Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks a million

Nestled in at cute husband's parents' house in a part of the country that is decidedly colder than where we came from!  Yay!  A delicious dinner among loved ones has been ingested and is slowly digesting. Now we sip wine, and perhaps, a little later, a bit of peppermint schnapps.  My dad and I sip on a flask of peppermint schnapps when we go snow shoeing (something we love to do together)--he carries it in his coat pocket and when we reach the summit we marvel at the view, catch our breaths, take some photos, and enjoy our schnapps. It's one of the many things in my life I'm thankful for, not just today, but all days.

Wanted to share with you a sweet little editorial from today: Editorial: Thanksgiving

Here's my favorite part:

There will be thanks for the present union and reunion of us all. And there will be prayerful thanks for the future. But it’s worth raising a glass (or suspending a forkful for those of you who’ve gotten ahead of the toast) to be thankful for the unexpected, for all the ways that life interrupts and renews itself without warning.

What would our lives look like if they held only what we’d planned? Where would our wisdom or patience — or our hope — come from? How could we account for these new faces at the Thanksgiving table or for the faces we’re missing this holiday, missing perhaps now all these years?

It's true, we can even be thankful for the stuff we don't see coming...

Happy Thanksgiving lovely loyal readers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Paying attention

It's late into the night or, depending on how you look at things, early into the morning and I'm awake packing for our Thanksgiving travels tomorrow.  Today was chilly and rainy in our little town and as I was passing by the neighborhood bar just up the street I caught a glimpse through the raindrop-speckled window of a man clearing away dishes and stacking them in a tub.  For a moment our eyes met.  The moment stayed with me, and off and on today I've been thinking of him--he was an older man, and in the small split second that we saw one another I could tell he was tired.  I wondered today where he was going for the holiday, or if he would be alone.  I wondered what brought him to that neighborhood bar in this small mid-Atlantic town looking for work.  I wondered what he was most worried about in that moment when I caught his eye and could tell he was harried, and disappointed, and ready to go home.

I'm thinking of him tonight as I pack up my things for some time away.  Yes, I might write about him, but not because I think it will be a juicy story--most likely it will fizzle like so many other ideas (that's just the nature of throwing out ideas)--but because writing is a way of saving those that we only know fleetingly.  The people we wonder about, the people we hope the best for.  It will be a way for me ease my worry about the man in the window.  It's not about giving him a happy ending, but just about giving him a story, giving meaning to his life by telling his story.  And really, that's even what I'm doing when I try to write about the people I do know well, not just fleetingly, when I try to incorporate little bits of the lives of the people I know and love into my work.  It's my way of sharing their meaning with the world.  Remember in Death of a Salesman when Willy Loman screams over and over, "Attention must be paid!"  All he wanted was for someone to know about his life, so that he wouldn't disappear into the silence.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Are you ready?

Lovely loyal readers, Thanksgiving is in a scant four days!  Before we know it we'll have a Hot Toddy in one hand and scissors in the other--for wrapping presents of course.  Despite my sometimes harried existence at this time of year, the holiday season is what I live for.  I love the holly, the reindeer, the ho ho ho-ing (cute husband does a freakishly good "ho ho ho"), the gift-wrapping and giving, the baking, and the overall sense of love and joy in the air once the day finally arrives.  You know the Kingston Trio song that goes, "Why can't we have Christmas / the whole year around?"  Well that's me.  If there is a heaven, I hope it's just the feeling of the Christmas season all of the time.

We put up our Christmas tree (and about 4 others boxes worth of Christmas decor--yes, I have a problem) this weekend, the computer has been loaded with Christmas tunes, and despite the less than desirable warm weather in these parts, I'm starting to feel the spirit seeping in.  Yes, I know we haven't even had Thanksgiving yet, but I've been holding this in since Halloween people!

And look what we found at our local Trader Joe's.

My mom always wraps up a box of these for me each Christmas, but they're the Crate & Barrel kind that cost upwards of $20.  The TJ's kind are just $6 and oh so yummy!  I think it's a more than necessary snack for a budding writer to nibble upon as she sits at her computer desk during the holiday season.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cracks and tears

Thinking about many of my previous posts, which I admit have had somewhat of a theme of things not being perfect, I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes.  From Leonard Cohen: "There is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

One of my favorite shows when I was a teenager (ahem, well, it's still kind of one of my favorite shows...) was Felicity.  I remember an episode where Felicity's older, wiser letter-writing friend back in California wrote her a letter saying that after something bad happens in one part of our lives we tend to start seeing cracks in everything else.  And I think this is pretty true based on my experience.  When we're disappointed or hurt we get a little bit cynical, at least for awhile, until we can find a way to sew the tear back up and learn to live with the seam.  Sometimes, in the midst of this whole process, we begin to see Leonard Cohen's light and it gives us an appreciation of life.  It's not the pure and sweet kind of appreciation, like when we are struck by the beauty of a sunrise, though watching a sunrise can bring out this kind of appreciation.  It's born of sadness, and sometimes anger or fear, but when it awakens it's strong and lasting and above all, freeing.  To have survived something you deem big is to walk on bravely, until the next thing.  A walk along the wooded path with no cracks between the trees would make for a dark and lonely journey.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A little something . . .

I'm hoping to get inspired later for a good post, but in the meantime I wanted to share Gail Collins' column today: The Breast Brouhaha.  I clicked on it because I like Gail Collins and I wanted to know her thoughts on, yes, the breast brouhaha, which has created quite a stir.  I'm sharing it here not only because she makes great points, but also because her easy humor and insights about life remind me of why I'm doing this, and of the kind of writer I hope to be.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bless the mess

Those of you who know me know that I tend towards obsessive compulsive disorder.  I can't wear my wedding ring right now due to skin irritation caused by excessive hand washing.  I don't touch most hard surfaces that I have not cleaned myself.  Oil-based things make my heart pound with anxiety.  Et cetera.

That's why this afternoon, as the day is beginning to wind down into night here in the east, I was shocked at my own reaction to our messy house.  It's nothing too egregious--a New York Times in shambles on the coffee table, the blanket that's usually folded neatly over the back of the couch is wadded up in a ball on the love seat, the kitchen wears dirty dishes and an empty coffee pot dotted with condensation.  My fall candles have been burning all month long and they've taken on that dilapidated look that means they're about to sputter out.  Cute husband's computer is on the living room floor atop a pile of giant law books.

But something about the mess is refreshingly homey, as though we've achieved in mess what I haven't been able to in my premeditated decorating. I can walk from end to end of our little abode and see what we've been doing all day.  I can peek in the kitchen and recount the warm cream cheese inside the pita bread that I ate for breakfast, and be reminded again and again of the special treat that is the Sunday NY Times (did you know it's gone up to 6 bucks!).

When things are not perfect, the truth of life emerges.  We struggle to do things right, to make our lives turn out just as we always imagined them; we try again and again to help people that ultimately cannot be helped or changed, and still things go wrong, or perhaps just keep going in the not-so-perfect way they've been going.  Sometimes we find a new path, sometimes we stay on the one we're on with a new outlook or a renewed, if small, sense of hope.  And not even so much hope that things will change, but that we can live our lives in acceptance of how they are.  And in this place our stories are born and told.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Peering inside (and outside at the weather)

I bet you thought I'd fallen into a foxhole.  Alas, I'm above ground and here to apologize for a light blogging week.  We all know that not blogging is in direct violation of this blog's purpose, and no doubt I deserve 40 lashes with a wet noodle (thank you Mom for that wonderful colloquialism). Corey and I will for sure be cooking a pasta dish this weekend, so I'll have him do the dirty work.

I have many excuses that I won't list here, except for the most interesting one, which is that I'm in the middle of a Nor'easter!  Now, I've been through them before--when I was a Bostonian they were a way of life each winter.  Long about mid-January I could expect to be holed up for at least three days while the snow fell outside and I watched reports on TV of piers falling into the ocean.  One year my heat went out and so I stayed on my couch wrapped in wool drinking soup for three days straight.  But now I live in the Mid-Atlantic so Nor'easters arrive in November and are not snow and wind, but rain and wind.  It's been so bizarre living like this--the rain has literally not stopped for three days.  So I've been lighting candles and making warm foods and writing a bit, but I found myself at a loss for good blog material, so I decided to just stay silent for a little while in hopes that inspiration would find me if I just had the patience to sit still.

Being cooped up always causes me to have insomnia and last night was a whopper.  It was a 4am-er.  My rule, as a lifelong insomniac, is that if I'm not asleep by 5am, I just call it a night--I don't go to bed, I give up and go about my day as best I can.  So while that didn't happen, making it to 4 was still a pretty big deal.  Anyway, my sleepless night's experience was a PBS documentary called The Way We Get By.  In honor of Veteran's Day it was a documentary about three elderly men and women who greet and send off troops going to and coming back from Iraq & Afghanistan.  They live in Bangor, Maine, which is a major entrance and exit point for troops.  But to me the documentary was less about the soldiers than about the three men and women who greeted them.  They were all older people, all living alone, all retired, and the trips to the airport each day were the events around which their lives revolved.  I won't give away all the great moments that the movie captures (you should watch it yourself if you have some time--it's streaming free on until December 12th), but I bring it up here because it reminded me again of the importance of telling stories and the importance, in doing so, of capturing the moments that matter.  The phrases and movements and insights of a person that tell us everything we need to know about them in a way that's undeniable--felt rather than just understood.  That is to say, we don't just want to know that Tom likes the ocean or loves his wife.  We want--and need--to know how Tom feels about the life he's lived, about his mistakes, his family, his purpose on earth.

And while capturing and explaining these things is often a writer's curse, it's also the blessing of the craft--that we are able to reach inside of people and explain things.  It's something we can't always do in real life.  When I think of writing in this very simple way, I am always struck by what I see as the best and most interesting part of humanity.  We want to understand each other--we want to know each other.  What makes us seek each other out to this extent?  Why do we speculate so much about the people we love, not to mention the people we dislike?  When I write, I'm trying to stand on a little stool (I'm short) outside someone's window and peer inside.  And the stool is unsteady, set atop a bunch of weeds and uneven soil outside, so it is often an unbalanced existence, but I keep trying to find my center, and I shift my weight from toe to toe, and if I stay up there long enough, neck straining, I will eventually see the moment that matters, the one that tells me what I need to know and out of which a whole story can grow.

(If you do watch the film sometime, let me know what you thought of it.  My favorite of the three subjects was Jerry.  At this point I can't quite put into words why, though I do know (I felt what he was about), but I'll think on it...)

Oh one more thing...I added a picture of the chive cream cheese from Monday after all (scroll down below).  When I was about 19 and my dad was trying to teach me how to cook (and I was very reluctant to learn) he told me, "Cooking takes your mind off things."  As is typical, seven years later I realize he was right: of late I've found it to be the single most mind-soothing thing I can do.  It frees my brain for an hour or so as I obsess solely about whether or not the sauce is thickening and how to slice the mushrooms so they look right, and by the time the dishes are clean I'm ready to go back over to my computer and re-enter my mind.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A fun way to avoid something today

Remember the days of trying to write and sound smart on topics about which, in reality, you had no understanding?  Or was that just me?

This would have been very helpful: Make Your Own Academic Sentence


Tuesday evening and she was grabbing her purse off the big chair and headed out the door for the five blocks to the church.  Her hair had grown long—longer than she might have thought appropriate for a grandmother, if you’d asked her six years ago.  But it didn’t matter much now, like so many other things.  Her husband might have worried about her on this walk—it was nearly five o’clock and deep into autumn, it would be dark by the time she made it to the church, and she was a woman alone—but they had resigned themselves to things, agreeing to forego the work of prediction.  

She walked along the brick pathway to the church’s back door—the only one kept unlocked this time of the day—and entered the basement.  The floors were white linoleum, but seemed speckled—it was the years of grime that the mop would never get.  To her left was the boxcar-like room that for nearly thirty years now had been used for Mother’s Day Out.  She’d brought her youngest child here each Wednesday and Friday for three years of his early life.  She could not look over there anymore, but out of the corner of her eye she saw the white of the crib bars, the room lit only slightly and with no one inside.  She didn't know if it was her real or her mind’s eye that saw the child-sized blue rocking chair in the middle of the room.  She climbed the dark staircase and knocked on the basement door that opened into the church sanctuary and waited for one of the other parents to unlock it.

My fascinating mind

My oh so writerly mind this morning.  (Remniscent of the movie Adaptation, though decidedly less funny.)

I’m really glad I thought of this last night, glad I remembered it, better get this down.  [Sound of typing.]  This is bad, this doesn’t sound like something that would be reviewed in The New York Times Book Review as “redefining contemporary American fiction as we know it,” why am I doing this, why didn’t I major in business?  I should have done some sort of new media/communications major, my college was well known for that.  I could have just gone to my adviser--what a weird guy--and just said, I want to be in television production and he would have just transferred me to that department.  Could I go back?  I bet they would take back someone who had already graduated but had yet to use the degree--it would be a guilt thing or a least I could appeal to that emotion in my essay.  I wish I was a producer on Morning Joe--or even a makeup artist, not that I could actually do that, but it would get my foot in the door.  I have two paragraphs, but now where is this going?  I mean do I talk about her husband now?  Is he depressed?  Every husband in stories is depressed.  I need more coffee but I’ve had too much coffee.  What should I get [insert your name here] for Christmas?  I should make a list of all the people I need to buy presents for...

[10 minute break to do that]

[10 minute surf of for gift ideas]

I think I'll make some chive cream cheese now.

(See the next post for fruits of my labor--the two paragraphs of writing, not the chive cream cheese.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Thoreau Thursday

 On going confidently in the direction of our dreams and living the life we have imagined.

This morning in my ritual combing of the Internets I ran across this article by Betsy Lerner, a writer and editor: Keep Your Day Job.  The title pretty much says it all: Dear Writers, you will never make money writing.  Aarg!  Isn't that kind of the point of my mission here...

I've heard many writers say that they write because, well, they can't not write.  This immediately brings to mind an image of a long-haired hipster writing away with his fountain pen in his little brown notebook on the train ride home to his tiny apartment, or maybe box.  But for me it is not this way.  Sure, a big part of my life, as I heard John Grisham put it yesterday in an interview, is "my hyperactive imagination."  I spend more time than I would like to admit playing out weird scenarios in my head that often turn into stories or at least starts for stories. But frankly writing--the physical act of putting fingertips to keyboard--is all about extrinsic motivations for me.  I want people to like me!  I want people to like my writing!  I want to be famous! I want to make money at this.  I seek awards.

And I know the publishing world is a scary place.  Right after I graduated from college I worked at a literary agency (basically the people who represent the writers and sell their work to publishers) where I was sent into the back corner of the office to read the "slush pile" for eight hours a day and write rejection letters accordingly.  If I thought someone's 25 page submission had potential, I was allowed to call them and ask for more work, but usually that just resulted in us saying, essentially, "Well, upon reading a little more of your work, you're not as good as we thought you might be."  It was a terrible job--especially for someone who was hoping to be a writer one day!  With each thanks-but-no-thanks letter I signed, I really felt like I was completely skewing my writerly karma.  My work has been in variations of that slush pile and the rejection letters are always swift and cold.  I once got a rejection letter from my college's literary magazine saying that they almost published my story except they felt it didn't really make sense!  Eeeek!

So much of being a writer is being told that you're good.  Otherwise you are just a toiler, a wannabe.  What is the antidote to this?  I think to make the decision to be good, to be one's own editor and critic, to put forth what you know is true.  To tell stories that illuminate something, however big, however small.  To seek out characters who have suffered.  To explain redemption.  To invent a new language and give voice.  All of that's publishable.

Monday, November 2, 2009

An Imperfect Island

One of the most difficult things about my new commitment to writing and my promise to myself to at least try to do the thing that I've always said I've wanted to do, is that I feel like a real slow poke in the game of life.  This December I'll turn the whopping (and, frankly, ugly-sounding) age of 27.  It depresses me greatly that to this point I've still yet to have a true career or an income that's not hourly-based.  If you had asked me at 17 where I thought I'd be in ten years, I probably would not have said, "Nowhere."

Additionally, cute husband is also in a transitioning/no non-hourly-based income stage of life.  Though he spent three years after college working as a newspaper reporter, he's now back in school and we're smack dab in the middle of the three-year commitment to law school and all its grueling days and late nights and an overriding fear, considering the bad economy, that the great job he left the working world to find, won't actually be there when he gets out.  Add to that that we've moved to a part of the country (the South!) that neither of us is very familiar with and that neither of us ever would have imagined living in.  In so many ways we feel like we're on our own little island, away from the family and friends that we care about most in the world, trying to plod our way to our dreams.

But when I got to thinking about it I realized that marriage is, by definition, moving to your own little two-person island, no matter if your home happens to be centrally located in the middle of all of your loved ones or in a far corner of Siberia.  At the end of the day you are still just coming home to one person and only the two of you know the truth of what's real between you.  The relationship is the center of your reality--the thing that everything else flows through.

And the more I thought about it I realized that this little island we feel like we're on right now is just one island in a sea of islands that make up a life.  That life is elementally a series of stages that we go through--times when we aren't getting what we want, times when we're muddling through, times defined by little things: the burrito place down the street that my husband and I go to each Monday evening so we can spin the wheel and maybe win a free burrito because it cheers us up a little and gives us a little time, if only 30 minutes or so, to complain, whine, maybe celebrate, attempt to make each other laugh, at which we sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, and then we walk home hand-in-hand.  And something tells me that no matter where we are ten years from now, we'll still talk about Monday night burritos, and all we'll remember is how much fun it was, and probably how young we were, and how all of the things we were unsure about actually turned out okay in one way or another.

And I'm reminded of another island of my life.  When I was five my family and I made a move from one state to another and due to many different circumstances we hadn't had the time to buy a house in the state we were moving to.  So for about a month we had to live in a Residence Inn hotel.  Add to this it was late summer and there was a horrible drought, and my mom was eight-months pregnant with my brother, and add to that my mom's uncle--someone we all really loved--was dying of lung cancer, leaving my dad as the only person who could care for him at and between chemo sessions.  And so we lived in the crappy little motel and by day I wandered over to the crappy little motel pool and cooled off while the man who cleaned the pool each afternoon learned my name and entertained me with stories I didn't understand.  And back inside the hotel room, which my mom kept at around 50 degrees, I wrapped myself in sweatshirts and she and I watched the old Monkees TV show and giggled our brains out.

In the midst of what was probably one of the lowest points for my parents, when nothing was going right, and at any moment things could go terribly wrong, this is what I remember--that cool pool in the deep and abiding midwestern heat and giggling all afternoon at the Monkees.  Maybe it's just because I was so young and therefore oblivious, but I can hear myself saying those two words about myself as I am now, another twenty or so years down the road. 

And so I realized that though we are not in the perfect place we've imagined for ourselves, there is something worthwhile in the muddling through.  There is no such thing as being nowhere when you are trying to get somewhere.  And though right now this island feels big and wide and we can't even see the water anymore, somewhere off in the distance our boat's still tethered to shore and soon we'll walk our way back to it and ride away thinking fondly of our time here.

So I'll keep writing my way towards my 27th birthday.  And if anyone asks, I'm 23.
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