Packing Up Some Memories

I am reminded today, while packing up my books for an impending move, of an evening during my senior year of college when Haena, my roommate and close friend, drove us down I-80 to a theater in Sacramento that was playing The Namesake

My memory of the afternoon is that it was overcast and breezy. I had been away from Lahore for four very long years by this time. Those first four years were longer than the eight years that have followed. I ached for the city. In Davis, on my home from classes every evening, I walked by a house on 5th street that had a planter of gardenias outside, which reminded me of jasmines, a poor substitute, but so pleasant. Back then, I was still talking about graduating and going home. Every time I bought a book, I thought about my options -- how would I take all my books back? There was no FaceTime back then, and I was lucky if I could catch pixelated glimpses of my family on Skype from time to time. They were still using dial-up.

And here I was -- seated to watch the movie adaptation of a book, which had so beautifully captured the immigrant experience that I had been moved to tears while reading it. The movie opens with a view of a busy street in India, the buzz of conversation, the makeshift marketplace, people, faces, activity, color. It could be any street. It could be streets I had seen and passed each day of the first 18 years of my life. Nostalgia crashed into me and I was caught in its ripples and the surf. I was pinned under its weight. For the first several minutes of the movie, and at many moments after, I cried and shredded a packet of Kleenex to pieces. 

I close my eyes now trying to conjure the emotion that rattled me so on that long ago day. The yearning to go home is gone. The idea of home is gone. My home, physically, is gone. My parents have sold my childhood home and are now located in a completely different part of Lahore. My home, moreover, is here  -- I remind myself, shake myself out of the reverie, stretch my shoulders and brace my back against the chair that knows me so well. It is interesting how malleable the idea of home becomes over time, how the sense of belonging inches away from one reality and towards another so imperceptibly, like land sinking. 

Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake, lives most of her adult life in America, looking forward to the brief trips she makes with her family to her hometown in India. She is a different person there, not the quiet volunteer at the library, not a scared woman driving a car, not a mother trying to understand her very American children, but alive in a different way, vivacious, happy. Which is her true self, I wonder now. The self she embraces only in the company of her relatives and in the comfort of her country where everyone speaks the language she thinks in, where native faces from long ago days surround her, where her favorite street-snack is available on every hawker's cart, or in her clean picket-fence home in America, in the silence so crisp that the hum of the air conditioner can be heard, in the waves crashing against rocks on the beach where she goes clad in her sari and hand-knitted cardigan? 

And obviously, the real question here is not where Ashima feels at home, but where I do. Is the city where you grew up still your home if you can truly only remember broken memories pieced together in a mosaic? Is it still your home if the streets you remember have different names now? Is it still your home if the river you romanticized in your poems is all but dried up? And more importantly, are you brave enough to find out?

Who are you? Where have you come from?

Who are you? Where have you come form? We spend our whole lives crafting answers to these questions. We spend day after day after day defining who we are, we try to stay true to ourselves, we attempt to be mindful of our values when we conduct ourselves in society, in polite company. Who are you, we are trying to figure out. Some of us spend years laying down roots. Others expend time and effort to distance ourselves from our roots, rise above our origins, overcome circumstances, elevate our situation in life. 

I am reading Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread these days and there is a scene in the book where we hear these questions as a character's internal musing. "Who are you? Where have you come from?" It made me think. What answer do I have for these questions. The answer I have is very different from what my father must have or what my child will have in the future. I come from a father who crafted a place for himself in the world, who rose above his origins, who fought against the status quo, who gave to his children more than he ever had. I come from writers, from dreamers, from parents who are brilliant and creative and flawed and sentimental. I, too, have risen above my own roots. I have done my fair share of challenging the norms. And there is so much work still left to do. What will my daughter say to these questions, I wonder. Will she know what it took for us to get here, her and me together? Will she know the depth of longing that had to be overcome? Will she appreciate the force with which I cleaved myself to reality and shunned sentimentalism to get here, to be me, to make her? 

In the same book, there is a scene later on in which the family's two daughters are packing up the house and their belongings, a home with two generations of history. It is one of those brilliantly written scenes that will resonate with every audience. A few months ago, my parents sold the house I grew up in. 404, we called the house, referring to the number. In my dreams, I still walk in that kitchen, I still splash water on the epoxy floor of the garage and glide a squeegee across the wet surface, I still sit at the rickety old dining table and demand lunch impatiently, with the entitlement of a first-born. In the book, the two women talk about picture frames and pieces of furniture and china and old clothes. I wonder what I would have taken from 404 if I had had the opportunity. Maybe the plaque my father installed in the drawing room that said "A daughter is love." Maybe I would have taken a chair, an end table, and maybe in the end, nothing at all, only memories of all the years we spent there. Sometimes I wonder how my mother feels about leaving that house. Does she dream of the pitter-patter of little girls' feet running up to her, does she think of the roof-top that saw so many summer monsoons lash across its concrete floor and just as many winter chills? "Why do we accumulate so much when we leave it all behind," one character muses in the book. And I nod my head in agreement with her. We accumulate so much, maybe as a protest against the very fact that we will leave it all behind, an act of defiance. 

In the end, when I come back to the original question, I think of my roots. The roots my parents laid in that small house, 404, all those years ago. The roots that traveled with them to their new house without me. I can't not think of that house and those years when I try to compose an answer to these questions. Who are you? Where have you come from? I have come from the city of dreams, I think. From a small house in the mediocre part of town. From people who defied boundaries and limitations and showed their children how to dream. But I taught myself to make them real. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Time passes differently for you and me

"There was seldom anything addressed to her. Only an occasional letter from Manash. She resisted reading them, given what they reminded her of. Manash and Udayan, studying together in her grandparents' flat, and Udayan and Gauri getting to know one another as a result. A time she'd crushed between her fingertips, leaving no substance, only a protective residue on the skin."
- Jhumpa Lahiri in The Lowland
I felt this way once before when I took another journey with Jhumpa Lahiri. It was a different book, The Namesake, but I remember the landscape of this author's creativity, the topography of sentences, the valleys and deltas, the mountains and forests. This is a fertile place. Lahiri takes me back to my home -- so different from the home of Ashima in The Namesake, and certainly nowhere near The Lowland of Gauri's past -- and yet, I find myself reaching back into time, recognizing moments that were lost for so long that I had forgotten I even experienced them. This is what great writing does. 

The Lowland is not for the faint-hearted reader. It is not a kind book, but it is an important one. For a novel, it packs an expansive history lesson, a history that I, being on the other side of the border from India, never learned in textbooks and lectures. But more importantly, at its core, the novel was about time, particularly the past, a slice of time crystallized and settled into the realities of individuals affected by it. Time taking hold of lives and just not letting go. My father used to say to me, "The words that leave your tongue and the time that leaves your hand will never return." And he wouldn't warn me further than that. He wouldn't instruct me to use the time I had wisely or to hold my tongue. He would simply state a fact and leave the action up to me. I thought back to this statement of my father's that fell short of the technical definition of an advice, but governed so many of my decisions as an adult -- a life lesson, I call it still -- and I thought of it often while I read The Lowland. 

How much of our lives do we forget? How much do we remember? Two people who share a moment remember it differently, the quality of the moment changes for each individual, the feel of sun on skin, the sound of a heart beating loud enough to drown out all sound for one person and the same rhythm not even audible to another, the truth and its tributaries running different courses to irrigate the two lives -- it's all relative. And sometimes one person simply forgets or knows only half of the truth or a different version of it altogether. Then what? Who do you share your reality with then? You simply guard it within you. 

The Lowland compelled me to reach into the crevasses of memory and examine some caged realities that exist only for me now because they've been forgotten by everyone else. They are not so easily crushed for me, they roll between my fingertips like cool marble, grave, unyielding, ever present.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

I Can Only Be My Best Self

These days I find myself wishing to be the woman who writes this blog, not just when I sit in front of my computer but all the time. Her life is pretty good. She is a poet and a clinical researcher. She has an adorable toddler. She has a lovely house on a hill and the ability to watch sunrise caressing the winding trails and roads sprawled below her. She has the luxury to write about things lost and forgotten from a safe distance. There are a few people who like what she writes. Every day, she is able to get at least two uninterrupted hours of listening to audiobooks. She is poised to do bigger and better things. She is so positive in her writing. She talks about seizing the day and bottling up happiness and loving her naughty toddler. She talks about cooking and loving. Her life is pretty good from this vantage point. Pretty damn good. And I want to have her life all the time rather than  during the single hour it takes me to write and proofread a blog post. 

 Yesterday, in a small group of smart and sensitive women that constitute the Desi Writers' Lounge Bay Area Readers' Club, we talked about The Goldfinch. I insisted that several characters in the book probably had personality disorders. Sahar Ghazi, an extremely perceptive member of the group and a dear friend, challenged me on this notion. "Why do you think they have personality disorders," Sahar asked. "We are learning about them only through the main character's perspective. Maybe they are completely normal and going through life on a pretense. Maybe they are not opening up their true selves in front of him. People live their life pretending sometimes," I am paraphrasing, but that is the general arc of Sahar's view. I think I presented a different  and opposing argument, something feeble and completely petulant like, "But I don't pretend. And who pretends? How can they do that?" Puerile - to say the least. 

The fact is, everyone pretends to some degree. Yes, this is the space where I come to be honest with myself, call myself on things that I did wrong, and talk about how wronged I have felt in the past due to other people's insensitivity. But honesty has degrees, too. It has layers and components. Often people reveal part of a fact and it is up to the reader to brush off the sand occluding their vision from this partial truth, and like an archeologist, try to determine what the whole story is. Think about it. We do it all the time. The missing pieces are sometimes inherently present in what is revealed - the tone of voice, the choice of words, the tangent of the neck, the slope of shoulders, the audible sighs, the wistful eyes. The bright smile that is plastered on one's face as a confirmation of happiness has nothing on all these other overbearing signs, and some poor folks are just completely transparent - I am beginning to think I may be one of them. 

I guess what I am trying to get at in a very roundabout way is that we often think our best self is our happiest self. That is not necessarily true. I am a poet - my writing is dependent upon being miserable. The poems I write when I am happy do not resonate with me and probably not with my readers. I need superficial tragedies, arguments, disagreements, hurt feelings, a sense of being wronged in order to create work that has even a whisper of being placed at a lit mag. And though most of the time I bring my cheerful positive self to this blog (and I will not be surprised if you all stand up and say, "But Noor, you are a morose writer and you don't bring your cheerful self to this blog"), that is not my "normal" self. When I write in this space, I emulate the woman I want to be - the one who stands in her balcony every morning watching the sun bleed into the sky, the one who feels a sense of utter and profound contentment, the one who writes about life's little matters because, after all, those are the matters that matter. I wouldn't say that it is an entirely inaccurate depiction of myself, but it is certainly an extension of my character. 

You'll forgive me, of course, for this pretense, won't you? I am a poet who likes to experiment with identity and belonging. This is a natural result of that, you see. In any case, I wrote very honestly just now, and so I must extend my hand towards you in salutation. Hi! Good to meet you today!

Photos by Rebecca McCue

The Conflict of a Reader

I am listening to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair these days narrated by Casey Affleck whose performance is strong, clear, and very moving. I obviously don’t agree with the customer reviews on in which Affleck’s performance has been called anywhere from “underwhelming” to “poor.”

It is a brave thing I do, playing this book every morning when the sky is still fractured with tinges of gray and orange and if I listen carefully, I can hear birds chirping somewhere just out of sight. Deciding then, when I should be celebrating every vestige of peace, to be transported into the bitter winters of poverty, hunger, disease, and suffering in early 1900s Chicago stockyards takes courage.  It is also easy to do - cocooned as I am in my car with the heater on, the January sun slumbering on until well past 7AM in the unusually warm California winter that allows me to not even reach for a pea-coat when I get out of my car to walk to the office building.

I have read some articles on how this book has made others feel. The horrors of the meatpacking industry laid bare by Upton Sinclair have the power of turning an attentive reader into a vegetarian for life. Shock, disbelief, sadness, disgust, compassion – I am sure readers have felt all this and more for the characters in the book. And I, too, feel all that, but I also feel gratitude. I am grateful to be born in a time when it is important to people to live well and learn what kind of food they are eating. I am grateful that I have had a very different (positive) experience as an immigrant compared to the characters in the book. I am grateful for having an education and to have had the opportunity to choose what to do with my life rather than being a passive spectator of its passing.

There are corruption and discrimination and oppression still in the world, but I am grateful that there is at least some degree of accountability, too, disproportionately present, but there.

There are suffering and poverty and hunger still in the world, but I am grateful that there is a more crisp awareness of all these deprivations, so at least there can be a stronger hope for help to come.

As I continue to read the book, about the squalor and starvation and lack of humanity, I choose to think that this wouldn’t be possible now. I am fooling myself - I know that. The conditions mentioned in the book still thrive, perhaps not in the meatpacking plants, perhaps not in Chicago or in the United States, but in sweatshops and factories all over the world and…I have to mention this…war-zones. I choose to be grateful because I should be. I have seen no despair in my life, not real despair anyway. And when I park my car and pause the book, my jaw is set. I walk out of my comfortable car my heels click-clacking on the asphalt of the parking lot, and I enter my centrally heated office with its large glass windows overlooking a beautiful patio with comfortable chairs and round picnic tables. I choose to be grateful for all this because I have good reason to be, along with the ability to walk away from the book, the impulse to nurse the notion, “Surely this doesn’t happen now.” This, I tell myself, was a long time ago. Those were other people. And what do I know? The winter is never bitter here in the Golden State.

Impossible Pursuits

This blog post contains spoilers pertaining to the book (and film) Atonement by Ian McEwan. 

If you have not read Atonement, you should be reading it instead of reading this blog post. It is a phenomenal book.  Go on, pick it up, this can wait.

If you have read the book, good, come, sit, let's have a chat.
But the heresies died when he read her last letter. He touched his breast pocket. It was a kind of genuflection. Still there. Here was something new on the scales. That he could be cleared had all the simplicity of love. Merely tasting the possibility reminded him how much has narrowed and died. His taste for life, no less, all the old ambitions and pleasures. The prospect was of a rebirth, a triumphant return. He could become again the man who had once crossed a Surrey park at dusk in his best suit, swaggering on the promise of life, who had entered the house and with the clarity of passion made love to Cecilia - no, let him rescue the word from the corporals, they had fucked while others sipped their cocktails on the terrace. The story could resume, the one that he had been planning on that evening walk. He and Cecilia would no longer be isolated. Their love would have space and a society to grow in. He would not go about cap in hand to collect apologies from the friends who had shunned him. Nor would he sit back, proud and  fierce, shunning them in return. He knew exactly how he would behave. He would simply resume.
- Atonement (Kindle edition) by Ian McEwan - Page 213

There was a crime. But there were also the lovers. Lovers and their happy ends have been on my mind all night long. As into the sunset we sail. An unhappy inversion. It occurs to me that I have not traveled so very far after all, since I wrote my little play. Or rather, I've made a huge digression and doubled back to my starting place. It is only in this last version that my lovers end well, standing side by side on a South London pavement as I walk away. All the preceding drafts were pitiless. But now I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed in September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station.
- Atonement (Kindle edition) by Ian McEwan - Page 350

Robbie Turner was innocent. You know it, I know it, and god knows Briony knows it, too. The three of us, you, me, Briony - and of course the lovers themselves - wanted Robbie's name to be cleared, wanted to see him with Cecilia, free at last, and "without shame." When I reached that scene in Cecilia's rented room, the scene wrought with anxiety and relief and the image of that old woman with her cart outside on the road on whom Briony focused all her attention while the lovers kissed, because Cecilia asked Robbie to "Come back to me" and he did, he really did, it was like a personal triumph. Reading alone in my semi dark room, I felt I had been through too much with this book. With Robbie and his thirst and his wound and his blisters and that bomb that vaporized a mother and son and that ominous line, "Wake me before seven. I promise, you won't hear another word from me." With Briony and the French boy with half his skull missing, with her hand scrubbing and her bedpans and her story Two Figures by a Fountain and subsequent rejection and...I needed to put it down. Robbie was home, he was safe, he would resume, they would resume. I could sleep well. I walked barefoot into my cold kitchen, filled a tumbler of water and finished all 16 ounces of it without taking a breath. It was a good thing, putting down the book at that point, dozing off with the image that Briony saw of Robbie and Cecilia together outside the station, because the next night, well, the next night I would finish the book, and there would simply be no question of sleep. 

In life, as in good novels, you hardly ever get to "simply resume." Robbie and Cecilia didn't resume, did they? They died. They never saw each other after Robbie left for the war. Before he left, they had a few minutes, a quarter of an hour, not even an evening of entertaining the possibility of love and a life together, and then what happened? But, wait. Let that sink in for a minute. Robbie went to jail based on the false accusation of a precocious and imaginative thirteen-year-old-girl. Robbie and Cecilia did not have epic love to sustain them through their separation; they had a few minutes alone in a library, the mere idea of allowing their love for each other to flourish, simply that and nothing more. And then what? They wrote letters to each other while Robbie was incarcerated. Letters to keep alive those few minutes, that memory, that faint possibility, those words Cecilia uttered before the police took Robbie away, "I will wait for you. Come back to me." Robbie was released from jail on the condition of joining the army four years later, met Cecilia in a restaurant, kissed Cecilia outside the restaurant, and then what? War, more letters, Dunkirk, injury, septicemia, death. And for Cecilia, all of the above, except bereavement in lieu of septicemia before death. Do we ever resume after life, time, circumstances, limitations, situations, distance, desolation, desperation, helplessness...after all this hampers, nay, shackles us from doing so? Nobody simply resumes, no matter how attractive the notion of resuming might be. 

We say those cliched words, you know, those of us who have faced a few things that have tested us, clawed at us, or simply unfolded in front of us, as though life is just happening to us, exerting on us like an external force without our control or cooperation. We say the words, "It is like no time has passed." "We will start where we left off." "Nothing about us has changed." "We are still who and what we were x years ago." But we're not, are we? Even in the most mundane matters, how could we possibly simply resume our lives after substantial change has derailed us? For instance, I can't ever decide to be that girl I was ten years ago even if I wanted to be. I wouldn't know where to begin tracing my way back to her.  I don't even know who she was - I can't tell you one thing I know for certain about her. She was so...unremarkable...there is nothing that stands out about her, even to me - and I was her! Or maybe she was absolutely extraordinary, but it doesn't matter, because I simply cannot reach for her in my memories. She is too far away. So, how can I, using myself as an example, simply resume even if it is the easiest and most coveted direction in certain situations? 

The fact is, we don't resume. We never can. We continue to move farther and farther away from the point of divergence, from the point where we "stopped," from that point we would have to toil and scratch and dig our way back to, if at all it were possible, to resume.  

Birthday Celebrations for Goll Gappay

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
― William Shakespeare

November is the birthday month of Goll Gappay. A year ago this month, I resolved to launch a blog and not let anything get in the way - a wish I had guarded and nourished since at least 2006.

I went frequently to my close circle of friends and supporters for advice. I singled out Afia Aslam for her assessment of Goll Gappay in its developing stages. Afia guided me on everything - name, concept, design, she even edited the well-loved line that defines this place "Little Matters That Matter," which is far more superior than how I originally wrote it, "Words and Opinions on Little Matters That Matter." When I launched the blog, she shared it on her Facebook page and instructed her online community to visit Goll Gappay in her signature style. "Shoo!" Afia wrote at the end of her post. My strong and secure friendship with Shehla Wynne, which is characterized by a complete lack of judgment and unrealistic expectations and is often epitomized in moments of absolute understanding and profound emotional/intellectual support, lent itself to the carefully worded critique she provided on the initial design and writing style. This changed the finished product positively when the blog went live.

My friend Rebecca McCue and the photographic life-blood of Goll Gappay also provided invaluable advice, encouragement, and gorgeous photos to accompany complicated posts, often on a short notice. Rebecca is also the personification of the voice in my head that berates me (albeit gently) when I have not posted an entry for more than a week. Most of the time, her reminders work.

Others, especially my sisters Maham, Qurat, Mahey, and Anam (oldest to youngest - no preference in terms of affection, although one of them knows she is my favorite - watch, each of them will think it's her I am talking about, muahahahaha) promoted Goll Gappay unabashedly. "My talented sister," their proud and loud Facebook posts would say. "The latest gem from Noorulain Noor," or something equally overblown and grandiose would go up on each of their Facebook timelines successively during Goll Gappay's infancy. I am lucky that their love is just as ardent in all other aspects of our lives as well. We have had a good year - on Goll Gappay and outside of it. Special bellow, shout-out, acknowledgement, cheer to Qurat Noor for creating and managing the Goll Gappay Facebook Page (all the way from Tokyo) that has a modest number of followers.

Through Goll Gappay, I have discovered some wonderful voices (and people) in the past year, both in the blogging community and writing world. I have, in the past year, rediscovered the metaphor of Goll Gappay that first inspired this blog - new people, new events, and old friends along the way, too. I am grateful to everyone who has read and appreciated my ramblings, my honest attempts to capitulate to the quagmires of my thoughts, which more often than not manifest themselves in the form of run-on sentences. For that, my apologies.

And now, without further ado (and emotional speeches of gratitude), Goll Gappay's Birthday Celebration Plans! DRUMROLL, PLEASE!

To celebrate 1 year of blogging and in an effort to rediscover my writing mojo, I am making the following promises.
1. There will be at least one new post on Goll Gappay every day in the month of November. Sometimes, this post will appear on the homepage. Other times, it will appear on an additional page that will go live at some point this month (see point 2 below for details).
2. I will start working on my writing seriously by following a structured program. I will be working through Michelle Richmond's Story-Starters , the 50-day program to write on one prompt per day. These entries will go up on the "Story-Starters" page - the additional page alluded to above.
3. I will be reading and writing more poetry - sorry, you will be subjected to some of it here.
4. I will start cooking again - stay tuned for some cool cooking posts, including a rather grand one at the end of the month for Thanksgiving.

I am very excited. I hope you are, too. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

I Saw Neil Gaiman!

I will never be as devoted a fan of Neil Gaiman's as the ones I encountered on Saturday, July 6th, but I am really happy that we share a Venn diagram. I realized this at the reading and book signing for Gaiman's new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane in Santa Rosa. The evening was arranged remarkably well by Copperfield Books at a local high school.

The queue curled around the low auditorium building, stretched through corridors, looped around stairs and passages, and emerged at the entrance. My friend Rebecca drove me there, a two-hour car-ride from Palo Alto. When we finally stood in line, one copy of the book in Rebecca's hands (I bought the audiobook, performed by Neil Gaiman himself), we actually didn't talk to each other for a good 15-20 minutes. I concentrated really hard on my hands and fingernails while Rebecca pretended to read the book. It wasn't because we didn't have anything interesting to say to each other. It was because Gaiman's fans were monumentally more interesting than us! We were shamelessly and happily eavesdropping. 

Some gems from the conversations around us (forgive me, I am paraphrasing):
I would gladly stand in line all night just to be in the company of a god [Neil Gaiman] for a moment.

Who the hell names their child North West? That kid is in for a lifetime of therapy.

[On legislation regarding women's bodies and choices:] NO! Did you, a man, just say that about my body? Are you for real?

There were more - so many more that I have forgotten. I was impressed that Neil Gaiman's work appeals to such a diverse audience. Isn't that the mark of a really good writer? I know that some people were planning to stay until 2AM just to stand next to him and get their books signed. I am certainly not his biggest fan, even though I love his work, but I understand that motivation. If I didn't have a baby waiting for me at home, I would probably have stayed, too.

When the doors to the auditorium opened, the noise suddenly swelled. I could sense excitement mounting in the crowd. Neil emerged from the curtains at 5:30 on the dot - and then there was craziness. I am sure people driving on the road outside the school could feel the sheer vitality that ran through the audience like a dangerous rumor. People stood up and cheered and clapped. A woman sitting in front of me couldn't contain herself. She started to giggle and jump and pump her fists in the air like a little girl who had just discovered a pile of candy. The adoration that Gaiman's fans have for him is, quite frankly, astounding and fascinating. I am a fan, too, a pretty loyal one at that, but I am no match for the majority. And yet, the thrill of seeing Neil Gaiman gripped all of us - it was apparent in my fierce clapping, too.

Let me just say this. Neil Gaiman is AMAZING! When he talks, you want to listen. It's not just because he has an English accent - that may be one reason, of course, but it's mainly because he is funny and charming and has a really great voice and seems to genuinely care about his fans. This last reason is really moving. For me, at least, Neil's reciprocation of the love he receives from his fans, is simply fantastic.  Neil was committed to signing all night if he had to, just so every last person who wanted to meet him would get that chance. He was also committed to signing not just as many copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane as you happened to have, but also one other book. Of course I knew peripherally that Neil Gaiman reaches out and acknowledges his fans - I follow him on Facebook and Twitter, but to see him doing so in person, and to witness the response of the crowd - the way they bent forward in their seats, hanging on to every last word he spoke, laughing (sometimes hysterically) at all his jokes (and what a great sense of humor, by the way, quick, dry, ready, self-deprecating), was an experience I will never forget. There was this almost tangible chemistry between Neil Gaiman and the audience. He commanded the room, but he did so in an inclusive manner - the audience was in on the jokes; it was not a performance, it was a dialogue between Neil and his fans, despite the fact that he did all the talking.

Since I had already finished the audiobook, I appreciated the excerpt he chose to read aloud. It was one of my favorite parts, one in which our young hero is sitting in the kitchen of the Hempstocks, the one in which there are daffodils and pancakes and jam and honey. The one in which there is respite from fear. During the reading, someone's phone rang. Neil, without missing a beat, said: "You have to turn that off. That's the deal. I read, you turn off your phone. Otherwise, it gets really embarrassing for you." The crowd LOVED it.

He went on to answer some questions the audience had submitted. Some paraphrased gems:

Question: What advice would you have for a new writer?
Neil: I would tell you to go and write!
Question: What would you say to a writer who thinks they are not good enough?
Neil: Do not feel unique in your tragedy. (This after relating a long incident in which he doubted his writing during Anansi Boys, called up his agent, and was told that he does this every time he is in the middle of a book, and in fact, all of her other clients do it, too. "So I am not even unique in my tragedy!")
Question: Something about bee-keeping as a hobby.
Neil: Everyone should have a hobby that can kill them.
Neil also read from his unpublished book for all ages Fortunately, The Milk. I won't say much about it, except that it will be released on September 17. You should pre-order it. Read it. Enjoy it. If it's available as an audiobook, I will buy both the hardcover and the audio version. It was supremely entertaining, especially the way Neil Gaiman performed it. 

At the end of the reading, we swapped the unsigned book with a signed copy (Neil signed 400 copies for Copperfield Books earlier that day), but for many of his fans, it was going to be a long night. I am sure they did not resent it, because to them, waiting in line all night was a fair price to pay for spending a moment in the company of this god.

It was a really good day.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Goodbye, Old Friends...

Unfortunately, this month's selection for my book club is not available as an audiobook, which prompted me to tell the members that I will not be joining this round. Having an 18-month-old very active toddler while also working full-time means that the little time I do have in the day is spent in cooking, cleaning, and generally loving my family. It's these little matters that matter after all.

And where do my other loves factor in? My love for reading and writing? Well, I cheat a little, you see. I satisfy the love for writing by having a dedicated block once a week, during which I typically compose entries for this blog. The love for reading, well, it was suffering terribly and actually spiraling very quickly down a slippery slope about to disappear into, it had to evolve. Sometime last year, I started to listen to audiobooks, very hesitantly at first, but with an increasing passion ever since. I am at a point where I look forward to my commute every morning, because I am eager to get back to "reading." Sometimes when I get home, I circle around the block a few times so I reach a point where I feel comfortable "closing the book." It has honestly changed my life for the better. I spend 2 hours every day on the road - that's 10 hours a week, it's very, very significant, because let's face it, people - I could be at home cuddling with my very cuddle-worthy baby during those 2 hours. It is important for me to spend this time enjoyably and productively, so that it comes at least marginally close to being as good as cuddling with the aforementioned baby. This does NOT involve listening to popular morning radio jockeys talking about whether a particular celebrity is cheating on their significant other - a couple of Adele songs peppered into their pointless banter cannot be its saving grace.

Last weekend, I decided to reorganize the garage, part of which also serves as my home office. I haven't used it in months and everything in that space looked neglected and had a layer of dust thick enough that it caused my allergies to flair up with the slightest disturbance. I filled up 5 boxes full of books I have read and enjoyed, but have not even touched since switching to audiobooks. It is time for my "real" books to make someone else very happy - someone who does not have a feisty toddler trying to extricate the book from their hands forcefully, or maybe someone who does - I don't know. The point is, I have taken all the juice out of those books. They will continue to sit on the shelves of my bookcase, gathering dust, silently screaming insults at me every time I park my car in the garage and walk past them. They are probably very unhappy in this dark space. They deserve to be in a library with good lighting and ventilation, someone to dust them off every once in a while, curious hands drawn by a strange pull from the force of their words, people picking them up, leafing through their pages, maybe finding a passage I underlined, a question I wrote in the margin, and thinking..."Hmm, this is interesting." With a heavy heart, I have to say that I must let my books go. 

Of course I am keeping some books that I simply cannot give up. All Harry Potter books. My signed copy of Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. My collector's edition of Wicked. On Beauty and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Fragile Things and Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. My Margaret Atwood books. Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen - I read that book at a lonely time in my life. It's misery made me realize I have had good luck so far. Unfamiliar Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. All books on writing technique and poetry. Poetry collections of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Billy Collins, Yeats, Li-young Lee, and Adrienne Rich. Toni Morrison books. Collected works of Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. Short story collections by Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates. And some others...

I have not yet donated the 5 big boxes of books. I want to open them up another time, just to be absolutely, positively sure that I am doing the right thing. The fact is, I am parting with books I have loved and read and loved and read and loved and read and traveled with - I have uprooted my life from one country and flown across an ocean with some of them, and moved 8 times in the last ten years within California with others. I have bribed, threatened, begged, and manipulated friends to lug my boxes of books from one place to another just because it was too difficult for me to part with them. 

All for what? So they could sit forlornly on shelves with dust particles settling deep into their pages, along their spines. They will be much happier in a library. The question is, will I be much sadder without them?