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.


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

Space carved out

It was Wednesday, one hour squashed between other hours and another appointment in a week filled with appointments. In the room, I and my ESL student, whose name is Karma, worked side-by-side on our own copies of the reading. The door to the hallway was closed. Through the wall, we heard a muted piano and, etched on top of that sound, a soprano voice. I counted 12 chairs around the table in our tiny room, and a chalkboard filled one wall and a window another.

view from room 4-146, Wednesday 11-10-2010 @ 10:55am

This was silence. This was luck. This was like the world saying, Be here now.

The hour was long enough.

Old broads in sequins and rouge

I’ve heard it said that if you want to talk to your kids, give them a ride somewhere. I’d like to offer a modification to this advice — if you want to talk to your daughter, take her shopping and haunt the dressing room.

Lydia needed shorts for an upcoming trip with her chorus. Having recently been at Old Navy with Grace and seen mountains of them, we headed there. Lydia filled her arms with what I think of as disposable clothes. (If anyone wants to view the dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and the developing world, walk into your local ON, head to the clearance section, and see tables piled with t-shirts made in Bangladesh marked down to $3.)

I browsed, too, and met Lydia in the dressing room. “What do you think of this?” I asked her. She may not need my style sanctions, but I need hers.

“Mom, no,” she replied. I love her eyeroll.

“Why not? I love this gray color.”

“Mom. Sequins.”

“But, Lydia,” I implored her, “It’s a peace sign. I’m for peace.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to wear it on a t-shirt. In sequins. Plus, you’re old.”

“I might buy it.”


I didn’t.

And yet I’m still tempted. Something draws me to this t-shirt, and it takes willpower to keep Lydia’s advice in mind.

Not all women resist the call of the sequin, however. This morning Lydia and I stopped in the bagel shop on the way downtown, where I was dropping her off to meet the bus that will take her chorus on the trip that necessitated the purchase of shorts. Most of the people getting bagels at 9:30am in the morning are old-timers. As I waited in line, my eyes were drawn to a woman whose back faced me: curly yellow-blond hair askew, wedgie flip-flops, cropped stretch pants, lumpy purse, and a droopy Pepto-pink sweatshirt decorated with an oversized sequined and plastic-jeweled heart. Continue reading

– Writing in the snow

Brian is the first to tell me about Ommwriter. Telling, in this instance, involved posting a link to my Facebook page. I happen to like, in our Internet age, how much we can learn about each other, even our siblings, via blogs, e-mail, and social networking sites. He guessed right that I would be curious about this.

Ommwriter is a new text-processor (dowloadable, not web-based) that creates a distraction-free space for writing and concentrating. The image of the space — a range of grays: snowed-over field, storm sky, tiny tree silhouettes, and six buttons — is what made me want to try it. To be bodily in the space was the dream; to type in it, the reality.

I tried it on Thursday, when I wrote my Beck post. Instead of opening up a new post field in wordpress and typing, formatting, uploading, googling, and linking as I wrote, I just… wrote. Did I like the experience? Eventually. Did it work? Yes.

With Ommwriter, what you see and hear is what you get. Everything is available in the space: the text box, sound control, and save button. It’s supposed to be an immersive experience, so immersive that, when you open a file, there’s a vivid and gentle reminder to use headphones to get the full experience. (I didn’t, because my house was empty and quiet.) The music is like what you get with The Buddha Machine: tonal, steady, and low. I’ve never studied Zen Buddhism, so I have no idea if this adjective actually applies, but I could imagine some person saying, “How zen,” and getting started with Ommwriter. You open it; the music starts; and all there is to do is write. Continue reading

– Proust, you can have your madeleine.

Our friends were away on vacation, and Lydia was in charge of the cat and fish. She promised to daily feed and water the cat and clean its litter and occasionally to drop a few beads of food into the fish bowl.

One night I helped, and on another night — the last night of cat duty, in fact — I handled it myself. I followed Lydia’s instructions: pat and scratch Storm; refill dry food dish and replace water; scrape 1/3 can of wet food into wet food dish; play with Storm for a few minutes (mouse on string); sift solid masses out of litter cave and discard; wash hands. Easily done. (Interestingly, the cat seemed both to want and not want my company. Is that typical of cats?) Feed fish and otherwise ignore. Also easily done.

I tried once again to play with Storm, by dangling a strip of fabric near his nose. He walked away.

As I sat on the ottoman, not unhappily rejected, I noticed the dried kibble on the floor around the cat dish. I saw an electric carpet sweeper. I thought, “Who would want to come home to a messy cat?” With the sweeper I sucked up the scattered bits. Then I remembered the litter cave in the other room.

In the other room, I turned on the sweeper again and ran it over the floor and edge of the nearby rug. Satisfyingly, the grit whirred into the plastic, tick tick ticking like sand against a window pane. Bent over like that, vacuuming, suddenly time collapsed 30 years, and I was bent over, vacuuming like that, in a neighbor’s house I then cleaned weekly, for money. I experienced again the pleasure of being in someone else’s house when they’re not home, of leaning into the rhythm of a task, of restoring order, of hearing grit fly into plastic. Of the electric hum, and air.

This is still me, I thought. The vacuumer, the order-restorer, not in a hurry and at peace in someone else’s empty home.

– I surrender.

whiteflag2An ultrasound technician called me “laid-back” yesterday. This seemed, at the moment, not unlike other things people have called me, like “calm” or “safe.”

I could turn this into a boast, I suppose, but I’m not here to write about compliments. It does seem interesting to write about what it feels like, to me, to be calm while under stress.

It feels like surrender.

And that is the short, true answer.

But that makes surrender sound easy. And it’s not. The kind of surrender I want to describe (my kind) — to stress, chaos, noise, demands, surprise, discomfort — takes energy. It’s not like falling onto a couch and flicking on the tv. Continue reading

– Needles and activism

The knitters at Stitch for Senate are making helmet liners for every member of the U.S. senate in order to engage “with public officials about the war in Iraq.”

Helmets, stacked, by Stitch for Senate

"Helmets, stacked," by Stitch for Senate

This puts me in mind of Eyes Wide Open, an exhibit of boots and shoes, representing military men and women killed in the Iraq War, that we stumbled across once when we were visiting my in-laws in New Jersey.  We drove past a library and on its front lawn were rows of boots.  Plain, magnetic.

When artists and activists use the everyday, intimate, and individual to make a statement about the enormous — war, power, death — that brings the enormous in close.  I can imagine my head in the knit helmet, and my feet in the boots.  And perhaps by imagining myself inside, I can start to imagine the other.

– Crow season

Jan sent me a link announcing new work by Vermont artist Carol MacDonald, in which she “examines the tradition of knitting through a variety of print-making techniques.”  I love it, especially that the featured image is “Red Skein I.”  (What is it about red yarn?)

I looked deeper into MacDonald’s portfolio and found even more that I liked, especially her paintings and prints with crows as their subjects.  Her works have titles like “Convergence,” “Bearing Arms,” and “Resolve,” and they are more than portraits of crows.  There occasionally seems to be a bit of string in them, too:

"Accord," Carol MacDonald, silkscreen/thread

"Accord," Carol MacDonald, silkscreen/thread

It’s crow season again.  Yesterday and today, in the mild, fall weather, the crows are landing and taking off in the yard, again and again.  Continue reading

– Destination: insight

In the car on the way to work, I was thinking through a demanding e-mail that I received. The sender or nature of the e-mail is not so important. We all get them occasionally. Someone wants something from you, and you start thinking about how to satisfy them, to give them what they desire, to soothe the irritant. (If you’re a teacher, this someone is often a student.) Why that impulse to bend?? Is it only to make peace? Maybe a certain kind of peace, which is more like resignation, is overrated.

I pulled into the parking lot. As I walked across campus, this insight emerged from the murk of my thoughts:

Another person’s ambition, especially when it aligns with conventional values (e.g., more money is desirable, rewards are necessary), can unproductively set a team or community’s agenda.

It’s good to know one’s own agenda. Protect it, not out of vanity, but because it may be fragile, and it needs you. And the team — or even the world — may need it too.

Thank you to my 30-minute commute.