Other people’s gardens

It is possible to deliberately make a decision and know deeply that, whichever path taken, there will be regrets.

Last fall and winter, when I was studying the idea of selling our house and moving to an apartment in another neighborhood, I anticipated the loss of the part of my life that gardens. I knew I would be putting aside not just that activity, but also that self, the me that digs, plants, weeds, waters, monitors, and tends.

And I did it: I sold the house. With it, I sold the lawnmower, the surplus fertilizers, shovels, rakes, a spade, and a hoe. We moved to a third-floor apartment. While our balcony presents the opportunity for container gardening, there is no native dirt.

I wanted this, right?

We moved in February. I was relieved at the thought of shoveling snow no more. In fact, I imagined if I lived in an apartment for the rest of my life, it would always be someone else’s job to shovel.

I miss digging. Just typing those words filled me with longing, like how remembering one’s own babies provokes a physical longing to hold them again, eat their toes, smell their shampooed hair.

Not just longing, a sadness, too, for what I willingly gave up. Usually to proceed you have to let go. So, the dirt.

 

In our new neighborhood, I make the rounds of the side streets three times a day with Winston the dog. Since spring began, we’ve been examining the gardens of our unfamiliar neighbors. Winston uses his nose, and I my eyes. Slowly, through March, April, and early May the plants and trees woke up. In May, all the green exploded.

Flowers came out, and so did the porch chairs, pots, garden ornaments, and hoses. Occasionally I’d see a gardener squatting in her yard, a claw in her hand. A woman instructing two little girls in how to weed. A man, pivoting in place, with his hand clenched around the trigger of a sprayer hose.

I am like a tourist in this new neighborhood. The houses are old – about a century – with front porches and what a realtor calls “mature” landscaping. These houses and gardens are established. I’m no kid, but I’m new on the block, and as a renter I may not live here long enough to make ties.

It’s weird, honestly, to like where you live, to find it interesting and beneficial, and yet to have no house or dirt to belong to. If you’ve lived in your apartment or house long enough, you know the nicks in the woodwork, the funny way the shower valve operates, the cool corner of the bare-floored room that your dog favors, and the trick to get the kitchen door to close without slamming it. The paint: you like the colors you picked. In the yard, you like to check in on the plants that came to you from the yards of people you love, admire the magnolia you tended since its sapling years, and experiment with perennials that tolerate your dry shade conditions. You get the soil tested; you file its report card away; you adjust the pH.

That you was me.

Now I’m an observer, a wallflower, or maybe I should call myself a sidewalk flower because that’s what I do, stand on the sidewalk with Winston as my excuse for loitering and keep my eye on the progress of the landscape as it comes to life in the front yards of neighbors I haven’t met.

I fantasize about passing by at just the right time and getting invited up onto the porch and into a chair to pass the evening and let someone tell me about the neighborhood, its history, and its inhabitants.

I do say hello, and I have gathered some first names. I know the people in my building. And I live with Grace and Winston, and Eli and Lydia when they’re with us.

This is home, and yet we’re not rooted in it. We live here. Most days, I’m happy about that. I like the adventure of it. A few times, though, the implication of what I have done – uprooted our lives – hovers over me like dark wings, and I think, “My god, what have I done?”

The feeling lasts only an hour or so. It helps to take the dog outside and walk the routes I am coming to favor. I remind myself that I chose this, I wanted this, and sometimes the location cure is exactly what a family needs.

First grief, then work

One could also rewrite that with verbs: First grieve, then work.

I woke up at 5:45am, my body still not adjusted after the daylight savings time change. I went to sleep late, only intellectually grasping what was happening in the election. I woke up and, even before consciousness, I could feel my heart broken.

It’s noteworthy, isn’t it?, that the feeling called ‘broken’ is heavy like cement, or like I swallowed six hard-boiled eggs without chewing. A broken heart does not feel like shards of glass. It’s a fullness that jams your esophagus.

Next, crying. I had to do that, and a few texts to my friend Lisa. I called for a Day of Mourning. I was still in bed, and I lay there.

“First grief, then work.” I read that right before I made plans to give up on social media (that betrayer) and the New York Times and the radio. The phrase was tweeted by Ada Límon, a writer I don’t know, yet.

It’s true: I did flirt with the idea of not going to work, or of going to work and refusing to work, or of going to work and telling someone else whose fault it is. Because it’s not mine.

I sat up and wept some more, my back against the pillows I put there to prop myself up. I thought of my children, one at a time.

Then I thought of cleaning out the fridge. Really. And I thought of emailing someone I teach with and promising, “Tonight I will download all those papers and put them in our dropbox.”I imagined the downloading, the renaming of the poorly named files.

The list started to form after that.

Once, at least 25 years ago, when I worked at Harvard University in fund raising where the theme was always leadership — “We are training the future leaders of America, and the world” (I got so tired of that) — I said to my friend Joe that I regretted I was no visionary. He reassured me that there would be no movement without people like us to schedule the troops, order the supplies in advance, and make enough coffee to keep everyone energized. Everyone would also need a tshirt or uniform in a size to fit their width and height. I am good at logistics, and so was he, and there would be no progress without us.

I don’t know why that anecdote popped into my mind. I have no plans today to join a movement. But, you know, logistics. Continue reading

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

Happiness and material life

IMG_9288Another Tuesday on the couch with Winston the Dog, this time it’s morning.

On his blog the other night, Lee asked, “When things are fine, who cares about writing?” The question surprised me because, from his daily diary on Grammar Piano, I took him to have an enjoyable life almost every day, and not just this one day. Enjoyable = fine.

Is this true, when life is enjoyable, no writing? And the inverse, when life is not fine, lots of writing?

I think it was Amy Bloom who once said, in an essay she wrote for the New York Times Magazine, that being unhappy is not a required condition for good writing. She called herself happy in this essay, as I recall. (This is another one of those memories where I may have actually invented it. I sort of remember this but it’s not like I have the article in front of me, either on paper or digital.)

The timer is now on, 20 minutes, so this post will be a freewrite. I really don’t know what I want to write or what end I’ll get to. It’s more about noticing Lee’s question and wanting to start with it.

Sometimes when I’m worried and can’t write, I think of the Russians who wrote even while in prison – to me, that must be the ultimate in unhappy conditions – and I wonder what’s wrong with me. I suppose a prison cell is a room of one’s own, and maybe that’s really what’s needed: your own room, whether happy or not.

I’m sitting on the couch. I don’t have my own room (or office or study), and I don’t necessarily believe the solitary room is necessary.

I also read somewhere that Brice Marden has, like, seven houses around the U.S. or around the world and each of them is set up with a studio. The light is different in each place, and he accomplishes different art works in the different conditions. Whoever wrote this profile — probably also in the New York Times Magazine which I read pretty faithfully though I also despise it for the high-net-worth advertising alongside stories about, oh, post-partum depression or refugees or educational inequity — didn’t comment on his wealth as ridiculous. Really?? I wondered. I suppose I do expect some kind of struggle and even privation for art to be authentic. Not that you have to be Tillie Olsen, but you can’t make your life too comfortable. Don’t you need to find out something to make art? Not: which of my seven houses should I fly to today and make a painting in the utterly perfect conditions.

You might think I am jealous. Continue reading

Weeding the secret garden

Weeding Secret Garden notes (1)I am on an odyssey to touch and organize everything in my house, one drawer one closet one surface one room at a time. Where does this drive come from? Something about an awareness of mortality, of course, and also a desire to clear some mental space before tackling new projects.

And I prefer neatness.

This weekend I ruthlessly emptied two boxes of paper stuff, which began life a few years ago as four cartons of paper stuff. Making two from four was an achievement, yet it was also a kind of ‘kicking the can down the road’ move. I only partly decided on things. From the two boxes, all that’s left is a short stack of photos, moleskine notebooks filled with notes, a few letters, and To Do lists and notes that I might keep.

Here’s something, in the snapshot above and full size here. They are my handwritten notes, on the blank back of a photocopied rubric, that capture my observations of what writing and editing moves could improve a batch of student essays. I see I had an idea for a blog post or article on these notes: “Weeding the secret garden.”

My writing observations and advice? Try these instead of fretting about the proper use of “which” and “that.”

  • Don’t use words you wouldn’t actually use, like a “panoply” of examples. (Funny, in my  notes I spelled it “panapoly.”
  • There can be no all-or-nothing argument.
  • You might not want to start with a sentence that summarizes something already known. “Society is constantly struggling to keep up with rapidly evolving and new technologies.” Such an essay would seem as though conceived around a cliché.
  • “Throughout history.” Do not start this way, either.
  • Avoid using smart language to cloak a bad or incoherent idea, e.g. “altruistic outcomes can justify self-interest.” What.
  • Put the sentence verb next to the subject. Do not do this: “The reality that blah blah blah blah blah is the complex nature of blah blah blah blah blah requires…”
  • Ration your use of em-dashes, cliches, parentheses, and questions.  These are fake ways to engage a reader or present yourself as a thinker. I count these as I go, limiting their use.
  • Put your phrasing on a diet. Avoid needless words, and avoid stacks, like “prevalent unresolved issue.”
  • Write a real and full conclusion.

Fellow writers, please try one of these and report back.

Also, fellow writers and partial-draft hoarders, consider also shredding, deleting, burning, or trashing any unfinished projects older than five years, as I did with these 3.5″ floppy discs I discovered. There might be a tasty bit on one of these, but even more compelling are the tasty bits inside me NOW.

FullSizeRender (1)

Remember the Michael Douglas character at the end of the film Wonder Boys (2000)? As I recall it, his character drops a full manuscript that he has labored over when he is outdoors, and the whole box of leaves of paper blow away in a gust of wind like… leaves.  It’s liberating. His life and work can improve.

That’s how I remember it. Is that what actually happened? In this case, it more matters what I remember, and what I’m making it mean to me.

We all have secret gardens of possibility in us. In the children’s novel The Secret Garden, which was one of my favorites when a child myself, a girl and two boys, living unloved as either actual or emotional orphans, starting tending a neglected garden adjacent to the big, house they live in with one relative and a few servants. Tending the garden, uncovering its beauty from weeds, and making friends with birds and animals becomes the pursuit that restores their happiness and vigor.

As a teacher, I must believe that the first drafts of student work are gardens of possibility. Actually, I believe this of all first drafts, even if at first they seem halting, incomplete, or even a mess.

As a writer and person, I must hold onto this belief about myself. There is a secret garden still living and growing, even when locked up behind a stone wall and neglected. The thing to do, once you unlock the door and go back in, is not to neglect it or tend only the weeds, which do fine on their own. Sure, they’re plants, but there are too many of them. Tend the possibility. Keep the door ajar.

It’s hard, though, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

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.

photos_pile

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

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

One dollar thrift shop dress

dress_hem_JaneMy three children, who are no longer actually children, like to shop in thrift stores: Boomerangs, Goodwill, and Savers in particular. They have led me down this path, too. I like a good price and the thrill of out-smarting mainstream retail. (Take that, Gap!) Until I wore them out, one of my favorite pairs of pants was a pre-worn, five-dollar tan pair with an Ann Taylor label bought at Savers.

Inevitably, one of the kids’ purchases of used clothing requires some mending or tailoring by the only person in our house who has practiced sewing skills. That person is me. Sometimes a button is needed, sometimes a new zipper. I have yet to take anything apart and put it back together again — although I do have an Eileen Fisher black silk sleeveless dress in my closet bought for $20 that needs the shoulder straps and armholes raised — but some repairs have been more complex.

A few days before she headed off to college, Lydia brought home a long, granny-like dress from Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain (the best of the four locations, according to Eli) in her staple black & white. She asked me to hem it, and I promised I would before she left. Of course, we waited and waited and waited, as if that day of leaving would never come. Finally, with the prick of a deadline* to motivate me, I got out the sewing machine, pins, measuring tape, steam iron, and a makeshift ironing board (i.e. clean towel on the kitchen counter).

dress_hem_measure

The price tag showed a markdown from $8 to $1, and surely the low price gave me permission to do a rush job: cut the extra length, fold the cut edge, avoid pins and hold it in place, and sew a quick row of fastening stitches. But why not do these things with care, if I’m going to do them at all? So I measured, cut, sewed on a length of hem tape to the cut edge, measured the hem and ironed and pinned it, and sewed the hem by hand using a hemstitch.

As I was sewing, I was thinking, and not just about the task. I recognized the ultimate inefficiency, really, of buying an inexpensive, pre-owned, not-quite-right piece of clothing and then getting someone (i.e., your mother) to spend 90 minutes of labor improving it. True, I volunteered for the task, but I can still put a price on my labor, which is worth more probably than the original price of the dress when new. Even if Lydia had hired the seamstress at the dry cleaner’s to do it, the fee would have boosted the net price of the dress to $21.

As I sewed, I mused longer on how this intimate labor is an act of love and therefore without cost or price. And, if my labor is an act of love, then that dress carries my love with it as it hangs now in Lydia’s closet or is worn by her.

dress_hem

At least a year ago, I bought a pre-worn Banana Republic sweater from an on-line consignment store. I loved the sweater on the website, and I loved it when it came out of the package, not only for how it looked but for its smell: there was a whiff, which stayed until I first dry-cleaned the sweater, of the perfume or deoderant or detergent used by the woman who previously owned it. As I wore this lovely cardigan, I smelled this other person and imagined her: my physical size, having a different life somewhere else, and yet transferring some trace of her in the anonymous selling of her sweater. We endow these objects with ourselves when we wear them.

So, too, I endow the thrift-shop clothing my children buy when I alter or repair it. There’s some essence of me in Lydia’s dress, Eli’s shirt, or Grace’s jacket. (And I suppose the previous owners of the clothing are with them too.)

dress_LydiaThis may be the detail that I have imaginatively focused on the most in helping Lydia prepare for school and getting her there. We did a lot of shopping, and new clothes and bedding and supplies were purchased. We packed. We tidied. All of this getting ready is so quotidian — the sheets, new towels, a box of pencils, extension cord, under-the-bed storage bin — to the point of boredom, really, and not narratable.

But the hemming of the dress… that felt to me almost epic, even if another person, looking at me from the outside, would have seen only a woman in her reading glasses bent over a piece of black and white checked fabric, crumpled in her hand, being pricked with yellow-headed pins. This moment, this dress and its hem: every moment I have ever loved my daughter, which is all moments that have passed and all of them that will come, I felt them with every stitch my hand and needle and thread made, piercing layers of fabric as delicately as I could, over and over and over until where I ended met the place where I started.

*Note: The phrase “prick of a deadline” is one I picked up from my friend Lisette Bordes, who once admitted how useful a deadline is to writing. It is a prick, an act of piercing something with a fine, sharp point, according to the dictionary.

Imagine a point in the future when you will look back at this moment

be awesome

There is this notion of “anticipatory regret” that is supposed to make you avoid doing something bad by anticipating or imagining the negative consequences of the action. You know, you won’t lie if you imagine untangling yourself from the inevitable web of lies spun out of the first one.

Years ago, I read the novel Therapy by David Lodge. For a long time, I attributed to that novel a different, more positive take on anticipatory regret: that it can help you do something good and desired that you imagine feeling future sadness about if you don’t do it. As I remembered the plot, I recalled that the middle-aged Tubby, who was invited to go on a pilgrimage with his former sweetheart, goes with her because he imagines that someday he could deeply regret not going.

I recently re-read Therapy — which sadly does not hold up well, though I remember it as a shining moment in my history of reading pretty much all of Lodge’s novels up to a point — and, although Kierkegaard’s arguments about regret are part of Tubby’s inner calculus, I found nothing about anticipatory regret.

Perhaps the different take was and is my own.

—–

In the spring, for one of my classes I got into the habit of holding open office hours in a classroom, so students could drop in and talk to me about the assignment and, if they wished, sit for a while and write together. One time, 10 students showed up and stayed! Another time, only one did, but he stayed for two hours to work on his report. He would write, ask me a question, write again, say something out loud, write again, and so on. “What do you write?” he asked me at one point. This was an unexpected question, it being a computer science (writing) class and me so clearly not a computer scientist. Why would he, or any CS student, care?

I hemmed. I hawed. “I have written some essays… tried my hand at poetry… last summer wrote a story.”

“What about a book?”

“Well, a while ago I started working on a novel, but then I stopped because I thought it might not be so good for my mental health.”

“What do you mean?” He was still looking at his own screen, writing.

“Like, the story was too close to home. I wondered if I should be getting my thinking in order instead of projecting it all on a novel.” As I was saying this, it sounded stupid to my own ears.

“THAT IS MESSED UP!” he exclaimed, kind of laughing. “That does not make any sense.”

I, sheepishly, “Well, it did to me, at the time. But, yeah.”

—–

You know, when you say something out loud, or you write it down, then you have to think about it.

—–

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