One Quarter

tiny bookThe idea of writing a book scares me. So big. So many words. It’s like I have a writer’s form of agoraphobia. But here’s the rub– I have a story to share. Some characters to introduce to the world. How do I write the story without scaring myself? Without scarring myself?

Well, I don’t have to write the whole thing all at once. I don’t have to do it in a way that is too daunting. I can do it in baby steps. And to show that to myself, I will write a little book first. Oh no, not something with petty themes, mind you. I can take my big ideas and write them on small paper. Then it won’t seem so ominous.

It kind of started casually. I had an idea and jotted it down on a piece of scrap paper. Then I had another idea for the same story and wrote it on another piece of scrap paper. This continued to happen for a couple pages, and I came to an important realization–writing big on small paper wasn’t so scary after all. So, to give myself some more space (but not so much that it would frighten me), I grabbed a couple more pieces of scrap paper and stapled them to what I already had. A tiny book.

Now, I must tell you that I have a stack of scrap paper that is all the same size. Call it going green, but before an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper hits the trash at my house, I intercept it and, if it’s blank on one side, I cut it into quarters. The result? A stack of 4 1/2″ x 5 1/2″ paper that fits nicely in the basket on my writing desk. This is what I’ve been using to jot these notes for this “book.” Scary even saying it, but seeing a similar stack of “books” on the writing shelf in a kindergarten classroom, confirmed it was a brilliant idea. If a kindergartener isn’t afraid to write a book, I shouldn’t be either.

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Quiet Keyboards

Writing was more of a sensory experience when I was younger than it is today. In middle school, I would use a pencil (a pen if I was lucky) and write notes in a paper notebook. After filling a page, I’d turn it to find it bumpy on the other side. I’d run my hand over it, feeling the imprint of my words, my thoughts, pressed down in for all time. I still like to use a spiral notebook and pen. It’s gotten more sophisticated, though. These days, I use a luxurious (and yet inexpensive) gel pen that glides gracefully across the page. It has to in order to keep up with my thoughts. There is an added benefit. Do you know they say you are more creative when you write long hand? You’re utilizing the right side of your brain–the side that controls creativity– when you do. You use the left side–the analytical side–when you type. Since we need to use both sides of our brain, we should know how to both write long hand and type.

I learned to touch type in high school. Of all the classes I’ve taken, that one has served me (still serves me) the best, even after thirty years. I use this skill everyday. But it has changed. It’s not the same sensory experience it was back then either. In class,we typed on electric typewriters. We would learn the home keys first, alternating hands. A, ;, s, l, d, k, and so on. And we could hear ourselves. Clicking and clacking away. We would practice the “widget drill” with Mista Foley (he was from Massachusetts, you know), wrapping on the desk with the long wooden pointer, calling out the letters we were to type without looking at the keys. Clickety-clack. Even those electric typewriters were easier than their predecessors, the manual typewriters, where you had to press the keys much more forcefully. Not only were manual typewriters “noisier,” the keys also left impressions on the paper. Electric not as much, but you could still hear yourself more than you can today.

When I started using a laptop, I was uncomfortable. It was too easy. I barely had to press the keys to type words into being. It was too quiet. I wondered if I’d be able to write loud enough for people to hear my ideas. Still do.

We’ve lost something in our quiet keyboards. Do we notice the weight of our fingers on the keys? The weight of our words? The sound of our own selves putting words on paper. Putting words–ideas– in the universe. Usually we don’t even write on paper anymore. In essence, we write in the air now. Silently tap, tap, tapping our thumbs on our smooth phones. Our thoughts going almost directly from our heads to our screens. No sound or sensation in between. Without feeling ourselves pressing thoughts into communications, without hearing the lyrical clickety-clack, we might wonder if we still leave an impression for posterity. Words still have weight. They can slay or edify, discourage or inspire. Our words leave impressions even if they don’t leave physical impressions on paper. We might not hear them initially, but our thoughts might just echo through time.

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Of Reeds and Strings and Other New Things

violin.jpg

I’m learning violin. I’m forty-six. I’ve never played an instrument. Why now? I’ve always wanted to learn violin, and one day this very instrument made its appearance in my life as if to announce It’s time. I had heard violin was a difficult instrument to learn. It’s true. And for a person with a third grade understanding of how to read music, it’s even more difficult. I ask myself What’s the problem? There are only four strings. Right–G, D, A, E. The G is the top string, the lowest note. The E is the bottom string, the highest note. Where are the other notes? Well, you use the same strings, but you finger them differently, and that gives you the different notes. Uh oh, something else to remember. A lot of something elses to remember. And then there’s the matter of applying the right amount of pressure to the bow, oh, and proper handling and placement of the bow and speed and playing only one string at a time. What?! And that’s after you’ve properly tuned the violin and tightened and rosined up the bow. I begin to wonder if I can do it. I wonder if it’s worth it.

And then I think of my daughter. Our family has learned a lesson in perseverance from paying attention to Sarah these past few years. I home schooled her until she was in fourth grade. Upon entering public school, she had her struggles academically. She worked hard and overcame many challenges. We applauded her persistence. Then she set another goal for herself. At the end of sixth grade, she announced she wanted to play an instrument in seventh grade and join the school band. She added it to her course selection when she met with her guidance counselor. This surprised us because she had never played an instrument and had little knowledge of how to read music.

Sarah decided she wanted to play the clarinet. My husband DJ had played clarinet in school but certainly didn’t remember enough to teach her. But things worked out. Our son’s girlfriend Celeste not only knew how to play clarinet extremely well, she also had an extra instrument for Sarah. Through the summer Celeste gave Sarah clarinet lessons, and in September Sarah joined the school band–just like she said she would.

This new undertaking presented Sarah with a new set of challenges. Most of the members of the band had been playing instruments since fourth grade. They knew their instrument, how to read music, how to play in a band, how to balance music practice with homework assignments. This was all new to her. But she persisted. She even took private lessons with the band teacher during school. She didn’t give up, and we were all rewarded for her diligent efforts when we attended her first band concert that winter.

As the house lights in the auditorium dimmed and for the first time we watched one of our children perform in a band concert, DJ and I were so proud of Sarah. But it wasn’t until this summer, six months after the concert, that we really began to comprehend the triumph of that day because we ourselves decided to learn something new. For me it’s the violin. For DJ it’s the bagpipes.

It’s not just that we are learning something new. It’s also that we are remembering something old. As we embark on music lessons essentially for the first time, we are recalling what it means to be a beginner at something. Here we are at midlife and we are pretty adept at most things we do on a regular basis. We know how to drive, how to keep house, how to write a research paper. We’ve been doing our jobs and cooking our meatballs for a while–we feel competent in those things. Maybe we can even say we’ve mastered a few things by now. And those we haven’t, like, say, parallel parking, well, we find we can pretty much get by without perfecting. We just drive around the block and find another place to park. But kids don’t always have that luxury.

Kids have to learn new things. Sarah learned the clarinet in seventh grade. Learning is a lifelong pursuit of not only those things that bring us joy, but those things necessary to operate as citizens of this planet.  Think of preschoolers and kindergartners and all they accomplish those first years they’re in school. Not just how to decode squiggles on a page and realize they are symbols that represent ideas–a process we call reading–but also how to wrap their fingers around a pencil and replicate those squiggles themselves when they learn to write. In addition to these extraordinary skills, these young people also learn about math and science and, a huge life skill–how to interact with other people. If we never encouraged children to try and try and try again, where would they be? Where would we be?

If we don’t try new things every once in a while in our lives, we run the risk of forgetting what it’s like to struggle and fail and struggle and fail and struggle until finally, one fine day, all those hours of toil and trouble culminate and we lay the bow on the string, play that first clear note, the one we always somehow knew we could. It’s just the beginning.

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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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