growing up in a word factory
dispatch from 02139 (in which every horizontal plane seems buried under sheafs and piles of papers upon papers…)
you wonder — or at least i do, most often when dillydallying before diving in to some writing project that demands utter and undiluted attention — just how it is to grow up in a house where the smoke spewing from chimneys is that of words on fire. where the factory floor is littered not with scraps of leather, shards of porcelain, or snippets of fine cloth (respectable trades, all, the cobbler, the potter, the tailor). but rather everywhere you try to amble, there’s an adjective tossed to the ground. there’s a verb deemed too wimpy cowering in a corner. and there are reams and reams of blah ideas heaved over someone’s hunched-over shoulders.
it’s a veritable word trap here where we dwell.
at this very moment, for instance, the dining room table is awash in a banquet of fist-high papers, with nary an inch for a spoon or a fork. the back office is barred with “do not disturb” tape. only the claw-footed tub might be spared the detritus of the writing biz, the one that seems to be the family obsession, er, occupation.
alas, tis tough having been born a double-byline (we have two), the progeny of two souls who could find nothing more admirable to do with their lives than string words onto clotheslines and call it a day’s toil.
the boys we spawned, that other writer fellow and i, they’ve lived and breathed keyboards since the days they were popped from the womb.
they’ve guzzled mama’s milk to the tip-tap-tap of keys. they’ve drifted off to nap time, lulled by the somnolent shooshing of fingers upon alphabet squares. heck, early on, one of the duo played make-believe with a toy telephone, put receiver to his ear, and promptly proceeded to push aside his mama with a curt, “i can’t talk to you now, i’m talking to my editor.”
he was two.
talk about staring your sins in the face.
and so, as i’ve surveyed the landscape around this little aerie this week, i’ve the niggling sense that we might be drowning in words. one of us has hijacked the couch, the afghan, the dining table and all six of the chairs (the better to fan out those vertical files). the other has staked his polar-explorer flag in the icy back office, and, for warmer-upper reprieve, the cozy cove in the kitchen.
which, by my calculations, leaves the poor sixth-grade lad little choice but to hole up on his out-of-reach top bunk when he too decides to partake of the family biz, though in his case he much prefers inhaling to exhaling words. so that’s where we find him these days, when the smoke from the word chimney gets a tad too thick, when he retreats behind his curtainwall of great reads.
is it any wonder the boy is deep-breathing literary wonders at a clip never before clocked in his lifetime? in six short weeks, the once reluctant reader tore through the harry potters (all), then page-turned his way through “the hobbit,” and just this monday and tuesday zoomed through a brilliant tale aptly called “wonder.” (it’s by r.j. palacio, and it’s about a wise-beyond-his-years boy born with a severe facial deformity and his parents’ decision that it’s time to stop homeschooling and, in fifth grade, send him bravely and with much trepidation to ‘mainstream school.’ it’s a book that no less than the wall street journal described as “a beautiful, funny and sometimes sob-making story of quiet transformation”).
which is why one of my best to-do’s of the week was to be the reader lad’s fetcher, to mosey down the lane to the cambridge public library, sidle up to one of the world’s yummiest children’s librarians (and aren’t they all among the yummiest?), pick her brain, and waddle home loaded down with a menu of new word-fattened morsels. (see above.)
in theory, these weeks through here are the january thaw for the brain; in college parlance it’s the stretch known as january term, J term, or inter-term.
only mr. wordsmith and i have decided there’s no time for time-off in our one swift year, so we’re digging in deeper. he is toiling on a book, and writing yet another one in preparation for a class he’ll be teaching for the next two weeks. i am doing what looks like shuffling papers, but really it’s a wee bit more ambitious than that — and a thousand times harder.
so everywhere you go, there are alphabet keys and — shhhhh! — expletives flying. there are pages jamming the printer. and paragraphs clogging the brain.
it’s dense enough around here that i sat down this morning to ask the young lad, the one shoveling oatmeal into his mouth, just how it was to grow up in a house where the family business is words.
said he, “it’s kinda weird.” but then, deeply-versed in the editing process, he asked me to strike that first sentence so he could begin again.
“it’s kind of like everybody’s always picking up the phone cuz they’re on deadline. or running out the door to an interview. or they’re in their office writing like a madman.” [editor’s note: please do note the use of the masculine, madman, not madwoman, proving once and for all that i am not the only off-kilter member of this writing tag team.]
since the lad was on a roll, and had been asked to unfurl a few deep-held words on the matter, he went on with one more complaint before the clock chimed, “STOP, time to chase the school bus.”
that complaint was this: “there’s way too much attention to words. i’m always getting my grammar corrected.”
and so it is, young lad, when you grow up in a house of words, when you’d best not flub your me & him’s, nor your “i choosed the chocolates.” it’s a family sin, and one you’ll not escape unedited.
so sorry you were not born to cobblers. just think, you’d have holey shoes to show for it. instead you’ve nouns and verbs and subjective infinitives pouring from your ears.
poor, poor double-byline.
love, your wordy mama
what were the occupational hazards of growing up in the house where you grew up??
Each Friday I await your glorious words and sit mesmerized by my computer reading them. As a child I couldn’t have been less interested in words strangely enough – I was a numbers girl. Well, for some wondrous reason that my mother could only have dreamed about, my life is now one big Scrabble board! Hope your new year continues to be clogged up with words that you share with all of us! Hugs to Teddy & Lots of Love, Laurie
ironies abound, do they not, blessed laurie. and oh that we love that your life is one big scrabble board. which reminds me, that would be a splendid way to mark this week’s coming to a close. xoxoxo
Love this, it cracks me up. Your little guy seems to be taking it all in stride. I think it’s seeping into him after all these years. Love that he’s reading like crazy!! Maybe you too will hear words which stop your breath when a teacher says, out of the blue, of him, that “you know when you read his papers that we are in the presence of a gifted writer, don’t you?”
(And I said, no actually, he’s never let me read his papers.)
Wish I were there with you, creating little piles of paper at your house, with occasional breaks for tea! (Do I always say this??)
ah, darlin, i can’t EVEN imagine hearing those words, though i believe in the possible. but what’s more beautiful to me right now is that YOU heard those words. haven’t you been hearing those very same words from me about you forever and ever and ever and ever? so no surprise, none a’tall, that they are spoken of your firstborn.
honestly, those words spoken by any teacher, about any writer, are pure heaven slathered on toast.
what i do have posted on my fridge is this: teacher comment from “this i believe” essay, penned in mr. tobin’s sixth grade. sayeth mr. tobin to mr. T: “100/100…..you should be proud of this one.” and he was, and he is…..and so is his mama…..
I’ll tell you when I stop laughing. Bull’s-eye!
“You’re smiling,” said my huzby as I turned from reading your essay. Yep, ear-to-ear. Loved every well-thought word of it.
The hazards in my growing-up house were splinters from the ancient-and-needed-refinishing wood-slat floor; getting scalded in the shower if someone flushed the toilet; finding sawdust in every cranny from Dad’s carpenter-ing. But Dad revered books and words as well, and we all grew up voracious readers and still are. Without words, where would our world be? Ah, you have a noble calling, you and hubby. Word on!
What a delightful dispatch today! And I’m so happy to read that the once reluctant reader has taken that step to the other side. Our world needs more readers, more young people who take time to absorb those adjectives and verbs and such. I absolutely believe the more you read, the more you know.
My mom entered the retail work force in the 60’s, landed a job in a major department store on the great street in Chicago. Her area was the “china” department, and it seemed she bought as much as she sold. We had a set of china for winter, a different one we used in the fall, and very special flowery plates that served us at Eastertide. Stemware was abundant, water goblets on the table at every meal, parfait glasses often filled with pudding and broken pieces of cookies, and orange juice served in the morning out of a double old fashioned glass. Oh how I envied those in the family across the street who occasionally used paper plates!
JACK, so funny, that sounds like my dream house. But I do understand, all things in moderation.
and yes in our house our sweet little one will come to know the reality of lving with two readers, and sometimes writers. She loves her books already, although it seems that she prefers to read the books upside down. We struggle with hammers and drills, and building a house we’ll leave to someone else, but we are two people of the cloth, or something like that. , one in the parish and one in the hospital. She will come to wonder why her mom needs to hug her so tightly when she comes home from a tough day at work and her dad will be practicing his sermons while he irons his black shirts. I hope the sound of the the tibetan singing bowl that quiets us at the dinner table and invites us to say a prayer will trum the intensity of theological angst on days when it is hard to find hope in a world there are sometimes a few too many heartaches.
ah, dear slj, welcome home. for that is what it feels like to find you here at the table you have graced so bountifully over the years. i have missed your words, and your blessed wholeness here. i can’t wait till some day your beautiful girl will get to read the story of her mama, and how she sews holes in the hearts of the sometimes broken. giant hug from my word factory to yours…
I’d like to know more about the Tibetan singing bowl…
ditto that. i was totally intrigued….
we got this as a wedding gift and it was purchased at Ten Thousand Villages in Oak Park. It is a metal bowl that fits in the palm of your hand and there is a wooden mallet that you either rub the perimeter of the rim of the bowl or you gently strike it and it makes a beautiful sound. Since our little one was only a few weeks old we have rung it three time before and after we pray at meals. We did this as a way to make her aware that we were settling into the practice of prayer. Now that she is a toddler with things to do and a long list of things she wants to play with or say, this bowl has carved out a brief space for quiet. She has even reached out to let us know that she would like to be the one to ring the bowl as well. At first I thought we were creating a ritual for her, but I now see that mom and dad needed this ritual more than she did. We need to quiet ourselves and stop thinking about the load of cloth diapers that need to be washed, discussing our calendars and who is dropping off and picking up our little one from daycare. Life seems to return to a livable pace when the singing bowl is rung.
I was reminded of 2 stories. When Summar was about 3, she picked up a copy of a magazine with Mr. Rogers on the cover, held it to her chest and said, “This is my life and my work.” About a year later, she was on her dad’s shoulders as we passed through a beautiful art gallery. I spied a coffee table covered with magazines and stopped to peruse them, of course. She cried out, very loudly, “No! No!”
The responses of your little lad made us LOL!! We shudder to think what our children are going to say about having two “older” teachers as parents!! God help us ALL!!!
slj, the chair seems to think we’ve had enough comments on the singing bowl, but obviously the chair does not know the chair people.
that bowl story is beautiful and is why i love the chair. bring on the voices, brings on the lenses through which to watch this wonder-filled world. i knew that watching you raise a child was going to be a piece of artwork, a miracle in the making….
Just now checking back to the chair. I too think the bowl story is beautiful. Rituals are so important – especially in family life. What a wonderful memory you are creating for your little one, slj.
“there’s an adjective tossed to the ground. there’s a verb deemed too wimpy cowering in a corner. and there are reams and reams of blah ideas heaved over someone’s hunched-over shoulders.” What pictures you paint! Just moved our son back into the dorm, and along with the dust bunnies I swear we swept up some discarded opening paragraphs from behind the desk. He is also a reader, and encounters words that one doesn’t often hear. So he gets his pronunciation corrected by this old linguist. Since he plans to make his living with the spoken word, though, I consider it job-training.
I am moved by the image of a boy snugged up in his upper-story library with a blizzard of words below him, but a gentle snowfall around him. What a lucky boy.
You are sooooo beautiful!!!
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