Friday, June 26, 2015

ROLLER COASTER INTRODUCTION

Once I survived the upheaval of transferring to a new high school, and then having my schedule twitched so I could take AP English, I faced the array of very smart students in that class.  It was the final period of the day, and my reserves of bravery were dwindling when I went in for the first time.  The others had all been friends for at least three years, and some of them had known each other since kindergarten. They struck me as being intelligent, witty and rather sarcastic with one another, and I felt like an interloper, who quickly found a seat in the back of the classroom and tried to shrink into invisibility.

However, I appreciated the quality of teaching and the caliber of the other students' comments and began to feel somewhat more comfortable in the class. A few weeks into September, to my great surprise, Mrs. Klein chose my essay to read to the class as an example of a paper that had earned a "5," the top grade.  I was pleased, since I felt as if I belonged at last.

When she asked for comments, they were mostly critical.  The one I remember clearly was that I had not supported my arguments with any quotes.  That stung, because it was true.  I don't know that anyone had ever told me I needed to do that, but I never forgot the advice, and backed up every contention from then on with ample evidence from the text, in every class I took.  I remember feeling totally deflated as I got on the bus after class, for not only had my lovely essay been cruelly bludgeoned, but I was sure that none of the students liked me either.

Several months later, when I had gotten to know John Hazard better through our work on the Yearbook, he told me that when Mrs. Klein read my essay, he had thought, "Oh, no, that's really good; I've got to find something to criticize."  He told me that most of them saw me as a girl pitchforked into their midst from a Catholic school, who often wore a gray dress with a white collar and cuffs that looked like a "nun dress," and that I needed to be securely put in my place.  Fortunately, they were all basically good-hearted seniors, and I soon felt accepted and proceeded to develop a crush on each of the boys, one after the other, which was probably the result of having been among girls for three years and having had only Mr. Spock as an object of romantic interest.

Friday, June 19, 2015

LIFE CHANGING MOMENTS

God used self-righteous indignation to change my life.  I was beginning my senior year of high school.  After three years of charcoal gray blazers (which only I buttoned because I thought I looked older, more authoritative that way), I was looking forward to the navy blue, "you've made it to the top" blazer at last.  When we arrived at the all-girls' school, we were herded into the auditorium and informed that the schedules weren't quite ready.  Instead of being delighted at a chance to catch up with all my friends, I was incensed that things were not going according to plan.  I always loved the first day of school, and in high school, we got to go to different classrooms and meet different teachers and I was ready to impress them all with my intelligence!

After a full day sitting restlessly in the auditorium, I was indignant at the waste of time, and even more irritated when we were told that we might not get our schedules the next day.  I fumed on the bus ride home, and when I walked into our house, I told my mother that I wished I had gone to the public school after all.  My parents had been encouraging me to switch all summer, since Vatican II had upended the nuns, the catechism, Latin and our psyches, and they resented having to pay tuition at a school that they considered barely Catholic any more.  But since it was my senior year, they hadn't insisted.

My mother, no fool, replied that I still could go to the public school, made a phone call, and the next morning I found myself sitting with her and talking to the guidance counselor at the public high school.  I assured the counselor that I had no desire to take any more science or math, that I would be delighted to take Creative Writing, and because I wanted to go into politics, I'd love to take Sociology and Economics. Only later did I discover that the smart kids were taking Physics and Calculus, AP English and History, and I was in all the dummy classes.

What saved me was Mrs. Cohen, my basic English teacher, who noticed that I got perfect scores on the spelling tests she gave (I had gone to the National Spelling Bee!) and asked if I were interested in being switched into AP English.  The only downside was that I had to give up Creative Writing since they were the same period. When I think of it now, it seems as if the school were indicating that you could be creative or advanced placement material, but not both at once.  So I made the move into the one class where I could meet most of the intelligent students in one fell swoop, but all the changes were so sudden that I spent several afternoons in the nurse's office with severe stomach aches, which were my body's way of dealing with stress.  Mrs. Cohen had also asked me if I'd like to be on the Literary Committee of the Yearbook, and I'd said yes to that as well, so I had another group of students to get to know.  I had gone from being at the top of the heap in my old high school, to a new student who had worn uniforms for three years and had no idea how to dress or where any of the classrooms were in a much bigger campus, and knew nobody except my best friend who lived down the street but was a year behind me.  

At lunch time the first day, I was walking with my cafeteria tray and wondering where I should sit, when a beautiful blonde girl waved and invited me to join her.  She introduced me to several other girls, who were all in my class, and I began to feel a little less alone.  Several days later, she suddenly said, "Oh, there's that John Hazard over there selling Honor Society sweatshirts.  I hope his booth falls down on him!"  I followed her glance and saw a good-looking blonde guy and wondered why she was wishing disaster upon him. I learned later that he was one of the front-runners for Valedictorian and considered a bit too self-satisfied, but I was always interested in intelligent people and later encountered him when I switched to AP English, and then discovered he was also the Literary Editor of the Yearbook, so I had a chance to get to know him better as the year progressed.   

Thursday, June 11, 2015

INTENSIVE WRITING

By Saturday, I could perceive the general structure of the writer's "intensive" retreat.  We would have a writer's prompt, a writing session, and then gather in small groups to listen to each other's writing.  The comments we were asked to make were pointing out what resonated with us and what we wanted to hear more of.  After lunch, we would "dance" to several different songs, and later in the afternoon, we took a walk in silence, a bit of an undertaking for sixteen women!  However, it did enable us to pay far more attention to the beauty all around us rather than thinking up conversational tidbits.

At the end of the first day, I had decided to walk back to the hotel, which was about 2.7 miles away, almost all downhill.  However, what I had not taken into account was the fact that I was carrying a bag with a relatively heavy "vintage" laptop computer, two notebooks, and assorted other writing gear.  The bag was not ergonomically designed, and I spent the walk juggling it from one shoulder to the other and one hand to the other, because the weight dug into me wherever I held it.  By the time I'd made it halfway there, I decided that on the other days, I would either call a cab or see if one of the other writers could give me a lift part or all of the way.  And one of them was happy to do so for me and another writer, and even introduced us to a little store where we could buy snacks and other necessities. So each morning, I took a cab, and each evening, this kind writer brought me down to the street where my hotel was.

I did incredible amounts of writing, and surprised myself with some of the directions I took.  During the last session, we met with the same group we had started with, and one of the things that several of the women told me was that they wanted to hear more about the love letters that my husband and I had written to each other every day for 30 years.  When I thought of writing more about our relationship and less about my widowhood, I felt like a flower that had just bloomed.  The dead ends that had seemed to appear whenever I tried writing the book I thought I should write vanished, and sharing our life as a couple, with all the struggles and reconciliations and triumphs we experienced as young newlyweds and as our family grew,  seemed to open out before me as the path down which I should wander, with poems and prayers of reminiscence and whatever else appears along the way.  My husband often said that my poems almost seemed too personal for him to want to critique them (even though when he did, he proved to be the best editor I could have ever had), but the ones that are autobiographical will probably say in 20 lines more than I could put into several chapters.  So as I gathered my things, and headed down the three blocks to the train station the morning after the retreat ended, I felt a sense of completion as well as a new beginning for my book.

There were no mishaps on the train going back, I arrived on time, and my daughter picked me up, three of the grandchildren gave me huge hugs to welcome me, I talked almost nonstop about my experiences until we got to her place, and I took off for home, feeling as if I had returned from another planet, grateful for the experiences, and happy to be back to my house, my garden, and my life that is full of meaning and blessings.

Friday, June 5, 2015

THE PIVOT POINT

On Saturday, I scheduled a cab from one of the companies that had been recommended. The driver was on time, and got me to the workshop early again.  I again waited for another writer to appear, only this time she had a familiar face and I knew her name.  I was beginning to feel as if I belonged.

We had all signed up for a half hour of private coaching with one of the writing instructors, and since I had been at the end of the circle, when the schedule got to me, I discovered that if I wanted my coaching session early in the workshop, I would have to sign up for the second coach, so I did, and I met with her early on Saturday morning.  We sat outside on the patio beside the fountain under a perfect sunny sky, and the first thing she told me was "It's obvious that your faith plays a big part in who you are."  I knew from the first writing she shared that she had grown up Jewish, but the gentle way she said this enabled me to relax back into being myself, and I thought of Pope Francis advising us to accept people where they are and it seemed as if she were living that out.  That empowered me to do the same for everyone else on the retreat and learn to listen on a deeper level.

She asked if I were wedded to making my book a novel, and I told her that it had just seemed like the right format, but that every time I tried to write about some aspect of my life as a widow, I ran into a brick wall or a dead end.  Her suggestion was to take the Prayers of Reminiscence, some of which I had shared and use them as links in the book and let them guide me into the structure.  After my session, I first felt as if I had cracked open the shell that was imprisoning me, but later as we were doing our after-lunch free dancing, I realized that what I was experiencing on a deeper level was more like swimming up out of deep water so that I can breathe and see more clearly, and that sense of freedom enabled me to write differently and just experiment with where the various writing prompts were taking me.