Monday, May 23, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On the Cusp

It always hits me like a gentle surprise – I’ll be taking a walk, early March, some icy patches on a road lined with gritty mounds that beg to be called something other than snow – when I hear them, those first birds of spring. Their singing stops me in my tracks.

I stare out my kitchen window, a cup of coffee in my hand, a bird making a trampoline of a tree branch. A robin who, like all robins, can simply do no wrong. A sound – rat-tat-tat – turns my attention from the red breast to the red head needling its way up the bark of a tree.

Two days ago there was frost on the car in the morning. Yesterday a light, steady rain that continued to wash away the snow. By late afternoon the rain gives way to sun. I go out on my deck, more birds by the day it seems, chirping and cooing, heard if not seen. A goose honks, a crow caws. Any night now I’ll open the door to the delightful, mystifying sound of peepers, the anticipation still no match for the way it creeps up on me, another gentle surprise.

Sometimes I think I live for music as much as I live for writing. Rock, classical, jazz , it all depends on my mood, where I am, who I’m with. I love making playlists for my iPod, burning them to CDs for friends. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Sometimes I think it’s my love of music that gets me going to the gym, raising my heart rate to some healthy purpose. I like the Elliptical cardio machines best, a motion that feels like gliding. If someone has left on the TV monitor, I turn it off, tune out the world of news and sports and cooking shows and whatever. To anyone glancing my way I'm just another workout junkie in leggings and a tee-shirt, plugged in to my Nano. No one knows I’m dancing.

Today the sun is shining, there’s an on-the-cusp of winter-spring chill in the air. I’m tempted to go to the gym, but after an especially cold, snowy winter that gave me even greater respect for bears, I opt for putting aside the headphones, going for walk, opening my ears to all the music I could want.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Sky at My Fingertips

My husband loves to watch TV; I like sitting with him in our downstairs den, one eye on whatever section of the Sunday New York Times I haven’t yet combed through, the other peeking at the screen from time to time. If the article I’m reading is just too compelling, I tune out what’s on TV, especially since, graced with DVR by my daughter, I no longer have commercial time to catch up on reading. More often than not, a loss is also a gain. It took some time, breaking down his resistance to encroaching technology, the I-don’t-need-it-mindset so easily seduced and transformed into how-did-we-ever-live-without it? Movies, taped any hour of the day or night, get my full attention, unless they’re going nowhere. That’s what ‘erase’ is for.

The other night, we’re watching a werewolf movie, not my first choice of a genre but this one has me curious, with Anthony Hopkins and Benicio del Toro, not to mention the charming Emily Blunt, as the stars. The wolfman here is a particularly vicious one, so I turn my head from the gore and mayhem following an attack. So happens that the moon, full and golden, peeks through the glass door, the real deal so much more alluring – infatuating, I might even say – than the onscreen imitation. “Look!” I say to my husband. He barely turns his head, too caught up in scripted action, though he does give a bit of a howl, a moment of synchronicity when reality becomes meshed with TV.

I leave him to his movie, lured now by the night sky. I’m stopped by the sight of a pair of shoes at the top of the stairs. Old habits die hard. The clogs are positioned for easy access, a strategic spot between front door and back, mostly for the purpose of going outside with the dog at night. The dog is now gone, and, with her, the need to go out on cold, snowy nights, a few too many this winter. Sometimes what feels like a gain – no more trudging through frozen snow, bearing up to the bitter cold while she did her best to get a scent – is also a loss. You have to look up at the night sky to know it exists. So I go outside, my need, not hers. The moon is shimmering, hiding as much as she reveals.

It’s the hidden things that call me now – stars shaping themselves into stories via constellations, planets with their ice and gas and mythologies – so I do what any self-respecting owner of an iPad with a fascination for the night sky would do: I download an application, Star Walk, almost as good as any telescope in bringing the sky up close, to my fingertips: Phoenix rising in the southern sky, Ursa Major to the north, Ophiucus to the west. Today the moon is in its waning gibbous phase, Venus rose at 4:29 a.m. and set at 2:03 p.m. The picture of the day is a true color image of Jupiter that zeroes in on impact sites of fragments 'D' and 'G' from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. For the moment it is enough for me to know there was comet named Shoemaker-Levy 9, nicknamed String of Pearls.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

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.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Dog's Death

I listen for the sound of footsteps, the early morning signal that she's up and ready to go out. Rituals that take hold, thirteen years' worth in this case, are not so readily relinquished. If I listen long enough, I may even believe I'm hearing her.

In a way, I am. I'm hearing her nails click against the wood floor, the jingle of her dog tags, her licking her paws, even the barking that seemed more a delayed reaction to the UPS truck in our driveway than the first alert it used to be. An aging dog is entitled to the same selective hearing as an aging person. An aging dog with advanced lymphoma is entitled to take her time, make instinctive decisions about what is really worth getting up for. Week by week her body diminished in size, and she still managed to muster the strength to go out, on her own, her dignity intact. Looking at the sun-filled square on the floor where she liked to nap brings an ache. Positioning myself in a downward-facing dog pose in the room where I do yoga brings an expectation: she will be here any minute, settle herself on the floor no more than a foot away from me. Sitting and reading on the couch in the living room, or working at my desk brings an unsettling quiet. She was not an especially noisy, or even affectionate, dog, and yet her absence fills the space she left with a profound silence.

The death of a dog, or any pet for that matter, is a reminder that there are many faces to love. 'Puppy love' has nothing, and everything, to do with puppies. When the dog I grew up with died, my mother wanted some words she could put on the equivalent of tombstone. Not a problem, I said, then I wrote: A dog's love is heaven's reminder of forgiveness. We call a dog's brand of love 'loyalty,' we call it a relationship based on training and trust and care. Some people abuse their pets, others pamper them. Then there's the rest of us, seeking the closest thing to balance between domestication and honoring the call of the wild. How much of an animal spirit can we really tame? Why would we want to?

All that rain last night, too much of it, making my sleep fitful. I listen for her breathing (almost a snore). I almost hear her get up from her bed, go to another of her favorite spots, a mat on the other side of the bedroom, closer to me. She does that thing dogs do when they paw at a mat or towel, crumple it up, lie down. How, I wonder, could that be comfortable? And that's exactly the point, the wonder of it all. Domesticated animals accommodate us. They please us when it suits them. Yes, there's a mutuality to it all, but the bottom line is simple: a dog is a dog is a dog. Some dogs learn things very quickly, and we call them intelligent. Some dogs are very demanding in their need for a scratch on the head or a rub on the belly. All dogs beg for food, until something wreaks havoc on their bodies, not even a piece of fresh chicken appealing enough to swallow. All dogs teach as much as they learn, if we just pay attention. In the very last weeks of my dog's life, I watched her become a master at conserving energy. I did my best to read her signals, frustrated at times when what I thought was the right thing to do became the one she resisted.

Some dogs love to roam, others prefer to stay put and guard their turf. Some dogs welcome people when they arrive and bark when they leave. All dogs we love make us angry when they don't come running on command and break our hearts when they're ailing. Their suffering is made manifest in ours, riddled with projection, the rock and the hard place that closes in on us. There's no easy out here, only euphemisms and questions: How soon is too soon to end her suffering? Did we wait too long? Did we time it just right?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Three Fortune cookies, still in their cellophane wrappers, sit in a bowl on the center island of my kitchen, remnants from last night's take-out. If I wait for the right moment, I figure, one of them will beckon: crack me open, see what I have to offer. It's not the taste of the cookie that ever really appealed to me anyway. In fact, if memory serves me well, I was put off by the thought of eating something with a piece of paper inside (though I confess to loving those strips of colorful dot candies I devoured as a child). And yet, as soon as the dinner plates are gone from the table, replaced by a small dish of cookies, often with slices of orange, I'm usually the first to grab for one.

Today they sit, though, wafers in a game not unlike those sleight-of-hand games that require very fixed attention – which cup is the ball under now? – the mind doing its very best to keep from being tricked. A message, important to this moment, this time in my life, will reveal itself. If I just watch carefully and choose wisely.

Let's face it, the commercial Fortune cookie is no match for a madeleine. All the same, that often soggy amalgam of flour, sugar, vanilla, and oil tempts me. Maybe it's just that I love words (especially those that hold promise), with their suggestion that anything is open for interpretation. Or that some deep-seated part of me knows that everything – let me say it again, everything – matters. When my daughter was a young girl we played a game she called 'Jewelry Store.' She would lay out her trinkets, make them available, offer them up. If I chose one she was not ready to relinquish, she would shake her head, no-no-no, it's too expensive. Then came the kicker, out of the mouths of babes: you get what you get. Is it a coincidence that today, just when I need some affirmation of what I'm doing with my life, I reach for the cookie with the hidden message, exposed now, telling me, "Your dearest dream is coming true"? Not that there's ever a bad message in a Fortune cookie, but the one I just happen to pick up speaks to me. A day later, feeling lucky again, I crack open the next cookie, the little smiley faces saying just what I need to hear: "You will maintain good health and enjoy life."

Like Fortune herself, those slings and arrows throwing her this way and that, the cookie's origins can't be pinned down. Was it a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco's Chinatown who gave out cookies to the poor, filled with tidbits of Biblical inspiration? Or a Japanese immigrant slipping a thank you note into cookies given to friends who stood by him in times of hardship? Is there any truth to the legend that messages hidden in Moon Cakes were a subversive, revolutionary tactic that aided the Chinese uprising against the Mongols centuries ago?

Astrology. Palm readings. Tarot cards. Fortune cookies. There's an undeniable impulse to know what's ahead, or at least believe that something we hope for is in the cards. Nobody wants bad news. I don't necessarily believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe that sometimes Fate or Fortune or Chance – all with their nuanced differences – grabs you by the neck and says, Stop. Look. Listen.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Let's Talk Books

In an essay by Joan Didion ("Why I Write") that I first came across years ago, the iconic author makes the thought-provoking observation that "setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space." Writing, unless in a personal journal for the writer's eyes only, demands readership; conversely, what it is that draws readers to the written word was the subject of a recent talk by Francine Prose at The Center for Fiction in New York City. The center is housed in the Mercantile Library (with which it's now affiliated), a neoclassical building on East 47th Street that is a treasure in its own right. Founded before the advent of public libraries, the New York Mercantile Library evolved into a cultural institution where the likes of Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass would lecture. In its early incarnation, members requested books via prepaid stamps. Books were delivered via horse and wagon.

Sitting in the small library, listening to the author of Reading Like a Writer (and other wonderful books) talk about Why We Read was a reminder that whatever market-driven, get-it-while-it's-hot book-acquisition habits modern times have foisted on us, there's always that one, classic or otherwise, that demands being reread. In fact, at the beginning of her talk, Prose gives an anecdote about a discussion with grad students at Southern Mississippi who asked what she was reading at the time. They looked at her dumbfounded when she answered, Dostoevsky. And yet, I imagine, after the time they spent studying with her, with the close attention she brings to passages in books that illuminate a character or sentences that shape a narrative and its tone through very deliberate word choice, they came away with some greater insight into the ways in which writers are shaped by what the read. How could it be otherwise?

Why do we read? The very act of settling oneself down in a private space, book in hand, reading closely, for the first or the fifth time, noticing something that escaped us in an earlier read is pleasure of a very certain kind — pleasure being just one of the handful of reasons we read, according to Prose; we also read for escape, for information, for connecting with another person's consciousness, for community, as in becoming part of a fictional character's world. To which I would add community, as in talking about books. How many times have I said to a friend, "You really have to read this book"? How many times have I bought a particular book with a particular friend in mind? It's no secret why book clubs have grown in geometric proportions, from living rooms to cyberspace.

All of which is to say, that hand-in-hand with the ongoing dialogue about the death of print publishing is that other dialogue, the one premised on the very life of books, the way we live them, breathe them, talk about them.

For every high-profile book we read about (and read), there are countless sleepers and almost as numerous online book clubs and book blogs to remind us of them. Here are a few favorites of mine: Flashlight Worthy Book Club Recommendations, Book Club Girl, Campaign for the American Reader . . .

. . . And a gorgeous passage from a favorite book:

"The Stroms sang with a skill built into the body, a fixed trait, the soul's eye color. Husband and wife each supplied musical genes: his mathematician's feel for ratio and rhythm, her vocal artist's pitch like a homing pigeon and shading like a hummingbird's wings. Neither boy suspected it was at all odd for a nine-year-old to sight-sing as easily as he breathed. They helped the strands of sound unfold as easily as their lost first cousins might climb a tree. All a voice had to do was open and release, take its tones out for a spin down to Riverside Park, the way their father walked them sometimes on sunny weekends: up, down, sharp, flat, long, short, East Side, West Side, all around the town. Jonah and Joseph had only to look at printed chords, their note heads stacked up like tiny totem poles, to hear the intervals." — The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers.