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You can’t make me go back to school

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It’s that time of year again. How do I know? Not because the kids are swarming the elementary school at the bottom of my hill or the stores are full of backpacks and spiral-bound notebooks, but because I had a school anxiety dream.

Everyone has their own version of these. Mine usually involve being in a class I don’t understand, trying to convince the teacher that I am way too old to be in school.

My elementary school (long before I attended). I'm not going back!

My elementary school (long before I attended). I’m not going back!

This time, instead of dismissing the dream as nothing more than a stress response to my own kids returning to school, I got to thinking: what if I explore the areas where I might benefit from going back to school? Sure, I’m way past school age, but that doesn’t mean I can’t expand my mind. What lessons are out there waiting for me? How might I approach old situations in a new way? Could I, perhaps, even become something new?

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The Nihilist on Vacation – Part II

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On the cusp of returning home, the Nihilist finds herself wrung dry, cocooned as she has been for twelve days with her immediate family in a passing imitation of filial harmony. Escaping routine for a couple of weeks is like a drug—a numbing, demotivating drug. Oh, right. That’s why people go on vacation.

Now, as my family sleeps upstairs in our room at this utterly undistinguished hotel, I sit in the breakfast area lulled by the murmur of other guests. The TV in the hotel fitness room told me of flooding in Syracuse, a few towns away, where overnight torrents drowned the streets. I feel at a curious remove from myself, though not in a bad way. Maybe this is what it feels like to be relaxed! Continue reading

The Nihilist on Vacation – Part 1

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Dead in 70 years anyway.

So reads the Instagram tagline of someone I know well, like a self-referential epitaph. This person is a teenager every bit as tormented, apparently, as I was at his age. The difference is that today the world can know your torment, which is not confined between the cardboard covers of a journal. The torment is no less acute for its publicity.

I went on vacation with this person.

Somewhere over Nebraska

Somewhere over Nebraska

The idea of vacation is in many ways as absurd to me as the idea of retirement. I am blessed with the good fortune to live in a part of the world that many consider to be a premier vacation destination. Blessed, too, with satisfying work I cannot see wanting to stop because I pass some arbitrary chronological age. So, just as I feel there will be no need to retire, there is no need for me to vacation. What folly, then, drove me onto an airplane with my family?

We planned the trip because I felt, after several years stuck at home in my routines like a hamster exercising on the same sorry wheel day after day, an almost insuperable need for something to change. What better way to satisfy this need than to yank everyone out of their comfortable routines for two weeks? Plus, as the keeper of the family’s emotional life, it falls to me to curate the future, to make a memory we can all carry with us. (I didn’t say it had to be a pleasant memory.)

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Gardening Into the Apocalypse

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Readers often ask fiction writers the tiresome question: “Which part of your story is true?”

The correct answer is: “The whole thing.” After all, if a story doesn’t express a Greater Truth, why bother telling it?

That said, I understand the urge to parse a story for “facts.” Coming from a journalism background, I’m sensitive to the reader’s desire for sourcing and verification (to the extent that anything can ever be sourced or verified, given the frailty of human memory and the chasms of misinterpretation into which even the most well-meaning of reporters can fall).

The chasm that can swallow facts (Grand Canyon 2008)

The chasm that can swallow facts (Grand Canyon 2008)

I decided to pull back the curtain just a bit on my forthcoming novel (still untitled), which has, at its center, the lifelong friendship of two women. Their friendship was enabled by their mothers’ friendship, which was based, at least in part, on gardening.

I can share these facts from my life:

  • I have a lifelong friend.
  • Her mother likes to garden.
  • My mother liked to garden.

The facts take us no further

That’s about as far as the facts can take us. I won’t say which of the women in the book is me and which is my friend because I can’t. They are neither of us; they are all of us. My characters embody the traits and habits of scores of people I have encountered over the years.

Nonetheless, to scratch the readerly itch to know what’s “true,” I offer the following annotated passage from my novel, with facts called out.

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I am a casualty of the war between head and heart

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After twenty-four years of getting nostalgic every time I hear Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” because I listened to it the morning after my husband proposed, I discover the song is about a break-up.

It seems the heart knows no logic. Or perhaps it’s the ear or the body’s musical core that are immune to logic. Logic, after all, is the currency of the intellect, the Spock-ification of everything, the natural state of macho men. Illogic is the realm of the mysterious inner feminine, of dream fragments that flicker across our corneas, of the hormonal slurry polluting—or perhaps enriching—the veins of women of a certain age.

Can we manage to exist in both realms?

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