November 2004


Today is Monday, November 22: a week and a day until my NaNoWriMo deadline. I was “supposed” to write 4,000 words on the novel today, and so far I’ve written none. Typically as I approach a big writing deadline, I kick into Emergency Writing Mode. Regular habits like sleep, eating, and showering become not exactly optional, but wildly irregular. I eat when I remember to, shower when I have to, and sleep when I can no longer hold my head up. When I was an undergraduate, I had a body-abusing ritual that fueled my late-night, day-before-the-paper’s-due writing sessions. I’d sit at my desk with my typewriter (yes, one of those ancient relics), a hand-scribbled first draft, a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew, and a giant bag of Doritos. Hours (and countless Meaningless Carbs) later, I’d have a finished product, the final paragraph of which always began with the word “Thus,” followed by whatever half-assed thesis statement I could crank out before the arrival of the due-date’s dawn.

It’s a bit too early in the race to pull a home-stretch all-nighter…and I do have Thanksgiving break to make up for lost words. But after having not worked on the novel since yesterday, I’m feeling my Muse (or is that caffeine?) moving within me. There is, after all, an all-night convenience store just down the street that sells Mountain Dew and Doritos, so it would be easy enough to grab the ingredients to inspire an impromptu appearance of the Midnight Muse. Thus, another writer discovers the Keys to Creativity, delivered via the agency of sugar and artificial colors, inspiration by the two-liter bottle or bagful. Watch where you tread, Gentle Reader, and beware: the Writer is at work!

After adopting Reggie from a non-profit animal rescue organization in 1998, I’ve kenneled him only once, at a clean, well-lighted place in Toledo, OH. I have nothing against kennels per se…but before I adopted him, Reg had been on “doggie death row” for a month and in a private, crowded kennel for two months after that. Given his history, I’ve always felt terrible taking him back to “the joint” even temporarily. I have a wonderful pet-sitter who pampers Reggie whenever I’m away while taking in my mail, turning on & off the lights, and otherwise making my apartment seem “lived in.” One of the benefits of being a childless pet-owner is you get to spoil your pets shamelessly; as one dog-owner once confided, “If we weren’t going to spoil them, why’d we get them in the first place?”

And yes, this is the first time a pile of dog poop has been immortalized here on Hoarded Ordinaries.

I have a long to-do list for the day, so I don’t have time to write a proper entry. And since Saturday is supposed to be my blog-sabbath, I shouldn’t be blogging at all. But I haven’t said much recently about my NaNoWriMo novel, so here’s a quick update on where things stand.

As of right now, I’m about 15,400 words behind where I “should” be. When I initially charted my target word-counts for the month, I’d envisioned having 29,400 words written by today, November 20; right now, I have just over 14,000 words. This means that I’ll be write, write, writing over Thanksgiving in a valiant attempt to catch-up and ultimately reach my 50,000 word goal by November 30.

That’s 36,000 words in ten days…3,600 words a day. Looking at the numbers makes my head spin: is it possible for me to crank out that many words in the next ten days on top of life’s other obligations?

Officially, I don’t know whether this is possible: actually, the thought of writing a novel in a month never sounded possible. But there’s something about impossibility that is wildly attractive to me: when someone tells me I can’t possibly do something, that makes me all the more motivated to prove them wrong. So is it possible to write 36,000 words in 10 days? Probably not…but I plan to do it anyway.

Word-counts notwithstanding, the good news on the NaNo writing front is my novel is starting to take on a life of its own. I’d sometimes heard authors talk about characters “appearing” in their fiction as if a ghost simply walked through the door and then materialized under their pen. And I’d also heard published novelists talk about how characters seem to move and act out of their own volition, doing things their authors never intended them to do.

I have a character who’s starting to behave in this way. She materialized out of the blue, a nameless, disheveled woman who walked into a drugstore while I was writing about someone else. I didn’t know what she was doing there, but I let my pen uncover the story: the nameless woman walked into the cosmetics aisle and started looking for makeup. When the store clerk, the character I had intended to write about, walked up to the woman to ask if she needed help, the woman took off her sunglasses to reveal a black eye she needed makeup to cover. In a scene that spontaneously materialized under my pen, the store clerk helped the nameless woman make-up her face so she could take her belongings, leave her abusive boyfriend, and move back with her parents, unashamed. When the nameless woman walked out of the drugstore, I truly hoped she was walking into a new life, a fresh start.

This morning I woke up and realized fiction isn’t that easy. Although I like this character and want the best for her, this morning I realized in a flash where her story is heading. Her abusive boyfriend isn’t the type who’s going to let her walk out of his life. This morning I wrote about this boyfriend and his motivations. Although I haven’t yet discovered why she would want to be with him, I realized his intentions for her: it’s all about power and control. He’s not going to let her leave. He’s a violent, angry man, and he’s going to insist on taking what he believes is his deserved due.

When I first started writing random stories about various characters who all live in a fictional town not unlike Keene, I didn’t intend for their lives to interweave. But somehow, the story has taken a life of its own. For some reason–my personal political leanings, perhaps, or the larger mood of the nation–several of the characters I’ve brainstormed are somehow connected to a women’s clinic like this one. For some reason, my character’s story is starting to fall in line with something I read yesterday, and that can mean only one thing. I’ve created this character only to kill her off. In the warped justice of fiction, at least one character has to die in the name of “realism.”

When I got my first glimmer of inspiration regarding this project, I envisioned writing a novel-length collection of stories like James Joyce’s Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. In the meantime, I’m sensing that my novel is closer in kind to Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place. The story of a group of women who live on run-down, dead-end street, Naylor’s novel features one wrenching chapter where one of the characters is gang-raped and left for dead in an alley. That isn’t the direction I wanted to take my novel: I didn’t intend for there to be a political much less feminist undertone to the story. And yet, the novel and its characters are taking on a life of their own, and I’m not sure this spontaneous growth is something I can claim or control.

Today’s Photo Friday challenge is Patterns, which led to a bit of mid-shower inspiration. Yes, I’m childlike enough to have rubber-ducky shower curtains; yes, I’m blog-addicted enough to think up blog ideas while showering. I’m sure a good therapist would see a Pattern here.

Yesterday I spent an inordinant amount of time tweaking my CV and writing a cover letter to apply as a Preceptor of Expository Writing at Harvard University.

Those of you who know me or are close readers of this blog might be shaking your heads. “We thought you loved Keene and your job at Keene State,” you might say. “And didn’t you announce that you weren’t going on the academic job market this year?” you might add.

You’d be right on both counts. I do love Keene and my job at the college here: I have no desire to move. And yes, I decided earlier this year, around the time that Chris and I separated, that I want to wait another year before applying for a tenure-track academic position. Right now, I’m trying to settle into life as a newly single person, and I still haven’t decided whether academia is what I want to do full-time for the rest of my life.

So right after I’d firmly declared to the Universe that I Wasn’t Looking for an academic job, I saw this Harvard writing position advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’d seen this same listing in past years: every year Harvard hires a handful of new instructors to teach their freshman writing classes, and every year I’ve considered applying. This year, though, with both my doctorate and my divorce papers fresh in hand, I felt ready to take a chance. Since I’m Not Officially Looking for a job, I have nothing to lose. Why not send off a harmless CV and cover letter just to see what kind of response I get?

Applying for a job, of course, is always more time- and energy-consuming than you’d reckoned. In my case, I procrastinated my application until the very last minute, tomorrow being the deadline. So yesterday as I sat in front of my laptop to do the “simple” task of writing a two-page cover letter to accompany my freshly tweaked CV, I encountered a massive block. How can you reduce over ten years of college teaching experience into two single-spaced pages? What could I say on paper that would impress a Hiring Committee at Harvard of all places? When I applied to various Boston-area graduate schools with my Ohio-earned BA fresh in hand, Harvard wanted nothing to do with me: I ended up going to Boston College for my Masters and Northeastern University for my PhD because they were the only institutions that would have me. (To their credit, Brandeis waitlisted me when I initially applied to their doctoral program straight out of my undergraduate studies in Ohio, but they didn’t want me two years later after I’d completed my Masters at BC.)

Given that Harvard didn’t want me as a paying graduate student, what sort of insanity makes me think that they’d want to pay me to teach their freshmen? If I wasn’t Harvard material a dozen or so years ago, what makes me think I’m worthy of their ivied halls now?

In a word, I have no idea whether I’ll impress the Decision Makers when they see me on paper: personally, I’ve always been the kind of person who interviews well, but to get that initial interview, my CV and cover letter have to land near the top of an impressive pile. From what I understand, several hundred candidates usually respond to Harvard’s nationwide search each year, and from this pool the Hiring Committee selects about 25 to interview for a handful of open positions. So this morning as I Express Mailed my CV and cover letter–me on paper–to an address in Cambridge, I felt like I was rolling a pair of dice. Who knows what the Decision Makers are looking for, and who knows what sort of impression I make on paper. Either way, I like it here in Keene, but it’s sort of fun to think that possibly, maybe, I might get a second chance at proving myself to be Harvard Material.

After getting home from Houston after dark on Monday night, yesterday was my first chance to see New Hampshire once again in daylight. I’ve lived here in Keene for about 16 months: long enough to have seen her in all her seasons, weathers, and temperaments. Still, whenever I leave Keene to visit other places, I feel the need to check back in with her when I return: how are things, how have you been, what has happened since I’ve been gone?

Yesterday I walked the usual rounds with the dog and digicam in tow. Like a doctor walking her rounds, I was on the lookout for anything unusual: what graffiti has appeared since my last rounds; what objects have been moved or rearranged? It’s not so much that I expect Keene to fall to pieces while I’m gone since as “patients” go, my little town is about as “stable” as they come. Still, I continually feel the need to check and re-check the old familiar sights after having not seen them for a couple of days: like any long-time friend, my adopted hometown is a “person” I care to connect with frequently lest we grow distant and find ourselves fallen gradually out of touch.

This might seem like a quaint metaphor, this insistance that Keene is a person with whom I have an intimate relationship, a person I both want and need to check in with on a daily basis. But in the months since my separation and divorce, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I relate to both places and people, and I’ve realized that I relate to the two in nearly the exact same way. In the aftermath of separation and divorce, I’ve seldom felt lonely even though I’ve spent a good deal of time alone. This aloneness is something I’ve cherished not because I’m intrinsically antisocial but because it’s been punctuated by contact. Every day I’ve been in contact either in person, online, or via phone with friends who support me, and every day I’ve set foot in the actual, tangible world–the streets and sidewalks of my hometown–as a way of staying literally grounded.

When I was “born again” in college, the thing that appealed to me the most about evangelical Christianity was its insistence upon relationship. The standard one-liner we’d toss off when witnessing to strangers (“Have you experienced the joy of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or are you still on the way?”) is incredibly cliched, hokey, and impertinent: the practice of trying to “convert” strangers was never one I practiced with conviction. Still, something about the notion of having a “personal relationship” with God deeply appealed to me, and it still does. Although I don’t think one’s spiritual path can be summed up in a one-liner nor do I think it’s necessary to “save” those on different paths than mine, I do think that many of us secretly crave connection: we long to have deeper relationships with others, with ourselves, with our surroundings, and (yes) with God.

To say that relating deeply with others, self, place, and spirit is the summation of spiritual practice–to say that these seemingly different sorts of relationship are all of a piece, the four sides of a symmetric square–might (again) sound incredibly trite. But the more I consider it, I can’t think of any better way to describe my own spiritual path, a zigzag journey that included jaunts into Catholicism, fundamentalist Christianity, Zen Buddhism, and literary Transcendentalism. Whatever you might call your spiritual path, what interests me is how you relate to your world: are your eyes open or closed? Does your compassion encompass all beings or just your backyard? Having chosen to love and redeem the entire world, have you forgotten that charity (like its overlooked sister, mindfulness) does indeed start at home?

I’m always surprised when people compliment me on the photos I post on my blog, for these are snapshots of the most ordinary kind. Walking around Keene with a leash in one hand and a digicam in the other, I simply record what I see: there is very little “art” or intention behind it. And yet, this kind of simple seeing is indeed the very heart of meditation practice: without judgment or preconception, what is it that falls before your eyes at any given moment? Without judgment or preconception, can you love that sight as if it were your very last? If you knew that tomorrow your mother or lover or brother would die–if you knew that tomorrow you yourself would die–what parts of their face or person would you notice or cherish? If today were your last day on earth, what sights would you re-visit and remember; what details would you etch in memory as a shield against mortality?

We remember, occasionally, not to take our loved ones for granted: we take the time, ideally, to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, those temporal reminders that Relationships Matter. But what holidays or customs serve to re-connect us with place; what rituals serve to ground us in the here and now by reminding us to notice the overlooked and forgotten things that surround us perpetually? In our heart of hearts, we hope and pray that God remembers us, that when we die, God will notice and call us by name…and yet day by day we forget, overlook, and neglect God’s many handiworks in our lives, assuming that Divinity only happens in lightning and tempest, in great raging flood or firestorm.

In my mind, this present world is our proving ground, a practice place where we show God our true stuff. God indeed wants us in relationship: I truly believe that there is no one in the Universe more lonely than God. Why else would Supreme Deity create a flawed and mortal world if other than to love it; what other reason to create than to assuage one’s own inner loneliness? God in his heaven is entirely and deeply alone, and day to day God looks down on this world, waiting and wondering: when will someone stop, look, and notice the works of my hands, and when will someone–anyone–turn their eyes toward me and Love?

In our bumbling way, we stumble through our various earthly relationships, breaking hearts and having our hearts broken in turn. In the process, our souls grow tender, and in our lonely moments, we realize or remember that we were created to relate. In this need for connection, we are akin to all creation, for the whole kit and caboodle was created for this exact purpose: Love. God didn’t put us on earth as a punishment; the created world isn’t some cruel, sadistic joke. No, God put us here to love, to run through our paces as we learn to love one another, ourselves, and our surroundings. When we’ve gotten those earthly lessons in our fool heads, then maybe we’ll prove ourselves ready for the Next Level.

And yet, even this is a bunch of malarkey, for it suggests that God is separate and apart, an aloof judge looking down with one raised eyebrow. No, God is in this thing; God is this thing, suffusing, indwelling, and maintaining it. God is both heartbreaker and heartbroken; God himself stumbles and bumbles in our uncertain steps, the forgetter and forgotten. We err often not because we’re intrinsically evil but because Love needs failure in order to forgive. Original sin is a fortunate fall because of the caring kisses we receive as we lie crumpled and wounded, reminded of our own vulnerability and dependent need; salvation, the ultimate Make-up Sex with a God long accustomed to his Beloved’s serial infidelities.

And yet if we foolishly try to jump the gun–if we impertinently try to scale the stairway to heaven, headed straight toward God–God himself pushes us back. Not yet. You’re not ready. There’s still a whole turning world that awaits you, a world filled with heartbreak and hope, exploration and promise. God the Creator was right: it’s not good for man to be alone. And so we’ve been planted in the actual world–in Keene or in Houston or in sundry places in between and beyond–to learn and to love, lonely souls among countless other lonely souls. It’s all about relationship: it always has been, perpetual and eternal. This is the place where we meet and mingle, the place where we acquaint and re-acquaint. And if we reach out with hearts full of hope, God himself lies within every handshake, the very fabric of our union.

After spending the weekend in Houston re-connecting with my old friend Gary, I’m back in New Hampshire, preparing to re-enter my usual teaching/work routine. Although I love airplanes and airports, I find air travel itself to be hugely disorienting. Last Wednesday morning, I scraped ice from my frozen car in the 15-degree pre-dawn darkness; by afternoon I was watching pelicans and porpoises while riding the Galveston ferry in 70-degree, sun-drenched comfort. This morning, I ate breakfast at a hotel in Houston; tonight, I’m munching last month’s Halloween candy in Keene. They say you can’t step into the same river twice, and modern air travel takes this truism of impermanence one step further: why step into the same river twice when you can move from New Hampshire’s Ashuelot River to the waters of Galveston Bay in less than a day?

Whereas I never even walk the dog here in Keene without carrying a camera, in Houston this weekend I made a conscious effort not to take pictures. Sure, I snapped a few photos of macaws at Moody Gardens: like any five-year-old, I love zoos, aquariums, and the like, and I’m a sucker for bold, brightly colored birds. But ultimately, my humble snapshots never capture the real-life phenomena I’m trying to capture: every picture I took of Moody Gardens’ incredibly tame flock of scarlet ibises came out blurry or incomplete, capturing a hot pink beak here and a glowing red tail there. (A better photog than I, Gary managed to get a shot of my tail while I crouched on the ground trying to photograph said ibises: miraculously, Gary snapped such a photo and lived to tell about it.) Eventually I decided not to try to blog my weekend in Houston: although I’m intrigued by the thought of two old friends chronicling their reunion on their respective blogs, there’s part of me that bridles at the potentially all-consuming nature of such bloggery. Once you as a writer have fallen into the habit of mining your life for material, where and when do you stop? Where does “public” end and “private” begin?

When I started blogging last December, I decided upon a couple of basic ground rules. Although I aimed for full honesty in my blogging, I drew the line at full-disclosure: there were and are certain things I didn’t feel comfortable blogging. As a teacher, for instance, I knew I shouldn’t blog personal details about my students: as a teacher who wants my students to feel comfortable expressing themselves in my classes, I don’t want anyone to think for even a minute that anything they say in class will be “recycled” as blog-fodder. Likewise, as a (then) wife I knew I shouldn’t blog personal details about my (then) marriage: although I’ve mentioned my divorce here, I haven’t shared any of the dirty-laundry why’s. When I’ve blogged about friends of mine, I’ve referred to them by initials and even pseudonymous initials; when I’ve posted pictures of other bloggers, I’ve mirrored the protections they themselves keep over their own image. Although a newbie happening upon my blog might very well feel like I’m “telling you everything” about my life, in my mind I’m keeping certain private boundaries clearly and securely in place: this you can know, that you can see, but these and those are off limits, private.

One of my favorite passages in all of Thoreau’s writing is the point in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers where he doesn’t describe climbing New Hamsphire’s Mount Washington with his brother, John. Thoreau wrote A Week years after John’s untimely death from lockjaw contracted from a shaving cut: Thoreau’s deep bond with his brother was evidenced by the sympathetic symptoms he himself suffered after watching John die. Although Thoreau describes himself paddling up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back again with a traveling companion, he never mentions John by name much less the fact that John had since died. And when the brothers meet the literal climax of their trip together–their ascent of Mount Washington–Thoreau falls uncharacteristically silent, noting that he and his traveling companion made the climb without reporting anything about what they saw, said, or felt during that portion of the journey.

Some scholars have surmised that Thoreau was awed into silence by the grandeur of Mount Washington; others suggest that he didn’t know how to incorporate this mountaintop experience into the rest of his rambling narrative. But Thoreau regularly wrote about awesomely sublime settings, and the disjointed nature of A Week suggests that he didn’t much care whether he could “properly” fit bits in. A prolific journal-keeper who regularly mined his notebooks for essay, lecture, and book material, Thoreau led a literary life that was in many ways an open book…and yet even he had moments before which he drew a metaphoric curtain. Whatever transpired atop Mount Washington, I personally like to think it was a brotherly moment that didn’t need to be shared with the outside world: I’d like to think that John and Henry laughed about a shared childhood, reminisced about the girl they both courted and were eventually both rejected by, or just lounged in the clouds before deciding to descend to the lowlands.

If he were alive today, Thoreau would probably keep a blog of his own, including tidbits from his journals and field notebooks. Although he wrote profusely and published the minute details of his personal housekeeping and occasional rambles, at the same time Thoreau was a deeply private man who guarded his solitude as a cherished possession. I think there’s much to be said for being fully and deeply honest in one’s blogging, and I also think there’s much to be said for occasionally taking a break, for occasionally keeping silent. As Thoreau himself said in A Week, “The language of Friendship is not words, but…an intelligence above language.” When re-connecting with an old friend, the last thing you want to worry about is what might be repeated in cyberspace; when re-connecting with an old friend, the last question you want to wrestle with is what and whether to blog.

    Click here to read Gary’s account of our trip on the Galveston ferry and our jaunt through Moody Gardens, including that notorious picture of Yours Truly trying to snap a picture of those darn ibises.

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