Un-haunting the house

5879240245_362379e396_o-1With Eli, your oldest offspring, you are texting about weekend activities.

Eli sends a photo of a new, craigslisted desk in the bedroom in the apartment in Queens.  Their comment, “definitely using redoing/reorganizing my apt as a coping mechanism now.”

You text back, “I’m cleaning out my closet as coping mechanism.”

A long time ago Eli said this, “Mom, you keep your clothes too long. When they get old and tattered, throw them out.” (And this from the child who introduced you to thrift-store shopping.) You tried to explain your sentimental attachment to things your body has worn, yet over time you realized that Eli speaks the truth. So now you find yourself throwing out these old and tattered clothes easily, or at least deliberately.

Eli, in a later text message, types a phrase, “making the house less haunted.” You don’t need a complete sentence to understand what is meant.

The conversation makes you think about what you, and the kids too, have been doing to un-haunt the house and the lives lived in it. Jimmy Guterman — husband, and father of Eli, Lydia, and Grace — died unexpectedly and traumatically on July 25.

What do you do when this happens? You shatter; you grieve; you proceed.

In the first weeks, surrounded by family, every night before bed you all watch re-runs of The Office, which you’ve seen through once entirely when it was broadcast. Now you watch it again, making friends with the characters. You ask Lydia, “If Michael Scott has so many boundary issues, and can be inappropriate so often, why do we come to like him as a character?”  Lydia replied: “Because he is so earnest.”  Lydia’s insight and that word become favorites for a while, and as you go about the business of grief and getting back to okay, your mind can’t help working on what interests it, and you study that word, “earnest,” and you look for that quality in others.

You forget about eating, until one day you realize it’s 4PM and you’re eating lunch. You decide you have to start eating lunch at lunch time, and the next day you do.

After two weeks you tell the kids, “This is the week we start eating vegetables and fruits again. We will also exercise every day.” Even walking the dog counts as exercise.

You listen when different people — visitors from the Samaritans, your child’s therapist, your wonderful friends, your own doctor — tell you that “you are alive, and you have to live.” It is an encouraging message, not at all one that promotes a grin-and-bear-it approach. You start to recognize this: “I am alive.” This, really, is good. Continue reading

The self as a boat, always under repair, still the same boat

IMG_0220 (1)In the photograph is a book I just finished reading that I loved. That’s not to say you should read it. You have to like theory mixed with memoir, and a whole book fashioned from paragraphs and no chapters. I underlined a lot of it. I won’t type out the underlines having to do with motherhood, sex, queerness, or gender; you can find those yourself.

Here is the book’s author, Maggie Nelson, who is new to me, incorporating Eve Sedgwick, and thinking in a sidelong way about her own work:

“Many people doing all kinds of work are able to take pleasure in aspects of their work,” Sedgwick once wrote, “but something different happens when the pleasure is not only taken but openly displayed. I like to make that different thing happen.” [Note: Sedgwick was also a teacher, Nelson’s.]

One happy thing that can happen, according to Sedgwick, is that pleasure becomes accretive as well as auotelic: the more it’s felt and displayed, the more proliferative, the more possible, the more habitual, it becomes.

I don’t know what these words are, and I have to look them up. Autotelic, an adjective, is “(of an activity or a creative work) having an end or purpose in itself.” And accretive, also an adjective, is “the process of accretion, or the growth or increase by a gradual addition.” Well, this blog-writing is accretive, that is for sure. I am having more trouble with autotelic. I don’t always know if what I do has an end or purpose. I am in the middle of it, always, and wonder where it’s going.

Today I went with three friends, all women, on a hike in the Blue Hill Reservation in Milton and Quincy. (Five hours, nine miles, 20,000 steps, according to Sue at the end.) It’s good to feel strong and able. I stopped about every 30 minutes to check my blood sugar. Because my diabetes is often on my mind I feel on the edge of vulnerability, as though health could fall apart at any moment. Weird, to hold these two qualities in the mind at once: that I am strong, that I am (at the edge of) vulnerable. I looked at my body in the mirror after I returned home and took a shower because I was freezing, my clothes all damp from sweating but the air outside pretty cold. My body looked good, not decrepit. I have no mechanical complaints. Just metabolic ones, and those are inside and the only person who notices them intimately is me.

My friends did ask a few times, “Do you need to check your blood sugar?,” though very matter-of-factly. I liked being cared for with a light, not lavish, touch.

Also today I prepped a pot roast and put it in an enamel cooker in the oven, and I continued my endless tidying, closet cleaning, trash-taking-out. At one point I stood at the sink and looked out the window, and I wondered if my emphasis on neatness has prevented me from any experiences in life or from being in the moment. Making order is all about dealing with the past in service of the future. Did I not play with the children, for example, when children, because I was arranging their toys on a shelf or tidying the pajama drawer?

Maggie Nelson writes about motherhood, and draws on theorists like Donald Winnicut (dead) a pediatrician and psychoanalyst and Kaja Silverman (living) a theorist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Nelson, paraphrasing Silverman, writes: “As the human mother proves herself a separate, finite entity, she disappoints, and gravely.” I underlined this too, and I realize I am including something from the book about motherhood, although I said above I would not.

A former student emailed me today that she stumbled across my blog, and found “cool stuff.” I am alternately buoyed by the compliments that come my way, and pulled down by the internal sense that what I do is never enough, or not quite the right thing at the right time. Is this womanhood, motherhood, Jane-hood?

About the title The Argonauts, Nelson writes, referring to Barthes, that “the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo.” It is somehow continuously the same boat, yet it “will be forever new.”

20 minutes, up.

Sex is not usually my topic

tree rock cemetery_250Of course, I think about it every day. I am human. I wrote about it, once.

Because I’m a feminist, it would be reasonable to conclude that I am on board with ideas about female sexuality as complex and hard to know. I do believe that about sexuality, although I am not sure if I would say that females–whether gay, straight, or fluid–have the lock on that.

Diane Rehm’s show on the risks and benefits of a libido-enhancing drug (“Viagra for women”) is very good on untangling and showing the complications in the female experience of sex, women’s worries about low or non-existent desire, and scientific and therapeutic responses to this phenomenon that has been called a problem.  Dr. Emily Nagoski, a personal hero and one of the guests on the show, reflects on why lack of desire is so distressing to women:

I think the reason it’s distressing is that all of us have grown up being told that the normal way to experience sexual desire is spontaneous, out of the blue anticipation of pleasure. And so when that goes away, we feel like we’re broken, like we must be doing something wrong. It must be something wrong with our bodies. We start to criticize ourselves. It disrupts our relationships and it can be really disabling. And it turns out, over the last 20 years of research, what we’ve found is that there’s another normal, healthy way to experience desire, called responsive desire, that emerges in response to pleasure, rather than in anticipation of pleasure.

On the show, although there are four guests and one moderator, there seem to be only two schools of thought

  1. the Simon school, which I’ve named for the doctor who is in favor of flibanserin, the female Viagra, and seems to be involved with developing and promoting it; and
  2. the Female school, which I’ve categorized to encompass the three docs, all female, who convey more critical and nuanced thinking about the idea of female sexuality.

What troubled me about the show, even though I found it very interesting on the topic of desire in general and women in particular, is the unspoken assumption that male sexuality is simple and even monolithic and female sexuality is complex and individualized. Men only need one treatment (a pill) to fix a mechanical problem, and women need a multi-dimensional approach, which may involve therapy, mindfulness, tolerance and acceptance, and perhaps a pill.

Sure, I know the show is about women and a pill designed for them, and men’s sexuality gets its turn on other shows and in other magazines, but do we really believe that everything about men and sex is cool until it gets broken? Do men, on their own, believe that? Continue reading

Skating, not skating, and learning to jump

Many times over the winter I almost quit figure skating.

I would go to a lesson and not practice.

I would practice and then push back an upcoming lesson.

I barely went to the rink hours for the MIT Figure Skating Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member last year and the year before.

skates

In my head, I practiced quitting, crafting the excuse, and finding something new and safer to do, like tennis, which I played in high school.

I didn’t quit, although it seemed many times — when a week or even two weeks went by without skating — that I paused.

This was after a long year of being tired. Work seemed too hard, and it was tiring. I was always pushing myself to get it done in the time expected to meet important deadlines and not to let anything drop. I had pushed myself skating, taking the test and failing it. I joined the group fitness challenge at work, and for 12 weeks in a row I met the incrementally increasing time goals. The first week it was 150 minutes. By the end of 12 weeks, we were expected to be exercising and logging 300 minutes a week. A few of those weeks, I went beyond, and exercised almost 500 minutes.

I was proud. I was tired. I felt as if I stopped I would lose ground.

During my summer vacation from teaching last year I worked as a grant writer for a nonprofit organization. I really liked the work and was successful at it. However, my life had little free time. I longed to sit on the couch and do nothing. I longed for an absence. My friend Jessie looks at this as a presence and calls it “rest.” I couldn’t. (I mean, I dreamed of rest, but the list of stuff to do called more loudly than the couch did.)

Last summer, I also took weekly skating lessons, but there was not enough time to practice in between. Yeah, I felt bad. Bad student. Not doing enough homework. But I kept going, half keeping skating alive.

I made no progress. It was like a review, remedial, over and over and over. The teacher was very nice and smart, yet I felt discouraged. I had hit the brick wall of my own ability. There is the reckoning that comes when you realize, and only adults over 40 can realize this, that it is not all onward and upward. There are limits. There may be back falls. There are ends. Continue reading

Art and method of the interview

Maura

Maura Flanagan

Recently, I published a two-part interview on ASweetLife with Maura Flanagan, a college classmate who radically changed her health habits and lost 100 pounds after a diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes. Read part one here and part two here.

These are my favorite kinds of stories to do. Interviews are akin to making one’s self a student of the subject. I ask in order to learn, and not to pruriently find out.

It takes both preparation and improvisation to conduct a good interview. As a teacher/scholar, when I’ve conducted studies on a teaching or learning question of interest, I usually incorporate an interview part. I really enjoy these kinds of engagements with people. And, whether the interview is for an online magazine or a research study, my method is similar. I describe it below, for other writers to consider as they develop their own practice as interviewers. At the end, as evidence that the method works, I quote Maura as to her experience.

Continue reading

That’s not me, or is it?

clinic comfort station

clinic comfort station

For several years, I have periodically visited a hospital clinic to see a specialist about my anemia. The clinic — Hematology/Oncology — mainly treats very sick people. As I have waited in the waiting room, mentally I have set myself apart. “That’s not me,” I have thought with willed conviction, seeing a person in a wheel chair across from me or hearing another person’s muffled crying in the alcove where they take our vital signs. (An essay I wrote on a moment in this waiting room, where I witnessed a doctor ask his patient to dance, is published here: link.)

I was there again in this clinic a few weeks ago, on a Wednesday after lunch. Typically, the mood is subdued. It’s a very serious place. This time, though, the emotional container seemed to have burst. As I stood at the check-in desk, a woman ran into the waiting room from the adjacent treatment area, sobbing and calling for a doctor by name.  Couples came in holding hands tenderly. I saw a woman, about my age and very thin, shuffle in. As she leaned on the check-in desk to state her name, her white tshirt clung to her trunk and I could see that her abdomen was the site of large tumors. She and her husband sat near me. They murmured together, about the tumors. He was a very good helper: he listened, he placed his hand on her back for a little while and then removed it (so as not to tire her out being helped, I thought), and he did not take over.

I tried, as usual, to stay detached, to think of myself as not that sick and therefore not of them. But I couldn’t hold the pose. What was it about this day? The chemistry of it, perhaps. My thoughts went in a different direction than usual, more stark. I ruminated on sickness and health not as a binary but as a continuum. We are all on it, and our position on the continuum changes as we go through life. And maybe we can find ourselves occupying two points at a time on this continuum. For example, although I have diabetes as a diagnosis (and it is a disease), I take care of myself and identify myself as a healthy person.

Maybe it would be better to give in, I sometimes wonder. On this day, I did for some reason feel vulnerable as I sat in chairs, waiting. “We are all sick, or will be someday,” I mused. It turns out, although I could not have predicted it, that my body is not quite as I thought: link. I do belong, not to the cancer club, but to the human one.

waiting for patients

waiting for patients

Precise, and soft at the edges

Red chairOverheard: A young instructor, after lab this week, to a another instructor, “My relationship to perfectionism has changed since I’ve become paralyzed.” She is in a wheelchair.

I hadn’t yet been part of this conversation. My ears perked up, I shuffled over, and I said to her, “You could write about that. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything with any personal insight into that topic from your point of view.”

We talked for a while about laundry folding and kitchen arrangement. Except for me, the group was made up of engineers, people whose work depends on attention to detail. When does attention to detail become perfectionism? I suspect there’s a continuum.

When I have been characterized as perfectionist, it feels like an accusation. The person saying it doesn’t admire the trait or its outcome (e.g., neatly folded sheets in the linen closet, a well-edited memo). Or it’s a way of distinguishing him or herself from me, as in, “You (Jane) are so uptight. I am easy-going.”

I don’t think of myself as desiring perfection, per se. Yet I do desire — and like, feel peaceful with — order, thoroughness, and the well-wrought detail.

Funny, I just had an impulse to make an annotated inventory of what parts of life or the physical world seem more pleasing to me if they are in line with my standards. It might start like this:

  • kitchen cabinets: stuff should be categorized, not stuffed-in randomly
  • closets and bureaus: neat, folded, unstuffed
  • desk: clear surface, things put away
  • yard: neat, trimmed, branches picked up — however, I don’t like a precise, manicured look — there has to be softness around the edges… and yet there are edges…
  • natural world: I like to see fallen branches, puddles, rusted cans among leaves, and yet I usually get to these places via a well-made path, which I like
  • writing: I prefer a fully-explored draft, even over-stuffed with ideas or information and long sentences, yet I want a finished piece to have shape, flow, grammar, and an absence of cliché, which to me is a kind of inexcusable clutter

Toilet outdoorsAs time passes, and therefore there is less time in front of me, I let some perfectionist tendencies go. One does this also as a parent, as soon as you recognize that your infant is a wild thing. Students, too, have minds of their own.

But I hang on to others — performance at work and art and in the primary relationship(s) — and in some ways exacting standards are hampering.

To chew on some more.

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Photos taken October 21, 2012 at Allandale Farm by me.

Writer’s Dozen: Peter Selgin and Limits

This is the fourth in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

When he was in his early 20s and struggling to get started as a songwriter, Peter Selgin was attacked by a black Labrador retriever owned by the woman for whom he was apartment sitting in New York. The dog chomped into Selgin’s left wrist. He underwent microsurgery to address significant scarring around the ulnar nerve that affected feeling in and mobility of the hand. Results were minimal.

This event is described in his essay, “Confessions of a Left-Handed Man,” which is the centerpiece of a new book of essays by the same name. I first read this essay in Best American Essays 2006.

Always a left-handed artist and writer, Peter Selgin knew at age 25 that the full manual dexterity of his dominant hand would not return after the attack and surgery. In the essay he recounts his attempt to train his right hand, which felt like “trying to sing with [his] fingers holding his tongue,” to do what his left hand had always done for him. Around this time he also broke his leg. One night he walked on crutches to the East River with thoughts of killing himself. He had always been the left-handed boy — had identified himself as that — and the mirror opposite of his twin brother George, a right-handed boy who became an economist. At the river that night he had a “good bawl” and “hobbled back” to his room.

Twenty years later, he wrote the essay from a point in time he no longer felt that his left-handedness had any special meaning. It simply was. Furthermore, he continued to write and make art with his compromised left hand. The work he made before and after the injury, though, have “nothing in common” with each other. He calls his style “naive, even primitive,” and he asserts that his “lack of dexterity has freed [him] from glibness, which in turn has delivered [him] from the temptation” to show off.

Even though Selgin’s theme for his essay is humility — he says that, for an artist, “to master humility” is as important as mastering the techniques of his medium — for me, the lesson is about limits that we cannot overcome, that we must work within. There is nobility in this, and necessity, once the sorrow passes. Continue reading

Not a runner, here I am running

On Sunday March 18, Lydia and I ran our first 5K, the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Road Race. The distance is modest in number, but it feels monumental as an accomplishment, and I wrote about it for my other blog on A Sweet Life: link. See Jane run! See others, like this fellow with his dog, run too.

Man with dog crosses finish line, South Boston, March 18

Beyond finding out that I can run for 3.1 miles, hills included, I experienced something else worth knowing that can help me with other things in my life I want to do (like writing and skating): habits are motivated by a goal.  Lydia and I spent several weeks plodding along with regularity, but our interest in and commitment to running really picked up when we registered for the race. Our habits suddenly had purpose.

The day after the race we ran again, and Lydia took us on a new route. She increased our distance by ten percent. Neither of us really felt like running — didn’t we deserve a rest? a treat? — but we did. In four weeks, on April 15, we have another 5K in Boston.

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Image credit: Jimmy Guterman

What I’ll do for a story

Lydia stood at the top of the steps and yelled down. “Mom, Brian just texted me and asked if we could take care of his cat this weekend.”

I yelled back, “Sure.”

A few seconds passed.

Lydia continued, “He wants to know if you’ll give him his injections.”

“Only if I can write about it,” I replied.

A few more seconds passed.

Lydia: “Of course.”

So I did. Link.