Things I Was Taught

I am trying to help build or grow the creative writing program at my school. But, in doing so, I realized just how much I don’t know about creative writing. I know what it is to have an idea and to chase it. I understand so much of the basic modes of writing, of perspective and characterization. I know grammar and mechanics. I get style and literary criticism.

But to write. To sit down and go from the fluid, emotional writer to just the more thought-provoking, critically thoughtful writing and editing. That is beyond me. I glean. As much as possible and from where ever and whomever possible. But I still feel like I’m scrambling after dropped nuggets that don’t always come together in congruent angles.

So I’m reading books and doing my best to practice what I read. Every day, I read and annotate “The Making of a Story,” a Norton anthology about creative writing. The second chapter is titled “The Splendid Gift of Not Knowing” and one of the writing exercises is to choose a person and document the things this person has taught me.

So, today, I’m going to choose my mother. God help us both.

Things My Mother Taught Me

  1. The joy of old, passed down t-shirts. My mother has taken on and inherited all of my middle school t-shirts. She walks around some of the most cosmopolitan locales, wearing faded and fraying shirts with massive smiling dolphins or flying unicorns bursting out of galaxies. When I was a girl, I wore my brother’s old clothes, hating them for their masculinity, their 1970’s cut and colors, the fact that they weren’t mine. Now, I snitch my husband’s old shirts, draw them on, and inhale him, feel closer to him. When we were dating and he’d visit me, I’d plunge my face into the towels he used to clean his face after shaving and sob at the masculine, sudsy scent of his shaving cream. Partly, I love his shirts now because, with our conflicting schedules, I don’t see him most days. I also love his shirts because with my weight gain, my own shirts feel tight and make me uncomfortable. Maybe I should follow that hint a little more carefully…stop eating the chocolate.
  2. How plunging my hands into sun-warmed soil is intoxicating and soul-relieving. How building gardens means I am building my history and my life. By planting tulips and daffodils in the fall, I am giving myself my girlhood, my dreams of building the Secret Garden that Ms. Fox had read to me when I was in 4th grade and I loved and wanted one of my own. The courage of trimming roses has more to do with not whelping over scratched up skin or being frustrated that thorn tips are imbedded in my fingertips even though I wear heavy leather gloves. That worms are not terrifying creatures but are merely sod eaters and fertilizer makers. That bees, even though my mother is still terrified that I am going to die from an allergic reaction to bees, are magical creatures that defy physics and remind me that I can defy my own limitations and my neuroses and insecurities.
  3. The framed worlds within portraits and the nuances within sculpture carry stories and hold the weight of history. My mother took me to art museums when I was in pre-school. I walked in front of nudes and felt no shame. I stood beneath great mountainous or ocean landscapes and saw stories, settings, distant horizons meant to be explored. I stood on tawny and amber hardwood floors of the National Gallery of Art and studied artwork and loved paintings. And I escaped my shyness to befriend the guards who ushered my mother and me through special exhibits backwards.
  4. That saying “I’m sorry” and “I’m wrong” can be both uplifting and a destructive currency. I apologize because others don’t. I take on the responsibility for my actions because I was trained to do so. But in that drilling, I somehow consumed the hard syllable truth that other people’s actions were my responsibility as well. That I had to bear the weight of their mistakes and apologize for them as well. Perhaps if I had spoken more clearly or been more proactive or been less reactive, then…..but I wasn’t. So it’s my fault. And I’m sorry.
  5. That coffee early in the morning is the closest thing to private time a mother actually has. Seven AM on a Saturday. The sky is starting to undulate with shades of pink, rose, purple, and blue. Some stars still cling to their places in the horizon in defiance to the sun. I am tucked in my kitchen wearing my gray wool slippers and Dalmatian-spotted, fleece bathrobe. The steel tea kettle shrieks, plumes of steam spurting through the tiny hole in the cover. Wrapping a red dishtowel over the kettle’s heated handle, I pour the water into the coffee press, the grinds fattening as they absorb water and rise. In seconds, the clear water is dark, rich brown, the color of turned earth, and the grounds are a moist pillow blanketing the top. I wait for a few minutes, enough time to sprinkle cinnamon and spoon sugar into the milk I poured into the bottom of my massive, snowflake coffee mug. And then, I pour in the coffee, the deep, low scent permeating the cold morning air, enriching the room with its sense of placidity. The family is asleep, even the dog is still curled up in the spoon of my husband’s legs. Now is my time to sit on the off-white leather couches that have scratch marks from the dog’s claws on them. Now is my time to tuck my feet under me, wrap my son’s dark brown blanket over my lap, and nourish my coffee addiction while clicking idly through channels, spending only a few seconds on each station to take in the moment, catch the idea, before tapping the up-button, moving forward.

I learned from my mother the art and necessity and requirement of a mother’s sacrificial love, that even after the children are weaned, I am still feeding them I learned from my mother the art of Christmas traditions that I don’t hold on to anymore and somewhat mourn their passing each December. I miss the stories. I miss the singing around the tree. I miss the cookie parties and the silly foolish traditions like passing a bulb between Mom’s legs or lining up as a train to put on the lights and garland.

I learned from my mother the art of being the butt end of the jokes, to smile primly and stash it all away, tuck it into a box and shove it under the bed or sweep it up like crumbs and toss into the garbage can. I learned from my mother the art of forgiveness, much like how she forgave me during my horrible screaming matches when my depression and angst did a coup on my tongue and I screamed that I hated my mother. That she was the worst person on Earth. That she had done nothing to help me. And she merely cast her arms wide and said, “I love you.” And my temper fell flat like a squished spider and I shuffled humiliated to my room because her answer to my anger was love.

I learned from my mother that dolphin skin is smooth and warm and rubbery and pliable. Because of my mother, I went to a dolphin show and I watched the children to see when they raised their hands. And because of my mother, I had moved from my seat five rows back to the very front, and I perched in my orange, hard plastic chair and tried to understand the Dutch announces but only knew that when the children raised their hands that I was supposed to as well. And I learned from my mother to let go of fears because she released her grip on my hand when the old, crotchety looking Dutch man jabbed his finger at me and I rose from my seat and my shyness and took my place behind him. My mother shouted, “She’s American” and her voice echoed off the curved dolphinarium’s walls and a heated flush of embarrassment burned my face but I stood on the wet, slick platform while a blue and white boat, looking like a small rowboat, was pulled up by a dolphin. And I, the greatest loser to ever live, clambered into the boat and went on my cruise around the tank, waving at the children who had given me this opportunity, waving at my mother who was taking pictures with a flashless camera, at the dolphin trailing behind me, pulling a life-ring. I was triumphant. I was queen. And when my loyal subjects rose from the water and gracefully skimmed onto the platform, their tales raised, I bestowed upon them the cold, dead fish. I laid each fish in each dolphin’s mouth, not fearing the lines of pointed teeth, not fearing that at any moment the mouths could snap shut. No. From my mother, I learned my fearlessness and rubbed each supplicant’s head, my hand molding to the soft, spongy grayness, the foreign skin that was warm.

From my mother, I learned fear. I learned the toxicity of terror that can cocoon and color each moment. I learned that fear looks like jagged lightning strikes coursing and smashing into a flat, black landscape. I learned that fear rises from my toes with their shredded toenails and rips into my mind with slashing claws, turning everything vermillion. I learned that fear makes my stubby fingers into claws, snagging into other people’s thoughts, turning wayward actions into precise or stumbly inaction, into falling.

From my mother, I learned about the art of savoring. The act of slowly and carefully sipping cappuccino so that the cloudy milk froth doesn’t decorate my lip. That when sitting on a silvery stool with a brown leather cushion in a cafe in Rome is exquisite, especially when the slim man with his English words rolling with Italian smoothness, hands me the cup. The outside, August heat makes the tourists droop, but within the cafe with its shining display windows, with the white espresso cups turned over on the saucers covered with their doilied paper wafers, the world stops. Just for a sipping moment. Maybe savored with a slice of cake, honeyed chocolate. Tangy, liquory tiramisu. Late summer strawberries nestled in cream on a moist spongecake. This is when time must become liquid, slow. Ebb away with the tourists who barter their way down crowded streets, searching for the Trevi Fountain that holds my mother’s and my coins, promising that we will once more return.

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