If you like to sew clothes and you have a special piece of fabric or a very complicated project in mind, you’re advised to make a muslin: you cut and sew your pattern in cheap fabric so you can make every tiny adjustment before you take your scissors to the real thing. (It sounds like really good advice, but I have to say that I’ve never done it — I’m more a hope-for-the-best seamstress.)
I’ve been thinking about making a muslin because I’m doing something like it in my writing life. A couple of years ago, my youngest son talked me into writing a NaNoWriMo novel. Last year, I wrote another version of the same story for NaNoWriMo 2015. And for the last couple of months, I’ve been working through the manuscript, adding scenes, getting rid of terrible descriptions, trying to apply some of the rules for constructing a plot that I’ve gathered. It’s all new experience for me. And although I love my characters and can entertain myself for hours thinking of conversations they could have and places they could go, it’s very unlikely that this novel will ever meet another reader. It’s my muslin. I hope I’m figuring out some of the rules of the novelist’s craft, rules I’ll be able to apply to a novel I might write for an audience someday.
It’s been an absorbing project, and continues to be. I have four or five scenes in mind that I think the story really needs. And I’m having a very good time.
Easter morning in South Carolina is cold and rainy. My husband and I head for a favorite walk. We drive down quiet streets and country roads, out of our small city and through a much smaller town, and through the gates of a Revolutionary War battlefield site not far away.
We love to walk on the Green River Road, a segment of a 250-year-old roadway much traveled in the late 1700s. The road (or the two-mile section that’s preserved as part of the battlefield) is about as wide as a driveway, with hard-packed dirt underfoot. It crosses big open meadows dotted with old trees. Today, in the cold and rain, we saw one man and his dog in an hour of walking. Other living creatures: one squirrel, one crow, one big bird we think was a wild turkey. It sauntered into the underbrush before we got a chance to identify it.
Gray sky, still-bare gray-brown trees, tiny gray cabin where a family of six or seven Scruggses lived in the 1780s. In the woods, the occasional bright fuchsia spike of a redbud in bloom or the graceful candelabra branches of a dogwood, lifting greeny-white blossoms.
The world is waiting.
I love looking at the little graphic on WordPress that colors in a square for every day I’ve posted in March. I’m a pushover for that kind of scorekeeping. As a kid, I’d jump through any hoop to get an A on my report card; I didn’t develop even a minimal ability to separate the worthwhile from the useless until I had my own classroom. I’ve been keeping a bullet journal for a year now because I love writing my list and making little boxes to check off the day’s tasks, although I don’t put things on the list after I’ve done them. I have a serious Fitbit habit.
I used to think it was sad to be so attached to my checklists and scores, but I’ve decided I like it. In fact, it’s almost time to start the Summer 2016 list (paint front door, new living room curtains, . . . )
It’s only been spring for three days, and two of them were bitter cold by South Carolina standards. (Don’t laugh — 32 degrees?? On March 21?? When we were all wearing shorts and flipflops last week??) But the yearly procession of spring flowers is well underway. Walking around my neighborhood, I’ve seen:
- Japanese magnolias — at least we call them that. Big pinkish-mauve blossoms on leafless trees. Often meet an early end at the hands of a late frost, but not this year.
- Crocuses — a month ago or more?
- Daffodils — three weeks or more of bright yellow soldiers in every yard. Then we had our spell of flipflop weather, and they all collapsed from the heat.
- Azaleas — they’ve been in bloom for a week or so and will linger for two weeks or more. All sizes and shapes, each with its own timetable.
- Flowering quince — Every year I resolve to plant one when I see those fragile coral blossoms on thorny stalks. They belong in a Japanese print. Then I forget . . .
- Dogwoods — just starting to pop. The blossoms in their baby stage remind me of pearl buttons.
- Redbuds — the mystery trees. When they’re not in bloom, they’re completely nondescript. Then for a couple of weeks a year they make magenta exclamation points in the still-leafless woods. And then they vanish.
- Wisteria — didn’t get what it wanted this winter. It’s blooming now, but feeble little trickles, not lavender waterfalls of blossoms.
- Dandelions and violets hiding in the grass. Growing up a city kid, I thought dandelions were beautiful. I still do. How can you complain about something that gives you flowers whether you want them or not?
And much more to come.
I read a fascinating idea recently: When you’re facing a task that seems like a chore, call it a meditation — a laundry-folding meditation, a dishwashing meditation, a paper-grading meditation. The chore gains some reflected glory from its new name. Sometimes it even works.
Laundry folding: that’s an activity that’s made for meditation. It engages my senses. The clothing is warm, fresh from the dryer. T shirts feel soft, handknit socks dazzle with stripes. It satisfies my most important standard for housework: a pile of neatly folded laundry bears no resemblance to the jumbled basket I started with. There’s an aesthetic challenge involved. I try to fold symmetrically, to smooth items flat for neat stacks in dresser drawers or linen closet. One morning I took a bulging sack of dirty clothes to a laundry on West 88th Street in New York. When I returned in late afternoon, I received a tidy, compressed cube of clean clothes, folded as precisely as origami. That’s my model.
And I must go now and practice my meditation skills.
Four years ago, my husband had a very complicated foot operation with a sixteen-week recovery period. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I learned to knit socks at this very time. I’ve been a knitter all my life, but with socks I’ve found my knitting niche.
The first pair I made accompanied me to the waiting room during the surgery. I sat in the corner, concentrating furiously on my stitches, for the four hours of the operation. During the first couple of weeks of his recovery, when we were housebound except for complicated and exhausting forays to the orthopedist’s office for a series of casts, I struggled through the mysteries of sock shaping. Like many other occupations, sock knitting is mostly routine enough to watch a movie (or all the seasons of The Wire, in our case) while you’re working. At a couple of points, however, that placid routine takes a turn into mystifying rituals that produce a foot-shaped piece of fabric. It was perfect work for an anxious few weeks.
Since then, I’ve made socks for my three adult sons — not much fun because their favorite colors are navy blue and charcoal gray. I’ve made my husband several pairs of striped socks, beginning with conservative muted heathers and most recently getting into gaudy chartreuse and gold (some souvenir yarn from a trip to Copenhagen). I make patterned stripes for my sister-in-law, who calls them “happy socks” and kept a pair on during her mastectomy last summer. (She said the nurses all noticed them.) I’m working on Christmas 2016 right now.
It’s good to have a niche.
I spent my weekend in Charleston, visiting my son. All of us who live in South Carolina feel a kind of proprietary pride in Charleston. It’s a beautiful city. You can walk for blocks and blocks of beautiful 18th century and early 19th century houses, cobblestone and brick pavements, tiny slivers of a view into hidden gardens.
We had a sunny Saturday afternoon to take a long walk, and then a rainy Sunday morning. The slate sidewalks were slick with rain and empty. We met the occasional dog walker, but going by the Sunday papers lying on the sidewalks, most people were enjoying some extra sleep. Hardly a car in sight; no tourist carriages out yet (although the streets did hold a lingering smell of horse droppings); the occasional clang of a church bell. We strolled down Tradd Street, peeking into gardens and unshuttered windows, making our walk last as long as possible before the rain came down in earnest, knocking flower petals down to make abstract spatters on the slate.
I come from a family where people don’t talk too much about their past. My father, a World War II vet who arrived at D-Day on a troop landing craft, made a few funny stories about his war experiences, but even when his children asked, we never found out what happened.
My mother lost her father at the very beginning of the Great Depression. Two generations later, I asked her if some of my students could interview her about being a child in the 1930s. She said she didn’t remember anything about it. At the time, I was angry, but now I wonder just how insensitive I was. When she said, “I don’t remember the Depression, but I remember when we sold the boat,” there was a story there.
The boat was a cabin cruiser (whatever that is) named the MARZ (my grandmother’s initials), and my mother and her older brother went with their father to sail it around the Finger Lakes in New York State. Now I think of the dapper overcoated gentleman in the couple of old pictures; he has my Uncle Jack’s long nose and dark hair. My mother remembered that her father would take her for walks and rap her toes with his cane to make her toe out, not in. She remembers him skating in his Homburg and velvet-collared overcoat, the epitome of elegance.
Then he died: appendicitis, a heart condition. His widow had to put away the crystal-beaded flapper dresses she’d worn to 1920s country club dances. My Uncle Jack remembered her sobbing in the basement as the kids lay in their beds upstairs, pretending. She never married again.
Two of my cousins love genealogy and are busy researching these stories. I just wish I could understand them.
I’ve never had a nice matching set of coffee mugs. I prefer my collection of one-of-a-kind (to put it charitably) memory-laden mugs.
Mugs from favorite places: Zabar’s deli on the Upper West Side, a place I first knew as a young married New Yorker forty years ago, still going strong. (I guess that applies to Zabar’s and to me.) The white mug with the giant orange letters links me to those days.
Malaprop’s bookstore in Asheville, NC. We never visit Asheville without a stop at Malaprop’s to browse, enjoy the bustle, envy the parade of great writers who read and sign books there. The cup is super-thick, an old-fashioned diner style, with the red logo of a little girl reading in a big chair.
Mugs that fit one or more of my persnickety preferences: tall rather than broad, not so huge that the coffee gets cold before you drink it, polka dots if possible, inside a different color from the outside.
And (a category all its own): political mugs. I only have one: one side features President Obama’s birth certificate, the other side reads “Made in the USA.” I’m a lifelong Democrat and proud of the Presidential candidates I’ve supported with my vote, but Barack Obama and his presidency have a special place in my heart.