Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What to do, what to do

Dear Elaine,

Damn, damn, damn. Just as I was thinking that I had some stories in my head—my cousin returning home from five months with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq and how this makes me think of my dad returning from Vietnam; my daughter’s big fight with her father and how the two of them sat in the living room afterwards, silent, breathing hard and in rhythm, and how she said it reminded her of when she used to fall asleep next to him when she was little and she would make her breathing match his; only this time she didn’t want her breathing to match his because she was so angry at him—I realized: if only I had time to write. . . . “What to do, what to do,” as Jamaica Kincaid says.

Then your invitation for the writing retreat came along and it was just the thing to do. I laid it out on the dining room table, keeping it in easy view as I walked by it on my way to the kitchen with bags of groceries or by it again as I stuffed my son’s backpack with his day’s work. I knew I couldn’t make it; I have a work conference in Chicago on those days. But it made me feel better and made me think often of what I want to do, want to do.

I moved your invitation from the dining room table into my Day-Timer, just like other important papers that make their nomadic routes through my life. I carry some documents around with me for days. I hold and read them during lunch or in bed late at night. Many are tossed, creased and re-creased, into the brown recycling bags.

The best make it into my “keeper’s journal” in which I save color swatches, garden layouts, quotes, retreat information (I’ve got some for Claire’s Well and the goat farm just south of here), wine suggestions for summer, plans for my own women’s coffee shop and literary salon, including—even— ideas for what I’d put on the walls.

I don’t carry the journal around with me but keep it right next to the front door, so I remember to look through it now and then. And when I do, I take the whole thing out and leaf through each page, carefully opening old newspaper clippings, noting the sentiments I thought were inspiring at the time. One time I wanted to show my sister-in-law my “dream kitchen” and I pulled out the journal and she was surprised to see it. (I have this reputation with many people for being stoic and undomesticated.) “Well this is just amazing,” she kept saying as I flipped through dreams, wishes, and plans, all contained in one packed blue notebook. I wasn’t even embarrassed to show her my color pencil sketches of daffodils and night stars.

Packed in like these keeper-journal notes, I have all my stories—the moving vignettes that occur to me day after day after day—stuffed up in my head. I have no time to write. What to do, what to do?

I finally had one day a week to write during the few years I worked part-time, but now I’m back to working full-time and editing other people’s writing. With two kids, an old house, and that Irish husband, I feel like a harried and wary bride on her wedding day, unable to focus on the real thing ahead, unsure of how to proceed knowing what’s left behind.

My day begins early. I wake my son. While he tries to push off sleep watching cartoons I shower and brush, iron and dress. I look for papers—those papers!—on the dining room table, not my own news but the litter of school and sports info that needs to go into his pack or my case. The rush of things to do feels like the worried breaths of bridal attendants--hovering and fussing, spraying my hair, licking back my bangs, sharpening my brows. I feel the clock ever present and hurry to wrap up what’s left to do: the pantyhose, the dress, comb out my hair (then the veil, oh the veil!). And only a half hour to spare.

My son kisses me on the lips and rushes out the door for his bus. My husband has left a pile of charge receipts on the counter, figuring that I’ll do the tabulations he should have done earlier. The clock, the clock. I time my tea to be done just after the schoolbus leaves, when I need to jump in the car and get out on 35E in order to make it to work on time.

The bells from Holy Spirit ring at eight and I know I’m late. I feel the family around me, fluttering, demanding, and I’m lost in the center of all this attention. “What to do, what to do?” I pull on the last of my accessories, my purse, my briefcase, my lunch, and back out against the door, tea in hand, my own hopes hidden behind the weight of the everyday.

Like that wistful bride looking back out the church door, wondering if maybe she should bolt and run before it all comes toppling down on her, the feeling of freedom and the breath of open air almost lost in the hot, expectant crowd of the church, I look back up the long stairwell of my own house, up to the west window where the morning light is soft and diffused, and I wonder when I’ll finally stop this nonsense. When I’ll roll back the red carpet and strew the baby’s breath around the floor, lay down all this baggage. When I’ll grab the keeper’s journal and sit in this quiet house and write all day, every day, knowing that this is just what to do, what to do.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Do You Love Your City?

So I came back from my Cathedral Hill noontime walk. Everything seemed to fit in the scenery: the two men in their green Paisano’s work shirts smoking outside their deli; the brightly painted Victorian window frames and doors; even the garbage, suspended by the late fall winds in dry bushes and leafless trees. The whole neighborhood was loud and bustling but orchestrated, in rhythm. Bikers were out in helmets and bumble bee–inspired spandex. A young mother stopped to fix the blanket in her baby’s stroller. An old woman with a walker came up to me on the sidewalk along Selby and said, “This neighborhood has changed so much. I used to live here twenty-five years ago and I haven’t been around for a long time. Look at how they’ve changed the buildings.” She didn’t seem agitated or melancholy. Just surprised.

It’s been a long, hard month. I have all this pent-up energy but the fatigue that comes from doing too much of the things I really would rather not do. I read something today about people liking people who are buoyant and full of passion. I thought, “I haven’t felt bouyant for awhile.”

So on this noontime walk I had to remind myself I didn’t need anything from it but it. I didn’t need to think “Ah, if I had my camera I would look at the north side of the Cathedral this way”; but rather, I told myself to just look. Now. Look at it. Not how you should see the image, not what you should be inspired to do after seeing the image, but just: See it. Feel it. There are many days I want to strangle the editor in me.

There was a guy up on some scaffolding with a heat gun scraping the old paint from his vintage home. But when I first looked up I was just looking at the architecture of the nearby buildings, the red brick against the fat white columns, the “Marquette on the Hill” sign, the pointed turrets of the old mansions. And then I saw his nice, slim legs dangling from the scaffold--the rest of him was hidden. Just legs dangling in the air. It was a Magritte moment.

My own neighborhood can be eclectic, at least architecturally. The houses are quite varied, from a few one-story ramblers to Twenties-era bungalows, Cape Cod cottages, an oddly modern, ill-designed split-level, and then the grand colonials of Edgcumbe Road. Not so many cars parked on the streets--most people have garages; and only a few people of color--the black man who lives near Talmud Torah and takes many strolls along the parkway; the Spanish-born, rich prep-school kids who moved into the corner house down the street; the Somali family on Scheffer. We are Jewish and Catholic, Democrats and Republicans, young and old. Sometimes you can tell our sentiments by our political lawn signs (Peace Now) and our bumper stickers, "Proud Parents of an Expo A-Honor Roll Student." A few of the newer families--those spending $400,000 and up for houses vacated by our elderly neighbors--put up big 6-foot-high fences around their back yards. I see only the noses of their cats or dogs under the fenceline, snooping out the sounds of the neighborhood. The noise is different than in the heart of the city--cars zip by often but they are smoother, newer models. There are lots of kids in the yards along my street and though they are fairly young they seem to know they are safe. They squeal and shout and scream with abandon.

I saw one young three-year-old peering out the first-floor window of the newish housing complex on Selby. I hope he gets outside today.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Maria Takes Charge

It's my birthday. I celebrated with a solo lunch at W. A. Frost's with book, soup, a nice glass of Austrian wine the bartender picked out for me, and a glorious 50-degree-day walk back down celebrated Selby Ave. I love Frost's. One night my husband and I stopped by for a drink. The bar was packed. A man in a camel-hair coat, nice shoes, and a strawberry-blonde combover approached us with two tickets in hand. "I've been stood up and looked all over the bar for the most romantic couple I could find--and you're it. Would you like two very nice seats to the chamber orchestra at 7?" It was a good sign for us--troubled newlyweds we were--and we took in our first concert at the Ordway Theater that night.

I look around and feel confident that there isn't anything I can't do. The man polishing the copper cornices on this old brick-and-sandstone building: I can do that. The woman who sells her mosaic trinkets down at the Paper Patisserie: I can do that. The radio host opening his own bookshop across the street: I can do that. I could milk goats in Vermont. I could teach English in Italy. I could start up my own writing. I could love this life.