Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Assignment - Birth of Beatrice

I wrote this one day, several months ago, after reading about a particular writing exercise that I found irritating. And then, interestingly enough, I kept on writing and writing and writing...and so, in honor of my birthday you can read about a day in the life of your favorite blogger.

9:00 AM - Typed on a pokey computer:
From the start, it promised to be interesting. There was a winter sun, and a few wispy clouds dotting the otherwise pale blue sky. Now, clouds and sun are not indicative of interest or intrigue. But an interesting day, or event, must still have its weather patterns, and this was just the case.

To continue on the subject of weather, it was cold. Aching, bone-chilling cold that makes your nose run and your hands smart upon the wind's slightest provocation. Even the most refined ladies could be seen dabbing at cold noses with their mittens, as fumbling in coat pockets can waste precious energy while trying to maintain proper body temperature.

The snow was undoubtedly going to continue throughout the day, despite the predictions of the weather experts. Anyone worth their salt in old wifey tales and nature's inclinations to do what she will could hear the approach of the snow. Nature, those old wives will insist, tells us what she intends. She very rarely keeps secrets, and sometimes she might even surprise herself. But in those who pay attention, nature will confide.

Yes, it was going to be a winter day like only those to be had near the Northern Mountains. Mothers would have their children indoors by early afternoon, lest the doors freeze shut against their angels. Fragrant sticks, lit by smoky fire, would add a low overhang of ponderous grey against the backdrop of the mounting wall of snow.

Well, you now know what the day looked like to passersby. Perhaps someone died that day, and the grey smoke was rather less ponderous than ominous. A birthday party, a wedding, and other merry-making events no doubt took place on this day, and the snow was but of little notice. But for our story, as I've said, it promised to be interesting.

"Well, that is just a load of crap" I think, rereading my meager paragraphs. Looking again at the assignment, positively willing the dry, black and white Roman font to give me some inspiration, I feel a bit of despair. Why will teachers insist on using plain font? Perhaps I would be able to pen the greatest novel the world has ever seen if my right and left brains were energized by the likes of a crooked font.

The Assignment
Write a three page paper about the day of your birth. Single-spaced, 12 point Roman font, 1 inch margins. Give to Professor Ackley's assistant by Friday next, the twelfth of October, 1996.

'Seriously? This is supposed to make me a better writer?' I am now pulling my pen cap between my incisors. I have a habit of chewing on things, be it my nails or pen caps, gum or the sides of my mouth. Sometimes I have to break the habit in favor of something less physically destructive, as I am afraid I will one day gnaw my way to the outside of my cheek and then look disfigured. My poor mother thought that acrylic nails might help break my 'bad' habit, but instead I broke a tooth while contemplating the lyrics to a Goo Goo Dolls song. She didn’t buy me acrylics again.
This particular assignment, to be the first of many, fell under the category of Writing Classes 101-301. After all the undergraduate courses I have been through, I'm still stumped by the issue of prerequisites. Sometimes you need them to take a class on History Through Cinematic Triumph, and other times you can jump into junior level courses without being able to write a complete sentence.
But I want to write, and I want what I write to be good. Therefore, I need an instructor, right? Perhaps all I need is this Dr. Ackley to show me the way over the pitfalls of writer’s panic (different but sometimes kin to writer’s block). Maybe I will dedicate my third book to him, as I already owe the first two elsewhere.

The thing is, I'm not enrolled. I haven't been able to attend school for a few years now. I want to, but I also want to spend my summers vacationing on the Isle of Wight, despite that I don't know where that is. I'll add it to my list of random things to Google.

In an effort to feel better about my lack of college degree, I have decided to at least continue my education, albeit informally. I've been borrowing language courses from the library (although cannot do so anymore due to fines) and reading the history of various countries as they interest me. I have so far not made it to Korea or Sudan. Mostly I'm going European, but I do have to keep my zeal alive so I'm so far not going to push the issue of my Korean history ignorance.

I have found that some universities will publish their old class information including syllabi and reading materials...just out there for the public to see (steal). Erego, I 'enrolled' myself in a writing course that took place when I was still in high school. I find myself wondering if anyone who took the class is now a published, or at least happy, author.

The erstwhile Dr. Ackley claims that by writing my life history, I will somehow 'find myself' as an author along the way. Part of me rolls my eyes and says thank you very much, I can fine tune my skills while writing about whatever pleases me. The other part so much wants to do whatever I'm told in order to publish the novel I have on the backburner.

I'm not sure where to go from here...the intro seems...idyllic. But who wants to just write that their mother took the subway to the hospital? That hardly seems capable of turning me into some sort of New York Times best-selling author.


"Abundant Life, how may I direct your call?" I said.

"I need to talk to someone about some help," the caller loudly smacks.

"What type of help do you need?" I said.

"Well, my wife left me and now I've got these three kids and I cain't work cuz my back is all tore up and now they need clothes and I need to feed 'em..." he trails on and on while I try to interrupt.

"I'll transfer you, just a moment" I say in my most soothing receptionist voice.

When I first started my illustrious phone answering career, these calls made me nervous and sad. The volume of people that had daily needs seemed overwhelming. Fast forward a few years and here I sit completely unmoved by this man's plea for assistance. He called last month and the month before and will no doubt call next month with a new and improved story about why he needs more money. It completely messes with my Republican/Democrat sensibilities and causes me to think ugly thoughts about people who are struggling to make those damn ends meet. My ends often don’t meet, and I don’t want my friends and co-workers to think I’m a lazy layabout who cannot add and subtract. And yet, I’m so fast to think that way myself when I’m sitting at this desk representing this pseudo-corporation. I think the building is filled with elephant DNA.

10:00 AM
I’m still not sure what to write for The Assignment. Perhaps I could use a different angle and write about the day of my birth, but not include anything about myself? I could look up world events and the price of bread and make a more interesting version of those postcards that my insurance guy gives me every year on my birthday. There are few things that rock your world like knowing how much an entire home cost the year you were born. The fashion was sorely lacking, but I could get over that for a $34,000 home.

What can be said about my birth? It produced me, and here I am. I hesitate to write the standard explanation of what I am rather than who I am. But sometimes they are one and the same, so here goes: wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend. I want to write for a living, but instead I just write so that I can keep on living. I think those used to be the same things, but what I mean is that I would like to be paid for doing the thing that I love. Right now I am paid to answer phones for a non-denominational megachurch in the middle of the quickly disappearing (but not fast enough) Bible Belt. I would very much like to live in Europe, or at least have the ability to travel there as often as needed until I had seen every fresco in every palace. I would stop for tea every two hours and talk to locals about their memories and then write it all down and come up with something fantastically soul-searching and wonderful.

I have a blog that I try to update on a weekly basis. I used to have one of those counters that told me how many people looked at my groundbreaking material. It was a bit of a self-esteem trap, however, and when I was stupidly rearranging my blog’s layout, I somehow disabled the counter. It took a few weeks of empty reports before I realized that the counter was wrong, not that the entire online world had decided to abandon my blog’s guidance. I saw it as a fateful intervention from further mental anguish.

I’m not sure why the numbers affected me so much. The days when I saw a 3 or 4 made me wonder why oh why do I even share my poignant thoughts with the world? Conversely, the days that I saw 187 made me mentally run through my Nobel Peace Prize speech. I’ve never really aspired to win that specific honor, but I do think that everyone should have such a speech tucked away within the recesses of their brain in case they are ever singled out for something. Sometimes I talk to Jay Leno, cracking jokes while interacting with the audience and being totally approachable yet brilliant. At other times I give dynamite interviews for the local newspaper that gets spread throughout the cultured world, weaving my subtle references to classic literature with my deep understanding of the modern human experience.

I think it is best that the blog counter is disabled. I just really don’t need any more number-induced crisis in my life. It has taken me the better part of fifteen years to make peace with the wretched scale, and really I haven’t made peace so much as a peace treaty. I fully expect the scale to renege at some point, however. Peace treaties generally don’t last long, and from what I understand don’t signify peace as much as a cautious promise not to bomb the hell out of your neighbor. If you’ve been married longer than three days, you know that these are not equal.

I’m not yet undone by the number that changes every January 22. I used to smugly anticipate my casual response of birthdays 30, 40, 50 as I tossed my head and laughed at the idiocy of caring about the passage of time. I’m now closing in on my 28th birthday, and I’m not as smug. I’m hoping to not be completely caught off guard by the big 30. I want to freak out in the privacy of my bathroom and let the tears fall down my face while I grip the side of the sink and wonder why in the name of all goodness I’m still not independently wealthy and able to make a functional grocery list. I’m hoping that when I leave the bathroom, I’ll be able to put on my favorite jeans without sucking in and head off to a fabulous surprise party at a swanky location. Although, I’m not very fond of surprise parties. This might pose a problem. I’ll have to rethink my 30th birthday mental movie. European getaway?

10:30 AM
My coffee is now cold and I am almost literally chained to this desk until my fifteen minute break. While I like iced coffee, I don’t like hot coffee that is now cool enough to pass as a cold beverage.

I have now thrown away The Assignment sheet, as I have memorized the meager sentences that will guide my writing style. I’m hoping to be hit with the electrifying breath of inspiration soon, and wonder how to make a story with concrete facts more interesting than concrete.
The truth is, my parents aren’t exactly the sentimental type. They don’t remember what my first words were and they didn’t record any milestones in a baby book. I didn’t have a baby book until one day at age nine I asked why my older sister had multiple (though mostly empty) baby books and I had none. My mom, who cannot rest until she has found the cheapest possible version of any given item, found a baby book at Big Lots, that foul junkyard of terror. She put my name in it and the few baby pictures that survived the 28 moves our family has made since my birth. Still, no reference to first foods or favorite lullabies. The information on my birth is as follows:

My parents lived in an apartment in Montreal, Quebec. They worked with Haitian immigrants in the city, and had quickly learned French with a heavy Quebecoise accent. My sister, three years my senior, could sing O Canada in French, and loved seeing HM The Queen on the small television my parents weren’t technically allowed to have. At the time, they belonged to a small Christian sect that naysayed the telly, as well as pants and beards, makeup and jewelry, sports and alcohol. Rebels from the start, they were.

Well, my beloved sister begged and begged for a playmate. Most kids will go through that phase, but if you knew my parents you would understand why my sister needed someone to commiserate with. Don’t get me wrong, they are great people. But I’m still awed by the idea that two people who have short attention spans and fantastic memory loss were able to raise two children who never broke a bone or set the house on fire. They are both so smart as to cause problems in daily situations, which makes you mortified as a child and sympathetically understanding when it catches up with you as an adult. Now that I’ve said I’m smart, you are going to wonder why I answer phones. So do I.

I was due on January 28th, the birthday of my grandmother. However, January is rather cold in Montreal, and there was a blizzard due at that time. My doctor, who was Indian, set the date for Friday the 22nd and I caught my first sight of the world when he cut a hole in my mother’s uterus.

According to the eyewitness reports of both my parents, I didn’t breathe. The nurse started thumping and abusing me in hopes of eliciting a wail of disapproval. It could have been a medical issue, but I like to think it was my first show of stubbornness that kept me from cooperating. It wasn’t until I was given the physical delight of a shot in my wee little foot that I screamed. Bastards should know better than to put a needle in the foot of a child. By the by, does anyone think it strange that my mother would remember the ethnicity of the doctor who delivered me but not how much I weighed? Every now and again I’m still puzzled at the nature of the people who gave me life. And I have to fear which of their traits I will assume and which I will discard. I’ve got my eye on the brains, while I’m trying to avoid the stare of the Iron Nazi. No doubt we’ll cover that in a later assignment from Dr. Ackley.

Well, my father left my mother in the capable hands of the doctor (don’t forget he was Indian) and went out the doors of Montreal General Hospital to brave the bitter wind that was bringing a blizzard. He was going home to check on my sister, who was left in the watchful care of Fill In The Blank (they don’t remember who it was). Sometimes the story goes that this happened on the way home, and other times it was on the way back to the hospital. Either way, the car didn’t work. Poor car decided that it was just too cold to move, and so it moved no more. My dad had to brave more bitter wind until reaching the home of Whomever Watched My Sister. He shared his delight with her, told her that the new baby had finally arrived. And as they tumbled gratefully into the apartment, eager for warmth and comfort, they found that the heater had broken. Outside, the snow had already started to pile in drifts that would last for days to come. He recalls that the phone rang, and the caller offered him a job in the warm, exotic community of Tampa Bay. It was a bit of a sting to the young father with a broken heater and cold hands. Now it adds zest to the otherwise blasé story of my entrance into the world.

I have a hard time writing about anything that I can’t see. I don’t mean visually, mind you. I need the landscape of events to lay before my mind’s eye in order to feel like I can describe it to anyone. It is this problem that caused me to halt writing on my fantasy novel. I had some of the characters, lots of ideas, and the all important enthusiasm for the project. But it remained hazy to me, and I shelved it until my eyes become adjusted to that world. I wouldn’t want to describe it incorrectly. I just need some corrective eyewear to keep going.

I have been to Montreal as an adult. I have walked her streets and heard the music of the sidewalks. I know her layout and her style. But for all of that, the only part of my birth that becomes real to me is the image of my parents walking. I can’t see the sterility of the birthing room or my dad wearing scrubs. I don’t hear my newborn cry or my mother’s exhausted sigh of relief to finally be freed from the tyrannical rule of an infant in her belly. But I see them moving up a slightly sloping walk, bundled in secondhand coats and their hands stuffed deep into warm pockets. I see their breath in small clouds of frost, and every now and again I hear my father whistle a piece from Handel’s Messiah.

So that is the image of my birth, and the only one that I feel comfortable trying to relay in this assignment that Dr. Ackley, face and voice unknown, is asking of me. Quiet streets, cold air, and the soft thud of traveling feet remind me of expectant hope. So far, that’s what I think I have expressed. But I’m not sure where to go next.

11:30 AM
The phone has been ringing all the while, but luckily I haven’t had to stop my thoughts for too long. Some days are perfectly wretched, when callers want to ask me about things that do not have anything to do with me, my job, or even the place I work for. I’m thinking particularly of a caller who was angry that a rooster was crowing early in the mornings near her house and wanted to know what was to be done. She didn't seem to appreciate that I work for a church, and we do not own a rooster or know what is to be done with a rooster who is practicing his natural abilities of wakening the sleepy world.

I’m pretty sure that my sarcasm comes across loud and clear when confronted with such calls. But really, a rooster? Why would anyone think to call a church about a rooster?

Another caller I will never forget insisted that she had debunked the great hideous myth of evolution. This amazing discovery was based on a tomb located in Somethingshire, England in the back of a very old church. The ‘tomb’, as she called it, was above ground and made of old white stone. It was accented with a large golden band that had many carvings. The carvings included dinosaurs and a leviathan.

At this time, though pretty taken with her words and her dramatic expression, I had to stop and ask why she was calling and what she needed from me. Her answer? She needed to know the name of an above ground tomb. And then…expect it on CNN shortly…the end to evolution. One could make so many jokes about the irony.

It is now time for my shift to end, which causes excitement each and every day. And, at the same time, a bit of remorse. The last hour sailed by as I updated my Facebook account, checked email , looked for good recommendations on Netflix, and entered three sweepstakes for a vacation to Germany, a year’s wardrobe for my daughter, and a trip to Disney World for four. I thought about the Disney World one for a few minutes before deciding to enter. My family is about to grow from four to five, and I wondered how we could possibly take a baby to the Magic Kingdom, not to mention having to pay for the fifth person. I tuned out while imagining telling my teary-eyed kids that we couldn’t go with a newborn baby. Then I sold the trip on Craig’s List until remembering the Craig’s List killer, and I switched to Ebay. I don’t have an Ebay account, but it did make me think of checking Amazon for recent sales in historical fiction.
And now…it is time to end this part of my day and start the other. Time to stop writing and go be a mom. Too bad I didn't find a clever angle for this writing assignment.

I don't understand why my daughter's preschool has such odd hours. I have to rehearse the times in my head every single day so as to avoid the $1/minute late charge. I'm sort of embarassed to admit that I've been in mental fights with her teachers if they ever dare try to charge me. I don't think I've been late, oh miracle beyond belief. But they take so bloody long to pack up the green folders and incorrectly pass out the lunch boxes that by the time I get to the door it is past time for pickup. I dare them to try to charge me or keep my kid when I refuse to pay. I've always wanted to see the inside of a jail anyways.

What are the odds of both schools letting out at quarter past? It seems so precarious a time to do anything. I say land right on the o'clock or halfpast, and then nobody would ever be late. If I know it is somewhere between Random O'Clock and HalfPast Random, I'm all set. I don't work well with specific minutes.

This might be my least favorite part of the day, when really it should be the opposite. I never know what to do with the kids until time to pick up their dad at 5:30. Can't go all the way home, as that would be a waste of gas money. But where do you entertain kids for two hours on a consistent basis? I should pay my library fines.

Somehow I managed to pass the time with my kids, handing out packs of slightly smushed crackers that I found in the magic mess that is my purse. The cheese on those crackers always unnerves me. What is its main ingredient? We know it isn't cheese, but what possibly could make that kind of texture aside from yellow baby powder? The time for my husband to end work has arrived and I'm going to talk to him about my day. He is such a good idea-bouncer-offer. Maybe he has some good ideas about Ackley's Assigment.

I'm driving off without him.
He settles in the car with a sigh and I'm pretty sure he isn't going to notice the irritated look on my face. Why does it not occur to him that I don't want to sit in the car with two kids for 13 minutes while he finishes up the loose ends for the workday? More importantly, why can he not read a clock?

We leave most of our stuff in the car, which is why my car is a miasma of wilted toast crust and stupid mail circulars. I clean it out only when it gets hideously embarassing or when I'm looking for a most beloved shoe for the kids' dolls. This is my least favorite time of the day. I hate coming in to a home that has been empty all day. I don't know why we work so hard to pay for a home that we just sleep in. I hate coming in and knowing that I am working furiously to make a dinner, give baths, clean up, do dishes, find tomorrow's school uniforms, look at homework, have a glass of wine, put the laundry in the dryer, brush tiny teeth, read stories and promote a love of reading, practice poetry lines for first grade poetry day, and God knows what else....all within the span of a couple of hours. The day of a mother is never, ever long enough. Often it is too long.

Kiddie bedtime. If I shoot for 8, they are usually asleep by 9. The little one is tricksy though. She waits up, sits up on the stairs and listens to her dad and I talk (argue) about finances and adult jokes and who we no longer like at work and whatever else comes to mind. She's a bit of a night owl.

I look up from my book and find that my husband has gone to bed. Poor guy works really hard. I should have spent the time writing. I'm never going to make it as a novelist if I don't practice my craft. I wash my face with cold water because I'm too impatient to wait for the hot water to kick in. Some eye cream, some toothpaste, some lip balm, and I'm off towards bed.

Today's assignment will have to wait.

1 comment:

Jack said...

As always, your words bring inspiration. Keep your chin up--one day your home will remain alive during the day.