Monthly Archives: May 2019

Lilac time

May is the month of beginnings, and beauty, and beatitude. It has always been this way. The obvious reason unfolds outside the window: fresh leaves, plum blossoms, grass stretching toward the sun. May’s attributes are too long to list – the lilac, with its heady fragrance; bobbing red tulips; rhododendrons and apple blossoms and flowering pear, on and on, but May rests in the simple and subtle as well. The unfolding of a petal; the maple leaf that, unfurled, hangs low in its newness, as though weighted down by dew.

I remember discovering Emerson and Whitman in May, their birth months, but maybe I am exaggerating. I read them in June and July and August too, but nothing quite compared to lying on the grass with Leaves of Grass in my lap, or leafing through Emerson’s essays under a canopy of new leaves.

I have been considering my life as a sort of natural history. To that end I recently combed through my journals and transcribed all the natural description, hoping to find some magical moment when the atmospheric became symbolic, when I saw the world as metaphor, as Thoreau did in Walden. And I found some Mays that were dark and rainy, and some even stormy; but mostly May overpowered me with her perfume, her explosions of color, her possibility.

Dusky sky is heavy with overpowering scents of apple blossoms, lilacs, forsythias, I wrote one year, noting the soft, syrupy air, a few days later finding springtime lushness, fragile, delicate flowers, the cherry, dogwood and elm. Finally, I decided, Moderation is heady enough.

May has many meanings. It is a word of permission. Yes, you may walk out into the world now, feel grass on your bare feet, follow the bees’ buzz. My old Webster’s describes the verb as “liberty; opportunity; permission; possibility.” May is a door ajar, a reopened ice-cream stand, a forest path.

In its most archaic meaning, May was a substitute for maiden. It is a woman’s name, and I gave it to the grandmother in my first novel, Roberta’s Woods: May, so like Mary, my real grandmother’s name, and a tribute to her.

The name derives from the Roman goddess Maia, who fathered a son by Zeus. One of the seven sisters (the Pleiades that appear in May’s night sky), she is Arcadian, a mountain nymph, which is why May seems like a sylvan month, of forest glades and dirt paths and greening meadows; not a month of the sea, it is more green than blue, more earth than water.

June was cluttered with holidays, bookended by my sister Andi’s birthday on the fifth and my grandmother’s on the 30th, with Father’s Day in between. June was graduations and end-of-year picnics and trips to the beach. Summer already seemed too short, demanding lists and plans to capture it all.

But May had only Memorial Day. I would accompany my grandmother to the cemetery, bringing our potted plants of geranium and pansy and petunia. Along the grassy lanes, she would stop at my sister Mary Jane’s grave, weeping for the granddaughter gone too soon, and that of her own daughter Sylvia, the baby who never grew up. I would feel tugged between the pull of Mays past and the lush explosion of the present, with its intoxicating lilacs and fresh-cut grass, my attention divided between my grandmother’s gentle sniffling and the shirtless boy pushing a lawn mower.

Let April be cruel, with Eliot’s evocative rains, and October stun us with fruitful Keatsian displays, but May in her quiet way always gets to me. May is the anticipation of summer, rather than its sandy, gritty, sun-blistering reality. May is the reality of spring, which never disappoints, even under cloud. May is the romantic poets of England – Wordsworth’s “splendor in the grass” – and their transgressive American counterparts – Whitman’s “spear of summer grass,” what the child demanded to be defined, what the poet could only guess at.

Like moderation, each May is heady enough, more than enough, for one soul to experience in a lifetime.

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Finding a room of our own

After more than 40 years of writing, I now have a room of my own. It was Virginia Woolf of course who famously wrote, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” and like all women writers I have struggled to obtain both.

  My first writing space was my bedroom in the very house where I now live. It was a small, squarish space, painted blue a long time ago, with a slanted ceiling and one window near the bed and one smaller one tucked into the eaves. I had a desk in front of the larger window, where I could look out toward the backyard, where my father maintained his sawmill and my mother cultivated a vegetable and flower garden.

  My desk was an old 1940s vanity in the waterfall style; we bought it at a yard sale. At that desk I wrote every day, first in two tiny five-year diaries with their miniature locks, and then in five-subject college-ruled notebooks. I wrote about what I felt and saw, gradually moving from abstract emotional outpourings to concrete episodes; I taught myself to memorize what people said and did, and so began to write scenes.

  As writing rooms go, it was not bad. Since my mother typed my term papers, I had no need yet of a typewriter. The drawers were filled with rudimentary supplies, rulers and pens and pencils and stationery. The few books I owned were piled in a cinderblock and board arrangement common in the 1970s, and eventually in a pine bookcase my father made. I owned a few Scholastic paperbacks purchased through school book sales; a 1942 Classics Club edition of Walden; a 1936 dictionary coming loose at the binding; some paperbacks of British poetry; and a well-thumbed copy of Leaves of Grass.

  It is not possible to talk about one’s writing space without talking about one’s books. Woolf was concerned not just with having space for books, but what books filled that space: few, if any, titles were by women, and in any case budding women writers did not have the money to fill these “empty shelves” even with titles written by men. But even though we were poor, we always had books in the house – my mother’s old oak bookcase stuffed with gilt-edged volumes of Scott, Hemans, and Bryant, along with the Book of Knowledge and National Geographic’s Lands and Peoples. I did not think too much about the proportion of male authors on my shelves, until I started buying books on my own – it was not Woolf but Erica Jong who raised my consciousness, and Fear of Flying was quickly followed by Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, with its incisive take-down of male writers, and by Sylvia Plath, and Alix Kates Shulman, and Germaine Greer.

  By the time I began living in apartments, my father had built me a second, bigger bookcase, and each time I moved, he would enlist his sawmill helpers to drag all the boxes of heavy books up and down stairs. I kept the waterfall desk, too, its drawers now stuffed with letters from friends and old journals and scraps of paper with one-sentence story ideas. Still, the “room of my own” was no more than roving furniture to be stuffed into this or that corner, a circumstance that was to last for decades.

  Somehow, I managed to carve out a corner for myself no matter where I lived. After marriage and children, the need to write was overwhelmed by full-time employment and motherhood. But a writing desk could be disguised by the duties of paying bills, signing school paperwork, or making out Christmas cards. There was the Victorian lady’s desk I found at yet another yard sale, with its cubbyholes perfect for paperclips and tiny notebooks and random slips of paper. For a while we kept one of those prefab computer desks in our living room, a sole work station shared by five of us – two gaming boys, my husband, and a young daughter who was just learning to use a mouse. Later I commandeered one of my teen boys’ computer desks and found a home for it at the top of the stairs.

  From these makeshift work spaces, I wrote. In the living room, while cartoons blared, I completed four photo history books and my first novel, my research spread out on TV trays. Upstairs in my nook, I wrote two more novels and a master’s thesis. These spaces were neither quiet nor commodious; stacks of paper leaned precariously on surfaces, file cabinets poked into my knees, plastic storage bins overflowed with manuscripts. My library was spread all over the house in bookcases of every size and style. I had not advanced very far from those days of writing in my bedroom, and in fact I may have regressed: No one had bothered me in my blue room, for my mother was a writer too and took it for granted that her daughter needed to sit at that waterfall desk and stare out the window, or spend hours bent over a composition notebook, for she had done the same as a girl, and had to endure the clueless comments of her more athletic and outgoing siblings.

  As a married woman, however, I had a husband and children to consider. I learned to write in the smallest windows of opportunity. I got up early on weekends, before the kids were up, or stole an hour between when school started and I needed to be at work. I wrote in the evenings while my husband worked second shift and the children, fresh out of their baths, had an hour of play or TV before bedtime. The size or placement of that writing desk mattered less than the time I could spend there.

 Eventually, the children began to leave the nest, and I adopted one of their rooms for an office. But it was a makeshift affair: I still had that rickety computer desk, its faux surface peeling, and files bursting out of boxes, and books all over the house in whatever corner I could cram them. And you never knew when the son who was still home might start blaring the Black Keys from the adjoining bedroom.

  Now I have a room of my own – figuratively and literally. Figuratively, because all three children are grown and living on their own, and my part-time teaching has given me time and freedom I did not have in my 30s and 40s. Literally, because in December, after seven months of renovation, we moved into the house where I grew up. My old blue bedroom is now a bathroom, and the largest bedroom upstairs is my study. My mother’s oak bookcase is up here, and an L-shaped desk, and built-in bookshelves. There’s a small red chair just right for reading or, if you’re a cat, napping. My books, my papers, my files all have found a home, a place close at hand, in closets and file drawers. This is the room I dreamed of – it is Jo March’s garret in Little Women, complete with a mood pillow; it is Thoreau’s small house in Walden; it is Emerson’s study with that wall of books.

  Coming into it is like walking into my own head: I wrote in this space for years before it materialized. Here are my reference books at the right hand: dictionaries, a thesaurus, guides to birds and flowers. Here are my little notebooks at the left: lists of books I’ve read, lists of books I want to read, journals empty and half-full. I have only to swing my chair to find my journal open on the desk, capped fountain pen at the ready, or to ponder my creativity bulletin board, with its collage of vintage car ads, songbirds, postcards, family snapshots and mysterious paintings.

  Curiously, I don’t always write here. Often I go to a local coffeehouse, bribing my Muse with an iced tea and chocolate chip cookie. The Room of my Own is the perfect space for writing, but perfection can be a harsh taskmaster. Maybe I don’t think I deserve this space; maybe the house itself conspires against me, calling out with dirty laundry or an unmade bed. Or maybe it’s just that the cat knows where to find me when she needs to eat. Whatever the reason, when I have a deadline, the coffee shop beckons.

  At the end of “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf evokes the sister of William Shakespeare, who died before she could write. She exhorts the women in her audience to write for that silent poet who never had the chance. I make no pretense to be Shakespeare’s sister, but if all women are heir to her, and to Woolf, and to all the women writers who have tried to fit writing around all their other obligations, then I revel in this space my life has made, and prepare to write in it.  

 First, though, I’ll feed the cat.

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