Backwards and Forwards

I haven’t written here in a while, and my writing has languished a bit without a regular writing group and because of life and because my book is out at contests and one publisher being reviewed, so I decided to commit to the A to Z blogging challenge this year.  My first post will be on April 1.  A lot will happen between then and now, and I’ve chosen this theme to talk about the past and the future, but the present may end up being the most pressing, in this time of Corona.

Also, I am moving this week from Easthampton to Holyoke, and there are boxes everywhere.  Life is rather crazy.


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Sabbatical, or, Heaven

I am on sabbatical.

These are words of luscious luxury, words every academic yearns to say.  My first sabbatical was in 2009, and ever since I have measured my life in seven-year increments.  It’s divine.

I don’t mind gloating.  Not about this.  I’ve chosen a profession that doesn’t pay particularly well, but has many perks—long vacations at Christmas and in the summer, flexible scheduling, free books.  And sabbaticals.

In my first sabbatical, I worked on a memoir about my mother, my aunt, and ultimately, me.  I have continued working on it on and off, and have a draft that finally feels done.  Or done-ish.  I just need to get a publisher to agree with me.  I’ll keep you posted.

My second sabbatical was in the fall of 2015, and my official project was to research and write about being a white professor of African American and post-colonial literature.  I did do that—I wrote two articles and a creative piece, and I interviewed other professors, as well as many people I grew up with in Shaker Heights, Ohio, about living in a community that made conscious efforts towards racial harmony.  But I also devoted a lot of time to the memoir from my first sabbatical.

Funnily enough, though my current sabbatical project is to develop a study-abroad course on African American Artists in France (poor me, I have to go to France), I am also newly committed to writing a new memoir focused on race, going deeper into the work I did on my last sabbatical.  I will begin a ten-month manuscript workshop on memoir in March, and will pull together writings I have done on this topic over several decades (ha! if I can find them), and of course produce new writing.

Last year, I was in a year-long manuscript group with the same wonderful organization (Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop) for a novel I had begun on a whim.  Wondering what it would be like for a Jane Austen era woman to shed her stays and revel in modern women’s undergarments, or no undergarments, who cares? I began a story about a time-traveling Jane Austen character.  Given my preoccupation with racial issues, the story led me to less whimsical territory, including a police shooting of a Black character in the story.  I began this novel before the killing of George Floyd, but well after Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Emmett Till, and so many others.  I kind got over my head in this story – I’ve never written a novel or even much fiction.  It seemed like a good idea to return to my wheelhouse, memoir, to confront these knotty issues of race and white privilege.  I’ve been churning out some new words.

So here I am, in Berkeley, California, visiting my boyfriend’s family, avoiding heavy snowfall in western Mass, and (not) missing the beginning of the semester.  I have begun my sabbatical project, writing lots of emails, checking out tours of Black Paris, and today I went to a local European language bookstore that is only open from 3 to 5 on Thursdays and bought four volumes of French fiction:  two by Colette, one Marguerite Duras, and a new publication by a writer named Laetitia Colombani called Le Cerf-volant (The Kite).  A blurb on the back declares the novel “Un hymne puissant à la sororité” (“a powerful hymn of sisterhood”), and it was recommended by the suitably rumpled proprietor.  The bookstore was a delight of overstacked bookshelves of mostly French, but some Spanish and a few Portuguese titles, both used and new.  Online sales probably keep the place going, but I’m glad I was there for that 2 hour in-person window today.

Soon I will begin a French course online, to prepare for my trip to France in April or May.

Sabbatical is a wonderful thing.  Berkeley, California is sunny and warm.  I am a lucky woman.

San Francisco seen from the Berkeley hills.

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Fitting Writing In

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we saw 18 performances in 8 days.  There was no room for writing.  Lots of inspiration though.

Hunger, a play by Brit Chris Bush, was superb.  A black woman and a white woman who work together and become lovers took on race, class, relationships, and food in a series of scenes that alternated between past and present.  The playwright is white, and it gave me a lot to think about in the novel I am writing that takes on race and white privilege.  The two actors were amazing, with quick changes from scenes of intense emotion to light humor and back.  The best show we saw.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart was performed in a long, high-ceilinged room that appeared to be a law library at the University of Edinburgh.  The actors moved among the audience, jumping up on our tables, and involving us as makers of snow.  We tore up napkins before the show, and threw the scraps into the air on cue.  The main character is a professor who studied Scottish folklore and songs, and the parody of academia was on point.  There was a scene in hell that went on a bit long, but perhaps that was the point.  Bob and I gave it second place overall, and first place for direction – very imaginative.

I won’t catalogue all 18 performances.  I got a kick out of seeing the Tattoo, kind of a Scottish Super Bowl halftime show, and I recognized the Scottish dancing from P.E. classes at Shaker Heights High.

I saw the daughter of a college friend play Miss Darcy in a gender-swapped Austen take-off called Prejudice and Pride, set in Tennessee, with a fabulous evangelist character in a hot pink suit standing in for the priggish Mr. Collins.  We saw amazing circus acrobatics close up, a show called Famous Puppet Deaths (predictable endings), and some wonderful Finnish clowns (not in whiteface) being hotel receptionists.

Being in a city that gives itself over to the arts for a month was lovely.  (There was also a book festival and an art festival.  I even saw a sign for a festival on infectious disease!?!)  We walked everywhere, and enjoyed the cool weather, though it was unusually sunny the first few days.

Back home, I worked for a few hours on the revisions to my memoir, then took Callie for a walk.  She got a very bad cut on her foot, and I called the Emergency Vet (it was Sunday) and got some advice, then took her to the regular vet on Monday.  She got a stick up her leg, a very deep cut.  Ow.  She can’t run for two weeks, which is hard for her.

So the writing gets interrupted.  I’m back to work in 8 days, so I hope to get a bit more done before things start up again on September 1.

Callie and the cone of shame
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Writing in Scotland

I’m in Glasgow, Scotland, in a trendy hotel called CitizenM.  Our room is tiny—only as wide as a king bed, with an enclosed shower/toilet combo next to the door, a tiny sink just outside.  But the common areas are chic and interestingly curated.  Lots of charming jokey signs that are somehow not annoyingly hipster.  Bob and I are hanging out in one of the common areas on our laptops.

We are both working on writing projects, and this long-planned vacation is interfering a bit.  Ha!  I’m grateful for such a problem, and here we are, writing.  I had a “beta read”* of my memoir that was extremely helpful, and I’ve been honing my manuscript in response to the reader’s comments.  She really saw what I was doing and zeroed in on places where the writing is effective, and where it could use some development or paring.  Such a thrill.

Part of my current revision involves looking back at some of the research material I’ve gathered about my mother.  Seven years ago, I visited the archives at Bryn Mawr College, where she got her B.S., and found a treasure trove of material that I am looking over again.  For a Bryn Mawr audience, she wrote in more detail about her work life (she would call it a “career”, in quotes; she always undervalued herself).  I have emailed the alumnae office to ask what they use their alumnae surveys for—my mother responded to them in great detail.  She also had a rich correspondence with someone in that office, and I’m not sure why.  I think perhaps it was for an article in the alumni magazine.  I am in awe once again at the rich and varied life of my multi-talented mother.

And I found a note from an alumnae magazine about a trip she took with her parents (her mother also a Bryn Mawr alum) and my father in 1950 when they were living in England.  They took a tour of Scotland, including Loch Lomond, where I visited today!  I am roughly 5/16 Scottish (my paternal grandmother pure Scots, her husband a half or a quarter), and I see many large blue eyes like my own, as well as lots of doughy white people.  Well.

Loch Lomond

Glasgow is a cool multicultural city, with unusually sunny warm weather, much more pleasant than the record highs Bob and I left behind in the Northeast U.S.  The architecture near our downtown hotel is a mix of ugly new and Georgian.  Our tour guide/driver today wore a kilt that alternated military camouflage and the Buchanan tartan, which was my grandmother’s tartan!  After Loch Lomond, we went to Stirling Castle, which was lovely.  Again, an unusually sunny day with terrific views.  I especially liked all the green spaces inside the castle grounds.  It was a real fortress and used as a military base until 1964—recent!

Tomorrow we go to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival.

*See definition in previous entry “What Counts As Writing.”

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What Counts as Writing

Tinkering with already-written stuff

Making notes

Crossing out/deleting notes

Trying to remember what notes mean

Rereading a critique

Thinking about a character and feeling stuck

Napping while thinking about said character

Journaling about writing

Blogging about writing

Tomorrow Bob and I are leaving our self-created writing retreat in the Northeast Kingdom.  That’s right, we’re in Northeastern Vermont, which claims this moniker.  It is quite lovely.  Somebody actually asked us today if this was our first trip to the Northeast Kingdom.  Unironically.

I did all of the above activities today, and also went running by Lake Memphremagog with Bob and Callie.  While they napped, I took a kayak out.  I appreciated solo kayaking—yesterday with Callie sharing the kayak it wasn’t so smooth.  I mostly drifted, looking at the different views from the middle of the lake.  Then I took a swim and a hot shower.  Bob was aware of none of this, sleeping in the hammock.  Callie knew and whined a little.  Later I napped too.

This evening we walked to the Canadian border, a little over a mile down the road.  Our view from the cottage is mostly Canada.  But the Northeast Kingdom stops at the border, apparently.

I had hoped to work on my memoir, which I began in 2009, but I am waiting for a beta reader* to get back to me—she got the flu and has been delayed in sending me her comments.  So I worked on some linked short stories I’m calling the Boob Stories.  They have the same main character who is a late bloomer, like I was, and very self-conscious about it.  The first story I wrote involves a synchronized swimmer who is also an avid pot smoker.  That was me too.  So far I have six linked stories that all touch on boobs in some way (see what I did there?).  It’s fun and silly and I hope not trivial.  Managing boobs is a big part of girls’ and women’s everyday life.

I also have a novel-in-progress with a main character who is transplanted from Jane Austen’s Emma to 2015. Paying more attention to the Boob Stories now makes it clear that I have three writing projects going at once.  This is neither good nor bad.  (Not to mention my sabbatical project for Spring 2023.  More on that in a future post.)

All of this counts as writing.

*A beta reader is, according to Wikipedia, “a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing, who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author.”

Province Island on Lake Memphremagog, mostly in Canada but partly in Vermont the Northeast Kingdom.
The road to Canada.
Callie not sitting in the kayak.
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At MOMA today (Museum of Modern Art), a few pieces moved me. A Monet I don’t know if I’ve ever seen called “Agapanthus,” a word I’ve never heard. Dorothea Lange and other black and white photos of ordinary people. Harlem Renaissance art–Jacob Lawrence and others. An amazing painting from 1929 by Archibald John Motley Jr. of Chicago called “Tongues (Holy Rollers).” A rendition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man’s underground home full of light bulbs by photographer Jeff Wall. Sculpture in the courtyard, and the buildings visible outside it. Much of the contemporary art seemed pretentious and boring, but I admit I am a philistine in this area.

Monet, Agapanthus
Archibald John Motley Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers)
Jeff Wall, photo inspired by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
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The Beatles and the Saris

Five or six colorful saris appeared in my family when I was four.  I have no idea where they came from, maybe from one of my dad’s graduate students.  We did all sorts of things with them, but they didn’t seem like clothes to us.  They were taller than the ceiling; their length seemed miraculous.  Their most magical incarnation was when we hung them over exposed pipes in the basement.  Suddenly our play area was transformed from a grubby semi-furnished room with an old linoleum floor, a fraying patch of carpet, and a dusty couch, to a place of flowy mystery.  We swirled between and around these diaphanous silks, thin enough to see through, their colors muting everything on the other side.  Flecks of gold and thread patterns grazed our cheeks as we slid through burgundy, chartreuse, sky blue saris.

I think some of them were still hanging when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan the first time.  Our whole family came down to the basement to watch, which made this an event.  My father sat on the floor, the television light flickering on his horn rims; my mother sat on the arm of the couch where my older sisters hugged pillows.  My brother and I danced.  I was four; he was six; we were in constant motion.  The saris swayed behind me as I moved my hips from side to side, transfixed by the bouncing young men and their happy music.

I’m making some of this up.  The carpet might not have been there yet; we’d only been in our house for two months then.  Maybe we’d hung the saris because there was so little in that basement.  Maybe we all sat on the floor because there was no couch yet.  One or two saris must have come down so we could all see the TV.  Or maybe the saris were gone by then, but my memory has conflated the magic saris with the magic band.

What I do remember:  a dark room, all six of my family members together, my parents joining us kids to watch TV, a rare thing.  My mother’s enjoyment of the music, and, perhaps, of all of us being together.  My father as part of the fun.  This, this is what was so rare, my father joining in, not leading, not telling us what to do, not correcting us.  We all loved the Beatles from that day on, or that’s what it felt like.  At least, my dad didn’t object to them.  He allowed this joy in our house, at least that one day, and maybe the next time the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan too.  And maybe the next two times after that.

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A Return to Blogging

I’m committing to writing on this blog a few times a week for the summer.  After that, we’ll see.  I have been writing a lot, but since I’m trying to publish, I don’t post, because blogging counts as published in many cases.

Gee, what’s been happening the last two years?

Well, the pandemic.  Perhaps you’ve heard.

And two years ago my husband and I separated.  Now we get along pretty well.  Not trying to make the marriage work.

My dog Weezy died in June 2021, and a month later I got my sweet Callie.  Weezy was a difficult, bitey, neurotic dog who somehow wormed her way into my heart, and she was my main companion in the early pandemic.  Her need for daily walks kept me sane and busy, as I taught from home and saw few people, like so many of us.

Callie is the sweetest dog ever.  I do credit Weezy for making me into a dog person, though.

My daughters are grown and flown.  Liza graduated from Wesleyan this May.  I’m impressed with her, and with my own students, for persevering during the pandemic and getting their degrees.

Almost a year ago I met my sweetie, Bob.  We are going on our own writing retreat to a lake in Vermont for five days next week.

I think about retirement.

I have two grandnieces and a grandnephew.  And two sisters who are grandmothers!

I have trouble believing I am 63.  I have had trouble believing my age since I turned 50.  But I stepped in a hole and sprained my ankle a week and a half ago, only mildly, thank goodness.  I had started running last August, and had to take a week off.  Back to it, and then I fell again a few days ago in Manhattan, tripped on a lip of asphalt on a traffic hump.  Just a few scrapes.  But I need to take care of these old bones!  Falling twice in the space of a week and a half, with friends and strangers hovering over me asking if I was okay, is something I want to be careful to avoid!

I feel connected to lots of people from so many areas of my life through Facebook, and yet also feel isolated at times.  A paradox.

Here are photos of me and Callie, and one of silly nervous Weezy, a few months before cancer took her.  More soon.

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Z is a letter that barely appears in this

On my 41st birthday, she made me dinner, got a beautiful cake with buttercream frosting, and gathered people around to sing to me.  My husband was working out of town and I had a new baby and an almost four-year-old.  There were gifts too, sweet and unexpected, a book I might find time to read, a pretty dish, a piece of Japanese cloth.

“See what I have to put up with?” I joked to one of her friends, there for me.  “For over twenty years, it’s been nothing but give give give.”  She smiled and kept moving, clearing up, corralling people into the living room, but it was really the dining room, a low chandelier with no table under it, we kept hitting our heads.  My family and I were in her living room, futons filling up the floor, our stuff overflowing from duffels on the couches around the edge of the room, homeless.

It was temporary.  I had a job lined up, and Scott was working two hours away.  Liza was six weeks old and Lena liked all the people in the house distracting her from losing me to her baby sister.  We were looking for a place to live, and would move soon.  Meanwhile we were in her loving orbit.

This friend, Big Lena, all five feet one and three quarters inches of her, gave herself so generously to us, her house, the people that gathered wherever she was because they knew too what she was and they felt so loved in her presence.

I still am in wonder that I get to call her best friend.


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Y is for Yet

And yet.  But.  These qualifiers that intrude.  I am enjoying the time at home, and yet.  I know I am lucky to have a paycheck and work from home, while so many others have lost their jobs.  But.  I feel guilty for preferring to never go out.  And yet, I would go crazy if not for my daily walks outdoors.  But.

Because of my overactive brain, I can never be one thing.  Happy?  And yet.  Good enough?  But.  Insert all my failures here.

Yet I still go on, and on, and on, and on and on and on.

Words become nonsensical if repeated too much.  (I could never stand Gertrude Stein.)

Right now my brain hinges on getting my book published.  It is at two contests and a publisher.  I have no idea if the pandemic is delaying responses—I sent it out in December and January.  I intend to send it to more places, and yet, I have not.

So many ways to not be good enough.  WHEN the book is published, I will find a new way to and yet myself.

At least I stopped myself from writing IF.

This is what is coming out today, for Y, the second to last day of the blogging challenge.  It feels too vulnerable to post.  My imagined audience cringes.  BUT perhaps I am revealing their anxieties and insecurities as I air my own.

IF I decide to post this.

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X is for Xonk

I feel a little possessive of X.  Probably left over from learning how to spell my name, and noticing that few others had X’s in their names.  Then the fun of spelling backwards.

Ecila Xonk (say it out loud)

Orred Xonk

Ynnaf Xonk

And the most fun to say out loud:

Allebasi Xonk

My mother’s name backwards is the most like a really name:  Nelle Xonk.

And X gets to be a Z sound when it’s at the beginning of a word, so we are all zonked Xonks.

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