Repurposed: The Long Arc of a Writing Life

Mary Bonina
From the January/February 2019 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

During the holiday season in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in front of the Unitarian Church in Harvard Square, there used to be an outdoor market where one could browse jewelry and art, pottery and lamps, hats and scarves. But one booth in particular always attracted a lot of interest from shoppers: the one that displayed wind chimes and jewelry made from old spoons, forks, and knives. An artist heated and molded the silverware into beautiful rings; tines were clipped off forks and made into dangling earrings, and full place settings into wind chimes. The flatware, engraved with intricate stylized patterns of acanthus, amaryllis, rose, daffodil, scrolls, and shells, made me imagine guests seated at tables in grand hotel banquet halls or passengers in elegant dining cars during the golden age of rail travel.

This kind of recycling, or repurposing, is quite common, if you take the time to notice. On the balcony of a row-house apartment in Worcester where I once lived, I had a table fashioned from a huge wooden spool that had been used for steel wire cable. I’ve visited several Maine cottages where weathered lobster traps were used as living room coffee tables. A friend of mine once made an empty water jug into a lamp, using it as a base and filling it with colorful sea glass she’d gathered on a North Shore beach, finishing it with a lamp kit she bought online.

I’ve been thinking about repurposing a lot lately—not in the context of arts and crafts but rather as it relates to my writing—inspired by a recent project of converting space in my home for my work. I’ve spent decades at many different jobs. I worked in government, employee training, public relations, marketing, and community education. And although all of them often involved a good amount of writing, my job title was never “writer.” Out of sheer will—and because I could not give up writing, though I sometimes tried—somehow I managed to get an MFA while holding down the most demanding of those jobs, and after earning the degree I occasionally wrote something I hoped to publish. Close to ten years later, when I still had not emerged as a writer, motherhood entered the equation, and after the birth of my son I rarely wrote at all until he entered first grade. At that point I decided to leave my job, which meant our family would need to rely primarily on my husband’s public university teaching salary for financial support.

Even without a paying job to go to every day, I had to fight for writing time as parenting, taking care of a household, and fulfilling some responsibilities to my parents and siblings took up most of my waking hours. Parenting was the most demanding. Naturally I wanted my son to have the chance to explore his many interests and to develop skills that would help him discover his passion and enrich his childhood and later life. He did keep busy—very busy—and I was the one to see to that. In addition to the usual doctor and dentist visits, playdates, school meetings, and so on, there were art classes, swimming and tennis lessons, soccer practices and games, theater and children’s opera rehearsals and performances, music lessons and recitals, and summer camps. And the responsibility for researching these programs, registering, and getting my son to these various events fell primarily to me. After all, I was the parent who didn’t have a job—or, rather, the one who didn’t have a paying job. 

Flash forward to 2010, when my son left home for college, living on a campus in upstate New York, three hours or so from our home in Boston. Some of my friends who’d been stay-at-home moms had not had a competing major interest, as I did in my writing, and they found it a difficult adjustment when their children left for college. But I had experienced no empty-nest syndrome. I was thrilled that finally I had time to do my work. During my son’s college years I published my first full-length book of poetry, and shortly after I was invited to give a lecture on “The Process of Poetry” for the students and faculty of the composition department of the Longy School of Music of Bard College. The students were studying composers who had set poetry to music. I remember being both honored and surprised to receive the e-mail inviting me to “address the composition seminar.” The invitation came from a faculty member who at the time also taught in the Conservatory’s Preparatory Studies Program and had been my son’s music theory teacher. Suddenly that music building, the same place I’d spent one morning per week, and at a least one afternoon or evening—often more—sitting by a window reading or editing a piece of writing while waiting for my son to finish a lesson or rehearsal, took on a new purpose, one that applied to me and not my saxophone-playing son.

On the day I showed up to deliver my lecture, I found a group of graduate students—my audience—gathering near the same window seat I’d regularly occupied, outside the room where I had attended perhaps ten of my son’s recitals in as many years. My lecture would be in that very room. When I entered, the chairs were arranged in rows, the same way they’d been for recitals. A single chair was set before them, and in front of that a music stand. There I would place my lecture notes, not my son’s sheet music.

 I can’t describe how incredible it felt to be in that recital hall for my own purpose. I’ve had this same feeling over the past several months, as I’ve been creating a study-office space for my writing, transforming the room that had first been a nursery and, for twenty-four years after, my son’s room. The wall unit of bookcases and the desk that I’d bought for him when he entered high school, hoping he’d be serious and organized about his schoolwork, remain; the apartment he and his wife live in is too small to accommodate them. The bookshelves are placed against the wall where his crib once was, now housing my own library and not his sci-fi volumes, schoolbooks, projects, trophies, and recognition certificates. Under the two large windows where he had another set of bookshelves and a cabinet for keeping his sheet music, I’ve placed a loveseat I can comfortably sit in while editing a manuscript or reading a book. The door to the front hallway that was kept closed because a twin bed had to be placed in front of it can now be left open to help air circulate in summer; and if I have editing or tutoring appointments with writers who may contract for my services, they can enter my “office” through that door, without trudging through the other rooms of the apartment.

Having professional office space now in the room that was my son’s while he was growing up—repurposing it—has given me a desk to work at on days when I might have less time to head to work at the Writers’ Room studio space. But, most important, the room is a place for my library, those books that represent my intellectual and creative life, and it provides space for a tall file cabinet in which I’ve been able to adequately organize drafts of my creative work, class and workshop notes for teaching, contracts, and copies of journal publications and submissions.

There are overstuffed envelopes and file folders, notebooks, and journals to be sorted through and decisions to be made about what to keep and what to shed. I find I am compelled to look at everything—some things I haven’t seen in years—to evaluate it all for its potential use in a later writing project. Will this letter from an old friend describing life in a northern Maine town to which she’d moved find its way into a short story or an essay I might write? And what about that old job description? Can I use it to create a believable character of a career government bureaucrat if I ever choose to write one into a novel? Will I be able to salvage a never-finished story or poem? 

The revelations and possibilities of the past seem endless as I plow through box after box of my own history. I’ve kept one of the now-empty boxes for the pocket-size notebooks I carried with me even during the years when financial concerns and family responsibilities took precedence over my writing. These notebooks reflect the tenacity with which I tried to keep alive my creative side by recording observations, images, bits of overheard conversation, and ideas that came to mind. They are also a record of the difficulty I had maintaining the life balance that would allow time for my writing; in addition to the nuggets of inspiration, more pages are devoted to shopping and to-do lists, appointment reminders, lesson plans, or other work project notes. But as I leaf through these little notebooks, deciding which ones are worth saving, I imagine a day when I might randomly take one from the box and flip to a page that will provide the kernel of truth on which to build a story, one that might offer a question to pursue in an essay, or an image from which a poem might grow. To echo Flaubert, by organizing my workspace I’m hoping to “be steady and well ordered” in my life so that I can “be fierce and original” in my work—my real work, which I’m now allowed to pursue.

Silverware made into wind chimes or jewelry still summons a past when the utensils were used for celebratory meals or just for ordinary nourishment. The wire cable spool and the lobster traps become useful tables yet they continue to call up their original purpose in a working life. Looking at the lamp that provides light and adds to the design of a room, it is impossible to forget that the lamp’s base is a bottle that once held liquid to quench thirst and is filled now with colorful chips from other glass bottles, transformed jewel-like, smoothed by the sea. And in this room that has become my office—this place that sheltered and nurtured my son so that he’d become the caring young man he is now—there is a good vibe, but not only because I finally have a room of my own: The place feels right because it retains the spirit of its original purpose. The room is imbued with a sense of the comfort it provided for my growing son; it feels as if it has seeped into the oak floorboards. It is a place where my son learned to be at home with himself, and where I can be at home with myself as a writer. 


Mary Bonina is the author of My Father’s Eyes: A Memoir (2013) and two collections of poetry, Clear Eye Tea (2010) and Living Proof (2007), all published by Cervena Barva Press. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.