My Jane Austen Year

  It was September 1996, and I had just started my first year of teaching.  I had landed in Thomaston, Georgia at a time in my life when everything seemed to be going wrong.  I was 22 and had no idea just how often things would veer from my idealized plans. The fantasy?  I would be seriously dating my college boyfriend with whom I was completely smitten.  After graduating from the University of Georgia in June of 1995, I would begin a graduate program in clinical psychology somewhere in the southeast so that I would be within driving distance of my very-important boyfriend.  I would distinguish myself as a bright, serious student with revolutionary insights into the field of psychology and clinical practice.  All of my obsession with making A’s in all of my classes, getting research experience, and doing an internship would have dovetailed perfectly into this well-crafted plan.  I would be fulfilled, in love, and very happy. The reality?  I did graduate in June of 1995.  That much was accurate, but I had not been accepted to any of the clinical psychology programs to which I applied.  (I had chosen the most competitive field of graduate study in psychology because if I worked hard enough, I could do anything.  After all, my mother had told me so.)  After an extremely brief tenure at the Department of Family and Children Services, a longer tenure working at a local gift shop through the holiday season, and a very interesting period working at a psychiatric hospital in Atlanta, I had taken a job teaching children classified as “severely emotionally disturbed.”  For this, I would be paid “good money,” compared with the one hair above minimum wage I earned at the hospital.  Plus, I could fix all of the disturbances in all of my students because I was Wonder Woman. What happened to the very important boyfriend, you ask?  I apparently wasn’t very important in his life.  I was heartbroken but determined to recover.  I applied again to graduate schools.  I had taken the Kaplan course and raised my GRE scores ever so slightly, hoping that would do the trick.  This would be a sort of gap year.  I would get an apartment in Macon and commute the 50 miles to Thomaston.  I’d hang out with my friends who were still in town and visit Atlanta some.  The year would fly by. I started my teaching job days after leaving my job at the psychiatric hospital before I had even finished moving my belongings from Atlanta.   I had never taught before, (My mother was a teacher, and I had sworn that I would never teach.  Never say never.) but my new employers said that was no problem.  If I could do physical restraint (I could.) and manage the kids’ behavior (Of course.), then I could figure out the teaching.  No big deal, right?  I had attended elementary school.  How hard could it be to teach in one?  (Insert ominous music or maniacal laughter here.) One evening, during the pre-planning days, I was pacing back and forth in my parents’ kitchen talking on the wall phone when my knee popped out of joint, and I fell to the floor.  That’s right, talking on the phone, not water skiing or hang gliding or playing frisbee.  After hobbling around on crutches for a few days and having my mother drive me the 50 miles back and forth to work, I saw a doctor who said that I would need outpatient surgery.  So, on the first day for the students, when I had planned to be establishing perfect order and starting to cure all of my students’ problems, I was having arthroscopic knee surgery instead. A week later, I was getting around pretty well, had been cleared to drive, and was only keeping crutches handy for emergencies. It was time to go back to school and meet my class for the first time.  I only had one job to perform versus the two jobs I had been expected to do at the psychiatric hospital, and I had an assistant.  I could do this.  And then I met the students. At the psychiatric hospital where I possessed so much behavioral expertise, I worked on a locked unit with a nurse.  If an emergency arose, we could “call a code,” and a team of people literally came running to help.  At my new gig, my classroom was in a run-down building on the somewhat deserted campus of an alternative school with many exits, no locked doors, and I was barely ambulatory.  One of my students had been described as a “runner,” meaning that she ran away at the drop of a hat—and she was fast.  The second child had been removed from his home due to extreme abuse and neglect and had a multitude of emotional and physical problems, not the least of which was encopresis.  If you do not know what that is, be very glad.  It means that a person defecates in his or her clothing or basically anywhere besides a toilet.  The third child was poised to transition back to his regular school and was supposed to be “easy,” but he was none too impressed with me.  For one thing, I had no idea how to teach and, worse, I was not Ms. Cathy, their beloved teacher, who was not returning.  The students held me personally responsible for this. Seven exhausting school days followed during which Sally ran away—or threatened to—daily.  Adam stood by my desk every morning grimacing and farting right over my coffee, while I wondered whether they were more than farts.  Michael refused to do anything unless my teaching assistant asked him to.  You could say that this was an exercise in humility. Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back, me being the camel in this scenario.  I had a head-on collision on my way to school.  Because of the 50 mile commute, I had to leave home in

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Read, Rhyme, Repeat

As many of you know or have read, my mother has dementia.  She lives in a memory care facility, where she is usually happy and cared for by kind, nurturing people.  Even so, I always have to adjust my mindset before walking in.  I like to think of things to talk about and often bring Mama something that I think she will like.  The best advice I’ve gotten is to travel with Mama where she wants to go, in her mind, and, physically, to the degree that I can. On this occasion, I went to visit Mama after school.  I was a bit tired from a day of teaching and tentative, as my last visit had been tough.  On the visit before, it had been close to Halloween, Mama’s favorite holiday, and I had brought a flashing jack-o-lantern necklace, which she normally would have loved, and a package of Halloween-themed Peeps, a favorite treat of hers.  But Mama did not love these offerings. She came in from the beauty shop after I’d been waiting for just a few minutes, and I could hear her as she approached, saying, “It’s bad.”  When I saw Mama, I recognized what the trouble was.  Her hair, though carefully styled, had been fashioned into a firmly-set helmet of curls, which was not the way she liked it.  She did not hide her displeasure.  Mama did gobble up a Peep, but when I gave her the necklace, she said, “It’s bad.  Take it away.”  I put it out of sight and tried to talk to her a little, but soon Mama turned to me and said, “Leave.”  This took the breath out of me.  She had never told me to leave before and, of course, it hurt my feelings.  Still stunned, I asked, “Do you want me to go?”  Mama said, “Yes, go!  You’re bad.”  I could feel the tears well up, and I told her I’d see her next time.  On the way to my car, I started to see the humor in Mama’s reaction, which evoked memories of my sons as toddlers when they were hungry, tired, or just plain having a fit, and nothing could make them happy. When I came in the next time, Mama was wearing a “Happy Birthday” headband.  It was not her birthday, but she always has loved a party or celebration.  I had decided against bringing any gifts this time and hoped that she wouldn’t be disappointed.  Mama picked up a book, the title of which I don’t remember, but it was a children’s book. We sat down in the day room together, and Mama asked me to read it to her.  It was a bedtime story that rhymed and led us through all of the routines of taking a bath, putting on pajamas, reading a story, and saying goodnight.  When I finished reading it, Mama asked me to read it again.  This went on two or three times.  For that space in time, everything melted away, except our togetherness, the predictable words, and the soothing rhythm.  Then, Mama wanted to read the book to me.  She said, “This is the kind of story we always used to read,” and she began the first of several times reading the book to me.  The tears came quickly as I was enveloped in the familiar, loving ritual that I’ve shared with my mother all my life.  Sometimes she involuntarily repeated words or phrases, but the words flowed with ease, and she read with confidence and calm. My mind traveled to one of my very first favorite books, Mommy, Buy Me a China Doll by Harve and Margot Zemach.  The story has all of the elements that young children enjoy, rhythm, rhyme, and repetition and, of course, a subject of interest, which, for me, was dolls.  I was a little girl who loved baby dolls and always asked for one for Christmas.  The story is playful with the repeated request, “Mommy, buy me a china doll.  Do, Mommy, do.”  The mother replies, “What could we buy it with, Eliza Lou?”  Then the story goes on to describe the different scenarios that would make the buying of this doll possible.  As a parent, I can see how this story could be considered glamorized begging and the wearing down of a weary parent but, as a little girl, I could picture myself as Eliza Lou in a playful, loving banter with my mother. I remember Mama reading this story to me over and over again.  I don’t remember her saying “no” when I asked, and I don’t think she did.  Books and reading were limitless.  I know now that Mama had to have been tired and probably wanted to do something else, at least some of those times, but it never showed then.  She just read and read about “. . . Eliza on her Mommy’s lap, Sleeping on her Mommy’s lap, Dreaming ‘bout a china doll, Sleep, Eliza Lou.” 

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An Interview with Mary Hood

Mary Hood is an accomplished writer who may be best known for her short story, “How Far She Went,” the title story of her collection of short fiction, which has been widely anthologized and won the Flannery O’Connor Prize. She has written another collection of short fiction, A Clear View of the Southern Sky, a novel, Familiar Heat, and two novellas, And Venus is Blue and Seambusters. I first got to know Mary while she was visiting Mercer University as the distinguished Ferrol Sams Chair. She taught a fiction seminar which I had the good fortune to audit. From Mary, I learned the importance of small details, as well as the art of zooming in to see something up close. It was staggering to realize the encyclopedic range of knowledge that Mary possessed and how she could reference it with ease, not in a pretentious way, but for the purposes of explanation, of pulling the broader world together in a way that it made sense and was human. She was interested in the core of her students, the center, the sometimes buried place from which they write. I remember going out for dinner one night with Mary and the director of the Creative Writing program at the time, Gordon Johnston, after Mary had given a reading. At the table Mary and Gordon were having a conversation which pertained to religion. I, ill-equipped to participate, had drifted off. The restaurant had many brightly-colored, unusual things adorning the ceiling and walls, and I became entranced in the absent-minded way that a child might. Mary later described in beautiful detail a mini-scene of two people who worked in the restaurant sweeping the floor. She told how one person started on each side, and they met in the center of the room where it looked as though their brooms kissed. I remember being awed and ashamed. Mary accessed this detailed description of actions which occurred while she was engaged in an in-depth conversation on religion. This is how I imagine that Mary perceives the world all of the time, by collecting all of the details around her, cataloging them, and using them to show herself and readers what is human. Mary does not miss a single detail; there is no background which she tunes out. In her writing, nothing is wasted. Every word counts and has weight. I interviewed Mary while I was working on my MFA in Creative Writing. I had started researching the subject of time and how to manage it in fiction for an extended essay I was writing. Mary’s novella, And Venus Is Blue, was one of the works I wanted to study because of its innovative structure. Mary agreed to the interview, and I was delighted to have an opportunity to ask anything I wanted about the fascinating novella which had haunted me for some time. I e-mailed my tidy little list of questions to Mary, peppered with the jargon of craft I had been trained to use. What resulted was an in-depth correspondence about Mary’s creative process, which was far richer than simple answers to my questions. The conversation unfurled, expanded, and wound back together in a manner only Mary could accomplish. I will try to do it justice here. Bear: Did you have the structure in mind for And Venus Is Blue as you were writing it, or did you write it chronologically first and then arrange it in its current structure? MH: Before I wrote And Venus Is Blue in its final form, I considered other POV options. I considered each cousin, each “child” in the twilight, watching Delia arrive, go in, and then come out, to lean tilted in the door, rethinking everything. Each child would remember something vital to the whole story, yet disconnected from the others. Each child’s grief and distress and sense of being stunned would have its place in the mosaic. As I worked on this idea, it seemed “easy” and somewhat lame. I don’t know why. Arrogant, maybe. Whatever. That just “wasn’t it” and nothing I could come up with would explain, as needed, and keep hidden, as in life, so that the gradual accumulation and revelation achieved one impact. Also Had’nt [sic] Faulkner done it? I was trying for metaphor, obviously. Not “it’s this” and some actual thing portrayed, but the condensed and enormous impact of emotional response, “It’s like this!” That meant something I did not know how to portray. I could not get my mind around it. I used to walk around the house, mornings, evenings, as though physically getting around it from all sides would reveal what I needed to know about how. I took longer walks. Went around the block, then around the neighborhood. Seven miles was the farthest loop. One day I piled loose pages on the floor of my workroom. I had two doors on trestles, for an L shaped work surface. I gathered it all and just piled it, in no particular order. What difference would from ground up make? Or from top down? Lots of slipsliding pages and bits of drafts and tries and notes and such. Maybe a foot high. All it was was a hazard to my moving around. Beginning to weigh on my mind. I piled it on the west wall worktable/door. It lay like a spray of flowers on a casket. That riveted me. The one place I had not looked at it was from below. So I got down on the floor and crawled under the door on its trestles, and lay there. An amazing thing happened. I went to sleep. Oh well. I was waked by children’s voices, children trampling down the hall, running in to the room in which I lay, and the oldest child calling back to her mother–nobody knocked at the door or held back–Here she is mama, she’s not dead. Which brought her mama right on! Well, I got up, said I had been working and got tired and took

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