Unite | Paper Doll Tales

I’m relearning addition and subtraction alongside Miss I, and can I tell you, 12-5=? still has me doing some mental finger counting.  I feel much more comfortable with the opposing sentence, 7+5=?.  Did I snooze my first time through first grade and miss some much needed subtraction practice on these higher number facts?  I prefer addition.

That’s very English majorish of me to prefer addition.  To anthropomorphize arithmetic so I can picture sitting across a cafe table from Addition and catching up over coffee.  (Unlike Subtraction who is never around when I need her and nags me with a feeling like I could have brought more to our friendship.)

Last night I attended a local poetry reading.  It was a crowd in folding chairs in a bookshop, at which I more frequently sit on the ground, Miss C numbing my legs with her weight in my lap, for story time.  It was grown up story time with poems and references to Dickinson, Auden, Dylan, and Eliot.  It was a professor who taught me to love slant rhyme and Elizabeth Bishop 15 years ago and whose hand gestures, that slight tap on his opposing wrist, I had forgotten until last night.  It was a crowd smattered with other former English professor faces.  It was Shakespeare recitations from my Shakespeare professor, flattened vowels from my British Literature professor, interest in lyrics from my Theater professor.

I looked at the rack of first reader books behind the poet.  I looked at the sign for Board Books.  I looked at the stack of shaggy carpet squares last seen scattered on the floor for preschool story time.

My mind could not add nor subtract this equation: Past + Present = ?

I could not subtract my present from my past, nor could I subtract my past from my present.  I could not reconcile the ghost of a three-year-old’s weight in my lap with the voices that had taught, inspired, awed me when I sat in a wooden chair with a lap desk and college-ruled notebook open in front of me, receptive.

I listened to poems about daffodils, ankles wetted by garden dew, icons of Marys with peace-loving baby Jesuses, heart murmurs, Western Pennsylvania snow, swifts, Thor, oak shadows stretching across summer lawns.  The words were beautiful.  Freshened.  Drew sighs and puffs of awe from the lungs in the crowd.

This was my academic past plus my mid-thirties present.  If I define myself now as “writer/teacher/mother”, something has been added to me since I was just “student” in the past.  I felt how much has changed, but not in a subtracted way.  An added way.  I am the me I was then PLUS the me I am now.  Then comes the equal sign.

Words, for me (former English major who befriends Addition), are the equalizer.  Words are the equal sign in my Addition and Subtraction sentences.

Words balance the numbers of my past, present and future after they mix, mingle, unite, subtract.  Words take my past, present, and future, offer up the hope of a straight path along a double-dash, and come to some sense at the very end.

At least, I hope I paid enough attention in First Grade to get that equation right.

I hope that these words will help me double-dash balance the precarious feeling of being off-balance as student now mother, girlfriend now wife, girl now woman, stepping out of a door through which I’ve only previously walked as mother, wife, woman.

I waved goodbye to the dear, familiar faces now slightly blurred in wrinkles and grayer hair.

I walked out onto a village sidewalk I had walked just earlier that day with preschooler in hand.  A bank of storm clouds threatened but held off, their urgency perfuming the air with rain-sweat.  This uniting of past and present equals something.  I’m not totally sure of the answer just yet.

This prompt is inspired by and shared with Five Minute Fridays.  As often happens with these five minute prompts, I hit five minutes of writing on my fifth paragraph, but just couldn’t stop there. I added 20.  So, thank you for 25 minutes of writing inspiration! (And for fellow writers who have followed the rules, pretend to stop reading my post after that fifth paragraph.)

For an excellent book of poetry, I recommend Dr. Erik Potter’s recently published Things Not Seen.  And to support an excellent local bookshop, I recommend ordering his book through The Penguin Bookshop, home of a great preschool story time and people who really love books.



  1. Emma said:

    That was really profound and beautifully expressed! (And it was good to know you didn’t write all that in 5 minutes… I’m glad you continued to develop the thoughts!)

    April 23, 2016
  2. Hi, Beth, I’m so glad I decided to read ONE MORE FMF post tonight. From a fellow English major and student of Shakespeare, poetry, motherhood, and life, I am tracking with your every word. My favorite part, “Words balance the numbers of my past, present and future after they mix, mingle, unite, subtract. Words take my past, present, and future, offer up the hope of a straight path along a double-dash, and come to some sense at the very end.” I went to a recent lecture on Shakespeare in America and found myself realizing how long it had been since I had done anything so grownup and intellectually stimulating. I went home and signed up for two more upcoming sessions. (It’s soul food, as you seem to attest from your story too.) Will be sharing your post with a few of my writer friends too. Simply delighted to read your words! -Your friend in spot #54.

    April 24, 2016
  3. Emily Conrad said:

    As promised, Beth, Christina shared with friends :) So glad she picked me among them so I could find my way here! You took me back to the poetry readings I went to and participated in in college. Sadly, I haven’t been to any lately, but I have begun to dig back into poetry over the last few months in a way I hadn’t done in years. It is a really wonderful feeling to be able to add that skill from the past to the current present. Poetry (and writing as a whole) unmuddles some things or, as you said, acts as an equalizer. Thanks for your post!

    April 24, 2016
  4. Jo Schoeneck said:

    This piece is excellent! I’m afraid I can’t express it as eloquently but you have spoken a profound truth, or truths, in a profoundly beautiful way. Well done.

    April 24, 2016

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