Happy Fall

Leaves on fire in the trees and crunchy underfoot, ghosts, pumpkins, mums, hot chocolate, a chill in the air, and all the best holidays right around the corner.  It’s good to be home in the fall.

Happy autumn from Frida Kahlo and me 🙂


How (not) to travel for 17 hours with a 9.5 month old

  1. Make sure your flight leaves at 2:00am. That way you’ll have to wake up your baby to leave for the airport at 11:00pm, ensuring that her sleep is interrupted and she is off to an exhausted start.
  2. Don’t pack Benadryl, ZzzQuil or any other sleep inducing nectar of the gods for her. They are surely dangerous for so young a child, and you wouldn’t want to jeopardize her health …or give her anything that might possibly help her to fall asleep at all during your journey.
  3. Go by yourself. Make sure you leave at the height of allergy, flu, cold and airborne virus season.  Tell yourself that you are a strong independent travel warrior, that this will be an adventure and a challenge, and that you are looking forward to this opportunity to prove yourself. Who needs help? (You. You need help.)
  4. Attach the baby’s pacifier to her clothing using a metal clip. That way, you’ll have to go through the detectors multiple times before you realize why you are both beeping, even after you’ve removed every last scrap of excess clothing and jewelry possible without actually walking through naked.
  5. Don’t wear slip on shoes. Make sure you wear shoes that have a lot of laces and require a bit of elbow grease. While you struggle to tie and untie, the baby can crawl around on the germ-ridden airport floor, chew on the shoes of the security guard, and bring down the stack of gray plastic customs containers onto her head.
  6. Order special meals on your flight. Once your baby has finally fallen asleep, the flight attendant will find you and ask in a yelling tone if you’re the one who ordered the gluten free meal, thereby waking your baby who will not sleep again for the remaining 14 hours of your trip. Also, the gluten free meal is basically made up of small separated portions of flavorless cardboard that no amount of salt and pepper can salvage.  It’s fine; you won’t be able to eat it anyway because you will be busy holding down the baby while she tries to dump rice on her head and throw the food tray onto the lap of the person next to you.
  7. Let your phone fall out of your pocket as you exit your first plane and head into your layover airport. Exit the plane and realize that your stroller is missing. Lug your baby and your carry-ons across the entire airport, and wait till you arrive at your departure gate to realize that your phone is missing. Consider leaving the baby and the bags behind the help counter and running back to retrieve your phone. Reconsider, and give up hope after much useless begging, pleading, and bribing of the customer service personnel.
  8. Sit next to an Asian professor who has to grade economic term papers for the entire 8 hours of your second flight. The baby is a sucker for a good gnaw on a stack of papers, and she is not easily dissuaded when she is running on a sleep deficit.
  9. Bring the baby into the plane bathroom with you, and place her on the baby-changing tray while you use the toilet. The tray is located above the toilet, so it’ll be fun to try to reach up and hold her in place the whole time and make sure she doesn’t careen into the sink, grab the highly questionable waste from the trash, or fall into the toilet itself. Douse both yourself and the baby in hand sanitizer, which she will want to drink, and repeat the whole process every couple hours.
  10. Breastfeed the baby to calm her and help her with the pressure at takeoff and landing. She will be distracted by everything around her, and subsequently leave you exposed and subject to disapproving glances every five minutes.
  11. Walk up and down the aisles for the last four hours of the trip while she cries. That way, you’ll allow all the passengers aboard to partake in her unhappiness.
  12. Upon arrival to the United States, make sure you have a suspicious story to tell the border control officers. Your exhaustion will help you look particularly guilty and sweaty as you talk. Yes, you are traveling by yourself from Lebanon.  Yes, you and your baby have different last names but she is your baby. No, your husband is not with you because he is in Turkey. Yes you live in Lebanon but will be moving to Turkey soon. (This sounds mild as I write it now, but in the moment you can be sure that I dug myself into a dark pit the more I spoke as I tried to explain my circumstances while under intense interrogation, and without having slept for 30+ hours.)
  13. Do it all again on the way home. Practice makes perfect, and soon you’ll be electing to travel alone with your offspring all the time!

Update: I had told C that although we both miss him very much, we simply will not be able to return until Isla is five years old, but then my gracious baby girl offered to take a separate flight on the way back to ease my journey.  What a gem.

September Stories

Dear Apples,

I was just doing a mental round-up of the month, and thought I’d tell you about it.

Here is September for you in snapshots.

-We take many Sunday morning walks, and we see a hoopoe land and skitter around in the dry grasses and then fly up into a pine tree.  We’d never seen a bird like him, so we had to look him up.

-I become entirely immersed in the world of Cormoran Strike for a full week, and barely think about or do anything else until I am done reading Robert Galbraith’s (gradually more grisly) mystery series.  I drink a lot of strong tea with milk during this time.

-The details of our rapidly approaching move to Antakya, Turkey are still foggy as the paperwork is processing, and the anticipation is bittersweet.  I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, because I’m so absorbed in what’s happening here that it’s still this distant vague reality that I can plan for, but can’t quite imagine yet.  My biggest concern is ensuring that Isla will be able to continue to learn Arabic, since there are so many Syrians in the region.

-We attempt a Star Wars marathon on our home projector screen, and I am surprised that I have most of the lines memorized.

-This is the first full month in our new home, but it feels like we’ve been here forever.  I’m already looking forward to coming back to it for our visits to Lebanon after we’re gone. I love it so much, with its constantly unhinging kitchen cabinet door and its lack of hot water.  Cold showers are an acquired taste (painfully shocking but incredibly refreshing)…and if you don’t reach that place of appreciation, there’s always the old-fashioned option of heating the water on the stovetop, which makes you feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

-I have the biggest case of writer’s block that I’ve ever experienced.  I think I’m sure it has to do with my expectations.  

-The Syrian civil war right across the border shows no signs of letting up.

-Lebanon’s garbage crisis continues, but we continue to be impressed by the management of our local municipality.

-I am so glad to be abroad during election season, but watching from a distance is worse.  The longer I live abroad the less I like US culture as a whole, and the more I love New Jersey and specific aspects of or places in the US.  Strange but true.

-Isla turns 9 months and loves crawling under and inside things (tables, chairs, her walker, cabinets), standing up, trying to walk while holding onto things, trying to stand without holding on, waving goodbye, finding the light in every room, talking to the cats, imitating things her great grandmother says, and riding in the cart when we’re grocery shopping, which they call a “chariot” in French here.

Happy October!

For love of words III

Below are small excerpts and clippings that I’ve extracted from things I’ve read or re-read recently.

(posts one and two)

“Experience taught Strike that there was a certain type of woman to whom he was unusually attractive.  Their common characteristics were intelligence and the flickering intensity of badly wired lamps.” -Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm

“He looked as though he had been carved out of soft ebony by a master hand that had grown bored with its own expertise, and started to veer towards the grotesque.” -Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling

“He could see a new set of muscles hardening in the right forearm of his wife, Teresa, from the constant twisting of oranges on the juicer while their children held up their cups and waited for more.” -Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

“If a man can’t build a violin, he may as well make pizzas in a former violin shop.” -Molly Wizenburg, Delancey

“Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.” -Marilynn Robinson, Home

“But unlike his brothers, Henry had a redeeming attribute.  Two of them, to be exact: he was intelligent, and he was interested in trees.” -Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

“For here was the hole in Alma’s theory: she could not, for the life of her, understand the evolutionary advantages of altruism and self-sacrifice.  If the natural world was indeed the sphere of amoral and constant struggle for survival that it appeared to be, and if outcompeting one’s rivals was the key to dominance, adaptation and endurance–then what was one supposed to make, for instance, of someone like her sister Prudence?”   -Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

“To see a thing in its proportion, whatever it was, to draw its outlines true and sure and simple–that was bottomless content, which lightened all the world.” -Pearl S. Buck, The Proud Heart

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On Ideas and Execution

Dear Apples,

Yesterday I was brooding for much of the day.  It was the last day of a long weekend (Lebanon was on holiday for Eid Al Adha), and the fourth day in a row that I hadn’t written, and the internal pressure had really revved up.  My story has been running all over the place like a capricious teenager, and I have been sitting and wondering how to pull it back on course, and asking it what it wants to be, and panicking over the self-inflicted deadline that will probably arrive before the plot reconfigures itself into a more promising shape.  It’s been a bit paralyzing, honestly.

C suggested we go out last night to break up the schedule, and so we went to catch dinner and a movie.  I reluctantly updated him on where the plot had veered off course, and it was hugely relieving to be able to think it through out loud and realize that there might just be a way forward.

Today I have to begin gutting much of what I’ve worked on and finding out what the essence of the story is and working from there, which feels both terrifying and exciting.  Heavy on the terrifying.  I am trying to force myself to take it slowly and sit in the ideation phase for as much time as I need without scurrying right into execution and finding that I have to scratch half of what I’ve written and redirect.  What is the balance between the time spent mapping out the book and the time spent writing it?  For me, the ideas are sluggish but the writing is quick.  It’s probably different for everyone, but I’d love a good formula.  So far, this story has taken me by surprise at almost every turn.  It’s been fun, but I am exhausted from chasing it around, and I’d really like to return to the driver’s seat and decide where we’re going before we set out.

With that in mind, I am giving myself a week to let the story percolate.  It feels extravagant and wasteful, but I have never tried it before and I am simply not ready to move forward until I have something stolid and dependable that will not run away from me the minute I let it out onto the page.

Wish me luck.

In the meantime, here’s what Walt Whitman has to say about it:

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”
Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman’s Camden Conversations

And Amy Poehler:

“You just lean over the computer and stretch and pace.  You write and cook something and write some more.  You put your hand on your heart and feel it beating and decide if what you wrote feels true.  You do it because the doing of it is the thing.  The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.  This is what I know.”  –Yes Please

And Steve Jobs:

“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”
Steve Jobs

My Writing Manifesto

For the past several months, I’ve been working on drafting a young adult novel.  Since it’s a solitary activity as well as a first attempt at novel writing, it can be hard to take myself seriously and keep pushing forward.  This podcast spurred me to come up with my own Writing Manifesto as a mission statement of sorts to keep me going when the going gets tough.

  1. You are only the conduit.

Similar to the old concept of writers receiving visits from the Muses, I like to think of myself as simply the instrument for the ideas working through me. If the creative energy is what’s doing the real work, it takes a lot of pressure off of me, and also gives me the impetus to try and channel that energy in the best way possible and to keep working at it so as to be a better conduit. On the mornings when my motivation is lacking, the thing that gets me going is the realization that I just have to play my part in allowing the ideas to get to the page.  Elizabeth Gilbert talks quite eloquently about the value of taking this perspective in her book Big Magic.

  1. You love this.

Writing–or the fear of writing–can be draining and feel immensely daunting at times.  Often I’ll get stuck or find some holes in the plot line or realize that the writing is flat, and I’ll reach a point where I’m driving C crazy and complaining about how hopeless the process feels.  In these moments it’s critical for me to remember that I am doing exactly the thing I love to do and there is really no other work I’d rather commit my time to.  I don’t think there has ever been a time when writing has not provided me with a deep satisfaction, and I am lucky to at least be trying at it.

  1. Write what scares you.

There are a lot of topics that are uncomfortable to dive in to, and it’s easy to second guess myself and chop out or gloss over the gritty bits.  But the fact is, the authors of all of my favorite novels are brave enough to go to challenging places, and that very willingness is often what makes the writing memorable and visceral.

  1. Keep going.

I am very prone to reviewing something I’ve written and cringing and wanting to give up altogether.  But I’m well aware that the only way to improve is through practice and practice and practice.  The feeling that comes after I’ve refined a patchy part over and over and turned it around in my mind for days and then finally happened upon something that holds its own is one of the very best feelings in the world.

Another thing to remember in this same vein, is that publication is not the purpose.  I’m sure it is a very gratifying outcome, but the process itself is the greatest reward.  The path to publication is paved with rejection, and if that is my end goal, it robs from the purity of the pursuit.

  1. Stay close to your people.

I really need to work on this one, but it is endlessly helpful to be surrounded (online or otherwise) by peers.  Writing can be a lonely thing.  The most bolstering solution when I’m in a pit is to talk with other people who are trying to do the same thing.  For me, this currently means reading books and articles and listening to podcasts about writing.  I know I need to build a peer network and find support in the writing community.  It is not just the critiquing and feedback that is necessary; it’s also the motivation and shared energy that’s really essential.

I’m sure I’ll have new points to add to this list as I go, but for now this is the essence of what I want to keep in mind as I work.

This is it

Dear Apples,

Yesterday I was on my hands and knees scrubbing our new floors, and the line from Wild Geese kept running through my head and making me laugh; “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles repenting.”  No, I thought, you do not. And yet there I was scrubbing and sweating and on my knees.  Surely Mary Oliver knew that sometimes bending to good hard labor is just another surprising way to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Like I was telling you before, I also think a lot about the line from Marie Howe’s poem The Gate that says “This is what you have been waiting for.”  It’s sort of a mantra for me at this point.  I’m working on a novel and want it to be done; I’m living in our new home in Lebanon and thinking forward to our upcoming move to Turkey; Isla is blabbering away in squeals and gurgles and I’m waiting for words to form, and it dawned on me that I’ve also waited for everything in my life that is occurring at this very moment.  I mean, some of it I definitely have not waited for, like the mental fray of trying to balance writing with making sure Isla doesn’t chew on the computer plug, or the hassle of trying to control the water heater so that the shower isn’t scalding or icy, but for the most part, this is what I’ve been waiting for.  I have anticipated almost all of it, and even the parts that have been hard are so valuable in hindsight, and how sad it would be not to recognize that here I am, living a life that’s all I hoped for and more.


Lebanon midsummer

The heat rolls in and turns the wild grasses to straw, and figs burst open on the trees before they stew and simmer over stovetops and are packed into dozens of recycled jam jars of all sizes.

There is a length of road where lavender bushes alternate with rosemary, and the scents of each rise up strong one right after the other.

The bars in Hamra spill open into the streets and blend together.  People sit outside and move around talking, drinking, smoking, laughing, dancing  into the night.

The electricity is fickle, and generators give out as fans and air conditioners compete for power.  Families run away from the city to the beaches up and down the coast, and to breezy mountain homes.

Isla eats eggplant, okra, eggs, bananas, oatmeal, potatoes, spinach, fish, zucchini, passionfruit, collard greens in lemony sesame sauce, but she will not eat peaches.  She rolls around on the cold floor tiles and loves to play with a slinking wooden snake the same length as she is.  The mosquitoes love her most out of everyone in the house.

We sleep with balcony doors wide open and fans on high, and the orange glow of the mosquito repeller like a nightlight, and we listen to fireworks pop into the night for wedding season.  We are cooled down by the time we wake.