January, and the days will only get longer from here, sun creeping into our homes earlier each morning until we can barely remember waking up in darkness – earthworm eyes blinking through nighttime soil to greet the light. Persephone rising toward the surface from the Underworld. To me, this time of year still feels like a descent, a slow fade into the black earth. Perhaps it’s because we’ve come to the end of the gauntlet of holidays that celebrate light, with months ahead unfolding like a long carpet of grey. Despite the meteorological evidence that we gather more light with each day that passes, the post-holiday stretch falls into shadow. With no celebrations to draw me out, I turn more toward hibernation than hygge. I am pulled into stubborn reflection, teased by regret, visited by grief – the kind left unprocessed by the churn of the year and its insistent momentum. Ghosts line up to be acknowledged, avenged. There are questions: did I do enough? Did they know how very loved – sacred even – they were to me in life? Did I say It? – the only questions that matter as we sift through the ashes of writing drafts or moments with mentors, friends, mothers: did I appreciate their light, stoke it with the perfect word and deed, or watch them burn down, too shy to risk a singed ego?

Does this belabored metaphor belong with the kindling as well?

There is a reason the sight of a bonfire can hypnotize. A fire is time – and its irrevocable loss – embodied but still veiled, mysterious. Hindsight – squinting backward into darkness when the candles go out, has a bottom, an end point where questions can gather. At this time of year, we expect answers, neatly wrapped. Winter issues a silent reply, urging patience, breath, the cold density of earth against our flesh.

What a Difference a Decade Makes

I’m reflecting today on how lucky I am to be a part of the No, You Tell It! community. Ten years ago, Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons launched a unique storytelling series in which writers pen a true-life tale based on a prompt, then swap stories with another writer to read aloud in front of a live audience. The series has grown to present the work of more than 50 writers, and last month, Palm Circle Press published the No, You Tell It! 10-Year Anthology, which includes a personal story I wrote in 2012. The experience allowed me to make sense of a devastating live event and welcomed me into a close-knit cohort that became my first writing group and remains my most trusted literary audience.

I couldn’t be prouder to be in such smart, loving, wicked company. The Anthology is available on Amazon, in paperback and as an ebook.

Buried in Plain Sight

“Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

There is a cemetery in my neighborhood and I spend a lot of time in it. I don’t work there; I’m not a goth teenager or a CSI detective. I go there because it’s quiet and there are trees and very few other humans – living ones anyway. I go there to read the names of the dead and whisper them out loud as I walk. 

When I slip through the cemetery gates there is a sigh. Audible only to me under my mask, it’s an exhale of relief at the hush, the profound depth of silence that greets me. Funny that I should want to escape from noise when so much of the buzz of pre-pandemic life has been muted. The sounds that punctuate my work-at-home existence are decidedly few and mostly white noise, a droning orchestra composed of refrigerator whir, radiator clank, laptop grind – the latter slicing its fan blades through the dusty air of my apartment like great stones at a mill pulverizing dust into dust, air into thinner air. At the cemetery the air feels lightweight, somehow less work to breathe in. I move through it easily, without any of the vigilant planning that goes into a trip to the laundromat, a grocery run, or riding the subway these days. 

Everyone at the cemetery is seeking exercise or solitude or communion with the dead. For me it’s solitude; the paths are wide enough that I can avoid anyone, even when my foggy brain is distracted by worry or the beauty of a particularly elaborate headstone. This is what I want: to drop my guard, abandon any sense of social obligation. Being able to choose my path, to slow down for a closer look or run fingers over cold stone, feels…luxurious. Indulgent. So I visit a lot – more so now I know that my family is here.

I first met that family last year on Boxing Day, when I searched out the headstone marked “Kibbell”, squinting at a printed cemetery map with the wind cutting through my winter layers. The sun was already dipping low in the sky; I could have waited until the next day, but instead I rushed, pulling on a jacket and hat as if I was running to meet long-lost relatives in the flesh instead of in the ground. My hurrying felt ridiculous – they’re not going anywhere, and if they’ve waited this long for me to come, why not another day? But no – I was seized by sudden joy, at once foreign and thrilling. The ancestral link had been made by a cousin whose genealogical research revealed that someone in the family had emigrated from England to Brooklyn in the mid-1800’s. Green-Wood Cemetery, just minutes from my apartment, has an online tool to look up the names and birth/ death dates of its residents. I typed in the vitals and threw my head back at the result, a joyful half gasp/ half laugh jolting through me: finally, a reason to feel at home in Brooklyn. Finally, a way to feel fully American.

I am American-born but my parents are not. They arrived here from England in the 1960’s, drawn across the Pond by a job for my father and the broad spectrum of opportunity it promised. My mother, always a willing taker of chances who said YES and why not, bravely accepted what must have felt like a huge risk to the closeness of her family as well as her independence. At the time, she and my father had only been married a year.

Once in the States, my parents learned, adapted, settled, but stopped short of becoming fully Americanized. They kept their English passports and never naturalized as citizens. They “went home” every summer for an extended visit and once I was born, so did I. As a child, these visits meant parties in my Aunty’s back garden, trips to museums and the theater on the Tube (marveling at how my mother’s familiarity with its architecture never seemed to fade with time or distance), and the knowledge that I was part of a vast network of cousins – an instant gift of belonging for this only child. I returned from England each summer with an odd transatlantic accent and a bifurcated identity that was just a taste of what my parents felt every day. I began to see the US as they did: with appreciative puzzlement and occasional scorn, a kind of double vision with one eye theirs and the other my own. 

Over the course of my growing up we moved around quite a bit, occupying five houses, four cities, three states, and two coasts. I felt some degree of attachment to all the places we lived, but never rooted in any of them, the tethers of my identity fastened firmly to people rather than land. I resisted answering the question “Where are you from?” lest I display insufficient knowledge of the place I named. I am still chasing that rootedness, even in England where my relatives live and so many I love are buried, where the weave of family stories wraps me tight, where half my life ago I stood at my mother’s memorial in a cruel season that nearly ground me to dust.

So this news that I have ancestors buried in Brooklyn is a twist I did not see coming. It seems that a great-great-great-uncle of mine emigrated to the US 112 years before my parents landed at San Francisco airport. Similarly lured by opportunity, Benjamin and Edith Kibbell left London in 1855 and settled in Brooklyn. According to public records, they were married in Whitechapel, an area of East London not far from where the Kibbles (there is historical debate over the spelling) who are my direct ancestors originated. Newspaper clippings and obituaries indicate that Benjamin worked in “the print” (as my Cockney grandparents called publishing), by the end of his life achieving some renown and leaving behind an entirely American line of descent.

Is this what it feels like to belong here, to feel authentically American? Robin Wall Kimmerer doesn’t say “belong to a place” – a phrase that holds a certain inevitability, the faintest hint of fate in its flavor on the tongue. Instead she says “become naturalized”, the same words used to describe an immigrant becoming a citizen. Still, it’s unusual because “natural” in other contexts means “native”, a condition you’re either born to or not. How do you “become” from a place? Perhaps you remake yourself in its image, sculpting a doppelganger from its materials, carefully choosing or discarding parts of the person you were in the old place. As a newcomer you quickly learn which parts are desirable and which to leave behind. You learn new jokes, new cultural references, and the old ones you store deep in a pocket and take out when you’re alone or with your immediate family. You create a seed pod, a closed family unit with a hard hull, where your children learn alongside you what it means to be different and what it means to belong.

A seed, with its protective coating, is designed to be transported anywhere without harm to its interior. But seeds are also made to be planted, and what if the new place welcomes you, draws you into its soil with a kind of belonging you didn’t have back home? What if you find new family there, the kind you choose and who choose you in return – do you have a right to say “I am from here”, even if the flesh of your heart was forged in a different womb? Maybe you earn that right when you immerse yourself in the life of a place, make an offering that says:

Take this flesh that runs with my blood and accept it into the body of your earth; let it decay and nourish the things that grow from here. I give myself, my family, the future of my rotting bones. I choose this as the place where descendants will visit me, where strangers will brush dirt from my headstone and pronounce my name aloud
in a whisper.

On a recent visit to the cemetery a towering pine tree reached out to me, its long springy branch descending from 30 feet up all the way down to where I could touch it. I would swear that it saw me approach and, with a boost from a gust of wind, swayed downward, beckoning for my hand. I didn’t hesitate or look to see if anyone saw what I was doing. Instead I kept walking until our two limbs met, completing the circuit from roots to trunk to branch to my extended arm straight through my body and back into the earth. I thought of Robin Wall Kimmerer, how she encourages a kinship with the earth and its offspring: the plants, animals, even the rocks. She points out how the earth takes care of us, reminds us to ask permission for what we need, and to say thank you. Her tradition, from the Potawatomi Nation, is to leave an offering of tobacco in thanks for anything she takes from the land. My eyes immediately went to the floral arrangements, real and artificial, left by mourners, as well as the sacred objects placed in observance of traditions from all over the world. After more than 25 years in New York, I am still getting to know this place. But if they can belong here, so can I.

The silhouette of a person on a path through a wooded cemetery.

Lifespan of a Mask

How long will we need these masks? What will they become – the standard contents of purses and backpacks, a selection kept on hooks by the front door to grab in haste or routine as we briskly attend our days? All this indulgence in personalization – choosing prints, the softness of the fabric, elastic or ties – will it seem absurd, embarrassing once history etches the final toll?

When masks drop away and the veil of fear is lifted from the everyday, what world will we emerge to, blinking and soft-skinned? Will we prove able to claw out from inside ourselves, scratching away the cocoons we wove so carefully from strands of new self-knowledge?

Already I have to clear the cobwebs, push myself to exit the apartment; it takes some convincing. Once over the threshold I remember the world, its heat and infinite atmosphere unspooling above me and I want never to go back inside. But arriving at the threshold means stumbling over a tangle of considerations: so many choices, outcomes snarled together; each requiring thought. Over-thought. Think again. Contingency. Supplies. A packed bag. Every day a Go Bag.

Consider the architecture that connects you to me: filaments, sticky and fine, reaching from my body to yours, to his and theirs, until we’re suspended in a net of words and deeds and shared experience, ricocheting through time like a spider riding an air hockey puck – it leaves a thread but is far too quick to track with the eye. We’re mounted in a constellation, a web made of time and assumption, with fibers that stretch, retract, break open in spots like hosiery.

Sometimes we need it to break: snip the cord to a familiar face, let it fade from view, and watch an entire life drift beyond reach. What if I unfriended you, deleted you from all my devices? Would it erase the past, destroy the web with spiteful childish hands, unconcerned that what’s gone might never be restored?

Right now we all want to blow things up. The fireworks tell us that. From rooftops and open streets, covert bands of my neighbors launch nightly displays of glitter and spark from contraband tubes of paper and gunpowder. Paper from the chopping and mashing of trees; gunpowder from potassium nitrate distilled from crystals formed of bat guano which is mainly fruit; sulfur from the hot center of the earth; and charcoal, a gritty fossil. Mingled together, it’s a bonfire of a bonfire. Burning what is already burnt. To purify? To destroy the structures that bind us but no longer serve? We’ve been stripped of so many familiar channels that kept us connected and found we can survive anyway. Why not incinerate what we don’t need? Pile it between us; turn it to ash.

The Fabric of Us

I am writing. I keep writing. But only in bits. Snippets. Short spurts.

I read over what I’ve written. I exhale. Is this something? Is it anything? How would I know?

My hands are busy, my body always active, anxious, and my mind? Adrift, staring up at the sky on a raft far from land. Sounds, images, scents, sift up:

A sigh – our radiator stirring like a great beast in its sleep: first a wheezing inhale then the repetitive clang announcing heat.

Constant sirens – soft then strong, insistent. Receding to the back of consciousness, but still present. My ears track their progress on a Doppler arc – is it our block? No, not tonight; sleep. Or try to.

The daily ritual of Vitamin C on our tongues – a sacrament, a talisman against infection, a comfort.

The endless ritual of washing – masks, hands, everything that comes through the door. Fascinating how vulnerable the print on food packaging is to rubbing alcohol. Ink staining the palms of my hands.

Rubbing alcohol – once the childhood smell of fear (a shot!), now the smell of safety, reassurance.

The first thing I notice about anyone on the street is whether or not they’re wearing a mask. For many in the West, a mask has not quite shifted from the look of threat (what are you hiding?) to the look of protection. Jokes about bank heists.

Avoidance, physical distance, as a mark of courtesy, deference, care.

Every day an exhausting tunnel of work. The guilt of having work.

In the city we are suffocatingly close to our neighbors but somehow more visible to each other now, our daily routines exposed through windows because we’re Always Home. I’m wearing shorts, a tank with no bra, and the curtains are open. Normally I would shy from the frame, but these days I think “Let in the light. Let them see.” We are all seeing more of each other, though our faces are masked. Also less, as struggles are kept from the phone camera lens and anguish vows to be silent, stoic.

Sitting in front of my laptop I can’t help but think of a cockpit. I plug in, all wires and earbuds. I curl into the cramped space to pilot around a world that feels entirely virtual. The physical world drops away. The virtual is where the ‘real’, the in-person happens – it’s the only place we connect without barriers, protocols. It’s escape, touch where there is no touching, emotion, sharing, checking on each other. We have dance parties here and it feels like we’re dancing together. We’re in the same room because there is the same music and we can play – share moves and expressions – and in this landscape of distant islands, that feels like a miracle: There you are! Here I am! It’s signal flares and messages in bottles; it’s Griffin & Sabine; it’s letters by carrier pigeon; it’s smoke signals; it’s semaphores; it’s Morse Code. Let’s return to the old forms, old before any of us were born: the ticker tape, the telegraph, the phone. Let’s have a parade where we all send messages at once and they cascade down around us like waterfalls of code: 0s and 1s blinking on and off, black and white like the opening to The Matrix. Maybe this is looking behind the veil, seeing what’s (in here) instead of out there, finding out what we’re made of, what our relationships are made of: Poly-cotton? Viscose? Taffeta, Darling? A 1970’s flammable blend?

The telegraph machine taps out: What. Are. We. Made. Of.

We may not want to know but we’re going to find out.

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn NY

Found (in) space

Space is precious: the expanses of breath around us and between us, the places we hold sacred, the space we take up and that others afford us. Among defined physical spaces – a room, a church, a clearing – the ones we treat with the most hushed reverence are either endowed with a specific, bold purpose or exist free from any expectation. Creative spaces are both – they’re intended explicitly for making things happen: collisions, new growth, reflection, refinement, but also need to be approached without too many obligations. Without that formula? Nothing happens.

When I’m navigating the daily responsibilities of my life – dodging, pivoting, prioritizing – any space I can carve out for creative work feels like a tiny miracle. If I am awarded a space to be creative, I am grateful. Whether there for a week or an hour, I make myself at home. I move into it. I move in it. I take ownership. I make it sacred, make it safe, but give myself permission to expand into every inch, to squeeze out the time spent there until its last second. In other words, I get comfortable. Then I work.

I always take a picture or two, to capture the feeling of possibility and keep it with me as a reminder when I’m stuck. Taken as a set, these images ground me, bring me joy, award me a sense of legitimacy when I’m seized by doubt: “Where the hell is this going?”, “Where did it begin?”, “I don’t even remember why I started this.”

When in doubt, I retrace my steps. The pictures help.

These are a few of my favorite work spaces from recent (and not so recent) years. Steeped in stillness or pummeled by ambient noise, squinting at shadows or flashes of bright sun, I wrote play scripts, essays, poetry, and volumes upon volumes of speculative, expository blather. The physical spaces held me and underpinned every word with layers of dust, piles of leaves, curious artifacts, and the inevitable thrum of humanity nearby, whether on the other side of a wall or a wide, wild field.

The spaces range from industrial rooms with little light and the least ergonomic seat-to-writing-table setups imaginable, to expansive outdoor spaces with luxurious vistas and unexpected dogs. However a work space may appear in pictures, it is never nondescript and always precious, because for the time I am there it is mine, and I never quite feel I deserve it.

Something to work on.

Backstage piano-as-writing-desk.
Visceral shush of dry Fall leaves.
So. Many. Magical. Objects.
Two stories up, I could dangle my legs out the barn door.
The view came with a pack of guard dogs that I could hear barking from the 34th floor.
Speaking of dogs, these ones came out of nowhere and demanded FETCH.
A perfect nook must be Instagramm’d.


On this day for the last twenty or so years I have lit my mother a birthday candle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Today the spires were looking especially beautiful – glowing against the morning sky.

My mother was raised Catholic in an era when Mass was still conducted in Latin. A veteran of years of regimented religious schooling, she harbored a deep skepticism of faith that often lurched into malevolence after (her words) “being beaten by too many nuns”. This morning I wondered what she would think of my strange annual pilgrimage, and I tried to remember why I started doing it – why this ritual? Why here? Especially considering I was raised without the context of any religion: no baptism, no commandments, no catechism. The answer is simple, and sits apart from any doctrine. In the first years following her death, I was a ghost: ambulatory and ostensibly functional, but lost to myself. My daily commute from Jackson Heights to the South Bronx took me through Rockefeller Center, where I pit-stopped at the 53rd Street Library to work on lesson plans. One morning, this ghost was drawn into St. Patrick’s, where the smells of musty wood and incense patted the pew and invited me to sit. Lighting my mother a candle felt proper and right in a way that only cellular memory can explain. I had never done it before, but I had heard family members on her side talk of doing so my entire life: for the dead, the infirm, the hopeful.

My mother was staunch in her disavowal of Catholicism, having absorbed more than her share of its cruelty and hypocrisy, but she was a lover of beauty and a hunter of quiet. In the echoey hush of Saint Patrick’s, I sit with her and imagine where I would take her for her birthday, what we would talk about. I become a bit that ghost who glided through the cathedral’s doors twenty-odd years ago, restless and adrift. My mother, once flesh but who, for so many blank, bitter, unforgiving years has seemed more and more a ghost, existing somewhere apart, beyond my reach or the company of my heart, returns to me. She pats the pew and I sit and reflect and remember how lucky I am.

Drop the Map

If 2016 was the year of process: head-down, deep in the trenches, dump-out-your-purse, can’t-see-the-forest, who-knows-how-this-ends, let’s-see-what-sticks, 2017 was a year of unfolding. Making space. Trusting. Following through on promises I made to myself and my work. Not finishing things per se, but putting in the time and energy for underlying ideas to truly manifest. I realized that if I was going to figure out the best structure, the best ‘world’ for Photo Play to inhabit, I had to devote the time and focus to bringing each possibility to some level of fruition. I couldn’t just judge the options conceptually. I had to see them made manifest, then wade into each, try them on for size, choose your clunky metaphor.

Back field – Holes in the Wall Residency

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. I wasn’t sure I had the patience or the confidence to see any of the ideas through to even a third draft. There were so many possibilities crowding my head that I was afraid if I delved into any of them too deeply I’d get lost and not be able to find my way out. And guess what? That happened several times. More than several. I would be seized by an impulse that could carry me to the next scene or the next draft, and then…a moment of blankness, when I lost the thread of the story or the direction it was headed, and I had to stop, take a breath, and sometimes even speak the story beats out loud to remind myself of its shape. But having the experience of getting lost and having to pull myself together, pull the story back together, was useful. It diffused the fear, even the times I got lost and stayed lost and had to just walk away from the screen for a while. The scary thing happened; I allowed it to move through me – through the work – and afterwards there was a new draft. Or just a bunch of fragments, which was ok too.

This is the work of drafting: weathering waves of impulse and doubt, frustration and satisfaction. I should know this by now but I keep learning it, over and over.

Self-portrait with smudgy laptop screen.

2018 will usher in the next phase of Photo Play: a workshop presentation at Dixon Place on March 21st. This is something I have wanted and worked toward for more than two years, and again I find myself unsure I’m up to the task. But if I approach it as drafting, accept the inevitable doubt, fear, and new insight, I can find the way through by trusting that a path is there, even if I can’t see it.

One of the core ideas in Photo Play is that snapshots are like maps. We keep them safe in albums, spend time gazing at them, through them like doorways into particular moments the past. We trace our lives from there to here, and look deeply into the images for clues about who we used to be, and how we arrived in the present moment. I would love for there to be a clear map for this next phase of Photo Play’s creative development, but there isn’t. I can set goals, assemble a timeline and to-do lists, sketch an outline for the final script to follow, but the process will be collaborative and therefore impossible to predict. Though it makes me nervous, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Learning to trust myself is only meaningful if I can do it when the path ahead is muddy and steep, when the itinerary leaves room for the unexpected.

Unexpected duck!

Packing List

Space and time. Earlier this year I decided that’s what I wanted for Photo Play. In pursuit of my goal to develop it into an evening-length work, I thought about what I would need. Money is nice – and necessary in the production phase – but for right now, what I really want is dedicated physical work space, and the time to create. Beautiful luxuries for any artist. Either of them by itself is rarely enough: a room of one’s own is no use unless ‘One’ has the time to use it, and time is useless without a place to go, to escape from everyday obligations.

So I tossed out some nets, and the first opportunity has been caught: a writing residency at Holes in the Wall Collective in the first week of May. Though brief (4 days!), it will be just the thing to jump-start the next phase of my work on Photo Play: a place to focus sustained attention on its architecture and narrative through-line – something that has been sorely missing from the process so far.

I am both excited and terrified of this gift. I think every artist with a support job is always holding a little of herself back, in the struggle to locate the energy it takes to keep the mechanics of life humming along. But this will be a chance to see what happens when every bit of energy is aimed at creativity. What a leap of faith, and again, what a luxury.

For now, I prepare. In the interest of coming to work “with my pockets full”, as a teacher of mine once advised, I’m plotting like a squirrel before winter about what to bring to the residency and how to spend my time there.

In addition to physical necessities, I will bring:
– An openness to impulse
– A dedication to the value of structured time
– A willingness to let go of what does not seem to be working

I will leave behind:
– The need to know about every breaking news item as it breaks
– The obligation to loved ones and how they will fare without me
– The worry of “what if…this doesn’t turn out like I hope/ the work has no merit/ the narrative architecture I identify isn’t compelling”.

Better get packing