Sometimes we sit down to write and can’t think of anything to write about. The blank page can be intimidating…
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Ideas flit through my stainless steel-trap mind all day, and I toss and tumble them, consider and discard, until finally, the frew-fraw of the day settles down and I settle down, too, at the computer. I open a document. It gleams, clear and fresh and expectant, and I lift my hands over the keyboard.
I play with some thoughts about time and some thoughts about change; I tilt my head to make the ideas tumble out more easily. I type a sentence or two.
I delete a sentence or two.
Connie the Fitbit tells me I only have 114 steps to make my hourly goal of 250. I jump up, glad of the righteous interruption, and I stalk about the house, circling, waiting for the perfect topic to come tumbling down into that bony room.
Sometimes that happens, but tonight is not one of those times.
Tonight, I got nothing.
Tonight, I go to the prompt jar.
I shake it and I stick a finger in to stir things up. I shake again, urging the universe to give me just the perfect topic; pick me a good ‘un, I urge those unseen forces.
I dive a finger into the slips of lined yellow paper and pull out what I think must be the middle-most slip.
Here’s what it says:
I take another walk.
I think about ringing in the new year, and I think ringing does have a time-connection. This weekend, we’ll be ringing in daylight savings time: we’ll be springing forward. The alarm clock, on Sunday, will ring an hour earlier than usual. That will bring us more sun-soaked hours, I am sure, but it will drag my butt out of bed an hour early, too. I’m not loving the thought of that future ringing.
But it’s funny. The word ringing mostly has me thinking of things long past.
I think of one of my first chores: cleaning, with Comet cleanser, the grit ringing the bathtub. The method was simple: I took a washcloth and wet the tub, bottom and sides. Then I peeled away the paper sticker covering up the cleanser can’s holes, and I sprinkled. The white powder landed, turning blueish green as it got wet, and I reached in with a nubby cleaning cloth and scrubbed and scrubbed.
The scrubbing was important—ridding the tub of its family-supported ring.
The rinsing was important, too: an ill-rinsed tub was a gritty, annoying thing. A well-rinsed one was a shining temple of cleanth.
Comet worked well then, and still does. After years of trying sprays and bubbles, highly-touted cleaners in mostly plastic bottles, I am back to trusty Comet and my time-worn method. My tub is bright white and ring-free…and Comet has no plastic in its packaging.
At lunch today, seven of us sat at a long table, bending and peering so we could talk, sharing tidbits of news, tasty little chunks of gossip; accepting steaming plates of food and sliding them so they’d fit underneath the flow of the conversation—the talk as rich and savory as the treats the waiter set before us.
And then someone’s cell phone, slapped upside down on the table next to the silverware, rang, and the ring tone sounded just like an old-fashioned telephone ringing.
Maybe you’re old enough to remember that: to remember when the one phone in the house was a black one, one that cradled the receiver, which attached to the base with a not-overly long wire.
In those days, the phone rang and we ran—ran from wherever we were in the house, up in the bedrooms, making beds, reading, dreaming; out in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, lifting hot, hot cookies from hot, battered cookie sheets; down in the basement, wrestling wet sheets from washer to basket, and then out to the clothesline in the back yard.
But wherever,–Phone!!! we would yell, and we’d drop the chore at hand and go running.
Phone calls could be very important. We didn’t ignore the ringing phone.
The cradle phone was in the dining room, maybe; and then the dining room was where we talked, because the cord reached only a couple of feet.
And then…improvements and enhancements. Some houses added an extension phone; the same number as the original phone, but you could pick up either receiver and talk. So you might have an upstairs phone. If there was a night-time emergency—if you had the kind of job where you might get called out in an emergency—there’d be no danger of sleeping through the ringing. The extension was inches away from your bed; the roiling, raucous ring would wake you. Eyes drily sleep-rimmed, thoughts all fuzzed at the edges, you’d still get up. You’d get up and stumble to the bathroom, pull on clothes, splash water, and go out, no matter the hour, to do the thing that needed doing, summoned by the ringing of the phone.
The phone might ring out in the night with sorrow: Helen is gone, the voice at the other end might say; she passed at 3:17. We thought you’d want to know.
The ringing might toll in great joy: The baby’s here! Nine pounds and perfect. Congratulations, Grandma!
Extensions might foment a little sibling rivalry. “MOM!” the younger sister might wail, her heart throat-high in the hope that that boy really WOULD call tonight: “MOM! Julie is still on the phone!”
For at-home wives and moms, the phone was lifeline and connection. Life was richer when cords grew longer and the at-home woman could clutch the receiver between shoulder and ear and navigate a nice circumference, moving from the counter, where she’d just finished peeling the last of a big pot of potatoes (this family sure does love mashed potatoes!), to the stove where a pot roast simmered, talking all the while.
She could conduct PTA business with that long cord. She could check in with good friends, finding out what was going on in their lives, sharing little triumphs and simmering resentments, gathering opinions, triumphing, occasionally, in some terribly juicy gossip.
She could call her mom.
For a stay-at-home lady, one with no car in the drive and no store or library within an easy walk, the ring of that long-corded phone carried promise and potential and a break from the solitude and boredom of a hard-working day.
And then: cordless phones added to that freedom, although they had their limits. There were only so many feet you could stray from the mother-ship without losing your connection. But still–-no cord! Receiver cradled, hands free to reach up to top shelves, pull down the big mixing bowl, crouch down and pluck out the flour, the sugar, the baking soda. Cracking the eggs, sprinkling the cinnamon, pulling the little hand mixer from its cupboard hiding place, and all the while talking, talking, talking. There IS a world out there, and I’m connected to it!
Cordless phones got us ready for cell phones, bit by little bit.
Hard to even remember, now, when a drive in the car meant being unavailable; we oohed and ahh-ed at Maxwell Smart’s car phone (How cool!) , but kind of liked detachment from demand whenever we went riding.
And a vacation—well that was a vacation from being reachable, except perhaps by postcard or note, or maybe, by arrangement, at the pay phone down by the lamp-post near the camp office. (Oh, THAT call was a wonder: ten minutes of pure magic, as the sun slid down into the trees, and your reluctant, cranky brother, prodded by your anxious mother, came looking for you.)
Vacation meant freedom from the day-to-day; you could wait till you got home to get your messages, find out the news. If something horrifically happy or horrendously sad occurred, you’d learn by the slamming of a car door outside the cabin, the manager’s hand pounding brusquely on the door. Sorry to bother you, the voice boomed; there’s a message…
Cell phones are safety and convenience and all kinds of connection. But still. Somewhere between the hard to reach black cradle phone and the constant nudge of the omnipresent smart phone—somewhere in that middle ground, there’s a sweet spot. There is balance.
That vintage ring tone—it makes me think of days when we reached that balance a little more readily.
And I think of ringing’s sound twin, too. Ring-the-verb, Webster tells me, comes from the Middle English, evolved from the Old English: from ringen, meaning [no surprise] to ring.
Wring is a verb too, and like its twin, it has crept down through time, from Middle English, back further from murky Old English, back when the word was wrygan: to strangle.
Somehow, those words marched through time drawing, sound-wise, closer and closer together, until only that soundless w tacked to the one’s beginning make them easily distinguishable.
Wring is a time traveler, too: it takes me back to pre-dryer, pre-wash and wear days. Then, every dress shirt was plucked damp from the washer; the mom wrung it out, thoroughly and ruthlessly; she wrung out that shirt and then flattened it out just so, and she rolled that shirt into a tight, damp little log.
The shirt went into a bushel basket constructed of thin, pliable wooden slats. And then she plucked another and wrung, and wrung.
Girls needed to learn this skill. I started on hankies; they were cotton back then. My father had hardy bandannas to take to work, and finer white handkerchiefs for less gritty events. Women had their own hankies, frilled and colorful, often embroidered, delicate and largely useless compared to the male’s sturdy versions. (Women, so refined, were not expected to have snuffly noses or seasonal allergies.)
I wrung out the damp hankies; I rolled them into little logs. I huddled them together in a smaller basket.
I was fascinated by the heavy metal iron, which hissed and sizzled. I waited to be old enough to wield it.
It didn’t take long, it seemed, for that day to arrive: age eight was the magic year. While my brothers learned to mow a lawn without leaving high, whiskery ‘hair’ along the edges, I learned to sprinkle, roll, unroll and flatten, to apply that hot metal nose to the fragile lady’s hanky. I learned what was too hot, and when the cloth was not damp enough.
I ironed hankies, and the romance of the job sizzled away with the dampness in the handkerchiefs.
We wring our hands.
I’d like, we mutter, to wring her neck!
We wring every last drop of savor from a bone or a book or a long-anticipated day.
We waken to the ringing of alarm clocks (although it’s more like brazen buzzing, now.)
We worship at the bidding of church bells (although they’re often electronic and rung out from the pedals of a high-tech organ these days.)
We wait for the bell that ends the round and sag in relief as the final bell ends the match.
And kids still wait for the ringing of the bell—which is, probably, not a bell at all,–that frees them from their enforced stay at school.
And one word, on a slip of paper, one word rings bells from deep down cavernous, dusty, time passages, reminding us of the excitement engendered by the call of old black phones and the smell of cotton, freshly hit with the metallic sizz of a hot iron, of the satisfaction of scrubbing, and the magic of the right caller at just the right magical time.
Ringing: a simple prompt that rings in a relieved recognition: maybe that echoing, bony cavern isn’t completely empty, after all.