Inspiration is absent. I go searching and this is what I find:
From “A List of Topics for Writing Practice”…
Write in different places—for example, in a laundromat, and pick up the rhythm of the washing machines. Write at bus stops, in cafes. Write what is going on around you.
—Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
I like this idea. I decide to pick five writing places.
- On the patio, 9:20 a.m.
The roses are gone; that’s the first thing I see. I had thought about cutting them yesterday, thought about sliding them into a slender bud vase and putting them on the bay windowsill to kiss the light that shines into the dining room: two perfect, tiny, pink roses from the valiant tea rose that surges every year in spite of my neglect.
I had thought about it, and then I forgot.
I think our deer friends ate them. Mark called me to the window early, early—mama and her two spindly-legged, spotted fawns were just rising from their rest under our big pine tree. They stretched and snuffled and took care of morning urges (SHEESH! said Mark), and then the babies hopped off in separate directions. Mama corrected that with a guttural click; they lined up behind her, but we could see that one fawn was going to be a handful. Mom led off; Baby 1 followed obediently. They stopped to graze.
But that other baby! Mom took a step forward and it scarpered, on its impossibly skinny legs, heading backward to check out a fascinating patch of something or other by the fence, then sneaking toward the house to peer more closely at Mark and me, peering at it through the kitchen window.
Kuck!!! grated Mama, warningly, and Baby 2 jumped back.
Yeah, yeah, Mama; I’m on board. I’m comin’.
A moment later, though, the curious little creature was tripping through a hole in the hedge, leaving Mama and Sib waiting in the street.
So, anyway: the roses are gone. The white petunias that I put in the pot on the Angry Little Chef’s head are chomped, too, but the hosta are blooming boldly. Maybe there are so many hosta I just don’t notice what the deer have eaten.
I am sitting at the little round table, on a cold black metal chair, relaxing into cool morning breezes. The sun shines, and birds chatter. On my walk this morning, I saw a funny thing. A lady cardinal and an English sparrow soared as if synchronized and landed on the same little branch. There was a tiny pause; then the cardinal stretched over and pocked the little sparrow sharply on the noggin. The sparrow shook its little head, gathered its jangled wits, and flew quickly away.
Bragging rights to the Woman Warrior, I guess.
But now the birds all sound placid and cheerful, lightly chittering, going about whatever their daily business entails.
Neighbors are busy too. Sandy comes out with the pup we call Tati, because she looks and sounds like the feisty little dog that pees on Russell Crowe’s leg in A Good Year. Sandy anchors Tati’s leash to the pretty little shed at the back of her yard.
Across the alley, Neighbor Bob checks out the lay of the morning. I see his white head over the fence, and I hunker down into my laptop.
I enjoy my neighbor’s company, but today, I have to write.
And now the back-door swings open and Jim steps out, raring to go. It is Wednesday: it’s our day for mall walking. I pause. The air conditioner, hidden behind the carport in the flower bed, clicks on. A bird trills a comment on that. I finish my typing, close up the laptop.
Time to go.
- At the Starbucks tucked into Kroger; 10:54 a.m.
Jim’s laptop butts up next to mine on a two-seater wooden table. We’re against the wall, up against a big Starbuckian mural. There’s a handle-less ceramic cup on the table; a bamboo plant, nestled in gravel, grows up out of it. The Carpenters sing over the intercom, sadly ironic:…so much of life ahead….
A retirement party’s taking place on the big tables. Kroger employees ebb and flow; when we lined up for our Starbucks drinks, we disrupted two revelers, who rushed over to take our orders. By the party tables, there’s a shiny silver barbecue grill sporting a big blue bow. There are Mylar balloons. On a rolling cart, a cake box from the bakery is almost closed; a pile of Hallmark cards tucks beneath it. A stack of patio chairs, neatly snicked into each other, sits in front of the cart, another big bow attached.
People in blue smocks wield plastic forks, eating cake from small paper plates. A young colleague, fair-haired and beaming, charges in to inspect the barbecue grill. He wears a button-down shirt and tie; he shakes hands all around and puts a hand on the shoulder of the retiree.
This retiree will be having backyard parties. It looks like his former colleagues hope to attend.
The store’s not thick with people on a Wednesday morning. But several people stop at Starbucks and grab a hot drink to take shopping with them. Is that a thing? I have not been aware.
I have become aware, though, of the plastic straw controversy. Starbucks is pledging to stop using any straws at all, by 2020, I think.
I was on a road trip, listening to NPR, when I first heard about the sea turtle who was found, washed up, with an awful, pulsing, facial infection. Rescuers took it to veterinary medicos; they sedated the poor beast and delved into the infection, which was deep-seated in one nostril. And found, embedded there, a plastic straw. It would have killed the hapless turtle had it not been removed. There’s a YouTube video of the surgery, I guess; it is not one I am brave enough to watch.
It’s not bad enough straws endanger animals and sea life; they pollute our beaches and landfills. I forget how many tons of plastic our discarded straws contribute to the earth’s trash problems. It’s enormous, and it’s a tiny metaphor for the changes we need to make.
At the end of that NPR road trip I went to a fun and funky college town coffee shop, and there at the counter was a bucket full of stainless steel straws. I bought three; I keep them in a cup on the windowsill by the sink, and I try to remember to take them when we are in danger of eating out.
And when I forget, I decline the plastic top and sip my drink right from the glass.
Such a little thing. What else can I do, I wonder, that barely inconveniences me and that will make a difference?
I am glad that Starbucks is phasing out its straws, although I wish it wouldn’t take two years.
Classic rock songs cycle. OSU T-shirts hang on a display; above them, glossy scarlet and gray go-mugs gleam, proudly stacked. Mid-July: not so long until football season starts again. The Incredibles smile from a kids’ T-shirt display.
The retirement partiers quietly disappear, taking the grill, cake, and chairs with them. “500 Miles” begins to pour from the speakers.
“Ted and Marshall,” says Jim fondly, thinking of a scene from How I Met Your Mother.
It’s time to get our few groceries and head home to meet the Dad for lunch. Jim runs to grab a little cart, and I type my final sentence, swipe away dark-chocolate covered graham cracker crumbs, and pack up my laptop.
3. Panera, 2:29 p.m.
I have lost my Panera card. The girl at the counter is wonderfully helpful, accessing my account, activating me a new card. We order pastries and drinks; we buy a cinnamon bagel for Mark’s breakfast tomorrow. Jim finds us a quiet corner.
Panera at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon has people, but there are many empty tables. Three women of a certain age bend their heads over a table across the way. Snippets of conversation float by. I try not to listen, but the impression is strong: they are teachers enjoying their summer break, and mourning, already, how quickly it evaporates.
A plump gray mother and her grown daughter, long, curly hair floating, walk by with steaming soup bowls cradled on plates. They look very serious, and they head for the farthest, most private, corner.
An older couple (older, of course, means my age, plus ten) stops, trays in hand; they swivel their heads. “THERE she is!” one says: the relief of completed connection. Their friend jumps up to meet them. She has brought a friend—a MUCH older (my age plus 25) woman. They all settle into a table and the talk, immediately, flows.
My decaf coffee steams; it’s fragrant and rich. Jim peels the paper from his blueberry muffin and sighs in anticipation. (Blueberries. One way to get a glimmer of organic foodstuff into the boyo who proudly proclaims himself a ‘veg-ist.’)
Jazzy Muzak pours from the speakers, and, like more background music, the voices of the workers rise and fall. There is laughter, often. I consider the helpful young woman at the counter and the laughing colleagues in the food prep area. It seems the workers like being here, which makes this a nice place to sit with a once-refilled mug and keyboard-tap away.
James sits kitty-corner, kicking it old school; he is writing with a mechanical pencil on a pad of lined paper. He is spending the summer reading the entire, if possible, Marvel Comics oeuvre; and he is planning original short stories he will write in response to his reading. His conversation, these days, is peppered with references to Thanos and the Avengers, to Ant Man and Ms. Marvel and Namor. His communications class, an online endeavor, keeps him busy; work claims many of his hours. His truly dedicated scholarship, though, takes place in the hours that remain after obligations are met. He is a true student of the Marvel Universes.
James was talking, as we walked in, about the graphic novels that 9/11 spawned—the writers and artists who chose that format to work out their grief and fear and anger, who sent tendrils out to the rest of us who were fumbling around, dazed and seeking meaningful, worthy ways to respond. He talked about a story featuring one man, working on the west coast, whose girlfriend worked in the Towers. THAT story had a sort of happy ending; they both survived, but they also had such deep and shocking loss to deal with.
Jim told me about it and left it to float in the air between us, floating an unspoken question with it. I tried to hear the question; I tried my best to answer.
We talked about the real-life salvations that day brokered—people who called in sick, or whose kids were sick and had to stay home, or who had meetings off-site, and so survived. Jim told me actor Mark Wahlberg meant to fly on one of the planes, and his plans changed at the very last minute.
I don’t think, I told Jim slowly, trying to put voice to beliefs I’m not sure are fully gelled, that there’s a God who sits in heaven sorting us: “You—dead. You–alive. YOU have things left to do. You—eh, the world can spare what you’ve got to give.”
No, no, no. I don’t believe it.
Violence, disease, pestilence, environmental disaster: there’s not a God who spins those into being, divinely retributing. But I think the Power lets what humans have wrought come to full fruition.
The tragedies and the losses burden our hearts and break, sometimes, our spirits. Reconciliation begins within. What can I, spared for now when one so much more talented, so much kinder and more compassionate, so much more WORTHY, has been taken–what can I do to validate the rest of my life?
It is a question, maybe, that I should try to answer every morning, before I put the coffee on, before I say my prayers or take my walk or put my pen to paper.
3:00. The café fills up. Lots of women of all ages; here and there an older man. Conversation hums and throbs; voices pitch and recede, giving advice, offering sympathetic concern, murmuring, murmuring…a backbeat of connection.
Across from me, James takes the eraser from his pencil, realigns the graphite, puts it all back together. He shakes the pencil; ear buds in, he frowns. But the pencil seems to work now, and his story topics grow. Now they fill almost a full page, a formidable list.
I believe he carries each of those stories, fully formed, in his mind.
I believe his challenge is to transmute those mind-stories into tales that live in the world, that simmer where others can taste them.
And the simmering makes me think of dinner: if we are to defrost chops and rub them, get them ready to grill, basted with Kansas City barbecue sauce—well, if that’s going to happen, we need to blow this popsicle stand. Jim carries his trash—no plastic straw, though; he no longer uses them either—to the bins. I down the last sip of my coffee, and we depart.
We carry Mark’s bagel, we carry somber awareness, we carry a sense of purpose, out to the car, and we head home.
- At the John McIntire Library, 9:42 a.m.
The library buzzes. I find a table toward the back of the main space, by the first shelves of YA books, with the Reference desk, an open arc-ing area, to my right. There’s an octagon of computer terminals kitty-corner in front of me; a young man leans in, connecting with a computer. He grins and grimaces, hitches and hunches. Then he finds something that compels him. He leans forward, goes still. Just his fingers move, guiding the mouse. His head is locked, his eyes focused.
Several people sit at tables in the Periodicals area; an older gentleman, casual in T-shirt and jeans, spreads the Columbus paper in front of him. He bends his head, intent on the day’s news. People wander through the DVD’s, stopping and plucking, considering, rejecting, selecting. An older couple comes in, tired faces, leaning on each other. They disappear into the stacks.
A young man, coughing, steers himself toward the YA stacks, hovers before the books, then sits at the table behind mine. He has a backpack. He wears sandals and thick white socks, sweat pants, an orange T-shirt. He sports a baseball cap. He pulls out a tablet, settles in.
Two people browse the Large Print New Books. They curve themselves into commas, looking; they do a fancy little dance, sashay and slide past each other, making certain not to miss, either of them, books in the middle section.
The phone rings at Reference; the clerks at the front desk answer questions, sign up a family for library cards, retrieve reserved books.
A grim-faced woman leads a bespectacled, round-faced teenager into the YA stacks. They murmur. They are picking out a book for the teen, who does not seem thrilled to be forced into reading. The woman proposes tersely; the teen wards off her suggestions with soft parries. But I hope that they will find a magical book, a transporting book. I hope the teen will fall into that book like it’s a haven or a safety net; I hope the older woman’s face will relax.
Perhaps she’ll find a magical book of her own.
Voices rise and fall, technology cheeps and trills. Doors open and close, and people chirp surprised greetings. Staff members listen and consider, search and suggest.
A skinny child walks slowly through the children’s stacks, one frail index finger extended. She strokes the spines of book after book. She slides out the right book, hugs it to her chest, goes off to find her Person.
The computers, I see now, are all filled: a citizen, even more senior than I, sits at the one closest to me. She bends one long, thin arm on the shining desk surface; she leans her chin on her head. Tentatively, tentatively, she begins to click.
Someone told me once that libraries are living rooms for the community, especially for the homeless. Lifelong universities, these wonderful institutions, offering access to technology, escape through story, connection through engaged staff, and community involvement through programs and reading challenges.
And distraction, for me. I sit, trying to type, and I hear the whispering voices of books unread. A woman with an oxygen mask, undeterred, strides by. As she passes a shelf, I spy an interesting book, and I realize this is not a place for me to write. The temptations are more insistent and more accessible than the hot chocolate chip cookies at Panera.
And I decide to pack up.
- The Zanesville Museum of Art. 10:38 a.m.
I thought I’d sit among the 73rd Ohio Annual Exhibition works, but they were too present, too compelling, too demanding. If the library books whispered, these works of art shout boisterously. I could not sit in their midst and pretend I didn’t hear. So I wandered the galleries, looking for a writing spot.
I light on a bench next to a railing, overlooking the first floor and the entrance to the Linn Auditorium. Light pours in through floor to ceiling windows, and the sculptures on display are ones I’ve visited before. They are restful and patient. They know I will be back to visit; they do not demand that I look at them RIGHT NOW.
I put my laptop on one end of the bench and lean over it, sitting side-saddle, feeling awkward. And then I think, Duh: laptop. Computer nestled on my lap, I spill my words onto the electronic screen.
Below me, a quiet bustle of people: this is a busy place, a humming place.
But where I sit, it’s also calm. Energy simmers in other rooms; there are displays and exhibits I really need to come back and see. But for now, for this writing challenge, on this comfortable bench, in this late morning environment…this is a place where I can let my fingers fly.
The pieces around me are modern and classical and ancient. The works in the exhibit I just left push beyond those categories into something new and more.
A pretty woman, on a mission, comes smiling up the stairs. I meet Dan, ZMA’s Marketing Coordinator/Finance Administrator, and we talk for a moment about the Museum’s different spaces and the sense of welcome they engender.
I settle in; unseen climate control machines hum, and here and there, and once in a while, a voice murmurs.
I remember other art museum adventures.
I think of visiting the Chicago Museum of Modern Art, where, so engrossed in a work, wanting to see it up close and then, from further and further away, I backed up slowly—backed right into a bench and fell backwards into a group of art students. Who bent to peer at me, my feet on the bench, my head on the floor, flaming with embarrassment. I peered back up at them, thanking the wardrobe gods I had not chosen that day to wear a dress. (There is a reason my high school gym teacher called me Amazing Grace.)
I think of going to the OTHER Chicago art museum with my nephew Brian; we lost ourselves for hours in a Picasso exhibit.
I think of wandering the Columbus Museum on no-admissions Sundays, and people-watching—seeing families of all shades and accents, and elders and hipsters, and sketching students.
And I think of discovering this museum, with its astounding treasures, soon after moving to Zanesville.
Art museums are amazing places, drawing in a vibrant montage of lookers. They open windows to people; behind those windows, other possibilities pulse.
And on Thursday morning, this art museum is a thoughtful, compelling place to be.
There is a piece here that I have to visit; it draws me in no matter how many times I see it. It is William Saling’s (American, 1945-2004) Peg the Ideal Waitress, a Friends purchase in 1994. Peg is wooden. She is life-sized. She has plank saddle-shoe feet and miniature flour bag earrings. She carries two plates, one above her head and one in front of her. The plates are loaded with wooden burgers, fresh cut wooden fries.
Peg’s face is lined and weathered; her eyes are knowing, and her thick brows sweep sardonically. I can see she’s been slinging hash for a long time, Peg has. And yet there’s flair and verve in how she hefts that over-the-head platter.
Her chest is two drawers of a black-painted apron. Her boxy flowered dress is drawer-ed too.
Something about Peg, her knobby knees, her bold ordinariness, her spunky spirit, perks me up. There’s beauty, she reminds me, in everyday things, and in everyday people. Dan tells me she’s one of his favorite pieces, too.
So I visit Peg for a bit, and then I close my laptop and go down to see the new exhibit.
I am reading Old in Art School, by Nell Painter, a PhD professor, a lauded historian, who, in her mid-sixties, goes back to school to become an artist. Painter talks about what it’s like to begin again, in classes with people 46 years younger than she is. She talks about that heady life-changing adventure, and she talks about artists and how they dress and how they drink and the works, unleashed, that they produce.
And she writes about what’s considered, in a given age and time, to be ‘good’ art; about how figurative painting is frowned upon, and how representational and abstract work is lauded. She ponders that, and so do I, liking the crisp accessibility of what we call, at home, the ‘real-life’ paintings in the exhibit. But I am drawn, more and more, into paintings that blur textures and graphics and swirling movement into a surprisingly cohesive whole.
And here, in this exhibit, amazing paper structures suspend from the ceiling on gossamer threads, paintings tug me along the walls, three-D works and sculptures hum on pedestals. Each one is amazing; together they are an orchestra, a symphony of color and texture and soaring lines and bold statements.
The clock is goading me; I have an appointment, a place I have to be, but I know I will need to come back to this exhibit and just live in it awhile, and I’ll bring the family back to visit with these artworks, too.
Routine is a wonderful thing; it frees me to forget surroundings and concentrate on tasks, and sometimes that is just what I need for writing.
But sometimes the same-old produces nothing but the same-old. Then I need to heed Natalie Goldberg’s advice and change it up. I need to sit outside and listen. I need to grab a coffee and watch. I need to be where books and art draw people to visit, to stretch and to savor, to rest and to be inspired. I need to appreciate the associations place dredges up, to pluck memories out of the murky depths and consider their meanings in the now.
And I need to appreciate the richness of place, the diversity of being, the treasure of community spaces.
I need to do all that, and then I need to stumble forward, trying to write it all down.