A Tale of Two Bombs

For my applications to MFA in Creative Writing Programs, I have to submit both a personal statement and a writing sample. I wanted to share with you the personal statement I wrote as to why I want to pursue the MFA.

One of the schools to which I am applying is Southern New Hampshire University (which is a 100% online program). They asked me to address the following: explain how someone else’s story – such as a novel, movie, or a personal account – has impacted your life and influenced your drive to become a writer.

Here’s what I had to say:

I was twenty-one years old in the spring of 1996. I had been working on campus in the Office of International Programs, a job I loved because it was all about studying abroad and travel. Tucked at the back of our department were two smaller offices that belonged to faculty in the English department. While I had never taken a class from Dr. T., she was someone who was gregarious and often engaged me in conversation because she knew I loved to read.

I graduated that May and as a gift, my parents allowed me to audit a two-week study abroad program to Italy. On my last day of work, Dr. T. pressed a mass-market paperback into my hands and told me it would rock my world.

I started reading it on the plane to Milan and was immediately engrossed. So much so that I stayed up as night bled quickly into the next morning to find out what happened next. I read it on trains, and at night in my hotel rooms in Florence, Rome, and Siena. Stunning art and architecture surrounded me by day and a great story, well-told, filled my nights.

Finally, in Venice, I finished it. I was sharing a room with two other women and they were both sound asleep. But I had been so completely electrified and inspired by that book that I wanted to jump from bed, fling open the shutters and shout into the darkness of the city: “You must stop what you are doing immediately and read this book!”

The title? A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

Dr. T. was right, my world had indeed been rocked to the foundations. I had always toyed with the idea of writing fiction seriously, but in the moment I finished that book something shifted. I was so astonished by the way Irving gathered together plot threads. Then he didn’t just neatly tie them together at the end, he wove them into a fuse that exploded a bomb in my mind.

If someone so unknown to me as John Irving could have that much impact upon me with a novel, I knew then and there that I wanted to do that. I wanted in.

By nature, life mostly does not go according to plan. I went on to get a second bachelor’s degree, but during my time at the University of Minnesota I took many literature and creative writing classes. I loved them as much as the classes in my major.

In 1999 I had two bachelor’s degrees (one in Anthropology and one in Art History). I knew plainly and painfully that I was neither truly motivated nor brilliant enough to pursue an advanced degree in either subject. While I loved both disciplines, it was the stories they told that held the most fascination for me. 

I did write, but not steadily. I knew I had the requisite talent to create stories and novels, and the muse occasionally got me by the throat and I would write furiously for a couple weeks. But I did not have the dedication nor the drive to create a portfolio in my early twenties.

Even so, I knew that books and literature were it for me. So, I did the only thing I could think of that would surround me with stories that paid well and had health insurance: I became a librarian. It was practical and it helped to lull me into a false sense of being part of the literary world.

It worked for a while, but I knew deep down it wasn’t enough. 

By my mid-thirties I desperately wanted to write something. I craved it. But I had no ideas. I started looking at mythology, thinking I could retell a story from the Greek pantheon. Then, on March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm, I was scrolling through a web page on the nine muses when I hit on the idea that would become my first novel. Like the explosion that had been detonated by A Prayer for Owen Meany, this too packed lots of gunpowder. I was a live wire, smoking and snapping with the charge I just received.

I was so excited that evening as I went for a walk with my husband. I gamboled around him like a baby goat, telling him about the story I was planning. Details and plot points flew at me in a rush. And with that second bomb, I started writing. Really writing.

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in twelve weeks. I have written three other novels since and have ideas for three more on the back burner. I have a steady, faithful writing habit I have sustained for ten years. Only once, after my mother died after a protracted illness, was I unable to write for grief. But I eased back in by writing flash fiction and working up to short stories. I even got some of them published.

My reasons to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing are twofold. The first is I want to be surrounded with writing in my day job–I want to teach at the college level. The MFA will get me there. The second, and most important, is I simply want the experience. I want to indulge and immerse myself in a program that will engage my critical thinking again and make me a better writer. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

I have come a long way since that night in Venice when John Irving blew my mind. I now possess the maturity and motivation to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and a portfolio to show for it. I will never forget the gift Dr. T. gave me that day she presented me with that well-worn paperback. A Prayer for Owen Meany cracked me open to the endless possibilities of stories and the devastating effect of great writing.

I want that.

May His Memory Be Eternal

It’s a lovely sentiment to say when someone dies: May his/her/their memory be eternal. I first learned this when I married a Greek, as this is their blessing instead of saying, “my sympathies,” or “my prayers are with you and your family,” or, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

It gives a beautiful message that the deceased will continue to live on in the memories of others, passed down through generations of family, or networks of friends. Even though it is a Greek saying, and they are mostly Eastern Orthodox, there is no religious connotation to the phrase, making it applicable to all.

But sometimes memories aren’t eternal. Sometimes there are lives forgotten.

Working at a public library for fifteen years you get to know a lot of people who are alone. And I mean alone–sometimes they have family far away, but a lot of the time I am the only person they talk to in their day, maybe their week.

Dennis Albright was one of these people who spent most of their time alone. He loved Sci Fi  and old horror movies, his favorite movie of all time was Dr. Strangelove.  Mr. Albright always had blood spots on his face from where he nicked himself shaving. He spoke rapidly, almost frenetically, like he had so much information to share he had to do it quickly before his one conversation of the week dried up.

He was a more than a little odd. Another patron told me he used to be a brilliant physics professor but kind of lost his mind when his mother died. He was a writer too, he had his book self-published on Amazon called “Wiener Dogs at War.” I’m not sure it sold very many copies, but it made him happy. Ecstatic.

When we moved last year I was surprised to see him in our parking lot one day. He lived on the second floor of our building, it seemed. He would walk around and around the parking lot for exercise in his highwater pants, white socks and black loafers.  Every time he saw my husband (whom he dealt with most at the library) he would always stop him with the words, “Let me ask you something,” and then launch into a diatribe about pensions, or his writing, or some other subject. Kosta often had a hard time extricating himself.

But last December it all changed. One morning on my way out to the car I saw two police cars sitting in the emergency drive of our building. There was a woman on the second floor walkway on the phone. I heard her say as I got into my car, “You wouldn’t want to be up here today.” I was mildly curious, but didn’t want to pry as it was none of my business.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that we found out that Mr. Albright had died. And not just died, but lay dead in his apartment for two weeks before the smell began to drift into the hallway. We heard from another couple in our building he had died in the bathroom and the police had a hard time getting to him because he had collapsed against the door.

We were shocked and saddened that he was so alone that the lack of his presence went unmissed for two weeks. What a sad ending to what must have been a very lonely existence.

In January a huge dumpster appeared in our parking lot. And within two days the entire contents of his apartment were emptied into it, filling it to the top. We had heard he had no family save for an estranged sister who apparently wanted nothing to do with him. So into the dumpster it all went, an entire life: furniture and cookware, and papers, and probably lots of copies of his book. In another few days it was taken away and that was the end of Mr. Albright.

But that isn’t good enough for me. He may have been annoying, he may have been alone, but no one deserves to end their life that way. So I’m posting this as a memory of him. I hope wherever he is he has lots of friendly companions and lots of wiener dogs to play with.

I’m sorry, Mr. Albright, that I wasn’t a better friend to you. May your memory be eternal.

Plague Diaries #11

It’s no secret that I’ve been dealing with major anxiety, so bad that for a while there it was all I could do to force myself out of bed in the morning, bed being the safest place on earth.

It’s also no secret that I took some medical leave from work to deal with getting my head back on straight. I am trying everyday to meditate, walk, knit, listen to podcasts, read, and do other kind things for myself so that I can relax enough to get my breathing back to a non-panicked state.  It’s been slow, but my mood is lifting and I am getting better.

The one sticking point is writing. Some asshole will probably point out that I’m writing this, but that’s not the same thing at all. Here is just a journal of thoughts, feelings and events. It isn’t creative, although some other asshole might argue that too.

But this is where things brighten. I have a friend who teaches at our local university, let’s call her LC. I’ve known LC for almost as long as I’ve been living in Florida which means we’ve been friends for over fifteen years. She’s always been a shining light in my life, even though I don’t get to see her often. But we have been talking a lot on the phone lately and she has been prodding me to get back to creativity.

We recently read together an essay, deconstructed it, and then each wrote our own homage to the formula and the brilliant writer. I like the first draft of my essay about goats (Greek goats, specifically), even though I was wheezing through the entire process of getting words down on the computer screen. I tweaked it a bit the next day and became more pleased with it, even though it isn’t nearly as poignant and heartbreaking  as the original. But it was good to be writing something again.

LC is great at giving feedback. Always starting with the positive and then moving gently to where things could be improved. She’s a brilliant writer herself and I can’t wait to read her version of the essay. (It’s her wedding anniversary today, so I’ll cut her some slack.) But the feeling of putting words together and making some interesting connections fired something in me that had been doused by a bucket of mood disorder.

Things will always happen that will try to keep my from writing. The death of my mother stoppered things for a good year. This pandemic has strafed me as well. And next year it will be something else. Maybe the murder hornets will set up shop in the gardenia bushes out my back door. I don’t know.

But no matter how much water is thrown on the fire, I’ll keep going. Nathan Hill, the amazing author of The Nix, and a local, wrote this essay recently that said much more succinctly than what I’m trying to do here. Read it here:  Postcard From the Pandemic: A Solid Little Feeling

I will get back to writing. After my mother died and nearly a year had gone by I started with smaller pieces, flash fiction and some essays. Some got published in online and literary reviews. Maybe if my goat essay gets polished enough I’ll try sending that out too.

Writing is the fire in my blood. I might slow down, I might stop altogether from time to time,  but it always comes back, no matter what catastrophe I face. And if I just tempted fate with that statement, so be it. Bring on the murder hornets.

 

Plague Diaries #8

My place of work closed one month ago today, and even though we report to a library empty of patrons, we still do work to reach the public. My coworker and I did a live virtual book discussion today on Facebook, for instance. We’ve been heavy into making online content and pushing our digital resources so people won’t miss us quite so much. I know a lot of our regulars do. One doesn’t work at a library for fifteen years without getting to know quite a few faces.

I wonder about the homeless population. There are a few regulars at my branch that have been coming in every day for years to read the papers or use the computers. Now they can’t come to the library. They can’t go to the beach. All the parks are closed. What happened to them all? Where are they going all day?

We’ve also been handing out paper unemployment applications. Since the State of Florida’s “Reemployment” Office is being overwhelmed, they have resorted to having people fill those forms out on paper and mail them in. I suppose it makes a desperate person feel like they’re doing something, but I really don’t know how it’s supposed to help. Those applications aren’t going to be processed any time soon. Disney just furloughed tens of thousands of employees. Do you really think the system was made to handle that?

For those of us blessed enough to have jobs, I wonder if others are feeling pressure like me to prove my worth over and over again. The “I”m producing, please don’t lay me off,” spiel. But please, also, treat me like a human being. Take my health and safety into consideration as talk of reopening is starting to happen. Please don’t let me be cannon fodder because people need to check out movies.

I’ve mentioned before my only family is my father and my husband. As of now, I feel relatively safe at work. I mostly stay in my office. But when the library reopens, (it is only a matter of time, I know this) I am terrified of working with the public. I can begin to imagine how the folks who work at the grocery stores feel. I don’t want to feel like a bomb ready to explode at home and rain virus down on the two people who matter most to me.

I know reopening is going to happen. But I’m afraid the powers that be in Florida are going to move just as quickly to reopen as they were in being reluctant to close. The governor needs to look at the numbers. We added 1222 new cases just yesterday. A 32-year-old woman died in my county yesterday. We haven’t hit our peak. He needs to have people around him that are not just focused money but also on the value of human life. I fear this is not the case.

I get it. Money is important. Without it we starve, we don’t have shelter, our businesses falter and die. But the economy will bounce back, it always does. Even from the Great Depression.  It might take a long time, but it will happen.

But one thing you don’t bounce back from is dead. Every number in that death toll is a person who won’t be going forward on this earth. And every number is leaving innumerable others behind to mourn their senseless and lonely deaths.

I won’t apologize for being morose. I’m not happy with the way my country has responded to this epic disaster. I have a friend in France that I talk to often and she is appalled at what she hears in the news and the things I tell her. It makes me not ashamed, per se, but sad to be an American in these times. I love my country. I want it to be the shining beacon it once was to the world. There has never been another country so uniquely founded on ethics and careful logic as this one. To see it torn apart breaks my fucking heart.

Still, even at the bottom of Pandora’s box was hope. We have to cling to that like nothing else. Because right now, that is all we have. Hope for a vaccine. Hope for recovery. Hope for a future.

I’ll see you on the other side,

Anna

 

Plague Diaries #6

There is a new normal.

I say this as I am writing from the couch. We have just had “virtual cocktails” with friends of ours and my husband is now making dinner. (The husband making dinner isn’t the new normal, and for that I’m very lucky. He cleans up too.)

As of right now, Florida has 11,545 cases of Covid-19, with 221 cases in my county. The next county over, Miami-Dade, has 3,890. I know we are not the hardest hit in the nation. New York is suffering something what we can’t imagine right now. But I’m afraid Death, while not knocking on our door just yet, is definitely sharpening his scythe.

It’s coming.

My week was pretty quiet. I worked 8-5 every day, but I was blessed that I was able to stay in my office for the majority. I am damn grateful to be employed with health insurance right now.

Today Kosta and I visited our favorite French restaurant for takeout quiche and we went to the grocery store. Then we came home and took a four-mile walk. It was great to get out of doors and get some exercise. Then I did Dad’s grocery shopping and came home and de-loused. (Which means I took a long, steamy shower with lots of soap and shampoo.)

Virtual drinks with Fabiana and Fernando was fun. It was almost like being at our favorite hangout, Riptide Brewing Company. Not quite, because there was no beer for me, but it was fun to talk to them for an hour. And two vodka gimlets have left me feeling pleasantly buzzed.

In fact, I’ve been talking to lots of people online lately. Maybe I’m not as introverted as I thought I was. I feel the need to connect with my friends that I can’t see right now. And it calms me down and energizes me when I do, so that’s a good thing. And I can do it all from the comfort of my couch in my jammies, so maybe I am as much of an introvert as I thought.

Life has shrunk, most definitely. Even with the Skype and the Zoom and the FaceTime I still feel like my world has diminished. There are fewer faces, fewer conversations, more solitude. I wonder how my extroverted friends are coping. Surely this can’t be easy for them.

But every day I am grateful that I wake up, and every night I am thankful for another day of health. I don’t know what the future holds and I am conscious that I am living each day more completely because of the uncertainty of what is to come.

And through it all, I have the two men who matter to me the most: my husband and my father. I’m lucky to have such fine examples of human beings with whom I spend the majority of my time. I love you both.

And that isn’t just the vodka talking, either.

Plague Diaries #5

I think like many of you, my brain has been obsessively focused on the pandemic. It’s taking up a lot of mental real estate with me these days. Mostly I’m worried about what’s going to happen and the alarming news about the projections of how many people in this country are going to die in the next month or so.

But this morning during breakfast I was musing on another aspect of this extraordinary event in our lives and how the world has lived through this before and will no doubt live through it again. The Bubonic Plague lay waste to the world’s population and was instrumental in plunging us into the Dark Ages. But a more recent plague, namely the Spanish Flu pandemic of just over one hundred years ago, is something that is a little more accessible to our modern brains.

grandmaThis is my grandmother: Eileen Mary Bachmeyer Nelson. She was born February 11, 1915 in Minneapolis, MN. She lived through the Spanish Flu. She once told me one of her first memories was the end of World War I. She remembered her mother crying and seeing people shouting and celebrating in the streets. She was the only member of her immediate family with a job for a time during the Great Depression. She had an independent streak a mile long and lived to be nearly 95 years old.

Why am I telling you this? Not just because I was honored to be her granddaughter and that I still miss her like crazy, even though she’s been gone for ten years now. But I was considering today how the span of her life overlapping with the span of mine (and who knows how long that will be?) isn’t even a blip in the span of history, but what things have happened in our Venn Diagram of shared and un-shared time on earth.

She saw the Spanish Flu, though I doubt she remembered it. She lived through two world wars. We both lived through the Challenger explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraq War, and 9/11. And now, what will I add to our story before my light goes out in this world? I thought 9/11 was going to be the most significant world event that I would ever experience. I was very mistaken on that. As much as our world changed in 2001, I have a feeling the effects of the Covid-19 are going to be so much more far reaching than any of us can imagine now.

Life is never going to be the same again. We will be unequivocally, irrevocably changed. We are going to have to adjust to a new normal, whatever that may be. But this plague won’t finish us as a species. We are infinitely adaptable.

I’m glad my grandmother was spared living through this. Not that she wasn’t resilient enough, but one pandemic is enough for a lifetime.

Besides, she would have HATED the president.

See you on the other side,

Anna

Plague Diaries #2

This is our fifth day of self-isolation. Although I went to the grocery store yesterday, so it didn’t feel like a quarantine. The store was pretty well stocked and we got what we needed for the week. Today we plan to stay at home and go for a walk, but that’s all.

I am scared. There are lots of things to be scared about: getting sick is the top one on the list, but there are many other things pressing on my mind right now.

How many people are going to die?

The numbers are reported for the state of Florida every day at 11 a.m., and 6 p.m. For the past two days we have been adding 200+ cases every 24 hours. My county has 39 cases. That may not seem like much but testing has been scant. They started getting more aggressive last week when the private labs and hospital started testing too. But if test results take 5-7 days to come in, then we haven’t seen the real spike in the number of cases yet. Maybe in a few more days we’ll see more numbers reflective of how we really are.

What is going to happen to the economy?

It’s in a free fall right now and I don’t see anything stopping it. The stimulus package that the senate is fighting over might help, but I don’t have a lot of confidence they will reach an agreement. Bipartisan fighting is tearing us apart when we need our elected officials to band together now more than ever. I don’t see the senate standing on the steps of the Capitol singing “God Bless America” like they did after 9/11.

I’m not going to comment on who is right and who is wrong in this scenario because that is exactly my point. If Democrats and Republicans can’t come to an agreement now, when the world is collapsing, then we might be doomed.

What is going to happen to everyone who is suddenly out of work? 

I almost can’t sleep at night because I’m worried about friends who have lost their jobs. I realize the importance of shutting things down and agree this is the only way forward to lessen the number of deaths. There is a human life attached to every one of those numbers you see posted every day.

But what about the people who worked in restaurants? That is a livelihood that is already tenuous–a tiny wage with the majority of money made in tips. And when the job is gone, so is the health insurance. (At least that’s so in the USA.) What happens if they get sick and need to be hospitalized? How are they going to pay for that?

Why are some people still not taking this seriously?

My husband and I have been going for daily walks. We practice social distancing, where if someone is headed towards us on the sidewalk, we step out into the street to keep a safe distance from others.

We wash our hands. If we are forced to go out (like to the grocery store) we shower when we come home. And some people, I am sure, will say we’re being extreme. Are we? Or are we making sure we stay well?

On our walk we pass by the Lakewood Public Golf Course. The parking lot is still packed every day. Most of the license plates are out of state. So apparently the snowbirds that are with us every winter still feel that playing their 18 holes is more important than stopping the spread of disease.

Of course, it is a sport with very little contact. You’re out of doors, staying away from each other, and generally getting exercise. But who is sanitizing the golf carts? Who is practicing social distancing in the club house? I see clumps of people standing around and talking as we walk by. And it makes me angry.

But!

I also am reminding myself daily of the things I am grateful for. There is a lot. My husband, my father, and I are all healthy as of this writing. I have a job which I am damn grateful for. I have health insurance. We own our condominium outright and have no mortgage payment. We have plenty of food and enough toilet paper for a month. No one I know has the disease as of yet, although one family member was tested yesterday.

Above all, I am grateful for every day I have that I remain healthy. I can go for long walks. I can watch movies with my husband. I can keep in touch with friends and family that I love dearly.

Watch out for each other. Check in. Spread some laughter in this dark time. And stay away from each other as much as you possibly can.

See you on the other side,

Anna

Avert your eyes

I’ve been sick with bronchitis for the past week. All of the stress I’ve been under made mincemeat of my immune system and I was struck hard last Thursday night with it. I even got some excellent cough syrup with hydrocodone in it.  It helped me sleep and helped me not to cough so much.

But this morning I was still not feeling better so I called the doctor and got a second appointment. And as I was driving over it happened. A mama duck started bustling her brood across the busy four-lane road. The truck in front of me didn’t even stop and mowed over them, killing two of them. I slammed on my brakes in horror as the mama duck ran back into traffic. If my windows had been rolled down I am sure I would have heard her screams of terror.

My own mouth opened wide as well, though no sound came out. My eyes screwed shut and I could not see for the tears that poured forth. The violent death of the ducklings and the anguished horror of their mama triggered a full-blown panic attack in me. Behind the wheel. I could not breathe, nor see, nor, it seemed, able to do anything useful at all. Somehow I managed to pull off the road and sat in the parking lot of a church and remained quite hysterical for at least fifteen minutes.

Obviously I was not crying about the ducks.

If you’re sick of reading about my grief, I’m sorry. But this is a place I am going to sit for a while. Please skip over me if it bothers or annoys you.

I mean this sincerely.

There are some interesting things I have learned about grief and death in America in the past few weeks.

The first is that most people are uncomfortable with it. It is something they don’t understand and something they fear, therefore they avoid it. We are expected to cry at the funeral and then go on with our lives, doing more damage to our psyches than we realize.

When we have had a profound loss in our life it is quite natural to get hysterical from time to time. It is the body’s way of releasing the pressure we build inside ourselves.

The second thing I learned was something a wise man told me. He said that grief is like playing in the surf. If you stand hard against the waves it will knock you down and fill your mouth full of water and sand. But if you let the wave wash over you, you will go down, but you will bob right back up again. Best not to fight it when it comes.

So when it comes I am going to let it consume me. I will cry ugly. I will probably choke on my own snot and cough so hard I pee my pants a little. But I will not stand against the grief. I will embrace it and ride it out to the other side. Because that is the only way I am going to get through this.

And I will understand if you need to avert your eyes.

The Club

I have recently become a member of an exclusive club. So exclusive, even my husband isn’t a member. I have a few friends and relatives who belong though. My friend from high school, Jenny, joined in her twenties. My cousins Michelle, Andrew and Paul have been members since 2006. And most of us, at one time or another will gain membership. It’s easy, you just have to lose a parent.

I don’t mean to be glib. In fact, I don’t want to be at all. Most of you know my mom died last Saturday. She had been sick for a long time. Her last month of life was spent in the ICU of Tampa General Hospital. And in the early hours of the morning, just five days ago, her fragile body gave out. Specifically, her lungs just couldn’t keep up anymore. She was 67 years old.

Grief is an overwhelming thing. Sometimes I am all right, I have moments of calm. But then my brain thinks, “I can’t believe this is happening,” and suddenly I feel like I have been kicked repeatedly in the solar plexus, all breath knocked from my body and the ugly crying commences. And I never know where or when it is going to happen.

The past few days I’ve been sleeping a lot. It is my one escape from reality and a blessing. While I am asleep I do not cry. I do not remember she has gone. I do not think, “I’m never going to see her again in this life.”

My own mother’s mother, Grandma Marcy, died when Mom was in her early 30’s. And Mom had told me on numerous occasions that you never stop grieving for your mother. I believe her. I will get distance and time away from that horrible day, but I will never stop wanting her near me. I’ll never stop wanting her to touch my face with her soft hand, or kiss me, or tell me to “Get home good,” when I’m on my way home.

But the club. They are part of what is keeping me going. You see, they know the hell I am in right now and they see me. I’ve had several members approach me over the past few days to let me know they know how I am feeling. And in a weird way it’s a great comfort. They have been through this and yet they are still actively living their lives. Thank you Andrew, and Julie, and April, and Beth.

Don’t believe, however, that if you aren’t in the club I’m not grateful as hell for your kindness, your sympathy, or your love. Everyone has experienced loss, and I don’t belittle it one bit. Pain is pain and you don’t have to lose your mom to feel that. My husband Kosta, has been my rock. He never gets sick of seeing me melt down. He just holds me and lets me get it out.

For everyone who has lost a mother or father, I see you. I know the grief you carry around with you every day, no matter how much time has passed since they died. I see you.

But we carry on. I am sure I will find ways to deal with my grief, and the day will come when I won’t cry once.

Just not today.