Category: Boston

How Do You Carry the Fire?

Candle light burning 1437374 mToday’s post title comes from Cormac McCarthy. In his incendiary novel The Road, his main character, an unnamed boy, keeps reminding his father that they’re “carrying the fire.” It’s an unexplained refrain with unmistakable spiritual overtones; the idea that they are keeping something of humanity alight within them. This is an old connection that many religions make between human beings and fire. We are the only species to keep and use fire, after all, and so we see it as our sacred duty to maintain it, to keep it alive. The Bible tells us not to keep our light under a bushel, and the Buddha tells us that all our lives, we are on fire, burning as if consumed by desire, and our bodies are the fuel.

There are many spiritual meanings for fire; it purifies, it protects, and it is a central metaphor for what makes us human. But in many cultures, fire is also a symbol of creativity. This quality, too, is fundamentally human, and yet it’s the only thing (or one of the few things) that elevates us beyond the plane of simple humanity. It expands the possibilities of what we can be. So in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire from the Gods; fire, and creativity, is a semi-divine thing, one that we nevertheless have the audacity to steal.

All this is my way of thinking about creativity as a kind of flame held within the glass case of our lives. Nowadays, creativity is one slender candle flame amid a teeming electric switchboard of lights; so many demands and worries and constraints and expectations compete with that light. It is very vulnerable as a result. So I’m wondering about the ways that you carry the fire of creativity within you.

What are the greatest threats to your fire? Is it lack of time, or family obligations? Is it exhaustion? Is it entertainment temptations, like television or the internet? Does it come from within? Perhaps your own doubts and anxieties pose the greatest threat to your little candle. If you’re going to keep the flame alive, the first step is to identify what threatens it.

Next, I want to hear about what you do to carry the fire — and what you intend to do in the future. Though sorely overtaxed this semester with my usual teaching load, I’m making efforts to find time for myself and my writing in between classes and before I get home from work.

I find that when I get home from a full day of teaching, my mind is ready to quit for the day; I drop my bag to the floor and want dinner and entertainment, not work. But if I stay in a cafe or a comfortable lounge area in the office for an extra hour before I go home, then I can write. I also find that in the long gap between classes on some days, I usually waste the time, goofing off on the internet or reading articles (not terrible, but not the only thing I want to do). I’m making an effort to use that time more wisely, by reading or writing, or using that time to grade papers so I’ll have more weekend time to myself. And finally, if I’ve used those slices of inbetween time well, then I have more weekend time to go to the library or a cafe, and think about my writing.

I don’t accomplish all of these things in one week. Some weeks the papers have come in for grading, or there’s a weekend event. But if I do some of these things, then it means I’m getting a little creative work done. The candle burns another week.

So how do you carry the fire? What advice can you give, and will you try finding slivers of your time to work?

On the Fringe of the City

A recent move has me living on the edge of the city I used to inhabit, looking in a little wistfully. It’s a temporary arrangement, but for several months, I’ll be driving to work in the mornings, blasting along a major commuter highway to the north shore and through Boston. It has me seeing a different side of the city I know; and that reminds me that no matter how much you can get to know a city, there is always another way to know it. We can always be different people, looking at the city from the perspective of office workers or street dwellers, late night partiers or garbage collectors, suburban commuters or city loyalists. There is always another way to see. And what we writers must know is that there is always another way to look.

As a car-owning commuter these days, I see a lot of traffic. I also see the highways that circle viciously about the borders of most cities; and I see the corporate-and-big-box stores that form depressing haloes around most American cities these days. As I head outward I see the sad strip malls and signs for discount furniture and kitchen and tile and pet supplies and food, so much fast food. I wonder who stops at the restaurants in particular, who would want to sit in the window of one of these places and hear the whine of traffic. I think these places are mostly for people who are tired and lonely, the ones whose dinners have been cancelled, whose spouses aren’t home that night. And then, there’s something reassuring in being able to get something hot and mushy and head home with a box warming the passenger seat of the car.

But I still find these outer rings fairly bleak; like who decided every American city had to be surrounded in the same way? It makes me want to live right in the middle again, where I can avoid such sights. But I also want to avoid such snobbery and disdain. These are quintessentially American sights, after all, and if I want to understand my place, I have to experience it without judgement. When a car cuts me off or speeds rudely by, I remember a writing teacher telling me, Always imagine they’re rushing their sick child to the hospital. I conjure the image, and I feel a little warmer; I’m able to see a story, not just a depressing blankness. The trip down route 1 or route 128 or route anything is a line that pulls us all home; the late afternoon sun is warm on our backs or shoulders; you can see houses and stores and church steeples past the high sound barriers of the highway, flickering through the trees.

In that way, the process of writing and imagining is a fundamentally life-affirming act. It affirms that we all have stories, we all have sympathies and concerns, and we all have dignity, all the ones crossing in and out of the trash-ringed city, hurrying home or onward, with feverish children in the back seat.

It’s supposed to be hard: why anything worth doing feels awful while you’re doing it



 Image by Christian Ferrari

In the never-ending quest for self-improvement, I started a modest exercise regimen this summer, of running increasing distances three times a week. Readers, I am not a runner. When I run, my entire body seems to protest. I wheeze and my arms flap, my heart pounds and my ribs heave. Particularly in the beginning, every workout felt miserable. The first few times I ran, I found myself stopping after a little while, gasping for breath. “Is it supposed to feel like this?” I kept asking my running partner. Patiently, he told me, it is, it’s supposed to feel like this. Somehow I thought I could magically get fit without actually trying hard. Just a few light jogs around the block, I thought. It will feel invigorating, and before you know it, I’ll be running marathons. Not so, readers. I learned a lesson this summer that is deceptively simple: when you’re improving yourself, or when you’re getting better at anything, it’s supposed to be hard.

I think this lesson could be eye-opening for a lot of us, and it can apply to our creative work as well. We write and write and write, and just don’t seem to get any better. It just seems so darn difficult to make every part of a story great. We always seem to be falling just short. The words just keep on disappointing us once they are fixed on the page. And because it’s hard, because it can feel downright miserable, so many of us give up. We stop, thinking that we just aren’t meant to be writers. We just don’t have the talent, the aptitude, for it.

But the secret is, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to feel tremendously difficult, shoving those words around until they’re in just the right order. It’s supposed to feel like we’re straining the muscles in our brains as we search for the right image or metaphor. And most definitely, it’s supposed to feel emotionally hard. It should feel like we’re tapping into the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. We should feel dismay at how honest we’re being. We should feel shame that we’ve ever been quite so selfish. We should feel afraid of what people will think. We should feel our hearts pounding.

It’s such a simple lesson, yet somehow I’d forgotten it this summer. I’d forgotten that great artists and writers make it look easy, but that’s only because of the hours and agonies they’ve put in. With my running, I somehow thought I’d be gliding along the riverbank the way all those dedicated runners seemed to do. As I improved, things did get easier; suddenly I realized I was finding a rhythm, sinking into the work of running. But that’s when I knew I had to run longer, push myself harder. It was time to keep making things difficult for myself.

So much of our lives are based on ease, convenience, and instant gratification these days, that I think we forget this lesson. My students get frustrated so easily if a story is hard to understand. They think reading is supposed to be easy. But plenty of stories that are worth reading are not meant to be read with ease. They’re meant to be labored over. With reading, writing, and running, we have to remember how essential difficulty and strife and struggle are to the process of growth.

On the Move in Boston

Readers, I’m moving. It’s been three years here at my sunny, friendly, definitely quirky Cambridge apartment. I’d stay for three more, I think, but I’m also ready to move on as life circumstances change. I’ll be dealing with a very transitional housing situation this fall, and then I’m on to the big city of Chicago. I’m excited!

There’s plenty of time to think about the city of Chicago and all it means in the future; as I navigate a narrow goat path of boxes in my apartment now, I’m feeling nostalgic in these last few weeks. I’ll still be in Boston for the next several months, but most of my things will be in storage and I’ll be preparing for yet another move. I’m looking out the windows at my quiet street, at the restaurants and shops and hard-to-nab parking spaces, and I’m missing Boston already.

Several out-of-town friends have happened to visit lately, and it has given me the chance to do all the touristy things Boston has to offer again. I’ve visited Faneuil Hall and toured the campuses of MIT and Harvard; I’ve strolled over the Mass Ave bridge and seen the Smoots (locals will know this) and passed by Paul Revere’s house and Old North Church. I’ve walked through the Boston Public Garden this past weekend, loving the orderly chaos of green, how every tree is a different species, the unexpected rat-a-tat of a revolutionary-era parade band going by. I feel like I’m living inside the pages of Make Way for Ducklings these days, sweeping benevolently through Boston’s prettiest, oldest places, looking with the eyes of a friend.

It’s an exciting time to be a writer in transition. My family is still here and I imagine I’ll be returning regularly to Boston; but I’ll be trying my hardest to carve out a new home in a strange new city, one that doesn’t hold my childhood in its hand. Walking through Boston on a sunny summer day, I can feel embraced by this place, the sights and smells so familiar (and superior to New York’s summer smell of hot garbage!). I’ll probably be in a state of perpetual nostalgia for this place in the months to come; each time I visit the Boston Public Library or walk through Copley square, I’ll feel the pang that this might be my last time for a while.

I hope I’ve made the most of the time here; but I’m also ready to go. Many famous writers known for their evocation of place only truly captured that place once they left it. Nabokov, forever haunted by the Russia he lost, continued to write about it; under house arrest, Milton wrote of the woods and fields of England in his pastoral poetry. I think the best example of this is Joyce, who only so brilliantly captured Dublin in his novels once he had left it. I think this mournfulness, or nostalgia, is just the complication of emotion we need to capture a place. As I leave Boston, I imagine myself writing about it all the more; and my description will have that extra sharpness of feeling that comes from loss.

Asian Fusion in Boston

Boston is a hot restaurant town these days. We may not be able to compete with New York in terms of size or variety, but we’re holding our own in a few exciting areas of world cuisine. Lately I’ve had the chance to try a couple of different trendy spots in the area of Asian fusion.

This new category has faced its share of controversy. Some purists only want the authentic Chinese or Vietnamese or Japanese eating experience; blending it with American or French styles ends up watering down the whole menu, “Americanizing” it. I’d agree that Asian fusion restaurants aren’t capturing the authentic, traditional cuisine of their countries, but food has always benefitted from the sharing of culture and tradition across national lines. What we think of as mediterranean food, for example, is an exciting melange of Spanish, French, Greek, North African, Turkish and other influences. So why can’t Asian food continue to update itself and be informed by the cultures it rubs shoulders with? I’m excited to report what I found at Myers and Chang and at Blue Dragon.

First, Myers and Chang is a restaurant in the south end whose founders are better known for their baking. The owners of this restaurant started the wildly popular bakery and lunch spot Flour. I’ve gone many times to their Central Square location and enjoyed the tarts, pies, and scones, so I thought it was time to try their Chinese Dim Sum-inspired restaurant. The menu is eclectic and exciting; you get a series of small plates, and if are paralyzed by too many decisions, can order a grouped series, such as the health-conscious dishes or the duck-lover’s dishes.

We went for a little of everything; standouts included the squid stuffed with lamb, salmon and brown rice (wonderfully flavorful), bitter bok choy, and spicy pork spring rolls. Everything we tried tasted strongly of unusual mixes of flavors, both evoking Chinese dishes and with an extra touch of American style greasiness and home comfort.

The other tapas-style Asian fusion restaurant I visited recently was Ming Tsai’s Blue Dragon. This is a smaller, more casual pub-style restaurant near south station that is a kind of spin-off of his much-loved Blue Ginger. Ming Tsai has been all over public television with his cooking shows, and his dishes live up to the hype; every dish is a surprising blend of flavors, lovingly prepared, startling and tasty. Some favorites of mine included the terrific bison burgers, Thai fried rice, juicy slim slices of duck breast, soft shell crab sandwiches, shrimp shumai, and tuna tartare. I couldn’t rave about the flavors of Blue Dragon enough; everything felt like discovering a new season of taste. The key word there is season, though; the menu is seasonal and changes frequently. So go, but be ready to be surprised by what’s on the menu.

There’s nothing like discovering a new, very different restaurant; it’s one of the pleasures of life to explore new flavors. What restaurants have inspired you lately?

Escape from Boston: My Time at a Southern Writer’s Conference

I’m back, readers, from a writing conference that took place in Tennessee, a state I’d never been to and a world unto its own. I had a wonderful time meeting other writers and sharing my own creative exploits, as well as hearing many a reading from some very distinguished southern writers.

What can a writer expect to get out of a writing conference? There are some writers who go hungry for the next big leap of their careers. They’re there to network, to shake hands, exchange cards, find the right person, the right reader for their books. On the other end of the spectrum are fledgling writers unsure of who they are or what they want, seeking permission to be writers for the first time in their lives. And there are all those in between, looking for advice, for validation, for a community.

For those of you seeking these things in your writing lives, I couldn’t recommend a good writing conference enough. It’s a wonderful balm to one’s spirit to be among people who already understand what you’re trying to do and why, who welcome the story of your journey and your work, your trials, triumphs, and frustrations. At the conference I attended, I found likeminded souls eager to share their work; I met poets who loved prose and fiction writers who devoured poetry; I gained a little insight into playwriting, a form I had barely understood. More than anything I felt that it was OK to be a writer; in fact, it was a good thing, an important thing, a quest to enrich my life and the lives of readers.

I also heard some heartening words about failure and patience. It was refreshing to hear award-winning writers like Alice McDermott and others explain how there comes a time in every novel’s life when it feels like the thing is a sinking ship. In that moment, McDermott explained, there’s a choice a writer must make; whether to abandon ship or try to steer the thing to shore, perhaps in a different form than what you thought it would take when you set out. We need to press on, to work through the disappointment, and discover the new surprises on the other side. We need to accept that feeling of a loss of control.

Now I’m back in my office, looking out on a street in Cambridge, still a little stunned that I won’t be plied with wine and cookies each evening anymore. It will take some adjusting to return to the real world; but I’ll carry the advice, the friendships, and the generous spirit of creative community with me.

Summer Reading for the Readerly

Just because we’re out of school doesn’t mean we can’t use the summer as a time to catch up on our reading. In fact, most of the writerly and readerly folk I know are hungry for those warm months when we can finally devote our energy and attention to a big ol’ book. In the past I’ve used summers to get through David Copperfield, Middlemarch, and War and Peace (not all in the same summer!). Your summer reading list doesn’t have to be hefty old tomes, though; it could be way to get your finger on the pulse of contemporary literature. Here’s the list of recently completed and upcoming books on my list, and why they’re already making my summer awesome.

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Is it a coincidence that I picked up this book right around the 70th anniversary of D-Day? Either way, I’m glad I did. The reminders of the absolutely titanic struggles in the time of world war II are on my mind these days, and they’re brought to brilliant life in this intricate, epic, tender, crushing World War II-era novel. I haven’t actually read that many books from the perspective of the occupied French, but half of this book is closely with Marie-Laure, a young blind Parisian in love with her Braille edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and deeply attached to her father. On the eve of a calamitous firebombing by Americans, she will find herself in a northern seaside town scheduled for total destruction. And that’s only in the first chapter. Every other chapter will be following Werner, a penniless orphaned German boy determined to escape the life in the mines that has been slated for him. The book is dramatic, mythic, sometimes whimsical, but always moving.

The Sandman, Neil Gaiman

I’m working my way through Neil Gaiman’s funny, thought-provoking, and certainly dreamy comic book series about Morpheus, god of dreams. He is a very cool character, sometimes intimidating, sometimes gentle, sometimes merciful, sometimes horrifying. He reminds me a lot of a character from the Matrix, and I’m not just saying that because of the name.

Sleep Donation, Karen Russell

One of my favorite current authors has a short novella out this season, and as with her previous work, it’s funny, quirky, mythical, strange, and blurring the lines between fantasy and science fiction. In this one, a contagious insomnia is sweeping across the nation. The only cure is the donation of sleep from unaffected donors; and the protagonist must perform the story of her sister’s death from the disease again and again to win donors.

What books do you have on your list for this summer? I hope it’s not silly mindless beach reads that I’ll see poking out of your bag; just because the weather’s warm doesn’t mean we have to read soggy warmed-over writing! On my list to come are Re-Deployment, The Goldfinch, The Savage Detectives, A Possible Life, White Out…and too many more to count!

Memories of Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day, readers! This is one of those holidays that can mean vastly different things depending on who is celebrating it. For those involved with the military or those who have lost loved ones, it’s no doubt a somber day, one of observance and of ritual, of sadness but perhaps also of pride. For all those Americans who don’t have a direct connection to the military, without any disrespect, I think the day has a more festive feeling. It’s a day that usually marks the start of summer, a day of celebration, of cookouts, parades, of facepainting and balloons tied to children’s wrists, of sparklers in the summer twilight. For either group, though, I think the day is still very much tied up with memory.

For the military families out there, the day is of course about remembering what has been lost, the prices paid, the people who aren’t there today. But for the other group, the day is about memory as well; it’s a day in which we remember when we were kids, and the summer traditions we had that the kids of today are upholding; it’s a day of doing what Americans have been doing for generations. Any major holiday has that element of memory to it, but whereas a religious holiday is only for some, Memorial Day is pretty much open to anyone who wants to tap into American traditions and share in them.

Memory, to me, is always a fundamental aspect of the stories I write, and both the unreliability and constancy of memory features prominently as a theme in those stories. I often write stories from the perspective of people looking back at important times in their lives, or marveling at how naive, how fresh, how unsullied they once were before other major life events came crowding in. I think memory is one of those things that simply can’t be avoided in fiction. To assume that memory is fixed and perfect, for example, ends up seeming naive, and denying the fluctuating nature of the worlds we store in our heads. To deny its powerful influence on us at all, on the other hand, is equally naive.

Today is an occasion to mark time, and to think about memorial days past. I remember having hot dogs on the grill with my family, and running barefoot in the cool grass of the shady backyard; I remember the elation that the school year was almost at its end; I remember the little shorts and t-shirts that I wore every day of the summer until they fell apart; I remember summer as a kid. I remember the radio playing through the open door of the kitchen and running to get the cushions off the chairs in the backyard when rain inevitably came. I remember the sound of that rain pinging on the metal air conditioner bolted into the window frame as I lay in bed at night.

What do you remember as part of your summer? What about childhood, or memory, or the person you were, does this day evoke?

Boston Calling 2014

This weekend I went to the concert called Boston Calling, a big rowdy musicfest held in the public square in front of Boston’s hideous City Hall building (don’t believe me? Google it. You’ll be stunned at what a concrete monstrosity is sitting within a block of Faneuil Hall). But it was an absolutely terrific time; I saw Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and they were probably the best musical performers I’ve ever been to. The live versions of their songs were fierce and rich with sound, melody, and depth; it might have something to do with the sheer size of the band and number of instruments the band uses; I saw banjos, guitars, piano, two sets of differing percussion, a giant bass, an accordian, and a tuba and trombone. Their music, if you haven’t heard them, has a soulful seventies vibe, and the hippies were out in full force in the crowd. The smell of pot wafted over the crowd and daisy chains abounded.

The lead singer was a relaxed bearded guy with a navy suit over what looked like white pajamas and a high top knot of ridiculously long hair; he sang joyous, catchy, exuberant songs, without a bad one in the bunch.

I haven’t been to a big concert like this in years, and it was amazing to see how many people turned out just for this band, with more coming for the following act of Jack Johnson. We were glad to have arrived early; if we’d come late, there would have been no way to get close to the stage. When leaving later, we had to push and weave and dodge and excuse ourselves for a good twenty minutes just to get to the edge of the mass of people. But it’s great once in a while to go to these big popular events, even if crowds aren’t your thing; there’s something joyful and liberatory about swaying and singing along with a thousand strangers. The next time your favorite band shows up in town, don’t miss it!

When was the last time you went to a big concert, and were the long lines, the security, and all the standing worth it? What do you love about live music?

Memories of an Older City in the New

Today, I’m thinking about memory as I walk through my city. Twice a week my commuting path takes me through Copley Square, the historic center of Boston, and I walk/jog briskly through traffic past some of the oldest buildings in the area, such as the grand Boston Public Library and the old church that face each other across the plaza. I remember visiting the rare books room of the library and seeing documents from the sixteen hundreds or even earlier, chronicling the journeys of the earliest European settlers here. At the same time, I’m crossing Boylston street, which now has a plethora of other, starker memories demanding their room in my brain, demanding citywide remembrance.

That’s the funny thing about living in a city with any kind of history; there are always so many layers of time and memory super-imposed on each other, constantly layering on top of one another, blurring the lines of past and present. There is the circle memorializing the Boston massacre; and over there, a line of hip new clothing stores that seem to have sprung up just last week. The city keeps changing, but there are always signs of the old wherever you look. There’s the line of hungry cannoli-eating customers in the North End, waiting at Mike’s pastry shop; but the Italian immigrants that made up this neighborhood are largely gone. Where did they go?

I sometimes hear old Bostonians lamenting this change, the way all city-dwellers hate change. A guy I worked with who had grown up in Somerville remembered all those Irish Catholic kids he grew up with, the friendly cops who looked the other way when they were drinking out of paper bags, the saints’ parades down the streets. Now, he complained, there’s a Caribbean cultural parade every year instead, and the neighborhood is “all foreigners.” It’s always unpleasant to hear this kind of talk; after all, go back a generation or two and it was the Irish who were the foreigners. That, of course, is part of the way memory evolves in a city; the people who arrive as outsiders are quick to reject the next generation of newcomers. That’s natural, I suppose. Things even out in the end.

It’s amazing to me how fast cities change, and how the old does endure side-by-side with the new. Buildings get torn down, but the beloved ones become shrines to memory, treasures of common repository. And we say, “That used to be —” and are stunned to see the city growing up around us, and it reminds us that time passes. If anything, the city marks time for us, and reminds us that we grow older. But the memories of what was there before endure. Even on my small street in Cambridge, I see that one shop that seems to change its identity every six months, and already it has gone through three iterations. First it was an abandoned store front; then a trendy cafe with two chairs and only three items on the menu; now it’s a pie shop. I like the pie shop and hope it stays, but I know the odds are small.