Take Four | Living with A Writer: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts

We are always yapping about the “Good Old Days” and how we look back and enjoy it, but I tell you there is a lot of hooey to it. There is a whole lot of our past lives that was not so hot.

–Will Rogers (1879-1953; American Vaudeville Performer, Actor, and Social Commentator)

Hey, everyone! Listen up! Make certain that you keep a copy of this post in a safe, virtual folder. Maybe even the Cloud. It is destined for fame. It is destined for greatness. It is destined for glory. It will go down in the annals of history as the most historic and historical blog post ever published.

You will discover why as you continue to read. But let me start with one reason and that one reason alone will earn this post its deserved historical distinction. For the first time in my life, I am at a loss for words. I am. My students would be thrilled beyond thrills because they consider me to be exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting when I start talking about anything that is near and dear to my heart.

No doubt, you–dear reader–are wondering why on earth I am at a loss for words. Let me explain. My post last week focused exclusively on me: “Take Three | Living with a Writer: Owning Up to My Own Eccentricities.”

One of my eccentricities that I felt comfortable sharing was the fact that I had drafted the general introduction and the introductions to the five sections of my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman on yellow legal pads, using #2 pencils without erasers. The really quirky part of that eccentricity was that whenever I made a mistake, I ripped out the page and started over.

One of my faithful followers challenged me to write my next post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, and to share with you what happened as I wrote. Dear reader, you are so undeserving of the suffering that you will surely suffer as you continue to read. But please do continue to read. Remember: no pain, no gain. (Because I love you so much–whoever you are and wherever you are [including you, Mrs. Callabash, wherever you are]–I have timed the read-time for this post. You are now 6 minutes and 36.3 seconds away from full fatigue and brain drain.)

It was a commendable challenge, so much so that I really should quote it verbatim, and I would, but I can’t. I am lying in bed writing my post on a legal pad, using a #2 pencil, as challenged–I am such a sucker for challenges–so I don’t want to lose my grain of thought by switching over to my Smartphone to look at last week’s post so that I can quote the comment in its entirety the way that it deserves to be quoted.

Therefore, starting with the next paragraph I will use placeholders for anything that I would normally have the good sense to look up instanter on my Smartphone. I will use this placeholder convention throughout this post. My very first one follows.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert faithful reader quote from last week. I believe the reader signed herself “J.”

I responded to “J’s” challenge by asking whether yellow legal pads were even manufactured these days. I noted that if they had fallen out of usage, not to worry: I had seen such writing artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution and, perhaps, I could arrange for a Docupost: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts.

My reply to “J.” was far more brilliant than it appears here, but, again, I can’t easily switch over to my Smartphone.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my dazzling reply to “J.” Make sure to capture the correct title of the Docupost that I plan to propose to the Smithsonian Institution.

Not long after “J’s” comment, another faithful follower–“soyfig”–informed me that she had some yellow legal pads and #2 pencils that I could have.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: insert “soyfig’s” actual comment, especially since, as I recall, she used some figurative language.

I responded, of course. I respond to everything, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. But, sadly, I do not remember my exact reply, but I am sure that it was a beauty.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my beauty-of-a-reply to “soyfig” who writes so figuratively.

Obviously, I accepted the challenge because, as I noted earlier, here I am writing about what it’s like writing a blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed.

I should be euphoric, I suppose, because I am certain–and history will confirm my certainty–that what I am developing right here and right now is a new Creative Nonfiction genre. To mirror its counterpart in the world of fiction, I hereby announce–with all the power and authority that is not vested in me–that this new genre will be dubbed Creative MetaNonfiction.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see whether the word and the genre exist already. If not, notify the editors immediately. “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum,” fame awaits.

I believe that I have said so already, but I will say so again: writing my post on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, is not making me euphoric. I can’t speak for you, but I can speak for me. My bed is a place of immense pleasure. Trust me. This is not pleasurable. I’ve got a stupid yellow legal pad–six times larger than my Smartphone–propped up on my knobby knees and the stupid pencil does not have the same quality graphite that I recall. Yes: I still recall the quality–or lack thereof–of everything going all the way back to the cold and snowy day of my November birth. If that be true–and it is–then fast forward with me and you will know that I speak the truth when I say that recalling something from the 1970s is a piece of graphite for me.

Morever, lean in and listen carefully: the damned yellow legal pad is not backlighted. Why am I whispering? For one good reason. I’m whispering because I don’t want anyone to steal my idea! If an ancient writing artifact like a yellow legal pad is going to continue to plague us, at the very least it should be backlighted so that it will not plague us in the dark.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the dictionary. Backlighted? Backlit?

I just heard someone ask, “Why does it matter if your yellow legal pad is not backlighted?” [See above Placeholder.]

Well, that’s a splendid question. it matters a lot. It’s starting to get dark outside. My overhead light makes a glare on the yellow legal pad, so I can’t use it. My nightstand lamp is not bright enough, so I can’t use it either. I must be blunt. I can no longer see what I am writing. And, like my pencil, let me be blunt again. If I can’t see what I’m writing, how do I look into the heart of what I’m thinking?

Thank you very much for your suggestion. I expected it. But, as much as I appreciate it–and I do–I will not run out tomorrow to buy a lamp to attach to my headboard. Simply explained: I won’t be needing it. I will never write another blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed at night. Never. Never. Never.

However, I will figure out a way to finish this post since I accepted the challenge, sucker that I am.

Already I can think of three possible solutions.

Solution 1. Fill a Mason jar with fireflies. They might illuminate my yellow legal pad sufficiently.

Solution 2. Jerry-rig a flashlight to the headboard of my bed, with the light beaming down on the yellow legal pad propped up against my knobby knees.

Solution 3. Go to bed at 6pm so that I can work on my post for several hours before it gets too dark for me to see.

“Too dark for me to see” reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s first-person account of death, “I Heard a Fly Buzz.” The poem ends, I believe, with: “And then I could not see to see.”

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Find the Dickinson poem and make sure that my quote above is accurate.

I am back to report that my tentative solutions–even though brilliant–were abysmal failures. That’s too kind. They were duds.

Firefly Solution. It was fairly easy to catch a jar full: they are everywhere in my yard. And, oh, my! Such a golden glow as they put out. For a while my bedroom looked almost like a nightclub dance floor with strobe lights. But it didn’t last long. The glow became dimmer and dimmer and dimmer. And, even more quickly, I grew a guilty feeling for having captured all those helpless little fireflies and for having put them to work against their will Contra Naturam. I set them free. Shine bright. Shine far.

Jerry-rigged Flashlight Solution. I thought for sure that this solution would work. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to mount the flashlight to my headboard, especially at the required angle. I considered duct tape which seems to work for everything, but when I recalled what I had paid for my Henkel Harris bed, I froze with tape and flashlight in mid-air. It took me hours to free myself.

Going to Bed at 6pm Solution. Forget it for one reason only. I have worked long and hard to earn the reputation that I now proudly hold as a wild, night-owl party animal. My friends and my colleagues have grown so proud of me as I have, over time, extended my bedtime from 8:00pm to 8:30pm to 9:00pm. And I have now, after years of practice, mastered the 10:00pm hour. When a party’s going down, I want to be found, and I certainly won’t be found if I am in bed at 6pm.

But I have come up with another solution that had not occurred to me initially. I will take the first hour of my morning routine to write my blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil.

Well, I tried it. Let me just say that this is not what anyone might hooey it up to be. Now I am wishing that I had challenged my two faithful followers to this challenge. Thankfully–and luckily for them–I am not that cruel. Absit iniuria.

They wouldn’t like all these disruptions either. Up until now, I have made perfectly good and methodical use of a sensible and calming way of writing my post in bed on my Smartphone. Even though I have willingly taken on a momentary stay against my ever-so sane method, I will remind myself–in mantra manner–that I am blazing new trails into Creative MetaNonfiction. History and literature demand that I continue. History and literature demand that I see this stupid stint through to a stupendous end.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up Creative MetaNonfiction to see whether such a genre exists. Oh, no. I remember that I have placed this placeholder in the post already, but since I cannot erase or scratch through, I will build upon the redundancy and puff it up as best I can. Have I actually stumbled upon–simply by stupidly accepting a challenge–a new genre? Oh, joy! Maybe I will enjoy a footnote in the annals of something–anything, please–after all.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Revisit Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” As I recall, the unnamed narrator who goes insane–always be suspicious of unnamed narrators–may have written HER journal on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. Well, I am fairly certain that she did not, but look it up anyway. Adding that twist to the original story would be masterful for an updated version. The narrator escaped from the yellow wallpaper. But I wonder: would she be able to escape from her yellow legal pad as masterfully as I am about to do, soon and very soon. You’re welcome.

What’s ironic about all of this is that when I accepted this challenge, I did so fully expecting fun, even if nothing more than hearing my pencil graphite its way across the page.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Can graphite be used as a verb? Well. Duh. I just used it as a verb in the preceding paragraph. Therefore, it can be. Therefore, I really do not need to follow through with this placeholder. I will keep it anyway in the interest of not ripping out this yellow page which is otherwise perfect.

But verbs notwithstanding, my pencil is not making those nostalgic sounds that I had longed for, not even when I bend my ear way down close and personal to the page. Instead, it glides along like a waxy crayon. And, in fact, my box of pencils is labeled, on one side of the box, Crayon. Oh, dear. I forgot. Crayon means pencil in some language. An esteemed English professor–a colleague–took great joy in beaming that to me when I showed the box to her. Well, never mind.

I do mind, however, that the only yellow pads that I could find anywhere were 8 1/2 by 11 inches, even though they were marked Legal Pad. Well, excuse me. If it’s not 8 1/2 x 14 inches, it’s not legal, and shorties like the ones that I ended up with ought to be illegal.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: (1) What companies still manufacture these so-called legal pads? (2) Do they come in true legal size? (3) Is it true, as I seem to recall, that courts no longer allow 8 1/2 x 14-inch legal pads because they do not fit readily into filing cabinets–not even virtual ones?

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Do a comparable search into #2 pencils. Focus especially on what kind of graphite manufacturers are using for these crayons–I mean pencils–these days.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: I need a pull quote for this post. What’s the one about a sucker is born every minute? How perfect would that be!

Okay. I need to wrap this post up–Maybe in a yellow graphite bow?–but before I do, I simply must achieve a sense of order with this post–the very first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. The annals of history await my final word. I do, too.

I know exactly what I will do. I’ll number the pages that I have written on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. And while I’m doing that, I’ll write AMDG just to the right of each page number, just as a Jesuit lawyer friend of mine did on all his labor relations notes, always written on a genuine yellow legal pad, using a genuine #2 graphite pencil.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up AMDG to see what that acronym means. Marty had a perverse sense of humor, but, surely, he would not have penciled anything obscene or scandalous, especially since he knew that I would see what he was writing because I almost always leaned over him at the bar. But be sure to look it up anyway before publishing this post.

Wow! I have written 11 pages already about nothing more than what it’s like to write my post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed. Maybe this Creative MetaNonfiction thingy is not as bad as I have graphited it up to be. Well, if I can type it up, I can certainly graphite it up. But lo and behold! Here I’ve gone and coined still another word: graphited. Who knows? Maybe a Creative MetaNonfiction Novel looms in your future.

I suppose the only thing that might have been more fun than numbering the pages would have been ripping each one out and then taping them all together. I seem to recall a writer who typed one of his books on a continuous roll of paper, created by carefully taping each page together. This would have been, of course, back in the good old, hooey typewriter days.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Try to find out the writer who did this. I think that it was Jack Kerouac. I am certain. Yes. I recall it as vividly as if I had helped him! (Oh, how I wish.) He sellotaped enough pages to create a 120-foot roll when he wrote his On the Road. Check just to make sure. I would never dare publish anything without verifying all the facts before I spew forth. And also look up hooey. It looks like phooey to me.

As for any rhythm that I might be achieving while writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, forget it. Forget. It. Trust me. This post is not riding along on its own melting like a piece of ice on a hot stove. Frost itself wouldn’t work. And Frost himself wouldn’t be able to make it work either. I am so focused on paper and pencil that any semblance of thought has wisely flown far, far away to someone sensible enough to write a blog post sensibly on a Smartphone.

Worse, perhaps, I feel as if I am straddling an immeasurable and unfathomable chasm between the 1970s (when I enjoyed writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil) and day before yesterday (when I lost my sanity and sold my writerly soul to the Devil by selling myself on the idea of accepting this challenge). To be certain, the image of such a straddler is an intriguing one. Conjure it up if you can. I double dare you. You will see for yourself. But let me assure you, post haste, that my legs–metaphorical or otherwise–are not nearly long enough to bridge such a chasm, and even if they were, I would not stand for it. I would object vehemently for all the world to hear, as, hopefully, all the world is hearing now.

Hear me and hear me well. What I am about to say is quotable, so go ahead and quote me: Phooey to all this hooey.

I object to it so much that I will end it all right now, in one final declaration!

This is a nonsensical challenge up with which I will not put.

FINAL Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: As I recall, Winston Churchill came up with the above quip as an objection to an editor who wouldn’t allow sentences to end with prepositions. Churchill’s retort memorialized the folly of editors who foolishly adhere to grammatical rules rather than to common sense and to the sense of sound. Try to find the specifics. Was it in a memorandum? I’m sure that it was, perhaps in 1941?

Halleluiah! I have freed myself at last from this yellow legal pad and from #2 pencils. I have returned to my sanity. (Wisely, however, I will not change one thing–not one hooey-phooey word–that I have written so honestly and so painfully as I soared my way to and through the heights of this challenge. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” (No. I will not put a placeholder for that Shakespearean quote. You may kindly–if you please and if you need–google it yourself to obtain the specifics: play, act, and line.) And, thankfully, I have just returned to my Smartphone where I have just had joy beyond measure restored to every fiber–and even every fibre–of my being by doing nothing more than tap touching this post through to completion–one character at a time, using just one finger. Is that inefficient or what?

But the greatest joy ever is the knowledge that I have just written–and you have just read–the first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. May it not last forever in the annals of history and literature. May I be spared such notoriety. May I be remembered in far better ways. But, hey. What the heck. If you insist, I accept: better to be remembered for something, I suppose, than for nothing. Either way, it’s all hooey to me.

Directions to the Magical Land of Ideas

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.

Anaïs Nin

Without doubt, I love all of the English classes that I teach, but my Creative Writing classes always tug a little tighter at my heartstrings. I think I know why. We write. We draft. We workshop. We revise. We share. We bond. Together.

Aside from valuing writers’ bond, I like writing with my students because I want them to see that seasoned writers struggle perhaps as much as fledgling writers. I want them to see that writing is work. No, I want them to see that writing is hard work. More, I want them to see that with lots and lots of mental lifting they can become agile writing gymnasts.

Here’s another reason why I like to write with my students. As an educator, I want to experience, as nearly as possible, what my students experience: coming up with a topic to meet someone else’s requirements; developing a draft; workshopping the draft with peers; revising the draft based on peer feedback and personal afterthoughts; and sharing with the class the woven words of heart, mind, and soul.

Also, as an educator I want to feel the pain of jumping through the same deadline hoops that “the good professor” imposes on his students. It’s a much-needed lesson in humility, one that I can experience every two weeks, since that’s the allotted timeframe for each writing assignment: drafting; workshopping; revising; and sharing. Spread over a 14-week semester, I am humbled seven times.

In the past, I’ve done my “writing-with-my-students” stint once or twice each semester, eventually bowing out as the semester progressed because of the full range of my professorial responsibilities, namely commitments to other classes. And that is true. Can any full-time professor be a full-time writer? I doubt it.

My students, generally, are full-time students with the full range of their own full-time student responsibilities, and yet I expect them to be full-time writers, too.

This semester I promised myself that I wouldn’t bow out of writing with my students. Actually, I established more rigorous requirements for me than for them. I decided to write and publish a blog post every week.

I did not make known my personal commitment. Nonetheless, week by week, I chatted with my students about my writing. I wanted them to know that I was writing and that I had my own self-imposed goals and Monday deadlines.

At the end of this semester, we celebrated and reflected on our growth and accomplishments as writers. During my reflections, I projected my blog so that the class could see it on the big screen. Several students follow the blog and others are regular visitors, so they knew already that I had published 24 posts this semester. But those completed posts weren’t at the heart of my sharing. Rather, I wanted to watch their faces when my 17 drafts–at various stages of completion–popped up on the screen.

When I finished, one of my students pinned me to the wall with a pointed question: “Where do you find those ideas?”

How do I answer a question like that? To answer assumes that I can provide directions–a map, if you will–to the magical land where ideas reside.

I wish that I could. Sadly, I can’t.

I’m not certain that I even understand what it means to “find” ideas. Where do I look? And how shall I begin? And how do I know when I’ve found one?

As for me, I don’t go around looking for writing ideas. However, I do go around listening to the world. My world. Inner. Outer.

When I listen–when I am attentive–ideas seem to “find” their way to me. This post is a good example. My student’s question captured my fancy: “Where do you find those ideas?” And in response to his question, I shared with the class a writing idea that found its way to me that very morning.

Its working title is “Growing Up More than Once.” While driving to campus, I had been thinking about Fall 2022 as my last semester of teaching. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve grown up three times. Once in the traditional way that we all grow up and launch our own lives. Next was growing up as a researcher and scholar at the University of South Carolina and the Library of Congress. Now I’ve grown up as an educator at Lord Fairfax Community College. And as this phase comes to an end, another phase will open, giving me an opportunity to grow up once more! I will share no more for now. Otherwise, I won’t have anything more to say when I get around to writing that post.

But here’s my point. I didn’t go looking for that idea.  Seemingly, the idea came looking for me. And as soon as it found me, I captured the tentative title and a barebones outline in a WordPress draft as soon as I walked into my office and turned on my computer. Some might call it journaling. But it’s not. I don’t journal. For me, it’s simpling listening. It’s being attentive. Then it’s taking the time to honor an idea that found its way to me.

The same thing holds true for this post. It found me during class when my student asked, “Where do you find those ideas?” Perhaps equally important, the question continued to abide with me as I drove home. Now here I am extending my answer to Morgan through this post. The idea found me; called for–no, demanded–exploration; and I’m honoring the call.

I’ve just shared how one idea found me while teaching and how another idea found me while driving. Other ideas find me when I least expect to be found. Biking, indoors and out. Listening to gospel music. Taking a shower. Pulling weeds in my garden.

For me, it seems that whenever I lose myself–whenever I’m doing something that takes me away from me–a door opens and an idea enters, hoping for home and for honor.

Those are the best directions that I can give to the magical land of ideas.

The Joy of Weeding

“Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better.”

–Albert Einstein

Personally, I hate weeding! It’s tedious. It’s time consuming. It’s tiring. It’s never-ending. Absolutely.  Never-ending.

I would much rather harness myself to a weed whacker, clearing great swaths of wilderness with every swing to my left, with every swing to my right, and with every step thrust frontward as I charge ahead to tame the untamable. I reckon a weed whacker is a reckoning force.

Yet, some folks (so I have been told) actually enjoy weeding. Apparently, they like to pull up weeds, one by one by one. Apparently, they never grow tired or weary of pulling up weeds, one by one by one. Their mantra? You guessed it: “One by one.”

My late partner, Allen, was one of those folks. He liked pulling up weeds and did so with the same care and precision that he used as a surgical technologist.

He would plan his weed work a week in advance. The conversation below shows how it all came to pass. I see no reason to say who’s saying what. The differing approaches to weeding–mine and Allen’s–are abundantly clear without naming either of us and without calling either of us names.

“Thank God! The weekend is nearly here. What would you like to do on Saturday?”

“Weed.”

“How about doing something fun? You really want to weed?”

“Yes. Weed. I just need some quiet time.”

“Well, okay. Sure. While you weed, I’ll weed whack. We’ll get a lot of yard work done.”

On reflection, I’m not certain that my part of the bargain provided quiet, especially since we usually played Gospel music in the background, full volume, while we worked in the yard. And when the music stopped, no problem. I would fill in by singing at full throttle the handful of words that I knew from some Gospel song that I liked, over and over and over and always painfully off key, though never deliberately so. Soon thereafter, Allen would slip inside and slip back out again, protected fully by his smartphone and earbuds. He never said a word.

But, hey. I’m no dummy. He made his point loud and clear. Quietly. Immediately. I got it. But since he was now listening to his own music with his own earbuds stuffed into his own ears, I just kept right on singing, as loudly and as off key as ever. It made me feel good. Besides, I take the Bible literally when it says, “Make a joyful noise.” And, equally important, I take folklore seriously, too: I have always heard that making noise while doing yard work keeps snakes away! So there! Even if indirectly, Allen still reaped the benefits of my singing: all the snakes disappeared into the woods, all except for the black snake that loved my off-key singing and slithered all around the yard to stay close to me, but that’s copy for a future post.

When it came to weeding, it was no big deal that Allen and I listened to different music while applying different weeding methods. Working together, we always accomplished a lot within four or five hours.

I mowed down an acre or so, and I was covered from head to toe with vestiges of grass and leaves and dust. But, hey! I got my weekly weed whacking joy.

Allen removed every single, solitary weed from an established flower bed, perhaps 20 feet by 15 feet, and, sometimes even refreshed the mulch. He would be drenched in perspiration, with muddy jeans from butt to hem. But, hey! He got his weekly weeding joy.

Inevitably, as we admired what we had achieved individually and collectively, we would mutually agree to a quick shower (individually, not collectively) and a backroad drive (collectively, not individually) to a farmers’ market, followed by lunch!

The after-joy of weeding and weed whacking meant as much to us (collectively and individually) as the actual joy itself.

Since Allen’s death, though, I have often wondered what those treasured weeding days meant…to him. What was it that he experienced deep down inside?

Recently, I decided to re-create, as nearly as possible, one of Allen’s typical Saturday weeding days.

I won’t bore you with all the pre-weeding details, like getting up at 4am, reading the New York Times and Washington Post, both online, cup of coffee in hand.

Or, having leftovers for breakfast, from dinner the night before.

Or, putting on bluejeans and a favorite flannel shirt–plaid, with sleeves far too short–and always a baseball cap from somewhere memorable like Geneva Falls, NY.

And I’ll not mention heading out to start weeding almost always at exactly 7:30am.

Those were the things that Allen did. So I’ll skip right over all those details and commence with Allen’s weeding tools.

A black plastic yard bag, for sitting and kneeling. An old dull kitchen knife for cutting out the roots of each weed. And a yard basket for collecting the weeds and their roots. And, yes: no gloves. He liked his fingers and hands to be one with the soil.

That was it. A simpler array of tools for such a noble task cannot be imagined.

Sometimes, as he weeded, it was as if he were descending into the earth that he tended, rising up from time to time, carrying to the compost pile the red yard basket filled to the brim with weeds and their roots. And so the cycle continued–descending, rising, and carrying–until he was done for the day.

That was it. A simpler approach to such a noble task cannot be imagined.

On my appointed day for re-enacting Allen’s day of weeding, I did not need to think about method or tools or pre-weeding activities. All those were so ingrained in my memory, my heart, and my soul that everything fell into place naturally.

My morning–this past Saturday, in fact–started with cool temps in the mid fifties, gradually warming to the upper seventies. A mix of clouds and sun. A gentle breeze. Low humidity. Just right.

As soon as I positioned myself with intentionality on my black plastic bag, I felt grounded–no pun intended. I knew that I had sat down exactly where I chose to sit. I knew that I had no where else that I wanted to be. I knew that I had no where else that I  wanted to go. “In the moment” vibrated with new meaning.

And then I felt totally in control. I knew that I could do as much or as little as I chose to do. I knew that I need move no further in any direction than the limits of my reach. Suddenly, I no longer felt overwhelmed by the enormity of totality. I could sit right where I sat, forever and forever and forever, and work my own postage stamp of mountain earth.

To my surprise–and, again, with no pun intended–I could smell the coffee that my neighbor higher up on the mountain was brewing, and I could nearly taste the bacon that he was frying. Closer to home, I could smell the lilac in my upper yard, just beginning to perfume the air, but even now its purply fragrance was so heavy that it nearly took my breath away.

To my great surprise, I could hear tractor trailers racing seventy miles an hour up and down the interstate, their roaring engines muffled to a monotonous drone by ten miles or so of puffy clouds and winding river. Closer still, I could hear the chirping of robins, never alone, always calling one to the other, always with the other returning the song.

And I could hear and feel the rustle of dry decay as my hands grabbed and bagged leaves from yesteryear. I could even hear the blue buzz of a horse fly as it circled my head, and, more joyous by far, the whir of a ruby-throated hummingbird–my first of the season–as it helicoptered all around me with quizzical uncertainty, darting deliberately, continuing to hover nearby, singing its high-pitched chips.

To my greater surprise, I started seeing things at the granular level. The grit in the soil. The veins in the weeds. The spidery whiteness of roots. The leaves and blooms on nearby plants. The house looming ever so large above my grounded perspective. The trees towering above the house. The clouds and sky arching over all, including me.

To my greatest surprise, one hour slipped into two. Two melted into three. Three faded into four. Four, into forever.

By then, the sharp, cutting edge of my morning angst had become as smooth as  well-worn marble stairs.

By then, my hope had heightened beyond my reach, stretching as far into the future as my senses could carry me.

By then, I had experienced deep down in the inner recesses of my soul what Allen had experienced in his.

By then, I knew the joy of weeding.

Fit as a Fiddle: The Inefficient Way

Some of us wouldn’t get much exercise at all if it weren’t for the fact that the TV set and the refrigerator are too far apart.

Joey Adams (1911-1999; American comedian, vaudevillian, radio host, nightclub performer and author)

I have had a Fitbit since 2013 when my late partner gifted me with a Flex, the first Fitbit tracker worn on the wrist. Allen wasn’t certain that I would like this new gadget. To his great surprise and equally to his great delight, I became a Fitbit junkie, upgrading my device with every opportunity. I moved smoothly from the Flex to the Charge to the Versa and, most recently, to the Sense. All the upgrades made perfect sense to me!

My Fitbit is the first thing that I check when I awaken. I want to make certain that I made it through the night. Sometimes I pinch myself when I realize that I have made it, and, then I pinch myself again when I realize all the things that it tracks! Sleep score–duration, deep sleep and REM sleep, and restoration. Exercise readiness score. Skin temperature. Resting heart rate. Breaths per minute. Heart rate variability.  Blood oxygenation. My God! I have my own 24/7 doc in a watch.

I especially like the way that my Fitbit tracks my daily steps. It nags me every hour at exactly ten minutes before the hour if I have not gotten in 250 steps. And, when I meet my hourly quota, it rewards me with titillating vibrations, followed by the sweetest message: “Goal Complete! 250/250.” That’s just the encouragement that I need to get in at least 10,000 steps a day.

On my teaching days, achieving that goal is easy. I walk all around the classroom while I talk. Of lesser importance–but important, nonetheless–I try to schedule my classrooms as far away from my office as possible. That’s a sure-fire way to rack up steps, going forth and coming back again.  And to the extent that I decide not to have back-to-back classes, I can double or even triple the benefits of applying my fiddle-fit inefficiency principle.

Similarly, on my non-teaching days when I am at home, it’s never a challenge if I’m outdoors. My gardens cover a healthy acre or two, so just walking around to see what needs to be done places me well above 10,000 steps. If I’m actually working in the gardens–let’s say mulching–that usually takes me over 20,000 steps. But, sadly, I can’t mulch and garden every day.

Many days, I am indoors, neither gardening nor teaching. I have found that the best way for me to reach and exceed 10,000 steps on those days is to be inefficient! I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually works.

The principle is basic and elementary. Forget–absolutely forget–multi-tasking. Instead take any task, break it into as many sub-tasks as possible–the more, the better–and perform everything at the sub-task level.

Performing everything at the inefficient, sub-task level works so well that since the start of this year I have walked 782,356 steps. Yes. That’s right. 782,356 steps. Based on my gender and my stride length, that’s equivalent to 370.4 miles.

I made this remarkable discovery about the power of inefficiency quite by accident, just like so many other great scientific advances. Coca-Cola. Cornflakes. Velcro. Viagra.

I remember the exact circumstance when I had my breakthrough moment.

I had gone grocery shopping, but I was nowhere near getting in my 10,000 fitness steps. When I drove into my driveway, I started thinking. The distance from my Jeep to my kitchen door is about 75 steps. I could easily carry my four or five bags of groceries inside at the same time. But what the heck. I need steps. This is where inefficiency steps in. Let’s see. If I leave the groceries in the Jeep and walk to the kitchen door, unlock it, and walk back to the Jeep, I add 150 steps. Then if I take one bag at a time, I will walk 150 steps every trip. Multiply that by four trips–one trip for each bag plus the initial trip to unlock the door–and suddenly my inefficiency has boosted my customary 75 steps to 750 steps.

My fit-as-fiddle inefficiency principle is equally efficient when performing routine household chores. Vacuuming is a good example. My vacuum cord easily reaches from the kitchen through the dining room and into the living room. If I didn’t need steps, I could just vacuum all three rooms before unplugging and moving on. But I get more steps by using the kitchen electrical outlet while vacuuming the kitchen. Then I take the vacuum and plug it in to the farthermost electrical outlet in the dining room and continue vacuuming. Then I do the same as I move to the living room. That simple action earns me slightly more than an additional 100 steps above the 3,186 steps required to vacuum those three rooms. Imagine how many steps my inefficiency will help me achieve as I vacuum the entire house.

One of my favorite applications of getting fit through inefficiency involves dusting furniture. I never ever start the task with furniture polish in one hand and dust cloth in the other. No way. That’s too efficient. I put both down somewhere as far away as possible from the furniture to be dusted. Then I step forth with just the polish. I apply it. Next I return the polish to the original staging area, pick up the cloth, and return. I wipe. I shine. Then I return the cloth to the original staging spot. I continue that process while dusting my entire home. When I finish, I am fit or fit to be tied. Sometimes, both.

And I simply must share with you how remarkably efficient I am with kitchen inefficiencies. For example, if I’m standing at the sink and I need something out of the cabinet immediately to my left, I could walk a step or two in that direction and get it. Far better, though, is to walk to my right and go all the way around my kitchen island in order to get to the cabinet that was within arm’s reach to my left. That gives me 45 steps. Imagine all the stepping opportunities that I can take advantage of, just by preparing breakfast alone. Add to that lunch and dinner. Gracious me! I just had a brilliant idea! What if I apply that same principle to drying and putting away dishes! Inefficiency can step up any meal, any time of day.

Here’s another thing that I do. Phone calls–whether incoming or outgoing–provide a perfect time to get fit through inefficiency. Instead of sitting down and sipping a cup of coffee while talking, I get up out of my chair and walk. I have tried walking around one room and that’s good. Better still, though, is walking back and forth between two rooms. Best of all is walking all around the house. That’s especially good for me since I have a two-story home. That boosts my steps and my heart rate at the same time. I admit that when I apply my fit-as-a-fiddle inefficiency principle to phone calls, I have to watch my steps as well as my phone manners.

If I really need more steps in a day, I never–absolutely never–return anything to its rightful  home. I put them all in one place, ideally as far away from where they belong as possible. Then, when I have time–but always before the end of the day–I step my items back to their homes, item by item by item. Those steps accumulate quickly, and I enjoy the double joy of seeing my home as uncluttered as it should be.

Another one that I like is walking from my office to take my coffee cup back upstairs to the kitchen for a refill. En route, I saunter past my aquarium and realize that I need to turn on the light. Rather than do it right then and there, I continue to take my coffee cup upstairs and set it down. Then I walk back downstairs and turn on the aquarium light. Afterwards, I go back upstairs to refill my coffee cup, and walk back downstairs to my office, thereby gaining a total of 312 inefficient steps.

Or if I want to get downright physical about it, when I’m lifting weights at home, I don’t just stand there between sets looking in the mirror at the muscles that I hope to see. Instead, I find something to do. Sometimes I just step over to another mirror on the far side of the room to look at the muscles that I hope to see. Then I run my comb through the hair that I don’t have as much of as I used to have. Here’s a sweet trick: if I swing my Fitbit arm sufficiently while combing what I wish I had more of, I add a few more steps to my day.

I have so many more examples to share that I could step this post out to the length of an entire book. But why tell all at once? Maybe I could find a co-author–another inefficient Fitbit stepper–and make it twice as long. And, frankly, on days when I am desperate for steps, group authorship has even crossed my mind.

So what if it takes me longer to get to wherever it is that I am going? So what if it takes me longer to do whatever it is that I am doing? Whenever I arrive wherever–for whatever– I’ll step out as fit as a fiddle.

Get Behind Me, Satan– REVISITED

A memoir forces me to stop and remember carefully. It is an exercise in truth. In a memoir, I look at myself, my life, and the people I love the most in the mirror of the blank screen. In a memoir, feelings are more important than facts, and to write honestly, I have to confront my demons.

Isabel Allende (Chilean-American writer who calls her writing style “realistic literature, rooted in her remarkable upbringing and the mystical people and events that fueled her imagination.”)

I have always been a staunch practitioner of Robert Frost’s precept that “Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second” (Letter to Sydney Cox, January 3, 1937).

That’s why I rarely share anything that I am writing with others until I am reasonably comfortable that my “draft” is fast approaching my “fair copy.”

But I would explode if I didn’t share teasing tidbits about what I’m writing with a select few along the way.

For example, when I was drafting “Get Behind Me, Satan,” I shared the basic idea with a friend, telling her that my goal was to create a funny, humorous post that would mention not only the way that my siblings and I dashed out the door as my mother rebuked the Devil, broom in hand, but also the way that the Flip Wilson Show in the early 1970s caught my mother’s comedic fancy. Whenever Geraldine did something wrong–and she loved misbehaving–her defense was always “The Devil made me do it.” My mother loved it. She made it clear that she did not want to be bothered when Flip Wilson was on TV.

When I finished the first draft of my post, I texted my friend:

“Well, good grief! I just finished a crummy draft of ‘Get Behind Me Satan,’ and it slid off in a direction that I did not see coming at all! Any deliberate humor is gone. Flip Wilson is gone. And I’m not sure what the post … IS. Well, it’s crummy. But, at least, I have a crummy draft calling me tomorrow night!”

She texted me back instanter:

“Maybe you have 2 posts in this: the one you set out to write and the one that happened. Can they be two with different messages?”

I replied enthusiastically:

“Hmmm…maybe so! I like that idea a lot! I may use it and NOT give you any credit OR maybe you will become my ‘Linden (VA) Correspondent.’ Oh! I’m liking this a lot! ‘Get Behind Me, Satan, REVISITED!’ Yep! This is a winner!

So now, dear readers, you have the first-hand backstory of the post that you are reading right now.

Obviously, since my Linden Correspondent paved the way for me to explain my initial plan for “Get Behind Me, Satan,” I’ll go right ahead and do so.

I’ve already mentioned that my siblings and I would dash outdoors when my mother started rebuking the Devil.

I’ve already mentioned how my mother fell in love with Flip Wilson and Geraldine.

What I haven’t shared, though, is something that I had intended to include in my initial post if it had not melted away in a different direction. Read on.

Who would have believed that after all these years–and just like my mother–I hold the Devil fully accountable for anything and everything in my life that’s negative.

As you know, especially if you read my post “Baking Up My Past,” I don’t suffer baking failures lightly, and, fortunately, those failures don’t happen often. But I have been known to toss a culinary dream right into the trash can, all the while rebuking the Devil with language not found in the King James Bible and not proper for this post. Nonetheless, the fervor of my rebuke is on par with my mother’s.

And if you remember my post “The Power of Consistency and Persistence,” you know that I take my biking even more seriously than I take my baking.

Without doubt, it’s when I’m biking that Satan tempts me the most. Just imagine. I’m on my bike doing my best to get into my daily routine, and almost always after about twenty minutes into it, I hear that voice:

“This is tough, no? Never gets easier, does it? Hey, give yourself a break. Why not quit for today? You’ve done enough already. Just stop.”

What a mell-of-a-hess that leaves me in, sitting there on my bike, Gospel music shaking the rafters, with that Devilish little voice doing its best: Stop. Hop. Off. Quit.

But it’s at that moment that my pedaling kicks into overdrive. I speed up from 20mph to 23mph, rebuking the Devil out loud, above the blaring Gospel music:

“Satan, you ole slew foot, you! You’d love for me to stop biking now. But I’ll show you who’s the master of this bike. With God’s help, I’ll bike the full sixty minutes, maybe more. So go. Leave me be!”

And for an extra punch, I pause just long enough to light up my Sage Smudge Stick to give my workout area another layer of cleansing purification.

At that point, my dog, Ruby, gives me her puzzled look, tucks her tail, and dashes off to safety, leaving me to fight my own battles.

My biking rebukes work well until the next day or so when inevitably the Devil returns to have another round with me!

So that’s the direction my initial draft was going, and it was moving along exactly as I had expected. That is, until my sister Audrey sent me my mother’s Dickson Bible, the one that included Through the Bible in Pictures. The Gustave Dore images were marvelous, especially the one of the Devil that was the most frightening thing I had ever seen as a child.

After I had looked at that well-worn Bible showing heart-wrenching evidence of my mother’s travels and travails, my next draft of “Get Behind Me, Satan” started to veer away from my intended humorous course.

Then, when I saw that the image of the Devil had been ripped from the lower quadrant of the page exactly where the Devil always stood with his pitchfork and his long serpent tail, waiting for my return visits as a child, it veered further still.

Needless to say when I realized that I must have been the one who destroyed the image as my guileless way of rebuking Satan once and for all, the draft veered into its own and claimed itself, triumphantly.

It became what it was supposed to be.

It became a reflection that captured the simple truth as I recalled it rather than a jazzed-up post aimed at entertaining readers.

If my mother were here, she would look at me, smile, and remind me of what she taught me all along, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).