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.
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 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?
This thing I’m writing, it makes me think of books. Lots of books. So many books that my mind is crowded with titles and ideas of what I should read (or even just flip through) and images of bookshelves–mine and other people’s (mostly other people’s). I imagine books piled up around me on the table, or my arms loaded with the things, my bank account dwindling, the library calling…you know…it alternates between a dream and a nightmare. So…
A list of lists (all incomplete):
(Incidentally, there’s a list of books that do exactly what I don’t want to do, books I’m probably writing against, but I’m not listing them here because that would be mean. Someone will inevitably mention one of them and I’ll have to politely say, “Um, no. No. No. With all due respect, no way.” Gauntlet thrown.)
Field guides I need to get my hands on:
Bugs (Sorry, insects)
There’s more–a lot more–and the more I talk out loud about what I’m thinking about, the more my friends who have crowded bookshelves of this stuff bring me obscure titles with artful pencil sketches outlining the difference between alternate and opposite leaves.
Books I should have finished while I was reading them the first (or, in some cases, second) time, but didn’t, and probably should at some point no matter how loudly I complain:
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold
There’s more of these, too–lyrical meditations on nature. The “classics.” There’s nothing wrong with them, I just don’t like them and I can’t bring myself to look them up yet. But the gag won’t work unless I know what I’m up against, so this list will grow and probably include poetry. At that point, I’ll ask someone to hold my hand through it.
Books that I actually liked and may or may not be relevant:
Woodswoman, Anne LaBastille
The Pine Barrens, John McPhee
Into the Wild, John Krakauer
The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of A City, Robert Sullivan
The Fool’s Progress, Edward Abbey
Books I have no reason to read again for this thing in my head, but wish I had to, and will conjure at every opportunity:
Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams
Song of the Dodo, David Quammen
Books that have nothing to do with anything, except that I read them relatively recently, liked them, and think I should keep them near me so maybe they’ll rub off on what I’m writing to make it smarter:
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Union Atlantic, Adam Haslett
Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi
So. There. That’s the start, anyway. That’s just for openers. I’m hoping that once I’ve written these down it’ll clear some space for me to remember all the other books I’m also thinking of but can’t quite get a hold of in my head. And then once I get those out of the way, I’ll think of even more books, new books, and I’ll learn about some other books, and, and, and… Maybe by that time I’ll have written my own.
Well, that last one was far more depressing than I intended it to be, but let’s leave it. I think I’m up to something here that has nothing to do with my dad or the calendar.
Other, less grim things I learned from my father:
- He liked raw oysters, black coffee and the occasional dish of liver and onions.
- He did not like mint chocolate chip ice cream, a fact I never learned until I brought some to him at age 36, while he was in the hospital wearing an oxygen mask. My father and I shared a lot of ice cream in our time on Earth together, so how I missed this was mind-boggling. Apparently, humanity’s most self-centered moments occur while you’re standing at the ice cream counter trying to decide, “Cup or cone?”
- When traveling through Ireland, if you’re patient, you will inevitably meet someone whose mother threw herself into the River Liffey.
- My father thought the story line about killing off the Yorkshire Terriers in A Fish Called Wanda was barbaric. We also saw The Piano together and when Holly Hunter had her finger cut off he shouted, “Oh my God, I’m going to be sick.” And while we’re at it, I took him to see The Blair Witch Project and right before it started he turned to the guy next to him and said, “I might get scared. Would it be okay to hold your hand?”
- Spin that last fact out to this: Most social chasms can be bridged by making an offhand comment to a stranger. Also, talking about last night’s game. Or cars. Also, occasionally cheering on complete strangers in the street has the same effect.
- One of his girlfriends once gave him a gift certificate to have his colors done (he was a winter, I think), and while he initially resisted, once he’d done it, for the rest of his life he never wore black–this included shoes–and insisted that he would not wear navy, only “slate” blue. This made gift-buying both hilarious and frustrating.
- He took massive quantities of vitamins. Worse still, he talked about it all the time. No, really. All the time. I swore his car smelled like a combination vitamins and aftershave.
- He was fascinated by all the ways you could use Velcro. (I’m not exaggerating.)
- He read at least one newspaper front to back every day. He knew which paper went to press later in case a game lasted late into the night.
- One of the most telling things about my relationship with my dad is that we both loved the book, A Prayer for the City, Boston Globe columnists, and our horoscope.
- He was ferociously competitive about apple picking.
- His favorite thing to do was find the Irish pub most likely to have local politicians as patrons and take me there for dinner because it was the best place to talk about where we thought Whitey Bulger was hiding.
- At Christmas, he mixed up all his holiday socks and when people asked him why his socks didn’t match he’d tell them he had a pair just like it at home.
- He once stopped speaking to me for an hour because I let someone else take a parking space in downtown Boston he thought he could save for me.
- There were two questions he asked all the time: How was my car running and how often was I writing?
My car’s running fine, by the way. Thanks for asking.
The call from the hospital came at 4:30 am on my first Mother’s Day as an actual mother. I was told that my dad had been moved to ICU and put on a ventilator, and I should get myself to Boston. The day before had been his 67th birthday. I spent part of Mother’s Day calling my aunt from my car at a gas station in Mystic, Connecticut. He died on Memorial Day. It’s safe to say I’ve developed a deep ambivalence about the month of May.
If you ask me when my father died, I’ll say Memorial Day. I don’t know the date. It doesn’t matter to me, anyway. I don’t know the date of his funeral, either.
I do know these things:
- I had spoken to him four times on the phone on his birthday, and we kept being interrupted over and over again. The last time he called, it was late and I was a little impatient and ended the call with “Talk to you tomorrow” instead of “Love ya!” These things happen, usually at the wrong time.
- One day someone dropped a chewed-up red coffee stirrer under the IV machine.
- Most of the people who visited him called themselves “cousins” to sneak past the nurses.
- At his wake I found out he’d been living someplace completely different from where I thought. I met the person who’d let my dad stay in his guest room for the first time there, and almost immediately forgot his name.
- He had a great view of the Charles River from his room.
- My dad’s friend brought me little pieces of fancy chocolate every day; his sister brought me bottles of water. Everyone has a signature.
- It took me a week before I could find the nerve to step all the way into his room. I almost never touched him until the day they turned off the ventilator. Whenever he coughed and the alarms sounded, I left the room and paced the hall until it stopped. I’m still trying not to make that my signature.
- Sometimes I say things just like my dad would just to bring him around again.
- The room where the doctors told me it was time to “let nature take its course” had no windows and was filled with papers and a whiteboard. I think. I kept thinking they should have a room dedicated to telling you that you’re responsible for deciding that it’s time to let someone die.
- They told me he’d be proud of me, which still makes my hands shake, and I still wonder if they say that to everyone. Even so, every time I do something really hard or try something new, I think of how he’d be proud of me. The reverse is true for times when I take shortcuts of a human variety.
- My father was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.
- My father gave of himself in a way I’ve never seen in anyone else. That said, he also had one of the most complicated relationships with the notion of truth that I’ve ever known.
- By the time he died, he’d had over twenty operations in eighteen years. Almost every major artery from his ears to his ankles had been replaced at least once. His quadruple bypass happened soon after he rode his bike around Manhattan. Med students used to regard him with awe or with a freakish joy. His medical file had to be wheeled around on a cart.
- He always said, “Hey, at least it’s not cancer.”
I hate lists, but I need to make one:
- This sketchbook thing may be the dumbest idea I’ve ever had, but now I feel like I need to do it. Also, whatever I do will leave whoever looks at it believing I’m completely insane in a not-so-harmless way.
- I finished that Stephen Asma book On Monsters. I don’t feel like I learned anything and I kinda feel like he was grasping for both relevance and ideas at the end, especially when I saw the photo of bin Laden. I’m now reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and I’m totally freaked out. You want to scare me? Wipe out most of the human race. Also, it kind of inspires me, writing-wise. See first bullet point.
- Can we discuss a picky language thing? Apologies to readers who do this, but I wish members of the English-speaking public would stop using the word “hysterical” when they mean “hilarious.” For the love of the English language and out of respect for the truly, clinically hysterical, cut it out. It drives me crazy. It may even drive me to actual hysteria one day. In fact, it actually sounds like hysteria in my head when I hear someone say, “You’re/That’s hysterical!” as a compliment. (Not knowing other languages well enough, I can’t scold non-English speakers, and yes, there are more heinous offenses, but this is the one I’m talking about now. It’s my blog. Sit tight.) I’m not even comfortable with something being “hysterically funny.” I mean, picture it: someone says something we find funny–I mean funny–and one or all of us laughs so hard we’re screaming and running down the street in a mob, completely oblivious to behavioral norms, rational thought, and other social cues. Really? No one’s that funny, I don’t think, but if it turns out there’s someone out there who is they should be discussed in the next edition of Stephen Asma’s book and carted off to prison, because they’re a threat to society. Okay, I’m done now. (Readership deflates to approximately one.)
- Honestly, that last bullet point is the only one I wanted to write, but I kind of felt like I had to keep up with the other things I’ve thrown out here lately. Next time, less ranting, and more attempts at intelligence, coherence, and other qualities that might bring you all closer rather than drive you away with a stick.
For the end of summer, a list:
1. Over Memorial Day, my son developed a habit of running out of our house and up the street as the sun was setting, the same time his peers were going to bed. Over Labor Day, he went to bed without incident, after spending the first half of his day on a hay wagon in a parade where he was followed by a loud, but fantastic Caribbean marching band that left him looking dazed in a way that in the past would have sparked a massive tantrum. Over Memorial Day, my son began throwing large objects down flights of stairs when he didn’t get what he wanted; over Labor Day, he asked for things kindly and accepted the answer. The path to this point is too complicated to outline here, but it has a lot to do with envisioning the day as tiny discrete moments rather than one long string of events that all build on each other. This is not an attempt to be deep, but it may accidentally serve as advice.
2. My brother-in-law started his second round of chemotherapy right after my husband came to visit him and had his wallet stolen, and their sister’s trip to see them both was thwarted by a misspelled name on a passport that had gone unnoticed by everyone but airport officials. I have tried not to make jokes about their family’s share of unfathomable bad luck. The effort is sometimes physically painful, no matter how much I desperately wish there were no occasion for such an inane internal struggle.
3. My vegetable garden has weeds that come up to my waist. I’m chalking that up in part to items 1 and 2, but also resolving next year to move the vegetable-growing closer to the house. Also, I am done with trying to grow brussels sprouts, dammit.
4. While vacationing in Vermont last week, three nights in a row I was woken up by the sound of owls hunting. That may be the eeriest sound I’ve ever heard and I miss it more than I thought I would.
5. Where I live has no respect for good bread. Also, farms. We think they do, but we’re wrong. We treat bakers of non-frosted food and farmers like old dottering aunts who need to be smiled at politely until they finally die and we can finally make room for someone better at the dinner table. This makes me angry. It makes me angrier when I’m hungry.
6. Comparatively speaking, I’m never hungry.
7. This list is inspired by Steve Almond, who made a list on TheRumpus.net last week on a topic I can’t recall because I read a lot of TheRumpus.net last week. This is a strong hint to those of you reading this. Those folks are doing good stuff. Bookmark it. Or at least look at it.
8. I’ve been writing a lot lately and it makes me happier than when I haven’t been writing a lot. I have no idea what most of it is for, like this list for instance, but I’ve stopped caring, which also makes me happier. The funny thing is, I feel more strongly that it might have a purpose than I have in a long time. Also, writing all by myself makes me feel closer to people than not writing and spending all my time with people instead.
9. I miss my friends. Although I might not miss them quite as much as I would have if they had come to see me. Location is everything.
10. I am still trying to get through this stupid book on monsters, On Monsters, a title that seems fun to repeat here. Because it’s taken me so long to read it, it has now become a “stupid book,” but I’m not sure if this is really true. I wish I were reading the book about James Bond that my husband thinks I should read, which is funnier and less dependent on footnotes and ancient Greek philosophers.
11. In a little more than an hour, I return to my regular, less-examined life, will bring my brain back to life, and will probably be done with lists for a while. Also, I just noticed this list goes to eleven, but probably not the way I wish it did.