Let’s start at the beginning…or maybe at the last ending?

Let’s start at the beginning…or maybe at the last ending?

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about closing this and opening that for a while now. On a literal level, this is due to lots of changes in direction, career, point of view and some serious pondering on relationships, habits and what I really want my life to look and feel like in the near future. There’s also the jar of caramel that I just opened, wondering all the while if it would taste as good as I hoped it would and a book that I have been saving the final three pages for almost a week now, just so that that I don’t have to finish the story and close the doors to the riveting world I’ve been hanging out in while I read.

Even though there is a literal base to my openings and closings thread; I stick with this yarn because it always gives me plenty of opportunities for sideways thinking and metaphor building which are kind of like dessert for me, mental desert.  If I begin by thinking about the fact that I may very well be quitting the job I’ve had for almost exactly a decade and moving on to a new career, I only spend a day or two on the surface concerns like whether I will make new friends and if I made the right decision to change paths. While these are the meaty things that I talk about with my friends for much longer than a day two, in my own mind, during my solitary time, my mind wanders deeper to the sweet soul of what I’m up to.

A tiny Alice in Wonderland type of door opens in my mind  and I can see through it  quite plainly to what I really want to consider. The job I am leaving was a clean complement to the way I would describe myself as an adult since I have considered myself an adult. It wasn’t glamorous or uber professional, but it was something I was good at and it contributed to my ethic of being a humble and curious person involved in positive endeavors. The new career is also decidedly un-glamorous, but more distinctly it  bears complete contradictions to the way that I identified myself for a really long time. I used to see myself as a worker, not an academic. I dropped out of high school and no matter what I did after that, there was always that tag in my view of myself. Now, with a college degree and a career in education I’m rewriting that self image. After some thought I feel like this is the change, the opening and the closing, that I am really interested in.  I don’t know exactly what the changes I’m making will mean for the way I see myself , but since I am I feeling kind of in limbo the way I define myself is kind of a rough draft right now.

This phenomenon intrigues me. And now I am on the other side of that oddly shaped door in my consciousness. I’m not closing the door behind me, but it is definitely getting small on the horizon as I walk away from it. The meaning underlying what I am up to these days is changing as I indulge in the kind of thinking that brings me joy.  Think of Pandora’s box or the wardrobe that leads to and from Narnia.  Both are openings/closings that force you to think of something beyond the surface. Of course the caramel and the book that I started with, like the magical box and the fantastic wardrobe, are meant to invite a thought that leads to something deeper and more complicated within the  taster or the reader. Desert topping may not make everyone think introspectively, but it’s the perfect place to look for meaning in my book

As a teacher, one of the ripest concepts for mining seems to be identity. When I was in high school teachers didn’t ask us to dig very deep, but they did ask us to dig in and try to document who we thought we are. My schooling was all catholic, so of course there were (mostly unsaid) strict and narrow boundaries on what we were allowed to express. As luck would have it, this practice of asking young people to consider their own view of them self seems to come with a built in escape hatch (or a crawlspace or trapdoor, depending on how much confidence and support you have) one that can never really be closed.

In my own school, I was lucky to have one class that explored literature of controversy instead of just “The Canon.”  That class gave me some models for what else writing could look like and what exploring self and meaning and purpose could sound like. We read the works of some of the Beat poets and watched documentaries about Harvey Milk and how writing and counter culture have challenged policy and mainstream consciousness. I didn’t know it then, but this exposure ran a single, memorable, pink highlighter through one line of text in my high school years.I do not remember confirmation, Canterbury Tales or chemistry, but I do remember exploring the impact of the writings of a few men and many creative people involved in the San Fransisco arts scene of the late 50’s and 60’s.  To this day, my mind always wanders to what goes on beneath the surface, what inspires change, who writes history and what threads are most valuable to follow…for me.

at this is not Shakespeare, but it is Shakespearean.

I want to hold on to the awareness that what I introduce in my classroom will take hold in many different ways. It’s hard with all the objectives and standards at the forefront of planning to remember that the outcome of high school doesn’t happen at the semester mark or even at graduation. It happens in little instances across time. Like a true opening, the ideas I might want my students to uncover and the skills I want them to master might just be starting points or models for concepts and tasks that they will later come across that are way more important to them.

Thinking about what came before, the openings that I have walked through, the closings that I have initiated, the changes that I have made, all of this is in hopes of getting a clearer picture of how I want to focus my energy today. Sometimes the start of a new adventure looks one way at the outset or seems to only have one reasonable direction, but then after some time that changes. I want to remember that as I start this new adventure. I wasn’t necessarily going to become a bohemian poet in San Fransisco when I studied Ginsburg’s “HOWL” in high school, but I spent time thinking about how consciousness is raised one small ripple at a time, be it in the form of a drizzle of salted caramel or the beginning of a new chapter (which is of course, always at the end of an old one) and that, I believe, has made all the difference.

Be still and know…

Be still and know…

Saturday, December 22, 2007

be still and know…

 (I’ve imported this from a previous journal as a way to reflect on winters long gone.)

While usually a devotee of The Food Network, today I watched a favorite cooking show on local tv. Its a Scandanavian cooking show where this guy, Claus, goes out to remote and beautiful locations and cooks. He hikes out to wherever with this efficient little portable kitchen he has and there, in front of a real sunset, or ancient castle, he cooks a gourmet meal.

Today he made something that looked amazing, but what really got me thinking was the way I felt when the camera panned to the scenery.
He was god-knows-where in Scandinavia, with icebergs floating past and the sun gently setting behind them. I felt an instant stillness as I watched, through the tv, such a broad open setting. I wondered, why is it that wide open places make us feel quiet, even calm?

This winter I have been reflecting on my time in Vermont in 1995/96. On top of the mountains in Craftsbury Common, I was allowed one cycle of all the seasons in real, honest to goodness nature.
I was an irreverent little know it all, and its a wonder the townspeople didn’t vote me off the mountain after a week. Eventually I left of my own accord, sure that I couldn’t get back to civilization fast enough. Now, with a little more clarity and a great awareness of how rare that kind of setting is, I’m almost embarrassed to admit how little I appreciated that time when I was there.
I remember walking from the bungalow dorms where I shared a room with a girl from Maine, nicknamed by the lumberjacks “Munchkin Wingnut”.
The trek to campus was about a half mile, and from where we lived, it was a windy path cutting thru the woods and a field where the sheep would graze in the spring and summer. That path would take you out onto the main road which didn’t have a name, just a number, although you could send a letter to Main street, Craftsbury Common and it would end up at the little post office on that road anyway.

It wasn’t just the long walk, or the 3 story pine and spruce trees waving down at you, Mostly I remember the snowdrifts at night. I was 18 years old and prone to restlessness. If there was nothing going on at the dorms or on campus, wherever I happened to be, I would set off walking and after a few minutes I would find myself in the depths of a whole other realm of consciousness.

There is a stillness I would feel,walking that snowy path with stars and moonlight high above me. Its not just a feeling of calm, its an overwhelming sense of purpose and acceptance. For the next mile or so, I would be dedicated to quietly trudging through the nearly knee deep snow. But it wasn’t a chore at all, no matter what kind of mood I was in. I would wrap my scarf and button my coat high and just set off, one step at a time.

Usually the snow would still be falling, silently. The sky would seem full of powdery tears and the wind would have blown the snow into layers and drifts along the path. The dunes of snow, created by the wind, resembled the folds of bed linens or a warm blanket. Sometimes there would be absolutely no wind at all, and the snow would fall as it it were just air.

However I felt, or whatever the temperature, I had to take this walk at least 6 times a day. I may have complained then , but not much that I remember. Even then I knew that I was feeding off of that feeling of something larger, grander than everything else I knew.

I don’t know if I’m just being nostalgic, and that could very well be true as my heart twists in a lovely pain every time I think back to those days. I am just thankful that my memories of the walk, and the sense of being in the presence of the earth as it is- untouched, are still available to me now.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my car, waiting for it to warm up in the parking lot, surrounded by dingy grey snow and hundreds of other cars and people, I try to close my eyes and remember the feeling and sound of my feet scrunching along in the snow, surrounded by silence and a permission from somewhere to be silent myself. Even now, more than 10 years later, those moments are the best definition I have for the word grace.

A few of my favorite things


MOVIES*, one of a kind scarves that are actually fully functional, a very cute pair of socks, highlighters with a stack sticky post-it strips built into them, a bus that doesn’t smell, finding new songs on my own ipod, family and friends who are really interested in knowing me,
the soft spot of my cat’s armpit, well dressed men, overhearing an interesting conversation, a day without anxiety, chimeneas, fire pits, bonfires, the smell of cedar smoking, perfectly shaped booths in restaurants with good food, seeing my best girlfriends for cocktails or movies or just catching up, waking up on vacation and knowing i am going somewhere new today, good cheese, bread and wine when it’s chilly out and I have no where to be for an few hours, a fantastic book of chick lit, understanding what Shakespeare meant to say, when a kid asks me a question, ivy covering my window and light filtering through, seeing the same shadows over and over again (like the shadow that the name of the restaurant I used to work at made on the opposite wall about an hour before the night shift started- every day for so many years!), when my husband laughs in his sleep, when my mom texts me, when my friends say they love me, A walkway lined with trees who’s leaves are all bright golden yellow, new erasers, those black and white composition books, ellipses and my own mind.

*(just a few)
Party Girl
Gosford Park
Shakespeare in Love
City of God
Parent Trap (original with Haley Mills)
Never Ending Story
the Rescuers

Pinterest as a modern Pillowbook


Activities that feel most satisfying when accomplished on a day off work in early winter:

Baking something that you wouldn’t normally allow yourself to buy at the store and so rarely get to eat at home.



Finding a pin on Pinterest that makes you think, “Hmmm… I could really use that idea to add a flourish to that home organizing idea I have so wanted to finish.”


And then actually following through and finishing your project.


Taking pictures of things around the neighborhood that please you when you see them daily. This is especially nice for a day off, because now that you are not in a rush you are able to take some time to artistically compose the image and put some thought into why it pleases you. I believe this is satisfying because it is self exploration and memory making in a very therapeutic and concrete form.



why not quite a pillowbook?


My introduction to The Pillow Book was during the summer of 1997 when I returned to St.Louis from a year away in Vermont. I was 19 years old, just, and I was unfurling after a turbulent voyage. Not just the trip” home” through Appalachia with my dad, not just the years of an intense romance with chemicals and heightened reality, but adolescence in general. I was not yet exhausted, but I was on my way to becoming slightly less careless. This probably sounds messy and vague, but it all leads to the reason I have been enamored with the concept of the pillow book in the first place. I want to use this space to log my own catalog of ideas and experiences, kind of like a pillow book, but also not quite a pillowbook.

  • because sometimes I forget things that I think I’d actually prefer to remember
  • because I find it comforting to log ideas and look back at them later
  • because I hope others will add to my lists and narrative with their own thoughts and create a web of sorts
  • because I want to continue to explore the genre of the pillowbook and make a sort of map out of the adventure here.

That summer was a growing, shedding, re-birthing kind of summer. I had started to notice patterns in the things I was drawn to- a coherence in my thoughts and ideas was beginning to emerge. I had always been passionate about words, but had lacked the self discipline to harness the images in my mind and put them into language that did them justice. I ravaged books, music, experiences, people…I digested them all and forget them promptly, only to have them emerge in my thoughts, disjointed and dismembered. Some days I would think to myself, “I want to remember these things, I want to capture them!” I journaled, I wrote, but not with the skill or regularity that I felt my ideas deserved. I never carried a camera, I relished the moment. Other days I thought, this is the ultimate luxury, the most selfish and tantalizing thing a human can do- to live something and not write it down, not photograph it, so that it lingers only as an essence. I vacillated between the two ideologies. I collected bits and pieces of my day to day, and left entire chunks to my own memory alone, growing dust, slipping between the cracks, sometimes pressed up against the drywall of my mind with the double-stick tape of telling after retelling. I know I’m not alone is this feeling– about the idiosyncrasy of writing for one’s self…

One day I picked up a RiverFrontTimes, or some other  free StL weekly and found a review of Peter Greenway’s upcoming release, The Pillow Book. Whether I had heard of a pillow book before this is a mystery to me, lost on one of those mental postits that did not stick so well. The movie itself (and the many interlaced encounters with Pillowbooks yet to come) were something that has created their own groove in my brain. That groove didn’t have to stick, it became such a part of me, I couldn’t erase it if I chose to.  In conversations with friends over the years I noticed some people found similar connections to the tattoos they chose or the places they traveled to. These things meant something to them that they wanted to honor, or at least refused to ignore.

This is a rendering of Sei Shonagon, the Japanese courtisan who is beleived to have lived from 966-1017 and who is author of The Pillow Book that most people refer to when they mention a pillow book of any sort. Generally a pillow book has been described to me as a book of lists, but I realize now that it is more than that.

The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon by Hisashi Otsuka Original on silk

At first, Shonagon’s book of lists, reflections, descriptions of encounters and whatnot appealed to me because it was fascinating to see what she chose to write about.  I feel the same infectious (and sometimes embarrassing) draw to spaces that focus on beauty, ritual behavior and adornment nowadays, I just tend not to admit to that out loud in certain circles!

As I became more practiced at my own personal writing, and began to take time with books that I read, discovering the connections they had to other works and their authors’ lived experiences, I began to notice the culture surrounding the writings in The Pillowbook. To open this up to you, I’ll just give you an example from the version I’ve read:

[From a list of “things that give you pleasure”:]

You’ve read the first volume of a tale you hadn’t come across before, and are longing to go on with it — then you find the other volume. The rest of it can sometimes turn out to be disappointing, however….

It’s also wonderfully pleasing when you’re in a large company of people in the presence of someone great, and she’s talking, either about something in the past or on a matter she’s only just heard about, some topic of the moment, and as she speaks, it’s you she singles out to look at…..

When a poem that you’ve composed for some event, or in a exchange of poems, is talked of by everyone and noted down when they hear it. This hasn’t happened to me personally, but I can imagine how it would feel….

When someone you don’t like meets with some misfortune, you’re pleased even though you know this is wicked of you.       [McKinney, pp. 210-12]

At first, I felt far to dumb to critique Shonagon’s topics, after all- she was ancient. And translated. I think a lot of people, scholars included, do get blinded by the space between themself and a very aged work sometimes. At first, I definitely felt like I could only read her writing,  that I simply didn’t know enough to engage with it. With time, I realized that this more than any other text was so much like my own running mental dialogue that I would be crazy not to get closer to it and interact with it.

Eventually I realized that just having a mental pillowbook in my own mind wasn’t enough. Still working on disciplined personal writing though, I hadn’t done anything more than read McKinney’s translation of the classic text. Then I wandered into my second favorite bookstore (this is my FAVORITE one.) I picked up a book by Whitney Otto titled A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity.  In this book, The Pillowbook resurfaces and the Otto showed me how a modern interpretation of the genre connected to the way I saw the world- constantly overlapping, but often confusing- like a patchwork quilt made of pieces of every dress you ever owned. My own daydreams and fixations on the seemingly frivolous things that make life enjoyable were echoed in this novel and it also touched some deep and disturbing chords.  I LOVED it. I read and re-read it for about a year. I gave copies away to friends. I felt like it captured early adulthood in pillowbook format beautifully.