Today it’s all about the book


Writers, more often than not, are uncomfortable singing their praises.  The work we do, in the quiet of a space we relish, is what sustains us. Lots of time spent being invisible for the sake of the visibility and resonance we hope our stories bring.

Maybe Joan Didion was right when she characterized writing as “the act of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” It’s certainly a provocative, Didion-esque way of putting things.  But ultimately writing and reading are a transaction of sorts in which the reader brings her unique perspective to what the writer has put out. 

It’s a long hard road from conception to finished novel to publication and Just Like February, now out there, has to take on a life of its own. Timing and luck certainly play their part. If, as my mother liked to say, timing is everything, I can’t help but see a certain synchronity in the publication  of a novel that evokes the ‘80s in a time when echoes of that decade appear to be back in pop culture, art, and politics.

In the weeks since publication, I’ve gotten some very gratifying reviews and plugs from sites like BuzzFeed, and I’ve written essays for other sites—on topics as varied as bonding with my daughter at rock concerts, learning to swim at the ripe age of 66, and simply, why I write. A new page on my website, News and links, will give you a glimpse of what I’ve been up to. Just click the link in the menu bar above and  take a peek while I take break and turn my attention to that next big marker in my life, my daughter’s wedding.

 

 

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April crow in the snow

April 2, 2018: it’s snowing outside, at least four inches’ accumulation by 9 a.m., no April Fool’s trick here. Yesterday a woodpecker caught me by surprise, a beautiful bird despite the damage it can do. Winter storms had blown away the strips of foil pinned to the column of wood that rat-tat-tatting bird has a taste for and which actually deter it, so I went looking for them in the yard—only to discover more miner bees than last year making nests in the soil. Otherwise known as ground nesting bees, you see them hovering near the little mounds of dirt that mark the entrances to their underground nests (no hives) and several females may nest in the same vicinity. They’re docile and they do lots of good pollinating and they don’t stay around for too long. But I can be forgiven for fearing an imaginary sting.

Today it’s the solitary crow in the snow demanding my attention.

A Yahrtzeit candle burns on my window sill. Lit at sundown last night, it’s a memorial candle marking my mother’s death according to the Jewish calendar, 17 Nissan, the second day of Passover.  A gorgeous full moon, a blue one this year, lit up the sky during Saturday night’s seder.

Well maybe not a full-scale seder since I opted to make it simpler this year.  I try, really I do, to keep the spirit of the Jewish holidays, not to mention my mother, alive, and I’m grateful for the friends and family who gather around the table each year.

 Even without a traditional seder, I need to mark what brings us together by reading from some Haggadah recalling the wonderful story of freedom from slavery in all its Cecil B. DeMille splendor.  This year’s choice was the New American Haggadah, translated by Nathan Englander and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer. It was a gift from friends who come every year. They know I’m a sucker for a beautiful book with a literary duo at the helm.  Here are some random passages that we read:

We live in a broken world . . . Exile—another name for brokenness—is not just the current condition of the Jewish people, according to the Kabbalah, it is the fundamental condition of the universe and of God.

Kafka once wrote in his journal: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

Passover is a journey, and like most journeys, it is taking much longer than it ought to take, no matter how many times we stop and ask for directions.

By no small coincidence, the fiction I’m caught up in right now is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. The novel casts a spell mostly in its reimagining of the heroes at the heart of the Trojan War.   There are slaves here, too, women taken in raids by the Greeks as a prelude to the war and it’s hard not to be taken with the humanity of Achilles and Patroclus in doing what they can for the few in their charge. Then there’s the war itself, as epic and classic as it gets, with its reminder that there’s no escaping the appetites of men for glory and greed, not to mention revenge. We get our archetypes from myths. We get some understanding of human foibles and the way gods have played with them. There may never again be a war of a thousand ships waged in the name of a beautiful woman. But there will, alas, always be wars, more often than not in the name of nameless things.

 

 

Hey, Siri

My husband does not own a cell phone. Repeat: he does not own a cell phone/does not want one. And truth be known he has reason to resist. He runs a business from home. When he leaves the house to do errands, etc., he does not want to be bothered.  From a standpoint of observing the almost obsessive level of connection cell phones foster, it’s hard to disagree with him. Even if there’s a little of the chicken-egg conundrum here—which came first: the need to be within a text’s reach at a moment’s notice or the device that made it all possible?—I’m convinced the ubiquitousness of cells phones is altering our neurology.  Sometimes I hear text beeps when there are none.

All of which makes it all the more charming, even amusing, that my husband seems taken with Siri.  Here’s what happened.

We bought a HomePod, really for me.  If you listen to music as much as I do, you know there’s a qualitative difference between analog and digital sound. I still listen to CDs, even LPs, but the convenience of streaming and/or downloading songs via services like Pandora and Apple Music gives instant gratification an edge.  Good speakers do a reasonable job of compensating for what’s lost in the digitizing process.

Suffice it to say I’ve played with different speaker scenarios, with mixed results. Along comes HomePod, which, in the world of proprietary devices, would seem to be a good fit for my iTunes music library.

Indeed it is. But that dear husband of mine needs to test the limits of Siri. Initially he stands close to the speaker, leans In, learns quickly there’s a protocol that begins with two words:

Hey, Siri.

Without that phrase, you may as well be talking to yourself.   Saturday Night Live did a hilarious spoof on geriatrics communicating with Alexa, Amazon’s Echo equivalent to Siri.

Command recognition is indeed an art.

Husband:  Hey, Siri, do you like where we’ve placed you?

Siri:  It’s homey.

He asks more and more questions. About baseball stats. Oscar winners in a given year.   He talks to her when he’s cleaning up in the kitchen after dinner.

Husband: Hey, Siri,  how are you feeling today?

Siri: I feel good.

When the music is too loud for him, he asks her to stop. Apparently she thinks he wants to hear “Stop” by the Spice Girls.

He learns her limits, too.

Husband:  Hey, Siri, my wife is feeling blue. Can you do something?

Siri: Sorry. I can’t help with that.

He takes the HomePod for a test run in his office. His employees (male) enjoy a female voice that provides music at their command and answers to trivia questions.  A request to play “The Huckabuck” from The Honeymooners initially stymies her. But she finally finds it, which makes him, and his employee, smile. Some dancing is in order.

Husband: Hey, Siri, thank you.

Siri: My pleasure, as always.

Just as they’re getting used to the idea of Siri, we’re hit with a snowstorm triggering a power outage that lasts for days. Fortunately for my husband, his reasonably tech-savvy wife has an iPhone that she sets up as a hotspot.  Oh sweet Internet! But, alas, no Siri, who has been programmed to stream music on a specific wireless network. I don’t know that a workaround is possible or worth the time to figure out. Good old CDs are made for moments like this.

The moral?  I can leave home, reassured that my husband has a female presence to provide him with entertainment when I’m gone as long as our cable network is up and running.  But he really loves watching TV in bed at night, and the only way that’s going to happen is if he gives in to the reality that a cell phone hotspot will let him watch Netflix on the (rarely used) iPad our daughter relinquished to him. More important for business purposes, he’ll have his own backup phone (not mine) during those times (thankfully rare) when cable service is out.

So, Siri, my husband has many things he may or may never say to you. But you have, in a peculiar way, come around at an auspicious time.  The very same daughter who relinquished an iPad to her father has sent him an old iPhone. He may think he’s never going to use it, but when cable power is out, he’ll have his very own hotspot to get the Internet up and running.  And when the phone rings with calls forwarded from his business line,  he may not admit that the technology he resists has become his friend.  But he will answer the call.

 

 

The road taken

A dream the other night had me rounding a bend onto a city waterfront. I was alone, walking, backpack on my shoulder, no sense of any particular destination along that waterfront.

Isn’t that the way it is in dreams—the tease they bring to the waking mind, figure out this one, no neatly spelled out narrative to make sense of, their messages delivered like postcards from the unconscious mind?

Here’s what I see in this dream: a road, a journey, water. That I’m by myself speaks to a place deep in me, possibly archetypal and mythic, that some journeys are meant to be taken alone. There is no destination I’m aware of in the dream, only a sense that I’m here, in a state of relative peace, and I’ve come this far.

There is rarely ever a smooth path on a journey. We hit psychic snags, bumpy roads. We make choices, we let choices be made for us. We hit crossroads, we think about the roads not taken with or without regret.  Not for nothing is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” such a popular poem for the suggestion that personal and spiritual satisfaction comes from taking the road less traveled. In fact, a close reading of the poem shows the narrator deliberating, never really choosing which way to go, except to imagine from some future point in time what it would mean to take the metaphoric road less traveled.

I take the dreams I remember to heart. Modern neuroscience may tell us how we dream but the jury is still out on what dreams reveal. Are they rich in symbolism à la the theories of Freud and Jung? Or are they simply a side effect of random neural impulses? Either way, my dream has me thinking a lot about how we make peace with the mix of choice and circumstance that determines where our personal journeys lead us. It takes a lot of internal work to keep from being weighted by the past or restrained by future anxieties. If you’re lucky, something eases along the way, says to you this moment is all there is: sink into it, let it inform your choices. Let go of regrets.  Don’t be deluded by expectation.  This is the road you’ve taken.

If you’re a fiction writer, you get to fully imagine alternatives as Lionel Shriver does so cleverly and convincingly in The Post-Birthday World.

If you’re a poet, you write poems with beautiful, resonant, moving lines that say as much about making art as they do about introspection and self-discovery. “A wild patience has taken me this far,” writes Adrienne Rich in poem entitled “Integrity,” in a collection that takes its title from that line.

And if you’re someone who gives credence to her dreams, you remind yourself that their secrets are really no mystery if you pay attention to them.  Sometimes they echo with profound experiences, childhood memories, past loves. Other times they’re riddled with uncertainty and insecurity. As my inner life evolves, hopefully with the kind of acceptance and wisdom that come with age, how can I help but see dreams as barometers of change along my very own long and winding road?

My Sentimental Journey Playist

Groundhog Day

I love Groundhog Day.  It’s a silly tradition but it manages to work its charm. I always wake up on February 2nd filled with anticipation about all the implications of a shadow. (Did that funny-looking creature with an equally odd name see his shadow? Did he not see it?) The shift to more daylight, so incremental since the winter solstice, suddenly feels dramatic. Winter is on its way out; spring is on its way in.

I know Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t always get it right, and I don’t care. I may be less forgiving with my local know-before-you-go meteorologist whose forecast promised clear skies and left me running for cover in a downpour—just the thing that got Bill Murray’s character in trouble in a cult classic movie that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. What better way to mark the story of a weatherman caught in a comedic time warp with existential implications than for Starz Encore Classic to have round-the-clock showings today?

Putting aside the clever spin ‘Groundhog Day’ (the movie) brought to this very day, for me it’s more about continuity, and the whys and wherefores of legends.

One legend links Groundhog Day to Candelmas, an ancient Christian tradition marking the midpoint between winter and spring during which candles were blessed by clergy and handed out. A sunny, clear day signaled (superstitiously speaking) a long, rough winter; a cloudy sky meant warm weather was on its way.  The legend of Punxsutawney Phil as we know him, seems to derive more directly from German lore in which a hedgehog seeing his shadow on a sunny February 2nd was a sign of a six more weeks of winter.  Early German settlers in Pennsylvania made the groundhog a stand-in for the hedgehog.

This February brings more than a spring alert. As many of you may already know, that novel you got a glimpse of when I asked for your support in a Kindle Scout campaign (which did rev me up even if it felt a little like ‘American Idol’ for book lovers), is coming, April 10th to be exact.  Publishing is a quirky business that demands a great deal of tenacity and faith from a writer.  We write, we revise, we chuck what we think doesn’t quite cut it or we tuck it into a folder if it has some vestige of possibility.  We crave validation, we cry at disappointments that make us question why we do the very thing we could not live without doing.

At the heart of my novel is a young girl’s special relationship with a doting gay uncle and her coming of age during the ‘80s, which were nothing if not a threshold decade. Think about it—AIDS. Ronald Reagan. Glamour and greed.  My fictional mind took me to an era marked by innocence lost. And my metaphoric soul took me to a month on the cusp of spring, the shortest month of the year.

Now it’s here, the novel and the month for which Just Like February gets its name. Leap Year plays its part in reminding us there’s something more at play in how we measure our days. And, yes, the groundhog makes a brief appearance.

 

 

 

Surfaces

I am by nature a person who likes order, everything in its place even if that place requires some reordering from time to time. Case in point: I have a thing for scarves. Just when I fear I have too many, I reorganize. Voilà—no more digging into a drawer to stumble on one I almost forgot I had. Abundance, something I do not take for granted, often becomes a nudge to divest.

There’s no having too many books, on the other hand.  The conundrum here is organizing them in a way that makes sense:  certain shelves devoted to poetry, others to art, novels grouped in ways even I sometimes puzzle over. I have my own logic (not alphabetical), which makes it all the more frustrating when I can’t locate a particular book that somehow is not on the very shelf in the very room where I was so sure I had put it.

Then there’s my kitchen. I certainly managed well enough before we reconfigured storage for plates, cookware, utensils, pantry staples. But a well-thought-out upgrade makes for a more efficient entertaining and cooking space. The pièce de resistance has to be a drawer devoted to spices 😉

Hard to say whether my affinity for order has a genetic component or is an acquired predisposition that comes from years of living in small apartments where the slightest disarray would seem magnified. And it hardly matters. I have a theory about space: the less you have, the more efficiently you use it.  Move from the small apartment to the large house on the hill and, for some reason, you have trouble finding room for everything.

All of which makes it amusing to me when I walk around my house to see things placed on surfaces everywhere. The bed in the room that was my daughter’s seems to have become my laundry sorting and folding surface.  I take my time, let freshly laundered clothes and towels sit there, until I’m ready to fold. Which could still be days before I put things away,

Issues of the New Yorker sit here and there, a visual point of pickup reminding me of articles I haven’t finished reading, new issues I haven’t even skimmed.

Whatever it is that brings some semblance of order to our lives is a good thing. Being a slave to order is not a good thing. Then again, order is one step removed from ritual, which is nothing if not a way of ordering our lives.  There’s no creating stories without sitting down regularly to write. There’s no quieting the mind in a meditation practice without sitting, paying attention to the in and out of breath, acknowledging the spin of thoughts and feelings that keep us from truly settling into the here and now, which brings us back to the in and out of breath. Open to any page in any of the books by the always enlightening Pema Chodron and something is bound to resonate. Here’s a Zen story I love from Comfortable with Uncertainty. It goes something like this: a man is by himself in a boat on the river in a boat at dusk. When he sees another boat coming toward him, it makes him happy at first to think someone else is enjoying the river on a summer night. The boat approaches faster and faster. The man stands up, screaming now for the boat to turn aside. The boat smashes into him. It’s an empty boat.

The mind is a knotty entity, sometimes leading us to perceive things not there.  As I keep trying to fathom the wisdom of Buddhism, I do my best to let that bigger thing called Mind remind me that everything really does change. Impermanence is the real order of our lives.  Barely a week ago, in this wintry Northeast landscape, the surface of the lake I walk around when weather permits was frozen solid. A bombogenesis that left me with a new word to play with and lots of snow gave way to much milder weather and a lawn I can see again. Today the lake is once again frozen. Think of all the shapes water takes and the metaphors it embodies. Even when surface water freezes, something is going on below.

 

As I sit writing, I get word of the death of someone once married to a cousin of mine. I have not seen her in years. What her death brings to the surface are feelings about the distance—in miles as much as mind—that loosens family ties once so tightly bound.  Expectation surrounding rituals (birth, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, funerals) once a given, gives way to less absolute assumptions. Death brings a pause to any order in our day, not to mention our lives. Memories close to the surface, colored by time, may make us long for something long gone. Deeper memories paint a truer picture of the home we left, the one we can never really go back to.

 

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Go, Went, Gone

The week between Christmas and New Year’s always has me feeling a little in limbo. The twelve days of Christmas that underscore the holiday lore baffle me (though I’ll sing along for fun). As a Jewish woman, I have my eight days of Chanukah to lift and light my spirit.  But it’s this seven-day countdown, from a day that blurs boundaries between the religious and secular world in which we live to a day that simply announces the passing of one year into another, that has me on edge.

My ability to work during this week is on shaky ground.  I can’t focus in the consistent way I’m used to.  Clearing out papers, going through files, updating computers—that’s how my time in this week of limbo feels best spent.  Is this an idea worthy of a blog post? I ask myself. Can I find the time—between divesting, going to a movie or two, thinking about what I need for weekend guests—to just get it written?

I’ve written before about the unsettling feeling during the week when one year ends and another begins. Something that hits this profoundly every year can’t be denied. It’s as if this week—this very week—is riddled with expectation of something to come. So much distress in the past year, there’s the thinking that any new year has to be better.

Go, Went, Gone

Three words, the title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, speak volumes about culture, politics, and language itself. As perfect a novel as it gets, the story line finds a retired professor in Berlin caught up in the plight of a group of refugees. Midway through the novel comes Christmas. As New Year’s Eve arrives, Richard, the professor, reflects on what it means:

He’s never quite understood what’s supposed to be departing in that final decisive second, while at the same time something new—something you can’t know yet—suddenly presents itself. Sometimes in past years he’s tried to concentrate on this future that was apparently arriving at just this moment. But how do you concentrate on something you don’t know yet? Who’s going to die? Who’ll be born? The older he gets, the more grateful he is to have just as little idea as anyone else what is in store.

What’s in store for Richard is, ultimately, a change in the way he views the world as his relationship with the refugees grows. What’s in store for the refugees becomes a disheartening waiting game.  Time is not always on their side.  One person can only do so much.

Despite all that I’ve read about how the calendar has changed over the centuries (something I touch on in my forthcoming novel) the transition from one year to the next still can unsettle me.  For all I’ve come to trust about the changing nature of reality, the anticipation of something that’s to come can easily trigger anxiety. Good or bad, once the moment or event arrives, the anxiety dissipates.

And somehow, in the crunch of days between 2017 and 2018, I’ve managed to settle into the unsettled. It’s anyone’s guess what comes next.

 

 

 

The sound of one tree falling

I love taking pictures of trees, most often in autumn and winter.  Watching leaves turn a glorious riot of color before they drop to the ground is a gift I never tire of. But there’s something even more compelling when they’re gone, and every knot on every tree trunk, every crooked limb, shows itself.  Until snow comes, there’s no hiding from a sense of feeling exposed.

A few years back, we had a surprise snowstorm on Halloween.  Tree branches snapped. Entire trees toppled, this one across my driveway in the middle of the night.  Nature has her own way of pruning. I didn’t hear a thing.

Gardeners have their way of pruning, too, and I marvel at the precision with which a tree is taken down.  It takes a certain kind of fearlessness (coupled with skill) to be up in a tree, sawing away while helpers are on the ground, directing a branch with ropes.  The saw makes for a very grating noise, yes; then comes the thud.

The view from my kitchen deck is even more open now that the gorgeous ash tree I’ve photographed more than once over the years is gone. I take no credit for the way the light just happened to hit it on a day in late August. Even more mysterious is how turning it into my iPad wallpaper forever gave it a screenshot date. The original photograph is missing and I made a point of capturing newer images of that favorite tree, even if they don’t quite measure up. Maybe there’s a message here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These days have me hearing trees falling, groaning under the weight of a planet in distress. I spend a lot of time trying to reassure my daughter that all is not lost. Things change. The profit motive (not to mention the vindictive behavior of the psychopath-in- chief) that underscores all that’s being done to undermine the environmental progress we’ve made will give way to a stronger, sounder resistance.

A landscape filled with trees is riddled with metaphor. Light bends leaves, deep, sinewy roots are what keep a tree standing.

Look hard enough and you see trees doing things.

Leaning on one another. . .

Or looking more and more like the terrain in Stranger Things.

This morning was filled with mist and the chill of missing sunshine, neither of which keeps me from walking.

 

On the way back I decided it was time to take a photo or two of the space left by the majestic ash—which calls to mind a parable as wise as it is touching.  Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree takes a boy from innocence to old age in his relationship to a tree who (physically and metaphorically) gives pieces of herself in response to his needs. He swings from her branches, sleeps in her shade; she lets him cut branches when he needs to build a house and her trunk when he wants a boat in which to sail away.  In the end, when he’s old and tired and simply wants a place to sit and rest, she invites him to do just that on all that’s left of her.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to one more tree, dreamlike in its artfulness, that gets pride of place on the redesigned Home page of my website. Please take a peek if you haven’t already. Then consider the serendipity that brought me this Counting Crows cover of a Joni Mitchell song with these words:

They took all the trees
and put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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