Y is for: Yoctosecond

Say what now? Yes, Yoctosecond. A yoctosecond is one septillionth of a second. That’s right, a unit of time equaling 10-24 seconds. Apparently, “yocto” is a prefix that attaches to a bunch of things, things like “newton,” “volt,” and “watt.”

I chose it because not only does it sounds silly and I am a fan of silly-sounding things, but also because yesterday I met a family member for the first time, and a yoctosecond was about as long as it took for me to know how much I was going to love her.

I have a small family. Painfully small. Various issues and estrangements on both sides have left us with precious few connections. We’re tight as can be with the few of us there are, but that wider circle decoupled a long time ago, and for pretty much my whole life, we’ve been our small unit. My mom has reconnected with some of her cousins, and I met the granddaughter of one of the cousins. And I’m so happy I did.

It’s definitely not a given that I would adore any family member I got to meet. There was a reunion of sorts when I was in my 20s, and those folks were kind of awful. My cousin is from a different branch of the family tree, so I wasn’t worried she’d be like those cranky, classist, petty folks I’d bumped up against 30 years ago, but still. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you get it.

And what I got was a lovely, smart, funny young woman with whom it turns out I have a lot in common.

Feels nice to stretch out a little, make room for more family in our tiny circle.

Our tiny circle —
mother, brother, sister, me.
Small, smaller, smallest.
The shrinking net around us
now stretching open,
now stretching wider, wider
welcoming new ties,
our whole makes a greater sum.
We are expanding,
spreading our arms, embracing,
opening our hearts to love.

__________

Only one more day of writing chōka left! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the end of this challenge, but I’d also be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed this month. I’ve really liked exploring this form. I might just have to continue chōka-writing after April’s done. I’ll take that fun offline, though, and certainly won’t be aiming for a poem a day! It’s time to turn my attention back to the #52essays2017 challenge, start playing catch up with all these missed weeks that are glaring at me from my calendar.

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A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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Travels with PJ

PJ, aka my mom, was my travel partner on my little jaunt to New Orleans.  She is, in fact, the reason I went.  She called to say she’d booked a double queen room for the conference she’d be attending and why didn’t I just get a ticket and join her … so I did.

I haven’t traveled much with my mother as an adult.  We had many, many family vacations, sure, but as a grown up I’ve only had two trips with her before this one.  The first was a whole-family vacation to Ireland ten years ago.  And it was wonderful, but it was also a little overwhelming — so much family, so much to do, so little down time.  And then last year she came to Jamaica with me for a week.  That trip was heavenly.  Not only because going to Jamaica is always soul-filling for me, but because it was the first time I’d gotten to just hang out with my mother and relax in that way.  To be in that beautiful setting, to have nothing to do but whatever we wanted to do, to have gorgeous weather and lovely people around us and lots. of. time.  As I said: heavenly.

I knew the New Orleans trip wouldn’t be the same.  She was there to work, after all.  But we had every evening and morning together, and it was great. My mother, for someone who is actually quite finicky and particular, is also easy going. I’m not surprised to know this because I’ve known her a long time and all, but it bears saying as it makes her an easy person to travel with. As long as she’s treated well and folks don’t try to cheat her, she’s up for anything.

We didn’t do anything crazy in our few days, mostly just walked around and found places to eat. But like our Jamaica trip, it was the hanging out that had value (of course, the amazing jambalaya, fried chicken livers with pepper jelly, shrimp creole and chicken andouille gumbo had plenty of value, too). Such a luxury: night after night of talking and talking and talking with my mom. Again with the”heavenly.”

Her job, though responsible for bringing us to town, really got in the way. There were many things I would have wanted to do with her that were daytime-only things. And, too, staying out till all hours wasn’t an option when she had to be at the conference first thing in the morning.

And that tells me we need to look at planning more travel together, real vacations rather than me tagging along on her business trip. Why did it take me so long to realize how nice it would be to travel with my mom? I’m traditionally a solo traveler, and that’s surely part of it. I don’t really think about traveling with anyone. And I’m not saying I never want to travel alone again. Of course not, but how silly that this wouldn’t have occurred to me. I can see us going anywhere.

Stay tuned. This post might turn out to be “Travels with PJ, Part I” …

Inventing Memoir

Last month I read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. I’m still trying to find the way to write about it, about all the ways it has affected me.  I’m not there yet.  I think I need to read it again, need to have a few more conversations about it.  I most want to have those conversations with my mother, with my sister.  I hope it happens.

In the mean time, I am still writing 420-character stories, and Wilkerson’s book has inspired several.  They are stories about — but not about — my mother, my father.  They are fiction, only the smallest of details drawn from a reality I know.  So I’m calling them “invented memoir.”  I’m not sure, but I think they may give me the safe distance to talk about this book, this history, all the ways my point of view has shifted as I’ve thought about this history in my own family.

Here are two pieces:

I.

My mother walks down 42nd toward Times Square, every bit the part – “glamorous starlet” – she has played since moving here. Lips a perfect red, black liner shaping a seductive cat’s eye. In this neighborhood she needn’t worry about women calling at her to clean their toilets, but must look out for men who think she’ll take their money, their filth. She exhales as she reaches the theater door, lifts her head higher.

II.

When my mother and father meet, they don’t think about how the south connects them.  They’re from such different places, after all.  His North Carolina no mirror of her Texas.  And they’re New Yorkers by then, lives turning on new axes.  But it’s there, their old lives, the old hurts and shames.  It’s what joins them even before they first speak of the past, before they tie their histories together.

I’m still interested in just how much room this tiny space gives me to express something.  In some ways, it’s actually perfect for these created memoirs.  I don’t, after all, know these stories — not really, not well.  Having only a few brief lines to paint a picture gets me out of the story’s way, forces only a handful of critical bits onto the page.

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You can find all of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.

Early Learning

Not long ago, Lisa from Satsumaart asked if I’d be interested in getting a daily writing reminder telling me to get to work and giving me a little push of a prompt to get me started.  Given my desire to get back to my long-ago daily writing practice, this seemed like a great plan, so I said yes.

I haven’t done well with this activity.  I’ve written a little, but mostly not.  The daily emails have been a reminder … but mostly of how lame I am.  Yes, I’ve had work.  Yes, I’ve had to travel.  Yes, I’ve had an unfortunate summer cold.  Still, I could have written more than I have.  I did finish a story that needed finishing, but the distance between me and daily writing seems to be widening rather than shrinking.  And let’s not talk about the difficult relationship I seem to have with this blog lately.  Feh.

And then I thought maybe I could work on both at once: use the prompts to get myself posting again.  So I went to my email and randomly chose one of the the writing prompts and got: what I remember about kindergarten.  Sometimes, looking for memories is like dragging a lake.  Kindergarten, however, floats just below the surface.  Easy pickings.

_____

St. Ann’s.  Ossining, New York.  My family lived in Mamaroneck, but I was in Ossining because for that year my brother and I lived with my aunt and grandmother.  At the time I thought our living there was my fault because I was the reason we were going to that school.  As an adult, I realize that probably wasn’t the case.  Maybe there were things going on with my parents at the time that made it necessary for Tony and me to live out.  I also thought it had to do with my mother’s pregnancy with Fox being a difficult one, but the timing on that theory is off.  Somewhere in the back of my brain is the idea that maybe my parents were thinking of splitting up, but I really just don’t know.

In any case, Tony and I lived in my aunt and grandmother’s apartment.  It was a one-bedroom place that was both big and small.  Big in that one person would surely have been quite happy and comfortable there … small in that one person with as much stuff as my aunt owned really needed a separate apartment just for her things … and even smaller given that there were four of us in the house.  I have no memory of where Tony slept.  Maybe on the sofa?  I shared a bed with my grandmother … which is how I learned that I am a kicker in my sleep.  (Be forewarned, future lovers!)

Living with them was nice.  There was the occasional unfortunate moment like having to eat rutabagas (blech), but there were many more fabulous moments like going birding with Mildred early-early in the morning in the woods up behind the apartment complex, field guides in hand, binoculars slung round our necks.  Like my grandmother combing her long silver hair each night.  Like telling her stories to keep from having to go to sleep.  Like her popcorn balls and cornmeal mush.

I had been in preschool the year before, a mostly benign experience of singing the name game and seeing a boy’s penis for the first time (we were brought to the bathroom as a group and lined up boy-girl-boy-girl, which is pretty odd if you ask me).  I had been looking forward to “real” school forever.  Preschool hadn’t lived up to expectations, but I accepted it because it was, after all, pre.  But kindergarten was supposed to be the real thing, the long longed-for, magical SCHOOL.

I am an unreliable narrator.  I need to say that.  I was five.  How perfect could my memory be?  And, too, I’m a storyteller: a natural liar.  Just know it.  My memory of starting school goes like this:  I went to the kindergarten near where we lived in Mamaroneck and came home complaining that all we did was play and sleep, that no actual learning was happening.  My mother switched me to another school and I came home and complained again.  Then she switched me to St. Ann’s and said it was my last option and Tony and I would be going there together.  Probably this isn’t what happened.  Or at least not exactly.  You don’t “suddenly” put your child in a private school when you have no money simply because there was too much playing and napping and not enough book-learning.

In any case, Tony and I went to St. Ann’s.  We had uniforms.  I had my first pair of loafers.  Penny loafers, as will become important in a minute.  Tony and I were two of only four or six black kids in the school.  St. Ann’s was young then, not even ten years old when we got there.  Maybe it’s a little more integrated today.  The mission statement on its website says, “We celebrate our cultural diversity through an active partnership between students, parents, faculty, staff and parish community. This mission is guided by a philosophy of love, kindness, and respect for all.”  Sounds good.  Sounds like something they learned after Tony and I did our time there.  Back then, pretty much no one was happy with the arrival of two more brown-skinned children.   Kindergarten was my first experience of having someone actively dislike me, my first experience of having someone’s negative response to me be based solely on my color.  The nuns didn’t like me.  My teacher didn’t like me.  My classmates didn’t like me.  Except for one.  Tony’s experience was no kinder.  He hated that school so much, he put a staple through his finger one morning so he wouldn’t have to go.

I remember being in the girls room — the lavatory as I was taught to call it that year.  I was washing or drying my hands when another girl told me my shoes were wrong.  I looked down and saw my loafers, the same as everyone’s loafers, and looked back up at her.  She pushed her foot forward, turned it right and left, asked me where my penny was.  She pointed out that every other child had pennies shoved into that totally unnecessary slot in the fronts of their shoes.  “They’re penny loafers,” she said, and wondered if I was too dumb to know that or too poor to do anything about it.

The boy who sat in front of me in class spent a lot of time that year turning around to tell me ridiculous and racist things he’d learned from his father: that God doesn’t listen to black people’s prayers because if he did, we’d all be white already, that people aren’t born black but are given a particular shade based on the doctor’s determination of how dumb or evil they will be as adults.  I remember being annoyed that I had to listen to him day after day, remember knowing that I was already more educated than he was because I could read and write and he couldn’t, remember making a fool of him by writing his name on a piece of paper and showing it to him only to have him grab it and rush it to the teacher, to show her I’d written what he must have assumed was a bad word only to be told that it was his name.  I remember telling Tony a lot of the things that boy said to me and having Tony tell me how stupid they were and how much they didn’t make sense.

My teacher might have been unhappy to have me in her class, but I owe her a thank you.  Early in the year she had the brilliant idea of segregating me from the other children at recess. I don’t remember what my time on the playground was like before she had that brainstorm.  I have no memories of it, which could mean it was completely awful … or was so bland as to make no impression.  In either case, she offered to let me stay in and read if I wanted to.  I was the only reader in the class, and we had a shelf full of books. So I started reading.  I read during recess, I read while she was introducing the letters to the rest of the class, I read every chance I got.  Books took me out of that room, and I loved them for it.

My one friend was Cecelia.  I don’t know why she decided to be friends with me but was glad she did.  Later I would think about her and be amazed at her courage.  I remember leaving school with her one afternoon and having her say goodbye and head over to where her father was waiting to drive her home.  He saw the two of us together and was clearly not happy about it.  Rather than wait for his daughter to get in the car, he chose to tell her — loudly and with me very obviously in earshot — that he didn’t want her having anything to do with me, that she knew better than to play with “coloreds.”  I figured that was it for me and Cecelia, but she was right back at my side the next day, and for the rest of the school year.  Who was she at five years old to so easily defy her father’s order to keep clear of me?  I’d love to know who she grew up to be.

We had a full-on graduation from kindergarten: caps and gowns, valedictorian and salutatorian and speeches and everything.  I want to say again that I was the only child in that class who could read or write.  I could do math.  I wasn’t the valedictorian.  It wasn’t going to be allowed.  That might be the only time I ever saw my grandmother truly angry.  They let me be salutatorian instead.  I was happy enough.  I didn’t understand any of the drama.  All I knew was I got to make a speech, and I looked pretty cute in my cap and gown.

Here I am that morning with Cecelia.  Neither of us looks particularly happy, but I certainly look more okay than she does.  In my memory, Cecelia is always smiling.  Looking at this picture makes me wonder what friendship with me cost her.  I got to stay in during recess, got to keep myself apart from the other kids fairly often even when we were indoors.  That wasn’t the case for her.  Did the other students shun her on the playground because she wouldn’t turn away from me?  An even greater act of defiance than disobeying her dad.  I hope I was a good enough friend to her to be worth it.

Family Affair

More disclaimers: My computer has been working my nerves again. Still.  I haven’t been able to post any of the things I’ve written for the last couple of days.  But I’m posting now — and I’m being ridiculously stubborn enough to back date the posts for the day I actually wrote them.  It’s so rare that I can stick to a daily practice, so when I do, it’s  frustrating to have some external detail (like a fully functioning computer) thwart my efforts.  In any case, here is Friday’s post:

Let Down All Your Doors

I am coming in
to love you

— Ruth Forman

_____

Today we had a big event at one of the schools we work with, a time to get a lot of parents together and have them complete the crazy-long needs assessment we’ve created as we work on this project.  I was totally unprepared for this event.  There was a meeting with a local politician that was supposed to be happening at the same time, so I was going to be in that meeting instead of at the event.  But — as often happens with politicians, I guess — the schedule got changed.  And that was fine because I really like going to the big community events.

There were about 200 people there, which was great, but a little overwhelming.  We had the Mandarin-speaking parents sit on one side and the Spanish speaking parents sit on the other … not because we like segregating people by language groups but because we had interpreters but not our fancy we’re-just-like-the-UN headsets, so we wanted people to sit close to their interpreters.  I felt a little sorry for the woman who was doing the Spanish.  She had to wait until the Mandarin interpreter finished his part of the job — and he always had a LOT to say.  It was clear that she sometimes had a hard time holding onto the whole bit and that the Spanish parents were getting an abbreviated version of everything.  At one point, she got distracted by something and didn’t hear what I’d said, so she couldn’t interpret.  So I told the parents I was going to try telling them myself but that my Spanish is pretty bad.  So I said my piece — with only a couple of vocabulary stumbles — and they gave me a round of applause.

This always drives me a little crazy.  I know the applause is to tell me that I did perfectly fine with my speaking in Spanish and to tell me that they appreciate my effort.  I know that.  But it’s also a little, “Oh, look at the clever doll/puppet/trained seal!  She’s able to say a little bit of Spanish!  Isn’t she clever?”  I don’t actually think it’s intended that way at all.  I think that because a) the parents are pretty nice people, b) I may not speak well, but I speak well enough and have a good accent and c) I know that what I really remind people of is a child learning how to talk (I’ve been told this several times now!).  But my allergic reaction to the applause persists.

Once the talking was done, it was time for surveying … and time for me to take out my camera:

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It was so great seeing so many people taking the survey together, to see all the (totally adorable) kids.  It’s so sappy and cliché, but the ones with the parents and kids together were my faves.

Taking stock, a mini census
what do you think, want to discuss?
Your perceptions are the key here,
the pieces to lead us forward.
Let us know what we haven’t heard
about, all the things you hope we’re
going to work on in this project,
the things we shouldn’t miss, neglect.
We want to move on. Help us steer.

My struggle with the nove otto has begun … as if that poem wasn’t a clear enough illustration of this point.  I was finding it kind of easy at first, which surprised me, but now it’s giving me a headache.  It’s my own fault — not leaving enough time to get the poems written, to get beneath my surface and write about something real.  Definitely work to do.

My week in the sun …

Remember way back when I posted about winning a raffle? Well, I’m finally here!  I had a surprisingly hard time finding folks to join me on this trip.  In the end, my travel companions have been my mom and Miss Mice Maze.  We flew in from three different places and met at the airport in Montego Bay, hopped in the waiting car and drove off to paradise.

Oh, and paradise it has been!  The photos from the website hardly do this place justice, and the pleasure of being here is even better than the beauty.  Getting to spend this week with my mom, getting to strengthen my friendship with Miss Mice Maze … it’s all a present and a half.

Shared History

Today is my brother’s birthday.  As my older brother, he’s been my brother my whole life, but not his.  He had a couple of Stacie-less years in there before I showed up.

Here we are at two years (him) and two months (me).  He’s already begun to look like the brother I know and love.  Me?  Well, I’m still a little shell shocked, clearly.

This is from one of my favorite series of pics.  I think this might be the only one in which I’m not flashing the camera.  I’m two, Big Brother is four.  I’m just about hitting the peak years of my cuteness, but The Brother is riding a wave of cuteness that will carry him through to … when am I going to see him next?  Saturday?  Yeah, through to today.

When I write about him in my fiction, his name is always Tony, so that’s what I’ll call him here, too.  I’m not sure where that comes from.  It’s nothing like his actual name (of course, it’s not as if “Fox” is anything like Fox’s real name …), but somehow it fits.

I don’t tell a lot of stories about Tony here.  There was the Lee Strasberg story, but I think that was it.  And yet I have so many.  The first time I got to ride a roller coaster and how he came with me and rode again and again and again … not telling me that he didn’t like roller coasters until I’d had my fill.  The excellent tape of us singing A Boy Named Sue and Spinning Wheel at six and eight years old … and sitting at my mom’s kitchen table many years later silly-singing our way through Rocky Racoon.  Teaching me how to climb trees, particularly the big red maple that grew in our front yard in Troy, the one we named “Spook,” the one we used to climb and call out foolishness to people on the street below who couldn’t see us because Spook’s leaf-cover was too thick.  Driving with my bad navigating on the day he, Fox and I had the first Family Adventure trying to make our way upstate to visit our father before he died.   How proud I was to see him perform in “Kid Purple” at NYU.  How he arranged for his fabulously-dramatic, film noir, femme fatale Austrian girlfriend to meet me in the airport in Vienna so I could arrive to a familiar face.  How he kept snapping picture after picture after picture of me when I gave my first reading at Cornelia Street Café, making me laugh and forget how nervous I was (well, you know, that and the double shot of tequila Fox handed me when it looked like I was going to spontaneously combust from terror).  His excellent, celebrity-making performance as The Preacher in our high school production of Tommy (no, I’m not kidding … he was so cool talk-singing his way through Eyesight to the Blind).

You know, to name a few …

He’s my brother and I love him fiercely.  We don’t always agree.  We don’t get to see each other as much as I’d like.  He can still crack me up with silly things from childhood.  He makes me smile when I see how strongly he loves his kids.  He’s my brother and today’s his birthday, so I thought it was time to bring him out of the shadows and onto the blog.

From another favorite series of mine, the famous Land of Make Believe series.  We’re eight and six and Fox is on the scene by this time, though she’s still an infant … and this is the first time I’m noticing that whatever’s growing outside that window is coming for us!

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And, even though it’s not as funny as hearing Tony and I sing it, I couldn’t resist: