First grief, then work

One could also rewrite that with verbs: First grieve, then work.

I woke up at 5:45am, my body still not adjusted after the daylight savings time change. I went to sleep late, only intellectually grasping what was happening in the election. I woke up and, even before consciousness, I could feel my heart broken.

It’s noteworthy, isn’t it?, that the feeling called ‘broken’ is heavy like cement, or like I swallowed six hard-boiled eggs without chewing. A broken heart does not feel like shards of glass. It’s a fullness that jams your esophagus.

Next, crying. I had to do that, and a few texts to my friend Lisa. I called for a Day of Mourning. I was still in bed, and I lay there.

“First grief, then work.” I read that right before I made plans to give up on social media (that betrayer) and the New York Times and the radio. The phrase was tweeted by Ada Límon, a writer I don’t know, yet.

It’s true: I did flirt with the idea of not going to work, or of going to work and refusing to work, or of going to work and telling someone else whose fault it is. Because it’s not mine.

I sat up and wept some more, my back against the pillows I put there to prop myself up. I thought of my children, one at a time.

Then I thought of cleaning out the fridge. Really. And I thought of emailing someone I teach with and promising, “Tonight I will download all those papers and put them in our dropbox.”I imagined the downloading, the renaming of the poorly named files.

The list started to form after that.

Once, at least 25 years ago, when I worked at Harvard University in fund raising where the theme was always leadership — “We are training the future leaders of America, and the world” (I got so tired of that) — I said to my friend Joe that I regretted I was no visionary. He reassured me that there would be no movement without people like us to schedule the troops, order the supplies in advance, and make enough coffee to keep everyone energized. Everyone would also need a tshirt or uniform in a size to fit their width and height. I am good at logistics, and so was he, and there would be no progress without us.

I don’t know why that anecdote popped into my mind. I have no plans today to join a movement. But, you know, logistics. 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

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

Aunt Mae’s mittens, and the needlework of other women

IMG_8715Last weekend, when I brought Lydia and her belongings to college and helped her with some initial unpacking, I came across a thrift-store dress I had altered for her last summer. As I handed it to her, I remarked with some wistfulness, “I’m just realizing that I didn’t do any sewing or mending this summer.” Perhaps that’s what led me, a few days later, to tackle the cleaning and mending of some old crewel work pillows I saved from the trash bag at a friend’s deceased mother’s house.

In graduate school at Simmons College (2001 – 2004), I encountered a poem by Adrienne Rich — one of her first, promising poems that brought her to the attention of a wide audience — that was characterized by the professor as a statement of strong feminist ideology. Called “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” it explores the power, the agency, in a woman’s needlework while at the same time commenting on her fixed position in conventional, patriarchal marriage. Read it here: link.

I could sense, in the context of the seminar, that I was supposed to love this poem. I didn’t. In fact, it angered me, and I wondered if Adrienne Rich, of whose work I am a serious fan, had ever picked up a needle or crochet hook herself, if she knew what it felt like to be inside the work of stitching those “bright topaz denizens,” stitch after stitch, pricked finger after pricked finger, and squinted eyes under a poor light.

I thought of my Aunt Mae, a celebrated knitter of mittens, who made new pairs every year for all the grand nieces and nephews, and some for charity too. Although she did more than this — she was also a talented, self-taught piano player — in my mind and heart I imagined her knitting as the production of nervous energy, sadness, and even fear of what couldn’t be done.

In needlework, we do what can be done.

I can become bitter about this, even though I myself have spent plenty of time with sewing and knitting needles and machines made by Singer and Kenmore, and I have stood for long minutes in the Notions aisle in fabric stores. (I also love that it is called the Notions aisle, and I love the notions: thread, bias tape, ribbon, snaps, hooks, and needles of all sizes and uses.) And this week, I took apart, cleaned, mended, and reassembled the needlework of a woman I never knew and gave it back to a family that is not mine.

three pillows (before)

three pillows (before)

Why not burn these things, cast off our burden as makers of tiny stitches and declare that our skills and industriousness can accomplish more useful things than sofa pillows? Continue reading

“No match can turn these scattered feathers into wings of flame”

6835691756_0f4badf3a3_hA week after I posted my short account of burning some papers and notebooks from the Jane Kokernak Archives, one of my writing-and-teaching colleagues at MIT, Susan Spilecki, sent me a poem she wrote that is a response to it. The existence of her poem is, by itself, extremely flattering. More importantly, the words, images, and sober conclusion gave me new insight into what will probably be a source of conflict and even some sadness for the rest of my life. On the same topic, another friend, Bob Price, emailed me and told me of a box of stuff accumulated since boyhood. He hoped I’d kept at least some of my stuff, though added: “I must agree with you that the dead weight of the past needs to be savagely pruned from time to time, lest it crush us.”

Here is Susan Spilecki’s poem. You can read more of her thoughts on the writing and teaching of poetry at her blog, Building a Poem, here: link.

Plans and Fires, Well-Laid
            for Jane Kokernak

Every thinker has this bonfire coming:
projects abandoned, dreams deferred, lists
left to speak their goals to unlistening ears:
alternate futures we did not live

into, perhaps because the fire refused
to light. Every page looks flammable, but
that promise often goes unfulfilled. As much
as we live toward multiple futures, our bodies

only move in the present, our hearts’ fire
only ignites in the presence of the muse’s rare
phlogiston, an ether hotter than the white coals
of the blacksmith’s fire. Thus, the brave ones

gather these scraps and plans, carry them
(as we have been carrying them for years) out
into the winter field. But just as they
would not blaze for us in those busy years,

no match can turn these scattered feathers
into wings of flame. No gas can turn wood pulp
and ink into light and heat. Charred edges
holes seared here and there. That’s all.

But water, too, destroys. Though it appears soft
and harmless, pretty even, the rage of water
engulfing these past predictions, sinking in
to their false promises, turns their To-Do Lies

into a mush with the aroma of ashes. Though
we anticipated a tiny inferno, we should have
known it would end, instead, like this: a mere bog
of unfinished beginnings and unlightable fires.

Susan Spilecki

—–
Image, Match, by Mark Greenwood on Flickr

One dollar thrift shop dress

dress_hem_JaneMy three children, who are no longer actually children, like to shop in thrift stores: Boomerangs, Goodwill, and Savers in particular. They have led me down this path, too. I like a good price and the thrill of out-smarting mainstream retail. (Take that, Gap!) Until I wore them out, one of my favorite pairs of pants was a pre-worn, five-dollar tan pair with an Ann Taylor label bought at Savers.

Inevitably, one of the kids’ purchases of used clothing requires some mending or tailoring by the only person in our house who has practiced sewing skills. That person is me. Sometimes a button is needed, sometimes a new zipper. I have yet to take anything apart and put it back together again — although I do have an Eileen Fisher black silk sleeveless dress in my closet bought for $20 that needs the shoulder straps and armholes raised — but some repairs have been more complex.

A few days before she headed off to college, Lydia brought home a long, granny-like dress from Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain (the best of the four locations, according to Eli) in her staple black & white. She asked me to hem it, and I promised I would before she left. Of course, we waited and waited and waited, as if that day of leaving would never come. Finally, with the prick of a deadline* to motivate me, I got out the sewing machine, pins, measuring tape, steam iron, and a makeshift ironing board (i.e. clean towel on the kitchen counter).

dress_hem_measure

The price tag showed a markdown from $8 to $1, and surely the low price gave me permission to do a rush job: cut the extra length, fold the cut edge, avoid pins and hold it in place, and sew a quick row of fastening stitches. But why not do these things with care, if I’m going to do them at all? So I measured, cut, sewed on a length of hem tape to the cut edge, measured the hem and ironed and pinned it, and sewed the hem by hand using a hemstitch.

As I was sewing, I was thinking, and not just about the task. I recognized the ultimate inefficiency, really, of buying an inexpensive, pre-owned, not-quite-right piece of clothing and then getting someone (i.e., your mother) to spend 90 minutes of labor improving it. True, I volunteered for the task, but I can still put a price on my labor, which is worth more probably than the original price of the dress when new. Even if Lydia had hired the seamstress at the dry cleaner’s to do it, the fee would have boosted the net price of the dress to $21.

As I sewed, I mused longer on how this intimate labor is an act of love and therefore without cost or price. And, if my labor is an act of love, then that dress carries my love with it as it hangs now in Lydia’s closet or is worn by her.

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At least a year ago, I bought a pre-worn Banana Republic sweater from an on-line consignment store. I loved the sweater on the website, and I loved it when it came out of the package, not only for how it looked but for its smell: there was a whiff, which stayed until I first dry-cleaned the sweater, of the perfume or deoderant or detergent used by the woman who previously owned it. As I wore this lovely cardigan, I smelled this other person and imagined her: my physical size, having a different life somewhere else, and yet transferring some trace of her in the anonymous selling of her sweater. We endow these objects with ourselves when we wear them.

So, too, I endow the thrift-shop clothing my children buy when I alter or repair it. There’s some essence of me in Lydia’s dress, Eli’s shirt, or Grace’s jacket. (And I suppose the previous owners of the clothing are with them too.)

dress_LydiaThis may be the detail that I have imaginatively focused on the most in helping Lydia prepare for school and getting her there. We did a lot of shopping, and new clothes and bedding and supplies were purchased. We packed. We tidied. All of this getting ready is so quotidian — the sheets, new towels, a box of pencils, extension cord, under-the-bed storage bin — to the point of boredom, really, and not narratable.

But the hemming of the dress… that felt to me almost epic, even if another person, looking at me from the outside, would have seen only a woman in her reading glasses bent over a piece of black and white checked fabric, crumpled in her hand, being pricked with yellow-headed pins. This moment, this dress and its hem: every moment I have ever loved my daughter, which is all moments that have passed and all of them that will come, I felt them with every stitch my hand and needle and thread made, piercing layers of fabric as delicately as I could, over and over and over until where I ended met the place where I started.

*Note: The phrase “prick of a deadline” is one I picked up from my friend Lisette Bordes, who once admitted how useful a deadline is to writing. It is a prick, an act of piercing something with a fine, sharp point, according to the dictionary.

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.

laundry

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.

sewing1

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.

sewing2

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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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?

Gardening is revising

dahlia1I hadn’t really planned to garden on Saturday — I have been fantasizing about a day of decadent rest with books and a lightly spiked drink — but after Jimmy and I dropped Lydia off at 6:30am in the South End for the first leg of her trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Boston Children’s Chorus, I had a hankering for both dirt and improvement.

“How would you feel about a quick trip to Home Depot? I believe it opens at seven.”

“Sure,” said Jimmy, the driver.

By 7:30am, we had pots of sunflowers, flats of ground ivy, and one red dahlia, which I had to buy because, as I told Jimmy, “It’s alone, and it needs me.” It was the last dahlia in sight.

revision_sunflowers potsThe sunflowers that Lydia and I planted a few weeks ago never really took off. I blame the black landscaper’s cloth; I should have used the white cloth I used for my first folly. A few seedlings came up here and there but not enough to insure a burst of yellow in August. Instead of giving up and throwing down grass seed, I thought I’d help nature along and augment our few babies with some adolescent plants from the nursery.

revision_sunflowersBy 8:30am, they were planted in the two narrow rectangles in front of the house between the road and the town sidewalk. The dahlia doesn’t really fit, but she needs sun too, so I nestled her in with the sunflowers.

revision_afterAfter we had a coffee-and-dog break, Jimmy went back to Home Depot for some rolled sod, which was scheduled to arrive in the store at 11am. Meanwhile, I started digging up the area around my path to nowhere. The heavy rains mid-June had pounded away a lot of the grass seed, and the water also revealed some stones that had been too deeply set. They were enough below ground level that a huge puddle formed, about two inches deep and three feet in diameter. The birds were happy, but I didn’t make the path for it to become an occasional birdbath.

revision_pathAs I dug, I thought about writing and especially about revising. It can be very exciting when you jump into a new project full of energy and vision. The satisfaction of finishing a first draft — whether it’s a poem or a new flower bed — reflects a glow onto the work itself. For a while, the draft can shimmer in beauty simply by virtue of being done and having an existence outside the maker’s head. But then some time passes, whether days or weeks, and shimmer fades and the reality of the draft reveals itself. There are awkward phrases; there are gaps; and there are puddles that make only birds happy.

Jimmy returned with the sod, and he dug too. We got dirty, and the closer we got to getting done, the messier this revision became. I tossed rocks to the side as I came across them. We pulled up stray roots. I wondered of course why I was re-making a path to nowhere. The world doesn’t need it.

At one point Jimmy, noting my tight-lipped fatigue, suggested that we put the tools aside and get back to it next Sunday. I looked him in the eye and said, “We have to finish it today.”

revision_Jimmy sunflowers 250In the middle of revision, even though I enjoy having something to work with and puzzling over problems, it often starts to look worse before I can make it better. In such moments, it is tempting to put the hard work aside and fall in love with a new project. People say the blank page is scary, and it can be, but it’s also full of possibility: a screen I can project my hopes onto. In the middle of a revision, it’s easy to lose heart, because I can start to see what my poem or essay or sunflower folly or wandering path will not become.

And yet only by finishing it will it become something. So we dig, shovel, smooth. We finish, as well as we can.