This story was inspired by a baby cat bird that nested in my back yard blueberry bush. I had never heard of cat birds until this little guy showed up in my life.
Along one path in the woods, the girl tripped over a tree’s root. She fell onto the dirt, and her hands caught her. Shaken by the fall, she stayed seated on the packed ground in the shade of the tree that tripped her. She scooted back and leaned on its trunk. She looked up at the leaves—autumn red and ready to drop. In fact, some of those leaves scattered around her on the cool earth.
It was a painting of a house in the woods. Its windows reflected in the water. There was a lake there, and in the distance, this white glow—light coming in through the trees. Except for that one spot of white, the painting was all blues and greens and yellows and oranges. Even though it was done in watercolor, it didn’t seem like it. It wasn’t watery at all. I was in this gallery off some side street just, you know, staring into this painting like I could go there. Really go there. I’m telling you, it’s the kind of place you want to go. I mean, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t want to go there. So peaceful—all that reflection in the lake makes you wonder—makes you want to go deep, makes you think there is some actual depth to reach. Not like real life where the sights are grainy and gray, where most stuff is right there on the surface: subways and public bathrooms and graffiti on mailboxes—makes you want to find a place to wash your hands. Not so in that painting. I mean it. I’m not sure you’d ever need to wash your hands there. Well, maybe if you planted something in the dirt. But that’s clean dirt. You stand there looking at a painting long enough, you start to believe in it. Not only that, you start to lose your hold on what’s the difference. Like what’s the difference between that image—watercolor on paper—and the half moon hanging above the city? You can see it if you go outside and look up. C’mon, maybe the moon is watercolor on paper, too. Probably not, but you could make up a story about it.
It rained. It rained and rained. It rained so hard the windows cried. It rained so hard the roof thundered. It rained for so many days the girl no long believed in the sun, no longer believed in the light. The rain came down so hard, it knocked leaves off of trees. It splattered dirt out of flowerbeds. It even took blooms off of branches, leaving red and yellow memories on the slick pavement.
And so she went out into it. All around her people scurried for doorways and bus stops. Some held umbrellas turned inside out in the wind. Some held newspapers over their heads. But she did none of these things. Instead, she stood perfectly still. She waited while the water soaked her clothes, her hair, her skin. She felt the weight of all that water, as if she might become rooted there on that city street.
It was enough to make her crazy—the constant yearning for something she could not name. She saw glimpses of it—in the smile of a new friend, in the tree limbs scraping the sky, in the lone crocus on her lawn—glimpses that just made her want it more.
The wind picked up, and the clouds crawled in. And when the rain began, she listened to its steady beat on the roof. She watched it cry down the windowpanes. She imagined herself on an old raft, a dog at her side, letting the water take her down the river of her street and out into some new adventure.
I heard the tiniest of heartbeats. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. It wasn’t a Tell-Tale heartbeat, nothing frightening like that. This heartbeat had a soothing rhythm. From what I could tell, the beat came from the trunk of an old tree just off the path where I had been walking. I approached the trunk and put my ear up to its grooves. I listened. No heartbeat. I waited, and then I heard it again—faint, in the distance. A little faster now. Badumpbadumpbadump. I followed the sound and ended up at another tree—this one full of crows and their caw caw cawing. “Shhhh,” I called out. “I am listening for a heart.” One of the crows looked down at me and laughed, or that’s how I perceived it. The crows flew off one by one, and I waited for the heartbeat. When it finally started up again, it seemed to be coming from underneath the snow. So I dug down with my mittened hands. No heart. I sat completely still. Me. The snow. The tree. The crows cawing in the distance. And then I heard it again. But this time, I did not go searching. I sat still. I did nothing. I just listened.
She has been thinking about shadows lately—how they change daily, depending on the light—how they offer a weird kind of mirror, a reflection: so there’s a tree silhouetted on the side of a house, a bird in flight flat out on the pavement. That’s the thing about shadows—they don’t make sense. But they do. You know, the bird isn’t really flying on the ground, and the tree isn’t really on the side of the house. But when she studied the shadows, they seemed real enough. And that got her thinking: maybe we had it all backwards—like the shadow is the bird. The shadow is the tree. If that were the case, would everything else be illusion? The question haunted her, so she spent a whole day following her shadow—letting it be her guide. She had to trust that her shadow knew where to go and when. And of course it did; the shadow simply listened to the light. It was that simple. The whole experience calmed her down considerably.
It was a cold and frosty morning. The boy could see his breath. Actually see it! “Look at that,” he said and blew again. His mother reached out to grab his arm—there was traffic, after all—and the streetlight was about to change.
“Hey!” he yelled. “You put your hand right in my breath?”
Came across this quotation from Lionel Trilling:
“Between is the only honest place to be.”
Just returned from a writers/editors conference at Rutgers University. What a well-conceived, well-organized event—a one day conference during which writers, editors, and agents mingle. And I was most impressed with the editors I met—all of them young and passionate, intelligent and thoughtful. They love books. They love good writing. And they volunteered a Saturday to offer encouragement, advice, and feedback. Trying to market one’s work can often feel discouraging, but the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature has found a way to make it encouraging. For that, I am grateful.
Rita is still in intensive care, but there are indications that she is on the upswing. Thank you, readers, for thinking of her. I miss her very much.
My students and I are experimenting with building a collaborative class website through pbwiki. It’s fun. I created a main page that introduces the course theme: imagination. That page also includes links to assignments and to students. Branching out from that main page, students are building their own “homes” from which they can link their individual work. On each page, there is a comment function, so that students and I can go in and converse.
Health issues have consumed me lately—my own and others. But rather than write about my stuff, I want to put out a thought for my friend Rita. She has been lying in a Montana Hospital for at least five days. She has pneumonia, and she is now on a respirator. Rita is wonderful writer. She and I share a love of nature and quirky characters. Up until five days ago, we were exchanging emails everyday. I miss her. Anyone who reads this, please send her some good thoughts.
Get well, Rita.
Here is the poem (perhaps still in progress) that grew out of my lessons in negative space and my introduction to the buddhist concept of bardo. Thank you, Kennon.
“A Lesson in Negative Space”
I had dinner the other night with Vanessa and Kennon. They travel all of the time. I told them that traveling makes me anxious. Kennon asked me why. I told him that transitions are hard for me. He explained Bardo—a buddhist concept that, according to Wikipedia, means an intermediate or transitional state. Apparently bar means between and do means island. Kennon explained that the most fundamental transition is the one from life to death. He looked at my denim jacket, and he said, “Consider taking off that jacket and putting on another. Consider that transition. Consider the movement from life to death as being that simple.”
In my drawing class, the instructor spent a whole class period on the concept of negative space—that being the shapes that happen between and around the object you are trying to draw. For instance, if you look at a chair, you see the seat, the back, and the legs. But if you look at the space around and between the chair, you see something else. In drawing the negative space around a chair, you end up drawing a chair.
In exploring the poetry of my past, I am discovering a part of my writer self that I thought I had lost. I want to find a way to reconnect what I am doing now with what I did then. And it is happening. I just finished one last draft of my novel—now called, tentatively, New Moon Falls. As I revised, I found that part of my writer self from years ago—the part of me that wrote this poem:
September 11th, 2001 has been on my mind lately. I just enrolled in a new drawing class, and so I have been looking through some of my drawing/painting exercises from past art classes, and I came upon pieces I had done in 2001, months before the horrible event. Looking at those dates—May 2001, August 2001—I could not imagine what it felt like to not know what I was about to know.
And the other day, in looking through an old textbook, searching for teaching ideas, I came upon a poem I had never read before:
A recent obituary about the children’s book illustrator Tasha Tudor offered one of her favorite quotations:
The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
—Fra. Giovanni Giocondo
I just finished (I say that loosely) a new draft of my novel.
I all but threw out the last draft and started over. The protagonist is the same, and her best friend—a sort of sidekick—remains. Other than that, the story morphed ahead several decades, and its focus became much smaller.
This writing process confounds me, yet I am in love with it. I spend so much time alone, mulling over words and phrases, wondering, “How would she really respond in this situation?”
Years ago, I remember seeing rows and rows of shoes in a Holocaust Museum exhibit—the shoes had been collected from one of the camps. And the notion that shoes hold our identities (footprints) has stayed with me as a metaphor.
Today, page one of The Boston Globe shows gays and lesbians celebrating California’s legalization of gay marriage. As a married lesbian in Massachusetts, I am proud of my state and thrilled that the California court went even further in its judgment—offering gays and lesbians from any state the opportunity to travel there and marry.
The Bleeding Heart Bush is a perennial metaphor. It blooms at this time of year; and in the morning, when I walk Gizmo, I stop and stare at one that rises from behind my neighbor’s small wooden fence—all those hearts bleeding.