Saturday, April 20, 2013


me reading names

On Wednesday evening Ben and I participated in an event on Capitol Hill held by an organization called  No More Names.   We had signed up for half hour slots, during which we would read the names of those who had been killed by guns since Sandy Hook in December.  We were scheduled for 8:30 and 9:00 pm that night, and didn't know what to expect.   But we thought it was important.  The event would make a powerful statement, if not a difference.  It was a simple protest, but eloquent.  The list of names would speak for itself.

 The Senate had met earlier that day - and before we arrived to read names, they had already blocked legislation that would expand background checks on individuals purchasing firearms.

"They have no souls. They have no compassion for the experiences that people have lived through ... [having] a child or loved one murdered by a gun. They say that it's not the gun, it's the man. I'm here to tell you ... The man and the gun become intimate and they cannot do the act without each other. So the gun is part of the problem." Patricia Maisch

One of my friends posted this comment on Facebook.  Underneath he added his own words:
"The Senate's outcome is truly despicable. Evil. How dare they!"   This report elicited lots of response. 

Yes. We are disgusted.

We parked the car across from the Library of Congress on Wednesday evening and walked towards the Capitol.  That spring evening, it was all lit up.  The alabaster whiteness of the building against a silver sky with golden lights streaming from the windows looked majestic and beautiful.  Hardly any pedestrians passed. You wondered how anything could go wrong in a building like this.

We crossed the concourse, looking out for the protesters we were joining.  Then found a small group underneath the trees on the left side of the building.  We could see a podium standing on the grass, a single light on the lectern, and two or three people with bottled water and various pieces of video equipment standing around.  Two young men stood at the podium, one black and one white. They were reading names.

A young woman approached us and asked who we were - and we told her we were here to read.  She thanked us and asked us to sign her log.  We then helped move the bottled water and the canvas chairs as well as other equipment to a paved area closer to the Capitol. Meanwhile a young man at the podium continued to read names aloud to nobody - although there was a camera set up and his list was streaming live on a website, as indeed it would, for the entire week.

He finished reading. And now it was Ben's turn.  Ben stood at the podium.  He was handed a list, and given instructions to read the name of each victim, his or her age and then to say, "was shot and killed by a gun" and give the date, the city and the state.

I sat on a canvas chair with a bottle of water and listened from a distance of several yards. Ben read in a clear and matter of fact tone, one name after another.  Some names fell into groups. They were people with the same last name and from the same city - and sometimes there was the name of a three year old child thrown in.  More often than you'd think there were victims whose name was unknown and age was unknown,  but as Ben read he never ran out.  He turned pages and the victims kept coming.  Some from California. Others from Pennsylvania.  New York.  Michigan. Florida. Some victims were twenty, others were in their forties or their seventies. Some names were ordinary. Others were cheerful nicknames. Some had middle names and they sounded mellifluous.  Some had no names at all.  Then the girl who was organizing the event, gave him a five minute signal, and soon it was my turn to read.

I stood at the podium, with the Capitol behind me.  It was dark outside and the trees around us were in new leaf against a pinkish sky. A gentle breeze ruffled the pages, and taking up where Ben had left off, I began to read names. I found myself thinking how each one was given to an individual.  Although I was speaking names that meant little or nothing to me, for somebody out there, these names evoked particular people.  Their very utterance would give them a picture of those who had carried the names, individuals they had known and possibly loved.

So there was something sacred about uttering these names in front of the Capitol building,  in which a few hours before the Senate had voted against gun legislation.   It felt like a privilege - like administering last rites, like throwing flowers on a coffin before it is buried. It also felt like the voice of one crying in the wilderness.

I read women's names, and men's names, boys, girls and infants' names. I felt the names stick in my throat for a moment and then empty into the atmosphere.  I hoped I was pronouncing the names correctly.  But nobody was there to hear.  Yes, a camera recorded my words, but nobody physical stood in front of me and listened.  Volunteers milled around in the gloom and my voice to them became a distant backdrop.  At one point Ben took photographs, to record the moment, I guess, maybe to post on Facebook and let people know what we'd been doing.  But I didn't care because I was in my own head - in a world of names and victims, trying to picture where they'd come from and who they were and what they thought they might become.

After half an hour, I think I might have covered the dead from three and a half days. I think I read from March 23 to half way through March 26, 2013. The names blur together in my mind now.  I cannot remember any of them.  But yet I felt honored to read them, and at one point a little overwhelmed.  My voice cracked.  Standing in front of the Capitol and reading these names, each of which represented a person who no longer had a voice to speak out - was something I couldn't absorb.  But surely it was the least I could do.

Ben and I went home.  We had a cup of roibus tea.  We went to bed.  Then today as we drove with friends down the George Washington Parkway, we could see the dome of the Capitol out across the river.  "Did you hear what Ben and I did on Wednesday?" I asked them, only now remembering.

"No. What?" they asked.  I began to explain.

They nodded.  "Hmm," they said.  And then the conversation turned to something different. The flowers were blooming.  Our day had been beautiful in Old Town, Alexandria. And we were still alive.


Sunday, April 14, 2013


Spring has arrived but it took its time and wouldn't be hurried no matter how we longed for it.  Last week we were bundled up in coats while this week we are barefoot.  The cherry trees blossomed along the Tidal Basin, and we walked beneath them in the early morning to avoid the crowds, and then came home to sit beneath our own trees in the garden. We went to the nursery and picked up some basil and rue and tomatoes, also a pot of Vietnamese cilantro which will probably bolt as cilantro always does.  But it's worth a try.

So hot was the weather this week that the narcissus came and went in a flash, as did the tulip trees.  Yesterday on our walk we passed a mother and her three children raked up the blossoms.  This morning belongs to the birds.  They are back and they woke us up with a chorus.

Meanwhile, there's been James Salter's All That Is.  I was so looking forward to it, having heard him read at the Folger last month, being a great fan of Light YearsA Sport and a Pastime not so much -  but he is one of the greats.  So without further ado,  I went to a bookstore up in Mclean to pick up a copy of All That Is.

Oddly, the bookseller had never heard Salter's name.  But he checked his computer and thought he had one copy,  then went to look for it in back.  I waited with the depressing boxed sets of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Etc.  When he returned, the bookseller said he was sorry.  He couldn't find the Salter novel.  So I ordered it on line.

It was beautifully written, of course.  I loved that about it.  Salter is now eighty-seven, and reading the first hundred pages of this novel felt a little like sitting with an eighty-seven year old maestro hearing wonderful anecdotes spin out and accumulate.  Until I got to the midsection, where the story came alive in his hands, and held me enchanted. Then it sort of flickered a bit - and got a tad disappointing, until at the end I felt as though I had been on a quick and beautifully crafted tour of all that a life had been, all that was, rather than all that is.  Yes, his was a tour through women and places, lingering for a longer stay at one particular woman and one particular house.  But a tour nonetheless.  I'd so wanted it to go deeper.  And because it didn't, that put me in a mood.

It was rather like the sex in his novels - for which he is quite well known. Also a tour.  The sex seems old fashioned,  sex of a different generation, from the perspective of men who have a lot of it, but don't seem particularly attuned to female sexuality. 

The way things were in a more discerning and carefully constructed world - in the hands of men like Salter is enviable. You could really feel nostalgic for some of it, although according to this week's New Yorker article, he never enjoyed great sales.   I also noted a recent poll which stated that 19% of the American public do almost 80% of all the reading. What will become of the writing life? And what has become of our bookstores? What will then become of us!  It left me uneasy, at odds with the beautiful spring weather.

Until yesterday at a huge book sale in the Falls Church community center I picked up an early novel by Claire Messud.  I've just read and reviewed her latest which will be out soon- a beautifully crafted book entitled The Woman Upstairs.  This second hand novel picked up yesterday is The Last Life.  When she writes about France, she isn't a tourist. She isn't an idealist. Nor does the world reside in the hands of her characters.  But she gets under the skin of the places and the characters. She gives me hope for the writing life - and for the life that must be lived today.  I'll be reading Messud today, when we come back from our lunch with Louise - sitting outside, underneath the cherry trees.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


This semester I've been teaching three writing courses. I'm covering exactly the same material, and teach it three times. One was an eight week course, which met from 2-4:50 twice a week.  Another class continues to meet for twelve weeks. A third is also still underway, and stretches over a fourteen week period,  meeting for an hour each session.  The students are of similar backgrounds and abilities, all enrolled in the same institution, and two of the classes even met at the same time of the day - except one was on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  I was surprised to discover that the eight week class floundered.  Several people failed. Meanwhile the fourteen week class seems to thrive.

Another professor was packing up her books as I arrived one afternoon, and we discussed our students' progress. "Mine aren't doing too well," she told me. "For the first time, reading their essays, I didn't know what to say."  So I told her about my longer course, and how much better they seemed to be doing with the material.

"I wonder if we are going too fast," I said. "They don't have time in between classes to read, and they don't have enough time between writing assignments.  We are covering too much material in too short a time."

"I believe it's like making soup,"  said the other professor. "You may have the same ingredients, but what you really need is time for the flavors to simmer and absorb."

I think she is absolutely right.  It's all about pacing. That's what it comes down to.  Time to ponder, time to mull things over in your thoughts before you begin to write, before you finish writing, and before you begin another assignment.  There again, you don't need too much time.  You don't want things to go cold or become overcooked. 

 I find that pacing is one of the things I most admire in good writing, and it's also one of the most difficult things to achieve myself,  as a writer.  Patience in telling a story - the ability to keep up momentum and impetus, but to hold out a bit, not to go too fast. When I'm writing a story, I sometimes know the major scenes I want, but it's never a matter of stringing them together.  Other things have to happen between the important scenes in order for the events described to have the impact I'm aiming for.

This holds true for sculpture. I haven't been sculpting as long as I've been writing.  But recently I discovered that pacing was missing in my sculpture.  Guita, a teacher in a figurative sculpture class, pointed this out to me.  "You are getting too quickly to the movement here," she said - gesturing down the back of the figure I was working on.  "You need more space between here," she said,  "and here..." meaning the hips of the model.  It was a valuable piece of advice.  I tried it, and I think it works better in the piece below.

Yes, even sculpture must be paced - the movement must draw your eye from one point to another,  in its own time.  Perhaps that's why some pieces have more presence and impact than others.  They hold you in time, and you must yield to their sense of pace.  The same goes for teaching.  I must try to remember that!