One: Friday morning at 6:45 I stood in our driveway, listening to a pair of barred owls calling to each other. They weren’t far away, but our neighborhood was noisy with school buses and barking dogs and commuters and birdsong. My husband, on his way to work, too, couldn’t hear the owls. Like a conductor, I pointed when the first owl called, then swung my arm when the second owl answered. Once he was able to discern the direction and filter out the background noise, he could hear them, too.
Two: On my school visit last week, a second grader asked what I liked to do when I was his age. I told him my favorite thing in school was when our teacher told us to take out a piece of paper and draw or write anything we wanted. We did this for at least 30 minutes (so the teacher could grade papers or have a space of sanity). I asked the second and third graders if they did this, too. No, they said, shaking their heads. No, their teachers said, shaking their heads. Not enough time.
Three: In 1999, I wrote a story for a best-friends anthology published by Scholastic. I was in great company—Rachel Vail, Ann M. Martin, Cynthia Voigt, Paula Danziger—and proud to be a contributor. But I hated the title of the anthology: Girls 24/7. Back then that was new and hip, but I thought it had a creepy foreshadowing.
Four: I am finishing up a book on endangered and extinct amphibians. The further reading section must include books and websites. I had trouble finding relevant websites that weren’t saturated with ads. Even the best website had header and footer ads that had nothing to do with frogs (nursing jewelry? pet exam coupons?).
Five: Yesterday I decided to buy an MP3 player now that they are about to go extinct. Since I don’t know anything about MP3 players, I read about them on the Internet. First, there were all the types to choose from. Second, I didn’t understand how they actually worked. By the time I sifted through the information it came down to this: I would have a gadget that would require time to figure out and I’d most likely be excited about for a week before I stuck it away and forgot it.
Six: I am fixing to get ready to think about meditation practice.
So what do numbers one through five have to do with number six? They are all about distraction and mindfulness. I almost hesitate to use the word “mindfulness” because it’s everywhere. Mindful eating. Mindful relationships. Mindful parenting. In fact, as I’ve typed the word, it’s already fading into the wallpaper.
I have serious issues with distraction. It feeds into my irritability (a medical problem, not just because I’m grouchy). Lack of focus affects my work. And it is getting worse with the advent of the Internet and all that came gushing afterward.
A sample from my file of articles clippped from the Wall Street Journal: “A Cure for the Age of Inattention” (first-year Yale medical students study paintings), “No Vacation from Tweeting” (hyperconnectivity, “branding” yourself), and a chart that says, “Less than 40 minutes a week: Average backyard use by children; Less than 15 minutes a week: Average backyard use by parents.” The chart shows a photograph of a rope swing.
I want to practice meditation, but I know it will be a huge challenge: I have the skippity brain of a marmoset. How will my story-making mind learn to let go of thought attachments, not make connections to the past or future, even five minutes a day?
I’ve dragged home lots of books, ruled out Transcendental Meditation (pay money to get my mantra? Reminds me of Thoreau who warned of any enterprises that require new clothes), but insight meditation seems doable.
Right now I’m reading Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was published in 2005 and the author talks about the connectivity of 24/7, of cell phones and beepers and wireless palm devices and the World Wide Web. Those things seem quaint, almost laughable, now. I kept dozing off (it’s a big, dense book), but woke up when I read this:
It is now harder to pay attention to any one thing and there is more to pay attention to. We are easily diverted and more easily distracted. We are continuously bombarded with information, appeals, deadlines, communications. Things come at us fast and furious, relentlessly. And almost all of it is man-made; it has thought behind it, but more often than not, an appeal to either our greed or our fears.
These assaults on our nervous system continually stimulate and foster desire and agitation rather than contentedness and calmness. They foster reaction rather than communion, discord rather than accord, acquisitiveness rather than feeling whole and complete. And, above all, if we are not careful, they rob us of time, of our moments.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like some of those moments back or want to at least experience the ones coming up. I want to switch from mind full to mindful. I’m moving toward a new way to help lessen stress and anxiety and to connect with myself at the purest level: this moment.
So I’ll forego the MP3 player and listen to the radio. I’ll continue to resist the lure of the smart phone and the insistence to brand myself. I’ll try to be more aware that the constant bombardment of Internet advertising (catered just to me!) appeals to my greed. Yet I’m glad I’m not so far gone I can still hear a pair of barred owls calling. And that I can still take out a piece of paper and write anything I want.
Five minutes a day to start. I can do it. Sitting in my own backyard.
Friday I packed a picnic lunch and my Canon S95 and took photographer and great friend Donna Hopkins on a road trip for her birthday. The little red truck shuttled us down U.S. 1. Once we got past the clutter of Walmart-Lowes-Target and down into the county, the road showed us ghosts of its storied past.
My stepfather called it Number One highway. We would traveled from Fairfax down through Alexandria to the Three Pigs for barbeque. I never knew the road, constructed in 1926, stretched from Maine at the Canadian border all the way to Key West. 2,377 miles of motels, restaurants, garages, filling stations, and roadside attractions.
Then along came I-95 and U.S. 1—which can sometimes be glimpsed from the interstate—lost its status as the route from north to south. All those little businesses died.
Donna and I stopped at a clapboard building that may have been an old store with living quarters above or a boarding house—it was hard to tell. The figure in the window made us wonder when somebody lived there last. We took pictures of the building and of each other and of each other taking pictures of the building. Cars whizzed by yards away. I turned around, hoping to hear the hum of Ford station wagons bound for Florida.
The Texaco sign in front of this small place seemed odd. No sign of a gas pump, but commercial things stored inside indicated it may have been a little store, the kind where you grabbed a grape Nehi dripping from the cooler and a pack of Nabs.
Our road trip set memories spinning free. While we ate our picnic (in the parking lot of Captain D’s), Donna told me how her father stopped at general stores along the road for a loaf of bread and package of bologna to make sandwiches. We never did that but I wish we had. What could be more spontaneous than making lunch in the car? Certainly not standing at the counter at a McDonald’s off the interstate, your stomach already regretting the grease to come, while the clerk throws a fish sandwich on your tray.
Not all the old businesses are derelict. Some have been converted into restaurants and antique shops. Donna took me to a tiny art gallery where we looked at photos of what I call Big Travel, iconic lakes and mountains. Our final destination was an antique shop where I made a beeline for the Paper Man. I’d read an article in the current issue of Vanity Fair about Holiday, a swanky travel magazine began in the 40s that drew top writers, photographers, and graphic artists. I bought ten issues, one with a Grandma Moses cover, another with pieces by E.B. White and Ludwig Bemelmans.
Because it was late, we hopped on I-95 to get home in time to fix supper. Within two miles of our exit—U.S. 1!—we hit a wall of traffic. It took us over an hour to crawl to our turn-off. There were no roadside attractions, no filling stations, no little stores with bread and bologna—just the back ends of tractor trailers.
Still, we had a big time because we both love Little Travel. We drove about fifty miles of that 2,377-mile road. And that evening, I opened my November 1952 issue of Holiday to a piece called, “First Road of the Land,” the last of a four-part series about U.S. 1.
While Friday going-home traffic remained tangled on the interstate, I dreamed we were driving to Ormond Beach in our ’52 Caddy, heading down Number One highway to Ellinor Village, the largest seaside resort in Florida. Our villa would come equipped with an ironing board and ice trays in the refrigerator. We could rent a radio, a toaster, and a cot for our maid, get our hair waved, and dine in the Tropics Restaurant.
All for $8 a night.
Last night I called my sister and we had a serious discussion: what the heck is the first episode of this season’s Mad Men about? I said when Roger started crying after he got the shoeshine man’s shoeshine kit, he was finally able to grieve his mother’s death. My sister thought he was crying over the shoeshine man’s death, Roger had known him his whole life, and the shoeshine man’s poor family had sent him the only thing he owned.
We went back and forth until I said I was going to write to Matthew Weiner and ask him why Roger was crying. But I already know the answer. Good stories keep you guessing. The best stories let you become the character. It was easy for me—and lots of other people—to identify with Roger losing his mother. But my sister, the true storyteller in our family, came up with a richer, more layered interpretation. She looked beyond the obvious. I like hers better (but I still think I’m right).
Work is still a muddle. The above photo is the mood board I created for a midgrade road trip novel that is going nowhere. When I cleaned my office, I put it away.
I’ve crossed little off my to-do list. Yesterday I wrote a few sentences on chapter two of the YA proposal. I didn’t even look at the “frog book.” I did eat an entire bag of Toad-Ally Snak Hanky Panky, a dollar a bag at Family Dollar, which tells you how nutritional it is, which I’m trying to stretch into “frog book” research.
While I ate Hanky Panky, I read Natalie Goldberg’s new book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language (I did promise three books). The title alone is enough to send writers in droves flying to the shelves, added to the fact it’s written by the Writing Down the Bones author. If there’s a secret in this book, it’s that we have to sit still, be silent, breathe, and let our thoughts go until we reach “wild mind.”
I always believed my mind was wild enough. But it isn’t, not really. Goldberg, who teaches Zen retreats that include meditation and writing, teaches the difference between letting random, obsessive thoughts go when meditating, and pinning them down in writing practice. She writes for ten, twenty minutes, never stopping, usually on a topic like cupcake, kiss, or cat.
Ever the skeptic, I wondered if this is a fancy version of “free-writing,” something I’ve always been suspicious of. Mainly because I want my work to count for something. Have a beginning, middle, and end, and meaning. Maybe a paycheck. Someone asks Goldberg, “When does it stop being practice and become the real thing?”
Goldberg says, Practice is not for something else. Practice is the practice of being here with your life and pen now . . . [to get] across the chugging land of your mind.
The book includes exercises. In one, Goldberg asks students how they got there. Some wrote directions from their house to the zendo. One wrote about how her parents met. The exercise I want to try is to spend a week— consecutive days—in a café for an hour, the same time every day, at the same table if possible, writing what you observe.
While Goldberg’s book has a lot of Zen-dy stuff I’ll never do in a million years, there is much in it to read and go back to. The notion of writing practice, of being quiet, of sitting still, of letting go of random thoughts, and then, later, writing like mad, dovetails nicely with keeping a journal. A wild journal, but still thoughtful and important-ish.
A Year of Writing Dangerously: 356 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement by Barbara Abercrombie is a great companion to Goldberg’s book. This is the perfect bedside book, though I’m tempted to keep it in the bathroom. (Yes, I have a bookrack in the bathroom. Go on, admit it, you do too. Stephen King says he reads while he’s peeing.)
A Year of Writing Dangerously consists of bite-sized essays plus quotations. This is from Number 83 (or Day 83) “Retyping the Best:”
When Donald Ray Pollock turned 45, he decided he wanted to do something different with his life; he was going to learn how to write. He began by retyping stories of writers he liked—John Cheever, Richard Yates, Ernest Hemingway—and then he’d carry the stories around with him and re-read them. “I’m not a real close reader,” he said, “and typing those stories out gave me the chance to see this is how you make a transition, this is how you do dialogue.”
I once read about a writing teacher in the 1950s who used to make her students (some of whom became famous) type out whole published novels by their favorite writers.
There’s more to this essay, but I think this is the most dangerous exercise of all.
I’m forever telling my students to type out picture book manuscripts and they grumble it’s a lot of work. 800 words! I’ve often typed out entire easy readers and the first two or three chapters in chapter books.
Like Donald Ray Pollock, I’m not a real close reader either. I’m going to get myself unstuck by typing out, if not the entire novel, than whole chapters of books I’m using as models for my own novel.
I’ll end with part of Number 84, “How to Be a Writer:”
“Make a place to sit down,” reads the first line of Wendell Berry’s poem, “How to Be a Poet.” The second line is: “Sit down. Be quiet.” He lists what you must depend on: affection, reading, knowledge, inspiration, and finally patience, “for patience joins time/to eternity.”
The quote that goes with this mini-essay is from Rilke: Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your life. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.
All three books emphasize the same things: sit, be quiet, listen, pay attention, be patient and wait.
Well, it’s not midweek, but the end of the week. My husband is coming home this afternoon. The columns on the great big huge to-do list are only half-crossed through, though I did chores that weren’t on the list like wash windows and rearrange the bookshelves in my office.
Winchester will be thrilled to see Daddy because he gives him treats and stingy old Mama doesn’t. Persnickety will be glad to see Daddy because he’s her Person and I’m just a humble substitute. The house is mostly clean. The wife is five pounds heavier (too much Hanky Panky). There is a new pink geranium on the front porch.
I’m trying to have patience with unresolved things in my life and am grateful for three new books to help me. I’m learning to look beyond the obvious.
My husband left Sunday for a week’s course at Shenandoah University. I waved goodbye then rushed to make a great big huge list of things to do: Inside, Outside, Regular Chores. This list did not include working on the book that’s due May 1 or the YA proposal I have been writing for an eternity.
Since Sunday afternoon counted, I picked up sticks in our yard, bending and stooping with a carpet of gumballs and hickory shells underfoot. It was like performing brain surgery while standing on ball bearings. I filled my truck bed, tied a tarp over the load, and cheerfully went to the dump. I felt like the characters in my own book, The Old Blue Pickup Truck: “We had lots to do!”
Monday I leaped out of bed, ready to go. The best part of being alone is that you don’t have all that hunting and gathering of food. A quick stop at Wegman’s took care of my meal needs for the week. Then I tackled the flower bed box, digging up dandelions, onions, and something virulent with a taproot to China. I’d marked off an hour for this chore. Two hours later, I was sweaty, suffering from a hundred punctures from the roses, and not nearly done.
I switched to the Inside column of the list, crawling on all fours to dust baseboards and use the hand vac. For a small house, it seemed to have thousands of feet of baseboard. Finally I staggered into my office to do some writing. A little on chapter two of the YA proposal, some research, start chapter one of the “frog book.”
Outside, trees and flowers bloomed before my eyes. The grass is greening and growing. We’ve had a cold, hideous spring and this week, the first warm week all year, everything is making up for lost time. So why, then, was I crossing chores off an endless list? Why wasn’t I out in that gorgeous weather just sitting, instead of painting porch furniture or pulling chickweed?
Because it’s hard to do nothing. It’s hard for all us of these days. Every second we’re conscious, we’re looking at our phones (not me), checking email (guilty), throwing a load of laundry in the washer, making beds, putting away dishes, running to the store, refilling the cat’s water bowl, sweeping, picking up newspapers and toys.
Every single room I walk into, every single part of the room, has something that needs to be done, waiting for me. It’s worse outside. A hot week in Virginia means weeds reaching the roof by noon.
And my writing? It’s just as bad. Messy. Things needing to be done on every part of every page. None of it right. None of it good.
My work used to be so neat and tidy. I’d sit down at my computer and work on whatever book contract was right in front of me. Chapter One. The. Most of the time, the project behaved. But now nothing is behaving and I’m questioning my methods.
This dissatisfaction has led me to three books. The first is The Journal Keeper: A Memoir by Phyllis Theroux. I’ve always been intrigued by writers who keep real journals, as opposed to the notebook I drag around that has bits of ideas, pieces of current projects, conversations overheard, lists (more stuff to do), and books I want to find.
Phyllis Theroux started keeping a daily journal after her divorce, while she was raising three children:
I thought of it primarily as a ship’s log that enabled me to keep track of my thoughts and feelings as I bumped from one drama-filled day to the next. But I used it for other things as well: a place in which to work out ideas, to store metaphors, and save odd bits of dialog . . . There were times, in the beginning, when I used my journal as a wailing wall, but I learned not to immortalize the darkness. Rereading it was counter-productive. What I needed was a place to collect the light.
I love the idea of collecting the light. Too often my so-called journals gather darkness or are whiny. Certainly my Artist’s Way Morning Pages were. I don’t do well with writing “what’s on my mind.” I want to write elegant, insightful journal-y thoughts students years from now will tape to their computer monitors. I want to write what’s important.
Theroux says, One of the reasons people resist keeping a journal is because they assume it will quickly become a garbage can for all of the spoiled plans, bad news, and other dark developments of their life. The journal I keep is a spiritual equivalent of a personal light box . . . This isn’t to say the pages aren’t without pain or perplexity. The dilemmas in my life were one of the main reasons I began to keep a journal in the first place. I use it as a tool for sovling or understanding them.
Whatever insights or glimpses of the truth I glean when sitting quietly in my wing chair—thinking, reading, or simply gazing out the window at the neighbor walking her dog—is what I write down. These are my butterflies, halted mid-flight on the page.
She makes it sound so easy. This is the last entry in my notebook—I can’t call it a journal yet because that’s not what it is:
Overheard in Mineral Restaurant, Saturday:
An old man gave the waitress his order, “I’ll have the spaghetti and meat sauce. This is the start of a new life. I worked hard to get it lined up.”
I wrote it down because I wondered how spaghetti, on the menu every day, connected to this man’s new life. If this is my butterfly pinned to the page, then maybe I should work harder to get my own life lined up.
I should begin by tossing that list and sitting in an overstuffed chair like Phyllis Theroux does and just think. But you know I won’t.
It’s the worst-luck day of the year, Good Friday. Don’t cut your nails or your hair on Good Friday. Don’t take a trip or start a new project. Don’t wash your clothes. Kids shouldn’t climb trees. Don’t dig in your garden (iron = nails). My mother was highly superstitious and passed some of those warnings on to me.
As a child I was fascinated by the crucifixion story. Yet Easter meant getting a new dress with matching coat and hat, dying eggs (the joy of dipping eggs over and over in the teacup to reach that saturated shade of turquoise), and hurling myself into the living room Sunday morning for my basket that always had a stuffed bunny, a scattering of jelly beans, marshmallow chicks stuck to the wax grass, and a fat Mary Sue chocolate egg.
We dressed up, visited relatives, hid eggs, and ate candy, events that countered the sober Easter sermon we’d heard in church. Rabbits and angels? Though I understand the folklore of rebirth, I remain confused about religion. I flunked vacation bible school because I questioned everything. Raised a Lutheran, I tried on other beliefs like shoes.
So it was with some trepidation that I took a photo excursion to Powhatan County on Good Friday. Did that count as a trip? We traveled through familiar places—Louisa, Cuckoo—so it didn’t seem like we were going someplace new.
I spied a big old rambling house with a brace of outbuildings. The place appeared to be built based on need. When the owners bought a tractor or had more children, they simply slapped up another shed or added on another room.
Of course I went inside the house and almost fell over at the sight of this gorgeous red door. The green door next to it is actually a partition. In pagan Europe, doors were painted red to keep out evil spirits. Later, Christians painted their doors red to represent the blood of Christ (and also keep out evil spirits).
I stepped over the threshold into the unknown. I try to bring an open mind into these old houses, but I’m always bristling with curiosity and questions. Not just about who once lived there, but why I’m there.
The rooms offered few clues to the past. I wondered about the angel light switch cover. Nothing else in the house was that grand. A memorial spray propped in a corner reminded me I should have gone to the cemetery. I went out on the tacked-on porch.
There I found vestiges of the last owner. I saw the purple Easter card first, another pang for my mother gone so many years, and the books on the floor.
The book on the dresser is called Living Psalms and Proverbs. Suddenly I realized this wasn’t the usual left-behind detritus. Had a pastor lived once lived here? Or maybe someone like me, searching for answers?
Then I saw the pile of nails. Rusted. Sharp. Iron. Everything else on the porch had been tossed randomly, but someone had taken care to neatly sweep up the nails.
Behind the dresser was something that made me gasp. A turkey vulture’s wing. The bird had probably been eating road kill and was hit by a car. Vultures are ungainly on the ground and need time to lift off. A fox or some other animal carried the dead bird up to the yard, then maybe inside the porch. All that was left was this wing.
Vultures are usually considered ugly birds with a disgusting job. But in Tibetan religion, vultures are sacred messengers called dakinis, or “sky dancers,” the equivalent of our angels. They carry human souls to heaven, where they wait to be reincarnated. Buddhism was one of the religions I sampled.
My favorite Bible verse is John 14:2: In my Father’s house there are many mansions. I’ve always thought those words are so beautiful and mysterious. A huge house with endless houses inside. The verse has been interpreted to mean that the “mansions” are other forms of faith, that there is room for everyone in heaven. Is it possible one of the mansions holds people like me who clutch bits and pieces of different beliefs?
I walked back through the rooms of the old house, leaving the ghosts in peace and my unanswered questions behind. Outside, the woods were bright with birdsong, the breeze a hopeful reminder of spring. The swing moved gently, as if set in motion by invisible wings. I looked up. The sunny sky had clouded over.
The way it always does on Good Friday.