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“Um, I’m not sure if he’s in a good position. I think his head may be a little bit too far away. From the breast. Your boob.”
Sierra looks from her baby boy’s head, to the breast that lay in her hand, to Madeline, and her mouth again falls open. She is exhausted, and not understanding, and trying so hard, and wanting to try even harder, and wanting to give up.
Madeline looks around the room, says to Sierra, “Would it help…do you want me to get on the bed with you?”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah,” she says. “Yes.”
“Yeah, you go head, Mad.” Billie waves Madeline towards the bed, her fists clenching and re-clenching as she speaks.
The aunt, the uncle, the cousins, who have been murmuring among themselves with downcast eyes, decide at this point that they will excuse themselves and get refreshments. Madeline edges to the side of the bed and sits down with a tentativeness that resembles slow motion. Seated a respectful distance from Sierra, she tucks one leg underneath the other, letting her foot dangle casually off the side, in an attempt to project calm confidence. And with the simple movement of raising her rear end slightly off the bed to tuck her leg, she gets her first real glimpse of newborn Dustin Roy.
Tears threaten to well, pour, spring from her eyes. The sum of tears inside her threatens to flood the room – Billie, still holding a pile of meticulously-folded things, Sierra still cross-legged on the bed with her mouth agape – they will be swept up in the great salty tide and whisked down the corridor, past roomfuls of astonished new mothers cradling infants, while Madeline swoops up Dustin and saves him. She saves him. She seizes him and holds him and swaddles his blanket tight and rubs her cheek against his newborn hair and smells his skin and makes a pact, a pact that very instant that she will do anything in the world to protect him, anything at all, forever, she will do anything she needs to do for the rest of time as long as there is time, because he is there, and he is perfect, and he is new, and everything is possible for him, everything, he will have a good life, he will…
“MadMad? What should I do?”
Madeline keeps her eyes fixed intently on Dustin, as if pondering the question quite seriously, until the dam that threatens to burst has proven it will hold.
“Um, let’s try again.”
Sierra goes through each step — positioning Dustin, squeezing her nipple, then maneuvering the outer third of her breast so it comes down to Dustin’s mouth from above. After each separate move, she looks back to Madeline, and Madeline nods.
Scout is the third dog that I have had in my adult life; thereby, I am on my 24th year of having a ready-made reason to get outside every morning. We go to the large park at the corner of my block most days. When it is below zero, my fellow dog owners and I bitch and moan and compare the relative warmth of our boots. When it is well above 90, we bitch and moan and say that we really must be getting home, pretending that it is our dogs who can’t stand the heat.
Scout is a meanderer. I call her the Ferdinand of dogs, as in the children’s book where the ferocious-seeming bull wants nothing more than to sit in the field, and smell the flowers. Scout wanders the park each morning, slowly, thoroughly, nose to the ground, not willing to miss one single thing that might be infinitesimally different from the day before.
Each spring, we experience an alarming wave of birds’ nests falling from their tree homes, or perhaps they have been helped along by squirrels, cats, raccoons, possums – any of the variety of wildlife we have. Each year, for a time, our parks, yards, sidewalks are littered with tiny, dead baby birds. Some are brand newly hatched from their shells, others are feathered and nearly fledged, one hair’s breath away from spreading their wings and living a life.
Considering that we have experienced an influx of fox and coyote – surprising considering that we live within spitting distance of the third largest city in the United States – I am always taken aback that the bird bodies are there at all, and so many.
A nest fell from one of the tallest trees in the corner park, and the carcass lay right against the trunk. The first morning Scout and I came upon it, the parents mounted a riotous, all-out demonstration of their protective agony, complete with shrieking, wing-flapping, diving and swooping. Each morning Scout nosed the baby gently. We witnessed the body progress from its state of newly-fallen perfection, to being covered and consumed by teeming maggots, to becoming strewn bones and feather, until the morning when there was no remaining trace whatsoever.
It has been more than two weeks since we found the baby bird, more than a week since there has been any remaining sign of its life. Still, every morning the parents shriek and wail. Every morning they swoop down and peck the back of my very confused, 87-pound yellow lab. They follow us part of the way home.
Do animals understand death?
I have been struggling over a chapter for my novel-in-progress for, oh, longer than I care to admit; but let’s say a good couple of weeks. I’ve written a beginning, tweaked it, added to it, thrown it out entirely, written a new beginning, etc. Par for the course (and falling squarely into the “torture” part of writing that I – ahem – have mentioned a few times.) This is NOT a case of the overall creative picture going in and out of focus, as I have cited. I have a clear picture of what needs to be accomplished in this chapter, and how. So this seems more of a case of…the actual details going in and out of focus, perhaps. In fact, I’m not entirely sure. A writing Instructor/book/guru would say: if you have a solid understanding of you characters, and of what needs to happen, the chapter will write itself (brief pause while we all guffaw in agony). In the hopes that it will help, I am posting two alternate chapter beginnings. ANY and ALL comments and feedback welcome.
“First thing through the door, she thinks, “Holy shit.” This phrase passes through her head several more times.
She does a brief scan of the room. The aunt. The uncle. The cousins. A hospital room, a decent one: big, pastel-y. At least so far as you can tell with the black-out shades drawn and the lights mostly off. Billie is darting around, picking up everything in the room, smoothing it out, elaborately folding it, smoothing it out again, stacking the folded garments into piles, re-organizing the piles.
Sierra sits cross-legged in one corner of the bed, talking on the phone, looking even younger and smaller than usual. She stares up at Madeline, , expressionless, motioning her to come closer for a hug. At Sierra’s knee, awake in that newborn state of wide-eyed, alert, perfect calm, is the baby. The Baby. THE BABY. “
“I never did this, Maddie, not with any of my four,” Billie said. “Maybe you can help her out.” And then she added, “I’d sure appreciate it.”
The new mother’s mouth fell slightly open as she looked up at Maddie with saucer, impossibly blue eyes, set in purplish circles of sleep deprivation against the smudged charcoal remains of days-old eye liner.
“Um, you have to…kind of…give it to him from above. Get it into his mouth from…above.” Knowing that her words were meaningless, Maddie made emphatic hand motions of thrusting some imaginary object from a higher to a lower point in the middle of the air of the hospital room, as if this would explain everything. She looked over at Billie. A vein stood out on the side of Billie’s neck.
Sierra’s mouth opened a hair wider, a combination of determination and bewilderment that stabbed at Maddie’s heart.
Sierra grabbed her breast and bobbled it at the teeny newborn’s head as if it were a water balloon she was hoping get through the eye of a needle.
“I think your nipple needs to be harder, for him to be able to latch on.” Pause. “I think you need to…sort of…pinch your nipple…a little.” Maddie made exaggerated pincers of her thumb and fingers.
There was a distinct gap between anything that anyone said and Sierra’s response. It was as if someone hit the pause button for a split second – the split second it took anything to penetrate the layers of Vicodin for the pain of her vaginal tear, her exhaustion, bewilderment, the effort of trying like to hell to soldier through. The pause, during which her face remained entirely blank, was then followed by a perfectly normal reply. Laughter at a funny remark. A nose wrinkle for something gross. After the pause, she was in every way herself; but the pause/respond motif pervaded the roomful of visitors with a bizarre combination of both calm, and apprehension.
It was awkward to squirm the newborn around into the crook of her elbow with one arm while placing her fingers on the outermost edge of her nipple, all the while trying to figure out how to “give it to him from above,” like Maddie had said. “Like this?” she asked.
“Um, I’m not sure if he’s in a good position. I think his head may be a little bit too far away. From the breast. Your boob.”
Sierra looked from her baby boy’s head, to the breast that lay in her hand, to Maddie, and her mouth again fell open. She was exhausted, and not understanding, and trying so hard, and wanting to try even harder, and wanting to give up.
Maddie looked around the room, said to Sierra, “Would it help…do you want me to get on the bed with you?”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah,” she said. “Yes.”
“Yeah, you go head, Mad.” Billie waved Maddie towards the bed, her fists clenching and re-clenching as she spoke.
Today I have been working on a section of the new novel that revolves around a baby’s birth, and it has reminded me of the miracle that every new start, every fresh possibility holds. In honor or this, and of the upcoming longest day of the year, I am posting this section from my book, “You, in Your Green Shirt.”
And, by the way, it turns out that manipulating photographs is an EXCELLENT way to procrastinate; good visuals make for more interesting blogs, after all.
“When I return home after I run, when I am drenched, soaked in sweat, dripping down the sides of my face and stinging my eyes, when I am barely able to peel off the shorts, the socks, the sports bra that are bonded with my skin, when I am fully naked, I tiptoe into Kate’s room and stand in front of the only full-length mirror in the house. I look at myself.
I’m not sure why I do this, what I’m looking for.
I suppose I look for changes. I try to know myself. I consider the fact that the next person, that all the next people, who kisses and fondles the breasts that I see in the mirror, this person will not be kissing the breasts that nursed his babies, that squirted him in the shower when the baby cried out from his crib. He will see the slight puckering of extra skin along the very tops of my inner thighs as just that, extra skin, and not as a remembrance of the births of his own two children.
Yesterday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The first bird lets out a few tentative notes at around four a.m. now, and the dogs are up by 5:15. Our routine is the same every single morning, but they are bursting with desire to get out and see it again, to note and rejoice in every single infinitesimally minute change from the day before.
The world is beautiful at this hour. Staggeringly beautiful. Ever day it is brand new. It is millions and millions of years old, too, aeons old. But in its dew-drenched sparkling magnificence, it is full of promise, of all possible promises. Brand new. Again.”
“Before they moved the TV down here I was pretty much all alone by my lonesome a good deal of the time. People was in and out, but for the most part didn’t really pay me no never mind. Course I was in better shape back then, younger, chugging along pretty good even if I was getting up in years. And don’t think that I’m complaining cause I ain’t. I like my own company just fine; it gives you time to think.
But then they fixed up the room right next to my own so the whole family could have a place to assemble, and they made it real nice and cozy, too. And what with the TV down here, well suddenly I had me a whole lot of company, and these folks who had breezed in and out of my room for all that time before was living their lives right in front of my eyes, so to speak.
I had me a family, for the first time ever.”
Those two paragraphs + 1 sentence = the majority of the writing that I have done on my 3rd novel in the past several days. The good news is: I like those paragraphs. The bad news is: obvious. It’s two paragraphs.
I have to make some decisions about the structure of this work before I can go much further. In the meantime, I keep tinkering around with the beginning, the part that I know, the part of the creative picture that is clear, while I continue to grope around in the near-darkness pursuing other parts of the picture — the ones that have blurred, the ones that I am trying to stare at, the ones I am trying to sneak up on while they least expect it.
Agony. Ecstasy. Repeat.
When I first blogged about the tortured agony that often (usually? always?) comprises writing, my old friend Rick responded and said, “The problem with writing is the lack of supporting toys. Musicians can always buy or futz around with new equipment, secure in the knowledge that this is almost the same as actual music. Ditto for filmmakers.” This is SO TRUE. We writers do not have toys! And therefore, built in ways to procrastinate on a regular basis! And always in the service of your creative process and your work!
Judging by the musical types that are direct blood relatives of mine, musicians spend vast oceans of time trolling on line and in stores for new instruments, things to add or subtract from those instruments, cases to put them in, devices to make them sound a little different, other devices to make them sound a little more different, and that’ s before we even get into the whole other ocean of stuff you need to record your music!
Visual artists, likewise, have their own ever-expanding universe of materials and media. Dancers and choreographers have shoes, and costumes, and cute, weird little knitted things to cover very specific parts of your body so they don’t get chilled. Even with the advent of digital photography and the disappearance of the darkroom, there is still plenty of paraphernalia that amateur and pro photographers alike can pour over and obsess about.
The way I see it, every other creative endeavor/art form has equipment, props and toys.
Back in the older days, when I was first writing really amazingly bad poetry for which I got a shocking amount of misguided encouragement — but I digress — I was very particular about my pencils. I could only sit down to write if I had at least three fairly new pencils. #2. Nothing else. The erasers had to be intact. The points had to be sharp to a surgically precise degree. A fair amount of time could be consumed in the sharpening process, but hey, nothing compared to, say, strolling into a guitar star and noodling around on a few different instruments for most of an afternoon. The pencil thing was as close to toys as I ever got.
Now, it’s just me and my one laptop.
I have been artistically gypped.
me, writing long-format works (novels, in my case) is like chasing a picture that continually goes in and out of focus in your mind.
There are moments of enormous clarity, little miracles, in which the characters and ideas that are burbling around in your head suddenly and unexpectedly come into sharp focus. You know exactly where your work is going — what must happen, what each character must say in a situation that must be created to compel your work forward. Ha. Unfortunately, these miraculous moments of clarity can evaporate just as easily as they appeared. And they do. And because these times of clear vision are likely to happen any old time — just as you are falling asleep, or during a long walk, or any old time whatsoever — it is shocking, maddening, confounding how quickly and totally they vanish, very much like dreams that you remember in exquisite detail, even going over the events in your mind upon awakening, only to find that you have no recollection just a short time later.
Sometimes the clarity has vanished even by the time you get yourself in front of the computer keyboard. No matter how quickly you manage to drop everything, clear some space in your life, plop down in front of that screen, it can still happen that there you are, confronting that keyboard, rarin’ to go, only to find yourself…blank.
It’s gone. Utterly gone. There you are on the beach, after the wave has crashed, trying to make out any remnants of the words you wrote in the sand.
I wonder — is it like this in all creative endeavors? Composing music? Creating a sculpture? I think it must be.
In 2009, a groundswell of activity on Facebook led to the inimitable Betty White hosting Saturday Night Live. A radiant and bejeweled 88 year-old Betty came through that door that so many hosts have walked through since SNL’s inception, tackled those stairs in low heels, and faced a roaring audience. In her opening monologue, she acknowledged her fans, and the power of Facebook, admitting that before all of this, she had absolutely no idea what Facebook was. “And now that I do know what it is,” she said, I have to say it sounds like a HUGE waste of time.”
Well, I gotta say, that is precisely how I always thought about blogging.
I just didn’t get it.
To me, it seemed like the worst possible combination of live-out-loud, no-personal-boundaries-whatsoever, in-your-face social media and a rampant look-at-me narcissism that seems more celebrated with each passing day. But alas, after years of working with different literary agents and facing a thoroughly recalibrated publishing world, I, like so many others, made the decision to self-publish my two novels, and to do so electronically. I remain entirely confident that this was the best decision (lo these many weeks after their April 2013 publication date!), but that decision brought with it a whole new world of figuring out how to Get The Word Out. There is a VAST amount of information out there, thank god, and though much of it is contradictory, there is amazing consensus on one point: creating a blog stands as perhaps the single best vehicle for introducing people to your work.
Crap, I thought. Just…crap.
Well, guess what. Around about the time I posted my second blog entry, the most amazing and wonderful thing happened — I actually got responses. Immediately! From people who were touched, or moved, or had some idea they wanted to share, or a great story, or whatever!! Now for the long-format writer — who sits in front of blank screen day after week after year, living with characters in an attempt to crawl so far inside their fictional souls that they tell you their tales and you tell the world — this is nothing short of a miracle. A gift. An immediate connection that takes something abstract and in the future — “The Reader” — to someone real, and in the Now.
And you know what else? Turns out that “blogging” is an unbelievably fun way to PROCRASTINATE from that Other Thing you are (putatively) writing. It’s necessary! It’s fun! It’s writing practice!! Oh My God, who thought of this?!? It’s the best thing ever.
When a family member misses such an important life event, the air in every room is noisy with his absence.
He was not in the car when his wife picked me up a the airport, nor was he waiting back at the house, in the kitchen, with that slight frown of intense concentration that always accompanied his slow, deliberate, quietly jubilant cooking adventures that lasted full days.
His wife threw a party the day before the wedding, her sisters-in-law abuzz with busy helpfulness. Both sides of the family gathered, old friends, new meetings, hearty hugs and rich laughter abounded. The hum of celebration grew large, peals of laughter regularly piercing through. Still, the roar of my brother’s absence remained.
He did not see the expression on his son’s face when he saw his bride for the first time, coming down the aisle of the sweet chapel on her father’s arm. He missed it all.
As my daughter and I sat in the first row, waiting for the ceremony that would make my brother’s son a married man, my daughter whispered to me. She asked me if I missed him.
Oh yes, yes I do.
My brother Roy died on December 6, 2001. He died in Ecuador, on the side of a mountain very near its summit, immediately and without warning. And I think it would not be false to say that his absence, and my missing him, has been with me since. The loss of him, of a living brother, the little boy who was already there when I was born, the skinny, freckled, snake-catching, marble-collecting, bow-shooting, cowboy-playing, fly-tying person whose living presence told me that my own life and experience were true. He helped me know who I was. Every day he did this. Just by being alive.
I read this poem, by Rilke at his funeral:
You don’t survive in me
because of memories;
nor are you mine because
of a lovely longing’s strength.
What does make you present
is the ardent detour
that a slow tenderness
traces in my blood.
I do not need
to see you appear;
being born sufficed for me
to lose you a little less.