Monday, January 21, 2008

makeshift writing studio

I pull into my friend’s empty parking space, off the winding ocean road with its beautiful houses. Barbara’s looks like a Rumplestiltskin house, all angles and not one window shaped like another. Her house is three rooms, one stacked atop another, with a tiny room up top, filled with ocean light, a tiny deck off to the side. The weather report names this day “brittle cold” with a high of twenty degrees.

Eager to get here, I took an extra ten minutes to locate my wool undershirt and capilene long johns, the silk sock liners, the pashmina scarf. “You may turn the heat up to sixty-five,” Barbara said, “but I prefer to keep it at fifty, most of the time.” The top floor collects sunlight like my living room window—it won’t require much heat. I haul out my laptop bag, a thermos of steaming tea, my messenger bag with its books and journals. I’ve been home with children, or out with children, for four days and this is the fifth. Two of those days I’ve suffered a sore throat, worrisome and tiresome. Scott attended a conference three of those days. All I want is this quiet.

Except the spare key is not in its place above the gas meter. I check everywhere. I return my bags to the van so I can use both hands and search with a fresh eye for the tiny blue key tag. Nothing. I try the door handle to the studio—locked. Since I’m dressed for outdoors, I throw on my thick berber coat and walk to the end of the road. It’s been so long since I walked these narrow roads I have to remind myself to walk on the left, as if I’d see any traffic. I turn and walk as far as I can go the other direction, too, with my spruce coat collar turned up to protect my ears. I remind myself I’m just getting over a cold, and as much as I’d love to walk, I came here to write. The sun is beautiful, my laptop is charged, and my due date is… well, it’s today, though I’m not getting anywhere, like I didn’t get anywhere for the last week. I think of all the places I could go to type, all noisy, all possibly crowded. And I’m dressed for the arctic.

I sit down in the minivan, start the engine and throw it in reverse, while blaring the heat. I turn around in Barbara’s driveway, and back the van in, parked to face the sun. I turn off the engine and walk around to the passenger seat to haul my gear out. I sit down and throw the spruce berber coat over my lap as a blanket. No ocean view today, no comfy chair—but those are extras, really. I fire up the laptop in my own quiet minivan studio. I should remember any minute now how to reserve power on this little computer, or maybe I’ll see if I can find this information under “help,” or maybe I’ll just keep writing, right here in the scenic-ish passenger seat of my van. I probably won’t make it for the two writing hours I allotted, but quiet and ocean light and a warm enough place—it will do. No one needs me here. It will do.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

an afternoon in the life: grad student in January

Three ten-year-old girls scamper off to the bedroom and shut the door FIRMLY behind them, though it’s only me here, no boys today. I peek at the biscuits they’ve just constructed and I can’t figure what missed ingredient might make biscuits exactly that texture, what might make a baked good refuse to turn brown. Hm. I know these girls—they’ll eat the biscuits anyway, since they so painstakingly cut the shapes of acorns and leaves and hearts and houses. Covered with pools of butter and honey, the white flour and shortening creations will taste heavenly, I’m sure.

Writing deadline in a few days. My heart is stirred up: I read A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, whose hometown is seventeen miles from my hometown, who grew up in a similar aura of oblivion and insulation from the rest of the world. I see the words on the page in front of me and laugh until I can’t breath. I see another story also, somewhere deep where I want to respond “but poverty and finding your way alone, these are not funny themes.” They are funny—that’s the book. They are not—that’s the story beneath the story for me. I might do better to laugh about Texas or Idaho or Kentucky, about some other era than the one I grew up in.

The stories snag at me with the familiarity of the drug store in my home town, Mr. and Mrs. Mills’ green lawn next door, open to Frisbee games at all hours of the day—did we realize the lawn belonged to them? I think of Plum Street and my last visit—the state electric company cut down every single shade tree lining my father’s side of the street, one day in October, as a means of preventing wires from obstruction. Down to the stumps! Are their lives to be laid bare of even shade? They live in the same world now that I inhabited as a child: they have no say. I visit the flatlands and I feel flattened, too.

Even visiting the flatlands in my mind is not safe, evidently.

I get an email from the girl who lived across the street, the girl I envied for her ballet lessons—she too struggles when she returns to town. I can hardly believe we are trading notes, after all these years.

I remind myself that January is the classic time for the blues, that this book truly is outrageously worded and hilarious, that I have things to learn from it.

The biscuits finally do turn brown, if very, very flat, and the girls gobble them up with great spoonfuls of raspberry jam and butter, then rush out to play in the snow. I try to remember what I meant to write. What will I turn in to my faculty mentor? There are many good short pieces in my journal I could develop. I should’ve started this weeks ago, when I was reading all these books. Unlike last quarter, I’m not madly in love with any of these story lines, and it’s hard to return to the essays I could rewrite and improve from early December.

I set the laptop in the bay window so I can watch the girls build a snowman. I write a little more about A Girl Named Zippy in a book annotation for my coursework. I realize I can’t “read” the book at all through this thick cloud of my own experience. So I write that. My writing seems whiney and morose but it needs to be finished. Next to write about Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories, just a few pages.

And then to write or find or re-craft something brilliant. I will dig in my journal and find some gem I’ve overlooked, perhaps. There is a story about a coat, another about an incident in Sunday school, a favorite few paragraphs about the taste of asphalt (how’s that for mystery and intrigue?)

But first, parent-teacher meetings, after these girls are picked up. I call out the window to say “come gather your things” and they all yell, “CAN WE HAVE HOT CHOCOLATE?”

Sure, I shout back, and flip the burner on, pull out the cocoa, vanilla and sugar, and pour the milk in the pan.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

humbled and inspired by Hampl

I’ve just read the sort of essay that makes me wonder why I even bother to pick up a pen—and immediately after asking “how did she DO that,” I recover, inspired, and I DO pick up my pen to find my way, too.

“Red Sky in Morning” is the opening chapter of Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. I want to memorize the essay for future reference—all of it. Hampl begins her essay with a clear incident, actually an “incidental” incident, just a moment of listening carefully to the world, a brief chat with a nameless stranger. From this tiny beginning she launches into the nature of memoir, the nature of story, how the writer wishes not to embody a simple story but

to tell all—the all of personal experience, of consciousness itself. That includes a story, but also the whole expanding universe of sensation and thought that flows beyond the confines of narrative and proves every life to be not only an isolated story line but a bit of the cosmos, spinning and streaming into the great, ungraspable pattern of existence. Memoirists wish to tell their mind, not their story. (page 18)

The title of the essay is from a weather rhyme, red sky in morning, sailors take warning, and perhaps the red sky she sees on the morning of her incident wakens her to nuances of her day. The essay itself, however, has a “take warning” feel to a beginning writer. Take warning: this is bigger than you think. Much bigger. Strap yourself in. Hampl goes on to examine the popularity of memoir, the nature of memory, what it feels like to encounter someone whose life seems too big to fit “in the small shrine that a story is.” And what it means to grow into a life too big to fit entirely into any shrine of any story.

It’s a powerful call, story to universe to cosmos and pattern, to tell all, to live while taking warning. I take warning, throw my spiral bound journal into my bag next to the sunglasses and reading glasses and keys, and head out the door for a walk and a good place to write.

I pack Hampl with me. That’s just the first essay. The next is devastating, as well.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

all that we behold

reading list for winter quarter

Linda always wonders what I’m reading from her workplace in Muncie, Indiana—she’s an amazing reader, so I’m posting a sketch.

I just read these:

Surviving the Island of Grace: a Memoir of Alaska by Leslie Leyland Fields
Remembering the Bonehouse: An Erotics of Space & Place by Nancy Mairs
Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet (this one was “for fun.”)

I also read Orion Magazine, The Image Journal of the Arts and Religion, and Books & Culture. Currently I’m harboring a copy of The Sun, also, which is always full of surprises.

Next I am reading these titles for my graduate work. I need ten titles per ten-week quarter, and I just read two listed above. So here is my plan, which I try to hold loosely…

I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl
Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl
A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders
A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmell
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (if I can bear it!)
The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor
Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

… and/or perhaps Proust and the Squid by Mary Ann Wolfe, on neurology and artistry. I suppose I would need to read some Proust before starting that book. Hmmm.

I may also reread the women’s anthologies Mothers Who Think, The Bitch in the House and Kiss Today Hello, recalling how powerfully those books affected me. I need to choose a critical paper topic, preferably from within these titles so I don’t need to read even more!

My quarter ends in mid-March, and then I run off to a writing residency on Whidbey Island, for ten glorious days with my favorite classmates, my favorite faculty mentor, and Patricia Hampl and David James Duncan.

That’s the update!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

a brief hour in winter

If I stop to clean up the smattering of potting soil unearthed by my cat, then I will water and worry over the herb garden. It could use some attention, but so could the window sill. If I stop to brush the beach sand from my boots, to remove the clementine rind—if I stop, in the middle of my intent to watch this window, to soak up the sun, then another day will pass, and who knows when the sun will shine again? If I stop to do a single chore, I might get caught up in the next thing and the next, which is what usually happens, and then the sadness grips me at sunset, the sunlight missed.

One o’clock in the afternoon, Madeleine and I arrive back home, half frozen from an attempted beach walk on this bitter-cold day. She settles into the saucer-shaped chair she tips into a nest, tucked in with a stack of preadolescent magazines full of jokes and puzzles. I silently hand her two clementines, with a “start” where my thumbnail carves into the center, to make it easy to peel.

The spray from the clementine peel throws a scented mist six inches into the sunlight. I can’t remember the last time I noticed, can’t forget this scene when I open the next. I brush the rosemary in its terra cotta pot when I place the peels on the sill, wondering if rosemary's scent also travels in a mist, if I could only look closely enough.

And I sit down—I’ve not done this in days, this simple act. Two clementines for me, and a glass of water, three books and a literary journal. A too-cooled cup of coffee, my own journal and a pen, a hard-shell case for my glasses. On the floor, the sandy boots, my messenger bag, the Irish cable-knit fisherman’s sweater in heathered greens. The laundry churns on the far side of the kitchen—I conceded to this one chore. I’d preserve the winter silence but I’m wearing the last turtleneck in my drawer. My slacks sport a collection of lint and a tuft of cat-fur near the hem.

Half an hour passed since I started to write. I’ve sketched out two topics in my journal, begun a book annotation. The sun will abandon this window in another half hour, and we’ll begin the shift from the too-sunny room to the winter perch.

This means of course that I ought to be peeling that butternut squash and thawing that beef for stew… perhaps I can get away with slicing that pork loin into chops, instead, yes, that will be fine and will allow me this small luxury of sun.

Already, the wall under the window cools and I scramble for the wool socks I shed when we came in. Soon I’ll need the sweater, too.

By two-fifteen the sun slants across from the right side of the bay window to the left, and the rest of the living room goes cold. I transfer the laundry to the dryer, don my sweater, and go off in search of my wool slippers. I sweep up the potting soil and beach sand and sure enough the hours between 2:15 and 4:15 disappear. The table is cleared for dinner, the floors swept, and Madeleine potted the amaryllis she received for her birthday. Pink sunlight reflects off of a window half a mile away on the ridge, and bathes the living room so fully that we read the shadows of our paper snowflakes on the far wall.

Golden sunrise, azure midday, pink winter-sky evening. It’s cold enough that the sea smoke lasted until noon today, drifting over the harbor in wisps.

Darkness now, and time to start dinner. Two hungry fellas ought to be arriving any minute, on this, one of the last days of kids’ winter break. Next week I’ll be back to the discipline of writing and reading, impossible this past two weeks. I’m eager to get started, soon. And I’m congratulating myself for an hour in the sun, today.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

what ought to be a simple conversation with a classmate

The day begins with a cold rain, day fourteen of the children’s school break with five more days to go. They’ve been more or less “in” most of the last four days, with the exception of New Years Eve. The Charlie Brown Christmas tree is still full of lights and ornaments, unlike the Charlie Brown cabinets which are more empty than not, and certainly empty of anything “easy” or festive. I wake late and sneak into the living room after Scott leaves for work, to squeeze a little quiet writing time before the children wake. The absence of solitude seems so much like my life as a full-fulltime mom, as close to me as the summer months that passed not so long ago.

But a long way away, too. My status as a full-time graduate student is a godsend, a motivator to do something with this gift that is my life, for twenty-five hours a week. I’ve read literally thousands of pages, and though a breather is good, I’m eager to dig in once again. I haven’t written almost anything since the last due date, except my entries from my writing group and a few scattered journal entries. First came Christmas preparation, followed by a desperate stomach flu, and I’m just now catching up with myself.

I lose myself, only a little I think, but then the children wake very late and I remember my classmate is visiting from out-of-town and I need a shower. I don’t know if the visit will be short or long, if my friend will want to walk or sight see. I corral children to tidy, to make cards and welcome signs, and I search the cabinet for anything worth serving… each soup that comes to mind is one ingredient short. Not today. The dryer vent is loose again and the living room and kitchen fill with humid steam—I open windows to remedy it, because we are out of towels, too, and I am out of clothes. I make coffee and think about biscuits and honey. I find one jar of homemade raspberry jam, and they are walking up the street to our house. My children begin to jump and smile and swear to me that they are far too shy to say hello.

Matthew and Jolene duck in the door and come in. My children are in jumping bean mode, in show-and-tell-all-the-Christmas-presents mode. Brendan dressed in Red Sox garb and he brings out his card collection. Madeleine tells me she would make biscuits but the cookbook has fallen into loose pages, and she cannot find the index. I offer coffee but I need to find page 66, which is somewhere near page 266 and page 366. When the recipe is located, Madeleine sets about climbing the kitchen counters to find ingredients and bowls, and I try to pull together coffee beans, a grinder, mugs and hot water, but I am thwarted by a pair of ten-year-old legs and bare feet on my countertop. Brendan shows each treasure at the top of his lungs (too shy to say hello, yes), the tea whistle blows, and I pull out cookie sheets, spoons. Madeleine stacks the sugar and the flour canisters and a large glass bowl on top of them—I rescue it before it crashes. Brendan puts on Salsa music. Flour goes everywhere and my guests watch me, bemused, as I am interrupted at every possible juncture—I pour two mugs of coffee, add milk and sugar, and then the coffee pot is empty, so I go through all the steps again, now that the ten-year-old legs are otherwise employed in a kitchen covered with flour. Do not ask how long it takes to make a simple batch of biscuits, or how many accoutrements can be found to adorn biscuits.

But we talk books and reading and share notes and impressions from long ago in Santa Fe, and tell how work goes, what ideas are out there to pursue, whose work impresses us, how we are humbled to be included in this masters program. Somehow, with the windows fogging and the coffee mugs emptying and the steam emitting from freshly opened biscuits, Matthew and I don’t stop the conversation at all, only pausing here and there to admire the Hot Wheels race track and the Rat-a-Tat Cat game. His date Jolene takes my two in hand to play games on the floor and try a science experiment and raid the refrigerator, and I slice apples while talking, and set out trail mix and dried cranberries and I hope this very thin hospitality will “do.”

Did we talk for four hours? I think we did.

Goodbyes set children to pestering me and we make a quick shift to a quiet hour. I’ll see Matthew next in March, and Jolene not for a long time, likely. When we return from the quiet hour, each from our own room, I thank them for being so welcoming and mostly helpful, for baking and playing games well.

I promise a special treat, which is a movie, Little Women, and a big bowl of cinnamon popcorn. I serve mugs of hot soup, from a can today, and when the movie is over, the day is over, too. We quickly grab a dessert and children fall into bed, much later than school nights but early enough that I can write a little, read a little. Scott will be out finishing his student reports for as long as he can stand, and I am digging into Nancy Mairs’ Remembering the Bone House, from the Saxon word for “body,” or a bone house. Tomorrow I will wake to the list of things I put off today, and I’ll need to take the pantry and the groceries seriously. But not yet. In some ways I don’t love vacation—interruptions keep me from some sorts of work. In some ways though, my children charming my friend’s girlfriend, so I can keep asking more questions, keep getting to know him—I’d choose a different sort of visit with some quiet to learn another’s rhythm, but this day is the day I have. These are the merry children I have, and this the life I have.

And it’s a good one.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

the lion and the lamb

Madeleine's "meditation" on Isaiah 11:6, "The lion shall like down with the lamb... and a little child shall lead them" and no more shall there be suffering any more...

My friend Jane leads Advent and Lenten "art classes" to astounding effect. Her patience draws out so much good work!

The little child is sitting under a star on the upper left, with a lion and lamb and wolf.