Elizabeth Bachner: Bedtime Stories, Into Winter

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Here’s how I’ll remember this fall: the time when, 41 years after poems started running through my head nonstop when I was two, the poems are gone and there’s nothing in my head anymore.

Living alone with my four-year-old daughter, trying to make daily life as wholesome as I can—home-cooked cast-iron-skillet meals and book 543 of the public library’s 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten program, art projects, play dates, walks outside after dinner.

Job-hunting, but never getting offered any job or even getting called for any non-informational interviews.

I read and reread an old essay of mine, Four Times: Reading Prose, where I talk about how William Faulkner said “Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much.”

The morning my daughter needs me to help her label the drawing from her dream, “Commissioner Freezer, Ice Freezer: Bad Guy,” a blank-eyed stallion like the kelpies from her Enchanted Creatures book, only with wings, and even though I was always a first-rate speller as well as a first-rate writer, I can’t spell “commissioner” after two tries, I miss an M and then I miss an S.

I might always remember the look on the woman’s face from the Human Resources department of a local university at a special job-seekers’ program at the public library when I asked her about my resume. I want to appreciate this time when my daughter is happy as well as close, easy to please by inviting her friends over for playdates or by bringing out some stickers. The incredible trees everywhere, leaves changing color in the northeastern fall, so beautiful that yesterday I stopped on the sidewalk and looked up and couldn’t keep walking, and for however many seconds or minutes or long years or lifetimes I was stopped, I forgot about my resume and making ends meet and myself and my daughter and my lost poems, and I was just part of those trees.

3335740This fall I read Sue Klebold’s book, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of a Tragedy, about raising a son who became one of the Columbine shooters, and Debra Gwartney’s Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, and then another essay by Gwartney in an anthology about how, after all that, after she managed to bring her runaway daughters home, it turned out a man had been stalking and photographing them for years, breaking into the house, stealing underwear and things from the wastebasket, how somehow even after everything that happened in the story before, she could not keep her daughters safe.

I watch a documentary about postpartum psychosis, where a single mother talks about smothering her baby, not out of lack of love but from wanting to protect her from the world, with the thought, “I never want her to feel the way I feel right now.”

Watching that interview, I wanted to save that mother, not with my heart or my head or my spirit or my writing but with my body. I got a strange feeling in my left ribs and low belly, a feeling of wanting to give away those parts of myself to bring that baby back to life, to bring that mother back to health, to fix it. In the postscript to the documentary, it said that that mother—after serving prison time that she did want to serve, after meeting a man and falling in love and getting married—did commit suicide.

This fall I understood, Sometimes things don’t get better and can’t be made okay. But some things do get better and can be fixed, and all of those things—the tragedies and the comedies and the accidents and all of the parts in between—come together somehow in the world, and I don’t know whether my things are the fixable kind or the other kind.

This fall I reread a poem about single motherhood by first-rate poet Brenna Richart, I Hate Being a Mother, and it helps me.

This fall while I’m raising money for a girls’ literacy organization, talking about the 67 million children in the world who don’t have access to a primary school education, the 774 million adults who can’t read or write in any language, I think about my daughter. My pile-up of crazy, rare privileges, and I’m having trouble renting a house for her, trouble affording the greens to cook in our skillet.  I raise enough money over the weekend to keep three little girls in school for a year.

This fall I keep remembering a line from Five Easy Pieces, a movie I watched with my daughter’s father when we were together, a movie he loved and owned. There’s a woman in that movie who’s in love with Jack Nicolson’s character, but he won’t make her into a real girlfriend, he keeps rejecting her and cheating on her and escaping her, and she tells him, “I am not a piece of garbage.” (Or is it “not a piece of crap”?  Or am I making up that line?) I am not a piece of crap. But this fall, and the couple of darker, harder falls before it, sometimes when someone told me I wasn’t first-rate, I listened, the way certain people with certain wounds scan a crowd of shining, approving faces until they find the one disapproving face, and then they fixate on that face.

Somehow even though nothing really happened this fall (just unemployment, running out of money, knowing in my heart and gut that I wasn’t in the right place doing the right things, but I wasn’t exactly or uncomplicatedly  in the wrong place doing the wrong things either), I understood—I understand—that this is a pivotal time. I’ll remember this season for the rest of my life.

I used to always get intuitive nudges, accurate ones, and then I’d follow them. But lately the nudges are gone, like my poems, and this fall I wake up with one nudge, one bit of information that feels true: “Now is not the time for shortcuts.  Now is not the time to half-ass it.”

And I tell myself, if things are this hard a year from now or two years from now, I can give up, but right now I have to show up every day, show up all the way, because my kid is so young and sweet and close, not far away and teenage and unreachable like Debra Gwartney’s daughters in the first part of Live Through This, not dead like Sue Klebold’s son or the innocent baby from the postpartum psychosis documentary, but right here and alive and by my side.  So now is the time to dust myself off, gather my energy, go all-in.

I like purity, feelings and events arranging themselves into a beautiful and happy story—things turning out just right, problems solved, everything sorted into simplistic teleologies, evolution, everything getting better and not worse. And this fall, instead of a tidy and lovely story, everything has been true alongside its opposite. This fall, by the time December finally rolls around, I have a strange sense of time travel—that some future self of mine, some self years or decades in the future, has gotten a lucky break, she’s had a chance to come back here to when everything was uncertain and her daughter was small and make all the decisions again, live out all of the fall and winter days again in some right way.  But since I’m not her yet and my intuition is quiet and my poems are (for the first time) quiet too, it feels like I’m making every decision for the first time and all alone.  Sometimes if I really listen, the quiet feels like a relief.

 

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One night before bedtime in the early days of December, the tail-end of the strange, beautiful fall, there’s a pink sunset outside and the black silhouettes of trees, and my daughter and I reread Marilyn’s Monster, a favorite book we own. In Marilyn’s world, each kid has their own personal monster show up at a certain point—the monsters find them at the library or in the schoolyard—but Marilyn’s own monster hasn’t appeared. “It probably came already and took one look at you and ran the other way,” says her nay-saying older brother.  Even though your monster is supposed to find you, and you’re just supposed to wait, Marilyn decides to go find her monster.  She puts in her good walking shoes and packs a thermos of juice and two peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and she goes out into a big field of wildflowers and yells, “WHERE ARE YOU?”  And a tiny, soft voice answers, “Here.”  Marilyn’s monster had gotten lost, and then he’d gotten scared, and then his long, lovely wings had gotten tangled and caught in the branches of a high tree.  Marilyn gently frees her monster, and they each eat their peanut butter and banana sandwich, and after Marilyn’s monster lifts her up and flies her back home to her family, her brother says, “It’s not supposed to work that way.”  Marilyn just looks at him.  “She didn’t think he was right about that.  She thought there were a lot of different ways that things could work.”

This fall I can’t donate or sacrifice any of my organs (I picture them, fat and pink, like the paintings in the anatomy books my daughter likes to read together) to rescue suffering mothers, or to bring dead children back to life. But I can travel back, deep into the childhood of my future adult daughter, and mother her this way, even if I’m not sure what to do, even if I can’t know the ending of our story.

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Elizabeth Bachner is a writer and sociologist whose essay, Gravity, was a Hip Mama contest winner. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in the Wreckage of Reason anthologies, and her work has been cited and praised in The New York Times MagazineThe Paris Review Daily, The Millions, and The Rumpus. She lives in New Jersey with her four-year-old daughter.

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