Sunday, July 31, 2016

When We Were Four

Today begins the last week of my two kids living at home. 

I am trying to wrap my head around it. How time moves, at once, both so slowly and so quickly. 

When the kids were little and my life centered around theirs, a wise friend told me The days are long and the years are short. 

I thought I understand what she was saying then. But then, I was stuck on the days are long part of the equation, when the days began before the crack of dawn, or even before, with babies wailing and dropped pacifiers and bleary-eyed diaper changes

and early morning nursings and drooly bibs and mixing up pasty cereal and smushy cheerios

and then the kids became little people, with their own wills and interests, and their interests became my interests

trucks and insects and catapults built in the backyard and Blues Clues notebooks and bracelets and Trading Spaces

Scooby Doo and Stars Wars, Harry Potter-themed birthday parties

Piano lessons and soccer practices, Spanish Immersion and ski clubs, lacrosse games and orchestra concerts, 

slumber parties and car pools and college searches--

Now the Legoes and the American Girl dolls are packed away.

In a few days our children jet off to opposite ends of the world, the boy who once followed the exterminator around asking in a chirpy voice about queen ants 

and the girl who once had stage fright.

Now the boy scales mountains and the girl writes briefs against the death penalty.

Once upon a time my husband and I were two

and then we were three

and then we were four...

Repeat after me: 

The years are short
The years are short
The years are short
The years are short
The years are short

Friday, July 29, 2016

Something strange is going on in my garden this year

I did what I normally do. 

In the spring I dug some holes. Sprinkled seeds. Watered. Got excited by my first lettuces and peas. Staked the tomato plants and sweated it out in the sweltering heat yanking weeds. Planted seedlings and thinned the stuff growing too close together. Fought off slugs.

All normal, ordinary gardening stuff. 

But something Out There is... different. 

In the mornings when I am alone in the garden, picking worms off the cabbage plants or poking around in the carrots or smushing the bugs on the kale. I brush my fingers over the purply leaves, wave a hand across the row of swiss chard, poke my nose in a squash blossom

and have the weirdest sensation

that I am not alone.

The plants keep growing, above my knees, above my waist, above my shoulders, over my head.  The paths between the rows narrow. 

The garden is a maze of plants, borage blossoms tapping my arms, tomato leaves nudging my bare legs. 

I weave between the plants sprucing and straightening, gathering the vegetables they offer. I stake up the massive bean plant, shivering as the tentacles wrap around my wrist--

--but this is silly. I know.

It's only the garden. And I am only the gardener. 

(massive green bean plant)

The other day I was running errands, and my son, who never goes into the garden, texted me that he and his friends were making lasagna and they wanted to use fresh herbs in the sauce and would it be okay if he used some of my basil?

Sure, I said. 

I got home a little while later and he was sitting inside the house.

Did you get the basil? I asked him.

No, he said, sounding a little embarrassed. 

He couldn't figure out which plants were the basil plants and he googled basil on his computer and pulled up images and went outside into the garden, walking around the plants while holding his laptop in front of him for comparison purposes, but gave up because he couldn't find a match, and anyway-- and here he lowered his voice and laughed a little nervously, 

the garden sort of gave him the creeps. 

Like the plants, he said, were watching him.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Maybe I Knew Italian In Another Life...

Or maybe the words are familiar through some kind of osmosis. A stray word here and there lodged in my brain, after visits with my Italian grandmother a million years ago or from the roommate I had in college who was taking Italian 101 and constantly muttering vocabulary words under her breath.

Maybe the words seem familiar because they're closely related to Spanish (a language I sorta sorta know).

bambini, bella, libro, lingua, famiglia 

The words jump out at me from the pages of the book I'm reading. They ping around in my mind. I know them. I want to know more.

The book, in case you are wondering, is called In Other Words. It's a memoir by one of my favorite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri. I've read and loved all of Lahiri's books and scooped up this latest without knowing exactly what it was--

basically a musing on Lahiri's obsession with the Italian language, which leads her to move to Rome with her kids and painstakingly teach herself to speak and write only in Italian.

In Other Words is her fifth book, her first memoir, and her first book written entirely in Italian. It was translated into English by someone else but Lahiri's original Italian text appears on every other page.

Every time I turn a page, I begin to read, out of habit, the words at the top of the page, which are in Italian.

It's disconcerting and familiar all at once-- for me as a person who is intrigued by the very idea of immersing oneself in a foreign language as an adult--

and as a writer, amazed and fascinated by Lahiri's quest to let go of the language she knows in order to think and read and write in a different one.

Lahiri is considered one of the best authors in America. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies; her later books have won both critical awards and landed her on best seller lists. And here she is, in her own description of her process, struggling in this new medium.

Maybe not completely surprising though.

There's lots in Lahari's novels and stories about the immigrant experience, displacement, belonging. Many of her themes are rooted in her own life. She grew up in America speaking Bengali with her Indian parents and speaking (and writing and reading) English everywhere else. Both Bengali and English feel as if they are imposed on her, whereas Italian is a new way to define herself.

Plus, it's a challenge.

It helps her rediscover her joy of reading. And gives her a new understanding of herself as a writer.

"What does it mean," she asks, "for a writer, to write without her own authority? Can I call myself an author, if I don't feel authoritative?

How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect."

I'm not sure, exactly, why this book is resonating with me. I won't be moving to Rome any time soon or immersing myself in another language. My writing is nowhere near the level of Jhumpa Lahiri's, but still, her words-- in Italian, in English-- tumble around in my head.

They confirm what I know about the creative process, which involves, by definition, risk and discomfort,

the balancing of discipline with taking leaps off cliffs,

the striving toward perfection and the letting go of it,

a rooting around for words that are both familiar

and magical.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Writing Words in Times of Plague

There's a doofball character in the book The Plague by Albert Camus.

       The writer.

A terrible plague sweeps across the land and the town is suddenly quarantined. Anyone who happens to be outside for the day can't get back inside. Everyone inside is trapped. Soldiers guard the walls.

The people in the town begin to act the way you might imagine they would. Some freak the hell out. Many strike out at others. A few rise up to help.

Police officers and government officials try to maintain order. The doctor takes cares of the sick and dying. The minister prays and offers consoling words. Most people retreat to their homes.

The writer writes.

The truth is he's not even much of a writer.

He fiddles with the words in one sentence, the first sentence in what he dreams will be his magnum opus. Meanwhile, the people in the town are struggling. Consumed by terror. Numbed by horror and death. The good among them trying to cope against what feel like impossible odds.

And here is our writer, entering the scene every now and then to share his story.

The novel, the sentence, the words are his passion. A mental challenge. A puzzle. A cause for frustration, and at times, delight and joy. He will get this sentence "right" one day and he will move onto the next sentence. One day he will reach the end of the book, and everyone will celebrate with him.

The other characters shake their heads in amusement at the writer. But they pause to hear the latest version of their friend's sentence, and then they go back to their urgent and seemingly endless work,

and the writer goes off to fiddle with his words.

The people inside the walls continue to live and die. One small town suffering from a plague, a place where there is no escape except death.

They grow sick, they despair, they mourn

They steal, they blame, they attack, they kill

They retreat, they hide.

They help. They care. They give.

They build. They plant. They write. They paint. They dance.  They dream.

They love.