I wake up in the morning in Birmingham, Alabama and look out into the backyard where a mockingbird is constantly going to town trilling, yodeling, and tra-la-la-ing and the cherry tree is on the verge of blossoming.
In the first flush of morning, I often feel a hot flash wash over me and then it is gone.
I have a friend who used to yell, “Hot flash! Hot flash!”
We’d wait in suspense for it to pass.
I always wondered what it felt like.
I told my doctor once, “I think maybe I had one.”
She smiled and said, “You’ll know.”
Now I know. So far it’s not horrible. It’s just hot and then it passes. I breathe in and out and listen to the mockingbird and think about growing old.
And so it’s my sabbatical update – the halfway point, I reckon.
Here is what I’ve done so far.
140 mostly revised pages of ARE YOU THERE VULCAN? IT’S ME, MILLIE-GRACIELA. (I should be further along, but I have a vision of the end that involves tasks and Alabama landmarks, and Norah is going to read it on the plane back to Los Angeles this Friday and give me notes.)
I’ve applied for two grants to help me finish VULCAN and HOP THE POND by hiring freelance editors. I need my beloved editor, Catherine.
We’ll see if I get the grants. Who knows?
I have begun two new picture books:
- The Teardrop Sisters of Bodrum Castle – (they make tiny vases to catch the tears of princesses)
- The Water Buffalo of Ningbo – (He is like a Chinese Ferdinand, the bull, frolicking in the rice fields of Ningbo before heading off to town.)
I sold a picture book to Random House, “Ernestine’s Milky Way.” (I consider that a freaking miracle and sometimes I have to ask myself – did that really happen?)
And I have kept this blog – which I do love keeping. Sadly, I thought I might do it everyday, but ha, ha – that didn’t happen. (Sorry Mike Tait.)
But that’s okay.
And what else?
I have begun in earnest listening to books on Audible. I mostly clean or walk or drive as I listen, and it’s been a fantastic escape from reading. I read so much that to listen to the story is a whole new experience and one that saves my eyes and keeps me moving and not bolted to a chair or a bed.
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout
WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi
H IS HAWK by Helen Macdonald
SOUTH OF BROAD by Pat Conroy
And I have read and edited stories from my online Antioch students each month.
In family matters, I have driven Norah to school each day, and each day we discuss how we might arrive in a timely manner, because we never do.
I have given advice to my older daughter, Lucy, who is suffering a knee injury that requires surgery and rehab and she’s lost her job because of it.
It’s plain awful for her.
I wish I had not given her advice. I know better than to give advice.
Haven’t I learned that yet?
In the future, when my adult children ask for advice, I am going to try to remember to say:
I don’t know, but I trust you will make the right decision.
Then I will shut up.
I hope I will shut up.
I wasted years and years giving my son advice – lectures, cajoling, manipulating, guilting, shaming, crying, begging, pleading, praising, freaking out – you name it. I tried it. All the bells and whistles! I threw it all at him to make him act how I thought a responsible person should act.
Guess how much good it did?
So I don’t do that anymore with him, but I need not to do that anymore with ANYBODY.
Why do I have to relearn the same boring lessons over and over?
But here is something sweet. Last night, because I love Lee Smith, I went out and bought DIMESTORE, her memoir, which I love already. I read Lee Smith when Flannery and Lucy were babies. ORAL HISTORY, FAIR AND TENDER LADIES, ME AND MY BABY VIEW THE ECLIPSE. I bought my mother and mother-in-law Lee Smith novels.
* * *
I was not a girl who grew up in the same town all her life the way Lee Smith did – knowing everybody in town. I moved every few years because of football wins and losses, and the whims of head coaches or athletic directors, who I am pretty sure didn’t think too much about the children of assistant coaches.
How could they? They had football games to win.
But we lived for a while in a place that sounds like Lee Smith’s town of Grundy, Virginia when my dad got his first coaching job after a graduate assistantship at Mississippi State in Starkville. (My mother happily fled Starkville with joy! I don’t think she’s been back since.)
It was a move to Morehead, Kentucky for a coaching job with the Morehead State Eagles. My parents weren’t even close to thirty. I don’t remember a thing about it except my mother said the apartment complex where they lived faced a mountain and she used to stand on the back porch ironing and gazing up at the mountain. They arrived in Morehead after driving through a rainstorm with two babies, and the minute they pulled up, her beloved dog, a German Shepard, Jennifer, jumped out of the car and disappeared up the mountain in the rain.
Mother cried, “Oh she’s gone forever. What is this place? Jennifer! Jennifer!”
My father said, “She’ll be back” and unpacked the car.
Jennifer and my father had a tenuous relationship, since the dog had preceded him in the marriage.
Still my mother fretted as they settled in for the night with the babies. I was almost two and my brother, Duffy, was six months old.
But Dad was right. The next morning Jennifer found the apartment and was waiting for breakfast.
(Was the mountain Limestone Knob? I just looked it up. I don’t know.)
In Morehead the Kentucky mountains cut off reception to away football games, so the coacheswives went to the bowling alley to listen to away games. I don’t know if it was the only place in town with reception, but the owner of the bowling alley reserved a table for the coacheswives to listen to the game.
They dressed up too. That kind of breaks my heart – the sweetness of those young wives who got their hair done up high and gathered in pretty clothes in a bowling alley in Morehead to listen to their husbands’ football games.
Mother said, “I learned women could be serious about football because they did not chitchat during the games. We listened. Our lives were on the line. Football was our bread and butter.”
They stayed at Morehead State one year. Dad was too ambitious, so the story goes, for the powers that be at the time. I don’t know if it was the head coach or the athletic director, but he was gone and his next job was coaching the defensive secondary with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in time for Brian Piccolo’s senior year.
Mom and Dad used to see Brian Piccolo at Sunday Mass.
I don’t remember Brian Piccolo – only the movie “Brian’s Song.” I learned to play “Brian’s Song” (The Hands of Time) on the piano. Badly.
I remember a lot about North Carolina, and weirdly, all of the children’s books I have published are set in North Carolina even though I only lived there from age two to six.
After Wake Forest, it was onto the Iowa State Cyclones, Kansas State Wildcats, Pittsburgh Panthers, Tennessee Volunteers, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, and San Diego Chargers.
My parents still live in San Diego. I want to ask them if they can remember how the Morehead State Eagles did the year we lived in Kentucky.
Here is a picture Lucy took of Kentucky in the summer of 2008 at the Appalachian Service Project.
I love this picture. Sometimes I wonder who lived in this house? Who lives there now?
I’ll close with a paragraph that was based on a real conversation my mother had with a head coach from my first novel, OFFSIDES.
Excerpt of OFFSIDES, William Morrow, 1996
My mother didn’t believe in moodiness and expected upon the same of lack of it from her four children. If I could pick a soundtrack for her life, it would be Herb Albert and Tijuana Brass. No matter how big the tragedy or loss or disappointment, Herb Albert’s trumpets and trombones would play on, assuring us that things would get better
“Life’s too short. Here’s fifty cents. Now cheer up.” As the wife of a football coach, Mama was expected to maintain an upbeat demeanor, no matter what the circumstances. One football season, after she had a bad miscarriage, the head coach, Donny Mac, caught up with her outside the locker room and said, “Hell Sally, heard you lost that baby. I know what loss is like, honey. Game today was so important, and we had and blew the sumbitch. Fumbled on the one-yard line. Talk about grief. Whooo-doggie! But you gotta look ahead now sugarpie. Get a new game plan. Hell, you can be pregnant by the time we ‘Bama if you get to work, little gal.”
After Mama told me that story when I was old enough to understand, I could never look Coach Donny Mac in the eye again. When I tried to explain why, she said, “Liz, he meant well. Now I did not care for his analogy either, but sweetie, most men are under way too much pressure to be sensitive. They got football games to win.”
Cue Herb Albert and his Tijuana Brass…
And a few blossom did burst forth 🙂