What I’ll do for a story

Lydia stood at the top of the steps and yelled down. “Mom, Brian just texted me and asked if we could take care of his cat this weekend.”

I yelled back, “Sure.”

A few seconds passed.

Lydia continued, “He wants to know if you’ll give him his injections.”

“Only if I can write about it,” I replied.

A few more seconds passed.

Lydia: “Of course.”

So I did. Link.

Flimsy, flimsy ego

rubber band heart, found by Grace on table, June 9

The ego can only bear so much.

On Sunday — skates tied, blood sugar checked (low), juice box drunk, and gloves on — I stood for a few minutes at the entrance to the Babson ice and watched the activity. There were about 8 young girls in shorts, heavy tights, cute sweatshirts, and lush ponytails jumping and turning and skating backwards with precision and verve. There were an equal number of adults in black track pants and black parkas standing near the boards, studying the girls. Occasionally, a girl would skate over to one of the adults and listen to instructions. Sometimes, the adult would demonstrate, beautifully, what s/he wanted the girl to do. The girl would do it.

And there was me. I stood there for a couple of minutes, hesitating. I had already paid my $30 to get on the ice for freestyle/practice time, and I had an appointment with Fred, who was already out there with a young girl, about halfway through the 80 minutes. I had arrived intending to practice. I stood there, losing my nerve.

As I told my friend Rosemary last week, as we stood in front of the shelf marked “Buddhism” in the Trident, my internal dialogue, for better or worse, is turned up pretty high. (I’ve heard this called “mind chatter.”) Sunday, as I stood at the gate to the Babson ice, I thought, “Why am I doing this? Nothing can come from it.”

“But I am doing this,” myself said to myself. I began.

As I skated, I was overcome with intense self-consciousness, and not of the good kind. I imagined myself getting in the other skaters’ way — the real skaters — and so I tried to stay out of their way. I imagined that one coach, a woman about my age, was giving me the hairy eyeball, as if to intimidate me off the ice.

I practiced the easy things, not wanting to make a mistake among the masters. I scolded myself. I propped up my ego by remembering something Grace once said when I was skating with her and confessed to doubts about my ambition. “Mom!” she said. “At least you’re out there and not sitting on the bleachers!” I practiced harder things.

I imagined again that hairy eyeball turned in my direction. I mentally constructed some believable excuses and apologies I would give to Fred when my appointment with him began.

Get a hold of yourself, Jane. Think other thoughts. Continue reading

Skating story, told and retold

This week, for the first time in a year, I saw my friend Lisette, who is like me a teacher and unlike me a former college athlete. Around the time I started teaching college writing (eight years ago), she said to me, “It’s good to do one new thing every semester that gets you out of your comfort zone.” This was an idea she had picked up, I think, from her college volleyball coach.

On Tuesday afternoon at the playground, I told Lisette and her oldest son Griffin about a little skating accident I had recently, and how the coach made me get back on the ice as soon as I could stand again.

It’s good to have friends and coaches that prod you to take risks, especially when you are not naturally inclined to some kinds of them.

And, of course, I had to write about my fall. Find the story, published here.

Seven lessons from a middle-aged beginner

There is beginner’s mind, and then there is beginner’s body.
Around the time I turned 40, I got this idea that I wanted to become a good skater by the time I turned 50. The impulse hit me when I was at the rink in Brookline, skating with the kids, and I noticed a woman older than me who was powerful and fluid on the ice. I wanted to skate like her, and, even though her skating was more advanced, this suddenly seemed doable to me and desirable. Later, I found out she had started skating in her early 40s when her son was playing hockey, and she found herself looking at the ice and longing for it. So she began. At 60, when I met her, she was strong and graceful. This, by the way, is the first lesson in learning something new and hard: (1) Look for real-life models.  Famous athletes may inspire us but, because their talents are stratospheric, can’t really convince us that we can do it.

I had been on the ice hundreds of times — if you grow up in Massachusetts, as I did, it’s almost a requirement that you get a new pair of cheap skates every year for Christmas and spend lots of time clumping around on frozen ponds or public ice rinks — but I couldn’t  skate well. At age 40, I started taking group skating lessons for the first time. I learned a lot, starting with this basic fact that skates have edges (and if you have two feet, there are four edges altogether, or eight if you include forward and backward), and control of those is the foundation for everything. I also learned, from a teacher named Mark, that you can be afraid to do something and still make yourself do it. “You will fall,” Mark said. Being mindful of the possibility of injury makes it harder to try new things as an adult, and this fear must be managed in order to proceed. Which leads me to this: (2) Be afraid to fall, and skate anyway. I am, and I do.

You can only do beginner lessons so many times before you start to bump up against a ceiling. This winter, at age 45 and at my halfway point, I decided it might be time for private instruction. Happily, the teacher of the group lesson I was taking also teaches privately, and the transition was easy. I discovered, too, that the decision to do this was a signal to myself of the seriousness of my goal. You can’t hide in a 1:1 learning situation as you can hide in a group (and one can even hide, paradoxically, by excelling against other beginners). Another lesson: (3) When it starts to get easy, become more vulnerable to the task.

It’s a luxury to have the devoted instruction of an accomplished professional for one hour a week. (No wonder students like meeting with me alone for an hour to work on their writing.) There is an intensity to the learning experience that is different from a group experience that is a deep pleasure. The learner is also scarily exposed in a private lesson; there is no stepping to the side to let someone else skate ahead, and there is no half-assed trying just to get a little cheap credit for having gone through the motions. Continue reading


oak seedling and acorn relic

This fact once had a hold on me: that a baby girl is born with about 1 million ova. When my daughters were infants, I would stare at them, trying to grasp the reality that future grandchildren, if I were to have them, had gotten their start as cells inside my body. And the baby that I was diapering, was watching play with her toes, was soothing to sleep had a package of potential life inside her.

Contemplating this, I had a feeling not unlike the one you have when you stand in front of a mirror holding another mirror, and hold it in such a way that you see yourself reflected on and on and on and on.

Even as the babies grew into children — the daughters and the son — and their once physical connection to me was lost, I held on to the idea that cells that had originated inside me remained inside them like traces, souvenirs, relics. At the same time I felt perversely proud of my body (for doing what it does sort of automatically), these immigrant cells felt like losses to me, too, as though they took something from me.

My contrary feelings and ideas about my old cells residing in my children were so pressing that I of course had to write a poem about them. An early version (not the first draft) looked like this:


       for a daughter

Cheeks full. Lips
dripping pearl. You
have sucked

me soft.
What I had—
sinew leaping
blood replenishing
bones toughening—
spent.  Clean shell
I cultivate urge:

grow, colony, grow!
Multiply and billow
like yeast yet keep
my relic.

Moored boat,
patient seed, egg
inside me inside she
(my harbor, my flower),

remain, and divide.

Later, perhaps years, I dug the poem out and revised and revised it. I was going through a period of loving the cooler voices of poets like Mark Strand and Louise Glück, and I was a little embarrassed by my exclamation and stacked images. Continue reading

Snarky little bits

The Boss of Me, by Kathryn DeMarco

I do not know of many representations of diabetes in art or culture, at least ones that interest me. There is the movie, Steel Magnolias (1989). The Julia Roberts character Shelby, who has diabetes, is possessed by a hypoglycemic episode (really, it’s freakishly portrayed) while in a beauty parlor chair, as you probably have seen, and she later dies young.

Ann, the protagonist of the Kathryn Harrison’s novel, Exposure (1993), has diabetes, too, but does not die young. A New Yorker, videographer, crystal meth addict, and shoplifter — doesn’t she sound busy? — Ann doesn’t take insulin when she is supposed to and yet she does take that meth. Clearly, she has (out of) control issues. It’s a strange story, even stranger than I’ve described, and yet at least Exposure is literary.

Art is not required to be representative. I know that. But still, I can’t help but look for myself out there. As a woman, for example, I do like to read novels with women characters. It follows that, as a person with diabetes, I might like to read a few good novels with diabetic characters or see diabetes refracted through film, music, or visual art.

I’ve stayed on the trail, and several weeks ago I came across the work of collage artist Kathryn DeMarco, who makes self-portraits, some featuring explicit or oblique references of her body with diabetes. Online, I found her portrait above, The Boss of Me, and stared at it a long time in recognition. I’ve held the same pose, looking in my bathroom mirror, holding up my shirt to look at the white adhesive patch on my midriff, the pump held in my hand like a heavy fish still attached to the line. And the look on the face — not smiling, not frowning — is sober and forthright. Like mine, when I look at myself. Continue reading

Twenty nickels

20 nickels on the kitchen table

The weight of my insulin pump, 100 grams, is equivalent to a dollar’s worth of nickels. Lately, though, it has been feeling a lot heavier, which may say more about the state of my diabetes mind than it does the specifications of the pump. Read more here: link.

Technological distractions

For a couple of years, I’ve been sampling wireless presenter tools (“clickers”) without buying. Colleagues have loaned me theirs. The writing program officer also keeps a couple on hand, and I’ve been a heavy borrower.

a tool, not a toy: the Logitech R400

Recently, after trying and loving the Logitech R400, I made a commitment and bought one. And on its inaugural day, I felt so prepared, so completely supplied with technological accessories — laptop, power cord, VGA adapter, USB drive, wireless presenter — that I forgot to pack my bag with something I need even more than I do the digital: a juice box.

Read about my want of a quick carbohydrate, and how it almost brought down my lecture, here.

Too much hand holding

The first time my new skating teacher grabbed my hand and held it, I liked it.

We were attempting backward crossovers, and his holding of my leading hand made me feel secure, as though, if I fell, he would prevent me from landing hard on my tailbone.

“And, to be honest,” as I told Jimmy about it later, “It just felt good. It doesn’t happen often in adult life that a stronger adult offers a real hand at a moment of risk.”

Plus, have I mentioned he’s cute? That made the initial hand holding nice, too.

This morning in lessons we were attempting to put moves together: crossovers and turns. For a while we’ve been isolating and practicing various moves. Literally, each week we’ve been skating in circles and doing the same things over and over.

As Fred demonstrated what he wanted us to do — skate forward crossovers, glide, turn, and skate backward crossovers — I thought to myself, This is when I fall. Interestingly, that little voice inside me was pretty matter-of-fact. I knew it would be difficult and that I would stumble.

I skated into the turn, turned, and fell. I got up. The next time I tried, Fred grabbed my leading hand and completely interrupted my concentration. Never mind whether I fell or not, I simply couldn’t skate with any basic competence as his gloved fingers gripped mine. Later he said, “Swinging your arms too far was making you spin, not just turn.” Well, his holding my hand stopped my inadvertent spinning, but it also made me forget the coordination of my four limbs! It was as if my concentration had digressed to what to do with that one hand. I couldn’t keep the big picture in mind.

Near the end of the lesson, we practiced slaloms for a while and then Fred showed us the 3-turn. I feel pretty comfortable with the slaloms, and I did them over and over as he worked 1:1 with another student. He skated over to me, watched, said “good” a few times, and grabbed my hand as a way of directing the shape of my arm. I completely lost my internal rhythm and felt, suddenly, remedial.

Is it okay to say to your teacher, whom you generally like, “Stop taking over my moves”?

Different students need different levels of hand holding, I know. It may be better — this is what I believe — to offer less of it. And if we see a student who is struggling, and we have the urge to step in, perhaps we should first ask: “May I help you with that?” And then, and only then, offer a hand.

Photograph of Grace (in blue jeans) and me (in tan cords) taken with ToonCamera for the iPhone.