Friday, September 9, 2011

Back to Now

When I am annoying Himself or the sprats and someone mutters, “You're just like your mother," I am devastated. Perhaps even more withering is when I dare to object to a family unit member's transgression and “Oh, go write about it in your blog” is spat back at me derisively. I changed up my usual “this is the week that was” writing habit at the first of the year and began a memoir of my early years. I am deeply embarrassed to use the phrase “my memoir” and perhaps it seems coy but it is so nausea inducing to write those words that I will refer for now to the opus as “the other thing.” I don't know if it is ickier or more narcissistic to expect readers to slog through my “here and now” or relive my appearance on the Engineer Bill Show. I have posted some writing every Friday for about five years now and it is typically my final gesture of the week and usually followed by a shabbat dinner. Even at the end of seven crappy days there is a feeling of satisfaction knowing that for another week I have given my writing ambition more than just lip service and with this I feel entitled to chill at the sabbath table. I am excited to get compliments but even though I wasn't raised, like my (still, for all intents and purposes) Papist husband, there is a “sin of pride” related shame that accompanies any whiff of self promotion.

The last nine months writing the other thing has meant more than just addressing the past instead of the present. I have been less focused on mining every experience as a potential writing opportunity. There were peak times like an outstanding family trip to New York, my young adult son's torturous college application ordeal, tacky graduation and subsequent enrollment at my beloved alma mater and my month without Spuds, who attended a writing program at Cal Arts. Himself has been spared my acid observations about his failure to even feign enthusiasm during my comprehensive/insane efforts to clear Casamurphy of the detritus we'd accumulated via our parents, children and selves. There are memories from the last nine months that will be hazier than some from when I was writing about the current week but perhaps “be here now” in many ways enriched the hiatus.

With regard to the other thing, it took on a life of its own. I am elated to have completed it but also sort of tuckered out. A pattern formed very early in the writing. There were a number painful memories that were so salient that I knew I had to include them but I dreaded the writing. I ticked off each one I tackled with enormous relief but almost immediately started to dread the next one to be endured. I let myself off the hook and left a few things out but I wrote about a lot of things I assiduously avoided remembering and now I am less bothered by them. I always thought the notion of catharsis was sort of idealistic and hippie dippy but there is a palpable lightness that comes when that stuff is faced and filtered though fifty plus years. Now that it's done. For just about every week since taking on writing the other thing there is an undercurrent of panic on Monday and Tuesday that the previous chapter was just a fluke and the well was dry. Wednesday morning was typically the lowest depths but usually by the afternoon there was a glimmer of an idea although I was seldom able to peck out more than a hundred words or so. Thursday was the wildcard day. Sometimes I produced only a paragraph or two but other times I had a piece nearly finished but for a little tweaking on Friday. Most typically I had about half a piece done and usually there were periods of flow where a thousand or so words would seem to come out of nowhere and at the risk of going Hallmark, it felt like a gift. The high of publishing a piece and getting reader reactions sustained me through every weekend until the inevitable Monday return to paralysis.

Most memoirs run about 150 pages and at the onset I presumed that mine would extend to the present but it became clear quite soon that leaving for college was the logical ending. It turned out that the week I wrote the final chapter which described packing up my Dodge Dart and heading out on the 10 Freeway to Johnston College coincided with getting my son settled in a dorm at the same school.

Thirty seven years ago, almost to the day, I moved into West Hall by myself, I follow my son, who has his little brother riding shotgun, to Redlands. I was in a very unlovely sixties dorm called West Hall. It has been renamed Stevenson now and seemed unfamiliar sans murals and the aroma of marijuana. Johnston College is now the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies and occupies Holt and Bekins Halls. Bekins Hall, was the first dormitory built on the campus of The University of Redlands, sprung for by Mr. and Mrs. Martin Bekins, as in Bekins Moving. Daughter, Ruth Bekins, class of 1913, wielded the shovel for groundbreaking on Feb. 9, 1910. The interiors have been modernized but the building is regal and charming and evokes plaid skirted sorority sisters getting pinned. My young adult son skitters up the steps with his laptop, cell phone and IPod. I moved into West Hall, think 60s airport waiting room, with an orange crate full of records, a turn-table and guitar that I finally accepted by the end of my freshman year, I could not play.

A Johnston history display case in the Bekin's lobby has the Getting In/Getting Out catalog I described in the last chapter of the other thing, an old t-shirt and pictures, circa 1974 of the faculty. I am shocked that my professors were so much younger than I am now. The combination of sweet nostalgia and the excitement that my boy will experience this strange and wonderful place has me worked into the kind of froth that makes the kids want to strangle me. I blather to the student dorm workers about my arrival 37 years ago and they smile politely at least but are as indifferent as my own spawn. My memories are irrelevant to them and their own sure take on the world is all that really matters. I shut my trap but the refrain from Dylan's My Back Pages sticks in my brain, “I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.”

The afternoon begins with a Welcome Circle of about forty new students, their parents, most of the faculty and administration. We go around the room and everyone in the circle gets to share, a typical Johnston exercise in tolerance of those who, despite knowing that everyone in the group is going to take the mike, and there are snacks being served when it is finally over, insist on nattering on. Fortunately a number of pithy or interesting terse observations make it less excruciating and there is an open bar at the parent gathering that follows. Two of my professors are there and having presented my gray haired AARP eligible self to them at a reunion two years ago, both recognize me. I recently excavated a box of old stuff from my college days and am feeling particularly sheepish to have given so many college offerings short shrift to social and romantic aspirations. I am desperate and gawky and anxious to prove how smart I am to my old instructors. They were most likely on to my artifice three decades ago but probably didn't give a rat's ass then and most certainly do not now. Still I strive to mention as many high brow books as possible in a minute or two of chit chat. I am glad my son is elsewhere as he would undoubtedly out me for the hours I spend watching Hoarders, Toddlers and Tiaras and Cupcake Wars.

I read yet another essay about helicopter parents and am concerned that in my desperation for my child to be happy I have fomented in him unrealistic expectations. My coddling is not only motivated by my love for him but like most of my generation and to a markedly lesser extent my parent's generation, I have self-worth issues that hinge on my children's contentedness. The article cites a common problem among universities is that on freshman arrival it is difficult to get their parents to leave. One desperate institution engages an ensemble of bagpipers to impart the message. I have mentioned a zillion times that I drove to college myself. I will add, that most of the other students arrived in parentis absentus too. I don't even consider letting my son arrive unescorted but I worry now about lingering too long. I e-mail the college director politely asking what time I should plan on leaving if I didn't want to appear indifferent and self absorbed but neither to be chased out by bagpipers.

Our college student has come home twice in so many weeks and is alternately enthusiastic about college and negative and mopey. I was more eager to leave home than he was but my escape to college was not the panacea I'd expected. The first few months were particularly difficult and I went home on many weekends. My boy arrives with a load of laundry and a big appetite. He describes a few stressful issues and we give him our good and sage advice which he tells us quite emphatically he has no intention of following. I want the kid to get as much from college as I should have but my centuries of experience don't resonate with him. Himself, until he met a few of my former classmates who are much smarter than I, always thought Johnston College was airy fairy and unworthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as his own Jesuit alma mater. Now as his son describes learning contracts and tiny classes Himself is drooling jealous and ready to flay the kid for bitching about it. Like his mother though, my son doesn't know how good he's got it. Johnston's stated objective was to groom “life long learners,” which sounded vaguely cool and egalitarian. I went there though mainly because there were cute guys with long hair but when the mike was passed to me during the welcome circle I said that I made some appallingly stupid decisions in my teens and twenties but that attending Johnston so wasn't one of them. I don't know if in thirty five years my son will have written a book about his life before college but I hope he will consider his choice of schools a non-stupid decision.

Shabbat Shalom


Fionnchú said...

I like bagpipes, but hate touchy-feely circles, both of which I doubt St. Ignatius of Loyola advocated for his charges. However, the founder of the Pope's Black Army, those cloaked Jesuits, also would agree with life-long learning, a sense of self-direction instilled by sensible masterminds into their pupils, and if not snacks, then an awareness that body and mind both needed discipline and satisfaction if learning was to be successful.

It's good to see you back in this present state of affairs, and even as a willing or hapless victim of being a supporting actor in this long-running docudrama (or rom-com?), I welcome your chronicling of What Goes On, to with your characteristic lack of quotation marks I allude as another song from the 60s.

May Leo and you and his little brother and me all be enriched by what's commemorated herein. xxx me

Lauren Brenner said...

I loved reading this.... It all resonates with me so much, Layne. You are a talented writer, and I appreciate your ability to paint a vivid picture of the moment while allowing the reader inside your head AND heart... In a very funny and humble and authentic way. Who you are comes through loud and clear, and I end each read feeling like we have spent some face-to-face and heart-to-heart time together... Although I have not seen or spoken to you in over 40 years!