a writer's best vacation: work

For teachers, this is the hardest time of year. Papers to be graded create a mountainous white landscape on my desk, but they are a welcome sight compared with the desperate faces that drift in at semester's end, worn by students poorly dressed for the cold reality of failure, who are half-hoping for a miracle, an "It's a Wonderful Life" scenario in reverse: they're hoping to wake up and find the world as it would have been if they had done their work, if they had come to class.

This morning one such student slunk in, through the quiet rows of heads bent to the task of writing their in-class finals. His face was a portrait of exhaustion, anxiety, and confusion, the latter since he hadn't known the final was today. I prepared to speak with him, but he didn't approach the desk. He sat perfectly still, seemingly allowing the quiet of the room to settle back down around him. I went back to grading, reminding myself again that one part of succeeding in school is pursuing facts on your own, even if that fact is that you've flunked.

Eventually I did slip him the assignment sheet for the final, but he clearly didn't want to talk. It pained me to see his struggle: his realization of his failure lay on him like a lead weight, but he couldn't muster the will to make the final step toward my desk. Seeing his face made me want to get away, out of the room, out of the building, off the campus, off the map. No more instructing, no more evaluating, no more failing. I wanted to do my own work, my own writing.

A writer's best vacation is uninterrupted time to write, but most can't afford that luxury. I write in the cracks between work and family, when everyone else is sleeping, when I should be too. When work becomes not only demanding but painful, the call to be alone with my own work is louder than ever. Relief is on the way, though--a monthlong break, which will be as a beach chair on warm white sands after I summit the snowy mountains on my desk.


a slightly less than completely rotten rejection

Truth be told, I love rejection slips. This may be because early in my writing career, I received a hand-written critique of a story I had submitted... to The New Yorker magazine. This stunning turn of luck may have colored my view of these dis-missives, these formula brushoffs, because I still thrill at the sight of them in my mailbox. Until opened, they are the Wonka Bars of the writing world, and even after the smack is down, one can spend long minutes perusing the text for any hint of hope, and trace of grace from the Mighty Editor Gods, imagining how their (mostly) kind declines could make the shape of a yes.

This week, I got a rejection from an online magazine I admire. With rejections received via email, it is difficult to discern the rubber-stampishness of the animal, but I was clevergirl enough to dig up another I'd received from the same rag (nothing if not tenacious) and lo, etc. It was a REAL response to my story, a personal note from a personal person to my person.

The rejection said no, but it was the nicest sort of no, as in no, not this one, but yes, this is the kind of super high quality work we're looking for and yes, please do send us more work in the future, and hey! it is because of fine writers like yourself that we're such a good magazine. So I'm not complaining.

That New Yorker letter hung framed on the wall of my room, through college and graduate school. The story that prompted it was, let's face it, a mess. But the letter said words to the effect of "clearly, you can write". And clearly, I can. But the more I write, the better I get, and the less I focus on publication, which is screwy, since the better you are, the better chance you have of finding the golden ticket.

For this week, I'll take the bronze.


surprise, surprise

Copies of my chapbook Point Me in the Right Direction are available through alibris.com and barnesandnoble.com. Whoda thunkit.


a personal essay

The following essay was published this week in the Pacific Sun, a weekly newspaper in Marin County, California, under the title "Saved by Sea Legs".

The Road to Beautiful

The realtor’s listing I held in my hand was stamped "TD" in red letters, for "Tear Down". Before snapping the blurry photo, the seller hadn’t even bothered to haul out the rusty bikes melting into the fence, or to cut the waist-high weeds. I looked up at the house in front of me. Same bikes, same weeds, but beyond them was a deep yard with twin plum trees and rose bushes framing a house that didn’t look like it needed tearing down, but building up. From the day we signed the final papers to buy our house, we have been under construction. That was six years ago.
In that time, my husband has single-handedly raised the roofline, installed thirty-foot beams, and remodeled our kitchen, living room, bedrooms, bathroom and in-law unit, with its kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom and closet. He has built an outdoor dining area and art room, and dragged a children’s playhouse from the street into our yard with ropes, like a strongman hero of myth. Last week, he rebuilt the exterior landing, adding a double-locked gate and reinforced stairs. We are still married. We now have two daughters under four years old. This isn’t supposed to work.
It’s all the talk at the coffee shop and the playground: home remodeling dooms relationships. To understand why, let me give you a scenario: you and your mate are embarking on a journey to a new country. You must agree on how much to spend, and how to spend it. The exchange rate is appalling. You must also agree that however long t he journey becomes, you will bear the atmosphere of this country with grace and humor. The country is very loud--professional grade earmuffs loud. The country is messy, and smelly. At times, there is no running water and no toilet facilities in this country. This country is the Republic of Home Remodeling. Many couples don’t get out alive.
I can think of two reasons why our journey has gone so smoothly. First, because of my husband’s incredible capacity to design and build anything, our remodeling has been contractor-free. That means that we have not had to turn over a large sum of hard-earned or dearly borrowed money to a virtual stranger, in exchange for the service of making a huge mess in our home. Many times, the mess is bigger than anticipated, and costs more than anticipated, and takes longer than anticipated. This is not the fault of the contractor, always, but it’s also not a bottle of wine and dozen red roses. It does nothing good for the relationship. If you have children, the stress experience d in this or any other situation can be roundly doubled. For two children, triple it, and so forth.
The second reason we’ve survived our remodeling so well is luck: I was raised on a 12x24 foot wooden houseboat on Richardson Bay in Sausalito. The living space consisted of one small room, which served as kitchen and dining and living room. A wooden ladder in the center of the room led up to two sleeping lofts, one for my brother and I, and one for my parents. We had no toilet or shower (it was a short walk to the ones on land), no hot water and no phone. But we had everything we needed--even a skiff to row out into the bay on late summer evenings when the water was glassy. When the water wasn’t glassy, the winter storms slammed one boat into another, each impact threatening to punch the hole that would sink us. We eventually were sunk. After neighbors helped us tie off our leaning, waterlogged home, my brother and I squeezed through the small square kitchen window to stand, knee deep in water, in our house for the last time. Growing up in a tiny boat perched on the surface of the bay, subject to the whims of weather and the inevitable effects of water on wood, has made my remodeling journey more of an exotic adventure, and less of a forced march. The boat made me flexible (no shower? no problem), adaptable (lights out? candles on), tolerant (better knee deep in weeds than in water), and grateful (despite its problems, the house will never sink).
I never expected a house--so much space, so many doorknobs and floorboards and blades of grass to call my own. My husband isn’t bothered by the construction because he can see it finished in his mind, and he can make it finished with his hands. I’m not bothered by it because the house continually amazes me with its luxury—the luxury of being on solid ground. I’m willing to step over powercords, put in my earplugs and continue living in this foreign land. I am amazed at how much we have, and how much we have made of it, by hand, bit by bit, and hand in hand.
We have not arrived back from our journey to the Republic of Remodeling, but we will someday. Wish you were here.