One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Landscape of Quiet

I have been thinking a lot about quiet lately. In particular, I have been intrigued by the relationship between quiet and not-quiet. Meaning: in order to speak, or to think, or to create—to be, in essence, not-quiet—do you need to be within a quiet landscape? Do you need to be inside of that stillness and silence to allow the inside of you to be creative and wild and loud?

I lived in Brooklyn for eight years. And I loved it. The smells of tomato sauce and garlic and roasting coffee beans permeating my block. The banter between the two women who lived a few doors down from me—they kept a running commentary on who passed them on the street from their folding chairs. The deep red of the old brick buildings and the smooth carved details of the brownstones. The roar of the subway, the bright lights of the restaurants at night, the constant stream of people on the street. (Think Wow! City! by Robert Neubecker.)

In every possible way, Brooklyn was loud. Crazy and amazing loud, coming from every direction—smells, sounds, sights—so that in any given moment my intake of breath was chock full of just so much. It created a constant humming within me. I felt awake. I felt bursting with inspiration and ideas. I felt alive.

I was working as a teaching artist at the time, so I spent most of my days with elementary school children, in their classrooms, creating poems and plays and murals with them. I was also a playwright, so when I wasn’t working, I was writing a new play, or in rehearsals for a play I had already written.

For a while, I was productive in both places. I was able to nurture and gently guide my students and generate ideas and pages for my plays.

But then it all sort of stopped. I was tired. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t speak. And what I felt most of all was this awesome sense of cacophony. Every cell in my body was humming so loudly I couldn’t find myself anymore.

And now, all these years later, I am wondering if the reason I lost myself was because I had lost my landscape of quiet. That still and silent place from within which I could be creative and wild and loud.

I still adore Brooklyn. (In fact, I haven’t been back in two years and I am seriously jonesing for a visit!) But I am curious. How do the people who live there find the quiet they need? And in particular, how do the writers find that quiet?

What is the landscape of quiet for you?

Tam Smith

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land

I have been doing research for my WIP—a novel set in the 1870’s on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. Which is basically where I live. So I am writing about a fictional character, a fifteen year old girl, who walks the same paths that I walk everyday, only Lucy is walking them a hundred and thirty-seven years earlier.

My wanderings have gone from observing the sights, sounds and smells around me, to imagining the residual echoes and ghostly impressions lingering along these paths from years ago, when many of the streets were mud and the acceptable standards of sanitation were a good deal lower. It’s like I have this time machine inside my head, recreating a previous era layered over intimately familiar territory.

In 1875, San Francisco was new and rough and wild, bawdy and extreme. People who had poured into California for the gold rush now filtered on down to the city where anything and everything went on. In many ways, the city has maintained this reputation despite the many civilizing factors.

Much of the original architecture from that time was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The Palace Hotel opened in 1875 (with 600 guest rooms!) and fell in 1906, only to be rebuilt first as a temporary building and then as the grand hotel that stands today. Earthquakes still threaten contemporary architecture, but we have learned how to and how not to build for earthquakes. Brick is not a good choice for building material.

Although,  I recently went to visit and do some research at the Chinese Historical Society of America’s Museum in Chinatown—a beautiful brick building designed and built by Julia Morgan in 1932.  We have had a number of earthquakes since then and it is still standing.

Part of what I am researching is about the immigrant experience—a topic that has always fascinated me. Up until recently, my main source of information has been through Amy Tam’s many novels—I always prefer to get my facts from fiction. But I think my favorite book about the immigrant experience is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, a wordless book whose whimsical images act as visual poetry to convey an existential experience directly to the soul. The images make it a universal adventure accessible to everyone. 

I mean, who can’t relate at some point in their life to being a stranger in a strange land?


Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Landscape of Waiting

I have been deep in thought about the process of waiting. Remember the way Dr. Seuss describes it in Oh! The Places You’ll Go!—

        Waiting for a train to go
        or a bus to come, or a plane to go
        or the mail to come, or the rain to go
        or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
        or the waiting around for a Yes or No
        or waiting for their hair to grow.
        Everyone is just waiting.

The Waiting Place. I can relate. To me, the process of waiting feels much more like a landscape than a passage of time. And because I am waiting for something that I want; because I am waiting for something that I have already expended a lot of time and energy and heart on, my waiting landscape is a stormy ocean. Imagine a rocky beach (I am thinking of one I visited on the west coast of Victoria BC.) White capped waves crashing onto the shore. A dark grey sky blurring into a slightly green, dark grey ocean. And I am standing up to my waist in it. Salt water burning my eyes and throat. My leg muscles weak from keeping me upright. Those monster waves are, of course, my anxiety, my hope, my fear that I won’t get what I want. This is my Waiting Place.

Or it was.

As I said, I have been thinking much about this. It behooves me to do so. I seem to spend a lot of time waiting. Maybe we all do. And here is what I have figured out: Where you stand within a landscape makes all the difference. It is not necessary—or even possible—to stand for very long in that kind of storm. It is also equally unnecessary—and equally impossible—to leave the storm all together. But I have finally tried stepping back. So that the waves only wash over my feet. And so that by the time they get to me they are low and slow.

It makes an incredible difference. For one thing, although the waves still rage on I am not fighting with them anymore. And for another thing, when I move back to the edge of the water, I can do other things within the landscape. Make a sand castle. Go for a run on the beach. Collect shells. You know what I mean. I can engage in something other than waiting….and other than fighting waiting.

And then from that place, in some strange and beautiful way, I can appreciate the storm. My hard work. My desire. My love. My hope.

Tam Smith

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Back From The Brink

Last Tuesday morning I got the call from Deaconess Hospital in Spokane, Washington that my mother was very ill—the result of a tick bite that had caused a bacterial infection in her bloodstream and then a reaction to the administered antibiotics. I was on a plane from San Francisco that afternoon.

I arrived at ICU around midnight and made my way through the landscape of hospital corridors and maze of gatekeepers to her darkened room where she was conscious although drifty, and attached at every orifice to pumps and tubes that hummed, glugged, buzzed and beeped, bringing her back from the brink. I kissed her, stroked her face and held her hand as she told me she was glad I was there, but that she was ready to go. That she’d had a good life, but she was tired. I told her I didn’t think it was her time yet, and although she was ready, the rest of us weren’t ready to lose her. She sighed and drifted off to sleep. I went out to find the nurse and get an updated report on her condition.

As I wandered the seemingly abandoned podular hallway that circled the rooms, I experienced a small shiver, sensing the residual presence of all the souls that had passed through the twilit space on their way from this world to the next. I wondered at the traumas that had brought the other patients into ICU and about decisions made, not only by the doctors and nurses and family members of the ICU patients, but also of the individuals themselves—whether or not to stay or go.

I thought of Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY, of Mia’s out-of-body journey after she’d lost her family—of how she watched herself and the efforts of those around her to bring her back to life when she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay. The story had a big impact on me and I have thought often of the hard choice she made and wondered at what had happened after.

After being reassured by the nurse that my mother should make a full recovery, that the crisis was behind us, I went to check into my hotel room. Once I settle in, I downloaded WHERE SHE WENT, the follow up story to IF I STAY, onto my iPad. Over the next few days, as I watched my mother gather strength, rekindle an interest in sticking around for a while. and grow strong enough to go to a skilled nursing facility to do some physical therapy, I took breaks and read the story of the fallout from Mia’s decision, told from Adam’s (Mia’s heart-throb musician boyfriend) point of view. If you haven’t read it, (then you HAVE to! Read them both!) I don’t want to give it away, but I think I cried even harder. Good cathartic tears. 

I am so grateful for stories that work their way into my heart and help me to understand emotionally complicated situations by showing how others might navigate their own traumatic landscapes.