Guest Post: Alissa McElreath, Flying Lessons

Silhouette of small plane against the clouds

Photo by Alissa McElreath

Three weeks ago I stood in a grassy field in Bunn, NC, and wondered – not for the first time since September – how it could be that I was so impossibly far away from my sixteen-year old son. Oh, I could see him: a dark cross moving slowly across a backdrop of fluffy white, but he was some 3,000 feet above me, gliding soundlessly, on his first solo flight.

Solo. Alone. Just a boy and an airplane, the way he must have dreamed it a thousand times over from the day he could first hold a toy plane in his hands and zoom it through the air. He’s worked so hard since he started soaring lessons this past fall. I’ve had ten months to get used to the sight of him in the sky. The first time he flew with an instructor I felt my stomach drop away in a sliding lurch as they took off in tandem with the prop plane. At 3,000 feet the tether was released, and there they were: gliding in graceful loops above me and there was simply nothing I could do.

Standing in that field on that important, incredible, milestone afternoon, I could have burst open with a mixture of pride, terror, and, once he was safely on the ground again (textbook-perfect landing!), an outpouring of relief, but I didn’t. Most amazing of all to me at that moment was not that he had survived this incredible achievement because of course he had done so remarkably well, but that I had. This whole journey, from that first flight to the day I watched my son fly solo, has been one long and obvious metaphor for the process of letting go. It shouldn’t have been much of a revelation to me that day in the field, but it was.

Parents, of course, are very familiar with the bittersweet piling up of milestone after milestone after milestone – familiar with the lump-in-throat choking back of emotions that follows the first steps, the first lost tooth, the first day at school, the first broken heart, the first job, the first driver’s license, the first metaphorical, or literal, spreading of the wings. Writers are also very familiar with the process of letting go – we have to be, or we won’t survive very long. As a teacher, I have to help my creative writing students understand that if they want to succeed, whatever success as a writer inside or outside of the classroom looks like to them, a big part of the journey is about letting go. They may have to steel their hearts and cut loose a beloved character, or passage, or shiny sentence (my students always love it when I pull out the “kill your darlings” quote). They might have to delete pages and chapters, and save certain ideas for some uncertain future time. When they are more confident writers they may send their work out into the big, wide, world but then they will have to let it go, for obsessing about it will drive them mad.

I tell them that sometimes moving forward as a writer can mean letting go of the dream you have for one story, or book, or poem in order to allow another to take root and grow. But I wrestle with this advice even as I give it, because letting go of a dream – even if to allow for room for another – seems fundamentally wrong. If we let go, don’t we risk losing what we need and want the most for our hard work? Yet, it makes sense that we have to let go in order to move forward – if we spend too much time mired stubbornly in any one particular version of our dream, anchored to one spot on the ground, turning around and around in circles, we risk going nowhere.

There was a time this fall when I was ready to chuck it all in – this writing business, that is. I am only now beginning to emerge from a sort of delayed onset mourning over the shelving of my latest book. After acquiring an agent, after two rounds on submission, an almost-offer, a handful of near-misses, I had to let it go, as so many other writers have had to do with their own work. I thought I had handled it all quite well– deluded self-preservation, maybe? The loss suddenly became raw this past year, in ways it hadn’t been initially. Up until very recently I was wallowing in that self-pitying phase of the process that I suspect many writers know well – the one where we hunker down miserably, and declare that we are done with pouring our hearts into stories that no one will read. The one where we want throw away the bits and pieces of writing begun and abandoned, and select and delete the files on our computers (I may or may not know anything about this, mind you) that make up the digital roadmap of a journey to nowhere. I didn’t want to set aside that book. Shelving it felt like beginning again, except several steps back from the place where it had all begun. Somehow, I had become too focused on the outcome and not on what I had learned along the way. I thought about this after asking my son what the best part of flying solo had been for him. He shrugged. Being able to do it, he told me. Using all the stuff I know. Being capable, qualified, and confident, and putting the work and courage and persistence into doing what he loved to do the best. For me, being able to write means I must move past the what could have beens and should have beens and focus on using the stuff I know in order to do what I love the best.

As it turns out, you can let go of things – and people, too – and have them return to you again. You can let go of one dream to make room for a bigger one. You can let go of years of hard work on a favorite book, but know that its spirit is housed in another one just emerging. You can even send your heart some 3,000 feet up into the air and watch it glide effortlessly into view, closer and closer – first a small, impossible shape, until there it is, come back to you again.

 

Congratulations Nicole Rollender

Congratulations to SR Contributor Nicole Rollender on the release of her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications), available now from ELJ Publications.

More than anything else, Louder Than Everything You Love is about transformation. The narrator in these poems is many: women who talk to the dead, women who mourn dead mothers and grandmothers, women suicides, women who’ve been raped/escaped rape, women who cradle premature babies, women who suffer depression, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between their children’s bodily needs (“this body-psalm of need the only holiness I know”) and saints’ incorruptible bodies.

These women also live inside themselves, contending with the wolves within, asking: “How do I measure the body’s gardens form within its bone fences?” The dead, the living and the divine inhabit this collection – they’re looking for kinship, remembrance, for some kind of communion. The poems in Louder Than Everything You Love are about the struggle of living in a body, being a parent, trying to find the balance between what our lives on earth mean/what it means to come to terms with dying.

Louder Than Everything You Love is also available for direct purchase from Nicole for $18.99, who will sign it and send it from her house free of shipping with a copy of her poetry broadside “This Is How to Feed Your Young.”

Read more of Nicole’s poetry in Issue 15!

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 12.23.26 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 12.24.13 PM

Guest Blog Post, Lori Jakiela: A Portrait of a Young Artist in Suburbia

Lori Jakiela

A Portrait of A Young Artist in Suburbia

My daughter Phelan wears a frog hat to drum lessons. The hat has felt eyes that google on top of her head. It has legs for ear flaps, a tongue for a visor, and chin straps that look like a lilypad and lotus.

“Stylin’,” her teacher Mike says, “a real drummer,” and pats Phelan right between her amphibian eyes.

Mike looks like Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day — black spiked hair, smudged eyeliner, mellow rock swagger. He’s kind and patient and says cool with two syllables a lot.

Phelan is 8. She is blonde haired and green eyed and the nicest person I know. She also questions a lot of things.

Last year at the school talent show, she did a tough-guy drum solo, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” She wore a pink skirt and sequined top. Her glittered shoes lit up like an emergency whenever she took a step.

My daughter confuses people, which confuses her, which worries me.

“I like girl things and boy things,” she tells me, like she’s confessing something, like she wants me to give her some penance to do.

“You’re perfect,” I say. “Always be yourself.”

“Always be yourself,” she repeats to her older brother when he’s embarrassed by her abundant joy and questionable fashion sense.

My son is 12. It’s a tough age made worse because he worries too much about what other people think. When he was very young, around four, he’d do stand-up routines in our basement. He had a catchphrase – “And I threw up… two times” – that could make adults howl.

Then something happened. I don’t know what. A year passed, maybe two. He stopped telling jokes. He stayed away from microphones. At the playground, he’d stand like an accountant, hands in pockets, and watch the other kids play before he’d join in.

“Don’t smile too much. Stand back. Be cool,” he tells his sister now, his advice on being popular.

“I’m my own person,” she says, and whacks him with a drum stick.

It’s not good for my daughter to whack her brother with a drum stick. She gets in trouble for this. Still, I hope she’ll find some way to go on holding the world off. I hope my son will find his way back.

In my kids’ school, there are anti-bullying signs everywhere. The signs have inspirational messages. “Everyone is Special.” “You’re Perfect the Way You Are.” “Difference is Beautiful.” “Nothing is Better Than Being Yourself.”

But being yourself costs, especially when you’re 8 like my daughter, especially when mean girls are rising up, all preen and snicker, hips jutted out.

People say kids are naturally mean, but I think meanness is a learned thing.

Those anti-bullying signs are earnest. My kids’ school is wonderful. We live in the suburbs and our school district is one of the best around. But in our district there are subdivisions with regal names, pre-fab houses with coordinated siding and matching mailboxes.  All the homes look the same, eggs in a carton. There’s a push, I think, for all the people to be the same, too – paperweights in their own little boxes, scissors with blunted tips.

“We’re very particular about who we let move in here,” one woman from a nearby subdivision said recently.

I don’t know who she meant by “we” or who exactly fit her criteria.  Or maybe I do know and it’s too awful to think about.

Difference is scary. If it can be gated off, if it can be shrunken down into something manageable, a petri dish, life can seem easier to navigate.

This doesn’t excuse anything.

“Do you know your enemy?” Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong wants to know.

My family lives in the house I grew up in, close to the cluster of subdivisions this woman was talking about. Our house has been here for 40 years, but still some days I feel like an outsider, even though most of our neighbors are wonderful, the kind of people who help in an emergency. They’re the kind of people who bring casseroles and who, if they see your trash can rolling down the street, will stop, pick it up, and deliver it back where it belongs.

But my husband and I are writers, which makes us seem a little odd. We don’t have expensive furniture. We do have a lot of books. We have a lot of paintings and music, too. We’re what my mother would have called “arty.” She would not have meant this as a compliment. My son constantly reminds us we live in a house and not an art gallery.

“Can’t we please be normal?” he says.

“Do you collect books?” a neighbor asks.

“I know why you have so many books,” one of my daughter’s friends says. “So people will think you don’t watch TV.”

“Books, huh?” one of my son’s friends says.

Yes, I say. That’s right.

“Be yourself,” I tell my daughter, even though most days I’m a hypocrite, terrified of being found out.

About writing, the great Harry Crews once said, “World don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”

I want my children to be their own beautiful selves. I also want the world to go easy on them. I’m not sure it’s possible to have both.

If meanness is learned, other things are learned, too. Contradiction, for instance.

When I was growing up, subdivision wasn’t a word people used. We had our street, neighborhood, block.

I think about that word now, subdivision, the root of it. The division of a larger division. The act of dividing again and again.

“Maybe I should try cheering,” my daughter says when she worries about fitting in. “Maybe I should get an American Girl doll.”

But I’m thankful she hasn’t followed up on any of that.  She sings and plays softball and every Thursday, she straps on her frog hat and does her drum lessons with Mike. Right now they’re working from a book called The Rock and Roll Bible.

“It’s a foundation,” Mike tells Phelan. “Once you learn your system, you’re solid. You can do anything.”

They count together, one-e-and-a-two-e-and-a, and my pretty blonde daughter bangs out a beat like Charlie Watts. On her head, the frog eyes bob. When she plays, she’s happy, but serious, too. She wants to get this right.

The thing about frogs is they’re as comfortable on land as in water. Lotuses are rooted and floating all at once.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.” F. Scott Fitzgerald said that.

“Mom, you worry too much. We’re fine,” my son says.

I watch my daughter drum, her whole body moving, connected, one undivided beautiful self, and for this moment believe it.