Other people’s gardens

It is possible to deliberately make a decision and know deeply that, whichever path taken, there will be regrets.

Last fall and winter, when I was studying the idea of selling our house and moving to an apartment in another neighborhood, I anticipated the loss of the part of my life that gardens. I knew I would be putting aside not just that activity, but also that self, the me that digs, plants, weeds, waters, monitors, and tends.

And I did it: I sold the house. With it, I sold the lawnmower, the surplus fertilizers, shovels, rakes, a spade, and a hoe. We moved to a third-floor apartment. While our balcony presents the opportunity for container gardening, there is no native dirt.

I wanted this, right?

We moved in February. I was relieved at the thought of shoveling snow no more. In fact, I imagined if I lived in an apartment for the rest of my life, it would always be someone else’s job to shovel.

I miss digging. Just typing those words filled me with longing, like how remembering one’s own babies provokes a physical longing to hold them again, eat their toes, smell their shampooed hair.

Not just longing, a sadness, too, for what I willingly gave up. Usually to proceed you have to let go. So, the dirt.

 

In our new neighborhood, I make the rounds of the side streets three times a day with Winston the dog. Since spring began, we’ve been examining the gardens of our unfamiliar neighbors. Winston uses his nose, and I my eyes. Slowly, through March, April, and early May the plants and trees woke up. In May, all the green exploded.

Flowers came out, and so did the porch chairs, pots, garden ornaments, and hoses. Occasionally I’d see a gardener squatting in her yard, a claw in her hand. A woman instructing two little girls in how to weed. A man, pivoting in place, with his hand clenched around the trigger of a sprayer hose.

I am like a tourist in this new neighborhood. The houses are old – about a century – with front porches and what a realtor calls “mature” landscaping. These houses and gardens are established. I’m no kid, but I’m new on the block, and as a renter I may not live here long enough to make ties.

It’s weird, honestly, to like where you live, to find it interesting and beneficial, and yet to have no house or dirt to belong to. If you’ve lived in your apartment or house long enough, you know the nicks in the woodwork, the funny way the shower valve operates, the cool corner of the bare-floored room that your dog favors, and the trick to get the kitchen door to close without slamming it. The paint: you like the colors you picked. In the yard, you like to check in on the plants that came to you from the yards of people you love, admire the magnolia you tended since its sapling years, and experiment with perennials that tolerate your dry shade conditions. You get the soil tested; you file its report card away; you adjust the pH.

That you was me.

Now I’m an observer, a wallflower, or maybe I should call myself a sidewalk flower because that’s what I do, stand on the sidewalk with Winston as my excuse for loitering and keep my eye on the progress of the landscape as it comes to life in the front yards of neighbors I haven’t met.

I fantasize about passing by at just the right time and getting invited up onto the porch and into a chair to pass the evening and let someone tell me about the neighborhood, its history, and its inhabitants.

I do say hello, and I have gathered some first names. I know the people in my building. And I live with Grace and Winston, and Eli and Lydia when they’re with us.

This is home, and yet we’re not rooted in it. We live here. Most days, I’m happy about that. I like the adventure of it. A few times, though, the implication of what I have done – uprooted our lives – hovers over me like dark wings, and I think, “My god, what have I done?”

The feeling lasts only an hour or so. It helps to take the dog outside and walk the routes I am coming to favor. I remind myself that I chose this, I wanted this, and sometimes the location cure is exactly what a family needs.

Un-haunting the house

5879240245_362379e396_o-1With Eli, your oldest offspring, you are texting about weekend activities.

Eli sends a photo of a new, craigslisted desk in the bedroom in the apartment in Queens.  Their comment, “definitely using redoing/reorganizing my apt as a coping mechanism now.”

You text back, “I’m cleaning out my closet as coping mechanism.”

A long time ago Eli said this, “Mom, you keep your clothes too long. When they get old and tattered, throw them out.” (And this from the child who introduced you to thrift-store shopping.) You tried to explain your sentimental attachment to things your body has worn, yet over time you realized that Eli speaks the truth. So now you find yourself throwing out these old and tattered clothes easily, or at least deliberately.

Eli, in a later text message, types a phrase, “making the house less haunted.” You don’t need a complete sentence to understand what is meant.

The conversation makes you think about what you, and the kids too, have been doing to un-haunt the house and the lives lived in it. Jimmy Guterman — husband, and father of Eli, Lydia, and Grace — died unexpectedly and traumatically on July 25.

What do you do when this happens? You shatter; you grieve; you proceed.

In the first weeks, surrounded by family, every night before bed you all watch re-runs of The Office, which you’ve seen through once entirely when it was broadcast. Now you watch it again, making friends with the characters. You ask Lydia, “If Michael Scott has so many boundary issues, and can be inappropriate so often, why do we come to like him as a character?”  Lydia replied: “Because he is so earnest.”  Lydia’s insight and that word become favorites for a while, and as you go about the business of grief and getting back to okay, your mind can’t help working on what interests it, and you study that word, “earnest,” and you look for that quality in others.

You forget about eating, until one day you realize it’s 4PM and you’re eating lunch. You decide you have to start eating lunch at lunch time, and the next day you do.

After two weeks you tell the kids, “This is the week we start eating vegetables and fruits again. We will also exercise every day.” Even walking the dog counts as exercise.

You listen when different people — visitors from the Samaritans, your child’s therapist, your wonderful friends, your own doctor — tell you that “you are alive, and you have to live.” It is an encouraging message, not at all one that promotes a grin-and-bear-it approach. You start to recognize this: “I am alive.” This, really, is good. Continue reading

Mother and matrix are from the same root, but martyr is not

For a long time, I thought the word “martyr” was somehow related to mother. Perhaps the few letters in common between it and the Latin “mater.” Yet the root of “martyr” is witness, or one who sees something happen.

Don’t we often, though, think of mothers as ones who martyr themselves? This evokes images of a woman stabbing herself in her own throat or heart for the good of others. Indeed, martyrs were historically people who were killed or suffered greatly for a principle or cause.

Today, on Facebook (where else?), a friend posts a philosophical question after she overhears a conversation between two divorced women who are mothers. One tells the other she is going to a music festival for four days at the end of the summer, right as the new school year begins for her young child. The question arises: is this okay, acceptably, motherly? In the comments, there is much debate. Most of the respondents are women; none want to judge; some say that self care is okay, and others say that mothers must be there.

I did not post a comment but I found myself a little on the side of the woman going to the music festival. I wondered about the rest of the circumstances, including the age and disposition of the child, and if the father or other parent could help the child get settled in school. I also recognized that I might not make this choice myself, realizing that music festivals happen year after year after year, and not everything has to happen now. Philosophically, I thought the woman should go, simply because she wants to and it’s okay, even though I probably wouldn’t have. She shouldn’t martyr herself or suffer unduly, although staying home from a music festival is not suffering.

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in front of a church in Brooklyn, March 19, 2016

The absence of a desired experience is not akin to suffering. And yet as I write that I realize we, at this moment in history, may think of it that way. Missing out (or FOMO, as the kids say) is suffering. Continue reading

Weeding the secret garden

Weeding Secret Garden notes (1)I am on an odyssey to touch and organize everything in my house, one drawer one closet one surface one room at a time. Where does this drive come from? Something about an awareness of mortality, of course, and also a desire to clear some mental space before tackling new projects.

And I prefer neatness.

This weekend I ruthlessly emptied two boxes of paper stuff, which began life a few years ago as four cartons of paper stuff. Making two from four was an achievement, yet it was also a kind of ‘kicking the can down the road’ move. I only partly decided on things. From the two boxes, all that’s left is a short stack of photos, moleskine notebooks filled with notes, a few letters, and To Do lists and notes that I might keep.

Here’s something, in the snapshot above and full size here. They are my handwritten notes, on the blank back of a photocopied rubric, that capture my observations of what writing and editing moves could improve a batch of student essays. I see I had an idea for a blog post or article on these notes: “Weeding the secret garden.”

My writing observations and advice? Try these instead of fretting about the proper use of “which” and “that.”

  • Don’t use words you wouldn’t actually use, like a “panoply” of examples. (Funny, in my  notes I spelled it “panapoly.”
  • There can be no all-or-nothing argument.
  • You might not want to start with a sentence that summarizes something already known. “Society is constantly struggling to keep up with rapidly evolving and new technologies.” Such an essay would seem as though conceived around a cliché.
  • “Throughout history.” Do not start this way, either.
  • Avoid using smart language to cloak a bad or incoherent idea, e.g. “altruistic outcomes can justify self-interest.” What.
  • Put the sentence verb next to the subject. Do not do this: “The reality that blah blah blah blah blah is the complex nature of blah blah blah blah blah requires…”
  • Ration your use of em-dashes, cliches, parentheses, and questions.  These are fake ways to engage a reader or present yourself as a thinker. I count these as I go, limiting their use.
  • Put your phrasing on a diet. Avoid needless words, and avoid stacks, like “prevalent unresolved issue.”
  • Write a real and full conclusion.

Fellow writers, please try one of these and report back.

Also, fellow writers and partial-draft hoarders, consider also shredding, deleting, burning, or trashing any unfinished projects older than five years, as I did with these 3.5″ floppy discs I discovered. There might be a tasty bit on one of these, but even more compelling are the tasty bits inside me NOW.

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Remember the Michael Douglas character at the end of the film Wonder Boys (2000)? As I recall it, his character drops a full manuscript that he has labored over when he is outdoors, and the whole box of leaves of paper blow away in a gust of wind like… leaves.  It’s liberating. His life and work can improve.

That’s how I remember it. Is that what actually happened? In this case, it more matters what I remember, and what I’m making it mean to me.

We all have secret gardens of possibility in us. In the children’s novel The Secret Garden, which was one of my favorites when a child myself, a girl and two boys, living unloved as either actual or emotional orphans, starting tending a neglected garden adjacent to the big, house they live in with one relative and a few servants. Tending the garden, uncovering its beauty from weeds, and making friends with birds and animals becomes the pursuit that restores their happiness and vigor.

As a teacher, I must believe that the first drafts of student work are gardens of possibility. Actually, I believe this of all first drafts, even if at first they seem halting, incomplete, or even a mess.

As a writer and person, I must hold onto this belief about myself. There is a secret garden still living and growing, even when locked up behind a stone wall and neglected. The thing to do, once you unlock the door and go back in, is not to neglect it or tend only the weeds, which do fine on their own. Sure, they’re plants, but there are too many of them. Tend the possibility. Keep the door ajar.

It’s hard, though, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

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.

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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

Slow to start, but strong finish

I was recently describing myself to a new acquaintance as a slow starter who picks up speed in the middle and then finishes strong.

If only the starting gesture didn’t have months and months or years and years of a pre-thinking, getting-ready time.

Several birthdays or Mother’s Days ago, my mother gave me a wall garden planter from a potter that, by now, may not longer exist. (I can’t find it on the Web.) It sat on a garage shelf, in a box on which I had marked “Wall Garden,” since that day, yet with very good intentions. A few weeks ago, I took it off that shelf and moved it to the on-deck position: on a small bench near a bucket of hand tools near the garage door.

Today was the day. I bought the plants, soaked the moss, and pressed the plants into the soil in the dish. Watered, it’s horizontal and in a sunny spot, settling into the planter before I hang it up. The recommended time is two weeks. I’ve already identified the spot.

Is there a lesson? For me: don’t over-think the small, low stakes projects. For you, if you know me: be patient; I do appreciate your gifts, and I will implement them all (and mine, too!) in good time.

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Plant list: Sempervivum ‘Red Rubin’ (hens & chicks), Sedum hispanicum (stone crop), Sedum spurium ‘Fuldaglut’ (stone crop), and Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ (stone crop) — all from Allandale Farm

For the love of laundry (and other domestic arts)

With an itch to tackle a pile of clutter, though maybe not ready yet to throw out, shred, or burn every school paper I ever wrote or diary I ever kept, on Saturday I tackled my closet, the laundry, and unfinished sewing projects. Jimmy joined me, and between the two of us we put together nine bags of giveaways of outgrown clothes (or, in our case, out-thinned clothes) and unloved shoes.

This led to my confronting the over-flowing basket of “gentle wash and line dry only” clothes near the washer. There were four loads of sweaters, blouses, linen pants, bras, winter gloves, and bathing suits. With very little room on the drying rack for that many items, I borrowed my neighbor’s outdoor clothes line.

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I don’t think I’ve hung up clothes outside since I was 15. That was a chore I never minded when I was young and lived with my parents and siblings. There were numerous physical and spatial challenges — how to get more than a whole load on the line; how to pin items in a chain, attaching one item to the next; and how to get sheets on the line without first dragging them on the ground. Plus, it smelled good: soap, cotton, and the sun on the grass.

Last summer Lydia and I took a sewing class, and when the end of summer bumped into the start of the school year, we put our unfinished jumpers aside. The hardest part remained, to edge the neckline and armholes with bias-cut binding. Lots of pinning! Over the past year, when I’ve walked by the sewing machine and noticed the folded green and blue fabric of our works in progress, regret pinched at me. We got so far! And then we stopped.

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Today I re-started — so much activation energy there, especially because I was starting at the hardest, least rewarding part — and got into a rhythm with the pinning, sewing, ironing, pinning, and sewing again. I thought about all the activities I enjoy in my free time or ones that are necessary for civilized survival, like laundry and straightening. Maybe if I had been a different person, I would have professionalized my love of sewing or even organizing abilities.

A couple of weeks ago, at the skating rink, I went around and around a few times with one of my skating friends there. He told me about replacing his hot water heater in his house on his own. (Note: he is not a plumber.) He remarked that he wished he had discovered his talent for machines when younger; maybe his career choice (law) would have been different, he wondered aloud.

There is so much pressure to take what one enjoys and make it into the way one makes a living. I’d like to blame it entirely on Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow (Dell, 1989), but many other books and career experts have made the same assertion. I do believe a person should be suited to her occupation, but it’s too much pressure to imagine being in love, every day, with everything that goes into work.

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And why does work have to be the source of our love? What does love even mean in this context? I feel suited to my job, effective in it, well matched to my colleagues, and deeply interested in my students’ intellectual development, especially when it comes to writing and public speaking. But not every day is lived at the pitch of excitement. There are not many moments of flow.

There were many moments of flow in laundry hanging, closet cleaning, and dress sewing this weekend. I had the time to watch my hands at work and to think other thoughts. I feel this way when skating (although I am not watching my hands), when tinkering or gardening, when writing. I don’t need to get paid for those. Such activities may be a source of contentment that makes the hard work of grading papers and preparing for class more sustainable.

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Tidings of comfort

porch from the outside, january 3, 2014

porch from the outside, january 3, 2014

Today we put booties on the dog, bundled ourselves up, and ran around the neighborhood for 10 minutes. Every time the dog lifted his left and I saw his little penis, my crotch, which was well clothed, experienced a sympathetic chill. “Winston, you’re killing me!” I’d say when I could see he didn’t even have to go.  The cold air and wind were mostly exhilarating. It doesn’t bite when you are confident you’ll be home soon.

On cold days I wonder if the Ingalls family were ever warm in the winter, in the way that we are daily.

Once I read an article about people who live for a time at the research station in Antarctica. It’s regularly -30° F there, and even indoors they are never warm.

This morning on the phone my mother told me about a time she and my father, after we all had moved out, had lost power in a storm for about four days. They did everything they could to stay warm — putting on layers and a winter coat and getting under the covers was one method. She guessed the house had been about 50 degrees. One day they took the Sunday paper to my Aunt Elsie’s apartment in the city to stretch out the day. My cousin Joyce, who lived across the street from my parents and lost her power too, invited them over to enjoy the wood-burning stove in her family room. They had plans to sleep there when the power came back on one night around 10pm, and they went home.

The cold days remind us we’re lucky we have central heating, even though it is a commonality among everyone I know. Everyone.

Also today I’ve been reading The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities & Design in Early Modern Britain & Early America, by John E. Crowley (Johns Hopkins UP: 2001). I picked it up while browsing in the used book area of Brookline Booksmith before Christmas. Before 18th century material comfort was in full swing, “comfort was primarily a moral term indicating personal support.” The 18th century “consumer revolution” in Britain and America “developed a culture of comfort that synthesized comfort’s new physical meaning with traditional ones of moral support.” Most notably, “satisfaction with a comfortable home became one of the most convincing ways to give meaning to consumption patterns.” Continue reading

That’s why they pay us

photoLast year I bought the materials needed to repair the concrete around our bulkhead that is crumbling in a few places. I suspect this is a back-door entrance for mice into our house. I then threw a blue tarp over the bulkhead, weighed it down with a few old bricks, and procrastinated the task for several months. Yesterday, I re-started.

This morning I went into the backyard to inspect if the first layer of Quikrete® had dried. I kneeled and touched it. My peripheral vision noticed the immobile, five-inch long slug, and I jumped up, disgusted. I stood back; I stared at and then photographed it. (Note: you can click on the image and see the full-sized beauty.)

I was both fascinated and repelled. I remembered some work I did the summer before college, when I took on lots of odd jobs to make money: child care, house painting, and landscaping. Neighbors hired me to clean out and mulch under their deck, which was built only about three feet off the ground, so I had to crawl on my hands and knees in that dark wet space for hours. Enough light seeped through the spaces between floorboards and lattice on the sides that I could spot broken cement blocks that had been discarded there, and I spread around huge double handfuls, one after another, of the spruce mulch. Occasionally under my dungareed knees I felt a pop. Only when I got out to the light did I see the mucus-y smear and realize how many slugs I was sharing the space with. I forced myself to finish the job, shuddering when I felt the pop and pressing on. I liked the smell of mulch — still do — and had my pride to consider.

This is what work is sometimes, isn’t it? We accept the big task with enthusiasm or at least willingness, and then the hours and days present us with the actual nature of the work: the dirt, bent back, slug slime, and belief that we were made for better things or at least great praise and compensation for our dedicated labor. All work has some of this, even art. I don’t love everything I do, and I don’t believe that old lie: Do what you love, the money will follow it. But I am satisfied when the mulch has been laid down and the broken bricks thrown out. I can at least say, “Someone had to do it, and that person was me.”

Thank you, Elizabeth Warren

I’m really glad she won the November 2012 Senate race against Scott Brown. And I’m really glad that Jimmy had the presence of mind to make a contribution to her campaign and ask volunteers to install one of her giant signs in our front yard. The sign came on a giant wooden stake that, since mid-November, has been resting against the wall of our garage, too tall to put in a trash barrel. Today I cut and drilled that scrap to make a hanger for bike helmets on the garage wall.

Helmet hangerIt’s kind of sad that we’ve lived in this house, with garage bike storage, for 14 years and only now have I solved the helmet problem. Until this morning, we either kept them dangling off bike handlebars or tossed into a bin in the corner. So, thanks for improved helmet storage, Elizabeth Warren. (I used my own tools and fasteners.)

Tell me though: Why does it take so long — years! — to get around to doing a chore that takes only an hour to complete?