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Janey's doll was magic
Found at a thrift store
Where she and her mom went for clothes.
None of the shirts were beautiful.
Or the sweaters or skirts.
But high on a shelf she saw her
A rag doll, yes
But with snub nose and freckles
Pigtails and a laughing mouth
"Your name is Happy,"
Janey said. "If only..."
Her mom was busy
Piling pants and tops in a cart
Frowning, counting wallet bills
"Mom, look--the doll!"
Her mother shook her head.
"We're here for sensible things
"Please--you won't have to get me a Christmas gift--"
"You'd better mean it."
"Who is this you're inviting to Thanksgiving?" Debbie's mom's eyes gleamed, and Debbie flushed.
"His name is Frank--a friend of Kate's. Well, his daughter is a friend of Kate's daughter, I mean her niece," Debbie said, feeling her words tumbling over each other.
"'Bout time you got married," Cara said. "Biological clock and all that. You just want to be an aunt and never a mom?"
"Hey, as an aunt she can send them home. Plus no labor pain," Terry said. She yelled across the room, "Bobby, what are you doing--leave Joey alone!" She grinned at Debbie. "And less yelling."
Today our new couch arrived, coffee-bean brown with eggshell-white pillows with brown, beige and gray jellybean pattern. I am excited, planning to have friends over to enjoy the couch and coffee. My son has matured--last time, he was as excited as me and proud to pick out the red color. I'm still a little kid who gets excited about little things. That irritated E., too. But if I didn't have that little kid alive in me, I wouldn't be able to even think about writing for kids. So I look forward to curling up and reading on the new couch!
The men, uniformed with badges, threw everything out of the apartment. Tables, chairs. Her Nancy Drew books, loose in the grass. Dolls and toys. The cat in a carrier so they'd get it somewhere, anywhere. The men pushed the couch through the living room window, unceremonious, as though it were worthless. As though Dena and her mother were worthless. The uniformed men would go home to families with little boys and girls who would never see their furniture dumped out on the sidewalk. Eight-year-old Sarah watched wide-eyed, clutching the rag doll with yellow pigtails, while her mother cursed at the men.
Ms. D., my third grade teacher, was my first cheerleader; I learned to love praise as an addict loves drugs. She loved the books I wrote, construction paper covers, penciled blue-lined paper, stapled together. Nobody in the class, she asserted, had achieved as much as I had. A couple of years later, walking with my gran, I saw Miss D.; she reminded me that I had a gift.
Have I used my gift well? She probably thought I'd write great literature; instead I write courses for people with visual impairment. But that's a good use of a gift, isn't it?
I hate accidentally insulting someone! The young guy at Athletico wants to learn to play the violin and I want to encourage him. He asks about the Amazon kit that's under 100 bucks. When I say that mine cost 500 bucks, his eyes widen--but I tell him, really, that's a cheap violin, so yes, the Amazon kit is a good deal. When I suggest a mute, he seems taken aback--"A mute!" he exclaims, like why would he need one? But violins are loud, squeaky, especially at first--I always practice with a mute--I didn't mean to make him feel bad.
I hope I start to enjoy living alone again. Sometimes it sneaks up on me--the joy of flavored decaf, D. curled up in a furry feline ball on a chair next to me, and Pandora on low, surprising me with Rolling Stones and Tchaikovsky. I have hours to myself to write as I like, read as I like. Why is company necessary when I have writing to do, with coffee and music as inspiration? Never mind my robust characters--R. and Bobby and the new kid C., and the love triangle with B. intrigued with C. because she uses a wheelchair.
Not sure how to revise R. and the Cousins 7th Grade. I may actually do an outline to see what the main points are, and then focus on those. So far, the highlights seem to be a new teacher, the September 11 tragedy, R's dad getting engaged to D., the new kid C., R.'s dad's sister showing up (although maybe that happens in the next book), and R. doing a great science fair project about vision and art and winning an award, which boosts her confidence in succeeding academically. But I'm not sure what the heart of this book is.
I feel pleasantly high from caffeine, as though the world is full of possibilities, as though it's easy to banish negative thoughts. I believe in being positive--"Positive draws positive," M. always said--but often something in me draws me downwards.
"You bully yourself," my son tells me, and I guess I do. No sooner than I think of something good I've done but my conscience nags, "Sure, but remember when you did XYZ..."
Sigh. I wouldn't treat a friend that way.
But caffeine is a great drug for pulling my mood upwards--if only it weren't so bad for my ocular rosacea.
I'm so excited! I limp over to Walgreen's to get Easter basket ingredients for T. and A. While I'm browsing, deciding which marshmallow chicks to buy, K, the 12-year-old girl from downstairs, sees me; she's shopping with a friend.
"I finished your book--it's really good," she tells me. "Thank you! It's amazing."
And I can tell she really means it, and there's nothing, nothing like a kid telling you she liked your book, and this is the first time it's happened to me and yes, I want to keep writing for children. I need to get busy on the sequel!
Lately my mood has been low because of my knee. What if the physical therapy doesn't work and I can never take mile-long walks again? I feel a prisoner in this basement apartment that my landlady considers a dump--she had no problem with me having to flush my toilet with buckets for two days. Of course, the logical part of me realizes that the work I've done in my life, helping people with disabilities, is much more important than a fat bank account, but still. And I wonder--How do my friends with disabilities cope so well with not being mobile?
I was born the year Emmitt Till was murdred, but I don't remember hearing his name until I was thirty and reading "Sophie's Choice" for Betty Shifflett's Advanced Fiction class at Columbia College. I was similarly oblivious to much else happening during my childhood--Kennedy's election and assassination, the Beatles and rock and roll, astronauts going into space and the walk on the moon, the Civil Rights Movement, the murder of those little girls in a Birmingham church, the Speck murders, Martin Luther King's and Robert F. Kennedy's assassinations, Woodstock and hippies, the feminist movement, the Viet Nam War and Watergate.
I can't remember the name of the guy I met at Rose Records who was part of a music nerdy crowd who were stuck up against anyone who wasn't also a music nerd. He was heavyset and wore glasses and spoke pretentiously and was likely to break out into operatic solo for no special reason. He was shocked when I referred to African literature. "Is there such a thing?" so I told him about Chihua Achebe's work, "No Longer at Ease" and "Things Fall Apart" and I may have mentioned Soyinka's plays. I wonder how he views the world now.
I miss going to St. B's, the sunshine on dark mahogany pews and streaming through stained glass windows--feeling the mystery and beauty of all we cannot know, Yet I can't go to a church where one class of people is shunned aside as not worthy of the priesthood. Separate but equal never works. I think, too, that when I go to church, I expect too much of fellow churchgoers. It's bad enough when coworkers are unfriendly, but when you're singing about love and brotherhood in a choir and your fellow singers are distant, it hurts. I still pray but alone.
I remember visiting Aunt G. and Uncle D right after they'd bought a dishwasher. I was maybe ten and remember feeling in awe. Not sure if I was jealous--I think I just assumed that my mom and I weren't good enough to deserve owning things like dishwashers, washers, dryers, or a house with staircases and a backyard. What I really wanted were brothers and sisters; I wouldn't have minded living in apartments and going to laundromats if I'd had brothers and sisters to play with. I didn't know then that I did have siblings who were growing up in Indiana.
I'm naive. I never even knew until a few years ago that hooded sweatshirts were now called "hoodies." I never guessed that wearing them would make you appear to be a suspicious up-to-no-good gangster. Hooded sweatshirts are comfy and warm, and I hate cold and like to dress comfy. Of course, I'm white, female, and in my fifties. Nobody would follow me, coming from a 7-11 with my coffee, consider me suspicious and shoot me. But my son is dark-skinned--would it also make a difference that, like Trayvon Martin, he'd be more likely to be carrying iced tea than coffee?
My grandmother loved fish, especially herring. One time I went shopping for her but couldn't buy any because it was imported and she was on food stamps. She'd worked as a maid most of her life but now lived on Social Security. When I confided in Mrs. S., also telling her how horrible I felt at the way people looked at me when I pulled out the stamps, she immediately got her hackles up: "You don't see our side! We work and can't afford imported food!" My grandmother had worked, too; this was food she'd gown up on in Ireland.
I think of writing middle grade historical fiction based on growing up in the sixties, but I wasn't really part of or even aware of the world around me back then--I was too busy surviving my childhood, my mother and grandmother immersed in their own worlds and troubles. Nobody talked about the rightness or wrongness of the Viet Nam War, or why Martin Luther King was leading marches, or the budding feminism movement. Instead, we struggled, being evicted place to place, me changing schools and routinely bullied. Not until high school and college did I become aware of my times.
"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," says President Obama, and although my son doesn't look exactly like Trayvon--he's biracial, with lighter skin and curly hair--still, to most Americans, he's unequivocally Black. If he were wearing one of his White Sox or Blackhawks hoodies, carrying a bag of 7-11 treats on a dark night, he'd be viewed just as suspiciously by a racist vigilante. Heck, an older woman literally jumped when she saw him behind her at our neighborhood Walgreen's. He says he's used to being followed in stores: "It's like I always have my own personal shopper."
I first met J. at the Water Tower, on the ground floor by the elevators, near the wheelchair entrance and the special service bus drop-off point. I'd spoken to her on the phone but felt taken aback actually meeting her. I wasn't surprised that she was in a wheelchair--we were members of a group fighting for accessible buses, and although I wasn't disabled, most members were. But she was short, about the size of a two-year-old although she appeared to be in her twenties, like me. I hoped that my discomfort didn't show on my face as I greeted her. .
Every Monday afternoon, Claire has her violin lesson.
On Tuesday, she practices.
Squeak! go the violin strings.
"I sound awful!" she screams. "I want my violin to sing!"
She practices on Wednesday.
On Thursday, she sees, Mrs. Johnson the upstairs neighbor.
Mrs. Johnson says,
"We won't be home tomorrow.
Why don't you practice then?"
Clara feels sad.
But she keeps playing. She ignores the squeaks.
Every day, she notices less squeaking.
One day, she hears her violin sing.
Mrs. Johnson says,
"We're home now. Won't you play for us?"
Claire gives a concert for family and friends and neighbors.
After a critique that pretty much suggests that I scrap half of the chapter and rewrite it top to bottom, emphasizing only one plot, no layers of relationships, I feel like a pretender who doesn't deserve to use the label "writer." Yeah, yeah, motivational books say "a writer is someone who writes," but I wouldn't dare say that at the writers' conference next week--I'd get raised eyebrows and "Yes, of course. Have you been published?" Thank God that I have, but only little pieces, no books, although I've written a middle-grade novel, a coming-of-age novel, and a very short memoir.
I walk past my landlady's veranda-porched house--her grandchildren begin giggling. Whatever they're saying, their mother doesn't like it. "What? You're not going to do that! That's totally inappropriate! Is that kind?"
I remember those kids throwing rocks at my window, running away laughing, until I came out to ask them to stop. I overheard giggling: "Look! The old lady!" One asked, "Do you LIVE down there?"
I'm 56--an old lady? But I don't have their grandmother's money, and I live in a basement apartment.
Yet I've spent my life helping people with disabilities, a low-paying field--isn't that's worth respect?
My son and I spend a nurturing day at A's, where she overfeeds us with pasta with peas, meatballs, zucchini fried in egg and Roman cheese, coffee and 7-Up, cookies and ice cream. I bring fresh-baked Irish bread and decaf coffee. She sews the hole in my coat and gives me rainbow-colored cups: "You have too many broken cups--throw them out!" We watch Whitney Houston's funeral and I reminisce how much J--A's daughter and my bestfriend--had loved Whitney; later, we watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and British comedies on Channel 11. She sends me home with bats of food.
I wonder how many other women out there are ordering food to cheer themselves up because they're alone on Valentine's Day. In a story by Jayne Phillips, the main character's mom says, "If you dine alone, dine by candlelight." In other words, be good to yourself and don't wait around for some man to be good to you. Amen. I'd rather be alone than with a jerk. But--that said--I'm jealous of couples like the O's, like Helena and Ruben, where you can see that they're so in love after so many years and still enjoy each other's company so much.
Shirley is the new kid.
She says she's a detective.
She uses clues to learn about her new school.
She uses her ears to find her classroom.
She uses a long white cane to find the path.
She uses her fingers to find Henry, the pet gerbil.
She also uses her fingers to read her lesson.
Instead of a pencil and paper, she writes with a slate and stylus.
During gym, the class plays with a ball that beeps.
She uses her nose to find the lunchroom
And to find the school bus at the end of the day.
I was in third grade when President Kennedy was shot. Some kid brought Miss D. a message from the office; she read the note and dissolved into tears.
What did I know of death, or that you could grieve the death of someone you'd never met? I went home and sprung the news on my grandmother with what I thought was a clever joke: "Who's our president? No, you're wrong--he's dead."
My grandmother broke out in weeping, just as my teacher had. I look back, cringing at my insensitivity--but I didn't mean to be cruel. I didn't "get it."
Tendonitis. Plus a knee that doesn't respond to physical therapy after a fall, that is complicated by arthritis that was probably triggered by the fall. My body falling apart, despite the spirit that wants to type and write and play the violin and walk miles and miles especially in summer. But at least I have role models--GL who is deaf-blind but still works and writes and enjoys company and whose sense of humor never fades. JF, who couldn't walk but went everywhere. MK, deaf-blind but who noticed and understood everything. I can still live despite pain--and I'll pray for guidance.
R. and C.: 7th grade is so raggedy! But I do like the new character, C.P., and her mom, and finding that mean B. girl has layers. Now to bring all these puzzle pieces together, though! It's been a while since I immersed myself in writing new fiction. Sitting at Dunkin Donuts that Friday helped--maybe writing at Ladybug on Thursday will help. And maybe making myself write 100 words a day will help. Plus, from now on, I have to make myself send M. five new pages every Friday, even if I have to stay up late to do it!
I get tired, advocating. I tell the PT that the doctor wants regular updates; she says, once a month is when we usually send updates, or else there's nothing to report. Uh--I'm only supposed to get 6 weeks of PT. After a month, my PT will be almost done. How about every 2 weeks? "Sure, 2-3 weeks sounds fine." Um, two weeks, I repeat.
T. says, when I recount the story, she heard me just fine--she was just lazy. And I didn't like that she just gave me printouts of the exercises, without showing me how to do them. Lazy.
I want to write with intensity instead of in bits and pieces without strong emotion or images. I miss C. College times when writing was as easy as thinking, when I'd write late into the night on a caffeine high. Not sure how to recapture that--except to write every day, whether a little or a lot, whether good or bad, and to keep setting goals. I like the 100 word site, and I like sending M. five pages a week for our "positive workshop," and I hope that helps summons my muse! (I hope, too, that my tendonitis doesn't flare.)
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