Never had an attic

So, one of the writing exercises in Clear Out the Static in Your Attic is to describe something in detail from your attic, whether real or metaphorical is kind of hazy.

I never lived anywhere where I had an attic, though. We never had an attic where we stored things when I was growing up. Wanted one, never had one. We had a basement, a room under the stairs, crawl spaces. No attics.

So, in doing this writing exercise I had to decide, should I describe the basement I do know, or the attic I don’t know? Is there a difference in how we store our memories? Whether in a mental basement or a mental attic?

My basement will always be the basement in the house on Pear Lane with the cool room beneath the stairs and the wall of shelves for canned goods, the large zinc sinks, the drain in the corner, and the cut out cupboard in the wall where Gramma kept her bulbs. My sister tells me there was a little spot on the wall where Grampa kept his guns behind chicken wire, but I don’t remember that. I figure I blocked that.

I guess what I’m saying then, in reading the above, is I’ve answered my own question. I don’t connect with an attic like I do a basement, so it’s best to use the basement.

The title of this chapter in the Clear the Static book was “Floorboards.” So, we’re supposed to describe the floorboards in the attic.

The floor in the basement was concrete, of course. It was painted gray in the main room with the zinc sinks, but there was green shag carpeting down the stairs and at the foot of the stairs and into Mom’s room. That’s all we had for carpet. My sister and I got the linoleum in our room. It was cream-colored with gold glitter in it and had these odd shaped star things in black and pink. My sister and I used to pretend they were spiders and we had to get around the room without touching them, which meant hopping about from door to bed to bed, and back again.

Blurry photo of the linoleum we had in our bedroom.

Blurry photo of the linoleum we had in our bedroom.

In the summer, when it was 108 degrees outside, the basement floor was nice and cool to the touch. But it was way too cold in the winter when we’d tiptoe across to brush our teeth in the zinc sinks so the grownups could have time in the real bathroom getting ready for work.

One of my favorite places in the basement was halfway up the stairs, just sitting there, sometimes reading a book. When I first learned about prayer, that was where I sat to pray, asking God for a crown, a robe, a scepter and a chest of jewels to arrive there by the time I came back to my favorite place on the stairs.

Gramma tried real hard not to laugh when she explained to me that’s not how prayer works.

Still, it was one of my favorite places in the basement.

The other favorite place was the little room beneath the stairs. It was always warm, all year round. It was where the hot water heater was, which was “new” and right next to the old hot water heater, or boiler, which was made of iron and had 1898 stamped across it. It was the room where the ironing board and iron were kept, always set up. It was where all the old games, knickknacks, toys, sewing supplies, fishing rods, and other oddments were stored. As far as I was concerned, it was a glorious room. A magical room. Down there was where the old Chinese checker game lived, alongside the 1,000 piece dragon puzzle. It was one of the places where I hid when things went wrong. I think of all the rooms in that little orchard house, that’s the room I miss the most.

Yeah, it’s not the attic that works for me. It’s the basement.

Writing is a marathon

When I was in grade school, I started sprinting. I wasn’t superfast. In fact, I was just sort of fast. And I liked the longer sprints, the 220 mostly (now called the 200 meter), but not the longer ones like the 440 (400 meter). And I wasn’t quick enough at the start for sprints like the 50 and 100 yard dash.

But when I walked, I liked to go slow, stop and look at things. Family walks used to be interesting. Mom liked to walk fast, I tried to keep up. My sister would out-and-out stop to make us stop so we’d both wait for her. Now, of course, they’re both fast-walking fiends.

I liked going fast on my bike, though.

In junior high, I actually lettered in track and volleyball. Mostly the 220/200 meter and the relay – nothing too long or too short, like I said. And it was again, mostly stick-to-itiveness that got me those letters. I wasn’t the fastest, but I didn’t give up.

Sports letter

I also wrote poetry a lot, not stories. I thought about writing stories, but I was all about the poem. And sometimes plays. I really liked the idea of writing plays at the time. In grade school, I used to check them out and bring home ones I thought I could mess about with at home, to direct my sister and our friends in. Or really just me and my sister. Maybe if I’d gotten involved in drama more in junior high and high school I would have tried writing plays.

Anyway, that’s all to say that all these things I did were the shorter versions of things I was into. They were the things I could do in brief amounts of time. They were things that I knew I could finish.

In high school, we moved from the east part of the state to a larger town, a college town, on the west part of the state. Completely different type of town. My interests traveled with me, of course, but the friends who I’d done track and volleyball and drama with who would have pulled me along with them were back in Wenatchee. I was starting over in Bellingham. New school. New system. New friends. The only thing I really held onto was orchestra (but without the private lessons). I have Mr. Schlicting to thank for that. He grabbed me before I could shy away and got me into orchestra and chamber.

But as a runner, I didn’t fit anywhere anymore. And though my shotput had been okay for a junior high kid, it was lousy for high school. Somehow, I got talked into joining the cross country running team. I don’t know how. Maybe it was the Chariots of Fire movie. I don’t know. Long distance running had never been something I was into. But somehow I made it. It was longer and slower (for me, though for others it was faster). I frequently came in last or tied for last.

Writing happened, outside of homework, in fits and starts. I explored being an architect for a while instead of a writer. It seemed like there would be more promise for employment, and more exotic than mundane writing. I read books, thought about things, wanted to make the world a better place, had dreams. Meandered.

Eventually, though I quit running for track in high school, I did end up running for myself in college and later. And that’s also when I started working on longer forms of writing. My poems got longer, as if expanding my lungs, my breath, my stamina, also seemed to expand my ability to expand on my ideas. I wrote longer poems and short stories, toyed with ideas for novels. They were halting and poorly written, but coming out nonetheless.

It wasn’t until I read “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg that I connected that writing was something that happened between the brain and the body; it was just as much physical as mental. Goldberg’s theory was that writers had good figures because they (we) expend a lot of energy writing. It takes stamina. It also takes stubbornness and focus, like running long distance does.

Now, I know a lot of out of shape writers, because if you spend all day in front of your computer and get out of the habit of moving around, your body will deteriorate. But I also know what she was saying. I get it. It takes strength – physical, mental, and spiritual – to write, to keep at it and not give up.

Last year, my cat died, my dad died, hell, my washing machine died. My best friend’s dad died, and his dog died. The paper I work for was sold and we not only changed how we do things and got a new boss, but we also moved down the street. I also moved out of my kitchen while it was being redone, and back into it, and out of the rest of my studio apartment while it was being repainted, and then back into it. Family visited in between.

2015 was exhausting.

Writing got dropped like a 10-pound sack of potatoes.

I’d been working on a book, well a novella and two books. And before everything hit the fan, I thought that one of them was close to completion. But I would soon learn that even with all the practice I had with poems, short stories and novellas, when it came to novels, it wasn’t going to be a sprint. It was going to be a cross country journey requiring stamina and focus. And I was getting there, bit by bit. I might come in last, but I figured I would get there eventually.

And then last year happened.

It’s been over a year now, but I am finally getting back into writing. But like all exercise regimens, I’ve lost the “conditioning” I once had to sit down and stick to a piece of writing. I’m barely working on poetry, only nipping around the edges of stories. I have to get back my stamina. Gotta practice the short sprints before I get back into the long distances.

A couple of weeks ago, I opened up the file for the novel I thought was close to being finished and realized just how much farther I have to go on it. I have to get in my “distance training” again before even looking at it. So much more to do, more exercises getting the creative writing chops back. More poetry and short stories so I feel comfortable in my writing skin again before I get back into the marathon training that is novel writing. It will take some time before I finish this book, or any other for that matter. I need to be comfortable with that. This isn’t a short sprint. I’m in it for the long haul.

 

Obsolescence and Wringer Washing Machines

One of the exercises from “Clear Out the Static in Your Attic” is to take something that’s obsolete and explore it from the perspective of being out of time. Look at the tension that happens when it is out of its regular time and place. Alternately, try to imagine something that is used all the time now, which may become obsolete sometime in the future. Explore what that looks like.

For this exercise I decided to explore the old wringer washing machine that’s used at Pickett Fences down the street.

This GE Wringer Washer is similar to the one my gramma had.

This GE Wringer Washer is similar to the one my gramma had.

Time in a Washing Machine

The shop was one of those upper class boutiques that fakes old-fashioned working class sensibilities with creaky wood floors and fixed-up crap your grandparents and great-grandparents threw out because the new stuff from Sears & Roebuck really did work better. Vintage things you could have gotten from your parents for free when they cleaned out the attic or the garage or went through your grandparents things after a funeral, sat next to artisanal objects and products handcrafted — sometimes by special snowflakes and sometimes by actual artists and artisans.

And all of the items — Vintage and artisanal alike — cost much more than your working class family would have ever dreamed of paying for such things as soaps, scarves, cards, buttons, and other cool objects.

Old things made new and cool again.

New things being cool because they had the patina of being old, because they could.

One of the shiny new old things in the store was the outer shell of a wringer washer sitting in the middle of the store.

I wasn’t going to go into the store, I really wasn’t. My budget didn’t normally include visiting boutiques that had objects that cost enough to bite into my grocery budget, or clothes that would only fit prepubescent girls with no hips.

But this old wringer washer, sitting in the middle of the room, it drew me in.

I felt myself shrinking as I approached the old washer. Slowly, I was changing from a 50-something woman in a 21st century city, to a small town six or seven-year-old girl. Gramma’s voice was in my head warning me stay away from the wringer washer as she fed in the clothes from the basin into the hard rubber spools. My little hands and arms might get caught up and pulled through the wringer.

My six-year-old self wanted to help her grandmother, but obediently clasped her hands behind her back as she stood on tiptoe to see into the basin. Watch the clothes pulled out, fed into the wringer, back into the basin. Rinse. Repeat. Hung to dry on the clothesline in the utility room of the basement.

And then I am standing over the hollowed out basin in the boutique, once again a grown woman, and staring into a container of vintage scarves. This is nothing but a display piece. No monster agitator to mangle my hands and my clothes. No greedy wringers to take off my fingers or arms. Inert. Dead. The working-class demon is now an empty shell of itself in an upper class boutique on Larchmont Boulevard.

The first time my poetry got published

When I was in junior high — Pioneer Junior High, home of the Bears — our school newspaper had a poetry contest. I had moved across town from another junior high, Orchard, home of the Bulldogs, a couple of years before.

Annuals from Orchard Junior High and Pioneer Junior High, 76-79.

Annuals from Orchard Junior High and Pioneer Junior High, 76-79.

It has been a long time, and I believe both junior highs are now middle schools, and neither one has newspapers anymore.

I don’t think the poetry contest was a regular yearly thing. I think it was a “one off” that our school newspaper was trying out in my 9th grade year; it was a glorious “one off” as far as I was concerned.

I remember being really excited at the prospect of a poetry contest. I figured that this was it. This would be the thing that would prove I was a writer. And I think it was also the first time I actually considered sharing my poetry with others. Before this, I don’t think I ever really thought about other people reading what I wrote — I mean, not really (other than silly day dreams, and Paul McCartney songs on the radio in the early morning helped with that). The whole concept that someone other than my teachers or my mom might read what I wrote was foreign. On the other hand, I knew I needed to enter this contest. And I think my mind filed the poetry I’d be submitting in the “homework” portion of my brain to keep me from freaking out about it.

So, I approached it as I would any homework, like I was working on an essay for class, and assumed that only the teacher advisor, and maybe the newspaper students, would ever see the poems I submitted.

The little house on Pear Lane.

The little house on Pear Lane.

But maybe I should back up a little — give you a little history.

When Gramma and Grampa decided to leave Wenatchee, my mom and my sister and I moved from the little house on Pear Lane with a double corner lot, a huge back garden, a little play house and a cool basement, to the tiny two-bedroom duplex on Dakota on the other side of town with a dime-sized yard. Not very far as things went, but far enough to put me in a different school district. Far enough to leave behind friends I’d made my first year of junior high, leave behind track and volleyball coaches and orchestra teachers and cute boys I had crushes on, and then have to get to know new friends or old friends from grade school again, whilst wondering if I would be able to please my new track and volleyball coaches and orchestra teachers. Would I find new boys to have crushes on?

So, what I’m trying to say is that even after being at PJH for a year, I felt the need to prove myself. I really was holding onto this poetry thing like a lifeline to do that.

When we’d lived on Pear Lane, my sister and I had shared a room in the basement. We’d built forts out of our closets and beds. We’d played “avoid the monsters on the floor” (the creamy linoleum floor had those pink, gold, and black star things on it) and other games. When I wrote it was with visions of becoming another Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, or L.M. Montgomery. In my world, I was Jo March.

The window I left open so Peter Pan could visit.

The window I left open so Peter Pan could visit.

My sister’s bed had been by the door at the bottom of the stairs and mine had been by the small window that was high up in the wall. I’d left that window open every night when I was really young in hopes that Peter Pan would come to visit. Later I kept it open just to annoy my sister. (It was a basement window with a screen, hidden at the side of the house, in a small town, so no one cared I left it open.)

When we lived on Dakota, once again my sister got the bed by the door, and I got the bed by the window. But this time we were on the ground the floor and the windows looked over the little hedge and the yard onto the small street. We had carpet on the floors and shared a closet with a sliding door and were older, so no more did we build forts or play “keep away from the monsters on the floor.” Instead, we — what would they call it these days? We were “establishing our territories.” We put duct tape down the center of the room. We charged each other 1/4 of a penny every time we touched the other person’s side of the room. Trouble was, my sister’s side was by the door. I had to run down the short hall and do the long jump to get to my side of the room without touching hers, which was only successful about half the time since that was not one of the things I was good at in track.

I probably still owe her money from then.

I still loved being next to the window, though. It was my own little corner of the world. The windows were larger and let in more light. They only opened out a little ways, though, and I didn’t leave them open at night as much anymore. I was old enough now to have seen scary movies and know about the monsters who broke into houses. I wrote messages to my friends in runes or codes, coloring the paper with mom’s leftover coffee so it would look like parchment (she was so annoyed when she found out). And my bed by the window is where I sat to work on my poems for the contest that year. I remember sitting there in the early morning, and sometimes in the evening, looking out the window while I wrote and rewrote lines, crossed it all out and started over again.

I remember working on two poems that year. One I had written mostly while we lived in the little house on Pear Lane. It was simple, following the seasons of the year, and about being a kid in a small town: riding bikes, running along canal roads, running through the sprinkler in the summer, playing in the snow in the winter. I began it on Pear Lane, but I finished it on Dakota. I remember calling it “Childhood.”

Then there was the other poem I worked on, but only on Dakota. It was specific to my immediate condition and was full of young teenage angst and yearning. It hurt so much to express all that that it felt good. I called it “Alone.”

I had put my entire young self into those poems. And then, somehow, I had the confidence and bravery to actually enter them into the contest. A contest where people might read them who hated them, who might point at me and laugh at my ridiculousness. But at least one of them, “Alone,” made it. I think I remember getting third place, but that didn’t matter. It placed, and because of that was published in the school newspaper.

I was so proud! So happy. I don’t even remember the other poems that made it in. I think I remember some semi-cute guy offhandedly saying to me, “cool poem” in one of my classes. It put me over the moon.

I brought home my copy of the school newspaper and swore I’d always keep it. This would always be mine. No one would take it away from me. I’d always have this newspaper as proof I’d been published somewhere.

But, well, things don’t always turn out the way you think. I learned a valuable lesson — to always keep extra copies of what you’ve had published, to keep tearsheets, to keep the original poem or story somewhere safe. Because I lost the copy of that school newspaper with my poem in it, and the copy of the poem as well. I’ve moved several times in my life since then. Every time I have to go through old boxes I think, “I wonder where those poems went.” I look again, just in case. Still not there. They’re long gone in some landfill, probably decomposed by now.

I used to go online every so often and see if anyone had scanned in old copies of the annuals and newspaper from back then. Maybe I’d run into my poem. I even wrote Pioneer Middle School to see if they kept copies of their old newspapers (they don’t). The real world is not Sunnydale and I don’t have a Willow to hack in online and find things that aren’t there.

While I know from the perspective I have as a middle-aged adult that these poems were probably childish first attempts at poetry, “juvenalia” as a friend calls such things, they were my first attempts at poetry. My first attempts at poetry where I actually won something. My first attempts that got published. I will always honor them. I will always miss them.