Poor With a Maid

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literature-of-servantsI’m a poor author, and I’m beginning to wonder: when am I going to get the housekeeper that so many of my favorite books have promised me? Jo March, the girl who made me want to become a writer, grew up with a housekeeper named Hannah. That, even though Jo’s sister Meg lamented their family’s humble lot on page one of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, saying, “It’s awful to be poor.”

In my favorite Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters lost everything because women were not allowed to inherit. Then Willoughby dumped Marianne because she had no money. Yet the impoverished Dashwoods had three servants at Barton Cottage!

I will never forget the moment in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when Francie Nolan’s teacher told her not to write about poverty:

“Now I’m not a snob,” stated Miss Gardner. “I do not come from a wealthy family. My father was a minister with a very small salary.”

(But it was a salary, Miss Gardner.)

“And the only help my mother had was a succession of untrained maids, mostly girls from the country.”

(I see. You were poor, Miss Gardner, poor with a maid.)

I know that the point author Betty Smith was making was that Miss Gardner (despite her supposed education) was out of touch and had no real idea what it was like to live in deep poverty, and I hope that’s the main reason it has stuck with me. Because the other reason is the hope I’ve never been able to shake: that someone could have a “very small salary” and not only afford a maid, but even be expected by society to use those meager dollars to hire one.

Maybe if we got rid of cable…but who wants help scrubbing the bathrooms, sweeping the floors, and washing the clothes when you can have cable?

If money were my priority, I probably could have found a way to make a better living. I’m not unhappy about our humble life. We have all we need, I love to write, and I sometimes even have time to swab the toilet. Still, I wonder if I might have been motivated to choose a more lucrative profession if I hadn’t read so many classics involving people who were supposedly poor, or even ordinary middle class, yet still managed to keep domestic employees. I mean, didn’t that also reflect the reality of the authors themselves? If David Copperfield had domestic help, then you can bet Charles Dickens did. Yes, he was an unusual success, but he was an author, so I like to pretend he wasn’t all that different from me.

If the favorite authors of my youth hadn’t romanticized poverty to some extent, maybe I would have been a more realistic adult today. How did I know I would someday have to choose between having a dusty house for an old friend’s visit to town or putting off the rewrite of Chapter 13 of my novel?

Maybe I’ll dust and vacuum only the guest room, and then reward myself by rewriting only half of Chapter 13. Because another thing fiction has taught me—besides how cheap housekeepers are and how they’re always part of the family and delighted with their lowly lot in life—is how fun it is to put a bad guy on a steamboat from Hong Kong to San Francisco, force him into steerage, and pour seawater in after him. Why would I want to clean house, when I can start a riot in Old Mexico with my bare fingers. Why waste my imagination wishing I could hire a maid, when I can instead imagine what it might be like to be an immigrant so poor that I’d be grateful just for a chance to be one?

 

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Taking Credit

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SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAAs a writing instructor, I yearn to take credit for the ingenious, creative, perceptive stories my students create. They’re kids, mostly middle-schoolers, and I yearn to point at their work and say, “They know how to do that because I taught them how.” But I believe what makes a good teacher—and I hope I’m good, though I have a long way to grow—is to have the restraint not to show them how. I give them ideas to think about, concepts to get their minds going, but the point is to let them push the discussion, explore their own answers, decide for themselves what each concept means. I seek to show them that there are potentially infinite ways to unveil a story, and then let them come up with their own way. I ask them to experiment, to dream, to use critical thinking, to ponder. But then my most important job is to get out of the way. So the less credit I can take for their work, the happier I am about the possibility that I’m evolving as a teacher.

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Which Words Come Last – My Creative Nonfiction in Rivet Journal

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Rivet-cover-issue_2I’m excited to announce that my latest creative nonfiction piece is now published in this month’s edition of Rivet, the new literary “journal of writing that risks.” In Which Words Come Last, I reflect on the way my mom’s last words carried us on a journey into our pasts, our futures, and ourselves. I hope it reminds you of the power of words to bind us to those we love. You can find my story here.

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Sharing On the Road and At Home

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Dale & B-cycle stationThe sharing economy is increasing opportunities for travelers who want to explore what the world has to offer, with less damage to their pocketbook and the environment. A woman who works for a new car-sharing program called RelayRides has asked me to share one of my favorite “hidden gems” in Denver so she can give customers ideas about fun stuff to do in my city. The RelayRides concept is similar to Airbnb or other budget vacation rentals in which people briefly rent out their homes while they’re away. With RelayRides, when you travel to another city you can rent your car to someone who’s coming to your city, and then rent a car from someone in the city you’re going to.

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“Be Safe” – A Ritual of Love

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KissOnce many years ago, when I was staying with a friend, she ran outside to kiss her husband goodbye before he drove off to work. “Wait, I have to kiss you!” she said. “We don’t want you to have an accident.” They chuckled together as she kissed him. She explained to me that they had recently read about a research study that indicated that married people who kissed their spouses before they left home each day were less likely to be involved in traffic accidents.

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This Denver Bakery Makes Argentina Taste Like Home

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SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAWe all have favorite local businesses. I believe the best are those where we almost forget that buying and selling have anything to do with it, where we exchange something meaningful and the money that changes hands merely supports that exchange. Sometimes I describe such places with words like atmosphere, service, or quality. But my new favorite, Maria Empanada, reminds me that the key is the inexplicable chemistry of love—not mushy sentiment, but the love we feel when we share with others the simple pleasures that give us joy.

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Finding Beauty Close To Home: Sunset at Barr Lake

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SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAMy twin passions for travel and stories are no longer about escape. Instead, they have taught me a lot about finding something to appreciate every day, wherever I am. Every place I travel is somebody else’s home, so it stands to reason that my home should have its own wonders. Every story I read or movie I watch carries me into a deeper appreciation of life, so it stands to reason that by more deeply appreciating my daily life I can create my own story. I live in Denver, Colorado, where I don’t have to travel far to enjoy an experience for which others do travel far.

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When Cross-Cultural Marriage Can’t Find a Home – By Guest Blogger Susan Blumberg-Kason

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CoverPlease welcome author Susan Blumberg-Kason as she joins me on the blog book tour for her new memoir, Good Chinese Wife (Sourcebooks, July 29, 2014), which is already receiving rave reviews. Susan grew up in Chicago dreaming of the neon signs and double-decker buses of Hong Kong. When she moved there, she thought she met the man of her dreams, until her cross-cultural romance turned into a nightmare. Good Chinese Wife recounts her years in a Chinese family as a wife, daughter-in-law, and mother. Today she shares with us the importance of place in a cross-cultural marriage:

When Cross-Cultural Marriage Can’t Find a Home By Susan Blumberg-Kason

When I first met Baba, my former father-in-law, he told me a Chinese proverb—ai wu ji wu. It took me a few minutes to understand the English translation relayed by my then-husband, Cai. After discussing it between ourselves for a bit, I figured this saying was basically the Chinese version of “love me, love my dog.”

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Death Practice

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Duck-Soup-poster-marx-brothers-9268877-341-475I think about death a lot. That’s not to say I’m obsessed or depressed. It’s just one of the two weirdest things I’ve ever been aware of: the inevitability of my demise, of the demise of all of us. The other weirdest thing: that I’m here in the first place, that we’re all here. As a storyteller, how can I not be attracted to questions of existence and oblivion? Sure, I believe in a God, a spiritual universe, and an afterlife. But that’s faith. I have no scientific proof. The only things I’m sure of are the same things all living humans are sure of: there was a time I was not alive, now I am, someday I won’t be again.

I recently heard an interview on Colorado Public Radio with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and author Sara Davidson, about The December Project, her book about the aging Rabbi’s preparations for death. We’re talking some intense preparations. Let’s call them “death practice.” He practiced drawing his last breath, practiced choosing his final moment, even got into a coffin so he could practice being dead. He also did some things you might typically expect: reviewed his life, forgave others, forgave himself. His purpose was to prepare mindfully for the end of life, or as he put it: “to not freak out about death.”

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Water From the Bathroom Faucet

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FaucetWhy does the coldest water in the house always come out of the bathroom sink, never the kitchen faucet? It makes sense to me that water seems colder coming from the garden hose, because I only drink from the hose when I’m outside on a hot summer day. It’s cold by comparison of course. But what is the allure of the water in the bathroom, even when that room is not hot and steamy?

Is it because the water in that private little room seems forbidden, because that’s a place meant only for washing up, or taking care of business, or sneaking in some shower sex—not for the simple pleasure of drinking water with naked hands, not so much as a glass in sight? Or is it only my bathroom that has such delicious, icy-cold water, while yours delivers the stuff at ordinary room temperature?

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