Shaving Above the Knees

There was a pecan tree that dropped nuts across the crabgrass that surrounded her parents’ bungalow-style home. She introduced me to her rat-dog and its seven grown puppies that surrounded me, yapping away my patience, each of them dirty and unclaimed. Vickie was an unfamiliar seventh-grade math classmate who ridiculed my unshaven legs and looked like The Cure’s Robert Smith but had breasts.

I felt alone in Louisiana in 1990 where we had moved the previous year to what I still considered the confederate south. She sat across from me in class where I was distracted by the sweat pits of the boys’ gym coach who taught us math. “You know you can shave above the knee right?” She said.

I was mortified. I laughed at myself and turned away to clear the redness of my pale Scots-Irish skin. Of course, that made sense. Thanks, Mom.

Vickie wore baggy black t-shirts, thick eyeliner, and a discernible line of base foundation around her jawline. She was melodramatic and dangerous in the sense that she could humiliate me with a fluid sentence and not care a thing about it. I have no idea how I ended up being her friend or how we went from my borderline humiliation about shaving above the knee to hanging out, but we did for a short while.

By contrast, I wore no make-up, sported fresh white Keds, knee-length blue jean shorts, and fat cotton headbands at the edge of my hairline. I imagined she wanted to take advantage of me so that she could further humiliate me for having late blooming breast buds, but she turned out to be kind and pleasant in that sarcastic view of the fucked up ways of the world, which I have always loved, despite my goodie-two shoes appearance. Plus, she was the first girl in over a year that had talked to me in a friendly way since I moved to that once plantation derived place that socked me in the stomach, figuratively, the moment we drove over the I-10 Bridge at night toward our new destination. The Chateau Charles, a hotel my father’s company put us up in for two months until we found a place to live. We were provided the suite. It was actually a dumpy arrangement of three adjoining rooms to a kitchenette. The furthest room we avoided all together because of the sour smell and flood stains.

I was impressed by the brilliant lights of what I thought was a metropolitan city that turned out to be a plentiful array of corporate refineries, side by side for miles, espousing stink and pollution. Much different during the day when I realized they were a fool’s beauty.

My mother must have been beyond her wits while I lay on the floor of the minivan, refusing to let go of the back seat, where I hid and cried and declared nausea, refusing at all cost to get out at the school drop off. I successfully managed to miss three weeks of seventh grade. It was terrifying to move from the middle-class and classless, seemingly friendly suburbs of New Jersey’s farm country, to the self-segregated Gulf Coast. I had never been exposed to so many middle-school fistfights, nor seen table upon lunch table of groups of like-skinned people. It wasn’t so much that different races bothered me, but that everyone around me seemed to be aware of race, and to be participating in self-segregation, promulgating race as a thing.

I only spent the night with her one time. I observed those pecans, ignored the ugly dogs, and walked behind her through the front door where grime swarmed my senses. There were walls that had long ago yellowed, with lines of dirt smudged at the height of little dogs and on light switches.

Her parents’ house lacked central air and instead ran a single window unit that pressed hopeful relief upon us with the help of strategically placed box fans. I didn’t know her well enough to recognize anyone in the few family photos which were hung in crappy frames above the sagging sofa, but I did imagine if I were to straighten one out, saving it from its ill-composition, I’d find clean-white wall paint behind it.

When I was younger, I lived in apartments and townhouses and rental homes built on top of sink holes with stink bugs, old carpets, new carpets, porcelain or stainless steel sinks, with or without washing machines and never a vacuum. There were times when we brushed our teeth with baking soda or poured dehydrated milk into our cereal bowls, learning to prefer water instead of that shit. Each time my father was promoted, he did so with a move, and each move made our lives a little richer and so I was not unfamiliar with the poverty of Vickie.

“Want some Kool-Aid?” she asked as she walked past dark bedrooms on the left and lead me from the living room to the kitchen.

I said yes and watched her as she opened the refrigerator door. The wire shelves illuminated revealing a variety of misplaced and cluttered food related items, including an uncovered metal pan of instant mac-n-cheese, an opened can, and a scurrying cluster of rice-sized cockroaches in the refrigerator seams. Her arm reached past mac-n-cheese and maneuvered over an extra large tub of generic margarine to grasp a plastic pitcher. There was no acknowledgement about the cockroaches and I was polite about it, even though they made me cautious. I drank the Kool-Aid and noticed cabinets with splashed food stains near the handles. Most of them were open revealing plastic kitchen plates, cups, and bowls in shades of pale pink, light blue, and lime green stacked upon each other.

Her room was void of natural light because plastic blinds were drawn closed and a faded black blanket was half-hung at an unintentional slant from the brass curtain rod. Against the wall, her dresser stood, and on it a pink can of Aqua Net hairspray and other paraphernalia that helped her look like her idol, Robert.

At night I slept on a pillowcase that smelled like it had not been washed in months and I slept with my clothes on afraid to feel the weight of poverty against me.

L.C. Stair is an emerging writer currently working on a collection of Ktrickle_optessays and a collection of short stories.

Mind Maps: The Bridge to Clarity

I walked into the house one night last week, my clothes soaked, my legs jelly. I was desperate for a shower and something to eat.

“How was your swim?” my fifth grader asked, looking up from her drawing. And then, “Wanna read my essay?”

The swimming reference is our little joke, since the studio where I spin is heated. Afterwards, it always appears as if I had jumped fully dressed into a swimming pool. The living room air was chilly compared with the class I had just left, and my hair was dripping down my back. I made a beeline for the shower, calling back to her that I’d happily proofread the essay when I got settled with something to eat. Thirty minutes later, there I was at the dining room table. Plate of food, bottle of water, and plunk! eight paragraphs of penciled cursive. An essay titled “The Middle Colonies.”

I read it carefully—mostly because I want to stay involved with what the kids are doing, partly because I’m the household copyeditor, and a little bit because, truthfully, I always learn something from their schoolwork. She’s on American history at the moment. Her class is studying regions of the country where I was raised but she’s never been. I pictured the layout of the middle colony states, the Delaware River, the old towns I knew in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania which were named after the tribes who, because of the colonies, no longer call those spots home.

I don’t expect to receive life-changing lessons from my kids’ school projects, but this time I did. Life-changing, I tell you. Practical and well-timed. Uncannily well-timed, actually.

You see, lately I’ve been at work on my own research-based essay. The topic is one dear to my heart—the wicked stepmother narrative. I’ve been digging into the lurid stereotype’s history, how it negatively impacts stepmothers and their families, and our society’s need for counter-narratives. I recently completed the first draft of my paper. Man, there’s interesting stuff in my pages, but the structure is in shambles.

My fifth grader’s essay, on the other hand, is remarkable. Her structure is perfect. The entire essay begins by establishing the broad topic. After the introductory paragraph, each additional paragraph opens with a topic statement, utilizing transition words to pivot from previous ideas into new, and then developing the new ideas further with supporting statements. The whole essay is eight paragraphs of clearly organized material. I was truly impressed with her writing. And humbled. Structural organization is exactly what I have been struggling with in my own essay, multiplied by forty pages.

It’s not that I expected my kid to hand in a poorly done project—she hates school, yet takes pride in her work—however, the skilled construction of her writing surprised me. It indicated orderly thinking, an ability to envision a framework for her ideas, and a skilled transfer of her vision into linear, verbal expression. This is exactly what I’ve been struggling with in my own stepmother essay: the architecture. Somehow, it’s the very thing my ten-year-old has mastered.

After the bedtime shenanigans later that night, while straightening the dining room table, I gathered her school papers into a pile. Poking out from the edge of her binder was a folded 11×17 page. I could see circles and lines and words about “The Middle Colonies.” Curious, I unfolded the paper onto the table.

In the center was her topic title inside of a circle highlighted in green. Surrounding that circle were eight others, highlighted in pink, with arms extending to the center circle. The pink circles were sub-topics, labeled with words like “hardships” and “where they came from” and “industry.” From each pink circle was a group of three or four yellow circles, each containing basic supporting facts. Clipped to the 11×17 paper were strips of colored paper with full sentences that corresponded to the ideas in the highlighted circles.

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bubble map

I looked further. In her notebook was a page titled “Thinking Maps®”. There were eight diagrams drawn and labeled: tree, flow, multi-flow, brace, bridge, circle, bubble (the one she used for “The Middle Colonies”), and a super-sized cousin double-bubble. After snooping in my fifth grader’s school binder (I am not too proud to confess), I took out my own notebook and began making notes from her school work.

The next day, I mapped my stepmother essay. I grabbed a pile of blank paper and started with a bubble map. The non-linearity of this map shows relationships between ideas. It’s a web of concepts, and mine extended into multiple layers which plainly showed the research areas my paper examines. Next, I drew a multi-flow map to visualize my thesis statement. This helped me understand the straightforward origins of the wicked stepmother narrative, and the ways it affects society, the family unit, and the individual. A brace map then gave me a picture of the types of psychotherapy theories I had surveyed. Finally, I drew a tree map to translate the ideas sketched on the other maps into a sequential outline.

Seeing my “wicked stepmother” laid out in such an orderly manner untangled the past two months of research work. I can see now that my first draft of the paper is like the essay equivalent of a tornado-destroyed house: pieces of the kitchen are strewn across the front yard, the bedroom is half missing, the living room is snarled up in the playroom of a house down the street. With my maps in hand, I’ve now started putting things back in order. So far, draft two is feeling much more structurally sound.

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brace maps and multi-flow map

Since discovering the mind mapping tools, I’ve been diagramming everything. Over the weekend, my sweetheart and I went on a date to discuss a backyard celebration we’re planning for later this summer. Before our server came with glasses of wine, I had pulled out a few sheets of blank paper and some pens. Food and drink ideas for the party? The decorations? Preparations for the house? All bubble maps.

This morning I mentioned that I was writing a blog post about “The Middle Colonies” essay and the mind maps I found in the notebook. His response?

“She tutors for a reasonable rate.”

He must have forgotten that I’m in graduate school. Even with the family and friends discount, I can only afford a one-time consultation.

However, if you’d like a tutor, let me know. Meanwhile, need a map?

(c) 2015 Arielle Silver

(c) 2015 Arielle Silver

SXSW: Why Digital Media Matters for Writers

The SXSW Interactive conference and festival was held in Austin, Texas last weekend, and I was lucky enough to attend for the first time. Among the chaos of thousands of people descending upon Austin—multiple trade shows, exhibits, meet-ups, bands, parties (free drinks!), food trucks (BBQ and tacos!)—were the educational panels. During a couple of panels I attended, there was wistful mention of wishing you could be in more than one place at once, as it was impossible to go to everything on the official SXSW schedule. (At one panel Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human, discussed “mind-cloning” and the future possibility of actually being in more than one place at once, but that is a whole other topic.)

SXSW

Each day of the conference, there was a tough decision to be made: do I check out bands and get delicious local tacos, or feed my brain instead? Although it was tempting, I tried to more often go with the educational option—the one that fed my curiosity about the current state of the digital world we live in, rather than the instant gratification of the here and now.

One of the things I have been working on in my writing is sustained focus and concentration. It is the easiest thing in the world for writers to get distracted from the task of writing, especially if the Internet or a smartphone is within easy reach. Writing itself is a process of focus, and once you do you get on track, then look out!: there’s no stopping you (the phrase “get the juices flowing” would be apt here, I kind of hate that cliché, personally. What does that even mean?)

Once your attention is taken out of that place of focus (maybe, you think, I will just take a break and pop in on Facebook for a sec, and then before you know it, precious minutes have ticked by as you scanned and scrolled through posts of what others are doing with their lives). It can then become very difficult to get back into it. A similar situation comes up in the workplace concerning multi-tasking. I don’t find hopping between multiple projects throughout the day as fulfilling as being able to concentrate on one project at a time.

One panel I attended at SXSW was “Disrupting Innovation: Book Publishing and New Media” moderated by Aaron Lammer, Co-Founder of longform.org, with Iris Blasi, Marketing Director and Senior Editor of Pegasus Books; Ryan Chapman, Managing Director of Marketing and Digital Projects of BOMB magazine; and Jeff Umbro, Digital Marketing Manager of Goldberg McDuffie Communications.

A topic that was discussed during the panel was the eBook, a relatively new digital format that has gained popularity within the last 10 years, but is still in its early stages of evolution.

Blasi mentioned that even if publishers have interest in taking advantage of the technology to make eBooks more interactive translations of print versions—for example, through audio, video, additional content, or enhanced user experience—Amazon has little interest in doing so because they make enough money off of eBooks without that content.

It’s an intriguing question: if you were to translate Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past into an interactive and experiential storytelling narrative, what are the different ways that could be done? How could you convey the essence of a story through a digital format? A couple of examples of interactive narratives include the novella Pry, and book and story publisher, Atavist. Antioch alum and former Lunch Ticket editor-in-chief Lise Quintana is the CEO and founder of Narrative Technologies and Zoetic Press. (Check it out!)

Image from Pry, http://prynovella.com/

Image from Pry, http://prynovella.com/

In considering innovative digital formats as a writer, there is an inherent dichotomy: the only way for me to really write a story that comes from a heartfelt place is often through the age-old and solitary process of putting pen to paper, or typing away at the computer—not figuring out how to involve elements like images, audio, or video to complement the story.

Attending SXSW this year, I was jolted back into the modern age and out of Proust’s. I remembered there is a kind of creativity that comes only from collaboration, not from solitude and quiet. In connecting with the exciting and innovative digital world we live in, I do think it’s ideal to have one foot in the past, the other in the present, and to maintain a semblance of our selves outside of collaboration. As writers, it’s also relevant to consider how we can collaborate on, innovate, and create stories within new formats and through digital storytelling elements.

Lena and the Bank of America

Lena. Just Lena. My mother didn’t have a middle name, which I thought smacked of parsimony—shortchanged at birth. Her parents were Orthodox Jews, rigid and humorless, who came to New York as part of the exodus from pogrom-infested Russia. I don’t think Lena knew much more about them; she wasn’t privy to stories or reminiscences from the old country. There wasn’t much about her own early years she wanted to recall or revisit either. Her life wasn’t easy, and she rarely talked about her family or childhood. She had a way of sidestepping questions—“Oh, I can’t remember that” or “What does it matter?”—and I lacked the courage or the curiosity to probe further. Her father died when she was twelve. After her older sister married, Lena left school and went to work to help make ends meet for her mother and herself. She was sixteen, and it was the peak of the Depression. I don’t know what kind of work she did, but I picture her as a shop girl in a department store, back when they were called that, before they were sales associates or product specialists. It must have seemed the right thing, the only thing to do, but her lack of education was always a source of shame and inferiority.

Earning her own way must have been liberating, though, and she had some good times as a young woman. I can see it in an old photo—her dark and vivacious beauty, the way she carried herself, the playful sparkle in her eyes. She met my father at Coney Island the summer they were both twenty. She was tall and slender with thick, shiny coal-black hair hugging her face in a flapper-like bob—I envision her smooth, tanned limbs in a red one-piece swimsuit. He was movie-star handsome, with wavy brown hair, sky blue eyes, and a thin dapper mustache. Their beach blankets were in close proximity amid throngs of sunbathers and frolickers that day, and there must have been mutual admiring glances and subtle smiles, fluttering of eyelashes and flexing of biceps before he ventured over and asked her to watch his pants while he went into the water. They were married six months later.

David, my brother, was born the next year, and I followed five years later. We lived in a cozy Long Island suburb in a house with a white picket fence, and my early memories of family life dwell in a dusky rose-colored haze. My brother, his recollections sharper, corroborates my sense of an unremarkable and mostly happy family.

“No more New York winters! They can keep their white Christmases.” I was six when we moved to California, and I remember Mom exulting when the holidays rolled around that first year. And yet—though she said she never regretted the move west—it was as if the lights had gone out. She seemed tense and troubled, became harsh and critical. “Were you unhappy?” is a question I never could have asked her; all I can do is ponder from my perch overlooking the past. She’d left everything and everyone in New York. She had her family core—her mother and sister—and a community there. She belonged; she knew who she was. Here she was isolated. It was the post-war ‘50s, and women were marginalized, captive in their kitchens. Working outside the home wasn’t an option when David and I were young. If she perceived an erosion of her spirit, she may not have recognized it or known that she wasn’t alone, that her condition was endemic, “the problem that has no name” that Betty Freidan later articulated as “the feminine mystique.”

She had so much energy and no place to put it. Cooking and keeping house were chores to be dispensed with, thankless tasks for which she got little appreciation. She didn’t have friends to do things with—shopping trips, lunches, book clubs—or the means to indulge in them. She became a Girl Scout leader and tackled the post with a gusto that I, trying to blend in as just one of the girls, found overzealous and embarrassing. She spent most of her spare time knitting and crocheting. She made sweaters, shawls, skirts and scarves, afghans, tablecloths, pillow covers—beautiful, intricate work. I remember a sage green and tawny gold three-piece suit that might have come off a designer rack. I’m sure she could have sold things to shops, developed a cottage industry, but though her creative outlet gave her satisfaction, it didn’t occur to her to take it further. She made gifts, things for the house, for herself and for me. I would roll my eyes, resentful that I couldn’t have the cookie-cutter name brands that my peers were wearing but were beyond our budget.

My father was a taciturn man, a benign presence in the household. Mom accepted it as her role to sustain a convivial family environment. We ate dinner together at the table every night, and I recall our mealtime interaction as bland and comforting if not memorable or stimulating. I remember jokes and silliness, my brother’s teasing, my father’s sly puns. The only vacations we took were occasional weekend camping trips and long dreary drives to visit my father’s relatives in San Francisco. It was all very prosaic—we weren’t deprived, there was little to complain about—yet why do I recall the atmosphere as one of forced cheer, as if we were simulating family life rather than living it?

Dad “took to drink”—I choose that phrase, evocative of willfulness, though I suppose it was just his way to blot out unspoken disappointment—and became even more remote at home. On the nights when he came in after I’d gone to bed, my mother would wait up, pacing, fuming, chain-smoking until he stumbled in. I’d hear their fights through my thin bedroom walls—her voice raised in anger, his a monotone of sullen or contrite muttering. They argued about his drinking, about money, about whatever unhappy people bicker about. Maybe it carried over, as my brother and I squabbled a lot too. He was a bully and I was a brat; we provoked each other the way you pick at pesky scabs. Mom would become exasperated with both of us, though I was sure at the time that she was siding with him.

He would sock me in the arm, and I’d whine—“David hit me!”

“I didn’t do anything,” he’d say. “She was pestering me.”

“Don’t tease her,” she would tell him; “you know what a crybaby she is.”

And to me: “Stop it or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

The four of us muddled along, and the distance grew over time, between husband and wife, parents and children, brother and sister. We settled into a peaceful-enough equilibrium, distinct clouds in the same patch of sky.

*     *     *

Then Mom went to work, and she blossomed in the world beyond our walls. Motivated both to supplement the family income and to quell the tediousness of daily life, she was ready and eager when we no longer needed her constant oversight. She started out waiting tables at a café, the kind that served “blue plate specials”—think Mel’s Diner in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Fast, efficient, and personable, she became the favorite of the regular clientele. She would bring home anecdotes along with day-old pies and hamburger buns. She laughed a lot—that was new. Then she took a job at Knorr’s candle factory, a notch up—less chaotic, better pay, easier on her feet. Instead of pouring candles from melted wax, they rolled them out of dyed, honeycomb-textured sheets of beeswax. Now she brought home candles, bent and misshapen, colors that didn’t sell or faded on display tables. She enjoyed the work and the camaraderie with co-workers, but she missed the interaction with customers.

One night over dinner she announced that she had answered an ad for a teller at Bank of America, the only bank in town then. It was a long shot, she figured, as she had no related experience, so she was surprised to be called in for an interview. Her application had stood out, but for the wrong reason. She had stated that she was a graduate of the Brooklyn high school she had only briefly attended. The manager welcomed her enthusiastically and said, “Can you believe the coincidence—I went to school there too!”

“That’s what I get for lying,” she told us in dismay that night.

Honest to a fault—she once ran after a door-to-door salesman who gave her too much change—now it was as if she’d been caught with her hand in the cashbox. But she didn’t own up, and they didn’t check. He wasn’t long out of college—just a boy, she said—and the twenty years’ difference in their ages kept her safe from detection. She could be vague, plead a fuzzy memory. They wouldn’t have had the same teachers, known the same people. Did she impress him with her stability, her deportment, her experience with customers and cash registers? Maybe all that too, but she was sure it was the way they’d hit it off: “It’s a Brooklyn thing,” she said when he offered her the job.

Going to work had provided the first boost, but this was a giant step that exceeded all expectations. She seamlessly inhabited the new persona of a savvy business woman. Her skills were a perfect fit; her maturity and common sense served her well in a milieu of educated but unseasoned youth. She was buoyed by constant validation and was soon the go-to person for residents and merchants, especially the older, more-established population. People greeted her with warmth and respect all over town. “That’s Lena from the bank,” I’d hear someone say, as if she was a local celebrity.

Tony, the owner of a popular family-run Mexican restaurant, was one of many who wouldn’t do his banking with anyone else. He treated our family like royalty when we came in. He’d seat us personally, flirting and laughing with Mom. “When are you going to leave this guy and run away with me?” he’d ask, bringing a dish of his secret-recipe guacamole to our table. She’d come back with a snappy retort, while my father and Caterina, Tony’s wife, looked on in amusement. I would stare at her as if she was a stranger. Was this my dowdy, boring mother?

Her paychecks were a significant boost to my dad’s earnings as a small-town TV repairman, and we breathed easier with our belts loosened. The atmosphere at home relaxed all around. Dad drank less, and their arguments became infrequent. There were no dramatic changes—we didn’t move to a bigger house or buy a new car—but there was less scrimping and more frills. Mom built up a wardrobe to go with her new identity; she became the smart dresser she always wanted to be. She went crazy over shoes. I don’t know how many pairs she had at the peak of her mania, but let’s say fifty: pointy-toed high heels, cork wedges with open toes, strappy sandals, whatever was in fashion. She looked for colors and shades she didn’t have—“yes, I have red, but not this brick red, not this stacked heel.” When she bought a new outfit—no time now for knitting—there would be matching shoes.

She wasn’t a vain woman, and it took me a long time to understand her absorption with presentation and self-image, with remaking herself. She was still living down her tenth-grade education, even if no one knew, and her self-perception required those outer trappings.

The real change was deeper but every bit as visible. A vibrant personality emerged, one that recalled the young Lena in that old photo. She entertained us with news and stories at the dinner table, bits of gossip, shrewd observations, implications of the latest rise in interest rates. She eschewed false modesty, proudly passing on the frequent praise that came her way. Like a desert shrub replanted next to a stream, she flourished and flowered. “I owe it all to the Bank of America,” she liked to say.

Her health became an obstacle after several years. Her battle with gastric ulcers was longstanding—I’d grown up with her bland cooking and bottles of Maalox in the medicine cabinet—but didn’t impede her activities for a while. Doctors told her it was psychosomatic, stress-related, but when her bouts of pain increased they began to take her seriously. Surgery helped, but other medical problems followed. She stopped working when chronic illness came to dominate her strength and energy. Smoking was her eventual undoing. Cigarettes were her crutch, no less in good times than in bad. She was a heavy smoker all her life and wouldn’t, couldn’t stop even after cancer was discovered, even after having a lung removed. “If one thing doesn’t get you, something else will,” she told me more than once when I tried to reason with her about her smoking.

The cancer reappeared in her bones and brain; she was beyond treatment and died at sixty. I kept two of her hand-knit capes and a yellow crocheted tablecloth, some costume jewelry and her wedding ring. I didn’t inherit her shoe collection, as I wore a size smaller. Instead I find myself hanging onto a closetful of regrets. How little I tried to know her, how unsupportive I was. How I should have tried to reach out and bridge the gap, daughter to mother, woman to woman. I allowed her reticence to throw me off, or maybe I used it as an excuse in my self-absorption. There’s so much I’ll never know. I have a picture taken of her shortly before her death when illness had taken its toll. Pale and pinched, she looks older than her years, her eyes dimmed with sadness. I also have that early photo—young and vibrant with her life ahead of her. Neither is as strong as the image that’s implanted in my mind from a time in between the two: Lena as I like to remember her, as I knew her for a short span, joyful, animated, dark eyes flashing, reeking confidence during that precious interlude when she’d found her niche. That’s Lena from the bank.

Alice Lowe Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, and Hobart. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. A monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction,” was published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

Winter to Spring: Practicing Patience in the Midst of Life, Writing (& Gardening) Transitions

Lavender Blooms, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Lavender Blooms, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

The first flowers of spring have come, calling all bees, all aphids, lady beetles, and grasshoppers, and waking all young, yellow and red striped potato bugs from the soil. Everything with legs is hungry, thirsty, busy flying or crawling about looking for water or food in the white heads of dandelions, along green leaves, or in the gusts of Santa Ana wind trails above the earth. It is the hum, the busy, the itch of spring stirring in all us.

I am no different than the aphid, hungry for green collard leaves, eager to feel the softness of pea flowers on my skin. Or, the grasshopper, hopping from one plant to another, hard to settle down, unable to be still and just watch the sun and sky grow colors all around. Sit still, I chide myself, settle down and record all the shifts from fuchsia to mauve to brown the peach blossoms have learned to paint.

I don’t know how I can move, be busy and unsettled, in the shift between winter and spring. How can I not be still, not pause amidst so much new life, growth? Somehow, I always manage to stumble here, and not pause or honor the shift.

There are seeds to sow. Beds to clean. Food to harvest. Plants to plant. A whole season to plan for and get ready to embrace, knees dirty, palms muddy, and muscles sore. What of patience? What of slowing down, when there is so much shifting, so many transitions to make.

As always, my garden life reflects my writing life. The garden is shifting from winter to spring, from cool to warm, from broccoli to tomatoes, and I, too, am shifting—from poetry to fiction, from student to graduate, from learning to practicing to producing.

Flowering Cabbage Plants, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Flowering Cabbage Plants, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Like the cabbage plants flowering in my garden, I am also shifting from one life cycle to another. Like her, my head is split and out sprouts yellow flowers. Unlike her, I struggle with transitioning. I cannot say I know the labor and pains cabbage feels to birth her flowers, but I look at how wide she allows herself to split, how tall she lets her flower stalks grow, how productively she sets and gives her seeds, and I know I am nothing like her. Not yet.

My transition from poetry to fiction writing has been laborious, gutturally painful, at times, and filled with silence. Where I once wrote for hours, I struggle to pen for minutes. Where there were once movie reels playing non-stop in my head, there is stillness and silence. I can no longer hear the stories I thought I owned in my heart.

After knowing myself as a fiction writer for many years, this year I have started to doubt and question my voice. I have examined the stories I’ve told, the images I’ve collected, the words I’ve put on paper and have begun to reconsider my voice. I am a poet. I tell true stories grounded in images, senses, and life as I’ve lived it.

I collect colors, not characters. I hoard the direction the wind blows, the angle sunlight falls, the shape of clouds, not plots and dramatic scenes. I observe and paint the poems I see in the world.

Whereas the cabbage plant cleaved herself open in the face of transition, to make way for her flower and seeds, I have sealed myself shut and shunned what I am beginning to know as true. I came into this writing program to leave with a finished novel, I have already written 292 pages of fiction, of course I am a novelist. Of course. Truthfully, though, my novel is 292 pages away from being finished, and I am not sure I am (or want to be) a novelist.

Late Winter Harvest of Meyer Lemons and Peas, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Late Winter Harvest of Meyer Lemons and Peas, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

What I have failed to heed, to see, to cleave myself open to is the 48-page poetry manuscript I have finished, along with the truth, the earnest truth and discovery that I am a poet. I have failed to fully accept the shift. I’ve closed myself up to growth, and refused to let go of past seasons, ideas of myself.

With great guidance from my mentor, I have learned to be patient and kind with myself during this transition, and it is within this self-compassion and patience that I have found peace. Instead of mourning labels I’ve imposed on myself as a writer, and early goals I made, I’ve shifted my perspective to honor what I have become, what I have accomplished.

The world erupts in color when we cease drawing black frames around it, others, and ourselves.

We must learn to cleave open, like the cabbage plant, and grow tall, stately yellow flowers and seeds. We must not, ever, become too rigid to open, especially as writers. To shift, or change our perspectives, our understanding, our ideas. We must always choose to grow.

My Meyer lemon tree is heavy with fruit. Lemons that started budding a year ago are just now turning orange, sweet, and juice filled. This afternoon, as I harvested a few for dessert, I noticed new buds forming. I couldn’t help but think about how she is transitioning this spring, with last year’s fruits ripe and this year’s fruits beginning to bud. She honors both and allows herself, always, to fruit. I can do that, too, I whispered to her. I can honor the voice I’m leaving and the voice I’m embracing.

Before I sign off, I have a list to help you cleave open and embrace transitions. And, following that list, a recipe for Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Rolls.

 Ten Ways to Lean into Transitions/Shifts:

  1. Be kind, gentle, and compassionate with yourself while you shift. It is all new; know that you are learning as fast and as earnestly as you can.
  2. Alter your perspective. Don’t be afraid to see things in new light, to change how you view your new world.
  3. Change your reaction. Instead of fear, dread, avoidance, practice acceptance, and embrace what is new. New does not mean bad.
  4. Embrace and honor the shift. Focus your attention on it, explore it, and savor it.
  5. Slow down. Don’t try and rush through the process; don’t be afraid of taking time to shift and transition. Be still.
  6. Trust the process. Have faith that you are going somewhere wonderful, and equally fruitful and exciting.
  7. Acknowledge past fruits. Recognize everything the old season of your life gave you—the tools, the insights, the ideas—honor them and bring them along, into your new journey.
  8. Cultivate excitement. Take on an attitude of pure elation, thrill, and adventure. Who knows in what exciting ways you’ll grow.
  9. Be imperfect. Perfectionism and people pleasing will strip all joy from your transition and growth. Know that you are exactly where you need to be.
  10. Learn and practice accountability. Whether it is by keeping track of goals, or teaming up with a trusted accountability partner, find a way to stay focused and true to your growth.
Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Rolls, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Rolls, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Rolls

(adapted from A Treasury of Top Secret Recipes)

These rolls are a welcomed change from traditional cinnamon rolls. Their fruity flavors are a refreshing surprise, and despite their big tastes, the combination isn’t overly sweet. The Meyer lemon and raspberry combination is light, bright, and a wonderful way to usher in spring. Feel free to substitute regular lemons for Meyers, but be warned, Meyer lemons are sweet, so your results may differ.

Sweet Rolls:

 2 ½ tsp. active dry yeast

1 c warm almond milk (105-110 degrees)

½ c sugar

1/3 c melted butter, cooled

2 eggs

½ tsp. vanilla extract

¼ tsp. almond extract

1 tsp. salt

4 c all-purpose flour

 Raspberry-Meyer Lemon Filling:

½ c raspberry jam

2 tsp. Meyer lemon juice

zest of lemon

Icing:

 1 1/3 c powdered sugar

2-3 tbl. Meyer lemon juice

½ tsp. light corn syrup

 

Directions:

  1. To make the rolls: Dissolve yeast in warm milk in a large bowl; set aside to proof. In another bowl, mix the sugar, butter, eggs, salt, and extracts; add flour and mix until everything is well blended.
  2. Pour the flour mixture in with the yeast and knead until a large ball forms either by hand (dusted with flour), or in the bowl of a stand mixer. The dough will be silky, a bit sticky, and thick. Lightly oil a bowl and place dough into bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size (about an hour).
  3. While the dough is rising, make the filling. Pour the jam into a small bowl, add the lemon juice and mix until the jam is smooth and thinned.
  4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  5. To form the rolls, lightly flour a work surface. Roll the dough out into a 20 x 15 rectangle. Sprinkle lemon zest over the dough and lightly press it into the dough. Spread the raspberry jam over the rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border around the edges. Working along the long side, tightly roll the dough.
  6. Cut the rolled dough into 1 ½ – 1 ¾ inch slices and place the rolls in an oiled pan. Let the rolls rise, covered in a warm place, until double in size (about half an hour).
  7. Bake the risen rolls for 10-15 minutes, until the tops lightly brown.
  8. While the rolls are cooling, combine icing ingredients and whisk well. Add more sugar or juice as needed to achieve desired consistency. Drizzle icing over slightly warm rolls.

Write, Create, Live, Eat Well!

Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Roll, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Roll, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Hearing Voices

Being an artist of any kind means hard work. It means pushing yourself to overcome your fears and doubts, and learning to trust your inner voice, the one that keeps telling you, “I have to write,” or, “I have to sing.” It means showing your work to others, submitting pieces for publication and knowing that there is a strong likelihood of rejection. It means getting feedback that doesn’t feel right. It means listening even though the words don’t seem to fit. My inner voice is loud and most of the time we work together. Sometimes though, the voice of doubt, always bubbling under the surface, creeps in and shakes things up.

I haven’t always found the right audience for my writing. Last year, before I started graduate school, I was in two performance-writing workshops. There was something about the chemistry of the classes that was highly unusual, only I didn’t know that until later. For almost a year, we had the pleasure of each other’s company every week while we read our new work out loud.

Audience Including Ambassador LaughingWe found each other hilarious. Our self-amusement was contagious, and for both of our shows, the audience laughed so hard it was practically in tears. Some friends of mine, who hadn’t been able to come to either of the shows but had heard about how funny they were from others, asked if I would read my most recent piece at their dinner party. I don’t know what possessed me to say yes. I wasn’t in a theater standing in front of a microphone not able to see the audience because of the lights, I was at a dining room table, looking at everyone eye-level while they scraped their plates for the last bit of chocolate cake and poured each other glasses of wine. I didn’t have my friend Meghan who set the tone for my piece in our shows, to follow. It was just me and a story about my bad behavior at a doctor’s office. What had seemed so hysterical in prior readings fell flat. Was it the wine? The location? My friends? Me? It didn’t matter. No one laughed. In fact, no one even got it. I was mortified.

I told the director of our performance-writing workshop what had happened a few weeks later. She had asked a few of her students from different classes to come together for a larger public show at an even bigger theater. I was still feeling the sting of my last read. She understood immediately, “it wasn’t the right place.” She warned us all more than once that we can’t predict how an audience is going to react. She told me her own story about performing a one-woman show and how the audience seemed to have taken sleeping pills. Halfway into it, she just wanted to run off the stage but she kept going. It turned out to be a turning point in her work, “I had to do it again right away, otherwise I would have quit from embarrassment.” She then had me read my piece in front of her to refresh it, so that my latest feeling about it was good. “Sometimes, you just don’t connect. There are so many factors when you share your work. People aren’t in the mood for it. They are hungry. They are tired. You are hungry. You are tired. Just keep at it. It’s never going to be heard the same way twice, ever.”

She is so right on.

It’s the same when you are getting even more direct critical feedback. At Antioch we have the incredible opportunity to work with some amazing teachers. These teachers present themselves at a “Meet the Mentors” panel where they explain how they work. We, the graduate students, then get to decide which person will help us get the most from our writing. Truthfully, I am a bit intimidated by the “Meet the Mentors” panel. These mentors are so talented and prolific; not only are they are published and respected for their own accomplishments, but their six degrees of separation connects us with some of the most renowned living writers in the world. The two I had the honor of working with were both straightforward and encouraging at the same time. But I won’t say it’s been easy. During my first semester, my mentor tried very hard to help ground my pieces.

“I never know where you are,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I said.

We went back and forth for six months. He tried very specific assignments, like “get on a bus and ride around your town and describe it to me.” He gave me suggestions on what books to read where the author’s presence was part of the story. At the end of our time together, I still hadn’t gotten it. We were both frustrated.

When the second semester started, I told my new mentor where I had had trouble. “I really want to get this,” I told her.  And when I started my first piece for the new semester, there was a click. Suddenly, I had a location. Suddenly, I was physically in the story, not just this ethereal presence. The work felt different. It felt stronger. I trusted it. Somehow, my first mentor’s words worked their way into my essay. It finally made sense.

“Does this piece seem grounded?” I asked my new mentor.

“Oh yes,” she answered, “very.”

I wrote my former mentor right away, “I finally wrote a grounded piece!”

“Great.” he wrote back, “Stay grounded…man.” I heard that. And, I felt it.

It’s hard trying to find which voice to listen to. There are so many sounds in the world, and sometimes the ones you can’t hear, like the reception at the dinner party, are the loudest. We have to decide which words to take and which ones to leave, but mostly we just have to get back up and start over. Say something nice to yourself: you deserve it.

 

images-3

New Mexico

In my next life I will come back as a Wild Mountain Woman
I will have more hair, the thick dark kind some women inherit
from lions I will have the hips to dance in layers of long
skirts

I will relocate to this sleepy town, and open a bakery I’ll get up
at dawn every day and grind my toes into the warming earth I’ll
know how to wrestle a rattlesnake, but I won’t need to very often

I will cook fragrant things like squash and herbed cheeses
and on Mondays we will have chiles relleños until they sell out
In the afternoon I will walk the stuccoed paths home

I will have a past dark enough that I left everything to come here
but light enough that children and cats trust me with their secrets

At night, I will collect the wind in my hair and watch the sun
as it sets over the Rio Grande I will go to sleep and dream
about tarantulas


Naomi Krupitsky WernhamNaomi Krupitsky Wernham’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in several literary journals and magazines, in print and online. ‘New Mexico’ is an excerpt from a longer collection of travel writing. To read more about the trip that inspired it, visit twowheeldrive.net. Naomi currently lives in Providence, where she is at work on a new collection of poetry and an old collection of stories.