The Brew

When you write in space like this, it’s easy to repeat memories. I thought of this one today, and it’s likely I’ve said it here before. I was thinking of when around 10 years ago my friend Susie told me I sounded like I was ready to have a kid. I hadn’t been talking about kids, just about general place in life.

I guess that settled stage of life I was chatting about happens to us from time to time about different things. It kind of feels like you’re waiting in a long line for something you decided you needed. Maybe you’re leaning your weight at the hip and scrolling through your phone, spacing out with one thought leading to the other.  Then you look up a minute later and have somewhat forgotten that you were waiting in line, and it’s time to move up. It takes a couple seconds to tune back in to the subtle sounds around you and the reason you’re waiting there. By now, a gap has formed between you and the rest of the line.

Been thinking about that gap, about dutifully waiting somewhere, getting comfortable with other pleasures to make the time pass fine, and then finding yourself wondering about that space–the gap–that has been made between you and the destination.  I’ve been aware of that gap and tuning in to figure out what to do about it.  The last few months have had this interesting study behind it all, and behind this study is a sweet comforting world, which always inspires–even in the thick of daily grind ups and downs–a rekindling for reading, writing, and new.

The English teacher in me sometimes feels on this blog (ugh, what a terrible word) like a writing adulteress–teaching drafting and writing with precision in an AP class only to default personally on the lighter way here because its easier, more creative, more immediate. So I asked myself these two questions this morning : what are you trying to say? how do you plan on saying it?

But in a writing space like this, the answer tends to be murky: the space is a mixture of what my former student coined in her own writing once, a diary entry, a letter, and an essay.  I concede, and therefore, if the top of this little expression was some mental context, here is one for the diary-letter-essay meat of the post.

Dear Diary-Letter-Essay,

I’ve recently watched the intelligent, emotive film adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name twice in whole and a few other times in sought-after gulps, then read his  novel once and then back at it again and again in sought-after gulps (you know when you’re searching for the feeling an author got just right and want to connect with again), and it has made me close my eyes and think back and back and back. That thinking makes me wonder about memories, and it challenges how much I can think back on details if I concentrate really hard.

I’ve been closing my eyes each night and welcoming a new memory, whichever one I can zoom in on. The look of remembering recently has two faces: I have to tilt my head and notice my ear (the way one looks when he hears something in the other room and can’t figure out what it is). Or I whisper inside to the memories excitedly, “go ahead and appear, honey; I’m ready” right before I close my eyes at night.

I thought about balmy days in Toronto and the scent of vanilla candles; I’ve thought about the way the stairs felt on the walk up to Kal’s old apartment and the chipped paint around the doorway; I thought about the quiet sound and cool air in the town home before anyone spent free time on phones. I called up the sound of stroller wheels on asphalt when everyone else was at work and felt my green terrycloth jacket on my skin. Stuff like that.

In this brew of tuning in to the gap and finding my safe haven, I’ve connected to a literary bubble I’ve crafted up. Between my writer-admiration crush on Andre Aciman, whose articles (try this or this or any) are thought-provoking, the vivid cinema of Luca Guadagnino’s Italy, teaching Adventure Writing, and coming up on my one year anniversary of looking up at the enormous Chilean sky, I am in a beautiful mental state, ripe for literary bad behavior.

Just because I write here and there doesn’t qualify me as a writer, yet Amy Tan’s line caught me a few days ago: “It’s a luxury being a writer because all you ever think about is life.” I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about life, coming up with mental one-liners about some notion of experience. The lazier approach to writing (or pre-writing), really, is to drench myself in others’ writing, and an even lazier approach to writing is to listen to their writing.

I’ve been listening to The New Yorker Podcast series where writers and artists read from The New Yorker archives. In around 40 minutes, you get to hear brilliant writing and forget you’re driving at all. Tessa Hadley’s reading and discussion of John Updike’s 1996 “The New York Girl” took me on a few rides, raising my craving to be a student in a graduate classroom again, reading and listening, thinking so hard about sentences that I’d give myself a headache well worth the Advil. There is a line I will remember in “The New York Girl” where Updike writes: “Early thirties is a time for fresh calculations.” Yes, yes, that’s right for me. That line confirms for me that writers sneak in their wisdoms any chance they can get.

We have our dreamy literary lands, and then maybe there can be parts of real world that match up, meeting each other like frayed strands at the edge of a sweater. I had to make a choice about something I’ve wanted a long time and an experience, an idea that came up in marital conversation. At the time, I was in the middle of the travel portion of our unit, mixed deep with Anthony Bourdain, Japan, and the spirit of adventure.

I thought about it for a few days, and I kept seeing this image of the kids on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. So the choice became taking the kids to New York. I could see their world becoming part of my world up there, an exciting notion of being able to experience something together that was once carved in my memory as a single woman, etched as a newlywed, repurposed as a student, but not experienced with a family.

I’m looking at the “the gap” like a woman in a rocking chair, and I’m enjoying feeling like a student twice a day on my ride to work. I’m eternally crushing on wordsmiths and stories that extract uncanny patience out of writers and create worlds where we can park and view and test our own senses. My world seems a little brighter with NYC on the horizon, and hasn’t that always been the case? Its promise for everlasting experience, a new book tucked away for the journey, and some hope or newness to reflect on; isn’t that the brew that should always tempt and color a September?

Snow, Ghormeh Sabzi, and Creativity

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Much of the Georgia around me was swept unexpectedly under what felt like a foot of snow this weekend. In the past, warnings of ice and snow would come in scary tones on the news. This time, though, it felt different; even the weathermen were caught off guard. Later over the weekend when we got power back, I think I heard one of them apologizing on the news. Predicting weather was always somewhat of an oxymoron, so no apologies necessary.

Released early from school on Friday, we all found ourselves back at the house. The neighbors who were making snow men across the street came over. Kids played in the icy play dough with the awkward joy of a southern kid whose mom just quickly stacked them up in some clothes as his limbs jazzed around. Snow melted inside my house all day. We put towels everywhere and put the coat hanger by the crackling fireplace.

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By 7 am Saturday morning, I saw what I always hear under my ears on snow days; I marveled at the “north wind’s masonry” and felt I was part of the “privacy of storm.” The snowman became a relic on the shelf of yesterday’s adventure. I felt good that the kids got to see the type of snow they see in the movies, but I was surprised to reflect that my favorite part of the storm was when I was the only one awake, and I walked outside the front door to take these pictures. I wore Kal’s shoes and made deep imprints in the fresh snow. Tree branches were fatigued and said a crooked hello; the sky and the ground were unanimous.

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By the next day, things were cautiously bubbling outside again–cars picking up some speed and mail getting delivered. I got out of pajamas and got fancy for a Persian lunch with new friends from Oregon. I was in a soltani mood and feeling extra chatty after our 2-day winter shut down. One of our guests ordered ghormeh sabzi, essentially the Iranian national dish. She asked Kal if he likes this iconic dish since like her husband, he’s not Persian either. He confessed it’s the only dish he doesn’t like. We talked about how its the kind of dish whose hard-won scent is so distinct that it will dominate, permeating house and body. She said when she lived in Iran, she never wanted to eat it because of its common and nagging aroma, but now she always orders it whenever she can because she can’t cook it at home, and mainly, she wants to carry the smell with her to her house and to her body. It’s her way of reconnecting.

It’s life–the way we change our minds about something because our circumstances change. The courage we have to say it’s okay to carry something new you’ve discovered about yourself even if its as simple as eating the thing you never loved and relishing in the symbol. I was reading a collection of poems my cousin Shadi bought me called Neon Soul by Alexandra Elle. Each poem best carries the weight of its creation when its read by itself. Micro prose can feel like water color when sped through, but I had the time beneath the snow to just read through the little poems anyway.

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What I liked most about the text is her introduction.

She says that when “healing happened, the fire that was burning within me simmered down…It’s like my senses decided to power off because the darkest parts of me had been healed by the vibrant hues of electrifying truth…Perhaps they figured I didn’t need my vibrancy anymore because, well, I had found it.” She says honestly that she doesn’t want pain and trauma to be her “resting place” anymore despite the art it created; instead, she will focus on “growth and resilience.”

While Elle has her own distinct story, I found a common place here in the words I think all new artists should read: “I feared that my contentment wasn’t what people wanted to read about. In my mind, I assumed more eyes would be looking for the pain to relate to. Who wants to read about happiness when they are still in the thick of aching and turmoil? Nevertheless, I hope whoever is reading this wants a different view and perspective…preparing for joy is just as important as healing from hurt.”

I value this admission. Some of us who seek art to fill our bellies with whatever it so desperately craves fear that the best work is created in the midst of the ache-current. It’s like the escalating, chaotic blooming sound Claire hears when she is about to go through the stones and through another time in Outlander. But that can’t be the homeroom every time you want to make art, at least for me anyway; to rely on that would be more like seeking the pattern of an addict. I’m learning this myself as I’m in the changing room with my own process. I’m realizing that to rely on what used to work is immature. To rely on the ache of expressing something forgone isn’t enough and can produce work that is meaningful, but not in the way I may be seeking in the long run. Like the famous resilient Persian dish, the markers that used to launch the creative process can just flavor on their own while I sit at the same desk but write into something else from another place, in another time, with another way.

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June Promise

At the end of this week, it will be the beginning of July. I’ve just now outstretched my arms over June’s bed. I’ve calmed into a June routine, and I’m not ready to give it up. Teachers turn a page from June to July and resist the gnawing feeling of July. As my friend Naomi calls it, it can feel like “the eternal Sunday evening.” But today, it’s still June, and today, I’m on day 2 of not going out anywhere by choice. I’ve rebelled this weekend against camp schedules and driving to far places.

Looking back at the last few weeks, I think I’ve had four goals:

1) Get kids to camp and back and try to tip the balance in favor of peace rather than in defeat of sibling rivalry. They’ve done some pretty awesome things and are peas in a pod when they’re not sloshing around in a stew.

2) Read as much as possible. I told Kal yesterday I’ve been having book affairs—there’s a different book in various corners of my house that I’m sneaking off to as soon as no one is looking. Even though it doesn’t feel like it some days, it’s clear that my kids are at a different stage as I’m able to actually to read books while I’m home with them sometimes.

3) Keep my house open to visitors and playdates; our first summer here has felt both like a vacation and a long, romantic first date.

4) Preparing myself.

I peeled back the covers at 6 am, careful not to drop Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (thank you, Katie) off my end table.  I could hear heavy sleep around me. I gently walked out of the room and down the hallway. I may as well have size 24 feet as loud as my steps sounded to me. I guess the weight of my need to get some fresh air amplified my belabored thievery. Luckily, I grabbed my notebook and opened the front door and settled in a chair. I looked over my shoulder a few times before admitting the coast was clear. I sat, listened, and wrote down what I saw.

An orb of gnats or some type of fly group sparked and spiked in a 6 inch radius around the juniper. I stared at the floating ball moving a few inches from left to right, keeping with their crazy circle. Apparently this cyclone was mating fervently since their life span is only a few weeks; they wanted to keep their line. They certainly looked busy. I tried to take a picture, but they just looked like static on a screen.

My eyes darted away from the gnat-party a few times because loud house flies buzzed around me unusually. One insisted sitting on the same spot on my leg.  A few different breeds raced and hit the window behind me, making a sound like a fingertip tapping on a glass. To keep myself unharried, I looked over to the flowers with curiosity. They looked so much taller. I once saw a bird feeding four of its baby birds, beaks wide open like an origami note. The flowers looked like they were sticking out their necks out high, waiting for something.

I got distracted by the loud sound of crickets and bird calls. I’ve been soothed by them before, yet this time was different. To my ears, they sounded like announcements. It was overwhelming really. Between swatting flies, the orb-party circling in front of me, and the warnings from the birds, I escaped back inside after only a writing down a little.

Despite the hot morning sun, the forecast says it’s going to rain today, and now all my notes make sense. Plants and animals feel the air pressure and react. Even bees scramble and cram back into their nests.  I bore witness to nature preparing and ordering the way a ship’s crew hoists boxes to each other, arching down and throwing up as they unload cargo and passengers. The ship directs traffic and brings on new crew, people dispersing depending on their goal; these systems work alongside each other noisily but with purpose. Maybe that’s why everything feels so calm right before a storm. Nature has already sent out its signals, and the crew has read the signs.

I feel the crumbs under my feet and know I’m going in the right direction. June has given me some time to commit. Repairing myself and pushing physical limits that went soft towards the end of the school year is one thing I’m prepared to maintain. Running trails and looking at huge trees, noble and Triassic, is something I have to keep doing.

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With that I have committed to more writing experiments every day as that’s the only way I can find the “treasures” as Gilbert alludes to in Big Magic.  It’s clear now that diligence and routine are the strongest ways of locating them.

Several hours ago while the kids watched Good Dinosaur again, I took out the recycling trash and something caught my eye. This giant bloom wasn’t there late last night when I watered the plants. It’s like the pressure in the air pushed her out into the world. She didn’t come out with a trumpet’s horn. Her buds were concealed, cloaked in an understated brush. I walked to take out the recycling and she caught my eye. She looked like a woman in a red dress, blooming and surprising the spectator, maybe even herself.

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I’m preparing to be more willing, especially with fiction. The story that has lived in my head and in fragments on the screen for almost two years want to go somewhere, and I can feel it.  As Lamott says, I want to “squint at an image that is forming in [my] mind,” and to clear a space “for the writing voice.” I’m saying it here so I hold myself to the task,  even if it gets noisy and has me bumping into windows like the crazy flies preparing for the rain this morning.

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A couple hours ago, I had that 8:30 pm moment I’ve watched on the horizon for the last month. I sat on the porch. I didn’t bring anything to write with or a book to read. At first, I just sat, and then I just listened. The birds in the tree to my right had a lot to say to each other tonight. One bird would call the loudest, 4 whistling curls, then pause, then 4 whistling curls. I thought it was his pattern at first, but then he stopped one short at 3 oscillating calls outward. A bird from the tree to my left seemed to respond to him with a few matching sounds. I wish I understood their conversation.

The ground in front of me was dirt not long ago. When we walked into the house just 5 months ago, we’d bring in dusty brown-red dirt that could only be swept with a broom and then wiped with a damp paper towel. Now the ground has grass on it from seeds we planted and tended from infancy. In our landscaping feats, we have raked up some of the baby grass in place for decorative mulch at the front of the house. While I was scraping the grass down and out, I felt like this action was a sacrilege to its recent birth. Although this section with new plants looks more polished now, underneath the fresh black mulch are sprigs of grass that grow up sharp. Each sprig has found its place in that dirt; therefore, there are sporadic, declarative intervals of grass popping up from underneath– disrupting the new look, yes, but ideating natural strength.

In front of me, the kids have escaped their beds and are running around with pajamas on and wet hair in the dark. They are chasing fireflies they saw from their bedroom window. In unison, they came out running with a blue plastic container from my cabinet and a sheet of white paper—kids inventive contraptions. I told them can chase the fireflies and hold them for a bit, but they have to be gentle and let them go and glow. Layla has made a bed of grass for them and is saying, “come here, little fly. Don’t be scared. I just want to see you and then let you go.” The flies are putting on a show for her, it looks from here. It doesn’t matter that these lightning bugs may light up as a signal to predators or that they may be looking for some bug romance; they light naturally, and we look at them with dazzle and wonder.

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At graduation this year, I had the good fortune of hugging my favorite graduates on stage. Something about this year satisfied me more than ever. Perhaps it was venturing into something new like the literary magazine class or getting recognized in a significant way, or maybe it was magnetizing to what my friend calls “the circle” of people at work. Maybe it’s where I’m at in life now, whatever that means.  Either way, when I walked off the stage at graduation and surprising fireworks erupted for excited families, I recognized how often I’ve been part of this ceremony, but I haven’t felt this way about it before. Something inside me has settled.

One friend at work reminded me of how we live so much of our life in increments, 4-year high school, 4-year university, 1-year engagement, 3-year grad school, 10-year marriage, 10-year career. The increments are getting naturally longer and no longer accompanied with a stage and certificate. Moving into my house felt like this long-awaited giant step, like I couldn’t act on any ideal more grandiose than that until it happened. Now, I’m here, and I’m able to look out at the next thing, but this next thing doesn’t come in the form of increments. It’s not a 9-month pregnancy, and it’s not a distinct goal. It’s a feeling that has some patience behind it, both looking out and wondering what the new stage is, and looking within and wondering what I’m capable of next. It’s both the recognition that this is a golden stage and that this is the forming of something new.

What it’s not is the foozling about of ten years ago when I looked straight to the inevitable stages that come after marriage. I’m in that place of it now. Figuratively and not, I’ve come inside and I’m sitting at the desk. When Tally and I walked into this bare-bones house; I told her to watch her step because there were nails poking out from the raw-wood walls ripped floors. There was no electricity, so we used our phone lights to look out into the dark and picture this very image I sit in right now. Right now, sitting at this desk, I feel I’m the pause between grateful and next.

I’ve never sat still, really. I’ve always “kept myself busy,” as my dad likes to call it. Even on a day where I’m sick and vow to rest and do nothing, I’ll manage to finish all the laundry and cook a warm dinner so that my day feels earned. More than that, I’m not the octopus who trails her arms behind her, mine tend to find somewhere to go. I used to feel guilty about it, especially when the means to the end were out of my control. But I think I’m recognizing this tendency is just a part of me like the way my grandfather always buys ten of everything (you could find enough butter in the freezer and paper towels in the closet to help a small village), or the way my mom will always err on the side of caution.

It’s recognizing our patterns that help us figure out who we are, and if we pause long enough and porch-listen inside of our own chatter, we may be able to catch it, that thing distinct and predictable in us, and we can claim it before it comfortably disappears back into the world, flickering on an invisible string swaying incautiously in a warm field.

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Mumford stage

If I die tomorrow, I want to come back to this world as a successful musician. I want the gratification of chords strum out of my finger tips, brain and hands in gratifying piebald, surprisingly hypnotizing the audience with the sound of images.

I spoke here  once of my grandfather’s words, that maybe artists are the prophets of our time. I thought it during the Ray LaMontagne concert, and here I am thinking about it now after the Mumford & Sons Concert.

I saw them perform last week: to my eyes, not a single person sat down the entire concert. When they sang, “Love the one you hold…lover of the night,” we felt motivated, filled with more compassion than we walked in with. They sang,  “hold me still, bury my heart next to yours…so give me hope in the darkness so I will see the light,” and we felt hope grow and thrive within our chests, exhaling with understanding.

It’s beautiful how the lyrics of a stranger have the power to tie us together, a community of appreciators at the ready to feel.

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What hit me the strongest is the first song on their newest album, Tompkins Square Park. Last year in New York, I walked through this park. Just as this song title is the carrier of emotive secrets for many, NYC holds bastions of memory under a cloak of summer heat for me.  Last year empowered something warm inside me: the recognition that I am capable of…more.

I’ve spent many years considering myself too plain to create art, a word I’ve idolized in my career. I’ve considered, for myself, art as a beauty to appreciate more than a beauty to create. I’m grateful for the artists and the people in my life today who unknowingly motivate me to see myself capable using words, withy and strewn between the window pane and my palm over so many years, so many experiences. I’m experimenting with new forms of writing outside this writing nook and wondering how malleable my voice is.

In “An Evening with Ray LaMontagne” he talks about his new album and concedes:  “I had no idea at the time it presented itself to me where it all came from or what was trying to be expressed.” In notably humble ways, I feel this is where my small creative quests lately are born. In experimenting with fiction, for instance,  I’m recognizing how fast a story can turn on its own. I observe it like straight fingers on the planchette of a ouija board, wanting one result but completely intrigued by the uninhibited letters directing the outcome.

I’ve always admired fitting, unabashed confidence–from watching it on stage to seeing in the people around me. I have students who refer to themselves as writers, thespians, musicians, but I don’t recall ever feeling I knew myself well enough at 17 to make a such a claim and hope to live up to it.

But as I settle into my 30s in and into my new home, I sense I’m settling into art in a new way and wondering what it bears.

 

Hanging on the porch, reading with kids

Here’s to all the people out there who’ve always stared out the window, known something about the view was lyrical, and felt a a concert brewing within their own hearts.