that for myself? Sadly, not right now. Right now, I believe that if you can publish a book, if you can pay back the loans for your writing degree with a job you acquired as a result of that degree, then you are a writer. I don’t hold these beliefs about other people who write, but these feelings haunt me about myself. Feelings are not rational. And who knows how that will change with time? In ten minutes, while I’m jotting down notes about the novel I’m afraid to start, I might change my mind. Or I might be 80 years old with dozens of manuscripts and no books, and then, I might even consider myself a writer. There is something to be said for keeping on.

Around some people, I become unsure, and I feel like I am not who I am, or that I am flawed and my body is weak because it is diseased, or that I am doing the wrong things. Some people are just so sure. I ask my husband, “Why do I stay quiet? I don’t want to pass their tests. I want to politely disagree. I do not always want to be the world’s little sister.” And as I say this, my mind is back in the conversation with my mouth closed and my insides quivering with dissent. I don’t want to be told everything. I want to tell, too. At some point in my life, passing the test became about following directions, meant allowing myself to be told. How to fail, now?

A month or so ago, I took a Buzzfeed quiz that, in some psychic way, told me my biggest fear was failure by analyzing my favorite pictures from a selection. Yes, I chose a photo of a hand beckoning out of the dark. Yes, I chose the photo of a woman staring into an overgrown field. Sure, I chose the picture of a couple standing under an umbrella in the rain. Somehow, Buzzfeed was right, and they, whoever they are, passed the test: I am afraid of failure, and then I wondered if I had passed the Buzzfeed test by answering the questions right. Hey, who’s testing who here? I wanted to know. Buzzfeed has also told me I am sensitive, that my outgoing personality masks my introversion, and that if I were a hippie, my name would be Flower. They always pass, or I always pass. The thing about the pain of failure is that it’s a smack in the face to hope. I remember the initial failure I felt after each c-section, and how now, the failure of my body to do what nature intended has become gauze-like in comparison to my sons, who, in my mind, could not fail me if they tried.

While I’m in the MRI machine tomorrow, I will have an IV–my least favorite part. This is for “contrast,” something that makes me imagine neon hi-liter fluid coursing through my arms and legs and brain while I try to keep still. “Try not to swallow for the next minute and 40 seconds,” the radiologist will say over a speaker while the machine does its thing, sounding like ten squirrels dropping acorns on a hollow log. I will try not to breathe. I’ll hope not to gasp for air. Or heaven forbid, sneeze. No vivid thoughts, even. I might decide, at that moment, that I am not taking the test, that I am the object, the machine is the writer. This will not calm me. In a day or two, I will know if I passed.

This month, or this week, or tomorrow, I will be rejected from a literary magazine or a book contest. Usually, I will submit somewhere else. This month, I will reject someone’s manuscript with a softened heart. As a writer and editor, if I do what writers are supposed to do, and keep on, thinking to myself about Beckett’s “fail better,” I will be rejected far more times than I will actually reject. I will write something nice in the writer’s email, and what I really would like to do is take their address off the manuscript and mail them a personal letter on stationery with a blue Pilot Precise V5 ballpoint, telling them how close they were to being accepted and not to feel like they failed. After all, I’d made it to the end of their piece and had taken time to write that letter. In this way, I will tell.


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.


On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.


Writing Illness

English: Detail of plate 4, figure 4 of Pathol...

Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease. Last fasciculi published in 1838. Depicts Multiple Sclerosis lesions before the disease had been described by Charcot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was the only one sobbing at Bellevue Literary Review‘s AWP panel.

Poet Hal Sirowitz, who writes honestly and humorously about his experience with Parkinson’s disease, had me crying.

He stood up at the podium with his wife and read in a deadpan voice, sometimes struggling to get out the end of the line.  His wife stood next to him and I didn’t know if it was to help him along with the reading, or to help him stand– or even if he needed or wanted any of these things.  But I guess in this case, needing and wanting really are two different things.  Sirowitz read poems, and it seemed planned that his wife would finish his lines or sometimes she started the lines and he would finish them.  His wife, composed, smiled at his humor.

I chose to sit near the front so I could quickly thank the poetry editor after for publishing my poem in their prior issue, but I ended up staring at the presenters, wiping snot from my upper lip, imagining that they looked at me strangely.  Mortified, I left immediately.

I’ve written two poems about Multiple Sclerosis.  I’ve written essays that I don’t really care for about the disease–essays that feel too self-deprecating or too self-pitying or too removed.  So, I try to work the disease in other ways.  When a peripheral character in a story needs a disease, I give them MS, and then I make them really tired all the time, or I make them walk with a cane, or I make them die.

What else should I do with these characters?  How should I write a protagonist, a mother, who has MS?  What else should be in her life besides her disease and her family?

Bellevue held another panel at AWP: “In Sickness and In Health: Literature at the Intersection of Medicine, Science, and the Arts,” where I teared up, but didn’t sob.

I took notes.

Sure, the title of the panel sounds clinical.  But that was the rub–how something so intensely personal like disease, something that makes itself so much a part of the body that we sometimes don’t even recognize we have it, can steal away the most human aspects of ourselves.  So much time in the panel was discussing how “medical-ese” takes the primal, human, messy parts of disease and sterilizes those parts into vocabulary terms that the patient can’t understand without a medical dictionary.

So I went to the human side when researching the history of MS for this novella.  I am determined to explore it in a way that lets me control its every appearance, though not my character’s.  I suppose that I should be an entirely different being from my character.

I read mostly archival news articles from the 40s through the 70s.  I wanted to know what the public knew about the disease then, to understand how little was understood.

From the Toledo Blade, June 12, 1947:  “Patients suffering from the ‘brutal’ and always fatal disease, multiple sclerosis, are getting an answer to their plea, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about this disease?'”

I thought about this.  When I was diagnosed, my friend told me it was a “trendy” disease.  As much as I didn’t understand the diagnosis, I didn’t understand what my friend meant.  Benign?  Fashionable?  Cool?  Preferable?

I re-read the line: “brutal and always fatal.”  My great-uncle Tony had MS, and in his time, I wonder, was he devastated in ways I couldn’t know?  The disease isn’t thought of as “fatal” anymore.  Hardly even “brutal”–at least less-so–for people diagnosed today.  Though there are days I might describe it as “brutal” (certainly episodes of vertigo), I’d feel too guilty to use that term.  There are days I don’t feel diseased at all.

From reading his poetry, it’s clear Hal Sirowitz is living his disease–I imagine he feels the steady decline with every one of his senses.  I’m sure he can tell when disease is taking his life from him because he might find something he used to do that he can no longer do.  His poetry tracks disease, treats it as fact, but still prods at the unknowing, bravely looks it in the face.  Even if the face with that disease is his.

The most common word associated with MS in the old news articles is “mysterious.”  And I get that.  Doctors and scientists didn’t know what caused it, how to fix it, how people could be either unable to walk or walking just fine, or how–the scary part, still–to predict its course.  It is mysterious.

Dare I call it like I see it, how it presents itself in my life?  A nuisance?  A ghost?  A threat?

Even though some articles refer to it as “a crippler?”  Because sometimes, it is.

I’ll write into the mystery of it.   And it’s still a mystery to me how to do that…even as I finish this blog post that I wrote to make sense of writing and illness.  Of story and disease.

–a poignant essay by Rafael Campo, “Illness as Muse,” from Bellevue.


For Boston, One Month After We Met

Boylston Street

Boylston Street (Photo credit: COB Landmarks/Archaeology)

One month and two blocks ago, I was at the site of the “twin explosions,” as were many writers, AWP attendees.    Anne and I joked, looking down on Boylston Street from the hotel window as bits of snow fell from Storm Saturn that we teased in all our western-New York toughness, that this? This was what they were afraid of?  After a couple of minutes, we skeptically bundled up for our walk to the conference center.  The wind blew us to the center–I grabbed hold of a lamp-post to keep from stumbling into traffic.  Anne turned, letting the wind pummel her back, the air holding her up.  We laughed and squealed like little girls and that’s what we felt like when we got to the conference.  We recognized that our lake winds were not ocean winds.

Today, I walk into my parents’ house with three Wegmans’ subs tucked under my arm.  My four-year-old meets me at their screen door.

“Mom, there are bombs all over Boston,” he says.  “Every human is dead.”

Good lord, I think.  Are they letting him watch Sponge Bob again?

My mom tells me what’s already broadcasted all over Facebook, all over the news, behind the WordPress window I type in now.

The horrors we have to hide from our children.  How do we know when it’s okay for them to look?

We wait to find out what will happen next.  My son hears bits before my parents can change the channel to the Jodi Arias trial.  A leg flown through the air.  Two people dead.  He knows I was in Boston not long ago.

He says, “Mom, I was hiding in your bags when you went to Boston.  You never knew it.”

My father bites into his ham sub, he remembers air-raids, underground bunkers, but never a marathon of tragedies, an ongoing battle we don’t know we’re fighting until it’s lost.  Two years ago today, his father died.  He’s thankful his father misses this, and then looks at my sons, who never miss a thing.

Anne and I learned quickly that Boston was no joke.  We gave in, we took the train to the conference center when the snow fell like wet lint around us, and admitted we needed the scarves and mittens we’d packed.

The night before we left, we stood beneath the city waiting on something called the T, and I looked at the couple on a bench a few feet away, cuddling.  It could have been their first date, or their last date.  The next day they could be enemies, or just friends, or married.  I was wondering what a life it must be, to live waiting for a train, waiting for a cab, negotiating all those buildings to get to your friends.  We had walked the same six blocks on Boston’s Boylston Street during the past week, wishing Nordstrom Rack had been open while we were there, stopping for sale boots or glasses of wine, missing our children at home, who were waiting for us to come back, one long train ride away.

We were romanced for a week by a city in heat, a city with secrets unknowable to its own stone steps, a city with a secret, waiting for a moment that will never be right.


A Letter to my Grandmother Regarding Feminism on Her Birthday

Dear Grandma,

I start this letter on your birthday.

When you were younger, you lost a sister to a milk truck.  I know nothing of her.  I tried to look it up in the news archives and I couldn’t find it.  Her name is Bernice, and her short life becomes a thread now, a dwindling string from a threadbare shirt that you wore and washed and took off and put on and grew tired of and passed on.  I can’t find the article in any newspaper, though I watched her name disappear from the census records.  I know her name because it is your middle name.  I wrote a story loosely based on that pain.  You were smoking cigarettes on a porch with a husband who loved you like Grandpa did, with the kind of love that left him whimpering, in a way that he didn’t even realize he was doing, after you passed.  In the story, you and I are one.  You moved a lot Grandma, but I hate moving.  Your character cries hard for the death of her sister every day, and I am there, in you, crying over losing a house.  The silly things that matter to me.

Had I cared enough at all about these things while you were still breathing, I would have asked you about Bernice during that round of Apples to Apples–the first and only I would ever play with you–but, instead, we talked in code about Hilary Clinton, who, you lamented, shared your first daughter’s name.

I find in this way that I love people much more after they’re dead, and that’s just not fair of me to do.  Last night, Grandma, I spent two hours on the “Find A Grave” website, trying to corroborate a mother and child’s graves with a news article from January of 1861.  The mother was murdered by her husband when she was very pregnant.  The story disappeared after that, and in the following issues of The Brockport Republic, I can’t find a single article that discusses identity, tells who this poor woman and her forgotten child is.  I tried to look them up by death date, but then I wondered:  About the baby, can it have a death date if it was never born?  Can I call it a “forgotten” child if it was never known?

I know you went to college for biology.  You starred in plays.  You had a director’s chair with your name–Jody–on it that has been lost in piles of bankers lamps, and old paintings and crackled glass.  You died on New Year’s Eve.  My father jokes that he cried harder when he lost Buddy, his first golden retriever, but that was a one-time cry, Grandma.  He cries for you every time he breathes whether he knows it or not.

I found out I was pregnant with my first son, John (named after your second son), two months after you died.  I debated telling anyone I was pregnant at first because it was my sister’s birthday, and she already shares her birthday with her son, so I didn’t want to steal it away from her.  But, Grandma, what I wish I could have talked to you about, was this hard thing called motherhood, that pregnancy comes with this guilt that any thing you do for yourself is somehow not good for your children.  I am getting my MFA and spend a lot of time writing.  I spend a lot of time in stories set in tumultuous times when women hid their bodies away from public while they were pregnant.  Back in the day, you didn’t have Ted Talks to tell you how to interpret the responsibility of bearing life.  You did have a bible, but Grandma, how do you know the right answers to a text that has as many interpretations as words?  Is that why you majored in biology, Grandma?  I hate science.

So, I guess what I want to say is this.  This space of being a woman.  For having odds of 1 in 2 to be a woman, why do I still feel like being a woman is something strange?  Something that needs to be managed?  Handled with birth control and anti-depressants and coffee and credit cards?  No matter how far you came Grandma, and you saw so much of it, women still have work to do–mostly amongst themselves.  My mother is the only woman I don’t have an inherent competition with, the only woman I have unbridled admiration of, the only woman who I know, without one doubt in my mind, feels the same way about me.  Mothers are special things.

Women don’t love each other the way they should.  There are fights between sisters and friends and mother-in-laws and what happens is that we’re left in this lonely place.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.  I wish I would have asked you these things sooner.  I know you fought long and hard with your sister.  We hear from her less now.  We are afraid to visit her because we all wonder if she wants to be left alone, or if her house is dirty, or if she’s become a werewolf.  I should be asking her things that I will regret not asking her later.  I am writing to you, instead.

I want a daughter, Grandma.  I feel so guilty typing that, so I backspace it, or I add this in front: “I love my sons, but…” I took that part out because that should go without saying.  Who would ever think a mother would not love her sons with every part of her?  We all worry about this, though.  We all struggle to show how much we love.

I look at your pictures and see my eye color there,  and something else too, but I can’t be sure because I never knew to ask.

When I had my sons baptized, Aunt Hilary and Aunt Jill gave me an old bible of yours.  The Mother’s Prayer had fallen out and was so worn that I could hold it to my face like cotton.  I did.  You had taped it in the middle.  You used it often, and I wonder if it was the act of looking at it that gave you peace or actually reading what it said?  I am a pro at analyzing texts, but I need your help.  I love that where the prayer says: “teach them to love God alone,” you have covered the word ‘alone’ with a thick line of lead.  This, Grandma, tells me more than the prayer itself.

Every night, I cover Sammy, who was born the day after Grandpa died, with an angel quilt that Aunt Hilary made for the boys out of your shirts.

Grandma, now it’s two days after your birthday, and I am many years too late asking these questions.

Love,

Sarah


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.


Where We Find Our Children

"This vehicle has been checked for sleepi...

(Photo credit: fedira)

I slept with my amethyst rosary wrapped around my hand last night.  I curled up in my son’s bed, hoping I wouldn’t alarm him, but knowing that if I were him, I would be alarmed.

But he was asleep, breathing deeply as though he was absorbing all the life from every corner of the house.  I would have given him all I had.

When I was 17, in 1999, Columbine happened.  The Monday after, we all went to school, but looked a bit harder at those around us.  I told my mother not to worry, that she was crazy, smoking cigarettes one after another, inhaling hard as though she could suck away all the smoke and horror so far away.  She could not stop staring at the screen, watching trails of students running from their lives, any one of them or every one of them, one of her four children.

When I looked at my mother after Columbine, I knew she was right to worry, or at least that she was normal.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear the news until 2:30.  I hadn’t turned on the TV all day.  When I heard about it, my son was at preschool in Brockport‘s Ginther School, and I was in my kitchen, on the phone with my mom, who said, “God, are you watching this?”

She told me in brief, and I turned on the news, knowing I had to get all I could, grab my own sense of it because not five minutes later my 4-year-old and his best friend would bound through the door with Spiderman backpacks and light-up shoes and zippers and gloves and hats and I would be a parent, calming myself so I could handle the chaos of fun, the lightning fast chirping and questioning and squeals of kids being just what they are, what they should be, breathing, running, vibrant kids.

By the time they came through the door, exactly the way I’d expected, I’d seen and heard enough to be changed, to hope the red of my eyes and nose would go away before the boys would notice.

I turned off the TV.  I was scared, let alone these innocent babies.

We all are children at our core, after all.

This past week, absentmindedly, I had The Morning Show on, not thinking about how horrifying the news could be until the report came on about the mall shooting in Oregon.  My son sat across from me with a buttered english muffin, licking the butter off before biting into the bread itself.

He stopped chewing.

“Why is he naughty?  Why did he shoot?”  Johnny asked.

I wish I’d been paying attention to the TV during the lead-up instead of fixing my coffee.  I had to say something when I couldn’t comprehend it.

“I don’t know, Johnny,” I said.  “I just don’t know.  Some people are not nice,” I said.

“Well, will he go to jail?”  Johnny asked.

“Yes, Johnny,” I said, not going farther into the story than I had to, shielding him, as much as I could, from all the death.

I wanted to save him from this horror.

He would ask me about the mall shooting again after lunch.  Again, I’d shift away.

Is this what it is?  What we imagine: the pulses racing, the terror inside, the prayers we know they’d be saying if they could think about anything other than survival.

Yesterday, Johnny and his friend, Sam, clomped down the stairs to ask me to help them construct the train set, to get it back on track and make the engine run.  I did what I could, listening to them consider how to piece it together.  I looked to their innocence to negotiate my own thoughts.

When I came down, my husband whispered updates to me, turned the TV down low, and we distracted Sammy, our toddler, somehow too young to be scared, with trucks.

I’d just read the latest piece of fiction, “Creatures,” by Marisa Silver, in The New Yorker about a couple whose son is expelled from preschool for biting his classmate.  I thought, when I read it, these poor parents, their poor son, and I wonder today, how I’d read it, what might change, where my son might appear in the text, where the story would write itself from the end.

My sister-in-law came over last night for coffee, and we talked about the news as though it was just that–news, but we knew how much more it was.  We said we were sad the way everyone in America said they were sad, the way we all feel it in our guts and not in our brains because our brains can’t touch it.

Then we agreed that we should do anything to prevent this, as anyone in America would give their right arm, or more, their own lives, to prevent this from happening again.

If only we could be superhuman.

When Johnny came to the kitchen with his older cousin, he wore his blue Transformers helmet.  Every time he laughed, the noise escaped the awkwardly large dome like a robot, as though he was some machine, but from below it, I saw his shoulders wobble and peeks of human skin.

Later last night, I folded my sons’ laundry–their mini socks, their small pants with worn knees and shirts thin at the elbows from bending and jumping and dancing.

Later last night, I picked up their toys, tucking them in drawers and stacking their books on the table.

Later last night, I gasped at every moment my children entered my mind, and soon, gasping was all I could do.

We find them everywhere, and after they come, we are not only ourselves.

If only.


Old News

One thing I miss about living with my parents: the Democrat & Chronicle that arrived outside their screen door every morning.

When it didn’t arrive–snowy mornings, especially, or came late for whatever excuse the deliverer had, there was an absence, some missing constant. I was an adolescent and read the paper with my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Some days, if on the front page was a sports-related headline, like the Super Bowl Champs, or a particular legislative conflict, say, the Monica Lewinsky debacle, I might have skipped to the ‘C’ Section: Living, where I could read my horoscope to see what magical or melodramatic event my day would hold, or Jack Garner‘s review of Armageddon, where I’d decided that any movie with astronauts would at least get 8 stars. If the paper didn’t show up, it was today’s misplaced cellphone. A can emptied of all its coffee grounds. Or, imagine, if the Facebook site crashed.

As I grew up, I became more concerned with the ‘B’ section: Local, the (mostly) miniature catastrophes, the small-town news. A page or so in, I would find the Obituaries, and read them, looking for familiar last names, which, if I did recognize them, would mostly be the great grandparents or grandparents of my acquaintances.

Now, when I go “home,” to my parents’ house, I instinctively reach for the newspaper that was usually folded and in the center of the table (except for the Sports section, which I never read, but was always next to the toilet, anyway), but now they only get the weekend paper, which is a strange option to me, as though all important stories are saved for the weekend. Sadder, to me, is when I recognize that people either don’t have time for a daily paper, don’t have the desire to handle its unwieldy pages, or, like me, refuse to pay for what they can now get for free. The problem is that the paper determined what was important to me, so now, in this information-age, how do I find what’s important in the face of so much else? The whole internet full of triumph and tragedy intimidates me, and I can close the window easily enough.

Idaho, a news photo of the dog who was tried for murder. Here, he is situated at a typewriter.

Lately, I’ve spent at least two hours a week at the Emily L. Knapp museum in Brockport, the old Seymour Library that sits a block away from my childhood house on Spring Street. The building’s first-story once held the library and has since been turned into the village hall, but when I was little, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to on my own. The sidewalks on Park Ave were uneven tiles, and I remember looking down nearly the entire way to be sure I wouldn’t trip. When I arrived at the building, I would find the same librarian, a woman with a long straight ponytail hanging at least to her lower back. Then, I would check out the same book nearly every visit: The Valley of the Ghosts, book with a strange corpse-like figure on the cover with anatomically correct breasts that made me slightly self-conscious to check the book out, but I suppose not self-conscious enough.

“It’s a book of ghost stories,” I’d tell my mom when she looked at me funny.

So, every Wednesday for the past couple months, I’ve gone to this museum, the richest resource I’ve found for the anecdotes of Brockport’s village, and carefully turned page after large page of musty old newspapers bound together by year. There, a committee of researchers, archivists, historians, or citizens preserve these papers. They alert me to topics in old newspapers or photographs that I might find “interesting,” they say and laugh a little, that it involves murder or death.

One day a committee member said, “Here, Sarah. Here’s a picture for you.” Across the Brockport train tracks lay the dead body of an unidentified man, and the look on his face was, as awful as it was, peaceful. I made a copy of the picture, which I nearly had to pry out of the clerk’s hands at the Walmart Photo Center after he argued that it might be copyrighted. He hid the photo away from my sons, who sat in the cart next to me.

“I will not reprint it,” I said. “I just want to look at it.”

I persisted, unlike myself. How could I write about something I couldn’t hold centimeters from my eyes, couldn’t prop up on a mini-metal easel on my desk to refer to (the stones piled up against the ties, the angle of his shoe, the way his face was restful, but his body was not)? How could I write about what I couldn’t fold into origami or rip to smithereens if I wanted to?

I had to have a hard copy, I just could not look at it on my cell phone, where the image of the photograph was stored.

The word “microfilm” intimidates me because I’d rather read something I can touch. For example, I printed every article about Idaho, the dog charged with murder, from the Brockport Republic’s internet database before I could begin the story. I wanted to turn pages.

A lot of the stories I research for my fiction come from scrapbooks–the collection of news-clippings that Raymond Tuttle, one prominent resident, clipped with scissors and glued into a notebook with stitched binding. A layer of what the Brockport resident found notable or quirky. This is my favorite way to research, it’s almost as if he’s pointing these stories out, calling on the residents to tell them. It is a built-in filter, so I do not cower away from the years of newspapers bound in volumes, or feel incompetent in the face of boundless years captured on the internet.

One Wednesday at the museum, I sat down and asked the village historian, Jackie Morris, for more information on the houses that were razed or moved to expand the campus in the 1940s or 50s. We sat for a little while, talking about the families whose homes were moved or dropped to the ground, and when I moved a newspaper or two that had collected in front of me, I found a random scrapbook page, the clipping of a Brockport Republic article with a dotted line around the campus, denoting the space where the razing would occur, showing the houses that were scheduled to be moved.

“Oh my god,” I said to Jackie. “Where did this come from?”

She said, giggling, “I told you, sometimes Seymour likes to help us out up here. Sometimes he gives us what we’re looking for.”

There is a pile of The Stylus, Brockport’s student-run newspaper, on my desk, and I recognize some of its writers to be my current or former students.

My mother brings a copy of the university paper home to my father every week, and she prods me, too, when she finds an article especially interesting–this week, she made sure I read the article about a disgruntled student who’d been expelled and brought a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition to the SUNY Brockport campus one year ago, who was arrested before any tragedy occurred, and while I read the story in terror, my heart thumping, I was thankful that this one-year-later-article was all that came of it. Long after I stopped reading, I was still transfixed in that time, stuck wondering what the campus looked like that day, imagining the exchange between the expelled student and the officer. And the students, I thought most about the students, the how, the why and the who of the community on that day.

This semester, in the ten or so awkward minutes before class begins, I mention stories to my students that, with time, have become just plain interesting, but at one time, were much more. They are captivated by details like a pile of 10,000 tomatoes in the parking lot of the Cold Storage, the horror of the dead man on the train tracks, instances like a dog on trial for murder, and, with all their intrigue, I hope it’s proof that this tangible “rag,” this ghost of an era and all that it stands for, is not on its way out.