When I was in college I had a professor get an overstuffed ego when his book was published and he won an award. He became so bloated he could barely fit into a classroom and even filled lecture halls with the stink of his gloat.
I hated him with most of my might. I was eighteen and didn’t give a damn about his dumb book. I just wanted to know how to get where he was.
On the final exam one of the questions was “What’s the difference between an author and a writer?” My response? “A writer writes and an author auths”. I actually received one point.
What this particular professor taught me, even though he did not mean to teach me anything, was that in order to be a writer you need to write. That’s it. It’s really that simple. But there’s so much gut tearing, so many hernias at every turn, gallons of sweat and annoyance, and infinite amounts of brain freeze with every key stroke that it’s so difficult for even the best writer.
So I wrote this email to myself on September 9th of 2017. I wrote it and saved it and I look at it as much as I can to help defeat writers block, help remember the importance of the writer, and to take the chance of freezing up my brain with another key stroke again and again.
The writer is always at odds with him/her self, always trying to explain and justify their view, and going against popular belief now because it won’t’ be popular forever.
The writer is always creating the narrative of society when the narrative doesn’t exist, is constantly hearing the opposite of what they believe and will do anything to convince a straggling few that what they are seeing is a vision of the future, a glimpse into what is to become, however impossible that may seem at the time.
The writer isn’t about going against the norm on purpose, but because they can’t see it any other way, it’s not being contrarian just to rouse, but making sure people are roused to stay contrarian. The writer will bring something that isn’t’ in the limelight into view and do it even though there is no reception. The writer graduates into the next realm and lives to tell the tale, but it’s all for nothing because the writer won’t have the money and won’t have much recognition, but it gets done anyway.
The writer writes because if the writer doesn’t he/she will fucking explode.
The writer would rather be in writing than be in person because it’s not about standing in the spotlight, it’s about holding the spotlight, a light that most people won’t notice until it’s gone. What the writer identifies with now will make sense after the generation he or she exists in no longer exists.
This was first published in the Spring of 2005. It was my first published piece in a magazine and it really gave me the spirit to want to publish for the rest of my life. I often look back at this piece as the first time I became a writer and not for the fact that it was published in a magazine, but because I tapped into something that became important for me as a writer for the next decade, I found in myself the excavation tool to mine the deeper emotional coal, that if pressed, can be worn around your neck.
A Grocery Store Story
There was a strange moment earlier today in the grocery store. I looked at a box of banana flavored cookies, a package obviously intended to entice kids, bright colored purple and yellow, the banana cookies themselves on the outside of the package, each with an individual smiling face, actually on the cookie itself, saying to the chilled that its okay, these are delicious. Just an inanimate strange smiling cookie face. Dizzy with sudden nostalgia, I remembered how when I was a kid my mother used to make ghost cookies around Halloween. White frosted cookies in the shape of ghosts, with little red round cinnamon candies as the face. My mother always made the little ghosts smiling at me and when I returned home from school, the cookies laid heaping on a large crystal plate at the little table in our old kitchen. I remember how the wooden chair felt strange as I pulled it back, bumping over the groutless black and white, diamond checkered tile floor. I would sit and tell my mother about school. Eating my smiling little ghosty cookies, drinking my two percent milk, looking into the bright eyes of my young Italian mother, her brown eyes glazed and tired, waiting for the point to my childish and immature story about what Pete Hatch did at the lunch table. She would open the old brown Frigidaire and pull out more milk, encouraging me to talk on and on, and I would, for there was no one else to listen, no brothers or sisters, dad away with work, late in the fall, no neighborhood friends on this cold and dreary afternoon.
I remember doing my homework covered underneath my fleece colorful blue dinosaur blanket, my mother starting dinner just before my father would return home from work. And when he did, I would sit with the family, just us three, at an aged wood table in front of our big bay window, examining the multicolored autumnal themed backyard, listening to classic rock (a la Steve Miller, John Cougar Mellencamp, Pink Floyd). My parents sipped red wine and talked about grown up stuff and I secretly fed the cat under the table.
(All this from a banana cookie package at a grocery store, damn near twenty years later! What it boils down to is that I lost the functionality of my spirit. I see now that I’ve grown stagnant and strange, delineating from the initial splurge I felt years ago. But I think its back, suddenly, outrageously!)
After I would help with dishes and then retire to my room to play endless hours of Nintendo and listen to my CD player. (Alice in Chains, The Dave Mathews Band, Aerosmith) Just a kid.
And the nostalgia continued. All this in an eye blink, reeling in the cookie isle of a grocery store.
The next eye blink and I realized something else. It was this:
Later on, much later, around eighteen years old, my sophomore year of college, I left New York City to go to Syracuse to meet my mother for lunch. She brought my grandmother, now deceased, the matriarch of this deep Italian family, to meet me. It was a surprise. We went to Sweet Baba’s, a wood fired pizza joint, in Armory Square. It was just before Halloween. The weather was cool and dry, the foliage at its peak that year, leaves gathering in gutters in this concrete city. But sitting there across from my mother, and my mother’s mother, for the first time in my life I realized they were the same. I realized that my grandmother was growing old. That someday she would die. And I saw my mother, aged, weathered, beautiful, and aging. I told her at that moment that I wanted a ghosty cookie for dessert. She laughed. My grandmother touched my hand and said, “These are the things I also remember”, but in Italian so much more beautiful.
A week later, a message was in my mail box in my dorm room. I had a package, first class. It was from my mother. A big box of ghosty cookies with the little red candies in a big smiley face with a note saying “Share them, but only if you want.” I did share them. And I cried a little later, about how my mother remembered that I was still a little kid at heart.
Sunday was the perfect day for picking apples. The weather was warm and sunny, there was just a little breeze that made you wear a long sleeve shirt, and the air smelled like fall for the first time this year. There’s an excitement that takes hold when the leaves start falling and crunching under foot, a childlike nervousness that Christmas is coming soon and the snow will make outside quiet and moody.
My wife and I took our son for the thirty-five minute drive outside of the city of Rochester to the country, into Wayne County, the number one apple producing county in New York and home of Mott’s. We went to Lagoner Farms to ride the tractor pulled wagon, pick tree fresh apples, drink cider, and breathe in the beautiful scenery.
It was busy, as expected, and sometimes my first reaction to crowds is to recoil, becoming a little hesitant about even going, thinking that somewhere along the lines the size of the crowd will ruin the day. The bigger the group of people the better the chance that someone detestable shows up and irritates me, my acting skills have always been sub par in those situations and I often where my heart on my sleeve.
We walked around to get the feel for it and I decided to get in line for the tractor ride while Ruth followed Pi around the playground. It was the greatest playground ever, a real working farm playground with wooden swings, piles of bailed hay, and a big sandbox filled with trucks and diggers. My son was ecstatic.
I stood in line just behind a group of four. They were younger than me, but not by much and talked about how one couple was trying to have their first baby. It was nice to see them out doing something family oriented before having their first family. I know I rarely did before Pi came along. But I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation, partly because we were standing close together but also because I hated them.
They complained a lot. Pretty much about everything; how hot it was, how long this line was, how expensive the apples were, how crappy the city was, how stupid some movie was, how terrible some football game was, how awful their jobs were, how terrible their car was, how cruddy the food was at some restaurant was, and how bad, in general the world is all the time. It just didn’t seem to stop. I started getting itchy and hot.
We hadn’t been there for very long and my mood was foul. I thought about leaving, but I saw Pi having the time of his life so I tried to block it out. I was doing a miserable job of it when they decided to leave. They thought it was taking too long for the tractor to return and pick up more people.
“Why go out there and pick the same apples they already have on the front porch for the same price”?
One of the girls actually asked, “Do you guys even care about picking apples”? And everyone agreed that they didn’t and left the line. I was just happy it got shorter and quieter.
We boarded the little wagon pulled by a small tractor. The driver was a pleasant man that resembled my father. Pi even asked if it was Papa. Once we started pulling away from the farm, the sights and sounds were plenty and I started to forget about the “Fairport 4” as I nicknamed them because of a group opine about how much better Fairport is than all the other towns around Rochester as if they’re all different countries with strange new economies, currencies, and customs.
I enjoyed being out in the middle of a field, even with strangers, as we left the wagon and weaved our way past them into empty rows of trees, just the sun and the gleam of red and green apples, faint voices curling over the rustle of leaves, the occasional burst of laughter or a child yelling out for joy. We were having a great time and Pi really enjoyed taking the apples out of the tree and crunching into them, more than that, my wife and I felt “home” amid the quiet pews of trees and the alter of the country. It gave us a feeling in our hearts that we were closer to where we grew up, where our childhood memories reside, and where we finally figure to belong.
The pearl was still hidden, probably coyly peeking at me from underneath the vinegar scented apples that had fallen down to reconnect where they came from. I was lost in the day, conveniently absent minded, relaxed, and for the first time that day, happy.
We finished picking our apples and boarded the wagon to head back to the farm. They make their own hard cider, which we had before, and it’s very good, so we were headed back in to sample the new versions, sit out in the sun, let Pi play on the playground and have some late lunch. Ruth even had someone on the wagon take a family picture on the way back, the blue sky and red apples in the background looking more like a cartoon than reality.
The wagon ride was quiet, the bumps and ruts in the road were methodic, and my son was sitting contently in my lap, my left arm wrapped around his waist acting as a seat belt. I took my right hand and rested it on Ruth’s knee, her warm hand gently resting on mine and we rode on. I closed my eyes, leaned my head back, and let the sun soak in.
That’s where I found it. I found the pearl right there. It was never hidden, but rather out in the open, not in the convalescence of the “Fairport 4” but rather in the very fabric of the reality of the day, a gentle Buddhist mindfulness that enlightenment doesn’t come from silently meditating alone, but can come when it’s least expected, because that’s when you’re most ready for it.
The adjective of the pearl comes from Jack Kerouac, who went searching in his infamous book “On the Road” for the same thing. Although he found it just 100 pages in. It seemed like an odd time to find what you were looking for so early in the novel, and it took me until this past Sunday to figure out what he meant.
Little pearls of wisdom can be found and saved for remembrance somewhere later in life. My pearl in the apple orchard will remain in my mind’s pocket, and someday, I’ll be old, or sick, or both, and pull that pearl out, running it through my fingers and it will feel the same; the same weight from my little boy on my lap, the warmth of my wife’s hand on mine, the gentle rhythmic bounce and hum of the tractor, the unmistakable feeling of the bright, beautiful autumn sun warming my bones, and I’ll be happy all over again.