If Only…

The beach was almost deserted on this spectacular Saturday morning. The tide more out than in – no lapping waves. Only an occasional gull broke the quiet. I joined a yoga class on the sand, stretching, inhaling the beauty of the spot, savoring the gentle breezes, the coolness of the morning air, the sun’s warmth - life. Focused on breathing, the poses, then resting on my back, sand running through my fingers, I relaxed into a dreamy joy.  And then, I remembered AW’s death. She will never feel a beach breeze again. Every moment since hearing this news on Monday, there’s been a hovering dark cloud on the sunniest of days.

But she was not my daughter.  For me, the pain will ease, the sad fog will lift within weeks, becoming a terrible memory. Not so for her family. How long will it take for them to feel any kind of sustained joy again? My heart breaks for them.

Protecting our children is any healthy parent’s strongest impulse, in some ways, our very reason for being. The cliches: ‘we’re only as happy as our unhappiest child’, ‘they cut, we bleed’ — are all true. The thought of losing a child a worst nightmare. I am afraid to even imagine the pain.

A blogger who writes movingly about depression (here) noted about Robin Williams, “He died at the age of 63 after a lifetime of depression… his age was testament to his tenacity.” This beautiful line comforted me the other day, even 10 years later, thinking my husband made it to 48 with all his anguish – that was something. And, it guts me to think of AW only 25 years for her.

We no longer can be delighted by her goofy, infectious laugh.  Did she not know how we loved her and basked in the warmth of her kindness, her disarmingly clear and beautiful gaze? When we worked together, my impulse was to protect her. Sometimes I found myself warding off the men who might mistake her universal kindness as interest. She seemed so vulnerable.

Suicide strikes a chord for any of us who have experienced loss in this terrible way – like a gong – triggering memories, feelings. But the reverberating toll of this has cut me close, this sweet girl’s death. We were not much more than work friends — but of course all of us felt more so because AW did not do superficial. Even knowing better, I engaged in magical thinking — that I might have been able to do something. If only. Just the week before, I’d almost sent her a text – wanting to introduce her to my friend’s daughter — going so far as pulling up our last texts from more than a year ago – to continue a conversation, make contact again. And then, did not. In my mind she was well settled into a life she’d worked so hard to create for herself. Succeeding. I didn’t know.

Robin William’s death, like other beloved celebrities before him, brings suicide out of the shadows, if only for awhile, and this spotlight is welcome. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention runs walks around the country - Out of the Darkness Walks where the community can come together to comfort each other and raise money for the cause. While we will never end suicide but we must try to save lives – even one. How I wish that it could have been AW’s.

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Still in Recovery

bird feeder

Remember winter? My Hydrangea do – and remind me constantly of what a long, bitter one we endured. A few years ago I decided Hydrangea, would be my fool-proof shrub — blues and pink blossoms lasting well into autumn, stunning even as they fade to a papery brown. They are tough, even after shriveling a bit from thirst, reviving beautifully after watering. Every year my bushes produce bowl-sized blooms that are the center piece of the flower bouquets I cut for the mantelpiece – lasting long past when the Gladiolas and Black-eyed Susan are spent. Not this year. Look!

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Not a bloom in sight. No, I didn’t cut them back — I learned the hard way that flowers grow from old wood and am careful not to prune until well into Spring. Just like my sparse showing of Peonies, the Hydrangea blooms are a casualty of last Winter’s heavy snow and frigid temperatures. So much for fool-proof. There is no such thing, is there? We are all destined to be fooled, to sometimes be fools. This is life. My garden, currently neglected, always feels chock-full of metaphors.

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I mourn there are no Hydrangea blues to brighten the overgrown mess… I mean, otherwise lush bounty, of this year’s garden. There are times in life when there is nothing to do but let time pass and hope for better. I’ve done that before – by days, weeks, months, years. Things will improve. So far in my life, I have never lost that hope. And I’ve pushed myself to go beyond enduring, to always find something to sustain, nurture, perhaps inspire me, within the darkness of disappointment, heartbreak and loss.

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Of course at the height of any pain, I just want to get through it, for it to stop. Sometimes numb is all we can hope for. I marvel at this defense system us humans have – the way shock and pain can make everything slow down, launching a sense of not being entirely there, that nothing is real. This was my state of being after my husband’s death when I needed to carry on and take care of my daughter. I turned inward and slowed, moving through the world with a simultaneous heightened sensitivity yet detachment. Slowly, oh so slowly through more than one change of seasons, I allowed myself to actually feel my loss and grief — to feel anything. And now, I no longer take much of anything for granted.

I take the dearth of Hydrangea flowers in stride. After all, my beloved shrubs are alive – they are in a recovery mode I recognize. Next year, perhaps they will bloom. Meanwhile, remembering winter makes me better savor this remarkable summer.

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The Waves and Just Being

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I’ve spent my 2 recent vacations this summer, in a torpor. Nary a dust bunny disappeared, weeds continued unhindered around the garden and I barely wrote a word here or anywhere. I simply read and watched the birds. Of course all the while beating myself up for being unproductive since there is so much that needs doing and I rarely have enough time in my usual day-to-day to do it all.

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R rescued me from this cloud of guilt by sweeping me off to the beach for a few days. What’s there to do but watch and sometimes venture into waves? We spent hours with our toes in the sand, barely speaking a word, only smiling at each other between reading, dozing, people watching and dreaming. Bliss.

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Although I brought my computer with a vague notion I might wake early and write, I did not. I barely checked my time-sucking phone for tweets and updates I really didn’t need or want. Staring at the sea and the parade of tattoo covered skin (is there anyone left on the planet who doesn’t have ink?) for hours on end was a bit like getting my mental hard-drive cleaned, the constant roar of waves washing away everything. I read and read and read, bathing in the breezes, the waves, the sun. I did something I haven’t done for years: I had a short and very sweet actual vacation.

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I recently heard a radio interview on On Being with Social Psychologist Ellen Langer about mindfulness. When you have time, listen for some refreshing insight and inspiration. Langer speaks, in this great NY (I think) accent, about cultivating mindfulness in daily life through the simple act of just noticing things. This clicked with me since I seem to have a hard time maintaining a meditation routine for very long. Crazy these requirements I set up for myself of what I think I should be doing to get from A to B in my life. Do you do this? Are we crazy?

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As I ready to return to work tomorrow, the sound of the waves still echo and that is enough.

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Drink Your Veggies

I think about food and cooking a lot. But with so many incredible foodie bloggers out there, I lack the gumption to pipe-in, even though I’m a pretty good cook. Still, I love eating (of course), reading and talking about food and can’t resist sharing my new favorite kitchen thing with you.

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The Nutribullet. This wonderful gadget now commands prime kitchen counter real estate next to my kettle. Every morning I spend less than 5 minutes throwing a mix of veggies, fruit, nuts and liquid into one of these jars, blend for about 40 seconds and presto, I’ve got an incredible, nutrient rich drink to either down right away or bring to work for a lovely boost later. This morning’s concoction was relatively tame consisting of lettuce, kale, strawberries, banana and some chia seeds (yes, “chia pet” chia seeds) with almond milk.

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You can throw virtually anything in without chopping it to bits – just remove big pips and apple seeds. The super-duper version will chew it all right up and comes with a variety of jars for blending that also can be used to store or drink your potion. Also included is somewhat of a cheesy book: Nutribullet – Life Changing Recipes. Interspersed between recipes are testimonials from rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, cancer patients and of course a few about weight loss. At least some of these, along with the smiling geezer pictures, could have been sacrificed for an index – there is none. Wondering if there’s a smoothy for your rutabaga? The only option is to flip through all the recipes and smiling geezers again. For inspiring smoothie recipes that are certainly compatible with the ‘Bullet’, I picked up a copy of Superfood Smoothies by Julie Morris who also has a great website.

Forget the blender and juicer — this is the gadget. No pulp clean up!

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These days, I need ways to use the bounty of vegetables in the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) I share with my friend Chris. Collard greens anyone? I’m a white girl from the Bronx who grew up on canned vegetables, so collards are new to me and a bit overwhelming. We eat bacon sparingly (although it is one of the most delicious things on the planet) and most collard recipes seem to call for cooking them in that yummy pork fat. Instead, I’ve been steaming the gigantic leaves, letting them cool and then substituting them for a wrap or tortilla. Lovely for a packed lunch. For me. No one else in the house will go for that. I haven’t Nutribullet-ed them yet — I’ll let you know. Might be just the ticket. And then there’s all the cabbage sitting in the crisper drawer … any ideas? (I already have some fermenting.)

CSAs are a great way to support local farms and get fresh, organic produce. Our’s – Stone Gardens Farm, drops off a box at Chris’s office (this week 2 boxes because there was so much) and we divvy up the goods that evening, preferably while drinking a glass of wine. Lots and lots of greens these past weeks, radishes and more radishes, summer squash, cucumbers – great in a smoothie – with avocado and apple and tumeric – refreshing! From May through October – sometimes even into November, the CSA supplies all my veggie needs allowing me to walk right through the produce section, pausing only to buy avocados.

Now your suggestions for collards and cabbage, please!

PS: I am delighted to report that collards make delicious smoothies. I made mine with banana, strawberries, a slice of lime, a few Lemon Balm leaves from the garden, a couple of ice cubes and used rice milk as my liquid. The collard is not at all overwhelming and I’ve already chewed up a few of my big fronds this way.

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Summer Bliss as a Day Unfolds

I could spend all day watching the bird feeder, clapping greedy squirrels away as needed. The feeder hangs less than a foot from the window where I write. A flurry of Sparrows and Finches catch my eye and I notice the squirrels hanging just beyond the woodpile, waiting for me to back off. Red Wing Blackbirds, Blue Jays, large and small Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves Nuthatches and Chickadees have all flocked for their share of sunflower seeds. None of these birds are particularly extraordinary but I am mesmerized by the constant cheeping drama.

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Earlier I made my rounds of this quarter-of-an-acre, picking a handful of blueberries to toss over my granola with yogurt, collecting stalks of Lupine flower seeds ready to burst their pods. A sea of blue Lupines once graced the slope beside the drive but between drifting snows and torrential rains, they’ve gotten sparse and migrated downhill, threatening to disappear into the city drain at next rain. I’ll plant these harvested seeds in the autumn up at the top to start again.

A walk around the back of the house reminds me that there’s lots of weeding to do — and I’m talking weedwacking-weeding. Pokeberry and bittersweet have already claimed my abandoned vegetable garden. The bastard groundhog has trampled, (spitefully it seems) the leeks he has no interest in eating. Nor does he like asparagus so the far corner is now an explosion of lacy green foliage from the spears I left behind. Also within the useless fence is my horseradish, mint and rocquette Arugula growing like mad. I came up with what feels like a brilliant idea of clearing this beautifully sunny stretch of earth and planting a mini orchard come fall. We’ll plant a few cherry and apple trees and hope for the best. Can groundhogs climb trees?

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Besides, the bounty from our CSA already fills my fridge each week — I’m leaving the varmint battles to the pros and content myself with a tinier patch of garden — three tomato plants, some lettuce, arugula and some herbs. Zinnia and sunflowers are also fenced in away from bastard and seem to be fairing well – no beheadings yet.

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I’m always thrilled when my Gardenia blooms – twice this year — a delight in the winter and now again. If I could only breathe the perfume of this blossom all day, I’d be high. Really. These beauties are intoxicating and evoke the potent, magical summer I spent in Italy with my new baby Molly.

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I am back to work tomorrow, after a week off. I will miss this sweet unfolding of a day. Watching the birds, fussing in my garden, reading and dozing in the shade. Blissfully being outside where I can pay attention to nature and savor every minute of glorious summer days.

 

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A Rock and a Dive

SAM_08301.jpg There’s a spot about 20 minutes paddle from shore, where the Sound pushes into and out-of the natural harbor between two islands. Depending on the tide, we sometimes get buffeted in a crash of waves. Pulling our paddles in, we gleefully surrender to the splashing. If the tide is low, we yank the boat across the crunch of shell and stones to the other side. We like to pause here and stare alternately at the horizon and into the surf. Sometimes we pick up treasures. On Sunday, this rock caught my eye.

photo-43 Doesn’t it look like it’s part of something much bigger, like a chunk of a cliff or something? I reached down and lifted it away from the round stones surrounding it and said to R, “I wonder if anyone has ever touched this before – and will anyone again?” I held it a moment longer, thinking about time and wondering how it ended up where the waves meet, then let it go torpedoing in slow motion down to the bottom. I waded on, thinking I might swim.

I’m not a big swimmer. Last summer I barely got wet. But the place and moment seemed magical, the water crystal-clear, inviting. Wading up to my torso, I flinched as the water lapped against my belly – so cold. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back to the sky enjoying the warmth of the sun cooled by a breeze. I didn’t really want to get wet – this felt too good. But I imagined myself floating-in rather than just looking at the water and the part of my body already submerged, felt invigorated. I opened my eyes. Looking at the surface of the water, I willed myself to dive in – and didn’t.

Why? I wondered at my reluctance. Why not duck in for a swim? Because I felt comfortable and warm and safe, my hair was dry and I didn’t have a towel. I hesitated because I knew I’d be shocked by the cold. Even though my discomfort would quickly pass into pleasure, I did not move.

Have I become a hobbled by comfort? I wasn’t always this way – I have lived on the edge — traveled alone, moving to other countries, a war zone, marrying an addict. Okay, I didn’t really know I was doing that last one. And perhaps that’s what happened. Maybe I lost trust in my judgement about risk, became hyper-aware of the repercussions of launching willy-nilly into adventures. Perhaps the years of hanging onto the roller coaster of my life took its toll, making me staid. Or is this just an expected symptom of getting older like grey hair and wrinkles? I know, I should, I want to – resist.

My mental chatter grew noisier than the churning of water until I stepped deeper and, feeling like I was being gently pushed, dove beneath the surface. A frozen blanket of silence enveloped me as I pushed myself through the current, finally coming up for air with a gasp. Laying back into the gentle waves, I floated.

The next morning, the stone was atop my computer. R had retrieved it from where I’d dropped it back into the sea. There it was, a reminder of time, of going beneath the surface and something bigger than itself.

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A Pain in the Neck, Creativity and No Plans

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I am at the edge of an ocean of time: a week off from work with no plans! Yet, since joyfully levitating out of the store, I’ve already kayaked every day  (R was my Prince waiting with water-borne chariot on Friday) done Yoga on the beach, washed fresh oysters down with good beer while listening to live Jazz in the breezes off Norwalk Harbor. I’ve baked an apricot tart, concocted a potato salad with olives and shallots, and a lentil salad with red peppers, mango and the tiniest bits of kale so maybe Molly won’t notice. Plus R and I finally moved the messy piles of branches punctuating our lawn since the tree came down over a month ago. Fun, delicious and productive and my week has only just begun!

apricot tart

I love not having to go to work. Of course these days to myself are precious because I work full time but a few friends have recently retired and are coping just fine with their new time-wealth. I would too, but retirement thoughts are with my lottery winning fantasies: firing up every time I buy a ticket while keenly aware of the lousy odds.

Even with a dream job like mine, pausing to restore some life balance is crucial. A stiff neck has plagued me for weeks. No amount of rubbing or heat or yoga has eased it. I began researching acupuncturists and massage therapists but on Saturday, floating on the glasslike Long Island Sound, paddling to nowhere, I felt my shoulder and neck begin to unlock. Ah!

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While gazing at the islands, I remembered a time when my neck was so bad, I could not even turn my head: Bosnia. For months I’d put in 10 hours, 7 days a week. Work was simultaneously compelling, frustrating and sad. I was part of a peacekeeping operation with no effective mandate; essentially we were sticking our skinny fingers in a big dike. As happens ‘on mission’ or ‘in the field’ in the lingo of that business, work was my life and down-time meant drinking too much with the same people I’d just spent all day with. I never unwound – thus my neck muscles became so tight, aptly, I could not look around.

I’m no longer in a war zone so why is this happening to me again? I’m surrounded by books, regularly meeting people with common interests and I’m not usually stuck behind a desk. Most days fly by. Still, as is true for everyone I speak with these days, there is a lot to do and less time to do it in.  Friends employed in education, medicine, business and of course, self-employed authors and artists, are all working harder than ever for results rarely what they once were and certainly not as easily achieved. And thus we are stressed. Aren’t you?

I know there’s a problem brewing when I wake up on a Sunday morning worrying about something that is job related: what school order is due? will I have enough books for an author event? I’m afraid I’m a “good girl” making me a great employee and it’s challenging to have ME be the most important boss, to be the ‘customer’ that matters most. It doesn’t matter how great or exciting the job is (I have had both) my subconscious is best fueled by creative, not task-driven juices. To get there, I need a daily routine, a time set aside to pay attention. Only when I do this can I sustain a rich interior self throughout the day, no matter what I do.

I want my first thought on waking to be about whatever I’m writing, not job issues.  In the past, I obsessed over my painting or sculpture but the form of art is irrelevant.  My stiff neck has alerted me to the importance of nurturing, sourcing and keeping alive and well, the sorcery of where art comes from. I need to look and really see the world around me while also digging down deep inside. There in that gazing within/without, lays the magic and the bliss. That’s what I’m after this week – to get back to that daily practice of being.

Yesterday, I was gabbing with my beloved and brilliant sister and she reminded me of Walter Mosley’s slim little book, This is the Year You Write Your Novel. He recounted how he always got up early to write before going to his bill-paying computer programming job, thus ensuring he gave his best to himself. The old, pay-yourself-first wisdom taken to another level. I credit Mosley’s book for inspiring me to diligently do the same, and I did, getting up every morning to write my memoir – yes, in a year.

I have no plans this week but hope to wake to no one’s story but my own.  I may also get a massage.

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Out of the Box (and a Plug for Subscribing to The New York Times)

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I love the New York Times. Saturday and Sunday delivery suits both my financial and my time budget. Reading just two days of paper absorbs hours of my weekend and sometimes I don’t even finish it. I make my way through every section except Auto and Sports. During the week I can read it digitally although I usually just glance at the headlines. Do you have a subscription? Subscribing to a newspaper helps keep it going and I feel strongly about the print version of this newspaper. I’d hate to see it disappear. The writers are fantastic, the journalism and photography and breadth of coverage is the best around. During my years of living overseas, The New York Times was one of the things I missed most. Now, with digital publishing, I could live in Japan again and still have at least digital access to my favorite newspaper.

My plug for one of the last bastions of fine journalism – is inspired by this article on today’s front page. Where else are you going to read about a new funeral option: get yourself set up in a life-like pose in the setting of your choice. Mourners can then pay their last respects in the way they remember you — at least the way you want them to remember you.

Even before reading this crazy headline (one I’m sure The New York Post envied) “Rite of the Sitting Dead: Funeral Poses Mimic Life”, I thought something was a tad off about the woman in sunglasses sitting with cigarette in one hand, a glass in the other and a Busch beer by her side. Turns out — she’s dead! This picture was taken at her wake. Weird, right? This and the other images in the article (you have to look!) got me thinking about the question of ‘what do you want on your gravestone?’ to the ‘nth’ degree. How can you not start imagining what you’d like the last visual of you to be?

NYTs article

I don’t mean to be blithe about death but as someone with a few terrible last visuals of loved ones, I appreciate this somewhat macabre idea of creating a desirable last image of someone. Why not? Bizarre but with a touch of whimsy — even humor. And even if you’d never (and I’d never) consider actually doing such a thing, the exercise of coming up with a scene that best captures who you are, fascinates me.

What vignette would you choose as your swan-song? Writing at your desk perhaps? Eating a fine meal? Gardening? Reading? (that might be mine) Fishing? Watching football in front of the TV? The possibilities are apparently endless. And why not take it a step further and include in your diorama, previously (I hope!) deceased pets who you’ve had the foresight to taxidermy? Why not? In case you’re interested in that service, here’s another NYT’s article on that subject and a photo from the same article.

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According to an intern funeral director quoted in today’s article, these kind of services don’t need to cost much more than a regular funeral. And in case you don’t know how much a funeral runs these days, here’s another NYT’s article from 2011 on that very subject.

Like I said, I really love The New York Times — so maybe I should be buried with it after being posed at my wake reading it in front of the fireplace or outside on my wicker chaise, depending upon the season. Hey, It’s never too early to start planning our grand exit into eternity – and why not be well informed and entertained to boot?

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An Unexpected Expat Birth

UNICEF’s mission is to protect children and their mothers so when bombs began falling on Zagreb in May 1995, my employers insisted I take an early maternity leave from my job as a Program Officer. I gladly exited the bitter Balkan war zone where I’d spent almost 4 years and joined my husband in Italy. He’d left a month earlier for a new job, renting an extravagant villa in the picturesque town of Ostuni – about 40 minutes away from his office in Brindisi.

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Behind the villa, a narrow staircase led to a hidden lemon and lime grove. Cherry trees full of ripe fruit and a magnificent rose garden filled the grounds. I would while away the hot June days in this fantasy location before traveling to Oxford England where my friend Chloe, a breastfeeding specialist and midwife I’d worked with at UNICEF, would deliver our baby girl who was due August 1. That was our plan.

I spent my days waddling across the cool tile floors, napping in various rooms in the too-big house, picking fruit and deadheading flowers in the garden, reading Willa Cather, cooking delicious dinners — imagining that some how, all of this was practice for my imminent new life as mother. Those pregnant, sweaty days, strangely alone in Southern Italy, far from friends and family, I washed and folded the soft, tiny baby gear and imagined my baby, trying out different names aloud to no one but the cats.

On the roof, I wrestled our sheets over the laundry line where they dried within minutes in the hot wind whipping up the coast. Beyond the golden fields of sunflowers stretching out towards the horizon, shimmered a sliver of the Adriatic. Just across the sea from my little paradise, war still raged and I felt guilty about my own escape. Meanwhile my baby elbowed, shoved and squirmed within me, insisting I pay attention to her.

My maternal hankerings had survived 4 years of life in a war zone, even as I witnessed the worst in humans. There was nothing I wanted more than this baby although I had no idea how to care for an infant. Far from friends and my own mother, whose advice I might have disdained anyway, there were no baby showers, no chance for baby tips from my peers. I looked forward to traveling to England at the end of June where I could easily make friends in my own language with other new mothers-to-be in a birthing class I’d sign up for.

Instead, just after siesta time on June 13th, in a frantic fifteen minutes, my baby girl was delivered in a tiny hospital in Ostuni almost 2 months early. From there, they whisked her away by ambulance to Brindisi Hospital’s neonatology unit.

I woke from my drug induced sleep, in a dark hospital room that felt like a 1930′s movie set.  Other new mothers slept in the other 7 old fashioned, heavy metal framed beds.  A full moon shone in warped rays through the glass of the casement window, a weird spotlight on only my bed. I clutched the hospital gown closed behind me, while dodging balloons bobbing from the other beds, celebrating the babies safely swaddled just down the hall. Where was my baby? Hobbling barefoot past the life-size statue of Virgin Mary whose lightbulb halo lit the hall, my physical pain was indistinguishable from the psychic pain tearing through me. Was my daughter alive? With remembered prayers from my Catholic upbringing, I begged Mary for her intervention and continued down the hall where I was met by a nurse.

With a smattering of Italian words, I begged the sleepy woman to help me call my husband or the hospital to find out news of my baby. I knew no phone numbers, there were no cell phones. The nurse insisted everyone was asleep and I would need to wait until morning. She steered me back to the maternity ward where I sunk into my still moonlit mattress and wept.

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When morning finally arrived, my husband came barreling into an impossibly bright room, he was grinning. She was alive! He rushed to my bedside and told me his story of the day before: how he sped after the ambulance, about the sweet care and expertise of the doctors, of their assurance our baby would be fine, how he tried to call to tell me but the hospital insisted I was sleeping and was it okay that he had gone ahead and named our daughter, choosing our current favorite womb-name because they wanted a name at the hospital. Yes, yes, I said while trying, through tears to see my daughter in the photograph he’d brought. It was another 2 days until the hospital released me to go to her, and during that time I joyfully clutched that sad little image of my baby poked full of tubes, tiny limbs akimbo, and thought: she is perfect.

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The BEA, and the Crapshoot of Event Audiences

Last week’s Book Expo America at the Javits Center in NYC was like a gathering of a huge clan.  I felt almost a familial recognition as I moved with the mobs traipsing through the convention center. These were my people - book people. For four days, publishers, distributors, and authors welcomed passionate booksellers, librarians and on Saturday, the public, to peruse new and upcoming books, schmooze, meet their favorite authors and score signed books and Advanced Reader Copies.

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It was my first time at #BEA and I went alone. Unsure what my stamina or crowd-tolerance might be, I wanted to be free to linger or leave. In fact, I wandered the exhibits for hours chatting with publishers, reveling in the pleasure of being a ‘customer’, diving into book displays, taking only what I absolutely couldn’t resist since my shelves are already sagging. I did not bring any bags with me (never mind a shopping cart like some) but when I spotted this tote slung over a few shoulders, I just had to have one.

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The long lines to meet authors did not tempt me. Having hosted author events for so many years, any thrill in a signature I ever might have had is gone. What I could not do is pass by an author alone behind their stack of books, or ignore someone’s call to me, ‘would you like an autographed book?’ — what could I say? No? Of course not. I chatted and gratefully accepted signed copies, increasing my weight-bearing workout as the day progressed. Somehow, I can’t help feeling responsible for the struggling author.

I did consider waiting for David Mitchell who was signing at 2:00 PM but instead happened by the delightful and entertaining “Women of Contemporary Fiction” panel featuring bestselling novelists Liane Moriarty, Amy Bloom, Randy Susan Meyers, Susan Jane Gilman, moderated by Elin Hilderbrand. Elin asked the hysterically funny, self-deprecating and whip-smart authors on the panel to share their career low-point. Amy Bloom began and the others followed with tales of poorly attended book signings — audiences composed only of the local homeless guy and their parents.

It struck me that these established authors value their events to the extent that a bad one might qualify as a career low-point. Conversely, huge crowds were not anyone’s measure of a high-point. Instead, their highs were more intimate like Susan Jane Gilman calling her inspiring high school English teacher (who happened to be Frank McCourt!) to tell him she was on the NYT’s Bestseller list. I suspect half the audience was in tears with Susan, still mourning this beloved man and writer. I was.

Of course a writer emerges from solitude with high hopes, excited to present their art to the world – so a poor showing can feel like a gut punch. Every author accumulates these ‘war stories’ like a rite of passage, but hearing them makes me squirm. As an event coordinator, empty chairs are at least partly my fault and I berate myself that I should have done a better job of beating-the-bushes, distributing more flyers, etc. Although there have been times, even recently, that I screamed an event from the rooftops and still only 3 people showed up. What to do?

Disappointments are rarer now that I am straight with authors in telling them friends and family are their best support so they better ask them to come. The public won’t just show up because you finished your book — unless you’re a ‘name’. Even then, celebrities, movie moguls and famous musicians live in the town where I work and rarely get a second glance, so even if you’re famous, don’t expect the line to be out the door. Everything is relative, of course. If your beloved Aunt lives in town and promised to bring all her friends, 15 filled chairs are just dandy. If you have your own radio show, or are a 1960′s folk icon and there are 20 people there, it feels like a dud.  Chances are you’ll be disappointed, maybe miffed, or like the 60′s icon, surly and irritated because his adoring crowd was only about that many. (Well sorrr-ry no one remembers or cares. Can you tell that he pissed me off?)

Us event-folks know what a crapshoot these things can be. We struggle with how many books to order because no one likes returns. While it’s tempting to ask a bookseller to take their name tag off and pretend to be a devoted fan, I’ve never done it. (they have work to do!) It’s the suburbs so we can’t drag people in off the street like in a city where you could cajole with some coffee. We feel badly when things go badly. But there are definitely things that can be done by both of us – and don’t underestimate the power of your dear Aunt Edith or better yet, your mother!

The key is team-work. Here’s the team: you and if you have one, certainly your publicist, the store’s event coordinator, your friends and family, your writers’ group, your neighbors… you get the idea. In the old days it helped to get a feature article in one of the local newspapers and it still doesn’t hurt so you might try and connect with a local book reviewer. You should do this. I can try but I’m also very busy trying to score thousands of dollars worth of corporate and school sales and besides, if I ask journalists to write up every author that came through, well, it’s like the story of the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ and they’re not going to listen to me. Better if you knock on that door.

Kid’s author events are even tougher than adult ones – at least in this community where many schools pay for very big name authors to come to them. After school, they are scheduled to the hilt so competition for these budding over-achievers is tough — no matter how adorable your book is. See if you can set up school visits before the evening store event with pre-sales. Do your best to mesmerize the kids and create a spectacular buzz inspiring kids to come see you at the store later. That’s what New York Times Bestselling Children’s author Sarah Mylinowski recently did when she spent a marathon day with me, cheerfully trooping around to elementary schools, charming everyone she met. And at 7:00 PM at the store, her event was standing room only.

Here’s what your event will look like when the day comes. I will set you up in a visible spot far enough away from the grinding espresso machine and whirring blender. You’ll have a mic and a healthy stack of books and a few backlist titles if available. I’ll have Sharpies and a ballpoint in case you prefer that. Want a coffee or water? I’ll do a short and sweet introduction for you based on any information you sent me weaving in some great review soundbites. You’ll have your talk ready having thought about it carefully. (here’s what I suggest.) The team will have done the work so the chairs will be full. At least 15 of them.

Of course there are benefits to an in-store event beyond the event itself. Free publicity and in-store real estate for a week or more. Bookstores may Tweet and/or share it on their Facebook page. You should do the same. Did you write a book on gardening? Contact all the local gardening groups and ask them to join you at the store — what a great opportunity for them to also network with other gardeners not in their group. You get the idea. Tap into existing groups and present your an event as an opportunity for them to spread the word about what you all care about. This is still not any guarantee of a crowd though so try not to get delusional. Think of every event like your party — because it is! Invite your friends and let’s sell some books.

 

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