Pansies!

Garden centers are selling pansies. Out of all the flowers in the world, pansies are not particularly ‘lookers’. Their blooms are small, like silly little comic-faces and they get scraggly too fast (I know: you’re supposed to pinch them back) and they have no scent.  Still, I will pick up a few plants and pop them into the window box outside my kitchen window, and even if it snows again, these brave blossoms will reassure me that spring is almost here.

March is always a teasing month.  After some stunning, cloudless, warm days, yesterday and today are cold and rainy (but not snowing!) today with winds that keep the metal chimes left hanging on the porch since summer, furiously tinging away. Yesterday, the neighborhood hawk went swooping so low across the sky,  I was able to see him shifting his red tail, catching the wind steering him to a a distant tree. I say ‘he’ because upon landing, he  hopped onto the back of another hawk.  Mating hawks in the neighborhood – exciting. Watch out squirrels!

Yesterday we spent the day cleaning up outside, working in our shirt sleeves, pausing to drink tea and eat lunch in the sun.  Glorious!  Four crocus in bloom – a set of purple on one side of the garden and yellow on the other.  By the time the sun retreated below the tree line, the yellow ones had tightened up into torpedos against the cold of night. There is a lot of work to be done – we beat a quick retreat indoors from winter. Broken birdhouses, flower pots, garden furniture and tools, half-done projects are strewn about, abandoned to the winter elements.

Yesterday, we raked leaves – a job we do not do in the autumn, preferring to mow them up into shreds for mulch. At least that’s our reasoning. But there are bags worth of leaves out there still, and my compost pile is full.  We cut back the butterfly bushes to  stubs and made trips to the dump. Our neighbors do this before winter sets in, but by the end of summer, we preferred to spend our free time kayaking and then, we just lost heart.  Closing down our favorite season makes us sad.  Now, fired up for spring just around the corner and glad to be in the sun, we attack these tasks with joy.

Also in the spirit of clean-up, I am back to my book for rewrites based on the good advice of a venerable agent. It’s been months since I’ve immersed myself in this story – my story – and while I feel inspired to make it stronger, I am also dragging my feet, reluctant to recollect those dark days again, like a return to winter. Perhaps I can pretend I am revising fiction – but then – what a different story I would tell.

More Snow and Some Good Books

Dashed hopes of an early spring as we get walloped by another snow storm. Good thing I have my wall of ‘books-to-be read’ in place – a dam against the winter doldrums. Thanks to my sister for alerting me to Claire Keegan’s short story in last week’s New Yorker. She warned me that I would not be able to read it with dry eyes and of course, she was right. I’m talking sobs.  The next day I searched for more Keegan at the bookstore (yes, it’s nice to work in the proverbial candyshop!) and scooped up a collection of short stories, Walk the Blue Fields.  Not a sentence that doesn’t sing. Her writing is powerfully poignant without being manipulative. Familiar characters for anyone who grew up with an emotionally unavailable father. Publishers will have to go back and print more of her books because there were none available to order when I checked – lucky I found one on the shelf. If you’d like to read the story:  www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/02/…/100215fi_fiction_keegan

Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich’s newest book also held me in an emotional headlock for the two days. I have so far to go as a writer – whew – each of Erdrich’s sentences are perfect and not one to spare.  An almost frightening thread of passions (love and hate) runs through the book, woven through gorgeous images of a frigid, winter.  But there is no reprieve when the thaw comes. Such smart and poetic writing and a compelling, painful story – very close to the bone.  Although I felt an all-too-familiar sense of dread throughout the telling of this doomed marriage, I could not tear myself away.

I am also reading an Advance Reader Copy of a book due out in March: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous.  A young American woman goes to Japan to teach English not long after her father commits suicide. It reads a bit like a memoir – or maybe I think that just because I read everything with a comparative eye to my own book and wondering how to tell the story, weighing the pros and cons of telling a tale in fiction vs. non-fiction.  Watrous tells a good story.  She brilliantly captures the life of an expatriate in Japan and what a perfect setting for the shocking and strange, sad limbo land of being a survivor of a loved one’s suicide. Read this and you’ll fall in love with each of the strange and wonderful characters in this tiny Japanese village where the main character – Marina – finds for herself and brings to others, healing and hope.  A good read that I’ll look forward to hand-selling in the store.

What next?  I guess I could get back to the WordPress for Dummies book to try and figure out how to make this site a little more interesting…zzzzzzzzz.

Winter’s End

The last week of this short, cold and snowy month is here, and with it, welcome signs of spring. The sun’s pace seems to have slowed as it slips across the sky, lingering a little longer in warm patches throughout the house.  The dog follows the light, curling into the heat and I try and make it up into the bedroom to read by the last glow, mellowing into reds and finally, blues of dusk-to-night. Garden catalogues are stacked and two cherry trees ordered.  Yesterday, the snow mostly melted, we walked the yard, assessing what needs to be done.  There will be at least another snow, or maybe more – but we are on the right side of winter – the final leg – so I can bear it.  The branch tips are heavy with buds and the birds seem to be singing different songs and for a few hours each day, I forget about the cold night still ahead.

Enough Time

I lost my focus today and for a while, felt like I was wrestling with time – and we know who always wins that match.  I woke early, went to the grocery store before the crowds descended, and then planned to go to a kickboxing class at the gym.  But by the time I got home to drop the groceries and change, it was only 20 minutes until the class began.  While tying my second sneaker, I decided rather than rush like mad, I would not go. I was disappointed and felt like I just don’t have enough time. I have so much I have to do and so much else I want to do, and like most Americans, two days off to do it in. Good thing I like my job – and of course the theme these days is – ‘you’re lucky to have one’ and I absolutely feel that – but also dream about having more of that 40 hours a week to myself.

But here I am bitching about not enough time – and yet, who knows how many years, months, moments we have anyway? When it comes down to it – all I really have is time so why am I feeling sorry for myself?  What I can do, is a better job of paying attention to each minute. Mindfully wash those dishes, fold those clothes and make that soup or just screw the housecleaning, hug my kid, climb back into bed with my man and remember how lucky I really am.

Oh – a postscript: that exercise class I was trying to rush off to started at 7:30 so I would have missed it anyway.

Snow Day

A welcome pause.  If I close my eyes and listen, it is as if I live in the country surrounded by woods. All I hear (besides the dripping sink!) is the whoosh of wind through the trees. The usual drone of traffic from the nearby highway is muted by snow – already 6 inches deep and falling so fast that the plows can’t keep up. Nothing to do but stay inside, read, write, cook, dream. Maybe the laundry.  There is no urgency and it feels like a real vacation day. And outside, everything is beautiful.

There are things I need to do – like sort my tax papers out for next week’s appointment with my tax wizard. There are things I should do like sort out messy closets, but my loves are out of the house – and here in this relative silence, alone, (sweet because it’s rare) I feel motivated to do none of the above.  I miss working on my book but feel in a strange hiatus as I wait with fingers crossed, for a response from the agent who has agreed to consider it.  I do not feel ready to move on to the next thing – for one, there is no obsession (yet) to tell a story – not like there was with Light Between Shadows, but also because, I am (hopefully) imagining feedback and suggestions from agents and editors that will have me back to the drawing board.  I wait and try enjoy this limbo, like a snow day.

Here is what I will cook today:

Thinly sliced beets tossed lightly in olive oil and sea salt and roasted until they are crispy.

Roasted leeks, onions, garlic, garlic, and more garlic, and potatoes into a pot with chicken stock with lots of fresh ginger. Half of it pureed with a handful of frozen spinach. Yum.

Sleep, perchance to… sleep? And a rambling about books.

Sometimes I wake in the dark, early hours wanting to write about something. Go on, get up and write, I urge myself.  The bed is so warm and the air so frigid, I never do. In the light of morning, I have no recollection of what inspired me in the dark. Not surprising really, since these days, I never remember so much as a flash of a dream. Nights are delicious, nourishing voids.

Not that I don’t miss crazy escapades of the remembered subconscious, waking with a sense of  having had adventures -but only a little. In years past, I suffered so many sleepless nights worrying, that I savour this gift of solid sleep, these nights, slumped on the couch by 9:00 PM.

Most nights, I try and read before conking out completely, curled up under the quilt – what luxury.  The stacks of books-to-be-read continue to grow into teetering towers around the house.  Advanced Readers Copies picked up from work are on every table and stacked on shelves of already full bookcases.  Currently, I am hooked on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – a best seller that many friends and readers I share tastes with, have raved about.  I am half-way through and while crime thrillers are not my  usual reading taste, and the violence makes me wince, I  know I’ll need to read his next one too. Not exactly bedtime reading but I can’t put it down.  And still, no dreams (or nightmares!).

Borrowed from the store (a great benefit of my job) is Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD – a refreshingly, rare from an MD, holistic take on proactively dealing with this sucky disease. War of the cells and what we can do to stack the odds in our favor. Things we know, but I for one, need reminding of –  like layoff the white stuff – sugar, flour. Exercise. And drink red wine! Being positive and having friends – recently this attitude has taken a beating (by Barbara Ehrenreich of Nickled and Dimed fame for example)but I know what kind of person I prefer to be around and unless you’re really funny in your bleakness, I’ll choose the positive attitude any day.  Back to this book -it is interesting because the author is in this battle himself, and has survived past ‘the odds’ – something he poignantly addresses. This is the book I dip into between driving my teenager to and fro.

I even checked a book out of the library the other day – Pretty Birds a novel by NPR’s weekend edition, Scott Simon published in 2005, is my downstairs book.  I don’t know how I missed reading this since it is about Sarajevo during the war and I compulsively read anything on that time and place – whether fiction or non-fiction. The first few chapters of my memoir are set in Bosnia during the war so I can’t help reading other people’s work with a comparative eye. Of course, my story is more about the war of addiction and Sarajevo is the fitting (and true backdrop) for launching my story. I’ve only read a chapter but it’s already compelling.

Recent temperatures have been arctic and I long for spring – but I realize that when it comes, my reading time will shrink with the demand and draw of the garden and sun.  Maybe winter is not so terrible after all.

Wolf Moon

The moonlight was so incredible last night that I should have weathered the cold and tromped through a wood. Instead, I stayed warm inside, merely peering out  at the amazing glow cast  by the first full moon of the year. Stunning.

Coincidentally, on Wednesday I read How the Moon Regained Her Shape by Janet Ruth Heller (a beautiful Native American inspired fable) to a group of inner city third graders. It was our first meeting but I will be visiting them monthly, bringing a book with me to read, learning their names and personalities.  Already I have a sense of a few of them. There’s the inevitable little boy with all the answers – bright eyed and enthusiastic – furiously waving his hand in the air to speak at any chance. The one I most want to engage is the girl in the back who battled to keep her eyes open, her head resting on the desk through my hour there. What kept this little one from getting a good night’s sleep?  I worry, imagining the worst.  I know it is not possible for me to fix what is wrong in her life by I hope that maybe one day I can bring a book that is an anchor for her, or at least brightens dark nights like the light of last night’s moon.

One day a month – is all I am able to commit to and that doesn’t feel like much. Ultimately, I imagine  I will probably remember more of our time together than them. In the strange glow cast by last night’s moon, I can’t help believing that some magical synergy is in the works.  As I looked out the window, I imagined each of the children from that classroom also catching sight of the moon and remembering the book we read together and realizing the possibilities offered by books and nature – a sense of magic offered beyond the immediate.  Did they feel it too?

Milestone

This morning, I popped the last white pill from the prescription bottle and tossed the empty bottle into the trash. After five years, it seemed unceremonious. There will be no more refills – I am done with Tamoxifen, the drug I diligently took to hedge my bets against breast cancer.  I am a pharmaceutical skeptic –  but was not willing to venture out on my own against this disease. I have diligently followed doctors’ orders, hoping to keep cancer at bay by religiously swallowing a pill every morning. Finishing the recommended protocol, I feel a mixture of relief and anxiety.  Fleeting thoughts that this little pill really was some kind of panacea. But I know better: there is no such thing.

The best I can do to try to edge up the odds in my favor, is to eat only the best of food, to drink red wine only in moderation, exercise these aging bones, but most of all, stay happy.  I am a complete believer in the mind-body connection.  I don’t think it was any coincidence that I was diagnosed only months after my husband’s suicide.  For years I had been tautly wound with stress, pain, worry, grief.  Since then I have learned to keep my toxicity radar finely tuned.  I try to pay attention more – to everything, starting with the breath – how life begins and ends.

At Last…

Solitude and silence.  These conditions are best for me to find the place in my mind where words wait. It takes time for me to navigate through the clutter in my head.  Writing has become my meditation – allowing me focus and clarity for the rest of the day, and I have missed it.

Recent mornings, I have been glued to stories from Haiti where so many lives were swallowed up by the earth. Staggering, sobering stories.  I look at the ceiling of my home and imagine it crashing down upon my family.  I am grateful for the standing walls and roof of my house, the food, water, electricity – the health and well being of my love ones.  I am grateful that for now, this is my lot and humbly send what I can to the wonderful organization, http://www.msf.org/MSF.

During my days as a United Nations Peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, Medicin San Frontiers was the organization first in and last to leave.  It is one of the least bureaucratic of all relief organizations – meaning your money really goes to work helping people on the ground rather than paying for someone to write reports in an office.  Please check out this wonderful organization.  And savor your good life.