View from Room 826

I have no denial about the age I am, or what it means. People start to get sick at this age. The body fails in all kinds of ways. I’m aware of that. I’m conscious of my own mortality. I get it. We’re here for a certain number of years.

In our prime, we allow ourselves to feel powerful for a time. It’s not even that we “allow” it. We just do — feel powerful for a time. We think we’re just living and we take all the connectedness and intuition and flow for granted. It just IS. But later, it changes and we slip out of the flow. It’s natural. It happens to everyone. Like illness.

This was the view from my hospital room, the first one, when I woke up. Two days later, I was moved to another floor because I no longer needed to be connected to so many machines. The woman next to me was older and sicker. Still, she was working hard to get better and I know she was disappointed when I got to lose the nose tube first and the catheter and then was moved to the ninth floor. Goodbye, Anne. The sound of her oxygen monitor had kept me awake all night, but she was a sweet lady. I hope she’s doing well.

On the ninth floor, I met a girl who had had skin grafts. She’d had fake silicon injected into her hips a couple of years before and it had gotten infected. She’d spent a month, the previous year, at the hospital. She knew every item on the menu. She told me some of her friends loved hospital food (hard to believe) and they came to visit her and she shared it with them. She was twenty-one, which meant she’d had the silicon injected (in Brooklyn) when she was just nineteen. She asked me if I had any candy and I shared my lifesavers with her. I couldn’t eat anything. At first, I wasn’t allowed to — nothing for four days. A portion of my small intestine has been removed. I was getting my nutrients through the IV in my arm. The other IV’s were for an antibiotic and other drugs. Even after I was allowed to eat, I couldn’t because by then I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like to be hungry. I had lemon ice. I got out after five days. My seventy-nine year old mother came to pick me up with her driver, Sal. He took us back to her house, where I slept and slept. The hardest part of being in the hospital was not being able to sleep. The machines make so much noise. They have alarms that go off. Some are just inherently noisy. I dreamed the sound of one was a horrible song that I was forced to listen to over and over. It began its pattern every thirty seconds. (I’d watched the clock and timed it.)

The illness happened so suddenly and though I have no denial about my own mortality, I was shocked to find myself in an ambulance and then a hospital room. It was five in the morning by the time the results of my MRI came back. It was an emergency. I was given papers to sign and was in surgery by six. I remember asking my surgeon if he had ever performed the procedure before and he laughed. That’s the last thing I remember until I woke up in room 826.

It lifted my spirits to see the cityscape and the blue sky and dramatic clouds. Such a beautiful view.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been reading. (Karl Ove Knausguaard, books one and two, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.) Doe was freaked out at first. She’d been rescued by Jen, my sometimes dogwalker, who stepped in and took over, took care of the cats and Doe without notice. Bought supplies, took Doe home with her. I’m so grateful to her. All of my friends have been great, just generally wonderful and generous and kind. I’m lucky.

Meanwhile, I wait for my agent to read the new book and get back to me. She has had her own emergencies and life takes precedence. If I needed a reminder of that, I don’t now.

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Cat, Dog, Music, Books

I turned in my third draft to Lisa B. a week ago, and have been writing songs since. I’m rusty but today recorded one in order to hear it back and I think it’s not bad. My goal is to write two a week while I spend a little time each day cleaning up my draft. If it sounds ambitious, I guess it is. But the songs will be mostly rubbish at first. I can feel that it will take me a while to get back into it.

I’m unsure as to whether the book is any good. I think it might be, or pretty good, or not bad. Again, there are structural problems that I’ve been unable to solve to my satisfaction, but I have to remind myself that it won’t be perfect. It will be what I wrote as a second book. I want to write as well as the writers I love, but that’s not realistic. Of course, my editor will have suggestions (if it’s good enough to publish.) I need a new title. I haven’t found one yet that feels right.

I’m very disciplined about working, although it doesn’t feel like that. It just feels like habit or routine. The day I turned in draft three, I decided to add a morning run to the routine. I’ve been going every other day — just a mile or two. I’m out of shape. Writing is so hard on the body. All that sitting. When you write music, at least you’re picking up the guitar, putting it down, singing and playing.. Writing prose you just sit in one position for hours.

Leon is in town and last night we watched the sun go down at 90th Street by the reservoir in Central Park. Then we sat on a bench and watched people go by as it got dark. Doe was there too, glad to be outside. Leon was telling me about a friend of his who lost all of his cherished memorabilia to Hurricane Sandy. He was trying to replicate it and Leon felt that was sad. How could it ever be replicated? He was thinking about all the stuff he has accumulated too. What to do with all the stuff? I told him when I sold the Mattituck house, I threw most of mine away. Photos and tapes and sheet music and everything. After a while, you get tired of carting all your junk around. I was going to say that the past has little bearing on the present anyway, but of course that’s not true. There I was with Leon, my friend of thirty plus years, and the past was thick between us. Sometimes the present doesn’t seem as real.

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Now the Rain

I took this photograph last year (or the year before?) in Central Park. I don’t carry my phone anymore when I walk. I used to forget to take it and then decided to keep forgetting. I like to see what I’m looking at, to experience it for its own sake. On my way to the park the other day, I saw one person after another looking through the lens of an iPhone at a cherry blossom tree, or the red tulips on Park Avenue. Some were texting and didn’t bother to look at all. Pink blossoms were being caught up in the wind and coming down like snow. It was quite amazing. The ground was covered in a blanket of soft pink.

Today it’s warm and humid and then starts to pour. The maple tree outside my window is already in full green leaf.

I’m still writing the second book. Every day I work on it. As I told Gregory the other day, I’ve been writing it for a year and six months, a minimum of five hours a day, seven days a week (or sometimes six.) How many hours is that? I’m on a third draft and also have drafts in the third person as well as first person. Plus two files of cut scenes.

It’s a trick to keep track of everything, but the greatest trick is keeping my perspective as I move from the big picture to the small and back. Sometimes I think I’m capturing something unique and perfect and then I look from a different angle and realize that I’ve drifted and need to cut back and work from the last thing that feels genuine. That’s another trap: the thin line between what is heartfelt, genuine, and what is sentimental. So, it’s back and forth, close, and step back. Read from the beginning. Cut, cut. Wake up with a new idea, implement it. Feel inspired. Think (mistakenly) I’ve finally got the secret to it. Lose that perspective, and so on. If I ever finish this thing, I’m going to write some songs.

I’ve been reading a lot too. I can’t imagine writing without reading. When I get stuck, I need to fall into the flow of another writer’s words — someone who inspires me. I’ve been reading Anne Carson’s Men in The Off Hours the last few mornings. (“March threw its knives against the door.”) The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham (excellent.) What else? Short stories by Alice Munro and Edith Perlman. Both write true, believable, characters and dialogue. They are masterful. I read their stories before bed and hope to wake up with a little rubbed off on me.

Oh it’s pouring now! A torrential downpour and the sun is coming out at the same time. Now thunder. Now the rain slows..

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I Wonder Which of All These Things

What a winter it’s been. I’ve been thinking a lot about Maggie E. who died suddenly a week ago. We were not really friends but I’ve known her for a long time. She worked with Knox and I remember her from a thousand years ago when she had a band with Julia Murphy and they would get up and walk out of the meeting in Soho like the cool kids in high school. A few years ago at the annual Christmas dinner at Knox and Laura’s, we sat together and talked about writing and dogs.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into some kind of maudlin eulogy here. I didn’t know her well. I resisted knowing her. There was something about her that I found off-putting, in fact. I’m a very mistrustful person. It’s hard for me to let people in, and maybe she was the same way, so we were wary. Still, her death has really affected me. I’ve thought of her every day. It makes no sense that she’s dead.

It’s been one death after another this winter — and it’s been a terrible winter, too, bleak and discouraging.

She was healthy — that’s what I keep thinking. She was a vegan and did yoga and was only fifty years old (almost fifty-one, a Pisces like me.) I have Facebook messages from her and went back and read them and thought, “how can she be dead?” She had no plan to be dead. Or no public plan.

She seemed to still be trying to figure things out like how to convince people to stop eating animals, and how to make money, and who to love next. She was sexual and a wise-ass. She was writing a new book.

Like many, I’m sure, I’ve read her blog this week. There are actually many references to her heart, which wouldn’t be strange if she hadn’t died of a heart attack. In one post she’s talking to an old neighbor who eats meat. She’s trying to get him to see the light, giving him reasons to stop. She taps her chest cavity, indicating her own ticking time bomb heart which was only months away from killing her.

I wonder which of all these things
Now quietly sings
A premonition?

There are also references to friends she lost, the shocking nature of it. We don’t expect people to die. Even though we know it’s inevitable for all of us. If you read the obituaries in the NY Times, as I have started to do, you see that most people seem to live well into their seventies and eighties, so it is a surprise when a girlish looking fifty year old woman has a heart attack and dies.

It’s interesting how when someone dies they burn bright in your mind. While they’re alive you can resent them or judge them or forget them. But once they’re gone, you think of them in a different way.

I think of my father every day without exception. I miss him and wish I could talk to him. I know I’ll feel like this until I die, which could be anytime. Who knows?

If we knew in advance, we’d never leave anything until later. We’d say, “I love you, you know. I’ve always loved you.”

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From The Accident

This is an excerpt from the book I’m writing called, The Accident.

Days.

There are days when she can barely get out of bed. Days when she drinks her coffee and goes to therapy and walks through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on auto-pilot. Days when she finds peace in small things such as watching the cat on the windowsill. Or when she wants to cut through the quiet of her life, break out of it as if it were a box nailed shut. Days when she would like to join her family, even if death is the absence of everything. And days when she is willing to accept her life, diminished as it is. Some days it feels like an afterlife, and she thinks of it as such. Thinks that this is where the whole notion of purgatory must have originated because she knows she is not alone in feeling between worlds, that loss is part of being a human being and that even if she had not lost them in an accident, she’d be aging and find the world increasingly strange (as the aging do.) Eventually she would lose her life and the world, even if she had not experienced what she has experienced. Eventually, everyone loses everything. There are days when thoughts like this are a comfort.

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In Case You Are Listening

The first day of 2014. Happy New Year, friends and readers.

Yesterday, I saw a documentary, called Shepard and Dark, about Sam Shepard and his best friend, Johnny Dark. I’m going to watch it again because it was so layered, about many things: Friendship and aging, men and women, art and life, solitude and writing, and more. The themes are set up so subtly. Both men have a lot to say, some of it contradictory, yet all of it true. Each man can see the other more clearly than he can see himself.

I think I’m losing interest in this way of communicating. I’m not sure why. It may have to do with an overdose of social networking, not mine – because I don’t participate in it much – but in general. It becomes apparent that this method of connecting is artificial and even delusional. I remember someone saying – I can’t remember who it was, a writer or a musician – that when we write, we have a reader, a listener, in mind. We are writing to that reader and imagine we are being received by that person. It is happening, but not with our reader. We are read (listened to) by unintended others. Friends and fans and stalkers, but not the one.

I used to write songs that ached to connect and this blog, which I began so long ago that it was originally called an “online journal,” was an extension of that. But I don’t feel that need anymore. I don’t know why it changed. Should I continue to send these missives into the world? For what reason? For the pleasure of writing itself? For the purpose of sharing books and movies and music that I love? To dream, to philosophize? To keep the lines of communication open? In case it matters? In case you are listening?

Now it is the morning after I wrote the above and my declarations seem rash and childish.. What kind of a New Year’s message is it to send out into the world that I don’t want to communicate through writing? It is utterly untrue. Also, this idea of “the one” is not interesting to me today at all and I want to erase that nonsense, but will leave it there to be read in all its immaturity and misguided romanticism. Obviously, there is more than one voice in my head.

Sometimes I feel as if I am a woman talking to herself (or her cats.) Sometimes I feel as if writing is a way of unspooling the wound up thoughts in my head. Sometimes I’m bursting to share something I’m thinking or have seen or read or heard. Sometimes I want to see my thoughts become clear on the page (screen.)

Last night I had dinner with the group of friends from my writer’s group and we had such fun. As we were saying goodbye, two of the women, both very dear to me, were standing together and just absolutely beaming their love at me and I was so moved by it.

Also, i was wearing that beautiful coat I have, the one I bought years ago shopping with Harriet in Boston. My friends commented on it and I told them that I had learned to shop from Harriet and told them about her a little and it made me miss her. Tomorrow is her birthday.

I love to write and I love all of you reading this. I really do. Even if I don’t know you. Even if you are crazy (obviously I am, too, sometimes.) All the best to you in 2014. x

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Hang by a Thread Not a Rope

I can’t do the sight of it justice. The bright golden, orange leaves of this maple tree, five stories high. Every day, I’ve watched it change. It stayed green as the weed-tree behind it turned yellow and lost all its leaves. Then this happened overnight. I woke up and walked to the kitchen, said, “Wow.”

I love my high perch here in the tree-tops. Writing all day, I feel like a shut-in sometimes, but it’s a nice place to be shut in. My new book, called, I think, “The Accident” is coming along. I should have a first draft done by the end of this month. I started it a year ago. I’m dying to take a break from it, but seem to be unable to. I’m afraid to fall out of the groove. I wake up every day and work on it all day.

I’ve been thinking about compassion. How much compassion do I show my characters? I’ve always loved dark, messy characters. Some of my favorite writers are downright cruel. But I don’t want to hurt mine unnecessarily. I don’t want to be cruel for no good reason. On the other hand, I can’t save them if they don’t earn it. They have to warrant whatever happens to them.

I heard Alan Gurganus read last week at the Y. It occurred to me that he treats his characters with great affection and respect.

I listened to an interview with Andres Dubus lll yesterday, on Book Worm. The interviewer, Michael Silverblatt, thought Andres Dubus lll had dealt one of his characters, a bartender, an unnecessary blow by making him not only a failed poet, but a bad poet. Why couldn’t he be a good failed poet? I thought it was an interesting question.

When it is okay to be cruel to your characters? Or kind? As a writer, you can be any kind of God you want to be.

Maybe since life isn’t fair, in fact is so laughably cruel, some writers feel an obligation to reflect the truth of that. Happy endings feel like bullshit. I hated at the end of Eat Pray Love when after all her soul searching and world traveling she ended up with a guy. Please. I don’t like fairy-tales, I guess, though I know most people do. I want to see my own struggles reflected. Still, I may break my own rule and give all my troubled characters a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t a train. I may throw them a rope and not hang them with it.

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The Experience of All That

Woke up thinking that I hadn’t gotten the Sequoias right. In my book. The description wasn’t quite accurate, felt shallow. Then I remembered there are no Sequoias in my book. It was from a dream. I felt a moment of relief before realizing that the dream was probably about the fact that there are other things in my book that lack depth: characters and situations. It’s hard to write fiction. I want to be better. All the re-writing is about going back to make a bit of dialogue more authentic or some detail, more true. Worrying that I’m not any good at it might stop me if not for the fact that I really like it. I like living in a fictional world. It’s fun, and when I get anxious, about Sequoias or whatever, I need to remember that I’m learning and I don’t have to be great at it. What is that pressure that I feel to be great? I feel shame, in fact, to realize that I may not be great, that I may only be good, or even just okay. I think this may come from being told that it was unacceptable to be an artist. Artists were other people. People who were Great

I don’t believe this though. If I had kids, I would tell them to have fun with it. Express yourself. Learn something. I think it’s true for forty year old kids, too, and sixty year old kids. What’s so great about being great? The fun part is the learning, the discovery, the being inspired by others, the experience as opposed to the results.

Being Great is about results. You’re great and other people know you’re great. They celebrate your greatness. Once again, ego. Ego, you mother-f*cker. If the goal is to be great, then it’s all about the judgment of the world, while the pleasure is in the work, risking something, learning something, trying, failing. The experience of all that.

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A Full Life

What does it mean to have a full life? My perspective shifts all around on this, determined by my very changeable moods. But by whatever definition, this week my life was full. It was so good that when I reflect on it, I can push other thoughts aside: petty worries, passing concerns. I can remember being in conversation with John Shaefer on his radio show. He was so quick. Asked great questions. Had interesting things to say. Of course, he really liked my book too. Am I so shallow that I have the best times when I am being admired? Maybe so..

Though it was also spending last weekend with Chloe, and she is the opposite of that. Everything is about her when we are together. I am here to love her and take care of her, like the other adults in her life. True, we have fun and I’m special to her in that way. But she is a child. It’s not her job to “see” me. It’s mine to see her and I do. We made paintings. One of mine is posted above. She took hers home with her. We sculpted animals and beads from red clay. Sat on a hill with a million other people in Central Park to watch the first hour of Silver Linings Playbook. Then she wanted to leave, so we went back to my apartment and painted some more. In the morning, she asked me to edit her new story. She provides me with the opportunity to love like that, and it makes my life full.

I had sixteen years of sobriety this week, and spoke at two meetings. Had dinner with a good friend. I took care of my animals and worked on my new book. Now, I look out the window at the maple tree, cool breeze coming in. The sound of a jackhammer is intermittent. I’m thankful for the minutes of silence in between. That’s the key. It isn’t easy and even being able to recognize it, to realize that my life is full and good, is fleeting. I know that.

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New Suffolk

I should be writing but in my defense, I was up before seven this morning, walked Doe on the beach at six-thirty, wrote two pages before nine. Two pages is a good day’s work for me. Another beautiful day here. It’s almost too beautiful. This is a dream. I am that woman, sitting with her dog on the beach. The sun glinting on the water. I want to absorb it, take it into me, and back to New York when I go.

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