Vanilla Days

(This story was read at the Litchfield Writers Guild Coffeehouse, June 14, 2017.)

My college roommate dated a guy who would only eat smooth ice cream. No walnuts, chips, or chunks. John’s reasoning was he didn’t want roadblocks intruding on his creamy dessert experience. We thought that was boring. The nuts and candy were what made things interesting. Like little embedded gems. One year, I threw a themed birthday party and asked my guests to bring their favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s. While everyone else brought Chunky Monkey, Cherry Garcia, and, my favorite, New York Super Fudge Chunk, John showed up with vanilla.

Now, twenty years later, I have come to more fully appreciate John’s perspective. Not just about dessert preference, but about life. Although I still enjoy a good scoop of bumpy ice cream, I don’t always enjoy the bumpy life. Like chocolate chips and nuts in the bowl, things pop up. Obstacles in the pursuit of our goals, catastrophe, tragedy. Sometimes I just long for a vanilla day. Boring, predictable, and exactly how I planned.

But life is not smooth. I learned this at a young age. My earliest career aspiration was to be an Avon lady. I would marry a tall, dark, handsome man and live in a log cabin. In Hawaii. The best of everything. A part-time job that wasn’t too demanding and would set me up with enough bubble bath to last a lifetime in a cozy house in paradise. As I grew up and my world expanded, my goals did, too. They became more realistic. It’s not that there were obstacles to my becoming a door-to-door bubble bath saleslady, I simply changed my mind. I became an elementary school teacher and stayed in Connecticut. Sure, it’s far from paradise, but still pretty nice. Very nice, actually. I guess the lesson here is that dreams we set at the age of five are bound to undergo some modifications over the years.

But I did marry the guy of my dreams. There was nothing getting in the way of me marrying DJ, and if there were, I would have pummeled it like David defeating the giant.

After we were married, I remember lying in bed one night in our little apartment. DJ asked me, “How long do you think we’ll live here?”

“Five years,” I replied, without even thinking about it.

Three-and-a-half years later, we had a fire. It destroyed our home. We lived with DJ’s parents for a year and a half. No one plans a tragedy. The fire was part of a divine plan but not a part of that lazy, dreamy conversation we’d had just a few years prior. Thankfully, we were not home at the time of the fire; we and our twenty-one-month-old son Timothy were unharmed. Re prioritizing my life after the fire, I left my full-time teaching job.

At some point you begin to realize that as much as we enjoy trying to order our days, that’s all we can do—try. We are not the only authors of our lives’ stories. Not only is the Rocky Road life full of roadblocks and potholes, sometimes there are detours as well. When Tim was in fourth grade, he got in trouble for building things in his desk. Deciding he had an aptitude for creative tinkering, and he would be better served at home where he would have the freedom to do so, we pulled him out of public school and home schooled him. It became a way of life, and I educated David and Sarah at home, too. In fact, I home schooled for seven years. Talk about not in the plan! But it was great. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent with my kids. It wasn’t always easy providing for all their academic needs, but it was always a joy spending time with them.

After those seven years of home schooling, I made the decision to return to work as a substitute teacher in order to contribute to family finances, I enrolled the kids in public school. That was good, too. They did well, for the most part. Tim had a bumpy senior year, and what I thought would be a pretty vanilla transition to college turned out to be a detour. After being accepted at college and awarded a scholarship, he said he wanted to take a gap year. He and his girlfriend spent four months working on a farm. In Hawaii.

I believe that in some respects I’ve received immeasurably more than I could have asked for or imagined. Before we married, we dreamed of having children. Who knew they were going to be this amazing! Each of our children has a musical gift they did not inherit from us. Sarah plays clarinet. Tim plays piano and composes songs. David taught himself guitar, piano, trumpet, whatever he can get his hands on.

DJ and I are not gifted in art or athletics. David has been drawing since he could hold a pencil and scribble on the living room walls. Sarah practices gymnastics and is far more confident at thirteen than we were at thirty. And Tim, the kid who was chastised for building things in his desk, is majoring in engineering and talking about building an Earth ship. I think he’ll do it, too. Isn’t it sweet when life surprises you through children?

Things turned out differently than we had planned. The grand story, though already written, continues to unfold. We can sketch out a rough outline of what we’d like our life to look like, but life is chunky. Even though John was a strict vanilla ice cream guy, I hope he’s managing life’s disruptions ok. The unexpected happens. Maybe we shouldn’t be too stringent in our expectations. Leave room for divine intervention. It’s the bumps in the road that make us who we are. Shape us. Some days are bumpier than others. And, yes, I do long for a vanilla day. Though few and far between, I am grateful for the smooth, quiet times—moments, really. The incidental treasures. A smile from a friend, the kids laughing at the piano, an arm around the shoulder, DJ’s whiskers on my cheek. Those moments are even better because of the challenges we’ve been through. I’m even coming to appreciate the challenges. After all, those bumps in the Rocky Road are chocolate-covered peanuts. Life’s surprises and turns make it all the sweeter!

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Quote of the Day

“Revising isn’t difficult. All I do is cut some things out and move some things around. When you think about it, it’s really no different from what heart surgeons do.”

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Touring the Country of Math

  “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

                                                                                     ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

We all think differently. My grandmother would say, “It takes all kinds to make a world.” She was right. We need doctors and teachers in this world, but we also need people willing to pick up garbage cans and walk dogs and we need people who do math. In other words, we need people who think differently than we do if everything is going to be taken care of and this planet is going to continue to spin as it always has. If everyone thought like me, only possessed gifts like mine, there would be a lot of schools and books but no submarines or rocket ships. Sub builders and rocket ship makers have gifts I don’t have. It’s not always easy to understand people who are different from us. This is where conflicts arise.

I know a boy who thinks very differently from me. Not just because he’s a child and I’m not, but because he’s a math whiz, and I most certainly am not. Math was never my forte. I still have to write everything out, even the simplest arithmetic problems. When I was home schooling my son in fourth grade, we once did math for four hours. He wanted to keep going, but I didn’t have the patience. I used the excuse that it was time for me to make dinner. He kept working. As a college freshman, he can still sit with a problem for what I consider a very long time.

Numbers inhabit a foreign country to me. I think more along the lines of words and sentence diagrams. Realizing my young friend and I were having trouble understanding each others’ viewpoint, I decided instead of jumping in and trying to figure out a way to teach him to conform to my ideas and ideals, I needed to understand how he was looking at the world. I decided I would attempt to get to know him better by reading a book by someone who thought more like him. It was a wise choice.

I read Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet. Tammet is a math savant like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and Laurence Kim Peek (the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt in Rainman). The quote on the cover of the book is by Oliver Sacks, MD:  “Thinking in Numbers enlarges one’s wonder at Tammet’s mind and his all-embracing vision of the world as grounded in numbers.” How true. As I read his essays on, among other things, big numbers, fractions, and probability, I could almost feel new synapses firing in my brain, enlarging it to include a glimpse of Tammet’s vision and perhaps that of other math-minded individuals like my young friend.

As a child, Tammet would read fairy tales which led him to ponder mathematical ideas like big numbers. When I read this, it was foreign to me because upon reading the same fairy tales, my mind would go off in a different direction. I would think magic and mystery and romance but certainly not math. When he read “The Magic Porridge Pot” by the Brothers Grimm, for example, it spurred this:

“What if, I wondered, a magical pot distributed these tiny flakes of porridge and drops of  milk and grains of sugar in its own special way? In such a way that each flake and each drop and each grain had its own position in the pot, released from the necessity of touching. I imagined five, then, fifty, one hundred, one thousand flakes and drops and grains, each indifferent to the next, suspended here and there throughout the curved space like stars. More porridge flakes, more drops of milk, more grains of sugar are added one after another to this evolving constellation, forming microscopic Big Dippers and minuscule Great Bears. Say we reach the ten thousand four hundred and seventy-third flake of porridge. Where do we include it?”

Whew! I would read the same story and think how wonderful! That one pot fed the whole village and in the end, a lesson was learned, and they all lived happily ever after. The End. Close book. Who knew there were other ways of reading that story than the way I was reading it?

When he read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, Tammet’s mind spun off in an exploration of time, seconds, then fractions of seconds and fractions of those fractions as he counted the seconds it took him to walk from one lamp post (similar to the one in Narnia) to the next on his street and divided that time and distance into shorter intervals. It never occurred to me to wonder about such wonderful things. Why not? I guess I just accepted the fantastical story of Lucy and her siblings as proof that magic can be found in even the most mundane places and then my imagination went off with them on their adventures without pausing to think of the mathematical implications that were apparently woven throughout the story.

In another essay, Tammet talks about the possibility, the mathematical probability, of life on other planets–another topic I don’t spend much time on. But the further I got into the book, the more out- of-the-box my own thinking became. I realized just how limited and prejudiced and entrenched each one of us is in our one way of thinking. Remember the old movies about “little green men” from other planets?  My question now is why are we looking for beings like us? Or like us only with green skin and one eye instead of two? Who’s to say life on other planets has to look, sound, and smell like “life as we know it?” Hmm? And why are we looking for water on other planets? Because we as human beings of the planet earth require water for survival. Who’s to say that life on another planet–whatever that life may look like–requires water? Maybe their “water” is actually something very different.

Maybe it’s best not to let our imaginations spiral out of control. Perhaps limits are a necessary evil since our world operates, and, it can be argued, thrives on, systems. In order for things to “go,” things–and people–must conform to the parameters of those systems. But how often do we stretch those systems, alter them to accommodate new ideas?

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” ~Nelson Mandela

Reading Thinking in Numbers was a mind-expanding experience for me. I agree with Oliver Sacks’ quote; Tammet’s book did enlarge my wonder at Tammet’s mind. How wonderful, too, that a man that is so math-minded would be able to express himself and his explorations of numbers so eloquently in words. Not surprisingly, some of the things he discussed were still beyond my scope of understanding. I am certain I would not be able to reciprocate and explain my ponderings about the world in numbers. And to me, that’s really what it’s like–we almost speak two different languages because we understand the world in very different ways.

This book has helped me better understand my young friend’s mind. He understands time. He thinks in terms of years, decades, knows when important events occurred on the world’s timeline. I’ve taken many more history classes than he, but I still have no memory for dates. He worries he’s wasting time doing things he doesn’t deem important, feels his teacher spends too much time explaining things he already understands. Like fractions. Like Daniel Tammet.

Unlike me, this child grasps the concept of infinity. He constantly draws pictures of multitudes of people, draws a map of the United States from memory. His mind generates ideas mine has barely glimpsed. That’s why it’s good for me to read books by, and about, people very different from me. This experience reminded me of a man I recently saw on the internet who admitted he was prejudiced but didn’t want to be and started a dialogue with people very different from himself in an effort to gain understanding, insight, and, hopefully, eventually, acceptance.

Not only do people on this planet inhabit different longitudes, latitudes, and cultures. We also come from different schools of thought, different proclivities. There are math people and science people, book people and sports people. There are pilots and accountants, soldiers and princes. How often our misunderstandings arise out of our own misconceptions. Do we really want to know our neighbors or do we just want to complain about how different they are? That they are not like us? All the while boasting about our tolerance of others.

How liberating to stretch one’s mind! What better time than now to make an attempt to better know our neighbors. Those that may not think as we do. May we all be willing to be stretched horizontally, vertically, diagonally, outside the proverbial box to more fully comprehend the breadth and width and depth of a world–and a world of people–burgeoning with wonders infinite.

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Thank you, Harper Lee

“A book should be the occasion of rejoicing, but it is seldom that, imparting a feeling of completion but not of satisfaction. I suppose a writer, almost by definition, is a person incapable of satisfaction–which is what keeps him at his post.”

~E.B. White from the forward to The Second Tree from the Corner

 

I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the second time. The first time I read it was, like most young Americans, in high school. Since its publication in 196o, it’s become almost sacred American literature. I enjoyed it upon my first reading, but it’s even better the second time around. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult. Whatever the reason, I am completely devouring it.

I am reading it in preparation for a library discussion. It is a two-part discussion. The first part was on the newest release by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. The second part will be on Mockingbird. This reading and re-reading couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I have been writing for a few years. I belong to a critique group. Sometimes, despite claiming to have a tough writer skin, I find my flesh too fragile and walk away wounded from the probably well-meant critique. Most likely, it was a bad time for me to ask. Most likely, I was already emotionally raw prior to asking.

Stephen King suggests writers “Write with the door closed. Edit with the door open.” Sometimes I open too soon. That first draft is wrought with visceral emotion. It hasn’t been filtered and processed and simmered down to that Hemingwayesque one true, clear message for the reader. Of course the reader will get frustrated. The writer hasn’t completely worked through the emotions yet. This leaves the reader feeling the same emotional turmoil. But I’m thankful other writers have rough rough drafts. Even a literary giant like Harper Lee.

The release of Watchman on July 15, 2015 stirred a great deal of controversy. Without going into literary criticism (as it’s not the purpose of this article), I would like to reflect upon what this book meant to me from a writer’s perspective. Upon reading it and finding inconsistencies, not just discrepancies between the Mockingbird Atticus and the Watchman Atticus as was being publicly argued, but inconsistencies within Watchman itself, I decided to take the book for what I believed it to be–a rough draft. Even though Harper Lee gave her consent for publication, was she really ready to release it? In reference to White’s quote above, maybe the book was complete, but was Lee satisfied?

Looking at it that way not only made its inconsistencies easier to accept, it also gave me great hope. So often I read a “finished,” polished piece and mistake it for a first draft. Knowing, of course, this is seldom the case. How many incarnations did that piece endure before I finally set eyes on it? I tend to forget about the work that went into it and instead set the author upon a pedestal that s/he probably worked very hard to climb. Viewed that way, Watchman looks like an excellent first draft. (Or, more likely, second or third. . .) It should cause us to more fully appreciate the craft of writing and those who strive, with every fiber of their being, to do it well.

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Forever Changed

My son missed the bus. It was his second year in high school after having been home schooled since fourth grade. I was still homeschooling my two younger children. I would have to wake them up early to drive him to school for 7:23am. My husband had already left for work. It was very cold outside.

My son was apologetic, and his siblings woke up without grumbling. I was the one grumbling, but I tried to keep it to myself. On the ride to school, my nine year old daughter marveled at the ice crystals still on the trees, sparkling in the peachy glow of sunrise.

Later on that morning, my sister contacted me. There had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My pulse raced. I got a lump in my throat. My husband taught at Newtown High School, just down the street from Sandy Hook Elementary. I grabbed my laptop and stayed glued to it all day, horrified by the surreal events unfolding, wanting my husband home safe with me. I gave the kids independent work to do. I couldn’t teach them that day, and I couldn’t tell them about the nightmare that their father may or may not have been involved in.

He texted me later. He said he was safe and he’d be home as soon as he could. I told him there were hugs at home waiting for him. He replied, “And kids.” My heart ached for those families whose kids would not be coming home that day. It was so close to Christmas, too—the season of anticipation of joy and wonder, the expectation of warm family gatherings. It would be so different for those families now. So different for us all.

That night with my husband home safe, he related some of the story to me. His class had been in lock down. He and his students huddled under desks in a corner of his classroom. The doors were locked and black paper covered the windows. He prayed. Over the coming days, weeks, and months he would share more memories of that fateful December 14, 2012, but that night he told me only what he could manage to say and only what I could manage to hear. Then I left him on the couch and tended to my chores in another room.

As I vacuumed I realized how blessed I felt to be able to do even a mundane task. I could process the horrors of the day while I cleaned up crumbs from the floor. So many moms would not have the strength or the desire that night to bother with such petty things. And the fact that my son had missed the bus that morning, well, I saw it for the blessing it was—an opportunity to spend a few more minutes with my kids.

Two days later, we searched for a Christmas tree at a local farm. Again I felt blessed by the sheer act of walking quietly through rows of evergreens with my family. It was peaceful. Although our hearts were broken, we were whole. We were together. Along with the peace, I also felt a little guilt.

When Christmas morning rolled around, my husband worried, as he always does, that the kids would not be happy enough with what he viewed as sparse offerings beneath the tree. I reassured him, as I always do, that the kids would be happy with their gifts. I reminded him that no one in our house should be anything but completely grateful that day. And every day.

Posted in Priorities, Sandy Hook | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Of Tigers and Teapots

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(This was originally written in the fall of 2015. I found it in my drafts and decided it was time to post. Much has changed since I originally penned it, but the sentiment remains the same.)

Our family has been going through stuff for almost a year. And by “stuff” I mean that literally–physical objects, material things, the trappings of life.

Shirley, one of my husband’s grandmothers, who lived up the street, passed away three months ago. There is a large dumpster outside her house. She did not own the house. Her son and daughter-in-law lived with her. They are moving out. The owners of the property have been doing major work on the property. Clearing trees and brush and removing an old in-ground pool. Everything inside the house must go. And there is a deadline of one month. Shirley’s four children have been going through the things in the house, each taking their own treasures. These are mainly photo albums and handwritten recipes, but there are also ceramic tigers (Shirley’s trademark!), record albums, and odds and ends.

Nan, my husband’s other grandmother, lived next door to us and had a personal library behind her house. She passed away eleven months ago. Since then the family has been slowly going through her things, disposing of obvious trash, and trying to figure out what to do with everything else. As with Shirley’s house, some things we know we want to keep. Photos, scrapbooks, genealogy, a few special items. Then there are the things that seem like they would be worth some money. Like old books. So we research those. We find that they are not worth as much as we had hoped and perhaps even less because they are not in mint condition. According to dealers, the books are not worth much, but if we had some ephemera–journals, pamphlets, letters, diaries, photograph collections–to offer, they might be interested. But those are not for sale. They are the very things with which we won’t part.

I can see both houses from where I sit. Shirley’s with the dumpster and Nan’s with the liquidator’s truck. I’ve seen how difficult it can be to sift and sort, to save and to discard. But to everything there is a season. . .

There’s a third house where I’ve been going through stuff. A friend of mine is eighty. She lives alone. Her husband passed away three years ago. She asked if I’d help her purge. Three things specifically–clothes, books, and files. We started with the clothes. I helped her sort through her husband’s clothes and pack them for the thrift store. She pointed me in the right direction and then went off to do another chore in another room. She didn’t want to watch me pack up her husband’s things. She wanted me to do it; she knew it was time. She just didn’t want to watch.

This left an impression on me. I care about my friend, and her husband was a lovely man, but I am still somewhat removed from the situation. I am not family and therefore not as emotionally attached to the material things that belonged to him. I can be objective while, at the same time, respecting his things and her space.

That’s why we go through so much when we go through physical stuff. It’s not just cookie jars and dress shirts and tea pots. It’s memories–some happy, some sad, some downright difficult. We each come to the place where we can let go of the stuff and still hold onto the memories, in our own way, in our own time.

Posted in Grief, Psychology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Good Neighbor: Control of Tone in Writing and Life

Reading The Writer’s Control of Tone edited by Edward M. White, I learned something about myself in the first two pages of the introduction. Talk about effective writing! White relates a story of a curriculum salesman visiting a college composition class he was teaching. White suggested in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the curriculum he was selling, the salesman take on the role of teacher for the day and teach the class using the program materials. White himself would also play the part of a student.

When summoned to the blackboard to “correct” an overly elaborate sentence heavy-laden with adjectives and adverbs, to cross out all the superfluous words, White froze. The exercise which was intended to help sell a “writing” program had nothing to do with writing. It was then that White realized that in order to decide how to write or rewrite the sentence, he needed to decide what tone to use. In order to do that, he needed to know what he wanted to say and to whom he wanted to say it. “How can anyone write unless he has something to say to somebody?…Writing for nobody is not writing at all.”

I closed the book and ran to the computer. I am a firm believer in space and time intersecting on the graph of the fabric of the universe, God putting me at just the right place at just the right time, and, in my case, seeing just the right words to reveal what He would have me know at that moment in time and space. I am 45. I am writing a lot these days. Why didn’t I do it before? Did I have nothing to say? Surely, I have had ideas and opinions and observations for a mighty long time. And I’ve always, in one way or another, had words to communicate those thoughts. Did I have no one to whom to communicate them? Surely not. I have had a supportive family and a few friends around me all my life. The difference between now and then, the reason I only recently started writing seriously, lies in my psyche.

I’ve just now realized I have something to say. I look around. I listen. I hear what people around me are saying, their observations on the world. I take in the daily news by osmosis like everyone else. What I’ve found is that, for the most part, bad news travels fast and negative voices are the loudest. But if I’m not speaking up, counteracting all that negativity with a positive, hopeful outlook on things, then I am partly to blame. It’s the old adage:  If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. In her book, Susan Caine introduced us to The Power of Introverts. Even there, being an introvert herself, if she did not put herself out there and write a book, and then–the extreme jump out of the comfort zone–give a TED talk– the world would not have been graced by  her exposition on the merits of the quieter class of individuals called “introverts.”

I’ve also realized I’ve got an intended audience. A few years ago, I started calling my mom every day. She is an excellent listener. I tell her nearly everything, every minute detail of my day. Why? Well, one reason is she’s my mom; she asks me questions no one else asks about the boring things. But I also realized that in order to convey the point I wanted my mom specifically to grasp, I had to set the scene in a certain way. She knows many of the characters in my real-life stories, and I know how intimately she knows these people and I am privy to her feelings about them. Therefore, I construct the stories I share with her with these aspects in mind. They affect my tone. Also, don’t we talk to our mothers in a way we don’t talk to other people? I started listening to myself tell her stories. I listened to her listening to me. I paid attention to the questions she asked and how my stories affected her. And then I asked myself questions. Was I accomplishing my goal? Did she grasp the purpose, the message, of my story? Did she respond as I had hoped she would?

This purposeful storytelling carried over into other conversations I would have with other people. Wanting to convey a particular message to a particular individual necessitated crafting a story in a specific way. It’s not rocket surgery. When you really think about it, don’t we all do this? Consider our audience as we construct our story? Sometimes but not always.

Sometimes we just want to “get it out.” We all have that friend who constantly complains. I often wonder what the point is. Many times I am too far away to solve the problem. Sometimes there is no solution. It’s just a voiced complaint. Is the hope to gain my sympathy? Empathy? Ok, sometimes I can offer that in response. But I wonder if this friend is even thinking about how I will respond to the complaint. Complaining is a knee jerk reaction. Have a problem, get upset, tell someone. I’m human. I get that. But I’m thinking (and you may say I’m dreamer) that if we can add a fourth step, it would make a big difference. If, before we text or blog or FaceBook, we pause and consider our audience. To whom are we speaking? Ask ourselves: How will what I am about to say affect the person to whom I am saying it? How would that small but significant act affect not only what we say but how we say it?

I suggest this might even change our mind and we’ll come to realize that this thing that was so utterly important a second ago, is, in the grand scheme of things, not worth sharing, doesn’t contribute anything valuable to society, will not edify our listener. And this would cause us to zoom out and maybe even reevaluate our purpose on the planet. What kind of messages do we want to spread? I love TED talks and I love their motto:  “Ideas worth sharing.” If we pause before our outbursts to others and ask ourselves is this worth sharing, what would we say?

Maybe, like Edward White, his arm frozen holding the chalk at the blackboard, we should pause before that next angry text and ask to whom am I speaking? What do I really want to say? What message do I want to send out into the world? We all have something to say. Will it be poison or fruit?

Posted in Books, Kindness, Psychology, Tone, Writing | 2 Comments