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What They Said While They Were Leaving

Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.

Artist Paul Klee, who died on this day in 1940, often invoked a childlike perspective when addressing matters of life and death. I’ve long loved the angels he painted, full of flaws and worries, trapped in human-like, sometimes animalistic forms. This morning I was looking at one of his last works, “Death and Fire” and the timing of this happens to coincide with my review of a book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death, by Lisa Smartt. I bought it years ago. Thinking of a character was my official reason, but the interests of a character are always covers for the questions we carry. I pulled it out again today, because I have a character facing death, and I am struck by the inherent playfulness of so many of the last words recorded in Smartt’s accounts, culled from documentation of many hospice patients over time.  There’s a sense of play in the voices of many of the dying, even at the “most serious” moment in life. I am always drawn to those for whom seeming opposites can coexist in the same space: joy and pain; life and death; wonder and heartache.

Death and Fire by Paul Klee, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The following are notes assembled partly from found phrases in the book and online, considering what people say as they are leaving:

Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.
One claimed to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, 
then called Bullshit! and left.
One asked for chocolate shavings on her tongue. 
Another, a cigarette. Pancakes with whipped cream.

Then come the metaphors. Listen.
Get ready for the big dance!
Lots of new construction over there!
Magic time: watch me disappear!
See the little duckies now, lining up.
They are setting the table now.

The ones who saw it as a battle went hardest.
Another dreamt of being surrounded by crows. 
It’s a murder! he said, laughing.

Some heard music, exclamations of wonder.
So many people! Can you tell me where the platform is?
Can you get the door for me?
Where do you want me to put these boxes?
Next stop, real hope! Look, they left the ladder.

Some saw butterflies, the number eight, the color green.
Others said nothing, but reached with their arms, up and out,
eloquent as infants in their expressions of need.

Monster Mash 2: Dr. Blob

What makes him a monster is a matter not of kind, but of degree. The problem with Dr. Blob is that, left unchecked, he has a poor sense of timing, scale, and of the magnitude of his importance.

This is the second installment in the Monster Mash series, in which I profile some of the monsters that may get in the way of creative work. The purpose is to identify the minions working for the Machine (or Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it) that can threaten creativity when allowed to go undetected. In part one, I profiled Nothing, the shaggy, one-note solipsist who goes around declaring It’s Nothing! whenever I am trying to do or listen to Something. I am happy to report that he’s been much quieter since I called him out on his shenanigans. 

Today, we move on to another character, Dr. Blob. Dr. Blob is a monster-in-disguise. The disguise is the danger here.  Dr. Blob is a skilled analyst with an impressive C.V. He’s an informed expert, well versed in all technical aspects of craft, structure, literary theories, New Criticism, Old Criticism . . . You name it, he has an opinion, and is happy to share it, along with a phonebook-sized research prospectus, in case you are inclined to doubt the validity of any of what he is saying.

“Egghead Skull” by MattysFlicks on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license

In fact, you are not inclined to doubt the validity of anything he is saying. He knows what he’s talking about. He may even be the best in his many fields. The problem is simply that he doesn’t stop talking. All he can do is analyze, and this means that the people who are trying to create are suddenly thinking about what they are doing, and even if it’s something that once felt like the most natural thing in the world (“Cliché!” announces Blob here, and of course he’s correct), they are now choking and unable to work. 

He’s great when it comes to analyzing the relative advantages and disadvantages of one structure over another, one setting over another, one point-of-view over another, and so on. His expertise is wide-ranging and can be applied to any aspect of a work, at any time: completed, not yet begun, or in-progress.

He is, in fact, an invaluable member of any creative ecosystem. What makes him a monster is a matter not of kind, but of degree. The problem with Dr. Blob is that, left unchecked, he has a poor sense of timing, scale, and of the magnitude of his importance. He was supposed to be on call as an independent contractor, as a consultant whenever needed. But he either didn’t get or didn’t read the initial memo about his duties, so he tends to think of himself as CEO and creator-in-chief of the whole operation. 

He means well, and he wants nothing more than for the work to succeed. But he’s not a creator. He wishes to be, but anything he makes tends to land like a lead balloon (“Another cliché!”), weighed down by too many footnotes, parentheticals, and additional structural tiers. He’ll build so much scaffolding onto a structure-in-progress that no one can see what it’s trying to be. And he makes the little creative sprites (who do actually create great work) get very nervous, because he’s always clicking his pen, tapping it against his clipboard, and announcing the time. Intimidated by his administrative presence, the little sprites go hide in the closet or run down to the park to play on the monkey bars, leaving me alone with Dr. Blob and his endless analysis.

But for all the disaster Dr. Blob can wreak on any project, he is (like many of these monsters) a gentle giant. It is quite possible, come to think of it, that his misunderstanding about his role is a result of my not having delineated its boundaries. 

Fortunately, a simple formal letter, issued as a reminder whenever needed, should be all that is needed to get him out of the way. Dr. Blob is highly receptive to formality and has a high esteem for official mandates.

Something like this should do the trick:

Dear Dr. Blob,
Although your services are extremely valuable to our operation, we are currently undergoing a series of internal restructuring protocols and will need to relocate your office and adjust certain terms of your contract.  Rest assured, your compensation package will not change. As a reward for your exemplary performance, we are upgrading you to an executive-level corner office in a newly remodeled building, with a fine view of the park down the street from our current workspace.  It has wood panels, room for a vast library, numerous filing cabinets, and a lovely swivel chair. Mainly, it affords you space with which to consult with other clients in need of your services. We will contact you from time to time as needed, mainly upon completion of work, and for advice with synopsis, cover letters, reading lists, and the like.  Until then, enjoy your new office and be sure to wave at any sprites if you happen to glimpse them playing on the monkey bars. 

It’s a win-win. Blob gets his own office, and every time he waves at the sprites, they come running back to play here, in the actual workspace, reclaimed from the domineering analyst who means well. Now we can play, discover, and be free to give ourselves over to the process of creating, until the next monster comes rumbling through.

Angling

Writers keep tackle boxes of images, memories, metaphors. Bait the hook. Cast into the dim light of early morning, over the blank page. This loud hunger, shhhh. Try the next metaphor. Vary the retrieve. Look and wait.

I recently came upon a  character who is fishing. I don’t do this, so this means it’s time to research some. What test for what catch, what lure, what line, what basic knots? What bait for bonito, how to prepare guitarfish, how to vary the retrieve when catching halibut. Sometimes you want to move slow and steady. Other times it’s crank, crank, twitch. What I find is supposed to be for these characters, but I can’t help sampling some. I’ve always had it, this waiting pose, looking out. 

“Oceanside Pier 4” by Dmitry Lyakhov on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

Anglers have their rods and their lines; their lures and their five gallon buckets. Writers keep tackle boxes of images, memories, metaphors. Bait the hook. Cast into the dim light of early morning, over the blank page. This loud hunger, shhhh. Try the next metaphor. Vary the retrieve. Look and wait.

Now I have an excuse to go to the pier, just looking, waiting like the others, but without a line. To watch the angler in the blue jacket, and hold a silent one-way conversation.

What are you bringing up now? Is that mackerel? Maybe you will filet it yourself when you get home. Maybe there’s someone waiting to add it to a bowl with jalapeños, lime, cilantro, oil, as her mother did when she was a girl. And who taught you what line, and what taught you how to wait, and what longings are behind the eyes you cast over the surface now, reflecting back the deep? And who meets you in the silence of your sunset reverie, and what other shores do you remember, and what aches would you rather forget? What makes you limp when you move now, back to the folding chair? Is it simply stiffness of hard work over time, or something else? There are no grays visible beneath your ball cap, and yet your face is etched with deep lines, like a bronze sculpture. Angler, where are the young promises of new life you once held on your knee, raised up, up! — above your head, just to admire? Who laughed back, cooing, and what is it like to remember them at a distance, and what makes them laugh now, do you know? And who holds them now, and are they gentle, and can you bear to ask?

Reasons to Start Again

Because sometimes the best I can offer any other life, in an age of senseless killing, visible and invisible, is a living reminder that death doesn’t get the last word.

For the breath of new beginning, the stomach-knotting tension of preparing to leap, how it tightens the best web I can make for landing in.  To honor the construction of what is intricately made and yet untested.

For practice protecting the fragile and not-yet-realized: children, the neglected; ancient wisdom and this still-beating heart.

Because when the wind blows a body sideways, sometimes the best way to keep from falling over is by moving with it; because watching a baby learning to walk, not stopping until he hit the next resting place for his hands, or fell down, reminded me of this. 

Because sometimes the best I can offer any other life, in an age of senseless killing, visible and invisible, is a living reminder that death doesn’t get the last word.

Because the opening notes of a familiar song are enough to remind me what music can do. Because I refuse to fail for nothing. Because I want each heartbreak to count for something. 

Because the decaying bits of once-flowering dreams that died on the vine to fall into this soil have left their bodies in it, the inanimate materials of their still-future lives, and I want to bury these hands in their essence and feel what’s still getting ready to be born. 

The Artist and the Curator

How does a curator leverage some knowledge of what will draw people and lead them to be surprised by what they were not looking for, which they may never have thought to seek out?

I had the great fortune of visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this weekend, and was profoundly moved by the experience. It had been a long time since I’ve visited an art museum, and the timing is perfect for many reasons. One of these is that I have been considering certain questions related to art: mainly, how “doing it” is often felt to be something separate from bringing people to it. And how the fusion of both roles is essential for the art to reach an audience. 

While visiting the museum, I am noticing the level of intricate thought and care that has gone into the design of the space where people come to see what is called “the work,” ––without which, the work could not be seen and appreciated except in small private groups. I think about what choices are made to lead people in, how curating an exhibit is an art in itself.

I notice what has been considered, from selection and arrangement of pieces, to how people are guided to move through a space.  The frames, what wall colors, behind which pieces, under what lighting?

LACMA by Elliot Harmon on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

American art critic Jerry Saltz said, “Don’t go to a museum with a destination. Museums are wormholes to other worlds. They are ecstasy machines. Follow your eyes to wherever they lead you…and the world should begin to change for you.”

It’s the curator’s job to present an artist’s work in a manner that allows such wormhole experiences to happen–– and, ideally, to encourage that they will.

My own experience teaches me that while some celebrated artists had the great fortune to work with people who recognized the art and matched it with an audience, then cultivated, curated, and nourished the conditions for its reception, most of us working creatives do not have someone like this working along with us. We tend to feel discomfort when it comes to curation. 

This is worth paying attention to. How do you find an audience and welcome them in? What pieces do you arrange in the opening room, what do you save for the inner room of the exhibit? How do you select and display pieces so that they work in dialogue with each other? When a summary is included with the label of a piece, how do you frame it so that connections are encouraged across time and space, to meet the viewer in this space, in this time, looking now?

How does a curator leverage some knowledge of what will draw people and lead them to be surprised by what they were not looking for, which they may never have thought to seek out?

How do you direct the movement in a space while allowing viewers to explore with a sense of freedom and choice?

These are the questions on my mind, and while I may not have much in the way of answers ––yet, at least I have moved beyond thinking of curation as something somehow separate from my work as a writer. Keeping these daily posts are part of this, I know. I’ll stay with these and continue developing other projects as I develop some curating muscles.  

Some things I do not tend to keep at the forefront of my creative practice, as I have previously thought about it: how I want people to find the work.  How much I want to meet them where they are and bring them to it. Or how much it matters to me that people might be reminded back to something they might have wondered about, to revisit what might have been thought lost. How much I want people to see themselves in my work, to be reminded back to their best and most life-giving parts and be moved to nourish and protect those parts in themselves and others. 

It occurs to me as I write this, that I have never articulated any of this before. So, here’s a start. Onward.

Monster Mash 1: It’s Nothing!

He’s big and shaggy, and he goes around shouting: Nothing! That’s nothing! or This is nothing! You’re nothing! This whole project, whatever it is, amounts to nothing!

In yesterday’s post, I described the habit of following and leaving breadcrumbs as a practice I do “If the familiar bogeyman shows up, growling that there’s Nothing to offer.” Later in the day, it occurred to me that I had possibly misrepresented the regularity of the appearance of this character, as a sort of roving Bigfoot figure, of whom I have occasional sightings, whom I nobly fight off whenever he arrives. 

In fact, there is nothing occasional about his appearance. In fact, I can’t remember a creative day without him. In truth, we live together. Always have and probably always will. 

It occurred to me that I should give him some more space. Monsters like when you give them some room. They like to be acknowledged, which is why they growl and lope about breaking things. Given that I’ve already tried everything I can think of to get him to leave, from battle to poison, to attempting to lure him away with some distraction, I’ve decided to make peace with him. I’d rather live with a peaceful monster than an angry one desperate for attention. Besides, he’s surprisingly endearing (in a so-funny-looking-he’s-cute sort of way), all shaggy and one-note, always bumping into things and repeating himself. 

“monster” by Karli Watson on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license.

“Nothing!” Is what he says, over and over. That’s his name, Nothing. It calls to mind a favorite childhood movie, The Neverending Story, in which a boy goes on a quest to save the known world from The Nothing that is devastating the land. That nothing was terrifying to me, mainly because it rang deeply true. As a child I sensed what I did not have words for at the time, but which was definitely present: a strong anti-life force at loose in the world. Steven Pressfield calls it The Resistance. I sometimes call it The Machine. It’s capacity to destroy comes from its ability to exist undetected. 

This is why I decided to name my monsters. The umbrella title (Resistance, Machine, Evil, etc.) is useful, but the thing to understand about these forces is how they have minions going about doing their bidding for them.  I want to name these, too. 

So, back to Nothing. He’s big and shaggy, and he goes around shouting: Nothing! That’s nothing! or This is nothing! You’re nothing! This whole project, whatever it is, amounts to nothing! 

As you can see, he’s a bit of a solipsist. Poor guy, he really can’t help himself. It’s all he knows.

Yes, I say to him, patting his matted fur. That’s right, this is Nothing. Would you like some milk? 

I like Nothing! he insists, but he will take some milk. I put some out and he’s busy with that for a while, slurping away before he bangs the bowl to the floor, just to punctuate his previous statement. Which was: Nothing!

I even make concessions. I mean, he’s not entirely wrong. I actually don’t have any ideas, most days. So, if asked, “What ideas do you have this morning?” my honest answer is either something like, “I think I’ll fry my eggs instead of boil them today” or “I’ve got Nothing.”

Nothing would like me to submit at this point. But I can acknowledge that while I have no actual ideas most of the time, I am not in need of any, either. I’m here to show up and listen, and the world, as far as I can tell, is full of plenty to offer. All I need to do is look, listen, and describe. 

And be patient. If I didn’t have patience going for me, Nothing would probably win every time. If the question of what to post today (or write later, or how to develop that story or solve the next problem) had to be answered before I began, I definitely wouldn’t be getting anything done. But, as it turns out, it doesn’t. Nothing is big and hairy, smelly and loud, and sometimes just eerily silent, brooding. 

But Something is abundant and vast, full of more than I can possibly take in at any given time.  So, I practice just being in it, dancing with it, and let Something take care of the rest. That’s all I can do. Perhaps those with endless ideas have other ways.  

Maybe some people don’t live with all these monsters around them all the time. I can’t imagine what that’s like, but I can say that I don’t mind looking at these funny-looking guys. It’s quite a menagerie, really.  

You take a monster like this Nothing and you talk to him, pet him and offer some milk, clean up his messes, and after a while you start to notice that actually, he’s more like Something, which would negate the whole supposed threat of his being. 

But I won’t tell him that. Nothing’s got his job, and I have mine.

What’s that? He wants to know.

Oh, it’s Nothing! 

Hmmmmph. He nods, very serious, spewing sulfurous smoke from his nostrils. Nothing!

And then I get back to it. 

Follow-up:  After hanging out with my guy Nothing today, something occurred to me. I think I will do a whole “Monster Mash” series of posts though maybe not necessarily back-to-back. I like the idea of returning to these characters. I think I can assemble quite a cast, over time. I picture something like The Muppets Take Manhattan, another favorite childhood movie.

Why Breadcrumbs?

The Unknowing Project

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
​Where you are. You must let it find you.

— David Wagoner, “Lost”

I am here to let it find me. To listen, with you. That is enough, or should be, but I am not always as strong as my intentions. So I carry breadcrumbs in my pocket, just in case. I look for more, just in case. I share, just in case. Because someone else is always looking, too.

Wake, make coffee. Open notebook. If the familiar bogeyman shows up,
growling that there’s “Nothing” to offer, call the monster out, and offer anyway. Try memory. Try looking. Try a walk. Try a photograph, a work of art. An old story. Try typing in today’s date. Notice what happened on this day. Notice how you can, if you want, see flickers of all of history in a given day. Blake’s eternity in an hour.

 “Ladder in the Woods” by Claudia Dea on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. 

Gather crumbs: historical events, feast days, holidays you didn’t know about. Who was born, who died. Who did both and then was listed here before you ever knew them. Follow the breadcrumbs they left for you. Trust that they are there. Make notes of what you find. Not forever, just for a few minutes: 5, 15, 30. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

If an historical figure is involved, you may converse with them. Arrive not
at an end, but some beginning. Or a natural pause. Share the conversation
not like a lecture but like dancing in an open field. No explanation needed.

Go about the rest of the day, noticing how you are changed in a small
but meaningful way, from that small dance in that open space, how doing
so, reminds you of something vital, something about this wild, single life
that the machine would train you to forget. Be grateful for the change.
Repeat. 

This is all. A simple act of faith, connection, communion. Essential in
the unknowingness of it because the point is to be reminded back
to the mystery.

We are here to build the spaces that let us live inside it. We are 
here to welcome others to come in. To say, Here. Look. This
is where we are. In the presence of a powerful stranger. 

This is me, bowing to you, in this strange space. 
I see you. I honor you. Let’s begin. 

On Ratcatcher’s Day

It was the plague. Everyone was scared. Grief-stricken, too, but there was no time for mourning, what with the bodies piling up. They got angry instead, mean and stingy.

According to the Robert Browning poem narrating the legend of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the 22nd of July was the day that the children of Hamelin were led away by the Pied Piper, as revenge against the townspeople who refused to pay the sum promised for ridding the town of its rats. As a result, this day is known as Ratcatcher’s Day. Learning this, I had to follow what breadcrumbs I could find.

“And so long after what happened here 
   “On the Twenty-second of July, 
“Thirteen hundred and Seventy-six:” 
And the better in memory to fix 
The place of the Children’s last retreat . . .”
–    Robert Browning, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

The clothes alone, let me tell you. They must have been made of stripes of six or seven different colors stitched together. 

For real? 

Someone must have really loved what he did with that pipe.

Well, those people should have paid him. 

It was the plague. Everyone was scared. Grief-stricken, too, but there was no time for mourning, what with the bodies piling up. They got angry instead, mean and stingy.

Show us the bodies! They said. But he had none. He had led the rats to the river. 

No one paid. So he played for the children next. They followed him and were not seen again.

To where?

Some say a cave.

I heard it was a mountain.

I heard Transylvania.

I heard the river.

Oh no! I heard what happened was that they decided to pay after all, this time triple the amount, in solid gold, and he brought them back.

Where was the last place they were seen?

“Pied Piper Silhouette” by Miki Jourdan on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license.

It’s called the street without drums. To this day, there’s no music or dancing allowed.

Yeah, but where does this story even come from. I mean, really?

There was a stained glass window in The Church of Hamelin. It’s gone now.

The window?

The whole church. Anyway, a record from the late 1300s reads, It is 100 years since our children left.

It could have been disease.

The Pied Piper as the symbol of death, the Danse Macabre.

Could have been a landslide, a sinkhole.

Might they have been recruited or sold to the German empire, to work the land in what is now Poland?

​It’s possible. There are legends of those who would lure people away. Children of the town could be, after all, a term that applied to anyone, regardless of age. 

What about dancing mania? 

A well-documented social phenomenon, a relief from the stresses of poverty.

Ah, St. Vitus’ dance.

Or ergot poisoning from spoiled crops.

St Anthony’s fire.

Could be typhus.

Or an ancient ritual, long forbidden, disguised as illness.

Suggestions abound. Answers are few. But what is clear is that there were risks far greater and more mysterious than the more familiar illnesses of the body. There were diseases of spirit, of mind, and while it was common among those who preferred pretend certainty over more fluid depths of understanding, to minimize or dismiss certain risks outright, it is worth considering the costs of these errors, the sudden silence that must have blanketed the town like a stifling and otherworldly heat, when it was discovered that the children were all gone.  

Landings

One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation . . . Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said. Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted.

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, followed shortly after by Buzz Aldrin, while Michael Collins maintained a solitary lunar orbit. The world watched. Meanwhile, the mother of Vivian Strong, shot dead by police at fourteen, was grieving. It’s the age of the Cold War space race, also Stonewall. Demonstrators in the U.S. and worldwide call for civil rights, an end to war, racial justice, housing and labor reforms. The U.S. has been at war with Vietnam for fourteen years at this point, and it will not end for another six. Millions dead, scorched earth.  It’s the age of the Biafran war in West Africa, The Troubles in Ireland, a Lybian coup underway, the Weathermen gathering in Chicago, the Rozariazo in Argentina, the first U.S. draft lottery since WWII about to begin. John marries Yoko and Chicago Police officers shoot Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, among others. Medgar, Malcolm, King: all have been assassinated, now. Blind Faith rocks Hyde Park, Franco closes the border, The Stones release Let it Bleed. In a talk to teachers delivered that year, James Baldwin opens with an acknowledgement of the moment at hand. Let’s begin, he says, by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  The following is a morning meditation on this moment and its lasting relevance to ours, culled from readily-accessible details about the Apollo 11 mission.

One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation, one remarked.
Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said.
Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted. It got only two inches in.
There was fear the flag would topple on camera or fly off. It did neither 
in the moment. I am not sure where it is now.  Salute, phone call, prayer.
Then a sixty-meter walk, photographs. Core samples collected: here’s soil,
plus rocks. Three new minerals discovered, later found also on earth. Now
a plaque. We come in peace, if not in peacetime.  There was a speech prepared
in the event of disaster; the ritual would mimic a burial at sea. Each, of course,
had their own, If I should die–

Meanwhile, one orbited the moon alone. Not since Adam, he said, regarding
the extremes of his solitude.  Although, it’s worth noting that accounts of Adam
suggest he was surrounded by a kingdom of earthlings preceding his arrival, not
to mention sunlight. 

The return was fraught, there was a long list of disaster scenarios. It landed
upside-down, for example, but there was a plan for this. Then came quarantine, 
then the parade, prayers of thanksgiving, cheers. 

It is possible to be awed, as Abernathy was, by a magnificent achievement,
while simultaneously enraged that it was pursued while other relatively simple 
requests were denied. Care for the sick, shelter: for children, fathers, veterans, 
grandmothers. Food, some relief for the caged. Some end to the caging of bodies. 
Some recognition of the unnamed dead. To ask, voice hoarse with rage and grief,
who commands this mission, who makes this leap? Just as it is possible 
to frame a gorgeous picture of a newborn and place it on a distant desk, 
in a corner office, to profess love and mean it, but never change a diaper,
never walk a wailing body back to peace.

Creative Notions

It is a good idea, I read somewhere, to have some other creative practice beyond the main one. Sort of like a cool down from the main event, or tai chi. I have been known to get tunnel vision and overthink, so take this advice to heart and consider some things that do not involve words. Painting might be good, but there are times I’ll do anything to avoid a trip to the store, and this is one. Okay, then.  Well, comes a voice, there are those fabrics you saved, and it’s not like you don’t have what you need for those projects. 

There are people who announce, when something tears, Oh I can fix that that, give it to me! like it’s nothing. Or, I made this dress from a tapestry I used to have in my dorm. Simple! I am not of this tribe. I am, however, very stubborn when it comes to acquiring certain skills, except where cars are involved. I know there’s no test at the end, but still. You meet enough of those made-these-pants people and you think, What am I missing? Maybe this.  

Besides, wasn’t I just thinking how I’d love to do something with all these frayed edges? It turns out I still have the book. I bought it because I had acquired a sewing machine and to let it languish forever seemed like a dangerous form of waste, and the sort of senseless sin that was no fun. I didn’t want any associated karma to infect the baby, so I made a few expandable skirts when I was pregnant with my daughter. The bar for maternity wear was not very high. She’ll be twelve in the fall, and since the skirts, there were also those napkins and aprons, and once a mermaid tail, because she saw a girl with one at the local pool and when I looked into getting one as a Christmas gift, the cost was out of reach, so I thought, Here we go. The key to the success of these, such as it was, was a sense of necessity combined with a commitment to regarding any seams only from a distance, in low light. Or through the eyes of a four-year old, who cared only that she had a tail. 

I spend some time with the book. There’s an essential tool list, but it’s unclear when I will be using any of these things, so I move on. Measuring, the importance, blah blah. Good shears? I have these scissors for opening amazon boxes and trimming split ends. The book explains that steel shears, while more expensive, are more reliable. The lightweight, cheaper ones may feel better in your hand, but could give you trouble. I think, here’s an explanation. 

Now wait: what is this seam sealant? For frayed edges, apparently. That might almost be worth a trip to the store. If available for low cost.  I wonder: a viable replacement for doing the actual hem? I table the question and think, Look at me! I am already exercising new creative muscles. Flex!

Ironing board? Check! Should be padded, they say. Well. I consider. That really depends. It’s covered anyway. A thimble is something I once had. Now it’s just this economy-sized box of band aids. The directions for the machine are rather long-winded with a lot about what part is what. It is unclear what help they can offer, so I suppose I’ll just feel it out like I did last time, when I––wait. Was that really seven years ago already? No wonder I am looking at these parts thinking, what does this do? 

As far as I can remember, my last attempt at feeling my way around also involved a number of expletives, and numerous stops as I attempted to figure why the machine was wildly stitching what amounted to a giant knot about the width of my bandaged thumb. My intention was not a giant knot, but a single line. I know I eventually achieved these lines, however uneven. So now I am trying to remember what I did to bypass this problem. I check the book for clues.  

I love that these things are called notions: the zippers, elastics, pipings, laces. Hah! I think. I have plenty of notions, and chief among these is that I will not be needing any of these accoutrements at this particular point. Just a hem, ma’am. Just a hem.

I am well into this knot collection when I read the part about fabric types and corresponding threads. Also, about how to toggle that lever, whatever it’s called, to make things go forward or back. Well, that’s something!

A place mat vest is something one can make, apparently. And wear. It never occurred. 

There are whole sections on plaids, patterns. Getting them to line up. Hah! I think. If I can say one thing with confidence about this endeavor, it is that the alignment of patterns is not, at this juncture, a concern.

Growing tired of this book, I look around in this basket. Surely that thimble must be in here somewhere. No such luck, but what’s this?! Aha! Hem tape! Now we’re talking!

I think, well, that was a successful review. I may not have done any successful hems––yet, but just wait! I did, however, find occasion to to remember that there is a difference between someone who hacks at a thing on occasion and someone that takes something seriously. Finding the right verb, I have patience for. Endless pages until I find the beginning? No problem. Rewriting a third person passage in first, or from the point of view of the postal worker, or a neighborhood feral cat? Check, check, check.

Lesson learned: there’s little logic to one’s inclination to a particular art, but what inclination there is, can be enough to sustain all manner of frustrations. Without it, there would be nothing but frustrations and a thing that is beginning to feel like a colossal waste of time. 

So, I put the sewing machine back in the closet where it belongs. The basket, too. The scissors I keep right here, for everything else they’re good for.  It’s actually okay if those flour sacks sit there waiting to be made into napkins. It is even possible that I will do so at the next paper towel shortage. But for now, I have other things that need doing.  And I am reminded how any frustrations can be endured when the motivation for doing something is intrinsic, and the trust is in the process and not the outcome.