Thursday, January 10, 2013

Poetry, musings, getting back to the page, and the absurdity of maturity

I had the fabulous good luck of hearing Billy Collins read his poetry yesterday at St. Mark's School of Texas, where I was subbing.  It was supremely awesome totally to use lots of adverbs.  It reminded me of how much I love poetry, or used to back in high school, when I allowed myself to bleed stupid on the page.  Before I learned that there were rules to art, when I was not afraid to be bad, or when the idea of "bad" didn't even occur to me.  When it was not a considered act of bravery, I Arted better, with freedom.  So here's to poetry. And getting back to it.  Perhaps I'll start posting some that inspires me.  Some of my own maybe.  I like the sound of it, shiny new, like a penny: 2013.

Child Development

As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs
and sauntered off the beaches into forests
working up some irregular verbs for their
first conversation, so three-year-old children
enter the phase of name-calling.

Every day a new one arrives and is added
to the repertoire. You Dumb Goopyhead,
You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor
(a kind of Navaho ring to that one)
they yell from knee level, their little mugs
flushed with challenge.
Nothing Samuel Johnson would bother tossing out
in a pub, but then the toddlers are not trying
to devastate some fatuous Enlightenment hack.

They are just tormenting their fellow squirts
or going after the attention of the giants
way up there with their cocktails and bad breath
talking baritone nonsense to other giants,
waiting to call them names after thanking
them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.

The mature save their hothead invective
for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,
or receding trains missed by seconds,
though they know in their adult hearts,
even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed
for his appalling behavior,
that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids,
their wives are Dopey Dopeheads
and that they themselves are Mr. Sillypants. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Altruism 101

 As a new member of the Vogel Alcove Auxiliary Board (which supports the Vogel Alcove, a daycare center for homeless children), I am the chair for Story Time: each Tuesday morning, a volunteer arrives at the Alcove and reads books to several groups of children.  

The first day of the program in September, I wasn't sure what I was in for.  I have to admit I was a little nervous and felt a bit ridiculous: being a theatre major, I arrived, of course, in full costume, dressed as "mama" bear (wearing a hat that has a bear head complete with teeth--I'm not clear on why my family owns this), toting "papa bear" (aka "Bubba Bear", borrowed from Jack) who is almost as big as I am, and a book about a family of bears who work together to make the first birthday special for baby bear.  

Each group came in—some shy, some bubbly, many happy, a couple crabby, a few mischievous.  They took their place on the carpet, sat crisscross applesauce, anticipating.  Some of the groups had nametags, and the children consistently delighted in being called by name.  They wanted to know my name, too. I read the story. (Yes, I used character voices; yes, it made them laugh).  At the end, when they figured out that it was baby bear's birthday, their eyes grew big. They liked to answer questions ("Which bear made the bread?"  "Grandpa Bear!!").  As each group left, they were uniformly entranced by my hat--some afraid to touch, others standing nearby until they got a close up. Several awarded me hugs.  One quiet little boy tugged on my sleeve, and said, "I love you".  

I arrived at the Vogel Alcove about 9:15, and I left at 10:45.  Walking to my car, all I could think was what better way could I have spent the last hour and a half?  Why haven’t I done that before?  It was easy; it was fun; it didn’t cost me anything.

In fact, these kids gave me something rare—a moment of silence to remember all I have.  On the drive home, I also felt sad, a little humbled.  Because these children who have suffered unimaginable losses require so little, light up just by hearing their name, listening to a story, and knowing someone cares about them.  You would think with all that has happened in their little lives' so far, they would withdraw, but it is largely the opposite.  They are open, in the beautiful way that kids are, waiting to be filled. All it takes is showing up. NO COSTUME/THEATER TRAINING/CHARACTER VOICES REQUIRED!! 

The only difference between these children and my own is luck.

So if you actually live in Dallas, here is what I ask of you:

1.) Visit the website and learn more about the 

2.) Learn about the Auxiliary and the good work we are doing supporting the Vogel Alcove.  Please consider joining for a $100 annual donation ($150 for couples).  The membership form can be found at

It is INCREDIBLY EASY!!  A CALENDAR IS RIGHT THERE, SHOWS YOU AVAILABLE DATES, AND ALL YOU DO IS SIGN UP.  There are also other fantastic programs, like Birthday Buddies (bringing presents/cake on children's birthdays) and MOMS (an acronym for Moms Supporting Other Moms, which pairs a volunteer with a parent transitioning out of the program).

Please call or email me with any questions, big and small.  Click on the link above and join now, and please let me know when you have done it!  Forward this to anyone you know who could use a little feel good in their life by serving these most deserving young people.

A LITTLE ALCOVE INFO:  Vogel Alcove serves a broad segment of the homeless population in Dallas by providing ree childcare and preschool for young children living in local homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and transitional housing program.  In a nurturing environment, the Alcove welcomes 115 homeless children, six weeks to five-years old, without regard to race, ethnicity, or religion.  Licensed by the State of Texas, the center operates year-round, Monday - Friday from 7am-6pm.  Without reliable and accessible free childcare, homeless parents with young children would be unable to seek or continue employment, complete an education, or attain permanent housing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why haven't I written on my blog in so long, you may ask?  (Or you could have been embroiled in any number of completely unrelated tasks, and the question never crossed your mind, not even half of once).  I can no longer blame summer, nor the beginning of school, the new school year, or even a new calendar year, because none apply, yet still my blog sits idly by, "Write on me, inconsistent owner!  Perfectionistic self-important blowhard!!  Write!!"  One of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard regarding writing was during a conference some years ago when a published somebody described, when asked, his "process" as this: ASS IN CHAIR.  So there you go.

Still life gets in the way.  And instead of just writing about life, which is sort of the point, and the only thing you can do anyway, I think I need to wait for an important epiphany or something noteworthy or catchy or adverbially profound-ish and then I'm doubting my  identity and it's been months.  And I whine to myself, "I haven't written in so long, what's the point..." and the inertia washes over and I feel, as Billy Crystal said in When Harry Met Sally, I'm option C. trapped under something heavy.  A strange ADD version of perfectionism.  So that's reason one.  

It's not that nothing worthy to be written and/or mulled over has happened in the last several months.  Quite the opposite.  My son has started a new private school, a big switch from our public school before, a decision over which I angsted ad naseum.  My daughter, physically delayed, now toddles across entire rooms, routinely yodeling "blue" "purple" "oh!" , "Hi!", "Yes!" and "Mama! Mama! Mama!"  She makes the most singularly perfect pig noise in existence.  She will howl like a wolf.  She likes to whisper, "Ssshhhhh!" with a very serious expression.  My husband and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.  I re-did our bedroom.  I avoided, plague-like, my novel, which screams to be finished already.  I attended an awesome conference in Houston: I started writing on my novel again.

I have had many questions/emotions/ flood me as my son embarks on a totally different academic/social journey.  But I have stopped short of writing about it: the hope, fear, thrill that comes with watching my child go through an enormous transition.  Because "watch" is the key.  I cannot do it for him.  (The older my children get, I realize what I thought I had control over and what I actually have control over and the answer is squat.) So much to write about.  Too much.  

But still, I find myself befuddled over this blog thing.  What is mine to write about?  It's happening in my son's life, right?--does this grant ownership?  He's a minor.  No one wants to think they are using their children for literary fodder.  But I go back and forth back and as of yet have not landed on what is fitting (or not) to include in my musings when it involves other people, particularly my family.  It's not like this is fiction and I'm creating ingenious varied profiles.  These are my real life characters.  

Being sturdily American, I also loathe the suggestion that I am egocentric (presumably because I am so egocentric).  I am sensitive to the questions that some writer and some not writer friends  have posed to me about publishing what is considered "memoir".  It's said like a dirty word, like "lice"--"memoir"!  "Isn't that like publishing your diary?"  "I could never do that."  One person suggested writing about your children without their "consent" (which can only be given when they are old enough to understand what they are actually consenting to) would be "whoring" her children.  Ouch.  So that's reason two.

To recap, not only am I a lazy procrastinator, I'm also conflicted.

But I've been doing my own private research to address this conundrum because I care about it.  I have come to a preliminary conclusion that, like most things, there is not one right true answer.  But there's probably a fairly clear answer for me, in the particulars of my situation.

For me, the following quote from writer Dani Shapiro (a supreme writer and memoirist whom I had the pleasure of studying with in Positano back in 2007) clarifies some of what is murky:

    "One can't write with abandon if one is worrying about the consequences.  And to have children is to always, always worry about the consequences. From the time my son was an infant, I became aware that he hadn’t asked for a mother who is a writer. Up until then, the people in my life — parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, friends — had felt like fair game. If I was going to be hardest on myself, then, well, they were grown-ups; they could handle it. But if I was going to write about my son, I was going to have to be very, very careful. And as any writer will tell you, careful has no place in making art. My atavistic desire to protect my child (against myself!) was at odds with my creative desire to write from an internal landscape that now included him, one which had been forever altered by his birth.Every memoirist makes her own set of rules to write and to live by, and in these 12 years, the strictest rule to which I have adhered has been this: Before I have written anything about my son, I have asked myself whether I could imagine him turning to me some day, and saying, I wish you hadn’t told that story about me. But of course the boy I know today has not yet grown into the man he will someday become. Right now, he likes the fact that he sometimes appears in my work. He has read my most recent memoir, “Devotion,” though in truth I think he’s skimmed it for his own name. He thinks it’s cool when I mention him in an interview. (He would enjoy being written about in this essay, though I have no intention of showing it to him.) But he may not always feel this way, and so I can’t possibly know; all I can do is try to protect his privacy while not censoring myself to the point of muteness. Certainly I can imagine him saying, I wish you hadn’t told that story about yourself. But as a writer, my inner life is my only instrument. I understand the world only by my attempts to shape my experience on the page. Then, and only then, do I know what I think, feel, believe. Without these attempts (the word essay derives from “attempt”) I am lost."--Dani Shapiro

Joan Didion puts another spin on it: 

 "In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. Its an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasionswith the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but theres no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writers sensibility on the readers most private space.
 All I knew was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.
By which I mean not a "good" writer or a "bad" writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hourse are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?"--Joan Didion

Aren't they good?!  I'm still working this out obviously. Part of the truth for me right now is, my kids and family remain my truest deepest wellspring of inspiration and a simultaneous gray area.  A Catch-22 in action.  So at present, instead of avoiding my blog for fear of selling out my family, I will tread lightly, slapping it together gently piecemeal as I go.  What I've come to know for sure is this: the very act of writing through something often reveals it to me.  Taking what is chaotic and structuring it into story helps me understand its meaning, like working backwards, not understanding the "theme" or the "lesson" to the story until I'm finished writing it.  I don't write it to ellucidate the meaning--I write it to find it.  Maybe I am a narcissistic reality TV fool hiding behind the cultured veil of the tag 'literary'.  But even if that's true, my silent friends--I know you are out there, I can hear you breathing--I cannot be like some Pixar Andrew Stanton created Wall-E.  I am not on this cold trash techno planet alone.  Climb aboard, comrades.  I offer no answers,  just a buoyant ride.  

Writing.  I like it.  As Gloria Steinem once put it, "Writing is the only thing, that when I'm doing it, I don't feel like I should be doing something else." Keyboard as voice, virtual arm, pat on the back, encouragement in what is almost always an uncertain time.  Connection.  At least the attempt at one.  We don't get grades out of grade school, but what would your grade be for being IN IT be right now, do you think?  Are you standing on the outside?  Or do you understand that the notion of safety, taken to extremes, is more deadly, quietly epidemic, than any virus?  To put it in Wall-E speak--are you willing to utter "EEEEEEVVVVVAAAAAAAA!!" without worrying how stupid you might sound?  I am.  Today I believe that is all there is.