Tuesday, September 30, 2008

not exactly a normal day in the life

My son saws away at Old MacDonald on his new school viola. Madeleine interrupts her reading to tell me about the new “book groups” in her class, and how she chose which book to read but she will probably finish the book TONIGHT. What do book groups DO? She and I talk about taking notes and writing down questions as you read: she’s ready to be a grad student, too. The dishwasher is filled after a dinner for three, grilled tenderloin and asparagus, red peppers and potatoes. I wish we ate so well every day—good to have a break from the rains, so we can cook outdoors again. I ignore the beach gear, still stacked to one side of the porch, poor lonely toys.

Brownies bake too slowly—my kids’ dessert project now seems a worry, since the oven does not seem to be working. Whether or not we eat them with a spoon, the scent is… just like baking brownies, very, very good. The autumn air smells almost as good, through the open windows.

Today is a normal writing day in my student life, meaning I type out quotes from my library books and erase the pencil markings, revise my book-annotations, assess where I am in the reading and writing assignments. I do my magazine work for just a few minutes—the past week has been hellish, responding to political blasts from readers, but today seems relatively tame. I make several fresh attempts at writing an essay on election years and existential nausea. I do the thing I rarely do—rip out the meandering attempts and shred them into the recycling. The thoughts still need to churn awhile.

Then I get an email asking me to cover a women’s conference in New York, for a magazine, to blog about my experiences while I’m sitting in on the conference. The speakers include movers and shakers in the world, coaching on life choices, career choices, vision. My only worry: what will I WEAR?

Madeleine now recites the creation narrative of India in Sanskrit, “in the beginning there was neither existent nor non-existent.” Brendan moves into bath time, singing a song about Saint Mi-cha-el, hero of the brave. Madeleine moves her Sanskrit to the oven door to check the now-incalculable brownies.

You know me: full-time student, part-time slacker mom, typing while my children settle into evening. Scott arrives home late, and I stop to talk him through his late dinner, which he must grill himself. Slacker-wife. Celebrity blogger. Grad student who just finished one volume of Proust. Fashion plate, ready to be photographed… NOT. My curls peek out of an up-do this evening, pulled aside earlier in the day. Lipstick long worn-off. Let’s see, must buy a smidge of mascara and a new lipstick, must do that hand-washing, must ignore the beach-gear for other callings. Must think how to pack.

… and what to take, to read while I travel next week. Playdates to organize, Sunday school to teach, and I really, really need to get in a walk or two while the weather is still good. Tomorrow.

A good day, though, today. The brownies finally harden up, and they taste just fine, served warm with milk. Madeleine writes me a letter in code. Brendan tries to sing while brushing his teeth. No one wants the day to end except maybe me. My daughter’s note, Dear Mom, I am fine. How are you? I quickly write back in code, I am ready to sleep. She takes the pencil and writes, I am, too, followed by an exclamation point. I am, too.

Friday, September 26, 2008

nearly proof that I am reading...

Just add coffee.

Oh, and maybe I should open the book.

Just me and the laptop, in the bay window with the rain.

And Proust.

The Madonnas of Leningrad: rave and review

She is packing Belgian Delft porcelain, each painted with a different scene, when she notices a spot of red in the pattern, painted in the doorway of a house, and wonders if that has a religious connotation. In the next Delft teacup, she sees a small dot of red in a koi pond and wonders why she’s never noticed a touch of red in any other Delft teacups. By the third teacup she packs, she’s marveling at this new reality—then she realizes she’s been packing china with a nosebleed, without sleep and without a break, for days, and of course she’s hallucinating those droplets of blood into the patterns because she lives in an altered state. She is a museum docent in The Hermitage, packing artworks for removal to a safe place, assuming Leningrad will endure beyond the World War. She later describes these red droplets and her confusion to her boyfriend, shaking her head over her confusion. Then the war begins in earnest and confusion is an ongoing state. A sane woman becomes prone to visions occasionally, and most of these visions feed her soul.

I’m a nonfiction writer; I love reading fiction. This “love” is a small word—I am enthralled, transported, barely able to focus on life in the everyday world, while I am reading an engaging novel. My continuing quest is to discover what makes good fiction so satisfying, and to discover ways my nonfiction might approach that level of readerly satisfaction. I don’t think it comes close, most of the time, and I should say, “at least not yet.” Some nonfiction reading brings about the same trancelike absorption.

Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad blends a number of devices I love: a past narrative that tangles into a present narrative, a tour guide persona (I’m a sucker for tour guides and educators), children’s blank-faced confusion over who their parents really are. I’m a bit nervous about magical realism to any degree: I am a nonfiction writer and I stick to the truth doggedly. But magical realism makes complete sense within the context of altered physical states such as starvation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and ultimately Alzheimer’s.

What I love? Disorientation, rendered plausibly again and again. Subtlety within this frame—the narrator is losing track of distinctions between present time and an exotic past as a pre-WWII tour guide in The Hermitage. Is she “lost” momentarily because she is starving? Because she is shell-shocked? While she is lost and shell-shocked, all she sees is beauty, and in some way she is able to conjure beauty for others, entirely from memory. What I love also is elegance in story line.

What might I learn from this gorgeous novel? Paintings in the museum reflect personal realities for the narrator, and the stories within the paintings become inextricable from the narrator’s life. The absence of transitions between paragraphs about the past and paragraphs about the present—this is a technique absolutely perfected in this book. The narration itself reflects the disorientation of the main character, and how her past and present layer over one another. When I might “use” this in my nonfiction, I don’t know, but it provides a lovely way of knocking the reader off-guard. Dean also creates a fog of questioning: what is real? Of the available realities, what is the MORE real? What happens when the “real story” is implausible to others? Sometimes the real story, in nonfiction, is so nearly unbelievable.

In review of The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean’s work manages to be both rich in its lavish descriptions of art and restrained in its drama. She avoids resolution of questions about the main character’s life: was that real? How much was real? We all experience the same questioning of our own memory and of others, and yet in Dean’s book, it is this very “palace of memory,” no matter how faulty, that powers a young museum docent through Leningrad’s three year siege, and a pregnancy that seems miraculous in the face of starvation. The descriptions are tangible, realistic and stable through the first half of the book, with few foreshadowings of an “unreliable narrator.” By the time the unreliability is notable, I’m already absorbed into compassion for Marina, for her confused daughter, for her grieving husband.

Monday, September 22, 2008

my fall-winter-spring reading list

My two years of MFA studies includes reading (gulp) 62 books while writing and researching. I’m currently halfway through, working on books 40 and 41, leaving (gulp) 21 more titles for the rest of the year.

I just finished:
The Madonnas of Leningrad (37) by Debra Dean
Bewildered Travel: The Sacred Quest for Confusion (38), by Frederick Ruf
Emerson: The Mind on Fire (39) by Robert Richardson

All three are excellent reads, fiction, questing and biography, and I will say more about them soon.

My next set of required reading includes:
Swann’s Way (In Remembrance of Things Past) (40) by Marcel Proust
Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau
Father and Son, Edmund Gosse
Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez (very excited about this one!)

By spring I also need to read
In Praise of Folly, Erasmus
Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy

And the books I’m choosing for myself continue to shift, but here is a sketch of possibilities:

Acedia, a memoir by Kathleen Norris
My Grandfather’s House nonfiction by Robert Clark
The Virginia Woolf Reader(42)
Through a Screen Darkly a memoir by Jeffrey Overstreet
Dark Alphabet poetry by Jennifer Meier
How to Cook a Wolf cooking-writing by MFK Fisher
Unveiling (41) a novel by Suzanne Wolfe
Home a novel by Marilynne Robinson
Leaving Church a memoir by Barbara Brown Taylor
Force of the Spirit by Scott Russell Sanders

Far from making Denise a dull girl, the reading habit is a joyful one. Required reading "feels" different from my chosen readings, but it's also fun to stretch my tastes.

Any can't-miss reading selections to add to my list? I can't promise I'll get to them, but I have a little window open for suggestions...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

a visiting yarn-goddess-in-training

She pulls out a big crazy ball of yarn with fringes and way-long needles, claiming the object "doesn't know yet what it wants to be," and I see kindredness. I don't knit freeform, but I make yarn for no reason at all, for "something, someday." We've talked about spinning before, and now she is here. I run get the spindles. She puts down the knitting.

Time to play.

I place a length of fiber in her left hand and give the spindle a twirl. And we name things. But she's a natural-- it all comes easily.

Spinning employs its own language, just like any sport or craft, and we find a way to talk like beginners: the roving, the draft triangle, slip and airy-ness. When the weight of the spindle tears the fiber and the whole thing falls on the floor, we pass on the age-old joke, "that's why it's called a DROP SPINDLE."

I hope I look that happy.

What I love? She is not content, yet, because there is more to know. Madeleine asks to ply a length of yarn and my guest gleams "I want to do that, too." Typically I'd say "it's not a beginner-thing, it's an intermediate-thing." But look at her. Like I'd tell her she's a beginner. (I don't think so.) She spins enough to fill the spindle, so we can "ply."

Then we wind the stuff around her hand. When we find both ends, we gently remove the pile of yarn from her thumb, from her pinky, and she spins them together: voila, 2-ply thick-and-thin yarn.

Good fiber artist, she asks "what do I do to make it stay spun?" Hah! We wet it gently, hang it from the door to "set the twist," and let it dry. She's been through the whole process in a little over one hour. (Savant!)

While the yarn is drying, I pull out the tiny spinning wheel-- kids want to take turns spinning pencil roving into yarn. I'm good with that.

My friend with the spindle-talent takes a brief look, but she doesn't need to know any more today. I'm good with that, too.

She returns to knitting her Blue Thing. But now she knows how.

The yarn goddess goes home and pulls her own bag from the closet, spins her own stash of fiber, with her own spindle.

And then she spins some more.
This makes me very happy. I can't say why. I will be happier, too, if I play with yarn more this year, and weave and spin my life together, the words on the page and the stuff winding onto the spindle. Both are necessary; both are good. Both.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Day Three of MY school year

First a morning phone call opens my afternoon by hours and hours—a play-date, first for one child then for the other, too. I won’t need to go pick them up at school. Next my heart opens to the clean-up chores of the morning: they packed their own lunches, as is our habit these mornings, so I easily forgive them a few trails of toys and socks and the barely-made beds. I give a few minutes to the nagging chores, sweeping up dust, shaking rugs, giving the stove a once-over. So now the house is opened-up, too, to the sunlight still emerging. Not bad—that’s all I need to be pleased, today.

A meeting gets canceled. The morning is mine.

And the sky is opening, too, with breaks in a sometimes-stubborn Cape Ann fog. Perhaps it will clear in the coming hour—the Boston news claimed the fog cleared hours ago, there. Perhaps here, too. I could wash harder and deeper, but instead I sink into the chair with a stack of books, my glasses, a pen, the journal that is so full I must turn it upside down and search for empty back-sides of paper. A new journal would require a trip. No trips today except inward, at least for the next few hours. In late afternoon I’ll go set up my Sunday school classroom for the coming year, but I’m not thinking about it yet.

Day Three of solitude in a new school year. Day One evaporated in random noodling, walking, untangling of thoughts, stupor. Day Two I revised the drafts of graduate “homework,” book annotations for six titles, crafted a stellar dinner (chicken and vegetables in red curry sauce, over jasmine rice, with Brendan’s surprise side dish of handcut waffle fries). I finished the evening with my magazine work and some Virginia Woolf.

Each hour I shake off more of this stretch of busy-ness, travel, tending people. Each hour of quiet seems miraculous.

I don’t mind fullness—I don’t. Last week was filled with laughter, tourist-behavior, and every afternoon filled with beach time, playground time, “extra” children fitting in the backseat, the farmer’s market, sunlight, pots of popcorn, grown-up “play-dates” with Emily and Anastasia and Suzanne and Jennie. Lack of sleep, giddiness, finding the best chowder, the best coffee, the best escape, the secret stash of spinning fiber in the back of the closet for Anastasia to try. We baked bread. We crafted noodles. We made soup. I love all of it—but I love fullness knowing I’ll get to this set of days when the layers (of responsibility? of noise and distraction? of intuition for others? layers of what?) slowly peel off and the stories I’ve been turning around in my head find their way onto paper.

Even a quick clean of the frig speaks of goodness. (I know I said the place was clean enough. But. Something smelled evil, and now it is gone. And I found a scrumptious leftover for lunch, in exchange for my effort. Just like yesterday.)

The sky opens, blue and full of seagulls. Time to make the second cup of coffee and find a pen, and to sit in the sunny window.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"try to remember that song about September"

The first full week of school finds me not at my laptop at the kitchen table after breakfast, but hosting a dear houseguest. I’ve been itching to sit and focus for the months of summer break. But… on the other hand… If I were in the Rockies, I’d claim “May” my favorite month of the year, or perhaps June, for the Indian paintbrush, the fairy primrose, for pale green aspen leaves. In Indiana, October could last forever and I’d be pleased. On the Massachusetts coast there is no better month than September, warm sunny days and cool night breezes, children waking to claim they are freezing and scrambling to find socks. Then the heat rises to blazing, slowly.

So Emily and I drove children to school then we headed to the beach. Because she is a sojourner from Someplace Else, we ignore the books we packed and climb toward tidepools, where the baby crabs cling to fronds of bright seaweed, and the sea mussels and barnacles vie for space along the rock walls. Tiny fish chase shrimp, and I wonder if I’ve ever really observed the life in these little pools. It’s all new. Hours pass.

I wouldn’t give myself this permission if it were just me. But I have a guest! My excuse! I crave the wind and warmth more than I knew. I will store up these outdoor hours for the long winter ahead.

Emily asks me if I always swim in the ocean and I say noooooo. Often the Atlantic is just too cold, no matter how hot the day. When the water is just barely tolerable, I think of you people who’d love to be at the beach, and I walk in as far as I can bear. Each September visit could be “the last good beach day of the season,” and I remember June will be slow to come.

The morning is not enough. We pick up Madeleine and Brendan from school and return to the beach for the late afternoon. Kids don’t want to go to the beach again, until I announce I’ve invited another family, until we get into the water to play Frisbee, when the complaining stops, as if it never existed, until the sand fort is built. Scott picks up pizza after work, and joins us, and we wrap up in layers, chilled from swimming in the storm-tossed ocean. We drive past another beach full of surfers, and can’t take our eyes off them, except that we are falling apart. Protests about shivers and hunger and tiredness threaten to undo drivers, parents, neighbors within earshot but children finally howl toward bed, bickering, pushed past their limits. The house is full of mushy sand-filled clothes, wet bathing suits, stray sandals.

It seems each day of September begs, “what is this day ‘for’?” I envision what must be completed this grad school quarter, the pages of writing, the stacks of books. (Excellent books! List, soon!) On the other hand is what my favorite Capon names “Kairos,” or “high time.” A Guest in September shifts the weight toward “high time,” and we throw off my list of to-dos and become tourists, meandering narrow streets of shops toward a great ocean view, diving in the water while it’s warm enough that we won’t die, watching surfers until weariness makes it “high time” to go home.

That was Monday. Tuesday brought clouds and errands and window-shopping and car repairs, a delectable pot of chicken soup and a warmed-up batch of chicken-and-noodles, a pot of popcorn, and not much done but the production of happy kids. (Brendan has claimed Emily as The Best Basketball Buddy Ever.)

Today the balance could shift! The coffee is brewed, no errands in sight, my books are right here!

But then the September sun shines so sweetly on the harbor…

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

unlabored day

The contrast between my childhood life and my children's lives is never more vivid than the days before school-- we don't do back-to-school shopping, not really. Not like the ugly mall trips to try desperately to look like some back-to-school ad in a magazine. (It's important to confess that the mall trips were ugly because of me, and my Very Particular Tastes, which drove my mother to the brink of madness. But a mall trip wasn't an everyday occurance, so all five of us packed in the car, with our needs for sneakers, lunch bags, notebooks, my brothers five inches taller than the beginning of summer, battling for giant bags of food from the McDonald's drive through...)

We just don't do that, and I'm not claiming "my way is better," but it's calmer. The weather won't change to "fall weather" for a few more weeks. Let them wear summer clothes. The kids' school is blissfully unpretentious, full of kids who wear second-hand clothes, full of kids who don't fuss over fashion much. This is a stroke of luck: nothing is at stake on the first day of school, not like was for me as a kid. We've no pretense that a change to "cool" clothes will remake us into cool people, no pressure, a blessing.

Most of the clothes we need live in the attic, in the "next size up" boxes I sorted in June. Madeleine hates jeans and won't wear them, so we purchased a pair of gauchos and a pair of "yoga pants" last week. REI's Labor Day Sale is better than the miles of malls-- Brendan found a pair of Keens for fifteen bucks, marked down from $45. Madeleine found the stinking cutest pair of J-41 maryjanes, also marked down, and her first real purse (which she carries to bed, she loves it so). In Scott's absence, we choose three pairs of shorts for him, to replace all the missing ones while he swims at the beach. I'm all set for clothes and shoes (from my summer shopping trip to REI), but I snagged a neoprene/wetsuit shirt for swimming in the cold ocean water. We grabbed two Luna Bars for a snack, at the checkout, and when I got in the car I phoned Baja Fresh to order of burritos-to-go.

We drove straight to the beach to meet Scott with our bag of burritos, the sun still hot at four in the afternoon. Kids dove in, Scott pitched ball, Madeleine and I eventually finished our books, unwilling to let go of the last day of summer vacation until the bugs chased us indoors, for our dessert of chocolate milkshakes, and for the early bedtimes that will characterize the coming weeks.

Finished the biography of Emerson-- a good read but looooooong. 24 books to go, this school year. Today is for making lists of packable lunches, breakfasts kids will not refuse, fall cleaning chores. Tomorrow, blessed houseguests. Plenty to do-- I am trying to do it slowly, to savor a little.

Monday, September 01, 2008

girl's weekend

Schooner Fest. Tall ship tours. Knot-tying and spinning demonstrations, and a lesson on how to put a ship in a bottle. Sun, wind, iced coffee and vanilla crème soda. The Guys left for something sports-related for the weekend, a long trip involving trains and buses and schedules, and Madeleine and I meandered, here in town, happy.

We asked her favorite family to meet us for our favorite Mexican dinner, then walked to The Lighted Boat Parade, ate Fried Dough, settled in for a long and spectacular display of fireworks.

I whispered to another yawning adult, remember how we watched fireworks for ourselves, once? For fun? Not so long ago? Daughters shoved their empty Fried Dough plates into our hands, demanded we carry their purses, stuck their feet into our faces, were ornery and fidgety, and we undertook the long walk home slowly.

The girls had a sleepover on the futon in a pile of stuffed animals and pillows and sleeping bags.

Then I awoke to their voices. “We have to leave REALLY SOON if we’re going to see the start of the schooner race.” Eight a.m. Really soon? They leap from bed, grab the phone. Our guest proposes a full day of sailing, to see the schooner races from the starting line. I packed a bag, snacks, and my giant tome about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If you MUST read a giant tome about Ralph Waldo Emerson, may I suggest having your lunch served by two eager ten-year-olds, aboard a large sailboat leaving Manchester Harbor? With a vigilant, gleeful captain at the helm. With extra sunscreen. We didn’t need our extra layers. The captain bought us a dinner of ice cream, on shore once again. And bedtime came extra, extra early.

The nights are cool, with one more day of laziness and then school begins mid-week. Happy end of summer to you. May your day be so unlabored.