Moving on

16 Apr
April 16, 2014

I look at the day ahead of me and think, what’s new here?  Haven’t I done this laundry, these dishes, this vacuuming; haven’t I made these beds already?  And in the week ahead, haven’t I already taught this class, graded these essays, written this exam?  And how many times do I have to go to the same meeting and listen to the same people say pretty much the same things they said last time?

“I think 85% of my life is spent on maintenance,” I tell my friend Lenore.  She laughs and nods in agreement.  She thinks it’s probably closer to 90%, maybe more.  When can you make any progress?

In 1991, I first read Naomi Shihab Nye’s essay, “Maintenance.”  It has stayed with me all these years.  “I’d like to say a word, just a short one,” she writes, “for the background hum of lesser, unexpected maintenances that can devour a day or days – or a life, if one is not careful.”  I look at my life these past few months and I realize that it has been devoured.  I have been lost in daily maintenance.  The frightening part is that while I’ve been utterly consumed with chores every single day, I cannot, at this very moment, name any of my accomplishments.  I’ve been too busy doing them to notice them.   “I am reminded of Buddhism whenever I undertake one of these invisible tasks,” Nye writes, “one acts, without any thought of reward or foolish notion of glory.” I find it helpful to think about such everyday service — acts of domestic, familial, and professional maintenance — as something to celebrate.  In her essay, housekeeping and upkeep, those duties she calls “the motions of preface” – these things aren’t drudgery, not in the least.  Nye wonders,

6943077858_28a7eedb4d_hPerhaps all cleaning products should be labeled with an additional warning, as some natural-soap companies have taken to philosophizing right above the price tag.  Bottles of guitar polish might read: “If you polish this guitar, it will not play any better.  People who close their eyes to listen to your song will not see the gleaming wood.  But you may feel more intimate with the instrument you are holding.”

Last night I was awakened by a panic filled nightmare at the realization that I haven’t written anything for myself in more than a month.  Not a scribbled note, never a thought to be developed, no list of ideas to explore later.  I have no ideas to be explored later because I’ve given away all the mental the space that properly belongs to my imagination.  I have been avoiding this blog, rushing past my own homepage (now there’s a metaphor for you) to hide from its accusatory name. Kathywrites: oh, really?  I think, Does she now?  And what exactly does Kathy write?  Reports and memos, apparently; comments on student papers, endless amounts of email, grocery lists.  Lately, Kathywrites only to keep on top of her day job.  My nightmare’s panic woke me up to ask me – is that all there is?

Enough of these “motions of preface” — I think it’s time for me to become more intimate with the instrument I am holding, to turn back to the blank page.

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Lost and Found

28 Feb
February 28, 2014

In my college drawing class, the professor gave us an assignment that baffled me for a long time.  He placed a chair before the class.  “Ok,” he stated.  “We’re going to learn about negative space.  I want you to draw the space around the chair.  Don’t draw the chair – draw all the places where the chair is not.”

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I remembered this exercise in graduate school, the first time I read Wallace Stevens.  In “The Snowman,” he writes about “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”  Reading Stevens, I nostalgia_by_macilic-d31a4b1felt the itch, like a song playing off in the distance that sounded familiar, but maybe not.  In Stevens’s terms, I did not yet have “a mind of winter.”  I wondered what it would feel like, to have that mind, and if I would know when it happened.  Would I be nothing then?

 

 

And then, several years ago in a memoir workshop, Patricia Hampl looked across the table where I sat earnestly taking notes and talked about the importance of blankness.  “The white space is the place where a reader enters your story,” she explained.  “it’s your breathing space on the page.”

 

hauntingSometimes absence becomes a presence, and many times, emptiness is a real and tangible thing, force to be reckoned with.  The negative space – the loss – presses itself on you more intensely than the world that’s still there.  It’s the ghost pain that people feel, a throbbing in the limb that has already been amputated: the leg is gone but that old ache in the knee, it remains.  It haunts you.

 

A little while ago, I lost an earring.  It was brand new, a gift, a delicate thing, so beautiful.  I loved it.  When I looked in the mirror and saw that it was gone, I thought, oh, no.  And then I thought, But it’s not really gone.  It’s just not mine anymore.  It’s gone from me.  I walked around for an hour, searching the ground, trying to call it back to me.  I’d only had it for such a short time, and I loved it so much.  But it was lost – still out there in the world somewhere, but lost to me.

Tender Sprouts

20 Jan
January 20, 2014

In the opening of John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen is tending her garden.  It’s December — the end of one year, the beginning of another, and there’s a strong new crop coming.  Elisa, with her “eyes as clear as water” has so much energy at the story’s opening, so much potential; she is “over-eager, over-powerful.”   She has so much more to offer than world she’s consigned to, and there’s no place for her to go with her talents.  Her husband sees this. “You’ve got a gift with things,” he tells her.  It’s true: Elisa has a gift, she can make things grow, and she reveals a certain smugness when she acknowledges this.

And why not?  Why shouldn’t she be smug?  You see, of course, that I am talking about myself here.  It’s a new year.  I’ve got a new crop coming too.  I, too, am a bit smug.  And I’m punished for that, just like Elisa.  Lots of us are, I suspect; we are women and this is what happens.

daniel-ridgway-knight-b1189-chrysanthemums-wm-jpgHere’s the story: Elisa is content to be working her garden, transplanting the chrysanthemum shoots for a new year.  This is a source of tremendous pleasure to her, for Elisa has “planting hands,” she is gifted with a kind of sympathy – she understands the plants in a way that’s instinctive, inarticulate, so she can shape the natural world into a thing of unnatural beauty.  But she’s lonely out there on the farm, always wearing men’s oversized clothes while she works.  A stranger comes by, as they are wont to do in our lives, a travelling handyman who fixes pots and sharpens knives, and he tries to hawk his skills on Elisa.  She’ll have none of it, doesn’t need him in the least: self-sufficient, she mends her own supplies, sharpens her own scissors.  He’s hungry, though, so he plies her, asking about her planting; he toys with her tender vanity.

So Elisa yields.  And it’s not so much the yielding to his sales pitch that is her undoing; the coin she pays him for accomplishing those tasks that she is perfectly capable of accomplishing herself — this money matters very little in the end.  Nor is the pot of tender chrysanthemum spouts that she gives him such a valuable treasure to share.  There are so many sprouts, they will grow back.  No, her undoing comes from her other capricious offering – she tells him her secrets.  She reveals herself, and in her stumbling, half articulate way, she offers him the poetry of her most vulnerable most private self.  “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean,” she tells him.  “When the night is dark–why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and–lovely.”

In the end, Elisa is duped.  That brooding man with the calloused hands didn’t care one whit about her chrysanthemums, he didn’t understand her secrets; his earnestness was all an act.  Later that evening, when she drives out with her husband and sees a “dark speck” on the side of the road, she knows that her harvest of tender shoots – all that promise, all that beauty, all of her delight in having made a connection with someone who she thought had seen her, had understood – it has all been unceremoniously cast aside.

You can’t really blame her for offering herself in this way.  What else is she to do?  What are any of us to do with all of the longing and hope that we carry around, our thrumming wish to be recognized, to be seen – to matter?

 

Birthday

14 Dec
December 14, 2013

sure of youIn 1977 I celebrated my 13th birthday in my brother’s hospital room.  I remember thinking at the time that it was the lamest and most pathetic birthday in the history of the universe.  My sisters opted to go to a basketball game rather than venture yet another trip to the hospital; we’d all spent enough time visiting there during the previous few weeks.  No balloons, no friends, no party; we couldn’t even light candles on my store bought birthday cake because of the oxygen tanks in his room.

As I opened my gifts –  a Shaun Cassidy album, leg warmers, an assortment of Bonne Bell lip smackers – my poor little brother sat gamely in his hospital bed,  with his chapped lips and his crazy hair and his IV drip, in an earnest effort to be celebratory.  He was 10.  I had no way of knowing that it was the last birthday I’d spend with him.

I had a flashback to that scene last year on my birthday.  I’d had a great day planned, all fun and self-indulgence, though I started that morning at the gym.  It was only once I’d finished training that I looked up at the bank of tv’s on the wall and saw the breaking news banners running across every channel.  Trumbull, Connecticut, my hometown, is very close to Newtown.  So last year, I spent my birthday — and many of the days following it — tracking the frantic, desperate, sad and prayerful facebook posts of my high school friends, my cousins, the neighbors from my childhood, all people who were affected.

Please understand what I’m saying here: this is not meant to be a sad story.  This is meant to be a love story.  Today, my son is 10, the same age as my brother on that sorrowful birthday of mine so many years ago.  I look back and I want to shake the selfish and confused girl I used to be.  Because I sat there with those packages in my lap and thinking to myself, “Is this it?  Is this all there is?”  And all the time, I was looking at the wrong gifts.

 

 

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Apart and Together

25 Nov
November 25, 2013

I tend to think about distances when Thanksgiving rolls around.  Many of my own memories of this holiday involve long stretches of Wednesday afternoon traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike, with hundreds of brake lights glittering on the horizon for as far as the eye could see.  But in my view, what Thanksgiving teaches us about distance is this — when distance functions as a metaphor for emotional connections, it’s often a false one.  When we come together to share Thanksgiving with the people we love, we realize that in the things that matter the most, the distance between us is mere.  Our genuine connections cannot be damaged by the geographical space that ostensibly separates us, not really.

Still, it’s hard to be apart from the people we love, the people we want to be with.  Maybe you are like me, and you fantasize about a parallel universe in which those distances and separations don’t exist.  I can meet Becky for lunch (even though she’s in Florida), go shopping with Jen (even though she’s in California), watch the playoffs with Mark (even though he’s in Virginia).  It’s a lovely place, the parallel universe where my imagination unfurls, and I indulge in fantasies about things that can’t actually happen — a nonexistent world in which I’ll be rolling pie crust in my mom’s kitchen this week, playing catch with my toddler nephews, teasing my father, baking Swiss Pumpkin with Mickie.  And maybe I spend too much time in that imaginary world, but really: why not?  What’s the harm?

In the meantime, we can skype, we can text, we can call – and we can still write to each other too, you know.  6943077858_28a7eedb4d_hSome of the most exquisite and beautiful intimacies in history have taken shape as epistolary relationships.  In writing to each other, we can say things that are far more difficult to articulate in person; but being more difficult doesn’t make them less true.  Just as living at a distance doesn’t mean that you have to be apart, not really, not in the things that matter.