Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ich habe genug

I had to take a radioactive iodine pill this morning, for a thyroid scan--and this meant I couldn’t eat anything or have any coffee until TEN O’CLOCK! (This is alarmingly late for me.) So when it was finally ten o’clock I treated myself to French toast at a diner near the airport here in Bethlehem, and I got very happy while I ate, mostly because of the food and the people around me, especially the four old men (one of whom arrived with his portable oxygen device) at the table next to me. Older people who persevere, supplemental oxygen and all, fill me with admiration and make me stop slouching and feeling sorry for myself. 
And then, on top of that, I was allowing myself simply to sit and eat and read Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, which I highly recommend if you are needing to slow down and deal with your thyroid issues and just get ready to enjoy the holidays without worrying so much about whether you’re getting it all right:
Maira Kalman embroiders quotes from Goethe and Abraham Lincoln onto white linen, and on a white dress she embroidered “Ich habe genug,” the name of a Bach Cantata, meaning “I have enough.” A lovely reminder at this time of year.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Today is my 50th birthday.
My mom died six months ago, almost to the day.
Our dog Lily was hit by a car and died six weeks ago.
I still find myself thinking I should tell my mom things. It’s not always a good feeling; more often than not, it’s something I feel like I need to confess. For years I confessed everything--every bad thought, every misbehavior--to my mom. When Lily died, I wanted to talk to my mom, to tell her it was my fault (because I let her go outside in a storm and got in my car and drove away, and she got panicked and disoriented and ran  far from our house, probably after me, onto a very busy street). Only my mom could tell me it was okay, not to blame myself, and she wasn’t there to do it.
By 50, it seems like you should know things, but I keep being surprised by how little I really know. I guess this is a confession of sorts too--of my age, and my confusion--but also a remembrance of those I’m missing today.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Summer's End

Once Labor Day weekend is is past, you really do have to admit that it’s over. I hate that.
And what an end to the summer. Poor Vermont! Poor us here in eastern PA. Actually, it’s not too bad here in Bethlehem--but poor Paterson, NJ and surroundings, and poor folks along the Susquehanna. Here it’s just wet, wet, wet. Everything’s moldering. But the mosses are pretty beautiful, and yesterday, running on the towpath between the very high Lehigh River and the Delaware and Lehigh Canal, I saw three--that’s three--herons. 
So I’m trying to tell myself it’s just like living in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, there you have Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, incredible bookstores and markets, etc., etc. (But remember, Joyce, you saw three herons yesterday.)
It was a great, and full, summer. We squeezed in day trips to the U.S. Open and the beach at Sandy Hook, NJ before it was all over. I was busy with grant applications, getting Anna here and there, some nice trips (to Kentucky and Indiana way back in June, to Gunpowder Falls State Park in Maryland in July, to Vermont in August), doctor’s appointments, vet appointments (we have a new kitten; his name is Mouse), and even some writing. 
A highlight for me was my trip to the Shaker Seminar in Boxborough, MA, sponsored by Hancock Shaker Village, at the end of July. I got to introduce the folks there to Stranger Here Below, and to hear some interesting talks about Shaker history. And then I traveled to the wonderful Fruitlands Museum--a site I’ve been recommending to everyone. It’s a fascinating assortment of buildings and exhibits, but maybe the most interesting, to me, was the farmhouse where Bronson Alcott (Louisa’s father) and his family, along with an Englishman named Charles Lane, tried to establish a utopian community in 1843. Other interesting people spent time there as well (among them Henry David Thoreau and an intriguing figure named Joseph Palmer, who was persecuted--even jailed--for refusing to shave his beard).
My visit led me to John Matteson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, a terrific book. Poor Bronson Alcott. What a train wreck of a husband and father--but still, those fervent nineteenth-century reformers just fascinate me.
Visit the Fruitlands Museums if you can. Read up on John Brown (there’s a great children’s book, John Hendrix’s John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, that’s made my daughter sort of the resident expert in her fifth grade class this year). And if you’re on the East Coast, try not to float away . . . .
P.S. That’s Mouse in the photo. For a while he liked to sleep atop some Salman Rushdie, which shielded him from the terrors of Inside of a Dog.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Why Rent?" An Essay at THE MILLIONS

Please read and share your thoughts on my essay "Why Rent?" at THE MILLIONS.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What I Did on My Summer Vacation (So Far)

Recognize the clean lines of the building in the photograph above? That's Shaker architecture for you--in this case, a side view of the North Family Meeting House at the White Water Shaker Village in Hamilton County, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, built in 1827. (Thanks to my husband Jim Hauser for taking this and other great photos of the North Family site, which we visited last month.)

The Meeting House is being slowly, patiently, and loving restored by a group of volunteers--theFriends of White Water Shaker Village. One of those volunteers, Rich Spence, took time out of his work day to show Jim, my brother Stu, and me around the site on a Friday morning in June. I was so struck by the patience and commitment of these people, and by their incredible attention to detail. Despite my negative portrayal of some of the fictional restorers of the Pleasant Hill site in Kentucky in Stranger Here Below, I'm actually a big admirer of historic preservation types like Rich. I don't think I'd have the stamina to work so tirelessly at getting every beam, every floor board, every window frame exactly right--and also at raising the money to make it all possible.

We visited the White Water site after a great visit at Berea College (during June's Alumni Weekend), some time with my dad in southern Indiana, a very fun book signing at The Green Bean in Bloomington, Indiana, and a relaxing visit with Stu and his wife Susan, who got us hooked on "Modern Family," in Cincinnati.

So that's how the summer began. I can't believe we've already passed July 4th. Where is it going? In my case, it seems like a lot of it's going toward baking endless loaves of zucchini bread (thanks to Jim and Anna's bottomless appetite for the stuff, and the bottomless supply of zucchini from Red Earth Farm, our community-supported agriculture growers). I'm not exactly a post-your-recipe-on-the-blog kind of gal, but this one from Marian Morash's The Victory Garden Cookbook, which Morash calls "Lynn's Spicy Zucchini Bread," really is good:

3 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. nutmeg
3 eggs
1 3/4 c. sugar
1 c. vegetable oil
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 c. lightly packed coarsely grated zucchini
(Optional: 1 c. raisins, 3/4 c. nuts; I don't use either.)

Sift the dry ingredients together. Beat the eggs with the sugar, oil, and vanilla. Gradually beat in the dry ingredients. Stir in the zucchini, adding raisins and nuts if you like. Divide between 2 greased 9 X 5-inch loaf pans and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 50-60 minutes.

Besides squeezing in work on a new novel during whatever windows of time I can find, here's another thing I did this summer: a week of "Mountain Music Camp" with Tom Druckmiller, Betty Druckmiller, and Norm Williams. Anna learned some fiddle tunes from Betty, we got to enjoy Tom's banjo and guitar playing, and Norm managed to teach me to strum along on several tunes on the dulcimer (I especially liked "Pretty Betty Martin"). Jean Ritchie I'm not, but I am now officially on the lookout for a good dulcimer. Probably I'll shop in Berea, where there are beautiful dulcimers for sale on the main square. But if anyone has other suggestions, let me know.

I took the other photo above, on my phone, so I apologize for the quality. Shown are four accomplished musicians and lovers of all things Appalachian, especially the music--from left to right: Nathan Druckmiller (Tom and Betty's talented son, who joined us to play some tunes on the mandolin one day), Tom Druckmiller, Betty Druckmiller, and Norm Williams. You can hear them at many festivals, including the Augusta Workshops in Elkins, West Virginia, and also at the Old Time Jams that Tom and Betty host at Godfrey Daniels here in Bethlehem, PA, on the first Tuesday of every month (tonight, and then starting again in September).

Come fall, when I'm hoping things will slow down a bit around here, and when I also hope to have a dulcimer of my own, I plan to be there at Godfrey's on some Tuesday nights. (But don't worry, Tom and Betty: I'll sit at the farthest possible edge of the group--and I'll mostly listen!)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

They're back!

Happy to report that the wood thrushes are back. And I think they're liking all the rain we've been having; good that someone is.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Listening for the Wood Thrush

I haven’t yet heard wood thrushes in the trees near our house. It’s still a little early, but each year I get nervous. Thanks to my teaching colleague Diane Husic for pointing me toward a sad and beautiful song by Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Friends, called "The Wood Thrush."

I’ll be turning in grades and then turning my attention to other things in the weeks ahead—including, I hope, focused work on a new novel. Will be traveling to Berea College in June and probably doing a few other Stranger Here Below-related talks, etc. this summer. But I think I may excuse myself from regular social networking for a bit while I get back to work and start listening (for the wood thrush, among other things) again.

Hope you’re hearing lovely birdsong, wherever you may be.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Yes, We're Closed. Forever.

My visit to Indiana University South Bend last weekend left me feeling old (old and, when I see myself next to writer and creative writing faculty member Kelcey Parker, my host at IU South Bend, in the photo above, short).

Actually, I found my conversations with writing students at IU South Bend--including winners of the creative writing program's Student Writing Awards--lively and energizing. What makes me feel old is realizing how young traditional-age college students are now. You’d think I’d know this already, teaching traditional-age college students regularly, as I do. But what triggered this daunting “aha” moment last weekend was talking with the IU South Bend students about books--specifically about the traditional book vs. digitized forms and their various devices.

This was a continuation of a really fascinating, and ongoing, conversation I’ve been having with my poetry students at Moravian this semester, set in motion by one student’s draft poem about her sadness at the potential loss of the physical book--the way it feels in your hands, the way it smells, etc. “But you’re supposed to be the ones who are making this happen,” I said, only half-kidding. “You know, you ‘young people.’ You ‘young people who never read.’”

This released a wonderful torrent. They’re not the problem, they told me. They can’t afford Kindles and I-Pads and the like anyway. The problem is their parents’ generation, and their love of all these new gadgets and devices. “It’s the boomers’ fault,” one of my students said, with a definitive nod.

Of course, everything’s the boomers’ fault (including the alarming rate of climate change, as I learned at a lecture this week). I’m not really kidding here. In a sense, I think this is true. A lot of this mess is our fault. (And I do count myself among the baby-boom generation--though I’m at the tail end of that boom.)

When I mentioned my student’s remark during the Q&A conversation with students at IU South Bend, I jokingly added, “But of course we all love to blame our parents for everything, right?” Here’s what I heard in response: “Um, my grandparents are boomers.”

Well, of course. But I mean, ouch.

Here’s another really interesting detail that came out of this whole conversation with my poetry students: They’re distraught that our local Borders has closed (though they got some great deals on books during the close-out sale). Another realization that I’m old: I still harbor lingering resentment toward both Borders and Barnes & Noble for what these “big box” stores did to small, independent bookstores--way back in another century. But for my students, those are the bookstores they’ve known and loved, and in many cases, worked for. They’ve bought lots of discounted books there, and they love how those rare, antique things known as paperbacks feel in their hands.

It’s good, if a little humbling, when your students bring you back to reality. I’m guessing it was someone around the age of my students, or those students I spoke with in South Bend, Indiana, who made the handwritten sign on the door of a Borders in Wappingers Falls, New York that I tried to stop into recently. “Yes, we’re closed,” it said. “Forever.”

Thanks to Kelcey Parker and other faculty and students at IU South Bend for a wonderful visit last weekend. And thanks to my brother Jerry and sister-in-law Suzanne for the excellent company and comfy guest room and delicious meals.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lower Your Standards, Try Again

Last Friday I returned to Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY, where I taught fifteen years ago (!), to do a reading. I was invited back by Tom Denton, Director of the DCCC Writing Center, and one of the most thoughtful and engaged teachers of writing I’ve met. It was great to be back on the DCCC campus, to re-connect with fellow teachers from all those years ago, and to hear news about former students that I still remember from my days there.

Tom asked me to provide a “statement on writing” prior to my visit. I thought I’d include what I sent him here on the blog today. Not sure why I've also included a photo of Buddha in the snow here; just seems to fit somehow, on this cold, rainy day, with spring seeming constantly just beyond our grasp.

Writers and writing teachers are fond of quoting poet William Stafford, who, when asked how he managed to be so prolific, to find subjects for so many poems, is reported to have said, “Every day I get up and look out the window, and something occurs to me, something always occurs to me. And if it doesn’t, I just lower my standards.” What Stafford provides here, of course, is the cure for any and all forms of so-called writer’s block—the hesitation, the fear, the feeling that one has nothing valuable to say, all the things we say to ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, that prevent us from simply writing.

I often tell my own students that there are two kinds of writers in the world: those who need more discipline and restraint in their writing, and those who need less. But the truth is, I think most of us who write typically need both. We need the discipline and restraint to say, I’m writing now (from 5 to 6 AM, from 12 to 1 while eating lunch, from 9 to midnight, after the kids are in bed—whatever windows of time our lives afford us). I’m writing now, and that’s all I’m doing. Don’t bother me. But then, once we’ve staked out that time and space for us and our work alone, we need to shut up with the discipline and restraint already. I’m writing now. I’m not reading. I’m not editing. I’m writing without even looking at it. I’m not testing every word before it hits the page. I can do all of that later.

And we have to mean this part—the “I’ll do that later” part—too. So here, again, comes the need for discipline and restraint. It’s like that, a constant back-and-forth, and if you can somehow find a way of balancing both, of sitting in your canoe and paddling fast for while, then floating and looking around you, then turning and pushing hard again, maybe this time with your eye on the shore, you might just write something good.

Here’s another thing that all writing students and all writers must learn: You have to attempt this balancing act over and over again, sometimes for quite a long time, if you want to write something really good. “It has always seemed to me curious,” Mary Oliver writes in A Poetry Handbook, “that the instruction of poetry has followed a path different from the courses of study intended to develop talent in the field of music or the visual arts, where a step-by-step learning process is usual, and accepted as necessary.” In other words, writing—like music, like art, like athletics, like any endeavor in which someone hopes to achieve true competence—requires lots and lots of practice.

Maybe years of it. I was thirty-six when my collection of short stories, Tell Me Everything, was published. After that, it was ten years before I published another book, my novel In Hovering Flight. It seems to me that with every writing project I begin, I have to learn how to do it all over again. Lots of false starts, lots of faulty pages, until, like a motor that’s gotten corroded and slow, I turn my words over and over until something catches—a phrase here, a passage of dialogue or a lyrical moment there—and then I’m revved up again, running smoothly, humming along.

Or, some days, not so much. Some days it’s all stuck in the gears, stuck in my throat, just not working. But if you’re a writer, if you feel like it’s simply what you want and, on a very basic level, need, to do, you’ll get up the next day, claim that window of time, however small, for your writer self, lower your standards, and try again.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Stranger

On Sunday I had the privilege and pleasure of taking part in Julie Maloney's WOMEN READING ALOUD series at the Bernardsville, NJ Public Library. It was a terrific afternoon, spent responding to great questions from Julie and from the smart, engaged audience members who turned out to talk about writing on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

One topic that was particularly interesting in this context was the idea of "the stranger" in my novel Stranger Here Below (there in the title and epigraph, in all the references to "pilgrims and strangers" in old hymns, in Maze's names for her newborn twins in 1968, in Camus's The Stranger, which Daniel and Mary Elizabeth discuss in a coffee shop one night instead of joining Maze and Harris at a country dance). Driving into Bernardsville that afternoon, I'd noticed signs in a number of front yards like the one I've included here, declaring (in bold purple type), "Strangers? Not in my schools!"

I was curious about these signs, as were a number of other folks in the audience that afternoon. Madelyn English, the Library's Adult Programming Coordinator, explained that the signs were actually in reference to a cost-cutting measure proposed by the local school board: outsourcing of jobs like those of bus drivers, custodians, and classroom aides to an outside company (instead of hiring local residents and paying for their benefits). Suddenly the signs seemed much less xenophobic and ominous--even like they might be expressing a position I could support.

But I don't know nearly enough to claim any kind of position, of support or otherwise, on this issue, which is apparently coming up in a number of suburban New Jersey school districts. (I tried to do a little Internet searching to learn more but ended up reading a really unfocused and increasingly angry exchange of comments on a blog that kind of scared me.)

But it says something about the power of words--both to represent and to misrepresent our deeply held positions--when you read signs like these. What does the word "stranger" mean to you? And what do you think when you read "Not in my schools!"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What Does a Reader Want? Part 2

Sometimes I get a little fatigued by the way I read published fiction--yes, like a writer, I guess. I’m constantly thinking That scene made me mad; why did it make me mad? I should have been moved by that moment but I wasn’t; why wasn’t I moved? That was gorgeous; I have to read that again; what was the magic number of words in that sentence/balance of short and long sentences in that paragraph/ratio of external action to internal exploration in that passage or chapter? Why don’t I care about what happens to this character? Why did I cry when I finished this book (thinking here of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas again; sorry--I know I refer to that book obsessively)? Those kinds of things.

So after reading Terrence Rafferty’s review of Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale and writing about literary vs. genre fiction in my post on February 8, I made good on my promise to myself and read Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale. I found it really compelling--couldn’t put it down actually. I don’t agree at all with Rafferty’s assertion that the book fails as a horror or mystery (or maybe more accurately suspense) novel because of all its literary trappings, because of the way it “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way,” in Rafferty’s terms. I found it quite suspenseful, and I thought it delivered up the goods (the hints of horror, the various possible explanations for those moments of horror and fear) with appropriate pacing. And I loved all the background on divining, on the inexplicable and mystical aspects of seeking water underground, the real history and psychological speculation throughout the book. Just loved that stuff.

But in the end I didn’t love the book. And now a warning: multiple spoilers follow here. I found that I didn’t care all that much about the characters, including Cassandra, the woman at the book’s center. I didn’t quite believe in her relationships with her sons. I was left cold by what should, I think, have been a brief but intensely erotic scene depicting Cassandra’s fleeting affair with her twin sons’ father. And most distressing: I didn’t find the depiction of Cassandra’s father’s Alzheimer’s particularly believable, and I hate to say this, but I didn’t care at all when he died. (I was also surprised that the villain turned out to be exactly who we’d been led all along to assume it would be--but that’s more a plot than a character point.)

So . . . I guess my reaction to the book was the polar opposite of Rafferty’s. I thought it worked on the level of compelling suspense (except for that rather un-surprising revelation of the bad guy), but disappointed on the more literary level of depicting emotionally compelling characters.

But is full and rich development of characters a literary thing? I know it’s not the only literary thing, of course. There were certainly moments when the language of The Diviner’s Tale thrilled me. There was, as I’ve said, fascinating background on divining, rich uses of history and mythology, stunning depictions of landscape. But the characters just didn’t reach me. Why? I’m not sure about this, but I think this might have been a function of the narrative necessities (horror, a mystery, plot with a capital “P”) trumping the full development of character. Dad’s Alzheimer’s there, dare I say it, as a convenient way to further the action. Twin boys there so we can worry about them in a dramatic final scene.

Yesterday I heard a visiting speaker at Lehigh University, Suzanne Keen, a literary scholar who’s the author of a book called Empathy and the Novel. I enjoyed her talk; it was rich with background in literary aesthetics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. Lots of talk about this ongoing question of whether reading novels makes people more empathetic (and therefore better citizens, in a sense). Ultimately Keen seems to feel that no, we can’t make grand claims like this--or at least there’s little empirical evidence, so far, to back them up (though she did point to interesting work--and interesting results--with prisoners in a program called the “Changing Lives through Literature” program).

What I kept coming back to in Keen’s talk was her use of terms like “aesthetic emotion” and “narrative pleasure.” I left the talk with more questions than answers about what such terms might mean, but I think that’s a productive place to be, as a writer. It’s some mix of everything we want in a novel--the pleasure of suspense, yes, but also characters that reach us emotionally, rich and powerful language, the memorable voice of someone with worlds to show us there on the page.

Not long ago I came across these words from Sam Lipsyte (a writer who’s as squarely in the literary camp as it’s possible to be, I suppose), from an interview with him that was published in BOMB 111/Spring 2010: “The notion of the page-turner always seemed foreign to me. I don’t want to be sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what happened next. I want to be falling off my seat in ecstatic pain because of what language and consciousness are doing on the page.”

I guess what I want--or what I’m dreaming of trying to achieve--is all of it: that “ecstatic pain” from a novel’s language and consciousness, but page-turning eagerness too. That may be too much “aesthetic emotion” or “narrative pleasure” to ask for. But I’ve found it, on rare occasions, and I keep hoping I can find my way toward a similar kind of magic in my own work.

Of course, I’m aware that the trick might be to stop thinking about it all so much, to stop obsessing about what readers (and therefore publishers) want. Here’s something else that Sam Lipsyte says in that interview, and that I want to print in large type and tape to the wall above my desk: “. . . there’s your writing, and there’s publishing, and occasionally they intersect, but mostly it’s just about your writing.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"The Rogue Idea"

Lots I want to write about here (including Bradford Morrow's The Diviner's Tale, which I just finished; see that Feb. 8 post on blending features of the literary and the non-literary/genre novel). But for right now I only have time to plug the Winter 2011 issue of The Literary Review. The theme of the issue is "The Rogue Idea," and it has some really wonderful work, including this great photograph by Alessandra Sanguinetti on the cover. I'm pleased and proud to note that "The Rogue Idea" also includes a story of mine, called "Benedicta, or a Guide to the Artist's Resume." Thanks to all the folks at TLR for this fine issue.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Little Boat, A Little House

Maybe, when the years have come

When I can lay aside my

Cap and robe of office,

I can take a little boat

And come back to this place.

--Chu Hsi

(Translated by Kenneth Rexroth; included in his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese)

Late Saturday night Jim, Anna, and I returned from a week-long trip to Jamaica. We were there with a group of college students and with Hopeton Clennon, the chaplain at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, where I teach. For most of the week we were on the beautiful and far less touristed southern coast, in Little Culloden, near Whitehouse. We traveled around, along the coast and up into the mountains, and we helped paint a boys’ home, mixed cement for a new trash receptacle at a school, and helped build new rooms for two small homes in beautiful, remote little villages in the mountains.

Actually, the students did most of this work; they were taught by Jamaican workers who could have probably done the work a lot faster on their own. But they taught the college students, and let them do much of the work, instead. At first, I think this whole process kind of annoyed some of the workers. But these college kids really grow on you--big smiles, lots of energy, playfulness with the children who were always around. By the end of our scheduled “service” time, there was a lot of affection all around.

The photo here is of one of the houses the students worked on, high up on a mountain, in an area called Left Hall. The drive there (in a big van) was precarious: steep switchbacks, lots of potholes. The view at the top was breathtaking. There was a whole little community up there--mostly, I think, members of an extended family. There was a tiny puppy that my daughter Anna worried about a lot.

It’s hard for me to describe this trip. I’m already tired of hearing myself say “beautiful” and “breathtaking” and “fabulous” over and over. I can’t figure out how to hold on to it. Language doesn’t cut it; even the photos we took don’t capture how I felt last week. Sun, warmth, the blue Caribbean. No cell phone, no computer, very little cash on hand (I didn’t need any of these things).

Springtime in Pennsylvania is nice and all (snowdrops and crocuses opening everywhere, birds back and singing; I’m not even minding the ugly tufts of crabgrass in our yard--at least they’re green). But I’ll be honest: I’m not at all happy to be home. I want to sit in a little house on top of a mountain in southwestern Jamaica and stare out at the sea for a very long time. And I simply don’t believe you when you tell me I’d get tired of it eventually.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

This morning my husband heard from a colleague of his who’s teaching in Oman. Things are relatively stable there, she reported, though there have been some relatively rare protests. What she also said was that unlike here in the U.S., where she always feels better informed about world events than the students she teaches, in Oman she has repeatedly felt less informed than her students.

Hearing this reminded me of a story I heard on NPR last week, about the illustrious Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, where protestors formed a human chain surrounding the library to protect it. "What happened was pure magic," the director of the library is quoted as saying. "People from within the demonstrations broke out of the demonstrations and simply linked hands, and they said 'This is our library. Don't touch it.'"

I’m worried about our priorities here in the U.S., about Tea Party-fueled fervor to balance the budget by making drastic cuts in heath care and social services, education, public broadcasting, and inevitably, in public services like libraries. I’m also worried about how poorly informed our populace seems to be; I fear we’re too distracted by entertainment and gadgets and the kind of whining and bickering that passes for news on the Fox network to recognize the very real dangers (like efforts to gut the collective bargaining rights of public employees) that are facing us, right here at home, now.

I love NPR. I love the fact that in the twenty minutes or so that I spend in the car on a given morning, I can learn about the Library of Alexandria, described by NPR’s Selena Simmons-Duffin as “a bastion of intellectual openness, holding conferences on human rights and standing firm against censorship” (and, interestingly, very much supported by Hosni Mubarak). And then, after that, I can listen to Susan Stamberg's story about Hollywood “prop masters” and the resources they draw on in gathering props for movies, like a place called “History for Hire,” whose alphabetical list of archived objects starts something like “ambulance gurnies, amputation kits, anchors . . . ” (I came home that day and wrote those three down).

Some days, like today, the stories aren’t so fun. Today I came home and wrote down a line from a brief news story about violence in Afghanistan. Military authorities there are waiting and watching, the reporter said, to see how many insurgents start to appear in this, “the traditional fighting season in the spring.”

Imagine the arrival of spring as the beginning of “the traditional fighting season.” Just yesterday, I thought this morning, there I was, in my own classroom, reading William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All” to my students and urging them to get outside and look for sprouts of green grass in the middle of all the ugly, muddy slush, for “the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf,” to look up the verb “to quicken.” I’ve been urging them to listen for bird song (it’s starting up, and it’s heavenly) for weeks now.

But that’s okay. Tomorrow I’ll tell them about spring as “the traditional fighting season” in Afghanistan. Get informed about it all, I’ll say--wildcarrot leaf, quickening, Afghanistan, the bird you’re hearing and wish you could identify, the remarkable Library of Alexandria, the teachers and nurses in the statehouse in Wisconsin, all of it. Try to think of whether there’s something you’d link arms and stand in a circle in front of in order to defend it from rocks and guns, or from financial gutting. Then write about it.

I've noticed that some bloggers that I read end their posts with a question--to invite comments, I suppose (read: Is anybody out there?) This might be a good time to pose a question, I suppose. What would you link arms to defend? Or, what are you most worried about losing, here and now?

*The Robert Mankoff cartoon at the beginning of this post appears in the February 28, 2011 New Yorker.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kathe Kollwitz and a Stolen Day Last Week

I hadn't talked with readers about In Hovering Flight for a while, so what a pleasure to join Jeanie Teare and the Politics & Prose Daytime Book Group last week, at one of my all-time favorite bookstores, Politics & Prose, in Washington DC.

And what a group. These women were, among other things, art lovers, so we spent quite a bit of time talking about the wonderful Kathe Kollwitz, whose work and writings figure prominently in the novel (one of her self-portraits included here). I hadn't thought about Kollwitz for a while; it was so great to remember visiting the Kollwitz Museum in Berlin with Jim many years ago, when one of the women asked me how I'd learned about her work. And why her? someone else asked. That one was easy: Because of how articulate she was about the struggle to balance her life (particularly her life as a wife and a mother) and her work, making art.

Also because of how valiantly she persevered, in a life filled with so much sadness, including the death of her son in the First World War, and of a grandson in the Second. Art was her solace and, ultimately, her opportunity to make a powerful statement about the senseless tragedy of war.

Sometimes I envy scholars their deep immersion in a single topic or figure or idea. As a writer, I have these moments, even periods, of that kind of immersion--but then, it seems, I'm on to the next thing. It's disorienting sometimes, and also hard to let go of one world in order to try to enter the next. I'm grateful to Jeanie and this delightful group of readers for allowing me to spend some time thinking about Kathe Kollwitz again--and also for the opportunity to drive to Washington on a sunny, spring-like February day, have a delicious lunch in the downstairs cafe and a lively conversation with a group of smart and thoughtful readers, and then browse the shelves of one of the country's finest bookstores.

And to make it all even better: I listened to several Alice Munro stories on the drive down and back. Felt like a perfect, stolen day.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What Does a Reader Want?

“Life consisted of the small things, with only scattered moments of intensity.”

I’ve been reading romance novels lately--as part of my research for a new book (I swear)--and the line above, from Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain, may be my favorite line so far, just because I find it so ironic. This is what the novel’s central character, Mary, thinks to herself as she ponders her relationship with the “halfbreed” (as in half Native American) Wolf Mackenzie. Mary might claim to want just “the small things,” but that sure isn’t what keeps you reading Mackenzie’s Mountain. I’m guessing it doesn’t make me a unique or unusual reader of this book to say that I raced quickly through the details about the town of Ruth, Wyoming, Wolf’s gentle breaking of horses (sexy as even that was), and so forth in order to get to the next outrageously unrealistic (but really fun) sex scene. These seemed to happen every ten or twenty pages or so. No wonder Mary was left pining for “the small things.”

I don’t intend to try to write a romance novel, but I may have a character who does write them. What I’m envisioning is a literary novel that gets its readers to look at romance novels in a new light--maybe. Right now I’m really just pondering all these things myself, as I read and take notes for this barely formed novel, and I’m also thinking about Terrence Rafferty’s review of Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale in Sundays’ New York Time Book Review. Rafferty contends that the mix of genre fiction and literary novel that Morrow attempts in The Diviner’s Tale doesn’t work, that reading the book “is an odd, disorienting experience because its matter and manner don’t match up.”

Yet it’s become pretty common for our well-known “literary” writers to attempt this blend, to write works that draw on pulp novels, horror, comics, etc. in a knowing, even winking, way, and so what, I’m wondering, makes this attempt such a failure in Rafferty’s eyes? (Yes, I guess I’ll just have to read the book to find out if I think he’s right.) I’m thinking, for instance, of a book I adored, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with its incredible mix of futuristic science fiction, playful tinkering with the thrust and energy of traditional narrative, and moments of pure lyricism. I wonder what Rafferty would say about that book.

“In a horror story or a mystery novel,” Rafferty writes in this review, “the flow is all toward narrative resolution, and is--or should be--swift and fierce. Literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” So, he seems to be saying, go ahead and write your literary novel--but don’t you dare lead us to expect something “swift and fierce.” Don’t set us up with those “moments of intensity” every ten pages or so.

So much for old barriers between literary and non-literary breaking down, I guess. What I’m left with is this nagging question of who reads what now--if anyone still reads anything. These can be trying questions for a writer, and probably they’re questions better left for others (publishing people?) to try to answer. But I am curious about what readers would say they’re looking for now. Swift and fierce narrative resolution? Quiet literary dawdling over stray beauties and small things? Maybe with some mind-bendingly acrobatic sex scenes--if not every ten, then maybe every fifty pages or so? What, dear reader, is it? What are you looking for?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lovers, Mentors, Mothers

My copy of the latest issue of the literary magazine PEN America (#13) arrived yesterday, and it’s full of great stuff. I’ve been savoring remarks included in a forum called “Lovers,” in which a wide array of writers are invited to share thoughts about “a writer who is especially dear to you--a literary mentor, forebear, friend, or lover . . . .” The responses are varied and delightful--Yusef Komunyakaa writing about Frederick Douglass, Michael Cunningham about Grace Paley, Russell Banks about James Baldwin, and many more. Why is it so moving to hear writers gratefully acknowledging their mentors or the writers who have moved them deeply?

In just a couple hours I’m supposed to speak informally at a lunch for new faculty at Moravian College, where I teach, about finding a balance among the various expectations of faculty (teaching, research and writing, campus and community service), as well as a healthy work/life balance. I laughed when I was asked to speak on this topic, because I am chronically asking other people how to do this--especially other people who are writers, teachers, and parents. I feel like I have lots of questions but fewer answers.

So I was especially touched by Elissa Schappell’s comments in this PEN America forum, titled “Are You My Mother?” and addressing the life and work of writer Dawn Powell. I especially loved these lines:

I confess that I am often frustrated by the notion that it’s impossible for a woman to be a wife and mother and first-rate writer. That any female artist who hopes to ever be as highly regarded as her male counterparts should start packing for Bellevue. That any woman who chooses her children’s company--nay, relishes it--is a sap who has consigned her Nobel dreams to the scrap heap. It is in these moments I need Dawn Powell the most.

I read a reissued novel by Dawn Powell years ago, and I remember really liking it. This fond homage by Schappell has made me want to read more.

And if someone can tell me, once and for all, how to add teaching and campus and community service to that mix (of “wife and mother and first-rate writer”) without “packing for Bellevue,” I’d be grateful. Even more grateful if you can get word to me before 11:45 today, when the new faculty lunch is scheduled to begin.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Why I Can't Understand the Position of Handgun Owners

“I maintain that firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens makes communities safer, not less safe.”

--Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana

“Having lots of ammunition is critical, especially if the police are not around and you need to be able to defend yourself against mobs.”

--Erich Pratt, Director of Communications, Gun Owners of America

I’ve been trying to listen, civilly, to the positions of those who feel “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and etc., and who go quickly on the defensive, in support of all “law-abiding citizens’” rights to own and carry guns (even handguns with alarmingly large-volume ammunition magazines) in response to events like those in Arizona recently. I have been trying to understand those who feel that in, say, another such situation like that in Tucson, if and when a lone shooter opens fire in the midst of a peacefully gathered group of people, having a Glock handgun in their pocket will somehow keep them and their loved ones safe.

And I find that I can see no logic here. Only what my husband Jim calls “magical thinking”--the idea of the gun in the pocket as talisman, as good luck charm. What “mobs” is Erich Pratt imagining, after all? How is it that he’s assuming all this time to react and open fire in return? Too many movies and video games firing his own imagination here maybe?

I grew up in a house with some hunting rifles down in the basement. That’s mostly where they stayed, except for the couple times a year when my dad and my brothers took them along for walks out in the woods, occasionally shooting a few squirrels. Early on, in southern Indiana, I realized that a rifle in hand gives a man permission to walk in the woods (the walk in the woods was really the only part that my dad, who still talks about dreading the shooting of hogs during butchering season on the farm, could stomach very well).

Even that use of those hunting rifles stopped though, at some point when I was a kid, when the eighteen-year-old son of neighbors of ours, who’d experienced brain damage in a motorcycle accident a couple years before, got into his own dad’s hunting rifle cabinet, took one out, and shot himself. My dad definitely had no stomach for carrying a gun from the gun rack around, anywhere, after that.

What solace would a high-volume magazine-holding handgun offer the parents of the little girl who, along with my daughter, was to be one of the college Christmas Vespers concert soloists here in Bethlehem this year? The day before this girl was to perform, she was shot and killed by her brother in an apparent accident.

After hearing President’s Obama’s speech, our daughter Anna was inconsolable. I’m still second-guessing myself, about the decision to have her watch the speech, and then to tell her more details about the shootings in Tucson. At what point do you decide that it’s time to stop shielding your child from these realities? (My daughter is nine; I’d truly like to know.) “It all started with Vespers,” Anna said to me on the night of the Tucson memorial service, crying. I’d told her the truth about the death of her fellow soloist too.

Thinking about our national inability to have a conversation about limits on gun ownership (see Adam Nagourney and Jennifer Steinhauer's "A Clamor for Gun Limits, but Few Expect Real Changes" in last Friday's New York Times--the source of the quotations above--about this), I’ve been reminded of an incident from five years ago or so. I was walking in downtown Bethlehem with Anna, and we were crossing a street with a lot of construction going on, crossing inappropriately actually, in the middle of the block rather than at a corner (bad parenting, I know). There appeared to be no cars coming in either direction, and I’d relaxed and let go of my daughter’s hand, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a car came careening down the street, loud and fast; I could see that the driver was a kind of deranged-looking teenage boy. I grabbed Anna just in time, pulling her back. She just missed being hit, and the kid raced on by.

It was one of those moments I can’t stop replaying, even all these years later, asking myself, each time, how I could have been so careless. But here’s the other thing. The construction crew who’d been working on the street were packing their things up for the end of the day when this happened, and one of the workers was standing close to me, also waiting to cross the street. After I’d grabbed Anna and we’d watched the kid race by, this guy turned to me and said, “You know, if he’d hit her, I’d have killed him.”

I know he meant it to comfort me somehow. I was so stunned by the whole sequence of events that I didn’t know what to say. Thank you seemed wrong. I think I only nodded. But now, I know what I should have told him: I know what you mean. But that wouldn’t have made a difference, to me. There would have been no consolation in that.

Once someone is dead, having a gun that you could have shot the killer with can’t possibly offer any comfort, I’m sure of that. I have a feeling, if you asked the parents of my childhood neighbors’ son or of the little girl who should have sung the Christmas solo the night after my daughter did, they’d say the same.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Preheat Your Oven to 400

I know it's the wrong season for pumpkin pie (or is it?). But I want to post a link here, to a terrific book blogger's site, where my mom's pumpkin pie recipe was posted back on Dec. 28. Thanks to Jennifer at for inviting this post.

I've been away from blogging, and pretty much away from my computer, for most of the holiday season. Too busy here at home, and then with travels to Indiana to see my family. My mom continues to decline, and that's sad and hard for everyone, especially my dad. There were three great-grandchildren to brighten everyone's spirits this year, though (two new babies since last Christmas).

Since being back home I'm finding it hard to get back to online goings-on. Just when I thought the news on my NYT home page couldn't get worse, I turned on the computer Saturday to find word of the Arizona shootings.

I hope this brings some sanity, and not just platitudes, especially from the right. Please, please, please: spare us all the usual litanies about guns and the constitution and the founding fathers right now.

My best days recently were at Pendle Hill, the wonderful Quaker retreat center in Wallingford, PA. Alas, they have wireless access now, so I checked email a couple times and cruised around the Internet a bit. But not too much. Mostly I read, wrote, and ate wonderful vegetarian meals.

Here's to turning off the angry rhetoric and doing some reading and baking instead. Pumpkins are a good local option in a lot of places in the winter. Try this pie. My mom knew what she was doing.