Tag Archive | Writing

The Purple Notebook

Earlier this week, I believed I’d lost three major things this year: the earrings my husband gave me when Boo was born nine years ago; my camera which contained photos from our latest Disney trip and Boo and Critter’s Christmas Program at school; and my purple notebook. I was sad about all three losses, and most of all crazed because I. Don’t. Lose. Things. I don’t always know where they are, but I am always confident they will be found. I was confident I’d find the earrings when we returned from our cruise in November, and the fact they still haven’t turned up shook my confidence a bit, I think, so that when I couldn’t find the camera or the notebook I thought they were gone forever, too. The camera, it turned out, was at my father-in-law’s house. The notebook was under the jump seat cushion in my van. My husband found it when he was looking for Critter’s new Kindle. The relief and joy I felt when he found that notebook was indescribable. I know I wasn’t as overjoyed when the camera turned up. I don’t even think I would have been as ecstatic if he found the earrings. Finding the notebook was THE perfect end to 2012. It was like I’d been reunited with a part of my soul.

I posted about it on Facebook, and figured that someone would ask, “What is it with you and that notebook?” Because, really, it’s essentially a big bound pile of paper. Yet it was more valuable to me than the diamond earrings and the camera. I figured most of my online friends would be all “WTF?” But instead, the post got 41 likes. FORTY-ONE. I don’t think I’ve had that many likes on a post EVER. I mean, some of my posts go viral with comments (mostly because my friends C. and L. I LOVE to chat within posts) but to get 41 likes . . . that’s a whole lot. And what I realized in seeing that number is that, clearly, 1/7th of my friends totally get me–even if I don’t always get myself.

Because, back with the notebook by my side, I was able to think again, and what I started to think, of course, is what is it with me and the notebook? Why was this item more important to me than the others I’d lost (or thought I’d lost)? And the answer: I was at the end of that notebook. I’d been using it since November of 2011. That notebook held more than a whole year of my life. Granted, some of the stuff was crap: to-do lists; notes from meetings I’d taken just to keep myself awake (yeah, when I’m at a meeting don’t think that I’m writing things down because I’m oh-so-attentive; it’s a strategy I developed in high school to keep me from nodding off–try to write down as much of what the teacher is saying as I can); doodles; ripped pages from when I needed a place to spit my gum. But most of it was absolutely irreplaceable. And even if it wasn’t, the very fact that I wouldn’t HAVE the notebook would have left a hole in my bookshelf that would always be full of its own absence.

You see, I’ve kept every notebook I’ve ever had since the 1990’s. Some have more than a year of stuff in them, particularly notebooks that I used while I was in college or grad school, because the notebooks I used for my college class notes aren’t included in my shelf of notebooks. They’re in what I call my “big bin of brilliance”–the place where I keep all my academic stuff that I never really look at any more. My notebooks are kept on a bookshelf, and I revisit them from time to time for inspiration: to see what I was thinking, dreaming, hoping, loving, losing, creating. There’s an entire notebook full of ideas for unwritten romance novels–yes the smutty ones. There’s one full of poetry written the year of my grandfather’s death. There’s a lot of joy in the one I used while planning my wedding, and a lot of cattiness, too. It’s definitely not one I would want anyone to get a hold of. I’m not proud of the person I am in that journal. I keep it to remind me of the person I don’t ever want to be again. But the one that wins the award for craziness is the one I used while writing my dissertation. That one is kind of unusual in that it’s HUGE, and the cover of one side is a beautiful blue and the other side is pitch black. The black side has all my dissertation stuff. The purple side has all my teaching stuff. It was clear, then, where my joy resided. The purple side is decorated with rainbows and unicorns. The black side is decorated with white stickers with a variety of inspirational sayings like, “The only way to fail is to quit,” and “It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done.” Anything to get me through the day.

Then there are “the pregnancy notebooks,” where I wrote notes to the unborn children. The one I was writing before I miscarried my first child is particularly heartbreaking only in comparison to the ones I wrote for Boo and Critter. The first one is so unguarded, just pours out everything I was thinking for about ten weeks and then just . . stops. It’s full of blank pages. I just couldn’t bring myself to write in that book again, much the same way I could never again bring myself to wear the clothes I wore to the doctor’s appointment where we saw the baby with no heartbeat. Boo and Critter’s notebooks, in comparison, are full to brimming. But they’re not so open. They’re more reserved. I don’t pour myself into them. I keep myself back, just a little, and I know now it was because I knew I couldn’t ever trust in the inevitable existence of the reader again. Once they were born the entries get a little more confident, a little less reserved . . . but then they pick up the reserve of a woman who maybe does not want her thirteen year old child knowing that she would have given her left leg if it meant the kid would just STOP CRYING FOR FIVE MINUTES. There are some things kids never really need to know their parents were thinking.

My most recent notebook, though, is not like any of these. I had tried something new. The notebook was divided into sections by color. There were a certain number of blue-trimmed pages, then red, gray, light green, purple, and blue-green. Blue was supposed to be for to-do lists. Red was supposed to be about teaching. Gray was for Homeroom Parent Coordinator stuff and volunteering. Green was, of course, for Girl Scouts. Purple for church stuff. And blue was for kids’ doodles because I would on occasion give them my notebook to write in when I was doing something and I didn’t want them scribbling over something important.

I can tell you that system worked about as well as trying to keep ten tomcats in a burlap sack. From the first month it was pretty clear I couldn’t remember which section was which. Then I skipped pages. Then I wrote on things upside down. Then the kids wrote in the purple section. And I have Girl Scout notes in gray. And church notes in blue. So, finally I gave up, turned to the blue section and just started using consecutive pages to make notes, which I should have done from the beginning. Because as it turns out, I am not a divided person. I am an integrated person. I cannot chop myself up into my little tasks and keep them clearly defined unless they’re things as distinct as research and teaching. I am one, big, giant, clump of mess. And to be quite honest, I like that about myself, that I am one big undivided package.

As I was thinking about my notebook and my inability to segment myself, I remembered reading a book by Doris Lessing called The Golden Notebook. I freaking hated that book. I mean, I LOATHED it. I had to read it for a Women in Literature class during my sophomore year in college. It was about a woman writer who split herself into four different notebooks, but at the end was able to integrate herself into one Golden Notebook. Or something. I just thought it was a book about a pile of neurotic insanity, and yes, this is an example of the pot calling the kettle black. Maybe that’s why I hated it so much–because it was an example of what I could become if I let myself go to the extreme. I remember I had to write a paper analyzing this dream the main character had about a package that she thought would contain something valuable and beautiful, but ended up containing a living crocodile. I hated writing that paper, mostly because my professor assigned it the Tuesday before the weekend I was supposed to go on a trip to New Orleans with a college group, and it was due the Tuesday after the trip. Any normal person would have said, “Screw the paper. NEW ORLEANS, BABY!” but I got myself so worked up that I cancelled the trip so I could write the paper. Stupidest. Move. Ever. While my friends were drinking bourbon and eating beignets, I was sitting in my room writing a paper about a box full of crocodile. I still haven’t been to New Orleans, by the way. And, as it turned out, if I’d thought to actually tell my professor what was going on, she would have given me an extension on the paper. But I didn’t know that, because I was a sophomore at the time, and didn’t realize that English literature professors are mostly cool people who TOTALLY think it’s a better idea to travel and drink than to write. Even Doris Lessing agreed. She wrote this introduction to The Golden Notebook, that I sadly didn’t read until AFTER I’d read the book, where she talked about how silly it was that everyone was analyzing her novel when the time would have been better spent writing novels of their own. After trying to analyze the crocodile in a box dream, I couldn’t agree more. It’s ultimately one of the reasons I ended up getting my Ph.D. in English Education rather than in English Literature. I didn’t want to write literary criticism. I wanted to study how people learn things, particularly writing, and how to better teach them how to write. I guess I just turned out to be more practical than theoretical. 

Which goes back to my notebook, insofar as it is DEFINITELY more practical than theoretical. In theory, it was a GREAT idea to divide it up into sections. In practice, not so much. And it’s a practical notebook insofar as what it contains, too: notes about planning last year’s and this year’s Vacation Bible School. Lists upon lists of volunteer names, kinds of supplies, things that worked last year and things that need to be made better this year. Exercises and books for my primary grades’ writing summer camp. Lists of books I want to read. Lists of field trips my Girl Scouts want to take. To Do Lists, long and short term. Lists, lists, lists. Totally practical stuff. And yet in other ways the notebook has more ideas in it than any notebook I’ve used in years. In fact, what I value about this particular purple notebook, and what made losing it so devastating for me,  is because this notebook, more than any other notebook I’ve ever completed, contains more about my thinking about my Catholic faith. It’s got the notes from when I was studying to be a Eucharistic minister. It has all the notes from the classes I’ve taken as a Confirmation sponsor. It has notes I’ve taken while doing a Catholicism Bible Study. And a study on the Mass. It has scripture verses a friend wrote out for me and included in a gift. It has has reflections I wrote while planning a “Writing as Prayer” presentation for a local mom’s group. It has notes from when Bethany was taking her classes preparing her for First Penance and First Communion. It has notes on a lecture I attended about Vatican II. And it has all these notes from a National Conference of Catholic Youth Ministry I attended, in which one of the presentations was about using C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein to “Unlock the Adolescent Imagination” in Catholic Youth Ministry. The notes from that presentation, alone, make the notebook invaluable to me. Because, hello–Gandalf as Christ figure? AWESOME SAUCE.

And so, yeah, I just totally took a moment to hug my notebook. Just seeing it here, next to me, helps me to breathe easier. I know that probably seems weird to most people, but that, too, is a part of who I am. Leaving the house without a notebook makes me feel vulnerable and incomplete, much the same way I imagine other people feel if they leave behind their wallet or phone. My notebooks become a part of me, an indispensable and irreplaceable part of me. And it is so wonderful to begin this new year with my notebook back at my side, where it belongs.


Getting Ready for New Year’s!

Now you probably think I’m one of THOSE people–the ones who have their Christmas shopping done and are already moving on to December 31st. Well, I’m not. I’m lucky if the Christmas presents are wrapped by December 24th. I’m not talking about that day at the end of December when people either get drunk or depressed or both. The only significance that holiday has for me is that it’s my mother’s birthday, and she’s such an awesome woman that the entire world, in every time zone, SHOULD totally throw a party on her birthday.

But no, I’m talking about the REAL New Year’s, or the one that has always been more real to me than December 31st–the first day of school.

I went into Wal-Mart today to get a new bristle brush (which, in our house, we call “tickly brush” as opposed to all the “hurty brushes” we have lying around). For some reason I cannot fathom, tickly brush likes to take vacations from us now and again. One minute it’s there, then . . . gone. For days. Then it’s there again. And it’s the only brush Critter will allow to touch her unruly locks without a whole lot of whining. I got tired of scouring the house for the tickly brush that is undoubtedly not going to show up any time soon, so I decided to run into The Mart to get another one. Which I know exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the United States, along with Big Gulps and Large Movie popcorn and televisions larger than some small European countries, but sometimes I cave to Capitalistic impulses to have more than one of something because I’m tired of wasting twelve minutes in the morning looking for an item that’s turned itself invisible.

However, the spirit of frugality and restraint took hold of me today and wouldn’t let go. First, today was one of those days when I walked into Wal-Mart and the glare of those fluorescent lights and the sheer amount of STUFF in the place nearly got me dizzy. This happens when I’ve been away from Wal-Mart for a long time. Maybe it’s all the colors of all the stuff stacked together, or the way it’s so very bright, or the sheer size of the place that’s so overwhelming. I immediately felt like a deer in headlights, and nauseated, and I just wanted to get out of there. So I rushed over to the hair aisle to find they had absolutely no tickly brushes. None.

By then, of course, I had gone through the fluorescent adjustment process and was feeling much less overwhelmed, and I felt that having gone through the trouble of parking, walking through the lot, and smelling those awful Subway sandwiches on the way into the store (the outside of that shop ALWAYS smells like vomit), I should at least spend a few minutes there in case there was something else I wanted to buy that I couldn’t remember right that moment. So I started to wander the aisles right at the front of the door and that’s when I saw them: school supplies.

“It’s only July! She wants the kids back at school already?” you might ask. Of course not. I want summer to last for the next two hundred years. I love my kids’ school, and I love my friends there, and I love that my kids like to go there. But I’m not ready to start that getting up at 6am, packing snacks and lunches, nagging them to find their shoes routine that I am so thrilled to be freed from for two whole blessed months. As a matter of fact I was thinking that if school could just start an hour or so later, at 9am instead of 7:45am, my life could feel so much more civilized and in-control. But I don’t think that amendment is going to pass, so I’m not even going to propose it.

So, no, I don’t want school to start again. I miss my kids when they’re at school. What I want is The Notebooks. The Pens. The Post-It Notes. The Folders.


New school supplies are to me what shoes are to that Sex in the City character who I don’t like and never watched. But I knew she really had a thing for shoes. I could care less about shoes. Or clothes, furs. Granted, I like jewelry. But not the way I like school supplies. Other than the obvious increased chance of paper cuts, I could SO see myself in a room full of empty notebooks feeling wave after wave of joy washing over me.

I walked through every school supply aisle, slowly, and felt my eyes start to glaze and my breathing start to hitch. I leaned forward and grabbed one notebook and it smelled so new. The pages were all tightly packed together and just waiting to be opened. Oh, that CRACKLE of a just-opened notebook. And the smell of fresh paper-a clean, unblemished sheaf of paper just begging to be written on. Full of hope and promise. What might I write on you, beautiful, beautiful notebook. Mine. My own. My precious.

It took a great deal of struggle to put that notebook back. When I did, I felt like Galadriel from Lord of the Rings when she didn’t take the One Ring from Frodo.  As the notebook slid back into the box my brain said, “Ah. I have passed the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Diane.”

What is it about new school supplies, the new school year, that sets my soul pulsating? And why, at 40, do I still see August/September as the only new year’s that has ever been, or ever will be? Because no matter how long I’ve been away from it, and no matter what else I’ve been doing in the meanwhile, I am a teacher and a learner, heart and soul. Writing, teaching, and learning are my all-consuming passions. I’m not kidding when I compare myself to Galadriel. For her, the ring was the ultimate temptation, the epitome of power, joy, and achievement. For me, it’s teaching. It’s what I trained to do. It’s what I love to do. It’s one of the only things I can truly say I do consistently well. And yet, it is dangerous, because it drives me to distraction. The world falls away when I write, and read, and comment on student papers, and plan lessons, and teach. I’m in another dimension where I almost feel like pure energy. The time flies by, and what I thought was ten minutes was actually an hour.

I left teaching when Boo arrived on the scene. I just didn’t see how I could juggle the baby and the career. It was a tough decision to make because I had just landed a tenure track position in English and Writing at a wonderful local university. I was living the dream. But my daughter became my new dream, and I couldn’t find space in my mind or heart for both. So I had to choose, and I chose Boo. It was a smart choice, I think, seeing as how, two years later, I became so amazingly ill when pregnant with Critter that I couldn’t move most days. I couldn’t even catch my breath. I don’t know how I would have taught classes. It was the right thing to do.

Yet I missed it with every fiber of my being, some days. Other days I just threw myself into being the teacher of my kids, and it got better. But when Critter started five-morning-a-week preschool I immediately decided to go back. It was exhilarating to be back in a classroom again. It was like I’d never left. I’d been away for seven years, and I slipped back into that professor persona without missing a beat. It was like slipping into a warm bath, or opening a brand new notebook. Being back in the classroom, with my students, and the writing, and the computers, and the books . . . ohhhhh. I could have gotten lost there. And part of me did.

I was talking with a student one day and he remarked at how happy I was when I talked about writing. Without even thinking I said, “I love doing this more than I love doing anything else in the entire world.” Then, on the drive home, I called my dear friend who is also a college professor and mother, weeping near-hysterically. “How could I say that?” I wailed. “I love my kids. I love my husband. I love being with them. I should love being with them more than I love doing anything else in the entire world! Why did I say that? I’m A HORRIBLE MOTHER.”

“You’re not a horrible mother,” my amazing friend said. “You’re a wonderful mother. You’ve given up your career for your family. And of course you love being with your kids and husband more than anything else in the world. I listen when you talk to me. When you and the kids and your husband are away on vacation, or at the beach, or bopping around town, you’re truly, honestly happy. And don’t tell me you would rather be teaching than you would be walking through the Magic Kingdom on a mild Florida day with your family.”

“No,” I sniffled. “I really love that.”

“I know!” she said. “What you DON’T love, my dear, is housework. And laundry. And cooking. And dishes. And playing Candyland for the 275,000th time. You don’t love nagging people to do their homework, and picking underwear up off the floor, and finding wet towels on the bed, and not even having a moment of peace when you’re on the toilet.”

“Okay,” (see what an awesome friend she is, and how much better she was already making me feel), “that’s true.”

“You LOVE being a mom. You LOVE being a wife. You LOVE being with your family. And I bet that if your kids and husband could be in the classroom with you, you wouldn’t mind. Right?”

“That’s . . .true.”

“Right. So what you’re saying you love more than anything else in the world is living in a world of ideas, rather than a world of laundry.”

“Yeah. Yeah. That’s it! That is true! I like having conversations with my kids. When they’re not talking about poop. I love having conversations with my husband when they’re about something other than why we can’t get the kids to stop talking about poop. But you know what–not a single one of my college students EVER SAYS THE WORD POOP in class. I REALLY LIKE THAT. And they don’t follow me into the bathroom. Ever. That’s really nice.”

“Yeah! See? You’re not a bad mother! You’re just a really awesome TEACHER.”

So I persevered through that semester until the day came that Teddy Bear Pajama Day was scheduled on the same day I had to teach. I tried to make it work. I really did. I let my students come in an hour late so I could be at school first thing in the morning. But morning announcements ran long, and by the time I had to leave to get to my class, which was already starting an hour late, the kids had just started singing. So I had to duck out right as Christa was doing a teddy bear dance, and I couldn’t even say good-bye.

I cried the whole way to work.

Then I got to my classroom, where my students were wonderfully up and awake, having had an extra hour to sleep, and I tried to pull the, “Everything’s fine over here! Don’t worry about me! I just decided to come in looking like a tear-y eyed mess to give you all something to write about!”

They didn’t buy it.

“What happened?” they asked. I thought it was sweet that it wasn’t just the cute young girls that looked concerned. The boys looked truly alarmed.

They had reason to be, because I proceeded to make them all exceedingly uncomfortable when one tear slipped out of each eye as I explained, “I had to leave in the middle of teddy bear pajama day! And this is the LAST teddy  bear pajama day! It’s MY BABY’S teddy bear pajama day.”

“Diane,” (yes, I let my students call me by my first name) my students said, “We love having you as a professor. You’re, like, the best professor most of us have. But you really need to be with your kids right now. Anyone in the world can see that.” (I LOVE college students. Really. I think they’re almost universally made of awesome).

So, I toughed it out through the semester, had some fun, and took yet another teaching hiatus. I’ve kept busy, of course. I volunteer at the kids’ school like a madwoman. I write some, more now that I have this blog. I have projects I work on. I’m teaching a writing summer camp for Kindergarten through 3rd graders this summer. But, oh. To go back to teaching. To have that thrill of excitement for what the new semester will bring! To have a fresh new syllabus ready for review, to have the first two weeks of lessons generally planned, to look at a new list of fresh names and wonder who these wonderful new people are going to be! Even knowing that, by 1/3 into the semester the optimism of the unknown will have sunk into the pessimism of the “Oh GOD they know NOTHING, and will NEVER, EVER, EVER GET THIS!” which will evolve to the realism of “Okay. We can do this. I’m good enough to teach them this, and they’re good enough to learn most of it” which will then morph into the desperation of “Just get me to Thanksgiving, Lord, and I promise I’ll give everyone an extension on their paper so they can, maybe, get a B” to the elation of “Last week of class! Screw it! I’m done! Go home, finish your last papers, actually PROOFREAD THE DAMN THINGS THIS TIME and no, I’m sorry, spell check is NOT going to help you distinguish between the words ‘loose’ and ‘lose,” “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” or “it’s” and “its” so actually run your eyes over your own papers FOR ONCE.”  I still would be so happy to be back there.

Well, someday. I hope. Until then, I’ll just start planning all the volunteer stuff that has to be done this year. I’m sure I need a BIG notebook for that!