I love when writers are here. Every summer for the last four, writers from around the country have spent a week at our house. We usually have three teachers and three separate workshops. This summer, though, it’s just me, and three others. They’re here on retreat. I’m just serving breakfast and dinner. They make their own lunch. In between, they write. And for an hour (nearly two this morning) we talk about writing until we’re ready to go off to our corners and type.
A few minutes ago I went outside to get the dogs who were sleeping in the pen outside my window. While I was out there, Maddie and Addie came over to say hello. They live across the street. They’re sisters who were adopted from a Russian orphanage. They’re not related by blood, just luck. Maddie is Madeline, Addie is Adeline. It’s taken me six months to consistently remember which one is which. They often come over when I’m outside. It used to be that Maddie, the older one by 8 months, would sit on our front lawn splicing pieces of grass, or she’d bounce her volleyball in the middle of the street as though she hoped someone would come along. Just after another seventh-grader at their school shot himself in April, I saw her batting her volleyball into the air over and over again, so I went out. All I said was, “It’s been a tough week, hasn’t it?” and she mumbled “yeah.” We hit the ball back and forth for half-an-hour and both felt better for it.
Last week, Brent bought a basketball hoop so the neighborhood kids would have a place to play. There are only four kids on our street, but Brent likes to play too, and my brother-in-law is coming to visit in a few weeks. Now that there’s a hoop, Maddie is more confident about coming over. Addie’s tougher. She comes and goes whenever she feels like it. My being there has nothing to do with it. Today I told them I couldn’t play because I was writing. They look confused. They thought I said “riding” and they wondered where our horses were. I laughed, spelled out w-r-i-t-i-n-g, then told them there were three writers inside and that the four of us were taking the whole week to do as much writing as we could. “How much do you have to write?” Maddie asked. “We don’t have to write anything,” I said, “but we’re all working on books so we’ll write as much as we can.” She still looked confused. “What? Are you telling stories? Are you making things up?” Addie asked. “We’re all writing some kind of memoir,” I said, “so we’re not making things up, we’re writing about something that’s happened to us.” “How long are you going to write?” Maddie asked. “I’m going to write until dinner,” I said. Another confused look. Maddie started dribbling the ball, wandered away, then told me a bunch of things including the fact that she’s dying to see the inside of our house (like now would be good.) She knows we have a ping-pong table and a piano, and a dog who howls when the EMS sirens go off. Our windows are open so she hears everything.
My friend Cathy told me a story last week: When she was thirteen-ish she spent an afternoon with the woman who lived across the street. She doesn’t remember why she was there, but she knows the woman changed her life. She emphasized the word ‘literally’. The woman told her about how she’d gotten pregnant at a young age, how she’d been trying to quit smoking for ages but just couldn’t, how she’d had to leave high school and wished she hadn’t. All afternoon the woman spoke to Cathy as though she was a person, not a twit. Not a burden. Not a chore. When Cathy left, she felt good and she’s never forgotten it. She realized even then that she wanted to be like that woman. She wanted to treat people like they mattered. She wanted to feel like she mattered.
I could have the same impact on Maddie or Addie. I don’t want to over-think it or dramatize it, but I do want to honor the chance I’ve been given.
At this moment, they’re out on our driveway shooting baskets. Addie wanted to know if I’d lower the basket so it would be easier to sink her shots. I told her yesterday we’d be raising the goal from where it is now – seven feet – to the eight foot standard for junior high school girls. She squinched up her face like she’d been given liver for dinner. “If you’re gonna play next year,” I said, “you’ve gotta start shooting at the right height.” She didn’t want to hear that. She wants to make baskets now.