The Countries of Sickness and Health

Wanderlust

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.

 

 

 

 

Assay@NFN15: “The Lyric Moments”

I had a wonderful time attending the NonfictioNOW 2015 Conference at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Here’s a write-up of the panel I was on — about “the lyric moment” in both lyric poems and the lyric essay.  I wrote poetry first and still think of myself (in many ways) as a poet who happens to work mostly in prose these days. Thank you, Heidi Czerwiec, for blogging about so many of the terrific creative nonfiction panels for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies — a true example of literary citizenship.

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

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Matthew Olzmann, Justin Bigos, Sejal Shah, Bojan Louis

Panel description: When Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off in pursuit of “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” the phrase “suspension of disbelief” entered the poetic lexicon. It can be argued that an equivalent poetic faith is at the heart of the lyric essay. However, despite sharing similar impulses and effects, the lyric essay and the lyric poem handle, develop, and court poetic faith in different manners. There is a distinct difference between the suspension of disbelief in poetry and the development or maintenance of actual belief in the essay. This panel of poets, essayists, and editors will discuss the lyric essay in relation to the lyric poem, and consider what constitutes a “poetic faith” in nonfiction.

Matthew Olzmann: This is a panel of…

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The Emotional Infrastructure of the World

The internet offered up some unexpected loveliness tonight. Andrea Beltran (a poet I haven’t yet met) wrote notes from last year’s AWP conference in Seattle, in her blog post titled, “The emotional infrastructure of the world.”  What can one say (in summation) after several days across the country with 13,000 other writers? I am grateful that Andrea included a few lines from the panel I moderated. It’s strange and humbling to find out that sometimes the words you need to read are your own.

Our panel, “Race and Belonging:  Navigating the MFA Program as a Writer of Color,” convened on March 1st, 2014.  It was the last day of the hectic conference, and two months before The New Yorker published Junot Diaz’ brilliant “MFA vs. POC” essay, which threw greater light and attention on a conversation many of us have had for years.

Writers Sejal Shah, Jon Pineda, Tim Seibles, and Crystal Williams at AWP 2014 in Seattle, post panel.

Writers Sejal Shah, Jon Pineda, Tim Seibles, and Crystal Williams at AWP 2014 in Seattle, post panel.  We’re missing Eduardo C. Corral and panel organizer, Cathy Linh Che.

Here is the section of Andrea’s post that references our panel:

Race and Belonging: Navigating the MFA Program as a Writer of Color

“I sought diversity at the level of language.” – Eduardo C. Corral

“It’s important that we talk across our cultural lines.” – Tim Seibles

“It is your responsibility to find out what your writing is and write it.” – Sejal Shah

Read Andrea’s whole post here:  The emotional infrastructure of the world.

I’m looking forward to AWP 2015 and hope to meet Andrea (and see you, reader) then.

August

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Stone sculpture on the beach in Tiverton, Rhode Island.  Thinking about impermanence, beauty, and change this summer.

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My reading, on August 21, 2014, dedicated to my friend and MFA grad school classmate, James Foley (1973-2014).  The event took place at Roc Brewing Company as part of Writers & Books’ Get Lit Crawl (Rochester, NY).  Your writing and life touched so many people, Jim.  We will always remember you with the love and spirit you embodied.  There is only love.

Get Lit Pub Crawl Photo Credit :  Ivan Ramos

Ithaca Is Never Far

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all.” –C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Taughannock Falls

Ithaca Is Gorges:  Taughannock Falls, Ithaca, New York

For the last 19 years, while living in New York City, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Rochester, I have regularly visited friends in Ithaca, New York. This past spring I also taught selections from The Odyssey and thought about that other classical Ithaka.  After months of planning (to find a weekend that worked for both sets of my friends and for us), my fiance and I finally drove to Ithaca, NY, last weekend.  It was a relief to have an easy getaway in a summer that has been unexpectedly busy with our engagement ceremony, family and friends visiting, writing projects, and some of our own longer travels (to visit family and for a wedding).

My MFA thesis, a collection of stories called Ithaca Is Never Far, deals with the search for home– both cultural and geographic.  The title story is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view.  It was also, for me, about growing up in Western New York State–a place often considered at some remove from New York City, other East Coast cities, and anything cosmopolitan. Although I resented the idea of New York State as some sort of culturally remote backwater when I was growing up, after living in NYC myself for six years on and off across 10 years, it is sometimes challenging for me to be back here.

I miss the caffeinated buzz of the city–a constant electric hum–, its diversity, my friends and family who still live there.  Devouring all of Goodbye to All That:  Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (a birthday present from my friend Sally) in one sitting a few weeks ago made me miss the city even more.

These days, I am not able to get back to New York as often as I would like. (My last trip was a one-day whirlwind visit in April to give a reading at the College of Staten Island with my friend, fiction writer Stephen Schottenfeld.)  I try to appreciate what is here, including the quiet charms of my hometown:  great restaurants, ridiculously easy commutes, friends I have known for years, my 91 year-old grandmother, a good job with kind colleagues, a lower cost of living, the natural beauty of places like Ithaca.  And I met my fiance, also a native Rochesterian, here.

I don’t know where the future will take me–whether I will settle down here or if Rochester is one more stop along the way.  Cavafy’s poem reminds me to be patient, to not hurry the journey.

Memorial Day Mini Residency

At Blue Mountain Center, in the boathouse, 2014

At Blue Mountain Center, in the boathouse, 2014

I’m just back to the world after a beautiful five-day artist residency at the wonderful Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks.  It was a transformative opportunity to connect with other writers, artists, and activists, and a welcome chance to disconnect from the internet and the  everyday demands of our jobs and lives.

 

I was especially grateful to have time to reflect and write at the end of my first year teaching at a new school.

The other residents and myself on the front steps of BMC.  This is writer Elizabeth Graver's photo.  I really enjoyed meeting her.

The other residents and myself on the front steps of BMC. This is writer Elizabeth Graver’s photo.