Friday, February 25, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The traveler in the dark

I am feeling off-center, so I am compelled to write. I suppose that’s why I wrote so prolifically in college. Prolific sounds positive -- fruitful and generative. It wasn't necessarily that, more messily obsessive. Songs,  stories, emails, letters, journal entries, slips of paper by the bed at night, scrawled words in red pen I could never read the next day. A few songs sometimes made reappearances in later years in Dimestore Scenario. One of them, Half Life, is even on our long delayed EP The End of May that I hope to finish by the end of this May (four years after the fact). There are lines that make me cringe now, but I remind myself I was only 19 when I wrote it. I can’t see changing it. It is part of that small personal history and would seem artificial to make it into something that sounds better.

Alex was supposed to meet Wally and me at the Hudson Library on Leroy Street this afternoon. He was to stay there while Wally played—they have the most wonderful playroom with little wooden kitchens and mini slides where now Wally stretches his legs from the top and practically reaches the bottom. But Alex called after work to say he wasn’t coming—his leg hurt so much he was heading to the ER in a cab. Was he being hypochondriacal? Was it the muscle-pain equivalent of the "man cold" he so gracelessly suffers through every few weeks in winter, croaking out requests for chamomile tea which inevitably grows cold on the bedside table, untouched? Or was it something serious, like a stroke even? His cell phone battery had been dead all day. My cousin Moira stayed  with us for two days, in the room where we keep the phone chargers. Alex got home late last night and didn’t charge his phone per usual. So now it is nearly 5 hours later and I haven’t heard anything. I called NYU -- the hospital where Wally was born, where Grandma Miriam went for her near-final run, where the girlfriend of one of my best friend's works as an ER doctor. Funny, in such a big town as this to have this small-town sense of familiarity about that place. There was confusion over the spelling of Alexandre as there always is -- not Alexandra -- and then a vague report that he was being evaluated. 

I know there is nothing to worry about in particular: ER visits always take a long time. But as the hours go by, it's unsettling. Separately, no one I call back is answering the phone. People all seemed to be leaving and busy, meeting and carrying on with things that don't involve me. My parents were supposed to visit last weekend, then it was moved to this one, now because of the "ice dams" they may postpone yet again. Something feels off. Meanwhile Wally's happily eating a scrambled egg and leftover potatoes on his baby tiger plate. Because I do, he asks, “Where’s Alex?” every now and then. He lets the question hang in the air then offers one or another possible location. “Maybe he’s at the library. Maybe he’s working now. Maybe he’s on the E train.” He doesn’t know Alex is Daddy. He probably cares very little for whoever it is. Later, before Wally goes to bed, he looks out at the city, his city (literally everything is "mine" at this point, even a sprawling metropolis of 8.4 million people) and said, "Where's Daddy?" I am wondering too, with growing unease.

Wally and I are oddly not busy right now. My cousin Moira left. Plans changed, and now no plans tonight at all. I knew Wally would be heartbroken over Moira leaving, but did not expect the apartment to feel so empty to me. The whole time here she had Wally giggling. He spent hours racing up and down the hallway crashing into her and asking to do it again, a request she always obliged. She carried him around upside down, let him mess up all the stuff in her suitcase and jump into her bed. It's so quiet now. Wally's little train sounds almost seem to echo. 

Everyone is off to vacations and strange hospital visits and college tours. Moira's older brother Will is visiting a college in Boston tomorrow so tonight he will go with Moira and their parents to stay at my parents' on the way to what some people around that area refer to as "the city". My sister and her girls are already up there this week visiting. Maybe they're all gathered in the dining room now playing The New Yorker game and drinking Sam Adams. Still no word from Alex, not that he could send one.

Moira is only 15 but she is calmer than I am with Wally.  Other than worrying about the preschool stuff I've sunk into renewed--I guess,  despair?--over the infinity of the cosmos because we keep going to the Museum of Natural History  (my parents gave us a family membership this year as Wally's birthday gift). In the visible universe there are estimated to be 100 billion galaxies. That could be a fraction of the actual universe, which might be infinite. In our galaxy alone there could be as many as 100 billion planets. Now scientists are entertaining the idea of the multiverse -- multiple universes. Doesn't this bother anyone? I mean it is just so completely, mind-bogglingly bizarre. But isn't all this a bit harder to swallow than a supernatural being creating the earth? Sea creatures on the 5th day and Adam's broken rib? I mean how insane do you have to be to believe in evolution and the big bang? It drives me crazy; especially in the middle of the night. 

So there are the logistics to worry about on the one hand--preschool, job searches, freelance work I'm always trying to squeeze in, and now this odd silent stretch of Alex at that friendly neighborhood hospital -- and the vastness of the universe on the other.  I try so hard to fathom it--I remember doing this as a little kid--and it's pointless, not like I am going to contribute anything to our understanding of black holes or nuclearsynthesis. It's not getting me anywhere at all. When Will goes to college, will he study this in a more purposeful way? Will he write obsessively, finding himself off center? I can clearly picture the adorable five-year old boy that he was holding balloons at my college graduation. He was just two years older then than Wally is now. 

Last night at this time Alex was happily making dinner for Moira and me. Dinner was followed by a frantic search for his keys--worse than usual, their absence unfairly blamed on me because I misplace everything. (That part is true.) Absent-minded professor without the professor part. One tiny step for... ("woman" to me is a silly word, never sounds right; "girl" no longer apt; "lady" clearly outdated): accepting that it was my choice not to become a professor. For so many years I felt differently, encouraged by my own professors to continue on, but swayed away by voices that sounded louder to me. I blamed it on those loud voices, instead of the person who chose to listen. It was a choice to listen or not, then and now. Just as it's a choice to relax or hang up the phone. I don't think I'd have done many of the things I'm glad I did do if I'd agreed to relax.

For now I'm willing myself to "breathe" -- that too such an irritating word sometimes, because of the way it's said, though a rather essential thing to do, to agree to do on a daily basis. I always find it a riot to read a self-help mantra "Remember to breathe." Of course they  mean breathe slowly, pause for a minute. But alone it looks amusing. One hopes that no matter what else we misplace and forget, we at least remember to do that. For now I'm willing myself to put Wally in his cozy pajamas, to cheerfully read Blue Hat, Green Hat to him while cuddling on the bed, then to sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, including those little-known verses about the traveler in the dark, and not wonder too much about what it is, or where you are. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Anyone can write a blog

I was looking back over this ridiculous manuscript I wrote last winter which I originally titled, Anyone can write a book on why anyone can write a book. That is to say, making fun of myself as well as the millions of "How to Write" books out there--anyone including someone who has never actually written one. (Bizarrely it's one of the few projects I've ever completed.) It sounds like something Michael Scott would write (he's a character from The Office, a sitcom for those of you who don't watch TV).  Really it was just advice to myself, to try to keep myself writing, even when it's dark and I'm alone, which is probably the best time to do it. Still the ludicrousness of it, the wildly misplaced chutzpah, sounds like a character in a story, like a person who would quote a book without having read it, like I did on this very blog on July 3 last year. By the way last week I found a used, giveaway copy of that book I quoted that day, Your Money or Your Life, and I did finally read it. Something funny happened when I first found it which is that the book was so badly beat up it was being held together by a rubber band, had teeth marks all over it and was actually scorched on one corner (maybe it had once belonged to Hein). Really I was so repulsed by the physical specimen I almost put it back on the shelf and thought "I'll just get get a copy somewhere else". I held it that way an old boss of mine used to handle books on my desk she didn't think should be there, dangling it between her thumb and pointer finger, the way my dad's friend held his gambling book, dropping it into his bag like it was hazardous waste.  

And then I thought -- God, that's exactly the kind of outrageous, consumer-obsessed, new-is-better mentality the book is (probably) railing against. That's disgusting. So I took the book home with me, and eventually read it in all its dilapidated glory, spread out on the floor like playing cards. I have to admit I didn't actually do the exercises. But I like the environmental message and find the guiding idea behind it--that money is  "something we trade our life energy for"--extremely useful. Even though I share my sister's habit of wearing clothes to shreds (though unlike her I don't think I'm still wearing anything from high school) and even though I've taken to cutting my own hair lately which won't come as a surprise to anyone who has recently seen me, there are still so many ways I could spend and consume less. And I will try to start doing that. 

Last month I also finally read  The World According to Garp (thanks to Jeannine, for sending it to me) which is incredibly great and really shamed me into wanting to finish my projects. If you've read it you'll remember Alice who was working on her second novel without having finished her first and in the end never ended up finishing anything. By contrast "Garp did not write faster than anyone else, or more; he simply always worked with the idea of completion in mind." But what struck me more than that was how funny it was; I haven't laughed out loud like that at a book in a long time. And how much it spoke about the writing process, the stories within a story, exaggerated twists and turns and outrageous coincidence, the mundane becoming oddly symbolic, the constant nightmare fear of losing a child, and the idea that whatever a reader doesn't believe about a story isn't "real" and has to be changed. The book gets much sadder, though, than I expected it to. There's still one thing that I can't get over. That I believe too much. 

Back to that silly manuscript from last winter, and why I was linking so much above. I did that partly because I am wondering about the coherence of this blog. Wondering about the common themes ("Pick one and stay with it." "No!"), wondering about the progress or lack thereof. What's scary is I do feel I've experienced a complete turn-around, and yet I read things written last year that sound like they were written today. I've even turned up journal entries from over a decade ago that sound like a rehash of all the same questions from now. It's truly bizarre. Maybe this is why most people don't keep journals. It's almost like there's too much coherence, too much of a common theme. 

Okay so here's one little snippet from that book that anyone could write and you'll see what I mean. They were all these tiny little essays, Natalie Goldberg-style. And I'll post again, soon.

I’m actually not too busy, that’s why I haven’t called you back
A friend called the other day.
“I haven’t heard from you in so long,” she said.
I accidentally launched into a rundown on all the things going short, "I've been so busy." She cut me off--
“Still? I thought you were trying to get better about that.”

She was right. I was getting better, and that was actually the reason I’d been MIA. It wasn’t that I was, as my grandmother Eleanor used to say, meeting myself coming and going, papers flying in every direction, people shouting, phone ringing, giant bags under my eyes. It was the opposite. I have been enjoying the evenings with Wally. Putting on the Winter Meditation CD, drinking red wine, playing “This Little Light of Mine” on the guitar while he flings himself around the room, helping him make necklaces out of those giant beads, taking note of the colors of the Empire State every night instead of simply cursing the sound of the sirens on 9th avenue.

I’ve been making tea and drinking it in little cups without handles. I’ve been trying to organize things, bring bags of stuff everyday to Salvation Army, even books I keep meaning to read but obviously am never going to. 

She was right -– I wasn’t still caught up in that maelstrom I’d been promising so long to get out of. I had jumped off (for now at least) that careening roller-coaster, the ride I wasn’t enjoying but couldn’t stop riding, again and again. Like a kid on the Cyclone at Coney Island who feels sick and hates the stomach plunge and the whole entire thing but the minute it ends, runs around to the front of the line and asks for another ticket. Why? Because I’m afraid of what happens when I stop. How can one get at the emotional truth of a story when that's the kind of truth we can tolerate the least? I’m afraid of the rest of the carnival even more than the ride I hate. The silence, the empty lots, the bearded lady, the shoot-the-freak show, the giant anaconda. I know I have to face those things, before I get out to the beach, to the swampy ocean, to that bright open view of the sky. 

Well that last part isn't really true anymore. I feel I've faced that empty lot, the silence and the giant anaconda. Faced the emotional truth writing demands--the parts that are true, like John Irving says, even if they aren't. But it also seems like I am continually pulled back into old habits, lured in by the undertow, by the dreaded Under Toad, in The World According to Garp. Maybe sometimes it's just to get rid of it, though, once and for all. And what's that saying from the Tao Te Ching, about how sometimes going forward can look like going back. I try to tell myself that, whenever I begin again, which inevitably means facing how far behind I might be from where I imagine I should be. Anyone can write a book; anyone can write a blog. That’s not a reason to do either one. But it’s not a reason not to, either.