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.
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

– Eye of the family storm

In the fall of 2004, I participated in a faculty development workshop at Simmons College, where I then worked and taught, on the teaching of writing. There were about 15 of us, and it was led by Lowry Pei and it was great. We got together weekly, we talked about students (in general, not gossipy), we puzzled over how to teach academic writing, and we did some writing, too. Some of it was formal and academic; some of it was free.

I’ve been digging in my archives from that workshop, looking for material. Here’s an excerpt from a 30-minute freewrite I did at 7:30am on a Sunday in November, 2004.  Eli was 12; Lydia 8; and Grace 4.  As I wrote, I tried to let family interruptions become part of the writing, and so I documented them along with my train of thought. Eventually, the interruptions became the train.

Freewrite #6:

I often wait for the perfect conditions within which to write (quiet, long stretch of time, well rested) and those perfect conditions present themselves to me, or I’m able to make them happen not –

–interruption.  Lydia is doing some algebra problems, for fun, that I created for her.  She doesn’t get “2x = 24” – that “x” is unknown and that multiplication is implied.  She thought that “x” meant “double the number” and she came up with 4.  I explain.  She says, “so two times twelve?”  That’s right, because value for x in this instance is 12.

And I only get perfect conditions about two hours per week.  That’s not a lot of time in which to do much.  So, doing things on the fly has to work for me.  I’m attracted to the short form for this reason, or that’s what I want to believe.  Continue reading

– Potatoes, and other prompts

I like the concreteness of things. Focusing on them while writing also frees me from my vague and persistent thoughts. Put an old key, a knife, an unfamiliar picture, or brooch in front of me, and I feel interest in at least describing the item. That inevitably leads to a connection with my own experience and, sometimes, a new question.

In her handbook, Writing Alone and with Others, which is filled with attractive writing New potatoesexercises, Pat Schneider offers many examples of using objects as “triggers” in her workshops for writers. Sometimes, she places a covered basket of 30 or 40 items on a table, removes the cover, and asks group members to take one or two objects, hold them, and freewrite for 10 minutes or so. Other times, she has multiples of the same item, and hands one to each member, getting them to all start writing from a similar place, as a way of seeing how individual writers will all mull differently over a shell, for example. Some items she suggests, like cinnamon sticks, even have scent.

  • Here are Schneider’s suggestions for a diverse basketful: shaving brush, rusty horseshoe, a ball and jacks, baseball, crocheted doily, piece of frayed rope, bottle of pills (with label scratched so pills become unidentifiable), rosary beads, crumpled cigarette pack, page of scripture written in Hebrew, small teddy bear, broken dish, mirrored compact, man’s pipe, baby bottle, old piece of jewelry, spool of thread with a needle stuck in it, dog whistle, artificial flower, plastic Jesus figuerine, and empty whisky bottle.
  • Suggestions for multiples of same object: mothball (in plastic snack bags to protect hands), piece of penny candy, a nail or screw, a vitamin pill, acorn, torn piece of a map, slice of raw carrot, rock, a small piece of sandpaper along with a bit of cotton, or a long stem of wheat or grass.

Collect some acorns. Buy a bag of wooden clothespins or new potatoes. Make your own object-filled basket. Offer surprise to your students. Or, assemble a collection, put it aside for a few weeks, and then take it out again to prompt your own writing. Surprise yourself.


Picture credit goes to BBC Food.

– Roam, if you want to

I’ve been going nowhere with a poem I’ve been trying to write, about, of all things, a dirty bar of soap, since this blog began. I had this vague idea about dirt as unavoidable, in a concrete way, of course, but also in a more figurative way, with “dirt” standing in for, um, global injustices. War, for example. The few lines I had put together felt wooden and unsurprising, as if I were assembling a puzzle from a picture on a box. In other words, I was stating the obvious even to myself.

Today I sat down to free write for 30 minutes. I did what my seven-year-old daughter, Grace, tells me to do when she asks for a story and I protest that I don’t have one to tell; she says, “Just say something. Then follow your words.” Her first grade teacher was on to something; this works. Don’t plan; just begin.

I began with the insistent image: dirty bar of soap. And then I meandered. I’ll share an excerpt from my travels:

Dirt dried in the grooves… Bar of soap is dried out, too. Old, unusable, like a piece of soap you’d find in a beach house in May, after many months of that house being closed for the fall, winter, and spring. The soap left in the metal dish in the stall shower, or outdoors in the shower attached to the back of the house and boxed in, for privacy, with fencing. The soap is so dried it has long cracks in it, as if wood. Wet it, and it takes a long moment to activate, to feel slippery in your hand. Slippery is something you’d read in a poem about sex, and this will be one about a dirty and dried bar of soap… Funny, dirty goes with sex. Sex goes with slippery, too, but slippery doesn’t really go with dirty. Dirty is gritty; I see that word and I feel grime in my hands, grit, fine sand, dust. A kind of dirty that starts with the soil, with particles, not with, say, the juice of dripping fruit that has dried on your hand, or chocolate…, or paint… Dirt is less processed a mess; it hasn’t been transformed into something else first before it gets on you, and you feel it.

It blows on, rubs on, sifts, floats down. It could be mud that later dries. It could then dissolve off, in the water of the tub, and then drain out along with. But still it wants to stay: it settles on the bottom of the tub, in a line of silt toward the drain, up high on the tub walls around the bubble line. To get rid of it, use more water. Spray with direction and force. Or find something clean, like a cloth or rag, to swipe at it, rub it down, rub it on to the cloth — transfer.

There is no getting rid of it, ever. Just as no energy is ever created or lost, neither is any dirt…

We collect dust, dirt. Even as we sweep it from the front hall out the front door, dirt from the garden or sidewalk is jumping onto sandals and riding back in.

We try to get it out, as far from the house as we can, by filling the sink or tub with water and soaking it off us. Water pulls some away from our skin… and delivers it down the pipes, under the yard, under the road, down to the parkway, through town via a network of pipes and pumps, to tanks, and back, somehow, to earth, dumped in cleaned loads onto hills, in rivers, on the banks. It creeps back. It creeps back always.

It remains too. Under our nails. In the corners of rooms. Along the thresholds of doors that open in from the outside. In the grooves between the worn floor boards. In the incised word “Dove” in this bar of soap. It’s in my hand; I pick it up, turning the tap. I clean you, child, with the dirty.

I like what I came across as I roamed: the words “transform” and “transfer” appearing in adjacent paragraphs, and the discovery that no dirt is ever created or lost. Dirt sloughs off; dirt creeps back; dirt remains.