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

Same route, different thoughts

I took the same route back to my parked car today as I did last Monday afternoon: through the Common, down Charles Street, and across the Longfellow Bridge back to Kendall Square from Park Street.

This time, I took my own photo.

on Longfellow Bridge, nearing Cambridge, today at 4:45pm

I met no strangers on the bridge, but I did walk by many of them. One smiled.

On my walk, I thought for almost the whole time about the power of the words, “I’m sorry.” My shift on the GLAD Legal InfoLine was busy today. Lots of calls. So many of the calls I get have to do with gay marriage or immigration issues. Once in a while there is one that has to do with crime, and the caller as victim of one. Today there were two.

To one fellow, after he had told me a long yet coherent story about being beaten, I said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. It sounds very upsetting.” Until that moment, his voice had been measured and regular, sort of like the tone of voice a friend would use as you sat together at a coffee shop and discussed an incident that had happened to a third friend.

His voice broke. “It was.” That was all he said. I could hear the loosening inside him. I felt loosened myself, not crying but as though I could.

I got practical again and made some suggestions. He rallied. I’d like to think we both felt as though we were moving forward in solving a problem and that it seemed, for the moment, better.

Writing to confront the human heart in conflict

At last, another writer has excavated an issue about writing that has been worrying me. Does the desire to write and publish spring from some creative well (that is the hope) or does it spring from neurosis (that is the worry)?

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Steve Almond, story writer and essayist, argues convincingly that the rise of writing workshops parallels a decline in talk therapy. He claims that what brings many individuals to writing, and to MFA programs, is less an interest in craft than a location for their “loneliness and sorrow.” About himself as a young writer, he says

I figured I had gone into the literary racket because I had urgent and profound things to say about the world and because I was a deeply creative person. But looking back, I can see that the instigating impulse for me, for all of us really, was therapeutic. We were writing to confront what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” And not just any heart. Our hearts.


copyright: Pina (2011), by Wim Wenders

A few weeks ago, Jimmy and I went out for a quick dinner at Mantra (definitely on the down curve) before seeing Pina in 3D nearby. This you should see. Determined not to talk about the children or money, we discussed our side projects: he’s working on a novel about a discontented middle-aged man trying to reconcile himself to his life with antics both professional and personal, and I am working on a YA novel about a family of three children who have been abandoned by their parents and are trying to make it on their own, without revealing their situation to concerned adults around them. The more we described the characters and events to each other, the more concerned I became.

“Um,” I finally said, “Don’t you think this is really, really messed up?”

“What’s messed up?” Jimmy asked, perhaps having more fun with this conversation than I was.

“That maybe what we’re writing aren’t really novels, but just projections of our own subconscious conflicts and desires? Like maybe we should quit writing and straighten ourselves out?”

copyright: Pina (2011), by Wim Wenders

Jimmy responded with a writer’s answer: “In my writing, I’m trying to go to the places I fear to go.” Apparently, in his novel, the protagonist’s wife is killed, and this is upsetting to Jimmy, and so he’s writing into the terror. Armchair psychologist that I am, I speculated to myself that he also secretly and occasionally fantasizes about the disappearance of his own wife. (That’s okay, as long as I can remain alive in another dimension.)

And, hey, my subconscious is besmirched too. My protagonist may be a 13 year old girl and not a middle-aged married woman, but the mother of this girl — and the father — end up abandoning their kids in a series of events both planned and unplanned. What does that say about me? Continue reading

Telltale art

In July, I got lucky and went to TEDx Boston. My favorite talk was not the expert one by presentation superstar Larry Lessig, but the surprising one by artist Eric Mongeon, on his persistent obsession with what he calls the “dark and thrilling work” of Edgar Allen Poe and his struggle to illustrate and publish Poe’s stories.

What Mongeon says, in part one, about Poe’s work makes me want to return to the stories: “He was writing about fear in uniquely modern terms. All of Poe’s characters experience fear when their fundamental beliefs about their social, personal, or practical situation are somehow invalidated. The world becomes uncertain, because the picture of reality falls out of sync with the experience of reality. And at the root of fear is uncertainty.”

In part two, Mongeon describes a situation he found himself caught in. After years of generating material for his secret Poe project, he realized he was in The Vortex: “A viscious circle of research, rejection, and refinement. It is unrelenting, and it is self-perpetuating because you feel like you’re actually making something.” He soberly adds, “Doing isn’t the same thing as making.”

And finally he knits it all together — Poe’s stories, his own story, fear — deftly.

Original ideas, and a really original presentation. Everything fits: the script, the images, the timing, his clockwork pacing of the stage, and some strategic pauses. Simmering is how I’d characterize this, and worth studying.

Escape from America

This summer marked our third family car trip to Canada. On occasion, we have joked darkly and said that our habit of traveling there is practice for when the U.S. reinstates the draft, and we have to hightail it north to keep Eli and perhaps the girls from compulsory service. Interestingly, during our stay in Toronto I read a biography of Jane Jacobs and learned that she and her husband moved to that same city in 1968 to keep their two sons from the draft, and she easily made it her home for the rest of her long life.

More immediately, though, we love it: a chance to go and be somewhere different, cool, and not America without the hassles of an airport and high price of (five!) airline tickets.

Driving by Jimmy. Back seat photo by Grace.

Plus, before we cross the border, we get to drive through some nice country in Maine, Vermont, or upstate New York and visit friends and stop at some out-of-the way U.S. attractions. This was so on our recent trip through Albany, Cooperstown, and Niagara Falls, on our way to Toronto.

What follows, in this post and the next, is less a summary than an accounting of high, and a few low, lights of our August vacation. Continue reading

Meditation on adult fears

In graduate school, at the first meeting of an American poetry seminar that turned out to be wonderfully heavy on Emily Dickinson, the professor asked us to introduce ourselves by going around the table and disclosing our worst fears. As soon as she said it, the professor withdrew the prompt. “No, don’t say your worst fears, say your second worst fears. It’s too terrible, as an adult, to claim your worst fear. ” She paused. “What if it came true?”

My second worst fear is a wood chipper, those little green or orange monsters with big metal teeth that get lugged around by tree jockeys and that eat branches and trunks. Last fall, on my way to work, I saw one on Amory Street in Brookline and sticking out of it was not a mouthful of hemlock but the blue-jeaned legs and ass of a man. I was riveted and terrified. As I drove closer I could tell that he was intentionally face first inside the jaw, fixing it, I gathered. A couple of other tree guys stood around, unperturbed and waiting.

A healthy respect for the destructive power of machines may be rational (as may be the fear of waxing, which was the pick of another female grad student in my class). However, sometimes a fear grows until its size in one’s imagination becomes irrational.

A friend of mine, an artist, has an ex who has diabetes, as I do. Things are not going well for him, and I encouraged her to encourage him to make his way to the Joslin Diabetes Center, where he would get help with his medications, diet, exercise routine, and even his feelings of discouragement. “They will take care of all of him,” I assured her. The thought of this buoyed her. Recently she wrote to me: “Would you be willing to talk to him? He wants to go and he seems reluctant to go.” Ah, of course. Continue reading

– At long last: grackles

At long last — weeks after I had given up the hope that I would see them this year — they returned.

As I stood at the kitchen sink, drank from a cup, and stared absent-mindedly into the backyard, I faintly heard a chorus of chattering. I heard it before I recognized it.

My attention tracked the origin of the noise. I went to the door, opened it quietly, and peered up at the old trees. Ah, they were dotted and filled with the purplish, black birds. Hundreds of them chucked like pigeons and squeaked like rusted gates. Hundreds. From the trees in the front of the house to the trees in the back, a crowd of them swooped, and the swooping felt like a huge quiet breath inhaled by the sky over my shoulder: a pause, a contraction, a gathering of force.

Usually, their arrival coincides with Columbus Day. This year, I waited and waited and waited, yet they seemed to have passed by without stopping for me, or perhaps they had not passed by at all, which made me wonder: what is going on in our climate?

The grackles are very late this year. Still, they have arrived and will probably stay for a day or two. While their gang sound is chilling and seems to bring a portent, I am relieved by their visit.


P.S. This video was taken by me, on the morning of November 16, 2009, as I stood on our back steps and looked up at the trees in our yard and beyond to my neighbor’s red roof. As you watch, turn up the volume on your machine to appreciate the effect of a sky filled with grackle sound.

– Twisted world


Usually, we keep the cars unlocked when they’re sitting in our driveway. What would anyone want to steal, but a handful of change in the cup holder, empty water bottles on the floor, or a soccer ball in the back? An opportunistic thief, it seems, might also be attracted to a red bag full of first aid supplies for Grace’s scouting troop, of which I am the volunteer first aider. Bandaids, gauze pads, Benadryl, instant cold packs, surgical scissors, a CPR face mask: stolen. Today we replenished the kit. It costs $104 for supplies that fit this description, plus $20 for a discount backpack to hold it all.

On the MBTA Green Line, a man in nice pants, black scuffed vinyl shoes, and a puffy down Patriots jacket sat across from me, with his head bent over a notebook. Left-handed, he wrote a numbered list of principles in big block letters on the lined paper. The list, which was easy to read upside-down and across the aisle, had to do with campaigning, I gathered. “1. Door-to-door. Get the message out. 2. Phone bank. Waste of time. 3. Direct mail. Expensive, uncertain.” And so on. I feared, for some inchoate reason, he was launching the beginning of a political career.

Above ground at the Park Street Station, the street was blocked off with that yellow police tape. The whole intersection, blocked. People standing around. No cars. I looked and looked at my fellow bystanders, trying to make eye contact before asking someone to explain. No eye contact. I walked over to the hotdog stand guy. “Yes, miss?” he said to me as his glance landed on mine. I asked him what had happened. He answered, “A quite older woman was hit by a truck in the intersection. She passed away.” Oh, no. Still, I found it so strange that the gentle phrase “passed away” could be used for a victim who had been rammed by a truck.

In the rundown jewelry store on the corner of Tremont and Winter Streets, I finally got the battery in my watch replaced. Only $8.49 — what was I waiting for? For at least two months, I had been covertly using the digital display on my insulin pump as a time keeper. The jeweler’s assistant told me she sees everything out her store window, everything. The old woman who was hit by the truck had her “head cracked open. Open.” The assistant, who had heat-straightened brown hair and a very kind smile, cupped her two hands around her forehead as she described what she saw. I pictured her head like an egg, the shell opening. Continue reading

– Scary movie

HalloweenMoonIt’s Halloween; I’m alone.

It’s a good time to watch Jesus Camp, a documentary loaned to me weeks ago by my friend David,  a fellow volunteer at GLAD.

“I heard it’s disturbing,” said Eli, when I showed it to him.

Perfect for tonight.


P.S. The photo has nothing to do with the film. It’s simply a snap of the spooky moon in the sky over my house on this balmy, windy Halloween.