Making sense

Anne Lamott, on writing ...

"We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”

Monday, October 29, 2012

Gone, Girl

Pictures, taken at MacDowell: gone. Gone. G-O-N-E.
How many? Upwards of 230. I took pictures of my studio, my screened-in-porch, my food, the books I read inside Mixter, sitting pretzel-legged on that wonderful orange chair, the one in front of the fireplace. Pictures of that fireplace, pictures of my desk, pictures of that desk taken in morning light, afternoon light, evening light. Pictures of the deer that came up to my window. Pictures of the expansive windows, taking up two entire walls. Gone.
Pictures of fellow MacDowell residents, gone.
Pictures of what my bathroom looked like, that amazing shower, gone.
Pictures of the outside of my studio. From every possible angle. Snapped in morning light, afternoon light, evening light.
Pictures of my walking path ~ 250 steps ~ from my porch to Colony Hall. Pictures taken on September 26, the day I got to Peterborough and the Colony, and then a picture a day, to document the falling leaves. The beautiful falling leaves, the ferns, the bushes, the tall, tall, tall trees.
Gone, gone, gone.
Freakingfuckingstupid iPhone. A crash. Everything lost. Lost before I could transfer them to my laptop, or that iCloud thingy (whatever that is), when I returned to Kansas City.
So frustrating. Hair-pulling frustrating. Going to the Plaza to the Apple Store.
"I'm sorry to tell you this, ma'am, but you've lost everything. If you had pictures, they're gone."
This, what the twenty-something man with the spiked hair and piano keyboard tattoo on his left forearm told me, within, what? five, ten seconds, of holding my phone in his hand.
I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. There were half a million people inside that hot store on a bright Saturday afternoon.
On the drive home: tears. Self-loathing. I must have done something stupid to shut down my phone.
That's what I get, being forty-seven and stupid about technology.
Look. I could give two shits about losing my contacts. I would rebuild that list. Hell, I could get my music back from my laptop. But those pictures? Gone, gone, gone.
Once, in my lifetime, have I been to New Hampshire. New Hampshire in the fall, for crying out loud.
Once, in my lifetime, have I been to MacDowell Colony, inside Mixter studio, inside Bond Hall, inside the dining room, sitting elbow to elbow with Guggenheim recipients and Pulitzer-prize winning playwrights.
Pictures of it all. And now, gone.
Me? A gone girl.
Grieving, I am.

A MacDowell Journal Excerpt ...

Day 2, September 27, 2012 (Written Friday, Sept. 28)

Slept better last night, but I awoke with one of those insanely crippling headaches, sinus-type pain in the front of my head, above my eyes. Took two sinus pills (with acetaminophen), my nut pill, and heartburn aide.
Used an electric hot pot for the first time in my life. Thank God I had a Via packet for morning brew.
It's raining here this morning. Is that a black bear in my line of vision? I watch it intently, waiting for it to move. From the safety of the porch, I am fascinated; I have no fear. Five hours later: If that is a black bear, it is a dead black bear.
Again, thanking my lucky stars (God! My dead parents, rooting for me!) for this opportunity. I heard talk at supper last night that it costs $400 a day to provide for an artist in residence. Feeling much gratitude for MacDowell; feeling optimistic about mankind. I said to Blake yesterday, A culture is defined by its art. He agreed.
Sitting here in my pajamas, cozy-warm. Damn, this radiant heat is nice. A bit worried that Blake, or whomever, is going to deliver my podium while I'm in my pjs, braless. Still haven't showered.
Awaking at 9, I missed breakfast at Colonial Hall. Just ate a protein bar.
Around noon my basket lunch will be delivered. Hell, I might not even shower until closer to supper time.
Went to sleep last night reading Night Navigation, Ginnah's book. That lady can write. Literary fiction that I find enormously readable. Briefly, I experienced I'm-not-good-enough-to-be-here feelings, which I must shake out of my head. I am, after all, HERE. Blake said yesterday in the van that it is wonderful for him to be driving us three artists around. You know, he said, they only take ten percent of those who apply.
Yes, I am worthy.
I am here for a reason.
Someone who reviewed my application agrees. A problem: I'd sent 26 pages from The Hour of Lead, and that novel is sitting on my desk at home. A noose around my neck. I think I will have to have HAS mail it to me.
Still the headache remains. It is near going on 1 p.m. Why hasn't the Tylenol kicked in? I drank two cups of instant coffee, three mugs of water. (The water is good here; no taste of chlorine, no floaties in the water to set up house in my digestive tract.)
Maybe I'm hungry. Started the day with a Kellogg's protein bar (grainy;gag) and, an hour later, a bag of cashews I'd bought from Starbucks and tucked away in my suitcase.
Around noon I hear a thunk on the porch. My basket has arrived, and with it, a muslin bag, containing sheets, I suppose. It is Friday. Sheet-changing day. Isn't this premature? I've only slept two nights on the current bedding.

Lunch is a multi-seeded bagel, with a thick layer of hummus, a slice of white cheddar, shredded carrots, sliced cucumbers, spinach leaves, the topping half a cup of sprouts. It is delicious. I have a sudden desire to cry. I have not eaten this well in years. In my life? I am reminded of the lunches of my youth, and how those were carried into my adulthood. I am sad for my dad, who went to work each day with two peanut butter sandwiches on inexpensive white bread. A brown paper bag. At my laptop is my book, Bologna With the Red String. I am vaguely ashamed that I am at MacDowell eating chef-prepared meals, a sandwich with sprouts, and I am writing about bologna and pickleloaf. I have never bought sprouts in my life. There is no Miracle Whip here at the colony. I should not be surprised.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

MacDowell Journal, an excerpt

Day 1: Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012 (written Thursday morning, 9/27)

Bedtime: Actually, not even that afraid. Did toss and turn, though. Missing my husband's body, the swoosh-swoosh of his bi-pap machine. The silence here is deafening. No interstate sounds, no screaming sirens, no tappy-tappy of Bella's toenails on the hardwood.

I lay there, thinking, I've made a mistake. How will I ever stay here three weeks? I wonder, How long can a 47-year-old woman go without adequate sleep? My mind starts to spin scenarios, all of them scary: what about ticks? Lyme disease? That something-or-other my driver Carl warned me of, something to do with mosquitos? How 'bout spiders, large, hairy spiders? Are there any rapists here in the woods? Isn't that a main road right outside the long drive to my studio? What about bears? WHAT ABOUT BEARS? Fuck.

Day 2: Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 (written Friday morning, 9/28)

I slept like shit last night. Kept waking, worried that I was being slowly poisoned by that damn oil lamp emergency switch that I probably turned on accidentally coming in the door. Worried about spiders crawling into my ears and laying their cottony webs. Worried about intruders. Should I have left the porch light on? I did leave the lamp by my desk on in the studio. Still afraid of the dark. Now how pathetic is that? To be this old and scared of darkness. I need to ask for a nightlight.

Made it for hot breakfast: two eggs, two slices bacon, one slice toast. Coffee. And then some more coffee. Sat between a poet who read last evening and Ginnah, the older woman who likes literary fiction. She told me last night that the thought didn't occur to her to write until she was in her late forties. I told her I was a writer from the age of four, and feeling all pissy in the second grade that Beverly Cleary was publishing and I was not.

Thinking, now, how annoyed my sister would be with the people here. She's right: a lot of liberals. Like, everyone who is here, a liberal. Everyone here an Obama fan. I feel so at HOME at the dinner table, at the breakfast table, so happy it's an election year, and we're approaching that Most Important Date.  Even though I am the ONLY one from the Midwest, every single resident is friendly and accommodating: Sit here! Tell me about your work! The other artists are from either New York (mostly Brooklyn), or LA. It thrills me to meet each of them.
Oh my goodness. I am chilly now here in the studio and freaking loving it. What? For twenty-four days I get to live in an environment whose temperature is my choosing. Not gonna turn on the heat. Sixty degrees, from here on out.

Doesn't get any better than this.

Around12:30, I got hungry, remembered there was a basket lunch coming, and went outside to claim it. Beer bratwurst “hoagie” with sauerkraut and apples; some delicious root soup (pumpkin? squash? Turned out to be carrot. Oh.); aromatic and spiced … was that saffron? Cut up vegetables: carrots, celery, radishes, and a few home-grown string beans. A plastic cup with spicy brown mustard. Heavenly eating. So this is how the other half of the world eats. No bologna with the red string here.

Back from the trip to town. Blake drove. Blake, the colony's driver, he who brings the baskets, and takes artists into Peterborough. In town, I first went to the post office to mail three post cards: one for HAS, for Elizabeth, for Estee. Didn't have Rye-Guy's address in my phone. Why the hell not? I can't figure out that omission. Then, two more stores, where I bought the following: a six pack of Rolling Rock, a bag of theater-style popcorn (buttery!), two mini Snickers bars, and a tooth brush. I'd forgotten to pack a toothbrush. Who does that? Someone who had packed early and forgot to include that necessary product, such was my anxiety to get to the airport on time Wednesday morning.

On the candy:

“Would you like these bagged, or with you?” the clerk at Roy's asked.

“Do I look that desperate?” I replied.

He laughed. “That's something I would say.”

The liquor store in town didn't sell beer. Weird, right?

On to Roy's for the beer and the popcorn.

Afterward, Blake took me for a short drive around the colony. I am so thankful that Mixter Studio is near Colony Hall, as many studios are definitely off the beaten track. Not only is Mixter close, but the studio is generally used for photographers. I have heavy black-out shades that cocoon me; I don't feel exposed at night. Blake took me to the old barn, where we went looking for a podium. I like writing, standing up. This podium, which is the correct height for my frame, will be coming soon.

One way to look at it ...

"The difference between constructing a short story and constructing a novel is like the difference between building a rowboat and building a yacht: They both have to float, but one is bigger and grander and meant to carry people farther. Just as the yacht is not simply a bigger rowboat, the novel is not a big short story." ~ John Stazinski

Monday, October 22, 2012

Happy Birthday, Estee Lou Who!

Twenty-seven years ago today, I gave birth to my first child, a blue-eyed eight-pound bundle of baby that kept me awake at night and on high alert forever after. Once a child comes into a woman's life, she is forever changed.
Well, I was certainly changed. Only twenty when I had her, she and I, really, grew up together. She was my living baby doll: I was forever changing her clothes and giving her baths, rubbing baby lotion into the chubby folds of her arms and legs, her "pork chop" thighs, taking her lacy socks off constantly, to wiggle her baby toes, to sniff her feet, an odor sweet and talcum-y.
We went everywhere together, talked whenever we were awake, sang silly songs and made up new ones just because we could.
And now she is twenty-seven years old. I don't feel old enough to have a child who is closer to thirty than twenty.
She and I are still growing up together. When one of us comes across something wonderful, or witty, or frustrating, or confusing, we share, rushing in to tell the other.
What a privilege it has been to be this child's mother. Momma Bean, she calls me, referring to my love for All Things Coffee.
A privilege indeed. She is my heart.

Dammit, Ayelet Waldman ...

First, there's her name: Ayelet.
I don't know how to pronounce it. I remember Oprah pronouncing it "Eye-Uh-Let," but then recently I came across Waldman's name in print, with this pronunciation: "I-Yell-It."
I am flummoxed.
I am bothered.
I am disturbed because I am bothered not knowing how to pronounce the damned name, this name of a woman I have never met, nor will possibly ever meet ~ although I was entertaining the fantasy of meeting "Eye-let" (?) one of these days at some vegan cafe in Berkley ~ considering she was, for forty-eight hours, my new literary role model.
A role model with a name I didn't know how to say.
Until I started reading Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, Anne Tyler was the writer I most admired. Anne + Tyler: two simple pronunciations. A simple name behind beautifully written family dramas. Tyler has published dozens of novels, and I have read them all. At times, in the middle of parsing a Tyler-esque paragraph regarding a marriage, the thought has come to me that maybe, just maybe, Tyler as a person might be a bit uptight about sex and body parts: she never writes of either. Tyler as a writer could be edgier; still, Tyler's style always makes me smile.
However, after reading Waldman's bad mommy essays, I am now certain that Tyler would never describe her boobies like this (from Bad Mother's page 28): "How well I remember that rack! Those perky breasts that hovered just below my chin. Those pert nipples. That swelling cleavage. After four children and a full seventy-two months of breast-feeding, the last six of which were spent with my nipples clamped in the death vise of a breast pump, it is only by dint of foundation garments designed by teams of MIT professors who otherwise spend their days drawing up plans for the world's longest suspension bridges that my breasts achieve a shape even approximating round. When I undue (sic) the clasps, buckles, straps, and hoists of these miraculous feats of engineering, my boobs tumble
to the ground like boulders falling off a cliff. I could polish my shoes with my nipples."
She could polish her shoes with her nipples.
From that sentence alone, Waldman shoved Tyler out of first place. Here'd I gone a full decade and a half worshipping at the altar of Tyler, which was a comfortable religion, given Tyler's propensity for writing stories about family life (all I care about reading, as family life is the only life I've ever known, and thus I offer no apology for not hightailing it to the library to check out the newest political espionage thriller ~). Tyler would no more describe her nipple shoe polishing talent
than I might write about the Davinci Code, whatever that is, or pen a missive regarding 17th Century Spanish literature.
And so I had a new writer to admire. I went to the library and checked out Waldman's novel, Daughter's Keeper. I watched a few YouTube videos. I enjoyed thinking about Waldman and her novelist husband Michael Chabon, about how cool their lives must be, two writers in the same house.
It was exciting for me to know that both Waldman and Chabon had spent time at MacDowell (Chabon is actually on the board of directors there, maybe even the president ~). I was jealous that not only was Waldman's writing superior and beautiful in its structure, but she, too, was pretty and petite and had glorious green eyes. Also, she got to sleep with the oh-so-handsome blue-eyed
Pulitzer-prize winning author. (People magazine once wanted to place Chabon on its sexiest men list.)
And then I got to Chapter 11, and as quickly as Waldman rose to glory in my eyes, she fell off the pedestal, twisting her ankle on the way down. In this chapter titled "Rocketship," Waldman describes having had an abortion (a "genetic abortion"), with a sense of scientific detachment and a direct explanation, which I found disturbingly hard-hearted. (" Rocketship," explains Waldman, was the "place-holder name Zeke had come up with while we waited to find out the baby's gender." Zeke is one of Waldman and Chabon's four living children.)
Just when I was thinking of writing Waldman a fan letter, I decided I no longer wanted to meet her. I might be pro-choice politically, but I am definitely against "Let's have an abortion!" because a prenatal test shows a genetic defect might ~ might ~ cause physical or emotional or intellectual retardation. Writes Waldman: "I did calculations in my mind of what I could tolerate ~ physical malformations, fine. Who cares? I measure five feet ~ I bet there are parents in the world who'd be horrified at the prospect of having a child doomed never to grow taller than that. But developmental delay. That shook me to my core. Mental retardation. I couldn't go there."
Oh my.
You've got to be kidding me.
I was no longer infatuated with this former lawyer wordsmith whose constant use of five-dollar words simultaneously repulsed and attracted me. Look: I am an active reader. I read with a yellow highlighter and a pencil for annotations. I enjoy learning new words. With Waldman's book, I got out my iPhone and went to my Merriam-Webster app. I needed to look up these words, fancy-schmany five-dollar words that Waldman used liberally: exigency, endogenous, pernicious, paucity, screed, abnegation, capacious, apogee, apraxia, exiguous, and Pyrrhic, the one with the capital P. There is a difference in meaning between Pyrrhic and pyrrhic, but I didn't know this until I consulted my dictionary.
I was attracted to Waldman's clear intellect and command of the English language. I remember thinking, after looking up the twentieth or so unknown word, that if I ever did meet "Eye-let" (?), I would be intimidated by her intelligence and articulate ways. I was repulsed, however, by what I considered an ostentatious display of vocabulary. Every now and then I felt a childhood taunt resurfacing: nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, I know more words than you do.
I was annoyed that Bad Mommy was using words that most mommies, good or bad, ever employed. Even then, though, I was OK with feeling deficient in my vocabulay.
But the abortion, described in detail, a death necessary to keep a potentially damaged human being from being born? Couldn't identify with that, no matter how I turned it around in my head, tried to intellectualize it. Waldman's book just left me feeling sad and empty. And so very, very grateful for the three children I brought into the world, never knowing whether they would be "perfect," but choosing life for them, anyway.