Making Time

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Where I am this month: the Anderson Center at Tower View, an artist residency in Red Wing, Minnesota. I’m writing and revising, and trying to get out of my way to work.

So here’s something my friend Geeta wrote recently about time, grief, and writing that resonated with me:

One day, around the time my parents died, I finally understood that time isn’t an infinite, renewable resource. After the grief, came the despair. I added up all the wasted hours. So many, with people I didn’t like doing things I didn’t care about. Of course, I couldn’t actually add up all my wasted hours because I never kept track of them. This was a period when I didn’t keep a journal or a schedule on paper. Even when I began writing seriously, I paid little attention to how I used my time. I measured my progress by how many pages I filled, how many drafts I wrote, publications. This last item seems a little insane now because rejections for my stories far outnumbered acceptances (and still do)…

I don’t want to live the rest of my life regretting things. You don’t either. Geeta makes a good case for how to spend your time on what counts (if writing deeply and daily counts to you). You can read the rest of her essay / blog post here

Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls

Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

A labyrinth near Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk in Amethyst Brook on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

September is the month of the autumnal equinox—the time when summer ends and autumn begins. In the weeks before this, I was thinking about goals for the fall and mourning the end of summer a bit, especially for R, since his life (and mine) change dramatically once the school year begins. But not all change is bad. He loves teaching middle school and coaching tennis, and I love the fall.

My fall classes at Writers & Books begin next week, in October, so I’ve had the chance to do some meaningful traveling and attend events related to art and writing in September. For that, I’m exceedingly grateful…especially since we’ve had health issues in our family, and our summer was mostly spent with parents, my grandmother, and extended family who had come to visit my grandmother.

At the New York book launch for Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

At the New York book launch for GOOD GIRLS MARRY DOCTORS: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Some September highlights: R and I took a trip to New York—our first visit since we went there together at the end of 2013. It was a lovely vacation, instigated by an invitation from writer Jyothi Natarajan to moderate the Q&A for the book launch of the anthology, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion (edited by Piyali Bhattacharya), at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Piyali had invited me to submit an essay to the anthology, but it was due right after my wedding, and I didn’t have the mind space to be able to see an essay through to completion then. So I was especially pleased to be able to participate in this book project in some way. It was a wonderful event—moving essays, a packed house, and a chance to reconnect to some of my literary community in New York.

img_0531I’d vacillated on this next trip, but I am so grateful I went. Stephen Clingman, a former professor of mine at UMass Amherst, invited me to take part in a symposium on the life and work and legacy of my MFA classmate, slain American journalist Jim Foley. Besides his work as a brave witness to the suffering in Syria, Jim was also a talented fiction writer. We were honored to spend time with Jim’s parents, John and Diane Foley, who also attended the symposium.

Other writers on our panel included MFA classmates Erin White and Yago Cura; Jim’s friend from Teach For America, poet Daniel Johnson; our MFA professor, Noy Holland; and Jim’s close friend from Marquette University, Thomas Durkin. One of the writers for the documentary about Jim also attended—his childhood friend, Heather MacDonald. I read from an essay I’d started about Jim a couple of years ago and still need to finish.

img_0428September brought with it the Rochester Fringe Festival, which meant the chance to see my favorite hometown modern dance company, Garth Fagan Dance. They have been inspiring me my whole life, and R and I were lucky enough to have one of the dancers, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, choreograph our first dance at our wedding. Fagan created his own dance vocabulary using elements of Afro-Caribbean, ballet, and American modern dance—and this influenced me as an artist; he extended what was possible, or what seemed possible. We all have different stories to tell, complete with different vocabularies. You don’t have to use someone else’s—in fact, you can’t. How liberating it is, but it requires confidence—a certain strength of will and belief in your story.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

September also brought with it the publication of an essay of mine in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization—“Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps.”  In addition, This week was the book party for my friend Rachel’s Hall’s debut collection of stories, Heirlooms. l was so pleased for her! In the last few years, we have talked a lot about the process of writing a collection and sending it out to find its home. I interviewed her about Heirlooms in my final column for the Kenyon Review Blog.

img_0717The day after Rachel’s book party, I had the opportunity to hear the venerable, acerbic, witty, and wonderful Margaret Atwood! (I can no longer say there’s “nothing going on in Rochester.”) Not only is the epigraph from my manuscript from Atwood, her essay, “Nine Beginnings,” is one I regularly teach and come back to in my thinking and writing. I’ve also been reading from a collection of interviews with her (books were generously given out at the event, held at The College at Brockport, The State University of New York).  Here’s an excerpt of an interview I read this morning:

Geoff Hancock: What do you think your strengths are as a writer?

Atwood: I used to say, in the usual Canadian way, ‘Well, aw shucks,’ I don’t know.’ We’re trained to be modest. But now that I’m middle-aged I’m going to allow myself to say, ‘Well, maybe I’m good.’ Not all the time, but enough times, I can get the words to stretch and do something together that they don’t do alone. Expand the possibilities of the language.

Hancock: And your weaknesses?

Atwood: Weaknesses? We can’t afford to think about those kinds of things. Most writers are tightrope-walking over Niagara Falls all the time. Look down and you’ve had it. If I thought too much about weakness I’d block.

—From “Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls” in Margaret Atwood: Conversations (edited by Earl G. Ingersoll)

Let me just say I want to be her when I grow up. In the meantime, I’m learning to be me as best I can. It’s the task of a lifetime.

Finally, I wanted to share some essays I came across this past month, so as not to forget them. These are also some of my reading recommendations, if you are looking for any:

  • Holly Wren Spaulding’s thoughtful essay on art installations in nature.
  • My friend Meera Nair’s essay about food, longing for home, and the importance of cooking.
  • A smart NYT article my friend, writer V.V. Ganeshananthan, recommended about networking. It’s about more than networking though—it applies to literary citizenship, manners, and being mindful about paying the help we receive forward.
  • My friend, local writer Nate Pritts, on writing outside and the importance of spending time in nature.
  • Also flagged to fully read / listen to (I caught just the end on the radio): Mary Karr on writing memoirs on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
  • An essay on death, dying, and happiness, by Brooklyn-based meditation and yoga teacher, Jess Geevarghese. (I met Jess in a yoga class while in NY in September, and we ended up striking up a conversation at a cafe down the block from the studio…one of the most meaningful interactions of my trip.)
  • Last one: I heard Sarah Cedeno read this essay in July, but it stayed with me, and I’m adding it to this list to remind myself (and you) to take a look at her haunting essay about family, hoarding, and the stuff of life.

What are your reading recommendations? I’d love to hear from you about them.

Pilgrimage: Some Thoughts on Thanksgiving

IMG_6428I have always been ambivalent about Thanksgiving. My family did not celebrate it in any recognizable way when I was a child. No cranberries, turkey, stuffing, pies. We ate Indian food (which we just called food) with our family friends (also Gujarati) in Rochester, as our extended family lived several hours away in California and New Jersey. Most of these family friends, I realize now, also had no other blood relatives in Rochester. They were my local cousins, my family.

We often watched movies – the one I remember most clearly is Kramer vs. Kramer—which seems like an odd film to watch at Thanksgiving, with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep divorcing. I remember the sympathetic portrayal of Dustin Hoffman’s character, and how he was also so kind to Meryl Streep’s character when she was in the courtroom and was asked if she was a good mother. Yes, he said or mouthed or nodded. I think Meryl’s character was in tears and wordless, and I think sometimes I was, too.

After my brother married my sister-in-law, we (my parents and I) either spent Thanksgiving with them in Massachusetts or in New Jersey, home of my sister-in-law’s parents. The night often ended with our watching movies, including the video of my brother and sister-in-law’s amazing wedding, twenty-three years ago.

Before her father passed away, suddenly, six years ago, my sister-in-law’s parents hosted most often—delicious South Indian food from Edison, champagne, lots of extended family, kids, football on the large screen TV in the basement. I would brace myself for venturing into Penn Station, which was completely bonkers on Thanksgiving weekend—and keep my cousin or my brother posted about when I would arrive—which train into which station—Metuchen or Metro Park or Berkeley Heights.

I was always late, looking up the NJ Transit train schedule, dragging a suitcase and a backpack of papers to grade and trying to hail a cab over to the West Side to even get to Penn Station. You could feel that crazy buzz of the East Coast—people constantly in motion on the train or I-95. Everyone jostling for space, everyone trying to get ahead, to get there faster. Those days seem far away. Another era, really.

Since I returned to Rochester and my grandmother moved in with my parents, and especially since her stroke, we do not travel as much. Also: I got married this year to someone who grew up five minutes from me. My husband’s parents live in town, too. Two nights ago we had dinner with both sets of parents, my aunt (who moved here last year), and my grandmother – at Pizza Hut (all Indians love pizza)—to celebrate a lot of fall birthdays—my mom’s, mine, R’s.

Last night, R and I had a quiet dinner at his parents’ house. We had traditional American Thanksgiving food from our local grocery store—sweet potatoes with cranberries, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing. Turkey for my father-in-law and R. My father-in-law bought shrimp for me, since I don’t eat turkey. So very different from other years.

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Still of my sister-in-law and me during the ceremony, taken from the wedding video. She and my brother worked before, during, and after the wedding, helping us. An Indian wedding is no joke.

We decided to watch the wedding video that night for the first time—and realized part way through that it was our five-month anniversary. It has taken some time to process the whole experience of the wedding. We laughed and cringed at the expressions on our faces—my wide eyes, his consternation, our not knowing what was going on (no rehearsal). We drove home after, no suitcases needed.

***

I want to share a little of the essay I wrote for my presentation on the lyric essay at the NonfictioNOW Conference in October—because it’s also a little bit about Thanksgiving—at least about the images I grew up with.  Title of the Presentation:  “The Lyric Moment – to be both Pilgrim and Indian / to be on Pilgrimage”:

 “In Anne Carson’s essay, “Kinds of Water,” the narrator and her companion are on a pilgrimage and each journal entry ends with a meditation on what it means to be on such a journey—a sentence or two defining what a pilgrim is. Carson writes, ‘Pilgrims were people who figured things out as they walked. On the road you can think forward, you can think back, you can make a list to remember to tell those at home.’ (185)

Pilgrim is a word I sometimes wince at—cowboys, Indians, pilgrims. I am one of these three and pilgrim is not it, but when I read Carson I forgot that. I remembered, even as the word felt awkward to me, the origin of the word / world—the pilgrimage, the undertaking beyond Columbus and Thanksgiving—holidays and history I feel alienated from, not the least because I came from a place where people are also called Indians, but we were not studied in school. We did not count. We were invisible and so were the Indians we studied. Writing is about making the invisible visible. Writing is about counting—steps, images, stories. In this way, as a writer and reader, we each sail onward, solitary pilgrims. We pilgrimage. We count.”

At the time I was working on the essay, I was thinking about the relationship between walking and writing. I read the book in which the essay is contained, Anne Carson’s Plainwater, while in Noy Holland’s graduate English class, Stylistics. My friend, Jim Foley, was in the class, too. I still think of him, walking in the desert, walking in Amherst, searching and thinking, as we all were, for our stories, for who would we become. Jim was captured in Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012, so I pause too, to remember him and his lively and loving spirit. (Thank you, Rilla Askew, for reminding me of the date.) I’ve been struggling with finishing an essay about him. Persist.

While working on my presentation, I had somehow forgotten about my friend Holly Wren Spaulding’s book, Pilgrim. (Buy this book– for yourself and it’s perfect for a stocking stuffer or an easy-to-pack gift for when you are visiting friends over the holidays.)

Holly and I have spoken often about what it meant to leave the lives we had made—leaving home and place and academic perch, for the unknown—except we knew we wanted to put art / writing, a mindful approach to living and to love, at the center of it. I’ll share the title poem of Holly’s book here. Her poem, “Pilgrim,” (along with Carson’s essay) gives me a different and more nuanced sense of the word.

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I’ll rewrite some lines from the poem again, for emphasis:

PILGRIM

October is to fall

 

all things die back

 

varieties of brittle

tannic smoke

 

where are you from

now that you’re not

from there

~Holly Wren Spaulding

This Thanksgiving weekend, I am thankful for family—near and far—and for the friends I grew up with in Rochester. I’m thankful for memories of watching movies on the VCR, Tootsie (we must have liked Dustin Hoffman) and Octopussy (James Bond and set in India, to boot!). I am relieved and sad I can celebrate Thanksgiving without running the gauntlet of either I-95 or Penn Station on a holiday weekend. I miss my sister-in-law’s father, an incredibly kind man. I’m grateful for friends I met as an adult—in particular today, for Jim, for Holly, and for my husband, who all walked into my life and made it better.