Today’s Nest-Making guest post in honor of women and Women’s History Month is by Bindu Wiles. It’s a milestone post for two reasons: it’s the blog’s 500th post, and more importantly, Bindu is one of the first people I met online to become dear to me offline as well. I’m very happy to have her words and images here today.
In honor of all the women who have given their bodies
as a soft place to fall
to rest upon
to enter into the world
to bear witness
We are all mothers of some sort.
Bindu Wiles is in a deep mid-life crisis that she is walking, writing and photographing her way through. She has an undergraduate degree in fine art (photography) and 3 graduate degrees because the one she really wanted all along was an MFA in writing, which she finally received at 47 years of age from Sarah Lawrence College. The tattoo on her left forearm sums up her life motto: Art Saves Lives. She has completed a 300 page memoir, her essays have been published in various literary journals, she is bringing more of the under 12 years of age crowd into her life, and is always up for a good laugh. In fact, she is trying to stay in a state of silly as an approach to aging.
I’ve had a bad case of holiday blues this month, and two remedies: baking cookies and reading Christopher Hitchens.
Nigella Lawson has been my guide to the former; Andrew Sullivan to the latter.
It’s easy enough to explain the cookies–butter, flour, sugar, and I are old friends. My near-obsession with Hitchens since his death is a little more complicated, its causes still percolating, not yet clear enough to write about here.
But my admiration for his commitment to writing is simple enough.
To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
Voice again. How I have struggled with it. But really, read the whole essay.
Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.
My partly edited manuscript sits in the corner of my desk, Nigella Christmas on top of it. I cough from my holiday cold. And I know I’m right when I tell myself, Just write.
Thank you Amy for the book that found its way to the top of the stack at just the right time and for this sonnet by Wordsorth:
Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom
But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? – Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s return
Was the worse pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
Thank you Crescent Dragonwagon for sharing your post about Beanblossom, reminding me that there will be a long view and I must waste nothing.
If Magritte had painted my childhood, the sky would be Florida blue and Carolina gray. I would slip through a rubber tube and sink to the deep end of a pool, rescued by my pregnant mother. I would stumble through a split-level house in a perennially diet-morphing body. Big dogs would roam the yards. My mother’s new blue bra would hover over a cherry hedge as I described it to a neighbor pressing me for details. I would sit on an overturned bucket in the cab of a steel delivery truck on a Saturday with my father. A tractor would crush a midnight orange-grove joyrider. A wedding ring would be buried in new sod. A pig’s head would overlook its barbecue. Shocking pink walls would match a nail-polish-remover-ruined bedspread. In the corners, shadows of a gun and a to-be-removed tree. My volcanic moods would erupt with the moon or books read or music played from records and tapes, 8-track and cassette. I would drive away in a fast Camaro, windows rolled down, never-smoked cigarettes hidden in my purse.
If Magritte had painted your childhood, what would it look like?
Sitting across the table from my mother today, celebrating her 69th birthday, I remembered this picture of her, at 16, with her mother, Annie, then 41, standing next to a gardenia bush that was still blooming when I was a child.
At 16, my mother wanted to be a doctor. She became a devoted mother and homemaker.
She and my father have been married for forty-eight years, and they still hold hands.
She is a proper lady who can’t resist a whoopie cushion.
A funky dancer and a fine plumber.
A reader of Dante and People.
A lover of God, her grandchildren, and a dog almost as spoiled as mine.
A layer of parquet floors and receiver of manicures.
A matriarch and euphemistic swearer: sugar, fudge, dad-gum-it, and what in the Sam Hill is going on?
A polite but fiercely independent patient after her recent spinal surgery.
We are two complicated women, and our relationship has not always been as easy as it is today.
But I know, Mom, that since the moment you knew that I grew in your belly, you have believed in me and loved me, just because I was “Angela.”
But now that the project, with its commitment to shed some stuff from my surroundings and my hips, is about to start for real, I’m giving it more conscious thought. What about all this stuff? Why do I have it in the first place? If I want to get rid of it, why haven’t I done so already? What if I want to keep it?
First, though, a digression the worlds of all-or-nothing thinking and comfort reading that I sometimes inhabit. I’d like to say that I used the waiting time of the past week to weave together the two very different drafts of my memoir that I have before me, or read Franzen’s Freedom. Instead, I’ve scribbled illegible and incomplete sentences in my notebook and read about one-and-a-half Jack Reacher novels.
Jack Reacher, in case you’re not familiar with these books, is the retired-Army-MP hero of Lee Child’s so-far-fourteen-book series. I’m reading them in reverse order, having started with Sixty-One Hours this year. I’m on book 8, The Enemy.
Reacher is important to this shedding post because he has pared down his possessions and his relationships as far down as one can without leaving modern society altogether. He possesses a passport, an ATM card, a collapsible toothbrush, the clothes on his back, and the shoes on his feet. That’s it. He wears his clothes for about four days at a time, and then buys a new set, discarding the “old” set in a dressing room or motel bathroom. He has relationships in the course of each novel, and sometimes people from his past contact him, but he moves through life alone, never staying in one place longer than a thriller plot can keep him there.
When he is asked about why he doesn’t have, say, a wallet, he says that possessions are a slippery slope. A wallet (this is my paraphrase) becomes a briefcase becomes a suitcase becomes a car becomes a studio apartment, and before you know it you’ve got a house with a 3-car garage and a storage unit for the stuff that won’t fit inside. And relationships follow the same pattern.
Some days, Reacher’s philosophy has its appeal.
As I read Reacher’s story while Mr. Z sorts through his mother’s possessions and I contemplate the Shed Project, I wonder: what do things mean to me and say about what’s important to me? Jack Reacher would not have a Davy Crockett cookie jar in his nonexistent kitchen. But this gift to Mr. Z from his brother represents love and family and generous sharing, and I can’t imagine that he or I would ever part with it except to share it with similar intent.
On what basis do I decide that an inscribed book has value but a photo does not? That a Bundt pan stays but a vase should go to a thrift store? Can I create a reasoned hierarchy of practically and sentimentally valued objects?
Those are questions for the next eight weeks. But I need to define the overall project, so here goes. I will shed the following:
a minimum of eight pounds (one per week) from my body. I know how to do this.
a minimum of 1 box or bag of items from eight categories: closet, books, kitchen, home office, work office, garage, things I like but haven’t touched in one year, things that would mean more to someone else than they do to me. This is a little trickier.
Since I’m not Jack Reacher, there will be latitude, judgment calls, irrationality. I’ll keep you posted, one category at a time.
For the past eight days, I’ve had this lyric in my head:
so let go, jump in
oh well, whatcha waiting for
’cause there’s beauty in the breakdown.
–from “Let Go” by Frou Frou
For the past eight days, Mr. Z’s mother, Virginia, has been dying. She’s 93 years old. Last Saturday, the 4th of September, both of her sons, four of her grandchildren, and her newborn great-grandson (along with those of us who love them all) were to have celebrated her recent birthday with lunch and cake at the nursing home where she lives. She had expressed fatigue for weeks, even asking Mr. Z to cancel the
birthday party because she believed she would be too tired for it. Early on the morning of the day of the party, she had a stroke.
We gathered, first in her room, then in the dining room, then in her room again. We stood around her bedside as she slept, rotating into and out of the chair closest to her, keeping the family tradition of reading aloud the birthday-card wishes everyone had written to her from their hearts. They told stories and jokes. There’s beauty in the breakdown.
Saturday’s stroke was not her first, and she and Mr. Z had discussed her wishes over the years. Medical powers of attorney and Do Not Resuscitate orders were in place. Never again would she be taken to the hospital. She wanted to die without intervention, heroic or otherwise. So on Sunday, now a week ago, Mr. Z signed the papers which admitted her to hospice care.
During the past week, Mr. Z and his brother and Debbie, Virginia’s aide of nine years, have stayed by her side around the clock, only leaving together for one three-hour period when they considered that she might prefer to die without company. Those of us who love her have had a chance to tell her things we’d forgotten and begin to let her go and say goodbye and grieve. Plans for the family to travel to Alabama to carry out her burial wishes have been made. Caregiving staff have shared stories of her nursing home life that they might not have had a chance to tell. There’s beauty in the breakdown.
Today is Virginia’s ninth day since the stroke. She rests quietly. When her breathing becomes labored, nurses administer morphine by bitter-tasting sublingual drops. We stroke her hair and her hands. Those who have known her best say that she is strong, that she is a fighter. She, or God, or maybe some dialogue between them, will decide when she will take her last breath.
The past few weeks have offered a series of reminders about the certainty of uncertainty, the potential of everything to change in a second, a phone call, a heartbeat, a breath. I’ve been trying to look for and at Certainty instead, and the beauty in the breakdown.