I am not myself: my corona diaries

Day 1, week whatever. I am not myself.

Why Day 1 when awareness of COVID-19 has been with us for months?

Is it the snow falling, a post-spring-equinox reminder that seasonal change is fluid?

Is is a revelatory moment, just a day ago, a corner turned in my understanding of the hoarding mentality sweeping over us? Reason had me in the mindset of health—the no-need-to-panic mode of someone who says to herself, two weeks from now I’ll just go out for more paper towels, or chicken, or coffee.

Today, reason has me seeing people stocking up not so much out of fear that stores will run out of what they need but the more dire fear that the new corona will get them. And they won’t be able to go out.

Maybe there’s a middle ground where both fears meet.

Why Day 1, week whatever?

Why am I not myself?

For someone who works from home, and a writer to boot, daily life is not all that different in these times of social distancing. And, yet, hard-wired as I am to routines, days underscored by the corona pandemic have me feeling at sea. Not quite myself. Walking around like a chicken without a head.

As long as I can get out for a walk, meditate, do yoga, read, drink coffee in the morning and wine in the evening, I get by.

As long I get a text or phone call from my daughter, in Los Angeles, I can sharpen my focus, put the head back on the chicken.

Maybe even write.

Why Day 1, week whatever?

Maybe a revelatory moment, a defining one, that locates me in a very particular time and place. Or maybe it’s that these chicken-without-a-head days feel more like a circular loop of time, no beginning or ending—until something brings each of us to a starting point that makes personal sense.

We watch and listen, wait and hope for a marked point out of the circular loop of time to a place where a flattened COVID-19 curve portends the ending—not to be confused with the end—of days marked by confusion, despair, anger, fear.

We take solace in the little things, and the big ones, that make us smile, even laugh.

We temper the greedy, insensitive modes of survival with the generous spirit of true, collective survival. I like to think that social distancing is making us more gracious on social media. And even if it isn’t, it’s making us more present to the collective consciousness we share.

So, as we muddle our way through the best and worst of times a novel corona virus has given rise to, a rekindled sense of purpose, coupled with the ever-present need to make sense of things, brings more immediacy to my blogging self.

All of which has me thinking, from inside that chicken head of mine, of all the ways collective stories take shape.

All of which has me hoping, from that former, steadier self of mine, that blogging is a way of inviting readers to share, via comments, where we are/how we feel/what we need to get through the best and worst of times.

In the beginning there was light. And, there was the word.

In my secret life

A MOUSE

I don’t do well with mice . . . (unless they’re the animated Disney variety making a dress for Cinderella or of the Mickey/Minnie ilk). They keep us on our toes in scoping out their secret hiding places, unnerve us with the uncertainty of their moves.

The other night, the sight of something slipping under a closet door caught my eye.  A mouse? A large insect? Maybe just a shadow?

I called out to my husband to investigate.  A mouse indeed, scurrying along the closet floor, looking for refuge somewhere in a jumble of shopping totes. 

Eek!  I scrambled back from the door.

In my husband’s attempt to find and contain the little critter, he handed me (hopefully mice-less) totes one by one.

Eek!

The mouse jumped, seemed to disappear. I imagined putting on a jacket or coat, squeamishly surprised by a mouse in a pocket.

Double eek!

We had to find it, send it on its way out of the house.  My husband placed a cardboard barrier across the closet entrance, trapped the mouse under a cup. 

While I scurried away, he made jokes. “Look at that cute tail. . . . Sure you don’t want to take a peek?”

Out! Out! Damned mouse!

Out of my house.

WORLD WAR Z

I work hard at not being (too) reactive to the small stuff (a mouse more likely afraid of me than I am of the havoc it wreaks on my psyche) and the big stuff (a virus that has so many acting as if World War Z is upon us).  

In anxiety-ridden times, very little is too small or too big to push our buttons and a pandemic is bound to give rise to panic. I worry more about the panic COVID-19 has triggered than the real odds of being hit with a more than mild case or, far worse, death from infection. But that didn’t stop me from negotiating with my local CVS for an extra packet of antiseptic wipes to send to my daughter in southern California.  

In anxiety-ridden times, fear of the unknown becomes magnified. If it’s true that the past informs the present, we should look to the reassurance of our worst nightmares rarely panning out.

If it’s true that the future is riddled with uncertainty,  we should steady ourselves with what living in the present tells us again and again: being receptive, not reactive, to whatever the moment presents allows space for seeing things as they are, not as we project them to be. 

A stop at Target had me alarmed (reactive) at the sight of lines at the checkout counters, shopping carts rolling over with rolls of paper towels and toilet tissue and who knows what.  I watched, let my brain switch into receptive, here-in-the-moment mode.

I drove away, found paper towels and toilet paper and the groceries I actually needed for dinner at a much less frenetic supermarket.

Anxiety begets anxiety.  That vile—yes, vile—thing in the White House has so many of us feeling despondent, not to mention angry.  Remember what it feels like to be a kid with no parents in charge during an emergency?  Toilet paper only gets you so far. Feeling the urgent need to stock up on it reeks with metaphor: the shit is really hitting the fan.

No small irony that the metaphor of toilet paper surfaces in Here I Am, a poignant, profound, beautifully written novel by Jonathan Safran Foer published in 2016.  As Isaac, the patriarch of the family, readies himself to take up residence in a home for the elderly, he asks the rabbi to pick up toilet paper at Safeway, where it was on sale. The rabbi tries to reassure him that he wouldn’t need to buy it anymore.

“But that price. . . . “ reflects Isaac, who then goes on to say: “There are two things that everybody needs.  The first is to feel that he is adding to the world.  The second is toilet paper.”

A SONG

Today had me obsessed with identifying a piece of music running through my head.  That this particular piece of music was running through my head speaks volumes about my state of mind.  I did a variety of Google searches to find it.  My first—violin music in war movies should have brought it up but Google is less than perfect. 

Later, ‘adagio’ surfaced from a more receptive state of mind. Bingo!  I knew all along it was the undercurrent of  ‘Platoon.’ And now I recall its name: Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber.

I played it while I did yoga. It’s the kind of music that demands you slow down. Listen to the rise and fall of every phrase. Pay attention. Cry. Accept the goosebumps it elicits.

***

In the room that doubles as my work space and yoga studio is a photo of Leonard Cohen, a gift from a gifted photographer/friend, Abe Frajndlich.  It’s a young LC, holding a cigarette, looking directly at me no matter which way I turn.

It’s no secret that I’m a longtime fan, moved by his poetry, music, humility, sense of humor, spirituality, even the darkness that first drew him to me in all its appeal, sensual and otherwise.

In my secret life I have a spiky punk hairdo and I’m channeling Patti Smith. 

I’m riding a wave on a surfboard.

I’m light as a feather when I do yoga poses.

I’m not thrown off course (too much) when something catches me by surprise.

I’m not worried that my daughter worries that I’m not taking COVID-19 seriously enough.

There’s only true normal, not the nouveau strain that masks the anxiety its intent is to ease.

I’m dancing like there’s no tomorrow.

I’m not running from a mouse.

Isn’t it Just Like February (redux)

Yo-Yo Ma once famously said that music happens between the notes–one way of explaining what I love about the mysteriousness of edges, cusps, those in-between places that demand our attention.

A skim of ice on a sun-drenched lake.

seasons

The shape of clouds against the sky.

February light

The month of February, when the oh-so-incremental shift from winter-solstice darkness to light suddenly becomes noticeable.

February light

Groundhog aside, all you need is to pay attention to the light to know spring is on its way.

Of all the months in the year, February has me most mystified. How/why did February become the shortest month?  What would it mean to be born on February 29th, a leap year baby? More to the point, learning that, in ancient times, it was the last month of a 355-day year and it gets its name from the god of ritual purification sealed the deal on the title of my novel. What sounds like a simile—Just like February—has all the makings of a metaphor.

“Even in an age of femtoseconds and star clusters 11 billion light-years away, time defies true objective measurement,” writes David Ewing Duncan in Calendar, a book very cleverly subtitled Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.  “It can seem to go slow and even stall out at certain moments only to brashly and breathlessly rush forward at others.” Albert Einstein taught us everything we need to know about time and its relative aspects, something Alan Lightman captured so poetically and brilliantly in Einstein’s Dreams.

There’s no stopping time but doesn’t the very notion of mindfulness, coupled with meditation, speak to slowing it down in a way that brings on the present-moment sense of timelessness?

Time measurement is as universal as it is personal. We count on our calendar to tell us the day/month/year. But don’t we more often measure the passage of time in terms of rituals and events both personal and part of our collective consciousness? Jewish holidays, based on a lunar calendar, come on different dates each year. Christmas, a day fixed according to the Gregorian calendar that rules are secular year, is always December 25th.

Yes, the expertise of astronomers factored into how the calendar might be synchronized to the seasons and the stars, but politics and religion played their part.  Priests and aristocrats kept the calendar a secret.  A year might be lengthened to keep a favored senator in office, decreased to get a rival out of office sooner. (How frightening a thought is that?)

Until one year, a crafty plebian, Cneius Flavius, pilfered a copy of the codes that determined the calendar and made it public, smack on tablets in the middle of the Roman Forum. (An early descendant of Edward Snowdon?)

Alas, poor Flavius did not entirely win the day: the calendar would become a public document but patricians could still manipulate it for financial and political gain. From here the plot gets thicker with scientific and egotistical calculation: Julius Caesar’s calendar reform, which moved the new year from March to January, in fact brought a pretty accurate calendar to the year 45 B.C. — only to be thrown off by leap years every three years instead of four.

Emperor Augustus took care of that some years later, a reform for which he got the eighth month of the year named after him. Heaven forbid his namesake month should have 30 days when Julius Caesar’s had 31! That was an easy fix–lop a day off February. making it 28 days, with an additional day during Leap Year.

You can’t make this shit up. But you can, as a writer, take great pleasure in the research that answers as many questions as it raises and brings enormous context to a narrative.

February. Lengthening days. A month on the cusp between winter’s darkness and the encroaching light of spring.  

A transitional time that reminds us that no matter how much we count on a certain order to the universe, time and again something is bound to throw us out of whack. Some might see it as a fateful event, a teaching moment.  I see it in the way my father, a gambler, might have seen it: an aspect of chance or randomness, maybe even luck (good or bad), changes everything.

 All of which brings a particularly timely moment for a novel with the mysteries of Leap Year at its heart. If you haven’t yet read it, now could be as good a time as ever. And if you have read it, now could be as good a time as ever to share your thoughts with anyone who asks: what should I read next?

One from the archives

Making a clean sweep of things sometimes gets the best of me.  The other day, I was intent on finally consolidating blog posts from an earlier platform into my WordPress site.  My digital (blogging) imprint began ten years ago with Blogger, and I moved to WordPress two years later.  Before those early posts disappear forever (this is not my ego speaking), I wanted to preserve them. 

It all seemed to go so smoothly, the export and import. So seamlessly that, apparently, at least some followers received twenty-two email notifications of new blog posts. If you were one of them, I apologize for cluttering your inbox.  But rest assured I haven’t been hacked. In fact, if you click on any of the links you’ll find yourself in a trip down Memory Lane to my early online incarnation.

Apologies aside, maybe there’s a message here, every mishap being a potential learning moment–a reminder that so much of what we think is within our control is really an illusion.

Maybe somewhere in that body of blog posts there’s at least one calling out to be repurposed. Maybe, too, there’s some reassurance in the constancy amidst all that’s changed in the six years since I posted this one.

New Year’s Day

Pajamas. A cup of coffee. A book. Sunlight filtering in through the window.  Really no different from any other morning, except maybe the lingering a little longer in pajamas.

Yesterday a late afternoon movie, Philomena. Dinner with friends, Mexican, after which we go back to their house, some champagne and caviar.  Really no different from any night out with friends, except maybe the champagne and caviar.  And echoes of Dick Clark, his New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, this year’s host Ryan Seacrest. A trip down Music Memory Lane, a clip of Tina Turner (“Proud Mary”), one of the 30 Greatest Women in Music being celebrated. It’s that time of year—magazines online and in print giving us their idea of the greatest; we get to see if they match up with our own.

My husband jokes about my wanting to celebrate on December 30th, get it over with a day early. I’m just not feeling it this year—the hoopla, the swell of celebration, the need to mark the oh-so-significant cusp, one year giving way to another.  Take stock of what’s passed, look ahead to what we hope is in the stars.  More often than not, I’m supercharged at the notion of a fresh start. This year not so much.

Every day is different, every year is different. And every moment contains bits of past/present/future. The past lives in our bones, any trigger can set off the reminder of a joy long gone or tie us up in a knot of sorrow. The present—that place I would reside 24/7 if I could—lives with, and within, each breath, the cup it sees never half-full or half-empty, always a little of both.  The future lives outside of us, forever uncertain. To be comfortable with uncertainty is to recognize how little is in our control. Nothing like the last week of the year to encompass it all—the longing for what no longer is, the wish to be at ease with what is, anxieties that go hand in hand with what may (or may not) be coming.

We leave to go home before midnight, cozy up in bed.  “Gotta watch the ball drop,” says my husband, switching from station to station, snippets of movies, until the last minutes of 2013, a million people in Times Square on the screen, some in New York just for this reason, to be in the thick of it all when a glittering ball drops. I marvel at the spectacle of it. I kiss my husband.

One New Year’s Eve, when I was young and single and lived in the city, I decided I wanted to be riding the subway at the stroke of midnight.  I wanted to be with people not making a celebration of it all, just doing whatever it is that they might be doing any midnight of the week. Just for a change of pace.

Change of pace is good.  This year I got to spend my birthday in sunny California. There was something novel about getting on a plane when I was sixty-three and landing just after midnight, when I turned sixty-four.  My daughter did not have to wait to give me my presents, a Great Gatsby clutch and a CD.  A token gift, from a recent visit to Napa with her boyfriend would come a few days later: a purse ‘hook’ reminiscent of the one Barbra Streisand uses in The Guilt Trip. Something every woman needs.

On Christmas Day she sends me a video, evidence of the last bit of holiday shopping. Who wouldn’t be amused at watching two small dogs, a pug puppy and a mixed breed, wagging their tails with joy over new toys?  Turns out we’re both dog-sitting this week—she for her boyfriend’s dogs, me for my brother’s family dog.  Ginger is a sweet dog and does her best to adjust, even if she’s old and missing her fam. She knows me well, and, I like to think, knows I’m doing my best, too. You learn a lot watching an elderly dog try to find her comfort zones.

Time to get out of the P.J.’s, go take a walk.  The air is crisp, no wind, no bite, temperature in the low thirties. I stop at the lake, not yet frozen over.  The longer I fixate on the mottled surface ice, the more it appears to be moving.

P.S. The whimsical ‘2020’ at the top of the page is the handiwork of the talented Elizabeth Cassidy. ‘Whimsy’ may well be the operative word in terms of the way we became friends via a website we both happened to write for. In that true artist’s shapeshifting mode, she went on to finding expression in visual art. A. visit to her website is well worth your time for the insights into her creative trajectory, her passion, her wit.

Channeling Stephen King: writing and inspiration

I’ve been hankering road trips lately, before winter really sets in.  Something about being on the road, playlists at the ready, lifts me from a certain melancholy that kicks in this time of year. I relish holiday gatherings with family and friends who have become family, but there is no escaping the mixed blessing that generational drift, coupled with generations gone, evokes.

Last weekend found me on the road with my husband, headed north, Mohonk Mountain House, our thirty-fifth anniversary celebration. By coincidence, the weekend was billed as a ‘couples’ romantic getaway.’  The setting is idyllic, even if the activities billed for the weekend were a little too precious for our taste. ‘Love Birds Walk’ (7:30 a.m.), not a chance.  While other couples might be finding harmony in art via a workshop, ‘Unity in Creativity’ (10:30 a.m.), we would be just finishing breakfast, ready for our own leisurely walk around the lake.

 ‘Beer Tasting’ (5 p.m.) might have been tempting if not for the fact that my husband doesn’t drink.  Good time for him to take a nap and for me to go to a meditation class.

Turns out that ‘Tomahawk Throwing’ is a regularly scheduled, popular afternoon activity. Turns out, too, that our room is the one Stephen King apparently stays in whenever he visits Mohonk. Oh what a silly thrill. You could almost feel his presence, a kind of haunting.

I asked myself, what would Stephen King make of, or do with, the infant crying in the adjoining room? On a couples’ weekend, to boot. Putting aside disturbed sleep, would he be touched by the tenderness and need in all its innocence? Then again, he apparently takes the adjoining room as well so he would never have to hear what’s going on next door.

All glibness aside, Stephen King is a master of narrative pulse and the telling detail.  My appreciation for him grew to new heights when I read his review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I subsequently read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  I keep a copy on my desk (along with Patti Smith’s DevotionWilliam Blake Poems selected by Patti Smith, Dinty Moore’s The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Francine Prose’s  Reading like a Writer, and Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed.) 

“What I want most of all is resonance,” writes King, “something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.” I could not say it better myself.

There is some serendipity here. Keyword searches for a projected Just Like February advertising campaign on Amazon have me in a tizzy. Coming-of-age novels have an appeal to both adult and teen/young adult readers and their reach is broad. Stephen King’s The Body, incarnated into a favorite movie of mine, Stand by Me, is a coming-of-age story. It seems, too, that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch falls within the parameters of innocence-to-experience tales. So strong is the genre that sites like Literary Hub will enumerate The 50 Greatest Coming-of-Age Novels of All Time.

It’s a humbling thing to be a writer.  And Madeleine L’Engle says it so honestly and eloquently in A Circle of Quiet:

I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what. . . .And I think, too, and possibly most important, that there is a faith simply in the validity of art; when we talk about ourselves as being part of the company of such people as Mozart or van Gogh or Dostoevsky, it has nothing to do with comparisons, or pitting talent against talent; it has everything to do with a way of looking at the universe.

After my encounter with Stephen King, you would think I might plunge right into The Shining, get a jolt of adrenaline to jump-start a new story. But no. In the way that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus completely captivated me, The Starless Sea, her latest work, pulled me right in.  In preparing to work on the new novel, the heart of which is the nature and creation of stories, she relocated to a house that was not wired for internet. And she played video games

There’s magic, indeed, in reading. And there’s a sense for me of not so much being inspired by as infused with the words of writers who move me.

There’s magic, too, in the way we find kindred spirits in online writing communities.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jayne Martin, a gifted writer of flash fiction, for several years now. It takes a very particular skill and mindset to compose stories that pack so much in a single paragraph, or a few. Her first collection, Tender Cuts, was recently released. And it’s a gem. I could say, without equivocation, too, that these are stories with resonance.

From Iceland to Anatevka

Mid-October, late afternoon, a day positively brimming over with autumn light. Rain has taken down too many leaves too soon. All the more reason to relish the translucent mix of yellow and orange and green holding fast to branches on a tree in the distance. Autumn, even a less-than-vibrant one, asks me to reconcile beauty with dying.

A new book by the always wise Pico Iyer affirms my own sense of this riddled season. Sparked by a recent visit to the Japan he knows well, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells is filled with Iyer-esque eloquence and insights: 

“Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze or ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.”

***

I’m in a line of cars behind a stopped school bus. I marvel at the unspoken language we think of as rules of the road.  To speed up, instead of slowing down, when the stop sign swivels from the window of a school bus, is to step out of time and place.

To watch children step down from a bus and cross the road is to marvel at the trust that makes it possible, even in times when technological distractions and impatience can wreak havoc on being present to the moment.  

* * *

A month earlier would find me in Iceland, a family vacation to mark my upcoming birthday, a big one. In December I turn 70.  Over the years I’ve been inclined to celebrate off-years—49, 59, 64—and treat the decade markers as an afterthought. But something about 70 asks to be acknowledged for what it is. This is not about birthday cakes/candles/presents, which seem to matter less and less with each passing year. It’s about doing something  out of the ordinary,  go someplace we’ve never been. Mother, father, daughter, and son-in-law. Together.

It’s about autumn, in all its metaphoric glory.  Not to mention the melancholy the season encompasses.

School buses, in all their Crayola yellow, speak to nostalgia. My daughter came home a few days before the trip, a deliberate Marie Kondo strategy to make the bedroom she left behind a little less of a shrine to her childhood and teen years. 

As if the classic nostalgia of the season weren’t enough, old photos sorted and weeded out would take me right back to another time, one that seemed simpler and more innocent. I was asked to be an observer, not a participant in the divesting process.  Her initiative had me feeling I did a decent job as a mother. If I can’t help myself in wishing she would let me help her, I do my best at standing back.

* * *

Iceland has come and gone, on its heels the Jewish New Year, another seasonal reckoning. One Sunday afternoon during those Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would find in the fictional town of Anatevka. 

The critically acclaimed revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Joel Grey, is as timeless as it is timely. That this one is in Yiddish only enhances its poignancy and power. To be swept up in the cadence of the music and the choreography is to be reminded of how stories can be told without needing to understand every single word (even if monitors make that possible). To hear songs from the show that echoed through my Jewish childhood is to be reminded of the star power (Zero Mostel) that overshadowed a story that is more than a sentimental tale of an unraveling tradition.

Is it a wonder that schmaltzy songs hold sway over a story that shapeshifts from culture to culture, down through the centuries—Pogroms. Displacement. Family members bidding each other farewell, not knowing if they’ll ever see each again?  Or are my autumn years having me see things in a different light? 

***

Once again Pico Iyer: 

“We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last. . . .Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within the truth.”

Is it possible, I ask myself, to find that light without reflection, taking stock of joys and disappointments, hopes that have not panned out?  Coming to grips with all that’s out of our control? Then I ask myself: What are you doing for the rest of your life?

Just keep swimming . . . and blogging?

Labor Day has come and gone, and with it the season most riddled with paradox.  If those long light-filled days of summer are so lazy hazy, why do they seem to slip away in a flash?  Plausible theories may explain why time seems to speed up as we age. But even as a child, the freedom from routine that summer offered always seemed to end too soon. 

My last post began the summer that I would give myself a hiatus from all things writing-related. No blog posts. No revisiting drafts of stories or starting new ones. A break that surprised me with an unfamiliar liberation. I meditated more, hoping that concentrated practice would let that monkey mind know it’s okay—actually it’s good—to let go of thoughts, leave the brain to make space for something far more settling than words.  

The pull of social media somehow diminished.  Was this a sign? I wondered. Some indication that, even in a time when the need for connection and community seems more urgent than ever, a little retreat goes a long way toward restoring a sense of balance, not to mention priorities?

Toni Morrison died this summer, which had me hankering to revisit her first novel, The Bluest Eye. I would have been 20-something when I read it. I still have the original paperback copy. Its impact on me was profound. 

Decades later, a full-fledged fan and a writer myself, I see it in a much more informed light. I relish the hindsight glimpse into the archetypes and themes that would get richer and more mythologically complex as her body of work grew.  

Decades later, months from turning 70, a more conscious vulnerability has me in its grip. The qualifier matters. Feeling vulnerable is not a new sensation but something about the time of life and the times in which we live make it all the more visceral. The world into which I brought my daughter (1986) was hardly the best of times but you can’t be a weed-smoking child of the ‘60s without believing in your power to change the world for the better.  The dark cloud hovering over what feels like the worst of times gives me pause, at least long enough to remember that everything changes. Doesn’t it?

***

Open-ended days are prime for reflection, not to mention restlessness. Years of feeling so driven do not give way easily to a less urgent rhythm.  I would use that energy to do a clean sweep of folders sitting in file cabinets. Even knowing that clearing space would open me to what might come next, I worried about the effect of seeing all the efforts and projects behind me, hearing voices from the past in a dull ‘this-is-your-life’ chant.

Reminders of disappointment surfaced, along with an affirmation of deep-rooted tenacity. I smiled when I came across this gem –

Chubby black dog
Barking up the wrong tree
Now there’s big trouble

Many of the school-based workshops I conducted were a collaboration with visual artists. This project was a mix of learning the art of hand-made paper, writing poems, and putting it all together. 

Then I saw these words on a prep sheet I used for another writing workshop.

If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.  –Lin Yutang 

***

I look out at an autumn landscape, leaves fading, even beginning to turn. There’s a metaphor here. 

It’s been said that a writer’s work isn’t finished until it’s read. Even if you write in a journal religiously, there’s an assumption that you’ll go back, take a peek at your thoughts/observations/feelings in a given time and place.  

Some say it takes courage to write.  For me, writing is an assumption. I love the puzzle of it—images and thoughts into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs that, when I’m most in the flow of it, become stories and essays that hopefully resonate.

More than one person has said it took courage for me to learn to swim at 66. For me it was more a question of finally doing something I’d been wanting to do for some time. Courage? Maybe. Or better yet, learning what buoyancy truly encompasses. 

Just keep swimming, the delightful Dory from Finding Nemo, tells me again and again. 

And I turn that metaphor on its head.

Just keep swimming . . . 

. . . and blogging?

I may not like the clunkiness of the word.  But I’m still at it, going on ten years since my first post, inspired by other writer/friends who had joined the web(log) bandwagon. Many have quit the habit, new writers find their way. But there are very few to beat C. M. Mayo, an inspiring and gifted writer indeed, for continual reinvention, and with it, the reminder that a blog is what you make of it.  I’ve come to think of mine as a notebook of sorts, public in the dialogue it makes possible between a writer and her readers. 

Transcendence

Yesterday’s walk found me unsettled at the sight of a sign — estate sale pickup – in the driveway of a house I pass by all the time. Cars were lined along the road.  It’s been many months since I’ve seen my neighbor, who I often chat it up with if she’s out during my walk.  I knew they’d been trying to sell the house. Estate sales take me to a place of narrative distress. Isn’t that a last resort? And how is it I know so little about what’s going on just outside my own backyard?

Today a large moving van takes up the driveway of neighbors down the hill.  A young family that moved in barely a year and a half ago, they’re leaving for reasons I may never really know. Not that we didn’t come up with some juicy narratives when the ‘for sale’ sign went up. Divorce? Job relocation? It was all so enthusiastic when they first bought the house—a shared glass of wine, talk of a meal or two together.  One little girl and another child on the way can’t help but energize a cul-de-sac now that the kids raised here are all grown up and gone. All the speculation re: these here today/gone tomorrow neighbors not wanting to get too close once they knew they were leaving does little to negate the discomfort, even sadness, at their departure. 

Empty houses speak of loss. The need for narratives, even if they’re far afield, is built into our DNA, storytelling species that we are. And, yet, Pema Chodron, in her meditative wisdom and guidance, reminds me that letting go of narratives, so often rooted in patterns that reinforce our Very Important Story Lines, is instrumental in moment-to-moment awareness that brings liberation.

The rest is fiction.

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In Alan Lightman’s latest book of essays, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, he describes an experience that, to my thinking, amounts to a transcendent moment. He was in his boat during the “wee hours” of a summer night:

“No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off the engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into the star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity.”

I had the pleasure of getting to know Alan during the summers our daughters spent at a camp in Maine. Parents’ visiting weekend was something I looked forward to. The first one still makes me laugh at the memory of my jumping out of our car as we snaked our way out when the weekend ended. My husband, a regular guy by all measures, nonchalantly asks, “Did you know Kara’s father was a writer?”  The realization that I’d been chatting it up with Alan Lightman without knowing it hit me like a thunderbolt. The cars were moving slowly enough for me to get out, walk up to the Lightmans’ car, not too far ahead, just to let him know how much I loved Einstein’s Dreams.

What he does so lucidly and beautifully in his latest work is explore our longing for Absolutes despite the uncertainties and ambiguities our world presents us with. Reconciling scientific truths with spiritual/religious experiences is easier said than done. 

As to making personal sense of it all, well, that’s the reason some of us take to writing.  “My Vocation,” an essay in Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues, begins with these words:

“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time. I hope I won’t be misunderstood; I know nothing about the value of the things I am able to write.”

From that starting point, Ginzburg takes the reader through the whys and hows of her stories, including how she moved away from wanting to write like a man. Near the end, she has this to say:

“When I write something I usually think is it very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think that happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer.” Even so, she adds, “I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be. The important thing is to be convinced that this really is your vocation.”

Ginzburg has more to say about vocations, and relationships, and children, and, yes, shoes, in this gem of a collection, and Belle Boggs, in a New Yorker essay, makes a great case for “The Book That Taught Me What I Want to Teach My Daughter.” 

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The essence of a transcendent moment is a sense of wonder, quiet in the way it takes hold.  If you’re a writer you can’t help wanting to share the insight or revelation it brings, maybe even concoct a story. It’s the ultimate paradox: try to capture the essence of a moment and you’ve lost it.

 Maybe the world began with a Big Bang, maybe not. And maybe it will end with a whimper.

Maybe Bob Dylan is right when he says, in an interview moment during the new Martin Scorsese documentary: “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.”

Empty houses also speak of lives created. They echo with family dramas, barking dogs, purring cats. Echoes etched into the walls of rooms cleared to make space for the next chorus of laughter and tears.

Note bene: With this post, I’ll be taking a little break from my regular blogging schedule. Maybe you’ll miss me, maybe not :-). But I would be remiss in not at least letting you know that my novel has earned another honor, a Finalist/First Novel, 2019 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Smack in the middle of Gay Pride Month seems as timely as it gets to read and/or recommend the novel.