Tag Archives: Writing

There’s Always One

wrenchToday in the car I was behind a school bus. The kids looked young – maybe 4th graders – probably off to day camp. A bunch of boys were in the back seats. Aren’t they always? These are the kids that want to feel older, cooler. At the stop light one of them peeked around his seat and waved at me. I smiled back and they all started elbowing each other and laughing and pointing to him and who knows what they were saying.

This reminded me of a time when I was in grad school in the 80s and I was walking towards a pack of middle school boys who were murmuring and kind of circling and then one of them pulled away from the group and came walking towards me with a wrench fastened onto his crotch. He was swaggering and thrusting his hips out and the rest of the bunch were laughing and saying things like, Oh man and Holy shit! And when we got close to each other I looked at the kid and without batting an eyelash said, If you ever want to have children you might not want to do that. He look shocked and thrilled and embarrassed and in love. And he swaggered back to his posse and they were grunting and hooting and shuffling around like a herd of buffalo.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time around adolescent boys. I worked in a residential treatment center for emotionally troubled youth ages 12-16. I taught at an all boys high school. I grew up with 3 brothers. Boys individually are completely different than boys in a group. And in a group there is always one kid who will do the ridiculous or stupid or scary thing that all the rest of them may want to do or not want to do or hope no one does.

I wonder about those kids. Do they grow up to be CEOs or bank robbers? Rebels just for kicks? Are they dads with boys just like them? Do they become the ones who make all the social plans? Or do they get tired of being The One. Do they become quiet and drink a lot? Are they just average, rarely noticed, unrecognizable at class reunions?

I know there are girls like this too, but it’s more obvious with boys. I was never The One. But I remember in Middle School a girl who was in a much cooler crowd than me wrote in my autograph book (yes, we had autograph books – why I don’t know – maybe I’m so old the Yearbook hadn’t been invented), you are a blast at sleepovers.

Why in the world would she write that? First, I think I went to one sleepover that she was at and I can’t imagine how I even got invited. And secondly, I was not a risk taker, wore ugly glasses, had old lady pajamas, and never made it up past 11:00. If anything, I was the one trying to fly under the radar. Just smart enough, just funny enough, just enough friends, without being noticed too much. Certainly not The One and not even The Two or The Three.

And that hasn’t changed much. It’s probably why this writing thing is so damn hard. Those of you flying under the radar for a lifetime know what I mean. You have to be The One when you write. And when you publish, you have to come out of hiding (and by this I mean hiding in plain sight as in your day job or family  or common citizen type-stuff) and move your plane right into the line of fire.

This is the struggle – part of it at least. The other part, well that’s just getting my butt in the chair and doing the daily work. Maybe after enough days at it, enough hard work, you just morph into The One. I should try to find out.

Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now
I been feeling it since 1966, now
Might’ve had your fill, but you feel it still
Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now
Let me kick it like it’s 1986, now
Might be over now, but I feel it still
-Portugal the Man

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Road Trip

rainbowWe left on a Saturday morning, the traffic light and the clouds dark. My 17-year old daughter rode shot-gun with the snack bag standing ready and a few CDs she recently uncovered like artifacts from my past, Billy Joel, The Stranger and David Gray, White Ladder. We were leaving Rhode Island up 146 North to cross a few state lines and visit my father and brothers in Syracuse. Barely 30 minutes into the trip the wind kicked up and shook the car like a dryer filled with sneakers, and a dense unforgiving rain began.

My daughter sat upright, ignoring the pillow and blanket in her lap she was hoping to use. Cars slowed and a siren screamed and we pulled over and back into the lane again while Billy Joel sang about Brenda and Eddie. We moved slowly and talked about possible colleges, ice cream, our dogs, and a little family dirt on my mother’s side. When we got to the firetrucks and police and the flashing lights, there was someone on a gurney getting wheeled into a rescue, and a vehicle, not unlike our own dark grey SUV, was upside down and rocking slightly, debris circling it like an ancient ruin.

In Syracuse we took my niece (5 years-old) and nephew (almost 10 years-old) to the Wild Kingdom, an odd zoo housing alligators and a white tiger and a giraffe and goats. In a glass room I watched my daughter and niece attract small parrots with peanut butter and seeds on popsicle sticks, their arms and shoulders covered with birds – powder blue, yellow, green and white – a feathery blur. Then this – a baby kangaroo wearing a child’s pull-up, left alone in a small caged area with a sign out front saying $10 for a photo with a baby kangaroo. I wanted to set it free, complain to the owner, write an op ed piece, tell the two college-age students in their Wild Kingdom shirts and badges to stop flirting and pay attention to that  poor kangaroo. But I didn’t. I walked past with my mouth slightly open and my heart jittery and caged.

On the way back to my brother’s house, I saw a dead deer on the side of the road, her head twisted, her eyes unforgiving. My daughter in the back seat was keeping her cousins entertained and I was relieved she didn’t see the doe. At least this one thing she didn’t have to see.

Then was my father, his thick fingers curled like a crustacean, his crystal blue eyes bloodshot without sleep, his gate slow and sloped. He won’t see a doctor, won’t have any blood work done, won’t take any medicine because he thinks all the medicine my mother took gave her the cancer that killed her. So he eats potato chips and cookies from Costco’s and waits to die.

On the drive home my daughter told me she had a boyfriend. Her first. It started raining again. Black clouds entwined with silvery sunshine threw shadows on trees and bridges and jagged rock that had been blasted open for the road. I knew the boyfriend, a kid among her gaggle of friends I had chauffeured around to parties, movies, Gregg’s Restaurant for chocolate cake, school stuff. Now she has her license so those day are waning. On to different days. Is she ready? Are any of us ready?

We are talking about the boyfriend and she sees a rainbow up ahead. It grows larger as we twist around the highway and move into a range of hills and spotty rain and then she says, It’s on the road, It’s right in front of us. We’re driving through a rainbow.

And we were. The colors came out of the sky, bounced on the road and up to the windshield and followed us along for a mile or two. Water splashed from under the tires catching iridescent colors. We were laughing and shouting and repeating madly, we’re driving in a rainbow. And for a moment we shared something pure and real and almost miraculous. On the road again.

Window
Night from a railroad car window
Is a great, dark, soft thing
Broken across with slashes of light.
                               Carl Sandberg

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Babel

blog-1483685851bookThis happens to me now and then. Instead of writers block I get readers block. There are a million beach reading lists out there and I blink at them and don’t know where to start. I read the NY Times Book Review and wonder, who are all these people writing? I look through books on my bookshelf and feel overwhelmed by them. Which ones did I read? Which one should I pick?

When I’m on a roll there’s no stopping me. I am in love with reading and will go through stacks of books. But when I sputter and stall out and find myself circling the bookstore in a daze, well it’s bad.

Maybe I’m trying to tell myself something. Doesn’t our behavior often proceed our cognition? Maybe I’m trying to say, self, you should be writing – you should get your name on one of these books, in one of these book stores, on one of these lists. That would certainly cause paralysis.

You have to work hard at anything you want. You have to pay attention. You have to make mistakes and face rejection and not care about things you might normally care about.

I had to give up alcohol because of my RA meds. I miss it once in awhile when I’m out for dinner or cooking at home, but not enough to really bother me. I had to give up coffee because it gave me horrible heartburn. That was harder, but I drink tea. I manage. I smell good coffee and feel longing and regret and I salivate unconditionally. But I don’t go back. I can manage. I have to give up cheese and ice cream and most dairy because my RA meds sent my cholesterol into orbit. But I can’t do it. I’m eating even more than usual. Out of spite? In fear it will be gone? To give myself a heart attack?

To write I have to give up time and get organized. I have to stop watching stupid TV and looking up recipes and reading Real Simple magazines. I have to feel crappy and stupid facing the blank page day after day. I have to feel worthy of finishing something good, something people will want to read. I have to open up this calcified area inside where I store all the ugly, tender, raw, dangerous memories and feelings.

I guess it’s time to cut the crap and get over whatever it is I have to get over. Do what the doctor says. Put my ass in the chair and write. Stop whining. Start listening. Get reading.

Growing up is hard.

‘Cause I know my weakness, know my voice,
And I’ll believe in grace and choice
And I know perhaps my heart is farce,
But I’ll be born without a mask

Mumford & Sons

 

 

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Decisions Decisions

monkey

Every day there are thousands of decisions to make. Do I pick through these old blueberries for breakfast or get a greasy egg sandwich from Dunkin Donuts? Do I bend down and pick up that ball of dog fur or walk past it again? Do I write to my Congressman or watch reruns of Parks and Recreation? Do I sort through this Mount Washington pile of mail or stuff it in an old shopping bag for later? Should I let my 17 year-old newly licensed daughter take the car tonight to see a movie with her friends -because there is construction around the theater and it might rain and it will definitely get dark and it’s a 10:00 PM movie so I’ll have to stay up way past my bedtime until she gets home and if she’s late it will take at least 2 weeks off my life from the stress and terror.

A lot of decision making is automatic (I just keep walking past that dog fur), and a lot of it seems small but is big (that damn movie), but a lot of it also takes energy and focus and time. And I am not always great with this. I get distracted or I use up all my decision making powers at work so I make poor decisions at home (pizza again for dinner) or none at all (let me just sit on this couch for 20 minutes in a fugue state). You have to decide what to eat and wear and buy and say. You have to decide whether to cook or clean or get an oil change or go for a walk or call a friend. You have to decide how to parent and treat colleagues and support your spouse.

You have to decide whether to write.

Perhaps I could be the person I want to be if I was better at decisions. Perhaps I could take greater risks and do the things that would ultimately, to use a horrid self-help statement, bring me joy. There are multitudes of books on how to do the things I want to do. How to magically change my life by tidying up or create 7 habits for myself to be highly successful or dare greatly or rise strongly or master self-love. How to write a novel in 90 days or loose weight, gain more energy and never diet again, or have pain free posture, or do the ultimate memory exercises to keep my brain from crapping out. But these books aren’t magic. You have to decide to do the things they talk about. You can’t take action until you decide to take action. You can’t change until you – uhg – decide.

And thus the rub. How do I get better at deciding? I’ve had a lot of therapy and that hasn’t worked. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions and didn’t learn enough from them to make me a better decider. I’ve certainly aged a lot, and that doesn’t seem to be helping.

There’s a tiny voice inside me that’s reacting to all of this as I’m writing it. A whisper of a voice I can barely hear. She’s saying, you have to be worthy. You have to feel you are worthy of these decisions.

And I must be listening to her today because I’m writing. But if this is going to last she’s going to have to speak up. Shout even. And then I have to decide to listen.

I am learning a little—never to be sure—
To be positive only with what is past,
And to peer sometimes at the things to come
As a wanderer treading the night
When the mazy stars neither point nor beckon,
And of all the roads, no road is sure.
Carl Sandburg

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And It Stoned Me To My Soul

writer

Today I have a day off and I want to write.

So I emptied and loaded the dishwasher, watched 2 cooking shows, finished the last chapter of Trans Atlantic, looked up recipes for vegan caesar salad dressing which led to trying to find recipes for inspiring lentil casseroles (an oxymoron?), which took me to to a bookcase near the CDs and I wonder how did Van Morrison wind up next to the High School Musical soundtrack? Now I’m thinking about picking up a pair of winter pants that have been at the dry cleaners since January and taking 2 epic fail bras back to the store or buying some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

I’ve been wanting to start a puzzle and I need to find some paperwork for my Flexible Spending Account and I have a couple loads of dirty clothes that are going to solidify into the shape of the laundry basket if I don’t do them soon. Plus, the dogs haven’t barked in over an hour so I should probably put a mirror in front of their muzzles to make sure it fogs up. Or maybe I’ll get lucky and a telemarketer will call.

It’s brutal. The blank page.

Divine inspiration is scarce.  And no matter what they say, just showing up is not 80% of the work. Because you can show up and just stare at that white empty space and feel like you’re going to choke on the saliva that’s turning to dust in your throat. Or you can pull up an old half-started manuscript and watch the words start to cyclone into something indecipherable and you know you are faking this as clearly and truly as you know you will never sky dive or eat a bug. You will be voted off the island before you even get there.

And then after a lot of angst and decay of the soul you just write something. Even if it sucks. Even it it’s offensive or a lie or barely makes sense. You just stop snarling and spitting into the wind and put your gory beat up self out there. It’s not pretty. It’s not as satisfying as Ben & Jerry’s. But it plugs up a hole or two. It makes the day feel like it’s your day. And then you can listen to Van Morrison with a clear heart.

And I shall watch the ferry-boats
And they’ll get high
On a bluer ocean
Against tomorrow’s sky
And I will never grow so old again
-Van Morrison

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April Showers Bring May Showers

cats

This month has been a meteorological cat fight in Rhode Island. Rain and more rain. Hot humid scorcher of a day where you show those pale legs because who cares in this heat, followed by why did I put all the sweaters away, followed by a shit load of grey rainy dreary damp my-whole-body-aches days.

And for someone who already hates the spring (don’t judge), this weather is reeking havoc. The smell of wet grass and things growing and the sound of birds crazily chirping and neighbors hammering and mowing and greeting one another and the density of it all. The thick labor of coming back to life then retreating then coming back again. I’m exhausted.

April is supposed to be the cruelest month but May’s been vicious as far as I’m concerned. I feel slow and fat and foggy and nervous and hesitant and insecure and just not up for it all. Coming out of the cave. Jumping through metamorphic hoops to face sunlight and cookouts and mosquitos and overgrown tomatoes that burst on the vine and tics on the dogs and my ugly bare toes and vacations I never take.

And then there are days when I catch a whiff of childhood so strong it takes my breath away. And there’s Mother’s Day, and my mother’s birthday, and the fuchsia rhododendron blooming in my yard that I know she would love. She loved spring. She loved planting and pruning and coaxing the dead back to unruly brilliant life.

May will always be my mother’s month, and while some will be rainier or hit me harder than others, I know I will get through it. I know May will end and June will begin and I will start over, planting, pruning, coaxing, in this blog or a notebook or some ratty old short story, tweaking and cutting and adding words. We didn’t always have a lot in common, but we both needed something to quell the demons, self-made and otherwise.

There are only a few days left – it’s Memorial Day weekend and that has certainly taken on new meaning for me. They are promising sun and warmer weather. They are promising that this too shall pass. Am I ready? Never. But it’s okay because I face it anyway. Come. Get me. Spring.

“In the motion of the very leaves of spring in the blue air there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart.”  -Taken from Mary Oliver’s Upstream who took it from Shelly’s On Love

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Working 9-5

9 to 5

When I graduated from college I started the job search. There was no living in my parent’s basement. There was no backpacking through Europe. I knew I had to work. With a double major in English and Sociology, I really wanted to become a famous novelist but had a backup plan of saving the world. The prospect of writing a novel was a thousand times more terrifying than saving the world so I looked for nonprofit jobs and anything that seemed remotely brave and sacrificing.

There was no internet, so my strategy was to cut out little ads from the Boston Globe, arrange them on a sheet of yellow legal paper and stare, looking for a sign. I should have recognized the giant sneeze that sent the ads scattering to the floor as a sign. Wrong direction. Go with the writing.

But instead I started interviewing. In preparation I went home to Syracuse and my mom gave me her Dey Brothers charge card so I could buy something other than t-shirts and jeans. I came home with an Evan-Picone suit jacket and skirt and a London Fog raincoat. My mother almost went into shock, not just at the price tag, but at the fact that I had any style or taste. But that’s a whole mother-daughter story for another time.

My first interview was at an all boys Catholic School in the North End of Boston. I didn’t have a teaching certification and had never taught, but neither of those was a requirement for Catholic schools. There were two priests and a lay teacher who looked stern and priest-like. The interview lasted about 20 minutes. but felt like 2 hours. They were looking for someone to teach juniors and seniors English Literature, American Literature, Sociology, Psychology and Criminology. And they wanted this person to teach freshmen Western Civilization as well. There was one planning period a day except 2 days a week you would have to cover study hall. The average class size was 27 and the study hall was for 45 or so juniors and seniors. Boys. 45 junior and senior boys.

They asked me how I would teach abortion. They told me women weren’t paid as much as men. I was sweating profusely. It was August and that Evan-Picone suit was wool. At the end of the interview I shook everyone’s hand, walked out of the school to the parking lot and found my keys locked inside my car. I teared up, swore, and went back inside to face my inquisitors. They were in the same room, their heads bowed together, murmuring about me no doubt. With no AAA, no idea who to call in the middle of the day, I did the only thing I could do. I asked for a coat hanger.

They found one, and then followed me out to the parking lot to watch as I untwisted the metal, made a long straight rod with a hook at the end, and broke into my car. Eyebrows were raised, odd noises emitted from the back of their collective throats. I pulled out of that parking lot at a dangerously high speed, ready to take off the suit, bra, the matching pumps, right in the car and drive naked through a Dairy Queen for a sundae.

I got the job.

And so began the wold of work for me. I’ve been at it ever since. Jumping from job to job, never quite saving the world, writing in fits and spurts on the side but never finishing that novel. Structure is good, money is good, but putting aside one’s dreams, well that takes its toll. There are, however, stories. Lots of them. And they percolate, inform, get me to write now and then, shape my outlook and days.

You are, after all, the stories you tell. I have so many from my work. More probably from childhood. A lifetime of stories. Don’t we all have a lifetime of stories?

 

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