Yesterday’s Blog

Already I’ve fallen off the wagon on my 30-day blog-a-thon. I’m going to try to double up today, but it’ll be difficult. We’ve got a road trip planned. Perhaps I can allow room for one day away from the blog each week. During grad school I always gave myself a day off.

That’s not true, actually. When I realized, suddenly in November, that I only had six months left to write the thesis, I panicked. It sounds utterly ridiculous, doesn’t it? Six months and you panicked? You freak of nature. I know. And I am a freak of nature. But recall, if you’ll permit me some slack, that I have OCD (without the C) and an anxiety disorder, and those voices are far louder than those of reason.

But at the same time, I don’t think I can possibly be the only thesis-writer to have sat up on Thankgiving night and said, “Holy shit, I have to turn this thing in six months from now! I’ll never get it done.” When I started the thesis in early August on my own, before the semester had started, I felt like I had plenty of time. The better part of a year. And it was only required to be 125 pages, and I had one solid essay written and chunks of others that would eventually morph into thesis components. But once I started assembling these bits, and writing more bits, word by agonizing word, I realized why it takes people years to write a book.

Writing is hard. It’s tedious. And there are many, many days when the words just aren’t coming. Now, in “real” life, when you’re writing a book on your own terms, you can say, “Eh, today’s not my day,” and piddle around or just abandon the effort altogether. It doesn’t make for writerly discipline, of course. It’s frowned upon by uber-hard workers and the super prolific. And I can make the argument that even if you’re writing garbage, at least you’re writing, and that from the pile of crap you produce you may just dig up a diamond. (By that I mean a single decent sentence out of 4 shitty pages, or a salient idea worth pursuing.) In school, however, there’s a deadline. You’ve got to write. If you write crap today, you damn well better not write crap tomorrow, because there are only so many tomorrows in a semester. The point is to get it done, and to do so largely on your own. Nobody pushes you in grad school; they just expect results on the appointed date.

One of the most valuable things I learned about myself in the last two years is that I function really well with a deadline. I’d never have thought that about myself, but it turns out that when I have no expectations placed upon me, I just fart around and dally in the daffodils and dream half-assed writer dreams that never come to fruition. This is possibly the most important thing I could have learned about myself with regards to a future career. I will never get anything done unless someone is expecting work by a certain date. Doesn’t matter who. I just need a date by which a piece of writing must be ready, and then I’ll be efficient and studious and hard-working. I need a second entity in my writing life, someone who’s waiting for me to write. I alone am not enough to push myself to success.

That seems kind of wimpy, kind of weak. Perhaps, but it’s what I know to be true. It’s how and who I am. And I’m so glad I learned it.

When I realized I only had six months, I panicked. And I think plenty of thesis students have done this. Writing a book-length work in under a year is impossible, really. No thesis is book-ready. I could edit and rewrite mine for another year, and I fully expect to, for more than a year. And sadly, the manuscript will no longer be the laser focus of my existence. (Damn kids, always needing food.) It’ll be a side project, one that gets my attention when I have time, when the stars align properly. That’s a huge bummer, and a huge relief. The thesis and I need some time away from each other. I’m happy to devote myself to the pieces individually, but as a whole, it’s starting to feel like a houseguest that won’t leave and has been feeding my dogs table scraps and teaching my kids obscene gestures.

With that said, I’ll cut this blog shorter than I’d like to (I can do that because nobody is reading it or checking it or expecting it) and go rouse my menfolk. We have moutains to find today!

17-Year Horrors

We’re about to undergo an event here in West Virginia. It’s a miracle of nature that happens only once per generation, a much-studied, much-anticipated entymological occurrence that makes the news and water-cooler conversations: the arrival of the periodical cicadas, a.k.a. the 17-year-locusts.

They aren’t locusts, technically. We refer to them as such out of habit around here. But these are cicadas, the same insects that arrive in August to drone on for a month. The regular summer bugs are what’s known as the “dog day cicadas”; what’s about to arise from the ground after 17 years of underground dwelling are the periodical cicadas. They come in 17- and 13-year versions and they spend their lives under the earth, chewing on tree roots and undergoing various metamorphoses, from what I’ve read. Then, when the 17th spring has arrived and the soil reaches 64 degrees, they all emerge in one giant horde, a display of the awesome power of nature and the wonder of evolution.

And it’s fucking disgusting.

I dread this emergence with every fiber of my being. In fact, I dread it so much that I’ve actually begun to concentrate my dread within my third eye in the hopes that if I resist their arrival with enough vehemence I may actually will it not to happen. And in so doing I will spare West Virginians the agony of Brood V’s wretched swarming.

It’s hard to consider myself a nature writer and admit that I despise the cicadas. I feel as though I really do my part to educate my kids when it comes to the creepy-crawlies. Every year Ben enjoys the arrival of the tent caterpillars (he calls them bagworms). We break open their nests and hundreds of squirming bodies plop out onto the ground. And I let them crawl on my arms so he can see that nature is not to be feared or choked down with a shiver and a gag. (This lesson wouldn’t apply if we lived in rattlesnake country, would it?) We also spend lots of time fondling earthworms and kissing crappie when we catch them. We dig up Florida Fighting Conch down at the condo in Fort Myers Beach, and poke at their slimy, tongue-like feet.

I don’t think that nature is gross at all. It’s miraculous. It’s nifty.

But not these fucking cicadas.

I was three when they first appeared, and I have no memory at all of the experience. My parents say it was eerie: as Dad walked his dog in the evening he became aware, suddenly, that they were all coming out of the ground, and millions of red eyes watched him. They rose like the dead in unbelievable numbers, discarding their shells as they did so at the base of every tree in piles ten inches thick. Mom recalls how they screamed all day, so loud that conversations were drowned out, and she specifically remembers the cicadas clinging to her shirt and sitting on her shoulder, singing their love songs in her ear.

I do not want this to happen. I do not want a song crooned in my ear. Especially not a cicada booty call.

They returned again in 1999, and as luck would have it, I did not return home from college that summer and missed the periodical cicadas entirely. The stories from that year are bland and uneventful; for whatever reason the bugs were not as intense as they had been 17 years prior. Nobody I’ve talked to can recall anything striking or significant.

In 2013, we saw what scientists call “stragglers.” These are cicadas that, for whatever reason, emerge 4 years too early or 4 years too late. There were a handful in the yard, just enough for the boys to gather and organize a cicada circus. I recall the red eyes. Dog day cicadas lack the red eyes and for that I am thankful. Demon bugs belong down in hell.

Yesterday we had some leaf-rakers tend to our yard. Over the long, cold months, the leaves tend to get caught in the gardeny places, between boxwoods and lilacs and under the hemlocks. When the guys raked clean the bare soil, I saw that it was pock-marked with holes, a tell-tale sign that cicadas are here. And when Benjamin lifted a rock, there they were.

They’re not yet ready to officially emerge. Still in their nymphal stage, they’re just below the surface, tunneling around like ants in an ant farm. Each rock and flagstone and flower pot we lifted had cicadas under it, burrowing. Ben poked at every single one of them, trying to decide whether they were fascinating or repellant. I tried my best to imply that they are fascinating. I even picked up a nymph and let it crawl upon my hand.

But I hate them. They’re going to cling to me. And rrrrrraaaaaiiiiirrrr in my ear.

Surely this is an evolutionary reaction. Somewhere in my genetic memory lies the recollection of an Egyptian plague, and the subsequent biblical trauma that ensued. It was a rough time. First, we were enslaved for 400 years. Then a plague of locusts started a big-ass coup, and everybody ended up wandering the desert for forty years. There were sunburns and lechery and a golden cow, and it really sucked.

I think I’m on to something, here.

Anyway, the El NiƱo has brought a warm spring and an early spring. And the bugs are awake and raring to go. Every day I wake up and wonder if they’ll be out, and I stare out at my baby redbud tree knowing I have to cover its new growth to protect it from the egg-laying females who will deposit their icky little spawn in the branches and damage them.

And so, I wait.

A Tangle of Thoughts After School Begins to End

I wrote a thesis.

A lot of people write theses. Or dissertations. It’s not particularly unusual. But much like childbirth, though many people have written one, we all have a different, and very personal, experience. And I’m having trouble putting mine into words, which is actually pretty standard for a writer, I’ve come to realize. We, perhaps more than others, have trouble finding words. That’s why we piddle around with paragraphs and adjectives and descriptions–we can’t quite figure out how to say what we want to say so we start weaving an essay or a story to convey what others might blurt out in a few sentences. Stupid, ironic writers.
Anyway, I passed my defense, and I turned the thesis in to the binders and the library. It’s gone. I’ve sent it out into the world. And, as is the case with so many long-awaited deadlines, though everything has come to a grinding halt in my world, the inertia of the experience continues to propel me forward. And while I have looked to this time with eagerness and excitement and the anticipation of relief, that comfort has yet to hit me.
Many things happen when you finish graduate school. (And technically I still have a summer residency to attend, but that’s a different sort of work: a hard but immersive experience, one I’ll go through with other writers and friends.) The deadline that’s hovered over you for two years – the ever-frightening Defense (capital D) – comes and goes. You pass, and then…what? 
Then, silly fool, life returns to normal. But normal isn’t something you know, now. It’s an unfamiliar life, one that has slipped through the cracks for two years while you were so busy working your weary ass off. You realize that your husband has been doing the laundry for 25 months, and that nobody has filed any papers or taken the dogs to get their heartworm medicine. You notice that the number of friends you had before you began school has shrunk considerably; they’re still out there, but you’ve kinda sorta vaguely lost touch, and all they know is that every time they see you at the grocery store you utter the word “thesis” with a preoccupied look in your eyes and express an interest in getting together that never goes any further than the bread section. And you know they don’t get what you’ve been through at all. They don’t know the exhaustive marathons and the crammed reading sessions and the obsession over commas and themes and forms. They don’t know you’ve rearranged doctor appointments and missed at least one or two of the kids’ field trips and that your butt, which was just starting to get firm when you were accepted to the program, has returned to its former tomato shape and has been joined by abs that have let go and neck muscles frozen at an angle that automatically directs your eyes towards the level of a screen. 
They don’t know you’re secretly worried that now, without a deadline or a mentor or a tuition check on the line, you might lose your momentum and grow complacent. You fear you might just get a regular job to finally make some money and promise yourself that you’ll write in the mornings, but that without a group of teachers pushing you, you’ll fall back into the unmotivated and unsuccessful place that drove you to an MFA in the first place. They have no idea how much is riding on your continued efforts to put words on the page, and that you’ve got no fucking clue at all how you’re going to make it happen, or publish a book, or even how to clean up your office after two years. 
“I just passed my thesis,” you’ll say to your friend in the grocery story. And they’ll say “Congratulations,” and you’ll ask them about their kids and then you’ll go home and feel this silent and powerful impetus to get busy, because the deadline has melted away on paper but not in your brain; it still feels like you’ve got to hustle. And do you hustle, to keep the juices flowing so you don’t rot away into a “regular person” place, or do you just sit down and breathe for the first time since September 1, 2014?
I don’t know the answer. That’s why I’m writing, or rather, dancing around with myself in a circle on a blog that nobody reads. 
When we give birth to our children, the work really begins after the test. Childbirth is that test, and once the final has been passed, then we set about learning and working. It’s the opposite of school. (Of course, the whole, frightening, you-can’t-ever-quit-and-your-failure-means-the-complete-ruination-of-multiple-lives thing makes it intense, too. No pressure.)
But here and now, I’ve finished the hard work. The test came last, and I passed it. But the caveat is that, when you have a baby, you get to practice on them. You have years to get it right. Babies are pretty flexible. They bounce when you drop them (so sorry, Andy), and they accept apologies when you wrong them. With writing, I’ve already done the practice. Now I need to step up. But of course, I have no more clue than I did on the first day at home with Andy, and it’s all jabberwocky. All I know is that I have to put into use all of that practice, all of those tentative test-runs. 
Graduate school was a goal I set for myself, and one I shared with nobody else. It was just me and this thing, this desire to be a writer and to educate myself in that pursuit. Now I’ve achieved the goal, but it doesn’t feel solid. Somehow I thought I’d have something physical, something of this world, to wrap my hands around, a hunk of proof that I was in this place I’d sought for 15 years. Instead, I’m stepping off the train into a world both familiar and unfamiliar. I’ve been here before; it’s my life that I’m recognizing, but like the sweaters that Shawn always shrinks, it fits differently now.
Rather than a tangible reward for my efforts, I’ve got only life lessons and intense memories. Here is the week I worked through an auto-immune attack. Here is the day I decided to switch my thesis from nonfiction to humor. Here is the time I read an essay to my husband and he laughed and laughed. I’ve got a pile of things behind me, now, and nothing on the horizon, yet.
Yet. There’s a lot of walking to do. I need to start.