Saturday, October 31, 2009

When not everything is rosy

Dear dears,

It's All Hallows' Eve and National Novel Writing Month eve to boot (more about that later), and it's now or never (my fingers first typed Now or November) if I want to blog once more in October.

I was thinking a lot about some things I wanted to blog a couple of weeks ago - I went down into a kind of difficult and not so productive, not so happy, place. And it occurred to me that I am usually relentlessly up, upbeat, trying to be productive and better myself, and that everything I do is in the service of that - or at least that is the narrative being produced around here.

And so I really wanted to try to blog from the depths of the (let me not dramatize too much - it can't have been too terrible because I don't even exactly remember it right now, I just remember it because I remember thinking about the blogging) formless, somewhat frustrating place I was in.

Aha, I remember now what it was: I didn't have any editorial work from outside for a couple of weeks. I had been working on some websites with the help of my friend/mentor/consultant Ellen, and I had told her I was going to continue on my own for a while, but that was proving difficult. And so, after I got Felix off to school and went for my (WONDERFUL) morning walk with my ladies, there was no particular shape to my days, no deadlines, nothing exactly and specifically and particularly I had to do just then.

So I puddled and dawdled and overate and futzed around online and was dissatisfied with myself and thought about blogging from that state. But blogging was one more productive and positive thing I wasn't doing!

Here's the Alice in Wonderland part - of course, as soon as I was meeting Ellen again and getting the websites in shape and the editorial work was also coming in and I was feeling happily bustly again and had the energy, the good positive energy, that would have let me happily blog - well then there was NO TIME! (Alice in Wonderland reference in brief: when she's small enough to fit through the door to the garden, she's way too short to reach the key; when she's tall enough to reach the key on the high table, she's way too big to fit through the door.)

So there it is. Tonight I am suspended between one time pressure and the next, and tomorrow a grand new adventure begins, so I wanted to send out word before I went sweeping down into it. Tomorrow is November, and with it begins NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, so wish me luck please as I am about to go try to write 50,000 words in 30 days again like I did last year (except hopefully better!).

And tomorrow is also the beginning of the month in which I am going to visit my parents in California for 10 days, and belatedly celebrate my father's 80th birthday (happy belated birthday again, Daddy!), and stop in on friends in Berkeley.

And tomorrow also starts the month when I'm on jury duty for a week.

So the good news is - there's lots to do and not so much time to go wallowing in any doldrums. Bad news is - not quite enough time maybe for all there is to do. The ankle I twisted six days ago now is healing well, the many pounds I gained in the first four days of not walking on it I am trying to embrace for now and get ready to send back out into the world again, this morning I worked for a couple of hours on plans for the November novel and I'm ready, I'm ready!

I still don't know how, necessarily, to write from the doldrums. Maybe next time they come around I can grab the downbeat moment and wrest some words from it. There has to be a way, I was going to say a trick but I don't even really mean a trick, just a way to do that without it being about asking for pity. But I don't know that way just yet.

Still juicily awaiting the future, such topics as:

- balancing sociability and aloneness (thank you Beth for many wonderful conversations and modeling on this topic)
- writing as a mood-altering process and therefore how can you write about a mood? (see above)

For now, it's Halloween. Slowly outside the light is getting darker and the clumps of trick-or-treaters are getting more frequent - little groups of two to five tinies with two to five grownups, and candles and flashlights and treat bags. This year we're hiding out and hoping against hope they don't come here, since we're going out a couple of different directions but haven't left yet. The porch light isn't on, the Jack o'Lantern isn't out, and the walkway is absolutely covered and smothered in thick loads of brown crackly leaves, and so far everyone has crossed the street and gone over to sociable hospitable Jenny and Michael across the street instead - we haven't had to turn off all the inside lights and hide in the basement the way we thought we might, but that may still come.

Happy Halloween all, and happy November!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The people in Hamburg

I just wanted to add - thinking about Kim's birthday - what did we DO all those days and hours and months together in Hamburg?

And I realized - it was so all about the people. Sabine and Florian, and Anja and Alexander, and Klaus and Bettina. Parties late at night, and hours sitting around a pizza or a big pot of Persian rice, and plans that fell through because Michel had to make yet another one-minute video for Luxemburg TV. And more parties.

Sabine, if you're reading this, here's a poem I've been meaning to show you for years and years and years. (The you in the poem is not you, or Kim for that matter, but that becomes obvious I guess. And Sabine, you're living in a different shape these days! Those were other times.)

Nights, that Year

The streets came together in half-circles, no-car

zones with potted palms, Italian ice cream,

gardens strung with car-lot Christmas lights and people talking

German low in busted armchairs with their bottoms

almost to the sidewalk. We would go arm-in-arm when the time

zones and the Northern angles kept the night balmy late.

I tried stiletto heels, fraying the points.

I tried a sip of red wine. I kept trying to marry you.

I tried dressing you in my clothes, tried

riding barefoot on the train from Berlin. I tried

everything. We kept going back to the place with the busted armchairs.

We ate corn salad at one in the morning.

We slept on the floor and played pingpong in the bedroom.

We watched Sabine sink giddy into her pink pear shape. Our parties

were famous. We still have the pictures. I don't think

you remember it this way.

Kim in Hamburg, a birthday slipping past

Here in Bloomington, Indiana, it is still Kim's birthday, but Kim is in Hamburg, where her birthday was yesterday already. Happy birthday, most faithful reader of all! 'Twas wonderful to see you in Berlin in the springtime.

Memories: the bank in St. Pauli where we met, you thinking my darkling German boyfriend was the loud American among us, anyway we were talking English and you recognized him from a university class in Berlin / hours, hours, hours, just sitting and talking, walking and talking, both of us a little at sea in Hamburg with our German boyfriends, what we were doing there? underemployed, undercommitted . . . so much time to talk.

hours in the choir under Johannes's direction, hours in the pub playing Kutscherskat and Klabberjas.

Your stories: meeting Christian in Paris, moving in together the day you met, ten years later when I met you were still together and you'd followed him to Hamburg, living a life amid the windy streets and little-old-lady hole-in-the-wall shops and high-ceilinged rooms.

Your apartment: the funny things on your walls, little sculptures/paintings/self-made things that went in three-dimensional directions, all of it impressed me with its self-assuredness.

The cafe around the corner from your place on Stresemannstrasse where we spent eternities - was it called Unter den Linden? Ordering the little bowls of tricolor ice cream, and lemon juice drinks, and discussing whatever there was to discuss under the sun. Off to the movies on the subway in the middle of the night with Michel and Christian, watching some weird strange thing - did we all fall asleep except Michel? Or all stayed awake except Michel? Anyway, I do remember it was even farther into the middle of the night at Hoheluftbrücke when we had to come sleepily home. I know you remember that night too, you mentioned it recently.

The American women's club of Hamburg - those ridiculous meetings we went to, you and I so did not belong but we went anyway, and it turned out some of the other people didn't really belong either. We went to a Tupperware party - it felt surreal.

Suddenly you had a baby. And suddenly you and the baby were gone, Chernobyl had happened and you wanted to take him to the States for a while where things were maybe not quite as contaminated. I think you and Martin were actually out of the country during most of the anti-nuclear demonstrations we spent our last few months in. And by the time you came back we were gone.

Now twenty-five more years have gone by, there you and Christian still are, three boys grown up and going/gone, you making a bilingual home for yourselves and for so many English-speaking women/mothers who've moved into and away from Hamburg. Always there for me/us to touch base with when we come to Germany. You thinking your thoughts, going through your own internal revolutions, reading and watching and thinking.

Showed a friend our wedding album night before last, there was a beautiful close-up of your face, glowing and beaming. Standing right next to my big sister, in fact, also glowing and beaming, and you looked so much alike! And you always were a little big-sister-like to me.

Happy birthday, dear Kim!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The big black chair and the little white book

I wanted to write about this book I was reading, I've been wanting to write about it for a while now. Today was the day but first I had to find a place to sit. You'd think in a house there would be a place to sit. But in my own house, in which there are, among other things, a kitchen, a bedroom, a lovely large office all my own, and the world's most enormous living room, I don't have a place I'm so happy to sit because my big black chair has been moved out of the living room for no reason other than its unintentional crime of being unsightly. Poor big black chair, and even more so, given that the big black chair really has no feelings: poor me!

For several weeks, the chair was positioned in my office in such a way that I couldn't really lean back in it, defeating 9/10ths of its purpose. About a week ago, I did reposition it to lean back, and I can see out both windows now (green turning to yellow, reflected overhead light in the one windowpane, wonderful snatches of cold silver cloud-sky dancing/peeking through the shifting leaf canopy, dripping wetness residue) - but it's just very hemmed-in feeling, compared to sitting in this chair as if on a throne surveying the endless landscape, the way I used to in the living room. So I'm in mourning for my previous seating. And maybe I'll manage to get it restored.

In the meantime: The elegance of the hedgehog! Or, perhaps more pertinently: L'élégance du hérisson. Because I think probably at least 9/10ths (there's that same fraction again! a pattern in the universe?) of the pleasure I had in reading it was because I was reading it in French. After my year in Berlin immersed in German (when I wasn't, in fact, around English speakers, and you can guess what fraction of the time *that* was!), what a pleasure to find I can easily read a novel in French (depending on the novel, not so easy in German - I might know all the individual words but it's unconscionable the order they put the darn things in, so twisty-turny it takes forever to read).

Book group is this Sunday and I'll compare notes with my friends who have read it in English. I already know, because hubby read it in English and got stuck on page 100, and I myself peeked at the English sometimes when I got stuck on a word in the French (which I did frequently, more about that later), that the English is a little stiff and wooden.

And the weird thing is: for all I know, the French might be too! I somehow don't think so, but it's not like I read in French that often and so it's hard to compare. It was just so much fun to sit here and read. There were things that brought me up short - OK, right about now I guess I need to say what the deal is with this story.

There's a concierge who lives in a big building of rich people, and the concierge herself, though poor, is tremendously intelligent and very very well-read, but she feels she has to hide that from the other people in the house. (This was the first thing that brought me up short: that seemed very unmotivated, the fact that she had to hide her intelligence and erudition. But it turned out that was an important thing that got explained later.) Meanwhile, upstairs, there lives a little rich girl, 12 years old, who is also tremendously smart, and lives with her smart family but they're all smart in the wrong way or about the wrong things and don't understand her nor she them, and she feels there is no meaning and she's just going to grow up to live an idiotic life, so she has decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday.

That's the premise. There you go.

And I read it very happily.

The thing is that I was brought up short on every single page with long complicated or just unfamiliar words I didn't understand at all, or at least didn't undersand at first.

I tried gliding past them.
I tried looking them up.
I tried rereading the passage, sometimes many times over, to make it out and understand the troublesome words from context.
I tried, later on, going to read the same passage in the English translation (as I said: kind of wooden - really made me feel like going back and attempting my own translation, or at least my own edit of the English - but realistically - is that going to happen?)

All of the above worked at various times, and I got more and more hooked. Weirdly, this book has a smallish element of people who are into Anna Karenina and name animals after characters - and we just read Anna Karenina last month in book group.

After I'd read a few pages, I decided to go back and write down some of the things I'd had a hard time with. Here they are, just from the very first pages:

que par hoquets propres et sans vices
un diable qui s'appelle CGT
je marmonne (I wrote: "murmure"? - that turned out to be right)
scindé (I wrote: "probably 'divided' ")
les oignons aux pieds
rouages ("gears"? I wondered)
revêches ("something negative")
ces relents plébéiens
mon cabas à filet (I figured out: "string shopping bag")

Finally, all of the above I either, as I said, looked up, figured out, or glided past - and now I have forgotten again what at least half of them mean but I got enough of the meaning in the moment to keep moving through.

Funnily, sometimes when I went to look at the matching English sentence or passage, which I did towards the end of the book more, the English often used a word I didn't know either! So it wasn't my French exactly.

I do want to try to say why I enjoyed reading this book so much and I feel like I'm not quite getting at it. It's understated. I think I liked that. It didn't feel like it was working too hard to please me, and the pleasures it afforded were really in the individual sentences, and the characters I ended up caring about somewhat and the plot that unfolded kind of came on me unawares while I was untangling the sentences - not at all how I usually read.

So that's pretty much it. Now I'm reading the book she wrote before this one (sorry, I didn't say who "she" is: Muriel Barbery). The book before this one is called Une gourmandise and the two are connected - Une gourmandise is all about the rich snobby food critic who lives upstairs in the concierge's building and actually, in the central turning point of L'élégance du hérisson, dies, in order to make possible new and interesting changes in people's lives and relationships. In Une gourmandise the death is also the central event but the whole book I guess is about the 24 hours leading up to the death (I've only just started the book).

So here I am sitting in my big black chair with my striped blue toe socks on, feet in the air in front of me, both of the little white books now next to me (because I just went and got Une gourmandise a moment ago to remind myself of the exact name) and as I intimated before, it's a wet day out, but the threatened floods have not quite hit us yet, so I will get a little editorial work done.

Ladies' walking continues to be a wonderful anchor, this morning four of us, in shifting groups of three, eventually found each other in the neighborhood in spite of the threatening rain. Yesterday a Rumanian German author got the Nobel literature prize and this morning Barack Obama got the Nobel peace prize, so there's all of that to think about and sort through, and indeed so much more.