Playing with the Numbers

Playing with the Numbers

If a woman is all the people she ever was
(and those she still may be),
for this birthday, I will
bring us all to the table.

I will be fifty-four one year-olds,
gnawing on anything they come across.
I will be twenty-seven two year-olds,
each of them shouting “No!”
I will be eighteen adorable three year-olds, tilting my head,
resting it on your knee,
and assuring you that I love you
and Jesus.
But I will also be two cliques,
one of nine noisy six year-olds and another
of six judgmental nine year-olds,
each group casting shade upon the other.
I promise to be three adults,
just barely,
of eighteen,
and I will be two angst ridden twenty-seven year-olds,
wondering why they are here,
if this is where God wants them,
and what they should really be doing.
And one fifty-four year-old will preside,
wondering how all these people ever got here.

It will take all of us to blow out the candles.
We will stare at the rising smoke,
and search it for patterns,
and wonder if it is bad for our lungs, as,
having had our cake,
we are ready
to eat it.

©Ann McLellan Lardas
February 14, 2017

Writing Prompt — Jump Rope Songs

As a requirement for my MFA program, I gave a lesson on how to research your own past. I wrote out writing prompts on index cards and encouraged people to take them with them. Instead, they took pictures with their cell phones, and asked me to put the prompts here on my web site. I will do so, but at the rate of one per week.

Something that happened in another part of my life, the part where I am a substitute teacher, recently brought one of these prompts to mind and motivated me to get moving with posting them.

Here’s the story:

We were at recess when one of the second grade boys ran up to me, breathless, in what looked like a panic. I was afraid that someone had been hurt.

The boy said, urgently: “Mrs. Lardas! Mrs. Lardas! We need you to [unintelligible]!”
Me: “What?”
He: “We need you to [unintelligible] Strawberry Shortcake!”
Me, perplexed: “What? I cannot make sense of the words you’re using.”
He, almost frantically: “We need you to help us play Strawberry Shortcake!”
[Pause.]
[Processing.]
Me: “How do I do that? And, why?”
He: “Strawberry Shortcake! You know, you hold the end of the jump rope and say, ‘Strawberry Shortcake with a cherry onna top, how many girlfriends do you got?’ while a guy jumps rope in the middle, and you count while he jumps, until the rope hits his foot, and then that’s how many girlfriends he’s got. But Mrs. Lardas! None of us are tall enough to put the rope over [Name]’s head! We NEED you!”
Which is how I came to hold one end of the jump rope today for the boys at recess.

What this brought to mind was this:

In my day, it went:

“Ice cream soda with a cherry on the top!
Pop the initials of your sweetheart!
Capital A, Bee-ee,
C, Dee-ee […..]”

Only girls were allowed to jump rope, and for a few years there only boys were allowed to play ball.

The writing prompt has two parts. The first is this:
What songs or rhymes did you use as a child at recess?

This could bring up jump rope songs, ways of counting people out (“One potato, two potato…”), singing games, general games played at recess, etc.
Write down what you remember, and use a lot of detail, beyond the words of the songs themselves. Capture the feeling of the sun on your face or of your nose growing cold and moist, how you felt about the school and your classmates, etc.

Then, think of fallout or consequences of one of those songs. For example, in high school, there were two boys whom I liked and who liked me. I couldn’t eat my dessert one day at lunch, and they both finished their own and wanted mine when I offered it to the others at our table, so I used my elementary school’s version of “Eenie, meanie, miney, moo,” which ended with “And you are out, o-u-t-out,” to choose.
This wasn’t how their school ended the song, and one of the boys accused me of doing it to manipulate things so the other one got my cake.

I remember feeling unjustly accused, I remember realizing that it must reflect how he felt at not being the one.
I could write it from several different angles — the tension of the choosing and the reaction of each boys, the memory of high school lunches at Commonwealth, the deeper memory of my early childhood and how I felt more comfortable remembering it at school than at home…..

What I should do is write something, and see what comes of it.

And you should, too. Think back on the games you played, the songs you sang for school performances and for games at recess, the ways in which you chose teams and what it felt like to be chosen, what it felt like not to be chosen, what it felt like to have to choose.

And if your memories come out too philosophical or wordy, ask yourself the question I learned to ask of every packet that I sent to my mentor — is there anything, in those pages, that you can smell? If not, go back and be more concrete.

Happy writing!

Graduation

I apologize for taking so long to update this website. I just graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. I started to apply in 2010, after my brother’s death, but when my middle son announced he was getting married I postponed my application; I couldn’t do both things at once. But I have been writing all my life, sometimes for publication and sometimes to meet an inner need, and I wanted to have mentors and peers, and to master new technologies.

I had always joked that, with four children and a small parish to attend to, the only way that I could go to grad school would be if they had it on a desert island where nobody could find me. Fairfield University came close — they have a limited residency program located on Enders Island, off Mystic, CT.  We go there for ten days at a time, four residencies followed by a semester of being mentored by correspondence, followed by one residency where you give a class and a reading. Enders Island is a place of great beauty, one kind in summer and another in winter. It inspires, and the memory sustains. During the time I undertook this program, I continued working both as choir director and as a substitute teacher, and I was diagnosed with and started learning how to live with diabetes, I became a grandmother, and I had articles and a poem published, leading to a friend helping me establish this web site, all after the age of fifty.

If you have a dream, pursue it. If you cannot pursue it now, stalk that dream. Find ways of approaching it from behind, of taking on parts of it, of doing the things that you can do now to sustain your spirit and hone your skills until you can do the thing that makes your heart soar. Whenever I became discouraged with my writing for the degree, I remembered that they had awarded me a fellowship for the first semester, and told myself “If they didn’t think you could write, they wouldn’t have given you money.” And I reminded myself, over and over, that I would still be two years older at the end of two years if I didn’t do this. Alumni and alumnae from the program also offered me both support and living examples of how to succeed despite all that takes place elsewhere in life while you’re writing.

Tell people your dreams. The people who love you will help you, and the rest, you probably didn’t need. I am and ever will be grateful for the support of friends and family who prayed and who fed us, who read things and critiqued and who reminded me that I’ve got this. The ugly voice in my brain that asks what I was thinking, who ever died and told me I could write, still makes an appearance, but it is getting easier to rebuke and silence that voice. Sometimes the desire to prove it wrong is the boost that I need to finish a page; all of us need a good challenge.

Whatever it is that you think you should be doing more of, go do it. Write, draw, paint, mentor, sing. God put good things in you that this weary world needs. And if you don’t do it now, then at the end of two years, you will still be two years older.

The Writing Life – Reject Letters Mean You Are Writing

I received another reject letter today, but the nice kind, the “we only have so much space, please understand” kind rather than the “we don’t understand why this wasn’t written in crayon; please never darken our door again” kind. I had forgotten that I wrote up the essay specifically because of some request this publication made to writers. Now I have the story and I am free to edit it (needs it) and send it out to another audience. It’s a wonderful story and it needs to be told better and shared. Already, I know how I want to fix things.

It’s not winning, but it’s not losing.

When I was little and fell and hit my head, there would be this moment of stunned silence where the universe froze, after which I would wail piteously and loudly. My father always said, “Thank God you can cry! It means you’re awake and breathing!” It wasn’t until I had falling children of my own that I understood the number of ugly scenarios that dance through a parent’s brain during that horrific silence.

So. Thank God I have a reject letter to complain about. It means I’m still writing. That said, it would be nice to be able to post the other kind of news….

Jean Kerr quotes her pious Catholic mother as saying “What I want, dear, is a blessing that isn’t mixed.”

Photo: From the Metropolitan Museum of Art — Ralph Steiner (American, Cleveland 1899–1986 Hanover, New Hampshire)