Thursday, August 21, 2014

As I prepare for the new semester, this "Shadow Syllabus" by my friend and colleague, Sonya Huber, is making me feel so much better about everything.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Julia Child Rule No. 3: Learn to Be Amused


Here it is Sept. 5 and I’m already running behind with blogging about #Live Like Julia*. I am also running behind on:

·     Writing the 2015 Inner Bitch calendar

·     Revising my novel
Working on an essay or two that I have in progress

·     Getting all the “administrative” tasks related to teaching done

·     Reading for work and pleasure

·     And a few other things that have slipped my mind at the moment, but which I will probably remember as I’m trying to fall asleep tonight.


How am I ever going to make anything of myself?


This is the question I’ve been asking for, oh, a couple of decades or so. Actually, it’s the question I’ve been asking since I first became aware that I was not living up to my potential—a point made clear in the comments section of my fourth grade report card. There were, of course, what I’ll call “extenuating circumstances” that made it difficult to live up to whatever potential I may have had—my mother’s mental illness left me too confused and angry and alone to really concentrate on school work. Yet I felt ashamed when I handed that report card over to my father, whose position was that, since all I had to do was school, it was my job to get straight A’s. He looked at the grades, read the comment, and said, “Remember this: Perfection is acceptable.”


I won’t bore you with the gory details (that’s what the unpublished memoir is for) but things went downhill from there. And I find myself at 57 (57!) still grappling, as Julia did, with “the stark choice of whether to be a wallflower or a myth.”


As the new semester begins, I am once again aware of the tenuous nature of my “career.” I teach as an adjunct at three Institutes of Higher Education (IHE) and am once again juggling the considerable demands of too many classes and what feels like 1,000 students for earnings that are embarrassingly paltry, allegedly so I don’t have to take a full-time job that would get in the way of my writing. Because writing is what I really “do”—or so I claim. Yet there is no time to write during the semester. 


So I am, once again, wondering how I am ever going to make something of myself? It’s too late to even dream of a tenure-track position that would provide a reasonable course load and a salary I could live on  (trust me on this). Though I’m more than proud of the Inner Bitch books (Still in print after nearly 20 years! Life-changing for women around the world!), I believe that the writing I’m doing now—“serious” writing a/k/a literary writing—is what I’m really meant to do, but the struggle to simply make financial ends meet gets in the way. But I’m afraid I’m running out of time.


Yet there is this: joy. And there is this: pleasure. As Karen Karbo writes in Rule # 3 of Julia Child Rules, Lessons on Savoring Life: “…learn to be amused and find things that bring you pleasure. Each day I have the choice to recognize joy and to find things that bring me pleasure. So even on The Longest Day of the Week (out of the house at 8 a.m., back home at 9 p.m.), I took the time to be amused by:

·     The endless enthusiasm of the Wondergrandson (who, at 2, finds delight in so many “small” things)

·     The sheer joy of being in the presence of the Wondergranddaughter (who, at 18, is just awesome) and the Wonderdaughter (who is equally awesome)
The comfort of the Total Package
My students—who I look forward to getting to know

I made sure to find pleasure, too. Look at this adorable breakfast I packed:
Greek yogurt and granola in the sweetest Mason jar ever. Plus grapes, iced green tea, and a little light reading. 
And I take comfort in remembering that Julia—who was a lifeline for the lost little girl I was in the fourth grade—didn’t become a myth until she was 51.

* Check out more about Live Like Julia here.










Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Protective Covering


Since becoming an adult (which was quite a long while ago, now) I have prided myself on this one thing: my firm handshake. Though I appear to be a gregarious person that’s just protective covering for an essential shyness; I am deeply shy but I’m lucky that I’m also deeply curious about people. Early on, I learned that the best way to deal with the shyness was by engaging others quickly, to get them talking so I could listen. That firm handshake was a kind of armor I donned before going out in public; combined with a smile, looking a person straight in the eyes, and a leading question it was the fastest route to my safe haven of observation.

My father coached me in the art of the handshake (yes, this is a thing we did, randomly—I’d walk into the kitchen or pass him in the yard and he reach out his hand for a shake, then he would give me his comments on my technique), warning me to “never shake hands like a woman; don’t do that awful thing where they wrap the first two knuckles over someone’s fingertips and give a little squeeze, and never give a limp-fish handshake—you might as well announce that you’re a pushover who’ll do anything they want you to do. A good handshake is like a declaration of confidence.” His judgment of “bad handshakes” passed straight into me through our palms; I have written off people completely based on their handshakes.

A little over a year ago, however, shaking hands became painful. The quick cupping of palms was all right, but the pressure of another person’s fingers on mine made me wince. I thought it must be too much typing or the endless writing of comments on print copies of student papers, an occupational hazard, so I began to do stretching exercises and squeezing a stress ball to try to strengthen my digits. Naturally, I kept on shaking hands when being introduced to someone and when greeting acquaintances; my grip just as certain as always, despite a momentary hesitation—a limp handshake remained too embarrassing to consider and the pain was fleeting.  After a while, though, I realized that the joints in my fingers hurt—not just when in use but often upon waking. In fact, my first thought upon waking was something like, “Oooowww;” the pain was everywhere.

That’s when I went to my doctor (a thing I’ve avoided doing as much as possible—though I had seen her relatively recently when I thought I had pneumonia; she diagnosed pleurisy). She suspected fibromyalgia; it turned out I have psoriatic arthritis—an inflammatory disease that can lead to joint damage (the photos of that joint damage are…awful). One of the symptoms is chronic pain in the affected joints; it turns out that the inflammation can affect the lungs—thus the pleurisy.

There are days when the pain is so insistent and intense that I can barely bring myself to speak to people I know and love. It’s not just joint pain, either; I often feel as if I’m coming down with/am getting over/am laid flat by the flu. All of which is awful enough but the thing I’m resenting today is the loss of my firm handshake. The idea of offering my pained hand to someone who does not know to handle it with care intimidates me. It feels as if my armor has eroded, leaving me to deal with my shyness in new ways. Except I haven’t quite figured out what the new ways will be.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mother's Day

For Shannon, still the best thing I have ever done. Thank you for every minute.


The first time I see my baby, a nurse brings her into my room, lays her down at the foot of the bed and says, “Well, here she is.”
A face. Pink. A hand. Also pink.
I stretch my arms toward the bundle, toward that face.
“Better not,” the nurse warns. “We just fed her and she’s beginning to fall asleep.” But she undoes the tight swaddling blanket and even the diaper to show me that this baby is, in fact, a baby girl.
“Beautiful,” I say.
I watch the baby’s arms tracing jerking circles and ask the nurse to wrap her up again because I can tell she’s cold. And the nurse takes her out of the room.

The second time I see my baby is a day later in the nurses’ break room. A group of mothers, all of us dressed in robes and slippers, sit on wooden chairs pushed into jumbled rows in front of a long table. On the table there’s a plastic bathinette, a pink plastic bottle of baby soap, two towels laid out and two baby washcloths. New Nurse bustles in, holding my baby in both arms. She stands on the other side of that long table, rocking my baby gently and I look at my daughter’s head resting on that white-sleeved elbow. With her other hand, New Nurse pats the rhythm of a heartbeat on my baby’s swaddled bottom. 
Then she shifts my baby over onto one arm, holding her like a football while she grabs a clear plastic pitcher and carries it to the sink. “You never want to wash Baby in the sink, because it’s too hard and deep and Baby is slippery,” she says over the gush of running water. She has her back to me and I crane my head forward to try to catch a glimpse of my baby but all I can see is the blanket wrapped tight around her feet.
“I can hold her while you do that,” I say, but New Nurse either doesn’t hear or she’s ignoring me.
“This is how you test the heat,” New Nurse dipped her wrist in the water. Then she unwrapped my baby and all the mothers oohed and ahed.
“That can’t be a newborn, look at the size of her!” one of them giggles.
“She weighs nine pounds eight ounces, and she’s 22 inches long,” I say. 
“She’s yours?”
“Yes. She’s mine.” I watch my baby slip into the water, eyes wide open, mouth shut tight, her arms waving and her head moving from side to side like she is looking for something she’s lost.
 
I should just walk down there and look at her. They can’t stop me from doing that.
 I’m sitting in the hospital bed trying to convince myself that seeing my baby would be just that easy when Dr. Baker, the pediatrician, comes into my room and perches on the edge of the bed. “Elizabeth. That’s some baby you had!”
I nod, ready for him to start talking about how great adoption is. If I had him for a husband, a handsome and rich doctor with straight white teeth and blue eyes, no one would be talking adoption. 
“She’s gorgeous,” he says. “Are you breast-feeding?”
“I haven’t even held her yet.”
 “What?”
“They won’t let me hold her.” The tears start and I gulp hard against the tightness that spreads from my throat into my chest.
“Who won’t let you hold her?” He leans toward me, his hand on my arm, his forehead bunched in a way that makes me wonder if he thinks I’m crazy.
“The nurses.” Not crying is impossible now.
“Well, that’s bullshit!” And he’s off the bed, out the door. The sudden shifting of the mattress sends a jolt of pain so fierce I have to grab the pillow and press it hard against the thirty-two steel clamps in my belly.
A minute later I hear New Nurse practically shout. “But Doctor! Doctor!” Then it’s her voice then his voice and the footsteps coming closer.
He stands in the doorway for a second, holding the tight white bundle that is my baby firmly against his chest and I wait for him to keep her there just out of reach, ready to have him not hand her over to me. “You’ll be more comfortable with your back against the pillows,” he says. I maneuver myself, moving fast in spite of the pain, and he puts her in my arms then walks out without a word, pulling the door shut behind him.
Solid. She is so solid. She’s twisting her head in a kind of figure eight and I can feel her arms move under the blanket. I lay her on my legs, unwrap her the way I’ve seen the nurses do it.
A halo of strawberry blonde fuzz swirls across her skull and there’s a bruise on her left cheek. I lift her closer, press my lips as gently as I can against the purplish splotch, feel the tickle of her hair on my cheek. She makes the tiniest squeak ever and I hold her closer, inhale the smell of her—sweet and salt and something I have always known but cannot name—and that smell is so so good, so much better than anything I have ever smelled before.
With one arm I wrap her close, run my hand over her right arm, squeeze lightly, my mouth following the path, tasting her skin, memorizing her flesh, the suggestion of bone so close to the surface. I press my fingers into the hollows of her ribs and can feel her heart flutter against my fingertips.
I feel her legs, check her toes, discover the wonder of toenails, kiss the bottoms of her feet.
Say something.
I want to tell her that I am so happy she is here.
I want to tell her that we are going to be okay, she and I.
I want to tell her that I will be as strong and brave for her as I know how to be.
I want to tell her that I will love her forever, no matter what.
I want to make sure that I say the right thing.
“Hello, baby,” I whisper.
She stops moving her head and I look into those eyes that still have all of heaven in them. ““Hello, Shannon, I’m your mother.”


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Snow Boulder


I’m sitting in “my” studio at Vermont Studio Center, a snug room in a sturdy, no-nonsense building that will, for me, always “mean Vermont.” Through the ample window—about six feet tall, four feet wide—I look out on a view of a determined ice-rimmed river; on the other side, on the broad swath of lawn between a building that houses the studios of artists (not writers), a group of five hale and hearty writers and artists are grappling with an enormous snowball. Another artist, the one who has set all this in motion, circles this endeavor taking photos.

I am waiting for the moment when the snowball succumbs to the pull of gravity and tumbles down the slope of the lawn into the river. From here, this seems an inevitable thing, though I cannot be certain. Some of the snowballers kneel in the snow that has grown wetter and heavier in the January thaw that has set this part of the world dripping. The others lean into the work of pushing and, together, they all move the snowball (growing bigger with every rotation) a few inches then regroup and approach it in different configurations. In the last two days of (relative) warmth, some of what had been a lid of thick ice—marbled, translucent, beautiful—has broken free and been carried along the surface of the narrow of open water. There is a point where the river curves and narrows; these ice floes are trapped by some coincidence of shallows and more adamant ice. Below this winter-made dam, the river water has been freed by the warmth and I can see it’s rocky bed.

Through the window I hear the shout I’ve been anticipating—triumph! I look out in time to see the snow boulder teeter then speed down the small hill and I think, “Oh, it will splash! It will break that ice dam!” At the bottom of the hill, though, is a plateau and the snow boulder halts abruptly.

The workers rush down the slope and begin grooming their creation, patting and smoothing it as if it were an animal for which they have been caring. Then they climb back up the hill and a few—the men—begin to pelt the boulder with snowballs. The artist who conceived of this project, hands off the camera, slides down the hill and poses with the boulder, fending off, then trying to catch some of the snow balls. Everyone loiters, pushing snow with their booted feet, peering down toward the snow boulder that is now planted in a spot that would, in summer, probably be ideal for a picnic. 
The snow boulder with "my" studio (second window on the first floor) in the background—courtesy of the artist, Anneke Muijlwijk.

I can’t wait to see how this thing, this shared act of art, turns up in the work.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

One Year Later

In honor of the first birthday of the Wondergrandson, I offer this repost:

No Ketchup

One waits, the waiting accompanied by a pulsing of anticipation/excitement/worry.

Seven months ago I waited for this to be done:


Once the snow melted, I began to wait for these:


Today I waited for my grandson to be born.

This was different than when my granddaughter was born. Sixteen years have passed and life has changed, of course. On that day I was an active participant in the birth and while the pulsing was certainly there, my attention was on my daughter, my focus was keenly on her and the incredible ordinary magic of the process.

Today I waited. I sat on the couch in my living room working while the dog and cats slept nearby, the historic heat pressed its estimable weight on the world and, a few short miles away, my daughter once again labored through the incredible ordinary magic of giving birth. The pulsing this time was nearly deafening, pulling my mind and heart away from the work at hand. When the pulsing overwhelmed, I called friends and talked until it was just a hum in the background.

In the evening family assembled—my daughter's sister and aunt, my husband, Florida Freddy. We ate pizza, we laughed, we talked. We waited together. Then a point came when I knew I had to go to the hospital—worry had overwhelmed all the other elements of waiting. I drove the few miles, walked in to the labor/delivery room, checked out what was going on and, after a little while, came home again.

Two hours later my phone buzzed. "Baby's here. Shannon says Wendy's, please."

We all piled into one car and headed for the drive through. I spoke into the intercom, gave the order. "A #1 with cheese and no onions."

"No ketchup?"

"No. No onions."

Shannon's aunt said, "Where did she get 'no ketchup?'" 

We all laughed, releasing the swirl of anticipation and excitement (no more worry). We laughed again when the two giant cups of soda were passed out of the drive through window. We laughed again when we saw the sign proclaiming that ketchup and salt were available by request. We even laughed when we got stuck behind a man on a motorcycle following the white line on the right side of the road at 10 mph in a 35 zone—though our laughter was once again tinged with worry.

In the vestibule we had to wait to be allowed in—a group of five giddy adults carrying tubs of soda and a paper sack redolent of grease and salt, surrounded by a pulsing halo of excitement and anticipation that was surely visible.

Down the hall, the nurses calling congratulations from their station and then the waiting was over and there was this:


Look at those eyes. Look at the old soul peering out from inside.


When I held him for the first time, I felt a pulsing made of wonder and gratitude and the incredible ordinary magic of love.