Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Surfacing

When the children were very young and my days were filled with diapers and car pools, school conferences and laundry, I pined for the free time just around the corner when I’d have a few hours each day to myself. I imagined writing great prose, getting published, doing book tours. Sometimes, at midnight, I’d get a few lines written that made no sense the following day. Most of the time, I scrambled to make space for my creativity that I believed lurked just below the surface, if only I could reach it.

A neighbor was kind enough to loan me her porch once, where I could store paper and a typewriter and have some distance from the household chaos. One afternoon, I’d written half a page when I heard Ben teasing Sarah on the front lawn. I called and asked the housekeeper to put Ben on the phone.
“Stop driving your sister nuts.” I scolded.
“Where are you?” Ben’s voice held amazement.
“Everywhere!” I said and hung up.
Ben wandered down the driveway, searched the sidewalk, street, sky for some semblance of his mother. Watching him became far more interesting than whatever I was writing. Ten minutes later Josh and Matt scampered home from school. I threw the page in the wastebasket.

My children are grown, into their own lives with family and careers. I’ve time, finally, to write my days away without distraction. I can turn off the phone and the internet. I can approach my writing like a full time job. I can schedule eight hours a day or ten or twelve if I want to on my novel. I can write at six in the morning or four in the afternoon. Sometimes I do exactly that. But what surprises me is how often I don’t. Exploring that nuance has been revealing.

Sure, I want to finish my novel. This Burnt Chocolate blog is a more satisfying experience than I ever imagined. Topics like why some kids are resilient while others wither fascinate me. The satisfaction of a finished piece remains a thrill. But if Rebeccah calls, or Ben visits, or Zoe has a dance recital, I’ll leave a page mid sentence. In the past, I’d chastise myself for being so easily distracted, so uncommitted to my writing. Where was my resolve, my focus? With that chant in the background, it was hard to enjoy whatever co-opted my writing in the first place. The result was diminished pleasure in all directions.

After years of tussling with myself, I’m finally clear. I’m pulled away because I want to be pulled into the lives of my children. Family takes first place in any contest I’ve ever held. Writing runs a close second. A simple realization, perhaps, considering my history, but supremely worthwhile. Lately, I have more fun playing with a grandchild, planning a holiday meal or crafting a scene on the page. Days feel longer and fuller. I’ve fewer regrets. I’m living more in the moment with a greater sense of appreciation and acceptance for what I’ve created.

Would I love to write and publish a great novel? Absolutely. Now that I’ve got my priorities straight, that goal seems more possible than ever.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Things my mother told me.


Barbara and Florence, Summer 1995


Never live with a man before you’re married.
Nice girls don’t live alone in their own apartment.
Get a teaching degree so you can support yourself if you need to.
Knees are ugly. Skirts and slacks should cover them.
Stick with wool, silk and cotton. Fine fabrics last forever.
Always send a thank you card.
Never swear.
Don’t give your children everything. They need something to wish and work for.
It’s as easy to love a rich man as a poor man.
Save everything. You never know when it will come in handy.
Marriage is hard work.
Spend the money you have, not what you expect to receive.
Don’t be the last one to leave a party.

I’ve broken most of those rules throughout my life. Those I didn’t break, my children have. At this stage of my life, I think Florence had the right idea about most things, especially the knee part. She rarely complained, even while she cared for my father as he lost his mind to Alzheimer’s. But her true legacy to me is the way she chose to die, eleven years ago, a month after her 87th birthday.

Ovarian cancer. The surgery was successful. No trace of cancer remained. Florence left the hospital in good spirits, determined to recover her remarkable energy. But instead of gaining strength, she slipped a little each day. Anti-depressants, antibiotics, therapeutic intervention had no effect. In spite of her resolve, she weakened until she was unable to get out of bed, eat, or move except to lift one finger to pull at the feeding tube threaded through her nose. When asked if she understood she’d die if the tube were removed, she smiled for the first time in days. To live a compromised life to her was no life at all.

Two weeks later, she died from lack of food and water, a painless, courageous death.

At 5 foot 4 inches, Florence considered herself tall, which I suppose was true for her generation. She loved her children and grandchildren, volunteered her time, worked as a bookkeeper. She knew what to do when someone died, had a nervous breakdown, or needed surgery. She could knit and sew, create exquisite needlepoint chair covers, bake delicious strudel. She kept a clean home, was an adequate cook and had a modest sense of humor. Most importantly, she loved me unconditionally, which is all anyone can ever hope for in a mother.