Tried and True

Life is uncertain, we know that. We know that we’re on a small blue globe spinning through the darkness of space. We’ve seen maps of galaxies with the little arrow pointing: “You are here.” We know that in a moment, life can change, or end. Our planet can be hit by an asteroid. We can be hit by a bus. We know all that: the uncertainty, instability, unreliability of it all.

Which is why I like finding things that are tried and true. Things I know I can rely on. They’re always small things, because the larger things you can’t rely on: home, love, peace. Those things change and slip away. Come back and slip away again. So I hold on to small things, even silly things, the way a child clutches a favorite blanket or toy. But the small things matter in life: raindrops, fireflies, minutes all matter. If you experience it in the right way, a minute can last an eternity. In the same way, small things can keep you grounded, safely on this spinning globe. They can fill you with happiness.

So I’m going to list some of the things I rely on, and I think you should make a list of your own. What is your tried and true, no matter how small or silly? What do you know will not let you down?

1. Revlon lipstick. The cosmetics company Revlon has been around since 1932, and they’ve figured out how to make lipstick by now. The colors are rich and varied, the lipsticks are moisturizing. And they are cheap. When I wear my favorite color (Fig Jam), I feel adventurous and as though I could conquer the world. Happiness in a tube of lipstick: that’s like a small miracle, really.

2. My rice cooker. I put in dry rice and water, and an hour later I have cooked rice. How perfectly brilliant! Would that other things in life were so reliable.

3. Cotton cardigans. Is there anything better for fall in New England than a cotton cardigan? (I can’t wear wool because it’s too itchy.) You can put it on, button it or not, take it off, depending on the temperature — which, in fall in New England, is unpredictable. The cotton cardigan: an ingenious device that allows you to regular and respond to unpredictability. And it comes in pretty colors . . .

4. Alstroemeria lilies. I know, they’re not the most beautiful flowers. But the most beautiful flowers are delicate — if I bring them home and put them in a vase, they last a day or two. Alstroemeria lilies last, reliably, for a week. And over that week, I can see them open up, pink or yellow or crimson, with green veins. They bring something living and beautiful into my apartment.

5. Cetaphil face wash. If you have sensitive skin, your skin itself, the thing you live in, can be unpredictable. Will we break out into a red rash today? We never know . . . This is the gentlest and most reliable way to clean my face, the face I present the the world and that tells people what I’m thinking or feeling. Considering how much work my face does, I think it deserves to be well taken care of!

6. Agatha Christie mysteries. When I can’t read anything else, when I’m exhausted or despairing, I can always read her mysteries: the gruesome death, the labyrinthine case, the logical deductions. I think it’s because they tell me that in an uncertain world, there’s always an underlying logic, if we can just see it.

7. The sea. All right, this isn’t a small one. But the sea . . . it moves, it has moods, it gets angry sometimes. Sometimes it breaks things. You could say that it’s the principle of uncertainty itself. And that’s why it’s so reassuring. The sea is always different, yet always there. Whatever changes on the surface, underneath the sea is the same. Until our planet itself dries up, it will be with us, in constant motion. By the time the sea goes away, we will be long gone.

8. Ballet flats. You can squash them flat and pack them into a suitcase, and when you arrive in London, they’ll be ready for you. They’ll carry you through cities and down country roads. Sure, there are places where ballet flats are impractical, but I wouldn’t travel without them. With a pair of ballet flats and a pair of Keds, I can go almost anywhere . . .

9. The English language. All right, this is another big one. But it’s like the sea: it’s so uncertain, such a mishmash of other languages, always changing, and yet always the same underneath. It’s reliably unreliable. Cough? Dough? Plough? I mean, really, it’s crazy . . . And yet I love it. (Hungarian, which I also love, is also crazy, in a completely different way.)

10. Timex watches. Time slips away, but a Timex watch will at least tell you what time it is, reliably. Mine don’t even need to be wound. I have two, in case I lose one or the battery stops working and I need another watch to wear while I get it replaced. They are comparatively cheap, and they do what they’re supposed to — tell the time — perfectly. How many things in life can do that?

All things fall, all things change. Which is why we hold on to what we can, whether it’s a favorite shade of lipstick, or a dogeared book, or a walk by the seashore . . .

Fall

(This is a photo I took recently, in the park by the Boston Common. That’s the swan lake . . .)

Making Mistakes

I’ve been decorating, so I’ve been making lots of mistakes.

The latest is the Mistake of the Bedroom Curtains. Yes, they have names, like Sherlock Holmes cases. The mistake was that I bought the wrong curtains, but it actually all started with the bed.

When I first started decorating the bedroom, I put the bed in a perfectly logical place, close to the window. I added the bedside tables and hung pictures above them. I thought, that’s it: one corner of the bedroom done. And then I realized that late at night, through the wall, I could hear the low buzz of conversation from the building next door. Not words, but the buzz that lets you know a conversation is taking place, like bees in the walls. I don’t know how, since the buildings are a hundred years old and the walls are a foot thick. But then, I have very good hearing. So I had to turn the bed around, which actually ended up being a much better place for it. And the bedside tables had to move. And the bookshelves. So now I had a window with a bookshelf beneath it, which meant rehanging the paintings. I will have to find spackle and paint to cover the initial holes — to hide my mistakes.

But what about the curtains? The first set of curtains I put on the window were dark red cotton, to match the curtains in the living room. But the window in the bedroom is tall and narrow: those curtains blocked out too much light. The second set of curtains were cream, with flowers on them (one of my favorite patterns, Waverly’s Norfolk Rose). They were perfect, but always meant to be temporary because they will eventually be the bed curtains (by which I mean the ones that go over the bed — a bed doesn’t feel finished to me, without curtains). So I bought a third set of curtains, with dark red and cream stripes. I thought, that will match everything else in the room, right? And they did. They matched perfectly, and would have worked, except . . . the room was too dark again. And then I thought, why not get plain cream cotton curtains, just like the dark red curtains I started with — except, you know, not dark or red. By now you’re thinking, I never ever want to decorate with this woman . . . Because yes, I had gone through three different sets of curtains for the bedroom, although the only one I couldn’t reuse elsewhere was the striped set. But I had actually learned something from the experience. Not that I’m incredibly picky when decorating my living space — that I knew. But that the most important thing, for me, was light.

You see, the bedroom is where I have my writing desk, and sometimes I write during the day, although right now I do most of my writing at night. It’s important to me that the room get as much light as possible during the day, although at night I need to close the curtains. The mistake — buying the wrong curtains — led to the realization. So now I have plain cream cotton curtains. If I could, I would have a pattern, because I like patterns. But the most important thing is the light. Without buying the wrong curtains, I would not have realized what I actually valued the most.

And that’s why I’m writing a blog post about curtains: because they led to a revelation. I blame myself for mistakes, beat myself up mentally for them.  But the mistakes are actually part of the learning process. They aren’t wrong turns, but how I get to the right place. We’re told to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, but what I’m saying goes deeper than that: our mistakes are necessary. We could not succeed without them. Often, it’s just after doing something wrong that I suddenly realize how to do it right. If you’re not making mistakes, it’s probably because you’re not trying to do anything particularly complicated. Anything at all complicated (in which I include hanging curtains) takes time, and finding the right way to do it — and that usually involves starting with wrong ways.

So what I’m saying is, don’t blame yourself for mistakes. Don’t forgive yourself for them. Thank yourself for them . . . maybe even, if you can, celebrate them. Because without them, you can’t get wherever you’re going.

Curtains

This is the window, and the shelf, and the pictures rehung. And the curtains . . .

Pacing Yourself

You can’t do everything.

You can do a lot of things, but you have to pace yourself.

These are the lessons I’ve been learning this month. I’m the sort of person who wants to do everything: Teach. Write novels and stories and essays and poems. Spend time with my daughter, of course. But also learn Hungarian, and go to the ballet, and read books. Travel when I can. Decorate my apartment. There’s time for all of that, but I have to figure out when and how to do each thing so I’m doing it well, and not exhausting myself. That takes pacing.

So for example, I’m decorating my apartment. My impulse is to do everything at once: to buy the bookshelves, put them together, stain and finish them. Buy the pillows, the fabric to cover the pillows. Sew the pillow covers. But I don’t have time to do everything at once, because I’m also teaching and writing. So instead I do a little each day, and I find that as long as I’m doing something each day, eventually it gets done. The shelves go up, the pillows are covered and put on the daybed.

It takes having patience, and being able to divide work into discreet tasks so you can do it a bit at a time. So for example, today I’m going to stain the shelves, then let them dry overnight, turn them over, and stain the other sides tomorrow. They should be completely stained by this weekend, when I can put the whole bookshelf together and finish it with oil. Soon, and by soon I mean at the end of the week, I’ll have a bookshelf, and the books that have been sitting on the floor will have a home. I do hate books sitting on the floor, so not having a place to put them has been an exercise in patience. But I know that as long as I work on the shelves every day, a little at a time, I will eventually have a floor without books on it.

The same goes for writing, and of course you know I’m more concerned about writing than shelves, although my home is important to me. In writing, I have to pace myself too. Right now, I’m working on revising the entire novel. This will be my second full revision, and this week I’ve been doing the hardest part: rewriting the first chapter. I work during the day, so I write at night, from around nine p.m. to midnight. I find that I can only write for about three hours before I lose focus, before the words won’t come as easily or fit together as well. It’s like the shelves: as long as I do a little each day, I know it will eventually be done.

There is another sense in which I try to pace myself: not just breaking up tasks over time, but making sure that in any given day, I’m doing different sorts of things. I know that if I teach and then meet with students, I need to do something that doesn’t involve people. If I sit and write for a long time, I need to go something physical. If my mind has been taken up all day with work, I need to go read a book. Whatever I’ve done, I need to do the opposite for a while. Otherwise, I’ll exhaust myself with one task, or type of task.

Pacing yourself is about getting to do all the things you want to do, not necessarily when you want to do them, but so you can do them most efficiently, and with the most energy. It takes three things:

1. Prioritizing. Know what you actually want to do, and get rid of the things you don’t want to, to the extent you can.

2. Dividing tasks over time. Figure out how to divide what you need or want to do, and do part of it each day until it’s done. But almost anything you do, even the things you love to do, you will tire of, if you keep doing them long enough.

3. Dividing your time into tasks. What do you want to do when? What are the things you most need or want to get done today, and how are you going to arrange them? Can you fit in the things you need to do, the things you want to do, and the things that will give you a break from everything else? Remember to take a walk, read a book . . .

I’m not always very good at pacing myself, but I have so many things I want to do . . . and I think that’s the only way to do them.

Tree

Last weekend, I saw this little tree in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. Can you see that it’s trying to be all the colors at once? I admire this little tree, and yet I thought: pace yourself! You have plenty of growing to do, and there’s plenty of autumn to come. You will be all the colors, little tree, in time . . .

On Middle Age

Goodness, I suppose I must be middle-aged. By which I mean that I’m in my 40s, and that’s what they call middle age, right? It’s supposedly somewhere in the middle . . .

Although my grandmother lived to 96, and I’m not halfway there yet. And I don’t feel as though I’m in the middle of anything. One of the problems of being an artist is that you feel, always and for all time, as though you’re at the beginning, just getting started. You don’t think Picasso sat around thinking, “I’m in the middle,” do you? No, he was always at the beginning of another period, of discovering the way to paint. Sometimes I beat myself up mentally, asking myself, why haven’t I accomplished anything yet? Why am I still at the very beginning of writing? And then I remind myself that I’ve been at this ten years, that I’ve published four books. Oh, but those were poems, stories, essays, I think. Not a novel, not yet. And anyway, I’m still learning . . .

Every night, when I sit down in front of the computer and write a new sentence, I learn something new. Every sentence is a beginning.

So perhaps middle-age means physically? But I feel healthier than I’ve ever felt in my life, more fit both physically and mentally. I have back problems, but those started in my twenties, when an Evil Partner at my law firm cast a curse that kept me revising documents for the financing of a technology startup, twelve hours a day. After a week, I couldn’t move my neck. When I went to see the doctor, she told me it looked as though I had been in a car accident. Ever since, I’ve had back problems. So I go to a magical Physical Therapist, and I exercise, and try to get enough sleep, and manage as best I can. I will never get rid of the underlying injury.

The strange thing about writing a blog is that I can remember back, two years ago, when I started this one. I was still working on my doctoral dissertation, then. I remember writing about butterflies, and how when they are in the chrysalis, they must feel as though they’re dying. I wrote that because I felt that way myself, at the time. I had faith, then, that I would emerge at some point, and that what I would emerge as would look like a butterfly.

And guess what? I feel like a butterfly. A very tired butterfly, sometimes. But free, and beautiful, and able to do all sorts of things I could only dream about, when in the caterpillar stage of my twenties and thirties. Like, you know, fly . . . So whatever age I am now, whether middle or something else, thank goodness for it.

This year, several people I knew died, in their thirties or forties. What was the middle for them — their teens? Twenties? The truth is, we don’t know what the middle of a life is. We never know. So I’ve decided that middle age is like fairies, or the stock market — it exists only if people believe in it. I’m not sure I do. (At least, I’m more likely to believe in fairies . . .)

If I had to describe the way I feel, today, the day before my birthday, I would have to say that I feel as though I’m in my late childhood. Just emerging from the process of learning who I am, for the first time confident enough to say “I think I know.” Not yet confident enough to say “I know,” but I don’t think I’ll ever get there, because I keep changing. As do we all. We have a tendency to discount how much we change, how much life changes around us. We think the present is it, that in the present we have arrived somewhere. But we haven’t. We don’t arrive anywhere until our deaths — everything else is journey. And where we are on that journey . . . we just don’t know.

Personally, I intend to live until I’m a hundred. And I intend to write all the way. Perhaps by the time I reach my 80s, I’ll know what I’m doing.

Dora 1

This was me last weekend, out in the country visiting Fruitlands, the farm where Bronson Alcott and his family tried to create a rural utopia. It didn’t work very well . . . But it makes for a wonderful visit in fall, when the trees are starting to turn yellow and orange and red, and the apples are hanging on the trees. And then there was apple pie and maple walnut ice cream. A wonderful way to spend a birthday . . .

Landscape 4

Telling Stories

In a blog post called “The Storyteller’s Art,” Terri Windling included a wonderful quotation from Philip Pullman:

“[T]here was a sort of embarrassment about storytelling that struck home powerfully about one hundred years ago, at the beginning of modernism. We see a similar reaction in painting and in music. It’s a preoccupation suddenly with the surface rather than the depth. So you get, for example, Picasso and Braque making all kinds of experiments with the actual surface of the painting. That becomes the interesting thing, much more interesting than the thing depicted, which is just an old newspaper, a glass of wine, something like that. In music, the Second Viennese School becomes very interested in what happens when the surface, the diatonic structure of the keys breaks down, and we look at the notes themselves in a sort of tone row, instead of concentrating on things like tunes, which are sort of further in, if you like. That happened, of course, in literature, too, with such great works as James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is all about, really, how it’s told. Not so much about what happens, which is a pretty banal event in a banal man’s life. It’s about how it’s told. The surface suddenly became passionately interesting to artists in every field about a hundred years ago . . .

“In the field of literature, story retreated. The books we talked about just now, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Vanity Fair — their authors were the great storytellers as well as the great artists. After modernism, things changed. Indeed, modernism sometimes seems to me like an equivalent of the Fall. Remember, the first thing Adam and Eve did when they ate the fruit was to discover that they had no clothes on. They were embarrassed. Embarrassment was the first consequence of the Fall. And embarrassment was the first literary consequence of this modernist discovery of the surface. ‘Am I telling a story? Oh my God, this is terrible. I must stop telling a story and focus on the minute gradations of consciousness’ . . .

“So there was a great split that took place. Story retreated, as it were, into genre fiction — into crime fiction, into science fiction, into romantic fiction — whereas the high-art literary people went another way. Children’s books held onto the story, because children are rarely interested in surfaces in that sort of way. They’re interested in what-happened and what-happened-next.

“I found it a great discipline, when I was writing The Golden Compass and other books, to think that there were some children in the audience. I put it like that because I don’t say I write for children. I find it hard to understand how some writers can say with great confidence, ‘Oh, I write for fourth grade children’ or ‘I write for boys of 12 or 13.’ How do they know? I don’t know. I would rather consider myself in the rather romantic position of the old storyteller in the marketplace: you sit down on your little bit of carpet with your hat upturned in front of you, and you start to tell a story.”

I read this and immediately thought, YES. I want to tell stories, that’s what I’m doing . . . telling stories. All of my stories are, actually, stories in which things happen. Important things: people die, countries are born. In other words, they have plot. Shhh . . . plot can be sort of a bad word nowadays. And I understand why, because honestly, a story that is all plot, with little else going on, is rather dull. Who cares what happens when we don’t understand where we are, who the characters are. When the story is written in a purely utilitarian way. But I like to have a plot, and I actually think plotting is an important part of the storyteller’s art. I want my audience to go, “Wait, and then what? What happened next?” I want to keep you awake reading the next chapter . . .

Pullman’s distinction between surface and depth seems important to me. I value art that has both: Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, where the surface has texture and interest, and the depth has passion and incident. Mastery is being able to work both at once: to create an art that has both surface and depth.

And that, dear reader, is exactly what I’m trying to do. Plot and setting and character and theme and style. All at the same time, like a juggler of golden apples.

Irises

This, of course, is Van Gogh’s Irises . . .