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! Amazing....it'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 infidelity...is 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.




 

4 comments:

  1. I am smack in the middle of those death and afterlife questions too! I answer them mostly that it is something people just can't know, and that we all get to decide for ourselves what we believe happens after death. Mimi believes you go to a place called heaven, Grandpa Bill believed your body and spirit turned into atoms and rejoined outer space... I don't know what I believe. But WOW is that question so universal at this age! The last part where Alex mentioned the black hole... reminds me of the scene in Where the Wild Things are (the movie) where Max is feeling so disaffected with everything in his life and his teacher is going off on a monologue about the universe expanding and contracting and the sun being sucked back in...

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  2. It does seem more comforting to leave it more open-ended...even though that contradicts most of the literature (though not the advice from NI). I think it is a good idea what you're doing, to present the (conflicting) beliefs of various close people in your lives. I like Grandpa Bill's view. What you wrote about Where the Wild Things Are (the movie) reminds me of the opening of Annie Hall...the 9-year-old worrying about the universe expanding. Art imitating art...thanks for sharing your experience with this.

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