The Work of Woman

The world is forever ending,

every generation chasing the same

catastrophes and atrocities their parents

learned before them. Migrating in search

of herds of hatred, anger, and fear to feed upon.

 

But for each inky night that swallows up hope,

there is a woman who stands up,

though her soul is broken,

and crosses the room to light a fire

and places a potato in a pot

or the very last grains of rice,

because stomachs must be fed

and laundry doesn’t care for cataclysm.

 

A woman who, in her grandad’s pickup truck,

her forehead resting against one chapped hand

as she mouths the music on the radio,

drives to the bank for the loan,

because the chemo won’t pay for itself.

 

A woman who rises early for work at the factory

and pins a yellow Star of David on her coat,

because the rent is due, and it’s been almost a month now

since they took father and Misha away.

 

A woman who has watched a thousand men

ascend the ladder ahead of her, but who shows up,

measures her smiles and speaks calmly, firmly,

because her message is important and must not be dismissed.

 

A woman who weeps and arranges the shattered

pieces of her heart into the shape of a poem

to send out into the crumbling world,

because somewhere in the desolation

are the ears of others listening for signs they’re not alone.

 

A woman who leans over the cradle of an infant

she did not birth and will not raise,

but who she will pick up and comfort and feed,

becoming for only a moment a mother

in place of the mother who didn’t make it through the night.

 

A birthright, this numb inertia

that keeps life slowly wading forward

through the scalding lava of destruction

as the world ends

and ends

and ends

work

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The Work of Woman

I Used to be a Reader

This is a hard thing for a writer to say:

I used to read.

I used to read voraciously. I carried books with me wherever I went. I slept with them under my pillow.

I read three or more books at a time, and knew what page number I was on in each of them.

When I found a writer I loved, I inhaled EVERYTHING they’d ever written. I spent hours in bookstores. I lived in the library.

Then two things happened. I had babies and I graduated with a degree in literature.

After college, I didn’t read anything but non-fiction for a full two years. I was burned out. Proust will do that to you.

I did still read a lot of poetry and history. I read to research my novels. And of course I memorized Go Dog Go, Skippy Jon Jones, and Sandra Boynton’s entire canon, (which I highly recommend).

But outside of an occasional audio-book, I almost quit reading novels altogether.

It’s hard to read when you’re a mom.

Every book was like the leftover, half-finished bagel you shove in your mouth between jumping out of the shower and rodeo-ing the kids into the car. When I did get to read, I read without tasting. Without digesting.

To be a writer without reading is like breathing without inhaling. It makes your writing dizzy and tight. Blue-faced.

To be a writer without reading is like breathing without inhaling. It makes your writing dizzy and tight. Blue-faced.

But today, ten years and two days after learning I was pregnant with my first child, I took my youngest child to kindergarten, hugged her, kissed her, hugged her again, cried a little, and turned to find myself facing a tiny ocean of time.

Time to myself.

I’ve had today marked for a few months as the day I’m going to start working on my novel again. But as it got closer and closer, a different excitement overshadowed it.

I’m going to read.

I’m going to read Literature. With a capital L.

I’m going to read big, fat, difficult books.

I’m going to read skinny, compact, difficult books.

I’m going to read my old favorites – Atwood, Steinbeck, Morrison, Camus, Bradbury, Allende.

I’m going to read new authors.

I’m going to read authors I’ve never even heard of.

I’m going to read poetry and plays.

I’m going to read Shakespeare again. Shakespeare! Out loud! For fun!

I’m going to read in public and ignore people.

I’m going to read in private and ignore my phone.

I might even try to tackle Moby Dick for the umpteenth time.

I went to a bookstore today by myself. I spent a lot of time selecting the first three books for my bibliophile bacchanal. Three books made of paper and ink.

They smell terrific.

If you need me, I’ll be in my room.

P.S. Don’t need me.

books

I Used to be a Reader

First Tooth

Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt

First Tooth*

 

A poem shimmering forward

like the mirage of human form

awakens me from tattered sleep.

 

Before I’ve reached my pen,

she’s awake again and wailing.

 

The shard of bone gnawing

through her gum claws

closer to the surface, aching

to erupt. We rise, unrested.

 

When I lift her, she tries

to scale me like a mountain.

 

I make coffee while she

worries her toothlessness

like a splinter or a pebble in a shoe.

 

We maroon ourselves

on the living-room floor,

on an island of brief sunlight.

We won’t leave the house today.

 

Through steam-stained windows,

the naked trees are vague.

The sidewalks are phlegmy with ice.

 

Winter grinds its fist into the city.

 

Naptime – she refuses to sleep unheld.

My shoulders ache from stillness.

I search for the image that woke me.

I struggle to dredge the seed from memory,

urge it to burst its smooth skin,

to declare itself.

 

Her cheek against my breast is

firm and cool like rising bread.

 

She wakes again,

and wails her yearning for teeth.

 

I ease her down so I can

stretch the knots from my shoulders.

 

Light gathers in the tears on her lashes.

With a orphaned look,

she reaches for me, both arms up.

 

Her hands panic

like dizzy, breathless butterflies.

 

This is new, this reaching.

 

 

 

 

*Originally published in MotherVerse Magazine

First Tooth

Tweening

My eldest daughter entered the tween years this summer. Like so many other phases of parenting, this one caught me off guard.

Phases. You know they’re going to happen. Other parents tell you about them. You read about them in human development books (at least, you do if you’re married to a psych dweeb).

But nothing really prepares you for what a new phase will look like on your child. This is partially because how their biology hits them is unique for each kid and situation.

When my eldest was three, she developed a stutter that came and went for about a year. It was something I refused to make a big deal about despite the advice of other, older moms. First, because I was concerned that making a big deal about the stutter would cement it in her identity as a personal trait. Secondly, her doctor wasn’t worried, so I wasn’t either.

One day I noticed that the stutter appeared for a few weeks, and when it disappeared it left behind a new language tool, (such as use of multiple adjectives or subordinate clauses). “Okay,” I thought. “This is just her brain hard-wiring itself.” The stutter was, I thought, a result of her brain firing up new neural connections. It disappeared shortly after her fourth birthday. No one had ever told me that a stuttering phase might accompany a verbal explosion. It was unique to her.

Then there was the kid phase. This happens around 6-ish, when your child stops seeming like a baby/preschooler/snuggly love-bug and starts being a kid. A great kid. A kid you’re happy to know. But a kid with things to do and people to see, and who may or may not make mom and dad a priority. This is a phase where you step back, take a deep breath and watch them begin to grow in directions you never imagined. They develop interest in things you could not possibly care less about. But you fake it for their sakes.

The tween change has been different for me. I wouldn’t say that my daughter is on the threshold of puberty, but she’s definitely within spitting distance of it. It’s terrifying. Not only because of the wealth of dangers that accompany coming of age in our society, although goodness knows, that’s bad enough. It’s the anticipation of watching someone you love prepare to undergo a transformation more difficult and delicate than they can possibly apprehend.

I’ve done things to prepare her of course. She’s heard since she was tiny that the human brain continues to develop decision-making apparatus until around 25 years of age. That all the years up to then are critical to her cabeza.

She knows that women have periods wherein they bleed to shed unfertilized eggs.

These factoids come along with more dogmatic platitudes: “School first. Then you can worry about boys.”

But the thing the tween phase didn’t prepare me for is this. When I look at my daughter, I feel like I’m mothering an infant again. Not that she is dependent on me. Rather, it’s that sense that you get as a new parent. That part of you that says, “My god, this human being is beautiful and precious and her life has tremendous potential and that is a TON of responsibility. How do I not screw that up!!!”

Part of it is that she is truly a beauty. I’m not just saying this because I’m her mother. She’s a knock out in the making.

But she is beautiful beyond just the beauty of her features. Hers is the beauty of becoming. Sharing a house with her is like living with some mythic animal that is dangerous and beautiful, and entirely innocent of both. Sometimes when I look at her, I see the fat-cheeked, extroverted toddler that flirted shamelessly with strangers, and sometimes I swear I can see the long-legged, thin nosed, driven woman she will be in a few years.

Before becoming a parent, there’s no way to understand how fiercely you will love your children. You love them so much it’s scary. So much you feel like it will break you in two. So much that you want it to break you in two if that’s what they need from you.

It’s a conflicted love. You want them with you more than anything in the world, so you can keep them safe and share their every experience. But you want the world for them too, as imperfect as it is. A world far beyond anything you’ve ever experienced, full of opportunities beyond what you could ever provide.

So you ease them out into that world a little at a time and feel them slipping away, little by little. Until one day, the weight shifts by just a fraction, and they are more gone than here, leaving you to rejoice for the new adventures they’ve found, while your own heart breaks and mends and breaks over and over again endlessly.

Tweening

Birthday Anxiety and the Modern Mom

Confession: I hate my kids’ birthdays.

Not because of any trauma associated with the experience of birth (though goodness knows there was plenty of that). But because of residual anxiety I have regarding a long history of my own sucky childhood birthdays.

It’s tragic, really.

On my 8th birthday, my gift was a promised trip to the dinosaur museum in Vernal, Utah. I was nurturing the flames of a nascent love for paleontology, only to be shattered by the slow, 6-month-long realization that my mother’s promise was never to come to fruition.

Like so many wizened and embittered by life, I took up writing instead.

A friend of mine remembers her mother losing it at a party and throwing all the birthday presents out the window. I had to talk this friend down on her own child’s 8th-birthday by reminding her that there is NO way we’re screwing this up as badly.

The standard I inherited from my mother was this: I’m out of bed and dressed. In my childhood, that was functional motherhood. Anything past that was gravy, including birthdays.

So it is with a great-deal of “I’m gonna fuck this up” that I approach my kids’ birthdays. I’ve lived through 12 of these so far, and I think I’m getting better about it. I no longer hit the panic button at the last minute. Or every week for 4 months prior.

But it was with some trepidation I asked my soon-to-be 5-year old what she wants for her birthday party.

As one often inadvertently and tangentially does with a almost-5-year-old, we discussed every possibility in depth. She settled on a yogurt place. One of those with bright colors and a full bar of sugar-derived toppings. Relieved to pawn the fiasco onto someone else, I called the shop.

The person I spoke to was the most spectacularly competent 15 year old on the planet. I said COMPETENT. She was a joy. Her name was Taylor and she was WAY excited about my daughter’s birthday. Part of the reason she was so excited was because my daughter’s birthday happens to be her birthday too. I wanted to adopt Taylor on the spot.

A lot of people complain about teenagers. I love them. I used to have a job where I went to high schools and taught teens about blood. I always got little grimaces of pain when I told people I was guest-lecturing in a high school. But the students were invariably enthusiastic, energetic, and inquisitive. Maybe there is some gray, Alcatraz HS somewhere where they stick all the dimwits and jerks. But every teen I encountered was pure sugar. Once I was in restaurant near a high school that had just let out on a bright spring day. The server apologized to me for the rambunctious clientele. But I was loving being awash in their joy and excitement. I said, “No need to apologize. They’re just excited to be out of school on a beautiful day.” It roused a chorus of cheers from the table behind me. They wanted to throw me a tickertape parade, but I declined, having already paid my bill.

So Taylor impressed me. She was re-working schedules, presenting options, crunching numbers all to give me and my kid a good birthday at their yogurt place. While discussing how many invitations I needed, I asked her, “How many people can I fit into the room?”

Her response was perfect. “She’s turning five? Well… they’re pretty small people.”

It was a challenge.

It conjured images of those 1920s contests to cram people in a phone booth. I pictured various members of my daughter’s preschool class pressed up against the glass Gary Larson-style, sticky with yogurt and cooing softly from a sugar-induced stupor.

“Give me a whole stack,” I said. “We’re inviting EVERYone!”

It was a lovely moment. A far cry from the anxiety I’ve often felt the last 12 times I’ve gone through this birthday thing.

Perhaps I’ll take Taylor a gift, so she can celebrate her birthday too. It’s nice to get to look forward to enjoying the day my little one and I first encountered each other. Moreover, it’s lovely to let go of worrying about getting it wrong. Because, stress and anxiety is for grown ups. The young have things figured out. You live out your enthusiasm. You throw sprinkles and fudge on your fro-yo. You enjoy every day. Promises may or may not pan out, but a birthday is still a birthday. And you only get one a year.

Birthday Anxiety and the Modern Mom

What Is It Like to Write Everyday for 3 Years?

I’m currently engaged in a month-long daily writing agreement with another writer. Recently she asked me if I noticed a difference in process from  writing every day (which I did for 3 years) and writing in spates. This is the response I sent her.

“First off, let me say that it feels weird and presumptuous for me to share my experiences with you, since you are an anointed writer and I’m still in the fake-it-til-you-make-it phase.

“That being said, since you asked…

“I decided to start writing daily at a time in my life when I had very little else I cared about. My family and my writing were all that mattered.

“I was stuck in a job I hated in a company where I was isolated, under-utilized, and miserable. My job required no problem-solving or intelligence, and nobody cared whether I did it or not.

“One of the hardest parts of writing every day was training the people around me to accept it. If someone says that they do yoga or run every day, people accept it. They admire you for it. But if you do something creative every day, people look at you like you’ve caught a horrible disease and say, “Why?” or “ You can skip it, this once.” I’m certain the words my children pick for my headstone will be, “Don’t bother mom. She’s writing.”

“I also had to get past the mom-guilt of feeling like I was abandoning my children by taking so much time for myself. (My minimum was 1 hour per day, though on weekends I often did 3 or more). But I truly believe that when I’m actively writing I am a more present and engaged mother. I also feel like it’s important to model to my girls that a woman’s time to herself and a woman’s creative pursuits are valid and valuable.

“But I’ve veered off topic. Let’s see. Writing every day made me slip into story and character faster. I often would stop right in the middle of a scene that was zipping along nicely, so I’d be able to dive right back in again.

“My characters were realer, clearer. I had one character who woke me in the middle of the night because he was so in love he couldn’t stand it. The benefit of have a daily writing time was that I was able to tell him, “We have an appointment at noon tomorrow. We’ll talk then.” It compartmentalized my writing more. While it was constantly stewing, it wasn’t constantly demanding my attention this very second.

“The routines were tricky. But I treated it, and trained my family to treat it, as something that simply happens every day. Like eating breakfast or brushing your teeth. It wasn’t optional. (Though there were days when I had to decide between writing and showering).

“Doing it for that long, what I found is that the act of writing, and the world I was creating, became my place of consistency even when everything else was in flux.

“It’s not completely honest to say I wrote every single day. I can think of at least twice when I skipped days. Once was a long camping trip. The other was after my brother’s suicide when I didn’t write for 5 days. After 5 days, I needed to write. I needed it more than anything. It was my island of calm in the chaos. At that time I was writing in the library. So on the fifth day, I went.

“I remember getting to the door of the stairwell and being overwhelmed. Certain I couldn’t write. Certain my grief would silence me. So I said aloud to my dead brother, “You can’t come with me. You have to wait here.” And he did. I was able to escape from my grief. To create a space it couldn’t enter. I don’t know if that could have happened had I not been as disciplined about my daily writing up to that point.

“When my writing time is spotty, it seems like my writing is clearer and better organized. When I write every day, my writing is more fun, more passionate, and sometimes so messy as to be counterproductive.

“One more interesting observation. I LOVE to cook. When I write daily, I rarely tackle the challenging recipes I would normally be super-impatient to try out. I think maybe there’s just only so much creativity to go around.”

What Is It Like to Write Everyday for 3 Years?

Things I Learned In Art Class

Occasionally, I take my 8-year-old to a sketch workshop offered at our local library.

I’d never been to a sketch class before I started going to this one with my kiddo.

A live, fully-clothed, volunteer model does a series of poses for 5 or 10 minutes and a group of artists draws them as quickly as possible using charcoal, or pastels, or pencils. The teacher provides feedback as requested by the artists.

Part of the reason we like this workshop is the atmosphere. It’s very laid back.

People come and go as they please, sometimes there’s music, or there’s snacks set out. There’s extra paper and charcoal for people who want to jump in and try.

The first time we went, I took my laptop and tried to write while they were drawing. But I’m easily distracted, and soon found this was not a good idea. So I started bringing a book.

It’s been awesome to watch my daughter interact with the other artists. They’re always surprised and happy to see a kid there. They talk to her and about her art as if she were a grown up. I try to hang back and let her do her thing without interfering. I’ve enjoyed watching the group as they learn and practice.

Writing, it is often said, is the loneliest of the arts. Mixing and mingling with other writers is something I have to force myself to do.

But there is something very right and natural about artists getting together to make and learn art.

The atmosphere of people coming together to do something just for the love of what they’re doing is always a revelation.

So I was disappointed this weekend, when we arrived and found that their model for the day was leaving early.

The artists stayed, chatting, doodling, some of them drawing each other. I sat in a corner while my daughter and another artist talked about dragons. I thought I might do a blogpost about the workshop, so I got out my Moleskine and wrote:

“Things I’ve learned from sitting in on a art workshop:

  • what you’re struggling with / frustrated with is the skill you’re about to level up on

  • nothing makes artists happier than being with other artists

  • mentorship and collaboration are vital to creative development

  • sketching is about making yourself as an artist disappear – conduit between model and paper

  • it’s okay to ignore the big picture and focus on detail

  • it’s okay to draw only shadows

  • it’s okay to draw only shapes”

I put my Moleskine away and watched them for awhile. But with the model gone, it was obvious things were dwindling to a close. There was still an hour-and-half-left in the class, and no one looked eager to leave.

So I offered to model.

I am not, by nature, attention-seeking. I am an overweight, middle-aged, graying mother of two, wearing mom-jeans, a jersey, no bra, no make-up, and a claw-clip in my hair. I do not consider myself pretty or shapely, and I’m certainly not graceful. In social settings I tend to be introverted and reserved.

But I’ve done theatre, so I’m comfortable in front of people, and I’m not generally self-conscious about my body.

A body was needed. So I offered.

I’m so glad that I did.

It’s a lot harder than it looks to hold completely still for 5 or 10 minutes.

You want to give the artists a variety of interesting lines, shapes, and shadows to draw. So the first pose I selected was sitting and leaning forward with my hands clasped before me. By the end of 5 minutes, my elbows were shaking with the strain of holding the weight of my upper-body.

For another pose, I tilted my head back. To keep my gaze still, I focused on the fire alarm on the ceiling. If you stare at something long enough, it starts to grow and shrink or to dance around in circles. By the end of the first set of four 5 minute poses, my eyes were bugging.

But the physical difficulties aside, it was a wonderful experience.

It was amazing to have a roomful of strangers focused on trying to capture what you’ve given them to draw. To be a part of the collaboration between the artist and her sketch. To commit to helping make the drawings happen.

Even fully clothed there are so many situations in which we permit ourselves to become self-conscious because we feel scrutinized.

I’ve experienced this recently in my writing. I’ve been too aware of what others will think of the stories I write and how I write them. It’s the creative equivalent of being afraid everyone will think you look fat or ugly or stupid.

To let go of that and just be what I was and let others try to capture it in whatever way they saw it, was a high I rode for the rest of the day.

It was not a breakthrough or a liberation. It was another drop of water slowly eroding the glacier of my creative defensive block. It was one more experience reinforcing for me that it’s okay to write the stories I fear writing.

More importantly, it was an hour-and-a-half of my daughter seeing the woman she loves most in the world take and own a space without fear or self-consciousness. And that’s something every girl needs to see as often as possible.

Things I Learned In Art Class