Friday, August 28, 2015

THE EDGE OF THE STAIRS

Several years ago when we adopted our greyhound Adam off the racetrack, we had to teach him how to climb up and down the stairs.  We had to stand behind him and beside him and lead him, coaxing him through the daunting process, until at last he took them automatically.

But over the last couple of weeks, he has developed a new fear of going down the staircase and we don't know where it came from. He stands at the top and backs away.  He stiffens his legs and whimpers.  He waits for Ben to carry him.

I've spoken to the Greyhound Adoption people and they say this happens quite often to greyhounds.  They just have to be encouraged and talked through it. No one knows why.

When Ben isn't here to carry him, and Adam follows me upstairs unthinkingly, he will back off from following me down again. He retreats from the edge and trots off into another room, makes his peace with a carpet in the sun. He relaxes.

Unless I'm going for a walk with the other greyhound Izzy.  Then he stands at the top and barks plaintively.  It's awful.  And it's completely self inflicted. Right now he is sleeping  peacefully on the carpet beside me as I type this.   But when it's time to go down, he might not be able to manage.  It's because he's overthinking them.  He's like Mr Bean on the top of the high dive - suffering vertigo.
me coaxing him towards the edge

Yesterday, for one brief moment, he forgot he was afraid.  Someone came to the door, and without thinking he ran downstairs. Then on the landing, he remembered his fear. Whoops.  Up he ran again.

I guess when it comes to stairs, you have to forget them entirely.  You have to trust that you know you can do them, then on automatic pilot, go down anyway.  But it's a bit like not thinking of the pink elephant.  If you remind yourself that you have to forget, you are in essence remembering.  It's also like trying too hard to fall asleep. You have to forget you are trying. Then suddenly you are asleep without realizing it.  But the catch is self awareness.  You have to let go of the satisfaction of being there mentally to realize it!

It occurs to me that everyone in my immediate family is currently standing at the top of their own metaphorical staircase.  We are starting new projects and moving to different cities.  One is off to new prospects in Chicago another back to a daunting doctoral at Oxford that has been on hold for a couple of years.  Another has moved from Sydney to start a course at GSD.  There is ambition in these lives and it's scary as hell.  Sure we could lie on the carpet and dream like Adam is doing right now.  That's easier and a lot more fun. At first. In essence it's what we've been doing all summer. Hanging around and talking.  Watching movies.  Eating meals together. Going to the beach.  But summer is over and taking the staircase is difficult.  The lead up isn't fun.
stairs are scary things

I'm also at the top of my own staircase. I'm trying too hard to finish a book. I've been overthinking it.  I keep going over the same pages with a fine tooth comb, inching forward to the edge where there is nothing yet written - then I stop in fear. I can't do it. I can't let go of myself enough to forget that it's me who is writing. So instead I busy myself with trying to rewrite and I'm not actually producing or even making it better. There's madness to this method.

Bracing yourself doesn't work because in fact, you don't have to jump after all.  You don't have to do the stairs all in one go. You have to breathe and relax and head off the edge without thinking.  The precipice doesn't exist.  It's one step after another.
the green green grass downstairs

Saturday, August 1, 2015

THERE HAS PASSED A GLORY FROM THIS EARTH: A TRIBUTE TO ALAN CHEUSE

I read recently an article in The New York Times about writers who should be loosed from the Literary Canon.  James Parker suggests that Wordsworth must make his exit.

And yet it is a line (paraphrased in this blog title) from Wordsworth's Intimations to Immortality  which comes to me now, as I learn of the death of Alan Cheuse,  my teacher, mentor, editor, friend and world class lover of books and life.

I first encountered Alan listening to NPR.  He was the voice of book reviews - short sweet and engaging. His commentaries came from the mind of a deep and serious reader.   So when I returned from Brussels to Northern Virginia, looking for ways to reignite my writing career, I knew Alan's name as connected to the MFA Program at George Mason University- and that's where I went.

I began my studies there in 2001, and instantly connected with Alan.  I remember chatting with him in his book lined office, and leaving him a short story I'd written while living in Brussels.  When I arrived at his class later that evening he took me aside. "I want to publish that story," he said.  "And I will pay you for it."
the cover of Rattapallax 7 in which my story appears

Of course, I agreed.  He subsequently included that story in Rattapallax 7. You can imagine my joy when he told me he thought it the best use of 2nd person he had ever read.

I learned so much from Alan over my four years at Mason.  It was under his guidance that I  completed my MFA project - a novel entitled THE DOVE PURSUES THE GRIFFIN. Alan told me  the reading was a pleasure and that the most difficult part was re-affixing the clasp I'd used to hold the pages together. His endorsement of my work meant that I submitted it to agents - and landed a London agent.

That agent subsequently got me a book deal for my second novel I KNOW WHERE I AM WHEN I'M FALLING. While the first novel remains unpublished, it is currently under consideration at various independent presses, substantially reworked  - and renamed NO ENEMY BUT WINTER. I owe that book to Alan's guidance. If it finds a home - I will dedicate it to him.

I could tell many stories about Alan here.  About his wise counsel on writing, or my family visit to San Francisco - where my sister lives.  It turns out my sister was the housekeeper for Alan's great friend - Oakley Hall, who also taught with Alan at the Squaw Valley Writers Community.    My sister had arranged for my family and me to stay at the Halls' beautiful home on Macondray Lane - the summer we visited Alan in Santa Cruz.

What an amazing coincidence!  We could hardly believe it  - and yet it seemed to solidify the tribe of writers I had joined.  It suggested  I was woven into a communal tapestry - that my contribution was another thread of the writing life which extended across the North American continent.

It was also because of Alan that my daughter Rozzie was treated for emotional difficulties, during her teens, by Alan's good friend Jim Gordon.  Without Jim's intervention and wise counsel, I don't know where we might have turned or what might have happened to us.  Because of his counsel, our daughter weathered the crisis and - surprise surprise - she is also a writer today.

I am now thinking of Alan's daughter Emma, holding her young baby after a reading at the home of Alan and his lovely wife Kris.  I think of a choreographed performance by Kris to which Alan invited us, years ago - involving a piano and a solitary dancer.  I think of the bond that united Alan and Kris - a love match, pure and simple. Anyone who saw them together could see it.  I think of the many readings I attended at Politics and Prose where Alan read from his latest publication.  Now I work as a bookseller at Politics and Prose. Is this just another coincidence?  Or is it because Alan put this incredible independent bookstore on the map for me.

There is an enormous hole in the literary community of Washington DC with the death of Alan Cheuse. Alan was the deepest of readers.  He had digested more work and had more interesting things to say about books and putting them in perspective than almost anyone else I know.   Now his perspective has gone.

But to read is to enter other worlds.  When Alan went into a coma a few short weeks ago, he entered yet another world - one into which we could no longer follow.   We don't know where that world has led him.  He took a detour and left us.

But he is somewhere.  At the very least, he exists in the hearts and minds, in the literary consciousness of our entire community. He used to say that even if you didn't write to publish, following the MFA at George Mason made you a better READER.  I for one am a better reader  because of Alan Cheuse.  I also believe I am a better writer.

Godspeed, my friend.  You will be profoundly missed.