The Joy of Forgetting

Last week marked the four-year anniversary of my diagnosis of breast cancer. It also marked the first time I forgot about the anniversary. What a treat to forget!

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The diagnosis shattered me, fear swarmed like locusts, I became unsteady, I hardly spent a moment not thinking about illness and the betrayal I felt…how could my body have let this terrible thing happen when I am so vigilant? I had been my own private neighborhood watch committee, lording over my diet, my exercise, my life. And yet, it happened.

 

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Four years out, I don’t want to think or write about fear, betrayal, or breast cancer anymore. I want to write about healing. Because that’s what happened. I healed. Last July, we went on a five day rafting trip down the Snake River in Idaho and one afternoon as the sun angled low and the light on the tawny cliffs began to shift toward orange and then fade, I turned to my husband. “I feel like myself.”

 

And I did. That is not to say and hadn’t felt well, happy and engaged in life, but on that day I noticed that I’d returned to dwell in my body the way I had before breast cancer. I now feel less wary. I feel comfortable. I feel healthy. I’ve heard your body regenerates every 7 years or so, well I feel regenerated after 4. I don’t know if it’s possible and I’m not going to ruin the feeling by asking Siri.

 

img_7953Breast cancer used to drive my car, and then it was in the back seat, then in the trunk with duct tape over its mouth. Now, I’ve left it on the side of the road. One thing I that helped me make the shift was writing. At first, my fears took over, the diagnosis took over, and I had no capacity for introspection, for examination of what was happening to me. By writing through my experience, I went from a loss of self to a changed, stronger self. And, I can almost say I’m grateful.

 

 

In any case, here I am and though I didn’t mark the anniversary with the my usual Facebook post, I’ll post it here: Four years ago I was having a mammogram that led to an ultrasound, that led to the biopsy that led to the diagnosis, surgery, chemo, that led to right now, heading out my door for a walk in the park. So grateful to be healthy and energized. I won’t lie, part of me is still stunned, frightened…but that edge is ebbing away. Women reading this, if you’ve been putting it off, get a 3-D mammogram, and if you have any family history, ask for an ultrasound. Men reading this, encourage your partners, sisters, mothers, and daughters to get screened. #lovethisday

 

Northwest Narrative Medicine Conference

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I’m so happy to be a part of this conference coming up in a couple of weeks at OHSU. For those of you new to the concept of Narrative Medicine (and believe me, that was me until recently) it is growing movement that recognizes the value of people’s personal stories in health, healing and disease. It aims to treat patients and families as humans with individual stories, rather than simply symptoms displayed on a medical chart. In doing this, narrative medicine aims not only to validate the experience of the patient, but also to encourage humanism and self-reflection in health care providers and caregivers. Lucky me, I get to tell my story at the conference.  Meanwhile, you can get some ideas about the wonderful people involved in the conference by heading over to the Northwest Narrative Medicine website. There you’ll find all sorts of details and some great blog posts. Including one from me.

Talking and writing about our experiences with illness and health, about our bodies and our minds, reinforces the truth that none of us are our disease,

 

 

 

 

 

The Decisive Moment

The New York Times obituary for the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson crossed my desktop last week, at just the right moment. I’ve been struggling—with a story, with my novel, with an essay—and I’ve also been reading James Salter’s beautiful novel, Light Years. I recognized right away a kinship between Salter’s writing and Cartier-Bresson’s ideas and images.

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When Cartier-Bresson first picked up a tiny Leica 35mm film camera in 1931, he began a visual journey that would revolutionize 20th-century photography.

His camera could be wielded so discreetly that it enabled him to photograph while being virtually unseen by others — a near invisibility that turned photojournalism into a primary source of information and photography into a recognized art form.

Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the “decisive moment” — a split second that reveals the larger truth of a situation — shaped modern street photography and set the stage for hundreds of photojournalists to bring the world into living rooms through magazines such as Life and Look.

His signature shooting technique was to find a visually arresting setting for a photograph and then patiently wait for that decisive moment to unfurl.

 

I love this gift of “the decisive moment.” Sometimes Cartier-Bresson took only 3 or 4 images in an hour. His patience and vision were not in the service of an epiphany. His decisive moments were not bell clangs of sudden understanding, but instead moments of absolute clarity, distillations of time and place and people so true the image speaks of life beyond its frame. A notion similar to what the wonderful writer, Alison Lurie, has to say about fiction writing:

The only reason for writing fiction at all is to combine a number of different observations at the point where they overlap.  If you already have one perfect example…you might as well write nonfiction.  Indeed, you should…

But ordinarily you don’t have a single perfect example. Instead, over the years you’ve noticed, say, something about the way children behave at their own birthday parties, but none of your examples is complete in itself.  So you invent a children’s party which never took place, but is ‘realer’ in the Platonic sense than any you ever attended.  Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice.

My story, about a woman in the pangs of middle age, a time when one begins to see the end in the distance, when family stretches away (sometimes with violence and sometimes with grace), when bodies start to fail, and marriages realign, was not hitting that Cartier-Bresson decisive moment. Sure, it’s full of scenes, the hospital, the dinner table, a long drive, but I haven’t yet found the moment. Consider this from Salter’s, Light Years.

9780679740735Pure, empty days. The sea is sliver, rough as bark. Hadji has dug a hollow in which he lies, eyes narrowed, bits of sand stuck to his mouth. He always faces the sea. Franca has a black tank suit. Her limbs are shining and strong. She is afraid of the waves. Danny is more courageous. She goes out in the surf with her father; they scream and ride on their bellies. Franca joins them. The dog is barking on the shore.

                  That whistle of the sea in the long afternoon, the great beds of brown foam, of kelp brought up by the storms, the mussels, the whitened boards. To the west it is steaming, a long, brilliant stretch as if in rain. In the dunes Franca has found the dry husk of a beetle. She brings it, quivering in her hand, to Viri. It has a kind of single horn.

                  “Look, Papa.”

                  “It’s a rhinoceros beetle,” he tells her.

                  “Mama!” she cries. “Look! A rhinoceros beetle!”

                  She is nine. Danny is seven. These years are endless, but they cannot be remembered.

 

The scene makes my eyes sting. It’s so beautiful and vivid. Look at the precision of the sensory details, the sea is “rough as bark,” the dog has sand “stuck to his mouth,” they ride the waves “on their bellies.” And then there is the long vision of the distant storm that takes us away from the family out into the world only to return to the “husk of the beetle,” and the children, uniting the family wth their cries, “Mama!” “Look, Papa.” I feel so lucky to read these pages. I feel so lucky (and daunted) that I get to try to make the family in my story as true. As real.

Summer Workshops

Dear Ones,

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I’m recently back from teaching in beautiful and warm Squaw Valley. I was lucky to be invited to participate in the Community of Writers where I led workshops, listened to terrific and insightful panels and talks, learned and laughed with a lot of talented smarties. My students put up manuscripts with stakes, heart, humor and pain. Yup. Pain at the center. Pain, the common denominator. Pain, the unifier. They read each other’s pages with generosity and careful intensity. There’s a beautiful alchemy that occurs when twelve people sit around a table, talking about writing, sharing their inner lives. Everyone has the right to be a little nervous. Everyone has the right to wonder. Everyone has the right to be heard. Everyone has the right to use their voice, their humor, details from their world that crack open the doors to all our resilient hearts.

 

 

A value add from being with so many writers? A new to be read list:

 

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Some quotes from the week:

“Laughter is a carbonated form of holiness.” –Anne Lamott

“Make them laugh and break their fucking hearts.” –Matt Sumell

“Reading is experiential. The writing shouldn’t have to write toward a point.” –Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

“Where is the juice? How much pressure did you put on the character to illicit vitality and emotion?” –Elizabeth Tallent

“Perfection sucks.” –Elizabeth Tallent

“Weather is not a decoration. Your story must earn the weather.” –Ron Carlson

“Write towards the moment you can no longer touch bottom.” –Ron Carlson

 

I’m grateful to have participated and happy that it’s nearly autumn and I’ll be sitting around more tables with more writers.

happy writing, happy reading!

Big Love,

xN

Dinner & A Story

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STORY:

 

One Saturday Morning, by Tessa Hadley.

What I love most about this story is the tender and tentative nature of the main character, Carrie, home alone on a Saturday morning, practicing the piano, when an old family friend knocks on the door, bringing his particular tragedy into the family’s day. Being an American weaned on the violence and conquest of American movies and novels and life, I worried for Carrie’s safety, alone in the house with this man, Dom, while her parents are grocery shopping. Carrie feels awkward and out of place so she flees upstairs to spy on the visitor from afar. In fact, Carrie does a lot of viewing from afar and thus her understanding of adult situations is often skewed. Upon her parents return she is excited and happy to be presenting the visitor to them.

…her mother turned on the coffee percolator and unpacked the perishables into the fridge. The grownups sat down around the kitchen table to drink their coffee, and Carrie pulled up a stool to sit beside her mother, delighted with Dom’s presence now, as if it were her own achievement.

Hadley completely immerses us in a particular time and place. Immediately, with the first paragraph and the descriptions of the family home, I’m engaged. The writer Eudora Welty, in her essay “Place in Fiction,” says, “The moment the place in which the story or novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.”

The setting is so vivid, the home so comfortable and sloppy, I believe everything else that is to come. Consider this description from the opening:

Carrie shuddered; it was still cool indoors and she wished she had her cardigan on. This room at the front of the house was always dark, because of the horse-chestnut trees outside the window. They called it the dining room, though they used it for dining only on special occasions, or when her mother had a dinner party; mostly, they watched television in here. A dinner party was planned, in fact, for that night, and the room seemed braced in anticipation: the notes Carrie played fell into an alert silence.

The house, it seems, is an extension of Carrie herself, who spends much of the story in alert, anticipatory silence. Dom brings his particular sorrow and tragedy into the home and Carrie watches her parents adapt, absorb and offer whatever consolation and comfort they can.

 

 

DINNER:

 

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Herb Crusted Salmon:
Serves 2

¾ lb salmon fillet/skin on
5-6 Tbs herb rub – my favorite:
2 Tbs smoky paprika
2 Tbs dried thyme
2 tsp pepper flakes
Maldon salt flakes to taste
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 425.

Slice salmon fillet into individual servings. Apply liberal amount of herbs to flesh side of fish. Over medium high flame, heat a generous pour of oil (enough to coat the surface) in cast iron pan until shimmering. Place fish, flesh side down in pan and do not move for several minutes. You want the herbs to form a nice crust on the flesh. When you see the flesh turning from bright pink to a more opaque shade, up the side of each fillet, maybe ½ an inch or so (roughly 3 minutes), swiftly slide a spatula beneath the fillet and flip.

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Place pan in hot oven and continue cooking for 4-6 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillet and your desired doneness. When cooking is complete, remove pan, slide spatula between the skin and the flesh of each fillet. The skin should adhere to the pan, leaving a nice clean piece of fish to plate.

A squeeze of lemon and a parsley garnish are all you need.

To accompany our meal I served quinoa tabbouleh and broccolini I tossed with olive oil, salt, and red pepper flakes, then roasted on a cookie sheet beside the fish. Not a complicated meal, but certainly a delicious one. Happy Summer!!

Late Night Conversation

Friends!

I’m so happy to tell you about a podcast conversation I had with my good friend, the fine writer, Justin Hocking.  You all know Justin (or else you’re in for a big treat as you get to know Justin and his work!) from his amazing book, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, NPR said of Justin’s book: “Funny and heartbreaking. . . Hocking’s memoir is a masterful work of confusion and clarity, of obsession and letting go.”  He won the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-fiction and was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

 

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For Late Night Conversation, one of the podcasts from Late Night Library, Justin and I sat across from one another in the Rye Room. We had an intimate conversation about my memoir, Community Chest, about writing, friendship, vulnerability, cancer, how to write cool when the emotion is intense, and, of course, humor.

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A few quotes from our conversation:

About being bald and afraid: “I felt this strange amount of shame…how could I have dropped the ball and gotten cancer?….I just wanted to pass. I had a quarter inch of hair at that point.”

 

About being real on the page: “When you expose your vulnerability you connect with people. Everybody has a soft underbelly.”

Please, head on over to Late Night Library and give a listen.

 

 

 

Dinner & A Story

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STORY:

 

Oh, how I love the clear, straight ahead sentences in Nell Freudenberger’s terrific short story, Hover, collected in the 2014 Best American Short Stories. Hover is the story of a newly divorced woman, mother of 4-year-old Jack D., who is barely hanging on. She follows the “rules” of the newly separated, trying to make the transition as seamless and painless as possible for her boy. The parents and boy have dinner together each time he transitions from one home to the other. They explain everything and plan on giving him calendars so he can visualize his schedule. When Jack  becomes obsessed with death, she tells him he won’t die for at least 100 years (an answer she’s practiced) and, she lets him choose his own comfort toy from the grocery store, in his case, a bag of King Arthur flour, which he sleeps with and carries everywhere, including to school. The flour appearing at school just about sends Jack’s dad, Drew, over the edge:

       “Jesus,” he said, and used my name, which he never does. “Why the fuck do you let him do that?” 
       “Because he wants to. And I didn’t want him to feel embarrassed about it.”
       “You’re supposed to feel embarrassed about things that are embarrassing! How else do you learn?”
       “Learn what?”
       “What’s embarrassing!” Drew sighed, as if someone had just sent him a big assignment that hadn’t previously been part of his workload. 

This mother/ex-wife/writer struggles in her rut of uncertainty and malaise and sorrow. You can feel it in her overindulgent actions toward her boy, and in her observations. Near the start of the story she stares out her window down upon a flat roof, “where the wind rolls a basketball, bleached white, back and forth across a damp depression in the tar paper.”  You can also see her wavering existence manifest in her sudden ability to hover, just a little bit, inches above the ground, and only when she’s “doing mom stuff,” cooking, tying a shoe, sitting in a parent/teacher meeting. This narrator has a very tenuous hold on her life.

As with any great story, the problem in Hover also becomes part of the resolution. Barely hanging on turns out to be just the solution she and her boy need. Near the end, in a beautiful moment on the playground, time slows, we see “brilliant needles of light,” we smell the cedar play structure, we hear the characters breathing, and just for a moment, barely hanging on becomes a gift.

Find an excerpt from the story here.

 

 

DINNER:

 

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Sometimes we’re all just barely hanging on, and for those nights, I give you pie for dinner. You’re welcome!!

Shelby’s Mom’s Pumpkin Pie (modified)

15 oz pumpkin
1/3 cup brown sugar
4 T molasses
1/4 t ground cloves
1-1/2 t cinnamon
1-1/2 t ground ginger
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup 1/2 & 1/2
unbaked 9″ pie shell

Mix ingredients in the order given. Pour into unbaked 9″ pie shell. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 45 minutes longer, or until set.

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Treat yourself, go find Freudenberger’s story, make a pie, pour a glass of wine, steal some time to sit and read.

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STORY:

 

I always tell my writing students to make a bold entrance with their stories, capture the reader’s attention, invite curiosity. Consider the first line from “Love Is Not A Pie,” this month’s story by Amy Bloom,  from her collection, Come To Me.

In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding.

 

Bang! I’m in. Funeral and wedding, boring and heartbreaking, this is a narrator with a story I want to hear. Bloom moves us from the funeral to the house for the mourners to gather and then back in time to an idyllic summer at this family’s lakeside cabin in Maine. She captures the easy elegance of the lost mother, the heart of this family, who’s summer outfit is a black swimsuit, who makes sangria on rainy days and has three simple rules of summer: “Don’t eat food with mold or insects on it; don’t swim alone; don’t even think of waking your mother before 8:00 A.M. unless you are fatally injured or ill.”

 

The vacation unfurls with lake swims and romps in the woods, family friends come to stay, Mr. DeCuervo and his daughter, who blend with the family beautifully. Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin play on the stereo, and the narrator, Ellen, notices something different about the relationships between the three grownups. When everyone dances together in the living room, her mother and father dance goofily, but between Mr. DeCuervo and her mother there is intimacy and beauty in their movements. Later, Ellen, catches her mother embracing Mr. DeCuervo in the night, her hand beneath his white t-shirt, and she is curious, uncertain. Before the summer’s end, the daughter glimpses something in her parent’s bedroom and again, doesn’t quite know what to make of the adult’s behavior. Time moves seamlessly forward, back to the mourners where Ellen and her sister discuss that summer at the cabin, their mother’s slow demise, and her relationship with the two men. As much as I want to talk about this with you, to say more…I’m holding back.  All you need to know is that this story explores the huge capacity of our hearts.

 

When the mother is dying, she has a conversation with her daughter Lizzie, who wonders about Mr. DeCuervo.  The mother says, “Love is not a pie, honey.” She goes on to explain that she loves people differently, her two men, her two daughters.  “And when the two of them are in the same room together and you two girls are with us, I know that I am living in a state of grace.”  After you’ve read, “Love Is Not A Pie,” and PLEASE, do yourself a favor and read this beautiful story, talk to me in the comments below.

 

DINNER:

 

How to match the grace of this mother and the big heart of this story? With a galette of course, almost a pie, but more forgiving, more generous. It comes to the table with its free form elegance, the tender crust offering homey comfort for the sweet and savory. I was delighted to find two wonderful galette recipes in the New York Times and I made them both with a few modifications.

 

For the Summer Vegetable Galette, I replaced the white flour with buckwheat flour with terrific results. I used all the vegetables they recommended in the recipe, though you could easily switch things around as the seasons change.  I imagine a very delicious Autumn Vegetable Galette with butternut squash and chantrelles and a sprinkle of blue cheese.

 

 

 

Peaches, nectarines and chester berries filled my Fruit Galette. I omitted the sugar, replaced the cream with maple syrup, used whole wheat pastry flour in place of white. And, I substituted 1/3 cup of the flour with 1/3 cup of ground walnuts. Delicious!

 

 

 

 

All you need to complete the meal, lightly dressed salad greens, and someone you love. (It helps if the someone you love, loves to eat and lets you know it!) In honor of Lila, the mother in the story, I’d suggest serving Sangria.  Happy reading, happy eating and happy end of summer.