The last time I wrote here I silently planned that the next time I posted I’d include a photo. The photo would show the pink cable-knit fingerless gloves that I started making six years ago. That lonely left-hand has sat all this time at the bottom of a bag waiting for the second ball of yarn to be made into its right-handed partner. So in my I’m-going-to-make-everything enthusiasm of the New Year, I started. I goofed a few times and ripped it out–ten, fifteen rows at a time. I cast those forty-five stitches on those three tiny needles four or five times. It would be okay, I told myself, I’d get back into the swing of it, and I’d eventually finish them and I’d feel great, even if I wasn’t sure I cared anymore. I ripped it all out one night as my son did his homework, growling every time he made a mistake, taking his frustration out on eraser and paper. Hot pink yarn puddled onto the floor.
“You’re ripping it out? Again?” He said, briefly taking a break from his assault on his worksheet.
“Sometimes it’s worth starting over to get it right,” I said with accidental wisdom.
I imagined my future sense of triumph, six years in the making…I felt strangely renewed, even as I put it away, not a completed stitch in sight.
It was relaxing; I dare say it was even meditative. Fifteen rows became thirty and so forth until I felt so confident that I’d be finished by the end of the weekend I decided to look at the left-hand glove, to compare them. The new one looked so nice, and maybe this time, I’d get the whole cast-off thing right so the second one wouldn’t be as messy at the edges. I set the two next to each other…
Glove Number One had fewer cables.
Where the right one had three twists, the left only had two. It’s not as if no one would notice–one glove was going to be at least an inch shorter than the second. It would hit my knuckles, where the other one would rest halfway up my fingers and it would drive me nuts, like when my sleeves were rolled unevenly as a kid. (I like symmetry, I guess.) I was eighteen rows ahead of the last cable. That’s okay, I thought, I can rip it out down to the stuff I want to keep and fix it. But finding the stitches again, getting them on the needles the right way, amidst the cables and ribs…look, I’m not that woman. I tried, but it was always a longshot. Don’t ask how it got this bad, it was six years between gloves.
Sometimes you just need to cut your losses. I spent the next half hour dismantling the first one so I could stop looking at an unfinished thing and tell myself I should finish it. Now it’s just a ball of yarn again, a possibility, not a pink, woolen manifestation of an exasperated, disappointed sigh. It’s no longer a cable-knit criticism of my inability to see things through. So there’s no photo, which makes me sad.
There’s a whole other analogy hovering here about writing and this thing on my hard drive that is growing into a novel. It’s been brewing for two years and only in the last few weeks have I finally figured out who those two characters are that I wrote about once in a tossed-off story. They’ll change again, the way they have before. There’s at least thirty pages I can’t bear to look at because I know they’re useless to what I’m writing now. And where I am now? Considering the scope of this, I’ve barely started. It exhausts me to think about it, and frightens me to think there’s no view to the end. The next time I complain about a tight deadline or a scaled-back plan in my work life, I’ll remember this and remind myself to be grateful for projects that just need to be finished. They’re good to have, the ones you can’t bother to get attached to, the ones that are good enough. My alleged gratitude won’t last long, though. Something will come along that I want to spend more time on, something I’ll want to make into a work of art but qualifies for a postcard rate.
But this is good, right? This is balance? People spend a lot of money and travel long distances to consider all this while sitting on the floor trying not to get distracted by their desire for their next serving of raw kale. This is breathing. In and out. Here and there. Now and then. Not quite finished and hardly begun.
I have plans for this year–not resolutions, mind you, just ideas that I’m going to follow out to their natural conclusions or out to the bend in the road where they become something else I didn’t expect. In fact, I’m so ahead of myself, I’ve already found some new ideas and dumped others, and it’s not even February.
I keep thinking I should make a list, something that will help me keep track of what I want to do and all the little picky things that need to be done in order to clear space–physically and mentally. There’s a lot on my mind. But lists are problematic: Where do I put them? How do I structure them? And what if the list-making keeps me from just doing the things I want to do, regardless of the number of thoughts that drift away in the process?
Here’s a sort-of list:
Paint those two rooms (Choose the paint)
Make the curtains (Choose the fabric–see? I’m already off track)
Write–but which one? All of them.
Read (Don’t get me started on that list)
Fix the the light, the leak, the fence
Then there’s this list: scheming, planning, designing, fledging.
The lists (which are not yet lists) have lots of colors to them–it’s a pretty process that is leaking all over my house, evidence by little bits of yarn and markers and postcards on the floor, the windowsill, the counter. Some people have suggested I find someone to help me winnow it all down, but I’m not ready for that. I like this process as it is. Loose. Mostly private. Swirly. Maybe ultimately the goal is just to go through the process.
I’m becoming that person who says yes to everything, then filtering. I’m not fickle (well, maybe I am a bit), I’m just seeing how things might fit together. In the end, even as I take on new things, most of it stays the same because there’s a finite amount of space. I still write a lot, most of it now at 5 or 6am. I always read at night. Changes happen slowly, in tiny increments. I fit the new stuff in by finding pockets of time I ignored before. I still need to make the lists though, or some sort of diagram of what’s going on. Some things require deadlines, while others just need good intentions. And let’s not talk about money or time or other resources. That’s a whole other set of lists.
There’s a giant roll of drawing paper upstairs–that might be just what I need. One hundred yards of blank space unfurling down the stairs.
This guy here cost me five bucks. He’s not going to change my life or anything, but I walked by him (and his brethren piled in a container at Ikea) and remembered all the times as a kid I’d see them and wonder what the hell anybody would want with a jointed wooden guy on a stick with no face. By the time I’d figured it out, my curiosity had been stamped out by the notion that art should be left to the artists. While I still hold to that philosophy in those secret compartments in my head, yesterday my son and I decided we wanted to learn how to draw and so we picked him out and brought him home. I drew a horrible picture of him last night, but it was fun trying.
In the meantime, since I’ve been doing a lot more design work at my job, it’s reignited my obsession with type and color, and once that happens, I want to make stuff. I’m not that good at making stuff–I’m impatient, I hate finding and waiting for help (I don’t mind asking for help, I just want it as soon as the idea occurs to me and then give up and do something else.), and I never really commit to all the little fiddly bits that would turn “making stuff” from a haphazard pursuit into a process that actually works from beginning to end without five trips to a store and three days of delay. This is what keeps me down.
This weekend for instance, I decided to patch my son’s jeans, but I didn’t have a needle for the embroidery thread I wanted to use. I wanted to fix the holes in the gloves my husband got in Morocco twenty years ago, but I need to remind myself how to knit, which is one of those things I did a few years ago, then dropped out of exhaustion. Have I mentioned my one fingerless glove on here? I made one and then got tired. The one looks pretty good, but I’ve never worn it, obviously, because I have two hands and both get cold. I also tried to knit my mom a lace scarf with some brown silky yarn I found a few years ago, but after nine million tries on my own I went back to reading books, which I’m really good at. (I also want to make my own curtains, therefore adding to my vast cabinet of frustrations, but I’ll explain that some other time.)
Anyway, once you go hunting for one thing, you’re going to find some other thing you didn’t really want to get involved in. Enter, this:
This is a skein of sock yarn I bought about five years ago. I bought two actually, because they were in the sale bin and because they were beautiful (the photo doesn’t do the colors justice at all). I had no intention of making socks, and if anyone knows what to do with sock yarn that doesn’t include making socks, I’m all ears. When I first bought the yarn, I tried to take the nice floppy skeins and make them into balls. It worked with one–not this one. This is a pile of knots. Actually, this is half the original pile of knots. My head swims just looking at it.
Incidentally, this is just about a year from the time when I went on that yoga and roasted olive odyssey last year–that whole, “you-can’t-think-and-[insert any activity here]-at-the-same-time” deal. A friend of mine is there now, and she updates me daily on her extreme kale intake and, after several days of many hours of yoga, her growing love of poses that ask her to curl into a ball or just lie on the floor. There’s something about those updates that made me decide to untangle the yarn. Just focus on doing the very next thing, whatever it is.
It took me the better part of five hours, and it turns out that the skein was in several pieces, so I couldn’t even make a Barbie sock with it (thankfully). It was calming, as I knew it would be, a) because I love to untangle things, and b) I got to look at this pretty yarn all day. But just before I had the entire thing rolled up in little balls, I became so queasy from looking at the yarn up close for so long that I had to throw the last fifty feet in a bag and go to bed. The sense that the yarn had defeated me again damn near killed me. I tried one last time and got dizzy. My shoulder hurts from reaching and pulling. I’m not kidding. Yarn is serious business.
Never belittle the knitter–that’s one of the lessons I took from this. There’s something else that probably has a little more heft in there, too, but let’s not try to put it into words. Not everything needs a word.
Top Ten Things I Feel Like Telling You Since The Last Time I Posted:
10. I haven’t write a word since, like, July.
9. I read Gone Girl and decided that its popularity signals that we’re all more seriously mentally ill than I thought.
8. I read Undaunted Courage and questioned the wisdom of the Louisiana Purchase.
7. I read a lot of other books–a lot of really good books (Arcadia, by Lauren Groff, The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Meredith Mayhew Bergman, and We, The Drowned, by Carsten Jensen, for starters.).
6. I rode my bike A LOT.
5. I participated in a vigil for a hermit crab.
4. I did not plant a single seed.
3. My son read to me at length about shark attacks.
2. I became tired of most of the things I believe in, not in a permanent way, but it probably explains why I spent so much time reading and riding my bike–the search for critical distance.
1. For three nights during the full moon and two very early mornings I took a kayak out on a silent lake in the Adirondacks. That’s all I can say about it right now without wrecking it, but, you know, that does something to you.
Come to think of it, that last sentence applies to this whole list.
I’ve probably told part of this before, but I’ve decided to string it all together here, because otherwise I’m just telling it to myself over and over and that starts to feel compulsive.
I remember sitting at dinner one night with my stepfamily when someone noticed that I hadn’t uttered a word for most of the meal, and someone else said, “Watch what you say, it’ll go in her book.” I was probably twelve. And I wasn’t writing in my head, I was just too shy to speak up. Certainly there were stories that could be told, but I had no interest in telling them. I wanted to tell mysteries or stories of heroic journeys of epic proportions, not tales of domestic quirks.
Fast forward to the last few years, and the ever-growing chorus of people who have said, “You should write about [that thing we're not going to identify here].” My answer is always no. “It might help you,” they say. “Or someone else.” That line only strengthens my resolve. I’m not in this to “help” me or anyone else, as heartless as that may sound.
But then two things happened. Someone I didn’t know, a near stranger, suggested that I think about writing the thing I swear I won’t write about. Just hang it up somewhere in my mind, she said, and let it do its weird work, like a billboard you pass every day for a year, see if it changed my thinking. That very same day I met a woman who told me she couldn’t write anything else until she wrote this one particular set of stories, but she couldn’t write them because they were too painful.
“So change the stories,” I said, probably too quickly, as if it were easy. She said no, and declared that she hated writing, and our conversation ended soon after that. And while we had opportunities to speak later, neither one of us seemed to take them. The conversation stayed with me, though, in that I’m sure I never want to be that person who simply says no. Then again, I’m always willing to change the story. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if that’s the problem.
Coupled with that question, I started thinking about that whole “write the book you’d want to read” idea. So I started paying attention to the books I choose–which books I love, and which books I avoid–and slowly, I’ve decided to put my head down and read the books that scare me (literally scare me), in addition to identifying that I like a sweeping seafaring epic once in a while. It’s data collection.
And because I’m someone who hates to admit I’ve said no to anything without at least trying it (except for stuff like bungee jumping and caving–I have my limits), I started to write the stuff the Greek chorus keeps urging me to write. What few people seem to hear all the way is that to write that stuff depresses me so severely that I get angry about it, and it throws me off for days, and I see no reason to do that to myself. It’s not a productive kind of anguish. But I did it anyway, because I came up with this theory: If there’s broccoli in the fridge and you need to make dinner, you don’t close the door and order out. You find something to do with the broccoli (unless it’s rotten, which is a different metaphor). You see, I really can’t stand the characters I write. They’re wussy. They don’t have real problems, and they seem to fade into the background rather than charge ahead. What if the reason for that is that I’ve been, creatively speaking, ordering out all this time? What if there’s something there, in the metaphorical fridge, that I refuse to make use of?
So I wrote. Angry, depressed, embarrassed and petulant, I wrote it out. Some of it. A tiny bit. And it sucked. I mean, it made me feel horrible and it was also unreadable. Delightfully, it’s so bad that no one will ever mistake it as something someone should read. However…however…There’s apparently something productive about being repulsed, because in the last four days I’ve written drafts of two stories that might not be half bad. They may even have–or at least hint at–that quality I’m convinced is always missing from my work. Do they tell the stories people have asked me to tell? Nope. Or maybe a bit, but beneath the surface, a line here and there, which is what fiction is supposed to be–the story first, hopefully done in a way that’s smart enough to raise it up a smidge higher than the thing itself so everyone can see it, not just me.
But so what? Who cares? Why do it? Because a few weeks ago I was flushed with the thrill of having written and written and written until I hit 75 pages and then the inevitable happened. I looked at my main character and thought, “I wouldn’t talk to her if I was standing in line at the bank.” She’s the same drip I’ve been writing for fifteen years (feel free to take a moment to psychoanalyze me here–I’ll wait). So I stopped. The story was going nowhere, as quietly feared and predicted in the back of my mind, and I’m sick of that. Those 75 pages need help–it’s not all crap–but there’s work to be done off to the side in order to get ready to go in there and make it come closer to what it could be.
There’s one more thing: several years ago, before Boston finished the Big Dig, the project that submerged the elevated highway that ran though the city, my dad was friends with an artist who rented a studio in a building that was pressed right up against the expressway. During open studios one year, I noticed something, and I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but this is what I’ve told myself about it. In one of the studios in the front of the building there were all these canvases covered in brown and gray diagonal lines, and since the paintings were set up near the window, you could see the artist had been painting his view of the exit ramp to the northbound side of Route 93. They were strange and a little scary, and it took me a while to figure out where they’d come from. I also remember sculptures made with hubcaps and exhaust pipes and windshield wipers that had fallen off along the highway and on to the street below. These artists took what they had–or rather, what they got–and made it into something else, something someone could enjoy, or just absorb somehow. They’d taken something ugly, something broken, something they maybe wished was different or wasn’t there at all, and turned it into something new.
I have a confession: My Goodreads list is a lie. It’s not that there are books on there I haven’t read (okay, maybe there are some I didn’t quite finish and got the gist of with 20 pages to go), it’s that there are books I’ve read that I’ve left off. I feel weirdly guilty about this, as if Goodreads has offered this platform in good faith and I’m crafting it to my own benefit, to create a persona through a booklist. To all of 24 people. So here I am, coming clean. This is it, the most truthful book list ever. (No it isn’t either. It’s a lead-in to a long-form joke.)
About a year and a half ago, when my preschool-age son was hurling potted plants down flights of stairs and yanking framed stuff off the walls, my husband and I sought out some help that, despite our desperation, we mostly didn’t agree with. In our final meeting, after suggesting yet again we get him evaluated for all sorts of things that seemed excessive, this person told me to read a book called The Highly Sensitive Child. I’m not one for parenting books, but since this one didn’t have the word “explosive” or “defiant” in the title, I decided to go for it. None of the information in the book helped me make any real headway, nor did I think he fit the description of highly sensitive in any remarkable way, but it helped a little, especially thinking about his response to crowds and noise and generally too much information.
There was one thing that struck me, though: early in the book there’s a quiz to identify whether you should call yourself or your child “highly sensitive.” It asks questions about your response to caffeine, multitasking, the likelihood of you bursting into tears while listening to high school marching bands, and insinuates that you’ve never been one to hit the clubs at midnight. The quiz has 25 questions. When I took the quiz for myself, I answered yes to 23.
So maybe that’s why I cried uncontrollably during the intermission at Cats in 6th grade. Or why I can’t answer simple questions about whether I want ice in my drink while I’m also stirring a pot of rice. And why no one thinks I’m shy but I’ll hang around in the shadows for a year before introducing myself. Or why the mall makes me dizzy with all its smells and lights and bags and the sound of the vents going all the time. Or why I can tell you’re angry the moment I step into a room. It was kind of a watershed moment. I’d tell you my son worked his tantrums out on his own, but the more truthful explanation would be that while he grew out of most of it on his own, I also figured out how to admit that asking me for M&Ms while I’m on the phone pushes me to a limit I didn’t know I had.
Those of you familiar with this blog know I took off for three days to do yoga and study people’s obsessive need to take far too many paper napkins in cafeterias. Sometime after New Year’s I decided the best way to keep meditating was to buy some books on the topic. I bought two: one called Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach, and another one I can’t remember and haven’t read yet by Thich Nhat Hahn. It took me three weeks to read the first book because with every affirmation I had to put the book down and walk away in order to deal with my deep-seated cynicism and ambivalence about affirmations and, in a development unrelated to the book itself, I haven’t meditated since February.
I also bought some yoga books that annoyed me almost instantly. So those can’t go on there either.
There is no Book #3, this is just a catch-all for the books I’d never put on the list. Look, there was that weekend I read The DaVinci Code. And while I have no real desire to read the Dragon Tattoo books, the Twilight trilogy, The Hunger Games, or 50 Shades of Grey, I’m not sure I’d tell the folks at Goodreads if I had. I mean, millions and millions of people are reading those books, why do their algorithms need to know about another poor slob who picked it up? At some point, the numbers on books like those are meaningless. Or maybe I’m just a snob and maybe Goodreads is a way to curate my online persona. To all of 24 people.
I never write reviews, either. I’m too bashful to feel courageous enough to organize my thoughts on one single subject like that. To have to stick to the text? Goodness, no. I admire those people who do though, because I do read them; I want to know what you think–usually. And there’s nothing I love more than the one-star reviews on Amazon, the way I love to smell the milk you think is spoiled.
Maybe I feel like I’m not pulling my weight on there–keeping my opinions to myself, hiding my true reading list. Believe me, it hurts me too, like in those annual reading challenges? It messes with my stats. But I’m happier this way, lying a little, keeping an air of mystery about me…to those 24 good people I’m connected to, many of whom don’t even use the site. And no one needs to know I skipped–sorry, skimmed–200 pages of Gone With The Wind. We’ll just keep that between us, okay?
I can read a subway map better than a trail map. I was deep into my thirties before I knew what all those squiggly lines meant on a topographical map, and why I should be wary of the ones that are really close together if I’m tired and headed uphill (steep). I’m okay on north-south-east-west, but better if there’s a road I know well to help me on a cloudy day. That’s the extent of my ability to find my way without major human-engineered landmarks. I’ll spend twelve hours outdoors, but I’m happier if there’s a place to get coffee nearby.
When I started eighth grade we were sent as a class on a trip to some camp in Maine during which I reminded myself several times that the people involved were contractually obligated not to leave me out in the woods to die, even when I sank into marsh mud up to my hips, or hung upside down on a rope over a gorge. This was all organized by my new school, the one that was intended to cure whatever had caused me to nearly flunk several classes in seventh grade, and yet, there were moments on that trip that I thought appearing to be the least capable student in town and suffering the future consequences therein might be preferable to sleeping in a tent for a week. It wasn’t that I’d never been in the woods–I had, with my stepmother’s family, but believe me, that was different. We weren’t camping, and there were cocktail parties. For comparison sake, just know that we were asked not to wear shorts to dinner. There was that kind of leeway, that someone could demand a dress code. The eighth grade Maine trip was not that way, and I counted the hours until I could go home and jump on the T to go to Newbury Comics (Even if I didn’t exactly know what the hell I was doing there, either. “Wilderness” has a broad definition.). I’m sure I didn’t hide it, and I’m sure I was pegged as pathetic by the braided, bearded hippies who taught me what a carabiner was for.
Since then, I’ve hiked plenty, but never done that whole me-against-the-elements thing for more than a few hours at a time. Always home for dinner. Most of my outdoor adventures that didn’t require a subway token have occurred within the pages of a book. It’s easy to read The Snow Leopard, or Into the Wild, and feel like you’ve done something edgy, and once you close the book, you’re done, without picking ticks off your legs, or wondering if eating that plant will kill you, or worrying that you need to watch if the trail’s going to give way. It’s all nice and safe. Which is how I joined my book club.
It was January, and my little family had just moved to a new house in an area we’d specifically chosen for its access to the woods. We wanted to make it easier to get outside to something other than a coffee shop. One day we got a calendar in the mail–some kind of thing you get when you live in a “community.” I knew other people got these kinds of things, and relied on them. If any member of my family ever had received such a thing, they probably lost them or threw them away. No one I’ve been connected to ever really embraced the community that existed within the confines of municipal boundaries–affinities were based instead on shared interests, neuroses or genetic code. I was fine with that, but part of the point of moving to a town like ours was to try out this business of being part of a place, which is why I grudgingly opened the calendar. To my surprise, the calendar advertised a book club. An environmental book club. In the next town over. (See a plan falling through already?) Until then, I had avoided book clubs for all the stereotypes that follow them around, mostly about women getting sloshed while discussing a book I never wanted to read in the first place. Also, giggling. (My apologies to book clubs the world over.) But this one seemed geeky enough to rise above all that, and I was right.
In the last four and half years I’ve read books about trees and butterflies and the looming disasters threatening song birds. I’ve read books about people who lived in trees (and managed a lot of other stuff in trees I’m not brave enough to pull off or even describe here), why I should eat organic bananas, and what it’s like to be surrounded by Komodo dragons. I know a lot about New Jersey that has nothing to do with petrochemical plants, malls or Bruce Springsteen. I attempted (but failed, for the second time) to finish Walden or Silent Spring. I’ve read too much Barbara Kingsolver for my taste, and it’s still probably less than most women in my demographic. I’ve read at least one book I wish I could write myself. I’ve developed rather fierce opinions on “environmental literature,” not all of them kind.
I still don’t know squat. I couldn’t tell you with any certainty the difference between a beech tree and a hickory, and don’t ask me about birds. I still run (literally run) from bugs indoors. And don’t expect me to hoist a pack on my back and take off somewhere with nothing but a topo map and bag of gorp. I know a little about frogs, and some plants, and I know a lot of really smart, fun people I probably wouldn’t know if I had never looked at that calendar that I frankly haven’t looked at since. Every once in a while it becomes painfully obvious that I’m still more familiar with chain link fences than trail markers, but I like to believe those braided bearded hippies who showed me how to pitch a tent would be proud of how far I’ve come.