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.

FullSizeRender(1)

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.

4125030493_bf23688b35_z

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.

cemetery_tree

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

Our singular commemoration of September 11

I wonder if our interest in

our grief over

our memory and

our commemoration of

the events and attacks of September 11, 2001 in America are heightened because —

unlike the people of Syria,

Israel and Palenstine,

the Ukraine,

Afghanistan,

Sierra Leone,

Iran,

Iraq, and other embattled countries

who undergo military and terrorist violence and fear and injury and death

all the time —

for Americans currently living, September 11th remains a unique event.

It is for me too: link

Emily called in the middle of that astonishing day and introduced a set of concrete and weighty nouns that consolidated the horror and made it more terrifying: “Steve,” “new job,” “two weeks,” “New York,” and — a code we suddenly knew the definition of — “Cantor Fitzgerald.”

No.

And then, after Emily’s call, I am standing in front of our blue couch, on which are piles of clean laundry, waiting for folding. I hold a towel, a pillowcase, and I stare at their angles and wonder why folding matters.

Many of us, though not all, did become happy again, didn’t we?

One dollar thrift shop dress

dress_hem_JaneMy three children, who are no longer actually children, like to shop in thrift stores: Boomerangs, Goodwill, and Savers in particular. They have led me down this path, too. I like a good price and the thrill of out-smarting mainstream retail. (Take that, Gap!) Until I wore them out, one of my favorite pairs of pants was a pre-worn, five-dollar tan pair with an Ann Taylor label bought at Savers.

Inevitably, one of the kids’ purchases of used clothing requires some mending or tailoring by the only person in our house who has practiced sewing skills. That person is me. Sometimes a button is needed, sometimes a new zipper. I have yet to take anything apart and put it back together again — although I do have an Eileen Fisher black silk sleeveless dress in my closet bought for $20 that needs the shoulder straps and armholes raised — but some repairs have been more complex.

A few days before she headed off to college, Lydia brought home a long, granny-like dress from Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain (the best of the four locations, according to Eli) in her staple black & white. She asked me to hem it, and I promised I would before she left. Of course, we waited and waited and waited, as if that day of leaving would never come. Finally, with the prick of a deadline* to motivate me, I got out the sewing machine, pins, measuring tape, steam iron, and a makeshift ironing board (i.e. clean towel on the kitchen counter).

dress_hem_measure

The price tag showed a markdown from $8 to $1, and surely the low price gave me permission to do a rush job: cut the extra length, fold the cut edge, avoid pins and hold it in place, and sew a quick row of fastening stitches. But why not do these things with care, if I’m going to do them at all? So I measured, cut, sewed on a length of hem tape to the cut edge, measured the hem and ironed and pinned it, and sewed the hem by hand using a hemstitch.

As I was sewing, I was thinking, and not just about the task. I recognized the ultimate inefficiency, really, of buying an inexpensive, pre-owned, not-quite-right piece of clothing and then getting someone (i.e., your mother) to spend 90 minutes of labor improving it. True, I volunteered for the task, but I can still put a price on my labor, which is worth more probably than the original price of the dress when new. Even if Lydia had hired the seamstress at the dry cleaner’s to do it, the fee would have boosted the net price of the dress to $21.

As I sewed, I mused longer on how this intimate labor is an act of love and therefore without cost or price. And, if my labor is an act of love, then that dress carries my love with it as it hangs now in Lydia’s closet or is worn by her.

dress_hem

At least a year ago, I bought a pre-worn Banana Republic sweater from an on-line consignment store. I loved the sweater on the website, and I loved it when it came out of the package, not only for how it looked but for its smell: there was a whiff, which stayed until I first dry-cleaned the sweater, of the perfume or deoderant or detergent used by the woman who previously owned it. As I wore this lovely cardigan, I smelled this other person and imagined her: my physical size, having a different life somewhere else, and yet transferring some trace of her in the anonymous selling of her sweater. We endow these objects with ourselves when we wear them.

So, too, I endow the thrift-shop clothing my children buy when I alter or repair it. There’s some essence of me in Lydia’s dress, Eli’s shirt, or Grace’s jacket. (And I suppose the previous owners of the clothing are with them too.)

dress_LydiaThis may be the detail that I have imaginatively focused on the most in helping Lydia prepare for school and getting her there. We did a lot of shopping, and new clothes and bedding and supplies were purchased. We packed. We tidied. All of this getting ready is so quotidian — the sheets, new towels, a box of pencils, extension cord, under-the-bed storage bin — to the point of boredom, really, and not narratable.

But the hemming of the dress… that felt to me almost epic, even if another person, looking at me from the outside, would have seen only a woman in her reading glasses bent over a piece of black and white checked fabric, crumpled in her hand, being pricked with yellow-headed pins. This moment, this dress and its hem: every moment I have ever loved my daughter, which is all moments that have passed and all of them that will come, I felt them with every stitch my hand and needle and thread made, piercing layers of fabric as delicately as I could, over and over and over until where I ended met the place where I started.

*Note: The phrase “prick of a deadline” is one I picked up from my friend Lisette Bordes, who once admitted how useful a deadline is to writing. It is a prick, an act of piercing something with a fine, sharp point, according to the dictionary.

For the love of laundry (and other domestic arts)

With an itch to tackle a pile of clutter, though maybe not ready yet to throw out, shred, or burn every school paper I ever wrote or diary I ever kept, on Saturday I tackled my closet, the laundry, and unfinished sewing projects. Jimmy joined me, and between the two of us we put together nine bags of giveaways of outgrown clothes (or, in our case, out-thinned clothes) and unloved shoes.

This led to my confronting the over-flowing basket of “gentle wash and line dry only” clothes near the washer. There were four loads of sweaters, blouses, linen pants, bras, winter gloves, and bathing suits. With very little room on the drying rack for that many items, I borrowed my neighbor’s outdoor clothes line.

laundry

I don’t think I’ve hung up clothes outside since I was 15. That was a chore I never minded when I was young and lived with my parents and siblings. There were numerous physical and spatial challenges — how to get more than a whole load on the line; how to pin items in a chain, attaching one item to the next; and how to get sheets on the line without first dragging them on the ground. Plus, it smelled good: soap, cotton, and the sun on the grass.

Last summer Lydia and I took a sewing class, and when the end of summer bumped into the start of the school year, we put our unfinished jumpers aside. The hardest part remained, to edge the neckline and armholes with bias-cut binding. Lots of pinning! Over the past year, when I’ve walked by the sewing machine and noticed the folded green and blue fabric of our works in progress, regret pinched at me. We got so far! And then we stopped.

sewing1

Today I re-started — so much activation energy there, especially because I was starting at the hardest, least rewarding part — and got into a rhythm with the pinning, sewing, ironing, pinning, and sewing again. I thought about all the activities I enjoy in my free time or ones that are necessary for civilized survival, like laundry and straightening. Maybe if I had been a different person, I would have professionalized my love of sewing or even organizing abilities.

A couple of weeks ago, at the skating rink, I went around and around a few times with one of my skating friends there. He told me about replacing his hot water heater in his house on his own. (Note: he is not a plumber.) He remarked that he wished he had discovered his talent for machines when younger; maybe his career choice (law) would have been different, he wondered aloud.

There is so much pressure to take what one enjoys and make it into the way one makes a living. I’d like to blame it entirely on Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow (Dell, 1989), but many other books and career experts have made the same assertion. I do believe a person should be suited to her occupation, but it’s too much pressure to imagine being in love, every day, with everything that goes into work.

sewing2

And why does work have to be the source of our love? What does love even mean in this context? I feel suited to my job, effective in it, well matched to my colleagues, and deeply interested in my students’ intellectual development, especially when it comes to writing and public speaking. But not every day is lived at the pitch of excitement. There are not many moments of flow.

There were many moments of flow in laundry hanging, closet cleaning, and dress sewing this weekend. I had the time to watch my hands at work and to think other thoughts. I feel this way when skating (although I am not watching my hands), when tinkering or gardening, when writing. I don’t need to get paid for those. Such activities may be a source of contentment that makes the hard work of grading papers and preparing for class more sustainable.

sewing3

 

 

Jane’s junk: keep or torch?

box 1Even the neatest among us have loose ends stashed somewhere. A second closet full of clothes. An attic full of old furniture and toys. Paint cans in the basement. Old parts and garden tools in the garage. Out-of-battery watches in the bedside table. Hand-knit baby sweaters in the cedar chest.

They’ve been there for years, perhaps almost the whole time you’ve lived in that house, since your children were babies at least. You know where those leftovers  are: which box, which corner of the attic. In your mind there floats a vivid image of the folded stacks of baby clothes, the jumble of toys, the keepsakes wrapped in tissue.

Knowledge of them and their location is a weight. You want to get rid of them yet you are afraid that these items, which you haven’t needed in ten years, in twenty, will someday be needed.

In my house, there is a box full of notebooks on a shelf in the basement. Calling the contents “Jane’s Junk” when I was consolidating them was easy. That they belonged to me was more important than what they were: stuff I had archived; ideas and observations I had recorded.

Here, a sketchbook in which I had rubber-cemented magazine and catalog images of clothes I liked. It was a wish book, for how I could look if I had the money or if I were a different person with a different body.

box 3

Even more, there are notebooks filled with dated entries. One captures ideas:

11-9-90: Company that takes all store returns, then returns in bulks to the stores. (Name ideas from Jimmy: Take Me Back or Return to Sender.)

12-7-90: There are ice cream shops, and frozen yogurt shops. Why not pudding shops? “Puddin’ Heads”

7-15-91: Story idea: Old woman in nursing home. Young woman comes in once a week to give knitting lessons. Makes old woman think she will not die as long as this continues — it’s like a hope holding her to earth. One week young woman does not come in.

1-20-92: Maps for the car that do not have to be folded — roll into a tube, or a window shade

11-8-92: Baking sweets without sugar, for local sale or catering. Or, a “sweet of the month club” for diabetics.

^Eventually sell to Harry & David.

2-24-93: “The Medical Consumer” — a consumer mag. to cover medical industry — does Consumer Reports already do this?

4-6-93: Christmas present for Brian. Call Yosemite gift shop. “Go Climb a Rock” t-shirt.

I never became an entrepreneur even though this little book is FILLED with random business and product ideas. I look back on these notes, and they have no present-day use. I have no plans to become one, ever. Good thing — I don’t see a pudding cafe generating a lot of business. Continue reading