Under Our Canopy

T-shirt design by Bonnie Gurney.

T-shirt design by Bonnie Gurney and Lyn Fiscus.

Six Saturdays each summer for the past 3.5 summers, I have sat poolside for 5 hours in some of the most humid Virginia weather to cheer on my daughter and her teammates. Or at least, I watch and cheer when I remember that I’m at a swim meet.

Swim meets involve approximately 200 swimmers ages 6-18 competing in four different strokes plus a couple of team relay races. Add to that a parent or two per swimmer, plus a sibling here and there who comes to raid the concession stand. That’s a minimum of 300 people at one public pool when heat indexes occasionally reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soccer and baseball moms don’t understand. “It’s so long, and she swims for what, four minutes total?” True.

Aside: Maybe it’s the literary snob in me, but I prefer to compare my daughter’s individual sport to reading a character-driven book. You’re not in it for the non-stop action; you’re getting a snippet of action here interspersed with some quiet moments.

There has to be a selfish angle to enduring this kind of activity because I am one of the laziest moms I know. Maybe I’m trying to live vicariously through my daughter; I did envy that friend in grade school who swam for a team at the country club.

Aside: Let me clarify that our swim organization is as far from a country club as one can get. I once overheard moms in a neighboring suburb scoff at our rinky-dink outdoor pools. My neighborhood pool reminds me of watching The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island on a huge television that was really a piece of furniture with rabbit-ear antenna and a V-hold knob. I love it.

More likely, I’m committed to this experience because I’ve made some wonderful women friends in suburbia, a place that can be treacherous in its competitive parenting. Believe me when I say that I tried NOT to make friends at the pool. I went in all “I’m not from here”; “I don’t do the PTA thing”; and “this is totally a cult.” Snarky is a label often leveled against me.

Aside: This strategy is not working so well in the search for a literary agent and publisher for my memoir. Apparently, an author is supposed to brand herself without using “anti” as a prefix.

The cynic in me ascribes my circle of swim team friends to our family’s purchase of a canopy tent, which we haul to meets, set up and take down. It sounds like a credit card commercial, but the $99 price tag cannot compete with the camaraderie it has fostered. Among 300 people, we stake a claim to a small patch of cement pool deck and create our own family room.

Aside: In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Jordan Baker observes: “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate.” Indeed. I’ve been knocked up twice (in the literary sense) under that canopy: first when a fellow mom encouraged me to share my growing-up in Utah stories; second, when I reflected on how my poolside friendships could shape the story line for a present-day thread.

While I’m spouting aphorisms regarding the communal nature of swim meets, I might as well use another that pertains to swim meets: “It takes a village.”

Aside: My loyal readers will note that this is the second reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton in my blog posts. No, she hasn’t phoned me to ask for my support in 2016. But she will….

Fellow moms pack food for my son who is too young to join the team, but eats his weight in snacks at each meet. Dads armed with Sharpies write heat and lane numbers on kids’ arms. A fine mist of sunscreen coats everyone within a 10 ft. radius.

Aside: One of my favorite David Sedaris essays recounts his experience on swim team as a kid. I’m not going to link to it here because it’s so good that you’ll read it and stop reading mine.

So far, my daughter is still into this whole experience. She eschews summer camps in favor of attending daily morning practices. She collects ribbons for the scrapbook that we’ve never gotten around to starting. She shivers in a towel after warms up, waiting for her first event to start. One day, she may figure out that this isn’t so fun. My contingency plan involves private swim lessons for my son in hopes that I can guarantee myself at least four more summers under our canopy.

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SUP?!?!

My kids are ridiculously athletic. Me, not so much…

Aside: Twenty years ago, my then-boyfriend, now-husband didn’t believe that I couldn’t ride a bike. While visiting his family in Wisconsin, he insisted that I borrow his sister’s bike for a spin around the neighborhood. I can “ride” in the sense that I can balance and push the pedals with my feet, so he was probably feeling quite smug as we coasted down his parents’ cul de sac onto a neighborhood street. He was likely basking in his victory when we turned left onto a street that actually connected to a street with real traffic. What he didn’t understand is that my brain freezes up when I am on a bike. When he hollered from behind that I should hang a left into the strip mall, he did not instruct me to yield to the on-coming car. Luckily, the car came to a dead stop; I did not.

I’m the only member of the family who doesn’t own a bike. It’s better that way. However, I do occasionally feel guilty about this parental shortcoming, which might explain why I suggested Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP) as a family activity.

Like all of my ideas, this sounded great initially. The problem with kids is they actually listen when you wish they wouldn’t. Once the suggestion left my mouth, it was a pinky-promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-stick-a-needle-in-my-eye affair.

Aside: Brainstorming is a great practice for a writer. I can turn ideas out on the page, test drive them for a paragraph or so, and turn off the ignition. This post, for instance, could have been about my return trip to Costco, or any of the conversations that I had with friends last week while eating Mediterranean food, sipping mimosas, or inhaling Korean pastries. Coincidentally, my three friends are all Kristinas, or more accurately, Kristina, Kristina, and Christina. But alas, the subject is SUP….

I see fun family activities as a way to keep my children from beating the crap out of each other and as a means for me to earn parental currency. For example, the next time my daughter complains about going to church, I can remind her that we skipped one Sunday and went SUP-ing.

Aside: I realize that line could cause an epic backfire. I’ll make sure to assess the situation before I bust that out.

The impending SUP outing was a carrot to dangle in front of my children. It’s rough when Santa Claus is holed up at the North Pole making toys in June. Any good bribe/threat requires an immediacy factor. “Do I need to cancel that SUP lesson for Sunday?” I asked anytime my children looked at me the wrong way.

The problems didn’t really arise until Sunday morning when my son woke up everyone at 6 a.m. yelling, “SUP!?!?” My brain registered, “Holy shit this is really happening. What was I thinking?” Images of me falling into the lake filled my head. Embarrassing myself in front of my family was one thing, but the thought of making a buffoon out of myself in front of our neighbor, the SUP instructor, unsettled me. What a bad idea…

Aside: I feel this way at some point while drafting an essay, or this post. Writers often claim that a muse visits them. That’s bullshit. Part of the creative process involves self-loathing: stepping back from your creation with a critical eye as if to say, “What the fuck did I do?” In this way, writing and mothering are very similar.

I did what any good parent and writer would do: I bullied myself into following through. The kids will be so disappointed if you back out. Then I reassured myself: our SUP instructor also volunteers as a certified adaptive snowboard instructor. Maybe he’s had a skier whose artificial leg came off while attached to a board. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing to have your prosthesis slip away on a black diamond run?

Aside: No offense to those with physical challenges. I’d throw my own mother under the bus to make myself feel better. For my literary readers, please note how Flannery O’Connor likely influenced this rogue limb fantasy.

Thus fortified, I drove our family to the lesson and listened intently when Steve Gurney explained that kids get a kick out of seeing their parents fall into the water. I interrupted, “When do they do that? When they’re trying to stand up?” My neighbor/SUP instructor said, “No, it most often involves them trying to help one of their kids.” With that comment, he offered me the magic pill: don’t try to help your children.

During the 90-minute excursion, my motto became “Each person for herself.” The children had life vests. Steve hung back with my son. My husband stayed close to our daughter. I practiced knelling, standing, paddling and balancing enough to avoid a dip in a rather murky lake.

Aside: According to a fiction professor in my MFA program who adhered to Chekov’s rules for short stories, a writer cannot introduce a gun without having it go off before the end. Sometimes real life follows these rules for fiction writing, but mostly not. This is one of those rare instances.

As I climbed off my SUP and crossed the rocky beach on bare feet, I breathed a sigh of relief. Safely on land, I watched my son flailing in a shallow mix of water and mud near some cattails. Instead of playing the buffoon, I got to calmly wade in to extract him. Win-win.

Photo courtesy of Surf Reston.

Photo courtesy of Surf Reston.

Post Which Requires You to Read to the End

So I did this brave thing on May 4, 2014. I know you’re tired of hearing about how marvelous Listen to Your Mother DC was. You’ve seen the photos on Facebook and are right on the verge of blocking me from your friend list. I swear I won’t once gush about how marvelous the women in the cast are (at least, not after this sentence). Instead, I’d like to tell you about backstage (B.S.) and the days that led up to the two hour period, a.k.a. before backstage (B.B.S.).

To bring you up to speed, I wrote this essay called “Sick Mama” back in January when audition calls were posted. It began as a letter of apology to my daughter for having rheumatoid arthritis because chronic illness doesn’t really allow you to be 100% most days. During the audition, director Stephanie Stearns Dulli smiled and asked, “If you are cast in the show, would you be willing to edit your piece?” I nodded, desperate for approval. “Letter format works in many instances, but not here.” She also said some nice things and reassured me that I’d hear back within a week. I left unsure about the whole thing. I’d “read” the faces of the director and the producer, Kate Coveny Hood, during my five-minute monologue. I’d noted the “IF” qualifier in Stephanie’s statement. All positive signs, and yet I braced for yet another rejection.

Aside: When you write and submit your work to literary journals, you develop a thick skin. Over the past six years, I’ve sent a total of 16 pieces to nearly 100 different journals, racking up exactly 333 rejections and 3 acceptances. The most elite magazines accept less than 1% of unsolicited manuscripts. I have greater odds of dying due to accidental poisoning by exposure to noxious substances than getting published in some of these bad boys.

But, Kate and Stephanie said, “yes” to me and to my piece. At that phase in the writing process, “Sick Mama” was a mere tadpole. Over the next two months, that sucker morphed into a frog. First, it lost all of the “you” references to my daughter along with the formal salutations. Each time I rehearsed reading it aloud, I cut unnecessary words. Next, the thing grew freaking legs: I worked on my inflection; I listened to Stephanie’s coaching tips. By deadline time for the cast reading book, that essay was a giant bullfrog!

Meanwhile, off the page, I anticipated the big show by obsessing over how I weigh 20 lbs. more than I did before having kids (B.K.). Shopping and fashion are not really my thing. I’m not so bad that friends might one day target me for a fashion intervention on What Not To Wear (Is that show even still on?). I know enough to realize that it is difficult to “hide” twenty extra pounds, especially when jowls are involved. (Jessica Rapisarda, you can’t Spanx those.) Anxiety over body image + aversion to shopping = a great deal of existential angst.

Packages arrived in the mail; packages were taken to UPS to return. Five day B.B.S., I found myself sharing a handicapped-accessible changing room at the Nordstrom’s Rack in Gaithersburg, MD with fellow cast member Melissa Scholes Young and nearly 20 dresses.

Aside: Melissa not only has a bazillion writing credits and is under 40 years old, but she also wears a size -12. Melissa runs to manage her stress; I nap to improve my disposition when I’m in pain. Melissa could be a Victoria’s Secret model; I could be a body double for Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’d hate her if she wasn’t such a great friend. And if I didn’t believe that someday I might ride her coattails to literary greatness.

Two days B.B.S., I resorted to taking selfies in dressing room mirrors to assess how I would look on stage. With just over 24 hours B.B.S., I began taking selfies and sending them to Melissa for advice. My husband still doesn’t know how many store credit cards I opened in search of the perfect outfit. The OUTFIT ended up being a turquoise blouse to go along with the Easter-egg theme our cast had going (Kate and Stephanie, I’m really not still bitter about the set being something other than a black curtain.) AND a pair of Capri pants and shoes from my own closet.

Aside: I’m an English teacher, for fuck’s sake. I know when I’ve illegally wedged a huge parenthetical sentence inside an already grammatically challenging sentence. It’s for dramatic effect, so just try to diagram that one. When Oprah asked Toni Morrison about the difficulty in reading her books, Morrison replied, “It’s called READING.”

The big morning came. I shoved my family out the door to pray for me in church since I’d taken the Lord’s name in vain at least a dozen times while getting them ready to go. An empty house with two hours to prepare for B.B.S.! I tweezed, waxed, shaved, bleached, powdered, straightened, buffed, yodeled, and packed my wardrobe options.

In the car en route to the theater, I occurred to me that I had not once in the last few days rehearsed my piece. Multi-tasking is not my strong suit. I prefer to obsess over one thing at a time. Furthermore, my concentration skills were already strained by driving while listening to my GPS. Nonetheless, the first few paragraphs of my essay leaped out of my mouth, give or take a few minor omissions.

For two hours B.S., I joked with cast members, modeled two different clothing options for Melissa, limited myself to one glass of champagne instead of the bottle I wanted to consume because Stephanie insisted that we not get stumbling drunk before going on, and did whatever Kate told me to do.

Aside: If you have been reading this post carefully, you should remember that I started by saying that I did something brave. You probably assumed that reading my essay on stage was the brave thing to which I alluded. You’d be only partially correct. Read on. (Yes, I did just end a sentence with a preposition.)

At one point, I stood half-naked in a dressing room and decided to wear flats instead of heels.

Aside: This might not seem significant, but flats are far less painful for my joints than heels. I wear heels when I want to kick ass and take hostages, like when an entire room of Advanced Placement English Language and Composition students threatens to mutiny against my research assignment that we didn’t start until AFTER the AP exams in May.

Waiting in line to walk on stage, I only recognized the first two layers of brave: 1) disclosing my medical condition and resulting parenting inadequacies and 2) taking the stage to read about them in front of friends and strangers. The third layer, the most profound, took time to unfold. In the days and weeks following the performance, I came to understand that by choosing flats I trusted my words; I didn’t need heels to stand tall.

Aside: If you’ve made it this far, Dear Reader, you are waiting for my big conclusion. If you are an English teacher, you are reading to pounce on it, circle it with a red pen, and write: “thesis statements should come in the introductory paragraph.” Chill. I’ve nicely enumerated my points in the previous paragraph. Consider that my outline.

The thing about writing is that the reader (the audience) doesn’t get to see what happens off the page, behind the curtains, back in the bowels of dressing rooms with flat irons, discarded hangers, way too much perfume wafting around, and a pair of black heels left in a white shopping bag.

I accidentally started a blog last week when I couldn’t remember the difference between posts and pages on my author website. Now, I’ve written my way into a title for this bastard: “Off the Page” is about the writing process and my sincere search for a literary agent to represent my memoir manuscript in the hopes that someday I might stand on stages wearing flats while reading my own words.

Aside: I refuse to start my post with this last sentence because it’s about the process of getting here.

Aside to the Aside: If you missed my previous post in which I pay homage to Katie Couric and compare my writing process to whacking at a piñata, scroll down. If you missed Lauren Boston’s literary blog hop in which she discloses that her secret writing process involves hitting on married men in coffee shops, click here

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop 2014

When I met her, Sheryl Rivett was working on her MA in creative nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins. She is currently a fiction candidate in the MFA program at George Mason University (my alma mater). Her work has appeared in This I BelieveSo to SpeakMidwifery Today, Quail Bell Magazine, and Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine. An essay appears in the anthology (t)here: Writings on Returnings. She is the author of Mothers & Midwives: Women’s Stories of Childbirth. Sheryl asked me to participate in this blog hop with a set of questions about my writing process. We have been in a writing group together for several years. I envy her eloquence in both fiction and nonfiction writing, her willingness to experiment with form, and her passion for researching. To learn more about Sheryl’s work and read about her writing process, visit her site. (Make sure that you read mine first because Sheryl makes me look like a slouch!)

What am I working on?

In fits and spurts, I am working on a novel set in Uravan, Colorado in 1952 that is loosely based on my grandparents’ lives. Fiction is a new realm for me, one that I was lucky to start exploring with Courtney Brkic in her MFA fiction workshop at George Mason University last fall. My “new writing” file also contains an essay tentatively entitled “Bring Out Your Dead” that examines our death rituals and what they say about us. In the past year I’ve attended four funerals. I need a place to examine why standing over an open casket becomes an opportunity to critique the deceased’s attire. Although I didn’t think of it this way initially, the essay is shaping up to be a companion piece to one that I wrote several years ago about fascination with the pregnant form. These projects provide a more creative outlet for my full time focus on finding a literary agent to represent my completed memoir manuscript, Outside the Temple Doors, about growing up as a non-Mormon in Utah and later confronting my own religious intolerance as a parent.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I primarily operate in the nonfiction realm and am more drawn to developing characters rather than plot. Every day I notice things that make me say, “I can’t make this shit up.” Life is full of contradictions and ironies. Growing up, I always felt like an outsider in my community; now I am a transplanted Westerner living along the Atlantic coast. These experiences inform the way I see the world and in turn my writing. Most of my observations have a hint of melancholy laced with humor. Although I don’t set out to talk about faith, I can’t escape the myriad ways that my religious identity shapes who I am. It wasn’t until my grandmother started reading my published work that I realized how consistently sexuality figures into my pieces. Now, I carefully screen what she gets to see.

Why do I write what I do?

When I moved to Virginia in 1999, I wrote to survive. My husband started his first job out of graduate school here; I missed my previous life teaching English in a Catholic high school in Salt Lake City, Utah. I spent months in my pajamas, sipping coffee, watching Katie Couric on the Today show, and writing. A bad experience teaching middle school had me questioning my career path, so I had picked up a copy of What Color is Your Parachute? from the local library. The assignment to write about ten stepping-stones in my life gave me purpose and provided plenty of material. I signed up for a couple of creative writing classes through community education. There I met Shaileen Backman who has been my writing buddy for nearly 14 years.

My writing life continued when I returned to the classroom. At one point, I was reading E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” and George Orwell’s “To Shoot an Elephant” with a room full of high school juniors enrolled in my Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class. To my surprise, I was reading as a writer, dissecting some of the best personal essays and learning techniques from the masters. That inspired me to hone my craft.

When my husband and I decided to start a family, I left my podium behind and enrolled in an MFA program. My daughter was five months old when I began classes. Reading and writing for my courses gave me a way to combat sleep deprivation and boredom; it was a lifeline. I walked across the stage to receive my diploma while I was seven months pregnant with my son. Both of my kids are now in elementary school, which allows me more time to pound keys, trying to make sense of my world.

How does my writing process work?

I know instinctively which events to write about before I understand their significance, so I guess you could say that I write my way into their meaning. I have to trust that I’ve selected the correct piñata, as I swing a bat trying to crack it open. That takes many drafts and many readers as well as plenty of time for pieces to collect dust inside files on my computer hard drive. Often, there are six to eight iterations of a scene. My grandparents took my sister and me to Disneyland when I was a teenager. I dragged them through the ride It’s A Small World three times because I was oddly attracted to the garish displays and repetitive song. Writing about the trip years later, I kept circling back around that experience, framing it in different ways, but it always sounded like a school essay on my summer vacation. I knew there was something important there, but I just couldn’t identify what. At some point in writing my memoir, I discovered how the experience related to my spiritual journey. On those boat rides in 1987, I encountered a worldview that was more inclusive than my own religious upbringing.

Next Stops on the Tour

It is my privilege to introduce three additional writers. When I auditioned and was selected to read my essay “Sick Mama” during the Listen to Your Mother DC 2014 show, I joined a group of talented female writers. Being an intellectual snob, I quickly located the other cast members with MFA credentials and tried to impress them.

Callie Feyen originally asked me to participate in this blog tour and hosted my piece on her site in April. (Yes, I’m recycling my work.) She is a writer for The Banner and Christian Home and School and a grad student in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. Currently, she is feverishly working on her MFA thesis in order to graduate in August 2014. I had the pleasure of reading many of her meditations on writing and mothering on her blog, as well as seeing some of her yet unpublished work. Check out the post on her writing process here. She has a wicked sense of humor that will be on display later this summer when her performance at LTYM DC 2014 hits youtube. Stay tuned.

Jessica Rapisarda knows poetry and poop — a fabulous combo when it comes to writing about parenting a toddler. I had to clench all 53 of my sphincters (a physiology factoid that I learned from her blog) while she read her piece “Ground Control to Major Mom” on stage during the LTYM show. She has taught college English classes, designed a correspondence course for “amateur poets,” and managed journal production for the National Academy of Science. Currently, she works as a technical editor and writer at an IT company. She waxes poetic regarding her writing process here.

Last year I sat in the audience at the Listen to Your Mother DC show 2013 and listened to Lauren Boston read “Crazy in Love” about her mother’s self-sacrificing antics. Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting her in person and finding out more about her blog and her nonfiction book At Least It’s a Good Story: Travel Tales From an Awkward American. Her humor writing has appeared in The Washingtonian, The Huffington Post and a 1996 apology letter to her parents. An award-winning writer and blogger, she has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Association Media & Publishing and Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals. Look for her post on her writing process next week on her blog.