drifts like houses

I offer you not a finely turned out meal, the flavors carefully planned to form an arc of revelation, moving from salty to sweet, subtle to sublime. I offer you, rather, humble scrambled eggs.

*****

Hurry, hurry, Mary dear.

In an hour we get snow!

Drifts like houses! Ten below!

~ N.M. Bodecker

As with this book – lovingly read over and over in our house – which portends the disaster of winter at every page and with every rhyme, I keep feeling like IT will be here any minute. Winter with its ice and sub-zero howling. Winter with cold feet and cold nose, not to be warmed no matter how high I sheepishly turn the thermostat.

These warm days, I think, have been a fluke gift. Which isn’t so different from how I feel about Life sometimes – that the whole dang thing is ending before we even know it. Who let my daughter get so tall? Who allowed my son to have such a witty vocabulary? They’ll be gone tomorrow, and I’ll be trying to figure out Medicaid and wondering why didn’t I stay at Microsoft and build up that 401K.

Darkly, I think:  Who knows when the semi will come around the corner? When the big tree branch will fall just so. Freakish stories stick in my mind. An old neighbor hit while biking in Australia; a friend’s mother run over by a utility van while visiting Las Vegas. Or the illnesses – so sudden, so unknown, growing inside us without us even knowing it. Any day. Any time. Be prepared.

Then:  Breathe, Jennifer. Breathe.

******

I had a picnic lunch with an old friend yesterday – sprawled in a park on November 9th. How odd. She is in town visiting family, and we’re catching up not on months or weeks but on years. A filmmaker, hers have been more colorful than mine. Several films have been toiled over – her hair pulled out out over one particularly crazy producer – since we saw each other last. The stories are fascinating – security checkpoints in Senegal, film festivals – but hardly even recognizable to someone who spends her weekends at soccer games and writes updates for the school newsletter. I tell her about my work, my search for employment. And then it comes:  She looks into my eyes, lowers her voice a bit, and pulls her lightening bolt from her bag:   “What do you want to do? What do you really want to do – if money weren’t an issue. If where you lived weren’t an issue.”

I wait for the semi to thud into me. Because if I don’t know, it will surely come.

She is not the first to ask. There’s been a string of well-intentioned, admirable women who have asked me this. I think they all think they’re the first; they’ve come up with the Magic Question that might help me to clarify it all. But when they ask, I feel deaf and dumb. I don’t know, I think down to the depth of my not-yet-winterized soul. I don’t know. I panic. I wait for the semi to thud into me. Because if I don’t know, it will surely come.

This time, though, I try a new tact. I describe what I’m good at, what I enjoy, and how – truthfully – exactly what I do is less important than that I can use these skills to good end, working with good people in a healthy environment. The texture of the experience is more important than the what of the experience.

******

painting by Eva Hesse

 

This conversation between single, childless filmmaker and divorced, mother writer sends me off on an odd tangent of a game I sometimes play. It involves thinking up women artists of every ilk and sleuthing out whether they had children or not.  Did Eva Hesse have children? (No.) Did Helen Levitt? (Seems not.) Did Martha Graham? (No.) Does Debby Harry? (No.) Does Cindy Sherman? (No, though according to Wikipedia she is dating David Byrne, which strikes me as utterly bizarre.) With my discoveries, I search for maternal clues, wondering how each woman’s work might have been different if she’d had children; if she longed for children but didn’t have the  opportunity; if she knew that if she had kids, she’d some day find herself sitting on a park bench being asked:  BUT WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT TO DO?

*****

If the what is less important than the texture – the way in which the every day unfolds -then why can’t I entirely rid myself of caring about the what? I return to chapters from Stephen Cope‘s book on yoga and psychology; one is about what he calls “The Identity Project”; the other is about what he dubs “The Reality Project.” The former is about tearing down our attachment to all sorts of ways in which we prop ourselves up through identification – work, kids, clothing, home decor, make of car, facebook status.

“We cling desperately to every outward and visible representation of ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ building our lives around the  most gross apparent realitities, which are by their nature the most impermanent aspects of the whole enterprise,” Cope writes. He continues, “It turns out that when we lift the lid just the tiniest bit on our internal dialogues, we discover that we’re constantly trying to shore up our ‘sense of self,’ reassuring oursevlves that we’re actually real, solid, and continuous.”  In other words – that winter is coming but we have enough food in storage, our clothes are warm enough, or roof sufficiently sturdy, and we’ll be fine.

So how do we get beyond this anxiety about storing up acorns and comparing the make of our wool socks, about identifying with our STUFF – including what we do? Reality, Cope suggests, is based on clear vision (not surprising) and also on cultivating what he calls a “calmly abiding self” – that is, a “nonreactive, non-judgmental, quality of acceptance.” Another word he uses is equanimity.

Ha! This summer – totally forgetting anything I’d read in Cope – I scrawled in my yoga journal:  SEEK EQUANIMITY. WHAT IS EQUANIMITY? (I love it when I seek and try to define a thing at the same time, as though I’d written, “Head West! Where is West?”)

And then I wrote a definition, taken from I know not where:  Neither a thought nor an emotion, equanimity is rather the steady conscious realization of reality’s transience.

******

A few weekends ago, I went into the yard and pruned. My plans for the day had fallen through, and I was feeling sorry for myself. Peevish and angry – then shameful for feeling that way. It all came out in my shears, which snip-snapped their way through bushes, shrubs, and treelets. As I hacked, the piles grew, and so did some odd sense of security and capability. I wore my gloves. I used my twine. The bundles neatly lined the curb. My dad, an ardent pruner, would have been proud. (In fact, he once gave me a pair of pruning shears, which along with a small cast iron skillet for making grilled cheese sandwiches, is one of the only gifts I can recall him purchasing for me all on his own.) He used to prune things within an nth of their lives – or so my mother said. Most of them lived, and I’m sure he always felt better for the mortal combat. More in control of his domain. Ready for winter. Safe with his shears.

*****

Weather.com tells me it will certainly rain on Friday. It will certainly get cooler – colder even. In a few weeks, who knows, there may be snow. Piles and drifts, perhaps. I may have more work; I may not. The stove could break for good, and so could my car. One of us could get the flu. The semi may appear. Will I know any better what I really want to do? Doubtful. But might I have sunk a micro-movement closer to equanimity? This seems possible. And as satisfying as scrambled eggs.

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11 thoughts on “drifts like houses

  1. Thank you for this essay. I love the way you balanced heavy themes with a light touch. I can relate to much of what you write here and am deeply grateful to find that I am not alone.

  2. thanks for the lovely blog update. go well with the cold you’ve got there, we’e coming into summer and the bugs are biting here in canberra. south-eastern australia, ie. almost, no its swimming weather so I’ll try and send you some sunshine!
    R

  3. This is one of my favorite bog entries.
    How is it that you burrowed into my brain/heart/soul without me feeling a thing?
    Because *somehow* you articulated my deep and (UNRELENTNGneverendingALWAYSPRESENT) thoughts better, much better, than I think I ever could.
    I know I would be good at many other jobs or careers. However I cannot find out by staying here. However here, I stay. My child has needs that come before my wants.
    Because what I want I cannot have (money, a beach house in Venice CA, a life with time for making art, designing clothes/jewelry. Maybe a part-time job in a creative place).
    People ask me too, that QUESTION, and they do think they are the first to ask me. However, I have known what I wanted for alongtime, averylongtime and to me, since I do know, it is PAINFUL to tell them because I cannot have it. So, I wonder what is worse, the feeling of not knowing what you want or the feeling of knowing exactly what you want but knowing you cannot have it.
    exquisite indeed. Thank you Jennifer for this entry

    1. I saw HOWL the other night after having written this and someone asks Ginsberg this same question. He basically says, “Quit my job. Get a little apartment for me and my boyfriend. Write.” Then do it, the person says; and he does. BUt your’e right, much harder with kids. And, too, there’s that question of what is what you really want and is escapism to some extent? I wonder about this a lot. Because of this question AND the pain you describe, I’ve found it more useful to concentrate on the texture of lives, the overall values by which I want to live, as opposed to the day to day details of WHERE and doing WHAT.

  4. It is hard, isn’t it, wanting to be / thinking you could have something,or be somewhere else. My kids are older, but one of them still needs a lot of time and support, even though out of home, and I’ve had – for the last few years especially, a lot of stress about this. Something thats helping with how I handle things is Mindfulness. I did a short course, and have been doing a relaxation process to keep the concept going in my life – essentially, its about being where I am, and accepting things as they are. Not as I would like it to be, if things were ‘better’ but somehow finding light and joy and using the bits of creative time I have, in the best way I can. It has helped a lot to come fully into the present, whatever I”m doing, and just be in that experience. I had a close friend die last year, and the time we all had with Kim really helped us to see – well to try and be more ‘present-moment’ focused than I’d been before.
    Dont want that to sound preachy or that its been easy to do, but listening to the [Kabat-zinn i think, cds] and reading stuff on mindfulness has gradually started to get me appreciating my life more. If I stay with where things are, but take them one bit at a time, and savour the good stuff that does happen – even if I cant travel or do amazing courses or have zippo jobs or whatever right now, I can still draw and paint and love life at this level i’m living it now.
    take care and thanks! x R

  5. hi – just left a comment but not sure if it went anywhere… i’ll try again!

    I’ve been trying a concept called Mindfulness for a while, [did a short course and have a cd that I use] and it has helped with a lot of stress that I’ve had about mothering as its affected me over the last few years especially. One of my kids – though older and out of home, has still had great need of support and care, and that has chomped into my time and sense of well being a fair bit… the mindful approach is essentially to try and be where we are, here, now, and just breathe with that. Not as I would have things be, not as they ‘should’ be, but as they are, and to try and find joy and balance regardless. It has helped me a lot, to see the good things about where I am, and where we are – even if I’m not travelling, or doing amazing courses, or a fantastic job – I am still here, glad to be alive, and can draw and paint and share my life with other great women like you in here!
    A dear friend died in September last year, and for most of us who were with her through that time, we got the chance to be ‘present’ with Kim in a way we arent, for ourselves, most of the time, I think… bit of a waking up experience for me anyway!
    take care and thanks for your great blog
    R

    1. Got both messages and say AMEN to them. Yes, yes, yes. This is what I work toward via yoga – with varying degrees of success depending on the day, time of the month, weather, and whatnot. Not preachy in the least.

  6. thanks Jennifer

    lovely blog and thoughts. we are all, out here in our houses and families and lives

    doing what we can and its great if we inspire each other a bit. in fact its essential!! its raining here in Canberra, and I think i’ll sleep well tonight. Yay! we may have to build an ark to get out in a few days, but for now its cosy and peaceful.

    go well there

    R

  7. Hi Jennifer, Just wanted to pipe up and say how much I am enjoying your journey and how I can relate as a mother and writer. About what you want to do if you could do anything: I have come to the same conclusion as you. A job will change my situation – not good or bad, just a change – and maybe the idea of chucking it all and writing in an alcove would be much less satisfying than I think. Maybe it’s my ego (not the typical concept of an ego that wants money and power, but rather, an ego that takes pride in being a writer), that gets attached to that idea. Thanks for your blog!

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