Keening

23 Jul
July 23, 2014

In the past two weeks, I have found myself sobbing as I read the final paragraph of a book. I’m not talking about a few tears brimming over my eyelids here and there – I’m talking full-throated keening, in the fetal position, unable to catch my breath.

I had to wonder, what’s up with that?

The books in question were both written by women — one fiction, Short Girls by Bich BKGIRLS_SU_C_^_SUNIQMinh Nguyen, and one nonfiction, Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller Wild. And wildwhile they differ in many ways, they both ended with a glimpse of the future. In each story, the future-telling gesture was such a delicate and understated thing, and yet I found myself wholly slain in the face of it.

It’s one thing in fiction; these are invented characters, after all, and their futures can be invented as well. I sensed, as I moved through the final pages of Short Girls, that Linny would be okay in the end, I hoped she’d move on. And I thought that would be enough. Still, as the novel’s conclusion blossomed well beyond my expectations for closure, as Nguyen’s elegant fiction satisfied my deepest desires for this fictional character …. surely, my keening was as much a desire for myself to be okay as it was in gratitude for Linny’s denouement. I hadn’t, until that moment, even been aware that I wasn’t okay myself.

The stakes are different in memoir, of course, and anyone who comes to the final pages of Cheryl Strayed’s lovely book these days does so with the clear knowledge that she ended up okay herself. She ended up better than okay, in fact, happily married, successful as a writer, friends with Oprah and Reese, exchanging friendly tweets with Diane Ladd. But she didn’t know it then, she couldn’t possible have known it then — not as she sat on a picnic table on that final day of her hike, not as she sat at the keyboard on that final page of her manuscript.

I’m not even on the final pages of my manuscript. I’m still so lost in the wilderness of writing that I don’t know what the end looks like. I’m not even entirely sure where I am most days. But if Bich Nguyen made it, if Cheryl Strayed wrote her way through the story, maybe I can too.

Getting out of the wilderness of life, however, that’s another matter altogether. That still has me keening.

Work in Progress: Pregnant

01 Jul
July 1, 2014

The following essay appeared in the 2013 issue of The Bear River Review.  More information about the Review, as well as instructions for ordering a copy, can be found through this linkTake Root Dance choreographed  their interpretation of an earlier version of this essay as part of Art X Detroit in 2013.  If you’d like to see that dance, here’s a link (scroll down to “Take Root at the DIA Part 3″).  It’s an extraordinary performance.

I’ve been working to revise and expand this essay, but it’s slow going.  Dear readers, I’d welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

Pregnant

When I came home from the hospital in 1964, my infant wrist was adorned with a pink beaded bracelet that named me – Girl Pfeiffer — in tiny black letters on tiny white plastic cubes.  But by 2003, when my son was born, a computerized printout nylon tag marked him as mine.  So much has changed between my own birth and my son’s.  My father wasn’t allowed near the delivery room when his first five children were born, yet my husband accompanied me to each obstetric appointment.  My mother had no companionship through her pregnancies and I had no privacy through mine.  18 weeks baby ultrasound scanning

Privacy is a luxury that stepmothers like me can rarely afford.  My stepdaughter was 7 when I became pregnant, and my husband wanted her to be a part of everything, so my body became community property.  I wanted to please him, and I wanted to be a good stepmother; I never thought to consider how I really felt about it myself.  We brought her with us to the ultrasound where the three of us learned that he was a boy.  She told him stories through my tummy because she wanted her brother to recognize her voice even before he was born.  One night, as I was relaxing in the bathtub, the bumps of his elbows and knees began rooting beneath my skin as I lay in the warm water.  I called my husband, to show him the movement, and he immediately got his daughter out of bed so she could see the undulations of my nude belly. “He’s swimming!” she squealed.  Todd hugged her.  “I think he’s waving at you,” he replied joyfully, eager to include her in my womb’s activities.

Later, on a thunderstorming night when she was too excited to sleep, she asked if I would lie in bed to keep her company until she nodded off.  So I lumbered my pregnant self into the twin bed that I’d outfitted for her in a pink and white Laura Ashley print, and we talked quietly together, making up stories about the next door neighbor’s barky dog.  The walls of our condo were so thin that we could hear her thumping around all the time.  When we first moved in, the noise had alarmed the little girl, until we explained that it was just Tessa keeping her safe.  That night, I tucked her comforter around her and rubbed the outer edges of her ears, a trick I’d learned that always quiets her restless moods.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she told me before she fell asleep.  I reported her comment to Todd later that night, and he beamed with pride, as I knew he would.  His admiration made me happy, and kept my growing discomfort at bay.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you either, Kath,” he said.  “You make it all happen.”  I felt this as a moment of feminist triumph at the time, and I smiled.  What I didn’t allow myself to feel back then, much less to recognize, was the weight of it all, an impossible burden far heavier than my pregnancy, with no due date in sight.

 

Safety

16 May
May 16, 2014

Emmanuel College was still a women’s college when I arrived for freshman orientation in August of 1982. Sargent Harrington ran the security overview. A beefy, avuncular, Boston Irish former cop with piercing blue eyes, you could see that his intentions were good.

“Girls,” he told us, “if you wanna be safe, you gotta be scared. You gotta expect danger at any time, and you gotta have a weapon on you at all times.”

He taught us how to make artillery out of innocuous objects: we practiced holding our keys in between each finger, key as weaponclaw-like, and learned to always aim for the eyes. We learned that our elbows can be potent weapons, that we should be willing to jab hard, that we should kick, and aim for the balls. He encouraged us to always carry a lit cigarette when we went out, whether we smoked or not, because we could use it to burn a would-be rapist in the face, thereby thwarting an attack. He never said the word rape, of course. He was far too polite for that. (And anyway, in 1982, the language for date rape didn’t yet exist. The irony, of course, is that for many of us, the starkest threats didn’t come from strangers.)

Sargent Harrington’s lessons had a lasting effect on my life. For the 8 years that I lived in Boston, I never went out alone at night unless I could afford a cab, which wasn’t often. I try not to wonder too much about what I missed in all those years, because if I dwell on that, I get angry, it shuts me down.

I’ve been thinking about this because my fellow writer and former workshop companion Louise Yeiser McAlpin has just published an essay called “Protect” in the Ampersand Review. It’s a poignant, gripping piece, and it haunted me even when I first read it as a rough draft. I read it again online yesterday, and it reminded me of the fear that I was taught to live with, the first lesson of my college life.  How many women carry this fear, this anger that we always have to keep at bay?

It’s May 1 and I’m lost

01 May
May 1, 2014

The mess on my desk makes it clear that I am utterly, hopelessly lost. photo 2

Where to begin?  And even if I begin, what then?  Where then?

 

Moving on

16 Apr
April 16, 2014

I look at the day ahead of me and think, what’s new here?  Haven’t I done this laundry, these dishes, this vacuuming; haven’t I made these beds already?  And in the week ahead, haven’t I already taught this class, graded these essays, written this exam?  And how many times do I have to go to the same meeting and listen to the same people say pretty much the same things they said last time?

“I think 85% of my life is spent on maintenance,” I tell my friend Lenore.  She laughs and nods in agreement.  She thinks it’s probably closer to 90%, maybe more.  When can you make any progress?

In 1991, I first read Naomi Shihab Nye’s essay, “Maintenance.”  It has stayed with me all these years.  “I’d like to say a word, just a short one,” she writes, “for the background hum of lesser, unexpected maintenances that can devour a day or days – or a life, if one is not careful.”  I look at my life these past few months and I realize that it has been devoured.  I have been lost in daily maintenance.  The frightening part is that while I’ve been utterly consumed with chores every single day, I cannot, at this very moment, name any of my accomplishments.  I’ve been too busy doing them to notice them.   “I am reminded of Buddhism whenever I undertake one of these invisible tasks,” Nye writes, “one acts, without any thought of reward or foolish notion of glory.” I find it helpful to think about such everyday service — acts of domestic, familial, and professional maintenance — as something to celebrate.  In her essay, housekeeping and upkeep, those duties she calls “the motions of preface” – these things aren’t drudgery, not in the least.  Nye wonders,

6943077858_28a7eedb4d_hPerhaps all cleaning products should be labeled with an additional warning, as some natural-soap companies have taken to philosophizing right above the price tag.  Bottles of guitar polish might read: “If you polish this guitar, it will not play any better.  People who close their eyes to listen to your song will not see the gleaming wood.  But you may feel more intimate with the instrument you are holding.”

Last night I was awakened by a panic filled nightmare at the realization that I haven’t written anything for myself in more than a month.  Not a scribbled note, never a thought to be developed, no list of ideas to explore later.  I have no ideas to be explored later because I’ve given away all the mental the space that properly belongs to my imagination.  I have been avoiding this blog, rushing past my own homepage (now there’s a metaphor for you) to hide from its accusatory name. Kathywrites: oh, really?  I think, Does she now?  And what exactly does Kathy write?  Reports and memos, apparently; comments on student papers, endless amounts of email, grocery lists.  Lately, Kathywrites only to keep on top of her day job.  My nightmare’s panic woke me up to ask me – is that all there is?

Enough of these “motions of preface” — I think it’s time for me to become more intimate with the instrument I am holding, to turn back to the blank page.

Blank_page_intentionally_end_of_book