Cleaning out the Little Closet of Horrors

photos_Lydia_portraitWith Lydia, my college-age child whose winter break coincides with mine, I am cleaning out our Little Closet of Horrors. It is a home storage area that makes me shudder and mentally throw up a brick wall of denial every time I open it or think about it. Too many bath towels, three aerobeds (why three?), out-of-use curtains, and boxes and boxes of family photos fill this closet.

What most terrifies me is the archive of photos. Although boxed, they have not been organized — it’s clutter! — and they may prompt memories, both happy and sad, that I’d rather keep in deep brain storage.

So, Lydia is helping me. The photo at left is of her in the first minutes of our multi-day project, which started last Monday. We brought all the boxes down from the second floor closet, stacked them, and began.

I originally thought of calling this post, “The benefits of not writing.” In the past several months, I have deliberately set aside Writing — and by that I mean my writing, not the writing I do for work or keeping in touch with people — in order to make extra money through freelancing, fulfill the responsibilities of my primary occupation as writing teacher, and tackle a long mental list of broken or disorganized things around the house that needed fixing or organizing.  About a week ago I scrolled through all my iPhone photos from 2015, and I saw evidence of all I had done in the second half of the year:

  • cleaned closet and drawers ruthlessly, even giving away a 10 year-old seersucker suit from Talbots I had been hanging onto for the day I needed to bring jaunty and preppy back into my life;
  • donated most of the books leftover from both college and grad school because if I need to read Scarlet Letter or Wide Sargasso Sea again, they’re in the library;
  • removed and junked the toilet in my first floor bathroom and installed a brand new toilet ALL BY MYSELF;
  • earned about $19,000 this summer in freelance income from four projects;
  • emptied the attic and basement of both trash and unused items;
  • organized the garage;
  • replaced the shower diverter in our tub’s spout;
  • repaired my garage door; and
  • ran and skated hundreds of miles, thereby keeping the body itself in good repair.

I was only able to do these things because I had deliberately set aside writing. Really, I said to myself, “I am not writing now.” In doing so, I put aside the constant anxiety and distraction that a skilled writer feels when she imagines that, by doing a normal thing like raking leaves or making beds, she is wasting her talent. In not thinking about my wasted talent, I accomplished a lot, and Writing was not hanging around my ankles, pulling at my skirt, asking for attention. Let’s say it had been sent away to summer camp or boarding school, and it was having a good time without me.


As of now there are just a few items remaining on the household mental To Do list, and the scariest one has been the Little Closet of Horrors. What a gift that Lydia agreed to work on it with me! That is something to do in life: when terrified of a task, get someone to join you or at least sit with you as you confront it.  In this case, a collaborator. Continue reading

The things you carry may no longer be needed.

Will this matter to anyone else but me?

August and now September have been months of reducing possessions, my own and others.


love letters from a child (2004 – 2005)

In July, a friend’s mother died, and I offered my practical skills as a form of condolences. A favor turned into a part-time job — and teachers love summer income, especially with a child in college! — and in the past few weeks the furnishings of a 10-room house have been winnowed over time to a few piles for the local charity thrift store.

While I have some posts to write about the stripping of that life of all its possessions, this one is not about that. It’s about my life, and my possessions. As I’ve been clearing the house that is not mine, in parallel I’ve been casting a critical eye on my own stuff in attic, basement, and bookshelf storage and reducing it almost ruthlessly. When someone has died (well, someone whom you’ve never loved or known well), and you realize that the life is not at all in the things, you have to realize that your own life is also not represented by your things.

Your life is in your life. Continue reading

Burn, burn, burn, and smolder

This is the fantasy, or at least one of them: to gather and destroy an archive of excessive notes, dead-end projects, and magazine clippings that I saved over a long period of time because I believed they would coalesce somehow into knowledge or inspiration. They failed to (not I failed to), so the whole collection, even though it is a collection only because I collected it, must be deleted so I can be relieved of the burden.

burn 1

Do you know this fantasy, this feeling?

Harold Bloom, in Anxiety of Influence (OUP, 1973), looks at a series of hierarchical relationships between male poets, and sees younger poets as sons seeking to master, surpass, and even overthrow the older, established male poet/father. To simplify: the younger poet must do more than supersede the older poet in order to make a space for his own creation; he’s gotta take him down.

I wonder if a person must dispose of part of her own past (unprovocative though that past may be) to make room for her own future work and even relationships, projects, and pleasures. The artifacts of the past can own us — no, obligate us.

burn 3

In the garage at my house there were two brown paper grocery bags and one box full of notebooks, files, and conference folders that I had packed up in June when part of the writing & rhetoric program at MIT moved from an administrative building about to be knocked down to make way for MIT.nano, a new nanotechnology research center. (See?) Instead of just sending these materials over to my new office, I set these aside to look at more closely and evaluate whether they had any present-day use. Finally, around Christmas, that holiday of acquisition, I examined them quickly, and as I did I tossed each piece into our backyard bonfire receptacle, wanting to get rid of them as quickly as possible, so that I wouldn’t have to read every word — whether mundane or profound — I had spent years writing, most of them in meetings (not, unfortunately, in the solitude of real writing, the kind that makes something). These were just records: of dates, obligations, lists of names, lists of grades, ideas, modifications, minor decisions, and bureaucratic dialogue. I also did not want to read again the handouts I had collected at conferences, or the articles I once taught in courses I will never teach again.

There were post-it notes here and there, the last layer placed on top of layers and layers of sediment. In one I asked myself, “Do I want any of this?” And in another I chided myself to “write back.”

I saved, but did not want, any of this. I did not write back. Continue reading

Jane’s junk: keep or torch?

box 1Even the neatest among us have loose ends stashed somewhere. A second closet full of clothes. An attic full of old furniture and toys. Paint cans in the basement. Old parts and garden tools in the garage. Out-of-battery watches in the bedside table. Hand-knit baby sweaters in the cedar chest.

They’ve been there for years, perhaps almost the whole time you’ve lived in that house, since your children were babies at least. You know where those leftovers  are: which box, which corner of the attic. In your mind there floats a vivid image of the folded stacks of baby clothes, the jumble of toys, the keepsakes wrapped in tissue.

Knowledge of them and their location is a weight. You want to get rid of them yet you are afraid that these items, which you haven’t needed in ten years, in twenty, will someday be needed.

In my house, there is a box full of notebooks on a shelf in the basement. Calling the contents “Jane’s Junk” when I was consolidating them was easy. That they belonged to me was more important than what they were: stuff I had archived; ideas and observations I had recorded.

Here, a sketchbook in which I had rubber-cemented magazine and catalog images of clothes I liked. It was a wish book, for how I could look if I had the money or if I were a different person with a different body.

box 3

Even more, there are notebooks filled with dated entries. One captures ideas:

11-9-90: Company that takes all store returns, then returns in bulks to the stores. (Name ideas from Jimmy: Take Me Back or Return to Sender.)

12-7-90: There are ice cream shops, and frozen yogurt shops. Why not pudding shops? “Puddin’ Heads”

7-15-91: Story idea: Old woman in nursing home. Young woman comes in once a week to give knitting lessons. Makes old woman think she will not die as long as this continues — it’s like a hope holding her to earth. One week young woman does not come in.

1-20-92: Maps for the car that do not have to be folded — roll into a tube, or a window shade

11-8-92: Baking sweets without sugar, for local sale or catering. Or, a “sweet of the month club” for diabetics.

^Eventually sell to Harry & David.

2-24-93: “The Medical Consumer” — a consumer mag. to cover medical industry — does Consumer Reports already do this?

4-6-93: Christmas present for Brian. Call Yosemite gift shop. “Go Climb a Rock” t-shirt.

I never became an entrepreneur even though this little book is FILLED with random business and product ideas. I look back on these notes, and they have no present-day use. I have no plans to become one, ever. Good thing — I don’t see a pudding cafe generating a lot of business. Continue reading

Lost and found writing

garageI’ve been on Google Docs, which is now part of Google Drive, since the beta version became available. (Was that 2007?) I do most of my writing in that environment, whether collaborative and individual. I’ve lost track of what I’ve stored there.

Recently, I was searching for a document I knew was in there, and I came across one with an unfamiliar title, “toc: Jane’s World.” While I don’t recall the moment of this file’s creation, I recognized the contents immediately. It’s an annotated table of contents of a book of essays I imagined writing and publishing. There is a list of 11 titles with short descriptions of them after.

The table of contents was aspirational, I could see. The titles of essays were mere drafts; I’ve thought of better ones since. What really made me happy was to realize that 5 of the 11 essays were since completed and published, and one is well underway.

I worry a lot that, with time being fragmented by work and personal responsibilities and activities, no writing gets done. This lost and found table of contents makes me realize that writing is getting done.

Though many of my professional hours are spent as a teacher, I am still a writer. The list is akin to a letter written by the self years ago. I’m sending her a thank you note.

Imagine the luck of her future second graders

Grace and I have been bitten by the organizing bug, and we are culling our collections. I took four boxes marked “Jane’s Junk” and got them down to one, and Grace has stripped her closet down to the essentials and tackled her desk drawers. Last night she came across a list made five years ago when she was in the second grade. Knowing I like to save the textual artifacts of childhood, Grace handed it to me. You can click on the thumbnail to see the scanned version in full size or read the transcript below.

From the handwriting, it looks like Jimmy and I took turns at dictation. I asked Grace, “What was this list for?”

She replied, “When I was in second grade and thinking about becoming a teacher, I thought it would be neat to be able to tell my second graders some day what I was like when I was their age.”

This is what she was like, as reported on November 15, 2007:

When Grace was in 2nd grade, she

  • was an artist
  • gave affection to all
  • swam on the JCC swim team
  • had experience as Ms. Aibel’s student and “teaching assistant”
  • could make her own French fries
  • watched Zoe 101
  • loved to snuggle
  • was a Brownie
  • had an electric toothbrush that played a song by Jesse McCartney
  • wore her hair in two braids every day
  • loved the comfort of yoga pants

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Grace, or Eli or Lydia, became a teacher? Then there would be three generations of us: my father, my mother-in-law, I, and one of the kids. Now that would be a family legacy.

Once, this girl could do anything

My brother Michael has appointed himself the family archivist. He has been scanning old snapshots, giving them titles, and posting them on Facebook. I look at the images of myself, siblings, and parents from the 60s and 70s with wonder, and a pang.

My impulse is to say, “This is everything we were before [fill in the blank] happened.”

As I first stared at this image of me on my tricycle, I actually felt myself to be on the tricycle. I looked down at my chubby legs; I felt my rump on the curved seat. I remembered the time I rode the bike without sneakers and imagined that I felt my own innocent curiosity: I am going to do this because my mother said not to. My toes got stuck in one of the pedals, and my mother had to call Mr. Galaski from two houses away, because my father wasn’t home, to bring his tools to undo the pedal and get me out.

I stared at the image, too, from the perspective of today and had a feeling of looking at a picture of my own baby. The equation is as simple as this: I = my own baby. I even wanted to nibble on myself in the picture, as I wanted to nibble on my own children when they were infants and delicious.

I teared up, too. “This is everything I was before [fill in the blank] happened.”

Bountiful possibility. An almost-blank slate. Continue reading

Bits and pieces

By the back door, on the way into our house, I empty my hand or pocket of whatever acorn or stone that has caught my eye as I rake, sweep, or beachcomb. Leaves occasionally fall there too and hang out for a while, until a wicked wind swirls them away. When I emptied the planters of their spent annuals yesterday, I set aside what I call the tree bones — small pieces of weather- or insect-rotted branches I collect on walks and then strew around the yard — and put them in the growing pile of finds.

I have no idea what I will do with this hoard, and yet it accumulates.

Writing can go like that sometimes.

A couple of weeks ago I was rummaging in my desk drawer for quarters. I needed two to get a cup of coffee from the office Keurig. Under the pencils, binder clips, box of tea, folded canvas bag, and loose band-aids, I saw a stapled document. I started reading the page I could see. It was not about science and therefore out of place; usually everything I read at work has to do with the technical. Whose is this? I wondered as I read about a dream of an unknown man, a car, and two people kissing. Who gave this to me? I was perplexed, almost disturbed. Continue reading

– Evidence

Last summer I started and made substantial progress on a draft of a memoir/essay about having a crush on one of my Wellesley College professors, *not* having an affair with him, and reading many years later of his death from prostate cancer. A first excerpt is here, and another one is here. (There’s also a reflection on writing the essay here.)

Then, I put the essay aside for the winter and did other things and wrote other pieces as well as lots of comments on student work.

Archives750RetouchedResolved to finish the draft, I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago. I hit a snag when I felt I had exhausted my memory of that time in college. Searching for something concrete, I opened up my college archives (a green cardboard box) and found three papers I wrote for that professor.

Ah, evidence. It helps. In writing about those papers and his comments, I found my way back into the essay and finished the draft. It’s funny how artifacts function, however. While they are more lasting and stable than memory, our interpretation of them is often — usually — slippery.

Excerpt #3, “Dead and Gone (draft)”:

All that I have left from Mr. K’s class (History 245) are three papers I wrote, typed, handed in, and got back with his handwritten feedback and grade. These are my only concrete artifacts of my time in that course. Who knows, though? Maybe in the College Archives, or in his own papers, there are records of that course from that semester: a syllabus, a grade book, his own notes if he kept them. (All teachers must keep some sort of notes.) But this is all I have and all I’m willing to put my hands on. Continue reading

– It’s not the climb; it’s the cliche.

I can’t help it — that Miley Cyrus song, “The Climb,” has been giving me goosebumps, which goes to show that the intellect has very little control over raw feeling.

I know, I know: The song is laden with cliché and bombast. It’s oversung.

However, my inner teenager has been responding in a big way: Yes <sniff>, it is the climb. That’s what… <snuffle>… matters … <sigh>.

So, what prompts this confession of uncoolness? This morning I’m digging through a box from my personal archives — it’s a big green square gift box labeled “Papers High School + College” in my printing — and I find my high school graduation speech, Leicester High School, Class of 1983. (I wasn’t valedictorian; I was either salutatorian or oratorian, which are either second or third rank.) Even with my reading glasses on, I have to squint to read it: This was the early days of photocopier technology, and the ink hasn’t held up. The full text, however, is legible enough: I see that the speech is laden with cliché and bombast. And while this first speech of mine may not be about the climb, it is about the path, which is a kind of journey. (Maybe only teenaged pop singers get to travel uphill?)

If I’ve piqued your curiosity, I’d also like to satisfy it, so I’ve transcribed the full text below. I don’t promise great or even mediocre rhetoric; it’s just a chance to read what an 18-year-old girl, only a few months away from college and some teacher’s first year composition course, thought was an example of her best writing.

Be kind! Continue reading