Pause and Shift

21 01 2009

I am out today on sick leave. I should be writing the paper that was due last semester. I should be getting some laundry started. I should be drinking water instead of coffee. I should be reading about web development for my class tonight, or addressing invitations to Ruthie’s birthday party at the very least. I am in my last semester of grad school. Three years I have been in grad school and it has officially rendered me brainless. I am too serious. I am too intentional, too resentful. Everything is personal. I wake up gritting my teeth. Every question is an interrogation, every request an imposition. And here I am sitting at my computer: paralyzed by the desire to write, and overcome by the dull conviction that I don’t have anything interesting to say. 

So I reread Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” which was, to me, inspiring. I can’t imagine writing anything under such pressure. In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading as much about her as I could find on the internet. I’ve found that I like her– she’s honest, thoughtful, and insightful. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown, she talked about the task of composing the inaugural poem:

JEFFREY BROWN: So — so, have you made a start? How do you — how do you go about this? What is it that you want to accomplish? 

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: What I want to do in the composition of the poem is to be very quiet and very humble before the forces that make me able to write poems.

It’s a very, very big challenge. It’s a very extraordinary moment. And I think the fact that Barack Obama has decided that he wants to have a poem as part of the inaugural is tremendously significant, to say that here is a time when we can listen to language that shifts us a little bit, that allows us to pause for a moment and contemplate what’s ahead of us, to think about how we can contribute to the challenges ahead of us, all of those things can be possible in the moment of pause and shift that — that a poem makes possible.

So, I’m just trying to be very serious and very quiet and very humble as I — as I try to — try to write something.

I am neither a quiet nor a humble person, but I can reside for a small time in the moment of  pause and shift

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.


(These lines were clipped from the New York Times transcript of Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of “Praise Song for the Day.” Sadly, the transcript does not reflect line breaks.)

Punctuality: Thief of Time

27 08 2008

He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.” (Oscar Wilde)

Those of you who know me best know that I am habitually late. Despite my best intentions to be on time, to be timely, to be timely and one time, I am not ever timely. Nor am I apt to be on time. Once, as I was passing through the living room from the front door on the way to the kitchen, I caught a Dr. Phil show in which a young woman was being confronted by her friends for her gross disregard for all things time and timeliness. She barely made it to the show on time as a result of her missing the flight to the-city-whose-name-escapes-me-where-Dr. Phil’s-show-is-taped-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience. Dr. Phil, in his notoriously didactic preacher-man style, used this young woman to illustrate the act of “running late” as one that is purely selfish. The young women laughed it off as a petty crime (as I have done many times myself). But Dr. Phil was insistent: You are selfish! According to Dr. Phil, If you are chronically late then you have no consideration for others, especially those who are waiting, waiting, checking their watches, expecting you to show up, hoping against hope, waiting––on you. Er, me. 

I would argue that I am no more selfish than any punctual specimen. However, I will admit to being ish-y  when it comes to all things time. I have yet to find a way to see my commitments as exact points in time. I am an –ish person. I may not be at work by 7:30, but you can be sure that I will make it by 7:30ish. 

This ishness is experienced as an insurmountable wall separating me from society. I cannot pretend to an a priori knowledge of time. If I were to posit myself within the spacetime continuum, I might be found near the edge of the speed of light with my fingernails dug into the lip of the black hole. If I could just swing my other arm up and out against the strain of the laws of physics, the Kate Spade calendar chirping  of appointments and to-do lists aligned neatly beside crisp depictions of watering cans and galoshes. If I could just claw my way out from under the unopened bills, the receipts, the bank statements, the ungraded papers, the graded papers to be filed, the files to be discarded, the phone numbers scribbled on the back of the Starbucks sleeve found in the backseat of my car. If I could just, if I could only, then I might be able to meet you for coffee this afternoon around 3:00. Let’s call it 3-ish.

Short on money but long on time

28 01 2008

I spent this past weekend on the couch. I watched two movies while Ruthie napped on Saturday and Sunday: The Painted Veil and Waitress. Both very good, very different films. Ultimately, The Painted Veil is about forgiveness and cholera. Ed Norton and Naomi Watts are unbelievable in this gorgeous film that made me weep one of those good weeps that reminds you of your humanity. Waitress is about the strength that we draw from our children––the surprising, bewildering, nonsensical strength that comes from looking into the face of a new life that came from you. It’s also about the hilarity of misery and the absurdity of life. You will laugh in spite of yourself. And you will start thinking in terms of pie.

I forget how nice it is to let the laundry sit, to ignore the dishes, to pretend like I don’t have a job on Monday and relax.

Morning has broken

9 01 2008

4:45 am Alarm plays Bela Fleck. I am in a cocoon of darkness and blankets. I will wish I were here for much of the rest of the day.

5:05 am My cocoon is pierced by the closet light as Adam tugs on the string.

5:17 am I begin to lift myself out of bed only to flop back down as my better judgment kicks in.

5:19 am I hear Ruthie cough over the monitor and secretly hope she will wake up though I know that her stirring creates dread in Adam who still needs time to drink his coffee before the day begins.

5:23 am I convince myself that I actually need to get up but then I remember how I got ready in 12 minutes yesterday and my better judgment wins again.

5:34 am I throw back the covers, stomp to the closet, scoop my clothes up off the floor and go brush my teeth.

5:44 am The litany of lost items begins: Where’re my keys? Where’s that thing I had in my hand? (Adam: What thing?) You know, that thing. Uggh. And my name tag. Where’s that?

5:52 am I turn our 100 year old (literally) door knob and it makes 3 or 4 loud clacking noises that make Adam cringe since the front door is right by her room.

5:54 am Engine starts and I am running 10 minutes late. And so it goes until I lay back down again. It is still dark.

Thoughts on Writing (and other products of my procrastination)

8 12 2007

In the past three days, I have spent a total of 20 hours in the library with my nose in some fascinating and not-so-fascinating 19th century material. First off, I think we need to give at least the second half of the 19th century some serious props for doing some serious work in terms of education, philosophy, writing, lecturing (lots of lecturing), having riots about who was more awesome: Catholics or Calvinists. I’ve been focusing on the educational movement that took place under the leadership of Horace Mann (the man to whom we owe much thanks for the beginnings of No Child Left Behind). Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father) was a tasty piece of Transcendental ass–he was in the philosophical bed with the big boys like Emerson (who called him a “world builder”) and Thoreau (whom Louisa supposedly had the hots for). If you’re interested in the Alcotts, check out Eden’s Outcasts. It’s really interesting, it’s like looking through the Marches in Little Women–add a Transcendental commune, a few (brilliant) failed schools, lots of lectures, a few more deaths and you’ve got the Alcotts.

So when I haven’t been reading or writing, I’ve been finding ways to procrastinate. Here’s what happens every two hours or so: Check email, make playlists, get on facebook (send a few hatching presents, chuck a book or two), check email, read my friends’ blogs, check my phone (no messages), ask someone to watch my stuff so I can go pee (and possibly smoke a cigarette, depending on how late it is and how desperate I am), get some water, settle in and check email/facebook one last time. Sometimes the sequence of events varies, but it stays more or less the same. I have found that the more I write, the more painful it gets–writing never gets “easy” because it’s never done. In every paper I write, there is a point at which I feel as though I simply cannot, will not pull it off. Grad school is the marines of academic writing. Right now, I feel as though I am living the scene in G.I. Jane where they’ve been doing whatever kind of hellish training they do all day and they’re made to sit and write all night long with sleepytime classical music playing. Oh, and they’re cold and wet. At least I’m not cold and wet.

I have found that music is key because it’s the only thing that keeps your brain alive during the long haul to a paper’s due date. Playing on my ipod right now: George Winston (December and Summer), Enya (Shepherd Moons), Miles Davis and Coltrain (I don’t know what the albums are–it’s a collection I put together in college), some French music, and a few soundtracks (Finding Neverland, Meet Joe Black, Braveheart, Upside of Anger, Piano).