20151230_122610-1I once went to London to attend a “master class”  by a famous writer. It was actually a lecture in a room with 200 or so folding chairs. When the writer was finished talking about her dog and her cottage in the woods, she opened the floor for questions. Someone asked, “What kind of pen do you use?”

The magic pen. The magic paper, computer program, time of day, mantra or tea. Yes, I grew up watching Bewitched, too. Longing for the short cut, the magic wiggle. Waiting for the fairy godmother, or the red shoes that will make me famous before they kill me.

I had an epiphany in that moment, as banal as an acknowledgement of the reality of one’s own mortality… or a slogan: just do it. But like anyone saved on Sunday, drunk on Tuesday, part of me continued to look for the portal to the muses – a one-night stand start to a long term relationship.

Good things take time.

Five years ago I sort of climbed out in front of my life and started to take charge. I realised that if you’re ticking that 46 and over box on the survey, your fairy godmother probably isn’t coming.

I started simplifying my life.  Making room. Choosing.

A few years ago, a good friend told me about her own quest to simplify: to own one beautiful hairbrush; one exquisite pen. She inspired me. I’ve been looking for the one pen. The magic pen.

I bought a gorgeous pen when I visited her this summer. Handmade. Looks like the sea. But the ink flows unevenly. I don’t use it when I write every morning. It just sits on the desk looking pretty.

I steal pens. I tend to borrow them and walk off with them. I have a callous on my left second finger from writing. My hand is formed to writing utensils. Yesterday, when I cleaned my nightstand, I found 9 pens in the drawer. Most of them completely unfamiliar. Things I “borrowed” from students or colleagues, surely. Pens migrate from school and back again, hitching between the pages of textbooks and notebooks.

But last week I realised the school is stocking the supply room with different pens. Thin, scrawny pens.

Budget cuts.

I had no idea I was so accustomed to the cheap blue pens I’ve been using for years. I didn’t realise I’d been using the same pen every morning the past year. Things happen when you don’t notice them. Habits form.

I had to borrow a car to drive out to the office supply store to buy my own box of pens. The cheap, plastic pens that the school no longer supplies.

My one pen.

This sucks. I really wanted my one pen to be exquisite.

 

 

 

 

DSC_0384I was listening to radiolab‘s podcast on memory. Thinking about memories as neural constructions, as bridges. In my case, most often, fragments of bridges.

Or hand-me-down bridges, with their romantic patinas.

When not left to our own imaginations, our stories are told to us. Bit by bit, angle by angle. Point of views, like dreams, blending into one another. We piece details together to create our single narrative, but can never be certain of whose truths we are repeating.

I jumped up and down on the concrete steps of my grandparent’s house, to make the frogs jump out from under them. I was three. I was wearing a white romper. What little hair I had was curled at the ends. The world was black and white then.

I remember a broom. But no one ever contextualised that part of the story for me: the broom is like a random illustration tucked into a children’s book. There is a possibility that only the broom is my own memory. There is also a possibility that the broom is some kind of emotional symbolism that I put there because I saw Cinderella years later, and fantasised about chores and fairy god mothers, while sweeping concrete steps. The broom may have come from the photo, corners tucked into place, beside that photo in an album somewhere: my grandfather sweeping the drive.

Rebuilding bridges with what material is at hand. We are resourceful engineers. We create what is useful, and what is necessary.


I was thirty the first time I went to Rome. I cried when I saw The Sistine Chapel. An acquaintance thought I has having a religious experience. It was so much more complicated than that.

There was the fact that I was there. A bit of trailer park trash whose greatest ambition was to get to New York City someday. I had something akin to survivor’s guilt.

And there was the fact of the chapel itself. Not the one I’d seen in photographs and documentaries. But here, just following the Nippon restoration, was a Sistine Chapel in Marvel Colors.: royal blues and stop-sign reds. It was a metaphor for expectations. An example borrowed nostalgia versus the garishness of reality. Garish because reality can be defined as a bombardment of the senses. The loudness of being in the world.


In Vermont there are covered bridges. When I went there for the first time, in my early forties, I recognised the landscape. I walked through the Children’s Home, where my grandmother grew up. The soft green walls. The now-empty halls. There is a bridge we had built together, between the neurons in my grandmother’s brain, and the neurons in mine. Even now, a bridge that stretches outward from my mind to wherever matter becomes energy.


DSC_0540-2A not-so-random fact: some of the bridges in Paris are collapsing under the weight of expectations.

Ruth Stone said something to the effect that finding the poem is sometimes catching it by the tail as it passes by. (Elisabeth Gilbert, TEDtalk)

Before it moves on, through the landscape.

DSC_0065And this is familiar to me.
I recognise the existence of these creatures. I’ve heard them. Felt them brush against me. I’ve sensed them, teasing and wanting to be caught.

But they can be intimidating. Like dragons.
Sometimes speaking languages I don’t know. Or
demanding specific words, like knives, that I’m afraid to touch.

And during those times when I am not writing – the weeks
or years – I watch their shimmering from a distance

with an increasing balm of solitude.

There is always the promise of
the winter shore, the tiny
individual bubbles rising from the sand as the tide pulls out
desperate and hopeful
elusive, while unquestionably present
in whispers, soft with sighs.

IMG_0460Not in Utopia, –subterranean fields,–
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, — the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all!

(Napoleon Bonaparte, 1791 – “Residence in France,” The Prelude, book 11. Found in Darrin McMahon’s Happiness: A History.)

I had been thinking about the title of this blog for a while now, and had considered “In this World”, weeks before I read the above quote from Napoleon’s essay, the essay that was ridiculed by the gatekeepers, and that possibly marked the end of his ambitions as a writer.

I’ve been thinking about blogging, or not blogging. About false starts, abandoned ideas, and ambitious reinventions. Thinking about the trope of the Great Adventure: the privilege of taking off into the wilderness to find oneself.

About what we give up, what we give.

What we take.

About narcissism, hubris, delusion.

And purpose.

About writing. Always about writing.

Excuses.


Recently, I read Alan Watts The Wisdom of Insecurity because a former student whom I admire a great deal recommended it to me. About a third of the way through, I couldn’t push from my mind the thought that I had already asked all these questions by the age of 12. About halfway through, I began to ask myself why I had stopped asking all these questions.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I read a lot as a kid, as a teenager, and as a young adult. And, obviously, people smarter than me were asking the questions already. In fact, every idea I ever had: someone had already been there – done that.

I’ve been waiting for pre-approval for my right to speak. Waiting for the gatekeepers to invite me in. But even when they did, and they have on occasion, I’ve felt like a fraud: exposed and vulnerable.

So this is me being brave. This is me, not walking the Camino, not spending a year at an ashram, but me living the life I have chosen, with all its routines, obligations, and joys.

This is me, moving on, finding inspiration in Sondheim:

– “I’ve nothing to say, nothing that hasn’t been said before.”
– “Not by you, George.” [from Sunday in the Park with George.]