Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thirty Novembers Later

You turn thirty today. How can that be? I hope you feel more joyous about this milestone than I felt on my own thirtieth birthday, heavy with a twin pregnancy, feeling old, old, tired and old and full of dread toward entering another decade. 

Today, more important than my own 30th birthday, I’m celebrating your arrival into my life, that day when your birth christened me “mom,” and changed me more than any other event in life by snapping me out of my self-absorbed existence to focus on a child. No other success or failure or realized or unrealized dream will ever compare to my introduction to you and my new role. I felt my heart snap open when we met, and it keeps snapping, giving me a larger capacity to love and empathize with others. And becoming a mother motivated me to enter into an unwavering self-examination and self-analysis like no other demand on my life  – not always a pleasant experience, but I wanted to be worthy of caring for you and your brothers who we hadn’t even imagined yet.
I heard someone say recently that every child comes into the world searching for someone who is searching for them. I was searching for you, Kyle. I didn’t know it until I met you, but I was searching for you and feel so grateful to be gifted with your presence for these thirty years.
 I know you’ve heard the story of your birth so many times, but I want to recall again how my introduction to your personality came within minutes of your arrival in the delivery room as everyone watched and exclaimed, “Whoa! Look at his eyes. He’s staring right at us!” You entered Brigham and Women’s Hospital that night with curious eyes wide open, staring everyone down. And you continued to stare everyone down for hours to come. In fact, once they wheeled me off to my room with you in tow, they had to come and whisk you away because we stared at each other for so long that your body temperature dropped and the concerned nurses put you under the “grow” light to regain some heat.
 And you stared and stared right into your future as you moved through life carrying a deep and sometimes paralyzing sensitivity and awareness, but one that allowed you to be a photographer today who stares for a living to capture events and parts of life and people that others might miss.  

I’ve heard it said that parents get the children they need. That statement may be meant to be derogatory, but truth be told, I know I needed you.  I needed your endless empathy and power of observation and sensitive ears, the way you categorize the world without missing a beat, the way you feel way too much way, way too often, and way too deeply – especially for a male. I needed your fierce loyalty, and your strong sense of justice, and your articulate and persuasive words, however annoying when they came out of the mouth of a teenager.
 I even needed your defiant, high-strung nature to teach me to corral my own impatience and temper when I couldn’t change you or force you to do what I wanted you to do without ripping you into pieces. I needed the way you instigate laughter when you’re in a room, holding camp with imitations and multi-character improvisations and quick wit. I needed the way you write a song that hurts as you depict moments in time and moments in life – most often yours and most often the more painful ones I wanted you to forget. But somehow you make them beautiful by writing a tune that always seemed destined to meet your words.
You see, I’ve been staring, too. And I’ve never grown tired of keeping you in my sights ever since that day thirty years ago when we met in a hospital delivery room and spent hours bonding, just you and I.  And I’ll always keep my eyes on you until that day when one of us stops breathing and our eyes close on this world forever. So here’s to a celebration of thirty years with you, my beloved son. With love,   Mom


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Let’s Bake Peace

When my mother died five years ago from throat cancer, we had been estranged for many, many years. For the first time since her death I have been working through our history by writing a memoir about our relationship for my MFA program. As a person of faith, it’s always been my wish to “honor” my parents, but I was graced with two very broken people whom I called Mom and Dad. As I attempt to discover how you “honor” a broken and difficult mother, I’m looking at ways I can offer a truce, however inadequate a truce would be for a deceased person. At least that truce will exist in my heart and memory, and perhaps in what I verbalize to my sons.

While much of our story is unpleasant, I have been reaching to find those moments worth remembering as part of my effort toward peace. I’ve gone back to the more simple moments in our life, before our family fell apart, before my parents divorced, and before some really ugly moments entered our relationship. I’ve been remembering how we used to cook together and writing about those days. As part of the remembering, I’ve pulled out my old wooden recipe box my mother gave me when I graduated from college, filled with index cards where she had written out the recipes she cooked for her family over the years.
I’m cooking my way through the recipes for the first time. Because of the pain in our relationship, I never pulled them out and never felt the normal bond many daughters feel to incorporate their mother’s traditions into their own family. But it seems safe now, and it seems right. So tonight, I baked Butterscotch Brownies, basically Blonde Brownies, a treat I hadn’t tasted since my childhood. I have no sons home anymore so I’m baking for my writing group at work, a group of colleagues who have already read an early draft of this story. It seemed only appropriate they should be the first to taste some of the fruits of this journey.

As I read through her handwriting on the recipe card, still tremble-free back then, I imagined our old times together, once free from conflict. I put the batter in my Pyrex pan, but clearly remembered the old aluminum pan we used to cook with, my mother and I. I could see the dents from all its use. Tonight as I pulled them from the oven and sliced into the still hot treat, I remembered a chewy bite on a school day afternoon with a cold glass of milk. I poured myself my own glass of milk and thought of this journey.  How do you love a parent who is gone and, if still alive, would continue to be someone you would keep at distance? I know. I think I’ll try and bake some peace.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Letter to My Blog

Dear Blog,

Don’t look at me like with your blank, white face staring back at me. I know you exist. I know my role – I’m supposed to show up occasionally and write on you. Regularly, you say? Regularly show up and write on you? I’m sorry to break this to you, but it won’t happen for a while.
What…you feel abandoned and naked? Listen, you and I need to come to an agreement. There will be times when life feels demanding enough and I don’t need a blog chasing me with guilt or pressure to write a few words on your screen.
Whether you realize it or not, I have some other writing to do which, at the moment, is taking all of the measly energy I have. What’s that? You’re wondering if I’m still writing that silly fiction stuff?  Yes…and no. Not at the moment, is the correct answer. I’ve put it aside and will finish it next year as my final thesis while I take a year to write some creative non-fiction. A not-so-pleasant family story. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I want you to know, blog, that there is a life beyond work and writing. Yup. Sometimes I like to go out and play with my friends – like our trip into Chicago last weekend to see a play in a small, 200-seat theatre where the performers were close enough to allow us to read their nuanced expressions and the looks in their eyes.
 I tried to block all writing from my mind and enjoy a carefree dinner before the show in a great little pub located in an old Brownstone (with TWO fireplaces). I planned to forget about you and words and my writing project and just relax, enjoying an autumn evening in the city. But it’s hard to run away from writing tasks and thoughts about my project when the play turns out to be about….books. We saw an adaption of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey which tells the story of a young girl whose passion for novels causes her to look at the events in her life with an unrealistic dramatic flair. A play based on a book telling the story of an avid reader of books. Just what I’d prescribe to someone looking to get their mind off words.
So here’s my meager attempt at keeping you happy – this tiny little post. In the future, let’s be clear that this is how it’ll be. Sometimes I’ll show up and write you a little post. Sometimes I won’t. Just don’t worry about me when I’m gone. I’m out living life, working on projects, enjoying family and friends or just wondering around my neighborhood clearing my head. And remember, I’m the creator and you’re the created.

Until next time,


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Coming Full Circle

I ran away from the church of my youth in my teen years when I failed to see (or hear) a meaningful message behind all the robes, formal prayer and liturgy, which seemed to represent something shallow and dead. I failed to see spiritual and transformed lives behind the façade, but I did see many, many broken lives in our church which included an abundance of divorces, broken homes, drug and alcohol abuse, neglected kids, suicide and more. The experience sent me running.  

But in the back of my mind, I held close a memory of my first spiritual encounter, an encounter that took place during my young kindergarten years, believe it or not. My father had a dear, elderly employee named Claire who lovingly took me to her house to make chocolate pudding and re-arrange her furniture and just plain visit. And she loved to take me to Mass. It was on one of these visits to her church that I had a powerful first encounter with God, sitting up in the balcony and looking down on the reverent service below. I’m not sure what God said but I remember for a brief moment that a curtain opened, revealing that He was real and present. Then the curtain closed, and I didn’t hear from him again for another fifteen years or so.
It didn’t help that the minister of my childhood church let me down when my parents sent me to see him one day after school for counseling after an episode in my life involving police, drugs, alcohol, and the reading of rights. Oh, and I was just 13. Wisely, the adults thought these might be troubling signs and that the minister might be able to talk some sense into me. When he drove me home several hours later, my mother came out to the car to meet me and there I was sitting on the passenger side of the backseat, trying to get as far away from him as possible. Obviously we didn’t bond during our meeting.   In fact, I wanted nothing to do with church after that – or him. He failed to be a grace-filled voice calling me “to” something rather than pushing me away. 
When I did hear God speak again in my early twenties, I found myself most comfortable in churches that looked and behaved nothing like that church of my youth. If they met in a school or a warehouse, excellent. If the pastor wept because he so deeply believed his message, good. If they had humorous parking lot signs, no robes or pre-written prayers, all the better.
Then one day recently my husband and I found ourselves looking for a church close to home. Our friends coaxed us to visit an Anglican church down the street. We visited, and I kept saying, “Too much like the church of my youth.” And we’d leave and go somewhere else until our friends would ask us to visit again, a little more insistently, sometimes with tears in their own eyes as they described how meaningful this place had become in their lives. Finally their sincerity lured us back.
And we’ve come back each week for a while now, even though I cringe a bit over the robes and formality, while finding the prayers and the life of the church to be anything but dead. I also have discovered as this brain ages, I appreciate someone else writing the prayers, allowing me to read along and agree. And I agree. I find that same Spirit who spoke to my kindergarten self speaks to me in this place with the same message. And He’s been watching me all along.
One Sunday recently, the children returned at the end of the service from their children’s program and joined hands, running through the sanctuary to the closing song, playing Crack the Whip throughout the sanctuary, before the smiles of the adults. I loved the beautiful blend of reference and order, freedom and joy. I hope they felt wooed by God in that place, even if He’s silent for a time in years to come. And I hope the memory of those wooing moments remain as the years tumble over them.
How is that I’ve come full circle, returning to a place I said I’d never go? When I ran away from my early church because “all those formalities shouldn’t matter,” I looked for places where jeans and casual dress made everyone feel welcomed no one feel excluded. I remind myself once again that all those externals shouldn’t matter here either, as long as God shows up. If it’s good enough for Him, which it is, it’s good enough for me. And as I’ve aged and faded, I’ve found myself needing the quiet, contemplative and ordered service, my brain requiring more of those moments. So if you come to visit some Sunday, I’m the person sitting in the way back, a place similar to that balcony from my childhood, but now you’ll find me with tears in my eyes most Sundays, wooed once again by the sweetness of it all.  


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Writing Without Excuses

And so the second year in my MFA begins. I had a brief, very brief, respite from my first year to the beginning of my second year, if you count reading three books, writing a draft of a creative non-fiction manuscript for residency workshops, and reading workshop materials from fifteen classmates as “taking a break.” And if I were to be honest, as much as I love my program, I feel just a hint of fear and trepidation as I lunge once again into the whirlwind schedule of jugging a full-time job and a graduate program. I fully realize the focus required of me to produce strong material which makes me a bit nervous and, well let’s just be honest, I’m just not young anymore.

So I’ve been thinking about excuses lately, those excuses that writers create (in lieu of books) that prevent them from producing work (“I’m just not young anymore”), and those excuses anyone anywhere makes in any field, preventing dreams from being realized and work from being accomplished, be it painting your house, building a boat, working on a relationship, finding the dream job. As a writer, I’ve struggled with the interruptions of life and writing has always been the first activity to go when something else demands my time. But if I take this calling seriously, I need to be single-minded about writing and push away the distractions, within reason.
As I read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for my residency, I stumbled upon a little, fascinating editor’s note about the author in the back of the book. This Nobel Prize winning author wrote his novel at the University of Mississippi power plant where he was employed as a fireman and night watchman. He wrote the book “mostly in the early morning, after everybody had gone to bed and power needs had diminished.” I’ve worked jobs like that one, putting myself through college by working the graveyard shift at an answering service where I monitored phones for doctors’ offices and AAA. And as I young mother I worked often until 2 a.m. at a television station as a master control engineer. Both jobs provided me hours to accomplish things that a 9 to 5 job prohibited. I studied for all my college classes at that answering service and earned a Bachelor’s degree doing it.
I miss that kind of job. (Ssshhhh, don’t tell my boss.) But I now realize that no job in the world should prevent us from writing if we feel passionate about the task. Recently I came across a quote from the memoir of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn which served as a clarion call for me to silence the excuses and the complaints about not having just the right circumstances, needed time, or perfect place to write:

 “In retrospect, almost all my life since the day I was first arrested had been the same: just for that particular week, that month, that season, that year, there had always been some reason for not writing—it was inconvenient or dangerous or I was too busy—always some need to postpone it. If I had given in to common sense, once, twice, ten times, my achievement as a writer would have been incomparably smaller. But I had gone on writing—as a bricklayer, in overcrowded prison huts, in transit jails without so much as a pencil, when I was dying of cancer, in an exile’s hovel after a double teaching shift. I had let nothing—dangers, hindrances, the need for rest—interrupt my writing, and only because of that could I say at fifty-five that I now had no more than twenty years of work to get through, and had put the rest behind me.”

I'm silenced. How can I possibly make any excuses that compare? I wish I heard that call a long, long time ago and managed to ignore the manufactured reasons in my head for doing everything BUT writing.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Macedonia - Part Two

While visiting Kenzie in Macedonia, we had a chance to share a meal with one of his friends who served in the Peace Corps there ten years ago and married a Macedonian woman. For a few years, Jeb and Kristina moved back to the States and lived in Wyoming. But when they had children, the lack of safety in our country concerned them greatly.
“I couldn’t fathom being in a park with my children and having to be afraid someone might kidnap them,” Kristina told me after lunch, amazed at some of the heinous crimes that take place in our country that don’t make us bat an eye. “We decided we wanted to raise our kids in Macedonia where it’s safer.”
The fact that Macedonia is safer than our country puzzles me because there is so much more poverty and very high unemployment over there.  Throughout our travels around different cities, I was struck often by how many older men seemed to be idly sitting on porches or wandering around sidewalks in the middle of the day – an unfamiliar sight to an American. But the Macedonian culture showed me poverty and idleness aren’t necessarily reasons for crime.

Kristina attributes the safety in their country to the fact that they have managed to maintain a strong family structure, unlike here.  Generations still live together and everyone knows their neighbor. “It brings a great shame on the family if someone commits a crime here,” she told me. “Everyone would know the family and know the person who broke the law.”
So not only do we have broken family structures over here, but we have anonymity because of our disengaged communities. We can do things in secret and no one finds out. Part of this comes down to the size of our country compared to a country the size of Vermont like Macedonia. And part of it comes down to their view of relationships. People spend large parts of the day visiting and socializing. But when I came home from my trip and told friends here about how they drop by each other’s houses uninvited and stay for hours, to a person everyone responded, “I don’t want people dropping in uninvited. I’m too busy.” I’m in agreement. Sorry folks.
Kenzie enjoying time with his neighbors.
 Kenzie’s former host dad asked me if I knew my neighbors. I told him we do but we don’t get together to socialize unless there’s a block party or a holiday celebration.  “But you never go into each other’s homes?” he asked incredulous. No, we chat on the street mostly….sometimes for long periods of time.
So how do we make our large country smaller, or do we even want to do so? Is that in violation of American freedom and privacy?



Sunday, June 9, 2013

Macedonia - A Far Away Land

We found our son. After a long, overnight flight and an interminably long wait for our luggage in the Macedonia airport, we spotted Kenzie waiting outside glass sliding doors behind a roped off area. I paced the airport baggage claim area until our suitcase appeared. After snagging our bag, we made a dash through the doors to get our hands on our long, lost son. So good to finally wrap him in our arms.

We had reserved a rental car from Hertz since Peace Corps volunteers aren’t allowed to drive and we wanted to visit several villages and cities. I had imagined the car to be a Yugo, Citroen, or old Peugeot, something with questionable reliability but fitting in with all the other cars we would see on our travels. But no. They gave us an Alfa Romeo, making us immediately stand out as different from the locals. Ugh.
When we woke on our first morning to the Call to Prayer from several mosques around the city, I knew we were in a different land. For our first two days, we explored the capital city of Skojpe, slipping slowly into actual Macedonia culture. We began as tourists, eventually making the jump to the life of the locals. In Skopje, we visited the Old Turkish City, an area of narrow cobblestoned streets lined with market after market and many cafés (or Kafana in Macedonian). Block after block of the downtown area serves as outdoor cafes with most establishments providing seating (comfortable, cushioned couches in some places set up like a living room) for a hundred people.   
I grieved the sight of three children forced to sell a box of juices or some such item to people in the Kafanas and people on the street.
They tried to enter the Kafana where we sat but the waiter sent them away. One girl especially won my sympathy, walking with hair in her eyes, fighting tears. I wanted to buy all their goods so they could be children for the rest of the afternoon. “They’ll never see a penny of it,” Kenzie told me, but at least their day’s work would end. For at least one day. At stop signs, children came to the car windows and begged.
When we finally arrived in Kenzie’s small village of 2,000 residents three days later, we found another world. Drugovo sits at the base of a mountain, nestled between the road and the steep hillside and surrounded by fields. On arrival, the elderly men who hang out in front of the store below Kenzie’s apartment swarmed us with true Macedonian warmth as they cradled our faces between their hands, kissed our cheeks, and gave us hugs. They enthusiastically invited us to join them in front of the storefront, an activity called "sitting pred koperacija," and pulled up chairs to make a circle before introducing themselves and telling us how they love Kenzie.
“Welcome to poverty,” one man said soon after the conversation began.   But despite poverty, over and over people invited us into their homes and shared lavish meals and drinks, some extending for hours. The very intimate invitation into someone’s private living space made an impression on us. “They’re the most hospital people I’ve ever met,” Kenzie said and we agree. And time after time we experienced this generosity and warmth.
To an American, the country is a land of contrasts where antiquity and modernity meet and paradoxes abound. Despite access to the internet in Kenzie’s village which brings the world to his apartment, allowing him to regularly check his favorite US sports teams and keep up with friends, an old man drives past his door on a horse-drawn wooden wagon to work the fields, and an old woman walks her goats home for the evening down the dirt road that runs through the main street of the village.
In the evening, we went to a restaurant up the road with Kenzie’s Albanian neighbor, leaning heavily on Kenzie’s translation skills to allow us to get to know each other. The restaurant owner wanted to show us his lovely facility set on the edge of a clear, flowing river. He took me to an outside seating area and I made the international sign of shivering to let him know we would rather eat inside due to chilly air while saying over and over “beautiful, beautiful,” pointing to the river.  I hadn’t learned “beautiful” in Macedonian yet, although I did learn “thank you: fala. So I became the foreigner who simply said “thank you, thank you” over and over again, whether the word fit the conversation or not. We were confused foreigners unaccustomed to being shut out of conversations, leaving us feeling like we were just dropped into a scene from the movie, Lost in Translation.
Throughout the evening, I sat in awe of how my suburban, middle-class son has made the transition and jumped over the culture gap, building dear friendships with the locals. At the restaurant, our 54-year-old dinner guest also leaned on Kenzie. Once a burly construction worker, Emin had experienced a bad car accident a number of years ago, leaving him slightly paralyzed on one side. So at dinner, he demonstrated his trust for Kenzie by leaning over and asking our son to cut his meat for him a couple of times.
 I wondered what it would take for the locals to trust us as well, we who zoomed into town in our Alfa Romeo and so much luggage that  out of embarrassment we waited until after dark when the men had left the storefront before we brought it inside. We arrived with cameras and laptops, smart phones, warm and cool clothes, a food supply, Starbucks coffee, decaf tea, nonfiction and fiction books, gifts, and brand new sheets.
I suspect more than the rental car kept us from fitting in.


Friday, May 31, 2013

My Beautiful Son

I haven’t seen him in nearly two years. I know parents of military men and women often don’t see their sons and daughters for two years, but this is a first for me since I'm not a military parent. My son is serving with the Peace Corps in Macedonia, teaching English in a primary school. The last time I laid eyes on him, we had just snaked alongside as he passed through the half-mile long airport security line, inching along the roped-off outskirts to stay close for as long as possible.
We awkwardly smiled at each other each time he moved in our direction. As we tracked him, my brain tried to imagine how long two years would feel, wondered if there would be visits in between, and if he would change. And of course, the really dark thought hovered – will life and events work in our favor so that we actually will see each other again?
We watched him offer his passport and boarding pass, strip off his shoes and empty his computer bag before going through security. Several times in the line he turned and smiled at us before vanishing once and for all around the corner after a last wave. My husband and I felt wrung out that day, but honestly never believed we’d go two years without a visit.
Soon we'll see how much he has changed. And he’ll have a chance this summer to see himself how he’s changed as he re-enters the States. Other Peace Corps volunteers have described to us in the past how re-entry is one of the hardest experiences for volunteers. Our comfortable and materialistic lifestyles stand out in contrast to the simple way people live in other parts of the world.  On the physical landscape of our small city, he’ll see new apartments going up, some homes razed to make way for a new structure, the disappearance of certain businesses. It may take a little longer to see how his overseas experience has changed Kenzie.
Kenzie is our reasonable, rational, unemotional, level-headed and very responsible son. As a child we always called him “our rule-keeper.” If we gave him a rule, he had to keep it (unlike certain other sons). On a rare occasion when we scolded or disciplined him, we always found ourselves amazed that the boy cried projectile tears, so hurt by our disappointment in him. Thankfully there weren’t many of those moments in his life.
To survive in the Peace Corps though, he had to break a few rules: he needed to turn his back on the American dream of owning more and more possessions and making lots of money. He broke the rule of taking a traditional course of action, foregoing the ladder of success for one of service. He relinquished the American rule of living for his own comfort, entertainment and pleasure, instead living in an apartment heated only by space heaters which allows pipes to freeze five days at a time. He surrendered to loneliness and homesickness that must invade his nights, and wears clothes washed in the bottom of his bathtub while he showered then dried on chairs and furniture in his one heated room - the kitchen.
As his parents, we’re thrilled about his lifestyle choice (although we would’ve loved a visit once or twice). But now my countdown to see him will soon end as I once again prepare to be face to face with my beautiful son.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston My Home

 I fall in love with places. Deeply in love. I woke this morning to my husband singing Nancy Griffith’s "Love at the Five and Dime" and had to listen to the song on our iPod. It had been a very, very long time since I’d heard the tune. Anyone who knows me well knows I have a lasting affection for old Woolworth stores, the subject of the song. My father and grandfather both managed Woolworth stores and gave me bittersweet memories of being a child, taking over the store afterhours with my brothers while Dad worked. The old broken down five and dime represents some of the most stable years in my young life.

This morning as Bill and I sipped Saturday morning coffee, listening and reminiscing about the passing of stores and the passing of years, the Chicago Tribune blared its daily headline from my kitchen table: “MANHUNT OVER.”
I’m deeply in love with another place. Massachusetts and all of her close cousins in the New England states still have a mesmerizing power over me despite my lack of residency there for nearly two decades. When I returned to her soil to live after a six year spell in the overheated state of Florida, I wondered if it would be conspicuous if I knelt and kissed the ground in Boston. I was home, in a place I love with all her haunting antiquity.
This week, despite firmly residing in rain-drenched and flooded Chicago, my mind has lived in Boston, traveling her streets, remembering Watertown as my first place of residence in life, recalling trips to Boylston St. with my parents to eat clam chowder at The Pewter Pot, remembering giving birth to my four sons in Brigham and Women’s Hospital where so many victims were taken, remembering the faces and unmistakable accents of her residents, so many immigrants from other places washing onto Boston’s shores. I’m quietly, silently grieving from afar.
I feel I can’t justify the wordless grief that hangs over me, a grief because my loved ones weren’t killed or maimed. My city wasn’t terrorized. I’m not going through the trauma that first-hand victims are experiencing, that official residents are experiencing. And yet empathetically, I’ve been a resident these past days. I see beautiful faces, a beautiful little eight-year old boy and think of all those interrupted hopes. I’ve stared at my legs while working out and tried to imagine learning to adjust to prosthetic limbs – the pain, the loss, and frustration. And strike me down for saying this one, but I also look into the eyes of the suspects and see the ghost of someone’s beautiful boys, beautiful sons, and wonder how they veered so far off track and allowed hatred to rule their lives instead of being a part of our imperfect but rich American culture.
To watch images on the news of swat teams and bomb squads racing through the streets of Boston looked more like a far away battlefield rather than the place of American childhoods and memories. And while people celebrate in the streets at the arrest of suspects, I wonder at our new changing landscape that whisks away old department stores and all of our innocence. I just wonder.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Shifting Viewpoints for a Shifting Mind

I’ve officially wrapped up the first year of my writing program. One year down. Two to go. Hopefully all my newfound knowledge is transferring to my stories. Because I’ve been telling the tale of an older woman with Alzheimer’s from her point of view (which is slightly unreliable, with a few drifts in and out of reality, if you catch my drift), I had to hone the skill of telling her tale using multiple viewpoints.

Reading a story written from multiple viewpoints is a little like a parent having one child tattle on another, only to find out with a little investigation the tattletale masterfully fabricated a story, misusing or under-using details to his or her advantage. When we hear a different side to a story, the details fill in and the characters round out and become more understandable, more heart-wrenching, deplorable, lovable, whatever.

Using differing voices throughout a book beautifully mimics real life where we learn a little about others from their self-revelation, a lot through how others view them, and even more through their actions.  Oftentimes, seeing someone through the eyes of a person who loves them makes us stop and take a second look at someone we might otherwise dislike as we become willing to give an unpleasant person a chance, looking a little more closely for that redeemable quality that maybe only the mother sees. Someone loves them.

And don’t we often hear the phrase, usually regarding someone who’s committed an unthinkable crime: “He’s the kind of person only a mother could love.” Why is it the mother loves him? Is it because she’s seen him in a multitude of circumstances? She’s seen his motivations, vulnerabilities, fears, unselfish moments, loving moments and every experience that formed him into the person he has become. Most importantly, she once saw her child through eyes that hoped he or she would choose a different path. She never stopped loving him when the results of his choices brought on destruction; she clings to the last vestiges of her dream because at his core, she knows who her child could’ve been.

To be honest, we all have moments of being a beast to one person and an angel to the next. We are tyrants at home while being respectable at work. No one really sees us accurately without viewing us from a full range of human interactions and perspectives and through the eyes of multiple people – not just our own warped and one-sided, deluded impression of ourselves.

Just an aside here, if in the world of books we demand three-dimensional people that readers will love and accept as genuine and authentic characters, why is it in life we often settle for making others one-dimensional? Because of my recent studies, I’ve found myself imagining how someone would describe themself or their viewpoint without anyone else furnishing the details for them. It’s amazing what we might hear when we let characters (and people) speak for themselves rather than putting dialogue on their lips and intentions in their hearts.

And so my year ends. I’ve dragged my character, Eva, into the empty house of her dead friend where she believes she can live without anyone finding her. She’s stumbled into the house of an unknown neighbor to make tea for her son who lives overseas until the owner kindly comes to check on what she’s doing. Through most of her missteps, Eva believes she’s just fine. And isn’t that like the rest of us? We’re a little blind to those parts of us that live in shadows, desperately needing the light of some kind and truthful words to let us out.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How Old Am I?

“How old am I?” I asked my husband several months back. He shot me a concerned look, thinking I was having an “Eva moment” as we call forgetful times in our house named after the character in my novel with Alzheimer’s. Eva moments include times when I leave my purse in Starbucks and someone chases me out onto the sidewalk to return it. Or when I think I think I left my glasses at a restaurant, return to claim them only to come back to work with someone else’s glasses and have my co-workers screech, “Those aren’t even yours!”                                 

 Or when I can’t remember my age.   
 “We’re the same age, remember?” Bill responds to my question.
“Okay. And how old is that?” He recites my birth year, encouraging me do the math. I’m sure he’s thinking using math skills keep the mind working longer.
As dull as my memory has become these days, the real cause of my inability to remember my age is that I spend so much time trying on my new and approaching birthday – the one that I’m dreading a year in advance. I live in the future so much that I disorient myself.  
 We’re told to live in the present - it’s best to live in the present - but obviously I struggle to accomplish this goal. I like to think of living in different realms as exercising my aging mental skills. Besides, if we were meant to live only in the present, our memory would be unnecessary. By its very nature, memory allows us to keep the past with us while simultaneously living in the present.  

Memory has been on my brain recently for many reasons: I’m seeing mine reflect its age, and I’ve spent this year reading and writing fiction about memory. I’ve looked at the gift and genius of memory and marveled, wondering how our lives would look without it. What if someone we loved died and we had no ability to remember them anymore? What if we moved to another part of the country but forgot the people and the place we left behind?
 In Anthony Doerr’s collection of short stories, The Memory Wall, he examines the value and role of memory, looking at memories belonging to individual people, but also collective memories of entire cultures, some that simply go away. Communities are moved, some to make way for progress, some to make room for someone else, governments fail, etc. But Doerr also depicts the ability of memory to torment us when we grieve the past through our memories, grieve memories we’ll never make, (Infertile couples grieve never making memories with a child. The parents at Newtown grieve future memories stolen from them.), or we grieve the disintegrating nature of our memory which reminds us (ironically) that our time to make new memories is limited.
 But I do remember this: some forgetting is good. Unless something stirs them up, I have laid to rest many moments I never care to relive. Some memories should be blocked out permanently. But if I so choose, I have memory files to open that will bring my dear but broken father back to life and remember driving beside him in the car as we quietly daydreamed together, the road ahead a seemingly endless journey on a sunny New England day. I remember moments with a house full of my loud sons, everyone talking at once, laughing uproariously over some of their antics. Or I can conjure up a nostalgic time period like college and revisit dear friends there. Then when I’m ready, I close up those files and save them for another day, fully living in the present, as long as I can recall where I put my purse, glasses, and my husband’s cell phone number in case I need him to come pick me up when I’m lost.




Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Brick by Brick

Nothing satisfies more than finishing a day of writing at the computer and finding a strong body of work appear on the page. But in all honesty, many days are duds, leaving me disappointed in the small amount of work created. On the unproductive days, I always walk away from a seven, eight, nine-hour stint at the computer hearing the words “brick by brick” pass through my mind.

A building is built brick by brick, a skyscraper one cement piece at a time, a city one block at a time. Relationships are built one shared experience at a time. Lifetimes are just moments strung together until decades pass, then your younger and healthier years, then your kids’ younger years pass. And stories are built when a few words strung together form a sentence that build a paragraph that in time form a chapter until you suddenly find you’ve written 300 pages – brick by brick. Those words often keep me from giving up and labeling the unproductive days as a waste.
Before I worked full-time, I had the luxury of wide-open space to write and the dud days didn’t seem as threatening. Now that I write while juggling a full-time job, an unproductive writing day can be a serious setback considering the limited time available to produce material (usually just Saturdays for creative stuff).  But I’ve had the welcome experience of realizing that my brief moments of writing can actually be as productive as those longer periods. Some days, only a few bricks are laid. But the next time I return to that piece of work, I find a surprising foundation formed by those mere words, and often the foundation whispered to its friends to join and cling to the other bricks, together throwing up an entire structure.
Thankfully the mind continues to write after turning off the computer. Brick by brick, details of a story piece together, come to mind after i cross from work mode into domestic life. Brick by brick, pieces fall into place as I talk with friends, overhear grocery store conversations, sit at stoplights thinking, or walk around my neighborhood. Answers to a writing problem appear. A scene materializes. Dialogue writes itself.
Over Christmas I was wrestling with a scene involving my main character who has early Alzheimer’s disease. My son and daughter-in-law were visiting and played a song for me called “An Old Shoebox Filled with Ghosts.” Suddenly I envisioned a scene where my character goes on a snooping expedition in someone else’s house and finds an old shoe box filled with details that fill in missing places in her past. The scene kindly arrived after my writing time had ended for the day and my brain fell into relaxation mode, almost a “receiving” mode. Even the undisciplined moments can be productive moments.
In nine weeks I’ll finish the first year of my MFA program. On a weekly basis I don’t feel I’m accomplishing a great amount of work. But looking back, I’ve written or rewritten roughly 150 pages. Many passages and additions to my novel appeared over these past months despite a busy work schedule and other demands on my time. Ideas grew and informed each other. Characters turned into real people with real wants, foibles and loves. And one truth has been confirmed: as long as I show up faithfully and put words on paper - small or large amounts of words  -  a novel, short story, or anything can appear - brick by brick.