Thursday, May 29, 2014

Next reading & A letter to my mother

My next public reading of "Objects of My Attention" is TONIGHT in Salt Lake City, Utah. Please join me and poet Natalie Taylor, who will read from her chapbook Eden's Edge.
Literary Reading by Mary Craig and Natalie Taylor
Little Chapel (not the main sanctuary)
First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City
569 S. 1300 East
7:30 pm
As for blogging ever forward, I've had a busy couple of weeks since the posts about Simon's birthday.  I was in my hometown of Oberlin, Ohio May 20-27. I saw friends from my growing up years and friends from my college years and enjoyed visiting with my parents in their house. It was perfect "porch weather", and I held a private reading for my mom and dad the last night I was there, out on the semi-outdoor brick porch with the tree frogs bellowing.

My ongoing project when I visit my parents' house is cleaning out the drawers, shelves and boxes of my stuff, sent there or dumped there over thirty years of excuses like being too far away to deal with it or take it with me. I blogged about the process in January in a post called "Returning to Tennis". This time I got my old desk completely cleared out. The biggest find was a "narrative paper" from 10th grade English about babysitting with a scary wind outside the house. Another piece about windows... It's called "A Dollar an Hour". I enjoy finding evidence that, although I think I'm pretty new to writing, I have been doing it for a long time.

While in Oberlin, I asked my mother for her permission to post the letter I wrote her this year on Mother's Day. I wrote the letter and sent it via email because my voice was too hoarse for a phone call. I appreciate her willingness to share. The letter prompted sewing memories of her own. For those who don't know, Julie (mentioned in the letter) is my older sister and an excellent seamstress.

A letter to my mother
May 11, 2014 

Dear Mom,

This Mother’s Day I am remembering that you taught me to sew. The age that sticks in my mind is seven—that I sewed my first garment (under your supervision) when I was seven. I don’t recall what the garment was. Since I only remember sewing in Oberlin (not in Berkeley), I wonder if my sewing life began after we returned from California when I was actually eight.

Remember the reversible wrap skirts Julie and I made in twin? Red on one side and mustard yellow on the reverse. A four-button panel across the abdomen held the skirt together. There were eight buttons in all because each side needed four. We used the flattest buttons we could find because they were doubled up. (It might very well turn out that you made that skirt for me, and I simply remember it.)

We spent hours paging through pattern books in the Towne Shoppe basement. We checked all the books: Simplicity, McCall and Butterick. Much later, I also looked at Vogue. We opened the beige-painted wide steel drawers to find the chosen pattern in the right size among all those neatly filed, tightly packed envelopes. Then we wandered the aisles of fabric bolts, fingered the materials, tugged them out and opened the cloth to see the right side of the fabric and watch it drape.

Following the tiny writing on the pattern envelope, we searched out zippers, elastic, buttons, hooks, and sometimes even decorative trim. In my general memories of these activities, I am doing these things all on my own. Sometimes I know someone is there helping me read hard words or reach things on high shelves, but I’m not being told what to do. Instead it feels like being the blindfolded person in Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Kind hands of an unseen person send me off in the right direction.

When I was nine or ten, I made a skirt and top that turned out to be more challenging than I expected. It was the age of the interlock knit—how thrilled we were at this fabric that wouldn’t fray or lose shape. I picked out a red and blue paisley print on white. The skirt: four gores, four seams, an elastic casing at the waist, and it was done. The top was a simple pullover (for s t r e t c h knits only, the pattern said). It had a topstitched scoop neck and a small gathered cap sleeve set into the top of the armhole. The double row of topstitching may have been the part that did me in. But my recollection is that I lost all hope while setting in a sleeve ruffle. (Was my stitching crooked? Did the bobbin send up a tangle of thread?) I wadded the maddening thing up and stuffed it into the trash basket by your desk. (I am sure I hoped you would see.)

What happened next? Did you pull it out of the trash and fix my problem for me? Did you convince me to pull it out myself with clever arguments about how much work I’d already done and how close I was to finishing it? I only know the result: here I am wearing the top in my fourth grade school photo.

School Picture - '73 - '74
(4th grade)
As you know, I turned out to be a pretty good sewer. It’s one of the many things you’ve taught me. And it’s the one I’m feeling satisfaction about and gratitude for on this Mother’s Day. Thanks, Mom!

Sorry not to be calling on the phone today, but I’ll see you week after next!


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Happy 17th Birthday, Simon Craig Vodosek (part 2)

For the tenth time, we've experienced Simon's birthday without Simon. Ten times. His time absent in body has long surpassed the time he was given to live. That's how time and mortality work.

What to do? How do you spend this day? The first several years we sought community and held lemonade stands to raise money for pediatric cancer research in Simon's memory with our friends at Liberty Heights Fresh in Salt Lake City. The very first year we had a full birthday party at the house with Simon's friends, complete with a visit from Marcus the Clown, who had entertained Simon at his Celebration of Life about a month before he died.

Since coming to Germany in 2010, we've been more private and improvisatory. This year, Simon's birthday was a Saturday. We talked about things to do--a walk in a botanical garden, an excursion to the Kletterpark (where you strap yourself on and test your balance on ropes in trees). But we ended up taking it easy at home.

Miriam and I both slept in a bit and woke to find that Markus had made pancakes for breakfast. He had lit the Simon candle:

I lit a second candle. Throughout the long day, we lit candles from the Simon candle as we felt inspired.

Markus had set the breakfast table for four. In front of Simon's place, he put three votive candles. He set the place with an empty coffee mug and an empty water glass. I mentioned the coffee cup, and Markus said he figured Simon would be drinking coffee at 17. I mentioned the empty water glass, when our other three were filled. Yes, Simon doesn't actually need it filled, does he?

I ate my pancakes Simon-style. Markus and Miriam have foresworn butter as an unnecessary source of calories, but I took the chance today to dot butter across Markus' light and fluffy whole wheat pancakes. I enjoyed them in full memory of Simon. I talked about Simon's appreciation of butter on pancakes during Simon's memorial service, and you can read those remarks on Look for the section called "Simon the Delighted" for the pancake comment, but I recommend reading the whole tribute to a wonderful child.

Markus surveyed the yard after breakfast and decided to spend time today on the backyard sculpture. He cleaned it and inserted more sand under the base to adjust its slight lean. The sculpture is by Utah artist Chris Coleman, and it preceded the one we commissioned for Simon's Salt Lake City grave (slide show 4).

I spent time in the garden clearing out all the clover and other weeds and preparing the soil for this year's pumpkins. Amid the remaining tulip leaves, you can see five yellow markers. I sometimes start seeds indoors on (or near) Simon's birthday. This year, with the spring so advanced, I've stuck seeds directly in the ground. Two of the seeds come from the original Simon's pumpkin (January 2, 2008 entry). The others came from pumpkins I've grown here other years.

For dinner, we picked sushi, the kind I've made for years to everyone's pleasure, rolling nori and rice around steamed carrot, cucumber, avocado, and "sushi egg". Everyone loves it, every time. Sushi egg reminds us especially of Simon because I used to make it for him around 9:00 pm the nights before he had an NPO appointment at the hospital the next morning. When he wouldn't be allowed to eat breakfast, he had breakfast at bedtime instead. Sushi egg was his usual choice.

Miriam doesn't want to be in my postings, so that's a sliver of her across from Markus. While setting the table for dinner, we noticed several things. The placemat Markus found for Simon's place is less faded than the other three. The fourth pair of chopsticks was in a different drawer from the others. Laying out a place for Simon and putting those items away again was a mindful ritual. I'm glad we did it. Simon left a great big space behind him. It feels right to recognize the space. Perhaps we can even use the space--a place to grow, a place to breathe, a place to renew. (I wouldn't do it every day, but it felt fitting to honor his place among us for his birthday.)

Sam and Simon-the-Cat are still here! The boys will be 11 in August. They came to us half a year before Simon died. They watched over him as he lay dying. Now they offer us--especially Sam, especially Miriam--enduring companionship. 

Markus made this year's strawberry pie.

The candle burned all day. It's still burning. I'll blow it out on my way into bed. Goodnight, Simon. We love you.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Happy 17th Birthday, Simon Craig Vodosek! (part 1)

What would those missing ten years bring to the boy we knew and loved so well? I would so dearly love to know him now. Sometimes, I dare just a little to imagine. Here's what I picture today.

Simon loves taking the vineyard hills on his bicycle. He has a tip now and then on schoolwork for his sister. He makes his friends laugh. He makes all of us laugh. He would want something with strawberries today. And chocolate. I would wish him a growing sense of where to take his life after high school. I would trust he still knows how to have fun. I would wish him his dream date for the formal dance. A strong body and a clear mind. And lots, lots, lots of love.

I posted a birthday photo review on May 16, 2011. Here are some different photos to remember Simon.

May 17, 1997 in Ann Arbor, Michigan with doula Bonnie Marquis
Happy Simon, November 1999 in Oberlin, Ohio
Pensive Simon, July 2000 at Gari Stein's drumming circle in Ann Arbor
Big brother Simon, November 2000 in Ann Arbor
Simon's 7th birthday in Salt Lake City in 2004
reading treasure hunt clues
(this is the tie-dye T-shirt I've written about)
Birthday party, May 17, 2004
(technically it was May 15)
Simon's last

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lunch on my own in Karlsruhe (flash post)

I found a hip/mellow café called Feinraum tucked in one of the streets that fans out and away from the main shopping street in downtown Karlsruhe. The city is called the Fächerstadt (fan city) because of its formal 18th century design, which fans the city out from the castle at its center (think yellow-walled palace, not stone fortress). The structure creates unusual angles throughout the city center and can be pretty confusing if you're not used to it.

We used to live here, Markus and I, from 1992-1995, our first three years married. He worked after his MBA as marketing manager at a printing company (mostly old style phone books and packaging for pharmaceuticals). I taught Business English seminars all around Baden-Württemberg through a company based in Stuttgart.

I think most people have heard of Stuttgart (Mercedes, Porsche...). It's the state capital. Karlsruhe was the capital of Baden before the two states were merged, and it remains perhaps the one that got passed over. Württembergers and Badeners couldn't be more different from each other (according to themselves). Once back in the 1990s a client at a bank asked me for the truth--did I get along better with the people like herself from Baden than with those Swabians (the Württembergers)? Just a little unkindly, I told her that if I ever have any trouble, it's because all of them are German! (We changed subject.)

These days, the main reason you hear about Karlsruhe on the news is that the high courts are here, including the Verfassungsgericht (constitutional court), which is like the U.S. Supreme Court.

I'm here today because I came to see my hairstylist--yep, from 20 years ago. Across the street from the café I see an emptied out store. The worn decor features the faded blues, greens, reds and yellows of the toy store I remember being there. I bought some of my favorite kids' cassette tapes there on a visit around 2000. But that's the least of it. The whole town is fabulously torn up for projects involving tunnels and train tracks and who knows what. Every time we come, the place is different and we get lost (Miriam comes regularly, also on her own, to shop at Primark--something they don't have over in Stuttgart...). Today I came by S-Bahn (a region-connecting streetcar). It's a 90-minute trip from downtown Heilbronn, and it's time to start my trip back.

[What's a flash post? It's me writing fast, maybe on my iPad, inspired by something in the moment. No fussing.]

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A great night at the Tearoom

My reading last night at the Cornwall Tearoom in Bad Wimpfen went exactly right. Peggy Fehily, the owner, and I were joined by my husband Markus and eleven other guests. As Peggy says, the place feels full with eight people. At 14 we had every seat filled around the small white tables. We all drank tea to our heart's content and most of us had a delicious mini-quiche to start the evening. Peggy's yummy cupcakes came out after the reading.

The full essay, "Objects of My Attention," takes 41 minutes to read. I am pleased to say I read the whole piece, making it through even the most emotional bits. It's not easy to do; I get better with practice. The guests came from Peggy's and my personal networks, and since they came willingly--even for the heavy topic of the death of a child--I felt I could ask for serious input. The big question I need advice on: if I have to omit parts for later readings, what parts should I definitely keep?

Literary Evening at the Cornwall Tearoom, Bad Wimpfen
Monday, May 12, 2014 
In a few weeks, I will give a reading as a fellowship winner during the Writers at Work conference (for Utah folks: Thursday, June 5, 7:30-9:30 pm at Alta Lodge--open to the public). As one of four readers that evening, I need to select a 20-minute portion of my essay to read. It's an iterative, six-part piece, and cutting it for a shorter reading is not an obvious task. I could, of course, read the first 20 minutes and stop there. But what reads best for an audience? How do I best represent the piece?

Using a response sheet for comments and ratings of "definitely read/maybe read/skip," the group engaged in lively, thoughtful discussion. Not everyone agreed, of course, on what's the most essential, but a consensus emerged. If you were there last night, this will make sense to you. With tiny cuts in the longer selected sections and skipping the first third of the final section, I can bring it down to 20 minutes: I. Tie-dye, III. Grime, and VI. (abridged) Clarity. Listeners can read the full piece to get the Rain, the Gauze, and the Glass. I anticipate the publication in Quarterly West sometime in the fall.

Thank you to everyone who came last night and listened so attentively. I'm very moved that you open yourselves to this story and to my writing.

I feel so lucky that I re-encountered Peggy Fehily about a year and a half ago. When I started teaching at the DHBW in Heilbronn (Cooperative University of Baden-Württemberg, where I teach Business English), I reconnected with Keith Hanna, whom I recognized as a teaching colleague from the late 1980s in Stuttgart. And Keith told me that Peggy, another colleague from way back then, had just opened up a tearoom not far from Heilbronn.

But that's not all. As we were closing shop yesterday evening, Peggy said she had books on her shelf by Melanie Rae Thon, the professor under whose guidance I had developed large parts of this essay. Peggy said she'd noticed the name in the interview I did for Writers at Work. I was genuinely surprised. Melanie has published for years and won numerous awards, but I don't often run into people who know the name, let alone remember reading Iona Moon in the 1990s. Looking at Peggy and absorbing this lovely information, I could hear the cosmic chimes all around us.

My only regret: when I began asking permission to take a group photo, I got involved in conversation. When I thought of it again, it was too late. Next time.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Interview posted & Upcoming reading

As one the winners of this year's fellowship competition, I have done an interview with Writers at Work. Toward the end of the interview, I describe an artwork I saw at the Kunstmuseum in Stuttgart in November 2012. It's called Mitten (Middle) by Katharina Hinsberg. You can find additional views here if you scroll down the page. The Kunstmuseum is a marvelous glass cube at Schlossplatz, and Wikipedia has a few photos of the building to see.

And, next week I'll be doing my first public reading of my essay "Objects of My Attention." I am delighted to be hosted by my friend Peggy Fehily, proprietor of the Cornwall Tearoom. If you are anywhere near Bad Wimpfen, Germany and you have time on Monday evening, please join us. The reading will of course be in English.

Mary Craig, winner of the 2014 Writers at Work Fellowship
in Literary Nonfiction, will read her prize-winning essay
"Objects of My Attention"

18:30-19:30     Gathering time (light food available for purchase)
19:30-20:15     Reading
20:15-21:00     Desserts and discussion

Cover charge 5 EUR, which includes tea/soft drinks all evening.
Savory refreshments available for purchase.

For more info and to register please contact:

Hauptstr. 50
74206 Bad Wimpfen
Tel: 07063-3449867

Thursday, May 1, 2014

One of the pleasures of knowing writers

My friend Kate Jarvik Birch launched her first book on Kindle this week. Deliver Me (Bloomsbury Spark) is an eighteen-chapter ride through an imagined future you don't ever want to see. I bought it last night. Read three chapters. Slept. Read another five before breakfast. It's a holiday today (Tag der Arbeit in Germany or Labor Day) and the first day in ages that we've had steady rain. Perfect for splitting the rest of my day into reading more, then joining a friend's birthday gathering for few hours, and coming home to finish the final chapters. Yes, Kate is a friend and I am motivated to read her book. But me reading a book in under 24 hours--that's a rare event. The story moves with speed and compelling tension, and the characters are intriguing. There's a nice blend of the predictable (you make some good guesses) and the unpredictable (things just aren't that easy in this imagined world).

"Deliver Me" is written for a Young Adult audience, and it's available as an eBook and as an Audiobook. I wouldn't let the YA categorization discourage any adults from reading it. The book is both thought-provoking and enjoyable as a narrative.

The Union, the country in which the story takes place, is an entity unto itself. It feels clearly totalitarian and it obliterates the individual. The characters constantly fear running afoul of the authorities, and the punishments are as grisly as in Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale", which shares some themes about human reproduction in a strained future context. Wynne, the protagonist, is an especially free-minded character, and she tells the story as its first person narrator. We learn her secrets. She is also inclined to share confidences with other characters. These conversations occur in hallways, group bedrooms, laundry facilities. The characters take pains not to be overheard by others in the room, but no one seems concerned that a room might be bugged. No one looks out for surveillance cameras. I like what the no-technology aspect does for the story telling (a lot happens in dialogue), but I kept getting that "watch out!" tension inside myself, wondering who might hear or see the characters when they are taking risks in their talk and actions.

I guess my one "problem" with the novel's imagined world is this low-tech aspect. There's a mention that the Old World existed several hundred years ago. I take to mean our current world, putting this future one maybe 300 years from now. As far as I can tell, we have to imagine this future as a place without computers and surveillance cameras and recording devices. Of course that's possible--that the future would be less technologically equipped than the present--but the idea caught me up a few times. Still, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the story.

Even more than for a good story, I read for image and insight. I'm not widely read in YA literature, so I can't compare "Deliver Me" to many other books. (I did read John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars" last fall, and for my taste, I'd rather be reading Kate Birch. I've also read "The Hunger Games". Both of those successful sellers offer plenty of suspense and troubling stuff to keep you reading, but neither author is particularly poetic (and Green's plot contains some clumsy choices). Nothing stopped me in those books to savor the language. "Deliver Me" required a highlighter. Some quotes:
"I'd never seen so much water up close before; couldn't have imagined the way the early sun shone off of it, throwing the light against the little ripples so the surface glittered; a million shards of gleaming glass." (Loc 386, vivid light!) 
"Overall, the room looked the way I imagined one of the Carriers' bedrooms would look, were it not for the table lined with shiny doctor's instruments sitting next to the bed and a few tall machines whose cords cluttered the polished floor." (Loc 602, I've seen those tall machines and the cord cluttered floor) 
"You know when you wake up from a dream and you remember that something happened in it. You remember that there was a place, but then when you try to really remember, try to put it into words, it drifts away." (Loc 954, exactly what happens when I want to tell about a dream) 
Dialogue spoken by Tamsin: "They used to love fresh eggs for breakfast. That's what I was thinking about, before…when you came in…how they used to get up early each morning and fetch the eggs so they could have breakfast waiting for me when I woke up. It was a real memory. Not just a picture…" (Loc 1733, the work and the joy of remembering the dead)

Kate Jarvik Birch
I've been impressed with Kate Birch ever since I met her in 2007 at a Writers at Work conference workshop in nonfiction. We both came with stories about difficult times with a child. Hers was about her youngest going missing for hours, only to be found later the same day to great relief. Mine was about the day my son went through major surgery for cancer. There was an irony we both saw: her essay was called something like "The Worst Thing that Could Happen" and mine was called "The Best Possible Outcome". Kate's daughter was found. We were not so lucky; Simon died two years after the surgery day. We've been friends ever since that summer and companions in writing. Kate's blog is called My Next Life. She's a mom of three, a wife, a visual artist, and a prolific thinker and observer of the world. Pay her a visit and read this new book!