composting the details

While avoiding writing today, I found a book on my shelf from the eighties called “Writing Down the Bones.” My copy is yellowed and studded with bookmarks–receipts, clothing tags, and the business card of a Californian sculptor. It’s not really my copy, but my grandma’s, and the book’s history only adds to its mystique.

Hundreds of books are around that tell how to avoid bad writing. Here is one that tells how to create good writing. What a pleasant surprise.

The quiet of nap time is precious. When my baby sinks into solid afternoon sleep, I often freeze, unsure which venture to pursue. Today I resolved to write, but when no subject sprang to mind, I started flipping through “Writing Down the Bones.” I liked its cursive script and cover image showing a black pool of spilled ink dotted with stars.

I know this approach rarely works. It’s far too easy to spend an hour casting about for writing wisdom in lieu of actually writing. This time, however, I read something that helped make sense of my scribblings.

In the section titled “Composting,” Natalie Goldberg writes:

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it’s not yet in our body. We don’t know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring.

Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”

This is true of writing about new motherhood while in the midst of it. Everything is fresh, compelling, but there is no perspective. I’m rarely more than a room away from Clara. I yearn to write about this baby, source of great inspirationjoywonder, but as soon as she’s asleep, the coffee’s hot, and the room is quiet–I have nothing to say. I don’t know what it all means. I’m trying to write about Paris in Paris.

Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.”

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

It’s not just new motherhood. When I try to write about anything that friends say belongs in a book, the obvious writing material, I sit intimidated and wordless before the page. I write differently; I write scared, leaning on clichés to parse big emotions. After a few painful minutes or hours, I delete everything, annoyed at the vast gulf between what I want to say and what I can say.

I’m better off sticking to details. Like that old joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Tiny sensory details have always seemed both accessible and vital to me, as if my life in some way depended upon this collecting of a few of the moments that make up a day or a few of the characteristics that make up a person.

I can’t ignore that tug, to get something on the page. Each moment, especially on these precious baby-full days, is as flighty and ephemeral as the monarchs I’ve seen fluttering high outside my window, gone before I’ve had time to really look. With a notebook and pen I can trap something of these days under glass, examine them more closely.

“Often I will stab many times at something I want to say,” Goldberg writes. She spent months attempting to write of her father’s death. One day, finally, “all the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity– a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.”

I can’t write about “motherhood,” full stop, right now. It’s perfectly sufficient to record something of my daughter’s sticky, chubby hands, something of her delight at crawling in the grass, something about the strains and surprises and messes that make up these days.

I can take ten minutes a day. Over months or years, I can stab many times in the general vicinity of what I want to say. In time, surely, disparate details will fuse and something bright and lovely will rise out of this compost.

in praise of a boring life

assorted fruits in bowl
Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

I would like to keep writing in this space as a slice-of-life thing. This decision didn’t come easily. 

I had a couple of crazy years in which blog posts seemed to type themselves, a couple of years feeling fascinated by France’s every quirk. I was constantly in motion. Visiting new cities. Starting at new schools.

My dream was (is?) to be a travel writer. I have a hunger for the world (and not only for its wonderful and varied cuisines). I love languages; I treasure a new word like a pearl.

Less than two years ago, I had these pages constantly open on my browser: a site about a teaching program in China, a Peace Corps application form for a stint in Cameroon, and my application essay for NYU’s graduate program in French. I interviewed at a Montessori school in Cannes and sent out applications for copywriter jobs in Chicago and Los Angeles. 

What I wanted was simple, I thought. I wanted to make a living in an interesting place and in doing so, have things to write about. Stories with which to build a portfolio.

Unfortunately I wanted all of these options, at the same time. I was paralyzed by the idea of giving up any one of these possible futures in favor of another.

As Sylvia Plath puts it in The Bell Jar:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

It turns out that not choosing is a choice in itself.

The one thing I knew for sure I didn’t want to lose was Victor, whom I had just met in a stroke of fortune (otherwise known as Tinder) at the end of my second stint teaching. In a zero-to-sixty kind of year, I went from a single girl with many nebulous dreams to a wife and mother. All before I took steps to develop a career. The shock was real. When I found out I was pregnant, I spent weeks glumly consuming American comfort food, googling every aspect of pregnancy and birth I could think up, and staring out the window. It was a dark time, when the energy needed to wash a plate was about more than I could muster. I had aged suddenly–someone’s mother?!–and it felt like I was mourning my youth and staring into a scary void.

Today, I am honored by and happy with these roles I now assume. I treasure my little family. That doesn’t mean that change wasn’t–isn’t–tough. Both things are true.

In relation to my blog, I suppose I’ve had a bit of an identity crisis. My vision of stories included visiting exotic cities, meeting strangers, strolling world markets, sleeping in shabby hostels, and cultivating a fearless spirit. This can’t exist anymore. Is there nothing to say? Have the rhythms of domesticity killed all wonder? Should I put my laptop on the shelf and hide my notebooks?

As an experiment, I just challenged myself to stop for five minutes and scribble a list of potential stories from the past year (a time in which I barely published here). It includes my French wedding, no small thing. It includes renovating an old house. I could write about my grandparents’ visit to our home in Fréjus, and how my grandma procured her first-ever passport for the trip, and how she and baby Clara have sparkling new passports in common. I could write about my short solo trip to Portugal, pregnant and so jet-lagged I felt drunk, but joyful at the cool sea air and Lisbon’s cheerful shabby color. I could write about Victor and my first flight with a tiny baby, the TSA worker who spied Clara in Atlanta and crowed: “that’s a newbie! That’s a newbie!”

In fact, a lot has happened after all, even in what felt like times of endless waiting. The events of last year have just been completely different from what I predicted. 

I’m reminding myself of something. As a reader, I value writing that is vulnerable and true. It doesn’t need to feature influencer-quality technicolor travel shots or take the reader on a rollercoaster of real-life plot twists. It doesn’t need to have all the answers or offer up the author as an example to emulate.

Instead, I value difficult honesty and grace. Reckoning and wrestling. A skill for finding humor and beauty, even in dark places. A sense of curiosity and wonder about the smallest things.

So I guess what I’m saying is: I would like to write that kind of blog.

As I know from personal experience, you can ruin your own normal, good life just by wishing you were somewhere else. (Madame Bovary is my literary warning for this tendency.) 

It’s time to make peace with the “boring life”–in other words, the one I’ve got. I will never be an influencer, modeling chic dresses in exotic locales while I offer up travel advice in a curated, relatable voice and get paid to do it all. My reality is something like this: cleaning up Pollock-like splotches of pureed fruits. Dreaming of a shower. Writing in ten-minute increments while Clara rolls around on the floor. Not at all glamorous. Rarely insta-worthy. But mine.

To adapt the old adage: you can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you write about it.

from newlywed to retiree: on places, and what it means to love them

acs_0701It’s a gray day, gloom and drizzle. I am with Victor and we are driving from La Spezia to Pisa, a long stretch of straight highway. Strada statale.

I am content to chat and dee-jay. And sightsee? There isn’t much to see. Once the mountains are out of sight, we aren’t in Italy, but Highway Land.

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It’s funny. This could almost be the well-traveled route between Clinton and Kansas City on family shopping Saturdays growing up. How quickly we have gone from the iconic colors of Cinque Terre to all this non-cultured sameness. We could be anywhere.

It’s interesting what we block out when we dream of or anticipate a place.

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For example, for you or for me, Italy might be: gelato in every conceivable flavor, glossy Vespas, shining white marble, carafes of wine… but to maintain an impression like this, we must block out so much ‘normal.’

We must ignore the great unspooled ribbon of mind-numbing highway. The ugly big-box stores. The cloud cover that renders a day as colorless as a lump of pizza dough.

Sometimes I think we reserve those kinds of stringent observations for home: to criticize what we are used to and tired of.

But, it’s good to remember, every place has this real life aspect. If we approached daily life like we do travel, all highlights and funny stories, maybe seeing the beauty in say…Missouri, would be easier.

No one, I don’t think, has ever sighed and thought, oh Italy… and dreamed of the stretch of highway between La Spezia and Pisa. And so we edit.

Italy contains the beauty I’ve been filling my notebook and camera with, but it’s so much more than that. What, though? I don’t pretend to know. Not yet. I take it on faith, because though I’m still in the dreamy stage with Italy, I’ve already cycled through the stages of a romantic relationship with France.

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It’s gone from a first crush, starry-eyed infatuation to a comfortable familiarity to seeing flaws and resenting them all the way to, finally, a deeper kind of love.

Newlywed to retiree.

Disillusioned is the word. France is more, for me, than sparkling city lights and rose macarons and espressos enjoyed at cafe tables. On a three-day visit, this country of cheese and trains, baguettes and bicycles, might be able to retain this kind of glamor.

The casual visitor can leave with a photo album and a slew of good memories. But when you live someplace, you have to give up the dream, to a certain extent. img_5210

For me, France is a home, the place I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life once I’ve been free to choose, the place I work and write and grocery shop and wait for the bus and cry and sweat and dance and listen to podcasts and make lists. The place I practice all the verbs that make up a life. (The place I practice all the verbs that make up French, for that matter).

And that is why, I think, it feels so good to be away for a bit, to a place that once again lets me dream freely. For the time being.


Photos taken in Portovenere, Italy

On a similar note, check out: Less-Than-Thrilled: When You Don’t Want Your Dream

travel notebook: alone in italia, day two

Cinque Terre teems with tourists.

Scattered about the rocks like camera-happy penguins, people are:

sinking into squats for the photo angle

showing their ‘best side’

crunching on fried things served in cones

dripping gelato (and offering bites to their dogs)

brandishing walking sticks like weapons, the hallmark of the serious hiker

carrying hot cardboard boxes of pizza down to the sea I can’t help but fantasize about these same streets: cleared of about three-fourths of the people. But I’m finding the Cinque Terre villages so lovely to look at and stroll through, I hardly mind. It was a long, sunny day and I am the best kind of tired. My morning started with a view of another nearby village, La Spezia, from my hostel window. The hostel is cheery and pleasant, a refurbished elementary school painted bright yellow. There is an Italian restaurant and a light-filled common room, where you can have coffee at wooden tables with a view of the village church. There are bookshelves filled with battered Hemingway and Salinger and foot-high vintage tomato cans.

I am sharing a four-bed female dorm room. In the morning, it was just me and Lauren, a Londoner who is currently living in Bologna and teaching English.

Greeting people as I go to brush my teeth, it strikes me how funny hostels are: sleepaway summer camp for adults. Something you sign yourself up for. You’re not forced to attend any activities or participate in cringe-inducing ‘team-building’ games. The friendships are all on you. There’s something so charming and old-fashioned about all this sharing, about the choice to live again out of lockers and bunk beds.

Lauren and I take the hostel shuttle together to the first of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre. Riomaggiore. We walk around a bit and then take the train. Typically you could start hiking from here, but landslides and falling rock have made that impossible at the moment. It’s only 9:30 and I am surprised to see that the regional train is crammed. Like nothing I’ve ever seen in France.

Lauren and I part ways for the day and I walk around Manarola, the next village down the coast. The air is woozy with jasmine from the bushes that dot the cliffs. It’s sweet and delicious, a natural eau de parfum.

I find a few picnic tables tucked under a bamboo roof. What a place to write. I am glad I gave myself so much time here (five nights is the plan). I can afford to sit down and write whenever the mood strikes.

It’s a different mentality from most of what I see. It’s approaching 11 and tourists spill onto Manarola’s tiny streets, rushing from the train, snapping selfies as they go. People are almost aggressive in their pursuit of fun: seeing it all, making the most of it.

Below me, a good ten feet down the cliffside, there is a small bar overlooking the bay. Some women sit, smoke, and slice through crates of lemons, limes, and blood oranges. A lazy hour passes and I hop on another train, jumping down the coast to Corniglia. Corniglia offers dizzying views of the sea and a scoop of my new favorite gelato flavor: ricotta, chocolate chip, and pistachio. So basically a creamy cold cannoli.

From Corniglia, finally the trails are safe to start hiking. I buy a 7 euro trail pass and set off for Vernazza.

The hike is rigorous, and filled with Germans and Swedes wearing sun hats and armed with walking sticks. There is sun and much sweat and soon, a view of the village we’ve just left behind.

People are peeling off their clothes in the heat. (This tends not to be the practical Germans and Swedes, but the young Americans and Italians of all ages). There is a way, I learn, to shrug out of your sweater and tie the arms in a bow around your back, forming a nifty tube-top. A few older women, sun-brown, skip the modesty and hike in bubblegum-pink bras. In this instance, I keep my shirt on.

Vernazza is a shock of noise and clatter. Its one main street is absolutely drowning in tourists. I hear the buzz of voices while I’m still high up on the trail. Here it is again, that aggressive enjoyment. Families on towels dot every available square of ‘beach’ next to the port, which is already covered with boats. Instead of sand, it looks to me like mud. But fun will be had, regardless. Vernazza is making me anxious, so I take the train back to Riomaggiore. This way, I’ll be ready when the shuttle comes. I still have four hours until then (I reserved for 8 pm), but I am wilting under the sun.

In Riomaggiore, I linger over cannoli and coffee. I walk around the port, dodge seagulls, and talk to an Italian guy standing on a high rock. You’re not thinking about jumping, are you? I ask, sure I’m joking. He answers like it’s nothing, plunging thirty? fifty? feet down into the blue.

I meet up with Lauren again and we eat cones of calamari, inciting bird envy.

More nauseating curves and then it’s back to the hostel. I run outside to see La Spezia before it gets dark.

The only “person” I cross directly is a disgruntled black bulldog that sticks its head between the bars of a fence and snorts at me.

Otherwise, as I walk I can see into living rooms, into lives, into what looks like a stone wine cave, several well-fed Italians pouring wine and listening to music.

Back at the Ostello, I meet our new roommates: Heidi from Australia and Élodie from France. It turns out we’re all here for the same, cheerful reason: we all just wanted to see what this place looks like.

Buona serata !

alone in italia: day one

I am in a BlaBlaCar, sitting snugly in the backseat behind two French ladies also on their way to visit Cinque Terre.

I met them at a roundabout in Mandelieu–just south of Cannes and the ‘world capital’ of the mimosa flower. Sitting on a patch of sidewalk just out of traffic, I felt more like a classic hitchhiker than ever.

BlaBlaCar has enabled me to take trips that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Today I’m using it instead of the trains to cut costs, cut travel time, and (perhaps most importantly) avoid the grèves–the nationwide SNCF railway strikes liable to put a serious hitch in travel plans.

Still, there’s always a bit of a niggling worry that the conducteur might show up late or even–worst-case-scenario: change their mind. This isn’t technically permissible, but the only consequence for the driver would be a bad review and the obligation to refund my twenty bucks. I picture sweating alone on the sidewalk for hours. I wouldn’t have another good option to get to Italy.

Happily, my two French hosts swing around the traffic circle right on time: early, actually.

The women point things out to each other, labeling what they see as we wind up and around cliffs on the road from southern France to southern Italy. They make the pleasant, unnecessary comments that flourish in good company. They’ve known each other for years; I can tell.

We are in Genova. The road is squeezed between clusters of melon-colored buildings with dark-green shutters and the edge of cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

There is much to look at. I am dizzy with palm trees, sunset, a grand ship in port, the whine of Vespas in impossible places, crumbling stone arches, mustard-yellow apartments with flagrant flapping laundry.

Regarde là-haut.

Un citronnier.

Les marguerites. Que c’est beau.

Putain, oui.

They comment to each other, to me, to themselves. They comment with matter-of-fact appreciation, nothing sentimental about it. They note orange trees and lighted tunnels through mountains and particularly shameful parking jobs. In the hills they spy a lighted glass cube, like a futuristic science lab. It sits strangely on top of an ancient stone bridge.

I listen and consider it a good exercise in vocabulary practice.

I appreciate this last stretch of comprehension before I will open the car door and–Italy.

I am already sufficiently new-culture-ized, at the point where the newness is felt and I don’t take communication for granted. We stopped before at an ‘autoroute’ complex off the highway. Tirare on the doors instead of the Tirer I’m used to. Donne and Uomini for the bathrooms. Ciao, grazie and the tre cinquanta I paid for salami, crackers, and a hunk of Parmesan with a cute white mouse on the wrapper.

Already I’m thinking about what language to assume. To apologize in. To fall back on. To confirm a number in. It’s strange to think that I have a choice. I can represent myself as an American speaking in a ‘female, upwardly-mobile dialect.’ Or. I can be something else. I have French now. Greetings and numbers and etiquette. I know how to sigh French, how to make sounds of frustration or apathy. I do these things every day. And crossing the border in a BlaBlaCar doesn’t make it any easier to stop doing this.

So, will it be pardon or sorry that comes out of my mouth when my (6 months of) Italian fails me?

I consider this and make my own lists, labeling. A gigantic “pirate ship” in the bay. Italian flags hung like laundry. Signs advertising Gelateria. Pasticceria. Foccacerria.

I think of the coffee I’ll get tomorrow and drool.

It’s getting late, around 8:30, and a fat pearly moon hangs over a yellow basilica.

Il y a la lune, one of the ladies says, predictably. There’s the moon.

The mountains, as we climb through them, have folds and wrinkles like some fantastic laundry. Like a lumpy green quilt hastily thrown down to disguise a mess.

I am inspired.

I am nauseous.

There are many more mountains and tunnels before we make it to La Spezia, where I have reserved a hostel.

We spend thirty minutes trying to find the place. Increasingly frustrated, my driver stops near a restaurant and wine bar on a lonely street. “Someone go ask if this is it,” she says. The other woman turns to me: allez !

This is certainly not the hostel, but if I don’t want them to leave me in an enoteca for the night, I should probably acquire some direction. So strange now to have to ask: vous parlez français ? (No one does, so it looks like my language question is going to have an easy answer. It’s straight back to la langue maternelle for me).

After some clarification, I’m back in the car and we are chugging up a steep hill with more hairpin turns in a row than I’ve ever seen, a child’s squiggle-drawing of a road, or something from a cartoon.

It’s a matter of faith, because we see no lights and the GPS quit working halfway up the hill, as if it were declaring- yeah, not in my job description.

Before long, we are all laughing. One of the ladies actually wheezes.

Imaginez, they say. “We get to the top and there’s nothing there.” They say if it’s not there we are done looking for it. I will come back with them and they’ll share a bed and give the other to me.

It was there.

I’m here in my comfortable bed. The place has spacious lockers, remarkably clean bathrooms, a restaurant serving dinner and breakfast. It even smells good.

(Words can’t describe how different this is from my last hostel experience in Italy…but actually I did write about that, click here to read)

A domani !