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.

***

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.” 

***

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.

The personal/the political

There’s so much in Heidi Schreck’s wise, witty, profound play, What the Constitution Means to Me that resonates but an anecdote touching on an encounter with a young man during her college days struck a particular chord. They were saying good-night and the question of sex entered the picture. More accurately, it was a question of presumption. As I understood it, she didn’t especially want to have sex with this man and he was not using force but somehow acquiescence played its part.

I challenge any woman to say this hasn’t happened to her. For reasons that still surprise me when I recall it, I once experienced a similar encounter with a different end result. I was in southern France, on a date with a curly-haired Frenchman, a bartender. He picked me up at the hotel where I was staying, took me for a drive. We ended up at his apartment, at which point he wanted what I wasn’t having. What made it worse was his unwillingness to drive me back to my hotel. He said he was too stoned. Maybe. Maybe not.  I left the apartment in a huff, no idea of where I was, pre-cell phone days. The streets were dark, quiet. And for all the corners we turned as we drove around, somehow I found myself on an easy path back to the center of town.  Maybe that sense of direction my husband thinks I lack came to my rescue like a shot of adrenaline.

In the years since Heidi Schreck so proudly won the American Legion contests that paid for her college education and ultimately gave rise to her current Broadway hit, life experiences have played their part to shape the woman and the writer she is. As a writer myself, possibly what moved me most is the realization that profound moments in our lives—the disturbing as well as the joyful—morph into newfound means of expression. Insights evolve.   

Ultimately, the political is personal, and the brilliance of Heidi Schreck’s play is the way she intersperses recollections of her life with a deep love, knowledge, and appreciation for the document that is the bedrock of our nation.

She captures so perfectly a 15-year-old self, intent on winning, who did not yet have the wherewithal to process what she would later come to understand as the abuse her great-grandmother and grandmother tolerated.  With no didactic diatribes, she infuses what’s right and what’s wrong with what the Founding Fathers gave us into the times in which we live. She never has to say the words #MeToo and #GunControlNow even as she gives the shocking statistics re: the number of women killed by domestic partners. 

She reminds us, too, that the Constitution was mostly aimed at protecting the rights of the men who wrote it. The ten amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights would come within three years of the Constitution’s ratification. Privacy became an important issue, as did the right to bear arms.

Who could have imagined that we’d now find ourselves at a time in our history when fierce battles would ensue over the very meaning of the amendments that gave rise to those rights?

I love language in all its nuance. In the years I worked as an editor of employment law journals, I would marvel at how comma placement could change the meaning of a statute. So now, enthused and inspired by Heidi Schreck, I take a peek at that ‘we the people’ document that became the foundation of our system of governance. Amendment 2 jumps out at me:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

That first phrase is no linguistic flourish. It’s central to the premise of why the Founding Fathers saw a need for the amendment.  I can’t help thinking they would weep at the distortion of a right on which their survival may have hinged. Abraham Lincoln had a thing or two to say about rights as well, and this winning entry in the 2019 Texas Sandfest Competition might make anyone weep.

Saturday night found me watching The Pelican Brief, the 1993 John Grisham novel-turned-movie starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. I’ve seen it more than once, but this time had me focused on Alan Pakula’s use of Hitchcock-like camera angles that heightened the suspense.  And how could I help but be riveted by a film in which the assassination of two Supreme Court justices signals a conspiracy driven by politics and greed and an idiot in the Oval Office whose main focus (other than making sure he’s not implicated) is training his dog. At least, when everything unfolded, the fictional FBI director owned up to the president’s obstruction justice.

These are very distressing times. Doublespeak and stonewalling from the Oval Office. Family feuds across dinner tables, not to mention Facebook. I avoid engaging with family members who think the president is doing a terrific job but the other day I had to put in my two cents’ (make that a dollar’s) worth of thoughts, mostly to clear up the misjudgment and misinformation.  I’m not likely to change this family member’s mind but I had to say it: 

Read the Constitution. Find out what it should mean to all of us at a time when the very fabric of our nation is threatened.

I want to scream. I fear this presidency is shattering my nerves.  Men coopt what belongs to women and turn it on them. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times gave some perspective on the likability factor in politics (the comments are worth reading, too).  Eisenhower may have used it well in his ‘I like Ike’ campaign. But only a woman, instilled in the ways of being a good girl from the get-go, knows the power she relinquished for the sake of being liked. 

For all the recent setbacks, there are signs of progress. Women are raising up their voices, shaping art that speaks to the cultural and political climate. 

 We’re taking power in record numbers.  And all this has little if nothing to do with likability.

The Bookmobile

The first public library I ever walked into was on wheels. 

There was an elementary school, more than one synagogue and church, but no nearby library in the Brooklyn neighborhood of my early childhood years.

Pre-library days, when the love of reading began.

Situated on the edge of East Flatbush and Canarsie, that maze of 20 six-story buildings known as the Glenwood Houses would be something of an anchor for a neighborhood on the cusp of change. It was the 1950s and affordable, income-based public housing would be a big draw for middle-class families like mine. I was not yet seven, about to enter second grade, when we moved there. By the time I was in third grade, that thing we think of as independent reading began to kick in. By fourth grade it was something of a hunger. 

My idea of manna was the Bookmobile making its weekly visit, etched in my memory as Wednesday.

The back door of the blue and white vehicle emblazoned with a Library on Wheels logo was for returning books. I walked up the steps, deposited the books I’d read. There was no lingering in this 20-by-8-foot dimly lit space, but ten minutes—just enough time to find something recommended or see what jumped out at me—could seem like a blissful eternity before exiting via the front end, filled with the anticipation of where the books I’d chosen would take me. 

Every time felt like the first time—the wonder that so many books could exist about so many things, the growing awareness that stories could take me far beyond my circumscribed world. From a cultural standpoint, music and TV played a big part in my family life, books not so much. Newspapers—the Daily NewsNew York PostNational Enquirer—kept my parents engaged, though my father did read an occasional book, even bought me one, a collection of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales that got me through my bout with measles.

Time has a way of shaping memories. On the day the Bookmobile came around (maybe Wednesday, maybe not), I see myself walking alone from the street on which I lived to the other end of the housing project, where it would be parked. Maybe I was alone, more likely not. But that sense of aloneness strikes at the chord of a young girl’s secret pleasure and the way her life is turned around by a library on wheels that first brought her Ramona and Pippi Longstocking, fictional girls who spoke their minds, did brave, sometimes nonsensical, things. 

It doesn’t take much to imagine my thrill when construction began on a permanent library. More books. More choices. I could take out ten at a time for summer reading, sit on my favorite bench, in the shade of a tree overlooking a patch of grass. If books are the embodiment of shared stories, libraries elevate them to a collective consciousness.  Someone else has held the book I’m now reading. I relished the slight crackle of the translucent, protective covers. The smell—not so much musty as reminiscent of aged wood—was an invitation: come inside, see what I have for you.

My first job would be at the new library.  I was about to turn 16, my last year in high school. I would shelve books, check them in and out, do managerial tasks in the back office.  The library manager would give me a lifelong lesson in learning to type, a skill not necessarily in the course listing for students on track for an academic diploma.

There’s a national day for everything. As it happens, this is National Library Week and Wednesday is National Bookmobile Day. Google found me a 1950s photo of my very own Glenwood Houses Library on Wheels, hashtag-ready for its Instagram/Facebook/Twitter closeup celebrating those oversize vehicles that make books available in hard-to-reach places of our country, not to mention the world. 

Wednesday, April 10, also happens to be the date my novel, Just Like February, was published last year. An anniversary is a good time for a giveaway. Leave a comment with your thoughts re: the special place libraries have had in your life and you’ll be eligible to receive a signed copy.

Letting Go

The other day I became obsessed with finding two books I could not easily locate.  It was a reference to one of them—The Family of Man—in Sally Mann’s wonderful memoir that set me on my mission.  The other book, To Be Nobody Else, bears a connection in my mind to The Family of Man, mostly for the photographs that make for a compelling narrative. They speak to a certain time in my life.

I looked in all the logical places I would have placed them after they’d been released from boxes following completion of a renovation.

I created stories – did I lend them to someone? Did I use them in a writing workshop?  Did I share them with a visiting friend who inadvertently tucked them under the sofabed? Books have a way of disappearing, then turning up in unexpected places.

Let it go, I said.

I looked at the same shelves over and over again, a strategy that sometimes works when my mind or eyes are not playing tricks on me.

Are they under a couch?

Let it go, I said.  They’ll either turn up. Or they won’t.

But I couldn’t let it go, and my last-ditch effort took me to the last place I would have expected to find them—a crawl space where my husband stores old files. Apparently some overflow boxes from the renovation were tucked away here, until they were forgotten.

I can breathe better now.

* * *

I grapple with letting go. The two concepts—‘grapple’ and ‘letting go’—would seem to be a contradiction, maybe even an oxymoron. Years of doing yoga have me yearning for ‘effortless effort’, that sense of moving from pose to pose with such fluidity that I’m (almost) light as a feather. I have my moments of grace, and I’m thankful for the patience and, yes, the consistent work that has brought me to these moments.  But I can’t help thinking the greatest insights come during the plateau phases or the walls we hit when striving for something. It’s the reason I decided to learn to swim at 66. 

There’s an image that comes to me sometimes when my breath moves into a slow, easy rhythm during meditation. I’m sitting on the edge of a high cliff, very much at peace. How I got here is beside the point.  To watch Alex Honnhold do his free solo climb of El Capitan is to bear witness to being as in the moment as it gets. Letting go is not an option.

Language is my métier. ‘Let go’ is a world apart from ‘let it go.’ One added word brings a pause. The free fall of letting go now has room to negotiate its landing.  

***

On a visit that my daughter used as an opportunity to clear out clutter (pre-Marie Kondo) she handed me a small box fashioned from a cut-up manila folder. Decals (a bat and a cat) adorn the outside of this time capsule. Inside is a cornucopia of candy wrappers, her private stash of indulgences not readily available in our home. 

I smiled.  This was not deprivation by design.  Her sweet tooth, like her father’s, found satisfaction enough during family outings, movie nights, birthdays, Halloween.  Or so I thought. No surprise that she’s become the baker her mother never was.

As I move into my own decluttering, is it time to let this precious memorabilia go? My daughter insists it is.

***

A very large Webster’s dictionary sits in a cubby all its own in my office. It’s something I acquired many years ago—1962, to be exact—an award with a name as cumbersome as the dictionary itself.

Take a peek. Read the inscription.

Elsa Ebeling—now there’s a name worthy of a short story.

I was just twelve when I graduated from eighth grade. A December baby, I would enter kindergarten before I turned five. In the middle of fourth grade I was plucked out of my class and moved into fifth grade. They called it ‘acceleration.’ I could only see it as displacement, but who was I to complain?

Eighth Grade Graduation Day, 1962. Valedictorian. As if the isolation of being singled out—oh so smart—weren’t enough, here I was standing on a stage looking out at a sea of faces, speaking words (mostly mine) but possibly made a little loftier by a teacher’s coaching. I finished my speech, back to my seat, a sigh of relief.  Only to find myself called back to the stage when the award was announced. 

I can still feel my heart thumping.

The gift of an oversize dictionary was, is, and will always be cumbersome.  It requires a table, maybe even a room, of its own to be of any practical use.  We kept it on a low bookshelf.  Sometimes I would lug it out for more than a basic definition of a word, other times just to be awed by words and illustrations that might open me to something unknown.

To call it an underutilized, if not underappreciated, tome is an understatement. 

Today, as I pull it from its cubby with every intention of letting it go, I can’t help seeing it as the embodiment of a very particular moment in my life much better expressed without words.

Gods. Heroes. Monsters.

II you’re a mother (even if you’re not) picture this scenario: 

It’s the ‘80s.  You’ve been invited to Michael Jackson’s Xanadu,  otherwise known as Neverland, with your adorable, talented seven-year-old son. Once he caught Michael’s eye in a dance competition, the two-way spell was cast.

Your son, it appears, will be sleeping in the prince’s quarters, Michael’s bedroom itself. You’re a guest, invited to fend for yourself. Is this ignorance on your part, naiveté born of not believing it’s possible that Michael Jackson would do anything inappropriate to your innocent child?  Is it a form of being blinded by the thrilling light of Michael Jackson?

As it’s told, the two boys at the heart of the HBO documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” were nothing short of Michael Jackson’s boy toys. And to hear them, in their own words, give the graphic details of their sexual ‘awakening’ is seriously more than I could bear. 

If you watched, or plan to watch, the documentary—and if you’re anything like me—you’re likely to find yourself on this side of revulsion during the first part especially. Compassion certainly kicks in for what the men endured and how their demons finally forced their hand.

While I wouldn’t call myself a Michael Jackson fan, I certainly appreciated his musical genius. His early ‘80s songs always got me onto the dance floor. I’m a sucker for “Billie Jean.” 

So why did I watch?  

Well, like all things we watch with a certain incredulity, we keep thinking there’s going to be a turning point to justify our time and attention.  There is no cutting to the quick here when viewers bear witness to the distanced specificity with which James recalls the first episode of what is by all measures abuse but is meant to be something of a teaching moment for a young boy in love and in awe of his hero.  He was seven years old.  His parents put him into the fire. He endured it for seven years. Wade’s experience was very much the same. 

In recounting their experiences, both men have what would seem a measured, muted demeanor, almost as if they are those young boys again, albeit emotionally distanced by time. Without the therapy that started the healing process for them, going public like this would not be possible. Their mothers figure prominently in the documentary, doing their best to recall how they were drawn into acceptance of whatever Michael asked.  He was generous to them. Good-spirited. No way could he harm their sons, or so it would seem from their acquiescence. 

To even ask if anything strange was happening behind closed doors would have gotten them nowhere. More than instructing the boys in the ways of pleasure, Michael taught them the importance of silence. People might get the wrong idea. 

I bristle even as I write.

Michael Jackson was a pedophile.  And even when he was charged with his crimes, Wade and James were put on notice: say nothing. There was a sense, too, on their part of saving Michael.  As James tells it, Michael would cry when he left. This young boy robbed of his innocence was afraid Michael would turn into the werewolf in “Thriller.”

Wade explains his reasons for lying at the trial: “That person is your whole life.  If I tell the truth, it would shatter.”

To sit through the documentary, as either of their mothers, is to be shattered.  Wade’s sister says she worried that her mother would kill herself. I could readily imagine wanting to do the same. Oprah Winfrey, in a televised follow-up to the documentary that was actually a preview screening with an audience of mostly sexual abuse survivors, asks if the men have come to a place of forgiveness with regard to their mothers.  Wade suggests it was all a big seduction, and, yes, he blames his parents. As to forgiveness, he’s still working on it.

It’s a journey, as James puts it, and it’s something he’ll be working on his whole life. 

Hard-core Michael Jackson fans may not buy this truth about their hero. The men have endured death threats. In answering a question about his lawsuit against the Jackson estate, Wade said it was never about the money. In the world in which we live, alas, the only way to get the estate to pay attention was by suing.

Even as I try to contemplate how what appears to be so painfully true can be spun into another episode of ‘vilify the victim’, I bristle.  

Mythology tells us again and again how the pantheon of Greek gods played with human frailty, pitted heroes against monsters.  Sometimes I can’t help but see that pantheon played out in the worship of entertainment heroes, especially come Grammy and Oscar time.

Mythology tells us, too, the story of Persephone and her abduction by Hades, god of the underworld. Her disconsolate mother, Demeter, brings vengeance by creating a famine on earth, until a rapprochement (more a trick) is reached wherein Persephone spends six months on earth and six months in the underworld. 

Buddhism suggests there’s no internal peace, no enlightenment without forgiveness.

We all have traumas, small and large ones, embodied within. Sooner or later they haunt us in insidious ways. Even if I can’t ever imagine allowing a child of mine to sleep in the room of an adult stranger, I can imagine how blame and misjudgment wreak havoc on our sense of perspective in the blinding light of a false god. 

I can imagine, too, the monsters that will forever haunt the mothers of two boys once lost in Neverland. 

Isn’t it just like February?

It hits me every year, just as January rolls into February: the shift in daylight, so incremental until it’s suddenly noticeable, particularly around sunset.

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.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. As if to give timely grist to my February musings, along comes What Lunar New Year Reveals about the World’s Calendars via the New York Times.

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.

A writer can’t always be sure that the story she intended to tell is in fact the one she told. With novels especially, the time lag between inception to draft after draft to publication puts us on shaky ground. Readers have different ways of receiving/perceiving what we wrote.  I hold suspect any writer who says she doesn’t read reviews. I admire any writer who says she doesn’t take them to heart. I learn as much from criticism as from praise.

 All of which brings an extra measure of gratification when readers see the subtext of a novel for what it is. Here’s what one reviewer had to say about mine:

“What is February? A wonderful metaphor for the unpredictable, of opposites, a reminder to live without expectation while also appreciating ritual and traditional when it is gifted.”

And here’s the most charming of gifts from a fan.

Today’s walk around the lake had the look and feel of what I can only call winter/spring. Barely 30 degrees, leftover snow with a sheen of ice or slushy in the way that calls to mind a frozen Margarita. And these perfect-as-it-gets  images of a season in transition.

Once in a blue moon

A week ago an email database of mine disappeared. 

Gone from the server, no clear explanation of how it happened other than an unfortunate glitch in the process of moving my website/blog from one server to another. That’s reason enough to warrant freaking out (or appeal to the Russians for help) but what kept me sane was my suspicion that all was not lost since those very emails exist on my laptop via a desktop app.

That’s not to say I haven’t had a sleepless night or two figuring out how to save a retrievable backup of the emails. In the best of all possible worlds, emails backed up from one database waltz smoothly into another. More often than not, the transition requires a little tech support even for a reasonably tech-savvy woman like me.

Yet a funny thing happens along the way. You look at your inbox and ask yourself: how do I have thousands of emails? A file cabinet filled with letters would likely be thinned down from time to time. But emails—received, read, flagged, sent, discarded—find their way into that deceptive out-of-sight/out-of-mind compartment of our brains.

Until one day a potential disaster forces your hand. Maybe you saved a bunch of emails for a good reason back in 2014. Or maybe you just didn’t give it that much thought.  They don’t take up space after all. 

And maybe it’s a hedge against that once-in-a-blue-moon moment when there’s an email you absolutely need to unearth and you simply can’t rest until you do. Why that particular email is so important is beside the point. 

We all hate losing things. We all resent the feeling of vulnerability that kicks in when the very technology that has been such a good friend begins to give us pause. 

Pause is a perfect word for the moment, once in a blue moon the most exquisite of tropes. There’s nothing necessarily blue about a blue moon, even if it’s riddled with everything the color evokes. Melancholy comes to mind. Elvis may have defined the song, but Cowboy Junkies took it to another level.  

Powder blue. Dusk blue. Midnight blue. 

Sky blue. Ice blue. Cerulean. 

Yves Klein blue.

The blue of distance that Rebecca Solnit writes about so evocatively. 

More than a color, it’s a mood, a state of mind. In a recent Brainpickings roundup, Maria Popova characterizes it as “a symbol, a state of being, a foothold to the most lyrical and transcendent heights of the imagination.”

Listen to the blues as much as I do and you’d be hard put to disagree. What genre of music is as riddled with sexuality, sensuality, vulnerability? Not to mention the cultural undertones it embodies.

There’s a thread here, and vulnerability may be its epicenter. 

Who isn’t feeling vulnerable these days, what with the Manchurian Candidate occupying the Oval Office? 

Last week brought me a riveting poem by Terrance Hayes via The New Yorker.

things got terribly ugly incredibly quickly
things got ugly embarrassingly quickly
actually things got ugly unbelievably quickly
honestly things got ugly seemingly infrequently
initially things got ugly ironically usually
awfully carefully things got ugly unsuccessfully
occasionally things got ugly mostly painstakingly
quietly seemingly things got ugly beautifully
infrequently things got ugly sadly especially
frequently unfortunately things got ugly
increasingly obviously things got ugly suddenly
embarrassingly forcefully things got really ugly
regularly truly quickly things got really incredibly
ugly things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully

Last week also brought me to Springsteen on Broadway via Netflix. As a longtime Bruce fan, I resisted the impulse to get tickets when the show had its Broadway run. The intimacy of a solo performance struck me as out of character with the nature of the large venue. The price of a ticket to be up close enough struck me as out of sync with a performer who prides himself on being a working class hero. More to the point, nothing will ever come close to having seen him in his up-and-coming days at a small club, the Bottom Line, NYC.

Streaming the show, via Netflix, on a large-screen television, was the way it was meant to be seen for fans like me. The vulnerability of the man behind the music shines through as he takes us through his life, via excerpts/adaptations from his wonderful memoir and the songs he sings.

This week brought me to “Sonny’s Blues,” a masterful James Baldwin story in which music becomes a catalyst for a moment of transcendence between two estranged brothers. The fragile reconciliation that unfolds in the course of the story brings the brothers to a new understanding of each other.

“Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. . . . I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours.”

All of which has me thinking that maybe, just maybe, the things we hold onto are the ones most in need of being let go. Even if it takes a blue moon to realize it.