Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas List

The eight-year-old goes to see Santa. After some small talk, he asks her what she wants for Christmas. She replies, “A ball of yarn.” He asks what for, and she explains that she is learning how to make yarn bracelets. He asks her what else she wants, and she replies, “Nothing. Just a ball of yarn. That’s all I want.” Santa presses her, insisting there must be something else. She maintains that there is nothing else. Santa presses on. Does she like dolls or video games? Clothes? Stuffed animals? “Just a ball of yarn,” the eight-year-old concludes firmly.

I am watching this exchange, and I am tempted to chastise Santa. Instead of suggesting there is something wrong with a child that wants only a ball of yarn for Christmas, why not praise her for knowing her mind and for not being greedy? A ball of yarn is enough for her. How many of us can be content with so little?
The line is long, and publicly chastising Santa seems a questionable approach to take. So I bite my tongue. As the eight-year-old comes back over to me, her five-year-old brother approaches Santa and begins the small talk.
“Am I supposed to want more than a ball of yarn?” the eight-year-old asks, clearly exasperated.
“No,” I tell her. “That’s perfectly fine.”
“I mean, I like to give presents more than I like to receive presents,” she explains.
The five-year-old is laying out his list to Santa. It has three items. 1. A Lego set. 2. A bow and arrow. 3. An Egyptian mummy. Santa seems more pleased with this list, though he is not sure he can fulfill the mummy request. “Well, an Egyptian mummy kit,” the five-year-old clarifies. “I guess the mummy doesn’t have to be real.”
Later, the visit to Santa over, the five-year-old says, “I don’t think my Christmas list is long enough.”
“Why do you think that?” I ask.
“Because all the kids at school have like a hundred things on their lists, and I have only three.”
The eight-year-old chimes in. “You don’t have to be like all the kids at school,” she says. “Three things is enough. It’s plenty. Besides, if you had a hundred things on your list, you’d never get them all anyway. And you don’t even want that much stuff. Trust me.”
I am certainly biased, but I’ll say it anyway: she is the wisest eight-year-old I have ever known. Instead of a Christmas list, she wrote this letter.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Book and Its Cover

Even though I doggedly believe in my books long before they are published, long before any editor has expressed even a remote interest, somehow I still doubt that my books will ever be physical objects in the world until I see their covers.  The cover of Xylotheque: Essays features a photograph that I took at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, well after all of the essays had been written. In fact, the weekend before my final manuscript was due at the press, I took a copy of it, along with my camera and a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, to Concord and to Walden Pond where I finished the book. And so, even though none of the essays are about Concord or Walden—since I had never before been there—still, the book was influenced by that place. And so I think it is a fitting cover image.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Page Proofs

For so long—could it really be years of your life?—you, alone, have believed that the book is a book. Despite all evidence to the contrary—the scrawled-over manuscript pages that screamed hopeless, unfinishable pipe dream, the slippery words that you moved and added and omitted until you no longer understood their sense, and most especially the editors (a dozen, maybe more) who turned your work away, declaring it most decidedly not a book—you have continued to believe in your book’s essential bookness. The words, the paragraphs, the pages deserved to be wedded, bound together beneath a common cover. This was your stubborn, solitary belief. And though for years no one believed in your book—with the exception of a small handful of friends who share your lunacy—you kept sending it out into the world, hoping to infect someone with your lonely dream.

And one day—when, if you have to be honest, your unflagging belief had started to rub away—it happened. An editor called with good tidings. And now—now that you hold page proofs in your hands, now that a cover exists—you marvel that so many others are in agreement with you and your madness. A team—production editors, copyeditors, peer reviewers, writers of blurbs, graphic designers, marketing reps—a whole platoon, it seems, is now on your side, working to finish what you started years ago, confirming that intense, private belief you’ve kept for so long: that what you have created is a book.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Photo/Text 7: Offerings

They have brought me acorns, quinces, rose petals, catalpa pods, seashells, beads, bookmarks, broken coconut shells, folded notes the size of teeth, bluets pulled up by the roots, paper hearts, sheets of birch bark, leaves from many trees, fistfuls of dandelions, green tomatoes, chestnuts, plastic bags bursting with pine needles, branches with and without foliage, twigs, samaras, drawings, clay sculptures, sharpened pencils, unsharpened pencils, pumpkin stems, broken pens, the springs from pens, dead batteries, paintings, blocks, tiny wheels from lost cars, erasers, buttons, chalk, nailed together planks of wood, puzzle pieces, milkweed pods, hickory nuts, robin’s eggs, feathers, liquidambar seed pods, rocks, pieces of asphalt, uprooted seedlings, dead June bugs, living ladybugs, butterfly wings, speckled eggshell fragments, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, sticky candies, too-small paper crowns, snail shells, ants, paperclips, screws, washers, lengths of twine, ribbons, pen caps, twist ties, macaroni jewelry, cattails, and just last week, three crabapples. “Is it OK,” I asked them, “if I just photograph the apples, and then we’ll leave them here for the birds? By photographing them, it’s like I’m keeping them forever.” Uncertain, they acquiesced, but as we walked away, they cast regretful looks back at their offerings.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ginkgo biloba

For three years, I’ve been going on tree tours alone, and my daughter has been asking to go. Finally, this past weekend, I took her on her first tree tour at the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs. Except for one other eight-year-old, the attendees were all adults—many older than me. A number were devotees of Ed Richardson, the grand master of trees in Connecticut. (I’ve written about him previously here and here.) But this isn’t about Richardson or the trees that he talked about; this is about my daughter looking at trees.

At each tree that the group stopped at, my daughter would listen for a minute or two to Richardson’s wavering voice, but then some other tree nearby would catch her attention, and she would wander off, armed with her camera. (For the record, she took 102 photos during the two-hour tour, and I took 89.)

UConn’s arborist, John Kehoe, was on the tour as well, and my daughter asked him about seeing a ginkgo tree. Serendipitously, we were at that moment standing about thirty feet away from a blazing yellow gingko. Kehoe pointed at the tree and told her to go get a leaf. She came back with one, beaming. Into her pocket it went—along with an assortment of other leaves, acorns, and cones. Her pockets swelled with treasures; her camera filled with photos.
Later, Kehoe pointed out another ginkgo—this one completely green. She collected another leaf sample and asked the tree expert why one tree was all yellow, the other all green. I didn’t hear Kehoe’s answer, but later she explained to me that it was because the green tree was older, more established, with a more extensive root system. (Yes, she said established and extensive. She pays attention.)

She also asked where the biggest ginkgo in Connecticut is, and Kehoe told her it is in Hartford. Later, I asked her why she liked ginkgo trees. “Because there are no other trees like them alive today,” she told me. “They’re dinosaur trees.”
Later still, apropos of nothing, she said, “You know that champion ginkgo tree in Hartford? I want to go see it.”

Friday, September 6, 2013

Photo/Text 6: Outdoors

Take them outdoors. Lead them up mountains. Let them chill their flesh in icy lakes. Tell them the names of trees and flowers. Show them the ever-shifting dome of sky. Put rocks older than multi-cellular life into their hands. Look for birds and marmots, bees and moose scat. Allow them to be drenched in sudden cloudbursts. Take them to snowfields and waterfalls. Let them climb high into trees. Push them to feel the competence and limits of their bodies. Show them a maimed butterfly in its final death shudder. Read with them the Braille of tree bark and moss. Search the sky for signs of change, for new colors and clouds, for turns in the weather. Listen with them to the wind and night noises. Study the stars. Remind them that they too are animals. Place them not at the center of the frame. Help them feel their smallness in the universe. Guide them towards the promise of themselves, towards what they may become. Show them how to feel in their brains and in their bones these places that are all we have.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Photo/Text 5: Hands

“I want to marry him,” she said when she was five and he was two, and she was indignant when a six-year-old neighbor girl declared that siblings marrying was not only against the rules but also disgusting. Later, when she had to part with him to go to kindergarten, at the end of the day she would run to him from the school bus, grabbing his hands, crying, “All day at school I’ve been yearning to hold your sweet baby boy hand that’s soft as silk and rose petals!” And now he is five, and his big sister, who can read books without pictures, who can braid and multiply, still leads him everywhere by the hand. He says to her, “I want to marry you. Is that OK?” And she replies with her indulgent smile, evasive: “Well, we can live together always. How about that, sweetie?” Yet he protests: “I want to marry you,” the word carrying some special meaning in his five-year-old heart, and so she marches him up and down the sidewalk in front of our house, telling him something in a low voice, explaining the ways of the world, never letting go of his hand.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Photo/Text 4: Skin

When he sees the rim of the blue whale rising from the Pacific like a landmass, most of it hidden iceberg-like below, when he learns that its heart weighs 1,200 pounds and beats only six times a minute, that a human could swim through its aorta, and after the whale goes down, when he looks long at its footprint on water, the kiss of its full body on the surface, I suddenly think of the snakeskin found by his sister years ago on the steppe of western Nebraska under a harvest moon, the dermis still wet and pliable from a recent molt, and how, a trimester away from birth, he shuddered within me, as if in anticipation of one day being gifted this treasure so that he could gently hold the skin of another beast close to his own, asking if the snake that shed it six years before was still alive, and if so, where it was and what it was doing—and so, I hope he continues to remember the whale whose presence is like the snake’s: a being he almost knew, almost touched, a being whose vestige of skin or hidden heart have imprinted on his mind, a being to wonder about always.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Photo/Text 3: Medusa Reading

A friend made the hat and gave it to her along with a book of Greek mythology before she could even read—a friend who perhaps recognized something in her that I could not see, unleashing a love of myth so powerful that she now lives in a world peopled—godded?—with the likes of Zeus, Aphrodite, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Icarus, Hermes, Artemis. She even dreams of gods, mumbling, when awakened, of Arachne’s boastfulness or the Caledonian boar hunt. For half her life she has been Medusa, the terrible snake-haired gorgon with the power to turn those who dare gaze upon her to stone. She wears the hat to school, where the boys sometimes hiss at her, but she doesn’t care because snakes for hair make her powerful, and more than this, knowing the Greek gods and their stories—the knowledge of these other worlds—makes her powerful. She tells her classmates of Hades kidnapping Persephone, of Odysseus’s encounter with Circe, of the tormented Althaea who must throw the enchanted log into the fire to end her son’s life. “You be Athena,” she instructs her classmates. “And you be Poseidon. You be Hephaestus. You be Hades. And I’ll be Medusa.”

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Photo/Text 2: Trucks

They strike me as relics, like the Pripyat bumper cars, though it’s been only a month, maybe two, since he left them parked in the sandbox, but so quickly the marks of our presence are buried—pine needles fall, maples sprout near red tires—and though this is probably not the last time he has left them—probably he will return yet, to turn sand, to haul another load—there will nonetheless be a last time. The trucks will be abandoned, and he will be fully grown, a man, a person who does not concern himself with plastic toys. But now, when he sees that I have taken an interest, he comes to explain that he baked a cake with a candle in it for me in the truck bed and it’s been waiting here all this time. I thank him; I tell him I like his trucks. Pleased, he wants to know why I am taking pictures. Because, I explain, I want to remember what his trucks looked like the last time he played with them. But this is not the last time, he protests. I know, I tell him. But I am marking it now anyway, so I don’t miss the last time.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Photo/Text 1: Legs

When I find them, their legs dangling through the slats of her bunk bed, lined up to dip their toes into the bedroom air, it’s as though I had a plan for all of it: a quarter of a century ago traipsing all over Southern California malls with my grandmother, seeking the dolls whose scarcity was nearly inciting riots, looking for particular hair and eye and nose combinations, sewing the dolls elaborate costumes, displaying them like fine china on shelves, and later, after my fetish had faded, packing them carefully away in boxes, and moving them a dozen times in four different states, so that I could discover them again in a basement in Connecticut and give them to my daughter, who would haul them into her bed, undress them, arrange them. And now, when I encounter them here, I can see clearly why I have kept them, why I acquired them in the first place: simply to delight in finding them in a girl’s bright yellow-walled room. “Mom, their diapers are a bit saggy,” my daughter says, apologetically, as though this fact is a reflection on her mothering abilities. “That,” I tell her, “is bound to happen after twenty-seven years.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Camera, Part 3: Nikon D600

A week ago, I got my new camera: a Nikon D600. So far, I’ve taken 1,121 photos—most of which I’ve deleted. I am trying to learn to think like a photographer, to consider light and composition and exposure. I am trying to learn to make good images with a DSLR camera. I am trying to give real thought to what I see in the viewfinder before snapping the shutter.

As a writer, I have always believed in the primacy of language, but I am learning that sometimes, images can be as crucial as words (and many would argue even more crucial than words). I am also learning that to see as a photographer can help me as a writer, and vice versa. How do I frame the shot? What do I include? What do I eliminate? These questions are as valid for the writer as they are for the photographer.
I am interested not only in the images by themselves and the words by themselves, but also in how the two can be wedded, balanced, both image and text present in a work but neither overpowering the other. What will these text/photo pieces look like? I am only beginning to see.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Camera, Part 2: Olympus Camedia

Nine years ago, my husband bought a digital camera: an Olympus Camedia C-740 Ultra Zoom. At first, I wanted to have nothing to do with it. I was still using my Pentax K1000, and I wasn’t interested in switching from film to digital. For one thing, I was still skeptical that a bunch of dots would ever produce the kind of sharpness that is possible with film. And second, I knew how the Pentax worked. The digital camera, a point-and-shoot model, was unknown territory.

Finally I did pick up the new camera and begin to use it, but I still also used film for my “real” photos. After my daughter was born and it was time to send out birth announcements, I loaded film into the Pentax and photographed her when she was just short of two months old. But all the pictures of her before that—including her very first photos taken in the hospital—were shot with the Olympus, and I had to admit that the quality was excellent.
And slowly, over time, something happened. I began to use the Olympus constantly. A day came when I no longer loaded film into the Pentax. It went back into the camera bag and stayed there. The Olympus was simply too convenient: I took it everywhere without worrying about buying, reloading, or developing film; I could email the pictures to family and friends; I could buy prints online. Gradually, the Olympus became my camera. My husband relinquished it, and now he uses it only when I place it in his hands and tell him to photograph something.

I’ve taken thousands of photos with the Olympus. Both of my children’s first photos were taken with it. My life in Nebraska—Lincoln, Sidney, then Omaha—and then my life in Connecticut have been documented by it. It has traveled with me to California, Montana, New Mexico, Maine, South Dakota, and other places in between. Nearly every photo I have ever posted online has been shot with that little camera.
I admit that I’ve grown fond of it. But now, as I find myself wanting more control over camera settings, more lens options, and higher resolution images, as I become a student of photography, as I place the image at the center of my attention—not as an afterthought snapshot but as a composition in its own right, integral to my project of seeing and documenting the world—I understand that I have outgrown the camera. Reluctantly, I am putting it away. Reluctantly, I am moving on.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Camera, Part 1: Pentax K1000

When I was eight years old, my uncle gave me my own camera for Christmas: a Pentax K1000. I started out shooting slide film because my uncle did, and I suspect that I created box after box of very poor slides (which I no longer have). But over time, I learned how to operate the camera correctly—how to adjust f-stop and shutter speed, how to focus, how to judge the light, and later, how to use a tripod and shutter release cable and flash. My Pentax turns thirty this year, and it is still in perfect working condition. It can still take photos as well as it did the day I first opened the box.

The Pentax traveled with me to Russia in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as to Egypt, Estonia, Poland, Italy, the Czech Republic, and countless camping and hiking trips and travels in the U.S. I have thousands of prints. Here is just one, taken in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

When I studied photography and journalism in college, I used the Pentax. I shot in black and white, developed my own film, and for a short period practically lived in the engrossing world of the darkroom, spending days in near darkness making prints. Most of these were of my Southern California of the mid-1990s. Somewhere I still have thousands of negatives with proof sheets as well as hundreds of black-and-white prints like this one.

The Pentax hasn’t had film in it in over five years. I’ve been thinking about teaching my daughter—who is eight—how to use it. Like me, she would learn to load the film, to manually adjust f-stop and shutter speed, to focus, to put thought behind each image. And yet, with the availability of digital point-and-shoot cameras, the high-quality images almost instantly splayed across computer monitors, the extraordinary storage capacity to record our every waking moment with thoughtless abandon, I wonder if she will ever appreciate the magic of shooting pictures with care and forethought, manually rewinding the film, mailing it or dropping it off to be processed, and then waiting with impatience and hope for the slides or the prints to be ready, to finally see how well the captivating image in the viewfinder has been captured in the physical artifact.

Monday, July 1, 2013


A ten-minute walk from our house, on the edge of a college parking lot, grows one of the two largest white oaks in Connecticut. A stately, burled giant, it is likely around three hundred years old. I often take the children to visit the tree.

I write more about this tree in a recent essay in Adventum. I write about how the tree has become like a friend to us, one that we visit regularly, in every season. I write about how our first fall in Connecticut, nearly three years ago, we picked up one of the oak’s plentiful acorns and planted it in a pot at home. The acorn sprouted, and the following summer—two years ago—we planted the seedling in our yard.

This is the continuation of that story. Our oakling, progeny of a mighty tree, is flourishing. Its first year, the tree had six leaves. This year, it has thirty-four. Oaks are notoriously slow growers, and none of us will be here to witness the tree reach its full mature splendor—if, indeed, it ever does. But this is one of the joys of life we should teach our children—to hope for and anticipate a future that is not for us, but for others.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Gift of Time

"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
—Simone Weil

He wakes up at 5:30 in the morning to build with Legos or answer questions about time travel. He coaches soccer and creates nearly perfect ballet buns. He helps with the construction of cardboard robots and works through complex chess exercises. This past school year, he helped to organize a STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) club at the elementary school. He took four afternoons off from work to help students build bridges out of drinking draws. Just this past week he took another three afternoons to design and build stone walls—and then to knock them down—with the three second grade classes. While he certainly does a great deal to provide material things for our children, what they appreciate most is their father’s attention, his daily gift of time.

This evening, my children made cards and wrapped gifts and arranged the schedule for the Father’s Day festivities tomorrow morning. Before bed, they ran their ideas by me—cook dad a special breakfast, then give him his gifts to unwrap. “And then at the end of it all,” my daughter said, “We’re going to say, ‘Your best present is impossible to wrap because that present is love.’”


Friday, May 10, 2013


I just finished teaching a writing class on material culture, “The Tyranny of Things,” to a group of college freshmen, eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. Over the semester, we covered minimalism and hoarding, planned obsolescence and trash production, “affluenza” and the American Dream, recycling and advertising. We watched Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff and read about the 100 Thing Challenge. We looked at photos of children from around the world with their most prized possessions and read defenses of materialism.

And the students wrote. They developed research papers on a variety of topics related to materialism, and they also made contributions to a class blog. In exploring their most meaningful possessions, Sabrina wrote about her fish tank and Colin wrote about a picture of his uncle. Kayle and Mike examined the American Dream. And Arland and Nick addressed the question, “Do we have stuff, or does it have us?”
And though many of the students admitted to being attached to a number of their possessions—chief among them their phones and computers—they were also drawn to the idea that our culture is suffering from “affluenza,” which, according to John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, is “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” In fact, a number of my students wrote of being deeply impacted by the ideas that Graham Hill articulated in a recent New York Times article. Once the owner of a 3,600-square-foot house, Hill has substantially downsized his life and lives in a 420-square-foot studio. Having discovered that “relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life,” Hill notes that while levels of consumer activity have risen since the 1950s, “happiness levels have flat-lined.” And a handful of students seemed to genuinely wrestle with the question of what it is—by going to college and eventually seeking a job and earning a salary—that they are working towards. Is it a big house, a new car, and the latest electronic gadgets? Or is it something else?

In his essay, Hill notes that the sizes of new homes in the U.S. have increased from an average of 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,480 square feet in 2011 while the average number of people living in each home has decreased from 3.37 in 1950 to 2.6. At the same time, people are not any happier with their new space; a recent UCLA study found that middle-class mothers in Los Angeles felt stressed when dealing with their belongings. I know all about this sort of stress. While my students are only embarking on their lives as consumers in America, I have a couple more decades of experience. And as someone who has lived in more than ten residences in three states over a dozen years, I am constantly trying to “downsize” my life, keeping the essentials and discarding the rest. I have made some progress. My current house has about half the finished living space of my previous house.
Recently I had a conversation with an acquaintance in town who began telling me about his “dream house.” Though he has owned his current house for only a couple of years and though the size of his house is the same as mine (which means that he and his wife have twice the per-person space as our family of four does), he is nonetheless dreaming of a larger, nicer home that he will be able to afford in the future. Like so many of us, he wants a dream house that is bigger, better, and somewhere else. I’ve now lived in enough houses that I’m tired of wanting to be somewhere else. I’m living in my dream house now. The fact that my per-person square footage is much closer to the 1950 average than it is to the 2011 average does not make me less happy. In fact, I might argue that the reduced living space causes me and the members of my family to focus on what’s really important and to spend more time together (not to mention the “carbon footprint” aspect)—but that’s a discussion for another time.

In contrast to the acquaintance pining after a dream house, another neighbor told me that she was putting her house on the market and moving to another house in town. Since I knew she had three children, I assumed she was moving to a bigger house—but I was wrong. “We’re moving to a smaller house,” she told me. “A much smaller house.” When I asked her why—which, by the way, is not a question that is typically asked of people who are upsizing—she replied, “Because we realized we don’t need all that stuff, all that space.” To come to this realization, I think, is liberating.
One of my students, Matt, wrote the following:

When we buy things, we feel a sense of happiness and accomplishment. I will not argue that it is a bad feeling; it is exciting and interesting to have new things. The problem is this feeling is short lived, and within a short amount of time we feel like we need to buy more. Things can only entertain us for so long before they get boring or lose their novelty effect. What happens after this is the item is either thrown out and replaced or put in a garage, attic, basement, or any other storage place where it sits for years until eventually it is thrown out. No matter what, our things are trashed and we feel the need to acquire more. How can spending mass amounts of money on things that you will throw out and replace feel liberating? It is like a never ending cycle of spending, disposing, and spending again. We are trapped in this idea and never seem to find any way to escape it.

One way to escape it, I think, is to think deeply about these issues, and to set goals and make decisions based on this insight. I wish I could have so clearly articulated my thinking about materialism when I was a first-year college student. Spending a semester talking about, reading about, and writing about stuff with college freshmen has helped me to further develop my own philosophy about material possessions. And it has helped me to see that whatever I have today—whatever house, car, phone, computer, wardrobe I happen to have right now—is enough. What I have at this very moment is enough.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Signs of Spring

In A Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson writes about exploring the natural world with her young nephew:

We have let Roger share our enjoyment of things people ordinarily deny children because they are inconvenient, interfering with bedtime, or involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug. We have let him join us in the dark living room before the big picture window to watch the full moon riding lower and lower toward the far shore of the bay, setting all the water ablaze with silver flames and finding a thousand diamonds in the rocks on the shore as the light strikes the flakes of mica embedded in them. I think we have felt that the memory of such a scene, photographed year after year by his child’s mind, would mean more to him in manhood than the sleep he was losing. He told me it would, in his own way, when we had a full moon the night after his arrival last summer. He sat quietly on my lap for some time, watching the moon and the water and all the night sky, and then he whispered, “I’m glad we came.”

For the past couple of weeks, as I have taken my children on small excursions around town to enjoy the warm weather, I have been thinking about the importance of exposing them, in every season, to the natural world. I have been thinking about the importance of returning, year after year, to see the blooming magnolia tree on our street, to look at the greening trees at Elizabeth Park, to search for wildflowers in the woods at Westmoor Park. Like Carson, I believe that such scenes, photographed year after year by my children’s minds, will mean more to them in adulthood than many other things I could give them.

One summer evening when my daughter was three, a vibrant watercolor rainbow spread across the sky right before sunset. I had just put my daughter to bed, but without hesitation I rushed into the house, pulled her from her bed, and carried her outside in her pajamas to see the rainbow. She still remembers being held in her mother’s arms while looking at a rainbow. She will likely remember it for the rest of her life. What better gift could I leave her with? It’s worth it.

And now, my son notices the starbusts of the forsythias glowing in yards across town, the coral blossoms of the Japanese flowering quince in our front yard. “Mom, I just found another sign of spring,” he tells me, again and again, pointing at his strawberry plants awakening from winter dormancy, at the dandelions studding our lawn. “Everywhere I look, I see signs of spring.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Looking for the Mountain

When I moved to Connecticut three years ago, I explored the area around my town and described some of my travels to new acquaintances. When I told one neighbor that I had gone to the town of Avon, she said, “So you drove over the mountain.” Puzzled, I replied that I didn’t recall seeing any mountain. “I love mountains,” I told her. “I’ll be sure to look for it next time.” She gave me a quizzical look.

Several weeks later, I was talking to another acquaintance about how to get somewhere in Canton, and she told me to “drive over Avon Mountain.” I asked her how I would do that, and she told me to take Route 44, which was the route I had previously taken to Avon. So again I got in my car and drove to Avon and then to Canton—and I still didn’t see any mountain.

Finally, when “the mountain” came up in a conversation a third time, I didn’t let it pass. I asked my interlocutor where, precisely, this mountain was. “You go right over it on Route 44,” she told me. “No,” I told her. “I’ve driven on Route 44, and I didn’t see any mountain.” Then she began to describe the grade going up over a rise, the runaway truck ramp on the downhill side, the treacherousness of the road, and I realized that our definitions of “mountain” were severely misaligned.

“That,” I maintained, “is no mountain.”

Later, I learned that the area referred to as Avon Mountain where Route 44 connects Avon and West Hartford is actually part of another mountain, Talcott Mountain, which at under 1,000 feet also doesn’t qualify as a mountain in my lexicon.

Last week, I was talking with a woman in the library while the kids played in the toy kitchen area. My friend described to me her trip to the town where I grew up in Southern California. She once flew out there from Connecticut to attend her cousin’s wedding. When she arrived, she was in awe of the mountains. She remarked to her cousin that the mountains where so tall. “Those aren’t mountains,” her cousin replied. “Those are hills.”

For several days, she kept looking at and remarking on the mountains, and her cousin kept correcting her. “Those are hills,” her cousin kept saying. “You just wait and see.” The mountains that my friend was seeing were covered in brown grasses and chaparral, and they looked tall to her. In fact, the tallest peak in the hills near my childhood home is over 3,000 feet.

Finally, one day the smog cleared out, revealing the true mountains—the blue snow-capped splendors on the horizon. “Those,” her cousin told her, “are mountains.” And my friend was in awe. “Those,” she repeated to me, “are mountains.”

“I know them well,” I said. “Both the mountains and the hills.” And then I told her my story about driving all over Avon Mountain looking for the mountain and being unable to see it. She laughed, and we began to talk about how our internalized landscapes—our very definitions of words like mountain and forest and river—affect our ability to see and name new landscapes. But then the children ran up with wooden pizza and pretend tea for us to enjoy, and we never finished our conversation.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how our intimacy with the landscapes of our childhood sometimes makes us blind to new landscapes, or at least unwilling to see the wonder in a place that we do not yet call home. Since then, I’ve been thinking about our personal definitions of words related to landscape and how those meanings are formed. Since then, I’ve been thinking about mountains.

What does your mountain look like?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

547 Letters

She sits alone in the night in the miniscule kitchen of a cramped Soviet apartment, taking a break from her dissertation, from pacing the floor with her infant daughter, to write a letter to him. She writes of the weather and the baby's routine. She writes of her work and her fatigue. While her parents and sister and daughter sleep in the other rooms, she sits in a dim pool of light and remembers the 79 days they spent together as husband and wife. She remembers the 136 days of their acquaintance before that. She goes over the days, the hours, the minutes they were together. She writes:

I remember vividly our May 1st together. You were very tired after the demonstration, probably because we didn’t sleep much the night before, and then we crossed half the city on foot. I remember a great number of unimportant details from that day. I read somewhere that when a person is very happy or very unhappy, then at the most decisive or simply most important moments of his life he remembers not that which is important and fundamental, but the opposite: in the consciousness of a person the enormity of the events are overshadowed by the minuteness of detail—the details which help him to endure something incommensurably large. I think that we (and not only on that day) were too happy and too unhappy due to our impending separation to remember anything important. Forgive me this analysis—it’s just that it’s possible that this will help you to understand why we remember such insignificant events from that day. A thought just came into my head—we absolutely must protect our memories, even the most insignificant, because they are all that we have, and therefore they need to become shared between us—right? It was a sunny but windy day. We got up late, but we managed to catch up with the university column. Then we met a few people from our dormitory—Germans and Finns, I think. Then, after we had already crossed Dvortsovaya Ploshchad, onto the waterfront and then across the bridge, we were talking about how if I had put on beautiful shoes, you would have to carry me on your shoulders. And in Peterhof in the forest I washed my hands in a cold stream, and of course they began to freeze, and you warmed them. Lena’s bicycle was endlessly breaking down. Also we saw a rabbit—do you remember? Lena’s companion was named Svetlana, and you photographed them both on the stone head. But maybe it’s just that at the time we considered our life average, we simply lived, without attaching special meaning to the details, but now we see the importance and that’s why these details have etched into our memory?

He sits alone in the big house on the five acres his parents own in Riverside, California, working on his own dissertation, listening to classical music on vinyl, taking out books from shelves and putting them back, staring at the blank sheet of notebook paper as he tries to summon the words. Finally, he writes to her about the package he has sent her and his asthma, about playing basketball with his brothers and taking long walks with his German shepherd. He writes about his correspondence with the Soviet Consulate. He worries over what his life will be like when—and if—he is granted permission to return to the Soviet Union to be with her and the daughter he has never met. He writes:

Now I know that to see you I must break my ties with my family here and lose hope of ever seeing my homeland again. But if I don’t submit the application, we will lose all hope for a normal and happy life. That is why on Wednesday I came to the firm decision to submit the application for Soviet citizenship. Now I am trying to look very deeply into myself in order to know myself better. But sometimes it seems that you know me better than I know my own self and that’s why I want to appeal to you for advice. If I become a Soviet citizen, will I be a useful citizen? Will I be able to make some contribution to Soviet society in light of the fact that my Russian is so poor? Will I miss my homeland and my family? Will I be able to become reconciled to the fact that I will never see them? I don’t know how I will feel about my decision in 5-10 years—will I regret my decision or not? Now I am being guided only by my heart and not my mind—my heart tells me that I need to act recklessly and to accept this brave and irrevocable decision, but my mind tells me that I am acting against the advice of all the people surrounding me, that my decision will have very bad consequences. But for me only your opinion and advice are important—you know me and the Soviet Union well—can I play some useful role there? What do you think? Do I have enough strength to overcome the obstacles that lie ahead of me?

They continue to make plans for their reunion, hopeful that their married life will soon resume. She works to complete her graduate studies and to launch an academic career in the Soviet Union. He appeals to Soviet authorities, seeking clear guidelines on how to return to his family. Slowly, 1974 and 1975 slip away. Then 1976. Authorities at the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco seem to contradict the advice of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC. Soviet authorities in the U.S. seem to contradict what authorities in the Soviet Union are telling her. Yes, it’s possible for him to return and live as a permanent resident in the Soviet Union. No, he must revoke his American citizenship and take Soviet citizenship. No, it won’t be possible at all. Yes, but first there are mountains of documents that need to be submitted. First, he must secure employment in the Soviet Union.

For four years they live apart, with just one brief reunion in 1976 when she brings their 18-month-old daughter to visit him in America. Upon parting, they resume their efforts. Additional complications arise: there are roadblocks in defending her dissertation, delays that seem to stretch on and on. Finally, she is told that she will never be permitted to defend her dissertation. By marrying an American she has sabotaged her career. Still, though she is not granted her doctorate, she is permitted to hold a university teaching position. But the time apart wears away at them both, and as the months pass, they lose hope that he will ever be granted permission to return to her. Finally, she makes her decision: she will leave Russia and move to the U.S. to be with him. She will give up everything for him. She comes to Riverside, California, with suitcases full of books and letters and a three-year-old daughter.

I am that daughter, and now, the hundreds of yellowing sheets that they mailed back and forth for four years rest in a black case inside of my desk. The first letter is dated June 6, 1974, and the last is dated June 24, 1978. The letters have been in my possession for a dozen years now; my mother gave them to me shortly after I got married. I read them all then, and now I am slowly working to render the letters in one language, transcribing the English parts, translating the Russian parts, creating enormous Word files that contain the narrative of this love story. The year 1974, though it begins in June, is over 75,000 words. In 1975, they wrote a combined 120,000 words. I recently began on 1976.

And as I read and reread and transcribe and translate, the words seem to become my own, and more than that, I seem to be writing my own current reality into my understanding of the text. The letters become a palimpsest, and each time I take them up again, I am writing over them my own experiences. When I first read the letters I was childless and younger than my letter-writing parents, but now I am older than my parents and my children are older than I ever was in the letters. And I see that everything that happened to our family, to me, is somehow in the letters, or at least it is all nascent, possible, even likely. From the letters I have already pieced together much. I have written some, but there is more. There is a book here, if only I can mine the materials, if only I can pull it from the thousands upon thousands of words, if only I can interlay my own words among my parents’ words.

This month, my parents celebrate their thirty-ninth wedding anniversary. Here is the beginning of their story.

Leningrad, U.S.S.R. / November 4, 1973

They met on a cold, wet day, the temperature holding at an even freezing. A slushy mixture of snow and rain fell from the leaden gray sky; the streets looked like slicked black ribbons and the leafless trees monochrome sticks in the dim light of a northern autumn.

Irina dressed early for the party. She wore a long dress that she had knitted herself, beige with white stripes. She slipped her feet, which she considered much too large and wide, into black shoes with square toes. The three-inch heels made her stand nearly six feet tall. As she dressed she may have thought about the books she had read in the library that day, or about her feeling that her dissertation was burning her life away. Every day she took a bus to the library where she spent ten hours, reading an average of six books, many in French. She considered sleep a waste of time and slept only four hours a night. It made her angry that she had to sleep at all; she had so much to do. Maybe as she stood combing her hair, she thought about the writer Romain Rolland, the man of her work and of her dreams, the only man who understood her, though he was a Frenchman and had died of tuberculosis the year before she was born.

Paul did not go to the national archives because it was Sunday. Six days a week he made the hour-long walk from the island across Dvortsovii Bridge to the mainland, where Peter the Great in the guise of the Bronze Horseman marked his destination and greeted him; the czar, frozen in a posture of conquest atop his rearing stallion, kept watch over his capital. In the archives, Paul pored over ornately lettered manuscripts of the Petrine era and wrote notes on index cards, which he later filed into cardboard boxes decorated in paper made to look like green marble. Every evening he walked back in the chilly dusk, stopping for a cup of black coffee at the confectioner’s. He walked everywhere he went, because he disliked the stuffiness and close contact of public transportation.

(In several weeks he would learn that he was known on the island as the crazy American, because he wore only thin trousers and a flannel shirt on his long treks across the city, while the Russians bundled themselves in scarves, raincoats, hats, and gloves.)

In the afternoon Paul walked to the cafeteria, a block away, where he ordered his favorite soup, solyanka, made of pickles, potatoes, meat, tomatoes, and sausages, served with a slab of crusty black bread. The soup tasted salty and sour from the pickles, and big blotches of orange-tinted fat floated on its claret surface. Paul found it filling and satisfying on a cold day, and the matronly woman who governed the colossal steel soup pot always ladled him a double serving. She wore a kerchief on her head and a wide apron stretched across her vast chest and stomach. Her cheeks glowed red in the steamy heat of the kitchen.

(Months later, Irina would learn that the woman, a Ukrainian, lavished the extra attention on Paul because she believed him to be a boy from her beloved Ukraine; she would be dismayed to learn that he was an American.)

They lived in a white five-story dormitory on Shevchenko, a quiet side street, on Vasilievsky Island, which lies in the crook formed where the Neva River splinters into two. Peter had built his city in a wet northern wilderness; from above the land appears crazed with waterways, like cracked glass. Three hundred graduate students lived in their dorm. Each room housed one or two foreigners and a Russian. Irina lived on the second floor in room #17, with a Canadian, Sarah, and Colette, who was French. Paul lived on the third floor in room #37, with a Russian, Petya. For three months they lived one floor apart and didn’t meet.

Their windows both faced north, and they looked out over the same view, but his room, one floor up, and not directly over hers, offered a slightly different perspective on the scene: a field with two or three poplar trees, patches of dying grass, and the roof of the movie theater Baltika just visible on the horizon. (Later, after Paul left, the field would be turned into a muddy construction site and would remain that way for the rest of Irina’s stay.) Perhaps Paul stood looking out of the window that afternoon, thinking about the endless days of early August, when dusk didn’t begin until after ten and it was dawn by four. Then, in September, the darkness of night began to stretch longer and longer; he now saw that the days of summer and winter were like photographic negatives of one another, dark replacing light, light replacing dark. It had snowed for the first time on September 26th, and through all of October white flurries swirled in the sky, but they melted on contact with the ground; the streets, long and straight, meeting at right angles or in the knots of traffic circles, and perpetually wet, glistened like a black fisherman’s net ensnaring the city. He thought of the lush evergreen citrus groves of his California hometown, and of cash registers; hardly a sliver of green could now be found in this grand, spacious city where glum store clerks impatiently cracked out sums on the hard blond and black beads of an abacus. He felt very alone, and the remaining seven months of his ten-month stay stretched out before him, a series of drab, wet, gray days and long walks back and forth over the bridge.

Life in room #17 orbited a sturdy, round wooden table: six feet in diameter, draped in a burgundy tablecloth and covered in cup rings, crumbs, books, pens, a stray soup pot, sugar granules, teaspoons, cards from a scattered deck. Every night half a dozen to a dozen students of different nationalities—Russian, English, French, German, American, Finnish—gathered at the table to drink tea and talk from ten until two or three in the morning. Irina always said that you could seat any number of people at a round table, and it proved true, night after night. On her twenty-eighth birthday in October, fifteen French students gathered in the room for the celebration. When the five or six mismatched chairs filled, people piled onto the beds. A haze of cigarette smoke cloaked the room, curling in a delicate white filigree, collecting in a dense blanket on the ceiling. Irina did not smoke and often opened the small hinged window to diffuse the thick clouds.

Room #37, the same size as 17, had two beds instead of three. Paul’s bed stood to the left of the window. Paul and Petya studied quietly at the square table in the center of the room. Petya was studying political economy. Occasionally he asked Paul how much something cost in America. Otherwise, he tended to be quiet. Coming from the warm, southern republic of Kazakhstan, he sometimes complained of the cold and kept a thermometer in the room that he monitored regularly. Paul, despite his California roots, seemed impervious to the cold.

(Later, when the temperature in room #37 would fall to 11 degrees Celsius, Petya would buy a space heater to supplement the feeble heat put out by the radiator under the window.)

Irina and her friend Galya served as the cultural directors in the dormitory. Galya, from Tomsk, had ivory hair that she wore in a thick twisted rope falling down her back nearly to her knees. She and her husband, Valera, lived across the hall and a few doors down from room #17. As cultural directors, Irina and Galya organized the series of evening parties hosted in turn by every nation represented in the dorm. The inaugural party, the Russian samovar, always fell on the Sunday closest to November 7th, the day of the October Revolution.

(In February, the French would decide to celebrate their cultural evening by preparing French onion soup, and Irina would lead them around Leningrad, collecting six enormous soup pots from the cafeteria, 100 bottles of white wine, sixty pounds of cheese, and two mountains of onions.)

Irina and Galya walked down the stairs together to the spacious room on the first floor. The study tables, pushed together to form one large U-shaped table, were draped in satin tablecloths, the bright red of the flag. Irina and Galya arranged trays and plates of pastries, pryaniki, and candy, and they placed cups and teapots at regular intervals along the table. The teapots, gathered from all the rooms, formed a motley collection. The two teapots from room #17 had made their way down here: a green enamel one and a porcelain one decorated in a spray of blossoms on a milky background. A record player piped out Russian folk ballads and revolutionary songs in the corner. Irina set out the last teapots with great haste, maybe splattering the tablecloths with hot water droplets, clinking the porcelain cups together; her manner, brusque and impatient, suggested that there wasn’t enough time in her one life to get everything done. She was forever racing time: especially since the doctors had taken an entire year from her. Five months previous they released her from the sanatorium with good news: she was cured of tuberculosis. But already she had lost so much time. 

While Irina and Galya were making a final check of the tables, in room #37 Petya broke the long evening silence by announcing: “It’s time to drink tea.” Paul put on the only suit he’d ever owned (bought for his high school graduation thirteen years before) and followed Petya down the two flights of stairs. They found two seats together. Paul poured his tea: first splashing bitter black zavarka in the bottom of his cup, then filling it to the brim with hot water.

About 120 people were at the party. Paul and Petya, two of the quietest people there, sat side by side drinking tea and not speaking. Maybe Paul looked at the bank of wide windows along the wall and studied the reflection of yellow light and red tablecloth, the shimmering opaque blackness of the world beyond. Maybe he sampled a pryanik and found it too hard and sweet. Maybe he picked up a piece of candy and studied the ornate label, reading the name of the factory and city in Russian: Fabrika Rossiya, Kuybyshev.

Irina noticed him first. She became aware that there was a very quiet man sitting beside her who had no one to talk to. She waited five minutes, and then out of politeness, she spoke to him. She asked him questions about his work: what was he studying? what was his dissertation on? And he told her, in correct but slightly accented Russian, that he was studying Stefan Yavorskii, the Acting Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church during the Petrine era. Yavorskii had gone to Jesuit College in Poland and knew Latin, Greek, Polish, Ukrainian, Church Slavonic, and Old Russian, but he wrote primarily in a combination of the Polish alphabet and the Church Slavonic language. Irina was impressed that he knew so much about Old Russian. They spoke politely to one another and used the formal form of you: vi.

At first, Irina thought that he looked Russian. After she heard him speak, she decided that his accent sounded Ukrainian. He certainly looked Ukrainian: bright blue eyes, round cheeks, dark brown hair, balding. She noticed that he wore a very outdated black suit with narrow trouser legs. She was surprised when she asked him where he was from and he told her America. Sometime during the conversation they told one another their first names: Irina, Paul.

He looked into the face of the woman talking to him—at her widely spaced, intelligent gray eyes, her long, straight nose, her broad face with a cleft in the chin, her strong, square jaw—and he saw that she was very beautiful. He felt bashful and inarticulate.         

At the end of the conversation, she said to him: “If you ever want to have tea, come to room 17. Remember: room 17.” And he remembered. But that night he was not among those at the round table, nor was he there the following night, and Irina thought that he would never come, because in her experience people came on the first or second night or not at all.

(Four days later, on November 8th, he would knock on the door of room #17 for the first time. A week later, on November 11th, the snow would accumulate, the city would turn a soft luminous white, and she would take him shopping for a winter hat made of black rabbit with flaps that came over the ears. Irina would cut the eight-foot-long blue scarf given her by an old student exactly in half; she would give half to Paul and keep half herself, and they would wear matching scarves all winter. On March 20th, they would marry. On June 5th, he would return to America, alone.)

During that first meeting, they talked for no more than three minutes. He thought she was very beautiful. She thought he seemed very lonely. The party continued. Neither of them had any sense that something remarkable had happened. At nine or ten they all went back to their rooms. Outside the icy rain churned out of the sky and fell steadily in the darkness.

(The above excerpt dated November 4, 1973, comes from my essay, “Translation: Perevod,” which appeared in Witness in 2009.)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Touching Trees

When I held my ten-month-old daughter up to a pin oak and she pressed her hand up to its bark, a look of guilty pleasure spread across her face. Furtively she felt out the tree’s corrugations, casting looks of disbelief my way, as though it didn't seem possible that I was allowing her this textured, coarse pleasure, as though placing the softness of her baby skin against such ridges and roughness must be prohibited. The wonder of it was nearly unbearable. She pulled her hand away and her gaze followed the trunk of the tree high up into the branches. “Bark,” I told her. “Tree.”

Since then, my children have touched trees of all kinds—the white scales of sycamore, the smooth bark of beech that gathers up in wrinkles like elephant skin, the sticky places around injuries where sap has run from pines, the wild dishevelment of shagbark hickory, the prehistoric spines of the floss silk tree with its armored dinosaur hide, the gold leaf shimmer of stewartia, the black eyes flashing on white birch bark, the pliable striations of cork, the spongy, ruddy give of redwood bark, the gnarled rind of the three-hundred-year-old white oak near our house, and the smooth-stemmed pencil trunk of its offspring that now grows in our backyard—their fingers exploring scars, burls, lichens, gaps, wounds.

More than seven years after she touched her first tree, on the eve of her eighth birthday, my daughter is still touching trees. May she touch them always.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Silver Maple

In our glass-fronted cabinet among our seldom-used fine china and various vases, there is a small ceramic music box, glazed a deep cobalt blue, with a moon and sun on the lid. The box belongs to my daughter, as do its contents—a collection of samaras from the silver maple tree that grew in our yard in Omaha. When we were regretfully leaving that house—and that tree—in the late spring of 2010, I remember the moment when my daughter, five at the time, rushed into the house cupping in her hands a small mound of maple keys that she had collected from the yard. “Be sure to pack these,” she told me, transferring them carefully into my open hands. “I’m taking them with me.” Since I was then in the middle of packing up some of the more fragile items in the glass-fronted cabinet, I simply placed them in the blue china box before packing it away.

Our silver maple, a grand tree about a hundred feet tall and fourteen feet in circumference, produced a bumper crop of samaras that year; they were everywhere—all over the roof, covering the back lawn, punctuating the front yard like a spill of blond commas. As the movers traipsed in and out of the house, sealing up boxes, moving out furniture, they brought the samaras in with them, and when we finally began to open our boxes in our new home in Connecticut, the samaras began to tumble out of the book boxes, the dish boxes, the toy boxes, reminding us of all that we had left behind. I kept finding them for weeks, months, until the last were finally swept out.

I first laid eyes on that silver maple in May of 2009, just weeks before my grandmother died, and I last saw the tree in May of 2010, when we left Nebraska, but in that single year I spent more deliberate time with that tree than I have with any other tree. From the time we moved into the house in early summer, I went to that tree every day.  I went to it because it was a magnificent tree. I went to it because my children played in its shade. And I went to it because I was mourning the death of my grandmother, and a tree was the sort of stalwart and silent companion I wanted in that time of grieving.

A couple of months into my acquaintance with the silver maple, I began photographing the tree every day. On some days, I took a single shot, and on others, I took dozens. I took close-ups, photographing its leaves, its bark, its buds, its branches, its keys. I took photos at every time of day—morning, midday, dusk, night—and in every kind of weather. I photographed the tree in the wind, the rain, the snow, the ice. I took pictures in the fall, the winter, the spring. I took shots from the backyard and from the roof, from my son’s bedroom window and from the back porch. My plan was to photograph the tree every day for a year, but my project ended when we moved away just shy of the nine-month mark.  I missed a whole summer with my tree. I wanted more time.

Still, I know something about that tree. Still, I have 1,736 digital photos. I have been meaning to write about the silver maple for nearly three years. I have been meaning to write about the tree and the photos and my grandmother and grief. Maybe this is a start.

When my mother was helping to clean out my grandmother’s house in California, she found the blue china box sitting on the dresser in her bedroom. In the weeks before her death, my grandmother had written my daughter’s name on a slip of paper and put it under the box, one of her final bequests. When my parents came to visit us in Omaha, they brought the box with them. And then we filled the box with samaras and brought it to Connecticut.

On a snowy January day when school is cancelled, I take the blue box from the glass-fronted cabinet and open it for my daughter. “Remember these?” I ask her. We haven’t moved the box since placing it in the cabinet in the summer of 2010. She gently lifts a papery samara from the box. “Oh, yeah,” she breathes. “This is from the tree that used to be in our backyard.” She lifts the maple key over her head and lets it twirl to the floor. “I remember when they would fall from the tree and I would chase them.” We carefully count the samaras—there are fifteen—and place them back in the box. “I miss that tree,” she says. And together, we remember our tree.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hiking with Jeremy

My mother, who is not a hiker, has asked me on several occasions why I hike. “Why do you need to go climb up on the mountain?” she asks me in Russian, always in a slightly judgmental tone, as I load up a pack with water and rain gear and prepare to set out. She leaves the rest of her question unsaid, but I hear the criticism. Why do you spend a whole day hiking when you could be reading or writing or doing something useful with your time? My answers are usually evasive, laconic. “Because I can,” I might say. “Because it’s what I do.”

On most trips back to California, I go hiking with Jeremy at least once. He is in his early seventies and hikes nearly every week in the summer, somewhat less frequently in the colder months, sometimes with one of his grown daughters but most often alone. He’s ascended Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., three times, most recently at the age of sixty-five. I haven’t accompanied him up Whitney, but I have done several grueling day hikes with him, including a twenty-four mile trek up Mount San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California. In the summers, we hike in the San Bernardino Mountains. In the winters, when the mountains are snowy, we hike in the desert at Joshua Tree.

“Do you ever write about hiking?” Jeremy asked me on a hike last summer. “Well, no,” I said. “Not really.” Because, I thought, hiking itself is so much like writing. Looking at that trailhead or that empty page, I always begin with resistance. I am reluctant to get going, and yet, as I do, as I slowly begin to warm up, I am reminded again why I do this. As I get into a rhythm, as I lose sense of time and distance, I am astounded at the views around me, at the ground under my feet or the words on the page. And then the hard parts come upon me when I think I can’t possibly keep going, that what I am doing is simply too hard, too grueling, not worth the effort. And yet I go on, and the drudgery somehow gives way to moments of euphoria when I believe, for an instant, that I have found the one thing that I was destined to do on earth. But this short-lived rapture is inevitably followed by the exhausting parts, the painful parts, the long dreary slogs up endless switchbacks. Then there is the false hope that comes with believing the end is nearer than it actually is; there is the disappointment in reaching a plateau that only reveals a clearer view of the difficulties that still lie ahead. But finally, finally, when I reach the top, the view is always grand, even when obstructed, because the view is as much a looking inward as it is a looking outward. And when I am finished, when the hike or the writing is complete, I feel the deep satisfaction that comes with using my body for what it was intended to do and spending a day in a worthwhile pursuit.

On that same hike last summer, I asked Jeremy, “Why do you hike?” He thought about his answer for several minutes as we walked steadily along in silence, trudging through a long series of switchbacks. And then he told me his answer. Since we were hiking at the time, I didn’t write down his answer verbatim, but waited until we took a break to take out my pocket notebook. His response, which I try to recreate below, is, I think, better than mine.

Why do I hike? It’s hard, and sometimes it’s painful, and you’re out in the elements, and you often have to do the same parts of the same trail over and over, but when you reach your goal—if you reach it—it’s an accomplishment. You’ve done something. It’s more than sitting around the house or going out in the yard and walking around. And if you do it more than several times, if you keep hiking, it gets in you. It gnaws at me, and then I have to go hike. And I see people who don’t get around well, or at all, and maybe someday I won’t be able to get around and I’ll be in a wheelchair, but for now I can do this. This is a gift. We have this gift.

Why do I write? Why do I hike? Because I can. Because every day that we work hard to do something well is a gift.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Birth Stories

In early 2005, I sat in a classroom scribbling notes while the members of my fiction workshop discussed the novel excerpt I had handed out to them the previous week. In the opening scene, a young woman is fleeing across the ravaged Russian countryside during World War II. As members of the class discussed my work, I jotted down numerous comments about my depiction of the war, my use of language, my knowledge of Russian culture. Then a young man cleared his throat and started to speak nervously.

“Umm, this scene where she gives birth?” he said. “It just didn’t seem real to me. It seemed too easy. I mean, obviously I’m not speaking from firsthand experience, but I think giving birth is a lot harder and takes a lot longer. I just found that section hard to believe.”

Although I was not supposed to speak while my work was under discussion, I couldn’t help myself.

“I’ll know about that soon enough,” I said. “Then I’ll be able to revise it.”

The students in the class chuckled. I was hugely pregnant, about two weeks away from giving birth to my first child.

No doubt the members of the class—none of whom, as far as I knew, had ever given birth—believed that I had been inspired by my own pregnancy to write about a pregnant protagonist. In fact, in my novel I had written two separate birth scenes, involving two different protagonists, before I ever became pregnant. I had always recognized the importance of birth stories, even before having one of my own to tell.

Each birth story is unique. All mothers have them, a different narrative for each of their children. We begin by rehearsing the story well before it even happens. We take birth classes to learn the basic plot, the possible twists and complications. We write detailed birth plans, outlining just how we want the story to go. We imagine the birth, again and again. We rehearse and rewrite. It is supremely important, because if each life has a story, that story begins with birth. That is why, I think, many mothers are compelled to tell the stories of their children’s births. Those stories belong to us, but they also belong to our children. And we mothers are the keepers of those stories for our children. It is up to us to tell them where and how they began, to weave for them the narratives of their origins, their earliest years. Life is about storytelling, and we want our stories—and our children’s stories—to be true and good.

My own birth stories are not exceptional or amazing, except that they happened to me. And because while laboring we are in a place beyond words, we can never adequately tell our stories. Giving birth is a cohesive experience, yet we are left with disjointed, fragmented impressions. I can give my children only bits and pieces. When my daughter asks, I will be able to offer her only the sparse, bright gems of experience that are still with me, that I can put into words: The erratic contractions we timed all night, my husband working diligently with a stopwatch and notebook. The questioning: Is it real? Is it time? The drive to the hospital, the bright, crisp world of late winter. The nurses who didn’t believe my labor was real because I was withdrawn and silent, calm as in a trance, awaiting the next wave of pain. Elvis on the muted hospital TV, singing with a lei around his neck. The glint of sun on cars in the parking lot below. The unexpected, rapid delivery. The alarmed nurse telling me not to push, that she still had to call the midwife on the phone. The midwife rushing in just in time to catch the baby. The robust, squalling baby girl, mad at the sudden shock of the world.

I knew none of this when I first wrote that scene in my novel. So yes, after giving birth, I know more. I can write about it firsthand. But in another way, I am no closer to telling my character’s story. It is her birth story, not my own. Giving birth myself is not enough. It is not a credential for writing fiction. To tell my character’s story, I have to enter her world, in a sense become her. I have to write the birth story that is uniquely hers.

And yet, I believe there is truth in the old adage, write what you know. Maybe I can get to her story through my own. All of the characters, all of the stories, that we access as writers of fiction come through the lens of our own experiences. Write what you know. Just as every mother is different, every birth is different. With the coming of the new year, with my son’s fifth birthday approaching, I have been remembering his birth. Write what you know.

This is what I know: My second baby was due December 25. I wanted a fantastic story. Driving through a winter blizzard. A Christmas Eve baby. A completely natural birth. A Christmas baby. He was late. I then hoped for a New Year’s Eve baby. A New Year’s Day baby. He didn’t cooperate. A week late. Ten days late. My wants became simpler. A birth. A baby. Soon.

This is what I know: It is nighttime in winter, and I am in labor, by myself, on the living room sofa beneath the picture window, in a small house in a small windblown town in the Nebraska Panhandle. I am watching the stars, listening to the furnace tick on and off. Outside, crabapple trees rustle quietly. I am still, so that I do not awaken anyone. My husband will need his rest for what lies ahead. There is no sense in both of us staying up all night. I’ve snuck away to be in labor by myself. Between contractions, my thoughts are lucid, calm. I see myself as a participant in a story. I think of the new life story that will unfold out of this quiet winter night.

This is what I know: A contraction pierces my stream of thoughts, a blaze of pain, and then the gradual abating. The story will come. The dawn, the almost-three-year-old daughter I must calmly say my goodbyes to, the potholed road, the patches of snow dotting the yards, the gray winter sky. The small hospital where no other babies are being born that day. Asking to be in the water. No, first the fetal monitoring. No, first the doctor must come. No, I’m too close. No water allowed. There is no time. He he is here, so soon: my howling nine-pound boy, peeing on the doctor first thing.

But for now, I am still here, alone in the night. And this is what I know: I ride the crest of another contraction. The story continues. I think of the ultrasound technician who told me twelve hours ago: you’re not close. The doctor who told me eight hours ago: you’re not close, we need to induce. They do not know. I am close. The induction will never take place. I am close. I wait for my baby to tell me when. He takes his sweet time. I watch the stars. I listen to the trees. I am blessed on this night. The contractions come. I do not count them, I do not time them. I know it is the real deal. I let my story—his story—come to me.