On a Sunday afternoon, my parents and I visited my grandparents who lived in the same house where my mother grew up. We ate our dinner at 2PM and then, predictably, all the women and my dad wanted to go for a walk. Grandpa was determined to watch the game on TV, so I’m fairly sure that Dad felt a responsibility to stay with Grandpa and missed the exercise.
We walked all the way uptown, as my grandmother called it, through neighborhood after neighborhood of modest two-story homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A parade of old trees shadowed the sidewalks, which were blanketed by their colored, speckled, and spotted leaves.The garlands of branches overhead, the twinkling of sunlight in patches through those branches, and the crunchy path under our feet promised to launch me into a magical world.
Then I noticed that some of the trees, the ones with the symmetrical leaves, not the knobby turkeys of the oaks and maples, wilted drastically. The leaves were pale, odd-looking, not merely turning their customary autumn yellow.
I asked why the trees were so thirsty. Grandma looked sad. I’d never seen her sad before. Her Mrs. Claus face always beamed at me. Mom and Aunt Alice mirrored her unhappy expression. Grandma said that the trees had gotten the new plague, Dutch Elm Disease.
In the weeks to follow, I remember hearing a lot of talk about the devastation of the elm trees in Kalamazoo from this disease. I thought the disease local to our city because the city’s main ethnic population was Dutch–like much of my family. Reasoning that the trees were Dutch, too, I figured that’s why they were susceptible to this illness.
Devastation of Dutch Elm Disease
I believe that the afternoon of that family walk I came down with pink eye. I remember my eyes were sore and tired. As soon as we got back to Grandma’s, I fell asleep and Dad carried me to the car. The next morning my eyes wouldn’t open and I couldn’t go to my first grade class. Instead, my mother had to bathe my eyes with a solution several times a day for a week.
Over the years, we took walks after many dinners, and considering the strange ways of memory, I can’t be certain that my pink eye occurred on the same day I saw the trees dying, but it feels that way to me.
Did my eyes really suffer after seeing so many trees in distress? Or did I only associate the two events later?
Most of the creative nonfiction and poetry I write tends to end up feeling fairly serious, albeit with a tiny twist of dry humor threaded throughout, rising along the surface of the piece every so often. But sometimes it’s good to abandon oneself to a hearty belly laugh. Here’s a poem I wrote about the importance of laughter which was published in The Black Boot, Issue 8. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!
In seventh grade I was sent
to the principal’s office six times for laughing,
my giggles chronic hiccups
that rode the curb like a skateboard
until I wanted to bail from fear of the crash.
I held on, never jumped. My girlfriends
and I were making fun for ourselves.
Have you heard the commercial
with the laughing baby?
Not a smiling infant, slippery pink gums
peeking from behind the O
of the open baby mouth,
not tentative giggles
searching out questions for the world.
But a big baby guffaw, a Mississippi of sound
catching me in the solar plexus
where my own laugh begins.
We’re hardwired for this hidden language,
more powerful than books
We laugh together
and at nothing at all.
In the spirit of laughter, here’s a website devoted to laughing babies:
I have a box of old photographs my grandfather gave me before he died. They are family portraits and snapshots dating from about 1890 to 1920. We sat in his living room and wrote names on the ones he could identify. Dozens of other photographs bear family resemblances, but they remain nameless and can’t assume their positions on the family tree.
My own mind houses memories in the same way. Many of my memories bear a resemblance to my life and my relationships, and while minute details might be clear, the facts are hazy or forgotten, perhaps unrecoverable. A memory illustrated by vivid details and accompanied by still-present emotion began on Trimble Street, in front of the next door neighbor’s house. I was two, almost three.
Mrs. Becker babysat me for my parents that day; she let her girls watch me outside. The day felt sun-warmed, with a slight cooling breeze rustling through my play clothes. The oldest girl, Donna, and a teenage boy were the ringleaders of the group. She wasn’t yet in high school and didn’t have her later characteristic beehive hairdo.
Her younger sisters, Susie and Denise were with us. All the children ringed a brown horse standing in the street looking very out-of-place. From my perspective down near the sidewalk, the horse looked like a city square equestrian statue—massive, gigantic, forbidding. Perhaps the boy had ridden the horse to our street. Donna turned to me, kneeled down to my level, and said, “How would you like to go for a ride?”
I shivered, though the sun shone down on my clover honey hair. “No,” I said.
“Oh, come on,” said Susie.
“No!” I backed away.
“Honey, there’s no need to be afraid,” Donna said. She scooped me up and plunked me down on the saddle positioned across the back of the horse. From this height I looked down at the tall teenagers, feeling dizzyingly and irrevocably beyond their reach.
“Put me down,” I said.
The teens giggled and chattered. Suddenly I heard a loud SMACK, and the horse bolted forward. I swayed backwards for a moment and then righted myself by grabbing hold of the saddle horn sitting in front of me. The horse trotted up Trimble Street. We left the teens behind, just the determined horse and me. The breeze flew through my flimsy hair. I held onto the horn with every muscle I could harness to the aid of my hands. Both my hands and feet tingled and turned numb. My thoughts condensed into one little pinhole: stop stop stop! I couldn’t tell the horse to stop because the pinhole only allowed that one thought; I was beyond the power of speech.
The horse trotted up to busy Gull Road, a main artery without sidewalks, where he turned right. I expected to fall off his back into the path of an uncaring automobile. I clung on. He carried me swiftly to Henson Street where he took another right, and then onto Junction and back to Trimble Street. My powerful hands, drained of blood, were my only compensation for the utter loss of control I felt.
When he trotted to the front of the Becker house, the horse stopped short. I rocked again and almost tumbled. The teens laughed, and Donna’s friend tried to lift me off the horse, but my hands would not unclamp from the saddle horn. I realized then I had been crying; my cheeks, soaked with tears, seem to burn as if the saltwater seared the tender skin.
I couldn’t speak, not even that night when I saw my parents. All these years later, the details vibrate within me, but I’m missing one fact: I can’t be certain if the horse existed or came to me in a dream.
With my mother and the two younger sisters from next door
The names have been changed to protect people who may or may not have participated in this act of baby abuse.
Are you sure of your memories? Do you have any like this one, where you aren’t sure if it really happened or if you dreamed it? How do you handle a hitch like that in writing creative nonfiction?
When I was small, the lake was an omnipresent feature in my life. Large, too large to see it all, it curved into the horizon, so we could view but one small portion of the enormous sloshing drop. Held in the embrace of fragile fingers of land lay tons of water, gallons of waves.
I early developed the notion that I was part of the lake or it a part of me. I have retained this feeling; and in fact, it has generalized to any large body of water—lake or sea. And I doubt that I am the only person who looks at Lake Michigan’s miraculous blue or the great grey Atlantic and says, “Mine.”
But back to my special lake, the dour, the grey-green, the shallow, the cloud-shrouded Erie. Lake Erie’s rocks are granite, quartz, and shale; its shells, snail and clam. Its sand is taupe, soft, nonabrasive; its bottom sand or clay; its seaweed velvety green, swaying in the rhythm of the waves.
How did I spend hours and hours outside as a child, fair with reddish hair, without being burned by the sun? Was it the Lake Erie clouds? Or that most of the time I romped in the waves, a freshwater dolphin, a creature of sea? I jumped through the swells in arc after arc, or swam underwater, eyes open, blowing a fine stream of bubbles through my nose and tickling the legs of my friends. We stood on our hands, wheeled through the blue, grabbed gobs of sand, threw them, or let them melt from our hands. We crawled back onto land only after our fingertips had shriveled and our lips turned blue. But on land we shivered and felt heavy as rocks, no longer warmed and buoyed by the lake.
The shore changed each year, sometimes shallow, sometimes deep, sometimes rock, sometimes sand, sometimes clay. In years of clay, we children became potters, digging up the dark residue of prehistoric plants, rubbing it on our arms and legs, attracting snapping horseflies. We fashioned cups and bowls and ashtrays for our parents, those huge indolent creatures who sat and smoked while we made art and slapped flies.
Sometimes we built cities of sand along the shore, with houses, roads, bridges, and moats. Any house could have a pool—dig a few inches and the lake would well up, cool and pure. Stones, reeds, driftwood, sea glass, all lay close at hand for each architect’s use. I know the feel of hand smoothing sand, from crude heap to finished city. And at night, the tide would reclaim it all, suck it—sand, stick, and stone—into the watery matrix, roll it around, and spread it along the shore.
Do you consider the place where you grew up a source–or the source–of your creativity?
Aerial view of Grand View Beach on Lake Erie
Wilma Kahn is a writer and writing teacher living in Southwest Michigan. She’s a water baby at heart.
Before my father hauled garbage, he worked in sales, hawking teepee burners. In the sixties, these giant iron pyramids were sold to city dumps to burn mill waste. They were shaped like teepees, hence the name, and banded with iron straps.
Since the only dumps which needed teepee burners were in cities with paper mills, Dad’s territory was enormous and he had to fly to many of his accounts.
At three, I sat on the bed while Mom tucked Dad’s socks and underwear into the corners of his suitcase, around his second suit and the shirts which had been starched and folded at the dry cleaners.
“How will Daddy fly there, Mommy?” I imagined my father traveling with Peter Pan.
“In an airplane. You’ll see. You can come with me when I take him.”
The next morning, my father wore a gray wool suit with a pocket handkerchief embroidered with his initials tucked into the breast pocket. His dark hair, graying at the edges, was swept back from his forehead into a little mound, a remnant of his teen pompadour. He stooped down to me in the airport parking lot and hugged me, rocking me from side to side. He kissed the top of my head. I studied his black wing tip shoes and their intricate pattern of tiny punch holes. Then Dad stood up and kissed my mother goodbye.
She and I stood at the chain link fence and watched my father climb the steps into the plane. As it took off into the sky, we both waved goodbye to Dad’s plane.
The plane slid above us across the filmy clouds, my daddy’s black shoes hanging from the plane’s belly. As he tucked them up smartly into the plane, I wailed while Mom hustled me to the car.
I’ve never been able to leave this image behind. The shoes being pulled mechanically into the sleek, sealed belly of that plane.
I learned much later that the shoes were the wheels of the plane.
It was only after I started writing creative nonfiction and planning my memoir that I started to wonder why that particular memory was so vivid and kept rising to the surface so insistently. I started picking at it, trying to crack the code as I described in my post “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.”
Why was this memory so important?
Armed with Sven Birkerts’ wisdom about the memoirist using present-day understanding to interpret the past, I realized that the memory was connected to writing and reading because it only follows me down those paths.
Perhaps coincidentally, I recently had begun studying more thoroughly the experiences of adoptees like my children and my brother. The lives of adoptees are saturated with a profound initial loss. Since I was the “birth child” in my family and I had grown up with my biological parents, sharing holidays with the extended family, I’d never thought of loss in my own life. After all, I have been so blessed with family, both bio and adoptive, and a husband of (how many is it now?) 37 years.
Now I belatedly recognize that what I felt that day standing in a row of weeds at the fence was loss. I thought that my father was gone forever, swallowed up by that metal monster in the sky.
Maybe if I’d been in my mother’s arms when we waved, it would have eased the moment. But we stood as two separate entities waving up into the sky, our hands fluttering futilely, it seemed to me.
When my father came home from his business trip, I no doubt saw that he was alive and healthy. I had him back. That part I don’t remember.
When I write, this memory is always there, locked in a door behind whatever other memory sparks the writing that day. When I read, it shapes my reading in ways I can’t imagine. When I read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the memory colors my reading of the initial lines and therefore the entire poem:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
The “poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” had such resonance for my younger self. That stanza felt ready-made for me.
But that’s part of the coincidence of writing and of reading. My writing and my reading are colored by my own experiences. I started writing this post yesterday and then took a break with poetry, picking up a book which seems to speak to my memoir project, Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water. I read a poem I had missed before, “The Late Cold War.” These are the final lines:
Sir, when i think of poetry keeping you alive i know
you were entered by incomprehensible light
in the hour of lemon & water
& the great wound of the world has slipped a code
into your shoe
A poem doesn’t fail when you set your one good wing on the ground
It is the wing
It doesn’t abandon you
What serendipity. The wing does not abandon me, but takes me writing, just as I saw that plane gliding up above me. The plane I wanted to follow behind.
Do you experience coincidence or serendipity in your own reading and/or writing?
Yes, I changed the about page on this blog. When I started a couple of weeks ago, I felt very hesitant, shy about venturing into an “all about writing” blog. Although it can be tempting to hide behind an official mask, I didn’t want to present a biography with credentials because my credentials have been a lot more productive than I have been in my life. But I want to be upfront about who I am as a writer, and it’s time for me to show a little more confidence in myself. Anybody who is a writer knows that without honesty you can’t write anything of value; hiding behind shyness isn’t going to cut it.
So this is what I wrote:
As the daughter of a garbage man, I have spent my life sifting through the trash for the treasures. Now I’m sifting through my memories and the family story, re-learning my life scrap by scrap, arranging it into a memoir called Scrap.
My vision of this blog is a place for me to experiment with story, writing theory, and poetry as I continue to shape my life by writing.
My legal name is Luanne, but my blogger pen name is lucewriter to remind me that I am here to write. I’ve been a grad student, college instructor, businesswoman, mom, crazy cat lady, and more. But now my mission is to write.
Have you ever been told that you need to SHOW NOT TELL? Did you take that advice and as you converted your piece to showing, it became longer and longer as you added details and actions? Until it became that sweater you knitted with arms far too long. Ok, I am the one who knitted that sweater. The knitting had become a rhythm it was easier to maintain than to stop. Like writing with lots of showing.
The long-winded sweater with the sleeves conveniently covered up
When I convert “telling” into “showing,” there are times when I have to ask myself if that information was really necessary to show. Then I start to wonder what showing really means. To me, it’s easier to consider scene versus summary. They are both tangible components of writing memoir or fiction.
In creative nonfiction courses, there were times I was misled about scene and summary. In these workshop courses, I received feedback from various instructors and other readers. Although the official word was that a variation of scene and summary is important–that sometimes scene is needed and at other times summary makes more sense–when I tried to write even two sentences back to back of summary, I was told to write it in scene.
I could be exaggerating, but you get the idea. Maybe you’ve had this experience yourself. The intention is often good—the idea being that writers need to practice their scenes and become adept at those.
Nevertheless, sometimes the advice is just a reflex. I admit that I’ve given this advice plenty of times myself, but I try to only do so when I genuinely think that at that point the piece screams for a scene.
What’s come of the advice I’ve gotten to always “show” or create scene is that while I think I have an idea of how to transform summary into scene, I am pretty clueless about writing summary. I got almost no practice at it in course work because nobody would let me do it.
It’s helpful to me to recognize that most writing which we enjoy reading (a novel, for instance) is written using both scene and summary. Summary can be just as effective as scene, depending on the style, the voice, and the goals of a particular piece. Look at this passage from Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club:
The night’s major consequences for me were internal. The fact that my house was Not Right metastasized into the notion that I myself was somehow Not Right, or that my survival in the world depended on my constant vigilance against various forms of Not-Rightness. Whenever I stepped into the road at Leechfield’s one traffic light, I usually expected to get plowed down by a Red Ball truck flying out of nowhere (unlikely, given the lack of traffic). I became both a flincher and a fighter. I was quick to burst into tears in the middle of a sandlot baseball game and equally quick to whack someone in the head without much provocation. Neighborhood myth has it that I once cold-cocked a five-year-old playmate with an army trench shovel, then calmly went back to digging. Some of this explosiveness just came from a naturally bad temperament, of course. But some stems from that night, when my mind simply erased everything up until Dr. Boudreaux began inviting me to show him marks that I now know weren’t even there.
All engaging writing. All summary. But if Karr had shown this information in scene it would have dragged the book down unnecessarily. It follows a crucial and well-developed scene. I love how Karr uses a varying pattern of scene and summary, a rhythm which adds to the reader’s enjoyment.
Writing Prompt: Select a topic about a bad habit you have, such as biting your nails. Write a scene which shows you at your worst as you are practicing your habit. Then write a paragraph, like Karr’s, which summarizes how engaging in this behavior makes you feel and what it’s done to your life, using a couple of concrete examples as she does with hitting the other child with the shovel and getting hit by not just any truck, but a Red Ball truck. Where do you want to go from there? You have an ending to write.
I stand on a chair to reach my grandmother’s birdcage. My dress and petticoat flip out in back, as I balance on my palms, my sturdy toddler legs straining toward the parakeet. The parakeet contemplates my nose poking between the bars. I want it to sing. It’s all I want of this place, this apartment which rattles like death when the El rushes by. I think how much I miss my own home. Unless the bird will sing.
Maybe it’s something that happened to me even before I was born. I started reaching out for the word music with my baby fists, if only to rush them like a bottle to my mouth: “Little Miss Muffet”; “See You Later, Alligator”; “A Fairy Went a-Marketing.” I recited and sang them repetitively—until my mother screamed at me to stop. Even then, I slipped under the bed covers and sang “My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea.” My breath billowed up the sheet.
Only a fifteen-year-old can make the leap from puppy love to bird lover. That’s what happened when I became fascinated with a boy with a bird’s name. My girlfriend and I followed him oh-so-subtly-and-cleverly in the halls, only running into him “by accident.” On the weekend I couldn’t wait for school to begin anew on Monday, so we went to the mall. Woolworth’s had a department with birds in birdcages. An arched cage so much like my grandmother’s parakeet cage held two lovebirds. I paid $9.99 for the lovers.
When my husband and I got married in an ice storm, we drove from the hotel reception in a burgundy Marquise Brougham with a prayer on the dashboard. Songbirds flew after us into the dark. That’s the way I remember it.
I sat in Grandma’s old oak rocker, holding my baby son in my arms, murmuring:
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot
Whitman‘s poem managed something the others hadn’t been able to—it crept into my body, spreading out and occupying my flesh like a snakeskin it merely tolerated. I still can’t get rid of it. The poem and I battle inside like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but if it decided to leave, I’d be as empty as that snakeskin, discarded and colorless. It’s a poem about a he-bird who loves and loses the she-bird. Or it’s a poem about the curious boy who observes the bird and his troubles. But really it’s about a rocking like the surging of the sea and the hissing and whispering and all manner of delicious delicacies of words and rhythm.
When my parents put Grandma in the nursing home, she had to leave her parakeet behind. Not that yellow parakeet she had when I was a preschooler, but the green one she’d had since then. Dad brought the cage to our house and put it in the family room where the bird could watch TV. I kept changing the food and water, but the bird refused a single seed and died within a week.
Richard Siken told us wannabe poets never to write poems with birds in them. “It’s been done to death,” he said. I think he said that the bird as trope for poet was old after Whitman. Or maybe he said before Whitman. I went home and wrote a poem about Andersen’s Nightingale and the Chinese countryside and didn’t use the word bird. That’s what you call a writing constraint.
We had such a problem with roof rats and teenagers. The latter we knew would eventually move out. My husband called in the pest control people for the former. The man the company sent shuffled and mumbled, so we let him go about his business. That afternoon my son ran into the house yelling his head off, and since he’s a mild-mannered young man, I scrambled to get to him. He led me out to the back steps where three baby birds hung on a glue trap like Jesus and the thieves. We poured a sort of holy kitchen oil to release them. One had already died and a second stilled the instant it rested in my palm. The third one regarded me with one black eye, vibrant as a drop of ink. We hustled it to the veterinarian where the techs hustled it out of our sight.
My daughter writes songs that come out of her fully formed. I don’t know how anyone can do that, but then she sings them and her voice sounds like warm magma flowing. She sends me links to private songs on Myspace so I can listen before anyone else.
Over ten years ago cats started showing up at our house, looking for food and, later, shelter. We only had a couple of dogs left. The birds had departed long before for their heaven. Now the cats outnumber the humans, and they think they have an equal vote. They vote that anything with a fast heart rate can be considered prey. So no more birds for our family.
This house in Arizona has a tile roof, and the pigeons think it’s a rocky hillside, like their homes before humankind. While pigeons have those pleasing round breasts and iridescent feathers like abalone, they excrete their body weight every day—and always from the eaves above my exterior doors. I asked my neighbor to stop feeding the birds, but she doesn’t speak to humans. We put up screens to stop them from roosting in the obvious places. But a stubborn contingent stay put, and from my fireplace I hear them cooing. My brown striped cat purrs on the hearth, in rhythm with the pigeon coos.
A young pigeon dances on my patio, with his wings akimbo across his back, like a child stuck in a shirt he’s attempting to put on. Two adult pigeons watch from the roof. I put him in a brown bag and drive him to the pigeon lady. She has big man hands and examines him brusquely, but listens with her eyes closed, like a good doctor. She says, “I’ve never seen this before. It’s not a broken wing. He’s twisted his wings together across his back, like you twist a twisty on a bag.” She carefully and surely untwists his wings and puts them flat against his sides. “I’ll keep him for the winter and release him in the spring when he’s healthy.” I write a poem about the pigeon lady and through it she becomes a religious icon in my religion of one.
In the summer, I bring her another pigeon. This one acts odd, walking around the yard, but only flying a few feet at a time. She tries, but can’t save this one. “He had an illness, and I don’t know what it was.” She wants my permission to do an autopsy. That’s the way she learns how to take care of the living pigeons. When I hang up the phone, I can see through the window that another pigeon resting at the edge of eaves is breathing rhythmically as its body empties and fills and empties and fills in an unbroken pattern.
My grandmother outlived her parakeet in the nursing home for a year. I told my parents that if she had had the parakeet in her room, she and the parakeet would both have lived longer, but they explained that she died of uremia from renal failure. “The bird died because it didn’t eat, Luanne,” my mother said. “Stop trying to connect things that are not related.”
This poem features my dad’s Sunfish sailboat, which we sailed on our little lake in the 60s and early 70s.
The Sunfish on Eagle Lake
Dad bought it used, but only gently so. We put more miles on that boat in the first summer than it had accumulated with its previous owner. Dad and I were calm and talked little when we sailed together. When my best friend and I took it out our goal was to sail past the docks of the boys with the big motorboats. It was when my cousin Leah came from Chicago to visit that the boat’s potential for capsizing was realized.