Yesterday we spent seven hours driving from Ted's family home in the mountains of Pennsylvania to Cape Cod.
I saw 100,000 cars, and one man walking down the highway.
I wondered what it would be like if we were all walking--or even half of us. How long would it take to travel from Pennsylvania? How many people would I meet along the way? How often would we travel, and what would our lives be like at home?
I saw 9 deer grazing in a field near the highway. I had never seen so many deer in one place at one time. After an hour or two, Ted had to ask me kindly if I would please stop talking about them.
I saw a blinking sign that said YOU'RE ARRESTED
I wondered what I had done, but then the sign blinked again and it said DRINKING AND DRIVING IS A SERIOUS CRIME. I wasn't arrested after all. Phew.
I saw billboards that wanted me to drink Coors Beer and have my eyes checked.
I wondered when doctors started advertising on billboards.
I saw a million winter trees, stripped and broken or standing tall like arrows announcing the clouds.
I wondered when snow would come and cover them with its glitter and light.
I saw 99 rivers, 42 mountains, 36 cities, and 356 towns.
I saw factories where no one's worked for fifty years, and the tenements where the workers used to live.
I wondered who lived in them now and what they do for work.
I saw four cars that had been stopped by the police, two fender benders, and seventeen vehicles broken down on the road.
I saw one man's soft white belly, as he lay on the ground, working on his car.
I wondered at how vulnerable we all are.
I saw one boat on the Hudson River; and I saw the sun parting the water for it.
I opened the window to feel what the boat rider must feel, and wondered why there was only one.
I saw two and a half tons of trash spread along the side of the road, and 50,000 empty pick-up trucks.
I saw 99 McDonald's, 9 Starbucks and 103 Dunkin Donuts. I saw the Hibernian Diner where they have the best lentil soup I've ever had, and Di Mare's Pastry Shop where everything looks so good that choice is almost impossible.
Guess where we stopped?
I saw docked naval ships and tugboats, and Ted says I even saw a submarine, though I didn't much notice it.
I wondered how you can drive past a submarine and fail to see it.
I saw a stack of CDs we used to entertain ourselves on our way home, and I listened to Woody Guthrie singing "This land was made for you and me."
I joined in, wondering what Woody would sing now.
I saw road signs that announced New England and then Cape Cod, then our town, our street, our animals in the window.
I saw my own fatigue in the mirror inside the door. Ted said I shouldn't be tired; I hadn't even driven.
I wondered how anyone could take in 100,000 cars, 99 rivers and a million winter trees without wanting to sleep for a week when they were done.
I went to bed early and dreamed of the highway.
What about you? What did you see? What did you wonder?
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. --FRANZ KAFKA
Friday, December 29, 2006
100,000 CARS, 99 RIVERS and the existential question of the week
Yesterday we spent seven hours driving from Ted's family home in the mountains of Pennsylvania to Cape Cod.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
10 Things I Want for Christmas
2. Laughter and lots of it.
3. Imperfection. Let's face it; it's coming down the chimney whether we like it or not. Just because it's a holiday doesn't mean we'll be less lonely, that the mashed potatoes will be lump free, the relatives will be less annoying or that the gift inside the prettily wrapped box won't be an exact replica of the ugly sweater we got last year. So instead of fighting it or getting depressed over it, why not celebrate it? Why not set a special place at the table for life's messiness and disappointments and serve it a glass of wine? Who wants a Norman Rockwell Christmas anyway?
5. Some watercolors so I can play with art in 2007
6. Time for spiritual reflection
7. A book of poetry with one line in it that transforms the way I see the world.
8. An amazing friend who died a few years ago was remembered in a eulogy as someone who said "Yes!" whenever he opened a gift--even before he saw what was inside. I want the attitude that permeated his life.
9. If peace on earth and goodwill to men seems like too much to ask this year, then at least a sincere and overwhelming desire for those things, and a renewed commitment to living them in every encounter, every thought, every action. If we tried it just for one day, who knows what we might begin?
10. Good things for all of you who have been kind enough to visit here, and to share your insights and your lives with me throughout the year.
Happiness, serenity, blessings to all.
Anyone have a number eleven?
Sunday, December 17, 2006
THE SECRET NAME: MY FAVORITE CHRISTMAS STORY
My mother grew up as one of seven children in the Depression. Hers was one of those rare families in which the children were raised with so much love, and intelligence and respect that everyone who's ever known them has felt its benevolent influence.
Though my grandfather was fortunate enough to keep a job throughout those years, many family members weren't, and his earnings were stretched thin. My mother remembers being rationed one third of a cup of milk a day. She can still remember how she savored it.
She was about six when her Christmas story occurred. A week before, she and her siblings were playing hide and seek in the house when she discovered a cache of Christmas gifts in the attic, one for each child.
While her brothers and sisters scurried through the rooms below calling her name, she peered into each forbidden box until she found her heart's desire.
She describes it as "a doll that rolled its eyes and squeaked its legs". Note the active verbs; that's how alive the doll was to the little girl my mother once was; it's also how she describes it to this day. Months earlier, she had admired it in the window of the toy store, but hadn't even dared to dream that it could ever be hers.
However, in that moment, she began to dream and wildly. Every day of the ensuing week, she slipped up to the attic to visit "her" doll. She even gave it a secret name. Her anticipation grew by the day. In the evenings, when my grandmother lined the children up to say their prayers, my mother prayed that the doll with the secret name would be hers.
But on Christmas morning, as soon as she saw the shape of the package and the tag on it, she knew that her doll had been chosen for her sister Elizabeth. Not wanting to spoil Elizabeth's happiness or to hurt her parents' feelings, my mother hid her disappointment, and accepted her gift with gratitude.
She saved her grief until later that night when Elizabeth clutched the doll she had renamed in her bed. Convinced everyone was asleep, my mother cried quietly. Not quietly enough, however, to elude her father who was still awake and listening.
When he asked what was wrong, my mother said she had a leg ache, as she often did. My grandfather lifted her out of bed and carried her to a chair in the darkened living room, where he held her for a long time. My mother says she can still remember the brightness of the moon outside the window; the warmth and safety she felt that night in her father's arms have never left her.
"Does it feel better?" my grandfather said as he massaged her calf muscle with lineament.
And to this day, my mother swears that it did.
That Christmas when my mother did not get the thing she most longed for happened seventy-five years ago. My grandparents are long dead, as are two of my mother's siblings, and the doll with the secret name is probably dust and ash. But I like to think that the gift my grandfather gave her that night--and the one she gave him in return--still remain. They have been silently passed from one generation to another; they have enriched many lives.
Friday, December 15, 2006
WHAT ARE YOU SEARCHING FOR? The Existential Question of the Week
Today I searched for my credit card. I handle that thing way too carelessly, frequently jamming it in a pocket or tossing it loose into my purse to avoid taking more than my fair share of time at the cash register after a purchase. This time, I found it between the pages of Suite Francaise. Nice book mark.
I also searched for the end of my new novel, which I was due to forward to my agent yesterday. I found it, too (!) which makes this some kind of banner day. I made myself cry at least three times when I was reading the final draft which may be a good sign...or may just mean that a surfeit of holiday music has brought out my inner schmalz.
Later, Lexi and Emma and I went out and stood in the middle of the street and looked for snow. Though there was none forecasted, we thought if we looked really hard, we might see a sign. But all we saw was our own longing.
I said that I wanted snow so high it came up to their waists, but Emma thought I was getting a little greedy.
"Just ask for enough to make a snowman, and go sledding," she said, espousing a philosophy I've always admired: Never take more than you need.
I also searched for the perfect birthday card for my mother and my son, Josh, who are both celebrating the amazing and mysterious thing that is existence today.
Then I went to Technorati to see what the world was searching for, and found some interesting results:
As it has been almost constantly for the past several years, the world is madly searching for Britney. Still, no one has told me why. As far as I can tell, she hasn't done much of interest beside marry some dopey guy, get drunk in public, and get pregnant. And while those things may be fascinating in their own way, couldn't just about anyone do them as well?
The madding crowd is also on the look out for "Tara O'Connor" who I, living here in my happy cave, had never heard of. The first blog where her name turned up was one that listed its subject as "Hollywood, Rumors, and Breasts." Hmm, I was beginning to understand....Turns out Tara O'Connor is Miss USA, and has become an object of fascination by, of all things, acting like Britney. Maybe if I want to build the all-important buzz for my novel, I should try it. On second thought, or maybe even first, I don't think the Hollywood, Rumors, and Breasts crowd would find me a very good candidate. I'd probably just get arrested.
Another unfamiliar name on the list was Leslie Harpold, who apparently died this week of bronchitis. Though I had never heard of her, she was apparently a trailblazing blogger, writer and media person, who probably effected what what many of us do in ways I never knew. I got lost both in her archives, and in the tributes to this remarkable woman, writer, and friend.
I liked this quote:
"My advice to you is this: make something you love. You love to make things, feel best when you're creating something you feel has value, even if only to you. Tap into the vein again, as many tries as it takes. Find that place where the world blurs by, and it's just you and and your project in pure creation mode." --Leslie Harpold's advice to herself in a difficult time
So maybe I, too, was searching for Leslie Harpold; I just didn't know it.
What did you search for today?
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
How many steps can I go?
Today I'm interviewed by the fabulous Susan Henderson at Lit Park on the subject of balancing work and family.
Some days I feel like I know a little bit about the subject...other days, not so much. Anyway, it's not so much an interview as a discussion. If anyone has any special insights or even some ordinary every day ones like mine, feel free to jump in!
Looking at this photo makes me realize that one secret to keeping your balance is to keep on walking and to stay focused. (I guess that's two.)
Monday, December 11, 2006
WHAT I FOUND OUT YESTERDAY
When winter's not white, it's frequently silver. That's what I discovered while walking on the marsh with Ted and the dogs. It was extremely windy, and I tried to take a picture of what the wind does to grass and water and sand, but instead I came home with winter's silver trapped inside my camera.
I also wrote a little poem yesterday. Not a real official poem on paper, just a string of words I said in my head while lying in bed in the morning. But it's so short and simple, maybe I can repeat it here:
When she was twenty, she asked:
Do you love me?
The world took in her sinew and flash and smiled:
Always and forever.
When she was fifty she asked:
Do you love me?
The world hesitated:
I find you useful. Is that love?
When she was eighty, she asked:
Do you love me?
The world appeared confused:
I'm sorry; have we met?
I also found out yesterday that there's this thing called Twitter. Have you heard of it?
The point seems to be quite simple. You log in and announce to the vast impervious world what you're doing. And then maybe you even do it. Or maybe you just keep checking back to see if anyone cares, and in the process never have time to actually do anything.
And then I found out that you don't have to do things the way you've always done them. After we'd set our Christmas tree in its stand and woven our little hopeful lights throughout the branches, I went down to get the usual decorations. But before I put them on, I noticed the berry-laden twigs I'd brought back from the marsh, and decided that maybe I would stick some of them among the tree branches. Turns out, they looked so pretty that it seemed a travesty to add another thing.
And the final thing I found out yesterday was the Blog Discovery of the Week: Aphra Behn: the danger of eclectic shock. All I can say is that it lives up to it's marvelous name.
Friday, December 08, 2006
from Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Lecture
Many of you know how much I admire the work of Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, particularly the multi-layered Snow. His Nobel lecture, with the enticingly mysterious title "My Fahter's Suitcase didn't disappoint. All of it is wonderful, but this, in particular, left me as struck and bedazzled as certain passages in his novels:
"The writer's secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying – to dig a well with a needle – seems to me to have been said with writers in mind. In the old stories, I love the patience of Ferhat, who digs through mountains for his love – and I understand it, too. In my novel, My Name is Red, when I wrote about the old Persian miniaturists who had drawn the same horse with the same passion for so many years, memorising each stroke, that they could recreate that beautiful horse even with their eyes closed, I knew I was talking about the writing profession, and my own life. If a writer is to tell his own story – tell it slowly, and as if it were a story about other people – if he is to feel the power of the story rise up inside him, if he is to sit down at a table and patiently give himself over to this art – this craft – he must first have been given some hope. The angel of inspiration (who pays regular visits to some and rarely calls on others) favours the hopeful and the confident, and it is when a writer feels mostly lonely, when he feels most doubtful about his efforts, his dreams, and the value of his writing – when he thinks his story is only his story – it is at such moments that the angel chooses to reveal to him stories, images and dreams that will draw out the world he wishes to build. If I think back on the books to which I have devoted my entire life, I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences, dreams, and pages that have made me so ecstatically happy have not come from my own imagination – that another power has found them and generously presented them to me."
By the time, I read the last line about the startling gift the angel sometimes brings when you sit in your room long enough, I was almost gasping. Yes, oh yes. Sometimes that really does happen, even for ordinary waitress-writers like me.
This Week's One-line Obits
You'll have to forgive me, but I'm very prone to obsession; and since I started collecting one-line obits, I can't stop.
There's more life packed into an obituary than in any other piece of writing in the newspaper. A well-written obituary lets character shine through just like a well-written novel or memoir does.
When my father died, I tried to tell the newspaper who he WAS, not what he did to insure his survival on this planet, where he was born, or who he left behind--though those things are part of the story, but what made his life--and him-- unique. They listened, but in the end, they printed the dry facts. I didn't even bother to clip the obituary. It was only one of many places where I looked and found my father absent.
In the following obituaries, I found that a trace of the spirit remained. Though I didn't know any of these people, I knew a litle bit about their fire, their humor, their compassion:
Paul Ableman, Avant-garde novelist: "He was a rascal, a Bohemian, a lover of women and words, food and drink, argument and debate, a seeker of both truth and the beauty of the English countryside."
Mario Merolo, Italian master of musical melodrama: "His funeral witnessed scenes of mass hysteria normally seen only at religious events."
Wanjiro Kihoro, Kenyan writer who fought corruption from exile: "Her vulnerability was there in her poetry and writings, but she sang a true song." Or maybe just "She sang a true song."
Pietro Rava, World Cup winner with Italy in 1938: "He was always a fiery lad."
Hank Shaw, Exubert bebop trumpeter: "His advanced yoga studies seemed to be largely an excuse for extra sleep."
Leonard Freed, photographer who documented the struggles of ordinary people. "He had an eye for the upbeat, even in the grimmest of circumstances."
Of course, the lives we choose to admire or find worthy of interest, speak about us as well, about what we consider a life well-lived. I think if I had to choose one of these lines to be spoken about me, I would want Freedman's--though I can relate to Shaw's form of "advanced yoga studies," I admire Kihoro more than I can say, and I wouldn't mind just a little bit of "mass hysteria" at my funeral. Or is a little bit of mass hysteria an oxymoron?
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
WILL SELF WALKS...And the existential Question
I come from a family of walkers. When he was young, my grandfather used to walk fifteen miles to his factory job in Boston. Then at the end of the day, he walked back. When I asked him if he was tired, he laughed.
"I was young," he'd say. "Why would I be tired?
Later, when I told that story to people, they said it was impossible. They said no one could fit thirty miles of walking and an eight hour shift at a factory in one day.
I still believe my grandfather though. When he was ninety-six, he got up early every morning, put on a white shirt and tie, and walked six miles.
When I asked him why he got dressed up to take a walk, he said it made him feel good. It made him feel that even though he was retired from the job he got when he left the factory, his day still mattered.
Anyway, I got really excited when I read this piece about Will Self today. Not only is Self a fine (and frequently hilarious) novelist, it turns out he is a mad walker too.
When he came to New York to accept an award at the National Arts Club, he walked twenty-six miles to the airport in London. Then, when he arrived in New York, he hiked from Kennedy International to his hotel, checking out the neighborhoods and stopping for a burrito along the way.
Though his latest novel about a cab driver who invents a religion hadn't really struck me as my kind of book, I think I'm going to have to give it a try.
A man who wants to discover where he is by walking its streets until
he's tired is bound to have something interesting to say.
Now for the Existential Question of the Week: Where did you walk today, and what did you see?
I'll start: I walked mostly around my house. I saw things that needed to be picked up, and occasionally I did. I saw my new art supplies, but I didn't have time to use them. Not today. And I saw the inner lives of my characters. The new novel is zipping right along. My grandfather probably wouldn't think much of my travels; Will Self either, but for me it was a good day.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
10 THINGS I read in the newspaper today...
1. I read that critics are praising Mel Gibson's new film Apocalypto...but they still don't like Mel. I don't know much about the film, but the name sounds kind of goofy to me.
2. I read a letter from a woman who said that we lost the war in Vietnam because of the protesters. According to her, the same people are spoiling our chances for victory in Iraq. I wondered at the different ways people can think.
3. I read the individual stories of four prostitutes who were murdered in Atlantic City. I looked at their faces, too--four bright faces and promising lives that were brought down by crack cocaine, long before they ever encountered their killer. When I I tried to move on to the next article, I kept seeing those faces.
4. I read that scientists have discovered it's not a good idea to talk on your cell phone while crossing the street. Text messaging in traffic isn't advised either.
5. I read that Roz Chast used to entertain herself at age nine by sitting on her bed, reading about scurvy and lockjaw in the Merck Manual. No wonder I like her work so much!
6. I read that more than 1,000 homeless people sleep on the beach in Oahu every night. Who are those people? I wanted to know. And did their numbers grow since last year?
7. I read the obituaries. People continue to die every day; and though we can say we're they've been, nobody, nobody is telling us where they've gone. I keep looking for clues though.
8. I read that crime is down in New York City, but the rat population is up.. maybe it's related?
9. I read that one person is five is affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some days that one in five is me. Other days I produce enough seasonal light for three people.
10. I read that Babel is "a towering achievement"; Happy Feet is "America's #1 movie"; and The Queen is "the best picture of the year!" Those were ads, so they don't count. But since I adore Helen Mirren, I still want to see The Queen; and how can you go wrong with a movie about penguins with happy feet?
11. What did you read today? And what did it make you think about?
In other news, The Third Day Book Club has spoken. We will be reading Irene Nemirovsky's much praised, Suite Francaise for January 3rd.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Winter's Bone, which the Third Day Book Club read this month, is perfectly titled. The world portrayed so starkly here is stripped, hard, and cold. In a strange way, it reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Civilization, as we know it, isn't much in evidence in the landscape where Ree Dolly "sixteen years old...with abrupt green eyes" finds herself. As a member of a fractious and savage clan, she has never known anything else. And yet, Woodrell succeeds in making us feel her longing for more. For better.
When the novel, opens Ree stands in the doorway of her home, looking at the meat that hangs from trees. It's a visceral image of the family hunger that drives her throughout the novel. Left to care for her two brothers and her mentally ill mother, she can never forget how close they are to "living in the field like dogs." She fears that her little brothers will be "dead to wonder by the age of 12." The only escape she can imagine for herself is to join the army.
Like countless fictional heroes and heroines before her, Ree undertakes a journey that leads her both deeper into the harsh reality that surrounds her and deeper into herself. If it weren't for the fierce courage and fragile hope that self contains, Ree's life, and Winter's Bone would be utterly without redemption--and for this reader, at least, nearly unreadable.
But despite Ree's strength, deliverance of any kind for Ree and her family isn't likely. Her journey is described this way:
"She became ice as she walked. White wads broke on her head and dripped to her shoulders to freeze and thicken. The green hood had become an ice hat and her shoulders a hard cold yoke."
In prose that is spare, laconic and darkly poetic, Woodrell leads Ree through a mystery that grows with every step she takes. Ree has left home to search for her father, who "cooks crank" and who has imperiled the family by posting their home as bail. With every harsh encounter, the sense of menace--and the suspense--grows.
I cannot say I enjoyed this novel. But Winter's Bone was clearly not fashioned to be enjoyed; it was fashioned to haunt. With its taut plotline, its unswerving adherence to its own savage truth, and its remarkable heroine, it has succeeded at that.
If everyone who's read this month's selection hasn't done so, hie thee hence to Paris Parfait's blog and post your link!
Meanwhile, I'm looking for a volunteer to host next month's meeting on January 3rd. Someone? Anyone?
THIRD DAY BOOKS: Vote for Next Month's Selection
Can I just say that I love the way The Third Day Book Club has flourished and mutated and grown new branches in just two short months? Much thanks are owed to Tara at Paris Parfait, who has proven to be an energetic advocate and a gracious host to this month's selection, Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. As a result of her enthusiasm, the book club has added many new members; and the original band of readers have discovered new blogs, and gained entry to a host of new and fascinating minds--all peering into the same fictional hearts that the well-written novel makes real.
It has been gratifying to me to see the friendships that Olanna and Ugwe in Half of a Yellow Sun helped to generate, many of which have continued and deepened over the month. Books have such power!
A quote I read this week in Forbes seems like a perfect motto for our book club:
"Books are humanity in print."
This month I would like to try a couple of new things. Rather than choosing the selection myself, I have taken nominations, so we all can vote for next month's choice. Most of us will then go on to read the chosen book. However, those who don't find the main selection to their taste can will read and report on one of the alternates on the third. Maybe they can even make the case why their choice was the better one.
Geez, I'm beginning to sound a little like The Literary Guild here with all this highly official talk of Main Selections and Alternates. I think that means it's time for me to get out of the way and let you cast your vote:
1. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Recommended by Tish Cohen)
2. The Ruins by Scott Smith (Recommended by Jordan Rosenfeld)
3. The Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (recommended by this month's host, Tara Bradford)
Everyone welcome! If you read the first, but didn't find the second appealing or have time in November, now's the time to jump back in. And if you've never read with us yet before, next month's meeting takes place in a whole new year. What better way to begin it than with a great book?
No dues, no obligations; in fact, you don't even have to get out of your pajamas! All you have to do is read!
Saturday, December 02, 2006
MY CHARACTERS AND I SHARE A MEAL
So you already know I've been inspired to make art, to hunt for acorns, shells and rocks, to start a book club, to challenge my assumptions, and just today--to buy a set of colored pencils so beautiful in hue and so perfect in their lovely tin box that I don't ever want to use them.
And I've also been inspired to try new recipes. The first, which I found on P.A. Moed's site was called Spaghetti di Ettore. It sounded like the kind of food my family lives on these days--simple, easy to prepare, and healthy. No small part of its allure was that it involved not just pasta, but that staple of childhood, spaghetti. I could practically taste the spaghetti and meatballs my parents and I used to enjoy, ensconsed in a red naugahyde booth every Sunday night at Lena's in Brockton, Mass.
I thought I might even try my new recipe that very night--if I got to the store for the red peppers and capers it demanded. But before I had a to roast a single peper, it showed up in a scene I was writing. Turns out my characters not only liked Spaghetti di Ettore, they swooned over it. It was such a favorite that they ate it every Friday night.
As soon as I finished my daily writing, I had no choice but to get in the car, (still wearing my socially unacceptable "writing clothes" and a pair of ballet flats) and head for Shaw's Market where I picked up the necessary ingredients.
The results turned out to be well worth it--worth even my embarrassment when I ran into a guy I knew from my waitressing days in the supermarket. (How could I explain that my outfit wasn't really pajamas--as much as it might resemble them, but actually, my official writing uniform? I didn't even try.)
And yes, I would certainly make this again--though next time I might substitute a couple of plum tomatoes for one of the red peppers. (But that's just me; I'm one of those people who think that the tomato has divine properties and should be included in almost every recipe.)
And now for the BLOG DISCOVERY OF THE WEEK or make it THREE--because I missed the last two Saturdays, and because sometimes it's just too hard to make a choice...
Following a link on Kirsten's elegant new blog, I was led to Summer Pierre, who tried to type, "I live in Brooklyn, but ended up writing, "I love in Brooklyn." Immediately, I knew I'd made a blog discovery.
I also fell in love with Momster because Irene Nam knows how to do so many things that I can't--like editing movies, knitting amazing sweaters, and designing a child's room that not only looks great, it's practically mess-proof.
Ascender Rises Above led me to Making a Mark, a blog that's all about getting out your colored pencils, your watercolors, or your charcoal, and doing exactly that. How could I resist?