Saturday, April 27, 2013


Back in my younger days, a lifetime ago, I sometimes went whitewater rafting with my then husband and other like-minded friends. (This was paddle rafting, not guided tours.)

Even as a rank amateur, I learned some basics about running a river. I learned about scouting rapids. I learned the importance of getting your feet out in front of you if you fell out of the raft. (An important corollary to that basic rule is don't hang onto the raft if you fall out.)

And I learned about eddies.

Eddies are those pools of water over to the side, out of the rapids, out of the current. They often have their own self-contained current, typically an internal circular motion as some water enters the eddy, washes up against the rock that typically creates the eddy, and then washes around as more water enters the eddy. Water pools and circles in the eddy because there is not enough current to push the water through and back into the main channel.

When you are whitewater rafting, eddies can be two things. They can be places you can get stuck in or they can be places wherein you get saved.

The first type of eddy, the one you get stuck in, is the type rafters work hard to avoid. My ex, who usually captained the raft from the rear tube, would yell out orders if the raft looked as if it were headed into an eddy. "Right side PADDLE!" he'd bellow. "Left side, push HARD off that boulder. PADDLE HARD NOW!"

You didn't want to get stuck in an eddy because it took so much energy and effort to break out of one. The raft could get damaged being shoved into the rocks or boulders that were part of the eddy. An eddy could be a safety risk for the rafters as well.

The other type of eddy I experienced only once, the very last time I went rafting. There were just four of us on that trip: my now ex husband, my dad, my son Ben, and me. For the only time in my rafting years, the raft flipped and we all went into the river.

We turned over at a rapid where, had the water been higher, we possibly would have drowned. My ex managed to get out on the far shore. Ben, dad, and I were swept along and downstream. Although it was high summer and the water levels were low, the current was strong enough that we were all tumbled along for more than a mile, with no way to get out of the river.

Then I got shoved into an eddy. I still remember, years later, pulling myself onto the riverbank, cold, wet, banged up, and grateful to be out of the water.

A few minutes later, my dad washed into the same eddy and I helped him out of the river. Ben did not appear for several more minutes, an interval that grew more ominous and harrowing with each passing minute until he finally popped up and we were reunited.

That eddy is what saved us from the next series of rapids, which started with a small drop (i.e., a waterfall). If we had not washed into the eddy, we were facing several miles of current and rapids too strong to swim out of, and possibly more severe injuries or worse.

Eddies are on my mind because I am in one right now and I am not sure which kind it is. Maybe I'm stuck in it. Maybe I'm saved in it. Maybe I am both stuck and saved.

At my April oncology appointment, Tim and I looked at lab reports and assessed where I was as a patient. As a cancer patient, I'm doing well. The Velcade chemo is suppressing the myeloma, and my numbers are good. All good news.

As a medical patient with a full range of concerns, I'm doing, ennnhh, okay. Shoulder shrug okay. That kind of okay. I spent an inordinate amount of early April sick at home, taking various prescriptions for maladies of unknown origin. I am better but, ennnhh, shoulder shrug.

My immune system is raggedy, my adrenal glands are battered, and I am just tired, tired, tired way too much of the time. When I talked to Tim about this aspect of my life, he listened quietly, looked at my numbers again to be sure, and then proposed I take a break from chemo so my body could recuperate.

So that's what I am doing for now. When Warren or a close friend asks me how it is going or how I feel, I reflect a moment and then say, "it's like being in an eddy." By that I mean I feel as I am kinda sorta floating around somewhat circularly, not in the current, and not enough energy to get into the current. I know the current is right there, but I am not ready or able or even sure I want to paddle, let alone PADDLE HARD NOW.

Being in the eddy means a variety of things in my day-to-day life. I haven't been writing much. Writing takes a lot of energy, both mental and physical. I think about writing, but then I float around a little more in the eddy and tell myself I'll get back to it. Instead, I have read even more than usual this winter and spring. I keep up with some of the household tasks, but when we had guests over for dinner last weekend I told Warren we had hit the "it's clean enough" level before I would have if I were not in the eddy. It took me three (four?) weeks to get the seeds started for this summer's garden. They are just starting to pop now. Fortunately, it has been a cold spring, so I really haven't lost (too) much time, or so I tell myself.

On the other hand, I walked home from work three days out of four this week. That's a first in a long, long time. I wrote this post and I started my May column for The Myeloma Beacon today. That's the first time in a long time I have done that much writing all at once. With the increasing numbers of days away from the chemo, I feel wisps of energy returning. It is not a steady accrual, but there are small gains.

So am I stuck in an eddy? Or saved in it? Am I there because I didn't paddle hard enough? Or am I there because in the midst of all the tumbling and gasping, I got washed into one and could finally catch my breath?

I suspect the nature of the eddy will change as I change, assuming my Velcade vacation continues. For now, the eddy is sheltering me, keeping me in the water but comfortably out of the current. Assuming (all these assumptions!) I will continue to improve overall and my energy levels will gradually come back online, I might start to feel stuck in this eddy. When that day comes, I may have to pick up my paddle and start digging deep into the water to propel myself back into the current.

But for now? I'm okay. I'm, ennnhh, shoulder shrug, okay. But I'm okay as I make my little orbit around my eddy. The sun is shining, the air is mild. There's a concert tonight and the apple pie I always bake for our conductor is cooling in the kitchen. And for today that might just be enough.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

One of the Great Ones

E. L. Konigsburg died over the weekend. I missed the notice in Monday's New York Times, reading it today over lunch. Seeing the news brought my lunch to a halt and I immediately emailed my friend Margo that I would have to reread A View From Saturday to absorb the loss.

A View From Saturday was Konigsburg's second Newbery winner. She won one right out of the gate with her second book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, making Newbery history that season by having not only the winning novel but also the runner-up, which happened to be her first published novel.

Back in 2010, I posted a birthday tribute to Mrs. Konigsburg, who turned 80 that year. I have posted it again below, as it says everything I want to say about this amazing author, other than goodbye.


I was working yesterday on a post called "Penny Dreams, Quarter Wishes," a topic I have been kicking around in my head since early January. Part of that title comes from a scene in a juvenile novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg.

The novel take place almost entirely in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which Claudia and Jamie, a sister and brother, are hiding after running away from their suburban home. They are bathing in the Museum's restaurant fountain one night when they discover that there are coins on the bottom of the fountain pool:

The bumps were pennies and nickels people had pitched into the fountain to make a wish. At least four people had thrown in dimes and one had tossed in a quarter.
"Someone very rich must have tossed in this quarter," Jamie whispered.
"Someone very poor," Claudia corrected. "Rich people have only penny wishes."

As I reread the above passage, I remembered that From the Mixed-Up Files, which was the 1968 Newberry Award winning book, was only Konigsburg's second novel and that her first had also garnered considerable attention. A little online research confirmed that Konigsburg not only won the Newberry Medal for From the Mixed-Up Files, but also won a Newberry Honor the same year for her first novel. She is the only author to win both the Newberry Medal and a Newberry Honor in the same year.

In the course of my Googling, I learned that today, February 10, is E. L . Konigsburg's birthday.

How could I not write about that?

29 years after her first Newberry Award, Konigsburg won a second for The View from Saturday. View is about four young students, "the Souls," who are chosen by their paraplegic teacher to be a middle school Academic Bowl team. All of them, students and teacher alike, learn about friendship and overcoming challenges in the course of a championship season. The book contains one of my (many) favorite passages in literature wherein the students, who come together for high tea every Saturday, share what day they would like to live over. Ethan recounts:

The Souls listened and were not embarrassed to hear, and I was not embarrassed to say, "I would like to live over the day of our first tea party. And, look," I added, "every Saturday since, I get to do just that."

Learning to read was a life changing event for me, as I imagine it is for many. I still remember the moment, several pages into the first grade reader, when I made the instantaneous and permanent connection between the print on the page and the words we speak. It was a lightning strike, a "Miracle Worker" moment, and it unleashed in me a passion for reading and books that has never been quenched.

By the time I was in second grade, I not only wanted to read books, but I also wanted to write them. I wanted to be a part of the magic of getting the ideas in my head on paper and in between two covers so that I could hold them in my hands. I wasn't that sure, back in 1963, whether girls could even be writers, but eventually I had the answer I sought.

With the guidance of Mrs. Judd, who presided over the children's section of the library in those days, I discovered a whole universe of women who wrote for young readers. Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beverly Cleary, Carol Ryrie Brink, Sydney Taylor, Rumer Godden, Eleanor Estes, Noel Streatfeild, Maud Hart Lovelace, E. L. Konigsburg, Lenora Mattingly Weber, Mary Stolz. (Somehow I missed out on Madeleine L'Engle until I began reading her works to my son Ben, but had I stumbled across her in my youth, she too would have entered my pantheon of favorites.) In looking back, I suspect Mrs. Judd deliberately guided me towards the women writers, somehow intuiting that I needed to know that women could write too.

Learning that women could be authors opened a door to the future for me. That realization - and their wonderful, incredible books - opened me to other possibilities for my life. In my family, the only career path was that of wife and mother. But now I knew something more: I could be a writer when I grew up.

E. L Konigsburg is 80 today. 80! When she was in her forties and writing From the Mixed-Up Files, she had Mrs. Frankweiler tell Claudia, "When one is eighty-two, one doesn't have to learn one new thing every day, and one knows that some things are impossible." By the time Konigsburg was in her seventies and wrote The View from Saturday, she populated several chapters with lively seniors undertaking new activities, celebrating a late life marriage, and wearing turquoise jogging suits. Apparently Konigsburg found the view from her seventies to be different from the view from her forties.

Birthdays are a time for gifts, and in this case, the gifts are all from the Birthday Girl. Thank you for your gifts to us: for Claudia and Jamie, for the Souls, for your willingness to spin tales time and time again for us to read over and over. Thank you, you and your other women colleagues in literature, for opening a door for me so many years ago.

Happy birthday, Mrs. Konigsburg!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Art of Novel Writing

I read voraciously. Ask Warren—there are always stacks of books and articles on my side of the little couch on which we spend most of our evenings. My piles tend towards non-fiction. Without making a precise study of my reading patterns, I would estimate I read non-fiction over fiction at a rate of at least 5-1, and that is being conservative.

Sometimes my stack of books-in-waiting will be replaced with a tower of young adult (YA) fiction, which is a genre unto itself. But rarely does adult fiction of any ilk figure into the stack or linger long in the pile.

I am not sure what it is about fiction, especially contemporary fiction. I find most of it inconsistent and unsatisfying. I don't approach each novel looking for the Great American Novel (or the equivalent from other countries), but I do always carry the faint hope for something with a little more staying power than a stale cookie or tired sandwich.

My fiction choices are the books most readily sanchezed. I just sanchezed one last night; I finished one last week that should have been tossed.

But there are exceptions. I recently read Ruth Ozeki's A Tale Told in the Time Being. I wrote my son Ben that I had started it with indifference and was unsure whether I would stay with it, but gradually the story pulled me in. When I finished, I wrote,  "I cannot recommend it highly enough. I cannot describe it, except to say I have never seen a novel structured  in quite this way, with a quantum physics thread through it that makes the narrative work." (Hint: You can read the book without understanding the quantum physics. Trust me on that.)

A really well-written novel, weaving together characters and story lines into a glowing tapestry, is an art. It is a carefully layered savory pie, with a rich vein of portobello mushrooms threaded through the zucchini and the onions. A well-written novel is a celebration and a feast.

This past week I came away from the fiction table, satisfied and sated.

The recommendation came over a year ago from my dear daughter-in-law Alise, no slouch herself when it comes to reading. She had just finished The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and wrote that the book was "sort of old-fashioned in its storytelling. Especially if you read a lot of contemporary literature, which seems to me, at least, to often be very cynical and overly opaque to the point of seeming affected...This novel, by contrast, is just plain good storytelling." (Good enough storytelling that Alise by her own admission stayed up to the middle of the night to finish it.)

I finally good around to checking out The Art of Fielding. My only regret is I waited so long to read it.

The Art of Fielding has a solid baseball foundation in it, but you need not be a baseball fan to understand the story. There is a strong current of Herman Melville too, but you need not know your Melville to enjoy the book. There are five primary characters, but you need not fall in love with any of them to follow the novel. 

What you need is an appreciation of the art of writing, the art of carefully fashioning a story. You need to appreciate the author's skill in seeing one story line run to the distant horizon, and being able to also see the other story lines joining in at a gentle sweep and strengthening the main line. Harbach exercises that craft precisely and beautifully. 

The Art of Fielding is about baseball and Melville. It is also about death, life, desire, perfection, loss of faith, and about finding that faith in oneself all over again. Like all great novels, it is about universal themes set in the most ordinary of settings.

I mentioned the book last Wednesday to my friend Mel, another book devourer, and she immediately said, "Oh, I LOVED that book." She had read it some months ago. "I remember I just didn't want it to end."

I told Mel I was afraid I was at the same place. When she and I spoke, I had another 20-25 pages left. I knew the ending was coming, and I just didn't want to let the story go.

I finished The Art of Fielding that evening and set it on the coffee table reverently. Warren was at a meeting; I was alone in the house. I put my hand on the cover and said aloud to the empty house, "That was a great book." 

I emailed Mel. "That was beautiful."

I emailed Alise, thanking her for the recommendation. She responded, "I LOVED it. I don't really read many novels these days (mostly non-fiction for me). But Art of Fielding was such a good, kind of old-fashioned novel. I devoured it."

I raved to Ben about it when he called to wish me a happy birthday. Ben had also read the book and was most enthusiastic about it. 

And now I am writing about the book, because it is just too good not to.

It is time to take the book back to the library. I will hand it over sadly, hoping that it will soon fall into someone else's hands. I do not buy a lot of books anymore, but this one may have to be an exception. It is a keeper.

Baseball season opened April 1. The radios in the car and house are all set to the Cincinnati Reds (Warren's team, not mine). I love baseball, and I love to hear it on the radio. There is a rhythm to a good game and an old-fashioned storytelling aspect to a well-called game. How timely that just as the stadiums roar back to life for another season that I finish The Art of Fielding.

And as in a good baseball game, where the bases are loaded, the payoff pitch is on the way, and the announcer is quiet while the pitch carries forward,  the last line of the book delivers that same hushed anticipation.

"The ball came off the bat." 


Monday, April 1, 2013

A New Blogger Out There

I have blogged before about Bill Croy, a now retired minister who always made a deep impression on me with his thoughtful, provocative sermons. Despite a diagnosis of ALS in 2010, Bill continues to participate as fully as possible in the world, in his faith, and in life itself.

I saw Bill yesterday at Maple Grove Methodist Church, where I spend every Easter while Warren plays the double services there. I waved at his wife, Dorothy, and then waved at Bill. I am fighting a cold right now, so I did not cross over the aisles to make the greeting more personal. My guess (correctly it turned out) is that like those of us in Cancerland, Bill has a compromised immune system. He did not need me sharing my wealth of germs.

This morning on Facebook, Bill posted a note with a link to his new blog. Called Giving Wings to Thought, you can find it here. His first post is about community, a topic I hold near and dear to my heart.

Welcome, Bill, to our community of bloggers. And welcome Bill to our community of bloggers.