Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Some days . . .

 . . . the heart and the mind are tired, and one must take a less arduous path. So, here, for your viewing pleasure, a "simple" image, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Some might say that Grand River and Joy is not a "beach read," but clearly, not everyone would agree (shhh . . . it looks like she's near the end).

And (as a celebration of seasonal and locational diversity) another one . . . 

She looks like she's nearing the last page as well . . .

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I've just come back from a few days in New Orleans. We went to visit our daughter, a lighting designer. The theater company she is a member of was/is performing The Mad Woman of Chaillot, written by a French playwright in the '40s, a tale of corporate greed and oil lust. The New Orleans group decided to mount this play well before the Deep Water Horizon oil explosion. So History stepped up to intersect with their artistic concerns and interests.

* * *
I have always loved the bowl shape of the Mississippi where it hugs/contains/cradles the city of New Orleans. I spent some time looking at maps of New Orleans on this visit, as we stayed at a B&B that had many antique maps of the city on the walls of the dining room, and the B&B owner liked to talk about them and the city's history as we ate breakfast. One thing I hadn't known was that NO was originally planned as a walled city. This wall would have contained the area we now know as the French Quarter, the Vieux Carre. Our host did not think that any of the walls had ever been built. The walls were intended for protection from the native tribes. But, our host said, the settlers and the natives ended up getting along well, so perhaps this is why the wall project was abandoned. In my novel-in-progress, I have a character in a contemporary setting who is proposing to build a wall along the border of his town because he is afraid of the people who live on the other side. I do not think he will get very far with this project. But it seems worth exploring.

* * * 
When we arrived at the B&B, our host introduced us to his wife, who was sitting in a corner of the living room, gluing glitter onto stilettos, and she had a whole shoe rack of amazing women's shoes waiting in line for similar treatment. They explained that she is one of the Krewe of Muses. In NO, Krewes are the groups that parade during Mardi Gras. And this particular krewe is beloved because as the muses float by on their floats, they throw the glittering shoes out to parade watchers (the things they throw are called "throws," and these shoes are considered to be high-quality throws.) 
     If you read this blog, you know that the muse is a concern of mine. Also, a concern of my friend Patry. My last morning in NO, when I went to check my email in the living room where the glittery shoes are produced by a Krewe Muse, I found a message from Patry, saying that she had just completed our collaborative muse-summoning/blueberry-pie-baking annual ritual. Furthermore, every time I am in NO, I contemplate the unusual/unpronounceable/impenetrable array of street names. Terpsichore, for example. Melpomene. Euterpe. When I mentioned these names to my godson over dinner, he shrugged, so casual. "Oh," he said, "the names of the muses."
* * *
The work of W. G. Sebald, one of my great literary inspirations, is saturated with just these kinds of intersections and "coincidences," as we call them. It is reported that when asked about the role of coincidence in his work, Sebald said that whatever path he took in his writing, he always, sooner or later, came across another path that led quickly back to some detail from his own life. He also said that the more one was attuned to look out for such things, the more frequently they occurred.
* * * 
One morning at breakfast, we met a young woman who is in the army, stationed in Louisiana, part of an engineering brigade that works on vertical projects. She may have called it the "vertical unit" or the "vertical brigade" (I am not sure), but she explained it by saying they work on bridges, towers--anything, I guess, that takes one up. She was also one of the first responders during Hurricane Katrina, staying for a time in the Convention Center, then in a camp the army set up. An actual person who is trained to take charge in the midst of human catastrophe. Sitting quietly and eating breakfast. And I was thinking about that, with a hushed awe. I was thinking about that capacity in her, but I'll admit, I was also thinking about the circus act that occurs in my new novel--what I call the "Spiral Ascent"--and I was thinking about whether she might have any tips for me.
* * * 
There's no real way to end a post like this but to sit with the idea of intersections, let it filter down and see where it takes us.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Feeling Lunar

The dates of the Jewish holidays are based on a lunar calendar. And as "we" are currently in the midst of the Days of Awe (see previous post), I have been particularly aware of the moon. This doesn't happen to me every year, but this year, it has. 
     Rosh Hashanah occurs at the new moon (because, I suppose, it's the start of the new year). Makes sense.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins this Friday night and is the day on which the Book of Life and Death is written and sealed (or something along those lines; "who shall live and who shall die"), occurs at the half moon.
That ends the Days of Awe, but coming right up is Sukkot (or, as I used to call it Succos), the harvest festival, or the festival of booths, which occurs at the full moon.
In the most embarrassing, humiliating, regretable error in my novel, I wrote that Succos is a spring holiday. My friend Laura pointed the error out to me after the book was published (eternally grateful, Laura), and it has been corrected in the paperback. I cannot for the life of me figure out how I managed to make such an error, but my only excuse is that there are so many pieces and levels to a novel that "something's got to give."
     Which leads me to the next phase of this post, which is that in all this lunar immersion (have you actually looked at the moon lately? If not, please do so tonight, as it has been quite an alluring presence), I have been thinking of and singing to myself all the moon songs I can think of. "Fly Me to the Moon." And "It's Only a Paper Moon." And "It Must Have Been Moon Glow." And "Moon Over Miami." And "Moon Dance." And  "How High the Moon." I'm sure there are others I haven't thought or heard of, and if I did a Google search, I'd have multiples in minutes. But, please, if you have others to suggest, step up and do so.
    To end, here is a lunar image of great merit. I tried to find the person to credit for this (and others to be found at the website) but couldn't actually find a person. So thank you, imaginative lunar visionary. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Days of Awe

In honor of the Days of Awe, I'm reviving a post from a year ago and reposting it with a few updates/revisions. A sweet year to all of you, and thanks for reading.

I usually don't listen to the radio on Sunday mornings while eating breakfast because I'm letting myself ease into the zone of writing and don't want to be distracted. But this past Sunday morning, I got engaged in a broadcast of the wonderful Speaking of Faith and an interview with Rabbi Sharon Brous about the Jewish High Holidays (which began last night). Rabbi Brous says that in her congregation during the High Holiday services, she pushes her congregants to lie prostrate--flat on their faces, hands outstretched and palms up. The more uncomfortable they are with doing this, she says, the more important that they do it--if only for a few seconds or minutes.
I couldn't find a photo that looked exactly like what she described, but I think you can picture it. The idea for Rabbi Brous is that when she prostrates herself in this way, she is acknowledging and accepting and experiencing the lack of control, submitting to some higher power. I'm not saying it as well or beautifully as she did, so I encourage you to listen. Here is some of what she has to say about the Days of Awe, from her website.
These are days in which we step out of our daily routines and attain a sense of the sublime, a sensitivity to the mystery of life. Each year we are given the gift of time to reflect seriously on the people we have become, and dream once again about who we can be. We engage in heshbon hanefesh - intensive self reflection, in which we review our behavior over the past year, identifying mistakes and shortcomings. And we make teshuvah - serious, sincere return, as we work to refine ourselves and repair broken relationships. We connect and reconnect with the best of ourselves, our family members, our friends, and God. Through this process, if we do it right, we are able to discover a renewed sense of wonder and mission in our lives.
Ah. There's an image with the open palms. 
    This year, as the Days of Awe begin, I am deeply into yet another revision of my second novel--with feedback from my agent as well as several trusted readers. Writing and revising are arduous, but I believe I am working toward greater depth, and toward realizing the potential of the story and the characters.
And simultaneously my husband and I have just returned from New Orleans, where we visited our daughter, and where one still (five+ years post-Katrina) feels such a rush of hope and devastation and recovery.
Not sure how to end this post. Perhaps I'll just lower myself onto the floor right now. Palms up to the sky.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Makes Life Worth Living?

Here's Woody Allen. It's a shot from Manhattan, near the end of the film. He's speaking into a tape recorder and pondering the question of what makes life worth living. He's on the couch, of course--a reference to psychoanalysis. It's worth watching the clip of these moments, as he discovers his answer. The acting is so natural, and his list is such a celebration of specificity. Also, it's such an antidote to discomfort, the recurrent theme of this blog.
     Although discomfort is a recurrent theme in Woody's films and in all art and literature, sometimes we need a break. Lately, I've been seeking comforts, and in this idea--that it's the tiny moments and gifts that make life worth living--I have somewhat found it. 
     This is not a make-your-own-list-a-la-Woody challenge. Trying to do so after watching his performance on the couch in some senses feels like a pale imitation. But yesterday, as I walked around my town, I did try to notice the details that give me pleasure: a beautifully constructed stone retaining wall in someone's garden, living in a town with large trees and a variety of interesting houses, the tiny perfect blue flowers on the "false forget-me-nots" in my yard (nothing about them seems false to me, but this is their name; and they are just a memory at the moment, as they bloom in the spring and early summer and I never take enough time to look at them), the taste of a juicy peach (made especially compelling this morning when I read the NY Times article about Roger Ebert, who can no longer eat anything but remembers flavors and smells), the anniversary gift my husband gave me to celebrate our 27th year together--a subscription to The Paris Review, which he got interested in after reading an article in the Financial Times about the new editor. Oh, baby, I have tears in my eyes. If that man doesn't know me, who does? If that isn't a gift that goes to some of my deepest values and longings, what would be? Maybe I can't do it as well as Woody Allen, but I'm trying.
     On a related note, What Makes Life Worth Living is the theme at the University of Michigan this fall. And it is in this context that they (the University of Michigan Honors College) chose my book as the one for incoming freshman to read over the summer (which I believe is about to end). I have been pondering the connection between my book and this theme. Certainly, having it chosen in this context is something that makes life worth living. But in the book itself? How does it fit? Was the selection panel thinking about the characters and what they do in the book? That is, trying to connect with others? Taking risks? Feeling connected to a place enough that losing it would matter? By the time I go to visit the campus in November, I'd like to have arrived at an answer. Maybe a session on the couch with a tape recorder would help?