Thursday, November 28, 2013

I won! And another excerpt

NaNoWriMo ends officially on Saturday, but when I validated my word count this afternoon, I passed the 50,000 mark and became a winner. Here's the story in a graphic:

NaNoWriMo winning results on November 28, 2013
The accomplishment feels really, really good. A daily writing mandate can carry you through times when you aren't clearly motivated to write. You just sit down and write the next thing.

As the graph shows, I had short days (when I was teaching) when I added 500 words or so. That's where the curve flattens out. The sharper rise is on the days when I did not have to teach, and I used those days to catch up (2,500+). According to my own altered schedule, I was actually "ahead" the whole time, although it only felt that way when I reached the grey average line last weekend.

I set out to write the story of being the mother of a child who died of cancer. During NaNoWriMo I drafted seven chapters. I am working chronologically and with the expectation of cutting lots of what I wrote and finding ways to make it non-chronological in the end. Where did I end up? I reached Christmas of 2001, when Simon's diagnosis was confirmed. I have a long way to go. The story grew heavier to write in the last few days--no wonder.

Here's an excerpt from chapter seven. Maybe it will never be part of a book, but I bet Ann Arborites (and others) will enjoy it anyway.

Without overtly trying, Markus and I have managed to live together in the USA only in cities that make top-ten lists for livability. In the late 1980s, not long after we became a couple in 1987, Markus had an internship to Madison, Wisconsin. I followed him there and stayed for a year of graduate school (in textiles). The gorgeous lakes Mendota and Menona, the bikable city, the cultural offerings, and Chicago only two hours’ drive away. We followed that up with Portland, Oregon for two years. Markus got his MBA at Portland State, and I studied textiles at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts and worked out of a studio in the not-yet-gentrified industrial north side. Glittering tall buildings with green and pink glass reflecting Mt. Hood when the cloud cover cleared, the Rose Garden, the Japanese Garden (where we became engaged), the Pacific coast a 90-minutes’ drive, the early days of Starbuck’s and brewpubs.
1992-1995 took us back to Germany, and we lived in the city of Karlsruhe for three years. Bikable, unusual in its classical city structure fanning out from the palace at its center, plenty of culture, the French border and Alsace-Lorraine a mere 30-minutes’ drive. Markus set his sights on a PhD program, and that search landed us in Ann Arbor. Eight years later, in 2003, his first job as a professor took us to our fourth “most livable” place in the USA: Salt Lake City, Utah. But that’s getting ahead of the time in Ann Arbor.
One of the highest quality-of-life aspects of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has to be Zingerman’s Delicatessen. Its Detroit Street deli in an old red-brick shop with outdoor seating and a spill-over building next door attracts a sandwich line that often stretches out to the sidewalk. Outrageously delicious deli meats and cheeses, olives, oils and vinegars entice shoppers to consider outrageous prices. We came most often for the bread. Zingerman’s has its own bakery, providing bread to meet (and sometimes surpass) our German standards, even at $4 a loaf. The family favorite was Farm Bread, which had a crack down the length of the oblong loaf. Simon said the bread, when sliced, looked just like a rabbit. It had a chewy crust that flaked on a fresh loaf, the inside just a little more putty-colored than white. Another favorite, more for the grown-ups, was Cherry Chocolate Bread, a tiny round loaf of dark brown bread filled with rectangular bars of a fancy sort of chocolate and soft cherries.
Zingerman’s breads became available at several supermarkets in addition to their deli, but the best place to go was the Bakehouse itself. Hidden in the winding drives of a warehouse park just past the highway that runs near the mall south of town, the Bakehouse is a room full of ovens, mixing vats, boards, and bakers with flour on their hands. You can watch it through a glass window from the salesroom. There’s a stool for kids to stand on. My first visit, I had to drive in circles around the mostly unmarked buildings until I spotted a truck with the Zingerman’s logo parked at the back. Soon, I learned to find the place as a stop on my way home from church Sunday mornings. Pastries, soups, dairy products, salty snacks, focaccia. But what we really came for was the wall filled with round and cracked and flour-topped loaves of bread.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013

Perhaps you've heard about the project called National Novel Writing Month. People all over the world sit down in the month of November to write a novel. I believe the project was initially directed at youth. Now it has expanded to entice writers of all ages to commit to a month of steady writing. The task: write 50,000 new words of a novel. The FAQ page on the NaNoWriMo neatly answers questions about authenticity and other issues. For instance, I'm actually writing memoir, not a novel. Officially, that classifies me as a "rebel". I like that.

Basically, you answer to yourself alone, and that's all you need. The website offers a handy place to track your progress. Here is what my graph looks like today:

Daily progress in words written, November 1-24, 2013

NaNoWriMo was in the periphery of my awareness until friends from the Writers in Stuttgart group encouraged me to give it a try. I had to teach a full schedule of Business English courses in September and October, but my November looked enticingly more free. So I mapped out my own course. Rather than the recommended average of 1,667 words per day, I planned to write 500 words on my teaching days and while traveling (9 "short" days). For the rest, I've been working 2,000-2,500 word days. I was thrilled yesterday when I finally caught up to the target line. Today I surpassed it!

The project is working. I will have 50,000+ words by Saturday when the month ends. There's a word count validator on the NaNoWriMo site that will declare me a "winner" once I cross that mark. I anticipate twelve chapters, probably more. Some of the chapters I mapped out have split as I work. Realistically, I will have eight or nine of the chapters written at the 50,000 word point. The full work will be longer.

And what is my subject? I am writing about my life as a mother--becoming a mother, having two little children, going through my son's cancer, being a mother after a child's death. I'm using this project to guide me through a chronological account. The project helps me stay steady on this straightforward path of telling.

Yesterday I posted an excerpt of new writing (on a familiar subject) that I expect to put in a final chapter. Today I want to share a paragraph from the draft of chapter FIVE about life with two little children. There's a 28-month age difference in my son and daughter, and here the memories fuse.
        Can I remember what it was like to live with my children when they were very young? The time vanishes like dead skin cells sloughed off in silence, without the slightest thought. Old experience makes way for new. Children grow moment by moment. You watch them raptly, like a time-lapse sequence of an amaryllis coming into bloom. You don’t want to miss even one small change, one step toward maturation, one moment’s learning. Now he can raise his head from a belly position. Now she can roll onto her back. Now he can sit unsupported without falling over. Now she can sit herself up. He’s crawling, but he tends to go backward and wedge himself under sofa and chairs. She’s crawling, but she drags her left hip along as her right leg and arms do all the work. He’s discovered the foot of the stairs—I guess a gate would be smart—he’s up a whole flight of stairs—we need the gate now. She’s pulling up to standing. He’s letting go of our hands to walk on his own feet. She’s outside with our cute teenage neighbors, and suddenly they’ve taught her to walk.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

For November 17th, Simon's half-birthday

Another pumpkin-growing season ended in September. To be exact, I harvested pumpkins for the 9th time in my backyard garden, all of them descendants of the first pumpkin--Simon's Pumpkin. In the spring of first grade, 2004, Simon came home with a styrofoam cup of dark dirt and two small plants from sprouted seeds, a pumpkin and a sunflower. Both were moving past the initial two oblong leaves that emerged from a seed into the more differentiated growth of each plant's shapely mature leaves. I set the plants near one another in the backyard, and they grew all summer.

The sunflower opened a first bloom on August 7th, the morning after Simon died. The petals were a somber brown tinged in fiery red. The pumpkin sent one strong shoot straight toward the house, toward the room where Simon lay. At the time of his death, there was one sole pumpkin, dappled dark green. It was a hospice nurse who suggested saving the seeds. "Grow them every year," she said. "That's Simon's pumpkin."

In 2010, the one year during which I grew no crop of pumpkins because we left our Utah house, we moved to Germany. And here the project continues. On Sunday, November 17th, I halved two pumpkins, pulled out their seeds, and baked the halves face down in the oven until they were soft. With the drained cooked flesh I made a pie (and froze the rest). Miriam carved a dedication to Simon into the baked pie. Three heart shapes fill the space around: 16.5 Simon. He would have been sixteen and a half this week.

For a writing project this month of November (more on that soon), I am drafting a memoir about my early years as a mother, the years with a sick child, the years after his death. I want to present an excerpt here of the text I wrote on Sunday, after making and sharing the pie with Miriam and Markus.

A Simon's Pumpkin Pie, November 17, 2013

From a manuscript in progress, working title: A Partial Mother (please keep in mind it's a draft)

The juice of a pumpkin dries like a strange new skin on the palms of my hands. I can’t wash it away. I’ve just sunk both hands into the innards of two pumpkins, separating plump whole seeds from the stringy insides. I will clean, dry and save the seeds. As I work, I suppress the impulse to find every last seed, the pile inside my red plastic bowl already nearing the rim. I am saving the seeds to grow pumpkins again next summer, just as I have done every year since 2004. Well, except the year we moved to Germany (2010) when I didn’t grow pumpkins at all.

I scaled the project back this year, looking for the right perspective. I keep envelopes of seeds in the basement, marked by the year the pumpkin grew. Last year I set in seeds from almost all the prior years, starting with the 2004 Ur-pumpkin. Year after year, I grow seeds harvested from that first pumpkin. Year after year, I seem to come no closer to running out of those seeds. My garden choked last year under all those plants: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011. (I skip 2007 because those pumpkins were long, pale and strangely like zucchini, and because that year is one I prefer to forget.) I watch the plants grow with a misplaced pride: the 2004 pumpkin—Simon’s own pumpkin—sprouts first on the window ledge indoors, where I stick seeds into pockets of dirt in an egg carton I’ve labeled with the corresponding date. The 2004’s sprawl most confidently over the garden, burst open the first flowers, and nearly always create the earliest and best-looking fruit. As if it were a competition, as if there is some winning to be found in that plant—that vintage—being the best one. When I harvest a pumpkin, I trace its ridged and twisting vine back to its origin in the ground to find a little sign with the year of the seed. “2004” I notate in black Sharpie on the underside of the pumpkin, near the blossom stub—the flat navel of the fruit. In September I rescue the fruit from under mildewed and crumbling leaves, from shredded, rancid vines. I rinse the pumpkins off and set them to ripen in the sun, for Halloween or pumpkin pie.

Today will be pumpkin pie day, and it is fitting. November 17th is Simon’s half-birthday. He would be sixteen and a half years old today. Or he is sixteen and a half years old today. I lack the certainty to say that he lives, that he is aging alongside the rest of us, that his development continues in a measurable way. Because I do not know where Simon is now. We do not speak. He does not come to me in dreams. My imagination falls weakly aside when I try to picture him with a deep voice, with a neck drawn taut by testosterone, with armpit or pubic hair, with dreams for his own adult life. Miriam is tall now, like Markus. She dwarfs me on the rare occasions she’ll accept a hug, all the while telling me how small I am. Would Simon be tall, too? Or was he going to be smaller, like me? When he died—when he was seven—the top of his head reached the base of my sternum when I hugged him to me.

My power of imagination meets another challenge. Do I picture Simon as a nearly grown young man, unaffected by illness? Or do I see him with the late effects of cancer treatment: stunted growth, cognitive deficiencies, the psychological legacy of a sick kid? I asked Markus the other day, in some situation where Simon came to mind, if he envisioned him progressed through time with no sign of cancer, or if he factored all that in somehow? It seems easier, we agreed, to imagine the entirety of Simon’s cancer away. Why not, if all we have is what we can imagine anyway?

I do not fault myself for projecting a mother’s pride onto the pumpkin Simon brought home in first grade. As I slide the seeds from their fibrous trappings, I marvel at nature’s prolific production. There are hundreds, maybe a few thousand, seeds inside one pumpkin. All of that (and the leaves and vines and any other fruit of that plant) grew from the power contained in one flat cream-colored pointy-ended seed. The pumpkin, like other plants, does not rely on bearing just one or two offspring (as we humans do), but creates these hundreds of seeds, all of which hold the potential to replace that one pumpkin in another year’s growing cycle. Think of a tree laden with apples. Think of the dandelion’s silvery head. I always also have to think of cancer: just one lousy mutation can perpetuate itself into a killing force. I used to fantasize that I could remove Simon’s cancer cells, by hand, carefully and doggedly, the way I sort through the slime and the seeds in a pumpkin. I would have persisted for hours, for days, forever until I cleaned out every last killing cell.

My fingers search. My eyes see another pocket of off-white seeds tucked like a stack of coins against the pumpkin’s flesh. I could get every last seed. I have to force myself not to try.