Live nude, my friend

I live in a place that might be considered exotic (or bizarre or fantastic, fanciful, implausible, preposterous, incredible: there’s a long list of adjectives, often conflicting, that might be applied) and I wrote about Las Vegas not as an exotic place, but as an ordinary one.

Somewhere in We Are Called to Rise is a line about how Vegas children do not notice the oddities of their city – the naked women on the billboards, the blitz of neon lights – but in my family, we have one particular story that illustrates this. My daughter played soccer for years, and she often practiced at a somewhat run-down soccer complex near the old highway that runs from Hoover Dam to downtown Vegas. When she was about 13, she started talking about a sign near the soccer fields that she found inspiring. She read the sign as an exhortation to be oneself, to be open to new ideas, and to live fully. The sign – which she read with a short vowel “i” instead of the long vowel “i” that the owner of the “bookstore” most certainly intended – was “Live Nude.” We have, of course, adopted “live nude” as a family motto.

And as funny as that story was
to me, it also touched a nerve. I had not wanted to live in Las Vegas – in another version of my life, I would have been someone who would never visit Las Vegas – and it particularly bothered me to raise my children here. The schools were overcrowded and constantly ranked at the bottom of every national list. The celebration of women as sexual objects for the pleasure of men drove me insane. And the proudly anti-intellectual banter that characterized some daily interactions was just something one endured, and did not share with friends or family who lived elsewhere.

But now that my daughter has graduated from one traditional east coast college, and my son is about to matriculate at another, I have come to see that Las Vegas offered something quite special to my children, and has perhaps uniquely suited them and their peers for a 21st century world.My children have never been in a group – at school, on a team, while at play – in which anyone would assume a shared cultural position on almost anything. Las Vegas is a boomtown, filled with people from all over the world, and because most of us just live in the neighborhood that was being built when we arrived, and because 93% of our children go to one of those chaotic, overcrowded public schools, this is a boomtown community with a lot of shoulder-rubbing.

One of my daughter’s soccer teams was filled with native Hawaiians; they called themselves Ohana and cheered each other on in Polynesian phrases that my daughter did not even realize were not English. Another team was largely Hispanic, and the coach translated his instructions into English for her. My son, raised Jewish, has a kurta that he can wear when his Pakistani friend is celebrating Ashura. My children have intimate friendships with devout Mormons, devout Evangelicals, devout Muslims, devout Jews, and devout Buddhists. They’ve always known that a child might think of Friday, Saturday, or Sunday as a religious day, and that food and drink preferences might be an expression of belief rather than taste.

Las Vegas communities aren’t just ethnically and religiously diverse, they are economically so. While the city is gradually sorting into a place that separates the haves from the have-nots, for the booming years that my children were young, the social classes were pretty mixed up as well. Scarce housing threw professionals and laborers on to the same neighborhood streets; rapid development put multimillion dollar homes next to weekly rental units. Vegas has also been a city where education is not closely tied to success, where many a community leader never went to university, and where strong unions have meant middle class lives for culinary workers, musicians, and hotel maids.

All this means that Vegas children learn early on that people can be very different – in their customs, their beliefs, and their aspirations. They learn early on not to assume that someone might have been raised with the same ideas as they were. Difference is not scary, nor off-putting, nor lightly dismissed. As a general statement, Vegas kids are comfortable in a global world, and in a fluid one; they find themselves perplexed by the labels that other communities assign to individuals so readily.

We Are Called to Rise takes my Vegas, the diverse disorderly boomtown place where I have long lived, and explores the lives of three people who intersect there. Las Vegas is no utopia, but it is a place that succeeds at economic mobility, that often succeeds at diversity, and that affords a great many people a first chance, or a second, or a third. Witnessing that such things are possible is not a bad way for a child to start off in this life.

This post was originally published at The Literary Sofa in 2014.

What one person can do

I have a small pile of unposted notes for this blog, but I haven’t quite reconciled myself to the form. Having a book in the world leaves me feeling exposed enough, and posting more bits of myself here is giving me the quakes. Still, I’ve been meaning to post this short review I wrote of Bryan Stevenson’s incredible memoir, Just Mercy. I was so very moved by this book.

From Off the Shelf, May 3, 2017

Time magazine called Bryan Stevenson’s JUST MERCY one of the 10 best nonfiction books of 2014. The next year, it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. I wouldn’t have known. The book was sitting on my nightstand, making me feel slightly guilty.

It had been recommended to me by a trusted source, but I knew it was about the author’s work as a lawyer representing people condemned to die, and somehow, it just didn’t seem like the right book to pick up when I was hoping to get a few hours of sleep. It took me a year to crack the first page, but then I read it quickly, and when I finished, I went back and read it again.

JUST MERCY is a serious endeavor, and yet the writing is light and adept and elegant. Of all things, this tale of abuse and injustice, of cruelty and hate, reads fast. It’s upsetting, but not overwhelming. I felt sorrow and horror, but ultimately, I was left enriched. Stevenson gifted me with people I had no other way of knowing. In telling me their stories, he shared little about himself, and this fact stays with me, too: the humility expressed in what he did not include.

I recommend this book not so you will be reminded of what you surely have already learned: that our systems are imperfect, that the poor and the ill-educated and the disabled can be victimized, that racism yet resonates. I didn’t think I needed to read more about these realities, and yet, Stevenson opened my eyes to problems I thought I already saw. He reminded me of why hatred wounds for so long, and also of how powerful an antidote love is.

Instead, I recommend JUST MERCY to you for the uplifting experience of reading about someone who has spent his entire adult life fighting for people who are often ignored. A person brave enough to deliver to a man the news that he will die that night, and then to sit listening to that man, touching him, in the hours before he is executed, and finally to embrace that man’s wife as she screams in despair. And to have done this—to have offered this intimate solace, and also to have done the arduous emotional, intellectual, and physical work of trying to bring justice to those whom our justice system has disdained—for decades.

As a Harvard-educated lawyer, Stevenson could have had a life of ease. Yet he chose to sit in one prison cell after another, to hold the hand of one desperate person after another, to take into his arms a 14-year-old child who had been raped the night before by more adult prisoners than he could count.

It’s humbling to think of his journey. And it’s all there in the form of this book, in the way a reader learns so much about each condemned person and so little about the author himself. The book’s epigraph comes from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.”

Love indeed.

May you know there is enough

At American Dreams: A Festival, I was asked to participate in “A Prayer for the American Dream.” It was a gorgeous night in Red Rock Canyon, and here’s what I said:

I have a long history with prayer. I was taught to pray probably before I could talk, and some of my earliest memories are of praying: at meals, at bedtime, on waking, when I heard the whine of an ambulance, when I overheard a curse, when I was old enough to curse on my own.

In my childhood family, the prayer of choice was the rosary. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a Roman Catholic devotion, a kind of meditation, which involves saying certain prayers over and over. There are prayers at the beginning and the end, but the heart of this devotion are the five decades – ten recitations of the Hail Mary, followed by an Our Father, followed by a Gloria Patri – and all of those repeated five times in a row. Sixty-six prayers in all. Many people use beads to help them keep track.

From the age of about seven, my Lenten resolutions were 1) no sweets (this was hard for me, but seemed like a reasonable choice to my parents), and 2) a rosary every night (which I liked well enough, even then, though my parents didn’t think it wise for a young child to take on a devotion so long). I don’t know how old I was before I made it through a rosary on my own. Most nights, I fell asleep on my knees, chin on the edge of the bed, or more rarely, toppled straight over sideways in my polyester nightgown.

My dad – who was a lovely man: intellectual and open-minded, gentle and kind – my dad had the daily practice of saying rosaries – one each for his six children, his wife, his mother, and anyone else he thought might need one that day.

That’s a lot of rosaries. He had a job. He had six kids. He learned how to work the prayer into his regular life. My dad didn’t need beads. He could talk, fly fish, change a diaper, throw a ball, solve a math problem, and of course, drive, while saying the rosary. Most of the time, he did it silently, but in the car, he sometimes kept up a low murmur of prayer.

It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about someone spending his entire life in prayer; the first time I even remember noticing it as a distinct quality was the day my husband met my parents. I had been living in France, and 24 years old, I came back with a Socialist, atheist Jew, 15 years my senior. I’m not sure what my parents thought, because they accepted my choice as mine to make. Anyway, we must have driven somewhere together – my parents, my husband, myself – and that night, Bill asked me what my dad was doing when he murmured in the car, and when I told him, he said “Christ, that’s spooky.”

It turns out that not everyone grows up with the murmur of someone praying as the heartbeat to their days.

 

My father didn’t have a father. Shortly before my dad’s second birthday, his father died – after trying to contain a sulfur fire in The Original, a deep earth mine in Butte, Montana.

The story of my grandfather’s death played large in my childhood, even though my father had no memories of it. Alec McBride had been lucky to make it out of the mine the night, but he had waited outside on a freezing winter night, gasping for air with smoke-damaged lungs. He died slowly over many days, in his own bed, with his young immigrant wife and his baby beside him. As happens sometimes, he rallied just before he died, and my grandmother believed they were saved, but he was gone the next morning, on December 13.

And just before Christmas, a messenger came to the house, and asked if anyone was going to make the last layaway payment – on a silver pitcher for my grandmother and a little wagon for a boy not quite two – and there was no money to make that payment, to bring home these last gifts to his wife or his son – and all my life, I have looked at wagons, and remembered the young miner, the wife, the little boy – and a world in which not even that one payment was possible.

My grandfather died young near a mine in Butte Montana. My great grandfather mined coal off the north edge of Vancouver Island, and deep beneath the ground, he could hear the creak and groan of ships chugging through the ocean above him. And for a while, my dad was a miner too. He worked in the Mountain Con, the first mine in North America to send men a mile inside the earth. Years later, my dad and I and my daughter, his 3-year-old Jewish grandchild, stood on the metal platform on which he had once descended into that mine. There were no sides on the platform, just room for six men to stand, balancing carefully without walls to steady them, and be lowered, link by link, a mile deep.

My dad had his own terrible accident in the mine, and when he got out of the hospital, he finally gave into his mother’s dearest wish, and took his wife, my mother, and my oldest sister, then a baby, away from Montana.

I tell these stories of my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, because I have been thinking about prayer and the American dream. My dad survived many a narrow miss as a child – when his dog was swept down into a collapsed mine that had formed a pool in which they were playing, when he hopped trains and worked field jobs all over the Pacific Northwest as a 12-year-old boy, in that mining accident when he was saved by an old boot that ripped before a runaway ore car could pull him down a deep shaft. He also suffered his whole life with a chronic, life-changing illness – and when he was in his 50’s, a doctor explained that his condition was common among people who had gone without sufficient food in childhood.

My dad was able to leave the mines and go to college because his mother had forged the date on his birth certificate, and then persuaded the local eye doctor to lie about his vision, so that he could enlist in the Army on his 17th birthday and ship off to the end of WWII, and then, if he returned, use the GI bill to go to college. It worked out that way for him, and with that one opportunity – not so easily chosen or taken – this once hungry child of a fallen miner sent six kids to college, all of whom became professionals.

I have two children – my son is a junior at Yale, and my daughter is a law student at Stanford – and here is the story of their four grandparents.

One grandmother was orphaned at five, and dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work in her immigrant uncle’s shoe shop.

One grandfather was the first member of his family born in the United States, after his parents and older siblings emigrated. Years later, every Jewish member of their village – Salakas in what is now Lithuania – was shot by Nazi soldiers on an August morning in 1941.

The other grandmother was the daughter of a Basque woman born in Spain – the only dark-skinned foreigner in the small northern Washington town where they lived. That grandmother remembered loving the trips to see her big immigrant family in the city, and she remembered how tense her mother would be when they returned to their small town, how quick she would be to rap her daughter’s knuckles if she forgot and spoke a word of Euskara or Spanish, how important it was that her daughter’s hair always be fixed, her skirt pressed, her hands scrubbed.

And the fourth grandparent was my father.

The American Dream. It belongs to my children, to me, to my parents. And it took so little to change generations of history.

This spring, my daughter is working full time on human rights issues. Tomorrow, she’ll fly half way around the world to meet with some of the poorest people on earth. My son studies chemistry, and works in a lab where new cancer drugs are being designed; he hopes to turn this experience into his career.

Not everyone was interested in giving their Basque grandmother, their Jewish grandfather, their poor grandparents, a shot at a new life. And yet, the investment in those grandparents was really so small – it was Apple stock in 1997 – and the return infinitely larger than the good that just two of their grandchildren might have the chance to do in this world.

There are those who don’t want to make this investment now. Who imagine that there isn’t enough – not enough in this country that stretches between two oceans, that is rich in every possible natural resource, that has generated more wealth than any country in the history of the world, that has just 4.4% of the world’s population. There are those who think we don’t have enough for others in the world; they think we don’t even have enough for our own citizens, for families who have been here for generations, who were here before we were a country.

Langston Hughes asked about a dream deferred. Does it fester like a sore, and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Does it explode?

Our time on this earth, even if we are lucky enough to grow old, is so short. Here’s my prayer for you, for your short time. May you know that there is enough. There’s enough. Celebrate. Dance. Give in to the impulse to help another. Because we have plenty. There’s enough.

Namaste.

 

Note:  I began this talk by reciting three prayers, the Adhan, the Shema, and the Gloria Patri.

Allahu Akba / Ashhadu anna la ila ill Allah / Ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasul Alla / Hayya alas salah / Hayya alal falah / Allahu akbar, La ilah ill Allah. God is Great / I bear witness that there is no god except the One God / I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God / Hurry to the prayer / Hurry to success / God is Great / There is no god except the One God

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. / Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.  Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. / Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto / Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.  Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit  / As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Give it up!

I belong to a GiVe group: twelve women who pool a small amount of money each month and give it away in our community. We don’t look very diverse (12 white women in their 50’s) but we represent – and rather passionately – a wide range of political views and religious beliefs.

This morning, we all met at a Migration and Refugee Services program, where the director took the time to share how refugees are integrated into our community, and to outline the history of the public-private partnerships that make up our national refugee efforts. I’m bursting with the things this experience made me think and feel, but for this post, I just wanted to share that my friend Leslie recently launched a website to help folks start their own giving circles.

You can find it at www.givetogether.org, along with this post I wrote about one of our GiVe experiences:

THERE ARE SO many GiVe experiences that have touched my heart. Here’s one. It was my month to choose our recipient, and I picked an elementary school where I had been asked to read to the children a few months before. (I had gone there with my mom, who had developed dementia, and I was assigned to read aloud to fifth graders. I read with great animation, and they looked at me with fifth grade reserve, but my mom cheered and clapped and said to the students near her, “Well, isn’t she wonderful?”)

The school is located a few blocks from an old highway that runs through town. It’s a desolate area. The houses are cinder block squares on patches of dirt; nobody has enough money to water a lawn, and the neon signs advertising “Gentlemen’s Clubs” and “Live Nudes” take the place of nighttime stars.

I called the principal of the school to ask her if there were any particular project she would like us to support, and to tell her that I had 12 women available for a few hours if there was anything she’d like us to do. Her proposal was novel. Could she use the $600 to cater lunch for her whole staff, and would the 12 of us manage the students’ lunch and recess so they could all eat together?

Of course, we said yes.

And it was wild. We are twelve competent women, but they were 600 hungry, excited kids – and it was our job to see they all got a lunch, that milk jugs were open and plastic wrap peeled, that something got eaten, that trash got tossed; that everyone made it to the playground, that the games were played fairly, that nobody ran away, that scrapes were bandaged and tears dried and first trips across the jungle gym celebrated. Also, every single child had to make it back to class on time.

I have a lot of memories of that day, but one of them is just what a low-income lunch looks like. There was white bread and tater tots and a slice of American cheese on a cream-colored plastic tray, with a thin white napkin and a carton of milk. It looked terrible and tasted worse, and almost none of the children ate any of it. Every uneaten lunch created a small mountain of plastic trash, which we shoved into huge garbage cans that spilled over onto the floor. There wasn’t time to think about it; we raced outside so the kids could play.

Go ahead: start a GiVe group

Pals on the bus

I grew up in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Spokane, Washington. For my family, it was a compelling community that also had a river, and glorious sunsets over that river’s steep banks, and just a two-mile walk to the downtown library. For the rest of the city, it was Felony Flats. Perhaps there was cause for that neighborhood nickname, but it doesn’t match my memories of the place.

I rode the city bus to high school. There was a stop right out the door of our kitchen, which encouraged a sort of casual approach to arriving there on time. I was a friendly kid, and nearly all the bus drivers were friendly enough to toot the horn right before they made the turn to my house, which saved me nine mornings out of ten. On the tenth, I had to run like mad to catch the bus seven blocks up, when it doubled back from its U-shaped route.

I liked to sit up front on the bus, close to the driver and the horizontal rows reserved for people who needed some consideration, and I had a lot of friends in that part of the bus, none of whom was a kid and none of whom had ever caught a bus to go to a private Catholic school. In those NIMBY days, every halfway house in the city was located in my neighborhood, and my 2 North A bus was a college education on wheels.

I don’t remember putting particular labels to my friends on the bus, though those labels pop into mind now: a reverse-time categorization. Oh, so that’s who she was. So that’s what he did. Back then, I didn’t notice their bodies or their clothes: the missing teeth, the tattoos, the slippers instead of shoes, the lisped voices, the odd tics and unusual shakes. It’s only looking back, seeing them from the perspective of a different life, that these traits reveal themselves.

The bus driver’s contract allowed him a four-minute break on a certain block each morning. For years, he would give me a quarter, and I would hop off the bus at a donut shop so that I could buy him a cup of coffee and run back before his break ended. On special days, my ragtag collection of bus friends and I would pool our change to buy donuts, and then we would break however many I could get into an even number of crumbly, powdery pieces, and eat them all the way to my stop.

Every morning, I set off to school with a chorus of voices – some rough, many accented­ – wishing me goodbye, and telling me to hurry, and calling out that we would see each other tomorrow. I wasn’t a cool kid, but I think I was a lucky one.

On Oscars and presidents and me

I’ve been thinking about the Oscars and presidential claims, and mostly about my own journey toward becoming the person I long ago chose to become. And while I know what I want to say, the words come hard: the impulse to parse and truss and calibrate is strong. Twice, I thought not to write at all.

And yet.

The thing is: the desire to be enlightened comes before the enlightenment itself. At 55, I still face my own misconceptions. I give myself credit: I’m willing to believe they’re there. I know that finding them requires personal risk. And I give myself no credit, because why the hell is it that hard?

Last night, I watched the winner of the Oscar for best documentary: OJ Simpson: Made in America. I’d been avoiding it, because all these years later, that case still thrums a line of rage through me. For myself, someone who had worked at the New Haven Project for Battered Women for two years, and was the director of the Spokane Domestic Violence Shelter for one, OJ Simpson’s acquittal was simply proof that a man could kill his wife if he were rich enough to hire the right lawyers. To this day, I never see Alan Dershowitz’ name without an instant of fury, without hearing my mother’s voice: to whom much is given, much is expected. How could someone with all those gifts and all that opportunity use them to exonerate a man who had killed his children’s mother?

I remember a black friend telling me that her family had celebrated the OJ verdict. I’ll admit: I was astonished. And somehow, I hadn’t known. I didn’t have the courage to tell my friend I was surprised, because I knew how much pain was behind her family’s celebration; I knew that her case for injustice might be greater than mine.

And yet.

The documentary places the OJ Simpson case in the context of a southern California where four police officers had been acquitted for beating Rodney King a few years earlier. And there’s a moment in the film in which a woman tells the story of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was killed just weeks after King was beaten. Latasha was shot in the back of the head by a storeowner who believed, erroneously, that she was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The owner was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and sentenced to . . . probation. And the woman in the documentary, the woman remembering that incident, says something like, “I couldn’t get over that. Hell, I’m not over it now.” And that was the moment of revelation for me. Of course she couldn’t get over it. It’s unbearable. A child died.

I don’t have a grand wrap-up here. I haven’t said anything new. I just share that these moments of revelation come over and over, long after one might claim the I am not a racist prize. OJ Simpson killed his wife, and my rage that he was declared innocent was not misplaced. And those who celebrated that verdict responded from a deep place, a deep hurt. I’m grateful for that woman who shared her feelings about Latasha Harlins’ death, and for a film that allowed me to see that moment in time through her eyes. I’m grateful to teach in a diverse community college that gives me similar opportunities, as I am grateful for all the books – novels and memoirs in particular – that have done the same. Peace Latasha. Peace to those who loved you.

Yada yada . . . Yaddo!

Last week, Touchstone’s associate publisher, David Falk, sent me a photo he recently took in the Yaddo library. Yaddo is an artist residency program in upstate New York, and I wrote a good chunk of We Are Called to Rise there. During that magical four weeks, I wandered into the library every single day. Its shelves were lined with books written by Yaddo artists, and each night, I took a different one back to my room to read. I don’t remember even once imagining that my novel would join them one day. But . . . look!

In 2014, I wrote this essay about the amazing Yaddo:

Even to me, it seems unlikely. A 50-year-old woman – with no writing history, no MFA, no closet of stories, no folder of poems – pens a novel that becomes a lead title for Simon and Schuster.

I’ve been over it a few times in my head – the parts that were amazing, the parts that were hard work, the parts that were honed craft, the parts that were sheer luck – and I think I have decided that the most unlikely, the most serendipitous, moment of all, the one on which so much of the story hinges, was the moment when some unknown person chose me for a Yaddo residency.

Yaddo is one of the oldest and most famous of American artist retreats. John Cheever once wrote that “the 40 or so acres on which the principal buildings of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community or perhaps the world.” It is also the place that brought me to an agent, that introduced me to working artists, and that moved me, in some basic way, from one world to another.

In addition to a beautiful and functional place in which to produce whatever sort of work they do, artists at Yaddo are given privacy, wonderful food, lovely living quarters, and clean sheets every other day. For a working mother, without any sort of home artist community, it was bliss. I didn’t know this, however, before I arrived. In fact, when I got the fat acceptance envelope, I was nonplussed. I hadn’t expected to be accepted. I had applied in part to have something concrete to write in my post-sabbatical summary. But now I would be spending four (isolated) weeks in a place I knew little about and could not quite imagine.

I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to Yaddo. Actually, I didn’t know anyone who had ever heard of Yaddo. The information in that one packet was scant. It appeared to be a mimeographed sheet, updated by hand, and copied again and again for decades. I thought about calling, with a few discreet questions. But then, what if my acceptance were a mistake? Could the invitation be rescinded? Better just to show up at the designated time, suitcase and pen in hand. I’d bring the mimeographed letter.

I looked up Yaddo on the Internet. There were lots of ghost stories. Great. I was to head across country, to a retreat without Internet, to a place in the wild, with ghosts. And if not ghosts, what about egos? What if Yaddo were filled with egomaniacs, narcissists, weirdos? Artists, right?

I thought a lot about declining the offer. A mealy-mouthed thing to do.  Declining something one had requested, for fear of ghosts. I worried. I couldn’t sleep. I bought a can of mace, some camping supplies, matches in a tin; I wasn’t sure what to expect. And I booked four tickets home. One for every Tuesday night I was there. I figured that I could survive a week of anything.

I arrived at Yaddo in mid-April. I wondered about the dark trees looming everywhere, about the sound of horses to the west, about the bedroom doors that did not lock. A fellow artist showed me around, but I didn’t ask her my questions. I made it through the first afternoon, the first dinner. I spent a terrifying first night, with the sort of vivid nightmares a child has, nightmares in which a woman wearing a caftan and a turban hovered over my bed and yelled at me. The next morning at breakfast, someone asked me if I’d slept. Bleary-eyed, unnerved, I confessed to having had nightmares. “Oh,” several people murmured, “About what?” When I told them, there was a collective hush, then a murmur. Someone said “That was ——.  She died in that house.”  “Oh no, it was ——-. She only comes to a few artists. You must be really attuned.” “If it was her, it’s good luck. She loves artists.”

“She didn’t seem very loving,” I mumbled. And thought: I can’t last a week here. 

I made it through a few more days. The room had wonderful light.  It was quiet. There were birds nesting outside my window, the sculptor in the room beside made me laugh, I slept without visitations, a videographer smuggled me a flash drive of Game of Thrones. I was starting to like the place. One day, someone asked me if I used a pseudonym: “I can’t find anything you’ve written.” I cringed. The next day, someone else asked about the pseudonym, and I found my answer: “I haven’t published anything. I don’t know why I’m here either.” And the listener shrugged. No big deal.

I wrote like a fiend at Yaddo. I never missed breakfast – it was such a treat to be fed – and then I took my Yaddo lunchbox to my writing studio. (My studio had a turret and people called it the breast room, which someone eventually explained to me was because Philip Roth wrote The Breast there. I have no idea if this is true, but I did reread The Breast in that room, for good measure.) There, I wrote wildly, freely, with the sense that what I was doing mattered to someone, with the idea that I should work at least as hard as all the folks taking care of me at Yaddo, for eight hours each day.

And then I would get some exercise (hitch a ride with another artist to the Y, take a walk, or ride a bike along the trails of the 400-acre estate) and head over to dinner, eager to see my fellow artists, eager for the stories and the laughter and the ideas that 12 or 20 artists who have been intensely working all day will share. I sometimes worked in the evenings, but usually I joined other artists playing games in the West House common room, or snuck into the music hall to listen to a composer practicing, or best of all, joined another artist spontaneously sharing his or her current work with the rest of us.

I didn’t write the novel because of Yaddo. I would have written it anyway, though it would have taken longer, and I think I would have written the same novel. So what did Yaddo mean to me? What does it mean to this book? To this writer’s path?

Well, first, I got a lot of writing done there. I had time and space and care, and for me, those were author steroids.

And second, I made  critical connections, ones I had no way to make from my own life. A fellow Yaddo writer, on learning I did not have an agent, offered to contact hers, and then another writer did the same, and then a third. My agent read my manuscript because someone she trusted had recommended it, and that someone trusted me because we met at Yaddo.

But third, and critically, Yaddo was the place at which I first allowed that what I was doing was not mere indulgence, mere time-out from my real life of teaching students and paying bills and being a responsible member of my community. What I was doing, this thing I loved to do, this thing that felt like indulgence because I loved it so much, was valuable, important work. Not my writing, per se, but that someone writes, that art is produced, that artists thrive.

Yaddo is a living embodiment that art matters. From the generous trust that created it, to the hard-working staff that coordinate the programs and maintain the property and care for the artists, to the folks who give to support it, to all of the artists who have treasured it, Yaddo is one big billboard screaming: trying to say something true in a beautiful way is a worthwhile endeavor, all by itself.

So, I have an unlikely writer’s path. I have always thought of myself as a writer, I have always known myself to be someone who treasured words, I have spent a lifetime thinking about words, about sentences, about communication, about writing. I have read and thought and lived and waited for the chance to write.  And when that chance came, when five months of glorious sabbatical, when four weeks of lovely Yaddo, came, I did not hesitate, I did not dally: I wrote and wrote and wrote. And now I have a book, and you can read it, and I am thinking of another one, of other ones. I am noting and writing and waiting: for the chance again to do something so loved.

Bookanista July 2014

Love the pics . . .

I promised you something new (and something old). The something new is this two-minute video of me talking about ‘Round Midnight, produced by my very cool publisher Touchstone Books.

Photos (and videos) are the only part of being a writer I don’t like. But I do want you to read my books! So, here are two minutes of me answering questions about a story I loved imagining.

On concentration

As for something old, here’s an essay I wrote for Bill Wolfe’s blog in 2014. I’ve been thinking about this piece, because of a conversation I had with some of my students, and because Rebecca Solnit had a beautiful essay about Virginia Woolf in last week’s New Yorker. Virginia Woolf revealed to me the dramatic power of a character’s internal life, and even now, I can close my eyes and conjure up the way I felt when I read certain lines for the first time.

Originally published June 2, 2014 (on my birthday!)

About a million years ago, when I was in college, I did my senior thesis on Virginia Woolf. It was an odd choice of topic – for an American Studies major – but my department was an easygoing place. They didn’t mind that I was preparing to launch my deepest academic work on a British author I knew nothing about. They just asked me to find my own qualified advisor (which they might have thought would be limiting) so I queried my friends in the dining hall, and someone recommended J. Hillis Miller (a famed member of the Yale deconstructionists).  I made an appointment, and asked if he would take me on.

I have no idea why he said yes. I may have struck him as a raw primitive, he may just have been that sort of professor. On that first day, he established the rules. Read everything that Virginia Woolf had ever written, several times if possible. Read the autobiography by her nephew Quentin Bell. Read not one word of criticism or review. Not an essay, not a book, not a damn student editorial. And meet with him, once a week, for an hour, maybe two. (Can you believe that? Yale was great.)

I don’t remember any particular form for our sessions. I don’t remember poring over lines from the text, or discussing any literary theory. I don’t remember any formal analysis at all; mostly, we just chatted about whatever I was reading then. It was courteous; there was a pretense of intellectual equality. I remember my youthful enthusiasms; I must have bored him terribly. And then, when the hour or so was up, Professor Miller said “Alright, Laura, back to your reading.”

And that is how I spent many months, steeped in Virginia Woolf – her life and temperament so different from my own – with no particular expectations and no particular knowledge. It was magical. I don’t know how much I remember from that reading – I have that sort of mind – but I did eventually write a brutally long (for the reader, that is) essay on The Waves. No evidence of it exists – thankfully – but I vaguely remember an experimental beginning in stream-of-consciousness style. Ouch.

It seems to me that I often don’t know when I am in the middle of an extraordinary moment, when I am doing something I will never do again, and those months reading Virginia Woolf and talking about it with Hillis Miller, in that way, in that delightfully casual way, was such a moment.

I also learned two things.

One, it is a great pleasure to discover something in literature for oneself. To read a review, a critique, or an analysis is to lose something of one’s own impressions forever. I am careful of the chatter of other minds, even if they are better than my own. I try to strike the balance thoughtfully: between reading what others are reading at a given moment,which offers the great pleasure of shared experience, and reading what no-one else is reading at the time, for the different pleasure of silent space.

Two, when I write, I focus. I rewrote that senior thesis, all 40-some pages of it, on the day before it was due. I had woken up with the clear realization that the essay was terrible, and also with a clear idea of how to fix it. It was a Thursday in December, bitterly cold; I went to the Mudd Library, which had wonderful light, and I sat down at a table in the middle of the reading room and began to write. I wrote furiously. I remember my hand cramping several times, and I remember shaking my fingers angrily; I had to hurry.

I started writing when the doors opened at eight, and when I finished, when I wrote the very last word, the first thing I did was look at my watch. It was after four in the afternoon. I was relieved that I had finished before the library closed at five, I was surprised that I had been sitting so long. I remember those two thoughts, and then I remember realizing that I was cold. I was freezing. I was so cold that the feet of my chair were banging against the wood floor as my body shook. I could barely stand up – I was so cold and cramped – and also, I was hungry, I needed a bathroom, and it was getting dark; I could barely see the page on which I had just been writing. I looked up to see a young man, a graduate student probably, dressed in a winter coat and a stocking cap and gloves, with a red nose.

“Are you finished?” he said.

“I’m cold,” I almost yelled back. “There’s something wrong with the heat in here. I’m really cold. And it’s dark.”  I was a bit frantic, not at all polite.

“Yes,” he said. ‘The power went out about ten this morning. The library’s been closed since noon. We asked you to leave several times, but you never looked up, so I said I would just wait here until you were done.”

I really wish I knew who that man was. Wow, I really wish I knew who he was. But then, perhaps you can see why I stopped writing when my children were small.

Rebecca Solnit’s essay

“My Year with Virginia Woolf”

Welcome readers

My idea is to post occasional writing here – sometimes just for you, and sometimes an essay I originally published elsewhere. This week, I’m busy going crazy with a new website, but by next week, I’ll have something new and something old for you. Hold me to it!