The ocean takes us all. Takes us out of our regular spots in our regular days. Takes us away from home. Takes us into a rhythm that deserves the word, "rhythm," filling our ears and remaking our lives.
When I say, "we're beach people," I mean something different than perhaps you know. I mean, "we're people of the tides, of the sand and the waves and the flotsam and jetsam, of the storms and the winds and the awesome intensity of an ocean of unimaginable size." We do not lie on sunny sand strip with books and boomboxes. We dig, we run, we pull it into our fists like a baby's finger.
The boys discover the room I loved and take it over, claiming spots on beds under slanted eaves, setting up for each of the a desk. Only Everett uses his; the others crowd around and watch him play a game and then rush, run, up and down the stairs, sliding and climbing down and up the banister, jumping off the railings kamikaze. This house is solid, imperturbable, impenetrable. We let them.
What do we do with this spring break? We watch the waves and listen, we run and stand still, we dig holes and burrow our legs under all these tiny grains of what once was stone. We hunt half-shells and bits of rope from Japan. It is the time when everything, we're sure, comes from Japan. And Monroe asks, can we see China yet in the bottom of our hole?
We eat fish and vegetables in a restaurant sprayed by salt and surf. We walk through a tunnel in a cliff. We let the boys toast over and over, to a great meal, to the delicious shrimp, to arugula, to family.
One night I stay up very late, reading a book I have brought with me. In the book the mother and the father have gone, died in brief time before the first page takes off. I am lying in the bed next to my own sleeping boys and the surf sounds are crashing quietly, rhythmically, always quietly and rhythmically unless they are ear-shatteringly loud and rhythmically, behind the window near the bed. I read the whole book in a rush, and when I finish I can hear the waves again. They have not stopped this whole time but I have not heard them, the words filled my head.
I get out of bed and take my computer and write, closing and opening, letting in the words again, hushing the waves. When I have finished it is almost 3 a.m. and once again I can hear the waves break over my conscious, break into me, and I am astounded at how they can be there and not present, how wholly these words take me over, and I let myself think, "break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, oh Sea!--"
And like the waves rising and falling, like the sun breaking through the clouds, like the rhythm and arrhythm of the world outside the window, I open and close my mind to the words/to the world and I fall asleep to the open and close, rise and fall of spring break.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
Before there were cameras; if you were walking and looked up, on the first day of spring, to see in the sky, clouds piling their pigment in swaths of steel grey and white-grey and the grey of sand on the beaches in the evening, behind the weaving cragging moss-covered branches of a lordlike oak, and a single crow lofted into the air, flapping his wings like it was a privilege afforded only to the few; I suppose all you would have had to remember it by, would be poetry.
The magazine came in a white envelope, not part of my subscription; I'd received my subscribed-to copy a week earlier. "This is the kind of magazine we send to our writers or our reviewers," I thought, but there was no letter and I was in a hurry. I put the magazine in the pocket of my bike, meaning to page through it in some imaginary bit of calm. I already knew I'd love this Issue 47, full of people I knew or wanted to know, focused on women, centered around a gutsy piece from Cheryl I'd already read online.
I was too busy and I was sick and I felt awful, awful all weekend, even though I had lots to celebrate I kept feeling bad. It was such a bad day! I couldn't even see right through my woozy weary eyes. My nose dripped so raucously I couldn't even wash dishes or make food right, dripping right down into the sink and on my just-washed hands and barely missing the cutting board. I cooked the garlic a little too long and shouted when I should have been kind and never finished the lentils; I put the boys to bed before the good healthy food was all the way cooked. They ate ice cream and sardines for dinner. Fine.
I was waiting all day for the news to post on Ooligan Press' page, I'd been awarded second place in a book contest and I'd just found out. It was lovely and I wanted to bask in happiness but I felt so bad! When I thought about writing notes to tell people, potential agents or people who should really publish my book or anyone, really, I sneezed so hard I thought my cheek bones were a touch out of line. Can you throw your cheek bones out of joint from sneezing? Can you bruise your nose?
I had too much work to do and lots of it was late. Way late, and I wanted to go to sleep, but I stayed up stuffed in between boys, sniffling and feeling sorry for myself, eyes hurting and hot and cold and so uncomfortable and of course people were "liking" my post and I should be more happy but I was tired and grumpy. For some reason I had brought the magazine upstairs. Oh: it was Neil's fault, he had said something about how it would be great for me to post a list of things I was reading, and this was going to be one of them! Damn it!
I picked it up. No: I had to search the bed for it, all the boys fell asleep in my bed and they've now rolled and flipped and wiggled so much the blankets are all in a tangle. I finally found it and it occurred to me, in a rush: "Tiny Truths." It took me forever to find it. Monroe flipped over and put his foot on my laptop keyboard. My ears were so filled with congestion I could barely hear.
There it was. Me. A tweet I'd loved, from the summer, and reading it the day came rushing back; I think maybe it had been a bad day, too, then. Bleary-eyed then, too. I was just starting the magazine and getting tiny snatches of sleep and not ever getting enough done. I rode my bike home from the farmer's market down 44th Avenue and a very pregnant woman was putting something in the recycling bin. She stopped, and I could see by her eyes she was having a contraction. I said it to myself, then, so I'd get it right when I got home, this #cnftweet.
There. That's all of it: a bad day, as always, saved by a story. This one I was there, I bore witness, I wrote it down, and someone published it. More of this. More every day.
Monroe's knee is almost on Truman's nose, now, and the chicks are busily cheeping and likely making a mess out of their water dish. Kitty is sleeping on the expensive wool pillow, the one that doesn't have its pillowcase on. There are crumbs in the bed and my nose is still dripping. I haven't gotten any more work done. It's a bad day.
But people are reading my stories, people are liking my stories, and it's a very, very, very good life.
Everett has been reading. I set him to read for an hour and he picks up a book and is lost to me, he will not look up from the page or move or say anything, even when I ask him a direct question.
Then he will shoot out into interaction. "Mom! Listen to this!" he will say, and read about a dodecahedron or a synonym bun or an alchemic hilarity. We have read The Phantom Tollbooth, we are reading The Alchemist, we have read almost all of The Hobbit, we are nearly 2/3 of the way through the Harry Potter oeuvre. (My boys have caught my many-books-on-the-bedside-table reading fever, we skip around, none of us ever afraid to open a new book and read a chapter when we should really be finishing the old one, the older one, the older one still.)
On "movie night," we watch Dr. Who and Merlin and anything Miyazaki has ever made, we watch The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I am homeschooling Everett, again, and it is a homeschooling utterly contrary to the beliefs that underscore the Common Core ideals. It is a homeschooling steeped in fiction.
He loves fiction, and I shove him off in a boat like The Alchemist with a reminder of the backdrop of post-World War II in the U.S. and London. The parents of the main character are screenwriters and I remind him about McCarthyism, explain blacklisting, describe communism and socialism and how frightening they were. In ten minutes we cover: history, government, social studies, psychology, and we bring it all back to TV, film. That sad filmmaker. That girl refusing to do the "duck and cover" drills. These are images that stick, that remain startling and fresh for decades.
On NPR I heard the woman who did the research into Mary Ingalls, blinded not by as Laura Ingalls Wilder's books said, scarlet fever, but most probably by a brain disease: viral meningoencephalitis. She said of her medical training that she came across scarlet fever in diagnostics. "It can cause blindness!" she said. "Nooo. . ." her supervising doctor responded. But she read about it as a little girl. It must be true! And she set off on a decade-long research study to answer that question.
The books we read as children sear us, they create worlds in which we do not just hear the facts but we live in the facts, the facts of history and culture and politics and even mathematics and wordplay. Ask any child who has read The Phantom Tollbooth what a dodecahedron is. Now ask any adult who has not.
At night when his brothers have fallen asleep sometimes I read ahead in our books to him, from Tolkien, and I stop in mid-paragraph or sometimes even mid-sentence to describe the techniques. I am in frank, thorough admiration of Tolkien and I show Everett, the intentional rhyme and the unintentional rhyme, and the mind-rhymes and the rhythms, the alliteration and the assortment of sentences. Short and long, repeating words that mean the same thing for their beauty and to evoke other words, as well. Sometimes I almost cry, wiping my eyes after showing him a sentence that knocks off my socks. "He has been so formative for me!" I'll say, sniffling.
Oh my lord, heaven and earth and educational philosophies, what I have learned from fiction. I went to school like a champ, loved it, took extra classes and learned things I can't possibly use (shorthand) and things I could have easily done without (drafting) and things that I thought I mastered my 10-year-old kid would one day understand, innately, better than me (physics). He learned them through Minecraft videos. and V-sauce. He learned them through riding his bike. He learned them literally by accident.
Public grade school has never quite worked for Everett. He's been in and back out and half the time I didn't know why I was fighting so hard for him to go to school and come home showing troubling physical manifestations of his anxiety. And he's learned despite having virtually no instruction, his counsellor marveled to me, "he continues to test on grade level even though. . ." even though he barely ever has been taught a single thing in school. I think she said, he has had little to no instruction.
And so, for him, it is fiction. Because in fiction you ride along, you're in for the duration, you're frightened of the bombs like the kid in Paris or you're marveling over birdsong and wordsong and alchemy like the kid in London. You've learned, now, about all the Greek gods and the basic beliefs of seven different religions and the peculiar sadness of the wartime amputees. You know what it's like to live under rationing and you understand the different environmental needs of wheat and melons and sugarcane.
Fiction makes you feel things, and not scared literally shitless of screwing up at school and losing your friends, but more like, what it is like to be someone entirely other. Fiction opens your ken and your horizon. Fiction expands your definition of "human" and unfolds layer after layer of new interests. Fiction rocks your world and then teaches you all about the different sorts of rock.
I see my kid bent over a book, and I see a kid who is living in so many worlds other than this one; who is experiencing so many more experiences than it is possible to experience through textbooks at school for the brief spaces between being punished for an outburst by not going to recess and being made to fill out a think sheet for having an outburst about the lack of recess and sitting in the office because he wrote on his think sheet, "meooww."
I see my kid bent over a book and, in the quiet left behind, I smile, I bend to my work, I write.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
You wanted advice. All the unwanted advice that comes to you as the parent of a child who is struggling with emotional outbursts, with explosive behavior, with anxiety or Asperger's or some unnamed something that shatters the world you thought you might lead, all of that has been absorbed and now you need something new.
I have been given advice because of my children. Not just one child in my family, but three of 'em, all my boys now have diagnoses and IEPs -- Individualized Educational Plans, the documents meant to accommodate children with every sort of special need in the school system. Anxiety for the oldest, Asperger's and sensory processing disorder for the middle, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder for the littlest.
For Everett, 10, things are the worst, things have always been the worst. He swears and sometimes acts out violently when things are bad, and please know that you would not in all likelihood use the same scale of good/bad as he does. This is still something he is working out.
But for Everett, nine was the magic number and his life turned a corner. He was not "cured" overnight and in fact, in some ways his anxiety is more keen now than ever. But he has a place in our family and a place in the world. He is nurturing and he watches his little brothers with solicitation and patience and love while I am running or getting groceries. He has looked at the world with its tenuous line between good and evil and he has apprehended the magnitude of the grey middle and he has chosen good.
And now I have advice.
I have advice but I only want to give it to those who are seeking. I have received enough, enough, enough judgment from those who are sure they could parent my children better or who simply wish to assert their superior points of view. I have received enough clinically-developed parenting philosophies. Enough suggestions. I cannot give up gluten though I know it works wonderfully for you. I do so love dairy. I have already banished food coloring. Instead of sugar, I buy honey and maple syrup by the half-gallon.
For you, for you who are seeking, I have just the thing: not the answers so much as the process. The struggle to put your child in a new light, as Andrew Solomon says and I will quote him again: "To look deep into your child's eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood's self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon."
And this is my manifesto, my statement of work, my belief in this project and in myself and in you who read these words. Apologies for the repetition, but it bears repeating. It bears writing on the wall. First, to look into our child's eyes and see something utterly strange. Then to put aside our own different selves and our own different expectations and our own different plans. The future we held so tight in our fists, so tight that our fingernails left half-moon marks on our palms -- let that go. And in the opening of our hands is the release of all that stress, the societal expectations, the extended family exhortations, the "how will he get along in society?" The shrillness. Let that go and take a long breath and let your shoulders fall and your neck lengthen. Close your eyes and when you open them breathe in love, breathe in hope, breathe in the great wonder that is your own new child, entirely strange and entirely different and entirely himself. This is your standard-bearer. This is your front line. This is the face of your next generation. You are only the storyteller. You are only the one who will take his picture, show his face, and you will tell the world: I am not anyone's mother but his, this unusual amazing unheralded child. And he is making himself every day, and I am riding out behind him with all of my mind open and all of my faith held high.
And so I give you: Lost and Found at Home: A Parent's Journey through an Emotional Childhood. It is a book that I am writing now.
Make 'Lost and Found At Home' a living thing by supporting me.
I've been dreaming about this for years; first I wanted someone else to write it, but no one did. You can help. Contribute below. A contribution in any amount will subscribe you to an email newsletter (forever), and unless you request otherwise, I'll add your name to the acknowledgements in the book. My hope is to find a large publishing house, but mainstream- or self-published, contributions of $25 will include, eventually, a published book you can hold in your hand. At the $50 level, I'll send you the book in serialized form: each chapter as it is completed and workshopped. Be my standard bearer, too; ride forth along with me.
(For now, I'm not saying how quickly this will be done. I just don't know and it will depend how much I can raise and how my children do. It's a thing of passion for me and my intention is to complete as least a chapter each month. More, if you light my fire.)
There are poems that come to me when I am looking for words, poems that do not require forethought. They're automatic, like prayers might be, or Bible verses. "I speak not -- I trace not -- I breathe not your name," is one. "High there! How he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing," is another.
It is time for new poems. Not that those aren't perfect; rough beasts whose hours have come 'round perfect; stately pleasure dome perfect. I am looking for a new chant to stir men's, and really mostly women's, souls.
But first I should give you some advice.
Let me back up. Let me start at the beginning.
In the beginning there was a slithy tove. No. In the beginning there was a woman who said she was Adam Lanza's mother. No. In the beginning there was my son Everett, kicked out of kindergarten for assaulting his teachers (and probably Mr. A too) with kicking and crying and anger.
He was kicked out of kindergarten and then I became another sort of mother. He was kicked out of kindergarten and it was really only October, he was really only five-and-one-quarter, and oh how the unwanted advice began piling up like teddy bears at a memorial, like "I'm so sorry"s at a tribute. Oh, you know, the usual. Gluten and food coloring. More structure, more discipline, less TV, drugs, drugs, drugs. No, no drugs! Just try this special diet. Round and round it goes.
And of course the whole time he was being sent to this other school, called "most restrictive" by the Federal school policies. Most every urban school district in the U.S. has one of those and lots of parents probably never know it exists. Most every school district has IEPs, too, Individualized Educational Plans, which seem only rarely to provide long-term benefit to children and more often provide a reason for neighborhood principals to get the kids away from their safe little fiefdoms.
An IEP sets goals for the children, usually three of them, goals like, "Everett will respond without swearing or insults when asked to do a non-preferred activity 80% of the time," and then every day everyday EVERYDAY the parents get sheets with scores on them saying how their child did, on their goals and also on the classroom goals. You can only imagine how this is used, misused, ignored and obsessed-over by parents and children. You can only imagine how the letters home explaining how poorly one's child has done at said goals can hurt. The system has not been designed to spare feelings. The system has not been designed to relieve anxiety. The system has not been designed for the interests of either parents or children. The system has been designed for the very needs of the system.
A child with an IEP on the EBD spectrum -- emotional and behavioral disorders, anything from ADHD to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to, more usually, anxiety, depression and oppositional defiant disorder -- which is really only the way fears and anxieties and depression express themselves when met by stressors in some kids -- ok, so these EBD kids, they are so likely to go to prison instead of college that I am sniffling and embarrassed to tell you. 13 times more likely than special ed kids who are handicapped by physical or learning disorders, not (as they say now) "mental health" concerns. Four times more likely than the general population.
I could tell you how few of them graduate at all but I'm sure you're not surprised. You've heard the news stories and now they're all talking about "mental health problems" like they're the new addiction or brain damage or plague. Like they're the new PTSD. Look at those poor kids down there in the pit of despair. Let's get them some mental health care!
I guess I've built up some bitterness.
I usually don't swear here. I don't swear much at home, either, I hear it enough from my kid. Not just one child in my family, but three of 'em, all my boys have IEPs now. Anxiety for the oldest, Asperger's and maybe (probably) (ok, definitely, no one has to hand me a piece of official paper saying so for me to know) sensory processing disorder for the middle, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder for the littlest. You watch them for a half-hour in grandma and grandpa's living room and it's just obvious, especially the little two. Monroe whirling around and jumping off things like a puppy who hasn't seen his family for a week. Truman not listening, not meeting your eyes, not eating fruit for goodness' sake. (No, mom, not even delicious fruit. Trust me. I have tried.)
But only the oldest really swears. He swears when things are bad, and please know that you would not in all likelihood use the same scale of good/bad as he does. This is still something he is working out.
I think it goes with the anxiety. It all starts with the anxiety. And there is a piece too (they say "piece" a lot in diagnostics, as if we are putting together a puzzle whose shape and size has not yet been determined, might never be, when we find pieces we fit them in wherever we can, sightlessly, I expect a seeing person would find the picture we've shoved together a hopeless, chaotic, hapless mess) -- there is a piece too of not minding whether or not the authority figures hear what he has to say. You could call this boldness, or courage, or "the best defense is a good offense." You could also call this Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
But without the anxiety, would there be a need for defiance? Probably not. Probably (I've analyzed this rather to the ends of the earth) when his brain approaches a problem of embarrassment, or great hurt, or fear of ostracization, or proof of his imperfection, the circuits blow hot and the fan breaks down and he goes a-spinning. That he can get himself under control most of the time now, without violence or destruction of property, is something I would like you all to laud. Hail the conquering inhibitions! Your deep breaths and years of practice have vanquished the evil foe!
But instead, his outbursts, limited as they are to a good fuck-you, fuck-you-all, a well-performed kick meant not to hurt anyone but to demonstrate the object of his frustration (more than likely, one of his brothers), get him a wide swath of criticism and consequence. Lunch is late, in the best case. His little cousins are packed up and sent away, I will not stand for contact with your swear-child! for another year, in the worst.
His dear little cousins to whom he has almost only given love.
I know but I do not know why adults are excused for swearing but children are not. If you were sent home from work every time you swore, well. If you were most of my colleagues in my six-figure jobs, you would have been suspended more than Everett ever has been. In that one startup: The CEO threw a $500 conference call phone across the table, narrowly missing the CFO's head. I was there.
But these stories and more are beside the point. Because I've seen more than my share of high-powered explosive behavior, because I've thrown my own tearful adult tantrums, maybe I'm more conditioned to see my child's tantrums for what they are: him being out of control, not out of his mind with ill intentions. Him acting in defense, not offense. Him communicating in a language they weren't equipped to understand, because of the rules of engagement. Drilled so often on mandatory reporting and warning signs of this and that criminal! evil! wicked! behavior, teachers so quickly jump to the conclusion that fits into a pre-determined descriptor. This is how one can yell "I hate you all!" when he feels his teachers have, in showing concern for another student demonstrated a distinct lack of concern for him, and kick a bookcase, and be labeled with "threatening" and "assault." How he can have it explained to him, how his behavior was "bullying," and how he can not understand at all but in the end be made to sign a long sheet saying he understood.
But that is beside the point too. I wanted to give you advice.
My advice comes from a place of love. No: my advice is love.
The first thing I would tell to you, you the parent of a child with an emotional and behavioral disorder, you, the teacher of a child with Asperger's, you, the uncle or aunt or grandparent or caregiver of a child with explosions or unusual temper or inappropriate language or outbursts or even violence -- the first thing I would tell you is to listen.
Listening is the hardest thing.
With my youngest, and even my middle, so often listening would take so long. Hours, or even days. Because they were both speech delayed and even now speak without proper s-blends and with the "d" sound where "k" should be. Monroe would wake up in the middle of the night crying, no, screaming, and this was after language had been developed, and I would ask him what was wrong over, and over. I'd never learn the answer. Thirsty? Scared? Have to go potty? Hungry? No response but tears; I would go back to the beginning. "Do you want a glass of water? Do you want a glass of milk? Are you hurt-are you hurt-areyouHURT?" And he would never nod or shake his head "no," he would just cry and scream and stomp and throw himself out of my comforting arms.
In the end he would take a glass of milk, or go to the potty, or sometimes just fall asleep there on the floor, me sitting in front of him begging for an answer.
Things are better now. Things are always better for the listening, even when the listening brings my own tears before I can hear aright.
Get at their intentions. Not the ones you have attributed to them by default but their real intentions -- which are sometimes for Truman, "I don't know why I did it!" -- and are often just an act, nothing to parse or find blame for. It happened. Time to find a fix.
The things I say again and again, again and again and again, are, "it's not a big deal." "No worries." "I'm not mad." I have to not be mad. If I am mad I have to say that I am sorry, I call my anger "frustration," I say that I am sorry and it was never ever a big deal that he stepped on the iPad, that he broke a glass, that he hopped down off the counter on to my toe. We can buy a new glass. No big deal. Everything will be o.k.
The thing you have to do is to love them unconditionally first. Love them first and then find a reason behind their behavior, or if there is no reason skip that part and find a solution. Love love love and keep loving. I want to say, "and eventually it will work," but maybe it won't. I make no promises. I just know that it has helped me.
I have been reading Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree. He writes of all sorts of children who are different from their parents -- deaf, gay, autistic, genius, depressed. I read his work thinking of my son, who is so very unlike me because he does not fear authority, he does not fear divine retribution. Solomon writes, "A child's marked difference from the rest of the family demands knowledge, competence, and actions that a typical mother and father are unqualified to supply, at least initially. The child is expressly different from most of his or her peers as well, and therefore broadly less understood or accepted. . . Vertical identities [inherited differences, like race or religious group] are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are often treated as flaws."
And, "Labeling a child's mind as diseased -- whether with autism, intellectual disabilities, or transgenderism -- may reflect the discomfort that mind gives parents more than any discomfort it causes their child. Much gets corrected that might better have been left alone."
And, "The problem is to change how we assess the value of individuals and of lives, to reach for a more ecumenical take on healthy." and "These experiences are starved for language."
What Solomon is saying so often is that we can learn to love and embrace our children for their differences from us, and to treat these differences not as something to be fixed but as something to be lived with differently. Just as a child with dyslexia (which Solomon himself had as a child) needs to be taught how to read with different strategies than other children, not punished for his backwards letters and left inside at recess to copy out the alphabet again and again, a child who is anxious or depressed or angry or suffering from Asperger's needs to be taught to handle disappointmentss using different strategies, and not sent home or kept inside from recess because he is angry or afraid or hugs people when he should not.
Solomon writes, "I take the anti-Tolstoyan view that the unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways." And, "Broadcasting these parents' learned happiness is vital to sustaining identities that are now vulnerable to eradication. Their stories point a way for all of us to expand our definitions of the human family."
I have a book's worth of this and I am unsurprised that Solomon's own book is as long as War and Peace. It is very nearly about the same topic. I want to go out quoting all the bits I've highlighted but this sums it up, yes? This: "Understanding how [parents of children with "horizontal" differences] came to think well of their own children may give the rest of us motive and insight to do the same. To look deep into your child's eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood's self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon." And, "The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think."
So that is it, isn't it? First, to look into our child's eyes and see something utterly strange. Then to put aside our own different selves and our own different expectations and our own different plans. The future we held so tight in our fists, so tight that our fingernails left half-moon marks on our palms -- let that go. And in the opening of our hands is the release of all that stress, the societal expectations, the extended family exhortations, the "how will he get along in society?" The shrillness. Let that go and take a long breath and let your shoulders fall and your neck lengthen. Close your eyes and when you open them breathe in love, breathe in hope, breathe in the great wonder that is your own new child, entirely strange and entirely different and entirely himself. This is your standard-bearer. This is your front line. This is the face of your next generation. You are only the storyteller. You are only the one who will take his picture, show his face, and you will tell the world: I am not anyone's mother but his, this unusual amazing unheralded child. And he is making himself every day, and I am riding out behind him with all of my mind open and all of my faith held high.
I have felt too much, I have mourned too much, I have asked too much and I have been given too much. It crashes in on one so.
When the news hit -- hit Twitter, and Facebook, and the radio and the TV and everything, crushed over us like a wave of terrifying size and secret strength -- when the news hit I was riding in a car with my friend Rachael. We were driving out to Kookoolan Farms to pick up a pig. It was a very good pig; treated with loving tenderness during its life and killed quickly and humanely. Cured and portioned and packaged and waiting for us in three enormous IKEA bags. We talked with the farmers about rescuing dogs and foster children. We talked about kombucha and milk and eggs. And we drove back, taking photos of flamingos, watching the grey rain rain greyly, talking through the cold wet day.
I came home and walked inside and sat down at my computer and it hit me too.
For a long time I tried to avoid it. Tried to not let it soak me. Tried to shake it away.
But I could not, of course, and by the next morning I had heard and read all the news and all the analysis. My Facebook page started to flood with statements of blame, defenses, sarcastic attacks and raves of religious retribution. I knew what I blamed: 1. isolation and unkindness and an utter lack of sufficient love and connection and 2. the presence and power of guns. It was easy for me to know what went wrong. It was not so easy to set it right.
It seemed easy, too easy, for too many people; there were siblings and family friends and old classmates and too many people with answers that, not just troubled me, made me fear for us all. Rocked me to the core of my faith and safety. Told me I was wrong without ever needing to say my name. A wide sweep of the arm, a giving of power, to fear, to mistrust, to more isolation and armaments. I knew this was wrong.
And I read the names and ages of the victims and I began to cry and I said to myself, "NO!" and became racked with how little, how little, how little I could do. How spare was my sphere of influence. How permeable, how easy to wash away in a fiery splash of blame.
I said this and someone said to me back, "no!" and "yes! You have more power than you know."
Do I? Could this be true?
I do not know but I know this. The weapon I have is my love and my story and my faith. The power I have is over my patience and my kindness and my deep breaths and tellings of stories. The manifestos I have are about sparing things: rods, retribution, threats, ultimatums, angry words, insults. Spare these things and you will strengthen the child. Spare these things and you will bolster all of us, you will put brick after brick widely, set proudly, set carefully on its foundation. You will make, not capital, but culture; you will make, not profit, but promise. You will create community where there was before commerce. You will build inspiration where there was before institution.
* * *
When I finished, all I had was a dim and grey, a blurry but quietly brightening sense that there was something I could do. A growing, overtaking investment of calm and courage. I know that I have this, this magazine, and this, this writing life. I can perhaps take this, and this, and I can, dimly, greyly, blurrily and with my hoped-for quiet and small power do something more.
If I am part of this, this is how I'll take part.
And when I uploaded this post and I read it on the computer screen I took a deep sobbing breath and all I could give to myself was tears.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
Last year I had, better than an advent calendar: an advent chain. Little presents for every day before Christmas for each boy.
Last year I told them the Christmas story, read it out of the Bible, made them listen before I would let them open gifts.
* * *
This year I have been thinking. It was my son, the skeptic, the non-believer, whose constant calm disbelief in God, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy has me remembering how I too had a constant calm disbelief as a child -- in everything but God.
Oh, how I wrapped myself up in that one whole belief. Oh, how I agonized over what to believe and how to sin or not sin and whether everything I was doing was right or wrong. When I did not go to church I yawled from one Sunday to the next in growing horror, that not only was I living a life in iniquity but I was also resisting the one thing that might save me. When I did go to church I spent Sunday mornings wracked with all I had not done for God, all I had spent not on him but on my own hungry self and, as time went on, my hungry children. I never tithed, instead standing up Sunday mornings singing hymns and making rationalizations for my incomplete gift.
While I have, many times, spent hours while wretched in prayer and it has comforted me; while I have, again and again, sung hymns to the Lord and they have uplifted me; I sunk lower and lower, I questioned more and more. Finally it was the Bible itself that skewered me. Its poetry and many of its sentiments were lovely and worthwhile. I was glad I had memorized so much of it. But how can anyone come to terms with its inconsistencies? How can a god at once be omniscient and full of grace and let genocide happen? Come to think of it, what about the old testament god who ordered such acts? Who told his peoples to rape the women and slaughter the men, and their animals too?
Give to God what is God's and to Milton what is Milton's. Give to Shakespeare what is Shakespeare's and Pope what is Pope's. Give to Homer, give to Ovid, give to the almighty Plutarch.
If there is a god or gods, he or she, they have been muted by men. Men who took the documents inspired by gods and translated them and handed them down, who blacklined and extemporanied and whitelisted. If I think the publishing industry is marked by gatekeepers who often are ruled by whims of personality and quixotic judgment of a market desire: how much more must have the publishers of the Bible guarded the gate!
I have Wikipedia-ed and listened to scholars expound. Easter comes from a pagan ritual, along with All Saints' Day and its predecessor, Hallowe'en. Christmas is the pagan-ist of them all.
Gather 'round, then, the hallowed tree, pagan symbol of fertility, on the day (or thereabouts) of the birth of the unconquer'd sun. The god Mithra will come lumbering out of his stone womb on this day and we will give fruits in hopes we'll meet the favor of Saturnalia. Santa is a trick; he's the rebirth of Odin, who flies through the night in a great hunting party in the sky, his nightmarish eight-legged horse collecting carrots and straw from the children. Mistletoe? A druid's offering, delightfully redolent of witchcraft: "five days after the first new moon following the winter solstice, cut down with a golden sickle."
Shepherds did not watch their flock by night on the feast of Saturnalia and caroling, of Celtic origins, has been banned again and again by the church. No one man, god or beast is the reason for the season. The season is a mishmash, a hodgepodge, a Pollock-painted holiday. Throw it, see what sticks.
And what, then, of me.
I, not pagan but also of some undetermined faith, a faith in patience and love and kindness, a faith in melody and words and art, a faith in trees, certainly; a faith in birds and spiders -- what is left for me? Too many paper chains lay, faded and wrinkled, in basement boxes. Too many strings of electric lights lay tangled in shopping bags. Too many dollars have been spent and I need my dollars for this magazine. I do not know, what, why? How can I go to a mall or even Fred Meyer on supersaver day when I cannot even get all the LEGOs separated from all the little cars?
I want to write.
I want it to snow. I want quiet and -- yes, perhaps, the smell of fir branches and the wink of lights or even a fire -- I want long lazy days in which to eat ham and pickles and puddings, things made with walnuts and winter squashes, things made with maple syrup and cream. But I do not want to make ornaments out of salt dough (even though, in some ways, I do); I do not want to pick up the cuttings from snowflakes on my dining room table. I do not want to drink vodka with cranberry juice or kahlua.
I want to write. I want to read. I want celebrate the season as a season. As the mystery of the shortest night of the year and the years just after it -- that incredible quiet time just after the busy-ness of harvest and (for me) the harvesting of readers and the canning of tomatoes and the putting-up of turkey stock, from the bringing-in of pumpkins and the peeling and the milling of those hard-skinned fruits. After we have wound down our studies for the year and are hibernating, like bears or pregnant women, before the lengthening days that harbinge the cold, brilliant new year. The coming spring.
So will I celebrate birth? I will. I will celebrate the ever-greenness of the pines and firs and spruces that people my home. I will glory in the coming of the night and I will eat things stored and preserved and cured. I will drink cider and nog and spiced tea. I will sit with my boys on the couch and read things: the Bible, yes, but also Madeleine L'Engle and J.K. Rowling and Carolyn Haywood and Jane Austen.
And I will write.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
This post is my sixth post in the Fortnight of Flash, a guilt-free celebration of brief memoir, fiction, and whatever else you can flash. No length too short, less than 750 words, and prizes!
Spectacular spectacular, I said, of the marshmallows burnt on the sweet potatoes. Past burnt! Charred! Charcoal!
"What is Thanksgiving without at least a few burnt things?" I'd asked. There are always burnt things, literal and figurative, and after each I try to come back, center on the story. This is good, I've told myself, so many times. For the day spent twisting my insides in ringlets over someone's vicious criticism of me. For the off-cuff statement that hurt more than it should. For the friend, who had my number, who got me right when I wanted to skate through a comment or an essay with a pass. I'd make something better out of it. I'd tell the story. I'd dig deep inside the thing until it came out right
We did the marshmallows again. We did the meal right, we sat around and said that we were thankful. We loved each other on Twitter and Instagram, we loved each other without saying it right, we loved the food inarticulately. We took our children home or to bed, we dinged our bells on parting, we sunk too into sleep, we awoke to pie and news of shopping.
In a fit of tired, overly-full bright hope before bed, I tweet, "my friday is going to be all the colors! rainbow friday! i'm going to write and consult and market and sew and bake. #takebackfriday," in the morning I tweet, "to kick off #takebackfriday, i'm going radical anti-consumer: three kinds of leftovers for breakfast! (ok, so two of them are pie.)" I do this on Facebook too, not meaning anything, being happy. I can't shop anyway; I've spent all my money on turkey and cream and brussels sprouts and butter and beef, bought from my friends, bought with so much love.
From everyone I get love in return, but one, who calls my silly takeback "fashionable resistance," who says I am "toasting self-righteousness." I worry. I wonder. Am I?
The irony is that I had no money to spend on Black Friday shopping. The irony is that I was about to put on display my own need: for you to buy gift subscriptions to this most beautiful magazine. To give stories instead of stuff. To #takebackfriday for fiction and family and if it is black? Make it black-and-white Friday. The irony is that I need all my media contacts and can't afford to burn that bridge. The irony is: I am giving all I have to live this value-packed life and I get it wrong so much, so often, I spend too much time on Facebook and I read a book instead of making contracts for our writers and I must close this window and type something for money.
Save me from this wringing of hands and "like" fingers. Save these stories, that cannot be published unless we sell subscriptions by the dozens. Save Friday. Make it what it should be: pie for breakfast. Gratitude for everyday. Lazy and lush. About the story. Subscribe to Stealing Time. Give Stealing Time. For me. For us. For that one guy who thinks me self-righteous. For Friday.
This post is my fifth post in the Fortnight of Flash, a guilt-free celebration of brief memoir, fiction, and whatever else you can flash. No length too short, less than 750 words, and prizes!
It comes to me, some days not at all and sometimes with a force as if someone shoved me, as if my own five-year-old ran into me at full explosive tilt. Some days over and over again. Some days a glance, is all.
I think to myself, "breastfeeding," or "baby talk," and I wonder if I will ever do this again. Feed a baby, stay awake through throaty sniffly cries, giggle and play with the toes of something that was just months or days ago in my belly. Look that tired, as that mom, that tired and thrilling with endorphins.
I go to the doctor, and she tells me how it's good, I'm sending these little ones off for the last time, and I think, last five-year-old checkup, I think, last booster shots in legs, and though I can stand never to have the needle go in, again, never see that shock of hurt that is meant to protect -- but how does he know that? -- never have to nurse a baby back from screaming injury, I want to protest, loudly, to say to her, "I'm not done!"
But maybe I am, and maybe I don't get to choose, and the pain of each month is: even the maybe is 10,000 miles too far away.
This post is my fourth post in the Fortnight of Flash, a guilt-free celebration of brief memoir, fiction, and whatever else you can flash. No length too short, less than 750 words, and prizes!
I was putting away food, at my ex-boyfriend's many-roomed apartment, because I am always the one to put away food. We had eaten, but not nearly enough; someone would, well, someone should eat leftovers tomorrow. Nothing should go to waste. I doubted he would eat it; he, or his soft-skinned, smooth-skinned, soft-thighed wife.
In my dream she had no children; her legs were smooth in her knit hot pants, in her slim white tee, and I thought to myself that of course she was slim and smooth-hipped and not-hardened, not like me, three children and I was pock-marked and bumpy and muscular. I knew he preferred me, at least, the skin of me. I shook my head.
I woke. I woke and remembered the earlier dream, my boys. I had been in the kindergarten hall and Monroe had come running to me, crying, and his teacher had followed him out. "We were just playing a game," she said. "We hid their shoes, we mixed them up, and they needed to find them." She seemed amazed he might take this badly. His shoes though! I thought, wondering at his fear and embarrassment. He loved those shoes, he needed them to be fast.
I had hardly comforted Monroe when Truman began screaming, screaming, screaming. He was in the other room with the second-graders and he was screaming because what? I can't remember now? I went to comfort him and he was sad. "Shh, shh," I said. "Shhh, shhh, shhh," I said, and tears dripped down his face to his chin.
I told Monroe about the part with him, and Truman, and I packed his lunch and put his coat and shoes on and took the boys to school. I left him happy in his classroom -- "Do you need a hug?" -- I asked, he looked at me and shook his head, "no." I walked toward the stairs, past the other kindergarten classroom, where a student was just coming in. Early, for once! I crowed quietly to myself.
"Ben!" said the other teacher. "I dreamt that I hid your shoes!"
I stopped. How -- "I had that same dream!" I said. He was slow to look at me, I walked in, I could not stop from doing this. "I had the dream the teachers hid the kindergartener's shoes!" Now he was widening his eyes. "They were all crying," I said. "Wow," he replied, friendly now, amazed.
And I walked upstairs, wondering, believing in something, however weird -- we are all connected! -- asking myself why I made all the kindergarteners cry in my retelling. Asking who else dreamed of leftovers in a Manhattan condo.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
This post is my third post in the Fortnight of Flash, a guilt-free celebration of brief memoir, fiction, and whatever else you can flash. No length too short, less than 750 words, and prizes!
I found you on Facebook, finally. I've wondered what has happened to you, and whether you're doing well. Are you married? Who are your friends? What is your life like? We spent two years in one another's near-constant presence; you were fifteen, I was seventeen; I take my boys downtown to the marina or across the Hawthorne Bridge or to that Safeway where we shopped for beef jerky and Pringles together and I tell them stories about us. I read something I wrote for you, from my journal, in front of hundreds this May.
Do you remember when I helped you practice the monologues from Steel Magnolias? Do you remember how we used to walk barefoot down the Esplanade? Do you remember the rose boy? Do you remember what we would order at Stanford's? We would take off our clothes by the yachts and the sailboats on the hottest days, we would jump in the river in our underwear, we would imagine fates for ourselves, we would imagine being beautiful, wearing beautiful clothes.
Of course we already were beautiful.
I suppose I could email you now, but I haven't. For some reason, what I do to stay in touch is ride my bike past your house, not religiously but often, these eleven years. Your parents still live there, I can tell by the car in the driveway (some days), the cat on the front porch, the fact that nothing else has changed. One day, someone was getting out of the car, and I waited a minute to say "hello" when she (I think it was your mother), got out, but it was more than a minute. The boys were on the bike with me; I rode on.
Today I rode past on my way to pick the boys up from school, up the hill, slowly. I had just seen a man wearing nothing but his underwear and a flesh-colored, unbuttoned shirt, fussing with a recycling bin, around the corner from my old house, and it was cold today! I was still marveling. I rode to the top of the hill and saw, on your front porch, your father. He was sitting on a chair with a cat on his lap and that hair, just like always but now gray-white, that spectacular hair of his, and he was smiling in a way that made my heart bump, just happy, and I put up my hand in a friendly "hello" wave and he waved back, hale, full of joy.
This post is my second post in the Fortnight of Flash, a guilt-free celebration of brief memoir, fiction, and whatever else you can flash. No length too short, less than 750 words, and prizes!
"I just want tongue," said the woman. "I was very clear on that." She was so lovely, with bright skin and long blonde hair, wrapped in a dark-grey hat. She was standing in a parking lot of a Home Depot, hands open, pleading. Her partner in complaint was more beautiful, with a generous smile and eyes that danced, wrapped in a handknit scarf and another sweater and with her hands in her pockets, they were bouncing up and down in their shoes, shivering. Waiting for beef.
The farmer and the farmer's wife, faces lined with sun and work and animal-care, with eyes that crinkled and wrinkled, with eyes that contained joy as well as concern, squinted at their spreadsheets and talked in voices that sounded of wrung hands. "We take the animals to the butcher," they said. "And then--" they had no answer that would make tongue appear.
It was not the first appeal for redress heard that day. "You know you just ran these carts into a customer!" said the older man dressed in red and yellow, pointing his finger toward the line of wheeled weapons, yellow and blue, wielded by an apologetic IKEA employee. The man went on, at length, seeking to describe in terms that even this dunderhead would understand, how his status as a customer should preclude all injuries, physical or emotional, accidental-inclusive. His outrage filled the entryway; passing, I had to give it a wide berth.
"They should," said the woman, mind made up, non-descript, non-noticeable were it not for her voice, wronged. She was seated behind my sparkling boy at the cafeteria upstairs. I caught "salmon" and "de-boned" and deduced her struggle was one with the content of her fish plate. The complaint took 10 minutes or more; the hearer was knowledgable about suppliers and preparation of fish, on this woman's side, propped on a wheeled walking device to make up for some handicap, offering solutions.
"I want grass!" said the child. He was bouncing in his seat and she was bouncing in her seat. They were bouncing in their seats, 12 of them! They all wanted grass! Green, squishy, made of sugar and vegetable oils and food colorings, they all wanted chocolate cake with grass! I asked, "what if I served you cake with real grass?" and they said, "eww!" and "no!" and "GROSS!" and I, oh-so-temporarily employed without pay or benefits in this briefest of birthday-party service industries, was happy to hear their complaints.
This post is my first post in the Fortnight of Flash, a guilt-free celebration of brief memoir, fiction, and whatever else you can flash. No length too short, less than 750 words, and prizes!
I don't know. Is that better than "Battery"? Yeah, by a lot, but worse than "Inappropriate language." Because I think your language is pretty bleeping inappropriate.
Sometimes I blame the district, with its rules that seem designed to send as many kids as possible toward the wrong end of "Yale or jail." Sometimes I blame the other teachers and kids, whose rush to judgment or complaint turned what could have been a miscommunication into a suspendable offense. Sometimes I blame the teacher.
I don't let my kid off the hook; the first thing we talk about is what he should have done better. I listen to his stories and stop him when he plays the victim. But I never scream or take away his stuff.
"I don't know what to tell you," you say. You're looking at me, with the in-your-eyes forwardness I rarely see from you. You mean business, you're tired. I've already heard the reading of your notes from two years ago, "a pattern," you called it, my kid objecting, writhing next to me. Now he's getting a drink of water and can't hear what you're about to say.
"You need to do something, I don't know. Set incentives, set limits! This has got to change!" You sigh, and look at me, like you're waiting for my apologia.
He's 10. This is my sixth year in the system. I quit my job, lost my agent, gave up so many quiet days, rode my bike here when you needed me, hundreds of miles in the cold and the rain and the sun and the gorgeous, lovely fall and winter and spring. Everything. I know 40 different routes from home to school. I love this kid. I want, for him, normal like I want to sleep at night, like I want to eat after a 10-mile run, like I want to have a book published, like I want you to stop sending me letters.
I know you blame me.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
You're the one, you know.
You're the one we want as a reader. You're the one to spread the word. You're the one to share our story.
You are the one to review Stealing Time magazine -- the luminous literary magazine to bring you fiction, non-fiction and poetry from the heart of parenting -- to write about it on your blog or web site or Tumblr or Pinterest page, and make this magazine happen, and we will give you things in return. Ask, and you shall receive a magazine. Review, and you shall receive a low, low subscription rate. Enrich this community; make us all glow with ideas and stories.
I've been writing speeches, and sometimes by "speeches" I mean words that other people speak in front of audiences, and sometimes by "speeches" I mean emails or reports or letters or blog posts or notes I will slip into boxes of Kickstarter swag. Just so you know. I have been practicing.
I have been practicing up to tell you that your words, your presence, your attention, are what we need. Not just us, the editors and writers and designers and belovers of Stealing Time magazine, but all of us, those who are parents or who might one day be parents or who remember their experience with parenting fondly or with a mix of complex emotions. Those of us who hear every story and shake our head and say to ourselves, "it's all about the love of a mother," or, "it's always the father, isn't it?" and it is true that many of these stories are the soaring-heartwarming and many more of them are the piercing-heartbreaking variety.
The thing is that we believe, believe in a religious way, a cock-your-head-and-feel-righteous way, that telling the real stories of parenting, telling it like it is and it can be, the best of it and the worst of it, in a way that lays the words on the page and just tells, not judges, not provides six steps to making your parenting better, not from any one philosophy or even knowing what you're doing, here -- that telling stories like this saves us. Saves hope, saves belief in self, saves your sense of humor and your ability to get to sleep at night. Saves lives.
Just reading and sharing your reaction to the piece -- the "second story" that our friend Megan Stielstra talks about -- is part of this process. It's our intention to not just tell stories but to listen to yours, too. We believe so strongly in it that we don't really care how much traffic your blog gets or whether you have more than 500 friends on Facebook. We just want to hear your story in reaction to ours. For the best, best example of this in relation to our magazine, see (hopefully) by Heather of the extraordinary ordinary.
And one more thing. Because we're always looking for new voices that tell stories in new and (yes) extraordinary ways, we'll invite one of the reviewers to write a piece for our "Relations" issue. Of course, any of you can submit to us any time. But some people need that nudge, and we believe this is a great way to figure out which nudge we want to deliver.
Come on. Write to us. Let us share our stories with you and then tell us how it makes you feel. And let us all take a deep breath and just -- yes, down to your belly -- let us all feel how real, how clean, how warm to the core that makes us now.
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Because I could not stop to listen to your appeals to feminism, to ideals, to economics, I canned tomatoes.
I stood over the sink on a Saturday night, fingernails layered with tomato skins, sharpened paring knife in hand, recovering what I could from the 20-pound box I'd heedlessly requested from my CSA farmer. These weren't heirlooms, weren't certified organic, but they were raised by a woman I knew and she, in turn, was raising her own boys and I knew they didn't have even enough money to buy high jump spikes for her 12-year-old boy (and he won regionals when the tomatoes were still just green knobs), and she charged me only 60 cents a pound. Criminally little money; these tomatoes were delicious and picked perfectly ripe by her husband and boys; but what I lack in money I make up in gratitude.
And we -- my boys and I, my husband when he's here -- eat tomatoes. I could tell you the stories; I'm sure I will, if you'll let me, pour them out like blanching water, about how I first went local and then organic and then started worrying about BPA in the tomato cans, finally reading one to many exposing tales about migrant workers picking tomatoes and lettuce and how their children, exposed from pre-birth to pesticides and harshness of circumstance, led the nation in pervasive development disorders. The disorders, incidentally, suffered by my own three boys.
I can't change the liters of auto exhaust they breath, living here in crunchy Southeast Portland on a busy street, I can't change the parabens I washed through my hair for the years I didn't know better, I can't change the way I let things happen when my oldest was a little, let freezer dino nuggets happen, let his dad's Diet Coke happen, let the abhorrent Red #40-packed contents of the ice cream truck freezer at Plaid Pantry happen.
I can change the tomatoes. I can can. I look at those words and, though I am tired, though I spent the day on my feet on the fir floors covered by two or three layers of ancient linoleum first cleaning, then filling my broken-but-loved kitchen with the scent of simmering organic apple cider vinegar and local honey, filling my kitchen with more jars of (local! heirloom!) zucchini pickles and (local! organic!) cantaloupe-rind pickles and these tomatoes and the tomatoes from my garden, too -- though I am tired I think, "can can," and I want to high kick in my free pile layered skirt, I want to dance. It is joy, and it is also economics; time spent now will mean quiet empty evenings later, after dinners of pasta and tomato sauce, after bringing gifts of pickles for birthdays and book signings and Christmases, after baking bread.
I am contemplating, now, how and why my tomatoes grew so wildly, because there are at least 12 pounds left of a few days'-worth of harvest and I have been cooking them into pasta sauce and into the maple-syrup-sweetened baked beans my oldest loves and into soup my youngest loves and I can barely keep up. It was the sheep poop I bought last year from a guy out by Sauvie's Island, or maybe it was the chicken coop muck I spread there in May, or maybe it was the bagged organic potting soil from the guy across the street who's shutting down his medical marijuana growing operation and gave it all to me. It could just be the place they are, behind the medlar and fig trees the crazy neighborhood anarchist/survivalist planted, before he gave up on me and my husband and left me to battle burdock and stinging nettle and Jerusalem artichoke he said he'd harvest, but instead, filled my lot with invaders. An enemy army, guerilla-style, stronger and far more numerous than me.
I think of another mother-writer who will not join me, who will not take up arms of hoe and garden glove and compost bin to rumble against these hordes. Perhaps Mary Rechner also lives in Southeast Portland; she can't live far from me. In her "polemic" published in Propeller Quarterly I read a caustic takedown of me. "I refuse to accept the moral imperative of growing my own vegetables, butchering the animals I eat, and making my own jam," she writes, and though I have not yet butchered an animal, I have signed my 10-year-old up for a series of courses that will have him skinning and tanning a rabbit's hide, and I see myself in everything she writes: "I refuse the burden of a harvest. When I see women with their kids... weeding their vegetable gardens and tending their flocks of chickens, I fear they have bought the idea that these many labors are the markers of what it means to be a good mother-wife-woman," she writes, and asks, "if women are spending all of their time planting gardens, tending chickens, and canning (i.e. living our lives in the most laborious ways possible), how are we ever to catch up as writers, visual artists, composers, and directors?"
I wonder at the choice she has portrayed. It is so choosy, either-or, one may not have both canning and novels, one may not tend chickens and paint, one may not plant tomatoes and compose arias. You limit us, thus, Mary? You would limit us much like Virginia Woolf, in her great work that set the angle of the feminist-artist's dawn. Woolf set the choice out as between mothering children in "tens and twelves" and art; I wrote in my editor's essay in Stealing Time magazine that today, perhaps, Woolf would say to women to choose not to have children at all, or have them in "ones." In Woolf's voice, I hear Rechner say, women should not can these tomatoes, not pull these weeds, if they are to find their own room, their distance from this mothering/food-garnering life.
I do not know. Rechner seems to feel great judgment and perhaps some vestigial Catholic guilt, that her son now eats at McDonald's (after, she points out, a principled rejection in middle school), that she never even tested her children's youthful discernment of organic versus conventional bananas. I wonder if being angry at judgment or irresistibly pulled back to the guilt of being that less-than-better family also prevents her from maintaing the "psychic (and actual) time and space to write fiction" in the way picking blackberries and making jam might. She (after all) writes this polemic. I wonder if she feeds her children something, thinking of the study comparing preparation times of convenience foods and scratch (no difference). Surely her son does not take all his meals at McDonald's. I do not know if she has read my work; it seems likely, as she describes me rather closely in her sketch of what-not-to-do; but I feel that she is, in turn, judging me.
I accept this judgment; I wave my hand at the fruit flies gathering over the prune-plums, a few of which I have eaten and the rest of which will make a rich compost. I will not make star-anise plum jelly today. I will make pickles. "A jar of pickles, however beautiful it appears on the windowsill with the sun shining through it, however thoughtfully and sustainably it was made, however good the pickles taste, is still a jar of pickles."
I have not set my pickles on my windowsill today. But as I have sliced the zucchini, as I have simmered the white wine vinegar and garlic and dill and cloves, I have thought about a problem in an essay, turned it over and over in my mind until it is salty enough and sour enough; until my teeth sink into it with a snick, until it has melded the flavors of spice and herb and mythology and rhythm with the meat of it, the vegetable of it, the sustainably-grown local organic-practices CSA zucchini of it. I feel this psychic space as I stand in my kitchen, barefooted and homemade-aproned and done up in an urban homesteader's best, as I think of all the things I could also be doing other than writing. Can space be obtained through pedicures? Through long walks past New Seasons Market? Through reality TV?
We all reach our art through different means but for me distance is not required and, more, unwanted. As I dip my ladle in brine and fragrance, take in the breath-stopping breath of vinegar's heat, as I pour sloop after sloop of Mediterranean-scented pickles into my American-made glass jars, I think that I am not yet even close enough. I lean closer; I watch the garlic I grew float and bob with allspice berries and flecks of oregano; I feel the heat on my face; I cough at a surge of vinegar effluence. Aha! I think. This is not just a pickle after all.
I have the essay and the bit in the novel too, the one filled with neighbors who help more than they should and carry axes down a busy street barefoot, who write stoner sayings on my kitchen chalk wall, and with 10-year-old boys whose raccoon and porcupine hides swing from the basement rafters. I screw on the reusable Tattler lids, I lower the jars into the simmering water on the stove, and, my face flushed with heat and certainty, I write while the water bubbles and the gas hisses, low psss, then long psshhhh, beneath it.
I could not stop to make your choices. And so I choose both, the writing and the canning, and my response is this, for you, for you all, to judge.
What I wanted was the beautiful, and the beautiful is what I received. "Ask," as they say. "And you shall."
I asked. God, hope, the winged deliverers of what's right, flew along with me to New York City. They knew to wake me up for the sunrise. They knew to sit me down on the southeast end of Central Park, painting my toes the color of the benches. They knew to have me walk when I walked and tweet when I tweeted and soon I was standing in line behind Adam, whose name I knew how to pronounce, and who went to my small Virginia college too. Soon I was having lunch at my favorite old-neighborhood sandwich shop with Jen, who I have loved as long as I've been tweeting to other mamas on the 'net. Soon I was walking to coffee with Kay Gardiner, whose washcloths I have admired and even knitted for half-a-decade.
"This is beautiful," they would say, and others newly met would say, picking up the magazine and turning it over to the back, turning it over again and opening it. They would read a poem or a pull-quote. "This is you?" They might say. Or, "did you take these photographs?" Or, "how long did this take you?
And there is always Cheryl. How does she do it? She weaves her way everywhere and into everything and I listen to her voice, sometimes, in that undercurrent of my nighttime thoughts or my wavering-skipping-zipping inner voice while I run. Cheryl Strayed, who is now possessed of publicists and people to usher her in and out and a selection of ever-more-vibrant jewel-toned dresses, was reading at Borders Union Square that night and I would go.
I should have arrived more early, earli-er, but I am who I am and I was already blistering from too many miles in strappy sandals and kicking myself for not being more forceful with the taxi driver to whom I resorted. But still. Still I was lucky enough to be given, with serendipity I could not yet know, a seat next to the mother of Cheryl's publicist. A woman full of talent and heart and skill and smarts quite apart from those of her daughter. Soon we were friends and we were talking about her daughters and the magazine and I had that feeling of just-so-ness, here we have insisted upon our raison d'etre, to serve parents not just of the small spitting and spewing and toddling and fat-cheeked ones, but all parents and those who admire or only just watch parenting from afar. Parents of adults too. And she, the mother of the professional and sparkling architect of this amazing structure around my amazing friend, was as much a kindred spirit as any mother-blogger might be.
And so I go home with this beautiful thing, and it is at once celebratory and melancholy, surreal and solid, tangible, absolute. I take my beautiful thing to the airport with me and I take it across the continent with me and I am so late home, I walk through the darkened, quieted Portland airport on the whispering carpet and into my father's car and my children's many arms and I have this magazine and I am pleased, and proud, and full of a deadly terror. This thing: what will it be?
She was a namer from birth. She was charged to call things out of their shells and from their primeval wombs, but the shells and wombs primeval were hidden to her. So because she lived in a world without visible magic, she named small companies and products and web sites; she named her children; she named posts and articles and books and magazines and bicycles. She named her children's stuffed animals, their monsters, their video game characters. She sat at her computer or at the kitchen sink or on the foot of her children's bunk bed, naming and naming. It was very good, but when she ran through the woods and dark city places, she widened her eyes, looking for magic in the shadows and the hollows of trees.
One day her youngest son called to her. He was five and his eyes looked clear like hers, into a thing, seeing it to the core and always loving it and knowing it in the same breath. "Watch my game," he said, and showed her his cars.
"This one is Cyper," he said. Cyper was black and the strongest of all. "Cyper is going up against Windburner," he said. Windburner was white and fast and had blue swooshes up its hood. She had never heard these names before, except as background when he played. Cyper and Windburner fought many battles, which ended in races, and that was when Blue Thunder joined in. She watched the three cars crash and swoop and, ultimately, end their fighting in a draw.
"Magic is not visible," she thought, "but it's there if you listen," and she put on her boys' shoes and took them to battle zombies and dark mages in the swamp as she ran around its edge, loping with the coyotes and the wild wild boys.
You'll see a lot of flash fiction and flash memoir in the pages of Stealing Time magazine; our preview issue has a piece from non-fiction editor Robin Jennings that took our breaths (yes, all of them!) up up and away. We love the form because it gets, as we love to say and say again, to the heart of a story and quickly.
Flash memoir is the realm of the brave, as, at its best, it exposes some deep truth, the rawest. My piece here is relatively tame compared to some I've read and some I've worked at writing. Shaving away all the extraneous details and getting at one thing, what the story is really about -- here, my need to express myself as a child does, as being with so much imagination that she can believe in magic.
Great flash memoir uses the tools of a great short scene in fiction. The writer must set the reader quickly in time and place with fine-brushed details, and introduce the characters in a few words, often without names. It's easy enough; or should be easy; to keep track of the characters in such a short work. The conflict is often unresolved, as there's not really room for such resolution, just as in short fiction. We're left wondering what the characters will do next, but are just satisfied enough that our imagination is flooded with the possibilities in a swimming, not a gasping, way.
Flash memoir is such a natural medium to which to transition for bloggers. Much of what the blogger is doing, is already flash memoir, perhaps not crafted so carefully but still: expressing a short conflict through setting, brief dialogue, and action.
Because you'll probably ask, we define flash memoir as less than 600 words; most of the pieces we'll publish will be quite a lot less that. And it's certainly far more typical to use the first person; this example piece sprung into my head in the third person and I can't write it another way.
To honor the genre and to encourage participation from bloggers already skilled in the area, we're launching a flash memoir contest for our 'Celebration' issue, due out December 1, 2012. To make this even more fun, writers at Blogher 12 can turn their pieces in to me (Sarah Gilbert!) any time during the convention. We'll pay $100, and publication, to the winning essay. I'll be supplied with a backpack full of postcards [pdf link]; handwriting is just fine (but we'll have to read it). Or, you can mail a piece in, or send it via email to stealingtimemag @ gmail.com. Be sure to say "flash memoir submission" in the subject line and -- for this contest -- keep it under 250 words.
Everett, my oldest -- as I call him with great love in an essay I wrote that inspired so much, the mother-maker, present through all my 30s up to this one, time-waster, life thrower-away-upon -- is 10, today, the number that (says AP style) means you may now use numerals instead of words to refer to him in text. He is 10.
And today I waved goodbye, just the barest trilling of my fingertips, through the internet as the preview for the first issue of Stealing Time magazine went to the printer. These two things should be linked with more than coincidence. They are into and out of themselves. They are one, they are whole.
It is always the thing, yes? That you can hardly believe what is. That life passes and milestones are reached and goals are met and something amazing comes out of nothing, a spark, an idea met gladly with "I can!" and "oh, please!" and "let's do it" and suddenly you have thousands of dollars from 216 (and counting) wonderful, wonderful people and a team of eight-plus women and one man who are making a thing. You have a 10-year-old; you have a magazine, a thing that shortly you will be able to hold in your hands, a thing of paper and ink and the words that make you sing as you wash your dishes, sing as you run, sing as you wash milk spilled when a stuffed tiger named Calvin swooped through the air in a boy's joy.
The more you can touch something, the more separate from you it is. You live your pregnancy, you love your pregnancy, you hold on with every might in you and then you want so badly to let go, and the letting-go comes with great pain and struggle, and finally and always suddenly and without kazoo-blowing or confetti a wet tiny baby has slid from you and the cord is cut. You are two; you hold the baby to your breast and you let him into the world.
And he is one and he is walking; he is two and he knows 200 words and more; he is three and he is jumping, four and he is dancing, five and he has homework and is writing his name. Five and the tenor of your life changes. Five and the separation raises walls and chainlink and education plans.
He is six and he is reading; he is seven and he is building; he is eight and he walks without fear along the eight-foot fence. He is nine and he grows patience and deepens compassion and learns on his own how to build circuitry in Minecraft. He decides he will become an engineer. He calls two or maybe even three girls his girlfriend. He engages you in battles of sarcasm and simile. He keeps secrets and he plots with toddlers. He makes surprises for people right under your nose.
He is 10, and he tells you when you are working so hard to launch a magazine, "mom. I know what we can do with that money you'll make." Like you, he believes past optimism all the way to the end. In his eyes you are 10,000 subscriptions already. "We'll get solar panels."
You laugh, you weep, you think how right he is. You promise to yourself, you will make good, you will work together, you will create a magazine that tells the story of him and every child you have and have lost and wish for. You will search out stories that make your heart beat and your throat catch and your cheeks shine. You will carry them in your bag, on your laptop, in your shared online drive; you will put them on paper; you will love them as you let them go.
Each issue we will get the gasping, choking, tearful, glowing journey, then; five times a year we will hold close and let go and love from first to forever.
My oldest son is 10 and my literary magazine is launching. Let the sun shine; clench it tight and let it go.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
You are riding down the hill and it is like it always is when you are riding down the hill, as evening changes to almost-night, as the warmish June air cools further and you can feel the possibility of the world, as breaths. These are not the breaths you take in, deeply, into your belly -- these are the breaths that are unconscious and living, like the millions or billions of bacteria that people your body, inhabiting yet going on entirely without a thought of you. It is no matter. The world is open to you and everything in it.
Today I have launched a Kickstarter campaign. Today I have set afloat a future.
There is a hill to ride up and you do it, shifting down but not all the way down. Your shifter cables are frayed and your chain is loose. You get up your speed as you approach the up and you pedal and then you tense your thighs for the cruise, through the dip, up, up. You have talked to people tonight and you have believed what you said to them. "I am a story teller, not a hole filler"; you have met another hole filler and admitted only to yourself that this is your only possibility, your destiny, your fate, your path. You have not launched this literary magazine to tell your story alone. You have launched this literary magazine to fill a need. To meet your people on their journey and put a quiet hand on their backs, to say, "I want to help," even if you think they will shrug their shoulders away and say, "no, no, no, I can."
Last week I said I was embarking upon a literary magazine, and I meant it, and I shall. I do have help. No, no, no, I cannot do it without you.
You arrive home, skidding over gravel and swooping down the little hill to your pine tree parking spot sploshing with ideas and hopes that there are a dozen little notes of encouragement and funding, you sweep up your things and you skip, you jog, into the house, the door is open and everything is happy dizzy madness. The boys. For them you are to play Scrabble, you are to get milk with maple syrup, you are to receive a soft, full-lipped kiss from your seven-year-old with ASD and a habit of crossing boundaries most seven-year-olds have long since set carefully around them like Army men. They are running around the house, they are roller skating around the house, you are talking to the babysitter and you are listening to their happy wildness and you do! you do! have a dozen little notes.
I have begun to accept these pledges, they come in like sparks, sometimes they roll like wheels down a hill and sometimes they must be pulled like fraying yarn through a steel needle's eye. I want more. Is it too much to say over and over that I want more? I need more.
You say "goodbye" to the babysitter and you cannot even pay him because you are just getting by tonight and you have no cash ("Next time?" "Sure," and he smiles, because he is worth far more than money) and you make popcorn and play Scrabble and tumble to bed late to buzz and buzz and buzz. You go to bed each night (these days) filled with heart-stopping terror and you wake up with gladness and hope. You will! You will! Pull this off, make something beautiful, tell stories in the way you wish to do. Pay writers, pay writers, pay writers! Print things on paper. Throw readings and facilitate salons and oh, oh please, pay yourself and your most wondrous volunteers.
Here is what I am doing: I am filling a hole in our literary hearts. I am reaching out. I am saying, "When we have done this -- when we have laid a gentle hand onto another parent's arm, when we have said words that we hope are supportive and unconditionally loving -- we want to inspire each other to share and share again. Give, not judgment, not advice, but our stories. Listen not in fear or in competition but in acceptance. " I am saying, "Put your hand in mine. Ready; set;"
peek into the past . of daily apples and pinecones . november 18 . 2008
joy in the midst of the dailiness of life