“Mysteriously, wonderfully, I bid farewell to what goes, I greet what comes; for what comes cannot be denied, and what goes cannot be detained.” ~ Chuang-Tzu

"Catterline in Winter" (1963, oil on hardboard)Joan Eardley
“Catterline in Winter” (1963, oil on hardboard)
by Joan Eardley

                   

“I drank coffee and read old books and waited for the year to end.” ~ Richard Brautigan, from Trout Fishing in America

Monday, late afternoon, New Year’s Eve. Cloudy and cold, 40’s.

(c) DACS/Anne Morrison; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
“Breaking Wave” (1960, oil on hardboard)
by Joan Eardley

In the past two days, I have attempted to write a post, only to be stymied after the first few sentences. I’m not really sure why, only that what I did write seemed forced and contrived, which made continuing seem pointless.

Part of me feels as if there is something simmering just beneath the surface, waiting to be voiced, but another part feels completely incapable of giving words to that feeling. Truly, I do not know which direction to take or even if there is a direction to be had, so I decided to find some suitable end-of-the-year quotes and just give it a go, see how it unfolds, as it were. I make no promises that any great revelations will ensue, or even that I will find a common thread among these disparate sentences.

I do know that the looming 2013 seems awkward and strange to me. Thirteen has never been a bad number for me. Corey and I were married on the 13th of May, and that particular thirteen has turned out to be one of the best days of my life. But the year 2013 makes me pause, and for the life of me, I could not tell you exactly why that is.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.” ~ T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

I remember being suitably excited when 1999 rolled into 2000, even though the official start of the new millennium did not begin until 2001. But the coming of both of those years seemed momentous to me—so many changes in my life, so much going on, such excitement about what was ahead. I remember that Corey and I spend New Year’s Eve of 2001 in his brother’s hot tub in Ohio. We were surrounded by snow, and it was absolutely freezing outside, but the water was hot and comfortable, and it was a perfect way in which to greet the new year.

(c) Anne Morrison; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
“Storm at Sea” (1960, oil on hardboard)
by Joan Eardley

But if you were to ask me what I did on New Year’s Eve of 2003 or 2005 or even 2008, I don’t know that I could tell you as we really aren’t big New Year’s Eve people. By that I mean that we do not go out. I am too afraid of all the drunk crazies on the roads, and we usually just watch a movie and go to sleep. It may sound boring, but it works for us.

I remember that my m-in-law used to go out on her porch at midnight and bang a pot, more to annoy her neighbors than anything else. I have sometimes gone to parties, but for most of my life, I have stayed in. What does that say about me? That I’m careful? Boring? Lazy? Who knows? But this year I am a bit hesitant about 2013 coming to pass. I don’t know if it’s that still, small voice inside of me that is trembling a bit, or if there is something worrying the edges of my brain, but something just doesn’t feel right.

Don’t you just hate it when you have those kinds of feelings (if you do), and you cannot ascertain as to why?

“Only, there is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being; the year, in turning, turns in on itself.” ~ Angela Carter, “The Erl-King”

I don’t really do resolutions, either, never have. I know myself only too well, and I try never to make promises that I know I can’t or won’t keep. All of those false promises about quitting this or that, losing weight, exercising more, giving more to charity, being less selfish, more generous . . .

Ya da ya da ya da . . .

Bollocks.

"Setting Sun over Fields" (1955-63, oil on canvas)by Joan Eardley
“Setting Sun over Fields” (1955-63, oil on canvas)
by Joan Eardley

No one does it. Not really, so why say that you will?

Perhaps we make these promises to ourselves because we really do believe that we can or will change in the coming year. Perhaps we think that if we say it, it makes it so, makes it more tangible, harder to ignore. But the truth is that if we don’t want to quit smoking (or drinking or eating chocolate or whatever), then we won’t. The desire has to exist else a thousand words written in stone will not make it real.

And so I make no promises, either to myself or the powers that be or anyone else, at least no coming year promises. I save my promises for important things, like things that I will do for my children or for Corey. I will tell myself that it’s in my best interest to go back on my chocolate fast as the few pounds that I have gained since Thanksgiving/cruise/Christmas dinner are beginning to add up, and I liked it better when I was on a healthier diet, but other than that? Nothing.

“All night we now hear the desperate downwardness.
All day we have watched the last icicle
Drip, drop by drop, as though from a wound—grow less and less.
Dark comes again.  Shut eyes, and think of a sacred cycle.” ~ Robert Penn Warren, from section 1 of “Downwardness” in “Seasons”

One tradition that I do miss is that of building a fire in the fireplace on New Year’s Eve. My ex and I used to do that each year, even that was the only fire we built for the year, but I honestly feel too guilty now when building a real wood fire. Pollution and all of that. But oh how I would dearly love to have a gas fireplace hookup. It’s one of the few luxuries that I want to install if and when we ever go into reno mode. A gas fireplace and a jetted tub—two things that I would so love to have, two things in which I find true comfort.

(c) DACS/Anne Morrison; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
“Snow” (1958, oil on board)
by Joan Eardley

Corey and I only used the fireplace during those two winters in which we did not have gas heat. Those were cold winters, and the fireplace did help, if only briefly.

Some people cannot abide the smell of woodsmoke, and I can understand that, but I am not one of them. One of the things that I loved about going camping in the mountains was building an outdoor fire from fallen branches and twigs. Sitting there in the evening with friends, talking about everything and nothing, watching the wood burn down to embers before zipping up in a sleeping bag.

Simpler times.

“I’ve never been very good at leaving things behind. I tried, but I have always left fragments of myself there too, like seeds awaiting their chance to grow.” ~ Joanne Harris

Anyway, 2012 is in its last hours, and the new year will be hear in less than eight hours. Corey and I will spend the evening with Olivia as Lex and Mike are going out. Eamonn is house sitting for his father, and Brett is with friends. So I think it will just be the three of us and the dogs, and that’s just fine with me.

(c) Anne Morrison; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
“Sarah’s Cottage” (nd, oil on canvas)
by Joan Eardley

I will leave you with this, things I hope may happen in 2013, in the world and at home:

  • Congress will grow up and realize that being obstructionists serves no one well.
  • Automatic weapons will once again be banned.
  • Obama will become the president we all know he could be.
  • Honey Boo Boo, the Real Housewives of everywhere, Dance Moms, Toddlers and Tiaras, Bad Girls, and all of the rest will quietly fade into the background (okay, know this won’t happen, but I can wish).

 

"Harvest Time" (1960-61, oil on board)by Joan Eardley
“Harvest Time” (1960-61, oil on board)
by Joan Eardley

and also these wishes:

  • Brett will make his trip to New Zealand and from this experience be able to glean a little insight into what he wants out of life.
  • Eamonn will get a job as a merchant mariner and begin to enter the adult world.
  • Alexis will continue to try to work towards a more stable life.
  • Corey will get the job he really wants.
  • My dogs will remain healthy.
  • Our families will suffer no more losses.
  • I will actually do real work on my novel and poetry.

To all of you out there, may the coming year bring you health, happiness, and safety, and may you move one step closer to achieving your dreams and desires.

Peace.

“Lilac Wine,” Jeff Buckley version and mashup with Nina Simone, couldn’t decide:

                   

New Year Resolve

The time has come
To stop allowing the clutter
To clutter my mind
Like dirty snow,
Shove it off and find
Clear time, clear water.

Time for a change,
Let silence in like a cat
Who has sat at my door
Neither wild nor strange
Hoping for food from my store
And shivering on the mat.

Let silence in.
She will rarely speak or mew,
She will sleep on my bed
And all I have ever been
Either false or true
Will live again in my head.

For it is now or not
As old age silts the stream,
To shove away the clutter,
To untie every knot,
To take the time to dream,
To come back to still water.

~ Mary Sarton

Simply Amazing . . .

From Buzz Feed:

The Higgs-Boson Particle Was Discovered

27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts In 2012

Silk stronger than steel! Functioning invisibility cloaks! Spray-on skin for burn victims! Self-driving cars! Robotic exoskeletons!

No. This is not the Jetsons or Star Trek, but it could be. This past year saw the emergence of things we have only read about in books or seen in movies, and the implications are staggering. This is a great read.

“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.” ~ George Sand

Lola’s Curmudgeonly Musings: WordPress Year in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 280,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 5 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

Many thanks to those of you who continue to support this blog through visits and comments. Special thanks to the following individuals for their continued active support:

These five individuals were my most consistent commentators, but I know that I have followers out there who read but do not comment, and I also want to thank all of you too. This past year saw me passing 1 million hits, something that I never thought I would see in the early days when I was so excited to reach 500.

I know that I don’t say this nearly enough, but you people out there in the ether really do help me in so many ways, but most especially through your ongoing support of this blog. I am humbled by your willingness to participate in the life of a virtual stranger, sharing stories, offering advice, and infusing me with a constant stream of well wishes. I know myself to be truly fortunate.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Peace.

Music by Ryan Adams, “Kindness”

“But the thing is . . . It’s not a game. It’s an overt display of angry misogyny on massive scale. It’s not ‘just boys being boys./ It’s not ‘just how the internet works.’ And it’s not just going to go away if we ignore it.” ~ Anita Sarkeesian, fromTEDxWomen 2012 Talk

Tropes vs Women in Video Games

This is disturbing, but well worth a look. Full transcript can be found on Feminist Frequency.

[TW: video contains discussion of the abuse received, including threats (of violence and rape), visual depiction of violence, and sexist and racist attacks; Anita adds her own warning before the most triggering content]

Partial transcript follows:

TEDxWomen Talk about Online Harassment & Cyber Mobs

December 5, 2012

I was excited to participate in this year’s TEDxWomen in Washington, DC, an annual event organized by the Paley Center for Media. I presented a 10 minute talk about sexist online harassment, cyber mobs and both the destructive and uplifting power of online communities. In this talk, I use the analogy of an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) to explain how these types of large scale harassment campaigns operate.

After my Kickstarter project began to attract a huge amount of media attention this summer, I made the strategic decision to try and use that as an opportunity to highlight the larger problem of online harassment faced by many women in gaming spaces and on the internet more generally. To that end, over the past several months I’ve devoted a substantial amount of time and energy giving talks (like this one) and doing dozens of media interviews as well as communicating with a handful of game companies on the topic. There have been many inspirational women speaking out about online and gaming harassment issues for a long time and my hope has been that I can use my personal story to contribute to this important and critical conversation. In some ways this was a difficult decision because it means I’ve become an even bigger target and also because I’ve had to take time away from working on my Tropes vs Women video series (which frankly I’d much rather spend all of my time on). Still, I believe the trade off is ultimately worth it if by sharing my experience it can be a small part of moving us towards systemic change and a more inclusive digital world.

Also don’t anybody worry, my Tropes vs Women in Video Games series is currently in production, we’re working hard make these new videos as comprehensive and expansive as possible. And I’m pleased to say that progress is coming along nicely! As always, project backers will be the first to know of updates and details on the project so if you are backer make sure to regularly check the Kickstarter page!

“And a softness came from the starlight and filled me full to the bone.” ~ W.B. Yeats

Frost Flower on Gateby crestedcrazy (FCC)
Frost Flower on Gate
by crestedcrazy (FCC)

                   

“Our memory fragments don’t have any coherence until they’re imagined in words. Time is a property of language, of syntax, and tense.” ~ Siri Hustvedt, from The Sorrows of an American

Thursday afternoon. Sunny and chilly, 49 degrees.

Frost Flower by Lotus Carroll FCC
Frost Flower
by Lotus Carroll (FCC)

Well, I hope that everyone who celebrates it had a very Merry Christmas. Two days past, now we are in the time of reconciliation: the frenetic preparation back to the days of normalcy, whatever those may have been; the momentary love of everything back to the cynicism of everyday life; the intimate closeness of family back to the separation of time and space.

Okay, so perhaps not as glum as all that, but you know what I mean. The days leading up to the big day are filled with hurrying to and fro, trying to remember all of the little details, the anticipation and anxiety over whether or not everything will come together at the last hour. Or at least that’s how it is in my house. No matter how prepared I think I am in the days before, I always find myself doing last minute errands for the fresh lemon or the candy canes or the tissue paper or whatever.

Frost Flower close up by Marklnspex FCC
Frost Flower Close-up
by Marklnspex (FCC)

I have to say, though, that this year’s celebration was very nice. My mother didn’t insult anyone overtly or accidentally, which tends to make things run much smoother. Dinner came off without a hitch, except for the overcooked broccoli, which would have been fine had we eaten on time (I know better, I really do). And everyone seemed to genuinely like his or her presents.

Of course there was the added bonus of Olivia’s first Christmas, which just changed everything in ways hard to pinpoint.

“It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in windowpanes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world is revealed and yet soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” ~ Virginia Woolf

Frost Flower 9 Frostweed by cotinis FCC
Frost Flower on Frostweed
by cotinis (FCC)

As I had mentioned, Lex, Mike, and Olivia had gone to see Mike’s family for the holidays, and I didn’t expect them back until the day after. Turns out they came home early and surprised me on Christmas night, which was truly a wonderful surprise. I hadn’t realized how down I had actually been at the prospect of not having Lex or the baby with us, so when they came through the door, it was the perfect addition to what had already been a good day.

Apparently, I was the only one who did not know that they had come back early. The boys had seen them earlier in the day at that side of the family’s celebration, and they kept the secret, just as last year they kept the secret about Lex being pregnant. My sons really know how to keep a secret, which I find surprising for some reason. But Corey also knew—accidentally—apparently when he finished wrapping at 4 in the morning, he went to Walgreen’s for some stocking stuffers and ran into Alexis in the card aisle. At four in the morning?! My family is certainly strange, but hey, already knew that.

So Olivia arrived in her shiny Christmas dress that Mike had bought for her, and she had a great time grabbing at tissue paper and laughing. Yes, she laughs now. Fun stuff.

“I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands.” ~ Louise Bourgeois

Frost Flower 6
Frost Flower

Yesterday I spent the day packing up the silver and Christmas dishes and vintage Santa Claus Coke glasses that my mom has kept all these years. I had already done most of the cleanup Christmas night, so it wasn’t too much work. And then I did a whole lot of nothing, which I suppose is what I needed. I had thought about posting, but wasn’t really in the mood, so I didn’t.

Frost FLower 7 Ribbons by Slomoz FCC
Frost Flower Ribbons
by Slomoz FCC

Today I need to work on making Olivia’s Christmas stocking, something I had planned to do yesterday to have ready by the time they came back, but of course, now my schedule is all topsy turvy, so I’ll try to get started today.

Alfie is doing much better, and may be with us a while longer, which is nice. Corey had taken him to the vet this past weekend, which cost an amount that I shall not say as it is painful to think about, but they gave him antibiotics, and anti-nausea medicine, and he’s eating again, and back to growling at people when they disturb his naps, so he’s actually almost normal (for him). I’m so glad that I did not have to deal with losing another pet friend over the holidays as I don’t know how I would have handled that.

Tillie was apparently good this past year as Santa brought her several new stuffed babies to play with and terrorize. It was funny because anytime anyone opened any kind of stuffed animal, Tillie thought that it was for her. She’s been very busy, snooping in bags and such, and she found the spare toy that I hadn’t planned to give her until she had destroyed one of the others. I swear she is just like a small child.

The only sad part was not having Shakes on Christmas morning to sit between us as we opened presents. I missed that.

“All art is exorcism.” ~ Otto Dix

Frost Flower 3 cal tech
Frost Flower (caltech website)

Corey finally read my two novel beginning drafts, and I got some feedback from him. We both agree that my second story is better than my original plot, and I have promised myself that I will work on it in the coming months.

I did not receive any books or gift certificates for books this year, which is very unusual for me. Equally unusual is that I did not purchase any books for anyone except Olivia. I guess it was just that kind of year. I’ll just keep my list until my birthday or until I win the lottery . . . so I guess until my birthday.

Frost Flower 4 by Billy Joe Fudge, Columbia Magazine
Frost Flower
by Billy Joe Fudge, Columbia Magazine

Now that Christmas is over, we all need to get back to everyday life, which means that Corey needs to send out his job applications, and Brett needs to get his passport, and Eamonn needs to sign up for maritime school, and I? I need to try to get back into some kind of regular writing routine.

I’m still on the lookout for an IBM Selectric II, so if anyone knows of any place that is getting rid of one, like a church or school, keep me in mind. Ideally, it should be red, but hey, I think that I could use just about any color as long as it isn’t that weird turquoise blue that IBM used for some of them. I always thought that was a dreadful color for a typewriter. If you’ve ever used an old Selectric, you know exactly what I mean about how the keys feel beneath your fingers as you are flying across them. Well, I used to fly across them. I learned to type on one, and I did all of my timing tests on one. The last time I was timed (for a job interview) was soooo long ago, but I typed 127 words a minute with one mistake. Cool, huh?

“You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” ~ Junot Díaz

Frost Flower5 Rock Prairie Master Gardener Association
Frost Flower
Rock Prairie Master Gardener Association

Anyway, so 2013 is but a few days away. The Mayans were wrong, and the “Dr. Who” Christmas special has aired and left Whovians with lots and lots of questions. We still need to see Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and the remake of Les Miserables. Things to do in the coming weeks.

I have to admit that 2013 seems like a weird year to me. Don’t ask me why because I don’t really have a specific reason. I just don’t like the sound of it. I mean, 2012 didn’t flop about on the tongue in the way that 2013 does. I know. I dwell on the strangest things.

Frost Flower 2
Frost Flower

Last night, I had one of those dreams in which so many of my realities converge: I was at a large family wedding, but it was also a family reunion, and it was an odd mix of Filipinos and Americans, all of whom were acting as if it was strange to be in a room together, which I just couldn’t understand, and the dinner was salmon or steak, and I asked for salmon and was given just a hunk of salmon, nothing else, no potatoes, veggies, nothing, and then I ate someone else’s cheese, and some friends of mine from high school were there, and I was also in Ohio, but it was Pennsylvania, and I knew that across the highway was my grandmother’s house, but the plow was stuck in the mud, and it was snowing, so I took the wrong turn on the interstate, the same wrong turn that I frequently take in my dreams, and I’m going the wrong way, and I’m late for work.

I awoke with a headache.

More later. Peace.

Today’s post features images of frost flowers, a phenomenon of which I was totally unaware until coming across some pictures on my dashboard. Here is an explanation from the Texas Parks and Recreation site:

Frost flowers develop when air temperatures are freezing but the ground still is warm enough for the plant’s root system to be active. Plant juices flow from these roots up into the stem, where the cold air freezes them. As the moisture in the plant freezes, the ice crystals push out through the stem. They may emerge from a small slit to form thin ribbonlike strands or they may split open a whole section of the stem and push out in a thin, curling sheet. Sometimes several ribbons of ice push out to create a flowerlike petal effect. As long as the juices flow, air temperatures remain low, and the plant is shaded from the sun, these ice crystals continue to form.

Music by Counting Crows, “A Long December”

                   

Prayer

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
infolding,
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers) a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change–
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself,
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now? Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only
something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go.
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never.

~ Jorie Graham

“You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness . . . And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.” ~ Jeffrey Eugenides, from a speech to Whiting Award winners

Another sample of the kind of thing I wish someone had said to me years ago . . .

Posthumous (advice to young writers)

The following text is adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners.

In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.” Hitchens’s untimely death last year, at the age of sixty-two, has thrown this remark into relief, pressing upon those of us who persist in writing the uncomfortable truth that anything we’re working on has the potential to be published posthumously; that death might not be far off, and that, given this disturbing reality, we might pay attention to it.

It’s not very nice of me to bring up death tonight, as we gather to celebrate ten emerging writers. Talented and accomplished as you all are, you’re just getting going, so why should I rain on your parade? Here’s why: because Gordimer’s advice about writing posthumously may be the best way to help your writing in the here-and-now. It may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you’re exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system.

All of the constraints Hitchens mentions have one thing in common: they all represent a deformation of the self. To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place. When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother’s orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn’t. Even your dog knew to keep quiet. And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.

Does that sound like you? O.K., but that’s only half the story. You’re also the college sophomore standing in a corner of a keg party in the basement of some desperate dorm. You’re standing in the corner because the light is dim. Dim light is a plus. In the hour or so before leaving your room, while you were lying on your bed innocently reading Flaubert, a zit of incomparable size and ferocity erupted in the middle of your forehead. The size of this blemish, its fiery and painful swollenness, were almost enough to keep you from coming to this party in the first place. Better to just stay in bed and read “Sentimental Education.” But there’s this person of interest you’re hoping to see at the party and you thought that maybe with a little concealer or by combing down your bangs you might be able to appear in public, so this is what you do, only to end up, sometime later, standing in the corner, feeling the zit on your forehead actually pulse, like a second heartbeat. Your friends come up to say, “Hi,” pretending not to notice. You love them for this. You begin to think that your existence on earth isn’t a total mistake when suddenly you spy the person of interest across the room. Here’s your chance. With your head down, like someone using a Geiger counter, you make your way across the room. As you pass the person of interest, you gather courage and lift your face, despite everything, but the person of interest is talking to somebody else, and so you keep on going, all the way out of the party and the dorm. And then you’re outside, under the black, unfeeling sky. In that moment there is no one as lonely, lovelorn, and unlovable as you; and yet this feeling of hopelessness mixes, oddly, with a perverse kind of hope, of resistance to the regrettable physical facts, and you’re filled with the desire to write something, to go back to your room and be like Flaubert, solitary and misanthropic and a God-damned genius.

That’s what you were probably like. I know you guys. We recognize each other.

So what I’m saying is, this is what got you here tonight: your over-stimulated, complicated, by turns ecstatic and despondent, specific self. And if you’re anything like I was when I got one of these awards, some twenty years ago, you didn’t know exactly how you did it. You write your first stuff pretty much for yourself, not thinking anybody will read, much less publish, it, not thinking it’ll earn money, therefore not worrying about pleasing anyone or falling in line with any agenda; not worrying about censoring yourself, either, because who’s going to see it? And, miraculously, it worked out. Not only did you get published but older, established writers read your stuff and nominated you for a Whiting and the selection committee met and picked you out a huge body of nominees. And so here you are tonight, in New York City, and—I don’t want to ruin your night or anything—but everything’s about to change. You’re not writing for yourself anymore. Now you’re a published author or a playwright whose one-act has been produced—and suddenly everybody thinks you’re a professional. You did it before, wrote a book, a play, a collection of poetry, so you can do it again, right? And as you begin to worry about how to do that, that’s when your immune system is at its weakest and the pathogens can make their way in.

Fashion will come at you from two directions, from outside and in. You might start noticing what’s getting attention in the press. You might begin to forget the person you are in order to write and sound like someone else. Alternately, you might be tempted to repeat yourself. To follow the fashion of your own previous work, to stop exploring, learning and trying new things, for risk of failure.

If you try to write posthumously, however, fashion doesn’t apply. You step off the catwalk, ignoring this season’s trends and resigning yourself to being unfashionable and possibly unnoticed, at least for a while. As Kurt Woolf, Kafka’s first publisher in Germany, wrote to him after Kafka’s book tanked, “You and we know that it is generally just the best and most valuable things that do not find their echo immediately.” Fashion is the attempt to evade that principle: to be the echo of someone else’s success and, therefore, to create nothing that might create an echo of its own.

The Yankees played the Detroit Tigers in the A.L.C.S. last week, to a highly satisfying conclusion, from my perspective. Doug Fister, starting right-hander for the Tigers, when asked how the team was dealing with the pressure, had something like this to say: “We just try to stay within ourselves. That’s what we’ve been doing all year, as a team. The important thing to do, as a pitcher, is I just try to stay within myself. So, yeah, when I’m out there, on the mound, in a game like that, a big game, what I’m thinking about is staying within myself. Because the important thing to do in a situation like this is, you know, to stay within yourself.”

Professional athletes aren’t always the most articulate people. Athletes are rarely nominated for a Whiting Award (though the committee might consider R.A. Dickey of the Mets next year). A lack of articulateness, however, doesn’t mean that the speaker doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A Major League pitcher is dealing with big-time pressure. Don’t discount the wisdom of “stay within yourself.” Fister knows whereof he speaks. And don’t for a minute think that you, as writers, are under any less pressure. Society at large may not recognize it, but every morning when you go to your writing desks you’re up against not the Yankees but the literary tradition, two thousand years of great works to admire, learn from, compete against, and, hopefully, expand. It’s no small task you’ve set yourself. Don’t let anybody tell you different.

The other trap you might fall into is to start thinking about money. “No one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said Samuel Johnson. Well—and I’ve never gotten to do this before—I’d like to disagree with Dr. Johnson. Once you start conceiving of your book as a commodity, you start thinking about readers as potential buyers, as customers to be lured. This makes you try to anticipate their tastes and cater to them. In doing so, you begin to depart from your own inclinations rather than respond to what the Irish novelist, Colm Toibin, has referred to as “the stuff that won’t go away.” “It seems that the essential impulse in working is … to allow what haunts you to have a voice, to chart what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find a form and structure for it.” Facing up to what haunts you and finding a form and structure for it can never be a commercial enterprise. That stuff’s too chaotic and unpredictable, too messy and gorgeous, to fit a popular template. But it’s the source of your originality and may well prove popular in the end.

Your audience, as it grows, your need for a teaching job, the fact of being taken seriously and reviewed by people—all these things might lead you to over-analyze your words and censor them. As Adrienne Rich put it, “Lying is done with words and also with silence.” You’re too young to remember this—I’m too young to remember this—but in 1976 Vivian Gornick wrote an essay called “Why Do these Men Hate Women?” Underneath this boldfaced headline were the photos of Normal Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth. Mailer probably enjoyed that, but I doubt Updike and Roth did. Still, what did Philip Roth do in response to that attack? He went on to publish books like “Sabbath’s Theater,” in order to provoke such critics rather than placate them. And the important thing isn’t whether you like Philip Roth or think he’s a nice person or a misogynist or a pervert or just really funny; the important thing is that no one would dispute that Roth has continued to be the writer he had to be, a writer who has been lionized and vilified. But, let’s face it, mostly lionized.

And why do people like Roth live way out in the country, anyway? Because living in the sticks is like being dead—it’s a way of forgetting that anybody’s watching. It’s a way of writing posthumously. Better, of course, if you can do it in Brooklyn, where you can get a decent meal, but do whatever you have to do.

Equally insidious is to adopt a bien pensant manner, to make sure that everything you say is earnest and well meaning, the kind of thing Bono might put in a lyric. Piety can be another form of censorship.

You get what I’m saying. The same goes for spouting popular ideas, intellectual or otherwise, that aren’t your own. You have to watch yourself closely because it’s easy for some trendy notion to filter in. You put it in a sentence and it sounds reasonably intelligent. Then your book comes out and, out of all the thousands of words in it, that one little word gets noticed by some wag in Cobble Hill, who traces it back to the source you borrowed it from, and in that moment you feel very, very small. You feel undeserving of the privilege of being a writer, in the company of all the writers whose stringent examples you set out, long ago, to emulate.

I’m winding down now. They tell me there’s going to be a party after this. I don’t want to keep you from your rightful fun. In closing, let me say one more thing about Mr. Kafka. When Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, in Berlin, he reacted at first with a serenity amounting almost to relief. As his health deteriorated, he became more fearful: “What I have playacted is really going to happen,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life and now I will really die.”

To die your whole life. Despite the morbidity, I can’t think of a better definition of the writing life. There’s something about writing that demands a leave-taking, an abandonment of the world, paradoxically, in order to see it clearly. This retreat has to be accomplished without severing the vital connection to the world, and to people, that feeds the imagination. It’s a difficult balance. And here is where these ruminations about writing touch on morality. The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life? Anyway, it’s the one you’ve chosen, the first fruits of which we’re here to honor tonight. It’s an honor for me to preside over this ceremony. I’m happy to do it in gratitude for the help the Whiting Foundation has given so many writers, including myself. I don’t remember who made the speech and read the citations my year, as you probably won’t remember me. That’s O.K. Just remember what Doug Fister of the Detroit Tigers said: “Stay within yourself.” And, most of all, don’t forget Nadine Gordimer’s advice. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be cheap. Young as you are, play dead—so that your eyes will stay open.

A Very Merry Christmas to You and Yours . . .

                   

Two for Tuesday: Christmas

“Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children; to remember the weaknesses and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and to ask yourself if you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open? Are you willing to do these things for a day? Then you are ready to keep Christmas!”
~ Henry van Dyke

Music by the Trans Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Canon”

                   

Advent

Wind whistling, as it does
in winter, and I think
nothing of it until

it snaps a shutter off
her bedroom window, spins
it over the roof and down

to crash on the deck in back,
like something out of Oz.
We look up, stunned—then glad

to be safe and have a story,
characters in a fable
we only half-believe.

Look, in my surprise
I somehow split a wall,
the last one in the house

we’re making of gingerbread.
We’ll have to improvise:
prop the two halves forward

like an open double door
and with a tube of icing
cement them to the floor.

Five days until Christmas,
and the house cannot be closed.
When she peers into the cold

interior we’ve exposed,
she half-expects to find
three magi in the manger,

a mother and her child.
She half-expects to read
on tablets of gingerbread

a line or two of Scripture,
as she has every morning
inside a dated shutter

on her Advent calendar.
She takes it from the mantel
and coaxes one fingertip

under the perforation,
as if her future hinges
on not tearing off the flap

under which a thumbnail picture
by Raphael or Giorgione,
Hans Memling or David

of apses, niches, archways,
cradles a smaller scene
of a mother and her child,

of the lidded jewel-box
of Mary’s downcast eyes.
Flee into Egypt, cries

the angel of the Lord
to Joseph in a dream,
for Herod will seek the young

child to destroy him. While
she works to tile the roof
with shingled peppermints,

I wash my sugared hands
and step out to the deck
to lug the shutter in,

a page torn from a book
still blank for the two of us,
a mother and her child.

~ Mary Jo Salter

                   

Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing

My mother was not impressed with her beauty;
once a year she put it on like a costume,
plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,
in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,
and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,
with tortoise pins, like huge insects,
some belonging to her dead mother,
some to my living grandmother.
Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was weighted and bound in its mask.
Vaseline shined her eyebrows,
mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;
her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.
Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even then were old from scrubbing,
whiter on the inside than they should have been,
and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,
the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens,
painted a jolly color.
Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed
for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.
And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her
pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify
every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside.
But once a year my mother
rose in her white silk slip,
not the slave of the house, the woman,
took the ironed dress from the hanger—
allowing me to stand on the bed, so that
my face looked directly into her face,
and hold the garment away from her
as she pulled it down.

~ Toi Derricotte