As one of the recipients of a #NYCArtist Corps grant, I did a reading last weekend of my work in progress, “40 Days at the Dog Cafe,” at the market adjacent to the dog cafe, Marche le Woof. After my reading, I conducted a workshop called “A Sense of Place,” inspired by the fact that I was inspired by the dog cafe, Chateau le Woof, to begin writing about my changing neighborhood, over the summer.
I am toying with the idea of offering a regular, free, low-key generative writing workshop for writers of all levels. The workshop was my favorite part of an already rewarding day. Here is the “teacher’s edition” of the handout I provided the participants. Let me know what you think in the comments.
A Sense of Place
A Chateau le Woof workshop
When we read stories, we often don’t think of place as a primary element. In the earliest stories we heard, place hardly mattered at all. The story happened in a place – far away? enchanted? A kingdom? A village on the edge of a dark forest? A cottage by the sea? We had just enough to orient ourselves.
When we think of stories, we think of plot, characters, and the rise and fall of action. If we think of place at all, we think of where a story “takes place.” To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in Alabama, or, if you move in, in a small town in Alabama where everyone knows everyone else, or, if you move in more closely, on the front porch of the Finch household and in a courtroom.
A Game of Thrones takes place in the Seven Kingdoms, in Westeros, in King’s Landing, and in the throne room where the frankly ugly chair that everyone is fighting for actually sits.
But I’d like to explore how place can serve a story. How it can act as character, or metaphor, or place setting. Place setting is most common in the movies, where a bleak western landscape or a busy heartless city can set up a conflict for the hero. something to conquer.
But place can also be one of the main characters. the examples below are from essays. Let’s see how descriptions of place can be used.
PLACE AS CHARACTER
Somehow you are supposed to teach yourself how to comprehend Hong Kong’s energy and flash contradictions; Asian and Western; the encroaching Chinese mainland and the remnants of England; the greasy night markets of stick-rice tamales and knock-off leather boots that slouch right across from Tiffany, Chanel, and Prada. The only things common to these are the offices sending air-conditioned blasts into the street, a kind of longing for money, and, most important, the sense of storytelling that the city seems to require as a visitor’s pass. Hong Kong has a way of turning on your internal monologue. Walking becomes an act of silent storytelling, figuring people out. You feel like you are lost in some prelapsarian novel in which the plot has begun but the characters wait for you to name them. In some time, at some place, we step into an underground Cantonese restaurant and I see a grey-suited, red-tied man act like a parody of the States. American, I say, with an American accent: good-natured smiles, occasionally the slow English dispatched on foreigners and children, and a slightly uncomfortable look, as though he’s worried he’s outnumbered.
Ken Chen, “City Out of Breath,” 2005
This essay by Ken Chen describes a visit he made with his father to Hong Kong. His father spoke Mandarin but not Cantonese. Is Hong Kong a character? Perhaps an antagonist?
Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation. There the geology that underlies lusher landscapes is exposed to the eye, and this gives it a skeletal elegance, just as its harsh conditions—the vast distances between water, the many dangers, the extremes of heat and cold—keep you in mind of your mortality. But the desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in evening and under clouds. The light belies the bony solidity of the land, playing over it like emotion on a face, and in this the desert is intensely alive, as the apparent mood of mountains changes hourly, as places that are flat and stark at noon fill with shadows and mystery in the evening, as darkness becomes a reservoir from which the eyes drink, as clouds promise rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption, rain that delivers itself with thunder, with lightning, with a rise of scents in this place so pure that moisture, dust, and the various bushes all have their own smell in the sudden humidity. Alive with the primal forces of rock, weather, wind, light, and time in which biology is only an uninvited guest fending for itself, gilded, dwarfed, and threatened by its hosts. It was the vastness that I love and an austerity that was also voluptuous. And the man?
Rebecca Solnit, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” 2005
This essay by Rebecca Solnit describes a landscape and a love affair. She ends the passage with the question, “and the man?” but what do we already know about the man, from the way she described the desert? Is he fat or lean? iI the sex good? Is he emotionally available? What clues do we have?
PLACE AS TABLE-SETTING
In the bar up ahead waitresses slam sloe-gin fizzes down on wet tables and men point pool cues at each other in the early stages of drunkenness. The singer in the three-man band whispers test into the microphone and rolls his eyes at the feedback. The sound guy jumps up from a table full of ladies and heads over to turn knobs.
We crunch over the parking lot gravel and wait for our song to finish. I’m over my head, but it sure feels nice. The bar is low and windowless, with patched siding and a kicked-in door; the lot is full of muscle cars and pickups. A man and a woman burst through the door and stand negotiating who will drive. He’s got the keys but she looks fiercer. In the blinking neon our faces are malarial and buttery. As the song winds down, the drama in front of us ends. He throws the keys at her as hard as he can but she jumps nimbly out of the way and picks them up with a handful of gravel, begins pelting his back as he weaves into the darkness.
Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins,” 1995
Where are we? When are we? What do we make of the fact that the writer describes what’s going on in the bar before she and her companion even arrive? What kind of evening is going to unfold, and how do we know?
Whenever the experiment on and of
My life begins to draw to a close
I’ll go back to the place that held me
And be held.
Jane Mead, I Wonder if I Will Miss the Moss
Write about a place that held you, how it held you, what it felt like to be held there.
Art is energy, held in a form long enough to be experienced.
Write about a place the gives or gave you energy, that inspires or inspired you. (It doesn’t have to be artistic inspiration – it could have inspired you to make a move, or a declaration.)
Write about anything you like.
The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was cancelled on July 21 and 22 because a production member had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Friday performance was cancelled, according to The New York Times, “to support the artistic and logistical efforts required to restart performances.” What that meant to us at the Delacorte Theater on Saturday night was that audience would watch a performance which called upon the resources of six understudies. The associate artistic director warned us this from the stage. Some of the actors may call for a line. Some may be holding a script. But New York is back, amirite? Live theater! Woo! The show must go on! Woo-hoo.
Six understudies in a cast of fifteen, but the show must go on. Woo-hoo indeed. The boisterous production, set in a merry community in a Harlem, with prominent Black Lives Matter graffiti and the script vigorously updated, was nonstop energy and fun. I knew nothing of the play beyond the fact that it recycled characters like Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and other tavern denizens from The Henriad, due to popular demand among Elizabethan audiences to see those characters onstage again, and that it was a farce.
I don’t own a copy of the play, except in my tiny-fonted Complete Works, and it was one of the handful of plays outstanding on my bucket list to see every play performed live before I die.
I looked through my books. Tina Packer, in Women of Will, mentions it only in passing, as does Marjorie Garber in Shakespeare and Modern Culture. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare calls it “a very dull play indeed,” adding that its only use, as far as he was concerned, was that it inspired Verdi’s opera Falstaff. “I have nothing to say about Shakespeare’s play,” he told him class, “so let’s hear Verdi.” He then played a dropped a needle onto a record of Verdi’s Falstaff and listened to it along with his students.
I am enthralled by the mere existence of Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, so bear with me: they are a collection of the notes taken by the students, and by Auden himself, at his class on Shakespeare which took place at the New School in 1946. No formal manuscripts of the lectures exist, and the book Lectures on Shakespeare was reconstructed from all the notes editor Arthur Kirsch was able to get his hands on, from Auden and from Kirsch’s dedicated combing through archives as well as his general cry for help, to which so many former students responded.
At the New School, Auden covered the plays in chronological order, and the class was reported to be tremendously popular, with tickets sold at the door to those not matriculating. He sometimes spoke to classes as large as 500. I loved the idea of Auden lecturing to a Greenwich Village crowd, bobby-socked and footloose, fueled by caffeine and ideology, bristling with impatience to get on with a life interrupted and devastated by war. Auden spoke to a class partly comprised of former soldiers attending the New School on the GI Bill. I loved this idea so much that I began a chapter of an unfinished companion novel to my novel Censorettes in which two of my characters, newly wed, are living in on Commerce Street in the West Village, brimming with appetite for their education, their part-time jobs and their new marriage. One Friday night, the wife meets her husband, just returned from a lecture he has given at the Naval Academy on wartime maneuvers. She finds him at the former West Village speakeasy Chumley’s already sharing a drink with Auden. “Auden was famously fond of a sailor,” the wife observes.
This unfinished piece of writing bore similar theme to this particular production of Merry Wives – the famished embrace of culture, the sympathetic crowd, the theater – after a long denial of it. From the energetic call-and-response of the pre-show drummer to the exuberant climatic masked ball, which was five times more crackling than any masked ball I have ever seen in a Shakespeare production, this production was two hours of embracing joy.
“More crackling than any masked ball,” might seem like faint praise, but you must remember (pray you love, remember) that Shakespeare is replete with masked balls – they are in at least Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, and the coy posturing of a hand raising an eye mask to the face never convinced me that characters who had known one another since childhood would suddenly be beguiled by this thin piece of fabric and fancy.
We all know what masks are now We all know what masks are for. But onstage at the Delacorte, they meant no danger at all.
But it was not to be. When the bus reached the place where Vernon Boulevard becomes Astoria Boulevard, I hopped off, turned my back on the road to Astoria Park, and headed east down Vernon, towards Chateau le Woof, as though drawn there by a magnetic barking.
I had only a few times approached Chateau le Woof from this side, and I was curious to find this “3-40 Vernon Boulevard” which my research had informed me was the address where the public artist Mark di Suvero, in the 1980s, had set up a studio before he wandered over to a dumpsite on the East River and decided it would make an excellent sculpture park, what is now Socrates Sculpture Park. My problem with this research was that no such address existed.
I walked past the Two Coves Community Garden, a recovered and nurtured former dumping ground turned vigorously busy garden, replete with bags of mulch, stacks of pots and gardeners standing arms akimbo as they survey their plots, wearing the restless frowns that belie gardening as a mild past time, rather than the fruitless battle against nature that it is. I walked past Hallett’s Playground and the public housing apartments known as Astoria Houses, past the wharf for the ferry which whisks Wall Streeters to their jobs across the water, past the remains of an old loading dock, reduced to splintered black timbers emerging from the river like the hands of drowning ghosts, past a nudely clean, recently completed building on my left, with the wee chrome-fenced balconies favored by the new developers, festooned with banners reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Lives Matter” and regular American flags, past a corrugated metal warehouse on my right, with a sophisticated buzzer lock and a heavy steel\ door bearing the sign “Space Time,” below the glued-on tin black and gold rectangular numbers available at any hardware store, indicating the address. “30-40.” I stepped over a patch of sidewalk deeply stained with seasons of trodden berries from the overhanging mulberry tree, reminding me of my Missouri girlhood. I glanced at the tip of the cove, inhaled the mildly brackish river scent and nodded a greeting at the water fowl waddling ashore on the ribbon of sand and . . .
I backed up. I didn’t turn around and walk back, but walked backwards, not quite a graceful moonwalk, but with a similar magic in the movement: Space Time. 30-40 Vernon Boulevard. The accounts I had read of Mark di Suvero had left out a zero. Problem solved.
I continued walking (forward) along the comma of the cove until I reached the entrance of the park. I paused at the gates to look at the dog café, looking in from where I usually look out – at the cove, the park, the vacant lot in between – and saw the barista Curtis waving at me hugely, like he was bringing a small plane into an airfield in heavy fog. I crossed Vernon Boulevard and entered the dog café. Curtis had found an apartment! He was now an Astorian! He gave me the address.
“I just came from there,” I said.
Curtis asked, “Did you see the memorial? They were having a memorial service. It was like the two year anniversary of this big explosion.”
An older woman fishing in the refrigerator for a bottled ice tea straightened up. “It was longer ago than that!”
“The sign said two years,” Curtis said.
“No,” the woman said. “I remember it. There was a fire, and then there was an explosion, and three firemen were killed.”
Had I been her drama teacher and she an acting student, I would have advised her to conserve her anger and not release it so early in the scene, but she was immediately enraged. Curtis said, feebly and unwisely, “They said two years?”
“I remember it!” the woman said. “I was here. How long have you lived here?”
Curtis stood stupefied in her glare until I attempted to distract her, “Where is this, exactly?”
“On Astoria Boulevard,” she said. “By Astoria Provisions.”
I shook my head. Astoria Provisions? A market? A food bank?
“By the library? You know where the library is?”
“The Carnegie library?” I asked, and watched a cold rage settle over her face as she told herself that no one in this godforsaken dog-addled café was capable of uttering a word of sense.
She probably thought, when I said “Carnegie library” that I meant a library close to Carnegie Hall, but I meant, in fact, the little library on the intersection of 14th Street, 28th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard. It is one of the New York City Carnegie libraries, of which 52 still exist as libraries. Only four of those are in Queens. The Astoria branch was designed by the architectural firm Tuthill & Higgins,whose partner William Tuthill did in fact design Carnegie Hall in the early 20th century. But the Carnegie libraries, roughly 2,500 built worldwide between 1880 and 1930, are a certain breed of library, and ushered in the public library as we know it today. Before then – that is, before 1880 – most libraries were fee-based, and almost none allowed the public to roam freely through the stacks, plucking out books at will. Andrew Carnegie, whatever else his robber-baron failings, is known as the “patron saint of libraries.”
Carnegie would build, at his own expense, a public library for any community that could demonstrate a willingness and ability to provide the building’s, and the collection’s, upkeep and maintenance once the building was up, and to pay a staff. Towns also had to commit to spend ten percent of the civic budget to the library and to make it available, free of cost, to all. The first Carnegie library was built in Carnegie’s hometown in Scotland; the next several were erected in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. Many of them are similar in architectural design, and beholden to a theme of “enlightenment.” Broad stairways lead to wide front doors (representing an ascension to knowledge), between two lamps or torches, either functioning or symbolic, representing the intellectual illumination promised within. Patrons are greeted by a large horseshoe-shaped reference desk.
I wrote a paper on the Carnegie libraries for one of my core classes at library school, which I attended so late in life that I was the same age, easily, of the parents of many of my classmates, and older than nearly all of my professors. Library school had only fertilized and hothoused the seeds of my nerdiness, so I did not attempt to explain the concept of a Carnegie library to the angry iced tea woman. Instead, I asked, “By the community garden?”
“What community garden?”
“The . . . community garden,” I repeated, because there was really not much more to say. One might know nothing of Carnegie libraries, but surely a triangle of thriving green amidst warehouses, the art-funded sanctioned graffitied walls of Welling Court, and the Section 8 housing of Astoria Houses, would not escape notice? “Two Coves Community Garden.”
(The garden, by the way, is less than 500 feet from “Astoria Provisions,” which is a restaurant.)
“It was 2001,” the woman suddenly remembered. “June 2001. Father’s Day. There was a fire, then an explosion. Eight kids lost their fathers that day. One of them was called Fahey . . . and the other two were something Irish. You don’t remember this?”
“No,” I said.
“How long have you lived here?”
“My current apartment? Since the ‘90’s.”
“And you don’t remember?”
The other “something Irish” were John Downing, who had spent that morning studying for the lieutenant’s exam, and was planning a trip to Ireland later that month with his young children to see his wife’s parents and his own grandparents in their respective Irish counties. And Harry Ford, a 27-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, who had been cited ten times for bravery. The fire occurred at the Long Island General Supply Company, across the street from the Astoria (Carnegie) Library. Long Island General Supply was a community fixture, a hardware store which kept paint, lacquer and thinners in its basement, which had no sprinkler system. Once the fire reached the basement, the explosion blast “sent rubble streaming like confetti across Astoria Boulevard and tossed firefighters about like rag dolls,” according to The New York Times.
Downing and Ford were killed by falling brick immediately upon the explosion, which injured fifty other firefighters. Brian Fahey, whose name the iced tea woman remembered, was plunged into the basement when the explosion blew the floor out from under him, He gasped into his hand-held radio, “I’m by the stairs. Please come and get me.” He was found by his frantic colleagues, four hours later, dead from smoke inhalation.
The men were honored by unanimous resolution in the House of Representatives—unanimous, across party lines, reflecting a different time, but also a different time made manifest by remarks made from then-representative Anthony Weiner, and then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The news accounts from the time – the Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, The New York Times and even CNN and the Associated Press – are truly heartbreaking. Nothing this bad had happened since . . . nothing this bad . . . but of course, it was June 2001. What was I doing in June, 2001? On Father’s Day? My father was long gone by then, and a June Sunday twenty years ago is wiped from my memory, perhaps because of the sky-ripping, worldwide tragedy which occurred three months later. No. I didn’t remember it.
“2001,” I said to the iced tea woman, and turned my head to include Curtis. “So it was the twenty year anniversary. Not two. You probably just missed the zero.”
It is not merely community that we miss, but spontaneous community, the casual hang, the chace encounter which, as my WordPress legend has it, I am champion of, or used to be, when chance encounters were not a public health threat. “Don’t be so friendly to strangers,” a former friend once admonished me. “It’s weird.”
She said it in this very park, where I sit and write this, the park I came to visit, Socrates Sculpture Park, five acres by the waterfront, reclaimed some decades ago from industrial landfill. In addition to large outdoor sculpture, it hosts, in the summer, all manner of exercise class and artistic offerings: cinema nights, concerts, dance performances and Shakespeare al fresco. It was at the latter, when I was picnicking and offered the group at the adjoining blanket part of our nosh that my friend chided me:
“Don’t do that, don’t talk to people all the time,” she said. “It makes you look desperate.”
Desperate to get back to normal, desperate to venture beyond our walls, desperate to transcend social distancing for human connections outside our “pods.” Desperate to shed our masks (if only to then don the social ones we used to wear: “a face to meet the faces that we meet.”). Or is that a desperate reach for a metaphor?
Perhaps I am desperate. Perhaps we all are.
I know that this park, on a chilly Sunday afternoon one week before daylight savings time comes to alleviate at least a small fraction of our darkness, is full of my neighbors (or, if you prefer, “strangers”) in masks and down coats, attempting to hasten spring by behaving as though it is already here.
I came to the park today to photograph the sculpture “Proposal for a Monument (Two)” by Fontaine Capel. I attended a Zoom talk by the sculptors in the new installation, and Fontaine Capel said that “Proposal for a Monument (Two)” represented the stoop of brownstones, which are being displaced by the glass-and-chrome building erected by real estate developers. We are not losing merely brownstones and stoops, but a place to sit and hang out with neighbors.
Neighbors hanging out in common places form what used to be known as community. When we lose community – the casual, sometimes vexing, occasionally inspiring presence of the familiar – what else do we lose?
After a year without it, we know what we have lost. And we are desperate to have it back.
Hello all, it is time for the promotion portion of this novel process. Please be in touch if you have a local indie (still looking for one!) where I can do a reading. If you would like me to chat with your book club, or if you would like to review the book, please let me know. In the meantime, here are some dates in place.
On November 7, I will be among the authors at my publishers’ Virtual Launch Party. Stonehouse Publishing is the press, and my fellow authors are Anna Marie Sewell, Robin Van Eyck, D.K. Stone and Sabrina Uswak. There will be readings, book trailers, and food and drink (although yes, it is virtual). The fun begins at 7:30 Eastern time. You can reserve tickets, which are free, here.
Note to U.S. friends, the 5 books for one shipping price will not apply to you. That is for Canadians. You can order the books directly from Stonehouse Publishing. You can also order my book here or here or here.
On November 20, I will be among four writer-readers participating in The Great Indoor Reading Series. I will read for ten minutes, followed by a chat. “Doors” open at 7:30, reading begins at 8:00. Zoom code is 728 9321 2031.
On October 28, I will be appearing on The Blue and Yellow Kitchen at 3:00 Eastern time. The Blue and Yellow Kitchen is a show produced by Stephanie Weaver in which she cooks a dish inspired by a new book, while chatting with the author (via Zoom, of course! Zoom is the whole world now!) about the book. For Censorettes, which takes place primarily in Bermuda, she will be making this recipe for Bermudian Fish Chowder. You can watch it on her Facebook page, IGTV, or via YouTube.
And still we keep on creating, though myself not as much I would like of late. Lacking friends with benefits, I turned earlier this summer to friends with books out.
Marcia Trahan’s memoir Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession explores her own medical ordeals, her obsession with true crime on television, women’s bodies as commodities in society, and her own identity. Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, a memoir in essays, explores assault and addiction, and masterfully illustrates how trauma can stalk a person’s life, sometimes in brief shadow, sometimes in full-blown flashback.
I like to call Lee Martin’s recent fiction “Southern Illinois Noir,” although whether he likes me to call it that is not something I have asked. In his recent novels and story collections, momentarily untethered people make rash decisions that lead to outsized consequences; sometimes, as in his recent Yours, Jean, based on a true crime, an entire town acts as both chorus and cast.
There has been little progress on my own work, except for publicity for and correction of the proof of Censorettes. While I have little to complain about (I know; I am lucky!), how rarely that stops me. I am able to work from home, and I am putting in more hours than ever, including Sunday afternoon, which at least provided peaceful, uninterrupted time. I am attending a virtual writing conference next week, and need to get my day job ducks in a row.
Once I was done, a walk to the park was in order. My new favorite place is Chateau Le Woof, because I love the ingenuity the owners had of turning a former industrial parking garage into a dog-friendly cafe, open to the street, across from the park. On the way there, I met a woman and her dog. The owner and I nodded, but the dog did a full-fledged double take and pulled her back to where I was sitting. “YOU AGAIN!” he would have cried, had we both been human, and cast in a romantic comedy where in an earlier scene I would have stolen his parking spot, or spoiled some meticulously prepared model just before the big presentation. He gazed at me with ardent brown eyes through dirty white fur.
“Hi,” I said to the dog, as his owner tried to break his stare and pull him along, chuckling apologies to me. I said to the dog, “Hot out, right?” and then, as a man walked by, “Okay, I’m really not that interesting. Try that guy.”
Because of allergies, I’m not a petter of strange dogs, particularly ones who regard me like an antic Cary Grant regarding the leopard, if not Katherine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby.
Then, I said to the dog, “Alright,” and got up to walk with them to the park.
“You a Vermonter?” asked the woman.
Strange question, I thought, until I looked down and realized I was wearing a Vermont t-shirt. I still think it is a strange question. People don’t necessarily wear t-shirts advertising their home, so they can be returned if life becomes wayward. People visit places and buy t-shirts to show they were there; there is even a cliché about it. But I once wore a t-shirt I bought in Canada on a Brooklyn riverside bike tour, and people kept asking me what province I was from, or telling me how much they liked Quebec.
The woman was herself from Burlington. I told her, then, about Vermont, how I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in Montpelier, Vermont every summer (where I met the above authors, Lee, Marcia and Sue), how this year it is virtual, which means I am not at my picnic table on the town green at the top of the hill, or hanging out in the Cafe Anna with my friends, but in my apartment, in my same crippling home desk chair, a captive of Zoom, with pandemic hair and bad lighting (I know; I am lucky!)
Maybe I am a Vermonter.
We turned the corner on Vernon Boulevard, where some string players were entertaining an insufficiently socially distanced group and their dogs.
My canine love interest took off across the park, a sculpture park, which is currently home to this monolith.
The music of the strings lured me out of the park and I stood among my insufficiently socially distanced neighbors, enriched that day by so much heat and creativity. We are isolated; still, we create. We are ordered to keep a distance; still, we connect. We experience ordeals and suffer from bad decisions; still, we write books (albeit ones with blood-splattered covers).
The string players launched into I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You, alternating the melody line, first the pizzicato, then the legato. We all grew very still and drank it in. We knew we were lucky.
Tomorrow is Bermuda Day in Bermuda, so happy Bermuda Day, Bermudians! This is a photo of the real life Censorettes as featured in a story in Life magazine in August 1941.
What was happening in my novel Censorettes in August 1941? Funny you should ask — it is a major turning point.
Without spoiling anything, here is a paragraph from what’s going on in August 1941:
What had she ever gazed at as intently as that letter? Her mother, when Lucy sat at her bedside after her operation, waiting for her to emerge from anesthesia? The night sky, when she lay on a Florentine hillside with Matty and Nonno, trying and failing to find among brilliant stars the shapes of bear, ram, warrior? The receding shore of England as she fumed on the deck of the trawler that brought her to Bermuda?
I recently bought a rosemary plant. She is not happy. She yearns to be outside. So do we all, Rosemary! I wish she would straighten up, but she persists in maintaining her Martha Graham stretch towards a fiercely desired elsewhere. Rosemary reproaches me.
I reproach her.
Yesterday, returning through the back courtyard of my building with weekend provisions, I found my actor neighbor Ian repotting a hothouse of plants — a ballerina of a ficus tree, a robust rubber tree plant, and numerous other flora I could not name. He had large clay pots, great bags of potting soil and bounteous enthusiasm. I approached him for advice.
“Eastern exposure’s no good!” he shouted cheerfully. “Herbs like that need a ton of sun — a ton! Why don’t you take the stems you need, you know, for cooking, and plant it out back?”
“Out back” is the side of the building, where (only in New York) on a tiny strip of yard, certain residents of the co-op maintain miniscule herb and vegetable gardens. They are known as the Gardening Brigade and although I am technically of their demographic (female, middle-aged, unencumbered by caretaking), I am not of their kind. I spend my weekends at my keyboard, illuminated by my scant eastern exposure, and not on my hands and knees, toiling in soil. I respect that toil, but I do not yearn for it.
Ian and I agreed that once Rosemary starts to falter, I will leave her in front of his door, or leave her in the back courtyard with a sign akin to Paddington Bear’s: “Please look after this plant, thank you.”
But something in the way she slants reminds me of a painting I saw years ago — decades ago — at the Whitney Museum, when I was still fairly new to New York, recovering both from a difficult upbringing and the disappointing realization that New York City, for all its possibilities, would not magic-wand away my childhood damage. I saw a painting titled Resilient Young Pine.
For years, I remembered little about it except the delicate, resolute brushstrokes, and the depiction of the idea of being battened by great winds and remaining, if not upright, then still standing. I remembered that word: resilient. “Resilient young pine,” I would remind myself over the years through personal and professional setbacks, breakups and rejections and loss.
“What was that painting?” I have asked myself recently, as people used to ask at the end of an episode of The Lone Ranger, “Who was that masked man?” (Masks: how timely. I will not be exploring that here.)
A google search revealed that Resilient Young Pine is the work of Morris Graves, a mid-century native of Washington State, who was categorized as part of the school a magazine dubbed the “Northwest Mystics.” Resilient Young Pine is currently part of the collection of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, whose description of the painting, “heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism,” includes the statement that Morris Graves “lived his life in an eccentric manner.”
Since, damn it, “eccentric manner” could mean anything, I researched further and learned that Graves, a dreamer and a high school dropout, took on work as a deckhand on a merchant ship. The ship took him to Japan, where, he has said, “I at once had the feeling that this was the right way to do everything. It was the acceptance of nature, not the resistance to it. I had no sense that I was to be a painter, but I breathed a different air.”
Graves’ painting was to me what Japan was to him. A different air. He returned to the U.S., finished high school, and then painted. He achieved enough early success (and had simple enough needs) that he was able to live out the rest of his life on painting alone. He lived as a recluse on chilly Northwest islands, usually alone, except for the companionship of dogs and cats, all of whom were called Edith. (If this detail does not delight you, I don’t know why we are friends.) All the while, according to Art and Antiques magazine, he created “many depictions of birds, animals, and flora, delicately drawn over abstract backgrounds of gently washed-on color.”
During the war, Graves was painting away on his foggy Pacific island when he was arrested. His application to register as a conscientious objector was misfiled by the army. That happenstance, along with his affinity for all things Japanese, landed him a midwestern brig for a few years. Afterwards, he returned to his Washington island and his Ediths, continued to explore transcendence through painting, and continued to meditate.
He remained resilient.
Screen to screen to screen has been my life this past month — my work laptop, augmented by my personal laptop, and then my desktop, when the workday is through, followed by some viewing on my laptop again. I am privileged to be able to work from home and to live in a co-op building which is well-maintained. But as I have revealed, I have taken to gazing out my window.
Now straight ahead, dead straight, to the left of the streetlight and to the right of the bright window in the building across the street, you can see a bit of colored glass. There. You see it? Had I an actual camera (instead of a phone) or were I a better photographer, I could capture that image — the streetlight, the stained glass of the Ukrainian church beyond.
Last night, I attempted it. The bars of the fire escape were too intrusive and the zoom on the cell phone camera wasn’t sufficient, so I climbed out on the fire escape and did my best.
This yellow-robed Ukrainian saint has been gazing into my living quarters for the past 20 years, but I only thought to think of it now. Of course, I was aware that there was a Ukrainian Orthodox Church a block away — I have photographed their fete on Ukrainian heritage day. Beribboned children in native costume dance all afternoon in reluctant troupes. Ornately braided girls and grim embarrassed boys prance and clap on a wooden platform in front of the church, to the blaring of recorded accordion and clarinet music. A street block is roped off from traffic to allow for tables selling embroidered goods and meat-stuffed pastries, and chairs for the parents of those mortified, loyal prepubescents.
These wares, these performances, are not meant for the likes of me. I don’t know the difference between Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox but I know neither proselytizes. Far from it. It is from the Greeks that we get the word “xenophobia,” from the Greek xenos meaning “foreigner” or “stranger.” Also, “barbarian,” which originally meant “a person who does not speak Greek.” (Non-Greek sounded to Greeks like someone saying “bar bar bar.”)
After twenty years in Astoria, I was not keen to insert myself where I was not welcome.
It took a pandemic to make me realize that the church I look out on every day was not merely a church, but a religious residence. The low tan building I look out on (and appreciate, since it affords me sunlight when a commercial building would not) is not just extra church space, but a dormitory for the order.
How’s your world, everyone?
Here is a photo of mine, when I look out on it.
I am two blocks from a branch of Mount Sinai Hospital, as my friends and social media friends know. A branch where they have erected emergency COVID testing tents. In three minutes from the time I am writing the words “in three minutes,” the applause will start, the applause for the health care workers at the shift change. It seems to grow in duration and in volume every day.
I begin each day by opening the window and turning on the classical music station. I was fortunate in that my remote control broke one week into this isolation, so I no longer have the option to channel surf or listen to live press conferences.
There it is, the applause. Banging of pots and pans, honking of horns.
It should lift up my spirits, but instead it burrows deep into my sinews, like a fishhook, not a knife. This is a trauma not easily extracted. This is an anger not easily assuaged.
When I was on an “Unworkshop” retreat at the Highlights Foundation last fall, I met a woman named Heather Dean Brewer. The Highlights Foundation retreats take place in Pennsylvania on a rural property outside Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Because I admittedly live in an NYC bubble, Honesdale was the first town where I saw an un-ironic “Make America Great Again” sign posted in the window of a small-town business.
Heather was at Highlights for a workshop.(By way of explanation, Highlights offers a vigorous catalogue of workshops for children and young adult authors and illustrators, but also offers space and meals for any writer who might need time and space.) I was there for time and space. Heather was there for a workshop. She is the author of this happy little book which I bought for my sister’s birthday. (Spoiler!)
Heather was sweet enough to send me a bottle of wine from distant Michigan.
My cultural references these days are Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, staring out the window and speculating on the neighbors. And Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel about the 1918 pandemic which has been written about by wiser heads than mine, for example, here. I cannot look at it now, not with the sirens screaming in the background, but nor can I forget the story’s final line: “Now there would be time for everything.”
A month ago, my biggest concern was that the 92nd St. Y would cancel the appearance of Dame Hilary Mantel, who was to discuss the third book in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. I had been looking forward to her talk for months; bonus points for it occurring on my birthday. But of course, it was cancelled. Instead, I ordered the book from The Astoria Bookshop, my local indie, on the last day it was operating live. It is still operating virtually, if you would like to support it.
I am having a hard time concentrating on The Mirror and the Light. I loved the first two volumes. I am pretty well versed in the Tudors. But despite the fact that the circumstances are dire, and that we know how this will end (it’s the world of Henry VIII, after all), I have trouble following along and perhaps need a lighter book.
But one line did resonate. Among so much speculation about succession to the throne, one character observes that it is treasonous even to wonder about the future. “We are trapped,” she sighs, “in the hours we occupy.”