When my goddaughter was old enough to ride without a car seat, her family let her celebrate by riding home from church in my car. My car doubles, sometimes, as a purse, so in preparation, I had crammed everything that had been in the back seat into the netting behind the driver’s seat, and she was intrigued and pulled something out. “You have a lot of interesting things here! What’s this? Is it lotion?”
I could see that she was holding a tube, but I couldn’t see what it was. “I don’t remember! What does it say?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t read yet.”
“I forgot! Okay, can you tell me the letters and I can spell it out?”
“Okay. I see an A, and a G, and an E, and a D-E-F….”
“This isn’t working. Why don’t you hand it to me at the red light.”
When we stopped for the red light, she handed me the tube. “Age-defying sun screen.”
“Oh!” I said, “This is what I wear in the sun, so I don’t get wrinkles.”
“Oh! I can use that!” she said. “Sometimes the tips of my fingers wrinkle.”
Putting things together from clues is an imprecise art. What one person infers from what another describes can be the catalyst for wonderful stories. The late writer Vasili Aksyonov used this technique brilliantly in his story “Papa, Slozhi,” “Daddy, Put it Together,” where a young girl spending Saturday with her father spells out words for her father to read, and in the process drops clues about another situation he needs to spell out for himself.
In Aksyonov’s work, the revelation is poignant. Modern cartoonist Nathan Pyle uses the technique humorously, referring to familiar body parts as “flavormuscle” and “mouthstones,” while making universal observations about human troubles.
Mystery writers love problems with letters. On “Columbo” the detective solves a mystery by re-arranging the stencils that a slain millionaire was going to use to paint a word on his boat. In other mysteries, a message is typed with the hands three letters off, and ripped pages with words that are incomplete are a trope.
There are also abecedarian essays and poems. I don’t really care for these, but sometimes having to use a form makes you realize what you really do want to write.
Writing Prompt: Letters
Write about someone figuring out what a word really is, and thereby figuring out something bigger.
Examples: A person misreads a word in a friend’s post or note in a way that reveals an underlying fear.
The rest of a word or sign is obscured, and the reader reaches a conclusion that is unfounded and debunked.
Parents spell something in front of their children, and the children conclude the wrong thing from it.
In a letter someone spells a word wrong in a way that changes the meaning, and another person reads the letter and reaches a wrong conclusion. (Example: when I was substitute teaching some young readers kept using the word “pride” out of context. It took me a while to realize they were aiming for “pretty.”)
Play around with the idea, see what you come up with and consider having it published if it’s any good.
Lately, I have found myself frozen, and I wanted to figure out why.
We all have things that make us hesitate — a person who looks like, smells like, walks like, someone who once hurt us. This man with a cheesy mustache is not that man with a cheesy mustache. This person saying the work needs improvement is not the teacher who wanted you gone. The pain from exercise is not the pain from having pulled something. Sometimes I say it out loud to get through, or move on.
I was upset because I can’t come up with a decent poem. Some friends from my MFA program and I decided to spend this time of world-wide enforced isolation running our poems by each other, and I was able to enter the first two rounds of submissions on something approaching a high. Then, this week, I froze. It wasn’t just writing. I bought the cards for Mother’s Day but didn’t mail them. There was the day that I did all my writing in my night clothes, the day that I didn’t cook, the day I wore an outfit that would make my daughter cry. I managed to perform my remedial ablutions and brush my hair and teeth, but the poem would not gel. The words did not come, and when I gathered them anyway, they scattered again like pepper flakes on the surface of water when you stick in the corner of a bar of soap.
I complained to my husband. He is, after all, the rest of what I call my “germ cohort.” I said, “Sir Isaac Newton discovered algebra when he was in isolation from the plague. I can’t write a poem. What’s wrong with me?”
“First of all,” my husband said, “Sir Isaac has nothing to do with algebra. He discovered gravity. Second, he outside of London where it was safe but he wasn’t cooped up, he was able to walk outside. How do you think the apple could fall on his head? Thirdly,” and he meant this kindly, “you are not Sir Isaac Newton.”
I think those of us who are inclined to put pressure on ourselves (Happy Mother’s Day to the lot of us) feel like we should be using this time of enforced idleness to create something of lasting beauty, that this is the chance we have been dreaming of to spend time at home working on what we love to do.
This isn’t that.
This isn’t what the Romans called “otium,” leisure. This is not, as my grad school experience was, time carved out one precious second at a time for dedicated work even in the face of two jobs and a family. This isn’t down time. This isn’t freedom. This isn’t respite.
This is a time of global trauma. And we cannot be healed from its effects until we recognize that fact.
One of my MFA mentors, the writer Kim Dana Kupperman, encouraged my workshop colleagues and me to learn more about the science of the human brain (among other things) in order to be able to write with understanding. I took her advice to heart, and attended a conference on trauma and writing that stressed that trauma does not take place in words. Trauma is felt, comes in images, scents, sounds, but not words. The seminar was for teachers of writing, and stressed that as writing instructors, we could not heal people the way a counselor can — there is a time and place and often a need for counseling. But by helping trauma victims to write well, we can literally give them control over the narrative of their lives.
This horrible illness has caused not stay-cations or a writer’s retreat but rather has turned the whole world into refugees in our own homes. This has not been a choice. And so it’s not leisure, it is the deprivation of the time, routine, income, company, work, and entertainments we had previously chosen. Some of us are fighting, like my daughter who made us the beautiful masks. Some are fleeing, like the people who insist on flocking to beaches and stores as if nothing has happened, in the hope, perhaps, that acting that way would make it so. (If this is magical thinking, it is not good magic.) And, some of us are frozen.
Frozen isn’t always the worst option. The government chooses to call it “sheltering in place.” We are staying put while we assess the situation and evaluate for ourselves the dangers, risks, allies, and safe spaces.
But in the meantime, if you cannot start or finish a poem, mail a package, decide what to make for supper, or get dressed, you are not failing. You are booting up.
This reminds me not of school but of the reading period between the end of classes and the first exam. The people who are alone are so very alone, and the people who live with others feel like they are never alone. As with reading period, some of us are running around in our sweatpants reading intently and staying up all night. Some of us are all ready for whatever lies ahead and we are quietly creating order out of the chaos of around us. (I expect there will be some amazing yard sales when this stay in place order is lifted.) But the whole schedule where your roommate leaves for class at one on Tuesdays and the room is yours for three hours is blown. We are all displaced and anxious.
I have a few suggestions for wading through:
1) Go ahead and mourn
Coronavirus is not baseball. Cry if you need to.
Tears contain toxins. You really do “get it out of your system” when you have a good cry over something. Lament the graduations and weddings that are not taking place, the deaths and the scares, the restrictions and the cancelled plans.
2) Accept that the world has changed.
The military term for this is “embrace the suck.” Once you have acknowledged how bad things are, it becomes an established fact, it’s like learning your times tables of fractions. It makes it boring rather than scary. It is no longer fodder for complaint or conversation.
3) Look for the helpers.
There are good people everywhere, making signs, going shopping, working in hospitals, watching other people’s children. Actively seek out the good.
4) Be a helper.
Find the thing that needs to be done that fits your skills, talents, and means. Can you donate to a food pantry? Can you buy masks? Can you make masks? Can you help people tie their masks? Use your keyboard and your phone to write and speak words of encouragement.
Do what you can do. If you cannot help, at least don’t be part of the problem. Don’t do things that will endanger the lives of others or frighten the people who love you. Wash your hands, wear your mask, stay home when you can. This applies to me: if I cannot write a good poem, I can read one for now, and let it percolate in my brain. If you cannot face getting all the way dressed, at least brush your teeth and hair. Do small things that your future self will appreciate — pay the bills, wash the dishes, greet people, even if you have to do it from afar.
5) Keep in mind that this will end.
It is maddening not to know when or how this will end, but if we keep in mind that some day it will be over, we can think more clearly and with better hope.
This should, of course, have been my first suggestion. If you are not a praying person, if you don’t have a prayer book, if this hasn’t been your tradition, that’s okay. Prayer is communion with God. Find a quiet place and, out loud or in the privacy of your head and heart, tell God what’s going on and what you think you need. Ask Him if this is really so. Ask Him to send good advice, good thoughts, good solutions. You can tell God when you are scared. It’s not like He doesn’t already know. You can ask him to watch over the people you cannot be with. He already loves them and knows them better than you do.
One of my favorite icons illustrates a section from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.”
When the stress cramps my back and I find myself hunched over and fearful, I force my shoulders back and breath. Rest in God.
Facebook encouraged me to do a fundraiser for the occasion, I don’t like that
But. twenty years ago I turned the age my mother was when she died and ten years ago, I turned the age my brother was when he died.
This year I reach the age Dad was when he died, and realize afresh just how young that really was. It’s a milestone, but it’s the kind that forces one to think. So here’s what I want:
I mean, I shouldn’t have candy, flowers are expensive because of Valentine’s Day, and have you seen my house? As much as I would like more books, it would be hoarding to ask for more.
But life is short, we are not promised each other’s company indefinitely, and you want to be at peace with the people near you and those with whom you share history, space, and blood.
The simmering resentments that poison everyday life suck away energy you could be spending joyfully, cherishing the good things that God sent you in the people and places around you.
Pray for strength, courage, and just do it.
Stop being angry at someone who has hurt you or with whom you disagree. Have compassion on someone who has disappointed you and try to be as strong as you wish he or she had been in your moment of need.
You don’t have to TELL the person that you forgive them and truly in most cases it’s better if you don’t.
Just, for me, do it.
Do it for you.
And do it for the person whom you miss.
And then I will be a very happy, if unspeakably old, birthday person.
A friend is leaving a job that she loves, to do more things she loves, and because I had been helped through this, years back, I knew what to say.
Back in the day, I was miserable.
It was near the end of my senior year at Commonwealth School in Boston and all around, people were planning the next year, without me. Spring air wafted in through open windows while people discussed the new classes being offered and the classes I loved that were being cut because the teachers who created them were moving on to colleges also. Old books were being discarded, new books arriving in large boxes. As I worked one of my last few sessions in the school kitchen with Ila Moore, the chorus in the next room was singing, with vigor but without seniors, Mozart’s Laudate Pueri Dominum,which we had sung when I was in ninth grade. It’s a rousing piece, but in my cocoon of misery I sang along softly as I chopped carrots and mourned. The bell rang, and I went upstairs, but nothing was quite familiar. The building had already been painted in anticipation of changes. The carpeting was new, the beloved couch in the lobby replaced. The lockers had been emptied, bulletin boards stripped. The founding headmaster, Charles Merrill, was retiring, and had largely dismantled his glorious office, putting trinkets from all over the world outside for students and faculty to take as a memento. “It’s like a free yard sale!” a friend exclaimed. But it felt more like a selective eviction, with some people staying.
As part of daily life Commonwealth had us students work for the school on teams in rotation, two weeks of a meal job, two weeks of a non-meal job, and two weeks off. The building becomes yours when you don’t just use it, but also maintain it. I had swept these floors and dusted these stairs and bookcases. The artwork, freshly rehung, was a mixture of reprints of classics and original works by faculty and students. I had seen some of these painted, and had helped to hang others. How could I think of leaving this place? How could they think of carrying on without us 41 seniors, the largest class in the school’s history at the time? How could Mr. Merrill leave? How could we let him? What, if anything, were any of us thinking?
Walking around what felt like the detritus of my education, I remembered that I hadn’t asked my “little sister” to sign my yearbook. Azania’s mother was one of the first alumnae or alumni to have a child attend the school, and like me, she had come from the Boston Public Schools, which made the rigor of Commonwealth something of a shock. But she was hard working, kind, and had common sense and a cheerful nature which made it a joy to be around her. She was firmly a part of the weave and weft of the school now. I found her on the third floor, just outside my advisor’s classroom. Mr. Hughes called me in for a quick chat while Azania and her friends signed my yearbook.
Mr. Hughes had the corner room, overlooking both Commonwealth and Dartmouth. He had a four-sided spinning bookcase from which he often pulled books to read from to us. He had taught me how to write clearly but in my own voice. He had comforted me in times of crisis and had explained exactly what I was doing wrong when I’d run aground. Today, he was almost playful. He lowered his glasses on his nose to see me better and with his huge smile that suggested delightful surprises ahead, asked, “So, what classes do you anticipate taking at Wellesley?”
The question startled me. I had been busy with preparation for AP tests and finals, and then I was blindsided by the changes around me. I frankly had not given the matter much thought yet.
I chose the College because it had a good English department and offered Russian, so part of my schedule was a foregone conclusion. I needed to take a science, so I chose Chemistry. I wanted to teach, so I would have to take Psychology. But there were gaps which I could fill in by choosing almost anything once I arrived on campus in the Fall. I had forgotten — there would be so many more classes than even Commonwealth could offer. Wellesley had a sprawling campus full of buildings devoted to and equipped for subject matters — science, music, academics — so many faculty, so many subjects, and almost all open to eighteen year-old me!
Paradigm shift had begun. My mind had left its dark place and drifted up Route Nine to the college that awaited me. Proverbs 15:23 came to mind; “[…] a word in due season, how good is it.”
But there was more.
When I stepped into the hallway, Azania handed me my yearbook and ran off to her next class. I opened it and read what she had written.
“God bless your new beginnings.”
More things I had forgotten.
Wellesley’s two mottos had inspired me. One, “Non ministrari, sed ministrare” (which the volley ball team proudly translated on their tee shirts as “Not to be served unto, but to serve,”) was in complete accord with everything my father had taught me about our purpose in life, to love God and love each other and to show that love through service.
The second motto, “Incipit nova vita,” now came to mind.
A new life begins.
I took in a deep breath of Spring, books, the familiar, and a hint of the unknown, and smiled.
I had been calling the ceremony we were preparing for “graduation,” but it had another name: commencement. We were commencing.
And life in the old place would go on without us, not in spite of us but building upon what we did.
When something ends, it is so something else can begin.
And so to my friends facing retirement or relocation, upheaval or a new place and way to serve, let me share the good words which change everything.
This was a summer unlike any other. We have moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and sold our house in Connecticut with the huge yard and garden. We are living in a townhouse apartment so new that the GPS cannot find it. It was under construction when we visited to sign the lease. We are getting used to being able to make toast and use the microwave at the same time and not having to mow the lawn or shovel the snow. Ironically, now that we have a patio instead of a back yard, I have done more gardening than I had in three years. It started out as a way to get to know my new State.
I went to a plant sale at the local high school at the beginning of the summer and purchased some plants, thinking that this would give me the typical local vegetables. However, it turns out that people who want normal plants go to the normal places like plant nurseries and box stores; the school plant sale was for exotic varieties. And so instead of grape and Roma tomatoes, I had yellow baby tomatoes shaped like a butternut squash, and yellow Roma tomatoes.
Yellow tomatoes were just the beginning. I had never successfully grown okra before — in Texas I was too busy and in Connecticut it was too cold. So I bought three okra plants. The flowers were gorgeous — rather like hibiscus flowers. But the okra pods were not green; they were red. A tag on the plant, which I found only after I picked the first three okra pods, said it was Red Velvet okra. We don’t have a garden hose or a water source on the patio, so we have been hauling water from the kitchen to the patio almost daily.
However, it’s been a troubling summer. I keep index cards next to the computer to write down prayer requests from friends. I had to get bigger index cards. Most of it is what Aslan would call “someone else’s story,” but friends with sick children and grandchildren, friends with sick parents, friends whose friends have died suddenly or are gravely ill. In the middle of all that, we haul the water out to the patio daily and pick the beans, the squash, the cucumber (only one made it), the yellow tomatoes, the red okra, the new fruits of a new place. Different but good; we are learning. The routine gives shape to the day and makes me follow the weather.
My husband sometimes waters the plants for me and takes an interest in the daily haul. When I brought in a handful of strange produce, my husband asked about how I know they are ripe. “If the tomatoes never turn red, how do you know when they’re ready to be picked?”
I said, “Oh, that’s easy. I hold my hand beneath the fruit and wiggle my fingers. If the tomatoes fall into my hand, they’re ready. If they cling to the vine, they aren’t.” I opened my hand and we ate the sweet, strange tomatoes.
And I thought of one of my favorite icons. This is a fresco in a church I’ve never been to, but I have it in my “Comforting Images” file to look at when I am stressed. It is an illustration of a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” The souls, depicted as people used to be prepared for burial, in winding linen cloth, rest in God’s palm while Angels approach bearing yet more souls. These souls are not alone or unsupported.
I love this icon and love that I thought of it. The people about whom I had been worrying, and for whom we had been praying, seemed safer. God’s hand is beneath them, waiting. Sometimes, God wiggles His fingers. They don’t bruise, they don’t force; they test and invite. After all, these hands know us; they have made and fashioned us.We don’t fall into His palm until we are ready.
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; such a safe and beautiful place to be at rest.