Monday, March 29, 2010

Exercise #2 --Give me a memory of sound

Exercise # 2

When I turned 5 my second cousin Tony sent me a record in the mail.  It said, "Happy Birthday, Erin", my first name.  It was a 45 and came in a square envelope with cartoon drawings of a space man riding on the back of a rocket ship carrying a birthday cake held high above his head with lit candles.  The record was thin, easily bent and cheap, but I loved it anyway.

When my mom put it on the turn table it started  up with weird space music and then a song, "My name is Zoom/ and I come from the moon/ I came down to earth just to sing you this tune/ Hey, Erin, it's your!"

It was my name in a song, a record for me, about me and about all the creatures this space man wanted to bring me as birthday presents.  He didn't though, he wrote the song, that's what he decided.  That was the present, not a Wild Womp or a Tickle Chu and it worked for me.

The record got put away in a Mason shoebox, the one my mom had kept for me through the years filled with cards, birthday candles, that record and a few art projects and report cards.  I never shined in school, but stuck away in that box, I shined with the stars.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Meeting That Old Friend From Far Away

It is so fortunate to have such a wealth of talented writers from which to learn.  The blaze of the internet's possibilities should not be lost on anyone looking to find some kind of connection to interest or dream.  Just recently, I read Angela Kelsey's post Book 24 of 24 Books in 28 Days: Old Friend From Far Away

The thing that struck me about reading her post is that not only had I neglected to consult Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend when I began memoir writing, but I completely let it escape my mind.  Whats more, I purchased the audio version of the book directly from Ms. Goldberg while attending one of her famous workshops in Taos, NM with the plan to listen to it on my drive back home.  That I did, but wasn't really in the market for memoir advice at the time.

I'm grateful to Angela for bringing it back to the fore.

With this in mind, I am going to begin on a series of blog posts specifically derived from the writing exercises in Old Friend.  It has been a long time since I've participated in Goldberg writing practices.  I'm looking forward to seeing what they uncover.

I'll also try to make my best effort at overcoming the inner-editor and post them in all their ugly glory.

Exercise 1: Tell me a memory about your mother, an aunt, or your grandmother

I remember my grandmother like the first cold autumn wind that blows in bringing with it little affection, but a certain reminder of who you are.  And my grandfather who was warm, blowing smoke rings with his sweet-smelling pipe and whom I later found out, after his death, she hadn't loved, and hadn't been happy to marry.

There are a lot of guesses about my grandmother and grandfather, their life, my mother's birth so early in their marriage.  We wonder if he had the been the one to throw racism in the face of my sister, to encourage the coldness in his wife's heart.

Though she was never cold, not really, not to me.  She was simply not affectionate, not enveloping like I had imagined a grandmother to be, warm and doughy and soft as a fresh baked cookie.  Nor did she bake cookies or bread, or fudge like my father's mother Thelma.  No, Evelyn was the stricter of the two, offset and reserved, willing to bring you in, but not to warm the bed.

I remember spending a week at her house in the summer with my mom.  She had told me to bring my rollerskates because there were kids in the neighborhood who would wear theirs and we could ride together.  I did, but I was shy and waited for them to approach me.  The entire first few days I would be out in the driveway in my roller skates hoping someone would notice me and ask me to play.

It did happen and I made friends with two girls and a boy.  We spent days in the dirt tromping strawberry beds because my grandma said I could eat whatever I found.  At night, after dinner, my mom would sit me at the table, bring out a basin of warm water, soap and a clean wash cloth and I would sit while she washed the day off the soles of my feet.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Unburdening the Bridges

I've been misled in my thinking, or rather, I mislead myself years ago when I first considered memoir writing and my childhood.  First, I thought being the youngest of 9 was a story in itself, with all the characters to draw from, the odd clashes and bang-ups, but it isn't.  Most of those memories aren't mine, I don't own the stories behind them because they didn't happen to me, I was just looking over my shoulder while playing dress up in my big sister's clothes.

Then I thought I'd dive a little deeper, ring myself out by depositing small glimpses all around the blogosphere.  It helped seeing that when I really hunker down in my skin and examine the early years a lot of my family disappears.  I'm not saying that I want them to disappear, only that they fade out creating their own rotations leaving my perception that much clearer.  

In reading Vivian Gornick's highly acclaimed memoir instructional The Situation and the Story I have come to realize that my place within my family, my parents, siblings, the divorce & subsequent moves result not in a story at all, but the situation surrounding a story I have yet to fully tease out.

Tonight I am breathing a sigh of relief and letting myself relax knowing my story is unbinding.  The words will come.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wanting--with love to Lorrie Moore

Growing up all you ever wanted was talent, to be big, to know you were somebody doing something important.  Kids really do believe they can be anything.

You have to face up to reality though, life ain't gonna put you on a stage.  You have to want, kiddo, bigger than anything.  Then, you have to beg.

"Mommy, can I take ballet lessons?"

"We'll see."


"Mrs. Beard, I might take ballet lessons!"


"Uh-huh! My mom said she'll see."

A few years later...

"Mom, can I take viola lessons?"

"Now why do you want to do that?"

"Jenny isn't taking lessons anymore and the teacher said I could take her place.  It would be free and I can use her viola."


"Why not?"

"It's too much noise.  We live in an apartment."


"No. Now drop it." 

If begging doesn't work try something else.

You adore music, how it rushes in and yanks away at you, pummels your senses, throws you into some place you haven't been for years and wrestles you to just shut up and listen already.  You wanted that for yourself, begged for lessons, borrowed books from the library, listened deeply trying to pull out those few hidden secrets that would finally help you make sense of a sheet of music.

It never came.

So you thought this, you thought, some people learn music by ear, I could just start writing it down myself, to the tune in my head.  Sure, that might work.

What happened instead was this.

Right here.  This thing you're writing now.  This is the music in your head, the tune you can't get out.  Whatever happens in your life, this thing, this writing is what holds you together.  You hate it.  And you need it.

The first time you read out loud to a crowd of people...well, that was something, not at all what you expected.  Not at all.  But you're pretty sure it was equal to what you would have experienced had you played your first concert piano solo.

You're certain that night and the people lurking in that drafty, smoke-infested cafe and your shaking and stuttering are all going with you to the great nut house in the sky. 

So whatever it is--whatever circles you spin around in, whatever goals you meet or fail at, whatever success you hype yourself up about--there's always this at the end. 

Read Lorrie Moore How to Become a Writer 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

School Lunch: It's Elementary

Gardner's white bread in the yellow bag, butter, a leaf of iceberg lettuce, a slice of bologna; a Twinkie, Zinger or HoHo; an apple; 15 cents for a carton of milk.  If we were taking a field trip we could bring a can of pop wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it cool. 

Once when we went to the Outdoor Lab to track squirrels and pick wild mint leaves someone came across a grass snake all curled up and green in the main building where we were to eat.  There would be no going in until the snake came out, but I think we should have lunched right there jowl to jowl with the tired green thing whose world we'd intruded upon.

Instead, a high school boy clomped through the building armed with a broken stick and heaps of bravado, scooped up the snake and emerged victorious, snake curled and perturbed above our heads.

We filed in, paper sacks twisted tightly in our cold, early morning fingers and reformed our social groups in coagulating masses.

Where ever we were, lunch was always a proving ground--who would sit by Suzy, what secret was passed around behind cupped hands, sleep-over invites, weekend spoils, copy-cat jealousy--they all made their play.  Our lunch bags stayed the same.  Until 5th grade.

Homeroom lunch ticket sales on Thursday afternoons didn't concern me unless I conned Ma into some spare change for a couple weeks worth of pizza tickets.  Every week without fail the lunch lady left her steamy pots and dusty hairnets behind and trundled through the hallways with a plastic cart, tickets and lock box.

Now, I always tried to stay under the radar in school and most of the time did just fine by that, (except when I got conned into taking the fall for the "Vaseline on the window sill" incident, but that's another story).  As it was, my wallflower tendencies usually kept me out of the lime light even though I always had my ear cocked for the slightest sign of recognition. 

That recognition came just before 3 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon.  The lunch lady called me out into the hall.  I weird-walked, (people say I have a weird walk, I don't know) out of the room with my usual "somebody said my name" crimson face on and approached the ticket cart.

She glanced at me, pulled five tickets off the roll and handed them over with a sealed envelope.  "This is for your mom," she said and moved on to the other kids.

I didn't know what was up at the time, but was mildly excited for the prospect of tater-tots and hot dogs everyday.  As it turns out, I would be eating hot lunch for the rest of my tenure at Monroe Elementary.

See, when I turned 11 Ma and I moved into an apartment building.  This would be the beginning of the "only-child years" as I like to think of them, all my siblings off and living their lives, Ma and me left to our own devices.  The apartment was in good shape, 2 bedrooms, upstairs with a balcony.  It was also low income housing which led the way to all sorts of marvels, namely free lunches, government cheese and crocks of cheap peanut butter.

Lucky for me my friends didn't cotton to any pretensions involving hot lunch.  They may have even been a little jealous that pizza day was always on my agenda, while bologna on white bread got permanently scratched off.

But like that cozy snake in the middle of the woods the natural order of things was upset, because standing in line for a country-fried steak assures your place at the table is already filled.