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.

Fear of the Midwest

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Refrigerator magnets I got at a rest stop on the NYS Thruway. Yes, I was nostalgic for the place where I live.

Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and the Southern Tier all hang onto the moniker of the Northeast by their fingernails. In my story, “The Half King,” I describe Western New York and Rochester as “disturbingly close to Ohio.” New York is part of both the Northeast region and the Mid-Atlantic States. I thought I grew up on the East Coast; it wasn’t until I left for college that I realized my mistake. (New England lets you know they are the oldest, they are the coast.) New York: we are the only state whose borders touch both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean…to read more click here for my most recent essay for the Kenyon Review.

Photographs As Writing Prompts

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R took this photo of me by the Bay of Bengal (that’s his finger in the top left corner), when we had a break of a couple of hours between taking part in rituals at various temples in Tamil Nadu with his parents. The flowers in my hair came from these ceremonies. Looking at the vibrant colors now cheers me. Seeing vast Lake Michigan yesterday also made this earlier by-the-shore photo feel resonant two months later.

I’m at the Ragdale Foundation for a few weeks on a fellowship:  it’s a beautiful place to write and work. Yesterday, I met up with a former resident here, Michele Morano, and we walked along the shores of Lake Michigan with her young son. Michele is also a writer, and asked me what I was working on. I mentioned that I had brought with me a couple of folders of essay drafts, but that I couldn’t bear to delve into the messy drafts.

Over tea we ended up talking about our recent (December) trips to India. Michele’s descriptions of Delhi and Varanasi and all the details she mentioned (the ghats, the carnation and rose petals, the getting sick) brought back some of my own memories of my time in Tamil Nadu. I got to thinking about photographs.

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A sculpture at a hotel where we had breakfast- showcasing modernity and planned obsolescence; an ancient culture and the Apple logo on a metal apple. The contradictions that are everywhere in India. That’s my mother-in-law off to the side, who always looks elegant in whatever sari she is wearing.

Before leaving for Ragdale, I had an appointment at the computer store to address the fact that I have four different photo libraries- it somehow happened from transferring what was on my previous computers to my current one. I had trouble even finding my recent photos from India. When I located the photos from our India trip, I glanced through most of the photos (I created an album), and it brought back some of my memories, too.

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My first overseas travel with R. Again, the colors! Flowers floating in a brass pot of water. I don’t know what those bright red flowers are called. Do you? This photograph reminds me that it took me a few months after our wedding to decide I did in fact want to wear a wedding ring (I never wore a traditional engagement ring), but I knew I wanted toe rings to wear on my second toes, which signify that you’re married.

Look through photos from any particular time in your life and wait for one that suggests a story or that rises from the desktop a bit, that calls to you, talks to you, that you want to spend time with a little more. What made you take the photo in the first place?  What’s the story behind the image and within the person who was moved to capture that image in the first place? If you’re feeling stuck, look at photos. Write about one or two. These three captured my imagination when I looked back at them. I am writing about them now.

Become a Cabbage

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A sign on the beautiful landscape of The Millay Colony of the Arts, which was once the summer home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The title of this post comes from a poem I love by Naomi Shihab Nye called “The Art of Disappearing.” I was talking about this poem with my friend Holly last week, and was reminded of it again when I read her wonderful blog post this week about Nye’s poem, attention, and creative work. Holly and I are spending this week on a writing retreat at The Millay Colony for the Arts.

Most of the time, I’m someone who walks around (without even thinking about it) with E.M. Forster’s adage in my head:  “Only connect!” Talking, deepening friendships, enriching conversations, creating community- these are never far from my mind. However, it takes time, attention, and solitude to work on a longer writing project, and too much connection (online, phone, coffee dates) and that sustained attention, so hard to come by, withers.

Here’s Nye, from “The Art of Disappearing”:

“When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.”

I think she has point. Another Rochester writer, Sonja Livingston, and I were also recently talking about Nye’s poem. Rochester is a small town. I spend my life running into people I know just about everywhere (especially Wegmans) and I like it. But maybe it’s important to save your singing for your work, for your writing. It’s worth reading the whole poem here as well as Holly’s blog post on attention, Nye’s poem, writing, and Millay.

 

The Countries of Sickness and Health

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Molly’s wanderlust / continents tattoo, designed to resemble henna, caught my eye at a charging station at JFK and sparked my conversation with her.

In the car on the way to the airport, my husband (R), more careful than I, asked the requisite last minute questions—Do you have your passport? (Yes, packed since last week). Do you have your visa? This second question gave me pause.

I had a current visa, yes. The problem was that my 10-year visa to India, a total pain to get, was on my previous, expired passport. I had not really used my passport since my last trip to India four years ago, and therefore had not made the connection that my visa was on the old passport…and that my old passport was still in our apartment.

We turned around and I ran back into the apartment to retrieve my expired passport. Had I left it with other inessentials at my parents’ house instead of at our new place, we would have missed the flight to New York—which meant we likely would not have made our other flights.

We are flying together for the first time—to New York and then to Chennai via Dubai—in order to have me meet R’s grandmother and other relatives. Not only is it our first flight together, it is our first overseas trip, as well as my first time traveling with my in-laws. We are meeting them in Chennai. It’s not a low-stakes trip—but then nothing about this year has been low stakes.

It turned out that having a current visa on my old passport was good enough, but I had watched the look on my husband’s face and registered the sinking in my stomach, thinking of his parents who had spent time and effort planning our itinerary and what they would say if I was unable to go.

Go without me, I said to R. I can go to the consulate in NY and then take a later flight. It’s not that easy, R said. We looked at each other. Maybe they just won’t let us go. How could we not think about the irrational fear of Muslims or anyone who is brown or “different?”  The fear that anyone who looks like us (two tired teachers) could be terrorists. The unbelievable rise of Trump. The fact that flights this time of year are packed. I wasn’t thinking about the time of year—school vacations, holidays. I wasn’t thinking about the color of our skin. Being married means having to think about things more. It’s not just my own trip I would have derailed, which (while not ideal), I could have dealt with.

It has been over four years since I have left the country other than a few quick jaunts to Toronto. I had forgotten many things until the last week—calling my credit card company so they don’t freeze my account after a foreign transaction; packing extra Ziploc bags, toilet paper, and Kleenex; filling prescriptions for malaria meds.

Even being in NYC (even just JFK) is a different country. This past fall, I did a little writing-related travel and attended a LOT of readings. I was out a lot, but not dancing and not seeing the world. Not writing as much as I want and need to.

I think I tried to make up for a year where I felt underwater and in a country where I did not speak the language— the world of living with a sick family member (my grandmother—her stroke in my bed, calling 911, my family and I at the hospital and Jewish Home in shifts) and the almost equally strange and horrifying  (to me) world of wedding planning minutiae and decisions (themes, colors, invitations, guest lists, seating arrangements, menus) collided.

I felt frequently mute and as though I could not stop talking and also was not heard. It was though we (R and I) were living inside a snow globe. The rest of the world went on outside it. Or the rest of the world was the globe and I was adrift in some other galaxy—the world of pale yellow hospital masks and thickening agents, countless sari blouse measurements and fittings, and telling my ninth graders on repeat that it was “minus five” each time they forgot to bring their copies of Romeo & Juliet or a writing implement to class. We muddled our way through Shakespeare and the end of the school year. My grandmother is able to swallow again, to speak again, to walk. I survived wedding planning, moving, and the first six months of marriage.

Even with potential visa troubles last week, I realized I still have my real passport—a clean bill of health, a reason to travel (a grandmother to meet), the resources to make it possible, a companion with whom to go. I realize these are not small things; these are everything. I am grateful.

The wanderlust tattoo:  At JFK, I met Molly and her friend Linda, who were en route to Dubai, Kenya, and the Maldives. They were on their way to meet friends from Sweden. They met these friends four years ago (while traveling); now they all sport the same tattoo and travel together. I didn’t ask Molly what she or Linda do for work in Cleveland or if they have spouses or children. It didn’t seem to matter, because it doesn’t. They are travelers. That is enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Comes Next and How to Like It

Last week at Blue Mountain Center, where I was invited to take part in a mini residency, I finally delved into Abigail Thomas‘ new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. It came out earlier this year and I bought it months ago and it has sat while we slowly moved into our new place and got used to too many changes. New apartment, new husband, working from home, etc.  I did something while away I used to do a lot—just recopied passages from her book and other things I read there. I’d fallen out of the habit of doing that, but at BMC, I just settled into the book and reading at a table next to my friend, Holly. Hours passed.

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I admired that Abby wrote about failure. It’s something I have thought about a lot—how to deal with it, why my students and their parents struggled with it, why I do, and how to write about it.  Everyone fails at something, at some time. So why is it so hard to accept it? I do think half of life is showing up, but do we need participation awards?  I got a D in calculus in college and most likely should have failed. I was horrified, and life went on.  I’ve failed at much larger things with far greater stakes than that, too. Everyone has. It’s what comes next that says something.  What did I do with it?  What am I doing with it?

Here’s something Abby wrote in What Comes Next and How to Like It:

“I am trying to convince myself that failure is interesting. I look the word up in the American Heritage Dictionary to find its earliest incarnation, but it has always been just ‘failure.’ There’s no Indo-European root meaning originally ‘to dare’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘hummingbird’ to make of the whole mess a mysterious poem. I can find no other fossilized remains in the word. Humility comes along on its own dime.”

One of the many things I love about Abby’s writing is short chapters.  Suits my way of thinking—these interconnected fragments. I loved her various two-page assignments (I took a four or six week class with her at the 92nd Street Y in TriBeCa, the last year I lived in NY) and I used them sometimes in my classes—and I love how she has composed whole books (like one of her memoirs, Safekeeping) in these segments. Here’s one for today from What Comes Next:

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“Late Fall”

“Late fall, and the color is gone. This is the season of bare trees, the kinds of trees my sister Judy describes as looking as if they died of fright.  A perfect description. Judy should be a writer, I nag her all the time. ‘If you’re not going to use it, I am,’ I say, but I’m careful to give credit.

The leaves were glorious yellows and reds and browns, but a few along Tinker Street (and one you could see only from Cumberland Farms) were a deep shade of rose. Rose! You had to gasp. But except for those moments of painfully beautiful color, I haven’t felt anything like shouting, can’t think of anything to write or paint (I don’t know how to do autumn), and nothing more has occurred to me recently about failure, except that it’s failure.

But when it gets dark, I’m off the hook. The day is officially rolled up and put away. I’m free to watch movies or stare at the wall, no longer holding myself accountable for what I might or might not have gotten done because the time for getting something done is over until tomorrow.” —Abigail Thomas

Thank you, Abby.  It’s nearly time to stop working.