Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

8 September, 2009

The Lush Life of Bread Loaf

img_0932It is a little shameful that I have not written a word here since that last brief bleep from the mountain in the wee hours of the morning of the 14th of August. But only just a little.

Last year, the summer before Bread Loaf, I suffered a head injury as I charged around a house-to-be-sold in Maine trying to vacuum in the dark. I cursed and shrieked and woke up my sleeping neighbors and ended up in the ER demanding stitches. Odd how a year changes things. I suffered two physical injuries while I was at Bread Loaf this year. First, another bang on my forehead which resulted in a similar quantity of blood trickling melodramatically down my face. Forget the ER. I stuffed ice under a hat tilted rakishly over one eye and went about my business. Next I scorched myself by leaning – with relief, no less! – on a stove. This was managed by securing a pack of ice to my arm with the shawl that I happened to have draped around my neck that day. I sat thus through my entire workshop with the inimitable and wickedly funny Ann Hood, and thus avoided an unsightly blister and, indeed, ended up with a dark slash that looked more like a particularly edgy tattoo than a burn.

I recount these incidents because, besides being humorous anecdotes (and leaving the scars which I wear with some pride in retrospect), they had no impact on my frame of mind. Minor burns and head wounds are now within the realm of the controllable in my life. Indeed, during my time at Bread Loaf – to which I had fled literally from the radiation room – img_0780I had only one moment when the searing pain of those self-repairing nerve endings made me stop what I was doing and remember that I was not entirely whole or mended. And despite the fact that fatigue had dogged my footsteps every night on which I couldn’t get a sufficient amount of sleep all through treatment, while at the conference I could keep going on only two or three hours of sleep a night, night after blessed night.

There is something about Bread Loaf. I’m sure everybody who hasn’t been there is pretty tired of hearing that by now, but it is true, there is. Nothing that troubles me “on earth” – in my personal life, in my family history, in the world of wars, elections won or lost, not one of the things that move me to opine or rant – touches me while I am there. It isn’t conscious, it isn’t by design, it is just how the days unfold.

So it was a strange adjustment for me this time, knowing that the the first thing I had to do when I came back was see not one but three physicians. The first act, to take the first of the doses of Tamoxifen that I will be ingesting every day, twice a day for the next five years of my life, and have the surgeons and oncologists and pathologists look at me and declare me in one state of repair or another. 3,650 pills in all. A few days back, as I stepped up on to the scale to be weighed, a nurse exclaimed “You aren’t going to take off your shoes? And you’re wearing heels? Wow that’s brave!” And I smiled.

img_08221I realize that there are only two ways to talk about Bread Loaf. In silence, or with words that verge on the lushness that Charles Baxter nudged us to consider during one of his lectures; the kind of language that we have learned to shun because it is routinely ridiculed by critics. I am taking up Charlie’s challenge. Down the line, you will be able to access this years Bread Loaf lectures via iTunes and listen to what he says and agree that sometimes lushness is called for. Here are a few people I hold close, and what they had to say about being at the conference. Here is Alexander Chee whose post is titled, “Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence” (a quote from Charlie), and Eugene Cross, whose post for the Hayden’s Ferry Review Blog is titled, “What I learned from Charlie.” Hmm. Curious. Here is Christian Anton Gerard, poet and fellow staffer:

img_0155It’s occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons we do what we do is because of the lack of time we feel in the world. We run to the top of a mountain to make time…We will tell our friends and family about that time in an effort to show how wonderful and perfect the world of writing can sometimes be, but like (a friend) said, “the beauty in our moments on the mountain is in the fact that we never know if we’ll be here again… Which makes every moment here a completely tangible, but slippery thing we will cling to for the rest of our lives, but never be able to fully explain to anyone else.”

It is indeed a gift for all of us to have been there, and perhaps even more so for us to have been there together, but the fact that we can always be there together because we’re all clinging to the same slippery time-rocks, which we share only among each other is a gift and something newly spectacular in and of itself, I think. If you need me. Any of you. I will be across a hayed field in the middle of a beautiful creek at the bottom of a wooded hill. I will be picking up rocks and loving them even as they slip away. I will be running after them, sitting atop them. I will be sated when you wade in with me.

img_03751So, did I care how much weight was added to the scales with my high heels? Is there a way to measure the weightlessness of finding ones soul-sisters and brothers, of knowing how to love and be loved in return by beautiful, brilliant strangers who become friends over the turn of a single phrase? What is the weight of the light that fills up my body and my heart when I am where I am always among friends, always among people who share the same dream, who are gifted not only in the art of creating worlds with words, but in committing everything they have to holding each other up? img_03882We’re all familiar with the way people look and behave when they have experienced grave danger, some disaster, or even some period of time which has been consumed by worry about their own fate or that of someone they care deeply about. They tip, tearful with relief into the arms of their beloveds. What happens at Bread Loaf is not unlike that. You get there and you realize that you have left worlds and lives bereft, most of the time, of people who know what it is like to nurse a craving for words, a sort of eternal itch that tangles the fingers and brain so that not to write and read and talk freely about reading and writing and muses and wordly habits is an acutely felt torture. You get there and you tip, delirious with relief, into the arms

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and minds

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and words

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and silences

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of your tribe.

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And you hold on

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until you have to let go.

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It is, indeed, a precious thing to recognize exactly what it is – what person or collection of people, what peculiar combination of forces or energies, what place, exactly – brings one the keen joy that renders a human being both full of oxygen and just as breathless. The body can endure all manner of slights from the universe so long as the heart can sing, and at Bread Loaf I always find that song, the voice with which to sing it and a heavenly orchestra to provide the music.

Here, in the one recording I have of the staff reading, are some of those musicians: Nina McConigley, Gerald Maa, Greg Wrenn, Zachary Watterson, Avery Slater, Ted Thomspon, Christian Anton Gerard and, at the very end, myself.

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As I think about the year to come, and all the success it will bring to the people who were beside me this year, I am moved to close this post with the fabulous Eugene Cross, in living color, reading a section from his short story, ‘Hunters.’ The full story can be read here at Hobart.

10 May, 2009

For a Mother I Once Knew

In my purse, I carry a note which describes the clinical condition of a woman I knew. Tracy was not a good friend of mine in any real sense of the word; I did not share my life with her, not ask her for any help. For one, we moved in different circles, for another, Tracy was in not in a position to help me except by example. She was the mother of a little girl named Tessa, whom it had taken her seven years to conceive. She was diagnosed with cancer when Tess was very young, and by the time her daughter turned five, Tracy’s cancer was terminal, and all of her will was bent toward staying alive for one more day.

I assumed that I could help by getting Tracy more information because I have always found that knowledge is my best defense. Furious at the fact that her treatment had been delayed, and certain medications not administered to her because she did not have health insurance, I sat down with her and wrote those symptoms down. But instead of calling him, I waited two weeks until that Thanksgiving when I ran into my brother-in-law at the time, an oncologist, to ask him what he thought about Tracy’s situation. He looked at the drugs she was on, explained to me that they were usually given when there was nothing else that could be done, but that in some very rare cases, patients responded positively to them.

I didn’t tell Tracy that. I told her instead about the experimental drugs that she might be able to access were she willing to try them, by driving from Fairfield, Maine, where she lived, to Dartmouth, New Hampshire. She wanted to give it a go but, by then, her body was too far gone. Not long after, I stopped to talk to her as she sat in her car, waiting for her husband to pick up their daughter from school. She was so weak she could hardly speak. Thinner than it seemed humanly possible to be, and the fragrance of medicinal marijuana clinging to her, she had shown up, as she always did, to pick up Tessa, even if she could not herself get down from the car and walk to the door.

I saw Tracy one last time just before she passed away. She was lying in a bed that had been set up in her living room, with her husband and mother there to help. By this time she was simply receiving morphine so she could be comfortable while she waited to die. As someone who believes in the power of books, I brought one for Tessa that day, The Next Place, by Warren Hansen. I asked if Tessa would like to go home with me for a play date and it was incredibly poignant to me to watch Tessa climb up onto her mother’s bed to ask if she could go. It didn’t seem to strike her that her movements might be painful to her mother who was so wracked with frailty. Perhaps she knew that nothing she did could hurt the mother who had fought so hard to stay with her.

When she was told that I was going to leave, Tracy asked her mother to lift her up. She wanted to give me a hug, she said. I don’t know where she found the strength, nor what might have motivated her to try to do this for a woman she barely knew. Except that there was Tessa. I remember that I stood there saying, don’t worry, we will look after Tessa. I remember that whatever I said had the weight of a promise and though it wasn’t a request that Tracy had the capacity to make out loud, it was still one she articulated. That grateful farewell was all she could do for her daughter.

I meant well. But I moved from Maine. Tracy’s note stayed in my purse when I bought a new one. And Tessa stayed on my mind. One mother’s day came and went in the throes of selling and buying and moving and settling and bemoaning the mundane difficulties of a life lived with the blessing of good health. But this mother’s day, as I went through a series of medical tests of my own, I recalled once more my promise to Tracy. I called up the school she still attends, its tuition paid by her grandmother, to see if she was still there. I remembered that more than anything else, Tracy wanted her daughter to stay at the Kennebec Montessori School, within the inclusive, familial embrace of a high quality education transmitted by teachers gifted in the art of recognizing the unique nature of each child. Apparently, despite the loss of an elderly care-giver who had taken care of Tessa before and after school, her father is committed to her staying there for one more year. I am not sure what she will do this summer, but I hope I can find a way to help.

As a start, today, on mother’s day, I thought I’d honor both a mother of incredible courage and love, and keep a promise. I went out and bought a few of my favorite books, and a couple I had never heard of, for Tessa: The Great Nursery Rhyme Disaster (David Conway), A Child’s Garden of Verses (Robert Louis Stevenson), When Papa Comes Home Tonight (Eileen Spinelli), Incredible You: 10 Ways to let your Greatness Shine Through (Dr. Wayne W. Dyer), It’s Okay to be Different (Todd Parr), You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You (Mary Ann Hoberman) and You are my I love You (Maryanna K. Cusimano & Satomi Ichikawa). They are the kinds of books I imagine Tracy might have liked her daughter to have.

Tomorrow I will put them in the mail along with a note to Tessa. What I will say to her, I do not know. I know that she had read the first book I gave her many times, and I hope that these new books will help her navigate the parts of the world that are navigable. I cannot be like a mother to her, but it is not too late for me to be her mother’s friend.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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