Friday, February 20, 2009

Do you inform the sensei your two-year-old son...

...just peed on the futon in the back of the classroom or do you march all three kids out without her noticing? Do you tell her before you finish filling out the parental waiver, or after you buy your daughter’s Aikido outfit? As you sit facing the altar where the kids bow before stepping on the mat, the spiritual pressure overwhelms you and you blurt out, “Go ahead, fire us before we even start. Can I unzip that cover and wash it for you?” She’s tall, much taller than you, and halts mid-step, spins around, and says quietly...”Did it go through?” You want to die. But you swab off the cover, and find to your delight it didn’t permeate the futon. Mildly, she says, “I”ll wash it, but thanks for offering.”

What the heck, you’ll stay for the first part of class, as long you can still get to the post office by five. Somehow you manage a wave to your daughter, who looks impressive in her whites, and corral the sons on to the post office for the National Poetry Series postmark you need for your manuscript (where the boys swing in tandem from the velvet rope long enough to pull both metal columns down on the stone floor).

I’m thinking of The Fire Cat, by Esther Averill, when Mrs. Goodkind with her mannish smile decides to give Pickles the cat a chance: Pickles, you are not a bad cat. You are not a good cat. You are good and bad. And bad and good. You are a mixed-up cat. What you need is a good home. Then you will be good. Or the Bizarro comic strip depicting Frankenstein waiting outside the pearly gates. The angel says to him: Parts of you get into Heaven, parts of you don’t. How do you want to handle this? Both examples apply to how I feel both about my kids’ behavior and about my parenting abilities. Constantly thwarted, requiring constant assessment. Just like writing, facing that blank page again.

“Nobody under the age of 30 has anything to say,” I remember my undergraduate fiction teacher, Jack Hicks, telling me. Then he handed us a syllabus of assignments, for which we would be trying to disprove his theory. I came to his office hours one day, and he asked, “What are you reading?” To which I naively responded, “If I read, then I won’t come up with something original. I want the ideas to be mine, not someone else’s.” He was patient enough to point out the same stories are told over and over again, but it is your voice, your take, that will differ.

Writer Margaux Fragoso, in her well-written article Two Worlds: Depersonalization, Reassembly, and the Poetic Imagination looks intensely at the concept of “how an artist is forced to live twice”—once living an experience, and than again in the remaking of it in art. (Margie, Strong Rx Medicine, American Journal of Poetry, Vol.7 2008). “Not only does the poet, or artist, rend the world apart by isolating it into its disparate elements, she rends her own self by doing so” (p. 153). In that context, Fragoso asks “...would any mother wish upon her child the uncertain life of the artist: the pain of standing at the cliff-edge of poetic labor each day, to face the unfathomable darkness that leers in the gray space between the blueprints of a poem or story and its actual composition?”

I’d have to say yes, for I grew up listening to my father’s piano lullabies at night: Brahms, Bach, Beethoven. And later as a teen, listening to the syncopated rhythms of Bela Bartok: father's kitchen a constantly morphing shrine of anything we kids (his three) made—from my brother’s thumb-sized demon sculptures of grey potter’s clay to my sister’s colored pencil drawings of roses to a dreadful digital device I’d made one high school summer as an intern at Hewlett Packard (back when I thought I wanted to be an engineer) with its wires askew, counting randomly from 1 to ten. For better or for worse, I could see wishing the life of an artist on my children, as long as it gives them joy. Wether it be a life of music or words or the ability to drop, roll, and land back on their feet like cats.

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