Thursday, May 29, 2008

Imaginary life

I had my last volunteer day in Sophie's 2nd grade classroom this morning. I've had the privelege of working with the kids 1 on 1 and in small groups in Writers' Workshop. I'll miss it. I got all teary as I was meeting with the teacher before we started. 1st grade is all about learning to read, 2nd grade is learning to write. They've been creating their own fairy tales and are now laying them out as a book with illustrations, cover, etc. The process has been what's so exciting, getting them to think and imagine, so that whatever comes out on the page this time, they'll have a place to go back to to imagine again. At least that's my goal. It's a new trick, and one that some of the kids haven't gotten yet. But imagine learning to find the place inside yourself that is imagination and that can create. It's a real, real place, and I can only hope that they all find and inhabit it throughout their lives.

3rd grade is all about reinforcing and developing reading and writing skills. 3rd grade is the year I distinctly remember waking up to find myself a sentient being, not a little kid any longer. As I became aware, I also became shy, which was an unfortunate side effect. But a whole creative process was unleashed that's been going on ever since.

I wonder what next year will bring for my daughter, who hugs me some days, and other days proclaims she is dedicating her life to evil. She was born on 6-6, so what am I to make of that? She likes the villains of stories. She finds the elixir of life in them.

It does not faze me. I knew what I was getting into with this one. Even though I can't believe I just wrote that. As overwhelmed as I sometimes get with raising kids, apparently some part really did know. This child is my child, whoever she may become.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Image, memory

I'm still trying to get used the idea of writing "short" things. I don't mean to be obsessive about this. It's just a little weird to go from a dense novel to a breezy blog. Not that I don't write short stuff all the time along the way. And the novel itself was written in short stages -- mostly in one or two hour segments perched over my notebook at a Starbucks table. Is a blog more like a postcard or note left on the table? I keep trying to think of it as a "column" but I suppose that's more formal. What do you think?

The other morning I was having breakfast with Aaron, my 5-year old. I'd poured the water into my tall, insulated mug (because if I use a regular mug, I never quite get to drink it while it's hot) and we were admiring the way the steam curled out of the top, curling and twisting into thin air. In a life that consists of driving back and forth a lot between schools and activities with the kids, the steam, the thin air, can be an anchor for me, something more solid than the rest, as an image I can hold onto. The simplest things spark memory. And sparked memory is simply a cracking open of an experience in the moment, like Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, where each day of summer can be bottled and savored another day.

What I love about writing is discovering as I go that "saved" and "savored" sound the same, and in this case, mean the same thing. I love that -- the unbottling of a word.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Visit My New Website!

I've been told I should post more often. And more succinctly. I think of myself as sort of a quiet person, but when I get on paper (or virtual paper), this flow starts going, and a short thought takes a lot of twists and turns and gets long.

It's funny how writing and editing are such different activities, even though they often take place in tandem. I'm a great editor for other people's work. But when I wrote up a wedding newsletter before Jon and I got married, my mother had to inform me that the bio I'd written for myself sounded like an obituary, and my sister rewrote the story of how we got together to avoid highly embarrassing statements like, "When we skied down the mountain, one knee went one way and the other went the other way. And then we fell in love." Really I was trying to convey that I tore my ACL ligament and had to later have knee surgery and Jon took good care of me when I was laid up and our fondness for each other as friends blossomed...." See what I mean? I mean, stop already!

The latest complaint was about my newly minted website. It's been online for a couple of weeks, but has been undergoing design revisions. Now it's undergoing final edits, and, man, did we cut out a lot of junk last night! (Thank you, Webmaster!) So, we're almost there, just a little more to go to a concise and vibrant representation of me as a living, breathing writer.

Please come for a visit and let me know what you think! You can also pick up a free subscription to this blog onsite.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Going to the Races

I had a strange choice of activities for tonight. Bay Meadows for the final weekend of horse racing before they close -- I've never been to the races and have always wanted to go -- or a unique "Poetry Walk" through the deYoung Museum with Poet Laureate Robert Hass and other Bay Area poets. Jon and I haven't been out on a date in what feels like months. We used to go every week but now, with no regular babysitter, that has fallen by the wayside. We're going to the races. I finally got a sitter confirmed at 7:30 this morning. I was going to go anyway with a group of the preschool parents but it will be more fun to have Jon there. There are so many poetry and literary events in this area and I don' t think I've made it to a single one this year, though I get announcements of readings and activities every week. That makes me sad.

It's been a tough year. Not tough as in too much work, but tough in that I never could get the schedule to work for me. Afternoon Pre-K at a parent co-op and another child in elementary school has meant constant driving back and forth and lots of volunteering. I liked every volunteer activity I did this year. They were all worthwhile and important causes, such as promoting literacy and parent education, running the elementary school Read-A-Thon and helping to keep our libraries open, and being there with my 5-year old son as he develops into a child equipped to handle the challenges of the next 17 years of school -- good groundwork for a lot of years. He has the skills now to work out conflicts and solutions with his friends and "not-friends." He has learned to hold a pencil pretty well and draw and write a little. He's been encouraged to get dirty and muddy and climb trees and learn all about the natural world. He's still a work in progress, of course, and his solutions are not always successful, but he has the skill set and knows how to practice it.

But I keep finding myself with nothing, or close to nothing, left over for me, for my own writing projects, for my own imagination, for friends, for even a walk. I went to the dentist yesterday and after the examination and cleaning, while I blissfully laid back and watched The View on TV (the bi-annual visits to the dentist the only times I ever watch daytime TV) the dentist informed me that my teeth were being ground away in the back and if I didn't stop I'd have to get crowns on all of them. "But I don't think I'm grinding my teeth," I exclaimed. "Just pay attention later," he said, "and you'll notice." I got home, and within the hour I found myself grinding my teeth. And my jaw ached. And I realized I'd been tuning it out because I "didn't have time."

So what the heck does all this have to do with anything? I don't want to grind all my teeth away. Every day for months I've been reciting my mantra, "August 27th, 8:25 a.m." That's when school starts up again (though it's not even out yet for this school year) and my son starts Kindergarten, and I can drop off both kids at the same place and same time, and I have every morning "free." Will I be able to say no to volunteering? It's going to have to be "No" to big events for sure. What about the pile-up of daily requests? I'll have to think about it. For sure I'll want to work in the classroom sometimes. Maybe an hour or so a week will be do-able. Maybe with less driving back and forth I won't be grinding my teeth to stubs. Maybe I can reclaim my life. This IS my life, I know that, and I want it that way -- this family, this life. But I'm desperate to get some balance, to not grind myself to dust.

I wish I could do the poetry walk, too. But I'm going to the darn sweaty racetrack tonight. I've been to bullfights in Spain but never the races here. I've always wanted to. And I'm going to love it.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Standing Up to the Monsters Under the Bed

At the age of 44, I have finally decided to take on what Beverly Cleary's inimitable Ramona Quimby learned at age 6: to stand up to the monsters under my bed. Once again, here is a phrase that can be taken literally. Instead of jumping into my bed before turning the light off, or admonishing Jon for turning off the light before I’m safely under the covers, I recently decided I could stand there, feet planted firmly in the dark, for as many seconds as I wanted. Maybe this sounds silly at my age. It's not that I actively imagine monsters under the bed. It's just that in the moment of sudden darkness, I entertain the possibility that they could be there, ready to grab me by the feet and pull me under.

Because really, how can we know that for sure they're not? I would never tell my kids that. I've never swept for monsters in the closet before bed, or patiently explained that a bad dream "isn't real." In context, monsters are real, dreams are real, fiction is real. And I refuse to take that away. What my epiphany means for me, is that should there be the presence of monsters, I can remember that I am BIG. I am not small. If they are squashed under my bed, how big can they be? If one tries to grab me, I'll kick him! It's my bed and I’m not going anywhere without a fight. They feed on fear, and not one would dare take me on when I am standing there ready.

My kids like scary stuff. If they hear a story or see a movie and there’s nothing scary, they’re asking, “Where’s the scary part?” I look back to Bruce Coville’s introduction to one of his Book of Monsters short story collections for kids which I edited years ago when I worked in New York publishing, and that is good grounding for raising the right kind of kid for me. He talks about the delicious tingle of fear you get from a good scary story. I know plenty of kids who don't feel this way, but it seems to work for mine, and I have to say I’m kind of happy it does. It seems like it’s good preparation for a world that isn’t always nice and kind, and also a world that is full of possibility. Let’s get a little scary. Let’s get some adventure. Scare them, not too much, but not too little either. An ounce of this, a pinch of that, and it will get them through the early years and they’ll be ready to stand up to the monsters under the bed even faster than I was.