Archive for July, 2013

Brookline_Booksmith

Brookline Booksmith. Photo by Eric Wilbur

I had one hour and forty-five minutes. It was a rare oasis of time for a Sunday. Time for myself, away from home, away from the temptations of planning out the week’s meals or running a load of laundry so as to start the week in an organized manner. Big One had a birthday party just far enough from home for it not to make sense to drop her off, go home, then pick her up again. But she’s just about 9 now, and it was made clear that parents were not to taint the party with the uncoolness of their presence. (Besides, I confess to doing a little jig for joy when she was invited, four years ago, to her first “drop off” birthday party. I think there may have been some liability waiver to sign, a padded room and gymnastics equipment, but it all seemed wonderful to me at the time.) So I left her in a moon bounce with about eight other girls (and many more, disgorged from vehicles sidling up to the sidewalk while parents watched them cross, streaming over to the yard, present in hand, shoes already half kicked off) in the eighty degree relative coolness that has followed a week of temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. Feeling light, I decided to take a stroll around Coolidge Corner a few blocks away.

I was well aware of the danger: the Brookline Booksmith, fabulous independent book shop, sits squarely in the center of Coolidge Corner, wedged between two coffee shops. I intended simply to mosey around and take in the new stores and restaurants, let my thoughts float. I considered crossing the street before getting to the book shop, just to reduce the likelihood of my getting ensnared. I thought: I do not need more books. I do not need more books. Not now. My shelves are already overflowing, and on my bedside table alone are three books I’ve been toting about for weeks: Erin Morgenstern‘s The Night Circus, to investigate what all the hullabaloo is about; Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’ Engaging Scoundrels, part of my research on Lucknow; and Janet Burroway‘s Writing Fiction, my current craft Bible. I tried to convince myself I had no immediate need for more unread books. I can always go purchase one later, correct? In my study, piles of unread books hide the spines of others.

I approached the book shop door, confident of my fortitude, steeling myself against its power. Just then, a woman pushing a stroller with another young child on a scooter trailing behind her paused in front of the door, clearly trying to devise her strategy for pulling it open and maneuvering her charges in. Instinctively, I opened it for her, and instinctively, I followed her in. Just for ten minutes. Not intending to buy anything. Just curious as to what books were displayed up front. Research into marketing and promotion for a book I hope to send out into the world soon.

Stop snickering, please. I can hear you.

I abide by schedules, even–perhaps especially–my own. I was, in fact, in there for just ten minutes. But in those ten minutes, an entire sea of thoughts, emotions, memories, hopes and ideas. Even dreams. In those ten minutes, I took in, in the most superficial of ways–my eyes sliding over displays, barely taking the time to focus–the “Recently Arrived” and “New in Paperback” tables and the second half of the fiction section, going backwards from Z to K, not even bothering to turn my head to read the spines. But even in that quick time, in my refusal to succumb fully, the book shop worked its magic.

There were many of the books I hear about repeatedly, and I must have reached the magical hear-about-it-seven-times-in-order-to-buy it moment in the case of three of them, because within two minutes they were tucked under my arm. There was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild, which has received, well, wild acclaim. In what I’ve read of her and by her, Ms. Strayed seems like quite a likable person, and her story is compelling. There was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (actually, Bringing up the Bodies, but once I decided I’d buy one, it made sense to start at the beginning) which I justified as another piece of research, to see how an author brings to life such a distant time period with such success. There was B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger, which keeps popping up ever since I took a seminar with the author at last year’s Muse & the Marketplace conference, and which I can also chalk up to research (neat how I do that, no?) because it is fiction that involves the art world, the way mine does.

There were the books of people I’ve come to know via social media and for whom I’ve been cheering, whose familiar names staring out at me from book covers made me smile for their success at bringing a book to market: Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali, whom I met in person at the conference last year, and whose journey to publication seems not dissimilar to mine (barring the minor fact that she actually has a book in stores now); and Eden Lake by Jane Roper, a woman of extraordinary grit and humor who is managing to have a writing career in the midst of a massive family challenge.

There were books I have read, and whose images, atmospheres and characters remain strong in my mind. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, magical for its storytelling power, and vividly rendered on the screen by Ang Lee. There was Jesmyn Ward‘s Salvage the Bones, which left me with searing images of a bone white dog, ragged but tough children, earth and blood and roiling water. I give it as a gift to an elderly Jewish grandmother and to a teacher/mentor of mine before reading it myself, then wondered, after I had read it, what they’d think of it, of me. There was Abraham Verghese‘s Cutting for Stone, memorable for its cast of characters, its unusual setting (beginning in Ethiopia of the 1950s) which I recommend widely. There was writer and polemicist (isn’t that such a wonderful word?) Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things, and images of a small boy’s confusion in the sticky darkness of a cinema (the “talkies”) in south India, and an alluring dark body dancing by the river.

There were the many, many books I wanted to purchase that I didn’t. Not this time around. I was drawn to the cover of Polpo, a beautiful octopus splayed out on a cookbook from a Venetian restaurant by the same name. I thought of how much my children both love octopuses–one of them sleeps with a stuffed octopus, one of them is always keen to eat marinated octopus. There was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I admire greatly not only for her writing but for her success as a versatile writer, adept at many genres, and able to avoid being pigeon-holed. There was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht whose name and background, and achievement at a young age, are intriguing (enviable?).

But my time was up. Ten minutes. I worked my way through the pleasing crowd to the cash register, paid my $49, and left.

I stepped out into the world, a dramatic sky overhead, part thundercloud and part dazzling blue, and it seemed everyone around me harbored an obsession. A wrought woman, all skin and bone, walked in the opposite direction, one hand clutching her phone to her ear, one arm wrapped around herself, as though to hold herself together. A group of seemingly homeless folk were gathered around a bench, one of them perhaps three hundred and fifty pounds, wedged into a electric wheelchair, the arm rests digging into the folds of flesh at his sides. The others were weathered, coarse, cigarettes dangling from their dry lips. A short man covered in tattoos held a beribboned little girl in his arms, her shoes, skirt, t-shirt, sunglasses and hair ribbons all varying shades of pink. In the coffee shop, an elderly woman so thin as to look two dimensional was hunched over a tall cup of coffee and drinking the entire thing with a tea spoon, occasionally looking up and around with wild and distrusting eyes. Stories everywhere.

When are my next ten minutes?

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Hen_and_chicks

Wake up and throw on clothes chosen day before. Brush teeth, toss water on face. Downstairs, check weather forecast, put on water for tea, pack lunch boxes: hummus, whole grain flatbread, baby carrots (cooked for one, raw for the other), salami slices, cut up cantaloup, apple sauce packet, granola bar, milk with ice cubes for Little One. Wake kids. Negotiate appropriate clothing. Make breakfast, slice fruit, nudge Big One to set table, avoid eye rolls, pour drinks. Navigate around husband making his lunch. Extra kid in tow to help a friend. Sit down for 15 minute Civilized Breakfast together. Remove scrambled egg from curly head and inside fold of diaper (?!) Apply sunscreen on melange of limbs and faces. Pack towel, extra clothes, water shoes, diapers, sheet, blanket, sleep animals, sun hat, tuition check. Pack my own bag, remember I have a life of my own somewhere. Where? Computer, power cord, bottle of water, brilliant Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, pack of almonds, fleece for overly air-conditioned coffee shop. Remind kids to fill water bottles with ice and put plates IN dishwasher. Put away perishables from breakfast. Turn blind eye to rest. Switch carseat, grab tuition check from husband of neighbor who forgot to bring hers in. Pile kids in car. Field conflicting requests for music. Preschool drop off. Pry toddler off leg. Camp drop off. Repeat “goodbye” several times until Big One acknowledges she has a mother who is leaving. Fill out liability waivers, yes I agree you will not be responsible for anything that might happen to my child, just take her until 4 pm. Walk back to car, call neighbor to coordinate camp pick-ups, grocery shopping, dinner, evening logistics. Drive to coffee shop, stake out table, order coffee, turn off phone. Now: clear mind, be creative and write. Go!

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Filed under: Monday Memoir

Remember these?

Remember these?

Dee-doo dee-doo!

“Let’s do dee-doo dee-doo!” This is Little One’s rallying cry to launch Skype and visit with the grandparents who reside in France.

“Oh, we’re doing a visit?” chimes in Big One. “I’m going to my room to get my flute to play for them.” She scoots up the stairs, and is back in an instant with an armful of items to share with them as I set up the laptop on the coffee table. Little One is rummaging through her toy bin to find her latest treasure, a rubbery blue frog with a disturbingly large tongue. She starts flapping it wildly in front of the computer even though no one is online yet.

We will Call Calcutta now

How different this all is from the days—always Saturdays—three decades ago when my parents, my brother and I would gather to Call Calcutta (it was always like that: “Children, we’re going to call Calcutta now”) to speak with my father’s mother. My heart would sink. I never knew what to say to my grandmother, a sweet but strong, soft but firm woman then in her 70s who lived so far away in distance and, it felt to me, in time. I loved her, and had many pleasant associations with her from our family visits to her home: the soothing odor of sandalwood and anise; the tickle of her hands rubbing my back ever so gently; the softness of her plain, widow’s saris and of her cheeks as I kissed her good night; the reassuring jangle of her massive ring of keys tied to the end of her sari; the unwavering love with which she indulged my every whim. But so far removed from her, ensconced in my Parisian childhood, with my parents hovering over me and my grandmother valiantly trying to engage me in conversation without knowing any of what mattered to me—my school, my friends—I wanted to shrink from the phone.

I keep getting engaged

It would start with all four of us in the living room, first around a rotary phone, then some years later around the first press button phones. For some reason, my recollection is strongest of the times when my brother had already left for college, and I, six years younger, was on my own with my parents. My father would pick up the receiver and dial whatever he needed in order to reach an Indian operator. This in itself could take several attempts. Once he got through, the volume of his already powerful phone voice automatically went up a few more decibels. I would worry that the neighbors would hear everything and be annoyed. He would put the phone on speaker and we would hear the distant, tinny voice of the operator with her lilting Indian accent. “I’m getting engaged,” she would say, indicating that the line was busy. “I keep getting engaged.” Or sometimes she would fail completely to make the connection. Or the call would get dropped. My mother would start to float away into the kitchen or pick up the newspaper. My father would pace around a few minutes. I’d slink back to my room, silently hoping we wouldn’t be able to make the connection, then thinking of my grandmother and feeling bad. My father would then start the whole rigmarole again.

How are you keeping?

Eventually, after what could be a couple of hours, we’d get a connection. “Pronob?” would come my grandmother’s hopeful voice, uttering her son’s name. “Hein!” my father would yell into the receiver. My mother would hurry back to join him, straining to hear her mother-in-law. I would drag my feet back down the hall to the living room. A conversation in Bengali would ensue, sprinkled with enough words in English that I could glean the basic gist: updates would be exchanged regarding health, doctors, relatives, house affairs, longtime servants (still referred as such back then).

Then the receiver would come to me, moist and warm. My parents would stay nearby, presumably in case the line got cut and we needed to restart the whole process. As though I wouldn’t know to call for them. I desperately wanted to turn off the speakerphone, not because there was anything to hide in my stilted conversation with my grandmother, but because their hearing both ends added to my anxiety about how to respond to her questions. She would do her best, asking me how school was going (fine) and how I was “keeping” (well.) I would ask about her health… and then I didn’t know what else to say. I could picture her well, and the house, the wall and heavy gate that separated it from Little Russell Street, the rows of lush potted plants along the walkway to the door. I could imagine the slightly off-kilter whir of the ceiling fan, the front edge of each blade caked in dark brown grime. I could hear the crows, the honking cars, the clatter and chatter coming from the kitchen. But I wondered what she could imagine of my life. She had traveled widely and visited us in France, in Switzerland, in the UK. But, I thought, what did she truly understand of a little girl’s life in the 70s and 80s in these places, when she’d grown up, married at age 9, in the Calcutta of the 1910s?

The corollary to these calls, to the distance between us, was the awkwardness with which I tended to greet my grandmother when we did see her, either (most frequently) in India, or in Europe. Her face would break into smiles as soon as she saw me, and she would pull me into the soft folds of her sari, holding me in her gentle way. “Anju-buri” she would croon repeatedly. Her delight in seeing me would feel overwhelming, mostly because in those first moments, I did not know how to relate to her.

No more disconnect

When my children greet my parents, often at the airport, or perhaps on arrival at our home or theirs, there are immediate hugs and kisses all around. Everyone starts chattering. Conversation picks up as though it had just ended a few minutes earlier. And that is almost the fact. Weekly video visits, interspersed with phone calls made on a whim, keep everyone apprised of all the details of daily life. My parents know the names of Big One’s friends, have seen the latest school report, have read books aloud to Little One via the screen, have sung songs with both of them and seen their latest favorite books or items of clothing. My children have commented on their grandmother’s haircut or new glasses, have joked around with their grandfather about some mannerism of his. So that when they are all put in a room together, the reunion is seamless.

I wonder what might have been possible had such technology been available to my family when I was a child. Looking back, I see how limited my knowledge and understanding of my grandparents was. Will my children look back in thirty or forty years and think the same thing, unable to fathom that there could ever have been a disconnect so much deeper than what they experienced?

Related posts: Calcutta Bangles, Charlotte, Storms Past and Present.

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