The promise of gray days

Bright and sunny today. But this post (below) was from yesterday. Only begun, which is the most I can do most days. If that. Only begin is zen advice for accomplishing any goal. The idea of course being that if you only begin you can easily continue on. With young kids swirling around the house in the last, mad days of summer, only begin, a few dashed off sentences, that's all you can usually get to. Will all these scraps of beginnings, is it possible to patch together a path forward?

Sometimes I wonder about the Venn diagram that would show the overlapping set of elements converging in an inability to concentrate, massive failure at the goal of slow writing, failure to access the sacred space of creativity, or if I do, to hold onto it for very long. One is just adulthood. We can't wander in that cathedral space anymore. Another is specifically having young children. In my 20s, it wasn't hard to write songs after work and on the weekends. The nights stretched out with nothing but time. And now these past maybe 8 years or not even, there is a new level of hyper-connectivity. Smart phones/texting/constant status updates. I think a big change was the cable modem. When you had to dial up for email or the internet, you went online, but it was contained. People still used the phone, and if you had roommates you couldn't just stay online all day. It's not only the distraction of FB/Huffpo or whatever else pulls at us. I think it's just knowing it's there. To me, it has infected the computer as a workspace. Even if I turn off the airport, and not just by turning it off with the mouse but even going into the cable box and unplugging it, to me, there's still some kind of noise now buzzing in the background associated with working in this space. 

In high school when I would go down to my dad's office to work on the computer, it was silent. Not literally - I would often play Van Morrison or U2 or REM while I worked - but sort of figuratively silent. I was present there with my writing in a way I find it so hard to be now, unless I am writing in a screen-free place. 

Here, from yesterday.

Sept 1

A gray morning. 

The sky is giving me permission not to make any grand plans for today. Not to pack the stroller full of bathing suits and beach towels and sunscreen and snacks.

A day to rest. To contemplate the abundance of these end-of-summer days. The mysterious vine tangled all over the garden. The cosmos that have grown so very tall and finally blossomed, with a single pink flower. Petra dancing with collard greens. 


The abundance of books. Wally's scattered out all over the house. BFG, The Whipping Boy, The Lightning Thief. Tons of Wimpy Kids and Big Nates, piled on every surface, propped open on every chair. Sometimes he will read while we are eating lunch at the table and I am about to say, "Put that book away!" but then I stop myself.  

It drives me crazy that he reads so many books at once. 

But that is precisely what I do too. And writing this post now, I am going to be happy at the abundance of books that are all open. All bookmarked. All in media res. Right now I've started three of Wally's books. I'm also reading Christina Crook's The Joy of Missing Out (very slowly, because it is comforting and guiding me and I don't want that to stop). I'm about two thirds of the way into Tovah Klein's How Toddlers Thrive, given to me by my friend Kara and I am learning so very much from it even this far into toddlerhood of my second child. Once or twice a day I read a few sections from Slow Family Living by Bernadette Noll. It was really strange to immerse myself in the slow, peaceful pace of her life married with four kids and then go on her website and find out she is now divorced. How? How could that be? You and Ken were so happy drinking beers on the porch together! Telling stories with the whole family piled on the bed!  

Other books people have given me to read. Or book they have written. Two manuscripts my friends sent me. Issues of Rolling Stone from our neighbor. A new book of short stories by Lauren Acampora called The Wonder Garden I couldn't resist picking up at the library the other day when I went to get Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo, on hold for me (I am nearly halfway through that). 

Instead of five-minute checks throughout the day (to email or social media or to read an article), I've been trying instead to jot something down in a journal. Put something away. Clip a recipe or a picture I want to save from a magazine. Pet the cat. Look at a printed photograph, like the one of my grandmother Elinor and I at the beach in Milford, circa 2001. There are photos from some Christmases and Easters and July 4ths there, when the whole Riordan clan assembled, but of all the many visits I made by myself to the cottage over the years, I think that is the only picture. My friend Kara, the one who gave me the toddler book, came on a visit with me once when we lived together on Carmine street. I am pretty sure she took the picture. 

Yesterday when we got back in the early afternoon from a fun but exhausting morning at playgrounds and fountains at Washington Square Park (it was a sunny summer morning with its mandate for fun and activity), walking there and back, Petra in the stroller, I almost came in and ran to the computer and checked online first thing, but stopped myself. (I think I am much more tied into the computer than most others who use their phones more. Friends remind me there is no such thing for them anymore as "checking" email or Facebook or anything else. It is constantly pinging them.)

Instead I put on opera, Bellini's "La Sonnambula." I gave the kids a bubble bath. Dried them off and gave them lemon ices. The dropped their towels on the bedroom floor and pushed around a mismatched family of 9 in a Peppa Pig camper van. Again I had to resist the run to the computer or the phone. The weird, panicked dash, like an addict, the click, the hit.  

I went out on the porch and flipped through a tiny book of photographs called At the Water's Edge. I keep the book on the porch, hoping maybe the book will trick me into thinking we live in a seaside town. I mean, technically we do, but it's such an outrageously big town that we're pretty far from Brighton Beach or City Island or the Rockaways. I paused over this section of the book's introduction: "By midafternoon the sun is so hot we return to our rooms for a nap. Even with our eyes closed we can hear the gentle slap or surf-breaking pound of water on sand. We drift off on the edge of sound, a lullaby. An hour later, bodies lazy with heat and dreamy with sleep, we sit up, look out the window, and there it is, twinkling like jewels through a lace curtain. Or perhaps we forgot to pull the shade, and sky and sea are huge before our eyes, so that for a minute our little room becomes a ship and we, the mighty captains."

In the kitchen, all the cookbooks have been taken down from the shelf. Wally made muffins from a Kids Can Cook book he got for Christmas last year. I think he forgot to beat the eggs; they turned out incredibly dense. Another day we all made pancakes from the Cricket Cookery book my mom gave my sister and me in 1980. lex made Tofu Provencale from a paperback Vegetarian cookbook with the cover ripped off. Another night, Summer vegetable minestrone from a clipped Real Simple recipe that had been hanging around, wrinkled and stained.

Back to today. September 2. 

I didn't get to pull and tug at what these abundant last days of summer might mean. I didn't get to sink into the words on the page, the electronic page that to me feels partly infected, with knowing, because of a few simple google clicks, that Tony Hendra, who wrote the book Father Joe I just finished, passed on to me from my aunt in Connecticut, was accused of molesting his daughter. Something the whole time in the book felt not right to me. Not that I regret knowing this about Tony Hendra. And not that I should be sheltered and protected as I write from all the terror and horror going on in the world. 

The garden over-flowing. Books over-flowing. Giant pancakes. Sand and wet towels strewn over the house. Fireflies in the evening. Lots of fighting, too. Tons of screaming. Petra tantrumming more this past week than she's tantrummed total in three years. 

So many projects only begun. Beads spilled out all over the floor. Dried out play-doh making unsatisfying projects, snakes that don't hold together, pretend tea parties that crumble apart. 

Right now, as I try to finish this post, yelling and door slamming. Explosions. Meltdowns. Even though I'm about to take them for donuts and to the Vesuvio pool. 

Vesuvius. The volcano that in AD 79 destroyed the city of Pompeii, right? 

But I don't have time now, to let that floating feeling come over me as I write into the page and then leave the page so that the room becomes a ship. For now I have to go stop the yelling that the morning yoga didn't stop, that the meditation music didn't stop, that the failed attempt at journal time, at gratitude lists, at a peaceful collage that became a sticky mess didn't stop. Out into the bright sun. To make meaning of this, maybe, if I'm lucky, at some later date. But to live it now.


  1. I just love everything about this post. As I sit here attempting to type these words to you with the two-year-old, finally past three tantrums (all before 8 a.m.), and then bringing in two caterpillars from the garden in her critter carrier, now finally seated next to me at the table while she eats yogurt and talks talks talks.

    The internet invading the sacred space--YES. Because even in the limited amounts of quiet, when I can drift and enter the writing flow, free of toddler interruptions, I am wont to distract myself by checking email and social media, updating one thing or another. It's true, it's like a noise that can't be turned off. It also drags me into unexpected emotions, say if my latest essay isn't performing very well and then I'm analyzing whether it was the subject or the writing or the timing or what. Of course, the emotions can be positive too; a nice comment from a friend, an email regarding an upcoming event. I want to schedule time, to compartmentalize and organize my online activity, but our schedules are often in flux and my toddler is forever transforming. Seizing the stolen slivers of time is the only thing I can come up with right now.

    So many beautiful images here. Washington Square Park, the walk home, opera and bubble baths and lemon ice. I am curious about all the books you're reading and wrote the titles in my notebook to check the library this week. Particularly interested in How Toddlers Thrive. I also love the detail about Slow Family Living, that she is now divorced...that the laughter and beers on the porch didn't work out. It's instantly I story I'd love to hear more of...

    I can also relate to reading 5+ books at once. Aside from the ones piled on the dining table, I was tidying upstairs and realized I had 5 books splayed open. Bad Feminist, Lucia Berlin's short stories, Crash Course, Eleven Hours, Adrienne Rich poems. I finally closed them and stacked them neatly next to the pile of children's books that reside there too. I feel like I can't keep ahead of anything, can't even keep in step. How do other people seem to have it so together? Are there secret organizational systems I'm missing out on? I love that your list of slower things to do includes "pet the cat." I think it says so much. Also, I literally have been trying to do that too. Just be quiet and still and pet the cat, who by the way, adores being petted.

    And the quote from At the Water's Edge--heaven. And back to the beginning, the cloudy day offering respite. That's how it feels this morning. And I am grateful.

  2. What an incredibly gratifying and thoughtful response Sarah - thank you. Will respond soon.

  3. Lauren Acampora - I know her! She went to Brown with me...

  4. That's funny you know her Bearette!

    Sarah - it has taken me much longer than I meant it to...your response! How wonderful to receive it. This resounding, spirited "yes" from at least one person when I sometimes sing to myself Dar Williams "Are you out there, are you listening?" (meaning, anyone at all). I think given that you have almost zero time to yourself (that you are plural you now, which English doesn't have a word for), stealing slivers of time is the most you can possibly do, and more than most people could manage.

    Did you find How Toddlers Thrive? It's nothing ground-breaking, but it's really helped me re-set my patience levels, remembering how small she is and how she is torn between wanting to grow up and wanting to be babied and protected still. I'm so glad you understand the shock of the divorce after the beers on the porch! The timing of finding out about it after I had sunk into the wonderful, connected, slow time of her book (Slow Family Living). It was so odd and sad to find out that news. Glad to know you have books splayed out all over the place, too. I think you're pretty organized, actually, from what you've written. You're keeping up with quite a lot! Toddler time, gardening, professional writing too. Voice of the Year at Brain, Child! That is all pretty remarkable. Sending best wishes from the other side of the water's edge.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts