With the hope that slowing down means seeing

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This morning we walked three blocks to the neighborhood playspace, to Nanette with her wild hair and her bins of toys, who sets up at the local Akido studio and lets us come in from the cold to play. With the streets and sidewalks covered in snow from this weekend’s storm, Brooklyn is a series of white mounds. We can’t maneuver the stroller through any of it and Little O, having just turned two, toddled in his onesie snowsuit and spider boots, a marshmallowed bundle, with mittened hands jutting out.

So we walked at snail pace. We stopped to kick at the snow, to pat it down, to look at the doggies and woofwoofs. We stopped to watch the swinging door of the corner bodega, to marvel at the dripping branches, and to point at every delivery truck or bus trudging by. At one point, O threw his arm out and shouted, Elmo!  and I had to send my gaze all around our small corner of Brooklyn to say, “Where’s Elmo? Elmo’s at home.” He’s bunched up in the crib. He’s on a video screen. He is not caught on the narrow lanes of sidewalk in between masses of 4 foot snow piles. Still he insisted, Elmo! 

We continued on, at our pace, walking our rubber boots through the slush. I carried him across the street when the snow got too tall, his wet boots dripping at my knees. About a block and a half later, we passed a bus stop and he pointed at the ad poster. Elmo!  

I looked at the Sesame Street advertisement and, sure enough, there was Elmo, in all his furry red glory. This advertisement my son had seen, a block and a half away, through the reflected glass walls of the bus stop, beyond all the trees and garbage cans, not to mention the piled up remains of a blizzard. He was right. Elmo had been there all along.

Since having O, my life has physically slowed. It has meant telling myself I’ll leave at 2:30pm in order to get out the door by 3pm. It has meant standing at the foot of our third floor walk-up and recognizing that it will be a long time before I reach the top floor because my son’s stubborn independence to do it on his own, to pause to look in the mirrored hallways and marvel at his reflection, is part of getting from point A to a belated point B. It has meant twenty minutes to walk three blocks.

But slowing and stopping has also meant seeing. The Elmo in the distance. The app-oo (apple) in the corner. Each leaf, newly fallen. Examining it as we twist the stem between two fingers.

Tackling yet another revision for a novel I can never seem to get right, I think of this. How stopping and slowing might mean seeing. I have wanted to rush into writing a world I know and love and so desperately want to get right. And it’s funny, to try at this writing gig for so long, to fail so many times, to watch weeks and years, almost an entire decade, disappear, only to think I’ll cure the work in minutes. It’s funny to not take the time, heck, to not take forever and forever’s extra day if I need it.

So, I step away from the keyboard. I sit with a notebook and a purple pen and dream longhand. In snippets of imagined conversations, in writing from her perspective instead of hers. Stopping every instinct to dig in and start rearranging paragraphs, slashing words, throwing sentences and scenes into a novel I think I know, I am slowing down in the hopes that I’ll see what’s been there all along.

A Writer in the Kitchen

163507_10151180595749896_824377939_nSince reading Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (and it’s companion More Home Cooking) I’ve been thinking about that question, the business of inviting writers to your dinner table, any writer, dead or alive, the meal served, the drinks consumed, the table setting, who might sit across from whom.

For a writer, I’m pretty terrible at oral storytelling. I forget details and timelines, oh wait, I’ll revert, and then, no, but, yeah, okay. I don’t know how to give the headlines. I bury leads. To be honest, I wouldn’t blame anyone for walking away from a conversation with me. I’d rather listen to all of your stories and write out my own as neatly as I can on the page. But there is one thing I can talk about for hours and I’m not even sure I’ve ever mentioned here:

Food.

I’ve done it. There’s proof. Two cousins have sat through home-cooked meals in which all we discussed were other meals. Village cafes, to tasting menus, to the illegality of durian on a plane. I have friends who have sat with me to strategize all-you-can-eat options and first and last stops at food markets and festivals. I have a husband who will recount in excruciating detail everything we’ve ever ordered, where we ordered it, and whether we’ll order it again. I even sent a cookie recipe to a friend the other day and, in a string of follow-up texts, I mentioned how it might feel to whisk the dry ingredients with wet, where you’ll probably think you’re about to fail and then discover you haven’t, the moments that are humbling and frustrating and then surprisingly benign. Poor girl didn’t know she’d request a recipe and find her phone chiming with emoji-less emotions about a simple cookie.

All this to say, when it comes to writers at the hypothetical table, I don’t yet have it all filled. I don’t know what we’re eating (but, trust me, I’m working on it.) All I know is that I’d probably need one of them to be Laurie Colwin. I’d need someone to talk as much about life as the food that’s served.

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.
– Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen

 

Welcome! A new blog design

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It’s a new year and 2016 blows in with crisp, cold air and the feeling of a fresh start beneath all the blue. I decided to redesign my website and switch over to WordPress. Without changing the content of my blog, I wanted to design a better space to reflect my work as a writer and freelancer.

I’ll still be here to reflect on life, writing, and the books I love. None of that has changed. I just wanted a cleaner, brighter space to share it all with you.

So please click around and learn about the books I’m writing, as well as my work writing for kids.

A Year In Reading – 2015

It’s been a terrific year of reading for me. Last year felt like a jumble of misplaced words and thoughts, after losing my reading list in the birth year of my son. I remember reading Me Before You early last January, in a strange, milky haze of motherhood and misplaced sleep. Beyond that, everything in that year, including my newfound identity of ‘mother’, felt like an interrupted thought, a word at the tip of my tongue that never quite leaked out.

This year felt more solid and whole on the reading front (and many others). I aimed to read a book a week, which is my goal every year. And that seems to work for me. I guess I even surpassed that goal.

I don’t like to list favorites here. Books are so uniquely their own, to stand them up against one another feels wrong. However, I was asked to compile a list of recommended young adult books for Cleaver Magazine and, while I personally hesitate to call it a ‘best of’ anything, it is a list of amazing books that were powerful and meant something to me and each of our awesome reviewers. I link to it here.

I love to list the books I’ve read, to remember where I’ve been and where I ended up in my reading year, in the hopes that you’ll tell me where you were and we can talk about the places we overlapped. I only included books I completed and enjoyed. So this list is made up of a ton of excellent reads and I celebrate all of them. I also linked to the books I offered more thoughts on in my blog or on the Barnes and Noble Kids blog.

I suppose the best thing about this reading year were how many of my amazing friends published incredible books this year and last (highlighted below). And I discovered some new-to-me authors that are probably not new to anyone else whose books I’m thrilled to have finally found: Lauren Groff, Nova Ren Suma, Lucia Berlin, Elana K. Arnold, Celeste Ng, Angela Flournoy, and Marilynne Robinson.

I hope you had a terrific reading year too. And I have more news soon, about a redesign for this ole blog in the new year.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Brunt Rifka

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

The Summer Prince by Alaya Johnson Dawn

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin

The Girl with Borrowed Wings by Rinsai Rosetti

The Color Master: Stories by Aimee Bender

Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

The Professor and the Madmen by Simon Winchester

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

Evil Spy School by Stuart Gibbs

Watch the Sky by Kirsten Hubbard

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Neilsen

One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Suart Little by E.B. White

The Penderwicks #1 by Jeanne Birdsall

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff

For Real by Alison Cherry

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein

Emily Windsnap and the Ship of Lost Souls by Liz Kessler

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich

Smile by Raina Telegmeier

He’s Gone by Deb Caletti

The Night We Said Yes by Lauren Gibaldi

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Rules for Stealing Stars by Corey Ann Haydu

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

M Train by Patti Smith

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

My True Love Gave to Me: Stories Edited by Stephanie Perkins

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Stories by Lucia Berlin

The Reading Spot

Thinking of my reading spot. The spot I sit in now. The burgundy pillow pushed up against the arm of the old tan couch. My shoulder bone shelved against one of four pillow points, curled like withered leaves in winter.

There’s a spit-up stain beneath me and I remember how I stood hunched over a toothbrush and clump of baking soda, sprayed cleansers, sighed at the distorted rings of forever, as they blackened like mildew into the folds.

I read here. I write. I watch television and movies. Tyler stands at the edge of the kitchen counter, waiting for risotto to plump. Buttered onions seer my vision. I sink into the heat of our summers. I listen to the clang of the metal heater, the croak of the wobbly kitchen table as my son slams his plastic car against its limping wooden leg.

There are days I push forward, scoot my bottom to the crack of the cushions, close my eyes and wish for a few moments of quiet, before a sticky hand is at my thigh, a knee at my knee, my boy breathing through his stuffed-up nose with a book in his hands.

Because this is the reading spot. This is years of a butt-marked dip in the catalog couch, with its velcroed cushions and the lump and sag of never-forgetting. This is the spot where the laptop fidgets against my thighs, where the overhead light cuts at the sharp edge of books from the Brooklyn Public Library, the Strand, Book Court, and the rug of my old bedroom.

This is where, he knows, we read.

In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf. And a tiny finger goes from one white round circle to the other. From egg to moon. Two gaps amongst splotches of wet-paint color.

Together we sink deeper. We carve our places in the space we make for words.

You have a reading spot, too, I bet.

Halloween Here and There

 

I love Halloween here in Brooklyn. It’s more festive than anywhere I’ve lived. With all the brownstones and apartments and local shops so close together, the streets are lined with people and store clerks giving out candy. There are a lot of families in our neighborhood and people come out in spectacled groups, sequined and felted, wielding plastic swords and scepters, with wild head-pieces and spooks. The leaf colors are at their peaks and it’s just before we lose the lushness of our tree-lined streets and things become more stark and cold.

This year, Little O was a duck, an outfit chosen because it’s a word he says emphatically. He sends his arm out, like a saluting soldier, pointing at anything in books or in life that closely resembles the feathery creature (rubber duckys, baby chicks, yellow dots). Then he calls it out with gusto: duck!

At first, the costume made him grumpy. He ripped off his duck-billed hat and the velcro-ed web feet. Then we went to a Halloween party at his daycare, which we call school (which he calls coooool), and everyone fussed over how cute he was, so he finally understood the costume was an attention-getter, and, therefore, a welcome addition to his life.

Later, while trick-or-treating, he learned that holding out his orange and black bag would award him more oohs and ahhs, so he proudly accepted candy, with no concept that his parents would be the eager recipients of the fruits of his labor later that night.

After a long afternoon wandering the streets we went to a child-friendly bar serving pumpkin beer for the adults (we do it right here in Brooklyn) and a mound of french-fries for Little O to share with one of his little buddies.

I kept remarking to my own Dad the kind of ‘damage’ I could have done had I grown up in this neighborhood on Halloween. I was the kid who came home with pillow case-sized bags of loot, wandering late into the evening with my friends. Halloween was a mission to traverse as much sidewalk and bang on as many doors to get as much candy as I possibly could.

I remember this woman ‘around the corner’, as we always said, who gave out whole candy bars on Halloween. They were Ronald McDonald bars — something I haven’t really seen since (though a google search tells me they can be ordered and personalized to sell for fundraising efforts) and she had a giant wheel in front her home, like one you’d steer on an old ship. She wasn’t like our immediate next-door neighbor, who gave out pennies if you dared to knock on her door, who once refused to give me any despite giving them to my friends, because, who knows, any one of her crotchety, old lady excuses would do.

We knew which houses gave the best and the worst treats of the day. We knew which darkened porches to avoid and which streets were too dangerous to cross. We knew the land like we’d settled and mapped it ourselves.

It made me smile to think, no matter where Little O ends up doing his growing, he’ll, hopefully, have his own Halloween land to map out too.

 

 

Writing for the B&N Kids blog and an opportunity to review for Cleaver Magazine

Managing a freelance writing career this past year, I’ve been really happy to find some book gigs. I recently realized I never posted about them here.

I hope to cross post in the future but, since March, I’ve been writing about and celebrating children’s books (mostly middle grade) on the Barnes & Noble Kids blog. It’s been super fun to interview authors, celebrate new books with review-like posts, and create lists of books to recommend to young readers and their parents and teachers.

If you want to follow along, the link is here . The blog features picture books, chapter books, and middle grade. I most recently read and loved Corey Ann Haydu’s beautiful book Rules for Stealing Stars.

I’m also editing YA and middle grade book reviews for Cleaver Magazine. There, we feature children’s books from small and independent presses. I’ve been finding some incredible hidden gems out there. Follow along here.

For those of you who are interested in writing formal children’s book reviews for Cleaver Magazine, I’d love to work with you. While we do tend to have more reviewers than books to review, I would still love to add you to our list of reviewers. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments!

In Process

In a time of a lot of uncertainty, waiting on all matters of things (both personal and professional) to right themselves, I’m feeling at peace inside my own stories. When the freelance work doesn’t call, I find myself with pockets of time to lose myself in the real work (a shift in thinking from a time when I thought only the paying work was the real work) of trying to tell a story.

I have to work hard at this. Maybe I can kite-run off with a pretty sentence every now and then but, beyond that, I learn my limits every day. I have to fight to find a plot. I have characters that arc into broken rainbows, no pot of gold at their ends. I struggle to find rhythm. I forget the point I’m trying to make, if I ever had one to begin with.

But I’m learning, every day, to put my faith in the process and recognize that, for me, that process is going to be very messy and long. I used to think I was losing time. I used to think, without a book deal or an agent, I was lost in some writing blackhole, never to find my way out. But, a few weeks ago, I had a nice conversation with a writer who simply said in a voice so mild and zen I thought maybe I’d found God, “What’s the rush? It’ll happen someday.”

What is the rush? I don’t know.

So I sit somewhere between the possibility of someday and the reality of now.

The reality of now is, maybe, a little harsher than I’d like. But, in terms of writing, now is a process and ‘someday’ relies on it. I have wrestled with so many things inside stories, tried to bend characters and plots to my will, let them all go their very-wrong-ways and turned around again and again.

Maybe this is what I love about writing, the practice of it, the mess of it, being in a place where there are a million second chances, a million possibilities for a plot or a person or a relationship. Sara Zarr spoke in her This Creative Life podcast in an interview with John Corey Whaley about a tweet that made her recognize a possible reason she writes to begin with: it may be the only place she has any control at all.

I related to that.

This morning I decided to take two characters and make them one and I laughed, because I had to, because the only place it’s possible for that to happen is while writing fiction, or maybe when a twin is absorbed in utero, I don’t know (I’ll leave that to the science fiction writers). Maybe it’s a bad idea. Maybe it’s a good one. It’s a possibility, at least. And whether it’s good or bad – I can live with the consequences. Either I move forward or I try again. While in process, there’s always another way to go.

Givng Myself the Time to Reflect Here

On a run through Brooklyn Bridge Park, I stopped for a sunset
Even though there are still technical days left of summer, the start of September is always the start of my ‘fall’. And fall is when I begin my new year. This September I’ll begin a brand new novel that’s been edging its way into my heart and mind. I’ll confess, these days, there’s hardly time to stop and let a a story find its way. But I’m trying to find moments to slow down.
I realize, the lack of time to reflect is what pushes me away from this space. I wake up to my son ‘chirping’ (as we call it) and there’s barely a moment to wipe the sleep from my eyes. I’m immediately thrust into the day, as he squirms up to our bed, and I’m in game of ‘catch’, to keep little hands away from the lotion on the nightstand, the lamp, the hardcover of a book, or the iPad I’ve left to close to the edge.  
Before I know it we’re dressing, and eating, and I’m swiping a cloth against the tray of the high chair, dipping to the floor 1,000 times and back up, filling straw-cups and snack containers, setting off to playgrounds and gardens and pop-up pools. On the two days a week that Little O goes to daycare, the day flies away from me, consumed with freelance work and correspondence. I’d clip the day’s wings if I could.
Occasionally, I sorta-stop. For a run in the morning or a podcast on the walk to the grocery store. Three times for a yoga class squeezed between the hours of here or there. I savor the words of books (the latest, Thirteen Ways of Looking by the great Colum McCann. More on this, I hope, soon.) But rarely, a moment to reflect. To look. To take stock. 
I’m working on that. 
I’m working on coming here, to the blog, to understand where I am. To tell it as it is. To, maybe, snap a photograph, in order to see what I’ve actually seen. The days are full and rich. I am more content and at peace with my life than I’ve been in a long time. But, it’s nice to step back and see things for what they are or, maybe, more importantly, for what I wish they could be.
I’ve wondered why I can’t let this space go. Many times I made the decision to, simply, walk away. But then I’d think, hold on to the space. Not because of social media platforms or personal brands (neither of which I have.)  But because I miss the conversation. The record of an ordinary day. I miss being able to say, this here is a thought I once had, whether it be naive or insightful or too raw to be understood. And I miss someone saying, me too. This September, this year, I’d like to give myself permission to spend more time here. 
All I can say is, I’ll try. 

Words From a Novel in Progress, Inspired by the Bodega Cat


Yesterday, this beautiful creature stood ahead of the refrigerated meats and cheese at the local butcher, looked stoically at me as I stood bedraggled after a long day of work and I was reminded of a scene I wrote. One that was inspired by cats like this one, maybe not as impeccably groomed as this regal puff, but roaming Brooklyn bodegas and shops just the same. This is from my novel, THE TREE BOOK, my first attempt at middle grade. A book I’ve dreamed my way through the best I could. Now I’m dreaming for it.

Not much to set up except that my main character, Cora, is chasing her little sister, who chases a cat.

I slink on over, slow, to Miss Li’s, and stand at the swinging bell door. Adare crouches at the beer refrigerators, where the cat is pawing at the silver and steel. Adare giggles and the cat stretches its front legs out like it might leap away but instead it starts licking its gray fur down and Adare’s cheek falls to her shoulder, mesmerized.
            “No animals allowed!” Miss Li shouts, sticking her arm out, to her handwritten signs behind the register, something about IDs and cigarettes, and no animals, and a big red X slashing through American Express.
            “It’s not ours,” I say but Miss Li’s arm swings back again and one long, wrinkled finger looks like it’ll poke the sign straight into my eye.
            “Out.” She says and her lips sag to her chin, like always, except for the one time Adare reached over the counter and touched the gold bracelet on her bone-thin wrist. Real gentle, with just one soft finger, but I still thought Miss Li would slash her across the store quick. Of course, Adare’s smile, the way it has a habit of knowing people and calming them down, made Miss Li smile too. A gift from my son, she said.

             I look at her gold bracelet now. It’s made to look like a ribbon, looped in a perfect bow. She wears it so tight, so close, her skin bunches up, tries to take a breath from behind it, but never quite lets go.