Yesterday I spent all day out in the heat at Planting Fields. I acknowledge the privilege I have: access to a friend w/car, a paid day off, NOT having to work and/or live outside…but I also think a lot about what it means to have to travel to see grass, trees, flowers – to have space to walk in nature and away from crowds. Ages ago I made a choice to move to NYC and then to the tiny apartment where I’ve been for many years. And there are many good things about NYC (and my tiny apartment) but all those photos friends post about yards and gardens and sunrises or sunsets, help to build a depth of regret and longing that I can’t quite reason or write myself out of. Now, this is, in theory, a blog about writing and reading, and my life is often spent immersed in editing, reading, writing while trying to balance a “day job” that has nothing to do with any of those things. And part of why I live in NYC is to have access to the world of writers and readers and publishers. But with the pandemic, my life has become one lived mostly inside: I have a disability and have been working from home since March of 2020. It’s a privilege but also can feel like punishment. In the hours I’m not working at the day job, I write book reviews (mostly for Publishers Weekly & The Brooklyn Rail), I read manuscripts (mostly for Black Lawrence Press), I curate and edit an indie publishing newsletter (Sapling – for BLP), and I recently completed a stint as guest editor for The Masters Review Novel Workshop. I read over 200 books a year (only some for pleasure), I read a few hundred manuscripts, and somewhere in there, I go to school (Starr King), I write, and I write, and I write. Even if I had access to sunrises and grass and flowers and trees on a daily basis, would I have time to savor them? To savor life? I’ve recently been reading (again) about “mindfulness” – that overused term that seems to be an attempt for many of us to fix those symptoms that cause us suffering: stress, anxiety, eating too much or too little, grief, aches, pains, and so many other parts of what it means to be human and alive in this time. Assuming you have a job and a place to live – which I know isn’t true for many Americans, not to mention many others across the planet – so many of us fail to acknowledge the privilege of our own lives: a relatively safe place to live, enough food and clean water, bodily autonomy (oops! lost that one), maybe even the opportunity to pursue our dreams. Perhaps, for me, mindfulness exists in those moments when I just stop and acknowledge the many good things in my life – not the ache for trees, not the anger at injustice, not the chronic pain, or even the little failures I see in books or manuscripts I read. It’s when I stop and take pleasure in a phrase or a sentence that works (!) or the drift of clouds above the brick building next door. It’s when I stop to breathe, stretch, or turn the page, maybe even appreciate my body’s ability to move with strength and power. Perhaps for me, mindfulness also exists in the call and response at a protest I recently attended while acknowledging my fear of crowds, other people, contagion, violence, noise, all the many reasons to be afraid. Perhaps for me, mindfulness exists in the act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and shifting the chaos of sound and vision, of fear and anger, and of people and trees and sky into words.
In the wake of yet another terrorist attack, I find it hard to stay focused on the myriad projects with deadlines looming (or already passed). But one thing I learned from those horrible days in september 2001 in NYC when the dust was everywhere and sirens became a part of our daily soundtrack is that there is a way through and for some of us, that way is with words. I write to understand the world. I write to understand myself. And when I can’t understand either, I write because I have to. That may sound pretentious or self-involved (aren’t all humans by nature self-involved?) but I really believe in the healing power of art. For several years I volunteered as a writing workshop facilitator at the Brooklyn Vet Center leading workshops for veterans with PTSD. They didn’t write about combat all that much and (with a very few exceptions) they were positive, mutually supportive and wonderful writers. The opportunity to write with them every week was one of the high points of my writing life. While that workshop ended due to a mixture of organizational dis-organization and my own PTSD making it difficult to take the subway to/from Bklyn every week, I still draw strength from that time spent writing with men and women who have witnessed horrors I will (I hope) never see. To be real, no one is “safe” and there is no such thing as “normalcy” (a word thrown around a lot in the days and weeks after 9/11 in NYC). But I can’t live life worrying every minute about when the next attack will come. And on those days when I just can’t see how we will ever get through this, how humanity will ever become “humane” on a global scale, I know I can’t do much but what I can do is write. And whether that writing helps anyone else? I don’t know. What I do know is that it helps me: to process rage, sadness, guilt, and confusion. So my advice to you: take some time this week, this month, this year to write, to read, and to write some more. Art does matter. Writing does matter. Even if you are the only person who sees it, it matters.
Another December has come and gone and with it the anxieties and joys of travel, family, holiday traditions, and of course the annual (nightly?) “taking stock of my life” that I’m prone to. I finished up another semester of grad school with two final papers – one on the importance of Irish/Irish-American women in the American Labor movement and one on the “eviction” photographs of Robert French (19th C. Irish photographer). I celebrated the end of the semester by going to see the new Star Wars movie – Han Solo was killed which pretty much ends that story for me. I then packed up and headed for Northern Arizona to spend a week with my parents and other assorted family. The N.AZ Unitarians put on a good Solstice celebration as well as a good service on the 24th. My mom sang in the choir on the 24th and it was great to see her up there singing and to see how full of energy she is after a year-long fight against Cancer. It snowed on Christmas Day which was made that much nicer as I didn’t have to commute in NYC through the resultant slush. While in AZ I read a lot, watched some football with my dad, walked some, and wrote less. Back in NYC for a few days, I divested myself of several pounds of books and paper, read more books and caught up with friends. On Jan 2nd, I headed out to Washington State to attend the ArtSmith Residency on Orcas Island. I hadn’t been to the San Juan Islands since I was a kid but had vivid memories of that gorgeous ferry ride from Anacortes. A high school friend picked me up at the airport and I was soon on the ferry. I met fellow residency attendee – Alaskan writer Nancy Lord at the ferry station – a great writer and a true pleasure to spend time with. After a gorgeous (albeit very grey) ferry ride, we arrived on Orcas Island. I was given a HUGE room (by NYC standards) and spent the week enjoying the space, reading, getting to know my fellow residents, and most importantly, writing. The mornings I spent drinking (too much) coffee and staring at the Salish Sea and the mountains will stay with me for a long, long time. I spent one afternoon and night in Seattle catching up with old friends and walking around the Market and its environs. Seattle was my first “big” city, it’s the place I was born, and the place I first discovered much of the music and literature and lifestyle that is integral to who I am. It no longer feels like “home” but it does feel like a place I could live. While deep in the woods (or out on the beach) on Orcas, I felt the strong pull of “home” – the “right” ocean, a more sane pace of life, a space to think and write and breathe.
While in Seattle, we got the news of the death of David Bowie. Others have written much and more eloquently than I could of the importance of Bowie in shaping taste, personal identity, and self-expression. I’m glad I heard the news while I was with a long-time friend in Seattle. NYC is full of good, sensitive, creative humans but I didn’t spend my childhood here and it will never really be “home” for me. Now that news has come out that CD Wright and Alan Rickman have both died of Cancer and of course remembering the huge presence that was John Trudell, I have to wonder if I wasn’t better off on that island, cut off from news of the wide world and instead studying trees, and tiny shells, birds and patterns of words. Perhaps life would be better away from the brutal stress of life in NYC, and away from the huge sadness of the world at large. NYC can be a beautiful and inspiring place to live but just two weeks away is enough to change my perspective. Whether or not I finish the work I started and edited at ArtSmith, I hope to hold onto that changed perspective as I move into another academic year, another work year, and another year of living. I am thankful for what I have, for those who are still with us, and for the gifts of those who are gone.
I recently saw a brief news story on “Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder.” The suggestion being that some people suffer on sunny days the way other suffer in the darker months. Although I love the sun and the warmth and long days at the beach, this summer is full of humid long afternoons and for anyone who is crowd-shy and not a fan of stench, Manhattan is no place to be in the summer. Yesterday I shut the windows, drew the drapes and spent the day reading (Eavan Boland’s essays) and writing. Writing about rain and wind and the darker days of fall and winter. Recently while working my way through a massive stack of manuscripts to be read for one of my “extra” jobs, I began to feel: disheartened, disgusted, disenchanted with the whole process of writing and reading until I came across a manuscript that drew me in, kept me reading, editing as I went and – some two hours later – I looked up at the clock. And then I realized: it was my own work. It sounds weird I know but it’s a manuscript I’d written for NANOWriMO some years back and then just abandoned. Some important lessons I took away from this experience: I do like my own writing, editing is MUCH easier when time passes between the writing and the reading of work, no manuscript should ever truly be abandoned. Now that I have distance from this work, I can see the flaws: in plot construction, consistency of dialogue, logic of events, but I can also see the work that went into creating language that works and the important work yet to be done. At the end of that day spent reading, I confessed to a writer friend that I felt I had “done nothing all day.” She corrected me: “You HAVE been working all day. Doing what it is you are SUPPOSED to be doing.” And that was: writing. Writing is not just the creative act but the whole process: reading, editing, and taking stock of the work that’s been done. While summer is marketed as a time to “get outdoors!” to “have fun!” it can also be a time for reflection, for reading, for writing, for editing and to remind ourselves that as writers, we must take the time to do the hard work of reading and editing in order to do that thing we are SUPPOSED to be doing: writing. Everything else is just what we’re doing to fill the hours when we’re not writing.
Happy National Poetry Month everybody! Another April means, I have another poetry chapbook out featuring poems written by myself and my poet friend Mary Ellen Sanger. You can get it here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1511434120/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk
If you want a signed copy, come see me at AWP in Minneapolis next week or hit me up via Facebook and we’ll figure it out.
Meanwhile, spring is finally here, everyone’s running around naked (despite the wind chill) and I am already once again considering moving North or Northwest.
Somehow it’s already a new year and I’m still convincing myself to get back in my regular rhythm of work and writing and socializing and sleeping 6-7 hrs/night instead of 8-10 hrs/night with extended naps in between. Having just come back “down south” to NYC and out of the cold, dark place that is New England in winter, I’d like to suggest we just skip over January and February. As I made a concerted effort to stay offline, I neglected some year end chores like thinking about just what it was I consumed in 2014: words, music, film. I read very little new fiction and listened mostly to classical and friends’ music but here for good measure are lists of things I found worthwhile in 2014:
2014 books (no particular order):
- Bark: Lorrie Moore
- Can’t and Won’t: Lydia Davis
- The Laughing Monsters: Denis Johnson
- The Shell Collector: Anthony Doerr (I know…not released in 2014 but one of the best I read in 2014)
- Remembering the Year of the French: (Guy Beiner, also not released in 2014)
- Lila: Marilynne Robinson
- The Beautiful Thing that Awaits us All: Laird Barron
- This Side of Brightness: Colum McCann
2014 music (music released in 2014 or performances in 2014 – in no particular order)
- Jack White: Lazaretto
- The Black Keys: Turn Blue
- St. Paul & Broken Bones: Half the City
- Afghan Whigs: Do to the Beast
- Mastodon: Once more round the sun
- Nick Cave live at Town Hall
- Bryan Ferry live at the Beacon Theater
- Jessie Kilguss: Devastate Me
- Peg Simone live at various
2014 movies (released in 2014 – no particular order)
- Only Lovers Left Alive
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
- Inside Llewyn Davis
While seemingly most of the city is out of town on vacation, there are those of us who work in Higher Ed who are slogging away at all the myriad tasks that are required for a new college semester to get rolling. Full-time faculty are returning, as are administrative colleagues who were away on research trips. People ask me about my summer. My summer has been spent (mostly) in the city working and aside from one quick jaunt to the Adirondacks planned for Labor Day, is now over. Next week I head out to the wilds of NJ for my new Ph.D. program’s Orientation & my classes start the day after Labor Day. Meanwhile, my writing suffers. I still write a poem-a-day during the week (sometimes more) but all the stories I started this summer remain in first or second draft – some likely to remain there for months. Sitting with a long-time artist friend over tea this past weekend, I listened to her talk about a documentary film she’s starting and catching up on her various other output (hard cover book of her illustrations, an installation, etc.). On Friday, I met up with two musician friends – one of whom is playing shows as part of a music-inspired-by-books series before heading out on a UK tour. The other has started a small press and is launching her own line of soaps and perfumes while continuing to play live shows and put out a song a week. Both have full-time jobs. Then I think of all the many creative people in this town who talk more about doing creative work than actually doing the work and I find myself happy to have such accomplished friends and hope that their ongoing creative work will give me the kick in the butt I need to finish my wayward stories and send them out before the pressures of maintaining two jobs and a Ph.D. program swallows all my mental energy. There is a plethora of articles (and books) on how women write when they have kids – maybe it’s time someone wrote about how women create while working full-time, part-time and trying to survive one one income in NYC.