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

Un-haunting the house

5879240245_362379e396_o-1With Eli, your oldest offspring, you are texting about weekend activities.

Eli sends a photo of a new, craigslisted desk in the bedroom in the apartment in Queens.  Their comment, “definitely using redoing/reorganizing my apt as a coping mechanism now.”

You text back, “I’m cleaning out my closet as coping mechanism.”

A long time ago Eli said this, “Mom, you keep your clothes too long. When they get old and tattered, throw them out.” (And this from the child who introduced you to thrift-store shopping.) You tried to explain your sentimental attachment to things your body has worn, yet over time you realized that Eli speaks the truth. So now you find yourself throwing out these old and tattered clothes easily, or at least deliberately.

Eli, in a later text message, types a phrase, “making the house less haunted.” You don’t need a complete sentence to understand what is meant.

The conversation makes you think about what you, and the kids too, have been doing to un-haunt the house and the lives lived in it. Jimmy Guterman — husband, and father of Eli, Lydia, and Grace — died unexpectedly and traumatically on July 25.

What do you do when this happens? You shatter; you grieve; you proceed.

In the first weeks, surrounded by family, every night before bed you all watch re-runs of The Office, which you’ve seen through once entirely when it was broadcast. Now you watch it again, making friends with the characters. You ask Lydia, “If Michael Scott has so many boundary issues, and can be inappropriate so often, why do we come to like him as a character?”  Lydia replied: “Because he is so earnest.”  Lydia’s insight and that word become favorites for a while, and as you go about the business of grief and getting back to okay, your mind can’t help working on what interests it, and you study that word, “earnest,” and you look for that quality in others.

You forget about eating, until one day you realize it’s 4PM and you’re eating lunch. You decide you have to start eating lunch at lunch time, and the next day you do.

After two weeks you tell the kids, “This is the week we start eating vegetables and fruits again. We will also exercise every day.” Even walking the dog counts as exercise.

You listen when different people — visitors from the Samaritans, your child’s therapist, your wonderful friends, your own doctor — tell you that “you are alive, and you have to live.” It is an encouraging message, not at all one that promotes a grin-and-bear-it approach. You start to recognize this: “I am alive.” This, really, is good. 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.

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

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.

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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

The things you carry may no longer be needed.

Will this matter to anyone else but me?

August and now September have been months of reducing possessions, my own and others.

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love letters from a child (2004 – 2005)

In July, a friend’s mother died, and I offered my practical skills as a form of condolences. A favor turned into a part-time job — and teachers love summer income, especially with a child in college! — and in the past few weeks the furnishings of a 10-room house have been winnowed over time to a few piles for the local charity thrift store.

While I have some posts to write about the stripping of that life of all its possessions, this one is not about that. It’s about my life, and my possessions. As I’ve been clearing the house that is not mine, in parallel I’ve been casting a critical eye on my own stuff in attic, basement, and bookshelf storage and reducing it almost ruthlessly. When someone has died (well, someone whom you’ve never loved or known well), and you realize that the life is not at all in the things, you have to realize that your own life is also not represented by your things.

Your life is in your life. 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