Hannah Arendt wrote, “Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.” I’m finding this to be true in ways I never would have expected, but I don’t believe we need radical departures to achieve something of this state of mind.
In her novel, Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck writes that Richard, newly released from an academic career, “. . . has time – plain and simple. Time to travel, people say. To read books. Time to listen to music. He doesn’t know how long it will take for him to get used to having time.” He’s uncomfortable. All those open days. But in those open hours he finds a self that has been waiting. Richard is more complex, more generous, and far more human and connected than he dreamed.
But waiting until retirement for life to feel true is as terrible as waiting for opportunities to be overseas. Yes, both gave me permission to allow all that was extraneous and distracting to fall away. What I didn’t know is that I didn’t need permission.
Gordon Mennega recently recounted the experience of a colleague who has found a way to balance professional duties with much more contemplative time. The result, in Gordon’s words, is that thinking feels almost new.
The thinking feels almost new. That’s exactly it. Grounded but fresh.
I’ve discovered that my work has been keeping secrets from me. Suddenly I see this novel draft clearly and what all those unfinished short stories are asking to become. If I’d fully understood the true cost of distraction and bedevilment prior to the major life changes I undertook last year, I like to think I would have taken advantage sooner.
But I celebrate. Loving life fully instead of only bits and pieces is better late than never.
The Harlem River Bridge was open and stuck. The Metro-North train I was taking to Grand Central for the shuttle to JFK and my flight back to Portugal was, according to announcements, delayed “indefinitely” while waiting for “the Army Corps of Engineers to figure out how to close it.” Minutes ticked by. The hour of cushion I had given myself dissolved.
We weren’t parked completely between stops. The last car sat beside the Fordham station platform. One by one, and then in droves, people left in search of options.
While discussing my own choices with a conductor – a taxi, but taxis rarely stop there; Uber, but my Portugal phone had already refused to call Uber; the subway with a stop two blocks west, but I’m unfamiliar with the Bronx, had luggage, hours and hours of travel ahead, and rarely took the subway even when I lived in New York — I said, “I won’t be doing subways.” A nearby woman pounced, eyes flashing, her voice a bark: “We’re not stupid!” she told me. “It’s two blocks.”
Perhaps I’d once been accosted in a subway, or had been trapped, or fallen asleep to find myself in Brooklyn instead of Broadway and Lafayette. Perhaps a medical condition precluded my walking any blocks or descending and ascending stairs with two carry-ons. I travel lightly, but not empty-handed.
But no. No thought to any other possibility other than, “We’re not stupid!” implying that while she wasn’t, I was.
I left the train to take a look at the street – a stray taxi perhaps? A flash of inspiration? – hoping it didn’t leave without me before I’d figured something out.
Three women stood just outside the station door, one twenty-something, one thirty-something, one eighty-something. I overheard the thirty-something say “Grand Central.”
“Grand Central?” I said. “You’re headed to Grand Central?”
“Yes. Uber. Want to join us?”
So, the four of us, capable and competent and resourceful, climbed into an Uber car so small there weren’t enough seat belts to head into Manhattan. The older woman was joining friends for a play. The two younger ones had meetings with clients. And I, of course, was travelling,
Not one of us stupid.
Perhaps the woman on the train believes she’s empowered, and that it’s her job to empower me and any woman she encounters who isn’t exhibiting her, ah, strength. Perhaps she thinks she represents a proper sort of feminism.
Whatever her reasoning, I reject it. And happily embrace women who join forces.
I’ve never opened a book without a pen. Audio books? Never! What would I do with my hands? My annotations are an elaborate system that fill most pages. My son calls them the rantings of a mad women. Maybe so. I don’t care. I am madly in love with my books.
But I’m suddenly in love with audio books, too. Having given myself time and permission to listen, I’m hearing so much more.
The change came while working with Talece Brown on Vanishing Point. We spent hours (with her on the West Coast and me in Connecticut, these hours were often in the middle of my night) deciding on characters’ voices and how to convey the novel’s core. Talece brought new dimensions to the characters I thought I knew so well, not only through dialogue but with a beautiful portrayal of the scenery of their inner and outer lives. She saw my story as a movie, and her vision shines through.
As we approached the release date, I finally heard friends singing the praises of audio books, how they enable them to make use of what could feel like lost time, commuting or doing chores. A few even say they’d never ‘read’ if it weren’t for audio books on their smartphones.
In a recent Facebook post, George Saunders recognized some readers, unable to figure out Lincoln in the Bardo’s format, had given up. I hadn’t given up, but intrigued by its 150-plus voices, his was my first purchase. I was rewarded. People came alive. Descriptions sung. Tough passages became crystal clear.
At the end of long reading and writing days, I don’t want to pick up another book but neither do I want to stop working. I’d been wanting to revisit classics, but who has the time with such steep stacks of new books? Enter audio books. Wharton, Woolf (Nicole Kidman’s To the Lighthouse!), D.H. Lawrence. And now I’m sampling new releases to decide which to read and which to hear. Which ones are calling you?
Finally, a revelation. About limitations. The limitation of having only my voice in my head, only my interpretations, my emphases, my biases. Listening to books by authors I’ve read more than once, I’ve heard – for the first time – lines and whole paragraphs I’d skipped over that are not only interesting, sometimes stunning, but crucial.
We writers can become more aware of rhythms in our own work by listening to the pulses of others’ being read out loud.
I’m not likely to join the ranks of audio-book junkies, but . . . while writing this . . . downloaded two more. Naturally, I hope you’ll give Vanishing Point a try: http://amzn.to/2CB1Lv6
Wishing you joyous celebrations. And a happy exploration of the spoken word!
Illus: Google Images
Hello all. What a week politically. Here’s some distraction.
Curious what sort of story caught Reese Witherspoon’s imagination — she snapped up the movie rights — I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Social misfit, physically-damaged Eleanor (“There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into”) first shares her brand new Hollywood bikini wax (I had no idea) but moves on to things like this: “I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist . . . is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.” Eleanor is delightfully capable of change. Honeyman’s quick, light prose has just enough fun and just enough suspense. You might see the movie, but read the book first!
Emily Fridlund is a friend of my own friend and priceless mentor, Gordon Mennenga. Her History of Wolves, long listed for the Booker Prize, is an excellent choice for a snowy winter night. The brilliantly observant 14-year old Linda copes with family love and family loss deep in the north woods of Minnesota. Linda’s mom implores her to ” ‘ . . . feel clean for a second, okay? Just feel good. . . . We’re starting over, you and me. I’m trying to get God on our side, do things different. So you can be a happy little kid again, got it? Can you just be a little kid for one second?’ I wasn’t sure what else I could be.” As I wrote on Goodreads, “Completely absorbing. Beautifully and honestly told.”
My own Connected Underneath is also story about family, and love, and the choices we make. Small stones create far-reaching ripples in the lives of wheelchair-bound Celeste, Theo, a single ex-biker dad, and his adopted daughter, Persephone. “[Theo] came to realize – we all come to realize – our search isn’t for family, exactly, but for connection, connections that will keep us, so we won’t drown, won’t fly off, something that will connect us underneath.”
And I’m going to throw this out there: Ron Chernow’s Hamilton — I know. A bit lengthy for this busy time of year, but, I’ve read nearly all the other Chernow biographies — astonishingly, they read like novels — and don’t know why I put this one off for so long. It provides fascinating insight into those Founding Fathers our politicians constantly evoke. Chernow gets to the truth about those early years of our republic, fraught with discontent and disagreement. We nearly didn’t make it, and yet here we are. Or, so far, here we are. Take a look — even if you’ve seen the musical!
These titles are readily available in all the usual places, but please support your local independent bookstores.
Nice to see you! Thanks for checking in.
Yesterday, The New Yorker Radio Hour featured Bruce Springsteen. Asked what he would have done if no record contract had ever come through, he said, ‘What I’d always done. Play music. I had no other skill.’ The fact that most writers can’t make a living with their work is no secret. But still, we write. We write because we have to. We don’t know anything else — even as most of us have developed other skills to support ourselves so that we can afford to write.
During these difficult times, stories, essays, articles, poetry — the words we use to share our experiences and our angst — are keeping us connected, granting us a sense of unity, and enabling us to move forward.
In this holiday season, I ask you all to support our work. Buy a book. Buy two books. In any format. Give them as gifts. To your family and friends, and to yourself. Discover a new writer. Re-discover an old one. Yes, of course, I am hoping that you will buy mine, but over the next weeks, I’m going to suggest titles from my latest stack.
Feel free to add yours in the comments!
The transition from a whirlwind trip – a few days in NYC to tie up loose ends and a few in Connecticut and Massachusetts to see family and friends – to this different apartment in a different part of Coimbra has been bumpy with jet lag, second-guessing, and questions.
What am I doing here?
When first arriving back in August, I knew the studio stay was temporary. I knew that in two months I’d be back in the states. This time, I have a lease and no planned trips ‘home.’ How will things work out? In this country? In this city? In this apartment?
Years ago, before moving into a Boston Back Bay apartment with two tiny, street-level windows, I had unsettling dreams about large dark windows sprouting wildly in weirdly alive walls. Later, in New York, the gargoyles hovering outside my 10th floor window caused nightmares so terrifying I had to move out.
Thankfully, this apartment, which I found just two days before flying to New York, has prompted no bad dreams, but, still, I worried, and worry still: Will I be productive here? What about my new neighborhood? My new neighbors? In-town apartments are surprisingly difficult to come by, so my new place hasn’t the European charm I’d imagined, but the apartment itself is cozy, and the people renting it to me extraordinarily kind. I’m in the gray monolith, way up high on the left:
The view is panoramic — I can see the sun both rise and set — but seems less immediate, less personal, than my views from the studio. But I can’t complain, not with the New Cathedral, the University bell tower, the Mondega River and surrounding hills. Here’s an early morning idea:
My new street name is a tongue-twister — Rua Doutour Antonio Jose de Almeida. I no longer need to climb up and down a relentlessly steep hill just to buy milk. My favorite parts of town are farther away. The coffee in the nearest cafes is just as good. And the wine. And the vegetables and cheeses and breads.
The people are just as kind – like the man on the train who noticed my heavy luggage and helped me get it to the platform even though his stop wasn’t Coimbra; the woman who walked me all the way to this street when I lost my way coming back from a shop my first morning here; and, of course, the warmth and generosity of my young landlord and his family.
Friends ask what typical days look like now. Very much like they did in Connecticut, and very much like other writers’ days. I write, read, paint, take walks, meet friends . . . it will take awhile to feel comfortable in these new rooms. I’m patient.
A shout out to ex-pats Linda and Vince, and a special thanks to Linda: she read both my books, Connected Underneath and Vanishing Point, while I was gone!
And we went shopping for furniture today — the apartment came with only a little — we lugged a writing table home in a taxi!
Unlike Connecticut, there’s no car to drive. No dogs to walk. No classes to teach. Few easy conversations in English. The water heater is attached to a wall in the kitchen. I light the stove burners with a match. The clothesline is at a freaky height – looking down at it causes me to hyperventilate. There are no screens on the windows. I’m likely to lose things.
There’s good news: I thought of this as home today. I wrote a new chapter. I’m optimistic. But this for real. I live here now.
P.S. Connected Underneath and Vanishing Point are available from Lethe Press, Amazon, and your indie bookstore. Vanishing Point is also available as a yummy audio book.