O Time in Your Flight

by Larkin Vonalt

Here we are again, nearly one in the morning and I am face to face with what I feared. Well, fear’s not the right word. I do believe I’ve finally arrived at a place in my life where I am not afraid of anything. But this is my Achilles’ heel, and I am sitting here looking at it, just as if there’s an arrow buried there.

Before me lies The Assignment. But along with the wool shawl draped around my shoulders is the very real and heavy cloak of fatigue. I wrote until three a.m. I had day chock full of other responsibilities and the promise to myself that I will write everyday hangs over me. And I have written everyday– not just 500 word blog entries, but 2000-word pieces set out in some kind of halfway thoughtful and coherent manner.  But here we are, almost too tired to focus, with dawn racing up on the other side.

I should have started earlier in the day, but in all fairness, I didn’t always start on time when I had deadlines. More than one night I wrote through the night, all night. One morning the editor came in and found me asleep with my head on the desk, long columns of paper hanging from the ceiling around me. It had been a very complicated story and the outline was twenty-seven feet long.  I was nearly 15 years younger then, and I had better stamina– and I still had the same problem that plagues me now– time  management.

One of those years that I was at the paper I made a Christmas card that featured a photograph of  me at age 5, with a too-small bathrobe and wild hair, standing in front of our Christmas tree. Around the border of the card read the opening two lines from Elizabeth Akers Allen’s (1832-1911) poem, Rock Me to Sleep: “Backward, turn backward, O Time in your flight; Make me a child again just for tonight!”

While it isn’t a literary masterpiece, it is a remarkably forthright and sentimental song about aging, loss, and how in some ways we are eternally children longing for the comfort of our mothers. (You can read it if you like, it is linked above.)  I am extraordinarily lucky to still have my mother with me on this side of the abyss, as sharp and wonderful and difficult as she ever was– and still one of my very best friends.

She’s much more disciplined than I ever was. Over the years, she’s written a number of novels and a couple of those novels a number of times. I don’t seem to be able to crank out anything more than about 2000 words. Or less either. I say that half in jest, but I just don’t know if I really have a book-length project in me. And book-length projects are about the only thing that gives you any  breathing room in the writing game. Writing magazine-length pieces is sort of like trying to breathe through a snorkeling tube.

My father and I once had a terrible misunderstanding about self-discipline. We were in a restaurant in Livingston, Montana. It no longer exists, but while it existed, it was one of the finest restaurants in the world. A white-linen tablecloth place with Malpeque oysters and well-aged beef and a fantastic wine list in a dusty cow-town. In the summer the place is full of tourists and movie-stars, but in the off-season, it was our own kind of Shangri-La. You could close your eyes and imagine that you were somewhere else– until you struggled out the door into the wind.

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving. The day before we had organized a community Thanksgiving dinner for 700 people, built entirely on donations and sheer hard work, and it was the best kind of magic. Those were the days when I felt that my very being was knit into that community. My father and his wife had flown in for the holiday and Dad was a big fan of Russell Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grille, and we went there for a fine dinner, along with my husband,  Dad’s wife and my mother.  We weren’t quite to dessert when Dad suggested that Julian, then six years old, should take martial arts lessons.

I said we were concerned that Julian wouldn’t understand the philosophy behind the craft and would just use it as an excuse to kick people. I can still hear myself saying this. I remember thinking it was a fairly clever dodge, a foil for the real reasons that I didn’t want Julian, my half-Chinese son to sign up for Tae-Kwon Do or Kung Fu or the like. (What those reasons really are don’t require enumeration here.)

My father leaned across the table and hissed “It would give him something you’ve never had– self-discipline.” Had he hauled off and physically slapped me I wouldn’t have been any more shocked. I hadn’t lived with my father since I was 10– his responsibilities as a father had been taken up by someone else. I regarded him as my friend and since I was a little girl I had put him on a kind of pedestal. In the way that girl-children often do, I had been his protector.

“Dad, I write more than 5000 words each and every week for publication– that takes some self-discipline,” I offered up, a kind of half-hearted self-defense.

“I want some respect!” he roared  back.

Heads turned in the restaurant. The wait staff stayed in the shadows. I backed up in my chair, set my linen napkin on the table and walked out. I was out the door into the cold before I began to sob.

A friend who lived nearby drove me out to the farm, and my husband and mother and son arrived a little while later, Julian fetched from the sitter and still sleepy in my husband’s arms. My mother took a glass down from the cupboard and poured in a couple of fingers of Maker’s Mark and said without the slightest hint of irony- “You know how your father gets when he’s drinking. He thought you were ridiculing him.”

“What?!  Well, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care what he thought. I don’t care if I ever see him again,” I said, the sob rising in my throat.

“Remember the year that your father took off to write the Berryman book?” Of course I did. I was 9 years old. My father was working on a book about the poet, John Berryman, when Berryman fell (“leapt” being far too active a verb) from a Minneapolis bridge. While the death was shocking, it also made the timing of Dad’s project exquisite. If he had only finished the book.

“Well, because he didn’t finish the book, he wasn’t qualified to apply for tenure at Wesleyan. He’s never really finished anything.”

When I said that I wrote 5000 words for publication every week he heard “I write 5000 words for publication every week, unlike you.” Except that of course, I never said that. I wouldn’t have said it. I didn’t even think of it. My father was an accomplished  man in many respects, and an extraordinary English professor. I adored him. And when he was dying, I came to understand why he didn’t finish the Berryman book.

It fell to me to pack up his office at the university. In his office filing cabinet, there was an inch-thick file for every Berryman poem. Every one of them, and Dad had analyzed and researched each poem until there was nothing left there but dust. This writing business takes more of a delicate hand than that and once you have overworked the research, the magic isn’t there anymore. There is simply nothing left to write.

The brutal treatment for laryngeal cancer had robbed my father of his speech, and he communicated by way of a half-size yellow legal pad. When I went up to the hospital to ask him what he wanted me to do with those files, he scribbled “Pitch them.” I didn’t pitch them. I packed them up in cartons and dragged them home to Montana, along with the yellow note, my own cautionary tale.

You know the part of this riddle I still have not figured out? What made him so mean to me that night, anyway? Was there some reason he thought it was okay to attack his grown-up daughter in a nice restaurant? I tried to address this with him before he died, but by then it was too late to work it out. My father has been dead for nearly six years and I am still doing my damnedest to forgive him this. I’ve gotten close, but his behavior is still as inexplicable to me as if he’d been kicking a friendly dog.

So there’s a fair bit of baggage for me on this self-discipline stuff, at least a steamer trunk or two. Tonight I didn’t have it in me to write about any of the subjects I’ve made notes about (why obituaries should be more frank, the importance of stopping at stoplights, why I live where I live) and though I did glance at a web-site with writer prompts (Oh my God, no wonder there’s so much dreck out there) those too were discarded without a moment’s consideration.

Instead what we have here is really the whole raison d’être for this exercise: keep moving, keep writing, don’t let my dreams get stuffed into filing cabinet drawers. There are stories out there that still desperately need to be told.