The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘mothers and daughters

There is always a lag time between acceptance of one’s work and publication. So, I was thrilled to receive the recent Oracle: Fine Arts Review, a lovely literary and arts journal, and see my poem, ‘The Shells of Pink Bodies’! This poem was submitted last September and accepted at the beginning of the year. Oracle is published annually by the University of South Alabama. It features fiction, nonfiction, poetry, painting, photography, drawing, sculpture, illustration, glass, printmaking, and ceramics. I enjoyed working with their editorial team.

oracle3

 

This poem is my strongest one to date, both in terms of technique, structure and emotional resonance. I have not studied poetry in the obsessive way that I have studied novels and more recently short stories. Therefore, it’s such a joy when I write a poem that I immediately know works and sparks something for the reader. When I took a draft to my writing group and listened to their responses (unlike any other response to my poems), I knew the work was strong. I typically don’t decide to just sit down and write a poem. When I am compelled to write a poem, it is in response to a very strong emotion, usually something rooted in my childhood or adolescence. This poem contains some autobiographical material that has been reworked. It also takes up mother and daughter issues which is definitely emotional territory that I like to explore. Soon Oracle will have a pdf file of the issue on their website that I can link to. They produced a beautiful issue. Until then, here is my poem. Also, check out their call for issue 10. They would love to see your work. Enjoy!

 

The Shells of Pink Bodies

 a girl sits in a fine restaurant
her mother across from her, martini in hand.
the girl knows that being there is a luxury.

what awaits them in the tiny hotel room
the chair, the stained bedspread, no fridge
but a hotplate.

small cartons of milk pilfered from school
placed outside on the window sill,
to keep them cool, and
tiny boxes of Coco Puffs and Fruit Loops
decorate the TV stand.
their lives away from the stepfather
not with him
but not yet
somewhere else.
years later, the daughter will still loathe
small cartons of milk, and the cheery, sugary cereals
that everyone else loved, and describe their time in that room
as hand to almost mouth living.

And so a restaurant,
every now and then, makes the mother forget.
while the daughter practices
what it will be like

when things are different
in a barely imagined future.
the daughter wrings the napkin in her lap, eager
she takes her mother’s suggestion and orders what she wants
the most exotic thing on the menu.
Shrimp!
she has seen their small, pink muscular bodies
lying on ice-filled platters
in late night commercials,
wedged
between the Johnny Carson show
and B movie reruns.
the waiter smiles at her,
she beams.

“Another martini, please.
Yes the same as before, extra dry,
straight up, with two olives.”

the daughter’s platter arrives
and she eats and eats and eats.

the chewing though takes longer than she imagined.

the waiter looks at the daughter with a hint of surprise and just
as he is about to speak, the daughter glimpses a calculation

in her mother’s eyes,
the waiter sees it, too, hesitating.
a message, the daughter wonders
the waiter shrinks back.
the pink bodies finally surrender to the daughter’s jaws working,
chewing and snapping.
her mother is paying, so she must eat another and another
all that awaits back at the hotel is the dry crunch of cereal.
The waiter returns, rising on the balls of his feet, worried now
hovering, until the mother shoos him away.

pink bodies float in the melting ice, disintegrating.

the daughter’s throat is raw and she asks for another Coke.
her mother is quiet, drinking the next martini.

the waiter takes the completely empty platter away.

“You didn’t ask, did you? You just took,” her mother finally says.

the girl sees a meanness coming, shooting out from her mother’s eyes,
she checks the placement of forks, napkins.

“Don’t do anything,
in a restaurant,
without asking me.”
“You weren’t supposed to eat them with the shells on.”

the mother’s martini laugh, sharp and almost playful
rings in the girl’s ears.
her focus narrows
to the missing platter’s
indentation in the tablecloth.

“You always wait
and watch
and ask if you are unsure.”

“Next time, you’ll know.”

the bill is paid and they begin their journey back.
those perfectly pink bodies, those shells,
stay with her,
scratch inside.

years later they remind her
of the ability to endure.
the caring, but quiet waiter.

she waits to know,
for sure,
what is expected of her.

a different future
than imagined.

 

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Affirmations-366Days#57: I pay close attention to what readers tell me they love about my work. I follow these clues.
For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

People who love our work give us clues about what to write more of. Today I was in the gym and saw a writing acquaintance who I hadn’t seen in several months. Many years ago, we had been in the same prompt writing group started by one of my writing teachers, Marjorie Hudson. I loved her writing. In her writing, she mostly drew on her multifaceted experiences being a neonatal nurse for over thirty years. She didn’t consider herself a writer and despite our urging, in the end, decided to write mostly for her family.

She asked me what I was working on and I told her I was polishing a collection of short fiction and sending out more of my poetry. She said, “And you are writing a memoir, too, right?” I really haven’t written any creative non-fiction in some time. Then she said, “Have you done anything with that piece, ‘She Saved Me Once and I Tried to Save Her Twice’?” I was shocked that she remembered the name of this short piece, written now over five years ago, that I brought to class and read. It was the beginning of the story of how my mother saved my life and how I tried to save her life twice. A look of surprise crossed my face and I said something like, “I can’t believe you remember that.” And she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Of course I do; it was earth-shattering, honest, and unforgettable.” She held my gaze for a few moments. Wow! I told her that I had explored snippets of my mother and daughter journey in a brief essay I wrote for the book A Letter to My Mom that was published last year. I periodically think about writing that memoir, but it often goes on the back burner.

Different projects need different rhythms and complex levels of investment from us. So, I probably am not going to drop all my other projects to take up this one right now. But, on the other hand, I found her feedback to be so valuable and affirming. I also miss writing creative nonfiction now that I am not writing a monthly column anymore. And, people loved my columns. Sometimes I think we as writers are not always the best judges of what we should work on. It’s good to get direct feedback from people who enjoy our work. That can lead us in new directions, or back to cherished but languishing projects.

 

Have you received feedback from an enthusiastic reader that made you reconsider a past project or even writing into another genre?

I’m sharing more about the magic of the AROHO writing retreat that happened almost one month ago. In the afternoons during the AROHO writing retreat, participants got to hear various writers discuss and riff off of the touchstone books thematically guiding the retreat: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. The Woman Warrior at its core is about mother and daughter relationships and secrets. The presenters provided insights, read creative work, shared scholarly essays, tributes and everything in between when talking about these two texts. One of the speakers was Tania Pryputniewicz, a poet, who also writes a lot about motherhood and the creative process. She shared with us an incredibly powerful exercise designed to help us reflect on the nature of the secrets our mothers kept and secrets we’ve kept from them. I am re-blogging her wonderful post where she elaborates on her relationship to The Woman Warrior and shares this exercise in full. She is also calling for guests posts based on her exercise.

Mothers and Daughters: Secret Catharsis in Woman Warrior (and a Secret Door Writing Exercise for You)

 “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” So opens Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, from the first section of the book, titled, “No Name Woman.” So begins the re-telling of a family secret, where the story of the No Name Aunt moves out to haunt a much wider audience of mothers and daughters. The irony is not lost on us that the narrator, at the outset, in sentence one, is engaged in the act of disobeying her mother.

La Posada Door Robyn Beattie

Many of us would agree that mother/daughter relationships are at one time or another fraught with complicated emotional, psychological narratives and emotional withholdings. But these same complications often come with hidden gifts.

read the full post here

 

I just received my beautiful copy of A Letter to My Mom! It is a tribute to the women who shape us into the people we become.

My love letter to my courageous mother is next to letters from Suze Orman, Dr. Phil McGraw, Melissa Rivers, Lisa Ling, Dr. Jennifer Arnold and many other amazing sons and daughters. In this third installment of the A Letter to My series…(following A Letter to My Dog and A Letter to My Cat), over sixty contributors share letters that chronicle the love, gratitude, silliness, fun and even conflict that define mother and child relationships. I am honored to be part of this collection.

alettertomymom

My writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson (author of Accidental Birds in the Carolinas) encourages students to ‘find their territory’, to explore the kinds of unique themes and challenges that only they can write about.

The relationship with my mother is definitely my territory. In 2013, I started exploring a snippet of my mother’s life which involved a great act of courage that changed the course of our lives. Since that time, I have continued thinking about the intersection of my life and hers. I am constantly surveying that rich and fertile ground. My mother is no longer living, so writing about her is one way that I can keep her memory alive.

When I saw the call for ‘A Letter to My Mom’, I decided to submit my very personal story. The editor and creator of the A Letter to My series, Lisa Erspamer and her team were amazing. They treated my narrative (and I assume all the others), with great care, respect and unabashed enthusiasm.

A Letter to My Mom is so inspiring and the layout of the book is beautiful. Each entry is accompanied by photos. It’s a great gift for Mother’s Day.

Join us on Twitter and spread gratitude to moms around the world ‪#‎ALetterToMyMom

Also, check out a GREAT contest to thank readers: A Mother’s Day Spa Giveaway! You can win a $250 spa day to spend with your mom!

Want to write your own love letter to your mom? You can! They are looking for letters to post on the blog.

Find out more about the book here.

Like many people who have lost a loved one, I find ways to remember and celebrate my mother during this time of year. I especially think of the time leading up to the holidays where she made a courageous choice.

When I was 8 my mother walked into my room and said, “We’re leaving your stepfather. You have 10 minutes to take anything you can carry and want to bring along.”

Without hesitation, I grabbed my favorite toy, The Bionic Woman doll, and my newly acquired glasses. She dressed my squalling 2-year old sister and shortly we said a teary good-bye to our cat Tinkerbell, the Brooklyn apartment that had been our home and walked out into the wintery evening with the clothes on our backs.

Although at the time I didn’t know what “escalating behavior” meant, I knew that my stepfather was physically and emotionally abusive and was displaying increasingly unpredictable behavior. My mother had tried, unsuccessfully, to leave him after he had kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant with my sister.

I don’t how my mother got the best of her fear that day to leave him, as he had perpetuated classic abuser behavior for several years: isolation (she had no friends), poverty (he prevented her from working for years) and low self-esteem (making her feel worthless).

The President Hotel

After a short stint with my mother’s elderly godparents, we found ourselves a few weeks before Christmas on a late afternoon waiting in the Brooklyn Department of Social Services. Homeless.

“What brings you here today, Ms. Brooks?” a caseworker asked.

“I’ve been a battered woman off and on for several years and finally decided we couldn’t stay with this man.” I could hear her trying out the truth to this stranger.

With Melissa on her lap, the caseworker produced a mound of paper and pushed it to my mother.

“I’ve left before, but not like this. I am never going back to him,” my mother said as she filled out the papers.

The case worker nodded and cooed at my sister.

“We’re ready to stay in a shelter.” In the 1970s, shelters for ‘battered women’ were new and an unknown phenomena. I knew my mother didn’t really want to be in a shelter. But, what were our options?

“Oh, no, Ms. Brooks. There’s not a shelter that’s empty that will take you with kids.”

My mother stiffened. “I will not have my kids in foster care,” she said.

“But, I think we can help,” the caseworker said raising a hand. “There’s a new experimental program in Manhattan. At a hotel.”

My ears perked up. A hotel? With silky sheets and a doorman? Where fancy people on television shows stayed? Cool!

“The President Hotel. Near Broadway. In partnership with the city, they have devoted an entire floor to housing battered women and their children. It’s a six-month program. You could stay there until you get on your feet. You’re lucky. There is one spot left. Wanna try it?”

My mother looked at me, nodded, “Yes, we’ll try it.”

Everything sped up. Our caseworker went from one supervisor to the next getting the right forms. She got us subway tokens, emergency food stamps, and a small emergency check that could be cashed the next day, and paperwork to take to the hotel.

We arrived at the slightly run down President Hotel, beyond tired.

One of the managers showed us to the room. As soon as he left, we checked out the room. I was excited by the big bathroom, the two queen-sized beds and large television.

“There’s no fridge, not even a hot plate. How are we supposed to cook?” my mother asked. I shrugged and she shrugged. She decided to worry about this issue later.

Too tired to bathe, we slipped out of our clothes and even though there were two beds, we cuddled like puppies into one. I tucked my Bionic Woman in next to us. We were all home and safe.

I am grateful to the unknown policymakers, caseworkers, women’s advocates and others who designed and ran this program. We lived at the President Hotel for six months and it allowed my mother to get back on her feet. She never lived with my stepfather again.

That year, although my mother could not cook her big holiday meal, nor afford any gifts (and my godparents got none of the right toys despite the list my mother sent), I knew that she had given us the best gift of all, freedom from violence.

 

This post first appeared in The Chapel Hill News  as a ‘My View’ column on December 18, 2013


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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