Mar 31 2015

Write or Call

I love a good long plane ride. The thought of hours cramped into an airplane horrifies many, but to me, a long-haul flight over the Atlantic or further is a gift of time and privacy. The hum of the airplane lulls me to extreme focus. I read, thoroughly. I write, prolifically. I’m in the zone. And then, after a few in_the_zonehours of productivity, I plug into the entertainment system and watch movies or catch up on TV series I rarely watch elsewhere. One after another, until we land. No phone calls. No texts or messages. Nobody calling me from the kitchen, or screaming “Mama!” from upstairs.

The thing about a flight like this, though, is that once you land and disembark from the sealed tube of delicious quiet, the world smacks you in the face. Portable devices begin to bing and beep, passengers are roused from the inward calm of their flight to face a bombardment of calls and messages and news of the outside world.

A few weeks ago I enjoyed one of those epic journeys, a 12-hour day-time flight and as expected, I was hit with the bushel of unread messages as soon as I landed. I eliminated the ones I could easily identify as a spam that snuck through the filter, or as one of the newsletters that get less attention when I’m traveling and screen time is limited. (My appetite for reading never matches my on-line stamina and after a trip like this I’m inspired to purge the overload of subscriptions I’ve too ambitiously taken on.) Then I scanned what was left, assessing which ones were mission critical, and then I saw the emboldened letters of my daughter’s name. Short-pants had written me an email message. I opened it right away.

The message contained four or five well crafted paragraphs telling me about her day. How a boy she might be a little sweet on had stared at her in class. Her favorite teacher gave an interesting homework assignment. She made up an equation: the boy + the teacher + the subject she loves = her smiling all the way home from school. How she missed me but knows I’m away doing the work I love to do. It startled me a bit, how articulate her phrases, the absence of any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors, capital letters where there were supposed to be caps. It was a grown-up message.
fun_to_write_letters
Over the next few days, we wrote back and forth. A message or two each day, each one from her rich with descriptions of not only her activities, but her observations – some of them rather keen insights – about why things happened and how she felt about them. She’s always been good with words, reading like a fiend since she was a peanut, writing charming little notes, winning a spelling bee, but something has shifted. It’s no longer cute and precocious. It’s thoughtful and reflective, the words of a lovely young woman.

~ ~ ~

Every day, at about the same time, my phone rings. Even if I’m not in the mood to be on the phone – I’m more of a writer than a talker – I answer cheerfully. Buddy-roo walks out of the school and her first instinct is to turn on her telephone and give me a call. I want her to feel like that call is always welcome, so unless I’m truly in the thick of something else, I’ll answer. She chatters away, slightly breathless as she walks up the hill toward our home from school, filling me in on who told whom what in the courtyard, and how much homework she has, and what she had for lunch. Much of it is banal, but I ask as many questions as I can, to keep the exchange going. I want her to create a habit of telling me what’s happening in her life.

Buddy-roo experiences highs and lows at maximum velocity. She’s having the best day ever or else her life is a catastrophe. One day, after a tearful call that lasted a good portion of her walk home, she turned her key in the door, dropped her heavy backpack on the floor and threw herself on the couch.

“My friends all think I’m too dramatic!”

I don’t disagree with her friends, but I figured they’d already made the point. I didn’t pile anything on top of it. What I don’t want to do is keep her from telling me what she’s feeling, even if what she’s feeling seems exaggerated. Who knows how long she will keep open this doorway locked_into me, showing me her raw thoughts and feelings as they occur. Dismissing her ups and downs as drama, right now, would surely close the door and lock it tight. So I listen and ask questions that might make her think beyond the hailstorm that she perceives is pounding upon her. Okay, and I hint a little, that maybe her friends are on to something. But mostly, I try to be there to answer her call, while she’s still dialing.

Short-pants hardly touches her telephone. An occasional text, but calling is not her thing. I had to give her lessons about how to talk on the phone, otherwise she just sits there breathing while you do all the work. Getting Buddy-roo to write a quick email – let alone a thank-you note to someone who’s given her a present – is like pulling teeth, but she’s expert at chatting away on the telephone. They are products of the same parents and the same environment, and yet, so different. As babies, toddlers and now as they crash into their adolescence, the things that make them distinct from each other become that much more apparent, more palatable.

One writes, the other calls. But at least they both want to tell me what’s happening in their lives. I’ll take that while I can get it, and relish every word.


Apr 28 2014

Write On

I still have to do it by hand. The keyboard is okay for emails or business proposals. But a post doesn’t come to me in perfunctory punches on plastic keys. There’s something about the pen in my hand, the side of my palm against the paper, connected to my wrist, my arm, my shoulder, to my body, where you’ll find my heart. If it’s going to have any guts to it, it has to start out as a hand written piece. My first drafts are always in my journal or on some scrap of paper beside my bed. The words come sometimes so fast that my hand can’t keep up and then I think I should be writing directly on the keyboard. But the instant I switch to my laptop – and I’ve tried this – the words dry up and I stare at the empty screen. Maybe it’s just habit, or maybe there’s something to the heart-to-pen circuit.
spilt_ink
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m participating in a “blog tour” about writing, and I’ve been given four questions to answer. A bit of backstory: five years ago when my manuscript was going nowhere, I took the advice of a few friends to try my hand at blogging. A few posts later I’d fallen in love with the medium. I loved that I could publish my writing without a gatekeeper. I loved that I could design my own look, choose my typeface and select my images. I also appreciated the community of bloggers who read each other’s posts, commented on and promoted each other’s blogs and in general supported anyone who wants to join the club.

I used to spend a fair amount of time nosing around in the blogosphere, but after a couple of years it got harder to keep up. Life got busier with more work and more travel and the bulk of time I’d permitted myself to read all my favorite blogs shrank considerably. But there are a few I manage to keep up with. One of them is Magpie Musing, a quirky, intelligent blog by a woman who shares my name, my love of books and a fascination with things in a state of desuetude. The other belongs to Amanda McGee, whose writing is good enough to eat. It’s Maggie at Magpie Musing who lured me into this assignment, but it was Amanda’s post that inspired me to accept.

~ ~ ~

How does your process work? It could be a topic I’m grappling with (again) that comes to the surface, or a comment by Short-pants or Buddy-roo that gives me an idea. Sometimes De-facto will hear me rant and respond with “that sounds like a blog post.” I’m a student of the Nathalie Goldberg school of freewriting, so I’ll write the nugget of that idea at the top of the page and let the pen go. Judgment is suspended and all words and phrases that come to mind get scribbled down, little gems both poignant and awkward, fodder to be fine-tuned and polished later. The more you get on the page, the more you have to work with, so I allow a full purge to create a first draft. If you read Annie Lamott‘s book Bird by Bird, she talks about the shitty first draft, and that’s exactly what I produce. It’s messy and wordy and occasionally embarrassing, but it’s a step beyond the daunting blank page, and for that alone it is a precious victory every time.
hatchets
When the computer gets involved, the editing starts. Words are arduously rearranged, lines chopped, paragraphs deleted. I’m still too wordy. I could use a good editor to catch typos and omit needless words. Sometimes the labor goes too long and I come to a point where I just have to ship it. But only after a good night’s sleep and a fresh read in the morning. Then I hit publish.

Why do you write what you write? The reasons have morphed since I started. At first I thought I was writing to get a wider audience. When my mother subscribed, I realized I could write to tell her things about my life that were hard to convey to her in person. When she passed away this blog saved me from heartbreak by giving me a place to express my grief. I still haven’t deleted her from the subscriber list. You might read between the lines and hear me whispering to her, with pride about how the girls are growing, or exasperation about how the girls are growing.

I write for my daughters, too. Just in case twenty or thirty years from now when/if they enter the mother’s club – if they are curious – there’ll be an archive about their childhood from my point-of-view. I can’t be sure they’ll care. All I know is how many times I wish I knew what my mother had been going through when she was mothering me. I used to ask, but her responses were not particularly revealing. If my daughters ever want that depth from me, well, it’s here for the taking.

If you really, truly, want to know more about why I write, read this.

How does your work differ from others in the genre? It’s hard for me to characterize how what I do is different. What I love about the world of blogging is the wide diversity that exists; blogs with ten readers and those girls_on_rockswith thousands, each with its own voice and purpose. In that way, different is normal. Somebody once told me this was a literary blog, which I took as a huge compliment. De-facto calls it a contrarian mom blog. I’m not sure this is so distinct, but it’s the crux of what I write. Every day I experience an acute ambivalence, the duality of amazement and angst about having these creatures in my life. I try to craft each post as a short narrative that makes a point about this paradox. I want to tell stories that make you love my kids, and at the same time, make you roll your eyes along with me.

What are you working on? This writing exercise reminds me that I’m not. There’s a manuscript that’s nearly finished, but stuck on a back burner. There’s another story waiting to be told, but its words haven’t made it to the blank page. I won’t even bother to go into the excuses. I’ll just say thanks to Maggie and for the nudge – here’s her blog tour post, by the way – and see if I can’t get back to that big writing project and finish it. Maybe I could publish chapters of my manuscript on this blog. Should I?

~ ~ ~

Like a tree, this story branches out. Each blogger invites two more to muse about their writing process, a digital chain letter that’s been going on for months. I have a long history of breaking chain letters without apology. This one I’m passing along, though I gave my invitees guiltless permission to bow out if the exercise wasn’t something for which they had time or interest. To my surprise, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to find two bloggers happy to play along.
tree_art_by_Blair
Lori, of Groovy Green Living, is someone I knew in real life before we linked on the internet. She’s a ferocious advocate for our planet, and for our health in an increasingly toxic world. Her blog not only inspires you to act, choose and shop in a responsibly green way, it tells you, in very practical terms, how.

Kristen at Birthing Beautiful Ideas describes herself as a feminist mother, philosophical doula and snarky storyteller. She has great post titles, too. One of my favs: The Pre-labor Cervix is not a Magic 8 Ball.

I encourage you to take a look at their blogs, especially next Monday to acknowledge them for carrying on the baton for this meme. And if you’re still curious about bloggers and how they write, then visit this Twitter hashtag: #mywritingprocess

Writing my blog has been a source of tremendous pleasure. It’s helped me grow as a writer, a mother and a woman. But it wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t any readers. So let me finish my writing about writing by thanking those of you who click through and read Maternal Dementia, whether it’s every post or just once in a while. There’s so much to read on the web. Your time is precious. I thank you for spending it here on my blog with Short-pants, Buddy-roo, De-facto and me.

(Photo credits: Spilt Ink is artwork by Dan Walker. The tree in the last image was painted by Blair Bradshaw.)


Jul 1 2012

A Slow Read

A crowd of people – family and friends – descended on Paris at the end of June and I wanted to see them all. I wanted to visit with them and catch up, host them for aperitifs and dinner, take them to my favorite cafés in this city where I’ve made my life. I’m truly happy for each and every visitor, but why is it they all arrive at once, with overlapping itineraries? It’s not that they become my responsibility – all these people are grown adults (or in the care of their parents) and have navigated their lives perfectly well to get themselves to an airport and get on a plane to Paris, so they can get themselves around here – but there is a mild but haranguing sense of duty, perhaps, but also desire, to help with the trip, to enhance their experience, maximize their time in Paris, a city with so much to offer and yet if you don’t know where to look, you can miss the best of it.

There were, as well, more shows to attend: Buddy-roo’s tap-dance recital, in which she had five minutes on stage in a red flapper dress, with two young men in black and white tuxedos flanking her, all three tapping their heels and toes together; and the final viola recital for Short-pants, the last of a litany of end-of-school-year performances and activities. Not to mention several beauty-nurse type appointments of my own, to put my person in order prior to going away for most of July.

Part of me was screaming for all of it to stop, such a jolt to my Camino-quieted system to have to ramp up and run at this pace of scheduled events every night for weeks in a row. This is why it was my first instinct to say no when my friend invited me to use the gallery where he was showing his artwork to host a soirée for my friends and talk about my Camino experience.

The theme of his show was This Here Now, a collection of odd objects he’s literally picked up in different places in the world, mounted on distressed zinc plates and framed, each one commemorating the place and the moment where the object was found. It was very much in sync with my walking experience, the sense of slowing down and noticing what’s right in front of you, here and now and acknowledging the beauty and story within it.

On my way to I meet him for lunch and to look at his exhibit, I was sure that I shouldn’t do it. My back-from-the-Camino self was determined to walk slower and take on less, to leave stretches of time, time for me, and time for my family. But standing in the gallery, his constructed paintings surrounding and delighting me, I heard from another self, a voice who whispered to me often during my long walks. It’s your writing, it’s art. Do it.

I remember my parents returning from their voyages – their treasured vacation in Greece the strongest memory of this – and they’d put together a slide show and invite people over for a dinner party. My mother would conjure up a menu of the featured country’s cuisine, and after dessert the guests would assemble in our living room for slides and stories about the trip. I’d yawn through it, convinced my parents’ friends were far too polite. This is why I thought it’d make sense to skip the pictures, and to excerpt a few key passages from favorite blog posts and do a very short reading. If I picked the right passages, the audience could picture it on their own. And otherwise we’d ply people with wine and have a nice time.

~ ~ ~

Little by little it slips away, my newfound rootedness giving way to the daily duties that call me, and I don’t know how not to answer. To some things, yes: I have unsubscribed to a dozen Internet newsletters. I refused paying work because of my out of town guests. I didn’t sign up to accompany Buddy-roo’s class on their day-long end-of-school sortie. I’ve said no to fundraising events and lunch invitations with people who aren’t mission critical. I haven’t looked at my Twitter feed in weeks (and I don’t miss it). Nonetheless, it felt like my energy was getting scattered from all the running around and doing more, when all I want to do is less.

But how? Every time I clear something away, a new task replaces it. We left the eye doctor last week with a prescription for Short-pants to see an orthopiste, a kiné for the eyes. This will require two visits a week for six weeks in a row. So next fall – it’s impossible to start this summer between our July vacation and every French orthopiste’s August holiday – on top of everything else we’ll be traipsing around twice a week to these appointments. It’s important and necessary, and in itself it’s not such an enormous task. It’s just that every little thing like this adds yet another detail to remember, to organize and execute, and I can’t not do them. After the Camino, I wanted to do less. But less of what?

~ ~ ~

Turnabout is fairplay, I suppose, so just as I’ve rallied for Short-pants’ and Buddy-roo’s performances, they showed up for mine. (Rallied is perhaps too exuberant to describe Buddy-roo’s reaction, but once she got there she didn’t mind.) My mother-in-love was in town too, a poet who’s done her fair share of readings so she had a few tips for me, accepted gladly as the time I had to prepare was minimal and a seasoned pro’s advice gave me comfort.

When you read your words out loud, they change. It’s not like what you hear in your head when you write them, or read to yourself. The words become truer. When you say them out loud their meaning is enlarged and magnified. You have to slow down and treat the words deliberately. Each time I practiced reading my selections, making small edits and changes along the way to suit a live occasion, I appropriated the words even more. With every read-through, I took back a little of the groundedness I’d felt slipping away. I needed to be in the this here now to be able to do the reading, and reading out loud was just what it took to get there.

De-facto bought wine and my good culinary-inclined friend prepared for me, generously, an array of pintxos and a gateau Basque, regional eats in the spirit of the reading. (My mother was smiling down at her, I’m sure.) A small group assembled, but it was just the right group. We took our time. I read one piece, and then we waited. An hour later, I read another piece. In between, a quick hint from my mother-in-love: “You could read even slower if you wanted.” So I did.

After the readings, the guests lingered at the gallery until nearly midnight, making a dinner out of the hors d’oeuvres and stretching out the evening with wine and laughter. I had a chance to visit with everyone, falling into long and meandering, meaningful conversations that affirmed for me how this reading, which felt at first like too much to do, turned out to be exactly what I needed. Note to self: do more of these.

All the images in the post are by Dan Walker.


Nov 11 2011

In the Cloud

I want to be in the cloud. Not the up-there-in-the-ether-all-safe-and-stored-and-accessible-from-any-device cloud, I mean the creative cloud, the cloud of that fuzzy, I-don’t-know-but-something-might-be-emerging cloud, both thrilling and unnerving at once, the cloud of my imagination. I want to go there and stay there and live there, mindfully navigating life in a writerly way, a painterly way – even thought I don’t paint – or a musical way, any way that might be an artistic way.

Once upon a time I had my fingers in glue stick and construction paper, cutting out magazines and making and pasting creative little things. I wrote daily in my journal, I did multiple free-writes on the same prompt. I remember feeling perfectly capable of taking time, without the gnawing sense that I might be wasting it, time being that precious commodity that we all have exactly the same amount of but some people seem to use more industriously than others. Not that industry is the truest measure of contentment. I would like to do less.

I would like to tether myself to this cloud and move deliberately, through the potentially artistic moments of my day. Spooning a mountain of frothy milk into the coffee in my favorite mug with just the right swirl and then doing nothing but sitting and drinking it; handwriting funky postcards to far flung but not forgotten friends before opening email and RSS feeds to respond to the “urgent” news of the day. Drawing a flower on the steamed-up mirror after a unhurried hot shower – better yet a drawn-out bath – and taking the time to add detail to each of its pedals; sitting pensively on the barstool, imagining the life of the Asian woman with gray squared-off bangs sitting across from me at the café; stopping off at a bookstore on the way home to browse the stacks randomly, pulling titles off the shelves and reading paragraphs, just short snacks in a feast of enticing literature.

I want to mount those family pictures on the bathroom wall in that funky frame I found, produce that little film of my mother walking through the rooms of our old house, finish that scrapbook of Buddy-roo’s blessing before she realizes her sister’s is completed but hers – though its pieces are ready to go – has never been assembled. I want to read without being interrupted or without collapsing the book on my chest in utter exhaustion. I want to, when I’m feeling haunted by a passage in Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, sit down in that moment to listen to it with the Bose headphones I bought (an indulgence) to block out noise on long-haul flights when the real reason to own them is that they make everything seem alive and present and close around you.

I just want to live in a more artistic way.

I’ve decided to stop talking about being too busy. It’s a boring line of conversation, and frankly, everybody’s busy. It can’t be denied that I juggle a fair amount between work and children and De-facto and friends and the administration of our household. The latter being the most tedious, but I have not yet achieved the zensibility of regarding piles of paper-needing-attention and unwashed laundry and children’s toys and books strewn as anything but an aesthetic assault. I think back to when I lived alone – I’ve never been an everything-at-right-angles person, but it was easy to sustain some amount of sloppy kind of order in my surroundings, which permitted me to vault into the messy cloud of my own creativity without stopping at the toll booth to get there.

There is nobody standing over me insisting that I attend so diligently to the administrative details of my life (and my family’s). I had a dream that I simply stopped caring: No need to remember to stuff the little morning snack packs in their school cartables, no hounding them to straighten their rooms or finish their homework, no longer picking up the random empty glasses left on the floor behind by the couch. I let them leave all the drawers pulled out and cupboards wide open, the wet laundry festered in the machine because I couldn’t be troubled to hang it out or run it in the dryer, the furniture was no longer visible as every surface had been covered with blankets, princess costumes, doll clothes, train tracks, little bits of paper and plastic, and books left open face down to mark the page. In the dream I regarded it all with amusement, and simply joined them, unbothered by shoulds and oughts, basking single-mindedly in my unfettered imagination, up there, in the cloud.


Jun 29 2011

The Sweet Spot

There were baby things everywhere. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; this was a conference for mothers who blog, and many of them have little babies or toddlers. It’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve been in the company of so many women with babies on their minds, let alone in their bellies, in their arms, or in strollers, being pushed around the exhibitor hall. Friendly people at every stand offered up freebies galore: baby bottles and thermometers, teething toys and toddler clothes. The swag at Cybermummy11 was definitely geared for the mums with younger children. I didn’t mind – it meant there was less to carry home – but it made me realize how many of these mothers are squeezing out posts during naps, patching together tiny portions of spare time to write their blogs and run their businesses. They’re pacing back and forth to soothe a sick child with a thousand thoughts running through their heads, juggling diapers and daycare, surviving and thriving despite sleep deprivation and the constant churn of mothering little ones. I looked around at all of them with their babies in tow and I thought to myself, thank god that’s not me anymore.

The night before the conference, I slipped down to the hotel bar, dreaming of a quiet dinner at the bar by myself, but it turns out I’d landed in a trendy boutique hotel and the place was rockin’. There were no stools at the bar, and the restaurant didn’t have the right ambiance for solo dining, so I returned to my room and ordered room service. Like any diligent blogger, I happily ate dinner in front of my computer. When @mummytips tweeted me to come down and join her in the bar with her friends (@bumpwearclaire and @Melaina25), I knew the scene I was getting myself into. But I’d come all this way to see and meet my blogging compatriots, so I ventured down into the world of exposed brick and designer cologne.

The bartenders weren’t particularly efficient, though it wasn’t easy for them because the place was packed with testosterone. We struggled to find an opening at the bar, surrounded by all the young men mulling about, aggressively getting their drinks and blocking our way. To add insult to injury, two young slicksters did a little divert through the crowd to put themselves in front of us.

I was clearly the oldest woman in this entire bar. And I was parched. These guys were boys, young enough to be my sons. They had fresh blemishes and peach fuzz. They hardly looked old enough to drink. I had no choice but to step forward and slip in between them. I scolded them, but with a smile: “I can’t believe that two young men like you would actually sneak ahead of a group of thirsty women. Didn’t your mothers teach you anything?”

Deep down, I suppose, they were good boys, because they stood aside and made way for me to advance to the bar. On the surface, they were clowns, trying so hard to get the bartender’s attention on my behalf that he ignored me longer than he would have without their attempted aide. They swarmed around, alternating between hitting on anything with breasts and then returning and engaging me in the most inane conversations. I will admit that certain young men can kindle the cougar in me, but these two were not of such stock. They conjured up the memory of my awkward early years of meeting and dating and I thought to myself, thank god that’s not me anymore.

There are a lot of reasons to attend a conference like Cybermummy: networking and connecting with advertisers or sponsors, going to sessions for hints and tips from experienced bloggers, and of course, the swag. But the real reason: to be in the company of others who, finally, understand why you blog. Why you race through your day on skates so you can leave a little time to pound out a post. How you get a bit antsy when too many days have gone by without posting. Or as one of the crowd-sourced keynote speakers, who blogs at KateTakes5 put it, how you “get used to disapproving looks from other mothers when your child falls in the street and you scramble for the camera instead of picking her up.” When you go to a conference like this, there’s a huge sense of connectedness – and relief – when you think to yourself, that’s just like me and oh, I’m not alone.

More than four hundred women attended the Cybermummy conference, stating loud and clear that mothers – whether they stay at home, work part-time or do the full-time-job-mom-juggle – are a force to contend with. We have stories to tell, opinions to air and we can make a difference with our words. From the inspiring opening keynote by Sarah Brown, to the poignant or funny blogger keynotes that closed the meeting, the range of voices I heard made me proud to be among this group. Not to mention the Eden Fantasy sponsored dildo-decorating party hosted by @cosmicgirlie on Saturday night. Want to remove the sexual taboo of an object? Invite twenty women to decorate it with feathers and sequins. You’ll see.

Miles and hours away from London and the conference and a newly enlarged network of blogging friends, I returned, with some relief, to my family. I travel enough to be used to the ebb and flow of glad-to-be-gone but oh-I-miss-them, and still, on this trip, the longing for them was fiercer than usual. Maybe it was seeing all those babies and remembering how adorable Short-pants and Buddy-roo were at that age. Maybe it was stepping into that whole bar scene and wondering – worrying – if my girls will acquire what it takes to encounter, endure and exit (safely) from the company of doo-doo heads like those young guys. Or maybe I’m just getting soft.

At bedtime, Short-pants was reading in her own room while I sang a lullaby to Buddy-roo, who’d already shut the light and was drifting off to sleep. It’s the same lullaby my mother used to sing to me. It’s the same lullaby I used to sing to them when they were babies and toddlers. My girls are (nearly) ten and seven, they still ask for the song at bedtime. How much longer will they let me sing it to them?

I traced my hand along the length of Buddy-roo’s long leg, thinking about where I am now in my life, as a mother. I’m glad to have the baby part behind me. I’m dreading a bit what’s ahead: their adolescence and navigating the minefields of boys-to-men. But right now, in this phase: it’s pretty sweet. They’re old enough to be independent; they dress themselves, get their own juice from the fridge, conduct their business privately in the bathroom. But they’re still young enough to be truly excited when I come home from a weekend away. Is this the sweet spot of motherhood? It makes me think to myself, it’s a good time, right now, to be mom.

It’s a good time to be a Cybermummy, too.


Feb 16 2011

Digital Rasa

I once worked in a cubicle a stone’s throw from a meticulous woman. I’d listen to her set up appointments with clients in the most deliberate way, confirming the time and place, clarifying the purpose of the meeting. Her desk was ordered, her language precise, and she lived by her day-timer.

One year she tried a new calendar method: after completing each task or meeting on her to-do list, she’d erase it with white-out. I could picture her pulling the little brush out of the green plastic bottle and carefully blanking out every accomplished item. Her objective: a fully white page at the end of each day.

The problem, she confessed after doing this for an entire year, was that she had no reference about what she’d actually done. If you asked – a week or a month later – when she’d met with someone or competed something, she couldn’t tell you. She enjoyed the daily satisfaction of a clean agenda, but no institutional memory to assist anyone else.

~ ~ ~

I’ve been following an on-line conversation by Gwen Bell, an internet-mentor of sorts, one of the trio behind the whole Reverb deal. I say of sorts because I have only exchanged a few tweets with her, but even from a distance she inspires or provokes. She’s exploring how to be more intimate and authentic in her web-conduct, and as a result re-ordering her on-line priorities. In a recent subscribe-only missive she foreshadowed a digital incineration, and she’s followed through. She deleted her on-line artifacts – yesterday – starting afresh with a digital tabula-rasa. She wonders what would happen if everyone she knew did the same thing.

Given that last week I wrote about my reticence to delete my mother’s email electronic information from my computer, I’m an unlikely candidate for such a digital purge. I have dozens of boxes stored with eclectic mementos in various basements of my life and it would carry forward that the things I cherish about my on-line life – one I consider rich and nourishing – are things I want to bookmark and access with only a few clicks.

I wonder, when Short-pants and Buddy-roo are older, will they appreciate the memories assembled in this epistle, or they will be insulted, angry that their privacy has been compromised? I used to roll my eyes in embarrassment at my mother’s Christmas letter. Even though never more than a line or two was devoted to me – and her friends purported to love having the news – it was always painful to read what she had written about me. The girls could revolt with a digital mutiny; by then they’ll probably have hacked my password and could easily incinerate the stories of their youth without my permission.

There are a hundred questions I’d ask my mother, if I could. And I did, but there was much she couldn’t remember. If she’d only written it down. To have a digital archive of her feelings during my childhood would be so precious to me now. When my daughters are mothers to their own children, could it be that my archives might at least amuse them, if not offer them comfort?

~ ~ ~

In college I accumulated (just barely) enough credits to have a degree in History and in Semiotics. So the historian in me thinks it’s blasphemous to delete a rich history of published content from the web. Archives are the record of a narrative. Like the diaries of Anais Nin, an on-line journal is biased, slightly (or mightily) filtered for public consumption and maybe it tells only the part of the story, but it’s still part of the important collective herstory. There’s a feminist aspect as well: the platform of blogging has enabled more women to publish without a gatekeeper; it’s hard to imagine deleting the words that have resulted from this privilege.

The historian in me also believes that some things ought never to be deleted from our consciousness. Like the Holocaust, for instance. That’s an extreme case, compared to the archives of one person’s website, but where do you draw the line? When you delete something, what are you saying? That it’s not important enough to be remembered in its original form? If it were published as a book, it would just go out of print. But there’d be a dusty copy somewhere, a future internet scholar could dig it up as a reference for a treatise on the evolution of social media. Can a closed archive, filed away in the cloud, be accessed by the next generation of historians and sleuths?

The semiotician in me, however, wants to deconstruct the discourse of this electronic medium and my attachment to my texts, starting with the word “I” which is repeated oft and means one thing to me, and an entirely different thing to a reader. “I” also means one thing now, in this current reality, and it signifies something else later, in the future, when what is now is the past.

Or does it? There are stories of an unforgiving Internet. A Google search can undermine a burgeoning career. Names like Krystal Ball and Mary Bono Mack come to mind. This New York Times article last summer got me thinking about how digital archives signal the end of forgetting:

In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites…the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

Well yes. We ought to be given room to be young and foolish, to make mistakes and to grow into our opinions. I can think of a dozen things I said or did in college and just after (and into my thirties for that matter) that I’d rather not have to answer to now. Not because they were so horrible, but because they demonstrate questionable judgment, or the inexperience of youth. And yet, those episodes of lesser judgment were critical learning opportunities that informed the (usually) wiser me that exists now.

How can we evolve into who we are in the process of becoming if the current vehicle that records data is so very precise that it leaves nothing to the frail and vague human memory that edits selectively and makes most of our stories more interesting?

~ ~ ~

I like my current blogging practice, and I feel no compulsion to follow suit and delete any archives. But I’m interested in the conversation that Gwen and her circle are carrying on about what’s emerging as a more authentic way of telling our stories on the web. It has to do with publishing, it has to do with connecting, it has to do with being present with (or despite) technology. They’re challenging assumptions and renaming what is new media for many but already old media to them. And the internet, which has woven its way inside us, should be challenged as we grow to rely on it more and more.

For now, the body of work that is represented in this blog – which started out as a comment on my lack of institutional memory, the losing of your mind that happens after birthing children – is an important narrative for me to keep, and to keep public. But I have a new awareness: someday I might want to put forward a different part of me, or my daughters might ask to take control of their childhood stories. Then it might seem like the right thing, to take the plunge with my own digital bottle of white out. Would I be erasing history, or taking the reigns of what is to be remembered? Or would that be letting go the reigns?


Feb 7 2011

Not Deleted

I could attribute the start of this blog to a bad idea: it wasn’t too smart to help De-facto rip up that old carpet, especially just after running a 10K race. When my back went out, the doctor ordered bed rest and I was horizontal with my laptop for three weeks. To relieve the nerve-wracking stress of the Obama vs. McCain race, I scoured the internet in search of political perspectives and predictions and in doing so I learned the protocol of the blogosphere. I forged further, beyond political content, and encountered a whole variety of blogs: some charming, some ridiculous, some hilarious, some rife with typos, some even murderous (death-by-adverbs). Others poignant and personal, wordsmithed with beauty and vulnerability that moved me to tears, making made me wonder, could this be a place to play, in the genre of the literary blog?

There was much to learn about hosted and self-hosted sites, themes and widgets, plug-ins and API and php and CSS style sheets. I remember staying up until three in the morning while De-facto and the girls snored in their beds. I’d be typing away or adjusting the sidebar or figuring out how to configure the RSS feed. I experienced the pleasure that comes with feeling your brain grow – learning to do something new, something modern, even. The first post was daunting. Few people read it, and surely nobody discovered it on their own. But now I was out there. I was self-publishing.

My mother visited us in Paris just a few weeks later. She sat at the dining room table and read through the five or six posts I had already published. It’s not easy to watch someone read your work, but she smiled and laughed at all the right places. (You can count on your mother for that.) I had just added the subscription option, so she was one of the first to sign up. Each time I’d post, she’d get the notice and click through, right away. She did so religiously, and though she never contributed to the comments section, she never failed to write me a message after reading a post.

During that same visit, my mother was out of breath, a lot. When I put her in the taxi to the airport, I made her promise to call a doctor as soon as she got home. She did, and that’s how she discovered that she had leukemia.

She lived much longer than the doctors predicted, and with a heightened awareness of each day. This made her appreciate every little thing, including each installment of my blog. I realized, from the messages she sent after every post, that she was coming to know me in a different way. She had never been one to ask questions that would provoke too emotional a response and she was sometimes inclined to change the subject if what I volunteered was too deep. But the blog changed that, or maybe her perspective shifted when she knew she was dying – whatever – it all came together to create a bond between us that lived in the lines of every post, a long story about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my life in Paris, told bit by bit. It was not what I had intended, but the blog had become a vehicle for a final narrative from me to her. And she read it. She read every word.

Months went by and I did not mention her illness. It felt too private, and it was hers, not mine. But I knew it would help me to write about it, so I sent a draft of a post to my mother to ask her permission, which she gave readily. Later, during those icy winter days of her hospice, I wrote about her dying and about her death. I wrote about my grief. I wrote about cleaning out the rooms of the house she inhabited for over 50 years, and gradually emptying the memories of my childhood. I wrote about it all, right here, on this blog.

Last summer, a thoughtful friend posed the question: Did I have someone in particular in mind when I sat down to write a post, or was I thinking about a group of readers? He blogs about rebuilding a vespa, and when he’s writing a post, he said, he has his dad in mind. I told him about how I’d come to realize that I was writing to my mother, but that now that she was gone, I really didn’t know to whom I was writing anymore.

“What makes you think you couldn’t you still be writing it to her?” he said.

~ ~ ~

After she died, I directed all the email from her server into my computer so I could unsubscribe her from the e-newsletters and mailing lists, and catch any stray correspondence that needed closure. For months I monitored her mail, fascinated by what came in to her inbox, an eclectic mix of investment briefs, political news, digests from the various on-line groups she’d joined. Sometime last fall we cancelled her email service, but I couldn’t bring myself to delete her account. It’s grayed-out and receives no messages. But I’ve left it there.

Her email address remains on my subscriber list, too. Each time I publish, a notification is unsuccessfully sent to her no-longer-in-service account, disappearing somewhere in the ether. Whenever I’m doing housekeeping tasks in the dashboard of my blog, I tell myself I need to remove her from that list. But I’ve not yet found a way to put a check in the box before her name and press delete.

Losing friends and family has stages of heartache. Who knew that deleting an email address and a phone number and those last electronic points of contact would be so hard to do? I know there are legacy services that save all your on-line profile data and passwords, so those surviving you can easily shut down your active participation in the world wide web. But that doesn’t help friends and family who still have that data stored in address books and friend-lists. Maybe there needs to be an electronic cemetery, where we can drag and drop those details with some ceremony. Then we could send flowers and e-cards. Think of it: a whole new industry of condolence e-commerce.

~ ~ ~

It was a year ago today that my mother died.

I thought about her a lot last weekend, marking the entire series of “lasts” that preceded her final breath. Those slow, quiet, waiting days are forever fixed in my memory. It so happens that my sister was in Paris, so we raised a glass together. My brother and I spoke on the phone. He said it seems like it all happened just yesterday, and at the same time, wasn’t it forever ago? Friends of my mother sent gentle emails; I’m stunned that they remember the date as precisely as we do. I wonder, have they deleted her email from their address books yet?

This blog, it turns out, has been a little bit of medicine. It set me to writing, on a regular basis. It refreshed the parched pages of my journal. It buoyed my dampened, unpublished spirits. In a way I never expected, it drew my mother closer to me during the last months of her life, and it keeps her near now, because I can still write to her, and I do. She’s gone, but not deleted.


Dec 14 2010

On Gratitude

Good literature, I’ve told my daughters more than once, always has tension. It’s what makes a story interesting. This came up again last night when Short-pants and I were talking about her latest assignment: to write a short story in the style of Rudyard Kipling (great assignment, yes?). First we discussed Kipling’s trademarks, which are, in her words, animals and nature. Then we talked about what makes a good story. “There has to be tension, something to resolve,” she said, making me proud.

I spend a considerable amount of time in this electronic journal highlighting my own tension, kvetching about what’s difficult: my life is a train wreck since the children came along, the administration required in this country is cumbersome, there’s too much homework, he can’t load the dishwasher correctly, the cup-choices at Starbucks are illogical. But imagine if I only wrote about how sweet my children are, how much I love their dad, how France is just one delicious cheese after another – I suspect after a while it wouldn’t be a very good read.

I’ve noticed that I tend to focus – more now than I used to – on what’s wrong with life rather than what’s right. This might be a product of living in France, where intellectual analysis trumps everyone-getting-along, and where disgruntlement is well manifested in the ubiquitous French shrug. It might also be because the time I spend writing has increased dramatically over the last few years, and when you write only nice things it feels a bit superficial, so I feel compelled to dig into the underbelly of my life. Or it might just be part and parcel of being middle-aged and confronting the abyss between my ideal life and my real one. Or all of the above.

The other day, before even reading this #reverb10 prompt, I wondered if sometimes I think too much about what I don’t have and not enough about what I do have. Because I have a hundred reasons to feel gratitude.

But if I had to narrow it down, to the one thing I’ve come to appreciate most in the last year?

I’m grimacing. It’s very saccharine, but I have to say it. Brace yourselves.

It’s De-facto.

I’m grateful that he came to France to be with me, so we could live our mildly exotic life and raise our children bilingually. I’m grateful for the two kids he made with me; the coolest parts of them, I’m pretty sure, were transmitted from his chromosomes. I’m grateful that he gives me as much room as I need, really, to do all the things I want to do. Take off to Mexico to go whale watching? Yes, do it. Go to Pamplona every July? Yeah, sure. He doesn’t say no. He says okay, how?

I appreciate how he watches my moods from a distance and comments carefully. I’m grateful for his modesty and humility, his childlike willingness to play in the world. I’m grateful for his strong reassuring arms around me, especially this last year – which was occasionally brutal – when that’s just what I needed.

And all those other little things about him that aren’t exactly who I want him to be, or what I want him to do or how I want him to do it – well, they just add a little tension, don’t they? That’s why ours is such a good story.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Victoria Klein: Prompt: Appreciate. What’s the one thing you have come to appreciate most in the past year? How do you express gratitude for it?


Dec 6 2010

Making It

I once hosted an All Soul’s cocktail party. I remember because it was kind of an eccentric occasion, on a weeknight and in honor of a rarely celebrated holiday, at least rarely celebrated with cocktails. I made the invitations by hand. I can still – twenty years later – picture the paper stock I selected, a heavy construction grade in burgundy and rusty orange, and a patterned paper with both these colors and black in a marbled design. Thick felt-tip calligraphy pens, in black, brown and rust, a few lines of clever text, burgundy envelopes and stamps with an autumnal spirit.

I invited all my friends and colleagues from work, thinking of each person individually as I hand-made every invitation. When the exercise was over – two hours and two glue sticks later – I stared at the pile of crafty envelopes and felt supremely satisfied. The work I did then (and do now) keeps me in brain. It was a nourishing pleasure to have been working with my hands.

One year, back when the Paris metro tickets were green, I saved all my used ones and cut them into the shape of a fir tree and pasted them on to home-made Christmas cards. It took me the entire evening, at least twice though Ella Fitzgerald’s Swinging Christmas album and nearly a bottle of wine. I remember feeling it was an evening extremely well spent. I’m tactile, I love to cut and paste.

But during this last year? I made a goal book, the result of an inspiring goal-setting exercise into which I inserted my favorite activities of cutting and pasting and making collages. But that’s about the only cut and paste I managed to get to.

What did I make? Aside from the meals, and the beds?

I made a tribute to my mother that honored her well. I made new bonds with my siblings. I made new friends. I made trips. I made mistakes. I made progress. I made a lot of memories. I made a living. I made love. I made my way. I made it up as I went along.

But next year, I’ll make more things with my hands. It makes me happy.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Gretchen Rubin: Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some timer for it?


Dec 3 2010

Alive as I’ve ever been

Does it sound harsh to say that the moment when I felt most alive – this last year – was when my mother was about to die?

Maybe it was the contrast, life and death standing side-by-side. I’m sure that framed it. But that is not why.

During the weeks leading up to her death, I was home alone with her and very focused on the care she needed. Aside from a few moments to myself, to exercise, bathe or make a quick stop at the public library to go on-line, my days were focused on her. I helped her move around. I helped her get dressed. I made soup. I scratched her back. I answered her email. I wrote, as she dictated to me, two letters that she had wanted to write for weeks but hadn’t gotten to. I held her hand. I administered morphine, kept track of all her medications, noting the dosage, the time, the reaction. I told her stories about Short-pants and Buddy-roo.
I changed the channel. I rubbed her feet. I watched her sleep. I witnessed the end of her life. She did not have to do it alone. I accompanied her.

It’s remarkable, the singularity of purpose that comes at a time like this, when there is no question about what is priority and what is ancillary. There was no “should I do this or should I do that?” The day became a series of small moments of service. There were no distractions, no getting pulled off course because of a pretend client crisis or a drama at school. I was fully present.

When you are present like this, it is impossible not to feel alive.

I can think of other moments in my life, moments when I was present, not pulled into a future aspiration or tugged into nostalgia or remorse. The result, always: aliveness, palatable joy, delight and gratitude for my place on earth. This moment I write of, last year, rivaled those moments in its intensity and emotional alertness. The primary emotion was not joy or glee, but grief. Grief and sorrow.

But if you can step out of the judgment that insists alive must mean happy, then you can see that alive really means feeling. Feeling fully any and every emotion that washes over you and accepting it. Relinquishing control and living it and living through it, thoroughly. That is the alive moment.

Something I find curious this moment (it is not that exact moment she left us, by the way, but a moment at her bedside a few days before) is that my mother was severely hearing impaired, and the details I hold on to are almost all auditory. Silence except for a few distinct sounds: the ticking of the clock on the shelf; the furnace kicking in and vibrating the entire house, even the glassware in the cupboard; the snow-plow scraping the road as it passed in front of our house; the wind-chimes on the back porch, hanging amongst her sheets. The sound of her uneasy breathing. The sound of mine after a deep breath, taken when I realized my breathing had grown shallow. “Breathe,” I said out loud, to myself, not to her.

I knew my mother was readying herself to be no longer among the alive. I held her hand and in my heart, I could feel it hurt. It hurt so much, it hurt like my heart was being carved out of my chest with a sharp knife. I was present, all right, with the feeling, with the hurt. In pain, yes, but as alive as I’ve ever been.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Ali Edwards: Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail.