Three Things to Know About Maia
Ever since her mother left, Maia's struggled with depression -- which once got so bad, she had to go to an institution for a while. She doesn't want to go back.Read More
Three Things to Know About Maia
Ever since her mother left, Maia's struggled with depression -- which once got so bad, she had to go to an institution for a while. She doesn't want to go back.Read More
The winter solstice feels pure and eternal. The beach is so quiet, not another soul around. No voices, just the sound of the waves, the wind in the reeds. There are buffleheads and mergansers in the pond and off the point, and a lone osprey circles the bay. Is he a juvenile as one birder friend of mine suggests? Was she left behind when the others left on their migration months earlier?
Last week snow blanketed the beach, and a thin film of ice covered the boat basin, cracked and moving with the tide. The ice melts most days, reforming in late afternoon, when the temperature drops. On very cold days a layer of sea smoke forms past the big rock and breakwater. The cold, white mist is mesmerizing, and I watch it move in and out, closer to shore and out toward the middle of the Sound.
There will be a snowy owl, or maybe there won't. But owls are my favorite birds, and snowies are my favorite owls. They inhabit the arctic, and during years when prey is scarce, they fly south and grace these parts with their presence, seeking flat, tundra-like habitat--beaches, fields, airport runways. If you see one, protect its locaton. They are vulnerable, and too many people will disturb them. Owls are the most secret of birds.
The snow has melted for now, but I'm hoping for more.
I spent Friday at Boston's Logan Airport celebrating Deconstructing Stigma, a project developed by McLean Hospital. It's an amazing exhibit, intended to start a conversation about mental illness and the stigma that often surrounds it. The walkway between Terminals B and C is lined with photos of people affected, including me--I've dealt with depression since I was a teenager. Although the images are larger-than-life, the stories told are human-sized: intimate and personal.
The day was emotional for me. I loved meeting some of the other people in the exhibit. Their honesty and openness moved me greatly and made me feel part of a wonderful group. Sean, who had his first panic attack at 13, when his mother was dying of cancer; Carol, who during her freshman year of college in 1958 was told by the dean to take a semester off--because mental health was rarely discussed back then, it took decades for Carol to be properly diagnosed and learn that she had bipolar disorder; Nathanial, whose obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) began when he was in eighth grade. I stuck close to Amy--a really good friend. We met when her husband Jason and I were patients on Proctor 2 at McLean. Their photo is on the wall too, with Amy's quote "We're always looking out for each other."
Howie Mandel, Maurice Benard, and Darryl McDaniels, and other celebrities are featured in the exhibit. Darryl, a founding member of Run-DMC, spoke before the reception, powerfully telling of his struggles with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. But what strikes me most about the stories is that, whether famous or not, we have so much in common. We've all been affected by mental illness, and are here to talk about it, to reach out to others and say there is help.
Marylou Sudders, Secretary of Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services, introduced the event with such compassionate comments. She spoke of her own family, telling how her mother died young from complications related to psychiatric illness, and she welcomed us with the knowledge and understanding of how these issues affect us all.
There were so many great moments, but one really stands out for me. I had requested that several people very important to me be invited, and I honestly didn't think they'd make it. They're so busy, they have many patients, would they even remember me? But they showed up, and I was over the moon to see them. These women took care of me the times I was hospitalized at McLean for depression. They listened for hours on end, they made sure I--and all the patients on Proctor 2, the trauma unit that does nothing less than save lives--were safe. They helped me get well. If you've read my books, you've seen characters of mine--nurses, doctors, healers--inspired by them, and sometimes with the same first names.
I am very thankful to Adriana Bobinchock, Director of Public Affairs and Communications at McLean, for inviting me to take part and being so incredibly encouraging and kind. Epic thanks also to Gerald Dawson for overseeing the photo shoot and doing so much to organize the event and bring everyone together. Patrick O'Connor is the photographer who took the beautiful pictures, and Steve Close is the creative director--both came to my house with Gerry, and not only did they do a great shoot, they made it so much fun.
I hope Adriana won't mind my sharing something I wrote in an email to her today, thanking her for everything and telling her my feelings about seeing the photos in the concourse: "travel is stressful but also a time for reflection--all that time in airports, and on the plane--and i've had more than one revelation on a long flight or heading to the car afterward. i think the exhibit is well-positioned to touch people at their most vulnerable, when they might be most ready to realize they need help, or to soothe their worries of being alone/different/isolated/broken." Those people are not alone--we are with them.
That is what it's all about: listening to each other, caring for each other, seeking help when you need it. Your story matters. It makes you who you are. Your experiences and emotions add up to a wonderful life, but sometimes there is pain along the way. It's better than okay to admit that--it's actually great. Tell your story. We want to listen. Actually, we need to.
Much love, Luanne
Every year, on the first of December, Christmas trees arrive in New York City. The same families come year-after-year and set up their stands on the same street corners. There is one on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea that inspired me to write SILVER BELLS. I am always so happy to see the people again, to round the corner of West 22nd Street and smell the trees, to feel I've stepped into a grove of pines in the far-north.
Yesterday my dear friend and literary agent Andrea Cirillo and I walked from Chelsea to Soho. Along the way we passed other tree stands, and loved seeing this one in the West Village--Christmas trees juxtaposed with the year's last roses. We wound up at a favorite haunt--the always charming Balthazar--to meet my wonderful editor Aimee Friedman for a festive lunch.
We have lots to celebrate--starting with the paperback of THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF SISTERS coming out January 31, 2017. After lunch we headed a block north on Broadway to the enchanted offices of Scholastic for a meeting with some of the most extraordinary people I've ever worked with: David Levithan, Rachel Feld, Tracy van Straaten, and Jennifer Abbots. I feel so lucky that Scholastic will be publishing my second YA novel in June 2017. THE BEAUTIFUL LOST tells the story of Maia, a girl struggling with depression who takes off on a road trip in search of her mother. (It's very close to my own heart and experience, and I'll be writing much more about that here.)
Fall begins today.
I am happy. My sister Maureen is sad. She feels melancholy when summer officially ends. I welcome the shorter days and cozier nights. She misses carefree sails, every evening after work, with her husband Olivier, out of Noank and back. I like apples. She makes apple pies. Maybe she will make one and feel happy. I hope so. I know I will, because she will give me a piece, and she makes the best pies in the world. I also hope she has many more sails before it's time to take the boat out of the water. But still; I respect her sadness even as I love the season. It's funny, how two people so close can feel completely different ways about the same thing.
My friend gave me a chrysanthemum.
It is peaceful. The summer people have gone home. Kids have started school. I miss them, even though I love the quiet. I'm not talking about kids in my family but, rather, the children of summer, who play on the beach all through July and August, whose constant calls of glee as they tease the small waves of Long Island Sound drift up the hill to find me at my desk. Now I hear waves, wind in the trees, birds singing; but i miss the joyful beach sounds.
Still, there is plenty of joy. September skies are heart-cracking blue. The windows are open. A constant sea breeze blows through. It carries the first scents of fall. The leaves on the eighty year-old oak outside my kitchen window are still green, but there are clusters of acorns, and the green is darker, more subdued than it was last week. Soon they will turn golden. But not today.
I write at this desk. My cats keep me company, sleeping in old baskets that have been here so long, their woven slats have snagged bits of fur, silver and ebony, from cats who have long since left us. The baskets themselves have carried tomatoes and mint from my mother's garden, moonstones collected on the beach at dusk, pine cones to place on the mantle at Christmas.
This week I went sailing with my sister, brother-in-law, and niece. We left Noank on a day so sunny and warm it felt like the heart of summer, not the end of it, and we wound up in East Harbor. We swam and laughed, picnicked on produce from Whittle's Farm Stand, then swam some more. The heart tugs in September, perhaps more than any other time of year. There's an awareness that time may be short--next week weather could roll in, the temperature could drop, this might be our last good sail of the summer.
But the beauty of September is that we don't know. Every day is beautiful, and change is part of that. Fall is coming, and the air is spicy. I've found a warming bed for my oldest cat, and when she circles twice and lies down, the way she does, the heat of her body will be held in the mylar lining, and she will stay toasty all night. Soon there'll be no more corn at the farm stands, no more butter-and-sugar or silver queen. The last of the tomatoes, basil, green beans are here, but we don't know quite for how long. But I'm looking forward to apples, butternut squash, cider, pumpkins, shelves and shelves of yellow and russet chrysanthemums.
My sister said, as we were salt-crystaled from our swim, drying off in the sun on deck, "This is our last sail to East Harbor this year. The weather's going to change. I will get cold." I'm an optimist, but she's right: eventually the north wind will blow, we'll have a frost, we'll be wearing fleeces instead of bathing suits. But not today. So I could put my arm around her shoulder and say we'd be back next week, and the week after.
We turned for home, had a perfect sail, only one tack back to Noank. We took the dinghy from the mooring into the dock and hugged and said talk to you tomorrow, see you soon. And we would, and we would. I drove home to Hubbard's Point, to the small beach cottage my grandparents built, where the cats were waiting to be fed.
I fed them. The sound of the waves came through the window. The sun had set, the sky through the pine trees was fiery. My skin was still salty from the sail and swim, and I didn't want to wash it off. Not yet. I wanted to hold on to everythign about the day for as long as I could. I wanted to say thank you for it, I wanted to call it out, down to the beach, across the water.
It's no coincidence the name of the boat is Merci. No, I'm sure that's no coincidence at all.
In some ways it’s hard to call up the emotions of that day. In other ways they are as alive as ever. I wrote this piece a week after the towers collapsed. – LuanneLast Wednesday, a week and a day after the World Trade towers fell, I was crossing Park Avenue South at twilight when I saw a woman in a yellow dress climb out the window of her fifth floor apartment.Read More
I am working on my new novel, doing most of my research at the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The 1897 brick building sits on a small hill, shaded by venerable oaks and maples, its curved granite steps and white columns graceful and inviting. Lots of writers have worked here including my friends David Handler and Dominick Dunne. We all set some of our novels in fictional versions of Lyme or Old Lyme. David's is Dorset, Dominick's was Prud'homme, and mine is Black Hall.
The old part of the library contains a reading room that feels cozy, a literary home. Its walls are lined with landscapes by plein air painters who visited town around the turn of the last century. They stayed at Miss Florence’s boarding house just a half mile along Lyme Street and set up their easels to paint the local beauty: hills of mountain laurel, cottage gardens, tidal inlets, rocky shores. Over a hundred years later, many of the scenes they chose are unchanged.
Old Lyme is located at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where it flows into Long Island Sound. There is water everywhere. Creeks, streams, marshes, and five small rivers create a particular quality of light that attracted the artists. The light is both delicate and intense, changing the landscape from second-to-second.
The Tonalists founded the Lyme Art Colony, joined later by painters who gave birth to American Impressionism. I am inspired by this place just as the artists were; it's been the setting of nearly all my novels.
The library’s reading room has a fireplace. Years ago, when I was nineteen, I wrote at this same table and often saw Dr. C. Philip Wilson, the father of a friend, sitting in an armchair beside the fire, engrossed in the New York Times or a book. It gave me comfort to see him there. He was kind and understanding, always interested in what I was writing.
Dr. Wilson was a well-known psychiatrist in New York City, and he and his family spent summers here (as my family did.) He was tall, with dark hair and a serious, almost penetrating gaze that relaxed into a warm smile. I felt him wondering what I was doing all day-every day at our small-town library instead of at college while his son, my age, was off at Princeton. He made it very easy to tell him that I had dropped out of college because of depression. As the season went on, he would ask how I was doing, and I remember how he would listen with quiet compassion, and encourage me to keep writing. I wonder whether he realized how much those conversations meant to me.
He made me feel as if I mattered. It was a tremendous gift to a troubled young writer. Over the years he and his wife would come to my readings at the library and local bookstores. I still have notes they sent me, filled with generous praise, cheering me on. Once the three of us ran into each other at the Florence Griswold Museum, for an exhibit of works by Bruce Crane. His palette was reserved, unlike the bright, sunny colors of summer gardens and sparkling blue coves used by many of his American Impressionist friends.
Crane seemed to favor autumnal, elegiac and slightly melancholy scenes, such as one of an autumn marsh, with tawny reeds and tarnished silver waters. I remember standing with the Wilsons in front of a winter landscape—a snow field against a pewter sky, the horizon a narrow, brilliant slash of orange. We stared at it for a long time, as if watching an actual sunset, waiting for the sun to go down.
The painting, and Crane’s canvases in general, drew me in. I felt an exhilarating darkness in his work. Crane had spent years visiting Old Lyme. His wife Jeanne was hospitalized with mental illness. In 1902 he divorced her and married his stepdaughter, Jeanne’s daughter Ann.
I didn’t know those details at the time, but now I wonder if Dr. Wilson sensed Crane’s family pain, if that was why he’d regarded that sunset painting with such deep attention. Or perhaps I’m just, in retrospect, imputing the compassion he felt for me and others to the artist and his family.
Not long before Dr. Wilson died, I ran into him in the city, on Fifth Avenue. The day was sunny, and across the avenue Central Park was cool and green. I felt so happy to walk with him for a few blocks.
We caught up on news about our families and books—he too was a writer. I wish I remembered more of the details of that talk, but what stays with me was the familiar warmth, the sense of his fathomless interest and curiosity in the world. Parting, we said we'd see each other in Old Lyme.
That was the last time I saw him.
These days, working in the reading room, I miss Dr. Wilson. I glance over at the armchair by the fireplace and can still see him there, still hear his voice and feel his presence.
The loveliness of an old library is carried through time by the ghosts who loved it in their day. the stacks hold memories of the many dear readers, the many dear friends. The library holds many stories, including our own.
Update: I wrote this essay two years ago. It's full of "place"--places I've lived, places I've felt depressed, places I've felt better. What I've learned is that "where" doesn't matter--depression is an illness that doesn't really care about geography. Right now I'm back in New England--the photo shows a bench at Rough Point in Newport RI, where my sister and I recently sat looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. We took in the beauty, and I felt very grateful to be back on the east coast, near her, after some time away. I thought about this p.s. to the original piece and the reasons I wrote it. Here goes:
I had felt my readers missed me--I had stopped blogging and posting on social media, but I sometimes read the messages, and I felt people's love and concern. So I wrote about what was going on, briefly published the essay here on my website, and then took it down. During the short time it was up, I received a lot of mail from people: some expressed worry about me, and others confided that they too had suffered depression. I was humbled to receive such outpourings from people I knew and loved and from total strangers.
Here is one thing I want you to know: I am better. Much better. The depression has lifted--maybe not forever, I've had it long enough to know that it stays around, often at a low level--but time has passed since I've felt the worst darkness. My first young adult novel was just published by Scholastic, and I'm having fun meeting young readers and introducing my long-time readers to YA. I still miss Maggie and Mae-Mae. Maisie is now 17, she's as feisty as ever, and she enjoys being with Emelina and Tim--especially Tim.
Another thing I want you to know: if you feel depressed, it's real. It's not a decision you make--"Oh, I think I'll just stay in bed today because I can't seem to move and my limbs feel full of sand and my eyes keep leaking tears." It's an illness, like diabetes, and it affects people of all ages, from all walks of life. I hope you can get help, as I have. It is out there--call a hotline, find a therapist, whatever it takes. I love my therapist so much--she knows me well and has helped me know myself. Please look do what it takes. I want you to get better, to be okay. To be better than okay.
WHERE I’VE BEEN
I was someone who blogged every day, who embraced Facebook quickly and whole-heartedly, but I've been quiet in those online places lately, and I thought I'd tell you a little about where I've been. I got depressed. Isn't that a strange sentence? "I got depressed," just the way someone would say, "I got seasick." Or "I got dressed." An illness, a state of affairs, a gigantic event came to me, landed on my head, squashed me. That was the effect, but at the time it was neither stark nor sudden.
It happened over time.
I can't even say, for certain, the precise moment it began. I know I was in California, in my pretty house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. I had moved there, after a lifetime on the East Coast, for reasons having to do with work, inspiration, nature, and the desire, at this stage of my life, to have an adventure. I saw myself learning to surf. I would definitely hike. I would write nonfiction along with my novels.
My cats and I headed west and moved in. The girls—Maggie, Mae-Mae, and Maisie—were sixteen, fifteen, and twelve. We had been together through everything from the death of my mother to the world's worst divorce, numerous book publications, the heartbreaking end to a long relationship with a wonderful publishing house, and a sea change of my outward life.
Maybe those big losses had caused me to seek even greater solitude, developing a strange aversion to being out after dark, to getting together with friends, so that I was hurting people's feelings by declining all invitations, so that I was most comfortable living at my desk, in the world of my characters. My cats were my family. They sat on my desk, made me laugh, soothed my tears.
We loved New York, had lived there, in Chelsea, for a long time. New York may be the perfect place for a particular kind of recluse—one who needs solitude to write and think, but who requires human connection that doesn't demand, necessitate, or even expect any commitment in return. Hello to the doorman, good morning to the super next door, black coffee thank you to the waiter at the diner, an hour with my beloved therapist, who knows me better than anyone and has since I was in my twenties. Then back home, upstairs to the apartment, to the cats and the characters.
The move to California came after several years of trips to Santa Monica. I had month-long stays in a favorite hotel without the cats, visits with great friends, one particular friendship so deep it felt like family. There was all that sunshine, the ocean, hikes in the canyons, and bougainvillea everywhere.
Nature, more than anything, pulled me. I am a person of more contradictions than consistencies, and one of them is that nothing sustains me more than nature, yet I have been an urban dweller for my entire adult life. When I was in California, I felt if not precisely happy, a different level of okay. I began to think this could be possible: a change, a big one.
I'd dealt with depression for a long time. It started in grade school where I would regularly miss over half of the school year's 180 days. We didn't know what to call it, but I know I was constantly on the edge of crying, and it gave me a sore throat. My father drank and sometimes didn't come home at night, and I'd kneel at the window as a sort of penance--I'm not sure for what--my bare knees hurting on the oak floor. When you're seven, or nine, or thirteen, and your prayers never come true, depression seems to find easy ways in.
I left my body when bad things happened or when I got too sad. Time would pass and I wouldn't remember what I did, what happened. I'd be wide awake, but then I'd wake up, as if I'd been asleep, as if life was a dream. I thought of it as "going away," and sometimes when I went away I became Blue or Leda, different names for the other girls inside me, the ones better able to cope with the pain, the sadness. Blue could fly and read other people's minds. Leda was feral and protective and wouldn't let anyone hurt me or get too close.
I had bad episodes of depression in college. I couldn't make myself go to classes, and I dropped out two years in a row. I never did graduate. When my father was dying I walked to the top of the Newport Bridge, planning to jump off, but a police car picked me up and dropped me at the base of the bridge, and the officer told me it wasn't safe to walk on it at night. He seemed to have no idea he'd stopped a suicide. Maybe the tears on my face hadn't been enough of a clue. All I know was I hadn't had the strength to walk up again--so he did save my life.
More recent depressions and a bad spell of dissociation landed me on Proctor 2, a trauma unit at McLean Hospital, in Belmont Massachusetts. The hospital is a haven, the staff are angels. They listened to me and nurtured me and made me strong enough to face life again.
But this particular depression, at least in the beginning, was different--it was more like sadness. Not incapacitating like the others, not filling me with the feeling that to end my life would be the best solution, just an ongoing heaviness in my heart, and I thought maybe California, a place that was very far from the pain, could take it away.
And for a while it did. After moving into my new house I worked on a novel. Writing has always been everything to me—a self-contained world at the desk, a life of words and dreams. I distinguish between writing and publishing. What happens after the work is handed in is another thing entirely; I know I have been very lucky.
California was three thousand miles from my sister and nieces, with whom I am very close. I wrote, of course, because that is what I do. One thing very different from New York City was that seeing people took effort. I had to get into my car for everything; it was more self-contained. Encounters felt more pointed, not just the casual hellos to the doorman and gallery owners and strangers on the street.
I saw my friends, but things were different now that I lived there. Perhaps a visit to California was safer in its closed-endedness. Residing there meant we could get together anytime, so our meetings were not so charged, special, imbued with the sense that I'd be leaving soon. We didn't make the same effort to see each other.
Craving solitude is a familiar state for me. I need to be alone like I need air. Waking up, I have a talismanic need not to speak out loud before writing. The Internet has required careful navigation: is email a conversation? If so, I can't do it before I write. I hold on to my dreams of the night before and let them carry me into the day's fiction. Whether I remember the details or not, just the feeling, the mood, the images of the dreams take me where I need to go. People get in the way of that. Cats don't. But being alone too much works against writing; a feeling of loneliness must be balanced, carefully, so it doesn't start to chip away, doesn't start to carve me up into someone who doesn't matter to others. Doesn't matter to myself. Doesn't matter at all.
Some northeasterners think there are no seasons in Southern California, but are. They are subtle, however. Over my two years there I watched the canyon turn golden in September, green in March. I heard the tree frogs start up in January. I saw the California gray whales migrate south in November, north—with calves—starting in February. I saw the bougainvillea in my yard bloom, then die. And the lemon trees bore flowers, then fruit. The cycle repeated.
The cats had always lived indoors. I never wanted them to get lost or hunted, and I didn't want them to kill birds. In California we had a garden, but small enough so I could see all four corners at once. I began to let the girls—my cats were all female—outside, one at a time.
Maggie was ancient and slow. We would sit on the enormous settee on the deck overlooking the canyon and ocean. It was covered with canvas the color of the ocean, and I called it "the blue thing." I would read, and she would sit still beside me and follow hawks and butterflies with her hunter's turquoise eyes. I never wanted to say one cat was my favorite, but she was mine. When she was a kitten she used to sleep on my chest; I would stay awake as long as I could, waiting to hear her purr. But she was feral, and she never learned that skill.
One day she began to die. She had lymphoma—the same disease that both my parents died from. I wanted to hold on to her forever. Knowing that that was impossible, understanding that all things must pass, that life is a circle, had no bearing on my emotions—I may have ascribed to those truths consciously, but inside I was about to start breaking apart. Maggie's death left me unhinged.
That spring Mae-Mae died—also of lymphoma. I buried her in the garden next to Maggie. One Saturday at dawn I drove down to the desert and volunteered with a group that supplies water to save the lives of border crossers. Laura, one of the founders, showed me a cross marking the spot where a woman had died of thirst. She showed me the note an anonymous person had left at one of the water barrels: “This water saved my life. God Bless. Sincerely, Lost."
After five hours in 105-degree heat, in a brutal landscape that stretches with nothing but rocks and dirt as far as the eye can see, I passed out from heat stroke and, I think, the shock of seeing that cross and realizing how impossible it seemed that anyone could live through it.
Once I hit the road I realized I couldn't safely drive myself home. I was shocked and sick at the closeness of death in the desert, at that level of human suffering. I checked into a hotel near San Diego. I made it home the next day. After that, depression took hold. Not just feeling sad anymore, not simply feeling a little too lonely: this was the real thing, the same depression I'd had as a child and later and that had landed me in the hospital. It was sickness. I felt despair—those words don't even cover it, though. I tasted chemicals—they were so strong, running through my bloodstream, I felt them in my brain, in my fingertips. I felt them in my heart.
Life was too hard. Love remained, but the beings, the objects of my love, were gone. They were dead. Had the move west been too much for my old cats? Had it been too much for me? Had I brought all of this on? I began to feel I had killed my two oldest girls. People died in the desert, looking for a better life. People died of thirst. I went crazy.
I was raised Catholic but left that religion a long time ago. When the Dalai Lama comes to New York I attend his talks and listen to his wisdom about impermanence and letting go. Sharon Salzberg's work on mindfulness and compassion has been inspiring. But when depression hit, none of the teaching, none of the time I've spent sitting, breathing, watching my discursive thoughts, noticing my grasping thoughts, allowing them to pass through my mind like clouds across the blue sky, helped.
I began to think of suicide again. I was planning. I researched ways to get Nembutal; I found a link for a place to go to in Mexico where I could obtain the medication that is no longer available here. Living on the Pacific coast, I had plenty of places in mind where I could go after dark—take the drugs and just disappear into a canyon. What stopped me was thinking of who might have to find me. And what it would do to my family. Being stuck in that place, wanting the pain to end but being unable to act, tormented me.
My writing stopped. That's like saying my breathing stopped. I pulled back from everyone even more than I had before. No more posting photos of cats and my garden on Facebook, no more writing a daily blog.
My longtime therapist saved me--as she's done before. Together we made a plan for me and Maisie to come home to New York, to the apartment that has been refuge for so many years. It felt empty—no Maggie, no Mae-Mae. I found tufts of those old girls' fur snagged on bookcases; a blue yarn octopus toy; a catnip apple; and all their favorite cans of food—each cat liked different flavors.
I resisted medication. In college a psychiatrist at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, put me on high doses of amitriptyline. After one more recent hospitalization I was on a high-dose brew of Zoloft, Seroquel, Ativan, Remeron, and others. I have trouble sleeping, and those medications definitely put me to sleep. The thing was, they didn't stop depression. They might have dulled it, I'm not sure. I could feel it moving around like parasites under my skin. I felt encased—as if I was wearing pantyhose over my spirit. I hated the feeling, so I went off the meds cold turkey, without medical help, and went into the worst withdrawal imaginable. So I went back on some of them and stepped down, slowly. Eventually I found one that worked, and I still take it today.
I don't like to do things slowly, but sometimes I've had to. I want it all, all at once, forever and ever. Getting well has been like that. One step forward, one step back. Or is it two steps forward, one step back? I'm not sure. I just know I'm moving along, here in New York, writing and writing and writing. Writing came back right away. Sharing, being open, has been slower.
Some of my closest friends live states away. One, the writer Joe Monninger, tells me about his dog Laika. We talk about writing and life—mine in New York, his in New Hampshire. He is a fly fisherman, and loves nature the way I do. When he sees a flock of cedar waxwings on his crabapple tree, he lets me know. My sister Maureen calls me from Connecticut every night at six. Every night. I love her for that, and for everything.
My solitude is intact. It's not loneliness. Maisie is still with me. We have adopted two kittens, Tim and Emelina. It took a while for her to stop hissing and accept them, but they loved her from the beginning, and I can see that love has changed her. Later today I will take a break from writing and go downstairs to check the mail, and I'll step out for a coffee.
I'll look up at the blue sky. I can see it now, again.
When I was ten I joined a second family. Although I loved my own, one day after school I stumbled down a flight of stairs into the Whitneys' garden at 588 Lincoln Street, and fell in love with all of them. Mrs. Whitney was the most intrepid mother imaginable. She wasn't protective and introspective, internal and artistic like my own mom--she encouraged adventure, travel, and exquisite, borderline danger. She climbed the highest trees, taller than any rooftop, and I followed. She'd take the family skiing at Mad River Glen (whose motto is "Ski it if you Can") and like the Pied Piper led us all slicing down black diamonds--the iciest, most mogul-ridden trails on the mountain. She taught me to do backbends and back-walkovers, how to ride a bike no-handed, and how balance across a narrow ledge above a steep waterfall and not look down or be afraid. She told me stories about teaching in Panama, Switzerland, and New York, and she ordered me to find a way to live overseas at some point in my life. (Eventually I did--I moved to Paris.) She said that in Panama she'd take her students up on the school roof just to grab a bit of fresh air, and in New York she shared a small Gramercy Park apartment with another young woman and they'd dance the night away and have to prop their eyelids open to teach the next morning.
Mrs. Whitney (she wanted me to call her Betty Anne, and it was a hard transition--she was of another generation; in fact, as she put it, she was my other mother, and since I couldn't call her "Mom," having one of my own, I had long since settled on "Mrs. Whitney") and I stayed close throughout life. When I dropped out of college for depression, she gave me Sibelius and James Galway records and told me cross-country skiing would help me, that I would feel more alive in the cold, gliding over the snow. After she sold the house in New Britain (the year the twins were born the family had moved to 655 Lincoln, conveniently just across the street from us,) she relocated to St. Simon's Island and became a bookseller at G.J. Ford Bookshop. She instantly became part of the community, and she loved recommending books and hearing what everyone was reading. They invited me down for a signing several years ago, and I loved seeing her in action. When I ran into Mary Jane Reed, the store owner, at Winter Institute earlier this year, we hugged and tearfully had a Betty Anne Whitney moment--it was the first time we'd seen each other since she died.
That was something I couldn't face at the time. Death is part of life, and Betty Anne was decidedly unsentimental about it. But losing someone so important to me, a person who was integral--I'd call her every week, or she'd call me, we'd laugh and cry about everything, she'd help me make sense of the vagaries of relationships, and more than anyone she'd celebrate my books--the writing of them, their publications, she was as proud as my real mother was before she died--was seriously impossible to bear. I dealt with it in a very private way, and for a while it was too hard to talk to the other people who had loved her so. Including, and especially...her four children.
See, they are the other part of my other family. To say I adore them is an understatement. I babysat them every single day after school from when I was ten until I went to college. Tobin was already born when I started, and I held Sam the day she came home from the hospital. The twins, Sarah and Palmer, were the sweetest, and I couldn't put Sarah down--I carried her everywhere, and her mother used to joke she was glued to my hip. Tobin has always been graceful and thoughtful, a caring teacher at a school for the deaf, Sarah is director of alumni relations at St. Joseph University, Palmer is a successful businessman who shares his dad's love of sailing. All have amazing families.
Yesterday I had the most wonderful visit from Sam. She and her three children are on vacation, staying in a hobbit house in Topanga. We spent the day together, and in typical Whitney-fashion this involved climbing on the craggiest, steepest, most precarious rocks, taunting surf that was smashing against the cliffs, and finding a restaurant that allowed for running around after dinner because there is so much energy. We also needed books, because this is a majorly reading family. Sadie, my goddaughter, is an epic reader and a talented writer, Annie loves all books and gave me several fantastic book reports as we scrambled up to lifeguard station #3, and Tobin knows every spell in Harry Potter and also beat me very skillfully in a ruthless game of Dots.
And Sam...how to describe how much I love her? She is an inspiration to me. A Telemark skier, a back country hiker and camper, the most caring woman ever. She went to Tibet with One Heart, to bring life-saving childbirth practices to the women there, she and her sister Sarah worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and she is now a nurse-midwife for the most at-risk moms and babies in Salt Lake City. In DREAM COUNTRY I called her "the best midwife in the west," and she is.
Oh, how life comes around. I grew up babysitting Sam, and now she has great kids of her own. I feel so lucky to have them in my life. I love that they are as daring as their grandmother would want them to be, and also that they are readers of the first magnitude.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland. While I was writing my novel Stone Heart, Brendan Gill told me to reread "Easter, 1916" by Yeats. I thank him, and Yeats, for that, because the title was inspired by a line in the poem: "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."
My family is Irish on both sides, and I grew up hearing that family members had fought that day. (Most Irish people seem to have heard that.) Maybe it's true. All I know is that the poem is true, and so is that particular line, not just in the context of Ireland, but in all human suffering. Peace and love.
Just before dawn today, Earth Day 2016, I took this photo of moonset over the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. In 1970, when the first Earth Day occurred, I was a sophomore in high school. I didn't know the word "environmentalist," but I'd always been one. I believed in conservation. As a little kid I'd joined the National Wildlife Federation and been a big fan of Ranger Rick. I'd walk the beach with my grandmother and a neighbor, picking up litter. For my science project in eighth grade I made a movie with my family's super 8 camera showing pollution along the Connecticut shoreline and in the Connecticut River. I always loved nature and felt it was the responsibility of all of us to protect it.
Back then the sky got cloudy and our eyes stung with smog--everyone used unleaded gas to fill the tanks of their...well, tanks. Big cars with big engines. Many rivers and lakes were filled with toxic sludge, some salt water coves were unsafe for swimming or fishing. Rachel Carson had written the wonderful and prescient Silent Spring in 1962, catching on with readers, and starting to raise the awareness. In 1969 there was a blowout at Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel, causing a devastating oil spill that destroyed marine life--including over three thousand sea and shore birds--along the mainland and in the pristine environment of the Channel Islands.
All of this led to the creation of Earth Day. Shortly after, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, and the Endangered Species, Clean Air and Clean Water acts were passed. Luckily, very belatedly, awareness about our environment has continued to grow, but some people still live in the dark ages and want to cut back on protections while denying climate change.
Much more hearteningly, there are people and organizations writing and working to save protect the planet--wildlife, habitat, the oceans, the land, the air, and humans--including my friend Carl Safina and the Safina Center. And, I hope, many of you reading this.
A week ago I was at the New York Public Library, doing a panel for the NYC Teen Author Festival. This was great and illuminating for me in so many ways. First, the NYPL. My favorite building in New York, a haven for readers and writers, its wide front steps facing Fifth Avenue and guarded by lions Patience and Fortitude. As a young writer, before having a book published, I spent countless hours in the reading room (because my apartment was too small/cold/dark, pick one or all) writing and doing research. Little did I ever suspect that one day I'd have a book published and be on a panel there, right there in the library, with wonderful writers.
But mainly it was great because of the people involved. David Levithan moderated the panel on perspectives. I sat on the stage with fellow YA novelists Francisco Stork, Beth Kephart, and Carolyn Mackler. Our discussion revolved around these questions (from David) and a few more besides:
What perspective do we, as adults, bring to our novels when we write about teenagers? How do we balance what we know and what our characters don’t? Why do we find ourselves revisiting these years, and what do we learn (even years later) by writing about them? How do you acknowledge the darkness without robbing the reader of finding any light? In this candid conversation, we’ll talk to four acclaimed authors about being an adult and writing about teenagers.
The conversation was so thoughtful and I learned a lot from and about my co-panelists. One thing that seemed clear about all of us is that we draw on experience but use our imaginations, and that we write from our hearts. I know that my heart was very full the whole time--I felt very supported by David ( fabulous writer as well as editorial director at Scholastic) and Aimee Friedman--my extraordinarily brilliant and nurturing editor who also writes gorgeous novels--sitting up close in the audience. They have shepherded me into the world of YA after my whole life spent writing general fiction, adult novels. (I never called them adult novels before, and it sounds vaguely racy, but it's necessary to differentiate my other novels from this young adult one, THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF SISTERS.)
Also in the audience was my forever literary agent Andrea Cirillo and many of her colleagues, all of whom I adore, from the Jane Rotrosen Agency. Later Andrea, Chris, Rebecca, Danielle, Amy, Julianne, Jessica and I went around the corner to the Bryant Park Grill to have a drink and debrief. We sat outside under heaters (it was very early March chilly) surrounded by trees wrapped in twinkling lights. Andrea and I have been in Bryant Park so often--with my former and beloved editors from Bantam, for literary festivals like New York is Book Country, and last spring we made a fast trip to see the Chuck-Will's-Widow, a first for that park.
It was a great day. I may be a week late in blogging about it, but I'm still thinking about last Friday, turning it over in my mind, all the marvelous moments.
I was so thrilled to learn that THE LEMON ORCHARD has been included in the Top Holiday Reads Shortlist for 2016! When informing me, Sophie Hart of Co-operative Travel (part of the Thomas Cook Group) said, "We felt that this romantic and captivating story would be the perfect thing to lose yourself in whilst relaxing on vacation, and it more than deserves a spot on the list." What an honor!
"Whilst!" "Shortlist!" To some of my American readers "Holiday Reads" will mean Christmas, or should I say Yuletide. But they also know that in Britain "holiday" refers to vacation, summer or otherwise, and that means they should pack THE LEMON ORCHARD in their beach bags when off to Martha's Vineyard, St. Tropez, Old Lyme, Watch Hill, Marbella, Biarritz, Ile de Ré, Mackinac Island, Chincoteague, Malibu--where the novel is set--or their own back yard. Think porch swing! Fireflies! A lantern to read by...
The article begins, "Are you heading off on your dream holiday this year? There’s nothing like having a great book with you on your travels to flop down in the shade and relax with. So, to help you find your perfect literary holiday companion, we’ve put together our 2016 shortlist of the very best holiday reads ranging from fiery romances to tense thrillers. What’s more, we’ve also asked our featured authors to tell us in 140 characters or less what their perfect holiday would look like!"
I had fun deciding what my perfect holiday would be. There are so many possibilities! Having a picnic with my family at Hubbard's Point, strolling along the Seine and trying to decide where to have my next café experience, walking the beach anywhere with my feet in the salt water, spending my birthday in Venice under the arbor at Locanda Montin, taking a ferry through Norwegian fjords into the Arctic to see the Northern Lights.
But I chose something different. To see what I said in a tweet-length 140 characters, you'll have to read the marvelous article and check out all the other wonderful books included on the list. Before you do, maybe you'd like to guess my dream holiday. Even better, please comment below, or tweet and tag me at @LuanneRice, and tell me your own perfect holiday--in 140 characters. I'd love to know.
And whatever you do this summer, have the best holiday ever, and don't forget to take along a book!
Just in time for the publication of THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF SISTERS (Tuesday! February 23!) I have a brand new website. I thank Adrian Kinloch, my long-time web person, for creating this one, and the last one, and the one before that. He really caught the vibe of the book, and I'm excited to unveil and share the site with you.
There are so many parts of the novel that I want to tell you about. First of all, the sisters, Tilly and Roo. They are beach girls--they grew up at a magical beach on Long Island Sound (Hubbard's Point, familiar to those who've read me before)--and they're closer than close. Although they have great friends, they know that sisters are the best friends ever. (This comes from my mother saying to my two sisters and me, "You'll have many friends, but you'll only have two sisters.") There's a boy--of course there's a boy, it's the beach--and he's Newton, your basic adorable geek that Roo has loved forever.
The sisters' closeness is challenged when the worst thing possible happens--Roo has a car accident that Tilly is partly responsible for, and everything changes. Roo's drastic condition, locked-in syndrome, causes her to be a total prisoner of her own body, even while her mind is as alert and agile as ever, and no one knows she's in there. Tilly's guilt tears her up, makes concentration and school impossible, and drives her to get so close to Newton that...well, talk about guilt multiplied. But there's redemption. Tilly is still the only one Roo can trust to figure it out, know she's not in a coma, not in a vegetative state, but in something else.
There's more. There are beach walks, and starry nights, and first kisses, and owls. Yes, there are owls. And a wise old woman who lives in a blue house with a pink door and who knows what it means to be a true sister forever, through the best and the worst. She may or may not have special, witchy powers.
I loved writing this novel. Can you love your characters too much? If so, that might have been the case here. I cried when I wrote about Tilly and Roo because I know what they feel for each other. They love each other, but they don't do it perfectly. That's the big secret of relationships--no one does it perfectly. You keep your eyes open and let it all in--love, fear, pain--and you don't push it away. You feel it as deeply as you can, and it guides you. You try to be there for the other person. On bad days, you fail miserably. But on good days--on most days?--you hold her hand, cheer her on, help her take baby steps then big steps then run the marathon, you give her hope and a reason to live. And in doing so you give yourself hope. You already have a reason to live, but congratulations: you've just discovered the secret of life.
Love. It's not just a feeling. It's an action.
Winter Institute is amazing and what a joy it was to spend time with independent booksellers. I was invited by my wonderful publisher, Scholastic (book fairs! book clubs! Harry Potter! The Hunger Games!) to join the party in Denver CO and talk about my first YA novel, The Secret Language of Sisters. My fellow authors were Sharon Robinson (great writer, daughter of Jackie, my mother's idol) and Derek Anderson (amazing artist and writer of picture books) and we celebrated the fact that writing for children (in my case teenagers) is a very special calling. Their warmth and welcome into this new world for me made me feel so lucky. On top of that, we were taken care of, introduced, and nurtured by Scholastic's inimitable Bess Braswell and Jennifer Abbots.Read More
When Ruth Anne (Roo) McCabe responds to a text message while she’s driving, her life as she knows it ends. The car flips, and Roo winds up in a hospital bed, paralyzed. Silent. Everyone thinks she’s in a coma, but Roo has “locked-in syndrome”—she can see and hear and understand everything around her, but no one knows it. She’s trapped inside her own body, screaming to be heard.
Mathilda (Tilly) is Roo’s sister, and best friend. She was the one who texted Roo, and inadvertently caused the accident. Now, Tilly must grapple with her overwhelming guilt, and her growing feelings for Roo’s boyfriend, Newton...Read More
A blue moon is a celestial rarity and occurs when there are two full moons in one calendar month--such as the one today. It refers not to the color of the moon, but to the wonder. The title of my fifth novel (first published in 1993) is a play on that, and refers to the rare, once-in-a-lifetime love between Sheila and Eddie, the matriarch and patriarch of the Keating family. The title also refers to a long-disappeared section of sailor's bars and nefarious doings in Newport, Rhode Island. The name "Sheila" was inspired by Sheila Dingley Mularski, one of my favorite little girls, who has grown up to be a Title One reading teacher, working with 10-12 year olds. Her school has a small library, but no librarian, so Sheila started volunteering her lunch hour to help kids check out books. Could we take a moment of appreciation for Sheila as well as your own favorite teachers and librarians, people who encourage and celebrate reading?
I have very happy memories about the publication of Blue Moon... The Happy Carrot had just opened in Old Lyme, Connecticut. It was a wonderful independent bookstore owned by Paulette Zander, and this was the first reading she'd hosted. She decorated the store windows in such a mystical way, full of blue moon-inspired art, and it was the first of many great book events we would have together.
My launch party was held at the Old Lyme Inn--then owned by my dear friend Diana Atwood Johnson, who ran it like an artists' retreat and literary salon (she's an artist herself, I was honored to introduce her at last summer's exhibition of her bird photographs at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.) For the Blue Moon party she served blue cocktails and seafood delicacies. In the novel, Shore Dinners were served at the Keating family restaurant, and Diana outdid herself recreating the lobster-and-clam-bakes cooked by the Keatings. She decorated the inn so beautifully, and we invited old and new friends. I remember being totally surprised and delighted to look up and see the Reducers, a band I love, walk into this classic New England inn in all their black leather punk glory.
Blue Moon was later made into a CBS Movie-of-the-Week. It starred Sharon Lawrence, Jeffrey Nordling, Kim Hunter, Richard Kiley, and Hallie Kate Eisenberg, and was filmed in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, one of the most beautiful seaside towns I've ever seen. My love for Nova Scotia had already begun, but it certainly deepened during my visit to the set.
Happy memories...I am glad for the chance to share them with you. The sky does inspire me. I hope you look up tonight and all nights and enjoy what you see...
I was lucky enough to read Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina in galleys, a few months before publication. Carl and I had been introduced via email by a mutual friend, Pete DeSimone of Starr Ranch Sanctuary, and we had corresponded about owls and whales. A snowy owl had been visiting Carl's beach on eastern Long Island, and knowing my interest in owls in general, snowies in particular, he sent me photos and reports about the visitor. His book The View From Lazy Point had long been a favorite of mine. He makes science personal, writing about the beach he loves, the species he's studied, the world travels he's taken to observe animals in varied habitat. I like that he doesn't hide his love for the oceans and his commitment to the environment.
His new book Beyond Words, is brilliant, gets truly and deeply into the mind and emotions of animals--the inner lives of elephants, wolves, and killer whales. He talks about families, love, loyalty, betrayals, intense grief of different animal populations. He discusses endangered species, in some cases the erosion of protections, the reality of humans hunting for sport and trophies and monetary gain. The sections on elephants, what happens when humans poach them for ivory, delineate with such compassion the devastation and grief felt by the family members left behind.
His work with killer whales--a name he prefers to orca, deriving as it does from the Latin Orcinus Orca and referring in an inescapably demonizing way to Orcus, god of the underworld--took him to San Juan Island and Haro Strait. He discusses two populations--transients, who hunt mammals, such as sea lions--and residents, who eat fish, mainly salmon. With Ken Bascomb he listens to the whales via hydrophones, chirps and whistles and clicks. He differentiates their echo-sounding sonar from communications. They form strong family units and stay together for decades, for life. They kill for food, and it's brutal to watch the transients go after seals or California Gray Whales. But killer whales are social beings, very curious, and love to play; they seek attention from other killer whales and from people they encounter. Carl quotes an observer who said they "look through their otherness at you."
He writes about the tragedy of killer whales being netted, taken captive for aquarium exhibits--what it's like for a mother whale to see her baby captured, unable to stop what's happening. And how the baby whale feels, ripped from a mother and the voices of her family, "going from the limitless ocean to the confinement of a concrete teacup, the terror and confusion..."
Overfishing and chemical run-off contribute to a combination salmon shortage and toxic load that is endangering killer whales. They can live forty to fifty years, but the population isn't reproducing. Recovery of the salmon fishery doesn't look likely, and the Pacific Northwest's logging industry isn't about to stop using river-killing fertilizer and flame retardants that get into the food chain, into the plankton eaten by the fish eaten by the seals eaten by the whales.
After reading Beyond Words I felt so happy to give it a quote. Carl came into New York to record the book for audio, and we finally met. He's a kindred spirit. Now that we're friends, do you think I can ask him to write something on cats?
I want to know what mine think and feel. I keep them inside partly for their own protection and also to keep them from following their natural instincts to hunt birds and mice, but they are still wild things, with distinct personalities, and eyes full of soul. When Maggie died a few years ago, I watched Mae-Mae and Maisie grieve. The two survivors returned again and again to the spot where they'd last seen Maggie, before I buried her. They meowed, and it sounded like keening. I would have given anything to be able to read their minds, to understand their feelings.
Carl's book helps me to know that such understanding is possible. Translation may be harder, but I keep trying. I share my house with these creatures, and we all share the planet with a whole lot more, and I am grateful for all of them, and for this book.
Species are connected to each other, and we to them. When we forget that, we forget our humanity.
As I write this, social media is full of new about the death of Cecil, a thirteen-year-old lion in Zimbabwe. Walter J. Palmer, an American dentist, paid $55,000 to hunt him down. Cecil was lured out of Hwange National Park, the sanctuary where he lived, and was shot with a bow and arrow. There's a photo of Palmer grinning over the corpse. Cecil looks majestic and dignified even in death, but they beheaded him and left his corpse to rot. The dentist's grin makes me sad--the whole story does. I wish I could have given him a copy of Carl's book. Maybe Cecil would still be alive if he'd read it.
Maybe the planet will be healthier if we all do.
No Man is an Island
by John Donne
No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend's Or of thine own were: Any man's death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
The idea of a pilgrimage is powerful, and carries spiritual overtones, and I made one recently, with a good friend, to see work by Agnes Martin at the Tate Modern in London. That our destination was not a religious shrine but a gallery filled with paintings made the journey no less transfiguring. Agnes was born in Canada but is known as an American artist; the exhibit is at the Tate Modern in London, and it seemed particularly important to me that the pilgrims in this case--two American women, my friend and I--travel to see her in a country not our own. The paintings in the Tate exhibition are soaring, serene, floating, yet charged with energy. The canvases are large, some of them familiar to me for having seen them in other galleries, and I felt myself dissolve moving through the rooms. Agnes Martin sought perfection, and for all the apparent similarity in her canvases--in size, color, lines, in the rectilinear grid that had begun to appear in her work by 1958, in the parallel stripes that by the mid-1970's had mostly replaced the grid--it is their imperfections, the small variations, the thickened pencil lines--that pulled me into her life, gave me the sense of her doing this over and over, starting again, striving for an ideal, that filled me with emotion.
Every painting touched me in a different way, but I had to return, after going through the exhibition once, to the center room where The Islands I-XII are installed. Twelve canvases, painted in shades of white, are displayed together, as Agnes intended them to be. The paintings are luminous. They are acrylic and graphic pencil on linen, and although from a distance they seem to be all-white, up close the delicate variations reveal themselves in thin white bands and thicker ones, pencil lines and brushstrokes.
Agnes is both local and boundary-less to me. She lived in New York City, as I do, and when I see the photo of her sitting on the rooftop at Coenties Slip, I imagine her needing and space and air--her painting are elemental--I think of her studio, a former sailmaker's loft in a small brick building by the South Street Seaport that still stands in the shadows of the financial district's towers--and wonder if the walls of both this city and the studio, despite the salt air and views of the East River, were closing in on her.
She left, just as her reputation was soaring, and drove a pickup across the United States for over a year before finding her place in New Mexico. She sought, or was given, visions of beauty, happiness, purity, and joy. Before leaving New York she had hospitalizations at Bellevue, a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Those grids, meticulous works scored with intersecting lines, carefully drawn with pencil and ruler, convey to me wide open spaces. She said, "Finally, I got the grid, and it was what I wanted. Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world."
Once, after viewing some of her work at Dia: Beacon, I dreamed of her grid paintings as Saskatchewan: flat and rural, the province of her childhood, fields and farms scored by roads, fences, and rows of crops. In the Tate's short film Agnes Martin Road Trip, Agnes said, "You are what goes through your mind, whether you are aware of it or not. You know. But if you can become aware of it, and and if you then can try to express it, you are an artist."
She has spoken of her mother, of her dark silences, of unhappiness. Childhood pain is the thorn in the paw of so many artists and writers, and we spend our lives trying to get it out. And maybe make things turn out differently, at least on the canvas or on the pages of a novel. Maybe she was purely abstract--the ultimate minimalist--but her titles are poignant, and when you think of what you've read about her childhood, heartbreaking--Happiness, Contentment, Happy Holiday, Innocent Love, Drift of Summer, Happy Valley.
In the sixties, diagnoses of schizophrenia were handed out freely, a catchall for all kinds of psychiatric distress. Creative people found themselves labeled and locked up. In Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances her friend and Pace Gallery owner Arne Glimcher writes of her voices. And supposedly an episode of her wandering Park Avenue in a fugue state landed her in Bellevue; but what young creative person living in New York hasn't found herself wandering some part of the city in a fugue state? I ask this in all sincerity.
I was first introduced to Agnes's work by a psychotherapist. A print of Night Sea hung in Susan's waiting room. Sitting there I would stare at it and get lost in the color blue, and the grid, and the fact it was Susan's. For me it was not Bellevue but McLean, not schizophrenia but depression, and--eventually--not New Mexico but California. Somehow Agnes and Susan and living in New York and leaving New York and emotion and the abstraction of search and perfection merged together in my own private dream world, and an obsession took hold.
Obsession and pilgrimage are strong words and I'm not sure Agnes would like them applied in relation to her. But they are real to me, and I've taken trips to "visit" her, both lengthy and just around the corner, before this one. Walks through the city, uptown to the Pace Gallery for a 2004 exhibition, frequent wanderings around Coenties Slip and the Seaport, to New Mexico to view the light-scalded landscape that inspired her later years, to Saskatchewan to see grids written on the earth, up the Hudson River to Dia: Beacon; and I've mostly returned from my California sojourn to live within sight of Dia: Chelsea.
I wanted to buy Agnes's Galisteo studio. It was for sale again, a few years after her death in 2004. The desire took me over for a long time, and I am afraid I nearly drove a New Mexico realtor crazy. The revelation came slowly, as many dream-killing realizations do, that the remodeling job done after her death, the fancy kitchen and other updates, would have wiped out the feeling of her living there, that I wasn't likely to find her ghost or any traces of her life left behind. They would have been curated away.
I go to Coenties Slip on Sundays when Wall Street is empty. A new management company has just taken over the building where Agnes had her studio. Maybe I should be glad it still exists at all; it is part of the landmarked block where Fraunces Tavern stands (George Washington bade farewell to his officers there) and won't be torn down, but the old sailmakers' lofts are getting a re-do. The marketing website touts proximity to the South See Port (you read that right) and all major subway lines, and to granite tubs and rain showers. The rents are high. This is the way of New York. Where do young, or any, artists and writers go now?
Agnes speaks about inspiration, of how thoughts and ideas can get in the way. Paradoxically, even as a writer of fiction, I find that true. My intuition always knows what to write, and one of the biggest challenges is getting out of its way. Out of my own way. Ideas take a back seat to character. If I start thinking I know what the character should do, instead of letting her determine her own course, I'm in trouble. The character needs space. Meditation helps. Emptying the mind of worry and the impulse to control helps. And seeing art, getting lost in it, helps. The character rules.
"I paint with my back to the world," Agnes said. And she did, leaving New York City to live as a recluse in New Mexico. But when you view her work, you've been invited onto the mesa, and it's luminous.
The exhibition will travel to the United States later this year. But I needed to see it in London.