Monday, April 14, 2014

Passing over

Walking home from work earlier, I sensed the aroma of Passover. Not in the form of my mother's tasty matzoh meal latkes or Manischewits' coconut macaroons; it was the air, crisp and nostalgic (if air can be crisp and nostalgic). There is something surreal about the Jewish holidays and midtown Manhattan, at around 2:00 p.m. The streets empty, buses go missing, few pedestrians race around toting large shopping bags. (The stores seem empty, too).

Then there is me. Not here or there in my non-attachment to the holidays; I lost the connection years before, or maybe decided to not carry it anymore. But I do. I recognized this today in the nostalgic feeling that accompanied me home. I missed looking forward to the warmth, the ritual, the celebration of my Jewishness.

Once upon a time, Passover was my favorite holiday. There was the food--my mother was a superior cook; the best part was the nibbling she and I did all day. There were the crispy edges of the latkes, the crumbs of the turkey loaf, slivers of honey cake. But more than food and nibbling (and our mutual adoration of one another) there was so much rushing about and joy. Even my brother--not fond of Jewish ritual--propped himself comfortably on a pillow (as was tradition) and reveled in hiding the Afikomen. My father took his seat at the head of the table, my mother her's, one with easy access to the kitchen. We prayed. Sang. Dipped our pinkies in wine. Sipped. Ate. 

So many years and rituals and faces have come and gone since then. I've had happy Seders and disappointing Seders and interesting Seders. Later today I'll head for the Jewish Community Center to workout. I like that I'll be someplace Jewish, albeit not eating matzoh, but watching Jeopardy while on the treadmill. Maybe it's open tonight for strays like me, working off a dinner we haven't yet had.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reading friends' books

What do you say, when you read a friend's book and don't like it? Is it best to say nothing and hope they won't notice? (Foolish to think that) Find one nice thing about the book and move on? (Strong vote for this one) Let the criticisms fly? (Ouch. Never.)

I've been on both sides of the friends' book-table. After reading a few books by friends, I wanted to wield my editorial pen, wished they'd consulted me pre-pub. But they hadn't. I said what was good about the book--and there were always good aspects to acknowledge. I felt good that I hadn't hurt anyone's feelings. Once, though, the situation was tricky, as I hadn't finished a book. My friend pushed: Why not? Wasn't I interested enough to know the end? I said: I'm swamped with schoolwork. I'm a slow reader. Both true, but still I squirmed. I didn't want to hurt him. I don't think he realized that he pushed me, as I did with a friend the other day, to coming very close to hurting him.

Writers. We are a strange and vulnerable lot. And a little crazy.

When I first began writing I often noticed books lying on the floor like trash at B & N. They were left by readers who'd carelessly dropped them. Or, perhaps they had fallen off the shelves. I saw my heart splattered on the floor and promised myself: I will never write a book. I will never put my heart and brain between two covers that becomes a product that can be tossed about. Better to just cut open my vein (ok. . .I exaggerate. But only a tad.)

I got over that agony, but have found others. Recently, I was out with a friend who didn't like my new book. I knew this from her opting for the first scenario--she said nothing. Because we have a long history (25 years), I wondered, why couldn't she say one nice thing? Her not liking my book wasn't important to me; but it was important that she say something kind. In an effort to deepen our friendship, I bared my soul. I asked, was there one thing you liked? She smiled. . .and, I think, squirmed. She responded: parts were boring and repetitive. (A reviewer had said I have a "young voice"). She gave that a negative spin. She questioned if the book had an actual story. She brought up my first book, questioned my feelings about my parents.

I write this, not to speak ill of my friend, because had I not asked, she would not have said any of that. And so, I write this to ponder, why was it so important to me that she say something kind? Why did I carelessly make myself vulnerable? The outcome didn't make us closer. I am a fledgling in the ways of self protection.
 
I haven't been writing much lately. I've been feeling content and happy; instead of taking to the page with various angsts, I lace up my sneakers, head for the gym or go for a walk. But this moment I am in angst-territory. I want to hold myself responsible for a choice that backfired on me. I don't totally, not yet. This will sound cliche and corny--but the kind words I say to myself are what really count (or should). And so I make a guest appearance at the keyboard, to remind myself.

For my own gratification, I had gone back and slightly revised my book (this was before meeting with my friend). I deepened aspects, finessed transitions. I'm moving ahead, pumped about presenting my book this summer, at a few venues in California. I'll focus on the people I talk to and hope they gain something from what I say. I'll ask no one what they think of me or my book.

For better and worse, vulnerable is my middle name. From here on (hopefully), I'll take better care. And I will always say something nice about books--friends or not. There is so much hard work and so many tender feelings on the line.



Thursday, April 3, 2014

In a new but familiar place

I'm sitting on the screened in porch of my cousin's home, somewhere north of Orlando. My computer is propped on my lap and at this very second a bird sweetly chirps, a lawn mower whirrs. The past few days have been a lovely and needed respite from teaching, book-anxiety, my inability to begin a new writing project, and the harsh New York winter.

As I settle into this new place I lean on old and new rituals. Long early morning walks, coffee at Starbucks (only here it's iced!), and I say hello with ease to strangers, because. . .well, it isn't New York and that's what strangers do here. I can honestly say, I'm happy. 

I spent the past two days revising parts of The Ambivalent Memoirist. Anyone who has read the book would likely not notice. But to me, the fixes are huge--not in that anything about the story, characters or arc have changed. I smoothed out edges, fixed a few typos (I hate those things!), added a bit more detail.

I read recently (and heard numerous times) that a book is like a baby; the author must nurture and tend to the book for it to have any hope of survival, post publication. My initial energies went toward book reviews and publicity. But I see now that I needed to give nurturance of a deeper kind. I had birthed the book a bit too early. The wonderful thing about print-on-demand, is that a book can be easily remedied and ready to go in days.

Ah. . .Florida. I digress.Soon my cousin will return with ripe bananas so that I can leave my mark in the form of home-baked banana muffins. It's so easy to carry home everywhere I go, and to leave something so that returning will be easy. I forget that each time I face the anxiety of leaving home.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Thinking critically

In two of my English classes, my students are working on Proposals for Change. The assignment is a jump off the book we just read, Grace and Grit by Lilly Ledbetter. It's her story of taking Goodyear to court for pay discrimination--in so doing, she heralded in change for millions of U.S. workers.

I love giving this assignment; for one, students break from the text and think about what they'd like to change in the world. As college students, so many things (is my hope!). The assignment is also a chance for them to think critically about their own ideas.

A few students want to legalize marijuana--no surprise--but this is tricky for me, as I disagree with their proposals. Agreeing or not, isn't my job. And so I struggle: how do I help them think critically about some of their points, without imposing my own beliefs? It's hard to keep perspective; there are generations between us. As a twenty-year old, I might have felt the same. In fact, at lunch with a friend the other day, when I told her about this, she said, "You're pro-legalization, right?"

What I am, is concerned. Concerned getting high with ease will jeopardize other facets of people's lives. I'm concerned that so many people want to get high or drift away. Isn't there a better way to resolve the pain of living? For the record, I'm not in favor of deep criminalization. . .ah, but I digress. Students. I want to pour years of experience into their psyches, change their perceptions. And that, too, is not my job. Especially since, who is to say I know better?

In between all this, I started reading my book, something I hadn't done since publication. I want to fix a few wayward typos that made it through rounds of proofreading. I want to finesse a few sentences here and there. I don't want to think critically about why I've returned to the past (which I had happily declared, over and done!). But I know myself well--it's a little bit of anxiety about an unknown future, a little bit of control over how my book is received. . .

Thursday, March 27, 2014

On writing

I've been asked to speak about my book to MFA students. And so, as I walk around from home to work to yoga to every place, I practice my talk, delve into my early writing mind, "beginner's mind" as Natalie Goldberg calls it. What did others say that propelled me? What can I add on that will inspire?

Phillip Lopate was on the first writing panel I attended. I was a new teacher and asked him for advice to pass to my students. He said, tell them to break your heart. I loved those words and did, indeed pass them to students. He also said personal essays should be the heart and brain working together. When my heart takes over into sentimentality or God forbid, revenge, my work suffers, is meant for only my diary. The product I show to the world must be reflective--love (or revenge) that has done its homework.

Today I grapple with questions that were recently put to me: Why do I publish my work? What is it I want from other people?  I've never before thought of publishing in that way. I write for myself, but then, when readers enter the mix, there must be another reason.

For the book I just published, I thought my purpose was to entertain. As I revised, my purpose became more complex: I also wanted to teach what I've learned about life. And now, a few months after publication, I see I had an agenda I have no control over: to be praised. When my hidden agenda is met, I'm up up up. When it's not, I'm filled with doubt, and yes, I'm down.

My friend Gretchen--a wonderful poet and human being--asks me why I'm not onto my next project. Good question that has an easy answer: I dwell in the house of what's done, look over my shoulder until my neck is sore. One day I'll turn to salt.

Can I let my perfectly imperfect book go, as all writers must? Or, open it up, make a few small fixes, that will not make my book perfect, but perhaps save me before I become salt?

I digress. . . speaking to other writers. I'll find the words. I'll inventory my heart and brain and search for hidden agendas, which if I'm honest, are always lurking.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dream space

I received an email on Friday that brought me to the center of my heart. It was a request from a college to speak to MFA students about my book. I don't know the program director, the school, anyone--I didn't reach out, make a request, nothing. They found me. And therein I had a Sally Field moment, as in "They like me, they really really like me." In a much deeper way I felt, they know me...and then, well. . . I wondered, how?

I sent an email to a colleague--VIP in literary circles--and asked her if she recommended me. She said, no but it's great! Enjoy. I wrote back, yes, I will, it's great (if it's real. . .). And she wrote back, it's real!

Real. . .Ah. What's real is that I'm sitting here on a late Sunday afternoon, after a morning of laziness, then MELT class (my new love, just behind NIA), lunch with a friend, and now, time to simply be in the goodness of today.

I wrote back to VIP colleague--"this is the fulfillment of one of my wildest dreams." She sent a bunch of xoxoxo's. The talk isn't until January 2015; I have lots of time to prepare, to live in the lovely space between a dream promised and a dream fulfilled.

The world spins on its axis. Today, my friend, a beautiful poet and all-around superb person, is grieving the loss of her grandson. She posted a video on the difference between compassion and sympathy. It said sympathy isn't pointing out the silver lining. That hit me where I live, for I am a silver-lining thinker. When I was younger and my brother stayed out all night, my parents and I were fraught with despair. I told them, "This is God's way of keeping Lenny away from the car that would have hit him across the street at 10:00 p.m." Come home on time, but dead? Stay out all night? Do the math.

So often, saying nothing is best, although it's worth noting that silver linings aren't meant to hurt. They keep the mildy insane from going all-out crazy.

What is real today is that I have faith that the evil eye won't gaze into my dream space. That I'll attend a lecture (or rather, give one!) in January. That I'll get to live my wildest dream. And the world will continue to spin on its axis.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

For a friend

I heard terrible news today. My friend Kathryn's daughter is accused of suffocating her baby to death. I heard via email and sat still reading, my mind flat, my heart still softly beating, while my brain took in this catastrophe. I sent back the most loving words I could find; tried to feel a piece of Kathryn's devastation. It strikes me as unfathomable, that one person can be hit so hard, while others continue to watch TV, iron a blouse, laugh. I wanted to feel--not all of it, but a bit to make her pain mine and everyone's, and very real.

What I really did was reflect on the nonsenses that often stir my day. Today's tumult? A relationship I toy with, a pattern of push/pull that has at times overtaken my love life. I cherish a peaceful coexistence of left brain/right brain. When that occurs, life is so sweet. But when left and right battle it out--I want to take off the gloves and relax on one side. Note to self: don't do so until you're sure of the correct side.

When I read of my friend's tragedy I knew my concern-of-the-day was nothing. A spec. The world is so much bigger than the thoughts that fill my head. So much more important too.

For the past several months I've been watching The Waltons reruns. My friends laugh; they don't understand the comfort I get from this show, a simplicity I find that is often missing from the way I live. My life is simple, but the way I live is too often not.

The only thing I can think to do for Kathryn, who lives 2,000 miles away, is prop blankets on my yoga mat and take my seat. Palms together, thumbs against my chest, I'll open to what life is and isn't and could be. On my yoga mat, my heart is accessible, unselfish--left brain right brain find synchronicity. I'll pray for my friend as I do for my parents and brother, bring them in close, observe them with my third eye. And for my friend, who would want this for me, I'll bring my concerns down to size.