Monday, December 31, 2012

Moving Forward Still

End of year reflection has often been difficult for me. Always, I look forward. I push to get somewhere, anywhere.  Permanence is, in many ways, my greatest fear.  I think, if I stay in a moment or hold on too tight or get caught in being, the current won't take me, I'll be left behind.

For many months this year, I was frantic, that I wasn't where I was supposed to be, not behind or ahead, just in the wrong space, the wrong job, the wrong me.  I worried that I had pushed so far forward I had lost my way. 

I'd like to say I changed all that, forced a shift.  I'd like to say that, like a train, I pulled into the station, took this desperate, gulping gasp, and exhaled.  

I remember getting caught in an elevator at work.  I remember remaining calm.  I remember thinking in whispers, for just a moment, maybe I'm new.

Maybe.

This fall I grew quiet. A birthday came and I didn't have a party.  Instead, I walked a trail of leaves with Tyler and felt happy. A week later, I visited faraway friends, the best of friends, and I remember how strange it felt to take the train back to Brooklyn, the irony of heading to a city that was being evacuated.  

The storm came up and over and I had never felt so quiet and strange as I did when I found our street the same and all the others around us overturned.  The days that followed silenced me. It forced someone who doesn't like to stay anywhere, not to move, and it reminded me how, when I'm cold, I don't fidget because I believe, against all logic, that if I remain perfectly still the cold can't touch me.

On the first day of December, I met with friends for a long dinner and we talked about the week before, named the best moment, and it felt so perfect to remember just one small thing.  Now I know what came the week after, my father's emergency surgery, and the sudden, terrible thought, oh, my parents aren't immoral, are they?  And then.  

Oh. Neither am I.

Maybe I learned a little more about reflection this year. And about being quiet.  Mainly, that it's never been about permanence at all. That's a bigger thing. It's about standing still for a bit to see all that flew forward.  And moving forward still. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

So I Went To the Movies (Thoughts)

I went to the movies this fall and saw more in the theaters than I have in years.  Our local theater in Brooklyn is my favorite. It's an independent chain and, before the movie, they play this amazingly retro video with galaxy-flying popcorn (which someone captured on youtube here.  You must watch it.) and I always say, if I see a dud film there, it is okay because we'll always have the intro, in the way some others have Paris.

I mainly saw the big films this year and I have thoughts.  I'll put them here because I can't find any other place to keep them.

Lincoln

I went into this film thinking it was one of these epic biographical films spanning the life of an American hero. As it turns out, it's less biographical in nature and more political, featuring the swift negotiations that took place during Lincoln's final weeks in office.  It's The West Wing, just Civil War style, complete with the wheelie camera following walking conversations but without Sorkin nerd dialogue.  It's long. Most of the time, I wasn't smart enough to understand what was happening. But Daniel Day Lewis is spectacular.  Each time he came on screen, I was riveted. It's clear he won the Academy Award before he even walked on set.  My history buff husband walked out of the theater as giddy as a child with loot from a candy store.  I left wondering things like Do you think Lincoln really loved Mary Todd? and other important musings.

Life of Pi

I enjoyed reading this book and, when film rights were sold, I had no idea how someone could re-imagine this story as a film.  I'm going to go out on a limb and make one of those extreme statements and say it is one of the most visually stunning pictures I've ever seen.  It's exactly the kind of aesthetic I love.  Hypercolor.  Rainbow magic. Crayon blue skies. I love this kind of style. In my mind, the book left bigger questions and the film preferred to take the neat-bow-tying approach.  For me, this is a must-see in that, you must sit back and, simply, see it and not reach further for meaning than you have to reach.

Les Miserables

I saw this musical when I was fourteen years old and listened to the tape (double cassettes) more times than I can count.  As soon as I saw the preview I knew that no matter how epic, dramatic, drape over a dying body, fist-shake at the heavens, throw yourself off a tower, remember the time the French Revolution spit up over some broken furniture, this film might be (and oh-it-was, good God, dramatic) I would pay the money, see it immediately, sing the songs in my heart, and cry like a baby.  Did it.  Done.  And now we can all move on with our lives.  Oh.  Sigh.  But I can't.  I love.

Argo

Surprise of the year for me. I rarely pay attention to what a film is about (unless, ya know, someone is singing in the preview) so I walked in clueless and then Tyler said it was about the Iran hostage crisis and the lights dimmed and I thought what I always think, we'll always have the intro.  Well. I loved it.  Truly loved it. Favorite of all I've seen this year.  Except for one scene in which Ben Affleck looks longingly at a photo of his estranged son and wife (cheap, cheap attempt at exposition, Affleck, just cheap. A Melissa pet-peeve.) I thought the script (and everything else) was pretty much perfect.

Looking for your thoughts on what you've seen this fall.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Starry Christmas

 

Purple starred fish the afternoon of Christmas Eve.


And falling snow to wish upon at night.

Wishing you all a very, merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tribute In Purple


My African Violet is in full bloom (the third bloom of the year!)  It's no secret how much I love purple. So, today, I pay tribute to the color purple and honor the life of a little girl who loved it too.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rustling

I meant to write this month, meant to spend the 24 days before the holidays revising and working through a new draft for the new year.  Instead, life nosed its way in, as it has a habit of doing, and I wrote very little and, when there was time, I chose to spend it, not at my desk, but elsewhere.

The other day, I waited on line at the store and the old man in front of me lingered after all had been sorted and packed and paid.  He wondered if he had been given the right prescription and the cashier smiled as if he was about to take a familiar step, as if he rolled his wrist to catch the time and found that the conversation had happened according to schedule.  Then he assured him, as he must always assure him, that he had.  Still the old man waited, like he didn't want to go but didn't know how to find any more words to make it okay to stay and, if I could, I would have given him all the words I ever had and, then, waited there forever while he stalled.

It's raining now and from here I see the tree branches dancing, not as if they want to, almost as if they are being forced to by an eager partner they want to please.  The wind blows inside, right up the stairs of our building, and under the door to me.  It's the kind of rustling you hear in Christmas poems and it feels like standing on a balcony, smiling, knowing that something comes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Healing

I took this photo from my fire escape last Friday. Somehow the day ended with such beauty. Certainly one of the most extraordinary sunsets I've seen in a long while.


It's been a strange month in these parts.  In just a few short weeks, my perspective has shifted drastically. The schemes of all things changed first with my father's heart surgery (he is home and recovering well, thank you for all your well wishes) and, then, as I sat in traffic to visit him on his final day in the hospital, NPR news reported, calm and steady, about the tragedy at Sandy Hook and my own heart broke.

At that point, it seemed that all froze, and as life picks back up, I feel caught in a kind of delirium, stuck somewhere between hurt, anger, confusion, and deep gratitude for all I have.

Yesterday, after a night of sudden fever and a severe pain in my foot, I limped to the doctor to learn I had bruised a tendon and would have to be off of my feet until Saturday. My mind raced as I ran through all that needed to be done, the Christmas presents I haven't bought, the wrap-up at work as we finalize all of our projects for the 2013 season, all the end-of-year parties I would miss, and then the frantic thought that there would be no major walking and certainly no running or biking until the new year (the new year?! I nearly shouted across the office of bunioned and heel-spurred elderly ladies who seemed to be welcoming me to their club.)

Well, you could put pressure on it and bruise it further, the Doctor said, or you could heal.

I reflect on that now, today. How natural it is to want to run forward, race through pain.  But how important it is to give ourselves the time and permission to heal.

***

On another healing note, I discovered this social media campaign #20Acts (later increased to #26Acts) started by my girl Ann Curry.  It started with this simple tweet from Ann (I like to think we're on a first name basis):

Imagine if all of us committed to 20 mitvahs/acts of kindness to honor each child lost in Newtown. I'm in. If you are RT 

It's as simple as that. And so 26 Acts of Kindness began.  Check it out.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Finding Words

Yesterday, I listened only to radio news because I couldn't bear to look.  I searched for words of comfort, in lyrics and song.  I scrolled through Facebook statuses and read all that people had to say and discovered I had nothing to say. I felt compelled to prepare my own statement.  My own ahem.   It seemed that everyone had one. And I'm a writer.  But silence. Stillness. That felt more appropriate to me.

On September 12, 2001, I sat at a long wood table in Goldwyn Smith Hall.  We were a group of sixteen creative writing students that later dwindled to ten.  Our first assignments were due.  My professor, Dan McCall, collected our words, piled them up in a neat, organized stack of typed pages.  He sat back, at the head of our table, and asked us who had written of the tragedy the day before.  No one raised a hand.

I remember, of all things about him, his voice.  It was ragged and unkempt, this thick, almost bearded-like garble and he spoke slowly, like guiding a cane forward.  He said that when he began teaching forty years ago every student in his class would have turned in a piece about the day that would come to be known as 9/11.  He said they would have stayed up all night, ripped it from the pages of their notebooks, still warm from the pen.  He said the stack before him would have been made of yellow legal pad paper and stained napkins, that the room we sat in would be a rupturing volcano, it is with that kind of urgency his students in the 60's would write.  Look at what happened yesterday, he said. And none of you have written a word.

On this kind of yesterday, I listened, as many did, to the President's speech.  Maybe it is telling, of our culture, of these times, that what struck us most was not the words he spoke but his long pause as he struggled to speak (5 seconds, the papers noted and reported.)   In that silence, we realized the weight of what had happened.

I woke this morning, with a stirring, to come to this space, to assign words to all I feel.  But in tragedies like these words still fail me.  I worry that, in truth, I have failed them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Upside Down

Late last night on a G train, I looked up from my book and found this.


He looks how I feel.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

When I Read A Book


While reading I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, I came across this sentence and I loved it, so I wanted to share it here:

When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it -- or rather, it is like living it. 

I love this idea that reading is just as active as writing.  As living.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Fixing A Heart

I often feel helpless in medical situations.  With my father's health issues last week, there came the unexpected frustration that I have never been smart enough to understand the sciences.  

A cardiac surgeon with kind eyes and soft hands would leave the room and I'd say,  I should have been a surgeon.  

A nurse might explain the unreliability of EKGs and I'd lament that I should have been a nurse. 

After asking five hundred questions about the role of a cosmetologist in the hospital, I was about to speak up before my father chimed in and said, Let me guess, you want to be a cosmetologist in a hospital?   I nodded.

I think, no matter what field we study or what path we walk, we'd all like to be the kind of someone who can  fix a person's heart.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Rethinking Urgent

After an emotional and scary week (my father had emergency surgery but all went well and he is in recovery) I came into the office to catch up.  Perhaps my head was elsewhere, still with my Dad in his hospital room where I will return soon, but I was focused enough to laugh loudly in the face of a red-bolded, exclamation-marked email labelled URGENT in the subject line.

I scrolled through the frenzy, then went through my files and sent the necessary information.  This urgently needed information.  After, I watched the silence and the long breath, a mad email chain officially over with no response, no thank you, just the taking and the running until the next inevitable whirling dervish spin.

This is something that's been on my mind for a while, but even more so after this week's life events: I've decided to rethink urgent.  The way I request urgency in others and how I respond to those who ask it of me.  

I think I need a new priority of urgent.  Attending a birthday party. That sounds pretty urgent. Seeing the baby. (As in: You gotta see the baby! Seinfeld, anyone?)  Catching the sunset before it drops from the sky.  A girl's weekend. Dinner, or a walk, or a phone-call with family and friends. 

So, rethinking urgent. Who's with me?

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Familiar Journey


The morning was damp, hazy. I rode my bicycle to work for the first time in weeks, took the familiar journey.  It went (it goes) like this:

My bike plunks off the curb.  I adjust to the concrete, to the wobble of my handlebars. I ride the wrong way, for just a brief moment, in that I know the way but traffic along this one small street runs opposite, so I tuck myself at the edge, aware that I'm where I shouldn't be.

The stoplight is never long but I watch the corner market.  I remember when it burned, the notes that were left on the windows, we miss you.  Now it's bright and open and I know the owner's smile because it sits beneath an unshaven gray shadow and it's kinder than most.

Clinton Street is wet and crowded but the crossing guard, our favorite, stands at the park, the one where we sat with Tyler's cousins and a little girl, lost in play, wandered towards us because she thought she was ours until she realized she wasn't and toddled away.  The crossing guard is little but sturdy and her glasses are fogged or maybe they're smudged and she doesn't mind it.  She shouts things we've come to expect, Come on bikers!  Hey baby doll!  Watch out for these maniacs!  She points at cars and shakes her head.  In the summer we miss her, and those weeks, this fall, when the road was closed, we wondered where she went.  Because her voice is my morning.  Her voice is the moment you think you are sitting alone and someone sits beside you.

I take the road up and around towards the Manhattan bridge.  I know the ground beneath me, the way it curls first, then slopes just enough for my tires to slow.  Soon, I mark the East river, it's middle.  This is where the road flattens, then slips away from itself, a downhill sled. This is where the air changes. The faint smell of fish.  Cooking oil climbs like a chimney swell from unknown stoves.  No one glances from the rushing carts and they take chances, like a gazelle's very first leap, across the painted lines of street.

I always want to stop here, on the path, where the old women in their winter bundle coats stand in Tai Chi formation across the damp grass.  I always think I will stop, someday, to take their photograph, to capture something I've otherwise been unable to keep.  Sometimes they are still and I think I'm caught in the hush of their whisper.

Sometimes they are dancing.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Power of Story

Last week, I saw The Twenty-Seventh Man, a play by Nathan Englander.  I wanted to briefly mention it here because the ideas are big and they are relevant to those of us trying to create something with words.

The gist of the play here, (a true story) : In 1952 Stalin imprisoned and executed 26 Yiddish writers, an incident also known as the Night Of the Murdered Poets. Englander invents a 27th prisoner, a young, unpublished writer mistakenly taken into custody.

The play is about many things but, at the heart of it, it's about extinguishing the soul of a group of people, which, Englander suggests (and I would agree), is its stories.

I think, most of the time, we see this as a part of a time gone by or a foreign country tucked safely in the folds of newspapers.  But it happens here, too, through censorship, banned books, white-washed covers.

This play reminded me that it's important to tell any story and, if we can, to speak for groups of people who have been silenced.  Story is powerful. Don't let anyone tell you it's not. People will go to great lengths to capture and contain the spin of words, then eliminate them all together.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

YA: What's Next, Thoughts on Publishing Conferences

Yesterday, in classic last-minute-Melissa fashion, I was really lucky to attend the YA: What's Next -- Children's Publishing Conference hosted by Publishing Perspectives.

I felt so incredibly happy and proud to hear my friend Beth Kephart who delivered the keynote. Her beautiful words started the conversation and placed us all in this remarkable mind-space, capturing the beauty, the immediacy and the urgency of young adult literature, how it transcends any label. You can read the start of it: here. (UPDATE: Read the speech in it's entirety here !!!)

When I attend publishing conferences, I love to learn from the people who call this industry their home.  Sometimes, I don't love what I learn.  Sometimes, it sounds like a lot of very loud noise with unwavering definitions and slaps of labels.  Sometimes I see boxes and lines being drawn and I see a real danger in that way of thinking.

What, for example, would have happened if someone had followed the rules and drawn lines for a book like The Book Thief, one of my favorite books of all time?  What would have happened if someone said, this isn't narrated by the voice of a 14-17 year old protagonist, and it doesn't belong on any shelf, and it doesn't fit in the six letter alphabet we've created for ourselves: YA, A, MG, PB?  What story would the world have lost because a set of words didn't exactly fit into a planogram?

Sometimes, if I'm being honest (and I am), I start to see the publishing industry as a fortress, a military stronghold that nurtures certain big blockbuster books and doesn't let anyone else in.

But, then, I remember that The Book Thief is a book.  And Beth Kephart's books are books.  And all of the incredible and important books that aren't conventional or aren't blockbusters, books that challenge labels and yet are labelled in some way, some form, because someone allows them to fit somewhere, thus changing the very label they own (which, if you think about it, is amazing), are...

...tada...

BOOKS.

And then I feel really great about the publishing industry.

Have you been to a publishing conference?  Do you go through a similar (or different) wave of emotion?  Or am I just weird? (Don't answer this last question.  Okay, fine. Answer it)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Amazing Discovery: Steinway Hall

Today (which, as I write this post, turns into yesterday) I discovered what I now think is one of the most beautiful places in New York City: Steinway Hall, the flagship store of the legendary Steinway & Sons.  

I walked the showrooms in awe. Sheet music lined the overstuffed shelves. Music escaped from the practice rooms. The place is all marble and gold, grand and impossible.  So much black and white gleam, your own image reflects in the propped-up lid and a set of four hands runs across the keys. 

It reminded me how beautiful and regal the instrument can be. The kind of epic stories it can tell.  I will walk this place when I want to feel joy. 

I miss playing the piano.





Also...I apologize if this blog is turning into a strange photography romp through New York City.   I'm going through a bit of a rough patch in this space and I hope to find some kind of focus soon.  Until then.  Well.  I don't know.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving


Sending love to you all this Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 19, 2012

This Is: New York Alive



This. As a follow-up to last week's photo. Because we're still counting the years. We're still trying to decode the mystery.



Them. Because they are tangled, windblown, like I used to be. Because they're together but each one looks towards another something else.



Her. Because the words can't wait.


This. Because maybe gold will stay longer than we thought it would.

For the story of New York Alive go here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thoughts On The Great Unexpected By Sharon Creech

Obviously, I like to read many different books but it's rare I find the kind of book I like to read.  The Great Unexpected, for me, is that kind.

I like books that have a sort of 'grounded magic' (I just made this up.)  And when I say that, I mean that I like books that feel magical, through the music of their prose or the way they dance through an experience.  These books don't have to take us to foreign magical lands because the author or the characters see this life, this world, as a place of wonder.  A place that is magical enough.

In this book, a boy falls from a tree and a reality is shaken at the same time that the event bridges a connection.  A girl 'goes to the moon' and it's not a physical journey but, instead, a new perspective, a way of looking down and asking what 'truth' is, what 'real' means.

I like the humor in this book as much as its seriousness. I like the voice, the way it questions and yearns.  But I really like the wonder in it.  The magic.

I can't share thoughts about Sharon Creech's work without sharing the beauty of her words and the complexity of her ideas.  So just one moment (of many) here:

I told Nula the story of the knight and his glimmering armor and the golden woods.  She said, "Naomi, you know that is a story, don't you?"

"But what is 'a story'?  It's in here now" -- I tapped my head -- "with all the other stuff, so maybe everything is a story."

It is hard to tell, sometimes, where a story ends and a life begins and where memory fits in between. I like the idea that they might all share a space together without distinctions.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Writing When the Sun Comes Up

Since I can remember, I have written late at night, after all else is completed and the day is done. In recent years, this has meant that the clock will tick towards 10pm and I'll finally sit down on my little couch, fling my knees over the arm of it, and begin.  It also means I'll go to bed very late with a fever of words and I will not fall asleep until something inside me simmers and slows.

In the aftermath of the Sandy storm, I was given a rare week off from work.  I researched, wrote and cooked most of each day.  I read before bed, then fell asleep quickly.  For the first time in years, my sleep was heavy.  I woke up rested. I remembered my dreams.

My restful sleep may have had something to do with the fact that I did not have to go in to the office. But writing during the day also meant that my mind was far more peaceful at night.

As a result, I've decided to make a significant shift; to reverse my writing life. To write in the morning after I rise with the sun (well, in these days, before it.)

It's only been a few days since I began the experiment.  I'm not sure it will be an easy transition.  I have always written very late at night. Since I was a little girl. My parents would go to sleep and I would turn my light back on. Writing has always been a secret in the dark. Just for me.

But since I began, I realize the ritual is symbolic. Writing is the first thing I do.  Not the last.  I wake up happy, knowing I have given myself the time to be with my secret, to do what I love.

We'll see how this goes.  I don't know how I'll feel at the end of the week, how my body will react to new hours of sleep, how I'll fare for the hours I need to be at the office and the freelance work that awaits me when I get home.  But we'll see.

What time of day do you write?  Have you ever made a significant adjustment to your writing schedule?

Monday, November 12, 2012

New York Alive

Last week I mentioned in an email to a friend that New York looked (among other adjectives) 'alive'.  She asked what New York alive looked like. Which is one of the best questions I've ever been asked.  The answer came to me in a film strip of images.  

I thought it would be fun to look for and capture New York alive which can be interpreted in many ways. I thought it might help me be a better see-er which will make me a better writer. I thought it might be fun to place my findings here whenever I feel like it.

So that's my upfront.  This is what I'm finding.

What does your home, your city, your town look like alive?


 These. Because the shoes are birds.


This. Because there's wonder in a fallen tree. We run our fingers across the rings. We measure growth. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My Scattered Brain

Ugh. How many blog posts have I stopped and started today?  So many different topics. What I mean to say, what I can't seem to say, in all my stops and starts because I am so concerned about making sense (and really, what the sense in sense?) is all this.  A series of mini blog posts from my scattered brain:

You guys.  The blog. I feel so lost with it these days.

After an exhaustive search, I found a perfect pair of purple pants.  I need your help.  What shoes (color, style, etc.) does one wear with purple pants?  Note: flats season is over in these parts.

Time. TIME.  Do you crave it as much as I do?

Today, my friend/birthday sister/coworker said: Jobs are great to have.  But why does it have to suck so much when you have one?   I don't know if I'm overly emotional these days or what but I nearly started crying, thinking how unhappy a job can make people, how unhappy my job has, often, made me. 

 It wasn't my own unhappiness that upset me so much (I have come to terms with my work. I have made some important decisions in the past few months.) it was this idea that the unsatisfied feelings are so widespread.  How many people feel trapped in their jobs, in their lives, in their circumstances?  How many? 
 
I saw a quote I can no longer  find about the enchantment of snow.  How it snows and you wake up and your world is new. How so few things in life provide that kind of magic. As it snows in the northeast at this inopportune time, I am trying to remember this.  The joy of waking up to a new world. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

We'll Just Plant the Seeds

Red Hook Community Farm earlier this summer
Our local farm (yes, we have a farm in Brooklyn) is in Red Hook, whose border is just one block away from our apartment and one of the hardest hit neighborhoods after the storm.  The farm is non-profit.  It is an affordable resource for an underprivileged community and it also serves as an educational site for many youth programs.  Unfortunately, the land was badly damaged in the storm.

After making donations, then delivering food and supplies to the housing projects and local businesses in Red Hook, Tyler and I decided to work on the farm for a day. They needed to remove all the remaining crop which had been sitting under several feet of toxic water after the storm.  

Boy did it hurt my foodie heart to dig out thousands of peppers, pumpkins, eggplant, swiss chard, kale...the list goes on...  

Boy did it hurt my human heart to know that people were digging out their homes and lives in much the same way.

As I sat snipping eggplant leaves for composting, I talked with one teenager who had been working on the farm all year.

Does it bother you that everything's ruined after all your hard work? I asked. 

She shrugged.  I'm sad.  But we'll just plant the seeds again.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Stillness

The week has been strange in the aftermath of the storm.  While my office remains dark, I've spent the days writing and, for too few hours, I offered help where I could. I usually see time as a gift but, this week, I am clumsy and uncertain with it.  As soon as I open my curious eyes to every image, I want to close them. One moment I'm desperate to step outside then I do and I want to go home. Like fishing lure. Cast out. Reeled in.

I keep returning to this idea of remaining quiet. Still.

In the stretches of silence, I have been given endless room to reflect on my work.  To come to realizations about characters and plot.  To finally understand how a story must end (no matter how much it will hurt my heart to write the words, to take my characters there.) Decisions that once seemed drastic suddenly seem just right. So I feel a strange sense of peace where I have otherwise felt all tangled up.

I don't know what I mean to say.  I don't know where the connections are.  I guess I'm just grateful for all I've been given this week while so much has been swept away.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Strangely Quiet

All is quiet and strange here in South Brooklyn after the storm.  I woke today to find our street untouched but for a few broken tree limbs.  Then I walked our neighborhood to find enormous trees overturned, Red Hook boarded and broken, trapped under water, and the toxic Gowanus canal overflowing.

Today I feel very fortunate.  We live on the waterfront, tucked in between the New York harbor and that canal.  It is a wonder that the ground slopes just right, to leave us elevated enough to reside in "Zone B", to escape what so much of this city has not.

Our offices are uncharacteristically silent and unreachable. Water has filled the subway tunnels. So the underground veins of New York City, it's lifeline, are empty.  There is no coming or going.  There is no timeframe for repair because there is no precedent.

My window looks out towards the harbor. In the distance I can see downtown Manhattan. Tonight, it is  completely dark.  

I am thinking of those who have lost so much.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dreaming Still

So maybe, these weeks, I've been dreaming. Desperate to avoid news coverage, all the election shouting and slinging and an unimaginable tragedy on the Upper West Side.  

And it's possible I've been walking through my days with a singular focus, a steady determination to finish each task and move on to the next one without looking around me at all.  

And maybe it's been a bit like holding my ears, shaking my head, and la-la-la-ing, as I've needed to retreat, retreat, and ignore.

Now a Sandy storm is raging, wake up, Melissa, wake up. 

But before I do. Look. This statue in the Boston Commons.  And the famous Little Miss M fluttering through her living room. And, in a way, me.  Lighter and free-er and less worried and more like someone I used to be.



Friday, October 26, 2012

In Love with 'Humans of New York'

I'll never know how this site escaped me for so long but Humans of New York is my latest obsession.

This site, for me, IS New York City.  Photographer Brandon Stanton sees my city exactly as I see it. Heart-swelling. Pulsing. Complex. Alive.

There are a million places to go in New York and, yet, when people visit, I never know where to take them.    Maybe that's because the heart of New York is, above all else, its people. Brandon figured that out.

I am IN LOVE with this video. Such a romantic, perfect tribute to the city I love.  I hope you'll click on it (it won't let me share it here.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Guest Post: Let Setting Emerge From Character

The lovely and talented Laurel Garver is taking over the blog today!   She's going to talk about one of my favorite topics, setting, and how she worked with it in her novel Never Gone.  

Setting is a key element of my novel, Never Gone, about a teen who is grieving the death of her British father, and must somehow build a life with her workaholic American mother. Danielle’s trip from the US to England becomes a catalyst for her to get to the bottom of family secrets. Setting also undergirds the story flow, as one of my reviewers on Amazon picked up: "From the sky-scrapers of New York, to the hills of England, Garver brings you on a lyrical journey that rolls with highs and lows, full of valleys of tenderness."

Thanks, Melissa, for the opportunity to talk about how I chose some of my settings and used a mix of research and imagination to bring them to the page.

The opening of Never Gone is set in New York City. Why not Philadelphia, since you live there?

My story decisions usually develop out of the characters, rather than the other way around. As I got to know my protagonist Dani’s parents, Graham and Grace, it became clear that no other place would work for them. Grace is a driven advertising executive who would never settle for working outside Madison Avenue. Making a living as a professional photographer—which is Graham’s career—requires proximity to the most potential purchasers of this kind of service, like ad agencies.
Honestly, though, New York City is only two hours away, and we have friends there who’ve been a great help answering my questions about family life in the city. I did five trips (combined with family fun) to chose Dani’s neighborhoods and gather sensory details.

How much are your New York locations real, and how much a fabrication?

Dani’s homes in Park Slope Brooklyn and the Upper West Side are based on real buildings. I was able to find real estate listings for her UWS high rise, including floor plans, which I adapted slightly.
Dani’s school Rexford Academy is a fabrication based roughly on a private school on 91st, though I place it in the West 70s. Her church is riff on All Angels in the Upper West Side, mixed with several Anglican/Episcopal churches I’ve visited in the US and Britain.

I think it’s important to make your fabrications realistic by drawing details from real places.

A majority Never Gone takes place in a rural English village, Ashmede. How did you choose the location? How real are your British settings?

I wanted the time that Dani spent in her late father’s hometown to challenge her strong identification with him. The setting had to be a big contrast from her very American, very urban home, so her dad is not only foreign, but rural.

I’d originally planned to set the story in the Cotswolds in the southwest near Wales, where I lived for a semester in college. But while I was researching and drafting, friends invited us to visit them in Durham, which is up north. When I discovered that folks from northern Britain face deep prejudice in the south, it made Graham’s back story even more compelling. He’d have a hard time breaking into photography in London because of his accent, and would more easily find work in the US. Americans don’t understand or really even hear regional differences among British dialects.

So that visit turned into a major research trip. I invented Ashmede (a popular name for streets, but no village bears it) from places I visited then, and a North Yorkshire village I stayed in during spring break as a student. Durham Cathedral, a real location I fell in love with on my research trip, is the backdrop for several chapters. I also set a chapter at Kings Cross Station, where all the northbound trains leave London. It worked nicely on a couple of levels, including Dani’s love of Harry Potter.

What advice would you give other writers about setting?

Remember that where you come from shapes who you are. Start with your character and do your best to follow logically where such a person would come from and where he or she would naturally chose to go from there.

Second, there is no substitute for real, on-the-ground research. Even if you choose to invent a town like I did, you need authentic details from that geographic area. What is the weather like? What unique topographical features (mountains, forests, deserts, etc.) affect daily life? What is local cuisine and how does it taste? How does the area typically smell and sound? Is the culture informal and inviting or uptight and suspicious? What do the locals do for fun? What slang expressions are typical? You can’t get any of that information from Google street view.
===
Laurel Garver is the author of the Never Gone, a young adult novel about a grieving teen who believes her dead father has returned as a ghost to help her reconcile with her estranged mother.

Add it on Goodreads. It is available at Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, CreateSpace.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

(Not Nearly) Wordless Wednesday: Something Inside Me Stirs Enough



I saw this little girl the other day and when I took this photograph it felt like stealing. I don't know. Look at her. She's stars and hearts and purple and sparkle.  All the things you can not possibly take.

It reminded me of something I wrote a while ago. A manuscript that lost its way.  The moment you fall in love with something you can not keep.

I wake up in the window, tucked in the corner of the sill, like a house plant you forget to water. The glass has become a pillow, the only place I can actually rest my head and sleep.  My cat curls up on the old blue shed across the way, in someone else's yard, under a canopy of bare trees and electrical wires.  I call him mine but, of course, he isn't.  He belongs to a stranger.  I haven't known him until now, until I stopped attending school, stopped spending afternoons in practice rooms and evenings with Graca as I played and she paced.

But now I see that he is there each day unless it rains.  He is fat, which means he's well-fed by this stranger, and he bunches himself up on the same spot of sun for hours. He has claimed it and I have claimed him.  Something inside me stirs enough to feel as though I've fallen in love. 

I place my hand against the glass, try to feel the winter cold in my palm.  I wonder if he is as numb to the cold as my hand is, how he endures such long hours in frigid temperatures, if the swelling sun is enough to keep him warm. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obligations

I enjoy reading and owning physical cookbooks.  I can spend hours in a bookstore running my fingers across glossy photographs of food, thumbing through pages of measurements and ingredients.  I also enjoy the small stories that come with them. Sometimes I crave the story more than the food.

Ina Garten, whose recipes have never failed me, wrote at the beginning of Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That? about dinner parties:

Your friends have come to see you -- not to critique your cooking skills.  I'm asked all the time, "How many hors d'oeuvres do I need to make before dinner?"  

"None," is my answer.

I think of this often.  Not only when it comes to cooking but when it comes to life.  Sometimes I ask too much of myself. I invent obligations. In sorting through what matters, sometimes I fail to see what doesn't.



Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lucky

I wanted to share some photos from my birthday.  At the very last minute, we escaped for a few hours to the legendary town of Sleepy Hollow because I wanted to see the foliage.  Then Tyler surprised me with dinner and jazz at Smoke.  

I walked a blue-sky day with someone I love. I closed my eyes and was moved by the sound of music. I continue to feel lucky. 
  







Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sunshine Fish and Birthday Celebration

Today I am joining quite the celebration in this land o' blogs.  The famous Lenny Lee turns thirteen!  Lenny is a writer, reader, animal-lover, and hugger supreme.  He writes some of the most thoughtful and informative blog posts.  He wrote an amazing picture book with Sharon Mayhew and I felt privileged to be able to read it.  He sends me the most beautiful notes in the mail.  And though I've never met him, I always imagine him smiling, and every note, every word and story from Lenny, makes me smile too.

Along with all the love Lenny shares with me, I am beyond lucky because he and I also share a birthday.  So it makes this day even more special for me.

So, happy, happy, birthday to my birthday twin. Despite the, uh, age difference, we can still be twins right? (Humor me, Lenny, humor me.) 

In honor of the fact that we also share a love of swimming any time, any place, anywhere, (as Lenny says, he is part fish) I give you this Lenny Lee Sunshine Fish, swimming all over the world! 

Happy Birthday Lenny!

 Photo Credit: Sharon Mayhew









Friday, October 19, 2012

Mix Tape

I'm reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I'm nostalgic for the days of the mix tape.

I found this post about the comeback of handwritten notes from verysincerely and it so happens I received two hand-written notes today and, along with one, a photo of how it used to be.

Even though that used-to-be is somewhat later than the used-to-be of the mix tape, I smiled. I closed my eyes.  It became easier to imagine lying on the rug, listening to the radio, waiting for the song, that song, the only song.  I'd hit the tape deck, slap record and it would be mine.

From then on, I'd know all the chords, all the words except for those first few notes I couldn't capture in time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Noise

This morning I feel weary.  I did not watch the debate last night (these spectacles don't interest me) but it seems the noise found me anyway.  And I feel the way I do when there are sirens, when the subway screeches into the station.  I feel like a child, who has to stop wherever she is and hold her hands against her ears.

Growing up, I lived next door to a woman who has been the subject of many exasperating, now tucked-away stories and essays.  She did not leave her home and, as far as we could tell, she did not have any visitors. It has never been clear to us how she survived because a car sat dead in her driveway.  

Through rumor, I heard she had once been a scientist.  The mystery surrounding her became even more strange and fascinating when, one summer, we discovered that she had kept turtles marked with red dots on their shells because dozens escaped, or were let loose, from her yard. 

Through the years, it seemed the two of us were in a mysterious argument without words. While other kids in my group walked away with sweets, she silently refused to give me candy on Halloween.  In retaliation, I took pickles from a jar and, one by one, threw them at her window while she stared back at me from behind the screen. One morning I stood on a lawn chair to peer into her jungle of a backyard and she marched to the fence, sprayed me in the face with a hose.  The shock of it sent me falling to the patio and I ran away with bloody knees.

When she died, her house was emptied.  And by this, I mean, that multiple dumpsters the size of a U-haul were filled with nothing but books.  In all the stories I have tried to write about her, I have never been able to express the sheer magnitude of books that were relieved, gasping, from her home.  Just close your eyes.  Picture thousands, toppling over one another in massive heaps.

I think of her today because of this shut-my-eyes, hold-my-ears reaction.  It's hard for me to imagine shutting people out of my life the way she did.  But in the midst of all this noise, I can imagine wanting to be with stories and words and books, to sit huddled among them, instead of witnessing the tremble of the real world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Make Your Own Weather



I was given this advice today:

Make your own weather.

It struck me.  Our ability to choose the way we see a situation, to decide how we walk through a day. A choice to simply react to our worlds or be proactive. I'm trying to make this the blue I walk under.  I want to feel this sun. I want to experience the way the land opened up to give me this morning in Spain.




Thursday, October 11, 2012

Say Yes To Puppetry



Yesterday, I attended a Puppetry workshop with John Tartaglia (of Avenue Q fame.)

When I signed up through the Children's Media Association (CMA) I did not expect to be thrown into a situation where I had to stand alone before a group of twenty strangers, in front of a television monitor, with a mop of rags on my arm.

But there was no time to think. I had to come up with a voice (I took a cue from many of the cooking shows I watch: low and slow) and a character (I decided, in the 30 seconds I had, that his name was Mo) and just...go.

Many of you know I write at a snail's pace. I wait for words that never come. I sigh. I stare at blank pages. I dream.  This is not to say I don't finish things. I do.  But, while everything else in my working life is now, NOW, or yesterday, my writing life is much, much slower.

All this to say, when it comes to imagining words and character, I am not accustomed to improvisation, to winging it.  This was a stretch for me. I stumbled and sweat and worried.  And when my minutes of 'fame' were over, I couldn't even tell you what I said.

But there's something about not thinking or over-analyzing.  I had to remain unedited and both undone and done at the very same time. It was the most fun I've had in a long time.  I don't think I stopped smiling for the two hours I was there.

If ever in your life you are faced with the question: Should I take this puppetry class?  Say yes.  I know you're thinking you will never be faced with this question. But you never know. I was.  And I'm thrilled I answered correctly.




Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Really Writer

I've written of this before, how the word writer feels strange on the tongue. I am, I have discovered, after all these years, a children's writer, because I write for children every day.  My written work is not always visible, it is more often audible, through toys and games, inside ebooks and mobile apps.

For years, I have tacked on the role of producer to my title.  I am a writer and producer, I will say, at dinner parties and networking events.  It is what you see in the sidebar of this blog and in the lines of my business card.  Because producer is more marketable. It is easier explained.

At a doctor's visit a few weeks ago (just an annual checkup), my new doctor asked me what I did for a living.  Perhaps it was because I sat naked under a gown that wouldn't stay closed, perhaps it was because she held tight to a needle and would soon draw blood, but I did not, could not, hide. I'm a writer, I said. Not a producer in sight.

She asked me what I write and I rattled off the list of preschool brands, the toys and games, and all the etceteras. Again, perhaps it was because she'd just weighed me naked, then plunked me down on that  papery mat, but I went on to tell her something I rarely tell anyone. I told her I really write books.

I'm not sure what made me say this.  What I really do.  And what it even means to really do anything at all.

I knew what questions would come.  I knew I would have to explain myself out of that hole. I would have to share awkwardly rehearsed plot synopses. I would have to answer the genre questions and the labels, explain my way through the success of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.  Then I would have to say the words I hate saying, that, no, I am not published, and, no, you can not read my work anywhere. And my head spun thinking, Why, why, did I dig this deep? Why did I place myself here?

I wish I could say that our conversation did not go there.  I wish I could say it ended and I knew what it meant to really write, that calling myself a writer is the first step in a journey of self discovery and satisfaction.

But she asked me all of those questions.  I answered dutifully. She made me say ahh.  She listened to my heart beat.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Amid All the Noise

Lately I feel there's a lot of noise out there. I'm browsing through my twitter feed and it seems that everyone is up in arms about, well, everything.  I don't want to perpetuate the ugly sound by lamenting my frustration here but I just wondered...do you hear it too?

I'm trying to maintain an almost meditative focus these days -- on the words I'm writing and the words I'm reading. I'm reimagining my days. 

On Sunday night, I sat on the subway.  Having already finished a book, I was involved in a children's math game on my phone  (I was multiplying.  For real.) A young man stepped on the train to ask for money and food for his daughters, his grandmother, himself.  Unlike the many panhandlers I see and hear each day, he was well-spoken and well-dressed, his speech rehearsed but sincere.  A middle-aged woman, who sat across from me, said to him, When you're finished collecting money, come speak to me.

I'll admit.  I was curious.  I strained to listen while I multiplied but their conversation was intimate, thoughtful, the depth and concentration of it, almost mystical.  When I got off, they got off, and as I waited to transfer to my next train, they stood beneath the stairs in the heat of this conversation.

I wasn't meant to hear their words but I overheard snippets, the work of her rehabilitation, the daughters he loved, an education somehow lost and then found, for both of them.  And in the end, an exchange of information between them.  

In all of my years living in New York, of the thousands of people (it has to be thousands, after all these years) I see begging on the train and in the streets, I have never in my life witnessed anyone reach out in this way. To tell a story.  To listen to one.  I see something in you, I heard her say.

I wondered what the gift of this moment could mean. For both of them. For me.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Purple



It's time I admit I look for purple everywhere.  I found these dreaming leaves and a tempting mushroom in Cockaponset State Forest this weekend (the photos are untreated.) In stores, I scan clothing racks and my gaze snaps to shades of purple.  If I have to choose game pieces, accessories, or cell phone covers, purple is my default.

My college application essay was about 'being purple' and I recall my advisor reading the first paragraph out loud to me just before graduation, in my final week at Cornell, because he thought it would be amusing to look back. I promptly ripped the pages from his hands in embarrassment.  When I left the office, I tossed the essay in the garbage.  I'm a little disappointed I didn't keep it because I have forgotten its contents and now I don't know what it means to be purple.  I'd like to know.

Despite all this, I don't think of purple as being my color.  I actually think of it as being my grandmother's.  Maybe that's why I look for it wherever I go.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Banned Books Week and blocking the 'Exchange of Souls'

In honor of Banned Books Week, I point you to this essay by Haruki Murakami (translated to English by RocketNews24.)

This essay is a response to the controversy surrounding the Senkaku Islands and rising tension between Taiwan, China, and Japan.  It's about how we set boundaries and the way we draw lines and borders.  Murakami compares the anger swelling from territory disputes to getting drunk on cheap liquor. He warns us of the resulting hangover. 

While not the focus of the essay, it is worth noting that, in protest of Japan, some Chinese booksellers have removed books by Japanese authors (including Murakami) as well as books about Japan from their shelves.

Murakami's final words, his plea, are powerful.  I urge you to read the essay in it's entirety.

But we should not block the exchange of souls that is cultural communication. We should not destroy the paths that so many have given so much to establish. So from now on, however we may be wounded, we must seek to maintain this path and to continue to leave it open.

I love the idea that sharing books is an exchange of souls.  I don't like building walls.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Next Big Thing

The fabulously talented Janet Sumner Johnson tagged me in this blog game: The Next Big Thing.

What is the working title of your book?
Rabbit Island (Yes, I'm still working on Rabbit Island. No, I can't believe it either.)

Where did the idea come from for the book?
After learning about the historic Dreamland fire in Coney Island, I started to wonder what it means for a place called Dreamland to go up in flames.

What genre does your book fall under?
Oh the dreaded label. Contemporary YA.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Seeing how long it is taking to write the book, never mind get it published, never mind sell the film rights, I am hopeful that a young, amazingly talented friend I work with in children's media will be old enough, by that time, to play the lead role.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Rabbit Island's glittering amusement park, Dreamland, burns to the ground, sixteen year old Adelaine Cross searches for new life in her broken world.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Represented by an agency.  I am hopeful.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? May we see an intro?
The first, first draft took four months. The second first draft (yes, you're reading this right) is taking about the same.  Revisions are endless...

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I don't like to compare books to one another.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Wandering through Coney Island in winter.  The ocean. Judy Garland.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
There are underground canals, swan boats, kissing in concrete meadows, old theaters, midnight swims, a Bridge of Laughs, music (Nirvana meets Gershwin), and Luna Lovelorn, who you do not know, but who you will want to know.  

I am tagging some of the next big things:
Sharon Mayhew
Angela Cothran
Amy Mackechnie
Meredith @ Fairy Tales and Cappuccino
Jennifer Pickrell

Rules of The Next Big Thing:

*Use this format for your post
*Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
*Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? May we see an intro?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged. Be sure to line up your five people in advance.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hold Fast




It's more my mantra to let go, to ease away.  But there are reminders for me here. Just sidewalks apart from one another.  This grasshopper and the murals of concrete Brooklyn.

Hold fast.

I've never seen a grasshopper before, I told Tyler.

How is that possible? he asked.

The truth is...I don't know.  But I don't recall having ever seen one.  Not for real.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Thoughts on Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

I had mentioned the other day about my train ride, how absorbed I was in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson upon the recommendation of Beth Kephart. When I sat down to write about the book, I didn't know how to begin. The arc of Winterson's tale and, by virtue of the fact that it is memoir, the arc of Winterson's life, is, in a way, linear but, like any life, it meanders through back roads and tramples over thick brush.

It's an easy book to read (I flew through it) but not an easy book to take apart.  So, if I were to give you directions to this book's home, I would not be able to give you street names.  I would not be able to point you North, then West, because it's not as simple as that.

And that's what I loved about this book.  As Winterson reaches through memory to understand her 'real' mother, her adopted mother, her 'real' self, and the self she has assumed (in the way you might assume an identity) she doesn't take a straight and narrow path.  But it reads as if she has.  She might look for answers. But she doesn't claim to have them.  And all of this makes perfect sense while I'm making none.

What I mean to say is: read this book.    

My favorite moment:

A tough life needs a tough language -- and that is what poetry is.  That is what literature offers -- a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn't a hiding place.  It is a finding place.

I think, at the heart of it, this book is about navigating the story of our lives, as well as the stories we read or write, and seeing it all through.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Best Friends, The Best Books, and Libba Bray!


After a night spent with two of my favorite friends and beautiful Batman baby (see below) in Stamford, CT, I ended up having a terrible commute home. I narrowly missed two express trains, construction forced me to switch subway lines twice, and after all that, the F train decided not to stop at my stop so I was forced on to a shuttle bus. It took me an additional hour and a half to get home.

The reason I tell you all this is that I was frustrated but happily distracted.  I was completely absorbed in a book I have fallen in love with: Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal and all this delay allowed me to finish it in its entirety (more on this book soon.)

I woke up knowing I would see two other favorite friends who were in town from Boston for a quick breakfast. Not wanting to risk public transportation, I biked over the amazing Brooklyn bridge on a day that could only be called amazing too.  

In the afternoon, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, more friends, more books.  I met a writer I admire very much, the famously funny, insanely smart and talented Libba Bray.  Fangirl that I was, I stumbled over words and babbled endlessly about being called Michelle and the spelling of my name (and, really, you guys, there is absolutely nothing interesting about the spelling of my name) but Libba did not seem to mind.  She signed my copy of The Diviners. She told me someone once called her Library.  See, that's interesting.  

Sadly, I don't get to see my faraway friends from Stamford and Boston all that often. So I treasure time spent with them and time spent with books.  And Libba Bray!

How was your weekend?

Batman Baby
Brooklyn Bridge
Me, happy