Let’s get together and feel alright

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“Wherever you go, there you are.” Somebody said this to me recently while I was talking about an issue I’m having, and how I will address it once x, y, and z are in place. At first I dismissed it as one of those hollow, placeholder clichés, akin to “sounds like a plan” and “at the end of the day.” But then he elaborated and I realized, shit, he’s right.

He went on to say “the one thing all your problems have in common is you.” Right again. Then he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear.” No, he didn’t. That part’s not true. But the rest of it is … I often fantasize about living somewhere other than NYC, because NYC can be a tough place to live on many levels (she says, scrounging through her purse for five dollars so that she can get an iced coffee). It can also be an easy place (she adds, realizing that she can keep writing and order a cup of coffee in*), but there are much calmer, more beautiful, kinder parts of the world. However, for many reasons, it does not make sense for me to live elsewhere right now.

And so I am instead working on what I can do to be more comfortable anywhere, to make “wherever you go, there you are” a positive thing. One of the ways I’ve been working on this is by getting back to my meditation practice.

I was a skeptic for many years, had tried various forms of meditation here and there, and decided it wasn’t for me, that I wasn’t the right kind of person for the job. Then two years ago, thanks to a generous birthday gift from my mum (one that took me seven months to get up the nerve to use), I went through the Transcendental Meditation training program. It was easier than I’d expected, and I felt like I was getting benefit from it, though I wasn’t really sure what that benefit was. I was fairly consistent with meditation for a while, then I forgot a couple of times and then I fell completely off the wagon. Got back on toward the end of last summer, then November 8 happened and the last thing I felt like doing was being alone with my thoughts for 20 minutes, twice a day. Because, unlike other forms of meditation that I’ve tried, in TM you are allowed to acknowledge your thoughts. And my thoughts were dark in those days. They are slightly less so today, a day that many of us woke to very good news (it’s not about celebrating a victory, it’s about being relieved that people we know and people we don’t know will be protected if they get or are sick or pregnant or take medicine or are human). But I digress.

I had a bout of the blues in early June and decided to throw myself back into TM, as well as to work more with essential oils, which are wonderful for mood support—if you want to know more about this, message me. At the same time, a VIP in my life expressed interest in learning TM, and I highly supported this idea. So I started practicing regularly again and this time around I am absolutely aware of the positive impact it is having. It is making me calmer, lighter, better able to focus. It is helping me creatively, as I gear up to begin a new chapter (ha HA!) in my writing life. It is making me more patient, less irritable, less reactionary. I am very grateful that I decided to dive back in. Sometimes we need to take a break from things to recognize their worth. If I could, I would gift this practice to many people in my life who I think would benefit from it. But as I can’t, I will say this: do good things for yourself. Whatever issues you are facing, approach them from as many angles as might be helpful. Realize the strengths in yourself and in your circumstances and build on them. If you are reading this, I can almost guarantee that something you possess is the one thing that someone else on this planet thinks, “If only I had ____, my life would be so much better.” A job, a home, a loving partner, an enriching hobby, willpower, musical talent, perfect skin, physical strength, intuition, a sense of humor, intellect, empathy, wit—if you possess any one of these things, you have a foundation that others aspire to.

Speaking of aspirations, here’s something nutty—I’ve been taking voice lessons for a couple of years, basically because I like to sing and wanted to get better at it, and I’ve kept going because I love my teacher. However, the idea of singing in front of others makes me want to evaporate. I have tremendous stage fright, as well as paralyzing fear of public speaking. My lovely teacher informed me a few days ago that she is having a recital sometime in the fall and that she’d like me to prep for it. Holy smokes. This would involve singing in front of other people. In semi-public. But it’s good to have a tangible goal, and so I will focus my efforts with this in mind. Stay tuned. No pun intended.

*I didn’t order a cup of coffee in.

 

 

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It’s been a long time without you, my friend

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Somebody asked me what I usually do on 9-11, and while I don’t really have any rituals, writing here has become a tradition of sorts. It helps me. It’s therapeutic and it’s important.

I believe that 9-11 enters my mind in some way most days—certainly more often than not. And while the visceral memories fade during the year, on the anniversary they return.

I remember so vividly that I could re-enact my experiences on that day in stunning detail. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I remember what I was doing, who I spoke with, what I saw, what I ate. I can picture myself in my little apartment on Charles Street, blowdrying my hair and watching the news. I’d turned it on just after the first plane hit. I remember the anchorman’s tone when the second one came, when we could no longer pretend it was an accident.

I remember the phone calls, first to my mom and then to my ex. Nothing registered – at least not the loss of life at that moment, nor the implications for the rest of mine. I think on some cellular level we all knew that nothing would ever be the same, that life would be divided into pre- and post- , but I’m not sure most of us could have understood  just how intractable the change would be.

It was a perfect day. It was sunny and crisp and blueskyed, where the night before had seen torrential downpours. The night before we’d attended a benefit party for Women in Need and then darted from awning to awning to have burgers at the Cedar Tavern.

I remember standing on 6th Avenue in a stunned crowd of people watching the towers burn. Wondering, briefly, if I should go back for my camera and deciding not to. Ron, the homeless man I knew in my neighborhood, called out to me as I crossed 10th Street. “Laura! They hit us!” I spoke with him briefly and told him to stay safe, not yet understanding that that was impossible.

I got on the subway and most people knew. Got off in mid-town and learned that the towers had fallen. Loss of life was beginning to register, but certainly not to the extent that it would.

My coworkers, gathered around a live news feed, one in tears because her husband had gone to the buildings for a meeting that morning. He would walk in hours later, stunned and alive.

The rumors about the planes heading to Los Angeles and Chicago, learning about Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. Phone calls coming in from friends and family all over the country. Emails from people abroad.

Erika and I walked to my parents’ place, where my mom made us lunch (tuna salad on toast and potato chips) and from their windows we could see the smoke and chaos consuming lower Manhattan.

Walking, more walking, visiting with my dad, heading west and meeting Michel, then going down to my apartment. We went to Gus’s for dinner that night, ate Greek food because that was our plan and what else could we do? The couple behind us, an older couple, sounded as though they were on a very early date.

We went to a bar after to meet up with friends, including one who had yet to hear from her mother. She would learn, at some point, that her mother had stayed home from her job in one of the towers.

The Missing posters all over my neighborhood, the trickling in of information about so-and-so’s friend or family member who had died. The smell, that acrid smell of death and chemicals that clung to the air for months afterward.

I’m not sure which day I found out about Jonathan, but I think it might have been two days later. I hadn’t seen him in a bit, hadn’t known he’d changed jobs, hadn’t even heard of Cantor Fitzgerald until it was demolished.

That Friday a group of us volunteered at the site, feeding the rescue workers. We wore hard hats and goggles. The piles of steel were still burning. The heat was palpable.

The next day I went up to the country, travelled up with Phil; he had a house not far from my parents’. My dad picked us up and I spent the weekend with them. I remember taking a walk down their road and fearing snipers hiding in the woods. I remember seeing the biggest f-ing caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

How many times did I watch the planes hit and the buildings fall? It was unavoidable and yet I didn’t resent the coverage. I needed to see it, it was part of the process. My process.

The dreams continued for months. Dreams of buildings exploding and airplanes falling from the sky.

I remember the Portraits of Grief. I saved Jonathan’s and one day, months or maybe years later, I reread it, turned it over and saw the Portrait of someone else I’d once known.

In a very weird way, and please hear me out on this, I miss the aftermath of 9-11. I miss the closeness and kindness and we’re-all-in-this-togetherness. I miss the burying of hatchets and the overlooking of petty differences. I miss the tacit empathy and comfort we provided one another. The feelings of pride in my city, of gratitude for what we were able to do together. The checking up on one another. The collective therapy.

I don’t miss the flyers that stayed up for far too long, and I don’t miss the smell, and I don’t miss the frantic barking of dogs.

I don’t know what I will do tomorrow, I’ve started my 9-11 ritual early this year. I will think about Jonathan and I will think about others and I will probably watch some of the reading of the names. I will try to be a very good person tomorrow.

I will wish that we would all be kinder to one another, that we could all have compassion and celebrate our differences, that we would always remember to tell people we love that we love them, and that we would never take another day for granted.

I think I post this every year, too, because I think it’s beautiful, a snippet of a poem by my supremely talented friend:

In the blinking of an eye
Soon everything will change
From a blue September sky
The brimstone falls like rain.
If true Love
Soars the heavens
Pretend and we can fly
Soon everything will change
My love
In the blinking of an eye.

Neil Thomas, September 2001

I may write again tomorrow. Then again, I may not.

 

Where did all the blue skies go

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I started to write a post on the 4th of July and decided not to publish it, didn’t finish it. I couldn’t find the words to express what I was feeling, couldn’t quite figure out how to acknowledge a celebration of our country’s freedom when so much of the world is not free. I don’t usually get political here and it felt inauthentic somehow, though my feelings were 100% sincere.

That was four days ago, and I think had a fair amount to do with a new friend I’ve made, through my cousin – a fellow who lives in Iraq. I reached out to him after the latest spate of suicide bombings in Baghdad and he was, of course, devastated and angry. He asked to see photos of the mountains and woods where I spent the long weekend; he wanted to see beauty and positivity and freedom. He sent me a photo collage of the victims of Sunday’s attacks, and it was a collection of beautiful, young, vibrant faces.

The next day there were attacks in Saudi Arabia. This week two young black men in the US have been killed by police for the “crimes” of selling music and driving with an allegedly busted tail light. Last night, snipers shot and killed five police officers in Dallas and wounded several others.

I do not know how to react to any of this. I am infuriated and saddened and tired of feeling helpless and I don’t know what my recourse is.

I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Donald Trump is not the answer to any of this. Hate begets hate. Intolerance begets intolerance. Ignorance is dangerous and hubris does not a successful leader make. And I do not want to speak his name more than absolutely necessary, so that’s that for now.

I am in New Orleans again, working through the final third of the book. And it is hard to concentrate on what at times seems such a trivial pursuit in light of all that is happening in the world around us. But this is my job, and so I will do it.

Since I was last here about six weeks ago, there have been terrorist attacks in Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Somalia, Israel, Yemen, Pakistan–and that’s just off the top of my not-terribly-informed head. Since I was here, a monster shot and killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

There is so much to grieve in this world. And there is so much to love and admire, to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in places where we are allowed to love and admire who, what, and when we choose to.

I’ve been accused of having a Pollyanna-like outlook on things. I don’t. I’m more realistic than I let on. But there are many people who can speak of the world’s atrocities much more eloquently than I can, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn from these people and their words.

I have long been saddled with a need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to believe that people are inherently good. I am fortunate to have many good people in my life.

But it’s a scary, uncertain world, and I am aware of this. So if I veer toward light and love in the things I write and post and choose to talk about, do not mistake it for blindness. I can’t fix all the bad, and so I choose to try my best to contribute more good.

Time for coffee and Chapter Ten.

Stuck in the middle with you

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My friend (Michel) sent me a meme (don’t love that word) that said: Writer’s block: when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you. That sums it up fairly well. Mine are talking to me, but they’re all talking at once and it’s very hard to decipher their individual voices. I need someone to work crowd control, but then he or she would need a storyline, and I’d be right back where I started (from).

In college I read the Luigi Pirandello play “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” in which six unfinished characters interrupt the rehearsal of a play because they’re desperate to find a writer to finish their stories. They’re in a sort of purgatory until they do. I wrote a little piece for writing group last year based on this concept; my characters gathered in the bar (my characters spend an awful lot of time in the bar) discussing where I’d left them. The ones with marked characteristics and clear voices were relatively okay, but the others were pissed.

I’d always heard that, when writing fiction, characters can come to life and drive the story. This is my experience with this novel; I’d thought I knew who my main character was until the person who became my main character claimed the spotlight; it took me a while to fully realize that this is her story.

Her name is Josie, short for Josephine. About a year and a half ago I met a Josephine at a party; I commented that that was my protagonist’s name, and she asked what she was like. So I told her that she wasn’t always my protag, but eventually she became the most important character in the story. Non-fiction Josephine laughed and said, “That sounds about right.” A year and a half later she is one of the most important people in my life.

Lots of synchronicity in the long, drawn-out writing of this book …

Most exciting development of late … I might finally have my title. I need to mull it over extensively before I commit, though. Titles are hard.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m also writing a pilot with my oldest (in longevity of relationship) friend Tara. It’s been really interesting working on these projects simultaneously, and as different as they are, there have been a lot of parallels in the process. Both stories needed extensive backstory written and then cast aside in order to get to the heart – or the bloodline, as my coach says – of the plot.

Tara has been invaluable in the novel-in-progress as well. She’s a voracious and careful reader and has read my chapters and given me excellent feedback. This is crucial. Without her, and my coach, and my writing group, and other helpful sets of eyes, I would be operating without a net. With the village that is helping and encouraging me in this project (and you know who you are, even those who don’t wish to be named in this forum), I feel fairly confident that I will not leave gaping plot holes and red herrings and guns in act one that don’t go off by act three. Can’t remember who said that – feel free to comment if you know (Mom).

I am going back to my muse city, as JC calls it, in a couple of weeks. I’ve been warned and warned again about the heat and humidity and mosquitoes, but never having experiences Nola in the summer, I know that this is something I must do. For the book’s sake. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will spend the week slathered in sunscreen and bug spray and depending on the kindness of strangers’ air conditioners.

Much more to say on the subject of this upcoming trip, but I shall save it for another post.

I travel extensively in my dreams. While asleep the other night I visited New Orleans, India (there were sharks in the Ganges!) and a cross between Marrakesh and Namibia. Been trying to keep track of my dreams by writing them down. 3AM handwriting aside, this is an interesting process. By writing them down when they’re fresh in my insomniac mind, I am able to recall the emotional imprint of the dreams, not just the storyline.

I will leave you with this. I was watching something late, late one night in which a psychiatrist and a few other professionals were discussing the basic rules to human interaction – what one or two guiding principles help us get along with others. So I wrote down some thoughts and came up with this: meet people where they are. I mean this figuratively, though if you’re my friend in real life you know this also applies to my love of proximity to my home. But really, meet people where they are, accept their limitations, and don’t hold them up to improbable standards. You can expect the best from someone while still embracing imperfection.

And now back to my possibly titled book.

Daddy never sleeps at ni-ight

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This title is, of course, from The Who’s “Squeeze Box,” but in my case, it happens to be true. Among the many wonderful things I’ve inherited from my dad is a proclivity for insomnia. I’ve also inherited a sense of humor that can err on the side of crass, an inherent friendliness, a love of duck (sorry vegans), a sentimental streak—as evidenced by the mounds of memorabilia I sorted through over the past several weeks—a talent for singing  both enthusiastically and free from the constraints of proper tune or lyrics, and much, much more.

I love you, d!

(mima, please let him know he got a “shout-out”, as he’d say)

I have the great fortune of seeing my dad on a regular basis. The photo above is from Bash Bish Falls, which I first visited many years ago when he took me (us?) hiking there.

I wish all of the fathers reading this a very happy Father’s Day.

Today I’m also reminded that I have many friends and cousins who’ve lost their dads, some many years ago and some quite recently. I imagine this day is incredibly difficult whether or not you celebrated it much growing up . The whole world  (the corporate one, anyway) just assumes you have a father—and that you have a good relationship with him. News programs devote entire segments to what to get dad for Father’s Day. Chalkboards outside restaurants invite you to bring  him in for brunch or dinner. Stores create elaborate displays of Father’s Day gifts. Reminders are everywhere.

So to my friends (and cousins) whose dads are no longer with us, I send you love and strength today and every day. If you’re in my life, your dad did a hell of a job. Your mom too, but we’ll talk about her some other time. Unless she (or you) is a single mom; happy day to all the badass women out there going it alone with strength and grace, however imperfect it may be at times. We are all imperfect.

This past week was the 14th anniversary of a very close friend’s passing, my sweet Laura. Though my grief over her is not nearly as raw as it once was, she is never far from my mind. I think about her in some context more days than not.

Such is the bittersweet truth of loving deeply and often. With love comes the risk of loss. Let that not be a deterrent, though, because life is much richer when shared.

 

I bought a ticket to the world

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On the advice of the wise and wonderful Ginger, I got myself a subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine. The first issue arrived and, despite the fact that it looks like it was delivered by bored, rabid ferrets who were building an addition to their nest, it’s exactly what I need right now. It’s all about the beginning … the first sentence, the first chapter, and so on. Since I’m pretty much reinventing the book, I have the opportunity to craft a stellar beginning. I liked my original one, but I absolutely understand why it was bogging this thing down.

In beginning my story on what was once page 129, I have the incredibly challenging task of incorporating back story — which was once, simply, “story” — into my new beginning, and there’s an article on that, too. The main takeaway from this article is that back story needn’t be spelled out as explicitly as one might think; it can be hinted at in the way characters behave in the present, in their motivations, wishes, fears, and so on.

I’ve written before about “killing your darlings” — and in this case, I’ve outright massacred mine. But this does not mean their lives were in vain: I needed to write out 129 pages of ponderous, stagnant back story in order to learn who my characters are and why they are that way.

Now my task is to tie it all together into something that bears vague resemblance to a book. With a plot. And an arc.

What have I gotten myself into?!

In addition to the print version, a subscription to WD includes access to a wealth of content on their website. One of today’s pieces was on fact in fiction, on how, if one is well-versed in a particular topic, and a fiction writer has not done his/her research, it can be hard to accept the rest of the world that he/she has created.

A lot of creative folk had a hard time writing/painting/sculpting/dancing/singing about 9-11. I read a fair amount of contemporary literature in the years after it happened, and it was quite a while before I read a book that referenced it. The first one I did was The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, which came out five years after the fact.

I loved the way she touched on 9-11 … nothing gratuitous, nothing repetitive to those who lived through it. She wrote elegantly of the mood in NY in the hours and days after the planes, and I appreciated the way she handled it.

However … there was one “fact” she ignored, and I hesitate to say that because there is no wrong in fiction. But it struck me then and has stayed with me.

The night of 9-10-01, one of her characters goes on a helicopter ride around Manhattan and sees the lights and the city and I don’t recall what else. Anyone who lived here then will recall that on the night of 9-10 we had a torrential downpour. A deluge, the kind that upends umbrellas and ruins shoes and is enchanting to those of us who love rain, no matter how inconvenient. And so it was especially stunning how perfect the next morning felt, how crisp and clear and bright the skies. And then, they did their thing and you know the rest.

So add to the myriad reasons it takes me so long to get through a paragraph in this book I’m trying to write the fact that I do not want to take such a liberty. I’m already doing so by making the summer of 1999 a particularly rainy one and throwing a massive power outage in for good measure. (and to further the plot). But where very tangible specifics are concerned, I’m getting in my own fiction-writing way.

Any excuse to keep from churning out another draft from which to create the final one.

My bestest friend and I are writing a tv pilot loosely based on our awkward, misfit selves in the 80s. This is a breath of fresh air from the book. It’s work, it’s challenging, it requires letting go of ego and perfectionism and impatience and indulging in the process. And we’re doing it together, which is the best part. There’s strength in numbers.

Book-writing’s a lonely business. Bear with me while I figure it all out.

 

 

Sweet emotion

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Well hello, and Happy Father’s Day to all who identify as fathers.

I have been remiss in posting here, and a major part of that is that when I sit down at my computer to write I feel compelled to work on the novel … I am in the homestretch of this draft and really hope to finish it within the month, so that I can move on to the Herculean (but hopefully not Sisyphean) task of rewriting. Quite a process, this … and finishing this first draft will be a huge milestone and one that I feel might reverberate into other areas of my life. I have notes for the project all over this apartment, in notebooks, on index cards, on the backs of envelopes and scrawled on my whiteboard. Because my approach to getting through this draft, per my writing coach, is to just plow ahead and not worry about editing at all, I’ve amassed a sizable collection of thoughts and ideas to consider when I do begin the editing process. More clutter — not what I need — so maybe when it comes time to collect and consolidate my every fleeting notion, I will by extension organize my space a bit more.

But I digress, which I’ve been doing a lot of in trying to get through this draft. My writing group has been invaluable, as have the couple of writer friends I can bounce ideas off of … but ultimately, I alone must complete this process.

My downstairs neighbors are very unhappily married. I know this because, more mornings than not, I hear evidence. I hear the wife shrilly berating the husband through the vent in my bathroom, and sometimes I hear their toddler daughter crying in the background. Apparently I am not alone in registering this; my doormen call them with noise complaints on a regular basis. It doesn’t seem to be working.

This morning, Father’s Day, I heard her shrieking over and over and over, “Nobody likes you! Nobody likes you! Not one person!”

My doorman told me that he’s heard through the grapevine that she threatens that if he tries to leave her, she’ll take his money and his kid and he’ll “be miserable”.

It is very difficult to listen to this on a regular basis. It is stressful. I feel sorry for all parties involved — the husband and kid, obviously, but also the woman, who is clearly not a balanced person and who seems to have no regard for the potential psychological damage she’s inflicting on her daughter. No regard for the fact that the daughter might well grow up with a false sense of what households sound like, of the dynamic to expect and accept in a relationship, and of how to express herself when she’s upset. Of course, damage is not a foregone conclusion, so hopefully she’ll be one of the lucky ones and rise above it all.

They’re moving to San Francisco at the end of the summer; maybe my new neighbors will get along famously.

Today in the Styles section of the Times is an article about ghostwriting services for people who need to deliver toasts and speeches at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and so on and so forth. I’d be good at this. I’ve delivered a few wedding toasts in my day and they’ve gone over well. I’ve also ghostwritten personal documents for friends — breakup and makeup notes, sorry-you’re-offended-but-this-is-how-I-feel emails, I-know-it’s-over-but-I-want-to-leave-things-on-a-positive-note missives. I’m pretty good at putting feelings into words and at distilling the truth from a multitude of messy thoughts. So why am I having such a hard time with the emotional aspects of the characters in my book? Maybe because a novel is antithetical to the distillation process. Finding new and compelling ways to describe hope and fear, the two dominant emotions in my book, is tough.

Now I’m not sure whether “hope” and “fear” qualify as emotions. Which gives me something else to Google while neglecting Chapter 19 of draft one of the as-yet-untitled project.

Chapter 19 is a biggie — it’s where the reveal happens. One of them. It also takes place not-in-New York, unlike the rest of the book. When I was doubting my progress to a friend today, he made a comment about how I’ve already written 18 chapters that take place in New York … I guess that’s something.

I went to theater a couple weeks ago to see Dr. Faustus at Classic Stage Company. There was a party after with the cast and theater staff, and I met the artistic director, who is a lovely man. He asked what I do and I mentioned The Novel and he said something to the effect of, “That’s impressive — it must be really difficult work,” to which I replied something to the effect of, “You run this theater company — that’s difficult, impressive work!” and he said “Yes, but everything I do is a collaborative effort. I rely on the input of a lot of other people. Writing a novel is such an insular process.” I really appreciated this because he’s absolutely right, and that’s one of the most challenging aspects of it for someone like me, who would much rather spend time with others than alone. So that’s where the writing groups and the coach and the friends I can bounce ideas of of and even this blahhhhg are helpful — I’m accountable to people for this. I’ve voiced my intention to complete this draft and so I must. I will.

Recently over dinner, a friend paid me one of the dearest compliments I’ve received. He said, “You’re one of the few people who, when I spend time with you, I don’t feel like I’m alone.”

That is one of my missions in life, to make others feel less alone. My other mission is to write.

Back to Novel. Until soon.