Three Significant Memories

Tying my first knot.

We were still a family of four, me, Mom, Dad, and L, and still living in our apartment. It was early morning, but there wasn’t much bright sunlight. I remember the room being a sort of lukewarm yellow, even though the walls and carpet were white. I sat on the ground playing with a doll named Lisa. I’d gotten her for Christmas, most likely the one prior to this occasion. She had black, sticking-up hair, and a purple cloth body, but her head, hands, and shoes were all hard plastic. I must’ve been four at the time.

I don’t remember actually making the knot, only feeling complete excitement when I saw what I’d done. I called Mom until she came into the room. She’d been about to take a shower — I remember the water running in the bathroom down the hall. when I held the doll up for her to see, she grinned and told me to do it again.

Goin’ Buggy

I must’ve been in either second or third grade. At our elementary school, one special grade got to put on a production for the rest of the school called Goin’ Buggy. It fit with the curriculum, since that was also the grade we learned about bugs. It was also a last hurrah for the school year — something fun to look forward to and work towards so that you could show off your hard work in front of your parents and the rest of the school.

I was a ladybug, along with the rest of the girls in my class. The special thing about us was that we got to wear colorful feather boas. While we were waiting in the gym to be called for our turn on the stage to perform a song and dance, one of the girls in front of me was getting upset about her boa.

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I don’t remember if she’d purposely left hers in the classroom, but she wasn’t happy because her boa wasn’t as fluffy as everyone else’s. I also don’t remember giving her my boa, but the next thing I know, our teacher is asking me if I think I can make it back to the classroom in time to get a new one. I nodded and took off running.

My next memory of that day is vague. Either Mom or my teacher mentioned to me how nice they thought it was that I had given up the boa for someone else. I’m thinking it was Mom who told me what the teacher thought because I have no memory of the teacher ever saying anything about it.

Being dumb with Windex.

A few years after the Goin’ Buggy years, Mom had told me to clean the upstairs bathroom mirror. That was considerably better than cleaning the entire bathroom — a chore and a half no matter what your age — so I obliged. I had everything ready: paper towels on the counter, the mirror with its three panels lying flat against the medicine cabinet, and the Windex at hand. But when I went to spray the mirror, the Windex wouldn’t come out.

You might know where I’m going with this. I tried a few more times, without success, to get the spray to work. Turning the nozzle, I squinted for the upraised plastic letters declaring if the spray was on or off. I didn’t realize my thumb was on the handle and when my hand closed tighter around the bottle to turn the spray from OFF to ON, I squirted myself in the eyes.

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This was before I had glasses. I’m not sure how many hours went by before the Windex cleared out, but I did scream and Mom did have to wash my face because I couldn’t see. That might’ve been something of a contributor to my eventually becoming nearsighted. Possibly.

What three memories do you have permanently lodged in your brain?

If you’d like to contact me without writing on the blog, please feel free to write me an email: cl@clmannarino.com

Food for Thought: No Regrets

no regrets clmannarino

Try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of useless virtue, and inertia, and timidity. Take up the battle. Take it up! It’s yours. This is your life. This is your world.

MAYA ANGELOU

“If you’re not enough before the gold medal…”

…you’ll never be enough with it.

- Cool Runnings (and Anne Lamott)

I recently took the opportunity to reread my book before sending it off for (what I hope are) final critiques. I’d just made a couple major changes to the story and contacted a few people for some help. They agreed to do their best to get the book ready for the end of next year, which is when I’m planning to publish.

The only hitch? They weren’t going to be able to help until August, due to projects of their own.

That’s fine, I told myself. I can handle that.

For a week, I settled into a new routine. With an old story on my mind, I wrote on the train and kept my immediate attention off of my to-be-edited book. Once that week ended, I got a nagging sensation in the back of my mind about the to-be-edited book. The sticky fingers of my thoughts refused to let it go.

After holding out for a day, I re-considered the fact that I’d made huge changes to the story without doing a single read-through to see if it flowed. I’d just assumed it would. I assumed that because I’d made changes, the story would just be better. I mean, how could it not?

The nagging sensation became a red flag in the back of my mind. Each time I told myself It’s fine, the book is brilliant now, that flag fluttered, snapping in some invisible wind.

Last week, I couldn’t take it anymore. I moved the book to my Kindle so that I couldn’t make any changes while I read and hunkered down during my scheduled writing time to see how it went. Slight terror at what I would find hovered over me, a storm cloud lined with hope that sparkled like glitter thrown onto the surface of a Styrofoam ball.

Up until this point, I’ve been too close to the work to see the issues. It’s a huge problem I have, especially with stories I’ve been living with for over five years. Rereading this draft, though, is like watching the HD version of Chronicle. Every stray hair, every makeup line, and every wrinkle stands out in sharp, glorious relief.

It looks ugly to me, and yet all of it seems to laugh at what it considers its own brilliance. Rereading the draft is like watching an idiot spout arrogant nonsense to a roomful of people who all know the idiot’s just that: a moron. Only, in this case, I’m both the idiot and the people who know better. It’s put a huge dent in my confidence.

How the hell have I gotten away with this? I’ve been asking myself. This isn’t impressive. This doesn’t sound like me. These are all the problems I’ve been cringing at in other peoples’ work. How is it possible that I’m still this bad?

Then I remember contacting the readers earlier in the month. There’s this episode of The Simpsons where Marge wins a house cleaner for a day. She realizes the house is messy and panics, scrubbing everything before the cleaner has a chance to see it. That’s how I’ve been feeling about sending this story out again.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to wait on making changes until I get whole-story comments first, in case everything needs to be scrapped (again). But what kills me is that I was so certain, so sure of the story, of what I’ve been able to do with it, of where it’s going, and all the things I thought I’d accomplished through it. I guess I figured I read so much about publishing and writing and what not to do — there’s no way I can go wrong.

Yeah. Right.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott quotes the movie Cool Runningswhich she says sums up the relationship between publishing and mental health: “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you’ll never be enough with it.” “If you’re not enough before you’ve published the book, you’ll never be enough after.” “If you’re not enough before you do X, you’ll never be enough after you’ve done it.”

I’ve seen Cool Runnings. Spoilers: the movie ends nobly. As it turns out, they realize they are enough before the gold. That there are more important things than winning.

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who aren’t so noble? What about the ones who read the how-to’s, implement them, and feel like very little happens as a result? What about the ones who’ve been taught “instant success” is possible and don’t know what it’ll take to unlearn it? What about the ones who’ve been taught to only want the result because that’s what we’ve been told happiness is: achieving the end goal?

What about those of us who don’t know how to be enough before the gold medal, or before publishing, or before reaching X, whatever that might be? What if all the stuff that comes before the “end prize” isn’t as important to us as the prize itself? How do you get from wanting only the product to just loving the process?

And how do you stop feeling guilty when you’re in one camp, or the other, and are told you should want more than just the process, or stop wanting the product so damn much?

I don’t know. What I do know is that these are hard things to learn or unlearn. What I do know is that I’m disappointed in my book. And what I do know is that I want to get to a place where I can somehow move forward and write a book I actually like instead.

Has your ability (or lack thereof) to do something you love and thought you were good at ever disappointed you? What did you do about it?

If you want to reach me and don’t want to post to the blog, feel free to email cl@clmannarino.com

Change of Scenery

If I could live anywhere, I’d like to live in Vermont. Or Virginia. (No, I’m not actually moving just yet.)

My original thought was Virginia. When L and I weren’t much younger, we had a momentary fascination with maps. I think it’s because Dad used to pull them out of National Geographic every time we got a new issue and post them to the bulletin board on our kitchen wall. So every month, or however often we received NatGeo in the mail, we would have a new terrain to look at…or completely ignore. Whichever suits you.

They always fell down, these maps. The board was long enough that you could knock whatever hung from it with your elbow if you sat in front of it. Also, we like to try tacking multiple papers at once under one thumbtack.

For some reason, we never have enough tacks. So the sheer weight of about five decent-sized pieces of paper got to be too much and every so often, there would be an avalanche of cards (both business and reminders), take-out menus, important government letters, and often a calendar.

After about a month or so of having a map on the board, Dad took the thing down. L and I managed to get our hands on it and took it into the porch. Sitting across from one another on the scratchy brown self-installed rug, we stared at it, marveling over the sheer size of the United States. Taking a penny in hand, L said, “Let’s close our eyes, drop the penny onto the map, and wherever it lands, we have to promise to go there someday.”

I went first. Admittedly, I think I dropped it purposely to land on “Virginia,” I said, shrugging. “Well, that’s good. I planned to go there anyway.”

I think L got Washington or something.

Virginia is packed with history. My intention? Get close to the original foundations of our country. The houses, the streets, the smells, the possible reenactments, the museums — all that fun stuff. Maybe I’ll actually learn a thing or two while I’m there. The only downside is it gets quite warm in the summer, so I’m not sure I could hold up well in that heat.

I say Vermont because it’s up north, and I like being in the north. I like the changing seasons, the good cold winters (even despite whining about this past one. In fairness, it was horrendous. Never again.), the syrup. I love syrup. I love pancakes. It’s a match made in heaven. That’s not a good enough reason to go, but okay. I’ll live. Just a visit would be nice.

Where would you like go travel and/or live that you aren’t right now?

Food for Thought: Don’t See Clearly

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don't see clearly clmannarino

Sometimes we see what we want to, instead of what’s in front of us. And sometimes, we don’t see clearly at all.

JODI PICOULT

The Walks We Hustle On

We take our dogs for a walk around the streets near our house. For the most part, these trips are short, five or ten minutes at most if we just hop around the block. Sometimes we go to a small reservoir down the road from us, but that’s usually pretty ambitious for a weekday. So we tend to stick to one street and call it a night.

Most of the time, the street we take is nice. A few other houses have dogs that bark when you pass. They’re easy to ignore. Their lawns are patched with vibrant green and sun-baked brown colors. Every so often, someone’s outside. Occasionally, they’ll wave at you. More often than not, though, they don’t give you a passing glance.

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Then there’s our neighbor Dom. Of the people you want to avoid in life, he’s one of them.

An older man with a hunch to his back and wrinkles so deep, the shadows around his eyes are almost dark gray, Dom doesn’t like people. Specifically, he doesn’t like anyone who doesn’t have a dog. Since his neighbors to the immediate right of his house don’t have one, he gives them hell for no logical reason. (His most recent offence was trying to rip down a fence because he claimed it was on his property line. It wasn’t.)

His house, deep brown with black shutters, is as dark as the bags under his eyes. His street lights are never on at Halloween. For that one night of the year, kids practically walk in the street because the shadow where his house is stands so tall, you could almost fall into it and get swallowed up. It’s like a black hole of empty space.

If you walk by him during the day, he stares after you until you walk away. If you have a dog with you, he tries to make conversation that’s difficult to get out of. He has a small dog himself, one that he carries on walks so that it doesn’t get fleas.

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For most of the walk, things go smoothly. The dogs tug too much at the start, only to stop short for a sniff and a piss. Tess has to walk at the front. Beau lumbers on after her, but when he stops, he’s a wall. You can push and push and push, but if he doesn’t choose to go anywhere, he won’t. (Hound/German Shepherd mixes are like that, apparently.)

Three-fourths of the way through, all talking and dog-heckling stops. We tighten our leashes. Our eyes go to the ground, or fix at some far point on the horizon. We march.

We enter Dom’s property.

One time, I’m on my own with Tess and I see him hovering over something in his driveway. Panic rattles my back and my chest gives me a quick squeeze, like my body’s trying to give me a hug. Balling up the leash in my fist, I tugged the dog along the sidewalk, averting my eyes to the ground.

“C’mon, c’mon, stop sniffing everything,” I mutter through clenched teeth as she stops to nose the concrete where it meets the grass.

Don’t look at the driveway, I tell myself. Don’t look behind you. Don’t make eye contact. If he knows you’ve seen him, he’ll start a conversation.

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After a second, Tess complies. We walk three steps. She pulls to a stop, yanking me back where I’ve started fast-walking forward. Sweat builds in my armpits. We’re only halfway across the yard.

Don’t look behind you. Don’t make eye contact.

“Come on, dog,” I say louder, giving the leash a tug. She strains against the force, tightening the soft, braided red rope around my knuckles until we’re each leaning comically in opposite directions. Her dirty gray nails dig into the ground as she snuffs something out of her nose.

“Come on!” I say. “Tess!”

Like a springboard, she snaps to and her tongue lolls out.

“Thank you,” I whisper while she clicks down the sidewalk ahead of me. I pull out my phone and fiddle with the music, trying to make it seem like I’ve gotten a call.

I only breathe again when we leave the property. Throwing a glance over my shoulder, I see Dom moseying down his driveway, his dog in his arms and his face turned in our direction. I mutter in incoherent, illogical Spanish under my breath, hoping he’ll think I’m crazy and not know what I’m saying. I sure as hell don’t.

The farther we go, the more often I look back. Dom turns, walks the other way. Across the street and two houses down from where he lives, a Golden Retriever named Friday is sitting in his own yard. As Dom approaches, Friday barks, but I hustle Tess forward. We still have one leg of the journey to go, and all I can think is, We have to reach our end of the street before Dom does.

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“Come on, Tess, we can do this,” I say. I’m fast-walking now. The wind hurts my nose, but my chest opens up a bit more. There’s still the fear that he’ll catch up to us in time to talk, but we’re moving. We’re fast.

We reach the end of the street, one that connects to ours and the same one Dom’s going to appear around, I just know it, and Tess stops. She shoves her nose into the dirt in front of another dog’s house, snuffling.

“Oh my god!” I tug her harder, with both hands. “Come on, Tess, it’s time to go home.”

She relents for a second, shuffles forward, noses the dirt. Inches pass beneath us. Every so often, I tip my head furtively around the block, but the street stays empty, the sky blue with dots of puffy clouds overhead.

“Come!” I command in a hard voice.

She jumps to attention. Scurrying down the road, we race back to the house and slam the door closed. No Dom, no weird interactions, nothing. From behind the safety of the door, I almost can’t believe myself. With a little laugh, I unclip Tess from her leash.

We made it.

Are there people you tend to avoid around your neighborhood? What do you do when you run into them?

If you want to contact me, but don’t want to post on the blog, feel free to email me: cl@clmannarino.com

Stuck in my Head

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MAGIC! — Rude

Sam Smith — Stay with Me

Kelly Clarkson — Already Gone

What songs have been stuck in your head?

Food for Thought: Food

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food clmannarino

Food is our common ground, a universal experience.

JAMES BEARD

In case you didn’t see it before: