Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Marion Winik Cited in Austin
by Marrit Ingman

In her fifth collection of published essays, NPR commentator and former Austinite Marion Winik keeps on keeping it real--whether sheís cruising through Canadaís maritime provinces on a disastrous voyage with various relatives, struggling through her first (and only) marathon, going blond, getting tattooed, blending two families, having a baby at 42, having her tubes tied, or contending with her second sonís sudden criminal streak. She falls in love again, says a tearful goodbye to Texasís ďmad naked summerĒ nights, and plows the family car into a snowdrift on the half-mile driveway leading to her new homestead in rural Glen Rock, Pennsylvaniaówith keys, phone, and baby Jane locked inside.

But the book, Above Us Only Sky, isnít a linear progression from then to now, from the Clarksville crash pad of her misspent youth to tumbling classes and Football Mom t-shirts. Like motherhood itself, the book is fractured and fragmented. Moments of deep recollection alternate with glimpses into what may comeóas children grow, as parents age, as the world becomes more complex and loses its innocence. These themes are collected in the centerpiece of the book, a lengthy rumination on the events of 1981óthe aftermath of John Lennonís murder, the demise of the counterculture, some disastrous romantic choices, and a personal tragedy at home. Through it all, Marion Winik copes. She keeps her pluck and her wits about her, and sheís got some choice words to share about politics, religion, and cultureófrom bagel-marketing juggernauts to terrorism.

As she spoke about the book from her Pennsylvania homestead, Marion was preparing to return to Austin for two events: the Texas Book Festival and an author appearance at BookWoman. She also described the switch from a major, mass-market publisher to a smaller, feminist press and what it means to be unruly as a mother approaches 50.

Austinmama: Howís everything going with the book?

Marion Winik: I came to Austin last week to sign them at the Jewish Community Center and had a lovely time. It was pretty much an all-woman audience of about sixty people, and many claimed to have read every word Iíve ever written, so I had a lovey-dovey hometown audience, and I had a great time. Itís a very, very fun book to read from. The first piece, ďWaiting for Daddy,Ē is kind of a performance piece.

AM: What have you got planned now?

MW: Iím going to be doing some stuff around here and the larger East Coast, starting in York, Pennsylvania, and thereís Baltimore, and thereís New York, and thereís two things in New Jersey. And then thereís Austin and the Book Festival, and then Iím going a mini West Coast thing.

AM: Besides travel and the budget and being a little more DIY, how has the experience of switching to a smaller press been for you?

MW: Itís been great. I really struggled with not having input on some things I really cared about in my last few books. My last book, which was [published by] Simon & Schusterís Fireside division, called Rules for the UnrulyóI hate the cover so much I almost canít look at the book. I completely avoid looking at the book or holding the book or giving the book to anyone. I canít tell you how unhappy I am with the way it looks. I had had little input into any of my covers since the hardcover of Telling (published in 1995). It was so important to me to have control. Seal [Press] went so far beyond what I thought. Iíd been conditioned to expect [publishers] not to listen to a single word I say. I wanted to do a collection of essays when I published The Lunchbox Chronicles. But because Telling hadnít been a big bestseller, they thought, ĎNah, not a collection of essays. Letís do something in the parenting category.í So I had to rejigger what I wanted to be a collection of essays into a parenting manuscript. Everything seemed to have to have a niche, and to get the niche, a lot of what I wanted couldnít be in it. Above Us Only Sky has everything in it that I wanted to be in it. One of my favorite essays in the book, ďThe Mad Naked Summer Night,Ē I wrote a long time ago when I lived in Austin. It was first published in the [Austin] Chronicle. Itís been kicked out of three different books for not being about the theme.

AM: It sounds like kind of an interesting place to be at midlife.

MW: Yeah, it is. Iíve had the good fortune of having some of my little childhood ambitions clearly fulfilled. Iíve written books and had them reviewed in The New York Times. Iíve been on big fancy book tours. Iíve stood on the stage with Amy Tan and Dave Barry and Stephen King. Iíve met a lot of authors I really admire as writers. Iíve had the chance to make my living as a writer since my early thirties. On the other hand, I havenít turned into the worldís most famous and popular writer. [Laughs] I have this sort of hobbling-along career in some ways. But now I donít have those lofty ambitions. Now just want to be able to write. So now I donít care anymore.

AM: Some of the essays about the pain of parenting, about being rejected by your children as they grow upóďMrs. Portnoyís Complaint,Ē most obviouslyówere really terrifying. Howís all that working out for you?

MW: Itís good! [Laughs] Well, today is a good day.

AM: Nothing on fire?

MW: Nothing is on fire. No one has cursed at me today. No one has been arrested this week. The childrenís legal problems have become a new feature of my life. You know, Hayes is going to college next year, so thereís also this incredible feeling about your kids leaving you, whichóI have to be honestóI view with mixed feelings. Part of me will be really glad when he gets out of here. But of course I canít believe that Iím not going to live with Hayes anymore. Itís going to be so weird. I wonít have an empty nest at all, but when your first one leaves, itís big. I didnít even write anything about that because itís still coming up. The whole teenage thing has been...really hard. Really emotional. Itís much more emotionally challenging for me than anything with the little kids was. My teenagers donít think of me as their best friend. I know they think of me as a pretty mellow mom, and I think Iím pretty helpful to them in a lot of ways. But theyíre not very helpful to me, actually. [Laughs]

AM: Iím hopeful that once your children are living independently itís going to be a whole other area to explore.

MW: Yeah, well, guess when that is? I have a five-year-old! Iím 47! Letís see...Iím going to be almost 70 whenever it is youíre talking about. Thatís why itís really important for me to keep exercising and stuff.

AM: You have to deal with everything all at once.

MW: Jane is going to her first soccer practices now. Itís surreal for me to be going to kindergarten soccer practices again. But Iím doing it. Fortunately she has lived through my shortcomings and is now in kindergarten. Now Iím helping her write in her journal every day. Weíre getting up to the stuff that I like.

AM: Once you can do things with your kids that you authentically do enjoy, itís like an infusion in your soul.

MW: Thatís a huge thing to cross, when youíre doing things that you would like to do anyway. My step-daughterówhen I met her she was 11óand I trained her to be a Scrabble player. She is really into playing Scrabble, and I am really into playing Scrabble. It was a great element of our bonding. I hadnít had so many of those things with my boys. I think Iíll have more of them with Jane. And I donít have to worry about this now that sheís five, but when sheís older, weíre going to have all the complicated issues about body image and sexuality, and the whole ordeal of being female. I donít fear it, but I know itís going to be thornier for me to do this. With the boys I had this sense of ĎI canít mess this up.í I felt confident in myself as a model of womanhood from the perspective of a young man growing up. ĎThey have an independent, kickass mom who is confident, and this is all good.í And thatís good for a little girl, too, but the seamy underside is more apparent.

AM: So now Jane is going to have a tattooed, marathon- running, farm-living and occasionally blond mommy. That blows my mind. Especially the marathon.

MW: Oh well, I did that once when she was one. I doubt Iíll be going again. Now weíre on the four-milers. Didnít you get the impression [from the book] that I might not be running one every few days?

AM: Itís so far afield of what I would ever do.

MW: Me, too! It just shows how suggestible I am! I start hanging around with people who think something is really great...

AM: Whenever I hang around with those fit people, I get the sense that, like you say, itís an addiction. Youíre going to get into this instead and do this all the time. I think itís crazy.

MW: I took kind of a long break from exercising. I went to Paris with my extended family, twelve people from three generations, so Iím just getting back into it. I miss it. Itís not an addiction like drug addiction. I guess some people do get to that point. I definitely learned that it feels better this way. After two months of lolling about, guzzling red wine in Paris and stuff, I did want to start again. It was mostly because of how it would make me feel. Not because Iím on some crash diet or whatever.

AM: Wow.

MW: I think it is pretty good, as addictions go. Itís getting to be a decade since I left my total slob-hood behind. When I was your age, I would have been saying exactly what youíre saying. If I thought about it, Iíd immediately get a cigarette.

AM: But are you still unruly?

MW: Yeah, Iím still unruly. Itís well-known. Iím still unruly in that I make mistakes and hideously embarrass myself once in a while. Iím still unruly in that I still believe things passionately enough to make an annoyance out of myself to others who disagree with me. I run around town in a sport bra and a pair of menís underwear or something in a place where people really do not dress like this. I know that a lot of people here must think I am extremely eccentric. Thatís kind of fun, running into the grocery store with bare feet, sport bra, and my miniature dachshund. Thatís not a sight very often seen in Glen Rock.

AM: You donít think itís going to catch on?

MW:I hope so.

AM: Well, youíre certainly still opinionated.

MW: I think that might be my problem, really, as far as never having been best-selling. Maybe itís because Iím too opinionated, and Iím too unrelenting.

AM: Sometimes I hear thatís a good quality in writers. But then when it actually happens, especially when itís coupled with discussions of motherhood and family, people are really frightened of it. Whatís the essay thatís really ballsy? ďMothers Against Faith.Ē

MW: As I said, in the middle of that essay, I was waiting to be struck down.

AW: I hate to see that iconic ďmotherĒ notion used to prop up ideas about patriotism or nationalism and all these things that divide people, and as I think you point out, these ideas are used to legitimize violence, which a reasonable person would think of as anti-mother.

MW: I donít know how many people would join [Mothers Against Faith, the fictitious organization from the eponymous essay]. We are standing by!

AM: You could have a chapter in Glen Rock.

MW: This is the chapter. This is the national headquarters.

AM: You get issued your sport bra when you show up.

MW: And your miniature dachshund. So what did you think of the long essay? Thatís the part of the book that took me five years to write, so Iím really excited to see what people think of it. Itís been completely unpublished. Any Ďtest drivingí that essay had was received with extreme negativity.

AM: Really.

MW: It was a total failure in various forms for a long time.

AM: It functions in this collection in an interesting way. In the beginning of the third act of the book, thereís this very revealing, very intimate, emotionally open piece.

MW: Thereís a societal level to it, too. Itís supposed to be about the time and the transition into the 1980s, and the way the concerns of our culture changed then. And itís also kind of about coming of age in a general way, and how the place where you live when youíre in your twenties plays a unique role in your life. I hoped that it would have reverberations for other people about place and about growing up.

AM: It definitely does.

MW: In that piece, Iím not a mother. Iím not a grown-up.

AM: But youíre still you, and we see you becoming the person that you are in the essays that are more contemporary, at least in their setting.

MW: Going back to what you asked me earlier, I doubt anyone else would have let me put that in there. Itís very Seal Press. ĎOh, sure! A 75-page essay thatís set in a completely different part of your life and has a totally different style than anything else in the book? Sure!í

AM: I have this theory that when you become a mother, especially when youíre new at it, you go through a period of being focused on how you got to this point. So think back to those times that were transformative in your younger life. In other words, as soon as you become a mother and you start thinking of yourself as ďa mother,Ē you also think of yourself as ďnot mother.Ē Itís a dialectic. Now that Iím somebody different, what did I used to be?

MW: Itís also that because Iím a teacher and a mother of young adults, Iím dealing with people who are the age that I was when these things happened to me. And itís another phase of what youíre talking about. When you start feeling like a parent to people who are 21, 22, and even teenagers, and dealing with the stuff they go through, you have to think about this. ĎHow was this for you?í and ĎWhat did you doí and ĎWhy the hell did you do it?í Thereís a lot of anarchic potential in that age, in that stage of life. A lot of people are very wide-open, and a lot of things can happen to them. Itís scary to be on the care-taking side of that. How could I take care of people who are drawn to the kinds of things that piece is about?

AM: How do you answer that question?

MW: This is going to sound really trite, but I try to keep the communication open. You do not trowel on the judgment, because then they wonít talk to you anymore. Donít make them lie to you by creating a situation in which itís impossible to tell the truth. And donít believe that you can control them. You canít. But you still want to stay in as much as you can. If you have a teenage daughter, and she has an experience that is upsetting and scary to her, you hope that sheís going to talk to you about it. Thatís your best hope. You canít hope that nothing upsetting and scary will ever happen to her or that sheíll never make upsetting and scary choices. You can, but youíll be wasting your time. So all you can do is create the situation where you might get to know about this, and you might get to help her deal with it. And help her learn from itóas much as sheís ready to.
Marrit Ingman writes for the Austin Chronicle, AustinMama.com and Mamalicious.  Her new book Inconsolable was released earlier this month to stellar reviews.