Monday, March 31, 2014

Today from the Times' Editorial Board Climate Signals, Growing Louder: "A poll last year found that one-third of Americans believed that scientists disagreed on whether global warming was happening. These studies suggest virtually no disagreement." There has been no disagreement from any legitimate scientific source on whether global warming is happening for close to twenty years now. The fact that the mainstream media in an effort to appear unbiased allowed a false debate to continue this long is much to their discredit. Sadly, I think conceding that the poorest areas will be the hardest hit won’t convince those  with power to press for change. Complacency is perhaps a reasonable if not morally defensible position when you have the means to buy water as it becomes increasingly privatized, move away from the coast, invest in disaster tourism and if worse comes to worse, give up playing golf in the desert.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I know many public school teachers and they have almost all either reached the breaking point with the current testing/assessment/evaluation model of teaching or have already gone past it. And by that I mean they are not just frustrated and exhausted but about to give up. To leave the jobs they loved so much. Teaching was always hard and they knew that going in, but that's not why they are leaving. They would happily work themselves to the bone if what they were doing made any sense. But when it's all a distraction from actual teaching, it becomes impossible to bear. This letter was published by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post  blog as part of a longer piece. I wanted to reprint the letter here from a Massachusetts teacher Suzi Sluyter who eloquently states her reasons for giving up the fight. 

February 12, 2014
I am writing today to let you know that I am resigning my position as PreK and Kindergarten teacher in the Cambridge Public Schools.  It is with deep sadness that I have reached this decision, as I have loved my job, my school community, and the families and amazing and dedicated faculty I have been connected with throughout the district for the past eighteen years.  I have always seen myself as a public school teacher, and fully intended to work until retirement in the public school system.  Further, I am the product of public schools, and my son attended Cambridge Public Schools from PreK through Grade 12.  I am and always have been a firm believer in quality public education.
In this disturbing era of testing and data collection in the public schools, I have seen my career transformed into a job that no longer fits my understanding of how children learn and what a teacher ought to do in the classroom to build a healthy, safe, developmentally appropriate environment for learning for each of our children.  I have experienced, over the past few years, the same mandates that all teachers in the district have experienced.   I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them.  Each year, I have been required to spend more time attending classes and workshops to learn about new academic demands that smack of 1st and 2nd grade, instead of Kindergarten and PreK.  I have needed to schedule and attend more and more meetings about increasingly extreme behaviors and emotional needs of children in my classroom; I recognize many of these behaviors as children shouting out to the adults in their world, “I can’t do this!  Look at me!  Know me!  Help me!  See me!”  I have changed my practice over the years to allow the necessary time and focus for all the demands coming down from above.  Each year there are more.  Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best—and in the way child development experts recommend.  I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.
I was trying to survive in a community of colleagues who were struggling to do the same:  to adapt and survive, to continue to hold onto what we could, and to affirm what we believe to be quality teaching for an early childhood classroom.  I began to feel a deep sense of loss of integrity.  I felt my spirit, my passion as a teacher, slip away.  I felt anger rise inside me.  I felt I needed to survive by looking elsewhere and leaving the community I love so dearly.  I did not feel I was leaving my job.  I felt then and feel now that my job left me.
It is with deep love and a broken heart that I write this letter.

Suzi Sluyter

Friday, March 14, 2014

When the days are cold

If I were writing all the time, or at least every couple days, I could send out a quick post about what is happening here this morning, how Petra just woke up from the most infuriatingly short nap and this is after a night where she was up crying like crazy (teething) everyone awake during those godforsaken hours of the night when you can’t do anything but worry and I thought for sure I'd have at least an hour or so to focus while she slept this morning. But it's like, how can I go for months not posting anything at all, and then say that?

There are so many bigger things. Even a tiny bit bigger like where we are with our mom lit novel. Or something a little more general and problematic though still very much in the First-World-Problem category like how much pressure there is in Kindergarten these days and how everything you learn there I’m not sure you really need to know. I remember writing about different kind of big and little here two years ago, and that was a breakthrough for me, when I realized that even though I was little, I wouldn’t let myself be bulldozed over by those who were big or at least pretended to be. It was also two years ago that I got off Facebook because I wanted to be focused on more important things than updates about short naps and the like. Sometimes now, mainly because of Wally’s preoccupation with space, I feel like the backdrop is too big. Not just raising kids in New York City big, but universe or possibly multi-verse big. 

So there are all these small moments – cleaning up spilled lentils, squeezing toothpaste, packing lunches – and there is this epic backdrop because of all the space talk. Lurching along, from micro to macro, with lots of time spent in between, on personal writing goals, and what it means to be a good parent, and how to spend more time with the most important people.

Embarrassingly micro it was, the comment about the abbreviated nap, and yet, it got me here for the first time since early February. Sometimes, for a blog, it’s like you need Time-Space coordinates just to begin. Here's what's happening right now. It was that interrupted moment, that impulse of irritation -- I can't concentrate enough to work now that she's up so I'll complain about my First-World-Problem of not being able to work right now. (Even though I can work later. During the next nap. Or this evening.) When you’re home all day on these cold days, little irritations accumulate. It really is hard sometimes to keep perspective, when overtired, cut off from adult company, guilty not just over Wally’s long school day but over the fact that much of the day I am not working—which is justifiable—but immersed in the dirty laundry and blinking-toy world of being a mom. Still I can most of the time ask myself what Wally’s preschool teacher used to ask: “Is this a big deal or a little deal?” and answer "little deal" and get on with things. Just like I tell Alex to remember when he calls because he lost his monthly metrocard and it's too cold for the middle of March a teacher at his school was unfathomably rude, that in fact the morning is not completely ruined. Applications like facebook and twitter have made this point about FWP especially obvious, that's where the term originated, I believe, as they condense complaints to just a few lines, an artificial snapshot of everything you’re feeling right now.

Anyway I am finally continuing this story of sorts, on a day that's supposed to be warmer but still feels so cold, listening to Imagine Dragons, the day before we are set to go up to Dartmouth as a family to visit Hein who is a visiting professor up there. Hein organized this mini-reunion with some of our friends near enough to visit, including, as another friend wrote on the email exchange planning the trip, a rock star and a celebrity doctor. It's true. The rock star didn't actually go to Dartmouth but he was already dating our friend who did and was there with his guitar enough so that he has blurred into the landscape of memory.

Of course! Of course!'s still so obvious...what I wrote three years ago around this time: When there's something you can't write, there's usually a reason why you can't write it. Of course I haven't been able to write, because tomorrow I am going up to Hanover, the town I left nearly sixteen years ago, and that means automatically, axiomatically, without fail, I will be forced to look at what I'm doing now and wonder how it compares to what I imagined then. I can't help but think of the Emily Dickinson poem: “I’m nobody, who are you?” (The alumni magazine does not help matters featuring as it does endless updates about double Ph.D/M.D.s who are just getting back from setting up schools in Tanzania, getting tenure at Columbia and at the same time welcoming their third child, etc. etc.)

This in itself is about as privileged and modern a problem as you can get. I’m not as far along as I wanted to be in my life. This is all very connected to the main character in the mom lit novel I co-wrote with my neighbor mom friend K. I don’t expect you to remember but we “finished” the novel two years ago. Yet we have just now this week come up with the ending. 

This follows months of other revisions, many of them major, but this may well be the most important one. We thought we were done with the revisions and had already re-written the pitch and synopsis and started sending query letters out again last week, but we were both unsettled about it. Neither one knew that's how the other one felt.

Two nights ago I started thinking: Shelley (the main character) doesn’t really grow or change. Her life changes in many ways, she starts an affair and ends it, she meets new friends, begins a new job, fights off goofy, clueless admirer who happens to be her boss, gets over the embarrassment of being the center of neighborhood gossip, pursues her creative goals and learns to navigate the Manhattan stay-at-home-mom scene, but, based on the final scene, at least, she does not seem to have learned all that much from these experiences. In fact we leave her right about to fall for yet another neighborhood dad, while meanwhile her daughter is off playing somewhere. The last scene shows her about to continue the same self-centered, immature course as the one that launched the novel, a reluctant stay-at-home mom who seeks out drama in her personal life to deal with the boredom of the playground scene. 

The next day after I had that thought, literally, K. wrote this in an email to me: 

Seems like our characters are in a kind of existential search for meaning &; they are looking for it in the message that infidelity is not the answer and you should find meaning in work, kids, "going back to the garden"? 

I do feel like readers are looking for growth/change in the main character and making the theme more apparent might make Shelley's growth more apparent...or maybe this is just rambling...

It wasn't rambling at all, it was spot on. So we re-wrote the last scene making it obvious that Shelley had, in fact, changed, and that she was willing to ditch the new guy and the drama and even the personal ambition to focus on her daughter. 

It’s just one scene, it is a crucial one. Like many final scenes, it is not part of the climax or the resolution. It comes after the denouement. The dust has settled. Here is the beginning of a new story, a little glimpse into what life will be like from now on. So to have our lead character seeming to be no further along, even after everything she'd been through, was just discouraging. She had to be more focused on her daughter, less on her own ambitions, less on the situations that intrigued her. So the other day, when it was finally, finally warm enough to be outside, our daughters played somewhere on the playground in real life, while we were hunched over in discussion, then later hunched over the computer. But in truth, we’ve both had a hard time working lately because we are too distracted—and the distractions are mostly great, and exhausting, and infuriating and wonderful. I wouldn’t even agree with the title of Jennifer Senior’s fantastic (from what I read) new book about parenting: All Joy and No Fun. I know what she means, and agree with almost everything she says, but truth be told I think it’s joy and a lot of fun, too.

And I have, during long naps, and some evenings when I am up to it, had time to work on my own writing. Not just the mom lit novel but various other projects, which I am finding really fun. The more I focus on fiction, the less I attend to the nonfiction narrative on my blog. I think I have finally caught on to the advantage of being private. I always thought you had the advantage the more confessional you were willing to be--the more outrageous, the more story-value any story you told had. But now I am starting to see after all these years that maybe it's the opposite. And for various reasons I am feeling more exposed now, with Wally in Kindergarten, which I know sounds absurd. But he’s his own person, and starting his own life, and now I’m not sure how much it’s okay to write about him. And I’m just so uncertain about how Kindergarteners spend their days now.

Last night Wally was talking about how nervous he was because he hadn’t gotten far enough along in the story he was writing that day and they were supposed to share it the next morning. He said he might have just five minutes tomorrow to write. So I set the timer for five minutes as a practice and told him to just focus, sure he could get quite a bit done, which he did.

After he read his practice story he said he wasn’t sure if he had enough of a problem and if it really was enough of a “phew” moment at the end where everything turned out okay.

And I just suddenly flashed outside of myself to see the scene objectively and it just struck me as absolutely, totally, 100% crazy. Crazy. For now, can’t his stories be free form? Can’t he simply imagine dragons, trains to infinity, wild storms on Neptune?

I am just not, unless I chose to – what? Homeschool? Unschool? Move to Vermont where they rejected the common core? – in control of Wally’s American Childhood the way I once was. But even that’s not entirely true, even that narrative relies on an unreliable narrator, I realized last night lying awake listening to Petra’s cries. He was that crazy sensory-seeking kid and because of it his life was way busier than I would have ideally wanted it to be. Plus in preschool they did not even have recess. So why does it feel so different to me now?

That’s a question for another post. For now I will be content to say I’ve finally let my character, Shelley, be the mother I have tried—am trying—to be. 

My former boss P. is one of those writer/dreamer/ambitious types with a million book ideas – part of that is his job, and part is his own creativity surging to get out. I asked him if he will write a book a la one of his favorite authors like Jeffrey Eugedines and he said one day but for now he’s content to cuddle his daughter in the evenings.

Is that an excuse, I ask myself, because I often have the same one if it is one, because he really just wants to flip on Orange is the New Black in the evenings after the cuddling is done? Or is it reasonable that for most people, putting in a full day’s work and then being the parent you want to be leaves little energy for anything else? It does take an unbelievable amount out of you. It surprises me, sometimes, that there is anything left. I can only once in a while ask if I’m where I imagined I’d be. I can only once in a while summon the energy to even try to remember what I imagined.

Wally was drawing by himself in his room the other day and at first I didn’t realize how sad he was. As often happens, the sadness jumps from something small and tangible – “Nobody sits with me on the bus” – to something major –  “What happens when you die?” He cranes his neck around to look at me standing in the doorway after he asks.

I pause for a second. This subject comes up pretty often and I'm sure he's digging around for a better answer but unfortunately I can't give one. “Nope. You’re gone.” I smiled at him, hoping we could just sort of brush it off – ha ha, when you’re dead, you’re completely gone, forever – Isn’t that so weird? – and get back to the lonely bus ride and the two girls who used to be friendly but don’t talk to him anymore.

“Are you still alive?” Wally gingerly sets down his marker.

“No,” I shake my head, a little more serious now.

“Are you still okay?” His voice is shaking.

“Hmmm.” I pause. Good question. “Yeah, I guess you’re okay in the sense that you’re not not okay. You’re not suffering.”

“Your bones just crumble?” His eyes well up with tears, bottom lip trembling.

“Your body definitely crumbles, yes. Some people think you live on without your body. That you have another life.” Actually, most people think that. You just have the bad luck of having parents who don’t, I want to add. 

“I’ll have to bury you?” He is full out crying now.

“Not by yourself.”

“With who?” He is sobbing.

“Family. Friends. Ellie and Leah. Petra.”

I felt peaceful telling him this. That seemed okay. He will be sad. Heartbroken maybe. But not alone. Not alone means okay.

(He is alone sometimes on the playground because he doesn’t want to play ninjas with the boys. “I don’t want to fight,” he says. “I will if I have to. But I don’t want to.” Sometimes the girls will let him play, other times they won’t. 
“I’ll be the dad," he said one day, eager to join their game of playing family. “He died.” The girls brushed him off.)

 “You have to have a second life, don’t you?” Wally cries now as he paces around the room; he can’t stay still to be comforted.

“I wish I could say yes, but I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“But what about the universe going backward?” We had read about this in a space book a few nights earlier. “If the universe goes backward than maybe we would have another life.” The other way, I guess he is thinking.

“It sounds like a neat idea, but I don’t think we do.” This feels cold, really brutally cold. Eventually he stops crying and goes to watch his night-time show with Alex. The rest of the evening he's fine.

Later in the shower I thought about how everything that we know to be true is absolutely unbelievable—the big bang, the ever-expanding universe, the billions of galaxies out there, black holes, dark matter. So why is it that I would answer with some certainty any question at all? To Wally’s pleas that after death we could have another life I have to answer that it doesn’t seem likely, even though not one thing about anything we’ve discovered or know to be true seems even the tiniest bit likely? And that is what we who trust in science believe to be true. 

The next night we are in the living room lying on our stomachs looking through the Hubble book. We stop on a beautiful spread of the Milky Way.

“Where are we?” Wally asks. Petra's yapping in the background.

I look at the legend. “Our solar system is right here.” I point.

“What?” Wally squeals, slamming his hand down on the page.

“What?” I say.

“We’re so far away from the center.”

It is a bit surprising. Geocentrism dies hard. There’s always some impulse to feel like we’d be the center of things. Our lattes with the wrong kind of milk, our teething baby, our run-in with the rude neighbor, our novel dreams.

“That’s probably good,” Alex chimes in.

“Why Daddy?” Wally hops up. He’ll plunk down again in two seconds. Back up then down.

“Because the black hole in the center would suck us in if we got too close.”

The light now is tricking me. I forget it’s time for the kids to get to bed. Even though so many points throughout the day feel long, protracted, bleary-eyed, glancing at the clock—When again can we get them in pajamas?—now I want to keep them up. I want a little more time. The music dreams, I’ve given up. The writing dreams can wait. I wouldn’t want any career if it meant I would miss this time. After dinner, before bed, away from the world. We’re on the third planet from the sun, which is a star like any other, in a solar system on an outstretched arm of a galaxy that itself is one of billions in a universe and maybe multiverse which may be both expanding and contracting as we speak. We’re in the cozy livingroom that used to be my grandmother’s, the kids are still wide awake, the dishes undone, Kurt Vile on in the background, exactly where I want to be.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Just finished a letter I had begun in the spring of 2012 and had attempted to finish writing one other time in 2013. Three dates—three years—on one piece of stationary. Meanwhile I am fielding anxious phone calls from Alex:

"The bus is still not here but we might have missed it."

"But you were early."

"But I think I might have seen it go past us as we were walking down."

"Okay, do you want me to come and get him?" 

Up through December I was the one who brought Wally either out to the bus or to school. But it was getting really hard to get both kids out the door by 7 and wait in the sometimes freezing cold for up to a half hour, either that or take them down on the rush-hour subway. I begged and Alex was able to change his work schedule and start bringing Wally. Which is a huge help. Except, because of cell phones, I'm still so involved in the whole damn thing. Where once I might have sent Wally out the door feeling pretty good about things—he had eaten breakfast, lunch packed, water packed, book to read on the bus (no one sits with him, he is the only Kindergartener), hat, gloves, pants on facing the right direction. Okay, phew! Onto Petra squawking from her high chair in the kitchen. But no...I'm still wrapped up in the process of getting Wally to school, still on call in case Alex needs the number of the bus company (which a few minutes later, he does). 

I am always on call when Alex takes one or both kids out. Is the playground open? Where's the toddler room key? Did you pack Wally's water? Where? We're passing Gristedes. Do you need me to buy anything? No. No! I don't need anything. Actually I do, yes, I could use a couple dozen things, but it's not worth my time to list them out on the phone I'd rather have the quiet now and deal with the groceries myself later, when the kids are in bed if it comes to that. Besides you will come back with tasteless out-of-season fruit, non-organic milk, bread with corn syrup in it. You will call and say:

"Gristedes doesn't have sweet potatoes". 

And I'll say, "What? How is that possible? Did you look by the regular potatoes?" 

"They had yams," you'll answer, "but Petra was yelling so I couldn't think." 

"Yams would have been fine," I try not to raise my voice. "Those would have been absolutely fine. Can you get those?" 

"We already left."

Alex doesn't have the time to bring Wally all the way to school if the bus is late or they miss it, so the agreement is he can call me and I'll come with the baby and go take him. So I asked him if that's what he wanted me to do and he said no.

"So you are just calling me to tell me you guys are waiting there and the bus is late?" Ugh - annoying. I hike up my pajama pants. The more weight you gain, the more things slip down. It should be the other way around.

"Yeah. I hope it comes soon because I'm gonna be late for work."

"I gotta go," I told him because I always have to go. Right now I am stepping on a banana, trying to eat breakfast, trying to stop Petra from squawking too loudly too early in the morning. I annoy myself with my frantic multi-tasking. I know it's not efficient. I know it's been debunked as a way to get things done but I can't help it. I am hoping I'll get to do a little work today. And hoping I'll get to write. Hoping I don't get distracted sinking into despair reading about Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Why did you do that? I think, seeing him on the cover of every newspaper. I should say "he" but in my head I say "you", adopting that too-personal way of talking about celebrities, as if I knew him, had ever even spoken to him. Last year, no, two years ago now, I saw you in Death of a Salesman. Yes, you channeled extreme heartache and pathos, you were almost unbearable to watch you were so good at playing such a desperate character and in the end you died. But later that night you jumped in a cab and shot down to your apartment in the West Village. That's the beautiful illusion of what you do. We all know you could play in the most convincing way people weary to the bone with fatigue and disappointment, people absolutely worn down and unable to cope, but you yourself were not supposed to join them.)

The first letter done, finally, nearly two years later, I felt like I was on a roll and moved on to another one. This was a long overdue thank-you note to my 3rd grade teacher, not for teaching me in 3rd grade, that would be truly a record, but for a cute little -- bunny? dog? cat?-- she gave Petra over the holidays. The problem is the bunny, bear, cat, mouse, moose -- creature of some kind --- is in the room where Petra is now sleeping. Very briefly. This morning nap rarely makes it past a half hour. So in the thank-you note I can either refer to the cute stuffed creature (which does not sound like I appreciate it all that much) or I can leave a blank and fill whatever animal it is in once Petra wakes up. I choose the latter but then the pen I am using runs out of ink. I don't have another that would match it anywhere nearby, so I jump up in a panic, run to the living room, and start digging in my desk drawer for another pen of at least the same color ink if the not the same kind. This is no small matter, judging from the anxious bent-over way I am digging. No one, looking at me, knowing I still haven't eaten breakfast though I've been up three hours and haven't even given any thought to getting dressed, one sock on, one sock off, old ridiculous glasses (from college!) because I couldn't find my current ones, would guess that finding a suitable replacement pen is anything less than the number one priority for my entire day or scratch that -- week! 

If I don't find the pen, I won't finish the thank-you letter, Petra will wake up, the fragment of a letter will will get thrown back into a jumble of papers on the front table. When company comes, the jumble of papers will be transferred to the bedroom. I may not attempt the letter again until 2015. There are just these little tiny pieces of time and you have to use them. You have to use them to plan your grocery list to start dinner to straighten up a little tiny bit so you are not walking on legos and bananas - not even the peels, the peels would be okay, if a little treacherous. At least those you could just pick up and throw out.   
Back to the letter, baby still asleep, water on for tea (which always feels so comforting and kind of like everything is a little bit under control), when I hear the church bells from across the street. I smile to myself, knowing it must be 8:30. I look up at the clock to confirm it. 

Last April was when I first put Wally on the bus rather than walk him to school that was the time we had to be out there, next to the church, to wait for the bus. (The school was nearby, so walking was fine even at the end of my pregnancy, but I wanted him to get used to the bus so when the baby came I didn't have to drag her back and forth at first.) Starting to take the bus seemed like a big change. Instead of sauntering out of the house at 9, we had to leave by 8:25 exactly and be downstairs and across the street by the time the church bells rang. We usually ended up waiting a while but it was nice and warm. The lilac bushes were beginning to bloom. We brought sidewalk chalk and a toy train. Sometimes we played tag or had a long jump contest. I started bringing down The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, my own copy from when I was a kid, and every morning I would read silly poems and Wally would giggle and ask me to read them again. 

I was surprised to find out how much I liked the new morning ritual. It was much easier than scurrying Wally along the busy streets, dodging jackhammers, ducking under ladders, running to catch the light, moving out of the way of throngs of people moving faster than us. I much preferred to wait. To enjoy the expanse of time in waiting. Whenever the bus got there, it got there. There were no repercussions if Wally got to school late, so it's not like the experience of waiting for a train when you're anxious and have to be somewhere and you here the announcement "there is a downtown local train two stations away" and you think two stations? Are you kidding me? I don't have time for this." Not like that. We had time. This was all-the-time-in the world kind of waiting. Waving to neighbors who hurried by while we stayed put. Noticing the incremental changes in the trees. The new shoots, the new buds, the lilacs that died too soon but all the new flowers that replaced them. It makes me laugh now to think that felt like a dramatic shift in the routine. Same school, same neighborhood, same kids, same schedule. But the bus now instead of walking. That felt like such a change. 

Or maybe it just heralded one. But it isn't even Petra that feels like the big life change for me, it's Wally going to Kindergarten in a neighborhood that feels so far away. It's seeing how much bigger a day he has, how much more pressure, how much bigger the bus he rides and how much bigger the world he lives in. It's knowing he has to sit and write for an hour every day and how hard that is for him. It's knowing how little time he gets to play during the day - other than recess, one brief "Choice Time" which is always the first thing to get cut if they need the time for something else. It's knowing that in 2nd grade things start getting "serious" with prepping for the 4th grade test. It's realizing now, that in the afternoons Wally is so often the oldest one on the playground or in the playroom or available on any given afternoon, to play. 

How long can I keep this going, where he doesn't have activities during the week while everyone around him is schlepping around to Karate and Mandarin and Gymnastics and Ballet? I don't think he needs any more structured activity outside school and I want to spend the time with him, but will I turn him into one of those kids who is totally out of touch? Like the ones from our generation who didn't watch TV or eat candy? I tried and tried and tried for years to keep things little so the world could be big. And I just don't know if I can do it anymore.  

(Petra's up. A lamb! The stuffed animal is a lamb. I hadn't ever realized it but yes, looking now I see it clearly is one.)

We haven't read the poems since last summer. If he had the time, Wally could read them now, to me.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Yet another Rachel* with overlapping sensibilities. Read "How to Miss a Childhood" here at Hands Free Mama. It's from 2012, but sadly still relevant. 

This recent drawing of Wally's kinda prompted me to post Rachel's article.  

*(There was the Minimalist Mom, too.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

So, nearly two years after we "finished" our mom lit novel (we're calling it mom lit now; my agent friend Mike said chick lit has been dead for years) we are nearing the end a major round of rewrites based on some great advice from an editor at Hachette. And who knows, maybe two years from now we'll be finishing up another round of changes. These things take time, even light, entertaining fare like what used to pass for chick lit (no shopping in it, though, except for a brief trip to Whole Foods). 

This mom friend, co-writer of the novel, has a blog called Potatoes in the Mist. I went over there just now as part of my usual procrastination routine and found this haiku she wrote: 

I hate winter so
Snow, cold, frost, rain, and shivers
They dampen your soul

That reminded me of a haiku I wrote several winters years ago when I sent Alex out with a shopping list that left too much open to interpretation. One of the items on the list simply said "fruit". Before I knew that he had never heard of crudités and didn't know about different seasons for different kinds of produce, I thought he would know to get like bananas, oranges, apples, maybe pears. Instead he came back instead with rock-hard juiceless peaches. A huge bag of them. 

Peaches in winter,
Not very tasty. Warning:
Men should not buy fruit. 

Maybe instead of novels for the time-being I should stick with something doable, like haikus. Dream big novel dreams but stick with modest syllable counts-- 5-7-5. Meanwhile I do like winter. I love hibernating -- making tea, baking cookies, reading books, writing letters, and listening to the radio. (Although you learn right away once you have kids that you can't actually read with kids in the house. You can read to them, or let them read to you eventually. But you can't read Peter Carey's The Chemistry of Tears or anything else you have piled up in a ridiculous 5-year backlog to read. We have tried to get this thing SQUIRT off the ground, and idea from a Simple Living book - Super Quiet Uninterrupted Reading Time. We can do the last two but never the first three.) I love being outside in the cold, too. Snow, of course, but also the fierce gray freezing days. It's another thing that's hard with kids because you have to walk so much more slowly with them in tow. That makes the cold harder to bear. 

But I don't have to bear it now, I'm inside where it's cozy. We don't even need the heat, just our fleeces. Tea or hot chocolate. A rock-hard nectarine. The willingness to stay small, because if I'm not willing, I won't get anything done at all. I have to be willing to pick up the entire house and know I'll do it again tomorrow. To write one little piece of one scene and accept that the whole thing may get thrown out. To write one letter to Aunt Helen and not even have the energy to address it. I'll put a stamp on the envelope in the morning. Very small, but something.

And yet in the small details there is so much. Just in a word, or even tone of voice. I was re-reading my first entry to this blog recently and noticed a typo. I was describing the first two days of Wally's life and wrote that they were "the two of the best days" of mine. Which word was the mistake? The extra "the" or the word "of"? Two of the best days? That's what I think I must have meant. Or was a delusional, hallucinating, love-soaked, pain-wracked, feverish enough to say the two best

Something else, so very tiny. When someone says something and you don't hear them the "What?" you use to respond is subtly different from the "What?" you'd use if you did hear and you're just prompting for the next part of what they're going to say. Like if someone said, "Want to know what happens to Brody on the last episode of Homeland?" and you say "What?" meaning, yeah, I do want to know, what happens? Your voice is mainly flat but tilts slightly down. But if you didn't hear the question, you'd say "What?" with your voice going up, as is typical for a question. If the acoustics were bad or if there was a lot of background noise the second "What?" could be mistaken for the first, with catastrophic results if you hadn't yet seen the season finale of Homeland

Here is another. A friend who's brother is trans (was a girl as a child) was describing how her brother used to annoy her all the time when they were kids. She used to complain about him to her mom. "I would shout," she started to say, "Get..." but here she tripped up and couldn't get the pronoun in there. She was okay calling her once sister her brother. She had even adjusted to calling the historical person a boy and using the pronoun "him" when describing him, even thought she had known him as a girl. But to rewrite her own experience so much that she would change her own ancient words in the retelling, that was too much. To her mother decades earlier she had shouted, "Get her out of here". Get "her". The her that is gone. That's what she'd said then. Memory speaks. 

I've been thinking about these tiny things, a pronoun, a word here or there, a voice that's slightly raised or slightly turned down. I hang on this stuff, which is why I have to write. But in fiction, you don't write about it, you just let it seep into the scenes. 

The news is on behind me. I'll turn to it soon. Away from the virtual page, into the world, and soon to sleep. Another arctic front tomorrow. Light snow possible on Saturday. It's 10 degrees now in Point Pleasant, wherever that is.