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

Paddle out, paddle out

At some point, the ideas become too many, and the pressure to write them becomes too great. The documentation of real life has its limits. Fiction seems roomier, or at least different.

So I begin. I start in a place I know, the setting for the story I have imagined. I writer, stop, write. The story starts traveling far away from the point I imagined the protagonist would travel to. I don’t know where she is heading anymore.

summer 2012

summer 2012, south boston swimming pool

I tell James, during our weekly hangout, “It’s like I’m swimming out, past the lifeguard buoys, and I keep going.” I wonder if I should turn back — to try forcefully to get back to the place the story began for me. But it’s going somewhere else.

James says, “It’s okay if you keep swimming out. That’s the good thing about metaphors.”

It’s true. I won’t drown.

What may be happening, he explains, is that in fiction we are writing a bunch of things at once, and wanting to deal with them all at the same time. “All these things come into the mind all at once” — and this is motivating, it keeps us going — but we have to deal with them separately, one or two at a time to give them the depth that the story wants.

And this going out, farther and farther, this might change the story.

Paddle out.

“Anxiety is based on the assumption that there is this perfect version of the story waiting to be unveiled,” he adds. “But there is not only one way; there’s a bunch of ways.”

Paddle out.

“Because it’s writing, you can stay out for weeks at a time. You’re not going to starve. You’re not gonna die of dehydration.” He pauses and laughs at his own joke in advance: “And maybe you’re a whale.”

I laugh, too, picturing myself.

That means I can dive under deep.

“But all the possibility is out there, so why would we tether ourselves to the land?”

I do not know where the story will go. I write, the narrative meanders, and I have to adjust my vision of it. And then I go farther, the story changes, and the vision is adjusted again. The story feels as though it is a few inches in front of my understanding, and I take a stroke, float closer, and it floats a few inches away again.

So I paddle towards it. I wonder if finishing will feel like getting back to shore, or reaching an island.

When it comes to resolutions, I’m dreaming big and vague

In my New Year’s resolutions, I am taking my cue from MIT friend/colleague Jessie, who frames hers this way:

I try to look at what I have wanted, but allowed myself to be distracted from; what I have enjoyed, but not prioritized; what I need, but haven’t chosen.

I’m good on tasks and short-term goals, and I get them done. In the next few days I want to finish a full draft of a project I’m collaborating on, and I will do it. In the next three months I am taking a skating test (February 3rd) and going to AWP in Boston (March 6 – 9), and I will be ready for them. I have formulated a plan for getting the tasks done that help meet the goals.

Resolutions_550But thinking and dreaming aspirationally? Perhaps I could dream bigger, and less specifically, for my resolutions. I know I can get stuff done — can I focus, enjoy, and get what I need?

In that spirit, here are my three resolutions for 2013.

Continue reading

Look beyond the self on New Year’s Day

My resolutions are usually about aiming for personal goals or eliminating personal deficits.

What if our resolutions were more focused on our interactions with others, not as a way to get but to give?

The writer David Rakoff (b. 1964) died in 2012 from cancer. In its year-end feature on notable deaths of the year, “The Lives They Lived,” the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a letter that Rakoff’s friend Ariel Kaminer had written, thanking him for important lessons. They are ones to live by:

  1. Don’t trade up.
  2. It’s better in the long run to be kind.
  3. Be grateful and humble and mean it.

Read the full version of the letter, and a fuller description of each axiom, here: link.

P.S. Of course I still have a personal resolution or two and will publish them later.

Flowers in the attic, toys in the basement

Grace had a gig this afternoon babysitting for two little boys, ages 5 and 1 years, who are children of our friend Ellen, a woman who babysat for Grace when she was a baby. It’s that whole circle of life thing.

We invited the boys here, so that Grace could have backup if needed. Today we’re just puttering around the house anyway; there are still about 10 days left to finish our summer chores before the season officially ends.

It was time to bring up some age-appropriate toys from the basement. The dollhouse and its residents and furnishings needed washing.  Good thing I soaped and rinsed them because most of those pieces ended up in a little mouth.

I did administer one timeout today, when the older boy took his brother’s pacifier and wouldn’t hand it back to me. That parental authority: I still have it. Jimmy let the older boy win at a complex card game with slippery rules, and the two of them bonded.

Young children keep going and going and going. I remember when Eli was little, Jimmy would once in a while hold the tv remote in his direction and mime trying to get him to stop for just one minute.

When the father picked the boys up at 5pm, I told him we got our exercise, two times over, today. “This is how they are until bedtime,” he replied. Honestly, I had forgotten.

Grace is resting. We’re still parents, and we have things to do.


Suds by Jane; photographs by Jimmy and Grace; and dollhouse by Fisher Price.

I feel so close to you right now

couples, outside the ICA, Boston, June 2008

Sometimes what you want is far away, a dream.

And sometimes everything you want is right next to you.

On Sunday, two days ago, the five of us traveled in our van to New Jersey to see the relatives there. As the children get older, it is rare that we are all together on a day that is not a holiday. We played a mix CD that Eli made; it might have been the one he called “Hedge Money” or the one called “Sky Mall Mix.” They’re both good.

The three of them are talkative. We eavesdrop and only occasionally interject. I had my notebook on my lap most of the way.


Eli (almost 20) gives travel advice Lydia (age 16), who is headed to Vietnam and Cambodia next year: “There are going to be so many leeches there.”

Lydia disagrees: “Don’t you think I’ve already gone on the web to see what kinds of insects there are?” This does not surprise me. Lydia is thorough and always prepared.

Eli keeps insisting. Lydia says heatedly, “Eli, sometimes you try to act as if you know more about something than I do, when in fact I know more about it!” I wish I had her awareness and the guts to go with it when I was a teenager. Really, it took me until I was about 35 to even think what she said.


Eli looks at a photo of Grace (age 12) on someone’s phone. He says to her, “You’re so hospitable. You’re going to make a great escort someday.”

Grace: “What’s an escort?”


Eli has two more weeks to go at Otto, his summer employer, a new, upscale pizza place in Brookline. By now, with his hands and forearms covered with oven burns and knife nicks, he’s had it. He describes his quitting fantasy (don’t we all have them?): “If I were ever so mad at Otto that I was going to quit on the spot, I would take a bite of everything that was about to be served and be like ‘Fuck you, Otto,’ and walk out the door.” We laugh. Continue reading

Friends who write letters

In early May, at the end-of-the-year potluck supper of the MIT figure skating club, of which I am a new member, I sat next to Florence. She is a student from Belgium who, in addition to getting a graduate degree in media studies this year, learned to skate and performed a solo in our March show.

Before the potluck supper, we had never talked. Over salad and lasagna and quiche and meatballs, I told her about my goals as a writer and she told me hers as a photojournalist. We were mutually engaged, and the conversation with her made the awkwardness of a social event totally worth it.


mail from Florence and James

At the end of the night, she handed me a tiny pad of notepaper and pen and asked me to write down my mailing address. She had a book for me, something about narrative journalism, that she planned to send me as a form of inspiration. A few days later, the book The Literary Journalists arrived in a package along with The Midnight Disease. In the accompanying note, she referred to our potluck conversation and wished for “all the best in your writing enterprises!”

I felt as though my ambition, which had been feeling to me like an old dress that had fallen off its hanger and crumpled on the floor among the shoes, was freshened, ironed, and made wearable again by her interest and words. A person cannot always plug along alone without such collegial encouragement and enthusiasm. (There were two exclamation points in her note.)

Meanwhile, that same week, I got a hand-written letter also from James, whose presence in my life as a fellow writer and a real friend keeps me company even though we live far apart. Words — by email or the post — keep the embers of friendship glowing.

And over the past year, I’ve also gotten real letters from Ulrike, Susan, Rosemary, and even one of Rosemary’s friends, who passed along a used book she’d finished with. Marcia sent me a vacation postcard. Leslie, even though we share an office at work, sent me by mail an article she thought I’d enjoy; I know for a fact she also enjoyed creating something mail-able that may have grown out of her nostalgia for a pen-pal-rich childhood. My mother sent me a well received Mother’s Day card, which boosted my parenting self-esteem in one sentence, which, by the way, the children agreed with when I read it to them.

Are you wondering how to get someone’s attention — how to really reach them — at a time when email and status messages and even, gulp, blog posts seem to add to more and more clutter?

In your own hand, write some words. Put them in an envelope; add a stamp. Send.

A postcard or letter is personal and private and therefore more treasured. When I receive one, I think: this is for me, only.

It’s the Jane Show

I’ve often thought of this blog as my own school newspaper or ‘zine, with the editor and writer in one. And now it’s about to become my own local access cable television show in a way.

Even though I know some video and audio editing software — thanks to excellent training by friend/colleague Lisa Dush — and even though I’ve had a Mac forever, I hadn’t yet learned iMovie. That changed today. I took some video I’ve been shooting over the last couple of weeks on my adventures (read: follies) in mouse proofing, and I used the iMovie platform to make a little home improvement show, starring me.

In this 12-minute movie, I

  • laugh at myself,
  • praise plumbers,
  • use one French word and two expletives,
  • mention whipped cream with delight,
  • deploy “so” and “okay” as pause fillers,
  • have weird intermittent eye contact with the camera (which disqualifies me from any real work as a tv announcer or host),
  • lie on the floor for a few seconds to think,
  • express love for my new LED head lamp,
  • show what a basin wrench can do, and
  • thank my parents for one cool thing.

I’m not sure if, in the video, I succeed at teaching or explaining much about mouse proofing that an amateur wouldn’t already know. The Jane Show below, therefore, might be of most interest to friends I don’t see often. Video is the next best thing, or perhaps even better because edited.

Thanks to Jimmy Guterman for shooting the outdoor video and Eli Guterman for having a really nice tripod.

No middle, no satisfying end

Last night, I drove to Kendall Square to meet my friends Betsy, Sue, and Brandi for dinner at Miracle of Science. It’s the holiday break, so I haven’t been to MIT for several days. Through email, I have been staying in touch with colleagues, and I even heard from one of them that a recent student of ours had been killed on his bicycle at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, an intersection I know well and cross on foot at least twice a day. It’s busy; every vehicle and every person converges there.

I drove up Vassar Street around 5:50 pm and past the garage I typically park in. I approached the intersection, thinking of course about the accident and the student Phyo, who had been in the communications module of a chemical engineering class I’m involved in every fall. I thought about the last time I saw him, shortly after his graduation in early June ’10. He was still on campus, raising money for Camp Kesem by selling popcorn and doughnuts in the Stata Center. He had a warm, sparkling smile, and we enthusiastically talked about other grassroots ways of raising money — like selling popsicles on hot days —  and about his new job, which was about to begin.

“I wanted to tell you and Lisa and Professor Hamel that my presentation for the class helped me get the job!” Lisa was my fellow communications lecturer on the course, and Professor Hamel the engineering professor. That fall, we had a small and closely-knit group.

“Great! How so?” I asked.

“In my interview, they asked if I had any presentation experience, and I told them about my final presentation for the class, and they asked me to come back and do it for them. I did, and they liked it, and they offered me the job.” He looked happy and eager. Admittedly, he always did, and this was one of Phyo’s gifts.

I had the green light at the intersection, so I couldn’t stop and sit in the car for a few seconds and contemplate the accident. On the corner, I glimpsed a memorial: a white bicycle and some candles. I parked my car nearby so that after dinner I could walk back to the corner and stand closer to it.

From across Vassar Street, Dec 30, 9:30 pm

After a long dinner and dessert and walk with my dear friends, we embraced and parted. Over dinner, I had told them about the accident. As the three of them got in one car, parked on Mass Ave closer to Miracle, I said I was headed to the memorial. Brandi asked, “Should we go with you? Are you safe?” I smiled inwardly, not afraid of the neighborhood, and thinking it was ironic to be worried about strangers when trucks were a proven hazard.

Honestly, my feelings about Phyo’s death were almost dream-like as I walked back toward the Institute, and I was motivated more by curiorisity: What does the memorial look like? Who made it? How was it personalized? Continue reading

The girl with silver hands

On Tuesday night, after a gap of five years, our friends the Zimmers came to dinner.

Ulrike and I met 17 years ago, in a manner that is not unlike the beginning of a romance. I was sitting near the window in a coffee shop in Brookline Village, looking out, and she was walking by, looking in. Our eyes met, and, although we were strangers, we smiled a greeting. The next day, or perhaps the day after that, we recognized each other at our children’s nursery school. Instantly, it seems now, Ulrike and I were friends.

We were neighbors during the time she, her husband Claus, and first daughter Pauline lived in Brookline. I look back on that as a golden time, although some of what we discussed during our countless moments together, alone or with Pauline and Eli, was rooted in the struggle to figure out who we were now that we had become mothers.

And, I dare say, if we had had more time together this week, we would have returned deeply to those mutual concerns: Who am I? What work am I most suited for? What do I want for myself?  Where is that line between where others end and I begin? When the Zimmers moved back to Germany in early 1996, I lost a daily connection to a rare and intimate friendship. Yes, letters and email and infrequent visits can keep us in touch, but we are missing out on the incremental and ordinary comforts of being nearby. Shared life.

On Tuesday night, Ulrike brought us presents. To me she gave a pair of beautiful, silver leather gloves from a famous German glovemaker. “For the skater,” she said. I felt known by my friend, as though she had recognized the ‘me’ that I am, alone. Not the mother, not the teacher, not even the friend. A true gift.

Today I wore them for the first time. Little by little as I learn how to skate, I have been progressively marking my commitment to it in concrete ways: the purchase of fitted ice skates; the private lessons; the summer practice time; notebook; and gear bag. This is my first piece of costume.

I skated neither better nor worse today. In fact, one of the rink regulars, whom I recognized but don’t know, skated up to me and gave me some unsolicited “skater’s advice,” as he called it, which, he promised, “will give you more power.” (I found this to be extremely irritating, and I wish I had had the perfect comeback. Mad at him, I turned my back, but later tried what he suggested. I vow, though, to never thank him.)

The whole time I skated, I felt my gloves on my hands, and they seemed to be helping me steer into the future, when I will only skate better.

On our last afternoon together, Ulrike was brainstorming ways to get me and my family next to Munich for a visit. (Business trip? Frequent flyer miles? House swapping?)  “We cannot let five years go by again,” she said.

“Yes,” I say. Our words make a promise to the future, when we will see each other again.

The title of this post is an homage to the Brothers Grimm’s tale, “The Girl with Silver Hands” or “The Girl without Hands.” The photographs were taken by Grace Guterman.