Wednesday, April 25, 2012

a trip home

In a few hours, I'll hop on a plane and fly home for a few days. The build-up to this trip has been big. First, I haven't been home in more than 8 months, and that trip wasn't really home, it was to the beach town my family went to for vacations when I was growing up. That also means that I haven't seen my nieces and nephews in that long. These kids are growing so fast - I swear it was just yesterday that a nine-month old Amelia was falling asleep on my chest, and now she and her cousin Andrew are readers and writers and bonafide kindergartners! So 8 months is a long time to miss these kids. I'm just hoping they won't leave for college tomorrow (though I know it will feel that way).

Then there's the race. I've been training for 14 weeks, which equals nearly 500 miles. That's a sixth of the way home, and a whole lot of sweat, tears, cursing (well, just a little bit), failing, surviving, overcoming and (sometimes) succeeding. I have a time goal - hence the training - and though I'm not sure I'll meet it, I'm still glad that I took on a training regimen that challenged me.

And of course there's home. There's Dunkin' Donuts coffee and that mid-Atlantic accent. There's more maple instead of palm, and that way that clouds float across the sky and the smell and the feel that's just different. It's difficult to describe a place that's so innate, like trying to tell someone what the back of your hand looks like. It's just yours. There's an ease that comes with this familiarity, but also a slight ache when you realize the home you're looking for isn't actually there because it's not just a place, it's a time and a feeling and it's people who have moved on and changed. But I'll always still be grasping for it, looking for it, while I sit and watch and drink my coffee.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

notes on memoir, and how to relax and receive

I'd never been to the LA Times Festival of Books, but I should have known to plan ahead, and that free might not mean completely without cost. When I decided at 10:30am on Saturday morning that I did, indeed, want to go and started to plot my adventure, I realized (a) the panels I was most interested in were happening at that very moment and (b) the other panels that intrigued me had "sold out." The event was free, but they still distributed tickets for some parts of the festival, including panels.

I tried to not get too caught up in these hopefully minor oversights. My friend, who is always up for an adventure and good at keeping her expectations open, said she would join me. This kind of company always helps ease the anxiety of a chronic planner like me. So off we went. We rode public transportation, which meant a walk, a metro ride, then a shuttle with the many other book- and story-lovers to USC's campus. (Seeing this mix of people: young, old, accompanied and alone, all different colors and styles was one of the highlights for me.) When we arrived, we grabbed a map and made a plan: we would go to a memoir panel, if only because I recognized the name of one author. Ten minutes later at the building where the panel would be held, two teens with volunteer t-shirts answered our question with clueless looks, then a kind security guard told us we really should have gotten tickets for the panel back at the entrance, but that we could wait to see if there were extra seats. I really thought we'd blown it by then, but remember, I'd decided to be open and go with the flow. So we waited. And happily, we got in.

And then they were good. These authors, they were all really interesting and thoughtful and clearly very talented. Memoir authors tend to get a bad rap. Most think anyone who would write a whole book about themselves must be deliriously self-absorbed, but these authors were funny and gracious and full of perspective.

I took a few notes that are still in that "rocks jumbling around my head as if in a rock tumbler" phase, clinging and clacking against each other, hopefully forming something of substance soon. But for now, my notes:
  • Reason to write memoir instead of fictionalizing one's story: because real life can be way more symbolic than fiction is allowed to be
  • memoir as illumination and connection; being honest helps people recognize themselves in your story
  • be specific to get to the universal
  • "how do I bear this suffering?" is a universal question
  • infusing a range of emotion (not just about voice per se, but about striking the right emotion); importance of feeling
  • read Be Thou the Voice, article by Dinah Lenney
 (And for anyone interested, the authors we heard were Cheryl Strayed, Charles Shaw, Emma Forrest, and Dinah Lenney. I'm most excited to read Ms. Strayed's book, Wild.)

After the panel, we wandered over to poetry stage where listeners lounged in the grass, shoes off, some reclined and looking at the sky or with eyes closed. The poet read her work in that overly-affected drawl that I imagine high-on-something spoken word artists from the 60's used. It all felt very hippie to me and though the poetry wasn't exactly my taste, sitting in the grass with my shoes off, feeling the warm sun on my exposed legs and the prickly grass on the bottom of my feet fit perfectly into my plan for the day: relax and receive. And that's exactly what we did.

Friday, April 20, 2012

even this late

Anyone who has read my blog over time might notice that I sometimes make plans that I don't keep. I won't get into that now, and though I wonder if I should feel guilty for breaking promises, I don't. Yet I do want to share that I've been thinking about this blog, about writing, about what's next. I won't make promises, but there is movement. (Also, I realize it may not matter much to the smattering of readers who come here, but it's exciting to me - so there it is.)

In the meantime, and while I get some more thoughts on paper, I wanted to leave you with this poem from today's Writer's Almanac. They've been featuring some really good ones over there lately. And for the comments: I'd love to hear about your favorite or newly-discovered poets and poems.

"The Coming of Light" by Mark Strand, via here.

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow's dust flares into breath.

(Also, does anybody know if re-printing poems that have been re-printed and citing the source is ok? I'd love to know. I feel like it's a bit iffy...)

Monday, April 16, 2012

picture, memory


I have this photo of my sister and me. It’s one of my favorites. It cheers me up and it immediately takes me back to that day and to that time in my life. We’re in a metro station somewhere in DC waiting for the train that will take us back to our car that will take us back home after a day trip to the city. I’m sitting on a bench, legs crossed and hunched over, my face scrunched up with uncontrollable laughter. My sister is sitting beside me and looking at the camera with a goofy face, her fingers above my head in bunny ears. We’re being silly, and our unfiltered enjoyment is pretty obvious. 

But then I also know how tentative I felt about life that day. I remember how much I needed to escape just for a day, and how perfect a trip to DC sounded. Any train that took me away from life was one I wanted to ride. It all sounds very dramatic, but that’s how things are when you’ve just broken up with somebody. It was my first break-up and I remember that the feeling of loss was so much like the floor coming out from under me. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: every song you hear reminds you of dating — the sad of your sadness, the bitter ones of the way it ended and all the ways he failed you, the sweet ones of the times that holding hands felt like flying. And somehow everything you see has some connection to something you did together, and every joke you hear you just know would have made him laugh. And because it's impossible to share them in the same way, these things make you feel alone, more alone than when you were alone before, and yes, that is possible.

Even though we hadn’t been so serious as to consider marriage yet, all of my imaginings of the future included him. I had to go through and erase his image from those pictures and they looked, if not empty, then rather confused and off-balance.

All this to say that what I needed badly was perspective and what better to bring perspective than a big city full of a nation’s history, and people who I knew wouldn’t let me go. (Because in the aftermath of something as earthshaking as a relationship ending, isn’t what you need to remember and feel held?) To be honest I don’t remember much about what we saw or ate — the things that we typically capture with cameras on day trips. What I remember is feeling separate, in a good way, and feeling safe. I remember being silly. I remember it rained and smelled both dirty and fresh.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

blogs i'm reading

Since you are here, I’ll assume you read blogs, at least occasionally. Or look at them, anyway. Have you noticed how so many blogs have lots of images and few words? This of course makes sense for a lot of blogs. I really enjoy design, food and photography blogs that are picture-heavy. But I also enjoy a good writing blog, or at least a blog with good writing. A site where stories and sentences can sing.

I’ve recently found two that I’ve come to particularly treasure, so I thought I’d share them, and maybe you’ll feel inspired to share your favorites with me.

A quick note: What I appreciate about these blogs is that I feel like they are a backstage pass to the practice of writing. I’m sure these bloggers write and revise at least some of their pieces (and it shows!) but that’s it — no boss or editor involved. What you get is the result of the imagination and motivation required to simply wrestle with words. And many of the posts are about very ordinary events told in a way that brings out the extraordinary in them, which is what writing is all about, I think.  

Djiboutijones is the blog of freelance writer Rachel Pieh Jones. A few months ago I read her moving story of pregnancy and childbirth as an expat in Somaliland, and it whetted my appetite for more. I googled her and found her blog, and with it more reasons to read: She shares stories of faith, running, getting published and motherhood in addition to her third-culture experiences in America (during an extended visit) and Djibouti (where she and her family live and work). I love how she writes about anything and everything. I feel invited to observe with her and inspired to be as open to opportunity to simply write. 

A friend introduced me to this one, and I'm so glad. Mount Custard is the home of sweet stories of a mother of two boys in New York City. On the surface they are about a very ordinary life, and then with the turn of a sentence this writer opens up this whole new layer of complexity. I think I tear up or nod or sit with an open mouth or all three during every one of her posts. My friend and I both agree that her writing voice is phenomenal — gentle and strong.

Any more recommendations? What about a blog makes you want to keep reading?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

a steady push

A few months back I signed up for a long race. To prepare I’ve been putting in a lot of running — about double the mileage and time I was running before training started. At first the new challenge was fun, and when I say at first I mean the first week. It didn’t take long for my legs to get fatigued, my mind to feel tired and weak, and my heart to second-guess the commitment I’d made to a time goal. The experience has been quite the lesson is sustaining a vision — body, mind and soul — through the long haul.

Yesterday when I started out on my run, my legs were stiff and my stride felt awkward, so I took it slow, expecting to loosen up and gain speed as I went. But I’d planned a route with a steady incline for most of the first half, so the ease never really came, even when I turned the corner and started on a decline. It was a steady push the whole run.

And then towards the end were two longer hills. On the first I felt my pace slow more than I’d have liked, and as I approached the second my mind and legs were both tired. Stopping wasn’t an option. I considered pulling out my ipod to switch songs, but then a new song came on, the same one that’s been queuing during tough parts of my runs a lot lately.

Lord you are good and your mercy endures forever.

I’d spent most of my run feeling the pain of the run, wondering when it would ease up and I’d start to coast. Most of the run I’d spent trying to pass walkers and weave between runners, easily annoyed at people who didn’t move out of my way and critical of people who weren’t doing it right (like I even know…). And then there was the difficulty of life, the pain of attempting that particular run and sustaining a vision in places that seem desolate and not worthy my time or hope. Of how my life feels like my running right now: a concerted effort that’s been consuming and tiring but with little outward progress to show for it. A steady push. A long haul. I’m tired.

I ran up that hill at what felt like a walking pace, but my feet were leaving the ground, my head was down and my arms were swinging. I made slow but steady progress to the top. The repeated reminder of God’s goodness, his enduring mercy, that He’s committed to me forever. Maybe I’d hoped for the ground below to miraculously flatten beneath my feet, or to grow wings that would lift me to the higher ground ahead. Those miracles, of course, didn’t happen. I had to just keep going.

I did reach the top of that hill. Then I kept running.