It’s a rare but beautiful thing: An unexpected gap opens in your otherwise overbooked day. You realize — with disbelief — that you're actually "free" for a short window. No one's hair is on fire and there isn't anything urgent to take care of right now. Maybe the baby who never sleeps finally closes her eyes or your spouse takes the kids out on an errand or you’re between conference calls.
I won’t Google that phrase because someone else has surely said it but it just dawned on me, literally, in the cool summer sunrise. After a whirlwind summer of chronicling travels, neuroses and separations it is time to add more intricate structure and depth to living and writing. Inspired by the musings, creativity and work ethic of others – Cristian Mihal, Maggie at Life in a Skillet, Shrimani Senay, Karen Weintraub and Nick Hornby, among them – as well as the flight of my girl off to college, I see that it is time now for the next act.
I’ve been blogging since 2009 about food, life and autism and my hits number merely in the thousands, which is perfectly fine – the whole idea was to write every day, and I am there now. So now it’s time to commit myself, with all that word implies, to devoting my annual September burst of energy to taking years worth of writing and making something of it. Binders, notebooks, post-its and reams of graph paper will all give up their contents to The Cloud and return to Earth as…something that is both fact and fiction. It will take much longer than September to get it down, figure it out and put it in order, so I signed up for a writing group to establish some momentum and deadlines.
But summer isn’t over yet. School will start tomorrow and Labor Day will be here this weekend. I don’t have the luxury of the stretches of quiet time necessary for my project. And so I blog about the small moments so that, come September, I can write about the big ones (and I am pretty sure I have said that before).
I have been reading the letters that inspired – and continue to inspire – LettersHead. She really was ahead of her time; Mom should have been a blogger. Her words are inspiring, sweet, maddening, crazy, funny, wise. The best ones are family updates with a little local history thrown in followed by “I have been reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica on [insert topic here]” with a page or two xeroxed and stapled to the letter. When I read them now I can understand exactly the way she felt as she sat at the typewriter tapping them out, cigarette burning on the ashtray to the right, Hershey bar half out of the wrapper to the left. We may not be passionate about exactly the same things but in large part we are both driven to do what is right for our families and to express it, explain it and expound on it early and often. At least once she signed my name to a Letter to the Editor because she had met her quota for the month.
But a key thing I loved about her was that while on paper should could be relentless, most of the time in person, with the family around, she was such fun. I so wish she had taken the time to write down the stories she spun after dinner – a little less L’Osservatore Romano and a little more Spy Magazine. Both she and Dad had such great stories about the early and mid 20th century (their WWII courtship is a novel in itself) and they were good at telling them. I know that most of us (with some very notable exceptions) do not do them justice in the retelling.
I admit there were days when those postage-paid envelopes with the telltale IBM Selectric type address on them stayed on the counter for a bit until I was ready to open them – but I’m glad I did and I’m glad I kept them.
I work out to Steve Martin‘s banjo music. I imagine he would be appalled to know that, but then again maybe it’s a marketing idea. I sort of admire people who can go the gym and work out regularly but I am not one of them. The idea of getting in my car and driving somewhere to exercise just seems wrong, not to mention embarrassing for someone who refuses to wear sweatpants anywhere, ever. If it’s too cold to walk outside, looking out the basement window and listening to The Crow gives my mind something wonderful to do while my body is busy being miserable. It’s perfect. Forget Katy Perry, Michael Jackson and the rest of the thumping-base workout music – it all only reminds me of how young I am not. But banjo music brings out the young in everyone. It is inherently happy, endlessly sunny and an invitation to love life. The winter melts to spring, the rural roads stretch before me, and when I am finished I can go and write.
Speaking of which, a while back my daughter and I went to hear Steve Martin himself talk about his life and play a little banjo. At the end of the interview by insipid entertainment reporter Joyce Kulhawik (I am loathe to even give her a link), Mr. Martin took questions. One person whined to him about writer’s block and asked him how he kept himself creative and he was blissfully bemused. In effect, he told her that, having worked so hard to get to this point in his life that he can now pursue his ideas whenever the mood strikes him. No pep talks, no tricks of the trade, just a very candid glimpse of someone who has earned the right to do nothing and thus pursues everything. Think about it – writer, comedian, actor, director, playwright, poet, collector, musician. Even if you did have writer’s block how could you think someone like Steve Martin could provide you with any more wisdom than he already has?
I think it was the purported demise of the Postal Service that did it. When I said when I started LettersHead because people aren’t writing letters anymore I never thought it would come to this. It could also be that, after 10+ months of benign neglect I checked in on LettersHead and found out it went on without me, collecting hits and links and daring me to start writing again or pull the plug for real. Or maybe it’s because my kids are in school and I broke my foot and I can’t drive and I tend to drink too much coffee. In any case, Lettershead is back and I am going to try again at an epistolary narrative. Cabin fever aside, some things have happened over the past few months that seem to removed some of the roadblocks to writing; I need to test those barriers to see if they are indeed ready to tumble. As my friends would say, “good luck with that.”
But I didn’t really give up on the random slice-of-life observations that appeared in this space before. Autism drops too many choice moments into my life for that, so those can be found at the blog I started in my endless quest for useful places to put things that are cluttering my mind. It’s called I Wouldn’t Have Missed It and you can find it here.
Finally, I have to give credit to my dear friend M. over at Life in A Skillet. She sent me As Always, Julia and she proves time and again that blogs are both worth reading and writing if you put equal parts heart and mind into it.
This isn’t exactly working out the way I hoped. I don’t think that Lettershead is living up to its name. It turns out that firing off missives into cyberspace really doesn’t take the place of writing letters at all – in fact, it has only made me miss the act of writing to a single person all the more. Tiny vignettes and photos that open a window to daily life in our times - especially the more unique moments lit by autism - are what seems to fit in this format, but not under this moniker. And so, after 18 months of quasi -immersion in blogging and Facebook, Lettershead is taking a break to figure out what comes next. I’ll keep you posted, so to speak.
Three times this week I have found myself regaling people with stories of 25+ years ago and having them draw a total blank on me. Do I have a great memory (selective, for sure) or am I making things up? No, no, I know the stories are there even if people who were present do not remember anything, and I’ve told these stories because I am looking to shed some light on the details only to have the subjects taken aback that I remember such things at all. We both come away a little unnerved, I think, but I am alternately blessed and tormented by the need to recall these stories and make them whole somehow. Most of them are sitting on my hard drive, waiting for the final nod which may or may not come.
This mining of the past is in fact a family trait – there are others whose memories are even more vivid and detailed than my own, which may explain the countless hours we spend around the dining table, swapping new stories and comparing versions of the ones we tell over and over and over. Favorite topics: funerals, weddings, movies, food and church, not necessarily in that order. It is the legacy of a big family.
Will this get me to write more – or less? At this moment, I think more. To butcher a famous phrase: better get busy remembering or get busy forgetting.
Looking for emotional truth is a solitary exercise that is never complete and promises no reward. And when done among those who think the highest work of the mind is the doing rather than the feeling, even writing it down seems like an act of aggression. The stronger the narrative in my mind becomes the more reluctant I become to write it down; the more I say the more I might have to take back. And so the vast sheets of blank paper that slip by with each turn of the calendar indicate not that life is bad – on the contrary, it is the very sunshine of good times that burns the tender shoots of writing. The warmth from above draws the oldest toxins to the surface, daring me to expose – what? I don’t even know what is there, and most of the time I am convinced that it does not matter, and yet the only peace I have ever managed to achieve emerged from the process of forgiveness that comes from writing. But the part of me that values stoicism tugs at me, and I value stoicism because I utterly lack it.
So there it is and there it isn’t. I have now managed to write about not writing.
Well, we had our soft opening in October and now, on this New Year’s Day, I am opening new links to Lettershead on Facebook and other sites. I don’t often read blogs belonging to others and so I can’t offer a truly compelling rationale for reading this one. My reasons for launching Lettershead are offered in the right sidebar - since I am driven to write, it is nice to have a place to put it my stories and to share those things that I once put in letters but have in recent years have tended to languish on my hard drive. I hope to use this techno-venue to sort through fact and fiction from what happened in the last decade (and the ones before that) and to present new facts and fiction of my own in the years ahead. There’s also a list of people and places on the right linking to sites that I do visit, other LettersHead sites, reviews, etc.
You can wade through the earlier posts or wait for what will emerge in 2010 – but thanks all the same for stopping by. Heartfelt thanks, also, to everyone who encouraged me to start LettersHead and who have helped along the way – you know who you are and you are all lovely.
Happy New Year!
When I was nineteen I had a major crush on a boy I met at a summer job in Michigan. He was smart, sweet, earnest, funny and boyishly hadsome. We were inseparable for much of the summer but did not exchange so much as a kiss – it was fun; I thought it had potential. At the end of the summer we cooked up a plan to visit my family in Missouri before returning to our respective colleges. I knew my mother would like him, and she did. The feeling was mutual, I guess, because on the first evening at our house he said to me, ” When I met you I thought you were such a unique person, but now I realize that you are really just like your mother.” I should have known at that moment that the romance was doomed; he entered the seminary the following year.
Fast forward twenty-seven years. My husband sits down in front of the family computer situated at the desk that I use, and looks at me and says, “Look at the way you have all of your notes and photos up on this wall and all of your papers here – you are your Mom.” He is smiling – he loved my Mom. “I think you do it on purpose.”
Well, I didn’t; I don’t. I make rolls like she did on purpose, I speak truth to power like she did on purpose, I try to make my home welcoming like she did on purpose. But as my hair goes grayer and the questions from my children get thornier I find it maddening for it to be so hard to lift myself out of her ruts in my road – she did not overtly impose her ways on me and there are so many ways in which our paths greatly diverge. I know we have faced the challenges on our lives in fundamentally different ways. And yet, her influence is an incredibly strong default mechanism. It can make me frustrated, because in the years since her death I have begun to understand how she crafted the myth of herself by selectively sharing information with her children. But I also can empathize with why people do that – there are so many conversations that people will do anything to avoid. Parenthood doesn’t have a full disclosure clause, and the line between honesty and too much information is constantly shifting. When you share you risk two responses: ”Why did you tell me this?” and “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” I have been through this with my own children over the most minor events already, and perhaps I do share too much. One person’s enlightenment is another’s burden, one person’s honesty is another’s pain. You never know.
I witnessed enough drama in my Mom’s life to know that, as her youngest, I missed plenty. I wasn’t very good at letting those moments I did know about fade; I have a penchant for rehashing events in hope of prying out more details, reasons, answers. I keep looking for a version of the truth that I can live with, knowing full well that my ability to live comfortably with any truth changes from day to day. What is acceptable in one moment is decidedly lacking in the next. Sixteen years ago, I spent weeks camped out in my living room with my Mom, quizzing her about her life while we waited for my overdue baby to arrive. We covered a lot of ground, but I noticed gaps in her memory that I attributed to advancing age. It doesn’t really matter what she kept to herself, it is that she made that choice – repeatedly – that caught me off guard as the details emerged in later years after her death. He legendary candor was not what I thought and some of the things and people she put faith in were, to my mind, not worthy of her devotion. She didn’t owe me full disclosure, but some examples she tried to set have not entirely stood the test of time, either, because she obfuscated.
But these things are true of all parents, all families. For when we tell a story we are telling our own version, and that, by design or not, means that anyone else who was there as there may or may not agree. We have a large family – something as simple as a Thanksgiving Dinner in 1975 can come off as Rashomon on steroids. And I know that, quite often, there are plenty of good reasons to let sleeping dogs lie. And so I struggle to calibrate what memories are rightfully mine, what traits I truly own, how I can understand what it is to write honestly knowing that truth in memory is only our own version of the facts at a particular moment in time.
I will always love and admire my mother, and there are many ways that I am glad to be like her. Still, even in the throes of middle age, it is difficult to know where she ends and I begin, and I am reminded of what she said in the weeks before her death. ”You’re going to be forty,” she said as she spoke of her terminal illness, “this is a good time for me to go. It will be a liberating experience. When your parents are gone you are truly free to make your own choices. I never really felt like a grownup until both of my parents were gone. It’s a good thing.” Now, I think I know what she meant.