Sunday, May 10, 2015

Thoughts on One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart

(Florence. April 11, 2001. Me in the first of a string of purple coats. Lynn and Ponte Vecchio.)

I sat with this exquisite book late at night, my husband snoring beside me, a dim light keeping watch. When I read a Beth Kephart book, I make sure the hours are there before me, uninterrupted. I knew, about thirty pages in, there would be no stopping mid-way. I had to get to some kind of end.

One Thing Stolen is about Nadia Cara, who, on a research trip with her mother, brother, and professor father in Florence, has begun to lose her ability to speak. She's snatching pieces of memory, of her elusive now, searching for a boy who may or may not be real, stealing pieces of a city and weaving them into elaborate nests. 

She lives in a room once occupied by twins and she fixates on the might-be disappearance of one of them. We watch, as if on high or below or behind or across, the weave of two Nadias. One, through memory, as part of a plea for us to know her as she was in her home of West Philadelphia, the whip-smart planner, witnessing miracles, leading her best friend Maggie to hidden pockets of her city. A girl with a future. The other, a shadow of her former self, whose everything is uncertain.

I can't tell you how much I love this book, how in awe I sat of this story, an elaborate nest of its own. I'd copy every beautiful sentence from this novel and leave it here for you, but that is the gift of Kephart's book, sitting with its soft feathered pages. This book is not a tangle. It is an incredible, careful, deliberate weave. Ribbons and strands of story coming together to create something exquisite and beautiful. Like Nadia's very first steal, which involves taking apart the words and language she is losing her grip on and braiding it back together in pieces, this book is a similar, spectacular creation.

The broken Nadia is what captured my heart as it pulsed and raced through these pages, what broke it and put it back together. I don't, that I know, have a neurological disorder, but perhaps I understand what it is to mourn someone I used to be. To feel that I have unravelled, lost pieces of myself, chasing through the streets of a foreign city, desperate to find myself whole. 

There is time, in our lives, to seek out, to remember, and to hold tight to the people who remind us, every day, who we are and who we can be. In this book, that person is Nadia's best friend, Maggie. We meet Maggie throughout the book but we know her and come to love her as she wrestles with Nadia's story for us. She, like the Mud Angels who rescued the city of Florence after its 1966 flood, is steadfast, certain, hopeful, and loyal, willing to see past the muck and mire, to the rare relic of us all. She is someone we should all aspire to be. To one another. To ourselves.

I am lucky, so lucky, to have many Maggies in my life but I could not help but close the pages of this book and remember my own time in Florence with my very own Maggie, my friend Lynn. Lynn held tight to our Let's Go Europe guide book and led us through cobblestone streets, teetering gelato cones, yanking my chin up to the Duomo, waiting with me in an endless line at the Uffizi, standing above and beside the almost-but-never-will-be (S)Arno river. I was reminded, as I looked at the photo above, that I was designated map girl. Me, hopeless with direction, a person who never knows where she's going until she's there, but, like Nadia, so certain, so sure, I had a future.

This book holds tight to hope and I held on with it. A really stunning, masterful work. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Back In Spring


It's spring and the ants are invading, lining the windows, zagging the floors. I wash the counters with vinegar and sprinkle cinnamon like pixie dust. All at once the pear blossoms bend their branches to form a canopy over Columbia street and, now, Little O and I are no longer caught indoors, wishing the cold away, instead we circuit playgrounds in a wide loop around our corner of Brooklyn.

Some playgrounds are crowded with rows of nannies rocking strollers, shushing infants to sleep in a back and forth, push and pull, while their siblings streak and tear through the narrow spaces of play. Others sit tucked beside the various entrance to the BQE, invaded only after school. The children come in waves of screams and O doesn't understand why he can't toddle with his tentative, bumbling, Frankenstein walk when they come through.

The playground I like best is on the waterfront and it's for the smallest of the littles. Even O, who only began walking a few weeks ago, can climb the broad steps of the slide and make his way down alone. Sometimes I overestimate his capabilities and he's tumbling across the blue ground, arms up and wondering and waiting for love while he pouts.

This spring finds us in the swimming pool at the YMCA in Manhattan, navigating subway stairs and stroller wheels through clogged streets to get there. Sam is the bare-chested, gold-chain wearing swim instructor, who sings nursery rhymes like he's sauntering the stage of a cabaret, while we swirl the babies on our hips, and it reminds me of my childhood in our above ground pool that always looked vaguely green with its dented walls. My friends and I used to churn water to make a soft, singing whirlpool.

But now I am the mother carrying childhood memories, reciting Humpty Dumpty over and over, from 'wall' to the 'fall', from the tile to the water and back again. O was the only child to cry for twenty-five of the thirty minutes. But he smiled through chlorine and tears and kicked his way through the last five.

As if he recognized the thrill of his experience, too late, he wailed as we exited the pool, wanting only to go back in.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

More writing. Less dwelling.


Since Little O's been born, time feels like a series of pockets. Zipped up most of the day, then flung open in hour increments when he naps. When he finally (finally) rests his bright red hair on the alphabet sheet and ends his day, it feels like my work day begins. It's in the evenings and late into the night that I sit down to work or write. 

This is no different from when I worked full time at a day job. In some ways, there's more time because the day isn't spent drowning in corporate stress and pressures. I may be physically exhausted, hauling Little O through our world, wrangling him upon changing tables or inside cribs and high chairs and strollers and carriers. I may be emotionally exhausted trying to understand what a mini-human who can not speak actually wants, tested by someone who knows more about wrongdoing than he pretends (but how can I scold that innocent face, those pleading up at me big-brown mirrored eyes?) But my mind is active and engaged with life and the world in a way it hadn't been inside a gray cubicle. And, for this reason, it feels like these very small pockets of time are more productive.

I'm not going to pretend I'm accomplishing loads of freelance work or knocking out novels and essays and stories in mere weeks. I can't say that I'm writing at some new level of quality. But my writing has become more focused. I thought, for a while, it was because of the time constraint alone but I realize it may be that active and alert mind throughout the rest of the day.

I used to use writing time for both writing and dwelling on what I would write or say and how I would say it. Now I dwell on words in some kind of secret passageway in my mind throughout the day, during the quick shower, the stroller walk to the park, at the sink washing dishes, or while feeding O yogurt from a spoon. And my writing time is, for the most part, writing time. Tapping out words. Playing around with them. And if words aren't coming, I move on to the next task on a very, very long list of to-do.

Of course, next week, it all could change. If motherhood has taught me anything, it's that nothing is static, everything is in motion, just a phase of the moon.

But for now. Today. More writing. Less dwelling. It's been interesting. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Noise and Silence, and a call to arms



I'm thinking, a lot, these days, about opposing forces. Noise. And silence.

I'm late to most controversy, most hullabaloo (what a great word.) I spend most of my days on a rainbow foam mat, tickling Little's O's toes, or reaching for his wrist, with a don't touch that, but, too late, the keys in his mouth, the flower pot on the floor in pieces, as he somehow purchases movies on the DVR with the remote control. Whatever time is not spent with him or those I love is spent with words. Reading them, thinking on them, writing them, and wishing them into the world.

Because, finding the time to sit with words, to be with them, is what I love. I care about my work because it's important. It took me a long time to come to that understanding, and, still, I question it every day. This blind faith in story, in my story, with only the smallest of forums in which to write in and no big book deal to announce. Maybe, I have had to question its importance all these years because I'm a woman and used to being dismissed. Maybe I've had to question it, because, for most of my young life, the spoken word was a confused tangle. I was quiet and shy, never the one to have a whip-smart retort in the moment, never as articulate as I wished I could have been.

The written word, both my own and those of others, is where I found, and still find, solace. It's where I come to understand. It's where I feel most responsible. Most challenged. Most moved.  

Because of that, I'm interested in coming out from behind the pages and engaging in conversation surrounding words and craft. I read any article I can get my hands on. I participate in discussions on twitter or Facebook. I make my way into Manhattan and sit in bookstores or in auditoriums and listen to conversation between writers, hungry for inspiration and dialogue about the work I care so deeply about.

The past few weeks have seen a lot of discussion, particularly in the YA world, regarding a prominent author, his words, and the lack of female representation in his work. I hesitate to call it noise because most of it was intelligent, constructive, important conversation. But it turned into what I'm defining as noise when trolls and name-calling and personal attacks came into the conversation. Rotten? Yes. But, sadly, par for the course in this digital age.

And what happened at the end of the day to that conversation? Shut. Down. An author gone into temporary hiding. The intelligent, important voices that needed to be heard? Silenced.

This weekend, at the Teen Author Festival, I was fortunate to hear a keynote from the amazing Libba Bray, who spoke a little about this controversy, but mostly reprised her continuing thoughts from another conference earlier this year about feminism and equality in books and publishing. A rousing, funny, wickedly smart, presentation that made me think about my own work, about the work of others, and how we continue to silence women and girls every day.

After, I was fortunate to listen to a panel discussion about diversity and representation in YA. A group of authors spoke with honesty, intelligence, and kindness about their hard work, their research, the responsibility they felt to tell stories about cultures, races, and people who have been dismissed, under-represented and misrepresented for years.

I was hungry for this discussion. My mind processing and reeling and questioning. I felt, as I do when I sit with my own words. I felt engaged, challenged, and moved.

Then I watched and listened as that same prominent author I spoke of, also on the panel, joked about that hard work with an irresponsible comment, dismissing the care, time, and energy these writers put into their craft. I cheered as the other authors defended their work in response. But, this dismissal? As a writer who cares? It felt personal. And it does not go unnoticed.

Last month, I read as Michelle Goldberg spoke of important online voices, so attacked, they have had to go into hiding. And, last weekend, I watched Monica Lewinsky come back from her own exile.

Noise. Dismissal. Silence. A reoccurring theme.

And I wonder where my own voice, with its tendency to wither, always questioning its own importance, fits inside it all.

It does what it can. What it cares about. It goes back to the work of words. It fights its own agenda. It campaigns for less silence, less noise, and more good work, hard work, and intelligent, passionate discussion. It does not care to be dismissed.

In the words of Beth Kephart, one of my favorite comrades to go into 'battle' with, it asks that we get 'less caught up in the noise about books and more invested in making extremely fine ones.'

So, are you in?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Currently


I'd like to blog more. I don't know if I will. I feel a quiet in the blogging world that makes me sad. It feels like a place of nostalgia rather than a place that screams now, now. So, I figured I'd plant myself here, find my way back in, as urgently as I can, with a currently post. 

Watching

Tina Fey's latest, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I am trying to pace myself when it comes to this show. Even though I don't want to pace myself. I want to watch it all in one wonderful, hyper-color, fluorescent sitting. In the words of my own pithy twitter status, this show is everything. To elaborate: smart, charming, optimistic, positive, and, above all, hilarious. It makes me smile. It improves my mood. The world needs Kimmy Schmidt. We are lucky to have her.

Reading

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. After last year's mishap with my reading list, I decided to participate on Goodreads. If you want to know what I'm reading, I hope you'll join me there, here.  

Listening

To Sia. Podcasts, podcasts, and more podcasts. Death, Sex, & Money, The Longest Shortest Time, This American Life, Pop Culture Happy Hour... the list goes on and on. Little O's babble, a steady dadadada, tatatata, bababa chant. Long ago it was mamamama but, sigh, he's moved on. 

Making

Cakes. Novels (I finished a first draft of a new book last week.) Essays. 

Feeling

Restless. Ready. As I'll ever be. As I've been.

Planning

My revisions. And a weekend trip with one of my favorite friends, away from the little ones. 

Loving

Green things pushing through the dirt, past the winter we've had, letting themselves be known. Time with family and warm weather down South, where I spent the past few days among even more green, like the live oaks above, finally feeling, not cold. The moments when I'm alone, sitting, thinking, staring out a window or in the dark or tucked in bed and I think of Little O and something runs through me, from my toes to my chest. A love surge. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A reminder that stories matter


With Little O napping, a cup of tea at my side, and a deluge of sun at my window, I find myself with a few moments to sit here with words. Usually, I'd use the time to work on my novel or plug away at essays and articles I try to pitch for publication or for the rare freelance work or to find some work or any work or more work but there's an exhaustion that comes with spending every spare minute working toward something, instead of just being with the time we have.

These past few months, I've written a lot of blog posts and emails in my head. Some, I've even sat down and started, then deleted before pressing publish or send. There are a lot of days when I just don't feel confident in my words, even in a silly email to a friend. Most days, I don't want to share anything I write at all.

I've been journaling. On the computer. In secret. Paper journals have never quite worked for me. There's something about paper and pen that feels very permanent. Unforgivable. The typed word feels transient, fleeting and, therefore, comfortable. There are some ideas and thoughts that don't need to be etched in the stones of history.

Journaling has helped me remember and understand what I think and care about. It's helped me find a lot of joy in sitting down to think, which, for me, is a bit more active, since writing is how I think my everything.

Irony of all ironies, the secret journaling has helped me understand that sharing some of the work is important to me. I've spent my entire life engaged in the stories of others, entangled in a rich dialogue with writers I've never talked to or met, and I'd like some of my words to get tied up in the same imaginary dialogue someday.

Once I was asked for writing advice, or maybe I was asked in my head, that's definitely possible since I don't engage in much real conversation anymore, but I thought the best advice I could give was to always remember that stories matter and that the work is important.

For the past few months, in the imaginary lines of an online journal, in the actual words, and real thoughts, I've questioned validity.  I've thought about writers and writing and the way our world sees the profession. I've wondered if the work still matters if it isn't shared or seen. I've wondered when it is seen, if becomes more or less valid. Or if, all of it, is part of a disappearing act. I've questioned the importance, the mattering of writing at all.

I guess I discovered, in secret, what I already knew. It is important. It does matter. Seen or unseen. Secret or exposed. It's all part of a rich dialogue, some of it imagined, some of it real. So I'm here to remind myself, novice nobody writer that I am, that it is and it does.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snow Day

They closed schools, shut the subways down, the BQE became a ghost tunnel, and we prepared for the blustering, dumping, blizzard they said it would be.

Instead, the storm surged East and North and we had a slushy few inches. 

A let-down, in some ways. I expected a wonderland when I woke up. And, for me, I thought how much better a snow day would be if I didn't have to wake up and be ​present​. If I could read all day in my pajamas, watch a dumb movie on tv. 

At least, we thought, Little O could play in the snow, in a way he couldn't in his infancy last year. We bundled him in his space-suit, his hood an astronaut puff. We stepped out the door, caked snow on his mittens, touched it to his cheek, our voices knocking up a register, as always. ​Snow! Snow!  He sat in it, looked at it, had this way of looking back up at us, glum and unimpressed, wondering when we'd take him in from the cold. 

Our usually happy baby spent the rest of the day indoors crying, fussing, unhappily being plopped from one uninteresting activity to the next. The mat, his room, the bag of books, the basket of toys, the slinking dog pull-thing, the ride-on push-car with its piano keys. None of it inspiring, apparently. 

Yes, we stayed safe. Yes, all was not lost or destroyed. We are lucky. But I feel his restlessness. So much excitement over the white-stuff. Press conferences and news headlines. Empty supermarket shelves. The possibility that the world we know and everything around it could turn white and drift and slope, shake our footing, shape the ground, contour our lives, and we'd see something we'd never really seen before. 

I guess the gray and white days will slog along just the same until spring.