Facebook shared this memory with me. I forgot how good it felt to see my words in print. I share it because sometimes these things do not go as we would wish.
I waited a long time at Staples, in line behind someone who was coming up with what he wanted on a banner while I and increasingly more other people waited. “I do not wish to be an angry person, Lord. And yet here I am,” I prayed. “Help me to be patient, at least, even if I don’t feel that way.”
The lady at the counter continued to help the man ahead of me, but the man who had helped me two days ago came over from the self-serve copiers, where life was temporarily going as it should, and said, “May I help you?”
“Yes, thank you! I’m waiting for my two copies of my thesis?”
I spelled our name, and he tried three times and found it at last.
He ducked under the counter and stood up again.
“Here!” he said triumphantly, and handed me the folder with my original thesis. No box, no bag, no remaining paper. He beamed at me as if he wrote it himself. And at first I start to smile back. It is a lovely thesis. But there seemed to be too few pages.
“Wait. That’s my thesis.”
“Yes!” he said, happily.
I shuffled through the pages. Only one copy. *The* one copy that I dropped off.
I took a deep breath and didn’t let all of it out.
“I had asked that you make two copies on the paper that I bought? And I wanted the leftover paper?”
“Ah!” he said, and dug under the counter.
“Here!” he said, once again triumphant.
It was the work order and the leftover paper in a box with no lid.
I channeled the person I have to become to substitute for Kindergarten, where their intentions are always good, always, one tells oneself. Always.
“This is the extra paper, which is good, but I had wanted the thesis? Two copies? And could I have a box for this, please?”
“We took your lid for the paper box?”
“Yes, apparently, ” I said, with a regretful little nod, as if I were the one who lost it.
He looked around, and could not find the lid, so he took out another box for copies, giving me a look that bordered on reproachful
“Could we find the copies of the thesis?” At this point, it was a real question.
Once more he looked under the counter.
“Ah!” he said, and handed me two boxes.
With no small amount of trepidation, I opened them. Yes. Both had one copy each of “Words So Far from Roslindale.”
“Thank you!” I said, smiling at last.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and seemed genuinely pleased.
“And, could I have a bag?”
His face fell.
Apparently, I could not.
“We don’t have one the right size,” he said. “But wait! Would this do?”
“This” was a large box, somewhat crushed, one foot by two, maybe four inches tall, missing a flap.
It did do. Close enough. If I took the box and smiled, I could leave the store.
I took the box, thanked him, smiled, and left, oh, I got to leave, I left the store.
And now my thesis is handed in.
And glory be to God.
Writing prompt: The words don’t do anyone else any good while they are still in your head.
Please forgive my absence from this page. My eyes have been wonky, which is terrifying, for someone who entered Kindergarten able to read with fluidity, but is normal for someone who just had two cataract surgeries. The doctors assure me that my progress is within the realm of the normal. In church at night, I can read well because the surroundings are dark and the type is big. At home, I struggle, relying on my own version of “predictive text” for the prayers that I’ve memorized, sometimes launching into parts of morning prayers in the evening or vice versa. When I have to read a menu, the words come out slowly and in syllables. It is maddening.
I decided that I would work on my granddaughter’s hat. a work in progress but not much. The pattern is simple — cast on sixty stitches, knit four and purl four back and forth across the rows until the thing is ten inches long, then drop one stitch per group and knit three, purl three, until it’s another three inches, then taper down to two stitches per clump, then one, then bind it off and stitch the sides together. Easy, unless you are having trouble seeing. I mixed up with stitches were supposed to be knit and which were supposed to be purled. And I didn’t see what I had done until the next day’s eyedrops wore off.
My work was going to have to be unraveled.
Unraveling the written word
Writers can relate. At some point in the editorial process, a writer discovers a past error, an inconsistency, and infelicity, or worse, just changes his mind. That which was written has to be unraveled and reconstructed. And the process is fraught with peril, because removing one thing shifts everything else around it.
“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
When I started taking out the false stitches of my knitting, I found that I had accidentally dropped a stitch or two along the way. This meant going back many rows further than I’d intended and dredging up stitches using a hairpin and carefully counting everything by holding the knitting at a variety of distances from my face like an air trombone. The same thing happens when you change something in a poem.
The rhyme scheme changes, the meter gets messed up, the meaning shifts, and all of the sudden you no longer have what you had. I am convinced that Keats left “Cortez” where “Balboa” should have been in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” because one more syllable, and one that ended with a vowel, was simply too much. (You can read more about it here.)
In fiction writing, authors change names, and before computers it was much harder. Margaret Mitchell could not use the search feature to change “Pansy” to “Scarlett” when she was writing “Gone with the Wind.” Some of your work is easier. But some isn’t. Every writer needs an editor to make sure that changed locations, marital situations, number of children, and occupations in their novels are consistent.
In nonfiction, things have to change when the writer learns new facts. A family lie about where an ancestor was born, the true identity of the board of directors for a shady corporation, the true side effects of a medication and the research used to defend it, all should cause the author to rewrite and, if need be, re-issue.
Other times, you change your mind about something write writing. Part of my research for my third-semester project involved reading “The House of Happy Endings,” the ironically named story of the son of the authors of the Uncle Wiggly stories. The book documents the author’s father’s mental breakdown over time. But I read it just as I had been diagnosed with diabetes, and what looked to the author like mental illness struck me as a classic case of low blood sugar. A doctor’s look at the memoir would make a fascinating read.
Television is notorious for changing plots and re-casting shows without warning. One of the most notorious examples when the dream scene from Dallas that succeeded in bringing back a popular character from the dead, but at the cost of an entire season’s plot development. The thirty-one episodes between the death and reappearance of Bobby Eweing were wiped away like mist from a shower. Fans were elated. Writers were busy!
In our lives, one change can provoke so many more. In my case, I can leave the house without my bifocals, but not without my sunglasses. When you move a piece of furniture or move up a grade in school, paradigm shift follows. You have to re-examine old routines and establish new ones. This can be bad, this can be frustrating, yes, but it can also be very good.
Writing Prompt — Unravel Something!
Take a piece of writing that you are almost satisfied with, and change something from an early part of it. See what that does to the rest,
In a poem, does it change the rhyme scheme? Good. Maybe the whole meter needs to be changed.
In non-fiction, ask a what-if question. How would you have felt if you knew, at the time, featured, the things that you learned later? How does a new scientific development affect our understanding in other ways? When Pluto ceased to be a planet, school children had to learn a disappointing new phrase — “My Very Educated Mother Just Made Us Nothing!”
Change something in your fictions. Move your characters to another place or time. This will affect their diction and their dress. Change a character’s sex or speech pattern. Make a taciturn character loquacious and switch long paragraphs into pithy sentences to see what else changes as a result.
Not Just Writing
And, in your life, make a change. Drive a different way to work. Visit a different grocery store. Dig through your Facebook friends and check on someone whose news you don’t usually follow. Then, write about how this changes you. You might have an essay. You might have a novel. Or you may learn that you love better what you already do and have.
But you won’t know until you unravel the fabric of your normal day.
All over the world, Orthodox Christians are gathering in dark churches to sing and read the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The hymns are especially moving, focusing on repentance and using the people of the Bible for examples, both good and bad. But when your husband is an Orthodox priest, the hymns have another layer of meaning. The eirmosi of this canon are what the clergy sing as they carry a priest around the church, in his open coffin, at the conclusion of the funeral service.
I appreciate that in the Orthodox Church, the services are already laid out for you. You don’t have to write your own wedding vows. You don’t have to dream up an appropriate celebration of life when someone dies. At the wedding, everyone prays for the establishment of the marriage and the Church lists good examples from the Bible. At a funeral, everyone prays for the departed, and we remember that we, too, will die, so we should be prepared, by growing closer to God and being kind to each other.
An Orthodox funeral is not short, but a priest’s funeral is like a layman’s funeral on steroids. There are five Gospel readings instead of one. The entire Kontakion for the departed is read, with all twenty-four verses, instead of the shorter form used at every lay funeral and memorial service. And at the end of the service the priest, vested and in his coffin, is hoisted by his fellow clergy and carried around the church that he served, not unlike the athlete in Housman’s poem:
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
“To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)
All of which brings me to the question: what will they sing at your funeral?
Or, rather, since this is a writing prompt, “What will they sing at your character’s funeral?”
Is there a song that epitomizes your life, or the life of your hero, or the life of your villain?
The conflict behind the scenes and even overtly at funerals that can be such heartache in the life of people can be gold in the life of a book. What is there that the deceased wants that someone else does not want?
When the Diocese of Providence told Roman Catholics that they could not play “Danny Boy” on bagpipes at funerals, one wag said, “I want ‘Danny Boy’ sung at my funeral Mass, and if I don’t hear it, I’m going to get up and walk out!”
Hearing Songs Again
Because I am not Roman Catholic, I do not attend Mass on a regular basis. But there are hymns that are sung at many funerals, like “Be Not Afraid,” that I hear only at christenings, baptisms, and funerals. Hearing the hymn at the wedding of a friend’s grandchildren whom I last saw at her funeral, where this was sung, has two different effects. It makes me miss my friend more. And it sort of makes it feel like she has been included.
Funerals are great for writers.
The possibilities for fiction are endless. We see them in movies and television — the funeral designed by one set of friends or relatives and attended and critiqued, by others, in ‘The Kominsky Method;” the modern children at a traditional funeral who don’t know what to do in “Grand Torino;” Data’s choice of a New Orleans Jazz funeral for Geordi and Ro’s funeral on “Star Trek, The Next Generation” are all examples of how a funeral can force characters together to underscore their differences and further the plot.
For non-fiction, you can write about a funeral you were at, or a funeral you missed. You can write speculatively about the service you envisioned or in an expository manner about the one you actually did attend.
But music is something special. Just as the sports teams, television shows, and movies have theme songs, your funeral music, like your wedding music, is a reflection on your life, and when people hear it again, in another context, it can bring you to mind the way the eirmosi of the Great Canon remind me of standing with a tear-stained face with friends and family at the funerals of priests and bishops whom we love.
In “Hamilton,” the big music question is, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”
All of us die. Most funerals have music (and if they don’t, that’s worth writing about also.)
Where did you hear a song that you also heard (before or after) at a loved ones funeral?
What did you sing at your father’s funeral?
What song or hymn would you want people to sing for you?
Writing prompt: Remember a funeral you attended. Make a connection between the deceased and the music. Or write about the disconnect between the deceased and the service.
We had a parishioner who was a pioneer in nuclear physics. She and her husband were childless, and toward the end of her life, she lived with her nephews, who loved her very much. The nephews’ wives also loved her, but were constantly after her to try something different with her hair, with her make-up, and with her clothes. When this lady died, the nephews’ girlfriends made the arrangements, including choosing a new stylist and make-up artist for the funeral. This somber, scholarly woman who always wore her hair in a discreet gray bun lay in her coffin with bold make-up, blond hair, and a jewel toned blouse.
I could have sworn I saw her wink at me.
The Great Canon
Coming back to the Great Canon, I think I know some of the reasons why we sing what we do at the funeral of a priest. We pray for the dead always, but especially in the first forty days after their repose, when the soul is judged. And so we use the hymns with which we launch Great Lent, a journey of forty days, for launching the clergy we love on this journey. We hope that, like Great Lent, the priest’s forty days’ journey will end also with a glorious resurrection.
But also, the words of the canon profess deep faith, and hope, and love. As we stand behind the priest in church when these words are sung, so we stand behind him in procession, when they are sung again. It is goodbye. It is an honor guard. It is our battle hymn.
I will leave you with the first ode eiromos:
He is my Helper and Protector, and has become my salvation. This is my God and I will glorify Him. My father’s God and I will exalt Him. For gloriously has He been glorified.
I didn’t write a writing prompt this week because I am gearing up for my second cataract surgery and Wednesday was the day when I could bend and clean. That’s not what I did, but it reminded me of a second person essay that I wrote for one of my FUMFA (Fairfield University MFA in Writing) on why you, or I, don’t write more.
We all should write more.
Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my auntie Rita’s repose. I still miss her.
And so this excerpt is in her memory. Make yourself some good pasta and a nice salad, and eat with people you love.
(Background: At the time, we lived in Connecticut and my daughter was in college in Massachusetts, not far from the part of Boston, Roslindale, where I grew up.)
When your Auntie Rita gets cancer, the other aunties step in, and teach you how to have a cancer party at hospice. You tell Auntie Chee Chee the story of Auntie Betty and the Spaghetti Sauce. It’s a wonderful story. You kick yourself for not having written it down.
Here’s the story.
Auntie Rita said, “Betty’s kids came to my house, and when they came home, they raved about my spaghetti sauce. And so Betty called me, and she sighed, and said, ‘My kids can’t stop talking about your sauce. So I guess I’d better ask you for the recipe.’ And I say, ‘I hope you have a pen and paper handy to write it down, because it’s complicated.’ So she gets a pen and paper.
“And I say, ‘Are you ready?’ And she says ‘Yah.’ So I say, ‘Here’s what you do. You take a stick of butter.’”
And because she’s Auntie Rita and her Boston accent is so thick, of course she doesn’t say “butter”. She says “buttah”, and she says it like it’s the best thing God ever made.
“’You take your stick of butter, and you melt it in the pan. You got that?’ And she said yes. And I said, ‘And then you pour in a jar of Ragu and you heat it up. And that’s my secret recipe.’ Betty was so mad.”
And she laughed.
But when you tell the story to Auntie Chee Chee, she says, “Ann Marie. If you’re coming to see your daughter, you could stop by hospice and see us.” And you think it strange that she says “us” but of course you agree.
You stop by your stepmother’s house on the way, the one that used to be yours, the one that your grandfather bought for your grandmother before both of them died, before your mother died, before your father died. It is not your house any more. It is your stepmother’s, and she is working late and cannot see you this visit.
You bring her dinner, because she is alone now, and nobody ever cooks for her. Without you there to remind people that it’s her birthday, her name day, the would-be anniversary of her marrying your dad, then sometimes your siblings drop the ball. So while it’s not an occasion, you are there, and she has to work late, which is hard. You go shopping at the new yuppie market where two angry Irish brothers used to have a terrible grocery store with warm milk and stale bread. The new store, like so much of Roslindale, is dazzling, expensive, and completely foreign. But their food is good — wholesome and fresh, displayed with care. The vegetables are clean and attractive. Shopping here is a pleasure.
The rotisserie chicken at the store looks like something from a painting. The chickens are brown and glistening. They sit in a puddle of their own juice, and each looks so good that you get one for your stepmother and one for your aunt. The other aunties say Rita is not eating much, and you want to fix that.
Women want to fix things.
Sometimes even more than they want to write.
You take a look around the changed house that you didn’t always especially enjoy living in, and you head on to to the North Shore, to the gorgeous new hospice that they thoughtfully built halfway between Auntie Rita’s house and Auntie Chee Chee’s.
Because your husband is a clergyman, you have been to several different hospices before, in three States, plus the former run-down hotel in Houston that became run-down housing for Aids victims and their caretakers. So you are a connoisseur. This is a very nice hospice. Because you are near Boston, because you are from Boston, you even pronounce it to be “pissa” before realizing that this is like laughing in church. You straighten your face and walk down the hallway to find your aunt.
But you don’t find your aunt. You find all your aunties.
They used to have different colored hair, but now everyone has settled on shades very close to your own. Mary, whose hair was black and who always was skinny, is there, and Chee Chee, with reddish gold hair, and Katie, with goldish red hair, Peggy who has eight kids and still looks to be twenty, and Betty, all the way from Maine, and Dorothy, a darker red than the others perhaps because she’s an actress, and Rita, who has always looked like you, all looking up, all so glad to see you. You hug and kiss them all and admire their sweaters – turquoise, lavender, blue – and say, “I always could figure out what colors would look good on me by looking at my aunties.” And everyone smiles.
They are seated around a table with teacups, crumbs from pastries, and pictures of all their children and grandchildren. It doesn’t have to be this new century. It could be your grandmother’s dining room in 1972, uncles and aunts smoking and talking over Salada tea with milk, only, nobody smokes anymore, and they are done with half the husbands.
And your weary heart rejoices as they call out your name, and marvel that your daughter could be so grown up, and ask about the play she is in. She is not in the play. She is in the pit orchestra. But for your aunties, that makes her the star, because she is their grandniece.
And oh, Rita is so happy with the chicken. “That looks so good,” she says. “That looks so good that I want to eat some right now.”
And all the other aunties beam at you. And they make you sit down and have a muffin and some tea.
And Auntie Chee Chee asks you to have a little supper with them, only, of course, it’s “suppah,” and who can resist suppah with the aunties?
So they serve out some salad, and each aunt talks about the parts that she can and cannot eat, and Rita makes everyone have a little bit of chicken, and Auntie Chee Chee brings out spaghetti, and it’s so good, so good. And you smile at her.
Because you taste the butter.
And you know the recipe.
And you feel like you’re sitting at the grown-up table, a very special treat.
It is a kind of coming of age, to have a seat at the cancer party. It is as if you were given the mantle that nobody wants, but that you need. You wear it, and you wear it well, because it comes in turquoise, lavender, blue and green, your colors, and it was draped on your newly squared shoulders with love, for when you need it, in time, yourself, to stay warm.
At one point my life as a substitute teacher and my life as a grad student in an MFA program intertwined. I had taken amazing classes with Kim Dana Kupperman, who showed us a variety of structures for essays, and with Bill Patrick, whose writing prompts took us so far away from the usual that I found myself writing about things that I hadn’t known had bothered me. In imitation, I tried to use daily teaching events and objects as a prompt. Some of them worked. Others gave me great stories to use to console young authors some day. The periodic table of elements exercise was the latter.
I had double majored in English and Russian at Wellesley, and got my teaching certification in high school English, but Massachusetts changed the rules after I was certified for life and required teachers to get a Master’s in Education. Even if I hadn’t had four school aged children, I could not have managed taking classes, being a clergyman’s wife, and keeping up with my own writing. But I became a substitute teacher when our youngest started middle school, searching for a grade level that would make me want to take education classes once more. Special needs pre-school? First grade? Third? Wonderful children, but no. Middle school? High school? My husband took Alternative Certification courses and I read his materials. No. I couldn’t do it.
I thought I would substitute for English, but the dirty secret is that very few English teachers leave good sub plans. Some teachers are so good at what they do that they don’t have to think about it. Having to explain it to someone else was just too much on top of the illness or event that took them out of school for the day. Others didn’t mind if their students had a day off, without considering the consequences of a room full of teenagers whose work and behavior will not be graded. If you throw in an outdated seating chart and attendance list, you have anonymous bad behavior with a ripple effect. What is a good sub plan? On the occasion when I have subbed for a former Teacher of the Year, I have had good instructions, a seating chart with names and, in later years, photos; a copy of the assignment with answers; a list of students who are helpful and students who cannot be together; phone extensions for the guidance counselor and favorite people of students with anxiety or special needs who may want a familiar face. There is also a list of who can disobey certain rules (“X may leave without a pass. Y may go to the nurse at any time.”)
There were some people for whom I substituted cheerfully. Good English teachers left me a copy of the book and the assignment, an answer key, and a place to leave the collected papers. The teachers who made my private “never again” list had instructions that said, “The students will continue to work on t heir Hamlet papers that are due Monday,” because that statement never turned out to be true, and the ones who made the list I shared with the secretary at the front desk (who changed assignments at the last minute as needed and to whom I tried not to say no) were those who have the students an assignment on Google Classroom that a) did not need to be completed that day and b) that I couldn’t even see.
I found myself gravitating to the Science Department at one high school because both the department head and the teachers were so dedicated to making sure their students didn’t miss a day of learning just because the teacher was out. The department head always came in, made sure there were enough books, that there was paper, there were pencils, the assignment was appropriate, that I had an answer key, and he collected the completed work and asked to be debriefed at the end of the day. God bless him. He was also someone who took notes for the teacher and the appropriate administrators if I told him a student had a bad day (one had seen bodies removed from a burnt building on his way to school) or were having or causing problems. I learned so much science that I joke about going on Jeopardy as a retirement plan.
The day of the Periodic Table experiment, I had been thinking about time and contrast. I had read Natalia Ginzburg‘s essay, “He and I,” and I thought about my husband and me. I decided I would contrast us by comparing what element of the periodic table represented our age at key events in our life together — when we first met, our first date, our marriages and moves and the birth of our children, etc. I decided I would be mysterious, and not give our actual age, but make the reader look up the element to find the answer. I started out with when we met.
When we met, I was chlorine
and you were iron.
I was pure but anemic,
were all I needed.
Reader, there were more verses. And they were worse.
But I filled a notebook later with stray notes and images that were better than these, that sprung from my dissatisfaction with these. And I learned the value of bad writing. It’s like the water you run through the faucet in an older home to clear the pipes before you get to the water that you can actually drink.
I have since had many more opportunities to write badly. Covid has inspired me.
I sip my coffee
but taste only bitterness.
is how people die.
I have been taking classes in things that are enormously difficult for me, lately, both professionally and to become a better choir singer and conductor. I am learning about liturgics and musical intervals, design and marketing, Library of Congress data and online newsletters. My fingers know how to type what I am thinking, and my brain automatically punctuates words and phrases as they flow, but all this else is new and hard. In college I almost never took a class that wasn’t in something in which I had some talent. A friend accused me of taking classes only from people whom I loved. Well, of course! Life is short, college is shorter, and even with getting permission to take five classes some semesters and auditing a sixth others, four years of college means no more than twenty classes at your disposal. Filter out the requirements and the prerequisites, and you only get a fistful of opportunities to learn about the things that give you strength and joy. But now I need to learn the things I can’t pick up intuitively. I cried to my husband about how bad I was at this. “Annie,” he said, “you will never get better unless you can accept being bad first. When you were born, could you walk? No, and you fell a lot while learning! Did you learn how to read without making mistakes? This is like that.”
My class dean, Pamela Daniels, herself an author, taught her writing students the concept of “the box” where you store the parts of a story or book that don’t fit this situation. Those words are not lost; they just are not right for this project. That made editing easier for some. Author Diana Giovinazzo wrote a powerful essay on how writing about her grief at the death of her friend changed the writing she planned to do, but the bad prose had good consequences. She found some solace, and the ideas she visited showed up in her unrelated prose.
“You have to be very productive in order to become excellent. You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period. It may very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You may be ready to move into your good period and your excellent period. But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”
So, be bad first. Write bad poetry. Create esoteric essays that go on for too many pages. Forge underdeveloped characters in anachronistic situations. Write too much. Write with too much detail. Write without giving the reader enough to follow. Write with pathos, with malice, with hunger, and with love. And then, set it aside for a little. You might want to edit it. You might want to set it on fire and dance around it howling. Or you might use erasure to find the heart of the matter.
And find someone who loves you or your writing (Venn diagram that has a beautiful middle) to give you some feedback.
Once, in college, I wrote seventeen stanzas of poetry because there were three lines that I really loved, but I didn’t think they were strong enough to stand alone. I showed them to Arthur Gold, the department chair at the time, who would read my work closely and with respect when I still felt inchoate. He chomped on his pipe and said, through half his teeth, “These three lines are good. Put them in the middle of a page and give it a title.” And I won an honorable mention in a contest with them.
But if I hadn’t, I would still remember that he taught me to trust that the three lines were good, and didn’t need sixteen stanzas of insulation.
Writing Prompt: Go write something badly. Start with a topic that doesn’t mean anything to you, and from there, and from that, learn what it is you need to write.