Teacher sets words aside and dreams a new self and new start

In this dream, I was sewing. Professionally.

An MIT friend and colleague, Juhan, had hired me to make 12 small quilts for baby beds, which he was going to install in a blank room to showcase wearable technologies for babies. The devices would be hidden under the colorful, hand-sewn quilts, so that when a viewer turned back the quaint covering, she would be surprised by hardware underneath. The room would be white, as well as the frames of the baby beds, so that the only color would be provided by the calico quilt squares. The hardware would be a buffed steel color, soft and glimmering.

In this dream, I also was aware of myself as a sophomore at MIT, a student mainly studying the liberal arts. I didn’t have a sense of myself as an adult living a youngster’s life; I really dreamed I was age 20, young and looking toward the future. (In other dreams, when my life situation is of a younger person, I am still aware of having a husband and children, and it is only the situation that is altered, not myself.) From my freelance quilt-making project, I suddenly realized — dream/realized — that I wanted to change my course of study from the liberal arts to something that would set me up to work in fabrics.


I had an epiphany: materials science. The dream/plan crystallized. I started to worry. Dream/self realized that I hadn’t taken any science or math since high school, and I would need some to get into materials science. So I decided to enroll in Introduction to Biology for the spring. Then… then!… I can immerse myself in materials science next fall, I thought to my dream/self, who was very excited.

Hmmm, I worried. I might not be able to cram a whole major into two years of college. I might have to add another year onto my undergraduate degree.

Oh, so what? I said to my dream/self. You’ll be able to afford it — you’re at MIT, and when you graduate, you will start making some real money. Not liberal arts money. ENGINEERING money.

Dream/self was very proud of herself. She felt certain that she had had an insight into her deep, real, and abiding interests, and that her true career love had been revealed to her. She was charting a course for a future that would always suit her, a career she would never doubt. Her interest would never flag.

She was starting. She had a plan. Before too long, she would be designing the fabrics of the future*.

*And this is how I ended the account of my dream to Jimmy, when I described it to him this morning. I would be designing the fabrics of the future.

Image, Lego Dress, from Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology on Flickr via a creative commons license.

Turtle dreams and other boxed things

Recently I’ve been thinking about boxes. I turned on the timer (30 minutes), opened OmmWriter (still love it), and I followed my thoughts from one to the next. Here’s the result, without edits, although I did add one link.

boxes by Grace and photo by me

When I was a child, I loved miniatures things: figuerines, the shoes that came with Barbie, safety pins. Once, at a town fair, I entered a raffle for a green-and-clear blown glass turtle. I paid 50 cents for my ticket and dropped it into a coffee can with a slot cut out from the smoky white plastic, and I hoped and hoped.  It’s possible I bargained with God, in whom I then believed.

I didn’t win that raffle, although I did win a “wash and set” (remember those?) at the town beauty parlor. I tried to trade this prize with the grown woman who won the turtle; she had gray, curled hair, and it seemed likely she’d want my prize even more. She said no. I still picture that glass turtle as it was displayed that day on a circle of mirror placed on the prize table.

I don’t remember if I liked jewelry or not, but I did like the boxes that jewelry came in: small, well made, sturdy, the lid close fitting. The box itself seemed as special as what came in it.

For a while I went through a period of collecting boxes: wood, ceramic, paper. They had to be small. Big boxes seem to not be collectible.

And yet, among the Kokernaks, who all share a love of putting, throwing, or giving surplus things away, there is an appreciation for what we would call a good box, as in, “Keep that. It’s a good box.” Jimmy too says this.

In the spring of 2003, when I was in graduate school and taking a course on teaching writing and visiting classrooms to observe teachers at work, I sat in on my friend Lisa R.’s English course at Wellesley College. That day the students were studying and discussing a Shakespearean sonnet. In her remarks, Lisa revealed how much she herself loved sonnets, “a whole argument packed into fourteen lines.”  Shakespeare loved them for this too, she added.  Some other scholar, she told the students, referred to the sonnet as “a tight box.”  I loved that image, and it gave me a new way to think of sonnets and all formal poetry.

What can one do — how much liberty can one take, what can a writer or person — within the constraints? The thought gives me shivers. Continue reading

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 continuum

Sunday night, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up late to work, one in a long string of staying-up-late nights, and then I couldn’t let go. For two hours I lay in bed and ruminated over the papers I had stayed up to review. Not wanting to fret about insomnia (which only exacerbates insomnia), I occasionally said to myself, “It’s okay. At least I’m resting my body.”

At 3am, I moved to the couch. I noticed the many ways the lights from the street made their way into the room. I bunched a feather pillow under my head and replayed a couple of weeks of work in my head. And then I thought about the weeks ahead. In no way was I worried or panicking. It was simply as though my brain continued to develop and work on problems even as my body lay there immobile.

At 4:30am, with the same loop of images still playing in my head, I thought to myself: “I am mentally ill.” No, really.  It occurred to me that this is what people mean by obsessive thoughts. Leave it to me to have them about drafts, and colleagues, and presentations, and this student and that one, and even that pile of folders on my desk that I keep meaning to put in the shredder bin.

“Ah, no. Not mentally ill,” I thought. “Just fucked up.” I did have enough awareness to step outside myself a bit, look at my thoughts, and recognize how unproductive they are. I wasn’t able to quiet them, but I could reality-test them.

Years ago, my friend Betsy told me and our small circle of friends about the mentally ill/fucked up continuum. This is not unlike the sexuality continuum, although M.I. and F.U. have nothing to do with a person’s sexual identity. Essentially, we are each of us M.I. or F.U., and there are gradations between. Continue reading

– Rear windows

On this night, from our second-floor rear window and into their rear window I look and see not the lit tv screen or the polished floors or a body on a couch but female legs in red stockings and dancing shoes and his legs, in blue jeans, stepping in time with hers.

On other nights, from the same rear window I look out over neighbors’ rooftops and see tiny squares of light, in this house or that, signaling who’s awake. Sometimes I see a head bent over a desk: Is that the peaceful pose of work done in solitude or the defeated one of work done under the midnight gun? Most of the time the lit windows are empty, and I must guess at who is up in that household and why. Insomnia. Sickness. New baby. A fight. Love. Continue reading

My Beck dream disappears

In the year that I started teaching (2003), I had many night dreams that I would remember and think about the next day. One especially, even though it was about Beck, seemed to be about me, and teaching.

In the dream, I waited outside the Orpheum among a crowd. People pressed up against the main entrance doors. People spilled out of the alley onto Tremont Street, not bothered by the cars that edged around them. People climbed up and hung from a rickety, wooden staircase that clung to the outside wall of the building and ended at a door at balcony level. In the dream, it was a late September afternoon, the sun slanting. I had a ticket for the Beck show and could have made my way easily through the front doors, but instead I climbed the wooden stairs, pushing up and up and up, and slipped into the door at the top. Inside: darkness.

My eyes adjusted to the poor interior light, and, from the top, I made my way down balcony steps, along box seats on the side that hung from the wall, and into the door to the right of the stage. No one stood in my way or stopped me; I kept weaving in the direction I was going.

Going backstage at the Orpheum was like going backstage at my college’s auditorium: just a few stairs up, and there I was among the curtains, rigged-up lights, people in black shirts with clipboards, steamer trunks, lit Exit signs. Backstage, there is no place to sit down. Move, move, move, or stand.

I edged around a curtain, feeling it touch my back like hair, or a hand, and stood out of view of the audience yet close enough to center stage that I could see the house, performance area, and backstage at once. There was Beck, alone in front of the audience, with just his amped guitar, big hat, and a vest. He sang “Mixed Bizness.” He played hard, danced his plastic moves, and jerked his shoulders and guitar when he hit a line like “Freaks flock together.” He seemed to be possessed by the music, deep into it, as mesmerized by his performance as the audience was. Continue reading

– Scary movie

HalloweenMoonIt’s Halloween; I’m alone.

It’s a good time to watch Jesus Camp, a documentary loaned to me weeks ago by my friend David,  a fellow volunteer at GLAD.

“I heard it’s disturbing,” said Eli, when I showed it to him.

Perfect for tonight.


P.S. The photo has nothing to do with the film. It’s simply a snap of the spooky moon in the sky over my house on this balmy, windy Halloween.

– Secret room dreams

I share an office with a few other writing teachers.  One of my office mates, T., recently told me about her adventures in flower pressing, and she gave me some petals.  Once curled and shaped, they are now paper thin and flat.

The pressed petals remind me of the bright, fallen, and wilted geranium petals on the floor of my room at Wellspring House, where I was in July for a week.  The boards of the floor were painted gray, and when I walked in the room I saw a scatter of droplets — pink, with white edges — under the window.  At first, without really thinking I thought they were painted fingernails.  Then on the wide sill I noticed the clay pot, the green furred and scalloped leaves.

There are geranium pots on our front steps at home, and these too, like T’s petals, remind me of my solitary and spare room at Wellspring.

Petals, on steps after rain.

Petals, on steps after rain.

Thoughts of that room prompt memories of other loved rooms, especially two more: a dorm room, an office.  What do they have in common?  Why these three, and not so many others?

I make a diagram.  (Later Lydia sees it and asks, incredulous, “You made a Venn diagram because you were bored?”  I answer, “I made a Venn diagram because I was trying to figure something out.”  She laughs kindly.)

Each room had its own wonderful qualities.  The dorm room: a big closet and a typewriter.  The office: a view into the greenhouse behind the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  The room at Wellspring was named after Emily Dickinson, and then there were the petals decorating the floor and catching my eye.

They shared some features too, and it must be these that cause me to consider them as a trio.  All three had a desk & chair, shelves, and a mirror.  They were intended for solo use, although I recall guests in each one.

"Three Rooms" by J. Kokernak (Venn diagram)

"Three Rooms," by J. Kokernak, 2008.

I am ruminating over the importance of these concrete details and what they mean now.  Each memory’s connection to my present life (and not my then student, staff, or retreater’s life) is what concerns me.

This exercise on the three rooms reminds me, too, of theme dreams (i.e., ones that recur).  Mine are about secret rooms.  In these dreams, I walk through a house I’ve lived in and find a door that I’ve never noticed before.  I open it, and inside is a room that presents an opportunity to me (space, activity, style), and sometimes to the people I live with.  Sometimes in one of my secret room dreams, I try to get another person’s attention: “Look, look at this!  The room we’ve been wanting!”  Sometimes in one of my secret room dreams, I close the door and keep its existence to myself.

About a dreamed secret room, Gillian Holloway, in The Complete Dream Book, claims that “This room has great possibilities… and represents a neglected potential in the dreamer’s life that the deeper mind is trying to reclaim” (155).

Are the three remembered rooms like secret dream rooms?  There seems to be some bounty there.

– In dreams

As I get older, I recall fewer and fewer dreams. I have no doubt, however, that I still dream, because the brain needs to dream, right? My secret dreams, the ones so secret even I don’t know about them, concern me, and more so lately. Here’s why.

Over the bed I sleep in hangs a collage of newspaper pages.

Newspaper window

I measured and taped it up there a few weeks ago as a mock window. A builder recommended this strategy to me, as a way of us making window size choices more concrete before he orders and installs them.

I glance at the elongated rectangle a few times every day, when I’m pulling on or off my clothes or arranging the sheets and pillows. My attention occasionally rests on this headline or that.

McCain head & Gaza headline

Clinton and Obama — unitySuicide bombers

Gaza. The Democrats, Clinton and Obama, at a party. Paid death notices. Suicide bombers. Much of this I absorb without meaning to. And how does what I take in infiltrate or inspire my dreams, even ones I never “see”?

Every day, too, I glance at the advertisements saturating my newspaper window. I notice that luxury goods and travel appear on the pages with the direst world and national news. This is something I’ve noticed before in my regular newspaper reading, and it has always bothered me.

How do these juxtapositions (of troubled Gaza with soothing Tucson, for example) affect my dreams, seen or unseen? More so, how do unseen dreams affect my wakeful self?

Louis VuittonFur saleTucson upside down

I’ve been wondering about this.

(And I am also wondering why these photographs are so bluish. I made a mistake, but what, I don’t know.)