Saturday, February 26, 2011

the sea

I'm from Rhode Island, the Ocean State. Thirty miles from the westernmost part of the state to the eastern coast, sixty miles from the south to the north, RI is the smallest state in the US and a state that, I've found, many people from the other side of the country don't know exists (or some people think it's part of New York, like a twin of Long Island). There are a lot of perplexing things about Rhode Island: it's not an island; its residents are known from their speaking habit of taking "r"s off of words where they belong and putting them in words where they don't belong; milkshakes are called "cabinets," water fountains "bubblers" (or "bubblahs" spoken with a Rhode Island accent!). RI has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. I lived there until this past August and while RI is very dear to me, I don't plan to move back permanently -- mostly because it's so small that I've always felt that I needed to experience other places.

Since Boston is only an hour north of Providence, I go back to RI frequently to visit my parents and friends who still live there. I went back a few weeks ago for my mom's birthday, which is when these pictures were taken. It was definitely a Rhode Island day, the kinds of days I sometimes miss: lunch at Captain Jack's restaurant, which overlooks salt marshes, docks, and houses raised on stilts, followed by a cold and windy, yet very sunny and exhilarating walk along the beach.

The sea has been a background feature of my entire life. I love the sea. In high school and most of college, every first date I ever went on either started or ended with a walk on the beach, or if it was an especially good date, a magical stretch of time sitting on the seawall hoping the boy would put his arm around me. Summers meant going to the beach, swimming in the cold wave-tossed ocean, building sandcastles, and exploring the ruins on the far edge of Scarborough Beach: a stone structure tangled with salt-growing plants and bright flowers, a mysterious bramble-crossed path leading away from the sea cliffs.

I feel very lucky to have grown up near the sea. There is something about the familiar tumble of the waves that eases anxieties out of my mind, or at least muffles them for a while. Thinking about the sea weaves together so many memories for me. In winter, the calm of the beach, empty except for dog-walkers. In summer, being battered by the waves while laughing with friends as the water sparkles. Friendships and relationships that have ended, and those that I still treasure.

I don't know where I will end up in the future -- in such a competitive academic job market, being flexible with regard to location is pretty much essential. I worry a lot about the possibility of ending up in a landlocked state. As someone who has always lived on the east coast and only visited other places in the US, I can appreciate the beauty of the middle of the country, but I get a feeling of claustrophobia when I think about being far away from the sea for a long period of time. I guess I will just have to wait and see what happens, and hope I can always live fairly close to an ocean.

Monday, February 21, 2011

this writing thing

The hardest part of writing for me is getting started, and continuing to write when I feel like I don't know where the writing is going. I start any piece of writing by just trying to get down anything that is in my head that I think might want to be in the writing -- so my first drafts are basically just explosions of images, scenes, and ideas, with no order. I find it hard to keep going while struggling to find a sense of cohesion, but I also think this "explosion" method is the best way to get everything down in order to figure out later what really needs to be there, and how everything can connect.

The part that I really get into is when I finally have a sense of where I want the piece of writing to go, what it should look and feel like. Then I revise that explosive draft according to that sense. I can do this for hours and not even notice time passing, because I'm so immersed in the wonderful feeling that I know where I want the writing to go, and if I stick with it long enough, I can get there.

This semester I am taking nonfiction, even though my declared genre is poetry, and I am getting really excited about the memoir essay that I am working on right now. I've always tried to write in multiple genres (fiction being my weakest), and usually waver between nonfiction and poetry. What I am loving about nonfiction at the moment is how I feel like I can get into a writing project so deeply in a way that I usually can't in poetry. Also, I find memoir so fascinating because of the extensive sleuthwork involved in trying to render as a story a collection of elusive memories -- shuffling through personal artifacts like old letters, journals, photographs, and saved AIM conversations; constantly asking yourself, "Did he really say that? Did that happen in 2007 or 2008?" and trying to answer.

So this is basically to say: I'm feeling especially into this whole writing thing lately. And that's awesome.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

happy things this past week

Happy things this past week:

The first springlike days of the year last Thursday and Friday -- wearing my new light pink trenchcoat and beloved pair of heeled oxfords (in the picture).

Going to an MFA reading at my school, then out for margaritas with some friends. How great it is to spend so much time with writers.

Dinner with the boyfriend's mom on Saturday. She gave us two Japan travel guides and I've been devouring them ever since.

My mom coming to visit me today, along with my dad's cousin (who is pretty much like my aunt). Paninis and soup in Davis Square.

Spending an afternoon writing, in that stage of writing that is just the best, when you finally have a handle on where you want to take the piece, and you are so into the writing that you don't notice time passing at all.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

i'm going on an adventure

Map from Tokyo Metro

So, I'm going to Japan! The other day my boyfriend and I bought plane tickets to Tokyo, leaving mid-May and returning mid-June. He has been planning for this trip all through college (he's about to graduate from a very intense five-year program) and invited me to go with him more than a year ago. Since then I've been debating whether or not I should. Wanting to go was never a question -- it was all about whether I could afford to go. And being afraid. And wondering even if I could save the money, should I really spend it?

Since finally buying the ticket I have told very few people about it. I guess I worry about what they will think. Will they say I'm being irresponsible spending money on something amazing but unnecessary?

I've wanted to travel for as long as I can remember. As a little kid I dreamed about what faraway places might be like. In high school I cut out travel articles from newspapers and magazines and pasted them into a book of places I needed to visit someday. In college I continued fantasizing and thinking "someday..." I figured it would happen eventually. When I had a good income. When I was more of a real grown-up.

But when debating with myself whether or not I wanted to take this trip, no matter how many times I almost said no, I kept turning back to the question: if not now, then when will the next opportunity be? When I finish grad school I will have my student loans to pay back, and less time off. Whereas now, I have savings that can hopefully be replenished by staying with my parents for the remainder of the summer and taking back my old tutoring job for a summer program at my undergrad. The period of time between when my academic-year jobs in Boston end for the summer and when that tutoring job begins is the perfect window for the trip.

I am not usually one to take chances, especially financially. I am always cautious, worrying about making the wrong decision. But I have been deliberating about this trip for more than a year and I decided to take the plunge for once. I don't want to have big regrets. I already regret not studying abroad in college -- I always had some excuse, like a boyfriend I didn't want to leave or a job from which I was afraid of asking for time off. I know that if I don't take the chance to go on this trip I will regret it.

I am still trying to get myself to really be excited about it instead of worrying. I'm looking for a temporary third job to start replacing some savings, and trying to cut a lot of things out of my budget.

And I'm slowly realizing that in three months I will be roaming the crazy streets of Tokyo and placing a long-awaited checkmark next to a place on my decade-old travel list.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

book post: i capture the castle

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Since deciding to do a regular book post feature, I knew one of the first posts would have to be about I Capture the Castle, which has been my favorite book since I was around sixteen. I remember the first time I read it, sitting on the couch on a winter day when the light was cold but there was no snow on the ground, and I felt so enchanted by this book that I didn't want it to end. Since then I've read it many times -- seven? eight? -- and it never gets old. This quote by JK Rowling sums up the reason why, in spite of the fact that I've read a lot of amazing books since I was sixteen, I Capture has not lost its place as my favorite: "Dreamy and funny... an odd, shimmering timelessness clings to its pages."

I Capture the Castle, first published in 1949, takes the form of a journal written by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain in 1930s England. She and her delightfully odd family live in a crumbling castle that her author father decided to rent when he was still making good money from his book. Now, however, her father has not written in years, and the castle and its inhabitants have fallen into disrepair and poverty. The story and the characters are wonderful, but what makes this book so magical is Cassandra's voice -- witty, genuine, observant and interested, contemplative, quirky, introspective... Cassandra Mortmain is one of the best narrators I have ever encountered. Through her journal entries, she chronicles a time filled with changes for her and her family, as she crosses over from childhood to adulthood.

Oh, and this book also has one of the best first lines I've ever read -- "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." Do I need to say anything else? I love this book. So much.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

writing habits

I have been trying to be more disciplined in my writing habits. And it's been really hard! Because yes, I love writing -- so much so that I'm crazy enough to go for a somewhat impractical arts degree in it -- but I don't always love the discipline of sitting down and trying to fill blank pages.

I tend to write in spurts, ten minutes here, a half hour there when I'm feeling really good about it, over and over again. But it's not really working. I feel the need to sit down and write for longer periods of time, to really get into a writing project. A couple days last week I went to cafes and made myself sit down and type. (The writing process is always helped immensely by a latte and a bagel, after all.) But the idea that's been on my mind of actually scheduling writing time -- making myself show up for a certain amount of time each day, like a job -- is making me really nervous.

Why? When writing is and has always been my "thing," the thing that I've always done and always loved, that I say I want to do with my life? Why don't I actually want to show up and do it? I think it's probably fear. I have so much anxiety about being a writer in the future -- will I ever be published, will I "make it," ever get recognition -- that it's choking the joy of writing itself. And that is pretty sad.

Now the question is: how to make the anxiety shut up so I can sit down and write for more than a half hour at a time.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

book post!

One of the features I'm planning for the blog is a series of book posts where I'll share books that I've read recently and loved. It should be a frequent feature because I pretty much devour books! Here are the two books I've read most recently:

This book weaves together a sense of the surreal and fantastic with the harsh reality of post-Soviet Russia. The characters live in a crumbling apartment building, where their individual hopes, disappointments, and struggles play out. Central to the book is the death of Mircha, one of the tenants, who returns as a ghost.

All of the characters are wonderfully complex and well-written, but the
central character (and my favorite) is Tanya, who carries a notebook with her at all times, and who works for the very strange All-Russia All-Cosmopolitan Museum (a museum of knockoff imitations of artworks and artifacts, often cobbled together from materials like chewing gum and cardboard), but who dreams of something better.

Ochsner's writing, alternately lyrical, funny, and devastating, perfectly creates a strange and
magical story inhabited by characters who are quirky but never caricature-like. The book has elements of magical realism but still feels real due to the emotional weight of the characters' longing, sadness, and hope.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

A housekeeper trying to support her 10-year-old son is assigned to work for the Professor, a mathematical genius whose memory, due to an accident, only lasts for eighty minutes. He remembers the numbers and equations that make up his life's work, but forgets who the housekeeper is each time she arrives at his cottage. In spite of this, the housekeeper and the Professor come to be friends, and the Professor also becomes closely attached to the housekeeper's son.

The story that follows is beautiful in its simply rendered moments of daily life -- the Professor working at a proof for a contest but not caring about the prize money, the housekeeper making his meals and sneaking healthy carrots into the food even though he doesn't like them, the son talking about his favorite baseball team or doing his homework.

The bond between the three characters emerges naturally and touchingly, and this short book feels beautifully quiet and intimate. Also, it says a lot that a book with math as one of its central themes kept me interested, when I usually avoid any math more complicated than addition and subtraction! But the equations and mathematical theorems in this book are used to marvel at the universe's mystery and the beauty of its workings -- as the Professor says, figuring out a mathematical principle is like reading a page from "God's notebook."