Thursday, September 21, 2017

favorite short stories

I often write posts about books I've read and loved but I've never made a collection of short stories I love, which are equally important, but don't get the attention novels and memoirs do, for some reason I can't explain. I don't know why everyone isn't reading short story collections. Short stories are condensed versions of entire books! There is still plot and character and an epiphany (often more pronounced). Or sometimes its just a scene without a plot but you get to sit there, in that moment, with the character and live with them.

A writer friend asked for my list of my favorite short stories, so I made one. And then I figured I would share it. Because short stories are the tits and there is no excuse not to read them. They're short! You can read one while your kids are bouncing on giant pillows at the Pumpkin Patch. You can read three while the rice cooks.

In no particular order:

1. "The Yellow Wallpaper" 
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
If you want to feel a character, read this. You get to crawl around in this post-partum, maybe crazy, maybe gaslit, woman's skin. It'll make you want to peel wallpaper off in giant sheets, scratch through the wall until you have sheet rock under your fingernails. 

2. "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar"
by Roald Dahl
Lame title but incredible story. Probably my favorite. It is a long short story, but that's because it's a story within a story within a story. And all of them are incredible. Dahl somehow can give us minute details of a moment and the overarching summary of years all in this same piece. He is a master, making us believe what might or might not be possible because of how he tells it.

3. "Rape Fantasies" 
by Margaret Atwood  
Possibly my favorite title ever. Long before The Handmaid's Tale swept the Emmys, Margaret Atwood was writing incredibly funny stories like this one. She is a chameleon, an artist, the very best kind of writer.

4. "A Small Good Thing"
by Raymond Carver 
I know when people think of Carver, they think of "Cathedral," but it was this story that I liked the best. I constantly think back to the epiphany of this story, remind myself of small good things in my own life when I need.

5. "How to be the Other Woman"
by Lorrie Moore 
Lorrie Moore was the one who made me first fall in love with short stories. She is so funny and writes in her own way, damn everyone else. Second person? Hell yeah. Why doesn't anyone else use it? If they could like Moore does, they would. She twists conventions into something all of her own.

6. "The Man who Invented the Calendar"
by B.J. Novak 
Confession: I have a think for B.J. Novak. How could I not? He's a self-deprecating, funny writer who is also smart and thoughtful. His whole collection is smart and fun, but I found this story particularly inventive.

7. "Sparks"
by Susan Minot
Minot is a master of using language as more than words. Watch what she does to make you feel the crazy of her character with punctuation, scene changes, word repetition, tense vacillation, well-placed images. #aspirations

8. Parker's Back
by Flannery O'Connor
I'm probably not that literary because I'm not a big O'Connor fan. But this story is special. She created a whole story based on an image and I think of that image often, Parker's back, covered in tattoos he can't see. 

9. "Deep Kiss" 
by Tobias Wolff 
 Wolff packs so much to think about into such a small story. His writing is nice and tight. He even makes me consider writing in third person, because he does it so well, makes it look effortless. 

10. "Where are you Going, Where have you Been?"
by Joyce Carol Oates 
I love the tension Oates writes into both her characters and her story's action. She writes ominously, so the reader just knows shit's about to go down. She was inspired to write this story by an actual news story, proving writers are inspired by real life, but not necessarily their real life.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

resembling myself

I read the phrase, A woman who has only recently come to resemble herself ("The Folded Clock: A Diary" by Heidi Julavits). I underlined it. I read it again: "A woman who has only recently come to resemble herself." There was a break on the page then, which I used to mull over this sentence, why it stuck out to me.

Steve often tells me I'm a different person since I started my MFA. I don't deny it, he's right: I am. I'm writing all the time. Instead of watching tv, I'm reading. I started running again. I also have friends again, who I am in constant contact with: we text, send each other writing, see each other for coffee when possible. I didn't have friends for years while I was staying at home, not like this.

When Steve says I'm different, he might mean I'm pulling away from what he knew me as. Our kids are older now and they don't require the constant attention I gave them for years. Admittedly, I don't keep that clean of a house: I often skip chores to write now. Steve and I have always spent much of our time separately, but not to this extent. We used to meet up in front of the tv, which I never do anymore. I'm no longer the me he once knew.

I have been many variations of me over the years, none of which were honest. There was a long stage where I played fantasy football. There was the try-to-be-the-best-mom-ever stage where I was always taking my kids places. There was the wake-up-early stage. There was the listening-to-other-people's-music-instead-of-my-own stage. There a wino stage, there was even a yard work stage. None of these stages stuck. None of them were me. They were personas I wore to benefit someone else.

Now that I'm being honest with myself, I know I hate football. I also don't like yard work or waking up early. I like to make my own playlists. Wine gives me headaches. And as much as I'd love to give my sons a perfect childhood, a perfect mother, I know that I am an imperfect human that can not be more than I'm capable of. It has been in learning what I'm not that who I am has pixelated.

I am a writer. I am a mother. The order doesn't matter: I am both without one taking precedence. I like to listen to my headphones. I can only tolerate so much time around other people. I like to read and piece together puzzles and run and practice yoga. I like to edit other people's work, discuss literature and the craft of writing. I like to drink too much coffee, sometimes too much vodka. I like to keep friends with people who make me laugh and think and sometimes even cry, because they keep me honest. Sometimes I'm funny, sometimes I'm sad. I like jokes that go too far, past what is politically correct. I like to give people gifts when they don't expect them. I like to feel the breeze in my hair. I like to sing aloud, horribly, to the song I'm feeling, the one on repeat. And, best of all, I'm courageous.

It takes courage to be yourself. Because yourself isn't who people expect you to be. They tell you to be yourself, but they don't mean it. They mean, "be what I need you to be for me." But all of those personas I wore for other people, the ones that didn't suit me, are gone now. I'm dropping the act, the charade, the mask.

I think all of this is why I underlined the line: A woman who has only recently come to resemble herself. And I thought: finally.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

somewhere discoverable

Once I was a writer in the sense that I wrote sometimes.

Now, I am a writer in the sense that I depend on it. Like exercise, or sleep: it is a part of my day. My head fills with words and sentences to write and each day, I empty my head: scribble it down or type it out.

It was harder before, when I cared too much about structure and organization. I would keep things in my head too long, until I could be at my computer, put it in the proper Word doc. Or until I had my proper journal, which I have some inexplicable system as to what warrants entry. My thoughts would vanish there, into some dark corner of my brain, never to be found again.

But now, I have a "fuck it" notebook that I put anything and everything in. A sentence to use in a new piece, a revision idea for a current piece, a journal entry, a poem, a check list. It's a fucking mess. But it empties me out so I can fill back up with other thoughts to write down. I am creating content that I might use one day, might not. But it exists, somewhere outside my mind now, somewhere discoverable, which is what writing is, basically.

Writing is putting your thoughts somewhere discoverable: somewhere that someone one day will find it, maybe even appreciate it, maybe even tell you.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Milwaukee

Writing was lonely.
So very lonely.
Until the day I discovered other writers.I knew they existed, of course, on couches being interviewed, represented with jacket pictures, in print. But not in real life like this. 
When I joined this MFA Program last summer, my world exploded. Suddenly I was filled to the brim with the camaraderie I had so desperately craved before, alone at my desk. Now, I could see in color.
I was home, with these people who thought a little like me and laughed at the same jokes I did, people who noticed subtleties like I do. We talked well into the night every night. No one wanted to go to sleep, no one wanted it to end.
This summer, during student readings, Jen and I acted in Colleen's ten minute play. I was the first Indestructible, Jen was the first Dorothy Wick. We rehearsed much more than necessary because we just really loved running lines together, making each other laugh. I wrote a poem inspired by the character I played. I read that. The crowd loved us. 
So when Colleen texted us that her play, the play we loved, was being produced at a play festival in Milwaukee with "road trip?" Jen and I each texted back "hell yeah" without contemplation. Of course. Writers support writers. That is what is so incredible about the MFA community. So we drove, a lot of hours, after Jen and Brandon were out of school, in the dark, and arrived at 3:30 a.m. We woke up and ate gluten-free pancakes and we went and saw Colleen's play acted out by "real actors" đŸ™„. They were incredible. Colleen was a celebrity. We were groupies.

On the ride back, at a Walgreens somewhere in Wisconsin, I checked my email where I had an acceptance from a literary journal for the poem I wrote at residency based on my character in the play. I told the girls and we high-fived, shrieking loudly. We are writers, becoming published together, by writing together, editing for one another, texting prompts and urges to write and submit. We are friends who get each other, get this business, and give each other a tunnel out of the loneliness that could envelop you if you let it.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

like a child

When my arm is across Brandon's or Holden's chest, I feel their hearts racing, running. I think, slow down, calm down, breathe. You're running your little selves ragged, you're so high strung, you chatter too much. 

I think all of these things while I drink my coffee, trying to stimulate myself.

I tell them not to interrupt when I read them books, but they have so much to say, so many questions. I think, as Brandon falls asleep in my arms: I used to wonder like that. I used to be amazed, think aloud. 

Maybe they don't need to calm down. Maybe I need to get excited again. Maybe my heart should race and run all day until finally, at night, my chest heaves and my breathing slows and I fall into dreams which I believe because I am capable of something other than skepticism. 

I caught the sunset last night which did make my heart race, a smile spread across my face. I've still got it, I thought, although it is a minimal dose.


Over the weekend, I was playing a kids' game on the iPad while I watched Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and a woman on there said, "when you get comfortable, it's time to try something new." Yeah, like the next level, I thought, passing the last one.

But I knew what she meant: something that makes your heart race, your breathing shallow. Something that makes you giddy, something to chatter endlessly about. Something that makes you feel like a kid again: full of wonder and excitement.

Tonight I want to fall asleep next to my son, both of us exhausted, not because we survived a day but because we lived the motherfucking shit out of it.

Monday, September 4, 2017

time, money, and bath bombs

I need a break from this paper which is making my head spin.

So here's what I'm into lately:
 Bath bombs. I don't know if I can take a bath without one. It turns a bath into an experience. They're expensive, yes, but you can get six cheap tiny ones for ten bucks in a pinch.
 
I am listening to this EP on a loop. It's sexy and haunting. So it's both chill and chilling.
You know how girls say they could never cut their hair short because then they wouldn't be able to put it in a ponytail? I know because I was that girl. I wanted to cut my hair short last spring, but I was training for a marathon and was tying it back every day. It's true, ponytails are convenient and short hair comes with its own challenges. Luckily, bandanas exist for bad hair days, or, more aptly in my case, those days when I don't give a fuck (every day).


 I was at my friend's house, looking at this book her ten-year-old was reading when I said, "hey, is that a timer bookmark?" I knew I had to have one. I'm reading 20 books in 4 months this semester, so forcing myself to read for a certain amount of time each day is pretty much the only way I get all of my reading done. I don't really know how to work it forward, so I have it count backward for me.
I've always been into these bracelets, that part isn't new. I wear quite a few on my wrist and people always ask me what they symbolize. Sometimes I'm kind and shrug and say "nothing, I just like them," sometimes I say "one for each person I've slept with" because I'm not in the mood. But what is new is Pura Vida makes these for babies now, my sister told me. So I bought a couple for my five-month-old niece. Pudgy baby wrists! We need to draw more attention to them. They are not appreciated enough. I love that crease.
 My fall Sauconys. This time around, I'm going to iron patches to the inside because my right toenail pokes a hole through every pair of Sauconys I own.
I haven't worn a watch since my activity tracker (which fell into toilet water and I have since refused to wear). I don't like the look of activity trackers any way, and I can guess my steps pretty accurately, so I have no need. But I did miss knowing the time. I always misplace my cell phone so I can't count on knowing what time it is. Having a kid in school now, I always need to know what time it is. I have to drop him off and pick him up! Aah! What time is it?!?


I'm unemployed but I have no shortage of shit to do. I'm not very organized by nature, so I force myself to fill out and complete a weekly to do list every Monday. Even on holiday Mondays, like today. I think I'm adulting.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

night runs

Night runs.
Ahhhh (breathe in), night runs.
They have always been my favorite.

When I was in college,
I worked evenings
and I didn't get home until 11 p.m.,
and then my favorite thing to do
was lace up my running shoes
and run.

To run under the stars and the moons
without all the honking cars and barking dogs
is as peaceful
as runs can be.

The weather is turning toward fall
and there is a slight breeze
and it's not too humid at all any more.

This time of year,
--this and spring--
are the two little pockets
when I don't hate
being here.

I run to reclaim myself,
to remember myself.
 To know what hasn't changed
despite all that has. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

eclipse

While I was drunkenly piecing together a puzzle last Saturday (so classic), my sister texted me:

A: You guys gonna watch the eclipse?
Me: If I find glasses
A: *sends infographic of where to buy eclipse glasses*
     Are you going to the path of totality? I hear it's incredible. We're planning on going.
Me: Not sure what that means but it sounds extreme
A: Do you live under a rock?!
Me: Ha ha
        Basically
A: Dude it's been all over the news here for the last month
Me: Oh yeah well, if you mean are we going to be in the 100% path, no
        We're 98%
A: Not good enough
Me: B has school and I only care a little
       (like not at all)
A: *sends three pics of Facebook comments about how incredible a total eclipse is*
Me: you're really into this

The next morning, I had breakfast with my friend Jen, who happens to live in the path of totality. "Your sister is right," she said. "You should see it in totality."
Their enthusiasm, admittedly, was infectious. 
 "I don't even have the glasses," I said, being difficult as usual.
 "Then we'll get some."  We went to Target, which of course, was sold out. So we went to HyVee and got a few of the last pairs of solar eclipse glasses (which are basically just cardboard with a hefty bag as lens).

I texted my sister a pic of me wearing eclipse glasses, a teaser.
Woo hoo! she replied.

The next morning, Monday, eclipse day, I sent her a car selfie captioned "Driving Holds into totality."
A: Sweet! We camped in our car last night in totality. 1 hour til partial!

I-80, which never in the history of driving in Nebraska (except during the College World Series) has been busy, was packed. Minnesota and Iowa license plates on most of the cars. Totality fever was legit.

I made it into Lincoln in time for the Salt Dogs game. I thought it would be best since I had a book and Holden had the iPad and we could sit in the berm and be left mostly alone but also notice when the big event was about to occur. And, there was cotton candy. 

So we ate ballpark food, I read, he played the iPad until he got bored and we walked back to the car and he sat in the back of the SUV while it got darker and darker and then, the sun was gone. "Look!" I told him, excitedly because all what came before was building to this. "It's so dark," he said, just as a statement without any enthusiasm whatsoever.

But then, the moon passed and Holden jumped around in a circle chanting, "the sun is back!" On the horizon, we saw fireworks and then Holden said, "let's go home." So we did.

One day, I watched a total eclipse with my boy who wants to be an astronaut. Once we saw the moon cover the sun. "You might be there one day," I said to him about the moon. "Mm hmm," he said without paying attention, sliding puzzle pieces into place with his finger on the iPad.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

window blinds

But today...

After three and a half years of being a stay-at-home mom: of wiping asses and making lunches and putting out playdoh and scrubbing dishes and breaking up fights and band-aiding scrapes, I had two hours to myself. Holden started preschool.
I ran to the lake, a spring in my step. There, the wind blew what is left of my hair and the sun warmed my arms and my phone pumped hip hop into my ears.
Then I ran back here, to this place that has housed us through all these scrapes and cuts and bruises.
I opened the blinds, let the light in.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

emptying and filling

Here is how I measure the progress in my life:

I quit my job. There is a guy I worked with there who recently left for a few weeks so he could check himself into rehab. On his last night, we were rolling silverware together and I said, "this place is a trigger" and he said "absolutely."

What I meant was that it was reminiscent my younger days, waitressing, then spending my tips on booze, getting shitfaced with the other servers, blacking out at their apartments or mine. Someone who has been known to drink too much alcohol shouldn't work at a place that peddles alcohol. Shouldn't be suggesting it to people, pushing it on them, so that I can make tips and stop at the liquor store and pick myself up a bottle of wine.

I shouldn't be staying up until two a.m, or three, or four. I should be waking up at seven, making my sons breakfast, walking them to school. I should be writing. I should be practicing yoga and running and sending letters to my friends and watching Big Brother without a cocktail in my hand. I should be better than who I was. More responsible, less reckless.

That guy came back after rehab: not 30 days but he made it 21 and returned more tan, less predatory. I was glad and sad to see him. Glad because I like him as a person, sad because I knew he shouldn't be in a place like this. Neither of us should. A few weeks ago, he told me he was quitting for good. Two days later, I put my own notice in.

I woke up on Sunday, hungover after having last night drinks with my co-workers. I puked, just like in my younger days. But unlike my younger days, I thought, "this is over." I went to the salon and my hairstylist chopped off my hair: cut it short, clean. "I don't go backward in life," he said, referring to his old boss calling him up, asking him to return. And I said, "yeah, me neither," which isn't true but I want to be true.

Being unemployed isn't exactly progress in life to most people, but it is to me. Because I've learned that money isn't what is important to me. It is fulfillment that I'm after. I will fill myself now, rather than emptying myself. I will not drain myself any more. I was empty once. I won't be again.

This is how I measure the progress in my life: I notice the hole I'm falling down while I'm falling, before I've reached the bottom. And I claw my way out, dirt beneath my fingernails, back into the sun. 


*First line borrowed from Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me

Monday, August 14, 2017

first day of kindergarten

At work the other day, my manager was talking with another parent about how hard it was to say goodbye to their kids on the first day of school. "I'll be fine," I said flippantly. "Get out of my house already, I need the quiet." And while it's true that I crave quiet and aloneness, which mothers don't get enough of, I am not as hard as I thought I was.

This morning, I was a softie. Last night, too. I tried to go to bed early, knowing we would all be waking up to an alarm. But I tossed and turned, thinking of my baby out there in a cafeteria line, finding his desk, hanging up his backpack, all without me protecting him.
 
We walked to school, all of us together, and at the door, Brandon lined up with the rest of his class. First, he kissed us each on the cheek, gave us hugs and high fives. "I'll miss you, Holds," he said and a tear slipped down my cheek.

A girl in his line was crying and screaming, lying on the beauty bark, kicking her feet. "I don't wanna go!" she cried, tears everywhere. Brandon just watched her, no tears or hysterics of his own. I remember last year at preschool, he clung to my leg and begged for me to stay. But this year, he stood on his own, fearless.
I will have to learn to let Brandon experience this big world I've sheltered him from. I will need to learn to back off. There will be pain, but also joy. There will be lessons, both good and bad, that he will learn. He is not a baby anymore. He will grow into that giant backpack.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

symbiotic brothers

Brandon starts school on Monday. All day Kindergarten. Before, I thought it was me who would have a hard time with it. But now I realize it's Holds. These two have this bond that is so incredible. They speak their own language together. Brandon coaxes Holden into absolutely anything because Holden wants to be just like Brandon. They are into the same things: stuffed animals, watching iPad videos, making an Animal World on the train table. They race each other down the sidewalk. They draw with sidewalk chalk. They play video store in their fort.

They have become so attached that they poop at the same time every day. Last night I was getting ready for work and I realized the house was too quiet. I came downstairs. "Boys, what are you doing?" I pushed open the bathroom door and Brandon said, "we're pooping and telling jokes." They try to hold hands across the bathroom. They have a symbiotic relationship.

At Open House on Thursday, I watched them playing on the playground and I said to Steve, "I just wish they were going to school together." Because together, they take care of each other, have an ally and a friend. Alone is a whole different story. I know they will find other friends, but it will never be like this: pooping while holding hands.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

illiterate women's secret writing

I once saw a copy of a page filled with the strange, elegant scratching of NĂ¼shu, a secret writing system used for centuries by women in the Hunan Province of China and still one of the least known writing systems in the world. Only boys were allowed an education and to participate in the public world of ideas and communication. Girls were kept at home and taught the skills required to run a household. When they were old enough for marriage, they had to leave their mothers and sisters forever and travel to the faraway home of their husband to live under the rule of his family. When a girl left her home for marriage, there was great crying and wailing among the women in her family.

Illiterate, the women developed a secret way of writing in order to communicate with their lost daughters. They borrowed some characters learned over time from the Chinese and made up many more. Like Chinese, NĂ¼shu is written top to bottom, right to left in columns, but the writing looks very different from written Chinese. The characters are not square. They are elegant, feminine, elongated like the legs of cranes, with thin swift strokes connecting the vertical lines, binding women together outside the rules.

Grandmothers and mothers taught their girls the secret writing by making up and singing a verse, then writing it on the hand of the girl. Verse after verse, day after day, slowly the girl came to share in the mother-language of secrecy, a connection, of loyalty and love. Forbidden paper and ink, the mother would give her departing daughter a beautiful book of NĂ¼shu she had sewn, stitch by stitch, to comfort her and bind them together forever, the characters themselves little signs of their eternal connection. For years after the girl went away into marriage, her mother made up long verses of steadfastness, stitching them in NĂ¼shu into her little books and secreting them to her daughter.  
 ~An excerpt from Without a Map by Meredith Hall

It's true; I wikipedia'd it. Isn't this the most beautiful thing you've read today?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

little acts of kindness

I have been thinking a lot about days. About these self-contained units of time we wake up to each morning and make something of. Each one is filled with little acts of kindness and unkindness. By ourselves, by our family members, by our co-workers, by our friends, and by strangers.

These little acts we amplify into something more, let them ruin or make our day.

I was telling my friend today, while we walked along the Missouri river that it seems like so many people just want to focus on the acts of unkindness. We want to bitch about the driver who cut us off, moan about the wait at a restaurant or the storm warning that interrupted The Bachelorette. We focus on the negative, because its what other people do too. It's our culture. Let's write bad reviews about restaurants, tweet out every frustration. We live in anger, band together in shared hatred.

But what if instead we focused on the acts of kindness? What if we amplified those into something bigger? The old man that holds the door at the library, the chirpy barista who likes your nail color, the six green lights in a row that you hit when you were in a hurry. Then we would let joy wash over us instead of pissed-offed-ness.

We talked about this while we walked. A nice breeze hit us and cooled our sweaty bodies. Why couldn't we focus on the breeze instead of the beating sun?  We went to a restaurant in the Old Market for sandwiches. I pulled into a parking spot where someone had overpaid the meter and given us an hour free. At the restaurant, my friend just wanted toast and peanut butter, berries and whipped cream. "When people ask me for special orders at work, I say 'yes,'" I encouraged her. "I mean, why the fuck not? Get what you want."

She asked our waitress. "I don't mean to be a pain," she began. Then she asked for it. The waitress just asked what kind of bread, then brought out exactly what my friend had asked for. "Sorry I'm so sweaty," I apologized, self-conscious. "Don't apologize for a bodily function," she replied. "I mean, it's not like you're spurting blood all over the table. That would be concerning. A real health hazard." We laughed, hearty, full laughs, imagining me spurting blood all over the table, the commotion it would cause. In comparison, a couple pit stains were nothing. We could laugh or apologize. We chose laughter.

When we returned to my car, I said, "look, the meter expired and we didn't get a ticket! We're living a good life right now." She didn't criticize me when she sat in my passenger seat which was covered in shredded cheese. We laughed about how I slammed on my brakes on the way to work while eating a taco the other day. Today I chose happiness over pissed-offed-ness; I chose to amplify the good. I'm going to do it again tomorrow. And the next day.