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, 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.
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.
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.
(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 Huber, Stephanie 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.
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.
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.
CNF readers and writers, Hippocampus Magazine is launching a books division! Its first title is Selected Memories, an anthology of 33 pieces from the magazine’s first five years. Edited by the seemingly inexhaustible Donna Talarico, Selected Memories is due out in a few weeks. Order a copy here. My essay “Another Version of Us” is included.
I’ll be reading at Hippocampus’s AWP event on Friday evening, February 10, 2017, at the Capitol Yacht Club in DC, along with Amy Braziller, Jennifer Alise Drew, Sandra Gail Lambert, and Deborah Esther Schifter. You can register to attend this free event here. Doors open at 7:30.
This will be my second time at AWP, the first being six years ago, also in DC. With little kids and big responsibilities, getting away for a professional conference is a luxury. Thank you to my three sisters who made my trip to DC possible. For my recent milestone birthday, they pooled their resources to buy me the AWP conference entry fee as well as a handsome reading-night dress. It’s black and white with this cool cobalt trim. An especially fitting gift, as “Another Version of Us” begins with a dress…
As Creative Advisor to Longridge Review, I’m lucky to play a small role in the construction of a new creative nonfiction market. With Issue 5, LR places diverse childhood tales alongside arresting images. The result is an issue that speaks as one voice. In the words of Founding Editor Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher:
This issue is really heavy. There is recounting of a lot of trauma.
But this is part of our mission, I believe. To bring forth how serious childhood is to who we become. To offer empathy and compassion for adults who are still trying to find themselves whole after harm they suffered at a tender age. Absolutely, sometimes the formative event is love or humor. But often, it is not.
Sometimes the harm is callous disregard. Sometimes it is violent assault. Sometimes it is the betrayal of a friend. Sometimes, it is a parent’s love growing mysteriously cold.
And yet….each of these writers still seems to carry a small, unextinguished light. The search for resolution and healing is much of what these essays have in common.
Rather than hoping you will “enjoy,” I hope you will do what Elizabeth suggests and read with time and care. We all should do just that when listening to each other’s aching stories.
I just finished Risa Nye’s memoir, There Was a Fire Here (She Writes Press, 2016). The Oakland hills fire of 1991 killed 25 people, burned 1500 acres, and destroyed over 3000 homes. One of those homes belonged to Risa, her husband, and her three children.
Risa and I met at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop many years ago. We’re still friends, even though we interacted in person for just one week. Still friends with others in our workshop as well. I know a part of that friendship is due to the fact that we CNF writers were forced to peel off a lot of layers in a short amount of time. But another part of our friendship is rooted in shared experience: fire. Risa’s was part of a historic fire that rocked a community; mine was a single-house fire in the aftermath of a hurricane that rocked a community. Risa also told our workshop back then about her daughter who, about to give birth, had herself been born into a medical maelstrom, needing immediate intervention. (She writes about that experience here.) A few years later, with the premature birth of my twins, I would share that experience too. I remember being riveted by Risa’s storytelling during workshop, both in person and in print. I was eager to read her book.
The most powerful parts of a powerful story are often the quietest ones. In the midst of the roar, it’s the single breath that echoes. At least, that’s the way I look at—and through— chaos, and that’s the way I work through enormity.
Risa begins her book with one of these breaths. Page one, as she explores what it was like to have nothing left after the fire, Risa thinks back to split-second decisions, and writes: “This and not that.” I sense the whole book falls along this dividing line. This item grabbed, that one left behind. This house burned, not that one. This side of the road, not that one. This person evacuated, that one stayed too long, died. This family stayed close to community, that family grew bitter. This, that. Risa tells a story of chance and how within incredible moments of powerlessness, the irrepressible human mind still attempts to make a choice.
I’m also moved by the fire stories shared by Risa’s friends, her flash pieces on artifacts lost, and, especially, her straightforward, heartbreaking list of those who died in the fire.
Risa, I loved reading your book, even as I hated the tragedy at its core. You gave me a breath to quiet some wonderings about my own family’s fire: “It is gone, beyond my concept of gone.”
Via emergency c-section at 30 weeks, I gave birth to identical twin boys. They lived in—were kept alive by—the NICU for 44 and 47 days. I kept notes, especially in the first week. Those notes are now a flash feature in Under the Gum Tree‘s October issue.
My friend Laurie Easter, whose essay “Something to Do With Baldness” was published in UTGT and subsequently nominated for a Pushcart, recently interviewed UTGT‘s founding publisher, Janna Marlies Maron, in her Sunday Spotlight series.
Under the Gum Tree is beautiful online and in print. It’s especially lovely in print. The magazine publishes nonfiction stories (“true stories told without shame”) and visual art, and when I placed the October issue on the table on my balcony and came back with coffee, I noticed my piece was accented by green. I’m thinking pale olive or maybe Pantone 366. I often notice printed color and dig around for the right name, which is something I mentioned in my essay “Listing to Love” in PANK, which is the essay Laurie Easter focused on in her Sunday Spotlight with me. Green reminded me of the new life told in my story, and I thank Janna Marlies Maron and the UTGT team for that element of comfort through design. Then I noticed the new beans hanging from my eldest son’s bean plant, which he planted in preschool last spring and which is still hanging on and even growing new life, a miracle to us both. And so I can imagine sitting under a gum tree or in shade somewhere with Laurie and a few others I know who have been published in UTGT, drinking coffee and swapping true stories and linking together in community the way creative nonfiction has us do.