Facebook shared this memory with me. I forgot how good it felt to see my words in print. I share it because sometimes these things do not go as we would wish.
I waited a long time at Staples, in line behind someone who was coming up with what he wanted on a banner while I and increasingly more other people waited. “I do not wish to be an angry person, Lord. And yet here I am,” I prayed. “Help me to be patient, at least, even if I don’t feel that way.”
The lady at the counter continued to help the man ahead of me, but the man who had helped me two days ago came over from the self-serve copiers, where life was temporarily going as it should, and said, “May I help you?”
“Yes, thank you! I’m waiting for my two copies of my thesis?”
I spelled our name, and he tried three times and found it at last.
He ducked under the counter and stood up again.
“Here!” he said triumphantly, and handed me the folder with my original thesis. No box, no bag, no remaining paper. He beamed at me as if he wrote it himself. And at first I start to smile back. It is a lovely thesis. But there seemed to be too few pages.
“Wait. That’s my thesis.”
“Yes!” he said, happily.
I shuffled through the pages. Only one copy. *The* one copy that I dropped off.
I took a deep breath and didn’t let all of it out.
“I had asked that you make two copies on the paper that I bought? And I wanted the leftover paper?”
“Ah!” he said, and dug under the counter.
“Here!” he said, once again triumphant.
It was the work order and the leftover paper in a box with no lid.
I channeled the person I have to become to substitute for Kindergarten, where their intentions are always good, always, one tells oneself. Always.
“This is the extra paper, which is good, but I had wanted the thesis? Two copies? And could I have a box for this, please?”
“We took your lid for the paper box?”
“Yes, apparently, ” I said, with a regretful little nod, as if I were the one who lost it.
He looked around, and could not find the lid, so he took out another box for copies, giving me a look that bordered on reproachful
“Could we find the copies of the thesis?” At this point, it was a real question.
Once more he looked under the counter.
“Ah!” he said, and handed me two boxes.
With no small amount of trepidation, I opened them. Yes. Both had one copy each of “Words So Far from Roslindale.”
“Thank you!” I said, smiling at last.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and seemed genuinely pleased.
“And, could I have a bag?”
His face fell.
Apparently, I could not.
“We don’t have one the right size,” he said. “But wait! Would this do?”
“This” was a large box, somewhat crushed, one foot by two, maybe four inches tall, missing a flap.
It did do. Close enough. If I took the box and smiled, I could leave the store.
I took the box, thanked him, smiled, and left, oh, I got to leave, I left the store.
And now my thesis is handed in.
And glory be to God.
Writing prompt: The words don’t do anyone else any good while they are still in your head.
In the Orthodox Church, the first week of Great Lent is called “Clean Week,” and some people take this to heart, literally cleaning things in their homes the first week of the fast. A friend mends pillows, fixes hems, and makes those small repairs on things that upset her the rest of the year. People dust picture frames and wash walls, cull their clothes for charity donations and finally clean out the kitchen junk drawer. In anticipation, I have been gathering some things that need attention — my favorite dress, which has a tear, a flowered blouse that’s missing a button, and some other similar things. When I dug through my sewing box, in preparation, I remembered how I got it.
When we lived in Connecticut, I didn’t know the neighbors as well as I wish I did. One neighbor had sold her house and was moving to assisted living. She had a yard sale that was as good as an estate sale. A yard sale has things that people have decided they do not need any more. An estate sale has the things that people used every day, but which their loved ones don’t want or need. At a yard sale you can find interesting things. At an estate sale you can find essential things — seasoned baking sheets and well-worn cookbooks, real cotton bed linens and woolen blankets, toys that aren’t made any more and sturdy hand tools. My neighbor had all of these for sale, plus her sewing box.
It was a clear plastic box with several layers and she had it loaded with thread, elastic, extra buttons, pieces of trim, and some lace. When I went to pay for it, her hands lingered on it, and I realized that this was the essence of who she had been to her family. She had gone to this box to put patches on Boy Scout uniforms and to take in prom dresses, to move buttons and to fix hems. When she got rid of this, who would she be?
I, too, hesitated. “Perhaps you shouldn’t sell it,” I said. “You may need it, or your family might need something in it.”
“No,” she said, and looked directly into my eyes. “Take it. You need it. I see how many kids you have, all of them running and falling and growing. You need it. And that part of my life is over.”
Sewing boxes are repositories of secrets.
Your sewing box is where you keep things that you don’t want the children to mess with, things that you don’t want your husband to find. It holds extra snap closures and bra strap buckles, thread to match the outfits you tear most often. My whole soprano section, two elderly sisters, died one year, and each of their sons gave me his mother’s sewing box. In each box I found the Christmas ornaments I had given the choir members over the years.
Sewing in Literature
In Susan Glaspell’s story “A Jury of Her Peers,” a group of neighbors gather clothing for a woman, Minnie, who had been arrested after her husband’s death. The men are trying to determine if she killed her husband or if someone else had. The story is well worth reading as the women discover things about Minnie’s married life and reach conclusions. One of the more important developments is when they dig into her sewing box to see what she planned to do to finish a quilt in progress.
In “The First Circle,” Solzhenitsyn tells of the prison life of Gleb Nerzhin, a mathematician who is not in one of the labor camps — the lower depths of hell — but “only” in a research prison, the first circle of hell, where he is assigned to determine which of three men made a damning phone call which was treasonous, and which had been secretly recorded. He decides to say he cannot say which man it was, to spare one from arrest, but to his horror, all three men are arrested, instead.
Having shown us daily life in the prison, Solzhenitsyn uses the arrest of one innocent man to show what arrest is like in general — the confusion, the removal from friends and family, the need to begin life afresh in these strange and unpleasant conditions. The newly arrested man loses buttons when he is detained, and when he complains, the prison guard hands the man a needle and thread so that he can sew the buttons back on. This, the man has never done. And so Solzhenitsyn describes how the man learns how to do this, figures it out, invents sewing, as he will re-invent and freshly discover so many other parts of daily life.
Different cultures sew differently. In WWII, the United States bought clothes from refugees to help the spies who were sent abroad to work undercover. Women working for the spy agencies learned that American sew their four-hole buttons in an X, while in Europe buttons were sewn on in two straight parallel lines.
Writing Prompt: Work sewing into your writing. You could write about the first time you sewed something, or the first garment anyone ever sewed for you. Characters who need to talk in a work of fiction can go shopping together to buy sewing supplies, and their preferences — fabrics, colors, quality of threads — can further underscore their differences.
If you don’t sew, never sewed, never want to sew, and don’t know a thing about sewing, that’s okay. (It’s also essay worthy — why? Who sews for you? Do they recognize the things they made when you wear them?) There is a first and a last time to use everything. Think (and write) about the thing that you would part with last — handing over your work badge after clocking out for the last time, giving your adult children your favorite skillet, or maybe handing your car key to a stranger. There are things that we don’t know we are using for the last time — the last hospice visitor’s pass, the last sanitary napkin, the last time you eat off the family china. Things can stand for who we are, what we do, what we did. They are the milestones we don’t notice until they are behind us. Look around. Think about the things that are essential to your daily life, and that some day will not be needed.
Professor Irina Lynch of the Wellesley College Russian Department was one of the pioneers of machine translation, something we now call artificial intelligence. She told our class how they tested the success of a translation by running a phrase through, English to Russian, and then running the Russian phrase back, to see how close or far it was from the original. Sometimes the results were good. Sometimes they were bad. Sometimes they were hilarious.
Her group used English aphorisms and Bible verses. They tried “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” It came back, “The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.”
They tried again, with “Out of sight, out of mind.” The result? “Blind idiot.”
I have sometimes been surprised, while workshopping a piece I’ve written, but the way it was perceived. “Wow, that’s really catty,” they said of a heartfelt poem about why I hadn’t contacted friends in a while. “That’s really funny,” they said of another work which was about something I thought tragic.
It can be entertaining and even useful to see how your writing comes across in translation. Take something short that you’ve written, use Google Translate or the program of your choice, and then translate it back into English.
I tried this with Shakespeare. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I turned it into Mongolian: “Би чамайг зуны өдөртэй зүйрлэх үү?” And I flipped it back into English. “Can I compare you to a summer day?”
The translation is technically accurate, but the nuance has changed.
Writing Prompt: Translate a piece you wrote into another language.
Translate it back into the language in which you wrote it.
Ponder the differences. Is the translation more direct? Does it lose something you loved?
You might try rewriting the piece using the tone of the translation, just to see what it would be like.
For an added twist, compare the translation into two or more languages. How does the Italian differ from the German? What if you translate it into a language that doesn’t use articles?
When I was a student, we listened to the radio for Jess Cain on WHDH to call no school for Boston, as part of a long list of public, private, and parochial schools who cancelled classes for the day. (The S’s were long, because of all the saints.) Snow days meant shoveling snow first and then playing in it. Other times when school was cancelled, as for the Teacher’s Strike, my parents created assignments for us, forcing my younger brother and me to learn a song in Spanish from an album they checked out from the Boston Public Library. My high school cancelled classes for only ten days during the Great Blizzard of ’78, and then only because the T, Boston’s subway system, was not running. When the trains were running again we were back in class.
We had one snow day when I was at Wellesley. I was supposed to meet with a visiting professor, the ever-memorable Dimitri Obolensky who I only later learned was also a prince and, later, a knight. I was taking two classes, through the Religion Department; “The Making of Eastern Europe, 800 – 1100 AD” and a three hundred level course, “The Mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs.” The meeting was to discuss my paper on the Bogomils. But the snow changed all that.
We had a beautiful, empty day in front of us. I was one of 54 freshmen in Shafer Hall, and we were something of a giddy pack. about to run in five directions. Some students were going to go “traying,” sliding down the hill near Severance. Others were gathering in the rec room with its orange couch to watch television. Some were gathering in the more formal living room, with its good couches, framed paintings, and shelves of books. A group of Hawaiians were going to build their first snowman. I was contemplating having Constant Comment Tea and reading something non-academic, and both thoughts were delicious.
However, I was thwarted. Boston, where my family lived, of course cancelled school. The town of Stoughton, where my father taught high school English, had also cancelled. Dad called to make sure that the dorm had electricity and food — I am pretty sure he would have brought me home otherwise, storm or no. I assured him that I was fine and told him that I guess that means I wouldn’t be meeting with my professor.
Dad exploded. He knew that Professor Obolensky had translated the much beloved “Penguin Book of Russian Verse” which both he and I had both worn out with much reading, and that the professor was visiting from Oxford. “That man,” Dad said, “is a professional. He will not care how much snow there is. He will find a way to get there and you had jolly well better be waiting there when he comes!”
I doubted it, but I knew my father was serious. I grabbed my research materials and bundled up and trudged to the Religion Department, which was empty. But there were cups and tea bags and a means of heating water. I took off my snowy clothes and boots and made a cup of tea, settling into a couch in my stocking feet, when the doorway was blocked by a tall, snowy being. Professor Obolensky had somehow borrowed a pair of snowshoes from another professor, because our meeting was that important to him. He was dressed, as Russians are, appropriately for the weather, with a huge hat, a muffler, gloves, and an appropriate overcoat, all covered with snow. “I am rather proud,” he said, “that I only fell three times.”
I jumped to attention, offered him tea, and scrambled to put my thoughts in order. Later I did write the paper. It turns out that the best book on the Bogomils was written by Prof. Obolensky himself, which made quoting him problematic. Do I write, “As Obolensky writes,” as I would of any other author? That seemed presumptuous. Do I write “As you write?” That would be brown nosing. After much tea, prayer, and thought, I wrote, “As one author puts it,” and put the name of the author and the book in the footnotes. Professor Obolensky returned my paper to me with a good grade and a wry smile.
I got married, had children, moved to Texas, and had more children, and no snow days, although a few days were lost to the after-effect of hurricanes. By then we watched the television for storm coverage, so there was no waiting by the radio. But when we moved to Boston, my children were thrilled with three new discoveries: delayed openings, Jewish holidays off from school, and snow days. I didn’t need to listen to the radio or watch the names of school districts scroll across the television screen. I could lie in bed and listen to the cheers or moans from upstairs.
Then I became a substitute teacher, and I listened to Jerry Kristafer on WELI and then Tony Reno on WICC with the keen interest that I had in Jess Cain’s list. Whatever children were home and I shouted when “Stratford” was read from the list, whether for delayed opening or no school at all. There is no age at which it is not wonderful to be given the unexpected boon of a free day. When everyone was finally launched and we moved to Ohio, I thought those days were behind me.
However, I was supposed to have an operation for cataracts on Thursday, and I spent most of Wednesday going through the pre-op physical, blood work, etc. that surgery entails. I understand that the operation is for the best, that it is a blessing that we live in a place where I can have it done, and that I will be so much happier after it is over. But that is then, and this is now. Now I just try not to think of Locutus of Borg.
But as I drove around from the hospital to the pharmacy to the gas station to the grocery store, signs on the road warned of bad storms ahead. The radio announced that the Governor asked everyone to stay off the road tomorrow. It rained Wednesday. It is supposed to snow, extensively, on Thursday, melt a little on Friday and then re-freeze. Good weather for reading at home.
I had my phone’s ringer off and I try not to check it when I drive. When I got home and looked at the phone, I had a message — surgery is postponed because of the weather. Internally, I did the Happy Snow Day Dance. Externally, I made supper. But I smiled while making it.
Thursday I get to sleep in, eat breakfast, wash my hair, get water in my eyes, and, yes, help dig out the cars. The surgery will be rescheduled and then I will enjoy the benefits that come from no longer having cloudy vision. But I can hear the rain outside my window getting ready to transition. The thermostat is dropping. By the time the sun is up, I can sit inside and watch the flakes fall out there, where I will not be. It is a huge inconvenience and a big disruption. But it is a glorious boon.
Writing Prompt: Write about a snow day in your past. You could write a poem, like “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, set in a time when the snow plows were pulled by oxen. You could write prose for children, like “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Use detail. What did you wear in the snow? Mittens or gloves? Or unmatched socks on your hands, because you had no gloves? Were you allowed to frolic or forced to stay inside — or did you have to shovel?
Did you shovel for money? What did you do when you came in? Did you miss school or were you glad for one day of respite?
Use details, colors, textures, smells.
If you have never seen snow, you could write about what you imagine doing.
I feel like I was out in a field some place warm, picking flowers, and a friendly but distracted bovine knocked me over.
I am lying on the grass, not in a cow plop but near enough to smell it, and grateful to be able to smell, staring up at the sky and thinking of all the things the clouds look like.
Yeah, I may just have a fever.
I don’t think I have the disease that is going around, I think I got ground down. My list of newly departed to pray for is unusually long, and includes two priests and two strong women of prayer whom I really love. I think when I get too sad my body makes me go rest. My brain doesn’t know how to do that, and I have weird dreams.
When my brother died, I got swine flu. My husband and all the sons who were home brought me liquids and pain relief and folded damp face cloths to put on my forehead, and a Cuba Libre, at my request, when I couldn’t get warm any other way, and things to read, which I let sit near me as once did my dolls and teddy bear.
My husband is also sick, this time, and we are taking turns being the one who is up. I was able to make pot roast and beef and barley soup. He was able to get the dishes into the dishwasher. We are a team.
But for something to write about, you really can’t beat fever dreams. We are not supposed to put too much stock in dreams. but I find they can show me what’s on my mind. When we lived in Texas, where there were cows near all the oil pumps for tax reasons, we didn’t have a dining room, my sister-in-law\s family moved from Houston to Palestine, and our parents were in Boston and Michigan. Then my dad died. Some time thereafter, when I was sick, I had a dream that all my relatives were coming in the door carrying chairs, for Sunday dinner in my dining room. I could not be happy. My aunt Rita was among the last to arrive and said, “Aren’t you going in?” I told her that if I went in there, I would have to remember all over that my dad had died. She shrugged and went into the dining room and I woke up and sobbed.
I needed to sob. I hadn’t done that.
Nobody handles dreams like “The Sopranos.” The show is brutal and their language is terrible. It is a series about how being in the mob ruins everyone in it and around it, and so some of the dreams are about hell. I used to watch the show to learn about good writing, and then I took to writing about it when I was angry at someone, to remind me where anger and vengeance lead. When I am sick and can’t talk to friends about books or movies, I watch YouTube videos that discuss aspects of plot and character development from the series. Also, it reminds me that I might be sick but at least I don’t work for the mob in New Jersey, so there’s that.
As I mentioned, I may have a fever.
Writing prompt: What weird dreams have you had, and what have them led you to realize?
Dreams can lead to change.
When I was pregnant with my first child, we bought one dozen cloth diapers, and my husband thought that would do. I didn’t. I had a dream that I had sextuplets and they were crying and I realized that I could change each child once and then we’d be in trouble. So we bought more diapers.
Dreams can be nightmares, but they can be refuge.
If your dreams take you to a good place, and bring back good memories, write about it so you will have something to think about in bad times. The martyred Tsarina Alexandra kept a scrap book of poems and thoughts to read over during difficult times. I have a “comforting images” section of photos on my personal Facebook page, icons and photos that remind me of what is good.
If your dreams are scary, what are you afraid of? With whom can you examine it? Never go swimming or spelunking alone. Have a friend, a counselor, a priest, or someone else whom you trust go in with you.
If you write fiction, what do your characters dream of?
In “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the ship goes through a fog where everyone’s dreams seem real. It sounds like a beautiful thought, until you remember what you have actually dreamed.
On the Julian Calendar, 2022 has not yet began. There is still time to think about what you want to change in the new year. Keep a notebook and pen by your bed and write about the dreams that come of their own accord. And then, do some editing. You don’t have to believe everything you think, or accept every thought that knocks on your door. Keep what is good and laugh off the rest. Write about the dreams you really want to pursue. God endowed us with free will. Think about what you want to work toward, and what you wish would go away. God gave us all gifts. Sometimes we have to hunt for the best place to use them.