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Monday, April 21, 2014

A Pilgrimage

"We Choose Love"

I took a trip to Boston Friday, my first in over a year.  We’d driven through, but hadn’t stopped since Patriot’s Day, 2013, a day of such profound pain in our region.  No, I wasn't there.  But a year later, I still find it difficult to wrap myself around what happened, bombs exploding, shrapnel flying, death and catastrophic injury, rivers of blood painting the sidewalk, cities on lock-down, a shootout in the streets. 

 But now, I have this.
After the bombing, people came to grieve, to morn, to process, to support, and a memorial grew at the site of the explosions.  Sneakers and T-shirts, signs, flowers, ribbons, candles, crucifixes, a mountain of agony and hurt and emotion growing in a place forever marked by horrific tragedy.  After weeks, the city had to move the memorial to Copley Plaza.  In June they disassembled it, vowing though, to keep every piece of it intact, which they did.  And last week, in time for this year’s race, they resurrected pieces of the memorial in an exhibit at the Boston Public Library.  When I heard this, I knew it was time to go.

You see, the Boston Marathon was a family event for me.  Growing up, we lived walking distance to the half-way mark and on Patriots' Day, aka, Marathon Monday, we scampered to town and cheered on the runners, some years handing them wet sponges, sliced oranges, cups of water.  As a recent college grad, I stood with friends at “Heartbreak Hill” and encouraged weary participants.  As a newlywed, I stood on the top floor of my sister’s house on the old route through Ashland, growing dizzy as wave after wave of runners flowed by her house. I took my daughter to see the race...at the half-way point with my brother, at the beginning with my sister.

In spite of such happy memories, long before last year, Patriot’s Day, our quintessentially Massachusetts holiday, was marked by grief for me.  When I was a child, my grandmother died early that morning, delivering my first searing, incomprehensible introduction to a sorrow so big for me then, so unfathomable, that I can compare the way it rocked my little sphere, to what I felt on September 11, 2001, and, on Patriots’ Day 2013—as if the world was picked up and shaken, tumbled upside down, pockets emptied of all comfort and all certainty except one…that life would never be the same.   

Last April, when this newest, awful grief landed, I struggled to cope.

Since then, I’d wanted to honor those lost and injured, to pay tribute to this Boston that refused to bow down to terror, our proud and hopeful and forward moving city.  But, I didn’t. And I needed to. I needed to get my centered self back.  And for some reason, this exhibit at the library gave me the excuse, made it possible for me to make a peace with the atrocity of last  spring, to reclaim my own kernel of Boston.
And so, three days before this year's race, I trudged up the steps of the subway mid-morning, walked down Boylston Street, eyeballed the blue and yellow finish line, paused at the cherry tree in front of The Forum Restaurant where one of the bombs exploded, where passersby continue to leave flowers, Friday, yellow and pink tulips in memory.

Then I crossed the street and entered the library to visit the centerpiece of sneakers with their messages of inspiration, all shapes and sizes of Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins jerseys etched in black markers with moving snippets, notes written on yellow stickies, on lined sheets, construction paper, poster board, consolation captured like floating angels, heartfelt words netted in red pen, blue, black, purple and gold.  From New Jersey, Minnesota and Newtown, CT, from California and Istanbul, messages from across the world, encouraging us, hugging us, patting Boston on the back, holding the city up.

Toward the end of the display, visitors were invited to write remarks on tags and hang them on the branches of four cherry trees, and I wrote the only words that I could come up with to sum up what hovered at my core, after seeing such a moving presentation. 

Afterward, I sat down and watched a slide show of the memorial as it had appeared on the street, before it was moved.  So many sneakers, so many messages, so much pain and love, hope and heart.  I was stunned by all the goodness, and the words written on the side of a running shoe captured what flowed like liquid inside of me, the sentence I would have written on a tag and hung on a tree, if only I had thought of it first.

I have never loved this city more.”

And if that wasn't enough, settled as I was inside myself, with a good calm in my heart, I walked across Boston Common on my way back to the train station, and found this.

 In honor of all the victims, but especially Martin Richards, Kristal Campbell, Lingzi Lu, April 15, 2013, Sean Collier April 18, 2013 and  for Mary Florence O'Brien Lucas, April 21, 1969.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Inhale the...What?

Sometimes my daughter and I head out to one of our favorite sandwich spots one town over, where we’ll order something to split, have it wrapped to go, and take a ride to the sea.  We park, when we can score a space, in one of the four spots available by a cement wall overlooking the ocean.  There, the view rolls out over hunchback waves.  To the south, land curves like a ballet arm, to the north, massive rocks sprout from the sea.  Minot Light flashes 1-4-3 in the distance.

For years, a snippet of graffiti marked the wall in front of where we park, instructions, scrawled in black spray paint to “Inhale the imagery.”  Now, normally I'm not a fan of "street art."  But this was different, the words a reminder to look up, to look out, to make sure the expanse of sea and soul never becomes routine.  The phrase remained on the wall so long; it fused with local culture, fading from an obnoxious tag into a kind of home-grown philosophy.  Someone uses it as a Twitter handle.  It's the title to a local photographer's website.  Bottom line? People liked it.  

That said, the words became a piece of our family lore for another reason.  Many years ago, our learning-to-read daughter noticed the paint and read out loud, “Inhale the imaginary.”  For years, we giggled when we pulled up to the scene and remembered her slip, the story so much a part of our family DNA that when we arrived one day and discovered someone had washed over the phrase with paint, we turned to each other and cried, “Oh no.” 

We visit that place a lot, and somewhere along the line it occurred to me that while all those years ago, our daughter misread the line, as a would be fiction writer, the one she came up with was equally as important.  Not only do I need to open myself to the imagery, to what is beautiful in every day life, but to whimsy and fantasy, too--to inhale the imaginary. But I've come to realize it takes one to feed the other.  Paying attention to what's in front of me makes me cognizant of detail and nuance and helps to make the fiction more real.  

I laugh when I think that someone sporting a can of black spray paint could have had such a positive influence on me, but I'm not the only one. 

The next time we visited after the "paint-over" discovery, the words were back.  This time, spray painted white.

Go ahead.  Take a deep breath...

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Salad Poem

You dream the aroma
of a ripe tomato,
the twist and snap and green smell
of vine and sun-warmed hands.
It's all there in the seed,
or sapling bedded in loam.
You count forward-time,
hot days and long months,
until the plant hangs heavy,
a bowl returns full,
until you slice and salt
and pair
with half-moons of 
oozing cheese,
knee-buckling at
the sweet, hot swallow
of acid and saliva.
It’s all there,
as you tear open the package.
sprinkle the seeds.
Press them into egg carton cups.
A repository for summer,
an incubator of earth to mouth,
a sauce, a salsa, a sandwich.
You brush dirt over with your finger,
and feel the promise of wait.

What can I say?  It was a really long winter.  My feet are still cold.  In spite of the fact that my daughter has informed me she likes all my blog posts, except for the poems,well, a girl has to treat herself.  Daydreaming about a tomato brought me closer to a summer garden. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

IWSG April and Inspiration

This is my April contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's  Insecure Writers' Support Group.  To link to more posts about writers helping other writers, click here.

I feel like I’m the only person in the Blogosphere not incorporating this IWSG post with the letter B in the A-Z challenge.  Best wishes to all of you intrepid folks participating.  As for me, well,  I’m in a “resting stage” with my current project and conventional wisdom dictates I get busy with something new.  To date, I haven’t come up with anything noteworthy, but I know from experience, inspiration comes from weird places.

Take my, first ever, get to the end of a first draft and stop novel.  It started as a result of a “scene storming” exercise.  I wrote a few hundred words, and then just for giggles decided to see if I could keep going until I got to the end.  Turns out I could.  I just didn’t know how to fix the mess afterwards.  This is how that one started:

By the time the real estate broker’s car came to a full stop by the “For Sale” sign in front of 52 South Main Street, Shelby Richmond had mentally unpacked her boxes, made the beds and scrubbed the kitchen floor. 

The second book I wrote…this one gets full credit because I revised it seventeen times, wrote a synopsis, a query letter and submitted it to agents, started with a sentence that rolled through my mind one night, during that fog point between awake and asleep.  I forced myself to get up and write it on a scrap of paper—which I stuck by my computer, until the story it related to took shape in my brain months later.  That one started like this:

The queen of the 1974 Tarrant County Honeydew Festival abdicated the throne forty-eight hours after her coronation. 

The third project—the one I’m currently resting, was triggered by an illustration accompanying an essay in Yankee Magazine about a damaged apple tree.  

Marnie St. Marie knew she hadn’t taken a drink for three weeks, but when she saw the boy in her ailing apple tree, she wondered.
So today, I sit, sniffing out inspiration like a dog.  Where will it come from?  A story on the news? Action I see on the street?  A picture? A tweet?  I don’t know.  But I woke up this morning with this blurb rolling around in my head.
By the time Winnie Parker reached the derelict Walker estate, the rock she’d been kicking the whole way felt like an old friend.  Which is why, when it took an odd bounce and scuttled under the wrought-iron gate, she had to reach in to retrieve it.
Hmm.  I think I’ll chew on that for a while.  

Where does your inspiration come from?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Another Amazing Read

It took years for me to finally read my first Dennis Lehane novel a few weeks back.  Last week, I followed up with  The Given Day, Lehan’s widely acclaimed historical novel, a break from the mystery/detective stories he’d written before.  At over seven hundred pages, it’s a time investment— one I’m glad I made.  

The story focuses on the events leading up to the Boston Police Strike of 1919.  Lehane weaves the topics of race, anarchy, graft and paranoia that was Boston in the early twentieth century, with chapters featuring Babe Ruth, the biggest thing in baseball at the time, before he was traded from The Red Sox to the Yankees.  It’s a gritty novel and pulls you into the streets of the city, the rough tenements of the North End, sweeping bay views of South Boston, the Brahmin enclaves of Beacon Hill, the jagged environs of Scollay Square.  Most of all, it sucks the reader into the consummate pride, and the desperate unfairness with which the patrolmen were treated.  These men made less money than dockworkers and janitors as they put their lives on the line —working something like twenty days on with one day off, for under minimum wage, with no overtime, in station houses filled with rats and vermin.  Oh yeah.  And if they ripped their uniform in the line of duty, whatever.  They paid for their uniforms themselves. 

No spoiler here.  You’ll have to read the novel or your history books to find out what happens. But perhaps this story resonated with me all the more because as it happened, two firefighters lost their lives in Boston while I was reading it, reminding me that dedicated public servants put their lives on the line for us every day.  In my mind, there could never be enough pay for the risks they take.