Friday, November 22, 2013

Practical Gift-Giving

When I graduated from high school, my grandmother gave me a set of china. Plates, smaller plates, serving dishes, sugar and creamer set, gravy boat—the whole kit and caboodle. They’d been having a promotion at her grocery store. For every certain amount of money spent on groceries, you’d get stamps, which you could then save to purchase items in the set. Buying only for my grandpa and herself, I realize now it must have taken some time for her to get enough for the set. Maybe she could have paid for some items if she didn’t have enough in stamps.

My eighteen-year-old self thought it a strange but nice gift. I didn’t even have my own set of Tupperware yet, and I didn’t plan on hosting any elaborate dinner parties in the near future. But the china has been with me ever since. My husband and I have moved many times in the twenty years we’ve been together, and those heavy boxes always came along, from apartment to condo to house, up elevators and stairs, into storage and back out again. And I have to say, it’s always been a matter of pride, that china. When I was a younger adult, it made me feel like a legitimate grown-up, someone who really could start an adult life and settle into it. I still love the pattern, which seems to suit me. Whether it’s long-term familiarity or a matter of taste, I don’t know.
The china gets used maybe once a year. Holidays, usually Thanksgiving or Christmas. But I have a baking dish that is put into use much more frequently. It’s a simple, clear-glass Pyrex dish, also from my grandmother. She gave it to me in the last years of her life, when she started shedding things she knew she wouldn’t use. It had a sticker on it, an address label she’d put on so that she could find her dish when she attended potlucks at her church or mobile home community center. That sticker pained me a little every time I saw it and when it finally wore off, that pained me too. But I still think of her every time I use it.

I have her old crock pot, a behemoth with only three settings, decorated with pictures of floating vegetables on a white background. My sister has a new crockpot with a timer and complicated dials, but this one has always served my purposes. I have a single-serve teapot with a cup that fits on the top like a lid. I have a set of plastic cutting boards that my grandpa bought at the hardware store he liked to visit almost daily. I think my siblings also got these for Christmas one year. Another gift I thought was a little strange at the time but guess what? Still have them, still use them almost daily. I have a silver-plated ice bucket that my grandma was given when she worked as nurse for the doctor who was also my physician when I was a kid. I’d been keeping the bucket in a cupboard but realized when thinking about this piece that I should put it out somewhere.

These useful gifts ensure that I think about my grandparents several times a week. They knew that a good cutting board would outlast a bottle of perfume or probably, a new sweater.  My grandma took a certain pride in her own cherished items—crystal, china, etc., yet never took her eye from the practical, from what it takes to run a household over a number of years. Whether you move it from place to place or not. I’m starting to think about this as my kids get closer to heading out on their own. And I will probably be guilty of giving them things that raise eyebrows but linger in their cupboards and drawers. At least I hope so.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life or Art?

At a dance show last weekend, one of the pieces listed a few outside sources as inspiration. One was a story about Marcel Proust and a friend, who had quarreled over life and art: specifically, about whether an artist should be out and about, living life, or sequestered and dedicating himself to the craft. You can guess which side of the argument Proust, one of history’s most famous recluses, took. I can also imagine the friend’s parting thoughts as he huffed out: “You want to be alone? See if I ever visit you again!” I didn’t keep the playbill and was unable to find the specifics for this story, but that was the gist of it.
This always comes up, doesn’t it? What an artist should and shouldn’t be doing. Modern manifestations include various articles about how much social media time is too much for a writer, the classification given to some “celebrity authors”—those jetsetters who never turn down a conference or speaking engagement, warnings about the necessity to get your ass in the chair and write, every day, lest the cogs of your creative engine rust up and jam.

But it also brings to mind the oft-repeated instruction: “Write what you know.” How are you supposed to know about anything if you’re not living? Proust had a lot of opinions about a lot of things, most of them seemingly catered, as opinions are, to his own life. One of his common themes was that suffering is the root of all great art. He extolled the virtues of suffering and advised that when it comes, you should give yourself over to it completely. Distilling sorrow was like an exercise to him:
"When we endeavour to extract the general qualities from our sorrow and to write about it, we are somewhat consoled...Thinking in terms of generalities and writing comprise for the writer a healthful and indispensable function, the fulfilling of which brings happiness, as do for a man of a physical type exercise, sweating and the bath."
Suffering put you in touch with yourself, he argued, and made death seem like a release. And most importantly, it fueled the very best art.

“Works of art, like artesian wells, mount higher in proportion as the suffering has more deeply pierced the heart.”

What do you think? Does a writer need to suffer to write something great, or is empathy enough? How narrow would your writing be if you only wrote of your own experiences? Would it be enough? Where do you find your best inspiration—inside yourself, out in the world, or some combination of both?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bee Humble

I’ve been sequestered in my house for the past couple of months, determined to finish a collection of stories I’ve been working on for, well, probably a couple of years now. Or more. Who knows. I’ve been writing them off and on (more off than on), and was relying on inspiration rather than a strict schedule or preplanned outline. They are stories based on a simple premise—that archetypal human stories can present in unexpected ways. Maybe the “Boy Meets Girl,” story refers to two girls, or maybe the boy is already married to someone else. Stuff like that. The stories quickly began to shape themselves around three families and their circles. Then it turned out that so-and-so in story two actually knew the girl in story six, and so that became a thing, the interrelatedness. And at some point, maybe when I had ten or eleven of these pieces, I realized there needed to be some direction, some aim (didn’t there?), so I began to map out where I’d take it, just a few stories at a time. Still waiting for inspiration, for a scene to occur to me, some vivid moment from the life of anyone in the cast, past or present—didn’t matter.
Life intervenes, doesn’t it? Even though I began writing these stories to escape the pressures of writing a novel, the process started to take on the same flavor. I decided enough was enough, I needed to get the thing done, inspiration or not. So that’s where I’ve been for a couple of months and yesterday, I finished the first draft. I emphasize: first draft, because some of these latter stories felt forced and I worry that I began to take them on a novel-like progression that was not my original intention. I’ll be very interested to pick it up in a month or so and see if it’s cohesive or whether it’s happily not.

So I was feeling quite proud of myself yesterday, patting myself on the back for those shower-less days, the declined social invitations, the ignored temptations. Yes, maybe there had been setbacks, like being a half-hour late to pick up a certain someone at his soccer practice (who then said: I figured you were working on your book). I couldn’t read anything lengthy and towards the end, I wasn’t sleeping well. But I did it! The world stretched out before me, a new leaf. So many projects to be tackled now, so much to do. I decided to take the dogs on an extra long walk. They had spent many long hours with me while I toiled, never complaining. I put on their harnesses and hooked them to the double-lead leash.

Anyone who’s ever seen me walking these dogs knows the reason why there are harnesses. The dogs do not walk, they jog, and they do not wait for me. The effect is something like being hooked to a dog sled. So we’re walking (briskly) through the neighborhood towards our little lake. I take an unusual turn because someone has their huge German Shepherd at the lake and in general, I avoid contact with other dogs. Because, uh, my dogs will bark and lunge. They are in most respects, entirely naughty. We are just turning around a corner onto a busier street when I notice, suddenly, they we have stumbled into a swarm of bees. Long story shorter: me running, full speed, for two blocks, with bees following. Stop once to try and dislodge two bees from one dog’s hindquarter. Some screaming (mine), more running, until I’m completely out of breath and there are no more bees in my hair or the dogs’ fur. I actually ran into a friend shortly thereafter who, thankfully, had headphones on during her jog and did not hear or see my manic run.

The point, hammered home: you should never be too proud of yourself, or nature will conspire to teach you humility. Best to get back to work on something new. But maybe first I’ll take just one little day off and do something indoors.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka