Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A surprisingly happy birthday

“Happy birthday, Nancy! Hope you are celebrating with a nice, long run and a great meal with your family,” wrote my childhood friend Juliet last Thursday. 

I thought about her kind and thoughtful sentiments – particularly meaningful because it reflected how someone who has known me for forty years would know exactly how I would choose to spend my birthday – as I powerwalked up and down the hallways of a Hampton Inn 80 miles from my home about an hour before my birthday drew to a close.

I needed just a few more steps to make my Fitbit quota for the day, and I wasn’t going to let the fact that my birthday involved a pre-dawn run in a drenching rainstorm, a frazzled afternoon of picking up the kids, packing our clothes for an overnight, and driving for ninety minutes at rush hour to attend a wake stop me. It was only 10:45 p.m., I consoled myself. Getting those last 1,500 steps shouldn’t be any problem.

I did earn the steps, and I did have a happy birthday, despite the circumstances. Juliet’s wishes identified just what I might have liked for my birthday – a long run and a great meal with my family – but the reality was that my husband’s grandmother had died earlier in the week and her wake fell on my birthday. So I was far from home, powerwalking in a hotel, hoping my suit would stay wrinkle-free in the cramped hotel closet for the funeral services the next day.

While I didn’t get the usual luxuries that accompany my birthday – fun, attention, gifts and cards to open, delicious food that I don’t have to prepare myself – there had been some unexpected bonuses. At the wake earlier that evening, I’d seen just about every living member of Rick’s extended family  – and he comes from a very big family – as well as several close friends of my in-laws. And as the day drew to a close, I was snuggled in a quiet dark hotel room with my husband and both my children quietly breathing in their sleep. Sorry as I was about the occasion of Rick’s grandmother’s passing, it felt comforting to be so close to my family at that moment.

Some birthdays are like that: not what you might have chosen, but meaningful in their own way. On the day I turned seventeen, I took the SATs. I had to get up early and it wasn’t a very interesting morning, but I did get to sit at a table with five of my best friends. One year in my early twenties, before I was married, I remember spending a birthday evening alone in my studio apartment opening the gifts my family members had sent me, enjoying the solitude. And on my birthday the year my first child turned one, I remember that he came down with an ear infection. It was a Saturday, and Rick and I spent the morning driving around, from the office of the covering pediatrician to the drugstore for antibiotics to home. Again, not the birthday I would have chosen, but I was with my family and that felt good.

Any birthday is cause to celebrate, really. I have so much to be happy about, whether it’s my birthday or any other day: a healthy and joyful family, wonderful friends, interesting work, a comfortable house in a community we love. It doesn’t matter whether my birthday is spent on a tropical island or at an anonymous hotel in an office park. And it doesn’t even matter whether I get a long run and a delicious meal with my family. Happy birthdays come in all sizes, I’ve learned.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Taking the perfect photo isn't so easy at all

I notice it every autumn, but it still takes me by surprise each year: how for a span of several weeks, starting in late September and lasting through mid-November, you simply cannot turn your head in any direction in Carlisle and not see a landscape worthy of a calendar photo. In one direction, it’s Norwegian maples turning a flaming yellow, outlined against a blue sky; in another direction it’s pumpkins and hearty mums on a doorstep, or black and white cows grazing in the midst of a still-green field, or footpaths speckled with multicolored fallen leaves.

“You cannot take a bad picture around here in autumn,” I remarked one day last week.

And then I tried taking some pictures and discovered how blithely wrong I’d been.

It’s actually really difficult to capture beautiful scenes with a beautiful photo. To any of my photographer friends, this sentiment doubtlessly sounds as obvious and trite as it would if a non-writer were to say to me, “To my surprise, it’s not that easy to write a really good poem.”

Right. Because if it were easy, as they say, everyone would do it, whether “it” is taking photos or crafting poetry.

This was a problem because I really wanted to take some great photos around my parents’ farm to use in a cover design for a cookbook my mother and I are working on together. It was a stroke of inspiration, I thought, when I came up with the idea of using a farm photo montage for the cover, and the perfect time of year for it, too: all I’d need to do was walk around the farm for twenty or thirty minutes snapping pictures, and in no time at all, I’d have my magnificent autumn montage.

But taking perfect pictures is hard. Sure, I can look through the lens – or on the camera’s screen – and see what looks to me like a beautiful view, but once I actually snap it, I see that the shadows are dense, or the sky looks gray rather than blue, or the foreground is more of a distraction than it seemed to be when I framed the same shot in my mind’s eye.

I should know this, because it’s true for writers as well. Just as you can look at a tableau of cows grazing and think you’ve got the perfect shot until you take the picture and see the mud and the dark shadows and the car in the distant background, you can come up with the perfect essay concept, and then find when you try to write it that your perfect concept is not quite as easy to articulate as you thought. Other words get in the way, and the idea that seemed brilliant when it was still in your mind starts to dissipate when you try to commit it to paper.

By now I’ve taken dozens of photos for the cookbook cover, hoping eventually I can winnow them down to nine to make a three-by-three square photo montage. The photos won’t be perfect, just as my words are never perfect. I’ll have to be content with knowing how many I deleted to find these few that might be almost worthy of what I pictured in my mind’s eye.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Back-to-School Night: A kinetic, frenetic experience

Back-to-School Night at our local high school, I have come to believe now that I’ve been through two of them, is primarily a kinetic experience.

Perhaps not coincidentally, kinetic rhymes with frenetic, which happens to be another good adjective for Back-to-School Night, but I’ll get to that later.

At Back-to-School Night at my son’s school, parents are invited to follow their child’s regular class schedule, Blocks A through H, except that each block has been shortened to eight minutes. During those eight-minute blocks, the teachers offer an impressively concise and well-articulated summary of their plans for the school year, but mostly, they say “To learn about the curriculum and my expectations, check my page on the school’s website. To find out how your child is doing with assignments, attendance, and grades, log in to your parent portal account. To speak one-on-one with me about your child, send me an email and we’ll set up an appointment.”

I don’t blame the teachers for this at all. It’s as good a use as any of the eight minutes they are allotted. And it’s true that technology makes it easy to access the kind of information that a teacher of previous generations would have been sorely challenged to summarize in this abbreviated amount of time.

So as I see it, Back-to-School Night is really just about stepping into Tim’s shoes for a couple of hours, almost literally, as I trace his daily path from all-school assembly to A block to B block to C block. I get to see the halls he walks and the classroom displays his eyes rest on when he’s not paying full attention. I get to see and hear the same adults he watches and listens to five days a week.

But only for eight minutes, and then on to the next, which brings me to the part that is not only kinetic but frenetic. Tim’s school is a bewildering maze to me, an incomprehensible network of hallways and right angle turns with classroom numbers whose prefixes change inexplicably from S to I to A. Tim’s freshman year, I made the mistake of coming to Back-to-School Night straight from work, which meant I was wearing heels. It was truly like an anxiety dream come to life as I tottered frantically down the halls eternally searching for rooms whose numbers didn’t seem to exist. This year, I cast fashion to the winds and wore my running shoes, which meant I was able to replicate the previous year's frantic dash of confusion from one wrong turn to the next at a slightly faster and steadier pace, with fewer twisted ankles along the way but no greater luck in finding where I was supposed to be.

At one point, despair overtook me. I was searching for Tim’s social studies class in room H17; somehow the hallway had ended at H15 and I found myself in a dim portico between two buildings. “How can I be so lost?” I wailed out loud.

A student guide materialized and offered to show me the way. Feeling suddenly reassured, I pulled myself together. After all, even if I reached the classroom a few minutes late, I’d still get the visuals. I’d have a look at Tim’s teacher and the classroom wall displays, which was all I seemed able to get out of Back-to-School Night anyway. And if nothing else, I was getting plenty of exercise.

“Next year,” I announced confidently to the parent next to me as I slid into a seat, “I’ll know my way around. I’ll get to every class on time. I won’t make wrong turns or tear my hair out in exasperation.”

“Next year this building will be a pile of concrete,” the parent reminded me.

Oh, that’s right. The new high school is on schedule to open in April. Never again will I navigate Back-to-School Night through this particular maze. Surely the new building has been designed with the directionally challenged, like me, in mind.

But just in case, next year I’m bringing my running shoes again. And also GPS.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Telling stories, hearing stories

In the midst of writing and revising family memoirs for three different sets of clients, with two more on the back burner, I’ve learned more about memoir writing in the past few months than in all my years as a writer up to now.

The three active projects involve two couples in their eighties and one widow in her nineties. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their similarities in age, certain common themes arise, even though there are numerous differences concerning the specifics of their lives. Differences include where they were raised; where they live now; what their professional lives have involved; the number and ages of their children; their religious backgrounds. Commonalities include military service, a career path that began with manual labor and brought them eventually into the business world, the issues specific to immigrants (in one case) or children of immigrants (in the other two); losing a parent at an early age. Other details linking their stories arose unexpectedly, surprising me: two different memoir subjects mentioned the Horn & Hardart Automat – one woman frequented the one in New York City as a child; another couple visited the one in Philadelphia as graduate students – and two different subjects had connections to General Claire Lee Chennault and the Flying Tigers.

From each of them, I’ve learned a lot about life in America in the 20th century, although each of my subjects experienced it differently: some as hardworking college students, some as soldiers stationed overseas. I’ve learned about a variety of perspectives on parenting and grandparenting.

And as their memoirist, I’ve also learned anew the importance of listening. Writing a memoir is a wonderful project for a senior because they are left with a book for their children, grandchildren, and future descendants to read, but what I am increasingly coming to understand is that the process itself matters. Last week I received an email from the daughter of my 91-year-old client that said this:
“Yesterday i called my mom. It was quite apparent to me that she sounded more vibrant and alive than I have heard her in a very long time. I asked what was she doing and she told me about writing a memoir of her life.  What a wonderful thing to do - she has had quite a life!  This appears to have brought new vitality to her.”

It reminded me that the process itself is as worthwhile as the end result. All of my clients have children and other family members who willingly and eagerly listen to their stories, but there’s something different about narrating a life in chronological order. Most families tell sporadic anecdotes, not unbroken narratives, and sometimes children hear their parents’ stories often enough that they stop listening. Having the opportunity to hear a life story from its beginnings gives me a perspective that isolated anecdotes usually lack.

Two years ago, I worked with residents at a nursing home on a community memoir project. A couple of months after the book was published, I saw the obituary of one of the participants in the newspaper. I felt privileged to think that I was probably one of the last people who heard her tell a story about her life. She had loving children and grandchildren; I don’t mean to suggest no one took an interest in her, but I had the privilege of sitting down with her without other distractions to hear exactly the life story she wanted to tell me, a story she was most likely telling for the last time.

Telling our stories matters, but listening to them does too. In my work as a memoir writer, I’ve become a dedicated listener. And I’m grateful anew for every story I have the opportunity to hear.