I ran into Denyse and Franny in the waiting room of a women’s center, one of those fancy medical practices that has a coffee set-up. Franny was wandering around the way kids do, poking into this and that, seeing if there was anything of interest. After a while she drifted back over to us. Denyse, who hadn’t appeared to be looking anywhere but at me, said to Franny, “What’d you take?”
“Some sugar packets.”
Franny handed them over and wandered off again.
And that was that. It was a peaceful bust and I was impressed with the way they handled themselves all the way around, the police and the perp, but what the heck? Denyse shook her head, saying she now checks everytime they’re somewhere coffee is available ever since putting Franny to bed one night and finding Franny’s socks stuffed full of sugar packets when the shoes came off.
I love that kid. Who wouldn’t love a kid who smuggles sugar out in her shoes? In fact, I love everything about this scene which makes me want so badly to do something with those shoes and sugar packets and the givver here. I want to be part of it and make something out of these ingredients which seem to me to get at the essence of something, I don’t know what. But I want to find it and make something with it just like Denyse and Franny are always making art, which is how Denyse talks about it as in “I need to make some art,” which she does out of this and that — bunny fur, twigs, macaroni, buttons, ideas, paper bags, the sight of big gloves on a potential strangler’s hands, boxes, feathers, fabric — artifacts from the world she sees with her art eye and gives double the life in the form of a ‘zine, a sketch, a shadow box, a thing that goes on walls or a thing that sits on surfaces….things that now exist which didn’t before.
She once wove a little square basket for me out strips of thin, almost papery wood, white washing it with a milky glaze and marking it with whispery, mysterious hieroglyphs. She stocked the woven basket with skinny lines of paper on which she spelled out interesting things I could do because I have a hard time thinking up adventures. Amidst the adventures she threw in a few acorns and a couple of sticks to stir it all up just because or maybe as a hint for me as to how adventure works. I don’t know these things. I do give it a stir every once in a while, but, sad truth be told, I am still low in adventure follow-through, unless sitting here writing about it counts.
Adventure for me is thinking about raw ingredients and seeing where things like sugar packets, shoes and givver here will take me. Givver here…..it’s like hand it over, another phrase I love. There is so much to hand over, to shuck off, to release. Or to take and be forced to return, to relinquish. Maybe that’s the angle. I think about the homemade sauna Denyse and her husband Chris made in their back yard and how I would go over there to sweat it out with Denyse, the two of us submitting to the heat and handing over our impurities until one of us couldn’t take it any longer and would get up to dump cups of cold water over our heads, and then we’d start the sweating cycle all over again.
All that heat has a way of smoking the truth out, all the more when you’re naked, which for me is only at a yoga retreat center in the Berkshires. That first time I handed over my clothes and joined the other ladies on the hot cedar slats I was agog at all the bodies, all the flesh, all the curves and physical geography and how in this context the sharp angles and bony lines were hard to look at compared to all those lush, full curves, mountainous breasts that were more than I could imagine grappling with everyday, and how those sneaken peaks at the hard, brittle bones jabbing out reminded me of Ellen crawling onto my lap when I was in one of my more whittled down periods, and saying “you’re not comfortable anymore,” and how I felt both sad and pleased. I know what I make of that and I don’t much like it.
Whether I like it or not, the making of stuff has always seemed to be the point, living as an entirely unconscious drive in me until second grade when it was driven explicitly to the foreground when the art teacher whispered to Ben Limekooler — Ben of the cool name, born of artist parents — that he could take extra pipecleaners home with him to continue his important art. I, overhearing this exchange, whispered to her that I, too, would love to take some pipecleaners home to work on my art and was denied.
With or without pipecleaners, the desire never left me, reaching a hot spot when I turned 50. I wanted so badly to make something beautiful. I’d been on this earth for a half a century and I had an urgent, biological need to make something out of those 50 years, like the way I was overtaken one day with the unstoppable need to produce a baby when I was 25.
This time, thank god, I didn’t see a baby. I saw a block of wood in my mind and could visualize the middle carved out into a spiral-y twist. It looked so beautiful. I went to Home Depot and talked to the guys in aprons about the tools I would need to make this and what kind of wood you use for beautiful, mid-life obsessions and found that you have to travel some distance to get these kind of special tools, so I drove 3 hours to Portland were there is a specialty woodworking place. I bought very expensive knives and a special hunk of wood which I took home and whittled at for a very short while, not ever working out an effective system for capturing those shavings. But for a time I sat in the living room with a bath towel over my lap and worked over that wood, feeling in my hands the heartbeat of that beautiful thing that wanted to emerge, while also gradually coming to understand that this spiral wasn’t going to come out of me. I stored the block on a shelf where for the past five years my eye looks at it almost everyday on the way to the shower, reminding me that the clock is ticking and I have some beauty to make.
To be exact, I’ve been on fire for 11 years now, urgently responding to something inside telling me to get busy, get busy, get busy ever since that day my body wouldn’t take me to work. Usually it was my mind that didn’t want to go while my body walked me out the door, but this time it was my body refusing to take one more step back to that job where a culminating event of bad mind-game shit had gone down the month before, turning my building anxiety about work into an animal-level sense of threat, now expressing itself in a numbness starting in my toes and fingers and which, a month after the trauma, was up to my knees and elbows, devouring me inch-by-inch.
As the minutes ticked by that day, I was mesmerized and bewildered by my body’s refusal to get up. What the fuck? Move! Jesus dear god move!
But the message, in the wisdom bodies sometimes are required to impose, became stupefyingly clear: not one more step would be taken until something got figured out, until something got put back together right in me. It would be just about 9 months before I went back to work on a full-time basis, enough time to make a new human being, which is pretty much what I was doing for those 9 months as I took long walks, searching for the pieces of myself that had gotten blown apart, scattered I knew not where.
In my mind I saw myself gathering these pieces up….simple things, beautiful things, pieces of sea glass and twigs and strands of golden thread, smooth lustrous rocks of deep purple and leaves and grass…natural things, real things which I would bind together with red clay and in this way make something beautiful out of me.
It’s been 11 years since then and I’m in the hot seat for real now. This fire to make something is building and building and now these stories are coming so fast, faster than I can organize, faster than I can get down, which makes me wonder if I’m going to die, if that is what this urgency is about, this urgency pushing me to sort through this lifetime of clues, requiring me to give them shape. I track down a mentor, an English professor who wrote a most beautiful essay on canning tomatoes. I have this overwhelming urgency to read that essay again because there is something there I need to see. She did this magical thing where the canning of tomatoes became the door to something bigger as she reflects on what ran through this simple act of canning tomatoes, connecting her to the mysteries of family ground, tradition and to the earth, this place that we inhabit and sometimes desecrate. During a summer in which the world seemed to be blowing up, an afternoon of canning tomatoes offered a counterpoint to that desecration, a solidity that came from doing something simple and true and real, leaving behind a clean countertop with jars of gleaming rusty red tomatoes all lined up, honest tomatoes showing their golden seed-dotted insides.
I needed to see those tomatoes again because canning up some honest tomatoes is exactly what I have been trying to do. I have been trying to make something out of all that I have gathered up along the way, all the inescapable traumas of life and all those sweet packets of sugar. I want to makes something beautiful out of all that.
So givver here. Give me your sugar, give me your shoes.
I’m making something.
Note: My daughter gave me pipecleaners for my birthday one year — fancy,
top-of-the-line metallic gold ones — so that piece got put to rights.
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out.