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…]
Sometimes, life sits you down in a chair and insists that you stay put, doing the thing you’re really meant to do.
Last winter and spring, recovering from two hip replacements and an excruciating case of post-op bursitis, I found myself facing some very long days.
The physical therapy exercises I was required to do were numbingly dull, until I had the stunning revelation that I could link each repetitive movement to my breath and call it “yoga.” Suddenly, even if I was just lying in bed and flexing my feet, I had my practice back. All it took was a change of attitude, from grudging to mindful. Breath equals connection. And with that simple truth, I was on my way, slowly healing, one inhalation and exhalation at a time.
Meanwhile, nearly two years after I first thought about collecting the essays from this space into a book, I finally had time and space to actually settle down and get to work. The long empty days of recuperation were transformed, by a small shift of intention, into a kind of writer’s retreat for one. [continue…]
Have you ever wondered by what mysterious alchemy a whim becomes a wish, and a wish a reality?
I’m pretty sure it requires some combination of love and pure intention to transform an idle fantasy into an actual event. Oftentimes, a spirit of adventure is necessary, too. Oh, and a willingness to envision – even if the vision itself seems far off and far-fetched.
This is a tale of a daydream that actually did come true, a road-trip story that had its beginnings in the pages of a cherished book and then slipped right out of fiction and into real life. Sometimes, the stars line up. Sometimes, all the puzzle pieces fall into place. And sometimes “real life” feels, if only for a day, graced by a touch of magic. Want to come along? [continue…]
Let us cultivate a culture of kindness. In that moment, we are determining the outcome of the world.
~ Sakyong Mipham
I know I’m not the only one finding it impossible this summer to make sense of world events. I suspect you, too, are mourning the senseless deaths of innocent people at home and abroad, looking in vain after each new round of violence for answers to the seemingly unanswerable question “why?”, and trying to cultivate an informed, thoughtful attitude toward our presidential candidates.
Perhaps, like me, you assign yourself articles to read written by journalists from the left and the right, writers and reporters who do their homework, who think deeply about where we stand as a country and who choose their words with care. Perhaps you, too, are struggling to keep your heart open to all people, to opinions that conflict with your own, to the concerns and worries of friends and family members who see things differently. Sometimes very, very differently.
It’s not easy being a good citizen these days. In the past couple of weeks two of my friends have confessed to blocking or defriending those whose political postings on social media cause them angst. Others have expressed a desire for Facebook to remain a place where we can enjoy browsing photos of our friends’ children and pets and vacations, without being confronted with their opinions, especially when they conflict with our own.
I have recently deleted political comments from my own Facebook page, remarks that were disrespectful, rude, or insulting — not to me, but to others. To do so causes me pain, for I value a free flow of ideas and information as much as anyone. But then, name-calling and personal insults don’t fall into that category. I believe there’s a difference between conversation, which demands empathy and a willingness to listen with an open mind; and invective, which is about hearts and minds that have been willfully shut down.
I don’t have to tell you: there are many loud, belligerent voices out there, all straining to be heard. Turn on the TV or radio, scan your news feed, scroll through Twitter, and you will find them. Voices full of accusation and suspicion, hatred and superiority, disdain and incivility. Voices eager to label and vilify. Voices that separate us from one another, that seem bent on dividing souls rather than uniting them. Voices quick to judge, voices meant to instill fear, voices that incite distrust or even violence. There are voices that condone cruelty, voices raised in self-righteous fury, voices that disregard quiet, unassailable truth in favor of suspicion and innuendo and outright lies. There are voices that speak the language of the F-bomb, the bully, the oppressor. And, alas, there seem to be very few voices asking simple questions of the heart, such as, “Tell me why you feel this way?” It’s a bleak and painful chorus, the kind of dysfunctional acting out we would never tolerate in our own homes or in our own families.
And yet somehow we’ve allowed this disgraceful shouting match to become our national dialogue. [continue…]
I can’t tear myself away from home these days, nor am I getting much of anything done around here. The peonies are in bloom. And I don’t want to miss a moment of their brief, luxuriant season. Most mornings I’m in the garden within minutes of waking, to pay my quiet respects to the outrageously generous display going outside our door . At dusk I wander, scissors in hand, cutting fragrant armfuls to carry inside. For this week only, there are peony bouquets everywhere. Every vase and jar I own is full, the air is thick with the sweet, subtle scent, and still they come, a succession of blooms. I cherish every one.
If you were to drop by my house for a cup of tea and a chat this afternoon, I’d send you home with peonies.
But as it happens, I’m here alone on this June day, typing at my little table on the porch. There’s no need, and no room, for yet another bouquet in the house. And so I offer you, instead, a bouquet in words and photos. Here are my dear peonies and some lines – from poets and gardeners and ancient Chinese haiku artists — that pay them homage. Inhale deeply. Peony season, like life itself, is precious, fleeting. [continue…]