Sugar in her tea

IMG_2632-1 (1)I am rusty at non-required writing. Every day I get it done for work but when it comes to the optional kind, I am tentative and wary of beginning again.

That phrase in the title – sugar in her tea – I transcribed it today from interview notes for something I’m writing. A freelance gig at an agricultural nonprofit, it has to do with farmers in the developing world and how their lives improve when their income grows. To have sugar in one’s tea after years of drinking it black? That’s a small sign that farmer livelihood is improving. (There are more significant measures too, like nutritious food and peace of mind.)

It’s just Grace and I here tonight. We are talking a little but we’re quiet. Oh, Winston’s here too. Are we lonely? I’ll ask Grace. We are sitting in her room together.

“I don’t think so,” she says. “I think that maybe if it was like some Saturdays in the past when it’s just been the two of us all weekend, and we only leave the house to do errands, that can be lonely.”

She adds, “Sometimes when I’m lonely it doesn’t have to do with us. It might be because of being upset with a friend.” Knowingly, she looks at me and continues: “It’s not the household dynamic.”

In my own moments of loneliness, I try to tell myself it’s just a feeling and it may have no immediate origin. You just have to abide with it. It may not need to be fixed.

Meanwhile, I’m reading a book, Scary Close by Donald Miller. It’s about intimacy in general – being real and being close to friends, family, a partner. Its subtitle contains the phrase “dropping the act.” This is the kind of thing a person reads when she wonders if she knows anything, after years of adulthood, about what it means to connect, and how to do it well. Though there is something about the writer’s voice that is a little too proud of all the insights, there are some illuminating bits, and I am enjoying them, like this one:

One night they are sitting around a fire in the yard. His future father-in-law, who is reportedly good at relationships, “said if we took the logs from the fire and separated them out in the field, they’d go out within an hour. They’d just lie there cold. He said for some reason the logs needed each other to burn, to stay warm” (203).

I am drawn to that image — poetic and romantic — even though the objective part of my mind is wondering what are the thermodynamics that make this so.

There’s also a long part in the book about having a meaningful life, and Miller summarizes principles from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. There are three recommendations if you want to have what Frankl claimed humans wanted even more than Freudian pleasure: “a sense of gratitude for the experience they were having, a sense of purpose and mission and belonging” (182):

Have a project to work on, some reason to get out of bed in the morning and preferably something that serves other people.

Have a redemptive perspective on life’s challenges.

Share your life with a person or people who love you unconditionally. (183)

I have a good portion of all of these — project, perspective, people — though the winds have buffeted us and feelings of purpose, resilience, and love are still on the mend. That’s an up arrow, for sure, though sometimes the tender spots ache when we palpate them.

I’ve been thinking about having a project to work on, one that is mine all mine. Not for income. Not for housekeeping. Not for athleticism.

Rising in me again, in part because of my summer freelance writing project, is a belief in writing itself as worthy and desirable. Even though I’m a writing / speaking teacher, most of the writing I do in education is feedback on the work of others. Oh, and emails, but that’s every job. I had lost heart with my own writing in the last year or so, and the activity of writing, in addition to the conversations about writing, has done a lot to boost my writing ego.

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Nature section, Brookline Booksmith

I live near a bookstore now, and they invite patrons to bring their dogs along. Winston and I sometimes stop in to look at a shelf or two on our evening walk. Yesterday a book on mushrooms caught my attention, and then we scanned the Nature shelves. I fantasized about resuscitating my project on Elizabeth White, amateur botanist, and the cultivated blueberry.

A friend of Jimmy’s called me tonight, before sundown. He half jokingly said he was atoning for not having been in touch for a long time. I said I didn’t think that way at all. In fact, people live inside my head, not in a crazy way, but in a populated way. I think of them; they think of me. I know that.

Somehow all the parts of this meandering post fit together, though there is no beginning, no end. Having a good life, a meaningful one. Loneliness. Writing desire. People, near and far.

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

The self as a boat, always under repair, still the same boat

IMG_0220 (1)In the photograph is a book I just finished reading that I loved. That’s not to say you should read it. You have to like theory mixed with memoir, and a whole book fashioned from paragraphs and no chapters. I underlined a lot of it. I won’t type out the underlines having to do with motherhood, sex, queerness, or gender; you can find those yourself.

Here is the book’s author, Maggie Nelson, who is new to me, incorporating Eve Sedgwick, and thinking in a sidelong way about her own work:

“Many people doing all kinds of work are able to take pleasure in aspects of their work,” Sedgwick once wrote, “but something different happens when the pleasure is not only taken but openly displayed. I like to make that different thing happen.” [Note: Sedgwick was also a teacher, Nelson’s.]

One happy thing that can happen, according to Sedgwick, is that pleasure becomes accretive as well as auotelic: the more it’s felt and displayed, the more proliferative, the more possible, the more habitual, it becomes.

I don’t know what these words are, and I have to look them up. Autotelic, an adjective, is “(of an activity or a creative work) having an end or purpose in itself.” And accretive, also an adjective, is “the process of accretion, or the growth or increase by a gradual addition.” Well, this blog-writing is accretive, that is for sure. I am having more trouble with autotelic. I don’t always know if what I do has an end or purpose. I am in the middle of it, always, and wonder where it’s going.

Today I went with three friends, all women, on a hike in the Blue Hill Reservation in Milton and Quincy. (Five hours, nine miles, 20,000 steps, according to Sue at the end.) It’s good to feel strong and able. I stopped about every 30 minutes to check my blood sugar. Because my diabetes is often on my mind I feel on the edge of vulnerability, as though health could fall apart at any moment. Weird, to hold these two qualities in the mind at once: that I am strong, that I am (at the edge of) vulnerable. I looked at my body in the mirror after I returned home and took a shower because I was freezing, my clothes all damp from sweating but the air outside pretty cold. My body looked good, not decrepit. I have no mechanical complaints. Just metabolic ones, and those are inside and the only person who notices them intimately is me.

My friends did ask a few times, “Do you need to check your blood sugar?,” though very matter-of-factly. I liked being cared for with a light, not lavish, touch.

Also today I prepped a pot roast and put it in an enamel cooker in the oven, and I continued my endless tidying, closet cleaning, trash-taking-out. At one point I stood at the sink and looked out the window, and I wondered if my emphasis on neatness has prevented me from any experiences in life or from being in the moment. Making order is all about dealing with the past in service of the future. Did I not play with the children, for example, when children, because I was arranging their toys on a shelf or tidying the pajama drawer?

Maggie Nelson writes about motherhood, and draws on theorists like Donald Winnicut (dead) a pediatrician and psychoanalyst and Kaja Silverman (living) a theorist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Nelson, paraphrasing Silverman, writes: “As the human mother proves herself a separate, finite entity, she disappoints, and gravely.” I underlined this too, and I realize I am including something from the book about motherhood, although I said above I would not.

A former student emailed me today that she stumbled across my blog, and found “cool stuff.” I am alternately buoyed by the compliments that come my way, and pulled down by the internal sense that what I do is never enough, or not quite the right thing at the right time. Is this womanhood, motherhood, Jane-hood?

About the title The Argonauts, Nelson writes, referring to Barthes, that “the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo.” It is somehow continuously the same boat, yet it “will be forever new.”

20 minutes, up.

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

Imagine a point in the future when you will look back at this moment

be awesome

There is this notion of “anticipatory regret” that is supposed to make you avoid doing something bad by anticipating or imagining the negative consequences of the action. You know, you won’t lie if you imagine untangling yourself from the inevitable web of lies spun out of the first one.

Years ago, I read the novel Therapy by David Lodge. For a long time, I attributed to that novel a different, more positive take on anticipatory regret: that it can help you do something good and desired that you imagine feeling future sadness about if you don’t do it. As I remembered the plot, I recalled that the middle-aged Tubby, who was invited to go on a pilgrimage with his former sweetheart, goes with her because he imagines that someday he could deeply regret not going.

I recently re-read Therapy — which sadly does not hold up well, though I remember it as a shining moment in my history of reading pretty much all of Lodge’s novels up to a point — and, although Kierkegaard’s arguments about regret are part of Tubby’s inner calculus, I found nothing about anticipatory regret.

Perhaps the different take was and is my own.


In the spring, for one of my classes I got into the habit of holding open office hours in a classroom, so students could drop in and talk to me about the assignment and, if they wished, sit for a while and write together. One time, 10 students showed up and stayed! Another time, only one did, but he stayed for two hours to work on his report. He would write, ask me a question, write again, say something out loud, write again, and so on. “What do you write?” he asked me at one point. This was an unexpected question, it being a computer science (writing) class and me so clearly not a computer scientist. Why would he, or any CS student, care?

I hemmed. I hawed. “I have written some essays… tried my hand at poetry… last summer wrote a story.”

“What about a book?”

“Well, a while ago I started working on a novel, but then I stopped because I thought it might not be so good for my mental health.”

“What do you mean?” He was still looking at his own screen, writing.

“Like, the story was too close to home. I wondered if I should be getting my thinking in order instead of projecting it all on a novel.” As I was saying this, it sounded stupid to my own ears.

“THAT IS MESSED UP!” he exclaimed, kind of laughing. “That does not make any sense.”

I, sheepishly, “Well, it did to me, at the time. But, yeah.”


You know, when you say something out loud, or you write it down, then you have to think about it.


Continue reading

The David Sedaris method

3882941631_b1929e63a6_mI recently read the 2013 collection of essays by David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. It made me laugh; it made me think; and it made me write a review: link.

One of my favorite essays, which unlike many of the other essays has not been previously published in a magazine or journal, is “Day In, Day Out.” He describes his faithful practice as a diary keeper, beginning September 5, 1977 when he and his friend Ronnie were hitchhiking along the West Coast. He was mailing letters and postcards home to friends, but had no fixed address and so they could not write back to him. “And so I began writing to myself,” he reports. For a few months, he used paper place mats that he picked up at the diners they ate at. Eventually he switched to sketchbooks and “began gluing things around [the] entries: rent receipts, ticket stubs–ephemera that ultimately tell [him] much more than the writing does.” In 1979 he started typing his entries and recording details of his daily life, “writing down things that seemed worth remembering.”

Then came drug addiction (crystal meth, he says), and six diaries in a row amounted “to one jittery run-on sentence, a fever dream as humorless as it is self-important.” Re-reading the diary entries by his former drug-addicted self, he “wanted to deny him,” but couldn’t.

That’s the terrible power of a diary: it not only calls for the person you used to be but rubs your nose in him, reminding you that not all change is evolutionary. More often than not, you didn’t learn from your mistakes. You didn’t get wiser but simply older.

Since the first day of daily diary writing in 1977, he has been “consumed” by the habit. He has skipped, “on average, maybe one or two days a year.” The diary is tied to his practice as an essayist. He spends the day recording observations (e.g., “a T-shirt slogan”), overheard conversations, and thoughts (e.g., about an argument with Hugh) in a notebook, and the next morning he tries to do something with them. “Over a given six-month period,” Sedaris writes, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out loud.”

4372725422_461681d55dIn more than 35 years, he has filled more than 136 diaries, which he keeps in a locked cabinet. He has also indexed the volumes, and the index itself is 280 pages. He worries that: “I’m so busy recording life, I don’t have time to really live it.” Once, after his laptop is stolen, including eight weeks of his diary that he hadn’t backed up, he exclaims, “Two months of my life, erased!”  Hugh reminds him that he “had actually lived those two months.” It wasn’t his time that had been stolen, Hugh asserts, just the record of it. After years of diary-keeping, this was “a distinction” that Sedaris “was no longer able to recognize.”

Image of notebook stack by See-ming Lee on Flickr via a creative commons license
Image of red notebook by Jean-Jacques Halans on Flickr via a creative commons license


Self-directed exploration of education as a topic

On December 12, 2013, I posted this on Facebook.

Dear learners and educators,

Please think about one book you have read about education that has greatly influenced your thinking or practice or learning, and post the title of it in a comment. I’m trying to make myself a deliberate reading list. Thanks!

My friends, relatives, and colleagues — all of whom work in or care about education — suggested the following. Two of the titles were actually Christmas gifts to me from my daughters, Lydia and Grace, who probably saw the post on Facebook but did not at the time respond.

This is a lot of reading. I put the list below as a reminder to myself and also as a resource for others. Also for Christmas I received a handmade notebook from my son Eli. I am reserving it for making notes and reflections on this course of reading.

a few books related to education and one blank one

a few books related to education and one blank one

I begin with bell hooks and Teaching to Transgress because (a) I already own the book but have never read it and (b) new projects should begin with radical inspiration.  Here is the first paragraph from her first chapter, “Engaged Pedagogy”:

To education as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

And here we go. Most of these books do not directly apply to my work as a teacher of scientific and technical communication and college students in a private research university, but it is my belief that any books on writing, education, or human development are relevant to my thinking and practice. There are 17 listed and linked. Please add your suggestion(s) in a comment.

Change-Prompting Books on Education

A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by David Capella and Baron Wormser (recommended by Meghan Cadwallader, a poet and director of admissions)

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, by bell hooks (recommended by Sally Kokernak Millwood, trained as a social worker)

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, by Richard Rodriguez (recommended by Karen Baloo, a pseudonym for a psychology professor)

Writing/Teaching: Essays Toward a Rhetoric of Pedagogy, by Paul Kameen (recommended by Anne Geller, a writing program director, who says she thinks all the time about Kameen’s thinking on “the difference between performing being and performing becoming” and indicates that the book is also online: link for the download)

Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire, by Theresa Lillis (also recommended by Anne Geller) Continue reading

Hands down, the best literature conference anywhere

This past weekend, I attended the Children’s Literature Summer Institute 2013 at Simmons College, my graduate school alma mater. Among academic conferences, it is one of the best, managing to be smart and profound but not stuffy. As Lois Lowry, the keynote speaker, conveyed in her talk: We are all in this world of children’s literature together.

About 150 people – teachers, writers, illustrators, grad students, librarians, editors, scholars, and fans – attended. Strangers were instantly affectionate. The featured authors and illustrators were approachable. I made a conference friend, a school librarian who is also a Simmons alum, and I really enjoyed having one person with whom I could continuously share impressions and enthusiasm. I also loved being at Simmons again and remembering my professors, my friends, and my years of learning.

I gathered much good insight and advice from the many author and illustrator talks, which were all prepared and differently framed around the Institute’s theme for this year: Love Letters. I took notes. I hope it will all stay with me, motivating me to return to some projects I have set aside in doubt and helping me stick with them.

From my notebook: a list of the speakers, in order of their appearance, and ideas and inspiration I wrote down as they spoke. There are 13 of them, a baker’s dozen. Keep reading after the jump.

Shane plays; Jack records.

Shane plays; Jack records.

1. Shane Evans, illustrator and writer: website

He gives himself an assignment to journal on the same topic for 41 days. The topic might be truth or love or some other big idea. He does this “because I’m lazy.” Once, for 41 days, he asked a different person every day the same question and photographed him/her and then put it all on his website.

Interesting metaphor: mountain top vs. valley. “Nothing grows on top of a mountain; it can’t breathe. We have to go down to the valley; it’s where nurturing happens… We talk about highs and lows – what’s wrong with the lows?!”

He showed a slide of works from 10 visual artists who are his inspirations. I wonder: who would be my 10 inspirations? What would it be like to take a work from each of them and hang it over my desk?

Shane is also a musician – went to college with Taye Diggs – and got us to sing along with him… TWICE.

2. Deborah Freedman, illustrator and writer: website

She is a former architect. Looks at books (physical ones) as “a spatial problem.” She said, “a picture book creates a space.” She believes an iPad won’t do that, or can’t do that yet. (I wondered, “Why not?”) She likes things she can touch; she likes things that exist in space: “I like the book.”

Talked about balancing “intuition and rationality.” She does that in her sketchbook; she starts a new one for each project. Once she has an idea, the first thing she does is to “go to the library and look at every book about that idea.”

In picture-book making, pacing is very important. She works this out in a storyboard, and she’s constantly “pacing and re-pacing.” (I noticed that pacing is a quality of stories and books that several of the writers or illustrators mentioned in their talks.)

Tight limitations are a gift, she said, using those words exactly. I liked her.

Continue reading

Animal rescue league

Jimmy asked, “How was your day?” We are sitting in the living room. I get the couch, the best seat, and he the green chair.

Our usual weekday subjects are work and kids.  The conversation is always better if there’s an anecdote.

“Grace called me twice this afternoon. She found a cat in the yard without a collar, and she wanted to talk it through with me.”

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

I described the stream of texts she sent, her eagerness to locate the owner, and desire for me to come home and help. It was late afternoon, and I was wrapping up anyway. By the time I pulled into the driveway, Grace had already called an adult friend for cat-catching advice, posted a photo on Instagram, searched craigslist for “lost cat,” and speculated as to who in our neighborhood might own the cat.

cat_textShe and I stalked the collarless cat for a little while, trying to herd it back to our yard where we believed we could think and plan better. After we tip-toed into the fourth neighbor’s yard, I said to Grace, “I’m going home to get a laundry basket so we can try catching it.”

The cat eluded catching with the laundry basket. Grace finally said, “I sense this cat is smart enough to survive and find her way home. And I think I know whose cat it is.” We abandoned pursuit.

Later, she took our dog Winston for a walk and rang the bell of some new neighbors. Indeed, the cat belongs to them. The woman told Grace, “She lost her collar and we haven’t replaced it yet. But we know she’ll come home when she’s hungry.”

I told Jimmy that I hoped we weren’t going to become those kind of people, always on the lookout for strays. Continue reading

Blurt out, babble out the first draft (says John McPhee)

My favorite part of John McPhee’s recent essay in The New Yorker on first drafts and revision is the text of a letter he wrote to his daughter Jenny McPhee (now 51 and a novelist), when she was a senior at Princeton High School and frustrated by her inability to get things right the first time.

Dear Jenny:

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.

What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

Entirely by John McPhee. A writer could go a long way on his advice and reassurance.