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High school seniors (and their parents) are starting to feel the stress of college applications, and are beginning to call me to ask for help with their college essays.  I meet with them in my home office, which nowadays is my back deck.  We sit amidst pink and purple flowers and an occasional grey twitching squirrel listening in.  For an hour we talk and they write with the goals of finding an essay theme, writing a first draft, and editing the draft.

One thing I tell them is about the need to find a balance between the experience and reflection on the experience:  what has happened on the outside of you, and how you felt and thought about it.  Sometimes I say it this way: “you have to get very dumb” like Natalie Goldberg says–meaning just write what you saw, smelled, felt.

Here is an example of what I wrote recently when in a quick 10 minute non-stop burst (i.e. writing practice, as Natalie calls it).  I use this writing practice technique with students to get their creative juices flowing and memories stimulated.  In my case, my brother was about to come and clean out my father’s side of the garage in preparation for their move.  It held all of his tools and electrical equipment.

Writing practice in my parent’s garage.  I am sitting on a stool that my dad has fixed, the black shelf where my feet rest is wrapped with wire where it meets the white legs of the stool.  Bob used to joke that when my dad fixed things they came back with wires sticking out of it, and that was true.  My dad was a fumbler when it came to fixing, but he did fix.  His side of the garage is filled with things he might need to fix something some day.  A 10-piece drill bit set package hangs from the metal shelving, with two bits missing.  On the back of the shelves are all these little packages hanging from twisties in holes mean for screws, with things like 10 single edge razor pieces and a toilet “super flapper”.  On the shelves are jars filled with screws.  The jars and tins originally held Quinlan Tiny Thin Pretzels, Folgers Automatic drip coffee, Metamucil, Maxwell House coffee, Sanka coffee, vitamin c, Macadamia nuts, and Sof-cil–”For the temporary relief of Constipation” the label explains.  One Blue Maxwell house coffee tin (New—Fresh Flavor Electra perk” it says at the top) says LARGE BOLTS  in dad’s engineer’s block writing, where everything is a capital letter. On the top is another piece of masking tape, this one says 3/8 x 16.  I pick up the can and it is very heavy, like maybe 1 or two pounds.  I look inside and say to myself-“those ARE large bolts.”  They look like they could hold together a chair that an elephant could sit on.    A Brim coffee can (a brand I never heard of) has no lid, but is brimming with switches—a toggle switch pokes out of the top, and a label on the front says “SWITCHES” neatly written.  I sit here in my father’s world.  On the left are all of these things with dials and cords handing down, plugged into a power strip on the wall.  My throat is choking.  The plumber just left because m and d’s rubber stopper in the toilet had broken.  Mom called the plumber and he came within an hour.  Mom says he always does..  When he got into his car, I was here in the garage staring at dad’s shelves.  He said, “I’ve known your parents for 20 years.  They were one of my first customers here.  It’s sad to see them like this, I remember what they were like when they first moved down.  Sometimes when I leave I feel like I wanna cry.  But what are you gonna do?  We’re all going to be like that some day.”  Yes, they’ve lived in this house for 25 years, and my folks are elderly now. They are frail now, wearing hearing aids, walking with canes.  But I love their healthy vibrant spirit.  Inside they are still very strong.

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