Friday, July 3, 2009

Rejection, Rhino rear-ends, and Rapunzels

I’m still learning how to use rejection to drive my work to its best incarnation. I came across a few remarks that made laugh and stop taking for granted the privacy of my anonymity as a writer (respectively):

“...don’t let the judgment of any editor poison the intense, intimate, and necessary relationship that you have with your own work. Keep the two things scrupulously separate. The self that writes may need to be a delicate and protected creature, but the self that submits to magazines ought to be as tough as a rhino’s butt” (Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, in the article Bullseye, How to Submit to Poetry, Poets &Writers, May June 2009).

and from photographer Saul Leiter:

“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learned to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything” (as quoted by Jim Casper in the article Lensculture, Five Points: Vol 12. No. 3).

Of course, talking about rejection and surviving it are two different things. I can’t say enough about the beautiful braid of energy that has sustained me through rejection and life at large: other women, grappling with the dual demands of their muse and motherhood. We talk. Three Rapunzels are better than one, and so on. And the hair/rope, cast down—not for some guaranteed prince—at least, not as savior. Companion, father, helpmate, best friend even, but not savior. It is after all 2009.

Ten years ago in Iowa City, my friend Mary and I used to drive through the snow to New Melleray Abbey for weekend retreats, plunking down a duffle bag with clothes and a blank journal, each with our own narrow room, meeting to throw tarot cards on the thin brown bedspread in hushed whispers, waiting to be booted out like teenage girls. We’d separate eventually, pulling our doors shut behind us with that soft click, craving the cool quiet emanating from the corridors, the hooded monks, the stone courtyard, the falling snow, the owls, a certain hush even in the basement dining hall with its marvelous slabs of beef and tureens of gravy.

Without Mary or the time to throw cards, life’s images and happenings become the divination: the black and white king snake slithering across the road on my way home from teaching In the Company of Writers, the coyote in the apple orchard skirting Liz’s house, the sound of three tan oaks splintering to the ground on the untended acre across from our house in the night’s hot, still summer air. Last week it was writing about Rapunzel and having my husband’s grandmother walk in an hour later with an anniversary card for us with an image of Rapunzel outlined in silver, a skinny troubadour of a prince beginning his ascent at the base of her hair.

In the stolen moments of writing time, I can either dwell on rejection, or step over it and get to the writing at hand. And hope in those stolen moments to get the cream to rise to the top. I love whipping cream these days, despite the lack of my little nurser to share the calorie load. An outsider, analyzing might accuse me of trying to fill the lost sweetness (childhood’s? post teen’s?) with endless cups of tea, brown sugar and whipping cream. I would reply: you’re spot on. Should I stop, now that I know?

Or like my dear adopted friend Jerilynn, who dreamed of being at a stream and finding the most lovely round stones imaginable, the very heft of them in her palms filling an insatiable need. “I took stone after stone,” she said, “it felt unbearably good and I couldn’t stop myself.” Then she added, ashamed, “I’m so careful about not taking things from nature, in real life, but in the dream I couldn’t help myself.”

“I wish you’d taken more!” I cried. What motherless child wouldn’t want to fill her arms with those cool perfect stones of the Earth?! “Were we to take the characters in a dream as separated powers of the soul, for example, then a gift given in a dream might serve the soul’s integration” writes Lewis Hyde, in The Gift, p. 74 (I’m still making my way through its thick field of thinking). Wouldn’t a gift taken in a dream too, serve the soul’s integration? I think so.

Us Rapunzels talk our way into the present, hoping our daily living delineates a path our daughters (and sons) would want to inherit. I remember looking at my mother’s life and wanting mine to look nothing like it. Only after giving birth to my first child did I call her with a blanket apology for anything I ever did or said that might have upset her, the helpless love affair with my daughter less than twenty-four hours old, the gravity/ferocity/joy of the years to come just dawning.

In the graphic novel, The Plain Janes, the main character survives a random street bombing. In the PTSD aftermath, relocated to a new city and new high school, Jane turns a critical eye on her mother: “I remember when my mom and I would lie on the ground in the park in Metro City and stare up at the clouds. We’d find all kinds of animals, castles, and magical things up there.”

The mother says, “Does that cloud look strange to you?"

The daughter: "No, it looks normal."

The mother: "It looks strange to me, sinister."

The daughter: “I want her to stop worrying and love the world again...Because if she can, then I can.”

(This passage comes roughly ¼ of the way through the unnumbered book by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg). Love the world my mother did, and she passed that on to me. I came across a letter she sent me when I was auditing a class taught by Patricia Hampl. We were preparing to do a writing exercise using a photograph as a starting point. I wrote to my mother and asked her for her reflections on a photograph of her choice, and asked my grandmother as well. I have both letters still—my grandmother chose to write about her Confirmation photo, and my mother about a photo of three children in the woods. When I gain control over my scanner, I’ll post the photo, but for now, here is my mother’s letter:

It is funny to be 47 years old. I feel like I am finally stable and happy. As the years go by, age and experience do count for something. You can only learn the life of game by playing, and playing it I have.

I came across this photo when I was looking through the old family albums. It is one of my favorites, even though it is posed. It reminds me of the times when days were carefree and my best friends were Mike and Rose. The three of us are 18 months apart and were the last of six other children to go to school, so we spent the five years before school in each other’s company.

This picture was taken by Dad. I’m sure he took it since he was the one who understood cameras and took all our family pictures. He worked for a company that had a darkroom and he developed his own pictures. This was taken in the backyard. We lived on a large lot with a huge backyard. There was a vegetable garden and flower garden that my grandfather kept. It was always beautifully blooming. There were at least a dozen fruit trees, apple, pear, and plums so that we always had plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to eat.

I remember the dress I am wearing because I wore it for a long time. Clothes were few and far between, so I became very attached to clothes, especially dresses, since having six older brothers I was always getting boys clothes to wear. Even the shoes I was wearing were Buster Browns because they could be worn by both boys and girls, and I’m sure Mike got these shoes when I was done with them.

There were lots of children in the neighborhood because it was an Irish Catholic town, so just on our small block there were 10 children in our family, six in the Kelly’s across the street, five in the Clark’s, eight in the Jenny’s and three in the Keating's. Everyone watched out for everyone else, and everyone knew each other. We lived on the edge of town, with a dairy farm just across the street. The traffic on the street was so slight. I remember falling asleep at night and hearing the whistle of the train in the distance. I am still close to Mike and Rose. This picture really brings back the bond that we shared then and now.

Write and let me know how spring break went. I am very much looking forward to the family reunion this summer.--Mary Ann Doherty, 1994

And lest I forget the supporting male thread that also braids itself into my life and my writing (a subject that deserves a future post or two of its own), I type this in to the mingling voices of my two sons, flying their paper airplanes in the driveway with my father (retriever of lost paper stealth planes, kisser of filthy scraped knees, patient chaser of the occasional phantom rhino in the woods).

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