Saturday, November 8, 2014

Rainbows and Kittens and Unicorns

I woke up the other morning thinking, awwww, I miss that story. This originally appeared in PLGRM Magazine last year, a journal I learned about through a friend from my work in the writing center back in my Princeton Theological Seminary days. It's not a perfect story, but I'm posting it here because I missed  it, and wanted to spend some time with it:

Rainbows and Kittens and Unicorns

She wrote stories about rainbows and kittens and unicorns. They were what she loved, so that’s what she wrote about. Rainbows and kittens and unicorns made sense; rainbows would appear after it had rained, or sometimes inside a waterfall, like the one she saw when they all went to Hawaii with Grandma and Grandpa Murry, when they all acted extra nice to Grandpa because everyone else knew he wouldn’t be there the next Christmas. Her kitten liked to play until she didn’t, and then she let you know with claw and tooth. Unicorns weren’t real, but it’d be so great if they were. She’d take her kitten and find a unicorn beside a waterfall and they’d ride off into a magical forest, and they’d find Grandpa Murry in the forest and never again would anyone be sad.
She got the lines so straight, even without lined paper she could write in a nearly perfect row. At the bottom of the page she drew a scene from the story and made sure the page number was in the bottom corner. Her stories were perfect. She hid them behind the collection of The Borrowers that her mother thought she’d read.
The problem was real life wasn’t like rainbows. There were only special moments, and they were so special they almost never happened. There was Christmas to look forward to, but that was still months away. It was only the end of September and all of the third grade was in front of her. She’d be excited if she were going to a real school, like her friend Ingrid. But she was homeschooled. She was going to be allowed to go to real school next year, but second and third grade was a long, seamless stretch of reading on her own or fighting with her mother over her lessons.
Math was especially bad. Her mother kept telling her over and over how good she’d been at math when she was Ramona’s age. It drove Ramona crazy. Made her flub her numbers, lose track of where she was on the page. How was anyone supposed to learn something when someone kept rubbing it in that they were better than you? Ramona was better at jump rope than Ingrid, way better, but she didn’t let on because Ingrid might stop playing with her, and right now she only got to see Ingrid on Tuesday evenings, when Ramona’s mother went to her yoga class. She called it her “Me Time.” Ramona hated yoga. It was stupid. You fold and bend and stretch and are so quiet. Everything was already too quiet around the house.
It was taking forever to grow up; each quiet year took so long. Her mother kept telling her “She should be glad she was a kid since she got to play and make believe things with her dolls.” But her mother didn’t understand how awful it was to always have to wait for permission to do things, or be told when she was supposed to go to bed, even if she wasn’t tired and the sun was still up. It stunk to always need to do things when her mom needed them to be done, forever running errands, when she had to tag along because she wasn’t old enough to stay alone and they couldn’t afford a babysitter. Her mother worked from home, closing the door to her bedroom and typing, typing, typing all day long, coming out every hour to check to see if Ramona was doing her pages in each workbook: science, history, social studies. Pages and pages of black and white newsprint with little illustrations and tear-out sheets of exercises.
 Ramona’s father had left when she was too young to remember it happening and if she ever asked about him, her mother started yelling about “that man who absorbed everything into himself,” and then was heard crying from inside her room later.
Ramona had two dolls: Cassandra and Rosabella, both gifts from her Grandpa Murry. They were sturdy plastic and could almost stand on their own if you balanced them just right. Cassandra had blond hair with some waves in it and Rosabella had brown hair like Ramona’s. Except it wasn’t like Ramona’s because it never grew back after she chopped it off to just below her plastic ear. Instead of lying flat and cute like the bob Ingrid had, it stuck straight out. Rosabella also had marker on her face for makeup, and Ramona had been sent to Time Out for each of those projects. But she could see past all that and thought Rosabella was just as beautiful as Cassandra. She made them sit beside her while she did her lessons since it didn’t seem fair that they’d get to play without her. “Sit still girls,” she told them. “It’s time for learning.”
One day, Ramona’s mother told her she was going out to work on the garden. Their garden was four feet by two feet: everyone in the apartment complex got the same amount of space in the shared backyard, and Ramona liked to measure it with her wooden ruler, making sure their neighbors’ tomatoes or geraniums weren’t climbing into their spot.
Ramona’s job was weeding but her mother said she wasn’t very good at it since she didn’t get them up by the roots. But Ramona thought it was better to just yank the tops off, because then she’d have something to do again in just a couple days. Usually her mother made her go outside with her but today it was like she’d forgotten Ramona was there and left her to stay in the apartment by herself. Suddenly the apartment was a different kind of quiet.
She imagined herself the boss of it, but that was only interesting for a minute. Then she imagined herself as a lost puppy, all alone in an abandoned alley, then rescued by Cassandra and Rosabella. Then she imagined herself a great dancer and performed a beautiful ballet for her audience of dolls and dining room chairs. When she ran her foot into the coffee table she collapsed into a heap of pain, but remembering she was alone she let herself say a whispered, “damn,” knowing she wouldn’t be caught. Then she sang a lilting song she made up along the way, a song of rainbows and kittens and unicorns.  As she grew comfortable with her own voice she began to sing louder. And louder. And louder. Spinning in the middle of the living room with eyes closed and her arms outstretched she sang to the world her song of love and hope and chances.
“Ramona!” her mother yelled an interruption. “Stop screaming, they can hear you all the way across the complex!”
But Ramona didn’t stop. The more she sang, the more she needed to sing. She spun and spun and when her mother grabbed her arm to stop her Ramona slapped her away.
“The rainbows love us and kittens carry our hearts. Unicorns are real and will sweep us up into the clouds with them. We don’t have to worry and we don’t have to worry and we don’t—”
Slap. Her mother’s hand crashed into her face. “What are you doing?” her mother yelled. “Why are you hurting me like this? Stop it, stop it now!”
“Get out,” Ramona screamed. “Get out get out get out,” and she slammed herself into her bedroom. “Get out get out get out,” she kept yelling from behind her door. Why couldn’t her mother just go away? Wasn’t it enough that she got to say everything about what happened already?

She could hear her mother crying on the other side of the door. Stuffing her hands in her ears, Ramona buried her head in her pillow. She needed to cry too, but couldn’t. She could only kick the bed she laid on until she was exhausted, which scared her kitten into hiding in the closet. All the good things in life felt as impossibly far away as Grandpa Murry. A numb, tired feeling took over, and behind it, hunger. They hadn’t had dinner yet. There was no more crying from the other side of the door. It would be forever and forever until she’d be an adult and able to leave, able to sing as loud as she needed to whenever she felt like it. Tomorrow she’d write a new story, an apology to her kitten. In the meantime, she needed dinner.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

It's the Most. Wonderful Time. Of the year.

Blogging has fallen aside this year, along with many other things that require the tiny bits of my brain that are left at the end of the day. But I often still think in blog posts. I'll land on a topic that I can't wait to organize a few paragraphs about, collect a photo, and share with the world. I have dozens of photos on my camera of books I've loved reading that I meant to talk about. I have whole manifestos scribbled in notebooks on everything from how hard it is to be a writer to where the hell did all the sleeves go on wedding dresses????

So what has finally inspired me to post? My very favorite festival of the year is back! Litquake, my beloved literary festival, is back in its FIFTEENTH year, and for the first time in a long time, I'm enjoying it as a participant rather than an organizer. It's a heady experience to consume words, to soak up the atmosphere, and enjoy the wide variety of audiences it pulls in, all sharing a common love of reading. I was reminded of a story I created last year, trying to capture the feeling of being an audience member. And I want to share it.

Before I do, if you're looking for a reading or some Lit Crawl madness, the whole program of this week's events can be found here: Many events are free; they are all interesting. Find a topic, genre, author, venue, etc. that you love and go. You won't regret it.

And now, my story:

The Reading

You’re sitting there, waiting for the reading to start, hoping for it to begin because waiting in crowds makes your social anxiety flare up and you don’t have an iPhone yet.  An iPhone would be great, then you could always look like you have something important to look at, rather than trying to seem very concerned with the hem of your skirt while quite obviously not having anyone to talk to.  You hope the author is a good speaker, you loved their book and you really want to love them.  You hope with all your heart that they don’t disappoint you with their humanness.  You hope they aren’t pretentious, are funny, and that they’re kind of good looking, but not so good looking that you begin to feel even more self-conscious about your outfit. 

And then there they are: walking up to the podium, the mike stand, the front of the room of wherever you are for this night of literature, and they are speaking.  And they are saying all the things you want to hear.  And they are charming, but not too charming, and you love the way they have a little stain on their red shoe that they obviously tried to wash off but failed.  And that’s when you really, really think you could be them.  You could be that person up there reading from your book, making the crowd laugh at your jokes and charming them with your story of challenge and perseverance.  They are a rock star in this twenty-person crowd of envy, and you were destined to rock.  You hate them.  They suck.  They have everything you want in life; books with their names on them, reviews in the Times, posh teaching gigs where they can teach students to worship them.      

The Q&A time begins, a mousy woman with fluffy orange hair goes first.  Her question bleeds with desire to be the author, to impress her, to goad her into acknowledging the worth of the questioner.  The next question, a man this time, you guess he is a poet because his question is so soft: from where does your inspiration come?  He follows it up to explain he is struggling, he is parched for ideas and he needs hope from the author that someday he will be able to think again.  The next, an older gentleman, scholarly looking, he is looking for the keys to success and thinks the author is holding them.  Your question, which goes unasked, is how do I become you?

The bookstore owner, mediator or organizer interrupts to explain That will be all, thanks the author and indicates the line for book signings is over there.  You get up, gather your sweater, take your time about it, enough time for the woman next to you to say “Reading is my life.”  That can’t be what she said, but she says it again, staring at you as she does.  “I just can’t get enough books.”  The man next to her says, “I know what you mean, books are my religion.”  And behind us an older woman pulls her shawl close and closes her eyes to moan, “If I couldn’t read I don’t know who I’d be.”  And you are almost crying, except you never cry in public, but you’re so happy you could almost pull it off this once.  These are your people.  They get it.  They love words like you love words, and you may have nothing else in common, but you have that, and it is more than enough.  And it’s only the first day of Litquake.