Strain the Wine, Scale Back the Hopes

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Cait's last day of 1st grade

Cait’s last day of 1st grade

Despite understanding the concept of time, we were still stunned to get a picture of our granddaughter Caitlin on her last day of first grade. She’s the right age at seven. I remember her birth as well as my daughters’. This milestone, however, conjures a lot of different emotions than when her mom and aunt reached it and subsequent ones. Back then we were excited for many reasons, some we all shared: no more homework, worrying about lunch from the fridge or the cafeteria and sleeping schedules loosened up. As parents we watched our daughters worlds open wider each year—and watched them enjoy it although I’m not sure they’ll yet admit it—and we could only imagine what the next year would bring. Exciting times for all of us, and certainly an early peek into how swiftly time slips past.

My husband was married before and his son has three kids so I had some wonderful grandma training from his brilliant brood. That his oldest recently turned 13 even blew our daughters away. It took a full week for my husband to accept his son turning 40 (several years ago), thus he can’t/won’t ponder the differences between our kids and grandchildren aging.

It’s bittersweet, which sounds so cliché, but it truly does arouse feelings of both pleasure and sadness. What joy that our daughter shares these special moments with us, and the thrill of seeing Cait learn to read, understand math, quiz us about dolphins and genuinely embrace the notion of learning delights me to my core.The endless ways she says and does things just as her mom and aunt did are extra special when they remind us of idiosyncrasies long forgotten. Little things like how she pronounces certain words, that she still broadcasts she’s going potty although she’s beyond the age that once solo act was worthy of reporting, the resistance to allow a moment of silence in the car. So much we found funny, a few were eye-rollers then, but not in hindsight.

Caitlin standing at the front steps, backpack draped over one shoulder, taller and more confident than the day before, with a subject line “Last day as a 1st grader” filled her parents with the same awe we once felt. But buried just under our surface is the reminder we’re aging. We can only hope to witness the landmark moments they anxiously await as we quickly do the math determining our age when she graduates high school in 11 years. If we take care of ourselves and knock on wood there are no unanticipated events, we should certainly still be around. But the ifs and hopefulness are new and disquieting. Cait’s brothers are two and sixteen months. I refuse to do that math.

Time won’t stand still but it will allow us to embrace it. I’ve never before been a greater champion of carpe diem. Latin for “sieze the day,” Horace wrote it in his poem Odes:

“…be wise, be truthful, strain the wine, and scale back your long hopes to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have {already} fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next day….”

There’s comfort from the wisdom we gain as the clock advances. So much more love to receive, to give, to share with those whose every moment offers pleasure simply because the moment occurs.

My Caitlin and the new Caitlyn

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Well, she really isn’t mine, she’s my 7-year-old granddaughter and next to her mom and aunt, my favorite person in the world. Thus, for some reason I was particularly psyched the transgendered Bruce Jenner came out to the world yesterday as Caitlyn, because despite different spelling, the name is analogous with someone very special.

My Cait slept over the night of the famous Sawyer/Jenner interview and she only joined me watching it near the end. I hadn’t asked her mom if it was okay for her to watch it, but my heterosexual married daughter who works, has two sons and Cait, actively participates in the city’s LGBT rowing team, in fact, she’s on the board. A few months ago she told me a long-term goal is to establish a suburban LGBT community center where kids can take part in sports, get tutoring, make friends, talk to therapists—all in a safe environment that they wouldn’t even recognize as “different” just because the kids feel different.

Talk about special. I couldn’t be prouder although I take no credit. When Cait’s mom was born, I felt like she already knew all the rules. She slept through the night right away, even crawled to her crib if we didn’t get her into bed early enough. She’d wake about 8:30 am and nap between All My Children and General Hospital—three hours where I could satisfy one of my biggest vices: soap operas. Cait’s mom is my oldest, the one I was least experienced to parent. I’m sure I spoke way too early about boys, birth control, drugs, drinking, all the scary topics I addressed as easily as talking about Lindsay Lohan in “The Parent Trap,” mostly as she sat in the backseat and we headed somewhere. Now I estimate in an earlier life she probably lived  until around 17 or so because when she reached that age she started acting like a normal vs. an all-knowing teen. Since I wasn’t an experienced mom, I didn’t pick up on that nuance until in her early 20s she told me she was pregnant and keeping the baby.

They didn’t marry, but moved in together. They didn’t last as a family unit, but tried. He moved away and sadly died unexpectedly a little over a year ago. Caitlin was devastated; daughter’s love dads just because. Fortunately, Cait’s mom met a man who loved her and Cait equally, married and have had two sons. Cait loves being an older sibling. She misses her dad, yet has nothing but love and respect for her stepdad, sometimes even calling him “dad” now, but only when their family is alone together.

Regardless of the circumstances, I can’t imagine a world without Cait. It’s so much brighter because of her. Right now she’s about three feet of pure love. She doesn’t resent her new brothers six and seven years younger and all the attention they get; she’s never jealous about what others have. Like her mom, she seems like this isn’t her first go at the world.

She had lots of questions the last 20 minutes or so of the Sawyer/Jenner interview, and I talked to her just like I once did her mom. “He wants to be a girl, grandma?” she asked. “Why?” I said, “Listen to what they’re saying Cait. The blonde woman is trying to find out why, too.” After a few more whys I asked, “You know Caitlin that it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside, it’s how we feel on the inside, right? He looks like a man but has always felt like a girl. So why shouldn’t he be happy and be a girl?” I told her there were lots of boys and girls of all ages going through the same feelings, but we’re learning from him what it’s like.

She saw him pick out his favorite little black dress, talk to his sister and heard his mom. “Is it going to hurt anyone, Grandma?” she asked. “He’s going to have some operations so he looks more like a girl, and he might be sore for a bit, but it doesn’t seem to me that he’s hurting anyone. I don’t think we can make anyone else happy unless we’re happy, do you?” I asked her.

She thought about it for a minute or so, then concluded, “You’re right Grandma. I’m sad if you’re not happy.”

These are the moments that make me feel like the luckiest person in the world. People may grow tired hearing me talk about my rock star daughters and now rock star grandchildren. But as long as they’re spreading all this greatness, I’m going to keep talking. The world needs more of it, and I’m surrounded by an abundance. Let the new and 7-year old Cait’s be reminders that there’s so much beauty, love and compassion in the truth. Simply revel in the things that do us no harm.

Truth: the great equalizer in creative nonfiction & life

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In this spring’s Writer’s Studio creative nonfiction class, author and teacher-extraordinaire Lauren Cowen talked on the first night about the irony of this genre—it being described by what it isn’t. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for professional wordsmiths, but from the start we know it’s not fiction. Yet, it still doesn’t tell those who don’t understand the genre anything about it. Some will come to a conclusion like, “Oh, so you just write essays like in high school,” then become a little less impressed with us and prouder of themselves. “Yeah, just essays because they’re so easy. Lord knows capturing the truth, making it compelling and universal, couldn’t be more effortless,” is my kindest retort, occurring only on days bordering on me being comatose.

I have pages of notes on the many eloquent ways Lauren explained creative nonfiction. Nuggets of wisdom include, “it’s a pact between the writer and the reader, a process of discovery” and “credibility is key, it has to have happened, it has to be emotionally true and factually true.” She spoke of its difficulties: “It alludes paraphrase, it yields and it complicates,” and she talked about its governing intent, “dwelling in the world you do know to find out what you don’t know.” She spoke of wrestling with a story’s “aboutness,” drafting and redrafting, always rooting for the story you want to tell, bearing witness to the details and the subtext, weaving in research and authority from emotion and events to write clearly and honestly. And all this from the first night.

Our winter semester’s teacher, reporter and author Kevin Davis had us read the latest book from the “Godfather” of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind. Writer James Wolcott of Vanity Fair magazine had ridiculed the genre and Gutkind, who publishes the magazine Creative Nonfiction, by calling him the Godfather. But it eventually backfired on Wolcott, as the genre is often referenced as the literature of reality. And while Gutkind is famous for insisting he’s not the creative nonfiction police, his insistence for truth and fact-finding, credibility and correctness offer strict boundaries.

Kevin, too, had a wealth of insights to help define the genre. He spoke of how small moments reveal universal truths, and, therefore, the importance of remembering details and expressing them carefully are paramount. His discussions on structuring creative nonfiction is invaluable. Character descriptions that give readers a hunger for what’s at stake in the story, scenes and dialogue that move it forward, research grounding us further in the facts, private and intimate knowledge—these are the pieces that connect experiences and make the truth more compelling, transforming and revealing than any other kind of storytelling.

Still, we learn in all our classes and in personal experiences that some who claim to be creative nonfiction writers will play loose with the truth. It can be as seemingly innocent as thinking that changing a minor detail will make a sentence sound more lyrical. James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, revealing how he rehabilitated himself from alcohol, drugs and crime rocketed him to success when Oprah Winfrey featured him on her show. After some easy fact-checking revealed Frey’s fabrications, his public humiliation focused a powerful light on the most essential requirement of the genre. Creative nonfiction must be true, not truthy, not composites of real events. The authentic retelling of small or large moments is mandatory.

Creative nonfiction may be the most potent genre because truth is power. The genre is certainly among the most challenging to write because many truths are tough to relive regardless of one’s wealth, color, gender or culture. As a result, the courage to use truth to retell stories has, in worst cases, the power to reveal atrocities and stop us from repeating them. In best case scenarios, the truth gives faces to vulnerabilities, connecting people and ideas, thereby making it more difficult for inequity and intolerance to spread.

Changing a detail because it adds a little more interest to a story or opens up possible misinterpretations of the bigger story is wrong. And it’s unnecessary. Fix a creative nonfiction piece by writing the truth or simply call your story fiction. Because there is no creative nonfiction police, it’s up to the writing community to police itself. Gutkind says, “More than in any other literary genre, the creative nonfiction writer must rely on his or her own conscience and sensitivity to others and display a higher mortality and a healthy respect for fairness and justice… Write both for art’s sake and for humanity’s sake.”

There’s a lot at stake.

Spring has Sprung in Paradise

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Day Evening 13 of 18. I don’t want to lose a minute so I won’t rush into tomorrow. Each day and night at Ragdale offers magical momentsIMG_0259 and the last few have been exceptional, at least in terms of weather. I can’t recall the last time I was out and about and so warm I had to take off my coat. With the ice and snow melting and the right boots,  inspiration surrounds us.

Tonight those of us with rooms in The Barn shared some welcoming moments at the Ragdale house that involved pizza, wine and a sunset that couldn’t possibly be properly captured with a camera.

IMG_0257The thing about Ragdale is you want to soak it all in with as wide a lens as you can bring to your senses. Walking back to my room I looked up into the dark sky to see it sprinkled with stars. Such a magnificent view defies a caIMG_0263mera lens, but hang in my memory it will.

Since my last residency, pictures and sculptures have been rearranged. Amid all the books near the stairwell to my room stands this proudly poised dancer.

On the other side of the wall in a room housiIMG_0265ng a TV I’ve never once seen turned on, this boy and girl quietly stand next to each other, forever too shy to turn and introduce themselves.

A new season has sprung. We lost an hour last weekend setting the clocks ahead, and it feels like an hour lost in paradise. If anything, a reminder of how fast the days fly by and how extraordinary are the moments when we follow our passions, even if they seem unreachable. But who knows? Maybe I’ll catch a star tomorrow night.