Autumn Crisp

As I waddled to the train station this morning, my breath puffed in front of me in a soft, vaporous cloud. This is the first morning that it has been cool enough for condensation, though the trees noticed weeks ago that it is time for the season to change. The crispness of the air feels appropriate, even late, now that it is already halfway through November.

Likewise, my life has folded neatly at the corners this weekend, as I turned in the last of my assignments for this semester and completed a few other goals. Not having a school-aged kid in the house any more, it really does only feel like the beginning of autumn for me now, as the weather actually gets cold and my own projects wrap up and leave space for new ones. Things have been very busy, as we’ve been preparing for our daughter to arrive. There are classes at the hospital (and, being a lover of education, I have signed up for them all), endless doctor’s appointments, prenatal yoga classes and reading, reading, reading and researching, as I try to understand what babies are all about and what she will need.

I know very little about babies. Small children are also a mystery. My only sibling was born fourteen years after me, an ocean away. We didn’t actually meet for the first time until he was six years old, so even the few memories that I have of him before he came to live with us don’t give me much assistance on how humans who cannot speak operate. I imagine that I have a great deal to learn. I am excited about the journey.

One of these days, we’re going to have to admit reality, and actually begin putting together a nursery. If I manage to go full-term, which is looking less and less likely, we have less than three months left to prepare. Our baby shower was this past weekend, which means that we are now suddenly equipped for many aspects of the baby’s life. When we got home, we immediately pulled out the baby bathtub and set it up on the sink so that we could learn how to use it. We ran the water in, trailing our fingers through it to see if our human thermometers matched up with the electric thermometer on the tub. We laughed as we pulled plugs and drains and forced it to overflow to see how it would work. I picked up the cat and joked that we should give it a try. All it was missing was the baby to put in it.

She will arrive, in time.

Next week, my thesis writing courses begin. These classes are the primary reason that I was interested in graduate school — the thesis itself is a finished novel of professional quality. This last semester was also encouraging; I finally feel that my short-story writing is getting to a polished enough state that it’s worth sending out for publication attempts. We wrote to some fairly strict writing prompts, which was frustrating at the time, but I was surprised to see what I managed to do with the limitations. I approached each assignment with the idea of coming up with the most creative interpretation of the restrictions possible, then wrote from there. I’ve always rolled my eyes a bit at writing from a prompt, but I found that it actually helped me to do better, more focused work than writing without guidelines. That was an interesting lesson and one that I want to think about as I go forward with my thesis planning. I’ve been tempted to use the thesis classes to pick up one of my two novels-in-progress that have stalled for lack of limitations. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing to have someone help me corral in the material that has gotten a bit out of hand.

Decisions to make, decisions to make.

In any case, I have pulled out a new writing notebook, which was given to me as a present for doing another writer a favor. It feels like an auspicious place to begin new things. I can’t wait to start.

Sphere: Related Content

Breathing Out Again

We found out this week that this babe that we’ve been expecting to arrive at the end of January is a daughter.  This is the first time I’ve written about it, anywhere really, because we have been slowly navigating the risky phases of pregnancy.  This week’s doctor visit has relieved a lot of stress, as well as given us a name for the child.  I find that this morning, I am a lot more excited about this pregnancy than I have ever been — at last, I find myself able to drop the gates that I have held up in case it all goes wrong.

It so often does, when it comes to childbearing.

It’s a subject that we don’t talk much about as a society.  I know more than a handful of women my age that have struggled with infertility and gone through the emotional turmoil of miscarriages.  With my particular health issues, I presumed that I would be one of them.  When I got pregnant fairly easily, I held my breath, waiting for someone to pull the rug from under my feet.  I’ve been holding it for five months, as I navigated my way through my suddenly growing body.  When I was lying on the ultrasound table, with a stranger poking and pressing me in ways that I was trying to ignore, I finally heard the words that let me let it out.

“Textbook perfect.”

I held my Beloved’s hand as we watched the impossibly small fist curl up in front of our daughter’s impossibly small face on the ultrasound screen. She weighs about a pound now and is all skin and bone — quite literally.  She will spend the next three months growing the fat and muscle that will sit in between her skeleton and skin.  When she is born, she will be too weak to even lift her head.  I do not know much about babies, but it is difficult to imagine how something even weaker than a kitten is going to turn into the strong and vibrant person that we will spend the rest of our lives getting to know.  I am awed that my flawed genes have managed to combine with my Beloved’s and create something so special – and yet, something so ordinary. It is the most ordinary thing in the world, but it has taken over my entire life.

 


 

The weather has dipped this week, bringing the first days that I can pull out the sweaters, jeans and loafers that become my uniform through most of the year.  Of course, this year I must put away all of my precious hand-knit woollen sweaters for the thin acrylic blends that Old Navy sells in their maternity section.  I am trying to keep my chin up, but it’s a bigger blow to my vanity — and fiber snobbery — than I had been anticipating. All the extra blood flowing through my body to support our child has been keeping me warm, even as my joints have been swelling my shoes straight out of commission.  I find that I miss my normal wardrobe more than I should.

Pregnancy has been challenging for me.  I weathered the first trimester with remarkable digestive ease, given the torture that some women go through with morning sickness.  I was exhausted and nauseous and never slept through the night, but the harder part was keeping silent about it.  Gratitude overwhelmed me every time that I settled my queasy stomach with the trail mix and banana chips that became my constant companions.  What I found most difficult was accepting the limitations in my physical strength without tearing my brain apart.

I don’t usually think of myself as someone that’s athletic, but I’ve worked up to a certain level of fitness through yoga and running that I take a lot of pride in.  When the pregnancy started affecting my ability to reach, to run, to climb stairs….I took it pretty hard.  I have given up running for the rest of the pregnancy, not because I can’t run, but because my compressed lungs and slow jogs are doing my head in.  I’ve moved from the sweaty, advanced vinyasa classes to the gentle flow and prenatal yoga. I’ve discovered the real yoga lesson in all of this, which is to learn to accept what my body has to give today, without judgement.  I am not a bad person if I can’t keep to my ten minute miles.  My body is doing what it needs to in order to create a life.  Slowing down does not make me weak.

Saying it — and accepting it — are two different things, but I’m slowly getting there.  The more that I say my daughter’s name, the more I think about her face and smile and laugh — the closer I come to understanding.  This week, now that I know her name, it’s gotten so much closer and so much more real.

Take your time and grow, Cora.  We’re waiting for you.

 

 

 

Sphere: Related Content

Verisimilitude

Henry-JamesIt must be admitted that good novels are somewhat compromised by bad ones, and that the field, at large, suffers discredit from overcrowding.
— Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

It is the beginning of a new semester of my graduate program in Creative Writing and I came across this quote as I began the reading for my American Naturalism literature class.  It seemed like he could have written it today about today’s conversation about writing and self-publishing.

There are a lot of books being published today.  Amazon bears a responsibility for that — it is now easier than ever for an author to share their work with an audience.  I was sitting in a train station on Friday afternoon, shamelessly eavesdropping on a young woman’s conversation, where she explained to her companion that she had published a book and sold five copies of it — she was certain that it was all to her parents’ friends, but she was thrilled nonetheless.  Five people had purchased her work, but this was as big of a goal as she had for herself.  For perhaps the first time, we have a broad amateur market with easy access to an audience.  We sell ebooks for a dollar — sometimes even less, to a global marketplace that has learned to expect poor editing for a cheaper price.  I’ve heard others tell me that they won’t pay more than three dollars for a book, no matter who the author is.

Wouldn’t Henry James be delighted at such sentiments?

There have always been vanity presses.  Even Jane Austen’s family volunteered to offset the publishing costs of her first novels.  Many, many well-polished and mature manuscripts still face failure at the traditional publishing houses, who are now owned by fewer companies than they ever have been.  As with most of the cultural products in our world, our choices are becoming simultaneously fewer and greater at the same time — there are fewer people professionally producing unique books, but many more amateurs with the ability to bring us their creative vision.  We’ve seen the same experience with music, as Youtube and independent music distributors like Jamendo, Bandcamp and others have enabled more musicians than ever to share their art with the world.  (Read more.)

Being the populist that I am, I can’t help but appreciate that it’s easier than ever for  creative art to find its way in the world.  I want the truly creative artist to not be dependent on taste monitors at publishing houses and recording studios deciding what will be financially viable for them and making that available to us as a culture.  We’ve seen what that creates with the music stations of the United States, which play a increasingly small selection of songs.  Much of what gets published is published with the same idea — repeat the same formula that’s already out there, because it’s likely to win you money.  Find an author that was an amazing success, then publish more of her work.  Discover authors who are already selling, who already have their cross-marketed platform, who have already been successful — it’s a significantly less risky strategy than taking a chance on someone that no one has ever heard of.

I can’t really even blame the publishers for these decisions, when I hear readers say that they won’t pay more than three dollars for a book.  You have to sell a lot of copies of that book before you can pay your staff. And with the market prices now starting to be driven by retailers like Amazon, who are demanding to set the price of books even lower, it’s become more difficult than ever to stay in business as a publisher.  We may well see a market entirely created by the “amateurs” soon if giants like Amazon manage to make professional publishing houses unprofitable.

What would Henry James think of that?

I have to admit that there have been times in my writing life, when I am frustrated with the work that I am doing, where it becomes impossible to see the point of it all. This is in part because of how much work there is out there — even this blog often feels like I am writing into the abyss.  If audience is the goal, then that is an increasingly difficult thing to achieve when there are so many different places for audiences to go. We could argue about an increasingly short attention span as well — I know far too many people who won’t even read beyond the title of an article on Facebook.  The web has its own share of the guilt — so many things that are produced for the Internet are for link capital and provide very little new content.  If I had a dollar for every article that begins, ‘You Won’t Believe…” or “10 Things That….”, I would not be worried about some day trying to make some money off of my writing.

I admit that I have a certain fondness for Henry James.  He was a modernist, in a changing era.  He was writing about psychology and feminism, as he watched the traditional gender roles that he grew up with change as his world crossed over into the 20th century. Although his work has aged over the last century, his books still feel modern — and you get the sense of a man trying to understand the people around him.  Later in “The Art of Fiction,” James writes that the novel, unlike other literary forms, should compete with real life — that it should engage in a type of trompe l’oeil verisimilitude. I like that idea a lot, this idea that literature should struggle to feel real.  Even when the characters are in fantastical situations, they should feel real and true.  If I could just wrangle my characters into that, then I could be happy enough, published or not.

 

Sphere: Related Content

Woe to the Pears

Shinko Asian Pears“I have some sad news for you.”  Me Beloved’s face was mournful, but his mouth was twitching, which is never a good sign.

“Uh-oh.”

“About the pear tree.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No!”

My favorite fruit in all the world is the Asian pear. I presume that this is because I am a Taurus and value expensive things, because the Asian pear is the most expensive pear I could possibly desire.  Even in Asia, they’re considered delicacies that are often saved for guests, or shared between people, because they are expensive and difficult to cultivate. In Korea, there’s even an entire museum dedicated to them, which gives you an idea of its economic and cultural importance.

They are hard to find here.  When they do come in, they sell out quickly, despite their price tags of $2 to $3 per pear. And while I adore them, I also have a difficult time spending that type of money as often as I would like to indulge my habit.  My delicious, juicy habit.

So I thought I would be clever, since I had just moved into a house with a garden — I thought that I would make my own pears, to give myself the quantity that I would like. I did my research and purchased two Asian pear trees, because fruit trees need to cross-pollinate.   I wasn’t able to get two of the same type, due to limited supply, and one was advertised as less delicious than the other.  I put the less delicious tree on the median between the street and the sidewalk in front of our house as a sacrifice to neighborhood children.  I am not a fool.

The good pears, I put in our front garden, inside our fence.  Then I waited for them to grow.

And waited.

And waited.

Because they are fruit trees, in the third year, I expected to see a few pears.  I picked them, but I picked them too soon and they weren’t very good.  So I waited another turn of the year, leaving the pears on the trees until they were fat and plump.  Then, I came home on picking day…and discovered that they were all gone.

Every single pear.  Taken.

They say that there are five stages of grief.  The first is denial.  I went inside the house and asked my Beloved if he had picked the pears.  He hadn’t.  The second is anger.  What kind of person would have taken ALL of the pears?  What special kind of blanketyblank do you have to be? Are you freaking kidding me?

Then, bargaining. Do you think if we hadn’t planted one of the pear trees on the street…?  Depression follows.  There will be no pears.  I don’t deserve these pears if I couldn’t protect them.  Then, finally, acceptance.  We’ll grow more next year.

So we did.  And they disappeared, en masse, yesterday evening.  I wish that I could blame it on kids, but a neighbor saw who took them last year, so I have my suspicions.  My very adult suspicions.

I printed out a LOST PEAR poster and put it out on the telephone pole on our curb, with a picture of our missing pears.  After all, I’m back in denial.  Mourning will come later.  How could it have happened again?

Sphere: Related Content

Summer Gardening

_DSC3019Today I found myself laying in the grass underneath my four-year-old Asian pear tree, watching puffy white clouds float by in a light blue sky.  I told myself that I was resting, taking a break from the heat and the weeding that I’d been occupying myself with for a few hours, but the truth was that I was reminiscing.

I haven’t spent much time in the garden this year, between all our house guests and trips out of town and keeping things going while my Beloved was in Ireland.  Life does that – it intervenes and takes control, no matter how good your intentions.  My postage stamp sized garden is largely self-sufficient — without my lifting a finger, we had decent crops of strawberries and blueberries and the beginnings of what I hope will be our biggest Asian pear crop yet.  Yet the neglect is obvious in the straw color of the grass and the forests of weeds that grew out between the bits of last year’s mulch that survived the winter. In the five hours that we spent working on it today, we pulled out four full-sized construction garbage bags of weed and dead grass. I need not have fretted over missing yoga this morning — my back, shoulders and legs got plenty of exercise in wrestling the garden back into shape.  Garden Kneeling Pose.

We put down six bags of cedar mulch, both to keep down the future weed life, but also because cedar mulch is colorful and pretty.  As I knelt along the edges of the lawn,  spreading out the mulch with my hands, carefully piling it around the roots of every plant, I felt about as connected to my garden as possibly could be.  I am marked and scarred from mulching the rose bushes, but they’re scars I’ll carry proudly over the next week, when I’m stuck in a climate-controlled skyscraper, as far from nature as I possibly could be.

When I was small, I used to spend hours and hours lying in the grass and watching the clouds.  Time is different when you’re a child — time is something that you kill while the adults are running around doing adult things. Today we just sat for twenty minutes, watching the water shoot out from the main sprinkler, waiting for the second sprinkler head to kick in on its timer. Just sitting, while I was covered in dirt, sweat and grass from a hard day’s play, was one of the happiest moments that I’ve had all summer.  As the water pooled on the driveway, I tried to clean my muddy flip-flops and feet in it, but only created thick mud streams down my legs. It was so carefree, so lovely, so freeing.

Sphere: Related Content

Faithful Place by Tana French

faithful-placeTana French’s Faithful Place, the third novel in her Dublin Murder Squad series, draws us to the poor Dublin neighborhood of the Liberties and sends us back in time to the 1980s, the height of Ireland’s poor economy and emigration problem.  Readers of The Likeness will remember Cassie’s Undercover boss Frank Mackey, who is the star of this novel.  In December, 1985, Frank was a 19 year old, poised to run away to London with his girlfriend Rosie Daly.  Headed for the morning ferry, he was at the beginning of a new life — escaping his violent, alcoholic father, dysfunctional family and poor economic prospects…only Rosie never showed.

Twenty years later, Frank is an established and respected Undercover detective.  When he receives a phone call from his younger sister Jackie giving him the news that a new construction project has unearthed Rosie Daly’s suitcase, his understanding of his last night in Faithful Place is thrown into turmoil, and he begins to wonder if Rosie meant to meet him after all.  Carefully protecting his new identity from his family, Frank returns home to finally answer the questions that have been chasing him since the night his dreams of his life with Rosie were shattered.

As with French’s other mysteries, Faithful Place is deeply character driven.  The story is not truly about the mystery of Rosie Daly’s disappearance — instead, as in her first novel In the Woods, French asks us what the consequences of going home again are.  The family dynamics are classic alcoholic family dynamics — the older siblings react to their father’s violence by taking on the responsibilities of protecting their younger siblings from their parents.  Frank’s siblings are as scarred as he is, though they wear it differently.  When Frank returns, in his official duties as a Garda cop, he finds that his family and his neighbors are equally suspicious of his motives.  When he quickly finds Rosie’s body, old wounds are reopened, and they all point back to him.

One of the beautiful components of French’s writing is how accurately she combines psychological insight with the troubled history of Ireland.  She demonstrates the difference between Frank and his childhood best by subtle dialect — Frank’s language is posh, educated and practiced. We can hear the advantages that he had — his extra years of education, his years married to a barrister, the daughter that he now lives to protect — in the way that he speaks. Meanwhile his siblings, who never made it far from Faithful Place, speak in a street slang that reminds us that Frank lives in a different world.  His tenacity in answering the question of what happened to Rosie also sets him apart — while he’s willing to explode the past in his rage, his family, old friends and neighbors want to keep it buried. For lovers of language, the sheer Irishness of French’s prose will also be a delight.

Cooper the pathologist, a narky little bollix with a God complex, got there first.  He pulled up in his big black Merc, stared severely over the heads of the crowd till the waters parted to let him through, and stalked into the house, fitting on his gloves and leaving the murmurs to boil up louder behind him.  A couple of hoodies drifted up around his car, but the bogmonster shouted something unintelligible at them and they sloped away again, without changing expression.  The Place felt too full and too focused, buzzing hard, like a riot was just waiting for its moment to kick off.

Faithful Place is a good read and an interesting story for anyone looking to understand the complexities of a country whose failing economy forced generations of young people into desperate choices. In 1989, Ireland lost over 70,000 people (2% of its population) to emigration — one of those young people being my husband.  French takes on that history without flinching, bravely digging into the social problems that widespread poverty creates.  Frank tells us that in 1985, every job had at least twenty applicants – and that his chances went down to nothing once he listed his address.  As always, with French, this attention to time and setting gives us so much more than a typical murder mystery, but readers looking for a whodunnit with a big reveal are likely to be disappointed.  This just isn’t that kind of story.

The beautiful writing and thoughtful narrative of Faithful Place has me already shopping for her next novel in the series, Broken Harbour.  My reviews of French’s earlier Dublin Murder Squad books,In the Woods and The Likeness can be found here and here.

Sphere: Related Content

Separation

montauk_seagullJune has been sneaking away from me, the days so filled with activity that I’ve barely noticed the blooming in my garden, the hotter days and the incredibly furry cat that stares at me intently, wondering when I’ll have a heart and take her to get her fur shaved off, for the love of God.

 

That would be scheduled for Wednesday.  I’m not a monster.

My Beloved has been in Ireland for a week and a half, with no return date in sight.  His mom is not doing well at all and I am very glad that he is with her.  At the same time, the space that’s carved out in our lives by his absence is obvious — all the things he does around the house, the noises he makes, the stories he brings with him — are all suddenly absent. There’s a certain silence where I am used to hearing noise.  I am listening, as I take out the trash and cook myself dinner, do the shopping and pass off the dry cleaning.  I drive around in his massive truck and find myself fitting into the spaces that he normally inhabits, which feels good, because it feels like a service that I can do for him when he is so far away and so worried about bigger things.  It always better to be doing.

Jason-Stomps-Love My house has had a steady stream of visitors to keep me company while he’s away.  These were planned visits, as we always get busy in the summer months, but I’ve appreciated the distractions.  Last weekend, I went with friends out to the end of the island, where we visited the Montauk lighthouse, ate like kings, and found a wonderful little bookstore–the rather directly named Montauk Bookshop.  They had a fabulous collection of books, with many lesser-known titles by classic authors, and a good selection of the backlists of more contemporary writers.  I picked up Mary Shelley’s Mathilda, Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Tana French’s Faithful Place, which I have been meaning to read for years.  Stocked with more books than time, we went to find dinner at a place called Rick’s Crabby Cowboy Cafe because they served S’mores.  Wouldn’t you?

A good trip.  My next visitor comes from the U.K. in about three hours, so we’ve spent quite a bit of time this week pretending that we live in a much neater house than we really do. I’ve come to terms with reality and put away the paint supplies that have been sitting out since I started repainting the hallway back in May.  Plaster is a look, right?  In removing all of the stuff for the half-finished construction projects which aren’t likely to progress until the return of my Beloved, I’ve discovered that we have a lot more house than I thought we had.  Now that I can see my living room again, I’m really looking forward to the arrival of the couches that we purchased on Memorial Day.  The current couch has been slowly separating — the end seat is threatening to break off, like a polar ice cap, and has been in danger of floating away for some time.  That, too, is a look.  A look that will thankfully soon be gone.

Yesterday was the summer solstice.  In honor of the change of seasons, my yoga teacher asked us what the first thing was that came to our minds when we thought of summer.  Being in a room full of Long Islanders, nearly everyone named the beach.  Her answer, however, was time — the extra hours of sunlight in summer give us that extra hour in our day that we’re always looking for. This is the time of year that we play in the sun and spend time reconnecting with the people that matter. As I’ve slowly whiled away the weekend, napping, dreaming, writing, cleaning, I kept finding myself thinking about the gift of time that summer brings.  When my Beloved called yesterday for our evening chat, he mentioned that in Dublin, the sun didn’t go down until nearly 10 p.m.  Here, a little further south, the sun will set around 8:30 p.m.  When we were in the San Juan Islands at the beginning of the month, the evenings seemed to last forever, because we were far were as north as Ireland is. The light gave me energy and, above all, time.

Sphere: Related Content