Beat on loudly, heart

I’ve had many echocardiograms over the years. When you have what one doctor described as “the second loudest heart murmur” he’s ever heard, you’re going to get some attention.

The first test was in 1978, before I was due for wisdom teeth extraction. The doctors were so nervous about my heart murmur that they put me in the hospital over night and gave me general anesthesia.

Back then the technology was so primitive I couldn’t make out what the technician was looking at. All I saw on the monitor were a lot of scraggly black and gray lines, like a half-erased chalkboard.

But just as whiteboards (and smartboards) have replaced slate, so too has the echocardiogram blossomed into full-color doppler splendor. 

Thus it was that the other day I decided to watch my echocardiogram in progress. And lo and behold, I could really see my heart.

There was the mitral valve, open and closing like a little gate. It didn’t look floppy to me, or seem to be letting much blood back into the chamber. In fact, it looked tight as a drum. Beat, it opened, letting out a rush of blood like so much cattle heading to a field. Beat, it closed, letting nothing back in.

And so the mystery of my loud heart murmur remains a mystery. My cardiologist said, as he does every time I have this test, that I’m fine. Despite the loud murmur, there’s little evidence of regurgitation.

“You always were loud,” was my husband’s only comment.

Watching that computer monitor, I pondered what an odd thing the heart is. We never see it or touch it; we can’t hold it in our hand or even feel it beneath our skin, beyond the flutter of its beating. It never rests. Whether we are sleeping or eating or briskly walking, it continues its work behind a wall of ribs, indefatigable, steadfast.

Unique among our organs, the heart has been endowed with meaning. It, not the brain, is supposed to be where our emotions lie. Politicians try to win both “hearts and minds.” Our heart is “broken” when we lose a loved one; if a person lacks enthusiasm, we say, “His heart wasn’t in it.” We get to the “heart of the matter” in boardrooms and “heart” someone in our Facebook feed.

Meanwhile, our heart keeps on beating, oblivious to the symbolic weight we’ve placed upon it. Speaking of which, our “hearts grow heavy” in times of tragedy or sadness, while we are “light-hearted” when we feel happy or playful.

The writer Gail Godwin wrote an entire book meditating on the heart in literature, religion, philosophy and history, all while grieving for her half-brother. Curiously, the idea for the book came from someone else, and she resisted it at first; but once started on the subject, she – really put her heart into it, you might say.

Since watching my heart in action, I’ve felt a new awe for the work it does every day. Despite being taken for granted, and blamed for both grief and joy, it has never faltered, and it actually does a fine job, despite the murmuring sound.

So what am I to make of that noise? Medically misleading and benign, maybe that loud murmur is just a quirk of the self, no different than my off-key singing or thunderous sneezes or riotous laughter. Maybe, as the man said, I am just loud.

 

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A brush with cosmic irony

 

There’s a reason they call it caterwaul (a simple English word combining cat and wrawl, to cry out or howl). It means only one thing: Kitty is mousing again.

I climb out of bed, turn on the light, and sure enough, there she is in the middle of the living room, making the sound that wakes the dead, all while dangling a mouse from her jaws. When she sees me she drops him with a tiny thud onto the living room carpet. She’s done her job – presented me with the evidence of her hunting prowess.

There’s only one problem: the mouse is still alive, although barely.

I formulate a vague plan to get him outside, and make for the kitchen for tools. Kitty, watching me head in that direction (and her bag of Friskies), turns on her paws and follows. “Here, eat this,” I say, after filling up her bowl and wetting it under the faucet, the way she likes it. 

She tucks into the food like an alley-cat who has been living on fish bones, although this is probably the tenth time she’s eaten today. 

In the recycling bin I find a cereal carton and a small paper bag. When I return to the living room, the mouse is lying on his side. He has one back leg stretched out farther than the other, and I think of myself lying on the chiropractor’s table just before she rolls me over and snaps my spine back into place. 

He’s still twitching. He regards me with two lidless black eyes that glitter like the buttons on a doll’s coat. 

For a moment I imagine myself into his tiny brain. He has just escaped from the jaws of a giant furry monster whose incisors have bloodied his fur. Now an even larger behemoth is looming over him, ready to pounce. 

When I teach Oedipus the King, I tell my students about cosmic irony, the idea that the gods are playing with us, “amused to manipulate human beings as a puppeteer manipulates his puppets,” as my Dictionary of Literary Terms puts it. Mousie has had a brush with cosmic irony, but only a brush. Right now the god in question has her nose stuck in a bowl of Friskies.

If I could, I would pick up Mousie, gently pet his coarse fur, and tell him everything is going to be all right. I would nestle him against my chest, where my beating heart would sound to him like the ticking of an enormous clock, or the roarings of some dark and mythical machine. At last, perhaps, he would be comforted, his breathing would slow, and the blood on his fur would begin to coagulate.

Sometimes I force Kitty into this position, but she is not a cuddler. The most she will sometimes manage is to lie on my legs, head facing away, a posture from which she can bolt at any moment. She was a stray, lost on the streets of Hartford, Conn., and despite years of living first with my mother and then with us, she has not warmed to being held. My son Colby sometimes manages to get her to freeze in his arms, where she makes little peeps of protest as he pets her.

For three years, an even more terrifying beast roamed these halls: my daughter’s Maine Coon cat, Rufus, who is the size of a small dog and likes to bite pieces off his victims and then regurgitate them  all over the house.

But of course none of this means anything to this terrified mouse. I prepare to nudge the paper bag under him like a spatula, so I can slip him into the cereal box and out the door to freedom.

Suddenly he jumps up, bolts across the room, and zips under the cellar door.

I can’t help giving a little laugh, although I’m the only one up at this hour. Mousie has lived to see another day, to go back to his cozy nest and, one would hope, stay away from the jaws of Fate upstairs.

He won’t soon forget the feline god’s rancid breath or her sharp incisors. I imagine him trembling even after safety is gained, reliving the horror of being captured and flung and toyed with.

Kitty, however, is reliving nothing. She has forgotten completely about her adventure earlier in the evening. Now it’s time to lick her whiskers and clean between her toes and, of course, take a long god-like nap.

 

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No, November

 

In November my mother recited Thomas Hood. “No sun – no moon!/ no morn – no noon – /no dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day …” Sometimes it seemed she had a poem for every circumstance, and years later, when she could no longer read or watch television, unspooling those remembered verses kept her entertained.

I can’t help hearing her voice this time of year, the studied way she recited poetry, probably learned from grammar-school recitations. And I can see her, too, outdoors with a kerchief tied around her head, ripping dead tomato plants from the garden or filling the bird feeders or hanging towels out to dry, hoping they wouldn’t turn to cardboard by day’s end.

She was born in November, and this year marks the centennial of her birth. In a bit of irony, the Fates decreed I should spend the past year immersed in 1919, as I wrote the centennial history of our local hospital. I have read 1919 newspapers and pored over 1919 documents and imagined myself into the head of a woman of that time, Caroline Hazard, the philanthropist who started the hospital.

Yet it was only recently I made the connection.

My mother was born at home, on Nov. 25, 1919, in a house on Franklin Street in Westerly that no longer exists, taken up over the years by a day care center and various other businesses. There was no Westerly Hospital yet, and South County had just opened its Cottage Hospital.

I thought I should do something to mark my mother’s 100th birthday – maybe post one of her poems every day on Facebook. I pulled out her notebooks and leafed through them, trying to decipher the crossouts and revisions, the notes about which ones had been published, which rejected. 

There were nature poems and children’s poems, sonnets and lyrics, all carefully indexed on the back pages. I found odes to Thoreau and to Emerson and to Emily Dickinson, dramatic adolescent poems, adult poems so restrained only the dates hint at what was really on her mind. 

But after a while I piled the notebooks up and returned them to their box in the closet, not really sure why I couldn’t seem to choose anything from their browned pages. Afterwards, I felt vaguely disturbed. Maybe she was trying to tell me she didn’t want her work plastered all over social media.

 

No recognitions of familiar people – 

No courtesies for showing ’em – 

No knowing ’em –

 

What a bleak month in which to be born. Her mother’s fifth child, my mother never felt she had much of a childhood. Her younger brother came along two years later, on her father’s birthday, and he was the apple of everyone’s eye. She was the fourth daughter of six children, sensitive and quiet and a little awkward, a perpetual misfit. No wonder she loved poetry: It was a way to say what she couldn’t in ordinary conversation. It was a language she alone spoke in that boisterous Yankee family.

I knew what it was like to come along late, but thanks to her I did not feel like a misfit. In our house writing was in the air. It was on the coffee table (The Writer magazine, with its covers of weird abstract art) and it was on her desk (with its black Royal typewriter and onion-skin paper). It was on the book shelves. It was in the talk at the dinner table.

My journal never sugar-coated November. “The sky cracked open.” “Winter … descended, strangling me with her icy clutching hands.” “Winter has pounced on our summer-spoiled bodies early.” I was a hedonist confined to a drafty house with little to look forward to. I sat at the desk in my bedroom, looking out over the roof to where the trees blackened after sunset, hearing “a faint and distant music of another time.” I was 17.

November means ninth month, the period of human gestation, an odd time to be thinking about birth in the natural order of things. It literally was ninth in the old Roman calendar, before Julius Caesar inserted July and August. Does this mean November was once a summery month, more along the lines of September? Maybe November, too, was once summer-spoiled, and resents those Julian late-comers. But November, like my mother, was always next to last.

 

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease

No comfortable feel in any member – 

 

Mother’s birthday was overshadowed by Thanksgiving, a holiday upon which it occasionally fell. At the five-and-dime called Fleming’s we bought her trinkets with our babysitting money – dish towels or fancy soaps or stationery for writing to her sisters. My father would tell her to order herself something from the Sears catalog or Lillian Vernon. My grandmother, her mother-in-law, made the cake, one layer with sugary white icing, and brought her an apron she’d sewed or a scarf she’d knitted.

After that, we could turn our attention to Christmas. My birthday followed quickly, in January, and I probably already had a list working. Mother’s was swiftly forgotten.  

By now November has undressed. I can see phoebes flitting in the trees, and one cardinal suns himself, barely camouflaged by the last of the oak leaves. The bare landscape brings a certain clarity. Parts of the world hiding since May are now open for inspection. But November’s transparency is a ruse. Whatever we think we know at the beginning of the month can be swiftly upended at the end. December brings cold, and change, and sometimes death.

Hood ended his poem with “no fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,” a bit of an exaggeration. The poem is called “No!” – not “November,” an important distinction. Who is saying “no,” and to what? Is he railing against the very bleakness he describes? 

Now I can only think of my own sorrows – “no sisters,” one long dead and one recently gone. “No father,” for 13 years now. And, perhaps saddest of all in her birth month, “no mother.”

But just as Hood equivocated about the birds – if anything, they seem ever-present now – so too I exaggerate her absence. She is all around me, in the woods and brush of this old yard. She is in my head whenever I sit to write. She is there in the books I read, the audiobooks I listen to, sometimes the very ones she borrowed. Her voice comes out of my mouth, all those proverbs and strange Yankee expressions and, yes, poems.

So this November, I will say yes: to the cardinal flashing red, to the notebook with its blank pages, to the husband who tarries with me, to the grown children who make me proud, to the friends who never fail to buoy my mood, to the students who surprise me every day with their insights, to the whole world, really, which is endlessly fascinating. And to the memory of Mother, who should never have been next to last in anything.

 

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Melancholy Autumn returns

I always loved Autumn. Even in junior high school I collected pictures of sweeping Vermont scenes, postcards of orange maples and calendar spreads of leaf-strewn villages, and hung them on the wall or pasted them into scrapbooks. Typical pages included a football game ticket, a pressed red leaf, and one of those liquor ads where the couple is sitting in a pile of raked leaves or cozying up on a plaid blanket. 

And in Autumn I read Autumn novels. Praise the Human Season by Don Robertson, the sweeping story of a couple’s long marriage. The Hunter’s Moon by Nathaniel Benchley, with its eerie undercurrent of sexual violence. Home from the Hill, the story of a Texas family by William Humphrey. These books left the taste of Autumn in my mouth, whether sour fear or loss or just the bittersweet reality of lives bravely lived. 

In this old house, October meant battening down the hatches. My father would have stacked the cordwood with his disciplined precision. The garden would be left to rot, or turned over and planted in winter rye, the last green tomatoes lined up on the kitchen window sills. Indoors my mother already would be tending the fires, the wood stove and kerosene range, taking the chill off the first frosty mornings. My father would have swapped out the screen doors for their glass counterparts and pulled down the storm windows. 

And I would be filling up notebooks, my journal and my five-subject Mead of school notes. Reading those novels and Glamour magazine. Putting together fall outfits of corduroy and flannel. And always the season’s change played on my emotions, Nature once again strumming a beat inside me.

The season always started brilliantly: a “pale gold shimmer on the trees’ tips,” “trees at last … red and pale gold,” against “slate blue folds of the clouds looming over the roof.” 

But the first tree to turn in the neighborhood, a maple across the street, started early – in late August – and by October was nearly bare. Too soon came the gales of mid-fall.

In October 1975, I noted “russet elms,” the “dirty blackness of the river,” a “black starless sky,” and “crumpled leaves” the “color of dried blood.” I could “almost feel the yearning of Earth’s breast beneath them.” 

In 1976, after a violent rainstorm not unlike the one we just had, I mourned the Indian summer that had been washed away. “Skeletal branches” had begun “to emerge bare,” leaves lying “like cereal flakes on the ground.” 

Once after a visit to my grandmother, to the place where my father was raised, I wrote, “I am committed to the land and what it symbolizes.” 

And I was. Although only a teenager, I sensed rather than understood my emotional connection to the countryside, the seasons, and what I can only call my inheritance of place. I felt it every time I drove along the dirt road that led to my grandmother’s house in the Tug Hollow section of Richmond. From the bus window, I watched as the leaves exploded into color on Shannock Hill. No matter where I was, I paid attention to the insistent heartbeat of the natural world. 

I had read Emerson, but not enough to understand his explanation in “Nature” of the relationship between our exterior and interior worlds, how Nature provides us the raw material to spin the metaphors that allow us to express emotions and ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible. But already I was trying to make that connection, to spin a web out of Autumn’s stimulus. This was what I meant by “commitment to the land and what it symbolizes.”

This week October once again did her turn. After days of gold came her bleak and barren hours. Even before the wind lashed the trees and the rain tumbled down, I felt unsettled. Out of sorts. Depressed. And before I realized it, I was back in those old sad Autumns. Three years ago, tending to my sister, sick and emaciated, right before her cancer diagnosis. Forty-one years ago, adjusting to a strange new place, a college campus where I was missing all the old rituals of home. Memories came tumbling back of Autumn’s ambivalence – the grand show before the final exit. 

So I did what my mother would have done. I gathered up the last of the green tomatoes. I picked as many cosmos and zinnias and roses and poppies as my arms could hold, and filled the house with vases of them, tall, short, milk glass, blue glass. I thought about all the loved ones I’ve lost. I remembered my sister in the glory of October, before December took her away from us. I pictured my mother raking up the garden, her hair under a kerchief. I could see my father carrying in an armload of wood or facing  the early-morning chill to warm up the car before I drove to school. No matter how the wind blew or the rain pounded, in this old farmhouse they kept us warm and safe and ready for the winter to come. And so, after thinking about that for a while, I felt a little more ready for it now.

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Pregnant and out of a job

 

In the spring of 1959, my mother had been a teacher for 18 years, with the previous 13 years spent teaching first grade at the same elementary school. There she had developed a reputation for having particular skill with students who had learning disabilities.

By now she was making about $5,600 a year. It’s quite possible she was the chief breadwinner in the family, as my father’s income as a logger and lumberman was modest at best.

After a difficult early marriage, they had settled into more peaceful times. My father had returned from World War II with what we would now label PTSD, and a drinking problem to boot. In the mid-1950s my mother had visited a divorce lawyer, but by 1959 my father had turned to AA and stopped drinking. They had added on to their tiny house, and their two incomes made life a little more comfortable for my two sisters, who were 11 and 8 years old – there was money for circus tickets, new clothing, Girl Scout uniforms.

But sometime in April or May of that year, my mother, then 39 years old, discovered she was pregnant.

In 1959, teachers who were visibly pregnant were expected to stay home, as my mother had done during her other two pregnancies. This would not change for some time, as Elizabeth Warren’s story of losing her teaching job because of her pregnancy in the early 1970s attests.

Small-town teachers like my mother also had no union protection. They signed “contracts” on a yearly basis but these simply set their salary. So when my mother gave notice that she would be out for the 1959-60 school year (she expected the baby in late December), the School Committee was under no obligation to rehire her after that.

In September 1959, she received a letter from Superintendent Phillip L. Kelly. He had tried to hire an elementary school teacher who would cover my mother’s class for a year, and then when she returned would go to the high school.

“However this proved to be impossible,” he wrote. “The school committee, at its meeting on September 8th, agreed to give you first consideration in employing a teacher at your teaching level. However they felt they couldn’t enter into an agreement to hire you.”

Doing so, he added, “could easily result, in our small system, in overstaffing the school.”

Of course, such situations are easily handled today. A long-term substitute is brought in until the regular teacher returns. Why he couldn’t do this is a mystery.

As it turned out, my mother did not try to return to her job. I was born later than expected, in January 1960. By then 40 years old, she was overwhelmed with a new baby and some postpartum health issues. She opted to cash out her retirement fund ($1,331) and quit working. 

How did she feel about this? It would be a stretch to say that she resented the circumstances that forced her to give up her career. Making pregnant women sit out the school year was just the way of the world in 1959. 

No, she did not seem heartbroken that her teaching career had ended, but I’m not sure it was particularly good for her. In some ways I think she would have been better off working – less isolated, more engaged. The school department also lost a veteran teacher. 

You could say I benefited from her decision, as I was the only one of her three children to have a stay-at-home mother. But life with my mother was not all story hours and craft projects. When she wasn’t doing housework, she was writing poetry, doing crossword puzzles, or reading, activities that did not involve a child in her lap. “I wasn’t put on this earth,” she used to say, “to entertain you.”

My sisters were at school all day, and our age differences were an insurmountable gulf. My mother’s regular presence afforded me a security my sisters did not enjoy as preschoolers, for when she taught, they had lived all week with my grandmother. But I learned early to occupy myself.

For years I felt responsible for ending my mother’s career. But I think the truth was a little more complicated. I think she could have returned to teaching eventually, if she’d wanted to. After all, hadn’t the superintendent offered to give her “first consideration” if there was an opening? But, though they needed the money, my mother never tried to go back. She might complain about their lack of money, but my birth had convinced her, rightly or wrongly, she could no longer be both mother and teacher.

Today, of course, the world is vastly different. Women often work right up until their delivery date. But in some ways nothing’s changed. Many women, sadly, still have to navigate all the conflicts that motherhood and career bring: arranging child care, completing housework, making dinner. Even in the most egalitarian households, both spouses struggle to be good parents and responsible employees. 

We say we’re a family-oriented culture, but sometimes I wonder.

 

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A peek at others’ libraries

 

Naumkeag, the summer home of lawyer and ambassador Joseph Hodges Choate and later his daughter Mabel, sits perched on a dramatic overlook in Stockbridge, Mass. The gardens, which are lovingly tended by the Trustees of the Reservations, include a Linden Walk inspired by a trip to Germany; a series of terraced steps created by landscape architect Fletcher Steele; and a Chinese pagoda surrounded by Japanese maples.

On a recent visit my husband headed first for the Afternoon Garden, with its striking view of the Berkshire hills. I would get there eventually. 

Our stroll ticket included a self-guided tour of not just the gardens but the estate’s first floor. Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1885 in the shingle style, the mansion oozes casual elegance. There’s a Flemish tapestry from the sixteenth century and a Hadley chest where the family stashed its tennis balls.

And there are also books, a roomful of them, and that’s where I headed first.

I’ve seen a lot of famous people’s libraries. I’ve perused the volumes at Cross Creek, the Florida home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I’ve inhaled the rarefied air in Emerson’s study in Concord, where his floor-to-ceiling bookcase consists of a series of stacked bureau drawers, any one of which could be pulled out to cart along on a lecture tour. I’ve scrutinized the tattered books at Fruitlands, where Louisa May Alcott and her sisters shivered and starved their way through a long winter. 

In fact, in just about every author’s house I’ve toured – and there have been many, including the likes of Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, James Merrill, and Nathaniel Hawthorne – the books are what draw me. 

In many cases, they are not the author’s originals. Most of Emerson’s volumes are at Harvard, and Kinnan Rawlings’s collection is at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Either the collections have been edited, in Emerson’s case, or replicated, as at Cross Creek. 

Nonetheless, the titles give some clues as to their owners’ thoughts, feelings, and interests. At the Choate house, the books are imprisoned behind two rows of wire, like errant cattle. They include many titles on gardening, which of course makes sense, given the owners’ proclivities, as well as popular writers of the 20th century, including P.G. Wodehouse and Edith Sitwell.

I had three writers in mind as I scanned the shelves, which rose floor to ceiling. One: Since Mabel Choate, who hired Steele to create the Chinese Garden, owned books about gardens of the East, might she also have read the novels of Pearl Buck?

I had been listening to Hilary Spurling’s marvelous biography of the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Pearl Buck in China, so I eagerly looked for Imperial Woman, Dragon Seed, or The Good Earth, but found none of them.

Second, wouldn’t the Choates – whose Berlin trip in the late 1800s inspired the Linden Walk – have been familiar with Elizabeth von Arnim, the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden and A Solitary Summer? Von Arnim, whose real name was Mary Annette Beauchamp, was an Edwardian lady married to a German count, whose writings are Thoreavian in their celebration of nature.

Alas, no Elizabeth, either. The docent in the study knew nothing about her, but noted that Naumkeag was originally a summer house, so the family presumably had another library in their New York City home as well.

Finally, I wondered if the Choates knew Caroline Hazard, who served as president of Wellesley College from 1899 to 1910 and wrote books of poetry, history, and travel. 

I don’t think the docent had heard of her.

What would it have mattered to find Buck, von Arnim or Hazard on these shelves? For me such a discovery would be another thread weaving my reading life together. Just as the books in my own study lean into one another, the influence of one seeping into the next, so too do the volumes in these famous homes connect. Finding a book on Brazil in Emerson’s Concord house brought my mind immediately to Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, particularly the art of Martin Johnson Heade. If the writer of Nature was curious about Brazil, surely he was familiar with Heade’s magnificent portraits of the hummingbirds he found there. And when I later read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, her biography of Alexander von Humboldt, I thought again of that book on Emerson’s shelf.

The bookcase is a biography of a writer. Each volume is an intellectual touchstone, a literary influence. Perusing the libraries of others can only enrich our own experiences.

I eventually wandered out to explore Naumkeag’s gardens. We marveled at the staggered blue steps Fletcher Steele built and the clumps of fragrant phlox that bloomed below them. But the stacked shelves remained in the back of my mind, leading me somewhere too – to the books gathered there, which issue a different sort of fragrance and blossoms just as lovely. 

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Input vs. Output

 

I have two boards in my office: one is a whiteboard of due dates and projects, the other is a bulletin board of colorful images clipped from magazines, books, and catalogs. The whiteboard is a to-do list of crossouts and dates, and it looks important. The bulletin board is where my eye goes, however, with its mix of vintage maps, postcards, advertisements and book covers.

The whiteboard represents where most writers focus their time: Output. Whether mounted on the wall, tucked into a notebook or etched into their brains, the to-do list looms importantly. We should be producing something, we should have goals, we should get published.

My whiteboard contains a list of free-lance stories due over the course of this year; some short creative projects I’ve been submitting; and a novel that’s still under revision.

But just as important is Input, an area to which we pay scant attention. Arguably without Input there will be no Output. Input is where we get our ideas, our spark, our inspiration. Because it seems to come out of the ether, we are loathe to quantify it. But Input can be listed and analyzed; we can boost our Input to increase our Output.

My list of both might look something like this:

 

Reading “Emerson and his Eccentrics”; rereading Thoreau’s journal – Thinking with intention about my memoir

Research into medicine – Free-lance stories on hospital history

Reading the New York Times and other papers – Ideas for op-eds and letters to the editor

Browsing the Times archive – Random sparks of interest for fiction and nonfiction

Posting on the Creativity Bulletin Board and collecting new images – Same 

Reading books about moonshining – Novel on moonshining in Rhode Island

Gardening on this homestead where I grew up – Ideas for my memoir

Plays and books – Writing reviews of same

 

Most of this Input comes from magazines, newspapers, online sources, and vintage ephemera. I’m low on one vital source of Input: experiences. Other than gardening and the theater, I don’t list any. A few trips to museums, hiking trails, and art galleries will boost my Input considerably.

In her seminal work on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron refers to these experiences as the “artist date.” She prescribes a weekly foray that will feed the artist within us. “Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to,” she writes, suggesting long walks, a visit to a new neighborhood or browsing through a secondhand store as possibilities. 

My list of experiences will not be your list. I find a trip to the dump shack (where used books are dropped off and picked up) or an antique bookstore is always rewarding, as is any cultural experience that doesn’t involve reading or writing: a play, art gallery opening or musical performance. 

Sometimes these experiences sneak up on you. A family outing, a bulletin board in a coffee shop or a trip to the post office can provide that sudden “aha!” moment that writers need. You increase your odds of benefiting from these experiences if, instead of spending all day at your computer, you take time to mingle in the real world.

We cannot minimize the power of images and texts, either. I’m in the middle of reading two books (one on Emerson, another a novel I’m reviewing) and listening to a third book on audio (Pearl Buck in China, a fabulous biography by Hilary Spurling). My bulletin board is saturated with images: a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville ad; a postcard of a motel in Rutland, Vt.; a Nancy Drew cover; a vintage map of New England; one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s poppies; and photography by Maurine Sutter, an artist who spent two weeks in the dune shacks of Provincetown. All of these speak to me on some level, and all of them in some small way fuel my writing thoughts.

The conventional to-do list is a necessary evil, especially for those of us writing free-lance on deadline. But spend some time on another kind of to-do list – the experiences and interactions that fertilize your mind – and you’ll find your writing will benefit enormously.

 

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