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I start 2010 by sitting on my violin, loosening a part I don't even know the name of--the long black piece the strings hang over--the little wooden bridge flying away, hiding under some furniture. When I heard creaking, horror, like I was maiming a living being.
My son cheers me up, agrees to go with me to the violin shop, smiling at my plan to blame the destruction on some anonymous younger relative. "The last time I went with you to this store was 2005? That year the Sox won the World Series! This is a good omen!"
My 18-year-old son's halo shines today. I was embarrassed about maiming my violin by sitting on it on New Year's Eve (and this without alcohol or wild party), so I asked if he'd get up early today and go with me to the violin shop for moral support. Groggy at 9:45 a.m., he brushed off my thanks: "Of course I'll go with you." We walked six chilly snowy blocks--Red (my violin) bundled up, I'd surrounded its case with large plastic trash bag. The violin store people did not ask why Red was in sad shape and the estimate was reasonable.
I don't like to remember being a kid--constant screaming and ugly curses--no friends--when I did make a friend, my mother did her best to stop the friendship, wanting me all for herself--I constantly fought to grow, struggled against stunting. My dream for adulthood? A quiet apartment, no yelling, being able to come home from work and write books. I've succeeded--I have a happy home with my son and three felines, I write for a living, and at the end of the day I work on my books. I do not idealize the powerlessness of childhood.
Bart dumped Nora because he could only let a woman get so close--he felt claustrophobic--a woman hinting at commitment made him feel boxed in, not enough air to breath---being trapped in a relationship was a visceral thing for him, so he reacted automatically, lashing out, no thought involved--the hurt he might inflict meant nothing. Art on the other hand meant freedom, meant actualizing his real being--nothing else in life held any value or meaning. So he kept people, whether related by blood or women he'd slept with--at a distance. Too close could be fatal.
I'm using a lot of writing time for non-writing stuff--helping my son apply for college scholarshps, critiquing his essays--chatting with a friend whose new phone has just been connected in her brand-new home--ordering bargain-priced coffee (i.e., fuel) on Amazon--balancing checkbook, transfering money from savings to checking. On one hand, I tell myself as long as I write each day, I'm fine--but then I set goals, like finishing my revision of "Roll Call by the Elephants" by the end of the month. Balancing life and writing a trick--friendships nurture the soul, and paying bills keeps you alive--and writing is my dream.
This year, I resolve to keep the newness all year long--to think, "It's a New Year!" even if it's July or November, to really live the axiom "This is the first day of the rest of your life." For if it's January 1, I'm psyched to eat carrots, ride my exercise bike, play my violin, work on my novel, call friends I've been meaning to call, write belated letters, eschew credit cards. Why can't I keep that momentum going by doing a little pretending? Maybe, at the same time, I'll keep winter grayness away, keep red-and-green holiday jolliness alive.
1956. A grainy photograph, Scotch-taped to black album page--a little me sitting in a stroller, grinning. The same big-eyed baby face my son would have. On the back, my mother's writing: "She looks just like you, C. A little girl needs her daddy." Obviously, my mother never mailed the picture--did she mail another? Did he feel anything when he read the words--or just down another beer or glass of wine, or tend to his new wife expecting my half-brother? Did he feel nothing? I didn't meet him till I was seven, never spent a day with him till thirty.
I cook broccoli, contemplate putting on Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban as motivation to take down Christmas cards and tree; I already threw out the gingerbread and rice krispee houses, felt like a murderer. Door frames look so cheery now--angels and Santas bearing greetings and wishes from friends all over. How bare the place will look without them--new 2010 calendars just won't cut it. Sigh. But, leave decorations up too long, they look bedraggled, as uncared for as those poor children the Ghost of Christmas Present hid in the folds of his cloak. So--goodbye Christmas 2009, hello ordinary time.
I feel Saturday-afternoon lazy; my task--revising the first novel I ever wrote--intimidates me. It has the flaws of an autobiographical work--some minor characters are simply cut-and-pasted from life, and there's such a merger of fact and fiction--sometimes I'm scared I may have accidentally used a real first name. B is based on an old boyfriend--because he's a jerk, will it look as though I'm stereotyping African American males as jerks? In real life, the union reps weren't awards winners--will I seem anti-union? Ugh. So much to think about! But it has passion, the intensity of an autobiographical first novel.
1957. My first vague memory--sitting in a high chair, banging with metal teaspoon, while my grandmother cooked something--farina or oatmeal, maybe--on our stove. My mother would have been out working at Illinois Bell as a switchboard operator, and she worked long days, coming home at seven and my bedtime was eight. I remember telling a teacher this in first grade--before my mother lost her job--and remember the teacher (probably a nun) feeling sorry for me. And I remember missing my mother, knowing that she wouldn't yell at me like my grandmother would for accidental crimes like breaking a phonograph record.
I know it's not his fault--but when I hear that McGuire admits using steroids, all I can think of is J's accident--the excitement that spurred her to peer at the TV set in the darkened Navy Pier restaurant, not seeing the steps. She was such a sports nut, of course she'd been following the Mark McGuire-Sammy Sosa Home Run King battle. But they were cheating.
McGuire was my son's first baseball hero--before T fell in love with the White Sox, he favored the Cardinals because it was McGuire's team. Childhood innocence betrayed, and J's death seems even more pointless.
I always feel happy when somebody appreciates what I do with my life. T told Ms. M what I do for a living, and she was intrigued. It is cool, writing courses for people who are visually impaired around the world--from literature to science to practical math to you-name-it. It is also cool when people realize that I don't sit at home watching soaps, wandering out for a midday walk--but that I actually work full-time from home. I suppose my childhood years on welfare, hearing classmates talk disparagingly about folks on food stamps, makes me want to proclaim, "I work!"
"You haven't blogged in a while," C notes. True. Why is it so hard to find balance? I have so many writing to-do's: 100 words a day, revise my coming-of-age novel, revise my middle-grade novel sequel, revise my NaNoWriMo draft from 2005. Plus work my day job and be the mom of a high school senior applying for every scholarship we can track down on the Web. Plus practice on Red (my violin). It doesn't help that I can't see the notes clearly, distinguishing between a G and an A--whether the note is on the line or below it.
I've read that some African Americans are offended by the implicit idea in "The Blind Side" that poor black youth from dysfunctional homes need rich white families to "adopt" them--and of course that idea is offensive. Still, when I saw "The Blind Side" and read the book, I kept wishing that some loving family--of any color--had adopted me and saved me from my dysfunctional Irish American family. What I loved was that Michael wasn't little and cute, but big (very big) when the Tuohys rescued him; I recalled my own late teens and early twenties, wandering through life alone.
So hard to know what to write about the Haiti earthquake--my full refrigerator, flowing water faucets, and comfy bed reproach me; so many people there have nothing--and worse, have lost children, parents, neighbors, friends. I can't imagine the suffering--and then to stand in line for water or food, police shooting in the air to scare looters. What to do? I donated to a Catholic relief agency; millions have text-donated on their cell phones.
I remember working with people from Haiti years ago. "I don't know why they always talk about Haiti being so poor--it's nice," M told me.
What six-word memoirs describe my life?
-Was high school star, burned out.
-Write cool courses for blind people
-Happy home despite dysfunctional lonely childhood
-Broken leg leads to career passion
-Forest Gump-like, on TV, met Chavez
-Writer at 9, published at 29
-Met dad at 7, half-siblings, 30
-Enjoyed cheese-and-crackers Greyhound vacations
-Professions: social service, creative writing. Broke.
-Schizophrenic mom, narcissistic husband, terrific kid
-Messy but know where everything is
-Met best friend blocking downtown buses
-Broken leg leads to advocacy career
-Like Eveready battery, just keep going
-Share Emerson's birthday: Geek Pride Day
-Aiming for Guinness record for rejections
A letter to the editor suggests basing bus fares on distance traveled, preventing homeless people from riding from one end of the line to the other. But I think of the woman on the Western bus the other night, so covered in a motley assortment of rags and blankets that she was unidentifiable; she slept on a front seat, a bag containing probably all her worldly goods by her side. The driver didn't bother her, drove silently down the long avenue, my son and I the only other passengers. It seemed a kind thing, the driver letting her enjoy shelter.
I brag too much about my son, emailing my son's godmother a link to my his school's home page, where he's one of a handful honored, photo with pastor and principal. My son hates when I boast of his achievements; he loathes being honored, wants to be just one of the guys. "You're really bragging about yourself," he'd say. But I remember the kindergarten teacher who said she'd "tolerate" my son, editorials criticizing single parent homes, my dad telling me my aunts had wanted me aborted. So I brag, wanting to shout at all the naysayers, "Ha! You were wrong."
1958; I was three. My mother worked, and I was home with my grandmother who was irritated I didn't go out and play like other kids. But the idea of going up to a strange human being and saying "Hi" terrified me as much as jumping off the top floor of the Sears Tower would now. How much was shyness, how much the severe nearsightedness that nobody had noticed? Instead I'd watch my grandmother iron as light through venetian blinds dimmed, watch Bugs Bunny and black-and-white soap operas, listen to Gran talk on the phone to her sister in Gaelic.
For work I study "The Importance of Being Earnest" and what I learn of Oscar Wilde shocks me--that he didn't even reach fifty, that in the midst of bright light success, he was arrested, imprisoned two years for being homosexual. They might as well have killed him, for two years after his release he left England, dying penniless under assumed name in a foreign land. And yet, his pain inspired him to write "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" about the horrors of jail; he advocated for reform. His verses are haunting: "Yet each man kills the thing he loves..."
"Wow, you had an interesting life," my son says when I tell him about volunteering with the United Farm Workers and meeting Cesar Chavez, or taking buses to Washington D.C. for demonstrations, or taking Greyhound youth hostel vacations, or working at a Michigan summer music camp, or union organizing at a museum, or helping a deaf-blind guy move out-of-state--and having to rescue him from an airport men's room.
"But then you had me. Your life is boring now." Gulp--guess so. Funny--I have my dream job, writing for a living, our home life is peaceful. Is happiness boring?
The Haiti telethon plays on all TV channels, so I tune to Channel 11, drool over idol Bruce Springsteen, play my violin while Jennifer Hudson sings "Let It Be," donate ten bucks via text message to Help for Haiti Now. Yet I sit in my comfortable apartment and drink honey chamomile tea and type on my computer--ten bucks is nothing, when people miles away are starving, homeless. Self-interest kicks in--I need to pay rent, buy food for my six-foot five-and-a-half teenager, help this teenager go to college next year so he has a future. But when does self-interest become selfishness?
Spoiler alert: I have just finished Walter Mosley's "Blonde Faith" and am incensed. I loved this book, kept thinking I must reread previous Easy Rawlins books. I love Easy--a thoughtful man of action, an African American in the sixties who fights discrimination without hating or stereotyping whites; he is the least racist character I've encountered in literature. I love his family, the kids he takes into his home--one is Mexican American, the other biracial. Why oh why does Mosley kill off Easy? How will Feather and Jesus bear it? I'm praying Mosley is pulling a Sherlock Holmes and resuscitates Easy!
At the end of third grade, Miss D. praised me extravagently for my construction paper covered "books" about the Bringly Twins and the Ruler Family (based, of course, on the Bobbseys and the Five Little Peppers). Miss D. didn't care: "This is the best thing anybody has done in this class this year!" And a couple of years later, when she met me and my grandmother walking on Leland, she made a point of stopping to tell me that I had a gift.
Praise became a drug. Dangerous, because you start relying on other people's opinions rather than your own.
When did I become such a crab? A telemarketer calls, and there's not a bit of warmth in my voice; instead I sternly inform the hapless young woman earning peanuts that I can't accept calls like this and I'll ignore whatever she sends me in the mail. Poor thing--she's polite and says they won't send anything then and I say thanks--still no warmth in my voice--annoyed at the interruption. But I think how my son would have handled it, very polite and kind. I hope he doesn't become a crab in 36 years--I remember when I was kinder. I think.
In my twenties, I didn't believe in prayer. God knows what we need--why pray? I pray now, to talk to God, to ask for strength, to connect with others praying. When A. was diagnosed with cancer, I felt helpless, I emailed prayer requests. A. lived, thank God. Did prayer "work"? I don't think God keeps a prayer score card: "Hm, Patient A got 75 prayers, Patient B a measly 3. Tough luck, B!" After a person recovers, when devout folks rave that God always answers prayers, I want to scream, "What about J, stupid? She had plenty of prayers."
How did having a schizophrenic mother affect me?
-When others chat about childhood memories, I nod, smile, say nothing, not wanting to risk wide-eyed stares.
-When others laugh at the crazy person cussing and talking to him- or herself on the train, I cringe.
-I always feel I need to prove that I'm OK. Always.
-I relate to the underdog. I remember cashiers snapping at me when I was a teenager buying groceries on food stamps; I remember the eviction when I was nine, our couch shoved outside the window plopping bare on outside grass.
When we studied Emerson and Thoreau in Ms. Z's sophomore English class and learned about Transcendentalism, I felt like I did when I first heard about Jesus. Just as Jesus's commandment to love your neighbor as yourself and focus on your own behavior, not your brother's, made sense, so did the concept that we and everything are part of one huge Oversoul, each of us with a spark of divinity within. The two belief systems do not conflict; how much easier to love your ornery neighbor or obnoxious coworker if you realize he or she has a devine spark within.
I hate January and February--snow, subzero wind chill, ice. But yesterday, when I said "I can't wait till March," I stopped. Do I really want to rush time? In August, my son will leave for college. Sure, I'll enjoy living alone--I have writing projects, have begun to practice on Red (my violin) again. Plus my job and hanging out with friends!
Still, this chapter of my life has been good; our home life is happy and peaceful. So I want to savor the times my son shares sports gossip with me or joins me for a 7-11 walk.
I hate being the only single parent at a table of couples. The conversation veers to restaurants "we've" dined at, vacations "we've" taken. I sit, plastered smile on face; I have nothing to say, I am not part of a "we." I look at the women--why were they lucky enough to attract a man who loved them enough to marry them, staying all eighteen years of their child's growing up? Of course, I had no positive role model for relationships growing up--I'm damn lucky I've raised a terrific kid, that we have a great mother-son relationship and a happy home. Still...
I think I'll try artist dates. What, you ask? It's Julia Cameron's idea (presented in her book "The Artist's Way")--plan a date, once a week, with yourself--a creative excursion to a flea market or museum or out-of-the-way restaurant. By yourself. Why? Nurturing yourself, doing something different, encourages creativity. I spend hours writing, but my life is boring. I take the same 7-11 walk every lunchtime, watch Wheel of Fortune every evening, Perry Mason every Friday night--you get the idea. It's a nice rut, to be sure--but a rut. Where will I "take" myself? Not sure--but I'm going to start brainstorming!
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