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.
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Celebrating Lauren Gibaldi and The Night We Said Yes

I’m writing in celebration of the lovely Lauren Gibaldi who releases her debut novel The Night We Said Yes on June 16th. I have been waiting for this book and I know it’s one you will want to read, so I hope you’ll check it out. 

Lauren asked about a time I said ‘yes’ and it got me thinking about a lot of things. Dates, jobs, engagements and, then, this…

For a long time, I waited for someone else to say it first.

I waited for graduate schools to decide what kind of writer I was. A playwright. A screenwriter. A novelist. (For a few years, at Boston University, it seemed, a screenwriter I’d be…and yet…) I waited for sights-set-too-high literary magazines to say ‘yes’ to the stories piling up in my heart and in my hard-drive. They sent back rejections on printed slips sealed with ‘no’.

I waited because I thought a ‘yes’ held the weight of all my writerly worth.

In 2007 I signed up for a novel-writing workshop at The New School at the last minute. I ended up on a waiting list. I sat through the first class and, in the end, walked up to the professor:

What are the chances I’ll get in this class? 
You won’t.
But I need this.
Why?

He stared me down, this pale, skinny thing, with hair in his eyes. It felt like a challenge. Like, if I gave him a good enough reason, maybe he’d find room for me. But it also felt like a statement. You don’t need this class, or any class, to be a writer. You know that. 

Maybe I could have answered. Maybe I could have said what I felt, that I needed someone to let me in. To tell me it was okay to sit with stories, to weave words, to let go of whatever mess might sit inside me making sense of itself through tall-tales.

Can’t you just let me in? I asked.

And then it came, an answer I was accustomed to hearing, the inevitable no.

I walked away, out of the building, crossed the city, west to east, to the one room studio on 18th street with the blue couch and a window that sat on the street. A place for watching.

I was tired of waiting for everyone else to decide for me. Tired of standing outside of where I wanted to be. Between each no, stood my drumming yes. I wrote that night in secret. I told my stories in the dark, at a wobbly white desk, when the day was done, the real work finished, the work of dreaming begun.

In the years since, I still wait for yes. Sometimes, it comes through in an email from an agent or for a flash fiction story or a chapbook. More often, it is just out of reach, beyond the folds of maybe or if or next time or never. It sits far away from a not what I had hoped.

But I know my own hope. I have my own yes and it’s the only one I need.

Back In Spring

It’s spring and the ants are invading, lining the windows, zagging the floors. I wash the counters with vinegar and sprinkle cinnamon like pixie dust. All at once the pear blossoms bend their branches to form a canopy over Columbia street and, now, Little O and I are no longer caught indoors, wishing the cold away, instead we circuit playgrounds in a wide loop around our corner of Brooklyn.

Some playgrounds are crowded with rows of nannies rocking strollers, shushing infants to sleep in a back and forth, push and pull, while their siblings streak and tear through the narrow spaces of play. Others sit tucked beside the various entrance to the BQE, invaded only after school. The children come in waves of screams and O doesn’t understand why he can’t toddle with his tentative, bumbling, Frankenstein walk when they come through.

The playground I like best is on the waterfront and it’s for the smallest of the littles. Even O, who only began walking a few weeks ago, can climb the broad steps of the slide and make his way down alone. Sometimes I overestimate his capabilities and he’s tumbling across the blue ground, arms up and wondering and waiting for love while he pouts.

This spring finds us in the swimming pool at the YMCA in Manhattan, navigating subway stairs and stroller wheels through clogged streets to get there. Sam is the bare-chested, gold-chain wearing swim instructor, who sings nursery rhymes like he’s sauntering the stage of a cabaret, while we swirl the babies on our hips, and it reminds me of my childhood in our above ground pool that always looked vaguely green with its dented walls. My friends and I used to churn water to make a soft, singing whirlpool.

But now I am the mother carrying childhood memories, reciting Humpty Dumpty over and over, from ‘wall’ to the ‘fall’, from the tile to the water and back again. O was the only child to cry for twenty-five of the thirty minutes. But he smiled through chlorine and tears and kicked his way through the last five.

As if he recognized the thrill of his experience, too late, he wailed as we exited the pool, wanting only to go back in.

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year by Louise Erdrich

There are bird people. I wouldn’t consider myself one of them. Where I live, the birds are rats of the sky, teeming pigeons, sputtering their wings at my approaching bicycle wheel, pecking at scraps of lunch. They make their homes at window sills and peeling benches, in the shafts of subway platforms. They are friends with the neglected, with the sidewalk dwellers and tattered-robe wanderers. They are no friends of mine.
It is with this bias, this complete ignorance, inattention and disassociation to winged creatures that I sat down to read Erdrich’s collection of essays on motherhood: The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. I sought the book out because I am in need of friendship and understanding and I search in the pages of women writers. Women writers who also mother. Because mothers who lawyer or doctor or teach or, or, or, etc. etc. probably look for their mentors in their own fields. So I search in mine.
Erdrich, unlike me, is a bird person. She follows them in rapt attention. The dancing and thievery, the water skimming and cloud swarms. She lives, at the time these essays were collected (1995), in New Hampshire. In a place of quiet. Where creatures burrow and thump beneath her floorboards and stare back at her between trees. She carries her children over roots and untrampled earth, not cement and subway stairs. I’m certain the air she breathes is cleaner than my air, the kind whipping in torrents from the wheeled traffic of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.
Despite the differences in our environments, I found we shared a geography of the self. A self split in many twos, between who we were and who we are, between the child we carried and the child who takes his first steps away. We are both a collection of many women separated between floorboards and walls and veils. 
In recent months, I have been reading a lot of written reflections by mothers and have found fellowship and understanding in the string of all their words. But it is Erdrich and, of all things, her birds that I think, perhaps, best understand me. It feels like they are all at my window, sharing what I see from here. I love when I find the books that know me as well as I come to know them.

A Trip to Philly to celebrate stories in a vending machine and do my first reading

UPDATE: Many of you asked how to purchase these stories. They are now available here for $3 (shipping included.)
I spent last evening in Philadelphia, dreaming words on the train, sitting on the benches in Rittenhouse Square, looking up, in the wet dark, at the twinkling Christmas lights. Then, I walked down a blue lit path on 22nd street and went to the Science Leadership Academy. It’s a school I’ve heard about and wondered about. I’ve seen the TED Talks and articles and the PBS stories about the work this school is doing and how it is inspiring others to relook at their own models of education and follow suit. 
I was there for the launch party of the 4th Floor Chapbook series, an awesome publishing venture from the Head and the Hand Press in collaboration with SLA’s students and staff. See that vending machine in the photo? It’s selling chapbooks. Snackable stories. My story, The Song Inside, sits alongside some amazing work and it was so cool to be a part of it. 
I wore flowered tights and, you guys, I did my first reading in front of a live audience over the age of six — feeling very grateful for my friend Tracy, who used to make me read my work aloud in her living room, but only after giving me liquid courage in the form of wine. Don’t worry, I was completely sober for this experience, unless you count the delicious potato chips I had beforehand. 
I was able to talk with Nic Esposito, who founded the Head and the Hand Press and told me stories of his son and his urban farm, which he wrote about in his collection of essays, Kensington Homestead. Linda Gallant, who might be the nicest person ever and it’s clear, took great care with our stories. The author Jennifer Hubbard, who read from her fantastic story In Memory of Lester, and advised me where to get middle-eastern food. And Robert Marx, a senior at SLA, who is waiting for his college acceptances, no doubt to do great things wherever he ends up. He blew me away with his story, Fade to Black, which I read on the train ride home. 
It meant a lot to me, to share my work in such a unique venue. My story sits next to great talent. To pop in a few dollars and watch books fall through the machine was a great thrill. If you can’t make it to the school itself, I hope to be able to point you toward the place to purchase these stories in a few weeks. 
Thank you to Beth Kephart, who told me about this series. If you haven’t noticed, she pretty much points me toward everything awesome.
Now, I must return to my regular scheduled programming in our Brooklyn apartment. Little O has found the recycling bin, its contents are in a pile at my feet as I write, and I think he just tried to bite into a metal can.

A Space Of Our Own

I’ve missed this space in recent months. I miss how it fills me up and allow me to share my words/myself and meet so many amazing readers and writers.

This is the only place I can share my words, who I am, and who I wish to be without harsh judgement. Maybe others judge in private, in which case, that is fine with me. They move on. They stop reading. I never know.

Though it has never happened to me, some might judge in public. And if they did, I would simply delete their harsh words right off this page. It’s my space, after all. But trolls … they don’t seem to come here. I thank them for staying away.  

I choose what I wish to write about. What the border looks like. The template. The photos. I choose the books and writers I want to read and celebrate. There’s no editorial calendar. No one waits with a deadline and a finger wag. There are no request for revisions or stamp, stomp, DENIED.

No one tells me my words aren’t funny enough or commercial enough or interesting enough. (And, hooboy, I know I’ve written some posts that have been real doozies.) Though I’ve tried not to, I’ve probably said stupid or uninformed things throughout the years. But I own them. They are mine.

My revelation, today — and it answers a question others have asked me, a question I’ve asked myself, why do you bother? why do you blog? — is that there is no other writing space in the world where this is the case. Maybe a journal but, with a journal, there’s no opportunity for someone to whisper, or maybe shout, yes or me too or I understand or I don’t or have you seen it this way? and it opens my eyes to how you and I fit together in this world, whether we’re linking arms or laughing or nodding or wondering or pointing one another toward a new understanding.

This isn’t me signing off, it’s me signing in. Maybe it’s the glop of love hormones from baby boy, but it’s me saying thank you for reading my words and for letting me read yours. In this small corner of the universe, we have a space that is all ours. 

September and finding my place

For me, it’s not about the new year but September. September is when I begin again and make a fresh start. In the northeast the school year begins after labor day and, when I was a girl, new things came with that start: a new teacher, a first day of school outfit, a new book bag, and blue-lined notebook pages, blank and ready and eager.

We’d rearrange our desks in a new classroom and, with the new set up, our friendships would adjust themselves accordingly. I’d find myself in between the quiet girl or the cool girl or the gross boy who finger-pinned and flipped his eyelids and these people would become my day, my week, my year. 
We are, I think, whether we like it or not, creatures of proximity. I wonder who and what I will align myself with this year.

I know I’ll make a new start with a novel I’ve been dreaming. Since Little O’s birth I have discovered I will always make time for writing in all the hours between everything else. I’ll let go of sleep or television or cleaning (the dust…my floors…you would be appalled.) 
What I do need to make time for…is the paying work. Or I should say, I need to find that work. Work that fulfills me, gives me a paycheck, and allows me to spend a majority of my week with my son. I don’t know that such work exists but I have given myself this year to find it, a luxury I planned for, but a luxury still, and I search and wonder and interview and let the world evaluate who I am and who I could be, how I might be useful or useless and the hours fade and the days fall into one another and I wonder where I’m headed at all.
Having a child, leaving my job, I find myself outgrowing the life I once built. My work. My apartment. My neighborhood. My city. In so many ways, I’m caught inside a life that no longer makes sense for me. Maybe this is what it’s like to grow up. I don’t know. 
Looking out into my future, seeing a long, wide expanse of unknowns is not easy but, I guess, it’s a part of moving forward. Moving on.
It’s September and my notebook is open and blank and the world rearranges itself around me. I look forward to finding my place inside it all. 

Thoughts on Nest by Esther Ehlrich

I loved this book about a young girl who loves birds, who searches for them, spots them and spouts out their facts, a girl whose name speaks a bird’s earliest sounds, Chirp.

Chirp dances through her life in Cape Cod. She watches, as if through binoculars, as those around her try to cope with a year of change. Her mother, a dancer who taught her to see the world, its lilaacs, its stars, and its graceful swan boats, has been diagnosed with MS. Her sister flits between childhood and adolescence. And her Dad, a ‘head shrink’, who is always asking questions no one wants to answer, can not pull his own wife from the grips of a chronic depression.

Chirp deals with it all as she knows how, searching through the beauty of nature, mimicking the graceful movements of a loon’s dance, slowly coming into her own as she discovers that the world her mother has opened her eyes to see is beautiful, yes, but also prickly and unknowable.

I’ll call my own personal summer, the summer of the loon. A bird I had never heard of until I learned about it while visiting Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where my husband spent his summers as a child. We searched for it on Rust Pond but I never saw it or heard its call. So, its presence in this book was even more beautiful to me, imagining its bob and sway through Chirp’s eyes, how it lifts off from land and sea. I hope to see it some day.

I loved so many things about this book. Chirp’s voice; authentic and pure. A sadness that is handled with subtlety and grace. It does not shy away from hard topics but it also lingers in the magic of walking through this life, eyes wide open to the world and the people we love. Its rhythm brought me back to my own childhood obsessions: swimming and trees and poems and fireflies and riding my bike in a perfect circle in the rain.

Some scenes I imagine as if they happened to me, so masterful in the details and how they convey the feeling of being alive. This one, in particular, made me catch my breath and nod. I was that girl, dancing with my friends in just this way:

When I start whirling in circles, Sally copies me. Our hair’s whipping around and the room’s spinning. We’re bonking into the beanbag chairs. Watch out! We’re shiny silver balls in a pinball machine! Sally takes the hem of her T-shirt and sticks it through the collar and yanks it down so it turns into a T-shirt bikini top. I turn my shirt into a bikini top, too, and now our bellies are out. Our bellies are out and we’re wiggling them. We’re wiggling our bellies and we’re wiggling our hips and we’re wet with sweat and when David Cassidy sings “I think I love you,” we know he’s singing to us. He’s got to be singing to us because we’re just so filled up with everything good and bright and shiny that how can he not be crazy in love with us?

The joy of friends and memory. New England. The sorrows of parting.

I just returned from a trip to New England, where I slept in a house set among the most gorgeous trees.

We were ‘out of service’. No internet. No phone. We hiked and walked, kayaked and cooked. Together, with my parents, we celebrated the life of one of their best friends, my Uncle John, whose ashes flew away from the top of the great Mount Snow, and, at its slope, in his memory, I remembered my own childhood visits to Vermont.

My black diamond triumph. The smoky wooden smell of his cabin, sleeping with my feet tucked beneath its slanting roof. Candlepin bowling, a small and delicate sport, the way dollhouses are to a child, there’s something small like me. The glittering hill where we used to sled, now overgrown with brush.

We visited friends and family across Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, each one planting a kiss on Little O’s forehead. We sat on the dock of Rust Pond and stories I have grown to love became vivid scenes as I saw for myself where my husband spent weeks of summer as a child.

I met the children of two of my best friends, all born within months of my own son, a beautiful trio spread out across a blue blanket, in purple and flowers and stripes and polkadots, feet in hands, smiles ripe and ready, eyes wide to the world.

Every child Little O meets is labelled a friend. 

This is your friend Nora, Rosie, Meghan, Augie, Brooks, Addison. On and on. This list of new friends.

And so it was with a strange mix of joy and sadness, I drove away. What a beautiful thing, to ride a long yellow line from one person to the next, to be fortunate enough to have so many people to see and hug. What a terrible thing to physically separate from a string of names. A long, winding river reel of the people I love.

Street Finds – The Books of This Summer

There are many reasons I love Brooklyn. One of them is the mysterious exchange that happens on the sidewalks and stoops of our homes. I haven’t seen this anywhere else. Even after six years just over the river in Manhattan. But, here in Brooklyn, we love to leave books and records outside for anyone to take.

I have built a beautiful, if worn, library from these finds. And I have left many, many of my own books at the foot of the tree directly in front of our building. They disappear like forgotten secrets. I feel better knowing they are in another’s eager hands.

I always want to read what’s new, what’s now but, this summer, the streets have been talking. They’ve been saying, Melissa, you’ve missed the best. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I haven’t yet read a single work of the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez or McEwan’s most well-known, Atonement. Tyler’s been nagging at me to read his beloved Simon Winchester. And others have shouted of Saunders and Patchett. I’ve managed to miss them all.

But, no more. These are the books that have found me this summer. I can’t believe my good fortune. They’ve been waiting. It’s time.