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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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.

Misty water-colored memories

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Now you, too, can have that song stuck in your head.

I am going through boxes upon boxes of family memorabilia that have been in storage since the Enlightenment. It’s amazing the things we hold onto. Three of the four members of my immediate family have packrat tendencies, with me quite possibly leading the charge.

It has been very satisfying to throw away/recycle decades’ worth of papers and photos and things we kept for rainy days. Photographs of people whose names I’ve forgotten. Blank cards I thought I might someday use. A notebook from college about the Protestant Reformation, with one-sided conversations scrawled in the margins to whomever was sitting next to me.

Throwing away that stuff made it possible to unearth other mementos that are worth holding onto, like my dad’s birth certificate, a war rations book, a ribbon from the 1956 New York World’s Fair. Letters my dad wrote his parents from the army. Cards my mom wrote to my dad before they were married (n0t to worry, I didn’t read them). Homemade gifts and cards from my sister and me. My birth announcement. My childhood autograph books. A program from the pinnacle of my theatrical career: June 22, 1980, 3:00 pm, The Westchester Children’s Theatre Workshop Presents “The Music Man” (with 9-year-old me playing Amaryllis). A script to an episode of “Different Strokes” signed by the inimitable Conrad Bain. (Actually, it’s just the cover, and yes you may have it.)

These boxes have been sitting by my desk taunting me for months, and I finally went through them and discarded more mercilessly than ever before. I feel lighter. I want to do a lot more of this.

I have set a goal of finishing this next draft by the end of June – forgive me if I already mentioned this. After that comes intense copyediting, than I start pitching the thing in August. Exciting, terrifying, unwieldy. Since I can’t run off to New Orleans every week, and I need a space to work on this, I’ve applied to join a writers’ room in town for the month of June, with the option to extend. I had a trial day there on Tuesday and it was great – space for about 60 people, good lighting, quiet except for the sound of typing (in the workspace; there’s a lounge area/kitchen where one can “conversate”, as my Uber driver said yesterday).

That said, in streamlining the storyline, I will be expanding certain elements, including the New Orleans section. So I was wrong, I do need to get back down there soon.

Miss those moss-covered vines, the tall sugar pines, and all the rest. Including the best iced coffee I’ve ever had, at Café Rose Nicaud.

Last night I dreamt I was in a park trying to meditate and was interrupted by a bear (I dream about bears a lot), then an ostrich, then some elephants. I said to my meditating partner, “If we see a hippo I’m out of here.” And that was the end of the dream. Feel free to analyze.

Please send my sweet Lou a telepathic happy birthday wish! He’s 14 today, or 98, depending on who you ask …

 

 

Keep calm and carry on

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I woke up around 5AM the other morning having just been told by someone in my dream that I needed to write this down and start a blog with it:

If anyone ever says here’s what to do if a bear starts to crawl out of the sand, listen to them.

So there you have it, folks, sound advice from the dream faeries.

Perhaps this was my subconscious reminding me that it’s been a long time since I’ve written in this thing. It has. I’ll probably write something on Friday, the 11th, as I do every year; I need to do something to acknowledge that day, many things, actually, and this is one of them.

My dreams have been very interesting since I started my meditation two months ago (two months! I’ve missed one session, by accident, and have not adhered exactly to the 20-minute mark on some, but for the most part I’ve been surprisingly consistent with it.). Oh … I finished a draft of my novel … absolutely just a draft, and a very rough one at that, but it’s a milestone. And in the days that I was working on the last couple of chapters, which are very strange ones, I had a lot of vivid dreams that related to them. I also experienced this odd coincidence: I was writing a scene that takes place on a block of West 9th Street and had just mentioned the address when my phone buzzed. It was a message from a friend I’ve not spoken with in years, who used to live in the same building where my story takes place, and she said, “Just heard a Leonard Cohen song that reminded me of you.”

Coincidence? Sure. But a cool one.

I was speaking with someone recently who said, “I wish I had a slightly less scientific mind, so I could leave a little room for magic.” Maybe I leave too much room for magic, I certainly could use a more organized, logical mind at times, but I appreciate my ability to embrace the unknown and believe in things beyond what we can actually see and hear and touch.

I’m working on cultivating a stronger sense of calm and clarity in my day to day life and in my relationships, and for the most part it seems to be working. I find that approaching things from a calm place makes the day-to-day crises less intense – makes them glitches, rather than crises. It’s like when you’re looking for your keys or your phone or whatever it is and you become frantic because you can’t find it, it will very likely take longer than if you take a deep breath, give yourself a few seconds to collect yourself and think … try it, it works. Chaos begets chaos; calm begets calm.

This is epitomized in a quote I found some years ago and have always loved, particularly the second sentence:

The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.

That’s by the British writer/philosopher James Allen.

I’ll be back, Friday.