Jane Roper

Writer. Blogger. Hater of Olives.

Escaping, Retreating, Dangling

 

View from my balcony at VCCA. Not too shabby

1.  Escaping. I got back a few weeks ago from another  sojourn at VCCA — I’m on the home stretch of my novel revision, and damn it feels good. It also felt damned good, as it always does, to escape from the demands of everyday life, go to this gorgeous, tranquil place, immerse myself in my work and be in the company of talented, creative, simpatico folks. It always makes me feel more alive to be around other writers and artists.

I don’t know what it was, but I felt more detached than usual from real life on this particular trip.  Maybe it was a sense of release after a difficult year, psychically speaking (Trump and co., and the attendant social unrest, has been a constant hum of hopelessness and loss, underlying even my happiest moments), in the midst of a particularly busy stretch of day job.  Being untethered from all that, free to enjoy the clamor and the mysterious group-think of starlings in the trees and the sight of bats diving in the dusk and rabbits bounding around like…rabbits, and the mist in the blue ridge mountains out my window in the morning, and reading short stories on lunch breaks in the sun outside my studio and taking solitary walks in the borderline creepy woods and trying to get koi to nip at my fingertips — it was salutary.

Or maybe it was due to the particularly social and stimulating and altogether cool nature of the cohort of other fellows there this time, and the sometimes giddy fun of that. Maybe it was my envy of their freedom — so many of them kidless, either younger or older than me, with so much more time to pursue their work. Maybe it was the  sense of reconnection with my pre-family, pre-mortgage, pre-cancer ordeal(s),  writing-focused, freewheeling, slightly reckless, globe-trotting self (the ridiculous thrill of just being in airports, alone! Stressless!). I miss that me sometimes. Or maybe it was just the excitement — and fear — of coming close to the end of the first mega phase of this project, nearly five years in the making.

From a walk in the slightly wild woods around VCCA.

It was all of that. And it was good. But not. A little hypomanic, maybe? Hypomanic is fun, but dangerous. I feared a crash when I came home, but it didn’t come, blessedly.  I miss the escape. I miss the freedom. The quiet. But still: rooted reality, the people and life I’ve chosen and that I wouldn’t trade for anything, is its own kind of relief to rejoin.

2.  Retreating. I have been tuning out the news more, dipping less frequently into social media in that regard, for the sake of my own psychological and emotional wellbeing. I am frustrated with liberals and conservatives alike, and their refusal (or ill-advised approaches) to try to bridge the divides between people and ideologies in our polyglot of a country. Too many people are tribal, intolerant, intransigent. What’s the point? The Democratic Party’s inability to present a coherent message and vision is driving me apeshit — as a marketing professional and a moderate Democrat. I’m sick of useless, indignant outrage on social media. I’m angry and weary and sickened by gun violence and greed and bigotry and lack of compassion. I think Trump is a sick, stupid man, and every time I hear his voice or read his words I feel affronted.

I’m just going to keep posting pics of VCCA. Because it’s so damned beautiful.

I don’t think it’s responsible or right to disengage entirely from current events, or the work toward building a more just world — even though that work is really an act of faith, futile on some level.  I know this. But I am feeling the need to withdraw from that maelstrom right now. Nurture other parts of myself and my life. I’m sorry, resistance. I’ll be back.

3.

Dangling.  Some people are able to unhook their brains and be purely present with meditation or yoga or knitting or running — things like that. But there is only one time, I find, when I am 100% in the moment, no monkey mind or distraction. (OK, two: the other one is jigsaw puzzles, which I rarely do, except on vacations, but should do more.) It’s rock climbing. Gym climbing, specifically. I haven’t made it onto real rocks yet, sadly.

Here is not a picture of me rock climbing. It’s some art at VCCA. There’s art everywhere.

I haven’t written about this before, weirdly — I keep meaning to, apropos of detachment specifically — but for going on three years now, I’ve climbed twice a week, almost every week, at an amazing rock gym in Everett. Mostly top-roping. And I adore it: the mental and physical challenge is addictive, and I’ve got biceps like concrete. When I’m climbing, I’m never distracted. My mind is totally in the moment: How to make it to the next hold, getting the right grip or crimp or angle for mantling, putting my feet in the right place and positioning my body the right way. I’m not thinking about work or groceries or money or mass shootings or anything else. I’m just there. No matter what my mood, I am content when I am up on those walls.

It brings together the body awareness and flexibility I have from years of yoga (and dance, from when I was younger), the cardio fitness I manage to maintain by running a couple of times a week, the agility I’ve honed from hiking, and the competitiveness (with myself) and resolve I’ve always had. Wow, I sounded like a jock just then. I guess I’m kind of a jock when I’m in there. But rock climbing jocks are different from team sport jocks. We’re cerebral and a little geeky. Wiry and independent.

Funny that when I’m dangling from a rope tied tight to a harness, suspended in the air, clinging to a 40-foot wall, relying on the strength of my body, I feel so free from other constraints. (See how I got all poetic there?)

4.

Drinking. I’m sorry; I know this isn’t a good way to cope. But I’ve definitely upped my vino consumption a bit this past year. I don’t drink every day, or to excess, but I appreciate a couple of glasses of sauv. blanc or French rosé way, way more than I have in the past. It’s Trump’s fault.

I totally Instagrammed this

5.
Immersing.  What’s funny about all this, is that I’m actually someone who is mega-engaged, I think, with life, and the world. I feel everything deeply, to a fault sometimes. I love earthly beauty and pleasures — art and music and good food and nature and all the rest. I’ve never been an ascetic or a dreamer suspended a few feet over the ground. The song “Imagine” always bugged me. (I don’t want to imagine no possessions! I like possessions! Books and clothes and family heirlooms and weird random stuff! Roller coasters, dammit!) I’m a nut. I’m hungry. I’m tenacious. I’ll never be satisfied. (Dorky hat tip to Lin Manuel.)

But maybe it’s this very hyper engagement, (combined with the existential weirdness of being over 40?) that is tiring me out and making me want to be more monkish of late.

Note: Some monks drink a lot of wine.

 

How’s everyone else doing out there?

 

Can you find the dophin in this picture? No, no you can’t.

 

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Fun kids activity: Cursing white supremacists!

Yesterday in the car, on our way to buy school supplies, I talked with the girls about what had happened in Charlottesville.

There’s a house we pass on our way to Route 1, where we do a lot of our household shopping, that has a Trump flag on their flagpole, under their American flag. The girls boo at it sometimes, or express annoyance (“The election is over. Why do they have that stupid flag?”) which I have mixed feelings about. I hate driving past the damned thing too  (since when do people fly flags with the name of the president on it? WTF?) But I always try to play it (somewhat) cool: “Yeah, well, guess they really like Trump.” Or “We’re booing at the flag, right? Not the people who live there.”

Yesterday, though, I was feeling so heartsick and angry about Charlottesville, and Trump’s refusal to outwardly condemn the white-supremacists and nazis (who consider him their leader) that I  seriously wanted to stop the car, get out, rip that flag down and tear it in half, a la Captain Von Trapp.

Instead, I talked with the girls about what had been going on in Virginia.

OK, fine, first I flipped the bird at the flag — at which the girls were properly scandalized — and then I told them what had been going on.

I told them that while there have always been a lot of people who hate people because of their religion or the color of their skin (which the girls know; we’ve talked about all this stuff before), that many of those people now feel like they have a president who supports the way they feel. So they’re getting louder and bolder and sometimes violent, as had happened the other day.

Elsa said, angrily, “We should move to another country. This place is getting too dangerous.”

I told her yeah, I felt that way sometimes too, but this was our home, and we were going to stay here and work to make it better.

“And remember,” I said, “there are a lot more good people than bad people here. And even most of the people who voted for Trump are good people.” (Funny thing about parenting: So many of the things I tell my girls are the same things I constantly have to remind myself.)

“Racists are so stupid.” Elsa said, starting to sound genuinely pissed. “It doesn’t even make sense. I hate them.”

I told her it was OK to get angry — we should be angry.  And that we had a really important job, as white people,  to tell other white people when they’re being racist. And to show up and support the people who the bad guys hate, or want to hurt, and listen to what they have to say.  It was why, I told them, I went to a solidarity with Charlottesville rally in Boston on Saturday night. To show up and be counted as someone who will stand up to racists and nazis and a**holes of all kinds.

Then Clio asked, “Would they hate us, because we’re sort of Jewish? Even though dad is only half Jewish, but technically Jewish because Jaycee [the girls’ grandmother] is Jewish, so we’re only sort of Jewish, since you’re not?” (She likes to get all the details right.)

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. But you’re safe, and Daddy’s safe, and Jaycee’s safe. You don’t have to worry.”

Then Elsa did some more venting about the stupidity of grownups in general, and posited that Trump was going to start World War Three with Korea (I have no idea how she heard about the NK situation), and Clio told her, in a motherly sort of way, that no, he wasn’t, she didn’t need to be scared of that (I let Clio handle that one; she did a more convincing job than I would have). Elsa said OK, maybe not a war in the world, but in our own country.  I said no, probably not an actual war, but things were really hard for our country right now. There was no getting around it.

They were quiet for a little while, and then Elsa said, “Can I swear? Like, the F word?”

I said, “Yeah, just this once. Go for it.”

I expected Elsa to say “Fuck racists” or something along those lines, but she just yelled “FUCK!”

(tee hee)

And then Clio goes, “Can I call Trump an effing a-word?”

“Yeah, go for it.”

So she did.

And I yelled, “And fuck those nazi pieces of shit!”

We all said a few more swears, and then I said OK, no more swearing.  We’d gotten it out of our systems. Onward and upward.

And then we went to Staples and got school supplies. And the delicious thrill — which I remember fondly  — of picking out folders and notebooks and pencils overtook and obliterated, at least temporarily, the girls’ anger and confusion and frustration with the idiocy of adults, and how so many of us could be so hateful and stupid, for absolutely no good reason.

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The Last Five Years

A little over a week ago officially marked five years that Clio has been in remission: no perceptible cancer cells in her body.  After two years of intense treatment and three years without any signs of relapse (occasional parental freak-outs notwithstanding), it’s very, very, very, extremely, extremely likely at this point  that her cancer — the same cancer, that is — will never come back.

Five years is a big milestone in the cancer world.  In the pediatric leukemia world, at least, it means you’re officially  a “survivor.”  I should probably feel some  big sense of relief at this.  And I do feel relieved, on some level. Obviously it’s a comfort to feel like we’ve got the stats in our corner now. Officially. And that Clio — and our whole family, in a way — are survivors.

And yet, as has been the case with other “treatmentversaries,” we’ve noted, I haven’t really felt this one on a deep, emotional level.  I mean, I’m happy obviously. (Obviously!) ButI don’t suddenly feel some huge sense of relief and joy all at once because now we’ve passed the five-year mark. It’s something that’s been building gradually over time, the farther away we’ve gotten from her illness.

Still. It’s a good thing, and I felt the need to mark the occasion with a blog post, so here it is.

The truth is, the anniversary that I feel much more — and did this year, as well — is the anniversary of when we found out Clio had cancer. It wells up pretty hard in June, which is when it happened, especially if there are places or recurring events that remind me of those first days.

[wavy screen, wavy screen, calendar flips backward to 2012….]

Two nights before Clio was diagnosed, I was up in Maine giving a reading for Double Time, which had come out a few weeks before. Alastair was home with the girls, and he took them up to see some fireworks at a park in Somerville, a few blocks away.  Our good friends and their daughter went, too.

Clio had been having strange, unexplained symptoms for over a month at that point — intermittent fevers, stomach pains, increasingly achey legs. She was almost hobbling by then. And a couple of days before the fireworks, she’d started getting hives randomly, too, itchy and huge.

We’d already taken her to her pediatrician twice, had blood work done that showed up normal, and — feeling like the doctor wasn’t taking our concerns seriously enough, and knowing that something wasn’t right — we’d made an appointment with a rheumatologist, whom Clio was scheduled to see the following week.

Still, she was happy and energetic enough to go up to see the fireworks that night, and she and Elsa and their buddy raided the dress-up bins and got all dolled up and went. Meanwhile, I gave my reading up in Portland.

Clio, left, looks so thin, so pale. She was dying, and we didn’t know. This is my least favorite picture in the world. Except for the costumes. The costumes rule.

Afterward,  late,  Alastair called me at my parents’ house, where I was staying, and said it had ended up being a really hard night. He’d let the girls wear their dress shoes without socks (bad Daddy) and at some point Clio started complaining — and then crying and screaming — that her feet hurt.  It seemed like she’d started getting blisters. Then Elsa started complaining about her feet.  Ultimately, he ended up carrying the two of them back home, both of them freaking out.

Which could totally have happened in normal circumstances — overtired twin 5-year-old meltdown. But from Alastair’s account, it was way more intense than that. And at that point, both of us were very attuned to the strange things that had been going on with Clio. Something about her reaction, and the whole thing, just felt like one more piece of the puzzle. The problem.

When I got off the phone with Alastair, I told my dad, who was in the room during the phone call,  what happened. He knew about Clio’s symptoms, so he understood the larger context.  He said, “You guys are really worried about her, aren’t you.”  And I said yes, we really are.  I realized in that moment just how worried.

Two days later, we were in the hospital, and had been told that Clio most likely had leukemia.

So, six weeks ago, June  29, when I was driving  past our old neighborhood, on my way to a reading in Cambridge, and realized — due to a bunch of street closings, and the sight of a parade toy vendor rolling his cart up the road — that the very same fireworks were happening, I got wallopped. Ache in the chest, holding back tears. I called my friend Megan who was with us that night five years before, because.

Because that was the night I felt the gravity of five years: A milestone that had seemed impossibly, infinitely far away, and maybe unattainable altogether, when Clio was first in treatment. She would be ten — ten?! — when she was considered “cured”?  (Assuming…assuming….) She was only five! Just finished preschool! Still used a car seat and watched Curious George. Ten? They might as well have said she’d be fifty.

But here we are now. And there she was, back home while I drove to Cambridge that night — tall and vibrant and happy and healthy and ten years old.  A full head of beautiful hair, back to looking much like it did before she lost it.  No medical supplies on our kitchen counters, or Dana Farber phone numbers on our fridge (our fridge in a different house, in a different town). No more Curious George. As I write this, she and Elsa and a friend are watching The Flash.

She’s a big kid. And so is her sister. And Alastair and I are in our forties, tougher and wiser and a little bit softer, inside and out. The crappy little boat trip we were on has — we hope — ended, and we’re here on the shore. I hope to God this is where we’ll stay.

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Of Novels, Monks, and Fetal Kangaroos

(Fig. 1) Anna Solomon

For the past three-and-a-half (my God, has it been that long?) years, I’ve been working on a novel.  It’s about things like class dynamics and gentrification and motherhood and addiction and, oh yeah, childhood cancer. I’ve mentioned this all here before, but sort of in a muttering-under-my-breath-and-adding-a-fake-cough kind of way, because let’s face it: It may end up sucking, and even if it doesn’t, it might still never get published, because that’s the way things go.

I hate that it’s taking me so long to finish the damned thing — I’ve still got a goodly way to go — but, you know. Almost full-time job. Kids. Etc. But that’s an awfully dull excuse. So instead, imagine me like some kind of reclusive genius, a la Emily Dickinson or J.D. Salinger, toiling away in some spare room or hidden country house. Or maybe up in a tower somewhere, like a 12th century monk. Undertaking an act of faith, tedious but rewarding, often involving wine and prayer. Actually, this pretty much nails the process of writing a book without a contract. (Fig 2.)

Meanwhile, I’ve done no readings, no public writing-related appearances. There’s been precious little Being a Professional Author (whatever that means) since around 2012. Just glorifying the glory of the muse. Or something. UNTIL NOW!

(Fig. 2) Me

I am about to come out of my cloistered writerly existence. On Tuesday, July 11 at 7:30 pm, I’ll be joining my good friend Anna Solomon for a reading at the Melrose Public Library (which I love, and where my kids are on a first name basis with the children’s library staff). Anna’s wonderful, most recent novel, Leaving Lucy Pear, was just released in paperback, and she’ll be reading from that, you lucky people.

I’ll be reading from my novel-in-progress, which is called Bruised  (until such time as some publisher — if I should be so lucky — decides to change it to something more marketable, probably with the word “girl” in it). This is scary as all get-out, exposing a fragment of an unfinished novel, like some kind of pink, wrinkly little fetal kangaroo . (Fig. 3) I’m very nervous about it. I will add a thousand disclaimers, both here and at the reading, about how flawed and unpolished and not-quite-fully-baked it is.

(Fig. 3) My novel-in-progress

Still. I confess I’m kind of excited to descend from my tower for at least an evening, fist bump Anna, and bravely expose the fetal kangaroo for a few moments before stuffing it back into my pouch, then going back up into my tower and picking up my stylus once again —  the world’s first and only marsupial medieval monk.

If you’re in the Boston area, I hope you’ll come. Anna’s reading will be an absolute treat and mine will be, if nothing else, a harrowing adventure. Our (published) books will be available for sale. I’m told there will be cookies, too. Reservations are recommended.

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Pretty soon they won’t

Clio still tucks him back in every morning. Force of habit.

Every since my girls were babies, these four words have periodically — well, often, actually — popped into my head, paired with the things the girls do or love or need at any given time. Things that are so routine I hardly notice them, until I do. Because I realize that even as they’re here, they’re on the way out.

Pretty soon they won’t fit in their exersaucers or bouncy swing any more. 

Pretty soon they won’t play with the toy strollers / the pretend food / the Play Doh

Pretty soon, they’ll be too big for us to pick up and carry.

Pretty soon they won’t dance at their dad’s shows.

Lately, though, the “soon they won’ts” feel even more poignant because I know that in a year or two we’re headed for the biggest change of all, when the girls go from children to adolescents. (Well, I guess really the biggest change of all is when they leave home, but let’s not even go there. Please! Oy.) Next year is the last year of elementary school. And though the girls have always skewed young in some ways, they’re getting tweenier by the day.

So when I look at Legos on the windowsill or forts built in the back yard or stuffed animals on the bed or chalk drawings in the driveway I want to leap onto them and hug them, these child-like things. (Which would be painful in three out of four instances.)

I suppose it’s good to have the “soon they won’ts,” to the extent that they make me stop and really appreciate and treasure things as they are. And, of course, there have always been things that I look forward to, too, to balance out the ones that make me wistful to think of losing.

Pretty soon they won’t wake up every four hours to nurse.

Pretty soon we can get rid of these damned safety gates.

Pretty soon they won’t need these annoying car seats.

Pretty soon they’ll be in school for full days

Pretty soon we’ll be able to watch movies with them that we actually want to watch too.

Pretty soon we’ll be able to have really fun, interesting conversations with them

Pretty soon we can start leaving them home for an hour here and there without a babysitter.

There are still a lot of pretty great “Pretty soons,” ahead, including less whining and fighting (I hope?), more trips and outings to cool places they weren’t ready for when they were younger, more serious and substantive conversations. Pretty soon they’re going to turn into teenagers and young women and it’s going to be a fascinating (if painful) transformation.

But the older they — and I — get, the more fiercely I want to cling to the things I know won’t be around for much longer. And the more resistent I feel toward what’s ahead. I suppose it has as much to do with my own aging as it does with theirs.

It’s all going so damned fast.

 

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