I’ve been online since April, 1995. Quit my job at HarperCollins, bought a modem, unwrapped one of those AOL starter disks that were ubiquitous in the middle of that decade, created an account—screen name LissaNY—and I was off and running. After my free trial ran out, I think we had something like five hours of dialup a week? Ten, twelve at most? Does that sound right? Whatever the cheapest package was.
Not long after that, Scott’s company (DC Comics, subsidiary of Time Warner, which bought AOL) gave all employees a free AOL account with unlimited minutes. His screen name was StratNY, in honor of his Stratocaster. I spent a lot of time on that account, reading the pregnancy and new baby boards, waiting for Jane to arrive. She was two weeks late. By the time she was born, I had a network of invisible friends—many of whom are still friends to this very day. One by one, we delivered our babies and moved to the Baby’s Here, Now What? board. After a while, we jumped to a listserv—this big group of us who’d had babies within a four- or five-month window. Nineteen years later, more than a dozen of those women are still chatting via email every single day. On Facebook, too, but mostly on the list. We’ve met in person, in various configurations, numerous times. Our babies are in college now.
There was a big schism on the listserv around the time Jane was 18 months old. A lot of women left, and I’ve lost track of most of them. I still remember things they wrote, though, back in those days. I remember the names of their kids. When Jane was diagnosed with leukemia at 21 months, a big group of the women who’d left our original list joined forces to send us a giant box of treats from Zabar’s. Several friends from the original list visited me in the hospital, traveling from New Jersey, Boston, and even Chicago. Another woman we knew on AOL, though I don’t think she was part of the listserv, died of complications after childbirth, so horrifying, and we all made squares for a quilt for the baby. I guess that would have been before the schism, because I remember one of the departees, a New Yorker, being interviewed on the TV news about the group effort for the quilt. They shot footage of her sitting at her computer, typing a post to our group. It was such a novelty then, newsworthy, all these strangers behaving like friends. I’m not sure the reporter was convinced we actually were friends.
We are, though.
Somewhere in my first few months of being online, I began poking around the education boards. People were already asking us where we planned to send the baby to school. School? I was still trying to master the art of burping her. I flailed around a bit, reading about private vs private and whatnot, and then suddenly I discovered the homeschooling boards and our lives were never to be the same. Home Education Magazine was active on the AOL hs’ing boards back then—moderated them or something like that—and I remember Helen Hegener being a presence. And Sandra Dodd, whose kids were pretty young at the time, but she was already speaking with conviction and wisdom. Pam Sarooshian was another voice who stuck out. I seldom chimed in, I was mostly reading while nursing my infant, but boy howdy was I taking notes, mental and otherwise. I subscribed to Growing Without Schooling magazine and ordered a bunch of back issues to boot. To my mind, GWS prefigures homeschooling blogs—all those parents writing in to share details about their families’ learning adventures. I always cite John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Charlotte Mason, and Sandra Dodd as the big influences on my ideas about home education, but probably the greatest influence was GWS: reading dozens of letters by parents in the trenches about the myriad ways their kids were learning outside school. That magazine was a revelation. OH I SEE, was my overwhelming response to the first issue I read. I GET IT. THIS IS FOR US.
I made a friend on the AOL hs’ing boards, Pam, whose son had the same birthday as Jane. We were in close daily touch for years, and when Jane got sick Pam sent the most amazing gifts for the hospital. A little box of things from nature—driftwood, beeswax, beans, seeds—pieces of nature Jane could touch and smell from her bed. We still have it, all those beans and twigs intact. There was a vanilla bean, too, inside a corked tube; I remember how its lovely scent would rise above the smell of betadine and latex. Pam also made a little comb-bound, laminated book full of pictures of road signs. Her son loved street signs and she thought Jane might enjoy them too. She did, she read that book—I almost said “to pieces” except it was so well constructed it, too, is still intact.
A year or so later, I found yahoogroups and joined a whole bunch of homeschooling lists. Friends I made there, too, are still with me. Like, really with me, besties. One of them became Huck’s godmother. Eventually email lists became discussion boards (and fraught with endless drama), and bit by bit some of those faded to silence as many of us migrated to blogs and, later, Facebook. Other boards are still active, and I’m the one who faded away. I moved here, to my little homestead on the internet. January will be ten years. I built my first website the summer before I started the blog, so that’s ten years ago exactly.
Blogs brought new friends. Most of you who comment regularly here are friends given to me by Bonny Glen. Sometimes I go back and reread a friend’s blog from the beginning, if the archives are public. What heady days those were! Sharing with abandon, forming blog-rings so we could hop from one to the next in a long, delightful chain. I miss blog-rings! The little “previous | next | random” links at the bottom of the page. I was crazy about that “random” feature—it was like a teleporter. Click! Here I am in someone’s kitchen! Look, she’s making a pie!
I was thinking about the early days today because I had it in my head to write a post called “Things I’ve Learned About My Online Life.” Number 1 was: BLOG FIRST. (I never got to number 2.) This struck me because I’m realizing I turned my old writing pattern upside down, and it’s got me feeling unsettled and less productive. In the early days—years—I used the blog as my transition from Mom time to Writer time. Writing about the kids (i.e., about momming) for 20 minutes helped me shift from one mode to the other. By the end of a post, I was fully in writing mode and could turn my attention to the next chapter of Martha or Charlotte. It was a pattern that worked beautifully for me, through many novels.
Now my online time is splintered between many activities—editing, researching, banking, socializing, writing, blogging, taking classes, watching compilations of 80s commercials (you know, important stuff)—and I’ve begun to feel wistful about the simpler days of yore. Olden times, when I was astonishingly productive, writing posts for not one but as many as FOUR blogs (Bonny Glen, Lilting House, daily notes, private family blog), two fat historical novels and several early readers a year, dozens of freelance articles, and thousands of words a week in discussions of homeschooling methods and philosophy. Good gravy, that was a lot of writing.
WordPress tells me I’ve published 3,081 posts here at Bonny Glen. That tally includes Lilting House, too, which I folded into this site when ClubMom shut down. I can’t begin to guess how many words that is, especially if you add in the lengthy replies I used to make in the comments. Hundreds of thousands. (ETA: Scott, doing some quick math, reckons I’ve posted upwards of two MILLION words here. Yow.) Enough for a book, several books probably. I have it in mind to collect some essays from the site for a book on tidal homeschooling at some point, a mix of new content and old posts. The trouble is, whenever I start to work on it, I find myself wanting to turn each new essay into a post instead—blogging spoils you with the instant readership, the immediate connections. Writing about tidal homeschooling without all of you chiming in in the comments feels so lonely!
And yet I’d like to persevere and make it happen. Sometimes I think the book I’d like to write isn’t about homeschooling—it’s about the online life, about these text-first connections that become real relationships. Or, well, what I’d really like is to write both books. I got my first baby and my first modem in the same month. (Practically.) I don’t know, have not experienced, motherhood separate from the internet. There’s a story there. New parents now give thought to the Google-factor when naming their babies; some parents buy domain names and lock down gmail addresses even before the child is born. That’s practical, I get it. But I realize I and some of my friends—some of —occupy this narrow, unique sliver of parenthood: the space belonging to the parents who got online first. We didn’t know (or hardly experienced) parenting without the internet. But we grew up without it, and we remember what a world-shift coming online was for us. We may have as many friends online as off. We’ve watched each other’s children grow up through the word-pictures we sketched on discussion boards and elists, the photos we pepper our social media feeds with, and—integrating words and pictures—on our blogs.
Blog first, I’m telling myself. Not with agenda, not toward any purpose other than chronicling the adventure and integrating the two dominant sides of myself. The mother, the writer. “Blogger” is such an unlovely word but it strikes me that it more than any other identifier unites those two parts of me. My blog pulls all my pieces together. It’s the home ground I return to after venturing out into new worlds. I suppose I should have thought up this post five months from now, on its tenth anniversary. But if I’ve learned anything from blogging, it’s: Write it down today, while the thought is fresh. Scheduling a topic for later turns the post into an assignment, which dramatically lowers the odds of its eventual completion. (I really am working on getting that habits post up, though!)
There! It took me all those words to figure out what I needed to know. Blog first—that’s the thought I began with. Blog fresh—that’s what my brain was trying to puzzle out. Blog lightly, in a manner of speaking—not in the sense of avoiding deep or serious topics, but without that sense of pressure and polish that rules the rest of my writing life. So now I guess I’ve gone and written a New Year’s Resolution five months early, too. Blog freehand. How funny this is—I didn’t even know I needed to give myself a talking-to!