Thursday, January 17, 2008

an afternoon in the life: grad student in January

Three ten-year-old girls scamper off to the bedroom and shut the door FIRMLY behind them, though it’s only me here, no boys today. I peek at the biscuits they’ve just constructed and I can’t figure what missed ingredient might make biscuits exactly that texture, what might make a baked good refuse to turn brown. Hm. I know these girls—they’ll eat the biscuits anyway, since they so painstakingly cut the shapes of acorns and leaves and hearts and houses. Covered with pools of butter and honey, the white flour and shortening creations will taste heavenly, I’m sure.

Writing deadline in a few days. My heart is stirred up: I read A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, whose hometown is seventeen miles from my hometown, who grew up in a similar aura of oblivion and insulation from the rest of the world. I see the words on the page in front of me and laugh until I can’t breath. I see another story also, somewhere deep where I want to respond “but poverty and finding your way alone, these are not funny themes.” They are funny—that’s the book. They are not—that’s the story beneath the story for me. I might do better to laugh about Texas or Idaho or Kentucky, about some other era than the one I grew up in.

The stories snag at me with the familiarity of the drug store in my home town, Mr. and Mrs. Mills’ green lawn next door, open to Frisbee games at all hours of the day—did we realize the lawn belonged to them? I think of Plum Street and my last visit—the state electric company cut down every single shade tree lining my father’s side of the street, one day in October, as a means of preventing wires from obstruction. Down to the stumps! Are their lives to be laid bare of even shade? They live in the same world now that I inhabited as a child: they have no say. I visit the flatlands and I feel flattened, too.

Even visiting the flatlands in my mind is not safe, evidently.

I get an email from the girl who lived across the street, the girl I envied for her ballet lessons—she too struggles when she returns to town. I can hardly believe we are trading notes, after all these years.

I remind myself that January is the classic time for the blues, that this book truly is outrageously worded and hilarious, that I have things to learn from it.

The biscuits finally do turn brown, if very, very flat, and the girls gobble them up with great spoonfuls of raspberry jam and butter, then rush out to play in the snow. I try to remember what I meant to write. What will I turn in to my faculty mentor? There are many good short pieces in my journal I could develop. I should’ve started this weeks ago, when I was reading all these books. Unlike last quarter, I’m not madly in love with any of these story lines, and it’s hard to return to the essays I could rewrite and improve from early December.

I set the laptop in the bay window so I can watch the girls build a snowman. I write a little more about A Girl Named Zippy in a book annotation for my coursework. I realize I can’t “read” the book at all through this thick cloud of my own experience. So I write that. My writing seems whiney and morose but it needs to be finished. Next to write about Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories, just a few pages.

And then to write or find or re-craft something brilliant. I will dig in my journal and find some gem I’ve overlooked, perhaps. There is a story about a coat, another about an incident in Sunday school, a favorite few paragraphs about the taste of asphalt (how’s that for mystery and intrigue?)

But first, parent-teacher meetings, after these girls are picked up. I call out the window to say “come gather your things” and they all yell, “CAN WE HAVE HOT CHOCOLATE?”

Sure, I shout back, and flip the burner on, pull out the cocoa, vanilla and sugar, and pour the milk in the pan.

5 comments:

Lisa B. said...

I'd forgotten where Kimmel's memoir was set, that it was close to your own roots. That would definitely add a different dimension to the reading of that story.

On a different note, have you read Kate Young Caley's memoir, "The House Where the Hardest Things Happened"? I keep meaning to reread that one.

Carine said...

you've got to assemble these posts and put them into a book-they are so much fun to read Denise.

jennifer h said...

Funny that you mentioned A Girl Named Zippy. I picked up that book at a library sale for a dollar last year. I read it in snippets and laughed and laughed. Even though I am not from Indiana, rural western PA can't differ that much. I certainly related to so many of her experiences.

Rock in the Grass said...

would love to come and have hot chocolate with you! But I have just returned from the University of Cape Town where I re-registered for my Phd... this is a long unfinished project. But you have inspired me to finish that which I once began many years ago.
Peaceful writing.

Denise said...

You go, Pete! Will I need to call you 'doctor' Pete? May you find your work deeply satisfying.

I feel so SPOILED studying, which is different than any other time I've taken coursework. Good to be in love with it.

Pete, and all of you, look up Haven Kimmel's The Solace of Leaving Early, soooooo beautiful. A novel with a preacher in it, Pete, rich and lyrical.