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August is an anniversary month for me. In 1974, I left my childhood home, never to return. In September 1973, I'd left for college, but had had to return in summer--no place else to go. But it was too rough--in August, I left for good. I'd just started working at the Field Museum, a whole new world of guards who were college student and steel mill workers, of out-of-town and foreign-speaking tourists. In August 2003, I began to work at home, and in August 2004, had surgery for retinal tears--if I hadn't advocated for myself, I would have lost vision.
Public school kids learned to read, back in the fifties, with Dick and Jane; we Catholic school kids read about David and Ann. But the readers were as bland as the Dick and Jane ones and used the same basal approach of short boring sentences. The setting was far removed from our Chicago neighborhood--I mean, how were we supposed to relate to "This Is Our Valley"? Yet, the books I fell in love with, the Bobbsey Twin series, didn't have much in common with my world--but the affectionate relationship between the siblings and the fun they had drew me in.
Writing at Dunkin' is fun. Free Wifi, and free flavor shots--not to mention coffee that's a lot cheaper than Starbucks'. The feel is less yuppy, and they don't care how long I sit here sipping my coffee. They play upbeat pop music that makes me feel happy as I try to write stories about a formerly wicked witch and essays about my childhood and a novel about a formerly bullied kid. Today, an older woman asked if I could help her find someone online, and tells me of her dad who was a journalist who wrote about World War I.
What is it like being my age, 59? But the number 59 has nothing to do with me, it is alien. It's such a huge number, indicating an age that a past self would have thought boring and old. But I'm still that past self--I'm all my past selves. I'm still the kid who sat in front of the black-and-white TV so bored and lonely, but terrified of going outside and saying hi to anyone. How much of that fear was due to my extreme nearsightedness? I'm still the sixth grader euphoric at finally having friends--a best friend and a lunchtime group of friends.
I'm still the seventh grader at a new school who was relentlessly bullied. I'm still the high school freshman who decided, if kids weren't going to be nice to me, I'd rather be alone and eschew fake friendships--and suddenly, real friends abounded. I'm still the high school senior depressed because my class rank dropped and I felt a failure and worthless. I'm still the college freshman who realized I had no family. I'm still the young adult searching for meaningful relationships and a career. I'm still all those people; my 59-year-old body is just a mask.
My son is 22, and he's jealous of me: "In five years, your life will probably be just the same. You'll probably still be working for H, writing, living in the same place, going out for coffee and writing. But I don't know where I'll be working, where I'll be living. I might be married--I might even have a kid!" I do remember that unsettled feeling--actually, I remember feeling panic! At 22, I had no idea whatsoever what I wanted to do. I tried majoring in special ed--nope. I drifted from job to job, afraid I Was wasting my life.
When I was 26, I realized what I wanted to do with my life. Oh, when I was 8 I'd wanted to be an "author," but my stories were never any good--I was so lonely I just liked spending time with fictional friends and didn't care about plot. But that summer I applied for a receptionist job at C College. I didn't get the job, but inspiration hit--they teach creative writing here! Then, I saw they offered a sign language class; since my broken leg accident at 21, I'd volunteered for organizations serving people with disabilities. Finally, a career path.
Weight. I'm not happy about mine. After menopause grabbed me in its sleepless claws, I could no longer cheat and then make up for it later; cheating was a powerful magnet that attracted pounds and refused to let them go. I walk a couple of miles a day and don't eat junk food and my health is fine, but I still shop in plus sizes. I really hate our society's obsession with weight and the self-righteousness of the thin. One time a letter-to-the-editor writer chastised an overweight woman for lack of discipline, assuming she would be a bad employee. Ugh.
Our two calicoes are sixteen years old. Although littermates, they've never been close. Never cuddled or groomed each other. No, if you put them in too close proximity, they'd hiss and growl. Not much of a sisterly bond! But over the last several months, gradually, there's been a change. They began to occupy the couch at the same time without feline conflict. Later, they've begun actually sitting next to each other on said couch, sometimes actually touching! Make me think of a novel where a character, at life's end, only wanted family around, as though circling back to life's beginnings.
Each of us a separate world. Each of us feels like we are the world, and it's disconcerting to realize that each person we meet feels the same way, too. The words in the "Our Father" about forgiving us our trespasses are very apt: that's the problem, we're such huge worlds we keep bumping into each other. Yet we are all brothers and sisters, we are all alike more than different, and the way to happiness is through kindness. Trouble is, it's hard to be kind when met with antagonism; personally, I feel my hackles rise. But that doesn't help.
Sometimes I wish I'd graduated from NW; it would induce oh-wows and might have made job hunting easier. But today, traveling to my North Shore job, I remembered more viscerally why I left. So many North Shore people seem prideful of their education and wealth, as though automatically better than others not as lucky or accomplished. The atmosphere seems cold, people only valued for surface stuff. How, as a vulnerable young adult, could I have survived another two years there? Instead, when I transferred to my alma mater, the very first day someone offered me a slice of her pizza.
Robin Williams died yesterday. I didn't see many of his movies; he wasn't on my radar, not like others whose work I connected with emotionally--Donna Summer, Whitney Houston. Still, his suicide reverberates--how could someone, beloved by so many, decide to end his life? How I long to be acknowledged, to have books published, to have been valedictorian or graduated from an oh-wow college--yet recognition hadn't saved Robin. What I have is real--a son who, concerned that people kill themselves because they don't realize how much they matter, writes a post telling all FB buddies how much they mean to him.
I need to speak up. Saturday, visiting A. and J. at the hospital, A. chats with a security guard, and he laughs about his post some days of the week--"I'm with the crazy people." Attitudes like that make seeking help embarrassing; attitudes like that might have been somewhat responsible for Robin Williams killing himself. Did he hate himself for having an illness that people laugh at? On a personal level, if my relatives hadn't been embarrassed by my mother's illness, maybe they would have helped her, maybe they would have loved me. Robin, I'm going to try to speak up.
What are my dreams? To have books and stories published. To fall in love with someone who's in love with me, too. To be debt-free. To own a house on a friendly block. To be skinnier. To not lose vision. To not need knee replacement surgery again for a long, long, long time. To be able to swim laps again. For my son to have a job he loves and to marry a good person and be happy. To be able to work until I'm seventy. To write better stories, essays, and books. To be reconciled with my mom's family.
Forty years ago I left home for good. I'd left for college, but when summer came I had no place else to go. My uncle drove me home, treating me to lunch at Denny's; we discussed feminism and he said he didn't know when he'd had such an invigorating conversation. Did he suggest I spend the summer with his family? Did I say no because my mother would be harassing me anyway? But one August day I confronted her for opening my mail; she screamed at me, started to attack me when I headed out to my grandmother's. Never returned.
Do the parts about B's rotten home life stick out, unrelated to the rest of the plot? How should I develop them? The plot deals with reactions to 9/11 and to C, a girl who uses a wheelchair, joining their class. It deals with R's jealousy as B becomes enamored with C. It deals with R's dad and his girlfriend, D, planning to get married. It deals with R getting to know D's family. It deals with R learning that she DOES have some academic gifts, as Ms. P, recognizes her talents during the science fair. Too much going ON?
If I could have a magical power, I'd love to go back in time and undo all my mistakes and sins. Not being a good friend to F. or V. Not helping a neighbor because I thought she was stuck-up and I didn't believe her story--such shame I feel now! The list goes on and on, though I know I've helped some people, too. But it always feels as though the bad overshadows the good, as though evil's impact is so much greater. I guess that is why I like Christianity--the emphasis on forgiveness, no matter what wrongs you've done.
Why am I an ex-Catholic? I stopped going to church in high school because I wasn't sure I believed in God, but went back after my son was born, realizing that what I called the majesty and power of Life was what other people called God. But I always had difficulty with the idea that women couldn't be priests. In 2010, the Vatican proclaimed that a woman becoming a priest was a sin on the same level as someone committing pedophilia. That was it. If members of a certain ethnicity couldn't become priests, would I belong to such a Church?
Sunday, and I feel like a heathen. I head to Dunkin' to write and finish this month's 100 words, and I pass people heading to St. B's. There's an aura of righteousness about them as they go to pay their respects to God and bond with like-believing others. At Dunkin', the table next to me is occupied by well-dressed people--men in black suits despite August heat, the woman in a skirt--discussing churches and biblical references and the woman gives me a Jehovah's witness pamphlet. I believe in God but am ex-Catholic (to the extent anybody can be an ex-Catholic).
I read J's story about an inconsiderate squirrel and feel uncomfortable, shades of old neighbors scolding me for being "inconsiderate" because of my two-year-old's sounds at play arising, shaking fingers. Yet in later years I've noticed that friends' two-year-olds are no quieter--luckily, my friends didn't need to deal with apartment living or had kinder neighbors. But I do have trouble being considerate--sometimes I'm a callous city person who pushes onto trains to make sure I'm not left behind (as happened when I tried being considerate). And in young adulthood, I strove to be myself at the expense of people's feelings.
My eyes scare me. The expert at work says, "I didn't know you had pathological myopia"--I didn't know my nearsightedness
pathological. I have ocular rosacia; ten years ago I had cryovac surgery for retinal tears. I'm developing cataracts, though they're at the beginning stages. I'm seeing the retinal specialist twice a year after he observed that my optic nerve has a temporal slope. "Hm, what do we do about this," he mused conversationally when first noticing it. Nobody's said the "g" word--glaucoma--yet but it's heading my way. Funny--I inherit the risk from my paternal grandmother who never recognized me.
Trigeminal neuralgia. Again my tooth hurts tonight, and I wonder what triggered the pain this time--spicy food? Sometimes I forget I have trigeminal neuralgia (triggered by a dental procedure after chipping a tooth on a s'more with too-hard marshmallow filling). I try not to think about my trigeminal neuralgia, as thinking about it makes me remember the ever-present pain--which usually isn't all that much. But sometimes the pain can't be ignored, and the "Why me?"s begin. Will it get worse? Will it really bug me when I'm old and unable to do as much and be distracted? I'm afraid.
I can never write to specific prompts, like "Tell a story about an alien who lands on Earth in the middle of a White Sox game." Huh? Anything too specific is just plot and has no meaning or appeal for me. The prompts I like are very generic but suggest meaning: "Write about a lie." "Write about something stolen." "Write about a fear." Now we're talking! I can write about myself--a lie I've told or been told, something stolen from me, something I fear. Or I can write about a character--a lie she's told, what she's stolen, what she fears.
I come to Dunkin' Donuts after work just to write at a different place after working at home all day--but I'm not sure I write better here. A 7-11 mile walk might have been better--but then, you can't force creativity. All you can do is sit down with computer or pen and paper and see what flows, trying to coax your personal muse to show up. It should be play, not work! Magically, just showing up often convinces your muse that you're worth visiting, and words do flow, and ideas do pop up, and all is right with the world!
I think the most important thing for me, when being critiqued, is stubbornness and maybe a bit of arrogance--I'll consider what anybody says, and I'll happily revise in a second if the suggestion seems right--but the work is MINE, and it is MY choice what to change or not change. Likewise, when I critique others, I hope they have the same attitude--I'm giving my gut responses, but everyone responds to books differently, or we'd all have identical libraries! Feedback that's "right" usually prompts an immediate "Ah ha! Yes!" and sometimes I'll type in the exact words the person has suggested.
I always find it interesting when people I know share birthdays. My ex-husband's mother, and M, my friend from sophomore year lunch table. My mother's brother and my sister. AF, who's like a mom to me, and AA, who has been like a sister to my son. My ex-husband and the ex-wife of a guy I had a huge crush on. My cousin friend MG--the one person on my mom's side who feels like family--and my sister's daughter, my niece B. Perhaps my fascination ties to my mild interest in astrology--and my desire to remember birthdays with cards or emails!
How fun it is to take a PTO day to enjoy a free online conference for writers of kids' books, to sit at Dunkin' enjoying decaf coffee and listening to happy pop music and watching the young workers put up signs advertising new sales. Nice to know my son and I plan to have our weekly order-out treat later; happy that he still likes spending time with mom but also has lots of friends. I am so blessed; my life like a story that started out grueling, climbing a rough ladder, but I've had such wonderful highs and am grateful.
One month ago, I was hanging out with J and G at the Art Institute, and I checked my email and learned that SSW would publish my essay! I was so happy that it was hard to focus on the moment, on the joy of hanging out with my niece and nephew and looking at art then hanging out at Starbuck's with them. So exciting--especially as the magazine was connected with the college I wish I'd chosen. There was a reading at a bookstore and the listeners even started snapping fingers in approval of parts of my essay. What fun!
Already red, gold, green, and yellow leave pictures decorate Dunkin' Donut windows; already Dunkin', Starbucks, Caribou, and other coffee-selling places boisterously advertise pumpkin muffins, lattes, and iced coffees. Already kids go back to school. It's almost ninety today, but the sun will set earlier; days shorten. I remember how much I used to love fall, when September was my favorite month--but that was back when I was a child living in a claustrophobic dysfunctional home with cemented shut windows, back when school was my escape. Now my life is happy and I've adjusted--summers are great and I hate their ending.
Yesterday was fun--last night I submitted three works and re-queried about another. It's such work, finding appropriate agents and publishing houses and then sending them what they want. Some just want a query letter, thank you very much, don't email us we'll email you. Others want the first five pages, or the first two chapters, or maybe three. Some want a resume, too. Most accept email submissions, but some don't. I do this the last week of every month, and that's it--but I met someone at a conference who devotes a whole month to submissions. I hate submitting--that's too much.
The day before Labor Day. Sixteen years ago, that Sunday, J was at Navy Pier with C, just hanging out. She espied a TV set in a restaurant, with the Cubs game on. She was dying to know how Sammy Sosa was doing in his home run race against Mark McGuire, so she headed towards the set--not seeing the stairs in the darkened restaurant, and her electric wheelchair toppled down the steps.
Her sister called me later. How I wish I'd rushed to the hospital. I didn't realize I could bring my six-year-old with me--I wish I'd found a way.
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