Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Response to the "Warm Up, Stretch, and Extend" exercise in A Writer's Workbook by Caroline Sharp: #25...describe perfume.

My mother wore Shalimar by Guerlain. Because she was never without it, I can't separate the perfume from my mother's natural smell, making it impossible to describe Shalimar as a fragrance based in a musk, sandalwood, or floral scent. I search for descriptive words to conjure the perfume's sweet essence, but there isn't enough literary magic for this task. It must be enough to say that the perfume was my mother, and she wore it like a second skin, perhaps even an armor. Shalimar was part of a good night kiss when I was a child, my head against her shoulder as she tucked me into my twin bed. Even in her displeasure at me or in her untamed rages against life, her scent was the sensory backdrop. Shalimar was part of my brother's and then my father's funerals, as I sat shoulder to shoulder with my diminished mother in the stiff chairs lined against the funeral home wall. When I became a new bride and then a new mother, Shalimar wafted toward me as my mother embraced me and held my children for the first time. For fifty years, there were countless moments between us flavored by a fine spray of Shalimar.And, finally, it was there too, as I bent to cradle my elderly mother in my arms or brush a quick kiss against her dry and peeling lips.

Shalimar was often the right Christmas or birthday gift. She was delighted by the expensively elaborate boxes patterned in shiny gold and deep cobalt blue that when opened would reveal the exotic bottle full of golden liquid nestled inside a satin lining. The blue cap sat elegantly on top of the fan-shaped bottle that faithfully continued to dispense my mother's smell. During the years I knew her, she received ornately jeweled tiny compacts of solid perfume, small golden purse-sized atomizers, tall bottles of moisturizing body lotion, and circled containers of richly smelling powder.

Now, for us, there is one last bottle of Shalimar. When my sister and I dismantled my mother's apartment after her death three years ago, there were pieces of our mother that we kept for later. Boxes full of my mother's life sit waiting for us to reassemble the fragments, if only there could be magic enough. The Shalimar, though, is in my bathroom cabinet, the one to the right of the mirror that no one uses. Inside is a fan-shaped bottle topped with the trademark cobalt blue cap. Only half full, the bottle contains just enough magic to bring my mother to me when I need her. All I have to do is put my nose to the exquisite bottle and breathe..

Monday, June 21, 2010

On Writing

Today I searched through books on writing, on the teaching of writing, for a new course I'm offering in the fall. It's an honor for me to teach composition theory to eager fledgling teachers, but it's a daunting task. So much hangs in the balance: how can I reveal to them the secrets of being an inspiring writing teacher, the art of balance on the tightrope? Do I even know the secrets? Can I keep my balance?

I was shamed into writing this post after reading a new blog by a former student who is headed off to earn her MFA at LSU, where she will perform her magic trick for a new audience-- blowing jewel-toned words onto the page, lovely words that cast color and reflect light. She began her blog by saying that she hadn't written since graduation, that one who calls herself a writer must actually write. And so, here I am, writing out of guilt.

Like Sarah, I can't write at home. At school, in my small office full of books and carefully collected treasures, I can write tight academic prose. I can grade papers, create curriculum, solve problems with my words, but I can't string together a line of words that move me...or anyone else. At home, it is only early in the morning or very late at night when the words come to me, albeit limpingly. Here, there is too much distraction...laundry to be folded, dogs to be let outside, dinner to be thawed and cooked. Voices rise and fall with needs and desires. I am not a writer within the walls of my home; I am a mother, a wife, a woman of sand and straw. It is only when I am away from home that the words come tumbling. At the beach, fully formed sentences and paragraphs roll into my brain. On the road, I fill my journal with detailed notations: room descriptions, conversations overheard, life's truths unraveled. If I lived at the beach in a small gray weathered cottage, would my words force the air from the room? If I'd taken that other lonelier path, would I be someone called Joyce Carol Oates or Kate Chopin?

Maybe location has nothing to do with my productivity. It may be that I don't have enough strong magic to blow clear emerald and ruby bubbles into the air. Perhaps the sawdust within me coats my powers, leaving me only enough creativity to wonder what might have been.

I'm putting myself to the test of fire this summer. Am I more than sand and straw? Look for me at Panera or Starbucks or Barnes and Nobles, where I'll be waiting for the words to come.