Sunday, May 1, 2011

A place of dread

(An assignment from my writing class, to describe a place of dread from my past).

It was large, for a garage—comfortably holding two cars with room for shelves on either side. Three rough-wood stairs led to the back yard via an alcove off the north; an old fridge rattled in the corner. Next to those stairs was the entrance to the crawlspace, covered by a slab of plywood pinned to the wall with a pivoting wooden stick. The gaps around the edges of that primitive door were easily wide enough for creeping wolf spiders or squeezing mice or slithering, unimaginable entities to escape the pure blackness in the dirt under the house.

Directly across from the crawlspace, twelve unfinished stairs connected the garage to a small landing, from which one could scurry through a door into the safety of the basement. But to get there, it was necessary to pass the yawning door to the shop, over which a worn, vomit-pink blanket had been nailed to keep the heat in when my dad was working. What manner of creature could be lurking among the furniture-sized machinery, burrowed into the piles of sawdust that drifted around the floor in suspicious paths?

I never dared to look behind me, only felt the tendrils of darkness reaching toward my shoulders, slithering around my ankles. I would try to walk slowly at first but soon was leaping up the stairs, dashing across the landing and finally, slamming the door on the cold fingers of my imagination.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Writing class: essay on obsession

I'm taking an online writing class and have decided to post some of the exercises here, in case anyone is interested. The first assignment was to write about an obsession (non-fiction).


I’m obsessed with planning: planning home improvement projects, planning which route to drive, planning what to take on a trip, planning my work schedule years ahead when my kids are in school. I plan the hours of my afternoon, the weekends of the summer and the decades of my life.

If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I relax by clicking through my online calendar week by week, marveling at how quickly time passes—how soon it will be summer, how short that season will be, how quickly Christmas follows. I create repeating events in the calendar with yoga classes I would like to attend or bike rides or regular dinner parties in order to catch up with all the friends I’d like to see. Sliding into this world feels juicy and indulgent, like viewing porn when I’m supposed to be working or dabbling with a drug to which I used to be addicted, ignoring the consequences for a quick fix.

If that sounds like living in the moment, it’s important to note that it’s exactly the opposite. Planning is a way to escape the present; it’s easier to hope for perfection tomorrow than to deal with the disappointments of today. Buddhist philosophy regards planning as a futile struggle against suffering—if we plan exactly how events will unfold, we are trying to control exactly what happens to us. But of course the world is not in our control: reading restaurants reviews could help us find a decent dinner but our meal might not be perfect, taking our own coffee on a trip might make for a satisfying cup but says nothing of the rest of the day, doing prenatal testing doesn’t guarantee we won’t have a child with a developmental problem.

I don’t want to spend all my time waiting for the future only to find, at the end of my life, that I missed it all. I want to appreciate what I’m actually doing, however imperfect it may be, because the present is in full color compared to the charcoal sketches of the future or snapshots remembered from the past. So I try to control my planning urge, blocking myself from scheduling too far in advance or too trivial of events or happenings over which I have no control.

There are certain things I let myself plan for. Months before a big trip, I search for the one pair of shoes that will allow me to walk comfortably, look fashionable-enough in cities and go with jeans or a skirt. It takes time and thought to find these and the early effort is worth not having to pack a second pair of shoes. But there are other things I’ve learned are useless to plan for: during my first pregnancy I tried to guess what I would need but it all changed once there were living human beings with their unique tastes and once I understood what it was really like to deal with babies.

So planning, like so many things, comes down to moderation and examination. Is the planning necessary? Is it useful? Or is it just me not being happy with what I have at the moment? A rough schedule for a long day at home with toddlers can introduce the necessary variety to make the time enjoyable to everyone but trying to force them to do everything I might have wanted becomes tortuous to all of us. And so it goes as all the days pass into years and the years become my life.