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Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Joy of Repeating

The Joy of Repeating
            Emily’s eager voice comes through the other end of the phone. 
            “Mommy, I was wondering know...if it’s okay with you...because Bryn’s mom already said it’s I wanted to know...if it’s not too much trouble...” Her voice fades out into the distance, and I smile on the other end of the line, knowing what she’s about to ask.
            “Just tell me what you want to ask me, Monkey.”
            “Well, Bryn wanted to know if maybe I could stay and spend the night at her house and then tomorrow we could come to my house and we could have a sleepover there and maybe we could go to a movie or something or we could watch something on Netflix and do we have any popcorn?”
            Dave sits in his chair next to me, his feet propped up on the ottoman, our brindle lab mix, Desi, snuggling by his side.  He chuckles and nods his head in agreement, mirroring my actions as though we’re one body with two heads.  I think to myself that I’ve heard this conversation before, but that time the twelve-year-old voice on the other end of the line was mine.
            I said yes, of course, to a squeaky chorus of “She said yes! She said yes!” from the other end of the line.
            A friendship that’s lasted almost forty years so far began that way, too.  Ginger and I were like two opposite sides of the same coin.  Her blonde curls the opposite of my brunette shag haircut, her bright blue eyes in every way different from my dark brown ones, and yet the friendship that we forged during the winter of 1976 in Miss Byerline’s third grade classroom and on the frozen playground of Center School in Lenox would survive marriages, the births of four children and the loss of one, her parents divorce and mine moving us over a thousand miles apart, the death of a woman we both called “Mom”, a breast cancer diagnosis, two mastectomies, chemotherapy, and a reconstruction, a spinal surgery and a forearm rebuild, our fathers’ heart attacks, years when we spoke only on holidays, and ones where we were as inseparable over the phone as we once were on that elementary school playground.  What I didn’t know all those years ago, while we protected each other from the threats from Barron Kern that he’d whitewash us in the snow if he caught us, was that this friendship, this magical, strong bond that we’d created, would be the sustaining force of my life.
            In Emily and Bryn, it happens again.  Emily’s long, dark hair and deep brown eyes are the opposite of Bryn’s blonde curls and laughing blue eyes.  Like Ginger and I, their interests diverge, but they find common ground in a friendship that knows nothing about differences.  The next evening I hear them in the basement, their little girl giggles calling to me up the stairs in a way that makes my heart grow and ache at the same time.  I bark down half-hearted warnings to turn off the lights and go to bed, but behind my stern voice is a grin turned up on one side and a knowing shake of my head.  This is what best friends should do.
            Forty years ago, Ginger’s mom called up the stairs to her bedroom with the same words, the same tone, and likely the same smile.  We lay side-by-side in her twin bed, staring up at the Andy Gibb poster on her ceiling, drinking lime Kool-aid that we’d made with three times as much sugar as the packet instructions called for, and dreaming of our somedays.  Our hands still smell of horses from working in the barn behind her family’s house, and my cheeks are still red from the wind whipping at them while I watched Ginger skillfully ride Dixie around the ring and maneuver her over low jumps.  My boots sit at the end of the bed, and there’s a combination of hay and manure stuck to the bottom of the left sole from when we mucked out his stall together.  Tomorrow, while I’m at my gymnastics team practice, cleaned of barn debris and dressed in a navy blue leotard with red and white stripes that run from under my wrist down to my hip, Ginger will be out in the ring again, she and Dixie riding circles in the soft, brown dirt, jumping the fences, and feeding the big dairy cow in the meadow under the grey winter skies of western New England. 
            After school on Monday, when Emily heads to her middle school play rehearsal, Bryn will return home to walk her basset hounds, Sadie and Sunny.  Emily will sing, dance, and smile on the stage while Bryn circles the neighborhood with her charges.  When Bryn’s chores are done and Emily’s rehearsal over, they’ll be on the phone with each other again, calling and texting and talking like only best friends do.  They’ll talk about the boys they like, what they’ll do on the first snow day of the school year, and why having much older brothers is both a blessing and a curse. 
            And when I descend the stairs and find them in the basement, the glow from the television screen is the only light in the room.  On the floor below it, they snuggle side-by-side in sleeping bags, both finally asleep and maybe dreaming of their somedays.  I switch off the television, grab the glasses of half-drunk milk, and walk back up the stairs thinking about their future, of all the joy and pain that they might see one another through over the next forty years.  And I hope that the bond that Ginger and I found in one another will repeat in them, that Emily will be by Bryn’s side on the day she marries the love of her life, and that Bryn will be the one to lighten Emily’s suffering when a tragedy befalls her family.  That this friendship, this bond, this magic, will last a lifetime because this is what I know, after all of the fear and the joy, the grief and the celebrations, the faith and doubt: as Robert Frost said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Communion: A Boy and His Dogs

            It wasn’t so much that he said goodbye to them.  It was more like he communed with them. 
            Alex knelt on the floor beside Lucy, our yellow lab mix, and touched his forehead to hers, his fingers stroking the sides of her face.  Both of them, with their eyes closed, understood that this was the last time they’d be like this for a while, and if dogs could cry, I’m certain Lucy would have sobbed.  Desi’s brindle stripes stood out against the red chair that she’d melted into.  Her long body was spread over the back cushion, one back leg underneath her and one dangling toward the seat in a hopeless gesture.  Her head lowered to her front feet and cradled by the arm of the chair, the look in her eyes spoke volumes.  The six-foot-tall young man that moved to her side and kissed the top of her head barely resembled the squealing little boy he’d been almost nine years ago when she bound into the room to surprise him the day we brought them home.
            We’d sat Alex on the couch when he came home from school that day in 2005, instructed him to close his eyes and hold out his hands, and deposited a ball of warm blonde fluff into his small palms.  Lucy relaxed in his hands, pointing her tiny brown nose up at him, her whiskers twitching with curiosity. 
            “This is Lucy.  Lucy?  Alex.  Alex?  Lucy.  What do you think?” I asked him with tears in my eyes.
            “I love her!  I love her so much!”  He lowered his face to hers, both of them breathing in the scent of the other, memorizing the smell of unconditional love. 
            “I hate to break this up, but there’s one more thing...” I trailed off as the door to the family room opened and Desi bounced into the room.  All long, gangly puppy legs and tail wagging in circles like churning helicopter blades, she ran right for him.  Her white toes and chest gave contrast to the black and brown brindle stripes of her coat, and a warm pink tongue hung from her mouth.  I scooped her up and put her in his lap, and within a moment she had her little puppy paws up on his chest, covering his face in tiny, frantic kisses.  A boy and his dogs. 
            He’d find comfort in them through the years of his childhood and young adulthood.  They were there when he had his heart broken for the first time, when his grandmother passed away, when Dave moved to Colorado five months ahead of the family for a new job.  The three of them had seen difficult days together, but their presence was resolute.  They existed as the one constant for the boy who loved them in a string of months and years filled with heartache. 
            So on this last day, when the car was jammed from roof to floor with microwave, mini-fridge, clothes, books, and childhood memories, this was our grown son’s final task before we pulled out of the driveway for the eight hour trek to Fort Lewis College in Durango.  The girls aren’t as perky now as they once were.  Lucy climbs the stairs more slowly than she used to, and Desi’s once dark snout is covered with the white hair of advancing age.  But one thing is still the same: they are still his puppies in every way that counts.
            He never said a word.  No murmurs of goodbye or missing them.  He just knelt down that way, his forehead pressed to theirs, his soft kisses left on their fur.  He unfolded his long limbs from the floor, brushed past his Dad and I in the hallway and walked out onto the back deck.  We watched him there, the sliding glass door closed behind him, at the edge of the world he knew but about to step off into a new one.  Surrounded by the flutter of leaves and the chirps of squirrels running from tree to tree, he stared blankly out into the grass, the garden, the swing set Papa built for him when he was just five years old.
            I turned to my husband and pantomimed a knife stabbing through my heart and turning round and round in jagged circles. 
            A week later, Alex is in his dorm room four hundred miles away.
            They’re still looking for him.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Backwards Revision Epiphany

I can't believe that it took me this long to figure it out.  I've been revising the same way for years, and just today did I finally figure out that I've been doing it all wrong, all this time.  At least, I've been doing it wrong for me.

Over the years, pretty much every writing class that I've ever taken has taught me that when it comes to revision, start big and work your way down to the small details.  The funny thing is that the best writing is the details, and if those are wrong, the rest of the revisions that I make have to be revised again, and I still end up frustrated that parts of a piece that I know should be working simply aren't.  What I learned, and what will completely change my life and my work as a non-fiction writer, is that I needed to turn that advice on its head.

Non-fiction is a funny thing, because those of us who write it and specialize in memoir or personal essay are often the protagonist of our material.  Even when we don't write about ourselves specifically, we write about the lives, joys and struggles of people that we know well.  Because of that, it's often difficult for us to extract our narrator selves from our writer selves.  The material is so intensely personal that our attachment to it is unbearably strong.  I've struggled over the years to distance myself enough to see the work in a more objective way.  I've started many pieces that I never finished, because I wasn't happy with the way that they turned out, but couldn't fix them because I was unwilling to "kill my darlings."

I took a different tack today, almost by mistake, and it was a revelation.  Rather than focusing on revising globally (working on the "big ideas") of the work, I started with sentence level revisions.  Changing verbs from passive to active, working on constructions, deleting adverbs, making weak verbs strong verbs.  I worked only on sentences: not paragraphs or pages or everything all at once.  What amazed me was that as I did this, I was able to be objective!  I wasn't working on changing big elements of the story, I was simply picking out every word and adding, deleting, or changing them.  I revised the sentences one by one, tedious work, but worth every minute.  As I looked back over what I did today, I realized that I'd improved this piece in one day more than I've ever improved another piece of my writing after months of work!  As I continue to work my way up to the bigger things, I can only imagine that by the time I get to the really big elements, I'll be able to see the piece with a far more detached and professional eye.  It'll change my life.

There's a reason for the old adage, "There's more than one way to skin a cat."  For most people, what I've been taught likely works just fine, but for me, it caused anxiety and stress that I didn't even understand.  Whatever you do, find the way that works, not for everyone, but for you.  Try as many different approaches as you can, and wait for the epiphany to unfold.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The First, Biggest Challenge of Grad School

After I drop my daughter off at school in the morning, shower and dress, I take a steaming cup of coffee into my home office and get to work.  I open my Mac laptop, click on Word, and a blank page appears on the screen in front of me.  Now...what to write?

Over the last few years, enrolled in undergraduate writing courses, I've been able to rely on assignments to feed my writing.  Rarely has a professor looked at me and said, "Okay.  Go write something.  Whatever you feel like writing."  This is a new experience, and one that I'm finding more than a little intimidating.  This semester, my "assignment" is to write short pieces, many of them.  Topics are completely open, but the finished pieces need to be self-contained (a beginning, middle and end), and range from a paragraph to no more than five pages.  Those of you who have been in writing classes with me, or who taught those classes, know that writing short is not my strong suit.

More than one professor has told me that I'm a "book writer", someone for whom the long form is the most comfortable fit.  A lover of detail and setting, even when I try to write short pieces, they turn into longer ones.  Whenever I work on something that was originally intended to be short, someone that reads it will inevitably ask me if it's going to be book length.  "No," I reply.  "This one's really going to be short."  They look at me, bewildered by my answer.  "Are you sure?  I think this needs to be long."  Sigh.

So, even though writing short is a difficult thing for me, doing just that for an entire semester will help me to grow immensely as a writer.  My longwinded tendencies have to be shoved into a drawer, as I create short pieces that actually end.  I'm starting with the longer ones, four or five pages, and working my way backwards to the shortest of them.  Provided that I can think of enough short topics to write about, this should be a great experience for me.

The blank page stares back at me, and it knows that I'm struggling.  It teases me, taunts me with it's open space, knowing that even finding a topic is elusive.  I grab an old journal and dig for inspiration.  Something catches my attention - a snippet of an idea that I never followed, or a line of dialogue that I wrote down on the train.  I write one sentence, maybe two or three, and stop.  I save the document and continue digging, mining for new ideas while the others marinate.  Right now, getting plenty of ideas down is half the battle.  The war awaits...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cookie Mania

For Girl Scouts all over the United States, cookie season kicked off yesterday!  It's no different in my house, as Emily sets her sights on her order goal for the 2012 cookie sale.  In Colorado, all troops are selling cookies directly this year - there are no order sheets here!  My dining room table is covered with colorful (and tempting!) cases of cookies of every variety.  Tagalongs, Trefoils, Thin Mints, Savannah Smiles, Samoas, Dulce De Lece, Thank You Berry Munch, and Do-Si-Do's are piled high, just waiting for the buyers to snatch them up.

Yesterday morning, Em and I loaded the wagon with cases of cookies and set out around the neighborhood.  This is the first year that Coloradoans have been able to get their cookies immediately, and they couldn't have been happier.  Most people responded, "You mean, I can order them, and have them RIGHT NOW?" I pulled the wagon, walking behind the little girl that used to ride in it.  She's growing so fast that I can hardly believe it.  We've gone from onesies to flared jeans, pink t-shirts to training bras.  How does the time go by so quickly?  Before I know it, she'll be starting middle school, then high school, then college.  I watched the breeze ruffle her brown hair, watched her smile and giggle when a homeowner said that they'd love to buy some cookies from her.  These moments are important ones, as she learns the value of hard work, of pounding the pavement in search of a goal and reaping the rewards.  I remember my own days of selling Girl Scout cookies in Stratford, Connecticut.  At the time, I believe cookies were still about $1.50 a box, and it seemed like an enormous sum in 1973.  Regardless, selling those cookies left me with a feeling of pride and accomplishment, and I hope that Emily will get the same thing out of this experience.

We left a lot of Smoky Hill homeowners with boxes of cookies and huge smiles, but the biggest smile was on Emily's face, as we counted up the money at home and figured out how many boxes we'd sold.  If you see us out there, dragging the wagon behind us, stop and say hello.  Buy a box of cookies or two, and help us to remember these magical moments of being mother and daughter - bonding over cookies and a job well done.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Wisdom Project

The semester is in full swing and I'm hard at work on the reading and writing for the first submission which is due in a couple of weeks.  I'm also working on my interdisciplinary studies class for the semester, and I'm really quite excited about it.  The class, Creative Writing Pedagogy, allows me to create any type of creative writing class that I might be interested in teaching, and among my tasks for the semester is coming up with a series of 12 lesson plans that would comprise a full class.  I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do.  I'd love to teach, and the options for what kind of class I could create were endless, but the choice was an easy one for me: I'm creating a memoir writing class for seniors.

My workshop, tentatively titled "The Wisdom Project" is something that I can teach to seniors in many different settings, including senior centers, community centers, assisted living facilities, and more.  My goal is to help seniors to learn how to record meaningful snapshots of their personal experiences that can be passed on to future generations.  The wisdom that our seniors hold within them is priceless, and that information is integral to the history of our country, and to their own families.

By the time that my beautiful Mom, Margaret Lane DeChario, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, so many of her memories were either lost to her or so intertwined with others that it was nearly impossible to record them in any kind of meaningful way.  While I remember some of the stories of her life, there are far more others that I never had the opportunity to learn.  A project like this, that might have preserved them for my siblings and I, our children, and generations still to come, would have been something that we would have cherished forever.  What a gift it would be to be able to give that gift to other families!

At some point, I'm interested in following this project with the creation of a business as a personal historian.  As such, I'd have the opportunity to interview families and create audio, video or written stories or books that comprise some of the important memories that we build our families on.  I'm hoping to ask my father to be my guinea pig, creating the kind of history of personal experiences that I was unable to gather from Mom.  Every now and then, when I least expect it, he pops up with some obscure memory that has me enthralled and amazed.  It's time to write them down, to record his words, and have something that I can give to my children someday.  Something to cherish forever - a piece of Dad that will live on forever.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Goodbye, Cambridge - Hello, Berkshires

The Lesley University MFA students scattered to the winds this afternoon.  Warm hugs, smiles and promises to keep in touch dwindled as the day went on and less and less of us were still there.  I was one of the last to leave, hanging on to every remaining minute, I attended graduation, said my goodbyes, and walked out of the empty quad for the last time.  Just before I got to the street, I looked back over my shoulder to imprint the place where I spent so many hours in the last 10 days on my memory.

I'd heard that MFA residencies tend to form close bonds, creating relationships that last through long, sometimes lonely semesters at home, each of us huddled in front of laptops in our individual places in the country (and abroad).  In such a short but intense period, it's amazing how close you can become with a group of people that you otherwise never would have met.  I'm awed by the talent and the generosity of the students here - so willing to let me into their exclusive circle and make me one of their own.  I worried, before I got here, that I might not fit in, but I'm glad to say that I was wrong.  It's easy for me to imagine the happy reunions that I'll have with this new writing family when I return for the next four residencies.

It's time to move on, to cap off my time here with a couple of precious days with my best friend of 36 years and her beautiful family.  I get to see them so rarely, and I'm so excited to wrap Ginger, Ken, Ashleigh and Paige in a huge hug and nestle into the Berkshires for a couple of days before I make my way back home.  What a great way to end this magical experience.

Goodbye, Cambridge.  This is a trip that I'll always remember.  When your trees burst with leaves, your flowers blossom, and the sun warms your streets, I'll be back.  See you in June.