What’s in Your Beach Bag?

I’m sitting on my deck, birds flitting here and there, a tiny fawn at the heels of her mother in the grassy patch along my driveway, bicycles instead of school buses on the road. All of which I take note of only in passing, the real concentration saved for the book in my lap. Summer reading — a phrase, an idiom, a state of mind that conjures memories of my favorite bench, one of the many dotting the middle-income housing project, Brooklyn, NY, where I grew up, me reading one of the seven or eight or ten books I got from the library. It was a defining element of the season. A break from school. Twice as many books to be checked out for twice as much as time.  The heft of them in my arms, the library binding that practically creaked when you opened a book, no better reminder of that wonderful shared experience.

So imprinted is the notion of summer reading that it speaks to a certain license, more often than not light reading at the beach, sprawled on a towel or  in a chaise. Sometimes, though, there are summers when that very same ‘license’ suggests the really hefty book, the one I’ve been wanting to sink my teeth into for oh-so-long if only I had the uninterrupted time. Maybe it’s all that daylight, a circadian shift that conjures the overriding rhythm of the school year (long gone if not forgotten), making two weeks of vacay feel (almost) like two months.  One summer it was Anna Karenina. Another summer, when I lived in Sag Harbor, it was Moby Dick. Call me crazy.

Call me curious. Or just call me delighted to join in the summer reading link-up for bloggers hosted by Jennie @ Life is Short, Read Fast and Kelly @ Reading with Martinis. Summer is, after all, party time, and this party is about the books that entice and excite, the ones we read and blog about.

 

I don’t know if it’s the power of suggestion, but something Russian has taken a hold on me.  The premise of Daphne Kalotay’s novel, Russian Winter, is nothing if not intriguing:  a Bolshoi ballerina star, precious jewels, the mystery of  of something from the past coming back to haunt the heroine. Did I mention an escape from Stalinist Russia?

 

 

 

 

A great story demands being read more than once; in his introduction to The Essential Tales of Chekhov, Richard Ford writes, “The more you linger, the  more you reread, the more you’ll experience and feel addressed by this great genius who, surprisingly, in spite of distance and time, shared a world we know and saw as his great privilege the chance to redeem with language.”  This is the summer I plan to reread the Chekhov stories that hooked me in the first place, and discover a few new ones as well.

 

 

 

 

Then there’s that other great literary heroine who fascinates me, the French one, Madame Bovary, all the more compelling (to a writer at least) for being written by an author known for his obsessive revising and all the more alluring in a new translation by Lydia Davis. Put together le mot juste with the “original desperate housewife” (so says the jacket copy) and I’m sold. All I need is a glass of good French wine (or a martini).


 

 

 

 

How can you resist a title like this?  Doesn’t hurt that I love stories alluding to mythology and Buddhist and Zen tales (even in parody) or that cover cross-cultural, intergenerational terrain.  And if the title isn’t enough, there’s the twin protagonists Moonie and Mei Ling Wong (known as the “Double Happiness” Chinese food delivery girls)  and their coming-of-age via the tales Marilyn Chin weaves together in Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen.

 

 

 

 

 

I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Hamilton when she received the 2010 Women’s National Book Association award for her work as a journalist and novelist as well as her literacy projects, including the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and the Camel Book Drive. I read her latest novel, 31 Hours, which I found riveting, and am now following with The Distance Between Us, the story of a journalist in the thick of it, the Middle East. Such is the appeal of her work, I may well end up reading all of her novels.

 

 

 

Now, lest you think your eyes are playing tricks on you, take another peek at the image at the top of the post. I admit it,  I’m a sucker for a beautiful bookmark, all the more reason to be delighted when I chanced upon the whimsical In My Book bookmarks that double as notecards. Printed on heavy-duty watercolor paper, they come in fifteen different designs, each one as charming as the next. Doesn’t every good book deserve one?

Good Company

versatile-blogger%5B2%5D.jpg (150×150) Sometimes visiting blogs is like a game of connect the dots: one link leads to another, one blog stops you in your tracks — the lure of the subject, the way the blogger spins words, the photos and/or graphics artfully positioned.  Often it’s that very blog that stops you in your tracks that leads you to another  . . . and another.

So how lucky for me to have made the delightful online acquaintance of Kelly Garriott Waite and her equally delightful blog, Writing in the Margins/Bursting at the Seams, where she graciously passed along The Versatile Blogger award to me. Now it’s my turn to continue the chain.

1.  In joining the ranks of The Versatile Blogger, I’m asked to reveal seven things about myself. So consider this the first: I take my awards very seriously. 😉

2. I have a very curious nature — and I have yet to uncover the very roots of the award. If that makes it feel a little like a mysterious chain letter, so be it.  No promises here of great wealth if I maintain the chain, disaster if I break it. Just the promise of more and more recommended blogs to check out.

3.  Sometimes I think I live to hear live music.

4. Sometimes I make a dance out of preparing dinner. A shot of vodka (or tequila). The CD player blasting — Eric Clapton or Buddy Guy. Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones. Lada Gaga. A cutting board is transformed into a rhythm section. Chicken cacciatore sings in the pan.

5. Dancing and doing yoga are ways into myself. Writing is a way out. Or is it the other way around?

6. I knew I would miss my dog when I released her from this life, but I didn’t know I would miss her this much.

7. One question I often ask myself but resist answering: if I could go back in time, what would I do differently?

So now, in the spirit of being named a ‘versatile blogger,’ I’ll do what many before me have done, namely, pass along the baton. And while the rules of the mysterious award suggest adding fifteen new blogs to the mix, I’ll stop at eight, an octave, with its implicit bringing of things full circle.  After all, versatility is adaptation at its best.

Madame Mayo With her insights into all things literary (and otherwise), fantastic graphics and podcasts, links to intriguing blogs, guest-writers she brings on board, C.M. Mayo is, to my thinking, the versatile blogger par excellence.  If you don’t know her wonderful body of work (bilingual, to boot), this is the place to find out what you’re missing.

Christine Boyka Kluge Her photographs are the embodiment of poetry; her poetry is exquisite, poignant, rich. Her thoughts on language and art qualify her as a muse.

Cheerio Road It was a visit to Madame Mayo’s blog that brought me to the zen wisdom of Karen Maezen Miller.  I can’t say it any better than I did when I wrote about her book, Hand Wash Cold: Maybe it takes a Zen Buddhist priest who also happens to be a woman ever mindful of her role as mother and wife to make a metaphor of laundry as a starting place for loving the life we wake up to.

apifera farm Again, it was Madame Mayo’s post on the way Katherine Dunn manages to bring together art, marketing, and farming that intrigued me to visit . . . and to keep coming back.

While the Dervish Dances A whirling dervish of a writer, Cathy Kozak hooked me with her Pillow Book.

Rumpus River This is just a taste, a glimpse, a docking station for what’s in store when you make the plunge to The Rumpus, with its spirited panoply of columnists, commentary, and comics.

whiskey river It’s all about spirit here, not to be confused with spirits. Everything from Thomas Merton to Kafka to Rilke to Rumi, oh so elegantly distilled.

Campaign for the American Reader Marshal Zeringue calls his blog ‘an independent initiative to encourage more readers to read more books.’ The sheer diversity of books he features continues to awe me.

Am I missing something?

My daughter e-mails me a link to a site, Better Book Titles, very tongue-in-cheek in its recasting of great works into reductive one liners, and I immediately send out a tweet: ‘Spiders Make Great Publicists,’ by E. B. White. You don’t have to be a writer to lol about this. . .

I’m getting the hang of it, the art of the tweet, the curiosity of the follow(er).  I began blogging over a year ago, nudged along by writer/friends, one in particular who spelled out  her own blog’s evolution in an eloquent post, Questioning the Blog. We often talk about serendipitous moments — you open a book to just the page that fits your thoughts today — and today she just happens to have a pithy post about Solitude.

Writers work in solitude, and they crave community. The question I ask myself on any given day is: how much is too much?  It’s only within the last year that I’ve begun moving into that fathomless online sea of networking: I belong to She Writes, LinkedIn, Goodreads, and most recently, #amwriting, lured by tweets from its founder, Joanna Harness, this oh-too-irresistible one the other day: Get Out There and Do NOT Tweet! I post to Scribd via my affiliation with the Women’s National Book Association. I write regularly for smartly.new york.

All of which brings its own rhythm to my workday.  On the best of days, there are no false starts for me. A mug of French Roast at my fingertips, I  take leave of the world outside, pick up where I left off in that other world, the one under construction, my novel. Until that tweet — is it a bird outside? or that avatar of one, a widget? — beckons with its inimitable call: you could be missing something, a vital breadcrumb, follow the links — a breaking news story, a poem someone wants to share,  inside info in the world of publishing. Do I take a break, answer the call? Well maybe a few minutes. I’m stuck anyway, a roadblock. The only way to cut through is to go around.

So here I am, caught in the chatter, voices coming and going, ships passing in the night.  Until something nudges me back, a gentle wind steering me to a quieter shore.   I admit it, I’m deeply awed, sometimes overwhelmed, by the sheer volume of voices asking to be heard, noticed, maybe even acknowledged, mine just another. And I’m equally gratified by the way in which we find one another, like-minded souls who value what that mix of serendipity and searching brings forth.

The only question now is: Do I make the plunge into Facebook?

Lipstick

There’s a woman who lives down the road from me, a hearty soul who ran the family business, a septic-tank service, until Alzheimer’s put the brakes on some of her organizational skills.  I’d see her on the road walking one dog or another (she has two), a stick in hand to keep at bay any aggressive canines straying from their property, getting a little too close for comfort.  She always carried biscuits in her pocket, treats for the friendlier dogs she’d come across. All mine had to do was sit and look pretty, her wagging tail as good as any smile. Over the years we’d strike up conversations, mostly about dogs, sometimes about the challenges of life. She lost a brother early on (a car accident), ministered to her husband when his kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis, at home.  She drove down to visit her father in Florida for a few weeks every year until he became too frail to live by himself. At which point she brought him (and his dog) up to her house in Westchester County.  She lives an hour north of New York City and has never been drawn to its pulse.

Her Alzheimer’s is far from advanced, and she always seems to recognize me, though I’ll have to remind her why Maggie isn’t with me, pulling me toward her house, a dog’s charm all the trick she needs to get her treat.  And she’ll remind me of how much pets bring to our lives. The tug of her dogs, small as they are, is too much, so these days she’ll take walks with a friend or her brother-in-law, who shares her home.

She always wears lipstick, and it always extends past her upper lip. There’s something about this that really touches me, the need to smear on that lipstick, no idea really that she’s missed the mark. She is not a glamorous woman, has never been. She could be wearing sweatpants and a sloppy sweater.  Her hair is neatly in place. Then there’s the final touch before she heads out the door, the lipstick.

Many years ago, as an editor of a newsletter focused on AIDS-related health and social issues, I attended a panel discussion on developments in research. One of the panelists was a ground-breaking researcher, a woman who had a certain style and glamour to her. Still, the last thing I would have expected, as the panel discussion was winding down, was to see her pull out a compact and freshen her lipstick.  Years later, I still remember being struck by the ease and nonchalance with which she did this. The more I thought about it, the more I admired her for the ever-so-subtle pronouncement. It’s only lipstick.

And yet. There are studies that call up the ‘lipstick factor’ as a reflection of economic times.  Maybe yes, maybe no. More to the point is what that purse-size stick or tube reflects in the woman who has made a deliberate choice today:  Red or pink or tangerine. Purple. South Beach Bronze or  Peppermint Candy . My (unglamorous) neighbor is doing her best, putting on a face that pleases her even as something inside is dissembling.  I would like to tell her she doesn’t need it, and in fact might look better without it. I would like to tell her that the person she sees in the mirror when she puts that lipstick on is not the person she is, or was. But she knows all that. And besides, who am I to talk? I always dab on some lipstick or lip gloss when I head out. I like the way it makes my lips feel. I wear it like an assumption.

Replacement

On any given day, I’ll open my e-mail to find a message from daughter, link included,  The Daily Puppy. Hard not to be charmed by pictures of puppies, with or without the subtext, this one needs a home. The photos that cut to the heart are the ones that bear a resemblance to our dog, now gone. How we came to her (or she came to us) has risen to the level of family legend. She had a good life, and it’s taken some time for the sadness of her passing to give way to the laughter at what she brought to our family. The puppy pix my daughter sends are her not-so-subtle way of suggesting maybe I need a replacement. Or maybe she needs a dog to come home to.

It’s almost the first question anyone asks when you tell them your dog is gone: Are you getting another? The question, in a way, holds its own answer. There’s no replacing a pet. Nico the Rottweiler Mix may have those irresistible eyebrows and other similar markings, that same begging-to-be-loved-and-fed (and played with) expression. But he’s Nico, not Maggie.  Another is simply another.

One friend tells me she can’t imagine living without at least one dog (she has two). Another friend, disconsolate as she was after putting her cat down, admits she doesn’t have the heart for another at this point in her life. A woman I stop to say hello to on a walk (mostly for the encounter with her dog, a strong resemblance to mine) says one word, ‘healing,’ with its power of suggestion, a puppy licking your face. Or making a plaything of a sock. Or just being there.  I nod, say nothing much, except that, for now at least, I’m appreciating something I haven’t had for a very long time, namely, that sense that I can go out without worrying about what I left behind. “Dogs are a responsibility,” says her husband. That’s for sure. And yet,  responsibility strikes me as too reductive an explanation for my not taking that leap, again. At least not right now.

The fact is, I miss my dog now more than I knew I would. It was a tough winter in the Northeast. Just the thought of having to take her out, ailing as she was, could bring me to tears. Now it’s spring, and I’m running into all her friends, a quick hello and good-bye.

Which brings me to the pair of swans usually on the lake down the road, taking up residence in the pond over the waterfall a little closer to home, a reminder that a thirty-minute walk can be so much better for the heart than pumping away on an elliptical machine at the gym.  Sometimes a break from a walk can do more for the heart than all that spinning. I inch closer to the pond. One of the swans is snapping up something from the water, or maybe the water itself. How much trust it must take to do that, I think, with me no more than five feet away.

Missent to Jamaica

This is the way the world works:  Billy Crystal, chit-chatting with Jon Stewart, announces that he’s making the plunge, his first tweet.  Jon Stewart, savvy and funny as ever, says he doesn’t tweet. He has a television show.

I put out my first tweet many months ago, read by a (very) few faithful, mostly friends of my daughter.  Every so often I get an e-mail, ‘So-and-so is now following you on Twitter!’  Today Mr. So-and-So brought me to a milestone, 100 followers. He has more than 3,000.  He has a product to sell, a method for optimizing my web presence,  increase traffic, make a little money. I sell words. I hesitate before following in kind, becoming one of thousands who get tweets about a paradigm that will rocket my business, sales pitches for software and diabetic test strips (I kid you not). Not that I don’t give him credit for trying.

Sometimes a tweet really is a poem, haiku-like in its brevity.  The first day of the cruelest month (World Poetry Day, to boot) happened to coincide with the very first tweet sent out by Jack Dorsey, the software designer responsible for Twitter. Now we have ‘twitterature‘ and ‘twaiku’, things to sing about.

In the course of just a day, too many tweets pass me by.  I’ll sign in, scroll down, follow the breadcrumbs to news I  missed, poems and articles I need to mark, reviews of books just out, links to @mentions. I’ve stumbled a little along the way, but I think of I’m getting the hang of it, the art of reply and retweet, the @tweet and the #hashtag.

Sometimes tweeting has the feel of ships passing in the night. Being noticed is only half the equation; there’s a great joy in noticing someone who passed you by and passing along his or her message.

Here’s one that didn’t come via Twitter, but might as well have, for its brevity and mystery: Missent to Jamaica

Curious?

There’s no Tiny URL here,  just three words, the lol subject line of an e-mail. A tale about a book that took something of a detour between New York and Canada. Betwixt and between the weeks of sending the book and not hearing that it had been received, there was angst. Writers are nothing if not insecure. I was pleased — so very pleased — that a writer I friended via She Writes (a veritable salon in cyberspace), wanted a copy of my book. So I happily obliged for many reasons, not the least of which is that my connection with this whirling dervish of a writer (yes, do check out her blog) is mired in admiration. Which of course does not negate the insecurity rising in me.  I know the mail to Canada is security-slow these days, but when two weeks pass, no word from Cathy that the book had been received, I do that thing — omg, she got it and didn’t like it and doesn’t know what to say.

Until I get the e-mail with that oh-so-melodic subject line, which I immediately take to be the title of a new post of hers, maybe a delightful story about someone named Miss Ent whose name is constantly misspelled and has a curious story to tell. Then I read more closely, a little relieved. I hope she likes my book.

P.S. Oh, irony!  On the very day I write this post I receive via old-fashioned snail-mail a beautiful notecard (shoes glittery with roses, a Christopher Vine Design, Australia), hand-written thanks from my friend in Canada.

 

On the Cusp

It always hits me like a gentle surprise – I’ll be taking a walk, early March, some icy patches on a road lined with gritty mounds that beg to be called something other than snow – when I hear them, those first birds of spring. Their singing stops me in my tracks.

I stare out my kitchen window, a cup of coffee in my hand, a bird making a trampoline of a tree branch. A robin who, like all robins, can simply do no wrong.  A sound – rat-tat-tat – turns my attention from the red breast to the red head needling its way up the bark of a tree.

Yesterday there was frost on the car in the morning. This morning a light, steady rain that continues to wash away the snow.  By late afternoon the rain gives way to sun. I go out on my deck, more birds by the day it seems, chirping and cooing, heard if not seen. A goose honks, a crow caws.  Any night now I’ll open the door to the delightful, mystifying sound of peepers, the anticipation still no match for the way it creeps up on me, another gentle surprise.

Sometimes I think I live for music as much as I live for writing. Rock, classical, jazz  it all depends on my mood, where I am, who I’m with. I love making playlists for my iPod, burning them to CDs for friends. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Sometimes I think it’s my love of music that gets me going to the gym, raising my heart rate to some healthy purpose. I like the Elliptical cardio machines, a motion that feels like gliding. If someone has left on the TV monitor, I turn it off, tune out the world of news and sports and cooking shows and whatever. To anyone glancing my way I’m just another workout junkie in leggings and a tee-shirt, plugged in to my Nano. No one knows I’m dancing.

Today the sun is shining, there’s an on-the-cusp of winter/spring chill in the air. I’m tempted to go to the gym, but after an especially cold, snowy winter that gave me even greater respect for bears, I opt for putting aside the headphones, going for walk, opening my ears to all the music I could want.