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

Aunt Mae’s mittens, and the needlework of other women

IMG_8715Last weekend, when I brought Lydia and her belongings to college and helped her with some initial unpacking, I came across a thrift-store dress I had altered for her last summer. As I handed it to her, I remarked with some wistfulness, “I’m just realizing that I didn’t do any sewing or mending this summer.” Perhaps that’s what led me, a few days later, to tackle the cleaning and mending of some old crewel work pillows I saved from the trash bag at a friend’s deceased mother’s house.

In graduate school at Simmons College (2001 – 2004), I encountered a poem by Adrienne Rich — one of her first, promising poems that brought her to the attention of a wide audience — that was characterized by the professor as a statement of strong feminist ideology. Called “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” it explores the power, the agency, in a woman’s needlework while at the same time commenting on her fixed position in conventional, patriarchal marriage. Read it here: link.

I could sense, in the context of the seminar, that I was supposed to love this poem. I didn’t. In fact, it angered me, and I wondered if Adrienne Rich, of whose work I am a serious fan, had ever picked up a needle or crochet hook herself, if she knew what it felt like to be inside the work of stitching those “bright topaz denizens,” stitch after stitch, pricked finger after pricked finger, and squinted eyes under a poor light.

I thought of my Aunt Mae, a celebrated knitter of mittens, who made new pairs every year for all the grand nieces and nephews, and some for charity too. Although she did more than this — she was also a talented, self-taught piano player — in my mind and heart I imagined her knitting as the production of nervous energy, sadness, and even fear of what couldn’t be done.

In needlework, we do what can be done.

I can become bitter about this, even though I myself have spent plenty of time with sewing and knitting needles and machines made by Singer and Kenmore, and I have stood for long minutes in the Notions aisle in fabric stores. (I also love that it is called the Notions aisle, and I love the notions: thread, bias tape, ribbon, snaps, hooks, and needles of all sizes and uses.) And this week, I took apart, cleaned, mended, and reassembled the needlework of a woman I never knew and gave it back to a family that is not mine.

three pillows (before)

three pillows (before)

Why not burn these things, cast off our burden as makers of tiny stitches and declare that our skills and industriousness can accomplish more useful things than sofa pillows? 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

Slow to start, but strong finish

I was recently describing myself to a new acquaintance as a slow starter who picks up speed in the middle and then finishes strong.

If only the starting gesture didn’t have months and months or years and years of a pre-thinking, getting-ready time.

Several birthdays or Mother’s Days ago, my mother gave me a wall garden planter from a potter that, by now, may not longer exist. (I can’t find it on the Web.) It sat on a garage shelf, in a box on which I had marked “Wall Garden,” since that day, yet with very good intentions. A few weeks ago, I took it off that shelf and moved it to the on-deck position: on a small bench near a bucket of hand tools near the garage door.

Today was the day. I bought the plants, soaked the moss, and pressed the plants into the soil in the dish. Watered, it’s horizontal and in a sunny spot, settling into the planter before I hang it up. The recommended time is two weeks. I’ve already identified the spot.

Is there a lesson? For me: don’t over-think the small, low stakes projects. For you, if you know me: be patient; I do appreciate your gifts, and I will implement them all (and mine, too!) in good time.

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Plant list: Sempervivum ‘Red Rubin’ (hens & chicks), Sedum hispanicum (stone crop), Sedum spurium ‘Fuldaglut’ (stone crop), and Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ (stone crop) — all from Allandale Farm

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

“No match can turn these scattered feathers into wings of flame”

6835691756_0f4badf3a3_hA week after I posted my short account of burning some papers and notebooks from the Jane Kokernak Archives, one of my writing-and-teaching colleagues at MIT, Susan Spilecki, sent me a poem she wrote that is a response to it. The existence of her poem is, by itself, extremely flattering. More importantly, the words, images, and sober conclusion gave me new insight into what will probably be a source of conflict and even some sadness for the rest of my life. On the same topic, another friend, Bob Price, emailed me and told me of a box of stuff accumulated since boyhood. He hoped I’d kept at least some of my stuff, though added: “I must agree with you that the dead weight of the past needs to be savagely pruned from time to time, lest it crush us.”

Here is Susan Spilecki’s poem. You can read more of her thoughts on the writing and teaching of poetry at her blog, Building a Poem, here: link.

Plans and Fires, Well-Laid
            for Jane Kokernak

Every thinker has this bonfire coming:
projects abandoned, dreams deferred, lists
left to speak their goals to unlistening ears:
alternate futures we did not live

into, perhaps because the fire refused
to light. Every page looks flammable, but
that promise often goes unfulfilled. As much
as we live toward multiple futures, our bodies

only move in the present, our hearts’ fire
only ignites in the presence of the muse’s rare
phlogiston, an ether hotter than the white coals
of the blacksmith’s fire. Thus, the brave ones

gather these scraps and plans, carry them
(as we have been carrying them for years) out
into the winter field. But just as they
would not blaze for us in those busy years,

no match can turn these scattered feathers
into wings of flame. No gas can turn wood pulp
and ink into light and heat. Charred edges
holes seared here and there. That’s all.

But water, too, destroys. Though it appears soft
and harmless, pretty even, the rage of water
engulfing these past predictions, sinking in
to their false promises, turns their To-Do Lies

into a mush with the aroma of ashes. Though
we anticipated a tiny inferno, we should have
known it would end, instead, like this: a mere bog
of unfinished beginnings and unlightable fires.

Susan Spilecki

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Image, Match, by Mark Greenwood on Flickr