Writing in Helsinki

My second book I wrote in Helsinki.

We had a one-bedroom apartment

Above a YMCA,

And our windows looked out on

Snowy pine trees.

The entryway to our apartment was a

U-shaped staircase with a landing,

And above the landing was a huge window and wide window sill.

I would sit in the window sill and paint wine bottles.

For writing,

I would move the rocking chair to the top of the staircase

So I was facing the window and the snowy trees,

The stairs falling away below me.

It gave the illusion that the





Like I was floating toward the

Snowy pine trees

With my notebook in my lap

And a pen entwined in my fingers.

I finished that book in a different apartment.

Less geometrical.

But by then I was


And my growing belly gave the space

The dimension it needed.

I finished the novel Aug. 20

And my son was born Aug. 22.

Creating, creating.

Learning to write in Seattle

My first book I wrote in Seattle.

I was living in an apartment on a hill above downtown.

There was a view of Lake Union from the bathroom window.

I would pack my swimming gear and my

Laptop into my backpack and

Glide down the hill on my bike

Into downtown.

I would swim laps in the small basement pool at the YMCA,

Then go across the street to the public library.

I’d find my study carrel,

Usually the same one on the second floor,

And set up:

Laptop, CD player,

A secret snack in the backpack at my feet.

The library was full of homeless people.

Homeless men, boys, girls.

Gutter punks who rode the rails to this corner of our nation.

The young boys and girls

Pierced and tattooed and tired and wary under

Black sweatshirt hoods.

The older men were ragged and bearded in

Dusty military fatigues.

I’d see the same ones often.

They would put their heads down on the desk

For a few minutes of sleep before a security guard would

Nudge them awake.

I would look up,

Pausing to ruminate, and

Consider these folks.

They felt like my co-workers.

If I ever had to get up to use the bathroom,

I had to take everything with me,

Or it would be gone when I returned.

Meanwhile, the dimensions of my surroundings,

The mountain ranges to the east and west,

The narrow plunges and curves of the city streets,

Helped frame up the space I’d made for myself

For writing.

Where I will find the time


And time.

Those are the twin


Of writing a book.

Just as important as the writer’s stew of

Plot, character, inspiration

Is the laborer’s

Commitment to producing words on paper.

Which takes


Always for me,

The two develop on parallel planes in my head:

The story, and

My writing schedule.

How my daily activities will shift and settle around the

Writing time.

I suppose it’s a

Left brain/

Right brain thing.

What would a week look like

With one hour

Carved out of each


For writing?

I am resigned to taking it out of


To waking up early.

Say 5 a.m.

(Some people do that anyway.)

In the dark and quiet house:

Half-hour of yoga to get some

Fresh air

Moving through the limbs and brain.

Then the writer’s


The thing is,


Is a limited resource.

If one hour is taken


One hour must be given,

Somewhere else.

Pillaging my sleep is not an option

I need my straight eight

So it will have to be

Earlier nights.

Farmer’s hours.

I like to go to bed early.

I like to sleep.

So I think

I hope

It will work.

You never know until you start,

And do it for a few days and weeks.

Will this schedule take?

We’ll see.

Too many choices

It starts in the

Toothpaste aisle.

I round the corner with my nearly-full cart.

Kinda frazzled.

Eyes starting to bulge from the

Lights and

Colors and


Almost done.

Just a few more things.

Here we are.


And then

I stop,

And gape at

All the


And I

Seize up.



Green mint

Fresh crystals

Baking soda Colgate Crest Aquafresh Arm & Hammer Tom’s small medium large tube upright screw on cap flip top…

Finally, I break out of the


And just grab


Anything, and

Flee to self-checkout.

This is



For me.

You know those people who have a certain

Brain injury that renders them

Incapable of



And they’ll stand in the cereal aisle for


Until someone just puts something in their cart?

That’s me.

The best day was when I  found a

Grocery store that sold




Limiting my choices to mere


Some types of choice are fun,

Like thrift-store shopping.

But even at my favorite thrift store,

After 40 minutes

Of paging through the racks

And making hundreds of

Small decisions,

(Yes, no, no, no, yes, no…)

I fade.

I buy whatever I’m holding,

And make for the nearest

Ice cream shop.

All these


Force me to be an


In everything I

Buy or


I don’t want to be a

Toothpaste connoisseur.

I don’t want toothpaste that’s tailored to


Special teeth and enamel and saliva pH and gum issues.

I just want to be an




Who buys only the Acme brand they use in Looney-Tunes cartoons.

That would free my




For things like

Interacting with human beings, or

Writing, or

Working, or

Any number of more


Mental activities than



Earplugs: Can’t live without ’em, can’t live without ’em.

I like to think of myself as rather an

Earplug connoisseur.

As a mom,

I’m not going for

Utter silence

But rather a

Generalized muffling

Through which

Crying, screaming, etc., can be


But perhaps ignored.

The best kind

Are these

Clear chunks of wax

You press into the

Cup of your ear.

You know you have an air-tight seal when

You start to




It’s weird,

I know.

Baffling to those who are

Not afflicted.

But once you start talking to people,

You find others.

“Earplug addicts,” we call ourselves,

Although it’s not really true,

Because people who call themselves “addicts” are

Usually trying to recover,

And we’re

Definitely not.

We are the ones who

Know all of the 24-hour pharmacies in our neighborhood,

For making bedtime trips down the

Fluorescent-lit aisles

Straight to the earplug rack

We know exactly where it is

Because we





All the little noises in the house:

The furnace turning on and off;

The snoring;

The thumps of the cat jumping,

(Except we don’t have a cat);

How could anyone sleep

Without earplugs?


It is lovely at the end of the day,

The children settled,

The husband otherwise occupied,

To lie back against a pile of pillows in bed,

A book on my lap,

And press the wax chunks into my ears,

And turn



And in the morning

(If my family allows it)

I leave the plugs in for a little while

So I can flicker silently into the day,

Like a just-lit candle.

But then,

The muffled thumping of

Small feet on stairs:

I turn,

And am rewarded with the best


Vision of all:

A small boy with sleep-rumpled hair

Trailing a blanket and clutching a stuffed kitten,

One leg of his pajamas hitched up to the knee,

The other booted over the sweet foot.

One more silent breath,

And then the earplugs



The first memory of Mom

[We’re going to try something, the psychologist said.

Tell me your


Memory of your mother.]

It’s my earliest


Of her.

It’s at our old house,

The dark brown house.

It’s a summer morning.

My mother


Is in the garden in the

Back yard.

And I come out the

Back door,

And I run

Toward her.

I’m probably about four years old.

I am barefoot,

And the grass is

Wet with dew.

The sun is bright and warm.

The sky is completely


The air is still morning-cool

But you can feel it will soon get hot.

I’m laughing

And running past the

Apple trees

Toward Mom,

Who is in the garden.

She is wearing jeans, and a blue t-shirt,

And a bandana triangled around her

Ears and face.

She stands up,

She rises

Out of the garden,

And is smiling at me,

As I run

Toward her.

The sun,

The sky,

The warm air,

The grass,

The trees,

The smell of soil,

It’s all

Awash with


It is


All of it.



[Do you get to her?

Do you reach her?]

I don’t have a

Memory of

Reaching her.

[But what would happen next,

If you could create?]

She would step out of the


She would walk toward me

In the grass

And catch me up in her


We would both be


In the sunshine and air,

Under the leaves of the

Apple tree.

[What would happen next?]

I would say,

“I love you,


[What else?]

Then my


Would be there, too.

And my


It would be the four of us,

And maybe our old collie dog,

There in the summer yard.

[And then what?]

Then her brothers would

Be there.

And their wives.

My cousins.

Her grandson, my son.

Her parents would be

Off to the side,

Next to the house,

In the shadow,

Out of the sun.

They would be watching,

And smiling,

And waving to her.

[Anyone else?]

Her students,


We would all be there,

Crowded into the yard,

Surrounding her.

[What would happen?]

We would

Gather her up

With our hands,

All of us touching her,

And we would

Lift her toward the

Sun and


And she would lay back on our hands,

And she would be



In the

Warm sunshine.


Good for you

For weeping.


My mother’s brain

My mother is dying.

I mean,

We’re all dying,

But her

Brain is



She has dementia,

Let me describe it to you:

[After five minutes of sitting and thinking of how to


My mother’s behavior and words,


Not being

Able to:]

It’s so hard to show.

The words

She mumbles

And the actions of her


(Still manicured, my father sees to that)

Are so


I can’t

Recall them


I would almost have to

Film her

And transcribe

What she says,

And describe her

Actions as I’m watching

To show you how she is.

My brain,

It would seem,

Likes events and words to

Make sense.

And almost nothing

My mother does

Or says

Makes sense.

Her failing brain

Confounds my


My memories of her,

Even from a few days ago.

Me and her,

We’re all tossed together

In some weird



You can’t


Get pulled in

When you’re around her.

Listening to the mumbling,

Watching the fumbling hands,

You start to wonder,

“Is this normal?

Has it always been like this?”

Next time,

I will try to

Describe her Alzheimer’s.

This time,

My brain feels too