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.
“Please Lord, don’t let this kill me,” I prayed, silently, as I stepped in.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just spontaneously jump into the water, in January, in Ohio, just after it had stopped snowing.
I planned this, and prepared, and prayed.
I got a blessing first from one priest, then from another.
And I went to work figuring out how to make it work.
Let me go back a little….
I knew this year, 2021, was going to be difficult. And yet I was also grateful. We had survived 2020.
The pandemic did not hit our parish as hard as it hit others, for which mercy I am grateful. But like the rest of the world, we went through a huge upheaval. Church changed, not the structure of the services but the attire and the gatherings. We had masks, sanitizing, spacing, and even set up a livestream candle counter for those who needed to be home to be able to put up candles for their loved ones. It was Different and even off-putting but it was much better than no church at all. We, as a jurisdiction have a history of setting up storefront parishes and small missions wherever we have enough people gathered to pray; these have grown into cathedrals, schools and monasteries. And so from our history we know that we can survive, grow, and thrive if we are faithful in the small things for the duration. It just was a setback, which led to more changes.
My husband and I had settled into our “semi-retired” life somewhat before the pandemic hit. We had a townhouse apartment that held our books, half the windows looked out onto trees, with good internet access to streaming services when it wasn’t our turn to be at church. It felt a little like we were sitting out WWII in Switzerland, in that we didn’t have children home and we had already established the home offices from which we do our work. And while we weren’t praying together as a parish in one place, there were more services rather than fewer. Our parish took a maximalist approach to having services — if we had x people and were allowed y people per service, we had x/y services each week. It was a lot of church, sometimes four liturgies per week, which is a blessing, but hard work.
I had been pressed back into service. When we moved here, I joked that I was the Princess Eugenie of our choir — so many capable people were ahead of me in line to conduct the choir should the need arise that I could go put my tuning fork away and just sing alto, contentedly. I had been sight reading the new-to-me settings and translations of church music for a year, and had begun to learn our parish’s ways. But most of those people ahead of me to conduct were related and had forged what one person calls a “germ pod,” singing together with one priest while the deacon or I sang when my husband served, to cut down on the change of cross contamination should anyone be sick. God was merciful and nobody from among our singers or servers came down with COVID. But my husband and our rector did what I called the “Bruce Wayne and Batman” thing, not coming to the same services and having different altar servers, which was lonely because we like each other. We saw only so many people from church at a time, whether on the screen from the livestream or in person in church. The absence was disquieting.
And my mother-in-law, who reposed a month and a half ago, was suffering once more from the sarcoidosis that had plagued her for over thirty years and from two bad falls. She lived alone and only needed sporadic help, but it was clear that her condition was worsening and things could turn sour quickly. She had spent her previous birthday alone because of Michigan’s restrictions, although we came to celebrate as soon as visiting was allowed. (I will always be grateful to the people from Village Kitchen, in Ann Arbor, who brought lunch to her porch from another restaurant because they were not yet reopened. Beautiful people, wonderful food — worth a trip if you are out that way!) My mother-in-law was a trooper and an inspiration, keeping in touch by phone and through cards. But we lived under the shadow of the threat of unpleasant change.
I was grateful that things had not been worse and wanted strength for when things were no longer better. I wanted to do something inconvenient and beautiful for God. I wanted to be strengthened for whatever was to come. And I wanted to revel in the goodness of God and the mercy He had shown, so far. And an opportunity arose.
After Leaving the Water
I had often seen the videos that others shared of people in Russia dunking themselves three times in the freshly blessed outdoor water on Theophany, and my response was always, “Yeah, that’s something I never will do.” Then we moved to Ohio, and our parish had the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Little Miami River and three men from the parish plunged in. In January.
“Can girls do that, too?” one of the parish children asked, and the answer was, “Of course!” I started to think.
Our parish would be together again for the blessing of the water. Only one of the three men who had taken the plunge in 2020 were planning to do it this year. My aunts have a very strict rule: “Never go into the water alone. And don’t let your friends swim alone, either.” I couldn’t let our friend V. go into the water alone. After all, he could be swept away, and who would be able to get to him on time? But if the current took him, I could slow him down till help arrived.
And so a few months before January, I approached our rector and said, as casually as I could, “If one were to want to go into the water at the river on Theophany, theoretically, hypothetically, what would one wear?”
Fr. Daniel is hard to shock, and after a second to process the question he said, promptly, “Clothes. Clothes as opposed to a bathing suit, because it’s still church, and also because it’s cold. The water is cold and after you go in you will be wet and it will still be cold outside the water. So you will want a thick robe to put on immediately after, and towels.”
When I talked to his wife, later, she added, “We did this in Russia at one of St. Seraphim’s pools there. When you first go in, it’s so cold that it takes your breath away. So you will have to remember to wait and catch your breath before you go under again.”
I did online research about how to prepare. I read about cold water swimming, and learned the belly fat that I keep fighting may, in this case, be my friend. It would protect my organs. The Canadian Red Cross had some advice, as well. They said not to plunge in, but to wade. Well, our river is shallow on the edge, so that wouldn’t be a problem. They report, “Wear socks, aqua boots, neoprene surf boots or running shoes to stop your feet from sticking to the snowy or icy shore and prevent cuts and scrapes from the frozen ground.” I had water shoes, and decided to pair them with fuzzy socks.
I read about how a scuba suit works, and decided to wear nylon, and lots of it. I chose a dress that I could wear both to church and into the water. Then I took a cold shower while wearing it, and looked in the mirror, alone, to check for wardrobe malfunction.
I was going to need more undergarments.
I chose underwear: a synthetic girdle that would dry fast and hold things in when I was wet; something thicker than a sports bra, for the same reason; a half slip to keep the skirt from clinging; leggings (but I accidentally wore yoga pants instead) to keep my legs warm; my fuzzy socks; and water shoes to keep the rocks from tearing up my feet.
My husband and I discussed the matter more than once. He reluctantly blessed me to do this, if I really wanted to, but also blessed me to change my mind at the last minute. He said that I shouldn’t tell a lot of people that I planned to do this, so I could back out graciously if need be. But he agreed I would need allies, or, as I called them, co-conspirators. So I told my goddaughter and her mother. They agreed to hold my robe and coat and towels. And they would take pictures.
We also brought a hot water bottle, which I filled at church at coffee hour, and my leg cramp medicine, in case I needed them.
The great day came. Our parish chose the Sunday after Theophany for the blessing of the river, because the feast itself was midweek. It was snowing when we left church, raining as we drove in caravan to the river, and by the time we parked the sun was out, though the shore was lined with ice and snow. We approached the river.
I kept my headscarf and coat on but left my eyeglasses and purse in the car. The hot water bottle was in a thermal bag. My husband opened my door and said, “Still doing this?” I nodded. He smiled resolutely. We’ve been married a long time. My co-conspirators caught up with me and took all my accoutrements, God bless them.
The place where we bless the water is off the main drag by a little and we had to walk down-hill over not yet dry rocks. We formed clumps of people, walking down, and some friends made note of my footgear. “Oh! Matushka is prepared! Look at her shoes!”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going in.”
“Wait. Really? In the water? All the way?”
V. the other person who planned to go in, and his wife and daughters gasped and then beamed. “Really?”
“Yes!” I said, and showed them how my goddaughter’s mom was carrying most of my gear. My goddaughter beamed and said, “I’m going to hold her coat!” Word spread as the service began.
It was a glorious day. The air was fresh from the rain and snow, the ground clean, the sky blue and open. The children scattered down the shore, the girls gathering pretty stones and the toddler boys digging in the stony sand with sticks. There was still ice on the surface around the edge of the river, but in the middle, the water flowed.
The men of the parish held banner and icons, backs to the water, and our rector and my husband blessed the water using long poles with a cross on them.
“Okay,” said Fr. Daniel, “now it’s time, if anyone wants to go in.”
V. bravely drew near the water and I stood next to him. His wife explained the situation to him quickly. “Matushka! You are going in, too?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay! We will go in together!” And he held my hand and we started to wade. I made my cross, prayed silently, and we took one cautious step after another over the slippery stones.
I grew up in New England, and that water was cold, yes, but it wasn’t that much worse than Powder Point Beach, where I had spent most summers. My brother and I watched each other, in those years, and knew it was time to get out of the water when the other one’s lips turned blue.
We walked. My feet were wet, my ankles were wet, my calves, and then there was a sudden drop off, and I found myself gasping while standing in thigh-high water. V. made sure I was okay and took a few more steps, further out, so we would each have space.
“Okay!” he said, and he in Slavonic and I in English said, “In the name of the Father!”
And we dunked.
I tried to stand up and I couldn’t. I was floating, and hanging on, with my toes, to the nearest underwater rocks before the drop off. “And of the Son!” I dunked my head and tried to lower my backside, as well, but I was swimming rather than standing. “And of the Holy Spirit! Amen!” And we were done and V. walked over to me. I tried to stand but my feet could find no purchase, and a current started to carry me, slowly but steadfastly, away. I was in the very situation that I had hoped to keep V. from facing.
V. took it all in quickly, took two big steps, and grabbed my arm and tugged. I floated back toward him. He helped me stand and we walked out together, where we were greeted with hugs and shouts and towels and robes.
I was baptized when I was eleven. The monastery used an oil drum, cleaned up and painted blue. On days when my courage fails me and melancholy threatens, I remember the sensation of the cold water on my skin that day, and I am refreshed.
And this? This was a booster shot.
I smiled all the way home. There was going to be a wedding at three, to which we were invited. Fr. Daniel needed to set up the church and greet people, so we drove his son home. He had held a banner on a metal pole for the whole service while not wearing gloves; I let him defrost his hands against the hot water bottle. I didn’t need it. I didn’t need the leg cramp medicine. I only shivered a little. My endorphin level must have been off the charts.
My husband dropped me at home so I could change clothes for the wedding while he drove Fr. Daniel’s son home. “You’ll probably want to take a hot shower!” he said.
“No, I don’t think so! The water has been blessed. I think I will just let it dry.”
My bravodo did not last. When I entered the house, the cold set in. Once more I showered fully clothed, this time in the hottest water I could stand, and I let the sodden clothes fall one layer at a time to the bottom of the tub. I changed into wedding clothes, the warmest I could find of my nicer dresses, and bundled back up again. We were only a little late for the wedding, which was beautiful even if I shivered through the whole thing. It was a day of grace and blessings.If you start the year by jumping into near-freezing water, it changes your perspective. You come to see that everything else, also, won’t be as hard to bear as it looks from the distance.
God gives us what we need — a dress from Mom, water shoes, friends to keep us from floating away to Indiana, bathrobes and coats and a beaming goddaughter to hand them to you. Mercy flows, more strongly than the current of the Little Miami River.
Also, sometimes you’re the one who needs to be dragged back because she’s been swept away. It is a blessing to save and it is a blessing to be saved. On days when fatigue speaks more loudly than reason, when my heart is overcast and everything looks bleak, I remember the sensation of the river water on my skin despite all those layers.
And I smile.
And I might even try it again next year.
Writing prompt: What is something you swore you’d never do, and then did do, and it changed everything?
I am grateful to everyone who still reads my blog after this difficult year of learning and love. I went back to Music School, I visited all three of my former home towns, I got to see and hug all of my siblings and children in a variety of places. I lost important, powerful, relatives and friends and am still reeling. I have been inconsistent in posting things, and one of my pocket full of New Year’s Resolutions is to try to set up more posts in advance, so if something happens, there will still be content. May God bless us all with a good, healthy, fruitful 2022.
“I have to go home, dear,” the woman in the bathrobe told me, as I tried to leave for home myself. “My children are alone there, and I left the iron on.”
I was a nurse’s aide that summer, and the women in question was in the new Alzheimer’s wing where I worked. The children that she thought were home with the iron on were, in fact, grown and living elsewhere. They had put her in the unit, at great expense. But every morning she came to me in tears, and in anguish. “They don’t know how to switch it off! They will be burned in their beds! So little, all in one bed!”
The thinking at the time was that Alzheimer’s patients needed to be grounded in reality. Every room and every hallway had a large calendar that had to be set to the right day. I worked 11-7, and that meant a lot of tearing off of sheets. Patients were told what year it is, where they were, who they are, where their family was. Several times each day some of them learned, afresh, again, that their husband or wife had died, their home was gone, there is no piano or breakfast nook or job to go to any more. It was an attempt to be therapeutic and compassionate, but from where I stood in my white shoes and polyester uniform, it seemed cruel,
“I’ll tell you what,” I said, “I’m getting off work now. I live near you. I can stop by and turn off the iron for you.”
Her face lit up and I’m pretty sure that she was about to hug me. I was sweaty and had some other people’s body fluids on my uniform, but what stopped her was the 7-3 nurse coming in, freshly coiffed and ready to take on the day. “You didn’t leave the iron on. You live here. Your children are grown up!” she said, perhaps more loudly than needed. The woman’s face collapsed, and she withdrew into herself, her bathrobe, and her room.
“I won’t write you up this time, you’re new, but you can’t do that again. We deal with reality here!” the nurse said, reproachfully.
“Some of us do, some of us don’t,” I thought, but I needed the job, so I thanked her and scrambled home.
The new thinking, I’ve been told, is far more compassionate. It allows for “fiblets” and playing along, and psychologist David McPhee, in “Quora,” has gone beyond even that. Someone wrote,” How do I answer my dad with dementia when he talks about his mom and dad being alive? Do I go along with it or tell him they have passed away?” I love Dr. McPhee’s answer:
“Enter into his reality and enjoy it. He doesn’t need to be ‘oriented.’ Thank God the days are gone when people with advanced dementia were tortured by huge calendars and reminder signs and loved ones were urged to ‘orient’ them to some boring current ‘reality.’
If dad spends most of his time in 1959, sit with him. Ask questions he didn’t have time for before. Ask about people long dead, but alive to him, learn, celebrate your heritage. His parents are alive to him. Learn more about your grandparents. If he tells the same story over and over, appreciate it as if it’s music, and you keep coming back to the beautiful refrain.
This isn’t ‘playing along to pacify the old guy,’ this is an opportunity to communicate and treasure memories real but out of time.”
But, that got me thinking of other imaginary worlds into which people have invited me. My sibling had a blanket that everyone in the family referred to as “he.” A student used to give me updates about the wolf in her basement. It was only after a year that I dared to ask, “It is a toy wolf, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” she said, scornfully. “We have a DOG. Our dog would bite a real wolf!”
In literature we sometimes come across the intersection of imaginary and less imaginary worlds. In fiction, Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles” is something every young mother should read. In nonfiction, psychiatrist Robert Mitchell Linder in his book “The Fifty Minute Hour” describes his own growing interest in a patient’s imaginary world, and the fall out. In film, we have “Harvey,” in which a kind eccentric is considered crazy for talking about his friend, a six foot tall rabbit (well, really a pooka), whom others cannot see.
In real life we have less pleasant imaginary world — scammers tell the elderly that their loved ones are in danger, a very concerned individual calls me frequently about my car and computer warranties and is so worried that I haven’t the heart to tell her that I don’t have one. There are men who weave deceptive tales for women and women who spin lives for men when the reality is that the relationship is transactional rather than a lifetime commitment. There used to be prank callers who pretended to be someone else and there are spoof internet accounts. My female friends often get friend requests from men whose pages have photos of themselves shirtless and in uniform and next to expensive cars, but with no friends or contact information.
The prompt: Think of a time when you have encountered someone else’s alternate reality. Write about what you thought was the case, how you discovered the truth, and what the effect of the truth was. In non-fiction, you can write about what really happened. In fiction, you can play the reader, as was done in the movie “Secret Window.” Or you can fictionalize something that happened in your own life when you realized that what someone else — or you –recounted as true was not so. Poets, of course, have it easy (yes, you may laugh at this), as so much of poetry is “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams.” But even in poetry there are clearly scenes where a speaker tells one person something that no one else has experienced. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes to mind — the telling of the tale affects the old man, and hearing it affects the wedding guest. How do you want the narrator to affect your reader? How will the narrator change for having spoken?
Character: Jot some notes about your world builder, and about his or her audience. Does the person know that this world is false? Does the listener know? Are the motives pure or mingled, nefarious or chaste? What is the effect of believing? How does each person involved change?
Setting: Where do people encounter other worlds? This could also make a good craft essay. Would the Pevensie children have encountered Narnia had they not been sent into the country in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?”
When you are finished: Take a chance and have it published. Submit it to a periodical or website that you read. Or look on Submittable.com under “Discover” for markets and contests you might otherwise not have considered.
“Hurry up and write that book, Ann Marie,” said my last living grandparent. “I’m not getting any younger, and I want to read it before I die!”
I have written many things in my life — poems, essays, two theses, many posts to online groups that were turned into articles, and some articles that were accepted and even paid for, which is becoming uncommon. But I haven’t written The Book, or even A Book, even though I have made verbal promises to produce two (One is about Bishop Constantine and the other isn’t) and I have saved pictures and documents for a third. Now that my children are grown and we are living both in semi-retirement and during a general world wide pandemic quarantine, you’d think I would find the time to write them, but time is not the issue. As an old commercial used to say, “It’s not soup yet.”
But I am encouraged by a show on PBS that I found in passing and watched twice (we have both Ohio and Kentucky PBS stations available in Cincinnati, so often I can catch something on one channel if I miss it on another.) It was part of a series on poetry, and focused on one of my favorite poems.
My senior year of high school, when I took the AP English exam, I was gobsmacked by the poem we were asked to analyze. It was by a poet I had never heard of, Elizabeth Bishop. “One Art,” which you can visit here, discusses “the art of losing.” The list of things that she has lost escalates and becomes both more abstract and more intimate. I almost went over the allotted time writing about it, because it so mirrored feelings of my own.
I thought, then, that poets had to be single and young.
I was blessed to be able to take poetry courses at Wellesley with Frank Bidart, who had been Bishop’s friend. I paid for my graduation gown rental with the prize money for a sonnet I wrote as a senior, and had poems published in various school publications, but then I got married and had four children. I still wrote poems, but I rarely published them.
When I watched the PBS show, in which various people talk about how the poem affected them, and talk about loss, I was mesmerized. I lose things — I am a frequent flyer when it comes to praying to St. Phanourios. This is a season of loss anniversaries — ten years since my brother’s repose and twenty-five since my father’s — and we have relocated to another State and Town which meant selling the house we had lived in for nearly twenty years. This was the third “realm” I had lost, after Roslindale, Massachusetts, and Webster, Texas. Intellectually, I accepted the loss of the house, and parish, and town, but when I saw that the new owners had cut down all my flowering shrubs, I felt a fresh wave of new pain. I expected the windows and roof to go, but I thought the lilacs and forsythia were forever.
My mother lived to be 37, my brother 47, and my father 57, my current age. I worry that I am reaching my expiration date without having Done Things. I am too old to make a “thirty under thirty,” or “forty under forty,” or even a “fifty under fifty” list of hot new writers. And I feel neither hot nor new.
But a group of MFA writer friends and I formed a poetry group, and I have been writing poems again, which also makes me want to write everything else, also. And then, when watching the PBS show, I heard two facts that I didn’t know about the poem: it took sixteen drafts. And Bishop was sixty-five when she wrote it.
I have published poems that had fewer than sixteen drafts.
And I am still not sixty-five.
We live in hope.
There are so many things I want to say and write, but, one cannot water a garden with a firehose. I don’t just want to fling my words into the universe — I want to curate them, I want them to be sculpted and present them properly. And that’s what Elizabeth Bishop did. It took her sixty-five years and everything else she did and wrote to prepare her for this task.