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

Monday, September 17, 2012

Solace in Walt Whitman's River, My University's Bench

The other day I stood in front of what used to be the offices of the Brooklyn Eagle, a newspaper edited by Walt Whitman.  I saw this inscription and it reminded me of another one of my favorite inscriptions on a stone bench at my alma mater, Cornell University (so maybe I've mentioned this bench one or one hundred times before.)

The Brooklyn Eagle inscription:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.  Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt...Walt Whitman, crossing Brooklyn ferry

The bench inscription:

To those who shall sit here rejoicing; To those who shall sit here mourning; Sympathy and greeting; so have we done in our time. 1892

Not to sound all hippy dippy sighy but I find peace in these special spots, looking at these words.  There's great comfort in knowing that others have survived our hurt and experienced our joy.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

At the Edge

The first time I lived in New York City, over one summer during graduate school, I lived at the heart of it, in the 30's on Third Avenue.  I wanted to be in the center of things.  I craved crowds and anonymity. 

When I moved back years later, I was pushed out towards the river and lived on First Avenue.  This was completely dictated by real estate prices.  The farther you are from the subway in New York City, the less expensive the rent.  I stayed on the far East side of Manhattan for several years and, slowly, I began to set up a life on these quiet edges of Manhattan. I preferred less crowds, the East River running path, the quiet streets.

Now, I live on the other side of the river. In Brooklyn.  I live on the 'wrong' side of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in a neighborhood no one has ever heard of (the Columbia Waterfront District) so I have to claim a different neighborhood in conversation (Carroll Gardens).  I live far from the subway next to shipping containers and terminals and abandoned lots teeming with stray cats.

Today, Tyler and I rode our bicycles along the edge of our Brooklyn, to Greenpoint.  He watched the tugboats.  I became fascinated with these statues.  While there is so much to see in the center of New York, I always point visitors towards its edge. A river path, a pier, a park.  The ghosts of people sit here, looking as water laps against the rocks. It's strange, and empty and beautiful. And there is, in my opinion, just as much inspiration, if not more, at the edge of things.

What lies at the edge of your world?

Friday, September 14, 2012


I walk over these words each morning, across sixth avenue on my way to work.  A reminder to always see.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012


While writing about the past, (which I do sometimes, to understand my experiences) I have discovered that individual memory has a strange cadence.  It can be jagged.  Smooth as stone.  It can be a space between.  Arranging it, I am learning, is not so simple.  The order of things is never as linear as I imagine it to be.

I'm thinking of a book of non-fiction I read long ago, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami, which includes a series of testimonies from victims of the attack.  The telling of events in these stories were eerily similar to one another, always beginning with time (the time of the trains, the wait, the need to be somewhere when) and, then, a sweet, sweet smell.

Today, I see a similar pattern, an order to our collective memories.  The memory of today almost always begins with a shock of blue sky.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book Exchange

Yesterday, I walked the neighborhood, carried twenty or so books to sell to the used bookstore, also my go-to place for buying used paperbacks.  Most of the books on my shelves come from their shelves.  To my surprise, the store was half empty when I arrived.  Empty bookcases. Hollow bins. A sign that everything must go.  I immediately became frantic, What? You're closing?  The owner nodded.  The lease is up.  It's time.  But I saw, in the quiet way his shoulders shifted, this was not the full story.

I stood with a heavy bag of books slung on my arm. I had made the difficult decision to let go of them and I needed to unload. There is simply no room for them in my apartment.  Despite that, I looked at the half-store of books that must-go, this store I had spent countless hours in, browsing and buying,  and bought as many as I could.

I left the store with more books when I should have had less. I debated what to do.  My shoulder, at that point, hurt.  So I stood at the corner, looked up at a brownstone with its towering stoop and decided to leave the books I had meant to sell at the foot of it.  As I arranged them, an older couple stopped to look at the titles.  You can have any you want, I said and I left them all there (the books, the couple) with the hope they'd find a match.

As I walked home with my newly bought used books (confused yet?) I found this young girl.  She also carried a bag of books, just bought from Book Court, the indie bookstore in nearby Cobble Hill.

It seemed she couldn't wait to read what she had found. She read the opening pages while she walked.

Friday, September 7, 2012

In the Wings Of A Wild Roar

I am ashamed, some days, of how little I know. The Sunday New York Times comes in pieces throughout the weekend because there is just too much information for one day.  I devour the Book Review, the Style Section, and Metropolitan. It doesn't occur to me to even skim the real news, the Front Page.

I sit in this room, working, while I hear a wild surge from the television in the other room.  The stand-up/sit-down cheer and hoot of the conventions these past two weeks.  It doesn't occur to me to watch either convention until our President speaks and then, I think, it might be a better time to clip my nails.

So it will probably come as a surprise that my first job out of school, after a series of random domino-falling connections, was at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  I worked for four months on a production team.  I was as out-of-touch then as I am now.  I was focused on the tasks given to me.  We need 10,000 ponchos! a too-eager production manager shouted when the forecast for the first day of the convention called for rain.  And that became my fourteen hour day.  Buying out ponchos from every drugstore and big box chain in the greater Boston area.  (I found a few thousand. It would have to do.)

In between driving 12-passenger vans and walkie-talkie-ing and carrying heavy things, I shook Bill Clinton's hand. I listened, in fear of the secret service, as my friend asked Willie Nelson if he wanted to smoke a joint.  I listened to Barack Obama's famous speech. I met Maya Angelou.  Don't call her Maya, an assistant barked at me.  Her name is Dr. Angelou.  Then she thrust me forward and I stammered out a pleasure to meet you, before that same assistant told me my 30 seconds were up.

I remember these moments only because of the big names associated with them. But every single person I met from the moment I walked into the campaign office to the last day on the convention floor was pretty amazing: passionate and yearning and amped and shouting and full of limitless, unrelenting hope.

I had just graduated from school.  I didn't know what to do with my days only because what I wanted to do (write fiction) paid nothing.  But I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to do.  I stood in the wings of a wild roar.

Today, these pre-election months still don't interest me. I'll vote in November because people have fought for my right to do so. I'll stay ignorant and ashamed because I don't understand politics and parties and pundits and I don't know how to change the world.

But this year, I'll do the same as I did in 2004, I'll remember the people I met and let the (good) energy of these days become mine.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Stack To Read

Here's another stack of books beside the bed.

A friend loaned me Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. This morning I found myself on the subway, standing next to a woman reading the same book.  This is not surprising given its popularity but I did like that we were both reading it without the jacket cover (I put it back on for the picture).  When I first glanced over, our pages appeared identical, each labelled an AMY ELLIOT DUNNE diary entry.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that the entry on her page was dated July 5, 2008. Mine: April 21, 2009.  I loved that we were in this strange time stretch together but I was just a few months ahead.  What I know she will know. What she read I read once. 

I found Hiaasen's Hoot on the sidewalk.  Friends with overflowing shelves gave me the rest of the stack. We can't keep them. Take them.

I like that this stack came to me, the bindings all worn, because they didn't quite fit where they were. These are books I didn't seek out.  But sometimes a book finds you.  Sometimes the list of desired books is too enormous, the wait at the New York Public Library too long, and maybe I think I know what I want to read but don't really, so I did something a little crazy. I pushed this spontaneous stack ahead of everything else. I'll put my faith here.

Have you read any of these books?  What are you reading?

Monday, September 3, 2012


I spent three days here with people I love.  I like this spot because the view looks like a framed portrait but it's actually a real life seascape from the adirondack chair, from the wooden porch.  It's a hazy sunset, on the final day of August, before a blue moon (as in once-in-a).

It's the day before I rested in the grass, had a baby fall asleep in my arms, and walked the pebbled beach to the Osprey nest after midnight with friends, while the tide crawled in from two directions to create a perfect sandy point under the moon.

Lately, I've been thinking about how to frame a life, how to see what I want to see through the lens.  I want more time to write.  I want a garden that's only mine.  I want to travel to far-away places.  For so many months, I've felt trapped because the framework I've built doesn't fit what I want and I don't know how to build a new one. I've let things get away from me.  I don't know what I'm waiting for.

September, for me, has always been an empty notebook, a never-before-used pen.  September, I've decided, is for me to figure out how to have what I've always seen.