Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Monday, September 12, 2011
Ten years ago, when 9/11 happened, I was in graduate school. Yesterday, I was trying to remember that time, that week, and very little of it comes back to me. I know I was sad and terrified and numb, even though I was living across the country from the terror attacks and didn’t personally know anyone who’d been affected. I remember a sense of shock, the feeling that nothing would ever be the same, but I can only remember this in the vaguest sense. Was school cancelled? I was teaching, but what did I say to my students? I have no idea.
There is one odd thing I remember vividly, though. Maybe it was the day the attacks happened or the day after or later that week, but I was sitting in a fiction workshop class. It must’ve been the first one we had in this new world, because the professor, an older and slightly frightening man who I felt would never understand me or my writing (and mostly, I was right about that part), sat in front of the class and began by saying this: So let’s talk about what happened.
It seemed obvious what he was going to talk about, what everyone was talking about then. But then he said something else: “My dog died,” he confessed, “and I can’t get over it.” He went on to talk about how his dog, who’d been with him for years, had passed away over the weekend or maybe on 9/11 – that much I can’t remember now. “I know I should be sadder about 9/11 than about my dog,” he said. “So many people died. But I didn’t know any of them.” Then he added. “My dog was with me for so many years. My house is so empty without her.”
Maybe because it was a fiction writing workshop, and because he felt he was dedicated to teaching us, even when none of us were in the mood for learning, he added that there was a writing lesson in this. “It’s the smallest tragedies that are the ones worth writing about,” he told us.
At the time, it sounded all wrong to me. I couldn’t comprehend what he was saying, or why he was saying it then. I am an animal lover, but still, it felt like the wrong conversation to be having at the time. There were so many other things to say, to think about, to worry about, to mourn.
Yet, something about it has stuck with me all these years later. When I think about the days and weeks surrounding 9/11, this is one of the only things I remember with clarity. In fact, this is one of the only things I remember from two years worth of intense and soul-crushing writing workshops with clarity. Why?
The new book I’ve been working on takes place against the backdrop of an enormous historical tragedy, yet the story I am choosing to tell is a deeply singular and personal story of one woman’s loss. I’m finding the best part of writing it is in the details of this one particular woman and the people closest to her who she has lost and loved.
And I keep thinking about this one professor telling my class about how his dog died on 9/11, how it’s the smallest of tragedies that are worth writing about.
Is he right?
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Saturday, April 30, 2011
At first, my hair wasn’t long enough. So I decided I would let it grow. Then, my hair was long enough, and I was scared to cut it all off. So I waited. And I waited. And my split ends were starting to take on a life of their own, since, by this point, it had been months and months since I had any sort of hair cut. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to call and make an appointment to get my hair cut because then I felt like I’d be going back on a promise. A promise I’d made to myself, but still. Every morning, I found myself looking at my hair, thinking that it really, really needed to be cut. But I didn't do anything about it.
Last night, I blew my hair out straight and measured it again. And yes, it was more than long enough. I bundled it in a ponytail at the nape of my neck and asked my husband to cut the ponytail off. Just cut straight, I told him. He insisted that he could not cut straight, that he was afraid of messing it up. Just do it. I told him, handing him the scissors. Just cut straight.
He was right. He could not cut straight. A few minutes later, he handed me the most crooked lopped off ponytail ever. I imagine the people at Pantene may even start laughing when they see it, trying to imagine what I look like on the other end.
One side of my hair was about two inches shorter than the other. I told you I couldn’t do it, my husband was insisting. Yes, in his defense, he had. You should’ve let me cut it, my kindergartner said. Yes, I should have. Next time, I told him.
So I took the scissors and straightened it out the best I could. My hair is curly anyway, so it’s fine. It’s just that now, it’s really really short, just below my ears.
After this whole debacle we went out last night to a concert. I kept wondering if people were staring at my slightly crooked hair, or if people who knew me where silently critiquing my way-too-short cut. I woke up this morning, searching through my drawers for cute barrettes, and when I couldn’t find any, made a promise to myself that this will be my first errand of the day. Maybe with a headband it wouldn’t be so bad, I tried to convince myself.
I packaged up my ponytail and addressed the envelope. I thought about the woman who will get this crooked ponytail, eventually. (The Pantene site says it takes six of them to make a wig, so that will mean five other people like me will also need to do this to help one woman.) I thought about her, and how maybe all her hair has fallen out from cancer treatment. How her problems cannot be solved by cute barrettes or headbands. How she has much bigger things to worry about than crooked ends.
I showed my kids the ponytail and told them I was going to send it to help someone who was sick get a wig. Cool, my kindergartener said. Then he added, Mom, you look so beautiful with your new hair.
So it’s almost summer and my hair is really short. So what?
I will grow it back, and then I’ll do this again, I promise myself.
Only next time, I will ask someone else to cut!
Thursday, April 7, 2011
My kindergartener spent the majority of our ten-minute walk to school this morning excited about the fact that today was a Thursday, which meant today he had library class. Which meant he would get to go to the library and check out a book. Even in the early hours of the morning, he was debating which book he might choose (Flat Stanley or Geronimo Stilton or maybe something else entirely – He marveled at the possibilities.) And suddenly, there I was, reminded what it felt like to be that age, to have just learned to read entire books by oneself, and to discover the possibilities that are contained inside a library. I wondered for a brief moment, would he grow up to be like me? Would he want to be a writer? Then I had another thought: by the time he’s old enough, will that even be possible, or will schools have been decimated to the point where writing, maybe even the arts in general, cease to exist?
What brought this on for me was the news that Penn State (my undergraduate alma mater) is cutting its top-ranked MFA program. This particularly hit home for me because this feels like my school. Though I didn’t get my MFA here, my undergraduate degree was in English, with a creative writing emphasis, so I worked with the MFA faculty, and Penn State was the place where I first realized I could and would become a writer.
When you’re a writer, or I imagine in any artistic field, there will always be what feels like a million people telling you you can’t. Rejection becomes a way of life. Few and far between will be those people who tell you, you can. And most of those people in my life were teachers. There was the humanities teacher in fourth grade who assigned me to write stories every week and then told me mine were good. The ninth grade English teacher who pushed me to think harder about what stories meant. The twelfth grade English teacher who made me memorize Hamlet and (even--gasp) like Chaucer. At Penn State, there was the MFA student who taught the first real fiction writing class I ever took. He was brutally honest, to everyone, and so when he told me my stories showed promise, I took that to mean that I should keep writing. Then there was the professor who I’d go on to take several fiction writing workshops with and who would become my advisor for my undergraduate thesis (a short collection of stories). She was (and is, I’m sure) wise and kind and encouraging. She called me into her office and said things like “Jill, let’s talk about your work,” as if the stories I was writing were something worth talking about, as if my work was important. She tirelessly read my revisions, answered my questions and e-mails, and even said she was happy to write me recommendations for the 15 (yes, 15) MFA programs I applied for.
In writing this, maybe I’m making it sound like everything was easy, that people were always encouraging to me. But the truth is, I’m leaving out the vast majority, the people who told me can’t. The friends and family who told me that writing wasn’t a real/viable career. The 11th grade English teacher who told me I couldn’t write. The non-fiction professor who once told me my writing was “boring,”(and for that matter, so was my life.). The twelve MFA programs that said, no thanks. The countless agents and then editors who would go on to sometimes nicely (sometimes not so nicely) reject my work.
But amidst all of that, I’ve somehow always able to drown out the no’s with the words of the teachers who told me I could do it. In the five years between when I wrote my first novel and sold it, the one thing that often kept me pushing forward, despite the countless rejections, were the words of a professor I worked with in graduate school, who once told me she was positive my novel would be published. She believed, and thus, I had to, too.
I sometimes wonder where I would be without all those teachers who told me I can. What I would be doing now if that 4th grade teacher hadn’t asked me to write a story, if that MFA student hadn’t told me I showed promise, if that professor hadn’t called me into her office and talked about my writing as if it were important?
I feel a deep sadness at the thought of this being eradicated from Penn State, from the place I feel so deeply indebted to for my writing career. But even sadder, to me, is that this only caught my attention because it hits so close to home. Penn State is right now just one unfortunate example, in a sea of them lately. It feels like the new trend is to cut, cut, cut education, the arts especially. I’ve heard so much of it, that I’ve almost started to drown it out. It has become shockingly “normal.”
And so I wonder, if you start taking away those teachers who tell people like me that we can, what will we be left with in ten years? In twenty? Will there be anyone left “crazy” enough to write, or for that matter, play music, paint, take pictures, make movies? When my son is one day taking his own child to school, will he even know what a library is? I hope so.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
If you’ve read The Transformation of Things, then you’ve probably guessed that I’ve always been interested in dreams, in what they mean, where they come from, how they affect us. Yes, the book takes a bit of a fantasy spin on all this, but it’s rooted in the fact that dreams have always interested me. As a kid, I had a dream dictionary that I used to use religiously, every morning, looking up what my dreams from the night before meant. As an adult, I hang on to dreams, sometimes write them down, often think about them, analyze them, try to seek some sort of meaning from them.
In almost all my memorable dreams, I’m in the house I grew up in. We moved from this house before I started high school, but I hardly ever dream about that later house, or even the one I live in now, or anything in between. Often my dreams also involve my best friend (who I’ve been friends with since kindergarten), and maybe it’s because I have so many memories of the two of us spending summer days in that old house. I’m not sure. But a large part of my dreams are very rooted in these aspects from my childhood, even when that makes absolutely no sense with what’s going on in the dream.
Lately I’ve been dreaming about my dead grandfather. A lot. He died over three years ago, but the dreams have only begun lately, a month or two ago. In the first dream, he was with me and my best friend at a historical landmark pulled directly from the book I’m working on. (Okay, it probably doesn’t take a genius to figure out how that wormed its way into my subconscious!) Anyway, he was our tour guide in the dream, and he showed my friend and me around, in the process telling us that everything was going to be okay and that we needed to stop worrying so much. I hung onto that dream for weeks, because it felt so real – not the tour guide at the historical landmark part, but his words. When he was alive, he’d always ask me about my writing, and at the time, the submission process for my first book. I talked to him every Sunday, and every Sunday he’d ask. At first about getting an agent, then whether the book had sold to a publisher. Every Sunday for probably two or three years, I’d say something like, “I don’t know if this book is ever going to get published.” And he’d say. “Don’t worry about it. Everything is going to be beautiful, Babydoll!” That’s also what he told me, in the midst of his tour, in my dream.
This past week, I've dreamt about him almost every night. Wherever I am, whomever I’m with, he’s been there. Sometimes tagging along with my family; sometimes he works at whatever place we’re at and appears later. It’s been bizarre and creepy and lovely -- waking up every morning, feeling as if I’ve just seen him and talked with him.
I mentioned these dreams to my mom the other day, and she said maybe the dreams mean he’s somewhere, watching over me right now. I laughed and said, if he was somewhere, watching anything this past week, I was sure it would’ve be the March Madness Tournament instead, which he used to LOVE beyond almost anything else.
The rational side of me could list off various reasons why he’s tumbled into my subconscious lately, and thus, why he's probably been so present in my dreams. But then there's this other part of me, the part that believes that every dream must mean something. That part wonders, if maybe my mom's (joking) words are right, and maybe he's been sneaking in to check on me, even if just for a few minutes, during half-time!
Thursday, February 24, 2011
I read something a few days after the shooting in Tucson. It was an article talking about how to explain the events to children. The psychologist who was being interviewed suggested that parents emphasize that though there are bad people in the world, there are good people, too. More good people, in fact. And because it seemed like a good thing to say, I told this to my children. Did I believe it myself? Sort of. Not really. Maybe?
Then a few weeks after the shooting, I was in a Safeway (not the Safeway) but one only a few miles from there, and I was with my son. We were buying only a few things, but very obviously for a birthday party, and the elderly man in front of me in line started asking me and my son questions. When was his birthday? How old was he? My son, well-versed in not talking to strangers, looked at me but didn’t answer, but the man seemed friendly enough, so I did. We started talking, and I learned that his birthday, as well as the birthdays of his numerous brothers and sisters were all the same week as my son’s.
As we were talking, the cashier was ringing up the man’s order, and just as he was about to pay, the man turned to the cashier and asked him to ring up my order and add it on to his bill. I protested, but he insisted, and the cashier listened. Before I really knew what happened, the elderly man, a perfect stranger, had paid for my things. “You’re all set,” the cashier said to me, motioning me to get out line so he could ring up the woman behind me. The elderly man waved to us, wished my son a happy birthday, told me to take care, and walked out of the store.
“What just happened?” My son asked, confused.
“That man paid for your balloons,” I told him
“Why?” he asked.
“Because he wanted to do something nice, I guess,” I said.
“Isn’t that weird?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. Because honestly, my first inclination was to feel, well, weird about it. Leaving the store, without a receipt, my things paid for by a stranger, I almost felt like I was doing something wrong. But then I wondered, was the thing that was weird was that I was so flabbergasted by kindness?
A few weeks later, Valentine’s Day, I was in Target. I knew it was the last day The Transformation of Things would be on the shelves there, so impulsively, I threw the last two copies in my cart. As the cashier rang up my things we started talking, and she examined the book as she rang it up. “Do you like to read?” I asked.
“I LOVE to read,” she exclaimed. “I’m always reading.”
After she rang up my book, I handed it back to her. “Here you go,” I said, explaining to her what the book was and that I had written it. (Nevermind that I have a bunch of free copies at home or that I didn’t even know her. I’d just bought her book!) She was beyond thrilled and asked me to sign it – I did. And then I gave the other copy to the other cashier, who, it also turned out, loved to read, and was thrilled.
Did they find it as strange as I did when that man paid for my things? Maybe. But I felt pretty good about it as I walked out of the store. Maybe we should all buy things for strangers once in a while.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Since I am a writer, whenever things happen people always tell me to write about them. But there are some things that are impossible for me to write. Things that defy words. This happened to me a few years ago, when my family asked me to write my grandfather’s eulogy. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral (which happened quickly, across the country, and I had a two-month old at the time). So everyone in my family implored me to write something instead for someone to read. I did. It took me an entire day to come up with two paragraphs. What I wrote was awful. I’m certain. There were no words to really express what I felt or thought or missed, already.
I’ve been reminded of that feeling these past few weeks, in the aftermath of the shooting that happened in Tucson. My city. My home. I’ve had the feeling that I should have something to say, that writing something would somehow make things. . . better. Or at least, that it would somehow make me make more sense of them. Writing is, after all, my way of understanding the world. But the truth is, I have written nothing in the past few weeks, not about this, or anything else. I just haven’t been able to.
I was in the shopping center where the shooting happened, when it happened. I was having coffee, with a friend, a new friend who I’d met in person for the first time only ten minutes earlier, a friend who I feel I will now forever be connected to. We were talking preschools and our children, and I could see, out the floor to ceiling windows behind her, the front of the Safeway. I had no idea Gabrielle Giffords was having an event outside. (Thank goodness, several people have remarked to me in the past few weeks, or I may have been curious to stop by and meet her. Would I have? I’m not sure.) Though we were probably only about fifty feet away, it was loud enough inside the bakery so that we did not hear the gunshots. We didn’t see them either, since the cars in the Safeway parking lot blocked our view. My first cue that something wasn’t right was when I saw one police car pull into the shopping center, lights flashing, followed a few minutes later by four or five others. I watched as the police officers jumped from their cars, running and pulling things from their trunks. “What do you think is going on behind you?” I asked my friend.
She turned around. We made nervous guesses. Was there a traffic stop? A robbery in the bank in the front of Safeway? Were those more sirens in the distance?
Then a man dressed in bike-riding gear ran inside the bakery. “There’s a shooter in the Safeway,” he yelled.
We looked at each other. I suggested that we leave. I felt the urge to not just leave but run. If there was a shooter, anywhere in the shopping center, I wanted to get the hell out of there. Fast. We debated it for a minute. Was it safer to leave or stay? My car was right out front. Hers was in the Safeway parking lot. So we decided to both run to my car, and we got in quickly. We had no idea what was going on, but we figured it couldn’t actually be serious, that we were probably silly to leave in such in rush. But we’re both moms and writers, with vivid imaginations.
We noticed police starting to tape off the exits, and she wondered if she maybe she should get her car. I drove her to it, on the edge of the Safeway lot. We still had no idea what was going on, but the decision to run felt like the right one, then. We decided to meet at another coffee shop a few blocks up the road. “If I don’t make it there. Come back and look for me,” she joked.
“This is going in one of our next books,” I quipped back.
Ten minutes later we were sipping coffee in another quiet shopping center. It felt very far away from the police cars, sirens, the rumor of a shooter. It was probably just something silly, we decided. Though, I still felt shaky, and even now I have very little memory of what we talked about in those few moments until a woman ran in and told everyone what had happened. We stared at each other, gripped with shock. Disbelief. Then we couldn’t drink coffee anymore. We left. When I got home, my hands were still shaking; my brain was numb. My children ate lunch and gave me hugs, as if nothing had happened, but suddenly they looked different to me.
We’d been so close. And so far away.
Unbelievably, this had happened to me once before, nearly 15 years ago. When I was a freshman in college, a mentally deranged woman hid in the bushes on the lawn of my college’s student union, with a rifle. She sat there, early in the morning, in the rain, watching students walk by. On the way back from my 8 AM Spanish class, I was one of them. Shortly after I passed her, she started shooting, and she killed one student and injured another. As a new college freshman, I was struck by how easy it was to die, senselessly, just like that. It is a feeling I’ve never completely gotten over. The kind of thing that every so often, when I remember it, it still makes me uneasy.
And when I got home on January 8th, from what was supposed to be an innocent coffee with a new friend, my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time of the college shooting) looked at me, and said (only half-kidding, I’m sure), “How did you manage to do this twice? You’re never leaving the house again.”
Looking at my children, something about that didn’t even sound that ridiculous.
I did, of course. Leave the house. And nearly every time I did in the first few days that followed this shooting, I talked to someone who knew one of the killed or injured, somehow. Then I watched these victims on national news, with the knowledge of which of my friends and family knew them, and how. These people were heroes, and also, my neighbors.
The first week our local newspaper was overstuffed with triple-sized headlines and articles. Every morning I read them and found myself crying. (I am not, by the way, usually a crier.) But everything felt so personal and sad to me, the way I know it did to so many other people, and not just because I’d drunk coffee nearby or because I live so close (though these things, I’m sure, made everything feel even worse) but because I am a mom, a woman, a human being.
Why don’t you write something about it? Countless people have suggested this to me in the past few weeks. But I think I’ve been afraid to put this into words, to relive it, to make it real. In the past 15 years, I have never once even tried to write something about that shooting at my college. I’ve thought about it. But words have never felt adequate.
Maybe it’s because when I write, I have something to say. And about this, about any of this, I don’t. I have no answers, no way to understand this, no words to make sense of any of it.
In writing all of this down, I know I haven’t said anything new or interesting or even important. But I am a writer. So I wrote it anyway.