Tuesday, October 28, 2008

revising, reworking

Learning the art of revision is the opposite of whipping off a blog-post and sending before I even spellcheck. I like both, slowness of school work and speed/immediacy of blog-posts. I LOVE the results of revision in my serious-writing for school, but I worry that I spend so much time reading, and comparatively less time writing than Before Grad School. It’s just a slice of two years, I remind myself. I can do it and it will fuel my writing for a long time.

When I look at my for-school-serious writing last year, my essays fall into three categories: I wrote about my life as a kid, my year as a personal assistant to a blind woman, and about a sailing trip. After months of revision, the story about the sailing trip grew to perhaps 40 pages of stuff, with lots of repetition and multiple versions of each scene—in other words a mess. But the story kept nagging at me so I kept writing and rewriting the scenes that troubled me. Suddenly this one proverbial “three-hour tour” began to address how hard it is to live here in this geography we’ve chosen. The story “On a Halcyon Day” became a cautionary tale, a sort of “don’t ever even think about living here” tale. I’m almost ready to give that story a final overhaul—a writing friend suggested I might pull some sections of “Halcyon Day” to form another essay or two about life in Gloucester, life in my neighborhood. Those will be cautionary tales, too. I’m reckoning with the culture of New England, which will always be alien to me, and a little sad.

One of my favorite readers of ALL the versions of my Halcyon Day story is a fellow Hoosier and a fellow student, from some similar back road near my hometown. I knew she was finishing her masters degree and I invited her to visit our beautiful shoreline. She did. And now Emily is moving here. Didn’t I just say “never live here, turn back now, woe to all who enter Cape Ann, the beautiful but unaffordable set of rocks jutting into the Atlantic?” For a year I’ve been saying that, loudly and over the course of dozens of pages.

Before she met me, she’d never heard of the place. I will be thrilled to have a writing friend who understands my workload and courses. But I’m struggling against some ghosty sense of responsibility for the corruption of the nation’s youth. “Come here and you, too, can be bashed against these rocks for a winter.”

Reminder: Emily is made of more iron than appears to the eye. And the ocean is a soothing companion in winter. And the light here can’t adequately be described. Perhaps she will thrive, this brave friend of mine. She will certainly make my life easier, just by knowing my circumstances.

We’ll figure this out, somehow, the shift from long-distance writing friends to nearby local friends. She loads up the car Saturday and will be here by Sunday night, moving into her new place, and sharing a home-cooked dinner with my family. And maybe we’ll have a cup of coffee on Monday, and unpack a few boxes. We'll start the revision process, I guess. I like revision, though it's a boatload of work. I love the results and the process is life-giving, often. Explosive sometimes. A curiosity, in any case.

Between now and then, my children need to carve pumpkins and design costumes, and I need to find a sitter for parent-teacher conferences, and to finish reading another book for school. Then another.

Friendship, changes, holiday season, recover from my own travels (Connecticut last week, then New Hampshire for the weekend), soup season, homework. Much to think about. A few things still to unearth. Much to do. First another cup of coffee, with the book I’m reading, in the window.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

householding notes: neglectful home-owner repents for a day

The washer is repaired after a burning-plastic smell that turned out to be… burning plastic.

The vacuum cleaner shop in town has held bags for my vacuum ALL ALONG. And they didn’t tell me. I had to find that out, myself. The guy at the counter believes I can reform my life if I just vacuum. He may be right. (He found me ridiculously amusing, but then, the guy works with small motors all day.)

My eight-year-old son repaired the flushing mechanism of the toilet, then used a flashlight to watch what happens inside that back tank for an hour (after I explained that the water in the tank is clean).

I spent the morning pouring boiling kettles of water down the bathroom sink, alternating with some mysterious white powder—only a dozen kettles later, the sink is draining perfectly.

I hauled in the giant terra cotta planter full of herbs, rooted out the faint-of-heart and surrounded my sturdy rosemary and geraniums with thriving parsley plants, mint, cilantro, and a stray violet. Inspired, Madeleine pulled out her tiny herb garden kit and seeded her planter with basil, oregano, chives, plus one leftover start of parsley from outdoors. The garden soil cleanup will be well worth it when we have green things for soup this winter! I’ve been the lamest gardener ever, my poor yard ignored while I study this year. But herbs love neglect. And they smell wonderful.

Speaking of wonderful, the last of the farmers market tomatoes made the most welcome Andalusian Gazpacho, ever.

a blip from earlier today:

The washer repairman leaves my washer in good working order, and I place the house back in good working order, as well. I lift a bundle of aprons to their hook—an apron catches the case of my son’s crosscut saw from his workbench, the saw falls onto the edge of the cat’s dish, flinging the smelly catfood somewhere. I pick up the crosscut saw and find a can-shaped lump of food stuck to the underside of the saw’s case. How likely is that? If he knew, he’d handle the saw as it were an alien. First I clean the smelly mess, then the case of the saw, then put the saw in its slot on the workbench, then the bench is shoved back to the kitchen wall under the window. Then the mat with the catfood. And the whole kitchen smells like foul fish.

Where is the cat? And why hasn’t he eaten? Oh. The repairman was here, and my cat is Invisible to Strangers. Thus: fish smell.

Perhaps it’s a good day for that new “odor-removing” candle I bought last week. I purchased the smallest size—I hope that was not a mistake.

Being a grad student is much, much easier than chores. I spent an hour at Starbucks, recovering with a stack of books. Many thanks to the working washer, drain, toilet, vacuum, herb gardens.

And the odor-reducing candle worked like a charm.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I close the window against the cool night air, pad into the bedroom to find my wool slippers, the warm pajamas. I wish for chocolate, but there’s none here today, either.

Scott and the children have been away for four days—four days without cajoling anyone to do anything. My ambitious plans frittered away to the quiet, to reading a little in the big chair, to picking up a little, here and there, in the messy house. I went to a yarn-spinning retreat for a day, learning the ins and outs of my tiny spinning wheel, learned how very dirty Milo’s fleece is, still, after five washings, learned what to do to redeem that wool. It will take time.

At another point in my life I’d still be spinning that yarn two days afterward, but other deadlines call. I tuck the wheel and the wool in the back of my closet. I write, I read, I organize my mail. I read a new magazine. I finish a letter I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. I sit and enjoy the music for the first time in months, with a copy of The Best of Creative Nonfiction Journal. I pick up a friend at the airport.

What will go, when they return? Quiet will go. Lack of schedule. The absence of need. The absence of urgency. I will be happy to see them, to tuck the little ones into bed, to love them in person instead of by phone. There may be tears of frustration and exhaustion. Or they may go straight to bed.

I remember driving home in the dark, the first nights of fall, cool enough that frost bloomed on the windows of the car. I’d turn my face to the stars, breathe out a haze and draw still more stars, more constellations with my finger on the window, in my back seat, listening to my brothers sleep.

I draw no constellations on my bay window tonight, but I turn off the green banker’s lamp—I keep peeking to see if that noise is my car, pulling into the drive below. I keep imagining I hear their tired voices. I keep peeking to see if the full moon is still so large, or if it has tucked behind a cloud.

It’s hard to say if I miss my family—the quiet evenings are so delicious and long. But I keep finding myself making them up, hearing them in every movement from the street. I keep hoping the children stay asleep enough to go to school tomorrow. But I’ll keep company if they stay home. I’ll have quiet another time. I’ve enjoyed it deeply. I’ll be okay when it ends.

That sound is not my car, whew. Not yet.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

blend in

When friends tell me they are traveling through the midwest, I always suggest a detour through Farmland, Indiana. My hometown is not too far from the main highways, and the quaint downtown is an icon of life without traffic lights, in a small village in the beautiful flat middle-of-nowhere.

And the travelers return to me, describe their reactions as their eyes grow wide. Did they stop at the Thrift-E to meet Bob-the-butcher, as I suggested? Was he serving ham salad that day? Did he offer a sample? (None like it, anywhere, and Bob refuses to share the recipe.) Did my traveling friends see the old wooden floors, aisles sagging a bit with wear, and the long pull-strings on the florescent lights?

More often my traveling friends stop by the upscale coffee shop, where the owners roast the beans themselves, and customers can sit at a polished bar with a latte. My friends bring me back a bag of my favorite Columbian. And everyone steps in The Chocolate Moose for a fancy ice cream—it was a practical “drug store” when I grew up. Now it’s for out-of-towners, mostly, and special occasions. The travelers didn’t know such places exist outside of movie sets.

Then we parse their astonishment. Didn’t I tell them it was a small town? Yes, but they didn’t expect it to be that small. Most people describe themselves as being “from a small town.” They think they know what a small town is. And then they drive through my small town—so small the definitions change. So odd it’s undeniable. I have a great affection for the place. But then I moved away 25 years ago, and affection is easy from the distance of a thousand miles. (It would be even easier with Bob’s ham salad.)

Thus my New York sojourn leaves me baffled, mystified. The city never ends. The weather outside is slightly cool, perfect, thus the trains, the buildings, even the Starbucks in Manhattan are ALL MASSIVELY OVERHEATED. Do city people hate themselves? Or do they just dislike me and want to punish me? Everywhere else I go in the world, J.Jill is a nice brand of clothing (I packed ALL J.Jill except for my Ex Officio travel pants), but in NYC I feel underdressed, careless, and every change of clothes is sweat-through after even a short ride on public transportation, or a short moment in an office building. The convention offered a free mini-makeover, which I accepted, but eye makeup makes me look dreadfully old, as though I’m trying Very Hard, and my eyes sting and turn red the next day. My hip Haiku bag is very summery, and it’s fall now. Blah, blah—in Boston, would I care about any of these things? In New York it’s fall and everyone is wearing tall black boots with low heels. And I kind of wish I was wearing them, too. (I outgrew my tall black boots with low heels when I was pregnant, and I miss them terribly.)

Haven’t I shrugged this slight discomfort off, the last ten times I’ve been in New York? Did I even notice it?

I really can’t blame Farmland, Indiana for my fashion-discomfort, or even for the piece of hayseed in my hair. I didn’t blend in well there, either. Is "blending" a skill I'm missing? Or is the real skill in feeling "at home" in the world? If only the real, real skill was missing the things I love so dearly, like Bob-the-butcher's ham salad, and that set of brick Victorians at the no-stoplight intersection, Main Street Coffee, Farmland in the autumn months, the perfect months for wearing flannel shirts and jeans and having no one notice anything, ever, at all.

Monday, October 06, 2008

the blog is on!


I'm in New York! Things are going well-- BUT some snafu keeps the magazine blog from updating. Rats!

I'm making notes throughout the day, and perhaps we'll get the posts online later in the day.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

professional experiment

I’ve taken a one-day magazine assignment to do “live blogging.” And now I realize this is a mistake because I’M DREADFULLY BORING.

I’m going to take a shower, sort my clothes and start to pack, while I consider my boring self. Writing has been such an enormous adventure for the past four years—how do I say this without sounding a) naïve, b) naïve like a fluff-head, c) like a clueless housewife who doesn’t get out much? Or worse, naïve-seriously-naïve.

Monday I will be live-blogging in New York. First I will carry my laptop (my most valuable possession) around the New York City subway system in a simple messenger bag, trying not to radiate the word “victim,” trying to look like I carry my most valuable possession every day and I never worry about it, and trying not to break my shoulder. Next I will walk into a hall full of well-dressed skinny women who are about to master the world, and I will subsequently remember that I’m from Farmland, Indiana and I’ll check to see if I’m wearing bib overalls and pigtails, or if my forehead reads “hayseed.” (It might. No way to avoid my wonderstruck-face.) Third I will say I’m headed to the green room for my press pass. Fourth I’ll figure out what to wear without sweating—jacket? No jacket? Fifth I’ll remind myself to eat something healthy so I don’t pass out. Sixth I’ll try to talk professionally, calmly although I’M SO EXCITED I COULD BUST. Seventh, I’ll try to feel EVERYTHING and write from the heart, which is what I’m hired to do.

The trick: how do I bring my whole life experience, in all its seriousness, to bear on a day blogging in a posh hotel? We all know I’m not dumb. How do I sound not-dumb while writing on-the-fly?

If you are a praying person, or a meditative person, ruminate with me and remind me who I am, that my story is worthy of attention. (It is worthy of MY attention. It’s my job to voice my experience as best I can.) Writing is a form of prayer, and what I need to do is to pray, and pray deeply, and to listen for the rumble below the crowd noise, feel the solidness of the earth even though real soil may be far, far below the floor. I need to listen for what others need.

Shaking off the nerves, packing a suitcase, remembering where I’ve come from and who I am, wondering how on earth to write this, for these people, tomorrow and Monday.

And maybe for you the day after.