Crimson and gold cling to the maple trunks with the desperation of a dying season.
They cannot hold on in the exhale of winter.
With a flutter to the ground,
it is finished.
And I know.
With the color of harvest at my feet, I wrap myself against the cold
As the weaker leaves scuttle in the breath of the afternoon.
They are never to been seen again.
With the next rain, they will turn the color of earth and be gone.
Separated from the tree that gave them life.
Will they miss her? Do they realize?
Have they willingly stepped aside for the promise that unfolds, velvety green, after the winter lifts?
I give a nod to the rich carpet of leaves and turn my back to the trunks that are letting go.
It is time.
It is time to set aside my grief for the old
and breathe in the new.
Every ceremonial transition,
And the memory of each one that has gone before.
Crimson and gold cling to the maple trunks with the desperation of a dying season.
I try to go into situations with the proper education. If I don’t know a thing, I try to research the thing and come up to a speed I can manage. The internet is very helpful. Sometimes. Just last week, I used Google Images to discover what somebody famous looked like. So I’d be ready when I saw them. I prepared myself for success.
It was a disaster.
Let me back up a little.
Sometime last year, I started following the accounts of Madeleine L’Engle on Twitter and Instagram. These are not run by her. She’s been dead since September of 2007. Her granddaughter runs her social media accounts and keeps her legacy fresh in the minds of fans, both old and new. It is through this channel that I first heard about the conference I attended last week.
It was called Walking on Water. It was to be held in the church Madeleine attended toward the end of her life. In New York City. What’s not to like about any of that?
When I first read about the conference and the details of what and when and where it would be, I attempted to dismiss it from my mind. It’s not going to work. It will be impossible to pull off. It will be too expensive. But I kept going back to the posts and rereading them. The words kept finding little chinks in my armor to settle and take root. I couldn’t let it go.
Finally, I bought a ticket to the conference.
And then a ticket to fly.
And then secured a place to stay on the Upper West Side, 3 blocks from the church building where the event would take place.
The closer I got to November 15, the more nervous I became about traveling alone. As it turned out, a friend decided to come along for the ride and hang out on her own in the city while I was learning at the feet of folks that are smarter and more gifted than I am.
When it finally came time for me to walk to the conference, I did so with a nasty grilled cheese and last week’s blueberry scone in my belly. We had stopped into a NY grocery to eat breakfast. In a city as food-rich as NYC, it is a blubbering shame to eat a bad meal. You shouldn’t even have to eat a bad snack. But this food was bad. Good only to keep my stomach from announcing itself to other attendees of the conference. And so I entered the heavy wooden doors with a sour stomach and a pocketful of awkwardness.
I registered. I sat around at tables designed for mingling. I am terrible at mingling. I speak junior high and under. I have been casting around for my place in the writing world since I was 9. I haven’t found it yet. I doubt I’m going to find it here and now in New York amongst such obvious genius.
I texted my friend, who was sitting 3 blocks away in the Airbnb reading magazines.
“I am so awkward. How did I not know I was this awkward?”
“You’re not awkward, and if you were awkward, it would all be part of your charm. Relax and have fun.”
“I just pulled a Failing at Life that I’m not sure I can share.”
“That’s partly why you came. Embrace the awkward or embarrassing and do tell. You’ll never see these people again. I say play up the crazy and see how far you can take it.”
My friend had told me to find an old lady and introduce myself. I had decided to think on a grander scale. I wanted to find not just any old lady at the conference. I wanted to find THE old lady at the conference: Katherine Paterson herself.
For some reason, I thought getting to her would be easy. And I thought I had found her.
The opening session was everything I had hoped it would be. It was entertaining and inspiring. Sitting on the front row was a subset of speakers and organizers. To the immediate right of Charlotte Voiklis (L’Engle’s granddaughter) was an older woman. I had looked up Katherine Paterson. I knew what she looked like. This was her. The only difference was that now she had a more modern hairstyle than the picture I had seen on the internet.
I waited a couple of minutes after the closing of the first general session. No one was around Mrs. Paterson. That should have been a pretty large, flapping red flag. Emboldened by the empty praise of my friend in the Airbnb, I approached the award winning author with confidence. I moved down a row of chairs, touched her on the arm, and said,
“You are such a blessing to young people everywhere.”
I mean, if you’re going to go, go big, right? She scooped me up in a squeeze hug and said, “Well thank you, honey, but why would you say that?”
Oh, dear. I didn’t know what I was dealing with, but I already knew I was in flailing territory. I don’t recall my exact words as I attempted to answer her question. Probably because they weren’t English. I think I jumbled up some consonants and spit out the phrase, “Bridge to Terabithia.”
“Oh, honey,” she said again. “I’m not Katherine Paterson.” She released me from the hug. “I’m just a retired librarian from Connecticut.”
I think she knew at this point that I felt far dumber than she did.
“I love librarians,” I said.
Really, Missy? I love librarians? That’s the best you can do?
The best I could do.
Because I had dug a trench no one could emerge from. I had dug the trench where I would die. Alone.
“I did check Bridge to Terabithia out to a lot of young people,” she said.
The conversation settled floor-level, like dust in the sunlight and eventually we both walked away. I spent the rest of the day avoiding librarians and vowing not to falsely identify anyone else.
When the real Katherine Paterson walked through the door a bit later, there truly was no mistaking her. She looked exactly like the last picture I had seen of her, haircut and all. She is 87 years old and full of life and wisdom. She is funny and poignant and humble. She claims that after finishing every book, she would announce that it was her last one, because she couldn’t imagine ever having another fresh idea. She wrote most of her books by typing 2 pages a day. “Just 2 pages today, sweetie,” she would say to herself. “Even if you have to widen the margins.” She wrote 40 books in 30 years and somehow, I am fairly ashamed to say, I had not read a one of them.
I started Bridge to Terabithia on the plane ride home and finished it in bed that night, between sobs. I have since also read The Great Gilly Hopkins, which felt like a shift in my life’s thinking. This book contains such incredibly rich and endearing characters.
And though I royally mistook one librarian from CT for a bestselling author, I have no confusion in the lessons I took away from that day:
1) Pride goes before a fall.
2) Haste makes waste.
3) Books are written in 2 pages a day.
Eighteen years ago, we adopted our firstborn. All these years later, we are grateful still. For him. For the woman who placed him in our care. For the channel that brought him to us when we couldn’t have a child on our own. It was as conventional an adoption as it could have been We took him home on Day 3 of his life. There was no reversal in decision on either side. No hang-ups or glitches at the hospital or with the official paperwork. But even the most conventional adoptions are never truly conventional. There are so many layers. Even now. Especially now.Read More
My youngest daughter started a new school last week. It is the second time in 8 weeks that she has started middle school. The only thing worse than starting middle school once is starting it twice. In my recent blog to the Instagram generation, which was directed to my daughters who will likely never read it, I referenced the challenges of being in an IB middle school. When I wrote that post, I didn’t know how much more challenging it would become in such a short time. We escalated from “this isn’t going so smoothly” to “I’m pulling her out” in less than two weeks.Read More
I’ve been thinking a lot about my job.
I’m a parent. I don’t get paid in conventional dollars. But I do get paid in something. Sometimes it feels like sentiment. Sometimes it feels like a sentence.
But it’s a job, man.
I used to have a steady, good-paying job writing software manuals. And I was decent at it. There were stretches when it was a lot to handle. I can remember being assigned new projects writing about software I couldn’t use. And typically the people who programmed that software were too intellectual to explain it to me.
Deadlines loomed. In those deadlines, I was known to become a tad overwhelmed.
But that was different than parenting. When I had a work project to learn and write up and edit and polish—and when the project felt borderline impossible—I could close the door to my office and spread all my papers out on my desk and pull up my emails on my screen and sit there until I figured it out. I can’t do that now. The difference in my former work and my parenting work is that my former projects were never out walking the streets while I was trying to figure them out and finish them up.
There are a few people to whom I owe gratitude every time I finish any piece of writing that’s longer than a sentence fragment. I always thank God for sewing words into me. For making me love the way a sentence sounds as it leaves the pages of the books I read. I thank my parents for encouraging me. And my tribe for caring, even if at times they are only pretending. And for my friends who fail at life with me or pay me to wear snorkels or try to kill me on sailboats. And for my children who mortified me in Sam’s Club by creating a manmade Lake of Pee that essentially shut down our entire checkout line during the holiday season.
So many people are behind every word I write.
But the thing is, I don’t write. I type. And while my fingers are hovering over the keyboard of my laptop, there is a conspiracy that often happens without my consent. It is as if one part of my brain is whirring and whipping up a paragraph with my typing fingers while another part of my brain simply observes the process like a captive audience. I’ve heard the expression among other nerdy writers (we are all nerds), “Did I write that story or did it write me?”
That’s at least a little truthful. And when I don’t have access to my laptop and my fingers cannot hover over that keyboard, I struggle to get the words out as quickly as they are forming in my head.
There’s at least one more person that I owe, and owe big, when I get to cranking on something. She is a person I not only never thanked, but she’s a person I pretty much treated like cat vomit.
My 10th grade typing teacher, Mrs. Bonds.
Mrs. Bonds was a commanding figure in front of a class. She was as wide as she was tall and carried with her the whoosh of panty hose when she walked the aisle of typewriters to give us instruction we did not want. She scooted down the aisles sideways, because she couldn’t make the squeeze walking forward, and bumped the backs of our heads with her hind section as she passed by. She smelled like convalescence and loved typewriters. She loved them.
At the beginning of each class, she stood in front of the room as we sat at our typewriters, and announced what the lesson would be that day. For the first few weeks, we worked on a different key every day. F-J day taught us to center our hands over the keyboard with our index fingers resting comfortably on the raised lines of those keys. Our index fingers were to always come home to the F-J headquarters. Learning to type q and p was awkward, because we had to try and harness the power from some other finger and somehow transfer it to our pinkies.
But the day and the lesson that I remember most from typing was E-D Space day. The E and the D required our middle fingers. The way Mrs. Bonds chose to teach this particular lesson brought together the elements of a perfect storm when it came to a room full of morally underdeveloped teenagers. She could have held her hands out over a phantom typewriter and shown us the proper way to type E-D. Or she could have held her hands high, palms facing the classroom, showing the movement of the middle finger as it typed the E and the D. But she didn’t do any of that. She held her fleshy hands, backs facing us, with all her other fingers tucked away nicely and the middle finger stretched high in all its glory. Then she waved those middle fingers at us rather enthusiastically as she chanted, “E-D-space, E-D-space…do it with me now. E-D-space.”
Clearly, I’m a dunderhead even 30 years later, because the memory of this still makes me laugh. The classroom arrangement placed us in rows that faced each other and were perpendicular to her. On E-D-Space Day, all I had to do was raise my eyes a degree to lock eyes with my friend, Amy, directly across from me. And once I locked eyes with her, it was over. Thirty other students found themselves in the same situation, trying to laugh quietly as a typing instructor flipped them off for a solid 45 minutes and then wondered what could possibly be so funny about E and D.
I’m sorry, Mrs. Bonds.
One afternoon in the spring of 1987, I received the bright idea to drive off campus for lunch. Alone. I was 16 and drove myself to school. Driving was legal. Leaving campus for lunch as a sophomore was not. That was a privilege reserved for the upperclassmen. But I was only going to be gone for a few minutes. I had given it a long second of hard thought and couldn’t see the harm in it. I wish I could remember where I was going for food. There were Chinese restaurants and fast food chains up and down Tennessee street. I don’t remember which one was on my mind that day, because I never made it there. As I was creeping along in lunch hour traffic, I looked over my right shoulder to change lanes. In that instant, the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes. My reflexes were a tad slower, and I braked by running my dad’s roll bar on his Jeep CJ-5 into the stopped guy’s tailgate.
I waited for his E-D-space when he climbed out of the truck, but he was nicer than that. He did bury both hands in his head full of brown accountant hair and lament what I had done to his tailgate. I had only tapped it. But roll bars don’t tap lightly.
After apologizing profusely, I ran across the street to Bullwinkle’s bar to use the pay phone. My dad arrived a few minutes later. When my Dad got out of his car and walked to the accident scene, he extended his hand to the man I had hit.
“Hey, Dave,” he said, with a pained smile on his face.
“Hi, Mike,” the man said back. I had hit my dad’s friend, and then came to find out that the man had just picked up his truck from the body shop not 10 minutes before I crunched his back end. What are the odds?
After getting a ticket and a strong talking-to by a cop, I skulked back to campus for 6th period Typing. I was hungry and class was already in session. Because I was late. I crawled into the room on my hands and knees and tried to balance my weight to keep my backpack from falling to one side or the other. Then I slid my backpack under the desk, pulled the chair out and attempted to shapeshift my way into it. My head popped up, across from my friend, who glanced at me with confusion as she continued typing.
She pulled what she had been working on out of the typewriter wheel and slid it across the table. There were a slew of double quotes and colons on the page followed by the phrase, “where were you?”
I rolled a blank sheet of paper into my typewriter and typed back, “Snuck off campus for lunch. Rear ended a guy my dad knows. Police came. Hungry.” Then I threw some colons and double quotes in for practice and slid the paper across to her.
She took my paper, shaking her head as she read it, and rolled it into her typewriter. Then she typed a few more words before passing it back across.
I couldn’t argue with that, so I rolled a new sheet of paper into my machine and began practice my punctuation. I was supposed to do everything without looking at my hands. That was the whole point of hitting the E and the D and the space over and over and over again. It was supposed to become automatic. But it didn’t for me. Because I was skipping class and laughing at the teacher and having a pretty good time with my table mate.
Three and a half years later, while being forced to answer phones and do clerical work at my dad’s real estate office, I sat down at a typewriter and rolled a fresh piece of paper into the machine. There was no one waving her hands at me and chanting. There was no one across the table making me laugh. It was just me and the typewriter and an afternoon full of nothingness.
And I began to type.
And then I began typing up fake For Sale ads, with glorious descriptions of bedrooms and amenities and fictional scenarios about people who had died in the home. Houses with rotting corpses sold cheaper. I always practiced with my eyes closed. And by the end of that summer, I had become rather proficient.
I have no idea what happened to Mrs. Bonds. I only had her for a semester and we were never close. But she taught me to type and she taught me well. And because of her, my words flow more easily. When I wake up in the dead of night with a sentence or a thought that will not go away, I try to plunk it out on my phone or jot it down somewhere, but it’s never the same as positioning my index fingers over F and J and waiting for something magic to happen.
To Mrs. Bonds, I want to say I’m sorry for being a snickering pain in your swishing pantyhose. And I want to say thank you for burning into my brain a skill that became the foundation for the words I love so much. And I want to say one final thing: All those times you stood up in front of the class waving fingers at us wildly, we laughed because we thought you didn’t know what you were doing. We laughed because we thought we knew something you didn’t. But now I think maybe you knew exactly what you were doing and somewhere you’re having the last laugh on us.
And I’m going to type The End just for the E and D of it.
I spent the last 4 ½ days in New York City, my very favorite city on earth. Even now, I am looking out of my hotel room at the city sights below. I hardly missed my dog. That’s how much I enjoy this city. In previous visits, I have embraced looking like a tourist. Stopping in the middle of 42nd street to take a picture of the jumbo screens in Times Square. Going to Macy’s and buying something just to say I did. But the more I go there, the more I want to blend. This trip, I started out getting accosted by the Hop On/Hop Off bus guys a lot and ended the trip with them not realizing they should accost me. That was a win. This post won’t change anyone’s life, but here are the things I learned in New York City this week. If you find yourself int the city that never sleeps .
Get up early and book an early bird tour of the 9/11 museum. If you go when everyone else is there, you won’t have a clear shot of 3/4 of the artifacts and you’ll struggle to hear the tour guide. This tour was one of the most moving things I’ve ever done. I probably only saw half of what was available, but after 2 hours of reading, listening, and watching, I was at my capacity for digesting the events of that day. Very moving. I’ll do it again next chance I get.
See Hamilton. Hamilton is everything people have said it was. I went in knowing very little about Alexander Hamilton and knowing none of the music and I came out a massive fan. I would have sat through it twice in a row, despite the fact that I was twisted into a pretzel-like position in a seat half the size of my middle-aged body.
Don’t stare too long or get too close. Naked Cowboy is old. I haven’t seen him in person in almost a decade. Though he’s tried to work out so that he doesn’t take on the title of Fat, Naked Cowboy, the years haven’t been good to the lines on his face.
Never make eye contact with anyone wearing a costume. The people in costumes in Times Square are obnoxious and deserve to get punched. I sat and ate an Egg McMuffin in Times Square yesterday morning and watched the process for a solid 30 minutes. They prey on older, single Japanese men. They prey on slow walkers. They prey on anyone who seems to stagger step for more than a second. If you make eye contact with them, they are on you like a bad germ. They force you to hand over your phone to take the picture you didn’t want. Then they attempt to get a $10 or more out of you. I watched the strategies. I watched the money being split up after. People are stupid and Minnie Mouse was a troll.
45% humidity is a dream come true in September.
Never miss an opportunity to go to Washington Square Park. There is always something worth seeing. Yesterday, we had a 2 hour window with nothing in it and took the subway there. We people watched for awhile and were going to stroll the surrounding Greenwich Village streets when I spotted a puppet that I recognized. It was a hippie sitting at a tin can drum set that I had seen on YouTube playing Rush songs. I grabbed Todd’s arm and asked him if it was what I thought it was.
Sure enough. It was Ricky Syers and his puppet entourage, sitting against the fence line in Washington Square.
“Should we go over? Maybe we should just move on,” I said. I waffled back and forth for a minute, because we had been on our way out of the park. We were on a mission. After wavering for 3 or 4 minutes, we walked over to meet Ricky Syers. One of the things I’ve learned as I get older is that you should always seize an opportunity if it’s in front of you. Don’t regret what you did not do. We dropped some money in Ricky’s hat and he thanked us and shook our hands. Then he proceeded to perform the life out of a Rush song I’d never heard before. It turns out that he’s far better known as a maker of puppets and the puppeteer than he is as a musician. He had puppets for the people he performs with in the park. He made a tiny grand piano and a puppet that looks identical to the man playing the grand piano 25 feet away. Stepping into his space in the park was to step into a world completely foreign to me. I wish it had occurred to me to ask how the piano got there and how and when it leaves. It is a full sized grand piano, not a baby grand. You don’t roll one of those babies into the park day in, day out. And you don’t leave it to sit out in the elements. I lost sleep over that last night.
Pot smells like skunk. Pot is everywhere in New York City. I am 48 years old and never knew what marijuana smelled like until 3 weeks ago. My 13 year old daughter pointed it out at a high school football game and now I’m a pro. I smell it everywhere. And in New York, I got a lot of practice. It smells like the distant, pungent aroma of skunk spray. I decided not to try it. Maybe next time.
Real estate in the city is expensive.
But a girl can still dream. Send money. For now, I’m going home.