This past week, I made myself leave San Ignacio to see other places in Belize. I traveled by bus. I saw ruins in Orange Walk and crocodiles on the New River; ate stew chicken in Dangriga and hudut in Hopkins. I passed through ghostly developments on the Placencia peninsula—the moats and mansions of American retirees. They’ve chopped down all the mangrove, so if a hurricane comes, all of their castles will just wash into the sea.
But I missed Cayo, even for five days. I came back home early to see the beginning of Ruta Maya, the big annual canoe race that starts on the Macal River. I wore my prettiest fuchsia circle skirt and a blouse with puffed sleeves and staked out a spot on the low bridge at 5:30am. The day got lighter and the bridge got more crowded, and then the horns brayed and dozens of canoes came around the bend from under the Hawksworth Bridge, including the team in front, in saffron yellow, shooting like a bullet, every movement fierce and sharp and perfectly coordinated. As they passed underfoot we rushed to the other side of the bridge to watch them go. And then they were gone around the next bend.
In minutes the entire crowd on the bank had loaded into trucks to speed to the next viewing location. I hadn’t secured a place with anyone, so for me, sadly, they were just gone.
I sat on the bridge looking towards the bend around which they’d all vanished. Until I was the only one sitting there.
A cameraman came along and said, “Can I take a shot of you? You look very nice.”
I wiped my tears away and said sure.
When he was done, I said, as if to explain, “I just don’t want to leave.”
“You can always come back,” he said, and kept walking.
On Friday night, I put on an orange dress and flip-flops, and went to a basketball game between the Dangriga Warriors (away team) and the San Ignacio Western Ballaz (home team). I sat on a picnic table next to a few teenage girls in tiny jean shorts. I tried to remember the last time I’d been at a basketball game. Was it really high school?…and of course basketball games were not attended for the game, per se, but for the extraordinary social opportunities available to those who knew how to act in just the right way. In the brief period 1993-1995 AD, when I was trying to become popular, I went to these games in carefully designed outfits with meticulously applied makeup. It didn’t go well. My shelteredness was a novelty, then an object of scorn, and then of bullying.
On this warm Belize night, I felt like I was both back there, and ten worlds removed. It’s the sort of extreme duality the Maya would appreciate. I am so happy here. I strain to mark every grackle call, every glass of rum punch, every bowl of escabeche. I try to tell the people I love that I miss them even when they’re right in front of me.
Today I was riding with my friend Francisco out to the hills, out where the jungle covers all vast ruins of cities where millions of Maya once lived, and I told him, I think that they’re all sleeping under their green blanket, and we are the dream they’re having.
I’m staying at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio. Alexis is the housekeeper, and she’s awesome. I asked her to bring a sign so hang on my door knob because I didn’t need cleaning every day. The sign she brought said “Please Clean Room,” so I thought, cool, I’ll hang that outside if I want cleaning. But she continued to knock every day regardless. I’m sometimes reading or writing or sleeping in the afternoon, so I got annoyed. I clarified that I’d hang the sign on the door knob if I wanted cleaning. It was only after I picked it up did I realize that there was another side to the sign, which said “Do Not Disturb.” So poor Alexis had been coming by my room every day and, seeing no sign, had to knock to find out whether I wanted cleaning or not, like having to open Schrodinger’s box to find out if the cat was dead.
San Ignacio continues to be warm, restful, and peaceful. I feel like I’m on retreat. I go up to the stadium above town to run a few miles in the morning, when the mists still lie like a blanket on the hills. I’ve been out to caves or ruins a few times, but am very content to just stick close to home, practice Spanish on my balcony, and write with the windows open and the breeze blowing in.
Sometimes I wonder whether this is the last time my life will be relatively quiet. I don’t know what life’s going to be like after May 2oth, the day The Girl in the Road comes out. It might go on more or less the same. Or it might blow up. I’m trying not to assume anything. I’m not making any plans.
For now, the box is still closed, and I’m content to let it be.
I’m currently obsessed with the idea of travel as religion. At the very least, as ritual. Even though I’ve only done it three times, departing for Belize—and all the stages of transition to Cayo, the western jungle—have acquired the weight of a holy rite in my head. They’re like veils I pass through, the most profound of which is stepping off the plane in Belize City, where the warm wet air cups my face in its hands. Everything realer than real. I forgot how bright the sun is, how bleached the dust. How when I walk on the road, my flip-flops kick up the mud, so that I always arrive at my destination with my bottom spackled.
At the same time, I feel like my perceptions of Belize are indistinguishable from colonialist fantasy. The vocabularies of Belize being both “more real” and also “like living inside a dream.” Living in a postcolonial world is not something I can help, but I can control how responsibly I act within that reality while still honoring my vocation as an artist. That’s a question I’ll just have to continue to live.
Last week I was at my friend Orlando’s house for homemade Northeastern Thai food. (He knows what he’s doing. I am a very fortunate woman.) He knew I was working on the ending of my next play, Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo, going up at Manbites Dog in May. He asked me what my creative process is like—whether I hear my characters’ voices in my head. And I do. I write good dialogue between interesting characters because, in life, I have good conversations with interesting people.
But sometimes I have to get all Montessori. Like, as in the picture above, when I had to use my blocks to figure out a scene about polyamorous pairings.
Sometimes it’s like balancing and rebalancing a chemical equation. Add this at the end? OK, I have to go back and set it up at the beginning. Which creates metabolic intermediates I have to deal with in the middle. Et cetera.
Sometimes what I’ve written is too boring and so I go looking for an unusual ingredient, like the one weird spice that perfects the soup. I look through my Moleskine and review all my fragments. That genetic misfire of a dog. How do we view God? Sideways, crabwise. A man in a holiday turtleneck, wielding a sword.
And sometimes, when I know I just have to do the work of imagining something ex nihilo, there’s nothing else to do but sit at my desk, bow my head, press the heels of my hands into my eyes, and watch the blackness. I fill the blackness or the blackness fills itself. And then I write down what I see.
In my mind, I keep returning to the vestibule of Trinity College Chapel in Cambridge.
The walls are white marble, and around the perimeter are white marble statues of famous alumni, including Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. While I was waiting to get in to the Christmas concert, I stepped up to each of the statues and tried to summon the sense of awe that the sculptors must have wanted me to feel.
But I didn’t. I just felt really angry. In my mind I just told them over and over, “This has to stop. This has to stop. This has to stop. How many others had to subjugate their genius so that yours could thrive? When will you help us?”
Two days later, in Oxford, I’d barely put down my luggage before I looked up The Eagle and Child. It’s where J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, a writing group dedicated to fantasy, met to read passages of their works-in-progress. I don’t often talk about Tolkien or Lewis (or “John and Jack”) because they’re so fundamental to my imagination that it’s hard to express what they mean to me. I grew up reading (and rereading) them; I had elaborate rituals around the reading of them; The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia became my holy scripture. I don’t mean that facetiously; I mean it quite plainly.
Of course, they are also white men.
The Eagle and Child is still a popular pub. It’s childish, but I’d dreamed all my life of visiting it, and I really, really, really wanted to sit in the “Rabbit Room,” the exact corner where the Inklings used to meet. I’d researched it.
When I got there, the Rabbit Room was packed with beefy loud lads in tartan sweaters. Okay. So I took another seat in another corner, perfectly lovely, perfectly atmospheric, but not The Right One. I wrote for awhile. I kept glancing back at the Rabbit Room to see if there were any vacancies. I fantasized about pushing right through the crowd and claiming a spot at the table and flipping open my diary and starting to write as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But I was scared. And I was angry that I was scared. But a lifetime of snide misogynistic comments will do that.
I went up to the bar and ordered another glass of mulled wine, and watched the lads, and said to John and Jack in my head, “I wish they would all just go away.”
At that moment, as one, as if they were a herd of bison making a group decision, they all put down their beers and turned and filed out.
I couldn’t believe it.
I put my mulled wine on a table in the Rabbit Room that still had a dozen empty beer glasses on it. And then I dragged over my coat and bag and diary and pen. I pushed the beer glasses to the other end. I claimed the space. I took pictures. I looked at all the memorabilia. I read the plaques, like this one.
And then I wrote for a long time. Mostly addressed to Jack and John.
What I wrote will remain secret for now, of course. But suffice to say that I’ve always wanted to create my own world, my own Narnia or Middle Earth, and that I’ve always been afraid that it was somehow beyond my capability, that I could never hope to make their equal. But here I was in the Rabbit Room, in this space they occupied as human beings, a human like myself, just flesh, reading aloud the stuff they wrote alone in their studies. They’re no different from me.
As Jack might say, the Rabbit Room is bigger on the inside than on the outside.
Travel-time is different from home-time. It’s ruled by spontaneity and serendipity. Last night I was wandering in Cambridge, and I passed a liquor store that was selling cups of mulled wine, so I bought one, and then went back into the cold and drizzle, even happier. I decided to take a back road I hadn’t been down before, even though it looked unpromising—just a narrow sidewalk between a high stone wall and a traffic jam.
Earlier this week, I was in London to meet the ineffable Antonia Hodgson and the team at Little, Brown, who’s publishing The Girl in the Road as an e-book and (this just in!) a print edition, too, after strong early feedback from the field. Over tea and biscuits, we got to talking about books and writers and rules of writing. Antonia mentioned that Marilynne Robinson, a writer I adore, sometimes goes for years between publishing books because sometimes she just doesn’t feel she has anything new to say. Which is so interesting to me. I work in a different way: since I consider writing my job, part of that is to keep the well full, to keep having new experiences and traveling new places and meeting new people, so that I keep having new things to say.
I imagine, in the coming months, I’ll be getting the question “What is your advice for beginning writers?” a lot. My answer’s always been simple: (1) read every day and (2) write every day (I write morning pages even when I’m not working on a creative project). I’ve been trying to formulate a third rule, but can’t simplify it enough: “Leave home”? “Be interesting to yourself”? But I think of exceptions immediately (e.g. Faulkner and mansplainers, respectively).
The back road I was taking eventually led me to an open gate. Past it, I could see just enough to make out a double row of trees against the sky, black against blue. I stepped out of the street lamps and into the darkness. I felt so happy. Like I was at the beginning of a new story. Words started bubbling up in my mind. I repeated them to myself so that I’d remember them later and write them down. I walked up the path. I passed through a stone wall into a courtyard where a queue had formed, and I joined it, not knowing what it was for; it turned out to be the Christmas concert for a local private school, and I didn’t have a ticket but they let me in anyway, into the chapel lit by a double bank of candles, where I took a seat on the red velvet cushions next to the parents and grandparents and sisters and brothers, and listened as a soprano’s voice rose like a cold spring.
I was hustling out of the Edinburgh airport, toward the bus stand, sweaty, smelly, with my bags hanging off me and my pockets overflowing, passport, dollars, pounds, boarding passes, printouts, wallet, iPhone, all like puppies trying to climb over each other and escape, when I realized this is the first time I’ve ever set foot in the UK.
It’s ancestral land for me, not only in literary terms, but in literal terms. This past Sunday I went to my Aunt Francie’s house. We sat in the living room overlooking Long Island Sound, and Francie hung ornaments on the Christmas tree while I looked through old photo albums of my mother, my mother’s sisters, my grandmother, my great-grandmother—all of us of a likeness. I asked Francie when we’d come over and she said “Oh, 1670s.” I was startled. I didn’t know our family went back that far in the New World. And when we came, we’d come from England.
On the bus to Waverly Station I tried to remember what it was like when I first traveled abroad. It was January 2002, I was 20, and I was in the Bay of Naples for a class on archaeology. I remember getting there and closing my eyes and trying to discern what was essentially different about this air, this earth, these people. I felt surprised to see the same moon overhead.
There’s a misty half-moon over Edinburgh right now. I’ve strained to sense “essential differences” but can’t, so far—I recognize the cars, the clothes, the commerce. In this phase of my life I feel like I’m a baby picking up everything and licking it and setting it down again, so that, at last, nothing will be unfamiliar.
T. Ryder Smith and his collaborator, Chris McElroen, didn’t include any trigger warnings with their current touring production of “Measure Back,” a play that aims “to examine the ubiquity of war.” This post isn’t meant to be a review. It’s just meant to be a public service. The production sponsored by Duke Performances included:
(1) Inviting a female audience member onstage and asking her whether she knew anyone who’d been raped.
(2) Putting a dog collar around a female character in a hijab and telling an audience member to hold the leash.
(3) The rape of a “foreign” female by an American soldier with a power drill.
(4) The main character/actor asking audience members what their father’s names were. When a Black woman answered “I don’t know,” the character/actor said, “That’s common among your race, isn’t it?”
These were only a handful of the confrontational situations audience members were forced into, without their knowledge or consent.
As for trigger warnings in general: the people who would avoid an event because of a trigger warning are the same people an artist would permanently alienate for violating their trust by not providing a trigger warning. The artist loses nothing.
This is my Dad, showing his granddaughter Laxmi how his cane works.
Holidays are holidays. Joy and love commingle with frustration and impatience. This is the way of intimacy. Nothing to worry about.
This week, I kept thinking about a passage from the eulogy my Dad wrote for my Mom. He took care of her for many years as her illness made her increasingly more debilitated. And now, I’m caring for Dad in a similar way…as Pam does, as we all do; as Dad takes care of me, as we all take care of each other, imperfectly, sometimes with more grace and sometimes with less. And it’s all okay.
“When we had done everything we could for her, and nothing seemed to work any more and a sense of futility set in, it began to dawn on me that the only thing left to do was the most important thing I could ever have done all our life together: to be present for her and with her. Not to change or cure her, but to let her be, and let myself and our children be, with her. After all our years of marriage and being a family, I began to realize that this is all love ever needed or needs: being present for one another. This was enormously liberating, and her gift of peace. I wish I had learned it sooner; I hope I will never forget it.”
—Donald E. Byrne Jr.
St. Paul the Apostle Parish
August 22, 2001