and I'm headed to New York for a few days.
See you all when I get back!
Thursday, August 24, 2006
St. Francis claimed that perfect joy was accepting humiliation with equanimity. Though few of us would actively seek that kind of joy, it demonstrates the power of attitude and belief in how we experience events.
For me, perfect joy is a capricious and unexpected moment; it's a wriggling puppy that never performs on command. Like my purse and various other objects that constantly go missing at our house, it is rarely where I thought I left it.
One such capricious moment occurred last week at my waitressing job. We were in the clearing phase of a wedding in the tent and had set up our usual breakdown station behind the bar. While a couple of my co-workers cleared the room, another waitress and I worked the station, scraping, sorting, stacking, and then carrying trays and glass racks up to the kitchen. Scraping garbage and hoisting heavy trays hardly sounds like an occasion for joy--but there it was. Who was I to argue?
The band was playing the old Donna Summer tune, "On the Radio" and moonlight bedazzled the ocean outside the tent. But music and beauty are regulars where I work, and joy, as I said, is an unpredictable guest.
For at least an hour, we worked in synch, in almost balletic labor, perfectly attuned to one another's movements and to the task at hand. Focused on our common goal, we used our bones and sinews, our efficiency, our cooperation to get the job done. It felt good and satisfying. And then a breeze came up off the water and the Donna Summer song started, and joy, perfect joy, danced in.
Much is made of the state of "flow" that artists or runners enter when they lose themselves in their activity, but physical work, when its going well, also generates flow.
I don't waitress much now--one day a week or less, and soon, very soon, I will not do it at all. For many years, I talked about this, waited for this, dreamed of this. But that night, feeling the end of the season in a particular way, I lingered in the dark tent when the clean-up was done. After all the tables had been rolled out, I sat on a folding chair, and contemplated the stars, the black ocean, the empty space that had so recently been filled with celebration; and I wondered where joy will find me now.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
But what do I know? I'm just a dumb human--more often wrong about things large and small than I am right. I thought the parents did it.
There is so much that seemed lurid about Jonbenet's case. Not just the ghastly manner of her death, but the gaze of a child beauty queen, who spent so much of her abbreviated life preening and strutting. Even much of our fascination with the case, our seemingly insatiable appetite for those images had a lurid, intrusive quality to it. While the blond, made-up images of Jonbenet continued to appear on the cover of the tabloids years after her death, how many children had been forgotten?
But what do I know? I'm just a dumb human, probably more often wrong about things both large and small than I am right. I thought the parents did it.
I heard people talking on TV and decided that the parents had been handled with unusual lenience and restraint because of their money and influence. I heard people talking on TV and decided that they were clearly hiding something.
I knew nothing, but like all people armed with second-hand opinions, I was eager to spew my thoughts whenever the subject came up.
I like to think that my reckless, ill-informed belief had no effect on the Ramsays, a couple who now appear to have been burdened not only with a devastating loss, but with the almost inconceivable weight of their perceived guilt. But maybe every person who judged them was a small pebble in the sack of injustice they were forced to carry--Patsy Ramsay, to her very death. I can only hope not. I can only hope that the only victim of rash judgment is the one who judges.
Yesterday, like many of the people who had convicted the parents in their own mind, I listened to experts talking on TV, and I took up a whole new set of opinions and rationalizations: Yes, parents kill, but not in such a sadistic manner, I said, parroting the psychologists, at dinner. (Actually, I'm not sure if that's true. Haven't parents burned their children repeatedly with cigarettes, locked them in closets, methodically starved them and denied them medical attention?)
But what do I know? I'm just a dumb human--probably more often wrong about things both large and small than I am right. I thought the parents did it.
Even my judgments about the child beauty pagents are probably faulty. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe it's something I just don't understand. After all, I'm just a dumb human...
Interestingly enough, the wisest words spoken yesterday were issued by John Ramsay, who warned against a rush to judgment toward the man who had confessed to the crime.
Today, at least for an hour or two, I'm judging nothing and no one.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Susan, her books, and her pie
Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.
--Henry David Thoreau
Around here blueberry season is awaited with particularly joyful expectaion. The plump little berry is not just gorgeous, succulent, and loaded with anti-oxidants, it's also reputed to be a favorite of muses everywhere. And anyone who's ever sat before a keyboard or a notebook trying to coax a story from a recalcitrant muse can tell you how just how finicky they can be.
Thus my friend Susan Messer and I began an August tradition. Every summer when the heat abates enough to turn on the oven and the blueberries appear in mesmerizing clusters, we bake a pie for our muses.
Like all traditions, this one has a history. The inspiration for this pie came from none other than Marilynne Robinson, who served me a similar concoction when I was was invited to her home for dinner. (The story of that, err, rather embarrassing, meal is here: SIMPLY WAIT: MY DINNER WITH A PULITZER PRIZE WINNER.)
Last year, we invited writers and creative people everywhere to join us as we attempted to spoil, delight and honor our muses with Susan's delectable pie recipe. As far as I know, no one did, but Susan and I baked with purpose and zest anyway.
Whether or not you believe in a little white magic, the results were startling. Last August, I was a an unpublished waitress, tempering my wild dreams as I polished the novel my agent planned to circulate in the fall. This August I'm holding the beautiful advanced review copy in my hand. (Is it just a coincidence that the cover is blue?)
Susan, too, had a remarkable year as a writer.
"Even I am impressed when I look back and see what's happened to me writing-wise this year ("this year" meaning July 2005 [post-pie baking, or ppb] through July 2006). I had a story come out in Glimmer Train (after years of submissions), an essay accepted by Fourth Genre, and a piece of creative nonfiction published in an anthology called Vacations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I won second place in the Guild Complex creative nonfiction competition (judged by Alex Kotlowitz) and first place in the Moment magazine short fiction competition (judged by Judy Budnitz). As part of that prize, Moment flew me to Washington DC (where the mag is published) to read at an awards ceremony. An important sidelight: the winning story is the basis of the novel I am now working on. Other wonderful experiences included being interviewed on WBEZ (Chicago public radio) and WYEP (in Pittsburgh) about my writing, and being photographed as a writer (the portrait of me behind the pie) for a photography project. With all this in mind, I was more than anxious to see the blueberries come in this year at my local farmers' market, and once they appeared and I had them safely in my kitchen, I worked with special concentration on the pate brisee, cutting it and sprinkling it and tossing it and rolling it with far more than flour, salt, butter, vegetable shortening, and ice water."
If anyone would like to join us this year, please do--and make sure you post a picture and leave a comment so I can link to it.
The official literary blues recipe is here: SIMPLY WAIT: BAKE A PIE FOR YOUR MUSE.
And the spell is a fairly simple one, as magic goes (no bat wings or rabbit hearts necessary).
1. Ask your muse for three things--the answer to a tricky plot question, perhaps or insight into a character. (Don't ask me why there has to be three, but that seems to be a rule when it comes to magic..)
2. Listen intently for the answers.
3. Pay particular heed to your dreams.
Oh yes, and make sure you share the pie with someone you love. One thing I've learned from fairy tales is that magic never works if you don't share it.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Okay, I wrote a book that I'm pretty proud of and I make it a point to brag about my kids at least once a day. But my real claim to fame is that when I was ten, I was the hula hoop champion of Brockton, Massachusetts. Or at least, the East Side of the city. All right, maybe it was just my street (a dead end with three houses on it). But it's not the title that matters, right? It's how I felt when I got that baby spinning around my hips: like a master.
And who says you can't learn about life from standing in your back yard painting circles through the air with the motion of your hips? One thing I discovered is that as soon as you start worrying about who's watching or how silly you look or who's doing it better, it's all over.
I have a post up on the Killer Year Blog on the subject. It deals with writing, but the message applies to any kind of hula hoop you're trying to keep in the air.
Thursday, August 03, 2006
1. BE HAPPY. It's practically a law. Even the most wretched person on earth is required to take a day off from the pursuit of misery on their birthday. Not only will your family and friends feel compelled to remind you of your duty to the gods of happiness, but even perfect strangers will get into the act. On catching sight of your birthdate, clerks will stop everything and order you to be happy! Now! And if you find yourself in a restaurant, don't be surprise if a coven of otherwise normal wait people surround you, holding a tiny flame in their hands, and singing an ode to your happiness.
2. BE WISE because happiness is a capricious thing; and if you're not a little bit wise, you probably won't be all that happy either. Sure, it's YOUR day and you're supposed to enjoy it, but if you expect Happiness to behave in a certain way, it will squirm out of your arms as quickly as a recalcitrant two year old. In the end, the happiness paradox is the same on your birthday as it is on every day: If you want it, you've got to give it to someone else. Yep--even on your birthday.
3. BE GRATEFUL for the gifts you got, and even more so for the ones you didn't need to get. Be grateful for the people who remembered your birthday, and love the ones who forgot. If you're old, take time to be grateful and amazed by all the lives you contain. Celebrate the entwined mysteries of fragility and strength. And if you're young, go outside and shout down the stars. It's your world.
But above all, be grateful for your happiness, however worn and misshapen and imperfect it might be. It is yours. When it appears at the door in its artful disguise, take care never to turn it away.
I got this quote in my inbox yesterday. It seemed like the perfect birthday reminder.
“You are younger today than you will ever be again. Make use of it for the sake of tomorrow.”
– Norman Cousins
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
If there's anything better than a neighborhood bar in the Carribean, it's a backyard bar on Cape Cod. Laura and Jake's backyard bar to be specific.
Arrive when it's still light and you can explore a backyard that is a world in itself. There's an endless variety of herbs and plants which Laura cultivates in her sprawling, expansive gardens, a couple of old boats that Jake is working on, and an above ground pool the couple scored at a yard sale a few years ago. In the summer, friends and neighbors who stop by the bar bring their bathing suits and float a while.
At Laura and Jake's, you can float alone and contemplate the trees above your head or the meaning of existence, or you can float with friends, and jumpstart the conversation that will take place at the bar later.
In season, Jake comes home with buckets full of Wellfleet oysters; and Laura is an avid clam digger. If that's not enough to lure you over, Jake has served up some of the finest wines I've ever had at that bar, and Laura is a gourmet cook.
But this wasn't supposed to be a post about Laura and Jake and their fabulous backyard bar. It was supposed to be a post about opinions. The proverbial "my two cents"
which the Sunday Scribblers tackled this week.
Opinions and bars are natural companions--whether it's a homey back yard bar like Laura and Jake's, a Dublin pub, or the dank "old man's bars" that T.C. Boyle described so well in TALK TALK. It's not always a felicitous pairing.
So anyway, a group of us had gathered at Laura and Jake's last week and it was starting to get late when the talk turned to politics. Religion. The Middle East. Within minutes, the bar was littered with pennies as everyone anted up their two cents.
Voices rose. Laura, ever a peacemaker, begged for quiet, a change of subject. (Jake had to work in the morning, and was trying to sleep!) But like war itself, once ignited, the surge of opinions was not so easily quelled.
And then Ryan, still looking serene from his hour of floating, spoke up quietly. "I'm sure there's a lot I don't understand, but I think..."
And immediately, the tenor of the conversation changed. Because no matter what we think, or how passionate our beliefs are, Ryan Is right: there's a lot we don't understand. We see, as always, through a glass darkly.
A glass darkened by our fears.
Our personal experiences and prejudices.
The fact that our knowledge and understanding, however vast it might be, is always limited.
Am I advocating that we stop voicing our opinons or passionately engaging with the world around us? Hell, no! (And here MY voice is rising.) What I am advocating is that we speak them in a way that seeks to expand understanding--both our own, and those with whom we're conversing--rather than suppressing it.
It doesn't take much. A quiet tone. A humble acknowledgment that there's much we don't know. A willingness to listen. It's one thing--maybe the only thing-- that we can do for peace. We can live it.
And that, friends, is my two cents. See you at the neighborhood bar.