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.

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.

 

My Mother’s China

My mama died just over a year ago. Born in 1950, she was a child of the Baby Boom. As children, she and her sister were given a sterling silver teaspoon, fork or knife for Christmas, birthdays, and other occasions from a couple of well-meaning aunts. When they were both young ladies of marriageable age they each had a full service of silver for their hope chests.

Hope chests were a thing back then. A young woman or girl would have a cedar chest or something similar where she would keep her silver service, embroidered linens, crocheted bedspreads, and handmade lace for her wedding gown. All the women in her family would help her to fill it so she could take it to her new life with her husband, a replacement for the even more archaic concept of a dowry.

As a Gen X-er I had no such thing. The women’s lib movement freed me from the burden of hope that I might be married and settled as soon as possible. There wasn’t an expectation on me to subjugate myself and make a home and family when I got out of school. I did not marry at eighteen like my mother. I was thirty-four and already had a household of my own when my husband and I joined forces.

I have inherited a lot of stuff from my mother: a Bavarian china service for twelve, etched water goblets, various pieces of Belleek, and other bits of china. I am in possession of her sterling flatware set and a Victorian-era Prussian chocolate set. They are all beautiful and represent my mother in ways that warm my heart. Every time I look at them I can feel how much she prided herself in them, how they meant something to her.

From her generation and generations before her, things like china and silver and crystal were a status symbol. They were objects that lifted them above the poverty of their ancestors, stating that they had arrived enough in the middle class to be able to afford and keep such costly and beautiful things meant only for special occasions. She treasured these, and the things she had inherited from women before her. 

Now the second hand of time is sweeping faster and attitudes are changing. I married, yes, but I chose not to have children (which is a whole other messy topic). It does make me sad at times to recognize I shall not have anyone to whom I can pass the good fortunes of my life, my mother’s life,  and her mother’s before her. The collection of status symbols from generations past that I now own are as antiquated as the millstone I have tied to my neck.

That’s right. I don’t want them. I might be saturated with guilt about it, but I cannot deny I will never use them. I don’t throw lavish dinner parties or hen parties that require these ornamental items now gathering dust in my house. Am I to be bound to these things until I die? Shall I shunt them from house to house, packing and unpacking them? It would be the only time I ever handle them or even think about them.

I thought of selling them online. I browsed through listings and found a glut of the very pieces I own. Two things became apparent: first, I do not have a china cabinet full of valuable rarities. Secondly, I am not the only woman my age who feels laden with the responsibility of her mother’s china. In most instances the pieces are being sold at rock-bottom prices which further adds to my suspicion that the kind of buyer for this type of item is vanishing. There is no one left who craves to possess the hand-painted luncheon set, the hob-nailed glass dessert plates, or the leaded crystal lemonade pitchers with matching glasses.

In the next few months I am going to be moving from a house of 1450 square feet to a condominium of 900 square feet. My husband and I are purging the excess possessions of our life together to make ourselves fit. There is a certain liberation in bringing bags of clothing and boxes of books to the Goodwill. It makes me lighter, exhilarated. Don’t mistake me–I love and cherish my books but there are many that I shall never read again and would love to pass on to someone who can enjoy them.

But the china and the crystal and the silver: they aren’t as easy to dump at the Goodwill. For one thing, someone in the past spent a great deal of hard-earned money on them. They were chosen with care and kept safe behind the glass of a china cabinet, some for a hundred years or more. I am having a hard time finding my way free of them without shattering my heart like fine porcelain. I know I don’t have the room to take it all with me. And yet I don’t want to send them off into the world without knowing that someone will take care of them, love them, wash them by hand and protect them from dust.

It is only pure guilt that keeps me from parting with them. But in another way I feel like I am giving away a piece of me, a little shard of my heart, my heritage, my identity. I wonder what Mama would say if she could read this. It gives me a thrill of dread to think about it. She was the sweetest, gentlest soul I had the privilege to know, but she was fierce about her stuff.

For instance, when Hurricane Irma was bearing down upon Naples (we scored a direct hit–the eye of the storm passed over our house) my parents came to stay with us. Mom wanted to bring a “few things” with her because they didn’t have hurricane shutters for the place where  they were living. “A few things” turned into four boxes of books and all her scrapbooking supplies. My poor father nearly stroked out moving it all. (If I had known what he was doing would I have helped him, or scolded my mother for being so materialistic? Probably the former. Mom had a lot of health problems and it was tough to say no to her on anything.)

I know this is a first world problem. It’s about stuff that I don’t need or want. But when an object is a piece of your past, all tangled in your heartstrings and guts, it’s still a painful conundrum. I am grateful for all I have. I want to live with less. It’s an awkward spot, to be moving towards the excitement of the future and progress for women and be clamped by the ankle to the weight of something as ridiculous as dinnerware. I recognize the dichotomy completely and see myself almost a fool for caring so much. And yet, my mother was one of my best friends and I want to honor her. I don’t want to dispose of everything she held dear with a flippant drop-off at the local thrift store. It would be tantamount to dumping her ashes on the curb. See ya, Mom. Hope someone will take care of you.

I don’t see men with this problem either. Why is it that women are so much more fixated on keeping mementos from the past? When my father and I went through my mother’s things she had dozens of envelopes of ephemera she meant to use in scrapbooking but never had the chance. My father requires very little by way of possessions. It was my mother who really hung onto everything like she would drown without it.

In the meantime, all that stuff is now drowning me.

There is no easy answer to this question. I need to find a way to release my guilt over my mother’s things. I must decide something quickly or start renting a storage space. They are popping up all over the place in my town: a testament that the middle class can’t let go of their shit. I am on the tipping point. 

Please let me fall soon.

My Mom: Jan Nelson

With my mother’s memorial service coming up a week from Friday, I was asked to put together a few words about her for my pastor. Of course, I wrote three pages. But I wanted to share them with you, along with some of the pictures I put together for a photo slideshow which will be shown at the church. Here she is in my own words:

My mama was the sweetest, most gentle heart I’ve ever known. She got that from her mother, Marcy, and her generosity of spirit from her father, Wally. Mom was kind and loving and so accepting of others. It took a lot to make her angry, and when she did get angry it was over pretty quickly.

Underneath that sweet exterior lurked a quick and wicked sense of humor. It’s one of the reasons she loved my father so much, because they were well matched. (Obviously, there were other, major reasons as well, but the fact that they laughed together, even in serious situations, was a gift to their marriage.) She and her friends Pat and Marie could laugh themselves into fits of hysterics and often did when they got together.

Mom loved to travel. The two of us went to London for a week in 1997 – the one and only time she went overseas. She loved every minute of it. We walked everywhere and had aching feet at the end of each day, but we saw so much. We even took day trips to Oxford and Windsor Castle. She made three consecutive scrapbooks to detail our trip.

My parents and I always did a two week vacation in the summer when I was a kid. We would usually go camping somewhere out west and we were fond of the National Parks. Glacier, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Death Valley, Lassen, Sequoia and Rocky Mountain National Parks all saw us at least once, but we revisited our favorites many times. We also explored the beauty of the Canadian Rockies by visiting Banff, Lake Louise, and Waterton Lakes. Even though camping wasn’t her favorite (she didn’t like bugs or wild animals), she went along with it in good humor because it got her out to see the world.

Unfortunately, bugs and wild animals seemed to like her. Mosquitoes flocked to her arms and legs and one time when a June bug flew at her and hit her in the face she literally jumped out of her sandals. And while in Mesa Verde in Colorado, two inquisitive mule deer quietly came up behind her to investigate our campsite while we were washing up after supper. They drove Mom to the safety of the car while they innocently nosed the frying pan.

Mom also loved the North Shore of Lake Superior. She went many times as a kid, usually staying with her family in Halcyon Harbor. But we made quite a few trips ourselves when I was a child. I remember sitting on the rocky shore with her and arguing over who got to read our only copy of Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. She loved Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls, and wandering through the many gift shops that line old Highway 61, plus eating at Sven and Ole’s in Grand Marais, and Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors.

She and Dad had an absolute blast traveling around in their RV. Unfortunately, her health problems made them have to stop after just a year on the road. Her goal was to see all 50 states, and she made 47 of them, missing only Alaska, Hawaii, and West Virginia. She also collected pictures of state capitols and wrote a newsletter called the Roads Scholars that she sent out to family and friends.

She did have a multitude of health problems, but she never complained about them. She bore everything on her small shoulders with grace and fortitude. She had quiet strength that could withstand the most difficult situations. She had a fiercely strong spirit and was determined to beat the odds. In the end, her lungs gave out on her, but she fought all the way. She said she didn’t want to die because she had so many things she still wanted to do.

Mom was gifted with all creative pursuits. She decorated our home beautifully, but also loved scrapbooking, painting, cross stitch, sewing, and needlework of all kinds. Scrapbooking was a particular passion in later years, and she would spend hours slaving over pages of memories. She made two books chronicling my life, one for her sister, one for her best friends Pat and Marie, one for her mother-in-law Eileen, one for Disney, even one specifically for pictures of people wearing silly hats at Disney World. (Yes, she really had enough pictures.) She delighted in putting together colors, layout, pictures and words to create something truly eye-catching and special.

Mom had a few obsessions. Some of these included Disney, picture frames, Disney, soap dishes, Disney, scrapbooking, Disney, Department 56 houses, Disney, Christmas, Disney and Disney. She worked at Disney World for a period of several years and got to indulge that obsession as much as she wanted. She collected pins, Lilo and Stitch memorabilia and quite a few pieces of art from the local artists who worked with her at the Art of Disney. Her time spent at the Art of Disney, a high end art store where you could buy anything from a $5 keychain to a $40,000 painting she discovered she really liked helping people choose the perfect treasure and had a knack for selling.

Mom was really smart. She got very good grades in high school and had an amazing memory and was a quick learner. She loved to read and devoured books voraciously. If she wasn’t occupied with one of her obsessions, you can bet she had a book in her hand. She adored mysteries, fiction, biographies and Harry Potter. She instilled a love of reading in me, leading by example.

She loved art, especially the Impressionists, and loved museums. She liked to write and was quite accomplished at it. She always thought she would have made a good librarian, and was so pleased when I made that my career. She was a bookkeeper and would have made a fantastic accountant if she’d had the chance to go to college. She loved learning of all kinds and was always looking for ways to expand her knowledge of the world, whether it be through books or travel.

In addition to art, she loved music too. Every Easter she got excited because our church service usually ended with the Hallelujah Chorus, in which she loved to participate, and Lorie Line was her go-to Christmas music. We saw her several times in concert. She loved singing in Mount Calvary choir and joined the Disney employee choir which sang at the EPCOT Candlelight Processional. She got to be on stage with Neil Patrick Harris, John Stamos, Eartha Kitt and Phylicia Rashad.

And she was always playing music in the car. When I was still in a car seat, she would strap me in and subject me to large doses of Barry Manilow. I, being an extremely good daughter, took her to see him in Fort Myers a couple of years ago, and was surprised that I knew the words to all but one of the songs, which was in itself a little frightening. But it made her so dang happy it was hard not to enjoy it.

She loved her family. On her father’s side she was the youngest of 25 first cousins. She adored her sister, all her nieces and nephews and their children, and had a special friendship with her cousin Kay. She was proud of her Swedish and Norwegian heritage. She loved her parents fiercely and was devastated when she lost them just six months apart. Being only seven at the time, I didn’t understand the magnitude of her loss. But now I have a very keen understanding of what she went through at just thirty two years of age.

She loved animals. From her collie Chloe, when she was a girl, to my cats Shady and Fingers now, she lavished as much attention on them as they would let her. She loved the softness of fur and animals recognized the gentle spirit that lay within her, and loved her back.

Most of all, I think, she loved my Dad and me. When my husband Kosta joined the family, she gathered him right in and loved him too. We were a tight unit with inside jokes and a rubber chicken that used to get passed to unsuspecting recipients at Christmas. No one has a perfect marriage but as the years passed Mom and Dad settled into the comfortable roles of best friends and soul mates. And yet, they included me in their love so that I never doubted it for a moment.

Mom left us too soon. She didn’t want to go, she wanted to make her 50th wedding anniversary in 2019, and see me be a published author. She wanted to visit Disney again and go to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. She had books to read, and scrapbooks to finish and so much living to do and most of all: people to love. And even though her spirit was strong, her body crumbled away before our horrified eyes. She has left such a large hole in our hearts and knowing that I may have to live half of my life without her is almost too much to bear sometimes. I’ll never see her beautiful eyes again, or feel her soft hand touch my cheek. She was one of my best friends. I’ll never stop missing her and will remember her daily for the rest of my life.

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.