Two paper cups and a string

I am dragging myself to the computer tonight like a 9th-grader with a paper to write. Due tomorrow. It’s 10:36 PM and I haven’t started. Only it’s not a paper and I don't have to write it. It’s just sending a few notes out to the ether, picking up one end of a telephone made with paper cups and string. Listening to Arcade Fire and digging a tunnel, from my window to yours.

"But I don't know what to say." That's the lazy, discouraged part of myself talking to the part that felt determined to start posting every day. What was the point of that again? I'd rather watch Jon Stewart or listen to "A Child's Christmas in Wales" read by Dylan himself (not Bob!). There's nothing pressing that I need to write about right now.

I have noticed that May Sarton in her journals, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron—they always start with a basic description of what they’re doing or where they are. Like Annie Dillard, they begin with the details. The flowers on the desk. The afternoon light. Like Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, they start with something small enough to fit in a square-inch picture frame. Even John Greenleaf Whittier in his "Snowbound Winter Idyll" begins with the cheerless sun that brief December day.

Let go of your telescope. Forget your old journals. Put down the worn paperback Existentialism as Philosophy you found on your father's shelf. From the inscription it looks like an ex- girlfriend gave it to him in 1964. (I wonder where that ex-girlfriend is now, if she still believes she’s free at the exact moment when she’s not, or if now she thinks it’s the other way around.) Start with where you are, in this moment.

I am at my parents' house in Massachusetts with Wally. It's quiet. Wally's asleep in the next room. I can hear the rain outside and every now and then a giant gust of wind. Either that or parts of the roof sliding off (there was a contractor out there all day fixing something having to do with ice damns). After dinner, Wally and I took a walk in the rain. Most all the Christmas lights were still out. We walked along for a bit with a flashlight and Wally asked where Uncle Billy's house was. (That's where we spent Christmas day.) 

"Uncle Billy doesn't live in this neighborhood," I tell him.

Wally stopped walking and looked up at me. "He's so far away."

We continued on a little further across the bridge. "I miss him so much," Wally said. I have to remember to tell Uncle Billy. Later over by the mailboxes we found a package of grapefruits for my parents. Alex is in New York. Tonight's the last night of Hanukah.

All day on and off I worked on the last section of my gross-o-pedia book for young adults. While Wally played in the library and then home with my mom, I was digging myself into piles of slime, blood, bile, pus, gore, guts, all kinds of horrible history, food that would make you want to throw up, disgusting customs, icky insects, bizarre rotten discoveries.

In between that I’ve been coaching my dad with this great short story he wrote a few years back. He has his patients and is running around getting wires at the hardware store, but in between that he works on his story and he works quickly. I give him tips and pointers, draw his attention to places that need to be changed. Take a graph from the end and make it the opening. You can’t suddenly jump into the other guy’s head only at the end. He takes suggestions well.

“You need a turning point here; why did she change her mind?” I am standing behind him at the computer.

“She just realized it wasn’t working.” He answers, hands poised over the keyboard.

“No, but there’s got to be some reason. There’s got to be some impetus. What changed?”

"It just fizzled out," he answers. Silence. He cranes his neck around. "No good?"

I shake my head. He opens up the document again and shoots off a new draft.

Why is silence often more helpful than an actual answer? It reflects back the question, forces reflection. Why is it so effective for therapists, to not answer, to let you keep digging that tunnel, or to let you choose to go another way when you don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Sometimes silence is infuriating, but powerful, too, forcing you to refine your thinking with no input other than the knowledge that something is not clear. There is this amazing quote about knowing things in emptiness and silence. In Zen Mind, Beginner Mind Shunryu Suzuki writes "If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours.  When you listen to the teaching with a pure, clear mind, you can accept it as if you were hearing something, which you already knew.  This is called emptiness, or omnipotent self, or knowing everything."

All this is related to intuition, creativity, myths, dream interpretation, and the collective unconscious. Lots of things I want to read about. I do, it turns out, have a lot I wanted to say, I just needed to begin. Engaging patients in free-associative thought was how Freud attempted to get at the inception of their disorders. I often feel that, in free-writing, I'm better able to track my compulsions and instabilities. I have to begin by listening to myself. As Harold Bloom writes in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, it is through monologues that Shakespeare’s characters grow and change. By talking out loud. They have to literally hear themselves think.

So it is with writing. I think of my advice to my dad about the character who changes in his story. Why did she change; what happened?  
I do have a lot more to say. For now I'm just picking up that paper cup, attached to a string. Wondering if anyone's at the other end. Either way, I'm here.


  1. Is there anyone listening? I'm listening for what it is worth. I miss you. I keep thinking how fun it would be to go and visit your parents, but the day to day grind and the kids make me feel like I'm running to keep up with the most basic of tasks. Sad considering that the wrinkles under my eyes have no problem keeping pace with the quickly passing years -- I see the time and know it is slipping away, but I can't seem to grab hold and control any of it.

    Thanks for the birthday wishes for Magnus. He got a birthday card and a haircut for his birthday. I would have left his lovely golden mop grow to the floor but hubs was pressuring me to give him a more manly appearance. I aimed for a cross between Tin-Tin (I keep getting blank stares when I mention Tin-Tin. Am I the only person, as T's and my lonely visit to see his recent movie would suggest, who knows who Tin-Tin is?) and Daniel Craig. And when it was done and Magnus sat in a tub filled with golden strands. He did look handsome and all grown-up, but a little like a youth member of the Aryan Nation. As one of his daycare providers said today, "Now there is no way I would ever think that kid was partially Mexican and that you were his mother. He just looks like a White boy." Part of me was offended, but then I remembered that I thought the same thing yesterday.

    Funny that as a little girl I dreamed about being all White with blond hair and blue eyes, and now I am sad that my little boy didn't look at least a little more Mexican. Still, I sort of like how genetics laughs in our face. Actually seems like the two cups phone and a string. You keep calling, trying to make the world listen or be different or trying to get some say in your life, but then most of us just get a sort of jumbled message back or no message. And even if it you finally hear the message you were waiting for, you've grown up and want something totally different. And yet there are all of those people at the other end sort of doing the same thing...calling, hearing jumbled messages back or getting silence. Hilarious that we thought it was so fun and magical as kids.

  2. I love your comment..I will answer..for now I just want to say it is making me think of this Ferron song: "I thank you your letters though they come to me slowly
    I hear the city's in a panic with its first foot of snow
    I want to answer you quickly having read you again
    'Cause it sounds like you're dancing
    with time's favorite friend
    And it's everyone's secret and muttered refrain
    That for all of our trouble we be lonely again"

  3. Morning - I was so taken with the beauty of your comment that my response is...not to answer. I miss you too. My parents would be so thrilled if you came. I can't imagine how you are managing what you're managing now though--two kids, full time job, all your own family obligations. Adding someone else's parents in is nearly untenable. But if it could ever work -- let me know. Or just show up there!

    I LOVE the fact that Magnus got a birthday card and haircut for his birthday. I am wondering if we can get away another year without getting Wally anything for his birthday (also wondering about the whole birthday party thing -- the first year a few of our friends came for cupcakes/champagne, but since then we've only done small family things--and now everyone is getting so extravagant w/ what they're throwing for little kids...I think he is catching on. Not that it means we have to jump into the fray.) Tin-Tin!!!! Yes, I remember him. Blank looks are what I get for most things I say these days.

    Genetics does totally laugh in our face! Brilliant line, should go in a song somewhere. Seriously that whole bit about the jumbled message coming back, or the right one coming too late -- fantastic stuff. Reminding me a bit of Sabato. A friend once translated the end of Abbadon el Exterminador for me as follows (I think it was his own translation from the Spanish, maybe not)

    "Because there is no absolute happiness. It is only given to us in brief and fragile moments, and art is a way of eternalizing (trying to eternalize) those flashes of love or extasis; and because all of our hopes sooner or later become awkward realities; because we are all frustrated in some way, and if we succeed in something we fail in something else, being frustration the inevitable destiny of all beings that have been born to die; and because we live alone or end up being alone: lovers without their loved one, fathers without sons or sons without parents, and the true revolutionary facing the sad materialization of those ideals that years ago he defended with suffering amongst atrocious tortures; and because life is an ongoing missed encounter, and we don't love those we find in our path when they love us, or we love them when they don't love us, or after death, when our love is useless; and because nothing that was will ever be, and things and men and children are no longer who they where once before, and our childhood house is no longer the one that hid our treasures and secrets, and our father dies without having spoken those fundamental words, and when we finally understand him he no longer is among us and we can't cure his old sufferings and missed encounters; and because our town has been transformed, and the school where we learned to read no longer has those prints that inspired us to dream, and television has replaced the circus, and there are no more calliopes, and our neighborhood park is ridiculously small when we see it again."


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