About Sylvie Beauvais

I am a writer based in Philadelphia. I have three writing arenas: creative non fiction, short stories, and feminist/modern retellings of fairy tales. "The Baby and Other Stories," a memoir, is my first book length work. I received my Master of Liberal Arts, with a concentration in Creative Writing, from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. My novella, Fly, Rapunzel was a finalist in Low Fidelity Press’s 2006 Novella Award Contest. The first piece in this collection of stories (“The Baby”) was published in Philadelphia Stories; a short story (“The Woods”) was published online in Quail Bell Magazine. I have also been blogging about the process of writing this memoir: http://invokingthei.tumblr.com/

Art & Nourishment: Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s been an exquisite banquet of stress in graduate student land of late, as I wrap up the eighth and final consecutive semester of my part-time MSW program. (Starting in September 2011, I’ve had classes in Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall and now Spring. The experience, drawn out, exhausting, was chosen by me, and I am glad to reach the terminus of this particular leg and start off on new pursuits in new directions.) Enough with the whining.

And now, a refreshing serving of good news. I had a rather vivifying, soul-searing encounter with the work of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) two weekends ago.

FallingwaterVisiting FallingWater in Mill Run, PA, did great soothing and inspiring things for my soul, my mind and my heart. When those aspects of me are basking in the comforting presence of beauty and vision, my body tends to do rather well also.

Art! Great art. It’s practical magic (for me).

The snippets of stories about FLW reveal a complicated egomaniac with impeccable taste and a pretty amazing imagination and understanding of light, space, materials, human function, the need for beauty, functional design, community, and communion with nature. Neat.

I also visited Kentuck Knob, so I had two homes, designed two decades apart by my new friend FLW, to give me a sense of his trajectory as an architect and designer. There are bones to pick with some of his choices. He was a man’s man in a man’s world. His family rooms and incorporation of outdoor spaces are awesome, but he (seriously) neglected bedrooms as spaces (his are quite small), but more gravely, his bathrooms and kitchens are really tiny–my interpretation is that he did not take that aspect of the human experience into much consideration. In FallingWater, the whole house is oriented to the outdoors, and this is clear in his design, every room has a large terrace–you are constantly being ushered out and closer to the stream and cliffs.

I had wanted for years to see FallingWater. When I first learned of its existence, it sounded like an improbable miracle. How could a building be ushered into being out of my dream? Maybe wanting to live directly over a stream in the woods is a secret ancestral dream, a common hidden human notion? In any case, the concept resonated and I was terribly excited to go there in person and measure my immense hope to the physical space.

I knew I would respond to the experience, but I did not expect to be so moved. His intent is everywhere. His taste is pretty much flawless. I love his fabrics, his furniture. The whole world should live like this.

FallingWater is right out of the future and it was designed in the 1930s.

And then there’s the very homey Kentuck Knob, which had an interesting coziness and warm darkness to it. It has an understated front and a proud prow of a living room, jutting out into the hill below.

kentuckKnobThat was two weeks ago, a bit before Spring sprang into its fullness, and now, before the tender baby green leaves peek out, we are showered in an outrageous fullness of flowers. I thank thee Cherry Blossoms–cheerful hopefulness embodied.

SpringFlowers

My Pants and My Health

So I grew up, as I’ve probably mentioned before, in a house where physical activity was not a priority. As someone who loves to read, nap, eat food and drink wine, my lounging and eating were manageable for a while–I guess they were mostly manageable in my 20s because I also happen to love dancing and did so often. In my more studious and therefore less active 30s, my pants took several steps forward in amplitude, which I managed to rationalize with judicious not looking too much in mirrors at my butt, and a heaping serving of misapplied feminism (I’m too smart to care about what my body looks like.) I guess my notion of being healthy summarized into: fit into pants, ride a bicycle sometimes, and occasionally visit the gym. Do not let the media or the man, or those skinny yoga bitches get you down. Romantic partners who would “get me” would not be so focused on the size of my pants.

Fitness was not a quest, it was an obligation to maintain what I thought was a moderate (but now realize was a mediocre) status quo–equivalent to and slightly less enjoyable than flossing. Also, I was a more of an intellectual, the body was not my medium, it was an envelope for my appetites.

It’s interesting in retrospect to examine how I derived my beliefs and the perspective I gained on those beliefs over time. I am now earnestly in my forties. For better or worse. A few bits of new thought have penetrated my insulated cranium. There’s no aha moment here, just a slow turning around of a large ship, slowly over time into uncharted … (please to meld your own seafaring/fitness questing metaphor at this juncture.)

Bits and pieces that started influencing me: I went to see a shoulder doctor about my shoulder, and the nurse and doctor had an exchange in front of me about growing older… that the weight you gain is weight you carry when you are old and your bones are frail. (I’m also regularly treated to the spectacle of mobility limited elder folk tackling the SEPTA stairs and wheezing through their turtle-like progress–ghost of christmas future, here we go!) Then there’s my knees. My grandmother always guilts me about my knees when I visit. Which I scoffed at in my 20s, but I no longer scoff. Now my knees are arthritic and bitchy whiners. Apparently my knees care a lot about the size of my pants, but I did not read that memo promptly. I really don’t want a sucky old age–my genetics kind of guarantee an old age, and I guess I’m in future ache minimization mode.

I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said “Strong is the new skinny” and I liked that. The smarty pants feminist wants to be strong, not skinny. So that’s something I can aim for without feeling like I’m plunging into the vanity pool.

Then there’s my friend Kyle Cassidy who has transformed his understanding of mind and body, his socializing and his body by becoming a pretty avid runner over the last couple of years. I’ve linked his name to his awesome blog. He calls it the fat tax. He runs for hours each week so he can avoid becoming fat.  There’s also my friend Jess who has redoubled her running efforts and has gotten faster, and fitter, and (always pretty) better fits in her pants.

Then there’s Hugh Jackman, whose body I love. I saw a short clip of a slightly disturbing interview between Oprah and Hugh, where she asked to feel his abs and she asked what it took for him to get into Wolverine shape. (In the long version which I can’t find) Hugh said something I had never heard before–he said you are either improving or you are degrading and this applies to your body. There is no status quo–there is no maintenance program. This thought annoys me, because it implies constant vigilance. But I also find it convincing based on my own trajectory.

Then there’s the fact that I now I train with a trainer and with four random other people twice a week, which means that I get to see someone else’s progress over time, and it’s kind of amazing. I’ve witnessed my own progress over the last few months, and it’s definitely slow, and it’s less impressive, but still good news. There are new muscles. It’s honestly odd feeling new muscles beneath my skin. But watching more fit people work out with a trainer has been transformative–I finally get it–people who are Very Fit and look really good in clothes, work Really Hard to keep it that way. There’s no magic, no special gene.  Having a beautiful body takes amazing amounts of work. I have seen the sweating and the effort in person, and it is significant.

The problem with my progress is that it makes me more honest about where I am and how far I have to go. That’s mostly good, a bit painful, but highly informative. I now know so much about my blind spots, my ability to disconnect from my body and not really examine it, its functions or my assumptions about my future mobility.

There’s a bit about love in here too. I love my partner’s body and I want both of us to love mine as well.

I’m not sure how to summarize my current notions or goals about being healthy–they are a work in progress. My hope for the new year is that I will double down on my current progress, and accelerate it. Right now, I’m trying to do something healthy every day. I want to be more comfortably mobile (particularly on stairs), able to dance and move for long periods of time without being winded, I want to fit in all my clothes, I want to enjoy my body, feel stronger, feel more confident, and I no longer want to fear aging as a long and very uncomfortable decline. To achieve these goals, I am willing to sweat often.

Pages will turn, doors will open

It’s 2014, finally. This year has been long awaited, since I started my Master’s of Social Work odyssey in 2011. I’ve had many beautiful and touching experiences during this journey to my chosen profession and I feel excited and ready for the next turn in the road. I can’t wait to take my new skills out and join my profession as a full fledged member.
I don’t know where I’m headed next, but I like the road I’m on very much.

What more could a girl ask for?

The Thought of India

Even though it was six months ago, I still get asked “How was India?” The question is so huge, it leaves me either rambling or wordless. The scope of the question might be, “What are your thoughts on being a woman?” Or perhaps, “Tell me about your childhood?” (Childhood I could tackle, that’s a narrative I have shared and shaped again and again throughout my life.)

I keep hoping my seven weeks in India, or the country in my head, will finally become manageable, just an epic travel experience. But the flashes of color and feeling that rise up in my mind when I hear the word India aren’t so easily packaged for external consumption.

So here’s what I’ve got, just a few more reflections that I hadn’t yet articulated, or that have crystallized further.

1. I have never left India. It has been inscribed within me. My emotional relationship with what I know of the country reminds me of my first love. There were many beautiful and many terrifying moments. I know this is all cliche, but cliche is sometimes the best way to express something universal: All that is left are my memories, and the way my senses and perspective were transmogrified. I resemble my prior self, but I am someone else.

2. Intellectual and emotional humility. There are many forms of wisdom, many of which do not issue from formal learning.

3. It’s okay not to know where I am going. I have hungered for states of certainty for a long time. India obliged me to become a bit more flexible. I may not trust the road, or the driver, but I can trust that the journey will maintain my interest, and charmingly, most outcomes will be harmless or at least manageable (and some enchanting). Near helplessness is a very uncomfortable state to inhabit for seven weeks, of course (if necessary) I had a privileged kind of relief at my disposal–my wallet.

4. The state of understanding another being is not to be taken for granted. Neither the being, nor the understanding. There are many ways of being understood and many ways of being misunderstood. These are in constant flux, even within a lasting relationship. Triangulating meanings across languages and cultures exposes the many gaps between us. It also exposes how amazing each moment of rapprochement really is.

5. Resilience, resourcefulness and desperation are all incestuous cousins. They are awe-inspiring and they distasteful. Making use of very little can be really moving. It’s also awful to witness because it proposes a reality that cannot be argued with.

6. Whatever can be done with a human body is being done. Yay. Boo.

“Yay. Boo. Yay.” would be a fitting (highly reductive) three-word answer to everything I witnessed: 7. My moral self was never at rest. I was constantly trying to assess, understand and evaluate both my experience and the experiences of those who were around me. I was trying to give it value(s). For example, as a westerner, beautiful things could be bought, but the buying and the beauty were both imbedded with multiple other meanings–colonialism, US imperialism, privileges of race and class, my astounding amount of education and its basic uselessness in this context, the smugness of my wallet and its credit card contents, plain commercial lust, my responsibilities as a tourist, my responsibilities as a human being towards others. What each of my gestures, commercial or non-commercial, said about my identity and my intentions, about the countries I come from, and how I perceived the country I was visiting. What each gesture from Indians also represented as a comment on our interaction.

I have never felt more morally sketchy. Being back in the U.S. is so much more comfortable. Here I can nurture an illusion of living more or less as a “good” person. In India, walking down the street, I stepped over bodies that might have been (but I dearly hoped weren’t) dead.  In the U.S., I have a slightly better sense of the boundaries of what I can and should or might do in any given circumstance, and what the basic order of things is supposed to look like among my countrymen… I step over fewer literal bodies.

8. There is hope. We will each have to find our own.

Ironic Almost Fitness

I recently have bought a lot of gym gear, because I’m going to the gym and having my ass kicked regularly. And sweating more than I ever have. And having a huge case of red face that lasts a good hour after the workout ends. These developments feel not exactly good, but somehow meaningful and important to me. I’ve committed to going even when I would rather nap (most every time). Despite my ill will, and lack of motivation, I AM getting stronger, faster, and a bit more compact in circumference.

So while I’m basking in my incremental fitness improvements (the final test of which will be a humble return to the 1.5 hour Iyengar level 1 class that crushed me before I began my fitness regimen), I’m eating really terrible food, much of it fatty pork. I’m not sure what this particular combination of behaviors signifies. I mean, I’m much hungrier more often now that I’ve got a few more muscles occupying space below my fat. I’m craving protein. I’m tired a lot. These are pretty typical feelings (hunger, fatigue) for Fall. (When will decency require that I stop blaming Fall for my love of meat and fat?)

I question why I can’t espouse nutritional purity while making efforts at the gym. I have a notion that eventually I’ll wake up craving salad with protein and that this craving will last for the better part of four months. Alternatively, I am hoping that the recent gorging signifies the death throes of my bad habits. Alternatively, these are just my habits, and at least I’m shaking my tail more often, giving me more room to enjoy my habits without the typical guilt.

So yes, I’m more fit-like. But no, health in one arena does not mean that health in other arenas will follow. Sometimes this makes me feel bad. Sometimes I’m fine with it. The balance is tipping, ever so slightly, fit-ward. Sometimes this makes me feel like “come on, how many efforts can I possibly sustain in any given period?” And here we are. Impasse: Well-fed me, feeling good, tonight full of sushi and one pint of beer, last night full of pork and a bit of cognac. And that’s what my fitness looks like. I’m in touch with the ironies.

Sucky Workout

I got up late to go to the gym. Then I came home, had a quick lunch, showered and went and got a massage. Now I’m on my couch writing. I am treating myself. I’m living my fantasy day, but it started out as a bad day. I had a terrible night of sleep. I’m preoccupied and it stays with me no matter how many episodes of Louis CK I watch in a row.

At the gym, my body felt like a heap of disorganized bricks. There was no whole to my body. There were only grumpy parts, each with a specific broken rhythm. I haven’t been this weak since I started working out a month ago.

Everything hurt, everything felt too hard to do.

I was constantly out of breath.

All my joints with glitches were acting up. Knees, ankle, wrists, lower back–they were all on the edge of injury. My body had suddenly regressed. This offends me. Body must report for duty and behave as anticipated. My body went about being terrible and uncooperative despite my resentment.  I know about trending towards the mean–I was doing pretty good for a while there and now comes the backlash. I should resign myself, I’m probably going to suck for a bit, just so my average remains average.

It’s inevitable–the universe mandates occasional bad days. I have trouble accommodating bad days. I don’t have time for feeling crappy–I’m already dealing with mid semester schoolwork exhaustion–I don’t need other reminders of life’s inherent cruelty. I realize I am being a bit of a whiner here. Allow me to contemplate how far I’ve come, how far I still have to go, and my biggest struggle, my body’s default inertia.

At the same time, there is a recognizable pattern. I know that when I’m doing any exercise, I start off okay, then I have a terrible middle part where all I want to do is go home and never come back, and then if I manage to persist, something subtly changes and I am suddenly doing better, feeling stronger and more competent (unless I’m too exhausted, in which case my morale improves but my body can’t keep up and my form sucks).

It’s likely there’s some interesting metaphor for work, for progress, and for life somewhere in these paragraphs, but my insight, like my stamina, has been momentarily exhausted.

Mammogram world

I’m at the hospital for my annual mammogram screening. Totally banal. They cover the walls in pink-framed nature and flower scenes–this does not calm me down. I still feel like a beast at a slaughter facility. It will be a narrow escape.

It’s a feeling more than a thought–wearing the antiseptic gowns that smell like frozen meat makes me utterly vulnerable.

There’s the total silence (except for the bad news tv channel playing) and the dim yellow green lighting in the waiting room.

We waiting women do not bond. We sit in fearful stillness awaiting our moment of radiologic scrutiny.

Then there’s my lifelong irrational thought that I will get breast cancer at some point. It’s just a matter of waiting. There is a history in my family. I’m not just a breast pessimist.

The silence in the waiting room is accompanied by a lethal clinical silence from the administering professionals.

No one tells you your odds. There is no attempt to calm you down with human empathy. Pull the random trigger of gene expression and wait for your lottery results.

20131016-143219.jpg

ps: As negative as I am about this womanly right of passage, I am deeply grateful for the care. Knowing is always better than not knowing–it gives me the freedom of options.

Relief and Stress and Jewels

Life is rich and rewarding and exciting and … gosh I get tired sometimes.

This year, I have a little bit of time back in my schedule, and I’ve been trying to diversify my routines. Mix it up a bit. Try new things, or go back to old things that fell out of my routines in last year’s crazy medley of internship, full-time work, trying to see my friends and loved ones and going to class. I want to be me again.

I just want to find new ways to reconnect with my self, in all my dimensions: creative, emotional, physical, and … I’m still wrestling with the spiritual bit. The intellectual bit has been over-engaged over the last seven semesters of Social Work school. So I’m shopping for food and planning some meals, and doing some cooking, which I love (and sometimes gets me in trouble). I’m trying to pamper myself, from time to time, as my budget allows.  Today I got a pedicure, and then I got a manicure, because it was a good deal, and now I’m sitting with my lovely shiny totally unnatural nails feeling posh, at least until I chip my hands (which I will very soon!). I’m pushing myself to get more physical–I’m from a family that lives in its cranium, and many of us barely acknowledge the body as we lounge and devour books.  Even my one major hobby, writing, does nothing for my body, though it feels nearly spiritual, it fills me so with joy. There’s also the beauty and wisdom of my friends, which I totally rely upon. They humble me in the most wonderful way.

So that’s my goal, before I graduate with my new minted Master’s, I’m just trying to reconnect and re-engage all my aspects, so I can be be a multifaceted jewel of a person, and not just a string of brainy pearls. (Don’t take that personally, brains.)

The Fitness Dance

I have finally fallen down the fitness hole into the care of a fitness trainer. This was many years in the making. For two decades I took myself to the gym, forced some cardio, perfunctorily performed sit-ups, and with pleasure used the weight machines.

I got reasonably far if I stuck with it, but there always came a time when I ran out of steam. Repetition, boredom, loneliness. I do not like sharing my fitness journey. No one needs to see me sweat or grit my teeth. I like to plug into a Pandora Fitness radio station and go. As best I can. There always comes a setback. This year it was India, in 2012 it was a back injury.

I am passionate about my new social work career, but it is emotionally exhausting, and the end of the day leaves me ready for a long nap and warm blankets. While napping is my go to stress relief option, I realize it’s not the best or most effective choice I can make to manage my body or my mind.

I’ve decided to take (some) choice out of the equation and avail myself of professional services. I went to the trainer in dread of the bullying. I can worry about anything. In this case I worried it would be either too hard or too easy. I worried it would be great and I’d be starting a new expensive habit. I didn’t know how I would feel about being exhorted to ever greater effort. The most terrifying thing about having a trainer is seeing other people at the gym who are further along in their fitness journey doing terrible looking balance, strength and endurance exercises. I look at them and then I look away and pretend they are Aliens–what they are doing will never apply to me. They terrify me. I don’t want to be them. I hope I will be them. Dragging a weighted sled to the yard mark and dropping for push ups before the timed sled run continues. It’s crazy. What the trainers make people do is amazing.

One of the nice things about no longer going to the Penn gym, where 20 year olds abound, is not having to see a bunch of fit 20 year olds, who aren’t really striving, they’re just using their young bodies with ease. At my new gym, I see a variety of people at various levels of fitness using their bodies, working through sweat to meet personal goals.

I am awkwardly one of them. It turns out, despite my array of misgivings, that I love having a trainer. First, and most important, the two trainers I have worked with are wildly more inventive in the array of tortures they devise than I ever dreamed. Whoever is responsible for fitness science, bravo–you’ve really perfected the art of fitness in the last twenty years. The trainers (try to) make you fast, they make you strong, they make you lean.  Every exercise uses  upper, core, and lower portions of my body. There are lots of interesting props. There is anguish. And there is a lot of discomfort the next day–once my body cools, it slows down as though it were weighted by leaden sheaths, but it’s just my skin, laying gently over my exhausted muscles. I’ve learned that I can still work out when my body is sore–something I’ve never done before.

And being constantly watched and constantly accountable changes the game. I push harder, I am also pushed harder. It sometimes borders on fun, but mostly I’m grateful for the kindness of having someone full of hope try to help me transform. It’s amazing what external sources of hope can do for me.

Food Is So Freaking Good

I made some ratatouille last night. My secret ingredient was the expired wine in the back of the fridge. I have a purple veggie stew and it tastes absolutely delicious. I thought it was just my biased opinion, but a friend came over and confirmed my suspicions. When I get the time and gumption to cook, the end result is usually pretty tasty. This is my downfall. I love what I make. Last night I had two heaping servings of these veggies. My tummy was all stretched out, ratatouille-iffic. I could barely move off the couch to go lie in bed, read and wait for digestion to occur. I justified the second serving because I was eating veggies. Impeccable logic, clearly.

I love food. I’m not sure what food’s feelings about me are, but it really doesn’t matter, this one-way crush is going nowhere.

I keep trying to change our relationship. I ping pong between health-seeking solutions and the total satisfaction of eating a very good, juicy medium rare hamburger with blue cheese and bacon, and plenty of ketchup. Sometimes I double down on fruits, nuts and vegetables. I try to meet my deliciousness quotient sideways. I distract myself with a large volume of berries, and organic heirloom grape tomatoes. Stuffed full of baby carrots doesn’t count. I’m sure of it.

(I wonder what it is about feeling really full that makes me feel so happy. It’s like the world is bountiful and I am now a vessel of that bounty. I am full of nature’s boundless generosity.)

My fruit-stacular evasive maneuvers work sometimes, but not all the time. After my veggie burger lunch, I’ll have an evening cheddar snack, a salad for dinner, and a heaping serving of chocolate and a shot of calvados later in the night. Maybe it’s my tapas-inclined personality. I thrive on flavor variety. I am bored by repetition. I cannot cook two dishes for the week and alternate between them. It would suck the joy out of my food fun. Basically, I need to keep my mouth entertained. It’s a demanding organ with a short attention span. It’s not me, it’s my mouth, it has its own agenda.

In the summer, when there are plenty of good things that come out of the ground, my good intentions get ground to dust by the smell of charred meat. The flavor of crisp, burnt animal fat is amazing. If you don’t believe me, buy a fruit pie made with a lard crust and see if you notice the difference.

Sometimes I fantasize about becoming a vegetarian. It’s a solid move, morally. But my taste buds would just mope around in my mouth. I would gripe about lentils and chickpeas. I try to imagine some halfway measures that might be sustainable for the long term, like eating seafood, bacon, and fruits and vegetables. Who am I kidding. Instead I eat a lot of tofu, flip-flopping between carnivorous and well-meaning.

My current efforts are focused on increasing my exercise to give me a bit more leeway in pursuing my one-way food crush. I’ll provide some updates as this initiative continues. For now I bid you a fond good evening, from the couch, where I have indulged in three salt free spelt squares as an alternative to delicious fondant maples sugar candies. Compromises.

Creative Energies

Sometimes I feel like a plant, or maybe a vampire. I find myself feeding off the vital energy around me. I used to love writing in bars–so much gregarious energy unleashed. Last Thursday night, September 12, I watched/listened to the Philly Song Shuffle at XPN. There were 55 acts in attendance, and they each got a four-minute set in which to play one song. I found myself filled with the sudden need to write. I’m going to blame the impulse on the 55 bands crossing the stage. Lone singer songwriters were interlaced with multiple-person acts, each with their voice and sound. Band members mixed between sets and there was some impromptu spillover, singers become dancers, rushing to others’ performances.

xpnIt’s been awhile since I’ve written, though the goal is on my to do list, staring back at me every single day.

During the Philly Song Shuffle, I wrote a first draft for a short essay where I declare myself to be a bonbon eater possessing a particular life esthetic. The essay felt terrific coming out. I was handwriting it on the back of the band set list. I rarely hand write, I tend to think as I type, but that night the pen in my fingers, the pen on the page, felt both natural and urgent.

I’ve noticed the importance of other people’s art for my personal productivity before. I feel rejuvenated and strangely full of thoughts and impressions (closer to my identity) when I visit paintings or photography, sit for theater, or watch a dance performance. Nature also has some of this effect on me. Movement, music, color–communing with someone else’s creative process, it all works to renew my own passions, my own sense of direction, purpose and drive.  Maybe it’s time to stop noticing the beneficial effects of art and start being more deliberate in my consumption/exposure.  I could take my laptop to see bands with me at The Fire, for instance. This will take some pondering and some conscious planning. To be continued.

I Went to France

What can I report on France which I have just visited for the first time? (I was raised there until I was 11, I am fluent, and I am half french. In my hundreds of weeks spent there with family, I have never toured the countryside–the expatriate lifestyle is full of obligations to aging grandparents and rickety parental units.)

As I traveled around the countryside for five days–La Rochelle, Nantes, Carnac, St. Malo, Mont St. Michel, Cancale–the french met my expectations. They are notable for their subdued delight in the essential bodily pleasures. Note the forlorn way the distinguished Maitre D’, short on staff, will deliver the world’s freshest oysters to the table. It is like eating the sea’s heart. The oysters are cold, they are salty, they are the children of a thousand waves.

It’s hard for me to see France without my childhood inserting itself. There’s also the France in my head, corrupted by years of living in America–the hodgepodge of satiric representations: Pepe Le Pew, Christopher Walken playing the Continental on Saturday Night Live, Freedom Fries, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (Thank you Simpsons).

We didn’t have an itinerary until the day we left to pick up our rental car. I made one decision–no chateaux! (Too many palaces and fortresses visited in India in June.)

However, the France I saw was delightful in providing varied backgrounds for fantastic daydreams. We went to visit Les Machines de L’ile in Nantes and it was like being in a Hollywood movie, except the special effects weren’t digitized, they were real. And the children were quiet and well behaved (relatively speaking.) We went because we’d heard that we could ride a giant wooden mechanical elephant. And we did. The elephant sprays water out of its trunk on those who get too close to its path. It’s a whimsical, stunning, gigantic thing. Elephant

We also saw a giant mechanical heron carrying four people “fly” on a suspended track. It was wonderful to see adult imagination look so much like child’s play.

Then we went to Carnac which has several thousand menhirs standing in long lines–they are called The Alignments, and there are several different clusters. The picture below is of The Alignments of Le Menec.

CarnacThey are more than 5000 years old. I got excited reading about them, and then I saw them. The overwhelming first impression is pretty low key: yup, a bunch of stones. But then we took the tour which explained the amount of work involved, the potential meaning of the stones, and the way trade worked around 3500 B.C. I started imagining a Celtic wold full of chieftains undertaking big projects to mark prosperity and territory. I imagined the way the stones might have looked originally, one side raw, one side smooth, one gleaming white side, the underbelly yanked from the rock.

The next day we drove to St. Malo which is a walled city of stone built on the riches accumulated by French Corsairs (pirates sanctioned by the King). We walked the ramparts at sunset. I imagined being the wife of a corsair, waiting for the ship to come back. StMaloEach day we ate seafood, crepes, varied items drenched in sea-salt caramel. We asked for and ate a lot of butter on bread, because the butter in France is utterly delicious, full of flavor, with an amount of salt that perfectly complements bread.

For our first rainy day, we headed to Mont St. Michel which I had visited once before and which I remembered for its stunning beauty and dramatic vistas.

StMichelEven though it was a gray day, it was still lovely. For those who love photography, the winding spiral path to the top offers a new perspective every few feet. Once we reached the Abbey at the top, the challenge got more daunting, with sweeping views and dramatic angles. We visited twice, once at the end of the day, and again at night. The nighttime visit was more whimsical, with projected light shows and lone candlelight musicians in different rooms. The harp, flute, and viola we heard each sounded both spooky and ethereal. These were holy spaces, so I pondered the experience of silence and beauty for the monks and nuns who had crossed these halls over the centuries.

On our last day, we took a culinary excursion to Cancale, home of the amazing oysters we had been served in St. Malo.

CancaleIt was a lovely last stop before we returned to Paris.

The Manuscript(s) in my Drawer

For kicks and giggles, I pulled together all my finished and unfinished (but promising) short stories into a manuscript back in 2011. (I included everything that wasn’t a fairy tale that I had written). I wanted to find out my total word count and whether I had enough for a book. This story collection currently clocks in at 50,000 words, which is a bit short, but not terrible.

After I found out I had a viable amount of material that needed a gentle spit shine and once over, what did I do?

Nothing.

Getting my writing act together has always been tantalizingly possible. But my inertia rules the day. Admittedly, I had solid excuses. I was working full time, in graduate school and completing an internship all last year. I worked 6 days a week.  But I have not touched these stories since November 2011. Months have swooshed by and I have done nothing.

(In fact, I have three short manuscripts that need revisiting. My other two are my fairy tale collection and my memoir project.)

It is July 30, 2013. I’m taking the Heinlein and Hemingway admonition that writers finish their work seriously. Dear internet, it’s time for a solemn vow. I’m going to polish/edit/finish at least one story in my manuscript each week. I have 13 more stories to go. If this works out, come mid-October, I should have one competed manuscript. Then starts the hard part, I will look for an agent. No more swooshing time. No more doing nothing. I have a simple plan to execute. (Execute sounds lethal alright.)

Sharing the morning with Hemingway, Heinlein

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Hemingway in his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton.

There was a short period of time a few years ago when I woke up every morning an hour early to work on my memoir. There was another blessed period when I timed myself for 15 minutes daily and forced myself to write for at least that long (typically longer). The timed writing happened mostly in the evening. Both periods were very rewarding. I invariably feel better about my life and my future when I take the time to write. I like Hemingway’s notion of slowly warming to your work first thing in the morning. Proceeding from dream mind to creative mind to immersed mind with the new day. I might start slow and just wake up 15 minutes earlier than planned to work on new writing this week.

I’m also newly fascinated with Heinlein’s five rules for writing. There’s a lot of coverage of these rules, embracing or discrediting aspects of them. But the simplicity is alluring:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

1-5: Each and every one of these steps is a huge leap, a major requirement, and has a ton of embedded assumptions.

1. Obviously, writing is a requirement of writing. It’s a verb, it requires action. I’m trying to be more deliberate about making time.

2. Action is nice. Completed action is better. Finishing. Finishing is one of many things I struggle with. I try to balance out Stephen King’s advice to let a completed work lie fallow for a period of time before you take it up again with another reported quote by Hemingway I keep around to keep me going: ““Write every day and finish what you start.”  Should I keep at it until I’m done, or give it time to rest? I have done both. Each approach has its frustrations.

3. Refrain from rewriting–that’s assuming my story works. That’s assuming I’ve found a satisfying tone, structure, plot, narrator and dialogue. That’s assuming my metaphors are doing good work. I think it’s a “refrain from tinkering once you have reached the end.” Reaching the end is another matter.

4. Put to market–this is great advice–but it’s totally insufficient to the reality. I’ve just started becoming a little bit better about sending stories out to editors. I have a lovely compilation of rejections, and a (very) small number of acceptances. But my rejections are getting perkier. They’re trickling in slowly, and slowly getting more positive. Editors are letting me know my work is making final editorial rounds, and I’m being encouraged to resubmit in the future. I must be maturing as an author. I’m just not quite ripe fruit yet. At least I have a notion of forward movement–reasons to keep at it. While very few publishers provide feedback, occasionally I get lucky and an editor provides interesting insights that help me with my rewrite.

5. Keep the work on the market until published/sold–I see each round of submissions/rejections as a new opportunity to edit.  My work does get better with each iteration.

Lessons percolating. I think Hemingway, besides being a brilliant (and sexist) author, had the leisure of writing in another age. There were probably fewer aspiring writers sending out their submissions, and there wasn’t Submittable to power instant gratification for those seeking to submit, or the New Yorker’s online submissions option. Mixed blessings, all. I feel for the editors wading through the oceans of random submissions by writers of all stripes and levels of proofreading, let alone writing, ability.

Even as I work to re-master disciplined daily writing, I’m going to remind myself that there is an end goal. I need not only to write, not only to finish, but to publish, and that specific quest has its own set of hazards and opportunities–more on that later.

Back to (Creative) Writing

I started writing this post last week, and then abandoned it as my doubt made it too hard to move forward with such a smug tone. I’m back at it again today, pondering life, writing, and, most important, finding good writing habits that lead to being published.

Last week’s beginning: I edited two stories today.  It came naturally. It felt really good. After months and months of guilty hiatus, using my creative writing brain was glorious.

So good in fact that I felt like I had special x-ray glasses on–I could see what bones were missing from my story’s skeleton. Looking at my story’s body, I could see what needed thinning down and what needed plumping up. I tend to repeat myself, so I cut a bunch of those redundancies out. I clarified. I threshed. I wove in a new layer. I reconnected beginning and end in more concrete ways.

This week’s conclusions: Last week, after having one beautifully productive day followed by a day of submitting one completed manuscript out, I’m back in my non-writing, non-editing slump. I am perpetually struggling with making time to write. I keep saying to myself, just 15 minutes a day will get you a book by the year’s end. It sounds plausible. Those 15 minutes don’t (yet) exist in my life. I’m just not that consistent. In search of motivation, determination, and a steely resolve, I go to other writers’ advice to try to find a model I can live with. The inspiration is useful for a good 10 minutes–Kurt Vonnegut had a great routine I can’t duplicate. Still, reading how others organized themselves, I feel invigorated and purposeful for a moment, and then the daily worries set in–I should spend my time trying to earn an income. I need to focus on this or that class project or reading. My drawers need reorganizing. I should call my grandma. The list is endless.

The other major battle raging is between writing new stories and finishing long lingering pieces that need to be edited and reworked. Part of me wants closure, part of me wants evasion into brand new skies, wants to see what’s under my creative hood–what will my mind seize upon today? And so here I am blogging instead of editing. Another momentary soother of my itch to write. Suggestions are welcome.

Re-Entry

photo(1)Everybody talks about the culture shock of going to India, but no one I spoke to did justice to the psychic shock of returning home to the United States. Everything is simultaneously familiar and alien. Right now, when a CVS invisibly opens the door as I approach it, I feel like I’m entering a magical cave of delight. I expect sprites and fairy dust. But it’s only candy, crackers and beauty products inside.

After the magic wears off, I think about the nature of a society where even the doors don’t need to be pushed open.

Which brings me to the big thing I noticed at the Zurich airport, sharing a gate with college kids coming back from a trip to Africa organized by their church: Americans have the luckiest body language on earth. The at-home-in-the-world vibe I get when I see Americans amble around–that’s the most shocking thing of all. The kind of luck and plenty that makes that body language possible is astounding. Is my walk so entitled and confident? Is this what people see when they see me? The uncomplicated joy in being, the expectation of great things–these are all conveyed to me in the simplest movements, like a young American man reaching into his pocket.

I had no idea. The only reason I have an idea now is that I have walked streets where most I walk past are scraping a bare minimum of a livelihood together. They are not starving. That is the good news.

Back in the U.S., my privilege has many aspects. Since I’ve returned, sometimes my privilege is the delight of ever-present climate control; sometimes it’s the perfect taste and texture of ketchup. Or eating bare vegetables (no curry), fresh from a city garden. Every day, it’s the marvel of flushing used toilet paper away: Such a little thing, which provides such freedom–I never have to think about my bodily waste or the huge systems of infrastructure and public health that I benefit from every time I yank on the flush handle.

Many times in my life, I’ve been taught about the invisibility of privilege to the privileged. I get it now (a little). I get how lucky my society is. I get how lucky I am. And I have a sense of what’s left to do. How much work is ahead.

The Possibility of Change

Sometimes I worry that it’s very easy to become cynical, especially since I care about “trying to do some good.” As I become a social worker, I don’t want to take myself seriously, but I do want to be sincerely hopeful–to believe that things can and do change at the personal, community, and society levels if enough strategic energy is applied.

Before my internship with Durbar/Usha, I liked this hopeful attitude, and I wanted to embrace it whole-heartedly, but I was also hungry for inspiring stories. I wanted to know change was possible. I wanted some case studies for hope.

My six weeks in Kolkata working with and meeting with the women of Durbar and Usha have been nothing short of inspiring. I have witnessed a community system that works for the greater benefit of its members, transforming women’s sense of agency, solidarity, how they manage their health choices, and creating financial empowerment, and helping them plan for their families’ future. Each piece in the puzzle–collective, clinics, bank, children’s school–strengthens the others. It was amazing to listen to and see a community use its wisdom and power to take care of itself in such effective ways. In about twenty years, what began as a health initiative has become a powerful social and professional institution with impressive political, medical and financial impacts. One of the aspects I admire most about Durbar is its interest in the welfare of other marginalized communities, like domestic workers. It’s an amazing organization.

My hope system has been immunized. This can only help me be a better collaborator with friends, clients and communities.  My role going forward is to continuously remember what I witnessed to know what is possible for each of us and for our communities.

Usha

Research Team with Usha’s Secretary.

Excessive Beauty

I’m touring in India, and it’s exhausting because it’s damn beautiful. Trying to take in this much beauty is draining, in some ways more so than the sun and heat, and the crowds, and the hawkers clamoring. Yes, I’m complaining because there’s too much wonderfulness about.

P1070001I’m also thinking about the difference between living in Kolkata, food shopping, walking in the streets, and commuting on the metro, and the experience of being chauffeured around (largely a safety measure as I am a woman traveling solo) between hotels and tourist sights. I didn’t think it was possible to create a bubble that made the harder aspects of life in this society disappear, but indeed sticking to tourism puts a shielding gloss over the experience of being in India. After six weeks of life at street level, a little luxurious distance can be pleasant, though I do feel the difference–I’m no longer in India–I’m floating above, in the tourist bubble, touching select ground for brief intervals, and only for the sake of beauty. There is a great deal of beauty here, but only taking in the beauty feels like trying to marry the person you’re excited about dating in the first three weeks of a great romance. Having tasted some of the struggle of life in the country, I can now see this harmonious, painless week for the privileged illusion it is. I am so glad to have had these two opportunities. The most beautiful sight in any setting has consistently been women in their sarees and salwars–that will be my final memory of the country.

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Awake, Dreaming the Taj Mahal

DreamTajThe Taj is a waking dream. It is a building on the shores of a river, in a specific town, but I think it functions better as an apparition and a dream. I couldn’t really enter the Taj (technically, yes, I visited its obscure heart, but it didn’t help me make sense of the experience), I could only see and relate to the Taj from a distance, from the outside. There are so many pictures of the Taj Mahal, it was steeped in my mind long before I went in person. Up close, it no longer made sense: I lost all perspective, all sense of scale; it swallowed me in its vastness. To encompass its beauty is to keep it far away, inapproachable, in that sense it is a great flirt, you want to come closer, but can’t. The real payoff is in the longing for the Taj, glimpsing it from afar. Maybe that’s why I particularly loved seeing the Taj Mahal from the vantage point of Agra’s Red Fort—the Taj beams beautifully in the distance, changing color with the light.

SideTajI don’t want to discourage Taj visitors. Going in person to see the Taj Mahal first thing in the morning is a great way to start the day because it keeps the night’s dreams alive. Seeing the Taj Mahal shapes the day into a silent dreaming space.  I had a delectable nap after my visit. I slept contented, filled with beauty and grand plans.

The Taj Mahal Quest

I have spent six weeks in India over two visits. I have never seen the Taj Mahal. In November 2011, I came to New Delhi and spent a week. The only day I had off from the conference I was running was a Friday. The only day of the week the Taj Mahal is closed is Friday. I spent my last day in India touring Delhi and saw many marvels.

No Taj Mahal, however. I came all the way to India and I did not see its most famous site (which was only a few hours away). Many of the attendees who came to my conference did see the Taj. I tried not to be bitter. I tried to tell myself this was fine. This was okay. I didn’t have to see the Taj Mahal just because I was in India. I’m sure lots of tourists who have been to Delhi haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. Right?

In the last two years, I have not met a single person who has seen the Taj Mahal who thinks it was anything less than amazing.  (I keep asking because I’m still trying to rationalize my prior failure.) I’m happy to say that my time has come.

I’m in India. In terms of Taj touring, I’m somewhat inconveniently situated in Kolkata. The monsoon is getting underway.  This weekend I will take a taxi to the airport at the pre-dawn crack, then take a plane, then a taxi to a train, then a taxi to the Taj or my hotel, depending. I will see the Taj Mahal. I hope to see it at sunset and again at sunrise.

When I went to buy my New Delhi to Agra train ticket at the Kokata Foreign Tourist Counter, I waited 1.5 hours on a sofa chair. I made friends with an Iranian scientist and has a speed round geopolitics chat. When number 43 was called out and I finally got to speak with the train booking gentlemen, they spent 20 minutes trying to convince me that I really wanted to take a bus (they did not sell bus tickets) instead of the train. I held firm. I wanted a ticket that said Agra. I wanted a ticket that guaranteed I would get to my target town on Saturday afternoon. I had to argue and plead. They disagreed with me repeatedly. I held firm. They finally gave in. I have a one way second-class train ticket! They would not sell me a ticket back to Delhi. They insisted I should take a bus–that buses were common and easy to find; that a bus would be more convenient. This remains to be sorted out. I don’t know if I can get back to Delhi and then Kolkata on Sunday (despite my plane ticket). But I do know I will see the Taj Mahal. Or at least I’m as moderately confident about it as I am about any other aspect of my life in India. Further updates to come. Wish me luck.