Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Sentence: China Dreams

Another Sunday in which I participate in the Sunday Sentence Project (#SundaySentence on Twitter)

"I sat on the floor [...] feeling unfathomably happy at having known a sad man, at having seen him smile, ..."

from China Dreams - Growing Up Jewish in Tientsin by Isabelle Maynard

I am enchanted by this book that I haven't even finished yet. This quote is from the story "Braverman, DP" and it is the best story I have read in a long time, and I read a lot.

I came upon this book by chance while browsing the memoirs published by the University of Iowa Press, and I fail to understand why this memoir has not become one of the stars in the memoir pantheon. It is the poignant story of the daughter of Russian Jews growing up in the Chinese port city of Tientsin (south of Beijing) in the 1930s and '40s. It is an excellent example of memoir written as a collection of stories, rather than as a cohesive narrative. Maynard presents beautifully wrought nonfiction stories, usually centered around a particular character, that bring that unique time and place to life: A city with foreign concessions and Jewish refuges living inbetween, its Chinese sections largely ignored, the Japanese occupation, Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II when suddenly all Western foreigners disappear, and then the need to flee again as the Communist Revolution in China gains force.

With each of her stories, Isabelle Maynard created a little monument for those characters, who tried to preserve their humanity, tried to survive, in an increasingly inhospitable place. She doesn't pay them homage with any nostalgia or sentimentality, but rather with sharply etched portraits, capturing an interaction, or a pivotal moment. To all this she brings the often funny interpretations of her child self, who tries to make sense of the confusing world of the adults that she nevertheless has to learn to navigate.

China Dreams is Isabelle Maynard's only published book, and I was saddened to learn that she has passed away since. I would have loved to write to her about her book and tell her how very moved I was by it, and how I hope her stunning writing will find more readers. And I would have wanted to thank her for writing it in the first place.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

One Year of Morning Pages

My stack of Morning Pages notebooks tells me that today, 4/8/14, is my one-year anniversary. That means one year of writing every weekday morning, stream of consciousness, by hand, in my notebook. I already wrote about the Gift of Morning Pages, so I'm not going to repeat myself here, but I do wonder what one year of this practice has brought me? Obviously it's become important to me or I wouldn't have made it a daily practice. So what is it?
Has my life improved because of Morning Pages? For sure. Writing in the morning, seeing my handwriting manifest itself on the page means I don't get lost in the hustle and bustle of my busy family life. I relish the daily ritual of being able to say, i.e. write, whatever I want. It's become a place to offload anger and disappointments and work out frustrations, and to celebrate accomplishments and joys. There, I can pat myself on the back as often as I want, or I can gripe about something as often as I want without anybody noting how petty I am. Plus, what Julia Cameron says is really true: Once you've written down your anger, it does dissipate, while a joy becomes augmented. Funny how that works.
Has my writing life improved because of Morning Pages? Definitely. I have been more productive. Last year I set myself the goal of one publication per month, and I met that easily. I'm also on track with that this year. The practice to tending to my writing every morning fosters that productivity, but my Morning Pages notebooks have also become the home of lists of ideas, tasks and accomplishments, and so that daily habit of checking in and leafing back through the pages once in a while to visit old ideas just helps in bringing more ideas to fruition.
Has my writing improved because of Morning Pages? I think so. Writing is about developing your own voice, and in writing Morning Pages, you are doing exactly that. You hear yourself. You dump the frustrations and excitements and then you can hear what's really there. If you're a nonfiction writer like me, it's even more important to hone in on your own vision, and to discard the clutter of all the other voices that bombard us every day. For me, Morning Pages are 30-45 minutes every morning of listening to myself. And that, in this busy and boisterous life of mine, is really a gift to myself.
So, far from being a daily chore, Morning Pages are a ritual I truly cherish, and I get antsy when something prevents me from sitting down on the couch with that first cup of coffee, cracking open that notebook and seeing where my pen will take me that morning. If you are doing Morning Pages, what have they done for you?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

When Guests Come... clean up. It's really one of the great benefits of having overnight guests or even just throwing a party: Suddenly you're compelled to tackle all those "construction sites" around the house, as my brother likes to call them.

We have a house guest coming this weekend, which meant the guest room had to be cleaned up. A load of cardboard boxes had accumulated there as my husband loves to save those. (The man grew up in them, see story here.) But we had also dumped the contents of the linen closet on the guest bed as we had other work done in the house, and so it was time to weed through those contents before putting them back. It felt good to get rid of torn linens (why do those ever go back in the closet?). I also sorted frayed and faded towels and linens into clear garment bags and set them aside for when my kids go to camp. If it weren't for that, I'd toss or donate them, but I figured out a while ago that those less than perfect sheets and towels are great for camp (see related blog post: What Goethe and Packing the Kids off to Summer Camp Have in Common). And now it feels even better to open the door to the linen closet and delight in orderly rows of contents and even a few empty shelves for when we have to retire our warmer blankets.

Oh, and I took the opportunity to finally install the new roller shades in the guest room. As I said, guests are a good thing, not only because it's fun to have a friend visit, but also because stuff finally gets done around the house. Makes me wonder what I do all those other days when I'm not mounting roller shades?