On Hold: my corona diaries

The other day I got caught in the rain on my morning walk. More than a drizzle, less than a downpour. 

I don’t relish walking in the rain. I count on a 15-minute margin of error in timing my walks to the local weather forecast. Meteorology is only so precise.

A neighbor passed me on the road, offered me a ride home.

I’m okay, I laughed.

It’s summer, after all. Not a freezing cold winter day.  I let the rain drench me.

I’d recently finished reading D. J. Lee’s beautifully written, multilayered story, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots. What starts out as a journey to seek clues to a friend’s disappearance becomes an exploration of her family’s past and their relationship, as well as hers, to a part of Idaho that holds the most pristine river in the country, outside of Alaska. Chinook Salmon return to the Selway River to spawn.

If you’re able to define wilderness, to pin it down, then it isn’t wilderness, she writes.

Back in 1978, I was riveted by a National Geographic cover story about a woman who went through the Australian Outback by herself (accompanied by four camels and a dog). To this day I recall her thinking, after hearing voices on Day 71, that she might be going mad. Without her being tracked, there would be no National Geographic photos (and a book that would follow) which only served to relieve my anxieties, vicarious or otherwise.

I still have that issue, and a handful of others, despite the now never-ending spring cleaning intensified by an ongoing pandemic. Riffling through the glossy pages I’m charmed by an advertisement for a Smith-Corona typewriter, with its state-of-the-art Correction Cartridge. I had one of those.

At the ripe age of 70, I honor what’s in my comfort zone, which doesn’t negate my envy for women who take treks to remote places, with the deep connection to the natural world it brings. I imagine an aloneness that is empowering.

It dawned on me, as I made my way home, that the pandemic, coupled with the upcoming election, have me feeling as if I’m on hold.

Waiting.

For an answer to something to which there can’t be an answer. I want to know—-right now—when the pandemic will be under control. I need every assurance—right now—that Biden will win the presidency, with Kamala at his side. It’s not a stretch to see this as all of a piece with walking in the rain.

On hold. Reading a lot. Writing very little, if at all. Meditation, yoga, music get me through the day. I think too much about what to cook for dinner.

I spend a lot of time alone, a product of a work-at-home lifestyle magnified by the pandemic—which makes it all the more ironic that I’m not working much these days. I’ve become a master of distraction, today’s joy being the magic of a coral reef Apple TV screensaver that I stare at to a backdrop of piano music.

The world is heating up, literally on fire. Even from a distance, and in the comfort of an air-conditioned living room, it’s hard to process.

Is it an unsimple twist of fate that in these dark COVID-19 times, worsened immeasurably by the lies and greed and psychosis of the monster-in-chief, Bob Dylan has his first No. 1 Billboard hit, seventeen-minutes long at that?

I’m looking for a word to capture the very subtle shift in light signaling the arrival  of autumn. I picture the glow I forever associate with Florence, Italy.

Evening arrives sooner. Rosh Hashanah dinner, a few weeks from now, will be a very quiet affair this year.

A girl and her mother are jumping puddles, in yellow boots.

Children are returning to school in staggered schedules. 

A teenager glides by on a skateboard, carried along by his dog, a beautiful Husky, on a leash.

Bruce Springsteen wrote “Into the Fire” in response to 9/11.

Bob Dylan wrote “Murder Most Foul,” well, because he’s Dylan. The timing of the song, on his new album, have a reassuring effect on me.

The pandemic has warped our sense of time. It was only in March that I began blogging more frequently, with a greater sense of purpose. Little did I know that my own Corona diaries would place me in a collective of writers with the same mindset. To reread The Existential Inconvenience of Coronavirus, a New Yorker essay by Geoff Dyer that also appeared in March, is to have a real-time reminder of how things looked back then.

Somewhere between then and now, the urgency to write dissipated. If I say, simply, it is what it is, I take the thunder from Michelle Obama’s brilliant use of the phrase during the DNC. I breathe a little easier now that both conventions have come and gone.

There is a Buddhist notion of freedom in confinement. For all the despondency the pandemic has given rise to, I find myself opening to new ways of approaching everyday things. Why did I keep the wooden garlic smasher for so long? The flat edge of a large knife works just fine. All those years of downward-facing dog and pigeon and vinyasas in intimate classes with yoga teachers I’ve learned so much from have given me grounding to pick and choose from an online smorgasbord of programs available to me. It’s a whole new world. I do poses with fresh insights. At its heart a yoga practice is personal.

No one would wish for the kind of confinement the pandemic has wrought. I may be anxious to know what I can’t know but this time warp, reset, call it what you will has also given rise to questions I don’t need any answers to. Will I write another blog post? If so, when?

Or at the ripe age of 70 are my days better spent sipping wine on a stone bench some squirrel has used as a nutcracker, as I ease my way back, fictionally speaking, into where I left off? Inspiration has never been in short supply for me, but all the real-time writing spurred by the pandemic is humbling. Just look at The Decameron Project or The Chronicles of Now. Maybe there’s some fresh start I’m headed for, now that I grasp the vast divide between being on hold and holding on.

This may be as close as I get to a wilderness journey of my own.

September 11, 2020

Submit Surrender Retreat: my corona diaries

As a writer I think about words in all their nuance, music, use and misuse.

I submit work in the hope of having it published.  In this context, submission is a good thing. No pressure, except what I put on myself in terms of deadlines, not to mention the emotional underpinnings of rejection vs. acceptance.

In the context of submitting to someone else’s will, it reeks of aggrievement. In these days when the abomination of racism, in general, and the reverberations of slavery, in particular, have brought us to our knees as a nation, conversations with my daughter have me hopeful that out of the ashes of protest may come a new level of awareness, maybe even change. We talk about books we’re reading, movies we’re watching, and their relevance to the times in which we live.

Doesn’t an individual story, fictional or personal narrative, so often move us more than historical texts?

‘I am here, telling this story, and not from the grave, not yet, but from the here and now, peering back into another time, when we were Tasked, and close to the earth, and close to a power that baffled the scholars and flummoxed the Quality, a power, like our music, like our dance, that they cannot grasp, because they cannot remember.’ – Ta-Nahesi Coates, The Water Dancer

It’s a gift, as poetic as it is poignant and powerful, to tell a story of slavery and the ending of it that would seem to have come, only to continue haunting us hundreds of years later. 

It’s a ruse, as political as it is linguistic, to try to take the wind out of #BlackLivesMatter by telling us #AllLivesMatter or #PoliceLivesMatter.  

The same can be said of what Susan Faludi calls the right-wing trap that turned  #IBelieverHer during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings into #BelieveAllWomen.

The misappropriation of language is indeed a bitch.

* * *

Surrender, in the world of meditation and yoga as I know it, is a melting away of resistance. The body, if you’re lucky, eases; the monkey mind quiets down, chatter gives way to present moment awareness. It helps to call that kind of surrender ‘sweet.’  

In his final moments we hear George Floyd—no more resistance left in him even if this was no true surrender—calling out to his dead mother. 

My daughter sends me a text: The world is over. Fuck us all.

I want to reverse the curse, give her reason for some hope.  I know my need to protect her has limitations and everything I can, or cannot, do, everything I fear is filtered through the lens of being a white mother.

We had to hire someone to help us help our son sleep. I have paid someone to buffer me from my own tendencies of protection in pursuit of a higher good. I am a black mother living in America. You cannot blame me for wanting to watch my child breathe all night.’— Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili,  Letter From Oakland: Black Motherhood in Sleepless Times

Black creativity emerges from long lines of innovative responses to the death and violence that plague our communities. “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief,” Toni Morrison wrote in “Beloved,” and I am interested in creative emergences from that ineluctable fact.’—Elizabeth  Alexander, The Trayvon Generation

* * *

To be disciplined enough to sit in front of a blank screen in the hope that something of relevance will come forth sometimes takes effort. Even without a pandemic forcing our hands re: staying home, solitude is a means to a form of expression, possibly even revelation.  No sooner do I finish reading The Water Dancer than I found myself caught up in novel that tackles five hundred years of Brazilian history, in which slavery played no small part, via one family’s lineage of women.

The savages, while he wouldn’t say they had no feelings, for even he could attest they did, were like cattle: their suffering was of a lighter nature and would soon pass.’—Maria Jose Silveira, Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother & Her Daughters

To be disciplined, sometimes to the point of embarrassment, for doing something someone else thought was wrong or simply did not want you to do is a whole other matter. It’s an expression of power. 

* * *

Will wearing masks, part of our routine, ever feel routine?  it’s rhetorical to ask how wearing them became politicized.  Like all performers, the man Fintan O’Toole cleverly labeled the unpresident has his routines, though I think he gets too much credit for thinking things through. He says what he wants/whenever he wants. He bastardizes language. He himself mistakenly misspelled ‘unprecedented’ as ‘unpresidented.’ 

* * *

These days find me in retreat, another riddle of a word.

On the battlefield, retreat most often echoes with impending defeat. 

Retreat, in the context of tuning out, stepping back, is a form of self-preservation. It brings ease, yes. But there is no real ease without unease. The demons—anxieties, fears, doubts—masked by routine become restless, exposed. 

As a writer I’m prone to overthinking, counting on words to make sense of things better grasped from a place beyond words. The need for retreat at a time when a pandemic already has me sheltering in place would seem to be overkill. And, yet, if there’s any personal good to come out of a time of misery it’s the diminished compulsion that has me slowing down. If my writing feels less driven, that’s okay. If I check in on social media once or twice a week, that’s okay too. News need not be up-to-the-minute to find me.

Some days all I want to do is listen to Igor Levit play Beethoven or watch dolphins swimming on my TV screen.

All of which has me me feeling almost liberated.

—-June 30, 2020

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.

knitting a scarf and hat, writing a novel

Knitting and writing: what do they have in common?

I recently stumbled on a book, a perfect holiday gift for those of us who love reading as well as knitting. Alice Hoffman, author of so many notable novels (I especially loved The Dovekeepers), joined forces with her cousin Lisa Hoffman, a master knitter, to come up with a book that weaves together fairy-tale-like stories with knitted accessories (instructions included) at the heart of the stories. it’s an inspired idea, indeed. The stories have their charm and the knitting patterns their varying degrees of complexity.knitting and writing: what they have in common

Here’s what Alice Hoffman says in the introduction about the connection between writing and knitting:

“To be a writer or a knitter, one has to be willing to take things apart and put them back together again. It’s hard work to do so, and it takes courage. Patience is required, and the willingness to start over if need be, to rewrite or unravel.”

How could I help but revisit a post a wrote a few years back in which I shared my own thoughts about what writing and knitting have in common?

I write, therefore I knit

The day I released my dog from her suffering, I took up knitting again. My daughter had been wanting a scarf patterned with Griffyndor stripes since Harry Potter enchantment overtook her, and my decision to start knitting that day somehow felt life-affirming. I could not settle my thoughts enough to write about the grief, or even try to imagine the hold it would have on me. No point in that anyway. Grief demands that you be with it. The word itself carries a weight, made a little heavier by the weeks of ministration to an ailing creature. To try and push aside grief, ‘get on with one’s life,’ misses the point. I could easily co-opt and modify words from a familiar song, Gospel in origin – so high you can’t get over it / so wide you can’t get around it – to give voice to my feelings. The only way is through. Be with it.

Which brings me to knitting. I remember learning to knit as an adolescent, something to occupy me as I sat with my family at night, watching TV. Or was it a fascination of sorts, something about a single strand of wool being shaped into a sweater or a scarf? Even the simplest pattern, no fancy cables stitches, can yield something beautiful. Even the most straightforward garter or seed stitch requires an attention to detail. There is a rhythm to knitting and purling, not a far cry from a meditative settling of the breath or the quieting of the mind needed when I sit down to write.

Is it a stretch to suggest that a story exists in a hand-made sweater? Or that the very act of knitting, steadying as it is, is akin to that state of receptivity when I leave my laptop behind, take a walk or a drive, always surprised, and delighted, at the way le mot juste will make itself manifest? Putting aside the pleasure I get from knitting, or my own suspicion that it serves as some physical manifestation of the same creative impulse that drives me to write, I find myself thinking about metaphor: the Fates weave; Madame Defarge knits; I pull out some stitches, too loose to my liking, redo them. Getting it right means seeing how the parts become the whole. Finishing it off means understanding that a hand-made scarf or hat, like a story or novel, can be less than perfect and still exquisitely cohesive.

Addendum:  So now the novel is out, published, and something of a triple crown finalist in three different contests. Since the catalyst for Just Like February was the AIDS crisis of the ’80s, from now until December 1st, which marks the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, the ebook edition will be available for 99 cents via all online booksellers.

 

Today it’s all about the book


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

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

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

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

 

 

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My Dog Is Ruining My Life

Well, we all know we’re talking tongue-in-cheek here . . .

But just to entice you, here’s the beginning of my Indie Writers Deathmatch story —

“Impossible,” says Gary. “Dogs are pals – playmates. Nobody will ever love you the way they do.” His voice crackles. Words snap and pop. Tunnel . . . lunch meeting . . . lace panties. “You’re breaking up,” I tell him. “Lace panties,” he says again.  Red. Eight p.m.  I shake my head, hang up the phone. Misha surfaces from beneath the bed, eager to give me her peace offering,  a pair of red lace panties she is so sure will make up for the overturned trash can, merit a pat on the head, if not a biscuit.  She drops the panties on a neon green Frisbee lying at the foot of the bed. 

The hyperlink above will take you to the Broken Pencil site, where you can read the rest of the story (just click the link above my name), maybe even cast your vote for it (which requires email login, something some people, understandably, shy away from). So even if I need Russian hackers to help me get past this first round, which ends at midnight tomorrow (Sunday),  I’ll take great pride in knowing my story was selected to compete and even greater pleasure in sharing it.

Fictional dog aside, these irresistible puppies, found alive after the avalanche in Italy, are guaranteed to take your mind off current affairs.

Let the games begin —

The Finish Line

There are so many ways to say something has come to an end, each with its own nuance. Kaput. Conclude. Terminate. C’est fini. C’est bien fini. No más.

Finale, grand or otherwise.

The end of a war is always a good thing, the end of a life dependent on the circumstances.

Coming to the end of a novel one is writing feels more akin to a whimper than a bang.  Even before the final words are set down, an air of urgency kicks in. Almost there. I can see the light eking into the tunnel. A novel is a world constructed with heart and mind, populated with individuals drawn from flesh and blood. Readers who know the writer may see resemblances, hear echoes, their own transaction with the fiction.  Readers who know nothing about the writer may ask how much is true, autobiographical.  What we take away from a story is intertwined with what we bring to it.

Many years ago I ran the New York City Marathon. A friend of the family sent a note: ‘Congratulations on making it to the finish line. That kind of experience lasts a lifetime.’  A dear cousin finagled her own celebratory surprise at a family Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks later. It was 1981, a good ten years since I’d left the fold, single in the city now,  where Thanksgiving had evolved into a friends’ affair. This year, my cousin insisted, was for family. I could do that, change things up a bit.  Score one for nostalgia and family get-togethers. Score another point for sentiment, the cake she had for me, two candles, the numbers 2 and 6. My mother had her own surprise, my marathon photo laminated and set in a frame alongside the program listing each runner’s time, 3:48:57 for me. Some numbers you never forget, down to the second.

Running a marathon, like writing a novel, is an accomplishment, indeed. But momentum, more than the distant goal, is, for me, the driving force, which is why I confess to being a little surprised when I’m congratulated. I ran. I write. It’s what I do. Not that I’m anything but grateful for the woohoo!  It makes me stop and take stock.

“I have a book in me,” people so often say. “If I only I could sit down and write it. “Of course, those of us who write know there’s much more to it than sitting down. With a novel especially, there are characters with me day and day out, a life of their own, cuing me to their next move. Waiting to jump off the page. Days go by, distractions take hold, weeks pass, other obligations get in the way, then months, maybe years,  later a novel nears completion.

Now what do I do?

And maybe that’s the point here.  Let others revel in my accomplishment while I immerse myself in the day-to-day revelations I look to each morning, today the first snowstorm (putting aside the Halloween surprise) of the season.  I’ll start by weeding through the files and clippings that never made it into the novel even if they gave some insights to character and place.  Then I’ll read through the novel, one more time, before I watch it take flight, hopefully landing (sooner than later) on the desk of an editor who simply can’t put it down once he/she starts reading. Knowing that the more likely scenario will be a a bumpy ride, swells and dips, hanging on to words of praise as if I’d been handed a major award, reading between the lines of those ‘encouraging’ rejections (an oxymoron?) in the hope that I might glean something — anything — to keep me from falling down.