July 20, 2020 § 57 Comments
By Abigail Thomas
Another rainy day in a long succession of rainy days and I’m bummed that the part of myself that has always kept me company seems to have disappeared. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, I haven’t left the house in five months, and can’t write a word. What’s the point of being me? I wonder. I’m so stuck. Write about what you notice when you’re stuck, I tell my students. Write about what you notice and see what happens. Nothing happens here except bugs. Oh my god, I think. I’ll write about the bugs!
For instance: I often see one large black ant wandering across the living room floor in early evening. I think there’s only one of him. He (I think of it as a he), is always headed toward the dining room but never seems to get there because the next night, and the next, there he is again, walking across the same portion of floor towards the dining room. It’s as if he’s having his own Groundhog Day. The pale brown ants, like little freckles, are everywhere and get into everything. One morning they turned up in the jug of maple syrup even though the cap was screwed on tight. My grandsons were horrified and refused to eat their french toast, although I ate mine and part of theirs.
But the most interesting thing is that once or twice a week I find a dead wasp on my bedroom floor. Their presence gets me in gear. Because where are they coming from? The windows haven’t been opened in the four years following the discovery of a spider the size of a salad plate in a basket of old yarn, and wasps are nowhere else in the house. When I find one I use my cane to nudge it behind the bedside table so I don’t step on it by mistake. It doesn’t occur to me to throw them out. They are too perfect, and too tiny to be rubbish.
It isn’t really a bedside table. It’s an old filing cabinet, empty of whatever files it once held. The drawers are now full of whatever I don’t know what else to do with when I find it in my hand. Uncomfortable earrings, a letter from somebody called William C . Estler to a woman named Mardi, apologizing for taking her to The Iceman, which she hated and asked to leave. “’I don’t like it and I want to go home,” he quotes her as saying. Not The Iceman Cometh unless he didn’t bother with the whole title. Whether it was a play or a movie I’ll never know nor do I know how it ended up in my possession. When I looked him up there were two of him, both dead, one a painter from West Virginia, the other a scientist of sorts in Palo Alto who published an article called Ion-Scattering Analyzer. There is also a silver bracelet, other scraps of paper on which various grandsons have written darling inauthentic apologies, licenses from four dead dogs I loved, and a necklace I bought because the woman who made it told me the tiny silver sword charm was supposed to cut fear. Why not? I thought.
Today I picked up a wasp by one wing and put it carefully in the cap of an old pill bottle from the drawer. The wasp is so completely dead, tidy and beautiful. Its wings are slender, themselves like tiny swords. I’m amazed that I’m not in the least worried by the intrusion. I’m not afraid that I will one day discover dozens of them flying around my bed. What’s wrong with me? It seems a natural fear, but I’m just not afraid. Maybe the necklace works whether you’re wearing it or not.
They are paper wasps, I looked them up. They chew wood or whatever else is handy and their saliva turns it into paper and they make hanging nests. Somebody had the brilliant idea of giving these wasps colored construction paper and my god, the nests they made look like beautiful misshapen rainbows. I am kind of in love. Paper wasps are also good for gardens, eating bad bugs. They aren’t ornery, like yellow jackets who’d just as soon sting you as not, but they will defend their nests. Well, who wouldn’t?
Some time ago I noticed what appeared to be a lightning bug clinging (or stuck?) to the side of my sofa, and I’ve been careful not to disturb it. It stayed fixed in place for several days without moving an inch. I wondered if it had decided to die. Then it vanished. Where was it, I wondered. Last night I saw bright blinks amongst the geraniums that climb up my front window. On, off, on, off. There you are, I thought. Oh good, there you are.
Abigail Thomas writes mostly memoir, her latest being What Comes Next and How to Like It.
June 19, 2020 § 21 Comments
By Melissa Hart
My mother was a professional writer as I am now, and when I was young, she created an office with a thrift store desk and a bookshelf in her garage. She wrote at dawn before my siblings and I woke up, the door thrown open to birdsong and backyard cats, a table lamp illuminating the page tucked into her electric typewriter.
When I woke, I brought her coffee spiked with cinnamon and slipped away to read whatever kids’ novel captivated me at the time. But the details of a writer’s life—the purr of the typewriter in its circle of light, the coffee, breeze blowing in through the door and cats winding around her ankles—made an impression, and I could think of no more fulfilling career to pursue than the creation of stories where there’d been only blankness before.
My mother desperately needed that hour to refresh and heal, to fight off the wild dogs of depression. My father had abused her for years until she fled with her kids to a girlfriend’s house and came out as a lesbian. In 1979, the judicial system regarded homosexuality as mental illness. The divorce judge ordered us to live with our father so we wouldn’t be tainted by our mother’s love for a woman.
Those mornings I brought her coffee and left her alone to write came few and far between; we were only allowed to visit her every other weekend. Her writing represented both financial and emotional survival. For money, she edited a small newspaper and freelanced articles. For solace, she wrote stories at dawn. Some were published, and some weren’t. Publishing wasn’t the point.
This is the part of the writer’s life that has nothing to do with rejection or promotion. It’s not about building platform or networking or attending conferences. This is the part that’s about focus and creation. It’s about donning metaphorical blinders and earplugs in order to concentrate, whether that means waking up before the kids or installing distraction-blocking software or turning a corner of the garage into an office with a desk and a lamp. It’s about respecting yourself and your work enough to provide tools so that both can survive.
I’ve been thinking about my mother and her writing a lot. She passed away a year ago of cancer at age 73, leaving file cabinets of rough drafts, magazine articles, the murder mystery she’d published in her sixties. Her other love was psychology; a PhD scholar, she knew the necessity of developing a habit and a reward system as a writer.
Every day for 39 years, she showed up at the same desk at dawn. The electric typewriter gave way to a word processor, and then a PC. Cats died, and she adopted new ones to wind around her ankles. She sold one house and bought another. Regardless, she woke up and sat down with her cup of coffee and honored her need for solitude and story.
A similar hour has sustained me for decades, as well–as a teen spending nights at a friend’s house after police showed up at my father’s door to cite him for domestic disturbance, through my tumultuous first marriage and my own cancer diagnosis, and last year, the death of the woman most important to me in the world.
My mother was also a runner, as I am now. At a certain point in a workout—Mile Six for me—there’s euphoria, the “runner’s high.” It’s an endorphin flood, a feeling of well-being, a sense that everything in that moment is aligned and joyful no matter what’s happening in the world. That’s the feeling I chase as a writer, as well–a sense of being in the zone, of breathing in contentment for an hour in the midst of chaos.
In the midst of pandemic, of heat waves and police brutality and job insecurity, I’ve been up early each morning to write. My daughter, home from middle school, wakes up later and pads barefoot to my backyard office. I watch her beautiful brown eyes absorb my thrift store desk, sunlight streaming through the open window, the cat curled beside my computer.
I hope I’m showing her what resiliency looks like. She’s been struggling with her history as an infant relinquished by her biological mother and adopted from foster care. As a Black biracial teen, she’s been grappling with news stories, and also with the loss of friends, of teachers, and her dance studio.
This morning, I left my office to help her with algebra, and found her on the couch, laptop open and brow furrowed as her hunt-and-peck fingers found the keys.
“What are you working on?” I asked her, anticipated Spanish verbs or emails to friends.
She looked up, eyes misty with concentration and calm, focused joy. And then she said the words that let me know that she would be okay in this unpredictable and tumultuous and brutally unfair world.
“I’m writing a story,” she said.
Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). www.melissahart.com