Archive for March, 2013

22 March, 2013


I’ve been sitting here at my desk trying to sort out some things. I realize that almost all of it has to do with friendship, the kind that impacts our lives deeply and whose changes cause the kind of reverberations that transform how we will approach the world in the future. Today, for instance, I feel fragile. Much of the joy that I have been feeling – almost all of it – drained out of the day.

I’ve had many occasions on which I have had to reflect on the vagaries of friendships. Mostly it has to do with the sudden realization that what it means to my American friends is not what it means to me. For me, a friend is anybody I’ve met (and who hasn’t pissed me off). For that person I will do very nearly anything. If I like the person then I’m wont to imagine that I will love this person for life, and, worse, that they will love me back – how could they not? This is what I think. I seem unable to contemplate the fact – sometimes eventuality – that this will, in all likelihood, not happen, that most people weigh the worth of what they love before they choose to love it.

The thing about it is that the present dislocation also throws the past sense of ease and affection into question. Making sense of that past is similar – less drastic, but similar – to what Joan Wickersham describes in The Suicide Index, (Mariner, 2009), her book that deals with the aftermath of her father’s suicide. Everything you believed or thought you knew about the person is suddenly suspect. And you are left with the feeling that you have been either blind, foolish, or both. In her case she might ask, how could this father, whose way of being made me who I am, who loved me so much, decide that he would leave me, and do so in this heart-shattering way? In mine I might ask, how could this person with whom I’ve shared such a personal part of me decide that s/he would shut me out, or talk badly about me, or think ill of me – you pick, and do so without a second thought?

I once had someone whom I’d stood by in everything over two decades – even when she treated me pretty abysmally, and after, through her abortions and her depression and the eventual birth of her firstborn – write me a letter, an email, no less, to tell me how I had failed her in two very specific ways. Both times it was through things I had said, laughingly uttered in complete trust that we were kindred spirits, feeling the same way about the same ridiculous things. In subsequent years I’ve dealt with some such moments – all of them incomprehensible to me, all of them unanticipated – but possibly none as devastating as that one was. And still we muddled through, she and I, and came out the other end reasonably intact. It has been my sense when these things happen, that I forgive the ones I like – I write fiction, after all, and I can come up with a 1001 excuses for the things people do. The slightly-damaged people, in particular, I find a way to get back home, as it were, with them.

But there are lessons I’ve had to face, each time, and each time unlearn. I hope to forget these things, as always, to not take them too deeply to heart someday – not today, today they have settled within, making me mostly stare out of my window and grieve deeply for what is lost. I hope to because I like the way I have chosen to live – this way of embracing people and being with them, close and unfiltered, being mistaken in the things I take as givens, opening myself completely to whatever it is that they are about.

Lesson #1
We don’t interact as people, we interact as stories. Half the time what we think is conscious intent is really unconscious narrative. All of it is a backstory and we dance around like we are the main protagonists. In other words, we think we unfold in NY, but NY is its own unfolding.

Lesson #2
The words that you say aren’t always the ones that are heard. This is a hard one for a person like me whose entire life is about words; if someone cannot hear them, or understand them, then they have not known me at all, no matter how much time they’ve spent with me. That is tough to take – I’m sure those of of my friends who also write can empathize.

Lesson #3
Most people choose self-protection over abandonment. It is easier to hold on to what you have than to let go in free-fall. Free-falling is thrilling and joyful and risky. People usually prefer safety.

Lesson #4
Of all the horrors that escaped from Pandora’s box, pride exacts the highest price.

Lesson #5
In his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It: Scenes From a Life, (Algonquin, 2007), Robert Goolrick writes, “If you don’t receive love from the ones who are meant to love you, you will never stop looking for it.” I would add that such a person will always seek to confirm the absence – never the presence – of that withheld love and so guarantee that it will never be felt. It is easier to do this than to forgive the mistakes of flawed human beings, particularly those who are supposed to be like gods to their children. Which brings me to this last.

Lesson #6
A person who cannot forgive, is not capable of love. I think back to that BFF and the falling out, the bitter things that were said by us both. I think also about another BFF, an American one this time, and I, the dreadful hurtful words that were uttered. And yet, somehow, there is still love. I don’t know for sure that they love me back, just as hard, but I have to believe they do because their very brokenness – like my own – convinces me that they are as capable of forgiveness, and therefore love, as I am. We, all of us, acquire grace because we understand our own fractures, and it is that grace that permits forgiveness. Without that hard-earned grace our hearts don’t have a chance of becoming something pliant, tender, hospitable to love.

So there it is. There’s more, perhaps, but this is all I am able to write, having spent this day so much in contemplation and withdrawal. I don’t feel great today, but someday I will. And when I do I hope to return to being the person I was: incautious, joyful, wide-open to whatever life brings, softer-hearted even than I am now. Somewhere in that future I hope that the people I have loved will find it in themselves to forgive me, too.

19 March, 2013

Basketball Dreaming

I don’t know too much about basketball. I don’t know too much about baseball either. But I can get madly excited about both. There is something about feeling one with a large group of people cheering for a team, putting our souls into their hands, that gets the blood flowing. And, like in most other things that I take on – with the exception of love – I never expect or anticipate or fear loss. It comes, sometimes, but I am never there until the last long-shot from one end of the court is made, until the final strike out is called. I hope until the very end.

These days it is basketball that has my attention. Specifically, the Lower Merion High School team, the one that has always boasted an exceptional group of starters, but has not won States since Kobe Bryant lead them to victory in 1996. March 1st, 1996 to be precise. Like this:

So the Aces had another shot at beating arch-rival Chester this year, 17 years on, on the same day. They held their own through the third quarter and finally lost. Oh well.

But there’s something else about this team that has won my heart: their fans. Their fans who show up and stack up like sardines, end to end of a section of the stands they refer to as ‘The Dawg Pound.’

In the fall of 1999, Coach Gregg Downer met with the team and a group of student fan leaders to officially launch “The Pound.” More than just a “student section,” the Pound would lead chants, promote games, organize tailgates and road trips and design official t-shirts like a college-style student fan club. Fueled by their energized student fan base, the 1999-00 Aces rode the spirit and enthusiasm of “Dawg Pound I” to 15 consecutive wins, a Central League title, and a state playoff bid.

Year in and year out, the Dawg Pound helps give the Aces a distinct home court advantage. Each year brings a new style and design to the official Dawg Pound shirt. Each year leaders emerge at the forefront of the Dawg Pound, donning crazy costumes (Captain America, Superman, Batman, etc.) and sharing their unrelenting vocal chords and witty cheers.

During the Cinderella playoff run of 2004-05, the Dawg Pound caught the state’s attention for travelling en masse to far-flung gyms. Playing in the Western bracket, the Aces were forced to journey hundreds of miles for their games. No distance proved too great as busload after busload of fans showed up — including 12 student buses (nearly 700 total students) for a Tuesday night game against Erie Prep at State College.

I go to the games as much to shout myself hoarse, invoke Jesus Christ far too many times for a Buddhist, dance on the inside (so as not to embarass the Queen of my household), in general make a perfect fool of myself, and……to watch the Dawg Pound. I love those kids. I love that a group of teenagers between 14 – 18 of every gender and stripe can pour out of their cafetaria and form an honor guard for a team leaving to play a game. I love that they all volunteer to wear a certain color for a game – blue now, marroon the next, black on a third day, that they cram themselves in tight and often stand through the whole game. Yes, the whole game. I love that they do an axe-chop over their heads when the calls go against LM (unfairly, but of course!), that they are creative with their cheers, united in their hope. Here’s a look-see from December, 2012.

More than anything else, though, the moment I love best is when the entire Dawg Pound joins in for the last bars of the national anthem, drowning out whatever angelic voice is giving the song their best shot. There is something thrilling about their young voices rising, so proud and glorious, and overpowering, over the thousands of fans in the stadium. It always seems to stun the opposing team whose fans look on, slightly bewildered. Wait, they seem to be saying, aren’t we playing basketball?

They are. But life is played so often in the mind and what you carry in there is what carries you through everything else. For the Aces, it isn’t just a game with five players, two hoops, an orange ball. It is a way of life, a matter of tradition, the abandonment of individual reservations, the embracing of a school. It is school spirit at its best. Who can beat that? Not even the winners go away with that kind of love surrounding their players, their school.

The Aces pulled off a pretty stunning victory in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against Harrisburg. And tonight they head to Williamsport to take on the undefeated New Castle at the state semi-finals. Whatever happens on the court, there’s nothing but sportsmanship, gratitude, and real affection for them from their fellow-students – those who will ride the fan buses nearly three hours each way, and those who will be watching from home. Top that, New Castle.

12 March, 2013

AWP Recap

Over at the Huffington Post with 13 bests from AWP2013. Here are numbers 5 and 6 (below). The rest, over there.

5. Best Tribute to the Legacy of a Teacher: Derek Walcott. Nothing can beat the stories told by a students – even those in absentia, as Melissa Green was, while the teacher is still around to hear them. Bonus? Yusef Komunyakaa leaning forward to listen, hard.

6. Best Worst-Moment: a bouncer appearing at the bar of a hotel hosting 11,000 writers, and trying to prevent them from getting a drink. Not cool.

Also, here’s the visual of the Grub Street booth:

11 March, 2013

A Post-AWP Q&A

I returned – a little bit tired – from AWP last night. I had intended to write something for this blog on the train from Boston to Philly – about impressions, about friends, and also write something about the sessions perhaps. A ridiculous idea, given the noise levels in the Loud Car on the train, given my fatigue. When I got home and checked email last night, however, I found this lovely note from someone who had heard me say a few things during our panel on navigating the writing world without having an MFA. What she asked, these questions that plague so many of us no matter where we are in this story, and my response, I feel, could stand in for a lot of what I would have written about the conference. So here it is. For what it is worth. (That – in the picture – is Cathy Chung, author of Forgotten Country, getting five books signed by Anne Carson by the way)

Ru Freeman,

After the AWP conference, where I took one of your cards, I went to your website. That feeling that had developed after spending the day there, that sensation of being lost in a confusing world when the path once seemed so clear vanished. I was so impressed not just by the overall aesthetic of the site itself, but by the amount of work you put into your writing career – blogging, tweeting, writing essays, poems, fiction, non-fiction – so that it’s just that: your career.

When you handed out your card, I felt it was because you really wanted to hear from young aspiring authors (I say author because I already consider myself a writer, though largely unpublished). I felt the need to contact someone because I’m overwhelmed. By what, you might ask? Yesterday I listened to a panel of writer discuss how the publishing field is drastically changing. I learned just by being at the conference the sheer number of writers competing for different retreats, MFA programs, publications, and more. I’m overwhelmed because what I’ve considered my goal career for so long seems that much further away. But maybe it always has been? Now, after viewing your website, I feel I should contact you not only to tell you my admiration, but also to ask you some questions.

Did you start tweeting and blogging before your book? Was this self-promotion something you decided to do by yourself alone or was it introduced by your editor or agent? How do you keep up such a schedule of tweeting and blogging so often? How do you schedule yourself to so many events (I looked on your events page)? How do you finance trips to different places or are they in fact financed by your publisher/editor/agent?

I hope it isn’t presumptuous of me to ask you so many questions, nor to write you in the first place. I really enjoyed your talk on the panel “Master of None.” I thought you were so well-spoken and not just that, but so inspirational. I was indeed feeling bad after listening to so many writers list their qualifications when I have none. It was highly encouraging to hear that even today a writer can get by based solely on their talent and gifts. I also loved your advice, especially on getting references.

In any case, I hope this email reaches you happy and well. I hope that you can find the time to reply, whenever is convenient for you.

Thank you for your time and understanding,

Dear JW-

Thanks for this note. I will share with you that my first AWP was in NYC in 2008. I looked around at the 10,000 people there (the record until Boston, 2013), and thought I just cannot do this, there are too many people doing it, I should just give up and go home. I fell miserably ill, I hated most of it. And yet, five years and four AWPs later, I have learned that AWP – like everything else – is about making connections and being kind to people. It is no more than that. We cannot speak to all 11,000 people and we cannot be influenced/disheartened by whatever is going on with those 11,000 people either. So first, take heart, it will get better.

I have always been on FB – “always” since the earliest days I guess – though I didn’t use twitter as much until about a year before my first novel came out. I don’t see either as self-promotion however. I see it as being engaged with the world outside my own life and aspirations. It feeds my creativity and my political interests and I feel that, in return, I am able to offer some commentary on it. I wrote a piece for the Huff Po once about FB etiquette for authors – I think it might help to read it, to think about the ways in which the more we support other people, the better our own lives become. Here is the link:

With regard to travel – the tours are usually handled by the publisher, sometimes the costs are shared. Some of the time the events are by invitation from an organization or group or university in which case they are paid for by the host.

Lastly, I don’t know that I am where I am right now solely because of innate talent – I may have some gifts, but I don’t think they are the whole story. I think you have to work hard, and you have to place yourself in the light somehow – whether it is at readings, by writing online, by submissions, by reaching out to people as you have just done – and if you stand there long enough and nicely enough (i.e. as part of a bigger picture, not as the star of your own show!), then good things do happen. I have many many friends who are far more talented than I am who are still struggling to be recognized, and others who are perhaps not as good who are very successful. None of us can let the truth of that get in the way of continuing to do what we love to do.

I don’t know how old you are or what your circumstances are, but there is a belief among medical practitioners that a woman’s body will not permit a pregnancy if the physical and emotional composition of the body is toxic to an embryo. Similarly, I feel that we cannot create good work if we are emotionally drained or stressed out by getting caught up in the drama that surrounds writers sometimes – who is winning which prize, which one has an MFA, why did that person go to that retreat and so forth. It is impossible to resist completely, but it is vital to try.

I will close with another memory. I remember walking down a hallway to a meeting with an editor – Alane Salierno Mason – at Bread Loaf. I was supposed to pitch my novel to her. All of a sudden just before I got into that room I had a clear sense that it did not matter whether I impressed her that day or not, my novel would, in its time, find its place among other books. And just like that the meeting became just another moment in a journey, not the end of it. Alane did not become my editor, but by keeping in touch over the years, we are now working together on a project for Words Without Borders.

It is how the world works – good luck making your way through it. And thank you for writing.

All best – ru.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.