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.


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


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

Image, Match, by Mark Greenwood on Flickr

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.

burn 1

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.

burn 3

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

Teacher sets words aside and dreams a new self and new start

In this dream, I was sewing. Professionally.

An MIT friend and colleague, Juhan, had hired me to make 12 small quilts for baby beds, which he was going to install in a blank room to showcase wearable technologies for babies. The devices would be hidden under the colorful, hand-sewn quilts, so that when a viewer turned back the quaint covering, she would be surprised by hardware underneath. The room would be white, as well as the frames of the baby beds, so that the only color would be provided by the calico quilt squares. The hardware would be a buffed steel color, soft and glimmering.

In this dream, I also was aware of myself as a sophomore at MIT, a student mainly studying the liberal arts. I didn’t have a sense of myself as an adult living a youngster’s life; I really dreamed I was age 20, young and looking toward the future. (In other dreams, when my life situation is of a younger person, I am still aware of having a husband and children, and it is only the situation that is altered, not myself.) From my freelance quilt-making project, I suddenly realized — dream/realized — that I wanted to change my course of study from the liberal arts to something that would set me up to work in fabrics.


I had an epiphany: materials science. The dream/plan crystallized. I started to worry. Dream/self realized that I hadn’t taken any science or math since high school, and I would need some to get into materials science. So I decided to enroll in Introduction to Biology for the spring. Then… then!… I can immerse myself in materials science next fall, I thought to my dream/self, who was very excited.

Hmmm, I worried. I might not be able to cram a whole major into two years of college. I might have to add another year onto my undergraduate degree.

Oh, so what? I said to my dream/self. You’ll be able to afford it — you’re at MIT, and when you graduate, you will start making some real money. Not liberal arts money. ENGINEERING money.

Dream/self was very proud of herself. She felt certain that she had had an insight into her deep, real, and abiding interests, and that her true career love had been revealed to her. She was charting a course for a future that would always suit her, a career she would never doubt. Her interest would never flag.

She was starting. She had a plan. Before too long, she would be designing the fabrics of the future*.

*And this is how I ended the account of my dream to Jimmy, when I described it to him this morning. I would be designing the fabrics of the future.

Image, Lego Dress, from Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology on Flickr via a creative commons license.

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.


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