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May 2015



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May. 21st, 2015


Thankful Thursday

Thankful today for:

--good books and good bookstore events
--fresh salad greens
--my nutty cat
--whoever first thought of putting chocolate and mint together
--the radio playing some songs I haven't heard in a while
--a long weekend coming up
--my husband
--a hot shower on a cold rainy day like this
--the Cornell hawk cam
--people who speak truth to power
--this rain that we've needed for weeks
--you who are reading this

May. 16th, 2015



In reading a back issue of Tin House, I came across this sentence in a review by Luis Jaramillo:

"It's amazing how persistent the feeling of not-enoughness can be."

Amazing indeed: we see the fruits of it everywhere. In the people who puff up and become too aggressive, who overcompensate. In the people whose talent we admire like crazy, but who shrink from putting themselves out there. In the people who keep grasping without asking what they really need. In the various little voices that war inside us about whether we can do what we are trying to do.

Not-enoughness keeps us seeking, keeps us striving, gives us goals. It can keep us humble. It can give us a reason to get up in the morning. But every now and then, I like to take a pause to say, Right now, in this moment, I have enough. I am enough.

May. 12th, 2015



Last weekend I spent more hours than usual reading, especially reading outside in the warm air, enjoying the shade and birdsong and breezes.
It did wonders for me.
It slowed the world down, allowed me more space to think. It improved my concentration, made me happy, made me hungry to write more.
Writing has its ups and downs, but reading is still, always, a pleasure.

May. 8th, 2015


All's well that ends

The ending. The resolution (or not) of the story. The last taste in the mouth, the take-home message, the good-bye that lingers in the ears. This has always been the toughest part of a book for me to write. The endings of all of my novels were rewritten many times--far more than the beginnings.

I'm at it again, trying to figure out how to end a story. I am on at least the fourth version of the ending, and will try others.

These are the things I'm balancing: what I want to happen, what should happen, what I think the readers want to happen; what feels complete but not too pat; what readers need to know; what changes should be driven by whom; whether Character A forgives Character B after all; the desire for justice vs. the knowledge that some mistakes can't be repaired; my need for symmetry; the need for this scene to be interesting but not set up a whole new range of problems.

Yeah. Fun times.

May. 5th, 2015


Walking in everyone's shoes

One thing I like about writing is that it stretches my perspective. I'm always trying to see every scene from every character's point of view. Even when I'm writing in first person, I'm thinking about how every other character is experiencing events. I try to do this in life as well. With writing it's easier, because I can know the whole story of my own characters, while in the real world I can never fully know another person's story. But just acknowledging that, and trying, may be worth something.

May. 3rd, 2015


The Crazy Iris

The Crazy Iris, edited by Kenzaburo Oe, is subtitled and other stories of the atomic aftermath, and at first I thought it was entirely fiction. After reading it, however, I believe that at least some of the pieces are nonfiction (those where the narrator and author have the same name, and the details of the characters' experiences match the details in the author bios). In any case, most of the authors in this collection were eyewitnesses to the bombings of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

It is a challenge for any writer to address a catastrophe on such a huge scale: not only the death and destruction of August 6 and 9, 1945, but the effects that were still playing out decades later. How does one grasp this enormity?

A writer's way in is through the small, specific details. The first inkling of trouble we readers have comes in the first story, set in a town about a hundred miles from Hiroshima: the trains to Hiroshima are being stopped. "'Even the railway people don't know what's holding the trains up,' I heard the landlord tell one of his customers" (Masuji Ibuse, "The Crazy Iris"). We, the readers, know. This is our first shudder, and it comes through a commonplace experience: delayed trains.

"My life was saved because I was in the bathroom" writes Tamiki Hara in "Summer Flower," another line in which the ordinary (the bathroom) carries us into the extraordinary. The writers include commonplace details (trees, a water jar, a box of onions) along with the details unique to that day (blast injuries and burns, black rain, glass still embedded in skin years later). "Nearby I could see a triangular window. The window had originally been square but it had been completely blown out, leaving only the twisted frame," writes Katsuzo Oda in "Human Ashes." Broken windows figure in many of the stories. "From the time the A-bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945, until I graduated two years later, there wasn't a single pane of glass in the school," writes Kyoko Hayashi in "The Empty Can."

Most of the stories deal not with the days of the bombings, but of the years afterward, of living with the damage. In "Fireflies," Yoko Ota describes the makeshift shacks made for the survivors, "temporary" housing which they ended up occupying for years: "The slugs slithered around in droves at the base of the sliding paper doors, which did not have the customary rain shutters to protect them." Kyoko Hayashi describes a schoolgirl carrying the remains of her parents around in a can. Mitsuharu Inoue's "The House of Hands" and Hiroko Takenishi's "The Rite" discuss the trouble with miscarriages that many women had, and the stigma associated with marrying women who had been exposed to radiation.

The human need to recover, to want to return to normal, to believe that everything will be all right, crops up most sharply in Ineko Sata's "The Colorless Paintings:"
"It seems I took it for granted that [my friends] had somehow been outside of the radiation area when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. I never realized, until it came out in a casual letter, that all this time Y had been living with this kind of anxiety."

and in Hiroko Takenishi's "The Rite:"
"That time when, in the bright sunshine, I gazed on the vast multitude of the dead in all the chaos of that ruined ground, laid waste and desolate ..., with my knees knocking together out of control, the thing I kept telling myself was this: it is only a temporary phenomenon! I kept on pursuing the original appearance of that place as it had been before, and as I was sure it would be again. Maybe tomorrow I will see Junko! Maybe tomorrow I'll come across someone who knows how Kiyoko is!"

One unexpected detail common to many of the stories is that the people had no idea what had happened. They all describe a flash out of nowhere, and then the world was transformed. They did not know, at first, that it was a bomb. "The air raid warning had been lifted, and shortly after that there had been a big flash of light and a soft hissing sound like magnesium burning. The next they knew everything was turned upside down. It was all like some kind of magical trick ... " (Tamiki Hara, "Summer Flower").

The power of writing is to record, remember, explore, digest, question. Many writers will identify with these lines from "Summer Flower:"
"Sitting on the narrow road by the riverbank, I felt I was all right now. What had been threatening me, what had been destined to happen, had taken place at last. I could consider myself as one who survived. I have to keep a record of this, I said to myself."

source of recommended read: library

Apr. 29th, 2015


The surprises of adulthood

When you're growing up, you have certain expectations about what life (and you) will be like in adulthood.

And then reality happens.

Things that have surprised me about being an adult:

--You still have homework. It just comes in the form of bills, tax forms, insurance forms, etc.

--You reach the age of daily medication and pill-sorting containers sooner than you think you will.

--You really do say those same phrases your parents said. You know, the ones you swore you would never say yourself?

--A lot of adult privileges lose their luster once you actually reach them, so I thought all of them would. But it still is great to have a piece of candy when you want and not answer to anyone about it. (Or as Jerry Seinfeld once said, "If I want a cookie, I have a cookie.")

--It's also great not to be in school anymore, and to be able to go to the rest room any time you need to, rather than waiting for a bell to ring.

--At a certain age, your kids have a more active social life than you do. Your weekends are ruled not by your own plans, but by whether they have a soccer game / birthday party / standardized test.

--Emotions play a much bigger role, and facts play a much smaller role, in how the world works than you would've expected.

--When people from your generation start to hold many of the positions of political and corporate power, it's kind of scary, because those are your peers!

--It's best to start saving for retirement as soon as you start working.

--Ages that you once thought of as "old" don't feel that old when you get to them.

--You still think, "Someday I will catch up on things."

--You change your mind about some of the things on your bucket list. You realize you'll never do those things not because there isn't time, but because you don't really want to do them.

Apr. 25th, 2015


The water we need

Yesterday I took advantage of the sunny weather to enjoy a walk along the Schuylkill River, where cherry and redbud and magnolia trees were blooming. I stopped by the Fairmount Water Works to watch the cormorants fish in the water. Seagulls and Canada geese were also in evidence.

My special interest was in an exhibit currently at the Water Works: "One Man's Trash," a display of all the trash collected by one person in a year's worth of weekly walks through the Wissahickon Park. As you can probably imagine, in this effort Bradley Maule found hundreds of plastic bottles (about half of them water bottles), hundreds of metal cans (most of them for beer), plastic cups, all sorts of food bags and wrappers, dog waste (bagged and unbagged)*, gloves, shirts, and plenty of other junk. Including pregnancy tests, at least one cell phone, and several photos of a goat. By far the area with the most trash was Devil's Pool, a beautiful little spot (despite its name) where I've taken many people on hikes. There's a deep pool there where people swim and jump into the water, despite warnings not to.** If you want to see this pool for yourself, check out Sarah Kaufman's photos of Devil's Pool, some of which were also displayed at the Water Works.

After visiting the exhibit, I walked through the Water Works, which I've visited before, but I enjoy the old brick construction, the arches and channels and tunnels. There are other displays about Philadelphia's history and all sorts of facts about water--where it comes from, where it goes. In the Northeast, where we seldom experience drought, we tend to take water for granted. The Water Works is a nice reminder of how much we depend on water, how we are absolutely interconnected with our environment. (And for more on that subject, you might want to check out Flow, by Beth Kephart.)

The Water Works is FREE to visit. "One Man's Trash" will be on display there until June 26. If you can't visit Philadelphia in person but want to learn more about what it's like to pick up trash for a year and what you find when you do, go here.

*Not displayed, fortunately.
**In fact, this spot was one of several that formed the composite inspiration for the waterfall in Try Not to Breathe.

Apr. 22nd, 2015


A story's time

Lately I've been reading memoirs in which women recount their days of being young and single and playing the field. These books brought back to me the emotional storms of those years: the infatuations, the giddy waiting for a call. Planning what to wear, looking forward all week to a date, analyzing words and conversations for clues about where the relationship is going. The women in these books kiss a lot of frogs, figuratively speaking, looking for their princes; they make a lot of the same mistakes I made. They make me realize I'm glad to be past those years myself. That was a time of excitement and promise, but also plenty of pain and disappointment and uncertainty.

It got me thinking about perspective, and how the stories we tell change over the years. The meaning, or at least our interpretation, of the stories changes as we grow older, and as we grow. We stop trying to fit in, stop seeking the approval of people who don't matter. We get tired of trying to change the bad boy into a good guy, or of trying to force the chemistry with the wrong (albeit perfectly nice) guy. There comes a time when putting on ankle-breaking heels to stand in a loud smoky room late at night no longer seems like fun.

Sometimes we realize that certain things were never fun; we were faking it all along, fooling ourselves. Other times really were fun then, but wouldn't be if we tried to repeat them today.

The stories I wrote about my life then are different from the way I would describe the same scenes now. I find that some stories seem to have a "right time" to be written; that may be during the events they're based on, or shortly after, or decades later. Sometimes I try for years to write a story. For some stories, I still may not have reached their best time yet.

Apr. 20th, 2015


Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

One of the best reads I've had in recent weeks was Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

This memoir is told in graphic form (that is, heavily illustrated). It's a true story about parents and adult children (or in this case, one adult child), about aging and the end of life, about caregiving and obligations. It's about family: the ways in which our relatives amuse and exasperate us, the ways in which we care for one another. This book is hard hitting. While there's some humor here, the ending is inevitable and Chast doesn't flinch from it (at least, not on the page, whatever emotions she had to cope with in real life at the time). We know exactly where this story is going. There are readers who will find this book to be too close to home, those who find the reality of their own caregiving obligations or mortality to be quite enough already; this book isn't for them. There are readers who will prefer to "talk about something more pleasant," and who can blame them? But there will also be readers who need this book for its bracing realism, for the relief that raw honesty often brings. I'm in the latter category. A week after finishing this book and going on to read others, I'm still thinking about this memoir.

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