Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Conversation with My Mother

I drove up to see my mother today.  She was happy to see me, demonstrative, affectionate.  She hugged me at the door and then again after she put on her shoes.  Her feet are almost inhuman: misshapen, crooked, all knobs and wayward bones.  She will be 95 next month.

I held her hand in the elevator, and then on the short walk to the car.  She was tippy, as though she was log-rolling.  When she lowered herself into the car, she was out of breath.  

I spend so much time examining her failing cognition that I forget to account for her body's slow decline.  

In the car, my mother seemed less interested in looking at pretty houses than usual.  She wanted me to tell her stories about her life.  She was especially anxious to hear about her marriage.  "Did we love each other?" she asked.  "Were we happy?"

(I have to manage my habitual honesty.  Long ago, I realized I would rather be authentic and true to myself than happy [although the older I get, the more I question this, because what the hell is so bad about being happy?].  But people with dementia don't need or appreciate truthfulness.  So I am learning to talk less and gloss over the undeniable.  I feel it as a slowing down, a gentling.  And also a kind of editing.  I look for what is true and can be said, leaving out what is true and hurtful.)

"Yes," I said.  "You were good friends."

"Was he happy here?"

"Here" is Piedmont, a beautiful town east of San Francisco.  I realize I don't know the answer.  My father was preoccupied with his surgery practice and his life away from home.  He died when I was 19, before I had any interest in finding out whether he considered himself happy.

"I think so," I said.

"I can barely remember him," Mom said.  "It's the strangest thing."

"He died a long time ago, Mom.  And you are pretty damn old."

She laughed.  "It's something, isn't it?"

Sometimes, it is like we are just talking.  

Then she asked "Did we live together?" and I felt the familiar presence of her illness--another passenger in the car, sitting in the back seat, noisily demanding that I turn up the radio or open a window--encroaching.

"Who?  You and Dad?"

"No.  You and me."

"Did we live together?  You and me?"

She nodded yes.  

My brain--which still works, which works almost without my awareness--began to assemble my answer, slow my tongue.  The way you tell your four-year-old about sex: just the facts, deliberately stated in a pleasant tone of voice.  Mildly.  Nothing that will cause shame or outrage.

"I lived with you from the time I was born until I was 18.  I'm your daughter.  We lived together for 18 years."

"Oh!"  she said, and then a moment later, "Oh!  Of course!"  

Then she said, haltingly, "I thought you and I were the same, in position to him."

I took a second.  Then I said, "No.  I was Dad's daughter.  You were his wife."

She nodded as if she understood.  But I'm not sure she did.  I'm not sure she ever did.  I think her husband's uncomplicated, total love for his daughter was a source of hurt and anger for her for nearly all of my life.  I think it colored everything that happened in our family.  It was in the air we breathed. Unstated, but there.  Undeniable.

"I am your daughter," I said.

She smiled.  "Oh, yes.  And I love you.  And you are wonderful.  A wonderful girl, to come and see me."

And then I stopped talking, because that seemed to be a pretty good time to end the conversation.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why I Haven't Been Writing (Until Today)

I haven’t written in forever.  It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.

My 94-year-old mother’s ongoing battle with dementia continues.  My brother (with whom I am newly and happily reconciled) and I are trying desperately to allow her to live out her life in her own home, with 24-hour care.  It’s expensive as hell.

For the first time in my adult life, I have to worry about money.   If I don’t proceed carefully, my brother and I will have to move my mother to some sort of facility.
This would make her so unhappy.

So writing—which is what I love, what I believe I was put on this earth to do—has had to take a backseat while I give all my attention to an e-commerce site I’ve started.  (More about that below.)

I know how lucky I am.  I have been able to write and publish middle-grade fiction for many years without worrying too much about money.  And the fact that even in a worst-case scenario, my mother will still be able to get good care in a nursing home makes me very fortunate indeed.

Lucky.  Very lucky.  I know.
But I’m angry anyway.  Maybe it’s not a reasonable thing to feel.  I’m not living in a hut or worrying about missiles obliterating the restaurant where I’m eating.  I’m not a kid sitting at the border of some country, begging to be let in.

Before starting—an online site that allows you to customize care packages for young adults living away from home—I was working on a short story about a little girl living in Cleveland in the 1920s.  The little girl was based on my mother, until I realized I wanted something to happen to her that didn’t actually happen to my mother.  (Note to aspiring writers: this is why you don’t use real people as characters in your books.)  I haven’t looked at the story in six months.

So today I’m doing what real writers do.  I’m getting up at 6:30 (two hours before spin class), tiptoeing through the house so I won’t wake Robert up,  squinting in the early golden light, shivering in my unheated office.  Writing.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

On Beloved TV Shows and Endings and Memory

A funny thing happened recently.  In the space of two weeks, I realized that my certainty about the final episodes of two well-known TV series was in error.

Robert and I were talking about finales.  I maintained that in “The Wonder Years,” Kevin’s voice-over (Daniel Stern’s, actually) let us know that after high school, he and Winnie Cooper never saw each other again.

In fact, Kevin relates that he and Winnie wrote each other a letter a week for the next eight years.  And that when Winnie returns from Paris, where she has been studying art, Kevin meets her at the airport with his wife and eight-month-old son.  (This is all from Wikipedia, by the way.  It kind of rang a bell when I read it.)

Similarly, I was positive that Ross and Rachel didn’t end up together in the final episode of “Friends.”  Absolutely positive.

All this has me thinking about memory, which is much on my mind anyway, as my 94-year-old mother is succumbing to dementia.  And about stories, and about endings.

As writers, we pay a lot of attention to endings.  Some of us even start there.  (I don’t, but some of us do.)  If we are serious about our work, we go to great pains to craft an ending that makes logical sense and offers a satisfying conclusion to the story line without veering into sentimentality or “over-neatness.”  At the same time, we try to end things.  No leaving it up to the readers’ imaginations, a non-solution that in all but the rarest of instances smacks of creative cowardice.

I’m sure the writers of “The Wonder Years” and “Friends” spent a lot of time writing those endings.  But I made up my own anyway.

So what does this mean?  Are the endings over which writers pore unimportant?

Of course not.  Endings matter enormously.  But I look at my inclination to rewrite mentally the endings of beloved TV shows as indicative of 1) the fact that I tend toward the gloomy (notice that in both instances, I assumed the worst) and 2) the splendid “spells” the shows’ writers cast over the duration of both series’ runs.  Kevin and Winnie and Ross and Rachel lived in fully realized fictive worlds, so real to me that I felt I knew them as actual people.*  Re-imagining their stories’ conclusions speaks to the verisimilitude the writers created, itself the result of masterful writing (among other things).

(*Do other people talk about TV characters as though they are real people?  My best friend and I do it all the time.  Sometimes we will sheepishly acknowledge what we’re doing, just to reassure ourselves that we haven’t lost all touch with reality.  But then we keep on talking.)

My mother’s memory fades from week to week.  She no longer reliably remembers that she grew up in Cleveland, that she had a beloved brother who died young, that I was married to Brian, that I have a son and a daughter. 

When she was first diagnosed, I kept trying to remind her of things she forgot or swore she never knew at all.  Gradually, I have learned not to do this unless she asks me to. 

In forgetting almost everything, she is rewriting her own ending.

At this point, I think it is more painful for me than it is for her.

I think I need to stop forcing her to stick to the script.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Running and Writing: The Way of the World

I have been training for an upcoming race.  Just writing this sentence is surreal.

It is safe to say that for the first part of my life, I disdained sport and athletics.  I was a happy bookworm and had no interest in sweating or breathing hard.  I dreaded P.E. in high school and routinely irritated gym teachers by my refusal to participate in any meaningful way.  In college, I passed the mandatory swimming test and fulfilled my gym requirement by taking Modern Dance, which I very much enjoyed but which just barely qualified as exertion.

In my thirties, after I had children, I realized Something Had to Be Done, so I began working out regularly in a gym.  For the first time, I fell a little bit in love with exercise.  I learned how to lift weights, how to do proper crunches, how to lunge and squat.  I saw results.  I liked feeling fit and strong.
But still I avoided doing much cardio.

Now, some twenty years later, I have embraced it.  The reasons are health-related, unimportant to anyone but me.  It has taken me several years to realize that running and spin classes are some of the happiest hours of my day.  I sweat buckets.  I heave and pant.  And it feels great.

I decided to run San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers several months ago and have been running regularly, upping my distances, improving my splits.  I’ve got a sore tendon in my foot that may cause some problems, but I’m still hopeful that I will make the race.  I will report on it if I do.

This afternoon, I was thinking about how all of this relates to writing.  I imagined crafting some clever sentences about how the two efforts demand similar discipline and a similar approach to setbacks and disappointments.  But in thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that this is pretty self-evident.

Here’s the bottom line: serious exercise demands that you get off your ass and do it.  Every day.  Even when it’s raining.  Even when you would rather be watching Shahs of Sunset or having lunch at Gayle’s with a friend or buying new sunglasses.  Even when you are sad.  Even when dinner needs to get shopped for and made.  Even when there is no time in the day, not a second, that isn’t already accounted for.

Serious writing demands exactly the same thing, except you have to sit your ass down to do it.  And I would add that it must be done even when no one is paying you to do it, which is what you always assumed someone would do.

I wish there were another way.  I wish it were easy.  But there isn’t, and it’s not.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Writing through the Worry

I am a chronic worrier.  Worry is a part of who I am, as ineluctable as height. I have learned to live with it.  It is, to me, the most irksome of my unattractive traits.

Here are some of the things I worry about:

--my adult children’s health, safety, and general happiness;

--whether the rats that infiltrated our house two years ago (necessitating a new roof) will ever return;

--my 94-year-old mother’s diminished cognition;

--her sadness;

--the unhappy state of the publishing industry, resulting in people like Snooki getting book deals;

--getting punched on the street for no reason (note: this is now a thing);

--whether the dark brown item on the seat of my car is a rat dropping or (more likely) a crumb of gluten-free Oreo cookie;

--if I am drinking enough water;

--why I have no thirst mechanism;

--if it is worse to drink so much that I have to pee several times during the night (and get less sleep) or drink less and sleep for seven hours straight;

--if the egg recently hatched by these barn owls ( will hatch;

--how long people are going to be stupid about guns;

--if I will look silly wearing boyfriend jeans and oxfords.

And the list goes on.
When I was younger, I found it difficult to worry and write at the same time.  Writing demands a certain immersion—an intentional letting go—that worry works against.  Writing takes you away.  Worry holds you down by the throat.

As I age, I try to write through the worry.  Sometimes I am successful; sometimes, not so much.  I wish I were the kind of writer who finds solace in writing.  Instead, I find that the effort exposes my subconscious in painful ways.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, worry functions as a weird kind of anesthetic, numbing me to my own self, denying me access to the mental space where good work can happen.

I keep trying to find a way to manage all this.

I’ll tell you one thing: that better be an Oreo crumb.  Because if I am going to have to deal with rats in my car, then I may just have to check myself into some sort of facility.

Monday, March 31, 2014

On Someone I Used to Know, and a Writer's Debts and Promises

I knew someone quite a few years ago, about whom I have never written.  In a certain way, this is odd, because This Person (to whom I will refer as TP) ended up being quite important to me.  I don’t write about him because I promised him I never would.  He is intensely private—secretive—and hates being the subject of other people’s scrutiny.

TP had some wonderful qualities, among them resilience, humor, empathy, an astounding work ethic, and an uncanny ability to understand the way other people thought and felt.  TP was spiritually inclined, which was not something one would have assumed after knowing him casually.    He grew up in a home riven by sexual and physical violence, and this fact dominated his emotional life long after he made his escape.  The extent to which he was able to manifest any sort of decency is a testament to his soul’s enduring sweetness.

Today I was thinking about the debt writers owe the people in their lives.  Without them, we wouldn’t know how the world works, which is to say, how other people—those with regular jobs who are able to socialize freely, without distancing themselves and mentally taking notes—function. 

But when writers create characters, we have to be careful.  We can use aspects of our friends and relations and acquaintances; we can even create a character largely based on someone we actually know.  (And even if we make someone up out of whole cloth, a lot of our friends will sidle up to us at parties—or coffee shops, if we don’t go to parties—and say, “That was me, right?”)  But some people have to be off limits.

I never use my kids in my books.  Never.  They are adults now, but still.  Never.  It means I interact with them in a normal way, which is to say, as their mother.  (Is that normal?  You know what I mean.)  I never listened to what they said and wrote it down, hoping to “use it” somewhere.  (Okay, in all honesty, I did that once.  My son wondered what would happen if you cut someone's head off and then held it up in front of a mirror.  "Would he see anything, just being a head?" he asked.  It was too funny to ignore.  I put it in something.)

Same with my life partner.  He will never be a character in anything I write.
And the same with TP.  Which is a shame, in a way, because he would be fascinating to write about. 

But it would be cruel, and so I won’t.

And also, I promised.

Maybe this makes me less of a writer.  I'm not sure what other writers do, how they approach this.  But I don't know any other way to be.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Happy Birthday to Harriet

Last week marked the 50th year since the release of Harriet the Spy, the groundbreaking novel by Louise Fitzhugh.

Here’s an article about it in Publisher’s Weekly:

When I first read Harriet the Spy, I was about nine.  For the first time, I recognized myself in print.  I didn’t look like Harriet (although I appreciated that she chose to wear glasses, a condition foisted on me by virtue of bad eyes), and I lived not in Manhattan but in Berkeley, California, which struck me at the time as woefully pedestrian.    I went to a rather large public school, my father was a surgeon, and no one in my neck of the woods had either nannies or cooks.  I did not have a Sport or a Janie in my life: my best friend was Susan, who I think wanted to be a cartoonist.  (Now I see this as admirable, but at the time, I desperately wanted a friend who planned on blowing up the world.)

Nothing about me looked like Harriet.  And yet, I saw myself in her.  What I saw was a girl who understood what writing was, what it meant, why it mattered.  A girl who valued her interior life more than her social life and had to struggle to make room for the friends she loved a lot.   Someone who thought she didn’t care what other people thought about her but, in fact, did.  Someone who genuinely liked herself, even as she was able to take meticulous note of her flaws.
Of course, I tried to spy.  I couldn’t.  Houses in Berkeley were too exposed, and there were no dumbwaiters.  Also, I was shy and terrified of being caught.  In that, I was not like Harriet.  It was a source of profound disappointment.

I tried to like tomato sandwiches.  Ultimately, I had to admit that I liked pizza more.

But I did write everything down.  I looked at people wherever I was, and I wrote about them.  And that was how I found myself, how I finally realized who I was.

I strongly urge everyone who hasn’t already done so to read the book.  It is still wonderful, and you will be a better person for having met Harriet.  She remains a treasure.