Take Your Place at the Table

Charlotte, Emily and Anne as they might have looked while writing.

The Brontë sisters fascinate me. How did one family in the early 19th century produce not one but three influential female writers? There are several carefully researched theories of course, but I’m going to go with the furniture. While Jane Austen was off at the side of the parlor writing secretly on a teeny tiny table and hiding her pages under a blotter when anyone came in, the Brontë sisters worked side by side at their dining room table with their drafts spread out around them.  Yes they were encouraged to be prolific from very young and produced astounding quality work before their early deaths, but the crucial factor for me is the table and how they wrote.  Some of the greatest novels of the 19th century took their initial shape there—Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights,for instance.

What’s the significance of a shared table for writers and creators of any kind?


Emily’s sketch of herself and Anne working at the table. From her journal, dated 1837.

I have a fabulous writing group, and once a month we gather at a table much like the Brontë’s.  Like the Brontës, we sit close and spread out our rough drafts. (Unlike the Brontës, we drink wine.)  We stay on topic, we read aloud. We get off topic, and we meander back. We squirm. We talk, we listen. Sometimes we yawn. We laugh all night. We debate. Those hours radically change our perspectives.  Our drafts take on weight, and our confidence in what we are saying grows.  This is the real work, and we are in it.  What matters most, to paraphrase Maurice Sendak, is our table “becomes the world all around.”

The Brontës were said to get up at times and walk around the table while working out their thoughts. Around and around the table they went, thinking, talking, and spinning words.  Without each other and the table, what are the chances their books would have been published and still read today?

Even now, early in the 21st century, gathering at a table to create is still a radical act for many of us. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg in an oft shared TED talk “Why Are There So Few Women Leaders?” tells women the first key to success is to, “Sit at the table.” Boardroom table or dining room table?  Same difference.  Don’t get stuck thinking your job is to serve others. Don’t take a chair against the wall.  See that chair there in the inner circle? That one is yours.  The table is the great equalizer.

When it came time to publish their books, shocking for their time, the Brontës went with male pseudonyms first.  Back then no respectable woman wrote about passion outside marriage, rage that could destroy but was not judged, or cheeky governesses who wouldn’t be pushed around.  Governesses were usually not permitted to eat at the table with their employers, after all. In their books Emily, Charlotte and Anne protested that status, one they each would have to deal with. They were educated, unmarried women from a family without money, after all.  Where did they likely get their uppity ideas? At their own table.

Casting a Wide Net in China: A Birth Family Search

Jenna Cook and her mom, Margaret Cook

This week Tea Leaf Nation, an intriguing new blog following Chinese netizens, shared the story of a Chinese-American college student, Jenna Cook, who is looking for her birth parents in China.  Her interviews and related posts have gone viral there.

It takes an impressive amount of courage to go so public with a search.  There’s the real possibility of dead ends and bad news.  So far Jenna has found no answers, but she’s not giving up and says she never will.

What Tea Leaf Nation fixates on are the numbers of people in China–in the hundreds of thousands–already avidly following Jenna’s story. It’s often hard for people outside of China to grasp the sheer numbers of people who live there, and how those numbers also complicate an adoptee’s chances of finding her birth parents.  Looking for a lost family is like a quest to find a handful of needles in a hundred haystacks.  Mountainous haystacks, I might add.  But that massive population in Jenna’s case could turn into a source of strength because of the internet.

An interview Jenna gave on Weibo (a microblogging service) inspired over 330,000 posts. Her first tweet drew another 28,000 reposts and a stunning 4,000 comments.    If I could read Chinese, I would have devoured the commentary, I assure you.   Fortunately Tea Leaf nation translates or shares some of the English ones with readers.

One responder, for instance, wanted her to “stop trying to find your birth parents” because they could not match her adoptive mother in kindness or open mindedness. Another commenter said, “A birth mother is not as dear as an adoptive mother.”

As an adoptive mother, I admit feeling warmed by sentiments like these.  But here’s the rub: It’s not a competition, right? (A follow-up article by Tea Leaf nation says for some Chinese parents it might be.)

When I adopted my daughters from China in the early 2000s, there seemed little hope of finding their birth parents. When or how to search was not an issue.  There were no reliable records and no witnesses of their abandonment—at least none easy to find.  Even if a possible family were identified, DNA testing was still too expensive and inaccessible to be realistic except in the high case of a probable match.  Hope then rested on the emerging internet in China and its potential.  And that time has come. Jenna Cook’s search is an example of how it may be a netizens’ community effort that will reunite children and birth families.

So what will I do the day one of my girls asks to look for her people in China? I’ll say yes, of course, because  I am her mother and I support her decisions.  After that I’ll slip off for a few minutes, curl up in a ball and quietly give into panic over what I cannot control, including how she might be hurt by what she discovers or how our family might never be the same.  Then I’ll get up, take a deep breath, and help her take the first step–which will likely begin on the internet.


Jenna is also one of four Chinese-American adoptees featured in the documentary Somewhere Between.  I blog about the award-winning film here.  Tea Leaf Nation’s aim to track the Chinese populace by what develops in web land there is fascinating business.  If you “like” Tea Leaf on Facebook, they will donate to the Rural Education Program, a much needed support system in China.

Finding Somewhere Between

I found it impossible not to fall in love with Somewhere Between, a documentary about four American teenagers adopted from China.

In the documentary Somewhere Between, girls adopted from China tell their stories.

When it showed at the Portland International Film festival, I went determined to be objective, but I was anxious. Would the film present a melodramatic spin on birthparents or a critical lens on adoptive parents? I half-expected a vague celebration of Chinese culture. Since adopting my first daughter over ten years ago, and getting to know orphanages and adoptees well through efforts and visits at the orphanages in Fuling and Zhanjiang, I’ve worked my way through the spectrum of stories on adoption, often poignant and personal, sometimes painful.

With time, and as I’ve written my own novel on this subject, I’ve reached the point of wanting a story about adoption to stretch to the wider concerns formed by adoptees themselves. My own “tween” daughters from China struggle with questions like: Who am I, really? What happened to me? How do I negotiate the way I joined my family and how I immigrated to America? How can I understand the person I am now without thinking about the one I might have been in China had my birth family kept me?

Suffice it to say by fifteen minutes into the film my eyes started to run. Using a graciously piercing and playful approach, Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton gets at the truth of things. She follows the girls through their daily lives and accomplishments–one is a Southern beauty queen, another a top scholar on the East Coast, another fluent in Chinese and a high school artist in California, the other a self-contained and hilarously outspoken daughter in Pennsylvania.

Finding out who they are will be no simple path, and it will mean confronting the loss of their birth families and birth country in whatever way they can.

The four subjects admit they struggle with how to fit in. Teenagers everywhere work through this, particularly those in mixed race and multi-cultural families, so the documentary resonates with a universal quality. At the same time these questions become specific to each girl. Their journeys and personalities are markedly different. What they share is an awakening the viewer also reaches by the end of the film: Finding out who they are will be no simple path, and it will mean confronting the loss of their birth families and birth country in the way that makes most sense to them.

How far they go for answers even in the year or so span of the filming makes for both inspiring and sobering watching. By the end of  Somewhere Between, we’re left with the realization that these teenagers, like the majority of kids adopted from China, are at that brink of becoming adults. Their identity does not rest primarily on being anyone’s child anymore–their adoptive parents or birthparents. Raised to be strong, proud, and in most all cases open about their adoptions, these young adults will have plenty to say about who they are and how they got there.

Nine Great Novels (and 9 More)

“There is a simple test: ‘Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?’” Jeannette Winterson

December is the month when newspapers and literary blogs put out their lists of the 10 best books of the year. These lists, determined by committee (it seems), usually represent books published by bigger, commercial presses and often make me feel combative. “Ten best books? Says who?” Roxane Gay of The Rumpus wrote a spot-on article on the fallacy of those Ten Bests. She points instead to books published this year that truly moved her and met criteria many of us can believe in. (Gay’s article included the Jeannette Winterson quote above.) All that said, I like lists, and I thought the Christian Science Monitor’s 10 Best Fiction books the most intriguing of those I’ve run across this month.

A few days ago, my beautiful friend Diane asked for titles of books I’d recommend. My first impulse was to send her the Christian Science Monitor’s list, but after I thought of my friend, how complex her life, how much I missed her–we’ve seen each other rarely since high school–I rifled through the stash of bedside books I haven’t gotten to yet in search of something she’d like. If I suggested some of these, maybe we could read them at the same time and compare notes?

But this list was for Diane, a brilliant and generous thinker. Diane had been a soul mate of my youth, a gift to me because she set her own rules and dared me to set my own. She said what was in her heart, no holds barred. Had we lived close by each other all these years, been able to trade books and personal stories, how would we have grown and changed together? Novels, because of the way they take readers beyond the known and seemingly possible, would (I imagine) have been our thing.

Dearest Diane, these are the books I hope you like because I love them. I wish we had read them together. (When you get a chance, please send your picks for me.)

A River Sutra by Gita Mehta. An elegant tale and treatise on desire, set in India, entwining three faiths. Most precious to me because I listened to it on tape (back then) while anxiously waiting to adopt our first daughter and knitting the first sweater (a child’s) I ever made. Mehta’s characters show how dangerous it is to want something very badly and yet how sacred it is to be consumed by that desire.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. First read this as a junior in college. First novel written by a woman I studied in college. Assigned by a male professor who would lecture at length and with passion on the works of Austen, Bronte and Woolf. I can recite whole sentences from this book. Images come back to me when I am out walking and thinking through the stories I am writing. Gave me permission to keep going with my writing and to never give up.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A delicious story of lovers separated almost all their lives. Epic in scope, playfulness and suggestion. First read this late into the night during a cool, long summer in at my parent’s old house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Woke up each morning under layers of blankets and still inside Garcia Marquez’ dream. Maybe I still am?

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. Piercy imagines a future in which true mutual respect is possible. The leap toward the fantastical in this book opens up a discussion that has never stopped for me and many friends, including those warrior women and men I met in graduate school when I first read this novel. We set out armed to read, write and think. We continue to believe.

Sula by Toni Morrison. “We was girls together,” Morrison writes. Central to this book, set in a Black community on the brink of being torn apart, is the friendship of Sula and Nel. Morrison goes deep with this gorgeous, mythic story of how people are sacrificed in one way or another when they (and we) do not have the room to expand and accommodate.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. We each have our place in history.To pull one string is to find the whole cloth. I cannot remember the first time I read this book, only that it was the first novel I started to take apart as a writer in order to understand what the story had done to me as a reader and how.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. When I close my eyes I can see June Kashpaw, the character the narrative circles, sitting against the fence in the snow. All of the other characters approach her through this fabulously well told story. As I figured out how to structure my own novel, I kept returning to Love Medicine. I have an ongoing, open love affair with Erdrich’s writing. America’s story spills out in her innovative and image-rich fiction.

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson. Surprising and deeply imaginative retelling of the slave trade. Johnson does something profound with a fine dance of humor, irony, and allusion to literature of all kinds. For the last ten years in a row I have “taught” this book to my students, and it always ranks for them in the top two or three novels of the semester. I keep asking them to read it because of what the tale does to our hearts and heads. What separates us is not what we have been taught.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Most recent addition to my list of “greats.” Byatt’s deliciously substantial novel takes on early 20th century artisan culture in England by focusing on a famous female writer and mother of four who writes for her children and for publication. Page by page, the book expands to take in characters and events during a time that shifted our perspective on art of all kinds, including who makes it and why. On the top of my bedside books for rereading.

And because I’m on a roll:

9 More Simply Great Novels worth reading together “had we world enough and time.”

Atonement by Ian McEwan. There is a fine line between telling stories and lies. Provocative, discomfiting read.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Shakespear’s King Lear retold through the story of an American farm family.Disturbingly clever and moving.

Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Early 20th century China distilled through Lu Xun’s fiction. Feel him picking at China, at all of us. Ironic, recognizable characters. (Okay this is not a novel, but if we would all pretend it is, then the book would get wider distribution and be read everywhere. As it should.)

Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić. Translated from Serbian, this book feels like a secret text smuggled out and left to us to read back to front or front to back. Each direction reveals a different story. Pavić writes: “No chronology will be observed here, nor is one necessary. Hence each reader will put together the book for himself . . .”

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Bronte’s edginess and sensuality makes this a mouth-watering 19th century read. She took risks. This novel speaks volumes on the need to find one’s own value.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. James’ twist on the tragic heroine adds another dimension (or five) to what marriage is all about, 19th century style.

Searoad by Ursula LeGuin. As well as writing mind-blowingly good science fiction and short fiction, LeGuin gets places perfectly, including Oregon coastal peoples and the influence of the sea. This novel does it for me. If you like this book, take an unconventional leap into her science fiction with Fisherman of the Inland Sea, a collection of short stories and novella that will do all sorts of things to your sense of time and place.

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Fiction? Nonfiction? What are we? What, given more ways to tell a story, could we be?

Written on the Body by Jeannette Winterson. Cried with awe the first time I read this book. Go further, she tells us. Go beyond.

Read to Heal: Novels Do the Good Work

I’m pretty much unbalanced. As soon as I have everything figured out—children, teaching, book draft, parents, orphanage work—something goes awry, often profoundly so. When I lost my father last spring, I struggled through the haze of grief and confusion. I heard myself say more than once to my husband: “I need balance.” As if a better diet, sleep pattern or exercise could cure what ailed me.

Balance is a code word many of use to indicate we’re in over our heads. We advise each other to take up yoga, jettison an obligation, learn to say no. Give up something, we’re told—often a project or vocation we love—so the scales will even out. Then we’ll suddenly be all right, as if it is we who are wobbling and staggering and not the world around us, which is so often the case.

The problem (I finally realized) is “balance” as a practice can be no more effective in dealing with the true vicissitudes and tragedies of everyday life than a vitamin or a datebook. Because life, if we making the most of it, comes at us in epic displays of beauty and blows, death, illness, birth, injustice, ruin, addiction, and confusing success.

After this difficult year, I’ve come to accept that to survive well and continue to do good work the answer is not simply more order and moderation but integration, an increased ability on my part to bear, absorb and comprehend the largeness of this living and my space within it. I read almost exclusively for that purpose as of late, and I’ve found novels can be most trusted to take me all the way through the process.

This last week I’ve read three satisfying books about characters that face frightening, destabilizing loss.

In Ann Hood’s the Knitting Circle a woman has lost her five year old daughter to a sudden illness. Barely able to function because of grief, she reluctantly takes up knitting and joins a knitting circle. As I turn the pages of this book I am pulled into her sorrow, stay with her as she masters knot by knot the unimaginable: Enduring each day without her child. Healing, this book demonstrates, is to expand to be more than the grief. Like learning to knit, this is painstaking work requiring patience and faith. You will often, this novel shows, need help.

In Lisa Genova’s Left Neglected, the reader meets a protagonist with no balance at all. Super successful and juggling three children, our hero is overscheduled and running every hour until one day rushing to her job she has a car accident that leaves her with a head injury so profound she is no longer able to work, to parent, to even make it to the bathroom alone. The novel enacts a conversation between the hero and herself as she works through occupational and physical therapy, tries to understand her disability, confronts her own need to ask for help. In excruciating and often exciting moments, she will reconcile what she can never get back with what she still has in order to find in the mix joy and a new path.

In the last pages of each of these books, I am asked to take a leap of faith, to believe that in “real life” a person can reach this kind of healing. In both cases I felt myself struggle with doubt as I closed the book. Wouldn’t in “real life” a self-help book offer beautifully packaged and possibly delusional solutions?

While I am usually drawn to the cynicism of a supposedly more rational mind when it comes to literary art, I have to conclude both novels do the good work and make me believe. Why? It is for the most part foolish for many of us considering what we face to get up each day–or try to–and continue to build anew. A novel done well can bear a heavy weight of despair on its back and through the long, skillful march of the narrative take us to a point of revelatory equilibrium. We can, if briefly, make it through to the other side.

My expectations high after finishing Hood’s and Genova’s books, I started on Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth, a story of a Vietnamese-American woman who at age seven loses her birth parents to a brutal tragedy and is adopted by a white couple who tell her nothing about her birthparents and don’t acknowledge her race. This hero succeeds professionally and yet her body, afflicted by cancer, will derail her achievements, and her adoptive mother and grandmother will fail her. A painful and surprising process of recovery–both of information and of self–is enacted in this novel. It’s a testament to Truong’s skill that I buy this woman finds a way to make it through so much loss and betrayal to a point of triumph.

Most of us are not after pure realism or pure escapism when we read novels but instead a sophisticated melding of the two, because to survive we must imagine beyond the constraints of the most unbearable moments. We must also take a world that derails and confuses us and try to modify it to meet us where we are now—a place we have used any means to reach, be it knitting, therapy, walking barefoot across the country, prayer, writing, helping others who suffer more, or any innumerable idiosyncratic methods to make sense of the senseless. Each day we are metaphorically fashioning our own disability- friendly house, because the fact is complete wholeness will not be possible: A lost child is not recoverable, birthparents long dead will remain gone, and a severely damaged brain cannot be completely made right again.

Through the well done storytelling in these books, I am led back to the core of my own myths, the narratives I need to spin so I can endure, process, stay open, have hope, experience joy. If the dream of the novel syncs with my own dream—and in a successful novel it will–I learn to re-vision myself and name my own moment of re-integration, which is both personal and archetypal. For a while I again have my footing.

Birthing an Elephant, or Finishing a Draft of My First Novel

My new baby.

Update: Done! A complete draft with as much love, research, drama and craft as I could squeeze in–or out. I spent so much time with my characters that when I had to kill one off I slipped into a state of grief. Then I realized yet another chapter was a wrap and felt better. Being so inside the story for that many hours a day was excruciatingly exciting, like an ongoing hallucination.

Full disclosure: I missed my deadline by two days and did wear the Cone of Shame but the reduced range of vision helped me from getting distracted and possibly chewing off a limb in frustration–an advantage a vet would have pointed out to me. I pretty much didn’t leave my writing room (aka pen) until I typed the last word, so it didn’t matter any way.

Next: More sleep, less chocolate, more showers, less coffee, more playing with my kids, less whining about the book.


As of this writing, I have 12 days, 9 hours and 42 minutes left to push out the mother of all drafts of my first novel. I have a deadline I imposed upon myself and told everyone about—even you—so that I have no choice to finish it or wear the CONE OF SHAME.  (See item 6 below for more on my convoluted but, I think, effective logic on how to trick yourself into doing what’s good for you even when it feels bad and, yes, even ridiculous.)

Sharing what I now know about birthing a book while counting my breaths (or pages) is not perhaps the best use of my time, but in the 17 minutes between contractions, I’ll share a few manic observations you won’t find in What to Expect When You Are Expecting Your Novel:

1. Post-Its are your friend and your enemy.  (See below photo of my study wall.)

2. Bathing is a privilege not a right.  If you don’t shower in the morning, you can make it a reward for getting in a few more hours (or days) work.

3. Don’t read all the beautiful passages, chapters or characters you have to cut and kill off in your quest to find “the heart of your story.”  It will bring on crying jags, and you’ll lose precious writing time.

4. As for your garden: What garden?

5. As for your children: What children?

6. Answer no calls or emails before you finish another chapter. I have no internet in my study right now.  It can be done.  You can booby trap your own dang self.  When a friend of mine quit smoking (note I did not say tried to quit smoking), she used this method: She put three cigarettes in a paper lunch sack. She wrote an elaborately timed system for when she could have her next cigarette, which she put into another paper sack.  She bought a pack of gum to get her through the in between times, and she put that in a third paper sack.  She kept a system for when she could chew the gum in another paper sack.  There were more paper bags she carried around, one probably holding a master schedule for all the bags.  Okay, I’ve forgotten what the goal was?  Oh yeah, staying off the internet.*

7. Do whatever it takes to stay in the chair.  I’ve never been able to write while listening to music until now.  I’ve never been able to write while holding my pee until now.  I’ve never been able to make it a whole morning on three almonds and tepid coffee made the day before until now.   I have a dear friend who tied herself to a chair when writing papers in graduate school (you know who you are) and I used to find that a little disturbing until now.**

8. More last minute research?  Oh no you don’t.

9. There are passages in this draft that a monkey could write better, a blindfolded, drunk monkey, and yet oddly enough I find these places in the book provide me with a whole new sense of beauty and, best of all, they often come near the end of a chapter, which means I can call it good enough and start on another chapter. (Screw “art” and the arty artful artists who taught me otherwise).

Plot points in Post-Its.

10. Give up all sense of control beyond the systems you already have in place.  Example: rearranging your post-it notes at the last minute is note a good idea. (See item #1)

11. Exhaustion is not a bad thing.  At some point on your eighth day in the eighth hour, when you have given up all punctuation, when your characters are either a) actually now sitting in the room  talking to you or b) cartoons on the level of Scooby Doo, your inhibitions will be so far gone that your story will move you, the whole notion of storytelling will be an utter gas, and you will have reached a state along the lines of nirvana or enlightenment. At the least you will have a clear clean sense that this baby is coming, one way or another, perfect or not.  The fantasy of what you’d hoped it would be will be supplanted completely by what you are capable of and you won’t care the two won’t match because you’ll be done.

12. Time’s up.   Back to work.  No catchy ending here.  I’m saving that for the novel.

*When I do check my email, I always hope I will find a full, polished draft of my book attached to a message I’ve sent myself.  I should probably see a therapist about this delusion, but by the time I will manage to make the appointment, I will have sent myself the real book.  (See above on desperate logic that gets it done.)

**There are a number of images of being bound showing up in this draft of the book.  I’d elaborate on that, but I’m a bit tied up at the moment.

Talking to My Dad

My dad. Lover of stories and country music.

I keep this photo of my dad on my writing desk. We lost him six weeks ago.

My dad was not a good listener when I was young. Hilarious, quick, smart, a big talker and impatient, he was always a presence. He became a father when he was 18, and the responsibility of it never quite set right. Much later, after he quit drinking and joined AA, he got better at slowing down enough to listen to his wife and kids. After he was diagnosed with lung cancer when in his sixties, he grew quieter and seemed to absorb the world around him in a simultaneously startled and patient way.

He loved stories and country music, which explains his endearingly maudlin side and why he liked long conversations with strangers in small town bars, the juke box blaring Hank Williams or Charlie Pride. When I was in fourth grade I wrote an O’Henry-ish story about a girl who doesn’t like her little sister. The younger sister has a mental disability and the older girl is ashamed of her. When the little sister dies suddenly, she leaves a sign—a special leaf—meant to show she still loved her big sister. One day I came home from school to find my dad with those three wide-ruled notebook pages in his hands. He had deciphered my barely discernable pencil scratches.

“Did you write this?” he asked me.
I nodded.
“This is good. I liked it.”

The way to my father’s heart was through a song or story, I realized quickly enough, and the sadder the better. After that I wrote poems and more stories and kept a slew of uneven journals. There was a lot of sadness in those pages, and some of it caused by him. Most of these writings I did not share with my dad. A few he read, never critically, which was at variance with the rest of the time I saw him, tense encounters as he struggled with alcoholism, the loss of his own father to cancer, his own sense of failure and dissatisfaction, the stress of raising three kids born by the time he was 21. He was often so far into his head that he could be in a room full of people and not hear a word they said to him. I remember tapping his arm to be heard, the way he could turn away while I was mid-sentence. I learned to keep a safe distance.

When I was in college and taking writing classes, he handed me two stories he wrote himself. One was about his Dutch grandfather, historical and detailed, and the other about a woman around my mother’s age. One day, while her teenage daughter is at school,the woman puts on her daughter’s clothes and sets out on an afternoon of adventure and mishap. The story was quirky and smart. I think he sent the story out to a magazine and got a rejection. I don’t know what happened to either of those stories. I’d love to have them now. Somewhere in his things is also a notebook with country songs he penned, his guitar on his lap.

I have few memories of conversations with my dad in which he listened to me. During those rare exchanges, I rushed through explanations while I still had his attention. He did like telling me things. All of my boyfriends were recipients of his theories on politics, hunting, developments in science, and occasionally women. He was funny, though, which offset his sadly sentimental and remote sides and left us with a lot of silly memories. We have oft-used one-liners in the family that he crafted on camping trips and were sure to send us howling with laughter in our tent. He also entertained us by making animals out of mashed potatoes at dinner, but that would take an elaborate series of photos to explain.

When I read aloud my fiction for the first time I was graduating with my master’s degree in creative writing and defending my thesis. I stood in front of sixty people (okay, maybe more like twenty) in a campus classroom. My friends coached me to slow down—I had and still have a tendency to talk fast when the spotlight is on me. I had decided upon a short story I wrote about a daughter who leaves her father. When I look at it now, I can see all the parts I would revise or cut, a few sentimental lines that embarrass me. My parents were in the audience that day and sitting modestly toward the back for the room. The father in the story was nothing like my dad, and the daughter nothing like me—this I had been sure about when while I wrote the piece–and yet as I read it aloud I had the choking revelation that I had been trying to forgive my father and myself for what could not be fixed between us. The awareness my dad was hearing me share this story with him and a room of people made my hands shake. I struggled to maintain my voice. When I finished, I looked up to see he was crying. Big, sappy tears of pride, sadness and happiness rolled down his face.

I snapped that photo of my dad last summer. He was leaning into the minivan to say goodbye to my daughters and me. We’d come from Oregon to Michigan to see him and my mom. A few months later he would not be able to walk any more without assistance and pain and morphine would take the clarity from his eyes. His ability to listen attentively, to be completely there with us in a room would never be back. A few minutes after I took that shot, I drove away. He stood there in the yard for as long as he could still see me and my girls, his arm up in the air, staring hard at us. Sentimental and beautiful as hell.

One of my dad’s favorite songs.
Willie Nelson’s Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground

In the Garden in Search of My Grandmothers

“I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.
— Alice Walker—In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens

 Waiting on watermelon startsIt’s that time of year again, a good many of us down in the dirt and dreaming big. As usual when my knees hit the mud for this first time, I long to have my grandmothers back. I’d settle those two hard-working, Midwest anchors of my childhood on lawn chairs in the middle of my freshly turned beds, the ghosts of my past surrounded by the fantasy of the yield to come.

My father's mother at age 16 on the family farm, hands dirty from work. She moved to the city after she married.

I miss those ladies. Once my hands are free to dig—no writing on the computer, no marking papers or editing, no doing anything but going into the earth–the grief I store up in pockets all winter comes out. I hack at those weeds in a way that feels personal. The earth gets a good beating, and the scent and feel of soil takes me back to when I was small and left to dig and make mud in yards where there was always somebody nearby. Ours was a raucous and constantly shifting network of siblings, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. I must have assumed it would always be that way.

What I wouldn’t give to look up from setting in new seeds and be able to ask those two matriarchs, “What did you do with your hands that made you truly happy?” I honestly have no idea what they would say, and not knowing that about them seems like the saddest thing.

My youngest planting nasturtiums with me. She likes arranging the seeds.

We feel close to people when we see or experience what they create. Every day I ask my children, “What do you want to make?” I sign them up for painting or dancing or piano lessons. I look for their personalities and their futures in what they love to do. My students and friends are always deep inside some process or another, writing, painting, building. The meals we make for each other are lovely and exotic, the wine discussed as if it were a poem. We love people for what they do for others, but we fall in love with them based on what they do for themselves.

My grandmothers did not romanticize gardens or knitting or any of the “hobbies” I indulge in when I am not tapping my lily white and pampered fingers on the keyboard. (That I write and read other people’s writing for a living would amuse them.) After marrying my grandfather and leaving the family farm, my father’s mother worked the line at General Motors for 28 years. She dipped her fingers in motor oil, lifting and sorting car parts until she ached. She did get to wear plastic gloves though, so no stains. My mother’s mother had hands abraded and veined from heavy kitchen work and tending children. Her right pinky finger was crushed permanently flat after she caught it in the wringer washing machine. My grandparents made the bulk of their livelihoods from building and repairing automobiles. They planted flowers along the edges of their yards, usually petunias, sweet williams or begonias, and that was that. Theirs were simple homes with little art or time for it. There were too many people to feed and clothe and keep healthy.

My mother's mother spent five years on this spread, working at it when she had time.

I imagine my grandmothers–one tall and lean, the other soft and round–in my Oregon yard, pointing out a weed I missed and getting a kick out of the things my kids say. I miss the good natured teasing and oft repeated stories that both women resorted to in order to keep the multitude of their descendents in our places while at work on some necessary job or another. They both liked to laugh, my mother’s mother hunched over with her hands on her knees, my father’s mother with her head thrown back, whooping. It was impossible not to join in when she got going.

When my father’s mother died, I selected as a keepsake a battered red mixing bowl she used to make fudge. She was particular and indulgent on the item of sweets. I remember the thermometer, her modulated voice explaining to me the science of candy making, her delight when appreciative guests asked for more. I got her bag of yarn, too, mostly because no one else wanted it. She used to crotchet padded clothes hangers–pretty things to hang in closets, where no one would see them, of course. I was delighted to find at that bottom of her bag a pile of butterscotch hard candy she was not supposed to eat in her last years because of her diabetes. She sneaked while she worked. I keep the candy there as good luck charms.

My grandmother's bedspread, on my bed now.

From my mother’s mother I have a bedspread that took her five years to make. By the time she completed it, the instructions were held together with yellowed cellophane tape. She crotched 159 three-dimensional pink roses, 18 petals each, every flower set into a lacey square, each square woven into the next. The thread was thin and easily tangled. It was likely the most impractical thing she ever did. The spread needed repairing even before she finished the last row.

She no doubt agonized over what she had gotten herself into with the project and thought a good many times about giving up. I’m guessing she kept on because she visualized tying the final knot and laying her masterpiece upon the old mattress. I wish I had been with her at that moment to see her face. The roses and the intricate pattern holding them together seem as fine as any bloom or design I can put in my garden or might write. I keep the spread on my own bed now. If I hold my head just right, my eye even with the flowers my grandmother made, I can see a landscape I like to think she wished would go on forever.

When We Are Small Artists

The Mother's Day Brunch my 4-year-old made for me.

I type this surrounded by the following: A bright red construction paper card made by my 11-year-old that says “You are the best mom ever” in both English and Egyptian heiroglyphics, a “calendula plant” (my 7-year-old explains) in a handmade planter with a paper flag set into it that says, “Happy Mothers Day, Moma” (sic) and decorated with designs that look a lot like the tattoos she wants. My 4-year-old has made me a “flower breakfast” with camellias and tulips she picked from the yard. I note she’s chosen a martini glass. That’s my girl.

Mother’s Day is inspiration for more of the same around here (and I’m not referring to the martini glass, specifically). On the table are also sodden water colors, blue fish being the latest obsession. A cartoonish, supersize bouquet of skinny balloons is jammed into a vase—balloon bending went on under the table until late last night. My oldest is tapping out “Ode to Joy” on the piano, and each note is singular and a surprise. She actually likes practicing. Who knew? My middle girl has made a peanut butter bagel and dropped it face down on the floor by my feet. I should stop to pick it up. However, I am writing, so it can wait.

What they don’t tell you about parenting, or maybe they do but nobody really listens to anything about parenting before they are parents (as my own dear mother has reminded me), is that on good days, on the best days, you will be the recipient and facilitator of miniature people’s creative work and, if you can ignore the bagel smooshed three inches from your feet, they will return you the favor and provide you with precious inspiration. Yes, your children will do this for you, these same people who for a good many years you despair will not learn to say all the letters of the alphabet, wipe after going potty, or find the correct words to thank you (just two!) for any number of times you’ve saved them from, well, just about everything.

Last night, after said artists were in bed, I was reading Elaine Pagel’s Gnostic Gospels, which is not easy reading after a day with children, but it was closest to my hand when I lay down. I had checked it of out the library because I don’t know much about the Gnostics, except they have a history of irritating a good many religious folk. This morning, while considering the speed with which my daughters create, the ephemeral quality of so much of what they make and yet how complete their absorption and pleasure while they do it, I leafed back to something that had struck me the night before: Some of the Gnostics believed making art is a way of knowing oneself, and to know oneself is to achieve knowledge about the depth of all things. This act of making, those radicals asserted, was to find the Spirit that already inhabited one. It was a terribly simple formula and yet so hard for most people to accept. These expressions need not be elaborate, ritualized creations. They need only be true to what you hear within yourself at that moment.

In the card she gave me this morning, my middle daughter wrote, “I love you, Moma” (sic) in dark crayon. She loves to slide up against me, my little bean pole, and for me to whisper that I love her, just as I did a few minutes ago. When I say it, I mean it. From my lips into her ears passes what lies deep in my heart, the gratitude, the adoration, the most basic key to what makes every day worth it. I can’t find better words at these moments, and she does not care. She loves me, too. I know it. She sweated it out over those letters.

Two days ago my dad died. My last words to him were: “I love you, Dad.” His answer was, “I love you too, kid.” Both of us uttered the last thing people can think to say when our hearts are burst open. His words, fleeting and beautiful to me, were the embodiment of what it means to adore and let go of what you adore, to hear what you feel within, present it, and know what you manage to bring forth will be received in the spirit with which it was given: Childlike, immediate, and pure. It is very simple, I’m thinking this morning, as I type this.

Why I Reach for Virginia Woolf

“If only she could put them together, she felt, write them out in some sentence, then she would have got at the truth of things.”
–Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse.

I bought my most beautiful edition of Virginia Woolf’s work in China. I found it in new bookstore on a busy, hot street in Chengdu, a city I had lived in 10 years earlier. Chengdu had radically modernized since I had last seen it. At the same time dear old friends and some of the rich street life were gone. At the orphanage where I had helped over the years, I saw much was also improved for the children. Fewer orphans were arriving at their gates, but the little beds were now increasingly filled with children with profound disabilities, fragile kids with daunting needs.

My return to China was both exciting and sad. Mostly it was disorienting, and so the English section of the bookstore was the natural place to take refuge. As soon as I walked in, I impulsively reached for a paperback copy of Virginia Woolf’s Selected Works, which featured a cover photo of Woolf when she was twenty years old and everything lay yet ahead of her. The volume itself weighed a shocking amount, at least 5 pounds—no sensible traveler would consider packing it. But the minute I opened the 1100 page book and it fell open to one of Woolf’s incomparable sentences, the swoop and repetition, the longing to capture and understand, I had to have it.

I carried my discovery back to my hotel the way I would a scroll painting or a jade antique, a great find at a good price. Then I lay down in my hotel bed, the sounds of China outside my window, and read. Every few minutes I would stop, pick up my pen and write. The complexity of what I was experiencing began to spill out on the page.

Reading Woolf at difficult times has become automatic for me. The character Laura Brown in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours carries Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway with her to a hotel to read alone. Laura, suffocating in her role as mother and wife and not understanding why, imagines she will take her own life that day. In the early drafting of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf thought her character Clarissa Dalloway would struggle with suicide but as the book developed her internal suffering is taken on by another character, whose choice to kill himself presages the decision that Woolf years later will make for herself. The desire to get “at the truth of things” through language goes beyond a wish to summarize the significance of an event or to even find comfort—although it is a delight when either of those things happens, too. The urgency that underlies this effort to still and then illuminate moments in Woolf’s novels reflects the impossible: Our attempt to stop time in order to more fully live and understand it through language.

I filled a notebook in that hotel in China, and from it came fiction that, more than five years later, has finally taken on the shape of a novel. Lily Briscoe in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse spends years on a single painting. She is young when she begins, unsure of herself, vulnerable to the constant interruptions and influences of others. Often she wishes to be alone, but at the same time she draws from the people around her because they, too, are part of her experience. Lily meets frustration repeatedly in the pursuit of her work. She cannot find the answers, the right way to properly capture what unfolds for her as she paints and ages. “The question was of some relation between those masses. She had borne it in her mind all these years.”

Every morning when I sit down to write I am hopeful that this is the day it all comes together, that I will have found a way to make the portion of the story I am working on reveal what rings true for me, to go as far as possible toward a meaning I am often racing to grasp. Of Lily, Woolf writes, “It seemed as if the solution had come to her: she knew what she had to do.” But it will be a good many more pages and more stops and starts before Lily would be able to finish. Much like Lily, a writer grapples with mistakes and with miss-starts, often for a very long time, and then there is the moment of arrival: A sentence snaps into place, a chapter breathes life into the character, and a draft of a book—reeking with errors and ridiculous in places–prints out before her. Buried in the jumble, there is meaning, although it will take many more hours of work before she can make it come out clean.

Woolf’s novels read like internal conversations she is having with herself as much as with her readers about why human beings create, how the impulse and practice can shape who we are, be key to mental and emotional survival. What matters above all else, Woolf seems to say in her novels, is that we honor the need to try.

At the end of To the Light House, Lily puts the final stroke upon her painting. For a shimmering moment in the very last paragraph her picture hangs complete in the mind of the reader. Lily’s painting, like Woolf’s novel, is the best she can do to bring it all together—her life, those she loved and lost, the place where it happened, those impossible years. “It would be hung in the attics, Lily thought; it would be destroyed. But what did it matter? . . . I have had my vision.”