The First Tree Fell

The first tree fell when I was six years old. We went out in the eye of Hurricane Gloria, everything quiet, sprawled, and exhausted, a giant tree resting against the shattered windowpane on one side of our home. There was no sound. Wind and leaves and branches never coursed through the rooms of our house. It was only remarkable later; the tree’s roots stuck up in the air. The earth torn open into a wild, gaping hole.

I remember footsteps on the roof. I remember my Dad shoo-ing away some laughing kids who climbed the tree in the dark later that night. Most of the memory sits in a glossy photo my father took. I was on a tiny bike next to the fallen tree, rainbowed streamers leaking from its handlebars. He wanted to make it look like I had done the damage. I staged an ‘oops’ expression on my face. This is my Dad’s humor, like the time a waiter came around when I was four years old at a restaurant and he made me request lobster off the menu to make everyone laugh. He liked the idea that it could be little ole me and the force of my teeny two-wheeler that took the great tree down.

The second tree fell last fall in a freak afternoon storm. Little O had an ear infection that day. We had been sent home with a milky pink penicillin concoction that needed to be refrigerated. We stood in the kitchen and the house wobbled, as if it were walking on stilts. Leaves swirled and whipped around in mini tornadoes on the back porch. There was no sound. I held a limp and tired O and circled the house, looking for the culprit, when I saw, through the living room windows, our neighbor jumping from his car, running to our front door. I couldn’t imagine what could have happened to prompt that kind of urgency, until I opened it and saw the giant tree sprawled across our front lawn, so tall, it draped over the roof into the backyard. Climbing the stairs, I expected to see a tree inside our home, but there was only one small stretch of sheetrock, dangling from the impact. The tree had fallen at a perfect slope across the roof, as if it were only resting its head to sleep.

“Trees fall quietly and slowly”, the arborist told us, later, assessing the risk all the trees around our new home could pose. We walked around and, with each tree, we looked at its crown, determined its health, figured out which way, this way or that, it could fall if it fell. So you can decide to take a tree down on the basis of its health, its angle and proximity, and, lastly, as if we were Marie Kondo-ing mother nature, he said, you think about how much joy it brings you. You weigh that against the odds.

The third tree fell last week, while both sets of grandparents were visiting the littles. We were on our way out the door to lunch, when I heard a soaring whoosh and called out, ‘What was that?’

‘Just O,’ my Dad replied. ‘Playing with the door.’

As we made our way outside, we learned it wasn’t O or the swoosh of the door. It was the whip of a Hickory tree, once at the foot of our driveway, now stretching across the road.

I can’t help but wonder, in YouTube-double-rainbow-guy fashion, what does it mean? 

I did hear it this last time. A warning, maybe, or just a reminder, that it is here, or was, that great things fall again and again. One last murmur before falling silent again.

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A Way Back to Words

Oh. This. Blog.

This space has felt so very far away from me in the past year. Last fall and it’s brutal election sent me into a fog. I know a lot of writers struggled to find words after last November and I was one of them. I retreated from them here, lending my voice elsewhere, sounding off on Facebook, then backing away from there, too, where it just felt, and still feels, like too narrow of a place, shouting into our ethers, our choirs, in this cacophony of noise. Twitter also became overwhelming, though I started to notice its power to mobilize in a way I hadn’t before. I ducked in and out, like a scared turtle. Instagram became a safe space, where I could post photos of our new home in Westchester: trees, sky, sunsets, Little O and his bright red hair. Perhaps a very curated view of the world was what I needed, and still need.

So, in other words, my online life has been wonky. I haven’t known how to manage it. But offline, a lot has happened. Just after the election, I learned I was pregnant with our second child, and a few months later, I learned it was with a baby girl. Little E was born the last day in July. She came raging into the world, ready as ever, just two and a half hours after the first contraction, a whirlwind birth, chaotic, then calm, and she carries that fury with her into these first three months. She’s happy, smiley, easy to manage, but when she’s angry, she rages, her face scrunched up, her fists and body clenched, until we give her what she needs.

Her needs are easier than Little O’s, these days. Eat. Sleep. Poop. Be loved. An endless cycle. But O needs the pink-handled bowl with his cereal, not the white and green-specked bowl which is for oatmeal, and he’ll need it with the small spoon, not the big spoon, and ‘don’t get it Mommy, I’ll get it Mommy, no, go get it Mommy, NOOO I WANT TO GET IT’. The inevitable meltdown that ensues when you don’t get it right and you can’t get it right because ‘right’ is wrong in the topsy turvy world of three years old.

These needs are harder. It has challenged me more than I can express.

But, then, age three has been epic in language and social development. We’re able to have sweet, long, interesting conversations. We’ll sit and read real picture books with paper covers instead of the baby board books. He’ll introduce himself on the playground. ‘What’s your name?’ Run off with his friends to ring the doorbell to Trick-Or-Treat on his own. He can miss people. He can like people and not like people. And I am both of those people in one day. He can love hard, kick hard, play hard, come crashing down on his pillow at night and back up like a jack in the box ten times before long uninterrupted sleeps. He can be sweet and sour and fickle and clear and cloudy as day and rain all at once.

My writing life has also been rich and I don’t take it for granted in a world that feels increasingly fragile. I’m happy to live the dream of publishing a novel, each milestone nerve-inducing but also so, so wonderful, I just try to live each step of the process because who knows if I’ll ever take the steps again.

So, I edited my debut novel last fall. It received a title change. The Tree Book turned Next to Nothing became Just Under the Clouds. And the title fits this novel, about a homeless girl looking up, closer than she knows to answers, to finding what she needs. Soon after, I got a beautiful illustrated cover, which I’ll be able to reveal soon. Then things slowly went into motion, author photos, copy-edits, and first pass pages, full jackets and flap copy. I got a release date: June 5, 2018. From there I received advanced reader copies in the mail and I can’t wait to share it all with you soon. The book is about to go into the world and, then, it will no longer be mine. I’m both scared and excited to let it go.

I also wrote another book. I found my way back to words. Helpless, useless, everywhere else in the world, I zig-zagged there, somehow, and I have a draft of something I love. I can’t wait to edit and revise it with my editor at Knopf and I guess that book will be a real book someday, too.

So, I’m here, now, if not back, and I hope to find my way here more, maybe. If anyone’s still reading, if I’m not typing into a dark void whose echoes I’ve heard and missed, then tell me about your reading life, your writing life, your life-life. Tell me about it all.

 

A Year in Reading – 2016

Well, I think we can all agree, it’s been quite a year. I haven’t felt up to the task of writing about it. The year in news was brutal and I haven’t been able to let go of all that happened. I won’t any time soon.

It’s only in the past few days that I’ve felt like being creative, setting pen to paper, allowing myself to dream something new. I keep going back to this tweet from India.Arie, an artist I have long admired:

All healers – high consciousness – high vibration human beings – time to double up on your missions. We need you. https://t.co/uDMfpsBc5P

— India.Arie (@indiaarie) November 18, 2016

So, double up, my friends. There’s work to do.

Some of that work is the work of reading. Reading, I would argue, is not a passive act. It’s a powerful one. When we open the pages of a book, no matter the genre, we seek to understand something about our world and the people in it. We gain perspective. Our view becomes wider and we become smaller inside of it. That broadening, that open space, it feels more important than ever. We’ve been too large, I think. We’ve been overwhelming our tiny, narrow spaces. It’s time to expand, so we know how far we can go.

I’ve had a really amazing reading year. I read more this year than I ever have (78 books and counting.) I actually started to list all my favorites and then realized that there were WAY too many to name. Since I don’t complete books I don’t like or appreciate in some way, I truly recommend each and every book on this list. You’ll see some trends. I’ve newly started reading and loving graphic novels. I prefer stand alone books to series. Fiction to non-fiction. And I’m apparently not drawn to many books written by men!

I hope you had a happy reading year. Please tell me about some of the books where we may have overlapped in our reading lives.

Let’s double-up our missions, in reading and beyond, in 2017.

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Storytelling, Advocacy, and Accountability

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This year, I’ve been working with an accountability group that’s been such an amazing and beautiful force in my life. We’re all women, we all work from home, and we’re trying to move forward in our professional and personal lives, change our attitudes and perceptions, while we prioritize self-care and healthy lifestyles. It sounds like we’re taking on a lot and we are, but identifying goals as well as struggles, sharing them, and lending and receiving support has been an incredible experience.

Not to mention: it’s fun. When you sit all day at a desk, alone, having ‘coworkers’ in different states and counties is pretty fabulous.

The three of us work in different sectors: academia, global health, and writing, and we’re always learning how our work overlaps and intersects.

So, it felt like a no-brainer for my dear friend and accountabilibuddy Rebecca Fishman and I to collaborate. Rebecca and I have known each other since college and I’ve been blown away by the incredible work she does around the world. We had a wonderful conversation about storytelling and the work she does in global health, advocating for women and children, and we published it here.

Rebecca’s pretty freaking fantastic, as you will come to know and I learned a lot talking with her. The ideas are churning for how we can continue to use storytelling to create social change.

I hope you’ll check out our piece.

Here’s a ‘lil snippet:

In advocacy, we try to bring more attention to issues and challenges that people face around the world. Since those without power often go unheard, storytelling is a powerful tool to “give voice to the voiceless”.

As Good As It Gets

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“This is as good as it gets,” a new friend said, running through the sprinkler with his kid over his shoulder. The boy was shrieking, laughing, the summer sun not yet wanting to set.

I stood and watched as Little O followed, grinning, his shorts and tee soaked, his lips faded and shivering, but, like summer, refusing to leave.

We were at a new friend’s home and this was the this, the as-good-as-it-gets moment, summer and sprinklers, bare feet and wet grass, watermelon dripping down chins, not a hint of breeze in the air. On the surface, I saw what he saw in this moment. But I felt somewhat numb to it, going through the motions of the day, wondering how many tantrums it would take to get O to leave, how we would change into the extra clothes we had forgotten to pack, the wet car-ride home, the dinner he would later refuse to eat, the bedtime he might ignore.

I was tired, exhausted really, and this was a moment that, at one time in my life, I might have marveled at in the same way, but, for some reason, I was removed from. I longed to get inside of it. I felt ashamed of not being able to fuss or fight my way in.

I don’t know what I’m mired in. Doubt or shame or guilt or fear or or or. I can’t tell if others aren’t really sharing the truth of their lives  or if my truth is just entirely different. I only know I’m not the person who sees as-good-as-it-gets moments as well as she once did.

They say be present.  But I don’t know that I’m not. Maybe it’s okay to stand outside of a moment every once in a while and acknowledge it’s not exactly the moment you wish it was.

Maybe it’s better to admit that your truth isn’t as good as good gets so you can more easily recognize when it is.

Book Deal News

If anyone knows a little about my writing journey over the years, it’s the readers of this blog. So, I’m beyond thrilled to share the news that my middle grade novel, NEXT TO NOTHING, will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in 2018.

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It’s been a long journey, as most of you know. A lot of writing, rewriting, revising, stopping, starting, from the middle and back, trying again and again and well, maybe, just one more time. I’ve had people have faith in my work, lose faith in my work, find faith in my work after a few tries, and people who have believed in me long before I knew how to believe in myself. I have novels and screenplays and short stories and plays in drawers, novels no one wanted to sell, and, then, a novel no one wanted to buy.

So I’m proud and thrilled that this book found a home. Rebecca Stead, a writer I have long admired, now, also, an agent, my agent (I still can’t quite believe that) was the one who, through some slush pile December miracle, took a leap of faith with this novel. She worked with me to refine it and, then, after an overwhelmingly positive response, beyond my wildest dreams, she found a place for it with Allison Wortche at Knopf Books for Young Readers. Allison is an editor who had taken some interest in my work in the past and I always secretly hoped she would love something I wrote and become my editor. She did and she is and I couldn’t be happier or more grateful.

I was a reader long before I was a writer — a girl who spent too much time with books and then sprawled out on the scratchy bedroom rug with marble notebooks dreaming my own stories in the middle of the night. As a kid (and adult) I wrote in secret for so many years. But back in 2007 I decided to gradually let people in, even when it scared me, even when, sometimes, I thought, is it perfect enough?, is it there?, it’s not there, it will never be there.

This book, I’ll admit, became a secret for me. I didn’t want to have to believe in it because that meant having to try to get someone else to believe in it and that can be exhausting. I didn’t want to answer when people would ask about all the books I wrote that never found their way. I was tired of telling people I was a writer when, in truth, all I had were thousands and thousands of pages the world would never see. I felt like I had made too many mistakes and I had sent too many wishes into the world before the sky was ready to hear them.

But I guess, I knew, deep down, that, even if you feel like you can’t shout, then you, at least, have to whisper your books out into the world. You have to hope someone will hear. That’s the only way. I’m glad I didn’t keep this book a secret. I’m glad it’s finding its way. And I’m excited to see where it all leads.

Some Things

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I am struck by two friends I couldn’t capture in this photo, washed out by exposure, soaked in sun, while I stand between trees with my camera. Maybe you can see the red of her shirt, the gray of her pants, even if you can’t see the whole of their friendship.

As we settle into our new home, I try new ways of being outside of the city. I talk to strangers. I make phone calls. I take the long route. I don’t crush the spiders that come into our house with Tyler’s shoe. I send paper towels under their shifting legs, their very own Bounty select-a-size red carpet. I carry them to the side door and set them free.

The other night, I wished I was in Brooklyn meeting a friend for a drink. I wished I was walking, in the dark, from the subway to our third floor walkup, passing the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, whose steeple was a marker of home.

Here, the markers vanish. Our neighbors had set out old furniture for weeks to be picked up by the garbage truck. Yesterday, it was gone and I drove right past our house, because I don’t know my own home in relation to anything else.

I figure, if I need to walk, and I need to walk, and if I can’t walk sidewalks, and I can’t walk sidewalks, not here…then I’ll walk hills. I’ll send myself into forests, into tall trees, where there aren’t any people anyway. I take my camera and my backpack with the gaping hole that needs to be patched. I take a water bottle that Little O calls mine, as in his. I set a timer as I walk off into the woods because I have to be at the daycare at 3pm and it takes twenty minutes, I think, to get there, so I can only walk half as long as it will take to get back to twenty minutes before.

When I reach a clearing, I see enormous wings. A blue heron taking flight. I gasp, out loud, because I’ve only seen a heron standing, stark, and I’ve never seen one fly. I turn to the empty space on either side of me and feel my camera, heavy, at my neck. Because, it turns out, there are great birds here, and there are people, anyway. There’s a great bird and two friends I can not capture and take with me on the memory card of a digital camera. My word and a blur are all anyone else can have.

The other day, after I had saved too many spiders to count, another bug flew and landed on the living room wall, which is bare because we haven’t hung any wall fixtures anywhere yet. I knew what it was, immediately, and I ran to it, fast, cupped it in my hands as quick as I could. Tyler, who has never before seen me run toward an insect instead of away, wondered what I was doing. It’s a firefly, I said. I opened the door and let it go into the night.

There are some things, I guess, that the city doesn’t take away from you. There are some things from a suburban childhood you do not forget.

Knowing

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“Which view do you like better?” my husband asks.

I can’t answer. They are too different, these two separate scenes, from two separate runs, along two separate rivers. But both views loom tall. Both feel majestic in their own ways. Both are as distant as they are within reach.

I ran the Brooklyn waterfront for seven years and I’ve only run the lower Hudson Valley for seven days. There’s something to be said for the ‘knowing’ I feel at every turn along Brooklyn Bridge Park. I’ve biked or run its paths hundreds of times. I’ve slung my camera around my neck and taken photos from every angle. I know where Governor’s island peeks out, where the bridge leads, where the promenade hovers along the other side. I know the underground veins of the city, its subways and tunnels. I know the city’s sky in every kind of weather.

Here, I don’t know the names of those three hunchbacked mountains. I don’t know where the running paths start or end. I don’t know where to turn into the shopping center. I’ve criss-crossed open fields in my running sneakers because I didn’t know that the path ended and began again somewhere else.  I’ve circled and backtracked the car up and around Rt. 6 because I didn’t know the entrance or exit, where one store was in relation to another. I don’t know the sky through these trees, what shape or color it will take.

It’s impossible to say which view I like better. One view I’ll come to know. The other I’ll only have known.

(Dis)connected

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I don’t know why it’s been so difficult to come to this space, to give voice to something inside me waiting to come out. I used to find comfort in the art of an ordinary hour. I used to hand over a quiet walk or a glance at the sky to words.

Lately, it feels harder to do that. Maybe it is too much like giving away these small moments all together. Maybe I’m not as engaged with the world as I once was. Or maybe the opposite. Maybe it’s easier than it used to be to live them and not reflect upon them. I don’t know.

Likes and comments, retweets and shares — the new ways we show one another we’re out there, we’re listening. I’ll post something somewhere, refresh and wonder what it means to someone else. Are they feeling the same? Are they as outraged, as sullen, as nostalgic, as passionate, as confused, as happy, as curious as me? And, somehow, these new ways we connect, don’t feel like a connection at all.

They feel brief. Fleeting. Like there’s only enough time to say ‘me too’ but not enough time to sit and understand how we are the same.

I feel like we might all be hungry for something we’re not getting.

The Starting Line

IMG_6369Sometimes you’re lost for words about all you’re feeling, about an experience, or a life. And then someone articulates those feelings for you. And all you can do is feel grateful.

I love this beautiful essay in Brooklyn Magazine from Helena Fitzgerald, The View Behind: This is Your Life, Until It Isn’t. As Fitzgerald says,

I long to return to the time when everyone I loved stood together on the starting line, in a briefly available closeness spurred by the fact that nothing had happened to us yet, that we were the things that were going to happen to one another.