Today’s one of those days where I feel like I’m living my “real” life, which is the life I take up when I can set my own rhythm, when the phone doesn’t ring (except once which resulted in me ordering FIOS), plans haven’t been made, and the only sounds in the house are the turning of pages (I’m making my way through Journal of a Solitude), the ticking of the clock fashioned out of an old tin tart pan that I bought at an arts fair in Provincetown more than a decade ago, the dragging of ink across a page (I finally wrote down my list of 50 Things to Accomplish This Year and started the lists of movies I’ve watched and books I’ve read), and the plodding of my slippered feet up and down the polished floorboards of the hallway as I accomplish little tasks (take down the Christmas tree in my room, make my bed, write a few more New Years cards, eat the entire box of generic baked wheat snack crackers that was on top of the fridge).
When I texted my sister this morning I told her my plans for the day were to nap and read and nap and read. There was only one nap and I did turn on the TV to watch Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death on Netflix Instant, but for the most part, today has been about the little domestic adventures: hanging a small amateur painting I bought at a yard sale last summer in the kitchen by the sink, reading the first half of the January issue of Living, Etc. (which is strangely their Christmas issue), wearing the orange bracelet I thrifted on Thursday for no reason at all other than I didn’t feel like putting it away when I unpacked the bag it was sitting in, idly thinking as I watered the three plants that this is the year I will finally repot the plant my friend A. gave me when I came home from the hospital seven years ago, divvying up all the little babies that have rooted themselves since then, each carving out its own little plot in the green pot, the way I have carved out mine.
This morning I was quite taken by the scene playing out across the living room window in the early light. The sun cast the shadow of a branch across the window, with the shadow of a squirrel chasing back and forth across the branch, so that I seemed to have my very own ethereal animated film. I have come to love this apartment though it was chosen for me, my sister and my mother finding a new place for me to live even though no one was sure I’d recover from the severe pneumonia. While I was in the rehabilitation hospital learning to use my atrophied limbs again, the occupational therapist would ask, “What does your bathroom look like?” “How close is your bed to the bedroom door?” Time and again, I’d answer, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
I hated this apartment when I finally came home to it. It was boxy and ordinary and even the wealth of closets couldn’t make up for its lack of charm. Though the apartment I was living in when I took ill turned out to be a death trap, I’d loved it. It was an English basement of a Victorian house. I painted the floorboards of the bedroom which was off the kitchen, sewed swathes of pink silk to curtain the old-fashioned windows that swung open inward like French doors. I constantly rearranged the furniture in “the great room,” which included a single bed I used as a couch, and sewed curtains for the bay window out of white fabric traced in blue glittery sworls and whorls. I tore pages out of a book of botanical photographs to hang above the radiator, and decided not to mind that there was an actual weed growing through the carpeting directly in front of the radiator. And I spent many nights lulling myself to sleep with a hot bath in the claw-foot bathtub that took up most of the space in the tiny bathroom that you went up three steps to reach.
I knew I couldn’t stay there, in my beautiful neighborhood of hippies and hydrangeas, once it was clear how sick I was, and, in fact, when I was in ICU, I begged my sister not to make me go back there. But still I couldn’t help but mourn its quirkiness and vintage charm when confronted with the quotidian, dingy cream walls of my new place. Now, seven years later, there’s a midnight blue wall in the living room, a shocking pink wall in the bedroom, a collection of crocheted and wool throws I’ve thrifted in the living room, two rugs based on the Gee’s Bend quilts I love, a faux Tulip table courtesy of IKEA, four vintage wooden Danish dining chairs, two Tord Boontje garland lamps—one of the first purchases I splurged on, a pull-out couch that I inherited from a friend and hope to keep forever, a vintage telephone table that I bought for $10 and recently recovered, plants I’ve managed to keep alive, a collection of Eiffel tower replicas including one that’s a combination liqueur bottle-music box, and art everywhere. On weekends, when I can linger in bed, I am often struck by the beauty of the early sun as it chases over my white sheets, and then, when I finally make my way to the living room, pinks the room in a way that is pure joy.
So here I am typing on my laptop, lying on the blue and white couch covered in the afghan my Granny Rosie crocheted for me 30 years ago, having spent the day watching the light move from a shy pink to that clear bright light particular to the winter. Now the outside world is all in silhouette, save for the punctuations of light from the apartments in the building across the driveway. As the twin pines outside my window stand sentry, as I ease into night knowing that the morning alarm must be set for church and that tomorrow evening I will trade this restorative solitude for the sweet balm of the laughter of friends, I am grateful to be an ordinary woman living an ordinary life on this ordinary, magical day.
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'” — May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude, September 15th
This may not be how it happened but this is how I remember it: I was browsing the Kalamazoo library bookstore with my friend Danna when she handed me this slim volume, a paperback with a black-and-white cover photo of a typewriter and a lamp seen through a glass door. “Journal of a Solitude,” it said, “The intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman.”
I don’t remember if I’d heard of May Sarton before. I was perhaps not yet thirty, I had perhaps not yet lived half-a-year in Provincetown where I wrestled with what it meant for me to be an artist. The years of “undefined depressive disorder” brought on my finally getting into therapy and raking up the hot coals of loss and anger I’d long buried were still a half-decade in the future. I had no reason to suspect that this sixty-something Belgian emigre New England writer, typing up these daily entries in the autumn of 1973 through the autumn of the next year, could have anything to say to me.
I remember the shock of recognition when I read the opening paragraph, that quiet voice that understood why I loved long nights of cocktails and blues bands, but still hungered for long stretches of hours hidden away in my apartment with just a pen and a notebook and perhaps a pile of books. “I have written every poem, every novel for the same purpose—to find out what I think, to know where I stand.”* How did she know that the only sure reflection of myself I knew was on the page? That it was the poems hidden in my body that helped me understand my wants, my desires, my griefs. Line by line I would tell myself my own secrets. Word by word I learned to recognize myself.
When I met Sarton, I didn’t yet know I was an introvert. Surely someone who regularly organized the company happy hours and spent two or three nights a week out at her favorite bar was an extrovert. I didn’t understand then that one could be a social introvert, enjoy the company of people immensely, but still need solitude in order to refill the well, recharge, refresh. Sarton helped me to understand the anger, the frustration I felt when I’d spent too much time in motion, when I’d not gifted myself one of those days when I was out and about but didn’t speak to a soul other than to pay for a purchase or say “excuse me.” She helped me to see that there was a difference between a day given over to contemplation and the completion of tasks that I wanted to do, and those days that weren’t restful even if I lay on the couch all day because of the endless loop of “I shoulds” running through my overcrowded brain.
I have re-read Journal of a Solitude countless times since that first discovery, and I buy copies when I find them to pass on to woman artist friends who too might find themselves struggling with that need for solitude that seems at odds with what women are supposed to want—to be at the center of family, blood or otherwise—even if we are, as I am, single and childless. I find myself craving Sarton’s voice when I feel lost, when I need to re-establish my sense of self because of some crisis or simply because I’m juggling too many projects at once. I have since collected most of her non-fiction, and I snatch up her novels when I find them though I’ve only read two so far—Kinds of Love, and The Magnificent Spinster (I think). I’m not a fan of her poetry though I buy those books too when I find them as it pains me to think of her voice disappearing, unheard by a woman who desperately needs it, and somehow I think that I will eventually grow into her poems, be able to see past the easy rhymes and “old-fashionedness” to appreciate the pure spirit behind them.
Did I mention that Sarton loved Mrs. Woolf too, and even went to visit her, Mrs. Woolf cool and in her declining years, Sarton eager, still a theater ingenue and not yet bloomed into the writer she’d become?
No matter how many times I’ve read Sarton, I find myself scribbling down her sentences again and again. She is my guardian angel leading me home, back to the quiet center of myself, where I rest alone. where I am equal to the task of honesty. She takes me by the hand, leads me to the blue-and-white couch, whispers forcefully, “The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.” **
* Journal of a Solitude, September 15
** Journal of a Solitude, January 18th
Spoiler Alert: This post is all about my period.
Last night my period started, which, after approximately 33 years of fertility, is not exactly news. Still it feels momentous because it may, in fact, be my final period ever. As I have been warned by my doctor, he may not be able to save my uterus when he removes the fibroids, and if my uterus goes so does my period.
I don’t remember if I was 10 or 11 when my period started but I do remember I was in 5th grade. Mrs. McGrath was my homeroom teacher, and she walked me down to the school office where she exclaimed to the secretaries, “One of my little girls just became a young lady.” One of the secretaries—yes, that is what we called them back then—opened up a cache of emergency supplies and out came a sanitary napkin that was pretty much twice the size I was. Not only that but it was the kind that was designed to be worn with a sanitary belt. I made do with two diaper pins instead.
Later that evening, my mom gave me the talk. It went a little something like this.
Mom: Do you know how you get pregnant?
Me: (tentatively) By playing with boys.
Mom: That’s right.
To be fair, my mother remembers the conversation rather differently, with her version having a little more detail. Whatever the actual exchange, I got the gist. Given that I’ve spent most of my adult life either as a virgin or celibate, with only a handful of years of being sexually active, I’ve never really paid that much attention to my period. Sure it’s annoying but I never worried much about tracking as I didn’t have to worry about pregnancy. I figured it would just get here when it got here. It’s actually embarrassing the number of years (and by years I mean decades), it took me to pay enough attention to realize that my body actually gave me plenty of signals when Aunt Flo was arriving to spend a few days on my couch.
I did, however, finally notice a few years ago that the several days a month when lines of poetry presented themselves unprovoked by prompts or any my usual poet’s tricks coincided with the days preceding my period. So while I don’t exactly look forward to the physical mechanics of menstruation, I do look forward to that time when, for whatever reason, I seem to have greater access to my creative spirit. I sometimes think about the Old Testament prohibitions that say women must be separated from the group during their cycles. I’ve come to believe that it’s less about cleanliness and more about giving women a time apart to fully engage with their creativity. Even as the body physically cleans itself of the unused mechanisms of physical creation, the mind itself shakes off and shakes out the lines, the scenes, the characters that have been waiting for fertilization. Some land on the page, some are reabsorbed to gestate a little longer. Yes, I realize I’m willy nilly mixing my metaphors here, but hopefully you get the point.
I wouldn’t say that I’m scared that my creativity will suddenly disappear if I no longer have a uterus and get a period. But I am mindful of the metaphoric implication of giving up that place in myself that was designed to harbor life.
I’m not sure how to write my way out of the end of this post, and I guess that’s where the TBD comes in. The poems will still be there hidden in my body, I will still be capable of creation regardless of which body parts I may or may not possess after surgery, and while something will be lost, I am expectant that out of that loss, something else will be born, some new metaphor for creation that I’ll only be able to hold onto if I’m capable of letting go.
Here I am hard(ly) at work at my kitchen/dining/library table.
I don’t want to write today, which is a problem since I get paid to write. In fact, I’ve been paid to write since I started my job in 2005. And while I’m happy that writing and editing is now 100% of my job (it also used to include pitching reporters), the change hasn’t done anything at all to lessen the fact that I’m still 100% terrified every time I have to write another article. I enjoy the interviews—mostly.* But when it comes to looking at the transcribed text, finding the story, and figuring out how to get it on the page, I do an immediate about-face from seasoned professional to champion procrastinator. Yes, yes, I do start every new article with “Shitty First Draft” as prescribed by the brilliant Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, but that doesn’t stop the text dancing before my eyes as if it’s all suddenly a foreign language. I’ll have a vague recollection that I understood the topic when I was asking questions, but at the moment I have to start to write, it’ll seem like a dream I only half-remember.
I think part of the issue is that my brain skews toward the instinctive rather than the analytical. I’ll find the story if I can meander my way toward it, but given the limited time in which I (and the other writer) have to turn around articles and given that we’re writing long-form amidst doing all the other writing and planning work for our social media platforms, meandering is not an option.
Did I mention that I’m a champion whiny procrastinator? By the way, if anyone leaves a comment suggesting I outline or do any of that stuff that people with linear brains do—I.Will.Cut.You.
While the blank page is terrifying even when it comes to my personal writing, there’s something exponentially frightening about writing fact-based pieces. For one thing, what if I misinterpret the facts? Or forget to include a crucial point? Or write the wrong story? Like the time I wrote a wonderful piece about Nikki Giovanni for NEA Arts and then had to rewrite it because I’d glossed over her journey from her early days as a writer to today… which was the point of the magazine….and was also my idea for the magazine theme.
And once I get a coherent story down on the page, what about the polish? It takes me weeks and months (and well, years if you include the short story I’m currently working on) to get to a place where I feel my prose sparkles. I’m fairly good with quickly getting my sparkle on with Twitter or a blog post—that poem training comes in handy—but I just don’t have the same facility when it comes to long-form writing. Which means that while I turn in good stories, I never feel like I turn in great stories, the kind where the style shines as much as the content.
Well, thanks for listening. Time to get back to my
writing procrastinating. Sigh….