Saturday, December 27, 2014

WBUR radio interview about The Boston Girl

Thanks to Anthony Brooks and WBUR's "Radio Boston" for this opportunity to talk about my new book.

Where did you get the idea for The Boston Girl?

The ideas for my novels come to me in different ways. 
I picked up a booklet in a Gloucester bookstore and discovered the history of the oldest settlement on Cape Ann and The Last Days of Dogtown followed. On my first visit to Israel, a tour took me to a living history museum called Atlit, where Jewish settlers were interned by the British authorities after the end of World War 2, and that was the source of Day After Night.
The working title for The Boston Girl was Rockport Lodge.
Here’s the story:
I must have driven past the place hundreds of times. Ihad been visiting and vacationing in Rockport, Massachusetts for years, and the three-story white clapboard farmhouse with a sign out front looked like a lot of the bed-and-breakfasts in town.
But one morning, I spotted a friend walking out the front door and pulled over. Pattie was working as Rockport Lodge’s cook that summer and she told me it was nothing like the other inns. It had been founded in the early 1900s (1906 in fact) to provide inexpensive chaperoned holidays to city girls of modest means. The policy remained “women only” and the prices ridiculously low. In 1990 it was $35 a day including three meals for women earning less than $12,400. It so happens that friends had stayed there. “Rustic” is how they described it.
During the 1990s, I watched the Lodge fall apart. The paint peeled, the shutters broke and the lawn got shaggy. In 2002, the windows stayed dark and weeds sprouted in the gutters. The wooden annex – a long, shotgun arrangement of guest rooms behind the big house – sagged and sank and looked like it might blow down in the next Nor’easter. 
The main building, built as a farmhouse in the 1750s, was much sturdier, but it was in bad shape, too. I peered through windows and shredded curtains into dusty common rooms. A set of Blue Willow china was displayed in the dining room. There were puzzles and books stacked on shelves and magazines open the occasional tables in the front parlor, where an old upright piano enjoyed pride of place. Hand-lettered signs were tacked up beside an old black wall telephone near the front door. The place was like one of those old steamer trunks full of secrets.
The perfect setting for a novel, right?
I tracked down the Rockport Lodge archives, which are housed at the Schlesinger Library on the History of American Women at Harvard University: forty- seven boxes filled with fundraising letters, brochures, housekeeping minutia, newspaper clippings, board meeting agendas and scrapbooks. The scrapbooks are yellowed and brittle, scrawled with spidery signatures, inside jokes and pledges of undying friendship. There are also pictures of girls lined up in ankle-length skirts, girls lounging on Good Harbor Beach in daring 1920s swimsuits, girls wearing boxy shorts and bobby socks. The clothes are a fashion timeline and tell a story about profound changes in American women’s lives.
In 2006, Rockport Lodge was sold and the land subdivided. The original farmhouse is back in private hands; the new owners renovated with an open floor plan and granite countertops in the kitchen. The only clue to its history are a fading sign over the front door, and now, The Boston Girl.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lucky me

Every morning, The American Academy of Poets sends me the Poem of the Day. I always open the email, though often I never get past the first line. If it's too pretentious or precious, I hit "delete," pronto.

But some days, I read a poem I can't bear to lose and drag it into a file.
Recently I trolled through the ones I saved in search of a phrase vaguely remembered and found it. A little miracle. 

The Wind Sleepers by H. D. arrived today. And because I was near the sea and had my phone in my back pocket, I reread it on the rocky beach pictured here.

Lucky, lucky me.


by H.D.

than the crust
left by the tide,
we are stung by the hurled sand
and the broken shells.
We no longer sleep
in the wind—
we awoke and fled
through the city gate.
tear us an altar,
tug at the cliff-boulders,
pile them with the rough stones—
we no longer
sleep in the wind,
propitiate us.
Chant in a wail
that never halts,
pace a circle and pay tribute
with a song.
When the roar of a dropped wave
breaks into it,
pour meted words
of sea-hawks and gulls
and sea-birds that cry

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Namaste, Mr. Iyengar

I never quite bought into the idea of the yoga “community."

I’ve taken yoga classes for more than twenty years from a succession of teachers in rooms full of familiar-looking faces whose names I never knew. And yet, the news of B.K.S. Iyengar’s passing on Aug. 20 at the age of 95 felt like a death in my tribe.

I never met Mr. Iyengar, who was one of the great theorists, practitioners and popularizers of yoga. I did not study with him or read his books. After I heard he died, I had to go online to see what he looked like. But since several of my yoga teachers are his students, I am only one degree of separation away from the man.

Iyengar is a regular presence in the studio where I practice yoga. My teachers, Tristan, Carin, Nadja, Mary, Justine and Rosie quote him often and those who studied at his institute in Pune, India, tell stories about being in class with Mr. Iyengar -- the honorific is always employed as it would be unseemly to go first-name with one’s guru. Even so, they talk about how funny he could be, as well as how demanding and wise.

Having read several obituaries, I now know that Iyengar was the eleventh of thirteen children born to a poor family in the south of India. A sickly child who suffered from typhoid, tuberculosis and malaria, he was not expected to live long. He credits the practice of yoga for all those “extra” years. They say he was practicing up until two months before his death.

He came to international prominence in 1953 thanks to the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who became a devotee and called him his “best violin teacher.” Iyengar’s other celebrity students included Aldous Huxley, Annette Bening, Donna Karan, and politicians and sports figures in India.

He became a yoga rock star, but William Broad, the author of “The Science of Yoga” -- a comprehensive and balanced book about the benefits of yoga -- credits Iyengar with being the first major teacher to acknowledge that forcing the body into difficult postures can cause injury. Rather than try to fit the body into idealized shapes, Iyengar designed ways to make postures fit the body, using props to create a safer experience.

As a result, Iyengar classes often look like a kindergarten, the room cluttered with chairs, blankets, bolsters, straps, wall ropes, blocks and boards -- equipment that makes postures (asanas) accessible to bodies that could otherwise never do, say, a downward-facing dog, feet flat on the ground as in the “classic” pose. downward dog with props

A day after Iyengar died I received an email from Justine Wiltshire Cohen, the director of Down Under Yoga, announcing his passing and celebrating a life well lived and “an epic yoga legacy.”

And this:
“I remember practicing at the foot of Mr. Iyengar as he taught the pose called ardha chandrasana.
He asked a woman with one leg why she was not attempting it. She gestured to her body in answer. Fifteen minutes and several props later, I watched this woman lift up into this one-legged balance pose, tears of disbelief and joy streaming down her face.
“He was a man who could make one believe anything was possible.”

His approach -- making yoga accessible to everybody -- is not sweaty or sexy. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy. The emphasis on alignment means going slowly and learning how far to push your body and when to acknowledge its limits. It is a deliberative and a humbling practice, which has taught me -- through his students, my teachers -- that I will always be a beginner.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Last Session

 Four months ago, my therapist told me she would be retiring this summer. I was taken aback –a phrase that suddenly made perfect sense to me since I felt as though I had been physically moved without my consent.

In a way, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. We had been slowing down. I wasn’t coming every week anymore. After nearly three years, my depression had cleared. I had been able to finish a large project of which I had despaired. I had resolved some of the issues that other therapists had not quite gotten to -- probably because I wasn’t ready to face them. She also helped me negotiate the start of my seventh decade – I’m 63 -- with a sense of proportion and grace.

I know almost nothing about “Sharon.” I don’t know if she’s straight or gay, married or single. I have no idea where she lives, whether she likes to vacation in Maine or the Cape or if she plans to travel abroad in her retirement. She had told me that she treated children and teenagers but I don’t know if she has kids of her own.

And yet, I do know her. Even though the intimacy of our relationship has been entirely one-sided – appropriately all about me -- I know that she is patient, kind and wise. Although she speaks softly, she has a big laugh that comes easily. She is grounded and purposeful and I want to say she is possessed of grace, another phrase I never use and one I can’t explain. I certainly learned a lot from her  --and by that I mean her approach and perspective as well as her insights.

When she first told me about her retirement plans and asked how I felt about it, I realized that I’d been hoping for an on-going relationship. I have a few friends who, long after ending regular therapy, still make an occasional appointment for a “tune up,” especially at times of transition or stress. But after thirty years, Sharon was closing up shop. There would be no tune-ups. She offered to refer to another therapist. At first I said no, but at our next-to-last visit I decided I wanted a back-up so I took the phone number of a colleague Sharon said would be a good match and (this being the real world) would also accept my insurance.

I dreaded our last appointment. Even though I’d known Sharon for only three years, the loss felt as profound as when my rabbi of twenty five years left his pulpit. My sadness was even deeper than when my physician of nearly twenty years left her practice.

I didn’t know how to say goodbye. Should I give her flowers, or a book of poems, or maybe just a card?

In the end, I brought all three as well as a Boston cream pie cupcake, which she accepted with a delighted laugh. They were retirement gifts, parting gifts, things I chose because I was pretty sure that Sharon would love them much as I do. Because during our three years, bounded by all the conventions and rules that properly govern the therapist-client relationship, we shared a lot of love.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Boston Girl

 It’s done. The Boston Girl, my fifth novel and twelfth book, has been submitted, accepted and copyedited. Publication date: December 9, 2014.

 It’s a historical novel told in the first person by an eighty-five-year-old woman named Addie Baum in response to a question from her twenty-two-year-old granddaughter who wants to know how she came to be the woman she was.

Addie starts the story in 1915 when she is fifteen years old and the world begins to open up to her, the daughter of immigrants who live in Boston’s polyglot North End. The 1910s and '20s were a fascinating period: short skirts, movies and new opportunities for women.

I sent the copyedited manuscript to New York on June 26, which turned into a bit of a drama when the mailroom lost it. This was a big deal because copyediting is done the old fashioned way: pencil on paper. The wonderful Laura who worked on my book was meticulous and thoughtful and saved my credibility a lot. Then I wrote responses to her comments. Hundreds of hours of work hung in the balance.

But lo! I had made a copy of the marked up text – something I had never done before -- so all was not lost. And then they found the original in a warehouse somewhere.

Sheesh. And then, whew. No harm no foul and it’s off to the typesetter.

A week later and I've I cleaned my desk. I filed some files. I have put new liners down in the kitchen cabinets. I’m having lunch with friends I neglected in the marathon to finish the book. I’m back to yoga twice a week. I’m cooking.

I have started reading three books, hoping to be swept away but it hasn’t happened because I’m so fidgety. In truth, I’m adrift. I don’t really want to start something new but empty hands make me nervous.

People ask if this is like having post-partum blues, and even though there are similarities I always say no. With a book, you push hard the last few months and then you give it away, wait for someone to tell you whether or not it’s viable, and you don’t see it again for several weeks. When you get it back, there are questions and corrections all over it. And then you send it back again. And by the time readers start cooing over the brand new arrival (I hope), I no longer remember the names of some of the minor characters.

This is not a plea for help so please, do not make suggestions for my next novel. It doesn’t work that way.  Actually, I have no idea how it works. It’s a mystery. *

And I’m trying to be okay with that.

*March 17 blog post, "Finishing the hat."