It’s just after 5 a.m. as I type these words, still completely dark outside. But my friend Margaret Roach and I have already said “Good morning” via Skype with a blitz of typed messages. (It’s way too early to talk out loud and risk waking my husband, recovering from a week of flu in our bedroom down the hall.)
Margaret reports she’s having trouble sleeping these days, too. Combine post-election angst, the unusually warm November days, darkness descending suddenly at 4 pm each afternoon, and a moon that demands one’s full attention, and it’s little wonder that we’re each feeling a bit out of sync with our normal routines.
“The world is violent and mercurial — it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love — love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.” ~ Tennesee Williams
I wonder what would happen if we were all to commit ourselves, over these next months, to small gestures of love, healing, and reconciliation? Would the national mood of distrust and divisiveness change for the better?
What would happen if we took our cues from the graceful, forceful words spoken yesterday by Hillary Clinton and President Obama, and by the President-elect as well, all of whom encouraged Americans to come together now, and to do whatever we can, wherever we are, to repair our torn social fabric?
What would happen if those of us who grieved the results of this election chose today, and in the days ahead, to transform that grief into renewed determination — determination to create a kinder, safer, more tolerant country, one in which to be a citizen means to uphold our deepest national values of freedom and dignity and respect for all Americans?
What if we were to stake out this small territory as our first patch of common ground: a respect for our imperfect yet precious democracy, manifested by an insistence, from both sides, that the President-elect start making good, right now, on his election-eve promise to reunite the country? [continue…]
My friend is a middle-school English teacher, a job he loves with an infectious passion. He works tirelessly to instill in his students a love of reading and of good literature, from Tuck Everlasting to Johnny Tremain. In his classes, the students write every day. And then they read their work aloud, every single one of them volunteering in turn to stand up in front of their classmates and share their innermost thoughts. Secure in the knowledge that they will not be judged, ridiculed, or bullied, these thirteen-year-olds become better writers. They go deep, they stretch, they grow, and they come to trust one another with their most tender thoughts, struggles, and observations.
Such a sense of security and civility in a classroom doesn’t just happen.
This culture of respect is created, moment by moment and day by day, by a teacher who lets his students know that from the moment they walk through the door, their voices will be heard and honored. My friend teaches, by daily example and through ongoing heartfelt discussions with his students, that their greatest achievement in his English class isn’t a perfect test score, but the environment they create together in the classroom – a safe haven in which kindness rules, acceptance is a given, and each person’s opinions matter.
But these days, my friend is concerned. [continue…]
It is one of those late, mild, autumn days that feel particularly precious in New England. We love them even more because those of us who live here know the rhythm of our seasons all too well. There won’t be many more afternoons like this one. In just a week or two, the landscape will be entirely different, scrubbed and bare, gray and frozen, far less hospitable. As I type these words, the world beyond my kitchen windows is bathed in molten sunlight. Bright yellow leaves drift down from the maples nearest the house, so that even the ground seems to glow and burn with light.
As always in October, I find myself thinking backwards, aware of the special resonance this month has had for me for as far back as I can remember. As a child, I loved October because it was my birthday month. I associated the brilliant change of season with the big change for me of being another year older; the two went hand in hand, just as did chilly mornings and knee socks. I remember brief, gasp-inducing October swims in icy waters; fried dough and ferris wheels and charcoal birthday portraits on gray paper at country fairs; the winey, intoxicating fragrance of Concord grapes ripening by the roadside. The Octobers of my childhood included pumpkins to carve, Halloween costumes to make, and so many leaves to rake into piles under my father’s instruction that my hands would sport blisters before the work was done.
Earlier today, a wooden crate of Macoun apples at the farmer’s market made me suddenly miss my now-grown boys as they once were. How I would love to relive our old apple-picking and pumpkin-choosing traditions. Autumn was always a good time to be a mother. The truth is, having children gave me permission to be a kid again myself, to spend hours with my sons stirring pots of applesauce on the stove, gathering acorns, and pressing the most perfect red leaves between sheets of wax paper tucked into our fattest books. [continue…]
For sixteen years I had what was arguably the best job in the world. It certainly was the best job for me. As a first-time mother of an infant, I wanted nothing more than to be at home with my new baby. At the same time, I’d loved my career as a literary editor and I still had to earn a living. By some miraculous stroke of luck and grace, the universe afforded me the chance to do both.
A week after my baby was born, I got word that I’d been chosen to be the new series editor of The Best American Short Stories, an annual anthology beloved by readers and writers alike. Three months later, I hired some help, bought my first desktop computer, set up a system to keep track of everything (magazines logged into FileMakerPro, the stories themselves written up by hand on file cards), and got down to work. It was amazing — I was getting paid to read.
I dressed for my new job in stretchy old black leggings and sweatshirts spotted with baby drool. I had no set hours and three deadlines a year. The magazines arrived by the box load and the babysitter came for a few hours every morning. While she was there, and while my son slept, and in every other spare moment of the day, I read short stories.
Sixteen years flew by. During that time, two little babies grew up into teenagers and sixteen volumes got published and I read thousands and thousands of stories. I had the joy of “discovering” such new voices as Amy Bloom, Junot Diaz, Akhil Sharma, Edith Pearlman, and Nathan Englander, and helping to introduce them to wider audiences. Meanwhile, I also had the privilege of working closely with some of our most accomplished writers — chatting about what made certain stories work and others miss the mark with the likes of Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, Garrison Keillor, Barbara Kingsolver, E. L. Doctorow and many others. Co-editing with John Updike The Best American Short Stories of the Century allowed me not only the happy, prodigious task of reading every story ever published in the series since its inception in 1915, but also the privilege of engaging in an intensive, congenial, two-year correspondence with one of my lifelong literary heroes.
But without doubt the greatest good fortune that befell me as the editor of BASS was my enduring friendship with writer Ann Patchett, guest editor of the final volume of my tenure. After working together for over a year, getting to know each other by email and phone and letter, we finally met in person for the first time in Harvard Square at a PEN reading for The Best American Short Stories of 2006. It was a bittersweet night for me. Handing off the editorial baton to my successor seemed like the end of an era, the end of my professional identity, the end of steady income, the end of structure to my days. I had no idea what I’d do next. [continue…]