Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Dreaming a new space

I love the mix of colors in that photo, and often fantasize about having an elegantly designed home. But the fantasy runs smack into my priorities. I am now fully embarked on a mission to refresh my living room, which means getting rid of our broken, torn, depressing dark brown couches and replacing them with pieces that will still allow my children and their loves to throw themselves down and fall right asleep, each couch deep enough to accommodate a pair of lovers, should the need arise. Yes, it's my living room, and my kids are grown and out the house, so why should this lounging ideal be the primary consideration? Well, because watching my children serenely asleep under my roof makes me happy. The world recedes, and I am at peace.

I do want to brighten everything up. It will help to swap out the red curtains for something lighter and airier. The rug, too, will need to go. Even though I still love its bold rusty red color, after more than a decade of faithful service, it is quite threadbare. Mostly, I am weary of so much dark brown furniture. My neighbor and friend Jane, in response to this lament, observed, "It's such a pity trees don't come in more colors." I want to let go of many pieces, but some, like the dark wood armoire that holds so much of my work life inside it, are simply too substantial and useful to discard, so I will have to work with and around them. 

The coffee table, too, doesn't really go with anything else in the room, but my mother wanted me to have it so much that she brought it to New York from St. Lucia on a plane one summer. She was making sure that if she closed her eyes in an untimely way, no one would come into the house and adopt that piece, which she intended for her daughter. At the time, my kids had been in St. Lucia with their grandmother for a few weeks, and she was accompanying them home. I can still recall my son calling me in New York, saying, "Mom, Grandma is trying to pack a whole coffee table to bring on the plane!" He was twelve, and understood it was a legitimate crisis.

I will definitely keep the coffee table, because my mother loved it. Still, it is more than fifty years old, battered and bruised, and it might be time to call in a furniture restorer and get it properly refurbished. I will also hold off on replacing the armchair for now, because I just might walk into a home goods store one day and find a loud, colorful, completely outrageous piece that will be just the touch of eccentricity my refreshed living space needs. Maybe something in a fabric like the blue paisley chair in that second picture. 

I confess I am having a hard time making final decisions on what to buy. Durability matters. And I do want the new couches to be attractive in a classic, timeless way. Yet I don't trust my taste anymore. Maybe it's only that I've spent so many years factoring in other people's preferences, which I suppose is how it often works within families. When I was in my twenties, I knew exactly what I liked. I didn't overthink everything the way I am doing now. I saw my first ever couch, wine red with tiny white polka dots, in a now defunct store called Workbench, and I bought it without flinching. "Remember when we were first married we had a couch and a loveseat in clashing fabrics?" I said to my husband the other night. He laughed. "We were young," he said. "You can do that sh*t when you're young." I laughed with him, and decided that we can do that sh*t now, too. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Doing the most

My niece was in Puerto Rico with her husband for a wedding last week, and they will be in New York City, staying with us next week. We haven't seen them since their own wedding, two months before a pandemic shut the world down. It's the longest I've ever gone without seeing my niece, who feels like my third child, and I can't wait. She and her love were supposed to come to the city over the summer, traveling from Dallas where they now live, but the morning before they were to fly, my niece woke up unable to smell or taste anything, and discovered she had contracted a breakthrough case of covid. Her symptoms were thankfully mild, sniffles and a headache, and everything resolved within the week. Her husband, also vaccinated, tested negative.

My niece, whose children's book, written with her lifelong friend, was published this week, texted me to say "I feel like I'm doing the absolute most this year." She recently signed the lease on her very own dental practice—that's her in the raw space that is now being transformed—and she and her love are also building a home, as they found it cheaper to build from scratch than buy. She assures us there will be room for us all. It so wonderful to watch her do her thing, this accomplished human who was once a ferociously pragmatic little girl spending summers with us in New York, then playing big sister to her cousins for the month of August at their grandma's home in St. Lucia. As my brother once said of her, his firstborn: "She doesn't take up much space in the world, but she defends it fiercely."

Pandemic or not, Arrindell Arms seems to be once again open for business, because not only will my niece and her husband be here, but my daughter is traveling down from Boston with a friend she's become very close to over the past year, who wants to take in the sights of New York City. Another young woman, my niece's best friend since high school in Jamaica, who lives in Philly and has often joined us for Thanksgiving, will also be staying with us, as a third member of their circle is getting married, and will be holding her bachelorette celebration in the city next week. The bachelorette festivities are the reason my daughter is coming to the city, too. That's my niece's crew, two of the three already married now, and the bride-to-be (wearing orange in the photo) soon to join them. Such a season of weddings!

My cousin who lives in Trinidad has also booked a stay at Arrindell Arms—that's what my husband and I jokingly call our little apartment, because in the years before the pandemic, we had a steady flow of family and friends bunking with us for a few days or so. Breakfast was sometimes included, though not always, which was fine, because those who stay here are easygoing and able to find their own way. Now that the world is opening up again, it appears that New York is still very much on everyone's itinerary, and our children's now empty bedrooms beckon. My cousin is staying for three weeks in November, until Thanksgiving, which I think we are planning to do on a smaller scale this year. My cousin is involved in various global health projects, and normally travels all over the world for work. But she hasn't been able to leave the island since the pandemic started and says she's going stir crazy. A favorite aunt of my children, she know she's always welcome here.

One last picture. That one showed up on the FDNY response videos social media site. My son's firehouse crew was celebrating one of their own, who'd completed a Boston to New York charity bike ride. Can you find my boy? His birthday is coming up, and we're going to fete with him when everyone's in town next week, covid be damned. I should mention that everyone who stays at Arrindell Arms must be vaccinated. Let's hope all our immune systems do the most, okay?

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The one about Jamaicans…

There's a joke about Jamaican immigrants, that we generally have more than one job going at once, and it's a little bit true about me.

1) I'm still editing for the magazine. They even put me on the masthead recently, which makes me a little nervous, because I think that when magazines decide to cut staff, they go down the masthead deciding who stays and who goes. I wasn't on the masthead when they furloughed three quarters of the staff last summer, and I suspect that might be why they missed me. Or maybe not. I had started as a freelancer, working from home, and then they put me on staff just before Covid locked everything down, so maybe they thought I was useful, or maybe they wagered I'd be a willing workhorse. They say that in the absence of knowing a thing, always choose a more personally empowering interpretation. I don't always manage that.

2) I've been editing books for a wonderful agent. This woman is so very passionate about exquisite writing and socially conscious narratives, and I love her with my whole heart. Her parents were Holocaust survivors, and after the war they settled in a mostly Black, mostly poor neighborhood in Philly, and raised their children there. Her parents never learned how to read, or to speak English fluently, so she was their interpreter, their link to the world. This child of illiterate parents would grow up to become a book agent. In her youth she was part of the vibrant music and art scene in New York City's Greenwich Village. Later, as an agent, she would bring us the work of Audre Lorde, Jacqueline Woodson, Saeed Jones, Lemony Snicket and so many other critically important and beloved writers. She's brushed shoulders with the artistic greats, has stories that should be part of our literary history, and yet she has no desire to stand in the spotlight herself, and scoffs when I suggest she should write her life. I end up being so passionate myself about the work I do with her, though I do pick and choose the projects. Two of those projects, which consumed my summer, were submitted to publishing houses this week, so I am on tenterhooks, praying for editors to love these books as much as I do. 

3) My cousin started a boutique publishing house to help people self-publish their books, and I am a silent partner. My cousin is a devout and lovely Christian (a real Christian, not like those hateful Trump evangelists), and will likely only publish books that have some socially redeeming message or wholesome purpose at their core. They don't have to be Christian books—we're currently shepherding a science-driven book for teens on pushing back against climate change, for example—but my cousin likely won't ever publish a Harry Potter-esque fantasy novel with witches and demons, no matter how brilliant. I work with her in the background. My name is nowhere on her website, because I don't want people to think I only do a certain kind of book. I want to be engaged by all kinds of writing, with many different sorts of messages. I do believe in God, but not in her born again way. The God I pray to is synonymous with Love, is Love, and I entertain the possibility of a wide range of spiritual laws, such as past lives and reincarnation, angels among us, a karmic universe, the validity of all belief systems rooted in kindness, anything really that is born of Love. Even so, I could not be closer to this cousin if she were my sister. We actually do call each other sister, as we are the only girls among our multitude of first cousins who do not have a sister by birth. She is a beautiful writer with gift for vivid scene-painting. She also has the kindest soul, doesn't proselytize, and has a wicked-fast sense of humor. We laugh a lot. And we help each other how we can. We just published my niece's delightful children's book, The Land of Look Behind. It went live on Amazon this week!

Come to think of it, the joke about Jamaicans applies to my cousin and my niece, too! My cousin is a government lawyer, and has a nonprofit summer program to help Native American kids from her husband's reservation in Montana, get into college and get through it. And my niece is a dentist, but now she has written a children's book with her childhood friend, who is a doctor. And she already has another children's book in mind, and texted me last week that she's going to put "Children's Book Author" on her LinkedIn profile! Ha!

4) Last, but definitely not least, the memoir—this is my main work, the book I have been contracted to write for someone with a platform, who is too busy to write her own story. I'm in the flow of it once more, finally being consistent in my engagement with the narrative. My goal is to write 1,000 words each day. I achieved that on only three days this week, as magazine stories needing to be edited were flowing to my computer in a rather continuous stream. And so Saturday and Sunday will be writing days for me, as I have a book contract to honor. I am the daughter of a lawyer, which means that in my understanding, a contract is inviolate. 

All this to say, sorry I've been a little scarce in these parts. I've missed you.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Throwback Tuesday

Here's a hoot of a throwback I ran across the other day. That's me at eighteen, on my first visit home from college in the late seventies, eyebrows plucked to oblivion, Afro bouncin' and behavin'. I unearthed this relic because my brother asked me to go into my picture files and dig out some photos of him from when he wore an Afro in his youth. You know there's always one person in the family who collects the photographs. No surprise, that's me. No doubt my brother, three years divorced, was trying to impress someone, but he wasn't giving out any details. Here are the photos I sent him, taken as we gathered for a new year's day beach outing with friends, many of whom lived right there on Paddington Terrace, in houses up and down the street from us. My brother is the cool dude in the Coke bottle-thick wire rim glasses.

That young woman on the right above, and in the photo below, is my brother's first wife, who now lives in Germany with her second husband, whom she met more than three decades ago at a nuclear science conference. They both fell instantly in love, and feel that way still. Even though she and my brother divorced back in the nineties, she's still my sister—in fact, we spoke by phone just this afternoon. All of us having spent our teen years in and out of each other’s homes on the same street, she and my brother have also remained good friends. My brother even asked her to be godmother to his oldest daughter, who is herself now married and a dentist who has just signed the lease for her own practice in Dallas, yet she had no idea until a year ago that her dad had once been married to Auntie Hilary. A footnote: Our beloved Hilary's hair is now a brilliant snow white, and it looks fantastic—definitely a photo for another day.

There is so much I could write here. I'm roiling with obsessive thoughts but they're bubbling just below the surface, hence this breezy little post, in a moment when I am feeling anything but breezy. What's the weather report where you are?

Friday, September 3, 2021

Different kinds of muses

While America continues to burn, the newest conflagration being the Texas vigilante six-week abortion ban (I am worn out with trying to wrap my head around it, and won't get into it again here), I spent the week making a website for my cousin, who has started her own editorial business. She a wonderful writer, and even though she has a day job as a civil rights attorney (and is helping to sue several state governors for putting disabled students at risk with their ban of mask mandates), she also finds time to write books for people whose stories capture her imagination. I always run my book contracts by her to get her advice, and when I ask her how much her fee is, she says, "Give me three times what you charged me for the last editing job you did for me," and we laugh, because three times zero is as cheap as it gets. Family economics is a blessed thing. 

But making websites. It slides right into my OCD groove like it's found a natural habitat. I spend hours upon hours, adjusting boxes, choosing images, editing text, catching echoes, making sure there's enough negative space, adding links, adjusting some more, and I sit there striving endlessly for perfection. My cousin is thrilled with the result, which went live with her domain name this morning, so all in all, it's been a very productive week. Plus I forgot to eat most days and slept soundly each night, exhausted from excessive concentration. Maybe I should have been a website designer, with real training that would remove my constant need for trial and error and workarounds. Could be I wouldn't have this intransigent weight issue. Writing manuscripts definitely makes me want to siphon off the stress by eating, whereas designing that website for my cousin this week made me forget myself entirely, like time itself no longer existed.

That puzzle up top, all 1000 pieces are now connected on my dining table, that red typewriter taking me back. It makes we want to own one in real life, a beautiful vintage expression of the muse that chose me. Everything else in the picture looks as if it might have existed on some shelf in my mother's or my grandmother's house, the vase, the jewelry box, the little ceramic angel, the candle cages, the gravitas of the books.

Hurricane Ida hit New York City two nights ago, bringing the kind of flash flooding our streets have never seen. The man and I were safe inside; for us it was just a hard rain lashing the windows and whipping the trees. But my son was on shift at the firehouse throughout the storm. He said they responded to thirty-two different calls in four of the five boroughs, and did not sleep all night. At one point, he was thigh deep in water on the highway, checking abandoned cars to make sure no one was trapped inside as the water swirled higher. This is the muse that chose him.

Just before daybreak this morning, I dreamed I was so tired I couldn't get myself into the shower to get dressed. I was supposed to sit on a huge jury, hoards of people were climbing a marble staircase to the courtroom, and I was meant to be among them, but I was so bone weary I couldn't make myself join them, and my brother, who looked like my son in the dream, stretched out next to me on the bed and whispered, "Are you okay?" I woke up then, intensely relieved to discover I felt completely normal, not tired at all, and I realized my dream was about America, and how fucking exhausting the news is, every soul-sucking day.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Beautiful Serendipity

The art opening fed my soul. The artist, who is in her eighties, was not there, as she suffered a stroke a week ago and is still hospitalized. The good news is, she is recovering well and will return home to her family this week. This assurance came from her son, the youngest of her eight children, who represented his mother wonderfully last night, and told very moving stories of growing up watching her do her art, even as the family struggled financially in the rural South. 

The book agent was there with her daughter, a lovely young woman who is a Barnard graduate, and she and I bonded over our shared alma mater. The agent had apparently told the artist's son about me, and when she introduced me to him by name, he said, "I am so happy to meet you at last!" He acted as if my being attached to the book project was a done deal, and the agent acted that way too, as if all that remains is to work out terms and scheduling. She assured me again that they'd work around my current commitments, and so I am allowing myself to be cautiously excited. 

I have worked with this woman before, first when I was in my early thirties and she hired me as an editor at a publishing house. Later, after we both left that job she tapped me to work on a book she was packaging. It became the first book I ever had published. If this sounds familiar, it's because I posted about it back in May, when after two decades of no contact, she and I met for lunch, and the art book first became a whisper in my ear. 

Last night, I told her daughter that her mother had always been a rock star, at which point her mother shuddered and confessed, "I'm a little embarrassed by some of my behavior back then." I assured her she was fine, at least from where I stood. She was demanding as a boss, but I appreciated her clarity and perfectionism. I always knew just what she wanted, which made producing it easier. I don't have any trepidation about working with her again, though the parameters of the project do seem a little loose right now. I'm not particularly good at living with the unresolved but something tells me I need to just let what's happening here unfold.

The photo is a scene I snapped from the car window on my way home from last night's show. I didn't take any photos at the gallery. I was busy talking with interesting people. We all kept our masks on, though, so I wonder if I'd recognize any of them again. Probably only the artist's son, whose Southern drawl was distinctive, and whose eyes when he talked about his mother's work finally gaining the recognition it has long deserved, were alive with wonder and joy.

Of course, last night's event burned off all my socializing fuel so I'm grateful to have nothing on tap for today. I'll be able to recharge with just my husband, and my son who's coming by later, while keeping a pleasant distance from the world. I've also this morning completed editing a book proposal that took me all month. The proposal is longer and denser than many books, but it's beautifully written and frames a truly important work. The agent who asked me to do the edit said she wanted to leave no doubt that this is "a big book"—in the field of art scholarship of all things. 

It turns out that engaging with this proposal gave me a rich education in an aspect of American art that will serve me well in the next project, assuming it happens. Life can be so serendipitous and good. And now, I finally feel ready to turn back to the collaborative project that's already on my desk. I think I really needed a summer of reading exquisite writers to reclaim my writing self, if that makes any sense. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Stopping, starting

This erasure poem by Mary Ruefle pierces the present moment for me. I feel a bit like I'm in a post-apocalypse sci-fi movie, in danger every time I venture outside. I hear of people who have caught breakthrough covid cases just from standing next to someone outdoors for less than five minutes. And my son, who is spending the day with me, just told me about the family member of a friend, a man in his fifties who had been fully vaccinated, yet got a breakthrough infection and died. He had underlying conditions, my son said, but still. How do we protect ourselves? We wear masks, but how can we stop living our lives? We can't. And so we go about our business and pray the odds are on our side. 

Last night I had dinner with a friend of almost three decades, a woman with whom I can share my crazy mother worries without fear of judgment, because she shares many of the same fears. She's a therapist by profession, and will sometimes break down the theoretical source of our worries, allowing us to laugh at ourselves. Our concerns these days are mostly born of the awareness that we must let our girls go, we have no control anymore over anything related to our children. 

Her daughter has just become engaged. Both our girls have been friends since starting out in Pre-K, and we tenderly recalled sitting in the living room of that school located in a brownstone on East 96th Street, reflecting that our shy little ones were much the same. 

My friend wasn't feeling so well at dinner, and had no appetite. "I promise it's not covid," she assured me. But of course, I came home and immediately imagined symptoms. Was that scratchy throat the start of something more? What about the fatigue and sleepiness? Did it only signal my bedtime? This is exactly how I've been all year, whenever I watch the news about covid. Suddenly, I have all the symptoms.

I might have another book in the wings, this one very different from any I have done recently. It's an art book rather than a memoir, but they don't want a boring history recitation. They want the art brought to life through the makers, so the writer will have to find the human stories that give birth to the work. I hope the project happens. I'm a little burned out on crafting memoirs right now, and have spent the summer doing very pleasant editing jobs for truly gifted writers instead. But book editing, though time-consuming, doesn't really pay enough to live on. Book collaboration is better for paying the bills, but it can be dispiriting to immerse yourself in writing someone's story for a year or more, helping to excavate and frame their emotional and psychological truths, and get no cover credit in the end. I've decided I don't like the feeling much, even if I did agree to terms at the outset. 

I do currently have a book on contract, and will return to crafting that narrative come the end of summer. Cover credit is guaranteed, and this feels important. The agent on the art book said her clients know I have other projects going and are willing to work around my schedule. I am to attend an art opening tomorrow night to meet one of the artists, who is based in the South but is having a solo show in the city.  

Previously, I had joked to my friend, who does this same book collaboration work, that I seemed to be suffering from the twisties, leading me to pass on being considered for a couple of memoir projects that came my way this summer. It was a reference to gymnast Simone Biles suddenly losing air awareness at the Olympics and feeling unable to do the high-flying twists she has executed for years. In my case, I lost heart awareness, and felt exhausted at merely contemplating memoir work. Yesterday I called my friend and told her I finally found a new project that excites me. 

"The high-stakes twists might be on pause," I said, "but I can still do the flips."

"Oh," she said, "changed your dismount, have you?"

So now, I'm busy practicing the new dismount and getting back into the writing groove, daring to hope the nascent possibility becomes concrete, and that I can work out the timing and perform the exact right dismount for both the memoir and the art book, impeccably.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Blessings all around

The man and I have been married thirty-five years today, and what a great gift it is to know that if I had it to do all over again, with full knowledge of all that comes after, I would take his hand again in less than a heartbeat. That's us in what passes as our official wedding photo, taken on the evening we said our I do's. 

I'm out of practice writing here. I've been busy enjoying August with our daughter, who left to drive back to Boston with her love this morning. He arrived last week to join her here, as they had that wedding to attend on Friday, for which my girl was a bridesmaid.

On the afternoon of the wedding, my girl sent me snaps of the bride and her squad getting their hair and makeup professionally done. The young women each gained a thick sweep of eyelashes that my daughter said made her eyes feel sleepy all night.

The man and I marveled at how different things were when we got married, when I did my own hair and makeup, and trust every curl and brush of color to behave all night. In truth, I felt as right with myself on that day as I've ever felt, as I had not a doubt in the world that this man was The One. 

Everyone looked absolutely beautiful at Friday's wedding, even the men. The bride and groom met fresh out of law school, when they took the bar exam on the same date at the same test center. Two years later, the groom appeared enraptured as he watched his bride walk down the aisle, as if he still couldn't quite believe his good fortune. We had been sent a link so we could watch the ceremony online, and his clear joy in marrying that gorgeous and powerful woman who is such a good friend to my girl, touched my heart. Here are a couple of snaps of our daughter and her love that I swiped from her Instagram story. They both went to college with the bride.

Then on Saturday, despite significant post-bridal party exhaustion, the lovely couple made my husband and me a delicious dinner to celebrate our anniversary early. The plan was for them to drive back to Boston on Sunday. We had a lovely time Saturday night, joined by our son's fiancee, who braved the rain to come over and celebrate with us. Our son had to work, what with Hurricane Henri barreling toward the East Coast. Dire weather forecasts convinced our daughter and her guy to put off driving north until Monday, yet when Sunday dawned, the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm, and all we could see out our window was a gray day of intermittent rain, and not even much wind. 

My daughter and her love are now on the road back home, and the man and I are cozy inside the house, basking in this rainy day light, remembering how on our wedding day, it also rained, and the aunties assured us it only meant we were being showered with blessings. Those aunties had it exactly right. 

Next up are my son and his love, who have set a date, booked a venue, and asked us to make a guest list. And then who knows with the other two? One of my daughter's best friends in the world, the oldest member of The Six, got engaged this weekend. We're all so thrilled for her. The other five members of their little soul cluster appear to be in no rush. Still, we've arrived at that stage of life when there seem to be lots of celebrations already in the hopper. May they all be as blessed as the man and I feel, today and always.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Summer places and things

Is that not an extraordinary image? It was taken by photographer Jervez Lee, dusk on the island of Antigua, where my husband is from. If that’s the beach I think it is, we made some good memories there.

My daughter arrived home tonight, sated from her adventures and ready for a quiet week of recharging her batteries before a new whirl of festivities at the wedding of her friend next weekend. How happy I am to have this sweet girl back under our roof. She’s had a good summer overall, she says, lots of varied activities and time spent with people she loves. On the way home today, she and her friend visited a lavender farm, and brought us lavender infused chocolate and lavender wine. 

My girl and I plan to curl up on couches tomorrow and stream some binge worthy distraction on TV. Shades of her teenage years when every so often I’d let her miss school and we’d go to the movies or else spend the day wrapped in blankets absorbed in some angsty series like Friday Night Lights or a corny rom com. She’s fun to recharge one’s batteries with, that one.   

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Last night's dispatch from the road

They seem happy and well, don't they? They were in Memphis last night, after driving from Oklahoma City, stopping to see sights along the way, including the controversial Land Run monument, one of the world's largest outdoor sculptural installations, site of continued protests over the fact that, as my daughter texted, the monument "represents the land grab that happened here after Native Americans were removed from their ancestral lands through genocide and forced relocation." It is a painful history this country has bequeathed to its children. 

I'm having to relearn that two things can be true at once, and we can hold them both within us without erasing the veracity and importance of either one: We can embrace and enjoy our lives while also acknowledging and working to change the parts of our reality that need to be transformed. Just because America is a hot mess right now—let's be real, has always been a racially antagonistic nightmare of tribal hostilities—doesn't mean we don't get to laugh and embark upon adventures with our friends. Still, I might be praying harder for my child's safety out there in Trump America than her college roommate's parents are praying for hers. Or not. To be a parent is to petition constantly for the well being of our children. In a world where woman are perpetually endangered by the mere fact of their gender, and men of any description can be attacked for having and daring to act on a moral compass, a parent's prayers have no color.

But let's keep the good thought, shall we? May my daughter and her friend continue to have a grand adventure as they travel cross country, even as they are provoked to think deeply about their country's history, and the present moment, and to be the needed change. And yes, may they be protected wherever they lay their heads each night, and when they open their eyes each morning, may they always be able to laugh. Amen.