mem-wahr

My books of choice are fiction. I love to let go and ride the currents of a good story. I crave the escape. Lately, however, I’ve come ashore, kicking around in the memoir/humor/social commentary shelves at the local library.

This is due entirely to an interest in writing a book. I’m getting some encouragement, and, frankly, everyone else is writing a book, why not me? When I signed up for NaNoWriMo in November, I asked for ideas on Facebook. One idea — made by a childhood friend (one who knows I have a story or two) –stood out from the rest:

“Write about yourself, same genre as David Sedaris. You would keep anyone entertained.”

I will not even pretend to be as funny or engaging as Mr. Sedaris, but wow, what if?

What if?

I picked up “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” and fell in love. I gorged myself on his special brand of sardonic wit.  I get him.

He had a pet spider (I did, too) that he named and took to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Unbeknownst to my mother, I smuggled my pet toad into a high-end gift shop and it got out of the box I had hidden in my backpack. Before I could stop it, Herbie hopped into one of those tall Ming dynasty-ish vases. It took some creative distraction of the store staff to topple that vase and coax that brown lump out. To this day, I get all hive-covered when I go into one of those Waterford Crystal type stores. I feel the guilt of a toad smuggler wash over me the minute I cross the threshold.)

He attracts all the town criminals and freaks to his yard (that’s my speciality), dug up all his dead pets to see how they were doing (did that), wanted to and did watch a real autopsy (did that, too,) and was a chain smoker (*cough*) who struggled to quit. I’ve done all these things. We are practically twins.

Then I read “Bossypants” by Tina Fey; the “Idiot Girls Guide“series by Laurie Notaro; and “I’m Really Sad About My Neck” by Nora Ephron. (Let me pause here to ask: is her name pronounced EE-frahn or eff-RAWN? Blame it on my late father, but I tend to go heavy on the Es, as he did. I say things such as “The days are long at the EEEEE-quayter,” instead of “The ehQUAYter is halfway between the two poles.”)

I can’t get enough. These lives, these wacky experiences couldn’t be anything less than the truth — the pathetic, funny and wonderful truth. I laughed until tears streamed down my face. I laughed and snorted and carried on until David Sedaris was officially banned from the bedroom night stand. Over and over I fell in love.

My husband is getting a little worried about all this unrequited love blurring my vision.

“What’s wrong with me? he asks. Do I gotta go gay on you, cross dress, write a rom-com? Get on NPR? What?

Most of all, these talented funny writers inspired me enough to give it a go. The hardest thing is letting go of fear, doubt, self-consciousness and laziness. My life may be nothing more than a series of stupid incidents, a handful of tragedies, a lot of mischief and mayhem, and a dark closet stuffed with bad decisions, but I’ve had a few turns of good luck and nice people who like me to keep things cheerful. So it’s balanced — enough.

Whenever I’m asked about writing a book, I always say I’ll wait until everyone in my immediate family is dead so they won’t kill me when they read it.  That family of mine? The ones who aren’t dead? They have that damn longevity gene. At this rate, if I don’t act now, I’ll be dictating to a ghost writer from my nursing home bed. No more.

If I can’t retire early on the spoils of my success, why not just write what really happened and buy a cup of coffee? Time is running out. Already I have a knee that sounds like a crinkling chip bag when I bend it, and an irrational fear of electricity, cameras, and overhead flourescent lighting.

So, I’ve set up an online site and the outline for this project. I’m compiling archived blog posts with fresh material to someday, with hope, publish something. I’m not in a rush but I do like the idea of having a goal.

It’s a first step. One that sounds like a crumpled chip bag.

 

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Fumbling toward clarity

Last spring I started volunteering in Detroit Public Schools as a literacy tutor. Those few months were a warm-up for the challenges of this school year.

This year I am matched with two first-grade girls. We meet for an hour on Thursdays. We read and practice writing sentences. But it’s more than that.

Right before winter break, Girl No. 1 grabbed me in an awkward hug outside her classroom.

“Are you gonna miss me?” she asked, head down but dark eyes peering up, wide and pleading.

“Of course I’ll miss you,” I said.

“Are you my friend?”

“Yes. I am your friend.”

She asks me these questions every week.

Sometimes she throws a curve ball.

“Do you wear panties with flowers on them?” she asks in mock seriousness. I make a face. She tosses back her head, quaking with giggles that make her hair beads click.

Here we go again with this one. She’s smart, but plagued by dark moods and sharp shifts in temperament. I’m guessing these emotional storms get in the way of learning.

“Back to work, my friend,” I say, grabbing the reader. We begin going over long and short vowel sounds.

Girl No. 2 is a different chapter in the story we are writing. She struggles. The alphabet. Words. Sounds. Putting it all together is a major challenge. Additionally, she is almost impossible to reign in. The sighing radiator, padding feet in the hallway, leaves and wrappers swirling about in the courtyard outside all compete for her attention. At our last meeting, I detected the slightest movement toward progress with her. She didn’t ask me if I’d miss her. She didn’t want a hug or even a pat on the back.

Ah, these kids. Some weeks I feel the warmth of pride as they grasp a concept. Other weeks, panic rises in my throat as I hear things that drag me down dark roads: What kind of lives do these girls live? What messages play on their daily soundtrack? How can a young child have so much anger, sadness and resignation?

I know some of the answers. Although we lived on different streets, came up in different eras, these girls and I  have something in common. I had trouble learning. I didn’t achieve my academic potential.  I spent far more time in detention/the principal’s office/ time out than in the classroom. Teachers, counselors and social workers constantly leaned in to ask: “What is bothering you? What is wrong?”

If we stick to letters and words and simple readers, I’m good.

But when I start hearing and seeing the reasons why we are together in this stifling storage room, crushed together in a small wooden corral, in this crumbling building in a crumbling city, I want to run out the door. In the next beat I think I should be here every day for an hour. How else can I make a difference?

I guess this is similar to how new teachers feel. Touching young lives. Making a difference. How many seasoned educators are bitter, burned out, cynical? I know two such teachers who quit the system. They advised me to be cautious in taking on this quest. I can’t say they didn’t warn me.

But I’m doing it anyway, in spite of bureaucracy, politics, cynicism, doubt, bitterness, fear, and every thing else.

Why do I do this? To help them? To help me? To figure out what to do next with my life?

All of the above.