still life with roses, orchids

There are five of us around the table. K. has made lamb. The small apartment is warm, the scent of rosemary, faint trace of mint. The table is set in browns and reds and golds. One of us offers a toast. We raise our glasses. We talk about our work, our friends in common. M. tells us about her ex-husband, forlorn. How she meets him for breakfast and he tells her he is sad all the time. She says: I cannot be all these things for you. I cannot be all these things.

They share homes, still. One here and one on an island. She takes her friends down to the island home every winter and they lay out on the beach all day and go dancing at night. Sometimes, in the summer, he will bring the woman he is dating to this island house. But he has not been dating now for some time.

I wake from a strange dream in which I watched a man plummet to his death. He was a scientist. I had traveled far to meet him. I had crossed a wide desert in the dark. I had climbed a stone staircase in a stone cathedral. He was waiting for me there. As I approached, breathless and dizzy, he leaped. There was no sound as he fell, just the falling. On the ground beneath us, snow. His broken body arranged on it. A still life with roses.

K. talks about the man she has been dating. He works all the time. It is difficult for them to see each other. He has a daughter. He has a mother whose health is failing. An ex-wife, an ex-lover. All these require attention and time. K. says: He wanted to spend the afternoon here, but then his daughter. She does not finish the sentence. I stand up to clear the plates.

I drive home in the dark. It is cold and the wind is fierce. As I merge onto the highway, I am overwhelmed by a sudden, sharp sadness. It fills my ears and mouth. It makes my hands tremble.

I am halfway through the draft of this novel, but I should be further. I write around it now, on scraps of paper. I scribble phrases. Questions I will ask myself and not answer. I sit at this desk and hold my head in my hands. I make grocery lists. I examine the stitching on my sweatshirt. Gray thread on gray fleece. Tiny flawless stitches.

I see the forlorn ex-husband all over town. We all do. At opening nights at the galleries. At the new restaurant on the west side. In front of the bookstore on Westminster. Sometimes, he will be with R., sometimes with someone we don’t know. But most often alone. This city is so small. How grateful I am that everyone I have ever thought I loved is far from here by now.

Years ago, walking in another city in another life I can barely remember, I crossed the street in front of the library and bumped shoulders with a man I used to know. It was like a scene that had been staged. The light turns, the clusters of people spill out into the crosswalk and one man and one woman cross in opposite directions. The woman’s hair is longer than it once was. She is small and walks quickly with her shoulders hunched. The man’s gaze is at some point in the distance, but when they make contact, he turns to look at her. In the moment of recognition, the background music swells and they are frozen there with the swirl of people all around them. She walks across the street with him. They stand on the sidewalk and embrace.

Perhaps the stage directions say: They hold each other not so much out of love, but of recognition. A familiarity, a glimpse of one’s past self, which gives its own sort of comfort.

They bought the house together and imagined wintering there each year. The white sand beaches, the mountains, the waterfalls. The orchids. How the orchids alone could make your heart ache. She does not speak of how they parted or why.

In the dream, the scientist had been calling for me, but I do not know why. I only know there is urgency and so in dream logic, I trudge across the desert until I come to a glowing city. I have walked all night. I reach the cathedral at first light. There is snow on the ground. It is cold.

I ascend the stairs, slowly at first but then fall into the rhythms of climbing. The steps are endless. The staircase narrows then widens. It opens out to a small balcony from which more stairs beckon. These are steeper than the others and barely wide enough to accommodate my body. I climb higher. There is no sound except my feet on the steps and my own breathing, growing labored, growing short.

The stairs end on a wide balcony. There is a low wrought-iron fence and my scientist is leaning against it. I reach the top step and run toward him. He turns to face me for a moment, then he is gone.

opportunity cost

The businessman tells me: You must also consider the opportunity cost. While you are doing one thing, you are not doing others. What are you not doing? What progress could you be making on another endeavor, were you not spending your time this way?

We are sitting in a coffee shop in the lobby of a hotel. Beyond the window, the street. Cars and trucks speed by.

Look, I’ll give you a simple example. Basic. A baby could understand this: You put your money in car parts. You’re making car parts. You have a team, you’ve got a little factory, you send those car parts off the line. Every day, car parts. Then this other guy is making flash drives. He’s got his team, his factory, and all the little flash drives come off the line. At the end of the year, you’ve got your car parts. He’s got his flash drives. He didn’t make any car parts, didn’t have the time or the resources or the people who know how to do it. His people make flash drives. Your people make car parts. Some investor comes along and he wants to buy your factory. Give you a ton of money for it. He asks you what have you got? Well, I’ve got car parts. Hmm, he says. I think what I’m looking for is flash drives, and BAM. You’re out. Flash drive guy’s got the deal. Flash drive guy is sitting on a whole pile of money. That is a missed opportunity. That’s what I’m saying. Do you see what I mean? That’s what I’m saying. 

I take my aunt to breakfast and we talk about my mother. Does your husband know how she was? she asks. You know, how she did things, the way she was. 

He knows about what happened, I say, if that is what you mean. He knows she was unhappy. She says: “I got so mad at your sister once when she said that. When she said your mother was unhappy. I told her, well what did she have to be happy about? A failed marriage, no job, no money, no friends to speak of. What was she supposed to be happy about?” 

I nod, say nothing. “But that was a long time ago. I have had time to think about it. I think about her so much. She’s been gone for twenty years now. And I still feel like I have to defend her.” 

I have thought about her a lot, too. She has been gone now for longer than I knew her. I think about her every day. Her unhappiness. I worry about the ways I am like her. 

She had assembled a fantasy of how her life should go - the husband she would have, the house they would live in, the car she would drive, the dresses she might wear - and everything around her disappointed her because it did not resemble the fantasy. None of us - my father, my aunt, my sister and me -  knew what this fantasy was, exactly. She did not describe it. We only knew, I think, that we were not quite right. 

The children she should have. Who we did and did not resemble. 

My fantasy has always involved a letter. Handwritten on fine paper with stamps I do not recognize. It begins “dear daughter,” or “to my dear daughter.” It tells a simple story and brings news: I have been looking for you and now I have found you. I am coming to New York and I would like to meet you. And we set a date and a place and a time. It does not matter, in my fantasy, how long it takes for my letter to reach her. The meeting is set. I buy a new dress. 

We meet in the afternoon and we have tea and hold hands. There is not much we can say. I speak no Korean and she has some English, but it is limited. In my fantasy, it is better that way. We avoid all complexities. Perhaps we take a walk in the park near her hotel. Perhaps she brings me a gift - something I used to wear or a book or a photo of her and my father, together in happier times. She is young and smiling and her hair is piled high on her head. My father is rakish. His hands thrust deep in his pockets. 

My businessman might take issue with my dwelling so long in fantasy. My resources are limited, after all. Allocation of time, of imagination: How many missed opportunities are piling up even as I sleep? 

I walk down to the river and stop there, looking out over rocks, the precipitous drop. Six minutes. I cross the bridge and follow the curve of the road up the street past the library. Three minutes. I enter the gym, scan my card walk through two sets of doors. Put my bag in a locker. Three minutes. On the bicycle: forty-five minutes. Back through the double doors and down the road and across the bridge and back up the street. Thirteen minutes.

My aunt says: “I didn’t feel like time was passing, really until after I turned seventy. That’s when I started feeling time go very quickly. And now sometimes I think: I am seventy-three years old. I forget sometimes,” she says, “that I am not forty anymore.”

Aren’t we all just passing time? 

I walked home from school as a child, bent down to pick up twigs from the sidewalk. I took them home, arranged them on a shelf. I fingered the bark. Should I instead have read a book? Or built a raft? Or learned the flute?

We drove out to the beach in winter. The hotel room had a gas fireplace, and we lit it. He took me to the bed and we stayed there until the fire burned out and night fell. I could have knit a sweater. I could have made a list of all the stars in the sky.

I sat by the bedside of my mother and watched the hours tick past. Watched the white sheets rise and fall with her labored breaths. The time was shapeless. Endless until it was not. I could have been sweeping floors. I could have been digging trenches in the dirt. I could have carved lines into my skin. 

I could have been searching for my first mother. All this time, I could have been searching. I could have flown to Korea and back a thousand times. Learned the simple, phonetic hangul. Learned to say mother

I could have loved the mother who was in front of me - the living, pulsing, unhappy mother - how much better I could have loved her. 

Being here and not there. Wanting this and not that. Looking one way and missing what the eyes cannot see. Everything we have lost. Everything we cannot get back. This is a moment I will never get back. And look another has passed now. And another. 

We have people over for dinner two nights in a row and after they have gone, my aunt says: You have such nice friends. They are such lovely people. I say yes. This is how we pass the time. This is how we shape the days. Afternoons in the kitchen, the warmth of the oven, the rhythmic slicing and chopping. Bringing out dishes, placing them on the table. Chairs pulled up around the table. The pouring of wine. The raising of glasses. We lean forward, we laugh, we embrace. There are children and they run up and down the stairs. They parade around us in hats. They ask for chocolates and we give them. We take plates back to the kitchen and pile them on the countertops. 

A river of hours flowing past more swiftly than we could ever have possibly imagined.

Let them flow. 

petitions of the faithful

I spend the first few minutes of my writing time dithering. I open screens and close them. Open books and close them. I am aware that time is running out. 

I want to understand what I am trying to do, although the poets - or at least the ones I love best - say that no one knows, really, what they are doing. I know that I am here, and I know that I am constantly putting words down and thinking about making things - ideas, images, sounds - with words. I hear them in my head. I hear a kind of singing. It is a kind of music to me. 

I go through the notes I have scattered on my desk, pick up one, write toward it. Here is what I write:

the mole on the side of your neck
music that is too loud for the morning; tea that has gone cold

the sock with a hole just big enough for a toe to slip through
which one does not matter
or it does
I can’t remember what matters anymore

I am thinking about your neck
It is a shrine
It is a sandwich
It is the color
we call white

You are not as handsome as I remember
But you have this neck

I move through the days. At times it seems as though I am walking through a dreamscape, shrouded in mist. Where am I? How did I find myself here, how did I come to be here, in this place, in this mist? 

Then, there are days when the sun is bright on me and I move with a kind of confidence, with a kind of grace. The days of sun and grace and of knowing, in the smallest possible ways one can know a thing, with the smallest bit of certainty that can still be called certainty and go forward in tiny steps. Incremental. The pace is glacial, we often say. Say it aloud: The pace is glacial. It has a lovely sound. 

I have lost myself, a little in this process. The word process sounds forced. I use it all the time. I have lost myself a little. Like I am floating all the time. It is one of the things, I think, that is useful about trying to make a thing. I will not say art. It is hard even to say useful. But bewilderment seems a valuable state. When I start setting down words, I do not know where it will end. When I start setting down whole passages, I do not know where they will end. I am living this act of making marks and making shapes or trying. 

I am living this continuous act of trying. 

I stayed up late last night to finish a task. I had been putting it off for a long time. It didn’t take long when I finally sat down to do it, and as I usually do, when I have put a thing off and then I have done it, I wondered why had I put it off for so long? Was I afraid it would be difficult? Was I afraid it would be boring?

I started writing it. I would give myself short breaks. The breaks would be to go downstairs and take one load of laundry out of the washer and put it in the dryer. And take the things that were in the dryer and put them in a basket. And bring the basket upstairs. And fold the things. Or hang them. 

Then I would go back to writing it. And it didn’t take long. Not much more than an hour. Certainly not as long as two. And then it was done. 

And my laundry was done, too. 

I say I am not interested in plot. I have said this so long. I keep saying it. I think it is true.

Yesterday, I made a grand statement over dinner: “Plot is a market-driven concern, not an artistic one,” I said. I was leaning back in my chair. And then I leaned forward, as I often do, as if to signal that I think I am saying an important thing. 

And what often happens after I say a bold thing, is that I follow it with several tentative things. Like I have puffed myself up to say the bold thing, then slowly deflate. My ambitions are modest. 

Except perhaps when they are not. 

Meanwhile, my sister only just had her power returned. They have been living for many days in the dark. She tells me about how she makes breakfast wearing a miner’s cap that she bought on a whim. I picture her, tiny woman, in her bathrobe and her miner’s cap, standing at the stove, making pancakes. “They all laughed at me when I wanted to buy it,” she says. “But no one is laughing now.”

I am not a religious person. She is, my sister. Now. She prints out bible passages on slips of paper and tapes them around her house – over the kitchen sink, on the mirror in the bathroom. Many of them concern anger. Controlling it. 

When we were children, she had a quiz for her catechism class. It was a fill-in-the-blank. She had memorized the answers but not the questions, so when she asked me to help her study, she handed me the sheet with the answers filled in and before I had a chance to ask a question, she blurted: “holy spirit; holy spirit; talking to God.”

What if the questions are in a different order? I asked.

She said: “Talking to God, holy spirit, holy spirit.”

I lost God a long time ago. Or he lost me. We don’t talk about whose decision it was to leave. Best to let some realities sink in quietly. So what I think I am trying to say is that I do not have God and he does not have me, but what I have is this daily practice of sitting here at this desk, listening to the odd, staccato music trying to take shape in my head. Sounds and words and phrases conjured here staring out the window. Or driving down North Main Street past the fire station. Or stepping out of the shower. Or standing in line at the grocery store check-out. Or folding laundry in my basement. And this – writing these things down, sometimes speaking them aloud – is a kind of prayer. 

In that I am brought here by blind faith in what I cannot know. In that it is a way to organize my disappointment. In that it gives me the tiniest bit of grace to go forward to the day. And again to another and another. 

The petitions of the faithful: Hear us.

Holy spirit, holy spirit, talking to God. 

song of the king

I am distracted. The mind wanders. I lose focus. 

I am thinking about fragility, about brokenness. 

Once, I saw a performance in a small black box theatre in which one dancer drew long chalk lines across the stage while another followed several feet behind, writing fragments of text between the lines. The man then drew a chalk circle downstage and stood in it. Then, he bent at the waist and rested an egg in the small of his back. He walked the lines he had drawn with the egg balanced there. It was odd and it was beautiful. We held our breath. Halfway across the stage, the egg dropped with a quiet thud to the floor. A collective gasp. The egg.

There were four of us and it was late. They led us to a long table in the far corner of the deck, closest to the beach. We had already had cocktails upstairs and at the newcomers reception and then again in the lobby bar in various configurations. One group would disperse and then another would form and now, we were the last, the devoted. It is likely we were quite loud. There were two waiters attending to us - the lateness of the hour I suppose and also the bit of spectacle we must have made, four laughing women, our lipstick fading, the straps of tank tops showing now that our blouses and wraps had slipped from our shoulders. We drank frozen margaritas and told stories about the places we had been before. In the distance, the pitch dark sea. Our voices big and laughing. We stayed out until we were certain we had extracted every last pleasure the night could yield.

Anyone can love the perfumed days of summer, but I have come to love the cold dark mornings best. They are quiet, save for the radiator knocks. The sky moves through its early morning palette of blues. 

This morning, a gray pallor to the brown lawn suggests frost. There is a slight, occasional wind. It makes the tree branches shiver. 

M. returned late last night. The week ahead will be a busy one. I have fallen behind. There is never enough time. 

I have come to an uneasy place in the writing. The fragments come and I lay them out, one after the other. I number them. Occasionally, I will move them around, change their order.

I am preoccupied by a number of themes - brokenness, fragility, loss. Hunger. There are others, I am sure. I am haunted by this sense that I must drive this thing forward to some sort of conclusion and when I start turning words like conclusion over in my mind, I become paralyzed. Exploration? Yes. Absorption, obsession? Yes. Momentary suspension of grief, of despair? Yes, yes, yes. Conclusion? Emphatically no. 

A few years ago, I met a dear friend of mine met for breakfast in a little cafe in a part of town I rarely go. I don’t know why we went there - perhaps it was soon after it opened. It was nearly empty on the weekday morning we met and we sat at a table in the corner, lingered. We were talking about writing. I was lamenting, as I often am, the passage of time. The year before, she had enrolled in a graduate program in Boston, but soon after the semester began, she withdrew. Her family situation is a complicated one. She explained that she was needed at home. She gave up the apartment she was renting near campus and returned home. She never shared with me the details of her decision and I did not press her, but I remember being tremendously disappointed on her behalf. 

In my limited-attention-span way, I move from writing to reading one thing and then another, to listening to music and writing down lyrics, to searching for lyrics; to watching television or at least, flipping through channels; to scrolling through screens online and back to reading, back to writing, back to texting (rarely sexting); trying to read, trying to write, trying to hold the sounds of my family waking up and making their way down the stairs in one part of my head while at the same time clinging desperately to a line or a phrase or even a word or two that for whatever reason has whispered itself to me and asked me to remember it. 

These words, these phrases will come to me at inopportune moments. In the shower or driving to work. Over dinner. In a staff meeting. As often as I can, I write them down on whatever scrap of paper I can find. I throw the scraps in my purse over the course of the day and then when I am next at my desk, I take try to make some sense of them. Here is what I had this morning:

  • sadness
  • fire/burn CD
  • french audiotapes
  • I think we are still talking about writing
  • blossom should not ever fly from bee to bee to bee
  • turn the music up louder

The blossom line is from the musical “The King and I.” It is a song the king sings defending his polygamy. I looked up the line, which I had misremembered. Here it is:

A girl must be like a blossom
With honey for just one man.
A man must be like honey bee
And gather all he can.
To fly from blossom to blossom
A honey bee must be free,
But blossom must not ever fly
From bee to bee to bee.

I am running out of time. This is the way it is. Recently, I sent some poems to a well-respected colleague, a poet and teacher who knew me as a fiction writer, years ago. I explained, this is what I am doing these days, these fragments. It is difficult to sustain anything longer. He wrote back and kindly, generously validated these “bursts of text,” given my life and its attendant demands. 

My life is getting in the way of my life. These are my words, not his. 

In the times I turned away from the screen while writing this (and there were many), I found a few additional scraps:

  • a dimension of performance
  • lottery
  • mole on the side of his neck 
  • where a thing lands, where it touches down, even if only for a moment

to get the board on to standing

I take the boy out for pancakes and at the table, he draws in his notebook while I read. It is early and for a time, we are alone in the cavernous dining room. Then, men come in in yellow jackets from the construction site. They sit at a table nearby. They order steak and eggs and bacon and potatoes and toast. I have never seen anyone eat steak and eggs for breakfast. It sounds delicious. 

They are young and they speak loudly. They are talking about vacations. About snowboarding. One says: “I couldn’t get the board on to standing.”

In the writing, a tiny breakthrough. A sliver of light for which my gratitude is boundless. 

Another man comes in. Another order of steak and eggs. I spread jelly on my toast. I pierce the yolk of my egg. 

At the next table: “Everyone was driving around with their eyes closed last night. I saw three accidents, full-on. Four, maybe.”

We stay at the table for a long time. When we are done, I take my lipstick from my purse. There was a time when I would see women doing this in a restaurant and I would turn away in distaste. There seemed to me, at the time, something forlorn about such a scene. A whiff of despair. But here I am, my pocket mirror flipped open and propped against my plate. I bring my face down toward it, slick the brush across my lips. I will catch a glimpse of myself in window glass sometimes and see my bright red mouth, the last feature on my face to hold out against desolation.

I take Dorothea Lasky to the gym and while the glowing screen tracks my slow progress, I read. The din of television screens all around me, but this:

This is a poem for you

How could this come to a good conclusion
I thought of your face, strange and French
And your sweater full of robins
You most likely think
I do not pay much attention
To your face
But I was sitting by the train
When inside I saw it burning
I’m sorry that some people
Think of this burning as nostalgia
Or sentimentality
And that we have to endure them
And that they are so boring
To want to think away everything
That is beautiful on this earth
I’m sorry that we have to think
Of other times when it might have been
More acceptable to burn
You were there
When I told you that a cold November
Would come
Wind and rain, the cold
May have hardened me
But there is not much else I am willing
To leave anything for but your
Face that is wet with wildflowers
The white wind, the warm wind
The cooling prisms above the beach
The beachtrees and scattered leaves
Above the Winter that will never come
I am not sure if we matter
I am not sure if your face matters
But I will destroy this house for it anyway 
But I will scorch this black world for it anyway
Wet face and wild wind
I told you all it would come
This is a poem for you
This is a poem for all of you
Awful and quiet

It is a stunning autumn day. I drive beneath the branches of trees still golden and orange and red. Bright sun high in slate blue sky. My son, in the back seat, sings quietly.  It is a song about the constellations. It is a song about the earth, tiny planet spinning in an endless expanse of stars.  

this is not a love story

I stay up too late - sleepless, thrashing. The heat sputters on through the old pipes, a hiss and cough of steam. I think of all the things I had hoped to accomplish, so few of them done. I consider rising, descending the stairs, switching on lights, making tea. In the end, I force myself to lie still, slow my breathing. 

When I rise it is still dark. The room is cool. I wrap a blanket around myself and sit at my desk and stare at the glowing screen. 

M. and I talk about 40 again with his birthday approaching. I know now what you were feeling, he says. I think now I understand.

He says: It is like getting to the crest of a hill. I look down, he says, and I can see what is below. And the path that leads to it. At that we are on it. Neither of us says aloud, though we think it: Inevitable. Neither of us says aloud: Relentless.

I write these scenes. I put these lovers on a beach on a gray afternoon. He leads her down from the house blindfolded. She can hear the sound of the waves on the shore. A cacaphony of gulls. The smell of salt air and of eelgrass. I let him undress her there, a fine mist on their skin. I write her silent, save for her quick breaths and the gasp that escapes her lips as he enters. I write him silent too, but he whispers to her, his hot breath on her ear. We cannot hear what he says, but we can guess at it. We have ourselves known these urgent whispers. We have ourselves spoken them. 

They pass the hours like this. Binding and unbinding. 

In the end, there is only sadness. I write them embracing on the damp sand like the last of the damned. I write the cruelty that settles in on them now that they have known the ways in which each is broken. 

I let them sleep lightly. I write the air turning cold. I wake them still hungry but now they are fast and brutal as evening falls. His fingers leave bruises. She marks him with her teeth.

The library in the town where I spent my teenage years had a carousel of paperback romance novels in the main reading room. Their tattered covers depicted windswept heroines on horseback. They were white-necked, their thin dresses blowing open. The men had piercing eyes and broad chests. Some were dark-haired and brooding: These were the ones I loved best. 

I read them methodically, compulsively; worked through the titles until I could turn the carousel a complete rotation and not see an unfamiliar face. 

What was it I was looking for in those brittle, yellowed pages? What did I find?

For a time, I thought I knew these stories so well that I could write them effortlessly, and I tried and failed repeatedly for years. I am reminded of this now as I struggle with plot. It is a simple idea: rising action, conflict, resolution, but this offers no solace or no real instruction as I sit staring at a page full of fragments. 

In the end, in the windswept romances, there is the promise of the future, of what they have overcome some obstacle to achieve. In the end, the future lies glittering before them – an endless horizon where everything is possible because nothing has been chosen. The future is unformed and shapeless. A bright abstraction yet to be drawn. 

Why am I drawn to the tragic? Why do I write scene after scene in which moments of beauty are so steeped in sadness? And why is there no resolution? Why do I insist on withholding resolution?

I think I am an optimist. By that I mean: No one writes, no one creates with any seriousness who is not, in some small way, an optimist. Or at least, one who believes that our human struggles matter. Or at least one who believes that despite the steady report of indications to the contrary, there is beauty and meaning and hopefulness, in fact that at times we are even giddy with a surfeit of it, in each of our own small lives. 

Perhaps that is its own kind of resolution, provides its own kind of momentum: That we hold each other, even though we know that we are dying. That we walk upright even when our hearts are breaking. 

I drive my daughter to school and we talk about The Walking Dead. Misery follows misery and each episode is more brutal than the last. The things that give comfort are taken away, one by one. Each flicker of hope is extinguished before it can burn bright enough to cast real light. How can they go on? we ask ourselves. 

My daughter says: “I would give up.” I say: “I would too.”

And we laugh. And we make our zombie jokes. And we touch each other’s hands and arms as the traffic moves slowly forward. Because what else, after all, is there to do?

we'll just have to wait and see

I am falling behind. It is difficult not to panic. 

The hours pass, the days. Weeks. 

I don’t know what I am doing or why. 

I add songs to my playlist. As if that counts for productivity. 

I print out pages, staple them. 

I carry books around and when I read them, I underline passages and make notes in the margins. I write: danger in disguise; violence at the center; does not reflect well on her and the occasional “!!!”

I spend much of the afternoon in one meeting or another. It is a gray, dreary day and has turned cold. 

After work, I meet my friend at the bar and she fills me in on the week she spent with her new love. It was fine, she says. It was lovely. We had a fight, though. One. Maybe two? 

Over what? I ask. 

Well, she says, he doesn’t think I should use the snooze on my alarm. He thinks it is a sign of moral lassitude. 

We laugh, but she is serious. 

“I asked him if it was about more than the alarm clock. I said is this about something else?”

And what did he say?

“He said, no this is just about the alarm clock.”

Over breakfast, M. and I talk about the writing. How I seem to have stalled.

“I will give you a piece of advice that I have not yet made work myself,” he says.

I say: “I hope you’re going to say: give up.”

He laughs. “No, not that." 

I enumerate my complaints. I hate this, I tell him. I am not getting anywhere. I don’t know what I am doing and I hate sitting there in that chair, and I hate making decisions, and I hate the piles of paper on my desk and I hate everything I have already written and I really hate the internet most of all. 

"Are you done now?” he asks. 


We talk about process. It doesn’t give me much pleasure, and yet I keep doing it, I say. I mean, I sit there and it gives me nothing, and yet, I don’t want to get up, either. So I just sit there, and watch the time run out. 

He says well you are constantly trying to get back to that place, to that time when it did give you pleasure. You are trying to recapture that. 

I ask him if that is how it is for him, too. Every project he is working on he says is his last. "Even after the point at which it gives you pleasure?”

“Yes, I think so,” he says. 

We are still talking about writing, I think. 

I don’t know, she says. It was a great visit, but that fight really affected me. It was like this shard of glass that pierced my beautiful little love. And I don’t know that it will ever be the same. 

Oh, I tell her, you can’t think like that. Love is kind of rough and tumble, you know. 

She shakes her head. I don’t want it to be. I’ve never done this before. I don’t want anything to change. I want it exactly the way it was. 

But it’s always changing, I say. You’re both always changing all the time. You know, you never step into the same river twice. It is not the same river, you are not the same man?

But that’s not the way I want it, she says. That’s not the way I want it to be. 

Toward the end of the evening, we start talking about work and she tells me about a project she wants to do. It seems impractical and difficult and I tell her so. She persists and describes it in more detail. She waves her hands around. I feel myself bristle. I sit back and cross my arms over my chest. Or I lean in and rest my chin on my hand. She raises her voice. But do you understand the concept? she asks me. Do you understand it on a conceptual level?

I do, I assure her, but I don’t see how you can get support for it. 

Even as I hear myself say this, I am thinking who have I become?

After, I send her a note. I say: I am sorry I was so grumpy. Please ignore me, I tell her. You should do it, I say. You should do it. 

Everything you said was important, she writes back. 

We’ll see what happens, she says. We’ll just have to wait and see. 

the juggling, the balls

It snowed last night. As I stood by the gas pump in the dark, pelted by icy snow, I thought, as I do every year: “This will be my last winter here.” 

Every year, we talk about moving. There are times we talk about somewhere warmer - somewhere further south or west. Sometimes, we consider New York, which still to me even after decades, seems a kind of returning home. But every spring, the giddy daffodils, the drifts of forsythia, the lengthening days and I am again as if in the throes of early love, brimming with stupid hope, the winter’s cruelties forgotten. Surely, there must be a cure for such chronic forgetting. 

The writing has slowed. I have reached my first challenge in my adapted nanowrimo. I don’t yet know this character I am trying to write. I don’t yet know this father. The first rush of words came easily. I was putting down the broadest strokes. The major arcs. This next section is about the father and there are things that I simply have not yet had the time to know. The new words come, but in a slow trickle. 

In order not to lose momentum, I read. Erratically, promiscuously. (“You are promiscuous in your interests,” I was told once. He said: “I don’t mean that to be unflattering.” I said: “Oh, then perhaps you could have used a more flattering word?”)

Speedboat is there on the desk, of course. For form. The Kiss for the breathless scenes of daughter reunited with estranged father. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept for desire teetering on madness. Madness, Rack, and Honey for craft - infuriating, painstaking craft. The Rings of Saturn for sentences, for pacing. 

And then the new stack, waiting to be read, some of the recent birthday’s bounty: Junot Diaz, Nick Flynn, Carole Maso, Ben Lerner. The Collected Letters of Samuel Beckett. 

And Proust, of course, for Proust Group. I am so far behind. 

My daughter talks about her anxiety over her various activities on the way home from school and I find myself slipping into soapbox mode, droning on about how many things she is juggling (I actually hear myself say: “You have all these balls in the air.”) and how she will need to make choices or she will have to learn to live with the discomfort of knowing that some will be dropped. “You can either become comfortable with juggling all these balls knowing there will be times that you will drop some, or you have to decide to put some down.”

I stand by this advice, in principle, but there must be a better metaphor. 

M. and I talk through plot this morning at breakfast and so I feel better. I think I know what I need to do next. While it might not feel like progress in the same way that the early pages did, the way they came in a rush as if all I had to do was get them down, (“That will never happen again,” he says laughing.) it feels like a thing to do, an important thing to do, while waiting. 

See you tomorrow. xoxo