Taking stock of what you really miss

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

My teeny-tiny turkey is brining as I write this. I have a Zoom in a few minutes with my in-laws, and have texted everyone I know to wish them a happy Thanksgiving. I’m still in my pajamas at noon, which feels very holiday-like; I’m not even pretending that it’s a normal day. We’re going to overeat outside, at a six-foot distance, with a scattering of friends. That’s it. That’ll be Thanksgiving 2020, and it’s just fine.

This has been a year of doing without. For some people, it’s meant doing without jobs and security; for some, it’s been doing without good health. For everyone, it’s been doing without the benchmarks of normalcy, including seeing friends and family, and traveling, and feeling safe when you’re perusing the frozen food aisle at the grocery store. Normal has never seemed so alluring, has it? Every time I’ve been able to do something that was temporarily unavailable — getting a haircut, for instance — I’ve savored it like I’ve never savored it before. I’m grateful for being reminded that just living normally is an excellent thing. When this is all behind us, I hope I’ll remember how marvelous it is to have an ordinary, fear-free, friend-filled day. …


It surprised even me

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

A lot about writing is hard. Starting a piece is hard. Ending a piece is hard. Doing research can be tough. Figuring out a structure for a story is nearly impossible. The one thing I’ve always found easy is finding the confidence that the story was worthwhile and that it was important to write it.

That confidence is fundamental. In fact, I couldn’t do what I do without it. I write a lot of stories that, at first glance, seem non-essential: Profiles of orchid poachers, dog actors, decades-old library fires, chicken farming, ten-year-old suburban kids, girls who like to surf. These stories are not burning up the newswire; great matters of state will not be affected by them. To me, though, they’re meaningful stories. They document the human experience, and peer into other lives, and reveal truths about who we are, and illustrate the richness of humanity, and are sometimes just fun to read, and are sometimes going to make you cry, and always, I hope, deepen the readers’ knowledge of lives outside their own. …


Stealth action on irresolvable issues might be it

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

I am an organizer and a thrower-outer. My husband is a pile-maker and a saver-in-case-you-might-need-it-somedayer. My favorite gizmo is my label maker. His is… something that is probably under a pile of things in a corner. Despite this, we have a happy marriage. (Because he is probably reading this: I love you, John!) Still, there is a gulf between us regarding the management of stuff. I can’t see how he could object to my neatly labeled, orderly array of things; my alphabetized spices; my photo-labeled clear shoe boxes; my colorized closet, but I suppose in a moment of weakness, he might dismiss me as being a bit anal. …


And have sharp-looking shirts while you’re at it

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

Today I spent a very satisfying half-hour ironing sheets. I never dreamed I would find solace in ironing, but I have. I was raised by an ironer; my mother ironed everything, including our underwear. But from as early as I can remember, I railed against ironing and told my mother how pointless it seemed to me. I chose clothes that were meant to be drapey rather than crisp, and anything that was meant to be crisp I redefined as wrinkly. I vowed I would never spend a minute of my life bent over an ironing board pressing out a sleeve when the sleeve was just going to get wrinkled anyway. …


Patience might be a virtue that I don’t possess

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

THE WAITING. The waiting. The interminable waiting. How to occupy yourself when your only true occupation is to wait? I have weeded my garden. I have organized my refrigerator. I have weeded my garden again. I have tried to teach my puppy to sit. I have eaten all the chocolate in the house, including the chocolate chips, which weren’t really meant for snacking.

I haven’t gotten any work done.

I’m trying to wait, patiently. I’m not a patient person.

I hate waiting, in fact.


Believe me, I feel it too

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Now what? Went to the grocery store in an odd panic, buying food for tomorrow in case… in case… I don’t even know what. It seemed smart to stock up on essentials. Voting? Did it days ago. Arrange to watch returns with friends? Of course not, because COVID. In 2016, we were invited to four election night parties and we strategized traveling from one to the other as if we were landing planes at JFK. …


Be it ever so humble, the index card is pure magic

Image for post
Image for post
Actual index cards I’m using working on my memoir

When I recently sang the praises of the humble reporter’s notebook and Pilot retractable pen, I should have noted that these formed the tool kit for the research phase of writing. When time comes for me to sit down and actually compose a story, there is another essential (and equally unassuming) piece of equipment that I couldn’t work without: the 5x8 index card.

I almost hold my breath as I write this, because every now and then I imagine a world in which index cards would no longer be produced, and I would be bereft. Because seriously, what on earth are they used for anymore (besides by writers organizing their notes)? In the ancient past, index cards were the mainstay of everyone’s mother’s recipe box (at least the small 3x5 ones were). I seem to also remember using them in junior high and high school, although I can’t even remember how I used them back then, although I think it had something to do with studying. Index cards seem to exist in some prehistoric supply closet that also contains Rolodex refills and typewriter ribbons. These days? …


Week One with the new puppy is a life lesson, of course

Image for post
Image for post
Competition is not actually about scarcity. There are enough toys for everyone.

1. We have named him Buck. Truth be told, my 15-year-old son named him after a character in some violent video game he loves, but we will tell people he is named after the character Buck Mulligan, from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is not at all true.

2. If the person you get a puppy from tells you the puppy is almost totally housebroken, let me assure you the puppy is not the least bit housebroken. Has no idea what housebreaking is, in fact. Not one single idea.

3. The puppy is extremely good-natured except for one habit: He wants what he can’t have. There is a life lesson in there somewhere. What he can’t have, generally, is whatever the older dog has, be it a bone, a toy, a piece of dirty Kleenex fished out of the trash can. Even though there are multiple bones within reach, and dozens of toys, and plenty of dirty Kleenex, the one and only attractive one, in Buck’s opinion, is the one in the older dog’s mouth. This is the hill Buck will die on. I will even present him with the other bone/toy/Kleenex and try to convince him that pleasure is not a subtractive quality, but he ignores it, fixating instead on the item already claimed by the older dog. As I sit there pleading with him to take the other bone/toy/Kleenex and asking the older dog to stop snarling at him (although I can hardly blame her), I think about the number of times in my life when the human version of the nasty, saliva-soaked, pre-claimed bone was the only thing I wanted, too, even when someone was waving a perfectly good available one under my nose. …


It looks like a duck; it quacks like a duck; it must be a duck

Image for post
Image for post
The lightbulb goes off. Photo: Akshay Paatil / Unsplash

Sometimes I think my superpower is coming up with story ideas. It’s an undervalued component of being a writer, which is quite an irony since you can’t write unless you have an idea of what you want to write about.

When I got my first writing job, right out of college, I assumed I’d be told what to write. After all, being a student means being assigned a topic. So when my first editor at that first job asked me what I planned to do for my first story, I froze. …


Big changes, small dogs

Image for post
Image for post

We did it: we got a puppy. We’re insane; we’re checking every Covid box (bake bread, do jigsaw puzzles, wear sweats, get a puppy); we have lost our minds. But so far, it’s been great.

Both of our dogs came into our possession through unusual and geo-politically significant circumstances. Ivy, our senior dog, is a Welsh springer spaniel from a fancy show-dog family, all champions and such — the kind of high-demand dog where you have to get on a waiting list when a female is pregnant and then hope the litter is big enough that your number will come up. …

About

Susan Orlean

Writer, writer, writer. Oh, I also write. Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store