something borrowed

Sometimes I want to write here so badly – there’s a longing to put words down, to be heard, to share. I might even get so far as to set myself up on the sofa with my computer, a cup of tea nearby, and an idea percolating … only to have to referee a high-octane sibling meltdown and then read one party a book in order to distract and dissipate the “situation.” (Best not to call these things anything ugly in front of the offending parties or they will only be more,  um, offended.) Other times, like last night, I have the best intentions of staying up and writing after the kids are asleep, but then I find myself waking eight hours later at one of their sides. Rested, yes, but not written.

So here are two things that came to me last week, both via the Writer’s Almanac, both speaking legions about how we spend  time in our short, short lives. Looking at my time – how I spend it, what nourishes me and what depletes, what choices do I have and how can I remember that I made these choices when I’m feeling frustrated with them some time down the line  – is one thing I’m doing during this end of year time.

The first is about Willa Cather. I love the sense that her regular job took too much time away from her writing. Not a child or a partner even, just the rigor of an office. There is truly a romantic notion of time here … and yet lessons/questions about priorities.

Willa Cather worked at McClure’s for five years, but it was stressful work, and she was not writing much of her own fiction. In December of 1908, she got a letter from her mentor, the writer Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett wrote: “My dear Willa, — I have been thinking about you and hoping that things are going well. I cannot help saying what I think about your writing and its being hindered by such incessant, important, responsible work as you have in your hands now. I do think that it is impossible for you to work so hard and yet have your gifts mature as they should — when one’s first working power has spent itself nothing ever brings it back just the same, and I do wish in my heart that the force of this very year could have gone into three or four stories. […] I want you to be surer of your backgrounds, — you have your Nebraska life, — a child’s Virginia, and now an intimate knowledge of what we are pleased to call the ‘Bohemia’ of newspaper and magazine-office life. These are uncommon equipment, but you don’t see them yet quite enough from the outside […] You need to dream your dreams and go on to new and more shining ideals, to be aware of ‘the gleam’ and to follow it; your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up.”

And then a poem from Jim Harrison. “Throw the furniture out the window and begin sweeping.” Indeed!


by Jim Harrison

To remember you’re alive
visit the cemetery of your father
at noon after you’ve made love
and are still wrapped in a mammalian
odor that you are forced to cherish.
Under each stone is someone’s inevitable
surprise, the unexpected death
of their biology that struggled hard, as it must.
Now to home without looking back,
enough is enough.
En route buy the best wine
you can afford and a dozen stiff brooms.
Have a few swallows then throw the furniture
out the window and begin sweeping.
Sweep until the walls are
bare of paint and at your feet sweep
until the floor disappears. Finish the wine
in this field of air, return to the cemetery
in evening and wind through the stones
a slow dance of your name visible only to birds.



1 thought on “something borrowed”

  1. While going to graduate school at the BreadLoaf School of Engish I often wanted more than anything to have the time to stop reading Victorian novels, literary criticism, the Marxist cultural critics, talking about them all with other eager grad students who had left their lives for five summer weeks and just, damnit, be able to spend my time arranging thoughts on paper – and not English major thoughts. Fortunately, when Willa Cather had been there she felt the same ways. She had left behind her a small cottage on the corner of the campus and one could check out the key to sneak away for silent hours to a place no one knew you were except the holder of the key. Seeing her gravestone here and hearing you, Jennifer, brings back wonderful memories of secret hours with the scent of Vermont pine on the wind.

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