Dead Calm at Sea

It’s Monday morning as I write this post. Monday morning, with all that implies: back to work (or school), back to the grind, back to those five days we get through until the next weekend. Wednesday as hump day, TGIF, and all that.

Not everyone lives this way—or needs to. When I started freelancing, I no longer needed to divide my days into weekday and weekend. I could write whenever I wanted, complete freelance editing jobs at two in the morning if I wished, sleep until noon. I didn’t. I knew that if Monday started to feel like Saturday, I’d be in trouble.

I need structure, and when I haven’t found enough of it in my surroundings, I’ll go creating it. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that, as a child, I made up to-do lists for fun, taking pleasure in checking off imaginary obligations. Too much unstructured time makes me nervous.

Some years ago, swamped by depression, I dreaded the weekends. Living alone, and hardly in the mood to make social plans, I found myself panicked as Friday approached. The workweek had been tough enough, but with a class here or a job due date there, I managed to make it through. But the weekend?

The weekend, as everyone from the radio announcer to the cashier at Safeway reminded me, was fun time: “Have a great weekend!” When you’re depressed, few words seem more cruel. Weekends struck terror in me, so what did I do? Most of the time, I invited myself over to a friend’s house, where at least I wouldn’t be alone. [Read more...]

Words both Real and True


I belong to a movie group that meets monthly in one another’s living rooms to discuss a current film. As soon as I read that this month’s host had chosen The Words, I thought uh-oh. Most movies about writers get it so wrong, with their scenes of furrowed brows on smooth, comely faces; crumpled pages littering the floor; and ta-da: a finished manuscript.

In Little Women (the version with Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne), Louisa May Alcott puts down her pen, and ties up the finished pages with a ribbon. The End, just like that. Or, in the case of The Words, -end-.

But I don’t bring this up to slam the movie, although almost every aspect of it disappointed me. Instead, I’d like to explore a question that’s been on my mind since walking out of the theater: What makes it so hard to hold onto ardor and enthusiasm and creative curiosity?

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Moon Landings and Mars Rovers: Fascination and Ambivalence

The day before I left on vacation, the front page of the New York Times showed something (well, two things) unusual: black-and-white photographs.

The photo on the left showed a gentle-sloped mountain rising from a desolate plain; on the right, vehicle tracks through rocky dirt. The composition of the photo on the left—framing, shape of mountain, spareness of other detail—reminded me of prints and paintings I’ve seen of Mount Fuji. But that’s not why I tore off the page, scribbled a few notes in pencil, and left it on my desk.

On July 20, 1969, I was seven years old. My parents and brother and I had flown down to Burbank to visit my uncle, the way we did every summer, for a week of barbecues, backyard-pool-swimming, visiting Disneyland, and smog. [Read more...]

Rediscovering Rilke

Like many people, I discovered the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke in college. I took a yearlong Western Civilization class—nine months on history and literature from ancient Greece through Freud—and during the spring term we read Letters to a Young Poet. 

When I remember the course, certain images stand out:

Reading Oedipus Rex on the lawn outside the life sciences building and overhearing a student pronounce “Khomeini” with the same initial sound as “challah” (this would have been a month or so before the taking of American hostages). Getting an A+ (my only one in college) on a paper applying Civilization and Its Discontents to D. H. Lawrence’s story “The Prussian Officer.” Hearing our Milton professor speak of Shakespeare’s “two-backed beast” (what this had to do with Paradise Lost I cannot recall). Covering entire paragraphs of Letters to a Young Poet with my pink highlighter. [Read more...]

Loaves and Fishes

As a child, I was a finicky eater, pushing around on my plate those items that didn’t appeal—too mushy, too mealy, too pulpy—and concentrating on the eccentricities I favored.

Sauteed mushrooms on toast. Black-olive and cream cheese sandwiches. A casserole my mother made from canned clams, crushed Saltines, and lots and lots of butter.

I ate artichokes and asparagus happily enough, but peas and I had an on-again-off-again love affair, although my mother always fixed them the same way—out of the frozen Bird’s Eye package, boiled and served with butter and garlic.

I dreaded being served stews, pit fruit, and that staple of American childhood, the PBJ. [Read more...]

The Bleeding Woman: an Imagining

—This story was inspired by Mark 5:21-43, the gospel reading for Sunday, July 1.

Twelve years earlier, after her first baby was born cold and blue and the bleeding wouldn’t stop, the woman tried offerings and prayers. She was raised in her ancestors’ faith, believing that if you lived according to the commandments, you—if you were a man—would prosper with fruitful crops, riches, and many children. Women, some, were blessed. Sarah, Hannah.

Her husband sought the midwives, the physicians, the rabbis, asking, “What have I done to cause this?” He made repeated trips to the mikvah. The bleeding would stop for a while, long enough for her husband to lie with her again, and then it would return. The woman grew weaker, she and the servant girl unable to keep enough clean rags to stanch the flow.

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In Another Lifetime

Early one recent morning, I’m still half-asleep. The cat lies curled up between Craig and me, and when my leg moves against her, she snarls.

“Hey, now, little one,” he says, bending his face down to her and scratching her softly behind the neck. “That’s not the way to act, is it?”

In my sleepy state, I hear him talking to a child, our child. “You would’ve made such a good father,” I think as I fall back to sleep, drowsy logic catching on my use of the conditional.

A year ago, when we went to our first session of church-mandated premarital counseling, the therapist advised us to discuss the two most-cited sources of marital discord: money and children—“or child-rearing,” she qualified, glancing at the information sheet. “Do either of you have children from a previous relationship?” We shook our heads. “Are you two thinking about having children?” She glanced at the form again, at the space in which I’ve written my age, and quickly added, “either your own or adopting?” [Read more...]

Why Wouldn’t I Be Fine?

“You OK?” Craig touches my hand, looks at me.

We’re in the car, Sunday evening, driving home. Something shifts inside me, like sand.

This experience of having him check in with me is new. After almost fifty years of practice, I’m so used to saying fine that I don’t always feel what I’m feeling until hours (or days) later, when I wonder why I’m cranky or weepy or anxious.

Two years ago, after driving Craig past my childhood house, showing him the walk home from the school bus, the bank of madrona where the imaginary creatures lived, the moss where I played with sticks, my father’s roses along the brick path to what was once our front door, he asked, “You OK?”

Sure. Of course. Fine. Why (a little impatiently) wouldn’t I be? [Read more...]