Part One of Three
I’ve had this project on my mind (and to-do list) for a while now: clean the garage. It seemed as though I would finally have time this summer. The Garage Project (TGP) has been on the list for at least three years but became critical last summer when my father and I could not get to the tool box to finish our lawn furniture repair and refinishing project. Screws and nuts were still in hardware store bags, I seemed to have at least six Phillips screwdrivers in different parts of the garage (had my husband and I kept re-buying them thinking we didn’t have one?) and the path between the garage door and the tool box was absolutely cluttered with all of the things I “hide” when people come over.
I wind up hiding things because I have a hard time putting them away, especially frequent-use items. Surely, I’ll need all 27 books and 14 literary journals by “my” side of the sofa. Along with my laptop, cell phone, tablet (free with the cell phone!), e-reader, box of tissues, assorted pens and pencils and highlighters, cuticle moisturizer, hand moisturizer (paper is hell on hands!), nail files, stick-it notes, bookmarks (brass and paper and torn pieces of tissue), television remote, bills, catalogs, the house phone, and plenty of snacks (chocolate and salted varieties).
What I know is that most clutter-busting experts recommend keeping a basket in each room of the house so that this avalanche of every-day items can be quickly (and tidily) “hidden” in plain-sight. My living room basket is currently full though (I’m really back-logged on literary magazines) and the other baskets are nesting together, emptily, in another room of the house, looking pretty (and neat!) stacked there.
When I go to friends’ beautiful, clean homes and spend time in their curated living rooms and kitchens, I notice how, well, messy, I am. They have one decorative blanket slung over a chair; I have six stacked in the corner. They have an eclectic assortment of plates and glasses, I have 18 matchy-matchy place settings even though we no longer entertain large groups of friends. They keep their bedroom doors open, beds covered with colorful pillow cover/duvet ensembles and beautiful art work displayed in small collections throughout the room. Our bedroom door is shut, with three weeks of clean laundry (bed/floor/bed…wait, is this dirty?) to fold and put away.
Early on in my home ownership and home comfort-creating life, I thought I was messy because I needed to learn more about housekeeping. The first resolution to my “messiness” problem was to look to housekeeping magazines for help. Soon, the side table was stacked with Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Dwell, House Beautiful, Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Living, and Sunset magazines. Every trip to the hardware store yielded a specialty publication—how to organize a kitchen (an entire magazine), how to organize closets (a separate magazine), how to organize the garage (another separate magazine), and how to build a garden shed for garden equipment that would be so beautiful and homey that me and my friends would eat my never-grown home-grown tomatoes (from a specialty magazine on container gardening) with an artful splash of balsamic vinegar (from Bon Appétit magazine) off the clean-swept floor.
With the advent of HGTV, I learned that all of these beautifully photographed closets, garages, and kitchens are “staged.” Everyday household items are edited from the room (mixing spoons! books!), fresh flowers are brought in, hardwood floors polished, and expert lighting technicians make these spaces much more photograph-in-a-magazine-worthy. Several years ago, I got rid of the magazines and stopped acquiring them on trips to hardware and grocery stores. Already, less clutter—certainly an added bonus.
Looking at these photos, even knowing that these spaces are staged for mass-consumption, still gives me a case of home anxiety, or something I’ve been calling “house porn.” I’m addicted. Although I got rid of the magazines, I will spend hours on Pinterest if I’m not careful. Looking around my messy living room, I need an orgasmic fix of beauty and order. I sit down and open the laptop. What if we changed the tile in our hallway? Surely I’ll need to know how to paint the old oak cabinets in the kitchen, or to xeriscape for our high-desert climate, and, yes, I still collect photos of tidy (and unrealistic) gardening sheds even though I have never gardened and now live in a too-arid climate.
Something has started bothering me, though. What has caused this rise in surroundings dissatisfaction? Shouldn’t it be more than enough that I am in a position to live indoors? Maybe it’s the absolute difference between the real and the staged. Surely there has to be something in between? Something where everyday items manage to be utilitarian and displayed interestingly in a non-cluttering sort of way. After all, let’s be honest: I’m not getting rid of any books. Do I need more space or less stuff? What else is happening?
Compounding this disorder and dissatisfaction is a third factor: my projects have a way of multiplying. What at first seems like a weekend project (cleaning the garage) migrates and morphs in such a way that it becomes a project of epic proportions. I have a breakdown. I sit in the middle of the newly-created mess, wondering what went wrong--wasn't this supposed to be easy?
The Empty Brain by Robert Epstein
This morning as I applied my makeup, I looked into my own eyes in the mirror and counted years, a tricky thing to do because I still need my fingers to count and mine were holding eyeliner. I was counting years back to the last time I was considered the “right” weight for my height and size (according to the CDC’s body mass index); 23 years and, if your hands are full also, that was back in 1993. Even then, I felt incredibly overweight. In fact, I simply had an hour-glass shaped figure in an era of supermodel thinness.
My friend has a picture of my husband with a beautiful woman—long dark hair, a red blazer with fine wrist bones peeking out from underneath her sleeves—laughing next to him. I ask who she is and my friend and husband both look at me because it is me, unrecognizable in this body, now not mine.
My appearance and weight actually do not occupy a lot of my mind-space or time. My clothes all fit me for the size I am right now. I have let go of clothing in my closet that is a size down or a size up. I know my size, so I can shop on the internet without dealing with too-small dressing rooms in overly-lit fluorescent department stores with grandmotherly sales clerks who tell me I have such a pretty face, if only…
The unfinished thought hangs heavy, and so today, I finish it: “if only I would lose weight.”
Phillip Lopate writes on the necessity of turning oneself into a character while writing personal essays. One of the key steps is being able to have some distance from ourselves in our essays, something he calls a “ceiling view.” I think about the way I view myself and how I sometimes surprise myself. Most days, I can look in a mirror, comb my hair, apply my makeup, and move on with my day. But once in a while, I catch an unguarded glimpse of myself—seeing my reflection in a window on the street or in a mirror at the store, and think “that poor chubby woman!” before realizing it’s me.
I want to get to this “ceiling view” of myself that Lopate talks about. For now I seem stuck standing eye-level with myself in the mirror wondering which image of myself I will see today. How do I laugh about this situation I find myself in, or discuss health issues and medication without being defensive (or worse, making excuses) about the weight gain? How do I get out of my self enough to see that delusion that someday, I will wake up, preferring broccoli salad over cheeseburgers? How do I convince my friends that it’s okay if I call myself fat because it is a part of acknowledging my body as it is now?
I recently went to a party where all the women wore cute dresses. One friend noticed me looking at her slim gold segmented belt, encircling her waist, somehow capturing both her purposefully too-short lime-green cardigan and blue flowered dress in a perfect symmetry of togetherness and style. What my expression must have relayed I can only wonder. My head of course was mentally inventorying my outfit—gray cargo pants and a large, flowing flowered top. I think about how, even if I was thin, I would not have the wherewithal to put that outfit together. I know there is so much more to our identities than constructing the perfect outfit, or, conversely, being overly-aware that those clothes I adore from the J Crew catalog just won’t fit. That I can buy and return the black and white striped boatman sweater over and over again? “Too short,” I’ll complain on the return slip or, “not as shown in the catalog.” In the catalog, the tall, slender brunette wearing the striped boatman sweater has a puppy or a laughing child, or both. Perhaps, I’ll settle for “does not meet expectations.”
This is not a screed against what I read of the “culture of thinness” in our society. Nor do I want to belong militantly to any “body positivity” movement. I am genuinely curious how I arrived at this place. There must be others in my situation who aren’t in an either/or camp. Not liberals or conservatives, but moderates. Libertarian, even—because I can take responsibility for my own state of affairs and won’t blame the government for not abolishing high fructose corn syrup.
The distance from myself I can’t seem to find is asking what I have to add to this conversation of weight and body image. I am beginning to understand that what I do have is a brain that makes connections and leaps, tying together disparate things. I’m just not sure how to apply it to this issue of weight and body image.
By at least starting this inquiry, I wonder if I can elevate my perspective, if not fully to Lopate's ceiling-height, at least a few feet off the ground. Perhaps coffee table height. That seems a good place to start.
On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character by Phillip Lopate
Fat Girl by Judith Moore
The Worst Thing to Say to Your Fat Friend
Yesterday, I spent some time with friends cleaning a public art installation in our town. Someone had intentionally smeared feces all over the project. My sadness turned into something else as I drove home. It turned to anger.
I am still learning the power of my angry words. Fortunately, I (still) have friends who have told me how I have hurt them with the turn of a phrase. It is unintentional—I can’t stand the thought of hurting someone I love with words, especially when I consider the power that others’ words have had over me. But this is not always true with my writing.
Arriving home, I barely spoke to my husband and instead went to the computer, where I found myself at the keyboard writing about the vandalization and the clean-up. I couldn’t take the time to hand-write this essay—instead, I chose the most expedient way, typing. Somehow, it seemed like the finished product should be more public, and so I posted the essay as a note on Facebook. The last thing I did was make the post public, purposefully sharing it with everyone.
One of the things I’ve been learning as I turn to writing full-time is to write for myself and not care what others think about what I write. There is personal satisfaction in finding the best words and, at times, working over a sentence until it expresses exactly how I feel. But this essay was different because I did put it on social media—not just the words, but my anger as well.
Here is the problem with anger in general—it is uncomfortable and it makes others uncomfortable. My harsh words created discomfort for those who may not have ever seen me truly angry or hurt—their instinct was to remind me of all the good things about the installation and project overall. These reminders made me angrier, mostly because I have this tendency myself—to prettify the putrid and hope for better days—and seeing it reflected back to me was in itself uncomfortable. I wanted to respond to every one of those who tried to cheer me with even more anger. Why?
Others had a different response, which was to absorb my disgust and anger and to share my words with others. It is my most-shared, most-read piece of writing according to Facebook’s analytics.
This is what I wanted, wasn’t it?
This anger was now not my own. It had spread to others. I had queasy misgivings late in the day and early into the evening about putting my anger on display and, worse, spreading it around for others to inhabit. I wanted to edit and delete the piece so much so that I turned to the thing I know how to do—cleaning. I distracted myself by scrubbing the heat disbursement plates of the outdoor grill. And then painting a door in the garage. These projects just made me angrier. I wrote finally to a wise friend who reminded me to accept and be grateful for the anger.
We are used to labeling anger as “bad,” but my friend was right. Anger is natural when we are confronted with something that assaults us. I don’t want to push this anger away—it spurred me to action in the form of writing and I did bring awareness to the issue.
I’m still examining why I posted the piece to Facebook and made it public. I am not sad about the essay itself because, like many, I don’t always know what I’m thinking until I see my thoughts written. Rather, what was the need inside myself that brought the essay to a public forum? What in myself necessitated this sharing of my anger?
This essay today is like the scrubbing of the grill. What I really wanted to write about when I sat down this morning was the outright murder of Philando Castile. But the heat disbursement plates need to be reinstalled before I let my anger burn again.
On the Pleasure of Hating, by William Hazlitt
(with thanks to William Bradley for introducing me to this essay)
This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (the original Facebook post)
Understanding Racist Violence
A friend recently asked if I could recommend any good essays on editing. I was hard-pressed to think about editing at all because, although it is not something I hate, it is something I consider with a little bit of fear.
Editing has become easier with computers, of course. But this power of easily deleting a paragraph or a page or a whole essay or short story is all-powerful and not to be taken as lightly as it is. There’s no recalling lost words (unless, of course, you scour your temp folders or patiently “undo typing” in Word). But is it so bad to lose words in the first place? Clearly, something compels us to get rid of the awkward, the ill-phrased, and those not-perfect musings on the page.
Because many compose their work on computers, editing and writing seem to go hand-in-hand. Delete, copy and paste, start again. This style of composition and erasure also works with our multi-tasking minds. Write, re-write, delete—but when do we look at the whole? How can we re-write and delete while composing? Don’t we have a hard enough time coming to a blank page without our own worst enemy—ourselves—taking away words before we’ve even had time to appreciate their structure and meaning? Are we constantly removing the bracings and framing before the whole house is built?
The hardest thing with writing is to let our minds wander freely. We set out intent to follow the course of our original idea. Our brain always has other plans. It sets out with a topic, but is easily distracted. The coffee smells divine. The sun is hitting the writing table just so and the whole tableaux reminds us of another time writing on another subject and off we go. Then, we must admonish ourselves. We got distracted. The brain then reminds us of preposition usage. It questions if what we wrote is really important and necessary to the piece. It asks one of the most damning questions—will readers even be able to follow us? Do we make sense to anyone but ourselves?
When we are unsure of ourselves, rules can be comforting. Surely we can’t let our brains run freely on the page. What if we let others see what we are thinking? What if we are wholly exposed to our own selves?
I’ve returned to mostly composing on paper with pen. It is slower and, sometimes, I do lose my train of thought or find that my hand and pen cannot keep up with the flow of my thoughts. The benefit of handwriting for me is that whatever I’m working on is more connected to me as a piece of art (not to be confused with being “precious,” which is a topic for another day). This is a kind of creating for me that I thought for a long time was possible only with oil paints and pastels. The feel of a pen on paper, the idiosyncrasies of my own ever-changing handwriting—these things keep me in touch with the feelings I have for the piece I am writing. Is my writing slanted because I’m rushing to get the thought out? Upright and loopy because I feel dreamy and am lost in the possibilities of the piece?
Afterward, I look at the piece and make some initial corrections. I don’t even consider this the editing process yet. Simple things like noticing spelling errors and drawing sloppy arrows to this paragraph here and moving this other block to the second page. The next step is transcribing what I wrote onto my computer. The goal is to leave the piece relatively intact as I move from paper to bytes, but I do try to compose and transcribe the same day to keep the original intent and feeling of the piece.
Editing comes in a day or two because, I will admit this, I am so in love with what I wrote I need to take a break. It’s not the piece, it’s me. I lack perspective. Being in love with a piece doesn’t mean I won’t get rid of anything. But I won’t get rid of anything while sitting at the computer. It’s old-fashioned, but I print the piece and go through it with a pen or pencil. If it’s a challenging piece, I take scissors to it and lay it out on the floor, thinking about which parts better go together. With this round of notes in hand, I return to the computer to transcribe again.
Lastly, I am fortunate to have an amazing grammarian and copy editor in my husband, who goes over each piece with his red pen. Sometimes, he asks a question or inserts his own voice into conversation with mine as marginalia. The grammar edits I accept; the other comments, I pick and choose. Being able to understand when a comment will help the piece or take me in a direction I don't want to go in has been the biggest part of my self-awareness as a writer. Now when I work with journal editors, I am able to implement suggestions that will augment my piece as well as discuss why a certain change won’t work. In the end, we all want the best piece that I can write and everyone is on my team.
For me, composing and editing must be separate processes. When I allow grammar rules or self-recrimination (“Really? Is that the best way to write this?”) to sneak into my writing time, it interrupts my brain in an unpleasant way. And, if I let the editing brain in long enough, the piece is abandoned as stupid and unworthy of being fully written, killed before it even has a chance to sprout. I’m tired of tending the garden of neglected ideas. I’d rather plant seeds where I can and see if anything comes to fruition with a little bit of love and time.
Suggested Essays/Further Reading
Revision Advice from the Judges’ Table by Caitlin Horrocks
On Keeping a Writing Notebook (or Three) by Randon Billings Noble
On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion