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Chandra's Blog


Entries in writing and parenthood (15)


This Mother's Prayer to the Gods of Winter



Dear Gods of Winter, 


This year I have exclaimed over the beauty of your sparkling abundance,

I have photographed the crystalline wonders of your creation,

I have sled with small children in the wake of your glory.

I have dutifully shoveled the fruits of your labors, 


even bringing your pearlescent bounty into my home

to warm upon the cockles of my stove

(So that we might flush our toilets.)


Now, this eve, as I anticipate your return again,


bring your snow!


Bring enough that we might have glistening, unblemished coverage

over the landscapes,

and the golden marks outside the door left by the dog

(and the boys last week)


I am but a humble writer who has lost four days

of the solitude in which I strive to hone my craft.

But as such, I am willing,

to lay down once more, 

past the 5:50 automated call from the school

and the 6:20 iPhone alarm 

and watch another day of productivity

disappear under the layers of your alabaster magnificence.


I pray, if you must,

if it pleases you,

bring an excess of gleaming, pearlescent whiteness!

So that their school may well be canceled

and we all might be inspired to sled once more

Upon the neighbor's frosty hillside

And skate upon the glassy glory of your frozen waters.



But Gods of Winter, I throw myself at your mercy and 


oh, I beg you

 Leave your icy daggers, your fallen limbs, your cursed power outtages behind!

So that tomorrow,

and only tomorrow

I might revel in your glory, and watch

the milky piles of your majesty 

(from indoors)

and also perchance "The Sound of Music"

(the real one, I vow, not that Carrie Underwood shit)

with my daughter. 




* *** * 

the housebound Hoffspring, last storm, 2014


You are missed... 

On the fourth anniversary of Cherry's death, I will post this essay again in her honor: Dawn Chorus


How did 4 years go by so fast? And why am I not surprised that I woke up at 4 am, before the birdsong, to jot down a few little notes about my newly-submitted manuscript, to write out the homeschool learning objectives for my children, and find the perfect pair of beach shoes for our upcoming Honduran adventure?


I can just hear you reading over my shoulder, about the manuscript, whispering about economy of language, and shaping the right turn of phrase, encouraging me to be my authentic self.

And about the kids, I think that's the hardest, because you would love them so much... you would absolutely love who they are becoming. I hope you're watching. 

And about the shoes, I can feel your emphatic squeeze of my forearm. You're saying, "Oh, honey, they're fabulous!


Cherry and Max at the piano, 2005


MONDAY MUSING -- Stop. Look. Listen.

As a writer, I often find straddling two worlds: the fantasy one I am creating while my kids are off at school, and the real one.

Transitioning between the two is sometimes fuzzy, and I end up befuddled at noon when the kids clamber in, starving and full of stories and smelling like the air outside and the paint of the art room, the rubber of their gym shoes. 

I sometimes forget to leave the world of my characters with the snap of my laptop case, and I linger in other countries, in the sweltering heat of summer in the Caribbean or the heartbreak of Northern Afghanistan while I'm stirring their macaroni and cheese. 

So I'm trying a little something new these days, based on a desire to be more mindful. Recently I wrote about wanting to break up with my iPhone because I felt like it encouraged a disconnect with the most important people in my life. I couldn't do it, but one of my resolutions was to be more present in my home life. 

I've employed a new tactic in this quest for mindfulness and it involves the wooden sign from the boys' Christmas train. I accidentally threw out the base to it in a post-holiday purge, but I've repurposed it. I'm having my kids move it around like our four season Elf on the Shelf, so that it will catch my eye in new places and remind me of the person, the mother, I want to be.

I want to look at the people I love, especially those of bellybutton height. I want to stop what I am doing--reading about war-ravaged lands or editing for a friend or finding just the right words to describe the magnetic sensation between new lovers--and look in their eyes when they are telling me about their class trip to the wood shop or showing me a recently-mastered cartwheel. 


I have asked everyone in the family to do this when we talk to each other: to stop, to give the speaker the courtesy of our eyes and ears. So far they are enjoying moving the sign each day. It's not perfect yet--last night I was in the middle of writing an email and not following my own rule, so Piper picked the sign up and stood in front of me with it like a pint-size picketer. I'll let you know how it goes. 


In the meantime, I'd love to know: what do you do to stay present? 

* *** *


Writers on Wednesday -- Darin Strauss

Last year, I wrote this Favorites on Friday post about books so good you stay up late to finish them, specifically Darin Strauss' new book Half a Life. This is the essay-length memoir featured on This American Life, the book Elizabeth Gilbert called 'staggering and unforgettable'.

I was first aware of Darin at NAIBA conference last September when all the authors were invited to stand up and introduce their upcoming book in two minutes or less. Unlike me, who had grabbed what I thought was a packed suitcase from my DC trip but was in fact empty and left me scrounging around Atlantic City outlets late at night searching for something writerly to wear, Darin looked like a seasoned, veteran author. Which is to say he was wearing an air of authority, a serious expression and a really nice tweed jacket. If I remember correctly, there were even suede elbow patches. 

Half a Life was recently released in paperback and I had a chance to interview Darin, talk about his book and writing in general. Please enjoy the interview below: 


CKH: When one has a life-changing event like the car accident in Half a Life, it's easy to imagine that it colors many experiences with a broad brush stroke. How difficult was it to choose what to include and what to leave out when telling this story?


DS: It was hard, as any story is hard. I tried to think of it as a novel -- a story with an arc, and characters, etc. Then I tried to structure it that way. All the same, because it was all so close to home, I needed a lot of editing help with this one. A friend, David Lipsky (a great writer himself) was a HUGE help in this, and everything else.  


CKH: I read Half a Life in one breathless evening; I couldn't put it down. You have other books that are fiction and have very well-paced plots. What were the biggest differences for you between writing this and fiction?


DS: You're a nice woman.  I tried to minimize the difference. Only the obvious one remained, I hope, by the end: that one was invented, and the other was as close a representation of the truth as I could manage. Or, better to say it was the truth of my memory of the event. 


CKH: What is the writing process like for you? Which parts are your favorite and which feel more like work?


DS: It's all work. If it comes too easily, I'm generally suspicious of it. (And generally for good reason.)


CKH: There is a very moving scene in the book where you revisit the scene of the accident with your infant sons. What do you expect or hope they will learn about you when they read this story later in life? 


DS: Wow. I don't know. I don't think you can make any good book answer to one simple lesson. I hope it's a story they can relate to, and that they come to know their old man a little better. 


CKH: I picked Half a Life up off my nightstand stack because I try not to read fiction while I am in the first draft of writing a new novel. It's all about consistency of voice; I'm the person who starts unintentionally mimicking the accent of those talking to me. Do you have similar rules or quirks? 


DS: I try to read as much as possible, actually. I feel like if a lot of voices filter in, it'll make an interesting mix. If you have enough influences, the mix is original, and that becomes your voice. A little Bellow, say; add a little Nabokov and Lorrie Moore, a touch of Martin Amis and another of Hemingway; bake for ten years -- and voila! 


CKH: My brother was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness when we were both in college and I was afraid he would die when I was living abroad, working in an orphanage in Eastern Europe. All that year, I dreamed about coming home and carrying his dead body around with me for months to make up for the time I was gone, imagined taking his physical body with me through upcoming life events like a really macabre "Weekend at Bernie's". You mention feeling Celine's presence at important moments in your life. Do you still feel she is with you? Has the book being out, doing interviews, talking about her, brought her closer to your life or has it allowed you to make some peace and create some distance?


DS: I think both, in a weird way. I'm more conscious of her than I've been in a long time, because I'm often talking and writing about her. But the whole thing -- writing, talking about it, listening to people who've contacted with similar stories -- has been therapeutic.


CKH: I ask everyone this question; lots choose not to answer. Do you have a favorite word? Least favorites?


DS: 'Closure' is a least favorite. I like most of them, though, if they're used well. 


CKH: What has been the most surprising thing about the writing world for you?


DS: How inconstant it is; the same book can be a masterpiece in the Chicago Tribune and a dud in the Rocky Mountain News. Maybe it lost something on the trip west. 


CKH: I find I am more gentle with even my bad guys when I write now that I have kids--everyone was someone's future, someone's precious everything. As a father--how has this shaped your treatment of characters since having children? 


DS: I can still kill them off with relish, I hope. But it affects my choice of plots. My third book --- More Than It Hurts You, about a mom accused of poisoning her child -- might be one I'd choose not to do now. But I hope that's not the case. I actually like that book, at least in hindsight.


CKH: The week before my debut novel came out, I was completely shredded in the comments section of a guest blog on Lisa Belkin's NYTimes Motherlode column. While it was hard to read, I realized it was a gift since these readers were attacking me for a parenting choice, hitting me where I lived, questioning my abilities as a mother, and it made lukewarm reviews of my novel so easy to take--"So, what, you don't like my made-up characters?" Is it harder for you to read criticism for your memoir, for the laying bare of yourself and the real events in Half a Life


DS: It is, but people have generally been really nice, so I think I've gotten off pretty easy.


CKH: Last question, I promise. What's coming up next for you? 


DS: I'm doing a literary novel for Random House, and a young Adult adventure series with David Lipsky, the friend and genius-grade writer I mentioned above. 


* *** *

BIO: A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, and a winner of the American Library Association's Alix Award, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and numerous others, Darin Strauss is the internationally-bestselling author of the novels Chang & Eng, The Real McCoy, and More Than It Hurts You, and the NBCC-winning memoir Half a Life. These have been named New York Times Notable Books, Entertainment Weekly Must Books of the Year, and NewsweekLos Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon, Chicago Tribune, and NPR Best Books of the Year, among others. His work has been widely anthologized and excerpted. Darin has been translated into fourteen languages and published in nineteen countries, and he is a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU's creative writing program.


Monday Musing--It's Just a Number, Right?

A few days ago, I hopped on the scale to get the base reading for a puppy weight check. What? What's that?The scale must have been on a grout line or something, but no... there it was. It wasn't horrible, but it was a number I haven't seen since I was on my way up or down from having a baby*. And while that would be a welcome surprise, I'm pretty sure that's not the case, as a decision we made in early 2008 would make that somewhat of a medical miracle. 

I should be clear here--I'm not popping any buttons, we're talking maybe three (five) pounds, but when I reflect back, I realize that putting on my favorite Lucky jeans has been making me feel more breathless than fortunate recently. 


So what's the story? I read author Nichole Bernier's clever interview about what gives when wearing the hats of writer and mother, about how it is difficult to keep more than three balls in the air at once. This year, I added the new ball of having my kids home all the time to my juggling routine, so there was WRITING/BOOK TOUR, HOUSE, KIDS/HOMESCHOOL. Like Nichole, I watched exercise fall out of rotation more and more. (And if you ask my husband, he might point to a few other items that have been more backburnered this year. Yes, I'm talking about the ironing.)

The kicker is, I do exercise; I still run, but it's the same 3-6 mile routes I have since I was eighteen. In the winter season, I play ice hockey, and there's co-ed field hockey once a week March-November. But I don't go to the gym. I haven't since 2007, when I had my kids on a delayed vaccine schedule and we renamed the day care room at LA Fitness "the germ" for everything they brought home from there. The most serious 'workout' I do is the Gilad fitness show on cable--not rigorous and so ridiculous to squat and curl in my living room where swinging a weight too wildly could brain one of the kids bopping and sweating alongside me. 

While I went through the usual teenage weight angst, rib-counting and dieting dramas, as an adult I have been lucky. Pregnancies were kind to me and breastfeeding melted the pounds right off again. I eat pretty much what I want, play the sports I like, and I look pretty much the way I want to. (Though of course who is ever really satisfied?) Part of this is because a lot of the things I like are relatively healthy--roasted kale, quinoa, grilled tilapia and grape tomatoes with a little shredded cheese stick is one of my all time favorite meals. Our family doesn't eat much meat and we've been gluten free since 2005. As a result, we don't eat out often. My biggest vices are bacon and dairy--I could go the rest of my life without ever having another bagel, but removing cheese from my diet is unthinkable. And then there is the sugar in my tea, a must. And white wine... 

So how to handle these unwanted extras on the scale? Do I tell myself it's just a number, and focus on the more important things? Could it be that I'm crossing over into that new phase of life where, post-35, a woman has to work harder, literally run to stand still?  Or maybe I need to do the hospitable thing and invite these three (five) random pounds to stay? After all, they got up in the dark with me on those early writing mornings and kept me company while I drank sugared jasmine tea and wrote about a fictional marriage falling apart. These three (five) pounds traveled all over the country with me on book tour, eating nachos everywhere from the deep South to the Pacific Northwest. (It's a disorder--if there are nachos on the menu, even in a Chinese restaurant, I am literally unable to order anything else. Ask J about the crab shack in Outer Banks.) I'd like to be a gracious host, but I don't think the pounds can stay. Summer is here and trust me when I say with my short legs, 'mom-style' tank suits do me no favors; I've got to be able to sport a two piece. The extras must be cut.


My first line of attack has been to add a little more intensity to my runs--to pick a route with the hill I mention in this essay more frequently and try, despite the summer humidity that makes it feel more like swimming, to go more often. 

Secondarily, I have examined my diet and I've come up with a few likely culprits:

1.) Nutella--I buy this in the jumbo size jar and Pippi and I have 'tella toast 'n' tea almost every morning. People we stayed with on book tour could not believe the amount of Nutella we can go through in a week. This is not negotiable. Do you see this face?

Morning Ritual

Would you leave this face hanging when it came time for our morning ritual?

2.) Summer mojitos-- every summer, the mint patch under our cherry tree goes wild, and J and I are forced to harvest it, to keep it in check with nightly mojitos during our evening walk. These are his amazing concoction of muddled fresh lime and mint, ginger ale, Bacardi and sugar on the rim. Swoon. There are so many reasons I love this man.


Which leaves us with this:

3.) Grilled vegetables-- this is the only other thing I can think of. It's summer, and we're grilling more, which means asparagus and sweet potatoes and peppers and onions drizzled in olive oil outside on the grill. Olive oil is fattening, right?


So the cut that needs to be made is obvious. It seems a shame, with summer's bounty and all, but I sure am going to miss those veggies. 


* *** * 


*This is not entirely true. Other than pregnancy, there was one other time when I weighed more than 125. It was at the end of my freshman year of college. Seventeen years old, at The University of the South, away from home for the first time, I discovered beer. Thursday nights, my roommate and I would buy Falstaff by the $10/case (it's no wonder I still don't like beer with that as my intro!) and there was no amount of D3 field hockey or dining hall salad bar (albeit with liqui-lard ranch dressing) that could combat guzzling those before heading out the ATO house to drink more of it while standing on our heads. A complete cliche, I gained the dreaded freshman fifteen.