Winston goes to the library

The urge to rescue is sometimes irresistibly strong.  It was a bright December day, early. Winston and I walked to the end of Ogden Road, where it joins the parkway at a right angle, as do many of the side streets in the neighborhood. Across the two lanes, which were busy with morning rush-hour traffic, I saw a big dog, black, pushing its nose into leaves in the ribbon of soft grass and dirt between the sidewalk and road. The dog was so deliberate and calm, staying in place, that it took me a few moments to realize  it was alone. No leash, no owner.

I stood where I was, and I looked up the parkway and down. Winston seemed to look in unison with me, but really it was the motion of the passing cars that fascinated him.  I don’t know if he really looks.

“No, Jane,” I said to myself inside of my head. “You don’t have to save this dog.  Keep going.” I am aware of my desire to help even when it is pathological.  I can resist, I thought.

img_1499

“Well, what’s a reasonable thing I can do?” More internal dialog. I thought of calling Grace, at home in bed. “Bring me an extra leash,” I would say to her. “We have to save a dog today.” She’s like me and would get excited by such a mission. Still, I didn’t call. I mustered my self-restraint.

Down in front of the library, I saw a man looking up the parkway in our direction, shading his eyes.  I started walking then trotting in his direction.  “Sir!  Sir!”  I was waving my free arm. Winston on leash trotted beside me.  A big man in a blue tshirt (no coat!), with a full head of gray hair and black-rimmed glasses, he started walking toward me. We were the only people outside not in cars; we had to walk toward each other.

“Sir, is that your dog?” I kept yelling as I walked closer. He walked in my direction and didn’t answer. I was confused, not only by his lack of response but also by my own fervor to solve the unaccompanied dog problem. Why couldn’t I just walk away and go home? The dog had at least one other potential rescuer. It didn’t have to be me. Continue reading

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

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

To a writer who is full of doubt and fear

When you talked to that student, full of anxiety about finishing a draft of the report on the lab experiment, that’s how you felt, isn’t it? That’s how you were able to remain calm and say what you did. “It’s okay. It happens. I know you are capable.” And then you added, “There are strategies.”

Both are true: a writer can be filled with doubt and fear, and a writer can employ strategies to keep going. You believe this.

FullSizeRender(1)

Winston and I search the Internets

And yet lately you are not practicing what you believe. In fact, you may be starting to believe that your work as a teacher of technical writing — planned, precise, organized — is dismantling your skill as a writer of the exploratory, the awkward and searching, the digressive.

In sum, you may be losing your strategies. “I fear that I have become so practiced at academic writing that I can’t do any other kind than that,” you tell your friend James. He says you are still capable.

You could write every day. You could freewrite for 20 minutes. You could have no goal. You could enjoy it.

But: what is the goal? what is the genre? what are the audience expectations?

These questions, ones you teach all the time, they stop you. Continue reading

You may be looking for a person you have already found

cemetery_dogI was pulled along by the dog.

It was morning, shortly after Grace had left for school and Jimmy for work. A day at home, grading papers and fixing the bathroom sink, stretched ahead of me.

In the cemetery, besides Winston and me, was only a green public works truck parked on one of the roads with a man in the passenger seat drinking his coffee out of a Dunkin’ Donuts cup. There was no driver visible. Perhaps it was just this guy, resting at the beginning of the day, in the passenger position in his own truck.

I remembered a day when I was about 16, walking from my house, through my neighborhood, through another one, and then through a cemetery on the way to Pine Street to walk to my job at the pharmacy in the center of town. I took the back roads looking for a short cut, but it would probably have been just as direct to take the two main roads, Pleasant Street to Main Street. My route, probably 2.5 miles long, seemed deserted, although there were plenty of houses along the way. It was autumn, and I kicked the eddied piles of leaves along the way. I wore a blue-flowered quilted jacket made by my mother that had a band collar and frog closures, which together made it “Chinese style” to me in my limited knowledge of other cultures.

This is not the first time I recalled that day, which is so memorable to me, not for its eventfulness — nothing actually happened — but for a feeling of happiness and oneness with myself. All conditions gave me the feeling of simply being that made me realize I can be my own best company and contented alone.

In my present life, I have been reading The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Mark Epstein, MD (Penguin Books, 2013). He is concerned with Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the transformational power of trauma, about which he writes this:

Trauma is a basic fact of life, according to the Buddha. It is not just an occasional thing that happens only to some people; it is there all the time. Things are always slipping away. Although there are occasions when it is more pronounced and awful and occasions when it is actually horrific, trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people. It is the bedrock of our biology. Churning, chaotic, and unpredictable, our lives are stretched across a tenuous canvas. Much of our energy goes into resisting this fragility, yet it is there nonetheless. (197)

The book is punctuated with personal stories from his own life and other people he knows or has encountered. The death of his father from brain cancer, which occurred when his doctor/father was an old man, is told in fragments over the book.

cemetery_tree

I was very moved by the account of a conversation he had with his father when the older man’s days “were severely numbered” and Epstein started to wonder if he should “try to talk to him about what I had learned from Buddhism” (179). The challenge, he realized, was to talk to his father in plain language about concepts the father had never, in his life as a doctor, ever studied. The father had also habitually avoided the topic of his own mortality. “This is not an uncommon strategy for dealing with death,” remarks Epstein in the book (180).

Epstein calls his father on the phone from his office:

Continue reading

Our singular commemoration of September 11

I wonder if our interest in

our grief over

our memory and

our commemoration of

the events and attacks of September 11, 2001 in America are heightened because —

unlike the people of Syria,

Israel and Palenstine,

the Ukraine,

Afghanistan,

Sierra Leone,

Iran,

Iraq, and other embattled countries

who undergo military and terrorist violence and fear and injury and death

all the time —

for Americans currently living, September 11th remains a unique event.

It is for me too: link

Emily called in the middle of that astonishing day and introduced a set of concrete and weighty nouns that consolidated the horror and made it more terrifying: “Steve,” “new job,” “two weeks,” “New York,” and — a code we suddenly knew the definition of — “Cantor Fitzgerald.”

No.

And then, after Emily’s call, I am standing in front of our blue couch, on which are piles of clean laundry, waiting for folding. I hold a towel, a pillowcase, and I stare at their angles and wonder why folding matters.

Many of us, though not all, did become happy again, didn’t we?

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

All the dead and ruined young lives

Central Park Running Path, 4.15.2013

Central Park Running Path, 4.15.2013

On Monday, April 15th in the afternoon, Lydia and I were walking through Central Park from the Guggenheim down to Columbus Circle. It was the end of a two-day trip to the city to see a college that Lydia is interested in applying to.

I kept looking at my phone because the walking paths curved here and there, and we followed them and yet still wanted to be headed generally in a diagonal across the park, so I needed the Google map. In the Ramble, I got a text from Jimmy:

There appear to have been explosions at the finish line of the marathon. We are at the arboretum, far away.

I did not know enough to worry, and I ignored the text. Maybe “explosion” meant firecrackers launched by naughty kids.

Lydia got a message from a friend about the explosions, and she followed up. Perhaps she is more easily alarmed than me, by personality or age. “Mom!” she said something like this, urgently, and conveyed the seriousness of what had happened.

Our walk to Columbus Circle — to go to Whole Foods to get something to eat on the train before we headed to my sister Emily’s office and then Penn Station —  lost its power. The beautiful spring day seemed to be happening to other people. Lydia even remarked, as we passed New Yorkers, that they probably didn’t know yet.

I did stop to take this photo (above) on a bridge that looked over a playing field and what is called Central Park Running Path, according to the geographic locator in Instagram. Lydia discouraged me from taking more, claiming that our moment for picture-taking was gone.

I didn’t know what I felt: distracted, there-but-not-there, worried about our travel plans.

When we got to my sister’s office near Penn Station, we heard more. We watched videos on our phones and my laptop. We discussed. The word “amputations,” more than any other detail, provoked whatever it is I felt, and those feelings I could not name.

Continue reading

Summer chores: pleasure and pain

a fraction of my paint can hoard

In his essay, “Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street,” E. B. White describes a move from the six-room Manhattan apartment he then shared with his wife. Even in 1957 people accumulated lots of stuff; it’s not just our epoch that is so acquisitive.  Contemplating my own home, which is fairly tidy, I feel about it the same way that White felt about his apartment:

A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smooth, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. […] This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.

In the passage above where I’ve used a “[…]” as a placeholder for many sentences I’ve omitted, White lists the various things that have made their way into his life without his beckoning or actively acquiring them: books, oddities, gifts, memo books, a chip of wood sent to him by a reader, and “indestructible keepsakes” left behind by someone who has died. Later in the essay he writes about the special problem of trophies. (Note: While my post is not at all about teaching, I think it could be a fruitful assignment in a creative writing class to have students make a long list of items that could fill that “[…]” spot. Perhaps an idea for a poem would emerge.)

White and his wife had only six rooms in this apartment. In our house, we have seven rooms, plus more closets, and an attic and basement. Ah, therein lies the problem. A former grad school professor of mine once said to me, as she and her husband packed up a house to move in with a daughter upon their retirement: “People should not be allowed to know that they have attics and basements.” Continue reading