Monday, July 11, 2011

My First Time: Yelizaveta Renfro

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Yelizaveta Renfro whose collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World, was recently published by Black Lawrence Press. Renfro's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Blue Mesa Review, Fourth River, Bayou Magazine, Untamed Ink, So to Speak, and elsewhere.  She earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of California and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from George Mason University. She is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Her essay, “The Wisdom of the Oak,” appears in the June/July 2011 issue of Reader’s Digest.

My First Time in Your Shopping Cart
I want to be in your shopping cart at Big Y with the Ball Park Franks and Velveeta, but not too near the sweating Budweiser. Or I want to be with the organic leeks, couscous, and Smart Chicken. Just toss me in with whatever’s in the cart. I—the corporeal I, the one pushing a shopping cart—want to wait, stalking the newsstand, until you come to pick me up, but my three-year-old is just not into loitering by the checkout. Finally, I reach out my hand to the Reader’s Digest, reaching for myself.

This is my first foray into mainstream America. Sure, I’ve previously found my work squirreled away in literary magazines on the mile-long Barnes & Noble magazine rack. This time, though, I’m right here between Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food and CBS Soaps In Depth, at arm’s reach, in the same store where you load up on Hefty garbage bags and Doritos, Dr. Pepper and Twinkies, the mainstays of America.

I pluck three copies and tuck them in with my two avocados, five ears of fresh corn, ten pounds of potatoes, five jazz apples, two mangos, two pounds of carrots, and loaf of fresh bakery bread. I want to shout hysterically, “I’m in here!” No, that’s not true. Actually, I’m nervous the cashier will ask me why I need three copies of Reader’s Digest. As she rings up the produce, I make up plausible reasons: There’s just something in there I really like. But what if she asks what it is? What if she looks inside and finds my photo on page 180? I’m just buying them for some friends. That seems a safer bet. At the senior center. They play bridge. I begin to embellish the story, just in case.

But of course the checker displays no curiosity at all, sending the three copies sailing down to the bagger who deposits them in the sack that they congenially share with the five ears of corn.

Don’t get me wrong: I like for people to read my work. I just don’t like to bring undue attention to myself, as a person made of flesh. Actually, I like being tucked away in the pages, hiding there. You see, I am not nearly so impressive, so polished and certain, in person. Those written words that I send out in the world are finished and shining, while the rest of me is an impromptu performance, and I never excelled at public speaking or stand-up comedy or off-the-cuff remarks. I think of all the witty and memorable things to say much later, when I don’t have to look you in the eye, when I can calmly write it all down. I like to send my words flying across a computer screen or notepad—not from my mouth. I like being in your shopping cart. Cozy me up to the Cheerios. I like shredded wheat, too. Not too close to the chocolate—I don’t care for it, and it might melt on me in this weather. Celery makes me gag. Tell the bagger to be careful. Don’t let me stick to the condensation on the milk carton, and don’t leave me forgotten, pressed up against the edge of the counter. That’s right—in the bag with the dry goods. I’m going home with you tonight.

Or maybe you pick me up in the waiting room at your dentist’s office, dreading a root canal. Or you’re in the waiting room at your cardiologist’s. Or you’re at the pediatrician’s, sleep deprived, rocking a six-week-old in one arm. Or I arrive directly in your mailbox. It’s a great big dented-up metal thing at the end of a dirt driveway. It’s a mail slot right through your front door. It’s a post office box. It’s a pretentious, ornate monstrosity, all gilt and curlicues. Or it’s shaped like a rooster.

However you come by me, go ahead. Pick me up. You will learn so much. The cover alone promises you “The World’s Dumbest Criminals, Celebrities, Lawsuits, Tweets, and more!” as well as “Goof-Proof Grilling Tips.” The funny thing is, I would never buy a publication that makes such boasts. I would never even think to search for one such as myself there. Each time I open the pages, I am newly surprised to find myself there, sandwiched between “25 Things Your Eye Doctor Won’t Tell You” and a poem by Wendell Berry.

And after you read my words, you think about them. Maybe you’re the kind of person who writes to authors, so you write to me. You look me up on Facebook. You send me an e-mail. You tell me your ninety-year-old mother was delighted to find me in the pages of her Reader’s Digest. You send me a helpful clipping from your local newspaper about bark lice on trees. You send a letter printed out all in small caps, telling me about the five oaks on your property and the life lessons you have learned in seventy-six years of living. Or you handwrite a note in your impeccable penmanship, thanking me for nurturing your spirit on this day. Or you fill four pages detailing all the places you have lived and visited in your eighty-five years. You tell me you are a gardener who has learned from nature. You tell me about a dead child and a dead spouse, or about your faith in being reborn daily. You have advice and delight to share.

And I reply: thank you for giving me space in your grocery cart or your mailbox. Thank you for letting me in. I hope we can do it again.

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