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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.

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When You Were Little

Billy Mays for President

Billy Mays for President (Photo credit: centermez)

Johnny, when you were smaller, with hands the size of Sammy’s, we stared at each other for hours.  Then Billy Mays came on the tv, and your head turned.

“Don’t just get it clean, get it OxiClean!”  his voice carried through our small living room, yes, and easily, but I’m guessing it traveled to the kitchen, too.  I know, for sure, it had traveled through the stretched skin of my belly before you were born, and to your ears–a booming, vibrant voice.

This is not a tribute to Billy Mays, more an explanation for the passion that calls from your throat every morning.  Your voice that yells, “Mom, you know?  Buzz Lightyear flies on his back sometimes!”  that I quickly follow with, “Shh, Johnny.  Your brother is still sleeping.”

You have been a commercial-watcher for all three and a half years of your life.  Advertisements were made for people like you and people like your grandmother, who are quick to solve a problem, anxious to run ahead, scrub a stain, build a house, plant trees, work, and work, and work.

You won’t ever change the channel during ads, Johnny.  You learn everything there is to know about anything.  “Yeah?” you’ll ask to be sure you’re not being fooled, then you’ll commit it to memory, and probably, someday, repeat it to your brother, who might or might not do the same.

Your love of commercials has allowed you to memorize jingles, to multi-task, to enjoy television in small bits, and then go off to something more meaningful, like smudging dirt in your shirt sleeves or shorts.  Someday, I hope you’ll have enough money, because you pay in more than just attention for a love of commercials.  Perhaps it is my job, Johnny, to turn the channel during commercials, or keep you from tv in general.  But I don’t.  I want you to see it as something that’s simply there.  It’s in the background.  It’s not the focus, but simply a distraction, something easily left behind.

When you were not yet a year, Billy Mays died.  Had you been much, much, older, I might have used this a teachable moment (I really don’t like that phrase, but there it is, anyway).  I might have pulled you aside before dinner or before soccer practice or before your second date with a girl I’d never like, to tell you that Billy Mays had been paid to be as passionate as you were naturally.  How so much of his own trouble left his family alone.  Hell, maybe the cocaine had nothing to do with his death, but it is all I could think of after the reports.

Not everything you do will be advertised on your baseball caps or logo t-shirts or even held in your hand.  Rather, some things, the more shameful things, will fit comfortably in your pocket, hidden with abandoned pennies and crumpled receipts and wads of lint.  I will tell you that I will always find these things when I do your wash.  Really, what you’re most ashamed of will bark like a dog only you can see or hear and will follow at the end of an invisible leash, glued to your wrist, and will catch up with you when your head hits the pillow at night.

You were not even one year when I spent hours watching reports, reading news updates, wondering how someone like Billy Mays would vanish from our tv set.  Then, oddly, for weeks and months after, there was his commercial, echoing itself.  You’d still watch him, not knowing he was a ghost in the flesh.  You used to stare at him, and I used to stare at you, staring at him, but after he died, I stared at him, too.  Why, is a lesson I wouldn’t have to teach you until much, much, later.


Nostalgia: Chiclets, pine trees, and dandelions.

Dandelion

Dandelion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes it nostalgia is that I will never really get it back, also that I never necessarily had it in the first place.  It might be the lemony-citrus sun dazing behind my yard’s pines, or a rambling, ambiguous decade and its context, or my mother’s Renault, a pair of peacock feather earrings, or, more likely, the specks of dust between all of these things that I can’t ever hold in my hands.

I hate philosophy.

A couple weeks back, my father and I explored the old barn foundation behind my house.  I collected an amber 1970s beer bottle, a scrap of brocade-like wallpaper, a piece of metal with the inscription Quaker City 5, and a clear glass bottle.  We pushed through the twigs and not yet blossomed elbows of trees, cracking and crunching through an abandoned moment.

My father fell in the scratchy patch so slowly that I wondered if he was losing his balance or attempting to sit.  I held scraps and bottles in my arms and, after standing himself back up, he carried the bottles for me.

“You okay?” I asked.  I was the child, the one who was supposed to fall.

The sun was coming through the trees like it always did, like it always had.

My father smelled of nostalgia.  Patchouli and cigarettes and responsibility.  Worn denim and Chamois shirts.  Records and taupe and Chevy Blazers and dandelions.

I was supposed to have fallen instead.  I smelled like Chiclet bubble gum, my two young children, metal swing sets, clumsiness and shampoo and borrowed money.

I didn’t fall.  Nostalgia surprised me.

Now, when I look back to the foundation, the leaves fold down around it.  The wall of heavy stones can hardly peek out from behind all the nature.  In front of the old foundation is a leftover dog house from the prior owners–distressed red over plywood, simple lines, mossing shingles.  That dog was a yellow lab, I bet, a bounding, mud-hungry, stick-eater that would love my dog, Molly.  They would sit in the hot afternoon sun near the pine trees, panting together.

When I begin my MFA in CW at Goddard College this summer, my plan is (for now) to run recklessly into nostalgia like a puddle, to roll down the childhood hill in my parent’s backyard into it, to let its grass leave green crosshatching on the skin of my legs and dandelion dander on my cheeks. What I mean is this: I live nearly every moment in hopes that it will be like some moment I’ve already lived.  I can’t get away from a setting, context, or moment I’ve lived or wish I’d lived.

I’m struck by the pulsing sun glowing behind the pine trees just west of my house, a view I imagine I share with the college students who rented rooms here in the 70s.  I was never there, but I can get there if I just write it.


Baby, for now.

At some point, Sammy’s feet will develop callouses.  He will unravel the tough tangles of life like a math problem, or a mortgage, the fraudulent bank charges I stared at, open-mouthed, yesterday, and the tiny heartbreaks of whether to propose or not propose.  Worries greater than the hollowness of his milk bottle will follow him to bed at night, rest in his mind, then wake him when he least expects it.

Sammy is turning one on Monday.  He stands and falls and stands and falls, landing with a solid thud on my hardwood floors.  Then he smiles.

He is the only child I know whose happiness can rival what Johnny’s used to be.

Some day, he will decide to be called Sam instead of Sammy.  Some day, I will call him Sammy, and he will say, “Mom, geez, call me Sam.”

This is all preparation.

Yesterday, I called the bank to report a grocery charge that mysteriously appeared on my account from Michigan, and gas charges from Arkansas.  After, Johnny, who will one day want to be called John, asked me, “Mom, where are the people who took your money?”

I keep having to tell him that I don’t know the answers.  I had to leave it at that, emphasizing that we were safe, and the thieves were far away.  But I imagined that one day, maybe just yesterday, these thieves had been children, their names ending with ‘y.’

Johnny still bursts with joy, but he contains it, recognizing the world around him, that things greater than a dollar bill can be taken from us before we even know it.   I never even had to tell him.

I can see it happening already.

Sammy is smiling and reaching up for me, his hands thick and lovely.  His mouth is wide open, his fresh gums allowing three teeth to push through.  They are whiter than paper.  His tongue is soft and pink like his toes.

He’s learning sentences in syllables, and sometimes we think we recognize what he’s telling us, but we can’t be sure.


Snow, late.

Blizzard in Rillington, North Yorkshire, Engla...

Image via Wikipedia

It was half-through January, and my promise to Johnny that he’d wade through snow or sweep angel shapes with his arms and legs against the cold-burning flakes had still not come true.  Our Christmas tree had gone up and come down.  Even before Christmas, the festive lights looked like they’d been strung up too long, that they’d already served their purpose.  There had been barely any measurable snow.

Finally, on January 13th, Johnny perched at the window, watching the tiny patches fall from the sky in a real-life snow globe.  The window opaqued with breath, and then he drew wet lines to see through to the outside.  At three, he wasn’t a weather veteran yet–he wasn’t nostalgic for the comfort of sweaters and mittens or the sting of wind strong enough to drive retirees to Florida.

Of course, neither was Sammy.  This was his first winter ever.  Belly against the couch and my arm, he watched the scene, pointing with his hand’s five fingers.  The salt trucks were at it, layering their crystals heavy on the road.  This would be the demise of my cognac-colored leather boots, I knew.  Sammy gazed at the blinking lights of the tow trucks, how they alerted themselves, shining false emergency into homes like ours.  Warning beeps I had never questioned in all my life suddenly made me wonder.  Sammy and I had much the same questions.

A large delivery Mack growled down the road so loud that Johnny jumped.

“It’s okay you little munchkin,” Johnny said to Sammy.  Sammy hadn’t been shaken, but Johnny ran his hand over Sammy’s hair to soothe himself.

Sammy’s eyes followed tires taking their time over the salt crust, then turned to the plow truck fanning dust down the opposite lane.

Then he saw them: a flock of birds, breaking from the trees in synchronized waves.  The birds had blended in before as part of the still-life, small black knots and bends on giant twigs.  Sammy drew air in deep through his nose and let out a breathy scream.  Of joy.  His arms flailed, and I imagined the tapping made the same sound as wings on air.

The birds flew, oblivious to the snow, as though they were just another line of traffic.


Step 5: Begin a Short Story

Living chair

Image via Wikipedia

…continued from John Smolens’ “How to Get Your Story Started” in The Writer, is step 5.

5 Now you’re ready to begin a short story (60 minutes).  Keep it simple.  Have at least two characters in the same place at the same time and have them respond to each other in some way.

I sometimes call this “The Last Vacant Seat on the Bus session.”  If nothing else, have a character take the last available seat on the bus (or a train or a plane) and start the story the moment she sits down.

The key, as with nearly all stories, is that there needs to be some kind of conflict.  I’ve had students begin with someone who reeks of garlic, or someone who immediately begins asking the other character personal things (“What does your mother think of that tattoo on your neck?”)…

This is probably my third try on this step.  Really, my “narratives” from steps 3 and 4 were more entrances to story than anything.   I rarely experiment so often with different perspectives in one piece of short fiction.  It’s an interesting process I’ll probably do often to force myself out of a failing piece, which is the most comfortably sad place for fiction to be.  This piece requires a lot of research–I feel committed to keeping Andrew as a pilot, so here goes.

start time: 8:45.

I never cared to fly with Andrew, but he never begged like he did that afternoon, with his eyebrows all overgrown and upward-arched as though they might give him some sort of innocence I knew he didn’t have.  I went just so he would quiet down.  My head pounded worse than normal, like all the noise in the world fell asleep in my ears and woke to a rotten alarm clock, a horrific concert of pain and thought, so many violins, laughing children, drum beats and then, Andrew.

“So you’re coming for sure, right?  You aren’t going to sit in the copilot’s place, then bail on me before buckling the belt, last second, like usual?”  Andrew asked.

“I never did that,” I said.  Sometimes he just liked to hear himself talk. “Why did I marry you, again?”

He didn’t answer.  I couldn’t either. The birds loomed, bawking against the clouds like little terrors.  I prayed for one to unleash on me, so I could go home and shower, taking flight myself.

He called this plane Laney, and gave her a pronoun that oozed from his mouth like honey into his morning tea.  Sickening, if you ask me.  My legs ached when I saw the white plane.  The familiar black striping down the side seemed to lock me out of the ethereal part of Andrew’s life.

“You ascared?” he asked.  His brown eyes sharpened, nearly black, his smile widened, the creases nearest his temples deepened. Perhaps this is what frightened me about the plane deal.  How can he have such appreciation of something without a pulse?

“Afraid, you mean?  And no.  I’ve never been afraid of one thing.”

“Not those mice from last fall?  The ones in the pantry?”

“No,” I said.  We would be able to see our house from the air here, I bet.  Maybe my rheumatologist’s office or the supermarket.  My life would disintegrate into specks.

Andrew extended his arm from the doorway of the plane.  Surprised it was strong enough to pull me up, I gasped at the effort I had to put into it.  Was that satisfaction in his face?  There, in his forehead, right below his widow’s peak.  Satisfaction.

“Well I’m glad that was so easy for you,” I snapped.

“Take a load off,” he said, gesturing to the seat beside him.

“No, I’ll sit in this back seat,” I said.  He seemed a stranger, to me, in this place–mostly because his back was curved slightly towards the dials, his hands were lax like paws, and there was no recliner, no breakfast nook, no place for me there.

end time: 9:52.


Step 4 of John Smolens’ “Get Your Story Started”

Continuing in the fiction mode, here comes Step 4 of The Writer magazine’s “Get Your Story Started,” by John Smolens, verbatim:

4 Now write again, trying a different approach or perspective (60 minutes).  Consider the material you gathered from Step 3 again; this time, however, vary your approach.  If in the last session you wrote in the third person, this time work in the first person; if your last session was primarily narrative, then this time try to create a scene with dialogue. 

The point is to mix things up, to see things from different perspectives, which to a large degree is what fiction is all about–it offers the writer a unique sense of freedom.  It asks you to explore not only the exterior world through a character’s eyes, but to explore her inner world–why she sees things the way she does.

Since last time I wrote in first person with much dialogue, this time I will write primarily narrative in the third person.  Here is my response.

Start time: 9:02.

NYC2123 Laney

Image via Wikipedia

When Andrew left, Arlene was sleeping and had all the shades pulled down against the sunshine.  This kind of sun was unusual for Western NY in February, so Andrew took the clear skies as a sign he wouldn’t find any resistance.

Arlene insisted she couldn’t drive, so she wouldn’t miss the car.  Andrew didn’t wake her to say goodbye because she knew he was leaving and hadn’t bothered to say a word to him since she found out.  Andrew didn’t think about when she’d see him next or if she’d see him at all.  She planned that Andrew would return for her rheumatology appointment next Friday.  He knew better.

When he saw Laney, it was his life calling him back.  Sure, Arlene allowed him to fly Laney around the region, but she reacted like Laney was his mistress.  Really, she had more reason to be jealous than she knew.  Laney was a small plane–a single engine, a dove-gray beauty that had been mostly idle since Andrew’s last flight, a night he’d almost left.  About five months ago, Arlene had checked herself into the ER with pain so searing she claimed she was dying.  By midnight, she felt fine, and the doctor confirmed she could leave.  When they walked into their house, Arlene’s cave, she poured some Shiraz in a glass to toast her recovery.  That’s when Andrew took Laney out last.  Arlene passed out after a few more glasses, so Andrew flew Laney around the Lake Ontario, glimpsing how the waves kissed at the shore.  With each breaking wave, he imagined the fish pushing further into a warm hibernation, and Arlene falling further into herself.

Today was the matrimonial flight, Andrew kept telling himself.  He left his wedding ring on the speckled counter at home, next to the wine rack, where Arlene would be sure to find it.  Even his fingers could feel the difference.  There wouldn’t be much left for him to say.

Jordan, his nephew, had been managing the airport since Andrew’s retirement.  He agreed to get Laney ready for Andrew’s flight today, but didn’t know he wasn’t coming back.  Arlene resented that Jordan inherited Andrew’s airport and the air crafts.  Besides Laney.

Even the control Andrew felt, the palpable lifting of the wing flaps with the push of the hard charcoal lever, signaled that Andrew might have nothing to do with the passing birds, but could navigate this aircraft without worry about its body and how it might fail.  When he pulled the throttle to its full position, he was assured the plane would move clearly and swiftly into flight.  He would lift off, over the hospital, over his home at Lakeview Terrace, past the town limits and off of the unforgiving land.

End time: 10:16.