Be prepared to laugh really, really hard.
Be prepared to laugh really, really hard.
Summer days, and summer holidays in particular, bring about the most magical feeling – as if time is endless, and the warmth of the air, the stretch of the daylight, the celebratory relaxation will go on and on forever.
My first-ever officially-diagnosed back spasm has laid me low for six days now, causing me to cancel any 4th of July plans in favor of a day of rest, broken up only by a four-mile walk along my hometown’s lakefront. Evanston, Illinois takes the 4th of July very seriously. Neighborhood parks are overrun with children participating in a myriad of games, events and activities that have been organized by the city. The granddaddy of all small-town parades runs for a two-mile stretch along Central Street, in what is a time-honored, quirky, charming (arguable), tediously long (inarguable) display of every single Tom, Dick and Harry organization that wants to march the route and wave to the delighted crowd.
The beaches are jammed; every lifeguard the city employs is called to duty all day. And the gorgeous stretch of lakefront park that runs from very near my home in the southeast corner of the city all the way to Northwestern University nearly two miles to the north, is packed with picnickers, large extended families who have staked out their turf, settled in for a long day that will be capped with the exhilarating fireworks display around 9 or 9:30.
This July 4th was a glorious day, one of the very best I can remember in my 30 years in my house. The sun peeked in and out, perhaps to the dismay of beachgoers, but to the thrill of parade-goers and picnickers who most often wilt, or even faint in large numbers, on a typical Evanston 4th.
According to the most recent figures available, the general population of Evanston, Illinois is 65% white, 18% African-American, and 17% all other groups (as self-defined). Because Evanston attracts so many families, the demographics of the public school system have always been quite different: 2012 information states that the elementary school system is currently 42% white students, 26% African-American, 18% Hispanic, with the remaining 14% all other.
A visitor would never have gleaned this yesterday, had they been walking with me.
The magical Evanston beaches, where I took my children nearly every day, and where they later served as lifeguards and beach managers, require a season pass to be purchased for any person over the age of 1, or a daily fee of an astonishing $8.00! Yesterday, the exuberant beachgoers were comprised almost entirely of small groups, at least 85% of which were white. Children and parents waited in long lines to buy popsicles, hot dogs and treats, just as I did with my kids. By contrast, the picnickers cramming the park space for a solid two miles were at least 85% Hispanic, and comprised almost entirely of large extended families laden with grills, chairs, and what looked to be an amazing array of lovingly prepared food.
The United States is, truly, the greatest country in the world in so many ways. Or perhaps it is more correct to say, it is so many different countries, existing side by side.
We have so much more to do.
This is where I write, in the back sun room of my house, a room with three walls of solid windows overlooking my yard and garden. My laptop sits on a reclaimed-wood table I had made for me, having fallen in love with it at a local flower shop and cajoled the owner into giving me the name of the man who had made it. And this is the way it all looks to me when I sit down to begin, when the picture of what I need to say remains out of focus, out of my reach.
Today I struggled. Today’s particular form of struggle involved looking up an ungodly number of words in the thesaurus. Really. Ungodly number.
I finished the chapter I have been working on. !! And whereas I wrote more than a paragraph, it is one paragraph that will allow me to lay my head on my pillow tonight feeling like I have done something.
“As if it is the most natural thing in the world, as if she has done this a million times, Madeline reaches for the breast of a fifteen-year-old girl. She squeezes the nipple, and she directs the breast from a position slightly above Dustin’s head into his eager, expectant mouth. For a few fleeting seconds, Madeline feels she has been given a magnificent gift. In a featureless hospital room, with an exhausted adolescent mother whose breast she holds in her own hand, she has been granted a moment of profound grace.”
Now the scene looks like this.
I LOVED this blog!
Check it out.
“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.