Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

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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Kanazawa street at sunset

Kanazawa street at sunset

(All photos by my husband. My hands were busy pushing a stroller.)

I returned recently from two weeks in Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa and Kyoto. The trip was sublime, even with a not-quite-three year old in tow. It is an experience that is remaining with me, impressions and images vivid in my mind even as I have been fully sucked back into the whirlwind and mundane aspects of regular life. And I can tell these will stay with me for a long time, with my self as an observer of the world, as a student of an art form, as a parent and as a writer.

Three things resonated with me the most, the first of which was the attention to detail, the thought put into the smallest of things. Everywhere were umbrellas available for borrowing, and bins for drippy ones post use. All restaurants we frequented, no matter how un-childish, immediately set out plastic utensils and bowls for the little one. All toilet seats were pre-warmed. (Well, that’s a whole other topic–the intricacies of the toilets or “washlets” and the many functions they can perform.) Every room we stayed in was equipped with a Zojirushi hot water maker, ready on demand with water for tea (with different settings for green and black). There is a focus on service, even outside the service industry. People came up to us to offer help, to give up their subway seats for the children. And I could wax rapturous about the ekiben, the bento box lunches made and sold specifically for train trips.

All this spoke to me of a people aware of their surroundings. A week after our return, I sat at the Muse & the Marketplace writing conference in Boston listening to acclaimed literary critic James Wood give a keynote talk in which he focused on the notion of the writer’s ability and mandate to “seriously notice” the world around her, and I thought about how much more the Japanese seem to seriously notice their surroundings, and care about them, than Americans overall. (Pardon the generalization, but I trust you understand what I mean.)

Takayama cherry blossoms

Takayama cherry blossoms

Which leads me to the second strongest impression I had in Japan: aesthetics reign. The emphasis on presentation–of spaces, of food, of nature, of objects, of oneself–and the importance of doing things right and getting to their essence was a delight. And I realized how much I value this. I may never have articulated as much to myself, but I understand now that a focus on aesthetics is something I have always appreciated, for better or for worse. From the way I used to set the table in my childhood home, folding the napkins into fans and arranging the tomatoes and cucumbers into designs on the lettuce, to the way I fear sharing some of my writing, even before writing it, because it won’t be sufficiently well-crafted. Sometimes I wonder in frustration why one should bother to make an extra effort, but now, having been to Japan, I see how such an effort, on a larger scale, can be transformative. The small, ten foot square gardens in front of the most modest of homes, with their thoughtfully arranged stones and moss and maple tree, are delightful enough, but then look at the Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa, and how everywhere the eye turns it is met with magnificent compositions, and one is almost overwhelmed by the magical aesthetics of it all.

Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa

Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa

The timing of this trip, along with these realizations, has segued most serendipitously into an exercise: crafting a writer’s mission statement. With a juggle of responsibilities and minimal time to write–the plight of most writers–I want to ensure that I deploy my resources on those activities that will get me closer to what I truly want to achieve as a writer, and that necessitates, unfortunately, that I figure it out and articulate that goal to myself. (Admittedly, this provides a good opportunity to put off actual work on one’s manuscript, under the guise of an otherwise productive and useful endeavor.) As soon as I was over the incapacitating jet lag of our trip, I sat down to think about what really drives me to write fiction, and adhering to a strong sense of aesthetics figures strongly there. The Kenroku-en garden is like an ideal to strive for, a magical place that engages the senses, where the sum of individual and carefully crafted parts adds up to a wholly immersive experience.

Garden at Denpo-in, Tokyo

Garden at Denpo-in, Tokyo

With current writing projects focused on India, people in unique societal positions, history and art, this third aspect of Japan grabbed at me and won’t let go: the very aliveness of and respect for history and tradition without any compromise to the advances of modernity. In the midst of high rises and neon (arguably not really advances) will be nestled a gorgeous shrine, set about with lovingly shaped trees, swinging lanterns, and incense sticks whose spirals of blue smoke are a testament to the attentions of living souls. In the bustling streets, in front of a convenience store, will be a trio of kimono-clad women going about their business of simply living. In the traditional townhouse, or machiya, that we rented in Kyoto, stunning in its simplicity, was a wooden soaking tub, a mainstay of Japanese cleansing rituals.

Kimonos in Kanazawa

Kimonos in Kanazawa

Kyoto machiya

Soaking tub, Kyoto 

Kyoto machiya

Last night, as I was singing to the little one before bed and after her own bath, I overheard a conversation between eight year old K and her father. After the usual prodding, K was going through the routine of cleaning up her belongings in the common areas–sweater flung across the armchair, sneakers tossed in the general direction of the closet, Scotch tape and paper scraps from her craft project involving a stuffed baby kangaroo on the counter–before retiring to her lair, I mean, bedroom.

K: Why do I always have to go around cleaning up every single little thing?
Father: Remember when we were in Japan, and things were so neat and simple and organized, and how much we all enjoyed that?
K: Yeah. (Her intonation rises, implying the unsaid: What’s your point?)
Father: Well, wouldn’t it be nice to bring a little bit of that into our own home?
K: But we’re in America!

I wonder if she meant that as in “We’re not in Japan” or whether it was more of an observation about America itself. Regardless, isn’t that why we travel? To experience and assimilate new ideas, new aesthetics, new perspectives? What experiences in other locales have had a long-lasting impact on your life or work?

Shirakawago

Shirakawago

 

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Our table last night, with the Commune.

Our table last night, in full Commune effect, with two two year olds slurping at oysters.

I don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions. The New Year is too fraught with expectations, other people’s lofty announcements, the ineluctable disintegration of many of these and their accompanying disappointments, the underlying knowledge that it’s just a day, a week, a month like any other, with as high a likelihood of happy events and terrible events, wise decisions and uninformed ones, as any other day or week or month.

That said, if any day is a good one to try to better oneself, or the world, then why not choose that day, sometimes, to be January first? It doesn’t make sense to avoid January 1st as though it carried the plague.

There are many changes in my habits, my behaviors that occur to me throughout the year, and so this day, my only resolution per se is to try a bit harder to make some progress within that realm. (You see how I’m setting myself up for almost certain success? It’s all in the metrics.) To manage to incorporate at least one new good habit into my life, or to shed one bad one. To be able to say, a year from now, hey, that was a good change, I’m so glad I stuck to it.

Oh. I guess there is one actual resolution in the commonly-accepted sense of the word that I am making, and that is to get my book out there in 2013. Next July marks both the ten year anniversary of my first scribblings on Faint Promise of Rain, before I even knew I was writing a book, and a certain supposedly significant birthday of mine. Those seem like good reasons to make a resolution of this kind.

But the other things, they are smaller, more intimate, more day-to-day. Significant only in their accumulation. Drink more water. Consume more calcium. Correct my posture more often. Allow myself to read more. Write more. Be patient with my two year old who is growing up too fast. Guard my creative time. Observe with words. Send some actual paper letters or cards. Remember to say no sometimes. Not worry too much about whether a certain blog post fits my “author brand,” whatever that is. And sure, why not, exercise more. Cliché, but always valid.

So here’s to 2013, incremental improvement, steps taken one at a time, little drops of water, little grains of sand. And that book of mine, the product of this approach.

How about you?

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I am currently reading MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. Because it is close to 1,000 pages long, and because my reading time these days is relegated to the late evenings, when I’m so sleepy that sitting down to read inevitably leads to drooping eyes and a slipping book, “currently” has been going on for a while. The thick tome, with its cover curled upwards from being held open, has been an integral part of the living room landscape for weeks, alternately on the side table, the sofa, the kitchen counter, and the third step of the staircase up to the bedroom (the first two being within the reach of the pudgy paws of a one and a half year old).

During this time, I’ve had ample opportunity to remember seeing my own mother read the very same book, about 25 years ago. One image in particular stands out in mind: my mother in a low-slung, striped chaise longue on the rough and uneven terrace of a spare, stone house atop a hill in Corsica, France. Her hair is dark, her short sleeved top is brown, maybe reddish, she’s wearing cream-colored capris, and she’s sitting in the shade of the house near a the long wooden table at which we took most of our meals. The image is vivid because of all the other impressions associated with it. A long, timeless series of beach days stretching endlessly ahead of me in the way that summer days—back when they were blissfully unstructured—appeared to me as a child. The hot, dry aroma of thyme and rosemary growing wild on the scraggly Corsican hillsides. The moist coolness of the inside of the house with its sparse and rugged wooden furniture and occasional bats. The wild hogs and ambling donkeys who came to root about the house and knock at the shutters with their snouts and muzzles. The clammy-and-rough feeling of removing a one-piece, sand-filled bathing suit after the last dip of the day in the sea, and the way the bathing suit ends up all rolled up onto itself and inside out and unpleasantly cold against sun-warmed skin. The sparkling turquoise of the Mediterranean waters lapping at the strip of golden beach at the bottom of the hill. I knew nothing of the contents of The Far Pavilions at the time, and in fact they bear no relation to this setting since they take place in 19th century Northern India, but these are my memories of my mother reading this book.

Fast forward to now. Seven-year old K has noticed the book, given how long it’s been sitting around. She’s delighted in the fact that I am using a bookmark of her creation, a white and red laminated strip of paper with her name crookedly spelled out in crayon, affixed to which is a piece of twine strung with five brightly colored plastic beads. She’s asked me “So what is The Far Pavilions about anyway?” She’s noticed that the cover has become warped with use. We are not in a locale with a particularly striking set of sights or smells, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon seeing this same tome many years from now, she has a sudden memory of her sister at the age of 20 months, eagerly extending her chubby fingers to try to grasp at the beads that dangle so tantalizingly from the bookmark. Or if she recalls the peaceful quiet of Sunday afternoons with her father on his computer and her mother reading, spending companionable “quiet time” together while the baby naps, and then having tea time all together, with a proper set of china cups and of course some cookies.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing the whole thing, perhaps she won’t have a single memory of it, but there are other books from my past whose physicality brings me back to very specific times and places (for example my stained copy of Watership Down which I read at the age of 11 in a train cutting through the French countryside, and on which I spilled a bottle of apple juice), and because of this I suspect she’ll have similar memories.

But only for a while. For in the age of e-books, the collection of memories associated with a specific copy or edition of a specific title—not the memories of its contents but the memories of the time and place in which one read them, of the person one was at the time—will be moot. I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite here; I’m ready to embrace certain aspects of the whole e-book wave, and it’s entirely possible that my own book will come out as an e-publication. But no one can tell me there isn’t some nostalgia in which to indulge here.

What are some of your own memories associated with your reading of certain books? Do you still have those volumes on your shelves?

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I’m on the phone on a work conference call, and in the middle of it, I see an email pop up from my mother, subject line: Christmas caca. For those of you who might be linguistically challenged, that translates to “Christmas doodoo.” (My mother lives in France.) Of course I have to take a look right away, while keeping my ears focused on the call in which I’m participant and opinion-giver and note-taker and assigner of tasks. And then I have to mute the call so I can chortle freely.

My mothers’ note continues:

“No, I’m serious. Herewith verbatim from our local weekly rag reporting the 8 most popular toys/games, already out of stock! (Estimated family spending on each kid: 240 euros, or roughly $320.)

(Note—I’ve translated the rest from the original French.)

“To help you make the right choice, here is a selection of the most popular toys:

  1. “Toutou Rista: this toy is a smash hit with the younger set. Toutou Rista, a plastic dog, swallows Play-Doh, then expels it through its bottom. The object of the game is to pick up the greatest number of turds in a given time. Price: 20 euros ($30). (Note: Turns out this originated in Germany, under the much better name Kackel Dackel, and apparently the following video of it went viral. Amazing how much I miss out on by not having spare time on my hands.)   
  2. Monster High: these new horror dolls, along the lines of Barbie, are inspired from classic monster movies, such as Dracula. Several models, such as Abbey Bominable. (Note: I looked these up on Amazon and found the following other names: Dead Tired Ghoulia Yelps Doll and Spectra Vondergeist Doll with Pet Ferret. Apparently these are hot here in the US as well. I must be living under a rock.) 
  3. (For boys) Beyblade Tops: little boys are tearing these warrior tops away from each other. The basic idea: plastic tops shaped like miniature tanks battle in an arena, and the first to stop is eliminated. Euros 70 for two tops and an arena. (Sez my mother: I suppose that could cover two kids. Figure the profit margin on this no doubt China manufactured diversion…)

Following this, my mother asks: Is it only France that’s obsessed with a) body functions, b) “tendance” (i.e. knowing what’s been deemed popular will guide you to making the right choice, like a robot, without thinking), and c) strict separation by gender?

The answer is a) well, the French do take it to an extreme, that’s for sure; b) nope, that’s flourishing on this side of the ocean, too, and c)… huh. Yes, there are of course the gender stereotypes, and the lists of toys/games for boys and toys/games for girls. And most kids think certain things are for boys and others for girls. But I was pleasantly surprised when I checked out the top list by gender on Amazon, the go-to site for shopping. (I mean, do you even bother going to stores in December? I have a handful of independent, quirky stores I still frequent, but for the bulk of the purchases I make in December, most of which are for the various children incorporated into our lives, Amazon is it. And apparently this year Cyber Monday—the first Monday after Thanksgiving, for the first time outstripped Black Friday for the most dollars spent.) Seven of the top ten in each list are identical. The differences: girls get a portable karaoke machine, “Baby Alive Crib Life Twins” and Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows DVD, while boys get Spynet Stealth Video Glasses, LEGO Mindstorms and Matchbox Smokey the Fire Truck. On Amazon’s French sister site, the ratio is reversed, and there are only three items in common between the two lists.

So what is the point I’m trying to make? I guess I expected to share my mother’s outrage about the shopping options being presented to those who are in the market for gifts for children, but ultimately, it doesn’t seem that bad to me, from where I sit in New England. Sure, there are horrendous things out there whose very existence as a product one could spend money on and actually present to a child is abhorrent, such as Justin Bieber nailpolish or American Girl Cootie Catcher Kits, but all in all, I don’t feel bombarded with insistent messages about the poop-scooping, gender-specific popular toys I need to be buying for my children. At first I thought: maybe that’s because I rarely watch television and when I do, it’s pre-recorded, so I never actually see commercials. But my parents don’t have a TV (gasp!) so that can’t be it, if I’m to compare with her experience.  And then I saw this: “No Hit Toy to Brighten Retailers’ Christmas” on today’s New York Times. It seems that this year is singularly lacking in must-have items, as retailers have cut down on toys overall, fearful of ending up with too much unsold inventory. As a result, “classics” are in, and shorter supply is leading to higher prices. Not a bad retail move.

Anyhow, enough musing. Here’s some of what I did end up purchasing for the various children in my life (and there seem to be many, although only two biologically related to me), all between the ages of 14 months and 10 years this holiday season. Perhaps this will be of help to some of you late shoppers out there.

Harriet the Spy, one of my all time favorite books from my childhood, by Louise Fitzhugh;

Milles Bornes, the French classic road race card game;

Sleds, because, after all, we are in New England;

Water bottles from Crocodile Creek (indestructible and highly functional and cute);

Dresses from the Tea Collection, delightfully on serious sale for one day only;

Tech Deck mini-skateboards and ramps;

Silly slippers from Garnet Hill, half off on the day of my purchase;

Guidebooks for an upcoming trip to Mexico;

Snorkel set, also for Mexico;

Art supplies, for a future art teacher;

Tintin, the original series in French;

Tintin in English translation;

Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings, a fun fold-out book with textures, for babies/toddlers;

Earlyears Farm Animals Bowling set, a set of plush animal bowling pins and soft ball.

 

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In follow-up to my last post, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of our “commune.” I put this in quotes, because it is not REALLY the nature of the arrangement I’m about to describe, but the term that our friends use in jest, and also I suspect, for some, in mild jealousy.

You see, one of the key things that enables me to do anything, including (and perhaps especially) maintain my sanity, is the symbiotic relationship my family has developed with another family. (And this is no hyperbole. When my book is published, they will be among the first to be acknowledged.) Because four adults raising four children is collectively far, far easier than two adults raising two children and, completely separately, two other adults raising two other children. Now lest you think this is something it’s not, or that you’re going to get some voyeuristic glimpse into other people’s bizarre behavior, I’ll point out that our two households maintain a strong degree of separation. There is no mixing of finances, no swapping of spouses, no juicy stuff like that. We don’t even know intimate secrets about each other, although we do know things like what brand of toilet paper the other family uses, because we routinely do each other’s shopping errands.

What makes our arrangement of shared child chare and shared meal preparation and shared errands so functional is the very fact that we did not set about to do this on purpose. We were not good friends who decided to try to mesh our lives because we thought we made for a perfect match. It’s a relationship that grew out of convenience and necessity (and the tantalizing aromas of massive vats of Vietnamese pho traveling up the HVAC system of our previous home), and it was possible because—and here’s the incredibly lucky part—it just so happens that we have eerily similar values when it comes to our homes, our children, our use of money and time, and our food.

The other family, whom we refer to as “Next Doors” (and who were “Downstairs” in our previous home), happens to have two children, L and E, of about the same ages as ours, happens to have attended the same college (although we did not know each other at the time), happens to have uncannily aligned interests, and happens to have similar personalities, i.e. Ms. Next Doors is very similar to me, and Mr. Next Doors to my husband. Ms. ND and I are able to have entire conversations around logistics by uttering only a few, incomplete sentences, while other folks look on in bewilderment.

“Oh, it’s an early release day, so could you…”

“Yeah, sure, but the baby…”

“No problem, I’ll ask the sitter…”

“Oh then bring them over here…”

“Won’t that mean…”

“Right, ok, why don’t you do it then…”

“Perfect.”

All this compatibility was complete coincidence, and discovered over the course of a couple of years after they moved in to the apartment below ours over ten years ago. (Now we live in two side-by-side homes with a shared yard and trundle beds in the older kids’ rooms for easy sleepovers.) In this, we were all supremely lucky, and I am reminded of this daily, when Next Doors takes my children for the half hour gap between my departure for a writing group meeting and the return of my husband from work, or when there is someone to stay with my youngest so I don’t have to wake her from her nap to go pick up the oldest and thus am spared a cranky baby, or when I can spend the two hours of quiet time when one child is asleep and the other at an after-school class doing some writing because I know that Next Doors will be providing us all with a fabulous meal and I don’t have to think about making dinner.

While our circumstances are particularly fortuitous, it is within anyone’s power to make the effort to help build a community, a neighborhood, a little ecosystem of co-assistance. Everyone can cultivate other people and families with whom there can be exchanges of favors, shared errand-running, car-pools and child-minding. Everyone can go the extra step now and then to lend a favor, a helping hand, and what better feeling than to know that there will be a resource to draw from when one is in need? An extra 5% effort on the part of one person can mean a savings of 95% effort for the other. It’s no skin off my back to double a recipe and feed an extra household when I’m cooking anyway, and it saves Next Doors a lot of effort.

We live in a world of fences, fragmentation, wariness of others. We are off-grid, wireless, disconnected in the name of greater connectivity. We upload to the Cloud and work remotely. But the human-to-human connection, the physical sharing of goods and services, meals and bulk rolls of paper towel, the in-person network to which one gives when it is easy to do so and from which one takes when it is necessary, are the connections that make so many of the daily details manageable, and so many of the greater achievements even conceivable.

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Charlotte

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the inauguration of a garden at the Acton Memorial Library (in Massachusetts) in memory of my grandmother, Charlotte Sagoff.  Two years ago, at her memorial, I read a piece I wrote on the theme of a garden; how lovely that my very last sentence should have come to be true:

Charlotte and I joined the family the same year. In 1973, she married my grandfather, Maury Sagoff, and I was born.

My earliest memories of my US grandparents (my father’s family is from India) were predominantly of my grandfather. He was someone towards whom children gravitated. He was the one who was silly with me, who took me to his mysterious garage full of treasures, who deliberately left green beans hanging on the vines for me to pick after him so that I could tease him about what a bad green bean picker he was. He was the one with peanuts and M&Ms in his pockets, with stickers and made-up stories. He was the the one who splashed around in Walden Pond with me and my friend Sarah from across the street.

But in 1986, the summer that I turned 13, I began to understand what an important force Charlotte was. I had just spent a year living in India with my parents. Upon our return (to France, where were were based) my parents shipped me off to Acton, MA for a month while they tended to the practical business of finding us a new home. For six weeks I stayed with Grandpa and Charlotte, enjoying the peace and plentifulness of an American suburb after the chaos of a year in Bombay. And during that month, sleeping, waking, eating and going through the motions of day to day life in the same house as Charlotte, I came to realize that she was the voice of reason behind my grandfather’s follies, the practical counterweight to his impossibly impractical, if fun, ideas.

She was the one who had sat in the garden, on her little stool, planting the green beans for him to leave on the vine for me. She was the one who made the healthy meals to which the peanuts and M&Ms could be fun complements. She was the one who arranged for me to meet Sarah so that I could have someone my age to accompany us on our trips to Walden Pond. She was the one who made it all work: wise, reliable, down to earth.

And I mean down to earth quite literally. Many of my childhood and even more recent memories of Charlotte somehow involve earth, in one form or another. There was, for example, the somewhat frightening compost bowl on the kitchen counter in Acton, into which I was instructed to deposit any shred of leftover organic material. I remember the trepidation with which I would approach the bowl and scrape in the bits from my plate to join the fruit flies, decomposing peels, pits, and organic waste from the bottom of the sink.

There was the even more distressing compost heap behind the garage, where I had to confront a waist-high pile of who knows what, teeming with bees and crawling things.

There was Fort Pond, on which some friends of Charlotte and Grandpa’s had a house, and where they would take me swimming. My memories of that pond are mostly of the squishy bottom, murky and muddy, from which long grasses reached up to tickle my legs and turtles emerged, bug-eyed and bubbly.

There were Charlotte’s soups, wonderful creations of leftovers and leftovers of leftovers, cooked together into earthy, primordial melanges that were somehow delicious, as long as you didn’t think too much about what exactly was in there.

And of course there was her own vegetable garden: the planting, watering and harvesting; the delicious smell of fresh tomatoes in the sun; the green length of zucchini, crusted in some areas with a layer of dry dirt, lying quietly in the cool shade of their own leaves; the perilous picking of plump raspberries in the tumble of prickly bushes at the end of the garden.

In that garden, many things happened. I played away hours of childhood summers. I pressed apples into cider. I sat surrounded by close friends and relatives at a picnic the day before my wedding. I sat surrounded by close friends and relatives the day of Grandpa’s memorial.

When Charlotte moved into town, just a few blocks from where I live, she no longer had a garden. But she still cultivated people, made new friends in the neighborhood, connected people to each other. Even in the midst of her own transitions, she helped others make theirs. She helped people spread their roots when necessary, and lift them when necessary. During this time, I was able to visit often, much more often than when she’d lived in Acton. And I was able to bring my daughter to see her, and to bring her things from the farmer’s market. We continued this routine when she moved to a nearby rehab center. She was even more removed from any garden at that point, but she never stopped creating a nurturing environment. I believe everyone in this room is, in some way, a product of that. Charlotte may have left us, but we remain, all of us, in her garden.

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