Writing in Real Life

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 5.45.54 PMMy husband has been listening to podcasts for years. Since before Serial, which means before they were cool, which I guess means he's ahead of the times, or something. Anyway we always said we'd never collaborate but here we are, collaborating: we've just launched Writing in Real Life, a podcast series about writing, publishing, parenting, and marriage. Heady topics! Our first one is now up.

Fun fact: we recorded it on Monday night. By Tuesday I decided I hated what I said, so we re-recorded it Tuesday night, right after the State of the Union, when my head was spinning from all the live tweeting I was doing. I think this session is perhaps a bit less fun, but hopefully more informative than the original one.

I hope you'll follow along!

At the beach

She would kill me if she knew this was on the internet. On Tuesday it stormed, bursts of rain landing on the dirty carpets, so strong we had to close the windows. We watched "Sweet Home Alabama" and made cocktails (mocktails for me) and squeezed onto the L-shaped couch, the perfect size for the six of us. This year's house liked to sway in the wind, even when there was very little of it--it's on stilts, it's normal, we're told--and as we rocked I was surprised at how many lines from the film I could quote from memory. I didn't think I'd seen it that often.

On our last full day I lay in bed a while, listening. There was a sharp breeze coming in the window next to me, a perfect beach wind, the kind you don't get on the mainland. Everyone else was up but they left me alone in my room and I felt that wind and thought about how the island is in my bones and blood, my genealogy. It's in my skin, too. Literally. On my first day of vacation I got two splinters in my palm from the deck chair; one so tiny I left it, hoping it'd work its way out. Ten days later it's still here, a beauty mark reminder of my vacation. A freckle, embedded.

One night after dinner my friends went to the local bar, an old favorite, but at six months pregnant I knew the bar stools would hurt so I visited my grandmother on her front porch; the house I grew up in, watching that special kind of island darkness fall over us. New York is never dark. I drink it in. Dark is important sometimes.

We rocked in our chairs and just watched. Earlier this summer we unearthed boxes of old photos in the attic and went through them, Instagramming the best ones, finding a sense of unexpected pride in my grandmother in her bathing suit, tan long legs, hair perfectly waved over her eyebrow. My family; the faces I'll never know but that kind of look like me. For every sepia woman we didn't recognize my grandmother would say, "Oh, that was probably one of my brother's girlfriends. He had a lot of them." And we would laugh and I would secretly be glad, because that's like my own brother, a guy who is never without a serious relationship; the antithesis of me before slipping into a marriage I now can't imagine my life without.

Later, when my friends were still at the bar but it was time for me to go, my mom drove me back to my rental. We took a detour to the south end of the island, looking through the knotty pines at the abandoned train station, dark and obviously haunted, and at her new favorite house on the bay, the one that seems too big for its lot. The streets there are wide, empty. Quiet.

This is what I always forget about when I'm not here: the space. There's so much of it for the taking.


If I could only remember one thing, let it be this single moment

1016661_10201547573863635_812159393_nOn the dance floor, halfway through our first dance, which we almost didn't even do, the DJ announced that everyone was invited to join us. No one moved. My heart pounded; already it had been too long a time of people staring at us, too much time in the spotlight. So she repeated it, insistently, and I laughed out loud, grateful to her, and suddenly the floor was bursting with people, overflowing with couples dancing. We swirled around in the middle and I gripped my new husband tighter and I saw my parents, my aunt and uncle, all our friends flooding into us, and right then, I thought, "This is it, this is the moment that encapsulates everything." I was so much more affected by that first dance than I ever expected to be. And that is the cool thing about weddings, about big life events, about life in general: what you don't expect to gut you sometimes does, and it's everything.

As the song ended -- Ingrid Michaelson's cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love With You" -- the DJ seamlessly started the next one. Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" had never sounded more beautiful; suddenly, the room was pumped, and I felt electric.

I barely left the dance floor all night.

Je ne regrette rien.


994623_10151909679348428_1313082205_nThere's something both kitschy and sad about a Jersey boardwalk, but also comforting. Especially in September, when the crowds have gone but the sun still lingers, and you're with your friends for the weekend in a gorgeous house your sister's father-in-law owns, and everyone is taking care of you, and the weather is perfect, and you watch a wedding take place on the beach, and you chuckle and think you made the right decision by sticking to the city for your own wedding. And then you forget all about it when a dead dolphin washes ashore, and your thoughts change to the impermanence of this all, to how sinkholes can swallow towns in Louisiana and new islands can appear after Pakistani earthquakes, and then you circle back to the reason you're getting married to begin with, which is, at its core, an attempt to forge something permanent in a place so temporary, so ever-shifting.

We indulged all weekend. A lot. But I feel greedily at peace with it all -- the 11am cocktails, the double cupcakes. So much cheese, so much pizza. The lounging, the laughter. My whole body has felt light and fluid since then. I came home overwhelmed; too much friendship, too much love, too much grace. Our house is a mess -- boxes everywhere, bags and bags of books (decoration for the wedding). There's still so much to do, only not really, just some stuff that needs to be wrapped up, and I've reached the point anyway where I don't care. The details don't matter anymore. All the important stuff is done. All the love has surfaced.


A collection of things my niece said this weekend

  1. I like your wedding dress, aunt Morg. (I was wearing a brightly patterned maxi dress.)
  2. I'm going to swing on the swings now, but I'll be careful, so everyone calm down.
  3. Back it up, sister.
  4. Good morning! Let's get this party started!
  5. Aunt Morgie, your hair looks bad.
  6. Aunt Morgie, I like your long hair.
  7. You be the dragon that's chasing me. I'll save myself, though!
  8. Come in the moonbounce with me! The age limit is 28. (Me: I'm 33.) I mean, the age limit is 33.

My niece and her curly hair; my nephew and his lopsided smile and his penchant for exclaiming "Yeah!" like he's singing backup for Usher; the way the sun slants across their backyard in Pennsylvania...these are the things that make a weekend worthwhile.



Warming up to Spring

Spring, sort of, in Brooklyn. The Philadelphia row home my grandparents lived in always smelled like sauerkraut, and while that sounds like an insult, I don't mean it to be. We would visit a few times a year, and as we pulled onto their street the green awning over their door was the only way I could pick them out of the lineup. As we got older, the television in the house would grow louder; the mess on the dining room table, bigger. There was always a bowl of black olives from a can to snack on, and Pop-pop taught us how to jab our fingers into each olive and eat them, finger by finger, can by can; reveling in the aluminum aftertaste.

Today the office smells like that old row home in Philly, like old-fashioned food and tulips, and this week has been quiet. I finished my book on Saturday and turned it over to my writing group, my critique buddies, and while they read I get to luxuriate in this freedom, this moment before I have more work to do on it. It feels like a spring break of sorts, which is neat timing, considering New York City seems to have closed for the week, too. The subways have been empty; my emails have dwindled as the sun stays up later, stretching out the days. I am warming up to Spring, my least favorite season, as a ray of sun latches onto my exposed forearm and begins to remind my bones of what it can do to me.

Spring's always been a temporary stop on a train to someplace better. Maybe this one will prove me wrong, show me what she's got besides a teasing warmth and an itchy nose.




Shiny churches and grandchildren

I once read that extended families exist only because grandmothers refused to die on time, and I don't know if that's true, but I watch my own mother, now a grandmother of her own, and I can understand why one would refuse to die, because who would want to give up the hugs and falls and ripped books that grandbabies bring you? I sat through a Catholic funeral yesterday and am exhausted just remembering the standing and sitting and bowing and repeating and singing, all of these motions that mean nothing to me but meant everything to my dead grandmother. Mostly I watched the singer, who had a lovely thin voice, and the altar boys, who kept biting their hangnails and scratching their backs, while Jesus and Mary twinkled in the Philadelphia sunlight above them. I was in Quito, Ecuador once, and I touched the walls of the church in the city square, and they were literally paved in gold while a hungry crowd begged for my American change right outside the gates. It felt...excessive, in a terribly uncomfortable way, as yesterday did, too.

After the service I went with my older sister to pick up my niece and nephew from their daycare, and it was naptime, and there in darkened rooms were three-year-olds laid out on tiny little mattresses like a living checkerboard. I tickled my niece's palm to wake her and she stretched, all long and so big already, and after a moment of confusion -- what were her aunts doing there? -- she smiled, her cheeks flushed and her curls all pulled out and flattened, and just like that, she was up and ready for an afternoon of unexpected playtime with us. We hopped like frogs and read Dr. Seuss and the morning, and its cemeteries and tears, slipped away, already a memory.

My grandmother had a photo of us all  -- her grandchildren and great grandchildren -- in her nursing home bedroom, even the babies whose existence she could never remember, and my mom would point to each of us and say our names. Occasionally, my grandmom would even remember them herself. I guess that association is what we're always striving for. "She was ours," we can say, "and she knew our names."

A rambling post about rain and attitude adjustments

I am suddenly fond of hoods on jackets, which is lucky, because last night it spitter-spattered harder than I anticipated on my walk home, a fine mist that steadily turned into a shower before disappearing altogether. I was just tucking my hair under my hood, marveling at how quiet the streets of SoHo were -- it felt like the neighborhood was all dressed up in holiday gear, with no place to go -- when I passed a mother and her pre-teen daughter. Arguing. "Adjust your attitude right now," the mother seethed. I couldn't help it -- I laughed. That line had been a favorite of my dad's when I was a kid.

My parents are fascinating parents. (Fascinating people, too, but that's a different story.) Without getting into too much detail, they both come from non-traditional (for the fifties and sixties) family homes -- one from a single-parent household, one from a twice-divorced household -- and now, as an adult, I glom on to those bits of their childhood, their life, whenever I can, because what they experienced is so incredibly different from the childhood they gave me. I honestly don't know if they made this decision consciously or not, but their mandate as parents has always been very clear: our children come first, and we will break the cycle; we will build a family of best friends.

It's amazing how well they succeeded. I sat at a long makeshift table last week, lined with 25-ish people, my favorites, my flesh, my heart. One of the centerpieces caught fire, and my former-fire-marshall father just laughed. And I thought about attitude adjustments, and how I felt loved and cherished and special just by simply being a part of them, and how that's the only attitude I really need.

Anyway, back to the angry mother-daughter pair in SoHo. Oh, darlings, I know your pain; I remember it well, the way I would pick and pick at my mother's scabs until she would snip at me or, worse, cry. (I am not proud.) It's funny, the way we can get so mad at the people we love most. Like loving them gives us the permission to also hate them, even for just a moment, simultaneously.

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None of the women in my immediate family have middle names. (For context, the men do; my extended family does too, mostly.) It used to be a point of contention for me; I used to long for an extra word to call my own. One car ride nearly two decades ago, probably, I declared I'd take my twin sister's name as my middle, if she would take mine as hers. If you know K., you can probably guess that she declined the offer. (Of the two of us, she's usually the one who tried to stray from the idea of our twinship, at least moreso than me.) I dropped the idea.

When my older sister named her children, those two munchkins who light up my life in ways I couldn't have comprehended, so much so that I worry I may never love my own hypothetical future children as much as I love them, she gave them middle names. She gave them with thought, with weight; a history.

Somehow the subject of middle names came up last weekend -- a family joke-fight (you know the kind) where my mom and my aunt bet on how their mother, my grandmother, spelled her middle name. (For the record, my aunt won. Sorry mom.) But isn't that funny, that my grandmother's daughters didn't even know for sure? A call to the eldest sister in Florida, my other aunt, had to be placed. Documents were unearthed. And finally, someone just called up my mom-mom and she solved the riddle herself. (As is the family way, there's more to the story; it turns out, she gave her middle name to her eldest daughter as a middle name too, but changed the spelling, so the confusion on all sides was justified.)

The outcome is, middle names are weird, but also beautiful in a family-history-is-neat-and-important kind of way, and now I'm considering taking her middle name as mine. Morgan Mae.

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