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Fifteen years ago, T. and V. met in the two-year-old room at St. V's. At home, T. talked nonstop about "playing with V. and the animals!" V.'s mother, E., suggested a play date. When they arrived at our apartment, E saw "If You Want To Write," by Brenda Ueland. E. exclaimed, "I have that book!" I knew we'd be friends; Ueland's book, more than a writing manual, advocates finding your "True Self."
Through the years, our families have attended circuses and visited museums together. Today, watching the Super Bowl; E. and I talk of visiting colleges with our 17-year-old sons.
I wish I weren't a worrywart. In danger of missing a work deadline, the specter of unemployment terrifies me; I stay up till 3:30 a.m. Working on the diabetes course, I continually had tingling feet; all symptoms ceased the moment I finished the project. When I leave home, I must have left the coffeepot on (so what if it has a shut-off timer!). If a friend doesn't call or email, I must have insulted him or her though I can't remember how. Why do I worry so? My childhood didn't help. One New Year's resolution: To pray instead of worry.
I hate when people assume that if you don't have a lot of money, you were a poor student, lazy, a spendthrift. Day care teachers make minimum wage; Catholic school teachers make little more. Who works harder? Not all good students aspire to high paying jobs; if you're an aspiring artist or work for nonprofit organizations, your bank account is thin. A former classmate said "I thought you'd be president of a bank by now!" But my loves are creative writing and helping people/changing the world—low on financial reward, very high on satisfaction. So who cares what people assume?
I haven't finished "Little Dorrit," but I can tell Dickens is setting Miss Wade up to be a "bad guy." Miss Wade befriends Tattiecoram, a young orphan rescued by the Meagles. Tattiecoram feels sighted, jealous of the doting care the Meagles give their own daughter. Miss Wade encourages her in these feelings; Tattiecoram leaves the Meagles. But were Tattiecoram's feelings so off? Why couldn't the Meagles have adopted her, not just have Tattiecoram work as maidservant for their "Pet"? Miss Wade goes out of her way to feel offended throughout life, but Tattiecoram has reasons. Why don't the Meagles understand?
How do I balance my life? I yearn for a day to write and do nothing else, but I hear Cat Steven's "Cats in the Cradle" and envision the house after my son leaves for college. I work overtime, picturing my boss shaking his head about deadlines. I have emails to answer, friends and relatives to call, books to read, writing to submit, paperwork to organize, credit cards to pay. I'd like to pull a Thoreau, live by some pond—except I'm hooked on coffee and email. A friend coaxes me onto Facebook—more to do's--I keep juggling, wobbling.
Today was a day of connecting. At H&R Block, J. does my taxes as he has for years; we chat about my son, his kids. I stop at the library and run into E.—we used to be in the same book club—she tells me about her son in college, and I tell her about T. Home, T. and I go to Popeye's, and we sit and talk. Later, I volunteer at the high school; R. and I chat. Tomorrow, my son will visit my brother's family—his little cousin has specifically asked him to come and play, smile.
Today my 17-year-old son took two buses to spend an hour playing with his 5-year-old cousin. He couldn't stay long--a research paper due tomorrow.
My sister-in-law called two weeks ago:
"I have a funny request—I asked J. what he really wanted to do today—he wants T. to come play with him!"
T. said sure, but started feeling sick; the visit was rescheduled for today.
"I'm impressed he's coming," my brother said, hearing of T.'s paper.
I smile as my six-foot-four son tells of J. running to meet him, of them playing Star Wars laser games.
The "great man" theory says history equals the biographies of "great" men. I wonder about classifying people into "great" and "not-so-great." Einstein, Shakespeare, Mozart versus Joe the Plumber, the Hockey Mom, Joe Six-Pack. A coworker once mentioned how Oprah overcame being on welfare as a child; I said I'd been on welfare as child, too. "Oh, I meant somebody important—who made something of themselves." I was directing a social service department, helping people daily. Was that unimportant—had I made nothing of myself? I believe people are created equal, each with a divine spark inside; we are all "great."
I don't believe in the "great man" theory, but some people are extraordinary: S. and D., who believed their tenants should live as well as they and installed the same ceiling fans with decorated glass. J. and M., best friends extraordinaire, who always cheered me on. G., still teaching at 92, still living life, relishing Harry Potter in braille. Ms. M., school receptionist, who bandages hurt knees, greets parents with smiles. My teenage son, who kept his promise to his five-year-old cousin, visiting him despite huge homework deadline. R., crossing guard who buttons coats, prays for children sick or unloved.
Every day during lunch I walk to 7-11—rain, snow, humid 100 degrees. I pass houses where plastic tricycles are parked by Harleys; K.'s home is always decorated seasonally—Christmas, President's Day, St. Patrick's Day---and with a prominent "Grandchildren Crossing" sign. Sidewalks have pastel chalk hopscotch squares or flowers, moms with cell phones push babes in strollers, squirrels do tree acrobatics, and folks walk dogs. Plaster flies as construction workers remodel a apartment building.
At 7-11, I push past L. students on their lunch break, get my usual small decaf. The clerks know me, sometimes ask after my son.
Tomorrow morning I go to the AWP conference at the Chicago Hilton. Will I see any CC teachers or students I knew twenty-five years ago? Back then, the W/E department was splitting in two, with factions of loyalists and dissidents; I was a dissident. Will I see the teacher I had an enormous crush on? Funny that back then I didn't know my half-siblings; now one brother and his wife teach in the J. department. Will I be overlooked, labeled—an older writer past her prime? But I will hold my head high, remembering J.'s gift and faith in me.
Nine-year-old Bridget loved visiting relatives.
"Let's visit Aunt Carol and Uncle David!"
Her mother would relent, but saying, "They don't want to be bothered."
Bridget never believed that. And visiting relatives was escape from their stifling apartment, windows cemented shut. From her mother's screams, cursing invisible foes "out to get her."
At her aunt's table, Bridget mentioned they had "prowlers"--her mother's word.
Aunt Carol and Uncle David dropped spoons, stared.
Bridget wanted to say, "I don't believe that—but I have to play along—I think of Nancy Drew bad guys!"
Did they think she was like her mother?
"Do you write?" the business-suited woman asks me. In line at an overpriced Hilton snack shop, we both wear lavalieres identifying us as writing conference attendees. Why would you pay bucks to go to a writing conference if you weren't a writer? Of course, many come because they're teachers—but they teach because they write. I remember standing in line with T. and A. at a Harry Potter extravaganza, getting our fortunes told by an actress dressed as Professor Trelawney. She examined my palm, said, "You're not very creative, are you?" I wear a mask I'm unable to rip off.
As a writer, I drive past some life landscapes under cloak of darkness. My childhood wasn't scenic--but not responsible for its strewn garbage, barren soil, I look out the window, say, "See? This is why."
I don't write about my marriage, the this-isn't-right gnawing as I walked down the aisle, white dress with shiny hearts. The gripping fear when pregnant, thinking of raising a child with T.; my "Thank God!" when T. left. Custody wars—a mediator who, like T.'s family, believed in corporal punishment.
My son is 17, praised for maturity, top grades. Time to brave more terrain.
Our book club read "Boomsday," a satire about the government bribing old folks to commit suicide to reduce the national debt. I take things too seriously, don't see humor. Age discrimination angers me, like the powerless of children did when I was a child. I remember being transferred to a different school at the whim of my mother, despite the counselor's pleas. I think of G, 92, brilliant as ever, but saying she's not thinking so quickly these days. Cultures that respect the elderly have less cases of Alzheimer's--respect matters, no matter where you are on the age spectrum.
Four years ago, I almost lost vision…
I notice a hair dangling before my eye, try to brush it aside—not a hair. A floater.
I'm very nearsighted--floaters warn of retinal tears.
I call my new HMO ophthalmologist.
"What? He has no openings." The receptionist takes questions as affront, won't let me talk to the ophthalmologist.
My primary care doctor says, "I'd go to his office first thing, camp out."
I do. In the waiting room, I watch a film about floaters being nothing.
Not nothing: I must rush to a retinal specialist for a procedure.
Thank you, God.
I watch Wheel of Fortune. Besides guessing letters, I enjoy contestant-watching. The ones who yell out "Big money! Big money," jump up and down when victory is theirs; others take an expense-paid trip to Greece as their due. The little girls on "Best Friends Week" who win $100,000 in the bonus round and simultaneously scream, "Disneyland!" Maybe we're nearing a post-racial society, but I smiled, noting these friends of different races. Last week, the Wheel winner was gay; Pat seemed awkward at the introduction of the "partner", and Vanna's usual warm smile seemed tense. The Wheel, like society, moves slowly.
Julia Cameron's book, "The Artist's Way," has a section on "crazymakers," those people who urgently need your time just when you're rushing to meet a deadline, who need rescue right as you're getting into the creative zone. What? Julia Cameron knows my ex-husband? She asks—why do we have crazymakers in our lives, and answers—we invite them. We're afraid of our creativity; crazymakers give excuses to remain blocked. My son has this Marianne Williamson quote on his email signature: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." Amen!
Writing children's books gives me a wonderful excuse to read children's books, and now I appreciate the poetry in the simple, sparse language. I'm reading "In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson" about a little girl who feels out of place after moving to Brooklyn from China; I may be years older and Irish American, but I remember the feeling of being mocked, still know the awkward loneliness of not fitting in. Some of other favorites are "Tiger Rising," "Sarah, Plain and Tall," "Charlotte's Web," "Confessions of a Closet Catholic," "Holes," and the Anne of Green Gable books.
I love Tax Refund Day. After the work day ends, I order pizza for my son and me—stuffed spinach, ricotta cheese, and black olives for me—Hawaiian with jalapeno peppers for my son. We order a movie on-demand, "The Secret Lives of Bees"; munching, swigging pop, we watch the young heroine travel to find a home where she is loved, accepted—where she comes to peace with her past.
Movie over, I make amends for my financial sins, paying credit cards, stashing money in the savings account. Someone once laughed about being a one-day millionaire—today has that feeling.
Relaxing this Saturday morning, still in fluffy pink robe, I read writing articles. One writer goes skydiving to remember to take chances—forget calculations about pleasing editors. The other shakes her head at endless revision—attack quickly, without mercy, move on—don't fool yourself that editors accept overlong or too-short works. What's a poor rejected writer to do? I first made a writing breakthrough in a class that emphasized encouragement; most AWP presenters stressed writing to satisfy yourself. Chesterton wrote, "Faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all." Maybe what pleases me eventually will please others.
When I was twenty, I awoke in a white hospital room, morning sunlight pouring through the window. A plaster cast covered my right leg, thigh top to toe. Church music emanated from some radio—high sopranos, organ background. It must be Sunday; in 1975, radio stations uniformly played religious music on Sunday. But why was I here—why the cast?
A team of white-coated young doctors entered. "Do you know what day it is?" The radio music had given me my answer. Later my fears were confirmed—I'd been hit by a car after running (unsuccessfully) to catch a bus.
My first crush, C.B., was short, scrawny, black eyeglass frames contrasting with his blond hair. I don't remember the color of his eyes, but they glinted bright; his voice drawled softly. His teasing said "I like you"--he'd grab my hat, tossing a grin over his shoulder, so I'd chase him. The nonstop mockery of other kids said something else—words like "retard" and "fatso' were some of the milder insults. Looking back, seeing how my son teases girls, I realize, yes, C.B. liked me. After freshman year, C.B. moved out of state; I hope his life has been good.
"I want to be a hippy when I grow up," P. said.
We were 7th graders. By the nearby Woolworth's, young men hung out regularly, their straight yellow hair hanging, uncombed, straggly, past their shoulders. They wore blue jeans, love beads—they scared, excited me.
I felt no love at school; I was mocked nonstop. P.'s boyfriend didn't want her to hang out with me: "I'm just being nice," she said.
I was the straight-A nerd in second-hand clothes, skirts past the knee, shirtwaists that reminded me of real friends—Louisa May Alcott characters, girls in out-of-print Outdoor Girls books.
We read Emerson's "Self-Reliance" in sophomore year, Ms. Z's 100's English class. I remember walking from class, talking with G.S.—how remarkable we found it to finally read something in school that told us to trust our own thoughts—telling us to have the courage to realize that what was true in our own deepest of hearts was true for all people. These exciting, subversive ideas seemed ironic later that year, when my mother on a whim forced me to change high schools—I had no input whatsoever, kicked about like a mere soccer ball during a gym class game.
"Never imitate," Emerson says, reminding us that "of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half-possession." Yet people need role models and find them. Children will accept friends who mock them rather than be the schoolyard loner.
Having no family role models, I felt adrift for years. Looking back, I realize that I twisted my personality, trying to copy friends whom I hero-worshipped. Only when I found friends who appreciated me as I was, who encouraged me to follow my dreams of writing and going back to school, did I stop imitating, begin to accept myself. Freedom!
When N.D. starts working at the F. Museum as a security guard in 1976, she is nineteen years old and still mourning the deaths of her parents the year before. But she finds the guard force to be a nourishing family that takes care of its members: they shelter a young guard fleeing an abusive home, surprise a recently widowed guard with a Christmas tree, and offer support to a college student who is rapidly losing vision from glaucoma. When a guard is unjustly fired, N. and her friends band together again, this time in a fight for union representation.
March Revision Plan
- 50 hours; mark hours in writing calendar
- Read draft, making notes, marking with post-its
- Per Holly Lisle: 15-word theme, 25-word summary, 1-line arc for heroine, list of characters, 250-word blurb
- Use organizer for characters, events
- Revise chapter at a time
- Search passive verbs (was, were, had, could, would)
- Identify key scenes (per Ray)
- Make POV changes obvious
- Give each character "lovable eccentricity"
- Five senses
- Mine notebooks for material
- "5-click google" (per Chris Baty)
- Consult Mosley's "This Year You Write Your Novel"
- Reread prequel
The Tip Jar