Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why Walking Makes Cents

On December 16, I strapped a Fitbit onto my left wrist where—save for swimming and showers and the occasional reboot—it’s stayed ever since. I’ve always walked. I like to walk, even in cold weather, though I dislike wind and cold. I bought a Fitbit (hereinafter “Fitbit”) because I wanted to track how much I was walking and when, and how that translated into miles and calories and health.

If the scale is right, I’ve lost five pounds. I’m sleeping a lot better, too, according to Fitbit. It measures that, too. But what Fitbit doesn’t measure is mental health and how that translates into creative well-being, because I’ve noticed an uptick—no, a spike—in that.

So many writers are walkers. Wallace Stevens never learned to drive and so walked the two miles to and from his work as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. His neighbors say he would “walk differently” from night to night, even backing up to repeat his steps as he worked out the words in his head. Cheryl Strayed took a 1,000-plus mile hike and writes (famously) about it in her book Wild.  Virginia Woolf and James Joyce set their respective characters on walking journeys through London and Dublin.

But what is it about walking and its link to creativity? According to Ferris Jabr, in his article for The New Yorker “Why Walking Helps Us Think”:

The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. . . . The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. . . . Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down (September 3, 2104).

Because it is winter in New York, I usually walk with my head down. There is ice on the sidewalks and the roads where I walk, secret ice under the thin layer of snow that is there on early mornings. I don’t want to fall, so I walk carefully and sometimes slowly, always with my head down so I can see what’s ahead. The upside of this is the money I find, coins of all denominations usually coated with road salt or mud.

Money is money. The coins go into a red plastic pig that I’ll empty at the end of the year and count up, tangible evidence of what I’ve gained in twelve months of walking.    

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sock It to Me

I started knitting socks in April of 2012. I'd tried socks a couple of times before and was always rewarded with epic fails--big, fat, sloppy socks that bagged at the ankle and could house a family of five. But this time I found a pattern that seemed doable in one of the Yarn Harlot's books and bought a set of bamboo needles (size one, U.S.) that were only a little thicker than a toothpick.

I cast on and set out. I knit while sitting on the love seat in front of the open window. I watched the leaves push out, tiny and green, on the trees across the street. I made one pair, then another. I watched the leaves on the top branches of the trees start to turn and curl. By the end of the summer, I'd made seven pairs--a few of them wearable--and learned a few tricks along the way about short rows, heel shaping and good vs. bad yarns. Since then I've probably knit up a dozen pairs, most of which I've given away as birthday or Christmas gifts. 

The Brevity blog featured this story from the book Art and Fear the other day: 

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

What's true of pots is true of socks and writing and any other art in which talent runs a distant second to diligence. Practice makes stuff. It's not an event ("I wrote today!") but a process. It does not make perfect or much of anything as Sylvia Plath noted when she wrote: "Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children."

Apparently those advertising people were onto something beyond running when they coined the slogan "Just do it." Whatever it is you've been wanting to do, just do it.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Knit Three, Purl Two

I don’t remember who taught me to knit mittens. It might have been my maternal grandmother, Marie Lok, or maybe it was my mother who guided me from cast on to cast off, who showed me how to increase every three rows to make the thumb placket, to decrease to form the arch that would curve around the tips of my fingers

While cleaning out the deeper recesses of my clothes closet last summer, I found the pattern for those long-ago two needle mittens, a thirty-one-page instruction booklet—priced at twenty cents—published by the Jack Frost Yarn Company (“First Choice of Millions of Knitters”) in the late 1940s. There are instructions for mittens “for the growing child” as well as directions for a pair of women’s lace gloves that are both “pretty and practical” and intricately patterned pair of Norwegian mittens.

Though the edges of a few pages are tattered, most of the pamphlet is surprisingly intact and still readable.

Some years ago I ditched the two-needle pattern and started knitting four-needle mittens. There’s no seam to sew up at the end; when you’re finished knitting, you’re done, save for some knots to tie and some ends to weave in. Unlike socks, which take a dog’s age and require the eyesight of a fighter pilot, you can knit a pair of mittens in a weekend, over the course of a couple of football games. I’ve knit mittens for each of my sisters and for several of my friends. The pair I’m knitting now (pictured here) are for me, necessitated by the fact that the black mittens I’ve been wearing (knit some years ago) have finally worn out. The thumb sprung a leak during my walk yesterday and the yarn is too fragile, too frayed, to repair.

And so this weekend, I’m knitting mittens. The yarn I’m working with is softer than the scratchy wool I remember from the first pair I ever made. This wool is machine washable, too, and the color is a heathered orange that wasn’t featured in any long-ago spectrum.

 The stitches are the same though, knit and purl, the way my mother taught me. Or my grandmother. For the life of me, I can’t remember.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Making Time Disappear

Eight weeks out from teaching my last class, I am trying to make time disappear. This is a good thing.

This morning, I ground up coffee beans in the old manual coffee grinder I found in my grandmother's stuff. It was made in Germany. It could have been my great-grandmother's, come to think of it.

This summer is all about task, not time. I write without a clock. Time does not circumscribe task.

The coffee tastes better.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Inexplicable Sorrow, Unexpected Pleasures

I didn’t put in a garden this year. “Garden” is probably a misnomer, as mine is limited to whatever I can fit on the fire escape. One year it was heirloom tomatoes and basil, and the tomatoes were so delicious I tried it again the following year. The squirrels found the tomatoes to be irresistible and peed in the basil. The next year I put in pots of petunias and did so every year until now.

Petunias grow well on my fire escape, which faces south and gets sun for the better part of the day. The brick walls hold onto heat and it’s not unusual for a petunia or two to bloom in December or until the first measurable snowfall.

I had a thesis to finish this May and some traveling to do in the latter weeks of the month. Memorial Day was cool and un-summerlike. My cat took a turn for the worse. Each day I thought about going to the garden store for soil and some flats of flowers and didn’t.

My cat Beachamp died last week. He’d been on medication for a chronic condition for more than a year and the prognosis wasn’t good. He’d had a happy life and I wanted his death to be a reflection of that life, of his stoicism and his dignity. He was a comfort and a joy.

A door shuts, another opens. Last week I was vacuuming in my office, the fire escape room, when I noticed a single petunia poking up and out of what I had mistaken for weeds. After days of rain, the sun came out and the flower opened, the first of many blooming from seedlings. All of them are white, except for the pink one you see in the picture above.

I want to think that’s Beauchamp: Still flowering. Still here.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

In Praise of Snail Mail

Through twenty-three years and five moves across two states, I’ve kept a manila file folder containing the first acceptance letter I ever received. The letter is typed on cream-colored stationery, glossy and substantial, and is embossed with the letterhead of the magazine that accepted that long-ago first story. Looking at it now, I still remember the sense of hope I felt standing there in the dusty foyer of the rowhouse apartment where I lived in Philadelphia. I remember thinking the envelope was too fat to be a letter of acceptance, but too slim to be the story I’d sent them, only to be returned to me now with regrets.

The other day I uploaded five poems into an online submission manager and hit “Submit.” Seconds later I received a form e-mail from the journal thanking me for my submission. It cost me nothing but a moment of my time and spared me a slog to the post office on a crummy day, the way I’d done so long ago in Philadelphia. I remember how I’d hiked that short story down to the post office not far from City Hall and kissed the clasp envelope before handing it to the amused clerk. I was a graduate student at the time, living on student loans and a part-time job as a proofreader; the money that I spent on postage to send that story and others out into the world would have been considerable—part of the dues I thought I needed to pay become a writer.

Recently, a friend shared a story on his blog about a journal that accepted four of his poems nearly two years ago, only to send him an e-mail months later rejecting those same four poems. After many back and forth e-mails, the editor (the same one who’d accepted the poems) attributed the rejection to “budget cuts.” And so my friend did what most poets do when they receive rejection: Moved on and resubmitted those poems to other magazines. Several of the poems were subsequently accepted, suggesting a happily-ever-after ending –-until recently, when he received a print copy of the journal that had rejected him containing (you guessed it) the four poems the magazine had declined.

As writers we’re well advised not to take rejection personally, to treat it not as an event—as Carolyn See writes—but as a process. To be sure, e-mailed rejections can be easily dismissed as blips, the briefest of interruptions on an otherwise okay day. But acceptance – whether the first or the hundred and first – should be an event, a worthy-of-fireworks ceremony marking the final mile in a creative journey that started with a handful of words whispering this way.  And a letter dropped through a mail slot or tucked into a box next to the front door affirms this in a way that an e-mail is simply unable to.

The day I received that first letter of acceptance I called all of my friends. I toasted myself with a bottle of beer and when I finally fell asleep, the letter was next to me on the pillow.

It smelled like hope. It still does. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

An Ode to East Avenue Wegmans

An Ode to East Avenue Wegmans

Really, can you grieve a building? Can you miss a building the way you would a dead parent or a beloved pet? Can you grieve a building that was in no way distinguished architecturally or historical or remarkable, a building that was in fact nothing more than a pile of nondescript beige bricks? A building with dingy linoleum floors, narrow aisles and a vegetable section that was all but impossible to negotiate on Sunday morning.

The answer to each question is yes, yes, yes and yes.

This morning at 7 a.m., to the delight of a thousand people—a couple dozen of those who’d been waiting in line for twenty-four hours—the new East Avenue Wegmans opened. It’s not the old building, to be sure, whose old footprint is now forever underneath the lot I parked in this morning. It’s big and clean and I wager to say that no one will go missing in the vast room of veggies and fruits. But underneath the shine is the same old East Avenue Wegmans—the familiar faces of employees who, for nearly twenty-two years, have seemed like friends.

So much of my history here in Rochester is tied to that store. Wegmans is where I went the Tuesday afternoon in 1999 when my mother died, to buy cat food and litter before leaving for the week. When the clerk at the checkout counter asked me if I’d found everything I was looking for, I told her my mother died. She was the first person I’d spoken to and my voice sounded dusty and unused. “I’m so sorry,” she said, and leaned around the counter to give me a hug.

On September 11, 2001, when I couldn’t bear to see another replay of those planes crashing into the World Trade Center, I turned off my television and drove to Wegmans. The aisles were full of people who walked as if they were fragile, breakable, and yet it was as quiet as a church. I suspected they, like me, didn’t need much in the way of groceries, only to understand that the world would somehow go on.

When my Wegmans closed in late February, I missed it terribly. I deliberately avoided driving by that area. I didn’t want to see the line of bulldozers, the shattered glass and the eventual pile of bricks of the old store. It was late winter, and everything is harder here in late winter.

Just before seven this morning, minutes before the new store was about to open its doors, a longtime employee—apron in hand—waved as she walked past the line. There were shouts of “Karen! There’s Karen! Yay, Karen!” and several people applauded as if the sidewalk were suddenly a red carpet.

You just had to be there.