Friday, August 26, 2011

Alter Egocentric

I’ve always had a thing for alter egos. I use them in my writing classes to explore both the creation of characters and the characters that we already have, existing within ourselves.

When I was a child I had imaginary friends. They’re every bit as real to me now as they were to me then, but now I see them on the inside rather than the out. I use them to navigate different stories as they play out in my life—in my head and on the page.

I am Rachel, the Jewish daughter and devoted cook. I am Bad Valley, refusing to take multi-vitamins and stumbling on and off buses in New York City. I am Madge from DMV wearing mumus and curlers, smoking menthols and burning TV dinners for one in the microwave.

Recently, when describing a few of these characters to my writing students, they explained the difference to me between multiple personalities and schizophrenia. We had a good laugh, but I think writers, to some extent or another, welcome whatever voices they manage to hear.

When I keep my alternate personalities in perspective, they give me great pleasure. When I become all of one and none of the others, my world tilts akimbo like a full dinner plate set on its edge.

Because if I’m right about anything it’s how often I’m wrong about myself. My opinion is often too high or too low, but rarely right on target. Maybe it’s not me but the full-time narrator in my head who gets a little carried away, but even small situations can become full-blown dramas, epic comedies, devastating love stories of the highest order. Greek tragedies play out on my small suburban street. Roman gods converse on my couch. Everyone I know has a Harry Potter double. I mythologize people who then become too big or too small to stay molded into the shape I’ve assigned them, but then too, they get to play some pretty exciting major roles opposite the cast in my head. And who wouldn’t want that?

Recently my husband and I were watching Ice Road Truckers: India and I was struck, as if for the first time, by the statue of Kali they were assigned to haul intact up the treacherous roads of the Himalayas. “Kali,” they explained as the North American truckers danced along with the traditional Hindu ceremony, “drinks the blood of her enemies and then stomps on the body of the gods!” I looked at her take-no-prisoners face lit up with glee and knew suddenly that she exists and has always existed within me, just as surely as the Good Citizen I was awarded for being in the first grade. My mother had kept a poster of her on the inside of our bathroom door in my childhood home and I had stared at her face for years and years, never realizing until this week that what I had been staring at all along was just another character lost and then found inside of me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Cuss in 12 Different Languages or How Much Should a Teacher Teach Her Students?

(Original art by the author, age 7, inside cover, "Rose Colored Glasses")

When I was seven, my mother found a list I’d made of every cuss word I knew. It was a very creative and exhaustive list. It should have been---I’d learned from a pro — her. Later, when I was a teenager, she would lend me her copy of a book about how to cuss in 12 different languages--- but in elementary school I’d have to settle for basic English. Even though my mother was comfortable using her remarkably descriptive tongue around me, she threatened to show the list she’d found to my grandmother— not her own mother, but my dad’s---the woman who dressed me like a girl in new clothes from the department store and taught me how to fold hospital bed corners when I visited her each summer.

I guess my mother had it in mind to teach me the difference between what you did at home and what you did in what she called polite company. In polite company, no elbows on the table. At home,eat on a blanket on your belly on the floor. Etcetera. My list, were it to get out, blurred the line between the two.

I was horrified at the idea of my grandmother being given this intimate bird's eye view into the part of my mind I’d tried to keep hidden from her. She thought I was an angel- albeit a slightly rumpled, dirt-streaked one—and I wanted to keep it that way. I liked being pampered in an immaculate house with the promise of polka-dotted skirts and chocolate chip cookies. Everything about Grandma was perfect— from her homemade biscuits to her aprons to her curls--- except those occasions when she was away in a mental institution for depression and hysteria, of course. But I didn’t know that, then. I just thought if you weren’t a wild and out there artist with a mouth like a sailor- mom, you were a perfect, saintly stay at home nurse-grandma.

Now I realize there are more gradations within the mind and the life of each woman than two. Reading my grandma’s diaries, given to me by my father after her death, helped me understand that. I adored her when I was little, but even more as a young woman when I came to understand the complex emotional life she’d hadn’t let me in on.

As a nonfiction writer with a past— and a present— I no longer have a list of cuss words to show or to hide, but I do have a seemingly endless expanse of colorful, complicated stories that I’m trying to figure out how— and to whom- to tell. Already much has been written about memoirists facing the music after their children learn to read. In fact, on my birthday this year a bookstore friend sent me the link to Dani Shapiro’s NY Times article: “The Me My Child Mustn’t Know.”

But it’s not my own child I’m worried about.

I teach kids. I love teaching kids. I feel called to do it. But it would be more convenient if, on the side I liked to knit or write about home décor rather than grittier topics like loss of innocence and addiction or whatever else I'm drawn to at the time. It would also be helpful if I were a little more perfect, a little less blemished rather than the messy memoirist turning her insides out for scrutiny that I've found myself to be.

But the things I want to write about- the things I feel driven to write about-- extend beyond the reach of what I was able to see sitting on a stool drinking milk in my grandma’s kitchen. They go behind the smile, revealing what I'd sometimes rather hide, what I sometimes wish wasn't there. But it is there and I can't seem to write a true line without it coming out.

I do my best to keep my most personal writing and my teaching separate, but maybe if I ever accidentally let it slip exactly how human I am, my humanity will give them permission to be a little bit more human, too. I could reassure them that it's possible to make a million mistakes when they're young and still turn out OK in the end. I could let them know that what goes on beneath the surface is even more important than the appearance from above. I could show, by example, that flaws, imperfections and mistakes can actually be our greatest assets, our most brilliant teachers and that we don't have to be perfect to be loved, or even to be good. Or, I could just tell them what to do with certain body parts attached to the twelve apostles of Jesus, in Spanish.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Confessions of a Secret Smoker

I smoked my first cigarette on the rooftop of one of my dad’s fan apartments when I was eight and he was in the shower. But I didn’t fall desperately in love with smoking until ten years later when a friend lent me a clove during a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. The next day I bummed a Marlboro Red from a boy I hoped would not only lend me his cigarette, but his confidence. Not to mention his exclusive, intellectual brand of love. He lent me his cigarette. I became a pack a day smoker overnight.

When I decided to quit drinking five years later, I told my mother that I was going to wait just a few more years before I quit smoking too. “Fine,” she said, “but would you rather cut your arm off all at once or bit by bit, in pieces?” I decided she had a point. Instead of using gum or the patch, I used an old wiffle ball bat. Beating my couch senseless and crying hysterically for a month did the trick. I was a non-smoker once again. And after writing a long, heartfelt letter about the necessity of living long enough to be there for his children- and grandchildren- my dad quit, too. Good riddance of a nasty habit, I thought. Other than salivating a tiny bit when someone struck a match on the big screen, I didn’t miss it at all.

Until one morning after a storm last summer when I found a miraculously intact package of Black Clove cigarettes in the street next to my car. They had not only been run over, but rained on. I picked them up, ran into my backyard and smoked the entire pack. And then went out to buy another. I knew it was bad. I knew it was wrong. I knew that I never wanted my son--- or any other young person I knew—to see me smoking. Despite this and despite knowing everything that everyone knows about the side effects of tobacco and nicotine, I couldn’t not do it.

Smoking created a smokescreen that neatly hid the things I was hiding from. It reconnected me to the 18 year old girl I’d left behind and badly missed. It gave me a sense of ownership over my time and space, even if that time and space was stolen in furtive puffs next to the dumpster in my backyard. Best of all, smoking cured me of a nasty case of self-righteousness I’d developed the decade prior.

Other mothers in the neighborhood smoked openly while waiting at the bus stop. Now I could no longer think of myself as more highly evolved than they, but still I wondered how they managed to have no shame at all. Shouldn’t they be crouched down behind their dumpsters like me, trapped in an ever quickening cycle of craving and shame, pleasure and remorse?

I knew I had to quit but the idea seemed in the same vein as moving alone to Siberia in the middle of winter. I couldn’t imagine any other way of introducing such a quick rush of pleasure into my life. And, since there were now other actual people living in my house, a wiffle ball bat was no longer an option. I would have to find something meaningful to not only replace the cigarettes, but the ritual they created. I joined Twitter. When that failed, I dug a garden. I took up running. Slowly, these things and others--- making connections through words and people--- began to seal up the place the smoke had filled. I no longer felt the need to hide quite so much or so often—from others or myself. I didn’t have to wonder if I smelled like an ashtray, what kind of example I was setting for my son or if I was going to hack up a lung after dinner. I stopped being so quick to judge others by their vices, reentering a world defined by its many shades of gray. Still, every time a storm passes over our house, I find myself scanning the street to see what may have washed ashore.