Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 29, 2013

Intruders at the Laptop

A writer friend invited me to meet her this morning at a café, where we talk as a little girl and her dad at the next table sing “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider,” running their fingers up each other’s arms. Spring-starved people drink coffee at picnic tables, pointing at small green shoots. I’m glad to be warm inside, opening my laptop and hearing the tap-tap of my friend’s new novel being born.

This rhythm of getting back to normal is just what I need. Yesterday my desk was crowded with spirits pressing me with sweet or sad memories and as many rogue conversations as I’d recently fielded in the church basement where I’d tried to thank people who should be thanked, see that hungry people ate soft sandwiches, stop people from apologizing for things that need no apology, listen to people I love, and people I never met before, and my neighbor who told me about her goat, Stinky, and another neighbor’s clothesline with clean sheets and a rifle. Maybe not the most appropriate funeral story, but then did I cross a line speaking about the fraught, fragile beauty of my last conversation with my father-in-law? Well, I told this to a friend I later learned had given Peter a small box of totemic figures not part of the pantheon of this old New England church, telling him the names or purpose of each being, which of course he promptly forgot. It was all we could do to hold onto stories from the woman who said she seated my in-laws at the same table sixty-five years ago or a man who joined the entire Clarksburg Baseball Team at their wedding.

It’s hard to leave such days behind. Writers may have it both harder and easier than people returning to tasks with boundaries that parallel those we’ve been performing, such as picking up flowers or tracking down a missing prayer shawl. Such tasks can steady us, but grief pounces when my hands hover over a quiet keyboard, wanting to set old characters in new motion. It’s tricky to get back to work when grief, like life, sets its own schedule. Memories spiral, offering revelations with each re-telling,  or burrow in, creating the sort of richness we expect from compost. Or sometimes they just lead to places dim as the early drafts of my fiction. Such murkiness doesn’t rise just because we can’t find the right words or structures, but reflects our minds, which pull in all that we don’t know, overwhelming what seems certain. Letting thoughts stray and puddle may make new connections or ideas. The wandering mind is also the creative mind. We might need to dwell in what’s uncomfortable, trying not to bat off sadness or even loving gestures in an effort to hold on to a world that has changed. We have to respect everyday time and ritualized time, when we may contemplate cycles and fit the everyday into bigger patterns.

And there’s a time to try to rein in wandering thoughts, and no clock to announce when to use a little force to separate waves of plans and waves of mayhem. Just as kind friends try to figure out how much quiet and how much company the bereaved might need, we also try to figure out how much we should sit or nap with sadness and how much we need our feet on what we guess is normal ground.

Now it’s lunchtime at the café and I smell grilled cheese sandwiches. I look up to see people carrying bags of hot cross buns and braided bread. A baby in a green sweater gurgles. Those people at the picnic tables aren’t quite as hunched as they were; one even unwinds a scarf. I’ve put together a blog post, which may be a step back to my novel. I’ll take a walk through snow-melt and mud, then see what’s waiting at my desk.



  1. This is so lovely and poignant, I am in that cafe with you. I will be in your place in a few weeks, so I understand. Oh, how I understand. Trying to work. Trying to save the stories people tell us. Trying to remember. Trying to move ahead. Just trying. It’s all we can do. A hug from me, belated, but just as heartfelt.

    • Candice, I know you are doing everything with whole heart and open eyes and I wish I could keep you better company. I treasure your hug and send another back.

  2. I’m with you in spirit, Jeannine, walking alongside you through the snow-melt and mud. Holding good thoughts for your reunion with your desk.

    • That was some serious mud we walked through, Tracy. My dog is leaving dog-shaped dirt spots on the floor. But more robins and bits of green poking up and soon I expect to hear spring peepers. It was a good day with a short time at the desk, and I appreciate your company.

  3. Jeannine, I wish I could give you a hug, or my own writing invite. I’m glad your friend got you out. Grief is so heavy, and it needs to be, it deserves to be, but I’m glad you got to watch the little girl doing Itsy-Bitsy Spider.

    • Thanks for your kind wishes, Becky. I’m always happy for a virtual hug or virtual shared cup of tea, so I’m going to help myself. I did love that quiet father-daughter duet.

  4. Sending gentle hugs, Jeannine, and thinking of you with love. I’m glad you had a writer friend beside you, and that you’re giving yourself time to wander and remember.

    • Thanks for the hug, Amy. Sometimes you need one kind face. I have that in mind with her enthusiasm for new work, thinking, that will be me again one day. Meanwhile, we have crocuses.

  5. Thinking of you so much, dear Jeannine. Love and hugs and bright yellow daffodils to you.

    • Thanks, Lorraine. The daffodils here aren’t quite yellow, but the green shoots coming from the ground are quite a pleasure.

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