My blog has moved! Redirecting...

You should be automatically redirected. If not, visit and update your bookmarks.

Monday, March 30, 2009

the top seven

Thank you to everyone who submitted a toddler haiku for the annual Mother Words Haiku Contest. You can read all the entries here and here. This year, my dear friend Jess agreed to judge the contest, so I’m turning it over to Jess, who says:

I’m a little troubled by the prevalence of excretion in the haiku, and even more so by how funny I find them - not sure if that’s a testament to the general poopiness of kiddos or an indication that my sense of humor hasn’t matured much since 5th grade. Anyways, the poems were FAB! Here are my top seven:

Toddler on my lap
Can’t let me out of her sight.
Tinkle, tinkle, plop.

by Amber S.

Don’t drink that water
Your poopy butt sits in it
A shriek of delight

by Laura

You pooped in pantry
Spread and raked it with your hoe
Looky! Garden grow!

by Marilyn

thought I had a girl
but look--on top of table
it’s a mountain goat


book was his first word
but the treatment he gives them,
no book could survive

both by Stace-c

and last but certainly not least,

Oh sleep, where are you?
“I get out! Running around!”
Escapes from crib. Damn.


Little voice, so sweet
"Don’t fucks with me" says my son
All laughs and giggles

both by the illustrious Ms. R. Hopper.

So...though I was tempted by mountain goat, book abuse, tinkle tinkle little plop, and had to pass on bathwater shrieks because I know the poopy butt that sits in it, and since I’m pretty sure there is a 2nd annual haiku contest prohibition on allowing a Hopper sister to win (nepotism, yes, but also because it would be patently unfair – they’re all so damned witty), THE WINNER IS...

Marilyn! I’m sorry about your pantry, but PLEASE say that you took a photo, because that is fantastic. I mean, it’s practically the same thing as fertilizer, right?

Thanks, guys. As a grad school sufferer, I sorely needed the comic relief. Bravo!


Thanks, Jess! Congratulations, Marilyn! I look forward to more wonderful and witty haiku next year.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

oh where oh where

are all the haiku?

People, don't make me bust out my own mad haiku skills. Post your toddler haiku here for a chance to win a $10 amazon gift card. Seriously, if you spend ten minutes writing your haiku, that's a dollar a minute.

The deadline has been extended to Saturday, March 28th. Don't be scared.

Monday, March 23, 2009

black box and an interview with julie schumacher

A couple of months ago, I discussed Julie Schumacher’s essay “A Support Group is My Higher Power,” which appeared in the New York Times’ Modern Love column. I was struck by this piece, which rang true to me and resonated with my own writing about Stella’s birth. Today I’m going to discuss her latest young adult novel, Black Box, and also post an interview with Julie.

Black Box is the story of what happens to a family when depression enters their lives. After teenaged Dora becomes suicidally depressed, her younger sister, Elena, takes on the responsibility for keeping Dora safe. Though this doesn’t sound like an easy read, Julie assured me it was a quick read, so I thought it would be the perfect novel to take on the plane as I headed to Chicago for AWP last month. It turned out that it was the perfect plane novel in the sense that I couldn’t put it down—even when I began to experience motion sickness—but I’ll admit that it’s not the best book to read in public. By page three, my throat was tight and tears stung my eyes.

Part of what brought tears to my eyes was the carefully wrought relationship between the two sisters—I kept thinking, in a desperate kind of way, how grateful I was that Stella and Zoë have each other and how I hope they will be as close as Dora and Elena. Part of what brought tears to my eyes was a wrenching guilt for the pain I must have caused my own parents when—almost two decades ago—I was a young adult struggling with severe depression. All I can say about that is that I will never forget the look on my father’s face when he arrived at that emergency room in Iowa City. I will never forget the look on his face as he stared down at me in that hospital bed.

One thing I really appreciate about Black Box is that it is narrated not by Dora, but by her sister, Elena. I think it is difficult to convey the darkness of a suicidal depression, to open it up enough to allow readers in without overwhelming them. I was relieved not to be in Dora’s head because there is too much pain in there. That’s not to say that Elena isn’t in pain, as well, but her pain is at the same time easier for a non-depressed person to understand and more complex than Dora’s pain (and by this I mean that serious depression sometimes feels two-dimensional).

When Elena and her parents go visit Dora in the hospital, Elena struggles to find her sister, the sister she has known her whole life, buried in the young woman sitting before her. As Elena and her parents get ready to leave Dora after their first visit, Dora says,

“Little El. What the heck are you doing over there?”

I walked toward her and she reeled me in and held on to me tightly, her bony arms a
collar around my neck. “Do me a favor?” she asked, with her mouth by my ear.

“Sure,” I said. “Name it.”

“Save me,” she said.

Elena tries to carry the weight of this request, tries to comply, to save her sister, and as the book progresses we how this impossible responsibility affects her.

I love Julie’s writing—her prose is lovely without being overwritten and her characters are so real that I think I know them. I do know them. I see myself in them. I imagine what I would do and how I would feel if my own daughters ever experienced this. (Please, no, never.)

I encourage you to read Black Box and send it to your friends, especially if they have been touched by depression. It is a quick read, but I recommend finding a quiet spot where you can sit down and sob if you want. No planes. No coffee shops.

Julie was kind enough to answer a few questions about Black Box and about navigating writing and motherhood:

KH: I’d love to have you talk a little bit about why you chose to have Elena narrate the story. Was this how the book began or did she evolve into the narrator?

JS: I chose the point of view of the depressed girl’s sister because I wanted to write about the confusion and the helplessness of a person who was trying to understand the experience from the outside. I wanted to describe the desire to help, beginning with the hope that “this isn’t serious,” and progressing from disbelief to worry to fear. The attempt to understand and the desire to alleviate another person’s suffering—that’s where the book started.

KH: I’m also curious about what Black Box might have looked like it if had been written as an adult novel with the mother, Gail, as a narrator. Have you considered writing an adult novel on this topic?

JS: In retrospect, I do wonder what it would have been like to write the novel from an adult point of view. But I’ve always been interested in children as characters—whether in adult or young adult fiction—and I’ve always been drawn to younger narrators who are grappling with the material of their lives, trying (and sometimes failing) to understand the stories they tell.

KH: I know that primarily you write fiction, but since you are a mother of young adults (and since I’ve had this question on my mind since AWP), I’m wondering how you balance your need to write, to craft stories, with the needs of your kids—their opinions, their privacy, etc.

JS: There’s an ethical dilemma in being a parent and a writer of realistic fiction (or nonfiction), that is, a person whose real life and relationships can be a starting point for creative work. When your children are very young, you’re free to comment on their behavior—as well as your own parenting skills—in their presence; as they get older, they don’t want to be the subjects even of positive conversation (“Look how she’s grown!”). That said, I think writers can model responsible self-inquiry — Who am I? What does my life mean? — and demonstrate to their children that creating art, and asking difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions about relationships, families, and societies, is part of living an examined life.

When I have published nonfiction about my children (as in the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times), I’ve gotten permission from them first. (In fact, the editor at the Times pointedly asked if I had done so.) Fiction offers a bit more of a cover; still, I’ve asked my children to read each of my young adult novels — including Black Box — before they were published. I think my kids understand what are for me the two enormous truths of this parenting/writing experience: 1) I love my children wildly, unreservedly, and 2) I can’t live my life without writing things down.

KH: In the “author’s note” at the end of the book you say that you hope Black Box will allow readers to recognize some part of who they are and that you hope they will “feel acknowledged.” I was very moved by the whole “author’s note” and about why you wrote the book, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little more about the role of writing in your life. Has it changed over the years? If so, how?

JS: The author’s note at the end is something my beloved editor, Jodi Keller, urged me to write. At first I resisted: the book should stand for itself without an explanation, etc etc. But Black Box, because of its subject matter, is different from my other novels. I wrote much of it in a state of despair, feeling bitterly lonely — and the author’s note gave me a chance to say to someone reading the book, “You don’t need to feel this way. You aren’t the only one going through this.” I don’t want to pretend that books can solve serious problems, but I do think that in acknowledging and naming our experiences, they can make us feel less alone.

As for the role of writing in my life: I value the practice of writing more now than I did when I was younger. When I was younger I was conscious mainly of pouring my heart out onto the page. Now I’m more likely to think philosophically about the time I spend shaping words into stories and narratives. I definitely value that time more than I used to, and I probably make better use of it as well.

KH: Can you talk a little about the response to the book? Have people recognized themselves in these pages? Is there a specific reader response that has especially touched you?

JS: The response to the book has been very moving to me. I’ve gotten emails from readers who have told me about their own or their friends’ experiences with depression, about aunts or uncles who committed suicide, about the shame and loneliness and confusion they’ve felt in the face of mental illness. One reader wrote, “I don’t know why I get down so much because my life is perfect.” Another wrote, “I can feel Dora’s pain and I can feel her problems living in me and it makes me feel so connected to her.”

KH: Black Box is your fourth young adult novel published in five years. Can you talk a little bit about why you started writing young adult fiction and how you are able to write these books so quickly?

JS: Writers who publish a few books in quick succession did not necessarily *write* those books in such quick succession. I had an eight-year dry spell during which I published almost nothing, even though I was doing a lot of writing. I started writing novels for young adults as an experiment, because I was terribly stuck on a long novel that I’d been working on for years. The idea was to write something short and direct that emphasized plot and structure. And I discovered, when I was finished with the first young adult book (Grass Angel), that I had truly loved writing it. Whereas I had been miserable while working on the failed novel for adults.

KH: I’d love to hear a little about your literary influences.

JS: I’m a lover of realistic character-based fiction of any stripe, from George Eliot and Jane Austen to Ian McEwan, E.B. White, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff — you name it. I never get tired of reading literary portraits of human beings and their interactions.

I want to thank Julie for taking the time to talk with me. Thank you, Julie! Please check out her books. I’d also like to congratulate Julie: Black Box is one of four finalists for the 2008 Minnesota Book Award in the young adult category! Way to go, Julie!

You can read more interviews with Julie here and here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

haiku you

I’m sorry I’ve been so quiet this week. I have a number of things of my blogging list, including an interview with the wonderful Julie Schumacher and a review of her new book, Black Box. But with the radio thing on Sunday (which went well, I think), the launch of Mother Words Online yesterday (yay!) and reduced writing time in the morning because of D’s new early practice schedule (the soccer season has officially begun, people), I haven’t had time to sit down and blog.

If I may interject a question here: Would twittering help? Could I just twit or tweet a note that feeds into this blog so at least you would know I haven’t perished? My friend Vicki suggested this, but it seems so daunting. Are there any twitterers (tweeters?) who want to weigh in on this?

Okay, back to my week: So yesterday, I finally posted my first (logistics-heavy) lecture for my online class, and then I ran out to find a birthday present for D. (38 today! Happy Birthday, babe! I love you!) And while Zoë was trying to pull clothes from the racks, I noticed a dull ache in my right breast. By the time we got home, the ache had become a hard rock of pain, and I knew I had a plugged duct. WTF? This late in the game? When I’m gearing up to wean? Ridiculous.

Now, perhaps you remember my date mastitis last year. (Or your own painful date.) Not fun, not fun at all. I didn’t want to go there again, so I knew I needed to be aggressive. I put Zoë down for a nap, then filled a bowl with hot water and sprawled across the kitchen floor, soaking myself. It’s humiliating to find oneself on the kitchen floor, face pressed to wood, staring at the dust and alphabet magnets stranded under the oven. Humiliating, I tell you.

After the soak, I called my mom to see if she could pick up Stella from school—thank God for my mom—and I fell into a deep sleep and slept for a whole hour, until Zoë began to screech from her crib. Later, I went to bed early and have been hydrating like crazy. The pain is now only an ache, so I’m hoping that I’ve successfully kept the devil at bay.

This brush with mastitis reminded me of two things: the first is that I need to slow down and try to nap a couple of times a week. The second is that it’s time for the annual Mother Words haiku contest. Last year, the haiku subject was, of course, mastitis, and you will remember the fine and funny entries, which you can read here. This year (since I am determined not to get mastitis again), the focus of the haiku contest will be—drum roll, please—toddlers.

It seems unbelievable that my Zoë transformed from a happy, fairly easy baby to a trouble-making toddler in just a week, but it happened. Last week she underwent the metamorphosis, and it isn’t pretty. She’s up on chairs, rocking them back and forth. She’s sprinting across the living room with china that she snuck from the cabinet. She’s pulling hair and hitting in anger when she doesn’t get her way. (I don’t remember this happening so early. Again, WTF?)

But I would like to honor Zoë’s transition with this year’s haiku contest: toddler haiku. If you have a toddler, this will be easy. If your children are older, try to recall the frustration, the lack of speech, the beginning of tantrums. (And even if you don’t have children, you can enter. Certainly you have seen and interacted with toddlers at some point.)

To enter, post your haiku as a comment below. Remember 5-7-5. Deadline for entering: Wednesday, March 25th. I am going to ask my friend Jess to judge the contest this year because she loves haiku. For my 30th birthday, she made me a tiny booklet filled with 30 birthday haiku. She likes funny, just so you know.

Bring them on! Haiku you!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

good enough moms

Hey, I wanted to let you know that I'm going to be the guest on the Good Enough Moms show on FM107.1 tomorrow, March 15th, from 1-2 p.m.

I'll be talking about writing and teaching and motherhood. Listen if you can. (It will be streaming online, as well.)

And after the show I'm going to gorge myself on cupcakes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

for the love of tachistoscopes

For several weeks while I was in 10th grade, my goal was to become a speed reader. Okay, so this was unlikely—I had never been a very fast reader—but Mrs. K, my English teacher, had convinced me it was possible. Mrs. K was a kind woman, if a bit stern. Now I would call her Type A, but back then I didn’t know anything about that. What I did know is that I didn’t want to disappoint my teacher, and I didn’t want to be smoked in the reading race by my best friend, Claire. So each morning at 10 am for three weeks, I walked into Mrs. K’s classroom and tried to suppress my dread as I seated myself in front of the tachistoscope on my desk. This machine was an ancient-looking thing that scrolled passages of text across the screen. It went faster and faster each day.

The tachistoscope was metal. It was heavy. And it was black. How ominous it was to walk into that classroom and find one hulking on each desk. I don’t remember how fast I ended up reading, but I know it wasn’t fast enough, and I’m sure that Mrs. K was disappointed. (And of course Claire was able to read much faster than I.)

Today, as I searched around for a little history on the tachistoscope, I learned that the machines were widely used to try to increase reading speeds in the 1940s and 1950s, and that the smaller device (after which I’m sure Mrs. K’s machines were modeled), was invented in the late 1950s. (It’s hard to believe that we were still using it in 1988.)

I know this is an odd thing for me to post about here, but I’ll tell you what made me think of it: Last week, I sat staring at the shelf of books I need (and promised) to read, and I thought, desperately, oh, how I wish I were a speed reader! Then, I saw an image of Mrs. K standing over my shoulder, shaking her head in disappointment.

It’s too late for me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

one year old!

A year ago, I woke up nervous and still sick with the cold that wouldn’t go away. Big, wet snowflakes fell outside, and I was snuffling and coughing. D took Stella out to breakfast so I could rest, but it was difficult for me to sleep. How could I sleep when I knew that in a few hours I would be getting a huge dose of anesthesia in my spine and would be sliced open? How could I sleep when in a few hours I would meet my little Zoë, who seemed so huge inside me?

At noon, when D and Stella were back from breakfast, my doctor called to see if I could come in early. I had been scheduled for a 4 pm C-section, but there was an opening at 2 pm. Could I get to the hospital in half an hour? We rushed around the house and called my mom, who came over to be with Stella. From that moment, everything felt rushed. The nurse anesthetist was waiting when I walked into the maternity ward. I was ushered into a small room, a monitor was slipped over my belly to check the baby’s heart rate, my blood was taken, and an IV was inserted into the back of my hand. D snapped a picture of me there, in that recliner in that small room. In the photo I’m smiling broadly, and I looked relaxed, but I wasn’t. I’m sure anyone who has had more than one C-section can relate to this—the excitement of knowing you’ll have your baby in your arms soon, mixed with the fear of surgery.

But then the anesthetist came in and was so calm. She called me dear, and when she ushered me into surgery and had me curl my spin to insert the anesthesia, she kept telling me what a good job I was doing. This kind of familiarity and constant affirmation might not work for everyone, but it worked for me. And then D was there, above me, asking if I was okay, and the nurse anesthetist was there, offering to take pictures, and my doctor—my doctor who saved my life and Stella’s life four years earlier—was there, opening me up, pulling back layers of skin and muscle. And then Zoë was out and being held to my face. I ran my finger across her brow and started to cry. After I was sewed up, she was in my arms, nursing, and I couldn't believe it, that I was holding my baby and that she was nursing.

It's true that I wish I hadn’t had to have another C-section. I debated it. I went back and forth, weighed the pros and cons. But in the end, it was the choice I had to make. My fear and the trauma of Stella’s birth still loomed so large for me. I know I couldn’t have made the other choice then. But still, I feel a little sad knowing I will never give birth naturally. I’ve been thinking about this more lately, partly because of Zoë’s birthday and partly because recently I’ve read two lovely, gripping birth stories. You can read one of them here. But it is very easy for me to feel regret now that I have a chubby, healthy one-year-old in my arms. It is nothing compared to the regret I would have felt if something had gone wrong after an attempted natural birth.

I suppose it is natural to relive your child’s birth on his/her first birthday because it seems impossible that a year could have gone by already. How is it possible that Zoë is now a toddler? I think of the Deborah Garrison poem “Both Square and Round,” which I love so much and have posted about before. She so perfectly captures that desire to slow time, to stop it for a moment when you have a baby in your arms.

So I am raising my cup of coffee to my dear Zoë this morning. These are some of the things she loves:

  • Dancing—She loves to be spun around the room, bounced and dipped. The throws back her head laughing and points to the stereo emphatically as soon as it falls silent.
  • Blueberries—Actually, she seems to love all food, but blueberries will keep her seated in her high chair the longest.
  • Baby dolls—Stella didn’t get a baby until she was at least 18 months old, and even then, I dragged my feet about it. Now, you can find a baby doll in any corner of the house. Zoë will pick them up and squeeze them in tight hugs. “Oh, loves,” I say to her, and she smiles proudly.
  • Dogs—She points to the window and says “Da! Da!” whenever she hears a dog outside. Again and again we look out the window, hoping our neighbor’s dog is out in the yard.
  • Nursing—I’m not sure how I will ever wean this child. Any ideas?
  • Stella—everything pales next to Stella, whom Zoë reaches for first thing in the morning. Stella can make Zoë laugh like no one else. And Stella is so patient and caring with Zoë, except in the car, of course, when Zoë’s wailing gives Stella a headache, or when Zoë turns off the television in the middle of Stella’s show. But mostly she is patient and caring, and Zoë adores her.

Happy Birthday, Zoë! I love you!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


It’s embarrassing how many of my sentences and thoughts begin with “I should…” I wish I could remove the word from my vocabulary, vote it out of my life. But even if I refused to say it, or—and this seems impossible—refused to think it, it would still be there, a silent but persistent anxiety, an endless to-do list.

Actually, the list-making helps relieve anxiety. If I write something down, I won’t forget it, and when I’m finished with the task, I can cross it off. But the problem is that my to-do list is very long, and it’s always long because I’m always adding tasks to it. When it becomes especially long and messy, I transfer it to a new piece of paper. The white space around the words relaxes me for a moment, makes me feels like I’m starting all over again. But soon that white space becomes cluttered with bullet points. As I change Zoë’s diaper or retrieve her from the chair she has climbed up on, as I help Stella with one of her crafty projects—cutting ribbon for a wand or cardboard for a castle—I’ll remember something I should do, and I’ll jump up and add the task to my list before I forget it.

How else would I keep things straight? I am getting ready to launch my online version of Mother Words, which is fraught with logistics. I’m thinking ahead to my May class at the Loft, trying to finish up a couple of freelance editing projects, and trying to make a dent in the pile of books I’ve been meaning to review on this blog. Oh, and I’m home full time with Zoë, which means, of course, that I try to do all of the above while she’s napping. Tuesdays are particularly hectic because I have both girls on Tuesdays, and it is also the day we take my grandpa for errands. We are in and out of the car, Zoë wailing in the back seat, Stella alternating between trying to calm Zoë and wailing herself about how Zoë’s crying has given her a headache. Throughout, my grandpa is trying to tell me about the new book he’s been reading or about the dinner he made the night before, and I’m trying to listen to everyone and keep my eyes on the road. We drive the twenty minutes out to the suburb where my mom and step-dad and grandpa used to live because my grandpa knows the lay-out of that store. When we get there, I park in front of the entrance, run in, get a grocery cart and pull it out to the car so my grandpa can lean on it. (Otherwise he would need his walker, and then where would he put his groceries?) I get him into the store, then I get back into the car, park, get the girls out, and strap Zoë into our own cart. Stella invariably wants to go “look at” the hair things—the barrettes and binders—which I remind her we are not buying today. Sometimes Grandpa goes straight to the deli and after I get him his senior coffee (which is free), I shop for him. Other days, he walks the store and checks off the list himself. Regardless, we meet back at the deli for rolls and butter or, occasionally, fried chicken. Sometimes there are other old folks eating at one of the deli tables and Grandpa strikes up conversation. Other days, it’s just us. I try to butter Stella’s bread (a task she knows how to do but has decided she doesn’t like to do) while I balance Zoë on my lap and try to keep her from eating the napkin or grabbing a pat of butter and smashing it into her face. Then Zoë pulls off her socks and throws them on the floor, and Stella *needs* a piece a candy from the bulk candy section and my grandpa reminds me that I forgot to get his potatoes and I remember the cans of mandarin oranges, which I should get here because they are much cheaper than they are at the coop. And when we finally get through the check-out lane, after I have bagged my groceries and Grandpa’s groceries, I rush out to the car to try to get Stella and the groceries in before Grandpa arrives. If he makes it there too quickly (which happens often and which is amazing considering he is 100 years old), I leave Zoë strapped in my cart with the groceries, and quickly close Stella’s door and open Grandpa’s door, and help Grandpa into the car at the same time I try to catch his cart before he lets it bump into my car or the car parked next to us. When I finally unload everything, strap a once-again-screaming Zoë back into her car seat, remind Stella to get buckled, and begin singing “Five Little Ducks,” the only song that will calm Zoë in the car, I’m exhausted, and all of the sudden I remember something I need to do, something I really *should* do today. But I don’t have my list, and I’m driving and my purse with my pen in it is in the back seat and I know I will forget this Very Important Thing by the time I drop Grandpa off. I definitely won’t remember it by the time we get home, and later I will recall that it was an idea about my online class, but I won’t remember what it was. I really should have written it down right away. I really should have.