Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Poem for Thanksgiving in Hard Times

Thank You
by W.S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying than you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying all around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like the cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

Monday, November 24, 2008

Damn Psychic Cats

So. It was all set. Saturday, at 9:15 a.m. I was going to deliver the kittens and their mama to an Animal Clinic where the feral cat people take in strays, give them their shots, and foster them till they can find homes for them. The cats were my friends. Every morning they came meowing toward me when I opened the door, food in hand.

Until Saturday.

Saturday, I went out, food in hand, and they were gone.

I meowed and here-kitty-kitty-kittied awhile, peeking under the deck, behind the bushes, hoping they'd come out of hiding. Not. I put the food out. My morning's concentration was wrecked because I kept having to get up and look out the window to see if the food was still there.

It was.

Until about 12:30, at which point they appeared for lunch. The thing is, the clinic was open till noon. So it was too late to take them. How did they know this?

Mary Lee (Crazy Cat Woman) wasn't even a little surprised when I called her up to report this turn of events. "Cats are brilliant," she said.

I've hardly seen them since--and when I do, the mama cat gives me the evil eye. The kittens scamper out of reach and disappear through a broken slat in the fence.

Plan B? Maybe.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Loving the Process

A book I have been working on since 1998 (not every day, 9-5, but still...) started with the gruesome murder of two teenagers and their 20 year old “chaperone.” They had arranged for a to-your-door marijuana delivery, and after that delivery the dealers came back and murdered them. The boy’s girlfriend discovered the bodies when she came to pick him up the next morning.

What stuck in my mind was not so much the murder itself, but the comment a girl made about the murders on the evening news: “Something like this shouldn’t happen here.”

I thought, where, exactly, would it be appropriate for three young people to be brutally murdered in their own home?

I thought about this a lot. I also thought, nobody’s safe if everybody’s not safe. People are kidding themselves if they think moving up to the suburbs is going guarantee their safety and that of their children. Nobody’s safe if we’re not all safe.

Anyway. Teaching, I always say that your right brain, where stories come, from is like a slush machine: everything you’ve seen, felt, known, and imagined is sloshing around, along with everything you didn’t realize you’ve seen, felt, known, and imagined. Shift simile to a gumball machine: you put in the coins and some gumballs (or those nifty little prizes) come out. Who knows which ones you’ll get? Shift again: it’s like puzzle pieces. You have to put them together to make a picture. The hard thing is, you don’t know what the picture is going to be.

So. I had the girl’s statement about the murders. Here are some of the puzzle pieces my right brain gave me as I tried to find a story:

I saw a hot pink Volvo, with a decal of dancing bears and an expensive private school on the back. The driver and passenger were two pretty girls with streaked blond hair. I thought of that car in a funeral procession, how…wrong it would be.

I found out that one of the kids involved in the drug deal was the brother of a student of mine. The kid was good-looking, “clean-cut; my student looked like a druggie, but wasn’t. I imagined my student’s dad assuming he was the one in trouble when the police came to the door.

A memory of getting dumped by my best friend for someone cooler in junior high. It was awful. The truth is, I’ve never gotten over it!

What it would be like to be The Girl Who Found the Bodies.

Quote from a student’s journal: “Every time my dad comes to get us, the idiot dog goes berserk. He thinks Dad still lives here.”

There are more, many of which appeared in process. But you get the idea.

The next part of the process was asking, “What if?”

What if it was a boy and his girlfriend who were murdered by a drug dealer? What if the girl who found them was in the process of being dumped by the boy’s girlfriend who’d been adopted by the popular crowd? What if the girl had lied and said her friend was spending the night with her, then delivered her to the boy’s house? What if the conflict between her divorced parents complicated her guilt and grief? What if the preppy kid who arranged for the drugs had a malcontent brother—maybe a twin brother? What if the dumped girl and the malcontent brother got together somehow?

I tried writing the story from the girl’s point of view. (Maggie) finds the bodies and it goes from there. It didn’t work. I tried alternating points-of-view: Maggie and the malcontent boy (Will). It didn’t work. Now I’m trying to write it from Will’s point of view, and it’s sort of working.

Actually, I thought it was working—but was recently disabused of this idea by my wonderful agent, Andrea, who’s pretty much always right.

So I’m back to the drawing board and feeling really frustrated. Should I let the book sit and work on something else for a while? Should I motor on, hoping I’ll get a breakthrough? Of course, there’s the nasty little voice in my head whispering, “Give it up. Cut your losses, move on. It’s crap!”

Something else I tell my students: You have to love the ambiguity of process. I show them the picture of myself with all the failed drafts of Stranded in Harmony as proof that writing a novel is a whole lot about stick-to-it-iveness and drive.

But I certainly don’t love the ambiguity when I’m stuck in it. It makes me crazy. I feel like a fraud, stupid and incompetent. I think, how hard can this be? You just have to keep going, I tell them.

But I don’t want to.

I want to take a nap.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I was sitting in my office, procrastinating last week, when I looked out of the window and saw the gray-striped tiger cat that lives in our neighborhood sitting on the picnic table. Then I did a double-take: there were four cats out there. The one I’m used to seeing—and three kittens. The kittens were playing on the deck. They rolled around, stretched in the sunshine. They leapt up onto the garden bench, leapt down again. They batted at the dying asparagus plant, slithered through the gap between the fence and the shed and came out on the other side, tails up high, waving. Mom watched over them from the picnic table, a sphinx.

They scattered when I opened the door, and disappeared under the deck. I sat on a cold garden steppingstone, and pretty soon one little face appeared, then another. They didn’t come out, just looked at me. It made me laugh. That point-of-view thing I’m always talking about.

Who is this person in our playground?

Of course, I had to feed them. One by one, they came out and ate. Two stripy gray cats; a third, longer and leaner, with some yellow in him. And Mom, who watched over them, waiting to eat until she was sure they’d had all they wanted. Satisfied, they all skedaddled back under the deck again.

One of the great things about having taught high school for so many years is that there is always a former student who knows something (usually a lot) about whatever it is I want to know. So I e-mailed Mary Lee, CCL (Crazy Cat Woman.)

She wrote back: Yay kittens! How old are they!? Are they friendly? What colors are they and how old do you think they are? Can you take their pics and email me?! Feed them dry food only in the morning. If you feed at night other critters with find it. Also, create some kind of a cozy little bed for them – a box with towels. I can get the kittens into a fosterer right away! And, can get them spayed/neutered, all shots, Revolution, etc. this Sunday at $25 per kitten.

It’s been kitten central around here this week. My granddaughter, Heidi, helped me make the bed. My grandson, Jake, who’s been staying with me all week, helps me feed them every morning. He named the mom, “Mom.” He named the two gray kittens, “Julia” and “Emily.” He named the other one, “Kitten.”

He wrote a story about the kittens at school: I saw 4 blac cats in my Grammo's bacyrde and we fed the blac cats evre murning we fed them and they live under the purch and thae luve to eat.

Now they all come out when the back door opens. They come up the steps, meowing, and let us pick them up to pet them. Jake’s fascinated by their bony little backs. Heidi wants to mother them. Both have lobbied (and, alas, failed) to keep one. I was in the kitten danger zone myself for a while. They’re so cute. Really. How much trouble could one little kitten be? And wouldn't it be lovely to have it curled up on my lap, purring, while I read.

Then I came to my senses. Steve’s allergic to cats. And the fabulous Louise is likely to try to eat it.

So the feral cat people are coming to “rescue” them on Sunday afternoon. They’ll find good homes for them, I know. But I’ll miss them.

Friday, November 14, 2008

When the White House Was Ours

No, this is not a memoir soon to be co-authored by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

It’s a wonderful new novel by Indiana writer Porter Shreve. The white house is a crumbling mansion in Washington D.C. in which 13-year-old Daniel Truitt’s dad, fired from yet another teaching job, starts an “alternative” school where teachers and students will be equals. The year is 1976; Jimmy Carter’s living in the real White House. The school is called Our House, after the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song of the same name; its so-called faculty includes Daniel’s parents and a contingent of hippies: Daniel’s lethargic uncle Linc, Linc’s wife Cinnamon (formerly Cindy), and her lover, Tino, who’s main purpose in life is to stick it to the Man. As for the students, there’s Daniel himself, whose big pleasure in life is digging up weird facts about the American presidency; his sister, Molly, the same age as Amy Carter, whose dream is to attend the same school Amy does and be best friends with her—and a ragtag bunch or lost souls and malcontents.

I actually taught in an “alternative” school in the seventies, and everything about this book rings absolutely true—from what I came to think of as the “Noble Savage Theory of Learning,” in which teachers believe that teenagers actually know more than they do because they are unfettered by society’s constraints, to the fabulously flaky classes—like Cinnamon’s art class in which the students paint a montage of images on Linc’s stolen car to disguise it. There’s the wacky sense of camaraderie, the inevitable logistical disasters, the sometimes sketchy relationships between teachers and students who let the barriers down and set out to learn together.

But like all good novels told by the teenagers living inside them, this is a coming-of-age story. It’s about Daniel being set-down yet again in a new place, surrounded by new people, trying to make sense of his parents’ choices and their rocky marriage. Trying to find a place where he belongs.

I love this book! I’m adding it to my (long) list of “adult” books that teenagers would love, too.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


It’s over—and thank God it turned out right! Steve and I were poll watchers on Tuesday, and it was wonderful to drive past other polling sites before the 6 a.m. opening time, still dark as night, and see the lines of people snaked around the buildings, waiting to vote. There was more than an hour wait at our site, until things finally slowed down around nine o’clock. Then there was a steady stream all day. No line before closing, at six, which was kind of a surprise. But it turned out to be a pattern. People voted in the morning to be sure they could. It was a beautiful day, in the seventies, so mostly we just sat in the sun and chatted with an African-American woman, Holly, who was handing out sample ballots for the Democratic Party, and Elaine, a North Central teacher, handing out flyers for the candidates the state teacher organization supported. A lot of very elderly people voted—many looked likely to be Republicans. (One frail lady in a pink and green plaid blazer actually pushed Elaine when she tried to give her the flyers and said, “I don’t want welfare!” (What do you think the fucking bank bailout is, I wanted to ask.) But a fair number of African Americans voted, too—young, middle-aged, old.

I loved watching the returns, shots of the crowd growing in Grant Park. Every kind of person! I loved watching their faces when the race was called. People laughed, cried, danced, screamed. Some just stood there, looking stunned. His speech was brilliant, so real. So not in-your-face, like W’s of four years ago—and he could have legitimately done an in-your-face speech if he’d wanted to. It was a landslide! Steve cried, listening. “This is better than a Rocky movie,” he said a little sheepishly. My daughter Kate cried so much that she alarmed her eight-year-old daughter. “Mom, what’s wrong?” Heidi asked. Kate said the only thing she could think of that might make her understand, “When I was little, black kids weren’t allowed to go to the Rivi.” (Our swim club.) “What?” Heidi asked, aghast.

I was mainly relieved. I felt like I could breathe deeply again. I was so afraid he wouldn’t win, that we’d be looking at a future with another four years of old politics—or worse. I know Obama can’t fix everything, maybe there are some things he can’t fix at all. But I believe he can change what needs changed most—and that is the tone of government. He brings integrity, intelligence, real compassion and genuine curiosity about and respect for differing points of view to the White House, traits I think are necessary to create the kind of change we must have if we are to survive.

Maybe the best part of these few days after the election is that there seems to be something new in the air. Black people seem friendlier, especially if you mention Obama. They seem to be standing taller, taking up more space, proud that Obama is their own. It’s really beautiful to see.

So, bravo to us for electing this extraordinary man. Especially my own state, Indiana, for the extremely unlikely accomplishment of going blue for the first time in more than forty years.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

So, Vote!

I can’t remember the name of this book I read when I was a little kid, but here’s the basic story. The beloved king’s birthday is coming, and his couriers go around the kingdom asking all of his loyal subjects to celebrate by shouting “Happy Birthday” at exactly the same time on that day. Their well wishes will be heard from hill to dale!

But when the moment comes, one person is too busy to stop and shout “Happy Birthday.” One fewer voice, he thinks, what can that matter? Another is too tired. She thinks the same thing. Another forgets…

You catch the drift.

When the moment comes: complete and utter silence throughout the whole kingdom.

This book made a huge impression on me! I read it again and again, my kid-brain sucking in the certainty that if I don’t do what I’m supposed to do the equivalent of that complete and utter silence will be the result.

Like voting. If we don’t vote…

I know. One vote. Big deal. Plus, there’s that wacky Electoral College that makes you think, why bother, especially if you’re a Blue person in a Red state or a Red person in a Blue.

I know this is book thing is kind of a dopey metaphor, too. Flaking out on a birthday greeting to an imaginary king is hardly comparable to what’s at stake on November 4th. Still, it’s a nice little cautionary tale. Why take the risk of remaining silent?

Hundreds of thousands of people have done this in past elections, each one believing his or her own small voice didn’t matter. Let’s not let it happen again!

Your vote is your voice. Use it to shout out what you want our country to be.

For lots of great reasons to vote, check out Blog the Vote.