Monday, March 05, 2007
Life editingI am deep in garage-cleaning mode.
Like Han Solo and the Storm Troopers, I have spent much time running away from the evil Darth Entropy, exhausting myself in an effort to avoid his tyranny. But a week or so again, I turned back and attempted a full-frontal headlong assault, screaming my fool head off in hopes of scaring my enemies into submission.
It's a monumental task, cleaning a garage. Not normally a huge procrastinator, this is nevertheless a project that has been successfully postponed since I moved into my house over three years ago. Don't get me wrong: it still looked pretty civilized to the civilian eye. But I had managed to stuff as much matter as was humanly possible into the crevices and my surfaces were starting to get overrun. Surfaces are important. When those go, you may as well hang up your light saber and call it a day.
I won't go into how tired I was already when I started this garage project, or how much I hated my life when I realized just how much work was going to be involved. And I won't talk about my cursing my decision to pursue a profession that required so many BOOKS. I lugged boxes up and down my ladder; I pulled them out of one shelf and stuffed them on another. I took them off that shelf and tried something closer to the ceiling. In between I pulled out my trusty vacuum, stuck on the "crevice attachment" and crawled up into the crossbeams and under the shelves and behind the workbench, sucking up cobwebs and dirt accumulated over the years, and generally getting myself as grubby and sore as possible without actually killing myself.
I really started wanting my life back.
I really wasn't loving it.
Until one night this last weekend, when we came back from visiting some friends and I found myself at 12:30, standing in the garage and just fantasizing about what was going to go where.
About my garage.
And I realized in that moment that I wasn't just cleaning the garage. I was editing it. I was structuring it. I was writing it.
Oh wow, I thought. Garage as story: yes. That's what it is.
My garage is pretty typical -- from tools and toys to vehicles and volumes. In its recesses are highly charge sentimental items such as my childhood ballet slippers and the cane I bought for my father (which he refused to use). There are party favors from my wedding, crumbling pre-school sculptures, prototypes for my dad's almost-but-not-quite-insane inventions. My oldest son's favorite fire fighter costume from when he was two. Reams of drafts of stories long completed or abandoned. My backstage pass from the Miss California Pageant of 1979. Camping gear, an empty can of 3-in-1 oil stuck in the corner of a shelf, my dad's dried up bottle of rubber cement. Christmas cards taken of my and an old boyfriend on top of the World Trade Center. Souvenir hurricane glasses from a bar in New Orleans. Threads of history that stretch long before tragedy struck.
There is also a lot of trash. Many things have long since outlived their usefulness or sentimental value (such as a bandaid I had found fit to save since the mid '80's). Phases that were once critical have been passed through. The memories behind purloined matchbooks have been long forgotten, but the echoes of long-forgotten places remain: Yee Mee Loo's, Lulu Carpenter's, Suehiro, The Rainbow Room.
What a lot of stuff we carry around with us! But as I find myself looking around and figuring out where it should all go, I realize that it's very much the same process as writing: I separate elements into piles of what I want to keep, throw away and store for later.
What are the prized possessions that we just can't bear to part with, but that actually clutter up the works? What are the words that we once were so proud of but have long since been surpassed by other, better ones? Also, what are details that are so precious that without them the whole piece falls flat?
The boxes are like little paragraphs. I move chunks of them around from place to place, putting in areas where they will be most useful. When I get everything where it needs to go, eventually I'll go into each box and pare it down to just the essential elements. Taking out the bad words; keeping in the good.
What do we need and when do we need it? Those are great questions to ask when writing any story or cleaning any garage. What are our sentimental darlings that really don't belong? And what are the elements of pure heart that take your breath away, so beautiful and unexpected that you immediately catch your breath in wonder, or laughter, or some resonant memory.
We write, and we clean our garages, to put structure around the chaotic and random happenings of our lives. We want to keep our treasured words without being buried by them. We want to have our backstory build us up and lead us into the future, rather than bog us down, miring us in the past. We want to have an order that makes sense, that enhances our story rather than calls attention to itself.
A beautiful garage, like a beautiful story, is transparent. It is a place where necessary items are aligned in a certain order, designed for the easiest procural of whatever one is looking for at any given time. A good story doesn't let that beautiful organization distract or impede. Nor does a good garage. For both, moving around should be a joy.
At the same time, a garage must always be a work in progress. It should reflect the ongoing activities of life. The current project must always be out, to be worked on and noodled with. The space cannot be too sacred or it risks becoming sterile and hostile to creativity. A balance must be struck between room to breathe, space in which to move around, and an abundance of materials with which to birth new things.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 11:33 PM 0 comments
Friday, March 02, 2007
Sisyphus in the Frozen FoodsSo last night at 10:30 finds me at Vons, wandering the chilly aisles like some demented latter-day Aqualung (an album I've been listening to perhaps too obsessively.) My hair is in my face, my eyes are glazed and tense, and I stagger behind my shopping cart like it's the only thing between me and total collapse.
Thursdays are nightmares: I have had to leave work, pick up one child from one part of town, drop him off at one appointment, pick up the other child from the other part of town, pick up dinner, eat it in the car, pick up the first child and get him to another activity, then take other child to do homework while I tried to work on my book, all within a two-hour time frame.
This week we have a number of situations on top of the logistics, all revolving around issues of time management skills and homework obligations which far exceed the amount of time they have to complete them. Once we finally get home I leave to take the dog on the walk (knowing if I stay and "help" any more I'll just end up making things even worse). I end up tyranizing the dog in the middle of my moonlit cul-de-sac while trying to have a civilized conversation with two well-meaning friends who are helping us out with my son's pinewood derby car this weekend. (Anyone who knows me knows that the words "pinewood derby" invariably appear near other words such as "chinese torture," "hellmouth" and, eventually, "vodka, straight up.")
It was that kind of evening. And it is only after I come in from walking (and screaming at) the dog, hating my irrationality and thinking only of reclining on my vast, warm, comforting bed... that I realize I still need to go to the market for some staples. Otherwise it will be one more stupid errand I have to do over the weekend, which is already booked to the max.
Cursing audibly, I trudge back out to my car and drive down to the market. But it could be worse: I have a list, the store is empty except for the crazy people like me, and it will get done. In the morning, if I don't annoy myself into a complete breakdown, I'll be glad I made this one final effort.
Staggering through the aisles I start to think of the myth of Sisyphus. I'm not kidding. I actually do. I've always been of the opinion that it's the rolling the rock up the hill that's the bliss; it's the moments of consciousness while walking back down that's the curse. So what, I muse in a kind of dairy section delirium, is it when you think you've rolled the rock up the hill for the day, and then find that the gods have added another hill, just for kicks? These midnight runs to the market: are they uber-bliss or uber-curse? The bliss is that I'm going to be even happier when I collapse into bed than I thought I would be 15 minutes ago. The curse is, well, Vons at 10:30 pm.
It only takes about 15 minutes to get everything on the list. The rock is nearly to the top (again.) I push my cart over to the checkstand and unload my groceries: Three big frozen cheese pizzas, four small frozen cheese pizzas, two small frozen mushroom and spinich pizzas... oh dear... two boxes of pop tarts, two boxes of Reese's Puffs... oh holy shit. Ah! Here's a gallon of milk -- that's almost like real food. And then all that's left is the milkbone dog biscuits, cat food, and rawhide chews.
I look at the checker and the bagger and know exactly what they're thinking: My god, woman: you're taking better care of the stray fucking cat than you are your own children.
I already hate my guts, remember. This just sends me over the edge. "God!" I say out loud, starting to laugh somewhat hysterically. "Can you believe all this? What a loser I am!" I can't help grinning madly: it's just AWFUL. And this is me -- the newly converted vegetarian, the person who just read a great article in UU World about eating closer to nature. I spend hour after judgmental hour regaling my friends about the horrors of caffeine, red meat and sugar -- and here I am buying not ONE item of "food" that isn't processed, fatty, sugary or all three. Not a thing on that conveyor belt, meant for human consumption, is remotely healthy (except, possibly the milk, but we could argue that too.) We'd all be better off sucking on the rawhide chews for breakfast every morning.
The checker of course is trained to not make shocked facial gestures when she sees what her scanner is picking up. She glances at me when I start the soft semi-hysterical giggling and looks nervously at the bagger.
"Uh, paper or plastic?" he asks gingerly.
"I mean, look at this," I hear myself saying, shaking my head and wondering why I'd forgotten the ice cream. "Is this terrible, or what?"
They smile in this perfect non-committal way and I suddenly realize that the store is minutes from closing and that my crisis over my abyssmal abilities as a mother is really low on their list of things to give a rat's ass about.
"Plastic is fine," I say, attempting to pull myself together.
And as I wheel my cart out into the cold clear night, I think, man, I can't wait until the morning comes. I need sleep. I need a clear start. And I need a sunrise that caries with it a clean sense of redemption.
Which, I'm glad to say, it does.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 9:34 PM 4 comments