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’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.
This is a story about a sandwich and a traffic jam.
My mother is in the midst of making the move to assisted living. It’s not an easy process. Never mind that she has to find a facility that will accept her very limited financial situation, or that her medical records tell quite an exciting story; never mind that she’s likely to encounter a waiting list; never mind that winter’s on its way back around and there’s a Greek chorus of folks already starting to bite their nails over the notion of her being alone any longer. No, the thing to consider is that this is probably the last place she’ll live.
No matter how sharp you think you still are, or how healthy or nimble or independent, the fact is that the minute you walk into one of these places as a prospective resident you’re reminded that you’re not. It doesn’t matter that my mother can bend over and touch her toes, she stumbles enough to use a cane and some days a walker. She’s broken more bones than I thought possible and her body is a completely different shape than I remember. She needs a nap after most trips that take more than a couple of hours. While my mother is essentially healthy, she is, taking the long view, dying. It may take twenty years, but in that time she’s not going to become more independent. Rather than lay out the “Golden Years” myth, let’s speak honestly of old age–it’s frustrating, infuriating, frightening and sad. And that’s all before she opens her eyes in the morning.
The other day we met a man who showed us around one of these places. He was so cheerful that at first I pulled back from him; he spoke in bullet points about “clinical care, socialization and nutrition.” He seemed to have developed a manner of speaking specifically for his job–earnest, cheerful and reassuring. It felt like too much. It wasn’t until he’d said hello to three or four people–calling some by name, asking others if they’d had the clam chowder at lunch–that I started to understand. He showed us into a room, sat my mother in a chair near the window and drew up a chair for himself. While he talked about what a great place this one was, he looked my mother in the eye, and while he clearly was not yet at the point of having direct experience with growing older, he knew that it was hard and it was his job to unburden some people from the bits that he could help with. He talked about the food, and the activities, and the other help that would be available for her. While we waited to speak to another woman, he sent us to the dining room for lunch and my mother said, “I could see myself here.” She’s had other experiences where she couldn’t say that and the differences between the experiences were miniscule, but they had something to do with someone looking her in the eye and acknowledging the power of a decent meal. Or forgetting to do those things.
Which brings us back to the sandwich and the traffic jam. Last Thursday evening on my way to see my mother, I was sitting in a fourteen-mile long parking lot along 95 North in southern Connecticut. Somewhere around mile nine I had a good cry over the traffic, the hassle, the uncertainty, the fear of not helping enough, the fear of getting sucked into helping too much. There must be ten people working on this, everyone performing some part of this process, from social workers to cousins to doctors to the woman who goes food shopping for my mother. It’s been exhausting and sometimes maddening, even with cheerful supporters–and I’m healthy, clear-headed, safe and well-fed. Most of the time.
So back to the sandwich. Sometimes you load a lot into a situation, bring expectations that simply can’t be met. Enter Madison, Connecticut, a cute little town on the coast near New Haven. It has a decent bookstore, and so, I assumed, a decent place to get a sandwich. Not at 8pm. No, no…at 8pm on a Thursday all you’re going to find is pizza, ice cream, and a meal you can’t afford and probably can’t take with you. I had avocado in mind, and decent bread. I knew I was asking for a lot, but I looked. It was Connecticut, after all, that leader in high median incomes. Surely it was awash in options. I found nothing. I wound up at the supermarket, standing in the deli section staring angrily at the balled up turkey sandwich lying there in the case. I didn’t talk to anyone in the supermarket; no one smiled at me. I got back to the car, took three bites and gave it up. Put my energy into the bag of chips. (Don’t get me wrong, I understand I was lucky to get that. I was lucky to get anything. This is my point, just wait it out.) It wasn’t until an hour or so later that I talked to my cousin on the phone to tell her I’d be arriving late to her house that I finally laughed. Then a friend called and while I could have let the call go, I pulled over and talked. I hit another traffic jam at 9:30, and while this one was shorter, it made a solid contribution to turning a four hour trip into an eight-hour one. The point is I didn’t cry the second time.
The next day, while my mother and I were sitting in the dining room of this place she decided she liked, a place mostly inhabited by people using walkers, canes, wheelchairs and in some cases portable oxygen, we felt…safe. Happy. Sure of ourselves. People had acknowledged all the ways the process could be difficult and had assured us that the work would pay off. She would find a safe, friendly place to confront what is essentially the time in her life when she stops making plans, and maybe, just maybe, find a way to enjoy it more than she has in the last year or two when she’s felt horribly alone and out of ideas. We felt lighter. Cared for. Seen and heard. It didn’t hurt that a man with a ready smile had just brought us cookies.