Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thoughts on Nest by Esther Ehlrich

I loved this book about a young girl who loves birds, who searches for them, spots them and spouts out their facts, a girl whose name speaks a bird's earliest sounds, Chirp.

Chirp dances through her life in Cape Cod. She watches, as if through binoculars, as those around her try to cope with a year of change. Her mother, a dancer who taught her to see the world, its lilaacs, its stars, and its graceful swan boats, has been diagnosed with MS. Her sister flits between childhood and adolescence. And her Dad, a 'head shrink', who is always asking questions no one wants to answer, can not pull his own wife from the grips of a chronic depression.

Chirp deals with it all as she knows how, searching through the beauty of nature, mimicking the graceful movements of a loon's dance, slowly coming into her own as she discovers that the world her mother has opened her eyes to see is beautiful, yes, but also prickly and unknowable.

I'll call my own personal summer, the summer of the loon. A bird I had never heard of until I learned about it while visiting Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where my husband spent his summers as a child. We searched for it on Rust Pond but I never saw it or heard its call. So, its presence in this book was even more beautiful to me, imagining its bob and sway through Chirp's eyes, how it lifts off from land and sea. I hope to see it some day.

I loved so many things about this book. Chirp's voice; authentic and pure. A sadness that is handled with subtlety and grace. It does not shy away from hard topics but it also lingers in the magic of walking through this life, eyes wide open to the world and the people we love. Its rhythm brought me back to my own childhood obsessions: swimming and trees and poems and fireflies and riding my bike in a perfect circle in the rain.

Some scenes I imagine as if they happened to me, so masterful in the details and how they convey the feeling of being alive. This one, in particular, made me catch my breath and nod. I was that girl, dancing with my friends in just this way:

When I start whirling in circles, Sally copies me. Our hair's whipping around and the room's spinning. We're bonking into the beanbag chairs. Watch out! We're shiny silver balls in a pinball machine! Sally takes the hem of her T-shirt and sticks it through the collar and yanks it down so it turns into a T-shirt bikini top. I turn my shirt into a bikini top, too, and now our bellies are out. Our bellies are out and we're wiggling them. We're wiggling our bellies and we're wiggling our hips and we're wet with sweat and when David Cassidy sings "I think I love you," we know he's singing to us. He's got to be singing to us because we're just so filled up with everything good and bright and shiny that how can he not be crazy in love with us?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Photographs and 'A Coney Island Of The Mind'

I go to Coney Island in as many seasons as I can, to capture the land of my imagination on camera. The people are as vibrant as the amusements.

This past trip made me think of a book of poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind.

Here's a small snippet from #21

At a certain age
her heart put about 
searching the lost shores

And heard the green birds singing
from the other side of silence

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Slow Books -- The Patient Reader and Writer

Since my son's birth, I've been thinking a lot about time. I think of it in broad, mountain-range ways. How the days are long but the months race ahead. How it doesn't ever fall backwards. How I will never know my son as a newborn again.

I think of it as a choice. How I choose to spend time a certain way, how I struggle in my imperfection, trying to be present in moments, without skipping quickly ahead. 

I think of it in minutes on a clock. The next feeding. The next nap. In my loneliness, the sound of the building's front door, the scuffle on the stairs, how the air passes through the minute my husband returns home from work.

As a writer, I also think of time within the stories I want to tell. I'm often chastised for reading and writing stories that move slower than others. So each time I sit down to write, I am conscious of getting to the proverbial there quicker, pulling narratives so tight in revisions, that I remove one line, and the novel unravels like the snag of a knitted scarf.

Trying to get published, I read so much of what agents and editors and readers want. There are contests and workshops. Hook me, they say. In the first line. In the first paragraph. The first page. The first chapter. 

Hook me, they say, right away. Or I will not read on. 

With time so much on my mind, in my writing and personal life, the idea of this immediacy, the hook has been dutifully brought to the forefront. To the point where I have just stopped myself in this blog post, scolded myself, told myself, look Melissa, just look, how long it took you to get here, to this, to the point, when they've already stopped reading, I'm sure. 

In my revisions, I'm often desperate. Slashing. Burning. Get there, get there. Faster.

Last week I read two books and had identical reading experiences. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Atonement by Ian McEwan. Two bestsellers. Two critically acclaimed books by beloved writers.

Two books I nearly abandoned because they were much too slow. 

And, remember, I am someone who loves slow books, who stays with them. For me to say this, it means they are lead-footed and unhurried to an extreme. And they were. They did not hook me in the first line. Heck, they did not hook me in the first 200 pages. No snap, crackle, car-chase pop. No shocking first lines. No run-away, breathless beginnings.

They were inherently British. Come along, they said, we're going to span a hundred terrible years. We'll take you on a tortured ride through the fog of the howling moors. Come watch the long, slow, painstaking ruin. (What? You know it's true. It's a bit like this blog post.)

Yes, I stuck with them because I felt I should. I stuck with them because the writing held up. But, with each book, I reached a moment, hundreds of pages in, the sharp, electric epiphany: I was hooked. I raced through the latter three quarters of each book, reached both ends, breathless, impressed. Changed. 

I realized the slow beginning was purposeful, beautiful even. With time, I had become entrenched in the psychology of the characters, their worlds, so absorbed in details, I could not escape and I no longer wanted to. I loved both of these books. I was so impressed with their ambitious, epic span. The narratives were carefully and thoughtfully spun. They had their own way of unravelling, remarkably, with time and purpose.

I wondered, were it not for the name of their trusted authors behind them, would these books have kept so many rapt in attention? I understand all books need a hook but with so much emphasis on the quick hook, are we, as readers and writers, missing long, evolving stories, that are deliberate in their slow exploration?

Should we be more patient? Once we've dutifully removed the unnecessary, instead of wondering why, a few sentences in, we are not yet wowed or wowing, should we allow ourselves to get to the wow when we get there? Or, in this hurried and Veruca Salted I want it now life, is there simply not enough time? 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The joy of friends and memory. New England. The sorrows of parting.

I just returned from a trip to New England, where I slept in a house set among the most gorgeous trees.

We were 'out of service'. No internet. No phone. We hiked and walked, kayaked and cooked. Together, with my parents, we celebrated the life of one of their best friends, my Uncle John, whose ashes flew away from the top of the great Mount Snow, and, at its slope, in his memory, I remembered my own childhood visits to Vermont.

My black diamond triumph. The smoky wooden smell of his cabin, sleeping with my feet tucked beneath its slanting roof. Candlepin bowling, a small and delicate sport, the way dollhouses are to a child, there's something small like me. The glittering hill where we used to sled, now overgrown with brush.

We visited friends and family across Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, each one planting a kiss on Little O's forehead. We sat on the dock of Rust Pond and stories I have grown to love became vivid scenes as I saw for myself where my husband spent weeks of summer as a child.

I met the children of two of my best friends, all born within months of my own son, a beautiful trio spread out across a blue blanket, in purple and flowers and stripes and polkadots, feet in hands, smiles ripe and ready, eyes wide to the world.

Every child Little O meets is labelled a friend. 

This is your friend Nora, Rosie, Meghan, Augie, Brooks, Addison. On and on. This list of new friends.

And so it was with a strange mix of joy and sadness, I drove away. What a beautiful thing, to ride a long yellow line from one person to the next, to be fortunate enough to have so many people to see and hug. What a terrible thing to physically separate from a string of names. A long, winding river reel of the people I love.