Saturday, February 26, 2011

anatomy of a space 3

A table and chairs with books looking on.

This is a space that I've grown to love over the last twenty months or so. I don't eat here all that very much. Eating alone -- which is what I do everyday -- seems somehow more palatable on the couch. When J's in town, we do, in fact, dine here together, but it seems like it's been a year since he's visited (hint, hint).

Like much of my tiny studio, this space is more accident than intention. My mom found these super modern chairs at a fancy summer sale in Michigan. They're sleek and leather, two attributes I'd never guess would define my decor. But they did, in fact, define my need for a suitably modern table. This knockoff is Ikea. J's parents have the real deal -- the genuine article -- in their house in California, which somehow seems a far more appropriate home. J and I received a beautiful, old, and perfectly me, cherry table as a wedding gift from dear friends in Michigan. It's the table that we'll gather around in Kentucky and it's the table that feels more like home. This one, though, I won't forget, even if it does find another home for itself in Philadelphia.

Mostly I use the table for sewing or grading papers or storing piles and piles of mail. This morning I used it to wind a skein of -- beat on my happy heart -- indigo cashmere. And later today I'll use it to grade the six papers that I've sworn to myself I'll read before yoga at 4 pm. During some weeks, like this one, I use it to support a vase of fresh blooms. I think these tulips might be the best thing that's happened to me in February.

The bookcase was an ex-boyfriend's street find in North Carolina. He painted it brick red and it sat in our ranch's living room in graduate school. I got it in the breakup and I painted it yellow before I left for Philadelphia. Today it holds the books that I need most immediately, the ones I'm teaching from this semester.

Next up: the interiors of my kitchen cabinets? my overstuffed closet? my windowed shower? We'll see.

Friday, February 25, 2011

{This moment}

Not from this week, but from a week in 1977, with the present self looking on. Here's to the man who should do no such heavy lifting for the next week or so.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

anatomy of a space 2

I’ve known that I need a headboard or better yet, an entire bed, for a long time, like since I first glimpsed by pal Maura’s geometric one in graduate school. My first thought upon seeing hers was, “wow, she’s has, like, real furniture.” At the time, I think, I was still sleeping on a futon with Arlo at my feet.

This bed, now looking so sad, was my first real bed in adulthood, one that I begged my mother to buy for me when I was 26 by pleading with her that I’d never find a husband if I was still sleeping on a futon. She believed me and bought the bed. It did take me another five years or so to meet my husband, but I got the bed nonetheless. It’s had a suspicious one-side slope for the better part of my relationship with J. We’ve never been able to diagnosis it properly, but whoever sleeps on the right side is forced to go it at a 15ยบ decline. It might, then, not make the trek to Kentucky.

The bed’s sadness, if I do say so myself, comes not so much from its slope and missing headboard as it does from its ragtag assortment of linens. I bought the fading quilt on a spring day in 2001. I was driving south from great barrington — a charming if not self-righteously liberal town in western massachusetts near where I both went to high school and then taught years later — toward lakeville, connecticut when I saw a semi-truck open on the side of the road with a hand-painted “quilts 4 sale” sign. You don’t often see semi-truck quilt sales on the side of a road and so I stopped to check it out. I found this one in a huge pile of not-very-compelling-but-pretty-cheap cotton quilts. There was never anything particular charming about it. It’s neither handmade nor interesting, but somehow it’s stuck around all these years. When I think about it I mostly see Arlo curled up on it, annoyed when I dared to take a mere third of the bed.

And yes, I do sleep with five pillows. I like to make a little fortress around my body at night. They each have distinct purposes, but I’ll not bore you (or myself) with the details. Their threadbare pink cases, though, deserve a mention. In my grandmother’s late years she took to sewing all manner of cases, most of them loud and garish. I think I have just two sets left. Both are falling apart at the seams, but are so soft you almost want to weep with pleasure. They need to be retired soon to a box of keepsakes that I can take out one day when I’m finding it hard to remember her precise seams or her flare for the floral print.

It’s fitting that my grandmother’s cases rest below her twin sister’s painting. When Aunt Mimi — my mom’s namesake — gave me this painting, she told me that she could “see things.” I asked her what she meant and was treated to this amazing rumination on the ghostly, the benevolently possessed. She told me that she was clairvoyant. These eerie flowers remind me of her and that conversation. I like the way that she renders the living flower with a deathly shadow. Sometimes I feel terribly at emotional odds with my family, but this painting reminds me of my affective inheritance.

Sharing my bedside table like this feels a bit like opening my soul to scrutiny. But here it is. The stack of books make up my snippets of late-night reading. I’ve loved dipping into Tinkers, a quiet novel, this winter. The rest are mostly about anxiety and panic, a bit of yoga and some artistic cultivation. I don’t spend a lot of time reading books at night, but I’ve shoved my stack of New Yorkers under the bed. I also keep my friend Emily’s yearly poetry calendar on this table. She anthologies poems from the previous year’s reading each fall and it’s always the best treat to get the new volume in autumn and connect to her each week with a new selection. And then there’s the reminder of life on the second floor of a busy city street: earplugs. I’ve developed an addiction to them and now I can’t sleep anywhere, even in silent Kentucky, without them. And there’s Arlo once again. This photo, partially occluded here, is one of my favorite shots of him. Elena took it at a party and it shows him begging for a bite of cake. He was always and forever hoping for a bite.

Finally, on the wall beside my bed is this funny little series of J and I. Our wedding photographer took these last November, when I insisted that he try out for the role. I'm hopelessly unphotogenic and I wanted to be sure that he could make due with my lousy ability to take a decent picture.

Monday, February 21, 2011

finding a voice

During my first semester of graduate school, I was a research assistant for a rhetoric and composition professor who was starting to think about a project on voice. When she explained it to me, she said that she wanted to write against the idea that voice can’t really exist in writing, at least that’s the way that I remember her characterizing this supposed argument. I can’t now recall what she was responding to nor can I say anything of the research that I did for her that semester. None of it stuck because these issues didn’t yet animate my life. But today I find myself thinking again about voice and writing.

There’s been something about turning down the tenure-track job last week that has ignited my desire to get back to my own academic work. I suspect its partially fear and partially an awareness that I need to show continued productivity. So much of my post-doc has been about serving bryn mawr that I’ve hardly had time to let my thinking about my own interests grow and develop. I guess now that I can see its end, I’m starting to get excited about returning to my own projects. I have several in mind, though I’m also aware that I should really revise my dissertation and try to turn it into a publishable monograph.

But instead of getting back to that first project, I have a real sense about a book I want to write that’s quasi-academic and quasi-autobiographical, probably the kind of book that would never find a publisher nor an audience. But still, I want to write it. And here’s where we get to the question of voice.

Over the last year and in this bloggish space, I’ve found again a voice that was dampened during graduate school. It’s the voice that’s in my head and the one that feels completely natural. But it’s also a voice that seems to be able to speak with authority only about that which is autobiographical. Turn the conversation to Emerson or gender, realism or space, and I started to get nervous. My sentences get clipped or they bloat grotesquely, clause after clause after tangled clause. I get paralyzed by weak verbs and I take shelter in encyclopedic footnotes. I make tiny claims because I can only seem to see the trees and never the whole forest. I read books about academic writing and making better arguments, but nothing seems to help because in that voice --the one of my dissertation -- I’m fundamentally estranged from the voice in my head.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about this problem of my academic voice and its origins in a larger problem of knowledge and authority. J and I talk about like it’s chronic and progressive disease. He’s usually there to help me untangle the mess I’ve made. He sees more clearly and writes with more fluidity than almost anyone I know. When I first met him, he told me that when he started graduate school, he wanted to write a dissertation that sounded like Faulkner. I thought that that was the strangest and most beautiful thing anyone could ever desire. And then I started to read his writing and I realized that he had, indeed, found a way to write history, really fine history, like he was writing a novel.

So this new project that I have in mind is both exciting and terrifying to consider. I want to find a way, through the fear, to wrestle this voice — the one I use here — into one that can speak about Catharine Beecher or the history of the recovery of women’s literature. In other words, I want to stop ventriloquizing a codified academic speak and start forging a new way for myself. I don’t know if this is even possible or how to begin this process, but I think if I’m going to start doing the work that I want to do, I need to find a way forward in my own voice.

Is that a crazy desire?

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I finished piecing this yesterday. I had originally thought that this section would simply be the center of a larger quilt with several borders, but my thinking shifted over the day and I decided that I wanted this to exist as it does right now. I'm thinking that it might hang on a wall or eventually be a little play mat or crib quilt. I thought about sending it off to a friend, but then I realized--perhaps selfishly--that I needed to keep this for myself. I began it last april in the midst of a friend's struggle and I finished piecing it nearly a year later in the midst of my own struggle. It didn't quite make sense, then, as a baby gift for another. I worried that its energy might be too complex or too ambivalent for a child other than my own. Instead, I need to keep it as a reminder, a token, of my time and my trials in this little space. I'm machine quilting around random pieces of the top because it didn't seem quite worth it to hand quilt the top, especially if one day it will lie on the floor and be drooled on or tugged at. But we'll have to see about that in the years to come...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

anatomy of a space 1

In just over three months, I’ll pack my boxes and leave the 550 square feet that have been a refuge over these last two years. I’ll drive west to kentucky in a uhaul truck and unpack my boxes in something a bit more sprawling than this little studio in the middle of philadelphia. This city has tried me in so many ways. I’ve been yelled at, shoved, spit on, and nearly hit by a dozen taxis. I’ve found a deli where I can get a perfect egg and cheese on a bagel for $2.49 on Saturday mornings. I’ve sat on blanket in fitler square on august afternoons reading the new yorker and pretending that I wasn’t bothered by the horns honking and the dogs barking. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit at my favorite yarn shop on south street because it’s been the one place--besides my studio--where I’ve felt truly at home.

And yet I realized this morning that I’ve done a poor job recording this actual space. For all my gestures toward limited square footage, I’ve not really documented its physicality here. I haven’t shown my tentative and temporary decor, the way that I’ve settled in only so much, knowing that I’d leave here before too long. But I want to be able to remember this space, the last in which I’ll live alone. And so here begins a small anatomical series to help me remember...and perhaps to help moderate my inclination years from now to romanticize this little box.

This is where I sit. In the mornings and the evenings and all day on the weekends. I bought this sofa from the previous tenant because it was cheap and neutral and the "good" couch went with J to kentucky. The side table and lamp were her's as well. I guess that means that this space is hardly my own. But J and I did buy the pillows when I first moved here. We went to a home decor shop and had this amazing afternoon with a flamboyant salesman who asked us "what story do you want to tell on your couch?" I kept laughing, but then totally embraced his inclination toward decorative narratives. We decided we wanted to tell a warm and autumnal story, and so we went with the reds and brown. The throw is a recent wedding gift from pals in Maine who must know my inclination to snuggle up.

The print on the wall--and I'll probably get this story wrong--is a rubbing from a Belgian church that my mom's childhood friend Greg made as a wedding gift for my parents in 1972. I've had it for a long time, though only recently have I really begun to look at it. This new seeing was mostly prompted by J's horror when we were rehanging it: "My god, that's the baby Jesus on your wall!" J doesn't take much interest in decor, at least not unless it strikes him as even vaguely christian, and thus somehow obliquely offensive to his occasional jewish self-righteousness. Jesus aside, though, I like the rubbing because it's so familiar. My Dad and grandfather made its frame and its back is a panel from a 1970's refrigerator box. Perhaps I should hang it backwards as a reminder of their inventiveness and frugality.

This is, obliviously, a close-up of the side table. Again, the lamp and table came from the pre-occupant. The rest is my own and not a particularly nice arrangement, but all its parts matter. The orchid that refuses to bloom again--though it seems perfectly happy--was a gift from my advisor, Eliza, after I passed my oral exams in 2006. I like to think of it as the one beautiful thing that came out of that experience, but it would make me far happier if I could coax it to send out a shoot of flowers. It's haphazard bowl I threw in 1994, before I went to college and during a summer in Michigan when I was fascinated by a christian scientist in my pottery class and apt to spend my free time flirting with lanky guy at a coffee shop who would become one of most important people in my life. The delicate yellow vase in the background is from my sister Molly's foray into raku. And then there's Arlo, looking forlorn, as he was usually did, and J and I on our wedding day. I still can't really look at pictures from the wedding without feeling somehow strangely nervous. But this one doesn't make me too dizzy.

So that's space one with more to come.

Friday, February 18, 2011

{This moment}

My parting nod to Arkansas. This from a gathering of Civil War reenactors that J and I stumbled upon on our drive out of Little Rock last Saturday. It's been both thrilling and gut-wrenching to consider you, Miss Arkansas. But this time the bluegrass state wins out. Berea, Kentucky, here I come.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


There are no pictures today. There’s nothing to be seen.

But there’s something to say, I suppose. Something to whisper about learning to compromise, for real and for the first time in nearly 35 years. Something about the sadness of stepping off of a path you’ve been on for nearly a decade.

Today I will turn down a tenure-track offer at a school I really love, a place where I could imagine myself walking across campus, flanked by students and colleagues, a place that seemed excited about me and my work. A place whose affections I returned wholeheartedly. It was the one job on my list of applications this year that I really wanted (well, that is excluding a harebrained idea about the geographical perfection of a school on the shores of Lake Superior) and I felt truly compelled by its commitments and its pedagogical orientation. J and I went back there for a return visit this weekend and I was confirmed in my first impressions: I felt deeply drawn to the place and most importantly, to the people.

All of this surprised me, after so many years of so much ambivalence. I was stunned to find myself so eager to take this position, so determined to begin a life there. So excited about planning my classes and thinking about undergraduate research. And I came to feel immensely comfortable and confident in my ability to do good work in and out of this school’s classrooms. I would be lying if I didn’t also admit that I felt proud of myself, proud to have finally gotten somewhere in this tortured world of academics. I felt visible--if that makes sense--and instead of feeling terrified by that, I felt exhilarated.

But as I said, today I will foreclose this avenue. I’ve also declined the fellowship I mentioned a couple weeks ago. I’ve bowed out, or at least that’s the way it feels.

Instead, I’ve chosen my marriage. Maybe the decision is not this stark, but at the moment it certainly feels this way. I’m conscious, of course, of all the women who have been forced or encouraged to make similar choices, but I’m also aware that my choice this time couldn’t be about righting a historical wrong or standing on principle alone. It had to be a choice made with another about what was best (though certainly not right) for us knowing what we know right now.

For us. Right now.

We know that J has a job that he cares deeply about (and probably should not complain about for at least eighteen months) and I have a two-year visiting position there. I will not have a say in what I teach but I also won’t have a tenure clock ticking. We’ll both have benefits and I’ll have the space to figure out what might come next for me, in academics and in life. This feels tremendous scary, terrifying really, after so many years of marching toward a single goal, one that I’ve just chosen to put aside.

I’m worried that I’m going to feel adrift and that I’m always going to be the one in the contingent position, the one who’s trailing instead of the one taking the lead. I worry that I’m going to feel resentful and frustrated. I’m worried that I’m going to curse Kentucky for the next five years. I'm worried that I feel all of this because I don't trust J in quite the way that I should. I'm stubbornly independent, as I've always been, and it's painful to let go -- or even loosen my grip -- on that.

But I also know that it’s time for me, for us, to move forward, through these worries and through this fear. I’m not going to give up on this sadness right now, because that feels too important to ignore, but I am going to choose to move forward through all of this.

I want to think about this time as one of possibility, of promises that I can't now imagine. Who knows, maybe I can finally get around to writing that book about being a prude or the one about popping pills. Maybe we'll get a puppy and plant a garden. Maybe I'll find myself flanked by students of a different sort.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Remember this old friend? Or rather, these old friends?

I thought about these year-old pieces as I lay in bed this morning. A dear friend gave birth to Alexandra at 26 weeks on Thursday afternoon after several scary days of pre-eclampsia. I keep imagining her in Boston and loving her at a distance. It's only February and it's already been a year of tremendous struggle for those whom I love. This morning I'm thinking about my Dad in the hospital after six weeks of chemo and radiation and now with a paralyzing back pain. He's gearing up for a major surgery on March 10th, but as he's wont to do, he's been pushing himself too hard, skiing too much, and now his body is resisting all the change. But how to convince a man who has sprinted through life to s l o w d o w n?

I took out these pieces for selfish reasons too. I put down my ragged copy of Stoddard's The Morgesons, a bizarre, otherworldly novel I'm teaching for the first time tomorrow. I set the microwave timer to 60:00 and let myself go. I needed to fall into these colors, to arrange and rearrange the parts. I needed to make space in my brain for something beautiful, something tangible and changeable. I needed to press pause on suffering -- ah, the luxury to do so --- and indecision.

When the timer rang, I had only worked out a few details at the bottom of one row. Now it's back to Stoddard and to worry and to the decision that's been in the front of my mind for nine days now. J and I are deciding between remaining in Kentucky or moving to Arkansas. We're deciding between his tenure-track job and one for me, deciding between the known and the unknown, between bits of nervous fear and bits of established comfort. We're deciding on the shape of things to come.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

less troublesome

Or maybe more troublesome. Two or three weeks ago it was looking a bit out of control. I thought an update, then, was in order.

This jury duty jumper found its way off the needles. I blocked it last weekend, but haven't managed to get it in the mail. The pattern is here. As you can see, I modified it into a pullover. After blocking it, its proportions seem a bit odd. It's rather long for a newborn but seems to be about the right width. Who knows, perhaps I should have increased for girth around the middle?

This Turn a Square cap did get in the mail and hopefully on the head of J, the birthday boy. He's been clamoring for a cap for awhile. I think it might be impossible to photograph a hat without a head, but it's all I got in this commuter marriage.

The Stephen West Little Colonnade was certainly not my favorite knit of the year. I just hated doing the decrease columns. And it seemed totally puny when it came off the needles last week. Here it is in its pre-blocked form. It's on blocking wires right now and it seems to have grown a good deal. I'm going to love wearing it; I just didn't love knitting it.

Finally, the Shalom. I never thought I'd get back to this, but a trip to Arkansas early in the week gave me an excuse. I knew that I'd be totally exhausted on the trip home and unable to look at work. So that exhaustion combined with two cancelled flights and a ten-hour travel day meant that I got Ms. Shalom this far. She needs some selves, of course, and this will happen soon, perhaps on a return visit to Little Rock next weekend with J.

We're deep in the midst of decision making around here. J and I have to decide if we're going to be in Arkansas or Kentucky, at one rural small college or another. All of the choices come with significant sacrifices and we're muscling our way to a decision that can work for both of us. It's a tough time, but I think we're both trying to balance our desires with our hopes for one another. More than anything, we're committed to taking this marriage to (gasp) a shared space. It just remains to be seen where that space may be...

Friday, February 4, 2011

{This Moment}

Might we call this--this stash, this habit, this love--an addiction?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

the natural state

This morning I went to look up Arkansas's nickname: The Natural State. I laughed. But I laughed even harder when I realized that this was a revision from its original: The Land of Opportunity. Apparently the latter didn't stick. And yet it might just prove to be that for me.

I got back late last night from my campus visit, which was really rather good, if not totally exhausting. I'm now trying on the idea of life in the "mid south," in the apocryphal land of my college pal Stout. Of course, I don't yet know if that decision will be mine to make, but I'm trying on the idea nonetheless.

Here's what I want to remember about the Natural State:

1. there's an amazing Brazilian bakery in Little Rock that serves what I can only describe as the perfect food: manioc flour-based Brazilian Cheese Bread. It's like a little puff of cheesy heaven.

2. there are neighborhoods of old craftsman bungalows with wide porches and tons of charm.

3. arkansas really is arkansas.

4. the department was super nice, young, seemingly fun, smart, happy to working together.

5. the students i met were engaged and excited about being there.

So who knows? I do know that there's an inside candidate for the position, so I have no idea if they're even going to consider my candidacy seriously. If they don't, they don't. I'll be just fine either way.