Sometimes People Ask Me What It’s Like To Be Married To Another Writer

Sometimes, being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life. There is never a time when you think: Woohoo! I do not have to write today. That Sunday night should-have-gotten-this-all-going-days-ago feeling does not vanish on some improbable June day when, on the way out the classroom door, you dump your backpack, Peanuts lunch box and all, into the overflowing trash can.

Milking ended fours hours after it began whether you hurried through, risking your father’s ire for your impatience, or lolled about singing songs and dedicating them to the behemoths before you. The wrap-up was simple: last cow out, parlor hosed down, cycles run to sanitize the machines. Vacuum pump off, the night buzzed with crickets you forgot would be out there, or you noticed the wind howling around the silos for the first time. The newest calf bawled for its mother, and she responded, a long, low bellow you’d hear all night long in your dreams. The next day, of course, the pattern resumed. But there it was — beginning and end. The moment when you were allowed to say: done. At least for today.

Shift’s end at Paddy’s Wigwam, Misquamicut Beach, meant it was time to refill the prep area. A bucketful of creamers in the fridge, a cupful of stirrers on the counter beside an opened case of napkins. You sorted your checks and cashed in your coins. If you were lucky, the bartender was bored and mixed you a Pearl Harbor you sipped while you waited for traffic to creep along Atlantic Avenue towards wherever the tourists called home. You smelled like fritters and ketchup. Sometimes, the place was empty enough for you to sweep the sand out from under the tables, to swipe the fly carcasses off the windowsills.

The school day ends with a bell, hallways clogged with noise and a hormone-y stench. Cars carroom out of the parking lot at the speed of light. Until the roads look fairly safe again, you sit at your desk clipping together a pile of essays you will take home and ignore. If you remember, you put up the rest of the chairs.

But the writing day never begins or ends for me in any of the predictable ways my other lives do/did. I should always be writing, notebook in my (non-existent) shirt pocket, pen behind my ear. I should pose in cafes looking ultra-pensive in a peacoat and black jeans. I should forgo watching Project Runway on demand and rubbing lemon oil onto my kitchen cabinets. I should rise in the dark, the moon still out and listening, as I do, for the first note of birdsong.

Should. I hate that word.

Dennis read somewhere (a Greek philosopher, I think): If you want to write, write. He likes to quote that to me the same way he likes to quote lines from Raymond Carver short stories and pretend they’re his own. At least I think the Carver lines are funny. At least they surprise me when I see them again in their original form. Dennis is the reason why I started writing regularly in the first place. He’s very disciplined, a marathon runner who isn’t afraid to string the miles out along a route rife with obstacles and very personal reminders of your own mortality. I wish I could say it was purely his example that motivated me, but I must confess: I worried that, with all that writing, he’d be better at it than I was. Yes, I’m that small-minded.

Dennis also says, Don’t say: I only have 15 minutes to write. Say: Wow. I can’t believe I get 15 minutes to write! (He also read this somewhere). Sometimes, he tries to hug me when he says this. I pin my arms against my side and mumble into his chest: How do you find so much time to read anyway?

How I Met My Sister Wife

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November 3, 2004 was not my favorite day in history. My own history or my country’s. I dropped my two youngest daughters off at pre-school and started the walk home, where, I was pretty sure, my electrician would be wiring my kitchen and sporting a Bush Cheney hat just in case I forgot the previous night’s election results. We had been living on our porch since the past spring while we re-built our kitchen. Most recently, my kids wore mittens to eat their toast, but I considered it: stopping the work that would finally give our new space light in exchange for a sight less nauseating than that blankety-blank hat.

It was a beautiful day, too, torturously so, as I strolled along a street in one of Massachusetts’ only red counties feeling more alone that I had felt in the nine years since we’d moved here. And that was saying something since I had no friends in town and spent most days re-filling juice cups (once I moved the sofa out of the way and discovered them and their solidified contents behind it) and helping our three little girls into and out of costumes. My friends lived closer to Boston and most of them worked full time. My own family was over two hours away. So the sun was shining, so what? So I love the gray scale of November with the weird kind of devotion leaf peepers feel for peak foliage season and beach bums love July? This was one lonely planet and, at one of its ends, my electrician would be mercilessly whistling through his day.

And then, in the midst of my misery, I heard a voice behind me: “Bad day, huh?” For many years of my own childhood, I had an imaginary friend. Briefly, I considered that she might have returned (and I was shamelessly psyched), but when I turned, I saw Anne who had just dropped her twins off at pre-school as well. Maybe she was the person whose car had the Bush bumper sticker and was here to gloat. This thought made me want to turn and flee, but, no. She looked as heartbroken as I felt. Maybe, I thought, we won’t have to move to Toronto to live with my brother after all. And that is how it began: Another of my life’s great love stories.

There are many reasons that, ten years later, I owe George W. this weird debt of gratitude. For example, Anne is (like so many of the liberals I know!), a great dancer. This trait cannot be underestimated in one’s friends. She will, when no rentals exist, strap a canoe to the roofrack of her minivan, bungee cord a kayak into my minivan, and refuse help from any men in the parking lot of the public boat launch. Rain, snow, sub-zero windchills, will not keep her from her morning walk which means I will not be allowed to skip walking, either. She rarely refuses to meet me for a drink, but I don’t often get the chance to invite her because she invites me first.

So, yes, it’s fun to be with her. I have never lived this close to a friend (I grew up on a farm tucked away on its own 100 acres, my nearest neighbors 225 Holsteins who weren’t so fun on the dancefloor). But she is much more than a friend. She is a sister-wife and here’s what the best sister wives can do: they can help you raise your children; they can loan you their own. Who else would I list as my first emergency contact but the woman whose door my children don’t have to knock on? She knows who eats peanut butter and who is desperate for meat outside our vegetarian home. She doesn’t have to ask when their birthdays are, what they might like as gifts, if she her family are invited for cake. She takes their beloved Nana to her favorite place in the world: Market Basket and then out to lunch (though it means giving up her one day a week that is hers and hers alone). We’ve carpooled to gymnastics, soccer games, cross country meets, parent-teacher nights, Trader Joe’s, worked the PTA’s popcorn machine for five record-setting years, perfected packing for beach days and outdoor concerts. We are not afraid of each other’s unpredictable dogs. When Beatrice ended up in the hospital for six days and I forgot I had two other children, Anne didn’t. They were fed, dressed, their laundry done, their backpacks stuffed, by the only person who could step in without texting me and asking: how does this go here? (And, even after she looked in my closets, she did not abandon me).

Four years after we met, Anne and I did get to dance together at Obama’s inaugural ball sponsored by Rowley’s Democratic Committee (?!?!!!!) which inspired great joy in both of us. Now, when we head out for our three mile trek, we trade stories of our teenagers and, just as it was when our issues were head lice, Invention Convention, the fifth grade environmental camp fundraising overkill, we understand: I am not alone here. In the midst of the red that surrounds me, I have found a true blue friend.

Free Poetry. Really.

Stand Poets, Class of 2014.

When a group of four walks into the Ipswich Art Show, I am sitting behind the Poetry Stand stand. They glance at me and then quickly look away, afraid to make eye contact with an offer they intend to reject.

“Free poetry,” I say anyway. “My students will write you a poem on any subject. You can have it written as you browse.”

A chorus of embarrassed no thank-you’s as they hurry away. The fourth person also starts to walk past and then stops. “Free poems did you say?”

I nod. “We don’t even accept donations.”

He studies me for a moment, maybe to make sure this isn’t some invitation to join a cult thinly disguised as some free love come-on and then he says, “Then what’s the point?”

We get this a lot at the Poetry Stand.

The stand is not my idea. It came from an article in American Scholar by a poet-slash-teacher named Doug Goetsch who set out with a group of students to write poems for strangers (http://theamericanscholar.org/poetry-stand/#.VDFOtkvxUxc) . At the time I came across this article, I was home raising our daughters but I tucked the idea away with the same kind of someday-sigh that I reserve for real estate ads of cottages along the Sakonnet River in Tiverton, RI. Fantastic dream, but you’d have to hit the equivalent of the lottery to make it a reality.

And then, a few years after I started teaching again, I met Abbie. She was a poet, an actor, the kind of generous person who only knows how to include everyone no matter the task or the adventure. During her sophomore year, I told her about the stand and she said, “I’d love to do that.” Okay, I thought, then it’d be Abbie and me. But one voice had at least sounded in the universe.

Two years later, Abbie and fifteen other kids signed up for my first ever senior poetry class (I admit it: I am a lucky bastard) and this time when I mentioned the poetry stand, Abbie said: “You keep saying it. Why don’t we do it already?” Maybe I was my tentative, dbuious, fall-back, cautiously optimistic, borderline pessimistic self, but one Saturday in April, six of us set up shop in Newburyport and thirty or so poems later, the poetry stand became The Poetry Stand. Four years and hundreds of poems later . . . people still want to know: what’s the point?

Well, here are some of the millions of points that I can think of to get us started:

  1. A man says, “I’ve been watching what you guys are doing for a while and now I’ve come up with a poem. I just moved her from the midwest and would like an existential poem about it.” Abbie says: “I got this. We read The Stranger in French with Dr. Ladd.”
  2. Another woman wants a sonnet from the perspective of a brick. Abbie writes that one, too.
  3. A woman with a baby carriage hugs me and says, “You know how sometimes you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for? That’s what happened to me when Lisa wrote me this poem today.”
  4. A man decides to post Olivia’s brewmaster poem on the labels of his homebrew.
  5. Anna can’t make the Sunday night stand and arranges a Saturday night one, instead.
  6. Maddie writes a poem for a busker and he reciprocates.
  7. “Can you throw some German expressions into a poem about antiques?” she asks, and Hannah says yes.
  8. Alumni perform cameo requests.
  9. After her poem on friendship, Liz gets a hug from a woman who says, “How did you know exactly how I was feeling?”
  10. Julia says, “How does this work?” and I say, “You’ll get at least one grandchild and one cat poem,” and she does. And she really loves cats, so . . .
  11. Jeremy does a multi-stanza rhyming epic starring the Incredible Hulk with a four year old leaning against his leg.
  12. Tom, Abbie, and Tara take the stand all by themselves to Salem.
  13. Alli, Emily, Maddie, Britta, Olivia, Erin don’t take a poetry course and sign up anyway and in this way, year two unfolds.
  14. Jazmine, Devin, and Shannon set up a satellite office by the waterfront in Newburyport and business is great!
  15. Colin writes a poem for a group of fourth graders and when one of them says, “Now can you read it in French?” he does!!
  16. Ryan says: “I didn’t want to do this at first, but it’s been a great day.”
  17. Kyle needs a little help with One Direction info but makes the most of the brainstorm session.
  18. Sometimes, we get pizza; sometimes, cider donuts.
  19. Ink freezes when it’s 12 degrees, but Gus writes with no gloves, Austin doesn’t have a hat, and the girls hunker down inside Zumi’s to collaborate on pony poems.
  20. People cry.
  21. People beg us to take their money (we don’t, though one person stuck money in Gus’s empty coffee mug anyway).
  22. Every time I make an announcement: Anyone interested in working The Poetry Stand, kids show up (Sophie first).

So far over seventy kids have written for The Poetry Stand: sonnets, haiku, pastorals, poems about dying loved ones and video games, plain old elusive joy; they have written about teddy bear hamsters and Lego Star Wars, about the empty nest syndrome and sibling devotion; they have written so that a girl might fall in love with the stranger before them; they have written about the blues and sailing, about a child with Down’s Syndrome, about Tyrannosaurus Rex; they have written from a line someone hands them. They are always ready to write the next thing.

The point is poetry and the way in which it connects us to the world. The point is there will never be any strings attached. The point is that, this weekend, at the very last minute, kids walked in out of the rain on Saturday night or sat beneath a streetlight Sunday night and grabbed clipboards to start writing. The point is, whenever The Poetry Stand is open for business, another one of my dreams comes true.

Dear Jeannie

One way to tell that I’ve been teaching a lot longer than my colleagues is that I regularly check my mailbox. While the thirty-somethings on staff have boxes stuffed with textbook catalogs and invitations to take their students to exotic international locales, I have a pristine spot into which more disposable (recyclable) junk gets tossed every day. Because they don’t expose themselves to this daily disappointment of finding nothing in a place they insistently search, I envy my colleagues a little, but I also feel that they missed out. One of these days, I tell myself each time I peer into that useless space, someone might write me a real, live letter! And I, archive of ancient history that I am becoming, still remember how thrilling it is to see the envelope sitting there, stamped, addressed, revealing the loops and curves of my loved ones’ handwriting (!!!) as they create a record of their time on the planet.

At the University of New Hampshire, our mailboxes were in the lobby of the dining hall where we met in a mob for Yankee pot roast, ratatouille and the weekend brunches featuring anemic fresh fruit and welcome-mat textured French toast. Before lunch each day, my friends and I would squint through the tiny pane of glass to see: is anyone in there? Oftentimes, my poor friends were greeted solely by the wall of the mailroom. Part of the ensuing meal would be spent berating disloyal friends and family. My box, however, was never empty. And when I say never, I’m almost not exaggerating. Two days of my freshman year I did not receive a letter. According to the mail staff, they checked the bag several times to make sure there was no mistake.

Maybe I set up this situation for myself. I am a writer, after all, and occasionally, especially when I am trying to avoid writing, I had been known to write a letter so I kept up a correspondence with family members, friends, friends of family members and they wrote back! But the fruitfulness of my search into that slot every day was largely due to one person’s indefatigable efforts to tether me to my home. I don’t know what my sister Jeannie spent in stationery and postage those four years, but she was more dependable than any diarist. She sent cards, notes, pictures of my nieces and nephew, postcards — anything to keep me from the crushing view of the dark, yawning tunnel, yet another reminder of our insignificant place in the universe. Jeannie was a young mother, home with three kids who passed bronchitis, conjunctivitis, chicken pox, the stomach bug, and any other germ that passed through Westerly public schools, back and forth for the long, damp Rhode Island winter, stranding their mother in her kitchen like some fronteirswoman in her Nebraska Territory sodhouse. So she wrote and I read (and wrote back though not as frequently). My friends demanded I share her; I refused. They cast me threatening glances as they tried to discern the ingredients of the meatloaf and I unfolded coloring book pictures of cats. Maybe Jeannie’s life was not full of adventure, but she jotted it down faithfully understanding how much I needed to hear a voice from the world outside.  When I returned home for visits, I hope I spent enough time playing Sorry and Parcheesi with her and her perennially infected kids so that she felt a little less abandoned.

That was all a long time ago, of course, but the image of that envelope leaning against the polished wood of that box remains. What I felt was joy. Every time. It’s what keeps me trekking back to the little visited space behind the receptionist’s desk just in case. And this week (drumroll, please) I was REWARDED for my vigilance, for my insistence on this antiquated custom because there it was: the sealed envelope, the handwritten (!!!) address, the bulging contents promising some personal history coming my way. The note was  was from a former student who, via some stroke of unimaginable impulse, put pen to paper. There are many things that make me feel lucky to be a teacher: this missive is certainly one. There are also many things that make me feel lucky to be a little sister and my big sister Jeannie is certainly one.