Inspiration

When I was a young woman, I happened upon a slim book of poetry called Mapping the Distance, by another young (but slightly older than me) woman named Alicia Hokanson. Many of the books that drift onto my shelves later leave them, but this one has remained for more than three decades. I felt some kind of kinship with this writer, back then: Both from Seattle, both teacher-writers, both in complicated relationships. There was something in her face in the author photo that felt a bit like looking in a mirror.

Back cover of Mapping the Distance, with photo of author, a young, white, blonde woman

Something (I don’t remember what) a few weeks back caused me to do a search for Hokanson, and I discovered that in 2021 she published her second full-length work, Perishable World. I learned that in the intervening years, she had a long career as a secondary school teacher in Seattle. She retired from teaching in 2014, from a job she took in 1987, two years before her first book was published.

Where Mapping the Distance is the story of a young woman grappling with the challenges of early adulthood, Perishable World is (at its title hints) about life’s challenges at the opposite end of time’s fulcrum. Instead of a story filled with questions about choices, it’s a story filled with inevitable loss. I’m still reading it, so I can’t give a full accounting or review, but the writing is gorgeous. I can see, reading from both books, the development of craft and voice that occurred in the decades between them.

I can see that Hokanson is still, as she was then, just a little bit ahead of me on the journey. She’s offering, again, a map to places I can see but haven’t yet reached–not only as a human living in this particular corner of the planet, but as a writer, too.

Hokanson continued to write poetry for publication during her decades of teaching, but there is a gap of more than three decades between her two full-length books of poems. I have one book to my name, published in 2003. I remember telling someone that it took me more than a decade to write the poems in it and joking that I hoped it wouldn’t be another ten years before a second book. It’s now been nearly two decades, and I haven’t written even a handful of poems in the last ten years.

Still, I have been writing. Here, mostly, and although this writing doesn’t require what poetry does, there is something about committing words to an audience that hones craft.

There’s nothing like a book about what passes and endures to make a person think hard about what is and isn’t worth doing with what remains of a life, especially when it is written by someone whose journey contains important parallels to your own. I’m not sure what serendipity brought me back to this writer again, but this week I’m grateful for it–for the mapping of the long distance that a writing/teaching life can be.

Hey there,

How are you doing?

I mean, really. How are you really doing?

It’s been a few minutes since I’ve shown up here because…

I just haven’t had any words. Chuck Wendig had some recently that resonated: “…I suspect that anybody with one iota of empathy and a few braincells banging together will likely feel caught in a miasma of anxiety and depression, either bearing the brunt of it and smashing themselves like a soup can in a car crusher, or they’re disassociating so heavily that they feel disconnected from everything that makes them want to write stories or make stuff in the first place.”

I haven’t feel “caught in a miasma of anxiety and depression,” but feeling disconnected from everything that makes me want to write–that struck home. Which might mean that I have, actually, been caught in a miasma of anxiety and depression and just haven’t really acknowledged it. Because I have maybe been in the numb stages of it.

I started to write a post about abortion and the overturning of Roe, but it felt pointless. My words aren’t going to change the trajectory of the train barreling toward us, are they? And what can I have to say about it that really matters, anyway? Especially here, where the only people reading are likely those who already feel much as I do?

I have been working to adjust, again, to my changed and changing understanding of our shared reality. I have been trying to figure out how to respond to it, how to be in it. Remembering my responses in the face of Trump’s campaign and election, I cringed at my naivety, my lack of understanding about our country and how it works and has always worked. My lack of understanding of people. I abandoned the post, not wanting to make meaningless gestures or participate in actions that don’t actually do anything or write something that will make me cringe five years from now.

No other words, about anything, came forth.

Wendig’s arguments for writing got me to take another go at the abortion post, but I ended up letting another Sunday pass without sharing it. The words weren’t right, and besides, putting my words out in the world felt akin to spitting in the wind.

(All I have felt like doing is sheltering from the wind.)

I once believed, to my core, that the sharing of stories can be life-saving–that it was stories that saved mine, that of a lonely, often sad girl who had no idea why she felt the way she felt or what to do about it until she read and heard the stories of others like her and of others unlike her who provided models and hope. Story is the thread connecting the pieces of my life’s work, and my faith in their power is fundamental to the reasons I became an English teacher, a librarian, and a writer.

(I’m no longer an English teacher or librarian and I long ago abandoned being a traditionally published writer. I suppose there’s a story there.)

These past weeks, though, I haven’t been able to help wondering if such ideas about storytelling are frivolous, indulgent, wrong, and perhaps harmful. Are they ideas for a different kind of time? Do they keep us from doing other work that more directly saves lives, or keep us from seeing how things actually are? Are they just ideas that people like me like to believe in so that we can justify and feel OK about what we do (and don’t do)? What if they are just something we tell ourselves to feel better about dire circumstances, to feel some sense of power, to keep hope alive–and the feelings, power, and hope are false?

A few days ago, I shared my wonderings with a friend, who gave me these words in return: “(My daughter) asked what she could do and I reminded her that a load is always lighter when carried by lots of hands. Your post might not feel like you are lifting enough but your words are bearing part of that load. It all matters and we all have different strengths. This is a time for us to dig deep and use our superpowers!”

Well.

I had to sit with that for a bit.

For awhile, my self-deprecating bio on Instagram was: “I write things that make people cry. Not the superpower I asked for.”

There is so much I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure the answer to most of my questions (always) is Yes, and.

Yes, sharing our stories matters, and there are other things we need to do as well. (What are they? I’m not sure. I’m working on figuring that out. Letting go of thinking that any individual actions are going to stop the train is surely one of them.)

Yes, stories can be harmful, and they can also save us.

Here, I think, is what I do know: Truth is what saves us, and stories are a powerful way of truth-telling.

Isn’t it, perhaps, reason enough to tell a story if it does nothing more than help us know we are not alone in a terrible truth–so that we can know that what we are experiencing is both terrible and true and not specific to us alone? So we can counter the forces constantly working to gaslight us? How much of where we find ourselves now stems from the spreading of stories that are lies? Aren’t hope and community and good feeling grounded in truth necessary for all the other work that needs to happen now? Storytelling alone isn’t enough, but storytelling as a foundation for other action–that might be just what is needed right now.

Perhaps it is more important now than ever to throw our stories to the wind (even if our wind is just a tiny breeze, nothing more than Krista Tippett’s “quiet conversations at a very human, granular level”). Out in the world–in the ears, hearts, and minds of others–don’t they have some chance of doing good? They do nothing if they remain in our heads or our drafts folders, where they can provide no comfort, connection, or hope to anyone else.

I’ll share the abortion post next, most likely. It’s still not ready. Or I’m not ready. (And that’s OK, too. Probably.) But soon, most likely. In the meantime, I’ve linked to other stories below that feel worth sharing–stories that contain both hard truth and hope. (Maybe there’s more than one way to be a librarian?)

Take care of yourself, and if you feel so inclined, please do tell me how you’re doing, what your story of the past few weeks has been.

(This is me enduring/recovering from a wicked afternoon headache the other day–which is a fuller, truer story than the one I shared on Instagram with this image. Hope you are all finding ways to take care of yourselves.)

Dots (connecting them is encouraged)

Christian nationalists are excited about what comes next (“Breaking American democracy isn’t an unintended side effect of Christian nationalism. It is the point of the project.”)

I’m a Christian pastor. Evangelicals have to be defeated in 2022 (“I’ve been a kind of undercover Liberal in an increasingly extremist movement, that while once relegated to minor fringe noisemakers is now at the precipice of Roman Empire-level power. They are less than two years away from having a dominance that they will wield violently and not relinquish.)

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland statement on Supreme Court ruling… (“The Supreme Court has eliminated an established right that has been an essential component of women’s liberty for half a century – a right that has safeguarded women’s ability to participate fully and equally in society. And in renouncing this fundamental right, which it had repeatedly recognized and reaffirmed, the Court has upended the doctrine of stare decisis, a key pillar of the rule of law.”)

What to do when the world is ending via Jill Seeger Salahub’s excellent Something Good, which she shares every Monday (“But while there are some things about this moment that feel unique, I remind myself that the experience of the world ending is not new. Whether due to a prophecy or a very real looming threat, many of our ancestors also likely felt that the world was ending. And in many cases their worlds did end… . Facing loss, despair, uncertainty, and death is as much a part of the human experience as anything else.”)

Sometimes writing is a place to put all your rage, sorrow, and even joy (“And readers may find what you put there useful in the same, or almost the same, way. They too have things to unpack and unravel and examine. And sometimes they just don’t want to feel alone. The story is a signal to them, an echo they hear that reminds them that they are not the only ones feeling this way.”)

Krista Tippett wants you to see all the hope that’s being hidden (“I see the disarray. I see the broken power structures. I see the damage and the pain. I also see people tending to that. At the heart of some of these national-level or community-level conflicts, there is space to move below the radar and start stitching together relationships and quiet conversations at a very human, granular level. We’re going to work on quiet conversations that will not be publicized. That feels to me like a power move in this world.”) 

Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American, July 8, 2022 (“Today, Biden reached for the power embodied by the Fourteenth Amendment for the federal government to overrule state laws discriminating against citizens within their borders. But he also echoed the electoral fight to put that amendment in place when he told Americans: ‘We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe as federal law. Your vote can make that a reality. I know it’s frustrating, and it made a lot of people very angry. But the truth is this…. [The] women of America can determine the outcome of this issue.'”)

Last Sunday

I woke up from a dream in which I got to spend time with my paternal grandparents. Oh, how good it was to see them again–to hear my grandfather’s laugh and see his smile. My grandmother told me things she never told me when alive, about herself as a young woman. The grandfather in my dream died in 2004, and it had been so long since I’ve seen him in my sleep. I can’t remember the last time my other grandfather, who died in 1981, visited my dreams. In just a few years, I will be as old as he was the last time I saw him alive.

People who tell us that our dead will always be with us are wrong, I thought, as I opened my eyes in a house none of my grandparents got to see.

My grandparents are receding from me; they don’t occupy the space in my thoughts and feelings they did even just a year or two ago. Perhaps that’s because I’m no longer the woman I was when we last saw each other in this world, and because the world we lived in together no longer exists.

Later that morning, my daughter baked a cake with her husband, who lives on another continent, in a time zone 9 hours apart from ours. He made one there, and she made one here. They worked through a recipe together on a video call. (She lives neither here nor there, but some place in transit between two worlds that are now, I suppose, both home and not-home simultaneously.)

I sat nearby, working a crossword puzzle, while Cane relaxed on the living room sofa, reading whatever it is he reads on his phone. Our house is so small that we were all together. I answered questions about where the sugar was and if the butter and sugar mixture was “light and fluffy.” Cane sipped coffee. Later, I washed up while she dried, and in the bathroom we could hear the buzz of Cane’s clippers as he cut his hair before leaving for the gym.

I’m writing about this so I will not forget that morning, with its remarkable ordinariness, the grass so green through the window I sat in front of while my daughter measured flour and creamed butter.

While the water ran over my hands, I thought about how there will come a time when she is no longer here, when she will be back in her new country, and perhaps it will be the two of us who are baking together through a screen. As I handed her the beater to dry, I thought of all the ordinary kitchen times I shared with my grandmothers, almost none of which I remember now with any specificity.

I know that even if she weren’t going to make her life in her husband’s country, death or time would part us in other ways. Living is a series of so many little deaths, as one version of us gives way to another. I didn’t know this when I was a young woman in other kitchens with my grandmothers, my mother. I didn’t know to cement the moments in memory. I do now, though.

I took the recycling outside, and I was struck by the flowers blooming in the backyard, which I could see through a gate left open by one of us. They are so briefly beautiful, like the green of spring grass. The gate felt like an invitation.

Why write? There are so many reasons, but this is always what it comes down to for me: To keep alive the things I love: slow Sunday mornings in late spring, my daughter as a lovely young woman, Cane and I in the early twilight of our lives.

After this week’s Supreme Court ruling, I thought that perhaps this post I’d written was irrelevant. I decided it’s not. Feel free to see it as an extended metaphor, to make what connections you will.

Dormancy

Definition from: https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/dormancy

I have been thinking, for weeks, about dormancy. And writing. And habits. I’ve been thinking about the weekly notification I get of how many hours I spend each day on my phone, which does not equate with hours spent on social media, but still. It’s a lot. An astonishing amount, really, especially when I consider how many decades I lived without a cell phone and all it contains. What did I do with the hours I now spend using a phone?

I’ve been thinking about how I spend my days, which, as Annie Dillard told us long ago, is how we spend our lives. Since June, there has been a great easing in mine. September and October, when I re-entered the classroom after a decade+ absence, had its rough days, and I know there will be more of those, but on the whole there has been so much easing. I’ve opened a space, but too often I have not filled it quite as I think I’d like to.

I have been thinking, for weeks, about how often I pick up my phone when there is a quiet moment. Or an uncomfortable one. Or an exhausted one. I’ve been thinking about how it has become difficult for me to sustain my way through the reading of a print book, and how astonishing that is. My father once told me, when I was a young woman, that when he thought of me he pictured my younger self sitting at the kitchen table with a book propped up behind my plate, reading as I ate. There was a time that I never truly ate alone, because if there was no flesh-and-blood human with whom to share my meal, there was always a book with its other voice to keep me company. I can’t remember the last time I consumed a book with a meal. I often want to, but I have no book I’m reading. I remember when I always had a book I was reading (usually more than one).

I start many books, but I finish few. I’m not sure why.

Sometime back in November, I went to the library to graze the stacks, one of the best ways I’ve found to tune into what the universe (or something that “the universe” is our shorthand for) is saying to me. That day, I found Julia Cameron’s It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, a version of her classic The Artist’s Way, written especially for those “at mid-life and beyond.” Hers is a 12-week program of creative recovery, which is just about the length of a season. I read enough of it to decide to buy my own copy, thinking I would start working through its program at the beginning of January.

Instead, I began it this week, on the first day of winter. I have been thinking about winter since the day I listened to a Story Corps episode on the way to work in which Suzanne Valle talked about life in terms of seasons. She said that the winter of our lives begins at 60. Four days before that, I had turned 57.

Time is infinite, and the universe is infinite, but an individual life is not. I have been thinking about that, too. A lot. Despite what Cameron might have us believe, sometimes it is too late to begin again–because we have ended.

I have been thinking about Words of the Year, the choosing of which is a practice that some I follow or interact with on social media engage in. I tried it a few times, but it didn’t work for me. It still doesn’t, but I’ve been thinking about what I want more and less of in the coming year. “Scrolling” isn’t going to be anyone’s word of the year, is it?

As I’ve been having all these thoughts, I’ve been more mindful of what I’m getting (and not) when I engage with social media. I love Kate’s Instagram stories, because she so often shares things that are funny, wise, or visually gorgeous. Sometimes she shares words that seem to be just what I needed to hear at the moment I read them. I love being in the company of Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blogging Network. I love interacting with those of you who write to me here.

I have been thinking about June, when I might be in the position of needing to make a decision about teaching for another year. I have been thinking about all of the reasons I have never written in the ways I’ve said I would like to, in ways I gave up trying to more than a decade ago. I’ve been thinking about how, if I were to make a different space for writing in my life, I don’t know what I would fill it with, and how I am so often tired of the sound of my own voice. I’ve been wondering if the writing I do here is the writing I need to do, or if it is something that keeps me from the writing I need to do. I have been wondering how I want to spend my minutes, hours, days, life.

There have been a lot of thoughts rattling around in my (increasingly) old head, and I haven’t even started with the feelings.

So I keep returning to dormancy, and how that might work for a large mammal who cannot sleep underground for 12 or more weeks.

I’ve decided to take the winter off from things that make up too many of the hours I spend on my phone. I’m taking the social media apps (other than Messenger, which I use to communicate with folks) off my phone and I’m not going to write here again until Sunday, March 20th, the first day of spring. I’m not going completely off-line, but I intend to be much more intentional about being on. What I want is to clear some space and be purposeful about what I let into it. I think I need some arbitrary restrictions and some public declaration to make a necessary quiet happen.

I have been wary of writing that last paragraph because there are things I know I will miss, and because writing here has become a thing I count on for several different kinds of good things. I have been avoiding it because if I didn’t write it I could more easily change my mind about the whole thing. I was avoiding it because there’s some fear in this for me.

But I’m saying it and am going to do it because last week, when I went into Powell’s, a bookstore that covers an entire city block and was once one of my favorite places, I felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices shouting at me from the shelves. There is so much clamor in the world, and so often lately all I can hear is a grating din. I want to see if I can create a pocket of quiet within it, if I can make my way back to some part of that young girl who loved to make a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned chicken noodle soup and eat them slowly at her family’s kitchen table in the company of a book, able to hear nothing in her mind’s ear but the voice of one other person speaking to her. I don’t know if this experiment is as much about becoming some other kind of writer as it is about becoming a different kind of reader. All I know is that somehow, I’ve lost my way, and I want to find it again.

Hope you’ll check back in here come spring. If you’re not yet a subscriber, please consider signing up (top of right sidebar) and you’ll get an email when a new post goes up. (I don’t do anything with the subscriber list. To be honest, I don’t really know how to.) Wishing you all a good season of whatever it is you need from it.

How to write a poem

First of all–and most importantly–you can’t go looking for it. (Except, of course, when you do, as I am here.) You will go looking, most likely, because you want it and you’ll get tired of waiting for it to come tapping on your shoulder one day when you’re in line at the grocery store or strolling the library shelves or walking the dog, as if your writing life were a romcom and you are a young Meg Ryan (if she were weightier, somehow, and far more deep, like you) and the poem is Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal (but smarter and more handsome). Honestly, you can go about it either way–looking or not, purposefully or not–but the best ones happen upon you, usually when you’re engrossed in some other pursuit, in being alive.

While you’re doing that–being alive, living a life–the true ones will come at you sideways, catch your attention for a moment through a fragment of memory, a snippet of language, a scent that takes you home. It’s such a balancing act, you know? There you are, immersed in some experience or another, and then, this other fascination comes along and you have to decide if you will follow it.

Let’s say you do. (You’ll have to, if you’re going to write a poem.) You turn to follow what beckons, to see where it might take you.

From there, well, things can go so many different ways. (Isn’t that part of the thrill of it, that you can’t know how it will all go?) It’s the beginning of the dance, and it’s different for all of us, really. It’s different every time, even though it might feel like you take the same steps over and over again. The more you write, the more you’ll come to know and hone your moves, develop your way of being with words. Some of us rush in, stripping ourselves bare before we’ve hardly gotten through the door, while others peel layers slowly, savoring each new revelation before reaching for the next. Either way, surprises abound, things we couldn’t anticipate when we started.

So many think it’s all about that first draft and getting it on the page. They think the passionate melding of your senses with your language with your hands with your memories is the heart of the matter, the most important thing; they think that’s what writing a poem is. Sometimes, rarely, maybe. But write long enough and you know: That’s only the beginning, that initial tumble into the sexy potential of it all. The next day (or week or month), when you open your eyes to light and see not a grand passion but crumpled sheets and stale metaphors and the mess of your feelings strewn across the page: That’s when you decide if where you’ve gone is worth a longer stay.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes that heady frenzy is the point, and it’s enough just as it is. Maybe you’ll walk away from it, grateful for some thing it helped you see or know or remember. Maybe it was just an itch you needed to scratch. Maybe it was nothing, and you can see that and it’s fine, just fine. It was what it is. You go back to walking the dog and buying groceries and picking up library books, perhaps more primed to notice the world’s glances that come your way, that spark that could turn into a real poem.

Sometimes, though, you know it’s the beginning of something more than words scrawled through some feeling’s heat. It’s something you could sustain, that could sustain you. So you turn toward it and hold on.

This is where the work begins. (All poems are work, just as everyone says.)

At first you tackle the easy things, a word here or there, a phrase, a clause. You begin tentatively, seeing where things hold and give. The more you come to know the poem, the deeper you’re able to go. You add, delete, and combine with confidence. You trim the redundancies and the modifiers that are about nothing but nervousness or bravado or fear. You might write or cut whole stanzas as you realize what the poem is going to be, to mean. The more you polish, the more clearly you see, and you keep only the parts that work with the whole. The poem begins to gleam. You do, too.

Sometimes, it’s as easy (and difficult) as that. Other times, you get snagged or stuck. You do and undo, do and undo in futile loops. You might come to doubt yourself. You might tell yourself that you’re a shit writer who’s never written anything worthwhile and that you’re probably not capable of writing at all. Get over that. It’s just early life trauma coming around to have its way with you. Don’t let it.

However, if you try and try and try and can’t get anywhere, it’s time to take a step back and consider radical revision. It’s time to look hard at the frame you built in that first coming together, to see if the way you began allows for a structure that holds. Do you need to let someone else be the speaker, change the tense, impose (or tear down) a form? Oh, how hard it can be hard to realize that what you’ve written doesn’t work, that to save any of the poem you will have to rebuild from the ground up. You might hate doing this because you’ll feel as if it won’t even be the same poem any more.

Maybe it won’t. It might not be worth saving, the thing you’ve turned your beloved poem into. You might have to let it go.

If you’re not ready to do that, you could try just putting it away for awhile. Go about your business and get some distance. When all you can see is weakness, when you can’t remember what you ever saw in the poem anyway, when you’re sick of the sound of its voice, when the poem on the page just can’t become the one in your head, maybe give it a rest. Just put it aside. Let it be. (You might even try writing some new poems for awhile.)

One day, when there’s a chance the words might sound fresh again, pull it out and see what it is to you now.

Sometimes you’ll realize you were an idiot, that you were just too close to the whole thing to see what you had. Other times you’ll realize it was as doomed as you thought, or that even though it’s not all that bad, it just isn’t and can’t be what you hoped for. Let it go, if that’s what’s true. Do so with peace. You learned something from it, you know. You always do.

None of your words are ever wasted.

*****

These words grew from an exercise from The Daily Poet, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Solano. It’s a book I picked up last summer, when I was strolling a bookstore and imagining what the coming fall would be. I thought I would be fully retired, with lots of time to write. As I had no ideas about what I might want to write, I thought a book of exercises might be useful for building a consistent writing practice, a good way to discover what you want to focus on.

As this week turned toward its end and I realized I hadn’t written anything (again) or (again) felt the pull to write anything and knew I didn’t want to write about any of the things that had been yammering inside my head, I pulled out this book that I’d done nothing with (so far) but put on my shelf.

The book contains a writing prompt for each day, and I chose the one for the day I’d be publishing this post, November 14:

Teach Us: Write a poem that teaches the reader about something….Have this “teaching” happen through the poem, but have it be about something else entirely….See what you can teach the reader when you write the poem about something other than what is being taught.

Feel free to let me know what you think the true subject of the writing is. 🙂 I did not write a poem, and you don’t have to, either. The beauty of a book of prompts is that the whole point is just to get you started. You can do what you want with them, and this was a week in which I needed to do more of what I want and less of what I think I should. It was nice to shut the yammering up for a bit.

Survivor Guilt

Mary Oliver got it right, you know:  
You need not repent your survival 
as if it were a sin. 

I know, I know 
(believe me, I know): 
You feel it is your duty–
your burden, your privilege, your gift–
to rush back into the building full
of beams rotten with flame,
air fouled with smoke,
to pull out as many others as you can.

Maybe it is, for a time.
It can be hard to know
what we owe others.
It can be hard to know
if the cause is lost and collapse
–no matter what we do–
inevitable,

but I’m here to tell you,
one survivor to another:
We never have to burn with it,
our mouths filling with smoke,
our limbs turning to ash.

Imagine your mother,
what she would say if she could see you
in the second-story window, 
your mouth a wilting O through a smoky pane.

Imagine what you would say
if it were your child up there,
flames under her feet:

Run 

Love yourself as your mother would,
as you love your child.

Save yourself. 

Not so you can run back into that building,
or into some other one so far gone
it cannot stand.

There will always be buildings on fire. 
There will always be others trapped inside.
Your death won’t change that.  

Maybe, some other time, 
you will be one of them, but
this time, you aren’t. 

Don’t waste the gift of your second chance.

Go find yourself a solid structure
and tend to it. 
Do your best to keep the exits clear,
Extinguishers near. 

And this time, if you smell smoke
and shout fire and no one listens, 
if you start beating at sparks with blankets
only to have others accuse you of fanning flames, 

get out before you get so turned around 
you don’t know which doors lead to closets
and which to stairs.

Let yourself go
love what you love.

****

It’s so hard to know, isn’t it, when you should stick with something and try to save it, and when you should walk (or run) away from it because nothing you might do will. It is hard to know when quitting or leaving is weakness and when it is strength.

So many times in my life I have been unable to truly see and understand a situation until I’ve been able to get away from it. We become acclimated to what surrounds us, and we tell ourselves things we want to be true or need to believe in order to be OK where we are.

When I left classroom teaching in 2009, I had a nearly-finished poetry manuscript, plus a folder with about 20 others that I named “divorce poems.” Since 2011, I may have drafted 2 or 3 other poems. (Maybe. It might have been fewer than that.) I think I have a hard copy of the manuscript in a box somewhere, but I’m not sure where the box might be. The folder was digital and its poems are trapped on the hard drive of some long-discarded laptop.

That’s OK. We can’t save all our darlings, can we?

This week I got to go and browse the shelves of my local library for the first time since March 2020. I knew I had missed it, but I didn’t fully feel the missing until I was back there, running my hand along spines back in the stacks. I took a “greatest hits” of Ted Kooser volume home with me, and later, sitting in my living room with late afternoon sun filling the room, I remembered what I first loved about poetry. I remembered that poetry can be made from simple language, about simple things. I remembered that it doesn’t have to be such a big, hard, artistic deal.

I also took a walk with a friend this week, and we talked about survivor guilt. I found myself continuing the conversation in my head long after we finished, and it came out of me as a poem, not prose. What you see above is a draft. It feels a little clunky, too didactic. But this blog, it’s just a notebook. This is what I scribbled in it this week. Words haven’t been coming easily to me lately. There’s a lot of shifting going on. I’ve been happy. The world still feels on fire, and I still care about that, but I’ve been happy, too. I don’t quite know what to make of that.

it’s just past 8:00 on Sunday morning, so I’m going to hit publish on this one. I have food to cook and lessons to plan and some library advocacy work to do. I hope you all have a week that’s good to you.

Washing the dishes

“It’s too late to reverse the damage done to the Earth’s climate. It’s not too late to change course right away to prevent things from getting far worse.

That’s the scientific consensus presented this morning to world leaders by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s the most complete synthesis of climate science available, based on a review of thousands of research papers assessing how the combustion of coal, oil and gas has altered the Earth’s climate and with it, human destiny.” “The Morning,” The New York Times, August 9, 2021

The dishwasher broke sometime back in late June, when we were so busybusybusy with everything. Over the 4th of July we did some half-hearted appliance shopping, but all options seemed to lead us down a path that would require kitchen renovation and we weren’t ready to go there. We talked about trying some repairs, but that was half-hearted, too. After a few weeks we bought a drying rack–just a small one, it would be good for the things we handwash once the appliance is fixed or a new one is bought. Toward the end of July I suggested that we could use the empty dishwasher as a drying rack for big things. I was joking, mostly, but I know I put a serving bowl in there. It’s probably still there. I’ve gotten used to washing the dishes by hand.

I remember my family’s first dishwasher. My dad bought it for my mom as a birthday gift. You had to roll it over to the sink and connect a hose to the faucet. I remember before that, my dad once setting up a plan in which I would do the dishes and be paid for it. There was a chart. I loved the idea for about a week, and then I stopped doing the dishes. I had choices like that. I became used to having choices like that. I assumed I’d always have them. I couldn’t imagine a reason I wouldn’t.

More than a decade ago, not long into single-motherhood, I got to spend a week in residency at Soapstone, a retreat for women writers on the Oregon coast. For a week I got to live by myself in a beautiful cabin in the forest and do nothing but eat, sleep, walk, and write. And do dishes, of course. A significant part of the Soapstone mission was stewardship of the property on which the writers’ cabins were located; I remember a sign encouraging us to use the dishwasher. It said that it was better for the land than handwashing, which felt counter-intuitive. It said it was better to run a half-full load than to use the water required to wash by hand. Sometimes I washed by hand, anyway, when I wanted just one cup or a particular bowl.

The first house I owned did not have a dishwasher. I bought it with my first husband. We were trying so hard to be adults, but we really had no business being married or owning a home. He was working as a lab tech in a research hospital and studying for the MCATs. I was in my first year of teaching. We were both floundering, in different, separate ways, which is to say: we were in our mid-20s. The sink was often filled with dirty dishes.

Last week I broke 3 glasses, two bowls, and a plate. My husband had stacked the drying rack with too many things, and when I removed a plate the balance of it all shifted and I could not stop the falling. I tried, but I realized almost instantly that there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. The floor was covered in crystalline shards. It had a kind of beauty to it, and I was a little awed at the sheer amount of damage and at how quickly it happened. I’ve never seen so much broken glass in a kitchen. The bowls and plate are from a vintage set, Franciscan earthenware; they are lovely, but fragile: We’ve now broken at least 7 pieces this summer. We recently bought plates from Target for everyday use. They are not lovely, but they will do the job and I will not feel that I’m losing a tiny piece of history each time something breaks. Our glasses are from Ikea. “I guess I’m glad we got those cheap ones from Ikea,” I remarked to my husband, reflecting on the carnage. This week I wonder if, instead of buying cheap things that we can easily lose, we should buy only precious ones. Would we be more careful if we didn’t have the idea that there’s always more we can afford?

It’s a bit amazing to me now, that my first husband and I were able to buy the home we did, 31 years ago. It’s in a neighborhood that young couples like the one we were then could never think of buying in now. We moved to Portland from Seattle just so that we could buy a house; renting felt like throwing money away, but Seattle had already become unaffordable. Or so we thought. We wanted to live close-in to the city. We wanted an older home with character. We couldn’t have those things in Seattle, but we could in Portland. We left the place that had given us each other to move to one that we thought could give us more. “We can always move back,” we told ourselves. It took us more than 9 months to remove the wallpaper in the living room and paint it. It took 27 for our marriage to end. I have wanted to move back for decades, but I am still here. We had no idea what we were doing.

Washing the dishes recently, I realized I’ve come to like washing the dishes by hand. Something about the soap and warm water, the ritual of it. While the chicken finished baking in the oven, I washed all the things I’d used to prepare it. I’m learning to do this, to wash as I go, in small batches. I like the small, neat stacks on the bamboo dish rack, the cups that fit perfectly on the bottom shelf. I’ve realized we don’t need as many dishes as I once thought. We wash so frequently that we don’t run out of them in the cupboard.

My Soapstone experience was transformative, but not in the way its founders and board hoped it would be. For an entire week, I did nothing but write. I had no children to feed or bathe or stimulate or soothe, no papers to grade, no partner to answer to or tend. I had only to feed myself and write, and by the end of the week I understood in new, deep ways why I was having such a hard time getting anything written. I concluded that writing was something I was going to put on a shelf. I could always come back to it later, I told myself.

I remember being so frustrated by the stacks of dirty dishes in the sink of that first house. I tried to wash things as I used them, but my husband did not. He preferred to let them pile up and wash a big stack at once. He was reading Thich Nhat Hanh, and I remember him telling me something once about being mindful, and how washing dishes was an opportunity to practice mindfulness. I remember wishing he would practice it more. I remember my mind then feeling like a Habitrail, full of thoughts scurrying along plastic tubes and spinning a metal wheel in a mad dash to nowhere. I did not care about mindfulness. I just wanted someone to wash the damn dishes so I could go grade the stacks of essays piled up in my school bag.

I need to say this about my first husband: I was terrible to him, and he did not deserve it. I could tell you the reasons why I cheated on him, all the ways in which I was broken that I now understand and did not then, but none of that matters. I was wrong, and I did damage, and although I can understand why I did what I did and can feel for my younger self the kind of love one has for a child who hasn’t understood the impacts of their choices–I can never fully absolve myself for what I did. I was not a child. I broke something others loved and that I loved, and there was nothing beautiful in it. I would give so many things to be able to go back and choose differently. Do differently.

I remember, after my twins were born, needing to wash the breast pump paraphernalia by hand; the plastic couldn’t go in the dishwasher. I remember my second husband, my children’s father, telling me that he didn’t like me leaving them on the counter to dry. He was afraid they would make his first son, a teen-ager, feel uncomfortable, because, you know…. I remember looking at him blankly, dumbly, numb from sleep deprivation and soreness and constant physical need. I remember looking at him and saying nothing and blinking very slowly, a thing I did with him when I felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t something I did consciously or deliberately; it took me a good long while to even realize it was something I did. I remember him, later, telling me how much he hated it when I blinked slowly. Sometimes things break silently, or so quietly you don’t realize they’re breaking until it’s too late.

“Can we have an agreement to dry the dinner plates immediately, and not put them on the drying rack?” I ask, after the night of shattering. My husband concurs, and that night we wash the dishes together, placing small items on the rack and drying the larger ones immediately.

Sometime in the midst of the first year of the pandemic, I began to feel that home is my holy place. I wondered if I can find something I’m looking for if I devote myself to it. I wrote on my blog that I want to “become a grown-up in ways that I previously have not.” A full-blown book I wanted to write took shape in my mind. I remembered my first husband and his ideas about mindfulness when washing dishes. I reached out to ask him which of Thich Nhat Hahn’s books he would recommend as a starting place, and he replied kindly and gracefully. (We have found our way to a place where such a thing is possible, a miracle I never expected and probably don’t deserve.) He spoke again about dishwashing. “If you find yourself washing the dishes, and you’re thinking about anything else, then pause until you are experiencing everything in the moment. It’s like sitting under a freeway in your mind. Like cars, thoughts will pass through. But if you’re present you won’t get in and go for a ride.” I think of this months later, after the night of broken dishes, when I am cleaning up from a meal, and I want to focus on the washing–the warmth of the water running over my hands, the viscous texture of the soap, the beauty of the pattern on the worn plate–but all I can think about is how this life I’ve lived is so beautiful and fragile I sometimes feel my heart will shatter from it.

***

This is mostly a rough, first draft. I don’t like to share rough, first drafts, but that’s all I’ve got this week. This week was full–of heat, smoke, and dire news (climate, Covid). We went north to visit my parents, so we escaped Portland’s 100+ temps, but it was smoky and still too-warm, even there. I got to have a lovely visit with an old friend and her parents. I had good, long conversations with my parents. My brother looks well. While we were away, the glass top of our patio table shattered. My son, our house-sitter, has no idea what happened. Neither do I; could it have been the heat? Who knows. Some of my patio plants appear to be dead, but the dog is still alive. I take what I can get, grateful for it.

On the edge of the cusp

The morning light shining at the end of the dark hall, a pull to the garden.

Birds twittering, chittering, beating, swooping. Tomatoes swelling on their vines and branches laden with pears. Dusty lavender dotted with bees. Trumpets vines blaring red siren songs to the hummingbirds. The holes where rats come into and out of our yard. (Who does “our” contain?) The hot noon hour when, from the bedroom window, changing out of my gardening clothes, I watch two of them run up the branches of the blueberry bushes and eat our fruit. Brazen. 

Watering the hostas. The ones with pale, thin leaves are fragile, always wilted, their edges constantly crisped. We vow to buy only the ones with thick green leaves now. I consider reserving my water for the strong and letting the needier ones wither to papery remains I can toss without compunction into the compost bin.

The compost bin loaded with thorny sticks, dried up blooms, bristly thistles I pull from the vegetable box: Things I deem weeds, or overgrown, or dead. The sickly sweet scent of rotting kitchen scraps–cantaloupe rinds, probably–wafting upward. I shut the lid. 

Hermiston cantaloupe slices I present to my son at dinner, telling him that I don’t buy the other kind now, the ones shipped here from faraway places, so the time to enjoy these is now. “I don’t like how hard and tasteless they are,” I tell him, speaking of the ones we can buy during other months. “I like cantaloupe firm,” he tells me, and I mumble words about nature and carbon and footprints because I can’t find the right ones for what I feel. I know he’s only expressing a preference for texture but I despair a bit for the future just the same. He’s acclimated to his time, which isn’t mine. He’s never eaten watermelon with black seeds. He’s never spit them out at his cousins, laughing, while sitting at the kids’ table in his grandmother’s kitchen. 

My grandfather cutting cantaloupe on a summer morning as he readies for work, the light shining through the sink window’s short curtains. He sprinkles his melon, soft and vivid as the Hermistons I offer to my son like jewels, with salt. Paul Harvey’s voice is tinny through the radio, and my grandmother is still sleeping in their bed upstairs. I like not needing to say anything, having him all to myself, being cared for only by him, who makes me a piece of toast in the toaster that now sits on a shelf in my mother’s kitchen. He dies of a heart attack at 63. The night he dies, I sleep in that bed with my grandma, in his spot. 

I sit at my kitchen table and read a piece my friend Sharon is writing about grandmothers and canning and writing. About preservation and sustenance. She writes that she cans with words, not food. Then I read my friend Bethany’s piece about doubting the purpose of writing, she who writes multiple books through decades of mothering and teaching. I consider my history, the jars of applesauce my great-grandmother sent to our suburban house every fall that she made from apples grown on the farm, and how three generations later I am only just now, well into a sixth decade of living, beginning to learn how to grow food. I consider the tomatoes ripening in a bowl on the table, the literal fruits of my labor. I consider the one book of poems I cultivated, now nearly 20 years ago, and I wonder if the writer in me is a pale hosta. Maybe she is. Or maybe she is a rat, scratching at survival through blog posts and Instasnippets. Maybe she is an invasive, drought-resistant perennial with deep, woody roots. Maybe she is none of those things and all of those things. Maybe she is everything in the garden–the hostas and rinds and rats and tomatoes and trumpets and weeds and bees, being fed by whatever they can find there, wherever they can find it. It’s a conceit that brings comfort, here on the edge of the cusp of autumn, these brief weeks of both harvesting and fading. 

******

This is another bit of writing that grew from exercises for my class on the braided essay. One exercise was about a journey (my trip down the hallway and into the garden), and one was about using sensory images of a place (or series of places), and I was feeling behind (my own arbitrary and self-imposed deadlines, as the course is self-paced), so I combined them.

I appreciate assignments that require me to pay close attention to my life. It’s been a pretty nothing-special week, on the surface of things, one that I might easily forget. I like that the simple act of listing concrete things I notice took me to a place I wasn’t expecting, and cemented memories I’m sure I’ll return to in the future. (Maybe that, alone, is reason enough for any of us to write.) Time is feeling quite non-linear these days, so present-tense seemed right for the entire piece.

I remember: Elementary school edition

I remember the radiator clanking on a winter day as rain slid down the panes of our second-story classroom windows.

I remember the teacher who kept a monkey in a cage in his classroom. He was never my teacher. 

I remember Mrs. Anderson, who was old and had a crippled foot, playing hopscotch with us at recess, dragging her foot behind her as she hopped.

I remember sitting in a small circle at the front of the room, reading about Dick and Jane and Sally, the most boring children I’d ever met.

I remember Mike, the boy who only drew cars. No matter what we were supposed to be doing, Mike drew cars. 

I remember wondering about Mike, marveling at Mike, envying Mike. He disappeared early in the fall, to go to “a different school.” (No, he hadn’t moved.) I didn’t want to disappear, so I knew I could never be like Mike. 

I remember the lunch cart rumbling down the hallway’s wavy wooden floors. I remember waiting for it to stop outside our classroom door, lining up to push our plastic plates along the cart’s metal counter, and hearing food thunk onto plates. 

I remember salty gravy laced with stringy chicken over a snowball of mashed potatoes, watery green beans dull and flat from a can, wiggly red jello squares, tiny cartons of lukewarm milk. I remember loving the salty gravy.

I remember loving Mrs. Anderson, and knocking on the door of her house one time with my friend Sandy, who lived down the street from her, and how she gave us each a cookie but wouldn’t let us come inside. 

I remember being moved to Mrs. Smallwood’s class in October, and being scared, and meeting Kimberlee and Ellen, and how small the playground looked from the second-floor classroom, and how wonderfully amazing our mail cubbies were, and how glad I was that the grownups had moved me, even though I didn’t really know why.

I remember that happiness was a warm puppy.

I remember coloring a picture of Snoopy while listening to a scratchy record singing about a land where children were free. 

I remember my body tensing when I had to walk to the board to do a math problem, my silent panic every time we raced to do 100 math problems in one minute.

I remember not caring about when the train would arrive. 

I remember the reading corner, with carpet and low shelves and pillows, and reading and laughing and talking there with Kimberlee and Ellen when we finished our work early.

I remember Laura and Mary, Henry and Beezus and Ramona, Freddy the Pig, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

I remember Mrs. Diefendorf telling Kimberlee and Ellen and I that we wouldn’t be friends when we were adults, and how we called her Mrs. Beefenbarf when she couldn’t hear us.

I remember using jump ropes as halters and being sometimes the horse, sometimes the rider, my hair flapping like a mane the recess I cantered through puddles again and again and again.

I remember sitting through the entire Christmas assembly with wet pants, soaked in Mrs. Smallwood’s disapproval. I remember getting very cold. 

I remember Miss G.’s eyes, narrow slits in a puffy face, and her mean mouth.

I remember Miss G. scolding me in front of the class for reading my own book on my lap under my desk during her read-aloud time.

I remember using stubby nubs of pencils because Miss G. hated them.

I remember sitting on the playground with friends and reading books during recess. I remember Margaret and Dinky Hocker and Alice and Harriet the Spy.

I remember racing the boys on field day, flat Keds slapping hard dirt. I remember winning.

I remember Mrs. Hoffman leaving the classroom and Butch and Mike standing on top of their desks and dancing and giving the finger to the ceiling. I remember laughing, and I remember the principal walking in. 

I remember hating the principal. 

I remember fearing what the principal would do to those boys as he pointed at them from the door and glared at all of us as though we were equally culpable. Maybe we were. Maybe he was, too. (He had a paddle and used it.)

I remember Mike saying he wanted a BJ and I didn’t know what that was and when my friend whispered “blow job” I still didn’t know what it was.

I remember my friend telling me what a blow job is.

I remember hating fifth grade. 

I remember my school closing, the one with two stories and tall windows and clanking radiators and the classroom with the monkey cage, and I remember walking two blocks further to what had been the junior high but was now our new elementary school. It had breezeways, not hallways with wood floors, and my 6th grade classroom was a long, chilly walk away from the library. It had new kids from another closed elementary school. We still ate lunch in our classrooms. Mine had cinderblock walls with only one window next to the door. (Maybe. Or maybe I just remember it that way.)

I remember new girls who wore lip gloss and kissed boys and said mean things about highwaters.

I remember missing the days we played horses at recess. 

I remember asking Allison what highwaters were, and her pointing to the hem of my corduroy pants. I remember wondering how she knew that and why I didn’t.

I remember the boys snapping our bra straps, and no one saying anything about it. I remember craving their attention and hating it. 

I remember asking my mother for a bra, not to support the buds emerging from my chest, but to flatten them.

I remember my mother re-making new pants because any that fit my torso were too short, but my hips weren’t wide enough to support any that were long enough to cover my ankles.

I remember the principal I hated calling me to his office to accuse me of things I didn’t do, to tell me I was nobody, to shame me. I remember feeling shame even though I was innocent.

I remember being guilty. I remember leading a pack of girls in making Donita cry in the bathroom. I remember hating Donita and not knowing why, and hating myself for making her cry, and hating the other girls for following me, and hating Donita even more for crying behind the locked door of a bathroom stall while we taunted her from the sinks.

I remember going to the library every Saturday and consuming books like they were candies. I remembering reading all weekend long to go numb, to pass time, to dream, to escape.

I remember my friend Toni developing full breasts when the rest of us wore training bras, and I remember the day Mr. Buer had us vote on whether or not he should throw Toni’s beautiful map in the garbage because she’d turned it in without her name on it, and my despair at things I couldn’t name as I watched it slide into the wastebasket while tears rolled down her cheeks.

I remember my dad, years later, telling me that it was so hard to watch me lose my confidence as I became a teen-ager and what happened, anyway? 

I subscribe to a weekly email from Creative Nonfiction, which means that I start my Sunday mornings with a usually fantastic read of a short literary essay. If I were going to commit myself to writing in any genre, it would likely be creative nonfiction, as it combines prose with elements of poetry. That’s always been my sweet spot as both a reader and writer.

Creative Nonfiction offers classes, and I recently saw one on writing the braided essay, a subgenre of creative non-fiction that is probably the closest to poetry. It was self-paced, online, and inexpensive. Interaction with others is completely voluntary and can be as little or as much as I’d like. Sold. (They aren’t paying me to promote this. Just sharing something I like.)

The class began this last week, and our first exercise was to do some “I remember” writing. This is something I used to have students do a lot in the early stages of writing because “I remember” freewriting is an easy way to generate material to work with. It’s a way of getting things out without thinking too much, making it more likely that happy accidents and surprises can happen. We had a mentor text (an excerpt from Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a “book length memoir in prose poem form” and now on my TBR list), and the writing above is what came of my exercise.

Although I tend to dance around the question of what I’m going to do if I’m not working as a full-time educator (I don’t want to feel tied down and I truly don’t know yet), I know I want to write more. I don’t have anything I’m burning to write, but I’m pretty sure that if I dedicate some regular time to it, things will start to happen. I suppose I don’t want to publicly declare writing as a Thing I Will Do because that can quickly feel fraught with expectations (from myself and others) and I don’t want them. At any rate, I knew this class would be just the right thing to kick-start me; I do better with a little structure and something to respond to. I think it will prove to be a good use of $30.00. (Enrollment is still open.)

Everything I needed to know about house-staging I learned from writing

OK, not everything. But maybe the most important things?

Cane and I have spent the past few weeks staging his house before putting it on the market. He bought the house three years ago, and if the house had been a metaphor for a manuscript, it was one that would have never made it out of the slush pile. I didn’t see much potential in it, but he did and has slowly turned an unloved rental that had been stripped of any charm into a sweet little cabin/cottage that’s still kinda wonky, but now in a good way. Staging it to realize its full potential has been a labor of love, a project that flexes a different set of creative muscles for me. (It was also a crap-ton of work, as all serious creative endeavors are.) At some point I started thinking about overlaps between the staging process and the writing process, and I realized that things I’ve learned from writing were guiding my actions as a would-be home stager:

Read, study, imitate. I don’t know any good writers who aren’t also voracious readers, of all kinds of texts. And writers read not just for the experience or information of a text, but also to learn how to construct it. We look under the hood of them to see what makes them run, so we can better understand how to build our own vehicles. As a novice house-stager, I gave myself a how-to crash-course primarily by “reading” other staged homes. I stalked Redfin listings to study the photos and dissect the features of both those that appealed to me and those that didn’t. I followed house design hashtags on Instagram and did the same thing, noticing particularly those things that were different between staged houses and those designed for different purposes. Cane and I binge-watched Unsellable Houses, an HGTV show about Seattle-area sisters who transform houses that haven’t sold (even in the hot hot sellers’ market of the past few years). They smash some of the conventional staging wisdom I learned from more conventional sources, and it was instructive to think about how they break the rules and why.

Keep your purpose at the forefront. Even if I’m just writing for myself, I have a clear purpose, and that drives everything about what and how I write. When composing a house, the same principle applies. A house (or any space) is a text of sorts, and what we choose to put in or take out should be driven by what we’re trying to say and why. Cane’s house is a funky little old thing with some features that would be definite negatives for many buyers. It’s also a (now) charming piece of history. (It was originally built as temporary housing for shipyard workers during WWII.) We know that no one is going to buy this house entirely with their head; we need to appeal to emotions. “What’s the story we’re trying to tell?” is a question we asked ourselves repeatedly as we made decisions about what to put it and take out. Closely related principle:

Know your audience (and yourself). The importance of knowing both yourself as a writer and who you’re writing for can’t be overstated. I’ve never aimed to be a writer for the masses (clearly), and we haven’t staged this home to appeal to the masses. That’s partly because it’s just not in us. We don’t know how to do that well, and we wouldn’t really want to even if we did. (We think it would destroy the best parts of this house.) If we had different goals for this project, this aspect of ourselves could be a big liability, but we’ve told ourselves multiple times that we don’t need a lot of people to like the house; we just need a few who love it. We talked a lot about who these people might be, what they might care about, how they might live. Once I realized that I was never going to be a big best-selling writer (for a multitude of reasons), it gave me permission to be the writer I am. We staged this house to be the best version of both ourselves and it that we can create, rather than trying to make both of us be something we aren’t—and we think it’s turned out all the better for having made that choice. (For more on these ideas, check out the work of Seth Godin.)

Draw from a variety of sources. Also, everything is a source. When I’m writing here, I draw upon all kinds of material: memory, experience, other peoples’ stories, poetry, memes, photos, songs, video, etc. Even if I’m working on something that is composed only of words and is based primarily on my own life, I typically cast a wide net and catch everything I can in my first drafts. Some staged houses look as if everything in them came from the same place, but the houses I see that create longing (for me, anyway) have a different kind of look. They’re more layered. There’s a richness you can’t get from a single Ikea run. Much as I usually avoid such places as Target and HomeGoods, I did use those for staging materials. I also used thrift stores, vintage shops, and my own house. I used things in ways they weren’t originally intended to be used. (A shower curtain hides a hot water heater, and an espresso-machine pitcher is a toothbrush holder.) It’s not unlike using a line of someone else’s poetry as a kickstart to your own, or pulling a passage out of a failed draft of something you wrote a long time ago and using it in a whole new way in a new piece.

Edit ruthlessly (and start with more than you need). When I’m writing a first draft, I throw in everything that might work. I try to write without any internal editor whispering in my ear. The real writing—and joy of writing—comes in revising and editing. Although I really know nothing about sculpting, I imagine it to be somewhat like that: first drafts create a block of text, and I carve and shave away at it until its shape emerges. My process for creating a space works much the same way; I am not a person who can start with a finished vision and simply execute it. I have to see how things look before I know if they will work, and I have to try out lots of different things. I brought many things to the house knowing I might not use them. Some of them I really love, but if they don’t advance the purpose, they don’t make the final cut. Also: Less is often more. (Is this last sentence redundant? It might be. I have a problem with overstating points I want to be sure are clear.) I bought rice and beans and flour to fill the jars on the shelves in the kitchen, and then I realized I didn’t need to do that. The purpose of the jars was to help a buyer see how the shelves could work, and the jars alone did that. Adding contents to them would add visual clutter that wasn’t necessary and might detract from the purpose of staging by being too specific. (I’ll spare you a detailed description of my paralysis in the dry goods section of the grocery store, wondering if my choices were screaming “white people food.”)

Three is a magic number. Or, repetition is a friend. And, the magic is in the small things. Lots of people have the same big ideas, and we can all pour out words that express them. What elevates a piece of writing for me, though, is how they are expressed. For me, good writing is like poetry or song; it uses balance, repetition, refrain, and rhythm to create something that is more than the denotative sum of its words. These principals helped me in understanding why something was or wasn’t working visually, and gave me ideas for fixing something that felt off. In writing I pay attention to sound, words, sentence lengths and structures, and metaphor, and in staging the elements were color, size, shape, and texture. As with a verbal text, I had to be careful about how I applied these principals; too much repetition of obvious sounds is sing-songy, and some extended metaphors can become tortured. I had to think about how to avoid that in the visual text of the house’s rooms.

Consider both the whole and the parts. Cane and I generally agree when it comes to design decisions, but we never did agree on a curtain that hides the hot water heater in the kitchen. When he lived in the house, the curtain (sewn by me as a birthday gift) was a gingham-checked number in a bright red, white, and blue. It was totally him, and it fit the kitchen—but I didn’t like it for our new purpose. I thought the red wasn’t the right shade considering the palette that was emerging in the other rooms of the house, and that it created a different feel that (to me) was a little discordant from some of the things we want to say about and through the house. It also didn’t work with some other details in the kitchen. He thought I was over-thinking it. Maybe so, but I think it was my writer-brain taking over. I remembered the writing instructor I had my freshman year of college who helped me understand that each sentence has to lead to the one that follows it, and each paragraph has to do the same. I began to see the house as a novel or essay collection or epic poem, and each room as a chapter or essay or stanza. The details in the rooms were like sentences or paragraphs or lines, and I wanted each part to work not only on its own, but also as parts of a cohesive whole. For me, the original curtain brought to mind the advice that writers have to be willing to kill their darlings.

Collaboration improves the work. And, know your strengths and weaknesses. In my first post-college job I was an editorial assistant, where I learned that nothing we published was ever edited by only one person. “No one can ever catch everything,” my boss taught me. That, along with a writing group I was once lucky to be part of, helped me understand that although the things I write are of me, they are not me. They are a thing in their own right, and their meaning comes from an interplay between my mind and that of readers. To really know if a piece is working or not, we need readers! While there’s definitely a stage in composing where I need to work alone, a finished piece requires feedback from a good reader and further refinement. The same was true in staging this house. Cane is my trusted reader and co-writer, and everything we design is better when we both contribute to it. (It’s also more fun.) We aren’t doing this alone, though. We began with a consultation with our realtor, who knows far more than we do about staging houses to sell, and we’ll be working with a photographer who can do a much better job of creating the images that convey the story of the house than we can. (Sorry I don’t have any of those photos yet to illustrate this post!)

You need a good hook. Many readers—especially now, with our reading habits shaped by online texts—aren’t going to stick around if we don’t grab them in the first few lines. Same with a house. We spent as much time and money on the front yard as we did on the inside of the house. We wanted the story we are telling (cozy, comfortable, down-to-earth, clean cottage/cabin) to be clear (and compelling) from the very first view. We painted the exterior, added a window box, painted the Adirondack chairs, added a trellis, moved/removed/trimmed plants, and added flowers. A lot of flowers, in the same palette we used in the interior.

It will be another week or so before the house goes on the market, so it could well turn out that all this wisdom of mine is bunch of romantic rubbish, but our realtor was fairly wowed when we asked her to give us some feedback this week. It was satisfying work, in a way that I haven’t felt for a long time. It’s worn us out and we’re glad to be finished with it, but it feels like a good kind of tired—which is a welcome change. I’ll let you know how it goes. (And if you know anyone in Portland in the market for a funky little cottage, point them our way. Listing should be live in a little more than a week.)