12.24.2010

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

 December 24th.  9 PM.  Eastern Standard Time. From here on in, I shoot without a script.  See what comes of it.       
                                            -Rent
                
First shot: Rocking chair.  Baby's room.  Waiting.

For months now, this chair has been my refuge.  It was my mother's and my grandmother's before that.  Now it waits in the small room adjacent to my own, with a lamp and a small clock nearby on the blanket chest my father made me when I was 16.  Sometimes I write.  Others I just listen to the life inside me and marvel at God and infancy and all things miraculously alive.  But mostly, I wait.  It is a joyful expectancy, a waiting for the good news. 

Second shot: Inn door.  Bethlehem.  Exhausted.

They have been moving all day.  In line.  Crowded into corners, hardly noticed.  Shoved around at food stands.  Pushed aside by men jockeying for position for their families.  They had hoped to be down the road by the time evening fell, but it was not to be, so they have to find a place to rest for the night.  She has to find a place to focus.  She knows what is happening, she had been noting the signs all day, but she hadn't yet mentioned anything to Joseph.  When he is told again no rooms, she touches his sleeve.  He turns, understands, and asks if there is any shelter, any place they can rest undisturbed for the night.

Third shot: A deck of cards.  Living Room.  Listening.

We had been running last minute errands.  Getting the groceries, cleaning the house, for the in-laws would arrive any day now.  The baby's due date is the next day: Christmas Day.  The midwife, the nurses, everyone reassures us that babies never arrive on their due date.  I know what is happening, had been noting signs all day, but I hadn't yet mentioned anything to Joel.  Dinner over, we play cards.  He gets frustrated and accuses me of not paying attention.  When I reveal to him the cause of my distraction, he snaps to a different kind of attention.  He understands.

Fourth shot:  Donkey.  Stable.  Pacing.

She has been on and off that donkey for days.  He has been such a steady, silent companion.  He never asked how she was feeling, if she was ready for that baby to come on already, if she really believed she was carrying the Messiah.  He watches her now with questioning eyes, pacing back and forth on her behalf.  He knows what is happening. 

Fifth shot: Stockings.  Fireplace.  Receiving.

We reach the point where we know we will not be at home the next day, so at midnight, we fill each of our stockings and welcome Christmas in its first small moments.  Joel gets a pair of shoes; me, some beautiful kitchen knives.  I pause in our celebrations to receive the contractions and send them on their way.  Later, they will fill more of the room; now they are not overbearing.  But they insist on their presence.

Sixth shot: Joseph.  Stable door.  Kneeling.

The baby is coming, and no one is there to help.  He will not defile his wife's honor by observing her tribulation, so he kneels in the doorway.  He prays that God's promises would be true; he prays for strength, survival, sanctuary.  He opens his eyes and tracks the path of a star rising in the sky above him.  He listens as she cries out, and then, as a different cry peals out, he turns.  Mary is holding Him, their son, Jesus.  They cry together.

Seventh shot: Star.  Car seat.  Holding on.

I peer out from under the furry edge of my hat and beg Joel not to speed.  I don't want him to get a ticket.  How stereotypical: Sorry, officer, but my wife is labor.  4 AM.  Hospital check-in.  We had done good work at home; it is soon time.  My voice rings out and frightens my father waiting outside the door.  I focus it down instead, and the baby crowns.  The cord is wrapped - twice - Joel sees the panic in the midwife's eyes.  I do not.  All I know is that the baby is here.  Beverly works with nimble hands, frees her, and holds her up: It's a girl.  We cry together.     

Eighth shot: Mary.  Stable floor.  Nursing.

She knows who He is.  She had heard the angel's words, believed them immediately.  She knows what He had been born to do, to be.  But in this moment, this first moment of providing Him with life, with sustenance, she also knows He is simply her son.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Nothing is more important than Him.

Ninth shot.  Chloe.  Hospital Room.  Sleeping.

She makes so much noise in her sleep.  Who knew babies were so noisy while sleeping?   I have a hard time sleeping at first; I just want to watch her, to know she is okay.  Once we make it home together, we will sit in our rocking chair, sing, read, talk, nurse.  Joel will bring me water, ask if I need anything.  Such a servant.  In those quiet moments, the rest of the world will fade to black; nothing is more important than her.

Tenth shot.  A tattered book.  Chloe's bed.  Crying.

It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn't much care what happened to them.  They couldn't have been very neat and tidy either, but more like this Mary and Joseph (Imogene's veil was cockeyed as usual, and Ralph's hair stuck out all around his ears).  Imogene had the baby doll but she wasn't carrying it the way she was supposed to, cradled in her arms.  She had it slung up over her shoulder, and before she put it back in the manger she thumped it twice on the back.

I heard Alice gasp and she poked me.  "I don't think it's very nice to burp the baby Jesus," she whispered, "as if he had colic."  Then she poked me again.  "Do you suppose he could have had colic?"


I said, "I don't know why not," and I didn't.  He could have had colic, or been fussy, or hungry like any other baby.  After all, that was the whole point of Jesus - that he didn't come down on a cloud like something out of "Amazing Comics," but that he was born and lived . . . a real person.

...But as far as I'm concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman - sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby.  And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing ham.

When we came out of the church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead.  And I thought about the Angel of the Lord - Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere:


"Hey!  Unto you a child is born!"

Nothing is more important than Him.



Thanks to the Virtual Advent Tour for offering me the chance to record these thoughts.  Merry Christmas, friends.

12.22.2010

Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude

The first half: sublime.  The second half: more work, greater effort on the part of reader and writer.  But not worse.  No, definitely not worse.

For no word can be written without first having been seen, and before it finds its way to the page it must first have been part of the body, a physical presence that one has lived with in the same way one lives with one's heart, one's stomach, and one's brain.  Memory, then, not so much as the past contained within us, but as proof of our life in the present.  If a man is to be truly present among his surroundings, he must be thinking not of himself, but of what he sees.  He must forget himself in order to be there.  And from that forgetfulness arises the power of memory.  It is a way of living one's life so that nothing is ever lost.  (138)
I hate that this book was borrowed from the library.  I will now have to seek out my own copy and reread to mark all the choice bits.  Shame.  Thanks again, TPR.

12.20.2010

Un-Resolutions Update


There are 11 days left in December.  I have frittered away most of the month with little-to-no progress on my Rejectionist-inspired December Un/Pre/Alternative Resolutions.  To remind you, I resolved to:

1.  Practice Centering Prayer daily,
2.  Get rid of ALL the old, mismatched Christmas cards in the shoebox under my desk, and
3.  Finish a 10-year-old embroidery project.

So, how am I doing?  Well, the Centering Prayer thing still intrigues me.  I've got a Cynthia Bourgeault book but haven't cracked it.  In fact, it is buried under the three books of Bishop I brought home for a little (optimistic!) break reading.  I've even practiced sitting in reflection and meditation a few times, and I only fell asleep once.  So, there is something to remark on, but not nearly as much as I had hoped.  I am definitely going to need to be more disciplined (story of my life) to see any change with this one.

I found the embroidery project, pulled it out, straightened out the thread stash, looked at the pattern, and then put it all away again.  BUT, it is in plain sight now, and I have hope (it does spring eternal, you know) that I will at least do something on it in the next day or two.

The real success, the true triumph (start the Huzzahs now!) is on the Christmas Card front.  As I don't normally "do" Christmas Cards, opting for a New Year's Letter instead, the idea that I might chip away at this massive stack gradually was somewhat ridiculous.  To use them at all meant doing something as drastic as I did this year, and I am eternally grateful to The Rejectionist for forcing my hand on the subject.  But enough set up.  Let's get right to the good news.  They are gone.  I mailed them today.  I even printed some pictures of the offspring and enclosed their smiling faces for some lucky friends on The List.  I feel so accomplished, so domestic, so free of useless clutter!  Whether it is leftovers, scraps of paper, fabric, or WhatHaveYou, I like to use things up.  The using up factor was so high here, I might not come down for days. 

Now on that unnaturally high note, I must go upstairs.  My children have been frighteningly quiet for several minutes.  I do wonder what I will find.  Cue ominous music.

12.15.2010

Auster and Advent and Atwell, oh my!

When I go on a trip, I always amuse myself with how many books I feel is necessary to bring with me.  For instance, when traveling alone to a conference one weekend, I took with me 5 books.  One weekend.  A fairly full schedule.  No beach to just lounge in front of.  And I thought I might need 5 books.  Ridiculous.  The funny thing about that quirk of mine is that I do not normally read more than one book at a time.  OK.  That's not exactly true.  I'll sometimes have a collection of essays to dip in and out of while also reading a novel or a longer work of non-fiction, and then I've recently added the habit of reading a few poems from a collection many mornings.  But, I consider myself a one-book woman because I remain focused on the one longer work at a time.  So, when I take 5 books with me, it's not because I'm reading two or three of them simultaneously; rather, I delusionally think I might get through all 5. 

The other night, I took this insanity to a whole new level: I went to bed early while my husband was out of town.  I took with me three books.  Plus, the advent readings I keep by my bedside.  That's four books, folks.  And everyone knows how much I love to sleep.  So, what was I thinking?  I have no idea, honestly.  Because here's what happened:

I started with the advent reading.  Check.  Then, I opened the Nancie Atwell book In the Middle.  I wanted to continue the rereading of this great resource (on reading and writing workshops) I had started earlier that day, but I knew it wasn't bedtime reading.  I just wanted to be in bed while studying.  Nothing wrong with that, right?  My plan was to then move on to the Paul Auster I've been so enjoying lately.  His The Invention of Solitude is so complete, so solid a piece of writing that I regularly feel my breath catch at a phrase or at the culmination of a paragraph.  I also carried with me St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation, thinking I might choose to continue my advent study before the Auster.  So, I'm reading the Atwell, sitting up tall in bed.  Twenty minutes later, I wake up with my head at an unnatural angle on the top of the headboard. I had read about 5 pages of the Atwell.  The Auster and the Athanasius lay untouched to my right.  So much for getting a lot of reading done before bed.

As my semester winds down, I hope I will be more productive in my reading and studying.  The 7 books I have out from 2 different libraries will get read.  The Bishop will get begun, the Auster completed.  Or I might just sleep more.  Regardless of my progress, I hope your holidays are bright and that you either get the sleep or the reading you wish for.

12.10.2010

TPR Challenge #10 - Paul Auster

In Sunset Park, publisher Morris Heller makes the following remark:
Writers should never talk to journalists.  The interview is a debased literary form that serves no purpose except to simplify that which should never be simplified. (271)
Since we know authors will often put themselves or their opinions into their books, (just moments before, Heller said "in spite of the idiot culture that surrounds them, books still count, and the work they are doing is important work, essential work.")  I wonder if this quote about interviews has any connection to Auster himself and if so, how he felt about his interview with The Paris Review.  Was it given begrudgingly?

In the interview, Auster is asked about a story in his The Red Notebook collection where he recounts the experience of his 14-year-old self walking in the woods with friends when one of the friends is suddenly and fatally struck by lightening.  He says it was the first time he encountered "the bewildering instability of things" (319), and I believe this concept applies beautifully to his Sunset Park.  Though it is ostensibly a book about people more than events, I was continually on edge for those people; I could feel their tenuous connection to this world, as if they would, at any moment, simply drift away or contrastingly, be violently cut away. It was that bewildering instability that kept me so engaged.

The plot focuses on Miles Heller, son of the aforementioned Morris.  He "disappeared" after his third year of college and has been wandering rather aimlessly in the 7 years since.  The remaining cast of characters (each with startling, discrete stories) emerge as they are pulled into Miles' orbit; they become satellites, revolving in their own way with him as their core.  The story begins in Florida, where Miles is working as a "trash-out" guy in foreclosed homes.  It migrates to New York when Miles is forced to leave Florida and decides to join his friend Bing (and housemates Alice and Ellen) squatting in a foreclosed house in the Sunset Park neighborhood.  The chapters alternate characters, and each person offers something unique to the story, but there is not one element, not one character (not even Miles) who I got attached to.  Instead, I was drawn in by the story itself and by the storytelling. 

Undoubtedly, Auster is a gifted writer.  See this bit about the Florida sun if you do not believe:
It is a Machiavellian sun in his opinion, a hypocritical sun, and the light it generates does not illuminate things but obscures them - blinding you with its constant, overbright effulgences, pounding on you with its blasts of vaporous humidity, destabilizing you with its miragelike reflections and shimmering with waves of nothingness. (7)
While in Florida, Miles falls deeply in love with Pilar, a young woman not yet 18.  The book goes to great pains to make sure we do not think anything wrong with this union; it shows Miles' respect for her, his protection of her, and insists upon the Truth of their Love.  Despite its best efforts, however, I did take issue with this element of the story. Though I believe that Miles believes in his love for her, I don't have to approve of the way the relationship functions.  I don't like the paternalistic protection he extends over her; Miles acknowledges it as somehow inappropriate yet accepts it as the right thing to do, as though we too should accept it.  But I do not.  A union based on such a unbalance of power is certain to struggle if not actually implode at some point.  The fact that Miles has issues with violence (never towards the girl) also causes me to pause.  But perhaps most interestingly is that while many of the other satellites in Miles' atmosphere get a chapter, Pilar does not.  She has no voice, no story, other than that which directly affects Miles.  She is wholly admired by all who encounter her, but she does not have a presence that makes her real.  She exists in the shadows, and I disagree with the message that sends readers about Miles, about marriage, and about people really. 

After reading the interview, I remained intrigued with Auster's body of work, so I picked up his The Invention of Solitude from the library.  It is a thin book from an earlier time in his career (after the bulk of the poetry and translation work, before the novels) that functions officially as a memoir but reads like a novel.  Auster (in the interview) calls it the "foundation of all my work."  The writing is perhaps even more powerful here than in Sunset Park.  Here's the opening paragraph:
One day there is life.  A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness.  Everything is as it was, as it will always be.  He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him.  And then, suddenly, it happens there is death.  A man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death.  The suddennness of it leaves no room for thought, gives the mind no chance to seek out a word that might comfort it.  We are left with nothing but death, the irreducible fact of our own mortality.  Death after a long illness we can accept with resignation.  Even accidental death we can ascribe to fate.  But for a man to die of no apparent cause, for a man to die simply because he is a man, brings us so close to the invisible boundary between life and death that we no longer know which side we are on.  Life becomes death, and it is as if this death has owned this life all along.  Death without warning.  Which is to say: life stops.  And it can stop at any moment. (5)
I have read hardly more than the first few pages, but I am taken by his candor and the fresh way he writes of a difficult time (immediately after the death of his father) and an impossible subject.  I am impressed.

The interviewer asked Auster how often the autobiographical occurs in his novels, and I found his response curious.  He says basically that he does include elements from his life, but "far less than you might think."  Then, they go on for several back-and-forths bringing to light some of those elements.  More interesting to me though is how much of the interview material showed up in Sunset Park.  He talks about being a baseball player and a huge fan of the game; Miles is the same.  He talks about aging and the difficulties of the effect of "the accumulation of losses" upon a person; Morris makes a very similar comment regarding his wife, Willa.  He questions the way we represent ourselves in media and society; Bing makes some similar observations.  I bring up these correlations not to make a liar out of Auster but to point out how writers can never know when a piece of their future work is going to start germinating in their minds.  This interview occurred in 2003, 7 years prior to the publication of Sunset Park.  But there are the seeds of those story elements right there in the interview, exposed for all to see.  Basically, I'm saying the human brain is pretty danged awesome. 

I will leave you with two final thoughts:
1.  Auster claims "I rarely speak directly through my characters. They might resemble me at times, or borrow aspects of my life, but I tend to think of them as autonomous beings with their own opinions and their own ways of expressing themselves."  You are free to use this assertion to answer my opening question as you wish.
2.  Did you Lydia Davis fans know she was Auster's first wife?  And that he is now married to Siri Hustvedt?

Double digits on the TPR Challenge total!  I am almost 1/6th of the way there, and I have yet to be disappointed.  Up next, Elizabeth Bishop.

12.06.2010

Room by Emma Donoghue Giveaway

Now, maybe everyone has just already read it, and maybe nobody wants it.  That's fine.  I am not offended.  But, it occurred to me that perhaps those that hadn't read it and might actually want to own it for free would have seen my spoiler alert and stopped reading the last post.  Thus, they would never have gotten to the part where I said I was giving it away.  So, let me be clear and uncluttered:

I would like to give away my copy of Room by Emma Donoghue.  I am also giving away a paperback copy of From Here to April, which was really quite an interesting novel about motherhood, depression, and womanhood in general. If you are interested in either or both, please comment below.  I will be glad to ship them anywhere.  If no one is interested, I will also be glad to give them as Christmas gifts to unsuspecting friends.  Winners either way!

12.02.2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

Finally!  At this very moment, I am not completing necessary prep work in lieu of completing this ridiculously overdue post on Emma Donoghue's Man Booker Prize-nominated Room.  I was captivated by this book from the first excerpt I read.  I even ordered a hardback copy even though I (strangely) prefer paperbacks.  And when I finally got to read it, it was everything I had anticipated: original, memorable, and thought-provoking.  I finished it over the Thanksgiving holiday but couldn't comment on it fully at the time.  Now, here I sit, gazing at the vividly contrasting cover, and I feel empty of all the passion and energy that the reading of it left me with.  In fact, the longer I have sat with it, not writing on it, the less satisfied I have been with it.  So, my opinion now is a few shades quieter and darker than it would have been a week ago. 

The basic plot reveals a mother and her son, Jack, both captives of a rarely-seen kidnapper.  The story is told from Jack's perspective in his unique voice, and it is his voice that makes this book worthy of the praise that has enveloped it.

The first bit:
Today I'm five.  I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra.  Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.  "Was I minus numbers?" (3)
Because you so immediately get attuned to his rhythms and phrasings, you also are attuned to his experience, which is unimaginable.  You begin to break a bit right from the start.  But it is not an immediately and consumingly dismal situation.  Jack's Ma is an amazing creation.  Donoghue deserves praise just for creating this world, this concept, and when you realize how skillfully Ma manages this otherwordly life, you almost want to stand in awe.  Ma has developed a ridiculously "normal" life for her son with art projects, play time, good hygiene, relatively healthy food, phys ed (where they do Track, Trampoline, and Corpse among other activities), education, and perhaps most remarkably, safety from her captor.  Jack is very literate and has superb numeracy for his age and development, and he is happy.  How is this possible?  Of course, the story doesn't end there although a part of me wishes it had. 

**spoiler alert???**
Is it common knowledge that they escape from Room?  I must say the escape sequence was wicked-good.  It was one of those growing tensions that made me increase my reading speed and hunch over the book in an anxious twitch to see how it was resolved.  And I was interested in the idea of life after Room for Jack and his Ma, but I was disappointed by the outcome.  As I've sat with this disappointment, I've begun to wonder if there could be any satisfying response.  There is no universally acknowledged response to freedom after abduction, so how am I to judge Ma's actions or the relative mental health of Jack under these circumstances?  I don't feel capable or qualified to do so.  But, I definitely did.  And my judgment left me feeling unsettled.  I did and equally didn't understand how a mother as creative and resilient as she had proven herself to be (I mean, really.  Egg Snake?  That's amazing.) could turn so dramatically after her release.  I didn't understand how Jack's voice could actually grow and mature even as he should have been experiencing some pretty significant sensory overload.  I did and didn't understand how Ma could find email and facebook more important than the mental health of her son.  It was as if she had preserved him so far but no farther; had guaranteed his physical safety but had ignored his emotional and mental needs. 

I enjoyed this book, admired this book, and do not disagree with the accolades that have come its way; however, I think it is being honored more on the strength of its opening section than on the merits of the whole book.  As a gift to someone, I am giving my copy away (no mailing restrictions!), so if you would like it to be yours, comment below. 

I'm also giving away my paperback copy of Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan.  I don't have time to do a full review, but I would love someone else to do so.  It is a very interesting look at womanhood, postpartum depression, and motherhood, and I do recommend it.  Same routine as with Room.  Just comment with which book you'd like, and I'll pick a winner on Monday.

12.01.2010

Brought on by the Urgings of The Rejectionist

Ah, The Rejectionist.  How is it possible for you to bring me such ridiculous joy?  How is it possible you can regularly include subtle allusions to my favorite things (preeminently Sassy magazine, but this morning Dazed and Confused!)?  How is it possible I used so many punctuation marks in that last sentence?  How is it possible it is December already?  When I first read of your pre-resolutions idea, I thought it sounded fun and somehow hazily-lazily in the future.  Alas, December has railroaded me once again, so here I sit considering my participation in this pre-resolution thang.

I don't actually make New Year's Resolutions most of the time, but I did do a month-by-month thing in 2009 which challenged me in myriad ways.  They weren't all self-denial goals, but I did do a month without coffee, and one without chocolate, and one without Coca-Cola, and one without beer.  Good Lord, how did I ever survive?  Anywho, this December, during the season of Advent, I have been playing with an idea that I need to make a formal commitment, so here goes:

Centering Prayer.  My friend Brigitte alerted me to this concept in her blog the other day, and I have been pondering making it a daily practice during advent.  It will involve me finding at least 20 minutes of secluded time to just sit and be empty.  Sitting I can do; it's the emptiness I worry about.  I tried it for the first time the other day, and I don't know how long I sat, but it was definitely an intriguing exercise.  I will look forward to seeing where it takes me. 

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!  I also hereby resolve to finish a Christmas embroidery thing I started - NO KIDDING - 10 years ago.  It has been sitting in a bag for ages, and I think it should finally get out of my flippin' way. 

STILL NOT CONVINCED?  HOW DOES FREE SOUND TO YOU?  I will throw in for good measure one more goal for the month.  I pinky-promise to mail all the old, free, ugly, unmatched Christmas cards I have been hoarding in a box for years.  They will all get gone this year.  Not necessarily as proper Christmas cards, but they will get mailed prior to New Year's Day.  Want one?  Email or comment with your address.  I'll be glad to send some holiday cheer your way.

Thanks for the prod, Le R.  You're the bestest friend a girl could ever have.