Burn, burn, burn, and smolder

This is the fantasy, or at least one of them: to gather and destroy an archive of excessive notes, dead-end projects, and magazine clippings that I saved over a long period of time because I believed they would coalesce somehow into knowledge or inspiration. They failed to (not I failed to), so the whole collection, even though it is a collection only because I collected it, must be deleted so I can be relieved of the burden.

burn 1

Do you know this fantasy, this feeling?

Harold Bloom, in Anxiety of Influence (OUP, 1973), looks at a series of hierarchical relationships between male poets, and sees younger poets as sons seeking to master, surpass, and even overthrow the older, established male poet/father. To simplify: the younger poet must do more than supersede the older poet in order to make a space for his own creation; he’s gotta take him down.

I wonder if a person must dispose of part of her own past (unprovocative though that past may be) to make room for her own future work and even relationships, projects, and pleasures. The artifacts of the past can own us — no, obligate us.

burn 3

In the garage at my house there were two brown paper grocery bags and one box full of notebooks, files, and conference folders that I had packed up in June when part of the writing & rhetoric program at MIT moved from an administrative building about to be knocked down to make way for MIT.nano, a new nanotechnology research center. (See?) Instead of just sending these materials over to my new office, I set these aside to look at more closely and evaluate whether they had any present-day use. Finally, around Christmas, that holiday of acquisition, I examined them quickly, and as I did I tossed each piece into our backyard bonfire receptacle, wanting to get rid of them as quickly as possible, so that I wouldn’t have to read every word — whether mundane or profound — I had spent years writing, most of them in meetings (not, unfortunately, in the solitude of real writing, the kind that makes something). These were just records: of dates, obligations, lists of names, lists of grades, ideas, modifications, minor decisions, and bureaucratic dialogue. I also did not want to read again the handouts I had collected at conferences, or the articles I once taught in courses I will never teach again.

There were post-it notes here and there, the last layer placed on top of layers and layers of sediment. In one I asked myself, “Do I want any of this?” And in another I chided myself to “write back.”

I saved, but did not want, any of this. I did not write back. Continue reading

Over time, we may come to understand what these gifts mean

Angel_smallThere is this great desire to be known. To be recognized for who one is. We need signals from the intimate world, from the people closest to us, that we have been observed and found out. And around Christmas time, we start to hope that the gifts will be those signals — that someone will unearth or make the item that will tell us we are known, and we are prized for who we are.

We know we are loved. But are we known? That we worry about in our heart of hearts.


As I child, I always loved Christmas and looked forward to it each year. My sister Sally and I shared a room for a long time, and every Christmas Eve we would lie in our beds wriggling with delight over what Santa and the morning would bring. It was hard to sleep, and we would kick and bicycle our legs deliberately to get rid of the energy. In later years, after the dream of Santa was behind us, I still endowed Christmas with much hope — a great, great deal of it — even though my rational mind knew that, with knowledge, the magic had dissolved.

When I was about 14 or maybe older, I received from my parents the gift of an antique wicker chair and table that had come from my mother’s Aunt Gert’s house. The set had been dusted off, and my mother had sewn a new cushion set. Intellectually, I could tell this was a special gift. I said thank you, and even now I hope I outwardly seemed grateful and happy. I wasn’t happy, though. I don’t recall if there was something in particular I wanted, but it wasn’t a family hand-me-down. I was a teenager, so perhaps boots or clothes or a record player or hot rollers would have been more worth getting.

I don’t actually remember the nuances of what I felt beyond the shock of seeing the table and chair, around the corner from the living room, too big to be put under the tree. I have a mental snapshot of the moment, and in trying to stand there in the same place again, looking at the table and chair, all I feel is the force of my own self-control: try to be thankful, try to keep your cool, try to appreciate the meaning and effort that mum has put into this.

The effort to accept a gift that one doesn’t want is so great.


I still have that chair and table. Many years ago, I updated the table, marbling the top, when I took a furniture-painting class. The chair has been professionally restored by a wicker man, who told me the chair is a classic, and he may have even named its style, but I don’t remember it. There is a little piece of wicker on the arm rest that has broken off, and I have put it aside, intending to glue it back.

Continue reading

Skating story, told and retold

This week, for the first time in a year, I saw my friend Lisette, who is like me a teacher and unlike me a former college athlete. Around the time I started teaching college writing (eight years ago), she said to me, “It’s good to do one new thing every semester that gets you out of your comfort zone.” This was an idea she had picked up, I think, from her college volleyball coach.

On Tuesday afternoon at the playground, I told Lisette and her oldest son Griffin about a little skating accident I had recently, and how the coach made me get back on the ice as soon as I could stand again.

It’s good to have friends and coaches that prod you to take risks, especially when you are not naturally inclined to some kinds of them.

And, of course, I had to write about my fall. Find the story, published here.

Seven lessons from a middle-aged beginner

There is beginner’s mind, and then there is beginner’s body.
Around the time I turned 40, I got this idea that I wanted to become a good skater by the time I turned 50. The impulse hit me when I was at the rink in Brookline, skating with the kids, and I noticed a woman older than me who was powerful and fluid on the ice. I wanted to skate like her, and, even though her skating was more advanced, this suddenly seemed doable to me and desirable. Later, I found out she had started skating in her early 40s when her son was playing hockey, and she found herself looking at the ice and longing for it. So she began. At 60, when I met her, she was strong and graceful. This, by the way, is the first lesson in learning something new and hard: (1) Look for real-life models.  Famous athletes may inspire us but, because their talents are stratospheric, can’t really convince us that we can do it.

I had been on the ice hundreds of times — if you grow up in Massachusetts, as I did, it’s almost a requirement that you get a new pair of cheap skates every year for Christmas and spend lots of time clumping around on frozen ponds or public ice rinks — but I couldn’t  skate well. At age 40, I started taking group skating lessons for the first time. I learned a lot, starting with this basic fact that skates have edges (and if you have two feet, there are four edges altogether, or eight if you include forward and backward), and control of those is the foundation for everything. I also learned, from a teacher named Mark, that you can be afraid to do something and still make yourself do it. “You will fall,” Mark said. Being mindful of the possibility of injury makes it harder to try new things as an adult, and this fear must be managed in order to proceed. Which leads me to this: (2) Be afraid to fall, and skate anyway. I am, and I do.

You can only do beginner lessons so many times before you start to bump up against a ceiling. This winter, at age 45 and at my halfway point, I decided it might be time for private instruction. Happily, the teacher of the group lesson I was taking also teaches privately, and the transition was easy. I discovered, too, that the decision to do this was a signal to myself of the seriousness of my goal. You can’t hide in a 1:1 learning situation as you can hide in a group (and one can even hide, paradoxically, by excelling against other beginners). Another lesson: (3) When it starts to get easy, become more vulnerable to the task.

It’s a luxury to have the devoted instruction of an accomplished professional for one hour a week. (No wonder students like meeting with me alone for an hour to work on their writing.) There is an intensity to the learning experience that is different from a group experience that is a deep pleasure. The learner is also scarily exposed in a private lesson; there is no stepping to the side to let someone else skate ahead, and there is no half-assed trying just to get a little cheap credit for having gone through the motions. Continue reading

Too much hand holding

The first time my new skating teacher grabbed my hand and held it, I liked it.

We were attempting backward crossovers, and his holding of my leading hand made me feel secure, as though, if I fell, he would prevent me from landing hard on my tailbone.

“And, to be honest,” as I told Jimmy about it later, “It just felt good. It doesn’t happen often in adult life that a stronger adult offers a real hand at a moment of risk.”

Plus, have I mentioned he’s cute? That made the initial hand holding nice, too.

This morning in lessons we were attempting to put moves together: crossovers and turns. For a while we’ve been isolating and practicing various moves. Literally, each week we’ve been skating in circles and doing the same things over and over.

As Fred demonstrated what he wanted us to do — skate forward crossovers, glide, turn, and skate backward crossovers — I thought to myself, This is when I fall. Interestingly, that little voice inside me was pretty matter-of-fact. I knew it would be difficult and that I would stumble.

I skated into the turn, turned, and fell. I got up. The next time I tried, Fred grabbed my leading hand and completely interrupted my concentration. Never mind whether I fell or not, I simply couldn’t skate with any basic competence as his gloved fingers gripped mine. Later he said, “Swinging your arms too far was making you spin, not just turn.” Well, his holding my hand stopped my inadvertent spinning, but it also made me forget the coordination of my four limbs! It was as if my concentration had digressed to what to do with that one hand. I couldn’t keep the big picture in mind.

Near the end of the lesson, we practiced slaloms for a while and then Fred showed us the 3-turn. I feel pretty comfortable with the slaloms, and I did them over and over as he worked 1:1 with another student. He skated over to me, watched, said “good” a few times, and grabbed my hand as a way of directing the shape of my arm. I completely lost my internal rhythm and felt, suddenly, remedial.

Is it okay to say to your teacher, whom you generally like, “Stop taking over my moves”?

Different students need different levels of hand holding, I know. It may be better — this is what I believe — to offer less of it. And if we see a student who is struggling, and we have the urge to step in, perhaps we should first ask: “May I help you with that?” And then, and only then, offer a hand.

Photograph of Grace (in blue jeans) and me (in tan cords) taken with ToonCamera for the iPhone.

How to work a cocktail party like a tutor

Last night Jimmy and I went to what’s called a drinks party and, to our relief, enjoyed ourselves. I realized later, after several good conversations, that what makes me an effective tutor can help me get through challenging social situations. Or vice versa.

Why are cocktail parties challenging? I mean, I may not be attention-hungry, but I’m not shy.  Here’s the problem: so many people, no defined role for me, and no structure.

If those are the conditions — and they are for most parties, except for baby showers which are usually rather annoyingly structured around “games” (and those are intentional quotation marks) — then a person must have a strategy for dealing with the conditions. Otherwise, the impulse is to hide in a corner with the one person you know, clinging to that corner as though it were a berth and you a little boat afraid of being battered by the open sea.

And just as the secret to being a good tutor does not involve being drunk on the task, the seven secrets to party-going success that follow do not involve drinking half the bottle in the first 10 minutes. Continue reading

– Presentation of self


Once in a while, if someone knows or notices that I wear an insulin pump, that person says to me, “Don’t you love it?”, gushing on the word love.

This happened to me recently, during my annual check-up. I was sitting on the table with a paper gown wrapped around me and talking to my doctor, whom I like, and the medical student who was observing. It was my doctor who asked the question and gushed on “love.” Clearly, even though it was an endocrinologist and not she who had prescribed it for me, she considered the pump a marvel. As miniature devices go, this one is indeed remarkable in what it can do.

Because she is a doctor, and because I feel able to speak frankly to her, I replied honestly: “No.”

Dr. H.’s lips pressed together and then broadened into a smile, which I took as a signal: Go on.

I elaborated.  “Sure, I appreciate the technology, and it’s more convenient than multiple injections, but, no. Loving it would be like being an amputee and loving a cool prosthetic leg, when what I want is my real leg.” Continue reading

– A huge disconnect

"At the Edge of the Quarry," July 2008

"At the Edge of the Quarry," July 2008

There is much beauty in the world and its people.

(Dear Reader, I beg your patience. In this post I’m going to attempt to start at beauty and end up at crisis. At this moment of beginning, I’m not sure I’ll find the path.)

There is much beauty in the world and its people. That is what I feel and what I believe. I would say, too, that beauty is what I see around me; it is my nearest and often most vivid experience. Children, what grows from the ground, surfaces, words on pages, good hearts. Beauty is real to me.

Last week I was in San Francisco, the first time since 1987, and I stayed with my friends Marcia and Steve, who live near the Presidio. On my first evening there, Steve and dog Henry walked me up there to look out over the city and across to Alcatraz and Angel Island, the Bay Bridge, a cemetery, the Golden Gate. We walked through cypress and eucalyptus trees that composed a woods both magical and spooky, and everywhere in the air was their scent.

Good words fail at these overwhelming moments. 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.