Toni Morrison reflects on the role of art in hard times

Some years ago, during a time of crisis, Toni Morrison confided to a friend her discouragement and inability to write. The friend had this to say about hard times:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!

Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in 1993, and wrote such memorable novels as Beloved and The Bluest Eye, echoes this advice when she says about “times of dread”:

There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.

She was speaking in another time in our history, at another critical point, but the message resonates today.

In this time of global crisis, I believe we should pay attention to Toni Morrison’s advice — take up the art form, the creative activity, that makes us happy, that gives us comfort, and for which we have a passionate commitment. For me, it’s writing, but for you it might be visual arts, film or photography, dancing, singing, playing an instrument, cooking or baking, gardening, sewing, crafts, volunteering, teaching, scholarship, a business or scientific venture.

Whatever it is, if it’s creative and is infused with your energy, your individual stamp, it will help center you in a time of chaos and confusion.

Let me be clear. I look on this global crisis as impacting our lives for the foreseeable future. If the 1918-1920 pandemic is any indication, we are looking at a two-year disruption of whatever normality we had before the beginning of this year.

With patience and perseverance, the support of family and friends, and a daily infusion of creative activities, we’ll get through the difficult months ahead.

Favorite first lines

Can we talk reading and writing—go off-topic for a refreshing few moments by thinking about something other than what we’re all thinking about?

Our enforced isolation has inspired me to think “big thoughts,” to work on something big. For me, “big” is a novel. Judging from past experience, this is a forever project that will keep me occupied for the foreseeable future.

So far, I have a title and a few opening pages. In writing a novel, I usually start out with a title and a page or two. I know the overall arc of the story, and I know how it will end. After I work that out, things move along at their usual turtle pace. I push on, procrastinate, then push on again.

If you write, you know that procrastination is one of the mandatory limbering up exercises for beginning any writing project or, for that matter, any writing day. As I agonize over those first critical pages, I’ve been listing, for inspiration, some first lines that I particularly like. Many of my favorites go back in time. I confess: I love 19th-century novels!

The favorite first lines that follow are in no particular order, except for the first two selections, which are my special favorites. Each is a full sentence–no more, no less.

Take a look and–if you’re so inclined–send me a few of your own favorites.

Pride and Prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

1984
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Rebecca
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Moby Dick
“Call me Ishmael.”

Jane Eyre
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

The Go-Between
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Peter Pan
“All children, except one, grow up.”

The Man of Property
“Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage.”

A Passage to India
“Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”

The Razor’s Edge
“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”

Far from the Madding Crowd
“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

The English Patient
‘She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.”

Wuthering Heights
“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”

The Bluest Eye
“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”

Mrs. Dalloway
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Crossing to Safety
“Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.”

Brooklyn
“Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work.”

them
“One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.”

The Great Gatsby
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Atonement
“The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and a lunch.”

Gilead
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”

Alice in Wonderland
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?”

Thoreau and social distancing

In Walden (1854), Chapter 6, “Visitors,” Henry David Thoreau provides a persuasive rationale for social distancing. Here’s what he says:

One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words.

You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plow out again through the side of his head. Also, our sentences wanted room to unfold and form their columns in the interval.

Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them. I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear—we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations.

If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.

Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout. As the conversation began to assume a loftier and grander tone, we gradually shoved our chairs farther apart till they touched the wall in opposite corners, and then commonly there was not room enough.

Stay well and keep your distance.

Row your boat gently down the stream

By this time, you’re familiar with the instructions for washing your hands: 20 seconds of scrubbing, during which time you hum, sing, or shout, twice-over, a favorite contemporary lyric or “Happy Birthday to You” or–my preference:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

It’s a simple message but it has a certain grandeur, like the familiar lines from The Tempest:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

For me, lately, life has a dream-like quality. So much has happened in the last few days. Profound changes in our lifestyle seem to be happening on a daily, even hourly, basis. I’ve always kept a weekly calendar. I wonder if I should plan from day to day, rather than week to week. What might next week bring? What seems most important is now, this moment.

Of course, that’s a lesson in itself, as it’s the way we should lead our lives under any circumstances. I’m sure there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this crisis, but I’d rather not learn them in this way.

Here’s another quote I’ve been mulling over. It seems appropriate to our current global experience. It’s attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a French Jesuit priest and philosopher who was also a paleontologist and geologist:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

What could be more human than a pandemic, as it touches almost every one of us? And what could be more spiritual, as it forces us to reconsider our very existence?

One of the things that hasn’t changed and hopefully won’t change is our ability to communicate with each other through social media and our various devices. I’m reaching out to you now, through one of those important communication options, because you’re in my thoughts, whether you’re a friend, a family member, a fellow writer, or a reader–unknown to me–who has been following my posts and publications. I hope you’re safe and well.

Happy Holidays!

My best and fondest holiday greetings to you. I hope this holiday season brings you peace, the loving company of family and friends, and a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for the year just drawing to a close.

I’m grateful for your support, and for the privilege of having my book, A Windless Place, published this year. Thanks for being there for me, and for cheering me on.

Let’s transition to a new year and a new decade with enthusiasm and hope. The world is full of good and well intentioned people. Our planet is on life support but we can still bring it back to health. All life is precious, especially yours. Take care of yourself, and take care of each other.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

“The Leftover King” and food talk

I love Thanksgiving. That lovely “gathering” around the table with family and friends you might not see that often during the year. Catching up with all the news. Lassoing noisy kids. That feeling of congeniality, satisfaction, and a sort of reverence for the occasion.

Best of all, there’s the food: the sacrificial turkey, of course, but then there’s the stuffing, the gravy, the potatoes, the fresh red cranberries, the green beans, and other assorted delicacies. After dinner, there’s the pie, the coffee, the overwhelming satiety. To think that families used to eat like that on a regular basis. How did they get anything done?

And then there’s the leftovers … Yum!

Speaking of which: “The Leftover King,” one of my children’s stories, was a finalist and has been published in the Adelaide Books Children’s Literature and Illustration Award Anthology 2019, available at Amazon.

It’s about a king who loved leftovers — inspired by someone very near and dear to me …

Happy Thanksgiving!

Finding our “windless place”

In my new novel, A Windless Place, Maggie haltingly tries to formulate the words for what she wants to do with her life–words that, for her, are still “incoherent thought.”

“I want to go inside myself and be myself and express myself–somehow.”

Gina, with her usual confidence, sums it up for her, telling her she wants to find her own “windless place.”

When Maggie, breathlessly attentive, asks her what she means, Gina replies:

“Just something I heard once. In a classroom maybe, or one of those deep dark discussions we indulge in at a certain time in our lives, when we’re young, and eager.”

Maggie, very young and very eager, asks again, “But what does it mean?”

“It has to do with a candle burning in a windless place,” Gina tells her. “It was just an image that stayed with me. Something to do with repose, certainty–a sort of calm at the center …”

I don’t know about you, but lately I’m having trouble finding my “calm at the center.”

We are, as a country and, in a larger sense, as a global community, in the midst of multiple crises–the most critical of which is climate change. Right now, the state where I make my home is recovering from multiple recent wildfires. This year we’ve had extreme weather conditions all over the country, all over the world.

At the same time, as a nation we are torn apart politically–unable to communicate across a virtual Grand Canyon of differing views.

What will it take to bring us to some level of calm, of fraternity, so that we can begin to address climate change, and the bitterness and hate that infuse our politics?

We must love one another or die.”

In W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” the date of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Auden says, emphatically, “We must love one another or die.”

The poem has its own spirit of bitterness and despair, but it is, in the end, hopeful. On the eve of the second great war of the 20th century, Auden says:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages …

Can we love one another enough to offset the differences we have created among ourselves? Can we find that windless place, surrounded by a peaceful, broad-based community, in a world we preserve and respectfully inhabit? I am, by turns, hopeful, resigned, moderately optimistic, skeptical. Most of the time, it seems, I’m in a queasy state of anxiety.

One year from now our vote will, among other vital issues, help to determine the preservation of our planet. Our decision will reverberate down the years, touching all of us as well as our children, their children, and every living creature.

A Windless Place has been published!

I am so very pleased to announce that my third novel, A Windless Place, has been published and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

A Windless Place is about the often difficult transition between childhood and adulthood. Maggie Lowin is just fourteen years old when she meets Gina, her new next-door neighbor. Vividly attractive and wildly unpredictable, Gina seems to embody everything that Maggie most admires and wants to become.

But it’s also a story about disillusionment and loss of faith. During the next two years, Maggie discovers that her new neighbor’s erratic behavior is a threat to Maggie’s values, and to her own family.

Eventually, as happens so often when we face life head-on, Maggie must make some very difficult choices.

“We read to know we’re not alone.”

That’s a line from the movie Shadowlands, based on the life of C. S. Lewis. I think about this line often because one of my goals as a writer is to invite the reader inside the mind and heart of my characters–to create that wonderful feeling of empathy.

It’s empathy that allows you, as a reader, to enter the world of A Windless Place, to recognize that–oh, yes–I’ve felt that way, I’ve done that awkward, stupid, misguided thing. I’ve known that type of person. I’ve been sucked in by that surface layer of charm and personality. I’ve risked losing my own values in order to please that person.

Empathy is what attracts us to one another. It’s what we have in common, what we share. As readers of fiction, we penetrate beneath the surface that most of us present to the world. We are able to see clearly into the souls of people like us–people who make mistakes but usually manage to get back on track–even if it’s another track altogether.

In A Windless Place, I invite you, as a reader, into the mind and heart of Maggie Lowin as she grows up and, as they say, “wises up.” I hope you enjoy Maggie’s journey toward adulthood. I know I enjoyed putting it into words.

Coming soon to an online or independent bookstore near you!

I’ve seen it and it does exist—almost. A Windless Place is almost ready to make its publication debut!

I’m proofing the inside pages, and gearing up to launch my third novel. A Windless Place is scheduled to be published by Adelaide Books in August.

It’s exciting to have a book “out there” in the world, and the excitement never dulls.

One Who Loves was my last-to-be-finished and first-to-be-published novel. It’s set in Ann Arbor and follows two young couples as they grapple with the often conflicting pull of love and loyalty, and make their way through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

The Second Mrs. Price begins in a small midwestern town on a glorious spring day in 1999. It’s about obsession, and the desire to be both securely rooted and absolutely free to follow one’s passions.

A Windless Place is set in the heart of the 1950s. It was a transitional decade during which we laid to rest many of our so-called “traditional” post-World War II values and stepped eagerly into the rock ’n’ roll era that would culminate in the culture-changing 60s.

Maggie Lowin is growing up in this era, ready to leap into adulthood but not sure how to do it within the confines of her conventional family. Along comes Gina, her new next-door neighbor and an electrifying presence in that staid small-town environment.

Only a decade or so older than Maggie’s fourteen years, Gina is everything Maggie would like to be: attractive, confident, lively, outspoken, unconventional.

Gina has a husband who isn’t around much and a three-year-old daughter, Ellie, but she has maintained her independent spirit. Maggie is enthralled. She becomes Ellie’s babysitter and Gina’s confidante, while Gina guides her through the perils and pitfalls of high school. All goes well until . . . .

Well, I hope you’ll get yourself a copy and follow Maggie’s journey as she encounters both disillusionment and tragedy. It’s all in A Windless Place—coming soon to an online or independent bookstore near you!

Shields — for Holly

“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

If we’re among the lucky ones, we’re born into, and shielded by, a large family. We’re surrounded by grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends. We take this for granted, because we’re children, or because we don’t think about it, or because it’s just in the nature of things.

As we get older, our grandparents, who seem to be ageless, weaken and die. At some point, perhaps as young adults, we look around and we have no grandparents, no great aunts and uncles. They were living among us, we gathered together under their roofs, and now they’re gone. But we have our parents. They are middle-aged. They are robust and healthy. They will take care of us, and shield us.

Our lives go on. Our parents continue to be middle-aged, even though we refer to them, with adolescent wisdom, as being “old.” They are healthy, energetic, hard-working, sometimes useful to knock against, as the world knocks against us. Then we are “grown up,” moving toward middle age ourselves, perhaps observing the gradual decline of our parents, our aunts and uncles. We accept that this is so, and go our own way.

For many of us, when our parents die, first one, then the other, we experience our first real encounter with death. Grandparents are expected to die, but not parents. The death of our parents puts us in a position of vulnerability. Even though we might ourselves be adults, they shielded us from whatever is out there, beyond our ken, behind the sheltering sky. But now we are middle-aged. We have our own children to shield. We are the responsible ones, the warriors.

The middle of our lives is our longest and most satisfying period. This is the period in which we fall in love, find—and hopefully keep close—the partner we choose for life, have our children, raise them with apprehension and fear, try to shield them from harm. Any form of harm. They are so tender, so trusting, so awkward, so confident.

Meanwhile, we grow older. Our aunts and uncles grow old, sicken, die. Perhaps some of our cousins die suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly, but we haven’t been in touch. The circle of shields that surrounded us is less dense. There are spaces between them. What is out there, behind those strong defenses—beyond our family and loved ones? We don’t know. None of those who are gone have given us a hint. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it—nothing?

Then—and this is the most brutal loss—we begin to lose our friends. A few of them might be from an older generation. Perhaps they mentored us, gave us the courage and guidance we needed to become—whatever we have become. Most of our friends, however, are part of our generation. They have accompanied us on our journey; they have laughed and cried and argued and eaten with us, and clinked glasses with us. They have been given the same years we have been allotted, more or less—and yet they can, and do, die. Which means we can die. Which means we are holding the shields now and we are on the outside, our shields raised, our poor forked bodies exposed.

We have lost Holly Prado, one of our most valued friends, and I am feeling my fragility, my smallness in our “vast, dark universe.” Holly relied for her strength on the creative spirit, and she taught us, by example, to rely on our own creative strength. I knew her for almost a decade, and I ache from the loss of her. Many in her vast community of friends and fellow poets knew her for many decades, and are feeling her loss intensely. She was a teacher for many years, but she dedicated herself wholeheartedly to the creative spirit, and this is mostly how we will remember her. Her poetry was open (as she was), attuned to everything around her (as she was), simultaneously straightforward and profound (as she was). She was generous and giving in her creative spirit. She wielded a strong shield.

The shield that I must now hold up against the darkness feels very heavy. I suppose that Holly felt that it was time to put her shield gently aside, to let come whatever comes when we no longer live beneath the sheltering sky. I hope I am strong enough to carry my shield. I have friends and loved ones who will support and protect me, whom I will support and protect in turn. It takes more strength to let go than to hold on, and I am not ready, as was my friend Holly, to let go. I am not yet strong enough.

Holly’s husband, poet/actor Harry Northup, wrote about his love of and partnership with his wife in many of his poems. In this poem, he describes (so delicately and so deftly) the gratitude we all feel for having been a chosen friend of Holly Prado, our lost shield:

“anniversary”

twenty-three years ago, we got
married
our home is in east Hollywood
with plenty of fans, two cats,
two tvs, one typewriter,
one imac & 1 hp printer

holly made pasta with pesto
& a salad
we eat together every night
she listens to me, loves & supports
me
we participate in the poetry world
we view films at the academy

a distant car horn honks incessantly
a small theatre, many churches
& numerous multi-ethnic restaurants
are within walking distance
the horn quit
the fan continues
the car horn resumes honking
it’s sunday evening, mother’s day
it’s our anniversary
“i’m glad you chose me,” i say

from East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason by Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2015)