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My brother writes about Indiana's new law giving business owners the right to discriminate based on religious beliefs--he says a business owner shouldn't be forced to watch an immoral act. I respond that I think discrimination is the true immorality, not loving those different from us (but say, "Still love you, bro!"). But I unfollow him--I don't want to be stuck in unending fruitless debate. I think of S and what a caring volunteer he was--how can I consider him an immoral person, just because he's gay? The debate helps me clarify my beliefs about gay people, equality, and rights.
Different coffee shops cater to different demographics. Everybody's Coffee serves a variety of different-colored peoples, mostly young but older, too. First Slice donates proceeds to help people who are homeless, but my brown-skinned son said he didn't fit in at their coffee shop--all white, with a yuppie-ish feel, although the counter guy was friendly. Dunkin' caters to all ages but especially families and older people, all different colors and income ranges. Funny to think I'm grouped with the older people; inside I'm soaring with publication dreams as high those of my young self, though they're more grounded and realistic--and possible.
When I was pregnant, a close friend told me to "kiss my writing goodbye." If I wrote or, God forbid, read a magazine instead of giving my child my total attention, the kid would be scarred forever and feel unloved.
Twenty-three years later, I chuckle as I type these words. What codswallop! Sure, your child needs your attention. Sure, I worry when I see a parent ignoring the kid in the stroller in favor of absorbing cell phone gossip. But that doesn't mean that you don't need to give yourself attention, or that you should give up all your dreams!
But then, her words hit me like a spiked fist. I hadn't been published much, but writing was my dream, my life. Did I truly have to give it up? Couldn't I be a good mom and a good writer?
Stubborn, I immediately joined a writing class I read about in the Sun-Times. (I dropped out, traumatized, when I learned my husband was cheating on me, but that's another story.)
Being a single mom (you guessed that was coming) was rough, but I didn't give up. I had one hour a day--from 9 to 10 p.m.--to write, and I wrote.
I learned a new word today--beautyism--and I love it: prejudice on the basis of beauty or lack thereof. I've always felt my life shaped by my plainness. When I was little, four maybe, I asked my grandmother if she was sure I was a girl, as girls were pretty and I wasn't. Old-country Irish and unsentimental, Gran gruffly said, "Of course you're a girl" and went back to her housework. It wasn't a matter of gender identity--I just didn't think I was pretty the way you're supposed to be if you're a girl. And girls are expected to be pretty.
I love the smell of chlorine on my skin and hair after swimming, the more limber feel of my legs as I walk. I love the blueness of the water, the splashing as swimmers backstroke and crawl and kick. I first look at the clock and give myself an end time, and at first it feels like too much time, the deep end so forbidding despite my buoyancy and the strokes I know; I pretend that I'm an expert swimmer to give myself courage. But when the end time arrives, I'm in the zone and swim another lap or half-lap.
Until you get published, your writing is invisible; some people even assume you're not actually writing. A former boss suggested I focus more on my writing, shrugging off work newsletters as nothing. But I'd been working on a novel in addition to those "nothing" newsletters; it hurt that she assumed I'd given up. And if you haven't been published recently, people forget. My father told me to frame my rejections to prove I was a writer and didn't believe I'd been published until I handed him the book with my essay. It shouldn't matter what people think, but encouragement helps.
In less than two months I'll enter a new decade, and of course I'll have a party--why pass up an excuse to celebrate with friends? I'll have to find a good quote for the invitation that encapsulates my feelings about having a new number attached to me, a number that doesn't feel like it says anything about me. Age is a mask, but some people seem to have no problem embracing it. Do they now feel they can relax and not have to strive so hard? I don't know. I still want to reach for ageless dreams to come true.
Weather. I don't think it ever affected me as much as it has in the last couple of years, especially right before my first total knee replacement surgery. The arthritis worsened so that I rarely left the house; walking half a block was a challenge. And walking in ice and snow? Forget about it. My mood worsened accordingly. Not to be able to take cat litter out each day was awful--I had to wait until my son came home from his dorm. One time he came home for a visit and I forgot about the garbage until after he left--horrible.
Jury duty tomorrow. Ugh. The first time I received a jury duty summons, I was in my twenties and so excited! Being part of the American process of giving every person a fair trial with a jury of his or her peers--and having the chance to be one of those peers--was thrilling. Plus, years of watching and reading Perry Mason mysteries made the idea very romantic. Alas, now it just seems like a hassle: traveling to the suburbs, going through a metal detector, sitting in a waiting room with uncomfortable chairs for hours, making sure I'm listen for my name.
L looked at R's drawing.
"We need a poet." Without showing the slighted nervousness, L hollered out, "W! Poet needed!"
R could feel her face heating.
W sat at the desk next to them.
"Wanna write a poem about this? Anything else would be, you know, flat."
W squinted at the picture. "Maybe, maybe not. Like, you could write about the pros and cons of war. Of fighting back. Doesn't need to be a poem."
"Are you just trying to get out of it?" But L smiled.
"I'm just saying. Sure, I'll try. I'll write something by next week."
Jealousy. How I wish I could rid myself of this evil tendency! I see a picture of a a writer who's doing well, note the youthfulness of her face, and jealousy burns. I love my sister-in-law--she's one of my best friends--but when I think of the awards on her wall, the elite scholarship she won, jealousy burns. Yet I suppose some people I know might be jealous of my small successes, and that would make me feel uncomfortable. How to be a better person! Maybe, as a kind priest once told me, the trick is to appreciate one's own gifts.
I've always gotten sick a lot; as a child, I missed school a lot, and nowadays I miss work a lot. As a child, I probably had undiagnosed allergies, and my mother was a nonstop chain smoker who would cement windows shut because of her schizophrenic fear of prowlers breaking in and poisoning us. My living environment is much healthier these days, but sickness still hits more than I'd like. "How do you get sick so much--you work from home," my boss complains, as though working from home means I am always at home with no contact with germy others!
One day last week, I woke up and realized I'd been dreaming about TS, an old boyfriend from years and years ago. The split hadn't been amicable--I was too clingy, kept writing him. He was my first real boyfriend, and I'd never had many good models for healthy relationships. The last words I remember from him were cruel. Yet, in my dream, he was gentle and loving in a way he'd never been, even when the relationship was a positive thing. Do dreams mean anything? Somewhere, does TS understand that long ago me who had loved him, in my way?
When I mention admiring Helen Keller, I always try to emphasize her passionate work for social justice. For too many, she's just the girl at the water spigot who learned how to communicate and then wrote a book about her life. Even in her lifetime, people wanted to pooh-pooh her ideas, claiming she was parroting the words of others, which is hilarious, considering that the person closest to her, Annie Sullivan, was extremely conservative. Hilarious, but disrespectful. Keller advocated for people with visual impairments but also was a feminist, a supporter of the NAACP, and a founder of the ACLU.
I feel weird telling people I was in a sorority, but back when I was a scholarship student at NW, sororities weren't cool, and for non-cool people like me who yearned for friendship in this cold snobby university, sororities were a refuge. I quit the sorority mid-year, though, concerned that sororities were founded to promote exclusiveness; I had misgivings. But if I hadn't joined, I wouldn't have met E, and I treasure the friendship. E thinks deeply, is extremely knowledgeable about world affairs, voted for both Ronald Reagan and Harold Washington, has changed from solid Republican to Rachel Maddow Democrat.
I remember when I first learned to like art. It was a quiet Friday night at the sorority house. P. was an art major, and we began chatting and she showed me a little book of Utrillo prints of houses and streets and somehow something clicked, these images made me think of city streets and the way the neighborhood church looked when sunlight hit it after a rain and I just felt happy and P. said, "Yes! That's it," letting me know there's no one way to appreciate art, that being educated about Van Gogh and Monet wasn't a prerequisite.
The men at the other table converse in Spanish. I've loved hearing other languages ever since high school days when my closest friends spoke Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese. I'd overhear them talking with siblings and felt as though I'd been given a taste of the world even though the furthest I'd ever traveled was next-door Evanston or the suburban graveyard where my grandfather was buried. Some people feel otherwise and noisily demand laws proclaiming English-only, arguing against the huge effort of pressing "1" for English. I feel sorry for them, locked in a world without diversity or compassion.
I read a quote by J.K. Rowling, talking of the bliss she feels wandering off to a cafe with a notebook, and yes! That's how I feel when I head off to Dunkin' Donuts with my chromebook to write whatever strikes my fancy, be it essay or children's picture book. I felt relieved to read her words; sometimes I'm embarrassed by how much fun those solitary writing play times are, by how many hours I sit at one of Dunkin's pink or burnt-orange tables. Writing is solitary--and yet, across miles and vastly different talent levels, writers experience the same joy.
Today my son takes a picture of our two older cats as they cuddle together on the sofa--their version of cuddling, sitting together so close they're touching. They used to hiss at the slightest contact! For fun, I post the picture on Facebook, and a couple of people "like" the photo, one of them a young man in Nigeria whom I've never met but who frequently posts inspirational thoughts related to a religion I know nothing about, except that his posts always focus on love. How cool that strangers vastly separated by geography can connect in appreciation of simple things.
I'm sure I look funny changing tables at Dunkin', but I'm trying to avoid the bright sunshine glaring through a wall of windows, the light seeming to gleefully aim for my eyes or my computer screen, and I'm trying not to elbow anyone at a nearby table as I type. The round three-chaired table in back is my favorite. The sun doesn't stretch this far back usually, and I can change from chair to chair more inconspicuously. Fewer writers write here; most favor Starbucks or little independent places that I can't afford on a regular basis--those are for special treats.
I wonder if I brag too much when I get something published--probably, but being a writer also means rejection after rejection after rejection, and to many, unless you're published you're not a "real writer." Graduate with a degree in writing, and there's no job to apply for, and even J.K. Rowling still gets rejection letters! A bummer--but on the other hand, there's nothing as heady as an acceptance when it does come, even if it's for a magazine few have heard of and you're not going to get any monetary compensation. Your words will be out there in the world.
Jury duty. You can bring your laptop, only not into courtrooms. But, no Wifi, which almost negates the idea of bringing your laptop. I'd hoped to check email and Facebook and work on my MOOC poetry course, which starts today. Still, I can write 100 word entries and post them later; I can revise my picture book and my novel chapter and save them later. Lugging Chromeo wasn't a complete mistake. And I have my Nook with the new Maisie Dobbs mystery, and a composition book and pens, and there's a coffee machine that gives options for mochas and lattes.
I move to the snack room, just as I have every time I've done jury duty. This is the room where people relax and chat and use cell phones--pleasantly different from the solemn, oppressive silence or TV drone of the main waiting room, where people sit in comfly soft chairs but in unimaginative rows. Here, people chat or fuss at the vending machines or sit sideways and read while outside windows show us the nonstop falling snow. I'm too shy to strike up a conversation, but I'm enjoying the pleasant lull of others' conversations while I wait, while we wait....
I read in the Writer's Almanac about the Westerns writer Louis L'Amour and a memory flashes of how my ex-husband read L'Amour's books with gusto, one after the other. I was the one who encouraged him to sign up for free books on tape, just as I was the one who encouraged him to get a paying job and do something with his life. It worked for a while--until it didn't, until pressures of fatherhood prompted him to flee. Had my encouragement pushed him farther than he wanted to go--maybe he really wanted to cruise through life, no responsibilities, accomplishments.
When I started high school, I'd finally had enough of being bullied by so-called grade school friends; I avoided them, figuring that eating alone would be preferable. I began to always carry a book so I could spend solitary time reading. People began to be drawn to me; I had lunch table buddies and bus ride home buddies and was as happy as I'd ever been. Valuing yourself attracts people--like that old saying affirms, if you don't like yourself, why should anyone else? But it's hard to get to that place; it's easy to see yourself only through other's eyes.
I have mixed feelings about living in a basement apartment--or a "garden apartment," as some genteelly call it. The rent is cheaper, the stairs fewer--but status-wise, well, you're in a basement. A newspaper article about some miscreant made a point of mentioning his basement apartment, and in the comedy "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," she mentions living in a basement as a negative, much as she's overjoyed with her new life. Sometimes I think of my high school almost-valedictorian-or-salutatorian glory days and think classmates would have a gossiping field day. But then, should I care what gossipy shallow folks think of me?
A Facebook friend criticizes those who claim they "don't see race," saying they're really trying to protect white privilege and ignore history. Maybe--but those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies were taught that noticing race meant you were racist, and ignoring (or not "seeing") race was a virtue. That way of thinking probably stemmed from the way racists of that time emphasized race whenever someone of another race did something negative: the correct response was "What difference does his/her race make?" Even now, as a writer, I'm told not to mention race unless there's a reason.
What's more wonderful than an old friend contacting you out of the blue and chatting with her for a good half hour as though no time has passed and making plans to go to a museum? E is the mom of my son's preschool buddy, and the first time they visited for a play date, E saw on my kitchen table a book, Brenda Ueland's "If You Want to Write," and exclaimed, "I have that book!" Since Ueland's book is hardly a bestseller likely to be on just anybody's shelf, I immediately sensed a connection and knew we'd be friends.
A Cat Stevens song--"Oh very young, what will you leave us this time"--plays at the coffee shop, and suddenly I'm 19 and back at NW, maybe in the student union or the Evanston library, and I wish I could go back in time, which is weird because I'm happier these forty years later. But wouldn't it be nice to visit? To immerse oneself in the good moments and whisper secrets and encouragement to my younger self to help her make better decisions, to know that life will get better? Was I more full of hopes and dreams then or now?
I get too immersed in mosquito-bite problems that are minuscule compared with what people in developing countries or other Chicago neighborhoods face. I worry too much about keeping what I have, not how to make life better for others. I do help people through my work, plus people in my immediate life circle, and I give a token monthly donation to Unicef--but mostly I push the pain of the world from my mind. Of course, I don't want to scatter my energy and feel the need to focus on writing. But how can I be less spoiled in my outlook?
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