The ghost of Christmas (gifts) past

When I was a freshman band geek in high school, a *senior* band geek asked me out. He was a trumpeter, no less, which as every band geek knows, means sexy cut-up, just like percussionist means understated dry wit. I was over the moon.

And then it was Christmas and time to identify and acquire the Perfect Gift. At that time, needlepoint was trendy and most of us girl band geeks traveled with tidy little bags containing three-strand yarn and mesh with various per-square-inch holes. We stabbed that mesh with our dull-tipped needles, colorful trailing yarn pulled taut to make pillows and ornaments and picture frames and belts. Yes, belts. The preppier the better. Argyle patterns were in, and plaid. ‘Nuff said.

The trumpeter made it clear he wanted a belt for Christmas. By mid-December, I was a needlepointing ninny.

Despite my quick flautist fingers, however, when I took the piece to the shop to be finished — I wasn’t skilled enough to affix the leather backing — I was too late for it to be finished by Christmas.

Despair! Gnashing of teeth! Etcetera!

Then my mom suggested I make him a little card explaining the belt would be done by New Year’s, and bake him brownies so he could fatten up in the meantime.

Perfect! Funny! Etcetera!

I made the brownies, I hand-lettered the little card, I wrapped the brownies in wax paper and I packed them in a foil-lined box and I presented it on Christmas Eve.

Trumpeter opened the box, read the note and said, “oh.”

I explained, in case it wasn’t clear, that the brownies were to fatten him up. Wasn’t that funny?

No. It wasn’t funny.

This was the first death knell of that teen romance. Even then, submerged in teen-girl-preppy-culture, I had a nascent hunch that the tedious stitching of a needlepoint belt for a societally-dictated, consumer-driven celebration of a holy man’s life was not a path I would find spiritually, morally, or ethically satisfying. My hunch has proven accurate.

And I have a sneaking suspicion, based on my life-long, do-it-at-the-last-minute time “management” style, that I could have started on the belt a bit sooner, and had it finished in time for Christmas. I have a sneaking suspicion that all other reasons aside, my boyfriend wanted to know that I’d cared enough about him to make the effort to get my present for him done on time. I have a sneaking suspicion his disappointment was warranted.

The best gifts are the ones that connect us to others, by speaking to the recipient in a language they understand. Like ice cubes:

We have a family friend who loves ice in her drinks, and since we don’t have an automatic ice-maker, several days before she arrives, I start freezing ice cubes. I empty and re-fill the trays several times, so we have a goodly supply. Last time she visited she thanked me, acknowledging that having enough ice for her (many!) drinks requires me to think and act ahead of time, and she felt loved, knowing that I was thinking about taking care of her need in that way. Knowing that we hold enough space in another’s heart and mind to be considered even when we’re absent is powerful.

So this year I’m aiming for gifts that are the equivalent of a full box of ice cubes. Gifts that let others know I notice them, and delight in them, and appreciate them.

This requires consideration, planning ahead, forethought. It’s like writing an essay or a short story or a blog post: first I notice, then I ponder, then I write, then I rewrite, then I share. I’m noticing and thinking about my sons, and my husband, and my friends. I’m making a few things, buying a few things, writing a few things down for “essay” gifts. I’m trying to be timely this year, so my family and friends know that they hold spaces in my heart that I honor and attend to — that they are important enough to come first, not put off ’til the last minute.

May it be so.*

*And if it may not be so, may my brownies provide sufficient occupation until my gifts are completed.

Helloooo, Bagels! Or, I want it all.

When we moved from Boston to Blacksburg, 20+ years ago, I had a “quality of life” checklist. It included access to the New York Times and a particular brand of chocolate. Both were available at that time; tellingly, a daily NYT is no longer available (tho’ Sundays edition is) but the sheer variety of chocolate available now has increased by a factor of ten. You can get organic, you can get fair trade, you can get single-source, you can get flavors: cocoa nibs, burnt caramel, candied bacon. Quality of life indeed!

Hello Bagel is on South Main Street, a few doors down from the Vintage Cellar.

Hello Bagel is on South Main Street, a few doors down from the Vintage Cellar.

However, until this past Monday, there was no decent bagel shop in Blacksburg. There was a spot about ten years ago that folded. There are frozen options. There’s a supplier that comes to the farmer’s market and the local food coops.

So when I heard about the “soft” opening of Hello Bagel, I set my alarm for 6:15 and I stumbled to the car in the dark and I drove ‘cross town and I paid for still-warm bagels and a cup of coffee and lo, it was almost a religious experience. It certainly restored my faith in the virtue of rising early.

And here’s the rub, for me: the only reason Blacksburg now boasts a bagel shop is that this small town ain’t so small anymore. (When we arrived in ’92, I could get anywhere in town in 10 minutes, tops. Today, I plan on twenty, or thirty if I want to be able to walk into my meeting instead of run (yes, big-city dwellers, I realize that’s not a “real” commute). I miss the small town I moved to.)

BUT: if there weren’t so many people here, the writing workshops I’m offering (another shameless plug: The Joyful Quill) wouldn’t have enough participants to come alive. The writers’ groups I work with would have no new faces.

And those those who live in Real Cities will point out: uh, you do live in a small town. They’re right, of course. And so am I. Blacksburg is small. It used to be smaller. And it’s smaller than it (probably) will be in ten years.

Holding both these perceptions without denying the accuracy of either one acknowledging that more than one thing may be “true.” This is uncomfortable: we want Our Way to be the Right Way. If Other Ways are equally valid, then what does that make me? Wrong? I don’t want to be wrong!

A colleague recently shared an observation of me as “too worried with what other people may think.” I can’t argue. More often than not, in any given group of people, I am more interested than others in considering the possible ways my actions, or the actions of my group, may be perceived.

And don’t the Great Writers ignore what others think? Wield a machete through the thicket of conventional writing? What if Virginia Woolf had done nothing but worried about what people thought of her work? No Mrs. Dalloway? Perish the thought!

But I’m not aiming for Great Writer status. I’m aiming for sustaining my self through my writing. I’m aiming for connecting through well-crafted stories. I’m aiming for providing a writing space where people leave feeling *more* like writing than when they arrived. I’m aiming for accepting people where they are as writers, not labeling some “good” and the rest “bad.” *

I want it all: a town where I can get a terrific bagel and arrive ten minutes later at my writing group, with said bagel still warm, its schmear of cream cheese a little melty.

Bagel flavors galore!

Bagel flavors galore!

I’m not gonna get it all. I am gonna enjoy sitting in the middle of it all, noticing the contradictions inherent in my big small town, in writing with and against conventions, in considering what others may think, and deciding if and when to cast it aside.

There’s a lotta bagel flavors out there. I’m gonna try them all.

*I can hear the critics thrashing and gnashing: but some writing IS better than others! There are so “right” and “wrong” ways to write! And I agree: for publication, you betcha there are standards. I also note that standards deemed James Joyce’s Ulysses obscene. Standards pilloried Kate Chopin for The Awakening. We want it both ways but that’s a tough row to hoe: be a Great Writer that ignores standards AND adhere to the conventionally-accepted “right” and “wrong” ways of writing or your work won’t see the light of day, and your career will be kaput. I’m all about figuring out what we want to say and saying it to the best of our ability but hey: eyes wide open, folks. Every rant is not genius, today’s anointed geniuses may be tomorrow’s remainders, and every unpublished, half-way decent writer who keeps getting up early, making coffee, and setting their thoughts down, on anonymous paper in an anonymous house in an anonymous life — they are countless. I don’t know how to fit them into this paragraph. But I honor their attention to their writerly selves.

 

Shameless self-promotion: reading

Tomorrow, Thursday October 9th, I’ll be one of six readers in a virtual reading hosted by the magazine Under the Gum Tree in honor of their third anniversary. Details below; the piece I’ll share is a “flash” creative nonfiction piece titled After. It’s based on writing about my mom’s journals that I did for a Priscilla Long workshop in 2012. Whee!

Thursday, October 9 at 6 p.m. PDT (9 PM EDT)

It will be broadcast live online via Google Hangouts and that means you can watch from anywhere with an Internet connection. Just click on this link:

http://underthegumtree.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=d092cccd976e0c27416b6175a&id=ad36d7a8fd&e=bf3a6ed342

If you’re able to make it, please let the editor, Janna Marlies Maron, know–she will be hosting the event and would love to give you a shout out. You can let her know by emailing her at info@underthegumtree.com, or let her know on twitter at either @justjanna or @undergumtree.

Mama’s mocha

Bollo's!

Bollo’s!

It is no secret that my favorite coffeeshop is Bollo’s. It’s my favorite for lots of different reasons: its long, narrow floor plan (I can hide at a back table for productivity, or sit up front for socializing — half the town, the interesting half, comes into Bollo’s). It’s my favorite because of their oat fudge bars, and the music (staff-chosen and thus never-the-same, and never canned), and the scattering of magazines (Food and Wine, Good Housekeeping, Gourmet, Traveler) and the long church pews that run down the western wall, and the exposed brick and the fragrance that floats from the back, of baking bread and Thursday there’s danish and Friday’s  cinnamon rolls are the size of a toddler’s head. Mostly it’s my favorite because the mocha is a teensy bit different, every time I order it.

Starbucks and other chains pride themselves on providing customers the same experience no matter where they are. A Starbucks mocha in Middlebury should be the same as a Starbucks mocha in Miami. And for the most part, it is. And I love all my mocha brethren, hallelujah.

But in Bollo’s, depending on who’s behind the counter pulling espresso shots, I know I’ll get a subtly different drink. When it’s Yasmin, it’s perfectly bittersweet. When it’s Felicia, it’s perfectly balanced. When it’s Renee, it’s perfectly hot. Each of their mochas is perfectly perfect.

Tea, magazines ...

Tea, magazines …

Mochas are on my mind because the latest Poets & Writers has all sorts of information about MFA programs, and in my brief perusal of its articles and advertisements, I found myself thinking: the vocabulary used to market these programs could be the basis for an excellent drinking game. How many pages before we see the word deepen? Or inspired, supportive, strengthen, world-renowned, community, or distinguished? We’ll be tipsy before we get past the table of contents, and buying total strangers a morning-after mocha by page 33. It strikes me that creative writing degrees — or at least the marketing for them  — are like a Starbucks mocha: excellent basic product but the same product, everywhere.

I have a nagging suspicion that the marketing is, in part, aimed at people who write but don’t feel they can claim the title of writer because they lack an MFA. And/or because they’re not published. And/or because they have no desire to be published [gasp] — they’re writing for themselves or their families, so they’re not “really” writers. The list of reasons these folks aren’t writers is pretty long. If they have published but they aren’t famous, they’re not writers. If they have published but they don’t make any money at it, they’re not writers. If they don’t want to publish, it’s just a little thing I dabble with …. If they “just” keep a journal, they’re not writers.

But what else to call someone who writes, who writes for their own reasons, who writes to discern their reasons, to name, to mourn, to celebrate, to untangle?

A writer is someone who writes.

In many ways, it doesn’t matter what brings us to the page or empty screen, or who will read those words. If we lay our words down across that blank expanse, whether we leave a faint trail of our selves, or a swath of trampled ferns, we’re claiming our place in the world, giving shape to our lives as writers.

Now, if we want your words to resonate with an audience beyond ourselves or our families, we’ll probably have to work on the craft of writing — and there’s lots of good books for that, and non-MFA-affiliated groups. And MFA programs. Steve Almond has a lot to say about why MFA programs are a good thing.

Writing is not a Starbucks mocha. It’s a personality-infused, slightly-different-every-time-but-perfect-every-time mocha. It’s what we make of it, not what anyone else tells us we should make of it.

back of bollo'sWrite if you love to write. Do with it what you want.

Make your very own mocha.

 

 

All works are equal

I’m not going to throw my hat into the ring of commentary-on-Ferguson. I’m not going to think about how there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I in regards to random violence. I’m not going to imagine the pain of Brown’s parents. I’m not going to listen to the estimates of when the elephant will become extinct (most likely in my lifetime. I’m broaching 50, so you can do the math).

I am going to remember that I asked Priscilla Long, in regards to her Work Inventory, why she didn’t note where her pieces are published. Because, she said,I have a body of work I want to do, and it doesn’t matter where it’s published. All works are equal.

All works are equal.

I am going to remember the giggle I couldn’t suppress while waiting to board airplanes this summer, when the gate agents called the “first class/priority” passengers to come through their priority boarding area. Which means those passengers walk over a rubber-backed 3×5′ piece of polyester carpet atop the regular carpet, to the left of the “boarding area” sign. They walk over this piece of carpet and they get to sit down first and they get to sit in seats that are a bit wider and if the plane blows up or disappears they get to lose their lives. Just like everyone else.

All works are equal.

I am going to reflect that on the day Captain Byers died in Iraq, my local obituary page held death notices for Catherine Cupp, Alma Frey, Goldie Gearhart, Lillian McClean and James May. I am going to assume that each person left behind a “to do” list, an unrequited love or two, and others who will remember their frown, their laugh, their bad puns.

All works are equal.

I am going remember that Michael Brown’s status as a young black man headed for college is a distraction from our disgrace.

All works are equal.

I’m going remember that the effect an essay, poem, screenplay, or novel has on any one person is as much, if not more, about the person reading than the work itself.

All works are equal.

I’m going to work today.

 

 

To write, perchance to produce?

World Cup Cafe

World Cup Cafe

I returned to Taos for the third consecutive year last week, for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. It’s a highlight of my year. It’s a highlight because it’s in the desert southwest; because its attendees are, to a one, interesting, informed, and intriguing; because it’s an excellent “reset” button for my writerly self; because it’s near Taos’s World Cup Cafe; because the World Cup Cafe serves a mocha borgia; because I feel like a brilliant writer after a mocha borgia; because when I fell like a brilliant writer I am a more productive writer.

Productive writer. An abstract concept that toddled into my thinking three years ago when I first read Prisicilla Long’s must-have-if-you’re-a-writer book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor – an abstract concept that steadied itself and began walking, sure-footed, during the time I worked with her (for the second time) at the Taos conference this year.

Prisicilla Long's book ...

Prisicilla Long’s book …

Long, like Macklemore, notes that the greats aren’t born great. They’re great because they paint/write/practice a LOT. Long suggests writers make a “list of works,” an inventory to track their pieces’ completion dates, where they’ve been sent, and when they’ve been accepted. In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, she says,

The list allows you to see the work you’ve done and it signifies respect for work done. It allows you to track your yearly production. It allows you to find any given piece to take up again. The list gives you a practice that you now share with those high-achieving creators who do quantify their works. (Georgia O’Keefe, 2.045 objects; Edouard Manet, 450 oil paintings among other works; the American painter Alice Neel, about 3,000 works; dare we mention Picasso? — 26,000 works; the remarkable short-story writer Edith Pearlman has published, according to her website, more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction. That of course, does not tell us how many works Pearlman has composed.

I have a modest list of works that has grown incrementally for the past three years. And I do mean incrementally, because I haven’t been able to focus on more than one writing activity each day: if I’m generating a new short story, that generative free writing takes all my writing time. Ditto editing and conceptualizing.

But this year, for the first time, I managed two, sometimes three, types of daily writing during the conference: generative, editorial, and conceptual. And I did this because I told myself, per Long’s advice, that I only had to do it for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes, for five days, yielded a found poem, an improved short story, and several roughed out story concepts.

I’m sure this capacity was enhanced by the total absence of my Domestic Goddess responsibilities, Engineer Hubby, our two sons, the dogs, the cat and that pesky groundhog in the backyard — a lot of my writing is done while it appears I’m daydreaming, and there’s no daydreaming time in my Real Life. Nonetheless: I’ve managed the 15 minute practice every single day, for a week, so I know I can make progress on several fronts simultaneously.

Here’s to slow, steady and productive. May it be so.

I’m not myself when I’m not at home. For which I am grateful.

Fresco from Spanish Romanesque church

Fresco from Spanish Romanesque church

I had the good fortune to spend eight days in Spain for family vacation this June, the latter four in Madrid, a Big City with the expected hordes of tourists like ourselves, and the Prado, and churros, and late-night dining at outdoor tables. Madrid was hot, but “it’s a dry heat,” said the tour guide.

I will testify: it was a dry heat. So dry that toweling off after a shower was hardly necessary. So dry that I bought an extra tube of body lotion and depleted it. So dry that my curly hair didn’t curl.

At the risk of seeming weirdly obsessed with my hair, let me note that for better and for worse, while I was growing up (my formative years!) the reactions of strangers and friends to my unruly curls heightened my already-extreme self-consciousness of adolescence to a point of mild hysteria about the frizzes — I didn’t see another caucasian person with hair like mine ’til I was 25 years old.

But I digress: my hair changed, dramatically, in the dry heat of Madrid. I’ve been to deserts, lived in one for three months during a field study program, but never had it go so straight. By the afternoon, it dangled, limp and disinterested, into my eyes. Obscuring my view of Spanish men society.

While stumbling about thus blinded, I nonetheless caught glimpses of the locals talking, eating and drinking on a wildly different schedule from my American one. They have a light breakfast of espresso and maybe a pastry, because they were up late the night before. They work a bit (those lucky enough to be employed — Spain’s unemployment rate hovers around 25%), have another espresso and snack at 11, then break at two for lunch and/or siesta. They return to work from 4-7 PM, and eat dinner after that. Itty-bitty toddlers stroll with their parents until 10 or 11 in the evening; those without children head to clubs or bars. As my 16 y.o. put it, “up late at night, nap in the afternoon: this is a great schedule for a teenager, Mom!”

I’d read the guidebooks about Spain before going and knew what to expect. Being in and amongst that daily routine, however, was like standing next to the speakers at a live concert instead of listening through earbuds. Anyone who’s traveled or lived in a non-American country has probably shared this experience.

At the risk of stating the obvious, watching myself slip into a different lifestyle, be it for only a few days and only during vacation, I tiptoed into my brain’s quiet little side room of “what if.” What if I’d been born in a country less hell-bent on self-improvement and less interested in acquiring stuff? What if my hair hadn’t been that big a deal during those formative years?!

Grandma's espresso cup

Grandma’s espresso cup

I’m old enough now, and enough at peace with my life, to indulge in speculation without triggering regret that will in turn trigger life-choices-analysis-paralysis. Thus, I noted in my journal those elements of Spain that nurtured me. Some are vacation-dependent: It’s easy to manage siesta time without daily life, simple to stay out late when the dogs don’t need to be walked. But I found a short, doable ritual to bring home, too.

In the morning now, I sit in quiet with a (teeny tiny) cup of scalding-hot espresso, without reading the paper, listening to the news, or even reading a book. Just sipping, tasting, and swallowing. It takes five minutes (10-12 if you include espresso-making, which is not as snooty-patooty as it sounds and does NOT have to cost a thousand dollars for a snooty-patooty machine!). I use my Gramma’s pretty espresso cup. I stir in a scant spoonful of sugar. I finish, rinse the cup and spoon and I’m done.

Perhaps this is a ridiculously small new habit; perhaps if I had been born into a different time and place I would be weirdly obsessed about a non-hair aspect of my physical self; perhaps if I weren’t born into this time and place and culture I’d never travel and never know the difference ANYway so what does it matter?

Gaudi's church. I bet he had espresso every morning.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church. I bet he had espresso every morning.

I believe it matters to be taken out of our normal routines and shown different approaches to everything because we are so interestingly, almost infinitely different. Because it’s fun.

Because when we are reminded that our habits are creations of time and space and place and not, in fact, Deep Truths, the door of possibilities is cracked just that little bit wider. You never know when that bit-wider is going to let in a big amazing don’t-know-what-it-is-yet that will blow the door off its hinges and change everything.

Here’s to paying attention to small actions every day, and opening ourselves up. Here’s to doing so in our writing, too. May it be so.