My Morning

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Three Perfect Shots.”

1. In Which We Discover a Redhead in Our Bed.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. And then my seven-year-old daughter’s lean, sharp body insinuates itself between me and my husband. In the dark, all I feel are elbows, knees, and soft skin. When I peek, I see her hair falling like an auburn curtain across her face. Safe under Daddy’s arm, she snuggles in. Parenting experts encourage you to walk your kids back to their own bed, but my husband and I defy their advice and keep her with us. Right now, she believes we can protect her from anything.

2. “My Spoon Is Too Small.”

“I can only hold one piece of cereal on this spoon,” she complains and shows me the lonely square of Life cereal in the spoon.

I stare back at her.

“Well?” she says.

“I would like…,” I prompt.

She answers with a dark glare. “I’m not a baby.”

“I’ll get you a spoon,” I answer. I grab a large, slotted serving spoon from my ceramic utensil jar and hand it to her.

A grin breaks across her face as she takes it from me. “It’s working!” she giggles, using the serving spoon to pick up the entire cereal bowl.

3. Steggie Loses His Head

Apparently the Dinosaur Era follows the Thomas the Tank Engine Era: my son has carried around two plastic Stegasauruses for nearly a week. Stegasauruses, or “Steggies,” as my son calls them, are very popular with the toddler crowd. While the toy store had lots of Giganotasauruses and a slew of Pentaceratops (yes, I know too much about dinosaurs), we snagged the last two Steggies. Relative to their body size, Steggies have very small heads and even smaller brains — approximately the size of two eggs. They also have weak necks. When my son dropped his Steggie at the daycare center this morning, Steggie’s head snapped off skittered off to parts unknown.

“I’ll let you know if I find the head,” the associate director assures me as my son walks to his classroom and lifts the headless Steggie for his little friends to see.

How T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock Articulated My Feeling of Alienation and Helped Me Identify Myself As a Writer

In response to the Daily Prompt, My Hero

We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.

—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I don’t remember exactly when I first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I remember my state of mind. The melancholy. The dislocation. It was around 1990 and I was 16. I felt there was no one with whom to share my thoughts, my fears, or my dreams. My father whose idea of spending time with me involved going to NASCAR races or RV shows never knew how to connect with his sensitive, literary daughter. My schizophrenic mother was not in this world and spent her days muttering to herself and scribbling notes in the margins of the New York Daily News. The friends with whom I felt so close just a few years before were morphing into creatures who listened to angsty indie crooners like Morissey and only wore Doc Martins. Where once we talked easily, I became less interested in their conversations and numbly smiled and nodded at the appropriate moments. In AP classes full of kids groomed to attend Dartmouth and Boston College, I only opened my mouth when called on. I walked the halls of my high school and my life playing my part but feeling as though there was a pane of glass separating me from everyone else.

There’s something desperately wrong with me, I told myself. Perhaps I would become schizophrenic like my mother. The books and articles that I read about my mother’s illness indicated that 17 was often when the voices would begin whispering in my ear. And I DID feel as though I couldn’t connect with anyone. I craved closeness and intimacy, but I didn’t know how to achieve it and I was afraid to try.

Then I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I absorbed his words and whispered them to myself again and again. This narrator, paralyzed by doubt and indecision, lived entirely in his head.

…There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

 

…And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair…

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

 

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

And when I am pinned and wriggling against the wall,

The how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?

How did he know? How did T.S. Eliot in 1921 write a poem about a middle-aged man  that articulated the very alienation I was feeling? The same fear of judgement?

For once I felt understood. Prufrock gave voice to my fears and I knew I wasn’t alone. The poem also helped me understand that writing, and poetry in particular, could be a way to explore and give voice to doubts swirling in my head. The poem also gave me permission to not be confident. Eliot painted a portrait of a man wracked with doubt and turned his voice and feelings into art. Could I do the same? While I had always been a reader, experiencing Prufrock helped me recognize that writing could be my way of connecting to myself and connecting with others. Through writing, I could show people what I was thinking, construct a narrative for myself, and claim an identity: I am a writer.

Turning 40

okeeffe_skyabovecloudsDaily Prompt: Frame of Mind | If you could paint your current mood onto a canvas, what would that painting look like? What would it depict?

If I were to capture my current mood on a canvas, I’d create a black and white photograph of woman’s figure from behind. She’s standing on the edge of a promontory, arms crossed, her long, dark hair fluttering straight behind her in a breeze. The sun simmers beneath the clouds (think: O’Keffe’s “Sky Above the Clouds“), pinking their edges with a white glow. Below I imagine the sound of the ocean shushing and roaring below.

I am turning 40 this Friday. 40! When I was younger, I expected 40 to be a grown-up dinner party with tiny, carved vegetables and locally sourced meat on a large, white plate. The conversation and the wine would sparkle. I’d have my career figured out (writer). Maybe I’d be married, but definitely no kids because kids are expensive, loud, and demanding. Plus, given my tumultuous childhood, I would have no idea how to raise them.

Well, I am NOT at that grown-up dinner party. My dinner party, which starts at 5:30 sharp, serves orange-made-from-powder-macaroni and cheese, chocolate soy milk, and chicken nuggets. Our New Yorker subscription has lapsed, and Netflix suggests that I watch “Handy Manny” and “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” since I watched “Curious George.”

I don’t need that hip, intellectual Brooklyn life, but I don’t want to surrender to the tyranny of chicken nuggets, either. Satisfaction isn’t  a fat salary and 500+ Linked In connections, but as much as I love my children, satisfaction also isn’t being a stay-at-home parent 100% of the time.  For the better part of this year, I fretted about what I was not. I am not a prolific, published writer. I am not involved enough at my daughter’s school. I have not run a 5K. My body fat percentage is closer to chuck than sirloin.  I’ve been at my current company for 13 years, tethered by velvet handcuffs (terrific benefits, a slightly less than full time schedule) and by my own fear of leaving a comfortable, though not creatively fulfilling, position.

But I am coaxing myself toward self acceptance. This is where I am, and that’s okay. I find the more I compare who I thought I was going to be with who I am, the more miserable I feel. Resolved: I will tell myself that I am enough.

The woman in my canvas, her hair fluttering, her gaze on the emerging day, has resolved that, too.

Why I Chose To Send My Daughter to a Spanish-Immersion School

Daily Prompt:Take  That, Rosetta!

If you could wake up tomorrow and be fluent in any language you don’t currently speak, which would it be? Why? What’s the first thing you do with your new linguistic skills?

“[Your daughter] is speaking at slightly below grade-level in Spanish,” my daughter’s first grade teacher wrote in the Notes section of her report card. “She is sensitive and worried about making mistakes. Please let her know that making mistakes is an opportunity to learn.”

The same advice applies to me. I know some Spanish — mostly nouns and some present tense verbs — and I can have a decent conversation with a two-year-old, but I’m pretty sure that my Spanish sounds like Tarzan chatting up Jane.

I even feel shy about speaking Spanish with my El Salvadorean nanny, who I know wouldn’t make fun of me. This morning, I thought, I’ll try. And just as I was about to say, “Es muy frio! I leapt to the comfort of English.

Why? I’m frustrated by that in-the-head translation time, the time it takes for me to think my thought in English and then look up the Spanish translation with a search engine that is light years slower than Google. I also dislike not being able to fully express myself, and, yes, dislike feeling stupid. Spanish immersion schools didn’t exist when I was growing up in Connecticut in the 80s. Instead, schools introduced us a foreign language (Spanish or French) in 7th grade, when our brains aren’t nearly so pliable. I took Spanish until freshman year of college, seven years, and then I tossed that lengua aside. There was no one to practice with in Lynchburg, Va.

Fast forward nearly 20 years later to my life now in the Washington, D.C., metro area where the Hispanic population hovers between 14 and 15 percent. I think about how I felt the first time I left the country and lived for a summer in Italy. I felt like a different person the first few weeks there: quiet and frustrated that I couldn’t express and share my thoughts. I remember thinking, “these people have no idea who I am!” Like an iceberg, they were only seeing a small portion of who I really was.

That experience of being “the other” helps me empathize with the native Spanish speakers in my life. Do they feel like shadows in our culture, seen and not heard? If I could wake up tomorrow morning and speak Spanish, I would really get to know my nanny who speaks fairly decent English, but is much more expressive and comfortable in Spanish. I could strike up a conversation with the woman who waters the plants in my office, travel to Central or South America, or Spain, and experience the food, culture, and people in a more intimate way. And, I could help my daughter overcome her reluctance to speak Spanish. My husband and I didn’t chose to send our daughter to a Spanish-Immersion School to “get ahead;” rather, we chose to send her to gain compassion and understanding of cultures and people different than our own.

The Power of Touch: When Mom Braided My Hair

Daily Prompt: The Power of Touch

Textures are everywhere: The rough edges of a stone wall. The smooth innocence of a baby’s cheek. The sense of touch brings back memories for us. What texture is particularly evocative to you?

I did not come from a physically affectionate family. Oh sure, as a child each night I would give my dad peck on his plump, stubbly cheek and received my fair share of hugs from Grandma, but there were never great tickle wars or hamster piles that I witnessed in other families. We’d bump, separate, and move on.

My mother, by the nature of her schizophrenia, rarely demonstrated any affection. Instead she lived alongside of my father, my grandparents, and I as if in an impenetrable bubble. Whenever I DID try to embrace her, her arms and body remained rigid. She acted like a robot executing a hug command, going through the motions without any feeling, letting her arms fall away from me after a prescribed number of seconds.

The only time she would maintain physical contact with me was when she brushed or braided my hair. Then, I could take a chance brushing my back or elbow against the soft heft of her body without her pulling away. I savored the feel of her gently raking her nails across my scalp, gathering hanks of hair, and the slight tug as she wove my hair into braids, the stacks of costume rings and bracelets, clinking close to my ear. For those brief moments, she was a regular mom.

Local 1330

Daily Prompt: Photographers, artists, poets: show us LOCAL.

Author’s note:  This is a scene just outside my office’s garage door. Hence “local.”

A folded cot, a neat stack of  blue black blankets
Arranged just so and tucked into a brick vestibule
Overlooking the alley. With Dumpster views and a
Patchwork asphalt carpet, this modest efficiency screams
"Bargain!" but not what the resident bargained for.
His roll-away stands at attention in this dim limbo,
I'm sure, he never imagined.

She’s Leaving Home

Daily Prompt: Come Fly with Me

Share a story about the furthest you’ve ever traveled from home.

“Are we on Mars?” I remember thinking to myself as we drove through an area of construction on Route 29S in central Virginia. Large yellow bulldozers and nudged the terra cotta-colored dirt into heaps along the side of the narrow highway. The dirt wasn’t the only unfamiliar sight. Big box stores with names like Rose’s, Belk, and Food Lion flashed by. There were cows and fields and barns falling in on themselves. The loamy, pungent scent of manure filled my nose as I stepped out of the car at the gas station.

I had traveled farther away than this from my home in Connecticut, a bedroom community of New York City, or “The City” as we called it. Even though my family was of modest means, my blue-collar dad made sure we explored the country. I’d been Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Florida. The difference between this trip and those trips was that my parents would be depositing me at Lynchburg College and leaving me behind.

“If I don’t like college,” I remember asking, “can I come back home?”

 I don’t remember my father’s reply. Probably some generic  reassurance about feeling better once I got into the swing of things. He could acknowledge my anxiety, but he floundered when it came helping me talk through difficult emotions.

After the lugging my junk to my dorm room and quick tearful goodbye, he and my mom left me alone to sort out my feelings . Far from home.