Monday, April 26, 2010

What Is It About?

The books no longer sit piled in paper Trader Joe’s bags but fill shelves in our new book room. A dark-stained old-fashioned writing table I found on Craigslist occupies the corner of the bedroom by the windows. It beckons. We’re almost settled, almost without excuses to put off a serious writing regime. We’ve been to readings and award ceremonies and seen our names in the acknowledgments section of Kermit Moyer’s recently published novel, The Chester Chronicles (fantastic to hear Kermit bring out their humor in his reading). These have made me want to read more and wider, in attempt to catch up with all the publications that beg to be explored. Perhaps it’s like the story of the man who throws the beached starfish one by one back into the sea. You do what you can, and maybe it makes a small difference in a way that is enough.

The tension between reading and writing is like the tides; one tends to dominate the other at different times in my life. I’ve been reading and thinking and trying to understand the physical process of letting go, the actual mechanism of what it means to be unaffected by what hurts. Sounds nice. I can comprehend the idea. I have no concept, though, of it’s actuality on anything bigger than someone cutting me off in traffic. I return to the book room. I ride the bus and look at the titles of the books the other passengers are reading. I can’t read on a bus or the Metro or in a car—I get motion sick if I look at my shoes let alone words strung together in printed sentences. So I glance at the novels and books others hold. One woman smiles as she turns the page. A man wrinkles his brow as he balances his book on his lap. Someone once told me that D.C. is the most-read city in the nation and as evidence pointed to the line of newspaper boxes at bus and Metro stops. Either way, it is reassuring that so many books ride the bus with me.

Something else that has been occupying my mind is the question both friends and strangers ask about my writing: What is your story about? They ask this as if it were a simple question. Maybe it is. But I do not have a straight-forward answer. For me, and, I would imagine, most writers, stories are not just about plot. When I try to explain the plot, I stumble over my speech, rush through a summary with burning cheeks—my story sounds ridiculous when I try to describe it out loud. The word “trite” comes to mind. Even worse, if I try to avoid a plot description and talk about “themes,” I find myself grappling with abstractions and wanting to excuse the story for being too dark.

I’m never sure there’s a good way to talk about something I’ve so carefully crafted to speak for itself. It’s like trying to describe a painting. It’s not just about the overall picture; it’s about the brushstrokes, the technique, the historical time period, the inspiration for the picture, the state of the artist’s mind at the time it was rendered, the events that influenced each hue. Sometimes I think I write so I don’t have to talk about the story—just tell it. Other times I have trouble answering “What is it about?” because I know the person asking thinks I’m aspiring to be the next Michael Crichton. I wouldn’t mind those kinds of royalty checks, but I don’t think I could write like that even if I set out to do so. When my writing “works,” it is because I stopped trying to force it to be something it isn’t and doesn’t want to be. I’m still discovering what it does want to be, but it tells me very quickly what it doesn’t want. Sometimes getting the story right requires reshaping and restarting; other times it requires scrapping an idea altogether. There’s that letting go again. Some ideas don’t want to be let go of and keep coming back in different forms. My latest storytelling struggle keeps emerging each time I restart; I am still deciding what to do with all the material that doesn’t seem to be working.

What is it about? It is about a process and all the jumbled thoughts that were shaped and disguised and finally emerged with much crafting and sharpening and exploration and warping of reality. It is about seeing the right colors emerge in an intricate narrative. It is about catching the rhythm. It is about creating a piece of art that stands on its own—so I don’t have to explain.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Bit of Verse

Faith Has Been Broken

We’re all dancing to shattering glass
Muffled screams, unseen blood --
Arterial red against pale skin, already scarred.
Someone’s laughing from the corner table,
the wooden one made from an old barn door,
Initials and hearts carved in it and a jagged, knife-penned statement:
And you thought you knew the answer.
And more piercing graffiti:
Fuck them all.
You can’t help but agree.
But we’re dancing now and you’re aren’t thinking about anything;
you’re lost.
You hear the words to Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,”
They couldn’t drag you away.
The mirror behind the bar reflects hundreds more bottles
-- Crème de menthe green, Curacao blue, syrups raspberry dark --
Glossy glass cracks reality in this fire yellow light.
Spinning together, movements complementing and familiar,
We ignore crunching bottle bits under our shoes;
For it’s now in this moment and
time looks like forever at the event horizon.
But the juke box quarter runs out
And I know atoms split outside black holes
and even light can’t escape.
You look up, and
as you catch sight of yourself in the mirror, your eyes say
Drag me away.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kissing the Blarney Stone

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

The St. Patrick’s Day I was in kindergarten, I searched for leprechauns in my backyard. I thought I might actually find one on this particular St. Patty’s Day. The air misted and hung gray; any green growing after the winter snow was bright and promising. At school, we ate green Jell-O shamrock cutouts my mother had made, and my teacher told us she had seen a leprechaun during her morning drive. My teacher was a tall, brown-haired woman whose favorite color was purple. Once she yelled at me for speaking too loudly in answer to a question she asked from across the room. She laughed about me “yelling” at her with another teacher later. I overheard them. I resolved never to wear purple to school or smile at her again (yes, we Irish, even at 5-years-old, know how to hold a grudge). When she told us about the leprechaun, though, I wanted to figure out if her story were true. A rainbow had actually appeared that morning because of the fog, and I had desperately sought the end of it from the car window as my mother took me to school. When I got home that afternoon, I put on my raincoat and took my little brother outside to search for leprechauns. We didn’t find any. We did, however, discover signs of one: a patch of moss spreading across a tree stump and some orange mushrooms growing next to it. For the rest of the afternoon, we watched the stump from the kitchen window hoping to see a leprechaun appear.

No leprechauns today so far, but I’ve been thinking about my Irish grandmother. She died only a year after our leprechaun search, and so I didn’t get to know her as well as I wish I had. But one of my favorite pictures of her was taken when she visited County Cork, Ireland, from where her family came. The Blarney Stone is five miles from Cork, in Blarney Castle, and the picture is of her lying upside down to kiss the stone. Kissing it is supposed to gift you great eloquence, a charming power of words. My grandmother loved to read, and even though she never received a college education, she read as much as she could. I’d like to think I inherited her love of books. So I’m wearing green in memory of her.


Monday, March 15, 2010

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry "Caesar!" Speak, Caesar is turn'd to hear.

: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: What man is that?

Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.


Caesar: The ides of March are come.

Soothsayer: Ay, Caesar; but not gone.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When All Else Fails

“Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power. It is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.”—Baron Justus von Liebig
Rosemary mint. Wasabi and ginger. Coffee. Curry. Pomegranate. Blueberry. Cacao nibs. Orange. Pear. Lavender and cloves. Chili and cinnamon spice.

These are just some of the flavors of chocolate we’ve been discovering and tasting lately. Some come in bars with names like Xocolatl, Black Pearl, Fire, Refresh, Sexy, and Pleasure. Others are more literal; Earl Grey, Citrus and Chili, Salt and Pepper. Most of these can be found at one of our favorite chocolate shops—Biagio. The place is like a jewelry store for chocolate bars; it’s impossible to walk out of there in a bad mood. Just below street level, the store is easy to pass if you don’t know better. But once you do know, you won’t be able to help yourself. Every chocolate lover in the neighborhood frequents this place.

It’s a cold and dark winter Tuesday evening. A man in cycling gear stands by a shelf and quickly chooses several chocolates. Another customer studies the two different chocolate bars in her hands, then sets one back on the shelf.

“I’ll get that one next week,” she says.

The door jingles and a young woman wearing a brown knitted scarf enters. She walks straight to the counter.

“I’m trying to remember which chocolate my boyfriend likes best,” she says to the clerk. “His name is Scott.”

The clerk, a woman with curly white-gray hair and a strong New York accent, seems to know who Scott is; at least she takes the younger woman over to a shelf and points out different bars. One of her suggestions is a chocolate bar flavored with sea salt. This may sound strange, but it’s pretty fantastic. Think sweet and salty combinations. There’s also salt and cracked pepper. Last week we came across a peppercorn-flavored bar, though we opted for another with rose and ginger instead. It tastes like rose petals and reminds me of the perfume my Ukrainian relatives would bring as gifts. Strangely enough, the combination of spice and flower is quite good.

Soon I’m the only customer left. Of late, I’ve been on a quest to find the perfect chili-and-cinnamon-spice chocolate bar (ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica—the Olmec are thought to be the first—made the first chocolate and flavored it with chili spices; the Aztec called their rich chocolate drink xocoatl, which Hernando Cortez brought to Spain and sweetened with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves), so I ask the clerk what she recommends. She approves of my choice of Christopher Elbow’s Dark Spice bar. When I also ask about a raw 100 percent cacao bar, she suggests I try the store’s best seller: Pralus of France’s 100 percent cacao bar . She breaks off a piece for me. I’ve never tried chocolate made from 100 percent cacao before; the closest was a 99 percenter R. and I found the other month. We enjoyed it, but the bar was sort of powdery and took some time in your mouth before its flavor and texture could be appreciated. The Pralus bar, though, was creamy with subtle fruit and flower flavors. Let’s just say we’ve since purchased several of them.

The most interesting thing about trying different chocolates has been discovering how much flavor pure chocolate contains. Chocolate from different countries and continents tastes of a variety of flowers, fruits, and spices—it all depends on the soil in which it is grown. Because of these nuances in taste, savoring a quality piece of chocolate is similar to sipping a fine wine. And having synesthesia adds color to the subtle differences; for instance, I see a lot of soft reds and pinks with the Madagascar chocolate bars we’ve been trying. The Pralus bar has a kind of bluish gray in it. The rose one actually evokes a lavender hue.

I have to mention one more chocolate lover’s stop in the nation’s capital: AC/KC. The best thing about this place is that you can order rich hot chocolate in different flavors named after “The Divas.” I keep ordering the Lucy—a cinnamon-and-chili-spice concoction that takes its name from the fiery redhead of comedy. There are also the Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, and Eartha Kitt. R. ordered the lavender-infused Liz Taylor last time. We’ve also tried the Ginger Rogers, which contains dried ginger and wasabi.

The next chocolate bar I plan to try is salted caramel. Or maybe another spice-flavored bar. Or maybe a rich xocoatl drink. There are worse addictions.