Biographer’s update

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve put aside fiction to work on a biography of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, librarian extraordinaire, Franciscan historian, and friend and spiritual advisor to Thomas Merton. It’s nearly complete now, I’m happy to say, and this weekend, instead of hitting the malls and battling the crowds, I will be heading for the Allegheny foothills of upstate New York, for some last minute research and quiet reflection. I will be submitting the manuscript to an actual publisher in January—it’s not a done deal yet, but this is the first publisher to express a serious but strongly enthusiastic response to my queries. I have some support in the form of very positive feedback I received from my article about Father Irenaeus in the Merton Seasonal. Didn’t think so many people read the Seasonal, but they do!

Back in August, I was quite discouraged with this project, and wondered if it would be worth continuing with. Thank goodness I struggled on. I feel now like a lot of people are waiting for this book.  And I also  feel, rather strongly now, that perhaps my life’s calling may be for biography and non-fiction. Or more to the point, perhaps this is the time for me to turn to non-fiction, considering the dismal market conditions for fiction. I don’t write for money or the market, of course, but one has to be realistic. There is too much fiction out there right now, too much overwhelming competition. Not enough eyes. I admit, writing non-fiction is tremendously harder than fiction. All the plotting and storylines may already be there, yet you have to render the absolute truth in clear, readable, compelling prose, no matter how difficult or distasteful it is. And you always have to tell the truth. No “alternative facts” in my biographies.

Yes, I said biographies, because I’m thinking of writing another.  I’m hooked. I love the research, love the puzzle-like aspects of putting together someone else’s life on paper and making that person seem whole and coherent again. I like looking at a life like a storyline, and studying the other characters who wander into that story, adding their own plot twists and intrigues. It’s all good. I just wish this revelation had come sooner to me, when I was younger and had more energy, ambition and brain cells; but hopefully I’ll live to be a centenarian and will be writing up until the day I die.

So here we go. Somehow I have to combine the completion of this book with preparations for Christmas, with our minds uneasily fixed on the task ahead for spring, the big downsizing move. And concurrently, in “real time” as they say, an ever-growing list of ESL students. I’m not complaining; on the contrary, this season I feel blessed. I have meaningful work to do, and that may be the key to a good life after all.

Carved in stone



When I was at the British Museum in London, I got to visit the Rosetta Stone, something always of great interest to word and language enthusiasts. It affected me a lot more than the rest of the must-see sights, not only because of its amazing history, but also because I got to experience it in a truly tactile way. That is my own humble hand against the backdrop of ancient writing, although the surface beneath is an amazing replica of the original, which is tucked safely behind glass several galleries away.

Language is, of course, normally an abstract thing that can’t be touched—unless you’re sight-impaired and use Braille, or lived in the centuries when important things had to be inscribed onto rocks or carved into wood. Writing used to involve a great deal of effort. Even if you only go back a few centuries, you still had to carve the quill out of a bird’s feather, mix the ink to the right consistency, then carefully form your letters to avoid unsightly blotches on the very precious linen-based paper or even sheepskin you were filling with something that was presumably important, worthy enough to be set down permanently. Penmanship was an art form, and once a vital part of elementary school curriculum. I’m old enough to have suffered through several years of it, but it did my careless scrawl little good. Later, in high school, I had to take a full typing course in order to begin composing on the keyboard—not a computer, mind you, but one of those old-fashioned machines where you cranked the paper in, had to keep changing the ribbon and hoped the letter ‘e’ wouldn’t stick or the letter ‘o’ wouldn’t punch actual holes in your manuscript. Want to do some editing? Get out the scissors and Scotch tape.

I remember the arguments a few years ago, when computers became widespread, that they made writing too easy, and writers too careless. Does the physical act of writing somehow affect the quality of it? I don’t personally think so, but nowadays we have the Internet, which some say makes publishing that writing too easy, and thus leading to the degradation of literature in general. Would you even bother to attempt that novel if you had to chisel it onto a rock? Probably not, but if you really, really wanted to, or needed to, you’d probably try.

Maybe the acid test for writing should be: Would I want to see this on a piece of stone? My husband came up with a wonderful witticism a few years ago, when he was working in a difficult workplace with  changing rules: “Everything is carved in stone; but every day, there’s a new stone.”  Which makes me think that maybe our kind of writing isn’t meant to be permanent, but just something to be thrown out there, with hopes that it sticks—in a kind of permanent way—to someone’s brain. Preferably, many brains.

Still, it was a treat to caress the Rosetta Stone, even if not the actual rock itself, and not too hard to imagine the creator’s satisfaction at completing what, even at the time, must have been a monumental project; and the discoverers joy at finding it; the decipherers’ delight in understanding it. And it’s the perfect physical metaphor for the conjunctions of history, mankind, culture, language and discovery.

Despite this I was able to resist the various Rosetta offerings in the gift shop: Tea towels and t-shirts and fridge magnets. My photograph, and the memory of the consistently bumpy texture of the letters and characters beneath my fingertips was the best souvenir of all.

London Time

I’ve just returned from our trip to London, which was wonderful, hectic, exhausting and packed full of sights, activities, events, places and people. But the overriding theme of the whole trip for me seemed to be, simply, that abstract notion of time. Literally, because we visited the Prime Meridian spot in Greenwich, which was a bit anticlimactic, because other than being a nice spot for a snapshot, wasn’t really all that exciting or moving. And there were some very confusing time issues—some due to simply traveling across time zones, and one due to Britain’s daylight-savings time change, which was October 29, a full week before the US time change Nov. 4th. Even my smartphone couldn’t keep up and I had to reset it manually.

But most importantly, this seemed precisely the right time to make this trip. Sometimes we visit places in the world at the wrong time in our lives, either when we’re too young and stupid to appreciate them, or too old to care. I had been wanting to visit London and England for years, but this year seemed just right (despite the increase in terrorist events and such) because I’ve done enough reading in my life to understand the significance of certain places. For example, Bloomsbury, which I got to stroll through briefly. I kept bumping up against a hundred such places, reminding me of hundreds of books I’ve read over the years referencing this corner or London, or another. It helped with my understanding of Thomas Merton, who did live in London briefly, and had a strong cultural connection to England in general. And though I was told Londoners can be cold and stuffy, I did not find this the case with typical residents I met with: They seemed curious, polite and friendly, starting with the customs officer right off the plane, who, when he heard we would be travelling to Portsmouth Harbour, proceeded to tell us all about it and what we’d find there.

My only regret is that I didn’t have more physical energy to really explore the city, so in a sense, it was perhaps not the best time for me personally to go. Unfortunately, right before the trip, I had gotten ill with a nasty bacterial infection, and was still taking antibiotics well into the trip. I couldn’t have done it without my husband beside me.  I felt a bit woozy and perpetually tired throughout, but still managed to decipher the Tube and bus system, get through the Victoria & Albert, Natural History, British Museum and the entire museum complex at Portsmouth Harbor (including boarding two historic boats); took a millinery class and had tea in Lambeth with a charming transplant from Wales (and two California gals); took the water-bus to Greenwich and climbed that big old hill up to the Royal Observatory; attended a ultra-conservative (Catholic) benediction service at Brompton Oratory; and managed to get to infamous Oxford Road, which is like our 34th street in Manhattan: jammed with tourists and stores. And yes, I did get to Harrods, but was not impressed; was more so with Selfridges, whose façade seems to go on forever, and also John Lewis, where I could actually afford to buy things. Big Ben was encased in scaffolding, but I didn’t need to take a photograph of it in any case.

Toward the end of our trip, we were shocked to hear about the terrorist event back home in lower Manhattan—it got quite a bit of coverage in the British press. I kept hearing references to recent London terror events, but honestly, it was not a concern to me at all the whole time. Perhaps it is all a matter of being in a certain place at a certain time. But for the most part, my time in London was extraordinary.

The bad guys

I’ve just spent most of the weekend in bed, recovering from a nasty and sudden bacterial infection, which required antibiotics and painkillers. It did give me the chance to plan out part of our upcoming trip to London, and watch many, many old movies on TCM. And I was struck by some of the films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the casual violence in them, and in particular, the many attacks on women. Is this where it really begins, decades and decades ago?  The screen is filled with angry young men, slapping their lovers around, and supposedly the women love it, and respond amorously. Seems particularly pronounced in Kirk Douglas movies.  In fact the “badder” the girl is—i.e., if she seems to be sexual in any way—the more she seems to “deserve” it. For a long time, Hollywood has been telling us it’s okay to physically abuse women, and I can’t help but wonder—growing up in that era—why hadn’t I ever really  noticed this before. And it dawned on me that it’s because, probably, growing up in that era, we accepted it as normal, a kind of truth about life, as we did with a lot of things from the movies.

There were, thanks goodness, some good decent men portrayed: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck in a lot of good movies. But certain directors of the 1950s onward seemed drawn to portraying harsh, disturbed men with no respect for women whatsoever. And women are portrayed as either angels or whores, with little middle ground, when the truth is, we’re all in that middle ground.

Where did all that domestic violence, that anger, come from? Was it some remnant of World War II, or the scary early days of nuclear weapons? Did men feel they had to lash out at something and women were fair game?

In those days, we had no Facebook or Twitter to help us figure out our cultural ethics, so there was cinema, and the afternoon movie on TV, and we just gamely accepted the false life they sold to us. Especially when you’re an impressionable kid; you’re watching a film made by an adult and think, this is like the Gospel. This is how life really is: Men are the masters, and women their slaves. This is how modern love really is supposed to be: Not glorious, but miserable, and hurtful and false, better accept it now. And I think some of this emerges in my first, long-ago novel, in which my main male character treats his lover shamefully—not abusing her physically but mentally and emotionally, and then trying to kill her…all under the guise of mental illness.  People would ask if the book was biographical—of course it wasn’t, but somehow that idea of the warped male-female dynamic got under my skin, and became something I had to write about.

I’m fortunate that the most important man in my life would put those movie bums to shame, but I have witnessed over the years a lot of bad behavior from some others. And those would be the ones to immediately go on the defensive and say, “You women aren’t perfect, either,” but sorry guys, it is mostly you. You’re the ones with the testosterone. And maybe not so much your fault, but all those hidden cultural cues you grew up with, and maybe some of the snarky mid- to late-20th century films you watched and absorbed. Yet the good news is, despite Trump and Weinstein and other highly visible creeps, things do seem to be changing, and that behavior is finally being called out. And maybe that’s what making the bad behavior of men in old movies especially glaring–and unacceptable–to me today.

On literature (again)

I’ve written before about the continuing confusion in this country over literary fiction and “good” writing, and the huge divide between the academics and the publishing ‘gatekeepers’. But let’s throw in the general reading public while we’re at it. Each reader has their own very definite idea of what constitutes “good reading”, so the whole idea of literary fiction is a subjective one, and perhaps not necessarily an ideal to aspire to, but just one of many notions about why people read (and write) and what they should read (and write). I did attempt once to come up with a rubric about what makes for good reading, irrespective of its so-called ‘literary’ merits, but I keep coming to the same conclusion: Good writing is not about style or following the rules,  but should be alive, and most of all believable: Good fiction is truth, about people and the human condition, but a truth so compelling, the reader can’t put it down…or forget it, ever.

Finally, I’ve found someone who agrees with me. Garrison Keillor writes mostly humorous pieces these days for the Washington Post. Perhaps like me, you mourn his absence on radio’s “Prairie Home Companion”, which provided the soundtrack for any number of Sunday afternoon drives and adventures I’ve taken throughout the US. This morning he wrote an exceptionally brave column taking the Swedish Nobel Literature Prize committee to task for its choice of Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novels include ‘Remains of the Day,” and other high-literary tomes. His point seemed to be that the books of Ishiguro—a British writer of Japanese descent who lives and writes in the UK—seem cold, humorless and detached, and why couldn’t the committee pick a writer whose work brims with life and humor and daring, perhaps someone like Philip Roth? (Keillor’s opinion, not mine; I’ve liked certain novels by my fellow New Jersey writer, but he’s not a favorite; I don’t really have an absolute favorite writer at this point in my life). Sorry I don’t have the link for the article, but you could probably find it on the Washington Post website; the title is “Welcome to the Abyss.”

The Abyss: the perfect term for any young, ambitious writer trying to begin a career these days. Unless you’re extraordinary lucky (not talented; talent doesn’t seem to count for anything, anymore) and know someone in the publishing business (like an uncle, or girlfriend), your precious hard-wrought writing will almost surely sink to the bottomless bottom of reader-dom, where it will never see the light of day or garner more than a minute or so of fame. But never mind that right now (you know I can never resist a good metaphor). I would go further than Keillor and suggest that the Nobel Prize for Literature be completely abolished. It’s pointless: Good writing can’t be quantified, like activity in medicine or physics. To pick out one writer among the millions and proclaim them the king (or queen) is ridiculous. Why not give a Nobel Prize for Art, or for Cooking, for heaven’s sake?  I don’t even support the notion that it gives an obscure writer needed attention, because there are thousands of obscure writers out there needing attention, why focus on just one? I think it hearkens back to some weird, outdated monarchical urge from the early 20th century: Somebody has to be the best, even if we’re not sure how to define the best. Perhaps the Nobel Literature committee could take their million-dollar prize (or whatever it is) and start a publishing company to promote what they see as “good writing.” It’ll still prove unfair or inaccessible to many writers, but some good stuff could come out of it and it could be a  bonus for many readers. And maybe it could become the worthy competitor Amazon so richly deserves…


The long way home

This has been a troubling week of news in a troubled year–Struggling with the horrific, incomprehensible reality of yet another mass shooting  and the devastation in Puerto Rico and other places, one has to take comfort where one can.  I’ve been increasingly “taking the long way” on my various road trips around the state. I still use highways and freeways, and let Siri tell me the fastest route to where I need to go; but mostly I’ve been taking the long way home, shunning the stress and danger of the big busy highways for the relative peace of back roads. Not an easy thing to do here in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, but I’ve got my favored routes. This is the  driving version of knitting or baking a pie: calming, heartening, and usually with at least one meaningful, or delightfully meaningless, diversion along the way.

I think it harkens back to when I was a kid, and we’d take “the long way” home from the Connecticut shore (don’t remember the exact route but it involved Salem Four Corners and Colchester) or from the Cape (almost always Route 6, getting lost in Providence every time). This way home was always full of tantalizing possibilities: Ice cream parlors or clam stands, interesting scenery and best of all, Dad behind the wheel in a good mood, joking and making up little ditties and songs to entertain the horde of kids in the back seat. There’s no rural lanes in mid-town Manhattan, but when in the city, I often opt for one of the city buses over the subway as ‘the long way.” The M104, which starts out from Port Authority Bus Terminal and goes way up into Harlem via the West Side, is my favorite.

Years ago, I read a wonderful book by William Least-Heat Moon, Blue Highways, all about taking the roads less traveled and what there was to discover on some of them. To me, a long stretch of one-lane road through, say, the  Southern Tier of New York State or the Northern Kingdom of Vermont is better than watching television, even if nothing much happens along the way. There’s always the possibility of opportunity, maybe lurking just beyond the next curve.

I was thinking of all this on my way to teaching  this morning, taking the long way because I was leaving during the morning rush hour. My favorite road on this route is the one that pierces through the Great Swamp of North-Central Jersey, because you never know what interesting critter will make an appearance. Unhappily, it is becoming a popular cut-through with workers traveling from North to central NJ; and I’m thinking I and all the other drivers should leave it (and all the creatures of the swamp) alone for awhile, before it becomes bumper-to-bumper. But it is a lovely place at sunrise, even with the landscape trucks and Joe-the-Bikers to swerve around, even with the idiot on your tail who has to beep if he thinks you’re driving too slow (and sometimes it’s a she).  And I was thinking about ‘the long way home’ as the perfect metaphor for a persistent writer—as in, I’m certainly taking the long road toward fame and recognition.  Even if I never reach that particular destination, it’s all been interesting. Indeed, it’s a great metaphor for a long, sometimes  diverted, but fully engaged lifetime. And what a great title for a book! Hands off, other writers! If I ever write a memoir, (unlikely, but never say never), that’s what I’m going to call it.

I will not, however, be taking the long way to England three weeks hence, although I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of taking a ship across the Atlantic, always enraptured by movies and books in which such a voyage takes place. Yes, even Titanic.  But I am hoping to have a few ‘long way’ adventures somewhere, somehow,  across the big pond.

But is it art???

For decades now, my identity has been deeply wound up in being a writer, which leads me to dismiss other talents and interests that might crop up in the course of living my life. But I’m starting to think that being married to an artist for thirty-odd years (and yes, they have been odd sometimes) is finally rubbing off on me. I feel like I’m much more graphically inclined than I was when I was younger, and find myself looking at actual, concrete things in different ways (ironically, as my eyesight worsens with age).

This past summer, it seems two stray interests of mine caught up with me and converged in what I think is a meaningful way. I’ve always been interested in glass—glass blowing, stained glass, shaped glass. I’m intrigued by the interplay of light with color, and also by the paradox of working with glass, a brittle, even dangerous material, which—like a cat—never really does what you want it to, but somehow can be managed into breathtaking pieces of art. This past summer, when driving home from the Thomas Merton conference in New York State, I stopped in Corning, NY, to see the Tiffany Studios mosaics exhibit at the Corning Glass Museum. And I was simply blown away, at how so many tiny bits of glass could be brought together into  magnificent artwork that literally just glows—it seemed almost alive to me. Not only that, but it all played into my other interests, history and religion, as well. I came home itching to try it myself.

As I type this, my fingers are still sticky with gummy all-purpose glue, after working all morning on a wooden pencil box I covered in a modern, geometric design with scraps of glass. I even pulled out my old glass-cutter and cut a few pieces to size. Yesterday, at a local town-wide yard sale, I picked up a huge box of stained glass (so huge, I couldn’t actually pick it up; my husband muscled it to the car for me), perhaps a hundred dollars’ worth of glass for only $10. Husband seemed faintly baffled by this purchase, and I think he worries this new passion of mine will replace my desire to keep writing. Not to worry. I will always write, and at this moment I’m knee deep into a new novel. But as I was working on my little box this morning, and finding the work so satisfying—if messy—I wondered if I was onto something, possibly a new career to supplement the teaching and the dribbly monthly royalties from Amazon.  We’ll see. I’m pretty fickle when it comes to these kinds of whims—never with men, though, or my writing—and don’t want to assign any status or importance to it just yet. So for now, let’s not call it “art.”  Still  just my “hobby” at this point.