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

Pillow on the sidewalk

Tonight after work I went looking for the pillow I had seen on the sidewalk during my morning commute.

Earlier in the day at the office, I saw my colleague, Sue Spilecki, and mentioned the misfit pillow to her. When I first saw it on Monday morning, plump and expectant on the sidewalk near Allandale Farm and across from the Exxon station, I immediately thought of Sue and her poetry and imagined the pillow catching her poetic attention. My own thoughts — more scenic than poetic — pictured a person, very tired, walking along and accepting the pillow’s invitation to lie down. I pictured that person, a woman, stretching herself out and giving herself over to sleep with cars and school buses streaming by. This imagined woman was very tired; the journey had been long.

But in my mind it was not a poem; it was a person, a character.

I promised Sue I would go back and get a photo for her. After all, the pillow had been there a few days in the same place – why wouldn’t it remain there? I veered off my running route tonight to track it down. It was gone. There was a sign for an event at Allandale Farm – “Craft” – and I wondered if a caterer or event organizer had tidied up the sidewalk in advance of guests. There is a fancy element to Allandale, even though it is a farm, and in fact the property is owned in trust by a wealthy family though they have deeded it (and therefore protected it from taxes) to some land trust for protected use.

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what i saw after i didn’t see the pillow

I wandered down the dirt road and even breached the No Trespassing sign. I had done this once before and been asked to leave by a woman who drove up to me in a blue Audi. Later, the encounter made me write a short story about it, something to do with wealth hidden behind bucolic agriculture and what rural land may mean to different people (characters) in a community: migrant farm workers, a young mother/photographer, the landowners themselves. At the time I wrote that story, I had not imagined a pillow on the sidewalk or a woman reposing on it.

Another colleague, Tracy, asked me today about my blog and my writing. “I miss it,” I said, even though I also admitted I had set my writing aside last summer in a very deliberate, practical way and only now am I rejuvenating it, feeling both tentative and awkward.

Also today I read a student essay in which the writer used a lot of interesting words that were almost but not quite right. The misfit words could have been misfires in the student’s working vocabulary or they could have been errors created by autocorrect. Only one of the ‘off’ words charmed me: the writer referred to a “collusion” of automobiles, and in the context I believe the writer meant “collision.” How more interesting to imagine two cartoon-like cars, with their noses together, whispering, secretly planning, conspiring. In a dystopic future, imagine all our smart, sensor-filled cars, controlling us and not just doing our bidding, whether driven by us or some network of data.

I do not, though, have a mind for dystopia. I would really have to commit to it and imagine more than two cars, a whole community of them, with leadership and planning and resources and, more than anything, motivation. Why would they want to take us over? I cannot picture what cars would get from us that they would actually want or need.  See, this is not my genre.

Next to me on the couch right now is a plate with cracker crumbs on it. I wet my finger, dab them up, and eat them.

I hear the buzzer from the washer in the basement, the load done. I told Lydia I’d hang up her sweater.

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sidewalk where i expected to see a pillow

Tomorrow, another day at MIT, reading more essays, a summer project for a bunch of us. It’s optional (paid) work. It seems my most cheerful colleagues sign up for it. We get a free lunch (Middle Eastern food), and we sit together and don’t talk about work, kind of like indoor recess. We do talk about our children, our writing, New York vs. Boston/Cambridge, Uber, and – for a moment – a pillow on a sidewalk that no longer exists.

And yet it does: Sue wrote a poem about it.

 

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

Weeding the secret garden

Weeding Secret Garden notes (1)I am on an odyssey to touch and organize everything in my house, one drawer one closet one surface one room at a time. Where does this drive come from? Something about an awareness of mortality, of course, and also a desire to clear some mental space before tackling new projects.

And I prefer neatness.

This weekend I ruthlessly emptied two boxes of paper stuff, which began life a few years ago as four cartons of paper stuff. Making two from four was an achievement, yet it was also a kind of ‘kicking the can down the road’ move. I only partly decided on things. From the two boxes, all that’s left is a short stack of photos, moleskine notebooks filled with notes, a few letters, and To Do lists and notes that I might keep.

Here’s something, in the snapshot above and full size here. They are my handwritten notes, on the blank back of a photocopied rubric, that capture my observations of what writing and editing moves could improve a batch of student essays. I see I had an idea for a blog post or article on these notes: “Weeding the secret garden.”

My writing observations and advice? Try these instead of fretting about the proper use of “which” and “that.”

  • Don’t use words you wouldn’t actually use, like a “panoply” of examples. (Funny, in my  notes I spelled it “panapoly.”
  • There can be no all-or-nothing argument.
  • You might not want to start with a sentence that summarizes something already known. “Society is constantly struggling to keep up with rapidly evolving and new technologies.” Such an essay would seem as though conceived around a cliché.
  • “Throughout history.” Do not start this way, either.
  • Avoid using smart language to cloak a bad or incoherent idea, e.g. “altruistic outcomes can justify self-interest.” What.
  • Put the sentence verb next to the subject. Do not do this: “The reality that blah blah blah blah blah is the complex nature of blah blah blah blah blah requires…”
  • Ration your use of em-dashes, cliches, parentheses, and questions.  These are fake ways to engage a reader or present yourself as a thinker. I count these as I go, limiting their use.
  • Put your phrasing on a diet. Avoid needless words, and avoid stacks, like “prevalent unresolved issue.”
  • Write a real and full conclusion.

Fellow writers, please try one of these and report back.

Also, fellow writers and partial-draft hoarders, consider also shredding, deleting, burning, or trashing any unfinished projects older than five years, as I did with these 3.5″ floppy discs I discovered. There might be a tasty bit on one of these, but even more compelling are the tasty bits inside me NOW.

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Remember the Michael Douglas character at the end of the film Wonder Boys (2000)? As I recall it, his character drops a full manuscript that he has labored over when he is outdoors, and the whole box of leaves of paper blow away in a gust of wind like… leaves.  It’s liberating. His life and work can improve.

That’s how I remember it. Is that what actually happened? In this case, it more matters what I remember, and what I’m making it mean to me.

We all have secret gardens of possibility in us. In the children’s novel The Secret Garden, which was one of my favorites when a child myself, a girl and two boys, living unloved as either actual or emotional orphans, starting tending a neglected garden adjacent to the big, house they live in with one relative and a few servants. Tending the garden, uncovering its beauty from weeds, and making friends with birds and animals becomes the pursuit that restores their happiness and vigor.

As a teacher, I must believe that the first drafts of student work are gardens of possibility. Actually, I believe this of all first drafts, even if at first they seem halting, incomplete, or even a mess.

As a writer and person, I must hold onto this belief about myself. There is a secret garden still living and growing, even when locked up behind a stone wall and neglected. The thing to do, once you unlock the door and go back in, is not to neglect it or tend only the weeds, which do fine on their own. Sure, they’re plants, but there are too many of them. Tend the possibility. Keep the door ajar.

It’s hard, though, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

Tuesday night on the couch with the dog

IMG_9830Ten minutes ago I searched for a photograph of “Jennifer Lopez without makeup.” I really did that. Her bare face is good and looks like her, although the photo caption claimed that “She is unrecognizable!”

This is not true. What makes Lopez so beautiful in full makeup, I’d argue, is that her basic face is very strong. It’s like an apartment or house with good bones – put a long narrow couch in the living room and a picture on the wall and it’s stunning.

I put the timer on for 24 minutes, the amount of time I would set aside for a nap. (I do time my naps so that I don’t overindulge and later have trouble sleeping.) What’s wrong with me?? Must everything be rationed or limited? In childhood, time could be wasted. You even had to kill some of it, there was too much.

My friend Lee is blogging daily, and Susan almost every day. I love when I get email notification that there is a new post from one of them. I’m excited, even though for the most part they are not writing essays, or full accounts, or incisive commentary. I love their posts, in fact, for not being any of those things. There is no thesis or provocation, and yet their words linger, make me think new thoughts (even if little ones), and best of all make me want to write things down.

I have been writing things down in letters, condolence notes, lists, and notebooks. There are a few personal emails but that as a medium for keeping in touch has become fraught or almost disappointing in advance. Will an email be read or shoved aside until there is more time later? Would the recipient rather I had instant-messaged them? Or will we all end up replying to replies, as Heidi Julavitz remarked so aptly in her odd yet riveting book, The Folded Clock. Note: Lee or Susan, I wonder if you have read any of this book and what you think of it.

The trick with free writing is not to look at the clock, to just keep going.

Winston the Dog is dozing next to me on the couch. He seems content just to be with us: Where you go, I go. If someone were to go stand near the kitchen door right now and rattle his leash, he would spring into full energy and run to meet them. Hey, yeah, let’s go outside, I’m ready! This is a wonderful thing about a dog. He doesn’t need the transition time or the grouch time or the resistance time that people do. He would never say, “One minute!” and then take 10 minutes. (I do that.) Every state is immediately attractive and doable. Continue reading

Sex is not usually my topic

tree rock cemetery_250Of course, I think about it every day. I am human. I wrote about it, once.

Because I’m a feminist, it would be reasonable to conclude that I am on board with ideas about female sexuality as complex and hard to know. I do believe that about sexuality, although I am not sure if I would say that females–whether gay, straight, or fluid–have the lock on that.

Diane Rehm’s show on the risks and benefits of a libido-enhancing drug (“Viagra for women”) is very good on untangling and showing the complications in the female experience of sex, women’s worries about low or non-existent desire, and scientific and therapeutic responses to this phenomenon that has been called a problem.  Dr. Emily Nagoski, a personal hero and one of the guests on the show, reflects on why lack of desire is so distressing to women:

I think the reason it’s distressing is that all of us have grown up being told that the normal way to experience sexual desire is spontaneous, out of the blue anticipation of pleasure. And so when that goes away, we feel like we’re broken, like we must be doing something wrong. It must be something wrong with our bodies. We start to criticize ourselves. It disrupts our relationships and it can be really disabling. And it turns out, over the last 20 years of research, what we’ve found is that there’s another normal, healthy way to experience desire, called responsive desire, that emerges in response to pleasure, rather than in anticipation of pleasure.

On the show, although there are four guests and one moderator, there seem to be only two schools of thought

  1. the Simon school, which I’ve named for the doctor who is in favor of flibanserin, the female Viagra, and seems to be involved with developing and promoting it; and
  2. the Female school, which I’ve categorized to encompass the three docs, all female, who convey more critical and nuanced thinking about the idea of female sexuality.

What troubled me about the show, even though I found it very interesting on the topic of desire in general and women in particular, is the unspoken assumption that male sexuality is simple and even monolithic and female sexuality is complex and individualized. Men only need one treatment (a pill) to fix a mechanical problem, and women need a multi-dimensional approach, which may involve therapy, mindfulness, tolerance and acceptance, and perhaps a pill.

Sure, I know the show is about women and a pill designed for them, and men’s sexuality gets its turn on other shows and in other magazines, but do we really believe that everything about men and sex is cool until it gets broken? Do men, on their own, believe that? Continue reading

To a writer who is full of doubt and fear

When you talked to that student, full of anxiety about finishing a draft of the report on the lab experiment, that’s how you felt, isn’t it? That’s how you were able to remain calm and say what you did. “It’s okay. It happens. I know you are capable.” And then you added, “There are strategies.”

Both are true: a writer can be filled with doubt and fear, and a writer can employ strategies to keep going. You believe this.

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Winston and I search the Internets

And yet lately you are not practicing what you believe. In fact, you may be starting to believe that your work as a teacher of technical writing — planned, precise, organized — is dismantling your skill as a writer of the exploratory, the awkward and searching, the digressive.

In sum, you may be losing your strategies. “I fear that I have become so practiced at academic writing that I can’t do any other kind than that,” you tell your friend James. He says you are still capable.

You could write every day. You could freewrite for 20 minutes. You could have no goal. You could enjoy it.

But: what is the goal? what is the genre? what are the audience expectations?

These questions, ones you teach all the time, they stop you. Continue reading

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.

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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.

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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

You may be looking for a person you have already found

cemetery_dogI was pulled along by the dog.

It was morning, shortly after Grace had left for school and Jimmy for work. A day at home, grading papers and fixing the bathroom sink, stretched ahead of me.

In the cemetery, besides Winston and me, was only a green public works truck parked on one of the roads with a man in the passenger seat drinking his coffee out of a Dunkin’ Donuts cup. There was no driver visible. Perhaps it was just this guy, resting at the beginning of the day, in the passenger position in his own truck.

I remembered a day when I was about 16, walking from my house, through my neighborhood, through another one, and then through a cemetery on the way to Pine Street to walk to my job at the pharmacy in the center of town. I took the back roads looking for a short cut, but it would probably have been just as direct to take the two main roads, Pleasant Street to Main Street. My route, probably 2.5 miles long, seemed deserted, although there were plenty of houses along the way. It was autumn, and I kicked the eddied piles of leaves along the way. I wore a blue-flowered quilted jacket made by my mother that had a band collar and frog closures, which together made it “Chinese style” to me in my limited knowledge of other cultures.

This is not the first time I recalled that day, which is so memorable to me, not for its eventfulness — nothing actually happened — but for a feeling of happiness and oneness with myself. All conditions gave me the feeling of simply being that made me realize I can be my own best company and contented alone.

In my present life, I have been reading The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Mark Epstein, MD (Penguin Books, 2013). He is concerned with Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the transformational power of trauma, about which he writes this:

Trauma is a basic fact of life, according to the Buddha. It is not just an occasional thing that happens only to some people; it is there all the time. Things are always slipping away. Although there are occasions when it is more pronounced and awful and occasions when it is actually horrific, trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people. It is the bedrock of our biology. Churning, chaotic, and unpredictable, our lives are stretched across a tenuous canvas. Much of our energy goes into resisting this fragility, yet it is there nonetheless. (197)

The book is punctuated with personal stories from his own life and other people he knows or has encountered. The death of his father from brain cancer, which occurred when his doctor/father was an old man, is told in fragments over the book.

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I was very moved by the account of a conversation he had with his father when the older man’s days “were severely numbered” and Epstein started to wonder if he should “try to talk to him about what I had learned from Buddhism” (179). The challenge, he realized, was to talk to his father in plain language about concepts the father had never, in his life as a doctor, ever studied. The father had also habitually avoided the topic of his own mortality. “This is not an uncommon strategy for dealing with death,” remarks Epstein in the book (180).

Epstein calls his father on the phone from his office:

Continue reading