THE AFTERMATH OF THE BOMBS

ImageThe daffodils started pushing up in an unlikely part of the park–on the sledding hill facing the street. I assume the bombers were assembling their ingredients then. At first, no one saw the new leaves in our park. By the time the buds came up, the bombers had finished their work; had headed downtown. I was running in the park not far from the daffodil buds that day. The gray skies and cool temperatures seemed perfect for the bright, young charity runners we knew who were running in the Marathon.

Suddenly, police cars and ambulances started wailing down the parkway into town. After five minutes of sirens, a man pushing a stroller stopped where I was stretching, looked at his cell phone, and then over at me: there had just been two bombs, he said. We both hurried home–crossing the siren-laden traffic–to join our stunned neighbors in front of our TVs.

On-the-spot videos splashed across the screen. The runners who hadn’t finished the race learned that the end of their race had been amputated. Bystanders and police delivered bodies alive and dead to medical personnel to be sorted to hospitals. My family learned, like so many Bostonians, that someone we knew slightly had been watching for a loved one to finish. A beautiful teenager who had attended our children’s elementary school was fighting to keep her legs.

Meanwhile, in the park, during the next surreal days, dog walkers started to notice the daffodil shoots in a circle on the sledding hill. In Boston and Washington, people with higher levels of executive function than I have launched the search for the bombers, or went back to work out of necessity. I found it impossible to concentrate or write: my mind, a crater.

People with higher testosterone levels than I called for revenge and talked tough. They shouldn’t have messed with Boston. This won’t change Boston, they said. But I found myself changed already, unnerved by sirens and thinking about the beautiful young girl I used to see walking into school with her mother and sister in the mornings—and her legs that might or might not be there anymore. The schoolyard scene turned ghostly as I realized it could have been any of us.

Friday brought the manhunt, another day at home with family and television. We were relieved, like all of Boston, when police took the younger bomber into custody, though sorry for a wasted life. And the next day we learned of another distant connection to the tragedy through that same elementary school our children had attended. Another girl whose family we’d known, now a young woman, had known the younger Tsarnaev in her high school years and said how well-liked he had been, how well she had liked him.

That day, in the park, a neighbor pointed it out to me: the full circle of daffodils had bloomed into a yellow peace sign on the hillside, like the one young Martin Richard had held up, grinning, with his “No more hurting people” slogan. People were stopping to photograph the flowers, or to point them out to a companion. I looked at the daffodil peace symbol and found myself distantly connected to a bombing victim, a bomber, and a beneficent peace gardener, the whole, messy scene of the human race. I felt the gravity of tragedy pulling me toward the suffering–the suffering who would drop out of the headlines over time to fight their private battles. I felt the painful need of the weird outsider in every group–the need we so often ignore. And I felt, with gratitude, the generosity of acts of love, the only antidote to the first two.

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Michelangelo, Kvetching, and Writing

Sistine Chapel 2In 2012, the Sistine Chapel turned 500. I finally saw the stunning ceiling a few years ago and I confess that, in its sublimity, the ceiling has always seemed to me a bit, well, out of reach. (Perfection offers such a little foothold.)

So, I was happy to learn the comedic side recently: Michelangelo was, in addition to being a supremely talented artist, a great kvetch. In fact, historians apply an assortment of unflattering adjectives to his personality. And yet, Michelangelo’s vigorous, perpetual complaints—in his journal and later poems—endear him to me. What writer cannot appreciate such honesty concerning the daunting creative struggle?

Michelangelo, as you may know, considered his assignment to paint the Sistine Chapel as a sinister punishment inflicted on him by Pope Julius II, with conspiratorial inspiration from his rivals. He considered himself a sculptor, not a painter.  In Michelangelo’s widely quoted poem of complaint, he whined of the terrible toll that working on the scaffolding took on his health. In the poem, he comforts himself with outlandish depictions of his tortured posture as he toils to finish painting the daily patch of wet plaster over his head before it dries. “My brush,” he laments, “makes a rich pavement of my face.” *

Now we know: Michelangelo was not only an artist but a writer. What, after all, are most stories we write and read except an homage to our continual struggle to achieve, to love, or to connect (to each other, to the natural world, or the Divine) in the face of our own shortcomings? The Sistine Chapel looks more breathtaking to me in the light of Michelangelo’s miseries. His reach for a glorious vision, from the depths of his orphaned unhappiness, makes him, for me, kin to all struggling artists and writers.

*[The translation of this phrase appeared, approximately, in the Wall Street Journal, but Ross King’s 2003 book popularized Michelangelo’s complaints and a slightly different translation of the same passage. A PBS special on the Medici family also informs this post.]

Thinking in a Foreign Language

foreign2Last spring, an article in Wired piqued my interest. “Thinking in a Foreign Language Makes Decisions More Rational,” it announced. Apparently, when we make choices in a foreign language, our biases and impulses lose a little of their power.

Sacre Bleu, I thought: a little validation for my struggle with occasional French lessons. I thought of a few friends and acquaintances in foreign-language discussion groups. They try, like me, to maintain their own little communities of foreign-thinking brain cells. And I thought of old friends—Japanese and Bavarian–who still enjoy practicing their English with me by email, years after their stays in the U.S.

According to Wired, when people think in a foreign language, they slow down and make choices more deliberatively. But I like to think there’s more to making better choices in another language. When I try another language, I see life framed differently. I see the idiosyncratic assumptions of my own culture and my own thinking revealed–as well as those of the other culture. I feel freed, as if from a little vacation abroad. The casual French, J’ai ete tres contente de te voir, sounds more relaxing than the Anglo-American, “I was happy to see you.” “Happiness,” or la bonheur, as Freud pointed out, is a fleeting emotion. “Contentment” with its milder, more habitual character, carries one to the sun-soaked south of France with its chronically good-humored denizens.

Not only do I like to imagine my own biases diminished by another perspective, I like to think that Conventional Wisdom supports this idea of a transformative effect to Foreign Language learning. See, for example, the charming Danish comedy, Italian for Beginners (2000).

Meanwhile, if a chat with a friend from Southern France is as close as I can get to that sunny, and seemingly more carefree region for the moment, I’ll take it.

Literary Escapes from Winter

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“The greatest charge that can be leveled against New England,” wrote Joseph Wood Krutch, “is not Puritanism but February.” If, like me, you’re counting the days until April, and entertaining escapist fantasies, one or all of a trio of American classics may help you.

These three books–The Yearling, The Grass Harp, and My Antonia—all use a richly described natural world as the setting in which the spring of the human life cycle itself advances.  Each novel relies on the protagonist’s or narrator’s close observations of nature to evoke childhood’s sensuous leisure, its accompanying sense of wonder, and the maturational lessons of youth.

In The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Jody, a pubescent boy living in the late nineteenth century, undergoes a series of adventures and conflicts in the wild scrub around his family’s small Florida farm–conflicts that harden his childhood tenderness into the independence of young manhood. Yet, while the natural world beckons to, and tests Jody, and widens his understanding, the book–with its lush, appreciative renderings of the natural world–serves the reader differently–as a magical refuge. “I do not understand,” said Rawlings “how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”

Truman Capote writes of such an enchanted place in The Grass Harp, a semi-autobiographical novel Capote wrote in his twenties, about a lengthy retreat to a tree house with members of the extended family who helped raise him. Here again, nature is the refuge of the young, the sensitive, the imaginative. “It was as though we floated through the afternoon on the raft of the tree,” he writes.

In Willa Cather’s My Antonia, the Nebraska prairie inspires a growing boy to explore and learn and wonder, much as the Florida scrub in The Yearling. The young protagonists’ social perceptions are grounded in the landscape and its redemptive value (in keeping, some would say, with the zeitgeist of Cather’s period of American history).

These titles bloom perennially on high school English course syllabi. Yet, as a student, I could not read The Yearling. I left it in my locker and went home to find War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Bronte novels and Checkov plays—works that would unlock for me the mysteries of the adult world. I found my own innocence frustrating–and even more so the awkward encounters of adolescence. The moments of childhood wonder and growing pains depicted by Rawlings, Capote, and Cather, are more comforting from an adult perspective. They let us revisit an earlier season, while we anticipate, with everyone else, the annual return of Spring itself.

HEIFER INTERNATIONAL HOLIDAY FUNDRAISING SPECTACULAR

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You may know Nathan Bransford as an author of books for young people and an amiable, informative blogger. He is also the energetic originator of an internet fundraising effort for Heifer International, my favorite charity.  Charity Navigator gives Heifer very high marks. Heifer doesn’t just offer food to those in need, they provide the livestock that can help families become self-sufficient: cows or goats for milk; chickens for eggs. You get the idea.

As Nathan said in his blog: if you have anything to spare this holiday season I hope you’ll consider making a donation. And in order to encourage people to spread the word about this worthy cause, there are two ways to help increase the giving love (and feel free to do both):

  1. For every comment someone makes in this post between now and 6PM Pacific time on December 24, I will donate $5.00. 
  2. For every tweet that includes a) the hashtag #HeiferAM and b) a link back to this post (http://bit.ly/fvH54P) I will donate another $5.00. (up to $500 between the two)

In addition to the Bransford blog mentioned above, authors of the following blogs are participating. You can get them to contribute, too, or add your own blog to the list.

Catherine Ryan Hyde
My Karma Jumped Over My Dogma
T.K.’s Tales

Wishing you Happy Giving, and all good things in the New Year.

Tweeting vs. Writing

Twitter-bird1A writer selling a book has no better friends than Twitter and Facebook. But what about a writer trying to write a book? As I typed away recently–struggling to meet a deadline for handing a manuscript to a reader–I wondered: how on earth do people maintain an online presence while writing books?

I asked the Twitterverse.

One tweeter, @AC_is_ON, immediately pointed out that social media can be a source of inspiration and an important tool for getting a writer out of his or her own head.

OK, good point. But what if you’re writing fiction (and you’re not Margaret Atwood, that prodigious tweeter and Booker Prize winner)? Or, what if–whatever you’re writing–the siren song of social media distracts you and lowers your productivity?  You need a containment strategy.

“I’m most productive in the library,” wrote writer and translator, @Qerese, “I do all my serious work there.” And she leaves Twitter at home. I agree: leaving the house to write can help. But since my last laptop was stolen, no daily trips to the library or café for me. I had to go all the way to a writer’s retreat, and stop tweeting for a week. When I returned, the writing momentum stayed with me. I wrote more and tweeted less. The downside of this small triumph was feeling less connected on social media.

Another tweeter, @SocialJeremy suggested setting a time limit of around 30 minutes. I also try to follow that rule, but I had to add an extra caveat for my own routine. Since I wake up with the greatest creative energy of my day, I tried putting off my news-surfing and Twitter time until afternoon or evening. This helped my productivity and the quality of my writing, although I occasionally just didn’t get around to social media (and got a lot of writing done instead).

As discussed by short story writer and blogger, Nina Badzin, fiction writing and social media can be particularly antithetical. One is a very internal process; the other is external and social. Every day is a choice.

What’s your choice? What’s your strategy?