Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Invisible People



Lee turned 5 months this week. He smells like cheerios and yogurt, and he hovers his chunky bowlegged legs above his diaper as if this were as ordinary as crossing his arms. He focuses on his tiny fingers cupped in front of his face, and then YUM! He gobbles them up. He giggles for no reason at all, for any reason, and his laugh sticks, like syrup, to whoever is nearby. He puts himself to sleep by arching his back and worming his way over to the side of his crib where he shoves his face against the netting and sticks his two middle fingers into his mouth. Sometimes his pointer finger goes up his nose. Sometimes he prefers his thumb. Sometimes a toe. Sometimes no fingers at all. He tells us that he’s ready for bed by scratching his head with one hand and rubbing one eye with the other. And he tells us when he’s ready to get up by talking softly to himself and kicking the rattle toy that hangs on his crib. He enjoys just sitting and shaking his burp cloth up and down. Sometimes he'll tilt over onto his face without being able to pull his arms in front of him, and because he won't make a fuss other than a few grunts, I'll find him face smashed into the couch cushion. He smiles often, cries rarely, naps inconsistently, sleeps 11 hours at night, and poops almost daily.

His parents find themselves calling other children sweetie pie. We tell each other news that would’ve made my eyes roll a year ago hearing it from a mother in our fellowship group: Lee’s graduated to a size 2 in diapers; he drank about 5 ounces in one sitting; I fit him into a 6-9 month carter onsie; today he snatched the napkins and scattered them all over the table; today I tried to give him tuna baby food. What strange little news we have to tell one another now. Before Lee, our news was: the echiveria by the front door is blooming; I accidentally nudged the side of the house with my car; the mailman can’t decide which mailbox to put our mail in; little Maddie our neighbor was walking around outside in her diaper this afternoon. How strange how the topics of our daily phone call to each other have changed. I suppose lawyer and doctor spouses might talk about Obama care or digging for oil in the Whittier hills, but maybe they just talk about missing socks and water spots on their wine glasses.

I have finally come to see that I have something special here. It’s like I’ve been sitting at the bus stop with someone famous and after several hours, I’ve finally noticed who's sitting on the same bench as me. Everywhere I go, the old ladies smile, the sight of Lee brightens their faces. My coworkers hold out their hands and say, “It’s my turn to hold him.” They always comment on his hair. My, how much of it he has. My coworkers tap the bottom of his feet to see his toes curl and gently pinch his hands between their thumb and forefinger. I don’t mind if they don’t say a word to me. I don’t mind that the lady behind me at Trader Joe’s is talking to Lee and not me. I don’t mind that older neighbors peer over the stroller’s edges to get a better look. At the end of the day, he’s mine. I take him home and struggle to put his flailing limbs into a sleep sack and kiss his nose and lay him down to sleep. He smiles at me in the mornings and calls for me when I’ve left him alone too long. 

He is the instant ice breaker, the heart-melter, and he makes my relatives act like clowns. They each have their unique way of addressing Lee. They speak or ask rhetorical questions several times in a row. They feel his grip and say, “Oh, he’s going to be a good rock climber.” They babble nonsense or tell Lee all the things they’re going to do with him without his mama knowing. They turn into gibberish talking machines of googoo’s and oodoo’s and laalaa’s, while pumping his arms and legs rapidly. He has brought life and energy and high-pitched voices.

Yes, the entire experience has been like hell week of La Serna High School’s soccer season, like living those newly wed months again, like moving into a new home, like traveling to a new country, like discovering that there are 7 billion people in the world instead of 3 million, like falling in love, and like walking around church with a giant sign that says, “Coming soon: new mom, give her all the advice and warnings you’ve got." When I’m away from him, I wonder, What can he be doing? Has be started on his second bottle yet? Will he take a nap? Will my mom remember to shake up the formula through and through? Will she find the pacifier that I stored in the front pocket? Will he do anything that I’ll regret missing?

         I see people walking in uptown, people at Trader Joe’s, Target, Granada Heights Friends’ Church, and in parking lots—people that I didn’t know existed, but now suddenly here they are pushing their strollers, corralling their kids, loading up the van, toting around car seats, and shushing their babies. I swear these people didn’t exist 5 months ago; they were invisible, unintentionally ignored. I only noticed people that were my age or younger. But now the world’s population has grown. Is this how it will be as I transition into each new stage of life? Will my world grow bigger when I have to take my kids to sports’ practices? Will it grow again when they go off to college, when they marry, when I become a grandmother, a senior citizen? How large the world must seem then to people over 70! How invisible they must feel to the rest of the world!

Monday, August 6, 2012

SCBWI Conference

         Women with purple hair. Pinched ladies with tiny butts, flat stomachs, and narrow noses. Frumpy librarians with gray-haired braids and tennis shoes under their floral-printed dresses. A sparse group of well-dressed men who were either suspiciously dashing or reminded me of absent-minded professors. Authors and illustrators, editors and agents. Some with superiority complexes and others as gentle and humble as saints. What an odd collection of people!
The authors and illustrators at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference were a crowd of 1,234. Not many of us were ever cheerleaders in high school. We were a crowd of self-proclaimed introverts that were strangely so good at talking. There were “veterans” who were so eager to give me their business cards and talk about their agents. Then there were bright-eyed newbies like me, though after yesterday I don’t think my eyes were so bright—a pox on those speakers for making me cry!
I can hardly believe that I’ve sat in the same room as the editors of Amazon Children’s Publishing, Abram’s Books, HarperCollins, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. I’ve spoken to the author of Sara, Plain and Tall. And heard the creator of The Spiderwick Chronicles. This was the real deal. This was the place where authors are found or created, where the market catches fish and finds diamonds. It’s where the great minds glean and give.
I can recall four names in the sea of people: Svetlana the Ukrainian who has lived in the US for 17 years, Wayne the loud-laughing congenial fellow who sat next to me on the first day, Amy who recognized providence in our meeting at the Golden Kite Luncheon, and Clare Vanderpool, the Newberry Book Award winner who was so kind to sit with me after she made me cry during her talk. Alright, I’ll take my pox back.
For three days the SCBWI attendees stretched the Starbucks’ line halfway across the Hyatt lobby. For three days we congested the escalators (do others find those moving steps as difficult to ride as I?). We power-walked to the men’s restrooms that had been converted into the ladies’ room. We tucked business cards into our nametags. And we browsed through the bookstore, patting, caressing, smoothing, and fingering those wonderful children’s books.
           It’s been ages since I’ve been somewhere where nobody knew me. Where I could be daring and shy, independent and engaged, observant and observed. It was both liberating and lonely, especially at the Golden Kite Luncheon as I wove through the tables wondering where I should sit. I watched people hollering to their friends and giving directions over their cell phones. They waved their hands and said, “Can you see me now.”
Then I longed to hear someone calling my name. “Abigail, sit with me!” But no one did. And I didn’t see any familiar faces. “God, please have me sit where I should.”
          I walked from one end of the Hyatt ballroom to the other and at the far side, I tapped an empty chair, “Is this seat taken?”
            “No, go ahead.”
           I sat between two ladies. One with prickles and a forced smile, and another with chopped short hair like mine and discerning eyes. We chitchatted about our work and lives, and she noticed my distracted expressions whenever I failed to listen well. When babies came up, I said, “I’ve just had my first. He’s four months old, and I’ve finding it so hard to do any kind of writing anymore. How did you manage to keep writing while you had two young kids?”, she cocked her head and said, “You look like you’re going to cry.”
             In case I hadn’t planned on crying, I sure was now. The floodgates opened after that. We had so much in common, so much to share, so much to glean. When I mentioned that I was a churchgoer, her dark eyes brightened and she smiled. “Me too!” Then we couldn’t stop talking…about babies and church and God. We cried together and forgot about eating until we noticed that everyone else at our table was politely waiting to start on their chocolate mousses. Then I downed my ravioli and chicken, and she called the waiter to take her plate away.   
I’m not crushed that I’m going home without a soul interested in my story—I’ve told no one about it anyway. I’m better at asking questions than answering them. Where are you from? Do you write or draw? What genre? What’s your story about?
I’ll take home packets of information, names of editors who might look at my work, and some wise advice, like don’t write crap. And good writing is musical. That raising an infant is like being on an airplane; when the oxygen masks drop, put on your own mask before your child’s. And let your mind run wild while folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, and feeding the baby.
And that all things have to leave us at one time or another.
And to be patient. Give it time.
And the best of all: to let the wind blow through the holes in your soul; to let it make music for others to hear.