Writing and Ashes

by Tamuira Reid

11223555_10153446007829425_3754791415596709365_oThere is something about the light in Tuscany. That is what I will remember the most. Not the pasta and the prosciutto that made my pants split open, the drop-jaw architecture, the art dripping from the walls of the Uffizi. No. It's all about the light. It's golden and strong and covers everything in an otherworldly glow. Makes sense why the Renaissance painters were so inspired. And why my father saved pennies (literally) just to stand in front of the Ponte Vecchio as a young man. These photos don't really do it any justice, he'd tell me, spreading the proof between us.

My son and I just left Italy, where I was teaching for NYU Florence. Our campus was a collection of villas dotting acre after acre of olive trees. Ollie went to Italian Catholic school and learned words like "ciao" and "grazie" and some bad ones that he laugh-whispered to me at night before bed. I spent hours wondering what it was, exactly, that made gelato taste so unbelievably good. Life was rich and simple, even if we were dirty and complicated at heart.

We've now traded the cobbled, crooked streets and statues of naked men for the A train and car alarms. The Duomo for Times Square. Peace for chaos. And the thinking of writing to the doing of writing. Summer.

Professors make fast work of the summer months. It's the time we set aside to build our masterpiece, commit ourselves to making that work, the one piece we've dreamt about our entire lives. The one that potentially defines who and what we are.

Back in my college days, I always imagined professors having these fabulously indulgent summers, shuttling off to some exotic tropical island, barefoot and sipping on margaritas, wearing ugly shorts on a golf course. Old, smart people getting laid. I never thought that they might actually, like, work.

I am a creative nonfiction writer turned screenwriter who is currently writing a novel. (I wrote a screenplay, based on a personal essay, and now I am rewriting it as fiction.)

Writing takes time. Lots of it. Insane amounts of it. Hours upon hours until you have no idea what day it is or what the weather is like or when the last time you ate something other than coffee was. When I became a mother, my world shifted entirely. Days became longer, better, harder. Time wasn't something I took for granted anymore.

Luckily, there's this little nagging voice that wakes me every morning before my son gets up and keeps me in my office long after the last student leaves. It says, simply, "write something". So I steal time. Steal moments, opportunities, pockets of minutes here and there. I've learned to write on planes, subways, in the dark, half-awake. I have wallpaper made out of post-it notes and ink spots cover my hands and stain my clothes. Oliver has somehow grown an extra molar between chapters 2 and 3.

I sleep a lot less than I used to. My house is a mess and my laundry is piling up into a heap that ironically resembles the leaning tower of Pisa. But, when it comes down to it, sleep is overrated. At least that's what the voice keeps telling me.

Sometimes my son inspires me to write. Sometimes he inspires me to stop. I see his boy body, all hollowed out around a pillow on the couch, and I want to close the computer and be a part of his tiny, extraordinary world. I want to know what he's thinking about (cars), what he's dreaming about (more cars), what he worries about (losing the cars). I like Hotwheels too, I tell him, worried he's slipping away from me.

But when I'm writing, I know I'm better. A better mother, better teacher, better friend. Because when the writing stops, everything stops and the depression comes in. That certain brand of depressed you get when you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing. When you're denying that downright cellular part of you.

I dumped my father's ashes into the Arno River and watched them swirl and hover and spread before shooting out across the water like some glittery dark tail. A part of me wanted to go with him. A part of me wanted to turn into dust and air like that.

I didn't write in Florence. Flickers here and there, more starts than finishes really. I told myself I needed a vacation in all ways from New York, from the grind of work and structured, measured life. Life that fits into compartments and apartments, I explained to my non-urban California family, who spend their time climbing mountains and wading through lakes bluer than anything you've ever seen. Huh, they'd say, shaking their heads, confused why I live in a city that never sleeps.

What are you writing about, mama?

Not sure yet.

You should write about me. I'm awesome. You'd get a million trillion dollars for a story about me. Then we could a home of our own and not borrow other people's all the time.

How is it possible to love and hate something so much?

Someone asked my father why he painted once. And his answer was, I don't know, man. I just paint. I have one of his paintings above my desk. A red barn with storm clouds rolling in behind it. Sometimes I think I see his face in the storm, telling me to get busy and stop fucking around.

When he was fifty, my dad quit everything that wasn't working in his life, including but not limited to his job, his wife, his friends. He moved from the hot valley of Manteca, California to the sparkling coast of Santa Cruz. He went from corporate giant to hippie artist in less than a year. I knew I was supposed to make art, he'd tell me, stuffing some tobacco into his pipe. I think we all know what we were put here to do, but we don't always listen. We stay miserable out of fear.

Stay miserable because it's safe.

When I was six, I wrote a story about a dollar bill named Dolly that lived in a homeless man's shoe. She traveled all throughout Northern California until he used her to buy a beer at Save-Mart. My teacher gave me an A and wondered if I might be a writer someday. I looked at her big red A on my story and thought, Asshole. A is for asshole. She patted me on the shoulder and I crumpled the papers and threw them away. I wasn't ready yet.

Like my drinking. I was in denial about it until I wasn't. I sobered up and looked at all the time I had missed and promised never to be in denial like that again. I promised myself to be me at all costs, even if it hurt.

Before he died, my father had been planning a trip out to Florence to visit us. Knowing him, his suitcase was probably already packed (a month prematurely), sketchpads and pencils and charcoals neatly tucked in. I bet he stood in his studio, staring out at the night sky and thought about all the light and beauty he'd find in Italy, all the energy and people and art. How he'd get alone time with his middle daughter and how his grandson would hang on his every word. See that, Ollie? Now that is a painting.