Armchairs & An Untitled Manuscript

Weeks have gone by without a blog post. How did that happen? I’ve been very focused on getting through another revision of my memoir and when I got to my desk that’s where my energy went.

Until this weekend. Because I’m finished. The manuscript is done. It’s formatted and ready to print out and read through for one final check.

Last week I told David I was done and he kept saying you’re done, you’re done, that’s a big deal and I couldn’t deal with that so I kept trying to qualify what I meant. But I guess I meant it. There’s a scene in the memoir when I’ve finished the manuscript of The Truth About Death and I go sit on a foot bridge over a river on a cold, windy day and cry. All I could think was, now what am I going to do?

So again, now what am I going to do? Well, I still don’t have a title so I need to figure that out, polish the query letter I wrote a year ago, do lots of agent research, and then launch the manuscript into the unknown.

Meanwhile my current printmaking class has led me to armchairs as a subject. Comfort and stories are drawing me. I’ve made monotypes and etchings and I’m not done yet.

Maybe I’m ready to sit down for a while.

 

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A Ball to the Head

Thursday was my first full day at home without any commitments since returning from Ireland. I planned to garden and open the memoir file on my computer and start to sort out my next steps in the revision process.

Instead, I got up and made a list for the day, starting with four people I wanted to call. Then I did a lot of puttering — folded our Ireland hiking maps and put them in a cupboard with all the foreign country maps I’ve collected over the years, rearranged files on my desk, filled out medical forms for an upcoming appointment, made a big pot of black beans.

Finally I opened the memoir file and fiddled with it for a few minutes. Then closed it. Looked out the window. I went out to the garden to pick flowers and make bouquets for the house, hoping that might dislodge the heavy funkiness and floating dislocation I’d felt all day.

Arranging hydrangeas in vases to dry for the winter, I thought about Chris. Two summers ago when I spent so much time with her as she was dying, the first thing I’d do when I got home was pick flowers for the house. And here it is just about two years since she died. Tomorrow is the deathaversary.

Then I got the “ball to the head,” the term Adrienne uses to describe the sudden smacks of grief you don’t see coming.

The four people I’d put on my list first thing that morning to be sure to call are all friends who’ve lost a spouse. Of course I wanted to talk to them, check in. I know how hard it is to figure out your way through the loss of a life partner. But I wanted to talk about grief for myself too, and access the rare benefit that comes from deep loss — being able to talk to others about it.

Having people to talk to who’d gone through a loss like mine was such a comfort for me after Eric died. It comforts me still.

Summer: There, Here, Gone

I’ve been an infrequent blogger this summer, mostly because for the second summer in a row I’ve largely let go of any writing habit. It started with the week in June with Emilio, playing like a six-year-old since I was with a six-year-old, which was enormous fun but left no room for writing. An editing job with a July 1 deadline also ate up most of my desk time, making other people’s writing work better, leaving little energy for pulling my memoir into a better shape.

Then it was vacation time with family, followed by a week at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, a week spent immersed in workshopping, generative writing, outstanding readings by the outstanding faculty and talks about the craft of writing. It was inspirational and gave me a clear bead on exactly what I need to do next to get my memoir in shape to get it out into the world. But there’s was no time to actually work on the memoir.

The week at home after the conference and before returning to New York for another week with Emilio was consumed with harvesting and processing the bounty from my garden (yes, an electric mesh fence really does work — at least so far — to keep the woodchucks from eating my vegetables and flowers before I can get to them). The time I did have for creative focus I found myself drawing, pulled into my right brain after a week of such intense language, left brain focus.

Today I fly back to New Hampshire and will have 24 hours at home before David and I leave for over two weeks in Ireland. It’s been a very fun week again with Emilio — playing miniature golf, seeing how many times in a row we can catch each other’s throws (55 is our record), going to parks and playing the game of Life. He and I can be silly, serious, focused, scattered, wild and quiet together. He’s sweet and intense, loving and competitive and fiercely athletic. I’ll miss being with him and Ava every day; the energy of small children is amazingly centering because there’s no time to be anywhere other in the moment you’re in with them.

An added bonus of the week: celebrating my birthday which included Ava painting her legs with the blue frosting on my ice cream cake. It was impressively messy and abandoned. Emilio continued his habit of taking whacky selfies while I’m driving.

Now I’m looking forward to a traveling adventure with David. It’s been a long time since we’ve spent a couple of weeks only with each other, exploring a new country. We’ll be walking the Beara Way, then traveling to Connemara and Donegal. From everything we’ve read and heard about Ireland, I expect we’ll be stunned by beauty, heartened by a friendly culture, and cheered by the camaraderie of pubs. I’m also going on a Twitter fast. Who knows, maybe I’ll even go a day or two without checking the news.

All of this activity has made the summer fly. But it’s not over yet and this next journey should be as rich as all the summer I’ve already lived. Want to get a sense of what it’s like to walk, drive, drink, tour, discover and relax in Ireland? I’ll be blogging while we travel, so follow along.

A Book of Boxes

I’ve written before about John the Founder (of Vermont Studio Center) welcoming everyone on the first night of my latest residency there by saying, “This isn’t a place for ego or worrying about how our work is viewed by the world. We’re just a group of people, who for one reason or another, like to make things. So go ahead, make things.”

That has stayed with me for the more than three years since I was there, because I like to make things. Sure, I make dinner and a garden and crackers (check out these amazing, life-changing crackers) and yogurt, but those are all practical. When I most need permission is when I want to make something that’s a creation for the sake of creation, something arty, something that pushes me to try something new, something that might not be perfect.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing and editing in the last few weeks, going through another revision of my memoir and working towards the deadline on an editing job related to my work on sexual assault. Lots of hours at my computer, very few hours at my art desk.

I’ve also been making a lot of phone calls and writing emails to Senators and Reps. There is no shortage of the need for political action and resistance , and I’m keeping up with my 15 acts of resistance a week (mostly).

With all those hours at my desk and nothing tangible to show for it, the urge to make something was strong. The Image & Test class is over so I’m not getting a weekly fix of making: printing or folding or binding a book.

Yesterday I tried an idea from the class and made a book of boxes. I folded six mat su boxes (a basic origami box) from prints I made in class, collapsed the boxes, and then used a coptic binding to make them into a book.

I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I figured it out well enough and the result was more interesting than I’d imagined. Not only can the book be closed, then opened as each box is unfolded to find what’s hidden inside, the book can stand on its own as curious object. It spurred David to do a serious of photographs that catch it all angles.

But what is this for? It’s for itself.

 

Returning

The last month may be the longest blog break I’ve ever taken. It wasn’t intended, but it happened. Which is life, right?

Or maybe it’s my reflexive response to the current political insanity. Yes, I’m still obsessed with the news and spend a lot of time working to keep myself centered and using my energy to resist the dismantling of so much of what I’ve taken for granted as norms of democracy and living in a country inching its way towards true social justice.

At a party this weekend I talked about how meaningless my blog seemed to me after the election. How could I write anything that wasn’t directly political and pushing back against the madness engulfing us? Why write about the apple blossoms filling the trees and then salting the ground around my garden as the flowers start to fall apart?

“Because that’s exactly what we need,” one friend said. “We need to read about apple blossoms.”

It has been an extraordinary year for blossoms. From the forsythia bushes to cherry trees to apple trees to dandelions to lilacs, everything is having a bumper year of flowering. There are maple trees on my running route that have such thick clumps of red seed pods (also called samaras, maple keys, helicopters, whirlybirds or polynoses) they look like tropical blossoms, heavy and full as they nod towards the ground.

Yesterday afternoon I sat on the back deck steps for a few minutes, looking across my garden beds to the lilac bush intermingling with the largest of my apple trees. I could hear a catbird and finches singing. Every time I walked towards the small wood shed on the side of the barn a robin screeched from its nest at the top of one of the posts, trying to distract me from what must be a clutch of pale, blue eggs. The yard is an unbounded aviary (which actually would make it not an aviary at all, but you know what I mean), full of birdsong and nests and the flash of wings.

The world is still beautiful. I’m still resisting (15 acts of resistance a week — phone calls, emails, meetings, discussions) but I’m also still writing and drawing and turning over the soil and planting and picking bouquets for the house.

I’ve learned this before but have to keep learning it again. Bad things happen, but birds and trees and bushes don’t care. The sun comes up and spring comes on and the grass gets green and then grows again and the cows return to the pasture across the street, as they did today, right now come to the corner right across from my porch, as they do most evenings.

That’s reason enough to celebrate.

 

 

 

Deep Cuts: In Trump-Adjusted Terms

Detail of One Story At A Time by Kim Rugg

“In Trump-adjusted terms, I’m fine.” That was the answer a woman gave on a podcast I listened to this week when asked how she was.

Perfect! I thought. A way to skip the usual five minute greeting of yes, things are okay for me except I’m completely freaked out about the ongoing circus that our federal government has become — the meanest, freakiest, scariest circus ever — and half the time feel like I can hardly breathe. Now we can just give our TAT score.

In TAT I’m doing well, in part because I saw the Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art on Wednesday.

An attractive part of delving into visual art for me is the absorption in making something with my hands, beyond my fingers on the keyboard as I write. Most of my writing time these days is editing anyway, which doesn’t even mean many keystrokes — mostly I’m reading and sifting.

Time spent weaving a collage of newspaper strips or cutting blocks of words or gluing beads to a piece of paper for a pressure print as I listen to music can feel like slow snow — a suspension that’s going to amount to something at some point, and the creeping pace to that place feels just right.

But the level of detailed suspension in a head space of meticulous making displayed in the Deep Cuts exhibit is breathtaking. It can take me an hour or more to fuss with the strips of newspaper I weave to make a collage, painstaking for a relative newbie like me.

Then I saw Kim Rugg’s collage in the exhibit, “One Story at a Time,” and understood painstaking on a whole other level. Her work is a reconstruction of the front page of the NY Times after dissecting it letter by letter and pixel by pixel. The letters are put back together by alphabet, starting with all the a’s and preceding to z.

Detail of Altered Text: Unbearable Lightness of Being by Youdhi Maharjan
Detail of I am the rejection of you by Ambreen Butt

 

Youdhi Maharjan cut every single letter out of pages of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, along the exact lines of the letter, then massed them in a central column that runs through the excised pages pasted on either side. The letters are all discernible and black — you can see each letter in the cut spaces also, glowing gold from the background of the collage.

Ambreen Butt cut and collaged pieces of rejections letters — her own and others she got from friends — into a 10 foot circle that looks like an alternative sun. It’s beautiful, a source of light from an unexpected globe.

This is just a taste of this mind-blowing exhibit. Where do these artists’ brains go during the hours upon hours upon hours of exacting work? The same place my own brain goes as I continue to massage 85,000 words into a book constructed of the exact right words in the exact right places?

Whatever that place is, in TAT, being in that headspace myself, or looking at the marvels artists make from that space, makes everything better.

 

Bookmaking

 

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I’ve been making books (the first definition of bookmaking is someone who takes bets –those of us making actual books come in second).  I’ve learned how to fold sheets of paper into zines and bind pages with the five hole pamphlet stitch. Next week I’ll learn caught loop binding and then on to coptic binding, a beautiful braid of stitches to hold a book together.

I’ve been making phone calls. My goal each week is 15 acts of resistance, which include making collages and going to meetings but mostly calls to Senators Hassan and Shaheen with occasional calls to Annie Kuster. My message is basically the same — resist the Trump autocracy/hypocrisy/treachery flavor of the day. I also make regular calls to McConnell’s office because his particular brand of partisan bullshit cowardice is particularly infuriating to me. Sometimes I even get through. When I don’t, there’s no way to leave a message. Of course.

I’ve been drawing. Every day. I’m bound to get better.

I’ve been getting smart feedback on my memoir manuscript from incredibly generous friends (you know who you are) which has made my writing brain fire off in flashes of insight that I know will lead to a tighter, stronger, more dynamic book. Part of yesterday was spent making lists of what’s coming and going in the next draft — getting ready to dive back in.

I’ve been writing pushback against injustice. Yesterday I sent off a column to the Concord Monitor pointing out the absurdity of arguments against a bill to protect trans people from discrimination; opponents claim it will lead to women being assaulted in bathrooms. I’ve had it with the “bathroom bill” idiocy. NH’s bill to add gender identity to the anti-discrimination law isn’t about bathrooms and the opposition isn’t about protecting women. Let’s be real — the bill is about justice and the opposition is about bigotry. HB 478 — call your NH House Rep to support the bill today.

I’ve been running. According to my training plan I’m running 11 miles this morning. That means my legs won’t do much else today. My gratitude for a body strong enough to still be running long distances is deep, but I definitely feel the difference between a body that’s 60 and a body that’s 63. Hopefully it will all stay on track for the NYC Half Marathon on March 19. Can I run a time qualifying half marathon again? I’m sure going to try.

I’ve been making collages. I’ve made a book collage of collages inspired by Ta Nahesi-Coates’ essay in The Atlantic, “My President Was Black.” The article describes a concert and party the Obamas had at the White House in October, a farewell celebration. It was presented by Black Entertainment Television and was primarily a party for black people — black performers, black guests, black luminaries.

It was a joy to read about, black people having a party at the White House. A house built by black slaves.

But I know there are people in this country, not the majority but enough of them, who couldn’t stand the idea of a black family in the White House, much less that family celebrating there. The White Fuckboys particularly couldn’t stand it.

Now the White Fuckboys are trying to run the country though they’re not having an easy time of it, partly because their treachery keeps catching up with them and partly because of the organic rise of resistance that’s swept across country.

Let’s keep it up. We have no choice.

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Image & Text

The New Yorker 2.6.17 Time 2.6.17
The New Yorker 2.6.17
Time 2.6.17

Working With Image & Text is the name of the class David and are taking at the NH Institute of Art. It’s also an area of fascination for me. I love words. I love visual art. I love when they’re put together in ways that make the meaning of each bounce back and forth against each other. Looking for ways to combine image and text is what led me to make collages from newspapers and magazines. It’s not only an act of resistance, shredding and weaving the news as a reflection of the world we live in now, there’s also a possibility of beauty.

The Image & Text class is taught by Erin Sweeney, a sculptor, printer and book artist, and Glen Scheffer, a photographer. They’ll teach us how to alter digital photographs, do screen and letter press printing and book binding, and anything else they know about playing along the borders of images and text that we want to know.

Based on the first class, we’ll also learn how to let ourselves go into creating art out of everyday life, the records we keep, what we do, see and hear. Our homework — spend 10 minutes every day writing and drawing in our sketchbooks, including 1) a list of what we did, 2) a list of what we saw, 3) something we overheard 4) a drawing of what we saw.

David and I have been absorbed in our homework; our sketchbooks are open a lot more than 10 minutes a day. I’ve been drawing, pasting, cutting, folding, writing, listing, coloring, printing.

When I went to Vermont Studio Center two years ago John the Founder (he’s one of the founders and that’s what everyone calls him) greeted the gathering at dinner on Sunday night, or first meal together. He welcomed us and talked about the culture at VSC — leave the competition and judgment at the door so it doesn’t get in the way of what you came here to create. “We’re all people who, for whatever reason, like to make things. So go make things.”

I made a collage in answer to a call for artists to respond to the crisis in Syria through the medium of postcards. Art for Aleppo has organized a show and online exhibit of the postcards as a way to raise awareness and money. I made mine from a NY Times article about the evacuation of Aleppo.

“My President Was Black” by Ta-Nehisi Coates was in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. The article was excellent and intersected well with the cover photo of Obama in a crowd of jubilant supporters.

My collage of the front pages of the January 21 and January 22 NY Times, the inauguration of Trump dominating the 21st and the Women’s March dominating the 22nd, came out darker than I’d imagined. The joy of January 22 was real and delicious but was still shadowed by the inauguration, a shadow I walk out of everyday.

Yesterday I wove the New Yorker cover of a reimagined Rosie the Riveter in a pussy hat with the Time cover of a pussy hat underneath the title The Resistance Rises, How A March Becomes A Movement.

We all keep moving towards justice and freedom, that’s how we create a movement. I’m having fun and satisfying something really deep by combining images and text. But I also make phone calls and send emails almost every day  — reps, senators, Governor Sununu, the House Ethics Committee — picking actions from the news and the multiple resources that have been created to keep the resistance strong.

The luck that led me to a life with time to do all this amazes me. I’m squeezing that luck to get every bit of good out of it I can.

 

What’s Next

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There it is. My memoir manuscript, printed and stacked on my desk.

Actually, is it a manuscript or a draft? This book has been with me in so many different forms for so many years, just the fact of it being ready to send to three very generous friends who are going to be readers for me is huge. Yuge!

Is there a difference between a draft and a manuscript? This is what the New Oxford American Dictionary says: A manuscript is an author’s text that has not yet been published. Any piece of writing that you have not published in any way (but intend to) is a manuscript. A draft is the same as a manuscript, except that it insists on the unfinished state of the manuscript.

I don’t insist on the unfinished state of this manuscript, but I’m certainly aware that it’s likely unfinished. The fact that the title page has six possible titles itself says it’s not finished. Sending it to readers to get an outside take on its shape and story and cohesion says it’s probably not finished.

Whether what I’m sending out is a manuscript or a draft really doesn’t matter. What matters is that working on this memoir has occupied almost all of my writing time for the past year, a majority of my writing time for the past three years, and much of my writing head space for over nine years. So there’s a big question looming for me — what’s next?

While I wait for feedback from my friends I’ll research agents to query and get back to sending out selections from the book to be published as essays in literary journals. But waking up thinking about a chapter that needs to be tweaked or obsessing over a key paragraph or realizing there’s another scene I need to write or one I need to take out or hunting gerunds to banish the passive voice as often as possible is over for now. The queries and submissions can be done as a secondary focus. What will my primary writing focus be?

I’ve read enough writers on the writing process to know that finishing a book, or getting to the point where the book goes out into the world in some fashion, can be disorienting. When a piece of writing has “got you by the throat,” as a poet friend said to me last year, and then lets go, what do you do with all that breath that’s freed up? How do you decide where to dig to find the next book that’s going to take over?

For now I’ll relish in this impressive pile of paper on my desk. Though it’s still only a manuscript and probably only a draft, it’s definitely a giant step further along the path to being a book.

Don’t Be Fooled; Renew and Resist!

Curious giant fungus: provenance unknown
Curious giant fungus: provenance unknown

Trump and his cadre of sycophant puppet masters are trying to wear us out. Let’s not let them.

Our first week as citizens of the new United/Divided States has not gone well. The evidence of Trump’s unstable personality disorder mounted steadily while a wall of silent men stood behind him as he signed executive orders that harm women, children, refugees, and immigrants. When his aides did speak they lied and screamed and distracted attention from Trump’s assaults on core American values. Every gathering I was part of this week began with people expressing their dismay and confusion about what to do.

Can we survive four years of this? Will Trump even last a few more weeks? Would it be worse to have Pence be President. We can be sure it was his idea to order the reinstatement of the global gag order on any mention of abortion by overseas organizations getting U.S. aid. Trump has been quoted as asking why he should care about abortion when “it doesn’t affect me.”

And it seems certain that Bannon’s white supremacy drove the ban on immigrants from Muslim countries and Syrian refugees. The power grabbers around Trump enable his childish obsessions with crowd size and illegal voting to manipulate him into promoting bigoted whiteness and discriminatory Christianity. I think the attraction to rampant capitalism that will further enrich people who already have more money than anyone could possibly use in a hundred lifetimes is Trump’s own contribution to this mess.

Or is it Putin calling the shots?

It has been a horrible week, but those of us (pretty much everyone in my bubble, a bubble I’m proud of) in the resistance have to pace ourselves. We have a long fight ahead and we can’t afford to burn out on outrage. The Trump administration’s strategy is to be so outrageous so constantly that those of us who believe in the democratic country we thought we lived in — where diversity and equity are valued  — get overwhelmed.

So how do we not get overwhelmed? Maybe this is a blog post to myself, because I am overwhelmed. I haven’t been able to sustain a focus on editing my memoir since the end of October. The minute my self imposed no-internet-writing-hours are done I’m clicking Twitter and Facebook and checking the NYTimes and Washington Post.

I know I’m not alone. The women’s poetry listserve I’m on has been full of discussions about how to maintain a creative focus in the midst of madness. One woman wrote, “I wish to God I could just think about quatrains and line breaks now. Time to make some daily phone calls…”

I can’t shut off what’s going on, but I can’t have my face in it all day every day. In fact, having it in my face all day distracts me from taking action that would make me feel better. I didn’t make any calls to Congress this week because I spent so much time reading news about all the things I should be making calls to protest.

This year for the holidays I gave David a commitment for the year ahead: one outdoor adventure and one museum visit a month. Some part of me must have known how much I was going to need dedicated self care and healthy distraction this year. This weekend we bumped up against our last chance to go to a museum and chose the Athenaeum in Portsmouth. The Athenaeum is celebrating its 200th anniversary with a rotating exhibition from their collection — A Museum of Curiosities Both Natural and Artificial.

The curiosities included a giant fungus, as big as an end table, “provenance unknown.” The friendly historian and curator of the show that opened yesterday wasn’t even sure it’s a fungus but it was certainly curious. There was a large chunk of stone purportedly from the house of Christopher Columbus in Genoa. One wall was hung with paddles and spears and a shield of intricately carved wood from the Austral Islands in the South Pacific, collected by a Navy officer in the early 19th century to bring back to the Athenaeum.

Viewing curiosities, along with meeting friends afterwards for dinner and a movie, was my reset button. I needed a break. We all need breaks so we can keep making calls, writing poems, showing up for marches, going to elected Rep’s town hall meetings, running for office, organizing petitions and working to get Democrats or Republicans with balls elected.

I’ve been afraid that looking away, enjoying an afternoon and evening of distraction, would be normalizing what’s happening. It isn’t. I’ve been paying more attention than necessary to be effective, and that needs to change. I believe Trump intuitively and Bannon deviously know this — the news is addictive, especially when it’s outrageous. Keep everyone with their faces in their screens and they won’t show up to organize an effective resistance.

I’m walking out of that trap.

Detail of ironwood paddle from Austral Islands