Friday, April 18, 2014

Goodbye Sweet Lady

Auntie Kris 

This is how I will remember you: Sitting at the bonfire on an August night, the stars in the sky like sparks thrown from your hands, scattered. Your face tanned and narrow and eyes lit with flame. Your easy laughter, your quick love, your stubborn insistence on the rightness of the world. 

There you are on the deck with a book spread open in your lap and Grandma is coming out the door, coffee in hand. You are standing behind the sauna splitting wood, you are sitting in your corner spot, sweating buckets of sweat, yelling, “Throw another blast on, Trish.” You are diving off the end of the dock and swimming under water as far as your lungs will let you, and when you surface you’re half way to the point. You roll on your back and breathe, floating, before your young, beautiful body swims you to shore. You were always half-fish. We all were.

This is how I will remember you: Laughing, holding your sister, singing in your twin off-note voices, “Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters...” while Grandma shakes her head and lights another cigarette and us girls—all piled onto the couch together—squeal with laughter.

This is how I will remember you: Driving that damn red car you told me you loved because “it was all payed off,” my first and perhaps only lesson on money. There are five or six or seven of us girls crammed into the back seat and you and your sister, my mother, are singing something again, and Grandma is telling you to shut-up and we are laughing. Our heads are tied with scarves and our nobby knees are smushed together—a dozen bruises and scratches between us. And you’ll berry-pick until Karissa and I lay down in the grass and claim we’re dead, until Grandma storms off to the car, until the little ones fall asleep in the grass. Later, in the cool of a rainy afternoon you’ll make jar after jar of jam, enough to keep you through the winter because you know come February you’ll need the taste of summer on your morning toast.

This is how I will remember you: Your grandbabies on your lap, in your arms, at your side. Your hands busy sewing quilts and blankets and bags and dresses because your art was given in love. Because giving something was important. And I will remember the poet auntie who wrote of raising her children, of her own childhood, of her Icelandic heritage, of her marriage. I will remember the student who loved Shakespeare classes and wanted to be an English teacher. 

Kris with her dad. 

I will remember the crazy lady that you were; a woman perhaps that never quite fit into the confines of her time. A woman who wanted to travel and write and read and sew and shop and love everyone, but who most of all wanted to be with her family at Burnt Shanty Lake every summer. 

I will remember the books you put into your hands and read year after year until they changed you and the day you promised me five dollars if I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and when I did I understood you a little better. I will remember the years when you ate sunflower seeds all day, spitting the seeds onto a paper plate at the cabin, and the peanuts you ate only after breaking them and two and removing the little "santa clause" from the middle. I will remember the pies and the cakes and the cookies you made because as your daughter would say, sometimes we need to "feed the soul." 

How proud you were of me for studying English and for writing. How proud you were of yourself when you studied and wrote and planned a different future. There were the times you drove me crazy, the times I wanted to scream at you. But then you were there in front of me laughing and telling your stories and making jokes and calling us all honey, and I couldn't stay mad for long. 

My mom, Trish; Kris; Dick; Bob

I will remember your hands and your feet and the slope of your shoulders as you walked down the road, away, away lost in your own world. I will remember the way you daydreamed and loved and believed in all of us. I will remember your courage in the face of death and your refusal to give up your life. I will remember your passion. I will remember the way you believed their was good in us all. Every one of us. 

This is how I will remember you, with your blond hair and your tanned skin in the heart of summer, sitting in peace, quiet and alone, listening and watching and knowing the things you knew, the secrets like tiny poems that shattered in your lap, in your hands, from your lips and disappeared. Fleeting, as always, the world. Beauty like shadow at dusk on an August night when the echo of voices ring the loudest and the children are still splashing in the lake, unwilling to come in for the night, to give up the water and find their beds and their sweet, sweet dreams. And you always and you, will be there in that dusk light--the best light of day--the easy hour when the day is nearly done and our hearts are full, our minds ready, when dreams come easy. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Fragmented -- My Writing Process Blog Tour

This is my contribution to the My Writing Process Blog Tour

What am I working on now? 

I have to follow Robin MacArthur's lead and report that I am working on growing a baby, raising a two-year-old, making a living in Vermont through teaching and odd jobs, as well as a collection of essays roughly titled The Alchemy of Shadow: Essays on loss and longing. I also work periodically on short stories which I hope will come together in a collection I currently call Motherland. 

How does my work differ from others in the genre? 

The essays I write are lyrical and meditative. Often when I read them out loud listeners think I am reading poetry. I have battled against my love or laziness towards abstraction, in attempts to create clear, concrete, and vivid prose. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn't. My writing has always rooted itself in landscape and the way the land around us speaks to us, shapes us, keeps us and takes us. In much of the essay work I've done in recent years I find myself focused on memory, time, and the fractured nature of things. Fragmented. Everything I write begins as fragmented. Most of what I write has to do with longing.

Why do you write what you do?

There have been central conflicts in my life. Mostly these are internal but they also have to do with certain people that I've battled with on a sort of psychic terrain. People I love. Virginia Woolf wrote that after she finished "To The Lighthouse" she was no longer "obsessed" with her deceased mother. She no longer heard her voice or felt her presence. She wrote her mother's ghost out of her. I have experienced this. I don't know that I would have ever begun writing if it weren't for the way my father and I fought when I was young. Writing was an outlet them. A secret. The conflict is a type of force in one's life, not so much the subject matter of the writing. I also might have been a painter if I hadn't needed to keep my art a secret.

Like most writers I am deeply fascinated with the human condition. I like to ask my students to define the human condition. They have all sorts of intelligent things to say about it, better answers than I could come up with most of the time. Then I draw a stick figure on the board and put an X through it. This is the human condition. That we will end and we don't know when or how. Everything we do, I think, revolves around this reality though we pretend otherwise.

My obsession with memory arises from my belief that we live mostly in and of and through memory. All day long we are living at the cusp of memory. We float between our to do list and the lustful stream of memory and imagination (perhaps they are the same thing). Often I look at my son and think, remember this, Emily. Even as a child I ordered myself to remember things, such as what it was like to be a child, which of course I promptly forgot.

What is your writing process?

I try to write something (even a sentence) every day. Blogging helps me feel like I'm writing even when I don't have the time to work on my projects. It can also spark ideas; a lot of essays have grown out of blog posts. My ideal writing process is to get up in the morning and write for 3 hours and then get on with the day. But that doesn't happen right now. I put a lot of time into the two classes I teach and I'm pretty much a full-time mom with a bit of weekly childcare and a good husband who will spend all weekend with our son if I need the work time. But I need time with my family in order to feel happy and sane.

I think I have chosen to focus on essays because they are (for me) written in bits and pieces. I am working on perfecting the idea of the fragmented essay, whatever that is. I do like to have some submersion time with an essay but I mostly work on them during nap time which is anywhere between 45 minutes to 2 hours, for a few hours on the weekends when I'm not overloaded with classwork, or if I'm really desperate (often) while my son is watching terrible, terrible TV on youtube.

Something I've learned about myself, however, is that I prefer to work on essays or stories in bits and pieces for a while before I sit with the work as a whole. Looking at it in its entirety feels overwhelming. Honing the language and the story to its bare essentials before looking helps me.

When I'm writing stories I go through many, many drafts that are often vastly different. I sometimes think I prefer to start over than to do the hard nitty gritty of a revision--a fault that has left me with about a dozen unfinished stories and only a few that I consider finished.

I'm passing this tour along to Sarah Seltzer, Brian Bieber, Laurie Easter, Lauren Baldwin, and Michelle Webster-Hines if they haven't already joined in!! Answer the four questions on your blog.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On the First of April

The sun arrives with the first of April. I spend the morning playing Legos, folding laundry, sending emails, reprimanding my son for climbing on top of the heater to look out the window and laugh at the two squirrels wildly chasing each other. We search for a toy horse, "tiny horse," then a car, "red car." He tells me, "I like hummus and beans and lunch and elephants," and then "I am just a little boy."

Later, his friend is coming to make cookies with him and as we discuss this he says, "So and so eat cookies and get fat." Ugh, I think. "No, no, no... cookies don't..." but what should I say? "Make you fat..."?  I say, "Cookies are good." And he says, "Yeah, Mama, cookies good." Our chatter goes on all day. We go outside and he runs down the street. This is funny to me because he just takes off running and for a while doesn't stop. Well, he doesn't stop until he sees a puddle. He sees a puddle and stomps in it. Puddles are his favorite outdoor thing right now. Next, it will be mud, though he doesn't like when his hands get sticky.

We sit at night and I tell him to talk to baby. Baby is growing in my belly, four months along. He says, "Hi baby, how ya doing?" He places his head on my belly button. We read books. We snuggle until he falls asleep. I leave him in his "Mosey bed."

Instant shift

The baby is growing and making me tired. The sun is finally close. Spring mud and then summer. The days are fragmented... I steal time to write when I should be grading papers and creating lessons. I steal time to daydream when I should be revising essays or working on grant applications. I steal time to sit and watch Moses when I should be doing laundry, cleaning, organizing and doing any number of things around the apartment that desperately need getting done. I steal time against time and know that the stolen moments are what keep me.

Instant Shift

I'm working on completing a collection of essays about loss and longing. These two forces seem to rule my life. It's not that I've "suffered" a lot of loss. It's more about what is given up in order to fulfill one's longings. At least, this is what it's about for me now. Although, when I started work on these essays, I think loss and longing meant something different to me.

More than anything I want to steal away to a cabin by the ocean or in the woods beside a stream and work on this project. But --more than anything-- I wanted to have a second child sooner rather than later. I am pushed and pulled in various directions by longing. Nothing forces you out of yourself as much as a child, especially a two-year-old.

Photo Source

Listening, listening for spring. To smell the cold warming, the mud and the first new life, is to feel fully alive in a way that I never understood as a younger person. In Vermont, as in many northern places, people go wild with spring.

I am thinking of the baby in me and wondering who he or she will become. I am thinking of her body fattening and willing her to swim down, head first, and not be breach like her brother. I think she is a girl, but I don't know and I won't know until she arrives in September.