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.

 

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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.

Market Basket Babies

My own Market Basket babies on our dream couch.

My own Market Basket babies on our dream couch.

It’s creepy, really, the way I stare at babies in Market Basket. If I didn’t know me, I’d be, at the very least, uncomfortable. Fat babies, especially, get me. How to look away from those cheeks? Those sausagy upper arms? The layers of fat that make up their thighs? When your own daughters are well muscled, when their faces have noticable cheekbones, when their feet are flat and not the impossibly round, handful of feet they used to be, how can you help but stare at other people’s babies? When you remember how sweet their milk breath smelled, how soft their hair used to be, how heavy they could be when they fell sound asleep against your chest, well, is it any wonder you can’t look away?

And, mostly, when you wonder if you appreciated it when you had it — those baby bodies, the warmth and the weight of those people you love most in the world in your arms, on your lap, beside you in bed as you read to them– it makes sense, doesn’t it, that, though the deli line is ridiculously long, and the dairy case is out of your favorite yogurt again, and the aisles are clogged with people who don’t understand how much more convenient it would be if they moved their cart to one side or the other, that what fills you is not frustration or boredom or impatience, but a profound sense of longing.

After an exhaustive search (in the days before babies), I finally found the sofa of my dreams (yes, this is what I dreamt about): an overstuffed, floral cloud of a couch. You fell into it and resisted ever dislodging yourself. And when the girls were babies, we wallowed in it — under an afghan for movie nights, piled together for storytime, stretched out across one another mornings when I drank my tea and they in feetsie pajamas, sucked juice cups full of milk. I remember one day as we sat there, one of them crawled into my lap and I thought: Will I always have a kid on my lap whenever I sit down? At the time, it seemed a legitimate question. I attached no emotion to it. I wasn’t fed up or worried or, even (especially), nostalgic. I just couldn’t imagine people not assuming my lap was fair game for plopping themselves down on. I remember them saying, “I want to sit here,” as if choosing a seat in the theater. Together, we sank into the endless pillow that was that couch.

Bath times it was rub-a-dub-dub, three babies in the tub. We had a system. face to toes, one at a time, hair last. Dennis dried them off and in they came, naked and warm, to lay on our bed so I could give them their massages with vanilla-scented lotion. Later, as we sat and read, their wet heads left spots on my pillows, spots I thought I’d just have to get used to since they were always going to be part of the ritual.

I remember once in graduate school, someone said, “Isn’t it odd to think that there is a last time you’ll hear a certain song?” Graduate school with poets required too much of that kind of thinking as it was, precious and useless and held up to judgement, so I said nothing, walked silently along wondering if any fiction writers would be at the bar yet.

But I think about that now: there was a last bath time, a final crawl into my lap. One day, we didn’t use juice cups anymore. There was the final night we gathered, four in a bed, to read a book from each of the girls’ choosings.

Today, however, I was also reminded by my friend Holly that those warm, snuggly, sweet-smelling babies were also the people who burst into tears at the dinner table when they didn’t like the menu. They were the ones who tortured us on long car rides, who spilled nail polish all over the side of the new vanity and then, in a rush to get the hell out of there, crunched your glasses underneath the soles of their light-up sneakers. They were plan destroyers. They ate possibly toxic mushrooms and choked on plastic Easter eggs. They spent several particularly grueling years clogging the toilet. They wandered away in crowded places just to see how long you could survive with your mouth open in a silent scream.

One day, I decided the morning outing for my three darlings would be the half mile walk up the street to Rowley Country Gardens where we might be able to feed the fish in the ponds. The girls decided to push their babies in strollers. What a picture we must have been: a parade of tiny people with their dolls dressed up in clothes Nana had knit for them! A proud and obviously highly effective mother, following after them with a benevolent smile on her face as she counted her blessings.  Except Justina ran ahead, veering into traffic, and Beatrice thought she was the oldest and should go first so she ran to catch up. Apphia lagged behind and didn’t want to push her baby after the first house we passed. Beatrice flung Justina’s stroller into a neighbor’s yard. Justina decided to leave it there; it only slowed her down so I grabbed it, forcing it back into her hands. Everyone ran up on everyone else’s heels. They bawled and screamed and demanded I push the damn things — which I could only do if I completely doubled over. We had only gotten halfway there when I stopped and lit into them. It was one of those moments that, before you have children, you swear you will never resort to.

When I’d finished, I looked up to see my new neighbor paused over the car that he was washing in his driveway.

“What are you looking at?” I said, wondering how fast I could put a For Sale sign on our house.

He grinned and said, “Lady, I been there.”

This was more helpful, by the way, than what my therapist said when I checked in with her later that week. She told me I needed to lower my expectations.

To what? I wondered. Staying home and watching Bear in the Big Blue House on continuous reel? We went for a half mile walk for Christ’s sake. We weren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, LewisandClarking it.

Ah, but those Market Basket babies. They make it easy to forget, don’t they?

Or maybe, they make it too easy to remember that no days last forever.

Weekend Write-In: Revelations

This week, I’m re-posting a blog I wrote for the Quivering Pen. Check out this great blogsite for reviews, giveaways, the regular feature My First Time , for which this blogpost was written, and lots of other great book stuff.

The books arrived on a September day saturated with light and sun. I feel it now — the heat of that moment, the blood rushing to my fingertips as I ran them along a spine with my name on it. I pored over the ISBN, the copyright, all the things that made me feel not myself, but someone greater! Someone for whom one slice of shelf space in a library might be reserved! I picked up several copies, stunned by their miraculous uniformity, before I finally flipped to the poems themselves and thought: Oh god. What have I done? In my excitement to finally have a book published, I had forgotten that people – especially people I knew – would, for the first time, actually read it.

The next day, as I walked my dog, my neighbor pulled up beside me. “I’m loving the book!” she said. Before I could thank her, she added: “It’s so revealing!” and sped off.

At a signing, a woman told me her husband refused to come. “He was mad at you for a while,” she said. “He’s over it now. That Oak Street Cowboys poem? That was his father who was shot.” I had retold my own father’s story about an argument that erupted over whose homemade wine was better; the dead man was a “ghost sitting on the front steps,/in a t-shirt and workpants, the shoes he’d crossed the ocean in.”

An ex-boyfriend’s mother bought a copy and sent me a lovely card that thrilled me until I remembered the Block Island poem in which her son figures prominently. She would recognize “the scar/below his navel, a cool bowl/you leave your thumbprint in.” Maybe she had forgotten that trip. Maybe she thought the beach sex was made up.

I had not changed the name of another old boyfriend, a name that happened to belong to exactly one person in my hometown for the twenty I’d lived there. The poem itself chronicled part of another relationship, part of a fictional scene, but who would know that? Oh well, I thought, it’s only about having a crush. How harmful can that be? Then, one night, after he had put his colicky twins to bed and drunk some bourbon, my nephew called me. “I really like your poems, ” he said. “But I have two questions: #1 – did you really have your first experience with Cameron B –? and (from a poem derived from a friend’s description of her anti-depressants) #2 do you have an addiction to prescription painkillers? You can tell me,” he said. “It won’t change how I feel about you.”

When I recounted these interactions to one of my writer friends and confessed my fear of appearing in public to read from this surprising tell-all, my friend said, “Poetry isn’t memoir. It isn’t history.”

When I had a similar conversation with my mother, she said: “You’re missing the point. People are actually reading the book.”

Of all the fantasies I’d entertained about the publication of my first book, the one scenario I had not envisioned turned out to be the best part of all: I got to talk to people about poetry, not just my own poems, but poetry itself. I am grateful for those moments that moved me toward a more complete understanding of what poetry is and what it definitely is not.

I also learned that, for me at least, there is some responsibility I hadn’t previously considered. Scribbling in my notebooks while the rest of the world slept, sending my work to small and lovely literary magazines that no one in my real world read, I had not applied to my own work what I have always known to be true: words have power. Meaning is not inherent in the page but discovered by the reader.

Whenever I forget those lessons and begin, again, to obsess about the place my book might secure in some library a hundred years from now, I remind myself of one scene that occurred at a family gathering several months after the book came out. Distrusting my explanation of my poem The Crush, my nephew stood up and read it according to his own interpretation. He wiggled his eyebrows and winked, mastered the let’s-get-it-on tone he insisted was present. Okay, so I can never read that poem aloud again to an audience, but my mother was right: he had read the poem and I loved what he made of it.

Weekend Write-in: Even Though You Won the Nobel Prize, My Mother Still Loves Me Better

Perhaps the room looked a little like this?

This week, I travel to Amherst, MA, to read from my new book in the town where it was published. On my walk this overcast morning with Bella, my border collie, I plan what to read, how to introduce things. A fox darts across a long driveway. A droplight still burns inside a carved giant pumpkin. Overnight, the leaves have fallen so everything underfoot is orange and gold beneath a gray sky. The flea market enjoys its final weekend. Bella and I detour through it, the dog sniffing at every post, me on the lookout for some cast-off I had no idea I needed.

I decide to read a couple poems, a section from a story I feel particularly indebted to. My husband has asked me before if I get nervous to read (Anticipating an acceptance speech he had to give at his high school’s athletic hall of fame dinner, he once lost his voice. Once the speech was over, his voice returned full force.). But I don’t get nervous. Instead, I’m excited to make the trip, especially excited to meet the people who brought my book to life.

Maybe I was nervous the first time I read. I try to remember when that was. Meanwhile, Bella greets a lab puppy beside a collection of empty frames and chairs that need re-caning. I think for a moment that it might have been with a lovely group of poets I worked with for a few years when my girls were babies.

But then, I remember: I was nervous all right. The first time I read my work in public was at Boston University. No excitement there: just mind-numbing anxiety and a healthy dose of dread.

Our graduate student reading took place in some dark academic room. We had been given a time limit that I knew would be impossible for me to fill, unless I wanted (once again in front of this not-so-forgiving crowd) to read crap. Let’s summarize by saying: It had not been a good year. But my mother was excited to hear me, and she would’ve been proud if I’d stood up and read recipes for chicken pot pie. Also, this requirement was nowhere near as terrifying as some of the other things we’d had to do to fulfill Derek Walcott’s assignments. So, despite a throat nearly closed shut with terror, I read two poems, then sat down and clasped my trembling hands in my lap.

When the reading was over and we stood in a narrow hallway for the obligatory social hour with juice and store bought cookies, George Starbuck told me I’d won the award for the briefest presentation. This was the kind of feedback I was used to receiving from George. Non-committal and not particularly helpful. Derek Walcott praised a revision I’d made (Yes, I said praised.). This opened up my breathing passages a little.

However, I had no choice but to introduce him to my mother. He told her she had a very conscientious daughter. My mother said she already knew that. Then she added, “So you’re Derek. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Um. Okay, so I thought the reading would have been the most awkward part of the evening, but you never know when my mom is around.

Somehow, I escorted her safely away from the gathering and we left shortly afterward, me relieved to be leaving the literary scene in the rearview, my mother insisting I’d exaggerated my accounts of Derek Walcott. “He didn’t seem very scary at all,” she said.

I didn’t think about reading again in public. Instead, I was relieved to escort my mother onto the Green Line and think I’d never again venture into that mythical room 222 where I had certainly not done service to Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and its other illustrious occupants.

Is it just a coincidence that the memory has stayed buried for three decades, only to return on Halloween? But it’s good to be haunted by certain reminders. I’d like to say I’m not that person anymore. I can fill the time allotted to me. I don’t cringe with mortification at what I am forced to utter aloud. But there’s no such thing as a completely shed skin for this particular individual of the species. A scale or two of the old stuff always hangs around.

I write, in part, to keep those insecurities at bay.

As for my mother, she won’t be making the trip to Amherst. But her lessons always accompany me: when you have the opportunity to meet people who also love what you love — stories, poems, the power of language — embrace it. And if the most intimidating person you’ve ever met in your life, star of your anxiety dreams, happens to be in the audience, smoking like a fiend? Just wave the smoke away and introduce yourself.

He Will Never Leave Me

The first time, he used the basement door that led into Karen’s empty bedroom as easily as if we’d invited him in. Opened drawers, moved through the laundry room, up the stairs and into our living room. In the kitchen, he opened cabinets. Nothing upstairs was disturbed. Maybe he was rushed, we said. Maybe he didn’t want to take a chance getting stuck up there. He stole nothing, not the dish of gold jewelry on my dresser, the pair of Bose speakers on Karen’s floor, a few dollars on the kitchen table, the television.

The police officer told us he was probably after drugs or cash. I stood in our kitchen, shades drawn tight, my sparkly New Year’s Eve dress not yet unpacked from the suitcase I’d just dragged home from a week in Paris. Karen had arrived late the night before I had and had noticed, first, the frigid air. The dog didn’t bark, didn’t hesitate, only padded after her down the stairs. Karen hadn’t even considered reporting the crime. Instead, she put the house back in order, locked the door again, and fell asleep, worn out from her own holiday.

“We could dust for prints,” the officer told us, after I insisted we report this. “But the detective who does that is out until the end of the week so I’m not sure it would do much good.”

And that was it. We let him go. The landlord installed a bolt lock on the outside cellar door. I installed one on the door at the top of the cellar stairs for nights when Karen wasn’t home.

The second time, he had a twenty-four hour window, and it was this window, as opposed to the one he laid across the Karen’s bed before climbing back in, that chilled me most. He’s watching, I thought. He’s waiting. In that one night between Karen leaving for her vacation and me arriving home from mine, he had returned.

What I noticed first was the phone off the hook. I thought Karen’s dog had knocked it off the table with her tail on the way out, but then I saw the splintered cellar door that he had kicked in. Whatever Karen had seen on her return, could not have been like this: every cabinet door opened, every drawer pulled out, like some cheesy demonic possession. No cold rushing up the stairs this time because it was August and nothing touched in Karen’s basement room.

But upstairs, this time, he had felt at home, had emptied my dresser drawers onto the floor, had flung clothes from my closet across the carpet. What could I believe he hadn’t touched? Doorknobs, bedposts, the sleeves and crotches and soles of things that I had worn. He had seen himself reflected in my mirror.

This time, the landlord secured the windows with locks. I got a dog. Karen and I talked about moving out but, for a few more months, we stayed. I never slept there alone again. I never felt that it was my home after that. I never felt any sense of nostalgia for a place where, before, and even after his intrusions, I had been happy. But I didn’t have to return, either, and, so, I never did.

Now, he shops for groceries in Framingham on a day when I am on the highway, driving a few hundred miles south of there. He tries to convince banks I’ve changed my address to Tennessee and should have my credit cards forwarded there. He calls a bank in Texas and attempts to establish credit in my name. Calls other banks to request new cards, to expand my credit limit. He knows my mother’s maiden name. In this carefully crafted world of mine, he has stepped back in. He has my daughter’s information, too. Numbers that are useless to him until a few months from now when she turns 18.

At night, I lie awake and consider all the windows I have not yet sealed against him. Ways in that I cannot yet conceive of, because, most of all, he has stolen my imagination. Hard to believe now we can ever be safe. That he is the kind of person you can ever be rid of, that you can ever keep out.