Death by a thousand paper cuts.
Death by a thousand paper cuts.
From the steamer trunk where we keep the dress-up clothes I unfold a pair of ivory gloves. Tiny rhinestones dust the wrist and blanket stitches trace the bones. I slip them on. Their buttery grip hugs my skin. I can barely bend into a fist, but that’s not what they were for.
Her voice flits in from somewhere back then. Little golden-haired me, cracking my knuckles. She, fretting.
“Oh, sugar. Don’t do that. You’ll have to wear gloves when you’re older.”
How is a kid supposed to consider her own hands? Her own faraway adulthood? The mind, kinder than the most well-meaning loved ones, guards against premature knowledge of time’s merciless work.
The threat’s vague consequence quavered at the edge of focus and refused to sharpen. Would my busted flesh swell taut and hot? Maybe, but I couldn’t stop. I took my knuckles into the bedroom, the shower. Shame pricked, echoing every snap. There I would be at 40, I imagined, carrying regret like a scar, tucking once-were-lovely hands into kidskin shrouds.
In the trunk now is her scent. Maybe it’s the scent of her house? By the time I knew her, one was the other. Traces of it slip loose of language. Musty? Floral? Sort of like old dollar bills. And bath powder. It’s nicer than it sounds.
I pull off the gloves and begin to look through things my little boy has ignored. A few pieces of coral costume jewelry. Pins with cloisonné baubles dangling from gold chains. I unfold a floor-length embroidered Chinese robe. It is far too big for my bird-boned grandmother, but who in the world would have worn it? I dig deeper. Tucked into the corner of the trunk is the aquamarine pillbox hat, all metallic threads and glittery flourish. Once she had a dress that matched. I’ve seen the faded photos but they don’t begin to capture the gleam. This getup belongs in a Mardi Gras parade.
At the bottom of the trunk rests a folded, floral something-or-other. Table linen? An apron? I packed it all in a rush before the house and all its contents were sold at auction. I shake the fabric out to its full length and marvel at this piece of her.
I had forgotten how bright my grandmother’s taste. Big rust and teal flowers leap across a creamy field. It is a sundress, darted and tailored while also falling out in soft flare. The whole creation is edged in a turquoise border that rises into ribbon-thin straps. It is a masterpiece. I trace the tiny seams.
We say, “I wish I’d known them when they were young.” Maybe if we don’t meet them as children, it’s a failure of imagination, not timing. Every one of us is still a kid, still climbing the tree, still ducking from a blow, still burning for that first kiss. I knew her as a girl without even realizing it. I was busy looking at my hands picturing them old. She was looking at hers, remembering.
She danced in this dress. She danced even when she couldn’t anymore. I try to imagine her in it, her burgundy curls kissing her bare neck and shoulders. That image, too, refuses to sharpen into view.
I do know this: before children, my grandmother was a petite hourglass of a thing. My barrel chest would have swallowed hers whole with room left for dessert, yet her cup size was at least three times mine. Even before she began to shrink, the top of her head barely grazed my chin. She always wore lipstick.
I hug the dress close, carry it to my room, and shed my jeans.
With deep breath and a little tug, the zipper – did it really just do that? – makes it over my ribs. Fabric hugs me in a pinch at the waist. The chest gapes open enough to stow a sack of flour but the rest of it slips like gift wrap around my frame.
I couldn’t be shaped more differently than the woman who first inhabited this dress, but it stands a chance. I wish I could give her a fashion show. The last of those was nearly twelve years ago and the other way around. I sat in her bedroom and helped her try on the blue chiffon she chose to wear into the ground. How is a young woman supposed to consider death? The mind, still kinder than truth, continues to stand to stand guard. We laughed together on her bed. It never occurred to me that it would be the last visit, even as we chose her pallbearers and picked out her silk slip.
On that trip to Oklahoma as in all the others, I ran out into the early morning, charging up past farms to Cemetery Hill and back down around the 4-mile loop. Flushed and stinking, I stretched in her living room while she ate breakfast in her robe. “You’re such a strong girl,” she said, patting my thigh with a powder-milk hand. I felt immense next to her. Bovine. But there in her own body, she was giddy with the memory of motion. “I used to touch the floor,” she said. “With my palms flat like this.” She tried it, right there in her robe, giggling as she dangled her tiny fingers and reached.
The ghost girl twirled into view. Her hips swayed. I couldn’t even see her right there next to me, fanning out those feathery hands. She was still a dancer, still turning one pirouette after another into breathless almost-flight.
I understand now because I feel it too.
Not in the dress which I peel off and hang in my closet. No, her pretty was – is – so much finer than mine.
No, I feel it here in this other now.
Now, when I go down to the basement. When I wrap my hands three times at the wrist then up through the fingers, locking the thumb. The music is cranked to a click shy of distortion. Megadeth. Nirvana. Anything that drives. No sleep till – pow pow – Brooklyn! I watch the man and lick my lips.
Then the bell.
I use my teeth and rip the Velcro tighter on the glove. My hands tighten to fists.
I am up, one – one two. Remembering the rhythm but also slipping outside of it. The first time we went three rounds. Then four. Then, once, half drunk on Shock Top, we cussed and slogged through five rounds. I know retreat is not an option so I give in. The weak left, the strange feet, the wobble. Then, the grrr, the slam, squatting for the upper cut, shuffling for the left hook that always feels like a wet noodle compared to the right. There is a clock but no time. The only event is this shuffle, this tuck, this goddamned bag, this blow. Except that it’s not true, at least not yet, because when the exertion is so total, I’m counting every beat. When he grunts, 30 more seconds, come on, I think fuck. Then haul back, hands up, wham.
When I forget to keep the curl tight inside the glove, all the padding in the world doesn’t help. I feel the crack and the moment of wrong impact a split second too late. The skin slips. There is no rest. The heavy bag lets you know if you’ve slacked or misjudged. It smirks while you wobble. So, I zero in. I hunker down, square myself, and pound.
In the morning, my body groans in the shower then winces its way into trousers. Knuckles burn. On my way out the door, I double back, remembering to take the dress. On my lunch hour, a co-worker sends me past all the bargain cleaners with on-site tailors to the custom seamstress one neighborhood over, telling me that suffering the cost is better than regretting a discount.
The bell chimes as I open the door. From between poofs of sheathed tuille, a little woman pops out and scowls. “What you need done?” She is built like my grandmother but does not smile as much. She scoots me into a dressing room. “You put it on,” she points and disappears.
Under the fluorescent lights, I strip down. Five panes of glass stretch to the ceiling, each claiming a unique angle. I step to a platform scuffed with the eager feet of hundreds of brides-to-be. I drop the dress over my bare shoulders and freeze. Then I flex, unsure if I’m seeing something real. Whose back is this? The sea-blue ribbon tips over and the zipper gapes. Muscle rises there, rippling, coarsely cut. The scapulae, biting against ridges like the twisted braid of a banyan tree. Can this be me?
The tailor returns with a hedgehog of glinting quills strapped to her forearm. Gathering and folding, she tut-tuts. The gap is huge at my schoolboy chest but she does her best. “Not easy,” she says. “Have to cut. See? Here and here. Line is. . . tricky.” The dress is so many shapes in two different fabrics. “No one make like this now,” she says. “Nice,” she says. She bends to the crenellated hem at the foot where the inverted castle wall notches up into the field of the skirt. “Take long time to make.”
She orders me to reach for the ceiling. My arms shriek. Last night’s 5 ½ rounds were a rout. I made all the moves but the bag did all the damage. The tailor steps back and assesses. The skirt flares from my waist and kisses my calves. I twine my hands together in the air. The scrape there, the purple place between the pinky and the ring finger of my right hand, barks. I’d let my grip fall open at the wrong moment and I’m paying today. On a sweaty strip of webbing now limp in the bottom of a laundry bag, a bit of my flesh festers.
“You have to wear bra,” she says, grabbing at my breast and getting a fistful of the impossible darts. “Still too big here. Okay?”
“Yes,” I say. “Okay.”
She leaves and I straighten the straps, catching sight of my hands. Brown from the sun. Bruised. They are dry, too. I’ve never had the discipline for the Pond’s my grandmother applied religiously. Here, a sheath of rattlesnake diamonds. I turn in a slow circle. The skirt whispers open
Oh, sugar. You’ll have to wear gloves when you’re older
and I stretch my bruised hands wide.
Write story code treaty bar
of song, draw a map
a portrait a bow
over string. Run marathon machine
mediation regression, build wells walls
a body of work
trust. Make art a living your own
Same rules: Work
When it’s dark.
The specific enterprises that will create purpose in life will differ from person to person. . . I expect what is common among people is that however purpose is created, it can hold depression at bay. I still have my depression-prone temperament and a set of genes that pull for low mood, and life is as stressful as it ever was. But purpose is like a talisman, a charm that can ward off serious depression. This again is a reminder that we may be better off if we think about recovery, not simply as the absence of depressive symptoms, but as a set of active qualities or practices that prevent low mood from taking root, despite the presence of liabilities elsewhere.
- Jonathan Rottenberg, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic
Even when you can’t tell weed from blossom, keep tending your plot. It is early yet.
Merging two departments at our university means surgically coupling incompatible websites. Having spliced on the temporary graft last month, we now tackle the trickier job of weaving source to source so the seams don’t show. Today’s task involved rooting around under the patch to prune redundancies and rewrite bits of content.
Flagging here at the end of a seven-hour editing marathon, I take a breather and a gander. Weaving its way through the pages is a clean-edged trail of snappy language. It’s a marvel. In less than a single work day, I wrote a comprehensive volume of coherent text. Clicking through the screens, I see more passages composed more clearly than any of the bloated essay drafts oozing from my grasp the past few months.
Why does this work? What is it about tip-tapping away on a web-based work project that sparks such productivity and — dare I say it — craft? A bullet job might look like a different species than “real” writing. Get a little closer and you’ll see it is part of the pack. In fact, it has something to show us about how to deal with its more menacing kin.
1. Turn Up the Pressure
Your work needs to be out there. Somebody somewhere wants it.
Today’s task confirms that procrastination has poor return on investment. The current site’s content is either incomplete or inaccurate. Students need it finished and live. We make our jobs harder when we deprive students of proper guidance and then scramble to fix the mistakes they make without it. The only alternative to doing the work quickly is taking down whole sections of the site, and that’s a waste of good progress on a valuable project.
Your work matters enough to get it out there. Set a hard deadline and meet it.
2. Name the Audience
Put your reader in a blaze orange vest and have her stand at each intersection telling you which way to go. When the parade is in town, you need to be able to pick her out of the crowd.
For today’s task, the site’s readers line up in this order:
a. New students
b. Prospective students
c. Current students
d. Administrators from around the school
e. Faculty advisors
f. Student services providers at other universities
I keep all of them in mind — as well as their ranking — as I make decisions about what to write and how to arrange it all. The content has to rise to the standards of d, e, and f while primarily meeting the needs of a, b, and c.
Have your reader stand up and tell you what she needs to know.
3. Choose your Note and Strike It
Is it black tie at the opera or Chacos at a drum jam?
A website is one face of a person or organization. Word choices and sentence structures need to project the culture the site represents. That’s a big way of saying that the text is an ambassador. Its tone should give the reader a sense of how people inside deal with each other.
For today’s task, I determined that the site should be conversational but not chatty. The voice echoes what someone might hear at a student orientation or an admissions info session. It steers clear of stiffness and jargon while maintaining its polish. I dress my language on the tailored side of “business casual.” The tie is loose but it’s still a tie.
Put on wing tips and you’ll step like a boss. That’s how it goes. Once you set a tone, you start humming along.
Read it out loud. Does what you’re hearing fit your reader’s ear?
4. Memorize your Purpose
To use that voice with confidence, you have to know what you’re trying to achieve.
Today’s task highlights the website’s role in meeting the school’s larger goal: training the next generation of scholars. The content needs to do more than provide basic information. It must also introduce our Shiny! New! Story! as we make our way through this merger. When deciding how to compose and organize, these counterbalanced themes simplify my options. The site has two basic jobs:
a. Informing students of the resources, expectations, and procedures while also. . .
b. Conveying the scholarly mores of our emerging school
Both form and the content have clear objectives. I know what they are. Indecision doesn’t stand a chance.
Make the goal your mantra. Return to it when your words rebel.
5. Erect a Scaffold
Outlines may be overrated but they anchor your belay as you clamber through the work.
Prior to today’s task, I created the site’s format. That was a few years back. I plucked gems and threads from other websites and used them to assemble a frame. Re-creating the whole thing now would be senseless. This skeleton gets the job done. No need to worry about the fit. Trusting the structure lets me muck around inside the passages and fill them with content. If I find myself hammering something in at an awkward angle, I can crack joints, split seams, and make it all move where it needs to go.
Draft an outline in plain English and start filling in words. You can place things in another order once you have things to place.
6. Dice it into Bites
Bullets within categories within headings let you enjoy the carnita without staring down the pig.
Today’s task attends to one idea at a time. I work in this category right now, answering this question right here. What’s the use of fiddling around with other issues? If something pops up, I jot it down and return to sorting out this shred of text.
On most websites, an idea appears on the page in a size that’s easy to digest. Writing this way can be simply devilish until you make it devilishly simple. Divide the work up into ever smaller pieces. Bring one up front and get to work. If the reader needs more material, find or make a place for it, link it, and fill in later.
Cut with a clean edge then go trim the fat.
“Bird by bird,” as Anne LaMott says. Don’t write a book. Shape an idea.
Take a shot at injecting these features of 9-5 writing into your more defiant projects. You just might bring them to a heel. Then you can really move.
Before the fire, wood
arrives in the converted bed
of a pickup truck, scarred
paint a match for hands
that wrench the tailgate free.
“Extra to stack it,” he says.
We act like we knew this
and tell him no
we’ve got it. Soft
enough to feel every shard
of dried earth in the seams
of mismatched gloves, our skin
is that of readers
whose storybook logs
bear no relation to these
splintered, spidered slabs.
Soon, my wrists are webbed
with crimson welts and my chest
bruised where I press next winter’s
heat against my body
for balance, stumbling up three
porch steps a dozen
times past the last count to wedge
in the next piece of this mosaic
Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next? So if we think of our fears as more than just fears but as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. But just as importantly, we need to think of ourselves as the readers of our fears. And how we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives. – Karen Thompson Walker in her TED talk, “What Fear Can Teach Us”
I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel. . . - Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
The reader can’t put down the book. It’s well past midnight and her bloodshot eyes stagger across the lines. She turns another page. This is better than Stephen King, not even in his league, clipping along against a minor chord shuddering in the shadow of the action. Every door opens on a freefall into hell, each descent rank with its own unique boil and famine.
She does not look up. She is ready for anything without being the least bit prepared.
The crack across the ceiling spiderwebs without a sound while her pinhole focus contains only one character marooned on one desert island where melting icecaps have designs on the shore. Fingers, each alone as huge as her thigh, push through. A gaze presses close, taking in the whole of the room. Still she hasn’t noticed. Those fingers wedge wider an entry, those fingers give way to hands.
The pages of her fear are a shield. They fasten her yet again into the cockpit’s choking chemical burn, strap down her arms and freeze the throttle. The churning sea races to greet her. The certain but predictable disaster is comfort of a sort. If any of this came true — which it surely will, because something enough like it already has (how do you think this became her personalized Choose-Your-Own Adventure?) — what would happen if she closed the book? What if, halfway through her final descent, she yanked the cord, severed the word, and cast the whole thing onto the nightstand?
What if she looked up?
Giant eyes, each the size of her own skull, take the measure of the room. Of her shape. Her scars, her tics, her threadbare sheets.
What if she looked right at (it) and watched the pulp of those hands jarring loose chunks of drywall, ripping back the illusion of structure? What if the impenetrable box containing her artless version of Dante’s fifth circle — forged, as it was, in infancy, no doubt — is penetrated after all?
She will not be able to unsee.
She’s already had her shot at that.
Those unbreathing, rolling, unmoored eyes are glass buttons made real by some inverted pinocchio magic. (He) is the golem she moulded from the debris of punishment and silence, the same one that slipped eventually down the side of the bed and fed on skin cells and broken sleep for three lifetimes.
She never reached down to tend him but neither did she root him out. Such concentrated matter does not fade or decay, certainly not without its turn in the light.
He comes trailing the stink of hunger. And something else.
He crawls in beside her, filling the not-forgotten space between her and her dogeared book, spilling into corners. This is where he began. She watches him peel back a crusted mouth that is a funhouse image of her own. She has no choice but to let him show her what she stuffed down his throat when she was not ready to bear what she couldn’t name.