Years gone by

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I think about 9-11, in some capacity, every day. I still dream about it, but certainly not to the extent that I did those first several months after the fact. That day and the day my friend Laura died nine months later are the two most acutely traumatic experiences of my life. Though the pain and shock are diminished and the sadness muted, neither is ever terribly far from my thoughts.

I remember details of both days in stark relief; I could piece together the events of 9-11 very accurately, as all of my senses were on high alert then and in the weeks and months that followed. The day Laura died was different—the shock phase of that grief process cycled quickly into profound heartache, and though I recall who was around me, the details are foggy. But as to that clear September day the autumn before (technically late-summer … why must I be so damn literal that I can’t let the poetry of “the autumn before” stand without an editorial note?), I recall what I ate, who I spoke with by phone and in-person, tones of voice, snippets of conversation, and so on.

I wasn’t sure I was going to write an anniversary post this year, but it’s become one of the few rituals since I began this blog in 2013. So here we are. I wasn’t sure I was going to write because at this point I don’t know what to say. I don’t think anyone wants to hear my version of the sequence of events, or my experiences on that day, because everybody has their 9-11 story. Sure, I was here, so that puts me closer than some, but it really doesn’t matter; we were all here.

With the exception of a relatively tiny handful of people on this earth, 9-11 succeeded in bringing people together across the planet and regardless of race, religion, socio-economic factors, education levels, stations in life, and any of the myriad ways that we divide ourselves. That is the collateral beauty* of that horrible day.

*This phrase, which I recently encountered, is apparently the name of a 2016 film of dubious merit. I like it, though, and am keeping it.

On a macro- global- historical- political- level there is much to be learned from 9-11. On a micro-level, there is this: we actually really, truly only have THIS MINUTE. The old “I could get hit by a bus” maxim has been upgraded to “I could get hit by a plane,” but the point is the same … this is all we have. We can not count on “some day.” There is no “I will get it together once _____” or “I just need ____ before I ____.” That is bullshit. That is not being kind to the you who is here today. What an existential shame it would be to deny today’s you her/his full potential because you were waiting for tomorrow’s you to show up.

I could go on and on and on and on about the importance of living life now and loving yourself always and being in the moment and believing and learning and caring but I am so tired of having to convince so many of the people in my life to live their lives that I am going to give myself the rest of the night off. I’ll be back to it soon enough.

May whomever is in charge of these things bless those we lost on 9-11 and those who remain.

Love yourselves. You know you deserve it.

 

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The lazy Mississippi

IMG_5110If you are lucky enough to know what it means to miss New Orleans, then you likely recognize the area where I took this photo, Jackson Square. Yes it’s the heart of the Quarter and yes the Quarter is riddled with tourists but some of my closest friends who are not tourists live and love in this historic part of town.

If you pay attention to this blahg you may have noticed that, until today, I’ve posted quite minimally since 11-8. It’s been really difficult to do anything since then, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My life will not change dramatically because of what is going on in Mar-A-Lago on the golf course in D.C. But life, and any semblance of security that many of the people living in this country may have, has and will change dramatically, and this is what I now fight for every day.

But I digress. I have not written in FSP much because I’ve not really been inspired to do so, and now, having made my first trip of the year to New Orleans, I am inspired to do a lot.

This was my 13th visit to the city, and it was wonderful. I saw some of my favorite people and made new friends. I played among the Mardi Gras beads and stray cats that line the streets. I know that the city is far, far from perfect. I know its political and social and infrastructural problems are many. And I know that when I visit there, I feel creative and I believe a little bit more in the magic that I so want to believe in.

I love that, on this trip, I met a woman who has a pet pig, and that on hearing this, I asked , “Oh! Do you live on Frenchmen?” and she replied, “No, my pig doesn’t get along with the one who lives on Frenchmen.”

I love that I was invited to conflicting crawfish boils at 4pm Sunday, and that when I didn’t go to either because I wanted to stay in and write, no one questioned me.

I love that people I barely know and have not seen since last July remember that I’m “the one from New York who’s writing a book.”

Speaking of which, I’m almost done with said book.

This time around I didn’t feel sad leaving New Orleans, because I know that I will be back soon. I left there looking forward to my life and loved ones here. And I look forward to getting back to my life and dear friends there when I can.

Thank you all. You know who you are.

 

Suddenly the night has grown colder

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That is the opening lyric of “Alexandra Leaving”, a hauntingly beautiful and very sad song by Leonard Cohen. Sigh. By the late Leonard Cohen, because this week has not broken my heart enough.

I have made some very negative comments about Donald Trump and I have alienated some people; I don’t have many Trump-supporters in my community. To them, I say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that politics got in the way this time, but it did. Because this time feels so very different.

No, walking the streets of New York does not feel like the aftermath of 9/11. In the days that followed we were a different kind of scared, and in New York at least, I felt as though we were all on the same side. I know mine were very different experiences than those of my Muslim friends and of my Sikh friends.

I am scared, now, when I walk the streets of this city. There is an aggressiveness to the mostly men I pass wearing the red caps of the President Elect, and I feel less-than-safe. And that’s not overreaction.

Over the past 72 hours I have heard about aggressive racist bullying of two black people within my extended community. While neither of these turned physical, they were certainly violent. The words spewed by the aggressors in both incidents were along the lines of, “Bet you’re scared now, n—-.” I heard about a young gay man in Santa Monica who was attacked and had a bottle broken over his head moments after the results were in. According to this man, his aggressors said,  “We have a new president now, faggot.” A young woman had her hijab ripped off. Someone vandalized a high school in Florida and hung signs over the water fountains saying, “Colored” and “Whites Only.”

These are just the incidents I’ve heard about. And I am so afraid that this is just the beginning.

Can you blame these bullies for acting out? When the presumed future leader of the free world spends over a year bullying and mocking and insulting everyone in his path, when he aligns himself with a vice president who stripped his own state’s LGBTQ community of their rights, when he does not condemn the violence at his rallies, when the KKK announces that they will hold a parade to celebrate Donald Trump, the bullies, the racists, the homophobes are empowered.

Now here’s the thing. I’m reading a lot of “He did what he had to do to get elected” “he doesn’t really think those things” “he has gay friends.” Of course he has gay friends – he’s a New Yorker. And of course he did what he had to do to get elected. But do you think the bullies know the difference? Do you think they care?

During my very brief stint at Page Six I talked to Donald Trump several times for stories. Granted, I was giving him press, but he was always polite, he placed his own calls, he remembered my name.

This is not about his “real” personality or politics, because I’ve still no bloody idea what the latter are. This is about the fact that he has allowed an environment of hate and oppression of others to flourish. And while I know that not all of his supporters are racist and homophobic and everything else, there sure is a vocal and physical faction that absolutely is and that is justifying hate crimes and bullying by hiding behind our President Elect. Yes, I said “our”, because I live here too.

What message this sends to these historically marginalized groups of people is that they are expendable. Collateral damage to win an election.

This is not about politics. This is unprecedented in my lifetime. This is about human rights, empathy, and all that I and the vast majority of the people in my life hold dear.

I was going to go on about my personal plans for getting through this time as calmly and productively as I can, but I’m exhausted. We all are, on both sides of things. I didn’t say anything groundbreaking here, I didn’t say anything others haven’t said more eloquently and with a better understanding of the world, but I spoke my truth. I didn’t say anything hateful, I used anecdotal evidence to explain my fear. I do not want to argue, I do not want hate, I know some of you who stumble upon this voted for Trump, and I ask you not to send me negative messages. The debate is on hold for me for the time being.

I’m sad, I’m scared, and I’m with you if you feel the same way.

 

 

Here by the sea and sand

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This photo was taken at the Montauket during what would become the most brilliant sunset I’ve seen in quite some time. I have a feeling this couple wound up in many photos from that day. They were summer’s end personified,  and were it not for his unfortunate man-bun, they could have been of another era. Timeless.

We spent the week in Montauk, a perfect way to celebrate summer—the ocean and shooting stars. So many stars—Montauk is aptly nicknamed the end of the world and when you’re out there, looking up at the night skies and listening to the symphony of crickets and tree frogs and things that go chirp in the night, it feels like the most remote spot on the planet.

Then you drive past the Surf Lodge and realize it isn’t.

I did a lot of reading and a decent amount of writing while there—fell short of my writing goals but made progress, and more than that, I was inspired. I seem to have written myself into a corner in terms of the relative ease with which I write anywhere but home. My writing retreats to New Orleans, my time in the Berkshires earlier this year, Montauk … one of the speakers at the conference last month advised that we “not be too precious about our writing environment” — and that is good advice. It’s important to have sacred writing space, but it’s equally important to get words on paper when and where inspiration strikes.

To that end, I scrawled some notes on a piece of paper one evening while enjoying an exquisite sunset and a decent cocktail. I had just read The Alchemist on the recommendation of a very young man who, much to my delight, reads books. The kind with pages. I understand why this book is not to everyone’s liking, but I enjoyed it—and it’s a story, an allegory, about finding one’s true purpose in life and pursuing it, while remaining open to change. About trusting the process. So this is what I scrawled:

If we can remind ourselves how vast and unknowable the universe is, we can better enjoy the ride. We can weather misfortune, even the greatest of all, the death of those we love, because it is all part of the process of being alive. We are all on a pilgrimage toward the same place, and that is really the only fact about living that there is. Complaining, lamenting, manifesting conflict, all become futile, then. Let it wash over you and know that there is not a single experience from which we can’t somehow become richer and wiser.

I was reminded of someone I met shortly after college, when I was having a tough time and was overwhelmed by the responsibility of being human. This was long before we were bombarded with messages about “living in the moment” and “being present”. I met a friend of a friend at a party, a guy who happened to be deaf. I don’t remember much about the conversation, though I imagine I was dwelling on the malaise of “the real world” and the days I’d wasted, and he said, “No day is wasted. If I have a good conversation with someone, or see something beautiful, the day was not wasted.”

I try to maintain that outlook and I often succeed, but I do need to be reminded of it from time to time.

Autumn is a good time to be productive. I have another draft to revise by the time I go to my next writer’s conference in October. And then, soon, I’ll be calling on those of you who’ve offered to be beta readers.

Happy end-of-summer, friends.

Don’t believe the hype

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I’m back, and fully recovered from last weekend’s conference. Thank you to everyone who’s asked me about it and expressed interest in hearing more; I will not bore the rest of you with the details.

I left there feeling as though I had to completely reinvent my book, from the year it takes place (1999) to the structure to the plot, in an effort to make it more commercial (e.g. sellable). The fabulous Ginger talked me down off that ledge, as I knew she would.

She reminded me that this was my first time really going out into the world as a Writer, my first conference, and the one that happens to be the biggest, most overwhelming, and most commercial. She told me not to get bogged down in parsing all 0f the conflicting advice that I received, or to weigh the feedback of each of the agents I pitched with equal importance.

“The way to not survive the writing process is to listen to everyone else,” she said.

How liberating. (That, and I needed a tie-in for the photo above.)

So, the aspect of this conference I was most anxious about—actually, the only aspect I was remotely anxious about—was the “Agent Pitch Slam”. This was speed dating with literary agents, only unlike real speed-dating (what the hell did I just type?!), we had decent information about the people we were meeting well in advance. A few of the agents I met expressed interest in my project and asked me to send them pages when the thing is ready.

One of them asked me why my book takes place in 1999, and for that I have an answer—unlike “What are the stakes in this novel?” for which I have about 12.

I’ve set it in 1999 because I want it to pre-date 9/11, but for 9/11 to be looming. I wrote the book’s first sentence (or a variation of it, anyway) in 2006, and at the time, it felt inauthentic to set any book—let alone a ghost story—in downtown New York without 9/11 somehow informing the plot. When I picked it back up years later, that day was not as fresh in our collective conscience. But it still felt like the right year for it to take place.

The other reason: I did not want technology to be as ubiquitous as it is today. I got my first cellphone in December of ’99—I was late to the game, but not the latest. In 1999 we still wondered about things. We didn’t have an electronic dossier on everyone in the world at our fingertips. My protagonist, Josie, couldn’t just Google the guy she was dating and find out the truth about him. She could have Ask(ed) Jeeves, but he wouldn’t have known much, either.

Another agent asked me why, if Josie is so frustrated with her restaurant job, she doesn’t “just quit”.

Anyone who’s ever had a job they didn’t love want to field that one?

I read fiction today for the first time in a while. I’ve been reading a fair amount of nonfiction but it’s been hard to read novels while attempting to write one. We went to the beach today—my first time all summer—and I brought and read Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. It’s a tight and fairly short novel, recommended by the aforementioned wonderful Ginger—and wow, I want to take a master class with Joan Didion. Before this I’d only read her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I was drawn to out of title-envy. Now I want to read everything she’s written.

I’m going to my second writing conference in October in Richmond, Virginia. If you know anyone down there, please let me know. I’ll have a couple nights to myself and will be researching great restaurants to take myself to; I’d love recommendations.

Thanks for reading, friends. Until soon.

 

 

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.