Thursday, June 22, 2017

Walking, Map-less, in Venice

I walk without looking at my map.


It's folded up in my pocket. Useless, because I can't find myself on it. The words are too tiny. The road I am on doesn't seem to exist. This church. This square. I can't find them on the page. It's okay. I've stopped caring about where I am, where I'm going.

Instead I look. I see.

It's possible that I am seeing for the first time.

Red dishtowels pasted against a blue sky. Ivy growing through window grates. A sign for cappuccino. The price is something I don't understand and I am too tired to calculate it.

Turn a corner and I am the only one walking down this alleyway. I look at my feet shuffling over 500 year-old cobblestones. Look up, at walls that Mozart might have trailed his fingers over on his way to conduct a concert. Up higher, a sky so blue it can't be real.

I can walk all day. Winding down passageways and over bridges. Admiring expensive clothing and glass and leather in store windows. Swirls of chocolates and pastries and bread.


This way leads across another bridge. This way, a dead end. A building. A locked door. Men selling masks and key chains. Statues. Ancient wells. The water shimmering in a canal.

A massive church rises up unexpectedly.


I move through a mass of people and I am one of them and somehow not one of them.

I don't know how I came to be in this place. I don't know where I am going next.

A split in the road, and I choose one of the paths with little thought because it doesn't matter which way I go. The truth is, I can't really get lost here. Even without a map. I've figured out that I can follow the signs painted on the sides of buildings, arrows pointing the way to the rail station. Or to the Rialto bridge. If you know these two places, you can trace your way to anywhere.

On a whim I stop to buy a gelato. I sit on an ancient wall and watch pigeons peck at the soggy roll that someone's dropped in the canal, at people taking selfies on a bridge. A burst of song from a roving acappella group. They sing faster and faster, the words in a language I don't know.

This gelato is the most delicious food I have ever tasted in my life. These pigeons are the cleverest birds I have ever seen. The people smiling at their phone screens are heart-breakingly beautiful.

This song, this song. How do I keep it inside me forever?


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Churches, Cemeteries and Beer

*Trying to write this blog from my phone so bear with me if it's wonky.

The beer in Prague, they say, is cheaper, than water. This is true. Too bad I don't like beer.

Correction: I loathe it. I was joking to my friend on this trip that I haven't had a beer since I was seventeen years old, but the truth is that first beer probably doesn't count. I took one sip. Put it down. Walked away half gagging. I was at a party where I only knew one person and was feeling extremely self conscious. Later I overheard people mocking whoever it was who left behind a beer un-drunk.

I mean, who the hell would do that? they said, appalled.

When you travel, when you walk through an unknown city, miles from home, when the conversations going on around you are in a multitude of languages and none of them are your own, you tend to have thoughts like these, flashes of memory, long ago humiliations in your non-drinking beer past.

I walk into so many churches here they begin to morph into one another. The church with the massive chandelier hanging over the pews, the cloister with a bearded woman statue nailed to a cross, the small tomb-like church with a statue of a black Madonna, the church that displays what they call "The Holy Infant of Prague," something that looks like a china doll wearing an elaborate poofy dress.

People around me pay coins to light candles. They kneel at the altars. They bless themselves and pray as they have prayed, in many of these churches for hundreds of years. I am overwhelmed in these sacred spaces.

Is it my once upon a time Catholic school girl upbringing? The cloying scent of incense drifting in the air? The familiar feel of holy water on my fingers as I bless myself? The prayers buried in the recesses of my brain leak out and I whisper the words I thought I'd forgotten.

Oh my God these cemeteries. Ancient tombstones falling over in the Jewish ghetto. The neat rows of raised garden beds behind an old Catholic Church. Someone is still putting out fresh flowers on these graves, dropping small stones, lighting candles.

I feel weepy walking back and forth over the Charles Bridge, the snippets of music playing. The heartbreaking "Moldau." And, weirdly, one night, a joyful rendition of "Mamma Mia." Beggars kneel, bent over, heads bowed, elbows on the pavement, holding out their up turned hats. No one gives them money. Some of them have dogs. Every dog makes me want to cry, and what does that say about me that I tear up for the dogs and not for the men?

I decide I am getting a damn beer.

I hear a band outside a pub playing Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." I listen for a while with the crowd on the street and then I force myself to go inside. The man sitting by the only empty stool speaks English. He knows the owner, he says.

I tell him I haven't had a beer since I was 17. He smiles and says,  So, two years ago, right?

Haha, this guy is a funny one.

He recommends a beer, and it is enormous. I brace myself and take a sip.

Not like I remember. More... wheat-y?

Turns out the guy sells Aloe Juice. Whatever the hell that is. He's from England. He owns a factory in Bangkok. The band has veered from playing Led Zeppelin to monologuing about oppression, something something about how we're all being brainwashed by Abrahamic theology?

I am lost.

Half of the enormous beer finished, and it hits me that this aloe juice salesman may possibly be hitting on me.

He blabbers on about the dark turn the band has taken and how aloe juice can apparently be found in your upscale supermarkets and how much he hates hippies.

I finish my beer (!!!!) and then excuse myself to go to the bathroom. I sneak out another exit and walk quickly through the crowded streets, freaked out at first that the creep hippie-hating aloe juice guy will follow me, but he doesn't.

I walk the crowded streets, buzzing with my first beer, listening for random snippets of music, people prattling in every language but my own.



Saturday, June 3, 2017

That Thing Where You Agree to Go To Prague Without Actually Realizing You've Agreed to Go to Prague

Last month I was out with a group of my writer friends and we were going around the table how we do, sharing stories of our latest writing projects, when one of the writers jokingly, I thought, mentioned that she needed a traveling companion for a trip to Prague, and I jokingly, I thought, said I'd love to be that companion, and then she jokingly, I thought, asked if I snored and I assured her that I did not, and we digressed for a moment about how annoying it is to share a room with someone who snores and we all laughed and moved on to another topic.

Side note: I've been a part of this group for three years, invited after my book came out by one of the women whom I'd met at a book festival. The members are all young adult fiction writers who live in the central Ohio area. We call ourselves OHYA (for Ohio YA authors). We're not a writing critique group (although we've all read each other's works) but more of a support group, meeting up for dinner once a month to pick each other's brains about writing and publishing, commiserating with each other when things are not going so well and celebrating when they are. 

For months now (maybe a year?) Lisa Klein's been giving us updates about her novel Ophelia (a brilliant and gorgeously written re-imagining of Hamlet from his girlfriend's point of view) being made into a film.  I know several writers whose books have been optioned for film and through their experience I've learned that it is a REALLY LONG AND DRAGGED OUT PROCESS and 99% of the time the film never actually gets made. 

I confess that this thought was what was going through my mind when Lisa Klein would share her monthly updates about the Ophelia film. The producer would tell her they'd settled on a script or they were toying around with casting or they were scouting locations and considering filming in Prague or whatever, and it all seemed very precarious and likely to fall apart at any moment...

until, a few weeks ago when Lisa Klein called me and asked if I was serious about being her travelling companion because as it turns out, her novel Ophelia is really and truly being made into a movie, and the producer invited her to come to the set in Prague, and seeing as how I do not snore, she would love for me to join her on this trip. 

Oh, also, she was planning to do some research on another book in Venice.

Flash forward to TWO DAYS FROM NOW and I am boarding a plane to Europe to catch a glimpse of Daisy Ridley dressed up as Ophelia and apparently Clive Owen is in this movie too? and also the guy who plays Malfoy in Harry Potter. 


So yeah. This is happening. 

I will keep you posted on the adventure. 



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Off Path

It's been a while since my first book, Thin Space, came out. Four years and eight months, to be exact. Not that I am counting.

Okay, I am counting.

The first couple of years were a whirlwind of promotional travelling. Book festivals and bookstore signings. Library and school visits. This was my dream come true: Published Author, and I was loving it. In the meantime I was writing new stuff and submitting it, hopeful, sure, that I was set firmly on my much longed for career path, that I'd have a new book out the next year and the next and the next--

But then time kept ticking by and my path took a few unforeseen detours, and suddenly I woke up to find myself wandering around in a random field.

A few weeks ago I was invited to watch a Battle of the Books competition. This year Thin Space was on the B.O.B. list in central Ohio, which meant that I had another round of kids reading it-- and being quizzed on it. Fun fact: when I was a teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, I was the coach for my school's B.O.B. team. A librarian friend and I selected the books and wrote many of the questions. The interested students read all of the books and practiced buzzing in on a quiz show style competition, and let me tell you, the competition was serious. Many of the kids read each book two or three times. They attacked their buzzers with surprising ferocity.

Fun fact #2: my school's team was really good. One year we won first place in the entire district. Another year my team competed against the school where my daughter went and she was on the team and I told her I hoped her team would win, but secretly I was rooting for my own team. (Please don't tell her!)

Anyway, it was a surreal experience to watch a bunch of kids in Ohio buzzing in and answering questions about my book, especially when there were questions that I couldn't answer. (This is a side effect of having a book come out four years and eight months earlier.) After the competition I spoke to the students, answered questions about the book (what I could remember!), and signed their copies. I hung out with one of the teams and the kids asked me if I'd ever thought about writing a sequel.

Fun fact #3: I did write a sequel. Before I sold Thin Space, when I had no clue if the book would ever be sold, I had a cool idea for what might happen next. I tend to struggle writing a book (if you read this blog with any regularity, you will find this statement a comical understatement) but this book was relatively easy to write. It practically scrolled out of me. Who knows why. Because I knew the world of the story already? Because I understood the characters and heard their voices speaking plainly in my head? Because I had sorta given up on the idea of publishing and was writing purely for my own amusement?

In any event the sequel turned out better in many ways than the original. But it's clear to me that it will never be published, at least not traditionally. I'm okay with that. Apparently, the whole write-a-book-purely-for-your-own-amusement thing has an upside.

The kids at the B.O.B. competition were excited about the sequel and wanted me to email it to them. The librarian did them one better. She took my digital copy and printed off and bound copies for her team. She came by my house the other day and asked me to sign them-- a special parting gift for her B.O.B. team-- and she left me with a copy of my own.

It's the only hard copy I have.

I flipped through it later, and the story I wrote many years ago came back to me. The joy I had writing it, that came back too.

Some of my writing friends --the ones who had debut books come out the same year as Thin Space-- are releasing their fifth books this year. It bugs me sometimes, to find myself so far off the path I thought I was ambling along on, to find myself wandering in a field.

But here's something I realize now:

The path may be gone, but this field's a decent place to be. It's got colorful flowers to sniff and lots of nooks and crannies to get lost in. Trees along the edges to climb. A creek to splash through. Birds twittering, and--um...

how long can I keep this extended metaphor going? What's my point again?

Oh, yeah. This place, off path, what I'm trying to say is most days I'm happy right where I am.





Saturday, May 27, 2017

Light at the End of a Graduation

Last week I went to my nephew's high school graduation. The school was in York, Pennsylvania and it seemed like a very nice school. Example: when my husband and I parked in an overflow lot and began our long trek toward the building, a woman holding a baking pan and a spatula welcomed us to the school and offered us a brownie. I mean, come on, homemade brownies in the parking lot? How lovely is that?

I get teary at graduations. The band playing Pomp and Circumstance. The kids lining up in their caps and gowns. Their young faces are radiant. You can practically see the emotions scrolling across their features, a mix of excitement and hope, anxiety and fear, but mostly, it's joy. (Okay, I used to be a high school English teacher, so I know that some of that joy is related to them thinking: Woo Hoo! Thank God I am finally finished with high school!!)

My husband and I high-fived our nephew as he walked past and then settled in for the program. Introductions by the principal. Speeches by select students. This is the time, I confess, when I typically tune out and peruse the graduation program, reading the names of the students and seeing what honors and awards they've received, the plans they have for after high school.

The president of the student council stepped up to the microphone and gave the first speech. It was the usual speech you hear at these things. A rundown of fun stuff the class had experienced together over the years, how hard they'd worked, how ready they were to move on to the next chapter in their lives and make the world a better place.

I love the optimism of teens, the sense that the future is bright and their generation won't muck things up like the previous ones have. I want to believe them.

But I am struggling.

The night before the graduation the man running for Congress in Montana physically assaulted a reporter who asked him a question about healthcare. At the same time, over in Europe, our president who was attending a NATO conference, pushed the leader of Montenegro out of his way. I am trying to imagine any other president we have ever had in our country doing this--physically laying his hands on another world leader and pushing him. Obama, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Reagan... I can't visualize it.

Something is different. We've taken a dark turn as a country.

My son, who graduated from college last year with a double major in history and computer science, argues with me on this point. Our country has never been perfect, he reminds me, and this particular time is no darker than any other. We went to war with each other once, for example. We've chosen despicable leaders before. In 1856 a congressman from South Carolina beat a Massachusetts congressman on the head with a walking cane.

So yeah, I guess we are somewhat more civilized now.

In the small town of York, Pennsylvania, the leaders of the class were still making their speeches. One by one. The vice president of the student council. The valedictorian. The salutatorian. The class president. The vice president. They were all teen girls.

The valedictorian told a story about switching schools, moving from the city school district to the suburban. Apparently, there is a large income disparity between the two districts, even though the high schools are only two miles away from each other. She talked about how the city kids have art and music classes in a hallway because there isn't enough classroom space, how they have fewer sports and honors classes than their counterparts here, at York Suburban. It's time to acknowledge the unfairness, she said, as members of the audience squirmed uncomfortably, and resolve as a community to do better.

The salutatorian had just came back from a science competition in Los Angeles. She spoke of the amazing projects she'd seen, the many talented scientists she'd met. As a person of color, she was inspired she said, to meet such a diverse group of people from all over the country and the world, already playing a part in tackling the challenges we face.

The class president spoke passionately about a book she'd recently read called Chop Wood Carry Water about the long, arduous, behind-the-scenes and often thankless process that must take place if we want to become experts in our fields. Trust the process, she told us. In the end we will achieve greatness.

Speeches over, the students filed up to receive their diplomas.

The next day, that man running for congress in Montana was charged with assault. He also won his election. The American president practiced his bizarre grippy-tug handshake on the president of France. Meanwhile, in the suburban district of York, Pennsylvania, the newly graduated students woke up to the first day of the rest of their lives, defiantly hopeful.

Remember these names. You will hear them in the future:

Parker Faircloth-Henise
Elizabeth Kuree Huh
Alexandra Jane Babinchak







Thursday, May 18, 2017

Displanted

The day before Mother's Day my daughter left home to head back to school, a nine-hour drive, alone, one she's done several times before, but still sets my mom-nerves on edge. I dug around in my garden to keep my mind busy, poking green bean seeds in the ground and transplanting seedlings, every hour or so, my husband calling out updates of our daughter's progress.

He's got some tracking thingy on his phone, and yeah, I know, there's a creepy/stalker-y element to this, but we can't help it. We want to picture our child in the driver's seat, coasting along on her journey, the closest we will get to being in the car with her

she's crossing the bridge in Cincinnati 
she's approaching Louisville
she's an hour outside Mammoth Cave

I go back to my digging and poking and mulching, relieved for the moment that she's safe and that much nearer to her destination. For the last few years I've been planning my garden ahead of time, drawing the plots out on graph paper, no longer content to randomly throw things in the ground.



There's a weird comfort in setting the borders, arranging the plants. Each year my plans are more elaborate, more structured. One large bed grown into two, and then grown into four. And now I've got side beds filled with herbs, a rock garden, corners stuffed with potted plants. In winter I checked out a stack of garden design books from the library and read them like they were novels.

Something cool I learned: my four square garden pattern can be traced all the way back to monastery gardens in Medieval times. What is it about this particular structure, about any structure--

she's nearing the Tennessee border
she's on the other side of Nashville

Something sad I learned: My daughter has been away at school for two years now, and even though I am fully adjusted to empty-nester life, each time she comes back and then leaves again, it's a fresh loss.

I draw a line in the dirt for my marigolds, trying to envision them blooming like a flowery fence in front of my tomato plants.

she's outside the city
she's there, she's home

The dog trots out to bask in the sun as I nudge the seeds into the ground. I know how it goes. Mid summer and these bare beds will be dense with plants, the reality different, despite all of my planning, from what I can imagine today. Plants tangled up with other plants, some overgrown, some drooping. Weeds working there way through despite all of my mulching.

A pumpkin (did I even plant a pumpkin?) poking up in an unexpected place, hopping over the perfectly drawn border into the grass beyond.  





Friday, May 5, 2017

Dispatches from a Reluctant Activist

The hardest part is the drive downtown, the navigating of interstate changes, the search for a parking garage.

Confession: I live 12 minutes from downtown Columbus. As far as city traffic goes, it's on the light side. But I am such a baby when it comes to driving places, going places, I should say. Last month my husband's car was out of commission and he took mine to work for a week and I didn't even notice. I spend my days in one room for the most part, changing out of my pajamas and robe only to walk the dog.


And lately, to drive downtown to protest or to attend meetings or to speak to my state Rep or to my Congressperson or to pass out flyers. Ever since I marched in the Women's March in Washington DC, I made a resolution to Do Something each week.

Last week, for example, I wheedled my husband into marching with me in the Science March. Talk about reluctant activists. This march was a gazillion miles out of the man's comfort zone.

Also, I made it worse by giving him a sign to hold:



People came up to him, strangers. They said it was their first march too. They slapped him on the shoulder and thanked him for coming out. They asked him if they could take his picture.

It was excruciating for me to watch his discomfort, and finally, I offered to hold the sign, and people stopped me instead and my husband would squirm and say, "Actually, that's my sign."

But anyway, back to why I was driving downtown. It was for an Advocacy Day organized by Freedom of Choice Ohio. When I signed up to go, I had no idea what it was-- some all day meeting?

Turned out, it was a education session of sorts, where different groups spoke about issues affecting women and children and families in Ohio and the impact that legislation would have on them in the coming year. After we had the information, we would march over to the Ohio Statehouse and pair up with a buddy, and meet two-on-one with an Ohio representative to share our personal stories.

The day was alternately inspiring and crappy.

Inspiring, because the speakers were so smart and caring and dedicated and I believe in this cause, that women have the right to make their own medical choices without politicians interfering, that we have the right to plan our families, deciding if and when we will have children, that even the poorest among us have the right to our own bodily autonomy--

and crappy, because it all feels like such a long slog and who knew the democratic wheels turned so slowly, with so many layers and hoops to jump through.

I walked with my buddy, an older woman who seemed very quiet and reserved and stereotypically grandmother-ish, but oh wow, she surprised me when we met with our representative, how knowledgeable she was, and how passionate.

The rep himself, was a very nice guy-- thank you, Steven Arndt for taking time out of your day to listen to us, for sharing your own story and for hearing ours -- My story, for the record, boils down to Me, age fifteen, walking up to the Planned Parenthood in my neighborhood (yes, I really had a PP in my neighborhood-- a ten minute walk away) where I went for medical advice and to obtain birth control, because, oh my God, I was fifteen and sexually active, which is crazy to me now, what a messed up mix of contradictions I was back then-- an honors student at a private Catholic high school, a damaged girl clinging to a doofball boyfriend, scared enough to know that I did not want to get pregnant-- like the girl in my class who was publicly shamed for doing the "right thing" by having her baby.

That girl almost died of pre-eclampsia during her labor. I don't know what happened to her after, what kind of life she's led.

But I know what happened to me. I had opportunities-- college, graduate school and upper middle class life. Eventually, children, who were planned, wanted, loved. Still, I can't forget the poor sad girl I knew and the poor sad girl I was and how different circumstances could've been for me, and how lucky I was to be aware that there was a place I could go, somewhere safe and welcoming and non-judgmental.

All this I told Mr. Arndt and he nodded politely, but who knows how he will vote in the future on these issues, if it was worth his time or mine to have our conversation, if it changed anything.

I didn't know it yet, but the very next day, the Republicans in the House of Representatives would vote to take away healthcare from 24 million Americans. Part of their cruel proposal restricts the right of poor women to choose where they go to receive medical care.

Done for the day, and my new buddy and I walked back to our cars and paid for our parking. (another area of stress for me. How do I get the damn parking ticket to go properly into the slot?!)

We exchanged business cards and smiled at each other. Maybe we'll meet up at another of these things, my new friend said.

Most definitely.