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It’s My Dash

Gratitude is pecking at my window in the form a female cardinal. She is so dignified with her red crest and tail and beak, even if I do sense her judgment. It’s nearly noon. I’ve been writing since early this morning, and I’m still in my bathrobe. Our dog, Iris, sleeps in a puddle of sunshine, a respite after having surgery just a few days ago. She is also doped up on pain meds, her last vial of the stuff emptied as of this morning. Upstairs, middle daughter is home from college to rest off a bad cold. It’s winter, but already I can feel the season losing its grip. Not that it had much of one. We’ve had no snow to speak of.

The last few months have been the strangest and the best. I’ve left teaching for the first time in years, and now I have time to write. Not time to merely squeeze it in. Not time to neglect so many other things, like my husband and children, and try not to feel guilty about writing. But actual writing time.

Like the fussy steward of some historic structure, I am quite protective of this new stage. I will not squander it. Every single day, you’ll find me here on my sofa or at the dining room table, plunging into unknown territory. With this new novel, I’ve researched and interviewed. I’m planning trips to do more research and interviews. There’s a pile of books I’ve read and annotated and more I still need to read and annotate. I’ve devoured page after page of archives. This is how I spend my time now.

I can honestly say that out of all the books I’ve written (far more than are published) this new topic has consumed me to an extreme. It has me in its grip. It has angered me. It has brought me to tears. If you’re a writer, you understand this is a very good thing. Otherwise, how can you possibly tether yourself to a computer for hours on end?

Sometimes I marvel at this calling, this obsession, this addiction, this strangeness that comes with being a writer. Here I sit, having set aside a long-time career I loved, one that came with a title and a steady paycheck, to hang out in my bathrobe and, forgive the strong language, please clutch your pearls, make shit up.

A few days ago, I chatted with an old friend who is trying to decide what’s next in terms of her professional life. Often she is asked this question: What do you do? Her response is usually to hem and haw and say things like, “Oh, this and that.” To tell the truth of it, however, my friend has given up a job she enjoyed to look after her dying father, made a major move from one country to another, and rehabbed a house long-neglected. More recently, she moved her aging mother (and elderly dog) to a condo nearby so she can take care of them both. This and that? Really?

While talking on the phone, as we usually do once a week, my friend and I mulled over her situation and discussed the dreaded question: What do you do? She decided her response should now be this: “I clean up dog shit and take care of my mother.” If that’s the case for my friend, then my answer would have to be, “I sit in my bathrobe until noon and make shit up.”

There is a lot of shit in this post, but I’m striving for honesty here.

A few weeks ago, I went to a memorial service for someone I don’t know. He was a childhood friend of my husband’s. It was at a nice club and on a Friday night. Normally, I would’ve told my husband to go without me, but we figured we’d head out to dinner afterward. And, also, I find that memorial services for folks I don’t know can be interesting. Obviously, I don’t go browsing the obits in search of such events, but when, on occasion, I’ve done this sort of thing, it has proved oddly inspiring.

At the service, another childhood friend of the deceased got up to read a poem called The Dash. I’ve since Googled it. The writer is Linda Ellis, and you can see the poem here if you’re so inclined (or slated to speak at a funeral). https://thedashpoem.com To sum it up, the poem maintains it’s the dash that really matters. That tiny mark of punctuation in between the dates of our birth and death. You know, what we do with our time while on this planet.

Last week I had a not so good mammogram and was called back for another one, plus an ultrasound. The second mammogram didn’t go any better. A biopsy was scheduled. Let me stop right here and say, I’m a total wimp. I hate needles. I hate going to the doctor. I have two recurring nightmares: my teeth fall out OR I’m being jabbed with needles. You can imagine why I’m so scrupulous when it comes to brushing and flossing.

Like the neurotic writer I am, I spent the night before the procedure looking at gruesome YouTube videos. As much as I hate needles, I hate surprises about such things even more. Alas, I arrived at the facility sleep-deprived and on the verge of what Oprah calls ugly crying. I’m just barely holding it together as the radiologist initials my right boob with a Sharpie, and I take my arm from the sleeve of the gown. The tech, a soft-spoken, young woman with a nose ring, begins gnashing my breast with the ultrasound probe.

It’s freezing in this room, and I’m scared and now quivering. Quivering is probably not a good idea when needles are about to go into one’s breast, I decide, so I close my eyes. I take deep breaths. I try not to envision all the gray hair I’ve just gone through the trouble of growing out falling out. There is the soft murmur of voices, shop talk between the tech and radiologist. I will myself not to hear a word of it. It’ll be over in a few minutes. Celebrities who are long-term survivors of breast cancer go through my mind—Melissa Etheridge, Robin Roberts, Sheryl Crow, Christina Applegate, Wanda Sykes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

The radiologist, a pretty fifty-something woman with thick-rimmed glasses and bright green eyes, grips my hand, leans in close, and says, “We’re not doing the biopsy. It shrunk since last week. There’s not enough for me to grab with the needle.” Hearing this, I’m slightly disbelieving. But it’s true, so I get dressed and meet the pretty green-eyed doctor in her office where my breast is quite large on the dark screen. “Cancer doesn’t shrink. It gets bigger,” she tells me, though she insists we keep a close eye on things. I am reassured, but also curiously in limbo.

My husband and I collapse onto a bench out in the lobby. As we sit wedged between two plants, quietly talking, a woman in a wheel chair is pushed past us. She’s in a surgical gown and cap. Clearly, she is having some procedure far more complicated than the one I just evaded. For now, I still have my dash. I still can DO things. But what about hers? Is her dash shrinking or growing larger? I say a silent prayer for this stranger.

Rewind to the early morning of my biopsy. I’m about to head down the stairs, but I pause on the landing. A question is nagging me: Is writing full-time what you want to be doing? If this is it, is this it? Hard questions for a hard day, but I nod and go make toast.

For now, I’m stepping away from my computer. I’m going to go do something else— get dressed and eat lunch. Later this afternoon, maybe I’ll go for a walk in the winter sunshine and forest bathe down by a stream near our house. Believe it or not, this is also part of being a writer. Getting outside and breathing. Holding the ailing dog close and whispering, “You’re such a good girl.”

After all, it’s my dash, and I can do whatever I want with it.

 

 

 

Celebrating Charlotte Locklear!

Time to celebrate a very special person in my life, writer, teacher, mentor, friend extraordinaire Charlotte Renner Locklear. Rewind to many years ago, 26 to be exact. I was fresh from a two-year stint working in college admissions and eager to begin a teaching career in public education. In my new school, I had the privilege of meeting Charlotte.

         Charlotte Renner Locklear, author of Greener Pastures

To me, she was everything a teacher should be—smart, tough, kind, compassionate, funny, humble, warm, and supportive. Instantly, we hit it off, and when it came time for me to complete my student teaching, she served as my mentor.

Each day I’d teach my classes (technically Charlotte’s classes) and after dismissal, we would retreat to an office across the hall. We’d eat lunch together and go over my lesson plans. Again and again, day after day, Charlotte would ask the same question: “What’s your point?”

Young and feeling a bit defensive, I would reply (likely with some inane response), and Charlotte would persist. “Yes, Suzanne, but what’s your point?” Every lesson required an objective, a motto I came to live by in the classroom. It was a good way to establish my own roadmap. Why was I teaching this particular lesson? What was my point and purpose? What would the kids know and be able to do at the end? As a writing teacher for many years, it was abundantly clear that concepts couldn’t be mastered in a day, maybe not even in a lifetime, but it was worthwhile to try. Having a point made sense. It still does, both in teaching and in writing.

What’s my point here? you might ask. I’m getting to it, I promise.

Over the years Charlotte and I became close friends. When I left my previous school to write and be home with my daughters for a while, Charlotte would stop by after work. We would talk books and school and lessons and child-rearing. Mostly, we talked about life, however, and you could see our friendship wasn’t merely work related. It was lasting.

To say Charlotte encouraged me as a teacher and writer would be a true understatement. She was a champion. She cheered me on when I needed it most. She read my works-in-progress. She called me out on my stuff, too. She tough-loved me through the pain of losing my mom. She was there. She still is, I am so grateful to say.

               My first local book signing with Charlotte at my side!

Charlotte “retired” from teaching many years ago, and since a number of folks have tried to apply the R word to me, I’ll just say it’s a term I resist. First, I didn’t retire. I quit my job. I may teach again or I may not. And Charlotte hasn’t “retired” at all, either. She is still teaching. She gives her time teaching English at her parish to non-native speakers. I feel certain she is still teaching her grandsons and son and daughter-in-law, though I haven’t reached out to them personally to ask. More than likely, she’s still teaching her siblings and husband. I know for sure she is still teaching me.

            All these years later and celebrating Charlotte’s new book!

Not only is this post to give thanks for a decades-long friendship with a woman I truly admire and love, it is also to celebrate the next chapter in Charlotte’s working life. A book. A book ten years in the making. TEN. Charlotte has written and published her family’s complex and intriguing history. If this is where you’re thinking Another’s family history so doesn’t apply to me, keep going.

When I first settled in for a 302 page read, I was worried and nervous. I had to give back to a woman who had so generously given to me, but it was someone else’s family history. How interesting could that be? Very, as it turned out. A few pages in and I was hooked. I devoured. I cried. I nudged my husband and read him passages or remarked, “Charlotte is such a good writer! This is so good!” More than once while reading, I texted Charlotte to point out parts I found especially moving or interesting. To be honest, I was astounded that Charlotte had managed to put her family’s long and complex history on paper and make me love it so. It was, in fact, a feat.

Poignant, factual, and well written, Greener Pastures is a history of the Renner and Kopp families, but it’s more than that. It’s a good story. Charlotte captures so intelligently the experience of her ancestors, Germans from Russia who migrated to North America toward the end of the nineteenth century and eventually settled (and prospered) in the western United States and Canada. Settling in a new land requires tenacity and grit, and Charlotte so deftly conveys this point. Think Willa Cather or the Little House books.

As our nation continues to grapple with policies and practices and attitudes toward those crossing our borders, Greener Pastures serves as a kind reminder: we are all from someplace else.

Thank you, Charlotte, for continuing to share your many talents with us. And thank you for being a true friend.

You can order Charlotte’s book on Amazon. I’ve included the link here. 

https://www.amazon.com/Greener-Pastures-History-Renner-Families/dp/1723486817

You can hear Charlotte speak on NPR’s Prairie Public Broadcasting here.

https://news.prairiepublic.org/post/memoirist-charlotte-renner-hunters-moon-kudzu-crop-teacher-jessica-brandt

And, you can visit Charlotte’s beautiful new website here. 

http://prairierose.family

 

High School Senior Crunch Time

College deadlines are looming. Essays to write! Questions to answer! Portfolios to organize! Having taught high school seniors for years and being the mom of a senior currently (my third and final one), I have a few things to offer.

 

   

  1. Calm down. Wherever you end up won’t be perfect. It won’t correct all your deep-seated flaws or create world peace. It’s just college. Some of us (myself included) got to where we were and ended up someplace else. And that was definitely not the worst thing that ever happened to me.

 

  1. Don’t badger your teacher about the letter of rec unless this teacher has demonstrated a lack of responsibility in the past. For instance, she lost your assignments (like, for real), has been late to class numerous times, or winged (wung?) one too many lessons. You get what I’m saying here. And if this is the teacher you’ve chosen to write the letter, my first question is WHY? My second question is Do you have a back-up plan? If not, get one quick.

 

  1. Begin to have that hard discussion with your parents/guardians about the feasibility of certain colleges. The difficult discussions won’t be over once you’re admitted. In fact, they may just be beginning. In my years of teaching, I’ve seen kids encouraged to apply and “just see what happens” only to learn after they got in that their family couldn’t afford the tuition. Be realistic. Also, don’t lose hope. Some colleges will give you $$$. Some colleges will give you more $$$ if you bargain.

 

  1. If someone makes changes to your college essay or says outright it’s terrible, listen to them. Remember, the admissions person who reads your essay doesn’t know you. You are a number, a number on a long list of numbers maybe. How does your essay sound to a complete stranger? Get someone who doesn’t know you well to read it. What you want to know is this: Does my essay make me sound like a person who should be thumped on the head? If so, rewrite or revise. You can do this, I promise. And please avoid the thesaurus. Using a fancy word will not make you appear smarter. In fact, I’m guessing when admissions folks see this sort of thing, they do this.

 

 

  1. You can’t undo your high school track record, but you can stay the course and do well right now. Yes, I’m talking about your senior year. In spite of what you may have heard, your senior year matters. Studies have shown that students who are challenged as high school seniors, perform better as college freshmen. How you end things in high school is important. Don’t believe me? Read the next one to know why.

 

  1. You are creating a reputation for yourself right now this minute. And I so get that you want to blow the high school popsicle stand already. Don’t. First of all, as a teacher I can tell you I have really, genuinely, truly loved about 95% of my students. While teachers are sort of ready to get rid of seniors (because you’re a handful and you know it!), you have also become one of our children. Cheesy as that may sound, it’s true for most of the teachers I’ve encountered. And get this. You may actually need us again, sooner than you think. Several years ago, I had a student who wanted to transfer, TWICE. Both times he needed my letter of rec. He was not a perfect kid or a straight-A kid, but I liked him. He was really funny and really smart and really kind. And if he asked for my reference tomorrow, I’d still give him one.

 

  1. Speaking of teachers, thank them for those letters of recommendation. In most cases, teachers are not required to write these letters. They do so out of the goodness of their hearts. No need to break the bank getting a gift, but a nice handwritten note is a thoughtful gesture.

 

 

  1. In a few weeks or months, you’ll start getting those letters. Acceptance or rejection, it’s just a part of life. As a writer I have been rejected. So. Many. Times. Mourn for a day (two tops) and then get over yourself and your disappointment and move on. Life has a way of working out, even when you don’t get what you want.

 

  1. Eat. Exercise. Live your life. Be a high school kid a while longer because like the song says, “You will never pass this way again.”

 

 

Finally, if you are still reading, smile. To go to college may seem like a right, but think of all the people in the world, women and girls especially, who can only dream of being where you are right now. Be grateful. Education isn’t a panacea (now there’s a word for your college essay!), but it’s pretty darn close.  

 

 

Who Have We Become?

I’ve traveled quite a bit this summer, more than usual. As much as I love being home, it’s exhilarating to smell someplace new. Takes me out of my head, allows me to see the world in a different light.

While in an airport security line, I noticed a family—mother, father, big brother, little sister. This is what they looked like in any case. And being the teacher and children’s writer I am, I watched the kids, especially the little girl. Her cheeks were chubby. She had a mop of pretty dark hair. Understandably, she was apprehensive about the whole process—trays and belts and X-ray machines and folks in uniform. Yet even from my distant vantage point, I could see she was listening to the instructions, abiding by the rules, eager to please.

This same family was at my gate. The four of them going to Baltimore, too, I guessed, that is until pre-boarding began. The woman I assumed was the mother wept openly now and urged the little girl down the ramp. “Go!” she cried, literally, and off the child went.

As I watched the family walk away, my heart clenched. It clenches now as I write this post. Life is painful, I thought. There are too many goodbyes, I said to myself.

Inside the plane the little girl sat in a row by herself, tears streaming and nose running. Thinking I might console her or at least provide tissues, I sat next to her. “Thank you,” she whispered when I handed the package of Kleenex over.

There was a notepad in my computer bag and a pen, so I passed these things to her, too.

“You’re brave to travel by yourself,” I told her. “You must be at least ten.”

“I’m six,” she replied.

Six? My own children were once six, and I tried to recall them at that age. First grade. Stuffed animals. Lots of pink.

There was intermittent weeping, some drawing, some chatting.

“I like you. You’re nice,” she said.

“I like you. You’re nice, too,” I told her.

“What’s your favorite movie?” she asked.

Matilda. What’s yours?”  

Chucky,” she replied, and then proceeded to describe a few bloody details.

More time passed. The girl stared out the window. She drew another picture. I watched as she folded it in half then handed it to me.

 

“What if my mom isn’t there?” Layla asked.

“She’ll be there,” I replied.

“But what if she isn’t? I can’t be all alone,” she said.

“You won’t be alone,” I assured her.

For over an hour this continued. Crying and drawing and talking and staring and questioning. So much uncertainty in Layla’s world. So much uncertainty in so many children’s worlds. ICE raids and parents taken. Sick children deported. Unthinkable sadness and terror. Trauma that will last a lifetime. Trauma that will trickle down through generations and haunt us all.

Who have we become?

“I’m going to live with my mother and Thomas,” Layla said. “He has a basement with a washer and dryer. We can have clean clothes.”

“That’s good,” I said. “Don’t you just love clean clothes?”

“Yes,” she said. “I hope my mother is there. What if she isn’t there?”

“She’ll be there, I promise. You won’t be alone.”

Due to storms we waited on the tarmac. Rain slashed the windows and lightning flickered in the distance. Layla’s nervousness grew worse. Again and again, she said, “What if my mother isn’t there? What will I do?”

Layla had some distance yet to go. She wasn’t disembarking in Baltimore as I’d hoped, but instead traveling to another city. In the dark. Alone.  

This flight was weeks ago now, but still I think of Layla. I hope her mother was waiting that night. I hope the reunion was good and solid and true. I hope her clothes are scrupulously clean and her backpacked stocked for the start of school.

Layla was only one child, but I had a front row seat to her terror. All those faces behind chain-link fences. Not their children. Not somebody else’s children. 

My children. Our children.

Who have we become?