Pillow on the sidewalk

Tonight after work I went looking for the pillow I had seen on the sidewalk during my morning commute.

Earlier in the day at the office, I saw my colleague, Sue Spilecki, and mentioned the misfit pillow to her. When I first saw it on Monday morning, plump and expectant on the sidewalk near Allandale Farm and across from the Exxon station, I immediately thought of Sue and her poetry and imagined the pillow catching her poetic attention. My own thoughts — more scenic than poetic — pictured a person, very tired, walking along and accepting the pillow’s invitation to lie down. I pictured that person, a woman, stretching herself out and giving herself over to sleep with cars and school buses streaming by. This imagined woman was very tired; the journey had been long.

But in my mind it was not a poem; it was a person, a character.

I promised Sue I would go back and get a photo for her. After all, the pillow had been there a few days in the same place – why wouldn’t it remain there? I veered off my running route tonight to track it down. It was gone. There was a sign for an event at Allandale Farm – “Craft” – and I wondered if a caterer or event organizer had tidied up the sidewalk in advance of guests. There is a fancy element to Allandale, even though it is a farm, and in fact the property is owned in trust by a wealthy family though they have deeded it (and therefore protected it from taxes) to some land trust for protected use.

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what i saw after i didn’t see the pillow

I wandered down the dirt road and even breached the No Trespassing sign. I had done this once before and been asked to leave by a woman who drove up to me in a blue Audi. Later, the encounter made me write a short story about it, something to do with wealth hidden behind bucolic agriculture and what rural land may mean to different people (characters) in a community: migrant farm workers, a young mother/photographer, the landowners themselves. At the time I wrote that story, I had not imagined a pillow on the sidewalk or a woman reposing on it.

Another colleague, Tracy, asked me today about my blog and my writing. “I miss it,” I said, even though I also admitted I had set my writing aside last summer in a very deliberate, practical way and only now am I rejuvenating it, feeling both tentative and awkward.

Also today I read a student essay in which the writer used a lot of interesting words that were almost but not quite right. The misfit words could have been misfires in the student’s working vocabulary or they could have been errors created by autocorrect. Only one of the ‘off’ words charmed me: the writer referred to a “collusion” of automobiles, and in the context I believe the writer meant “collision.” How more interesting to imagine two cartoon-like cars, with their noses together, whispering, secretly planning, conspiring. In a dystopic future, imagine all our smart, sensor-filled cars, controlling us and not just doing our bidding, whether driven by us or some network of data.

I do not, though, have a mind for dystopia. I would really have to commit to it and imagine more than two cars, a whole community of them, with leadership and planning and resources and, more than anything, motivation. Why would they want to take us over? I cannot picture what cars would get from us that they would actually want or need.  See, this is not my genre.

Next to me on the couch right now is a plate with cracker crumbs on it. I wet my finger, dab them up, and eat them.

I hear the buzzer from the washer in the basement, the load done. I told Lydia I’d hang up her sweater.

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sidewalk where i expected to see a pillow

Tomorrow, another day at MIT, reading more essays, a summer project for a bunch of us. It’s optional (paid) work. It seems my most cheerful colleagues sign up for it. We get a free lunch (Middle Eastern food), and we sit together and don’t talk about work, kind of like indoor recess. We do talk about our children, our writing, New York vs. Boston/Cambridge, Uber, and – for a moment – a pillow on a sidewalk that no longer exists.

And yet it does: Sue wrote a poem about it.

 

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

Creativity, power, and compliance

Eli_illustration_2008

The writing of this post, though not the content, was inspired by this link, on writer’s block, anxiety, and writing itself as the therapy:

It may be that learning to do creative work of any kind—not just direct imagery exercises—may help combat writer’s block. Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist who is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of “Wired to Create,” says, “When one feels writer’s block, it’s good to just keep putting things down on paper—ideas, knowledge, etc.”

I don’t feel as though I have writer’s block, but I haven’t been writing. Why not 20 minutes a day? Start now.

I went to a lecture today for one of my classes at MIT, 2.00b Toy Product Design. The professor was leading students through a list of commonly misunderstood and misused terms: engine vs motor; nut vs. washer; die vs. tap; and so on. He got to energy vs. power. He asked for the definition of energy, and a student answered close enough.

He asked, “What is power?” and a student blurted out, “A great responsibility.” I laughed, the professor laughed, and many students in the class laughed.

The definition for power actually is “amount of work or energy transfer per unit of time.” It’s a rate.

I learn a lot in these classes about engineering. In another class this week, I deepened my knowledge of stepper motors. These are very ingenious things.

But this afternoon, as I left class and walked to get some dinner because I have a night lab at 7 PM also in the toy design class, I was thinking about power as a responsibility. The professor had added, after the laughter died down, that he hoped it wouldn’t be used for evil, and he meant the social relations kind, but I suppose also you could apply it to the physics principle. Let’s not use machine power, for example, to plow a vehicle into a crowd.

I have power, and I have prerogative as to how I’ll use it. Over the weekend a dear friend gave me a high compliment: she said I was one of the two most “self-directed people” she knows. That is a kind of power. Therefore, it makes me bristle sometime to have people try to exert their power over me – not the law so much (I’ll comply with that), but the demands or instructions of others especially when they are not consistent with my values or desires.

Jimmy, my husband, once said I am “typical GenX: outwardly compliant and inwardly defiant.” This is true too. Even when I bristle at the demands of others, I often will fulfill them, for peace or ease or even the satisfaction of others.

Is there another generation that is inwardly compliant and outwardly defiant? Some people are this way. They act out, though inside their desires are conventional. (I think of compliant as having to do with some set of rules or expectations or sentiments shared broadly in the culture, and not, oh, compliant with the weather.) An employee, for example, may make a lot of commotion at work in the form of complaints or acting out, but inside s/he is really wanting job security, a promotion, and praise. S/he looks like a change maker or ballbuster but really her/his comfort zone is in safe territory.

Some people want others to have power OVER them to keep themselves in line. Like a friend who says, “Please yell at me if I start drinking too much.” Okay, in that instance, that can be a nice thing for a friend to do, be your external monitor, but it also means you don’t have to muster up your own power. Continue reading

Tuesday night on the couch with the dog

IMG_9830Ten minutes ago I searched for a photograph of “Jennifer Lopez without makeup.” I really did that. Her bare face is good and looks like her, although the photo caption claimed that “She is unrecognizable!”

This is not true. What makes Lopez so beautiful in full makeup, I’d argue, is that her basic face is very strong. It’s like an apartment or house with good bones – put a long narrow couch in the living room and a picture on the wall and it’s stunning.

I put the timer on for 24 minutes, the amount of time I would set aside for a nap. (I do time my naps so that I don’t overindulge and later have trouble sleeping.) What’s wrong with me?? Must everything be rationed or limited? In childhood, time could be wasted. You even had to kill some of it, there was too much.

My friend Lee is blogging daily, and Susan almost every day. I love when I get email notification that there is a new post from one of them. I’m excited, even though for the most part they are not writing essays, or full accounts, or incisive commentary. I love their posts, in fact, for not being any of those things. There is no thesis or provocation, and yet their words linger, make me think new thoughts (even if little ones), and best of all make me want to write things down.

I have been writing things down in letters, condolence notes, lists, and notebooks. There are a few personal emails but that as a medium for keeping in touch has become fraught or almost disappointing in advance. Will an email be read or shoved aside until there is more time later? Would the recipient rather I had instant-messaged them? Or will we all end up replying to replies, as Heidi Julavitz remarked so aptly in her odd yet riveting book, The Folded Clock. Note: Lee or Susan, I wonder if you have read any of this book and what you think of it.

The trick with free writing is not to look at the clock, to just keep going.

Winston the Dog is dozing next to me on the couch. He seems content just to be with us: Where you go, I go. If someone were to go stand near the kitchen door right now and rattle his leash, he would spring into full energy and run to meet them. Hey, yeah, let’s go outside, I’m ready! This is a wonderful thing about a dog. He doesn’t need the transition time or the grouch time or the resistance time that people do. He would never say, “One minute!” and then take 10 minutes. (I do that.) Every state is immediately attractive and doable. 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.

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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

Writer’s 15-minute confession

Sometimes I feel as though I am dying by not writing.

By “I,” I mean my creative self, not my physical body.

By “dying,” I mean losing force, vitality, hope.

By “writing,” I mean the right words on a matter of personal or artistic urgency.

I went to the bookshelf to find a poem to work on with my adult ESL student today. We are studying modifiers, and those grammar workbooks will kill your interest in words. They are so earnestly done. They seem to have nothing to do with any language that people actually speak or write.

Charles Simic, Philip Levine, Robert Frost. Mark Strand’s “I Was an Arctic Explorer” was on my mind, but I couldn’t put my hand on the book. Mary Oliver’s What Do We Know: Poems and Prose Poems will do.

“Black Snake,” first line:

The flat rock in the center of the garden heats up every morning in the sun.

Instantly, you are somewhere else. You see it in your mind as you’ve seen it before. You feel it; you are the rock.

This poem was in front of me like a piece of cake I could not eat. I know I am exaggerating. But I am close to the cake — so close I could put a fork into it, put the fork into my mouth — but I cannot. Not because I am unable, and not because I am afraid, but because I should be doing something else. I am preventing myself. I am in my own way.

And time will pass, life will happen, I will notice things like flat rocks, bare toes on concrete, and the uptwist of my daughter’s hair, and someone else will be writing about them.

I will be grading your paper, attending your meeting, revising a lecture, listening to your complaints, fielding a question, cooking a meal, signing a school form, getting some sleep.

This may not be factual. This though is what it is like for me to not write.

Hovering over a lake of words

We gave ourselves an assignment: write every day for a week, minimum two minutes each time with an ideal goal of 30 or more. This was in response to our constant wailing, in our weekly chats, about how work and life get in the way of writing.

James will have to report on his own results, but mine showed that, even though I write for work many hours every day, I don’t write for the creative projects I claim to be longing to do. Words are all around me — they are the stuff of how I make my living — but I am not immersed right now in any creative project even though I often feel as though I am on the verge of one. Ironically, instead of using this self-imposed writing week to dive into a creative project, I felt compelled to interrogate myself daily with the question that could be boiled down to this: With all the writing I do, why am I not ‘writing’?

tree branch, Jamaica Pond, August 27 2013, photo by Lydia and editing by Grace

tree branch, Jamaica Pond, August 27 2013, photo by Lydia and editing by Grace

Below the jump I have published an excerpt from each of those seven days. Even though these reflections and rants are not necessarily essay-worthy, I did enjoy seeing how my unpolished, unstudied writing could yield some straightforward insights in unfussy language. Too often I feel my prose is the product of too much crafting. My free writing is free of my cool pose, and I like that in places.

Next assignment? If we are to continue with the daily writing, James and I will put aside the fretting about not writing and, instead, do the writing. My topic this week is anger. My hope is to jump start an essay I started and put aside a couple of years ago.

Continue reading

Consider the hummingbird: a reading and writing exercise

Today I met with Karma, an MIT employee and adult student whom I tutor in English once a week through a pilot program. We have a grammar workbook that we are going through rather doggedly, and we like to break up the formal exercise with reading, writing, and speaking activities.

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Last week we read out loud together one of my favorite short essays, “Joyas Volardores,” by Brian Doyle (The American Scholar, Autumn 2004). Read the full text here: link. It is about the hummingbird, and more. The essay is full of beautiful facts and therefore new vocabulary, so it is suitable for an ESL student. There is also a curious passage about the blue whale and a meditation on the human heart. There is much to puzzle over.

Today, we did some free writing based on the nature of the essay (i.e., facts lead you to ideas and even strong emotion) and its first sentence:

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.

I proposed to Karma that we generate more concrete nouns, in place of “hummingbird,” for things we had knowledge about that could be described.

Consider the __________ for a long moment.

landscape
automobile
microwave oven
maple tree
Bobcat (small truck)
iPhone
computer
motorbike
kitchen
… and so on

I suggested that we each take the first sentence, put in a concrete noun of our own choosing, and free write from there, trying to emulate some of Doyle’s declarative style and building paragraphs on sentences with the simple subject/verb structure, which is used lavishly in the essay.

We wrote for 15 minutes. We read aloud to each other the first and last sentences of what we had written, to see how far our ideas had come. The noun Karma had chosen was “computer,” and the one I had chosen was “kitchen.”

I wrote a lot in 15 minutes, yet felt unhurried the entire time. (See below the jump for the full text of my free write.) I really was following my thoughts. Karma wrote less than me yet seemed contented also. This is a good way to get writers to excavate what they know from experience and observation; this exercise could be followed up with a research assignment to start to develop material from the free write into an essay.

I noticed, when Karma read it aloud, that his last sentence has the word “unimaginable” in it. A word in my last sentence is “unconscious.” We seemed both to have traveled from concreteness to the cerebral. To get to an idea is the goal.

What will we do with what we wrote? As we parted, I told Karma there is no real homework, but that I hoped he would think about his last sentence, and I will think about mine. We will start there next week.

Keep reading for my free writing…

Continue reading

Weeding and thinking

The crabgrass is an invader. Not only has it staked its claim on various islands of the lawn, it has mingled with the flowers in the front yard too. What we call “weeds” is socially constructed, you know. Crabgrass is simply one kind of grass, equal to others, but we don’t like it, we can’t control it, so we think of it as a weed: undesirable and to be eradicated.

I’ll live with it on the lawn — and it only grows out front, where there’s sun — but I dislike crabgrass among the flowers I planted intentionally.


Weeding is good to do early in the day. It focuses the mind and then clears it. Was I procrastinating the semester prep I need to do when I put on my work shoes and gathered the bucket and tools? Yes. If one is putting off something else, though, it is good to at least accomplish another task. Recently I read that the highest-achieving people always do their most difficult work first. Ah, not me. I like a little puttering first, sort of like walking around the block before a run. The warm up, the loosening.

It is satisfying to grab the head of a clump of weeks, pry the dirt a bit from below, and then pull, feeling the roots of the weed pull back and my own gentle force eventually overcome their tenaciousness. Is this similar to the satisfaction dentists, doctors, and even aestheticians feel in their work with the human body? The organism resists; the professional — wilier, and with tools — overcomes. This may also lead to the despair that is sometimes felt in working with the human body, with nature in general: ultimately, its own force or fragility asserts itself and the counter force we apply fails. The river overflows the bank; the freckles proliferate; illness has its way; children grow and become themselves; we age.


Working with one’s hands — and typing does not feel like work with one’s hands, although hand writing does — focuses the mind on the task. There are a set of small decisions to make as well as continual adjustments. To any passerby, I probably look quite still as I weed, just my hands and fingers busy, but I inch my way down the front walk and my mind, meanwhile, buzzes with thought: about the flowers and which ones to plant again next year, about the fall tasks around the corner, about water and my access to an abundant amount of it, and about the burden and pleasure in owning a piece of the earth.

Eli once said it’s so weird that people can own property, a piece of the planet, and when you stop to think about it, he’s right. Surely, we have to live somewhere, but strange that only Jimmy and I have a claim on these particular 7,000 square feet of dirt in Brookline, Massachusetts. And how far down do our rights go? A foot? Down to the sewer and gas pipes? All the way to the center of the earth? I picture a cutaway view of my house on the earth’s crust and the massive sliver of geological layers on which we rest. And if I do own the sliver all the way to the planet’s core, do I also have responsibility for it?

The parts of life that touch me have this awesome responsibility: if I know about it, or am associated with it, I am implicated in its maintenance or outcome. To not take responsibility (and I don’t, always) is to make an active decision to *not* concern myself, to shut off that part of my brain or body that could act. I won’t help (though I could); I won’t care (though I do); I will leave this to someone else.

I’m not borrowing the rhetoric of the self-help movement to assert my need for “me time” (I hate that expression). Occasionally I have this dialog with myself because I am lazy or tired or even because I lose faith in myself.

Continue reading

A hard and bitter seed

heather, brought down by winter

The first few fragments here have been knocking at the door of my attention. So I wrote them down, and then I followed one sentence with the next, the next, the next, and so on. At some point it became what we call free writing, and it ended where it did.

I hate writing.
I hate skating.
Yard work.
Teaching.
Parenting sometimes, and reading.
All of these things I supposedly love: I hate them.

That’s how I feel on the verge of doing them.

A couple of weeks ago and with enthusiasm I bought some supplies for my yard clean up. I took the afternoon off. The next day I went out there and faced what I intended to do. Tear out two old bushes and bundle them up for the town’s compost pickup. Dig up the weed patch and lay down rolled sod, heavy and awkward.  Move an azalea, in too much sun, to a shady spot, and an American cranberry bush from shade to sun.

I sat in a dirty plastic lawn chair for a while and thought how it didn’t matter, how fruitless my effort would be. Who cares, really, who will ever notice, if the azalea gets more comfort in the shade and the cranberry more berries in light? Okay, I will notice. But I won’t always live here. Some future owner will look at my non-artistic, non-modernist attempts at gardening, rip them out, and install beautifully identical boxwoods with space in between. And the old screened porch (with original and much-repaired screens), buttressed by the elderly hydrangea, will get torn down to make room for a family room. And the ferns and hostas might seem like garbage plants to a fancier owner and end up in a brown paper bag on the curb.

Still, it’s possible to begin even with a fog of pragmatic despair hanging over me, so I did.

I feel this way, too, the more and more I skate. I must be improving, right? I can look back on five years ago, and even five months ago, and say to myself, “I can do this now. I can do that.” An hour before I gather my things and car keys to leave the house for the rink, though, I say to myself, “There is no forseeable outcome to this: no contest, no show, probably no mastery.”

But then I go, because it’s on my calendar and I promised myself that I would.

And I smell the dirt, or I smell the ice, and the shovel makes a sandy, muffled sound as it connects and the hockey player over there digs in until the ice groans its particular protest which is so satisfying to the human ear, and I feel as though maybe I can begin. (Beginning is a kind of restarting.)

At first I am hating it still, but I am also giving it a chance. I say, “Jane, try ten minutes, or thirty. If nothing happens, you can stop.” I am without grace, as though I really am a beginner, yet of course I lack the utter, naive enthusiasm of the absolute beginner. I am between beginner and master, that no man’s land. Continue reading