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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

the truth of it

I said I would dedicate a whole post to Sharon Olds, and this is it (though this doesn’t mean that I won’t post about her writing in the future—I might just get wild).

When Stella was discharged from the hospital (at 4 weeks old, weighing 4 pounds, 7 ounces), I withdrew from graduate school (it sounds so much better than saying “I dropped out of graduate school,” doesn’t it?).

I couldn’t take Stella out in public (or outside at all in the Minnesota winter), so I spent my days pumping, trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to breastfeed, washing diarrhea-spattered clothes, and walking her around and around our dining room table as she cried.

Needless to say, I was losing my mind.

But then one day, when I’d just about had it, when I was ready to throw in the towel (whatever that means), my sister, Rachel (whom I call Peanut) came over and insisted I go out and have a glass of wine. (I love Peanut.)

I changed out of my sweatpants (I was getting crazy, I know) and drove to a bookstore in St. Paul. I needed words, and I was looking for Satan Says by Sharon Olds, which someone had recommended to me. But they didn’t have it, so I settled on another Olds collection, The Dead and the Living, and I walked across the street to the wine bar.

I’m not sure why I decided on Pinot Grigio, but I ordered a glass (with a Caesar salad, lest you think I just drank and read) and I opened the book. The first part, “Poems for the Dead,” was disturbing, Olds’ details gorgeous, sick, and lively. But it was part two, “Poems for the Living,” specifically the section titled “The Children,” that really captured my attention.

The one that stuck with me most clearly was “Relinquishment.” An excerpt:

On a black night in early March,
the fire hot, my daughter says
Wrap me in something. I get the old
grey quilt, gleaming like a sloughed
insect casing, and wrap it around and
around her narrow nine-year-old body,
hollow and flexible. Cover my face,
she hisses in excitement. I cover her face
and fall back from the narrow, silver
shape on the carpet.

I looked up. Outside, the sky was already dark, yet the restaurant was mostly empty because it wasn’t yet five o’clock. I couldn’t, at that moment, imagine my daughter as anything other than a fussy infant. I couldn’t imagine that someday she would be old enough to talk, to say wrap me in something, cover my face. I wanted to count on that, to let Olds’ poem give me strength, and it did, sort of—it reminded me that I love words. But it scared me, as well. I was still so afraid that something would happen to Stella. We we’re in the clear yet. She was a preemie, after all. I took another sip of my wine—so crisp, so tart—and wondered if it would ever feel safe to love her completely.

Since then, I’ve returned Sharon Olds many times. I always use her poems when I teach because she’s so honest. She never shies away from the hard stuff, the things about which people don’t want to talk.

An excerpt of my current favorite, from The Unswept Room, “The Clasp”:

She was four, he was one, it was raining, we had colds,
we had been in the apartment two weeks straight,
I grabbed her to keep her from shoving him over on his
face, again, and when I had her wrist
in my grasp I compressed it, fiercely, for a couple
of seconds, to make an impression on her,
to hurt her, our beloved firstborn, I even almost
savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing, the
expression, into her, of my anger,
“Never, never, again,” the righteous
chant accompanying the clasp. It happened very
fast—grab, crush, crush,
crush, release—and at the first extra
force she swung her head as if checking
who this was, and looked at me,
and saw me—yes, this was her mom,
her mom was doing this, Her dark,
deeply open eyes took me
in, she knew me…

Sharon Olds is brave enough to write the truth of it. I wish we all were.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

mother love and Snow Flower

I just finished a wonderful novel: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. It’s a story set in nineteenth century China about enduring friendship, footbinding, and nu shu, women’s secret writing. It’s also a story about motherhood and mother love. Aha! The dialogue between different pieces of writing continues.

Just two weeks ago, my students read Andrea Buchanan’s “Mother Love” and wrote about what mother love meant to them. I have been thinking about it, as well, what it means to love a child, what that feels like. I think of a moment in the car when Stella was staring out the window, singing Joy to the World softly. I think of waking up in the middle of the night to her cries, getting out of bed though it's freezing, and going in to lie down with her until she feels safe again. (And I'm not bragging or trying to make myself seem like a great mom here. I really, and I mean really, hate to get out of bed in the middle of the night.) But these moments, to me, are what mother love is.

Maybe it's because I've been thinking about this so much that I had such a hard time getting into this book. I knew it was about footbinding, and it's hard for me to get my mind around the fact that for over a thousand years, mothers had to do this to their daughters. I think of Stella running around the house, jumping from the couch, scaling the jungle gym at the park, and then imagine binding her feet, not only taking away her freedom, but inflicting that kind of pain. It seems impossible.

The crazy thing is that Snow Flower’s narrator, Lily, uses this exact term--mother love--throughout the story: “This type of mother love (is) teng ai. My son told me that in men’s writing it is composed of two characters. The first means pain; the second means love. That is a mother’s love.” After Lily’s mother slaps her, Lily says, “Although my face stung, inside I was happy. That slap was the first time Mama had shown me her mother love, and I had to bite my lips to keep from smiling.”

How do I reconcile the kind of mother love I was thinking about with Lily's sense of mother love? Is there is difference, really?

I do understand the cultural significance of footbinding, and I understand that if I grew up in China a hundred years ago, I would have had my feet bound and I would have bound my daughter’s feet. But it still makes me teary, and I didn’t really want to read about it.

Those parts of the book are hard. Period. But See really is a wonderful storyteller. Once I got into the book, and accepted footbinding as inevitable, I was captivated by the special friendship, the laotong relationship, between Snow Flower and Lily.

So, I'm curious if anyone reading this blog has read this book and and/or what your ruminations are on mother love? I'm thinking it's something to which I'll keep returning.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

when soccer and writing meet

Friday night, D. and I and a bunch of friends went to see the Zinedine Zidane movie at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It's a documentary in which 17 cameras follow Zidane for 92 minutes, a full soccer game. The audience was mostly soccer fans with colorful team scarves wrapped around their necks. (Even if you're not a fan, certainly you heard of Zidane's infamous head butt in the final game of the 2006 World Cup. France ended up losing in a shoot-out.)

I'm sort-of a soccer fan, but mostly I was there to hang out with my friends and to support D., who definitely is a soccer fan (and a former player). I'll admit that I was more interested in the drinks we were going to get after the film rather than in the film itself. I certainly wasn't expecting it to make me think about writing. Surprise, surprise.

The whole 92 minutes is a character sketch of a soccer player doing what soccer players do: run, shove, stop the ball, etc. In Zidane's case, there is also a great deal of spitting and sweating (from his earlobes and the tip of his nose), and shouting (hey! hey! allí! allí!). But by the end of 92 minutes, I actually felt as though I knew the guy. His concentration was palpable. I admired his skill (even I could tell how good he was), but I also had a sense of him as a person. And this is exactly what good writing does: lets us get to know and understand people.

Serendipitously, we were talking about character development in class this week. We read Jane Shapiro's "Poltergeists," and Sharon Olds' poem "Five-Year-Old-Boy." I love Sharon Olds, and I will dedicate a whole post to her at a later date, but today I want to focus on "Poltergeists," which was originally published in the New Yorker in 1993. It also appeared in Best American Short Stories of 1993, but I found it in the wonderful anthology Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood, edited by Katrina Kenison and Kathleen Hirsch. (This book deserves it's own post, as well.)

Though "Poltergeists" is fiction, I decided to use it in my nonfiction class because the story has a very nonfiction-esque first-person narrator, and Shapiro is a master of character. And one of the ways she creates the believable teenagers, Zack and Nora, is through body language. They are "glossily beautiful, standing in the kitchen in pure ringing silence." Zack's girlfriend, Bibi, "slip(s) off (her) boots and lie(s) down with her feet in Zack's lap. Then she fondle(s) the cat in several remarkably inventive ways, and Zack watch(es) her." The story is chocked full of body language, and it works. I know these kids and I know their narrator mother.

Body language is hard for me. Sometimes when I write about D., my descriptions are a little flat, and I think this is because I'm around him so much that I can't fully see him anymore. (I don't mean this in a bad way--he's not invisible or anything.) But his movements and habits have become so familiar to me that it's hard to separate them out in the way that I need to in order to write them well.

So thanks to Zidane and "Poltergeists" I've been thinking about this all week. I wish I had 17 cameras at my disposal.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

I love teaching

I love that moment in class when a light goes off for a student or when someone tells me that her writing is going in a completely different direction than she expected. I love being a part of that discovery. (And yes, I do realize that I sound like a sap.)

Yesterday we read “Mother Love” from Andrea Buchanan’s Mother Shock, and “Memory and Imagination” from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories. I almost always use Hampl’s essay to kick off creative nonfiction classes because it gets students thinking about what memoir is, and makes them realize that, as memoirists, we don’t “write about what (we) know, but in order to find out what (we) know.”

One of the most important things I hope my students get from this essay is that a careful first draft is a failed first draft. In a first draft, “the piece hasn’t yet found its subject.” You should write from your heart without censoring, then go back and figure out what you're trying to say, what the piece is really about.

One thing that I didn’t anticipate was how nicely Hampl’s and Buchanan’s pieces went together. I picked Buchanan’s piece as a way to start dialogue about motherhood models and this idea of “mother love” (and because I really like her writing, of course). But it turns out that the way Buchanan looks back on her early months of mothering in this essay perfectly mirrors the way Hampl talks about first drafts. At first, Buchanan worries that her daughter isn’t really connecting with her. (And in the midst of those first months of crying and burping and changing diapers, who doesn’t worry about this?) But it’s only when Buchanan looks back on videos of those early months that she finally can see how attached her daughter really was to her, “how clearly (she) was her whole world.”

You need to be able to look back in this same way on your writing. When you’re writing a first draft, you don’t know if it’s any good. (At least I don’t.) You’re in the middle of it, and it feels like a mess (just as the early months of parenthood do). Then, when you look back on it, you can see what really exists there—you can see what your piece is really about. (Or in Buchanan’s case, she could see her child’s intense connection to her.)

I just love when two pieces of writing talk to each other. All I have to do in these situations is eavesdrop.