Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
I found this vignette in one of my notebooks. I have no memory of writing it and I certainly have no idea where I was going with it, but it’s cute, so I thought I’d share it.
Sylvie’s desk was in the back of the classroom. Wood top, plastic seat, metal legs. The desktop bore the scars of many years of service. Scratches, gouges, and names carved into it surface. When Sylvie spilled water on it one day, a lot of it soaked right in before she could get a wad of paper towels to clean it up.
The next day when she came in, a branch had sprouted from the spot where she’d spilled the water. It stuck up and blocked her vision of her teacher. She wanted to move but the class was full and there was no place to sit but on the floor. Instead, she bent the branch down out of her way so she could see. Every time the leaves rustled, the teacher scowled at her.
The day after that, Sylvie came prepared. She had stolen a pair of her mother’s pruning shears so she could cut the branch off. But the branch had grown into a shrub. She tried to trim away enough twigs and leaves to look through. With every soft snip of her shears, her classmates gave her dirty looks. And it was no use. New branches grew in as fast as she could clip them. And every twig that fell to the floor sprouted its own growth. By the end of the day, a forest surrounded Sylvie that was so thick that she wasn’t even sure she was still in school.
I have been remiss in blogging for several weeks, in spite of my best intentions. I had a good run for seventeen days. I accidentally broke the streak when I wrote a post but forgot to publish it before bed. That set the stage for skipping a day, then two, and then two weeks went by in the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.
In spite of what this lapse suggests, blogging is important to me. That’s why I keep coming back to it.
I write at least one entry in my journal every morning. That exercise limbers up my mind. Often, those entries are not good writing, but the discipline of doing it prepares me for other forms of writing. Sometimes an entry helps me work through a scene I’m struggling with in my fiction. Sometimes I write about work problems and find a solution that way, or at least come to understand the problem better so that I can solve it later. Rarely, I can revise an entry for a blog post. (That’s how “Letters” began.) That’s never the intention, though. When I sit down at my keyboard with a cup of coffee at hand each morning, I am writing for an audience of one, and that one is myself.
I like the idea of blogging because I crave a different type of discipline. In the journal, I allow my thoughts to wander wherever they will. With blogging, I want to channel my thought into a specific topic and construct a coherent narrative or argument. Publishing that effort forces me to be accountable to an external audience.
Why do I struggle to do it, if it’s so important and I want to do it?
Fatigue plays a large role. I haven’t been sleeping well for the past few weeks, which means I start each day with limited energy reserves. I reserve mornings for writing fiction. I spend my workdays engaged in cognitive labor. By the time evening rolls around, I don’t have a lot of mental energy left to spend.
I don’t know how to solve my sleep problem. If I did, I would have solved it already. But I’ll keep experimenting until I find the solution. Until then, I’ll blog as often as I can muster the energy.
I rarely look at my old journals. So rarely, in fact, that I sometimes wonder why I bother keeping them. Today, I was moving a volume from 1998 and dropped it. It opened to a page with a post card clipped to it.
The postcard was from me, to me, exhorting me to remember something that happened on a trip I was on. For reasons lost to me now, I was cryptic about the thing I wanted to remember. It’s lost to me now.
I read the entry it was clipped to, hoping that something in it would job my memory. The key was not there, but I found something else: the opening paragraph to a whimsical story. I remembered writing it. I remembered what inspired it. I remembered where I intended to go with it. I have no idea why I abandoned it. The next few entires don’t even mention it. Pity. It was pretty good.
I taught an online version of my company’s “Agile Essentials” class for one of our clients. Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, I had always delivered the class as an in-person event. Social distancing and quarantine forced us to re-evaluate our delivery.
I was determined to do more than force people to sit through an all-day Zoom session in which I merely presented a slide deck. I re-evaluated the flow of the class and determined how to teach the same concepts in a different way. Instead of slides, I build a virtual whiteboard using Mural. Some of the exercises we use in the physical class couldn’t be replicated, so I invented new ones that demonstrated the same principles.
It paid off. The participants demonstrated what they learned throughout the class and provided very positive feedback throughout the course. That’s not to say there wasn’t room for improvement. They let me know some things I could do better next time. But I felt good about what I delivered and certain that they gained knowledge that they can and will use to improve their processes and practices when they return to work tomorrow.
When I teach in person, I often come away from the experience both tired and wired. I’m happy to say that today, I have the same feeling. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to get to sleep tonight.
Carolyn and I needed groceries and a few things to effect some necessary household repairs, so donned our masks and out we went. Groceries would include frozen items, so we stopped at Lowe’s first.
It was a nightmare. They had marked most of their doors “Exit Only,” with a single point of ingress—but people still wandered in an out of any door they pleased. There was no attempt to limit the number of people in the store. Perhaps ten to fifteen percent of the people were masked. I saw only one employee with a mask. No customers observed any kind of social distancing. We got what we needed and got out, hoping we don’t need to go back soon.
The grocery store was better, but not by much. All of the staff were wearing masks—although one cashier had hers pulled down so that her nose was not covered. But still, many customers were bare-faced. Naturally, people too inconsiderate to wear a mask also thought nothing of crowding you in tight aisles. And this was a health food store, where I expect shoppers would be more healthy-conscious than the general public.
We’re not going to stamp this thing out with half-assed measures half-heartedly observed and enforced.
I intended to make “memory” the theme of this week’s posts. I didn’t count on getting bored with the subject. I have been digging into childhood memories a lot lately but most of what I’ve dredged up isn’t all that interesting. On the subject of memory in general, I find I have no special insights worth sharing. Thus endeth the memory theme experiment.
Ending the experiment leaves me with no direction for blogging tonight. I suppose I could pick another theme. The problem is that right now, I find it difficult to do justice to any subject I take up. I am drained by the end of the work day. Blogging in the morning is out, because that is the the only time I have to work on my novel. Not that I’ve done any work on that this week. Other obligations have intruded on that time.
I am loathe to give this exercise up, though. I want to regain the skill I once had of being able to write short essays quickly. Establishing and maintaining the discipline of writing something every day is the only way I know to get there.
Couple of weeks ago, I wrote about finding a memory that seems to have sown the seeds of depression in me. Finding out that I was so much more advanced than other children my age made me feel like a freak.
In an even earlier memory about reading, I had a much different reaction to being ahead of my class.
It was early in kindergarten, within the first week or so, I guess. The teacher separated us into two groups. That part is hazy. What I remember clearly happened after we were dismissed for the day.
As we filed out, one of the other children taunted us in the “non-selected” group. “You don’t get to learn to read, but we do.” His tone was provocative, sneering. He was trying to mark himself and his group as better than we who had been coloring or playing with trucks or whatever the heck we were doing.
I wouldn’t have it. “I already know how to read,” I said. It baffled me that he couldn’t. I was happy about knowing how to read. I felt superior. What changed so that three years later, I would be embarrassed by my skill?
Last December, I was in New York City for a night, so I arranged to meet my friend Don for drinks. He teaches in Connecticut but is often in the city. We shared an office when I was in graduate school and have maintained the friendship for almost a quarter of a century.
He asked about the novel I’m working on, role-playing a busy publisher whom I had to hook. I said I was writing the best prose of my life. He asked what had made that possible. “I guess I needed to care about what I was doing,” I joked.
“But you’ve always cared,” he said. “Don’t you remember how much you wrestled with ‘Charlie’s Heart?’”
“Charlie’s Heart” was a story I wrote in graduate school about a young boy who discovers that he has literally lost his heart. (I was experimenting with magical realism at the time.) It took me months to finish, because I was determined to tell not merely a “good” story, but one that was honest, as well. Don read multiple drafts and helped me see it through when I despaired of finishing it.
That reminder was such a precious gift. Sometimes I doubt myself when I write. Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be happier doing something else. Sometimes I feel as though I have made no progress as a writer. Don reminded me of who I am and who I have always been.
WordPress informs me that I am on a sixteen-day streak of blogging. I almost didn’t write anything yesterday. I didn’t sleep well the night before and working in the sun that afternoon drained what energy I had left. I didn’t like the cards I was pulling from the Hemingway Deck. They all required more depth of thought than I was capable of. I didn’t want to skip a day, though. I felt that if I did, it would be even easier to skip the next, and so on. What I wrote was inconsequential. The important thing was that I wrote.
I want to keep this streak going as long as I can, but I’m becoming bored with random subjects. I want to pick up a thread and follow it for a while. This week, I’m going to experiment with writing about childhood memories, both good and bad. I already wrote about my earliest memory as part of “Freak,” so I won’t cover the memory itself again. I’m interested in how I know that it really is my memory, and not a story someone told me and that I internalized.
I have some pseudo-memories from when I was younger than my first true memory. For example, when I was between two and three, we went to my mother’s best friend’s wedding. I was a gregarious child and liked to greet everyone I knew and shake hands. (Everyone joked that I would grow up to be a politician.) Concerned that I might disrupt the ceremony, my mother cautioned me not to call out to anyone while we were in the church. She went through a list of all the people I would see. She missed one, though, so when he appeared, I stood up on the pew and shouted, “Hi, Joe!” (Five decades later, I have no idea who Joe was.)
I remember that incident, but I know it’s not my memory. My mother told me that story several times. I have other pseudo-memories like that. In each one, the viewpoint is outside myself, seeing myself in action.
In the memory of my mother telling me about our new neighbors, I can’t see myself. I see my mother, sitting on my bed. The memory is coming from inside my brain.
When I pulled a few cards for today’s blog post, one of them said, “Describe your worst fear.” And I thought, “Hell no.”
I am not about to put my worst fear on the Internet. That is not information you want anyone else to have. I’ve read 1984. You let people know what your greatest fear is, and you find it waiting for you in Room 101. No, thanks.
Just kidding. My worst fear is being forced to watch Superman cartoons in my jammies while I eat a big bowl of macaroni and cheese. Honest, that’s it. Please don’t make me do that.