June 15, 2020 § 23 Comments
By Irene Hoge Smith
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. . . he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds . . . Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” ~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 1994
Most readers of this blog remember Anne Lamott’s small assignments, one-inch picture frames, and shitty first drafts. Written a quarter-century ago, Bird by Bird remains an invaluable resource for writers at any stage who may founder on a bad day, and now maybe for all of us living in a pandemic and wishing for some instructions. Her most valuable reminder for me is the one referenced by her title—that a project of any size has to be approached one small piece at a time—and this may be especially true when we can’t know the duration and scope of an undertaking. None of us knows how long pandemic time will last, or what more we may be called upon to endure, and it’s already hard to pin down even when it started. (For me, it was in late February, when I decided not to go to San Antonio for AWP. That conference turned out to be one of the last of such scale to go forward before indoor life began, and the decision was not without controversy.)
Time was an early casualty of the pandemic. Even now, every other day seems to be Confuseday, and as Emily VanDerWerff wrote for Vox, “March was 30 years long and April was 30 minutes long.” We have trouble keeping track of how long we’ve been locked up, like the characters in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. In the novel (loosely based on an actual hostage crisis in Peru) captors and captives are confined together in a seemingly-endless stalemate. Finally compelled to find a way to record the span of time, the revolutionary general ignores the many glossy calendars in the mansion and chooses instead to mark each day on the expensive wallpaper with a blue crayon.
The second Thursday in March was the last day I met my psychotherapy patients face-to-face, explaining that we would have to do telephone or video sessions at least until the end of the month. Two days later I wrote the first entry in what has become a sporadic plague diary.
Saturday March 14, 2020. Day #2. People are beginning to say “for the duration,” as if we are living in one of the great wars of the last century. At home, we are grateful to have each other. We are already getting on each other’s nerves.
During the first weeks of lockdown I found myself too distracted to write, and couldn’t concentrate on a book I was supposed to review. My telephone sessions with patients in various states of fear about the virus (and outrage about the president), left me exhausted, and on some afternoons I found myself noodling around online, scaring myself silly. A better option sometimes was to start dinner early, or go for a walk, or, on a rainy day, listen to a recorded book while doing something with my hands.
That’s how I came to fold the first paper crane. My poet mother, who gave me my first book of origami when I was ten years old, was a paper-folder throughout her long life. I taught my own children, and still have a sizable stash of brightly-colored paper squares. The art of Japanese paper folding called origami—combining words oru (to fold) and kami (paper)—goes back to the invention of paper in China almost two thousand years ago. After World War II it was taken up in the United States, often by people like my mother (lefties, peaceniks, people who didn’t like Ike and hated McCarthy.)
It took me about five-and-a-half careful minutes to fold one paper crane, a meditative process that gradually calmed the overactive fight-flight part of my tired brain. Perhaps, I thought, I might make an origami crane for each day of the lockdown. I printed “March 13” (the first day after the last day I saw my office) on one paper wing of that first orange crane. By the beginning of April, twenty cranes hung on a thread in my window.
Friday April 10, 2020. Day #29. Another gorgeous day—chilly, blustery, full of sun. CNN says the peak level of infection will be this weekend. The last paper crane I made was a week ago.
We’re living an experience for which we can find no comparisons. At my age I find it startling, as Fran Lebowitz said in a New Yorker interview, to “have something happen that doesn’t remind you of anything else.” We can’t grasp the big picture, we’re pretty sure nothing will ever be the same, and we can’t think about that. We don’t necessarily have a report due tomorrow like Anne Lamott’s paralyzed brother, but we’re terrified much of the time anyway.
Friday May 8, 2020. Day #? I don’t care what day it is. Wildly contradictory messages emerge from different sources; no consensus and no leadership. Today it seems entirely plausible that our president is trying to kill us.
The answer to getting through a long project is sometimes “very short assignments,” as Lamott advises of writing. Something small enough to see “through a one-inch picture frame.” So I sweep the floor, have a phone session with a patient who is finally recovering from the virus, clear off my desk, and make one origami bird, writing on its little wing: “Sunday May 31.”
Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes, and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. Her essays have appeared in various tiny venues, and she is toiling away, bird by bird, on a memoir about her lost-and-found poet mother francEyE.
September 30, 2017 § 26 Comments
By Irene Hoge Smith
The Jewish High Holy Days mark a season of endings and beginnings, atonement and forgiveness. Alongside my Jewish husband and with our interfaith community, I am able to partake in this precious opportunity for contemplation. One of my endings (and perhaps a new beginning) is that, after more than five years, I seem finally to have finished writing about my mother. This month I sent Snaggletooth’s Daughter: A Memoir out to find its way in the world. (I’d thought it finished this time last year, but in the way of these things it needed one more rewrite to be the best I could make it.)
The book is about my lost-and-found mother. She was a poet, my father an engineer, and their marriage was chaotic and destructive. When they finally split up, my father got custody of me and my three sisters (aged six to sixteen) and my mother moved to California, where she picked up the life of poetry she’d set aside for the decade and a half she was with us. She became Charles Bukowski’s Snaggletooth, mother of his only child, and francEyE, a respected poet in her own right.
From fourteen to thirty, I did my best to pretend I’d never had a mother. When that coping strategy inevitably outlived its usefulness, I took up the task of trying to form some kind of relationship with the woman who had been, but no longer was, my mother. She was a writer, and I respected that, but was still shocked when I discovered she’d left out of her own memoir anything about me and my sisters or her marriage to our father. When I received an invitation to her book launch party, I wrote what became my first published essay, instead of an RSVP. Then I decided to make another visit, to ask her directly to talk about the years she’d been our mother, and begin to understand more completely what her life had been. By the time she died, I was able to speak at her funeral, filling in the missing parts of her life story in words that were, I hoped, not untrue and not unkind.
Yet when a fellow writer asks me after a group reading—well-meaning, insistent, and in obvious distress—if I have forgiven my mother, I feel put on the spot. I want to say, “Forgive her? Interesting question. You know, she never asked!” Or, since tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner, I might point out that I’ve spent most of a decade (or my whole life) on the work of understanding my mother. My defensiveness makes me wonder if there’s something I’ve neglected. Have I not forgiven her?
I think my friend, pained by the sad litany of loss, hoped that “forgiveness” would be the thing that could wrap the story up with a happy bow, so that I could stop writing about the things that happened and their long-lasting effects. Maybe the problem is that I’d so much love to be able to do something like that—to say the magic word “forgive,” and thus bring into being a sweet, uncomplicated, mother-daughter love, and make everything all okay. I wish I could do that, but that’s not what forgiveness is.
In order to forgive, we must give up the desire for revenge, any claim to get something back in compensation for having been hurt, and in that regard I feel on solid ground. I don’t recall ever trying to make my mother suffer, or even wishing that she would. I wanted to tell my own story, but I didn’t do it to hurt her or anyone else.
Forgiveness also requires that we acknowledge the humanity of the person who has caused hurt. I might easily have written my mother as a caricature—a foolish, self-involved woman, more attached to her writing and political beliefs than to her children, whose abandonment of those children defined her. I knew from the perspective of writing, emotional health, and maybe even the good of my soul, whatever that might be, how important it was not to fall into that trap.
Finally, to forgive someone we have to be able to wish them well despite our own pain. My mother’s gone now, but I’m glad she got to publish her poems, (even if there are still a few I don’t get) and that she felt loved by the one daughter she was able to mother. I’m sad that I was not a beneficiary of that late-developed capacity, but if it were up to me I’d want that relationship to have existed rather than not. I’m glad she died free of pain and fear, and that she was not wracked by guilt. I hope that, if she is somewhere now, she is at peace.
For our own sake, and perhaps for the sake of the world, we are enjoined to give up thoughts of revenge, relinquish enduring resentment, grant to the person who has hurt us their own essential humanity, and practice compassion to them and to ourselves.
We are not required to write a book about them. I did that for myself.
Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. Her essays have appeared in New Directions Journal, Amsterdam Quarterly, Prick of the Spindle, and Vine Leaves Literary Review, and she was a 2016 AWP Writer-to Writer Mentee. (One of the founding mothers of IFFP, she is observing Yom Kippur today with her interfaith community.)
June 8, 2015 § 7 Comments
At the Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference last month, my name tag read “Irene Smith Hisname.” My married name, my professional name, the name I’ve used for almost three decades. It’s a perfectly nice name (I maintain it’s Yiddish for “homeboy”) but it’s not the one I use for writing.
Did I say that CNFWC15 was fabulous? That it made the terrors of pitching and platform and publication feel like an expanded conversation with people I really like? The conversation began with a Facebook page where I found useful tips about what to bring to the conference. Besides layers and comfy shoes, bring copies of your book. (I don’t have a book.) Bring postcards and bookmarks with your book cover on them. (Still no book.) Bring business cards. Yes! I do have cards, and I brought them to Pittsburgh.
My card is for my day job, and reads “Irene Smith Hisname, Psychologist.” Whenever I had a chance to give my card to someone I had to write “Irene Hoge Smith” on it, and explain that I was born with that name, and that I write using that name. That’s the name that would let someone find the things I write now. Personal things. Sometimes funny things, often really not. Things that I don’t want my patients to trip over accidentally.
The irony is that I couldn’t wait to give up the name I was born with, along with almost everything about my first twenty years. “Irene” was a grown-ups’ joke (“I’ll see you in my dreams!”) but the Lindas and Marys and Debbies I went to school with couldn’t even spell it. And don’t get me started about Hoge. Somehow my parents thought my grandmother’s maiden name would be a good middle name for a little girl. I wasn’t sure if they hated me or were just crazy (there is a book in that). My grandma was Ida Mae Hoge back in Texas. A family story said somewhere along the line the name had been changed from Hogg, and maybe we were related to Governor Hogg. You know, the one who named his daughter Ima? That part’s true. The other daughter named Ura? Never happened. Are we related? Almost certainly not, and even if we had been I didn’t want the name. The H is for Helen, I said once I started school. I did have an Aunt Helen, after all, and anyway I had my fingers crossed.
Smith was at least simple and there was something reassuring about it being so ordinary.
I had been anxious to re-invent myself, leave behind the scared and scruffy little girl, with last week’s clothes and hair in her eyes and a baby sister on her hip. I wanted to get what I have now, a different name, a degree and a profession, accumulated reassurances that I have a right to exist on the planet.
And now that profession is the reason I need another name. I’m in a writing program with other therapists here in D.C. and you would not believe how crazy (pardon the expression) we make ourselves over this stuff. Is it okay to write about patients? Should we tell them or not? How to disguise the details and keep the story? Writing about ourselves is even trickier and I’m not sure if we’re more anxious to hide our most personal sides from our patients or from each other.
I’m not the only one here who started out thinking I’d write about my work and ended up writing about my mother. Writing about her meant remembering a lot of pain and confusion that I thought, once upon a time, I could just leave behind. I wouldn’t have it any other way now, and if it means I need another name—well, I have a spare, don’t I? Easy. Except not.
Donald Winnicott, the analyst who told us about the good-enough mother (surprisingly rare, in my experience), the transitional object (that’s the teddy bear), and the false self (I wouldn’t know anything about that) wrote that artists are caught in a conflict between the wish to hide and the wish to be known. I do wish to be known. I want to tell my stories. But maybe I also want to be able to hide. Hide behind Hisname, behind my degree, behind my profession.
So what name do I bring to the next conference? How confusing is it to wear a name tag with Hisname and remind people to look for my other name, my born-into name, the name my mother gave me along with so much baggage. Without the baggage, of course, there wouldn’t be a book.
Another thing Winnicott wrote was “it is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”
Irene Hoge Smith is writing a memoir about her lost-and-found mother, the poet FrancEyE (also known, in the early 1960s, as Charles Bukowski’s mistress and muse). She has studied with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore (at Kenyon Review Summer Writing Workshop) and Mark Doty (at the Blue Flower Arts Winter Writing Workshop). Her essays have appeared in the New Directions Journal and Amsterdam Quarterly. She lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington, D.C.
June 30, 2014 § 17 Comments
Just in time for the summer workshop season, a guest post from Irene Hoge Smith:
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. As you know, it has been about a hot minute since my last confession. More of the same, I’m sorry to say.
I pretty much cleaned out the book store and didn’t bother putting it on my credit card. There’s no security system and those sweet little cashiers don’t have a clue. I just browsed around with my Kenyon Review bag and snagged the new McClintock memoir and the beef stew guy’s Panic/Desire thing, and four or five poetry collections (they’re all really thin) and I think three different writing guides. I just put the nice purple sweatshirt on over my tank top and gave the kid a big smile on the way out. He never noticed.
Well, there’s that hot guy in the other workshop, really young but clearly looking for a mother-figure. By Wednesday I had him writing my essays for me, which meant I had the afternoons off to shop (see GREED, also GLUTTONY).
Maybe that third order of tater tots at the Village Inn counts? All the swag from the little boutique, maybe even the lodging upgrade to North Campus apartments? I don’t know if that was worth it, though, since I actually had to make the bed myself and nobody comes in to hang up the towels (see SLOTH) and the AC doesn’t make it up to the third floor (see WRATH).
I know I should read that Lopate book, the everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-essays-way-better-than-you-will-ever-write doorstop of a paperback? It’s supposed to be some kind of (excuse the expression, Father) Bible for essay writers, but it’s sooooo long! I was going to do poetry this year because poems are, like, short, and it sounded like a gut. But they’re all going on about assonance and consonance and anapest and dactyls and enjambment and boy, I really can’t be bothered. So I’m doing creative nonfiction. Easy, right? You can just be, you know, creative! And since it’s nonfiction you don’t even have to make stuff up.
Do I have “inordinate uncontrolled anger?” Well, sometimes, like at assholes who won’t publish my work, who wouldn’t? And, yes, I know it’s supposed to be a sin to hold on to anger at someone who is dead, but don’t bother giving me a penance for that one, Father, because it’s basically my whole book project. I’m not giving that one up.
I’m not going to another one of my friend Kaylie’s readings. Two books in a year? She should let somebody else have a chance for a change. I could have done that book if I’d tried. And the other one, too. (see PRIDE).
I want to be the best and most-admired writer here, but also I want everyone else to love me so much they don’t mind that I’m so fabulous. And I want to have all that adoration without having to go to the trouble of really reading other people’s stuff (see SLOTH) and telling them how good it is and, you know, sharing the limelight (see ENVY). And I’m really not bragging, Father, but my essay is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius and I’m pissed as hell at that Eggars guy for stealing my title (see WRATH).
Well, that’s about it, Father. Do I have to stick around? Can we skip the penance part? (see SLOTH)
Irene Hoge Smith lives near Washington, DC. She is a psychotherapist, writer, and writing workshop recidivist. She participates in an alumni writing group with the New Directions writing program at the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis and a memoir workshop with the author Sara Mansfield Taber. She has attended workshops with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore (at Kenyon Review Summer Writers Workshop) and Mark Doty (at the Blue Flower Arts Winter Writing Workshop). She is working on a memoir (about her mother FrancEyE, who lived and had a child with the poet Charles Bukowski in the early 1960’s) and nonfiction essays.