lost and found

April 10, 2017

Post image for lost and found

I had a beloved coffee cup. Tall and handle-free, white with tiny red flowers and a silicone sleeve. A small chip at the lip. If you know me in real life, you have surely seen it in my grip at one point or another, as I used it constantly and not just for coffee. If you’ve read along here or followed me on Instagram for any length of time, you’ve seen it too. I liked to share photos of that cup; it said something about me, though I’m not sure what. I had it for seven years.

Last week I lost it.

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textbook_akr

The death of Amy Krouse Rosenthal has hit me hard. I only discovered her last summer, happening upon her Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I gulped that book down like Vitamin D, sunshine in a capsule, on a trip to a lake. Below an Instagram photo of the book I wrote, “I love this book! I’m a sucker for a story told in a quirky format and this one, taking on the structure of textbooks and school subjects, is irresistible. Plus, the book is generous, fun and life-affirming. I am up to the final section and I’m keeping it in my beach bag because I don’t want it to end.”

Like most of her readers, I did not know then that Amy had terminal cancer.

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Last week, on the page of a Facebook homeschooling group, a mother sought writing advice for her eight-year-old daughter, who has not liked the writing curriculum the mother has presented so far. I belong to this group, but I admit that I read posts there only occasionally. This day, however, another writer/homeschooling mother tagged me as she recommended my post “How Do Kids REALLY Learn to Write?” to the woman, along with much encouragement about how a love of writing is not likely to come from curriculum, but through shared books and wordplay and story and authentic writing opportunities, based on the child’s interests.

This is not the advice the posting mother sought, it seemed. She wanted specific books and curriculum. She received lots of advice in that regard.

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I lost my cup at BinderConLA, a writing conference for women that evolved from the secret #binders groups on Facebook. I had filled it with iced tea and I think I left it under my chair after a workshop called “Start a New Writing Career After 40.” One of the speakers brought a visual aid, the stack of books she’s published, beginning after she turned 50.

I only realized my cup was missing when I went to fill it with coffee the next morning.

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cappuccino_cup

I’ve spent the past year and a half starting and restarting my homeschooling memoir, searching for how best to tell it. I can’t tell you how many memoirs and collections of essays I’ve read, searching for a model that will show me how to do it. But of course you already know that. Because I keep writing about it here, getting closer and closer but not quite there.

I’m dogged that way.

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powell library

The conference was at UCLA, my alma mater. I’ve been back a couple of times with my family since graduating, but never alone. I spent a lot of time alone as an undergrad there, having transferred in as a junior, not knowing anyone. It was a lonely time, but I made my own little routines to help me through that. I hung out in Kerckhoff Coffee House because it reminded me of Northern California and home, at a time before coffee houses had become a Starbuckian thing. I studied in Powell Library because it was old and beautiful and I liked to wander in the stacks. Sometimes I’d stand at the top of Janss Steps with an iced coffee from Kerckhoff, chewing the sugar that hadn’t dissolved at the bottom of the cup, trying to let the moment fill me because I didn’t have a person beside me to do that.

Last weekend, wandering back to those places, I suddenly realized that this year marks my 30th anniversary of graduating from college. I had to do the math a couple of times because I didn’t quite believe it.

janns_steps

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Amy Krouse Rosenthal was 51 years old when she died. She was 20 days older than I am.

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sculpture_garden

Saturday afternoon I made my way to the Sculpture Garden in a far corner of campus. Once a boy brought me there at night and we ran around like the kids we were. He put foam headphones around my ears and had me listen to Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” And then he kissed me.

Going back, I could not find a sculpture on a pedestal that my mind tells me we had climbed upon, where he had me listen to the song. I could not remember where he kissed me.

It was a very long time ago.

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Did you read Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Modern Love essay, published ten days before she died? My chest compresses at the thought of it. It’s a personal ad written for her husband, titled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.”

If you haven’t read it, or read Amy at all, this essay will show you how much life force she had, even as it was draining from her.

I’ve written before about how much I love white space in writing. The white space at the end of this essay will break your heart.

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royce_hall

The stacks at Powell Library seemed endless and wandering there, back in the day, felt like wandering back in time. I’d drag my fingers along shelves of books, convinced no one had opened them in years. One day my fingers hit F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notebooks, compiled into a single volume.

I checked the book out. I bought my own notebook. I started my life as a writer.

That was thirty years ago. Or so my math tells me.

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I feel for that homeschooling mother who posted on Facebook. I remember searching for structures and answers in our homeschooling life, early on. I sifted through books and curricula and a variety of homeschooling philosophies, desperate for a single, existing approach that would answer my questions. That would calm my doubts and assure me we were on the right path.

Back then, I spent a year and a half trying to write an essay on our homeschooling philosophy, but as soon as the essay started to come together, it would suddenly crumble in my hands. I thought it was because my writing skills weren’t good enough yet.

It took a while for me to understand that the problem was that I didn’t have a homeschooling philosophy. Or at least I couldn’t align myself with any existing philosophy. We had to find our own way. Let our philosophy be the absence of a philosophy.

Or rather, a philosophy of always being open to new possibilities, depending on the kid, the year, the day, a mood.

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Amy Krouse Rosenthal dreamed up books and social experiments fueled by serendipity and the beauty in small moments. Her work is such good inspiration for veering from the predictable, for inviting in possibility, for wandering off the path.

How can I not feel a sense of urgency with my own work? How can I look at how much Amy Krouse Rosenthal accomplished in her 51 years, when I feel I’m just getting started?

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“I’m a sucker for a story told in a quirky format,” I wrote about Amy’s book last summer.

I was searching for the structure for my memoir at that point. And I wasn’t listening to myself.

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deptofspec_and_cup

Did you notice the year-and-a-half thing? That’s how long it took me to give up on that homeschooling essay and my search for a homeschooling philosophy. How long I’ve been trying to find a format for my memoir.

Seems I have a tendency to search for answers in structures outside of myself.

Seems like it takes me precisely a year and a half to figure out that I’ve had the answers inside myself all along.

That realization came to me last week. Same week I realized that I graduated from college almost thirty years ago.

Tick, tick, tick.

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zuzu_desk

When I got back from the conference, I searched desperately online for a replacement for my cup. I wanted the same cup. The same cup. I’m dogged that way.

I am a very good researcher. I know how to search out philosophies of homeschooling and structures for memoirs and cups on the internet. I know how to pry deep into the pages of Google searches, like I’m wandering way back into the stacks of an old library.

I searched for hours. I could not find a replacement for the cup. Not even close.

*

I wrote six essays in my class with Lidia Yuknavitch earlier this year. Drafty essays, but essays very different from what I’ve been working on, which was exciting.

Lidia encouraged us to break free of traditional forms. And her memoir is a study of mixed-form memoir writing.

I am so slow. It took me such a long time to see the answers in front of me. Inside me.

This morning I opened the first chapter of my memoir draft for the first time in months. I’m using the tools Lidia gave us to break that chapter apart. To write it in a form unlike any form out there. I have to find my own form. To let my form be an absence of form.

Or rather, a form that is open to new possibilities, depending on the kid I’m writing about. Or the year, the day, the mood for that chapter.

*

After I submitted my last piece for Lidia’s class, a classmate wrote in the same encouraging way she’d been doing for six weeks, “Love, love, LOVED this piece like a heartbeat…I just finished reading the NY Times’ Modern Love column and read this next.” And then she proceeded to tell me she wanted to read my piece in Modern Love.

I would never have considered sending my work to The New York Times. The likelihood of getting published in the Modern Love column is something like less than 1%.

Amy’s Modern Love column came out almost two weeks after my classmate wrote to me, but I didn’t hear about it until my friend Molly texted with the heartbreaking news of Amy’s death, ten days later.

Amy was twenty days older than I am. And that’s about how many days it took me to find Amy’s column and to realize that you never know how much time you get and sometimes you need to quit the damn research and get your work out in the world.

Amy was all about serendipity and the hidden messages in numbers and letters. I think she would have appreciated the twenty-days thing.

I want to keep her in my beach bag. I don’t want her to end.

I reworked my piece and submitted it to Modern Love’s editor. The chances of it getting published there are tiny as the red flowers on my lost coffee cup but that’s not the point.

*

The other day I bought a new coffee cup. It looks nothing like the old coffee cup. I decided that maybe there was a reason I lost that thing at a conference for women writers. At my old college, which I graduated from almost thirty years ago. I decided that what mattered wasn’t so much the look of the thing, but that the new cup holds a full 16 ounces like my old one did. Most of the new double-walled ceramic travel mugs don’t hold as much.

I like my full 16 ounces.

Turns out I’m sort of giddy about the shiny pearlescent look of this new cup. It’s different. Hand-painted and modern-looking. A little odd. And it’s tall and full-sized, ready to hold as much as I want to pour inside.

new_cup

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Marian Rennels April 10, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Such a delight to read. I love how personal it is, combining the handle-free dainty coffee cup, the death of a writers idol, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, and thinking back on college. It makes one smile, though it is bittersweet, but the words dance off Patricia’s writing pen (or keyboard) in such a wondrous way.

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patricia April 10, 2017 at 9:21 pm

Aw, thanks for taking the time to read, and to leave a comment, Marian! I love seeing old friends show up here. <3

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Carrie Pomeroy April 10, 2017 at 2:02 pm

I read this blog post with a little mist of tears in my eyes. What a beautiful meditation on mortality and creativity. I’d love to hear more about that session on starting a new writing career after 40, cause at the rate I’m going, I surely won’t have a book out until after 50 at the very earliest! That writer’s story must have been so encouraging.

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patricia April 10, 2017 at 9:26 pm

And I’ll be way past fifty at the earliest, if it makes you feel any better, Carrie! Ha! That writer’s story was definitely inspiring–she had a stack of books! The only downside to the panel was that it took place in LA, and many of the writers were in the film or magazine industries down there, and many were counseling not to share one’s age as an older female writer. Pshaw! I’m glad that my niche is more granola-crunchy because I’m not hiding my age!

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Tina Monaco April 10, 2017 at 2:21 pm

Hi friend, wonderful post. I’ll miss your cup too, it was so you. Amy’s essay was lovely and sad. Sigh….this makes me sad.

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patricia April 10, 2017 at 9:29 pm

I know. So sad. She had an Instagram project of posting something at 1:23pm every day for 123 days. She only made 61–but her 19-year-old daughter is finishing it for her, posting a photo of something special about her mom every day at 1:23. Look up @akr.par on IG. Oh, that girl. The thought that she lost her wonderful mother really breaks my heart.

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Dad April 10, 2017 at 2:26 pm

I never mentioned it but I read Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s column “You May Want to Marry My Husband ” shortly after it came out. (Thank you, NPR,) I had no idea how you connected with her but I do know that part of the reason I didn’t mention it was because it reminded me of you, of you and Chris, and it was just too painful to think about.

When the notice of her death came out, I thought of you again, of you and Chris again, and I didn’t mention it again. I said a prayer or two, said thank you, as I thought of you and Chris again.

Love,
Dad

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patricia April 10, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Oh, Dad. Yes, she got married around the time Chris and I did, and had three kids, two boys and a girl, fairly close in age to our kids. I think of her 19-year-old daughter and I think of L. and I say a prayer too. Thank you for loving us all so much. xo.

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Molly April 10, 2017 at 3:57 pm

I want to cry about your coffee cup – and your dad’s comment! And I haven’t read Amy’s ML essay yet because I know I will cry. But I can’t wait to see your new mug. I absolutely love this post too. xo

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patricia April 10, 2017 at 9:38 pm

Aw, Molly. I’m glad we fell in love with Amy together before we knew we were going to lose her. I feel like she still has a lot to teach me about how to live. Next time I see you we can cry together. xo right back.

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Heather A April 10, 2017 at 4:04 pm

beautifully written.

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patricia April 10, 2017 at 9:39 pm

Thank you, Heather! And thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

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Kristin April 10, 2017 at 9:52 pm

Just a few random thoughts sparked from your post…

Change is hard–and good–and necessary; but it’s painful and sad too.

I’m so glad you found a new cup. I like it!

Flexibility is the key to homeschooling–and life, at least that’s what I think.

Crossing my fingers that your essay is selected.

You’re a daredevil at heart.

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patricia April 11, 2017 at 7:47 am

Oh, Kristin, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I miss you. We need to find some time to meet up.

Your last line made me smile real big. <3

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Maria April 10, 2017 at 9:55 pm

Always such a pleasure. Life doesn’t really wait for us does it? I’m reminded of it so often, but it always feels like a needed reminder. Good luck!

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patricia April 11, 2017 at 7:50 am

You’ve been reading and commenting here for such a long time, Maria! Thank you. No, life doesn’t wait, and I’m sure you feel that with your own brood of four. xo.

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Maria April 11, 2017 at 10:44 pm

Thank you for being such an inspiration.
“It took a while for me to understand that the problem was that I didn’t have a homeschooling philosophy…..” This whole section, and the fact that I too am a pretty amazing researcher 😉 keep playing over in my head. My oldest is 13 now, and I feel like on a weekly basis I am suddenly caught up again in what we are doing and if it is right and if we are doing the best for this brood…and is not having a “philosophy” ok, still, now that he is older…I keep feeling like surely I will figure all this out at some point right! But, as I said, the reminders that now is the time always seems to push me out of my funk at just the right time. And your writing is so beautiful, it is easy to feel inspired. Looking forward to the book, and thanks again for sharing your writing with the world.

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patricia April 12, 2017 at 7:03 am

Ah, Maria, we are two peas in a pod. I don’t know if you read my first column for home/school/life a few years back, but this is exactly what I wrote about there. It’s my only column that’s available online; you can find it here: http://homeschoollifemag.com/blog/the-wonder-full-world-of-homeschooling At the end–and it really took up to the last few years out of twenty!–I finally came to embrace the fact that I would never totally figure it out, and that not figuring it out was maybe even a positive thing.

Keep wondering, I say! xo.

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Maria April 17, 2017 at 11:26 pm

Thanks again! 😉 I never saw that, and am so glad now that I have. More reason to hope, just maybe, that not knowing what we are doing is ok, even now…I would consider it a compliment to share a pod with you by the way. You have inspired me from day one and continue to do so. If you even wander to Seattle, I’d love to meet at a cafe and give you a hug! Hopefully I will still be wondering 😉

patricia April 11, 2017 at 7:51 am

P.S. I love how you upped the anonymous Twitter egg profile photo. Ha!

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Maria April 11, 2017 at 10:45 pm

Too funny that you noticed. The result of lack of a picture and much teasing about having an egg for way too long. :) Now I have a picture, but I’ve come to like my happy egg.

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Sarah M April 11, 2017 at 4:40 pm

This was fantastic. I will pre-order your memoir.

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patricia April 11, 2017 at 8:15 pm

Okay, Sarah, I will consider you my first pre-pre-order! Ha! You will have to wait a few years for sure, but at least I finally feel like I’m off in the right direction.

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CathyT April 12, 2017 at 6:30 am

As always, you write from the heart. Your dad is so sweet too… Take care!

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patricia April 12, 2017 at 7:06 am

Hi CathyT! I always love it when you show up for an internet hug. {{big hug back}}

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amy April 12, 2017 at 6:16 pm

I’m not even sure where to begin here.

Yes. To all of it.

Sometimes (maybe more than sometimes) brevity is the blessing to the thing; I’m kind of glad you lost your cup and found your formlessness. I’m glad you are moved to risk. I’m glad you took the time to write it down here.

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patricia April 12, 2017 at 10:44 pm

Amy, I read this comment on my phone. And without thinking, I found myself drawing my phone to my heart.

So that’s my brief response to you, my friend.

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CherylE April 18, 2017 at 4:25 am

Hello,
I’m a long time reader, first time commenter. ☺ I loved this post, it was so timely for me. I always come back to your blog because no other voice on homeschooling in all my obsessive researching has resonated with me so much. But your approach, the focused, open hours every morning, takes bravery and a lot of trust- in my children, in myself, in the process. And so I often get freaked out (despite the obvious success I am experiencing allowing my children to lead their learning) and embark on yet another anxiety driven, blog surfing, philosophy reading search for a perfect solution to calm my anxiety. Of course, I never get anywhere. Because, the truth is, I don’t like to be told what to do. And neither do my kids. While reading a post on another blog about why the author is no longer teaching math (because I’m always drawn to the brave mothers) I see a comment from YOU. I was so surprised and had to smile, it was like the universe was saying “yep, you’ve already found the right guide, and you already have the answers”. That was a few days ago. Today I read this post! It spoke to my exact anxieties, as if written to me. I love a good aha moment, and am thankful for the permission to calm down and follow what I already know. Thank you. You are brave and inspiring.

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patricia April 18, 2017 at 10:40 pm

See, Cheryl, your comment shares just the sort of serendipity story that Amy Krouse Rosenthal loved! I am so honored to be part of your process. I love that you recognize that you and your kids don’t like to be told what to do. Ha–I can relate! I love that you are a fellow obsessive researcher. Your line about always coming back to my blog means so much to me that I copied it and put it on the wall beside my desk. I got a disappointing writing rejection today and was feeling down about it, but then I thought about your comment here and it lifted me back up. So you are also reminding me to calm down and follow what I already know. Thank you. And thank you for taking the time to leave your first comment here! You do have the answers. Keep trying to listen to yourself, and I’ll try to do the same. xo.

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patricia April 18, 2017 at 10:23 pm

Well, it’s been years since we’ve been to Seattle, Maria, so a visit is due! If I get back up there, I will let you know and take you up on that hug!

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