Monthly Archives: January 2012

Word Search

I am looking for a word that may not exist in the English language. “Generative” is the closest I can find to describe what I’m after, but only with a great deal of pulling and stretching. What I want is a word to express the consideration of generations other than one’s own, both older and younger. Can “generative” do all of that?

MacMillan dictionary defines generative as “capable of producing something.” Merriam Webster as “having the power of function of generating, originating, producing or reproducing.” The Free Online Dictionary as “of or relating to the production of offspring.” None of these work. A quick search on the internet turns up Generative Learning as “learning that fosters experimentation and open-mindedness,” and Generative Leadership, “the ability to evoke creativity (in people or situations)” or “providing contexts or conditions in which good things can come into being.” Nice, but not entirely what I am after.

I’ve noticed that we tend to get locked in our own generation like a gated community—gated with denial, while, as with races and cultures, there are so many more benefits to be gained by associating outside of it. One of the richest experiences each week in my life is the writing workshop I conduct at a local retirement home. The participants in the workshop turn their memories into stories, and week by week they are, in effect, writing their memoirs. I consider them some of my dearest friends, and role models on how best to age. Remember they came of age with Roosevelt, not Reagan, and are often times more liberal, more progressive, than their own children or many of today’s young.

One moment we are young and sliding down banisters. The next moment, it seems, we are reminding ourselves to hold onto the rail, not wear socks on the stairs, and take it slowly. How can it go unnoticed that life slips by speedily, and should we be so fortunate, we will all be in our nineties one day? My elderly friends tell me that “it is like being invisible, going to town, or riding a bus, people seem not to notice us.” How can we not see ourselves one day in every one of them?

Just as children enrich our lives, the aged can grace it beyond measure. One is an elixir of innocence and imagination, the other, of wisdom and acceptance. Navigating midlife, I want them both as ballast. It’s a matter of where-we-came-from and where-we-are-going, as we search for what-is-the-meaning-of life. This is our quest.

My father paraphrased it, “Life goes on until it ends.” I just think we need to be both beaming the headlights and looking out all sides, the rear view mirror and side mirror, as we travel along.

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Standing Room Only

Anyhow: from my standpoint the only thing—if you’re some sort of artist—is to work a little harder than you can at being who you are. While if you’re an unartist nothing but big and quick recognition matters.

                                                                        e.e. cummings, in a letter to his daughter

 

When my aunt was single and in her early twenties, she worked as a flight attendant. No one in the family today can recall the airlines, but knowing how glamorous she was, I am going to put her in a Pan Am uniform for the sake of the story. In any case, she flew a transatlantic airline for a few years in the 1950’s.

As a child I adored the collection of vintage figurines my aunt brought back from abroad. German alpine woodcarvings, handcrafted and handpainted, which my grandmother displayed on a shelf in her home in Connecticut. I was asked not to play with them, so I sat and sketched them, filling notebooks with those folkloric characters.

Years later my aunt told of a time when one of her planes was grounded, in Germany I believe, and a passenger, a renowned composer and Soviet Jew, was ordered to be removed. She and the staff stood helpless, passengers sat frozen in their seats, for they all could guess where he was going… the 1950’s was still a time of remote forced labor camps in Siberia.

I was fourteen or fifteen when she told the story, tangled in adolescent angst, and I’m sure I gasped, saying something like, “Oh no, not an artisthow could they take an artist!”

I know this because I remember my uncle’s reaction. “What do you mean?” he turned and asked me. “Are you saying that an artist’s life is more valuable than say, a tree surgeon’s (what he happened to be), or anything else?”

And I believe I was unable to answer him, for my answer would have had to have been, “yes…”

Random, remembered scenes like this often contain larger truths. Perhaps that is why they linger, as it can take a lifetime to figure them out. Am I really an elitist? In this regard, it would seem so. An elitist about the arts. This is for those of us who grew up under the sheets and blankets with a flashlight, reading throughout the nights of our childhood. I don’t know how else to say it, but I loved my time alone.

Our house today is all about books and candles and music. Oh, and food. Walking by at night you won’t see the blue tint and quiver of a television light in our windows. “I have always imagined,” Jorge Luis Borges stated, “that paradise will be a kind of library.” Well I am making mine now. The dining room doubles as a library, the living room, a salon. I remember standing and applauding after reading The Third and Final Continent by Jhumpa Lahiri. So swept away was I, my living room became a Carnegie Hall for her debut collection of short stories that evening. It welcomes many such writers, though not always with a standing ovation.

Regularly, Benaroya Symphony Hall is filled to near capacity for visiting authors at Seattle Arts and Lectures. And when Anne Lamott came to town on book tour with her novel, Imperfect Birds, it seemed half the city’s population tried to squeeze into a smaller hall to see and hear her. We were there early and it was standing room only. Suddenly it reminded me of attending mass on an important religious holiday, say Palm Sunday, long ago. Looking around at the literary community on such a night, I thought, this is the new church.

For me it is and always has been. When I first began to lapse as a Catholic, my glamorous, Pan Am aunt tried to interest me in coming back. She was my godmother afterall and had a vested interest, by suggesting I might prefer High Mass. “The music, the vestments, why it’s like opera!” she exclaimed.

So I light every candle and dim the Venetian chandelier in my high-ceilinged living room and play Andrea Bocelli, and I am at church. In any case, I feel grace. Call it a Creative Force, a Creative Being, or The Great Creator, it’s the arts I worship. All of them.

 

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At Sixes and Sevens

I really don’t know what became of The Red Hat Society, but it turns out that my little bookgroup in Seattle could give it a run for its money. This Saturday we will be hosting a tea. How did it happen that women with a love for fine literature and wine or champagne and memoir until the wee hours, will be throwing a proper tea at two o’clock in the afternoon?

A younger woman joined our group a few years back. It was big of us to open our arms to her in that she is gorgeous, striking like a runway model because she was one—for Calvin Klein no less. Turns out she’s the most prolific reader in the group. Our challenge every month is to suggest a title she hasn’t yet read, but we love having her. In her company we all feel a little younger, hipper, smarter, and we’ve all made a conscious effort to be a bit more fashionable. That’s saying a lot in the land of Northface fleece, Merrill shoes, and Wellies.

Anyway while the rest of us have sat around quite comfortably, all being mothers of twenty-somethings off-somewhere-doing-something-splendid, our young friend is still immersed in the twenty-four hour job of raising a child day in and day out. You can tell because there is always a time that must be allotted for her to decompress. When she first joined our bookgroup, her daughter was three or four years of age. Now she is seven, and even A. A. Milne didn’t want to go there. “… now I am six, I’m as clever as clever. So I think I’ll be six now and forever.”  Apparently seven is more complicated. Even for an only child, precocious and enchanting, with perhaps more than one child’s share of the advantages that come from having two highly devoted and intellectual parents.

“Tell us,” we asked, “what can we do for her?”

And that’s when it hit us. We could rise up like aunties and throw a little tea party! She could bring her friend, and they in turn could bring their dolls. The American Girl doll, which is a phenomena in itself. Released in 1986 by Pleasant Company, the American Girl doll was there for our girls and they are here for today’s girls. Otherwise, god help us, it would be a total Barbie world. Really, we only had to turn to The American Girl catalog for ideas, but we were not born yesterday and had an inkling of what constitutes a proper tea. One of us remembered cucumber sandwiches in white bread, with the crusts cut off.

“Off with the skin on the cucumber as well!” she cried, recalling that too.

Everyone ran in every direction. The Calvin Klein model mother sped off saying something about “tulle and crinoline,” what she would wear, I think. I signed up for table décor, for which I intend to place small individual pails planted with bulbs: hyacinth and mini daffodils, at each setting for everyone to take home. We will make it look as springtime as possible. Petits fours, placed before the dolls, will look like splendid cakes.

The magic has begun. We are all nearly as giddy as we expect the girls to be on Saturday. The American Girl dolls, of course, will be composed. I turned to Fannie Farmer and Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking for further suggestions. Irma is especially helpful. She offers four menus for afternoon tea. One menu starts off with Dry Sherry, which we will skip. Tea #2, Dubonnet; Tea #3, Claret Cup; and May Wine for Tea #4. We will have to do without all of that, but I may make her Poppy Seed Custard Cake Cockaigne, p. 689. We will all take tea, and the dolls of course will have their own tea set too. Porcelain, of that we can be certain.

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“How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways…”

Every year at this time when transferring birthdays I want to remember onto the new wall calendar, I include those of the dearly departed. It’s my way of celebrating that person on his or her special day, be it a relative, friend, or dog. For in some families, dogs are people too. In our case: Spooner (5/14), Callie (8/9), Sunny (3/13), and Coco (9/11).

From the very first writer’s conference I attended, I was struck by how extraordinarily well writers age. They just keep doing it. I’m thinking now, there was probably a dog behind each one. Every writer on earth should have a dog, and every dog, a writer; it’s a match made in, let’s say, heaven. To the extent that “writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair,” as Kingsley Amis suggested, I don’t know how I’d do it without a dog willing to log hours upon hours under the writing table, where I keep the dog bed. Toys are scattered around the room, the house, or out on the terrace in the summertime—but it goes without saying that throughout the day, the dog is usually by my side, or breathing her doggy breath at my feet. And nonjudgemental, did I mention that? That could be what helps drive the critic from the room when I am writing.

Coco is my current companion. We’ve had three Golden Retrievers and this crazy little mix, and one by one they all became writing dogs. With Callie I started a memoir, and with her daughter, Sunny, I completed it. As Sunny began to age we went looking for the next adoption. Coco is half American Eskimo and half poodle. We knew nothing about the American Eskimo breed and only looked like we were looking it up in reference books, for having seen her and held her, we were already sold. With Coco’s help we weathered the death of Sunny, and I went for my MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard and wrote my first novel, Black Angels. Lately we are at work on the sequel. Being a small dog, she may outlive and outperform them all and see this one too through completion.

What makes us so compatible, writers and dogs? High on that list has to be a fondness for walks and naps. Throughout the year writers look for every opportunity to walk the dog. And come spring, could those be human scratches at the door too? As for my napping, like writing, the dog is nonjudgmental. My husband would come home and have a fit, but my dog will unquestionably sleep alongside me on the sofa anytime I want a nap, morning, noon, or night.

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Light as a Feather

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”(Chinese proverb)

Darkness and night had been closing in on us like a vise. So much for film noir winters in Seattle. You can deal with it, or do like the birds and head south. With our daughters living in San Francisco, my husband and I chose California for Christmas. I haven’t told them yet but it may always be this way.

We are driving. “Welcome to California” reads the sign illustrated with yellow poppies. The sky lifts; it is higher here and blue. Mt. Shasta is straight ahead and pointy. Soft grass on one side of the mountain, on the other, craggy rock. Black angus dot the golden fields. Pine needles shine in a silvery light, looking like feather trees. Rocks glow like mica. Everything is shining in this state. There’s a glare to the light, and something we haven’t seen for months: jet streaks across the sky. And things we never see in Seattle such as trees laden with oranges like ornaments. For the color and the light alone, we are glad we are coming.

I believe it’s a California bylaw that things are never quite what you expected. On Christmas day we dressed and stepped out with our daughters for a Moroccan dinner in The Castro. Later, to my sister-in-law’s home in The Bay Area where the food and the wine  never stop and every room is filled with art, one room flowing into another. Something has come back, it seems, a painting, a piece of sculpture, a magnum bottle, from every place they ever traveled and every event they ever attended. All together, assembled, arranged, and showcased, as one giant celebration of life.

Returning, a steady rain accompanies us as we make our way through The Pacific Northwest. That’s alright, we are over the hump now in terms of darkened days. Sod farms as green as Ireland, tree farms, and despite all the trucks on the road, we noted that not one was carrying logs. When the housing industry is down, the trees get a break. Clear cut areas have a chance to grow back, which has to be good for the birds.

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