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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Delicious Reading Getaway

Returned last night from a wonderfully restorative less-than-24-hours away with my beloved spouse. It was kind of incredible what a difference it makes to pull away from the mad chaos of the household for even a few hours. We went to the rustic-beautiful Costanoa which was totally our aesthetic- cabinish but comfy. Good food (although I had a stomach bug and did not completely enjoy that part), the Best company in the world, and reading!

I know you're all sick of hearing about this, but we did read some more Gilead. Tears were shed once again. That's not all we read, though. He read some of Guns, Germs and Steel, which he's totally wild about these days, and I got into some stories from Roxana Robinson's spectacular collection, A Perfect Stranger. I've been reading this book very slowly over the past few months, parceling them out one by one because I don't want it to end. And for the first time this weekend, I noticed the amazing blurb on the cover:

Start in on any sentence and I'm absolutely sure you'll read to the end of the story, and of the book, and you'll come out of it feeling grateful, deeply stirred, seriously happy. -- Alice Munro

If I were Roxana Robinson and had received that kind of lauding from the great Alice M, I think I would be ready to die happy. But Alice is right. This is a fantastic collection, and the final story, "A Perfect Stranger," just blew me away. I had just finished giving a lecture to my students about POV (point of view), and I'd said how difficult it is to pull off an omniscient narrator, or shifting POVs in a short story. Well, Roxana makes it look like a piece of cake in this story. It is so seamless, elegant, and perfect, the way she slides from one character's POV to another. I was going to teach something else this week, but the syllabus has shifted - I'm teaching "A Perfect Stranger," right after an Alice Munro story. (What could be more fitting?)

And the story itself just hit me. A woman invites a visiting guest lecturer to spend the night at her home, without consulting her husband first. He feels put out, intruded upon, and she is having to juggle his (selfish, it seemed to me) emotions against making her guest feel comfortable. And the guest doesn't really understand the dynamics in the household, but still they affect him profoundly. It's a story in which nothing huge happens outwardly, but enormous things happen under the surface. It was so powerful and perceptive, it just left me in awe. It had some echoes of Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," which is also a mindblowing story about a reluctant husband-host dealing with his wife's houseguest.

I first discovered Roxana Robinson when I was at MacDowell Colony and found all of her books in their library. I devoured them all, one at a time, over the course of a few weeks and developed a profound admiration for her work. Her writing is quiet, solid, elegant, and deeply moving. Here's a great interview with her; I hope you'll check her out soon. In my mind, she is right up there with Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson, although not as familiar to many readers. She should be.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Thursday Thirteen

Well, I really wasn't going to do this, and I can't believe this is my 4th blog post today, but I guess things have been building up. Today a meme called "13 Things" came to my attention, and I've resisted it all day, but now it is almost not Thursday anymore and some little voice is telling me to just go ahead and do it before it turns into Friday. So...

Thirteen Things that made me smile this week.

1. Patricia Clarkson's beautiful and totally recognizable voice on the BMW commercial on the radio, even though I have no interest in BMWs or what she was saying about performance vs safety and airbags, blah blah. I just love hearing her voice.
2. Hearing the Yes song "Siberian Khatru" on the radio and suddenly feeling like I was fifteen and listening to Yes through padded headphones with my cousin in his apartment on Riverside Drive in NYC.
3. Really good cornbread from Whole Foods, which I toasted and ate with butter.
4. Reading my students' stories and enjoying what I was reading. (this is certainly not always the case)
5. Going to the kickboxing studio three times (so far!) this week and almost being able to touch my toes tonight, for the first time in a very long time.
6. Finally finishing my book proposal. I'll smile even more if it actually gets acccepted.
7. Looking forward to a 24 hour getaway to Costanoa with my spouse this weekend.
8. Lying on my teenager's bed with her tonight, while she read Kaffir Boy and I read the New Yorker.
9. Reading a really funny Roz Chast cartoon that depicted "Limited Edition Greeting Cards To Harry Whittington from Dick Cheney." The last one showed a card that said in big letters, THANK YOU FOR NOT DYING, with a drawing of a gravestone that said, Your Name NOT HERE! with an inside message, "Violets are blue, Lilies are white, Whatever You Do, Stay Away from the Light!" and then the inscription, Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.
9. Reading this sentence in John Updike's short story "My Father's Tears" (in the New Yorker): "The radiators clanked and the walls murmured as if giving back some of the human noise they absorbed, day and night."
10. And this sentence, from the same story. "The train appeared, the engine, with its shining long connecting rods and high steel wheels, out of all proportion to the little soft bodies it dragged along."
11. Making plans to go to Tanjia Moroccan restaurant with friends. I used to live around the corner from an amazing Moroccan restaurant named Mamounia out on Balboa Ave. It doesn't exist any longer, but this Tanjia place looks similarly wonderful.
12. Discovering Pucca's website (thanks Melanie!).
13. Finding a really perfect present for someone and thinking about how surprised and happy they will be when they see it.

I just thought of something regarding the word "meme." I had, until tonight, thought it was something that rhymed with "theme" or "beam" but now that I look at it, and since I just wrote these thirteen things, I'm thinking maybe it is really ME-ME. Like, it's all about me!

Help Save Japantown!

I've been reading about a very distressing plan to buy up major portions of San Francisco's Japantown. If this happened, a major cultural home, already terribly diminished, would be virtually destroyed.

When I was growing up in New Jersey/New York, we had no Japantown. Japanese people were scattered all over the five boroughs, New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut. We all gathered together for church every Sunday, and spent all day there, listening to interminable sermons first in English, then again in Japanese. Various groups cooked lunch for everyone, and we made a major day of it. That was the extent of our Japantown, the only way we place we could gather people in our community together. Then everyone dispersed to their little towns and neighborhoods where we were the only Japanese people around.

I was so astonished when I came to San Francisco and visited Japantown for the first time. At first it seemed like a tourist magnet, but the more time I spent there the more I realized that it really is a true community center, where people could gather and meet and learn taiko and buy omanju and share history and just hang out. The last apartment I lived in in San Francisco before I moved to Oakland was on Pine Street, right on the border of Jtown. I loved living there, being able to walk down and buy pink omanju and fresh tofu and great paper and everything. I love the Kinokuniya bookstore and stationery place, and I can't imagine them not existing. I felt so connected to that place and I was so happy it existed.

We still take a major expedition every month or two and it makes us all glad. We eat at the noodle restaurant, and the kids spend their allowance in the Sanrio store, we go and ogle the beautiful tansu furniture at Genji Antiques. It's a great way to spend a day.

There are only three Japantowns in the country now: in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose. If these sales go through, it will be down to two. Japantown Bowl, a great institution, already bit the dust several years ago. Don't let it go any further than that. Please.

Sign the petition. And read more if you want.






Oh my goodness. What a way to wake up in the morning. I just read "Shy," an exquisitely beautiful essay by Rick Bass, published in Narrative magazine. You might have to put in an email and password to read it, but do it. It is so worth it. It was brought to my attention by Michelle Richmond's wonderful blog.

Reading "Shy" gave me that teary, deep-breath Gilead feeling. Rick Bass writes so poignantly about the condition of being shy, and of being a writer.
When you are shy like this, you feel a million miles away from anything, from everything, and you want to come closer, but cannot bear to bring yourself in; and of course, part of you does not want to come in—but also when you are a million miles out, you can see things, and you’re free just to stand there and watch, and things that are sometimes ordinary seem to you, to your shy little mind, in the outback, the last outpost, pretty and special. They are ordinary to everyone else, but to your never-experienced-any-of-these-things little mind, they’re beautiful, and you feel like falling over on your back, upturned, like a turtle.
That just took my breath away. It's so ... I don't know, human. I think of all the shy people that I know and love (one of whom I am married to). I don't think I am a shy person. In fact I'm pretty sure that I'm not. Sometimes I feel self-conscious, and a little awkward in new situations, but I don't think I am shy. Reading this essay gave me such a beautiful little window into the lives of shy people. Bass writes more (this really took my breath away!) about attempting, one summer, to become Eudora Welty's yard man. (Can you imagine?!)

I just wanted to be close to her, was the thing. It seemed like the most perfect of worlds. I could be close to her, but I wouldn’t have to say anything. I could just stagger around in the Jackson heat, shirtless, in her front yard, and perspire: trimming the hedges, mowing the lawn, sweeping the sidewalks and the driveway—like some sort of yard savage; just sort of standing guard, is what I imagined it would feel like, protecting her, but more important, just kind of being around her...
I figured I could learn things just by cutting her lawn, just by being around her, by maybe being bold enough to breathe some of the same air—and never, ever telling her that I was a writer; or rather, that I was trying to be one.
Wahh! OK, just rereading that made me tear up all over again. Here's to all the shy people out there, and their beautiful inner lives that so many people might not ever get a chance to see or experience. Are shy people more introspective, because they're not blurting their stuff all over the world? I do know that being invited into the inner world of a shy person can be a very wonderful thing; it feels precious and rare. Well, today I am just grateful that shy Rick Bass is also a writer, and that he has braved his anguish and shared his words with us. A gift.

Happy Birthday Wendy O

My dear friend Wendy said she wanted not presents for her birthday, but "virtual nothing" and a day for deep meditation and something revelatory. So as you head back to Maui for health and exploration, I'm sending much love and LOTS of Virtual Nothing. Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I Love Engrish

I am way too busy to post anything coherent right now, but I hate leaving the blog empty for too long. So I will share some funny and fun Engrish with you (bizarrely translated English, mostly from Japanese). You can even buy some incomprehensible T-shirts, which are my favorite.

I hope to have some breathing room by the end of the week. In the meantime, let's keep mobile manners!

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tiny People with Food

I just visited Gayle's blog and was directed to the most amazingly delightful pictures. Tiny little people mowing a kiwi! Astronauts exploring creme brulée! Miniscule miners of chocolate. These photos just made my day. And I couldn't even comment, because it's all in... Russian? or something. But thanks to the photographer who gave us these. It gave me a huge smiley face.

What is the Point of Blogs?

A friend of mine recently wrote, "I still think I don't get the concept of blogs but I so enjoy yours." What is the concept of blogs??

Blogs, and blogging, seemed very otherworldly to me a year ago. I knew a few friends of mine wrote them, but I, like my friend, didn't really "get it." But then I started regularly reading Christine's blog. I didn't know her very well then. Suddenly, by reading her blog, I felt so much closer to her. I got to know her cute dogs. I followed her around on her wonderful vacations. And somehow by reading her blog posts, and responding to them, I felt that she morphed from an acquaintance into a friend.

And after visiting a writers' conference in a different capacity than I had before last summer, suddenly I wanted to share about that experience. I didn't want to write a bunch of emails to people. So I started this blog. It began a little tentatively. But then when I went away to Blue Mountain, it was a way to stay in touch, to show everyone where I was and what I was doing. I wanted to be alone, but not that alone.

It's been a wonderful thing so far. Many people say "I don't have time to blog," but I'm finding that the fifteen minutes or so (often less) that it takes to write a post, is a really good warmup to other writing. It's writing. It gets me thinking about things. And I love the comments. I love receiving responses and having other people join in on the conversation. I get to share about things that are meaningful (or interesting, or silly) and people - sometimes people in other parts of the world - make a connection to that.

I now have a blog-meter that tells me not who reads my blogs (I still don't know that) but where they are coming from. In the last few weeks, I've had people reading this blog from Seoul, Toronto, Madrid, Clay Center, Kansas, and Gibson, Tennessee. I think that's really kind of cool.

I think that for the most part, the people who read my blog are other bloggers. This week I sent an email out to various far-flung friends, people I hadn't been in recent touch with, and included a link to this blog. One of my old high school friends not only read it, but started his own blog last night. It was thrilling to see photos of his beautiful kids, to read a poem his son had written, and to share in something that made him cry: Shostakovich.

We're all so busy and overscheduled these days. I don't know if blogging is yet another thing on the to-do list, or an antidote to the rushing about. I think it's a way of stopping for a few minutes, and making a connection.

So, I'm asking all of you: Why do you read blogs? Why do you write one? (if you do) What is the point? What is the concept?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Nose to the Grindstone

I won't be able to blog much this week. I'm working hard on a book proposal, so I've got my nose to the grindstone(ow! ow!). Hopefully this will have a good outcome. Wishing you all a good week....

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Birthday Libby!

Happy Happy Birthday to Midlife Mama, aka Libby, wonderful writer, fantastic blogger, way-cool professor whose classes I wish I could sit in on. I wish I could surround you with all of these cakes in person.

Hope you have a delicious real-life cake. Happy happy day!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Catch Me Before I Fall Down and Faint

I just retrieved the following email from my Inbox.

Dear Susan,

Thank you very much. I have read your blog, and was much moved by it.


Marilynne Robinson

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Deadlines Have Passed

Well, all the deadlines for 2006 residencies/colonies have officially passed by now. I haven't applied anywhere, and I guess that's okay. I think it has something to do with just having returned from Blue Mountain in November, and having a hard time imagining going anywhere again anytime soon. So it looks like 2007 will be the next opportunity.
But I have two friends who are finalists for residencies at Hedgebrook, and other friends who have applied to MacDowell and Blue Mountain, and I feel a little bit like a high school senior who isn't applying to college. I want to experience that fat envelope/thin envelope thrill in April, or whenever they notify people. I'm just not going to be on that boat this year, though.

I'll be content with brief forays to Santa Sabina though, and I might take my aunt-and-uncle-in-law up on their generous standing offer to let me do a mini-residency at a little apartment they own in Asheville, North Carolina. They are two of the loveliest people I know, and they've offered to feed me and give me peace and quiet. (he is a wonderful writer in his own right, and even penned a cool mystery novel a few years back) Maybe I'll just stay home. I hope I won't be chomping at the bit later in the year, wishing I'd applied somewhere, but for now I'm happy to stay home for a while.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Book to Cry Over

I've been thinking about one of Susan Sontag's quotes, the one where she says
Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

And it made me reflect about what literature has made me weep.

Many pieces of writing make me tear up a little bit, but I can think of two recent instances where I actually put the book down and sobbed for a long time. One was while reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

I began reading it about a year ago, when life was feeling particularly bleak, and had been for some time. I was in a dark, sad space. I was waiting for a friend to arrive from New York for her book tour and had just set up our new sofabed for the same time. I'd bought a featherbed and new, cream colored bedding, and the whole thing felt like a huge, puffy cloud. I was the only one in the house. I lay down on the bed, which held me very cozily and gently, and I picked up Gilead and began to read. I just read the first paragraph of the first page, and immediately my breath caught in my chest and my eyes started burning.

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said Where, and I said, to be with the Good Lord, and you said Why, and I said, Because I'm old, you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it.

And I guess that was it for me. I just fell into the book, and that voice, even though I don't really keep company with many people (any people) who refer to the Good Lord. It filled me with such longing and emotion and sadness, and it kept going with every page that I read. It's a book which is really a letter, a very long letter from an old father to his young son. And I thought, I would give anything, anything in the world to have a letter like this, from any one of my parents. It's a beautiful, arresting, devastating book, although I suppose some people might find it boring. It either grabs you by the heart, or it doesn't. One of my most favorite people in the world, a wonderful writer in her own right, gave it to me because she'd started it and given up. I guess most books are like that. I've hated some books that people raved about. But finding this book was like finding something that I felt had been written solely for me.

I was shocked when it won the Pulitzer Prize; not because I didn't think it deserved it (it does, a million times over) but because it had felt so personal to me and I didn't think it could possibly touch anyone else in the same way. But I was wrong about that. Obviously it touched a lot of people.

My husband picked it up one night and started reading it; I was a little worried about his reaction because I thought if he hated it I might not be able to continue living with him. (JK! JK!) But he loved it, too, and as he read it I heard him making the same whimpery, gaspy little noises that I made, and his eyes teared up and I knew we were reading the same book.

He generally likes to read with a pen in his mouth which he will take out at intervals and underline passages that mean a lot to him. With Gilead, he was aware that it was my book, and he wasn't sure it would be all right to deface it, so instead he made several dozen tiny dog-ears in the pages. And later, when it was my turn to read, I'd look at the folded down pages (I have to say, I like underlining a lot better; it doesn't hurt the paper the way that dog-ears do) and try to figure out what it was on that page that made him want to remember. Sometimes I'd ask him, and he'd read it to me, and sometimes I just guessed. We passed the book back and forth - he finished it first - and it was this silent conversation that went on.

I finished the book while our family was on vacation in Japan in April. (this was also one of my world's record for slowest book ever read; generally I can finish a novel in about 4 hours, and this one doesn't have a lot of pages, but I couldn't really read more than a page at a time) At one point near the very end, I reached a certain point and just started sobbing. I felt as if my whole body was going to split into pieces. We were in a very small hotel room in Kyoto and the girls came in, curious and worried. He shooed them away. "Mom is just reading her book," he said. And he sat there with me and let me weep for about half an hour.

The book is all warped and tattered now. He's on his third read, and I am on my second. All I have to do is open to a certain page or two or three and my heart swells up and my eyes fill to the brim. And it makes me feel infinitely grateful to literature, and to Marilynne Robinson, for allowing me to feel so alive.

Sorting People

Someone just pointed out to me a fascinating "test" on PBS.org where you can try to "sort" faces based on racial appearance. I was chagrined to only get 8 correct out of 20. So I shouldn't get all bent out of shape when people fail to see me as "Asian" as I feel inside. I was only able to identify half of the Asians! (maybe that's because I'm half Asian? yuk yuk)

How easy is it to group people into “races” based on appearance? What about using individual traits? Does everybody classify the same way?

Try your hand at "sorting" individuals and see if it matches how people think of themselves. Or explore how we might sort people by physical traits.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Happy Birthday ChaCha, or, Who's Your Daddy?

The youngest member of our family turned two yesterday. ChaCha, officially known on her birth certificate as "Lil Pawz Got the Moves" (what is with these bizarre long pedigree names?) was born on February 7th, 2004 and has been with us since September of that year. I had a weird adoptee moment yesterday when I realized that we have more access to our dog's lineage then I do to mine. I know that ChaCha's father is named Max. But after 46 years of being alive I still don't know the name of mine.

I had another little jolt yesterday when I went to visit a new doctor for the first time. I had a pile of paperwork to fill out, including the dreaded Family Medical History. But instead of just writing a hundred little question marks, or scribbling in huge letters, I DON'T KNOW, there was a nice little checkbox that said, "Check here if you do not know anything about your birthfamily's medical history." It certainly acknowledged the problem, so that's step forward (isn't it?). And I checked it. But it still made me feel sad.

Then I got my latest issue of Brain, Child in the mail. I was happy to find a really powerful essay by my friend Marie Lee, whose great novel, Somebody's Daughter was just chosen as a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. GO MARIE!

There was also a six-page long book review that focused on books about international adoption, about half from the POV of adoptive parents, and the other half written by adult adoptees. The reviewer was admittedly an adoptive parent whose children, one from Vietnam and the other from Korea, are still small. She's understandably really wanting to read the stories that have the "happy ending."

I'm a parent. I understand that. We want things to be smooth and painless for our kids. But life just isn't that way all the time, or necessarily even most of the time, and we want someone who will support us through the hard stuff, and not to look the other way singing "la la la." I just read an amazingly poignant post by Ji-In over at Twice the Rice, where she discusses "Why I Can't Discuss Race with My Mom." Ji-In was adopted from Korea and raised in lilywhite Iowa.
Mom thought if she could foster my musical talents and call attention to my good grades, that the racial identity matters would fade into the background. That's my theory, anyway. Because I know that "racial identity" was not, and still is not, a term that resides with her, in her rural Midwestern space. Assimilate. Rinse. Repeat.

Back to the book reviews. Basically, they fell into two categories: the ones that the reviewer liked were the ones written by adoptive parents, and provided the longed-for "happy ending" even though the children were no older than ten. Excuse me. You are SO far away from a happy ending it's not even funny. She compares these to the sad and bitter tales written by adult adoptees who have a (hello!) different perspective. The reviewer seemed to take it as a failure and a personal affront that these adoptees were not fully pleased with their lucky American lives. In the end she seemed resigned to the possibility that her own children might some day have the same longings and questions.

I was so frustrated that she would even think to compare the two. If you'd interviewed these adults when they were seven years old, they'd probably seem pretty happy too. A huge percentage of seven year olds are pretty content with their lives. Try interviewing them again when they're sixteen, twenty, thirty. I'm not saying that adoptees are doomed for misery (I don't believe that) but I also don't think parents can dust their hands together when their kid is eight, and say, "See? Happy ending!"

One of the only truly complete, thoughtful accounts of transracial/international adoption that I've read, was written from the perspective of long years, when the "child" had grown into adult and the parent had enough experience, wisdom and humility to put it all together. That book is Beyond Good Intentions by Cheri Register, and I highly recommend it.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Susan Sontag: Literature is Freedom

I came home to read these quotes from an essay by Susan Sontag, actually a speech she delivered in 2003 called "Literature is Freedom." I find these words so true, and so moving.

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted - made cynical, superficial - by this understanding.

Literature can tell us what the world is like.

Literature can give us standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.

Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

Sisters! We're Not Alone

I was so heartened to find many great responses to my latest blog on motherhood, solitude and writing. In addition to the great comments here, I was either led to or found the following writings on the same topic.

Alice in Austria wrote a blog post on Motherhood and Writing, and had this to say:
I don’t know when I first conceived of the notion that I wanted both: to be a mother and a writer. It was never either/or for me. I only realized later, after Isabella was born, that the two are not as easily compatible as I always thought they’d be. Motherhood and writing. It’s like trying to mix oil and water.

Libby over at Midlife Mama linked to a column she wrote called "Independence Day" about the joys of traveling alone:

I am anonymous and irresponsible. For the next five days, I am no one's mother, no one's wife, simply a traveler and a conference attendee. I buy coffee and bottled water and magazines extravagantly; I fail to eat balanced meals; I stay up too late talking and then shower early in the morning to clear my head. I converse only with grown-ups -- there are no discussions of going to the bathroom, or who won't eat their vegetables, or what time someone has to be driven somewhere in the morning. It is heaven.

Even Oprah! has a page on her website that has a grouping of quotes from women writers on balancing motherhood and writing.

Through my wanderings today, I found a blogger named April who has a blog very similar to mine: entitled "Writing and Life" and she says in her post on "Balance":

Another key is to find someone who supports your dream. Find someone who cheers you on as you write and encourages you to keep doing so.

This is absolutely, deeply true. It's especially helpful if it's someone who lives in your own house. I don't know what I would do if I didn't have a profoundly supportive spouse who is willing to take up the slack when I go away, who cheers me on when I lose faith in my own ability to write anything, or finish anything. I know there are women out there who are trying to write with partners who not only don't support them, but actively undermine them. I know that personally, my marriage could not survive that. It's that third child thing.

And yes, single mothers without a strong extrafamilial support network have my vote for Heroines of the Universe. Single moms who keep it all together, nurture their kids, feed everyone and still manage to eke out poems and stories and novels, are my personal champions. So people out there, if you know a single mom who is trying to write a book or an article or anything other than a grocery list, give her a little gift of time and offer to take her kid to the zoo or the park for a few hours. The world of literature will be richer for it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

More on Motherhood, Solitude and Writing

I've been wondering why that one essay in Literary Mama pushed my buttons like that. And I think it's because of the hundreds of blaring messages (from other mothers especially) who say that it is NOT okay to leave your children - for a day, or a week, or God forbid, a month - to be a writer.

It seems like it's more okay to leave for "business" reasons; ie, if you're getting paid, and the implication there is that you really don't want to leave, but you have to, for the financial survival of your family. So everyone has to sacrifice. And it also seems like it's okay to leave your children to have a romantic getaway with your spouse. We've done this fairly regularly for overnights, but not for a week or a month. But to leave the precious darlings, so you can scribble away in some cabin? Uhm, you must be related to the Unabomber, to want to do something like that.

When I was awarded a five-week fellowship at MacDowell two years ago, I was beside myself with excitement. A few days before I was to leave, we held a Memorial Day barbecue out on our deck. One of our guests, the mother of my then-13 year old daughter, gasped when I told her how long I'd be gone. "You're no mother!" she said. And if you pressed her, she would've said she was kidding. But she wasn't. Not really.

I don't know why I have found it absolutely necessary for me to find this time away, ever since my firstborn was about a year old. And even before then, since she was about three months, I always found a way to take a few hours in a cafe or library. Maybe this makes me a bad mother. I've never had a huge amount of separation anxiety and neither have my kids. My seven year old was chomping at the bit to go to sleepaway camp, and since I let her go, this also apparantly makes me a bad mother. (GASP! Sleeping away? At seven??) She completed her 8th and final year as a camper last summer, and is now hoping to be a teen staff at the place that has allowed her such joy and independence.

I've often found myself saying that my writing is like my third child, and I would feel just as miserable and neglectful if I didn't give it the same time and energy that I give my other children. And it's true - the more time that I write, the more generous and energetic and affection I feel when I return. And when I spend too much time carpooling, erranding, and tending to the other minutae of family life, without taking writing time, I'm a terrible, cranky parent. It has to balance out.

When my children were small, I took enormous solace and company in a book called A Question of Balance. It was filled with women who felt equal desires to create and to parent. It was a lifeline for me, really a vital link to my sanity, to know that I wasn't alone. Which is why I was so excited to read the beginning of that essay, "I need my solitude." What killed me is that she seemed to throw up her hands and say, "Oh well, but not now."

Well, I need it. And it doesn't appear to have harmed my family that I have taken it, in big and small chunks, since they were little. I truly am a big believer in this whole It-Takes-A-Village notion. I've been happy to have my children cared for by a huge community of people, from relatives to paid help to friends. Ten cheers for the sleepover! (which they both started at the age of three) Everyone obviously has to do what they feel comfortable with, but I think that more mother-writers would be surprised at how comfortable solitude could get if only they could give it a try, and not feel guilty about it. And if they could only feel as if they and their writing are worthy of it.

I recognize that a group for whom this is a massive challenge is single parents. I know it's hard to even find enough solitude and time to wipe your own bottom, let alone write a novel. But for people who have partners and relatives and friends and parents of friends, I say go for it. Your children won't be scarred or harmed. And they might even do better than if you didn't go for your solitude. They'll have a happier, more satisfied and fulfilled mother. And that's good for everyone.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Dr. Sue to the Rescue, again

Dr. Sue has a brilliant post today on Time Management.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Literary Mama Book Tour Stops HERE Today

Ever since attending a dynamic, amazing, standing-room only reading for the Literary Mama anthology a few weeks ago, I've been devouring the book. It's really an extraodinary collection, and one that belongs on every mother's bookshelf. These mothers are real. Their voices are authentic, they are weary and joyful and irritable and awestruck and honest. They tell the real story about motherhood in a way that so many parenting books just don't. They go places that we've all gone and yet few have been willing to tell about in a voice louder than a whisper.

They're not all gloom and doom and despair, far from it. Some of the pieces are hysterically funny, like Jennifer Eyre White's "Analyzing Ben." (at Diesel Books, she read this piece using a visual aid poster that depicted the vast differences between her son and her daughter) While incidences of her daughter "eating dirt" at 16 months was "none," for Ben it was "uncountable."

Linda Lee Crosfield's short but powerful poem, Packing the Car, provided one of the most poignant moments in the book for me, as she helps her son prepare for his final departure away from his childhood home.
I stand aside
watch helplessly
as books stream from shelves
into boxes, out the door
and I envy them their invitation
to accompany him on this journey
to the rest of his life

The writing in this book is solid and gorgeous. None of the contributors come across as mothers who happen to have a writing hobby; these are writers who happen to be mothers. Ericka Lutz's essay, Why My Garden, about her journey to Auschwitz is both lyrically beautiful and appropriately solemn.

Rachel Sarah is a bold young mama with a great, fresh writing style. Her short piece, "Coming," is about exactly what your dirty little mind thinks it's about. She wants to date a guy who seems perfect father material, but his fatal flaw is leaving her orgasmless while he snores on the pillow. It's funny, it's true, and it's also an important voice that isn't afraid to ask, "What about me?" It made me want to cheer.

When I read Sybil Lockhart's essay, "Gray," I felt as if she had entered my own home and family. She writes so poignantly, lovingly and honestly in her Mama in the Middle columnabout her mother's life with Alzheimer's - with appropriate doses of fear, frustration, disgust, humor and affection. Her essay is the one that prompted me to write my first fan letter to Literary Mama.

Only one of the pieces in the book evoked a strong negative response, but I think this speaks to its power. When I began reading Lizbeth Finn-Arnold's Out of the Woods: Or How I Found My Muse at Walden Pond,, I was thrilled to read these words:
I am a solitary person. Where others may seek out company, I seek out secluded places of thoughtfulness and self-discovery.
I felt a shiver of recognition. Yes! I thought. That's me! I dove into the essay, thrilled to be reading a piece by a mother who also apparently loved solitude. But as I read, my heart sank. This was not about a mother who managed to champion for her own solitude, but one who resigned herself to never being able to really have it. She ends the essay saying that she writes in "snippets" in the midst of the chaos.
I try only to "Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each."
Maybe she's right. Maybe Thoreau and Ecclesiastes and the Byrds have a point about every time having a season, every thing having its time and all that. But personally, I want more. This piece is a great one because it's wonderfully written and because it caused me to sit up and scream, "No!"

Hardly any of the pieces in this book will evoke a neutral response. Readers will scream, and cringe, and laugh until they pee as they read this book. They will wipe away more than a few tears. And more than anything they'll feel not alone.

To read the introduction to this wonderful book, click here. And to buy your very own copy, click here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Back to School

I'm returning to teaching at UC Extension tonight, after a hiatus of over a year. Part of me is really looking forward to it, and part of me is asking, why add one more activity to my already busting-at-the-seams schedule?

It certainly isn't for the money. (hahahahahaha!) And it isn't for the glamorous perks. This year they took away my free parking and my speakers' honorarium, two of the nice things I've enjoyed for the past ten years.

It's really the teaching itself. Maybe I'm a born ham. I like being up there, talking about writing and reading and books and words and characters. They're my favorite things to talk about, and when I see peoples' eyes get a little spark, or they start nodding, it is the greatest thing. Of course, when they start snoring in the back of the room, that's another thing.

But I've had some amazing experiences in teaching, and had some incredible students who have gone on to be fabulous writers, wonderful teachers themselves, and just great people. It's a real charge, which I imagine is what editors and agents feel, when I pick up a manuscript and start reading, and my eyes just pop out because it's so good. It's a huge pleasure, just like that first bite of a warm chocolate chip cookie (sorry, I'm thinking about cookies because I just read Libby's great blog on chocolate chip cookies. But really.

Another reason is the company. Writing can be a very lonely, solitary act and when I'm teaching, suddenly I've got fifteen or twenty other people to share the struggles and the joys with.

One thing I'm really excited about is that for the first time ever, after 12 years of teaching (!!), I'll actually have a colleague and friend teaching in the same building at the same time on the same night. Someone to shmooze with in the vending-machine room! Someone to talk to after class when I'm so revved up and can't possibly go home and go to sleep. I'm really happy about this serendipity in our schedules.

And of course, as with any First Day of School, I'm a little nervous. A little hyped up. A little scared. Maybe they are too.