Winter wind

Blow, blow, though winter wind. Thou art not unkind in intention, really, and that veiling effect of driving snow makes all the old red brick of this neighborhood mysterious and inviting rather than chunky and boring, but I’m not sure the little flying shards of frozen water you’re flinging into people’s faces at 20, 25 mph were the most fun I’ve ever had. Did I mention, it’s cold? Also the sidewalks and streets are sketchily cleared if at all and there’s a fair amount on the ground, only 3″ so far but drifts of 5-8 in spots (it’s windy in Bay Ridge, we have the ocean right by us), enough to make for some adventurous guessing of where sidewalks and curbs end.  Weirdly fun but I’m glad to be back from the post office — 3/4 mile at snow walking speeds is enough my face is still tingling and I’ve been back 1/2 hour. Safe evening commute, people. Next fall, I WILL remember to order a balaclava and silk glove liners.

What do writers, sword dancers, and zombies have in common?

I write. I dance, sometimes with a sword balanced on my head. Google ‘bellydance sword’ if you’re curious what that looks like.

Writers aren’t as interesting to watch as dancers. ‘America’s Top Writer’ is not the hot new reality show for a reason. Paint drying has far more glamor. When I’m trying to get my writer’s head on, I look and sound like a zombie. Most of me is elsewhere.

At this moment, I am trying to send most of my self back to 1941-1945 Malaya, where there was a war and an Occupation on, and once I’m there I am planning on watching and eavesdropping and sniffing out secrets and the scents of wartime food. I will have imaginary people in my head.

Some dancers wear a very serious face as they dance. Dance swords are hollow, but. Drop one on and you’ll see, it has impact. Serious business, like most dropped things in life; something breaks, possibly your foot.

Nevertheless, I personally can’t help grinning like a loon when I do sword. The sheer improbability of the thing makes me feel like a child blowing a first soap bubble, or lighting a sparkler for the first time. A thing turns into something other than itself: I, a perfectly (more or less) normal human being am standing here, dancing, even, with the edge of a blade sitting on my head, and it’s easy.

Yup. Easy. But only after you know how, after you’ve practiced, and only when you’re in the zone. In the zone, magic keeps it up, body and sword and music are one. Unfortunately this is related to the zone where soufflés never fall, stocks yield steady profits, kids never get sick, it never snows more than is pretty but not a nuisance, your nearest and dearest never irritate you…. Impossible and good things happen – for a while.

It’s easy in the zone. It’s hard to get there, and unfortunately it’s all to easy to leave it. (One tiny wrong move of the head, and boom: sword’s on your foot, have a nice day.)

Writing larger pieces is like keeping the sword up for longer periods of time. 20 secs even a beginner can do by a fluke. Couple of minutes, still not so hard. 10 – 20 mins, that’s a real challenge. It takes prep time and focus or a crazy high level of expertise (Google ‘Parri double sword’ to see what crazy high level of expertise looks like. She dances with two swords balanced at right angles to each other, on her head. Extreme expert.)

No writer finds balancing a book in their head easy. But once you’re in the zone, it’s fun. That’s you sledding down that hill, skating on that pond, skydiving, balancing that sword…

Unfortunately, sledding downhill and trying not to fall out is not the best time to, say, balance your checkbook, help a friend decide who to date or figure out why their printer won’t work. Braincells are busy elsewhere and everyday life gets interesting. Trees jump out to ambush your car when you’re parking (really, at least they do me).

In this silly place, company is a blessing. It’s lonely, not to mention slightly loony, to be stuck alone with a headful of imaginary people. But conversations in words of one syllable or less are best, and what someone’s cat did or, ‘Isn’t that a gorgeous tree’ is probably the right speed. Calm voices and emotions are best (sudden loud noise, sword or book on head, isn’t going anywhere pretty). Ladies and gentlemen, assume your writer friends are slightly deranged if they’re inside a book, and be gentle. We can be quite entertaining in that state.


Malaysian meditation technique for cold weather

Yesterday I posted a Holiday leftover poem for a cold day. Today it’s really cold, subzero windchill and Malaysia is in my mind.

We have dessert called ice kacang, which is shaved ice with lots of good sweet things on it, like aduki beans and palm sugar and coconut milk/cream. The meditation is as follows: like in bed under a lot of covers. Visualize the excess of winter around you piled up into giant mounds in a field. Now, drizzle it with your favorite sweet things. Take your time. Let the warmth of the covers sink into your bones and the visualized taste of the sweet sink into your heart/tummy (the two are closely related!). Tomorrow, or the day after or the day after that, once we’ve sweetened and eaten all the winter, it will be spring. My parents and grandparents got through living under foreign invaders in WWII (the Japanese Occupation) by devising a hundred thousand tasty things you can do with tapioca.

Speaking of which, drizzling sweet things on tapioca pearls is a wonder also.

Images: Ice kacang and sago gula Melaka.

soul food

First home-cooked meal underway since before I got the flu. ‘He restoreth my soul.’ My cup isn’t running over, but the pot on my stove is content in the moment. Italian-ish pork stewed with tomato, eggplant & capers, seasoned with rosemary, bay, thyme, oregano and garlic.

There is also tofu in the mix. The pot asked for chickpeas, but my larder had no chickpeas and my fridge had tofu. Somewhere here there is a moral. I will think about it after lunch.

NY, Grand Central: entering the city of dreams

Someday this draft will grow up and become the beginning of a story, perhaps fiction, perhaps memoir. It is the beginning of one chapter of my story, returning to NYC after many years, reentering the dream that is this city:

Grand Central, the is-ness of the space… Streams of light coming in the upper windows, the space so solid and concrete, and yet really a cavernous hall floating about further levels of caverns and tunnels beneath, no one really knew, probably not even the engineers who were meant to know, where all the caverns and tunnels were.

Riding in the train into Grand Central, on the Metro North line from Connecticut with the rich bankers and the city wage slaves wedded to suburban living, was to pass through, on the final approach to this station, sudden openings out of the black tunnels the train was going through. This, starting about ten minutes before the train reached the station. It was the signal for people to get out of their seats and begin collecting themselves. There is a putting on of jackets and folding of newspapers and retrieving of bags and packs from the overhead racks – which, incidentally, are far too narrow for comfort when they’re loaded with heavy bags.

In the middle of all this bustle, for the most part ignored by those habituated to it perhaps from birth, the tunnel opens out into now one cavern, now another. These are neither lighted nor dark: from somewhere, reflections of reflections, scattered photons bounced off walls in upper, lit chambers and so down stairwells and down, finally to be trapped in these caverns, where perhaps there was no further down, and allow just enough diffuse light to glimpse dormant trains and ghosts of trains and other equipment slumbering in the shadows on sidings in the caverns. Passing just as the eye begins to parse the shapes, are darker areas in the dark grey, barely lit dimness. Trains. They seem curiously alive in their stillness, almost more alive for being still, the difficulty of seeing them clearly in the dim light making it seem as if they were on the edge of movement. And there are ghost lines, train tracks running this way and that, and further tunnel mouths.

And then the train we were on would plunge into a tunnel again, a moment of darkness while I wondered about the cavern just left behind, who built it, what those engines were for, why it was now dark… And then another cavern would happen.

And presently one of the caverns, the third or fourth or fifth one in, wouldn’t be dark, but lit by doggedly determined institutional fluorescents in a white, would-be glare that the soot from the trains and the black of the city coats and clothes subdued. And so out of the train, onto a cement platform, giant recycling wire baskets piled high with newspapers, up concrete stairs or through doors, up and out. The closer to the main level and the outside one gets, the wider and more comfortable the corridor or stairs. And then there’s the Deco opulence and high, high ceiling of the Grand Concourse: illusion of dream fulfilled, journey’s end that is really only journey’s beginning.

The place as a whole is a maze, a mountain, a mystery. From the outside, panting around on the wrong street, it can be just a blank concrete wall. From the right street, a building with a dozen openings, a clock-tower, windows….

It is the dwarves hall in the Lord of the Rings, that goes on further than one thinks in every direction.

Desi Auntie Universal-Interference Disorder

I sent an email yesterday morning:

‘Dear N.: I don’t mean to be pushy. But can’t help myself, I’m past 50 and the Desi-female genetic disorder of universal interference is kicking in. But I have a practical suggestion…” After which I proceeded to tell her how to gather her materials together to prepare for writing a book.

One suggestion, non-stupid, was to use a Wiki or WordPress site like this blog, with the tags allowing an organic swim through any angle of the material, for all those times that one doesn’t really know what one is doing and it’s nice if the structure can spark thoughts.

Another, both profound and silly, was to say, “But it’s good to remember, no one writes a book. We write sentences, sections, paragraphs… and then shake it together into shape.”

This is perfectly true. I am trying this minute to assemble a short story, in rather a hurry, for a submission deadline. I didn’t worry about it because the bits of the story are all preexisting, I just have to assemble and shake. Like an instant energy drink, only hopefully more entertaining.

The silly part of the exercise is this: the preexisting pieces of the story I am planning are quite old, and not organized in anything like a Wiki, but are flat files in a basic file tree. And I can’t find them.

Yesterday also included numerous other emails to young Asian friends — and middle-aged friends, Asian and otherwise — several of them packed with useful advice.

So not only do I have Desi Auntie Universal-Interference Disorder, I am that worst of Aunties, the kind that fails to take it’s own advice. So now you know.



“…a ship’s boiler.”

I just heard the phrase ‘face like a ship’s boiler’ on a Britcom and suddenly remembered visiting the engine room of a large ship when I was 14 (somewhere between Port Klang and Madras. Not something passengers were invited to do but I somehow talked the engineering officer into taking me down there. The engines were huge. I had totally forgotten. I’ve had some moments.


Autumn equinox tomorrow morning. It can be a time for holy weeping, the trees wearing cloaks of gold and red, sun and blood, blessing and mourning. A time to grieve, a time to walk the passage of griefs released as the trees release their garments: presently to stand, still, proud, in winter’s burning cold. Presently, friends, soon: a whiteness comes of ending — and an excitement of immanent beginning. We will die, each of us, someday as the leaves die. Life itself survives. More than you and I, more beautiful. More to be praised. And so, Holy Weeping tonight, and Holy Joy. Happy Equinox this year, this night, this perilous, wondrous time.

Verrazano evening

Night time waters under the Verrazano Narrows bridge, tonight pale salmon, brilliant white, blues from silver to night. Soundscape of water glugging against the foundations of the boardwalk, giggles of tricycling children, shushing of traffic on bridge… And now a cricket singing outside my window. I think it’s the quiet, courting song. I wonder if she will say yes.

Goodnight friends.


Mounted mirrors for dance practice, or rather cooked a meal which induced a construction-savvy friend to do the mirrors. I dislike admitting to artistic temperament, but it really has been difficult, these past few months, to work while the space around me shifted like the inside of a kaleidoscope. Glad it’s almost over.

The joys of 1st belly-dance practice with mirror in 6 months: I find out I’ve forgotten how to stand up straight, also that someone has sneaked in and put my hips in a plaster cast at some point. The subtext to this is, it’s good to have a sense of humor. Also I am sweaty (NYC, August, no AC in the room with the mirrors) and happy.


Late spring

Steady spring rain outside the windows, rich with birdsong and the rushing of passing vehicles through watery roads. But a sore-eyed sort of day indoors, with little natural light to work with; which is to say we don’t spend our time right. This time and season are for gardening, not writing. A day to prune roses.