Tag Archives: James Joyce

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” 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.

Fifty things …

… I’m proud of. Listing these out is an exercise Julia Cameron recommends in her book The Right to Write. My writing group tackled it last week. As my fellow writer and blogger Andrea Badgley was reading Cameron’s instructions aloud, I thought: no problem! This will be easy! And fun! Things I’m proud of will certainly make me feel good about myself. Whee!

I numbered from one to fifty in my notebook.

x4001And freaked out. The following is a Whitman sampler of my thoughts in the nanoseconds before I forced myself to start writing: I have done nothing. Getting married and having children was a mistake, I’ll leave nothing behind when I die. Wait, I’ll leave my children. So perhaps they were a good idea. Unless bad luck strikes and one or, god forbid, both of them die before me. Could happen. 16 y.o. is on track to get his license. Sweet holy mother of everything. That would be terrible. What have I done, what have I done, what have I done? I’ve  not written a book. I can barely keep up with my blog! I am getting old, it’s getting too late. ALL IS LOST: I can see the burning lifeboat analogy of my life surrounding me and [spoiler alert] that hand at the end is a dying man’s fantasy.

At which point I managed to come up with a few tangible bits and pressed on; remembering Cameron’s admonition that these can be small or large things, I included my five-layer orange mandarin cake and the soft spot I hold for animals.

This exercise took us about 15 minutes. Then it was time to share. I’d not planned on sharing, and said so very quickly. But when my fellow scribblers shared their fifty things, I was both humbled and inspired.

What various paths we’ve taken, and how many of our footsteps have left behind a wee violet or sprig of evergreen. I shared my list last, and my voice was shakier than I’d have liked and I did not make eye contact with anyone while I read, but I managed to say all my fifty things out loud. Even the ones that I was embarrassed about (I am, narcissistically, proud of my sense of style in the wardrobe area. I experience what my “pure” self tells me is, essentially, sinful pleasure out of choosing my outfits).

Why was that exercise so hard? The feminists might say women have been taught not to take credit. Enh. Maybe that’s part of it. I think it has more to do with the inherent challenge of being the “active witness” to our lives and the world around us, as Cameron says this exercise forces us to do. It was scary to think that marriage and kids might have been a mistake. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but regardless: this is my situation. It’s a situation of privilege and luxury, relative to the rest of the planet’s population and I am grateful, every day. But acknowledging my privilege doesn’t absolve me of my responsibilities, nor does it erase my own human neuroses, or brokenness or whatever-word-works-for-you.

I think it was hard because looking closely and without judgment at what’s in front of us isn’t easy. Starting this process by passing judgment on what we are proud of — and being real about even those aspects of ourselves that might be less-than-selfless (I mean, clothes, really? C’mon!) but that gives us a recognizable flush of pride — that takes a bit of guts. Guts are a necessary part of being the type of writer I aspire to.

James-JoyceWrite down your particulars. No one else has to see them or hear them or know about them. But we must be able to at least see and acknowledge our own  particulars if we are to have a hope of connecting with each other.  Or, as James Joyce said (and not surprisingly, said better): In the particular is the universal.

My individual life may be small, and yes, it is hilarious and perhaps petty that I am proud of my ability to match colors, but I am aiming for the Universal. Far as I have seen, it’s what makes the merry-go-round ride worth it.