The State of Not Writing

Goll Gappay turned two while I was absent from its pages. Many times, I opened this page and thought, I've nothing much to say right now. Instead, I read and felt sorry for not writing, for not having inspiration enough to write even a single line. I complained to friends, I can't write anymore. The response was always a familiar roll of the eyes, here she goes again, and a frustrated, "Yes you can. Did you even try?" They are all right, of course. And yet, I drove through the much needed Northern California rain, thought about the rise and fall of life, ruminated on journeys and their transience, and all the while I sensed a poem hovering under the realm of my consciousness. I had several dreams about my father, about seeing him after 12 years, about holding on to things that cannot be named, and letting go of those that can. I experienced restlessness over not producing anything, not even ideas, not even a phrase that could be written, let alone celebrated. 

There are so many reasons for not writing, you see. I am busy at work. My toddler is, well, a toddler. I was briefly traveling. It's the holidays. I have to buy Christmas gifts. Potty training is a looming monster. I am tired. I am not truly "present." And yet, there is only one reason to write that overshadows all of these arguments with the tenacity of its truth -- "because I must."

So, here I am again. No poem in sight, but an image from Joan Didion's Play it as it lays whirlpooling in my thoughts, "The sun glazing over the Pacific..." Nothing extraordinary about this particular image when you look at how exceptional Didion's work is. "The sun glazing over the Pacific." And yet there is poetry in it, the loneliness, the longing...or is that me trying to find all of this, identify, memorize, craft it all -- but how?

Does a poet relearn the rules of the game every time she emerges from self-imposed hiding? Take a pen. Open notebook. Start doodling. Write anything. Write, dammit, write for god's sake write, just write. It is so daunting, this wait, this gloom, the mounting anxiety in this time of silence and loneliness where there is neither comfort nor words. Sure, writers understand each other's woes when one complains, "I can't do it anymore. It doesn't give me any pleasure. It is torture." In fact, this is the exact conversation a talented writer-friend had with me a week or so ago. To which my immediate response is, yes, of course, it is torture, but for most of us there is no alternative. We must write. There is not even a "yes, but." We must simply do it. It's a double-edged sword -- equal parts injury and relief.

And so I am here, to get an infusion of relief. To relearn this art that gives me so much joy and just as much misery, but let's face it, mostly joy. "The sun glazing over the Pacific," not the sun's warmth, not the hot sun, not the yellow sun, or the orange sun, or the burnt sun, simply the sun. And the fascinating, this phrase, the sensory reaction it invokes. For now, maybe it's enough to soak this in. Then, maybe, a poem, or a few verses. Another blog. That's how it starts again. And maybe it will start tonight. If not, I must keep clawing my way there.

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

Love Like Wine

February is almost half gone and I have not yet made good on my promise to write about the ubiquitous and rather hackneyed topic of "love" this month. That was the challenge, you see - how do I write something about love that will make you want to read? Is it even possible to offer a new perspective on this age-old theme? Then, I realized that it doesn't have to be new. There are so many cycles and stages of love that I can probably draw inspiration from things all around me, or more specifically, things I have read recently. 

The February issue of Real Simple Magazine featured a supremely uplifting story titled "Four love stories for the ages," which highlighted four couples who found love later in life.  Some of them had been married and had lived through divorce or the death of their spouse. Others had just not found the person they wanted to settle down with. And they all had this in common - they found each other in the most unlikely circumstances, and many of them actually wondered, "Should I be doing this at my age?" But they persevered - because in love you have to - and ended up together. We all agree that one can fall in love at any age, but how often are these stories really told? And how often do people actually believe that love can be waiting for you at any age? In our twenties and thirties, and let's please not deny this, we are driven by the desire of finding a partner, someone who loves us, someone whom we love, someone to share our lives with. Much of this is dictated by the underpinning "biological clock" and "procreation" reasoning. But we all operate with the realization that we will find our epic love now, in our youth. No one thinks about the development of love, how it matures, or whether it matures at all. No one factors in sickness, death, divorce, or simply falling out of love. And evidently, heartbreak comes to us as it must in one form or another, and we find out that love, actually, is not as everlasting as we thought it was. 

I know you are thinking, this is supposed to be a post about love, why is she talking about depressing things? I am getting to the good part - just stay with me, OK? So then, if we know that our love stories are fragile and have the potential to get fractured by choice or by design, then aren't the stories of people finding love in their sixties and seventies wonderful and encouraging? Isn't it such a joyful thing that even after six decades or more of being hardened by life and its realities, we are able to retain a degree of vulnerability? We are able to open ourselves up to the heady excitement of new love when we have (statistically speaking) lived the majority of our years already - this is something to celebrate. I believe being in love gets better with age - and I have to use the obvious simile, forgive me - like wine. As we become more rooted in our personalities, in both our strengths and weaknesses, we also become veterans of love as we age. Our capacity to love and be loved improves as we grow older, regardless of whether we have loved the same person for most of our lives with the good fortune of continuing to love them in our later years, or we allow ourselves to fall in love with someone new later in life. We often hear about love stories that are rooted in youth, but develop to old age, but I wish stories of persevering in a new love at an old age were more common. Finding love in any age bracket should be the norm, not the exception. There shouldn't be a possibility of cultural or familial criticism accompanying it. There shouldn't be the nagging presence of a question, "Should I be doing this at my age?" The giving and receiving of love must be celebrated regardless of age (and any other artificial barriers). After all, it is one of the few beautiful things that the human spirit relies on for support and nourishment while there is far more in this world that can ravage it.

Photo 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

Every Girl Deserves A Mister Darcy

You will be hard pressed to find someone these days who married without love. Not that such couples don't exist especially where I come from, but most marriages result from months (if not years) of courtship and a gradual growth of mutual affection. This is why the romance in Jane Austen's books gives me a little wishful heartache. Meeting eligible men at grand balls, getting to know them while dancing, showing in gestures rather than words your partiality towards a person, and most importantly, falling in love after a few most formal interactions - how impossible and absurd this sounds today. And how very simple at the same time. 

I started my Jane Austen journey with Mansfield Park last month after this article caught my attention, because 1. I needed an audiobook to listen to during my hour-long commute to and from work, and all of Jane Austen's books are available for free through the Audiobooks app for iPhone, and 2. I work in a Neuroscience lab at Stanford and many of my co-workers study the representation of pain in the brain. The article mentioned above studies Jane Austen in the brain - close enough, right? 

After reading Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice, I think I know what sort of man Jane Austen would have married had that been in the cards for her. Serious and reserved to the point of being withdrawn, but kind and gentle at the same time - a kind of Edmund Bertram and Fitzwillian Darcy hybrid. Edmund in Mansfield Park is a much more lovable character throughout than Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Edmund's gentleness and propriety are in perfect proportions. He is self-effacing, responsible, and the best part - he has a ready smile. He makes mistakes and isn't afraid to admit his flaws and weaknesses. Mr. Darcy is his opposite at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. While striking in appearance and regal in countenance (and with pockets full of cash), his pride immediately makes him unpleasant company. 

It's the change in Mr. Darcy that interests me. It's the simple act of falling in love - and not just any love - such ardent love that money, connections, society, propriety be damned, he does not let anything stand in the way of his object, which is to be married to Elizabeth Bennet. A girl inferior to him in the ranks of society, described as pretty but not beautiful, opinionated, and independent. 

Ah, to have an attachment so fierce as to change one's character - replace pride with humility, adopt civility instead of haughtiness, compromise friendships and connections for one person - is that true love? Is the biggest achievement in love to change someone for the better, or does the true meaning of this king of emotions reside in accepting your significant other just the way they are, no questions, no arguments? Is it possible to be consumed with love for someone who is fundamentally flawed? 

Whatever the case, the pull of Mr. Darcy's character lies in his quest for Elizabeth. He fights for her. That's what every girl should have - a man who is so certain of his love for her that he doesn't give a damn about anything else. There is nothing more romantic than such a story. 

Yes, every girl deserves a Mr. Darcy, but then when the fight is over, and the woman is won, and the marriage is done - that's when the haze of new love evaporates and you realize you still have the rest of your life to live. What happens then? Is love ever enough? Or does the story circle back and end like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet who have known no affection in their long conjugal years, because the decision to marry was made as rash youngsters and Mrs. Bennet's mind was so different from Mr. Bennet's that the ferocity of youthful affection simply wasn't enough to sustain a healthy marriage? 

Such are my thoughts when I listen to Karen Savage narrating Jane Austen's texts in the most entrancing yet soothing tones. Yes, every girl deserves a Mr. Darcy...but what happens next?