Hanging Out with D (#2)

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            This past weekend’s adventure with my foster grandson D: Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory.  D. and I actually did this same outing a number of months ago, which consisted mostly of him sleeping soundly in his stroller in front of numerous outdoor animals’ cages as well as in the fecund, heavy-aired, lush Conservatory.  It proved an invigorating walk for me against a backdrop of gorgeous park flora and exotic (if caged) fauna.  As for D, well, it reminded of the comedian who once quipped about the opera: “I love it.  You just can’t sleep like that at home.”

            Last weekend was a horse of a different color for D, who will mark the milestone of his first full year on Earth in just three weeks.  D is easygoing as babies come, but the wheels are turning all the time.  He is at the very beginning of understanding what developmental theorists call a “concept of mind,” meaning that he has a rudimentary understanding of himself as a being, a “self” with all kinds of thoughts and feelings and such.  What’s more, he also understands that those around him, those of us who talk and dress and feed and rock and sing and tickle and hold and love him – well, we, too, have minds.  

            It is a critical moment in infant development when they begin to point to stuff, for it is in this way that they demonstrate their desire to share minds – they point our attention to whatever it is that they’re focusing on, in order that we share the same focus, that we align our two minds in the same direction, and feel the deeply satisfying sense of sharing an experience.  Interestingly, the only other mammals who demonstrate an understanding of pointing are elephants (which was established pretty recently) and dogs, simply due to so many years of close proximity to humans and their inherent desire to communicate and please us.

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            Anyway. High falutin’ language aside,  D could not get enough of pointing to every single animal.  We would stroll over to a cage, I would say the name of the animal, and he would point.  He particularly loved scanning through the chimpanzees’ and apes’ habitats to seek out and point to each and every one he could find lolling in a high-up hammock, or swinging on a rope, or hiding in a dark, out-of-the-way corner.

            Babies learn by categorizing.  If you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that a very young child can recognize that a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are both dogs!  D isn’t quite there yet, but we have been working on animal sounds.  When I start to moo, or oink, or woof-woof, he gives me a special sidelong glance that says, “You’re weird; but I like it!”  D has known for weeks now what a quack-quack is.  When I say quack-quack, Dawson will crawl through all four rooms of my first floor until he finds the hideously gaudy stuffed animal that’s meant to resemble a duck.  Everything else, for the time being, is a woof-woof. 

            Really, a joyous little boy who’s scanning every inch of an animal habitat until he finds the giant, panting, pent-up, blazing-eyed jaguar so he can shoot up his arm, point his index finger right towards the big cat’s face and from deep in his belly grunt out a “WOOF WOOF!” makes for a wondrous day.

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“Recon,” excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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It’s taken me near on my entire one hundred years to learn a thing or two about the creature known as a human being.  One of the things that has always been a perplexity to me is the whole notion of keeping animals inside the house and giving them the name of “pets.”  Both the Boy and the Little one went off to elementary at a school that was supposed to be special in science; and somehow that meant that every year they studied, and then brought home, some infernal thing or other to add to the general household menagerie.  First year, the science project was a teeny little guppy fish swimming around inside of a sawed-off plastic coke bottle.  Next thing you know that one teeny fish was swimming around with a whole passel of even teenier little ones, so small you had to look real close to even see them and make sure they was real.  That’s how the Boy ended up raising guppies for a time, ‘cept it turns out they ain’t nothing to do for the “raising” save wait a bit for some more teeny ones to show up in the coke bottle and then scoop them up and take them on over to the local pet store.

            Next year it was meal worms.  Two maggot-y looking things came home from the school in an old peanut butter jar that was half full of oatmeal.  They was just about the same color as the oatmeal too, and would stay buried way deep down except for once or twice a day when the Boy and the Little One would shake the jar around just a tad til they could see them bugs wiggling and waggling, and the kiddies would be all excited.  Course how long do you suppose anyone can stay excited about a couple of maggots even if they got a fancy name, and the answer is not very gosh darn long.  Soon enough, the kiddies more or less forgot about them, and my Lady tried to remember to check in on them once in a while just to see if they had died yet and she could throw them and their oatmeal home on out.  Well, one day, sure enough she did check and was surprised and amazed to find that they wasn’t any meal worms at all, nor their carcasses, but two big, dark beetles.  Course this led to all kinds of hoopla and whoop-de-doo until it dawned on somebody to consider what the heck do you do with two bugs in a jar of oatmeal.  Everyone was still pondering on this when the bugs up and died because they had come to the end of their time.

            The last year of the science project was the year everyone was most excited about, the kiddies talked about it for years, from the time they started at the school as kindy-gardeners until they finished up after the fifth grade.  Hermit crabs. 

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            Maybe I just can’t wrap my head around anything that doesn’t have warmth running through it, but somehow the hermit crab struck me as the most useless of all the so-called pets.  Scritch scratch scritch scratch all the night long.  And if you ask me he smelled funny.  Day after day the Boy would take the hermit crab out and hold him in the palm of his hand, and the Little One would hold her breath and wait for the creature to do something magical and wondrous, but the scoundrel would just sit there, and they put it on back in its home after a time, trying hard to act like they wasn’t disappointed.  One day they got the idea to put the crab down on the floor, and lo and behold, the creature skedaddled across the carpet like it had been shot from a cannon.  The kiddies whooped and hollered and had their friends come over to witness the miraculous spectacle.  Well, it seemed no more than a blink of an eye that the crab up and died, and I swear he did it out of pure spite.  I never trusted him.

            Of course there was a whole bunch of cats and dogs around here, too.  I never paid them much heed, until this last one that came into the house as a little rescued puppy named Recon.  The husband was ancient history, the kiddies was about to scatter, and all the other animals had died off by then.  I knew my Lady needed company, and she needed it bad.

            Creatures that’s been in pain much of they lives can go one way or the other, and that includes humans, and that includes pain of all kinds.  They either take on an everlasting meanness, living all the time like a coiled-up snake, just waiting for the next chance to strike out, aiming to hit hard.  Or they go the other direction entirely, taking on their own sense of life’s troubles and hardness, and doing they best to be in the world in such a way as to ease the path for others.  That was Recon.

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“Sierra Arrives” (cont.), excerpt from “Pushing the River”

3320928533_b0f4f2a6fd_z            “Does he know that Uncle Steve has been dead for fifteen years?”

            “He knows.”

            “And this clown thinks it’s totally OK to send Sierra back.  With your mom. Who’s having long conversations with a dead guy.”

            “You know how this works.  She’s not a danger to herself or others.”

            “Really.  So how does he explain Sierra locking herself in the bathroom because she was so fucking scared?”

            “He’s not a bad guy, Madeline.  I’ve been talking to him for a really long time.  He’s been there with my mother for a really long time.  There’s no choice here.  He’s gotta do his job.  Once my mom calls the police and reports Sierra gone, she’s officially a runaway, and you are then harboring a runaway.  He tells me this is a Class A misdemeanor.  He tells me you could end up going to jail.  For a year.  So, you gotta take her home now or he sends the cops over to haul you off to jail.”

            “Fuck.”

            “Exactly.”

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            “So he is totally convinced that your mom is OK?  He is willing to put his ass on the line that a pregnant fifteen-year-old is gonna be safe with her?

            “Yep.  That’s pretty much it.”

            “OK, tell you what.  You get his name, and his badge number, and you tell his ass that it’s his decision, and it’s his ass.  Put me on speaker phone if you want, and I’ll tell him myself.”

            “Um, I’m pretty sure he can hear you already.  I got the other phone right here.”

            “Great.  Saves time.”

            “You gotta take her home.  Right now.”

            “Does she know all this?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Is she OK with this?  I mean…”

            “She knows there’s no choice.”

            “Well, I’m not taking her home.  I’ll tell you what — if I am ‘harboring a runaway’ and am very nearly a felon, I certainly should not be putting this kid in a car and driving her anywhere, right?  And what’s more, if Billie’s in such great shape and all fine and dandy and ready to be a mom and not scare the shit out of her daughter in the middle of the fucking night, she can figure out a way to get here and get her Sierra herself.  Let’s see her do that.  We’ll be waiting right here.”

           In a reversal of events from a half hour before, it is Madeline’s turn to tread lightly down the hallway towards the blackness of the room where Sierra lays.  She stands for a moment outside, but through the three-inch opening of the door, a little voice says from the nothingness, “It’s OK, MadMad; I’m awake.  I know…”

            “I’m sorry, Kiddo.  Are you OK?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Anything I can do?”

            “No.”

            “Nothing?”

           “It’ ll take them a while to get here.  I’m gonna try to sleep.”

            “OK.”

            “OK.”

            “Then we’ll make a plan.  You’re not leaving here unless you feel safe.”

            Madeline waits outside the door, but no answer comes.

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“Sierra Arrives,” excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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Marie hardly ever called.  She apologized on a regular basis for being a lousy long-distance correspondent, feeling helpless as she watched all of her cherished Chicago connections eluding her grasp, her own ardent desire to keep them close set against a paralysis at doing anything that might stop them all from receding more and more into her corners.  So it was particularly unusual for Madeline to see Marie’s name, and her pixie-of-steel face flashing across the phone screen at 10:00 pm.  No way this can be good, Madeline thought to herself.

            “I don’t know what’s going on exactly.  Sierra sent me a text yesterday saying that Mom was acting weird, and now she’s just texted me saying that she’s not safe.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I think Sierra’s locked herself in the bathroom.  I think my mom’s talking to Uncle Steve.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I know this is a lot to ask, but is there any way that you can go and pick her up?  Bring her to your house?  I’m so sorry.”

             “Problem is I’m working tonight.  Til midnight.  I’m on phone duty, so I can’t leave.  Let me think.”

            “She doesn’t have any minutes left on her damn phone, so I can’t call her.  Can’t talk to her.  This is all through text.  Madeline, you’re not the first person I called.  I called everyone else I can think of.  I can’t reach anyone.  No one.”   Marie took a breath and said, “I’m so sorry.  I so didn’t want to drag you in to all of this.  I was so hoping my mom could hold it together just a little while longer.  Just til I move back.”

            “It’s OK, Marie.  If Sierra’s not safe, that’s all that matters.

            “I think she needs to get out of there now.  Like, now.  If I can get a ride for her, can she stay with you?  Can she come up there?  Tonight?  Right now?”

            “Of course,” Madeline said.

            “I might have to call a cab.  I might have to see if I can charge a cab, if they’ll take my credit card from here.”

            “What!?  That’s insane.  That’s gonna be a fortune!  I’ll be off work at midnight…”

            “Too long.  As long as I know it’s ok for her to come up there, I gotta go.  I gotta take care of this.”

            “It’s fine.”

            “I’m so sorry.”

            “You’re gonna really piss me off if you keep apologizing.”

            “Bye.  Sorry.”

            At fifteen minutes after midnight, Madeline opened the door, and only then did it occur to her that she had not seen Sierra for  two full years, four years since she had seen her without a heavily and carefully painted face.  Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child, a very small, very young, very sad and scared child standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.

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            All Madeline could see in front of her was the giant-eyed little girl sitting in her big sister’s lap the night they met, rocking crazily back and forth on the floor in utter jubilation.

            “Whoa, you’re pregnant!”  Madeline quipped gamely.

            “Ha ha.  You’re hilarious.”

            “Look, you must be exhausted.  We’re not going to talk about anything tonight.  Not a thing.  You’re going to get a good night’s sleep.  Your sister told me you can’t make any phone calls cause you don’t have any ‘minutes,’ so I charged up my phone for you.  I’ve got unlimited minutes, so go wild.  Call anyone you want to.  Are you hungry?  Do you want something to eat?”

            “I’m pretty tired.”

            “Want to just go to bed then?”

            “Yeah. Well. Do you have any milk?  Not the weird organic stuff you used to get, just regular old milk?”

            “I still swear you cannot tell the difference in the milk.”

            “That’s what you always said about the gummy bears, so ha.”

            “I only have organic.”

            “Do you have chocolate I can put in?”

            “I do.  Your sister left about a gallon of it.”

            “Can you make it for me?  Can you warm it up?”

            “Gawd, you’re high maintenance.”

            “Can you bring it upstairs when it’s ready?  I gotta make a call.”

            “Sure.  You go on up.”

            Halfway up the stairs, Sierra stopped for a second, turned part way around, and said very quietly, “Thank you, MadMad.”

            “Yeah, yeah.”

            “A lot of chocolate, OK?  Really a lot.”

            A thousand memories merged when Madeline heard, deep in a hard-won sleep, the sound of faint, small footsteps coming down the hallway towards her room.  For many years, the Boy believed that his mother never slept a wink, but lay there all night doing nothing more than observing some quaint custom; how else to explain that by the time he reached her bedside– each and every time for a whole childhood — by the time he got close, she said in a full, wide-awake voice, “What’s wrong, honey?”  Not a drop of sleep remained when Sierra whispered into the darkness, “MadMad.  I’m really sorry.  Marie said I had to wake you up.  She’s on the phone.”

            “Madeline, my mother called the police.  She reported Sierra as a runaway, and that means you’re harboring a runaway, and that means you’re gonna get arrested.  The policeman is there with my mother right now.  I have him on the phone.  In my other ear.  While I’m talking to you.  You have to take Sierra home right now, or the police are gonna come arrest you.”

            “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.”

            “No.  Most definitely not.”

            “Does this cop know about Uncle Steve?  Does he know that Billie is talking to Uncle Steve?”

            “Yes.  He knows.”

            “Does he know that Uncle Steve has been dead for fifteen years?”

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“This Is,” new excerpt from “Pushing the River”

 

Greetings to all new followers.  THANK YOU so much for your interest and support of my blog and my writing.  Thank you for helping me reach more than ONE THOUSAND FOLLOWERS!

 

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            There was something about that particular time.  They lay together afterwards for a very long while, not one word passing between them, wide awake.  Occasionally she would bury her fingers in his chest hair, or inhale deeply the scent of his skin.  Their breathing did not slow down, long after it should have.  When one of them finally said, “I’m starving,” they both leapt up, and stood facing one another across the bed, breathing heavily, eyes fixed on one another in the gathering dusk, neither moving, as if rooted to the spot, the moment, one another.

            “You know what this is, don’t you?”  Dan said.

            “What?”

            “I mean, you know what’s going on here, right?”

            “What?” Madeline said again.

            “This is love,” Dan said.  “There is love here.”

            “W H A T ? ! ?” Madeline shot back.  “I mean, W H A T ? ! ?”

            “Stop saying ‘what.’  You know there is.”

            “Shit!”

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            Madeline paced along her side of the bed within a roughly two-foot square, more  like a crazy dance, while Dan gazed into the now-dark room with a thousand-mile stare.

            “That was most definitely not the plan!” Madeline said.

            “The plan was to have no plan.”

            “Yeah, but the plan was definitely not…this!”

            “It’s not in anybody’s control here.  It just is.”

            “Well aren’t you just the zen fucking master.”

            Dan laughed, and Madeline said, again, “Shit!”

            “Come on.  I thought you were starving.”

            “I thought you were starving.”

            “Let’s get some food. You. Me. Us.”

            “For the record, I feel compelled to state that I am not happy about this.”

            “Duly noted.  How about Chinese?”

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“Nikita,” an excerpt from my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”

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I have longed to be the title character in the film La Femme Nikita.   She  decides one day that from that minute forward, she has no past.  She refuses to discuss it.  Ever again. 

One afternoon, she stops at a local grocery store.  The man at the check-out counter makes a shy attempt  to engage her in conversation.  She can see a genuine kindness in him, a fundamental openness.  She invites him to her apartment and they prepare dinner together.  He never leaves.  They love one another passionately and devotedly.  He yearns to know more about her, about her past.   The yearning shows as an expression of worried expectation on his face when she is not looking.  But he knows he can never ask her, that she will never tell him.

This seems like the best possible solution to me, every part of it.    I go to five different grocery stores in the area, including two supermarkets, a warehouse club and two small neighborhood stores, at all hours of the day and night, needing only one or two things at a time but full of hopeful possibility.  If ever the line between reality and fiction were clear, believe me, it’s in the difference between Nikita’s paramour and the real people manning the check-out lines in suburban American grocery stores. 

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Nikita resolves to start a whole new life, and she does.  A life with no past.

There’s a man on my block, around my age.   He moved in to an apartment down the street when he left his wife of nearly thirty years.  He has a whole new life.  A younger, long-legged, smiling inamorata whom I see driving his car around, or I see the two of them getting out of the car with bags of groceries for the evening’s meal.  Just like Nikita.  They are always smiling at one another, and though there is somewhat of the tentativeness and gentleness of a new love, there is also the ease. 

 “Is it really so easy?  Is it  as easy as you make it look?  This business of having a whole new life?”  I am dying to ask him this.  But I don’t.

Sometimes I study him.  The way he bounds out of his apartment when he is running late.  The way he balances his brief case, gripping it confidently and tightly in one hand while swinging the other arm briskly back and forth, back and forth.  I study his movements, his gestures, as if I am a student of method acting.  As if I believe that perfectly adopting every nuance of his behavior will hold the secret, will open up my own doorway to a whole new life.

That the next time those glass and silver doors at one of the five grocery stores whooshes open to welcome me, and I stroll in, confidently gripping my purse in one hand while the other arms swings briskly back and forth, that it will happen.  There he will be at the check-out.  He will make a shy attempt at conversation, and I will see his kindness.  We will make dinner with the fresh groceries I have just purchased, and he will never leave.

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This is what I am thinking: that maybe one day I can be Nikita.  Maybe if I go back once more, just once more.  If I can put it all in order.  This is what I need you for, to go there with me, to be my witness. 

I read something recently.  It said that the hardest part, the most arduous hurdle, is not learning how to trust a man again.  It is learning how to trust yourself.  And I thought: yes, that’s it.  That’s exactly it.  How can I be sure there was not something that I missed.  Something that I failed to see, failed to understand.    Maybe early on, maybe even right from the beginning.  Maybe not even from the beginning of my marriage, but from the beginning of my very life.

Writing: Lessons Learned?

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I promised myself that if/when I ever wrote another novel after the first two, I would not put one word down until I had a story, a plot let’s say, with a distinct beginning, middle and end that was already known to me.  AND, that I would write the thing in order, starting with the first word of the first chapter and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the end.

            In this way, I thought, I could avoid the pitfalls and stumbling blocks of the past. (I’m not delusional; in no way did I think this meant I could avoid all pitfalls and stumbling blocks – only, if I was extremely lucky, the ones that sucked little bits of my soul as I wrote the first two novels).

            My first novel began as a memoir, for which I was lucky enough to land a wonderful literary agent rather quickly.  She and I worked really hard together; she edited my manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and I re-re-re-rewrote the book extensively based on her suggestions.  Here is where I summarize several years of events in one sentence by saying, long story short, I ultimately decided to rewrite the entire thing as a novel, based on early feedback from editors at publishing houses. 

            The novel is episodic and, in parts, impressionistic.  It moves around between the past and the present.  What this translated into, at various points, was me having hard copies of all 45 chapters spread out on the tables, floor, window sill and chairs in my dining room, thinking about the exponential alternatives there were for putting the fictionalized chapters in the order that worked best for the book overall.  Sometimes I spent long hours staring at pieces of paper that had chapter names listed – by this time I knew the material so well, I could look at title names and rearrange the whole manuscript in my mind.  Then do it again.  Then…

            This was not fun.

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            When I wrote the 2nd novel, I had the experience that authors dream of – I felt as if I were channeling the main character.  She told her story to me, clearly, in wonderful bursts, and I wrote it down.  Sadly, horrifyingly, she went silent.  For a really, really long time.  She had no idea where to go, and I had no idea how to end her story.  She and I stayed there for a long, long time.

           AND, as her story was told via entries in her journal, 56 entries to be exact, I realized again that the order of events could be, and needed to be, reordered.  Yep. 56 chapters spread across the dining room.

            The 3rd novel has a very definite story to tell.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  I!  know!  how!  it!  ends!!  Its characters are full and fleshed out.  Its narrator has a distinct and clear voice. Sigh.  Perhaps next time I will take the 2nd part of my own advice and write something in order.  Do writers do this?

            I can hear the universe laughing.

*Artwork is two designs that were considered for the cover of my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”

Procrastination, Part 2, OR The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author, Part 3

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.

Sigh. 

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.