Paper Jams and Perspectives

Have you ever tried to fix a paper jam in one of those huge copy machines that’s the size of a refrigerator sitting on its side? It can also happen on a small home printer, like it did to me the other day. I’m usually pretty good at clearing those jams, mainly because I’m patient.

You have to try everything. When you find that first crumpled piece of paper and pull it out, you may feel satisfied that you’ve resolved the problem. But there is a 95 percent chance that at least one more piece of paper is stuck even further inside.

You go for it anyway: You close the door or tray and take a look at the little display screen. The machine informs you that it is still jammed. So, you try again. And again. Eventually you will find a small, brightly colored handle that you didn’t know existed, and it will open a compartment you’ve never see before. And there you will find a piece of paper so mangled that you have to pry it out in shreds.

When you finally close up the printer for like the tenth time and it stars to hum and you hit start and copies come out, you feel like Jack in Titanic shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”

This machine might not end up on the bottom of the ocean, but much like Rose, you will outlive it. One day you will arrive at work and encounter a gleaming new printer that, according to the office manager, will change your life. Wrong. It just has even more places where paper can lodge.

This past year I wrote a memoir about how I got stuck for a long time. As I wrote this book, I reminded myself not to be content with the easy discoveries. Even in the editing phase, I tried to peek into every possible hiding space where the answers might be tucked away. I had to take on new vantage points—to peer at my life from every angle I could embrace.

But sometimes one person is not enough. The possibilities are too vast, and an individual’s frame of reference only goes so far. A team of people working on a project is almost always enhanced when each person on the team offers a distinct set of skills and insight. Welcoming in new viewpoints makes the team stronger.

So, once I completed the third draft of my memoir, I recruited test readers. I reached out to a whole bunch of people because I knew it was important to obtain a variety of perspectives. These folks might spot a weakness that I was too close to observe. Some of them did, and their comments made my manuscript better.

A couple weeks ago I attended a writer’s association meeting, and I shared with the group the progress I’ve made on my book. I was informed that my collection of beta readers was still too narrow because they were all friends, acquaintances, or former co-workers. A member of the writer’s group who I had only just met offered to read my book if I would read theirs.

A part of me feels like I’ve been working on this book forever, and I should just skip this step. That’s the part of me that wants to stop fixing the friggin’ paper jam already. Luckily, that part almost always concedes to the part of me that wants to keep looking. After all, who knows what this new reader will find? What if they locate that final crinkled piece of paper that eluded everyone else?

Each person we collaborate with brings with them a whole host of contexts and experiences that exist well beyond our own. We should think of our self as our first collaborator, and our duty is to push past those early automatic thoughts to get to the deeper stuff. And then, when we are stretched to our outer limits, we can invite in others to help us extend the boundaries of what’s possible.

How else do you think those giant printers came to be?!

It’s Not You, It’s Me: One Year Since Losing a Friend

Tami and my cat Gretchen

About 10 years ago my friend Tami and I were in the basement of my townhouse so that she could visit with my cat Gretchen. My other cat, Mo, was up on the main floor. The two cats had become incompatible, so my husband and I were rotating them every 24 hours, and it was Gretty’s turn to be in the basement (which I would like to point out was a finished and relatively pleasant basement).

Tami was holding Gretty, and she looked at me and said, “You know, this situation with the cats is more about you than it is about them.”

I was flabbergasted. My reply was weak and forgettable—probably something like, “Um, ok, whatever you say.” Then I changed the subject because I did not want to argue with her.

Over the years since that trivial incident, I have crafted sassier comebacks in my head—none particularly worth sharing. I’m not sure why that remark bothered me so much. Now that Tami is gone, having passed away a year ago today, it still lingers in my mind alongside weightier memories.

A woman in my grief group told us how her therapist often asks, “Why do you think that bothers you so much?”

So, I’ve asked myself that question. Why did her comment bother me so much that I still recall it clearly ten years later? The answer is that Tami was at least partly right. When the cats would fight, I couldn’t bear to hear Gretty’s cries—she sounded like she was seeing the very gates to hell. That sound made my bones ache. I did not have the guts to let the cats duke it out and settle their conflict.

A reunion did happen gradually and by accident, as people came over and left the basement door open. For a couple blissful months, the cats coexisted again. And then Mo startled Gretty one day, and the truce was over. Sometimes Gretty would pee on the floor when she was afraid of Mo, so I don’t think the decision to keep the cats apart was entirely about my own neurotic tendencies.

Tami’s remark to me that day echoes as I grieve her loss. Her death haunts me, as the unexpected death of a 54-year old woman is likely to do. I am sad. I feel guilt. Most of all, I am mad. Mad at a long list of people, including her. I hate being mad at someone who I loved and who is no longer on this earth. My anger feels righteous, earned—but as Tami might argue, it really does say more about me than it does about her.

My reactions to her life choices were largely due to my own insecurities and angst. I was afraid we would lose her, and we did, but my fear did nothing to stop that.

A part of me wants to dig through both of our failings, turning them up like soil, letting them sift through my fingers as I try to glean something of use. There will be plenty of time for that later.

For today, I will say that only a friend like Tami can challenge you in that way, and I miss her dearly.