2015: The Year in Review and of Reviews

macysparadeThings Dennis and I have in common: The Macy’s Day Parade depresses us. We have, late in life, become cat people. We both teach (taught, in his case). We write. We can eat ridiculous amounts of kale. That’s about it. Oh! And we hate to read all the Year in Review stuff that comes out in the newspaper.

But here is my list anyway. So long, 2015.

On a random day when I least expected it, I got my first really scalding reader review (titled: I Was Somewhat in a Good Mood, but . . .).

I also received my first professional review where the writer saw a penis where I swear I envisioned only a really terrible haircut.

And then this happened, in this order:

  1. January:
    • I turned 52. (52! Really?)
    • The first of 101 inches of snow began to fall just about the time my oldest daughter got her license.
  2. February,
    • We embarked on our first college tour. Great idea to take your kid to a school you can’t afford when the windchill is below freezing, by the way. If I wrote for Baron’s, I would suggest this strategy. I tried not to be jealous, but pasta stations? pottery wheels? rock climbing walls? And to think I was feeling nostalgic for dining halls that served Yankee pot roast and ratatouille almost exclusively for four years and an athletics fee that allowed me to take an aerobics glass in a windowless room with four inch gymnastics mats on the floor and the football team knocking on the door to see if we were finished so they could lift weights (though it smelled as if they’d never left, especially not to shower).
  3. March:
    • I played Cards Against Humanity for the first time and my closest friends in the world might never look at me the same way again. I care more about winning, it would seem, than I do about appearing to be a person who is not an asshole.
  4. rebecca and carla selfie

    Writers In Black:With Rebecca Kinzie-Bastian in Minneapolis for AWP.

     

    April:

    • I traveled to Minneapolis to celebrate the publication of Bewildered and spent lots of time avoiding any bars where writers might be hanging out until the final night when I discovered it was actually a lot of fun hanging out in bars with other writers.
    • Dennis and I also took the girls to New York City. I hate the Giants. I hate the J-E-T-S, but I do love New York.
  5. May:
    • To celebrate my friend Hudson Rush’s inaugural Fringe Fest, I travelled to Pittsburgh. I hate the Steelers, but I loved Pittsburgh. And I love Hudson. And I loved her performance art: Resurrection. And I especially loved being part of the beginning of something wonderful. Next year, I want to do that again — bear witness, raise a glass for an inaugural.
  6. June: (oh, god, June, do I love you).
    • My youngest daughter graduated from Middle School. Junior High (which is what they called this particular hell when I attended it) was a  time of aviator frame glasses; menstrual cycles that arrived on one of two days: when you finally got brave enough to wear your new white pants, or when you finally got invited to a pool party; oversized and yellow front teeth; acne; and party lists drawn up in two columns where you were arbitrarily matched to someone, just as homely as you, who you would be expected to make out with when given the signal from the hostess. Does anyone ever feel nostalgic for those days? To witness your children navigate that stage awkwardness, social exclusion, just plain ugliness, is even worse. So, good riddance middle school. We have passed Go. We have collected $200 and we will not be back.
  7. July
    • After several years, we returned to a lakeside rental. The girls floated with friends. I kayaked and walked and wrote and tried not to sob thinking about all those summers my babies came naked to the beach and fell asleep in a room they shared with Nana before the sun had set most nights.
  8. August:
    • The girls and I spent a week in Westerly. They went to a drive-in. I saw Shakespeare in the Park. We walked the beach at night, bowled with my cousin and his son, took Nana out to dinner. They paddleboarded: I took bad pictures of them paddleboarding. We spent a few hours most days at the Town Beach. Homecoming.
  9. September:
    • Kicked off the month with the second annual Bohemian dinner (on a school night!) and pretended I live the life of an artist. Got up at 6 and went to school because, really, I live the life of a perennial adolescent.
    • Dennis turned 60. I have a sixty year old (cradle-robbing) husband.
  10. October:
    • Tailgated in the back yard for the Pats; Wrote poetry for strangers at Ipswich Illuminated. Good month.
  11. IMG_1636

    Take that, Madonna!

    11. November:

    • 80’s Dance Party. Nuff said.
  12. December:
    • Mild weather, mad shopping, those cookies with the peanut butter cups pressed into them, wrapping gifts with my cat.

 

Readers: May you have many fine moments in ALL of the years ahead. And share some highlights of this one!

The Shortest Days

1Hard to believe you, December, season of evergreens, of oak leaves shriveled, but tenacious. I’ve been walking without a coat. Haven’t begun the seasonal mitten matching quest. We’re doing our part in this charade. We’ve dug root vegetables, lit the woodstove. This week, Dennis bought an ice scraper at the grocery store, just in case, though this gesture seemed apologetic. A few days ago, I bought a birdfeeder that sticks to the window, a television for the cats, I thought, and we filled it with seeds that have gone untouched ever since. The birds are too busy bathing in the puddle at the end of my neighbor’s driveway, too full of sluggish insects and winter moths to eat seeds. It’s kind of like me still wearing the kinds of shoes I can wear without socks. Winter is so long — when it finally arrives — you get tired of certain things. Foods and fashions. Why not delay the inevitable boredom, the relentless sameness of the season?

My father’s winter clothes: striped overalls over his usual work clothes (dark green Dickies, blue short sleeve shirt, crewneck sweatshirt);a hooded sweatshirt tied tight over a stocking cap; felt boots. Underneath the layers, he weighed under 140 pounds. He hated the cold. His birthday was the second, but he was an impossible man to buy for. Bags of Canada mints. Work gloves. Old Spice. And he wouldn’t feel much like celebrating.

December, you were different then. Inside, my mother changed curtains and bedspreads. She made polenta and beef stew.

Outside, cows’ coats thickened, hair sprouting over their polls like clownish toupees. The dogs moved into the hayloft at night. Some mornings, a lacework of ice in the waterbowls. Some of the barn’s broken windowpanes would be boarded up with old panelling, but as we walked past others with biscuits of hay for heifers stuck inside now, you blew at us your reminder: Yoohoo. I’m out here. You’ll miss me when January comes.

Most afternoons, I sat inside at the kitchen table doing my homework, my stomach knotted as I awaited the sound of a car down the lane, a car that would deposit one high school boy or another to do the night milking. As often as they did show up, they didn’t, and eventually, my mother would stand peering out into the darkness and say, “I guess you’d better get out there.” The short days meant getting the cows up in the dark. No electricity, god forbid, in any barn, and the freestall, where we had to drive the cows away from the new silage and up to the parlor, seemed acres away from the light bulb that burned over the house’s back door.

You wouldn’t have recognized me, December. I was too unprepared for you then, too convinced there was nothing to do against you. Inside my unlined rubber boots, my toes froze. My legs grew numb beneath my jeans and long johns. Each time I slid the barn door open to let in more milkers, my hands ached with cold, the door sticking in slushy ruts. Cows’ breath steamed windowpanes. So many of them, I dreaded counting groups. There were always so many more waiting to be tended to.

Oh, December. What we wouldn’t have given for you then. A mild month for new calves. We could have kept our sleeves rolled up and not have soaked our cuffs that froze and burned the white skin at our wrists. The cows would have lingered in their pastures and that would have been a good walk. Moonlight, mist, the illusion of spring.

But we were both very different then.

I wish I could say you had been less ominous.

I wish I could say I went uncomplainingly those nights, that I appreciated how dark the sky was there, how many stars shone over the silos. I wish I could say that I understood that those hours of working on that place and beside that man who, despite the exhaustion he must have felt, was much more liable to burst out into a Dean Martin song in the middle of milking as he was to complain about being cold and tired, would not last. But I’m a slow learner. The year concluded with you, December. This, of course, I understood, but I it didn’t make me understand how many other things were destined to end as well.

 

Weekend Write-In: Go Steelers????

Four days til Christmas. This year, I decided to paint a few directional signs for kicks. I did it last summer and really enjoyed it and people loved getting them. Painting, when it’s sunny and when I have no other responsibilities, is relaxing. I doodled around imagining how maybe I could paint a hundred more or so of these and make a little money. I envisioned all of the other people who might like one and thought about mailing them around to my friends with the names of their favorite places: Truro; Rangely, ME; Misquamicut Beach, Fishing Hole. But that was July. One hundred and forty something shopping days til Christmas.

Now, it’s dark as I squint over the letters. I’m nearly out of black paint and hate the idea of heading anywhere near the mall to get more. Meanwhile, LL Bean is taking its time sending my last few gifts. I haven’t sent out one card. Not one. One of my daughters has so many stocking stuffers, I’m going to have to pile them on the floor while her sisters have a giftcard and a Chapstick apiece. Not like they’ll compare or anything. So much to do for a holiday where there is so much already — food, stuff, errands, traveling, potential to disappoint.

Oh. And I’m writing  a new story. One I’m really excited about which doesn’t happen often in my friction-filled relationship with writing fiction. The new ideas distract me. I’ve taken to recording scenes on my IPhone as I cook dinner or feed the cats or scribble to-do lists.

Also, the late game is a good one. If Pittsburgh wins today (and it’s HARD to root for the goddamned Steelers), the Pats clinch home field throughout the playoffs. So I’m watching, yelling at the screen, trying to curb my innate hatred of the gold and black. The usual.

If you’re keeping score: I’m trying to write this blog entry, add to my new story, figure out how to finish up the Christmas errands tomorrow, keep track of third down conversions, and paint a very long name on a sign free hand since I can’t find the stencils I made last summer (I prayed to Saint Anthony to help me find them, but he is mad at me because I yelled at my dog, and I don’t blame him, but isn’t that Saint Francis’s job, birds and other creatures?).

Instead of coming up with writing advice on my own, I asked my husband, Dennis, instead.

I might add here that, last week as he led a middle distance workout for the high school track team he coaches, he fell in a mud puddle and bruised several ribs so he offers this, between groans: “Keep at it, and don’t listen to the voice that tells you you suck.”

Not bad. He winces and continues: “It’s kind of like running. You have to keep doing it every day. In fact, writing is a lot like running. Sometimes on the days you don’t feel like doing it, you get your best stuff.”

Very true. Low expectations can free you. And what a welcome surprise those days are. How they sustain us through much darker days battling the page.

Of course, some days, you also feel pretty damn good about yourself and end up tripping and falling into a mud puddle while your adolescent charges stand around you either horrified, or, as in the case of your own daughter, laughing hard enough to pee their pants. You do finally manage to stand again, coated in muck, soggy and cold, struggling to draw a breath, but you know you’re in for it. You’re not young, you know. You can’t recover as quickly as you used to.

Oh, and your loved ones are so busy, they have precious few moments to spare for sympathy.

 

Weekend Write-In: Friends’ Shelf

If Mrs. Jacobs was alive today, Taylor Swift would be living in her neighborhood. One summer, the project at Sunnymede, her summer “cottage” was to sit on the divan while one of her new friends (a sycophantic historian who, out of earshot of Mrs. Jacobs and her housemate, Ms. Kimbrough, made frequent references to how close to the hereafter they were), re-arranged their library.

Mr. Dennis Brown (not his real name (yes, it is)), would read off titles and the delighted women would call out: Fiction! Poetry! History! and, most miraculously of all: Friends’ Shelf!!

I had been reading aloud to Mrs. Jacobs for several years before the summer of Mr. Dennis Brown. It had ceased to surprise me that she knew people like Indira Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Leontyne Price, Bowzer from Sha Na Na (okay, that surprised me). But the idea that she knew enough writers to fill a shelf?! Easier to believe that, one day, we could talk face to cyber-face with a loved one on another continent. There she sat, almost completely blind by then, announcing, time after time: Friends’ Shelf! while I, temporarily squelching the nausea Mr. Dennis Brown’s company inspired in me, gaped.

Oh, Mrs. Jacobs, my one true friend for many a Misquamicut-slash-Watch Hill summer. Here is yet another reason why it’s tricky to befriend octogenarians when you are barely old enough to sit at a bar legally. Because when you finally have a Friends’ Shelf in your much more modest library, to whom can you express your gratitude and your disbelief?!

There are other things I do to honor the memory of this friendship, but keeping my Friends’ Shelf is my favorite because, along with marriage and motherhood, with seeing my name on a book spine, this kind of thing came under the heading: To Dream the Impossible Dream. It also comes under the heading: Not Only Do They Walk Among Us, You Can Have a Beer With Them.

Imagine the realization that writers are a) living, b) mortals, and c) people you hug upon greeting!! Sometimes, I can’t believe my luck.

As Wilbur the pig tells us, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” And so,  I honor the following wordsmiths on my shelf. First, old friends Rebecca Kinzie Bastian, Charms for Finding (poetry); Sarah Yaw, You Are Free to Go (fiction); Holly Robinson, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter (memoir); Haven Lake (fiction); The Wishing Hill (fiction); Chance Harbor (fiction); Beach Plum Island (fiction); Brian Kologe, AMC Guide to Freshwater Fishing; and new friends, Betty Cotter, Roberta’s Woods (fiction); The Winters (fiction); Kirun Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (poetry); Jane Ward, Hunger (fiction) and The Mosaic Artist (fiction); Myfanwy Collins, The Book of Laney (YA); Cathy Chung, Forgotten Country; and many other writers I’ve been happy to meet along the way .

What about you? Who’s on your Friends’ Shelf?

 

Weekend Write-In: Poetry by Request

100826-helix-asperaOnce upon a time, I saw a periwinkle making its way back to the ocean as the tide rapidly retreated. I had no idea these creatures left such lovely signatures behind. This is how poems began for me, with an image that would not let me rest.

Then, my students and I started the Poetry Stand (see my blog entry Free Poetry, Really ) for further information, and, for the first time in my career as a writer who teaches writing, I asked these young people to do something I had not done before: to take an order for a poem and to write the poem on the spot. For free.

To be fair, I decided to make myself take the kind of risk I’d asked them to. I started by sending out a few emails to close friends (okay, so maybe I cheated a little) telling them I’d like to write a poem for them and asking them to request something — anything. I widened the circle to other friends, book club people, blog readers, etc. To date, I have written poems about sheep, about dementia, about the fall from innocence and swingsets, about forgiveness and the possibility that, someday, we might be able to have movies made of our dreams and many other topics I would never have chosen myself.

Suddenly, poems did not begin with an image. Instead, they began with research. I found Bible passages on what it means to forgive, specialized words that had to do with what happens in our brains when we dream, photographs of brain cells transformed by Alzheimer’s, and really creepy facts about sheep.

Where previously an image had held me hostage, now research set me free. How fun it was to become a student first, poet second; to wallow around in facts and new words until I found something that felt like a beginning to me.

Sometimes, when we write, we sound too much like ourselves. Again and again, we tap the usual reserves, but other people’s ideas and a commitment to attempting to use them, helped me try things I had never considered.

These days, I do a little of both: my own inspiration from those haunting images, and the requests of people who, in most cases, have never had a poem written exclusively for them. I hope you’ll try it.

 

This is the poem I wrote that began with the image of the periwinkle’s trail.

Plum Island and Back

You come here expecting things in pieces:

the fractured, fleshless shells of mussels,

crab-backs abandoned by soft bellies, a claw.

 

You come expecting flight over dunes, terns

diving, the confetti of aerialists mad for sky, herons

lifting from the marsh, trailing legs, trailing ropes of water.

 

You don’t come expecting poetry, nor love, either,

things you feel you’ve had enough of.  You expect —

no, you hope — for nothing grander than relief.

 

But the periwinkle lays out a path to the sea, a ribbon

in the sand his thin tribute. He has this house to move,

this exaggeration of spine, the only bone he knows.

 

It helps, it must, to have nothing to compare oneself to.

He can’t know the work ahead, but you do. You wish

the tide back in for him, you wish the moon on his side.

 

The second is a link to a poem that was requested by my good friend and fellow writer, Holly Robinson. Holly wanted a poem about Plum Island with an emphasis on the way it’s currently eroding. As a bonus, she published it in her novel, Beach Plum Island. You can read that poem and a preview of Holly’s novel, here.