Month: December 2013

On the Eve of 2014

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My mother had on her fur coat.  They must have been going to the symphony, or maybe the opera, back in the days when they had season tickets to both, before my father put his foot down and announced that he refused to go any more and thereby broke my mother’s heart.  They came into the living room to say good-bye to my brother and me, all gussied up and remaining at a distance.

We had a babysitter.  Kathy Bates (nope, not that one, though having the always-a-hoot actress as a babysitter would certainly have been swell).  At 10 and 8, Kathy was not all that much older than my brother and I were; but we were very much little kids, and she had crossed that treacherous threshold into Early Adolescence.  Kathy looked, most unfortunately, exactly like her father.  At the age of nearly 13, she was well on her way to her final height of 6 feet tall.

She was athletic and strong and awkward and rangy all at once.  Her hair always seemed to be horribly greasy, and it was evident that she curled it, teased it, sprayed it and in every way possible fought with it to achieve what little détente she could.  She had clearly outgrown her pants and not yet grown into her blouse.  Because we were watching TV, Kathy had to reluctantly don her glasses – the narrow, black-framed, pointy-tipped specs of the time that everyone spent years making fun of before shocking number of hipsters across the country took up their cause once again.

I was, in every way, fascinated by her.

She must have gotten special permission from my parents, as our TV watching was Regulated.  No more than one hour per night, and only approved shows.  We were permitted to watch all the PBS we wanted; which needless to say meant that we watched absolutely none at all, ever, period.

Kathy was kneeling on the floor, her PFFlyer-clad feet tucked underneath her as she sat no more than three or four feet from our little old black-and-white TV.  Her eyes were already glued to the screen as my parents said their goodbyes.

It was Sunday, February 9, 1964, and the Beatles were about to make an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.  My brother and I had no idea what to make of the awed, rapt solemnity with which Kathy Bates seemed to be approaching this event; but we understood the fact of it, if not the reasoning, and so knelt on the floor beside her.

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The minute Ed Sullivan says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles!” the girls in the audience break into cheers and screams and yells.  Kathy Bates’ hands fly up to either side of her face, cradling her cheeks.  She moaned in ecstatic agony for a second before crying out.

Kathy looked over at my brother and me as if suddenly remembering we were there.  Our mouths were probably hanging open.  I spent the rest of “All My Loving” pretending to watch –I thought Paul was the cutest thing ever.  John scared me.  Ringo had a great goofy crazy smile.  And George?  Well, at the age of 8, George who? – but secretly studying every single move that Kathy made.

It was one of those pivotal moments in life, when a brand new door opens and you get a white-light-blinding glimpse of a world that is so much bigger, and scarier, and more complicated, and more magnificent, than you ever imagined before.  Thank you, Kathy Bates, for fanning a flame of curiosity and wonder.

Readers, may your 2014 be filled with such moments.

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It Was Meant to Be a Simple Question

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My friend Amy posted the following on Facebook:

“In your status line list 10 books that have stayed with you. Don’t take more than a few minutes. Don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be great works, or even your favorites. Just the ones that have touched you. Tag 10 friends including me so I’ll see your list. Some of these books I read in a Memoir Writing class I took within the last five or six years. Two took up a lot of my time and contemplation in college.”

Yeah, I know it said “Don’t take more than a few minutes” as well as “Don’t think too hard;” both of which directives proved totally impossible for me. In fact, I found myself thinking about this a great deal over the past couple of days – as I was going to sleep the night of Amy’s post (and then proceeding to not go to sleep as I pondered), again when I woke the next morning, while I walked my dog in the brilliant bitter powder-snow cold, in between work appointments and the assorted tasks of everyday life.

I write (at least at times I do cough cough), and continue to consider what makes writing really, really good. This strikes me as sort of like devoting one’s life to understanding the sound of one hand clapping, in that, of course, there is no one, even reasonably satisfying answer to this. Writing has the capacity to touch us on so many different levels and in profoundly different ways: the beauty of words themselves can awe us in works of fiction and non-fiction as much as the poetry of immortal greats. Writing can teach us, move us, educate us, stir us to action, change our perspective, open us, transport us, transform us. There have been passages in books that I didn’t believe I would ever fully recover from – when little Walt dies in The World According to Garp, when the evil Blue Duck slits the throat of Roscoe, Joe and Janey in Lonesome Dove, when Billy Bibbit takes his life in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – well, after each of these passages I mourned, wrenched for days, not myself, unable to shake the profound effect the authors had fueled within me.

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And then there is the question of timing: does our profound love of a particular book depend on the exact time that we happened to read it, and would that book — so beloved once — hold the same power to stir our soul if we had chanced to read it at an entirely different time in our lives? Within the past couple of years, I re-read The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, both of which are often first read during adolescence, and often in a soul-killing high school English class. Both of these novels struck me – again – as so powerfully visionary, so stunningly well-written, and, well, so damn important.

I had the occasion to visit a pre-school classroom this past week, something I do every so often in my work. For the hour that I visited, the classroom of four-year-olds first acted out the children’s book The Mitten, pretending to be each of the animals that one-by-one crowds into the ever-growing mitten to stay warm. Then, it was time to climb aboard The Polar Express. The little ones lined up in the hallway to claim their tickets, then returned to a darkened classroom to board the train when the whistle blew. They bumped up in down in their chairs, making their way to the North Pole, shouting out the sights they saw along the way. By the time the teacher read the story, I was glad that my visiting time was up, and that the room was dark, so I could sneak away as my eyes welled with tears at the story’s end, as they do every single time.

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Life Gets in the Way, and Sometimes, That’s Just Fine

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Meh.  The formation of ideas into words, into sentences, into pages that comprised my writing of this third novel for a good chuck of time has come to a temporary halt.  Sigh.  I know this is how it goes for me.  At times it flows, and the flow can proceed along – sometimes at a pace that surprises me, other times at a crawl – but still it proceeds, without substantial interruption.

But the halts do come.  For me, they do.  I am not talking about “writer’s block;” I am talking about the times – now being one of them – where life gets squarely in the way of being able to find and maintain the wide open mental spaces necessary for the creative picture to remain in focus,  not to become too blurry for a while, too hazy-in-the-distance, just out of reach.

It’s! the! Holidays!  With their sundry boisterous chaos.

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Some of the chaos is magnificent, such as the nearly-two-week Thanksgiving visit from my daughter, soon to be followed up by another for Christmas; and the shelving of our usual family board games at the holidays in favor of being fascinated by a one-year-old baby who is fascinated by everything.

Some of the chaos is wrenching, such as the enormous suffering of many of the people I work with in my day job as a clinical social worker.

The words will flow again.   And though I know this from history, part of me remains patient while another part sighs internally and drums its fingers.

In the meantime, let us all make merry, and rejoice for the gifts we have.  In lieu of words, I offer some pictures of twinkly lights from my very own corner of the world – in this case, my own block in Evanston, IL.

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