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(Note: I found this draft of a post from several years ago, and wondered why I never posted it. I offer it now, with minimal editing.)
I have been on a Julia Child journey lately, as I make my way through the Bob Spitz biography of her life. There is a lot to like about her: That she was a late-bloomer who didn’t hit her stride until middle age. She was a woman everyone who met seemed to have loved. But the most amazing thing of all, I think, is that at the beginning of her journey, she sucked at cooking.
She loved good food, an interest she shared with her husband, Paul Child. Early on in their marriage, she tried to cook, often with disappointing results. But she kept trying, receiving help from her sister-in-law, among others. Slowly, she improved. When her husband was posted to Paris, it was the beginning of her formal education as a cook. But before she could enroll at Le Cordon Bleu, she had to tackle something else she wasn’t good at: the French language.
Now, I don’t know exactly how terrible she was at either cooking or French (later on in the book, when the Childs are posted to Oslo, Spitz refers to Julia’s wonderful “ear for language”), but it is clear she didn’t exhibit any particular early talent for cooking. The usual manner of determining one’s life work is to identify one’s talents, and go from there. Julia Child’s life work grew out of something other than a native talent; it grew instead out of love. She loved French cooking, and desired to master it. For the cooking, she needed the language, so she mastered that as well.
Love is a powerful motivation, but rarely is it enough to overcome the baggage of failure. Julia Child had something else going for her, where the cooking was concerned. That something was science.
An intuitive, “talented” cook might brag about never measuring, and might be vague as to what temperature the oven should be, or how much time the thing should cook. Julia deconstructed everything. In mastering recipes for French classics such as coq au vin, she did trial after trial, methodically adjusting measurements and refining her technique. When compiling recipes for her masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she and her collaborators tried multiple recipes for each dish, from French home cooks, and from master chefs. Julia kept breaking it down, seeking precision in every step.
Talent is attractive. Talent allows the extraordinary to look effortless. Talent is something to envy.
Julia Child was loaded with talent, but her greatest talents lay in her character and temperament. She is described by those who knew her as having boundless enthusiasm. She was also loaded with persistence and an insatiable desire for knowledge. She seemed incapable of embarrassment. Failure did not shame her; it motivated her to cook a dish, five, ten, or twenty times, until it met her standards.
Since the first of the year, I have been complaining about things in and around my house breaking. Both April’s “When Life Annoys the Writer,” and January’s “When the House Is Falling Down,” address the the time energy it takes to deal with our things. This is time that could be better spent on our life dreams. Like writing.
In my postings–behind the words–was an implied assumption, namely that, after this brief flurry of incidents, things would stop breaking for a while. Guess what. They haven’t.
The dishwasher we installed a couple months ago has worked beautifully, up until a couple weeks ago, when it sprung a leak and ruined the engineered wood kitchen floor. And, our quarter-century-old air conditioner has given up the ghost.
More chaos. More people coming out to have a look, and offer remedies. And it’s all down to me: My husband is a good man, but he leaves the care of the house to me. He will assist in major decisions, but I am expected to take the lead. Given how hard he works, this seems a fair enough exchange.
Of course all this disrupts the schedule, but I am more concerned with what it does to my mind. If I am using my limited mental power to find creative solutions to real-life problems, what’s left for my fictional world? Indeed, a bunch of stuff breaking tends to break my concentration.
So, I’ll be deep in a scene, and all of a sudden, I’ll think, “Once they’ve replaced the dishwasher, I should wait about three months before replacing the floor, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
I’ll go back to work, only to think, a few minutes later, “I would love to rip out the family room carpet and replace it with the same engineered wood we have in the kitchen. But if we do that, what do we do with the speaker wire?”
The story of my characters is replaced with the story of my house.
Gradually, persistently, I wean myself from compulsive thinking about the house and its care. I turn myself back to my fiction. Eventually, I come to weave the life experience into my work in more appropriate ways.
It helps to remember that real life is what generates fiction. Real life teaches me how things (and people) work. Every bit of it, mundane or dramatic, is potential fodder.
Years ago, in a writing class, one fellow student recalled falling off a hiking trail and tumbling down the side of the mountain. For all he knew, he could end up dead or paralyzed. Instead of worrying about that, though, he paid attention to every moment of the descent, knowing the information he was gaining on the way down (“This is what it feels like to fall off a mountain!”) was priceless and irreplaceable.
To paraphrase Stephen King, from his wonderful book, On Writing, art is meant to support life, and not the other way around.
So, it’s back to work. All the broken things that haven’t been resolved are waiting on other people now. Other deteriorating items I see before me haven’t actually broken. They can wait a few hours, while I write.
If a writer is going to produce results, i.e. finished, readable work, he or she must set aside time and energy for the task. The writer develops strategies to manage time and energy. A writer:
- Writes every day
- Sets aside a specific time, and treats that time slot as he/she would any other obligation
- Avoids distractions during writing time
- Adjusts mind to approach work in a calm, confident, optimistic manner.
The key thing is to give one’s work priority over anything that will keep for an extra hour or two. This includes all housework, and all bills that aren’t already past due. This includes requests for volunteer work. This includes suddenly needing to go to Costco for more paper towels. If one’s regular time to write is compromised, one needs to reschedule, to find another slot in the day to make it up. Socializing, exercise, and relaxation are essential to health, but need to be scheduled around writing. It’s not always easy, no one is perfect, but a writer can maximize available time with the single act of giving it priority.
But sometimes, life intervenes in one’s schemes. Illness, paying work, serious life crises of oneself, family, or close friends, and natural disasters all lay waste to our writing time. And sometimes, life just gets annoying. Sometimes:
- Telemarketers, having long since decided to ignore the NO CALL list, ring our land line up to 15 times a day. I screen all calls, but the ringing ricochets around my brain. It is astounding how often the phone will ring the moment I have sat down, picked up my pencil or laptop, and adjusted my mind, and formed half an idea.
- A friend or family member will call with a perfectly reasonable, legitimate request (not idle chit-chat) and I will have to go do something for them, feeling guilty for feeling annoyed, because I know they would interrupt their stuff to take care of me on occasion.
- My husband will call, wondering if he left a) his briefcase in the family room, b) wallet on the dresser, or c) guitar in the hallway. Yes, yes, and yes.
- Stuff breaks. Cars break. Electrical stuff breaks. Plumbing leaks. Cable systems break. Everything is broken. No one wants to help me fix this stuff on my schedule. Things even pretend to break, as a plot to do in my head. This week, my dishwasher pretended to break. Turned out there was a loose spoon that had fallen out of the basket. Once put back, everything worked again. A happy result, but not until about half an hour had been wasted.
- People come to the door with packages, religious material, and requests for money. If it’s a package, I have to see what it is. If it’s one of the other two, I have to hide until they go away. This takes time.
- It’s tax time, or house re-fi time, or family-member-buys-a-new-car time. Car dealer calls to welcome us to the name of car family.
All of these are normal things in life, and most of the time I’m not bothered by them, but during the last couple weeks, they have piled up on me. An unusual number of things have broken, or pretended to break, since the first of the year. The phone calls have been out of control. For the most part, these annoyances can be traced to the problem of abundance. Having a bunch of stuff, like cable TV and a house. Living with people who also have stuff. Having friends. I could get rid of the land-line phone (thinking about it), get rid of time-consuming luxuries like a house (but love my garden), cable TV (no, no, no!!!), leave my family, reject my friends, and be poor, isolated, and lonely.
Sound like a plan?
Photo: Ben Husmann
It isn’t, but it could be.
This is not an attempt to compare my situation with my house with those who have lost their homes in natural disasters, or by other means. It’s just that the house is such a potent symbol for one’s world, one’s life, one’s self. Termites eat away. Paint peels. Clutter lies about. Dust accumulates. Everything is what it is, and everything is a metaphor for something else as well. I’m not certain what all of this has to do with my state of mind when I’m writing. Does it depress me? A little. Does it shame me? Not like it used to. Would I really want everything to be perfect? I don’t think I would.
Having a house perfect costs money, and it also takes time. Most significantly, for anyone who works at home (like a housewife-writer), it means contractors and other life forms intruding on my peace and quiet. They have questions. I need to make sure I give the right answer and that they understand me. Sometimes, I don’t know the answer. They could be speaking Neptunian, for all I understand. “Just do it!” I say, but it is not enough. Everything takes longer than you think it will. There is the warping of time. Twenty minutes is really ninety, in the land of contractors.
They make noise. They move things. Some are better at cleaning up after themselves than others.
All of the above runs through my brain when I contemplate home maintenance. As a result, I often procrastinate having things done, in order to maintain the peace and tranquility I crave. I get away with this, mostly. I am married to someone who could live through the destruction of Pompeii, and still think everything was just fine. He might notice a change eventually, maybe. (“Didn’t we used to have a wall here? How long have we had lava pouring through our dining room? A volcanic eruption? Really? When did that happen? You didn’t tell me!”)
I cannot give in forever to my procrastinating nature. The house really could fall down. Also, disrepair and disorder carry their own burden of chaos. At a certain point, you have to take care of it. And when I do, when I really take care of a problem, I feel as though I have tamed a dragon. I do a little dance when the formerly broken thing has been put right. But my latest dragon-taming success had to do not with structure, or plumbing, or cosmetics. It had to do with the digital world of Cable TV.
The more s&*# we have, the more that can break. All those computerized goodies we can’t live without. And we really can, except to do so really will make our lives a lot more work, and a lot less fun. It me takes one-tenth the time to pay bills than it did in, say, 1990. About one-eighth the time to make plane reservations. In a little tiny device, I carry a telephone, still and movie camera, address book, calendar, bookshelf full of books, calculator, road maps of the entire world, photo albums, notepad, yellow pages, multiple messaging systems that did not exist a few decades ago, a big chunk of my music library, information from around the world, including weather, sports, news, traffic reports, and opinions. Oh, and I can shop from my phone, too. And play games. I would have required a small panel van to carry around all those functions in 1990. But if I were driving a panel van around with all that stuff in it, I would know what I had. I would feel its weight, and understand the difficulties in its maintenance.
I don’t understand and don’t want to accept the difficulties of maintenance. My electronic magic toys pull me away from attention to the tactile: termite-chewed wood, rodent chewed cable, and paint sloughed from house trim like dried-up cake frosting. The digital world is like air. It is invisible, or nearly so. It is my personal magic wand that has seduced me into thinking anything is possible, that I am Mickey Mouse in a wizard’s hat, dancing in Fantasia.
I am reminded the broomsticks are impossible to control.
We are at the end of an interregnum. Halloween is over. The election is over. Thanksgiving is over. Christmas hasn’t yet begun. Not until tomorrow, December 1. It’s the most wonderful time of the year
My husband and daughter both expressed annoyance last weekend, independently of one another, of the hurry of some of our neighbors to put up Christmas decorations. Oh sure, businesses have been doing it for months. My husband called to complain about that months ago when he went to a nearby mall. But regular people? How is anyone in the frame of mind to put up Christmas decorations before they’ve rested up from dealing with Thanksgiving?
During the month of November I heard a few people say that Thanksgiving was their favorite holiday. But I’m not so sure it’s Thanksgiving itself that they like. A couple days ago, the client in the next chair at the hair salon was talking about how she and her husband celebrate Thanksgiving day. In the morning, she picks up a turkey breast and their favorite side dishes from Marie Callenders, which she takes home and pops in the refrigerator. Her husband and she then meet friends at a local hotel restaurant, where they have dinner, and hang out with friends and family for three or four hours. The next day, they open the refrigerator and voila! They have their leftovers.
We have reached the point in our civilization where everyone does pretty much what they want. Many gather in large family groups for big meals, many travel long distances, and many cook big, elaborate meals. Many, however, do not. Some go to restaurants. Some serve at soup kitchens or shelters. Increasingly, more have to work.
Many merely take what they like of the holiday, and leave the rest behind. Yes to leftovers, football, and shopping. No to cooking, cleaning, and dealing with family members.
I can’t help but wonder what Thanksgiving will look like another fifty years in the future. I’m not one hundred percent certain it will survive, sandwiched as it is between the more exciting holidays of Halloween and Christmas. (Perhaps it is turkey-sandwiched? Ha Ha.) And if it does, I believe it will be for those lovely days after Thanksgiving, more than for the holiday itself.
Holidays are meant to be a distraction, a break. They are time off from our mundane routines to be happy, thankful, and contemplate what is holy. “Holy,” not only in the sense of a particular religious tradition, but holy in the sense of what we feel to be most central to our existence.
But any celebration in itself, repeated over time, tends to mutate until it eventually sabotages its original intent. The celebration of the holiday meant to honor the sacred actually becomes harmful to what we care about most. The long weekend tempts retailers–whose bread-on-the-table depends almost entirely on how they do at Christmas–to turn the entire Thanksgiving weekend into a shop-frenzy. Being thankful for the feast turns into just plain old eating. Being with family turns into alcohol-fueled disputes, or football induced sloth. We lose connection with the original meaning, but somehow make new connections, establish new rituals, to find that meaning all over again.
Take this shopping thing: Some families gather together late Thursday or early Friday morning to hit the stores. These are group excursions, strategized like a military operation, hunting for deals with a level of cooperation that would put a pack of wolves to shame. It is, in fact, a family sporting event, no different in its spiritual meaning than those touch football events the Kennedys have at their holiday gatherings. I can easily imagine a future Thanksgiving in which malls will offer all-day events where you can compete in competitive shopping while also getting fed at mall eateries. Maybe it could be a reality show. Are you kidding? It could totally be a reality show. Oh no, now that I’ve said it, someone will steal the idea. No doubt I’ll see it on T.V. for Thanksgiving 2013.
I know that’s where you’ll find my family next year, watching Thanksgiving Wars, or whatever they decide to call it, turkey sandwiches clutched in our paws, mayonnaise dripping from our mouths, renewing the bonds between us by doing nothing at all, and doing it together.
Next year, we’re inviting these people.
The year was 1987.
There was this blank wall at the back of the family room. The previous owners hung framed mirrors back there and it looked good, but we wanted something different. So much to do, moving in, though, so we let it slide.
Our friends were all beginning to buy large-screen TVs that were the size of a two-car garage. We thought of putting a TV on that side of the room, the only side it would fit on, but our old (even then) cable line would not extend that far from the source without significantly degrading our signal. And those big old fat-butt TVs were really expensive. We carried on with a small TV that fit in the niche built for that use on the opposite wall.
I tried various pieces of art on the wall, but nothing was big, or bright, enough. It’s kind of a big wall, at the end of a fairly long room.
One day, some time in the mid-nineties, my husband brought home an original oil painting from a charity auction. I hope it was a good charity, and that the money was put to good use, because I did not fall in love with this piece of art. Nonetheless, the painting was large, it was bright, it filled the space, and the colors–mostly orange and blue–went. It hung on the wall for eight to ten years. I never liked it that much, and each year, I liked it less.
One day, I took the painting down and foisted it off on an antique and collectible shop. I left it there on consignment, with the understanding that if it did not sell in thirty days, it would be donated to charity. I was asked if I wanted to be notified in the event it did not sell, to be given an opportunity to take it back. I did not.
Once again, I was left with a blank wall.
One Christmas, I attempted to hang a bunch of angels and lights up there, but really, it looked pathetic. Lame. Back to the blank wall.
So I had an idea: What if I took close-up photos of my backyard roses and hung them in an arrangement of eight? Right size, right colors. Off I went to Ikea to buy eight cheap, black, eight-by-ten frames.
Just beyond where they had the frames I was attracted to an oddity (not an unusual experience at Ikea). It appeared to be a package of three rolls of gauzy, jewel-toned fabric. I thought it was the type of fabric sold in craft shops: sheer, pretty stuff you might ruche around the tree, or over a mantle, at Christmas. I can always use more of that stuff, I said to myself, and purchased it, along with the frames.
Once home, I began printing up my photography.
The effect of all those roses was lame, almost as lame as the Christmas decorations had been. Even before I even framed them, I could see I had myself another dead end.
I decided to look at the fabric I’d bought, to cheer myself up.
Turned out, it wasn’t fabric. It was art.
It was a triptych of an out-of-focus orchid. The entire three panels measured about eight by fifteen feet all together. It was awful, and I could not imagine anyone hanging this thing up, it was so ugly.
But the colors were beautiful, jewel tones ranging from ruby, to gold, to emerald, to sapphire, to amythyst. I thought for a moment I could still use it to ruche around during the holidays, but then I read the tag: No washing, no drying, no dry cleaning, and no ironing. The material was an uber-unnatural polyester; I couldn’t use it for anything. There was nothing to do but take it back.
But then, like a zombie, not thinking, I brought over my eight frames. I began laying them down. At first, I attempted to put them together, to keep the orchid together. No. I placed them again, choosing to frame the prettiest color rectangles.
I had my wall. I had my art piece. The year was 2010. It took twenty-three years to fill my wall.
What I learned from this serendipitous artistic journey:
1. Had I known what I was buying, I wouldn’t have bought it. Therefore, it is sometimes better not to know what I’m doing, and to do it anyway.
2. I returned to Ikea a week or so later, and saw the ugly triptych displayed on the wall. Had I taken note of it, I would have known what I was buying, and would not have bought it. Fortunately, I was oblivious. I learned that being oblivious can sometimes be a good thing. I would argue that this is a different lesson from the first. The first was lesson was the value of ignorance; the second, obliviousness.
3. Sometimes it takes twenty-three years to fill a blank wall. I need to learn patience.
4. It is good to let my zombie-self take over some tasks sometimes.
There it is: Ignorance, obliviousness, patience, and zombie-ness, all working together, solved my art problem.
Photo: I took it. All rights reserved.
For this post, I need to check every category box and tag every subject that could possibly be, because this applies to everything.
But I won’t. It would be too overwhelming.
I am overwhelmed by my e-mail, particularly since I started following a number of blogs. I am overwhelmed by chores, and projects around the house that seriously need doing. I am overwhelmed by the amount of music I want to hear, TV shows I want to see, movies to see, and books to read. I am overwhelmed by The Song of Ice and Fire. I am overwhelmed by requests from my family, friends who want to do things, and strangers who want me to sign their petition. I am overwhelmed with working on my novel.
This is all good, because I enjoy nearly all of what I am overwhelmed by, even the chores. Chores have, after all, easily recognized results. Laundry=clean clothes. Cooking=dinner. Cleaning=Not having your hand stick to the handle when you open the refrigerator. Results aside, finding a way to enjoy the mundane everyday of life is a healthy choice.
Feeling overwhelmed, when done as a way of life, is less healthy. By the term, “way of life,” I’m seeking to differentiate “overwhelmed,” the feeling, from the outside circumstances that may trigger the feeling. Okay, that’s a little confusing. Let me explain.
I feel a little ashamed to call myself “overwhelmed.” I am not besieged by troubles at this point in my life, I’m not coping with illness, family trouble, work trouble, children trouble…what problems I have are small potatoes when compared to troubles others have, and even pale in comparison to past times in my own life.
Overwhelmed is the feeling triggered by what I encounter each day. Overwhelmed is the reaction I choose to have to all that. I am overwhelmed because I am open, willing, and able to throw myself into what’s happening. At times, I’ve responded to the world by wanting to retreat and withhold. My experience tells me that sort of isolation leads to feelings of uselessness and futility. I’ll take feeling overwhelmed, thank you.
Writing makes me seek the overwhelming. Any creative activity, but writing most of all. I have to be actively working on something, and it has to be going passably well, but there is something about the rush of bringing the world-in-my-head to life on paper that makes me feel fifty feet tall. Yeah, I think. I can do that! And that, and that, and that…. There is a connection between creativity and grandiose ambition. It’s problem-solving, turned into a game. Feeling like a good writer makes me fly about my world like a superhero, righting wrongs, changing light bulbs, giving out good humor to all I meet.
I might even be on top of things for a short while, and if not caught up, at least within shouting distance of not feeling overwhelmed. And then, something happens, like the flu, or a vacation, or Christmas. Extra tasks are added, days are taken away, and every aspect of life devolves into a messy pile of stuff to do. Stuff I want to do. And feeling overwhelmed.
And I tell myself, Enjoy. It’s better than the alternative.
Photos: Speculativemartha. All rights reserved.