Lanesville Morning

I woke up without an alarm (mine or anyone else’s) in an empty house, to a morning that was my own. It wasn’t too early, but I was awake before the neighborhood children, and the quiet was palpable. Then I heard one child’s voice and another in response; the chorus of a childhood day had begun. It reminded me of the cicadas in Greece that begin singing – one and then the whole chorus – at the moment when the sun rises over the mountain and strikes the trees with the first ray.

There have always been small children on our street, ever since I moved here with my own eighteen years ago. At that time, the neighbors on one side had children who were almost grown up; now it is the children of those children that I hear. Perhaps their parents will hear the children of my children some day, calling to each other outdoors when these children have grown and left home. Or perhaps new families with children will arrive from other places, like our closest neighbors, who moved into Al’s house after he died. Al Johnson, the son of a Finnish quarryman.

I thought: I will walk to the rocks! How could a day be bad that began with walking to the rocks and gazing at the ocean? I put on the pair of old blue jeans hanging on a hook, delighting in the simplicity of getting dressed only for the rocks. I thought of the woman who lived across the street when I first moved here. Her husband was a fisherman with traps stacked up in the yard. She didn’t have a dog she had to take out, but every morning she walked alone to the rocks with a slight smile on her face, just to see the ocean. Such a ritual seemed impossible (and enviable) to me at that time, since I was always at home with my children, or getting them ready for school, or getting myself ready for school after I became a teacher. I thought: Maybe now I can be the new Joanne on the street, the one who makes a pilgrimage to the rocks each morning to greet the ocean.

When I got to the end of the driveway and saw my neighbor’s recycle box, I was reminded it was trash and recycle day. I had a big accumulation from missed trash days and the party last weekend – my son’s graduation party from the Boston school that has taken us away from our Lanesville home these last four years. Being present to participate in the weekly ritual of trash collection seemed as rare and miraculous to me as arriving in Sweden on Midsummer’s Eve. I went running back to the house to get my barrels, only to realize I was out of the purple trash bags that are required for trash pick-up here, replacing the orange stickers. I figured I had time to go buy one before the trash truck came.

I jumped onto my daughter’s abandoned bike and pedaled into the village of Lanesville, where they sell the purple bags in the liquor store. In fact, they sell everything in that liquor store: eggs, butter, milk and candy. As I arrived, I saw the trash truck driving in the other direction. The proprietor of the liquor store, with his amused and indulgent expression, hastened the transaction so I could race the truck back to my street. I made it.

When I saw the recycle truck coming, I ran back to the house for one more cardboard box. The man loading the truck was large and friendly. He was wearing a bright orange sleeveless shirt. The woman driving the truck was small and pretty. She was also wearing an orange shirt and texting while she waited to continue driving up the street. I handed my folded cardboard crate into the hands of the man loading the truck. Then I waited for him to dump out our green plastic box of bottles. Ostensibly, I was waiting to for the empty box, which he passed into my hands. In truth, I was savoring and prolonging my participation in this weekly ritual that my other life has taken me away from so many times.

I never did walk to the rocks.

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crocuses, single combat, and a snow girl

Yesterday was Greek Easter Sunday and truly felt like the first day of a new year. After weeks of rain and cold, the sun shone brightly. It was the first day we spent outside gardening, the first day the ground lay bare of the snow that has covered it deeply for so many months now. We had no lamb to cook, no guests to welcome, only piece of earth reborn, waiting for our care.

I saw crocuses blooming under an onslaught of wild roses and resolved to liberate them. With what joy I girded myself for battle, putting on old blue jeans, work boots and work gloves. I took a sharp shovel from our rotting garden shed and headed to the site of my abandoned garden.

My husband taught me to dig up wild roses. Years of clipping them finally had convinced me of the futility of that activity. Year after year the roots grow stronger and deeper, ready to send out whips of thorns in every direction over my garden.

I put the tip of my metal shovel into the ground at the edge of the offending rose plant and jump on the shovel to sink it deep in the earth. Then I tilt the shovel and lift. In the case of the most established rose plants, I had to repeat this process over and over, uncovering deep, bifurcated roots like thick ropes. Digging deeper and deeper, some were so deep and tenacious that they had to be pried up with a crow bar.

All the while, the vigorous shoots of the rose plants wrapped around me, stabbing and cutting my legs through the blue jeans. I rip them off with my gloved hands and continue digging. Each time I effectively uprooted a rose plant, I dragged it by its thick, dusty roots to the pile where it would be burned.

The wonderful reward of this hours-long struggle was a liberated garden of gentle crocuses, opening their petals to the sun. I scooped some snow from a remaining drift and fashioned a snow girl to visit the garden. For her arm, I found a stick with fingers on it so she could hold a flower. I put pansies on her head. Even as I formed her, she began to melt on the warm granite.

snow girl with crocus

One more thing: I wrote a haiku about my single combat with the rose bushes. I called my poem “Monomachia,” but have since discovered that is not actually an English word. It means single combat in Greek, and I thought it did in English too. Anyway haiku don’t usually have titles.

with a shovel I fought
the double-bodied serpent
the razor-fanged rose

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Alpha Turns One

I know that some (more seasoned) writers find it distasteful when authors talk about their books as their children. I am afraid I risk falling afoul of those people in this post! Frankly, it is hard for me not to think of my first book in terms of a new baby. I am very clear on the differences between babies and books, having now brought both into the world; but for the sense of mystery and wonder, for the feelings of anxiety, elation and love, the arrival of my first book reminded me distinctly of the arrival of my first baby.

I had the idea for Alpha is for Anthropos for many years before it was finally produced last fall. In fact, long before publishing it, I created various homemade versions of the book for my young students. I printed out my Greek nursery rhymes, hole-punched the pages, and “bound” them in orange report covers with brads. As I composed new rhymes, I helped my students undo the brads and add new pages. Eventually, they had one page and one verse for each letter in the Greek alphabet.

I always knew what the title of the book would be. I would follow the convention of alphabet books whereby the title matches the first page of the book; A is for Apple led me to Alpha is for Anthropos. I also knew who the illustrator would be. That, too, was decided from the very moment I realized that pictures should accompany my verses. The illustrator was to be my sister, Lucy Bell Wait Jarka-Sellers, artist and classicist. I knew her illustrations should be in the style of Greek vase paintings. She agreed to do the artwork, but I had to be patient and wait until she could to take a year off from teaching to have time to draw all twenty-four pictures.

Maybe it was because the book had existed in my imagination for so many years, maybe it was because I collaborated on it so closely with the illustrator, the book designer and the printer; I am not sure of the reason, but when the book finally arrived, it was like a birth. How I worried that it would not come out right! How I marveled at the book when I first saw it! How carefully I handled it! How I carried it everywhere I went! How I took too many pictures of it!

The stress of being the author of a newborn book was intense. The book was done and yet there was suddenly so much to do! The one thousand copies of the book we had printed needed to find their way into the hands of one thousand appreciative readers. There were book events and signings to arrange and attend. There were emails to write and answer. No stone could be left unturned that might lead to publicity and sales. I spent the book’s first year working hard to promote it. I tweeted furiously and posted things on Facebook. I went around talking to everyone I could think of who might be interested. I followed up every lead I was given. The book began to take its first steps out into the world.

So now, on the eve of the first anniversary of the book’s publication, what conclusions can I draw? I guess I know as much about being an author as I knew about being a mother when my first child turned one. It is all still a great mystery to me.

madrid fountain

Baby picture of Alpha is for Anthropos.

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Dear Twitter Readers

Dear Twitter Readers,

I never planned to tweet one haiku a day for seventeen months, or whatever it ended up being. In December of 2012 I tweeted one haiku for each day in advent. I collected them and printed them on a piece of blue paper decorated with silver glitter that I framed as a Christmas present for my Mom. That was that. I had no plan to continue. But then on New Year’s Day, a haiku came to me unexpectedly, miraculously. I wrote and tweeted it with delight.  Soon it became a ritual and compulsion to write and tweet a haiku every morning before I got out of bed. This continued for all of 2013 and into 2014.

In the process, I developed a collection of loyal readers, you, who would put stars on my better haiku, or retweet them, or indicate to me in other ways that they appreciated my little poems. This was all the encouragement I needed to keep on going. Then somewhere in the last few days and weeks, my haiku practice has seemed to taper off. The haiku are not coming to me in the same way, and what I write is starting to feel forced, or worse, repetitive. I decided this haiku phase that came to me unbeckoned was coming to an end.

But here is my dilemma. Dear readers, I do not want to let you down. If there is a single person for whom those little morning tweets are a source of happiness, how could stop? A writer only needs so much encouragement. And yet, what if I have no more haiku left to give? I don’t understand these things. I don’t know who you are, reader, just as you may not know me. But if you are my reader, know that you can find me here. If not in haiku form, I will continue to spill out my thoughts to you somehow, sustained by the feeling that my words have a destination.

Thank you for reading,

@qerese

PS If you are interested, you can find many of my tweeted haiku are on the Haiku page of this website. I will eventually collect the rest, or the best, and publish them.

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A Flower Walk in Back Bay

This morning I met a friend for a walk in Back Bay. I know friend is a wonderfully uninformative word, especially in this time of Facebook when we have vast numbers of friends we interact with regularly, while real-life meetings with friends may be rare. The people we think of as our best friends we barely see at all in our busy lives and confused geographies. At least that is what it’s like for me.

The friend I walked with this morning – I will call her Daphne – is someone I have known since I was a college student and she was a young mother, the wife of one of my professors. We only became friends on Facebook this spring, and this is the first time we ever went for a walk together. And yet afterwards I felt the way you feel after seeing an old friend: as though parts of yourself you had forgotten about have been returned to you. At the same time I felt the way you feel when you make a new friend: as though new vistas, connections and opportunities are opening up before you.

Daphne suggested that we meet at the statue of George Washington, a formal equestrian statue on a tall granite pedestal near the Arlington Street entrance to the Boston public gardens. I love meetings by monuments. Choosing a monument as a meeting place acknowledges the monument by writing into it into the script of your daily life. At the same time the monument, your stage set, elevates the event. No matter how inconsequential your meeting may be, having it take place near an imposing monument lends it a measure of importance.

Daphne had a very specific itinerary in mind for our walk. I was glad to be taken in hand and glad that the itinerary involved circling around in one neighborhood, not striking out for miles in some direction and then needing to walk for miles to return. I am never sure how long my shot runner’s knees will hold out.

The itinerary was devised for a systematic viewing of all the flowering gardens and trees in Back Bay. I discovered that this flower walk was a spring ritual of Daphne’s, one she did with her husband (my former professor) every year. The timing of the walk was crucial. An earlier version of the walk involved seeing all the magnolias in bloom and making special note of the yellow ones. The timing of our walk coincided with the tulips blooming along with all manner of flowering trees and shrubs. I let Daphne lead the way.

From Arlington street we walked up the north sidewalk of Beacon Street all the way to Mass Ave, where we reversed direction and walked back down the south sidewalk of Beacon back to Arlington again. From there we walked up the north side of Marlborough Street until Mass Ave and again back to Arlington on the south sidewalk. We repeated this process for Commonwealth Avenue: up the north sidewalk to Mass Ave and down the south sidewalk to Arlington. The walk ended at an outdoor cafe on Newbury Street where we drank cold drinks in the warm sun.

All the time we were walking we were talking. Daphne told me about her daughter, a young writer with whom I seem to share a series of uncanny resemblances, including the same birthday. Daphne told me about her daughter’s journey, at turns glamorous, at turns tragic – always completely original – to young motherhood and the life of a writer. And then Daphne listened to mine. How had I met my husband? What had I done since leaving college thirty years ago? What had happened between me and that Greek student (her husband’s advisee) who had confided in her his lovesick state?

The story went from Paris to the Lower East Side of New York, from Athens to an agricultural village in the Peloponnese. From there it went back to Boston for graduate school and then to the country (or was it the suburbs?) for my childbearing years, interspersed with many brief returns to Greece. And now? Back in Boston. The children are almost grown up, and I am beginning my career as a writer. As I shared my own life story with Daphne, I realized I was giving her a catalog of the books I want to write and have begun writing: the love story in New York, the story of my Greek village house, the novel I translated for my PhD, the woman whose life I went to Greece to research.

As Daphne and I traced a map along the flowering gardens of Back Bay, I mapped out the story of my past and the plan for my future writing. Now is the crucial time: the magnolias have lost their petals, and all the trees are coming into full leaf.

 

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Boston Literata

Yesterday was the day of my first-ever author interview. It was a taped interview for a cable show called The Literati Scene, hosted by Smoki Bacon and Dick Concannon, two prominent Bostonians in their early eighties. The set for the TV show is the the living room of their elegant condominium across the street from the Boston Public Gardens at the foot of Beacon hill.

I took the Green Line to the Arlington T stop and walked along the outside of the Public Gardens to their house. It was a bright but frigid February day, and few people were out. I was decked out it my best version of what I thought you should wear to a TV interview: dress, scarf and make-up, inexpertly applied. I felt strangely alone without my sister, the book’s illustrator, who had accompanied me to the last two book events, our launching at the Grolier and a book talk and signing at the Boston Athenaeum. I suppose it is more common for a book to have a single parent, but this book has two: me and my sister. It is a rare gift to have another person in the world with the same emotional investment in a book, a collection of bound pages that confer on you the name of author.

The walls in Smoki and Dick’s living room were lined with oil paintings, mostly landscapes. We stood admiring their latest acquisition, a view of Boston from the water during the great fire of 1872. Orange flames in murky darkness. Dick tended a small fire in their fireplace. My book was propped on the wooden mantelpiece like a Greek vase. In front of the fire were two low, upholstered benches where Dick and I would sit for the interview.

Smoki operated the camera while Dick asked me questions and I answered cheerfully, like an eager school girl giving a report. I tried to look at the camera, as instructed, even though Dick was sitting beside me. Every now and then Smoki made gestures with her small, elegant hand to remind me. And so the ten short minutes passed.

When the interview was over, I was invited to sit on an easy chair and sign my book. Smoki, Dick and I chatted about Greece, Boston and children until I had used up my little interlude of welcome in their timeless living room with the birch logs burning. This was my initiation as a Boston literata.

Literati Scene

 

 

 

 

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Protected: Me and Patti Smith

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The Publicist

The book is written and published and launched.  How the writer longs to crawl back under a rock or to her library to write and write and write again. How she misses that quiet table, that solitude. But it is not allowed. This newborn book cannot find it’s way in the world alone. And so the new author sets out with her rectangular offspring. She knocks on doors and sends emails. She seeks readings, reviews and events. She tells strangers about her book and annoys her Facebook friends by posting every scrap of information that can be construed as book news. Maybe she even tweets. For what? To propel the little book on it’s journey, to row it out of the great harbor to a place where it will finally catch the wind and sail.

 

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Publication Date 11.12.13

I have work to do today, but am drawn to writing here before I begin.

The human frame falls apart with overwork and exhaustion. After a big production or a big project we get sick. The body demands the rest and care it has been denied. The book came out yesterday; I woke up this morning feeling horrible. Now I nurse myself back to health.

This monumental thing of a book coming out. I am writing to try to get my head around it. The closest thing I can compare it to is a theatre production. When you’re in a play or directing a play, you work so hard in the lead-up to that performance date. Thousands of disparate elements must all come together on opening night. Publication is the opening night of a book.

The hardest work for me in publishing this book was holding those disparate elements together. There were the Greek texts and translations, written by me, but heavily edited and corrected by two distinguished Hellenists, whom I admired with a girlish awe. Conversations all summer, versions passed back and forth, back and forth until every rough breathing word accent, iota subscript was right. There were the illustrations. Conversations with the artist about how the pictures would relate to the words. There was the design. Conversations with the book designer about fonts, spaces, color, jacket design. There was the printing. Conversations with the printer. There was the binding. There was the selling (we financed the printing with pre-sales). Conversations with friends and family, and strangers on Twitter. It all mattered, but the complexity of it all made things seem constantly on the verge of spinning out of control.

And now, miraculously, the elements have all come together and we have a book. Habemus librum. As the book sails out into the world, a new journey begins. I will tell you about it.

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A Certain Shade of Blue

Today I walked on the beach with my book designer. We had been to the printers to look at the last proof of the book before they run the press proof next week. Weeks and months of work and worry over the manuscript had finally resulted in a stack of pages for us leave with someone else after marking in pencil the very last correction.

It was an hour before my return train to Boston and the October sun was warm. Why not go to the beach? We left our shoes near the parking lot and walked barefoot on the fine sand. Our conversation went from aging parents to children coming of age. As we walked back along the beach she said, “Look at that shade of blue.” I looked at the sea and saw the color she saw. She noted its beauty, but also the hint of something complex, foreboding. The color lay across the sea in a way that seemed provisional, as though suddenly it could be taken away. I wouldn’t have seen it if she hadn’t shown me.

How we spend all our days in our own heads, our own thoughts, our own worries. Today, for one moment, I was able to look up and sea the beauty of the color of the sea through someone else’s eyes.

 

 

 

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