Unblocking: Cleaning the Office

At the end of the summer, I finally cleaned out my Minneapolis office. I must have removed dozens of trash bags of books, paper, and office detritus. To make the decision of what to keep and what to toss, I picked up and looked at what seemed like thousands of pieces of paper that I had saved for reasons clear to me in some distant past, but fuzzy now.

There were notes from college classes and papers I wrote years ago, letters from my mother (every single one), copies of the syllabi of classes I taught, stories I started and never finished, unrevised stories with comments from readers, stacks of journals and diaries, drafts and research notes for a novel. I found finished stories (never published) that I barely remember writing as well as poems and essays in various stages of development. Other drawers and cabinets were filled with old photos, greeting cards from friends and family, our Christmas letters, manuals and discs for obsolete computers, mysterious cords and wires for lost electronic devices, staplers, labelers, notepads, and lots of fountain pens with dried ink.

 Paper and more paper

Paper and more paper

Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up helped a little as I weeded through all this. Tossing old staplers and computer discs and even books I would never read again was easy, but that poem I wrote in 1967 when I was living and teaching in western Pennsylvania, not so. “Do I love this piece of paper? Does it give me joy?” I asked myself trying to apply Marie Kondo’s simple logic. No, but I can’t let go of the moment it captured–the words that recorded a very specific time in my life.

All those words–what was I trying to say? Why did I hold on to them? Why can’t I let them go? Surely no one else would ever care to read the stuff, not even my own family,  but why was it so valuable to me?

I learned that many of my obsessions are still my obsessions. Reading through all those writings was like looking at a giant quilt of one’s past and seeing repeating patterns, colors, textures, that all seemed to fit together.

One of the essays I ran across was an annotation on writer’s block I wrote over twenty years ago. I don’t know why I thought I had writer’s block when I was creating so many pages full of words, but this strain of resistance within me around writing was something I worried about then and even now–a pattern that repeats itself in the quilt of my writing life.

Quilt/Guilt? Some of my fear of letting go of all those words was also about channeling those finished and unfinished pieces into  publication. I was that person who loved to write, but still the voices of others and the ones in my own head, said, “Publish. Publish.” Wasn’t there a reason for my desire to write and a place in the world for those words to land? If I were a real writer wouldn’t I also be diligent about submitting work and delight in publishing?

In that short essay on writer’s block buried in a forgotten file, I refer to two books and one story. The first is Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (U.S. publication,1953). While the focus of Herrigel’s book appears to be archery, the other key words in the title are zen and art. Herrigel, a German philosopher, writes about the ten years he spent training with a Zen Master in the art of archery. Substitute archery for writing and the message of the book (while not always perfectly clear to the my Western mind) helps me to understand why I thought my problem was as simple as “writer’s block.”

The second book I wrote about in my writer’s block essay was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1987). Natalie Goldberg studied with Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Minnesota Zen Center from 1978 to 1984. “Why do you come to sit meditation?” Roshi asked her. “Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep into your writing, it will take you every place.” In her book, Natalie relates her Zen practice to writing. “There is a Zen saying,” she tells us, “‘Talk when you talk, walk when you walk, and die when you die.’ Write when you write. Stop battling yourself with guilt, accusations, and strong-arm threats.” Stop resisting, I would say now, many years later. Stop resisting. Be myself.

The short story I wrote about in the long-ago essay was Bernard Malamud’s famous story, “Angel Levine.” I love Malamud and this story about the tailor Manischevitz who finds it impossible to believe that a black man who says he is a Jew and is found in Bella’s Cabaret in Harlem could be an angel. You have to read the story to get the full context, but near the end, Malamud writes:

 Tears blinded the tailor’s eyes. Was ever a man so tired?

Should he say that he believed a half-drunk Negro was an angel?

The silence slowly petrified.

Manischevitz was recalling scenes of his youth as his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. He sighed. It moved but one still had to make a choice.

‘I think you are an angel from God.’ He said it in a broken voice, thinking, if you said it it was said. If you believed it you must say it. If you believed, you believed.

So yes, I have a lot of words. I have lots of paper. Is Levine really an angel? Or has Manischevitz been duped? Or all my words special and magical? No. Why some more than others?  Which ones to keep? Which to toss? How to tell?  What to believe? The pointer moves from one to another. Am I glad I didn’t throw this old essay away? Yes.

 

Tiny Turtle, Giant Tortoise

Since our return from a recent visit to the Galapagos Islands, where we swam with sea lions, watched the mating dance of the waved albatross, observed a frigate bird high above us show his red throat, and stood within a few feet of a giant land tortoise as she grazed on grass, I’ve come to realize how far I’ve traveled from those days in North Carolina when I was the proud owner of a green pet turtle that I cared for in a small plastic pool.Turtle12(1)

These tiny turtles could be purchased in the five-and-dime stores of my childhood. Such amazing stores for children! All laid out in rectangles of counter after counter: the perfume counter, the hosiery counter, the underwear counter.

Each counter was overseen by a single salesperson, complete with her own cash register. There was no central station to which you carried your merchandise, no credit cards for that matter. In fact it would have been unheard of to carry your merchandise from one place to another in the store. You chose whatever, paid for it with cash, and then moved to the next counter for your next purchase.

It was mid-July, 1950, I was almost eight years old, on the day my mother and I walked by the turtle counter. There they were, turtles. An entire section was devoted to these small green creatures, some swimming in their shallow tanks, others “sunning” on their plastic promenades. My mother, who was probably headed to the underwear counter, paused as I stood before the turtles. “No.” she said. “Absolutely not. No turtles.”

By my birthday in October, I had managed to convince her that a turtle was a small pet: one that would not track mud into the house, one that would be easy to take care of.IMG_8954 (4) copy

Fast forward to July, 2015, when our family of twelve visited the Galapagos Islands where we saw the giant tortoises made famous by Darwin on his visit aboard The Beagle in 1835. During Darwin’s time, these tortoises were captured and eaten by the inhabitants and visitors to the islands. Darwin writes: “It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.” The giant tortoises were almost extinct until the islands became protected. Today we can stand by these large reptiles and watch them munch on grass unafraid like most all the animals, birds, fish, and reptiles in the Galapagos. It gives one hope.

From tiny turtles in a North Carolina five-and-dime store to giant tortoises in the Galapagos of Ecuador—from the 1950 to 2015—how far I’ve traveled. Yet these turtles and tortoises still tell me to slow down, to take my time. The turtle has become my totem creature. Can I slowly gain even a little wisdom? Can I carry my home wherever I go? Can I persist? Trust my path no matter what?

Oh yes, I’ve become a turtle. Wrinkled. Shell intact. Yet vulnerable. Like that tiny green turtle that sat in my hand so long ago. And even the large tortoises of the Galapagos. But, good news, turtles and tortoises live a long time. Lonesome George lived to the age of 102.  Plenty of time to do our work—slow but steady within shells/rooms/studies/homes. We write and read and move along.

Lonesome George (1910 to June 24, 2012)

Lonesome George
(1910 ?  to June 24, 2012)

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Writing Idea:  Pets–write about your first pet. Or your “totem animal.”  Is there some living creature to which you feel a special bond or identify? Or try to connect a small memory (those little turtles) to a more recent one (Galapagos tortoises). How do animals (birds, reptiles, fish) enter into your writing?

“Having the turtle as totem means that you have an affinity with the ancient wisdom of the earth. You are naturally tuned into the elements, land, plants, people and animals. You carry your home on your back figuratively speaking and feel at ease wherever you are.”   —-Elena Harris from “Turtle Spirit Animal”

“In modern China, turtle is one of the four divine animals along with dragon, phoenix, and chimera.” Turtle Symbolism 

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“When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise -”
“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

 

 

The Quest for the Question

My friend, Mary, and I recently took part in a writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in northern Wisconsin. We’re both working on book length projects and needed time away to focus.

Madeline Island School for the Arts

Madeline Island School of the Arts

“Write about your dark side,” says Mary one night. We are trying quick writing jumpstarts to make our way into the difficult work.

Earlier that day I said I was going to write about my dark side; and indeed, I had taken a stab at it. Now we laugh.

My dark side seems funny for some reason.

One  morning, the leader of the retreat, Elizabeth Andrew, asked us to frame the central question for our lives. She talked about how this central question will inform our memoir work. It will be the heartbeat.

Tonight, with a stricken look on her face, Mary says, “I don’t have a central question!” And we laugh again.

Mary and I are a little lost in the quagmire of finding our central question.

Elizabeth also asked us to think of a central image in our work.

“I don’t have a central image either!” Mary says.

That morning, Elizabeth suggested we dialogue with this central image. “Like Vicky’s telephone poles,” she said. The first day of class I had talked about how my memoir, Long Distance to North Carolina (tentative title), might use the metaphor of telephone poles and lines stretching across the country from Minnesota to North Carolina.

I glowed like a model student—the teacher’s pet—I had a central image!

And I set off writing a dialogue with telephone poles.

Mary’s face was puzzled. I could see her across the room. A little frown on her forehead.

Later as we sit in our cozy apartment, the same frown comes across her forehead as we talk about the day. “I don’t have a central image. Or a central question,” she says.

“We’re poets, “ I say, “Maybe we don’t think this way.” But now we’re trying to step out of our poet minds and write memoir. Maybe we have to go about it—this book creation—in a different way. We can try anyway.

But back to the workshop and the leader’s comments: she was saying, “Write out three central questions in your life. Then choose the one that stands out.” She listed three questions from her own writing as an example. It seemed easy.

I sat there like a lost sheep. My central question? All I could think of was “What will we have for dinner?” It is certainly the one most asked in my house these days. John to me: “What’s for dinner?” Me: Blank look. “Dinner?”

Finally I did jot down three central questions. But even now I have to look back in my notebook to see what they are—that’s how central they must be!

Here is what I wrote:

What does it mean to be here a short time?
What (where) is here?
What am I longing for?

The last one intrigues me because I love to listen to Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and especially Leonard Cohen late at night—and go to some funky place—like I’m sixteen again or thirty-two. Am I this age, in a rather old body, still living in the romance of a much younger version of myself? Okay. Move on.

So I chose the first one: What does it mean to be here a short time? The short-time question brings to mind the theme of mortality and immortality, a theme rooted in my spiritual life as well. Life and death. Life after death. Birth and death. In the body and out of the body. Longing for another place and time. Pleasing decay. All big questions to infuse my writing. But what happened to my central impetus to write about my mother and her life? She was here such a short time–even though she lived to be almost 96.

Maybe what I have to say is bigger than her life or mine. Yet I can’t get to the bigger questions without being mired in the details–or enriched by the specific moments we live, even in this moment as I struggle to see beyond myself.

Maybe I’m getting closer–or larger.

Now for my second question: what or where is here? And where or who is she?

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Writing Idea: If you’re working on a book-length project (or even a shorter one), what is your central question? Central image? Try a quick free-writing about what you see as possible questions. Even if you draw a blank, write some of the questions you circle around in your work. Or question why you don’t have questions! What about the images that keep coming back again and again as you write? Is there one question or image that stands out above the others?

Thanks to Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, the leader of our June retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts not only for this writing idea, but also for an amazing, inspirational week.

Our Group

Our Group                 June 2015

 

 

Hands

As I watch my hands curl over this keyboard, watch fingers reach and hover above the keys of my laptop, I see hands with a different mission than my father’s whose photograph hangs by my desk.

My father sits in the foreground in a bass fishing boat—most likely some time following his stroke—in his late seventies. His left hand is hidden from view, maybe he is reaching for the tiller of the motor ready to start the outboard and head to a new fishing spot, or maybe he and my brother are just drifting along the edge of this backwater lake in southeastern North Carolina. His right arm rests on his thigh with his fingers lightly twisted around a fishing rod.Carl fishing in Sutton Lake

He sits in repose with the heel of the lightweight rod at rest on the boat’s bottom. His fingers hold the rod as if the whole matter of fishing is rather incidental to the being there—the physical occupation of this space on this small boat on this expanse of water. Since he occupies the foreground, most of the picture is background. It is a quiet sunny day, and there is only a light ripple in the blue water behind him. The trees and bushes stretch out above him receding into the distance. My eye follows where he has been. He is toward the end of his journey. Yet it is his hand in repose that interests me.

His hands were the hands of a workingman. He worked outside almost all of his younger life as a lineman and then as an electrician for the Civil Aeronautics Association and a private electrical contractor, Tally Electric, before starting his own electrical contracting business when I was in high school. By the time he was in his seventies, his hands were crusty and red from long exposure to the southern sun.

The forefinger of his right hand was crooked—bending toward his palm slightly and a bit to the right. He joked and said that when he pointed at something he had to make a slight adjustment because if the viewer followed the angle of his finger, the object would be the wrong one. How did he hurt that finger? Was it in the fight he told me about when he was a young man? Or was it when he smashed it with a sledge-hammer in a construction accident?

One day in Minnesota when I was filling my gas tank on a cold winter day, I banged the forefinger of my own right hand on the gas lid. It was a frigid day—way below freezing–and my hands were numb. So I didn’t realize until several days later that my finger had formed into the exact same tilt as my father’s and never did straighten out.

My hands also show the effect of a childhood spent in the sun—the skin is wrinkled. Even when I was in college they had already begun to age. I remember a boyfriend holding my hands and saying, “What’s happening to your hands?” Yet mine are not the hands of a workingwoman—at least not those of someone who worked as my father did outside. Mine are the hands of a teacher, a mother, and now a grandmother. As a mother and teacher, my hands were sometimes covered with eczema—a red rash from the chalk on the blackboards aggregated by dishwater from cleaning up after our family of five. Then there was a callous on the inside of the middle finger of my left hand—a callous from holding the pen and writing comments on thousands of student papers.IMG_8653

Years ago when I lifted my new granddaughter, Ella, out of her high chair, she wrapped her hand around my bent finger. Her fingers were small and perfect and as smooth as the inside of a porcelain teacup. Mine are puckered with veins covered by loose crepe paper skin. Yet still these fingers of mine are agile enough to stretch over the black and white ivories of my new piano and to move across the letters of this laptop.

As my hands float over the keyboard, they seem to be a direct link to a stream of images. They are being asked to transform pictures from the past into meaning. They form words to reflect on the moving water of time—a different, more abstract place than the one my father’s boat rests upon in that lake where he fished.

In the picture of my father, I see that he wears the navy blue coveralls that were his signature attire and a beige fishing hat with a back flap to keep the sun off his neck. He has a look of readiness as if he knows that with the next spot on the lake and the next cast he will catch that bass. But if he doesn’t, that’s okay too because at the bottom of the picture is a big red ice chest full of cold drinks and maybe a cheese sandwich. There’s a lot of space behind him—and time—but he’s at peace it seems. I like that in the photograph he is up close and that if he put down the fishing rod, he could reach across and take my hand.

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“Stretch forth your open hands,/ Take all the gifts that Death and Life may give.”                                                                      –William Morris, The Earthly Paradise. March.

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Writing Idea:  Many artists practice sketching hands. Each person’s hands tell a story. Try a word sketch of your hand or someone else’s. Maybe you can use a photo and do a word sketch of the person and his/her hands.  Go where it takes you.

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

In the last blog, I promised you a recipe. But first my story:

The children were tired after spinning around on the State Fair rides. We had toured the animal barns and seen the Big Pig, filled up on cold milk at the twenty-five-cent-all-you-can-drink milk stand, and climbed on the huge green tractors on Machinery Hill. It was late afternoon on a hot August day at the Minnesota State Fair, and the streets were a mass of people. A strange mixture of corn dogs, cotton candy, and human sweat filled the steamy air.

“Can’t we get our ice cream now?” asked Susan, my daughter, who was maybe nine or ten years old that summer. She was ready to head to the agriculture building where we always saw the bees and devoured huge cones of sunflower honey ice cream. “No. Not yet,” I said, “We’ve got to go this way to the creative activities building.” I pointed in the opposite direction.

The boys were still little—both squirming in their double stroller. My parents, Ruth and Carl, who came every summer from North Carolina for State Fair, were with us too.

On this particular late August day, we were all together as we made our way to the creative activities building to see the cake display. “We have to check it out,” I said as we pushed the boys in the stroller through the crowded aisles around displays of quilts, handmade baby sweaters, carved duck decoys, and stamp collections towards the cakes.

Every year Gloria, my neighbor across the street, entered her bagels in the state fair baking competition. Each summer she encouraged me to enter my pound cake. She kept telling me that my pound cake might win a ribbon. I thought that Aunt Clarissa’s cake was much too ordinary to win anything in a cake contest. Of course, we all loved it—with its fine buttery texture and tender crust. But to me, it was just an everyday cake, one that my Southern relatives would serve at any meal—no icing, nothing fancy. When I was a girl, my mother’s favorite sister, Clarissa, baked it every time we visited her in Mt. Olive. Later Mother made it when I came home to North Carolina. And now, I had made it so many times I knew the recipe by heart. images

“Oh come on,” said Gloria. “You have to enter it.” So a few weeks before my parents’ visit, I spent a steamy August day in the kitchen baking. I made two cakes that day because the first one looked a little flat. I dashed up to Milt’s Grocery and bought fresh baking powder, butter, flour, and eggs and made it again. Our house had only a couple of window units to air-condition the bedrooms, so the kitchen must have been a hundred degrees by the time I finished. My friend June’s daughter from across the alley came over to watch the children. I jumped into the car, my wet hair clinging to the back of my neck, and took the cake over to the fairgrounds in St. Paul to be judged.

By the time my parents arrived for their August visit, I had almost forgotten about the cake. But now, here we were, our entourage, approaching the glass-enclosed display in the creative arts building.

We saw a big group standing around the cakes. My husband peered over the crowd as I tried to jockey the stroller in closer to the case. Susan slipped between the adults and pressed her nose against the glass. Finally we all managed to crowd around the cake display. At least a hundred cakes were arranged on shelves behind the glass—brightly frosted layer cakes with heaps of red, yellow, and blue flowers, all-chocolate cakes, yellow cakes with fluffy vanilla frosting, pineapple upside down cakes, every cake imaginable.

In the center, on a pedestal, surrounded by half-a-dozen ribbons, sat Aunt Clarissa’s plain pound cake with its sprinkle of powdered sugar. One huge blue ribbon said, “Grand Cake Sweepstakes.” On the card next to it, I read my name and the carefully lettered words, ‘Best Cake of the Fair.’ ” I was stunned. We crowded in front of the cakes and took photos and acted goofy. “Well, what do you know,” said Daddy.

“Mom’s cake won! Mom’s cake won!” said Susan to her two little brothers as she jumped around their stroller, pointing to the cake. I just stood there, shocked to see Aunt Clarissa’s ordinary cake taking its place so proudly among all the fancy cakes. Mother’s eyes were a little moist. “I can’t believe it,” she said.

Later as we headed over to buy our honey-sunflower seed ice cream cones, I was thinking, No, it’s not my cake. It’s Aunt Clarissa’s cake. She deserved that moment of glory.

Her pound cake pops up at most every meal at our house when my now grown children with their children come home. I take it to people when they have lost someone, the way I have now lost Ruth and Carl and Aunt Clarissa and all my many aunts and uncles. I take it to people in the neighborhood who are sick. I bake it when I need a lift.

I’ve tried to branch out and make other kinds of cakes. But I’ve made this cake so many times now that I can whip it up quickly. In a little over an hour, we’re poking toothpicks into its center to check if it’s done. We’re cutting into the moist steamy interior even before it has cooled. Aunt Clarissa’s pound cake never disappoints. All those memories are baked into its warm center.

Daddy an Me  State Fair 1982

Daddy and Me                                   State Fair 1982

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Writing Idea:  Do you have a story about a recipe–a story about a certain food that just keeps popping up again and again in your life–and in the lives of others?

After writing this piece about the pound cake, I see that the one I really must write is about Aunt Clarissa, my mother’s favorite sister. Maybe your recipe and story will unearth another one.

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Here is the recipe for Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake. I’ve always said that I give this recipe and the cake itself only to people I love. I hope you do the same.

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

3 cups sugar
2 sticks butter
1/3 cup shortening (Crisco)
1 cup milk
5 eggs
3 cups flour (cake flour works well, but any kind will do)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Bring milk, eggs, and butter to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease (using Crisco shortening) and flour a large Bundt pan. See note.
Blend together butter, shortening, and sugar.
Add the eggs, one at time. Beat each one into batter.
Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl or large measuring cup.
Add flour mixture and milk, alternating—end with flour.
Add vanilla.

Bake at 325 degrees for one hour and ten minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake rest for 10 minutes before turning out on cake plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Note:
You can use Bakers Joy spray, which has oil and flour together, for preparing the Bundt pan. Be sure that all areas of the pan are covered with shortening and then flour to prevent sticking. Use a very heavy-duty Bundt pan (Nordicware), rather than the lightweight ones. Also be careful not to over-beat as you add the flour. If you use the large Kitchen Aid mixers, beat for only a short time—just enough to combine the ingredients, during the flour adding stage.

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