Pink Paper

Fall 2009 - pink paperI heard a voice on the radio last week that sounded like a folk singer who used to work for me when I was at MIT.  It was an odd match – she was this tremendously talented woman in her 30s trying to pay the bills so she could pursue her art and music and I was an ambitious twenty something newly ensconced in a senior position in the President’s Office.  I was advised by one of my superiors that I was expected to prove myself with the subtle warning “not to let my slip show.”  So I hired Suzanne because she was bright and funny and seemed to understand teamwork, and I needed all the help I could get.

We both had a lot to learn, it turns out, and in the years since we parted ways I often think of her as I pursue organic gardening and alternative therapies because she was on the leading edge of these things way back in the 90s.  Me, I was on the leading edge of a nervous breakdown, and loving every minute of it.  I loved the meetings (it’s true, I love meetings), the policy discussions, the intellectual give and take of some of the most interesting and fascinating minds of our time – Lester Thurow, Paul Krugman, Bob Solow, John Deutch (pre-CIA), Francis Low, Philip Sharp – I only took notes on the discussions but I relished the immersion in ideas, and I gloried in taking it all down and getting it just right.

Suzanne was helpful in her wry way but clearly less enamored of the process than I.  Part of our job was to prepare for meetings, sending out agendas and prep materials and copies of the meetings notes.  To keep all of our groups straight (for us and for the members, who often sat on several committees), we coded the notes and agendas, assigning each committee their own color – yellow, green, blue, pink, goldenrod.  There were long hours in the windowless copy closet down the hall, and we had to lug our own colored paper with us each time we traversed the infinite corridor between our office and that room.  It was a pain.

Late one winter afternoon I dispatched Suzanne down the hall with a ream of pink paper to copy agenda and notes.  She returned with the notes, and each set had the first two pages in pink paper and the subsequent three in white.  There it was, my slip showing, a bit of white peeking from under the pink.  I didn’t handle it well.

“What’s with the white paper?”

“I ran out of pink and so I just finished them in white.”

“Are we out of pink?”

“No, I just didn’t want to walk all the way back to get more.”

“Well, we have to redo them so they are all pink.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“No, we really have to.  We cannot send out two-tone notes.  It’s sloppy work.  We just can’t.”

“You’re just going to throw away all this paper because it’s the wrong color.”

“No, we’ll recycle it.  The notes absolutely must be all in pink.”

“You’re going to WASTE all of that paper and time and work just so they can be all pink?”

“If you were worried about wasting paper and time you should have come back down the hall for more pink paper.”

We were both furious.  I made her stay late and redo it herself.  I didn’t even help.  It was then that I realized that I did not like being a supervisor and that I was not very good at it, either.  Eventually, Suzanne went on to work for a brilliant music professor and we parted on good terms.  After hearing what I thought was her voice last week (it wasn’t) I learned that she left New England to pursue her art and music and, from what I can see on her website, she looks well and happy, and I am glad.  She taught me a lot, and I drove her crazy.  Okay, maybe we drove each other crazy.

I still have pink paper moments all the time.  Moments where I would rather do things myself instead of harangue my kids, where I insist on things being done a certain way, and I still find myself wondering if my slip is showing.  I  reconsider that exchange where I demanded the recopying often, at those moments in which attention to detail may seem over the top but that the urge to do something – anything – precisely right is overwhelming.  On some days, doing the little things right is all I am able to get done at all.

Rocks in my Pockets

It was the middle of summer vacation at the end of an afternoon at Long Nook Beach in Truro. The sun cast long shadows and golden light on the low tide. Everyone was meandering in the surf and the tide pools and I was doing some meandering of my own up and down the beach, keeping everyone in sight, soaking up the final warmth of sun and letting the coolish water wash over my sunburned feet. Long Nook is not a good shell beach, and with boxes and boxed of Outer Banks shells languishing in my attic I had given up collecting all but the most unique shells.

Over the years my husband has always brought me bits of translucent beach glass in lovely hues of green, white brown and the rare red or blue; with the advent of recycling collecting the bits of colored glass has become more of a challenge. It is trash turned treasure. At first I saw it as litter spat back by the sea, but now I am charmed by the weathered surface of a shard of old Sprite bottle or the rare bit of cranberry glass. And on that day in 2006, the amber lenses of my sunglasses made the green tones in everything pop out, and, with no beach glass in sight, I began to pick up the greenest pebbles and drop them into the deep pockets of my hiking shorts.

After a long spell of patrolling the beach, squinting at the surf to watch everyone swim, it felt nice to hang my head, let the sun warm the back of my neck, look down and wait for something pretty to catch my eye.

In those days, and sometimes now, vacations could be exhausting. Even though it is good to get out of the stale routines of home life, breaking that rhythm creates the sort of tension with which I am often uncomfortable. There are too many choices and five people to keep happy, and they all have expectations and needs that I am compelled to meet. Most of the time I am exhilarated by the challenge, but there are moments when it rankles.

And so, with everyone happily occupied I allowed my mind to float with my eyes as I followed the tiny streams pulling the salt water back to the sea. I thought about my own childhood vacations of Midwestern swimming pools and city museums, about my Iowa born and bred father and his passion for the sea, about the gift of the Edward Hopper’s light on these steep toasted dunes, about my mixed and intense feelings about the Cape. And with each new train of thought, a pebble made its way into my pocket. I considered that afternoon as it might form itself as memory in my children’s minds, about how it conjured all of the best things about childhood for my husband, whose very soul is fueled by salt air and sand between the toes, my desire to provide a hundred more days just like it to all of them and whether that might somehow assure that they are happy and fulfilled ten or twenty years on.

My pockets were getting full and heavy. I mused if I would be able to get up the narrow path to the parking lot with such a load in my pockets and a heavy beach bag and cooler. I worried how much longer I could carry around all of the stories without collapsing under their collective weight. I asked myself if writing them down would make me feel better or worse.

And in 2009 I finally have my answer.

John Updike has taken over my life

What to make of middle aged silences?

It seems that more and more of the conversations we do have are mere circles around the ones we should have. We have built strong and study scaffolding around each other in a sincere effort to support on another, noting our foibles and weaknesses. It is a respectful but tense silence, at least on my side, for I harbor a fear that I am going about things all wrong without a forum in which to sift through the contents my fertile and overactive imagination.

Some would say that that is what therapists are for, and in the wee hours and I lay worrying about the course of my life I think this might be true. But my time with therapists has been explaining rather than learning; and so far I have never left an appointment knowing once ounce more than when I walked in – all I have done is clarify my own position with myself. That is useful but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Friends are better if you can find them and make time for them.

Writing is even better.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time convincing myself that I am not an angry person, but there is no question that I am driven more strongly and specifically by anger than anything, even love. Perhaps it is time to embrace it, harness it, turn it into something practical. I have waited long enough for the moment when these things will come out, and if process the old things maybe it will improve my ability to cope with the present.

I know that this is in some ways the opposite of what I have learned with cognitive behavioral therapy, but I think there is room for both approaches. Mere acceptance of all things past is not possible for me, but accepting that those moments are over and that I cannot carry or assign blame for them seems like the right thing to do. And allowing myself to be paralyzed in the present because of the past is absolutely something that I need to overcome, and that is what brings me to the keyboard today.

How much of the past am I injecting into today’s silences, and hoq much am I projecting my own worries into other’s quiet? Plenty. But let me also add that women, for the most part, are faced with the questions of middle age head on and from the inside out. You can actually hear the doors slamming inside your own body and that is a process that screams for attention. The shifting tides of hormones require that we look at our choices and come to peace with them.

Men, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of circumstances. They harbor the illusion that they have the option to start over, that they can rend and discard the fabric of their lives and begin again. Women only think in terms of a new weave, of mending and patching, of adding new yarn and fabric. Of course there are new beginnings for both sexes, but this process that begins in your 40s is so much more concrete for women because the impetus comes from within; you can change or implode or explode. For men, it is all external. From the male perspective – and this is a sweeping generalization, to be sure – women, by all evidence, are going insane, the children are no longer cute and adoring, and the job market is narrowing. Retirement is no longer what parents do. They are trapped, and so they set about acquiring as much stuff as possible to show that they are, by some measure, successful. This is often in direct contradiction with the women’s desire to simplify their lives as they become overwhelmed with the job of caring for the stuff their husbands and kids are bringing home. But with the arrival of each new toy the women harbor a hope that this proves that he is not preparing to start over; that the convertible is fine so long as the only girl in the passenger seat is your teen aged daughter.

And then, like sunshine breaking through clouds, there are moments of surprise, where one of us makes an observation that reaches the other in an unexpected way. Like the man devoted to punk rock sharing a moment of opera that he heard on the radio. This man who never showed interest in that art form but who has a keen appreciation for excellence in any shape, has an understanding of the unique gifts that people are blessed with and can make something extraordinary. These are the moments that tell me I am in the right place, that those flashes of beauty, devotion, and revelation will find me no matter how far out to sea it feels like I am. That is where the person transcends gender and souls speak, and we recall and know what it is to fall in love more deeply than ever.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between deference and giving in. Deference is more noble, more willingly practiced; giving in is done indulgently sometime grudgingly, it indicates that your idea was better but that you don’t want to fight or have already conceded defeat. Witnessing children duke it out shows that we learn giving in long before we learn deference; some people clearly never learn it at all, and they are the ones that keep score. So I am learning how to make those distinctions and chronicle things with blame and giving and sniping; I want the subjects of my stories to be treated with deference and still be true – to couch the sometimes chronic pain in terms that have no hint of score settling but really of story telling – I want people who are textured and earthy with ragged edges and inconsistencies and bad grammar. I will fight the urge to put gauze over the lens. With every short story I read I see the beauty in this economy of detail, and know that I will have to write a lot to pare it all down into something compact, tasty; weighty and still digestible.

I don’t even read much Updike – too flinty masculine New England for me, but the world he paints is so recognizable it almost hurts. Not almost – it does hurt, physically. I think all I can muster at this moment is my despair that the writing life is not one that I can survive within or survive without. I suspect I cannot chronicle this life, birth these stories without unimaginable pain. And yet the weight of the pregnancy is becoming unbearable, and I know that in time something good will happen if I will only allow it.

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