my missive from graham greene

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Shatner never wrote back. The poop.

In the summer of ’89, I was living in Somerville, Mass., that unfairly maligned suburb of Boston. For three years, my sister Lucy and I shared the bottom third of a triple-decker house with a third roommate, and if I were numerologically inclined, I might extrapolate some woozy mystical import from all those threes. Hmm. Weird. But I’m not big on numbers. Words are my bag, and have been since I decided at a stupidly young age that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

I had no idea what this meant. I knew that my dad, Louis, was a writer, because I’d seen his name on the spine of quite a few books lining our shelves, and because he periodically retreated behind closed doors and made violent pounding noises interrupted by dings. He brutalized typewriters. I do more or less the same with computer keyboards, or so I’m told by colleagues too often forced to pick the shrapnel from their sad and bloodied faces.

In fifth grade, I think it was, I volunteered to help write the script for some school play or other, and I remember nothing about the process other than it yielded utter crap. A year or two later, a venturesome English teacher broke her class into small groups for a similar exercise in playwriting, and once again, I found myself writing utter crap. But at least I remember it; memorable crap always preferable to the bland, nameless and neglected sort that squats in the cobwebs of some dingy corner of the brain.

No, this second attempt at writerly writing was well worth remembering: It was a soap opera. The story began with my character spouting some drippy dialogue before heading offstage to get hit by a car, only to return in a wheelchair — that is, a molded plastic school chair pushed by a classmate. I even bent my legs underneath me to simulate amputation. I’m not shitting you. It was that bad.

From this propitious beginning, my writing career progressed to the woolly English essays and groovy abstract poetry I wrote in my teens. Around then I decided on journalism, and thank God I did, or I might still be writing blank-verse meditations on life and swirling blobs of color. In college I discovered William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, whose dark/light depictions of God, Catholicism and our combative human nature spoke to my own noirish inclinations and budding spiritual life.

In my mid-20s I was living with Lucy — watching her light spirit fight against the dark of suicidality — and gobbling up the last of Greene’s gripping, unsentimental novels, with their screwed-up protagonists and grayscale overlaps of good and evil. I’d read somewhere that he lived in Antibes, and that he responded to every letter he received. These two pieces of information emboldened me to fire one off. Into one page I crammed my appreciation for all that he gave me, all that I learned, all that I hoped for with my own young ambitions.

I addressed it “Graham Greene, Antibes, France,” and it got there. He wrote back. Finding that envelop in the mailbox outside my apartment remains one of the great postal triumphs of my life, ranking between my acceptance to Hamilton College (which had both a great English department AND a freshly minted women’s varsity soccer team, thank you, Title IX) and that autographed glossy from Gene Kelly (the hottest man ever to dance in high waters). He responded to my fan letter, too. William Shatner didn’t. But I don’t hold that against him. Much.

I cherish my missive from Graham Greene. Whether it pushed and punted me down the road to being a better writer, I don’t know. But over the years I’ve turned to it at moments high and low, focusing intensely on that one line: “I wish you every success with your writing.” Every success. Not just worldly. Not just money in the bank and eyeballs on the page. He also meant creative success, the quiet victory of simply putting a decent sentence together — and then two decent sentences, and then a few decent paragraphs, and then an article, a play, a book.

Because it isn’t so simple; it isn’t so small. The threat of utter crap looms always and everywhere, held at bay by the thrashing of keyboards. And somehow, I still want to be a writer when I grow up.


beautiful-mamaHere I present one of the most beautiful images I own: an early, glorious, glamour shot of my late mother, Jeanne Frances Mitchell Biancolli. Mama for short.

I could write a book about this woman. Maybe someday I will; I already devoted a sizable wedge of paper to her in my last wild stab at memoirizing, “House of Holy Fools.” I also wrote about her, and my second mother, Pat, in a Times Union column last summer

As you can see, she was a knockout. What you can’t see is the blueness of her eyes, the outrageousness of her wit, the flintiness of her spirit, the wiriness of her arms or the roughness of her left hand’s fingertips, which were calloused from many hard hours of practicing the violin. Those callouses said it all for me. They said: Beauty makes demands on us. It hurts. It toughens us, but in a good way, a necessary way. Sometimes, in the creation of music and the living of life, we grow new layers of skin.

Mama was a world-class concert violinist who performed six times in Carnegie Hall, toured South America and Scandinavia, soloed with the Philly under Ormandy — while drawing raves for her musicianship and wolf whistles for her looks. My father Louis, a music critic for the New York World-Telegram, reviewed her and loved her playing long before he loved her, too.

When she played, all that she was came out in her violin: Her music was an aural blast of authenticity, clarity, intellect, deep human insight and ferocious emotional might. She always said exactly what she knew to be true, in words and music; her phrasing was apt and efficient, whether nailing rubato in a hunk of Brahms or flattening me with straight talk when I was mooning over a boy. (“He’s pretty, I take it.” Quarter-beat rest. “Just be sure you’re not thinking with your gonads.”)

This directness drove me nuts, sometimes. When I was a teenager, more than sometimes. I now recognize it as Mama’s single greatest beauty, a source of strength and balance in a house so often cluttered and listing. But not when she played the violin, or my sister the piano. Not when we laughed. Not when she cut through all of it with her piercing, uncompromising, fearless mind. That was as clear as her eyes, as sinewy as her arms, as powerful as her music.

don’t you take that tone with me

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So over the weekend I was cleaning out my fridge — BEFORE it started to smell like a landfill — and found, way, way, way at the back, hiding out like a poor, lost, fuzzy child, or maybe a fugitive from justice who’s been on the lam from Albany County Sheriff deputies for 87 years, the above advanced mold formation.

And when I say “advanced,” I mean it probably talks. In all likelihood it holds a Ph.D in some obscure academic discipline, like the history of peanut farming or Indoeuropean ethnohistoriographic geomorphology. If I asked it how long it had been in the fridge, it would respond, “Umm, twelve weeks, maybe?” and then add, “No, no, more like six months, it was before I grew the beard” before snapping, “Why the hell do YOU care, anyway? It’s kind of late to ask!” I would then turn defensive, saying I’ve only owned this particular fridge since late November, so Professor Snotty Fungus couldn’t be more than six weeks old, seven tops, at which point the mold would roll its eyes and say, “Whatever.”

At first, after liberating this sentient being from the back of my fridge, I wondered what form it had taken in its larval stage — i.e., when it might have been defined as “food.” I tried staring at it really close, but not too close, 1) because I’m far-sighted, and as I bent over my reading glasses slid down my nose into the fuzzy part, which, by the way, was wet; and 2) because it kind of scared me.

Then I recognized it. Do you? If you don’t, I don’t blame you; it looks more like Rip Van Winkle’s deformed lost twin, the one that got half-absorbed into the placenta before being born, than something that might in an earlier era have been consumed by anything other the occupant of John Hurt’s chest in “Alien.” Speaking of aliens, it rather resembles those flying neural boogers that sting Spock in the back in that old episode of “Star Trek,” doesn’t it?

Otherwise, I’m not going to say what it is. If you’re not too grossed out to give it a close look, you can guess.

launching exclamation points . . . now!

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I have a publisher! Behler Publications, outside Pittsburgh! That really happened! And not only do I have a publisher, I have a cover! That happened, too! I know, I can’t believe it, either!

And not only that, both the publisher and the cover happened within less than a week. Four days, actually. About the time it takes to fly to New Zealand and back, which I’ve never done but would like to, someday, although I’d prefer time to chillax between the the two days there and the two days back.

When I told my dad (meaning Dan, my current father, as opposed to Louis, his late predecessor), he let out a celebratory whoop before reminding me that not so long ago I’d called him up at a low ebb and announced, flat-out, in the grating, nasally monotone of a woman who has gazed so far inside her navel she got her face stuck, that the book would never find a publisher. Ever.

“Remember what you said?” he asked me. “You said you were stupid for even believing it could happen.”

I know, I said. I remember.

“And remember, I said you were being an asshole.”

I remember that, too.

He smiled. He gives me such vast amounts of shit, and the more he gives me, the more I love him.

Even at that nadir, I was glad I’d written the book. Writing it was a gift. Writing it was restorative and transformative, profoundly so. I became someone new as I wrote it: freer of worry, fouler of mouth. Having lost my sister Lucy to suicide in 1992, I knew about grief in the aftermath, but I knew squat about losing a spouse and raising three kids alone. After Chris’s suicide in 2011, I was forced to reconfigure myself, suddenly and dramatically, in ways I could never have imagined. I still can’t imagine them all.

So the book has found a home. It’s due for publication this fall. And for the record: that classic rubbery plumbing device on the cover came straight from the fertile mind of my daughter Madeleine. We were plowing through Indian takeout, and between bites of chana saag, she said, “Mom. They should put a plunger on the cover!”

They should and they did. That really happened, too.

“stuck on hope”

Father Bob, a good friend and a great priestsaid this in my kitchen. The two of us were eating cake and cranberry juice, talking about loss. We agreed that it sucks. Burying those we love, saying goodbye too soon, too soon, too soon, weathering all the hailstorms of grief that follow, trying to believe that life can still emerge into daylight, drumming up the faith and foolishness to uncurl from a ball and head out the damned creaking door for another day: it’s all too much. It’s madness, really.

And yet we do it, because there is no better option. Correction: There is no other option. Hope is all we have. Even when we’re exhausted and drooping from effort, even when we don’t know where we’re going or why we’re going there, we plod blindly on. And in this blind plodding we put our faith.

Father Bob and I were chewing on this and sucking down juice when I asked why any of us should believe that life might hand out anything but pain. We must be delusional, I said. Here we are, minding our business, tending our loved ones, laughing when we can — as R.E.M. put it, “lost in our little lives” — when fate or God or the cosmos or bum bloody mindless luck clobbers us broadside with tragedy. Why should anybody ever expect anything else?

“I guess,” he replied, “you just have to be stuck on hope. I guess that’s the answer.”

I was recalling this conversation today as I rode a surge of optimism on the first fresh morning of 2014. It was Cicero who observed, “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” but the reverse is true, too. Where there’s hope, there’s life. It’s a syllogism. Life=hope. Hope=life. If we just keep hoping, if we just keep plodding, the schlep of life will take care of itself. It might even clobber us broadside with joy.