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Monday, February 8, 2016

Writing at Kripalu

I'm on a bus rolling through Massachusetts, heading back from my weekend at Kripalu with Dani Shapiro.

Kripalu is a center for yoga and health in Lenox, Massachusetts. Leigh Ann went on a retreat there years ago and had encouraged me to check it out, since it's an easy four-hour bus ride from the city.

In early January, she sent me this friendly nudge:
Our stories are symphonies of memory and nuance that reverberate throughout our beings, from the small, tender moments that shaped us to the monumental experiences that forever altered the course of our lives. Our stories inhabit our bodies and minds, and they are waiting to be told—beautifully, authentically, and courageously. Join best-selling author Dani Shapiro for a heart-opening weekend of meditation and movement, writing exercises, group sharing, and discussion that will stay with you long after you return home.
Part of me feels glad I went and knows I needed what I experienced.

Yet part of me also feels frustrated and disappointed with myself. Why aren't the pages pouring out? Why does this process feel so hard? Why can't I seem to stick to a routine and find my rhythm with this project?

If my goal is to write this memoir, might I have been better off just locking myself in my studio for four days and turning off my internet access? (Since, as Dani said one of her friends has noted: "Writing on a computer is like writing in the middle of an amusement park.")

Ultimately, I think I did need what I got out of it -- affirmation from a master in the craft that writing is like chiseling a rough boulder into a fine sculpture. I suppose we all want it to be more like pouring champagne into a glass -- you chill the bottle, you pop the cork, and voila! Maybe there is a bit of mess if you pour too much, but nothing you can't easily wipe up. 

But nope -- it's a boulder. Heavy, in need of the right tools. And right there in the middle of your path. You'll require fine, delicate brushes and blades when you are further along, but in the beginning, it's all rough edges and big chisels as you try to see what shape is lurking inside. Finding the outline, shaving off big chunks that don't belong, blasting through outer layers and scratching at what lies within. 

She has some really lovely passages about this in her book on the craft, STILL WRITING.

"Are we there yet?" is, she noted, always part of the ride. We are impatient children ready to get where we're going already. As are all of our friends and family, who've tired of hearing about what has started to seem like an interminable project.

(Side note: I love the way Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, explained her career path in a Glamour magazine article a few years ago. She wrote a book about genocide, A PROBLEM FROM HELL. And, yet: 

My mother, though, describes the title of the book as my relationship to writing it. After six years, she jokes the book was her problem from hell. My problem from hell.

But hey, she did finish her book...and it was eventually read by a young senator named Barack Obama. Boom!)

Just like the poem Ithaka reminds us, the best part of any journey is not the destination -- it's the journey itself. I need to remember that. I'm grateful that something does continue to call me down this road, telling me that this is a hill worth climbing, whispering in my ear that I have a story I'm meant to share. 

I had a cool experience in a yoga dance class between writing sessions on Saturday. It was one of those truly New Age whackadoodle let-it-all-hang-out, crawling on the floor like animals, dancing wildly to the beat of drums sort of hippie things you'd expect at a place like Kripalu. It was an awesome reminder of what can happen when we stop worrying what anyone else says or thinks, and we just let ourselves listen to our bodies and follow the rhythm in our soul. 

It was a physical reminder of the need to approach writing with that sort of openness and flexibility, to let the story take shape on the page, rather than coming in with a bunch of preconceived notions about what you're "supposed" to be writing.

You might think, Dani said, that the most fulfilling part of writing will be holding your finished product. "The best part is being inside of it," she said. "Catching the mind and seeing what's there. Writing is how we find out things we didn't know we knew. If you know what happened, why are you writing it?" 
Here are a few other nuggets I wrote down:
"Every writer I know gets in her own way and devises ways to get out of her own way." 

From THE MEMORY PALACE by Mira Bartok: 
"Our recollections change in the retelling." 
"Memory if it is anything at all is unreliable." 

What she found out when she wrote DEVOTION: 
"When we are true to our own humanity, our own uniqueness, our own specificity, we discover that we are not so different."

You can't find the shape without being in the mess -- being in the chaos. That's why meditation helps. You need to quiet your noisy mind. 

She has a friend who starts a novel by writing seven longhand pages a day. You have to unleash the mess and see what's salvageable. Throughout the weekend, I made myself write in longhand, and it was a pleasant surprise what came out.

She defined memoir versus autobiography: 
Memoir is a story that is shaped out of the chaos of a life.
Autobiography: "you know who I am, and you want to know about my life." 

A big part of the weekend was leading us through several "metta" (loving kindness) meditations. 
-- May you be safe.
-- May you be happy.
-- May you be strong.
-- May you live with ease.

Memoir freezes a moment in time. That moment remembered from that place becomes a solid object. The idea there is ever an end point is a fallacy. Whatever you write is unique to the point in time in which it was written. Memory is constantly shifting and adapting. (I would love to discuss this with anyone who reads SLOW MOTION.)

One can get extremely derailed by sharing a draft with the wrong person at the wrong time. Not everyone knows how to give constructive feedback. DO NOT share your work with someone who is jealous of or competitive with you, or someone who will try to get you to turn your work into what they'd like to do. 

About Betrayal:
-- To concern yourself with it when you are writing a first draft is to ensure you will not write as deeply and freely as you must. 
-- Your manuscript is not going to fly from your desk to the bookstore. 
-- "Write as if everyone you know has left the planet."
-- Don't take pot shots. Don't try to make yourself look clever at someone else's expense. Her one regret about SLOW MOTION, her first memoir, is a mean, hurtful comment about her aunt. 
-- You will be surprised what people take issue with in your writing; it won't necessarily be the things you expected to hit a nerve. "We can't know in a whole host of ways what is going to hurt other people and what is not going to hurt other people."
-- If you're writing out of vengeance, put it down. How do you know? You're thinking, "I can't wait until she reads this." 
-- Told a story about Honor Moore, whose memoir THE BISHOP'S DAUGHTER infuriated her siblings. "We don't choose what we write," Moore said. "It chooses us. And if we turn our back on it, we are somehow diminished."

As I prepared to head back today, I took my camera on my walk and tried to capture a bit of the beauty of the place. 

It felt futile -- a bit like my writing felt all weekend. Yet instead of feeling frustrated, I felt grateful for the parallel and the metaphor. Sometimes you simply fail to capture what you're trying to capture. But that doesn't mean you give up. It means you find a new angle, a new lens, a different approach. And you just keep trying. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Summer Reading

Finally! Something that made me blow the dust off ye olde blog. I cannot resist rambling a bit about Harper Lee's "new" book, Go Set a Watchman.

First -- let me begin where my obsession did. Harper Lee popped back up on my radar last summer, when Leigh Ann and I were at the beach, enjoying her new villa on Seabrook Island with Ranie, Jason and their boys.

We do love a good ol' flashback here at Popcorn and M&Ms, don't we, loyal readers?! (All three of ya who are left.)

Anyhoo, you will recall this was the era in which I'd quit my job to write a book. (Yeah...hey...what ever happened to that? Well, the short answer is I (a) decided I didn't want to move out of my expensive apartment in NYC (b) realized family events were too, er, "dynamic" to write a memoir (c) acknowledged there was no way I was going to start writing publishable fiction in the short term (d) enjoyed my funemployment to the max and wound up getting a better job this spring.) 

Anyway, while at the beach, us girls got to swapping notes on books -- and the fact that Harper Lee had some friends who gifted her with a year of living expenses one Christmas; she used it to finish writing To Kill a Mockingbird

LA mentioned there was a new memoir about Harper Lee, Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills. In 2004, Mills rented a house next door to the Lee sisters in Monroeville and spent 18 months as their neighbor, writing what she claims was an authorized memoir
Leigh Ann had gotten it from the library, so I started reading it immediately. And... yowza. I think the author had tried so hard not to betray Harper (Nelle) and her sister Alice that she ended up writing pure drivel. Or, as the New York Times called it, a "painfully earnest" and "sentimental" play-by-play of little old lady life:

Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald’s, where she goes for coffee. She eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night. When she fishes, she uses wieners for bait. She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling “Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!” 

Seriously, it was a total snooze, and I don't think I actually finished it. It reminded me of how hard it was to be a reporter. You have to walk such a line between nurturing your sources, cultivating those relationships, and depicting them honestly -- which may burn a bridge. I felt sorry for Marja Mills, who seemed to have tried hard to write something that would satisfy the public fascination with Harper Lee, without betraying the confidence the Lee sisters showed her. Yet she ended up with the worst of both worlds -- she wrote a crappy book that Harper Lee disavowed: 

"Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood," Lee said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, Alice Lee said -- and mind you, this was back in 2011, "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident." 

The only line I saved from the Mills book was this one: 

"In the community of Monroeville, information about Nelle was currency. It could be spent, traded or saved for the right moment. Demand exceeded supply, especially because her good friends kept their interactions with her largely private. People were curious about where she went, whom she saw, what she said." 

Can you imagine what that would be like? It must have been a bit like living in a small town surrounded by paparazzi. No wonder she spent so much time in the anonymity of New York City.

Anyway, I was so fascinated and thirsty for more info that I bought Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, a biography by Charles J. Shields.

I could tell you a lot more about what I found interesting in that book, but I'll cut to the most relevant portion re: Go Set a Watchman's portrayal of Atticus Finch. Shields makes it clear A.C. Lee was more like the fictional character of Watchman than he was the saintly Atticus of Mockingbird:

Worth pointing out, however, is that Mr. Lee himself only gradually rose to the moral standards of Atticus. Though more enlightened than most, A.C. was no saint, no prophet crying in the wilderness with regard to racial matters. In many ways, he was typical of his generation, especially about issues surrounding integration. Like most of his generation, he believed that the current social order, segregation, was natural and created harmony between the races. 

Particularly interesting to me, given my small-town Methodist roots, is the way Shields portrays the confrontations between A.C. Lee, and the minister of First United Methodist Church of Monroeville, who was "preaching too much, in Lee's opinion, about racial and social justice."

I know a couple of Methodist ministers who could probably write their own books about some of those recent conversations!

Anyway, that's a long way of saying I wasn't surprised by the character of Atticus in Go Set a Watchman. And, because I'd gleaned from the Marja Mills incident that Harper Lee "ain't running on all cylinders these days," I at first thought I'd boycott this new book, as the events surrounding its release just seem so shady -- particularly the fact the draft "came to light" only after Alice Lee passed away.

But, in the end, I decided I just couldn't resist reading it. And I'm glad. Isn't part of growing up accepting that our parents are flawed individuals -- but we love them anyway? Isn't growing up about coming to terms with your mixed feelings about your family and your origins?

Watchman is about Lee's experience as a young woman who lives in New York City but feels ambivalent about her hometown roots -- she is both drawn to and repulsed by her place of origin. There is an "I don't see how you live in New York" passage with some Maycomb friends that reminds me of a conversation I had with an old friend in Quincy who was genuinely curious whether I "ever see any Americans in New York City."

Um, yes, Sir, I do. Bless your heart.

But anyway, I love the mixed feelings she has about living in New York but still calling Maycomb "home."
 "When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York's not the world. I mean this: every time I come home, I feel like I'm coming back to the world, and every time I leave Maycomb it's like I'm leaving the world. It's silly. I can't explain it, and what makes it sillier is I'd go stark raving mad living in Maycomb."

The most fascinating bits of the novel for me were about social class. Like race, it's a means of inclusion and exclusion -- a part of our identity that is assigned, not chosen, something we can never change or control.

Jean Louise has a discussion with her boyfriend in which he points out that she gets a certain amount of tolerance from the community simply by virtue of being a Finch. Some of Aunt Alexandra's comments about Henry ("we Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash") were reminiscent of comments I often heard when I was growing up. I kid you not, my grandmother once looked at a photo of a boyfriend and asked me, "Honey, who are his people?"

And while I've certainly sailed through a lot of doors in life, I've also had them slammed in my face a time or two. Lee had clearly felt it too:

"Have you ever been snubbed, Atticus? Do you know how it feels? No, don't tell me they're children and don't feel it: I was a child and felt it, so grown people must feel it too. A real good snub, Atticus, makes you feel like you're too nasty to associate with people." 

Whether it was overt or covert, major or minor -- the sting of exclusion still hurts, especially when it's over something like race or class that we can't change or control. And it can be particularly painful when we are adolescents and feel we are different, or we don't quite fit the mold. Henry points out to Jean Louise that she's been benefiting from advantages she doesn't even realize, because they've always been there for her. Those can be the best and worst parts of living in a small town -- where people know your name and your family's history.

When it comes to race, I think the events in Watchman are far more provocative, honest and realistic.
There is a benevolent white savior element to Mockingbird that is absent from Watchman, in which Atticus is willing to defend his housekeeper's son in part for selfish motives: to prevent radical outside attorneys from making political inroads among the county's blacks.

It makes me wonder if the publishers might have expected Lee's draft would be too confrontational for mass appeal. Most of us don't want to be preached at, do we?

So, is Go Set a Watchman a great novel? No. But is it worth reading? Yes -- especially if you are a lover of literature, and Southern literature in particular. And even more so if you're a writer yourself -- for the same reason admiring art isn't just about going to the Louvre or MoMA; it's about meeting artists in your local community and enjoying their work. Lots of books are worth reading, even if they're not bestsellers.

As an aspiring author, it was encouraging to see what began as a good draft was rewritten into an American classic, and to realize that even the greats have to write, rewrite, revise, and repeat.

Sometimes you write a good book. Sometimes you write a great book. Sometimes you write a crappy book. Sometimes you write a book that was right for the times. Sometimes you write a book that was wrong for the times. Sometimes you write a bestseller. Sometimes you write something that gets printed at Kinko's and passed around the neighborhood.

But at least you wrote a book!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Feliz Ano Nuevo

Dear Mom,

Greetings from Valparaiso, Chile! I've taken my time writing this update from South America. But I realized it's Epiphany and Three Kings Day, so it seemed fitting to write today, as the holiday season "officially" comes to an end.

First...a Christmas recap. Leigh Ann and I flew to Quincy and went to the Sawano Club dance with Dad.
Aunt Leigh Annie Claus sent some Nerf guns to Benjamin and William. Ranie let them open them early while we were visiting. Here's W showing off his gun and eating a mayonnaise sammich.
From the Q, we drove Dad's car to Charlotte and spent Christmas in Leigh Ann's house. Leigh Ann had to work, so Dad and I entertained ourselves for a few rainy days. Mary Beth and K.B. had everyone over for a Christmas Eve buffet, so we went to the 3 p.m. service at church.

It finally stopped raining on Christmas Day, so after we exchanged a few gifts, LA and I got some exercise, and then she and Dad undecorated her tree and got it out on the curb. Yes, we were THOSE PEOPLE! But, obviously she didn't want to deal with it after being gone for ten days...and she and I were headed south on 6 p.m. flights out of Charlotte en route to Buenos Aires. (I went via JFK, and she went via Miami.)

Leigh Ann's friend Pilar from business school and her husband Oscar (a heart surgeon) have a lovely apartment in the city's chic Palermo neighborhood, and they were wonderful hosts. Anyone who thinks the American South is famous for its hospitality has not been to Argentina...Pili even got her brother to pick us up at the airport! We had a great time enjoying beautiful Buenos Aires with our native hosts. (Though somehow I missed getting photos of their adorable little ones, Catalina and Mateo.)

If you'd like to try an Argentine wine, Oscar recommends this one...

Oscar mentioned he enjoys chowing down with an American breakfast when he's in the U.S., so we made them breakfast for dinner one night. We scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and onions, diced fruit and toasted bread. We even managed to score some pancetta to pass off as bacon. Oscar was tickled.

The "main event" of our trip to Buenos Aires was scattering the last of your ashes. (To recap for readers who've missed an episode or two, we had six portions of ashes, and they went: 1. The Snipes family plot in Hillcrest Cemetery; 2. Myers Park in Charlotte; 3. Kensington Gardens in London; 4. Central Park in NYC; 5. Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.)

We could have come up with a bunch of other special spots, as we wanted to have a mix of both places that were special to you and place that were still on your bucket list. -- some of my favorite finalists were Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard (I think your 60th birthday in Nantucket may have been our best trip), the Gulf Coast (lots of happy beach trip memories), the Grand Canyon (I don't think you ever made it there...and neither have I), Valencia, Spain (site of your FSU summer study program with Frances), Switzerland with Arthur, etc.

In fact, as I rewatched the movie The Way in late November or early December (did I already write about this?), it was all I could do not to save some of your ashes and take them on the Camino de Santiago!

BUT -- as proof we don't need your ashes to carry your spirit with us -- I could almost hear you saying, "Okay -- just cut it and call it!" I knew you'd love the simplicity of six eclectically chosen spots -- the magic of three times two.

And as we debated our spots, we probably settled first on Buenos Aires as the grand finale, knowing it would be best if we had something bright and new to anticipate, to avoid getting into a holiday funk.

SIDEBAR: I had originally considered proclaiming December 27 to be International Pajama Day (hash tag #ipj -- get it?) in celebration of your pajama philosophy. As we put it in the eulogy, "Life is better if you spend the occasional day in your pajamas." We even had the perfect photo of pajama nirvana!

However, Leigh Ann informed me she did NOT plan to trek around a foreign country in PJs. Touche! It's too bad though. I thought it could really catch on...

Okay, back to the main tale.

Leigh Ann headed out for a short run on the morning of the 27th and found the perfect spot in a park near Pilar's house. (It was too hot for much exercising, especially since we had to adjust to the late mornings and late nights of the porteƱos.)

We spent the 27th on our own exploring the city. First, we checked on Evita at the Recoleta Cemetery.

We explored the nearby craft market, and I briefly considered surprising the Centenary girls with these throwback denim purses, similar to the ones Miss Adele helped us make in the 80s...
From there, we walked a good bit, including a stroll down Calle Florida, ending up at the Casa Rosada. Three cheers for the Argentinian schedule -- it was 5 p.m. on a Saturday, but the executive office building was still open for tours! And, even better, since it was a weekend we actually got to see the inside of President Kirchner's office (no photos allowed...rats!). 

I'd forgotten how young Evita was when she died -- just 33. The Casa Rosada has a copy of this official portrait; the original is in a museum. I was rather fascinated by her pearl bracelet.
Naturally, we took a "don't cry for me" selfie on the famous balcony. 

 This is why you don't feed pigeons...

From there, we took a taxi back to the park near Pili's house in Palermo. We entered the large Tres de Febrero Park (similar to NYC's Central was created by a famous landscaper named Carlos Thays in 1914 and is called Bosques de Palermo -- Palermo Forest). Our destination was El Paseo del Rosedal, or Rose Garden Walk, a massive garden featuring 1,200 species of roses on 15,000 bushes.

Nearby is the Garden of Poets, with busts of Shakespeare, Borges and other literary greats (another sign this was meant to be your resting place).

We thought you'd want to be by a rose variety with a fitting or clever name, so when we saw this -- given your affinity for royal trivia -- in such a beautiful spot right by the pergola -- it all seemed meant to be.

I didn't think of it then; it all just felt really right and peaceful. But as I reflect on it now, what better place than a garden to come to the end of our journey with your physical remains? Gardening seems like such a fitting metaphor for parenting. Coaching, encouraging, cajoling, watering, shading, training -- but knowing that plant often has a stubborn mind of its own. We plant things and watch them grow and step back at times amazed at what blossoms. (And, to be fair, disappointed at other times at what doesn't seem to take root, no matter how hard we try.)

Leigh Ann and I have your handprints and fingerprints all over us. We laugh at the ways -- great and small -- we carry so many of your quirks. From your tendency always to try a new restaurant before returning to somewhere you'd already been, to your affinity for conducting post-event analysis of wedding receptions.

But if there are two traits we carry that most define your legacy, it's our thirst to learn and explore, and our desire to stay in touch with friends. This trip was a fitting tribute to those -- oh, yeah -- and a chance to practice and improve our Spanish!

From Buenos Aires, we flew to Mendoza for a few days of wine tasting, horseback riding, and just relaxing. We loved our guide, Matias, booked through our hotel's (Lares de Chacras...thanks Jen & Kristen!) recommended tour company, Feeling Mendoza.

We went back to Buenos Aires to spend New Year's Eve with Pili's family at her parents' home. The next morning, we flew to Santiago. I amused myself in the airport thinking I had a windfall of pesos to blow in the duty free area -- until Leigh Ann pointed out it was about $6. (Argentina's official exchange rate of ~8 pesos to 1 dollar is so out of whack, they literally publish the black market rate (called the "blue rate") of ~13 in the daily newspaper.)
In Santiago, we were hosted by our Charlotte friends Traci and Paul, who moved to Santiago midyear so Paul could teach in a private American-style school. They live in a great house in a nice suburb. Their kids Greta and Wyatt are a hoot, clever and curious, and I loved playing games with them. Paul's parents were visiting from Michigan, so they had a full house, but they couldn't have been more gracious and fun.

Greta LOVED my big girl fashion purchases...

Traci and Paul met serving in the Peace Corps in Niger, so she enjoys collecting "unusual" business signs, like the "Jehovah is My Pastor Minimarket," brought to you by Coca-Cola.

We had a clear Vanna thing going on in Santiago...

We did a few educational things, like going to the Human Rights Museum, and entering La Moneda, but mostly we just enjoyed summer in Santiago.

And, of course this whole trip was a flashback for Leigh Ann, who studied in Santiago and visited Pili's family in Buenos Aires during business school in 2003.

Leigh Ann flew home from Santiago, but I'm in Chile for another week. I'm spending a few days on the coast in Valparaiso. Sunday was beautiful...
But the coastal climate here is reminiscent of San Francisco, so it's looked like this for the past two days.

Fodor's calls this city "gritty-yet-groovy," which seems pretty accurate. You can read more about it if you're curious...

I need to hoof it up these steep hills and check out La Sebastiana, the house of Pablo Neruda, Chile's famous poet.

He wrote mostly love poetry, and most of his famous verses seem kinda cheesy for those of us who aren't swooning with new passion. But I found this, which I think would be exactly the note you'd want me to end on:

Laughter is the language of the soul. 

You so loved a good laugh, especially when it came in the company of friends, and I know it made you happy that we managed to find humor in unexpected places. I'm so grateful to have spent the last year celebrating your life. And I'm also grateful that the journey of this first year of grief has come to an end, because I know you'd want me to keep living and to keep laughing.

So, here's to a new year filled with friendship, laughter and adventure. Cheers to a perpetual celebration of the gifts of the spirit that live forever, wherever in the world we find ourselves planted.
Salud. Peseta. Amor. Y tiempo de gustarlo.