Degrees of Love

June 28, 2012

A few weeks ago, I promised to post a story here. I’m doing that now. What follows is a very short story that’s part of the story cycle I’m writing. Though shorter than what I normally write, I think it’s reflective of my voice and style. I hope you enjoy it.

Anna was the perfect child. She was so good and sweet that she made me wonder if we had done something wrong with her brother, who was always difficult. But not my Anna. When she was just starting to walk and talk she would mimic me. She used to sit on the floor in my office while I graded undergraduate papers. I would give her little sheets of scrap paper and a dry pen and she would watch me and pretend to mark on the papers like I did. When she got a little older she colored. When she got older still, she moved from the floor to the reading chair I kept in the room and started to read and write. That was when I loved her the most.

Parental love is supposed to be constant. This is the lie we tell our children, but it’s impossible not to love a child a little more when she yells “mama!” the moment you come in the door and sticks sweetly to you for the rest of the evening. I can’t imagine loving Anna more than those times when she sat in that chair crafting her stories. She relied on me. She asked me what I thought of her stories and what she should read. I’ve never felt as important as I did then. It didn’t last.

She was thirteen when she asked me why I only wrote literary criticism. “Only” was a powerful word. She no longer respected what I did. “Why don’t you write, you know, some actual literature, mom?” I told her I had tried. When I was her age I wrote constantly, just like her. I kept it up all the way through college, but I didn’t have it. My best stories were only okay. I never had a single line of fiction published, but not for lack of trying.

“Do you think that will happen to me?” she asked.

“No, I don’t. You are going to be better than me. I can tell already. You aren’t very good yet, but you will be unless you stop.”

This was the wrong thing to say, though I didn’t know it at the time. At first, I thought it was wonderful. She started writing even more, which I would have thought was impossible, and she told me to be brutal. “Treat me like I’m a real writer,” she said. And so I did. It was rough at first – she didn’t like getting her stories back covered in red ink – but she got better quickly. When she was seventeen, she handed me a story; I read it and handed it back to her.

“I can’t do anything with this.”

“What do you mean? Why not?”

“It’s good sweetie. I don’t have any suggestions.” I should have told her that I would kill to have graduate students who handed in writing like this. That I would kill if I could do that, just once.

She looked at me for a moment and a smile crept across her face. “I guess I’m good now, huh?”

“Yes, I think this is very good.”

She took that story and sent it out to Harper’s and a few months later, there it was. She never asked me for help again. She told me when she had something published so I could read it, but I never saw a draft again. I assume that she decided I had nothing left to teach her. And then she gave that interview.

“I don’t think people should go to college to study literature.” This was the first thing she said when asked about her education. She went to college and studied literature, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter. Then there was the follow-up question about how her mother taught literature at a college.

“Oh yeah, she’s an important theorist, I guess. I think that’s all garbage though. Just read. Don’t worry about what college professors think. They’re so disconnected from the world.”

I couldn’t believe it. Why would she say this? What could she possibly have to gain? She was about to be thirty and already successful. She didn’t want for money. She had all the fame a writer could hope for, which, admittedly, wasn’t much, but people cared about her as much as they cared about any writer.

That interview was the moment I knew I loved her less. I’d held after she stopped showing me her writing and asking what I thought. I had accepted no longer being her advisor, but thought I loved her just the same. She was my daughter and I was so proud of her. I had helped to get her where she was and look what she had become. I knew that she did not think of me as she once had. I knew she looked down on me a little, but this was too cruel.

“I saw the interview you gave last week,” I said the next time she called.

“Did you?” Her tone was so casual. There was something about it that not only said that she did not care if I was offended, but that she had not even considered whether or not I would be.

“How could you say those things about what I do… about me?”

“I don’t know mom, it just all seems so silly and pointless. I write the kinds of books you write about. I know what goes into them and I know half the stuff people like you say is completely off-base.”

I could feel my love her drop again. It was like watching the needle of a gas gauge slide slowly down.

“It hurt me though, Anna. You’re my daughter. You’ve never even mentioned this to me. And then, to say it in an interview—“

“God, mom, I give interviews all the time. Sometimes, I just want to say what I think instead of what I’m supposed to say. Tomorrow, no one will remember. Who reads interviews with writers anyway?”

“I do.”

“You’re just about the only one.”

Down below half a tank now.

“Anyway mom, I have to run. Things to do.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

It’s been two weeks and I haven’t called back. I don’t know how it happened, but a few years ago we fell into the habit of alternating calls. It was a routine that kept our damaged relationship alive.

Before, I always had to hold myself back to keep from calling her the next day – like I was some teenage girl trying not to come on too strong to a boy. I was afraid to call my own child lest she reject me. How awful.

I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m not eager to talk to her. She is still my daughter and I still love her, and that is why I don’t call. If there are more conversations like the last one, my tank will run dry. I already wonder if my child loves me. I do not want to wonder if I love her.

 

Cate and I have made a couple of very conscious choices in how we have constructed our lives. Much of it has to do with stressing time over wealth. I’m a teacher for a lot of reasons, but one of them is certainly that it gives me more time to spend with my family.

Another choice we have made is to pay attention to our environmental impact.

Our yard is not pretty. Oh, it’s not hideous or anything, I doubt very seriously you’d remark upon it if you were to drive past, but it isn’t the pristine green sheet that so many of our neighbors have. There are reasons for this. I have a reel mower instead of a powered motor. I don’t have a weed-eater (though I’ve borrowed one a few times when things got really out of hand). I don’t use pesticides or fertilizers or even water on my lawn.

So there are weeds. In the spring, the yard is alight with dandelions. The grass is uneven because the mower doesn’t deal well with bumps. The edges of flower beds and sidewalks are a little taller than I’d like. In August, things can get a bit brown. I’ve seen the neighbors glance unhappily around more than once.

The backyard is little different. We have a garden there. It is surrounded by chicken wire to keep the dog out. I have a few genuine metal stakes, but I also use branches that have fallen into the yard from our and the neighbor’s maple trees. I hone a point with a good sharp knife and shove them into the ground. I use these same branches to stake our tomatoes. I would never claim it’s pretty. it certainly isn’t uniform.

But I don’t care.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to meet since we had children is to always try and do things in a way I can justify to them. Sure, we could have a gas-powered mower. But it would be loud. It would pollute. It would be more expensive to run. The lawn would get done faster, but the kids couldn’t be outside playing while I mowed like they can now. I’d need ear plugs with a power mower, but with a reel mower, I can talk to Cate while I mow. So the yard isn’t quite as perfect. Who cares about perfect? If I had my way, I’d probably fill it with wildflowers and let it go. At least I’m not doing active harm this way.

Same with the garden. I could buy stakes. I could use herbicides instead of getting on my hands and knees to pull weeds. It would be easier. It would be more expensive. It would also be worse for the world in every way.

I try to be deliberate about how I use my time and resources. I doubt my neighbors understand, but I’m fine as long as children do.

Priorities

June 14, 2012

I write fiction. I want, desperately, for people to publish said fiction. The fiction I have primarily written for the last five years is a novel called Lonely Human Atoms.

I am terrible at self-promotion. I do not like sending things out. This means that LHA has spent a lot of time on my hard drive and not much time out in the world. Not long ago, I decided to change that. This meant I was going to do a couple of things.

It means I have been sending it to agents and small publishers. Some have rejected it and some I haven’t heard from. That, I am aware, is how it goes.

It also means that I decided to start saying yes to everything even vaguely writing related. Counting this blog, I now write for four websites. Starting today, I will likely have a regular column at The Hardball Times. I am also an editor there. Twice a week, I post at a book blog called Elephants for Bookends that Cate and I run together. I also post frequently, but irregularly at Redleg Nation, which is, as might seem obvious, a Cincinnati Reds-focused blog.

All of this is by way of explaining why posts here have been of the once-a-week-on-Thursdays variety for a while and why that is probably going to keep being the case. This blog is where I write about things that don’t fit elsewhere. It’s unfocused. That’s intentional.

But this blog, and all the other writing I do on the internet, has one underlying purpose – to help me with my fiction writing. Sometimes, that means keep my chops up when I don’t have the time I need to dedicate to good story writing. Sometimes it means getting my name out there as much as I can.

I like everything I do, but it’s gotten to be a lot, and so I’ve decided to stop saying yes to everything because in order to say yes to something else, I’d have to let something I’m doing now go. So now, I’m still saying yes, but only if the circumstances are right.

I feel like this post feels braggy. I don’t mean it to. Mostly, I just needed to write one of these “what I’ve been up to posts” because I’m at least a little overwhelmed right not and needed to vent about it. I do want to promise something, though.

Soon, I am going to publish a story here. I haven’t done this in a long time because if I publish a story here, I can’t send it to any magazines to publish. I feel like it’s time, though. I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction lately. I got the idea a while ago to write a story cycle where the subject of one story is the narrator of the next with the idea being that eventually, it would loop around so that where you began and ended was arbitrary. I’m almost finished and intend to enter the collection in a contest next month, if I can actually get finished in time. Fortunately, stories can be previously published. So yeah, look for one of those sometime soon-ish.

I don’t know what this post really was. Mostly, it’s a mess, I think. I’m kind of a mess at the moment, too. I’m just trying to be a forward-moving mess.

On Being an Introvert

June 7, 2012

I realize, suddenly, that while I wrote a review of the book Quiet over at Elephants for Bookends, I never got around to writing the more personal post I’d meant to put up here about what being an introvert has meant for me.

The first thing you need to know is that my mother is an extreme extrovert. In America. Where we love extroverts. What this means is that while I really enjoyed spending much of my childhood in my room organizing baseball cards, building with Legos, or reading books, I was constantly told that I “spent too much time by [my]self.” This terrified me.

I was terrified because there were no images in our culture to contradict this notion. People who spent time alone were hermits and cave-dwellers. They didn’t take many baths. Sometimes they turned into serial-killers. All the best people were Out in the World. They were Making Things Happen For Themselves. This was not my style, but I felt like it should be.

In the years after I finished college and before I met Cate, I spent a lot of time alone and often felt bad about it, even when I enjoyed it. I played a lot of guitar, read a lot of books, and watched a lot of movies. It wasn’t so bad really. In one three-month span the summer before Cate and I began dating, I wrote 60,000 words of what became Lonely Human Atoms.

I felt guilty the whole time. I felt guilty because, except for work, I would sometimes go two or three weeks without “going out.” I was in my twenties, after all, and “out” was where I was supposed to be. Oh sure, I still had friends, though most of my closest friends were distant. I talked to people on the phone. I emailed and IM’d. I didn’t shut my door to the world, but neither did I leave it wide open.

And of course, I know now that there is a reason I find small talk awful and a night out fun, but exhausting. I am an introvert, and squarely so. I know also, that this is why I’m good at writing and the guitar. That is, I get obsessive. I practice. I am not afraid to hole up and block out the world while I get better.

And that is what was so wonderful about reading that book. It was a giant letter that told me I am, in many ways, completely ordinary. Often, I have found, it is a relief to be ordinary.