Mind-Out-Of-Time: Writing, and Teapots

My teapot from J, tucked behind an electric kettle, another teapot, and a locally crafted mug,  on my early morning countertop.

I miss talking to J about my writing life.

This afternoon I will concentrate on writing, I’d say.  I’m deliberately ‘concentrating on,’ not ‘working on’–no more of the furrowed brow that ‘work on’ entails.

She’d laugh.  I used to have that furrowed brow, too; hell, look at my wrinkly forehead.  J would talk about the struggle to get to her drawing, even with new chalks and paints around her, how daily chores and her own busy mind pulled her away from something she’d never had time for, yet couldn’t quite get to, even now.  She’d encourage me to keep going, and I’d tell her more.

When I give myself over to writing, or create space for it, then I can relax and play. It’s what I call Mind-Out-Of-Time, what I sometimes think heaven is or would be: you are so involved in something that clock hands move unnoticed, you look up and the afternoon light is bending across your desk and you gasp–how long have I been here?

Mind-Out-Of-Time comes also when I choose to immerse myself in how life looks and feels, tastes, sounds and smells. It comes when I give myself permission to be right where I am, at that very moment, open to pleasure even in the midst of pain.

So I think of J, steeping tea in her beautiful cobalt blue teapot, when I came to visit six months ago. Napkins in hand, she danced oxygen tubing between pieces of furniture as I carried the prepared cups and cookies to the front room. We laughed about how, on our last big trip, she’d pulled her portable oxygenator, nicknamed ‘Fred’ after her father, all over the up-and-down hills of downtown Vancouver.  Fred sure got a workout, didn’t he? Took care of me just like Dad did.  We discussed once again her wish to die at home.  She asked after my teapot, a twin of hers, which she gave me when I moved away. Every time I make tea in it I think of you, I told her.

Two weeks ago, her caregivers still made English Breakfast in her blue teapot; she rested in the home hospital bed, I held the mug, she sipped sweet lukewarm liquid with a straw.  During the moments she was awake, she rolled her eyes sardonically, joking with only a few words about the little yellow curlers in her hair that looked like baby corn; I teased her back about how she finally got us all to wait on her hand and foot, and more seriously, how much we loved doing it.  As she drifted into medicated rest, she murmured about death, it will be pleasant; it will be pleasant. See you on the other side.

After the memorial service last weekend, I wrapped up the cobalt blue teapot in crinkly paper, to deliver it safely to her chaplain, someone who’d shared tea with her every Wednesday for many years, someone whom I suspect also understood mind-out-of-time with her.  I took one of her mugs and packaged one for yet another friend.

This morning, kitchen lights reflect on the curve of my round teapot as rain drips down the apartment windows.  Cars splash black puddles up into the air outside.  J’s goldenrod colored, cartoon-cat covered mug, full of toffee-chocolate-hazelnut tea, sits beside my keyboard.

Guess what.  I’m still talking to J about my writing life.

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Living in the Moment: Friendship

Fire tower at Goodnow Mountain

My garden is end-of-season-neglected, but not because all the vegetables have been harvested.

I am not sure what I will find when I return to it, much like I was not sure what I would find when I sat last week in the front room of my friend J, who entered hospice three weeks ago.

Before that visit, she called me.

Hi, it’s Me. I’m really, really sick you know.

J, my dear–sick in the mind or sick in the body? Or sicker in both? Tee hee! Is there a prosecutable offense involved? Or lots of juicy drama?–

–Actually, the pulmonary fibrosis has progressed. A lot.

Oh.  Well, you and I knew that would happen eventually.

At 74, I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be intubated again.  I don’t want to be poked or prodded or in pain.

Your DNR orders and advance directives—we’ve made sure that won’t happen.

Oh, enough about me! What have you been up to?

J, I hiked a little mountain this weekend, Goodnow, near Santanoni. It took about three hours; the trail was full of tree roots and rocks.  And then I went up the fire tower.

I don’t think I could do it, climb that mountain.

Not with your oxygen tank, no. But perhaps we could get one of those things you sit on, a litter, with the four guys, to carry you up.

Only if they are hunky.

Ok. And fancy tassels will hang off this, waddya call it, palanquin, that’s it! With soft pillows for you to recline on.

And a scarf! I want to wear a white scarf, flowing in the breeze. But wait, what about that dancer, who got strangled by her scarf?  What was her name?

Isadora Duncan! Hmm. I will plan for a fifth guy, who will be there just to make sure the scarf swirls around artistically but doesn’t choke you.

How was it, the mountain?

You could see peaks all around for 360 degrees. The Adirondack lakes below were so cold and clear and blue. My knees were shaking while I climbed and then I was so scared of the heights I was growling like a wild animal to keep myself moving on the stairs! Hanging off the metal fire tower, that was perched on the rock, over those fall colored trees, up on the mountaintop–I was on the edge of the world.

Thanks for taking me there with you. But I’m going to lie down now.

Well, all right….I miss you. I love you.

I love and miss you too.

J, do you want me to come out to see you again?

Yes, please!….It’s been really good talking to you, but my memory is so bad, what if I forget what we said?

Well, are you enjoying yourself right now?

My side hurts from laughing.

All that matters is that we are talking. If you forget, I will remind you what we said. Or if I forget, we’ll do it all over again next time, and just laugh some more.  Wow–I guess that’s what they mean by living in the moment.  See you Tuesday.

Tuesday came, and I went for a week and lived in that space some call Kairos-Time, Meditation-Time, outside of our normal lives, in a place that is exhausting and sad, long and short.  I was glad to be there to say good-bye.

For now, J is at home, and comfortable, resting in her palanquin of quilts. Her bearers,  the many friends and family, come by to visit, waiting in her front room for the moments here and there when she is awake, to share their own memories of the hard climb, glimpses of silk scarves and long views of lakes.

***

While performing final blog-edits, I received word J passed away early this Friday morning.

So my dear friend has finished her own end-of-season harvest.  It may have looked spare and imperfect to outsiders–that’s just the messy way fall in the garden is–but whatever was there had matured and grown somehow perfectly ripe, sweetened even, by the inevitable change of season. I’m grateful that, for eighteen years, we got to hang out together in this part of the garden.

View from Goodnow Mountain fire tower

Woodchucks (Actual and Otherwise), Part II: Woodchucks Otherwise

There are Woodchucks in my writing.

The phrase popped into my head in January, far from the days of warm dirt between my fingers. There are Woodchucks in my writing.

I had become discouraged by a work-in-progress, unhealthily attached to its “success,” and had returned to that old refrain–I’ll never have a piece that is good enough. Undermined by my own thoughts, tempted to give up, give in, to forces that seemed greater than myself–What the heck, my essays will never amount to much, so it would be best to give up now.

Dig-dig. Burrow-burrow.

I began to see how Woodchucks appear in many forms, and got excited about creating a guide–yes! a field guide! isn’t that clever?–Identification and Management of Woodchucks in the Writing.

And then one of those damnable Woodchucks swaggered up and bit me in the butt, before I even got to the garden gate. So let’s begin with that one.

Scratch-scratch. Tunnel-tunnel.

I scribbled down stories almost as soon as my oldest sister taught me to read, when I was four. She also wrote, lush adventure stories and even whole novels.   I studied her fiction—the form, the characters, the movement of the action. In my admiration, I believed I could never be as accomplished. As I aged, prolific and polished and Pulitzer-prize winning authors entered my consciousness, and my Inner Critic, a nasty Woodchuck, emerged–

–to the point where I believed that somebody else could probably pen this essay better, draw out the metaphor with more sophistication and grace; so at first the vision of this non-existent essay stopped me like the sight of my chomped down, messy garden in the midst of everyone else’s blossoms.

But I committed to the task, anyway. (Even though the moment I publish, I will have changes I want to make.)

Yes, we learn from studying how other authors work, but we also just have to write. Yes, we can analyze when other gardeners plant, how they organize their pieces of ground, but our plot is our plot, for us to grow our choices of vegetables, fruits and flowers. Flourish or fail—but not to compare to others’.

Toddle-toddle, shuffle-shuffle.

The big ol’ Papa-Bear of a Woodchuck, previously identified as  A+ Student Syndrome, shows up regularly.  The creatures will come, and they will eat part of the garden. Like the nasty self-deprecating voices in our heads, they can be addressed.  If you let Woodchucks keep you from planting or weeding, you will never get to where you want to be. Or you will have to adjust your expectations. The garden can never be perfect, and in fact is kind of attractive in its messiness, like being a human is imperfect, and a little messy.

During the summer, I called myself the worst garden coordinator, thinking I had to be the best. Why couldn’t I be just-ok, sometimes great, sometimes not?

Peck-peck, bite-bite.

It happened so fast!

The first time the cauliflowers were damaged I had tried to wish away the Woodchucks, but that’s like anticipating the sun to not rise tomorrow: Highly Unlikely. Instead, look at the evidence of sneaky invaders and name them: Yup, those little critters look like groundhogs to me!

What a difference a fence makes—the fence in your mind that says, Whoa! That’s an undermining message!, from the Supposed Expert or Mumsie & Dadsie, or those composition teachers or that nosy neighbor or The Permanent Record, of all our wrongs, mistakes, mis-steps, mis-understandings, pain we have caused others, pain we have caused ourselves—here’s the slippery slope to doing nothing, being stymied by the prospect of not doing so well.

Steel yourself against incursions, gather your resolve. I had these beautiful little cauliflower plants, carefully planned out. Something went wrong and I just wanted to give up, but I didn’t.  Try again.

Nibble-nibble, crunch-crunch.

Sometimes you avoid the feelings: you avoid what you might find (destroyed or not growing or scary) by shunning the garden, by shunning the writing.

Chew-chew. Snack-snack.

My favorite therapist says we are not “bad” at things; we’re just not always skillful. Helpful mantras: I am learning new skills. I have become more skillful. I have options.

With Woodchucks, we learn to face a difficulty and not “fix” it, but discover how to live with it, with patience, becoming more proficient every year.

Crunch-crunch, gulp-gulp.

Sometimes we need a partner in our work; a garden-mate, an encourager.  The garden-mate is about asking for help, knowing you don’t have to do it by yourself.

Enlist the help of others, to do these things. Trade knowledge. Even if the suggestions don’t work, you can commiserate.  The people who choose to be in the garden reinforce my choice to be there, and so it is a circle, a wheel of support, like my writers groups where we read each other’s work, or have writing bouts together, to get the work done.

Munch-munch. Chomp-chomp.

Scamper-scamper. Scurry-scurry.

Because I planted anyway, in spite of my worries/concerns/downheartedness, because I wrote when I didn’t think I had it in me; because I fought back against the Woodchucks of the Mind, eventually I succeeded.

Gulp-gulp, waddle-waddle.

My garden mate thinks woodchucks are cute, even in their destructiveness. I am not so sure about that. And yet, being able to step back and see them as not so large, not so vicious, yeah they are just those fuzzy things, that takes some of the sting and power away; they are just doing what they do, and I just need to do what I need to do. No need for panic or drama.

Gnaw-gnaw, Taste-taste.

Make no mistake, they will still be there, come next year. They will not somehow miraculously mislay the directions to our gardens.  The fencing will have to go up, we will have to be vigilant. The doubts, I have to be vigilant about those too. I tell myself: don’t be caught up in the hurry-hurry of getting it done; instead, relish the moments, second by second, breath by breath.

I write to slow down and look, to figure things out, to show others what I’ve seen so they might enjoy it as well.  I go to the garden not just to reap the squash and basil, but to step into the muddy soil, feel the weeds dripping onto my sandal-exposed toes while I tromp up to my plot, take in the cicadas’ buzz and smell the cilantro in the heat, hear a friendly voice in a fellow gardener, feel a part of a community and be reminded of what I bring to them that is valued.

Scramble-scramble. Clamber-clamber.

Often life intervenes; we make other choices so we don’t make it to the garden or the writing. But growth is still going on, even if we aren’t tending actively. Even the halfheartedly planted seeds.

Run-run! Dive-dive. Under the fence and out.

You rally. Every spring you rally. Every piece you write, you rally. Sometimes like a good gardening day, it flows, and other days you struggle to get there, wrestle to get the tools up the hill, get smacked by the damage you find, find bugs you weren’t expecting—but then those bugs (Old Yeller!) might be found helpful after all.

There’s a whole range of experiences to be delighted in, and we won’t have them if we let the specter of Woodchucks keep us from wandering up to that sun-filled garden.

Things to remember when you encounter real and other woodchucks:

Don’t compare your creation to others’.

Let go of perfectionism.

Anticipate invaders; identify them as the Woodchucks they are.

Don’t look away.

If you “fix” it once, it is not “fixed” forever. This is an ongoing struggle–but your worst attempts are getting better.

Structure and persistence are your friends.

Don’t let fear or doubts keep you from starting or following through on your work.

Live moment by moment, in beauty.

Community is valuable; you don’t have to go it alone.

Don’t take it so damned seriously!