Saturday, September 25, 2021

I want to go there


My son came to spend the day with me on Thursday, called me as he was getting off his overnight shift at the firehouse to ask if I'd be home, and if so he would hang out for a while. I love when this happens. I always know he's going to put something on the TV then curl up on the couch and go to sleep, while I work at the dining table, happy to be able to look over and see him there. I probably talked more to my daughter on video chat while he was here than I did with him, as he was mostly dozing. Meanwhile my girl was giving me decorating ideas for the living room refresh, lovely ones, as she's in her 20s, and still very plugged in to her design preferences.

I'm not ignoring the news, the men on horses at the southern border whipping desperate, refugee Haitian families and driving them into the river. The tragedy of the missing all American princess, her body now found in the wilderness, her disappearance ruled a homicide, highlighting all the other missing persons who were not blond and white, and about whom law enforcement and the press did not care. Arizona spending millions on a vote recount and finding no fraud. The ongoing debacle that is Congressional procedure, where one or two assholes can destroy any worthy endeavor. I'm not ignoring it. I just don't have the emotional resources to write about any of it right now. I am scraped bare by the relentlessness of the news cycle.

I've decided to risk going back to choir this fall. Everyone is required to be vaccinated and we will sing through masks. We won't hold the customary end-of-term concerts, we'll just gather and sing for the joy of it. The group will be small, 17 souls compared to the usual 30 or so, and only one of my four dear friends who are usually in the group will be returning. But another friend is going to try it out, see if she wants to join. She is a neighbor I have become close to in the last two years, with whom I sometimes sip flavored seltzer or wine on her terrace while watching the afternoon light shift into evening. 

We first met years ago when her son and my son were young and used to play with other kids in the courtyard, and we'd sit on the benches watching our boys while bemoaning their resistance to homework. Our sons are now full grown, hers is married, and she has two lovely granddaughters who live in my building. Though I had often seen her and her husband going on walks together, and thought how cozy and together they seemed, she has since amicably divorced and now lives in a light and airy apartment two buildings over. It turns out even without homework-allergic sons in common, we're very simpatico.

The book writing is going very slowly. I have had to adjust my 1,000 words a day target to a minimum of three solid paragraphs a day. If I achieve that, I consider it progress. I really am picking my way, figuring out the path as I go. I realize I've been telling myself how hard this had been, and maybe it's time to decide it can be easy. It's worked before! The photo up top is of a room at Jake's Treasure Beach, a place on Jamaica's south coast that I have yet to visit, but in whose gauzy serene spaces I yearn to be. Can you imagine being able to awaken to that turquoise sea and spend the day writing and dreaming there? 

*Whispers, this can be.

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 in that moment decided 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 them away. 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.