Friday, September 16, 2011

Mother Love

Yesterday I ran into an old friend in the copy room. We'd known each other long before we started teaching at the same university, chatting with each other at open houses and baseball games. I put my arm around his shoulder, feeling his age through the crisply-pressed blue dress shirt. He kissed my cheek, leaving a soft, dry impression against my skin.

"I'm so sorry," I whispered into his ear. "How are you doing?"

"Not so good. It got worse once I started home." His eyes never left the copier key pad.

"It's hard to lose a parent," I offered. "Mothers are the hardest. No matter how old we are, losing a mother untethers us."

Looking up then, his eyes glossy, he crumpled his mouth into a sort of smile. I could see he knew what I meant. He had been set adrift, too.

I've been lost since my mother died, her passing sending chaos into the order I thought I'd imposed on my life. Such a smarty pants, I'd been. This was my new truth: my roots had been yanked. The ink on the map disappeared. I'd lost the paddle, and my boat had sprung a pretty big leak.

Years ago, if you'd have told me that I defined myself through my mother, I'd have laughed, telling you high tales of my independence, offering storied examples of how different my life had become, how separate from hers, how my road was less traveled. Yet, here I am, my outline muddled, the sharpness of my features smudged, lost in the woods. With my mother's tired body went part of my history, an awareness of me before I was.

The night of my mother's funeral, I drank too much while I sat on my sister's porch. We told tales late into the night, cold glasses in our hands, a small candle burning on the table. My husband and sons brought me home gently, strong arms supporting me. Home again, I went straight to bed, taking the stairs slowly, grief and gin seeping through me. My daughters sat on the couch, having long since shed their funeral clothes, leaning against each other for comfort.

"How could you?" one asked me the next day, misunderstanding the past night's events.

Indeed, my dear child. Indeed.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

New Beginnings

I woke up early today, though I thought I'd sleep longer, later, deeper, and started the morning by reaching for my book--to tuck in another chapter before I punctured the haze of sleep, before reality claimed me. Early morning reading used to be a habit of mine back in graduate school. During the semester, I'd finish whatever I'd abandoned  bleary-eyed the night before, whether it was literary criticism for a class I was taking or an essay for the class I was teaching. Over vacations, this habit turned into a delicious luxury as I reached for the novel on top of the stack of the many waiting for me. After I became a wife and a mother, other voices called me from my sleep, and I've only revived this custom since my children no longer sleep under my roof.

It's one of those hazy, end-of-summer days, the humidity frosting the outside of my windows. My husband just stopped his mowing to take refuge in our air-conditioned kitchen, wiping his face with his shirt, though it's just 9:30 a.m. I'll have to water the plants early, even though we watered them late yesterday, while farm market eggplant roasted in the oven for our dinner.

Despite the heat and my flowers overflowing from their containers on my deck, all of them tumbling in a freefall fight with each other for attention, I feel the pull of fall. Classes began this week for me, a sure marker. As I drove the long stretch of 79 to work, I  warily eyed the "Bridge May Freeze Before Road" signs. I'll drive those roads as the leaves change, then drop, white-knuckling the early snowfalls. Soon the next few months will soon become a jumbled clump of days filled with classes, assignments, conferences, and grades, my students and I emerging changed people.

I've always loved the newness fall brings. As a child, I stood in front of the small school supply section in the local drugstore, touching the pens and pencils with anticipation. I still buy notebooks every semester, delighted in the ever-expanding selection of covers. This year my daughter and I walked through the many aisles of Target devoted to back-to-school shoppers. We weighed the color choices carefully, ending up with simple bright blue, green, and pink composition books.

"Do you need pens?" she asked me, in a strange reversal of roles.

Perhaps it's that strange reversal of roles that kept me in bed this morning, that had me reaching for fiction about Sullivan's Island instead of beginning my day. Fall brings something new for all of us, and my children leave my home for other lives, for growth that doesn't include me. The first to go this year was my oldest; rightly so, I guess. He left our vacation a day early, driving 11 hours straight to arrive in Morgantown for an editorial meeting the day before classes began. A little over a week later, my youngest left for San Francisco, struggling to pack all she'd need for four months into suitcases that didn't weigh over 50 pounds and a carry-on that would fit in the overhead compartment. My oldest daughter left on Wednesday, stopping to visit her boyfriend in Florida before she reached her destination in Sacramento. She's lived away for so long that it takes nearly the entire visit home for her to shed her hard armor, becoming the girl I knew just a day or so before she has to leave again. My second son's living only a half hour away, and while he and his girlfriend come back every Sunday for dinner, he's still not here where we all began.

The house misses my children. Sometimes we'll hear doors slamming and drawers closing abruptly. Andy nicknamed this phenomenon "The Energy," blaming the noises on the residual energy left behind by his frenetic sister Laura, but I think the house is perplexed. Where are the feet that pounded up and down its steps, bounding then down the hallway? Where are the hands that threw open the doors, softly closed the doors with a click, sometimes slammed the doors? Where are the voices that called out to each other, to me? The house bristles against the silence, calling the children back with its empty noises.

This morning was a reading-in-bed morning until my husband brought me a tall coffee, steaming hot. Last night we went to the farmer's market, loading our bag with eggplants, tomatoes, scallions, and cilantro. A yellow and orange bunch of zinnias, cosmos, and sunflowers nested in the crook of my arm as we debated over the box of soft chocolate cookies with raspberry filling. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder in line at the cheese truck, lucky, as the cheeseman told us, to get the last piece of Pennsylvania white cheddar. Breaking off a chunk, we shared a bite marveling at our good fortune, and then headed home together to prepare our garden feast.

Friday, August 5, 2011


The cool blue shimmer
calls me by name with
rolling syllables, tumbling,
frothing, finally trickling over
my feet. My soul settles,
my heart eases, sliding down
from the sore spot in my throat,
slowing to sync with the pulse
of the waves. Once. you leaned
against the dune's high shelf,
shifting sand into a sunflower,
for our daughters, the petals
just brushing my skin.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Writing in Segovia

Tonight, while the spaghetti sauce simmered on the stove and I waited for the men in my life to finish their work and make their way to the table, I sat down with a glass of iced tea and the latest copy of Poets & Writers. Lately I've been dreaming of attending writers' workshops, residencies on some leafy mountain tops or in cottages by the sea. I read every word of the advertisments in Poets & Writers, throwing myself into a dream state. I see myself rising from a single bed that's been made with crisp white sheets; a stack of books are piled high on the rough hewn floor. I throw a colorful handspun shawl around my shoulders and take my heavy pottery mug of coffee out to the deck. My head rests on my hand as I look out over the lake, ocean, mountains. I press the blinking circle on the side of my laptop, and words rise from me like clear glass bells.

The majority of the ads in Poets & Writers are for MFA programs: chances to work with Billy Collins, Susan Cheever, Phillip Lopate, Sue Miller, Robert Root. On some alternative plane, I'm striding across the respective campuses, blue-jeaned legs carrying me from thought to thought, my arms cradling my notebook, iPad, laptop. Scattered in between the MFA listings are ads for conferences. I could travel east for the Gettysburg Review's Conference for Writers or south to the Writer's Institute in Miami. A flight west could drop me in Minnesota for the Split Rock Arts Program or take me all the way to the coast for the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma. The Bread Loaf Workshop is taking up residence in Italy! Maybe I could find a wealthy nobleman to be my patron, and I could spend my summer moving between cabins and cottages, spinning tales like the intricate web of a very productive spider.

Then, I saw an ad tied to me in time and thought. There it was on page 63.

Brown University
Writing in Segovia
Writer's Workshop: Travel Writing
and Memoir
July 3-12, 2011

I'd lived in Spain when I was 20, and I'd walked the streets of Segovia one weekend, breathing the crisp winter air, making footprints in drifts of clean white snow piled high before the Roman aqueducts. If I hold my breath, I can almost get myself there again in some weird form of time travel. Was I my most authentic self then, so very centered in Jill? I don't think I'd recognize that girl now, long-haired, defiant, standing on the brink of her life.

I came home early from that semester abroad because my father lay in a hospital bed, coughing and struggling to take one full breath. I flew across the Atlantic in a sonambulent state. Did my life in the states still exist? I'd lost my sense of direction.

After my father died, I tossed and turned at night, often waking from the same dream. I was back in Spain for just one night. I'd appear in the Atomium Discoteca, the train station, the Plaza Mayor like a ghost watching the life that had continued on without me.

Would I go back this week to write? My heart and mind yearns so hard toward this idea that if will were flight, the girl I left there would be sitting in a cafe in the plaza, her head on her hand, words rising from her clear as glass bells.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Summer Reading

What does an English teacher do in the summer? She reads, my friends; she reads. In gray November when my spirit's weary from school politics and my eyes bleary from reading plot summary, I need to remember the deliciousness of this moment, turning my face to the memory for warmth. Even though I have plently of projects waiting for me, none of them have to be done just this moment. This very moment is mine, all mine, for reading. There will be time tomorrow for the sorting of boxes, for the organizing of papers.

Each night I make a list of what I'll accomplish in the morning: attack the pile of bills on the counter, deconstruct the various piles of stuff still waiting for my attention after our garage sale, scrub the bathroom surfaces until they gleam. Beginning any one of these projects would make my husband smile. If I feel more studious, I could design my courses for the fall semester, read up on composition theory, write the great American novel.

I begin each day with the best intentions, but before I know it, I'm snuggled into my comfy chair with my book or my Nook in hand, lost to the world around me, sliding fast into uncharted territory. As I begin to read, I can feel the pages rising up, enfolding me, pulling me in. I am no longer.
One of my brightest childhood memories is of the West End branch of the Carnegie Library. I still associate calm and well being with stacks of books, perfect rows of alphabetized titles. Even now, a visit to Barnes and Noble is high on my to-do list, where I can sit for an hour or two with a mug of coffee and a pile of new books to consider. When I leave, all is well with me again.

During my childhood, there was only one answer to the question "Where's Jill?" I was in my room reading, of course. I resisted every attempt to move me outside, causing my parents, I'm sure, to worry about my single-mindedness, my unexercised pale freckled thighs, but their own weighty preoccupations surely allowed them to be grateful for their youngest child's ability to make herself invisible for long periods of time.

The usual kid things didn't have a hold on me. Chasing balls, swimming, hiding and seeking were all second hand choices; instead, I devoured books. I think my parents were happy when I finished the last book in my stash because I was forced to go out for more. On those days, I took an excursion to the library. Armed with a canvas bag, I would walk the two city blocks to the bus stop, waiting on the corner with anticipation. A short bus ride dropped me across the street from the nearest branch of the Carnegie Library, where my older sister worked as a library assistant. My sister's job offered me priority status over the average library card holder. Bored with the selection in the brightly painted Children's Reading Room, I greedily sought new territory in the off-limits adult section. Judy ignored the age code on my card, allowing me to borrow anything she didn't consider too "racy." She also overlooked the six-book limit, using the number of books I was able to carry as my personal cut-off. I overfilled my bag, when the head librarian wasn't standing at the front desk, and I'd cradle several more books in my free arm, making my trip back home on the bus more of a physical struggle than the outdoor games my parents wanted me to play. Some days I was lucky to coordinate my library exit with my sister's quitting time, the ride home making my day perfect.

I'd learned early that books could shelter me. Almost everything I knew to be true could change on a dime in my household, and so I became a rather cautious child. It was easier to live within the rhythm of words and the refuge they spun than to wait anxiously, sucking in my breath through my teeth, waiting for a moment when things might snap. I would sometimes emerge from my books temporarily in the midst of my actual life, often blinking furiously at finding myself back on Clairhaven Street.

I still run away to my books. In the summer, I read hungrily and nearly indiscriminately ...stopping short of science fiction (my apologies to all those whose allegiance belongs to crusaders from another realm). This summer, I've visted Oxford via The Discovery of Witches, toured Paris through the first Mrs. Hemingway's eyes in The Paris Wife and entertained a decidedly different Paris through Mr. Hemingway's eyes in A Moveable Feast. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane took me to both the Salem of 1692 and 2009, and I followed Frank Lloyd Wright and Mahmah Bothwick Cheney through their love affair in Chicago to their tragedy in Wisconsin as I turned the pages of The Women and Loving Frank.

You must excuse me now, dear reader. My books are calling me. I'm off to post-war Bosnia with a restorer of rare manuscripts named Hanna (People of the Book). Just think-- it's only July!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Tomato Whispers

My youngest daughter and I leave through the front door, our flipflops clopping on the cement to our car. "Rachel!" I call out in my batallion commander mom voice.

"What?" She stops short, her head turning to look back at me.

"Did you say hello to the snapdragons?"

She casts her gaze over the mottled pink and yellow curves of the snaps. "Oh, Mom. You know you are one of those crazy plant ladies."

"Tell them, Rach."

"O.K. Hello snapdragons," she begrudges.

"No. Tell them nicely. Thank them for living in our front yard."

She rolls her eyes and tosses a few words at the flowers before climbing into the car, laughing at her off-the-rocker mother, but I know that later in life when my children conjure me around the table, they will cherish this craziness about me.

Growing up, I learned to tell seasons by what bloomed. In late May after the last frost, my father, when he was well enough, worked a vegetable garden into a patch of ground above our swingset. I'll never again taste a tomato like those my dad produced; all the subsequent tomatoes since have unconsciously lost the competition, second by a large margin. The heirloom tomatoes in the grocery store come close in appearance, irregular bulges and thin brown zippers running through their creases, but their taste is pale and watery.

My father taught me about nurturing tomatoes, ripping old white tee shirts into soft strips that tenderly bound the young stalks that were so easily snapped. He'd handcut the stakes from old wood, sanded to remove splinters. An elaborate wooden frame strung with household twine towered above the rest of the garden like a giant abacus. Peas wrapped their vining tendrils around the string, while the soil below erupted with leaf lettuce, green peppers, zucchini, and, of course, his prize tomatoes. "Get Better Boy plants," my dad would call after my mother and me as we left for the store. Sometimes we could only find Big Boy Tomato plants, which caused my father to worry about the outcome of his crop, but I loved them all the same.

He experimented with something new every year corn, another hot peppers, one year the relatively new cherry tomatoes that could be popped like warm grapes straight from vine to mouth. Nightly, I'd walk up to "pick a salad" for dinner, a long day on my dad's artificial hip causing him to rest in the lawn chair by the kitchen door.

The first years I lived in my own house, my husband and I planted a garden, probably twice the size of my father's, and, while my babies slept, I'd spend an hour hoeing and watering nearly every day. The rewards were large bowls of color, freshness on our plates each night. Sometimes still, I can see the view from our back window then. Down past the peach, apple, and cherry trees we'd planted to mark the births of our first three children, to the right of the second terrace lay the garden. With the window open, there'd be a slight breeze, carrying the faint herby promise of nearly-ripe tomatoes.

When we moved south a bit we lost our terraced back yard, and so we planted tomatoes on the hillside. I staked them with soft white stips of cloth, although I purchased the splintery premade stakes at a garden store. Although I was sure to fill each hole with fertilizer and good topsoil, the plants lasted only two or three days. One morning, I dragged the hose across the dewey grass to find only stubbles, the deer having eaten all but the very base of the stalks.

That year, I listened to other local gardeners as they listed ways to prevent the deer from eating my crops. One suggested Liquid Fence as foolproof, although expensive and foul smelling. Another explained how an outer layer of corn and clover would provide deer with their own garden, keeping them from my plants by supplying a border of sprouting favorites. One listed ingredients on paper for a habanera pepper concoction good for keeping both deer and bunnies away: combine hot peppers in the food processor with water; after straining, add a drop of Elmer's glue and a couple drops of dishwashing detergent--apply often, especially after rain or on new growth.

What did I do? Nothing. The sight of the mowed stalks taunted me. The thought of running out to coat plants with hot pepper and glue after each rain or at the sight of new shoots seemed exhausting. I figured those plants were a small offering to the deer who roamed my hillside at night for having built my house on a piece of land that had once been theirs, once dense with trees.

Most of my gardening occurs close to the house or on our deck these days, although flats of impatiens left waiting on the front sidewalk have been mowed to the quick by hungry rabbits. Figuring that I can protect the growth on my deck, I bring home flats of posies, overpacking each pot according to the rule of three: something high, something dangly, and something full of color and impact. My husband twisted tiny white lights around the grapevine I hung above the door, and on summer evenings. the deck rails blaze with large clear bulbs in red, blue, green, and orange. When I think of my home in the summer, I am on the deck at night, the pitch blackness lit by our fairy lights and the sound of my family's laughter bouncing off of the hillside.

I do talk to my flowers, dreaming that my conversation coaxes deeper pink from vining geraniums, even lovelier circles of lavendar and pale yellow from lantana, and glossier red from begonia petals. The heavy purple plumeria sways in the breeze on its delicate stalk, hopefully listening to my whispers of prayerful awe at its dance. My plants know my secrets, and my reward comes in the form of butterflies and hummingbirds who visit, fluttering and hovering, yellow-winged and green-bodied.

Every summer, I handpick bursting red tomatoes from my friends' crop at the nearby farm. Rich seedy juice runs down my chin. We eat tomatoes every day: tomatoes with olive oil and fresh mozzarella, panzanella, gazpacho, basil and tomato spaghetti, and the best of all--thick cut tomato sandwiches on rustic Italian bread. I haven't found my father in these tomatoes, although I keep trying. Of all the words he took with him when he died, I would like to know what he whispered to his tomato plants as he tamped down the freshly turned earth in our old garden.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Going Home

Yesterday, on our way to a picnic across the city, my husband took a turn that paralleled the street where I grew up. "Don't drive by the house," I said. The last time we'd been on the street, I'd cried for the losses the house and I had suffered.

Seconds later, I'd changed my mind.

Gary turned right onto Stratmore, and I called out the names of now long-lapsed businesses to our sons in the back seat. Another right, and we drove up the narrow lane left between the parked cars on both sides of the street. He slowed the car, stopping midway.

"This isn't it," I said, looking over Gary's head through the window.

"I think it is," he replied.

"What address is it guys? Can you read it?"


I climbed out of the car to get a better look, gaping open-mouthed at the yellow brick house. Everything was different. A large unpainted redwood porch jutted out from the brick, replacing the grey wooden porch and the curlicue lattice work that had fanned out from the steps. The green and white aluminum awning was also gone, a heavy peaked roof awkward in its place. My mother would have cried to see the state of the front bank, once covered in ivy and dotted with delicate clumps of phlox--swells of pink, purple, blue, and white. The hedges that stood at the top of the bank had been glossy green and evenly trimmed. All that remains are straggly sticks, green leaves sprouting randomly across the front. The bank itself seems to have crumbled, turning in upon itself. Now dissected with broken railroad ties, dirt patches show between straggling ivy. Nothing blooms.

I recognize only four things about the house. The yellow brick, of course, is the same. There remains an odd aluminum railing along the steps from the street. The connectors at the railing's top and bottom always reminded me of the goose-necked curve of a kitchen sink faucet. My bedroom window continues to look out onto the porch, and I can glimpse a bit of stained glass on the side, if I stand on my tiptoes and strain my eyes to the left.

I wonder what the house remembers of me, of us. Does it feel me in the front street, my heart yearning toward it? Does it still wait for Jay's long steps up the street, bounding around the side of the house after a long absence? Does a shadow of my father sit waiting in the kitchen chair near the door? If I peer into the window on the porch, will I be sitting on my pale chenille bedspread, dropping the phone, wailing in grief for my lost brother?

Do our rumblings disturb the sleep of those who live there now? Do they come upon us as we sit around the table, all of us still together in this mirage? Do they hear us in the creaks of the house, wondering if the plumbing is going or if the stairs could use an extra nail or two?

If I had enough courage, I'd climb up those steps I haven't climbed for 35 years, running my hand along the familiar rail. I'd walk around the bend of the house, checking for wild violets and buttercups in the grass, touching the roses that used to border the walkway. I might sit on the wall a while before I knock on the door, asking for entrance. I don't have enough courage to go back, though.

My sister says the house doesn't look as bad from the alley. She drove up the narrow gravel road to look down at the yard we once had. Perhaps the tiger lilies have taken over, blanketing the grass in striped orange petals. Maybe the forsythia have grown together, building a dense canopy of tiny yellow stars, protecting us all.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cutting Lilacs

Today I cut the first lilacs from bushes I've grown. They fluttered in the crook of my elbow, a haphazard lavendar bouquet, their movement matching my steps as I pocketed the pruning shears and walked back from the side yard.

I'd been smelling the promise of these delicate starbursts since last evening. The night air carried the heaviness of sweet scent to me, a scent belying the prim line of pale blossoms on green-leafed stems. The smell of lilacs and honeysuckle bewitch me on languid summer evenings, allowing me to float in time. Late at night, honeysuckle invades my nostrils, pushing its dank sugar into my mind. I fear I could get lost in these scents.

We planted three lilac bushes a few years ago as part of the frenzied preparation for Laura's graduation party. Two of the plants sat in black plastic containers outside of the garage door for about five years before their planting. One bush came from my sister's yard, a puny offshoot jutting at a sharp angle from its pot. The second came from my friend Karen's yard; there she tends a heady swirl of growth--drooping wisteria, lush petals, riotous leaves. Both dug and potted a young plant for me after they'd heard me remember my mother's garden, their offering of scrawny-leaved sticks a gift of comfort between women.

We lived in a red brick duplex on a city street, my mother moving us as close to a suburb as she could while complying with rules that police officers live within Pittsburgh's boundaries. They bought the duplex, my father advising "As long as we have a tenant, we'll never have to worry about the mortgage," and so we grew up with the sound of other people's feet above our heads. Our house would have been huge, a rambling two-story with stained-glass windows on staircase landings and spacious bedrooms, but cut in half and left with one floor, our house shrunk, losing airiness and light. Sometimes, when the tenants weren't home, I'd creep up the wide steps past the beautiful windows and wander through their rooms, no sense of ownership in my trespassing. Once I took two potatoes from their refrigerator, using them to make homefries while my mother was at work.

Our yard, however, was all ours. The tenants had use of the wide front porch that my bedroom window opened onto, the window long and wide, running the length of my bed. A green and white aluminum awning offered cover, making for perfect porch sitting during summer storms. None of the tenants ever set up their lawn chairs there, but I still sleep easier when I hear rain spattering against our skylight, lulled to sleep by girlish dreams.

My mother didn't seem like the kind of woman who gardened. I can't picture her at work, on her knees, tending to the flowers. Does my memory fail me here? I wonder if the lush yard of my childhood was already planted when my parents bought the house. Surely she must have been responsible for some of what I carry with me. The garden was a compass to the seasons: furry gray pussy willows, wild yellow shoots of forsythia, heavy lilac bushes, tiny sprigged lily of the valley. In the Giant Eagle each spring, I stop to stroke the soft pads on bundles of pussy willow branches plunked in a white bucket of water. Take me back, my fingers say.

The backyard sloped gently uphill. On the right sat a swingset, but the left top held a massive rock garden, grey stones broken by bursts of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils. Behind the rock garden, a tangled group of rose of sharon grew together forming a natural fence. We sometimes pulled the curled pink flowers from their stems, imagining them to be hot dogs that we served our dolls lined up in a row on the grass. Later hens and chicks lay close to the rocks, while brilliant tiger lilies swayed above them, a mass of orange and yellow. When my mother died, my sister and I chose pink stargazer lilies to blanket her casket. Would she remember, if she could?

At the bottom of the yard, bordering the sidewalk to our house, a series of roses bloomed. Most luscious were the deep red velvet, large buds opening to reveal the kind of flowers sold by florists. My mother's favorites were the yellow roses, "for remembrance," she said. Along the side of the house were the peonies. I was fascinated with the ants that worked to open the blossoms. No matter how hard I shook the deep pink cabbagey petals, an ant or two still remained, causing my mother to fret, returning the bouquet outdoors.

Bordering our neighbor's house on the left were the lilacs and the forsythia. My mother would cut armfuls of the lilacs, filling vases and jars in every room of our house. One vase, a blue piece of depression glass ringed by a thin scalloped collar, held them best. In the shade of the lilacs and forsythia grew a low forest of lilies of the valley, their bell-shaped blossoms rising from leafy pod-like curls. I'd lie on my stomach and pluck them, one by one, surprised at the strength of their resistance to my pulling, until I had enough to fill the tiniest of my mother's vases.

The front yard was a treacherous slope, that made weeding a difficult proposition. An angry teenager, I argued with my mother about that chore. "You want me to do what?" I'd chided, as if she were risking my life. The front garden was so large that I'd sit moodily in sections, pulling random leaves of grass and clover that managed to survive in spite of the dense leaves of ivy. Still, there, amidst the ivy and soft patches of creeping phlox, tender, frilly dianthus bloomed. Even our side yard bore flowers, buttercups and violets rising triumphantly from the green.

My own lilacs are on my kitchen table as I write, their fragrant presence changing my patterns of thought. One of my three bushes burst this year, but still I don't have enough blossoms to fill my house. I left enough there to scent my yard while I drink cups of coffee on the deck, while I sit collecting my thoughts in the dark. After I'd arranged my lilacs in a clear glass vase, I went back out to the shady section of my yard, where a small group of green leaves curved protectively around stems of bell-shaped flowers. I should have planted them when we first bought our house, but, even so, five lily of the valley shoots sit in a tiny vase on my kitchen sink helping me while I remember my mother.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Road Most Traveled

I know now I'm never going to live in Spain.

Please don't think I'm an aging malcontent, complaining, whining away the evening hours. Don't worry about me, either; I'm not climbing out of my second-floor bedroom window, legs dangling weightlessly before the heavy leap. I have simply reconciled myself to the truth; I won't be going back.

Darn you, Robert Frost, you and your road less traveled. I believed in your words once. At 20, I stood on a hilltop in Segovia, feet buried in virgin snow, eyes locked on the clock set into the ancient stones of the Roman aquaduct. I swore then that I wouldn't live a normal life. Mine was an oath sealed by warm breath rising in the cold air.

It's been 10:10 a.m. in one of my heart's chambers for a long time.

Like most good stories go, he changed my mind. Blue eyes, broad chest, desire sparking from his fingertips, he carried me forward. Does passion count as ordinary? Surely I haven't betrayed myself. Don't turn your eyes from me, Robert Frost!

Small wrinkled fingers caught in my hair, tiny tooth pearls showing in lopsided smiles, milky mouths gaping in soft sleep against my neck. Are these anything less than extraordinary? When they were babies, I might have thought so, bonetired from the day, countless trips up and down the stairs, my husband traveling for days and nights and days and nights again. It was survival for me then, tummies fed, tears wiped, all four clean and sleeping. Now, though, in a quiet house, those moments are strung together like tiny white fairy lights across my life.

And, really, I suppose it was enough that I lived there once, that I walked in the pinar, sitting cross-legged on broken needles, slaking my thirst with a bota full of cold red wine. A strong sun overhead watched us as we spoke haltingly, the language new and exotic on our tongues.

Pictures bombard me when I let my head go back to Spain, the sharp crease of pressed trousers, the white-haired viudas wrapped in black, the sizzle of olive oil in a pan. I opened a building door in Ciudad Rodrigo, pulling a foot back just in time from stepping into a tornado of men chased by massively-horned bulls. I stood on the edge of the world, or so it seemed. In Santander the rolling emerald green meadows stop abruptly, morphing into treacherous cliffs dropping straight to the sea. Enough for a lifetime, Mr. Frost.

It may have been more than enough to walk by the house where Cervantes wrote El Quijote, my hand dragging daily along the black iron rail, rising and falling over the small connecting spikes. Tilting at windmills, I too walked the streets of Valladolid.

If I stand completely still, breathe to the bottom of my lungs, I can conjure that cold 10:10 a.m., its thin memory shimmering with silver frost. I didn't know then what I know now, Robert Frost. I made promises I couldn't keep. I took the road most traveled, but, oh, that has made all the difference.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

Lemon Meringue Pie is the post I wrote for Mother's Day, but it is dated April 7th since that's when I started writing the piece. If you'd like to read about my mother's lemon meringue pie, click on the link to April's blogs on the right.

Happy Mother's Day, all!

Enjoy your pie.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For My Students Upon Their Graduation

You should know this.

There's just a moment before I enter the room when I'm almost heady with anticipation. I jump in with both feet, ready to do it all again this morning, this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, another lifetime perhaps-- to chase ideas around the room with you, to bat translucent, jewel-toned orbs down from the ceiling, to drink deeply of the intellectual helium we discover inside.

When I drive the 50-odd miles to and from work each day, my battered grey Pontiac nearly automatic in rounding the curves of 79, I say prayers of gratitude. I move through my children, touching their heads in my mind...jet black hair, red curls, blonde crimps, brunette layers, then on to my faithful strong man. I count God's metaphors, the blood-red cardinal sitting on my windowsill, my friends who visit in my office chair--one with a guitar across her lap, another with a poem in his throat, one with a listening heart, and another with some old-fashioned southern comfort. Others bring me jokes on silver platters, bartering them for my laughter. On some days, when I turn the key to start my journey, my heart hurts, abraded by the roughness of worry. By the time I stop the car, I am more at peace, having chanted my rosary of gratitude, rubbing my life's gifts between my fingers as I pray.

Regardless of how long my list, I always end with this:


The truth is that aren't any earthbound words to sum up the gratitude that rolls through me like waves, the rush of water roaring in my ears. The standard 26 black letters just don't have the power.

So...the substandard version goes like this:

"Oh, my dear God, thank you for allowing me to teach, for making a place for me in the classroom, for sending students my way, for the generosity with which they share their stories layered in bell-shaped words. I am most deeply greatful for your gift of words, for the paper armor they form around me, for the beautiful mosaic they create in my mind, for the bandages they place on my heart."

My prayers are answered every day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I'll come for tea,
she said to the queen,
but no hydrangeas for me,
no mottled blue and purple
bursts of passion.
Instead, please, dandelions
in a jelly jar, some Earl Grey
from your chipped cup,
and toasty word crumpets
for a little snack.
Later, perhaps, we'll dance
under the old moon, our
garden alchemy beating
my spikey yellow petals
into seeded white puffs.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blue Hydrangeas

My friends are writing poetry,

seated at polished teak desks

in gardens swollen with blue hydrangeas.

There, words drop from their fingers

sculpting tributaries to the sea.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Sea Change

Yesterday I saw a tiny golden spark shoot from the tip of my index finger. I've been expecting another sign.

Several years ago, I opened my eyes to find a small black oval hovering near the bottom of my vision. I did my best to blink it away, but instead of moving around my eyeball like a gnatty floater, the spot expanded. In three days, I would be blind in my right eye, a rather ornate antique gray lace curtain shielding my sight.

"Can you see the light?" the doctor asked me. My good left eye was covered, and I was awash in darkness.

"No. I don't see anything."

"How about now?" I could feel his hand moving the air in front of my face.

"Is there supposed to be light?" I whispered, my heart keeping pace with the beat of my worry.

The first treatment involved the injection of gas bubbles into my eye, which sometimes forced torn retinas back into place. I'd have to keep my head lowered for the next 24 hours, and we'd know in less than two days if my sight would return.

That afternoon, another dimension opened. A wild laser show danced across my eyelid, an unexpected gift from my damaged eye. Intense colors drew intricate patterns that continued to morph, bisecting and imploding, leaving firework trailers in my line of vision. I watched through a gassy kaleidescope, thrilled at each twist of the tube.

"You should see this, you guys!" I called out to my family. My play-by-play of colors and movement was met with puzzlement, and I understood that it was for me alone.

Two days later, I had emergency surgery, which did restore my vision. Heavily sedated, but not asleep, I fell into a warm, euphoric dream vision. I swear I saw my doctor bounce my blind eyeball off of the wall, while he chatted about his daughter's soccer game. Whatever he did, it worked, and he nodded when I told him about the lights.

"Some patients do see things. I hear they are quite beautiful."

Yesterday, while I sat at Panera with my friend Karen, a tingling sensation started in my toes and moved upward through my body. We sat across from each other, our hands wrapped around ridged cardboard cups, talking about our children. When the tingles reached my head, I could no longer hear her, her mouth moving clearly in front of me, but her words arriving slowly through layers of air. I thought for a moment that I was going to slide from my chair, like a cartoon character that flattens into a single dimension.

"Karen...I don't know what's happening to me," I wanted to tell her, raising the alarm, imagining spinning red and blue ambulance lights. I couldn't get the words out. The electricity soon began to run again in my body, slowly clicking on the circuits until I felt whole again.

I could think of a lot of medical explanations, and I should probably see the doctor, as I have been advised by those who love me. But I think I know what it is.

There's been a shifting of my tectonic plates, a movement in my consciousness, a shaking of my core. The short in my system I felt yesterday signaled the switch, just as my private light show allowed me a second sight. I wasn't surprised to see the tiny golden spark shoot from my finger.

Recently, I feel like someone turned on my the faucet in my brain, ideas rushing freely from me, threatening to clog the drain. "I have so many ideas," I tell my husband. "Something's happened to me. Something's different. They are threatening to drown me."

"Write them down. Outline them," he offers helpfully.

But that's the shift that's occurred. I don't want to outline. I don't want to slice my writing time into neat wedges. The words are dripping from my pores, the water rising over my ankles. Soon I'll be able to splash in the well of words swirling around my legs. I want to live in that watery world, coming up when I'm gasping for breath, shaking the word droplets from my hair. Soon I'll be caught in the tide, and I may not be back for a while.

A writer friend of mine reported that she woke up from an afternoon nap to find that she was not herself.

"Well, who were you?" I asked.

"I was a Spanish writer."

"Wow," I said. "You must have been very disappointed when you really did wake up."

"That's just it," she said. "I wasn't asleep."

I'll have to remember to ask her if she's seen any sparks.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lemon Meringue Pie

My mother's lemon meringue pie should have been in the revolving glass case at Minnie's House of Pies, its sweetly-stacked white and yellow layers calling like sirens to unsuspecting diners. Patrons would have been hypnotized by the spinning lemony wheel, their plates soon licked clean, sunshiney smiles playing on their lips.

The pie was a beauty--unevenly peaked with wisps of pale meringue, golden tips whisked under the broiler, the topping hiding the translucent citron promise of a center. When my mother took the pie from the refrigerator, I'd gently pop the tiny pearls of moisture beading the surface with my little finger. The meringue stood stiffly on the wedge of cut pie, but the clear yellow filling shook a little, still feeling the movement of the knife. Each bite was a wafer-thin slice of meringue, quivering lemon, and crust, the sugary citrus creaminess coating my tongue.

I know my mother cooked dinner for us most nights, but I can only see my father stirring pots at the stove, suspenders crossing the back of his plaid shirts. Navy cook style, he served up plates of chicken and dumplings, stuffed peppers, and spaghetti. In my mind, though, I see my mother's finely-boned fingers coated with flour, the result of her mixing and rolling always delicate sweetness. An expert turn of the spritz cookie tube, plopped doughy shapes on the sheet underneath. Her cookies were finished with pale blue, pink, and yellow icings--dotted sometimes with little silver balls.

During Christmas, holiday tins were stacked in our fruit cellar, each one holding cookie layers separated by rounds of wax paper, carefully cut after tracing the lid for size. Long after my father died, we continued the tradition, even taking a cookie class together at the local high school where we learned how to roll ladylock dough around metal forms and crush almonds into batter that would be topped with raspberry jam and powdered sugar. In late November, my mother would arrive early one weekend morning, and we'd begin to mix dough, placing each plastic-wrapped log into the refrigerator to wait for its turn in the oven. My husband would watch our boys while my mother and I rolled, cut, and sugared. At the end, we'd divide our cookies into my mother's tins, sitting together for a cup of tea at the table finally wiped clean.

When I was around ten or so, my father took me along on a visit to his brother's home. I wanted my mother to come along, as I hated to think of spending a long day sitting quietly on my uncle's front porch. So many years later, it's easy to understand why she stayed at home. My uncle's remarriage to a straight-backed woman named Vera had changed the tone of our family visits. I remember Vera's face the most, colorless lips pulled naturally downward, hair pulled up into a relentless bun. On this visit, Aunt Vera seemed delighted to have me to herself, as she pulled me into the kitchen where she'd laid out the ingredients for a pie--a lemon meringue pie.

"Oh! Lemon meringue is my favorite," I told her. "My mother makes the best!"

"We'll see, won't we?"

Of course, she went around it all the wrong way. She planned on using lemon pudding for the filling, and a box mix for the crust sat on the counter. I knew that my mother's crust involved leveling cups of flour with a knife and her secret ingredient--a creamy oil called Whirl. The part of the pie I loved the most, though, was the filling. A milky pudding center just wouldn't do.

I tried to help Aunt Vera by instructing her on my mother's recipe, including a vivid description of the tiny beads of moisture on the meringue. "It's just perfect," I summed up.

"Well, I'll tell you something that's not perfect about your mother," Vera responded. "She wears too much lipstick, and she's going to lose all the color in her lips because of it."

"I wear lipstick sometimes," I retorted, lying in solidarity with my mother.

"Only cheap women wear lipstick."

I had a vision of my mother's face, red hair bobbed to her shoulders, pink lipstick framing her lips. My face felt hot, and I moved to the doorway. "My mother isn't cheap," I told her, "and your lemon pie will never be as good as hers."

Finding my father on the porch, I sat next to him on the old green striped glider. I waited for Vera to come after me, but she didn't. My dad and I kept perfect rhythm, our heels pushing off in tandem. It never occurred to me that Vera might have been just as afraid as I to share our conversation with my father.

In the last years of her life, my mother didn't cook much of anything. While she was still able to get out on her own, she ate out for as many meals as she could, even when she had to eat alone.

"I stopped for a bite," she'd tell me when I asked what she'd had for dinner. She carried coupons in her purse just in case.

I'm not sure when things shifted, and my mother began spending most of her time in the blue corduroy chair in her den, seated next to the large humming oxygen concentrator. Going out meant hours of preparation: a bath the night before since the exertion was too much on the day of the outing, laying out an outfit on the wicker chair next to her bed--many trips in socked feet between the closet and the dresser drawers, getting up three hours before we'd leave so she could have a little orange juice with her pills and sit down between all the parts of getting dressed. Mostly, that last year, I'd take her to the Giant Eagle. If we had time, we'd stop for a late breakfast at Bob Evans, "where they knew how to cook eggs."

Going to the Giant Eagle wore me out, too. After I helped my mother down the four steps from her hallway and across the lobby, I'd dash across the parking lot to the car. I'd pull up in front of her building, jump out of the car, help her get settled, then slide back into my seat. I'd follow the same routine at the restaurant, and again at the Giant Eagle. After I loaded my trunk with her groceries, I'd retrieve her in front of the store and buckle her into the front seat. Back again in front of her apartment building, I'd unload her and the groceries. We'd struggle up the four steps with our respective baggage--her oxygen tank on her shoulder, my knuckles creased white from the handles of plastic bags. Opening the door with a shaky hand, she'd lurch into the blue velvet chair closest to the door. I'd lug the remaining bags up the steps, divide the groceries between the cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer, and sit for a few minutes chatting. Later, I'd complain about the drawn-out process to my sister, my husband, my children.

"Mom, why don't you let me run to the store for you?" I'd ask, promising how quickly I'd be there and back with all the items on her list.

"I'll think about it," she'd always say. "Next week, maybe."

The next week would find us back in the Giant Eagle, her knobbed fingers fumbling with her carefully clipped coupons. Most weeks, she needed something from every aisle. I ran interference for her, matching coupons with cans and boxes. Her cart was stocked with convenience foods.

Our last stop was always the frozen dessert cases. She'd pull six or seven coupons from her envelope for waffles, ice cream sandwiches, slices of pie. The last week we shopped together, just four days before she went to the hospital, just seven days before she died alone in a single room, she chose a pie-shaped box containing a single slice of frozen lemon meringue pie. When my sister and I cleaned out her refrigerator after the funeral, most of the groceries we'd purchased during that trip were uneaten. There was no pie-shaped box of lemon meringue pie in the freezer. I hope she enjoyed it; I hope it had a lovely clear lemon filling.

Recently I made a pie for a Sunday dinner with my son and his girlfriend. I layered apples and dried cranberries with sugar inside of a refrigerated pie crust. Andy said it was the best pie he's had in a while. My father-in-law says I make the best pumpkin pie he's ever tasted.

I've never made a lemon meringue pie.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

When I Grow Up

Part of me aches for her all the time: my mother hands yearning to smooth back silky hair, my arms twitching to enfold her, even against her struggle. My body does not forget.

I have the following conversation at least once a week, most often in the grocery store, the place I am likely to encounter people who know us. The exchange of pleasantries varies, but the rest goes like this:

"Is Laura still out"

"California? Yes, yes she is."

"Is she still playing..."

"Lacrosse? Well, yes she is."

"Gee, I really have to hand it to you. I could never let my daughter go so far away." The translation of this last line reads "I love my daughter too much to send her 3,000 miles away."

Part of me agrees with the grocery store crowd. How could I give up those weekend visits, basking physically in her space, brunching at the local eggery with her roommates? The other part of me asks "How could I not?" This is my daughter's life, I remind myself, not mine to be measured out in coffee spoons, to be lived cautiously within the rigid boundaries I've set for myself.

The calm way I go about my life, teaching my classes, reading, deciding what to eat for dinner, camoflauges the void that used to be Laura-filled. When Rachel, her younger sister, completed a second-grade project about the family, she drew a picture of a tornado next to Laura's name. It happens like this: Laura walks in, and the lights dim. The air is full of static, crackling with her presence. At the camp in Japan where she worked last summer, the others dubbed her "genki," meaning crazy, full of life.

The way it works when you sign your child over to a Division 1 sports team is that everything else now comes first, before you, even before her. Workouts, practices, games, team meetings, study time fill up every little blue line in her planner. This past weekend, we were fortunate to have a little time at breakfast, three hours one afternoon, and a half hour at the after-game tailgate. We drove 500 miles to see her, leaving after work, both of us bleary-eyed already, arriving in Connecticut just after three a.m. For the last 50 miles of the trip, I drove lurchingly in the right lane over curving roads nearly covered by a canopy of ghostly tree branches arching from both sides. At the exit, I turned left into the hotel driveway, nearly hitting a barrier there.

Nothing mattered, though, except that we would be sleeping in the same hotel as she, that when my alarm went off at 8:00 a.m., I would fling open the door, pound down the steps into the breakfast room, where she would be, miraculously, my daughter, mine.

That first day I was lucky. Laura had the afternoon off--the promise of three unclaimed hours!, and we spent it in our hotel room, seeking some semblance of home life, she and I sitting hip to hip on the sofa--me ursurping the spot next to her. We watched television, flipping channels to find a show we'd once watched routinely together, creating a false scene of familiarity. Shortly before she had to leave, we woke up, her head heavy against my shoulder.

I don't know how to explain what happens between us. Perhaps my voice loses its precarious balance, the slipping of an octave indicating disapproval. Maybe I am just too much up close and in person, pressing Laura to remember that I'm really not an everyday force in her life. As a baby, she fought against the highchair, kicking and drumming until she was released, the rest of us bouncing her on our laps while we finished dinner one handed.

At school sometimes, I have to close my office door, so I can work, although I'd really rather not. Perhaps my leopard rug extends an invitation, and students and faculty alike wander in, drifting to the chair in the corner, telling me about their days, inviting me into their lives. We laugh everyday while my children look down from their pictures on the shelves. A photograph taped directly in my line of vision shows three hands piled on top of each other, each wearing the beaded beach bracelet Rachel buys for us. We wear them until they fall off, and we compare stories of longevity. I've worn them on my ankle some years, giving presentations before the faculty in slacks just long enough to cover Rachel's bohemian gift. All for one, and one for all our picture promises, a solidarity of Sunday women, a trio who once sat in wet bathing suits on sandy picnic benches at Le Bec Rouge.

By the next morning of our visit, I was an irritant, so much sand under her tongue. Chatting about her Chicago internship this summer, I wished aloud about a weekend visit, one for me that promised a sunny city adventure in a place that we could reach by car. Ever since I heard about her acceptance, a comforting mantra ran through my head...she'll be closer...she'll be closer, the Chicago location making real the possibility that if I had to, I could get in the car and find her, fall out of the car into her world, nothing between us but a day's drive.

"I want to have time for my friends," she said. "When I was in Japan, I had so much fun with the people I met there...I just want to have time. It will all go so fast."

Blinking, I look away, but Laura's words throw me back 30 years to when I was her age, packing for a semester abroad in Spain. My mother paced the room, making me nervous as I tried to calculate what I might need for a new life.

"Maybe I'll come visit you in March," she began hopefully. "I've been looking at some brochures about Marbella."

"Can't you just leave me alone?" I sputtered, physically recoiling, gasping for breathing space. "This is my life, not yours. You've already lived your life. Now it's my turn!"

My words were full of such an obvious desire to be free from her, from the small life I thought she lived, that I don't know how she survived them. I can do nothing now to change that day--no matter how many times I revisit it desiring to sponge those words from her brow. Instead I carry the words with me like the polished stones Jews leave in the cemetery for remembrance.

That afternoon, we sat in the stands watching Laura on the field, the cold sun picking up lines of gold and copper in her hair. My heart wants to burst when I think of her sweet and open approach to the world. She is so good, so good. I want to be just like her when I grow up.

Missing her wells in me, rough waters threatening to pull me under. At the sound of my morning alarm, I imagine her still asleep, curled on her side, three hours behind me. We are connected by phone lines, divided by time differences. She calls me while riding her bike home, my mind tangled in the three lanes of traffic she has to cross with a phone held to one ear. Sometimes she calls me while in line at Starbucks, saying " you" as she reaches the register.

When we talk, I tamp down the gray froth of worry that skirts our conversation. I make an effort to brighten my tone, sometimes patting myself on the back for how well I conceal the sum of her absence, hiding my sorrow that she's not closer so we could sit over lunch. I lock away the vision of our heads bending toward the steam rising from our coffee.

"Be happy, Mom," she tells me. "Are you happy?"

After the game, I waited with her father and brother, leaning against our car, chatting with other parents about all that is our daughters. Arriving at a trot, with a quick embrace for her men, she caught the eye of another mother, one she sees far more often. Heads together, arms around waists, they nodded knowingly at each other's words, walking easily together toward the food table.

Where did I belong then? I stood conspiciously alone, the miserable figure on the fringe of a movie set, my red coat too bright. It's how she survives, I tell myself, a strong young woman so far from home in a world that asks so much from her.

But how do I?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On Being Married to a Scientist

At work, I'm surrounded by writing couples, poets and novelists and writers of creative nonfiction living together in what I assume to be a perfect harmony of the arts. I imagine writing desks set in the middle of gardens swelling with blue hyrdrangia, coffee in thick hand-thrown pottery, wordy conversations in worn leather airchairs set by the fire-- a world in which getting it down on paper takes priority over the mundane.

Me, I'm married to a scientist, who is such a good man. This morning he sat at our breakfast table, spooning up Honey Nut Cheerios and blueberries, while discussing the inevitable pollution from Marcellus Shale drilling. It seems that the rivers have been rising since the drilling began. Those in the Marcellus Shale camp identify road salt runoff as the culprit. My guy, wrinkling his brow in concentration, says "There's a spike in the bromiated compounds, and that doesn't come from road salt." When I ask him to explain, he uses words like hallogenated along with a couple of abbreviations like THM's.

"You are speaking in a language I don't understand," I tell him. His clear blue eyes register surprise, and he begins again, patiently seeking to enlighten me.

We've been married for a long time, long enough to include the growing of four children, the death of parents, and plenty of worse along with the better. He still looks like the boy I fell for in high school, a broad-shouldered, strong-limbed athlete. I'm sure I look less like the girl I was then, although that's who my husband still sees when he looks at me. One of the remarkable surprises of my life is that he's loved me unconditionally every day, even when I am wild-eyed with worry, spouting recriminations, sobbing until the pale skin around my eyes splotches with red welts.

Who am I to him, I wonder, in the deep quiet of his soul. I hope I am his soft place to fall, although sometimes I make myself small, threatening invisibility. He listens happily to my classroom tales, my curriculum plans, my department news. One night, while waiting to pick up our youngest daughter at the movies, we sat in the mall restaurant, drinking Tangqueray martinis, outlining a making notes, he urging the ideas past dark marks on a napkin.

At dinner the other night, I mentioned that one of my former students had messaged me on Facebook after reading one of my blog posts. "Would it be lame," she wondered "to tell you that you are really good at writing?"

"What did you tell her?"

"Ha! I told her I wrestle with confidence in my writing every day. Tell me! Tell me more!"

He chuckled as if he had no doubt that Sarah was right, but the truth is that my husband doesn't read what I write. He has no explanation.

"You don't read what I write."

"I know," he says with a duck of his head.

If I'm jealous of writing couples, sharing of my work tops the envy list. Of course, in my fantasy, there is no other editorial will influencing my own expression, no questioning voice or red pencil. In my marriage, my husband is innocent of infringing on the creative me, simply respecting that his wife writes. He's proud of my choice to teach, even though I've compromised our finances by turning away from much more lucrative positions to stay in the classroom. For my birthday, he bought me an e-reader so I'd never be without something to read.

After all these years, we live inside each other, boundaries now blurred between us, with almost a single will moving us forward. But yet, a watery shadow steps out of the us, taking on a separate flesh when my words meet paper.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Paper Armor

The words grew up around her, intertwining with her legs and arms, braiding through her hair. They protected her, creating a paper armor made of twenty-six letters, crisp in their blackness against the white page. She could live inside them if she had to.

Sometimes she did, pulling words over her head like sheets, burrowing into them in a refusal to rise and take on the day. Words had always comforted her; as long as she could remember, she'd held a book in her hands, safe passage ready at the moment the pages fell open, although she hadn't always needed them as much as she did now.

And so she sat still, letting the words sprout from her skin, the tender shoots sending twirling, burrowing tendrils.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Learning My Lesson

I've been wrestling with this piece for years. I wrote it from the heart, snapping words onto the page like so many aces, but that initial winning streak ended quickly. Once out of my imagination, taking form in black Times New Roman on the standard-size page, the subject resisted me, wiggling its form, flipping over just out of my reach like the rat snake that lives in the corner of my garage.

In its first incarnation, this piece was about reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood when I was 11 years old. Capote's words marked me as a writer, giving me a direction I wouldn't understand until many years later, and I wanted to send up flares to light my path. So, first, I wrote about what I remembered best--encountering the book on top of my father's stack of reading material in our blue-tiled bathroom.As I wrote, I was temporarily content with the word picture I'd created of the precocious reader I'd once been. I revelled in the pictures created by my words, the snap of one lego-like word into the next.

So the piece waited, patiently stored in my computer docs. Years later, after reinventing my creative nonfiction course at a new school, I had the thought to turn my Capote piece into a discussion of essential truth in modern nonfiction. I wrote and researched, pulling in quotes and examples, highlighting the great Oprah Winfrey/James Frey debacle caused by Frey's "lies" in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. Mixing creative nonfiction techniques with scholarship, I created a hybrid of sorts that pushed the boundaries of conventional form. When our scholarship committee sent out a query for writing to be workshopped, I volunteered and sent my Capote piece off for reviewing.

I don't know what I expected. Academics don't always do creative nonfiction well. Brilliant colleagues have been known to lean against my office door, asking "How would you define creative nonfiction again?" Suggestions were made at the scholarship group that I should rework my writing to be more instructional, less emotional.

Ahh...and I knew better, too. A cardinal rule for writing workshops in my classrooms is to follow where the story takes us; so, if a well-intentioned criticism from a well-intentioned participant will derail your story, ignore it! Shortly, most of the creative nonfiction lay on the cutting room floor, and the pathetic remains went back to the document waiting room.

Those who know me well understand that Capote is just under my skin, so this troublesome piece of writing hasn't been far from my creative thoughts. I decided recently to give it another try, this time going back to the original. Then came the query from a former creative nonfiction student, now taking a class in online publishing, for a "piece of creative nonfiction, one" I "might have just lying around" that he might publish in the creative nonfiction section.

I thought the Capote piece might just do the trick, as it indeed has been "lying around." The problem is that I'm a different person now, and I'm finally arriving where Capote has been leading me. Words that sync together with a vaccuum "whoosh" aren't enough anymore. As I write, I the advice I give my students grates in my ears:

Show, don't tell.
Sometimes we don't know what the focus is until we find it.
There must be layers, vertically and horizontally.
The reader must be able to find your personal discovery and a universal discovery.

I am stuck in the mire of my own philosophy.

My piece is no longer straightforward. It has been deprived of sunlight, its leaves a sickly yellow, its twisted roots now drawing strength from the dark underground. My story has becomes less about Capote and more about my father's alcoholism. Bruised images of sponges being stuffed into weeping mouths flicker behind my eyelids, and I write about the shelter words built over me and around me.

I'm stuck in the quicksand of my own writing, my own life, and no matter how hard I try to pull my weighted legs from the muck, I struggle vainly, sinking, sinking, sinking until the wet sand stops my breath.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Yes, Michael?

"Yes, Michael?"

I'm expecting an insightful comment from one of my youngest creative nonfiction writing students. We'd been discussing a rather stressful piece by David Mamet, "The Rake," a well-crafted recounting of physical and emotional abuse doled out to Mamet and his sister, calmly and systematically, by their mother and stepfather. Each time I sink into Mamet's words, my heart freezes as I stand a helpless witness to the thud of a slender back against a hooked shelf, the sharp crack of a brush against a cheekbone. the pool of blood amassing in a dinner plate. I wonder what the students think.

"I was just thinking..."

"Yes, Michael?"

"Well, I just remembered that if I don't call the police in the next ten minutes, there may be a warrant out for my arrest."

"I guess you'd better go call the police, then."

Blushing a bit, he bolts from the classroom, only to return a few minutes later with a smile.

"Are you going to be arrested?" I ask.


"Is this for the parking ticket you got in the Morgantown Mall parking lot?"

"Yes," again with a grin.

So,this is what I know about Michael. He got a ticket in the Morgantown Mall parking lot for failing to stop at the end of a traffic aisle. The ticket was a big one. He might have been arrested, but he wasn't.

Sometimes he looks uncomfortable in his seat, his long frame compacted into a sharp angular configuration of beige plastic and shiny metal legs. He moves around a lot, probably futilely seeking a better position. Sometimes I worry that my words aren't making their way across the classroom to him, getting stuck in the heads of the girls who sit in front of him. Are my words not interesting enough, either professorly or creative-writerly enough? Am I repeating what he already knows? Have I not blown enough helium into my ideas for maximum byoyancy? Maybe I'm not enunciating clearly, dropping a syllable here and there, so the entire message can't reach him. It's possible that he's a poet, and creative nonfiction leaves him cold. Then again, perhaps these questions are more about me and my rambling insecurities than about him.

For he is a friendly, earnest student. We all look toward him expectantly when he speaks. What might Michael say?

Yesterday, we all learned something else about Michael. We were workshopping student drafts, and I asked "So, what are you thinking, Michael?"

"What am I thinking? What am I thinking?" Pinking inward from the sides of his face, he said "Well, actually I'm thinking that my computer has 17% battery, and it's about to die any minute."

He did go on to share his useful thoughts about the piece of writing we were discussing--stopping in the middle to show us how his computer screen had indeed gone blank, but none of what he said was nearly as interesting to me as contemplating the places Michael's mind travels to while his body is sitting in room 321.

Listening to Annie Dillard

Written after reading a passage from Annie Dillard's On the Writing Life to a creative nonfiction writing class.

When I write, I often do stick to the path, careful not to step on the cracks, to break my mother's back--carefully excavating, mindful not to nick the sidewalls or hit the unstable pocket that will cause the cave-in, the moral collapse of what I know to be true.

Isn't it better to wear my headlamp and carry a backpack full of emergency measures for stopping the holes than to worry, than to turn down--fall down--the shaft with no light?

Light keeps me steady when I follow the direct, marked path. Darkness plunges me into uncertainty--do I turn left or right?--and my words become clumsy in their blindness.

If I stay centered in the floodlights, I can brick my path with molded words, all pointing dutifully to my predetermined discovery. My writer's soul is safe, moving in that predictable pattern, and I will have written well enough.