How do you measure a life?

Tomorrow morning I’m up and out at 6am to go to Graham, the tiny town where I was born, in far north Texas. I’m curious to see Graham, but obviously the reason I’m going is to reconnect to Big Daddy, who died of cancer in July, 1971, when I was 12.

Everyone who knows me for more than a minute knows about Big Daddy. And if they know me for more than an hour, they know the outsized force Big Daddy had on my life, relative to the amount of time we got to spend together and to the depth of our interactions. He was a man of almost no words, and he was not one to show any affection, but my picture was the only one in his wallet, and it was there when he died. He’s the one who nicknamed me Pete. His name was Harvey Estes Stone, and I gave my son his middle name, William Estes.

Big Daddy was born in a rural area just outside Graham, and lived in Graham his whole life. He lived his entire adult life in that little house on Colorado Ave (the top right yellow circle), and now he’s buried a few blocks away, in Pioneer Cemetery. His big dream was to go to Galveston one day, on the Texas coast, and he never got to do that. He and my grandmother made occasional trips to Austin to see us, when we were very little kids, but they rarely even stayed overnight. I don’t think he ever went anywhere else.

Five spots to see — and Graham is so small, they’re all very close together.

I’ll go to his house, and his grave. I’ll go to Firemen’s Park, the top left circle, where he used to take me fishing. I’ll have lunch at the K&N Root Beer drive-in, and then I’ll go by the hospital, where I was born and where he died. He worked there as a janitor when he could no longer work as a roughneck in the oilfields.

I don’t think Big Daddy finished elementary school. When he and my grandmother married, their first home was a chicken coop with a dirt floor that she raked every day. Their wedding gift was an iron skillet. His life was so small, really, contained in this tiny place — even his big dream was a small one. I can almost never think about Galveston without sobbing; why couldn’t he ever fulfill that tiny little dream? He just wanted to see the ocean once. Galveston is only a 6-hour drive away from Graham.

Graham is that yellow star, west of Fort Worth, and Galveston is the red pin, on the coast.

But Big Daddy saved me by loving me, and perhaps because of his love I was able to survive. And since I was able to survive, and hang onto his love for me, and mine for him, I was able to keep going and find another kind of father, Mister Rogers, who taught me how to be a human being. And because of those two men, I was somehow able not to hurl along the violence I grew up with to my own children. Perhaps because of Big Daddy, I had a rudimentary enough idea of love that I was able to feel it and give it to my children. Perhaps because of Big Daddy, I was able to find a happy life, to see the ocean for him, to get a big education. Perhaps because of Big Daddy, my kids were able to move into the world and create their own circles and ripples of love out into the world.

I have my own set of memories of Big Daddy, but one of my favorite memories is just a story I was told. When I was born to my 18yo mother, she and I lived with Mom and Big Daddy for a few months. When I would cry at night, Big Daddy walked me around the house. I can easily imagine tiny little me resting on his big shoulder. When my parents were able to move away and get their own little place as motel managers in Kilgore, the day finally came when it was time to go, and the story is that Big Daddy stood on that small front porch, holding me on his shoulder with tears in his eyes. He said to my mother, “Pete don’t want to go to no Kilnegorster.” (inserting syllables like that was his humor) The story she told me is that he held me tightly, and went in the house instead of watching us pull out of the driveway. She says I cried, too.

He held me when I was born, and I was with him when he died, though I had fallen asleep next to him in his hospital bed. We’d been watching Creature From the Black Lagoon, and I dozed off. When I woke up, he had died.

I often wonder what sense Big Daddy would’ve made of my life, but I think I would’ve always known that he loved me. <3

touching base

I ran out of time before we left for Indonesia to put up a farewell post with a link to the blog, so I’ll do a little of that here and then catch up a bit. Indonesia was incredible! We saw so many glorious sunsets, experienced the strangeness of ogoh-ogoh on Bali, the wonder of the second highest volcano on Lombok (and a terrible accident for Marc, and a minor one for me as I burned my calf on a motorcycle exhaust and was too humiliated to mention it to the cute young guy who was driving me), and the thrill of finding an exceptional place, the tiny southernmost island of Rote. Goats and pigs everywhere, music in the dark, white sand beaches and crystal clear water. It was a great trip. You can look at the blog here. I haven’t finished writing it yet — there’s one last day in Denpasar and the winding-up to write, but everything I mentioned above is already fleshed out on the blog, and boy are there some beautiful photographs! Not because I’m a great photographer, certainly, but because it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture there, the setting is so spectacular.

so much of my time in Indonesia looked something like this

I read TEN books on vacation, which might be my record. Two of those made it to my “absolute favorites” shelf on GoodReadsHuman Acts, by Han Kang, and Why I Am Not a Feminist, by Jessa Crispin. I linked to my absolute favorites shelf, there, so you can read my reviews of both books if you’re interested. Han Kang also wrote The Vegetarianwhich won the 2016 Booker Prize, and which was so startling and amazing I read it four times in about six weeks. When I read it the first time, I read the last word and just started reading it again immediately, straight through. Kang is an extraordinary writer, and in Human Actsher storytelling skills are surely at their peak. She tells the story of a real event — a student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, in which the government slaughtered protestors. The first important chapter is told in second person, and the disorientation of that POV choice is so brilliant, SO brilliant. It’s a wondrous book, but not a fun book (except for the fun of realizing what a writer is doing for you to create such a book).

And I’ve just found Ottessa Moshfegh, and am loving her book Eileen. Since I read brand new writers all day long for my work, it’s always a huge breath of joy to read someone who writes sentences ONLY THEY could’ve written. That’s how Moshfegh writes. No one writes like her. No one else could write like her. With my clients, most of the time anyone could’ve written their sentences because most of them are just learning how to write, so they haven’t yet learned to trust themselves and let themselves have their own voices. But Moshfegh has a distinct voice even among writers with distinct voices. It isn’t that her sentences are extraordinary in their eloquence, or diction, or vocabulary, it’s that they’re distinct in their observation and stance. I’m only about halfway through the book, but wow.

My book life is exploding — not only do I read for a living, read every other moment I can, and review for Netgalley, but I’ve just been selected as a book ambassador for Little, Brown, a publisher whose list I’ve loved for a long time. So I’ll be talking about their books in the coming years, too. So many books. So. Many. Books. I read almost every moment I am awake, and it’s still not enough.

My life is going to be changing pretty dramatically in the coming weeks or perhaps a few months, but I’m not quite ready to say it all. There are details to be nailed down and people to be told in person, face to face. It’s good. It’s a welcome change, and it gives me a lot more peace in my life. I came home from vacation to plenty of work, which hasn’t been true for a very long time (I have a queue again, haven’t had that for 18 months or so), and also to the terrible allergies that plague all of us in central Texas at this time of year. I’ve been so miserable with that and jet lag, and trying to work, so I have been slow to get back here, but I’m back….so hello! I missed you!

xoL

three things: beautiful Bali, moving on, and cussin’

FEED: I’m telling you, it’s really winter here in New York. There isn’t any snow, but it’s very cold and the skies are either gray and dirty, or so brilliant that the cold sun is blinding. I find myself looking so forward to going to beautiful tropical Bali, and I think so often about the beauty of the place.

This is the veranda off our room, overlooking rice fields. We stayed here last time (Alam Jiwa is the hotel, and our room is Jelatik), and we’re staying here again while we’re in Ubud. We have breakfast at that table every morning, and afternoon tea and cake.
This is the entrance to the Sacred Monkey Forest
This gorgeous detail has stayed in my mind, associated with the beauty of Bali

We’re spending the least amount of time on Bali, in Ubud, and the most on Lombok, but I don’t have memories of Lombok to carry me through the cold winter so these are the images that are feeding me now.

SEED: For me, the silt has settled to the bottom and I’m starting to feel space for other things in my mind besides the nightmare of our current administration, so I look forward to writing other things in this section of my daily post. If you’re in the US (or just feeling traumatized in an ongoing way even though you live in another country), I’ll tell you the final part of my path in case it’s helpful to you.

Being active is the best thing, it’s the very best way to allow other life to reemerge. It’s easy in New York because honestly, there are one or two protests or rallies or marches every single day (at a minimum). But even back in Austin, there are work days, organization meetings, events at the capitol, planning sessions — and then there are daily phone calls. No one is more phone-phobic than I am, but you get kind of inoculated to it once you learn the structure. They certainly aren’t social calls, and they follow a formula so you just learn the formula, say what you’re calling to say, and you’re done. Those are actions that count. For me, actually doing stuff has been the most helpful.

And then minimizing my responding to my Facebook feed has also helped. As I’ve been focusing on helping the silt settle, I’ve been able to pay close attention to what happens within me when I look at my feed, and as soon as I feel the tizzy rising up, I just close it. I am in the process of figuring out my posting strategy — maybe every day one action item, one bit of background that would be helpful to read, and one thing that either provides a laugh or a bit of encouragement. If I’m involved in something that might really be encouraging to others, like participating in a giant march or rally, and I think it can strengthen my friends’ hearts to see how many people there are on our side, I’ll share a lot of pictures. But otherwise, I’m trying to limit the sharing from friends’ feeds. And when I’m tempted, I ask myself if my point is just to arouse a “SEE????!!” response (and if so, I don’t share) or if it’s instead intended to ask a question or orient us. “This is happening, what is our action option?”

I don’t know, those things have really been helpful to me. They’ve kind of re-oriented me away from reacting emotionally and toward agency and action.

And now that I’ve kind of figured this out, I’m ready to move on to thinking about other things. I am glad, and I imagine you are, too. 🙂

READ: Here, I’ll start your week off with a whole new crop of alternative cuss words. Field-tested and mother approved! I actually say a bunch of these all the time, in addition to my inordinate love of the one that starts with F.

YOU’RE WELCOME.

xoxo

two things: 1/9/17

1)  Well it’s been cold and gross here in New York, with just enough snow to make a mess but not enough to be pretty and fun. So we spent all day yesterday finishing up the plans and the blog for our trip to Indonesia at the end of March. Indonesia comprises 17,508-18,306 islands (8,844 have been named, and 922 of those are permanently inhabited). The largest cluster is on Java, with ~130 million inhabitants (60% of the country’s population) on an island the size of New York State. The last time we went to Indonesia in May, 2013, we went to Java — Jakarta briefly, Yogyakarta, and Solo — and Bali. We were so-so about Java but absolutely adored Bali. With so very many islands, like Greece they’re organized in groupings. We’re focusing on the Lesser Sunda islands of Bali, Lombok, Timor (overnight), and Rote. Lombok has an active volcano, Mount Rinjani, which last erupted three times in May, 2010.

the blog head — click the image to go to the blog

Unlike our last trip to Laos and Thailand, we’re going almost entirely to places that are new to us, with one exception. In Bali, we’re returning to Ubud to stay again at Alam Jiwa (the name means ‘soul of nature’), largely, I think, because I want to return there. You can see pictures of the place in the post from that blog if you are curious; there’s something about Bali that is extraordinary and lush and creatively gorgeous. Everything they make is an offering of some kind, everything created is made with a specific kind of beauty. Unlike the rest of Indonesia Bali is Hindu, not Muslim, and you can feel that difference, and see it. I can’t wait to get back to Alam Jiwa, just can’t wait.

And the place we’re staying on Lombok that’s near the volcano, I can’t wait for that, either. Just look at this gorgeous view from the hotel:

Rinjani Lodge

It helps a lot having this to look forward to, with the political stuff that’s coming right up. And I hasten to remind myself that other things are coming right up, too, beyond all the marches and protests I’ll participate in: friends’ birthdays, poetry group and book club meetings (to talk about books!), Marnie’s and Ilan’s visit to Austin, a return to NYC, a visit to Chicago to celebrate Marnie’s and Ilan’s birthday (his first, wow), and then we’re off to Indonesia. The only bad thing about the trip is that I’ll miss celebrating Oliver’s third birthday with his family, and I hate that because I’ve been part of the others. But I’ll celebrate him wherever I am, for sure.

2) If you’re a big reader you probably already know about this, but in case you don’t: Netgalley! Create an account (free) as a reader, choose the publishers you’re most interested in (I chose the ones that tend to publish my favorite books, obviously), and then get free copies of forthcoming books, delivered right to your e-reader. You are asked to write a review of the books you read, wherever you might do that — GoodReads, Amazon, your own blog — but there is no obligation to write a positive review. You may see this mentioned if you read others’ reviews on GoodReads; a reviewer will mention that s/he got an ARC (advance reading copy), so that’s what this means. The book may not be in its final, fully copy edited form, so there may be typos, but (a) free books, (b) before anyone else gets to read them! I already write reviews of everything I read so of course I signed up.

Right now I’m reading Someone Always Robs the Poor, by Carl MacDougall (a new collection of brilliant stories from the multi-award winning elder statesman of Scottish literature, exploring themes of poverty, migration, alienation, accountability and alcoholism, with an impressive depth and emotional range) and Land of Hidden Fires, by Kirk Kjeldsen, set in Occupied Norway in 1943. They always ask for feedback about the cover, too. It’s a win-win situation if you’re broke, like me, and you love to read. There isn’t the same time constraint as with a library book, either.

A bonus:

Ilan is TEN months old now, how shocking is that?! He’s so beautiful I can barely drag my eyes away, and he’s really getting into mischief now, and is cruising around.
Oliver is getting so big! He’s super tall and very thin, and he wakes up SO HAPPY
Aww….Lucy is four months old, and just the sweetest little baby. She can never take her eyes off her mama, and she has this little honking laugh, like a goose. Apple of Pete’s eye, she is.

getting out of here

Just after midnight tonight, our flight takes off for Laos. Actually, though, we have to first fly to Taipei, then on to Bangkok, then on to Luang Prabang, in Laos. We’ll be in the air a total of 21.5 hours, and in connecting airports for 6.5, for a total of 28 hours from gate to gate. UGH. Good thing I love to read. Poor Marc, who doesn’t read, has a much harder time.

Of course we have a blog, you know me.

blog

If you click the image it’ll take you there — or URL here: http://thailaothai.blogspot.com/.

We’ll spend one night in Luang Prabang (a crashing hard night, after that brutal travel day), and then up early the next morning for a 4-hour car ride to Nong Khiaw, our favorite place in Laos. After that we return to Mairood, that little fishing village on the coast of Thailand, then a few days on Koh Mak, an island off Thailand, then a night in Taipei before heading home.

We are mostly so glad to be leaving the country right now, getting a break from the politics that are traumatizing us. Of course it’ll be here waiting and who knows what we’ll come home to, and it’s not like we will really be away from it . . . but it will be harder to be online and my online time will be spent posting to the blog and sharing pictures, so I’m less likely to be obsessively and fearfully following the nightmare.

Come with me. The mini-break will do you good, too. xoxox

not-Norway

Last year at this time we went to Norway, which was just so special. I’d always wanted to go to Norway, and I was in the middle of plowing through Knausgaard’s books with SO much pleasure, so the trip had that layer on top of it for me, especially since I was in the same area he’d spent time in the specific volume I was reading at the time. There was midnight sun, extremely gorgeous landscapes, and fjords.

he's probably 18 months old here, on Manistique Lake.
he’s probably 18 months old here, on Manistique Lake.

This year we’re staying domestic and heading to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to a place that has a life-long connection for Marc. His grandfather built a cabin on Manistique Lake before he was born, and his earliest memories, and in fact some of his best memories from his childhood, were made there.

It’s my first time going to the UP, though I’ve always wanted to see it, and he hasn’t been there in 17 years, I think, so we’re both looking forward to it. It always cracks me up that he loves to fish, because for all the reasons it just doesn’t seem like he would fish. You’d have to know him to know how bizarre it is. The first time I learned that he loves to fish I told him how much that surprised me, and he shrugged and said, “Free food.” THAT made sense. 🙂

His family’s cabin is long gone, so we’re renting a cabin on the same lake and we’ll go out on the lake a LOT, weather permitting. He still has this hand-drawn map (drawn by his dad or grandfather, he doesn’t remember) showing where the good fishing spots are, but he doesn’t need the map. He knows that lake by heart.

It's called either Gottlieb's Hole or Mitzi's Hole, but it's the best spot on the lake for catching pike.
It’s called either Gottlieb’s Hole or Mitzi’s Hole, but it’s the best spot on the lake for catching pike.

When he went there as a kid, the roads were unpaved, and directions were given (to the rare person who needed them) by landmarks, like “Turn right on the road after the bog.” When his grandfather built the “old cabin with blue-gray roof” they were the only Jewish people in the area, which they knew because they were told that pretty quickly. As best we can tell, it’s still mostly true.  When that’s a point made to you, it’s a point you keep in mind.

Fishing isn’t my thing at all (AT ALL), but I will go out on the boat with him, with my books and my sketch pad and my camera. He wants to get out just before sunrise, so I hope to capture some beautiful sunrises.

up

See Hiawatha National Forest? Manistique Lake is just east of that, so we’re kind of equidistant from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Marc has all sorts of places in mind to see when we aren’t on the boat, and Lake Superior has a bunch of them. I can’t wait to see that giant, wild place. [here’s our travel blog…]

The nearest tiny town to our cabin is Curtis, which has the strangest slogan: It won’t hurt us to go to Curtis! I laugh every time I think about it, and want them to raise the bar just a little bit. But they’ll have a small-town Fourth of July celebration, with a little parade, and band concerts, and food, and then a small-town fireworks display. That will be fun.

So this trip will be unusual in so many ways, but I’m looking forward to them all, once we arrive. The shuttle picks me up at 4am tomorrow, not looking forward to that, and I’m also not looking forward to a very long day of jam-packed travel . . . a flight to Chicago (overbooked), a flight to Traverse City (overbooked), and then a rental car and 5-hour drive to our cabin, probably on jam-packed roads, all because of the holiday weekend. Since we fly in and out of Traverse City, we may stop by the Annual Cherry Festival (mmm, cherries).

Y’all have a good holiday celebration, whatever you’re doing!

China, finally

Late tonight we leave for China — a place we’ve always been somewhat hesitant to visit for a bunch of reasons. A couple of minutes ago we realized that we’d need to deal with the Great Firewall of China; we would not be able to access gmail, nor would I be able to post on our travel blog unless we found a way around it. So a quick 1-2-3 lesson on VPNs and then some testing, and we are (I think) good to go.

chinafinally.blogspot.com
chinafinally.blogspot.com

Assuming things work out, I’ll be posting stories and pictures to the blog (if you click the image above, it’ll take you there). I hope also to share pictures on Facebook, but that’s also kind of dicey.

Although the map is a tiny bit out of date, since we now have a small overnight stop in Kunming that’s not indicated on it, here’s where we’ll be going:

green lines are flights, purple are taxis
green lines are flights, purple are taxis

We begin and end in Hong Kong, and we’ll actually spend a couple of nights in Hong Kong before we head home so that will be fun. Until now we’ve only connected flights there. Safe travels and good food to us!

goodbye!
goodbye!