Back to those new year’s intentions. What to do, where to place my focus. I found a local writing class starting up in January, an adult-ed sort of thing through the community college, with classes every Thursday evening from 6:30-8:00. If this were a Saturday morning meet-up, I’d be all in, but I’m on the fence with an evening gig. I get up early—very, very early—so usually I’m in bed by 8, taxiing down the runway toward sleep. It’s almost a job in itself, this pursuit of sleep, and I get cranky about disruptions to the routine.
But I’ve never taken a writing class, and this one caught my eye. It promises a “safe, encouraging environment,” never a bad thing, with “moderated small group sharing, warm-up exercises, and inspirational thoughts to keep you excited and motivated to write and finish your own stories!” It’s the exclamation point that gets me. “Finish your own stories!” Ta-da!
Evening hours notwithstanding, it might be just the kick I need to start my year. A little encouragement, some gentle motivation. Nothing too strenuous. No one whose poor opinion would wreck me. Of course my writing style is all over the place and grammatically incorrect, but this class doesn’t sound like one in which the teacher would Strunk me over the head for improper use of a semicolon. (Or for using one at all. Why is everyone so snotty about this particular punctuation mark? Why shun the little guy entirely? Can we get over the King’s disparagement and bring it back into the fold?) The course as outlined sounds casual and kind of fun. Not words I usually associate with writing, but…
This is where I left the post as I drafted it this morning, before careening out the door for work. I meant to finish this evening by explaining that I did sign up for the class and was looking forward to it, yada yada. But after I’d registered and paid the fee, I received notice that the class had been cancelled due to insufficient enrollment.
Maybe the rest of the hermit-writers in my community are as shy with their work as I am. Maybe the instructor is unhelpful and everyone knows it but me. Maybe it’s for the best. In any case, my quest for 2023 inspiration will have to be continued.
I got a wonderful Christmas present from the therapist I work with. A plant stand with several tiers, mounted on white metal posts in the shape of a crescent moon. There’s a perfect spot for it at the clinic, just beside a west-facing window on a blank stretch of wall. This is real estate any plant will love.
The trouble now is how to decide which of my collection can be pried from their existing spots and come with mama to work. I have a lot of plants—for the sake of this post, I counted: 126—but I love their abundance, their personalities, the way they settle into their space, all leaves pointed like satellite dishes toward the light. They’re so sweet. So blessedly quiet! Caring for them is a lot of work, of course, but it’s not arduous. All they’re looking for really is to feel at home in their tiny pot of earth, to feel that conditions are suitable for growth. They want what we all want, in fact.
The plants are a relatively new obsession. I used to avoid houseplants because I thought I couldn’t keep them alive. And sometimes I can’t. Some plants become ill, or are attacked by spider mites or fungi, or languish unaccountably as if the will to live has passed. I refuse to be bummed out by plants, so I let go of those that can’t be saved. Over time I’ve gravitated toward the more robust species, the scindapsus and pothos, hoya and philodendron and tradescantia, old-fashioned cissus and upright dracaena. I want plants that have some innate hardiness and are amenable to propagation, plants that don’t demand extra humidity or ridiculous amounts of pest control. Plants have language, if you’re listening, so it’s nice to find those that will sag a little when they’re thirsty rather than turning overnight into a collection of crispy leaves and sticks.
As I look around, I’m finding it hard to decide which little grove to carve out. When I lift a plant from its home, the resulting blank space feels like a loss, or at the very least a disruption. I find this so unsettling that I rarely go about it piecemeal, and instead move all the plants to the center of the room and start over from scratch. Actually, I think this is what I’ll do over the long weekend. A big reshuffle, some potting up, a bit of trimming and fertilizing, a new round of propagation.
And maybe, maybe, as a treat, a few new plants for the office.
I’ve been trying to decide what to do with the new year. Though resolutions are cliche and sometimes problematic, they can also provide a needed course correction, a multimedia cue that it’s time to regroup and gather your wits, make sure you’re headed where you mean to go. This optimistic momentum fades over time, and resolutions rarely succeed, but imperfect efforts can still be valuable. We don’t have to improve our lives like the hero in a rom-com, via soulmate and epiphany. We can meander in the general direction of better-than-now and take it as a win.
So what do I want to do with the year? I’m in a pretty good place right now. Safe in my job, safe at home. I’ve got plenty of things to worry about, always, but there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to worry; a little goes a long way. There are no major hurdles to navigate, only a boot to apply now and then, a romance to feed. Some health-related stuff I need to stay on top of. But nothing that needs a focused effort.
I’m free then to consider what I’d like to do creatively. I have a novel marinating on my hard drive. It’s a good story, as played out in my head, but it wants to be either far longer or far shorter than the scale I imagined at the start. I’m not sure which. I’ve been interested lately in flash fiction, which are extra-short stories, a thousand words at most, designed to leave you with the impression of an iceberg under the surface, a story outside the story which can only be inferred. A writer I follow has talked about writing a novella in flash, by which he means a collection of related flash fiction that follows an overarching theme or plot. His stories are linked by a common item, a stolen car which appears throughout. Brilliant, right? Did I mention the car is stolen?
I love thinking about form. I love people who are creative in this way, who push and pull at our ideas of what a story should be. What writing itself should be, and on what terms we allow it into our lives. This is where I repeatedly lose direction, and fall into the trap of assuming I’m a novelist. I’m not. I’m a writer. It’s a distinction worth considering, because it makes such a difference to the kind of life you’ll build with writing at its creative center. To share a novel is to publish, to set out on the long and complex journey of drafting, editing, reorganizing, proofing, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, then trying to shop the thing around or see to its publication yourself while footing all the costs. You understand on embarkation that this is going to take some time. Some precious resources. You may have to drain your reserves in order to get it done.
I’m just not into it. I’m into writing. I like this space, which feels very anything-goes to me just now. I could publish flash fiction right here, as easily as I’m writing this post. I could read my work aloud. I could compile these journal entries after some time and print a single copy for posterity. There’s no damn money in writing anyway, so why not reimagine the end result in terms that will satisfy me. Me, personally. What does a beautiful, finished bit of writing look like in its final iteration? To me, in my mind’s eye. How do I want to share it?
It’s Christmas Eve. Dinner’s at our place. A giant veggie lasagna, mainly, with some other bits and pieces on the side. Stuffed bread shaped like a wreath, a big green salad. Bananas foster for dessert, with that daring rum-fueled flame at the end. A couple of game hens as well, with roasted squash, because carbs are not for everyone. I did most of the work yesterday, so what I plan to do now is bedeck the rooms in twinkle lights and votive candles, set out bowls of crunchy things and chewy things, bright red tomatoes that pop in the mouth. A patient gave me some fresh chestnuts from her orchard, so I thought I’d roast them, peel them, and saute them in butter, and we can have them with our drinks.
When I say butter, what that means for me is plant-based butter. Okayfine, it’s vegan. Likewise the lasagna, the rolls, the ice cream. I’ve considered myself vegan for at least ten years, but I find the label a tedious weight sometimes. It implies a level of rigor I just can’t cope with. People are always trying to catch you out. What do you mean by sauteing in butter, Averil, I thought you were vegan? And though the butter’s not real, maybe I’m not either. Obviously a real vegan wouldn’t prepare game hens for a friend, she’d find another option, some low-carb vegan ninja shit like the Wicked Chef might do.
But I’m a bad vegan, if you’d call me that. I prefer to think of it as being relaxed. My standards slacken at restaurants and on special occasions. I make no apology for this, I don’t hide it. It’s not a perfect world and I don’t expect perfection from myself. All I’m trying to do, in any case, is incrementally lighten my burden on the planet. That’s it. I’m not here to preach or pontificate about the benefits of eating plants, or throw paint onto anyone’s fur coat. I am only trying to be gentle—on the planet, on my fellow creatures, on the global community. This sounds very woo-woo. I’m aware of that. This is why I don’t tell people I’m vegan until I’ve known them for some time—or until we share a meal together, whichever comes first. It’s a personal decision, one that inevitably draws a reaction. Often, a negative reaction. And I’ll admit it hurts my feelings when people sneer at us for trying to be kind, as if it’s some deeply ridiculous predilection like teddy-bear porn, or a hair-shirt penance by which we are trying to atone. We’re just eating plants, okay? The penance bit is optional, and no one’s asking you to hug a giant oak. You do you. I’ll be too busy stuffing my face with tofu ricotta to worry about your roast beast.
This entry has swung wide of the Christmas spirit I was going for at the start. All I mean to say is that it’s okay to fall in love with the world. It really is okay to care, to make some sacrifices for the greater good. It’s okay to evolve, to change, to be imperfect yet to hold an ideal in your mind that demands something of you. It’s okay to be gentle.
It’s okay to be an atheist and still say Merry Christmas.
To all. And to all a good night.
As a quick aside, I know that if you’re on the blog’s email list, you’re probably getting pummeled by these posts. Please do unsubscribe if that’s going to bug you, as I plan to journal here in the coming months and do not want to annoy anyone who signed up years ago and has since moved on. Go with love, my friend, and many kisses at the door.
Baby, it’s cold. The dogs’ water bowl is frozen over and the steps are outlined with frost. The trees are brittle, shivering in the wind, and the roads have dulled to gray under dangerous sheets of ice. It’s going to take some time to let my car warm up, and I intend to drive like a granny on my way to work this morning. Slowly, slowly around the turns. No long strides when walking.
I wonder how the homeless are coping out there. It’s common to see them on the sidewalks and under bus shelters in the pre-dawn hours, draped with blankets and bundled into layers of clothing, and you can catch a glimpse sometimes of a tent in the forest or a patch of litter to mark a previous encampment. Their increased number has made the city feel vaguely apocalyptic, an impression strengthened by the twitching and dancing on street corners, the way a person might become frozen in place, one arm raised, as though struck by an alien ray gun moments before being vaporized. From my bedroom window a few weeks back, I watched a man shadowboxing his way down the middle of the street with such intensity that I feared he might dislocate a shoulder.
What’s happened to these people? Drugs, sure. Poor mental health. Skyrocketing rent. But I mean, what exactly? We all are on a path, and paths involve steps. What were theirs? Was a monster behind them, giving chase? Did they misread the map? Were there forks in the road or none at all? Did they have a chance and blow it? Do they have regrets, or is it more a fuck-it-all bravado that gets them through the night.
How did they come to be where they are? How do any of us?
I’ve been sitting here for a while, thinking about how to end this page. Thinking about the world, and my place in it, and how much I really want to delve into other people’s pain. To know is to care, and to care is to act.
I’m supposed to complete a self-evaluation at work. You’ve seen one of these, I’m sure. A long series of questions covering various aspects of the job and how good you think you are at it. It’s divided into categories and subcategories: How organized you think you are, how careful, how accurate, how skilled. One to five, line by line. The bosses fill out the same assessment, and afterward you get together and compare the answers.
What kind of sadistic shit is this? Imagine the horror of rating yourself a five in personal appearance and the boss clapping back with a two. Or you think you’re the bomb at interoffice communication only to learn that no one can make head or tail of your cryptic email humor. I mean, unearthing these disparities is the point. I do understand. But for fuck’s sake, this?
For a while I sulked. I did a first draft of the thing, in which I went vengefully down the center column and gave myself a three on every line, in as blunt a response as I could muster given the circumstances. Fuck no, is what this says. I’m checking out.
I’ve sat with this unhappily for weeks. Weeks, I tell you. Why can’t I just play the game? If I’m honest—and why not? where’s the harm?—I’m very good at my job. It’s not a difficult one, but it does need a skill set and mine is pretty good. However to say that, to put it in writing, goes against every inclination. I don’t want either of us sitting around judging me, assessing my worth, giving it a number. Can’t we just have a normal conversation? Why the multiple-choice rigmarole? Why can’t the boss just say, one human to another, “Stop using words like ‘kerfuffle.’ Nobody knows what that means,” or “Quit overspending on pens and use a Bic like everybody else.” Do we really need the one-through-five? My boss is my son’s age, are you kidding me?
I think what I’ll do is pretend to have lost my homework. With any luck she’ll only ask once, and I’ll promise to turn it in but won’t. And if she asks a second time, I’ll say, Look, can we agree that things are ticking along? Yes? Then maybe we can just move on.
I won’t actually come back with that, of course. My boss has bosses and she’s probably supposed to collect this stuff, and she’s a nice person as well so there’s no reason to make her job harder. I’ll bullshit my way through the assessment so she can turn in her own homework, but let it be known that I feel surly about it and don’t wanna boogie.
Work is okay. Better than okay, when compared to the shit show of 2021. That was an awful year. I’d lost my long-term job to COVID and had to find another. At first, it seemed I’d landed on my feet at a pediatric therapy clinic, where I worked the front desk and managed the schedule for ten providers and a passel of wild-eyed children. I loved those kids, by the way. One of my defining features as a human is how much I love children; it’s something everybody knows about me, including the kids, who are gravitationally pulled into my orbit, bearing broken toys and bandaged owies and scraps of paper covered in crayon. They know I’ll make a fuss and ask a bunch of questions and tape their artwork to my desk. We understand each other.
Anyway, I digress. I left that zoo after six months, due to a few too many incidents of micromanagement and a bullying coworker who could not bring herself to leave me the fuck alone. I moved on. And on, and on, and on, and on. I worked at a prosthetics clinic. I spent two days with some eye surgeons. I tried chiropractic, and bookkeeping for a home health service, and middle management. And possibly one or two other jobs I’m too traumatized to recall. I quit and quit and quit. It was a miserable year, and I was lost.
What happened eventually is that I made my way back to where I’d started, the rowdy front desk of a large physical therapy clinic. My god, the relief. I cannot tell you. The familiar faces. The familiar workflow. A kind boss who knew and appreciated me. And it was made even better when, three months in, I got wind that one of the group’s smaller clinics had lost both manager and therapist and would need to make a fresh start. I jumped up and down going me-me-me, and ended up securing that transfer.
At first, I worried that I had made another mistake. The tiny clinic was dingy and unloved, with pots full of dead plants outside and a depressing lack of personality within. I spent an evening wandering around the empty clinic, noting how there were approximately nine hundred paper cups in the storage room, how the sheets and towels were jumbled onto an open bookshelf which loomed like the Tower of Pisa over a nearby exam table. The exercise bike didn’t work. The dryer squeaked. You get the idea.
But it would be mine. The bosses told me to take ownership, and that’s what I did. I stopped by one weekend and tore the dead plants from the pots out front, filled them up with sweet alyssum and flowering perennials. I took down the dusty paper screen on the front door and polished the glass, got maintenence in to fix the bike and replace the damaged backsplash behind the sink. I scrubbed out the fridge. Cleaned the carpets. I ordered fresh white cabinetry with doors to replace that awful bookshelf, washed all the linens and folded them neatly and stacked them inside. I emptied the drawers and cupboards around my desk and reorganized the mess within. (Dozens of boxes of paperclips, what kind of OCD nonsense is this?) I brought houseplants from my own collection and put them in the waiting room and around the front desk. Friends, I scrubbed the bathrooms.
We took over the place in March. It’s just two of us in this clinic: the therapist and me. She’s wonderful, by the way. She specializes in pelvic floor and related issues, so we see a lot of pregnant patients, many of whom have kids they bring to their appointments. I’m the unofficial babysitter during these visits, so I get a lovely hour of kid-time on the reg. I push strollers, cuddle babies, put together puzzles on the waiting room floor. We have beach balls and fire trucks. A fart gun! Colored paper and highlighters, should any small person feel creatively inspired. People talk a lot about the vibe of the place. They say it’s peaceful and friendly. They like my playlist. They like my plants and ask if they are real. Our little-clinic-that-could is now booked six weeks out and we’re hiring another therapist to come in and help. The boss has requested my DNA for cloning.
It’s the right place for me. The right amount of bustle, very little stress. There are Christmas lights on the houseplants and paper snowflakes taped to the window, and although we do find the occasional junkie on the doorstep of a morning, the occasional asshole on the other end of the phone, and a sagging disappointment on paydays, all in all it’s a pretty good gig. I’m grateful to be where I am and have what I have.
So what am I doing here? The kids are all tiktocking, instawanking, tweeting each other the bird. They are creating content—or that modern kind of FOMO-incel discontent no one has yet learned to manage. It’s all about the algorithm, the views. It’s the subtle act of throwing oneself onto the hyperfueled bonfire for the sake of a thumbs-up emoji.
Is that me? Maybe. Maybe it is. I am, after all, here.
I’d like to think that it’s not me. That I give no fucks. I am, after all, here, in obscurity, not part of the scrum. But it’s hard to be sure.
Would it help to state my purpose? I always did that in my childhood diaries. I’d write my name at the front in cursive lettering, and I’d put something earnest in there about how I was going to be very honest, and say only true things, and I’d warn any interlopers that this diary was private and they’d better put it right down or else. The best diaries had a clasp and tiny gold key, which would often become lost before the pages were half filled, thereby locking me out of my own safe space.
This is not that, but the impulse remains. I want to know what I’m up to, at least at the start. And if the key gets lost along the way, so be it. The words will have served their purpose.
Okay then, here we go, in pen, in cursive, right up front: I’m here to journal. To get loose. To care a little more in some ways and a little less in others. I’m trying to level the teeter-totter. To overcome a self-destructive impulse. I have thought—usually while under the influence—that if I could journal faithfully for a while, the entries might provide some raw material. I’m thinking of Jenny Offill’s wonderful books, in which a story is conveyed as a collection of incidents, each minute in itself but rich as anything when the mosaic is complete. This is how life goes, right? Dot to dot, tile by tile, and suddenly a picture emerges and you know what you’ve been looking at all along.
Betsy says we should write every day. She doesn’t believe in writer’s block, and thinks it’s simply a manifestation of some other mental ailment. Depression, anxiety, fear, rage… There is resistance in the community to use the term “writer’s block,” as if to name the malady by its symptom is to give it air.
I can understand this. Writing is scary, and each person has to manage the fear in a way that minimizes the problem and makes it feel surmountable. Of course there are prescriptions to employ when you hit The Wall: Write every day, write off-topic, describe the state of your slippers or the magenta-backed leaves of a plant near your desk. Words on page, ass in chair. It sounds so simple. And in that way, it is. Words are available to us always, at the beginning and the end of every form of writerly distress.
But I think in some ways this approach misses the point of writer’s block, which is not the idea that you can’t write at all but that you can’t come up with anything useful. I have written novels and drafts of novels, short stories, flash fiction, poetry. The trouble is not blockage in the words-on-page sense, but a deeper and more frightful dearth of ideas, of confidence, a resistance to finishing work that doesn’t need to exist. It’s this feeling of being smothered by the sheer volume of stuff that’s already out there. The silliness and hubris of adding a twig to the inferno. It’s this disconnect between the human-scale effort to write a pleasing story and the towering rage of a disrespected planet, which seems to be readying itself for a fresh start.
It’s complicated, is what I’m saying. How do we bring ourselves to care? How do we enlarge a small idea—or decide, perhaps, that smallness is a construct not worth considering, that it’s inevitable, that small things can stand in for bigger ones with or without conscious effort. How do you claim your space, small though it may be, and make it matter, even if only to you?
I didn’t stop writing. In case you’re wondering, I did not. Though the years have continued without my particular commentary, they’ve continued just the same, one upon the other, and I have not stopped noticing the slips and eddies of my own life and the lives of those around me. It’s been my habit to write and read what I’ve written to the point of satiation, then destroy it, Ethan Hunt style, five four three two one. I write when no one is watching and get rid of the evidence. I don’t have the desire or the guts to ask anyone to read my writing ever again, yet having arrived at this position it seems that writing has become more like a secret vice than the kind of productive enterprise I used to imagine it could be.
This is the problem: I want to write. Maybe I need to. But writing without being read has begun to make me feel like a mad old lady talking to her cat. It’s the sound of one hand clapping. A felled tree in an empty forest. Insert your own cliche. The point is that we as a species are fucked to the nth and it would probably do me good to air my grievances and shed a ray of light upon my fears. There’s no need for such goddamn secrecy. It’s not like I’ve got anything earthshaking to report. I’m an ordinary person living an ordinary life, so why be precious about it? Why keep it buttoned to the throat? Writing above all else is proof of life, so why erase the graffiti, the stenciled hand on the wall of a cave. Someone, someday, may want to know that I was here.
And it turns out this space still belongs to me. I must have purchased the blog’s domain at some point, using the name I made up when I needed an alter ego. There was never an alter, of course. There was only the ego I was born with, doing what egos do, trying to leave some trace of itself behind. For a while that seemed to matter. Writing was new for me then and I wanted to see what it could be—what I could be, given the chance. I thought, Here is a path and I have legs, let’s just see where it goes.
What I didn’t allow for was this stubborn kink in my personality that feels most at home on the path itself. I don’t want to get there. Wherever it is, I don’t want to go. I crave the long dim hallway, the locked doors and empty spaces, the sly undercover work of noticing and noting and moving on, the balm of aspirational laziness and lowered expectation. I like being nobody. In accepting my smallness, I become bigger. An ant on an apple, circling the equator, is king of an infinite domain.
And so, my friends, I’m both with you and alone. As we all must be. This is not a revelation. I have no fresh insight, no intellect brought to bear. I am only Estragon, repeatedly trying on boots. But let it be known that I have seen you and walked in your light, that your struggles and triumphs, your profound ennui and unapologetic thirst, your grief, joy, and rage, your vacillations, manic exhaustion, fear, lust, gentleness and loss, your flagrant damned existence on this very fucking apple have not gone unnoticed. I see you. I love you, in my imperfect way. I’m here to provide evidence of the only fact that matters: