I write in restaurants. I find my corner, find the plug, choose the restaurant and the table where I am not taking up needed space, where I can hunker down and concentrate with just enough ambient noise to take me back to my roots of writing in the middle of a newsroom. I have my favorite spots around town. I know the nicest waiters and waitresses, the best cups of coffee, the places I can write through breakfast and lunch without taking up space for other customers and can get fed at the same time.
The routine also gives me access from time to time to interesting conversations. I am not a natural eavesdropper, but it is unavoidable when people sit nearby and talk as if I am invisible. People’s lives come together and fall apart in restaurants and sometimes in my presence. In Washington I have also overheard conversations I’m sure were meant to be confidential. It surprises me how one assumes a lone person ten feet away can’t hear just because she appears engaged in her work.
This morning I am in one of my favorite spots, big floor to ceiling windows, few people here but me this early, truly fresh squeezed orange juice (one of the reasons I come here). I plug in my computer; the waiters and waitresses know me well and bring decaf coffee and yogurt parfait, and I settle in for several hours work. But twenty feet away a meeting is going on around a big table, everyone perched on high stools leaning in. I am good at ignoring such talk, but I hear the word ISIS and then talk about their finances and other interesting international issues. As I’m setting up my work for the morning, I listen casually, wondering if this is a group of government employees strategizing in the open at this restaurant with good coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. Or is it a team from an NGO or a think tank, and then I hear the word “campaign.” And I know with a sinking feeling that the long campaign season has begun. Whose campaign? The name is never mentioned, but by the pronoun, it is not hard to guess.
Cherry blossom weekend has just ended in Washington when the trees all around town and around the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and on the Mall by the Lincoln Memorial have been in full pink and white bloom. It is officially the beginning of spring. Washington shines at this time. After the endless snows of winter this year, we are all ready for spring. But are we ready in spring, 2015 for the campaigns to launch for the next 18 months? I am not. But there is nothing to do but settle in. And I can assure you from the heart of the U.S. political universe, it is underway. The volunteers and staffers and strategists are on their high stools, developing policy and campaign positions which will soon be on the air waves. The U.S. Presidential political season has arrived. Alas.
The air is surprisingly cool for late August. I’m sitting on an upstairs porch looking out over the tops of trees in their full dress of summer greens—maples, magnolias, dogwoods with white blossoms. The branches and leaves sway and rustle in the breeze. Somewhere a wind chime answers the moving air with a light ting and ringing like a message in the near distance, signaling the change of seasons. Overhead, shifting faces of white clouds drift through a blue sky, sliced by faint streaks from the trail of a jet that has long since passed by.
In this moment before evening, before the shift in seasons and the rush of autumn, I can almost hear the earth singing. Harmonizing with the wind chimes are thousands of crickets exploding with sound then quieting and birds sweeping through the sky calling to each other. The rustle of the trees, the call of the birds, the chirping of the crickets, the swoosh of the breeze are like nature’s symphony–an unexpected summer moment on this quiet August afternoon.
I sit high enough off the ground to see the sunlight golden on the tree tops and also to see the trees dark green, almost black, where the sun has left and the afternoon shadows have spread. I look down on the roses in a neighbor’s garden and look out on the brick chimneys of other neighbors’ houses.
I’m aware of the different voices of nature around me, each communicating its renditions of life, none of them taking notice of who will run for President of the United States, or who will emerge in power in Libya and Syria, or how the markets will close.
A flock of birds suddenly swoops past talking loudly to each other. What do they see and say and know?
[This post was written late afternoon Aug. 22. At 1:50pm on Aug. 23 Washington, DC shook as a result of an unusual 5.9 earthquake. As I edit this, we await the arrival of Hurricane Irene, characterized as a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane. The locusts, we hope, will pass us by.]
I walked down to the river this afternoon. The winter sun was bright and low on the horizon; the air was chilled, but not cold. I sat with my legs dangling off a quay and watched two ducks swimming in the water, then waddling up onto the sandy bank, poking around, then slipping back into the river.
On the shore college and high school students were all over the waterfront—exercising, checking their equipment, getting ready to drop oars. Was this the first day of the season? It looked that way as sculls were unloaded at the public boathouse and coaches shouted, “Up…up…up!” so the students would hoist their boats high and avoid hitting anyone in their wide arced turns.
For the public, the boathouse was still closed. It won’t open until the water temperature reaches 55°, probably not for another month or maybe two. The single white rental sculls were out of storage, locked up on their racks, but the black Viking-sized sculls of the university and high school crews with names like Black Pearl that will hit the water first.
I fantasized for a moment if I were 18 whether I would row crew. That possibility didn’t exist when I was in high school in Texas and college in the Midwest. I don’t know how many women did row then. Today the fit young women–knees to their chests, legs crossed, doing their scrunches on the lawn–rise in unison and lift their giant scull above their heads and carry it to the water. In unison they step into the boat, position themselves and drop their oars into the cold Potomac.
I carry a different history in my head than these women, but I take this scene, along with the criminal case I’ve been mulling over during a month-long jury duty, and the novel I’m in the midst of writing, and I continue walking along the river. I try to knit thoughts together, to pull the universe inwards, to look for and listen to its beauty and harmony and through words to celebrate these, along with the coming of spring.
Being a writer is like having an itch you can never quite scratch. You may compose an elegant sentence, then a paragraph, perhaps a whole story, bring together what you see and think and feel. If you succeed, the story moves as it should; it arches, bends, then returns on itself with a sweet insight, a glimpse of beauty, a glimmering moment of understanding.
But the next day, sometimes the next hour, a whole new set of thoughts, feelings and perceptions awaken, and you start all over again.
As I leave the river, I note that the ducks have not returned; they have swum to another shore. The sun has slipped behind Roosevelt Island, and as the sky grows pink, the crews turn back towards the boathouse.
The next day clouds cover the sun, and the possibility of snow is rumored. Perhaps spring hasn’t arrived after all, but I have seen its signs. I know it is coming.
Summer has come with hot, steamy breath in Washington this year—already days nearing 100°. Even with the sudden flash of thunderstorms, the air clears only to steam up again. So much for my assurance to a newcomer that summer wasn’t so bad here, though maybe we will pay our dues in June and be rewarded with the summer breezes and cool evenings in July. August, we know, will be hot.
In the dog days it is a time to be indoors, or at least in the shade—biking along the Potomac or sculling on the river only early in the morning or as the sun is setting. Indoors or under the shade of a tree, it is a time to read.
Summer reading—the term brings back delicious childhood memories even of hot Texas summers where I would find a patch of shade in the back yard and lose myself in a book, or bike to a nearby pool and sit reading between laps, or curl up in a chair under the fan on the screened porch. I can still smell the mowed grass and the sweet fragrance of white gardenias on the bushes just outside.
As a departure for this blog, I thought I’d share my summer reading list and ask to know what you’re reading. I usually read before and after work, mainly on the back porch in the evening where it is light till nine and beyond. I know the sun is setting not only from the fading pink sky through the flowering apple trees but also from the bugle playing somewhere in the distance….perhaps at the Naval Observatory. I don’t know who faithfully heralds this rising and setting of the sun each day, but in the early morning if I’m in my rocker on the back porch, I can also hear a distant bugle welcoming the day.
My list this summer are books by friends and acquaintances—a list mostly of contemporary American women writers. In listing these, I am leaving out so many other strong voices of American women novelists, but these particular books have been stacked for a while on a shelf overflowing with books I’ve bought and wanted to read, many recently published, a few I’ve started, but reading was interrupted by other assignments. Even as I write these names, I’m thinking of the other friends and writers I’d like to list whose books I’ve read and whose next books I look forward to reading. But that is for another blog post. In the hope of finishing those I’ve started and starting and finishing the rest, and enjoying all, here is my summer list:
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna
Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children
Roxana Robinson’s Cost
Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come
Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress
C. M. Mayo’s The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire
Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Katharine Davis’ East Hope
Sarah Pekkanen’s The Opposite of Me
(The last five are recent books by Washington area novelists, a vibrant group of women.)
I would love to hear what you’re reading and recommending and to hear comments on any of these titles you’ve already read.
Finally I’d like to share a gift subscription to Poets and Writers Magazine if you are not already a subscriber. If you don’t know the publication, it is the magazine for poets, fiction writers and creative nonfiction writers, relied on by most writers I know as a valuable information source for the business of being a writer as well as for substantive articles on literature. The first 20 people who respond will get a free introductory subscription. Just click below with your comments and with a Yes to PW.
Happy summer reading!
Tiananmen Square and the Fourth of July
I live in a political town, probably the most political city in the US. Debate and policy forums run all day and all night. Any day of the week you can find and attend debates on what should be done about North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, China, the economy in general—interest rates, taxes, trade and monetary policy; the economy in specific–the automobile industry, the oil industry; U.S. domestic policy in general—state vs. federal; US domestic policy in specific–abortion, health care, gay marriage, public education.
Washington likes to talk. Everyone has an opinion about almost everything, and you can hear those opinions formally at the think tanks and forums around town, on the cable news and talk shows, or in the restaurants and cafes. In the evenings at the receptions, the book parties, the embassy parties, the talking continues.
At the center of all the debate and discussion are the legislators, the executives and the President who will make the decisions after the talking is done, or more often while it is still going on.
Washington, D.C. is a small town—only 591,000 people in the city itself, with 5.3 million in the metropolitan area. It is a beautiful city, full of grand marble and stone buildings, parks and trees, with no building higher than the Washington monument, so the city doesn’t dwarf its citizens. Washington has been called America’s Paris—smaller than Paris, but with some of the same grace of architecture and with a river running through it. The Potomac River wanders like a large friendly brown snake down the city’s spine. The Potomac isn’t an industrial waterway like the Hudson or East Rivers in New York which host ships and barges or even the Thames in London or the Seine in Paris. The Potomac moves slower through the District of Columbia, though up river, the water rushes in rapids and water falls.
Washington–this northern outpost of the South–remains gracious while its citizens still work at a pace; but they may also be jogging and rowing and biking along its grassy river banks, plugged into their books on tape or texting on their blackberries.
While the U.S. will celebrate its 233rd birthday on July 4, Washington, D.C. will celebrate its 219th birthday a few days later on July 16.
I originally set out to write a blog about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the student protest and subsequent massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4; however, having taken this detour into Washington, I will stay there and appreciate the ability to talk and talk and talk and debate. Even though the plethora of opinions can wear one down after a while, it is possible to turn off the TV, decline the forum invitations, take a discussion of a novel to the receptions and remain watchful and grateful that there are so many opinions, so many involved citizens and officials and so many diverse policies to choose from.