The bar is called heaven*

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Dear Tom,

At the time that I post this it will be one year since I bought a one-way ticket to Denver to say goodbye to you. It feels like yesterday. It feels like last week.

One of the greatest gifts is that I got to spend such concentrated time with you in the final eight months of your life, and to talk to you openly about mortality and the afterlife. You asked me to help you figure out how you could come back as a benevolent spirit, but I don’t think you need any help. Your energy is palpable to so many of us; you are with us constantly. So many of us have received signs from you in the past 365 days, from Buffalo nickels found on the ground to train whistles piercing our sadness at unexpected times. Songs on the radio (I’ll keep it old-school for you, you who eschewed technology and the rolling suitcase), license plates and graffiti bearing your name, and dreams, so many dreams so vivid they had to be you.

Like every single person who was packed into the Capitol Theatre for your memorial, there are things I miss about you that are specific to us, 25-year-old jokes, shared experiences, and the characters we created. We were Ringley and Laura, star-crossed family friends who wrote letters and postcards to each other as we waited out “that blasted war” in the summer of 1944. We were Smoky and Sweets, the blue-collar 1950s sitcom couple whose every episode ended with an adorable mishap. And we were us, the real us, you who saved me from a runaway horse in Half Moon Bay, who invited me right back into the fold whenever I felt I had been ousted. So many adventures, and so many meals. Dining with you was one of the great pleasures of my life.

That you gave me such a prominent seat at your table in your final months is something that will forever impact me. It was an honor and a privilege to be by your side when I could. It was a different version of our friendship, to be sure, and it wasn’t always easy, but it was always important. It was doctors’ appointments and procedures and efforts to eat more healthily and to dial it back on the evenings out. It was Laverne and Shirley marathons and meals of pierogis and kielbasa—occasionally, and always followed by those healthy shakes in the morning. It was big “family” dinners surrounded by puppies. It was a visit to Cheyenne to tour the steam shop, and a Kentucky Derby party that turned out to be a crawfish boil. It was trips to Ace Hardware—my goodness you loved that place—to make your home more beautiful. I have your phone, and I found a picture you took of me on your back porch after we hung those lights. I love this picture. 

There was so much laughter in those final months. And there were a fair amount of tears. Yet you never complained, never bemoaned your fate, you who comforted the woman on the bike next to you in physical therapy by pretending you were riding through Paris together. I know you had regrets, we talked about them, but I think that you ultimately died as you lived some of the best parts of your life, surrounded by friends and music and beauty and love—including the love of a beautiful woman to whom I will always be grateful. The sun setting on the Rockies, John playing guitar, all of us holding you and loving you as you took your final breaths. To say I am profoundly shaped by that experience would not do it justice. 

*Do you remember all of us singing this song in your hospital room? It was late Friday night. It was your last party on earth. I’m certain there are many, many more wherever it is that you are now.

A few weeks after you left us I had dinner with Erik and Gib and we talked about our TVaught-inspired goals for the next year. I said that one of mine was to finally finish my book and I said I’d aim to do so by your birthday. Gib suggested I aim instead for the anniversary, as that was likely more doable. He was right.  I’ve just sent out my first couple of queries. It is out of my hands now. I know you’d be proud of me.

In our final phone conversation, the Monday before, when you were getting ready to have surgery, we talked about how we’d visit New Orleans together once you got better and find me a little house to be my writing retreat. You named it the Jewel Box and in it you designed a sunken living room—my writing room—which you named “The Cat’s Paw” because it would be, somehow, shaped like one. When I showed up at the hospital four days later, I leaned in to say hello to you, and you opened your eyes briefly and said my name and smiled. And then you mumbled something about a cat. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized what you were probably talking about. 

If I am to believe that you are around still, and I do, then you also bore witness to the upheaval your death brought to all of us. You saw the unraveling of relationships that were held together by a bond that you created. You saw the wheels come off as we grappled with our collective identity. In your absence, some of these longstanding connections no longer made sense. And that is okay. 

But oh, that memorial. What a beautiful, perfect event that was. And on that day, none of those differences or conflicts mattered; all that mattered was you.

When you came to New York in July, over lunch we talked about your timeline. You said, “I don’t want to die around the holidays and ruin them for everyone. But then after the new year things are already kind of depressing so I don’t want to do it then.” At the time we had no reason to think things would take such a sharp turn. At the time I said, “I was at those doctor’s appointments with you—you’re not leaving us any time soon!” And I truly believed that. And now here it is, your anniversary, November 3. How fitting, somehow, days after Halloween and the Day of the Dead. It will never be “fitting” that you are gone, but within the confines of that brutal reality, the time of year you chose makes some sort of sense. 

Alas, my love, there will never be a way to end this letter that feels “enough”. And I talk to you constantly, you’re with me constantly, so ending this letter isn’t all that consequential. But I wanted to write it to mark this day. I recognize the irony in writing about you on that newfangled internet thing, but just as you are still with us on an alternate plane, perhaps these words will find their way onto parchment and into your hands.

You know that I love you, and I think you know how deeply I appreciate you. You continue to inspire and influence me in the most beautiful ways. Thank you for that.

Always,

Laura (Sweets)

 

As time goes by

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I uploaded several black cat photos before choosing this one. I’m not really a Cat Person (allergies and such) but I do love the look of them. This is one of the many I’ve seen in New Orleans, and (s)he seemed appropriate for today.

Today is Halloween, which means that the rest of the year is around the corner. I’m generally loathe to lament the passage of time—like the weather, it seems a futile thing to complain about—but at this point in the year it’s difficult not to notice. I thought of a metaphor this morning. I was a fairly clumsy child; it was not uncommon for me to take the first three-quarters of the staircase in my childhood home at a steady clip, and then inadvertently speed up and run/trip down the last few steps. This seems an apt comparison for the pace of the years … we move along through the first many months, summer comes and goes, we start to embrace autumn and then BAM! it’s Halloween, and immediately after we prep for Thanksgiving, and then the holiday season. And this year we have the added seasonal pressure of midterm elections, the results of which so crucially impact this country that it’s hard to breathe in anticipation. If you are reading this and are NOT planning to vote, you are a big part of the reason we got to this point in the first place. You don’t have to share my political views (though today we are far beyond politics and into the basics of humanity), but for the love of all that is sacred, please vote.

I digress.

Someone asked me what my favorite Halloween costumes were when I was a kid and I couldn’t really think of any. We have photos, of course, so I remember being a prom queen (I was about eight years old and in the photo I’m holding my middle finger to the camera. Delightful child I was.), a movie star,  Cleopatra—that was one of my favorites. But the one that’s really coming to mind is a princess, when I was three or four. Not because of what princesses represented—I don’t think I was cognizant of that, and we weren’t inundated with Belle and Jasmine and all the rest—but because the costume was pretty and shiny and I liked those things. Of course, it being the 70s in the suburbs of New York, no costume was complete without the requisite long pants and down jacket. A kindler, gentler, colder time.

I’ve been having conversations lately about how much Manhattan has changed, how much “better” it was before (speaking strictly of the logistics of living on and getting around the isle; state of the world notwithstanding, I like my life these days). This morning my Lyft driver said that people have told him the city is much more crowded than it used to be and I said that yes, it seems that way, and that I think I preferred the way things were in the past.  He said,  “Oh, like in 2013?” Thanks to good genes (and Botox and hair dye), I don’t think he realized that no, I meant more like 1993. Which lead me to the realization that my satisfaction living here is probably as much a product of my age as it is anything else. Yes, it’s more crowded, institutions are closing, rents are increasing, but that was happening back then too. Back then I was part of the crowded, and part of the new guard that had moved in. I was hanging out in packed bars in the east village and waiting on line for brunch (actually I pretty much avoided that then, too). It was easy to be 23, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

And still, I wouldn’t trade the wisdom and the experiences, good, bad, and ugly, that have led me to this point. It helps to be one of those weirdos who believes in a master plan and an afterlife.

Speaking of both, I spent last week in my beloved New Orleans on what turned into a fairly successful creative retreat. I spent my days writing and my evenings with friends and it was delightful. It was my first trip there this year and I’m glad I  made it in time to celebrate the city’s 300th birthday.

This is a photo from a year or two ago, in the séance room at Muriel’s. It is in this room that Antoine, the resident ghost, allegedly took his life after losing the building (which was his home) in a poker game.

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Happy Halloween!

VOTE.

In the secret space of dreams

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Yesterday’s beach plans were thwarted as we neglected to check the horsefly index. They had commandeered our stretch of sand and were relentless, so we spent the day inside and reemerged before sundown to hear live music and watch the changing view above.

Went to bed early and woke in the inky darkness. It was windy and the doors were creaking (it’s just the house settling, Jan) and the place felt heavy with spirit. I lay awake for hours in my fear-of-darkness.

Just as I wrote those words, “The Sound of Silence” came on:

 

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping.

 

Exactly, fellas.

I fell back asleep as it started to get light again, and then the birds outside our windows began cawing.

This all seemed a great big, universal reminder that we are the new kids on this planet. The horseflies, the birds, the sharks, they were all here first. And we’ve come along and, in a very short time—because we are, by and large, quite intelligent—invented things that make our lives easier and theirs more confusing.

I’ve seen one firefly this summer.

All creatures great and small. Remember that series? I read a bunch of those books when I was young.

I lost the thread of what I was going to write about. There was one.

I’ve been keeping morning pages again, since August 12, and I’m reminded of what a valuable exercise this is. I highly recommend it—it’s a great way to clear the night and kick off the day. You do not have to be an experienced writer to benefit; you just have to have pen, paper and a mind.

One thing they’ve helped me do this time around is remember my dreams. If you’re one of the myriad people who find other peoples’ dreams boring, skip to the last paragraph.

I go through phases with dreams, thematically. For many years I had the recurring one where I’m giving someone a tour of my house and at the last moment discover, or remember, a hidden room that is much larger and more opulent then the rest. A room that is under-utilized.

There was a dream bar I frequented, located in an amalgam of the East Village, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Paris. It had two rooms and live music.

For a fairly long stretch my dreams involved global travel, the kind where I could walk from London to Indonesia to Cameroon and back.

And lately they’ve involved time travel. Never future, always past, and often I am self-conscious about the access I have to technology. Last night I followed a friend into a nightclub in 1978, and it was large and dimly lit and I lost track of her. I realized I had no way to get in touch with her because cell phones wouldn’t work in that space or year.

I think I just found the thread—the technology conundrum. The fact that the animals were here first (most of them). The experience, last night, of being in this beautiful outdoor space with beautiful live music, surrounded by people texting and Instagram-ing and Checking In.

Yes, yes, I recognize that I am pointing these things out via WordPress and The Facebook and on my laptop computer. I’m not judging; technology is important. I’m just advocating for a little more analog in this digital world we’ve so deftly created.

Write something by hand. Watch the band with your eyes and ears. Have three-dimensional relationships and experiences. These, my friends, are the most important things.

 

When autumn leaves start to fall

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I was in New Orleans last week and it was hot, and I got to see some of my favorite people, and I consumed my weight in roux. The impetus for this visit was my friend Elena’s business trip there; I don’t get to see her often, and this was her first visit, and so I was happy to join. By and large I got to soak up my beloved Nola, got to share my tiny version of it with her, ate great meals, did some new things (restaurants I’d not been to, the Musée FCP, the sculpture garden at City Park), but the trip was marred by the fact that my Lou-dog took ill while I was there and so I came back early.

Louie is 15 and has a variety of age-related issues and last week was a particularly tough one for him; he spent three days at the vet getting fluids. Thank God he was in the hands of my more-than-capable co-parent, but it has been very stressful for all involved.

Of course I planned this trip not knowing this would happen, and of course I have tremendous guilt for having been away when it did. For now, we are managing symptoms, but I am aware that the week to week is unpredictable. It’s not fun, and as a friend said yesterday, accepting what is going on around us is one of the only ways to handle it all without falling apart. I do accept. I don’t like it, but I accept, and I realize that this is what I signed up for when I got a dog.

There’s an important distinction to be made between accepting and embracing. The inconvenient truth that has dominated my thoughts since I was old enough to think is the inevitability of death. I hate it, but I accept it, I’ve dealt with it, I will continue to do so. I was speaking to a friend recently and she mentioned that she lost her mother when she was 6. I said, “Wow, that must have sucked” because wow, that must have sucked. She teared up and said, “You are so emotionally accessible.” That is a huge compliment and a lifelong burden – I get it. It’s so very hard, all of it. And so many people in my life are going through challenging times right now. You have your health? you don’t have a job. You have a job? your love life is a mess. You have your health and your love life and your career? Donald Fucking Trump was elected president.

Oy. Vey.

On that note … we are coming up on one year since that, and I have a strong feeling that anyone who is reading this and who voted for him is chagrinned at best. Because, come on. You still support the guy and yet are intellectually and anthropologically curious enough to read random blogs?

I try not to talk about politics in this forum; that’s what my Resistance group is for. (If you’re on Facebook and you’d like to join, please send me a private message.) But I’m having a really tough time with it all this week. Some weeks are easier than others regardless of how awful the specifics of that week are, but this week, because things are challenging AF on a micro-level, of course what’s going on on a macro-level is hitting me harder. I feel very anxious, and that is not generally my go-to. I’m more of a depression gal. But the state of things in this country and this world is making me anxious and my dreams are reflecting this.

I don’t want to talk about it anymore. #AvoidanceIssues

I’ve applied for a writers’ residency in New Orleans. The idea of unfettered writing time in that city surrounded by other writers is a thing of beauty. However, there are a lot of people applying for a very small number of spots, so I am managing expectations.

I workshopped pages of my new book in my writing group yesterday and got very encouraging feedback, so that’s nice, and offsets the fact that, while there, I glanced at my email and got another Agent Rejection on the first book. I’m contemplating another revision—not a total one, but changing a few key details. The two projects are entirely different, so it’s conceivable that I might be able to work on both simultaneously. I mean, not simultaneously simultaneously, because that would be crazy, but at least during the same general period. This new project I’m writing is in the first person POV (have I already told you this?) and this has been fun and challenging in a different way. There is a terrifying amount of freedom that comes with writing in first person, because most of us think in a way that is not linear or plot-driven.

What else, what else … doing some freelance writing/editing, which is a relief right now because vet bills are high. But I will subsist on ramen before I will skimp on care for Louie, and so there it is. And I’ve not yet had to resort to ramen.

Oh, the challenging realities of life. Hug your loved ones and tell them you love them. Embrace your strengths and those in the people you meet and deal with every day. Forgive yourself and others (within reason), and know that brightness follows every squall.

You are wonderful. Thanks for reading.

Right back to where we started from

IMG_0530 (1)Not exactly, but I’m working on a new book. These are words I did not think I would be saying anytime soon, but as the querying process for the other one got under way I had a mini existential crisis, à la “Now what? What if nothing comes of this? If I’m not working on it anymore, who am I?” and a friend who is a prolific songwriter (and very talented musician, I might add) said, “You set out to write a book  and you did. Great. Now write another one.”

And so I am. Writing another one, and it’s entirely different from the first (which is really the second but for these purposes we’ll call it the first). The book I’m writing now is sort of a comedy-noir, which are two of my favorite genres of film. The protagonist is male. It takes place roughly today. It has been such a very long time since I began the first book that I’ve forgotten what writing a first draft is like. It’s hard! But, as anyone who’s ever taken a class or tried to write a book or read a book about writing knows, you have to write what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft” in order to get to the decent one. Or, as another talented writer friend says, “You write the first draft to figure out the story you want to tell.”

I think because the first book is a tough sell, I’m determined to write something more accessible and salable and this is making it difficult to really dive in. But that’s the only way to approach it, diving in, so enough with this procrastination. Right? Right.

I am returning to my beloved Nola in a couple of weeks and that town inspires me. This will be a combo writing retreat/holiday, as I will get to see some of my favorite people. What I need to do is get better at writing at home; what I want to do is travel the world and write elsewhere.

Much more to say but I’m tired. My sleep has gotten weird again but one interesting thing is that, in the month or so since I started New Book, I’ve dreamt about it several times. Dreamt about the characters, dreamt about the writing of it, dreamt it was a series. So it seems my subconscious wants me to work on this thang.

I’ve been reading a lot more lately, I’m happy to say. Fiction again—I took a long breather from it while I slogged through those last several rounds of First Book because I didn’t want to compare my writing to anyone else’s or be accidentally influenced. Right now I’m reading Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”— my first time reading her though she’s been on my radar since “White Teeth.” I saw her speak at the Girls Write Now gala in the spring, and she was awesome and inspiring.

What are you reading?

Someone asked me recently if, where writing is concerned, I have a fear of success. I responded that I think what I have is an expectation of failure—which sounds much darker and more dramatic than the way in which I mean it. But she, an intuitive person, to say the least, suggested that it really is what she suspected, a fear of success. So this is something I have to think about, what that means and why I would have it.

The Jewish New Year is upon us; l’Shana Tova to all. My resolutions goals for the new year are many.

A Creole tune fills the air

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The day I was leaving Louisiana I drove past the image above. Josie is my main character’s name, the one whose experiences I’ve tried to capture and absorb during my visits to New Orleans this year. This was either a cool coincidence or a sign from beyond, depending on your point of view on such matters.

I’m somewhere in the middle.

I was telling someone about my book and where the inspiration for it comes from, and he said, “Sometimes I wish I had a less scientific mind. I could use a little more magic in my life.” I think we all could use more magic, the good kind.

This was a first—the other night I dreamt a live-action scene from my novel, in which  two of the characters sit at the bar having a conversation. I recall the gist of their discussion, but not the dialogue.

One of the things I love so much about my visits to Louisiana is the generosity of the people I’ve met, generosity of time and spirit. As I said in my last post, on this most recent visit I was a guest in several homes, I was treated to meals and shown parts of the city and state I’d not have discovered on my own, I was given gifts of sentimental and spiritual importance to the givers. The people I’ve met have a deep appreciation for their city that I’ve not experienced elsewhere; they’re proud of its culture and history, and they love to share their knowledge with visitors. And every person I speak with has a unique perspective on what makes it the special place that it is.

Somewhere I once read that Mark Twain described New Orleans as “a beautiful woman with dirty fingernails”. I’m having a hard time finding that quote now, so maybe I dreamt it, too; either way it’s accurate. A new friend who lives there reminded me of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, which I need to re-read; I read it long before my first visit. In researching literary New Orleans I found this quote from the book:

Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air—moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh—felt as if it were being exhaled into one’s face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing. Honeysuckle, swamp flowers, magnolia, and the mystery smell of the river scented the atmosphere, amplifying the intrusion of organic sleaze. It was aphrodisiac and repressive, soft and violent at the same time.

The same friend described his neighborhood, which is fast becoming one of my favorites, as “mostly quiet, not touristy, with the sweet, soothing sounds of gunshots most nights after midnight.” I think that’s a slight exaggeration but I defer to the people who live there. In my experiences, like most places I’ve been, you’re safe if you keep your wits about you and don’t venture into unknown territory.

I worried that I didn’t get as much writing done on this trip as I’d set out to, and my amazing editor/coach assured me that what I did get was of great value to me as a writer, as part of the “writer’s life” that she assures me I am living. It feels at times like a cop-out because being a writer does not mean constantly writing. And the other aspects of the writer’s life are fun and interesting, the research, the mining of peoples’ stories, the surrounding myself with creativity and inspiration. My trip coincided with a visit by my friend Richard Grant, the wonderful travel writer who was in town to discuss his latest book, Dispatches from Pluto, at the Faulkner House. I’m reading the book now, in so far as I’m reading much of anything these days, and it’s wonderful. It’s hard for me to read while I’m on deadline; it just makes me aware that I should be writing. But once the conference is over and I can briefly relax, I plan to inhale this book and a few of the others stacked up on my nightstand.

So much has happened in the twelve days since I’ve been back from Louisiana. So much more mayhem and malice in the world. Another horrific terrorist attack in France, more suicide bombings (Somalia comes first to mind but of course there’ve been others), lots of gun violence in this country, the shooting of another unarmed black man … and the conventions.

I wish that I could express myself as eloquently about American politics as so many of you can … but I lack the deep understanding and historical context, as well as the ability to discuss the state of things objectively, free of emotion. What’s going on right now is incredibly emotional to me. This is why I am asking any of you who can articulate your point of view well to write a post for this blahhhhgggg in the coming weeks … happy to share your words anonymously, if you prefer. I have some very smart, informed, and articulate friends and I’d love to learn from you.

I need to maintain my faith and optimism. We’ll get through this.

 

 

 

‘Cause all I ever have

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Note: I wrote this several days ago and never posted it. I was getting ready to write a very different piece tonight, about the writing process and Alan Cumming and connecting with others and the dog’s injury and then, somehow, it felt wrong not to acknowledge the events of last Sunday.

July 17

…and another horrifying story, this time a national one that took place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the day after I left that beautiful state. As I said, this was the first time I’ve ventured out of New Orleans, down south along the bayous to the tiny and climate-threatened Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish, and in so doing I got a fleeting glimpse of an entirely different Louisiana. It bears little resemblance to anywhere else in the world that I’ve spent time, and I was quite taken by its beauty. See exhibit A, above.

Despite all the atrocities going on in the world and despite the personal challenges I and several people in my life face and the fact that he-who-shall-not-be-named is running for president, I left that vacation feeling some semblance of enrichment and extreme nostalgia for ten days’  worth of experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And then this. Oh, this. The person-on-the-street footage of what happened in Baton Rouge is chilling. I wish I could say that that crime makes zero “sense” – but in the world in which we live, it is not out of context. It did not occur in a vacuum. And that is an even less convenient truth than the fact that it happened in the first place. This was neither the first nor the last act of extreme, divisive violence we will experience this year.

I am tired of being horrified. I’m tired of feeling helpless. I’m tired of the front page of the Times having an all-caps headline to the effect of: ANOTHER ONCE-UNTHINKABLE ACT OF VIOLENCE. And I’m tired of the flags just kind of staying at half-mast.

Let’s try to look out for one another.