Magic Telephones & “the stark disappoinment of words”

I used to have a wooden telephone. I made it out of scrap wood my dad gave me when I was maybe seven years old. I used my wooden phone to play a game I never bothered to name. Recently, I wished to have that phone back.

Here’s how it worked. One of us called the phone–this was the client. The other answered the phone–this was the artist. The client would order a picture. Once the call concluded, the one playing “client” changed roles and joined as artist and we worked diligently to complete the picture just ordered.

Lucky for us, clients trended heavily toward cats and rainbows.

I want this phone back, along with the pretend client and the not-so-pretend assignment and deadline (Clients always demanded their rainbows immediately!). I want the pretend phone to ring; I want to answer it, and I want to be told what to write (or draw) today (and every day) because I’m really good at coming up with ideas for stories and articles, making lists of ideas, tucking notes in the margins along these ideas. But I somehow rarely manage to choose one of those ideas and begin to bring it out on the page, never mind actually finish it, and heaven forbid I send it out for possible publication.

I used to wonder why.

Thanks to Ann Patchett, now I know:

“Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.”

Not that it breaks my heart, but it IS disheartening when glittering (and admittedly vague but full-of-potential) ideas must start with one sentence, and then another, until it’s a flat, simplistic scaffolding of the multidimensional Thing in my imagination.

So, I want my wooden phone back. I want the demanding clients who just happened to need exactly what I liked to create. And I want my hop-to-it creative self to return.

Ring-ring.

“Hello, Trista’s writing and drawing services, how may I help you?”

“I need an essay. About box turtles. 500 words. By tomorrow.”

“That will be 25¢.”

“Illustrated by Monday.”

“Not a problem. Good bye; I must get to work now.”

 

Patchett’s insight comes from her essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

 

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The List

In fourth grade, I made a list to simplify my life—which had started to feel complicated.

I think my anxiety was caused by the questions adults ask kids in an effort to make conversation. They are always asking about kids’ favorites—forcing them to rank their few life experiences.

In fact, I did it today.

My friend asked Henry, age seven, “What was your favorite thing at the farmers’ market?”

“Ummmm …” he replied, “ummmm … .” After a long while he said, “It would be easier if you asked me …” but the rest of his sentence got whisked away by the open window as the car sped up.

“I missed that.  What was your favorite thing?” she prompted again.

“—The raspberries,” he said with a conceding nod.

And even though I’d already started drafting this blog post and knew better, I followed up with, “Are raspberries your favorite fruit?”

Again, he paused for contemplation.  “One of them,” he replied, softening my binary proposition and allowing for the possibility of more than one favorite.

I, however, was not this wise in fourth grade. When adults asked about my favorites, I assumed I needed to have favorites. So, I made my list and planned to carry it with me at all times. When asked about a favorite thing, I’d pull out my list to find the answer and avoid the tension-causing contemplation.

Favorite color:  green
Favorite animal: cat
Favorite thing to do: read
Favorite food: pizza
Favorite ice cream: blueberry cheesecake

My list—written on typing paper, glued to green construction paper, and folded into quarters—fit in my back pocket and gave me peace of mind.

Shortly after constructing this list, I found myself at an ice cream shop.  I remember strutting into the store, hanging out with my mom while the other kids pawed the display case trying to choose their scoop flavor. I already knew what I wanted without even pulling out my list, but then the cashier said, “We don’t have that flavor.”

I think I actually took a step toward the door to return to the car and add a column to my list for “second favorites” in case my “favorite-favorites” didn’t resolve the question or fit the situation. But there wasn’t time for that now, and I really wanted some ice cream.

“We have strawberry cheesecake ice cream,” the cashier said. Fine, yes, okay, I’ll have that. And it was good.  It had the same gooey pie crust and creamy bits my favorite flavor had, but it wasn’t as rich or pretty to look at as the blueberry cheesecake.

I’m pretty sure I abandoned my list after that experience because when it failed in that moment, I also had to admit that the list had not simplified my life like I’d expected it to.  I’d found myself fretting about whether I’d made the right choice.  I mean, green seemed like my favorite color, but there’s also that puke-toned olive green; whereas I always liked blue, any blue.  Then again, my favorite color to wear was purple.

I think of this fourth-grade list often because I still feel drawn by its allure.  Maybe I have a good day, and I’ll think, “Ah, this is it!  I’ve finally got it figured out.  This is how I’m going to live my life,” as if tomorrow’s going to roll out exactly as today did.  But, of course, it never does.

Even though I haven’t eaten dairy for over a decade, any time I end up in an ice cream shop, I scan for blueberry cheesecake.  It still exists but is just as difficult to find as it ever was.  I like knowing I had such a particular preference.  Had rocky road been my favorite, I might still be carrying around that list.  I’d be forever known as the kid who likes cats and rocky road.

Instead, I wake up to question marks most days.  The core of my identity settles into place while all kinds of electrons shift about and reveal whether today I will prefer quiet or company, activity or stillness, chocolate Coconut Bliss ice cream or chocolate chips by the handful.

Life’s a little more complicated and less  convenient this way, but rarely predictable and always interesting.

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Frugal Abundance

You know how as soon as you say you’re not going to do something, like eat chocolate, all you can think about is doing that very thing?  Like every time I say “No more take-out,” we end up eating take-out five days in a row!

While texting with my husband this morning about saving up for some projects, I wrote:  “I am determined to be frugal in a creative and abundant way.”

It’s only been few minutes, but so far, I’ve not yet thought of twelve things I need to buy, and I think it’s because of the phrase “creative and abundant way.” It feels like a project rather than a restriction.

My husband wrote back that chapter six of my (purely hypothetical) memoir should be:  “Abundantly Frugal and Other Potential Oxymorons Shattered by Creativity and Persistence.”

I loved that!  With creativity and persistence, we can be frugal while also enjoying abundance.

So, rather than focusing on what we can’t or shouldn’t do, we’re working together on a project, our self-imposed limitations challenging us to think outside of the box and find  inspiration.

We’re quite thrilled with ourselves, for example, when we “iron chef it” for dinner, when we manage to turn a mish-mash of bits and scraps into something savory.  The instant satisfaction of take-out entices, but we end up appreciating the creativity and adventure of “iron chef-ing it” just as much.

In my twenties, I lived on very little, and this kind of blog post would have had me rolling my eyes!  But coming from a more stable and comfortable place today, I love the idea of “frugal abundance” because it’s about noticing what we already have and finding happiness in that rather than seeking to acquire more.

What ways have you practiced “frugal abundance,” where a restriction has led to the creation of something great?

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“… and this is our bedroom.”

I was ten years old when I learned what it meant to be gay.  My dad was as an interior designer, and he’d been talking enthusiastically about a home he’d been working on for a few months.  One morning, he said the two women who lived in this house were going to be investing in art for their walls and shelves.

“What if one of them gets married and moves out,” I asked, wondering why they would put so much money and time into something not permanent.

“Well, they’re not just roommates,” he explained matter-of-factly, “they plan to live together for a long time.”

He didn’t label them “gay.”  It took me a few more years to connect that word and the way too many people sneered when they said it to the comfortable fact of two women living together instead of marrying men.  I hadn’t known such an option existed, and I liked it.  I could see living in a house with my best friend and imagined how fun it would be to pick out art together for our walls.

More than two decades later, circumstances of my life came together in such a way that I ended up meeting the two women who hired my dad to design their home.

They’re successful, impressive women, but too humble to make that obvious when talking with me, and they remembered my dad — quite fondly!

“Oh, we loved that house!” one of them said and explained they’d recently moved. “Your dad wouldn’t want to come work on our new house, would he?”

I explained that he’s 80 years old, but that did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm about his artistic eye.

Then, as one woman turned to talk to someone else, the other continued smiling at me and said, “You know, we interviewed other designers.”

I hadn’t even considered this, and worried retroactively about my dad not getting the job.

“… But as we gave them a tour of our home, when it came time to show them our bedroom …”

She trailed off here, but the expression on her face left little to the imagination about how the designers might have reacted.  Barely disguised disgust? Outright judgment?

“But your dad!  We got to the bedroom — our bedroom — and he just nodded and asked about colors.”

I’ve always loved my dad, but I still get teary when I think about this moment nearly thirty years ago, during a time even less accepting than now, from a man whose generation certainly did not embrace anything remotely “non-traditional.”

Two women sharing a bed was a complete non-issue for my dad.  All that really mattered to him — all that should ever really matter about anyone –  is what art they have on their walls, what books on their shelves, what music they listen to or where they’ve traveled, and how much joy their home contains.

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The Fairy Godmother of To-Do Lists

I wish someone could tell me my future.  I don’t need to know it all, or even see that far ahead, but each day feels like a blank, white wall, which could feel like a fresh start but instead feels vague and unclear.

My dad’s step-grandmother was clairvoyant, but in the most practical ways:  knowing who called before answering the phone and locating lost jewelry just by talking with the owner (the ring was in the wastebasket to the left of the desk).

Gram died before I existed, but when my mom was pregnant with me, Gram came to her in a dream and told her she’d have a girl, and that girl would “be just like me.”

My mom feared this meant I’d be stubborn; I’ve always hoped for clairvoyance.  However, considering my total lack of discernment in my own life, I have yet to see how I resemble Gram.

However, I don’t recall any stories about Gram seeing her own path in life.  Maybe it’s easier to predict other people’s lives.  Their patterns stand out more than our own, and listening carefully reveals what others yearn for even when they don’t describe it directly.  It’s easier to believe in other people’s potential too, in their capability, mostly due to wanting the best for others, but also because the day-to-day effort of baby steps, stumbling blocks, and leaping off cliffs stays invisible; we see only the golden achievement.

If someone could tell me my future, I’d rather not know what’s going to happen but what I ought to be doing today and tomorrow to prepare and get me there.

If my actions today largely shape my future, I’d like some celestial guidance as I create my to-do list. A fairy godmother of the to-do list!

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thriving beyond the cubicle or kitchen

In my first post for this blog, I wrote about following whims.

I felt nervous about this because “whim” sounded too light for the things I contemplated at the time:  concluding my 15-year teaching career without any other plan or idea in place, for example.

Every new career I named deflated when I said it aloud.  I realize now that this happened because what I said aloud wasn’t what I really wanted to do; it just sounded like the realistic option.  Fear keeps me from admitting what I really want to do or taking it seriously — it’s just a whim.

Then, while reading through Facebook one day, I read a post from Diana Abu-Jaber a writer I admire (especially Crescent and Birds of Paradise).  She said:

… came across this old letter from Spalding Gray telling me “you will get no richer & end with regret if you don’t act on these impulses.”

Aren’t whims and impulses irresponsible? Or are we really good at relegating our dreams and creativity to the category of “whim,” as in: I’ll get to it when I retire; or, when I have time; or, if only I had time …

You’ve heard that compelling question — if you knew you would not fail, what would you do with your life?

Although thought-provoking, the question bugs me because I’ve yet to meet anyone who can guarantee that I won’t fail.  It’s like how I tried to learn to long-board a couple of years ago.  I quickly realized that if I wanted to really learn how to do this, I would fall.  I would fall more than once. I feared dropping my 40-year-old bones on hard concrete more than I liked the woosh of rumbling on four small wheels. I didn’t want it enough to risk injury.

Whims and impulses mean risk, not irresponsibility.

In the novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, a rebel general listens to one of his young soldiers discover that he has a spellbinding singing voice.  The general says:

“It makes you wonder. All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.”

I’ve always loved this because the structure of the sentence suggests that we already have talents and skills — we already have the skills to sing or sew, convince or persuade –we simply don’t yet know what we know.  We haven’t yet suspected that we can sing, paint, manage, direct, or thrive beyond our cubicle or kitchen.

What are all the brilliant things you would do with your life if only you suspected you knew how?  What might you already know how to do but you just haven’t realized it yet?

 

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The Saddest Valentine Ever?

I have a powerful memory of reading “The Fog Horn” in Ms. Griffin’s Freshman English class:  The sound of a fog horn attracts a sea monster living in the deepest part of the ocean.  This ancient creature is the last of its kind and has been alone its entire life, but then it hears the fog horn and mistakes it for the call of one of its own.  It works its way toward the sound, gaining hope for companionship as the sound grows louder, only to discover a cold, cement tower which it destroys out of rage and heartache.  Ray Bradbury’s story left me with a permanent ache of longing and an unbearable notion about hope.

Unfortunately, I fear this same story is being lived out right here in my home, except it’s not a sea creature aching for companionship but a reptile.

In close to 25 years of life, Obie, my box turtle, has been the sole reptile in our lives.  She seems happy enough and emotes more than you might think possible for a cold-blooded fur-less creature.  Pissy and demanding make up her dominant moods.  Using rocks and her sushi dish, she clangs out various conversations that mostly amount to:  let me out, feed me, and %&#(@!

Normally, she faux-hibernates right now, “burying” herself in the fleece scarf that drapes over her heat rock, not peeping out again until May.  This year, instead, she demands to be out and wandering the house all day every day, most of that time spent in front of our metal kitchen garbage can.

Why?

Well, that’s the thing.  She can see her reflection in the metal.  She’s seen her reflection before, in a mirror leaning against a wall.  After staring at herself a while, she walked around to the other side and seemed to quickly figure it out, walking away without further interest.

The kitchen garbage can, however, proves different.  With determination and hope like the sea monster, she spends hours pawing at the turtle inside the garbage can, crawling around it and trying to get under it.  Sometimes she shows her tail end to the other turtle.  Sometimes she gets so enraptured she tips herself upside down, apparently not mortified about showing her turtle friend her underside because when I flip her back up, she’s right back at it, nose-to-nose.

Maybe because this “mirror” is round and the turtle image never goes away she can’t dismiss it like she did the other reflection.

She’s pawing all day long at companionship.  Is this cruel?  Is she lonely?  Or, is this reflection enough?  It’s true, since finding the garbage can, she no longer “cuddles” between my feet, but I think she only ever did that for warmth.  Remember she’s cold-blooded.

Well, in case you’re thinking I ought to get this girl a friend, she’s been alone her nearly-25 years with one exception:

A few years ago, my cousin brought her box turtle Sergeant Speedy to our house.  We introduced the two turtles, but I put an end to it almost immediately.  Sergeant Speedy, named ironically, turned out to be true to his name.  Without even an eye-bat hello, never mind a movie and dinner, Sergeant Speedy moved up behind Obie and, well, mounted the poor girl.

I have no idea what she thought or felt, if she had time to decipher any of that in her reptilian heart, but I felt violated and promptly returned Obie to her cage and banished Sergeant Speedy from our home.

What’s the moral here?  Is it really that cold out there for a single girl losing the sheen of youth along her shell?  Is loving one’s reflection enough?  Is the hope of another so painful I ought to replace the garbage can with something too dull to give her desire?  Or, since she can live for ages, maybe this is simply her adolescent phase and she’s enamored with herself, not fooled into thinking her soul mate resides in the kitchen garbage can?

For now, I limit her garbage can time, console her with apple slices and fish sticks, and tuck her back onto her fleece-draped heat rock.  When she sneers at me in the morning, I give a cheery “Hi Obie,” ignore the roll of her eyes, and promptly lift her back out to wander into the kitchen, trying not to let the steady “clink” of her paws on metal remind me of fog horns and sea monsters, loneliness and hope.

 

 

 

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