Archive | May, 2011

Sarah Vap, Memorial Day: Halfway Between Mother’s Day & Father’s Day

29 May
Memorial Day: Halfway Between Mother’s Day & Father’s Day
or, Literary Influences: Beryl Markham to Durga Magdalena
(or, All the Good Things I can’t Say Until She’s Dead)

My mother has requested, on several occasions, that I wait until she is dead to write anything at all about her.

*****

I was nine years old when my father started to buy me books about women.

First he gave me book after book about one particular woman, Beryl Markham, who flew a plane, trained racehorses, lived in Africa, and was a writer.

Then he gave me books about women who just flew planes, like Amelia Earhart. Then he gave me books about other women who were little white girls in Africa, like The Flame Trees of Thika. Often, the women in the books were also horsewomen. Often, the women were great travelers. Often, the women disappeared.

But most often, the women in the books he gave me were writers.

All the books were full-length adult memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. They were hundreds of pages each of real-life women.

*****

I read every single one of them and loved them. But also I wondered why.

My father didn’t typically buy us books. He did read books to my brothers and sister and me. He did make us stay up late to listen to 1001 Arabian Tales on short-wave radio for several weeks one winter. And, I knew, he had wanted to write books, himself.

But it was my mother who would actually buy books for us and take us to the library every week.

This presentation of purposefully selected books— only for me, not for my siblings— this was unusual for my father.

And why these books? Why Africa? Why pilots?

The writing part was easy— my father knew I wrote.

*****

My mother has requested, on several occasions, that I wait until she is dead to write anything at all about her.

*****

I kept all the books. I took them with me to college. To grad school. And to more grad school. I put them on the bookshelf in every house or apartment I lived in.

And at particularly hard times of my life, I read them all over again.

*****

My father saw me clearly. Or else he created large parts of me with the books he gave to me at the time in my life when I was beginning to understand that I wouldn’t always be a child.

*****

And as my life progresses, I do find that I have spent a great deal of it reading and writing and traveling. I have spent a great deal of it on horseback. A great deal of it in airplanes. I have, as a matter of interest, partnered with a man who lived a part of his life in West Africa and speaks about it several times every day.

*****

I am writing about the books that my father gave to me because I can’t find them.

I have moved and purged books many times. When Todd and I moved in together several years ago, we spent days going through our books, pulling out the doubles, pulling out the non-essentials, and giving them away. But I would never have given these books away.

At this point in our lives, at least half of our books are in boxes— we live, with our two young boys, in a cabin with not enough bookshelves. And toys have replaced books in the third bedroom.

Perhaps they are in those boxes, but I feel like I haven’t seen the books since long before we moved here.

*****

But if I could find them, this is one of those points in my life when I would read them all again.

*****

My mother has requested, on several occasions, that I wait until she is dead to write anything at all about her.

*****

Our home is in a fairly remote valley on the Olympic Peninsula. A river and a winter creek run through our property. The creek is so close that we can hear the salmon from our bedroom when they arrive to spawn.

Having young children is isolating, anyway. Being a writer is isolating, anyway. But we have managed to exaggerate our isolation as much as possible by moving to the very end of this valley which is the middle of, basically, a national park.

We love it here beyond reason, but also, we desperately wait each week for the next Dungeons & Dragons game. This is the night when we see other adults, and all of us pretend that we are pretending to be some fantastical character other than the one we actually are.

*****

My D&D character is a rogue elf named Durga Magdalena.

A rogue hides, and moves quietly, and picks locks, and escapes from captivity, and steals, and disguises herself. Rogues are stealthy and nimble. A rogue finds and disarms traps. A rogue thrives in the sneak attack.

My character’s D&D alignment is “chaotic-good,” which means that she doesn’t have much use for societal definitions of right and wrong— she is chaotic, but her spirit, her instincts, and her way are good. Like Robin Hood.

She steals, for example, the keys that release her companions from magical handcuffs.

*****

The seven of us meet at our kitchen table as often as we can manage. In the game, we’ve been stuck inside of a single mountain for eight months and have encountered there, among many other things, a half-sunken pirate ship, ruins from an ancient magical civilization, a mouse wizard, whistling zombies, and a clan of bugbears.

Our four year old son stays up until one or two in the morning to sit on my lap and watch us play. Our Dungeon Master has given him a few figures he can move around the set.

It is, our son thinks, heaven.

I can’t tell you how similar playing this game feels to reading those books that my father gave me.

*****

My mother has requested, on several occasions, that I wait until she is dead to write anything at all about her.

*****

Last fall I failed the writing portion of the GRE.

My verbal score was nearly perfect. My math was pretty middle-of-the-road.

Both my partner and I came out of the computer-based test knowing those scores, but we’d have to wait for the writing portion of the test to be scored and mailed to us. We both felt great about it, though. We felt certain that we had revealed the weaknesses of the questions, had uncovered the hidden assumptions of the test-writers and question-framers, and, in nuanced and surprising ways, believed that we had offered a more complex way of talking about what was actually at-stake in the conversation that they had initiated.

We both failed considerably.

And subsequently, agreed to unschool our children throughout their lives.

*****

Agreed to, for example, give our children mysterious things and never explain them.

*****

For the past several years I have been trying to figure out the most basic things about writing. How to get to the computer? What to do with the children? Where to put the books?

I have been trying to understand, that is, how women who are mothers write. How women who are not mothers write.

*****

And to that end, have read more biographies, autobiographies, diaries, and memoirs of women writers than I care to admit. Several of Dickinson. Several of Plath. Virginia Woolf. June Jordan. The Brontes. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Jane Austin. Gertrude Stein. Elizabeth Bishop. H.D. Muriel Rukeyser. I could go on. I’ve found that I’m more interested in the autobiographical writings of the wives of two of my favorite male poets than I am in those poets…. Mary Oppen’s Meaning a Life, Nadezdha Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope.

I have read, with greed, memoirs and essays and lyric essays and blog entries and emails from many contemporary women poets, both friends and strangers. I am confusingly grateful each time I catch glimpses of other women poets’ homes or desks in photographs.

I want to ask them things, not necessarily about their writing, but about their lives. How does their day go? Is their house clean? How clean? Where do they keep all their books?

Anything that helps me know anything about how to do it.

*****

My mother has requested, on several occasions, that I wait until she is dead to write anything at all about her.

*****

Beryl Markham’s life was wildly different from the lives of the saints and the prophets… the stories I’d been given at catholic school. She was different from Laura Ingalls. Different from Sacagawea and Bilbo Baggins and Anne Frank. Different from the boy in the Black Stallion series.

She was a great grown woman.

She flew where she wanted to fly, and set records doing it. She trained racehorses. She had affairs with whomever she chose. She was a writer. She was free in her body and mind.

She was nothing like anyone in my family. Nothing like anyone that any of us knew. She was not anything I’d yet imagined becoming. Except that she wrote.

When I find the books, I’ll read them again, and maybe I’ll feel differently about her. But I do remember, reading the books when I was nine and ten, that I was a little shocked.

And relieved beyond explanation.

*****

My mother has requested, on several occasions, that I wait until she is dead to write anything at all about her.

*****

So I won’t be able to land my thoughts. I’ll just offer a few strands that I’m working with as I try to understand something of women’s writing lives.

Yet the critical strand left out: the woman I am not allowed to write about, whose life, as an example, was always available to me.

Whose life gave my life mysterious things, and didn’t explain them.

*****

Sarah Vap grew up in Missoula, Montana. She is the author of three collections of poetry. Her third book, Faulkner’s Rosary, was released by Saturnalia Books in 2010. Sarah has taught poetry and literature at Arizona State University, Phoenix College, and Olympic College. She has taught several hundred hours of creative writing to kids in public schools. She currently teaches at the Salish Sea Workshop. Sarah is married to the poet Todd Fredson, and they live on the Olympic Peninsula with their children.

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