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Friday, May 25, 2012

Bear With Me?

It is hard to believe, when I started Middle Passages over three years ago, I posted six days a week—for the most part in a vacuum.  I had few readers and received no comments, but that only bothered me a little, because I was writing.  

Back then, newly unemployed and floundering, Middle Passages acted like an inflatable life raft tossed from the mother ship.   Each morning I got up at my regular time, ate my oatmeal and drove my daughter to school.  Then I returned to sit at the computer to craft an essay, which I would edit and tweak for hours, until I had the confidence to press “publish.”  Scheduled blog posts kept me floating, and every time I completed one, it was a victory, a seed added to the thimble of self-assurance I was developing as a writer.  

Six months into it, people started commenting.  Then, like a dear friend who saw me though one of my most difficult challenges, Middle Passages took on a human a quality—which is why my delinquent posting schedule over the last few months gnaws at me.  It’s not a relationship I want to take for granted.   These days though, I’m struggling to keep up.  After I eat my oatmeal, and sit down to edit the novel I’m trying to turn into something worthwhile, or write a few hundred words on something new, or critique excerpts by the partners in my writing group, or write a piece for which there is a deadline or—oh yeah—go to my part-time job, guilt crops up at the way in which I am neglecting things here.  I can never forget how this blog, and its readers were—well, there for me.

We prize our friends for their willingness to let us move forward, for their joy when our lives are enriched and enhanced.   And yes, I’m aware that Middle Passages isn’t a person, but the human interactions my posts generate offer me cerebral and emotional fulfillment.  The exercise in writing, and the exchange of thoughts with others who read what I write, challenge and reward me, and that's not even mentioning how much I gain from reading and commenting on other blog posts.  I’d miss all that, if it went away.   

So I’m asking you to bear with me.  This is not my swan song, or a long goodbye. I’m just hoping that while I try to get back to a more consistent posting and blog reading schedule, my Middle Passages readers will consider embracing one of the other valuable characteristics of friendship—the one called patience.

Wishing you all a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend!

Friday, May 18, 2012


Floor refinishing this week required that I exit our premises at 7:30 each morning.  Any room not scheduled for sanding and polishing was crammed with furniture, and between that and the fumes, home wasn’t an optimum place.  When I wasn’t at work, I camped out at the library.  My laptop is struggling, so it remained behind. I’m not great at typing on the I-pad, but I brought notebooks and pens.  I thought I’d spend the time writing.


Instead, I sat in one of the club chairs situated in front of a Palladian window, propped my feet up on an ottoman and lost myself in a book I first read when I was a teenager. Since the house was pretty much off limits except for sleeping, I didn’t feel guilty about the laundry.  I couldn’t cook, and rain meant any thought of gardening was a bust, so I let myself go and lost myself in the story.  It reminded me of way back, when as a child, I’d ride my bike down to the library to pick out a novel, and spend the afternoon curled up there, reading.
There are so many arguments in regard to books vs. e-books—but when it comes down to it—I don’t care, as long as there is a public place dedicated to reading, and stories that stand the proverbial test of time—and the book that captivated me this week does that in spades.  My Friend Flicka, by Mary O’Hara is as well written and sweeping and emotional as any book I’ve read lately— in my mind, it’s not a children’s book at all.  With complex relationships, amazing description and unexpected plot twists, it works for all readers.   

Perhaps it has even more depth for having been written in 1941.  O’Hara’s writing is so compelling that I feel completely at home in the Wyoming farmhouse, where Ken’s mother Nell, skins rabbits, bakes bread daily and walks to the spring house to get cream—and from which his father Rob has to drive for hours to seek out the doctor when his son gets ill.  (In truth this was the one spot when I thought, “sure wish he had a cell phone!”)  

This book has all the “can’t put it down” qualities as you could ask for, whether you happened to be banished from home, or are reading from the comfort of your own couch.  Today, my house still reeks of varnish. I am kneeling on a pillow as I type this—I’m still not allowed to place a chair on the floor in front of the computer.  Nonetheless, thanks to my chosen reading material, I’d call the past few days, well, lovely.

Today there is plenty of laundry and gardening and chores to do and I'll get to them at some point.  But, I finished My Friend Flicka yesterday.  I know I shouldn't have, but I went to the bookshelf and pulled out the sequel, Thunderhead, this morning.

What was your favorite childhood read?

Friday, May 11, 2012

I Got What I Wanted

This morning, someone sent me the following essay.  I’m so glad.  My daughter is coming home later today.  Her train gets in at 3:00. She’s not done with her freshman year yetshe still has another exam next week and I didn’t expect to see her until after that.  But she sent me a text yesterday.   “Mommyyyyyy…Let me come home tomorrow?...It is someone’s special day on Sunday.”  That message and the column below are the only gifts I need for Mother’s Day.  Whether or not you are a mother, please enjoy.

Essay on Motherhood
By Anna Quindlen, Newsweek Columnist and Author

All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.

Everything in all the books I once poured over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early-childhood education, have all grown obsolete. Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories. What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations --what they taught me, was that they couldn't really teach me very much at all.

Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a timeout. One child is toilet trained at 3, his sibling at 2.

When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow. I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton's wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China . Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can walk, too.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the, 'Remember-When- Mom-Did Hall of Fame.' The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pick up. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, 'What did you get wrong?'. (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald's drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them, sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get onto the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.

Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I'd done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That's what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were. 

Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Coming About

I could see them, six inches from the horizon, running before the wind.  I focused the binoculars above the swells, struggling to keep the Allegra in view as the sailboat pitched up and down, surfing the fat waves.  Even from my spot on the beach, the rollers invaded my belly.  Cursing softly, I lowered my hands, trying to ignore the motion attacking my stomach, in spite of the fact, I wasn’t the one moving.

They’d been laughing.  I’d seen that much.  Teddy was leaning back over the gunwales—Linnie was turned toward him, angling in.  I imagined her hand on his chest.  She’d do that—she always touched—a brush of an arm, the hip—though she only did it to men.  This trait used to make me smile.   It was transparent, her need for approval from any man—though I use that term loosely.  She pretended not to know her effect, but she did—even yesterday, when she brushed Jeffrey Pendergast’s hand before turning away.  The newspaper boy, for gosh sakes.  His face had colored, and he’d stood there for a minute longer than he should have, watching her stroll back to the porch. 
Until recently, I’d humored her in this.  She’s bloody gorgeous—that black mass of curls tumbling down her back, the deep-set blue eyes and, of course, the figure.  Guys always went after her.  We were so close though, and I was so used to it, it had never occurred to me to feel threatened.  Well, until this damned inner-ear infection sidelined me, forcing Teddy to find another sailing partner.
When Teddy and I entered regattas, as soon as we cast off, we were on a mission, Teddy intent on acquiring the optimum angle to the wind prior to each race, before the starting horn sounded from the committee boat.  Then it was all, “Cindy, tighten the sheet,” “Lean back!” “Reef the jenny!” “Come on you bugger!  Come on!” during the few times he got caught with the sail luffing.   Even after each race, most of which he won, he’d ride the edge of the wind, pulling at the tiller so we’d heel close to 90 degrees, and laugh like a maniac as we screamed back to the harbor.

Two weeks ago though, with Linnie crewing, Teddy came in fifth.  Fifth!  Once, he and I placed third, and he’d stormed home, flung open the fridge, chugged about six beers and slammed cupboards, before going to bed without me.  But apparently, fifth place with Linnie beside him wasn’t an issue.  “It’s only a race,” he’d said.  Right.  When I dared to say that, years ago, he’d looked at me like I was something he’d picked up on the sole of his shoe.  Then he didn’t call me for three weeks.  I’ll admit that sometimes, I wonder whether he’d ever have called again, if Ron Mehegan, the guy he had crewing instead of me, didn't go to school down south—which meant he had to leave in early-August.

But, it gets worse.  Last week, he and Linnie didn’t finish.  Teddy said there was an issue with the halyard tangling, but I’d driven down to the harbor when he didn't come home, and there was the Allegra, buttoned up nice and tidy.  Her lines looked fine.  He didn’t come home until hours after the race.  Teddy told me I must have missed him, that he was on Skeeter’s boat a few slips over having drinks, but Skeeter had buzzed by me on his Kawasaki just before I’d pulled into the marina.  I didn’t tell Teddy that.  Instead, I’d lifted an eyebrow at him, and he’d had the nerve to smirk. 
“What?  Now you’re my mother?”  

Well, no, Teddy, I’m not your mother.  She could never come close to imagining what I'm planning.  I got the idea from a TV show about harbor police.  I’m going to sneak on board and switch the battery to “on.”  Then I’m going to prick a hole in the gas line. 
I never liked the name Allegra for a boat, anyway.

 Andrea at the Enchanted Writer posted first line writing prompts a few days ago.   Her instructions were not to stop, or edit.  Of course, I did both, but nonetheless, I came up with this in a couple of hours.  It was fun...though when I write things that turn out this way, I wonder where they come from.

Happy Weekend.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Would there be Life without Windows?

This is my May offering for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group.  To read from other posters, click here

Yesterday, I spent time revising my current writing project.  I had my third draft open, as well as edits and recommendations on my second draft from two amazing (and patient) readers. Page by page I compared, analyzed, cut, moved, clarified and rewrote.  And, while I wouldn’t describe the effort as easy, it was—manageable.  However, at the end of the day, when I clicked the documents closed, I wondered if I’d ever have attempted something as complex and challenging as a novel if technology hadn’t become so helpful.  

About 25 years ago, I thought I’d try and write a book. That hiccup was going to be a memoir, and back then, it meant either typing the thing on a typewriter, (and I was NOT/am NOT an accurate typist) or writing it with a ballpoint.  I picked up a pen and a lined yellow writing tablet, plunked down at the dining room table and completed perhaps 20 pages, before my hand grew permanently tired.

Bringing up this topic dates me.  I am well aware there are folks reading this who may have never seen a typewriter outside of an antique store.  But I do wonder.  If Steve Jobs and Bill Gates hadn’t been so brilliant, would I be plugging through round three of my WIP?  Would I have the perseverance?  Does it make me less of a writer because I’m afraid the answer is “no?”  Not that I wouldn’t write—I know I would. I always have.  But would I try something as challenging as my 88,000 word wonder, if I couldn’t cut from one document, paste to another, take a chunk from Part One and move it to Part Two, or change a complete chapter from one character’s point of view to another—without developing an inoperable case of writer’s cramp?

Trust me.  I won’t lose sleep over this.  But golly gosh, I wonder how people like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens did it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An Early Spring

Dogwoods lift their trains,
open tender petals,
young brides, wedded to
a soft spring sun.
New maple leaves 
wave green-palm hands, 
to the dance.
Below the blush of red oak buds,
a portrait hangs—
crotched lace curtains, freeze-framed
against a far horizon.