Before and After

Enamel Pins
Part of my enamel pin collection in small boxes. You can see a Princess Leia, a rainbow brain, a hedgehog, a goldfish, and a record player among other pins

On the last day we got to hang out, the kindergartner I work with came in from recess bouncing. I watch out for him on the playground, making sure he has lots of time to be goofy but that he doesn’t start a revolution of five-year-olds refusing to come in when the whistle blows. On Fridays my job is (was? I don’t want to think about this in the past tense) easier because it’s hot lunch day, but then he books it inside while I struggle to keep my speed-walking from becoming a full-on sprint, quietly calling after him “No parkour-walking feet, walking feet!” By the time I catch up with him and have folded myself into the tiny chair next to his desk, he’s bopping his head chomping on his first bite, declaring through a mouthful of chicken fingers, “I did good today!”

“Oh absolutely, dude. That’s going in the report.” I’ll circle a big smiley face on the daily form.

“It’s supposed to be filled in, not circled.”

“You’re right, my man, I forgot.”

On Mondays, without the lure of once-a-week fast food, the way I got him to cheerfully come inside from the playground was by switching up the enamel pin I would put on the lanyard for my employee ID, covering it up with my hand and asking if he had noticed which one I was wearing. He would giggle and shake his head “no”. The rules of our game meant I wouldn’t reveal which pin I was wearing until we got all the way to the classroom. On Mondays, and Mondays only, we would walk in together at a leisurely pace, his eyes squinting in a smile locked onto me until I removed my hand for the big reveal right inside the classroom doorway.

The last Monday I worked he was absent, home sick with super-ordinary-for-small-kids-in-the-spring croup. I was home with the same ordinary virus the next few days and then? Then school was over for the year.

I miss the routine of changing my pin once a week. I miss taking thirty seconds each Monday morning to let him know that we are a team bound together by games and silliness and affection. I miss picking out which one would seem like a good-enough surprise, a good-enough reward for coming in from outside. That last Monday the pin I had put on was Dory, the blue tang, swimming in her coffee pot. It’s my favorite, and his favorite, too, and the first pin he noticed that set off our game.

I’m not changing it until I see him again.

 

This was a piece I wrote this week as an assignment from the Steppenwolf Education Department-for Maker May they had a two part webinar with essayist Samantha Irby and Ian Belknap of Write Club discussing and developing Live Lit-pieces that are meant to be performed. Maybe I’ll eventually figure out how to post a video here as well, to adhere better to the spirit of the assignment! These were written and revised with a two minute limit in mind, about something from before lockdown that you miss terribly. I want to thank them so much for everything. It was a welcome change of pace, and some of the only new writing I’ve been able to get myself to do. Incidentally, my eleven-year-old had an almost identical writing assignment for his online classes this week. Although his video conference was, like, his twentieth, and mine was my first.  

 

 

Fangirling

My kids didn’t know about this website until last night, and I don’t know how that’s possible!?!

 

My oldest kid said, “This will sound goofy, but I didn’t know blogs were on websites.”

 

My youngest said, “I thought websites were like these fancy, hard-to-get things.”

 

I had to explain that websites aren’t super hard to get, and that yes a blog is usually on a website, and that I’ve had this one for five years now and like how did you not know???

 

They explained that I don’t often explain the ins and outs of writing and publishing except to let them know when I submit a story about them (we read it and I ask if they feel comfortable with it or not, and if they don’t I don’t) and to tell them when an essay goes live and occasionally they see me a bit bummed when I get a rejection. My oldest will ask me how my day was and nod approvingly when I mention that I got a lot of words down, or did revisions, or handled submissions, or found a new literary magazine to submit to, or went mildly viral on Twitter for something mildly embarrassing. But they didn’t know this website here existed.

 

We Googled pictures of ourselves. They don’t have any online easily attached to their names yet (no social media accounts so far) so it’s funny to see their alternate lives as a cross-country runner from Minnesota or model and photographer in Paris. When I look up “Kristin Wagner” there are sooooooooooo many women who are not me. Gynecologists and real estate brokers and what not. I didn’t think about how common my married name was until the last couple of years. I shifted the name of this site to kristindemarcowagner.com and when I look up “Kristin DeMarco Wagner” it’s all undoubtedly me. Most of the pictures are from here or Twitter or Instagram. Showing the boys that Google search led to their realization that I have a website, and my astonishment that they were clueless about it.

 

But also!!!

The Google image search led me to an article I had assumed hadn’t happened because I missed when it did come out. Editors from The Kitchn had asked fans of Samin Nosrat’s book Salt Fat Acid Heat to share what they loved about the book. I jumped at the chance to fangirl over it a bit, because I absolutely adore the cookbook and the Netflix series and have prints of the illustrations for it in my kitchen. And the Google image search last night led me to 8 Cooks on Why Salt Fat Acid Heat is Such a Special, Unlikely Hit and I am in there as one of the cooks! A home cook, absolutely. A home cook who made Rachel Ray Sloppy Joes and tater tots last night. A home cook who has two kids who, when I exclaimed “Oh, I love when I get to do even a little food writing!”, said to me confused “You don’t do food writing”. I told them that maybe they don’t know everything I write while they’re at school for 6 and a half hours a day, since they didn’t even know I had a website for my blog posts. And then I defrosted another gluten-free bun in the microwave so that my youngest could have seconds and we talked about school.

Salt Fat Acid Heat.jpg
Some of my cookbook shelves, with Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat displayed

 

And perhaps that’s what I love about Salt Fat Acid Heat so much is that it is a cookbook that is detailed and specific and techy, but also incredibly accessible. It lives and breathes with people who are just working on making everyday meals with people we love more enjoyable as much as it resonates with really accomplished and finessed world class chefs. So last night was neat. The link to the article is embedded in the title of the article above.

 

Talk to you all later!

Kristin

 

P.S. A quick note about the sloppy joes-I added seasoning to the meat at a different time because of Samin. I added a splash more vinegar because of Samin. I cooked the meat and vegetables differently because of Samin. Every simple meal is just tweaked a little bit for the better, even on a really ordinary night.

 

Buried Treasure with Frame
An illustration from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that’s on my kitchen wall called “Buried Treasure” featuring radishes and beets

Revisions

It’s been a bit, huh? Well, hi! Hope you’ve been doing well in the interim.

 

Way back at the beginning of 2019 I finally had a completed manuscript for my book. An essay collection about chronic illness, and being neurodivergent, and about being a disabled mom, and about disability advocacy and representation. I had arranged parts by theme or topic and my reasoning for doing so was that illness/disability is ongoing and chronic and there was no diagnosis-treatment-cure narrative arc for my life. When I began writing about all of this that was the case-I was collecting more symptoms with no end in sight and had basically felt that people didn’t really understand what my parallel existence looked like-so I would show them.

 

Except…halfway through writing the essay-chapters I did get a diagnosis (Lyme and Babesia) and did undergo treatment that helped. So I was complicating things unnecessarily by intentionally NOT putting the book in chronological order. A huge overhaul was underway-rearranging, adding chapters to fill in details, revising what was there to make more sense, splitting up the appendix of medical conditions. With this version fairly well in hand I queried and well…

 

I got back really useful feedback that rang true as soon as I heard it.

It was too much. Too scattered across ideas and styles and conditions. Too scattered in themes and tone and too much detail. This isn’t verbatim at all, so we’re clear. The way the stories came out of my experience and my brain wasn’t the way it was the most easily or most enjoyably understood by a reader. There was a disconnect between what I thought I could give and what was most appreciated in a gift.

 

It rang true, but I didn’t want it to because I wasn’t sure I could tell a story straight. Each time I have tried to revise something in the past that was too much into something that was more digestible and normal I have not been able to. I lose something, and my new revised version isn’t quite right. It’s a B or B+ at best, when there are other people nearby doing consistent A work. Fear of another revision was the fear I’ve had so much of my life that when I try to do what neurotypical people do, I only do it-at best- 80% as well as they can. Which is not quite enough. It is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is often close without being right-and that can hurt more than a straight up swing and a miss.

 

So I thought about it. A lot. A lot, a lot. I went back and forth so many times trying to figure out what to do. One the things I did was to consider the Chihuly museum-somewhere we visited right after I got this feedback. His glasswork is vibrant and riotous and often odd, and I was saturated with the texture of one piece, the inner shine of another, the contrast of colors on another. There was so much to look at, to take in, to notice. This is what the inside of my brain often feels like; it was like an external representation of what I loved and celebrated and wanted to share. As I began to feel overwhelmed by it all I noticed something that was, in retrospect, so obvious I feel silly. Each art installation had boundaries.

It may be that all the pieces in a chandelier are the same color.

green chandelier
A green glass chandelier with many glass bubbles

 

It might be a room of vases in a similar shape but all different colors.

vases
Huge wavy glass vases, in firey magenta orange, blue, yellow, green

 

It might be a room that is a fantastical representation of a real life setting.

under the sea
glass sculptures in reds and yellows and blues and greens mimicking under the sea

 

It might be boats literally holding and containing variations on a theme.

Boats
A black background and two rowboats, one filled with colorful glass globes and the other with abstract flowers and bulbs

 

Those boats have been a visual guide for revising my book yet again. The one on the left has so many beautiful individual pieces-that are all spheres. The right has so many beautiful individual pieces-that are all botanical. The boundaries are what keep all of the thousands of pieces from being a jumbled overwhelming overstimulating experience. This art wasn’t straightforward portraiture, or sculpture. It was whimsical and weird, but impactful because of a few well-formed conventions. I felt like maybe I could do it. My essays could be contained in different boats. The simple idea that I could have more than one boat was a revelation! I didn’t think that would ever be allowed! Maybe I thought everything had to be thrown into the world at once because I wouldn’t live long enough to have time to do so-or maybe that I wouldn’t be given enough opportunities if I messed up the first one. Better to cram everything in at once, I think I thought. But this was showing me I didn’t have to.

 

I’d like to say I decided right then and there that I knew it was right to revise, but I didn’t. I was still scared and didn’t know if I had the skills to shape the whole thing again-limiting the narrative scope and turning brief bits of stories into an arc. Someone else (the fabulous Captain Awkward) gave me many tools to help decide what was right-one of them was assigning music to different chapters and see how they sounded together. Were they discordant? Was the tone smoothly shaped along the way or were styles jarring against each other? Was the mood of the music what I had hoped to accomplish? And in doing this exercise I realized both that no, my book wasn’t yet a playlist that made sense, and that yes, I do have some sense of what is conventionally “correct” and even maybe beautiful. The revision felt both like something that could be done successfully and that I could do successfully.

 

So August, September and October were spent revising, taking thirty thousand words out of an eighty thousand word manuscript and making them the basis for something new. I am proud of it, whatever else may come. I am proud of learning what I’ve learned about myself and my craft from doing this. The learning never, ever ends. But I haven’t had much time to write much else-not here. My submissions for individual essays have slowed down. I haven’t been published this calendar year, which is kind of painful in the way that jealousy stabs your heart and the industry wants to make sure you have a public presence as much as possible before they bet on you. But I haven’t stopped writing. And a lot of it, I think, turned out good. I’m happy.

Summer Is Almost Over ?!?

 

Hostas
Image Description: a large amount of hosta plants with purple flowers on stalks

Holy crow it’s almost over, isn’t it?

What happened???

Every summer I vow that this summer will be more structured and balanced. I won’t forget to exercise. I will take all recommended supplements. We will go to the farmer’s market every Friday (so far we are one for eight on that). New hobbies will become habit. Writing will happen. But life doesn’t like it when I try to wrangle it into an organized march. Every week has been a different rhythm what with camps and vacation and lessons. So it goes with blog posts, too. I did not intend to write one today but noticed it had been a long while so here we are.

Here is some summer stuff that I haven’t gotten to properly process/reminisce about/think through and will run out of summer time before it happens:

  • I have nearly 200 pages of my book written. That is bananas. I still have about 20,000 more words to go. Even more bananas
  • The boys have done a chess camp and a stop-motion animation camp, swim lessons and have an archaeology-ish camp coming up next week.
  • We had my mom’s side of the family reunion in Kentucky and I got to be 100% myself for a full week because I was around A) people who know and love me in all my overly enthusiastic goofiness and B) locals who I may never see again. No masking required.
  • I survived a NASCAR race and a day a Six Flags in a heatwave.
  • I need to up my Lyme treatment again because while my heart rate was great on vacation, the stress of real life means my body isn’t coping as well as I’d like. I don’t really want to up my supplements because it means I lose some of my day.
  • We’ve taken the boys off of dyes and preservatives with good results. We’ve taken me off of gluten with the result that I feel a bunch better, but I complain a lot more about what I can’t have.
  • Our new house has so many flowering plants that I didn’t realize. Every week something new is exploding and while I’ve tried to keep track I am finding it impossible.
  •  The outside of the house renovations are FINALLY DONE!!! Thank goodness.
  • We saw Incredibles 2.
  • We just went to an outdoor concert where the band Classical Blast played The Cranberries’s Zombie as a symphony would, and I just about died from 90’s nostalgia happiness.
  • We have plans to make some pineapple sage lemonade this weekend.
  • I have an adorable Modcloth dress that I need to wear out somewhere, but we haven’t had a chance to go out.
  • We don’t know, still, which school the boys will attend in the fall. We might not know until the week before school. That is not helping my (or the kids’) anxiety levels.
  • I got to hear Len’s Steal My Sunshine.
  • I realized that I have a lot of symptoms of both Autism and ADHD that overlap-and that ADHD strategies are helping me figure out how to make my life work.

 

There is a ton I could unpack about any of these-really! I can think of a mini-essay for all of these, but alas time is fleeting and I need to go make lunch, add 500 words to a chapter about How to Train Your Dragon and disability rep, get some groceries, remember to put our bin of batteries by the door so I remember to take them to recycling, learn how to write a book proposal, submit a story, learn about how people with ADHD have very little concept of how much time tasks take, sew a pillow with Christopher, try not to obsess over how young I looked on the day of the 2016 election and how I’ve aged ten years in the last 18 months…the usual.

Just checking in, hopefully I can get something more coherent to you soon!

Kristin

 

My Digital Home

Digital House
Image Description: a house with most of it’s siding removed
and some grey siding newly installed on the side

I haven’t blogged in a long time. It isn’t for lack of trying-I tried to post something just a couple of weeks ago and a glitch erased it all, pictures, image descriptions, the whole text. Which is probably a good thing as it was kind of pitiful, as in, I was feeling a lot of self-pity. It felt like the universe correcting me, telling me to try again with a little less blah.

Here I am. I started this blog in 2014 as a creative outlet for myself, a place where I could get short essays down and into the world and feel more connected to it. To have a space that was mine to shape and polish and decorate as I wanted, away from the needs of my two kids and the needs of my errant (and in a nod to Roxane Gay, “unruly”) body. I haven’t been able to use this that way for a bit. Oh, there has been self-promotion here and there, but a little essay every other week? Not so much. And that has started to bum me out.

Sure, there are somewhat good reasons for it.

I got warned by ambitious freelancers to never post a piece to your blog for free until you try to sell it. You know, realizing that writing is work and should be appropriately compensated. A great idea in theory-in practice I am absolutely wretched at pitching, and waiting forever to see if a submission has been accepted or if a pitch has landed is bad for my mental health. It was unsustainable for me. And I have discovered that I am really bad at coming up with timely think-pieces that have enough foothold for a broad audience.

Another factor was that I didn’t want to take what little time I had away from actually completing the book I am working on. It’s a work-in-progress, a collection of essays, a memoir about being chronically ill, that is going incredibly slowly at the moment. Part of the problem is that my illnesses, the subject of the book, keep shifting and changing requiring rewrites and reimagining and review. Time is eaten away quickly.

A third factor has been managing my health. I was diagnosed in January with Lyme disease, and I have most likely had it since I was six. The infection just took over when my immune system was under so much stress from two pregnancies and two C-sections and a recession about eight years ago, and I couldn’t cope anymore. So many mysterious and seemingly unrelated systemic problems came from that. Treatment is hard, many hours of the day it feels as if even my individual cells need deep breathes and stillness. Most of the day is spent letting my body rest. I never let it rest before-because I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia which has no known cause and no known cure I had opted to play through the pain, pushing through because my life was going to stagnate if I didn’t. I had social media schedules where I planned on Sunday night what Facebook posts I was going to post that week. I tweeted. I participated in every group I could get into. I got a blog post done every two weeks. I submitted and submitted and submitted. Then I got tired. And more tired. And more tired. And finally had to stop. Because I just couldn’t go anymore. I submitted, finally, to my body’s needs.

In the midst of this I asked myself what was it I wanted out of writing and getting published. I really thought it through because moving the goalposts was wearing me out. With the election of 2016 I wondered if what I wanted most was to be a voice for change, an activist. I asked myself if what I wanted was to be famous, like David Sedaris, or Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess), having fabulous fun book tours and interviews and the like. Did I want respect, to have the approval of the upper echelon in the literary world? Did I want to have a followers who can’t wait to see what I say next?

Then it hit me. All those things are wonderful. Any of those goals fulfilled would be rewarding. When those goals are achieved by other people I feel envious and there is a tendril in my heart of longing-especially on days when illness and treatment make those goals dance further and further away from my grasp. My real goal? I will do anything in my power to keep being allowed to tell what the world looks like from my point of view.

To achieve this goal, there are barely any gatekeepers. I can do that here, any time I want. I don’t have to wait for editors or agents or the Submittable queue. I don’t need to have an MFA to be allowed to do this. Nor do I need to wait the six months after I enter a contest to find out if the judges enjoyed my work. I don’t have to start my own literary magazine. What I want to be able to do, I already can do. It’s rare that that is true, especially in my body. What I really want to do is what I already am capable of doing.

This is my digital home. If I want to write about what Vanellope Von Schweetz means to me I don’t have to wait until I find just the right quirky paying home for that essay. If I want to talk about my son’s broken ankle and how people think he is perpetually miserable about it when he isn’t, I can do that without fighting for a spot in the Washington Post Talent Network, pitching the idea and hoping it doesn’t end up with a misleading title.

I want a place to show the peonies in my garden, and a little girl refusing to play Duck, Duck, Goose just to give the appearance of friendliness. I have that place. I just forget that I already do.

The other day at Ulta I found myself looking at every shade of lipstick, drawn again and again to the reds, which is unusual for me. I almost shelled out 35 bucks for a lip liner and lipstick. Then I realized that although I hadn’t used it since a gala fundraiser in 2015, I had an almost identical red at home. Here’s to using the clothes and the makeup and the utensils and the tools we already have before going out and buying more. Here’s to remembering that if what I want to do is be allowed to tell my stories, I already have a way to do that.

Here’s to putting up siding, painting the hallways and redecorating my digital home.

Beyond Your Blog Hall of Fame

BYB-HoF-Selection
Image Description: The words “Beyond Your Blog Hall of Fame Selection” in white on burgundy 

Ha! So…if you know me you know I am often an over-enthusiastic puppy dog with no chill. The things I am excited about I am all in for. Visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter soon? I’ve got my Hufflepuff themed pedicure and I am getting myself either McGonagal or Luna’s wands. Battlebots coming back on TV? The DVR can’t be set yet, but I have reminders already in my planner.

I have been grinning all afternoon. Two separate guest editors at Beyond Your Blog selected my essay Finding Shelter , which was published at The Rumpus on Memorial Day, as a double honoree in the categories of Personal Essay and Editor’s Choice. Which hasn’t happened before, apparently!

This is what they posted today

“Finding Shelter” by Kristin Wagner on The Rumpus

Congratulations on being the first ever to be selected in a category AND as the Editor’s Choice.

Guest editor in the Editor’s Choice category, Rudri Bhatt Patel, shared this feedback: “A well-written essay seeks to make the personal a universal. Wagner weaves a complicated narrative through the lens of an impending hurricane. The anticipation of what might happen should this hurricane land pushes Wagner to contemplate self and her vulnerability. She creates a defined arc, integrates powerful imagery, and wields her truth through her prose. There were several lyrical lines which resonated. My favorite – “Maybe the only thing that lets anyone survive is the ability to stay joyful. It’s the only thing to make the end of the world not feel like the end of the world.”

Guest editor in the Personal Essay category, Lauren B. Stevens, shared this feedback: “There are so many layers to Kristin’s piece, that I’ve now read it a total of three times! Kristin conveys the complicated, and beautiful, nature of student-teacher relationships (I had my own “Dierdre” when I taught), explores the dichotomous nature of our class system in stark detail, and writes about prepping and evacuating during Hurricane Rita with detail so vivid it had me sweating! Absolutely beautiful.”

SO COOL!

That’s all,

Kristin

 

 

 

Libel

libel

A word about my understanding of libel laws.

I’ve been concerned about this since I started writing personal essays and memoir. The stance I take is to be very careful about the information I share about living people. If I know them quite well, I try hard to work with them to see what they are comfortable with me sharing. If I don’t know them as well, I will either still inform them I am writing or I will hide their identities as well as I can. I try also to never write something that isn’t true, and I consider very carefully whether my words can hurt someone’s reputation.

Melania Trump has filed a libel suit against a blogger in Maryland. The Trump lawyers seem, from what I am seeing, to roll deep. They are reaching farther than we thought. And Trump himself has said many times that he would rewrite libel laws if given a chance, which would drastically restrict freedom of speech. So please know what your rights currently are.

I am not a lawyer, and so this is absoutley NOT legal counsel, but I am concerned about my writer friends.

In order for what you write to be considered libel, you have to write something that sullied someone’s reputation. I.E. you have written something that is counter to the other person’s perceived reputation, that is both false AND believable enough that the piece of writing can hurt that person’s ability to function in society. Trump has said so many things on the record himself that simply repeating what he has said is not (in my understanding) considered libel. Nor is telling the truth. And obviously what has been said has not damaged the Trumps’ ability to prosper, so there is that, too.

Also of note, satire is usually well-protected. For instance, if someone calls Trump an Oompa-Loompa, no one of sound mind believes that Trump is actually a fictional character invented by Roald Dahl for the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If you are a satirist, you should be safe.

Know your rights.

Please be careful right now.