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.”

Friday, September 27, 2013

'Tis the season to get your read on

It's almost October. Which means November is right around the corner. And then my favorite month: December. Duh. Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, Christmas carols, Christmas sweaters, Christmas presents.
The 'Ber months are always good for my writing, for my reading. Temps have finally dropped to agreeable numbers (I would much rather be cold than hot.) Summer recipes have given way to crockpot meals and soups and stews. Pumpkins and gourds and magnificient fall colors delight the eyes and simmering pans of cinnamon and cloves tickle the nose.
I am more inside the house than out, so let's just say that I get a lot of page work done. Typically, I blog more frequently, write more often, and read with feverish intensity, trying to reach my fifty-book goal before January One arrives. Typically, I re-read several favorites. In October, I reach for Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Fall reminds me of Scout and Jem, who finally find courage to peek into mysterious windows,  and thus begin stalking Boo Radley. ("Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. ...) Fall is when mysterious gifts begin appearing in the knot-hole of a nearby tree standing tall in the Finches sleepy Southern neighborhood: "That fall was a long one, hardly cool enough for a light jacket. Jem and I were trotting in our orbit one mild October afternoon when our knot-hole stopped us again. Something white was inside this time." I won't tell you what the secret and sacred item is; I want you to read the story. I believe strongly that every single human being in the world needs to read To Kill A Mockingbird. It teaches you never to judge books by covers; it teaches you to stand up for what you believe in; it teaches you that you must walk a mile in another person's shoes before you can truly understand him or her. When I still taught high school English, I always began teaching Mockingbird when October arrived. It was fun to tell students that Dill, in the book, is based off Lee's real-life neighborhood pal, Truman Capote, who came to Maycomb, Alabama, several months out of the year to live with his Auntie.
Speaking of Capote, who is my favorite dead writer ...Once mid-November rolls around, I head to A Christmas Memory, which is the most bittersweet short story I have ever read. It makes me smile; it makes me weep. Although it's about a Christmas memory (hence the title), the story opens with this line: "Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. ... A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. ... 'Oh my,' she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, 'it's fruitcake weather!'"
Well, fruitcake. Yes, fruitcake! There's much maligning of the lowly fruitcake, which, to me, is an extraordinary dessert chock full of nuts and diced stained-glass fruits. I love me some fruitcake. My best childhood friend, Michelle, for years sent me a delectable fruitcake each holiday season, all the way from Santa Clara, California, from a beloved recipe her sweet mother-in-law employed in her own sunny kitchen. Probably I wasn't thankful enough; those (fragrant) cakes, dowsed in strong brandy, ceased arriving several seasons ago. I tell you: If you too enjoy fruitcake and reading about imaginative children, you need to get your hands upon Capote's coming-of-age story.
And then there's December, my favorite month. Time to revisit David Sedaris's hysterical Holidays on Ice, which is an accounting of the lovably neurotic essayist's experience working as a department store Christmas elf. This holiday collection of essays opens with this: "I was in a coffee shop looking through the want ads when I read, 'Macy's Herald Square, the largest store in the world, has big opportunities for outgoing, fun-loving people of all shapes and sized who want more than just a holiday job! Working as an elf in Macy's SantaLand means being at the center of the excitement' ... ."
This opening paragraph gives little clue to the hilarity that is forthcoming: "... I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf. ... I am trying to look on the bright side. ... In order to become an elf I filled out ten pages' worth of forms, took a multiple choice personality test, underwent two interviews, and submitted urine for a drug test. The first interview was general, designed to eliminate the obvious sociopaths. ... I am certain that I failed my drug test. My urine had roaches and stems floating in it, but they still hired me because I am short, five feet five inches. Almost everyone they hired is short. One is a dwarf." Sedaris does not disappoint. When I read him, I have to be at home, alone, so that when I laugh and snort and say lines out loud and gesticulate wildly, no one pulls her kids closer and whispers into their ears: Children, there's something wrong with that woman.
Sedaris does not know this about me, but I will state it here, publicly. If I ever have a terminal illness and death is approaching and hospice nurses are setting up a final life request for me, I am going to tell them (through the wheezing and approaching death rattle), that I must get a chance to Skype with Sedaris. I want him to be talking to me and making me laugh as I go gently into my good night, which, hopefully, will also feature my children and grand children gathered around my hospital bed that's been set up in the hearth room of the family home.
Also on my December reading list is a collection of Christmas poems, essays, and short stories (Capote's Christmas Memory is here, too), selected and introduced by Caroline Kennedy (yes, that Caroline Kennedy). The hardcover book, red and dressed up with a silver bow as though it is a present in an of itself, is simply called A Family Christmas. The book contains nine chapters, and though each is rather boringly titled ("Deck the Halls," "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," and "Joy to the World,") there's a nostalgic familiarity within that will lead you to the grocery store, where you will plunk down approximately $200 for holiday baking supplies; you will play Christmas music when you get back from the store to unload your flours and sugars and various chocolate chip pieces.  In addition to reveling in feel-good holiday sentiments, you will also learn what the exact words are to certain Christmas songs -- you know the ones, where only the chorus is obvious and you simply hum along to other parts. For example, I offer this educationally fulfilling musical nugget. (If you start studying now and commit to memory the hard parts, you'll be singing the loudest at church in a few short months.)
                                                           O Come, All Ye Faithful
             (Translated by Frederick Oakeley & William Thomas Brooke; Music by John Francis Wade)

O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him, Born the King of angels:
O come, let us adore him; O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

      (This is the part you already know. Get ready for the lesson.)

God of God, light of light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin's womb;
Very God, Begotten not created:
O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

       (I know, I know, you already know the last two lines there ... ).

Sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above;
Glory to God, In the highest:
O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, Born this happy morning,
Jesus, to thee be glory giv'n;
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing:
O come, let us ....
          (You know the rest.)

Happy Halloween! Have a blessed Thanksgiving! Merry Christmas!

Monday, September 23, 2013

I thought nervous breakdowns weren't real

Is the entire world going crazy? Children, gunned down in American classrooms; children, gassed in their homes in Syria; children, slaughtered inside a mall in Kenya. Here in the U.S., Congress can't make a decision and President Obama looks like he's going to lose his shit every time he stands behind a podium. Here in my home in suburban Kansas City, two adult children, both college-educated, are pulling in eight bucks an hour pulling espresso shots at the local Starbucks. Groceries are costing thirty dollars a bag and gas is $3.40 a gallon. Our electric bill last month was $360. My husband wants to retire in eight years, only it's looking like he won't be golfing five days a week anytime soon. Since leaving the classroom, it's been damned near impossible to find full-time work for me: I'm pushing fifty, and outside of knowing how to diagram a sentence and explain plot structure, my career skills are behind the times. Luckily, I have several nanny gigs that pay well and I go to work each morning delighted to be in the presence of children, sweet and innocent kids who board the school bus daily and plan on arriving home, alive, later that day.
Two of my friends currently are undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Another continues to grieve the loss of her eighteen-year-old son (the worst loss of all); my sis just got slammed with child support and wage garnishment because her ex had a better lawyer than she did; my parents are both dead (I continue to feel orphaned); cute little Hannah Montana has morphed into a stripper; my 21-year-old is fawning over that pot-smoking loser Wiz Khalifa; my MacDowell days are behind me and my bologna book is still unfinished; somehow I ended up in a Republican Bunco group; my dogs won't stop barking; I haven't been to Mass in almost a year; my computer has a virus and typing this post is taking me nine hundred times longer than it should.
I told myself today that I would not turn on the television because the news is so distressing; I told myself today that I would eat five servings of fruits and vegetables; I told myself today that I would get a big poster board and plan out my book's structure. (I am a visual person and if I can't see something directly it doesn't exist.) I told myself I would try to walk the dogs and even if my right foot began throbbing I had to at least circle two cul de sacs.
It's a plan. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Regrets? I've had a few, but fall at MacDowell is not one of them

It's been a summer of reflection. The heat here in the Midwest is oppressive, and as such I avoid going outside. I become delirious with rage when I have to venture out. Friends know not to request pool visits, or even porch talks; a movie invite is accepted, or perhaps a dinner in a highly air conditioned restaurant, but only if the parking is close, or I am dropped off at the door. Every August I ask myself, Why the hell do I live in Missouri? I am not blooming where I have been planted; I am withering on a hellish summer vine.
I want to go back to New Hampshire. I was preparing my suitcase this time last year, to head to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. At MacDowell, the grounds were beautiful, decked in fall foliage; the New England air was crisp and lacked humidity. When evening came, I opened my studio windows inside Mixter and reveled at the keyboard as my fingers cramped from the cold. I slept with the windows open and awakened at seven to cold tile in the bathroom and fresh excitement as I powered on the Asus. When temps dropped into the forties at night, I went into town one morning to purchase fingerless gloves that some enterprising soul had knitted.
Bliss, bliss, bliss, writing in a quiet and cold studio.
And here I am, not writing and unable, even, to finish reading books I have begun because I'm cranky all the damned time because it's so fucking hot in Kansas City. Normally I would use a more polite modifier, but when I am miserable in the heat, fuck is my favorite word: It is so fucking hot in this car I am going to fucking lose my fucking mind. Please turn on the fucking air conditioner right fucking now.

I have other regrets. Inside time spent in front of a fan, a cold washcloth in hand, offers time for reflection, and my rambling regrets have boiled down to this: My life has not turned out like I had planned. When I was a fourth grade girl sitting crossed-legged on my chenille bedspread, mapping out my future, which was a color-coded virtual map/timeline, brought to life with colored pencils that I sharpened frequently, that future did not include sweating my way through a grocery store half a million times, anxiety building at the register that I wouldn't have enough money to pay for meat and produce and dairy; that future did not involve barking dogs who demanded to be let inside and out, inside and out; that future did not once account for being consistently broke and forced to use inferior bath soap and generic laundry detergent; and most certainly, that future did not feature being married to a man who rarely talks. Also, I had not planned on having a menopot and wiry chin hairs.
My hopes were grand, and chief among them was being famous. When one is told repeatedly by elementary teachers that one is different and exceptional and talented and filled with creativity, one does not accept easily a struggling middle-class existence featuring four-door sedans and too much month at the end of the money.
I thought I would be a famous writer who went on extensive book tours and slumbered in fancy-schmancy hotels. I thought I would be wealthy enough to own purebred dogs that hired help would take outside for the pooping and the peeing; I thought I would have someone to cook for me and ensure that I was consuming green leafy vegetables and delectable fruit plated on china dishes that were drizzled with high-quality chocolate sauce imported from Switzerland. I thought I would live in a high-rise apartment building in New York City or possibly LA; I thought I would marry a witty man who wore argyled sweater vests and corduroys and sported an attractive five o'clock shadow. This professorial gentleman would buy me expensive jewelry, read to me aloud in the evenings as he puffed on a highly scented cigar, and compose love poetry on the fly. (Alternately, I thought I might never marry and instead compulsively date compulsively charming men who held important positions with banking or architectural firms.)
I have none of this. I have a dusty and hot house situated on a concrete cul de sac in a middle-class suburban neighborhood; I have a husband who gets excited about football season and a sale on bratwursts; I have some spare bucks in my coin purse now only because I hocked my class ring last week.
Like I said, I have some regrets.

Here's where things started to unravel: College.
I invited boys into my door room and fornicated. (There was alcohol involved.)
I got pregnant before I became a Missus and got married at nineteen because my parents made me. I wore a marked-down wedding dress from Penney's Outlet, which my mother bought without my knowledge or approval.
I became a mother at twenty and promptly changed my major from journalism to education, thinking that June, July, and August would be good for the baby, that I would be home for those extended weeks to cut up grapes and hot dogs so the wee one wouldn't die before she started preschool.
Soon, two more children followed, and before I knew what was happening to me, domestic life took over. I became Mommy and the little fourth-grade girl with stars in her eyes crawled into the dark recesses of a closet and stayed there for the next twenty-eight years.
Like I said, I have some regrets.

Now what?
I'm forty-eight, dumpy-fat, virtually unemployed save for part-time nanny gigs (which I do, really do enjoy, because it turns out I'm fantastic working with children), I'm married to a non-talking man, and, and this is the kicker, I am very, very EXTREMELY not famous.