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Salon Esse: A Retrospective

It really was ten years ago this summer I attended Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and returned to NYC with the idea for a writing salon. No critical feedback, no suggestions. Just read new work to each other on a monthly Friday night. We were compelled to write, but not anxious about having that raw work torn apart. We were inspired by each other’s literary sallies. We listened to non-verbal reactions and made notes for revision. We learned to keep our readings to under 1,000 words for the sake of getting sleep. We crossed genre. We met on rooftops and in gardens in midsummer. We wrote about each other. We hugged a lot. And we always brought something for the table. Eat, drink, listen.

Our first gatherings were on my couches, and soon they spread to the couches of other members around the city. So many members joined and then left, while some are in their tenth year. So many children have been born to members (most of them boys!). Other salons have even popped up around the country, founded by former members and interested friends. And so so so many pieces have been read, there’s no way no to count, though during my tenure I tried.

I left after year eight to move to the sticks. Salon, beautifully, goes on and on. A measure of how a simple literary exercise needs nothing more to be sustainable than love of words and kindness toward each other.

Dana Perry, one of Salon’s keepers, is taking us public next week for a ten-year celebration. I’m working on a new piece, and as with Salon many times before, the imminent gathering compels me to write, to eke out time readying this new piece enough for a reading with my friends, to have the very first show of it as a somewhat shaped thing be for Salon.

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New Online Publication: ink&coda

One of the many ways I tried to excavate my lost childhood memory is music—specifically, playing my childhood piano. I got the idea to write about it while talking with my mentor Diane Lefer at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Actually, I told her what kind of memory hunting I was doing on the piano, and she said, “Write about it!” I did, and after many versions—the last of which my generous friend Jen Bowen Hicks read and nursed and even named—“Each Measure an Echo” appears in ink&coda. The journal publishes both music and prose. Take a listen. I’m particularly into Osnat Netzer’s “Pillars” as it features the kind of keyboard finger work I could only dream about, even, I believe, if I could afford hundreds of hours of lessons. (Just after the three-minute mark, piano gives sax a break, and sings.) A bittersweet publication: this is ink&coda’s final issue!

House

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We bought a house. Twenty-two years after moving out of my mother’s house (which means 22 years after living in a house at all, which also means 22 years since meeting my husband), we have, together, bought a house. Exactly 75 miles west (as the crows flies) from my childhood home, and 41 miles northeast of J’s. Just 10 miles upriver from our sparkling Connecticut coast. A house.

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A house! With its quirks, needs, gifts. Features that surprise each time we unload a few boxes. The same way I’ve often studied the human body, I now study oil, propane, HVAC, electric, septic, well, water treatment, vapor shield, ventilation, insulation, filters, and floors. I study the pumping, flowing, buzzing, angles, and light that make a house—that make our house. I love our sliding barn door, our fireplace, our chimney that climbs through S.’s new room. Our half-octagon dining room and our bright red door. I love that the flora and fauna echo my mother’s yard completely. I love meeting the longtime residents: wisteria, allium, lilac, hosta, catmint, chipmunks, house crickets, chickadees, and at least one woodpecker who, so far, has signaled only with sound.

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We’re no longer hermit crabs, though I may be growing into a hermit in a house in a valley in the woods. A house in a small town that’s building a bee highway. A house nestled into an eastern slope by a brook, which feeds a river that runs by my sister’s place before supplying the Sound. Land that climbs the western hill and ends in giant granite ledges. A bowed wooden bridge that has our little boys say, “We’re standing on top of the stream!” A house where we can leave muddy boots by the firewood. Because it’s a house that comes with mud and firewood. Because it’s a house!

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New Print Publication: Copper Nickel

S-Town the podcast captivated me. I finished it in the first 36 hours. In transit between work stuff, kids’ stuff, and home stuff, I couldn’t put down my headphones. S-Town is lovely and loving storytelling. Horology plays a central role in the story, and I’m reminded that my short essay about my mother’s preoccupation with clocks appears in the beautiful Copper Nickel this spring. Nonfiction Editor Joanna Luloff commented on how much story was “packed into 3 pages,” which made me feel good and grateful my piece found this home. My mother’s relationship with time was as complex as the lunar-phase longcase I inherited when she died. On the one hand, my mother, sisters, and I packed so much into our bedrooms, basement, into our hours after my father died. On the other hand, our dozens of clocks ticked painfully on time, rooting us quietly in place, when a quickening would have been welcome. Time seemed, with sadness, to circle back. Copper Nickel was founded in part by Jake Adam York, whose life as a poet and person will be celebrated for a long time, and who died too early. York was 40 when he died suddenly, having lived just 31 days longer than my father had lived before he too died suddenly. After receiving my copy of Copper Nickel, I got to reading up on the poet who started this gorgeous journal, and learned he spent most of his childhood in Alabama, a couple counties from Bibb, the home of the horologist at the center of S-Town.

Setback

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A tiny hole in my molar, some dozen years ago, led to two root canals and a traumatic tooth extraction that fractured my jaw. (I wrote about it here and here.) After living with the bigger hole, the hole left behind by my tooth, for several years, I decided to fix it. It took two bone grafts and a sinus lift to prep my jaw. My implant arrived in June 2014. I remember flaunting my sweet new tooth. Sent a playful pic to my husband.

But lately, my new tooth has felt a little wiggly. Implants aren’t supposed to wiggle.

So yesterday morning, I walked into my oral surgeon’s office to get it checked out. Not easy these days: he’s in the city, I’m an hour away by train, I’ve got work and three young kids. But I arranged for it.

Over three hours later, I walked out, new bone in jaw, tooth in hand. The oral surgeon had seen what I now know was inevitable: holes. Holes in my gums, holes in the bone surrounding the implant.

Past bone grafts had been scheduled in advance and done with deep sedation. But yesterday, when the doctor swept in to say he’d cleared some time and we should try saving the implant right now, I agreed. Uncharacteristically, I lay rigid throughout the surgical procedure, even during the 20-minute intermission clamping down on iodine-soaked gauze while an assistant walked ten blocks south to another office to grab some more bone. Toward the end, as the local anesthetic began wearing off, I wondered why he was flossing my teeth. Then I realized he was stitching.

A molar-sized hole is back for another four months or so. I should have guessed my permanent fill would not be permanent. Stories about holes don’t have endings.

As of Today

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As of today, I’ve lived longer than my father.

When I turned 40 in November, I thought ahead to this day. My father had a November birthday too. He turned 40 in November 1982 and died 97 days later, in February. I turned 40 in November, and now it’s February, 97 days later.

I counted carefully—start with the birthday, proceed 14 weeks, subtract a day. I wanted to wake up this morning, the day in question, and know for sure that once I got through mid-afternoon, I would have lived longer than my father. An achievement I didn’t ask for, but worked for nonetheless. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so young.

He was driving on I-95 in Connecticut when he died. Wrong place, just before the Gold Star Bridge, wrong time, mid-afternoon. This mid-afternoon, I was driving on I-95 in Connecticut—southwest county rather than southeast—but I got to keep driving. Neutral place, neutral time: a gift.

I drove neutral, since my four-year-old son was in the car. Actually, to say I drove precise and alert would be selling it short. I aimed to keep my son safe from fluke timing, as if I could do such a superheroic thing. Once I got home, unbuckled him from his car seat’s five-point harness, and settled him at his train table so I could write this, I thought, he’s the one who kept me safe. My father didn’t have us, his daughters, in the car. We were 10, 8, 7, and 6 at the time and we were not in the car. We were waiting for him at home, a wait that seems like it didn’t really end until today.

(Sisters, the wait is over. Daddy’s not coming home. We’ve all lived longer than our father.)

Now, I look at my son (he’s right here, I wish you could see him, he’s so beautiful), and think, small / achingly sweet / needs me. For how long will he need me? Projecting his educational span, when he turns 23 in 18+ years, he’ll be a grownup, done with the biggest me-part. Two years beyond that, his twin brothers will reach the same milestone.

I know they’ll always need me. I still need my father. But they’ll need me differently. So from tomorrow, the first step of a life longer than my father’s life, I’ll be counting carefully. To 18, then to 20. Along the way, we’ll cross bridges. My sons will move into this phase and that, while I get older and a little easier on death.

My son is whispering to a truck that’s waiting at a train crossing, while he pushes the locomotive, carrying some five freight cars, through the intersection. I’m can’t hear what he’s saying, but I’m sure it’s something like, wait here, don’t cross yet, it’s not safe.

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AWP: Escape to Work

My work—writing, editing, teaching—is engaging, is demanding, is a series of repetitive motions with too little feedback and pay, is fused to my work as a parent and education advocate, is largely done at home and therefore in conflict/balance with household management, is wedded and threaded to my friends and family and our shared stories. Aside from the occasional dinner out with my husband or a friend, it’s rare that I escape work. Recently, though, I got to escape to work, meaning, to do just one kind of work. On a birthday gift from my siblings, I traveled from the Connecticut coast down to DC for three sleep-full nights at the annual AWP conference. (For those outside my industry, AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and its sprawling annual conference collects writers, editors, publishers, and writing teachers in one place to discuss and celebrate literature and literacy.) For me, with two courses and three boys four and under, a work conference in a mid-Atlantic city in February sounded beachy.

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After sending a dozen train photos and videos to my locomotive-loving four-year-old back home, I settled in with friends, fellow writers, and conference roomies, Cheryl Wilder and Claire Guyton. We worked. Worked on our writing lives, blueprints for new projects, time-management ideas, revision decisions, business details, and evaluation of our industry.

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(See the photo? See how hard we’re working?)

One panel I particularly enjoyed: The Multiheaded Beast: Challenging Genre in Creative Nonfiction, moderated by Dinty W. Moore. Sonya HuberStephanie Elizondo Griest, Daisy Hernandez, and Catina Bacote shared their experiences crafting pieces with multiple sub-genres. Aside from possessing immeasurable knowledge about nonfiction writing, all are highly engaging speakers, and I couldn’t take notes fast enough. I teach my students that genre is a tool, and lots of tools are available when writing, so the panel gave me loads of ideas.

A key reason for me to attend AWP this year was the book launch and reading for Selected Memories, the inaugural offering from the books division at Hippocampus Magazine and Books. My piece “Another Version of Us” is anthologized in the book. With grace and openness, editor Donna Talarico welcomed listeners and described her mission: “We feel. Our lives are textured. It’s what makes creative nonfiction such a remarkable genre, and it’s why we at Hippocampus do what we do.” Then, along with Amy Braziller, Jennifer Alise Drew, Sandra Gail Lambert, and Deborah Esther Schifter, I had the opportunity to read live, which, for me, is one of the most rewarding activities in this profession. I left my writing salon behind when I moved to Connecticut, so I left my monthly chance to read to a critically listening audience. Gosh it felt good to do the work of preparing for and engaging in a reading.

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And on top of THAT, one of my best friends, Jenni Eaton, fellow writer and teacher, came in for the evening event. After the reading finished, late into the night over drinks and diner grub, we did not work.

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I’m back at work, in my mobile office, waiting for the future train engineer to emerge from preschool, listening to a teacher-to-teacher interview so I can share it with my students. Can’t help but feel a nagging loss: not enough time; not enough meals; not enough mornings to sleep past 5; not enough conversations with beloved friends and mentors from VCFA; not enough. But enough, too. Enough to get to go at all, with my mother-in-law and her sister helping to take care of my three little ones; enough to be inside our industry’s architecture, with its human forms, with its words spoken by and to people in the same room; enough to be just this one thing for a few days, this thinker, this receiver of ideas, this reader, this writer.