Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Come on over and visit me at my new blog, a woman again.
"I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again – as I always am when I write." ~ Virginia Woolf
My first post, Back to School, will explain a bit why I'm moving. But in a nutshell: it just felt like time for something new!
Hope to see you soon!
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Yes, we're counting the days.
I'm also compiling a summer reading list, and am open to suggestions. The general themes this summer are 1) short stories 2) Virginia Woolf 3) James Joyce 4) books on the craft of fiction writing.
Here's my list so far, a somewhat random collection of books I already own (it's a budget summer reading list, but if you have suggestions that are classics, I can download them to Trixie's Kindle... and when we're at Prairie Lights, I'll probably have to spend a little money, right? Because it's important to support independent bookstores and writers, right?).
[edited to add:] The Mother Garden by Robin Romm
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Welding with Children by Tim Gautreaux
The Best American Short Stories of 2009 edited by Alice Sebold
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Great Short Stories of the Masters edited by Charles Neider
The Paris Review Spring 2010
Tin House Volume 11, Number 3
The Iowa Review Volume 40, Number 1
Canteen Issue Five
New England Review Volume 30, Number 4
Antioch Review Spring 2010
New Yorker -- the past several months
Joyce and Woolf
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (I'm half way through)
Homer's The Odyssey (any suggestions of a good translation for me and Trixie to read together?)
To The Lighthouse or Orlando (what do you think if I only have time for one this summer?)
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Well, anyway, I haven't been blogging much.
When I started this blog, I was mostly looking for a place to publish my essay You Can Always Fry Eggs in Missoula, Montana, about my dad, as well as the book reviews I write for Gordon. It was around when I realized that not only do I really like writing, but I kind of need to write to stay sane. And I thought, I have a pretty interesting life, and some quirky ideas a few other folks might like, so maybe I'll write an essay or two a month, no big deal, and throw them up on a blog. I didn't give much thought to craft, and no thought whatever to getting published; stuff just sort of poured out of me, and I hit "publish."
A year after starting this blog with such modest ambitions, I took a fateful trip to New York to sit on Patrick's couch in Harlem and I wrote for four days non-stop. Okay, not totally non-stop, but I wrote a lot, and when I wasn't writing I was hanging out with other writers. Since then I've been back several times, I've made friends with more writers, I've joined a writing workshop called Rittenhouse Writers Group, and I've gotten this idea in my head that I might be a writer of short fiction (though I haven't given up on the essay; I like the essay a lot, I will admit). And while I still have fairly modest ambitions, I'm less inclined these days to write a draft and hit "publish." Indeed, I'm relearning that the real work of writing is revising. (I say "work," but really? I'm a pig in mud.)
So I'm not publishing much on the blog these days, and what I am writing now I probably won't publish here, at least not until it has been soundly rejected by any number of other venues. But I'm not ready to close up shop. There are still my book reviews, with many, I hope, to come this summer. And I want to finish the Midwestern Marriage piece, even though I don't have time now to give it much revision. That will be going up in parts over the coming months -- and then?
Friday, June 4, 2010
It's an awful thing to have so many friends lately suffering the awful, untimely deaths of young men in their families, but it is an honor to stand with them in their grief, and to offer what small comfort I can as it unfolds. As Patrick notes in his current post at his blog Loose Ends, he and I have a mutual friend, Ellen, whose brother Mark also recently died. When I was last in New York, writing on Patrick's couch in Harlem, Ellen asked all of her friends to celebrate her brother's birthday by eating an Entenmann's double chocolate donut. Patrick and his boyfriend Bill and I were only too happy to oblige, and on the theory that where one Entenmann's is good, a dozen is better, we clogged our arteries good and hard that weekend!
The Laceys are now coming up on the first anniversary of James' death, just days after what would have been his 42nd birthday today. Patrick has compiled a joyful, playful list of ways we might honor and remember James -- everything from eating salad to walking a dog to running an errand for a shut-in. And my favorite, kissing friends (you never have to ask me twice, right?!) I didn't know James personally, though I know the rest of the Laceys and feel as though I knew James from the exquisite posts Patrick shared on his blog in the months after James' death. And what I know is that James was one of those souls that lives on a different plane than the rest of us, that he had some things figured out that the rest of us can only hope to understand if we're blessed with a long life. I'm going to be trying to live a little more like James Lacey in the next few days, with Patrick's delightful suggestions as my guide -- as a way to honor James, of course, and to remember him, but mostly because trying to live more like James is probably as sure a path to a good life as any of us is likely to find.
Even if you don't know Patrick or James from Adam, I encourage you to read this lovely post, eat some salad, kiss a friend -- and hold the Laceys in the light in the days to come.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) [*****] In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably tell you right up front that I pretty much think Robin Black hung the moon these days because, after meeting her very briefly in a book signing line at the Free Library where I heard her read from this collection recently, I contacted her (through Twitter, no less -- I have completely drunk the social media kool aid...), and she very, very generously (as though she had nothing else to do while on a busy book tour) put me in touch with the leader of her old writing group, of which I am now a very happy and grateful member. I'm pretty sure, though, that even if I were entirely objective, I would just love this collection of short stories. Black's writing is beautifully unadorned, without flourish; it doesn't show off, and it doesn't need to, because in not getting in the way (as I felt Mary Karr's lush metaphors did a bit in Lit, a memoir I otherwise loved), her language ends up being mesmerizing. It's as easy to get caught up in these stories as in a great novel, which is saying a lot coming from someone who used to hate short stories because I thought of them as "failed novels." I no longer feel that way about short stories in general, but I still think it's a very rare thing for a short story to capture a world as thoroughly, to realize a character as fully, as Black can in ten or twenty pages. She also has an uncanny ability to write about very peculiar characters and circumstances --- a father and his blind, college-aged daughter picking up her first seeing eye dog; a eerie, prim school girl at a hippy Quaker school who was kidnapped for ransom as a young child living in Italy and is now bent on revenge; a woman whose child is almost electrocuted by faulty wiring at almost the same moment that the woman's mentally ill father steps in front of a train -- and yet it all seems completely plausible, quotidian even. I think that is one of the things I like best about these stories, the way they play with the adage that "truth is stranger than fiction" -- this is fiction that compellingly and convincingly draws us into the truth of the strangeness of life. What I love most about these stories, though, is the clear-eyed sympathy Black brings to her characters, for the most part unremarkable men and women in middle age or older, experiencing losses or transitions -- there is a lot of death, divorce, infidelity, and illness in the worlds of these stories. In many cases it would have been easy to cast villains or victims -- especially victims -- but Black is both unblinking and kind, and thus creates characters who are nuanced and real. Black helps us know not only them, but ourselves through them. This is the quality I love most in my very favorite writer of all time, George Eliot, and I have often said that if I am to be judged for my own foibles and self-delusions, I hope it will be by someone as clear-eyed and sympathetic as Eliot. I would now gladly add Robin Black to my jury pool.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
This coming Sunday is the twentieth anniversary of the death of my mother, who was an immigrant, and whose story I have been feeling compelled to tell lately (it's a great story!). This coming Sunday is also the first of two Sundays for which there is no plan for adult Sunday school, due to a cancellation of the class that had originally been scheduled (I serve as the Director of Christian Education at my church, Old First Reformed, so filling this void falls to me, lucky me...) These two facts have me thinking about how I could both tell my mother's story and have something to offer at Adult Forum ....
So I have an idea that keeps swirling around in my brain, but won't quite cohere. I'm thinking about how much more likely it is for us to care deeply about an issue if it touches us personally. And as I think about my mom, and her immigration story -- which is also my immigration story -- I keep thinking about the ways that we are all immigrants. Right? Every one of us has a story about how our families came to this land. Some of them are stories of men and women seeking opportunity and hope. Others are stories of people fleeing persecution. Still others are stories of ancestors brought here forcibly as slaves. Some of us know more about our stories than others of us, but every family story ultimately takes on mythic proportions, every family story is both real and imagined. Indeed, it seems to me that if this land has a creation myth, that myth is an immigration story! Even Native Americans have immigration stories, albeit ones that likely must be mostly imagined because they are so ancient. Still, doesn't it highlight even more how much immigration is this land's creation myth, if we think of even Native Americans as having come from some other place? If we see that even peoples who have been here for millennia are immigrants too? Well, this is where it's still sort of vague in my mind, but somehow, it seems to me that by telling our immigrant stories -- all of our immigrant stories -- we highlight the absurdity of singling out the most recent immigrants among us as "illegal."
I even want to say -- and this is where it's still really fuzzy -- that somehow, if we all document our status as immigrants, doing so somehow compels us in a way that is more immediate and urgent to stand in solidarity with those who are supposedly "undocumented." I say supposedly, because of course, every immigrant has a story that should be heard, that we should care about, that should be -- and can be -- documented. I keep playing in my mind with the word "document"...
As I said, I'm not sure where I'm going with this. But for starters, I was thinking about telling my mom's story -- that is, my story -- at church on Sunday in the Adult Forum, and then trying to figure out ways for everyone else to tell their stories too. And because I'm a writer, I was thinking of trying to get folks to write them down. And because I'm a blogger, I was thinking maybe I would find a way to share them more widely ... I haven't figured it all out yet, but stay tuned.
And let me know what you think....
Friday, April 23, 2010
That those who crafted this legislation do not care at all that American citizens could be swept up in its police-state tactics is just evidence that SB 1070 is the work of extremists motivated by nothing more than racism and xenophobia.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)[*****]. This seems to be the phase of my life when I read a lot of great books I should have read a long time ago. I've known that Tim O'Brien is a great writer I ought to read, but sort of like my resistance to reading Mary Karr (yesterday's review), reading about Vietnam is just never what's calling me in the moment, and I'm a pretty capricious reader. Again, Julie was the impetus to read The Things They Carried -- she teaches this book (she got a free classroom set when it was the One Book, One Philadelphia selection a couple of years ago) and recently was invited to hear O'Brien speak. Her rave review is not overstated -- I too just loved this book. It's categorized as fiction, and I suppose can best be described as a set of related short stories, but I'm really intrigued by the genre, which is really a blend of memoir and fiction, short story and essay. Many of the characters in the stories are real people, including the men O'Brien served with, and Tim O'Brien himself. O'Brien was a recent college graduate with a scholarship for graduate studies at Harvard when he was drafted, and he tells in a very moving story about his decision to serve rather than to flee to Canada, which was his first impulse. He concludes that it was a failure of courage on his part, and simple fear of embarrassment and shame, that drove him to Vietnam rather than Canada. In the title story, he tells, literally, of the things he and his buddies carried -- first the literal things they carried on their backs, how much they weighed, what they were for, what it felt like to carry them -- and then the more metaphorical things they carried, and what that felt like -- and his writing -- the cadence, the images, the pace -- is just exquisite. His experiences in Vietnam have clearly marked him so deeply that he has spent the rest of his career writing about them -- the war is pretty much all he writes about, I think -- and this book is as much about Tim O'Brien the writer as it is about the war and Tim O'Brien the soldier.. As a character in the book, Tim O'Brien the writer very explicitly grapples with what it means to tell the truth about war, and whether there even is such a thing as truth when it comes to war, but at the very least, he concludes that to tell the truth, he has to make stuff up. He tells many compelling stories, and then he retells them, and then he tells you they are true, and then he tells you they are entirely all made up, and then he tells you what really happened, and then he tells you that's all made up too, and then he insists that nonetheless, it's all true. It reminds me a lot of how thoughtful people read Scripture, and I suppose that's not an accident, though O'Brien does not appear to be a person of faith. Nonetheless, he seems to be seeking some sort of redemption through his story-telling and his meta-story-telling; and while I suspect he might argue there is no redemption, this gorgeous and provocative book is perhaps as close as it gets.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Friday, February 19, 2010
"What if I started running all the time and got really skinny Micah? What would you think about that?"
He looks up at me, very serious. His cheek is still resting on my belly as he ponders this.
Then, with all the passion of Micah: "Eat! Eat! Eat!"
I'm tidying the kitchen, wiping counters, loading the dish washer. The kids are at the table in the dining room.
"Trixie?" says Micah. "What's your favorite thing about this family?"
She has a fork-full of of cheddar-sausage quiche in one hand, a hunk of baguette in the other. "The food," she says, between bites.
"Yeah, me too."
Micah doesn't like the gratin, because he doesn't like potatoes, so he's eating another piece of quiche.
"Nial and Zach and I are the only ones in my class who eat healthy food," he says.
"Is that so?" This is an interesting development. Until very recently, he's been mostly horrified by his homemade lunches. "The kids will laugh at me," he would moan, "if I bring that to school." But when I relent, and buy him some awful yogurt in a squeeze tube or something, he doesn't actually eat it. It's just about street cred.
When Trixie was Micah's age, she began a boycott of MacDonalds after I told her about industrial beef production. It was an ethical boycott, though she didn't really like the food much either. A couple of times on our road trip last summer we stopped at MacDonalds in desperation, and because Micah begged, but eventually even Micah declared he wouldn't eat there anymore. "I just like the toys in the Happy Meals. But that's not real food."
Apparently he has embraced being the kid with the healthy lunch. "I'm teaching my friend Nassir to eat more healthy though."
"That's great Micah. Has your teacher been talking to your class about eating healthy?"
"No, I just decided to teach Nassir."
"What did you tell him about eating healthy?"
"Like, he should eat his sandwich before his chips and snacks. And his fruit, he should eat fruit. Like that."
"That's great advice, Micah," I say. "Maybe you should take your own advice, though."
He looks at me.
"You didn't eat your sandwich today. And only part of your fruit."
He looks away, shrugs, the sly smile. He is his own boy. He will be a good man.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Thursday, January 28, 2010
But it just keeps getting better and better. I will admit that I am totally intrigued by this new gadget ... but really, doesn't Apple have any women on its design and marketing teams?
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
(edited to add: read the rest of this essay after the jump by clicking "read more" below)
Thursday, January 21, 2010
When I was in college, it took me almost three years to hold onto the concept of “hegemony,” which now seems silly, because it’s not really a difficult concept. And it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the concept; at any given moment, if I looked it up, or someone explained it to me, I understood it perfectly. But an hour later, it was gone. I just couldn’t hold onto it, and I certainly couldn’t pull it up at will to use it or explain it. I had at best an impressionistic understanding, one that only occasionally came into focus. “Hermeneutics” is another one; I still have no idea what it means. And it won’t help for you to leave an explanation in the comments, because then I will understand it … but only until I turn off my computer. Then it will be gone.
Big theological concepts often feel a bit like that for me. But if I feel a little dumb when I can’t hold onto concepts like “hegemony” or “hermeneutics,” I feel like a downright fraud for having only a tangential grasp on concepts like “grace” and “redemption” and “resurrection.” This is one of the many reasons I love Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. I come back to these lovely essays about the “scary words” of the Christian faith over and over, not so much to set difficult ideas firmly in my mind, but rather precisely because what Norris gives me is permission to claim them even in the fleeting, “hope is a thing with feathers” sort of way they dwell with me.
Mostly I don’t so much understand big theological concepts as I experience them. And the thing is, whether you understand it or not, sometimes grace can just wash over you. Sometimes redemption can grab hold of you in an instant and deliver you from a captivity you didn’t even know you were dwelling in. Sometimes resurrection looks you right in the eye in the form of a teen-age boy, now a grown man, who revisits you across the decades through the magic of social networking.
Last night I got a Facebook friend request from Neville Stephens (that’s not really his last name, btw), a name that rang a bell, but which I couldn’t immediately place. Julie said, “Didn’t you have a student named Neville Stephens?” Right. Our mutual friends were two other former students, so of course I immediately accepted.
I’m now Facebook friends with several of my former students from my brief foray as a high school English teacher in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in Hancock County, Indiana. First was Radley; I found him at the Cato Institute when I was doing background on a potential donor to my kids’ school. I shot him an email; awhile later he wrote back, apologetic about the delay. I was actually in Indiana when I received his email, in a Holiday Inn Express, at Julie’s Nanna’s funeral. I was just miles away from Eastern Hancock High School, and his kind words about my influence on his intellectual life were most certainly a sort of grace, a totally unexpected affirmation from the least likely of sources. I’ve been a huge fan of Radley’s ever since, and will always be grateful for his thoughtfulness that began to redeem what was mostly a painful and difficult time in my life. I may have been miserable, but apparently it was not all for naught.
But miserable I was, for so many reasons. In no particular order, there was the fact that my introverted, anxiety-prone, bookish self was exquisitely ill-suited to a career teaching adolescents; there was the war, about which I held a distinctly minority opinion among my colleagues; there was my mother’s death at the end of my first year, the great trauma in my life, still; and then there was that toxic closet, which permeated everything. All around a bad combination. When I look back on those three years, my misery seems almost unremitting.
So I was happy to hear from Radley that something good had come of all that misery. And when I became Facebook friends with Shawn and Amy and Webb and Todd, I had a similar experience. “Miss Rose! [“Marta” I have to correct them every time] It’s so nice to be in touch! Thank you so much for trying to open our minds there at Eastern Hancock, you really did make a difference!” Nothing begins to redeem misery like this sort of unexpected and undeserved kindness and generosity. Especially since not one of them seems particularly freaked out by my life (not my lifestyle, Todd … it’s just a life, and so is yours! Though yours probably has more style, come to think of it… ;-)
Then a couple of weeks ago, I was chatting on Facebook with my boy Cory, whom I sit with at church, while Julie is conducting the choir (Michael, my friend and pastor, says new folks probably think we’re married, ha!). He’s a new friend, and very dear, a Hoosier no less. I adore him. While we were chatting, he told me that Autumn, one of his childhood chums with whom he is Facebook friends, recognized my name on his page because she had also seen it on Amy’s page.
“Autumn?” It took me a minute. “As in Asha’s older sister? Really, you knew Asha?” What a small world, huh? Asha isn’t on Facebook, but I immediately chatted up Amy and caught up on Asha’s life.
Redemption all over the place. I may have been miserable, but these kids? Well, they’re not kids any more, for starters, and what’s more, they appear to have grown up to be fabulous human beings. Very rewarding and heartwarming, let me tell you.
So I was happy to get Neville’s friend request, in much the same way I was happy to hear from all of them. Neville was a great kid. They were all great kids. His photo, though, it didn’t look all that familiar. People change, as it turns out, quite a bit between their mid-teens and their mid-thirties. Someone else commenting on his wall thought so too: “Neville, what happened to your long hair?”
And then it all came back to me: resurrection, redemption, grace, all in one fell swoop. Because suddenly I really remembered Neville. I really saw him, his fifteen-year-old self, with his long blond hair and the fabulous smile and a certain open-yet-shy sort of head-ducking, looking-out-from-under-his-eye-lids gesture that was so, well, Neville. Like his young self was standing right there in front of me.
Michael recently preached a beautiful sermon about bodies (one of my favorite topics) and resurrection, which threw me for a bit of a loop at the end, because he proposed that resurrection is not really a metaphor, that our resurrections will be bodily and unique, right down to the expressions on our faces and our quirky personalities and the very gestures that make us unique. I loved this sermon right up until that point, when I fell right into fretting about being a fraud. Because resurrection as not-a-metaphor and not-a-symbol is not-so-much something I can easily wrap my mind around. A couple of days after that sermon, I made Michael go for a walk with me and quizzed him about it. We walked around the block in the sunshine, my first limping excursion of any distance since my last bout with plantar facsiitis. I was in a funk, and a walk in the sunshine and my new fancy running shoes with my pal Michael was certainly a resurrection of sorts. His further explanation of his sermon was helpful, too, but still I was left mostly scratching my head.
I still don’t really understand the end of Michael’s sermon, but this morning, when a flood of Nevilleness washed over me, I certainly experienced resurrection in just the way Michael proposed: specific, quirky, bodily, right down to the very gestures and expressions that make Neville himself. I have experienced this before: fifteen-year-old Radley is pretty easy to recall too, but here’s the thing (and I trust that Radley would take no offense): there’s not so much redemption or grace in recalling a fifteen-year-old Radley in all his smirky particularity. The redemption of Radley is in knowing he turned out to be a fine human being, a good man, someone who does important work in the world.
The difference was that my experience of Neville, resurrected, recalled for me that my time at Eastern Hancock was not all misery. Neville appears to have turned out to be a fine human being, like most of my former students I’m sure, one that I will be happy to know and be friends with, on Facebook and perhaps even in real life. But the gift that has redeemed those years like no other is in recalling – so specifically, so particularly, so vividly – how much I adored him, then, and how happy it made me, then, to know him.
In the two pages Kathleen Norris devotes to “Grace” in Amazing Grace, she recalls the story of Jacob, who, as Norris tells us, “has just deceived his father and cheated his brother out of an inheritance. But,” says Norris, “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.” Upon waking from his dream, Jacob responds, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Grace, suggests Norris, is in realizing that God is with us even when we don’t know it. “Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us and bless us….” (pp. 150-151)