This isn’t the post I told everyone I was going to put up here as soon as I finished fine-tuning it. I had to set that one aside for now, because I became self-conscious and bogged down and I overworked it. After all the years I’ve been writing, I should really know better than that, but I fell into the spinning-my-wheels trap anyway. This morning I decided to write something brand new to pull myself out of the trap. So instead of being another flashback as I originally intended, this one is half flashback and half flash-forward to the present. Specifically, it’s a little clip from the conversations I had with some of my neighbors yesterday at Bennie’s yard sale. It seems to fit here, though, because those conversations are a microcosm of the inner conflicts that were the subject of my previous post.
Bennie lives around the corner from me on Arrowhead, and since her yard sales are her only source of income she has them practically every weekend. Most of her neighbors understand her situation. They not only don’t harass her but are actively supportive in a number of different ways. The only exception is the busybody troll down the block, who calls her “white trash” and complains about her frequent yard sales to Code Enforcement. We haven’t learned the precise identity of the troll or her address yet, but we have a lot of creative plans in the works for when we do.
Yesterday I planned on bringing a couple of crates of my small plants over to Bennie’s to sell for a dollar each, but I was late getting over there. I was at the computer trying to revise my second discussion board post, and also anticipating my third one. And that meant looking back…taking a long, long look back into the past. Pretty soon I was in over my head—not in a painful way exactly, but in a much more intense way than I really wanted to deal with yesterday morning. Still, there it was. However it gets out of the bag, it can be hard to stuff it back in sometimes.
I had been mulling over the idea of starting my third post with a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was the same sonnet I once read out loud to a sixteen-year-old boy in my bedroom in Redondo Beach, when I was also sixteen years old. The words of the sonnet started coming back to me, and the intense emotions carried on those words came flooding back also—along with sharper, more concrete images, visual images. I didn’t realize there were so many of those left in the storehouse. I remembered the turquoise-painted walls of my bedroom in the house on Marshallfield Lane, right down to the hole in the particle board that for some reason never got fixed. I remembered how much I hated that hole, and the longer I had to live with it the more I hated it.
My old copy of Millay’s collected poems is one of the treasures I lost in storage after I lost my house in Montclair. Over time that book became as personal as a journal, because of the little notes to myself I wrote in the margins of the poems—dates and initials and short, poignant reminders like “On Dec. 13th I cried over this.” That was all I needed. Reading over the note and the sonnet, I knew perfectly well why I cried over it on that particular night.
But I no longer have that treasured book, so yesterday morning I set myself a little challenge. I decided to write the sonnet down from memory in my current journal, to see how accurately I remembered it after all these years. Then after I had given it my best shot, I went online and did a quick Google search [Millay’s poems are public domain] so I could grade myself. If anything, I think I was more afraid that I would remember the sonnet word-for-word than that I wouldn’t.
It turned out to be not quite word-for-word, but pretty damn close! I only got one short phrase at the beginning of one line wrong. I had written: “If you were not lovely I would leave you now…” instead of “Were you not lovely I would leave you now…” which is how Millay actually wrote it. Considering my intensely nostalgic mood, I think I can be forgiven for not counting out the beats on my fingers, which would have helped me avoid even that small error.
So yesterday afternoon after I brought my crates of plants over, the four of us—Bennie and Tony and Jean and I—were all sitting on Bennie’s lawn eating sandwiches from the Subway over on Highland. Tony is Bennie’s partner, who lives with her and collaborates with her on the yard sales. Jean is Bennie’s next-door neighbor and friend—and my good friend also. The yard sale stuff was set up in Jean’s driveway instead of Bennie’s, so the troll down the block couldn’t complain to the cops or Code Enforcement that the yard sales are on the same property week after week, because technically speaking...they aren’t.
Things were kind of slow yesterday afternoon, and nobody was stopping to look at the yard sale stuff. I was beginning to give up hope of selling even one plant, but at least we could relax and eat our lunch in peace. I had brought over some homemade potato salad to go with the sandwiches.
I began telling my friends about what I had been doing in the morning—the challenge I had set for myself and the results. And I also told them about the note I wrote in the margin of the Millay sonnet, the note I cried and laughed over so many times in later years: “Read this out loud to L. on [don’t recall the date] but didn’t tell him at the time that I applied it to him.”
I started laughing again when I told them about it, even though I was embarrassed as usual. It’s hard to accept that I was ever that naïve, even at sixteen.
“Can you believe that?” I said. “Didn’t tell him I applied it him…good grief! Like I really needed to tell him after I read him that poem. After all, the guy wasn’t stupid!”
And then I recited the sonnet out loud. Again I stumbled over the line “Were you not lovely I would leave you now…” but I corrected myself.
All three of them stared at me in amazement, as though I had just performed some dangerous high-wire trick. It’s possible that none of them had ever heard of Millay before, had never read that sonnet even once, and had no idea whether I was getting it right or not. But they probably sensed that I knew—and they were right.
“She’s a prodigy,” Bennie said. “Do you know what she did? She quoted the other part of the inscription on the armoire in my living room. What was it again?”
She wanted me to prompt her, which was so easy it was almost embarrassing. After all it’s only two lines, and one of them is already inscribed on the armoire.
“It’s from Shakespeare,” I reminded her. “It’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on/ And our little life is rounded with a sleep.’ The second part, ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’ is the line on your armoire. All I did was quote the first line, because I recognized the second one.”
I never know quite how to respond in these situations. False modesty makes everyone uncomfortable because it indicates either phoniness or insecurity. At the same time, I know I can’t take credit for what comes naturally. So the following has become my standard approach, which at least has the virtue of being true.
I told them that I memorize poetry easily because I’ve always loved it, and read and wrote it compulsively when I was younger. Occasionally I would deliberately set out to memorize a poem, but most of the time I did it unconsciously. I would read over my favorite poems so many times that I committed them to memory without realizing I was doing it.
Jean took me aside and said to me very quietly, so that Bennie and Tony couldn’t hear: “Please don’t be offended if I tell you this, but Cheryl offered to clean your floors for you.” Cheryl is Bennie’s next-door neighbor on the other side, two doors down from Jean.
“I’m not offended,” I told her. You think I don’t know my floors are filthy? You think I don’t know how to clean a floor? That’s what it means to have ADD. Things that are so hard for other people, like memorizing poetry, are easy for me. But ordinary, mundane things like keeping the house clean are next to impossible. It’s because I can’t prioritize, and then it all gets away from me and becomes overwhelming. I can’t decide what I need to do first, so I end up not doing any of it.”
She seemed to understand and accept that even before I said it. “You wouldn’t have to move your boxes or anything. Just get rid of some of those bags. Cheryl says she’ll bring her cleaning stuff over and only clean the part that shows.”
I thought it was interesting that Cheryl was so afraid I’d be offended that she couldn’t make the offer herself, but had to ask Jean to do it for her. “Tell Cheryl to give me some time to at least make the goat trails between the rooms a little wider,” I said. “I won’t try to reorganize everything. It’s not like I don’t see all that clutter. It’s not like I don’t know the paths between the rooms are getting narrower. But I wake up in the morning and I see that horrible mess and it just depresses me no end. And then you know what I want to do? I want to get on the Internet and tune it all out…which is usually what I end up doing.”
Again she seemed to understand that before I said it. She probably doesn’t understand why I’m like that, but out of the goodness of her kind heart she saw my situation for what it is.
“If I ever say something like that and you feel insulted, please let me know,” she said. “I don’t mean it like that. We love you and we want to help you.”
“I know,” I said. Which was probably the biggest step forward of all. Not to turn away from the help I so desperately need, not to see it as condescension and reject it almost as a conditioned reflex, not to retreat into a cocoon of shame as I’ve done so many times before—that’s progress of a kind most people will never understand.