Sunday, December 25, 2011
Merry Christmas. Our family is celebrating Christmas on the 28th because that's the day we can all be together, and so this morning it is probably more quiet at my house than it is at yours. And the quiet gets me thinking about the many, many Christmases behind me. The Ghost of Christmas Past is paying me a visit, but this is a good ghost I enjoy having around. A lot of the memories blur together, but there are some that are so distinct -- clear and round and whole -- like the favorite ornaments on the tree that I unwrap every year and think, There you are. Hello, Christmas.
There's one Christmas I think back to every year. Back to before I had kids; way, way back to when I was a kid around ten, when we drove from Hamden, Connecticut to Ottawa, Illinois in a blizzard. The car held a trunkful of wrapped presents and my dad and mom; my sister, Suzanne; me; and our black miniature poodle, Babette, who would later help herself to the leftovers of our 25-pound turkey, narrowly escaping death -- both from the effects of the turkey and from the threat of my grandmother's barely contained wrath.
But before all that, we had to get to my grandparents' house, and things were not going smoothly. We crept along with the snow barreling down and the windshield wipers frantically ineffective, my dad hunched forward in his seat, my mom tense, both smoking. Even Suzanne and I had stopped fighting about whom Babette liked better. A temporary peace, a ceasefire if you will, erased the imaginary line that had served as the border between our two hostile countries in the backseat.
My parents were much younger than I am now, in their early thirties, attractive, successful professionals, who usually kept life interesting and fun for their young daughters. Before the blizzard took over, we'd been singing road songs, eating salami sandwiches my mom had passed back to us, playing the alphabet game. Five years later, they would divorce, but as much as things would change for our family, all four of us always remembered and talked about this road trip. As I write this now, I want to call my father to help me fill in the details, because he had that kind of memory. But my dad died seven years ago. He was a risk taker, a man who had to turn around and repay the toll many times in his life, a man who was raised in Buffalo Center, Iowa, and who swore he'd still be there if it hadn't been for hitchhiking.
Which brings me to the next scene in our story. My father was paying at a toll booth when he spotted a hitchhiker up ahead. He was covered in snow, but as my dad drove slowly past him, the hitchhiker smiled and waved, and something in his smile reminded me of Jim Croce, a singer I'd recently seen on television singing "Time in a Bottle."
"That's the same guy," my dad said.
Jim Croce? I thought.
"What same guy?" my mom said.
"The guy I saw back at the Whatchyamacallit toll booth." (My father didn't say Whatchyamacallit here; if he were alive, he would tell me the exact name of the toll booth and its exact location. Forgive me, Dad, I'm doing my best here without you.) "We could have given that poor kid a ride the whole way. I'm turning around."
But my father slowed the car down even more, looking for an exit he could take. He drove back and repaid the toll booth operator.
My father picked up hitchhikers. If they were young women, he would lecture them on the dangers of hitchhiking. He would only pick up men if my mother, Suzanne and I weren't in the car. But my father was also a man who was not above breaking his own rules. This drove my mother understandably crazy.
"Jesus, Janice," my dad said. "He's obviously trying to get somewhere. He didn't strangle the kind people who gave him a ride this far."
"How do you know it's even him? He's covered in SNOW."
"Exactly. That's why we're giving him a ride."
As my dad pulled over to pick up what Suzanne called The Abominable Snowman, Babette barked like a Doberman Pinscher in attack mode, and my mom yelled, "Donald! It's not him! Just GO! Don't stop!"
But my dad ignored us all, and leaned over my pissed-off mother to roll down the window for the Jim-Croce-Abominable-Snowman-Family-Poodle-Killer.
"Where are you coming from?" my dad shouted over Babette.
"Well, Sir, Vietnam. But more recently, Connecticut."
"Yep. I thought I saw you back at the Whatchyamacallit toll booth."
"Yes, Sir, That was me. On my way home, Sir." He told my dad the name of his hometown.
"We can give you a ride to your front door. Hop in."
My mother got out of the car. I waited for her to fling open the backdoor and yank Suzanne, Babette, and me out, but she didn't. She let the snow-covered soldier in to sit between them, and then got back in the car. She offered him a salami sandwich, and hot coffee from the thermos and then a cigarette.
Babette settled down and fell asleep while Suzanne and I, who usually happily ignored most adult conversations, strained to hear the three adults murmuring in the front seat. I traced the name of the soldier etched on my POW bracelet. I wanted to lean forward and show him the name and ask if they were friends, but I was too shy.
While he spoke, I watched the snow melt off his hat and jacket and slip down the back of the seat like teardrops. My parents shook their heads, fell silent. The three of them smoked more cigarettes, said more things I couldn't quite hear.
And then, a shift, a rise in the soldier's voice as he leaned to look out the window. In the far distance, he said, he could see his parents' farmhouse. My father again offered to drive him to the door, but he declined. "No thank you, Sir. I've been dreaming about walking up and over that hill for a long time now."
My dad nodded, pulled to the side of the highway. It was snowing still, but in big soft flakes that lollygagged their way down. The soldier turned and patted Suzanne and me on our heads. "I hope Santa's good to you girls."
Both my parents got out of the car. He shook my father's hand and then they embraced. My mother wrapped her arms around the soldier, too, and said, "Merry Christmas."
Back in the car, my dad didn't shift into drive right away. The car idled, filling with Christmas. My mother scooted closer to my father and laid her head on his shoulder and he reached his arm around her. I heard her sniffle and sigh as we all watched the soldier make his way through the snow, toward his waiting home, white with lights.
Friday, July 29, 2011
|Ellen Newmark in the Himalayas, 2009|
My friend and writing sister, Ellen, died last month. I got home from Europe and took a flight down to San Diego so we could say good-bye. She taught me so much about living life -- really living it -- and then she taught me about dying -- bravely, and with gratitude. She was my friend but so much more...too much, I've decided after many failed attempts, to convey in a blog post.
We have all lost people we love. We have all felt the spreading void of their absence filling the rooms, the streets, the fields, the very sky, until we find ourselves pressed out on the ground underneath the weight of all that emptiness, wondering how? How can this be? And how will we possibly get up and face a world that feels so different now?
But we do get up, eventually, and we go on living -- really living -- because that is the best way to honor the dead, and ourselves. It is what Ellen insisted on.
She is gone, but still I feel her here. I feel her like I feel the scarf she gave me -- light, warmth, comfort, a hint of her perfume. How can this be? And yet it is.
Back in March, I wrote the following post, but I didn't publish it. There were a lot of scary things going on in the world, as there always is, and I was trying to wrap my head and heart around the fact that Ellen was not going to recover as we had so fervently hoped.
There's a storm hitting us, and it's ferocious. The rain and wind batter away at our Barngalow, so loud now that our dog, Stuart, and our cat, Bob, keep looking up from their naps to the ceiling, then planting their eyes on me, asking What the hell?
Through the window, the tree branches have transformed into a crowd of rioters, going at each other in a panic, throwing the weakest to the ground.
But it's only a storm, not a tsunami, not an earthquake, not escaping steam from a nuclear power plant, not a war-zone. We are warm and snug and safe in the moment, something I wish were true for everyone in this world.
My friend Diana and I had plans to drive an hour south and hike Mount Tamalpais today, but you know what they say about plans. Instead I'm still in my pjs, nursing an extra cup of coffee, thinking about all that's happened this past month. As Dickens wrote, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
My own dream in my own little corner of the world, finally realized. And yet, as more good news from my agent came in emails and phone calls, I watched the nightmare unfolding in Japan and then Libya, watched unfathomable devastation wreaking its havoc on people who had woken that morning much like I had woken, thinking about whatever it is we think about in those first moments when we're on autopilot. I'd like to say I always wake with gratitude, but sometimes my mind is bent on the need to get the coffee going, take the dog out to pee, pay this or that bill, and get this done or that done. We wake as if it's just another day, ho hum, la-tee-dah, as if we have all the time in the world. But the truth is, none of us have that kind of time. We're all going to die, but most of us don't know when or how. Most of us, myself included, would rather not think about it.
Someone I love very much is teaching me about dying. It's a privilege to talk with her. She knows things the rest of us can't know until we're willing to sit face to face with our own mortality. I am learning how to listen. I am trying to learn to quiet the NO that keeps shouting through my head so I can truly hear her. I am trying to learn how to someday say good-bye to her with acceptance instead of fear or denial or a clutching heart.
Today's storm will move on, leaving the sun to do its thing. The trees will rest in peace again, raindrops like crystals on a chandelier will sparkle from their calmed, harmonious branches as Mother Nature takes a deep breath, decides to return to civility. Yes, the sun will shine again, gloriously, but as always, keep casting its shadows, too.
It's such a mixed bag, this life. The sorrow -- we all know it wouldn't be so hard if the joy wasn't so damn sweet. And good-byes wouldn't be so difficult if the love wasn't woven through our core, connecting every part of us. But what can we do? Go ahead, I say. Love with utter abandon, drink up the joy with lip-smacking gusto. And when it's time to cry, let it rain. Let the raging storm have its way.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
|Photo by Michael Prince|
The past several months have been a bit of a blur, focused (or I guess if it's a blur it would be a sort of an unfocused-focused) on The Book. The book, the book, the book. You know, The Underside of Joy? Yes, that book. So when the opportunity to travel in Europe with my son, Michael, came up, I jumped. I mean, how many times is your 20-year-old son at least seemingly excited to travel with you? And what are the chances it will happen again?
Granted, he had been hoofing it across Europe with his friend for a month after their semester studying abroad ended, staying in youth hostels, counting every Euro. So it may not have been only my company he was thinking of. Who cares? Yes! I'd love to meet you in Florence. I'd love to get away from thinking obsessively about the book and spend some mother/son bonding time exploring incredible cities.
The ol' book can wait, right? Ella Beene and the town of Elbow will still be here, waiting when I return. But of course! Andiamo!
Although Michael had been in Florence for four months, he hadn't yet climbed to the top of the Duomo to gaze out at that gorgeous red sea of rooftops. So that is one of the first things we did.
In Paris, we made the pilgrimage to that famous bookstore on the Left Bank, Shakespeare & Company, a newer version of the one Sylvia Beach started, where Hemingway and friends hung out. My kind of store, where old shelves and every nook and cranny are crammed full of books both used and new. So many books, so little time. How does one choose? Ah, but when your mother, l'auteure, is standing over you with her camera? Not so difficult.
And what is Paris without a stop at the Eiffel Tower? It's so commanding, so captivating, especially at night with its multitude of lights -- that giant, glittering pathway to the heavens. Nearly impossible to look away.
Nearly, but not quite.
Our final stop was London. Land of Harry Potter. The first book that grabbed my little boy and would not let him go.
Move over, Harry. He's mine now.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
My Buddha has been doing cartwheels (in a detached sort of way) here, there, and everywhere and I am just now getting caught up with all the changes going on. (Okay. I'm not even close to getting caught up. Still back at, Wow! I have an agent!) So this will be a mostly newsy post so that I'll at least get you caught up.
The novel. Last you heard, I was zip-a-dee-doo-dahing through the Redwoods after a week of areyoufrigginkiddingme? news about The Underside of Joy, which will be published by Dutton in January 2012. It will also be published in 12 other countries, in 12 languages, including Hebrew and Chinese.
I am still...there are no words...at least not in English. I will have to ask the Chinese translator.
But. (There is always a but.) My dear friend and writing sister, Ellen, has been very ill. Her gorgeous book, The Sandalwood Tree, came out April 5th and was greeted by a mass of wonderful reviews. I was able to spend the first half of April with her -- time I already treasure. We talked and talked, as we have for more than 15 years. We talked about life. And about death. And about writing, always writing. To get a glimpse of why I love her so much, read The Sandalwood Tree.
And. (There is always an and, too it seems.) While I was visiting my beautiful, talented, funny friend, I got some amazing news. The Underside of Joy was chosen to be one of six books discussed at the Book Expo America Editors Buzz Panel.
But. As you know, with good news often comes more work, so we've been rushing to get everything done in time for BEA, which is in NYC May 23-26. As I've mentioned before, I'm a bit of a barnacle and not particularly adept at rushing, so I've been a few miles out of my comfort zone, leaping here and there over hurdles like a gazelle. (Picture, if you will, a gazelle wearing clogs. On her way to NYC.)
Fortunately, my edits went quickly and smoothly and were done before we heard the news. Next up were the copyedits, cover design -- which I love -- and author photo. My website is done. Isn't it cool? (More about that later.) And I finished making changes to the first pass galleys: my words, typeset, looking more and more like a real book. Holy Moly.
And...This week, Publisher's Marketplace posted my first review, and it's lovely. Huge sigh of relief. You have to be a member to access it there, but if you really, really want to read it and don't want to pay the $20 monthly fee, I've posted it under News on my site. Absolutely free. No membership required.
See? A newsy post. A little light and breezy. But in the middle of it all, here I am, not able to articulate the depth of sadness I feel about my writing sister's struggle that lies below all the happy news and excitement. If I were to try to name it? I guess I would call this the underside of joy, too.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
|The view from The Barngalow.|
This is for everyone who writes. Or paints. Or sings. Or cooks, or dances, or builds, or teaches, or searches for cures. Or catches flying objects while leaping in the air.
This is for everyone who has a dream. Or maybe you don't have a dream. Maybe you're just trying to get through a tough time. It's for you, too.
It's for everyone who feels like they can't quite get a break but they can't quite give up, either.
It's for everyone who cares deeply about what they do, who wants their work to somehow find its place in this world.
Keep going. Don't give up. Because the cliché really is true: You never know what might be right around the corner.
I have been writing for years. For decades, even. And last week my agent, the incredible Elisabeth Weed, sent my novel out into the world...
But wait, let me back up a bit. The week before that I sent my son Michael out into the world. He landed in Italy. This is how he looked to me right before we said our good-bye at the airport:
|Ciao, Michael. (Appearing somewhat blurry through his mama's misty eyes.)|
The next week Elisabeth sent my novel, The Underside of Joy, to her amazing foreign rights agent, Jenny Meyer. I felt a bit like this, getting out of the shower that morning:
|On pins and needles. (Photo by Daniel Prince)|
But Jenny said wonderful things about the novel. Both she and Elisabeth sent it out. And the first place it landed? The first country to make an offer? Italy. Italy!
God, I love that country.
It was my husband's birthday. I woke Stan up with the news. We had a good cry.
More offers came in from other countries, including the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Israel and Taiwan. There were several auctions. (Sometimes, I admit, I have to recheck my emails to make sure it's really happening.) And then, this past Wednesday, an auction in NYC.
I am thrilled and honored to tell you that my U.S. editor is Denise Roy, and that The Underside of Joy will be published by Dutton in January 2012!
And I am humbled, because I know so many gifted writers who have worked hard and long and still haven't heard the big Yes. I want you to know that I had received nothing but rejections on my other manuscripts. There were a few very close almosts and kind words of encouragement, yet they always preceded one or more of the following: But. Unfortunately. However. Nevertheless. In this difficult market. Didn't quite fall in love. Not for us.
I'll write more later about the long uphill-both-ways icy road that led to this miraculous week, and how Elisabeth became my agent. (It wasn't through contacts. I queried her. We met through the dreaded slush pile.)
But for now I want to tell you about one more crazy thing. The week before all this happened, I'd made reservations to go ziplining through the redwood canopy this past Sunday to surprise Stan for his birthday. We'd never ziplined before. I love the redwoods and they play an important role in my novel. So the day turned out to be a fitting celebration not only of his birthday, but of the whole wild ride we'd found ourselves on.
|You want me to do what?|
1. Stand on a miniscule platform 300 feet or so from the ground. Try to look casual while gripping tree trunk.
2. Allow a friendly young stranger to secure your harness, helmet, and shiny metal aparatus.
3. Allow same stranger to hook you to a cable that extends 800 feet to another tree, still 300 feet from the ground, so you can travel 25 mph suspended from said cable.
4. Hang on.
5. Step off miniscule platform into vast sky.
6. Keep hanging on.
7. Say, Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
8. Repeat 7 times.
|Happy 50th, Stan!|
Monday, January 17, 2011
When I started this blog, I acknowledged that change is not only a part of life, it is life. The winds of change can sometimes be nothing but a whispering breeze and other times whip through with the might of a hurricane. Right now change is everywhere I look. It's in every inhale, it's all over me like skin. It's a bit exhausting. But it's also exhilarating.
My husband, Stan, and I moved again, right before Christmas. I do not recommend that you try this. Especially if you are trying to work and finish the latest draft of your latest novel. And if you, like me, are lousy at multitasking.
But we knew that the cabin would be a temporary stop while we regrouped and figured out a plan. Stan had made a brave career change in mid-life to something he actually enjoys doing. (There really are a few positive aspects to a sucky economy.) An opportunity came up, and now we're about 20 minutes from the cabin, back in the place we lived years ago, a lovely apartment above a barn (which I know sounds like an oxymoron, but it really is lovely) at the end of a country road, with a view of forest and vineyards. We've dubbed it The Barngalow, and it sits on the 8-acre property where we were married, so it holds a lot of good memories.
All four kids -- Daniel, Michael, Karli, and Taylor -- were here for Christmas. Actually, they were here on the Third Day After Christmas, which is when our blenderized family could squeeze in a celebration. The girls, 19 and 17, live with their mom now. When I see them I'm always struck by their beauty -- the kind that's so young and effortless.
Unfortunately, it's rare that we're all together, but I was grateful for the short time we had, and it felt good to be opening presents in a place where we had all opened presents years ago. Even if some of the boxes around us were marked Linen Closet and Living Room/Books instead of Merry Christmas, I had managed to get the tree up and decorated, put the bulk of the place in functioning order, and even finish the novel before everyone arrived.
And then I promptly passed out. Not really, but I seriously considered it.
After New Year's, the boys and I took a mini road trip to see my stepmom and stepbrother. My dad died six years ago this month, and if I can get myself in the right frame of mind, I'll try to write about him another time. It was wonderful to see Jan and Marc. And yet it was bittersweet to be in the home where my father should be but isn't. There is some change that I will never get used to.
Jan loaded our plates with delicious comfort food and we played Bananagrams, charades, cards, and that game where you wear some famous person's name on a piece of paper stuck to your forehead and ask yes/no questions in order to try to figure out who you are.
If I'd worn a piece of paper on my head for the last 23 years that told people who I was in only one word, it would have said Mom. I'm other things, of course. I'm a writer, wife, friend, daughter, sister, lover of books, trees, dark chocolate with nuts, and Mad Men, to name a few. But foremost, always, a Mom.
I still vividly remember that day I became a mother, and as corny and 1950s pre-feminist as it may sound, I felt such a sense of complete and utter fulfillment -- as if suddenly the universe had shifted, and I had fallen into the place I was supposed to fit, perfectly. As perfectly as Daniel fit into my arms.
And then, eventually, my hormones settled down.
But, truly, being a mom has been my most favorite thing in life. It's been the most gut wrenching difficult and the most rewarding, by far. It's been the thing I knew I was meant to do, even though I didn't do it perfectly, and some days not very well at all. But as much as I loved being a mom, I realized it was not my sole purpose in life. It was the biggie, no doubt. But there was also writing, and I wrote around nap times and on the edges of napkins at Chuck E. Cheese, and eventually started getting up at 4 a.m. to work on a novel. This will date me even more, but I remember typing short stories on my grandfather's electric typewriter while Daniel napped, using White-Out to correct my typos. I did this all with very little success, but I wrote because I loved to, even needed to, as overly dramatic as that may sound.
Once I had kids, I wanted to work from home, so I started working as a freelance copywriter to pay the bills, writing slogans, ads, brochures, articles, and later web sites. I still picked away at writing fiction, too.
I was there for my kids. But sometimes, I admit, I wasn't there for them, in the sense that writers often live in two worlds and you'll see our eyes glaze over while we have a particularly riveting conversation with one of the characters who lives in our minds. This is not something I'm particularly proud of, and which often leaves my husband shaking his head, saying, "You writers are a special breed." But because I was a Mom first, my children's voices would snap me back into the real world. Kids' howls always trump fiction. Whereas a husband's lengthy explanation of why the car sounds funny? Not so much.
Speaking of the car, I should get back to our road trip. While we were visiting, Daniel, Michael, Marc and I walked down to the lake. The day was cold and the sky hung low and gray. Daniel would be returning to Alaska in a few more days to finish his degree in biology. Michael, who lived 20 minutes away from us, would be leaving soon, too, at the end of the month, to study abroad in Italy. It was absolutely official: my boys had become men. I would still be, always be, their mom. I know this. But the wind was picking up, that last leaf on the tree was twirling, about to cut loose.
When we got to the lake, the guys started skipping rocks. Not nice flat stones, but big, heavy chunks of gravel. Theirs skipped freely across the water, 10, 15, even 20 times. Those rocks were like Daniel skipping off to Kindergarten that first day, dressed in the cowboy boots he always insisted on wearing and shorts, thrilled to be starting school, while I followed behind, blinking back tears. Skip, skip, skippety skip. And now their rocks happily skittered across the surface while my attempts ended with big loud kerplunks. There was teasing, and a few imitations of my form (Ha! Thank goodness they were only joking and I really don't look that uncoordinated.) But then there were a few patient lessons and when my chunky gravel actually skipped once I jumped up and down like a little kid. They said, "Good job," and I thought, Oh, God. I'm so not ready for parent-child role reversal.
If I were depressed, I might have conjured up some metaphor about youth and unlimited possibility juxtaposed with getting older and sinking head-first deep into the muddy muck. Fortunately, I'm not depressed. Just ever so acutely aware of this change. And while I do see their lives taking off -- soaring even -- I see mine evolving. I may not be skipping across the world, but now I'm at a point where my writing is my focus. Where it isn't scribbled in on the edges. Where the days are still and quiet enough that I can sink down even deeper into my other worlds. Where perhaps my words might actually reverberate out and reach across a distance. Where I'm still Mom, but I don't need to wear that badge on my forehead.
We drove home, just the three of us, Daniel, Michael, and me. Like the old days. But different. A few days later, Stan and I took Daniel to the airport. I hugged my tall son, burying my head into his chest, my tears slipping onto his jacket. "Bye Momma," he said, gentle, kind, and good. Stan stood to the side, eyes a bit misty. He hugged Daniel good-bye, too, and then let me cry on his shoulder when we got back to the car.
This weekend we helped Michael move out of his apartment. He's living with us for two weeks and then we'll take him to the airport. I have a lump in my throat when I think of it, and yet, I'm more excited than anyone for him.
So in between all this moving and saying hard good-byes, something wonderful happened last Thursday. I got a call from a literary agent. Not just any literary agent, but the one I really, really wanted to be my literary agent. She loves the novel. She offered to represent me.
(I think exclamation points may be the punctuational equivalent of stone skips.)
Way, way back, when I was in seventh grade, my creative writing teacher -- who, unlike my math teacher, wrote nice things on my papers with a lot of exclamation points -- said, "Seré, do you realize what you've just done with your pen?" Hoping she might say something like You've written a masterpiece, I shook my head and waited for her answer. "You were scratching your forehead with the wrong end of the pen, and now you've got writing all over your forehead."
All these years and questions later, and I know what I was starting to realize even back then. It took me a while, but I figured out who I am.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Happy Birthday to Bill.
Part stoic cowboy. Part teddy bear.
A wise philosopher
Who never met a tractor he didn't like.
Well read. Well spoken.
Friend to yaks. And kitties.
Calls the chickens "Ladies" and his lady "Sweetie."
Grills a mean steak.
Has a kind heart.
And my mother.