Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wants and Needs

The effects of our economic failings seen through the eyes of Wall Street real estate listings are obscene. Several days ago I noted that an estate built at a cost of fifty-nine million dollars and originally listed for eighty-five million dollars sold for fifty million dollars. That amount of money for a house for two boggles my mind. Why? But this is not something new. Palatial estates, over the top interiors, imported antiques--collected across the world--attest to the private wealth of the occupants.


My mother collected antique cups. It's just that her definition of antique was fluid. If the cup looked old, an imitation was acceptable, and if it was a "buy" then she bought the cup. Minor cracks were fine as long as the cracked or chipped side faced away from the viewer. Her collection never numbered more than ten because that's what space allowed. Our three-room apartment in the Bronx, short on space for four, managed to accommodate my mother's antique cups, her sewing machine, and a desk my father and I shared. One of the antique cups is on a bookcase in the loft of my home. The crack faces the wall. Turn it over and read its provenance —Made in Hong Kong.


How many people live in shelters? How many people are homeless? How many people in the world live in sub-standard housing? How many people live in mansions, estates with all the amenities? What are those amenities?


What are the amenities I need? What are those I want? My wants far exceed my needs. I tell myself they aren't excessive. Perhaps the builder of the mansion feels the same way?


It is very late Wednesday afternoon and I am seated at the coffee house I often frequent.

We don't have any mansions in this town, although we do have a few areas of low cost housing, and subsidized housing. Most homes are modest, some more expansive, but this is a town that had its roots as a mill town.

If you walk a few blocks from here, past a barber shop, three empty store fronts, two hairdressers, a flower shop, a bar, a store selling motorcycles and accessories—and then take a right and go up a long slowing rising hill you'll find the original mill houses. They were built for the mill workers. Over the years, when the mill morphed into buildings occupied by a list of myriad companies, the mill workers left and the houses were sold to private owners. People updated them, adding rooms, building up or sideways. Each house almost rubs against its neighbors.

Many of our local gardeners attend these postage sized old mill house plots. Their miniature gardens display galaxies of colors. When some of the gardeners wanted more space they chose to work on neglected spaces around town.


Wants and needs, interconnected, yet separate. Yesterday I visited a family whose son died on Saturday after a three-year battle with bone cancer. His mother often spoke about how he was living his life until the very end. He celebrated each day by engaging with life. Wants and needs. The family sought every treatment, new protocol, and possible cure. Toward the end the wants narrowed down to seeing a basketball game or another baseball game.


When I dusted the loft I picked up my mother's cup and saucer and realized that she didn't need the real antique.

Linda Watskin © 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Is it an epidemic, a way to avoid the often arduous, but enthralling, process of revision? It's easy to become ensnared. April lured poets, some accomplished and others desirous of writing poetry, to blog challenges. Write a poem a day for the month of April. There’s no time to ruminate, to unearth the right word, to listen to the music inherent in the words. I've put those thirty poems in my desk and I'll return to them.


Call it discipline. Take the 250 words a day challenge, or the 500 or 1000 words a day challenge. Start out your day by free writing 250 words without expectations. It's a warm-up, it's the pre-golf swings, and it’s a way to "prime the pump." It's a way to find out what you want to write. This morning I wrote about the salt I spilled which led me to salt cellars, salt licks and The Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, a white baked desert.


I've discovered two more poetry sites offering challenges. Each week another prompt ; each week a new poem. Seven days. Six days if you honor a Sabbath. There's time built in for revision. What about reading the other poems? If you want comments, you need to give comments. All this is time consuming, taking time away from revisions. And what do we say to one another?

"I loved the line about the iguana."
"So poignant."

It takes time to critique and do we always want critiques? And if there are no comments, what does that mean? What happened to the writer who sent out a manuscript thirty or forty times before an editor recognized the gold?


Since I brought an iguana onto the stage, I must write something about the iguana. (Chekhov’s dictum, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." )

Years ago one of my students, a young man of dubious scholastic interests, expressed a fascination with reptiles. After prolonged family discussions, everyone thought they could live with an iguana. Napoleon, the name selected by the young man, was welcomed into his new home. He measured less than an arm's length.

I didn't know anything about the creature, but the young man spent hours researching iguanas. He wrote a long research paper, brought in photographs of Napoleon’s growth spurts, and even kept a journal. All my students wrote journal entries and often shared one or more entries with the class. We followed the travails of Little League teams, the birth of a calf, 4H projects, and the life of Napoleon. By May the green iguana's size and girth took up page after page of the journal. By late June Napoleon outgrew confinement in one room and one day the young man left his bedroom door ajar; Napoleon explored the house.

He sprawled his six-foot frame on the living room rug and waited for the family to come home.


Which brings me back to challenges. I’ve signed on, at least for a spell, to two poetry sites. My relationship with prompts is not straightforward. I eschew following the directions in a precise fashion. Instead I allow the prompt to take me somewhere—and write from that place. Perhaps I am being recalcitrant, or maybe I love the idea of following an idea and seeing where it leads. One word beckons and another word meanders while another word asks for quiet, conjecture, contemplation.

Suddenly I find myself thinking about writing a midrash, a psalm, a prayer. Who knows where a prompt may lead.

"How can I know what I think until I read what I write?"