Saturday, June 21, 2014

Recycling Bin Split-Second Symphony

When I dropped the recycling into the bin downstairs the bottles made the sound of the opening drums of “Just like Heaven. So I came upstairs and put on The Cure and that to me is so senior spring from High School, fresh cut grass, our parents' cars, slipping out during study hall to Philip's Coffee even though we didn't drink coffee, blasting The Cure out the car windows, so many promises at the end of high school, in love on Fridays, alone above the raging sea.

That's what made me come here to write, a recycling bin split-second symphony, the only way back into the fantasy world of my blog, a one-time-record of the interrupted life, madly, wildly interrupted in a different way from when I started writing it. Now I am entrenched more seriously in my freelance work, preparing to start grad school in two weeks with a James Joyce summer course, wading through the River Liffey, slipping into Viconian cycles. I have gotten away from writing and reading and thinking about parenting. It’s a topic that I realized sometimes drains me. It means that when you’re not actively taking care of your kids, you are reading about how to do a better job at taking care of your kids. It’s like you’re constantly putting out for others, with nothing filling you back up.

Just over a month ago I put Petra in three day a week daycare, which makes getting into this other stuff somewhat possible if still a bit implausible. I have even been able to wake up before the kids some days and turn to Dublin mid June 1904 with a text that cannot be rushed, cannot be skimmed, summarized, shrunk or scanned in any way. There is no way to condense it, no reward for an attempt to read through and “get the gist of” the single unremarkable day in an unremarkable man’s life that takes up nearly 900 pages in the Modern Library edition my parents sent me. There is only one way to read it and possibly enjoy it: line by inscrutable line.  

The garden too—so much to update, I’m sorry I didn’t record the events of it here because a little garden patch in the city has fulfilled some deep-seated Last American Childhood-like desire held since I first wished here for a patch of dirt and shovel for Wally—has proven unyielding to efforts to hurry it along.

Poetry, all writing, is the same. You have to give it time. Nothing meaningful will come from it otherwise.

Today, returned to the apartment after dropping off both kids to the smell of coffee and fresh cut grass. I am reading Alicia Ostriker who was born in 1937 in Brooklyn the birds are chirping and I think I could spend all day slipping into her dream of springtime.

There are many mornings like this, where I rush in with a surge of energy, newly light, sun poring in and the voices in my head not drowned out by any other demands at least for the walk home. It feels like the hint of another time, another life, where a morning could be spent indulging in whatever that smell of fresh-cut grass and coffee conjures up…a cafĂ©, a journal open on the table, years before I ever drank coffee. Now I run to pull out a book of Billy Collin poems as I find myself:

"buzzing around the house on espresso— 
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,"

But then eventually I go to the computer to confront the daily massive reality of real life in all its bite-size minutiae. Within an instant I’m sunk. Sunk into PTA staff appreciation day, whether Alex can leave work early Thursday to get Wally, health forms I need to send, photos for an ID I need to upload, a rental car I need to reserve, birthday presents I have to buy, a glance at “Fan of Whitney Houston buys her ‘80s mansion” which had “long been vacant”. And then there is the guy who randomly called EvalPros (one of the many names my dad and I have used for our nonprofit consulting work). He is a disabled vet involved in a court case. It has been bobbing around on my to do list, to call him back, but what can we do? That’s not what we do? How can we help him?

But that’s not even accurate, to suggest I am only lost by going into that outer world, because the inner is equally labyrinthine, more so. For example today, four hours after waking up, three train rides and many, many stairs, (both “schools” are at the top of steep flights of them) many head nods and little bits of small talk on the walk back home, wondering about “Tanya” the name on coffee cup in the garbage can on 26th street, whooshing home full of energy, songs or poetry, even a chance rhythm of glass bottles falling into the recycling bin, the voices harmonious, and telling myself I can have just a half hour to write. Okay, here I am, reminding myself of Natalie Goldberg. At my desk, keeping the internet closed, just taking in the smell of fresh cut grass and coffee.

First I think of Edie, a young woman who worked at Wally’s school last year who was suddenly not there for months. In her absence I neglected even to ask about her only half noticing if at all that day after day she wasn’t there. She was not in his classroom, just one of many kind people who worked there. She always said hi and often swooped Wally up in her arms when she saw him. When I did see her again after months of not realizing I hadn’t seen her, she said she’d been in a horrible car crash and almost died now she could not smell or taste. By that time I guess the brush with death had receded far enough into the past that this relatively minor concern had risen to the surface; that was what she focused on. That is what I think first today, when I do even allow myself the luxury of the blank page. Edie, whom I hardly know, with shining black eyes and I think a niece Wally’s age, who cannot smell coffee or freshly cut grass. She is not usually on my mind. But recently someone mentioned Gray Gardens. There is an Edie there, I think the daughter?

Now the sound of the lawnmower outside …which barely registers above the din of the city…din, a word hanging on the wall in Mr. McInerney’s 5th grade class. The lawnmower drove me nuts that sound when I lived in Drummer Farms and otherwise all was quiet on a summer morning. After school was over it seemed to me early and reasonable to get up at 9 and I resented being woken any earlier by that horrible sound.

I want to stay in that spell of "Just Like Heaven", thinking about spring mornings 20 years ago. It's I guess obvious why. I’m setting off once again for immersion in academia, or at least as much immersion as is possible with the school supply list already for next year, the demanding neighbors, the laundry scattered on the floor. I’m not going anywhere, except into my own magic treehouse full to overflowing with books to jump into, no car to blast music out of, but about to disconnect from one world and rush headlong into another.

It was cutting edge for Dartmouth in the fall of 1994, twenty years ago, to require all incoming freshmen to purchase a computer. Here I sit at mine, critical of all the virtual connection it has to offer, yet continuing to find something of value in it, engaged now in a practical search of the most mundane kind, not to read the dour (someone called him that, perfect) but insightful Stuart Gilbert’s thoughts on cosmology and the esoteric in the Proteus episode of Ulysses, but for dinner tonight. I am pleased to see someone in Irvine, California once had the same question as me: Can you peel and cut potatoes and get them ready ahead of time?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Still haven't gotten a chance to write. Better now at making sure I "Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past." (And reading Ulysses.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The End of March

Tonight I am turning down Fordham University's offer to join their English Masters program. I am picturing myself a year and a half ago on the back porch at my parents' house pregnant, cracking open a book on Cracking the GRE, making mental pictures to remember words like kappellmeister and palimpsest. Then fast forward to taking the test, even more pregnant, to writing the Statement of Intent, anxiously asking for recommendations. Then finding out last year that the program I wanted was being suspended. Re-applying this January for a new program. And now, after all that, here I am turning it down. 

And listening to this song, over and over.

Alex says, "Isn't there any way you can go? Can you get a loan? Will it help you get a job?"

"No. Yes. No."

Yes, I suppose I could take out a loan and go. But it's ludicrously ill-advised. It was ill-advised back when I was 22. Then it would have been possible to justify. But now, I'll be content with getting the chance, even if I have to turn it down.

Every once in a while I hear a song, and I for some reason think of my blog, and just posting the song there and telling everyone to listen and saying, "That." That's what I'm trying to say. Not the words, necessarily. But the feeling. What I tried to say myself through music for many years. What I tried to say through novels, poems, short stories, blog posts, songs, late-night wine-soaked conversations, hoarse throats, dirty hands, stained clothes and trains no longer running. Or even way before, high school at the rainy Arboretum, not a drop of liquor anywhere near us, conversations that went on to infinity, impossible euphoria at moments of insight and all the rest of the time vastly disconnected, trying to define our ideals, trying to decide which way to go, which experience more authentically lived up to the image we had of ourselves, which one would bring me closer to my imagined life by the sea, one I never really lived except in summers in a cottage given up many many years ago now, in the one I haven't stepped foot in since before I had children, since I was a wanna be rock star and the furthest thing from a mom. I wasn't a mom at that time. How can that be? The role that I inhabit now that takes up every inch of me most days I think, the preoccupations, the PTA fundraisers, the piles of hand-me-down clothes, playground meetups, the wills I still have never signed, the floor covered with plant-based BPA free recycled plastic toys. There was a time that meant so much before I became a mom. And I think to how started my blog - wondering about all these moms around me and if they were anybody other than moms because as even though I myself was one as moms alone I could not relate to them, felt no there there, no substance, no somebody that I didn't used to know. But I was somebody I used to know and it's so hard sometimes to remember or find that or feel that but when I listen to certain songs I used to love way way back it comes swelling back and sometimes it rises up from a new song I never heard before but is there wired somewhere in deep recesses like you have heard it though you know you never had. It's full to breaking with nostalgia somehow. And that's how it is for this one.

This song I only found out about from Girls, which itself is so terribly inauthentic and very uncool. Also who knows what feeling you'll have listening to the song. I can't just assume anyone else will have the same one that slams into me. It does help though, to remember why I chose to be a kappellmeister for all those years in my 20s when going to grad school would have been feasible if still really ill-advised. And now it's time to pull out the palimpsest, forget what's been scraped out, scratched out, made invisible, and start writing, again. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

You Don't Really Need to Know All You Learn in Kindergarten

Wally used to love to write stories. I always have notebooks lying around for him to pick up whenever he feels like writing. I may not be a good model of coping with frustration or choosing fruit for dessert but I do model writing. (Try to balance out Alex's tablet habit at least a little bit.) My only complaint about Wally's writing was that his stories were too long. He would come up with some outlandish idea that it had to be 42 pages and then set to work drawing and writing then crumple up into a teary ball if he didn't have time to finish before dinner. 

Fast forward from last summer to now, and you have a six-year old who can no longer stand to pick up his journal. He hates writing. Why? Because he does it for an hour a day every day in school. That is on top of reading, math, and other sit-down, academic work. And it's not that he's struggling. He's reading and writing incredibly well. It's just that he's got a lot of energy and his mind is racing, and he is not meant to sit at a desk for an hour writing every day. They do have wonderful art and music programs, but outside of a 20-minute recess, if they are lucky and nothing else squeezes it out, they have a 25-minute "choice time" (play time) at the end of each day. That's it as far as playing goes during their 6-hour Kindergarten day. Less than an hour. They have too much else they "need" to learn.

I was thinking about Robert Fulghum's famous book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. When it came out it seemed genius in its simplicity. So right and so true that you think upon reading that Kindergarten teachings apply to life on a broad scale from how to get along with others to accepting the life cycle. One of those ideas that's so dead on that once you hear it, you think, how could I not have thought of this? 

Fulghum must have gone to Kindergarten in about 1942, so things had presumably changed a bit by the time he published the book in 1989. Yet at that time, nearly half a century after he learned what he learned in Kindergarten, what he wrote about still appeared to be entirely on point. You did learn to share (toys). To clean up your own mess (fingerpaints). You were likely to be given cookies for snack. You took a nap! You learned your first word. But reading the list now, it would come across as charmingly anachronistic, quaint even, if it wasn't so painful a reminder of what's missing from kindergarten today.  

Here from The Washington Post today: 

Nap time has been cancelled. A follow-up letter to career-ready kindergarteners

Thankfully it's a satire, but not too far off from the real story here

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.