Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

26 June, 2013

A Friend of My Heart

I have a good friend, a dear one who does all kinds of favors for me, practical ones and impractical outrageous ones. Mostly, she listens to me. She reminds me of home. Recently I had a chance to visit her where she now lives, both of us far from the place where we were born, very far from the convent we both attended, even further from much of our convent ethics. But some things never change.

I was moved when she stopped her car in the middle of traffic to give some money to a man on the street. I always think of the fact that I came here from another country, she said. I’ve worked hard, but look at how I live. I imagine what I’d feel like if I had to beg on the streets of Colombo. This is his country and yet he is on the streets.

She talked of other things, the various ways we come upon our circumstances, the addictions we all have, but only fell a few of us. She remained quiet, mostly, on such occasions, she told me, but she took exception to the way in which people condemn others. People who drop a coin in a cup and then walk on thinking what is the point, he’s going to drink anyway. We recalled the teaching handed down to us, the ones which tell us that it is the intention that matters, not the outcome. You give what you can and you remain separate from whatever the person chooses to do with what is given.

We stopped by a home to pick up “home” food, an American version of the buth packets we all like to buy now and again from various street vendors back home. These came in plastic containers, not steamed banana leaves or newspaper, but it tasted the same. As we walked out I noticed a Buddhist temple across the street. I asked her if we could visit, I hadn’t been inside a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in a long time. The doors were shut but we went around the back and found the head priest sitting there. He offered to open the doors, but we demurred, stating that we were just passing by, had only stopped by on a whim. He gestured us to come in, then, with the palm of his hand, and we obliged, taking off our shoes, both of us sinking to the floor, our legs folded decorously, our palms together, heads bowed. He blessed us with the most familiar of the opening lines, the pirith falling gently in that open verendah, that hot afternoon. It was only as we stood to go and she addressed him the way that one might address a Catholic priest that I remembered that she was not Buddhist.

It warmed my heart, this moment when I remembered once again the way things are back home, where for most people like us, religion is not a crusade but a grace, faith something to acknowledge wherever it is manifested, no matter if it comes from within chapels adorned in stained glass, or temples where we kneel on sifted sand. We talked about that, too, as we left.

We spoke about our parents back home, her lost father, my lost mother. I remembered a visit back home when I was sitting in a parked car with my mother and other family, waiting for my father to return from some store. There was a man outside, begging, clothed in rags, emaciated, almost repulsive. My mother searched in her handbag for change to give him. The driver of the vehicle said what did it matter, he’s just an alcoholic or drug addict who will go and waste the money that is given. I, a new mother, said, almost to myself, he has a mother somewhere who never intended a life such as this for him. I remember my mother turning to me and saying, I am glad you have learned something, at least one thing, from me in this life. If she were alive she might be happier still to learn that what I emulated has been passed along, something I noted in this article when Osama bin Laden was murdered.

I told my friend that story. We talked on through the evening about those things we acquire from the people who raise us, the way they continue to look at the world through our eyes when they are gone, the way we continue to see through theirs in their absence.

In all the travels I have done with this book, nothing meant as much to me as being able to remember my home and our parents in this way with her.

20 August, 2010

The Hamptons: What’s Hot, What’s Not

I’ve just recently returned from visiting The Enlightened Land, i.e. Canada, specifically, Quebec City, and perhaps that has colored my American view; a view long-accustomed to isolating a few injustices to rant about rather than looking at the vast canvas of injustice against which we fling our careless paint. In Canada, unlike in the United States, it seems that the default setting is an interest in the welfare of an entire community. It is an interest that leads to strong and continuous investment in the public good, including well-maintained parks, recreational walk-ways that take in – rather than block – the view, beautification of public buildings and a sweet pride in a collective history that gives equal place to those Native people that were disenfranchised. While the city is predominantly white – as are most of her tourists – there is very little attempt made to white wash the past.

Sure, not everybody is able to pay $416 and up to stay at the Chateau Frontenac, but the rentable flat img_4156around the corner from the Frontenac affords an equally splendid view. And the music that floats from the mouths of street musicians assaults or delights every ear in equal measure no matter the thread count on the sheets upon which he or she may lay at night. The Cirque du Soleil performs free of charge for people of every stripe and the acts, spread as they are around the outdoor viewing area, ensures that the view remains the same for everybody.

Which brings me to America and, specifically, to The Hamptons where I was on holiday with good friends. The Hamptons was a place I had heard referred to in architecture magazines lying around the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists. I knew that it was a place that the New York City rich “fled” to during the summer months. But being a foreigner who still calls Maine home simply because Box 523 Bates College, Lewiston, ME 04901 was listed as my permanent mailing address for over a decade, and whose Maine experiences as an adult involve long stretches of coast line undamaged by human vanity, The Hamptons in the flesh served to displease. Apparently, there is a way to “do the Hamptons right” and it involves being a publishing heiress, a three-home owning Polo star (Argentina, Palm Beach and the Hamptons), a cook with her own TV show etc. etc. Those grains of sand, those drops of water, those blades of grass? They don’t feel quite the same to the rest of us.

As a way of assuaging a little of the outrage I feel, and taking a leaf from what appears to be a Hamptons tradition, I have come up with a list of what’s hot and what’s not here in the Hamptons.

Hot: Homes that can be maintained by the home-owner.
Not Hot: Homes manicured by armies of underpaid migrant workers who bend their heads and step off into the hedges when people walk by.

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Hot: Not caring what Hamptonians think is hot when mixing and matching swimwear for the beach
Not Hot: Following anybody else’s idea of fashion other than your own (and, just for the record, I think all these supposedly “hot” bachelors look like asinine clones!)

Hot: Greeting everybody when using running paths and biking trails.
Not Hot: Glaring at customers and assessing their net worth before deciding not to serve them.

Hot: Eschewing identical and towering hedges and tree hydrengeas in favor of gardening with original flair that happens to include vegetables.
Not Hot: Sprinkler systems that have no rain-sensors

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Hot: Disguising pool fences with greenery.
Not Hot: Two tennis courts per mansion for every mansion in a ten-mansion block.

Hot: Letting a vacation house accumulate its furnishings through generations of occupancy.
Not Hot: Designing multi-million dollar four season homes which remain empty seven months of the year.

Hot: Lying on the beach when exhausted by being pummeled by the surf.
Not Hot: Lying on the beach to acquire a tan while reading trashy paperbacks.

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Hot: Teenaged guards in white polo shirts who look away and do not ask for “beach access ID tags.” Also, deer who don’t give a doe’s behind for signs put up by human beings.
Not Hot: Narrow access-ways to the beach blocked by Private/No Trespassing/Keep Out signs.
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Hot: Journal editors who, finding themselves in enclaves of exclusivity, treat it as an anthropological exercise with the potential for comic relief.
Not Hot: Magazines that celebrate exclusivity as though it were a serious virtue.

Okay, so that’s the heart of it, really, that exclusivity. It grates. And I believe the reason for its existence is a staggering lack of shame on the part of many Americans. To live comfortably in a country ruled by laws that champion the individual at the cost of the community must, surely, necessitate an absence of conscience. It is what makes it possible for a town in the Hamptons to put up an access-way, post sentries at cost, and charge those who do not own a home here, $7 per person to frolic in the waves. The waves themselves remain unowned, and the beach below the high water mark is ostensibly public. But if you prevent people from reaching that no-man’s land, then what is in effect is a violation of the right of access to public land.

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As I sat on the beach – the only brown person for miles around – a little boy drew a line in the sand around me and muttered something to the effect that I could stay there and that’s it. I am here in the Hamptons with parents whose kids would never consider quarantining strangers in their own pre-marked zone of exclusion. They would find that both puzzling and shame-worthy. I wonder when the balance is going to shift toward that second model of parenting. I doubt the movement is going to start here in the Hamptons.

12 February, 2010

The Dutch, The British & The Galle International Literary Festival

I keep being pressed to write about the Galle International Literary Festival at which I was a guest. Some of the requests have been the result of simple interest in my impressions as both native and visitor, others have been somewhat hostile. 22356_286179927125_647787125_3900085_8356772_nI have never been an either with us or against us kind of person; frankly I think that embodying extremism of any sort dilutes and otherwise sullies creative work and I would be hard pressed to identify any writer whom I admire that is guilty of it. It has taken a while for me to reflect on the festival partly because I was in London right after the festival and have only just returned, and partly because my thoughts are complicated by a variety of conflicting sentiments which encompass both my respect for the work that is done to make it possible – and the individuals who do that work – the depth of talent among those attending both as guests and as audience and my sense that everything that we do is a work in progress and therefore could stand to be transformed so long as the transformation is advocated for in a way that leaves intact, whenever possible, the self-worth of the people responsible.

When my novel appeared in its Dutch translation, my publisher asked me to write a note to accompany its release which referred to our shared history. After ranting in the privacy of my home, I sat down and wrote a note that mentioned the fact that many Dutch public works as well as the tombstones of the old Dutch lighthouseverendahGovernors are preserved in Colombo and that the journey of one of the chief protagonists begins in Matara where the Dutch fort, Van Eck, still remains. I tempered my sense of outrage with the request that, at some level, was asking me to celebrate the colonization of Sri Lanka by the Dutch, with my understanding that my modern day publisher may (a) have been unaware of the extent of her country’s involvement in Sri Lanka and (b) was not, herself, responsible for the doings of her compatriots and (c) did not intend to cause me any distress but, rather, was trying to personalize the publication of a book that was being released alongside hundreds of others, and therefore give it a little more heft. That is the nuance that tempers the black and the white.

At a festival that offered such a range of skill, expertise and intellect, I was disappointed that I was unable to attend several of the conversations signingand panels that I would have liked to be at, when the writers featured were excellent and there was much to learn from them. Gillian Slovo, Rana Dasgupta, Amit Varma, Shyam Selvadurai, Michelle de Kretser, Ian Rankin and Sybil Wettasinghe were all people I wanted to spend more time listening to, as they spoke formally, but with whom I did manage to have interesting and fairly lengthy conversations off-scene. Unfortunately, there were many others – Wendy Cope, Iranganie Serasinghe, Artemis Cooper and Michael Frayn among them – whose insights and perspective I missed altogether. My inability to go to all the panels/conversations had little to do with the festival organizers shyammeexcept to the extent that I was also trying to participate in the fringe festival – which showcased, for the most part, the breadth of local talent writing and speaking in English – which then made everything a conscious choice that posed the following question: Am I here for myself? (in which case I must go to all the panels and lectures and conversations taking place on site), or am I here for my fellow Sri Lankans? (in which case I must support them in whatever way I could, but primarily by being attentive to the events that highlighted their work, many of which were off site)

To be a Sri Lankan writer published overseas by the kinds of publishers that I have been fortunate to have, is, to me, both blessing and responsibility. The accomplishment, as I see it, is not mine alone, 22556_303365777125_647787125_3948633_7913511_nit is also that of the country to which I owe my particular world view; that fertile soil, rich in culture and heritage and custom and religion, which grounds me and gives me the right to say, I am a Sri Lankan American writer. I see myself, then, as an outpost of sorts, a vessel that contains all that I have left behind in Sri Lanka, and, also, as a spokesperson for others of my kind. How, then, would it be possible for me to converse and befriend my fellow predominantly foreign-based writers and not give equal attention to the writers who, based as they are in Sri Lanka, do not have access to the publishing world in quite the same way that we do? How would they get critical attention for their work if those of us who are a little further down along the road not only leave no signposts, but forget that there are others making this same journey?

As I walked around going from one session to another, I was struck also by the fact that this desire to immerse myself in the literary talents and preoccupations of a host country, even when it is my own, is probably shared by the other writers who come to Sri Lanka, in the same way they do when they go to the Jaipur Literature Festival or to the Perth International Arts Festival or the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. For a writer anywhere, there are two things that are manna from heaven: the company of other writers and exposure to new worlds. panelI would hazard a guess that writers like Slovo and Dasgupta and Adebago would be just as interested in listening to and interacting with a multi-ethnic cross section of Sri Lankan writers as well as Sri Lankan culture (a need that the fringe festival addressed whenever possible with panels such as ‘The Literature of Post-War Sri Lanka’ which featured writer and photographer Pradeep Jeganathan, journalist Malinda Seneviratne and former-soldier and writer, David Blacker, as well as the event titled ‘Stories at Sunset’ at the Closenberg Hotel which was organized by local author, Ashok Ferry, alongside the equally commendable offerings of the main festival such as the panels on art, photography and architecture and the drum and dance performances), as they would be in having meaningful conversations with each other. Indeed, such engagement is what gives a festival its particular character and distinguishes it from any other event at which these same writers may have occasion to gather together.

It is always easy to criticize an initiative that is taken by someone else. And it is easy enough to disparage the work of one or the other group of writers within a multi-language system such as ours. sunilaSlings and arrows are easy to unleash, it is the building blocks that take work and separates the slouch from the citizen and neither Sunila Galappatti nor Subha Wijesiriwardena is a slouch, clearly bringing a wealth of experience in theater and writing to their work and giving heart and soul over to managing every last detail of a large festival involving multiple personalities, some of them split! In that regard, I was disappointed by the way in which journalist Rajpal Abeynayake summarily dismissed the entire – albeit recent – canon of writing in English as being garbage. There is garbage. balconysceneWe all know it and we can all manage the delicate art of discussing garbage without throwing it around, in the interest of preserving human dignity. But there is also solidly accomplished writing and, more importantly, there is a serious attempt on the part of those writing in English to both reach their full potential as well as to translate into English those works from the Sinhala and Tamil canon that are translatable. (I admit I came late to this session – again, I was torn between listening to the panel on post-war literature I mentioned above and the one being facilitated by Sunila at a festival venue with Rajpal; both panelists had reached a point of testiness and there was a sort of restive fatigue apparent among the audience as well.)

The criticism that there is insufficient attention given to the work of the host country, the best of which is, probably, written in Sinhala and Tamil, is valid, but is is one that ought to be leveled with the understanding that any initiative is dynamic and changing; srilanka2010-1671the festival has evolved from the first in 2007 to what it is today and will, I am certain, continue to change. I comment on this aspect of the festival, therefore, in full knowledge that this year it has grown to include genres not part of the festival in previous years both in terms of its panels and conversations but also in terms of the off-site events and the cultural and childrens’ programming, and that such changes auger well for other, even more significant adjustments to be made to the makeup of the festival next year. It is true that, as feetDavid Blacker put it in a blog post he wrote last year, this is not a “Sri Lankan literature festival.” However, it is disingenuous to refer to a festival as being “international” if it quite deliberately excludes, for the most part, Sri Lankan writing in translation, particularly when the current trend among all of the publishing giants and anyone worth their salt in the field of international literature is toward translation, an effort to which the organization Words Without Borders has made a mighty contribution as have the various International PEN organizations in the UK, USA and elsewhere. This is the first paragraph of the mission statement for Words Without Borders and it is a far better description of why translation is important than I could manage:

Words without Borders translates, publishes, and promotes the finest contemporary international literature. Our publications and programs open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages. We seek to connect international writers to the general public, to students and educators, and to print and other media and to serve as a primary online location for a global literary conversation.

Literary achievement is never a zero-sum game and the respectful inclusion of each others work ought to be seen as a way of bolstering the foundation of our shared interest in the life of the word, rather than as a way of distracting or otherwise reducing the worth of a single person’s contribution. If it was possible to give Michael Meyler the opportunity to conduct an engaging and illuminating discussion about the well produced trilingual book, Keerthihan’s Kite, is it not possible, also, to present Sri Lankan work in translation using the same audio/visual devices? punchasloIt is entirely conceivable to me that the festival organizers could ask for the help of accomplished bi-lingual writers and translators like Malinda Seneviratne, Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, Thambiaiyah Thevathas and others like them, to handle that particular aspect of the GLF in future years or, at the very least, serve in some sort of advisory capacity to facilitate that conversation. If the festival is, as it has become, the international face of Sri Lanka with regard to its literature, then I do believe that it is obliged to represent the country’s breadth and depth of writing, in all its languages. And that is a responsibility that ought to be embraced as a privilege, not a hardship.

The issue of festival access has been raised often and, during the Q&A with Rajpal, I was aghast to hear a member of the audience (I was told later that this was Antony Beevor but since I never met the man I cannot confirm that), srilanka2010-170question the government of Sri Lanka for requesting that a festival which is largely private, pay taxes that are due to the country. The issue raised by the individual was that “there is no literary festival in the world that is expected to pay taxes.” Well, the truth is, as always, not quite so simple. Festivals that are free to the public are not taxed. Whenever an event, that involves as much private enterprise srilanka2010-1031as does this particular festival, excludes – because of its fee-charging design – a large portion of the resident population, it must necessarily be treated differently. One way to avoid this is to emulate our closest neighboring festival, Jaipur, and make it entirely free although I realize that this would involve a significant degree of fund-raising to take place prior to the festival. And since I dislike making a criticism without offering some solution, might I suggest that the festival offer the option of named patrons, as is done with regard to so many other ventures involving the arts (the Aukland Writers & Readers Festival operates along these lines) something I would imagine would be just as enticing if not more so, than purchasing tickets to private events? That would also make it possible to offer a choice of the ever-popular literary dining experiences to such individuals while reserving an equal number of seats to be awarded to festival goers by lottery.

(Which, by the way, is not to say that those who have paid the fees thus far ought to be condemned as being “air heads” (as referenced in Yasmine Gooneratne’s article on the festival), quite the contrary; I found most of the Colombo socialites to be well read and more than able to engage in knowledgeable discussions about literature and writing: Sri Lankans, after all, are a highly educated populace and the possession of wealth does not automatically exclude a person from that national character!)

The lasting impression of the festival for me is one of valiant effort – chiefly by its executors and volunteers – and one of learning to distinguish the writer – eminent or fledgling- who srilanka2010-188is willing to immerse themselves in place, moment and literary endeavor from the writer who is simply there to soak up the perquisites of a festival hosted in the near paradisaical setting of Galle, which is very tempting, given its history, location, Lighthouse Hotel, Sun House and everything in between. Mercifully, there were more of the former and, refreshingly, all of the writers from the subcontinent belonged fairly and squarely to that group. It was good to discover that noniseating kottu at an unsavory roadside stall with Amit Varma, downing pittu and katta sambol with Rana Dasgupta, walking to the kite-flying activity on the Galle Fort with Michelle de Kretser and stopping for tea and laveriya at Monis Bakery on the way to Galle with Shyam Selvadurai blended seamlessly with our conversations about our writerly lives, with signing books and holding microphones on stages which elevate us and our accomplishments, often only artificially and almost always only momentarily, from those of others. When human endeavor permits the human being their humanity, that is the true measure of success.

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Note: The two photographs of me used in the first and fourth paragraphs were taken by Sharni Jayawardena

26 January, 2010

The Morning After

It is now 2 a.m. on the 27th of January, 2010 in Sri Lanka and the election results are 68.32% for President Mahinda Rajapakse and 31.32% for Sarath Fonseka. Maybe it is no big deal to win against someone who did not take the trouble to register himself to vote in the elections in which he was asking the country to vote for him. But it is a big deal to win against a candidate backed by major Western and European powers, and by native nay-sayers who would rather have a candidate who couldn’t find himself a party and was subsequently backed by two who had been responsible for much brutality in Sri Lanka throughout the 1980s than support the President who brought them peace.

This is the first time I’ve been home for an election since I left for the United States, and it is absolutely thrilling to be here. Sri Lankans are deeply and ruvani-0052passionately engaged in the process and in campaigning and if you want a beautiful description of what a country means to someone who loves it, read ‘Reflections on my Country’ by my brother, Malinda Seneviratne. It doesn’t hurt to have a household divided between the two candidates, my father taking up the solitary stand on behalf of the Opposition. I accompanied my journalist brother, Malinda, on travels around the city and down the Southern Coast and observed a process that had none of the problems that were being threatened us by those supporting the opposition candidate. The term “blood bath” has been tossed about, but I’m hoping to avoid that as well. It is a clear victory, and there is no doubt as to why the President remains popular among the people even if some of the Colombo elite despise his status as an outsider. Here are a few of those reasons:

1. He put an end to a war that has blighted the country for 30 years, something none of the leaders of other parties including those contesting him in this election were able to do.
2. While conducting the war, he did not compromise the welfare of ordinary Sri Lankans, or sell any of the country’s assets.
3. While pushing on with both a war and the post-tsunami reconstruction, he engaged in massive development projects throughout the country, including in the North and East; highways, ports, telecommunications and web access were all part of this effort. ruvani-008
4. He has subsequently repatriated most of the Internally Displaced Persons, the North and East have vast areas that have been demined and are being inhabited by people native to the land and there’s a sense of breathing freely in the entire country.
5. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he put Sri Lankans in charge of Sri Lanka. As my sister in law put it, “In the past foreigners came in as consultants to us, now they consult us before they try to do anything in the country. He has given Sri Lankans the space to insist that the slogan “api wenuwen api” (i.e. us for ourselves), is the national standard.

Many foreign governments have attempted to push Sri Lanka in one direction or the other without the good sense to understand the context in which they were here or, worse, the damage they could cause to thousands of people including the loss of life. To have a President who is willing to stand firm against such pressure, including tremendous pressure from the United States, is simply fantastic.

Which brings me to the letter I received – it was addressed to all of us who are participating in the Galle Literary Festival – from the director of The Campaign for Peace & Justice, asking us to make all sorts of noise about the allegations he puts forth regarding abuses he has not substantiated. I’d like to say go fly a blooming kite. Instead I’ll say this: “In Sri Lanka the average voter turn out is 80%, education and health care is free, women are liberated and smart, and we have a President able to end a war and rebuild his country (while fending off ignorant individuals who want to keep enjoying their NGO junkets on our beautiful island and triviliazing our tragedies by turning our complexity into sound bites for your rabid 24/7 news media). I don’t need you to tell me what to say at a festival being held in my country. I don’t need your talking points. I don’t need your advice. I don’t need your cautionary tales of doom and gloom, mister. I’m too busy celebrating our good.” Outside in the streets I can hear firecrackers. Salut!

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21 January, 2010

The Writing on the Wall for Independents

The week has passed by in a blur as I get ready to leave for Sri Lanka and then to London. Anybody in either place, do come to one or more of the events being planned. Click here for details

Meanwhile, last week, I wrote about Independent Book Stores for the Huffington Post Books blog about. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

“To reach the reading space at the independent book store owned by Mary Cotton and Jaime Clarke, Newtonville Books in Boston, a writer has to pass through a slim corridor accessed by a few steps, and the process puts one in mind of the entire work of writing poetry or fiction; the narrow access-way of anecdote or memory cleaved into the facade of the mind breaching, eventually, and giving way to robust characters and full lives containing singular pathologies. Make it through and one is rewarded by a soft lit showcase of the bookstore’s First Edition Book Club picks which reads like a who’s who of the writing world both established (Dave Eggers, Samantha Hunt, Salman Rushdie, Stacey D’Erasmo, David Sedaris, Julia Alvarez, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, Edward P. Jones, Ha Jin and Lorrie Moore among hundreds of others), and new (Margo Raab, Josh Weil and yours truly). At last check, one could purchase one entire collection of signed First Editions for $10,000. But what is even more thrilling than the presence of those books upon the shelves are the signatures that fill the walls and trim of the waiting room and staircase. Spontaneous witticisms from the pens of Jonathan Lethem (a creature of uncertain origin with the accompanying statement: “Tiger or giant rat, you decide, chronically yours, J. Lethem”) and doodles from Bret Anthony Johnston (a surfboard beside which Amy Hampel issues a dire threat: “Look out Bret, I just read here!”), testify to the deep camaraderie among writers as well as to their humanity.”

Please click on this link to read the full article (complete with the actual links!), and do leave your comments on the Huff Po site. I’ve been working on several blog-worthy pieces, but have a tough travel schedule coming up and have not been able to get them up. I do hope to write from home about the Galle Literary Festival and, also, about what happens during the Presidential elections which take place the day after I get there.

26 December, 2009

Tsunami: Five Years On

lisasinhalabanner5Five years ago today, I was still fast asleep when the 2004 tsunami swept over large parts of my island country, Sri Lanka. A friend called me from Washington DC, where she was working, to tell give me this cryptic message: “There was a tsunami in Thailand but don’t worry, your brother Arjuna is fine.” In a house where a TV existed but was rarely turned on, I had no idea what she was talking about. The first time I heard my oldest brother’s voice was when I listened to Lisa Mullins talking with him on The World. Somewhere in my archives I have the link to his interview and to the interview that preceded his, which is mine. It was an encapsulation of our two realities – mine, on the other side of the world, and his, having faced the tsunami. I’ll post the links when I fine them, but here is an excerpt of what he said:

When the first wave came in, we were happy that we were seeing something that was really strange, but it was a very mild wave. Then the sea receded back, and we didn’t know what that meant. It was like someone had pulled the plug on the ocean, and crags and outcroppings of rock inside the sea were visible for the first time in years. We just watched it, and I was taking photographs of it. Then came this massive wall of water…The night before, I had been dancing. It was Christmas. We danced into the wee hours of the morning. With everyone, everyone bonded. There were Finns, there were Dutchmen and Dutchwomen, there were Brits, there were Japanese – I actually won a dance competition. The next morning it was like it was a whole big family of 150 people…I was on top of the continental ridge on the Rocky Mountains when 9/11 happened. I saw only one thing. What I saw, was what I heard – silence. You know what that the silence was? The silence was that all the planes had dropped out of the sky – and in America, at any given moment, if you look up into the sky, there are at least 10 planes up there. There’s a drone, that nobody really notices, until the drone stops. My nation is silent right now.

Over the next year, thanks to a phone call from the then pastor at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Waterville I directed the Sahana Project, sahana-churchdisplaya tsunami-relief effort from the state of Maine. When I say I directed, it was mostly a matter of traveling around Maine speaking to people about my country and receiving in return, not only the donations that people sent in, but acquiring a clear understanding of how easy it was, in every situation, to find our common ground. Easy even when I was talking about Catholic convents teaching Buddhism to Buddhists to the Congregational Church in far Northern Maine, in Rangely. mtmerici-kidswebsitepixEasy when talking to the sixth graders who raised $2000 on their own by giving up their class trip and soliciting their donations. Easy when chatting with the high school students who gave up a dollar for the privilege of wearing a baseball hat to school. As easy when speaking to Maine fishermen who go out to sea in frigid waters unlike their Sri Lankan brethren, as it was to speak stars2to the hundreds of people who sent in books and toiletries for the kids of the village we had decided to rebuild on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka, and the ones who sent celebratory gifts, individually tagged, with personal letters, to the thirty-five families who were moving into their new homes a few days before the first anniversary of the tsunami.

I recollect all this today because of all that was right about the Sahana Project. It had a fiscal agent, the UU Church, and it had a volunteer board comprised of individuals who had a history of commitment to community causes, juliabluhn-2including Mark B. Tappan and Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby. It had someone “from there,” i.e. myself, who could talk not only about the need at hand but about the country and culture, and make it a real place for the donors. It had a small state where people were willing to trust in someone’s word, to believe that if I said I was going to use this money to rebuild a village, that is what would happen. It had a local organization in place, namely the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, willing to channel all of the funds collected toward rebuilding and none of it for administrative or operating costs. It had someone we trusted, my brother, to liaise between the Greens and us.

thornton2It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life to watch civic organizations, community groups, private and public schools from Mt. Desert Island to Waterville to Kennebunkport, colleges like Bates and Colby, businesses like the Flatbread Company in Portland, churches and individuals who often did not have much in common with each other, come together to place their bit of the puzzle in the frame. Was ever a village rebuilt with such love? thomas9I don’t know. What I do know is that those thirty five homes contain the music of the zils and hip-scarves of belly-dance troupes, the laughter of Maine-born kids and the compassion of adults from age 18 to 90 who may never see what they made possible.

Visiting Sri Lanka for the opening ceremony in 2005, I wrote back thus:

(We) drove down the path that is being re-constructed by another group, with assistance from USAID, to the site of the old village. The road is bordered on both sides by the sanctuary, so there were a lot of wild birds to be seen, though the peacocks weren’t in sigh perhaps because it was late in the day. The drive to the ocean was also lined on the last stretch with the devastation that is still very much in evidence. Rasika (the matriarch of the village), named the people who had lived in each of the homes, and the ones who had died. The homes were either shells, entirely gouged out – literally plucked by the roots – or just foundations. There were roofs hanging like cloth from the sides of frail structures. It was unlike anything I could have imagined – even with the photographs. The village was between the estuary and the ocean, with parts of the marshy sanctuary in between. The villagers therefore were really hammered from both sides. The ocean rushing up the estuary as well as the ocean coming straight at them. I picture it being something like a volcanic eruption of water, with the villagers trapped in the middle. Seeing all this, I cannot fathom how the young woman who was two days away from delivery her baby, managed to escape with her young, three year old son. In fact, I think that if not for the trees in the sanctuary, we would have had no villagers to help at all.

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Just a few months ago, I had a note from the UU Church that there was, still, a further $10,000 left in the account that had been set up. Although the village was now rebuilt (the picture here shows the village at the time of the opening ceremonies; there are now thriving home gardens there),img_3363 and many other projects completed with the aid of USAID (which built a road leading from the new village beside the bird sanctuary to the old within it, by the sea), and the Norwegian Development Fund as well as other groups, there was still some left over, and it was sent to the Greens to use for one of the community development projects at Kalametiya. It was easy enough for us to get the money to them; my brother now works for the Greens, having given up his job in the for-profit sector.

0000-166-2Sri Lanka has gone through many changes. In 2004, the current President, Mahinda Rajapakse was not in power, but, as the Minister from Hambantota, and passionately committed to the protection of the country’s resources, it was he that blocked the efforts of multi-national hotel corporations from securing the pristine coastal area next to the sanctuary and, instead, handed it to the Greens. A year later he was President and the country embraced a new effort to address a thirty-year engagement with terrorism. Back then, in the aftermath of the tsunami, there was a time of goodwill toward each other that helped us all disregard the effect of terrorism. Jeff Greenwald wrote an essay, A Full Moon Over Sri Lanka, for Salon.com which speaks of that time and of the ways in which Sri Lankans cope with tragedy.

Today, five years on, there are still parts of the country which need to be rebuilt. There are parts of the country which also need to be de-mined and resettled and reunited. Success in all of these endeavors will not come because of speeches, declarations and focus-groups, even among the erudite and professional diaspora communities. img_3459It will come because of individual human beings doing what is right, because of compassion, trust and the ability to recognize the vastness of our common ground.

13 November, 2009

Remembering My Mother

There are things for which we are never prepared. Childbirth is one of them. The loss of a mother is another. It has been said that, as human beings, there are only three or so significant decisions that we make: whom we marry, whether or not to have children, brynmawrfeb2808-022where we choose to work and live; each of these decisions narrows the world a little further, concentrating our attention on the work involved in succeeding at any of this. But the death of a mother, I have discovered, unravels those decisions and the accompanying work. It has set me adrift in a place where nothing at all makes sense, where there are no anchors or guarantees, where even the statement, “you are going to be taller than me,” uttered to a daughter at the bus stop this morning, comes with a shadow sentence which tells me, even if I don’t say it aloud, that I can make no promises: of the return of the bus, of the greeting at the door, of years in which she might grow into a height that exceeds my own.

In an article titled ‘Estrangement,’ in a summer 2008 issue of AARP, the writer, Jamaica Kinkaid articulates her attempt to come to terms with the fact that she stopped speaking to her mother three years before her death. Her effort, however, is not full of regret, but incomprehension that she misses her mother, incomprehension that she does not wish to be buried next to her and, also, does not know if she wishes that her own children be buried beside her someday. She ends with the words, “I do not know, I do not know.”

My life is filled with a similar unknowing. My mother was, as her favorite student described her during his heartfelt and perfect eulogy, difficult. And it was the difficulties that my brothers and I, as adults, responded to, not her ease. I learned to dismiss every concern she brought up, about my brothers, their wives, her grandchildren, me, my life, my father, and her health. Her own regrets and sorrow brynmawrdec07-052were so deep that I feared that I, too, would fall into that bottomless well and never come up for air, or that my affirmation of those sentiments might seal her forever in that tomb of despair. Had I been listening harder, perhaps, I might have heard the mothering behind what she said, might have assumed, rather, the role that she wanted of me, of a gentle and caring child, of the never-grown-up companion I had once been, of being again the girl whose goal in life had been to wear her clothes and do what she did for a living, teaching literature and Greek & Roman Civilization to armies of devoted boys.

Instead I was the opposite of her. I prided myself in taking no shit from anybody. I was flamboyant where she was conservative, boisterous where she was quiet, and forswore the undying affection of school boys and replaced it with the fickle attention of grown men. brynmawrfeb2808-006I frolicked in the man’s world that had circumscribed her life and I laughed when she spoke of devotion, consistency and simplicity, never letting on that in act though not in word, I was all those things. Whereas she had waited, as refined women of her time did, to have their appearance or clothes or work admired by other people, I paid myself compliments. I wrote about politics when all she cared about was the pride felt in seeing her childrens’ bylines. Somewhere during all those shenanigans I recall seeing both delight and fear in my mother’s eyes. november2007-027She seemed to both love the cloak of freedom that I had flung so seemingly easily around myself, and feared for my life. I was not a good woman, I was not a good wife. Somewhere down the line, my husband was bound to leave me. Somewhere down the line, I would need something besides flair and flourish and did I have those other, inner resources? I did, I do, but I was not going to let her see those aspects of myself that were so similar to the strengths she possessed. All I would say in response to her “he might leave you,” was, “and if he did I won’t spend my life running after some man who doesn’t want me.”

In more ways than one, I was trying to define for my mother a life that I wanted her to live. I wanted her to be more like the person I was playing for her. img_6325 I wanted to rub away the timidity that overcame her whenever she boarded an airplane to America, the kind of thing that would lead airport officials to fling her bags around and deny her compensation for lost luggage and which I could secure on her behalf with no greater skill than a simple steady glare that would leave her full of awe at powers she believed I had; powers she was glad I had, in this strange, unfriendly, place, but whose acquisition she regretted for, as far as she could tell–and she did tell it!–it had exacted the price of tenderness. I wanted to nullify all of her regrets and fears, to drag her into the future where everything was impossibly hard and yet also possible and full of loveliness. I wanted to put make up on her face, I wanted her to wear the beautiful clothes she owned but never put on, falling back constantly on her worn saris, the old skirt, the tattered nightdress.

But I held that tattered nightdress to my face a few weeks ago, and breathed in not what it showed to the world – its faded, overused fabric – but the sweet perfume it had earned for itself and still held. My mother’s life was full of a doing with which brynmawrfeb2808-021mine could never compare. She had no time for the kind of self-creation with which I had become so adept; she was too busy making a living, staving off hopelessness and, more than everything else, helping the people who came looking for her in a ceaseless stream… People who did not care that she wore no make up, that she traveled in buses and scooter-taxis in a country where such travel is perilous even for the young and healthy, that she sometimes opened the door to them with a smile, sometimes – quite often – with a scathing, unfiltered criticism, did not care that her home was an uncertain refuge where sometimes the gate was padlocked, and the phone unanswered and nobody could find her, or that she was awash in eccentricities that lead her to scream for Brand’s Essence of Chicken as though it was a cure certified by the pantheon of multi-origin Gods whom she worshiped, drive her children out of her house “to go live anywhere,” or hang a sign on one of her precious plants img_1912with the following statement: “We are very poor and we have no money for your religious festivities. If you have any money to spare, please leave some here – Happy Vesak, Happy Christmas, Happy Ramazan, Happy Deevali!” That spirit perfumed her clothes, her hair, her life. It did not make everybody admire her, indeed many people–most specially her students–were terrified of incurring her wrath, but it made them love her and unabashedly. It made them write to her and come and visit her carrying the cakes and sweets she was not supposed to eat, willing to forgive her moods. That spirit frayed her clothes, splashed them with mud, ripped at their seams.

Over the course of the two days before she died, my mother had hauled a chair to be mended (so the set could be given to my oldest brother), cleaned her house, given her sister money for an operation, called up all her friends, all her relatives, all her favorite students, and all of our friends, and, of course, secured for herself a bottle of Brand’s Essence of Chicken. img_5226She had given away much of her wardrobe of beautiful, unspoiled saris and dresses, and most of her vast collection of perfumes. Whatever precious jewelry had not already been given away had been robbed. On the day she died, unbeknown to any of us, she was so weak she had to ask the woman who worked for her now and again, to boil water for her and bathe her. On that day, after that bath, she used whatever strength she had left to sit down with one of her students to help her with a college application. She climbed into a car carrying two saris she wanted to give to the servant of the friend who came to pick her up, and spent most of the journey laughing. She suffered a heart attack right as she was trying to field a telephone call from another student’s tennis coach. She left mid-thought, mid-act, mid-goodness.

I can tell myself a variety of things to stave off the grief that I feel. I can say my brothers were there, their wives were there, she was not alone. I can accept what other people say to me, that a mother does not remember the disappointments, but rather the good times. I can say that she knew, she knew, srilanka08-1037that though I did not write and did not call, my inner conversations were always with her, that every time I stood before a crowd, or walked down a street or performed some good work or signed a book, or sang to my daughters, what I felt was her presence, her glad acknowledgement that yes, heaven be praised, he had not left me yet, I was still the most beautiful person in the room, the smartest one, the best, in all things the best. In her absence I will never again be that “best” that she saw whenever she looked at me. In a crowd full of women, in my mother’s eyes, I was always more than any of them. On a shelf full of books, mine was better. My words were articulated more clearly, my clothing was more stylish, my deeds were greater, my husband was perfect, my children flawless. I can tell myself stories but they are as useless as my wearing the cardigan that I had bought for her during her last visit, as futile as my attempt to fill it up with her, to feel her around me.

What I remember now is not all the things that I did not affirm in my mother, all the things that I wished she hadn’t done or said, but the things she did do. What I remember is that she brought me music, theater, literature, language, a sense of humor, confidence, strength, joy and a model of motherhood that runs in my veins as naturally as my blood. srilanka08-861I remember that she found it funny when I placed 38th in a class of 40 students and asked flippantly if I had failed math too, as we walked hand in hand away from the Convent I attended. What I remember is that when I was expelled from that convent for an array of irreverences but subsequently invited back, my mother – though she screamed at me in private and threatened to cut off my hair which, she said, was the source of all my problems – dismissed the offer from the nuns and enrolled me in a “school more suited to (her) daughter’s spirit, intelligence and interests.” What I remember is that she paid for piano lessons when we did not yet own a piano, swallowing her pride and letting us go next door to practice. I remember her voice pouring song after song into all of us, bringing Ireland, England and America to us through lyrics and melodies and that those songs still take the edge off the acts of governments that were also discussed in the house. I remember that she polished the floors of our house on her hands and knees with coconut refuse and kerosene and now and then with polish, that she planted every blade of grass in the garden and pruned her lawn and hedges with hand-held shears that left blisters img_3580on her piano-playing fingers and that out of the arid earth that surrounded our city home, she could make flowers bloom. I remember that she gave me a girl-only space in a house that held so many permanent and transient visitors, and that it contained a dressing table, a fan, an almirah, a bed, a table, a bookcase, and the silk bedspreads that had once been gifted to her, and that all of these things made my room magical in a time when magic rarely translated into concrete evidence. I remember that she listened to me read, that when I asked her if she was sleeping, the answer even when it took a while for her to say it was, always, a comforting “no, of course I’m not sleeping!” I remember that she encouraged me to wear my hair short and climb our roof and play French Cricket and run faster than the boys and, also, to steal guavas and skip school to attend cricket matches…

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And I remember that she spent a teacher’s salary on buying bolts of fabric that she stored in a suitcase, beautiful cloth waiting to be turned into dresses by the best of seamstresses according to designs I sketched in ballpoint pen. I remember that except for there being no compromising on decency and modesty, she put no restrictions on the clothes I chose to put on, literally and metaphorically. She stood by and let me be everything that she was not. I wish I had done the same for her.

7 October, 2009

Move Your Blooming Arse!

This is a gripe about a trip with a few inconveniences. The Amtrak train that I was on was heading its peaceable way to Boston from Philly when its engine conked. As a woman with a near psychotic schedule, I was not overly perturbed to be given an extra hour on what I assumed would be a marginally delayed train. I smiled – and typed – through the walking-speed crawl toward New Rochelle, and unhurriedly gathered my belongings to transfer to the train headed to New Haven in New Rochelle. On that train I met a man, a father of two named Michael (one of my two favorite names, the other being Andrew), here visiting from Melbourne, Australia, who was a good conversationalist (we touched on the American health care system, public education, writing, Neil Postman and Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism), and easy on the eye. What was there to complain about? But I had to get off at New Haven, and there my sang froid began to rip and tare.

First, with a hundred milling passengers who were, by now, delayed by about an hour and a half, came an announcement that we were not to board the next train headed to Boston unless we had tickets for that particular train. Did I listen? Hell no. I had a reading to get to in Boston and there was no way I was going to miss it. So, board I did, along with a few other brave souls. Then I had to stand from New Haven to Boston and, unlike in Sri Lanka, there were no open doors to make that less claustrophobic and even thrilling. It was just a business of standing on a train with other disgruntled people, most ill-equipped by girth or height or age or type of baggage to squat or lean with any degree of comfort. I tried my best to dispatch a headache by alternating between trying to finish the book I had been cogitating over, Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, listening to Pitbull and Lou Bega, and texting my waiting friends in Boston. And third, I was forced to consider – with increasing outrage – all the able-bodied types who continued to warm their seats while old ladies and old gentlemen were struggling to stay upright while holding onto their luggage and whatever solid supports they could find.

People, it isn’t chivalrous to get up and give your seat to the elderly, pregnant women or children, it is basic human decency. It should be a hard-wiring in your brain that boots your arse out of your seat without you even having to think about it. It happens a thousand times a day in a thousand other situations around the world. It happened all my life when I lived in Sri Lanka. I was sometimes the benefactor, sometimes the one who reaped the comfort of another’s grace. I never once, in all my years in Sri Lanka, ever saw a pregnant woman, an older person of either gender, or a little child stand on a bus and the buses were invariably crowded.

So what is it with us here in America? What makes it possible for the limber of body and the, hopefully, blessed of mind, make eye contact with other human beings who have a need we can meet, register that fact, and then turn away or back to whatever it is that preoccupies us? To our laptops and iPods and books on tape and books on paper and newspapers and whatever else? I have to believe that it is our collective agreement to disengage from each other in this every-man/woman/child-for him/herself culture we have constructed around us. We don’t simply not care, we don’t see. We don’t connect unless there is something “in it” for us.

Somewhere toward Boston a seat opened up as one of the afore-mentioned individuals reached their destination. The seat was closest to me, and although I assumed it would be okay therefore for me to sit in it – by now there were only three of us standing and all of us were about the same age – I turned to the woman next to me and inquired, politely, “do you want to sit there?” This is what you would do back home in Sri Lanka. You would ask, and the other person would graciously say, “oh no, you take it.” Whichever one of you got the seat, the other person would at least feel acknowledged as having had a similar need. But I was not home in Sri Lanka. I was home in America. The woman said, “Oh, yes, I was going to sit there.” I went back to my book, leaving her to push past me to get to the seat which she occupied for all of about ten minutes before she had to get off. Getting up she told me “you can have my seat now.” I said nothing. I continued to stand the rest of the way. I wanted nothing to do with such people, nor with the places in which their sorry bottoms had rested. It was idiotic, I know, it proved nothing and only increased the fatigue that had by now enveloped me on this journey that had already lasted ten hours, several of those on my feet, but it made me feel holier-than-thou. Which was about all there was left to feel until I could reach Boston where a flurry of friends – most of them descendants of immigrants but an equal number born here – could restore my faith in basic human goodness.

8 September, 2009

The Lush Life of Bread Loaf

img_0932It is a little shameful that I have not written a word here since that last brief bleep from the mountain in the wee hours of the morning of the 14th of August. But only just a little.

Last year, the summer before Bread Loaf, I suffered a head injury as I charged around a house-to-be-sold in Maine trying to vacuum in the dark. I cursed and shrieked and woke up my sleeping neighbors and ended up in the ER demanding stitches. Odd how a year changes things. I suffered two physical injuries while I was at Bread Loaf this year. First, another bang on my forehead which resulted in a similar quantity of blood trickling melodramatically down my face. Forget the ER. I stuffed ice under a hat tilted rakishly over one eye and went about my business. Next I scorched myself by leaning – with relief, no less! – on a stove. This was managed by securing a pack of ice to my arm with the shawl that I happened to have draped around my neck that day. I sat thus through my entire workshop with the inimitable and wickedly funny Ann Hood, and thus avoided an unsightly blister and, indeed, ended up with a dark slash that looked more like a particularly edgy tattoo than a burn.

I recount these incidents because, besides being humorous anecdotes (and leaving the scars which I wear with some pride in retrospect), they had no impact on my frame of mind. Minor burns and head wounds are now within the realm of the controllable in my life. Indeed, during my time at Bread Loaf – to which I had fled literally from the radiation room – img_0780I had only one moment when the searing pain of those self-repairing nerve endings made me stop what I was doing and remember that I was not entirely whole or mended. And despite the fact that fatigue had dogged my footsteps every night on which I couldn’t get a sufficient amount of sleep all through treatment, while at the conference I could keep going on only two or three hours of sleep a night, night after blessed night.

There is something about Bread Loaf. I’m sure everybody who hasn’t been there is pretty tired of hearing that by now, but it is true, there is. Nothing that troubles me “on earth” – in my personal life, in my family history, in the world of wars, elections won or lost, not one of the things that move me to opine or rant – touches me while I am there. It isn’t conscious, it isn’t by design, it is just how the days unfold.

So it was a strange adjustment for me this time, knowing that the the first thing I had to do when I came back was see not one but three physicians. The first act, to take the first of the doses of Tamoxifen that I will be ingesting every day, twice a day for the next five years of my life, and have the surgeons and oncologists and pathologists look at me and declare me in one state of repair or another. 3,650 pills in all. A few days back, as I stepped up on to the scale to be weighed, a nurse exclaimed “You aren’t going to take off your shoes? And you’re wearing heels? Wow that’s brave!” And I smiled.

img_08221I realize that there are only two ways to talk about Bread Loaf. In silence, or with words that verge on the lushness that Charles Baxter nudged us to consider during one of his lectures; the kind of language that we have learned to shun because it is routinely ridiculed by critics. I am taking up Charlie’s challenge. Down the line, you will be able to access this years Bread Loaf lectures via iTunes and listen to what he says and agree that sometimes lushness is called for. Here are a few people I hold close, and what they had to say about being at the conference. Here is Alexander Chee whose post is titled, “Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence” (a quote from Charlie), and Eugene Cross, whose post for the Hayden’s Ferry Review Blog is titled, “What I learned from Charlie.” Hmm. Curious. Here is Christian Anton Gerard, poet and fellow staffer:

img_0155It’s occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons we do what we do is because of the lack of time we feel in the world. We run to the top of a mountain to make time…We will tell our friends and family about that time in an effort to show how wonderful and perfect the world of writing can sometimes be, but like (a friend) said, “the beauty in our moments on the mountain is in the fact that we never know if we’ll be here again… Which makes every moment here a completely tangible, but slippery thing we will cling to for the rest of our lives, but never be able to fully explain to anyone else.”

It is indeed a gift for all of us to have been there, and perhaps even more so for us to have been there together, but the fact that we can always be there together because we’re all clinging to the same slippery time-rocks, which we share only among each other is a gift and something newly spectacular in and of itself, I think. If you need me. Any of you. I will be across a hayed field in the middle of a beautiful creek at the bottom of a wooded hill. I will be picking up rocks and loving them even as they slip away. I will be running after them, sitting atop them. I will be sated when you wade in with me.

img_03751So, did I care how much weight was added to the scales with my high heels? Is there a way to measure the weightlessness of finding ones soul-sisters and brothers, of knowing how to love and be loved in return by beautiful, brilliant strangers who become friends over the turn of a single phrase? What is the weight of the light that fills up my body and my heart when I am where I am always among friends, always among people who share the same dream, who are gifted not only in the art of creating worlds with words, but in committing everything they have to holding each other up? img_03882We’re all familiar with the way people look and behave when they have experienced grave danger, some disaster, or even some period of time which has been consumed by worry about their own fate or that of someone they care deeply about. They tip, tearful with relief into the arms of their beloveds. What happens at Bread Loaf is not unlike that. You get there and you realize that you have left worlds and lives bereft, most of the time, of people who know what it is like to nurse a craving for words, a sort of eternal itch that tangles the fingers and brain so that not to write and read and talk freely about reading and writing and muses and wordly habits is an acutely felt torture. You get there and you tip, delirious with relief, into the arms

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and minds

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and words

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and silences

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of your tribe.

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And you hold on

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until you have to let go.

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It is, indeed, a precious thing to recognize exactly what it is – what person or collection of people, what peculiar combination of forces or energies, what place, exactly – brings one the keen joy that renders a human being both full of oxygen and just as breathless. The body can endure all manner of slights from the universe so long as the heart can sing, and at Bread Loaf I always find that song, the voice with which to sing it and a heavenly orchestra to provide the music.

Here, in the one recording I have of the staff reading, are some of those musicians: Nina McConigley, Gerald Maa, Greg Wrenn, Zachary Watterson, Avery Slater, Ted Thomspon, Christian Anton Gerard and, at the very end, myself.

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As I think about the year to come, and all the success it will bring to the people who were beside me this year, I am moved to close this post with the fabulous Eugene Cross, in living color, reading a section from his short story, ‘Hunters.’ The full story can be read here at Hobart.

14 August, 2009

What the World Looks Like…

…I do not know. The world seems to fall away and whatever concerns I set out with seem to seep out and leave me empty and ready for something better when I drive up the mountain to Bread Loaf. I would like to write about being here, but it is nearly impossible to convey what this particular place in America means to me, so I probably should cease trying. Here’s a recap of what can be communicated a little more easily.

Today I listened to a series of gifted voices, among them Celeste Ng, who also happens to be in my workshop, who read a lively excerpt on being Chinese, Elena Passarello, who read the most well-turned reflection I’ve ever heard on the call of the Cuckoo bird, and James Arthur, who recited three beautifully articulated poems. Earlier this evening I was able to catch my mentor and friend, Lynn Freed’s reading from her new book, The Servants’ Quarters, and the poet Alan Shapiro read an entire series of poems, some of which he had worked on with Tom Sleigh, among which was a brilliant exposition of the robust desires that exist among the long-term, long-suffering married.

The rains came, they cleared, and the evening all-campus reception went on in what is referred to as loaf-light, a particularly benign glow that descends upon the lawn in front of Treman each evening like a gift from some indulgent, literary minded and happy deity.

I haven’t done much writing – or reading – since I got here, for obvious reasons, but I am posting the link to a short piece I did write about what I was reading just before I left for Bread Loaf. It is on Marshal ‘s Zeringe’s blog, Campaign for the American Reader, and you can read it here.

It is 1.11 and I must be off to bed.

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.


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