friendship


I just realized I’ve spent practically an entire month away from this blog that I truly do love writing…and I can’t for the life of me remember why I haven’t even stopped by to dust the place off, sweep away some of the cobwebs, and open the windows and let the air in.

Oh, wait. I know. I’ve been in recovery from writing a novel. Rehabbing, as it were. I cleaned the house, started washing dishes again, threw out a bunch of things I was sick of having around me, and did practical things like the taxes and the FAFSA (the student aid application…trust me, you don’t want to know)…and then I went to Florida to visit with my stepmother.

She and I have no right to love each other as much as we do. She was my father’s childhood sweetheart, and he probably would have married her except that one day when he was 21 and she was 20, they had a lovers’ spat. In the only impulsive act he ever did in his life, he packed his suitcase and took off for another city, where he got a job as a civil engineer and waited to see what life was going to serve up to him before he went back to Helen.

But–and in the movie of his life, the ominous music would play here–life had other plans for him. When he rang the doorbell at a boarding house where he hoped to rent a room, the front door was opened by my mother. He later told me that he’d never known anyone who painted her toenails before. She later told me she’d never met anybody so handsome and so lacking in confidence.

They got married five months later, and I was born ten months after THAT.

Thirteen years and three children later, they had a bitter divorce…and after a time, my father found his way back to Helen and spent a very happy twenty years with her, before he died of kidney cancer in 1989.

My mother considered Helen her sworn enemy, and for the rest of her life, I had to hide the fact that Helen and I had long, meandering, wonderful conversations about love, writing, creativity, God, children, politics; that sometimes we would get on the phone and three hours would pass in the blink of a minute. Sometimes, for days after one of these long talks, I walk around speaking to Helen in my head, arguing, showing, explaining.

And so last week I went to see her. She is frail now and has trouble walking. She has Crohn’s disease and there are very few foods she can eat without her stomach (she calls it “The Boss”) giving her fits, so we don’t eat much. We sit on her screened porch, surrounded by azaleas and impatiens and roses, and we talk and talk and talk. We need a flow chart to keep track of all the conversations we are having simultaneously.

We have lost many, many people between us, so many that we think of ourselves as survivors. She tells me about her childhood, I tell her about mine. We talk about love and writing and friendships and the reasons that we stayed friends even though we might never have discovered what was good about each other.

She asked me what it feels like, writing a novel and trying to hold these ideas in my head, and how do I know when it’s right, and what keeps me from going crazy with the sheer uncertainty of it all? And I, having just finished writing my novel–and having just gotten the reassuring news that my editor LOVES it–was so full of myself, saying how FUN it is, and how the words just COME OUT, that they can’t be stopped. I heard myself saying all these things, saw myself forgetting that a video of the last few months would instead show me walking hunched over, brow furrowed, eyes staring blankly in space, spending my days pacing in Starbucks with not a plan in my head, and then jumping out of bed in the middle of the night and feverishly writing until the sun came up.

Isn’t it funny, how one mood doesn’t remember the other? How we go through such times and then say of them, “Oh, it was GREAT. I LOVE writing a novel!”

I didn’t email much while I was in Florida, but a friend sent me this link to a talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love…and in it, Gilbert says everything I wish I could have said about that state we go through when we create something: the panic, the fear, and the moments of feeling as though we have been touched by something divine, something that we secretly know has nothing whatsoever to do with us.

Take 20 minutes and stretch out and watch it. You’ll be so glad you did. Not only is the message so reassuring, but the quality of her voice alone is enough to calm your nerves.

Yes, that’s right. BlogLily invited me over to her blog, where, I’m pleased to say, things are much tidier and more delightful than they ever are around here. Her blog never has the thick layer of dust that mine seems to be gathering here in the dog days of August.

If you haven’t been to see her before, let me just tell you that she writes such thoughtful, beautiful posts on all kinds of subjects, including letting us all have a peek into her writing-and-submitting-stories-for-publication life. She is unfailingly funny and kind–just the type of person you want to have in your life in the hopes that some of that humor and kindness can rub off on you.

And I’m so pleased to be a part of her new “Author, Author” series.

Here’s the link: http://bloglily.com/2008/08/13/author-author-sandi-shelton/ .

This is me, in visiting mode.

It is summer, and despite the fact that airlines are charging passengers now for the oxygen they breathe and for the right to sit squished into a seat, thank goodness people are still getting on planes and flying around the country.

Two weeks ago, Bloglily, whom I only know from reading her very delightful blog, came to the Northeast on vacation, and we spent a day sitting in Atticus Bookstore near Yale, eating lunch and talking as though we had known each other all our lives. It was a little bit like a blind date–going off to meet after only knowing each other through our written words, but within exactly five seconds of meeting her, I knew we were BFFs. We told each other our life stories…and then we told the stories in the books we’re writing, and then she effortlessly solved at least 13 plot problems I’m having with the novel I’m trying to finish, and then we walked around the town and talked some more. (The hardest part was learning to think of her name as Lily, when to me, she’s always going to be Bloglily.)

Then this week my cousin Jennifer popped in, having gone away to California some four years ago and not managing to get back until now. (Well, okay, she did come back for her grandfather’s funeral that one time, but it was a sad occasion, not conducive to the kind of shenanigans that Jennifer and I used to partake in on a regular basis when she lived in Boston and would come down to visit us for weekends and then forget to go back home.) I could describe all the shenanigans for you, but most of them don’t translate well because they involve laughing so hard that tea would come out of our noses. But suffice it to say that Jennifer, who is the daughter of my late uncle, who was a fabulous hippie rock star back in the 60s–did what a lot of flower children’s children did when they grew up: tried to find sanity in her life by becoming part of Corporate America. She used to dress in suits and pantyhose and go to work for uptight law firms in Boston, where they made her miserable and sad.

Those were the days when she would come to our house, where the standards are decidedly low. We cooked tons of food, listened to the rock star’s old music (except for the times it made us too sad, since he had died by then), and played Double and Triple and even Octuple Solitaire on the living room floor, dragging in whoever we could to make them play with us. We sat up late talking and dancing and singing and trying to figure out her life…and then one day she came for a visit and said she was ready to quit her job and take her chances moving across country, where some friends had suggested she come and join them.

It was the right thing to do, even though it made us crazy to say goodbye. So she left four years ago, and now she has a fun job and tons of friends, and a great place to live, with hiking trails nearby, and a GUY. I don’t think she even owns a pair of pantyhose anymore.  She doesn’t think that playing Double Solitaire with me is the pinnacle of happiness anymore, which is probaby a good thing over all.

Here we are together on the morning that she was ready to leave, when we finally realized we needed to somehow commemorate our visit by taking an actual photograph.  To see us together, you would never know that we are related, but the truth is that we share the same grandmother, and Jennifer has our grandmother’s laugh and her great boobs, and I’ve got her hair color but that came out of a bottle. And maybe a little bit, we both have her smile.

Next month, the airlines are going to bring my friend Diane and her daughter Maisie…and I have about 150 pages of novel to write by then so that I can play without guilt.   

I’ve been home from paradise for three days now, and I’m still peaceful.

Amazing.

But allow me to explain. A friend of mine turned 50, and instead of just turning to drink and despair as so many of us do at such a milestone, she decided to invite friends of hers to a four-day celebration at a destination spa here in Connecticut.

It was snowing lightly when we set out at the beginning of last week. I was frantic with To Do lists, uncertainties, anxieties and all the rest of that stuff that I carry around most of the time. (I know that good writing demands that I should mention what some of the anxieties are, but to tell you the truth, I can’t much remember them anymore.) I do remember that I barely got out of the house on time to meet the car that pulled up in my driveway to take me there, and that papers and books were flying behind me as I settled in.

But then we drove for an hour and a half through the Connecticut countryside, and then something almost surreal happened. I got there and actually felt an incredible calm come over me.

At first the calm seemed to come from the beauty of the place: huge, welcoming rooms with deep, white chaise longues and soft, knitted afghans. There were floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over snowy fields and a pond lined with evergreen trees draped with snow, and an almost blue, calm sunset shining glowing. There were fresh flowers. Cups of tea, with little triangle silk tea bags and white china cups. Soft music. (I am a sucker for silk tea bags and fresh flowers. And those, combined with a sunset over a snowy field, knock me the hell out…and add to that a chaise with an afghan, and I’m gone, just GONE.)

Everything just felt soft suddenly. As though I’d come to the place where I was meant to be right then.

And then I met the other women, and I realized over the four days that the best part was NOT the perfection of the rooms, the amazing food, or even the wonderful massage treatments and classes in stress relief and hypnotherapy. The best part was the fact that there were 30 women there, all of whom were kind and fascinating and funny and REAL.

Over the four days, we all wore warmup clothing supplied by the spa, and no makeup. And we talked, in both large and small groups, over meals and tucked into corners of the spa and while we swam in the pool or steamed in the warm aromatherapy room. Talked about husbands and kids and jobs and childhood and aging and…well, everything. Real estate. Politics and sex and anxieties. The past. The future. What we’d like to do. We laughed and drank wine and tea and ate amazing food (healthy and delicious, both), and nobody said mean things like, “What did you mean by THAT?” or “Let me tell you why I’m the most important person in the universe.”

Nobody said, “You could really stand to lose a few pounds” or “Why would you ever wear your hair that way?” like sometimes they slip up and say back in real life. 

Everywhere was peace and quiet, an indescribable feeling of having come to the perfect place. It wasn’t like not knowing there weren’t worries; it was the feeling of standing aside from them and knowing they couldn’t swamp you.

The days loped along. I did things I hadn’t done before, drifted in a kind of shelter of myself. And then one day it was time to come home.

I thought coming home would be a shock, but it wasn’t. Maybe I’m just unwilling to give up this feeling. Nothing seems worth giving over this happiness.

Maybe I’m still hypnotized into believing that life can be sweet. Just in case, though, I picked up a little rock I found on the ground outside the place, tucked under the snow. When this blissful feeling starts to wear off, I’m thinking I can hold this little rock and remember some of the feeling.

Or maybe I’ll just go buy some tea in little triangle silk tea bags. That could work, too.   

Recently I posted a picture of the corner of my living room where I write. Mostly.

Of course sometimes–like now–I have my laptop in the kitchen and I am perched on an uncomfortable kitchen stool while I write this. (Writing on an uncomfortable surface can make one hurry up, and I do want to finish in time to see “The Daily Show.”)

One day I tried to take my laptop into my bed to work, but the predictable thing happened: my legs went to sleep, and then I did, too.

In my history as a writer, I have written–with various degrees of success–at Starbucks, McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, Cilantro’s Coffee Shop, the Saturn dealership, and the place where I get my oil changed.

And then last week I got invited to go along with a friend’s writing group to somebody else’s living room for a writing day…and now I have discovered Writing Nirvana. It turns out that writing at somebody else’s house is just the perfect solution. People are always asking me why I can’t just settle down and write at home, and although sometimes it is true that actual sentences and even chapters have been formed at my own house, there are factors at home that can make it difficult. They are: the dog; the dust bunnies wheeling throughout the house, calling out to be vacuumed; the telephone; the internet; and the fact that there is a bathtub with running water beckoning from just two rooms away.

At somebody else’s house, there are still all those things present–and yet, and yet…you don’t have to be responsible for any of them. Other people’s dogs don’t come and put their dejected little heads on your computer and give you pleading looks until you get up and give them carrots. Other people’s dogs don’t even shed like your own unkempt, unbrushed (for weeks now) dog. Other people’s dust bunnies are gone before you arrive. And if the phone rings–you just keep your head down and keep working. It is not, trust me on this, your mother calling to ask you why you never call her.

And no matter how comfortable I get at somebody else’s house, I am unlikely to ask permission to take a bath.

So for two days recently I have been working with others in somebody else’s living room. We all bring our own lunches and don’t even stop working to eat together. When you get hungry, or bored, or in need of a good pacing, you just walk yourself to the kitchen, pour another cup of tea, cut a slice of bread, or munch on grapes. The house–even with five writers in it–is quiet and calm.

And, the way other people’s houses are, it is oh, so clean and perfect. 

Best of all, you hear the steady tapping of keys. The muse is standing in the kitchen, and she gently leads you back to your work. Sit here, child. No, you’re not going to ask to take  a hot bath. Turn on your computer again and get back to page 176. There, you can do it.

Well, it’s almost Oscar Night, and I am so not ready.

This year I’m not even sure which movies have been nominated for which awards, much less who should win–and I still have to get the ballots printed up, cook the chili, and vacuum the dog hair out of the family room so there’s enough room for people to sit down without having to push a golden retriever tumbleweed out of the way.

We have to be ready for the Oscar Party, after all.

This is a party that started up, without our permission, mind you, about twelve years ago, when we were beset with friends simply arriving on Oscar Night, waving ballots at us and insisting on sitting on our couches. No, no, turn the TV in this direction. I can’t see well enough. No! I want the arm chair–you sit on the floor.

We were flattered, make no mistake. When people claim that your family room is the Only Good Place for Watching the Oscars, what are you supposed to do? Say you’re too busy?

Deb was the main perpetrator: one year I discovered that she’d actually sent out invitations and had bought little prizes for the winners in each category (okay, so they were Christmas presents she’d been given that she didn’t like, but they were still prizes). My cousin Jennifer also showed up from Boston, armed with movie trade magazines and piles of reviews of movies she’d been studying. Diane, who was having a long-distance relationship with a sitcom writer in L.A., would show up filled with insider information–and the three of them, along with my kids and husband and me, would puzzle over our Oscar ballots as if the fate of the free world depended on the outcome.

Over the years there have been different casts of characters who attended. We auditioned participants, depending on if they could meet our stringent requirements, which were:

  • You have to watch the Joan Rivers portion of the show and have passionate opinions about hairstyles and gowns.
  • It helps if you have cultivated a few tidbits of insider information you can dispense throughout the evening. (This is like that portion of Hardball, when Chris Matthews turns to his guests for the segment called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” and it is highly competitive.)
  • You must not actually want to watch the actual Oscars as much as be in the mood to scream and yell and jump up and down, throwing balled up Kleenexes at the television set and falling to your knees when something weird happens, like the night that guy climbed over the seats to go up and accept his award. (We have lost a lot of people over the years who thought they were being invited to actually watch the Oscars with us, and then were horrified when we wouldn’t shut up.) (We can’t. We have no control over ourselves.)
  • The person scoring the ballots has complete jurisdiction, and just like in Florida and Ohio, ambiguously marked ballots will be disqualified (although whining can sometimes have a good effect).
  • There is no requirement for actually seeing any of the movies. We learned that lesson when 6-year-old Stephanie voted the straight Babe ticket back in 1995, and ended up winning far more categories than any of the rest of us, despite the fact that we’d seen all the movies, read endless Vanity Fair pieces, subscribed to Entertainment Weekly, and actually studied the probabilities for months ahead of time.

This year, Diane and Jennifer are both living in California, Stephanie has gone to college, and two others aren’t sure they’re going to make it. It might be just Deb and me watching and screaming and throwing Kleenexes at the television.

If I’d hoped that meant it was going to be less competitive, I was sadly mistaken. Today she called from her cell phone, demanding to know who I was voting for in the Best Sound category. I told her I had no idea.

Really? she said. There is one movie that she felt was head and shoulders ahead in sound, and surely that was going to win, only she can’t remember the title. Then she went on about Martin Scorcese and Queen Elizabeth and on and on…

I finally had to break it to her. “I saw one movie, and I’m going for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ all the way.”

There was a long silence and then she said: “Are you crazy? That doesn’t have a chance in the world.”

Yeah, but that’s what she said about “Babe,” too.

Is there anything better than waking up one morning and getting to read about a friend in the New York Time Style section–and then also getting to see photos of her house?

I don’t think so.

My friend Mary used to live three miles away from me, but now she lives in Eastport, Maine, where, under the pseudonym Sarah Graves, she writes the most wonderful, funny, suspenseful and fascinating mysteries. (They’re called the “Home Repair is Homicide” mysteries, and here is her website so you can see them for yourself.) The heroine is Jake Tiptree, a transplanted Wall Street business type, who coincidentally also relocated to Eastport, Maine, and who, like Mary and her husband John, is constantly doing home repair.

As the New York Times put it, a lot of the details Sarah Graves’s novels tell the truth about Eastport–it’s just that the murder rate isn’t really so high.

These books will keep you on the edge of your seat, I promise you…and, in the process, you’ll also learn a lot about getting the squeaks out of your wooden floors, and even how to hang a window.

And, oh yeah, what to do when you find a corpse in your basement.

But first–if you want to read a fun story, check out “In Writing, As in Murder, A Hammer is So Handy.”


I’ve always felt there’s a reason they don’t let February have as many days as other months. It  misbehaves so badly that we just have to get through it as quickly as possible, and get on with March, when at least there are daffodils.

We have had a February of crises, both minor and major, involving all the deep inevitabilities of life: death, taxes, water, wind, ice, blood and fire. It has been a little like being in an epic movie. There was a point when my husband looked over at me and said, “We’ve had so many bad things lately that we think we’re having a good day when there are only one or two horrible things that happen.”

February, I said to him. It’s like this every year.

But–dare I say this?–life has momentarily stopped throwing hardballs at us. The heater is fixed, the toilet works again, the taxes are done, the driveway ice has been chipped away, and the dog’s bloody paw has healed.

We even have water again in our well, which is lovely–it only occasionally now throws a whole handful of sediment into our bathtub, and, frankly, we’re learning to appreciate the exfoliating properties of gravel, which are often overlooked. Our skin is going to be so soft come springtime.

I do have to say, though, as nice as it is to take a bath at home, it was sort of companionly and fun going to friends’ houses to shower. How often, after all, do you get to go visit people before they leave for work in the morning? You really get to appreciate how organized your friends are when you see them first thing in the morning. I find morning mostly to be the time of day when I am at my most harried and forgetful, but I have vowed to turn over a new leaf. I have learned this week that there are people who do not every day run out of the door sloshing their tea all over themselves, then running back because they can’t find their keys, or they just remembered they need to get a phone number off the caller ID, or they realized their shoes don’t match.

I’ve actually seen people leave for work who have not only eaten breakfast, but they’ve done the breakfast dishes, swept the floor, done a load of laundry–and I can’t be sure of this, but I do believe they’d even put out food to thaw for dinner.  

Anyway, February is on the run. Yesterday ice stopped falling from the sky, and the sun came out. My editor called to say that the paperback of A Piece of Normal has been selected by Target as one of their Bookmarked books and will appear in a special rack in the store. A website for working moms, called Work It, linked to my blog, which made me so happy because their stuff is so funny and so necessary out there in the world. And my blogosphere friend, BlogLily, is well again and has even learned how to do a podcast, in which she reads a wonderful Billy Collins poem and her child sings a song about elephants in French. And oh yes–she recommended my book! I was over the moon.

And–I’ve gone back to work on my novel, in earnest now–my characters understand that there is to be no more fooling around and no more procrastination…and well, spring is going to be great.

The British have named January 24 the most depressing day of the year, but I say they may have gotten it off by just a week. This year, from my point of view, nothing can beat out January 31 for a sad day.

That’s the day we lost both Molly Ivins and Bill Meade.

Molly you probably know about. Tributes to her writing and her scathing liberal wit have been everywhere in the press lately. She deliciously made fun of the rich, the powerful, and the Texas legislature. My favorite is a description she once gave of one of the legislators of whom she said, “If you put his brains in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards.” And of another one that “if that man’s IQ slips any further, we’ll have to water him twice a day.” 

Bill Meade, however, you might not have known. He was a family man, a father of three, and a husband. An ordinary guy, except somehow not so ordinary. He loved music and poetry. He read Thich Nhat Hanh and Reader’s Digest, both. He believed in helping people. He worked hard for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. After retirement, he worked as a volunteer for literacy and in the hospital. He had four young grandsons and a chihuahua named Joey who adored him. Bill was the kind of dad who talked to his grown children every day and never let an opportunity to say “I love you” go unsaid.

By the time I met him, when my daughter started dating his son, he was already involved in a serious fight with depression. You could see in his eyes that the battle was taking its toll on him, and yet what was also there in his face was so much love and tenderness that you sometimes felt you should look away. He was someone who seemed to understand everybody. It was as though he saw to the core of you and recognized all the goodness you were striving for, even if you missed half the time, or even three-quarters. Bill was devoid of pretense, as if he knew he didn’t have time to bother with all that. I think he was in a race with a huge and unmanageable sadness, and the effect of that was a kindness that shone from him, even as it was mixed with melancholy.

He reminded me of a saying I’ve always found comfort in, written by the Buddhist thinker Jack Kornfield: “Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?”

This sounds corny, I know, but tonight it’s just a little bit tempting to think of the afterlife being a little bit of a better place, with Bill and Molly both there at once, shining their special light. In the meantime, she left us with a charge a few years ago, and I think Bill would echo it:

“Keep fighting for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce.”

And be kind.

I am proud to say that we have one-thirty-secondths of an inch of snow in our driveway—finally! So it was not a total waste of time to put snow tires on our car this year.

It’s even a little bit cold outside. Not like winter cold, you understand. Not like our usual January bone-chilling cold that makes your eyes water and your nose fall off. It’s just…brisk.

But still, it’s something. Frankly, I am tired of apologizing for this lethargic winter to my friends who live in the West and the South, those who seem to feel that we’ve wimped out here and are now endangering the planet with our manifestation of global warming.

My friend Diane called me today from L.A. to congratulate me on our surrendering to winter and to ask for the actual total snowfall amount.

I had to tell her the truth. She’d only hear it on the Weather Channel.

“Not really very much,” I said.

“Is your driveway white?”

“Well. Yes. With some bare spots.”

She thought this over. I felt guilty, as though I hadn’t really tried harder for more snow. 

“It’s only January,” I said weakly. “We still have February to go. There could be blizzards still to come.”

“It’s been colder in L.A. this year than it’s been where you are!” she said.

“I am so, so sorry about that,” I told her. But actually when I hung up I realized that I’m not sorry at all. I think it’s time we spread out some of the cold weather around the country instead of concentrating it all right here in the Northeast. It’s only fair that they take their turn and not hassle the rest of us.

I refuse to take all this snow just so they can imagine that the world is running properly. Let them shovel the driveways for a season.

I’ll even send my snow tires.

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