Wednesday
Nov092016

What Now?

Twenty-four hours ago, I went to vote. I cried a little with joy as I voted for Hillary Clinton, then wiped away my tears and carefully voted on the many measures presented in California.

As I left my polling place, I thought back to November 4, 1984. I turned 18 that very day and got to cast a ballot for the first time. I was thrilled to vote for the first female vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. Of course, she and Mondale lost--hugely--to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. But in the years that followed, I hoped that a door had been opened with Ferraro's nomination. 

When Barack Obama won in 2008, my faith in newly opening doors was bolstered. Even though I'd supported Hillary in the primary (I also campaigned and voted for her when she ran for the senate in NY), Obama won me over with his integrity and vision. And then, I thought, it would be Hillary's turn. Surely it was time.

Our son, Christian, has been employed by Hillary's campaign since early this summer. He's worked 18-hour days seven days a week for months. He's had amazing experiences along the way, and has felt--rightly--that he's been a part of history.

Today is his last day of work. He's broken-heartedly packing up the temporary office he's been in charge of in Pennsylvania and heading back to Virginia. In a few days, he'll be with us for Thanksgiving, and it'll probably be the biggest family group therapy session ever. I am so proud of my boy, his strong ideals, and his tireless, cheerful work on behalf of our first female presidential candidate. 

Last night felt Apocalyptic with a capital A to me. As a devout Christian/Mormon, I do believe in the Last Days foretold by Jesus and all the prophets before and since. They may well be upon us. 

But until then, I feel called to rise up and be better. A couple of weeks ago, I read this piece by David Wong (warning: language), and realized I'd been smug and selfish, and that I needed to reach out to those to whom our president-elect has appealed so strongly. I feel chastened and humbled; I know I can be a more involved citizen and a better practitioner of my beliefs. 

I believe in tolerance and love; I believe in peace and understanding.

I believe in taking care of the poor and the disenfranchised--in every part of this country and in the world.

I believe in working to eliminate injustice and inequality of all kinds.

I believe in careful, radical stewardship of our precious, irreplaceable environment.

I believe in action and dialogue and co-operation.

I believe in asking God--and working myself--to bless not one nation, but ALL nations, with freedom and prosperity.

Because I believe we are all children of God. Now, with this unlooked-for result, I'll be called upon to live those ideals even more fully.

Patrick often says we get the government we deserve, so I will now set about deserving better than what I got last night. Here's hoping we can find our way. 

Saturday
Nov052016

Book Love

 

I have this great friend named Trevor. I haven't seen him in years, but he's one of those people who seems like a spiritual twin. Yesterday, he tagged me in an email conversation about favorite books. Here's what I wrote back to the group.

Trevor, I don't know that I've ever received a better compliment than being included in a group of "people whose lists [you] would almost kill to see."

I have lots of favorite books for lots of different reasons. Out of courtesy to you all, I had to make rules for myself: no more than five books per category; no mentioning a writer more than once.

Books that rescued me from Very Bad Places:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Eight Cousins, by Louisa May Alcott
The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton

Books I've re-read the most times:
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell 
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis

Cookbook upon which I rely most heavily:
The Way to Cook, by Julia Child 
(Though, YOU GUYS, I just got Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab for my birthday yesterday. I've read 40 pages so far this morning, and I am deeply infatuated.)

Books in which I see myself mirrored most clearly:
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
Kaaterskill Falls, by Allegra Goodman
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
Here Be Dragons, by Sharon Kay Penman

If at gunpoint I could choose only one book by my favorite British writers not otherwise mentioned:
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens
The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins
Possession, by A.S. Byatt

Same thing, gunpoint, favorite Americans:
The Children, by Edith Wharton
The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Shining, by Stephen King
Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Books that made me laugh the hardest:
Make Way for Lucia, by E.F. Benson
The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Books that made me sob the hardest: 
Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

Books in the sweet spot on the Evocation-Aesthetic Venn Diagram in my brain:
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Picture books I most love reading aloud to my kids:
Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak
Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik
The Piggy in the Puddle, by Charlotte Pomerantz
The Zoom Trilogy, by Tim Wynne-Jones
Busy, Busy World, by Richard Scarry

Books that most terrified me:
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Speculative fiction most influential on my own writing:
Was, by Geoff Ryman
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau Wilce
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link

Books I've discovered and most loved since starting my MFA:
The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park
Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Lester's Dreadful Sweaters, by K.G. Campbell
There you have it. I wish people still blogged, so I could tag all of my friends and ask you to make your list of favorites. But you can tell me in a comment. :) 
Monday
Oct312016

All Things Dark and Beautiful--2016 Edition

Hope and Tess as the Grady twins from The Shining--a mothering pay-off moment for me. 

In years past, I've made lists of books, movies, music, and places that evoke the Octoberish feeling. All this month, I've been too busy with my wonderful graduate program (and, um, a trip to Paris), and haven't had enough leisure time in which to sink into a pleasurable melancholy. But I turned in a school packet Saturday night, so today's the day. Fittingly, it's Halloween. And November, my favorite month of the year, is a wonderful time to indulge in all things Octoberish. With that in mind, here are all the latest things I've found that bring me to that elusive, borderless place that Ray Bradbury called The October Country

Books

The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

A haunted house story in high Southern Gothic style. You feel like your family is dysfunctional? Read this book, and you'll feel like you're part of the Brady Bunch. Images of Beldame, sitting on a desolate beach in Alabama, will stay with you.

Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco

The dream Long Island summer rental turns deadly for a couple from Queens. This book and The Elementals were re-released relatively recently by Valancourt Books, which looks like a treasure trove of forgotten horror classics that I'll be mining for quite a while. 

Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough

Forget Neil Gaiman and John Bellairs (well, not really): this is THE scariest book intended for children that I've ever read. Barraclough expertly sustains dread and atmosphere to the very last page. The companion book, The Mark of Cain, isn't quite as well done, but it's still worth your time. 

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

An English village is plagued first by an epic flood and then by contagious, suicidal madness. The bizarre Willoweed family is at the center of all the action. This book was banned in Ireland for decades; it's definitely an unsettling little book.

Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby

A book doesn't have to be scary to be Octoberish. Lyrical magical realism also fits the bill. Finn goes in search of his missing friend Roza, who has been kidnapped by someone who doesn't appear to be of this world. Both lovely and suspenseful; I bought it in hardcover, because it's a keeper.

All Things Cease to Appear, by Elizabeth Brundage

Murder mystery? Ghost story? Hudson Valley idyll? In this compelling novel, Brundage does what Gillian Flynn tried (and failed) to do with Gone Girl.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

Here's a nod to the younger kids. This lovely, only slightly creepy book featuring the most British of monsters is about dealing with grief. I read it on an airplane: big mistake. Sobbing in public is not my favorite thing. 

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racciula

The students and chaperones of an all-state music festival get snowed in at an upstate New York resort--where a grisly murder-suicide occurred years before. With many nods to The Shining (but working far more in the mystery genre than in horror), Racciula manages a quirky and complex ensemble cast with dexterity, wit, and compassion. 

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

I approach retellings with strong caution--especially retellings of English classics I have cherished since childhood. This expert retelling of Jane Eyre met and exceeded my very high expectations. It is its own story. Set in 1960s Scotland and Iceland--two very Octoberish spots

The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

Tartt, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, started out with this book. It's not perfect, but it's good. The best approximation I can give you is that this is what would have happened if Shirley Jackson had written To Kill a Mockingbird. Now: TKAM is one of my favorite books, and Jackson is one of my favorite writers, and The Little Friend is not as good as all that--but that description should give a sense of its atmosphere. 

Music

I could write pages of posts about melancholy music in all genres, especially classical--but that's beyond the scope of today's exercise. Instead, I'll give you a few songs that I've played over and over this year to assuage my need for October. 

Sarah Calderwood "Through Bushes and Through Briars"

My favorite (and most Octoberish) composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, collected this folk song at the close of the 19th century. Calderwood does it justice in this simple but haunting version.

Mandolin Orange "One More Down"

Life in the South can be depressing, you know? This very talented duo sing their hearts out on dozens of plaintive, original songs. This is one of their best. I love the simplicity and pathos.

François Couperin "Les Barricades Mysterieuses"

This piece puts me into a trance of otherness. I love it deeply. At this summer's residency, I was reading in the chapel, one of Vermont College's only air-conditioned rooms, during some free time. A woman I knew only slightly came in with some music and sat down at the Steinway. After she played a Bach Chaconne, I asked her if she had this piece with her. Startled, she said yes, and she played it for me. Magical. But it was only afterward that I realized what an odd coincidence this was; she'd only brought a few pieces of music with her from home, and this, a relatively obscure piece, was one of them. (At this point, my kids would say, "Connect the dots.")

John Rutter "Blow, Thou Winter Wind"

This chilling secular carol will carry your Octoberishness straight through to March. Words by Shakespeare; music by Rutter: it does not get better than that. I heard it once and immediately ordered the sheet music so that we could sing it at home. Gorgeous.

Led Zeppelin "When the Levee Breaks"

This is hands down my favorite LZ song of all time (and there are so very many to love). The echoing harmonica, John Bonham's driving, monstrous drums, Jimmy Page's otherworldly guitar, Robert Plant's mournful delivery of classic blues lyrics--perfection. This semester, I'm writing a ghost story set in California's Central Valley, and this song always gets me in the mood to work on it. 

Movies

Goodnight Mommy (R)

Holy crud, this movie is creepy. Twin boys become increasingly sure that the woman who came home from surgery at the hospital is not their mother. It's so immersive that you'll forget it's in German. Clever script, great camera work.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (PG-13)

The girls and I loved this one, based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith (and borrowing more than heavily from Jane Austen). It didn't do well in theaters, but I think it's a gem. My friend Danae would call it "kick-donkey."

Cold in July (R)

A movie doesn't have to be set in the fall to be Octoberish. A man shoots a burglar, whose newly-paroled father then seeks revenge. Heart-stopping, twisty, but a little more grisly than I'd prefer. That flaw aside, this is a story with staying power. 

Midnight Special (PG-13)

Things aren't always what they look like at first glance. A father must evade both the government and an apocalyptic cult in order to protect his son, who has otherworldly powers. Hypnotic. 

The Keeping Room (R)

This may be my favorite film of this year. Two sisters and a freed slave fight off a seige by two renegade Union soldiers. You feel the suffocating heat and humidity of the desolate plantation; you feel the paralyzing dread of the women in their vulnerability. Melancholy in the extreme. 

Lost River (R)

Okay, this movie is FAR from perfect, bless director Ryan Gosling's little heart. BUT there is real emotional power and atmosphere here. It's set in Octoberish Detroit, and is post-apocalyptic without the actual apocalypse. Will this family escape the crushing despair of its circumstances? The curse of Lost River indicates no, but watch until the end to see. 

Ex Machina (R)

A programmer wins a week at the estate of his company's reclusive CEO and must pass a Turing test with a beautiful, intelligent android. Love triangle becomes love square....Claustrophobic and dread-filled. 

TV

The Returned (Les Revenants) (R)

You want the French series, not the failed American series that was based on it. Several inhabitants of a town in France's Haute-Savoie come back to life, with no memory of what happened to them while they were dead. Their attempts at reintegrating into society are heart-breaking and riveting. As with Lost River, a reservoir created by damming a valley (and flooding several towns) figures prominently. if I'd had the time, I would have binge watched the first season. I still haven't watched Season 2; I'm kind of hoarding it. 

True Detective, Season 1 (R)

Southern Gothic at its best and most modern. I don't know if I'll ever bring myself to watch further seasons of this show, because Woody Harrelson + Matthew McConaughey + a freaky serial killer + the Louisiana bayou = black magic. This series kept me guessing, and that is hard to do. More smexy (that's my portmanteau of "smut" and "sexy") than I'd prefer, but that's what the fast forward button is for.

The Leftovers, Season 1 (R)

What happens to the people who don't get caught up in the Rapture? This show explores that question. I liked the series much more than the Tom Perrotta novel on which it's based. Again, too much smex for my taste, so consider yourself forewarned. 

The Magicians (R)

I loved Lev Grossman's trilogy about college-age magicians who discover a Narnia-like otherland, and I was cautiously delighted when I heard that Syfy was going to make the books into a series. Patrick and I LOVED Season 1 and can't wait for Season 2. 

Stranger Things (PG-13)

We've only watched two episodes so far, but I'm hooked. It feels a little Twin Peaks-y, a little X-Files-ish--which means it's right in my wheelhouse. Hoping to watch episode 3 tonight after trick-or-treating.

What would you add to this year's Octoberish edition?

Sunday
Sep112016

What I Remember

In late June of 2001, we moved out of Manhattan and up to the Hudson Highlands. I had a three-month-old baby, Tess. She was a little more fragile than other newborns; she was born five weeks early and had spent ten days in the NICU before coming home to us. She needed lots of extra holding; it seems like I spent most of that summer nursing her while reading the entire Inspector Lynley series, which I checked out in bulk from our new library.

With Tess's arrival, we had four children aged 8 and under. Our two oldest had just started at their new school the week before--Christian in third grade and James in kindergarten. Two-year-old Hope followed me around our new house every day and asked me when we were going to go "home." I hadn't had much time to get to know people, what with unpacking and post-partum sleep deprivation, but we had met three houses' worth of very kind neighbors. 

The morning of September 11th, Patrick took the train into Manhattan for work, like he did every day. I put the boys on the school bus, cleaned up breakfast, and was reading to Hope and nursing Tess. A knock on the door interrupted us; I went to answer it while trying to comfort indignant Tess. It was darling, newly wed Mary, my neighbor from across the street.

"Is Patrick all right?" she asked. 

I told her that as far as I knew, he was fine, and asked why. 

"Does he work in the World Trade Center?"

"No, he's not downtown; he's on the east side," I said. "His office is across the street from the United Nations." 

"Oh, good." Her relief was obvious.

I asked her what was going on, and she told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I pictured one of the small private planes that I'd often seen flying along the Hudson River. I asked her in, and we made our way around all the unpacked boxes to the master bedroom. We sat down on the edge of my unmade bed and turned on the TV while I bounced fussy Tess until my thighs ached. I still didn't know the new channel lineup, but I eventually found CNN, and Mary and I watched the coverage of the crash together.

Just after the first plane hit the North Tower, it seemed like a bizarre accident; no one at that point thought the plane had crashed deliberately. But as we watched the live coverage, listening to reporters trying to figure out what was going on, the second plane hit the South Tower--right in front of our eyes. 

That was when everything changed. For me, the event instantly transformed from a tragic but random event to an apocalyptic attack of unknown proportions. Looking back, that is what I remember most clearly: that we had no idea what the next target would be, or how many targets there would be. Once the Pentagon was hit, my terrified mind told me that an attack on the UN was a logical possibility--and my husband was far too close to it for comfort. I frantically tried to reach Patrick in every way I knew how. 

He had a cell phone, but at that point, all cell phones were useless; the city's cell towers had all been on top of the WTC. And no one at Patrick's law firm was picking up the phone. Social media and smart phones didn't exist, and email was a rudimentary thing in those days. Sometimes it's difficult to remember how different the world was before texting and tweeting and instant messaging. But I remember how isolated and desperate I felt that day. 

But our phone started to ring. Members of our new church congregation knew Patrick worked in the city, but they didn't know where. I told people over and over again that I was positive he was safe, but that was a lie. 

And then the school called; all the children were being sent home. I met the boys at the bus stop, gave the three older kids a snack, and let them watch VHS tape after VHS tape on the little TV upstairs. I couldn't tear myself away from the news coverage, but I didn't want the kids to see any of it. I'd witnessed people jumping or falling out of the upper floors of the towers. CNN only showed that footage once, when it was live; mercifully, I never saw it again, but I'll never forget it. 

That morning, Patrick got off the train at Grand Central Station and walked a few blocks uptown, as he always did. He passed several people who were standing on the street and looking south. In New York, you don't generally pay attention to strangers doing odd things, but he finally asked a construction worker what was going on. The guy said he'd been working at the top of one of the Trump buildings and had seen a plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Patrick's initial reaction was the same as mine--it had to have been an accident. 

By the time he got to his office, the second tower had been hit, and the law firm immediately shut down and sent everyone home. Patrick went back to Grand Central and got on a Hudson Line train--but he and all the other anxious passengers sat waiting in the station for a long time. Finally armed men came down the platform and asked everyone to exit the train and the building as quickly as possible. The historic station was thought to be a potential target and had been closed. People started stampeding off the train and through the halls; Patrick says that's the only time he was truly frightened. 

Once outside, he waited in a block-long line for a pay phone so he could call me. We talked briefly, and I can't describe the relief I felt when I heard his voice. Once we hung up, I burst out sobbing and couldn't stop for a long time. I knew he was safe for the moment, but no one knew what would happen next. 

Patrick went over to Times Square, where the Jumbotron showed live footage of what was going on downtown. He stood with thousands of other people in the streets and watched the second tower collapse. 

In ever increasing shock, he decided to see if he could take a ferry across the Hudson to Hoboken; he figured that his parents or I could then drive down and pick him up. He walked west to Eleventh Avenue. There he saw two alarming things. First, the line for the ferry was literally a mile long. He realized getting across the river was not an option.

But far worse, for the first time he saw people walking up the avenue from downtown. They were grey with dust, hollow-eyed, and numb. They looked like zombies. 

He turned and also walked uptown--all the way to his best friend from college David's apartment at 106th and Broadway. He and David and Catherine (David's wife) sat on their couch for hours, glued to CNN. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania. Footage of the towers on endless repeat. It was sickening, but it was almost impossible to look away.

A while later, it was announced that trains were running on the Hudson Line again, so Patrick walked up and over to the Harlem station and waited for a train. He says that when one finally arrived, it was packed to the gills, like a Tokyo subway train at rush hour. He elbowed his way on and got home to us a little more than an hour later. Holding him in my arms late that afternoon was the best feeling in the world--except that I knew that thousands of families weren't so lucky. 

The days that followed are a blur. I know there was no school the following day--maybe not for the rest of the week. Patrick eventually went back to work, and life slowly assumed a more normal routine. But it was a new normal, far different than the one we'd had until that morning. And the world hasn't been the same since.

I experienced intense survivor's guilt for months. We'd abandoned our beloved city just weeks before, and now it struggled to rebuild without us there to help. We still visited Manhattan often, but we could no longer claim it as our own. 

One night the next spring, I was driving along the river in New Jersey for some reason, and I saw the Tribute in Light for the first time. I hadn't known about it beforehand; remember, there was no Facebook, no Instagram, and I didn't watch the news very often. At first, I thought it was some sort of hallucination. The sight of those two beams of light reaching up from the ground and into the infinite sky--it was astonishing. I had to pull over and stare, my grief renewed. 

Three and a half years later, Patrick and new baby Daniel and I were on our way to London for a quick trip. Due to a passport mixup, we couldn't take our original plane. We already had a babysitter for the other four chlidren, so we stayed overnight in a hotel in downtown Manhattan. Our window directly overlooked the Ground Zero site, which was brightly lit, with heavy equipment driving around and people working. I couldn't bear to look at it for more than a minute, and quickly drew the blackout shades. 

Fifteen years later, I still get emotional when I talk about the events of that day. Probably everyone old enough to remember does. And I can't help thinking of another day four years before 9/11.

On a rare day off, Patrick and I took Christian and James downtown. We walked along Battery Park and ate street hot dogs. Christian chased seagulls while James watched from the stroller, laughing glorious toddler belly laughs. It was a gorgeous, clear day, so we decided to go up to the observation deck at the top of the World Trade Center. I'd been up to the top of the Empire State Building, but had never seen the view from the Twin Towers. We stood in line for quite a while, but it was James's nap time by this time. Normally, he happily fell asleep in his stroller, but this day, he was fidgety and cranky. 

Finally, when it was apparent that James would not be distracted or lulled in any way, I turned to Patrick. "Let's go up another day," I said. "After all, it'll always be here." 

But we never did make it back.

Thursday
Aug182016

Slow Cooker Breakfast Cobbler

Chopped nectarines and plums form the base of my latest cobbler. I don't know why this photo loaded sideways, and I can't seem to fix it.

Bonne rentrée! Happy Back to School!

School day mornings are pretty busy, so I make breakfast the night before. This is one of our favorites. These days, with only four kids at home, I serve half of it one day and put the rest in a covered stoneware dish in the fridge. The next morning, I gently warm up the second half in the oven before serving.

This recipe is filling, but not terribly sweet (making it ideal for breakfast, in my opinion). I'm sure you could add more sugar, if you wanted. But try it this way first.

My slow cooker is a 6-quart Cuisinart with a "keep warm" feature--nice, but not necessary for this recipe.

Slow Cooker Breakfast Cobbler

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

4 cups fruit, fresh or frozen*

1/3 cup white sugar

Another 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup heavy cream (best), sour cream, or buttermilk

2 eggs

Melt the first stick of butter directly in the slow cooker; mine has a "Sauté" feature that I turn on briefly. Pour the fruit in; there should be enough to cover the bottom of the pot. Sprinkle the white sugar over and stir to combine. 

Melt the second stick of butter in a small saucepan. Meanwhile, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream and eggs to the melted butter and stir well. Pour the butter/cream/egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir only until combined. (If you overstir, your cobbler will be tough.) The batter will be sticky and very thick.

Spoon batter over the fruit to cover it. Put the lid on the cooker and set it for six hours. Go to sleep and have yummy dreams.

The next morning, serve warm, with some cream on top, if desired. Serves eight.

* I buy frozen fruit in bulk from Bithell Farms. (They are not paying me to say so.) Yesterday, I had some stone fruit that was getting too ripe, so I used what I had. Use any fruit or combination you like; we love sour cherries and blueberries and/or chopped apricots, nectarines plums, peaches, and apples.