Lena and Mama and cigarettes and beer

L and M

It’s hard to write during a pandemic.  I am skipping days.  The deaths are getting closer.  A student’s grandmother.  A scholar I met last fall at a conference and have known in an online forum for years.  A lovely, generous, compassionate and learned man.

But I will try L and M.

Lena and Mama.  Lena is stuck here during the pandemic.  She came to help us move and her employer, who provides her housing, is making it difficult for her to return.  So we both zoom and work from home.  I like having her here; my apocalyptic visions as I raised my two children always involved scenarios in which I was separated from my children and had to find my way back to them.  They were little in these visions and I worried, but how they are grown and I know where they are.  Liza is with a wonderful family who are taking good care of her (even today, her 20th birthday).  And Lena and Scott and I are settling into our new smaller space.  It’s also cleaner and newer and we got rid of a lot of junk, so it feels nice.  I like hanging out at home, so I can forget about the pandemic from time to time.  But I don’t like working from home, zoom meetings, zoom classes, grading online.  I am at the computer far too much every day.  It’s making me more committed to reading physical books, but still.  It’s hard.  As it is for all of us, and I remember to be grateful that I have a steady paycheck.  I got my contract for next year in the mail yesterday.  More security.  We are lucky.

During these weeks, Lena has told a story, twice, once to me and once to Scott in my earshot, that I find peculiar.  She says she remembers the exact moment she switched from calling us Mommy and Daddy to Mama and Dada.  In her mind, at 7 or 8, Mommy and Daddy were babyish and Mama and Dada were not.  She says she was in the hammock and she called me Mama, and then she said, “Did you hear that?  I called you Mama instead of Mommy,” and I said, “Okay.”  I vaguely remember such a thing, and I remember fleetingly wondering why she had switched.  To me, Dada is something toddlers say before they can put together more varied syllables.  But to Lena, it was a moment of being more of a big kid.

Kids’ minds are so peculiar.

Another riff on L&M’s.

My dad smoked L&M’s, and my mom and I would buy them by the carton at Heinen’s, our local grocery store in Shaker Heights.  My mom would ask me to retrieve them from a low shelf in the checkout line.  I liked the sleek packaging, the simple red and white with a hint of gold, the long lines of the L and the M.  I must have absorbed some TV commercial telling me that smoking was sophisticated, back when TV aired cigarette commercials.

I only have one other specific memory of shopping inside Heinen’s.  (I remember the outside, with the numbered tags on our car window and on the cart we left for a grocery boy to wheel to our car and unload—and picking the number tags on the way out of the store.  Childhood wonder imbues the most mundane of items with magic—the large oval tag that hooked onto the cart, the smaller round tag for our window, both dark red with white numbers concave in the nubby rubber covering on the plastic tags.)  That other memory is shopping with my father, his first time after the motor scooter accident he and my mother were in that nearly killed them both.  She was still stuck on the couch in a cast, but he was able to walk again after three weeks in traction.  And he bought a 12-pack of beer.  I can see the red and white packaging over the stout brown bottles, shoddy cardboard and rough design, nothing like the sleek L&M’s.  I don’t remember the brand, but I remember the sudden sick feeling in my stomach that spread throughout my body, knowing he was going to drink again.  And I remember his encouraging smile, trying to get me to go along.  That feeling of powerlessness.

L and M for Lena and Mama is a much nicer story, for me, and I hope I’ve given that to her.  Oh, I know I have.

L&M

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K is for Knoxes

Kerro and I grew up playing cards, board games, pick up sticks, barrel of monkeys, you name it.  We are the two youngest siblings of four, and our older sisters weren’t that interested.  We were intensely competitive, which sucked for me, since I am younger.  A favorite story is the day Kerro punched me in the mouth while we were playing Junior Executive, and I ripped his fist open with my braces.  We don’t come to blows anymore, and he found Junior Executive on eBay and sent it to me, early enough that I could enjoy it with my own children.

He is about to call me for a game of Settlers of Catan.  He is setting up the board and his laptop focused on the board, my cards in a holder so he can’t see them.  We will play via Google Meet (Google Meat, as we prefer to dub it).  I will roll my own dice, but he has to do all the other work.

We are over 60, but we are kids.  Whatever.  It’s a pandemic.

an hour or so later

We split two games of Settlers. My neck started to hurt from craning at the screen, but my neck hurts when we play in person too.

Along with my sister Fanny, Kerro is a middle child, sandwiched between youngest me and oldest Isabella.  Fanny and Kerro don’t make waves.  They adapt.  They conciliate.  They leave the drama for me and Isabella.  Mostly me.

That’s in the present tense, but I have tired of hogging the drama, so sometimes I delegate it to others.  Not to Kerro and Fanny though.

It’s Fanny’s birthday today.  She is a senior citizen, 65, and I am sure that I am lying when I write that.  Now I am living that cliché of being a young person in an older person’s body.  I hang onto the young feisty me, even though I love naps.  Well, I have always loved naps, but I need them more now.

Fanny, like Isabella, recently became a grandmother.  She lives across town from her new granddaughter Rei, but of course she cannot go see her.  She facetimes with her every day though.

Everything is surreal, getting older, the pandemic, facetiming like the Jetsons.

Scan-005

Christmas 1961.

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J is for June and July

My birthday is the first day of June, the first day of what you might as well call summer, so what if it’s technically late spring, school is out or almost out, everything is green, you can wear shorts and a t-shirt, and summer stretches out ahead like eternity.  Irises peak, sure they started in May, but every year on my birthday they’re all in bloom, showing off, purple yellow mauve blue pink peach bearded crested dutch they’re everywhere.

And school’s over and things slow down and soon it’ll be warm enough to swim and lie in the sun and swim again.  Everyone smiles because winter is over and we have time off and we relax, maybe travel a little, to the mountains, to the ocean, and it gets hotter and then it’s July.

And summer is in full force but still plenty of time left of warm, July is right in the middle and we’re swimming every day and stretching out on the grass and the hum of crickets and the purr of lawnmowers and the smell of clean and plants and warm porch wood.  The air might sit for a bit but then a breeze comes and swirls away the mosquitoes and the crickets and the peepers keep up their endless song and July, yes, that’s when summer really sets in and we relax and take it in.

Right now it’s April and the buds haven’t popped yet but soon they will and an explosion of color in May and I hold my breath for June and endless July.

This year might be different.  We may need to stay in, or go out gingerly, six feet apart, faces covered.  What will July be like with a mask.  What will June be like inside.  We don’t know anything.  We only know that today we stayed inside, tomorrow we will too, and news will trickle in, wear a mask, don’t, go shopping infrequently, get delivery, wash your hands wash your hands wash your hands and stay home.

In June?  In July?  While the trees get green and lush and the crickets sing and the irises burst and fade?  Stay indoors?

Sit on the porch and sing to the neighbors.  We can at least do that, if we have a porch.

And we can wash our hands, but we can’t wash our hands of this.  We can wash our hands and keep washing our hands in June and July and this, this pandemic, makes prediction impossible, except there will be green and heat and irises, maybe not swimming.  There will be dying amid the green and the crickets and the mosquitoes.  And we will wash our hands.

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I is for Isabella

(appropriate because today is sibling day, according to Facebook)

Isabella had me in her thrall for the first six years of my life, maybe longer.  I was honored when she allowed me in her presence.  My vision of us as kids is her sitting on her red flowered bedspread, her long legs crossed, and me running to get her a book, a snack, a cat.  I was thrilled to be of use.

One day, though, the magic ended.  For her.  She opened with her usual, “Alice, will you do me a favor?” and instead of my usual eager yes, I said, with a hint of suspicion in my voice, “What is it?”  The jig was up.  I was no longer her handmaiden.

I don’t know what made me suddenly decide to question her requests.  Maybe our brother, two years older than me, teased me for being at her beck and call.  Or maybe my days of needing to run for the majority of my waking hours were waning.  Maybe I wanted to lie languid on her other twin bed, in her pink room, reading Betty and Veronica.

Isabella still has me in her thrall.  She is tall and beautiful, one of the smartest people I know.  She recently came out of retirement to work part-time again as a neonatologist, just before the pandemic.  So here she is, not far from the front lines, working in a hospital again.  She keeps tiny babies alive.  Our sister Fanny met someone on a plane once whose child Isabella had saved, and the woman showered Fanny with gratitude just for being Isabella’s sister.

She is the oldest child, and she worried about us, maybe especially me, as the youngest.  I didn’t know this as a small child, only that I could count on her.

Our parents had another child before Isabella, Elizabeth, or Lizzie.  Lizzie died when she was three months old in her crib.  I didn’t realize until a friend told me that Isabella is the Spanish version of Elizabeth.  I don’t know if my parents did that on purpose; my father’s Argentinian grandmother was named Isabella.  Lizzie’s ghost has haunted Isabella, and seems to have pushed her into the business of saving babies.

But to me, Isabella is her own person, separate from Lizzie.  She is a gifted doctor, singer, mother, and just recently, a grandmother.  She is my big sister who let me play with her, even when I must have been a bit of a bore.  She is my first hero.

izalbeach2

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FGH Pandemic

F is for Fuck it

G is for God make it stop

H is for when the Hell will this be over?

Early in the shelter at home phase I had two homes and was busily packing up one and moving to the other.  I went out and was very busy every day, though I was “home” most of the time (our two places were ten minutes apart).  Now we are fully in the new place, and sure, I could unpack more, but I’m exhausted, and I’m back at work having multiple Zoom meetings a day, prepping for online instruction, responding to students, and realizing I have jowels and a much looser neck than I ever noticed before.  Sure, I could spend time on better lighting or wear turtlenecks, but I can’t be bothered.  I don’t love looking at myself talk, but whatever.

Pandemic times are getting real, so fuck it.  I’ve had a hard few days.

G is for fucking Gratitude also.

Glad I have a dog that needs a walk every day.

Glad I found a cool dingy little park on the site of a canal built in 1795.  Canal Park, South Hadley.

Glad it’s spring though it’s fucking cold.

Glad my parents don’t have to see the shitshow our country has become, though I would also love to hear my mother’s insights.  She would be able to take an intellectual interest in it all and give me a lens I hadn’t thought of to see it through.

Glad for Zoom even though it’s driving home how old I look/am.

Glad my family is not sick.

Glad I do not have small children.  Props to all who are coping with this.

Glad my grandniece and grandnephew have such fabulous parents to stay home with them and glad I get photo and video updates on the regular.

Glad for social media and feeling connected virtually.

Glad for cursing.  It helps.

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E is for Eliza

My inveterate journal keeping seems to have been passed down to my younger daughter.  In our recent move, I sorted through lots of stuff (SO MUCH STUFF) and found many pieces of art and writing by my children.  My favorite is Eliza (now Liza)’s journal from first grade.  She had a fabulous and inspiring teacher that year named Miss Mackenzie.  In this journal, Liza chronicles events of the year that she may not remember now, but I am pleased to have my memory jogged, since my own journal keeping has become erratic.  Every entry comes complete with illustrations.  The spelling is insane, in a delightful way:  icsitid is excited, bab is dad, rilly is really, osme is awesome—you get the idea.  But damn, that girl is expressive.  What strikes me is the dedication to record, which I had and have myself.  Maybe the journal is not as compelling to readers not her mother.  But I will transcribe one entry anyway.  Perfect punctuation, I note.

Last nite I wact my Dog in the felld. Thar was SO many clovrs. I junpt in them and from far awal it lookt like wite grass!  OR some peple spillt a lot of Pant Bakits on the grass.

Translation:  Last night I walked my dog in the field.  There were SO many clovers.  I jumped in them and from far away it looked like white grass!  Or some people spilled a lot of paint buckets on the grass.

Liza will be 20 in less than two weeks.  I see the little girl in the young woman, kaleidoscoping back through all the girls she has been.  She is a terrific writer, and now an almost perfect speller.  She is busy tonight writing a paper that’s due at midnight, so couldn’t talk when I called her.  She has been pandemicking with a college friend in upstate New York.  We miss her, but rereading her first grade journal keeps her close.

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D is for Damn it

I have been a slave to Facebook for a decade now, and have often thought I should pull back, but I never actually do.  I check it multiple times a day.  At first it was kittens and babies and reuniting with elementary school friends, but it didn’t take long for Facebook to become my repository for political news.  My like-minded friends would lead me to articles about whatever was in the news at the time—binders full of women, Bernie, Hillary, and now coronavirus.

I get nervous when I see pictures of famous people I admire on Facebook, especially if they’re older, because Facebook is where I seem to find out about deaths:  David Bowie, Prince, and now victims of SARS-CoV-2.  One particular friend captions the deaths he announces with “Damn it” or sometimes, “Damn it.  Just damn it.”

D is also for death.

I dearly hope that we are truly in late capitalism, and it is in its death throes.  I don’t know enough about political science to predict or even understand other people’s predictions, but has inequality ever been so obvious?  Can we ever really go back to a society that privileges business interests over human lives?  I mean, go back—we are still there, but more and more people are seeing that it just ain’t working.

I am very glad for Facebook now, despite its problems and culpability in getting us to this place.  I feel so fond of my network of friends.  I love when the posts of my bird-loving and -posting friends who have never met end up following each other in my feed.  (OK, it’s not all politics.)  I am so grateful to have this network in place.  And truth to tell, I like sitting around in my pajamas or pajama-like clothes all day.

It’s gonna get scary.  The deaths are going to get closer.  Someone we love is going to get sick.  Some will die.  I wonder how naïve I will feel at the end of April, when this blogging challenge ends.  Things will look very different, no matter what.

Damn it.

rarebird

Resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) from Costa Rica.

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C is for Canoe

Star

 

In a canoe at night

my grown-up daughter

takes the stern

her J-stroke confident.

 

In the middle

we rest our paddles.

The quiet fills with crickets

and the small lapping of waves.

 

We crane at the stars till

our necks won’t let us.

 

She sighs.

I hear smiling

in her breath.

 

I want to say something

about the stars, lovely

and too close for June.

 

I point to a corner of sky.

A shooting star

skims a shower down

and we gasp together.

 

We drift.

The canoe rotates

back to the house.

 

Over our shoulders

we feel the shimmery

fall of a dying star.

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*This is a rewrite of a poem I posted a few posts back, July 2018.

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B2 Backwards

The theme of this month’s blogging challenge is Backwards and Forwards, because I like to look back and make sense of things, and I want to push myself to look ahead with hope instead of dread.  Hard to do in a pandemic, sure, but I do see lots of lovely side benefits, people making masks all day long (unlike me), friendly waves to and from strangers on my daily dog walks, a reassurance from a Craig’s List person that when he comes to pick up our refrigerator, he will be wearing a mask and gloves.  All these deaths are awful, but disaster also shows us what we are capable of.

It seems I am talking about now, not the past or the future.  Maybe by forward I mean having the will to keep going.  Thinking about the future is so abstract.  I lose interest quickly.  Toni Morrison said in an interview once that the past is infinite, and the future—she just shrugged and gave her knowing laugh.

Back words.

Take back words.  Sometimes we want to do this when we say something awful.  Even if they’re not written down, if someone heard them and understood them, we can’t take them back.  I have a notebook from sixth grade with several pages erased.  It was a story I wrote about a new girl at school.  I was a new girl at school that year, and I was supposed to be moving things forward in school integration:  I was bussed from my predominantly white school to a predominantly black school.  But it wasn’t going well.  I felt guilty for not making this experiment smooth and easy.  Guilty enough to erase my story, and then I wrote over some of it.  But I mean to look again at the erased words, take them back, see that story I was ashamed of telling, and see what I couldn’t face that hard year.

For words.

I am all for words.  My profession and my pleasure are all bound up in words.  How lovely that we can keep playing with words and find new configurations in which to use them, to give nuance to a familiar idea and make it a little less familiar, and little more new.  To move forward.  For words.

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B1 Alice Backwards

Excerpt from my memoir Look Her in the Eye

I am sitting at my typewriter in an empty theatre, on the edge of the playing area.  This building was once a gymnasium, and I can barely see the ceiling, the warm brown rafters blurring beyond the stage lights.  It is 5 a.m.  I have been typing all night, and I have come to an ending for my play, which will be performed in this makeshift theatre-in-the-round space in a few weeks.  The acoustics are terrible, but a certain intimacy is possible within the four sets of risers set in a square to delineate the stage.  I feel a lifting up as my typewriter clicks out my last line and I come to the end of my story.

I am writing about my best friend, far away in Japan with her new baby, and how we became close over time and distance.  I don’t really understand how long distance phone calls work.  This is pre-internet and I imagine miles and miles of telephone poles, circling the globe across oceans and mountains, from Iowa to Kyoto, our voices chiming together on steel thin as thread.  I am enamored of this image, steel thin as thread, and use it for the title of this draft of the play, the third title and fifth or sixth draft so far.  I think of my friend, late afternoon in Japan, wearing her baby on her front as she chops scallions for miso soup.

I imprint this blissful moment on my memory:  the satisfaction of coming to the end of a story, the feeling that I’ve captured something delicate with a lovely metaphor.  All night I have been alone in this theatre, shooting out page after page of dialogue, my typewriter perched on a prop table, plugged into an extension cord winding down the aisle between two sets of risers.  I stare at the last page in my hands, fresh from the typewriter, and smile to myself.  I believe in my story.  Even in that moment of belief, I know that I will inevitably waver and doubt, but for now, I love my characters and my metaphor.

I make copies of my new draft and distribute them at rehearsal the next day, giddy from lack of sleep and from that delicious feeling of completion.  My director, Keiko, is enthusiastic and gets right to work putting the actors into new configurations around my words.  I see slight frowns on the faces of some of the actors as they consider the revised story.  I slump against the wall in exhaustion, leaving it to Keiko to guide the actors through.

A few days later, I sit in the basement office of the director of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, Bob.  He stares down at my draft, doesn’t speak or look at me, and my anxiety mounts.  I feel a churning inside, rising sour heat.  From the future, I want to reach in and grab my 24-year-old self and get her out of there.

Bob finally speaks.  “What is happening in this play?  Two girls make friends, and one of them moves to Japan.  That isn’t a story.”

At first, I sit in shock.  What is he saying?  I struggle to keep my voice calm.  “I’m exploring different kinds of relationships.  The two friends travel together and meet the Somali woman and her Irish boyfriend.  Ellie talks to a Geisha in Japan about pleasing men.  It’s about women—“

“It isn’t about anything.  This isn’t a play, it’s a journal entry.”

“I don’t think you understand my aesthetic—“

“You have to give them some conflict.  Why aren’t they lovers?  Then the Japan one, Elaine or whatever, her moving away will have some bite.”

“I’m writing about friendship, not a love relationship.”

“That’s just not a very dramatic premise.  Take all those international characters they meet and do something with them.  A coup or something.  Your poetic language won’t work on the stage.  You don’t seem to get it.”

Tears come to my eyes, to my horror.  I shouldn’t speak, but I do anyway.  “You don’t seem to get it.  You aren’t even trying to understand what I’m trying to do.”  My voice breaks, and the tears escape.  I can feel my eyes swelling, which makes me furious, which makes me cry more.  Bob still hasn’t made eye contact with me.  He sits at his desk, leafing through the pages of my manuscript, waving them in the air.

“This isn’t a play.  There’s no action.  You can’t rely on these sweet, intimate feelings between these two girls to keep your audience interested.”

I long ago gave up correcting him when he called my characters “girls” instead of “women.”  I choke on my sobs, intent only on getting out of Bob’s office as soon as possible. Bob continues his critique, his slight begrudging tone the only acknowledgment that I am crying in his presence.  I murmur something and am finally released.  In the hallway, I sob freely.

After a while, I wipe my eyes and prepare to leave.  One of my fellow playwrights, a British man named Gordon, comes by.  He says sympathetically, “Crying in Bob’s office, eh.”

“He’s such a dick.”

“Mmm.”

“He doesn’t understand my work at all.”  I sniff, embarrassed.

“No.”  Gordon considers.  He’d praised the play I’d had staged the previous semester.  He is an adult, in his 30’s, married with three children.  He says, “I think your work might be better accepted in England.”

“Really?”

“Yah.  This focus on realism here in the states—well, it’s got its merits, but there are a lot of ways a play can be a play.”

“Thanks for saying that.”  I wipe my face.  “I wish he didn’t get to me so much.”

Gordon shrugs.  “He’s a bully.  I’m next!”

“Good luck,” I say.  Gordon will be fine.  His plays are Monty Python-esque, over-the-top farces with policemen named P.C. Butts and Corporal Cunt.  But it’s nice to have his support.

Later that week, at a party at Bob’s house, I drink fast.  I scowl at the raucous scene, growing more and more morose.  Bob sits in a winged chair, acolytes at his feet, holding forth.

Another playwright, one of Bob’s favorites, approaches me and asks, “Did you write in your diary today?”

I start.  “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”  I turn away from him and pour myself another drink.

He chortles.  “Nothing, nothing.  It’s just—Alice.  Your play.”

My hand shakes and I grip my glass, restraining myself from tossing its contents into his face.  “I don’t want to talk about my play.”

“It’s like scenes from your diary.  It’s so sweet.”  He pauses.  “It’s just not dramatic.”

“Did you fucking talk to BOB about my fucking PLAY?  Who the fuck do you think you ARE?”  I scream at him, shredding my vocal chords.  “BOB is talking to you about my PLAY?”  I storm away, but Bob’s house is small.  I am dimly aware of him looking sideways from his chair.  I go outside.

I don’t want to write a play with a gun in it.  All the other playwrights, even the only other woman, have guns in their plays.  Violence is easy.

An actor named Phil comes out, an undergraduate, a strapping Iowa farm boy.  He has a small part in my play, and has heard me talk with Keiko about my struggles.  He exudes health and good will.  “You okay?”

“No.  I’m not.”  My voice is hoarse.

“He’s an idiot.”

“It’s true.  And I am very drunk.”  I down the rest of my drink.  “Ha!  Fuck them all.”

“Let me drive you home.”

“Sure.  Whatever.  Could you get my coat?  It’s green, on Bob’s bed.”

“I’ll be right back.”  I hand him my empty glass and he returns to the house.

I wait in the cold.  I long for a hot toddy to soothe my throat.  Phil walks me to my car, takes my keys.  His girlfriend Kira comes too.  She plays the main character in my play, Lisa.  Alice backwards.

“We can walk home from your house,” she says.  They are too nice.  I don’t want to cry.  At my apartment, they park my car and walk me to my door.  I give them a weak wave.  “Thanks, guys.”  They have already turned away.  They snuggle against each other in the crisp Iowa night and head to their dorm.

Sick from alcohol, I drink long glasses of water, then the thing I’d been avoiding all night makes me breathless:  maybe Bob is right.  Maybe I am not really a playwright.  I jump up and down and shake my hands, muttering “Nooooo!”  Bob has all the power.  Not only is he the only playwriting professor, he is the chair of the Theatre Department.  His criticism makes me lose sight of my vision for the play.  I go to bed and worry.   Sleep isn’t happening, so I fling my sheets aside and get out of bed, poring over my manuscript.  My own language melts me a little.

Keiko believes in my play, and we pull off a decent performance.  Phil and Kira and the other actors commit themselves gamely to my poetic monologues.  As the semester is winding down, Bob mentions casually that I might not be invited back for my second year at Iowa.  I go into a tizzy, bouncing back and forth between wanting to leave for my own sanity and wanting to stay, to show Bob.  When a letter arrives saying I can come back on a probationary status, I am relieved.  But I don’t want to go back.  I write a letter to Bob, a manifesto of my theatre aesthetic.  I explain that Iowa is not a place that can nurture my artistic goals, and I resign from the program.  I send copies of the letter to two other professors in the theatre program, so that Bob’s handling of my status is documented beyond my file in his office.

Then I move to New York City.

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