“Herding Cats,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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The expression “herding cats” does not even begin to cover the travesty of attempting to gather six adults (well, five adults and a 15-year-old mother of a newborn) into one room for long enough to reach in and pull out painstakingly-chosen treasures from Madeline’s hand-knit Christmas stockings.

Pots of coffee were brewed and drained, favorite Christmas CD’s from long years past rang out on the stereo one after another – and still, no more than four people at a time managed to amass in the general vicinity of the tree, the stockings, the waiting slew of piled gifts.

The only person in unfettered good spirits was, as usual, baby Dylan. As a one-month-old newbie who had every reason to express general difficulty in his adjustment to the whole world outside of a warm, dark, wholly embracing womb, he rarely did. The bright lights, noise and general chaos that he had been born into seemed A-OK to him. Madeline regularly said to Savannah: “He’s not a real baby, you know.” Savannah of course had nothing to compare him to. She had no idea that sleepless nights were the norm, not in infant who nestled into his mother’s ample chest and snoozed the night away.

Kate planted herself in the living room, turned off the Mormon Tabernacle Choir mid carol, and opened her violin case. “John,” she shot over her shoulder, “let’s play until everyone’s here.”

“I was just—” John said.

“Let’s play.” Kate’s breathing was faster than usual.

John wandered back and forth in the room, as if trying to remember what her words meant.

“Oh, great!” Madeline said, rushing into the room and plopping down on the sofa. “Best idea ever. More impromptu carols!” She knit her brow and continued, “Hey, anybody seen Dan? What the heck is he doing?”

“What the fuck is anybody doing,” Kate said. “Seriously, what the fuck is everybody doing.”

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“DAN,” Madeline called out. “DAN!”

A door on the second floor opened. “Yeah?” Dan said.

“Hey, can you come down here?” Madeline asked.

Footfalls on the staircase, Dan standing on the landing, uncommitted to the remaining six stairs and exhibiting slight annoyed bewilderment.

“Whatcha doing up there?” Madeline inquired.

Dan shrugged. “Well, come down and sit with me. Listen to the kids with me. Come on,” Madeline chirped.

Dan padded down the remaining steps and took his place beside Madeline. “Here? You want me here? Like this?”

“What’s up with you?” Madeline asked.

“Nothing. Here I am.”

“Oh my God,” said Kate. We actually have four people here. All we need is Marie and Savannah.”

“I’m pretty sure Marie’s in the basement. On the phone or texting someone. Savannah’s upstairs. Also on the phone.”

“Let me know the next time and place that my services are required,” Dan said, standing.

“No no no no!” Madeline said. “Stay here! I’m gonna see if I can rally the troops.”

“I’m around. Once the troops get rallied, let me know,” Dan countered.

“Hey! Come on! This is fun!” Madeline said.

“Do you know the New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast?” Dan asked.

“Yeah…” said Madeline.

“Cartoon title: Pollyanna in Hell. Cartoon caption: ‘No more down jackets forever!!!’ ”

Madeline made an excellent attempt to demonstrate the expression “shoot daggers” with a glance, but Dan pre-emptively did not allow for eye contact as he left the room.

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Cartoon excerpt: Roz Chast, originally published in The New Yorker

 

“Stocking Circle,” new excerpt from the novel “Pushing the River”

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In the middle of the night, Kate had awakened from a sound slumber, eyes wide, face to face with the hairline crack that ran along her west wall. “Shit damn,” she thought to herself. She threw her mountain of winter covers aside and tiptoed down the stairs.

On Christmas morning, Kate found her mother in the kitchen, babysitting the coffee pot as it burbled away.

“Mama! Merry Christmas!” She threw her arms around Madeline and simultaneously said: “Don’t even think about touching that pot until it’s all done.”

“Oh for god’s sake, I do this every morning! Every morning I pour myself a cup. That’s why there is such a thing as stop-and-pour. So we don’t have to wait! So civilization can march forward!”

“It will totally ruin the rest of the pot. No touch.”

“On this of all days! It’s Christmas. Mama needs her coffee!”

Kate decided it was easier to simply place herself between her mother and the brewing pot.

“You’re a terrible human being,” Madeline said.

“Stockings first? Same as ever? Then breakfast?”

“Of course,” Madeline replied. “Same as ever. Oh, no!! Shit!!!!! I didn’t even think about a stocking for Savannah. Didn’t even enter my head! Assuming she comes out of her room. At all.”

“Of course Savannah has a stocking,” Kate said. “Santa would never forget Savannah.”

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“Oh my God,” Madeline said. “Oh my god.”

“I forgot, too. Until the middle of the night.”

“What did you do?” her mother asked.

“Go look,” Kate said, while continuing: “I thought I was going to have to use one of those nasty ones you’ve kept all these years from your childhood – even though that creepy angel keeps losing more and more parts of her body like some pathetic leper – but anyway, there was a pretty new one in the box, too. Do you even remember why we got that one? I had to empty out all of the stockings, and rifle through everything, and take a little bit from everybody else’s stocking. Even my own. Sorry. Most of the stuff, though, I had to take from your stocking. Things I got for you. I think it will be OK. It’s not totally even, but I think it’ll be OK.”

“Oh my God, Kate, that’s amazing. You’re amazing.” Madeline teared up and hurtled towards Kate with outstretched arms, intending an enormous hug. But Kate took a step backwards.

“Not that I expect it will make any difference. But I thought I would try. I thought somebody should at least try.”

Hours later, when the herding of cats had at long last been accomplished, the group gathered to open their Christmas stockings. Looking around the stocking circle, Madeline began to feel as if she were in some sort of Twilight Zone improv class, a twisted parallel universe where each person had been given an exaggerated character trait that they’d been instructed to act out, and to hang onto that one trait for dear life, no matter what anyone else may be doing.

Savannah: I WILL sulk, pout, sigh, disappear at regular intervals, and broadcast dark depair.

Marie: I WILL stick with Savannah. This is blood. If she’s in despair, I’m in despair. Don’t fuck with me.

John: I WILL remain completely oblivious to anything out of the ordinary going on here. Completely. Oblivious.

Kate: I WILL HAVE A GOOD CHRISTMAS. I WILL. I WILL. I WILL.

Dan: I WILL act as if every single thing this family has created as part of their Christmas tradition is without question the most fucked up, lame assed, terrifyingly inauthentic piece of dysfunctional lunacy that I have ever witnessed in my life.

Madeline: I WILL do everything humanly possible to make sure that every one of these people is happy, happy, happy. I can do it! I can!

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photos by Mary Ellen Mark

“Nativity,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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It was long past the time when Madeline made an entire village of gingerbread houses for each room of the first floor –gumdrop streets lined with gingerbread men and women, M & M rooftops with chocolate Santa’s waving from chimneys, forests of festooned trees, and front yards with cheery snowmen. Still, she thought to herself, this Christmas will not be a shit show. It can’t be.

Christmas Eve was always her favorite. The calendar wound relentlessly down to the shortest days, the barest amount of daytime to illuminate a bleak winter landscape; yet a day that seemed to stretch out with the bright promise of going on forever, as a day in the middle of July.

Dan had wandered off to spend some time with his family. Savannah had been holed up at her Aunt Carol’s with Dylan for several days, and Marie had left early in the morning to join them. The only ones in the house that morning were Madeline and her two children.

Madeline was finishing the frosting on the Christmas tree-shaped cakes that had been an unbreakable traditional for years. The tin foil pans had likely been designed for one-time-then-toss-them-away use. About twenty years ago. Each year, Madeline consulted her kids for Christmas Eve menu planning. Each year, she asked them what they wanted for dessert. With cheery over-enthusiasm, she mentioned a few yummy possibilities she’d been wanting to make for them. Even if the two of them were on the phone, Madeline could hear Kate’s face fall; she could see the tears that threatened at the corner of Kate’s eyes. Each year, Madeline babied the weary pans into a shape that reasonably resembled a Christmas tree, and filled the ever-increasing holes with scraps of aluminum foil so they had a reasonable chance of holding the batter.

Madeline hummed a medley of carols to herself as she swirled the finishing touches of bright green frosting. She imagined the conversation that was about to take place–

“OK, guys, the cakes are ready for you to decorate!”

“Come on, John!” Kate would say.

“Ah, you do both of them this year, Kate. I’m in the middle of trying to finish this (fill in the blank, critically-important thing).

“No no no no no no. Come ON! It’s your cake! Your CAKE!”

This would go on for a bit, John resisting, Kate getting increasingly filled with flustered affectionate pique.

In the end, John would create a masterpiece in a shockingly short amount of time. Kate would take her time, study, plan, go back to her work again and again for fine tuning. In the end, they would both be so pleased with their work that they would carve and gouge around their favorite bits of decoration until the last few bites at the bitter end.

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Before Madeline could call out to signal her final flourishes, caught right in the transition between her humming of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” the sound of Kate and John tuning up their instruments in the living room drifted in. “Yeah!!!” she said.

“Surprise!” shouted Kate. “Impromptu Christmas carol serenade!”

Madeline went into the living room with a knife full of frosting still in hand, holding it out first to Kate, then to John, as they plucked strings and turned pegs to tune.

“Let’s do ‘O Holy Night’ first cause it’s my favorite and Mom was just about to sing it,”

Kate said.

“OK,” John replied. “I don’t really know it, so you start, and I’ll come in and follow.”

“What do you mean you don’t know ‘O Holy Night?’ That’s, like, blasphemy or something.”

“Are we gonna have this conversation again?”

Madeline plopped onto the couch, happier than she could remember being in a long, long time.

“Oh man. This is the greatest. I suppose I should think about starting to get dinner ready. Did Marie give you an idea of what time she’d be back here?”

“Um, I’m not sure she’s gonna make it back for dinner,” John did his very best to sound casual, but his head remained turned and his eyes on the floor as he answered his mother.

“What?” It was nearly a whisper.

“I don’t think things are going real well there. At Aunt Carol’s. I don’t think anybody’s in a very good mood.”

“What’s going on, John?”

John sank into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair, still looking at some point on the floor, then at the ceiling as he combed his fingers through his hair a few more times and let out a big, audible puff of breath. “I guess I mean that Savannah’s really, really down, so Marie is really down, too. Because her sister is. You know?”

“What’s up with Savannah?”

“I guess she’s spent all this time out there with her aunt thinking about how it’s Dylan’s first Christmas and how important that is, and well, she’s gotten more and more convinced, every day, that her mother was going to be able to get it together and have Christmas with all of them together.”

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“Oh shit.”

“Yeah,” said John.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, what’s happening now?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know. Savannah just really convinced herself that her mother would be there. Every day that Savannah’s been out there, every day since she left here, I guess she’s gotten her hopes more and more wound up. Now everybody has been calling Billie all day long – they started this morning – and she hasn’t picked up. They’ve texted about a hundred times, too. Anyway, finally Uncle Bob drove down there because Carol was losing her mind not knowing what was going on with her sister. So Bob gets down there and the apartment is totally dark. No lights. No nothing.”

“Perfect,” Madeline said.

“The poor guy is walking around the outside of Billie’s apartment peering in the windows and tapping on the glass. On Christmas Eve. Anyway, when he got back home, Savannah crashed and burned. She got really, really down and went pale and handed Dylan over to Marie and hasn’t said a word since then.”

Kate looked John square in the eye and said, “Do you want to play a few more, or go decorate the cakes now?”

John met her stare, held it. “So like I said, I don’t think anybody out there is in a very good mood.”

“Seems like that would be rather an understatement,” said Madeline.

“Marie is trying to talk Savannah into packing up Dylan and coming here. But I don’t know if that’s gonna happen,” John said.

“Well, what should I do about dinner? Should I hold off starting to cook?”

“No, don’t hold off,” Kate broke in. “We told them what time dinner was going to be.”

Both Madeline and John looked at her. “It’s Christmas Eve!” Kate said. “If they make it for dinner – great. If not, they’ll be here later on.”

“Well,” Madeline said, “looks like it may be just the three of us for dinner!” Her children knew her well enough to glean the carefully-disguised elation in her voice.

“Make a lot of food anyway, Ma. Please? They might be hungry when they get here.”

If they get here,” Kate said, with unapologetic accurately.

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Life Gets in the Way, and Sometimes, That’s Just Fine

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Meh.  The formation of ideas into words, into sentences, into pages that comprised my writing of this third novel for a good chuck of time has come to a temporary halt.  Sigh.  I know this is how it goes for me.  At times it flows, and the flow can proceed along – sometimes at a pace that surprises me, other times at a crawl – but still it proceeds, without substantial interruption.

But the halts do come.  For me, they do.  I am not talking about “writer’s block;” I am talking about the times – now being one of them – where life gets squarely in the way of being able to find and maintain the wide open mental spaces necessary for the creative picture to remain in focus,  not to become too blurry for a while, too hazy-in-the-distance, just out of reach.

It’s! the! Holidays!  With their sundry boisterous chaos.

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Some of the chaos is magnificent, such as the nearly-two-week Thanksgiving visit from my daughter, soon to be followed up by another for Christmas; and the shelving of our usual family board games at the holidays in favor of being fascinated by a one-year-old baby who is fascinated by everything.

Some of the chaos is wrenching, such as the enormous suffering of many of the people I work with in my day job as a clinical social worker.

The words will flow again.   And though I know this from history, part of me remains patient while another part sighs internally and drums its fingers.

In the meantime, let us all make merry, and rejoice for the gifts we have.  In lieu of words, I offer some pictures of twinkly lights from my very own corner of the world – in this case, my own block in Evanston, IL.

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