A writer learns to live with herself in a distracting, distressing world.
By Jodi Paloni
When we were kids, we used to bring flowers to our teachers on May Day. We made baskets from construction paper strips woven and stapled. We filled them with pansies. Later, when my kids were in school, we’d do the same, keeping with a tradition that few still observe, because living in the north, to me, the arrival of spring feels holy. We wait so long for sunlight, we almost forget how it comes — a splash of daffodil in brown gardens, the sudden greening of the wildwood around us, and the sight of flats lined with rows of pansies outside hardware stores. They are otherwise known as heartsease.
Before long, summer arrives in full swing. Memories of dark days, cold temperatures, the piles of snow and ice on lanes, recede in our minds, while little bright pansies can help. But more, somehow, toting a basket of posies to place on a teacher’s desk represents the coming of summer vacation, a month left until freedom, the great pause in the grind of the machine.
Three years ago, my first book, a collection of stories called They Could Live with Themselves was accepted by Press 53 for publication. A year later, we launched. During those spring cycles, my anticipation for summer was doubled. I was thrilled how ten years of hard work had come to fruition. During that first spring into summer, there was everything involved in preparing to publish. Second spring, there were parties and touring and reading, and seeing my book at the bookstore. There was submitting to contests. That year-and-a-half felt like one long and delightful first week of May. Having created a tangible artifact only spurred me to want to make more. Whenever time opened up, I couldn’t wait to sit down at my desk and face my next writing project, this time a novel. But then came the fall of 2016, and the winter of political upset, and a full stop to my coveted project.
I’m not the only writer who, lured by the explosion of political drama, stopped working. I set down my pen and picked up my causes. My reading list changed from fiction to newsfeed, from poetry to petitions. I made signs, wrote postcards, stayed up late at night watching video clips from the left, from the right, from the middle, so when the next day arrived, I was not only foggy, but frightened. I stopped going outside, which meant I stopped paying attention to the cyclical nature of life. In 2017, I missed spring–––I missed pansies–––which meant I also missed the anticipation of summer. Then I missed summer.
Here’s what I learned:
- I stopped behaving in the ways that I wanted, to put art above all beyond basic functions–––the needs of my health, my family, my job–––to strike a balance in living a creative life.
- In becoming strategic, concerned, and combative, I became dull and depressed. It wasn’t my nature. Negative thoughts and ideas and emotions grated until I felt raw. What good was I to myself or to others?
- The unrelenting drama was exhausting. I became tired and sick, and remorseful, and eventually, I became unfaithful to the ideal of hope, and where was any purpose in that?
- And, yes, the coming to rawness is helpful in keeping us alive and alert. And, yes, I was part of the conversation, on the “smalls acts when multiplied” theme, on the “how to” resistance action networks, but I’d stopped making art, which I firmly believe is one of the things that will save us, or at least help me. I’d become resistant to working on art.
In the spirit of seasonal ritual in our family, we also honor the New Year by setting new goals for ourselves and sharing them with each other. We make something that represents our longings and dreams. This year, we painted on slices of wood we call cookies. Mine was all about shifting, from worldview to new view, from no art to some art to more art. Two years had passed since I’d published or written a story or poem worth writing. Not weeks, not months, but years.
While crafting goals onto wood cookies is inspiring and fun and touches on the feeling of taking baskets of flowers to teachers, it’s not much of a plan. So I asked myself, how did I want to get back to the work?
Here’s where I landed:
- I save news for the end of the day, for the radio, when I can cook and clean up as I listen. I spend time on social media in spurts, half an hour at lunch, and not until after 1,000 words have been written, which is to say I make word count a personal headline.
- I try to look at the noise and the conflict not as distraction, but as fodder, which shakes up the art. What are the beliefs that no longer serve fiction? How can stories teach writers and readers compassion?
- I look for ways to find patches of silence.
I decided that the key to lifting my spirits and finding the work had mostly to do with the pause I’d forgotten I needed. The world wouldn’t end if I took care of myself; in fact, it might (as they say) raise the vibration. At the very least, a break from the fray would allow me to come back to the table refreshed.
One way I wanted to do this in earnest was to figure how to not only put time in the chair, but also to make up for some time that I’d lost. I imagined a big chunk of pause, away from it all–––family and work and the worldwide political stage–––just to write. Time is a privilege, I know, but I’ve come to a place where I shouldn’t feel shame in creating. I looked into residencies. Since my MFA program, I’ve self-made some weekend retreats and traveled to two wonderful summer writers “camps,” but I’ve never slipped off all alone to face the vast open page for a stretch of time that could count. In February, I applied to three residency programs, all in the northeast, and so far I have received “the big yes” to one. It feels as if I’ve been given a basket of pansies.
To me, May is the kindest of months, when the land softens and opens for seed. This week, as I celebrate the second anniversary of my debut, I remember that first I’m a writer. I celebrate the 178 pages I’ve already written into my novel. The end of a draft is in sight. A five-week residency for editing and polishing is firmly on the horizon. I’m already planning. I’m pulling together a booklist. I’ve already bought two new notebooks. I’ve researched the best way to avoid tick bites, as I’ve suffered from Lyme, and I’ll be living on a farm on the field-edge of a beautiful lake in Maine.
Who knows how I’ll feel once I get there, if I’ll miss my family, my dog, my flowers and vegetable garden. Who knows if I’ll panic within the absence of borders, the backdrop of news from the world, or fly off into realms I can’t even begin to imagine, which, of course, is my hope. Maybe I’ll finish my book.
Right now, though, it’s May. I’m heading to town to buy pansies. I’m giving the pansies to writers, to artists, to you.
Jodi Paloni is a Maine writer, author of the debut story collection They Could Live with Themselves (Press 53, 2016), a 2017 IPPY Silver Medalist, finalist for the 2017 Maine Book Award, and runner-up in the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She was recently awarded the 2018 Literary Arts Residency at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center in Maine. Jodi has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works as a freelance writer, editor, teacher, and coach, and helps organize the Brattleboro Literary Festival in Vermont.