Why yes, I do kind of want to go on a time travel field trip to my grandmother’s backyard and run through the sprinkler with my brothers and cousins.
West Medford, MA is about eleven miles from Roslindale, the part of Boston where we lived. My grandparents house was on a hill, and the backyard had Grandpa’s garden, a shrine to the Virgin, a tree, and the roof of the garage, which was built into the hill. There was a small greenhouse off the dining room, and through its windows the adults could see us as we played and we could see them, sitting at the table and talking over tea. My cousins and I, who in cold weather would be inside, singing into hair brushes as if they were microphones or trying on my grandmother’s hats, in the summer instead shrieked under the arcing ice cold water. When the sun was just right, we saw the miracle of a rainbow. Then we went back to shrieking.
That house has been sold twice since and I have moved to three different States. But on a day like this, hot and humid, I can almost taste that hot-rubber flavored water and feel the grass, so much longer than ours in Roslindale.
And I want to look through the window and see my aunts and parents and Mimi and Grandpa, all casually glancing to make sure that the noises they hear are good shrieks. Afterwards, we can have tea with milk and sugar.
You may want to go on a similar field trip of the brain. Choose a time and space where you are not, but where you have been.
Choose a year and write about what you would be doing on this day — melting in a classroom with no a.c.; nursing a baby who now is grown; freezing in Australia; working in the garden.
If your present is better than your past, you could write about what was vs. what is.
If your present is worse than you thought it would be, write about where you were and where you are.
Write about what someone else was doing while you were in the place of your reverie. For example, if I chose this day in 1977, I would be graduating from the Mary E. Curley Middle School. My husband, not quite ten years my senior, was just home from a semester abroad from grad school, and was looking for work. We both found ourselves in strange places shortly after — he found a job drafting, and my father leased a variety store, where my brother and I worked, to help pay for our high school tuition.
When you’re done….
These short pieces could become a poem or could be part of something longer. In a longer piece of writing, you want to give a character in transition a chance to reflect. My one time mentor, the late writer Da Chen, said in an interview:
Younger writers feel compelled to have their characters do one thing after another in an almost commercial, cinematic vision. But a novel is different. Your writing should in some way reflect the rhythm of life. If your character is being chased, riding a horse through the desert from one oasis to another, okay, that’s great, but the sun comes up and goes down, he stops sometimes, he has to eat, and he has to sleep. Let the writing reflect that a little. Sometimes you need to take a break. The break can be thoughts, in the heart, in the soul. Sometimes you need a spatial break. Pad the passage with an additional three lines. That is enough to make a difference.
The guy goes from one oasis to another drinking water, you should let him sleep. He’s sitting on his horse, give him a break, let him look up at the moon. Write about the moon for a few sentences. Otherwise it’s just fatiguing. And you will run out of deserts.
If you want your writing to be lyrical, pause. Sometimes the man has to get off of the freaking horse.
The moment in time that you choose to revisit could be just such a passage. The next part is also a challenge: Where was your freaking horse taking you?
The cicadas which are emerging from underground all over North America are a great gift to writers. Their life cycle offers so many metaphors. They leave their shells behind, as so many of us do in June when people graduate, marry, or move. They travel in large numbers to thwart predators. Their shells repulse some people while others find the translucent wings, their struggle to arise from the earth, and their flight from the ground a thing of beauty. But also, they offer the canny writer a new angle for writing about the passage of time.
A generation, in the Bible, is fourteen years. Cicadas emerge every seventeen years. This year, I am fifty-eight and living in Ohio with my semi-retired husband. Seventeen years ago, I was 41. We had arrived in Connecticut just four years before; the oldest of our children was about to graduate high school and start college in another State. Seventeen years before that, we were newlyweds with two children, living in Boston. I had not yet had a miscarriage. My husband’s ordination to the priesthood, our life in Texas, and the birth of half our children took place while the cicadas were growing underground. And the cicada season before that, I was only seven. I have no memory of the insects themselves, but I remember being horrified by the sporadic empty shell still clinging to the tree like one of the frozen figures in Pompeii after the volcano. (I came from a family that would have told me more about Pompeii than about cicadas.)
Projecting time forward puts a new twist on the phenomenon. If I live to see the cicadas emerge again, I will be seventy-five. Will I have written That Book yet or not?
Rich soil here for planting ideas. The existence, life span, structure, and perception of cicadas offer a variety of frameworks for writers. Here are some prompts:
Write a piece in which two people stumble across a cicada (alive or a shell) and show their different reactions to it.
Comparing and contrasting two people works across all writing genres — Natalia Ginzburg does it brilliantly in her essay “He and I.” Pearl S. Buck masterfully handles this in “A Pavilion of Women” when she contrasts what the heroine, Madame Wu, knows about her best friend’s husband vs. what Mr. Kang knows about her. Borges does this in “Borges and I.” Parents know that two children can have very different reactions to something. A poet may write on one side of the page about being repulsed and on the other about being touched by beauty.
2) Look closely at a cicada shell and write your own response to it.
3) What were you doing last time the cicadas emerged? Were you alive yet? Did you see them? How old will you be when you see them again?
4) Make a list of concrete nouns about cicadas. Now make a list of abstract nouns. Now use them both in an essay, poem, or story.
5) Scientific writers could write about some aspect of the life of cicadas that has been overlooked — their environmental impact, the chasm between how people perceive cicadas and what they actually do. Make a list according to your specialty, then compare and contrast — cicadas have no teeth, but cicadas slice holes in plants in which they lay their eggs. Cicadas are not poisonous, but their shells are hard for dogs to digest.
6) Cicadas are noisy. Write a piece in which the hero is trying to concentrate on one thing and the sound of the cicadas is a distraction. (Bonus points if you can make the character relate this to the last time he or she heard the cicadas.)
Once you’ve done this with cicadas, you might try it with other insects — contrast cicadas with earthworms, write an “ant and grasshopper” type story about cicadas during their frolic, write a story about edible insects and the recipes people have created for cicadas… make it your own.
But write fast, because when they’re hidden, they won’t be back for another seventeen years.
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.