– Oh, shit

Patriotic party beads

Patriotic party beads

This morning, before our 8am departure time for work, we were running around and picking up the house in advance of the housecleaners’ arrival. On the kitchen counter, I found the detritus (in photo) from last week’s Election Eve party at my sister Sally’s house. It hasn’t taken long for my mood to sober up since that day, and the jubilant day after, because the country is, to quote the lyrics of one of my favorite Talking Heads songs, “Same as it ever was.”

And how is almost-President Obama feeling? I pictured him waking up on Thursday, the day after the day after, turning to Michelle and saying, “Oh, shit.”

There is a lot to do.


iPhone image of beads credited to local cameraperson Jimmy Guterman. That is, however, my hand.

– Being there

On Thursday, a new student, M., came in to the Writing Center for the first time. She had an assignment from her criminal justice class on the rule of law that she “just couldn’t start.” I sat next to her at the computer as she did the first thing: locate a definition for the rule of law. A Wikipedia article popped up; she pointed at it and said, unprompted, “Oh, I’m not gonna use that one. Anyone can write those.” So, she didn’t need too much help from me on research.

I also noticed, as our time together lengthened, that my usefulness to her was mostly in my presence, and in my occasional murmuring of vague questions like “Well… so… what do you make of that?” or nudges like “Yeah, write that down.” In front of her was a yellow ruled pad, which she kept turning to, writing note after note with a blue pen. Writing pad, pen, other vital stuffAs she wrote, she spoke some version of what she was writing: “Okay, and next I want to say that the rule of law is how it should be, and not how it actually is.” And then she would write and so on, back-and-forth between saying out loud and writing. I sat there, tilting in my chair, content to watch a young woman fill a page and hear her think out loud. Sometimes Sarah, at the front desk and the only other person in the Writing Center at the moment, would overhear and affirm M., who at one point said, “This is so much easier than it was last night, sitting alone in my room and trying to write it.”

Near the end of the hour with M., she wanted to start typing her response to her instructor’s question about rule of law, and would I look over something else she had brought in, a short essay on her educational goals? I sat nearby at the table, with her draft and my pencil. The first few paragraphs covered territory I’ve toured before: Education helps you realize your dreams; Education gets you respect. Some biographical information at the end surprised me. Her parents and friends are trying to call her back home; they don’t support her desire and determination to get an undergraduate degree, head to law school, and be a lawyer. “I have to find new friends,” her essay says, in so many words, in the conclusion. I penciled in the margin: “takes courage.”

Hand on shoulderTo start out – to get going anywhere – without a companion, well, who among us wouldn’t feel the vastness of what that requires? Writing alone, always moving forward into the unfamiliar… there’s only so much of that one person can manage.

– Roam, if you want to

I’ve been going nowhere with a poem I’ve been trying to write, about, of all things, a dirty bar of soap, since this blog began. I had this vague idea about dirt as unavoidable, in a concrete way, of course, but also in a more figurative way, with “dirt” standing in for, um, global injustices. War, for example. The few lines I had put together felt wooden and unsurprising, as if I were assembling a puzzle from a picture on a box. In other words, I was stating the obvious even to myself.

Today I sat down to free write for 30 minutes. I did what my seven-year-old daughter, Grace, tells me to do when she asks for a story and I protest that I don’t have one to tell; she says, “Just say something. Then follow your words.” Her first grade teacher was on to something; this works. Don’t plan; just begin.

I began with the insistent image: dirty bar of soap. And then I meandered. I’ll share an excerpt from my travels:

Dirt dried in the grooves… Bar of soap is dried out, too. Old, unusable, like a piece of soap you’d find in a beach house in May, after many months of that house being closed for the fall, winter, and spring. The soap left in the metal dish in the stall shower, or outdoors in the shower attached to the back of the house and boxed in, for privacy, with fencing. The soap is so dried it has long cracks in it, as if wood. Wet it, and it takes a long moment to activate, to feel slippery in your hand. Slippery is something you’d read in a poem about sex, and this will be one about a dirty and dried bar of soap… Funny, dirty goes with sex. Sex goes with slippery, too, but slippery doesn’t really go with dirty. Dirty is gritty; I see that word and I feel grime in my hands, grit, fine sand, dust. A kind of dirty that starts with the soil, with particles, not with, say, the juice of dripping fruit that has dried on your hand, or chocolate…, or paint… Dirt is less processed a mess; it hasn’t been transformed into something else first before it gets on you, and you feel it.

It blows on, rubs on, sifts, floats down. It could be mud that later dries. It could then dissolve off, in the water of the tub, and then drain out along with. But still it wants to stay: it settles on the bottom of the tub, in a line of silt toward the drain, up high on the tub walls around the bubble line. To get rid of it, use more water. Spray with direction and force. Or find something clean, like a cloth or rag, to swipe at it, rub it down, rub it on to the cloth — transfer.

There is no getting rid of it, ever. Just as no energy is ever created or lost, neither is any dirt…

We collect dust, dirt. Even as we sweep it from the front hall out the front door, dirt from the garden or sidewalk is jumping onto sandals and riding back in.

We try to get it out, as far from the house as we can, by filling the sink or tub with water and soaking it off us. Water pulls some away from our skin… and delivers it down the pipes, under the yard, under the road, down to the parkway, through town via a network of pipes and pumps, to tanks, and back, somehow, to earth, dumped in cleaned loads onto hills, in rivers, on the banks. It creeps back. It creeps back always.

It remains too. Under our nails. In the corners of rooms. Along the thresholds of doors that open in from the outside. In the grooves between the worn floor boards. In the incised word “Dove” in this bar of soap. It’s in my hand; I pick it up, turning the tap. I clean you, child, with the dirty.

I like what I came across as I roamed: the words “transform” and “transfer” appearing in adjacent paragraphs, and the discovery that no dirt is ever created or lost. Dirt sloughs off; dirt creeps back; dirt remains.

– Beginning with a few details

The details get me started.

At a community garden I see a variety of baptisia, or wild indigo, and have to get one and find a patch for it. In the tub, after a child has sat on the edge and washed her feet, I notice a dirty bar of Dove soap; the words “dirty bar of soap” seem to leap into consciousness and clamor. They seed a poem, currently in progress.

I like compact words and their solid sounds. “Leaf,” “stitch,” and “word” are multi-purpose, with many meanings and applications each, and, because I’m practical, I like that. All function as nouns and verbs, too. These words are enough to capture something about me and launch this project.

Because I spend more time writing, professionally and personally, than I do gardening or sewing, this blog will be more about the composition of words than it will be about gardens and garments. Do you see how all three — leaf, stitch, and word — are components of books? Still, doing one kind of physical and creative labor links to doing another kind. My consternation with the spring garden, for example, reminds me of my uneasiness with a shapeless, thin draft. I’m sure I’ll write in a way that unveils these intersections.

The challenge of what to do with my materials keeps me going. So a blog begins, with the merest of pieces: title, thumbnail, statement, and a first post. Already, the question “what to do next with three five-cent words?” provokes me.