Make It Work. Make It Beautiful.

The Cloisters (exterior of the museum)

The Cloisters (exterior of the museum)

A couple days ago, I visited the Cloisters—a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located at the northern edge of Manhattan and dedicated to medieval art and architecture. The museum, along with neighboring Fort Tryon Park, is one of my favorite spots in New York. Home of the iconic Unicorn Tapestries and herb gardens that would be the envy of any alchemist, the space hosts an energy that is not easily found in the throngs of the mid-Manhattan Museum District: quiet, natural, reflective. I love the atmosphere.

The art itself is, of course, extraordinary. And everything is art, from the paintings to the statues, the ornate wooden doors to the figures carved into structural columns. Even the sinks and the pitchers of water used to wash hands before a meal, all of it is gorgeous in a way that makes the prefabricated frames of my Ikea furniture feel shameful. The books on display are made from parchment paper, handwritten in calligraphic ink with gilded drop caps and sketches of angels and saints in the margins. Dishes, tapestries, candelabras—these simple, functional objects are presented as ornate decorations. The display of wealth is shocking, really. Chess pieces carved from elephant ivory rest behind a glass case in one air-conditioned gallery. It’s obvious that these few stray pieces were once part of a complete set, kept in someone’s home. They were probably dusted regularly by a servant and pulled out from time to time when the master of the house felt like playing a match or two. They were part of a life. It all was.

The Unicorn in Captivity (from The Unicorn Tapestries series)

On the one hand, I know that these objects—valuable in their own time and priceless today—were never the norm. I know that they are symbols of exorbitant wealth, vestiges of people who lived decadently, either ignorant or negligent of the poverty that surrounded their own happy, gold-plated bubble. I know that, if she’d been around in the 14th century, Suze Orman would have told these people that commissioning a jewel-encrusted chalice isn’t the smartest financial move.

Still, there is something I can’t help but appreciate about their extravagance. Maybe it’s the result of a childhood spent watching Disney movies and playing princess dress-up. But I think it’s more than that. What I really love is that these people, who had money and influence to burn, chose to cash it in on beauty. On creativity. On art. What struck me most during my time in the museum was the detail with which even the most ordinary everyday items were crafted. The handles of a heavy wooden door, adorned with carvings, angelic faces chiseled into the corners of a window; the tapestries used for winter insulation, woven with intricate narrative scenes. Beauty was important, and these were people who wanted to immerse themselves in it.

Stained glass window at The Cloisters

Consequently, the artist was an important person—the person they could pay to provide them with the things their money couldn’t actually buy. Talent was celebrated on a scale that seems unreachable for the modern-day creative, whose work is nurtured on a much more “indie” scale, and whose education is often dismissed as fanciful procrastination before the dust settles on the “real world” of post-collegiate life. Artistry was valued and, perhaps most importantly for the artists themselves, it was fashionable. Time consuming, non-utilitarian, trendy, successful expression—and unapologetically multifaceted.

There’s a lesson there.

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Dani Writes Reviews: ASTONISHED, by Beverly Donofrio

When I was a student in Wilkes University’s Creative Writing MFA program, I had the great pleasure of working with Beverly Donofrio (Riding in Cars with Boys, Looking for Mary). As a mentor and a person, Bev is smart, insightful, unwaveringly honest, and spiritually generous. As a writer, she tends to exhibit these same qualities–and they have never been more apparent than in her latest work, the memoir Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace (Viking Penguin, 2013).Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace

Astonished begins with Beverly’s own rape, at the age of fifty-five, as a serial rapist holds a knife to her face. She is living in Mexico at the time, a successful writer, a first-time homeowner, and grandmother to a beautiful baby boy. In the months leading up to the rape, however, she has been feeling a troubling lack of spirituality in her life. A practicing Catholic and a woman who cherishes her faith, Bev had already decided to take steps to reignite her relationship with God. In fact, she had been researching monasteries to visit just hours before the rapist crawled through her window and into her bed:

“…I, along with the entire town, felt like evil had come for a visit and it was not personal; and even though this little round–faced pervert with a big–billed baseball cap woke me in the middle of the night in the middle of a deep sleep in my own bed with a knife inches from my face, I was absolutely shocked that he chose me. This was not supposed to happen; I was supposed to have escaped: I had hot flashes and liver spots and was finally in the final stretch. I’d survived all these decades without experiencing this thing I dreaded as much as death—and had just been looking for a monastery to join, for Christ’s sake.”
– Beverly Donofrio, Astonished

What follows is not the story of a victim. Rather, it is a remarkably open, forthcoming exploration of a woman’s developing faith in both God and humanity. It is a story of living.  “I want to be different,” Beverly writes at the beginning of her journey, “to peel off masks, my make-believes, lipstick, to stop making things bigger, more and better, telling white lies improving on, giving an impression.” It is with this attitude that she lays out her experience, leaving it bare for the reader to examine and dissect as we follow her to monasteries, chapels, cabins in the woods, and the sometimes-hard-to-navigate intersection where spirituality meets the secular world.

It is difficult to read this memoir without finding yourself, along with the author, pondering the complexities of faith, considering good and evil and what they each entail. Bev’s candid descriptions of her growing connection with God offer a rare, raw glimpse into the process of personal growth. And she offers it graciously, without judging others, in the matter-of-fact style that is characteristic of her writing. With its blunt discussion of evil, rape, religion, God, and self-discovery, this is a thought-provoking book–and, in light of current events, a timely opportunity for dialogue about topics often considered taboo. 

Astonished is a memoir that resonates, and Beverly Donofrio’s story is an inspiration. It will stay with you long after the final page.

“It’s the space station,” or…On AWP and Why Writers Geek Out Over It

I just returned yesterday from Boston, where the annual writer geek-out (also known as AWP, also known as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference) was held. It was my first time attending, so I’m sure I was even more wide-eyed and full of wonder than usual than most of my counterparts. Still, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that these few days in Beantown were impactful for me, important in some way much greater than my singular experience.

AWP swag…I will always be excited about a good tote!

Of course, this AWP was marked by an enormous pile of snow that insisted on blowing through the northeast last week, thereby trapping masses of writers within the confines of our hotels and the tunnels connecting them to the Hynes Convention Center (I literally did not breathe outdoor air for three days…) My hotel roomie, the inimitable Kait Burrier, described the other-worldly nature of this situation best, I think, when she said “It’s the space station!” She was referring to Prudential Center architecture at the time, but I find that the metaphor holds up for all other aspects of the conference, too.

Because writers are weird. We’re weird, and we know we’re weird. We couldn’t possibly deny it. Most of us go about our daily lives feeling the weight of our own oddity, noticing the awkward pauses as our conversations with non-writers shift away from whatever point we were trying to make and onto something more ordinary. Sure, we can get some solace from general book talk (“Hey, did you read A Visit from the Goon Squad? It’s awesome, right? Yeah, those characters are really something.” And this is surely a lovely discussion…Goon Squad is incredible, after all, and you tell your non-writer pals so), but there’s something about the life talk, the unnameable chemistry that occurs when speaking with someone who “gets” you, that simply isn’t there. Our friends and family love us, enjoy us, appreciate us–to some extent, they may even understand us–but, for the majority of writers, it is only the rarest of interactions that makes us stop and think, Yeah, they really get it.

Imagine, then, a place in which 12,000 such people have congregated, all aching for conversation, literature, and frivolity. All feeling buoyed by the presence of each other’s oddities–embracing them, reveling in them. Together.

In short, it’s amazing. I mean, mindblowingly and heartwrenchingly amazing. Indeed, what masks itself as a conference is really a return to the writers’ proverbial home planet. A trip to our own bizarre space station.

So forgive us, please, for the onslaught of post-AWP lovefest blog posts, tweets, and Facebook statuses. Take it easy on us when you ask how our time away from home or the office has been, and we are only capable of responding with a glazed look, a breathy adjective, and perhaps some small, insufficient anecdote. We do realize how annoying we are. It’s just that…this was really something special. Like, really incredible. We’re going to need a few days to come back down to Earth.

Real Character #1: The Woman with the Carrots

New York, NY

I saw a woman on the subway a couple months ago during my morning commute, pulling baby carrots out of her purse and eating them.  She popped them into her mouth whole, chewed, and then reached into her bag for another as she swallowed.  Purse, pop, chew.  Purse, pop, chew.  Over and over again as I steadied myself against the grimy, fingerprinted pole.  I hoped that woman had gotten a seat immediately upon entering the train car, that she’d never had to touch this pole.  That she at least had a mini bottle of good, strong hand sanitizer tucked into her purse beside the carrots.

What kind of life must a person lead to compel her to keep carrots in her bag, hidden from view the way high school girls hide tampons, buried deep in the fabric like something shameful? She was not elderly, so senility had nothing to do with it. Nor was she odd or remarkable in any other way. I can’t remember what she was wearing, but I imagine it to be the dress trousers and sweater ensemble that’s typical of women during the weekday rush hour; I can’t remember the color of her hair, but I imagine it to be a dusty sort of blonde.  Her shoes were undoubtedly nothing special–black, round-toed, patent leather flats.  She stared ahead, looking at nothing in particular, popping the carrots into her mouth.  Chewing.  Reaching into her purse for another.  Purse, pop, chew.

She may have had kids at home, perhaps a boy around eleven years old and a girl about eight.  Maybe two boys.  They could have been twins.  She made their lunch every day, spreading peanut butter on one slice of bread and jelly on another before slapping the two together and cutting off the crusts.  She did this twice every morning, one for each child, and placed it in a sandwich bag, which was later placed in a brown paper bag, and complemented with a pudding cup and a juice box and a handful of baby carrots.  Never mind that the twins think they’re too old for juice boxes.  They’re perfectly content to let their mother make their lunch, so they’ll take what she packs them whether they like it or not.

And she saw them out the door, watched from the window until they turned the corner in the direction of the school that sits three blocks away.  She had to rush to get to work on time; sometimes she feels like she’s always rushing.  On her way out, she grabbed the torn plastic bag with what was left of the baby carrots.  There was a cartoon rabbit printed on it, chomping on a carrot like a knock-off version of Bugs Bunny.  It’s terrible marketing, she thought.  Unless they’re trying to sell carrots to rabbits, and really, what’s the challenge in that?

By the time she got to the subway platform, she felt a little winded.  A bead of sweat slid down her back.  She could feel it under her jacket, like a phantom fingertip tracing the line of her tailbone.  Everything looked duller than usual that morning:  the concrete floor, the garbage on the tracks stained with rat urine, the fading graffiti on the cracked tile wall.  Her own coat was gray, ordinary enough that she could feel it swallow her with its ordinariness, its grayness.  A man with a purple mohawk walked by, cast her a quick look as if he pitied her, and took a seat on the wooden bench a few steps away.  A train screeched at the far end of the platform, just as it all started closing in–the concrete, the trash, the cracks in the tile big enough for her to fall into and disappear.  The gray, the overwhelming gray, consuming her like it would never consume the man with the purple mohawk, like he never would have let it consume him.  And when the train doors opened in front of her, she bolted through them, collapsed into the nearest open seat, and pulled out a piece of brilliant, perfect, orange.  Pop.  Chew.  Purse.

Let’s Talk About Blogs

Blogging, by its very nature, is an odd and uncertain thing.  First off, let’s be honest for a minute and admit that we all forgot where the word “blog” even came from until we Googled it and landed in Wikipedia-land.  It has been integrated into our modern language, as well accepted in everyday use as “Kindle,” “app,” “DVR,” or “bootylicious.”

Why, then, is the best available definition something along the lines of:  “Well, you know, it’s like a website where you, like, write stuff.” What does one write about on such a website?  (“Oh, I dunno…like, whatever you want.”) There are blogs on politics, celebrities, food, travel, art, books, shopping, crafting, coupons, careers, parenting, fashion, music, religion, technology, golf–You name it, someone has taken to the internet to yammer about it in their own personalized public forum. With these many voices already covering nearly every topic imaginable, do I really need to add to the cacophony with my own off-key musings? I mean…really?

Of course I do.

I’m a writer, for God’s sake.  Have you ever hung out with a writer?  We never shut up, as long as there’s a keyboard around.  So here’s the deal:  I’m going to write some words; you’re going to read them. Everyone else will get over it.