Eavesdropping and Solitude

Dear Nancy,

Just now I’m sitting at an iron table outside a coffee place in Jamaica Plain. I had looked forward to a cigarette with my coffee, but there’s a big NO SMOKING sign and I obey. I’m wide awake. If I were home in Woodstock, I’d be inside my pleasant house doing nothing at all. Possibly napping with dogs. Re-reading Tom Hennen’s Darkness Sticks to Everything. Even on pretty summer afternoons, I only leave the house if I’m out of something necessary, like coffee or smokes. I could blame this on the heat or the damned gnats, but that’s a cop-out. I’m lazy.

This week I’m visiting my daughter Jennifer and her twins, whose 10th birthday is tomorrow. Jen is at her therapist, I’m waiting for her to come pick me up. It’s ten-thirty. Five minutes ago there was in line behind me an old man carrying a plastic bag full of cans and bottles. “Can I buy you a coffee?” I asked, and “Sure,” he said. Such a nice ordinary exchange.

At my back all kinds of noisy traffic—trucks, street cleaners, motorcycles, a train. The exhaust makes me homesick for New York City, where I no longer live. One table away two kids are eating breakfast with a woman I think must be their grandmother. In ten minutes, nobody has exchanged a single word, they are all absorbed by whatever is on their various I- Phones or Pods. On the drive up I heard somebody on NPR say that the stuff on these devices was far more exciting than real life, and what is the future of this generation going to be, reality will never measure up, and oh dear, oh dear. I am remembering the old story of somebody bending over a carriage and exclaiming on the beauty of the baby within and the mother saying, as she took out her wallet full of photos, “But wait till you see her pictures!” and I wonder was this the forerunner of today’s obsession with something other than living flesh and blood??

But photographs are distillations of life, and whatever is going on in those devices keeps happening faster and faster. Nothing distilled. Like those strobe lights in discos, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Nobody seems to know how to do nothing anymore, and it is so important to be able to keep still, to enjoy one’s own company. Doing nothing makes room for who-knows-what to come along through an open window, maybe, or out of a clear blue sky. I can’t go any further with this, but at least it’s almost a thought. Already I’ve had more thoughts in twenty minutes than a year at home.

It is important to have a pen you love, and an expensive notebook.

I have both. I like to defile my expensive notebook with grocery lists so it doesn’t intimidate me. Lego. Cat anythings. Birthday cake candles. They will be ten years old. How can this be?

I think life is endlessly interesting if you pay attention. Sitting at home what absorbs me? My dogs. The leaves, summer outside, green overtaking green. But being elsewhere, sitting here in a city not my own, looking at unfamiliar people, it’s a mystery how I fill my days at home so comfortably. What is wrong with me? How can I do so much nothing??

I need new experiences! at 73, I’ve got to get out more, vary my days.

Ah, a quite fat young woman with a quite fat young man sits down a few tables away. They are talking, God bless them, and the fragment I catch is her saying “with mashed potatoes on top.”

I am loving this.

Somebody just sat down at the table next to mine. “That’s a beautiful bracelet,” she says, followed by “Are you a writer? You look so creative.” (I’m just writing in my notebook.) “Yes,” I say.

“Do you have a card?” she wants to know now. She is leaning toward me. Do writers have cards? Good god. “No,” I say, “Sorry.” She is sweet and young and a little speedy and she tells me she lives with five writers but she herself is studying marketing. I have never understood what marketing is, but decide not to ask. We exchange names, shake hands, and I go back to my notebook.

Do I look approachable? Mary Cantwell once wrote “My face looks stony in repose,” and so does mine. Unless I keep a pleasant expression handy I look angry and scary. My children have pointed this out to me, with photographs to prove it. Maybe my face was not in repose just now. For a week last winter I stopped putting on lipstick and blush and went naked faced into the world. I forget why, but there was a reason. Maybe I had decided to accept the universe. The funny part was that my untouched face felt like a disguise. I would walk into Bread Alone as if incognito, and although I thought hard about this for a while, obsessed by the irony, it remained a puzzle. Why should what I really look like be a disguise?

Last night, sleeping on Jen’s extremely comfortable sofa, I had a great dream. Everyone was in love with this bad boy, who was also a little sad. He never went out with a woman longer than a few intense days, but he was very sexy. A dowdy woman in my dream exclaimed, “I’m even in love with his shadow!”

Never have I remembered dialogue from a dream, in fact I rarely remember a dream, but I loved what she said, or what I said in my dream, or however that all works. If I were younger, I suppose I’d examine “shadow” more carefully, thinking of the various layers of meaning, but at 73, I prefer the literal. “I’m even in love with his shadow!” Perfect. I also love how a dream lingers on for a day or two. That one made me feel young again, which is preferable to actually being young.

I read Plato’s Republic in the back of a Morris Minor while my parents drove around England. Even though I understood not a single word, it made me feel grown up. Speaking of shadows.

I know what I love about being home. Solitude. My own thoughts or lack thereof, no interruptions. My bad dogs. But I hope I can muster the energy it takes to leave a comfortable place, to risk stimulation, although why stimulation is a risk, I don’t know.

Here comes my daughter, her happy face flushed. We are going to shop for the kids, whom I adore. Sorry this letter is so short, and so short on anything but random notes and contradictions, but that’s all I’ve got these days. Any help would be welcome.

Best regards,



Our guest blogger: Abigail Thomas is the author of the memoirs, A Three Dog Life, What Comes Next and How to Like It, and Safekeeping as well as two collections of short stories, Herb’s Pajamas and Getting Over Tom. She is also the author of Two Pages, a collection of two page writing prompts, and the AARP publication, Thinking About Memoir. We invite you visit her website www.abigailthomas.net

This entry was posted in Day by day, fun with what we do, home, Journaling, Passion, Play, Process, spaciousness, The Writer's Life, what artists need and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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