I spent Fall, 2016, in Indianapolis, as one of 15 participating artists in the “Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts” program sponsored by Butler University. On Wednesday, February 22, 2017, a public exhibition of our work opens at Christian Theological Seminary.
To present “From Scratch,” my essay about making my father’s favorite rhubarb pie to mourn his death, I’ve created an interpretation of my grandmother’s 1927 Farmer’s Guide Cook Book, in which the original recipe appears. Between the “cookbook’s” blank pages, I’ve inserted (as my grandmother did) personal ephemera from a particular time, place, and relationship. In my version, these clippings, photos, notes, and lists demonstrate the role memory plays in the labor of grief, a circuitous process that resists linear narrative.
Because screaming at Trump on a TV screen at the gym while pedaling an elliptical machine wasn’t helping, I got in my car and drove 628 miles to Lexington, Kentucky, to attend the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. For five days—as I crossed the lush, late-summer landscape of Pennsylvania and West Virginia in my Subaru, and then cut through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Kentucky—the only male voices I heard were those of the cast of “Hamilton” played on repeat for eleven hours, auto-tuning my untrained tenor voice as I sang along at top volume.
Though my mother’s coal-mining, moonshining people settled along the Pitman Creek in Pulaski County, Kentucky, in the early 1800s, I was geographically and culturally out of my element on I-70 and I-64 West. I couldn’t find NPR anywhere on the car radio. Though I knock back Sriracha sauce without a whimper, Big Shake’s Hot Chicken medium heat, called “Stop, Drop and Roll,” made me weep. I chose the slow lane, drove the speed limit, and let people cut in front of me—because doing so freed me from the eastern stereotype telegraphed by my license plate and membership stickers, if not from my awareness of myself as a woman driving alone through the woods, glancing nervously at her gas gauge. The thrumming of my anxiety during this painfully long and demoralizing election season was the sound of my tires pushing road on the way to the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, the KWW Conference home and feminist life preserver in a rising sea of misogyny.
Here’s the part where I reflexively temper the words “feminist” and “misogyny” by reassuring you that I love my husband of 31 years, that I admired and emulate my late father, and that I greatly benefitted from the wise and generous guidance of male professors at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. It’s true: the benevolent influence of Chris Mills, Russell Mosier, Matthew Yarczower, Clark McCauley, Robert Boswell, CJ Hribal, and Charles Baxter helped shape and sharpen my literary voice. I hear their encouragement even now—part praise for my expressive style, part provocation to expand the reach of my writerly concerns—as I draft this guest blog for the Gloria Sirens.
And while true, saying so is strategic; I want you to keep reading, to hear me out through the not-so-polite part that follows. Because as Monday’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made clear, the truth isn’t enough when you’re speaking while female.
Like most women, I have learned how to dress to be taken seriously: wear something conventionally pretty but not too sexy, style my hair and put on makeup to score social power, stand up straight and pull back my shoulders to signal authority, smile so I’m perceived to be approachable. Ho-hum. It’s old habit by now to act as if my entire life is being performed on a split screen that captures my reaction to being taunted or dismissed or shut down by a bully with permission to access his anger as authority.
But as a writer, I worry about how training my voice to be heard translates into prose on the page.
After all, speaking while female is like learning to sing by matching pitch to male power: lowering my voice by taking a breath and relaxing my throat, controlling volume so I don’t sound too aggressive, slowing down so I communicate calm and composure even when I’m furious—especially when I’m furious—and changing my pitch to switch instantly from serious to enthusiastic or warm or human, while I fend off the infantile rant of a man who feels disrespected because I disagree with him, or vengeful because I call out his lie, or abandoned because I can’t nurture his fragile ego while I’m trying to do my job twice as well for two-thirds of his pay and half of the respect he commands.
At midlife, I’m no longer wondering if this happens to most women, but rather, taking account: how much goes unsaid because women are preoccupied with rehearsing, with arming and defending ourselves, with wasting our allotted time watching men and waiting for men to pause for breath so we can break in and ask only not to be interrupted again?
I went to a women’s college—and contrary to popular belief, the experience was less nurturing than centering. At Bryn Mawr, I learned the freedom of breathing air filtered of gender expectations; of being able to forget, for once, that I was female; of turning my gaze outward, away from my practiced performance of femininity. Point of view is everything; at the center, you can see well enough to question what you see—and to ask if the story you’ve been told is true or false or in dire need of revision.
So. I went to the Kentucky Women Writers Conference to get re-centered. And not surprisingly, it worked.
There, in that unfamiliar, familiar place, I heard spoken word recording artist Ursula Rucker give voice to pain and power, poet Lisa Russ Spaar riff on denial and desire, memoirist Mary Karr recount her spiritual conversion, and novelist Danielle Dutton (who promotes women authors through Dorothy, a publishing project) challenge participants in her workshop on “Stories in Place” to pay attention as a radical act. I bought all their books and read them hungrily in my hotel room instead of turning on CNN—thereby blocking the voices that bombard us with information and analysis that not only doesn’t help us solve our problems, but urges us to blame others and oversimplify.
And as I read in my room, lo and behold: the whole landscape changed before my eyes, from hostile to hopeful, as I listened to the fresh ideas and intelligent voices of these literary women, who are thinking deeply about how best to live in these tense times.
On April 1, a group of writers I admire (Carla Spataro, Cynthia Reeves, and Alison Hicks) and I launched this anthology published by PS Books at AWP in Los Angeles, reading from our work and sharing our experiences.
As I told the audience, you probably don’t know my name—because I am a professional finalist, warmer of the wait list spot, acting director filling in without coveting the job, mother of grown children, daughter managing my mother’s memory loss and dealing with the sad aftermath of my dad’s and in-laws’ deaths. Like many of you, I’d guess. Though our circumstances are particular, this is what 50-somethings have in common: we’ve arrived at the bottom of what researchers who study life satisfaction describe as a happiness U-curve. Though in our 20s we hoped for a steady rise, many of us have experienced an almost imperceptible fall—from happily hectic to sadly stressed—as career pressures, kids, and crises piled on, progressing along with us to the half-century mark.
And yet, I’ve made—still make—a living at creative writing, steadily and stealthily writing stories and novels, articles and essays, college viewbooks and book reviews, a few obituaries. A decade of witnessing the death and decline of friends and family has put some things in perspective for me, which I write about in my column for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Magazine, “The U-Curve: Mawrters at Midlife,” and which I’d like to share with you.
Existentially speaking, we’re ALL FINALISTS. So why not stop worrying about what you’ve accomplished and get back to work: rediscover something you love but gave up, revise your idea of what constitutes success, repurpose the talents and skills you’ve worked so long to cultivate, and do something entirely different?
Once upon a time, I started a file—the manila kind that fits in an actual file cabinet fashioned from metal or wood—and labeled its now worn and curled tab, “Inspiration.” Among other cherished documents, the file contains Carolyn Heilbrun’s New York Times essay from 1989, “Women Writers: Coming of Age at 50,” in which she laments that women have lived too much with closure—Jane Austen-style endings we’ve updated to include not only romantic partnership, but the published manuscript and the dream job. “This is the delusion of a passive life,” Heilbrun declared, giving me a head’s up about what, nevertheless, I had to learn the hard way: that literary success often means exchanging one level of rejection, uncertainty and disappointment for another. The only power we have—a power men, for some reason, are less hesitant to claim—is the power to continue. Citing Toni Morrison and May Sarton as examples of women who did their best work in what Heilbrun described as the “last third of life”—a phrase that sent me on a brief detour doing mental math—Heilbrun promised, “When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin.”
In an era before email, this essay was Xeroxed and passed around my office comprised of 20-something feminists when I was in graduate school and working fulltime to pay for it. This was a time when short story collections were earning six-figure advances, when the Big 5 publishers were still the Big 25, holding auctions to bid for writers’ work—but I never expected to write fiction fulltime, thanks to the sane guidance of my advisors at Warren Wilson, who juggled jobs and writing skillfully, reflecting reality and modeling the discipline and sense of humor required to live a writer’s life. And yet, I nurtured my own youthful delusions. I read Heilbrun’s article—Virginia Woolf and the trough of despair: check. Rage against the patriarchy: check—and put it away in a file, certain in the way you can be, when you’re 26, that your life will be exceptional, that you will never actually be 50.
Friends, that day has come.
“The point is not the joys of old age,” Heilbrun said, words I read again this winter when I pulled the creased and yellowed essay from my file. “The point is, probably, death, and the intensity of knowledge it brings.” Though this fact can lead some writers to the trough of despair, Heilbrun insists that this “coming of age portends all the freedoms men have always known and women, never—mostly the freedom from fulfilling the needs of others and from being a female impersonator.” All too often, she says, “Women cling to a life and conditions they have in fact outgrown, instead of launching off into another world.” At 53, I know grief and the rope burns left behind when I’ve tried to hold on to what I’ve lost. But how to let go?
By shifting my focus to what is in my favor, now that I’m older and I’m still here. To (as Heilbrun advises) “make the most of security and seniority, to take risks, be noisy, be courageous, be unpopular.”
By this point in the game, I have amassed a body of work—some of it published—and the work has hurt my body. I have tendonitis in both arms, and after a summer of physical therapy with an athletic trainer who put me on the “thrower’s program” for my competitive sport of typing, I bought a Fit Bit to recalibrate my sense of what makes for a successful day. Trying to better balance mental and physical activity, I’ve become acutely aware that writing prolifically—which I finally have time to do—conflicts directly with living healthfully. And this realization has made me wonder if too much butt-in-chair discipline—and the tyranny of long-held goals I have outgrown—can wear out my mind.
While I strive to take ten thousand steps every day—I know, pathetic—I also seek literary fitness through work that encourages movement—in my thinking and in my subject matter. Instead of seeking answers, I want to be alert to the questions I might pose. For every time I page through my memories to harvest meaning from the past, I want to venture out to gather new material: book a trip, attend a lecture, look at art. For every certainty I defend, I want to converse—in person, on the page—with someone who doesn’t think like me, to freshen and sharpen and open my ideas. In other words, I seek the literary equivalent of balance between puttering around the house and taking a long, meandering walk. I have time for both now. And both ways of working—like both kinds of steps—count, and are necessary to continue to write for the long haul.
The Indiana Farmer’s Guide Cook Book
My grandmother’s annotated 1927 Farmer’s Guide Cook Book, which I had occasion to reference while reviewing Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck, is a kind of biography. The scraps she pasted, pinned to, and slipped between its pages—recipes, magazine clippings, shopping lists, poems, a post card and piano recital program—are markers of social identity. As an artifact, her cookbook is a window into the practices and politics of a particular time, place, and people in American history. Here are just some of the documents I found inside:
- Three different recipes for homemade soap, one with a preamble that seems to date it to the Great Depression: “In these days of high prices for what we buy and low prices for what we sell, it behooves us to watch every penny and save what we can.”
- A 1931 poem, “Unchanged,” by the sentimental and optimistic Edgar A. Guest, aka “The People’s Poet,” who appeared on a weekly Detroit radio show from 1931-1942 and on television (NBC’s “A Guest in Your Home”) in 1951. Guest was later mocked by Dorothy Parker (“I’d rather flunk my Wasserman [antibody test for syphilis] test/than read the poetry of Edgar Guest”) and Lemony Snicket in The Grim Grotto, the eleventh book in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
- A sternly personal notice for her overdue subscription to George D. Mitchell’s magazine, The Pathfinder (1894 – 1954), a precursor to Time that “prints the gist of the world’s news in a nutshell.” When Mitchell retired in 1936, the magazine’s circulation was one million. I’m not sure why Grandma let it lapse, but she used the flip side of the bill to record a recipe for Never Fail Cake Icing.
- The same year Jack Kerouac coined the term, “The Beat Generation,” my grandmother clipped an article on how to freeze corn and (on the reverse side) make an apron out of bandanas from the August, 1948, issue of Country Gentleman, a popular magazine for rural readers published in Philadelphia by Curtis Publishing Co. Farmers and cowboys traditionally wore the bright-colored rags around their necks to wipe the sweat off their faces and keep dust out of their collars, and Rosie the Riveter famously wrapped her head with a red bandana to symbolize her readiness for work that would bring the boys home. After the war, when cotton fabric was back in abundance after shortages, articles like this one reminded women where their real work was.
- Four of Grandma’s five children were born in Frankfort, Indiana, where she and my grandfather Clinton Rodgers moved to be near her parents. (Andrew Alexander Colyer and Elizabeth Ann “Eliza” (Hughes) Colyer, pictured above with their children Duard and my grandmother, Ruth, bought a farm there around 1919.) At some point, Grandma clipped or received a news item about thunder lightning in the county where her parents had been married: Pulaski County (Kentucky) citizens witnessed a rare phenomenon Saturday night and early Sunday morning. With snow falling in great quantities, bolts of lightning flashed across the sky. The lightning was accompanied by loud reports of thunder.
It seems my grandmother, who insisted my mother learn to play classical piano, once drove over two hours from Frankfort to Goshen, Indiana, to hear a piano recital given by the students of Noble Kreider, a composer whose works were praised by composer Arthur Farwell in Musical America (May 22, 1909) and catalogued in the New York Public Library. “Kreider’s music revealed also an imaginative quality of its own,” Farwell wrote, “which asserted itself with increasing strength in his more recently composed works, and indicated that here was a personality which was bound to find its way to individual expression.” Noble Kreider made a career of teaching in Goshen, his home town, and died there in 1959. Grandma used the back of the recital program to record a recipe for Gooseberry Cobble.
Ruth Elizabeth (Colyer) Rodgers was born on November 4, 1897, in Cerro Gordo, Illinois. She married Clinton Edward Rodgers on February 17, 1920, in Champaign, Illinois. She bore five children and lived in Frankfort, Indiana: Edward Colyer (1921), Harold Alfred (1924), Mary Ann (1932), Ruth Elizabeth (1936), and Janet Sue (1938). She died on January 16, 1973, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Another Day in Paradise
If my father had had a Facebook page, that would have been his daily status. Russell Leon Mosier, our kind, resourceful, and relentlessly cheerful father, died peacefully on Thursday, May 22, 2014, while in hospice at the Coronado Home in Phoenix, Arizona. He was 80 years old.
Russ, son of Luther and Nellie (Morrison) Mosier, was born in Richmond, Indiana, and raised in Lynn (Washington Township, Randolph County), where he played trumpet, baseball, and basketball in high school; listened to Bix Beiderbecke and other jazz musicians launched by Richmond’s Gennett Records; worked at his father’s “Hoosier Pete” gasoline service station and on the family farm at Snow Hill; and watched Pennsylvania Railroad trains pass through town on their way to Richmond or Mackinaw City, Michigan. A 1956 graduate of Purdue University, he majored in Industrial Education and made his career selling earthmoving equipment (first at Caterpillar Tractor Co., in Peoria, Illinois, and later, at Empire Southwest in Mesa, Arizona). His loyalty to Empire—40 years of service to the company—is surpassed only by his 59-year marriage to his college sweetheart, Ruth Rodgers Mosier, who survives him.
At Empire Southwest, coworkers admired our father because he was a successful salesperson who was exceptionally considerate of others. He knew every piece of machinery down to its smallest part, and communicated clearly and easily with everyone in the company—parts and service people, mechanics and salesmen alike. Says his longtime colleague and friend Pat Cusack, “Your dad was the head of an outstanding group of parts and service salespeople who were outstanding because of the way he led them. I’ve always said, if I were starting a Caterpillar franchise today, your dad is the first person I’d call.”
Cusack credits Dad for convincing copper miners at Twin Buttes, south of Tucson, Arizona, to switch from traditional shovels and trucks to Empire-provided scrapers. The $20 million boost in business—one of Empire’s biggest projects—was a turning point for the company, he says.
This praise squares with the impression Dad made on his three children: Andrew (Andy), Elizabeth (Libby), and Paul. We remember our father as a lifelong aviation, railroad and classic car enthusiast who loved building model planes and cars. He could fix anything from a broken fence to a household appliance on the fritz. Like a household elf, he’d restore order while we slept: oiling and shaping my softball glove into a perfect pocket, patching Paul’s deflated basketball, checking the oil and tire pressure and cleaning the bugs off the windshield of Andy’s car. He took us on Sunday morning seven-mile bike rides along the Arizona Canal, and cooked us breakfast over a grill he’d made from coals inside a coffee can. Dad’s innate curiosity about how things worked inspired wonderful inventions: a kite dangling a soldier and parachute, a kid-sized car consisting of a wagon propelled by a lawn mower engine, a homemade bike rack for the car, a drawer dollhouse that slid under my bed, a customized animation stand for Andy’s early cartoons, a design for an automatic shifting bicycle transmission that he drew on a memo pad and tested in the backyard.
A born tinkerer, our father raised three children who became artists and writers. Our belief in the value of making things comes from his lifelong example of industry, modesty, and pleasure in solving a problem. Despite his professional and personal success, Dad always championed the underdog, evidence of his optimism and generous spirit that made him so beloved by so many.
My brothers and I are grateful to the skilled doctors and nurses at St. Joseph’s Hospital, who aggressively treated Dad’s pneumonia; when his illness progressed despite their interventions, they helped guide us to a gentler course that honored Dad’s wish for a natural, peaceful death. Among the many small blessings that made these stressful circumstances bearable, we credit Hospice of the Valley, which opened a door for our father at Coronado Home and settled him into a beautiful private room where staff members bathed him, soothed him, and allowed us to be with him until Dad was ready to go.
Russ Mosier is survived by his wife, Ruth Rodgers Mosier of Phoenix; his brother Melvin Leroy Mosier (Charmain) of Indianapolis; sons Andrew Rodgers Mosier (Janette) of Tucson and Paul Stuart Mosier (Keri) of Phoenix; daughter Elizabeth Ann Mosier (Christopher Mills) of St. Davids, Pennsylvania; and six grandchildren: Melanie Mosier, Alison Mosier-Mills, Catherine Mosier-Mills, Nicholas Mosier, Eleri Mosier, and Harmony Mosier.
Donations in our father’s memory may be made to Hospice of the Valley, 1510 E. Flower Street, Phoenix, Arizona, 85014; (602) 530-6900; www.hov.org.
I do most of my fiction writing late at night in a darkened office before a glowing screen—and so revising my latest novel, Ghost Signs, has been a sort of creepy experience. Imagine how startled—and then delighted—I was one night, as I sat conjuring a séance in my imagination, when writer Beth Kephart appeared on my screen to tag me for the Next Big Thing Gang. Here’s the deal: I answer the following questions about my work-too-long-in-progress, and then tag my brilliant friends Marta Maretich, Joanne Green, and Andrea Jarrell to tell you about theirs. Here goes:
What is the working title of your book?
I started out calling this novel The Fortune Teller, but changed it midway through the first draft so as not to mislead the reader into thinking it’s a trendy paranormal book. As a teenager, I was fascinated by paranormal stories, but the question raised in this book—whether or not my protagonist’s sister is faking her apparent power to predict the future—is really a question about whether God (and an afterlife) exists. My new title, Ghost Signs, gets at the book’s spookiness, but also refers to the echoes of the past in our present lives, apparitions in the form of old letters and photos, century-old houses in which modern families dwell, and faded advertisements that still haunt the sides of old buildings in the old town that is the book’s setting.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I read a fascinating book called Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum, about a group of scientists (including James, the founder of American psychology) who studied many of the 19th-century mediums popular at a time when scientific discovery threatened to upend religious order. Coincidentally, my youngest daughter was going through the confirmation process at our church, and was surprised and frustrated by the youth leaders’ seeming intolerance for her monkey-wrench questions (pardon the pun) about evolution. These questions are no less urgent for teenagers than they are for adults. It seems to me a braver thing to pursue the question of God’s existence than to dash off a faith statement you don’t quite believe; for a teacher to discourage the questions of a teenager who is developing his or her faith is a missed opportunity.
What genre does your book fall under?
This is the first book I’ve set out deliberately to write as a young adult novel, using what I’ve learned from reading and teaching the work of excellent young adult authors. I’ve tried to employ certain aspects of style to create a sense of authenticity, immediacy, heightened emotion, and—yes—adolescent narcissism that contribute to a young adult sensibility. Teenagers can smell a lesson a mile away, and so I’ve tried to write a story for them that doesn’t teach so much as ask. I don’t presume to tell my readers what to think.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
My daughter Catherine Mosier-Mills is a talented actress, a beautiful girl and a writer just like my character Cassie Schulz—she’d be perfect in the role! Though Cat would probably prefer the adorable Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) to play her boyfriend Troy, I’d cast him as Cassie’s brother (and narrator) Jack. Asa Butterfield (Hugo) would be great as Dan, Jack’s genius best friend.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In Ghost Signs, 15-year-old Jack Schulz conspires with his 17-year-old sister Cassie to convince their parents, the school principal, and the town police of her psychic powers in order to solve a century-old murder.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Two years. The final version—four years in the writing—has been interrupted, deconstructed, and reconstituted by many life events since then. I’m reminded of this every time I talk to the wonderful Julie Tibbott at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who read an early chapter one million years ago this fall.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I know I should know the answer to this question, but in order to write a book I have to ignore the market. Ask me when I’ve printed out the penultimate draft.
Who or What inspired you to write this book?
My interest in teenagers—the two I’m raising, the ones I teach—and my wish to encourage them to be skeptical: to read, to question, to reason, to find the answers they seek.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Wanna fool your friends into thinking you’re communing with spirits? Here’s how! Cool psychic tricks…and unexplained paranormal phenomena to keep you wondering.
Who have you tagged?
I’ve tagged these writers, whose work I admire (and whose works-in-progress I’ve read), to get them to spill the beans: Joanne Green, Andrea Jarrell, and Marta Maretich. While they’re pondering the answers to these questions, you can check out their work by clicking these links.
When I was only 40, my favorite outfit was a t-shirt, a pair of worn-in jeans and white canvas tennis shoes, plain taste that puzzled my daughters who, at 4 and 6 years old, wanted to dress like celebrities. To keep pace with their fast-changing identities, I learned to sew—practicing on Snow White, Dorothy Gale, Red Riding Hood, and Tiger Lily costumes as I worked my way up to finer fabrics and more complicated designs. My most ambitious project was a shimmering pink organza princess gown that had to be finished by Catherine’s birthday. Because her older sister Alison was born on Halloween, Cat believed that everyone’s birthday was an occasion for masquerade.
Perhaps it should be. As I approach 50 in the same year my oldest child enters college, I feel the urge to shed the comfortable clothing I’ve spent half a lifetime trying to fit. Old habits—too much coffee, clock-watching, the idea that I can have it all—have served me so far, but I want to live differently for the rest of my life. I believe now, as I couldn’t in my twenties, in the virtue of patience. And though age has given me a better sense of my true talents and limitations, this wisdom has been delivered with its flip side: fearlessness. The old me wouldn’t try anything I wasn’t already good at. The new me was born a decade ago, at two o’clock in the morning, as I sewed an organza sleeve backwards and inside out, then struggled to be patient as I ripped out the errant seams and tried and tried again.
I should explain that I have no spatial skills—none!—and that up until then my life had been designed to let me sidestep my difficulty with maps and instructions for making sleeves. Writing isn’t easy; it can be lonely and frustrating and downright difficult. But at a certain point, I became a writer because for me not being a writer was the harder choice. Contrary to the notion of writers as crazy, I sit calmly at the keyboard and imagine my way through pages and chapters, following mysterious directions that aren’t nearly as clear as a Simplicity pattern.
Or, when my kids were little, as compelling. If I’d had an editor who was as eager as my children, calling over my shoulder every half-hour, “When is it going to be done?” I’d have completed ten novels by now. “Be patient,” I’d tell the girls, “I’m working.” But I liked the way their eagerness added urgency to the task.
In my twenties, I saw my life stretched out before me in a straight line, a series of promises waiting to be fulfilled: marriage, MFA, publication, fame and fortune, children (maybe). Now, nearly 50, I see how circuitous the path has been in reality, as pieced-together as the beautiful quilts, painstakingly stitched by my mother-in-law Marjorie, under which my daughters sleep. My destination keeps shifting; new passions (being a mother) move into the foreground and unexpected problems (finding time to write as a mother) sometimes block the path. And this, I’ve discovered, is how it should be. Though I teach my students that writing is process, not product, I haven’t always taken my own advice. But despite—because of—the obstacles, I keep at it because, ultimately, the goal is not to have written but to write.
The same, of course, could be said of life. The poet Rilke wrote to a friend, “In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.” When I was sewing, I was a student again, learning to quilt from my mother-in-law, asking questions of the clerk at the fabric store. I marveled at Marjorie’s skill and knowledge, and at the clerk’s patience as she folded miles of fabric corner to corner, taking her time. I like to think that my interest in sewing inspired them, the way my students’ interest in writing inspires me. After all, though the teacher brings her wisdom to the creative enterprise, the gift of the novice is faith.
Making costumes, I was trying to preserve—for my daughters, for myself—the belief that I could, at mid-life, still do anything. One of my proudest moments is when Alison selected the princess pattern for Catherine’s dress, with its impossible fitted bodice and three layers of skirt. “Mama, you could make this,” she said, within earshot of the experienced seamstresses. And so I found I could. On the morning of Catherine’s birthday, the princess dress was finished and hanging in her closet. In her excitement, she didn’t notice my sleepiness or the costume’s many imperfections, and—because I was still learning—neither did I.
It often struck me, as I played Solitaire on my laptop while I paid a sitter to play with my kids, that writing is not living. It’s a half-life spent behind a closed office door waiting for wisdom, counting on time to eventually yield fruit.
The last time I held a microphone in the Goodhart Music Room at Bryn Mawr College, I was introducing a lineup of high school students who were there to proudly read what they’d written in the summer “Writing for College” program I used to direct. Then and now joined hands tonight when I looked out across the audience and found my former students, Kay Yoon and Abby Reed—now grown women, both mothers and professionals—listening to me read from The Playgroup and laughing along.
Amy Marley didn’t keep a scrapbook, but instead tossed family photographs into an old suitcase, trusting memory to match each treasured image with its story.
I’ve been treasure hunting.
At a series of events celebrating the publication of my novella The Playgroup, part of the Gemma Open Door series to promote adult literacy, I’ve asked my guests—many of them cherished friends—to write about a treasure they’ve lost or found, loved and given away.
They wrote of favorite toys and foolproof hiding places, of best friends and garages that doubled as theatrical stages, play schools and skating rinks. They described the “Lefty Gomez” baseball bat bought by an uncle at a Yankees double-header, and the closet containing go-go boots, ballroom dancing dresses, a cap gun, and a box full of mysterious keys. They recounted the tale of the doll that fled Germany during World War II, companion to a young girl whose father had been killed. They lamented the quartz citrine engagement ring lost by a great-grandmother in the Mississippi mud, found by a grandmother planting okra 50 years later, and stolen from the granddaughter who inherited it when she turned 18.
These friends told of losing a mother and finding her in a daughter, and of the “gift” of partnering in business with a beloved father. They fondly remembered books and new school shoes, Devil’s food birthday cake with meringue icing, heart-shaped notes left by a 1st-grade classroom elf called Tiny, and a favorite photo of their face-painted kids at a carnival. They wrote of backyard magic kingdoms “full of twisty-turny vines and tall trees” and of the “primeval forest” bordering the bat-infested mansion of the neighborhood witch, a house revealed in hindsight to be an ordinary structure observed by a solitary tree.
These stories move me. They’re like scattered sherds dug up from our shared provenience, pieces I ache to put together again. As my friend Frances (next to me in the photo, above) says of that stolen citrine engagement ring, “I imagine someone, somewhere, loves the family treasure that I lost. Maybe one day I’ll make a replica of it for my girls.” Isn’t that what we do when we remember, and when we write about what we find?
“I thought I lost my fun once,” wrote my 9-year-old niece, “but then I found it again…so easily in my brain.”
Celebrating The Playgroup
For one thing, it’s the rare occasion when a writer has physical evidence of an audience. But for me, it’s a bit like This is Your Life, too. As one of my characters, Laurie (not me but like me, a writer) says,
“…writing is not living. It’s a half-life spent behind a closed office door waiting for wisdom, counting on time to eventually yield fruit.”
In other words, my friends and family are my real life. When I look around a room full of these people, I can account for my life–and the ten years between novels! Among these guests will be the Bryn Mawr classmates who intimidated me in the best of ways, helping me to shape a meaningful life. Ruth Koeppel, midwife to my novel, My Life As a Girl. The mothers who (as the book’s dedication says) “were home when I needed them”—and their children, grown from toddlers to teenagers.
There will be the teachers and volunteers who’ve helped me raise my daughters by giving their time and expertise to our community. The colleagues who’ve been with me in the trenches in elementary school classrooms as part of the Young Writers Day program, who’ve made literature come alive for high school students in the summer Writing for College program, who’ve made English House at Bryn Mawr College a friendlier place for creative writing.
There will be writers whose work I admire, several of whom generously helped me shape The Playgroup or risked their reputations by “blurbing” this book: Beth Kephart, Cynthia Reeves, Antonya Nelson and Robin Black.
There will be my husband, Chris Mills, and daughters Alison and Catherine Mosier-Mills, who make my life whole.
This novella has gone through so many incarnations as I tried to gain perspective on my experience as a mother. Now I’m thrilled to have it be published as part of the Gemma Open Door series to promote adult literacy. The series started up in the UK, with authors including Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby, launched on the idea (I’m quoting our publisher, Patricia O’Hare) that “the best writers would help encourage people who struggle to read, or people for whom English is not their first language and, as we are discovering, the adult reluctant reader. The books will be used to inspire reading, instill confidence (hence the short chapters and wide margins) and build vocabulary as well. No dumbed-down or patronizing dickandjane stuff for reluctant readers, but the very best writing to entice.”
Because reading is central to my writing life, I’m especially happy to make a contribution to the Delaware County Literacy Council, whose director, Madeline Bialecki, will party with us.
When my editor, Brian Bouldrey, called me to ask if I would contribute to the series, I offered The Playgroup with the idea that one potential group of “reluctant readers” might be the sleep-deprived mothers I knew and once was. Women who—like the mothers in my real-life playgroup and in the fictional The Playgroup—need and seek diversion and philosophical discussion, even while they only have time or attention for Parents magazine.
When you read The Playgroup, you’ll see that it is short, has a straightforward narrative, and has been combed through for clarity. But the story is the same one my supportive and long-suffering friends remember, my attempt to provide an answer to the question I often encountered while I had one foot in each of the working mom and stay-at- home mom worlds: “What do those women do all day?”
It’s high tourist season in Philadelphia, and so not at all unusual – if slightly unsettling – to find a man beside me on the regional rail platform clad in breeches, buckled shoes and a tri-corner hat. He’s commuting, as I am, to the colonial neighborhood overseen by the National Park Service, but he’s costumed for interpreting history at the Visitors’ Center, while I’m clad in privy-picker jeans and black t-shirt for my volunteer work at the Living History Archaeology Lab.
Like any city, Philadelphia has its versions: public and private, seen and unseen, drafted and revised. This summer morning, the two of us proceed down busy Market Street, parting at 6th, where the entrance to the Liberty Bell pavilion intersects the long-buried stories of George Washington’s nine slaves.
When I first moved to Philadelphia, the Goldman Theatre, on 15th and Market Streets, was already in bad shape. The white facade was sooty and most of the tubes that had illuminated the theater’s surname – GOLDMAN, spelled out vertically — had fizzled and burned out. I walked past it every day on my way to Suburban Station, noting the titles advertised on the marquee — nothing I’d ever heard of or would ever want to see. There was a red velveteen display case next to the ticket window, featuring curled and yellowed news clippings of the Goldman’s glory days. Peering in through the greasy windows, I learned that the Goldman was one of the city’s oldest first-run movie theaters, a place where film stars had shown up in limousines for glamorous premieres. But by 1984, that was ancient history. The most exciting thing happening at the Goldman was that it was about to be torn down.
It’s funny how you can walk past a building every day and not really see it, how one minor change in its appearance can make you understand what you’re seeing entirely differently. To me, the Goldman was merely an eyesore. I was unmoved by editorials that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, complaining that first television and then multiplex theaters had ruined the experience of cinema and that people had lowered their expectations so considerably that film, too, was a dying art. It was sad, I thought, but that’s progress. Where I grew up, in Phoenix, new gas stations and grocery stores and houses were born every day. There was an atmosphere of plenty, a weird consensus among the citizenry (mostly transplanted Easterners) that it was impossible for anything to die or be depleted.
Such were my sentiments when I visited the corner of 15th and Market one dreary, rainy evening, the evening the wrecking crew was to begin the blasting and hammering that would bring the Goldman down. I arrived just in time to see the “G” plucked from the tower’s shoulders by the talons of a squealing crane. The “G” hovered in the black sky a moment, gleaming in the floodlights the crew had set up. Then finally it was lowered; I remember how it twisted and swung, as if it were resisting, in the gentle wind.