Monday, December 19, 2011


("Traffic" by Jessica Brilli)

Brake lights on a highway. Not her favorite sight. It must be an accident. Or road construction. Either way, it wasn't right. Not when they were so close to home. Not after their day.   
She looked out the passenger window. A blue sedan pulled alongside as her husband tapped the brakes. The driver of the car was looking out. Their eyes collided in the semi-darkness. 
Toby, talking on his bluetooth, didn’t hear the sound she made. 
The years had altered his face, but underneath it, he was the same. Same eyes, same lips, same skeptical look arching into incredulity. Christopher. Toby nudged the car forward. Her hand reached out for a grip, a hold. A gap opened between Christopher’s car and the truck ahead of him. Someone honked a horn.   
She looked at her husband. She looked to the window. The gap was gone and there he was. 
A smile tugged at her face. He was smiling, too; almost against his will, it looked. She smiled more as his expression turned a somber corner. Her eyes said "what the fuck?" He shook his head and inched forward. 
Reluctantly, was it? She noticed the woman nodding off in the passenger seat next to Christopher and the two kids in the back, watching a DVD of Aladdin. Christopher pulled a full car length ahead of her and Toby. She could see his eyes in the driver’s side mirror, watching her. A green glow suffused the car. Then yellow. Then green again. The seatbelt was snug between her breasts. Too tight, really.  
Everything suddenly too tight. And oh God, this was happening. This was all right now.   
It made no sense. It made no sense that they should be here, three hundred miles removed from their Indiana life, in a shitty Columbus traffic jam, eleven years after the fact.  
Did he live here, too, then?  
“Nora said twenty, but I told her that was crazy.”
She didn’t know who her husband was talking to. That seemed significant. She hadn’t been paying attention. How long had she not been paying attention? The flashing brake lights were arrhythmic, dissonant.  
“Not reliable at all, no.”
Her foot pushed a nonexistent pedal. Christopher’s car was two lengths ahead. She couldn't see his eyes. Was he watching for her? He must be. He was. A stuffed animal of some kind had rigor mortis in the back windshield. There was a bumper sticker she couldn't make out on the rear left side. The license plate read Michigan. 
Christopher hated bumper stickers. 
“Shouldn’t be a problem. Trust me.”
A car from their lane edged in front of Christopher. Toby took advantage. She gripped the arm rest and looked over. He wasn’t looking back. He was speaking to his wife, who had finally stirred. She tried to get a look--a good, gulping look--at the woman’s face, but Toby forged ahead. 
They should talk. They should have talked more. They ought to have talked. It was shudderingly obvious: how afraid she'd been to talk. It was not okay that they hadn’t talked. She had things to say. Surprising things she hadn’t given voice to. Silly, dormant things waking up all over the place. Brake-lights-on-a-freeway things.        
She eased back into her seat. Toby was coasting now. Twenty miles per hour. Twenty-five. The gridlock was breaking up. They’d be gone in a--
The seatbelt pulled her back.   
She craned her neck, but it wasn’t necessary. He was there, next to her. Five feet away, if that.  Christopher. Chris. Her once-upon-a-time guy. His wife leaned across the middle arm rests, saying something to the kids. He looked over at her, sober now. His hands were tight on the steering wheel. 
“Sorry about that, man. We’ve hit a traffic jam here.”  
Toby was talking to Ryan. That was his Ryan voice.  
The cars were stalled. All that momentum had been a tease. She looked at Chris, and he looked at her.  Each second of looking felt long and compressed and awful and aching. His eyes held hers and would not be shaken. Her breath came fast on the windowpane. She wiped away the fog and touched the side of her nose. After a moment, he touched his own.  
It was their sign, their signal, their lighthouse at sea. Rescue me. For the love of God, rescue me from this man, this woman, this never-ending party banter. Take me home again. 
“Yeah? Same here.” 
She knew this was it. The once-in-a-lifetime chance. She didn’t care what cost. She wrote her words in the condensation just as his wife turned and gestured to Chris. The lane was clearing again. His jaw tightened, he nodded slightly, and the car lurched forward.  
She turned to the road, but kept her fingers on the window, guarding the backward thing she'd scrawled. Toby was talking about football now. He reached over and touched her swollen belly as they passed a broken-down truck in the median. The driver’s face was an impression of misery.  
She grasped Toby’s hand in her own and leaned back, the blood coursing through her, the highway lights pulsing faster and faster, the exit signs looming and sucking by. The world around her was dark and mysterious, endlessly dangerous and shockingly normal.   
Chris’s car started to accelerate, and he put more distance between them. This was it, then. In a moment they would be gone. Her eyes swam to the right and she could finally make out, in the roiling darkness, the bumper sticker on Chris’s car.  
If you’re close enough to read this, don’t be.   

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Poetry By Numbers

The starts were the worst. The gun would fire, and we’d all take off across the field like gazelles pretending to be lionesses, checking one another out from the corners of our eyes, elbows jostling, dirt flying into our eyes and open mouths. In general, I've found that legs don’t like transitioning from sweet apathy to full-blown sprint.  MY legs, at any rate, begged me to SLOW THE F*CK DOWN already. While the voice in my head could only repeat, “3.1 miles. 3.1 miles. 3.1 miles . . . ”
I think most runners start out as number-crunchers. The sport is rife with OCD-types. At first, you’re desperate to make it one lousy mile without stopping.  You celebrate when you do, but not for long, because one mile must, through some psychological law of momentum, turn into two.  You begin to wonder whether a marathoner might not be buried deep, deep inside you.  You start Googling how many calories a mile of running burns (and is that gross calories or net calories, and how does that compare to walking or gardening or scrubbing the toilet or....?).  You start approaching the bathroom scale not like a mortal enemy, but as a girlfriend with whom you’ve lately reconciled but are still a little wary of.  You start looking at that cookie in your hand and thinking, “It would take me 1.2 miles of running to burn off this stinking, good-for-nothing cookie.”  And then you eat it, anyway.  
The thing is, the fear started well before the gun went off.  It started a full day before meets, which always took place on Saturdays.  During track and cross country seasons, Friday nights were spaghetti nights.  I ate a big plate of the pasta (for the carbs) and got to bed at an hour too decent for any self-respecting high school kid. The problem was: I couldn’t sleep.  I’d stare at the green glow of my digital clock and think: 8 hours til I have to get up and do this thing.  7.5 hours.  7 . . .  

Sometimes, I’d wake up just before the alarm went off, in the dread silence of darkness, with my heart hammering in anticipation and my gut a quivering slush.  I rarely felt more alone in the world. 
The numbers obsession has gotten so bad with me lately that I’ve been daydreaming about buying this:  

It’s a Garmin watch. But really, they ought to call it A Runner’s Wet Dream.  This little baby has GPS tracking, tells you exactly how far you’ve run, your mile paces and splits, and what the heck your heart is doing (i.e. humming or exploding) at every step along the way.  I saw a guy at the starting line of my recent 5K wearing one of these bad boys, and got a little starry-eyed.  So it took up half of his forearm and vaguely called to mind a house arrestee’s ankle bracelet.  It has a fully-automatic training log feature.  Which means I could fully obsess about my numbers AFTER the run, too! And for the rest of my days, however many those number.
I’d usually see my dad stationed at the first mile.  He’d have his arm raised, staring at the watch on his wrist and chewing urgently at his mustache.  As I ran by, my spikes flipping up tiny divots of grass, he’d announce my time in a booming voice that would have embarrassed more if the pain had made room for it.  I was fast.  Somehow, in spite of my loathing for the sport, I was good.  Fear is a motivator.  I never knew how not to push myself.  I understood, by the time I crossed the finish line, my dad would have made it over there, too.  To not finish in the Top 10--or for my time to tick over, say, 23:00--meant that the fear was self-validating.  Because a stopwatch never lies.  
I have been running for 4-5 months now. I’ve gone as far as 6.5 miles and I had my first race in 18 years this past Sunday.  I finished in 25:09.  My father wasn’t there, because I didn’t tell my parents when the race was.  But I saw my husband and kids at the finish line.  Paul took some pics:

 (Pre-Race: Pain? What pain?)

 (Oh. THAT pain.)

(The agony after. Included as a 
"F*ck you" to vanity and because 
we have cute kids.)

Our daughter was particularly impressed with the awards at the ceremony afterward.  She got a kick out of the fourth and fifth place trophies, with golden sneakers sprouting wings from their heels.  The female first place finisher for this race was a high school cross-country runner.  With legs like a gazelle’s.  
There was the race my sophomore year in which I ran a sub-21:00 and placed second in the league.  Something happened during that race that was utterly unique to that day.  For that year's championship, we ran on a golf course bordered by a large hill and wood. I knew this course well. It had a loop we ran twice, and oh holy God, how I dreaded that hill.  The first time was bad enough.  The second time, with your quads seizing up and each breath like a blowtorch, was worse.  But not this time.  This time, I attacked the hill, and when I made it to the top, my stride lengthened naturally--like something simply unfolded inside of me--and I let gravity take over.  I could have run that hill over and over again.  I have never felt more at home in my body, more in control of my fate.  My eyes looked past the lead runner and out to the horizon, and my fear floated somewhere up into the sky behind me.  Runner’s high.  
I still have a hard time not pushing myself.  I ran this latest 5K as hard as any I ever ran in high school (if with less pliable legs).  But maybe, just maybe, I’ve gained something unquantifiable in the years between.  Maybe some runners start out as number-crunchers and, if they take enough strides, at their own deliberate pace, they can arrive at poetry. 
I like feeling my legs get stronger.  I like feeling I’ve been somewhere.  I like it when the river is shrouded in fog, and I run alongside it, my arm stretched out to the side, as if I might slice it, and the sun is a jewel left behind by the moon and I am just an animal enjoying the morning, like the river’s blue heron . . . solitary, if not alone.  
I think I’m going to pass on the Garmin.  Don’t get me wrong: I will always be number-happy--and a part of me is eyeing the Athens Half Marathon in April--but for now, I don’t want to think about racing or goals or how fast I’m running or what kind of cookies I’m feeling guilty over.  I just want to put one foot in front of the other, for as long as I can, and see where it takes me.   
There’s a street I love on the east side of Athens.  It’s a brick-paved road lined with big trees and old houses wrapped by large porches and gardens. I make a point of running down this street twice a week. Any more, and it would become mundane. Any less, and I would miss it.  The street is set on a gradual decline, and I let my legs kick out as I turn the corner.  I let gravity take over and the momentum flow through me.  The leaves are falling like a ticker-tape parade and they crunch beneath my soles.  It’s autumn.  And for a moment--though my head insists it’s chemical, that it’s merely endorphins doing their business--I know that my feet can surely fly.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Small Houses

("Blue Star" by Joan Miro)

It’s early and I’m but half alive,
so I close the bedroom door to sit
with a book of poems and a cuppa 
for a morning reprieve, a little kick-starter. 
Breathe. Sip. Repeat if desired.
But the pages are put on hold 
by the sharp, plaintive 
voice of our daughter,
dulled by distance
but the keener for it,
so that I may absorb the sincerity 
of her reproach, 
if not so much the particulars.  
My husband responds 
with a deep vibrato; 
she falls silent, mollified. 
And my attention is drawn 
downward, to the poet’s name,
to the archway of the title’s “A,”
until the whump-whump
of our son’s pachyderm feet
takes the short measure 
of a short hallway
and I am fallen away.  
Another breath, another sip, I lean 
further in. I might turn on the fan, 
instead I let it be. Small houses
have their rewards.  
And the poems are what poems 
should be: a quiet cup where life steeps.
The heartbeat of a graveyard where 
someone may pass and press 
an ear, long after we’re beneath.
They are so good they hurt.   
The dying wail of the iPad game, 
signaling another clean defeat, 
and I attempt some stretches, 
testing each muscle to find its resistance,
that all’s as it should be, that I am, in short, up to par.
I am just thirty-five and these things are starting 
to become more important to me.
Probably because they insist upon it.    

And the birds don’t know they’re ribbons 
in the blue spruce outside the window 
and the sunlight, broken and recombined 
by the blinds, is a Sunday prayer for physicists. 
I count the seconds, switch the legs. The cup
beside me is nearly empty. It’s summertime.  
Our son runs down the hall again, 
and this time, his sister follows him.
One of them is laughing hard. I know,
from experience, how fragile it is.
The house and I hold our breath.  
And when I switch the fan to high,
closing my eyes to extinguish the light,
filtering thoughts from my mind like 
the leaves left behind, a bittersweet 
note seeps in haphazardly, 
unbidden, and swamps the place--
call it the sunlight, the dust it keeps,
the book of poems so good they bleed, 
children zig-zagging between laughter
and sobs, the shadow that falls 
when you stand outside that to which 
you most belong.  
And so I rise to fetch my notebook,
awake, awake, awake 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Tavernier Stones: Amazon Bestseller

It's not every day that a friend's book is #3 #2 on the Amazon Mystery Bestseller list.  

After a year on the shelves, and some very positive press, Stephen Parrish's treasure hunt adventure novel has skyrocketed to the top of the charts.  

I want to see it go all the way to #1.  (ETA: It made it! Now onward to Top 10 Overall!)

Here's the deal: the book's Kindle price has been lowered to 99 cents.  You can choose to buy it for your Kindle OR you can download (free & easy) the Kindle app for your PC or Mac and get the book that way (also for $.99).  

I bought the book way-back-when for $13 and it was worth every penny then.  So this new price is an amazing bargain. 

However.  Steve, being the generous guy he is, will  BUY a review copy of the Kindle version for you, if you leave your email address in the comments.  You MUST, however, actually download the book in order for it to count towards sales.

I've talked about The Tavernier Stones on this blog before.  Steve has been actively promoting the book for over a year, in addition to supporting his friends' books and quietly critiquing and reviewing their work.  

You know what they say about karma?  

Nobody deserves this more.  Feel free to post a link on your blogs or FB, etc.  

Let's help it go to #1!  

Sunday, May 8, 2011


(A Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave panel,  ca. 30,000 years old)

Pulled for submission 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bound for Glory: Jonathan Franzen on David Foster Wallace

I'll admit it: I am endlessly fascinated by the late David Foster Wallace.  I am also a big fan of Jonathan Franzen's work, including his most recent novel, Freedom.

So imagine my excitement when I opened the latest edition of The New Yorker and discovered Franzen's article, "Farther Away," which recounts his trip to the archipelago that inspired Daniel Defoe's famous novel, Robinson Crusoe, a bruising, beautiful wilderness where Franzen hoped to reclaim some measure of solitude after the post-Freedom juggernaut, carve out a space to grieve his dead friend, and ruminate on the novel's evolution from a totem of human individuality to the cultural enabler of our present-day addiction to entertainment.    

It was also, as it turns out, a place where he could sift through the metaphorical ashes of his old friend (in addition to scattering some real ones), before letting the winds of the South Pacific blow them all the way back to the offices of The New Yorker.

But let me back up.  Did I mention that Franzen is a genius?  How brilliantly he connects the dots of any piece, be it essay or fiction?  At times, the guy makes me smack my lips with envy.  It's no wonder that he and Wallace were close: they must have felt understood by one another in a way others could not hope to try.  As literary authors, both had achieved a level of mind-boggling fame and acclaim, and both were trying to reflect a staggering scope of reality in their work: Franzen through the more conventional route, with psychologically sticky characters serving as the gatekeepers to human truths (and maybe a sliver of redemption), and Wallace as the radical, seeking to reflect our perception of reality, with all of its convolutions, distortions, and infinite boredoms.  (Admission: I am not as well versed in Wallace's work as I should be; Franzen would likely view me as being part of the cult of celebrity grown up after Wallace's death, a charge which holds some merit.)

David Foster Wallace hanged himself in September of 2008.  He'd gone off his anti-depressant the year before, tried other meds, went back to the old reliable, and found that it no longer worked for him.  His wife discovered him in their home.  I cannot think of a more horrifying wound to inflict on a person you love, one more at odds with the many documented and luminous acts of compassion he practiced in small settings like AA meetings and on larger stages like Kenyon College's Commencement, where he argued that self-awareness is the sacred work--yes, work--one must perform to overcome the smallnesses of our autopilot narcissism.  And yet, he was sick and self-loathing enough to destroy himself in the most sacred space of all, a home.  Those two realities cannot be easily reconciled, certainly not by me, nor by his widow, Karen Green (who says simply, and with a touching clarity, about that day in September: "It was a day in his life, and it was a day in mine.")

So what does Jonathan Franzen do?  He summons all the psychological acuity he's so well regarded for to perform an impressive, if fairly lacerating, autopsy of his old friend.

He begins, though, by saying many nice things.  It is evident he cared deeply for Wallace, that he admired his work enormously.  It is also acknowledged that they enjoyed a rivalry of sorts, a very male competition that likely made the both of them better writers.  For my part, I find it entirely understandable that Franzen feels angry at Wallace, and more isolated than ever, after leaving him to bear the mantle of Literary Legend alone.  But beneath all of that--I most sympathize with him for not having Wallace around when he just wants to pick up the telephone and talk, be it about Wallace's dogs, Franzen's birds, or yes, whether Robinson Crusoe ushered in the age of fictional verisimilitude or not (I, alas, must simply take Franzen's word on this).  Anyone who's been scarred by suicide understands this wrenching sense of injustice and betrayal.  The person we loved did not love us enough to stick around.  They left us memories, but slashed the darkest of wormholes towards returning to them.  

My husband's cousin--who was more like a brother to him--killed himself four days after Wallace did.  Their deaths are inexorably linked in our minds, which likely goes a long way toward explaining why this piece touched a nerve with me.  Something in me still shudders when recalling Paul's face and voice from that day.  In the weeks that followed, we recycled the "why?" questions over and over again, until they finally exhausted themselves in a heap of cinders.  It's futile to ask the question, when the answer is so irrational.  And so permanent.  At some point, you have to bury the need to know under the love you felt for the person, and get on with the business of living.  The only truth worth arriving at is: it wasn't really about me.  And so, being left behind means letting go of your own narcissism to grant someone the unknowable terrain of their pain and the freedom to say goodbye.

From this quote I've pulled regarding Wallace's motivation in killing himself, I don't think Franzen is there yet:

I imagine the side of David that advocated going the Kurt Cobain route speaking in the seductively reasonable voice of the devil in "The Screwtape Letters," which was one of David's favorite books, and pointing out that death by his own hand would simultaneously satisfy his loathsome hunger for career advantage and, because it would represent a capitulation to the side of himself that his embattled better side perceived as evil, further confirm the justice of his death sentence.

Yes, you can imagine that.  Funny how the "imagine" part dissolves under the stuff that follows.  The stuff about your friend killing himself to remain the alpha dog.  

He dangles this information for us, too: that instead of the suicide being an act of reckless impulsivity, Wallace made four "practical plans" for it in the summer before his death.  Ever the discriminating novelist, Franzen leaves it for the reader to fill in the specifics of these mysterious "plans."  The effect is twofold: his superior knowledge of the situation cements his standing as an intimate to Wallace and his widow (there were four plans: what a very specific number), while his refusal to say what these plans were might be smoothly interpreted as one friend respecting the privacy of another.

This would be more believable if he hadn't spent a couple pages speculating--by way of literary analysis and personal inference--about that friend's curdled state of mind, under the buttery, almost self-congratulatory mantle of "setting the record straight." After all, Franzen and Wallace weren't about illusions, but the reality of what those illusions mask.  What is friendship, when Truth is imperative?  And who better to question Wallace's increasing personal canonization in literary circles than a trusted friend.  He knew him as well as anyone, after all.

Yet I wonder if it didn't occur to Franzen, while writing this, how often his own fictional characters conceal themselves, especially from the people they love most.  What a shifty prey one's personal truth becomes, hanging out in the shadows, massaging our thoughts and actions from the inside out while we fumble for our social footing.  What utter hubris to think you can dissect someone's torment and hold Truth aloft in your hand like a trophy you've won.

(As an aside, Franzen goes to weirdly self-conscious lengths to shield his own life and privacy in this article.  When referencing his girlfriend, writer Kathryn Chektovich, he calls her "the California woman I live with."  Huh?  Why all the awkwardness, when this is a well documented relationship of many years?  Franzen's island is carefully crafted and only sparingly shared; his friend's island, once abandoned, is there for the excavating.)

When Franzen finally tosses a portion of Wallace's ashes off the cliffs of Crusoe's island, he writes, "I felt done with anger, merely bereft, and done with islands, too."  But no, he went on to write about it, in a magazine read by millions.  And when push comes to shove, this strikes me as just being not a very nice thing to do.

Grief is ugly and real--and all too gut-wrenchingly universal--but grief is also infinitely unique and personal.  By all means, channel that grief into your art, let it find some soil to take root--becoming the sleight-of-hand verisimilitude only your experiences could grow--but let the dead friend remain your friend; nothing more or less.  Don't go adding to the cult of celebrity you supposedly abhor.  Don't go attaching yourself to it.  There is no last word to get in.  The man is not here to respond.  And he never can.  

His new novel is here, however.  David Foster Wallace's The Pale King--a Literary Event even in its unfinished state--was published last week.  The same week that Jonathan Franzen's article was printed in The New Yorker.

Funny timing, yeah?  Man escapes the promotional limelight of his own book to travel to a remote, deserted island with the ashes of his friend, only to come back and make himself part of the friend's story and limelight.  You couldn't write this stuff.    

Okay, here's the thing: I know I'm being harsher on Franzen than I have any real right to be.  I didn't throw down the article in frustration; I read it quickly through to the end.  Voraciously, even.  And I'm performing my own lengthy postmortem on it here.  I guess if grief is truly personal, then it has an infinite number of incarnations.  Who am I to say he's doing it wrong?

All I know is that after reading the article, I felt a little compromised and disgusted with myself.  Franzen talks a lot about our culture's saturation in entertainment and The Self, and how entwined those two things have become, thanks to the internet.  How is publishing such a sensational article in The New Yorker--an article you could only read on-line by "liking" The New Yorker fan page on Facebook--any different, when push comes to shove?  I get the feeling Franzen wants to feel superior to all of that popular nonsense, when really, he's slumming like the rest of us.

Ultimately, I suppose, the article just struck me as being unworthy of Franzen's work, which I truly love, and more importantly, unworthy of a friendship that didn't need to be written, because it was lived.  I'd like to believe that some kind of loyalty endures, even after the fact.  That we let go because we have to, but that we keep the most precious parts of the people we loved.  On an island so remote, yet sacred, that no one else can fully tread there.  

One of my favorite quotes is this gem from John Keats: "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination."

Maybe we all should endeavor, through self awareness and humility, not to overly confuse the two.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Little Windows

("Wind from the Sea" by Andrew Wyeth)

My kids and I have been watching The College of William & Mary’s Bald Eagle Cam pretty enthusiastically throughout the day.  I keep the tab open on my browser and bounce over whenever I want to see what Mom and the three eaglets are up to in their nest.  Our daughter watched the streaming video for an hour straight this afternoon.  She was hoping to witness the mother’s moment of flight.  She asked me where those wings would take her, and I told her we wouldn’t be able to see.  But we knew the eaglets had to stick by our sides, even if they had not a lick of awareness that we had sides to stick to.  

Not to go too far with all this, but there is something comforting in this notion.  How we feel protective and almost prideful of the little guys, and how they, in turn, give us their company.  I was a biology major in college.  I worked at a zoo, and I fed dead chicks to bald eagles at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's wildlife sanctuary.  I thought those days were behind me.  Yet this camera offers me a perspective on reality I would never be able to enjoy if someone hadn’t taken the trouble to stick it up there.  It’s the wild world, in my lap.  And the intimacy of it is quietly breathtaking.  

All these little windows become a part of the houses inside our heads.  We peer out, we turn back in, because there's stuff to do or it's just too dark to look any longer.  But we remember the folds of the landscapes, and we color in the gaps and shadows.  And in doing so, we elevate sight into vision.        

Writing and blogging are like this, too.  

We are richer for the looking.  How else could my daughter have been rewarded for her patience than in seeing another bald eagle swoop into frame after 45 minutes?  Turns out, Papa is just as dedicated a parent as Mama.  And how else could one better grasp the scope of life on this planet of ours--with all its devotion, sacrifices and cruelty--than by watching him tear the flesh off a waterfowl for his wide-mouthed progeny?

It's nighttime, and the camera's gone dark for now.  But I'll be happy to pull up a chair tomorrow.  Turns out, this seat's always warm.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Old New Again

Over the last three years, I've made it a tradition to post a New Year's story.  I intended to post one this year--recently beginning a vignette with this goal in mind--only to discover that I didn't have the heart to complete it.

I've been feeling this a lot lately, regarding writing.  And, strangely enough, I'm not feeling it as a negative development.  I like writing; I mean to keep at it.  But I cannot stake my happiness on the fickle waves of inspiration and word count. Or on validation's thin ice.  I've recently been experiencing a more precious, if less exercised, peace of mind.  I'm knee-deep in novels again, and reading as much poetry as I can get my hands on, thanks to a Christmas bounty from my husband.  Motherhood feels more than ever like a gift to me, in spite of the daily trials.  I've even organized the house a bit.  And while it may be argued that contentment is the death knell of creativity, I prefer to think of it as a slow drip of sustenance into the overly heated pot.  Quiet minds need not be still; they run true and deep enough.

I wrote Plum Blossoms in Paris in a bit of a bubble.  I didn't share that novel with others for quite some time.  I understand that this insulation is anathema to most contemporary writers' processes.  And I can see how that give-and-take with readers and other writers secures their larger goals.  Yet, even while I've been an obliging beta-reader for many, a purity of vision is still, for me, an essential part of a writer's worth and self-expression.  It's what separates art from craft.  That time of my life was a sacred education.

I've been sheepish to argue this perspective in the past.  I recognize it sounds self-aggrandizing and preachy.  But I want to know when I put something out there that, in spite of its influences--and with all of its summits and fault lines--it's still mine at the end of the day. That's my true goal now, in lieu of more ambitious, commercial aims. And that old bubble feels worth slipping into again.  For all that I've gained since Murmurs' launch in 2007, I've lost some of those sweet and honest pleasures.  I don't write as much for the characters anymore; I write with the concurrent hope of eliciting a reaction.  I'm sure that this is normal--we all like to be petted and praised.  But I can't help but wonder where it leads.  Or maybe I know too well.

My little book's publication was a thrill, if also a disappointment, as most realized dreams turn out to be.  I found myself caring too much what people thought of it...or what they thought of me.  I experienced the discomfiting contradiction of not wanting people to read what I'd worked so hard to put out--going so far as to apologize for its relative immaturity--and yet feeling hurt when many who mattered to me chose not to read the book.  I checked my Amazon sales rank with the frequency of a lab rat pushing for its pellet.  I promoted myself, with the helpful generosity of so many of you, like a dutiful, if doubting, author.  Meanwhile, my ego felt a kid run amok, constantly hunting for the next scrap of validation, the next great, or small, distraction.

Which brings me to Facebook and Twitter.  Man, those places can be easy and fun.  Even when not actively participating, the passive voyeurism is delicious.  I have frittered away countless hours checking people's tweets and status updates.  I've free-stroked to the flow of banter, drama and good cheer.  Not being an extravert, social media feels like a safe harbor for connecting with people, while still maintaining that desired distance.  But I also firmly believe that--for me again--these places can dilute my focus on work and family, priming that age-old restlessness for instant gratification and attention.  Did someone re-tweet my little poem?  Was that last comment clever enough?  Embarrassing to admit--well, sure--but true.  If I had a greater talent for self-discipline and moderation, I'm sure it would be a different story.  As it is, I don't want to have something cute my kid says immediately triggering the thought: is this Facebook-worthy?

I don't know.  Maybe the greatest act of narcissism is to take yourself too seriously.  To endlessly dissect and confess these motivations and actions, in the belief that there's some future reward for self-awareness, regret, and its more mature sister: growth.  I'm ridiculously lucky to be able to wrestle over such airy matters.  And the truth is, I'm far from feeling like I have it all figured out.  These qualms have been with me for some time, but they are mine alone.  I would not presume to know which fuels propel others' dreams and happinesses.  So many of you are brilliant and funny and good.  If I had my way, you'd all be published or feted, the world taking proper note of your talent, vision and work.  I've smiled at your skill and I've prized your friendships.  I'm glad you're out there.

So. The practical outcome of all this rambling is that I'm detaching myself from the computer in some meaningful ways.  I'm deactivating my Facebook account (not deleting it; let's not get crazy here), ignoring Twitter and Google Reader, and putting the much-neglected blog on indefinite hiatus.  I know--big whoop, right?  This kind of proclamation has become a common, and often comically short-lived, refrain as people struggle to find the right balance between an internet life and, you know, that other one.  Recording it here is really for my benefit.  It's the permission slip for a solitary field trip.  And it's the click of the door behind me, so that I might really hear and mind it.  

In spite of my New Year's tradition, I've never held much stock in making resolutions.  To me, the start of a new year feels like an artificial line in the sand.  Change and evolution happen through an accident of steps and missteps, and rarely with any single, mythic leap of faith.  But it is the new year.  And right now, I have a lot of faith.  In my family, in my deep gratitude for our good fortune, and in the patience to pursue happiness in a sustainable way I might also be proud of.

Happy New Year.  I hope 2011 is just what you make of it.