Therapy

I live in Nashville with my family, and here, music really is everywhere. Any night of the week, there’s a live show to see, a number one party to attend (if you’re in the business or in the know), or an open mic night to take part in. All that music, whether you’re involved with it or not, shapes a city. I think it makes a place more dynamic and certainly more creative, and I might even venture to say it makes a place more friendly. Music, like laughter, and, ok, just about any form of art unless it is really weird, is a unifying force, and I consider it a privilege to live in a place that is creative at its core. It may not be as chic or as metropolitan as my previous home, but it is as unique and inspiring as any city I’ve ever visited or lived in.

Because my husband works in the music industry, we enjoy some insider’s perks. The other weekend, we were in North Carolina for the Mountain Song festival (highly recommended) and had All Access passes thanks to an awesome little bluegrass band, The Steep Canyon Rangers. Steve Martin, who I am convinced must be one of the world’s most creatively gifted people, often tours with the SCR and plays banjo with them, and he was there, with his wife Anne and their dog Wally, for Mountain Song.

All Access basically means Andrew and I got to go back stage and hang out with the band, and that when they were performing, we could sit in folding chairs at Stage Left and watch the intimate workings of a show in progress. We didn’t spend a lot of time with the Steep Canyon Rangers because they were warming up, and we did not even meet Steve Martin for fear of making an awkward scene. (What would we have talked about? That my roommate and I watched “Father of the Bride” on an almost weekly basis my sophomore year of college? Best for some conversations not to be had.) But we did have a pleasant conversation with Anne, and we got to meet Wally, a yellow lab that can only be described as one gorgeous hunk of love.

When the music started, it didn’t really matter that we were back stage. We would have enjoyed the show if we’d been on the farthest row back, because with Steve Martin there it was kind of like a comedy set to music, and there just isn’t anything more fun than that. But having that insiders’ vantage point meant that we could see how the guys backstage handled the instruments, carrying them gingerly as they walked quickly to put them in place, setting them down gently, making sure the banjos’ shoulder straps were loose and straight with the same delicacy a maid of honor unfurls a bride’s train. We were able to see how much pure fun the Steep Canyon Rangers have with their music, how the humor that comes from the strings and their voices really is not as much an act as an acting out of joy. And it was easy to see that there, on stage and in the midst of music, Steve Martin is just one of the guys,someone who can play one heck of a banjo solo and can write one heck of a tune, but otherwise, a (very high profile) member of the band.

For me, music is therapy. It has the power to uplift, enlighten and distract. If Andrew and I have had a tough week, there is nothing better for us than a night of music. In the midst of music’s heavenly harmonies, we are somehow able to find ourselves again, to figure out what is most important and to hold onto that perspective for a good long time, sometimes a week or more.

Being able to go back stage and meet Steve Martin’s dog has its perks, but to be in the presence of music, really great music, is truly the best of all gifts, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Woody and the Steep Canyon guys for giving us the chance to get up close to their truly remarkable talent.

Reunion

We met at a tree-lined, lakeside picnic shelter on Saturday afternoon. The Kintzes, having juggled nap times and an ornery three year old, arrived late, and we entered the scene carrying a gigantic, unnecessary watermelon. But as soon as we stepped out of the car, we were met with the warmth specific to family – that strange, but instant bond.

The tables were filled with fried chicken and pasta salad, ham biscuits and Chex mix. They were lined with people I hadn’t seen for five or ten years or more, and yet I was known to them, if not in my present state, certainly in some past version of myself, which, in some ways, matters more.

The cousins I tended to when they were babies are lovely young women now – almost the same age I was when I was their babysitter. And yet, somehow, the cousins who knew me when I was in diapers looked the same to me: still my senior, but otherwise only vaguely aged. There were too many people missing, which I guess is the hard thing about family reunions; they were there in photographs and conversations. It was a scene in which I could easily picture my father – the reason I was there – and if I had the power, I would have put him on the picnic bench eating fried chicken, wearing his suspenders and belt and that smile that always seemed to know more than it was telling.

Family reunions are sort of funny if you think about them. All those disparate parts, far flung, gathering for one hot afternoon, or one long weekend, in hopes of conjuring up connection. It doesn’t sound like it would work, or that it might even matter that much. Why pack the kids in the car for a five hour drive so that a collection of relatives can lay eyes on them/us, or vice versa, for such a short time?

I haven’t quite got the answer, but I know that it matters, and that I’m glad we were there. I know that there is something great, something respectable about considering and honoring one’s lineage, making peace with it, even, if that’s what it takes. I know that it’s something special to hear someone you hardly know speak fondly of someone you deeply loved, and that there is something wonderful about the way someone who knew you as a child regards you as an adult.

I know that it is a beautiful thing to see my dad’s sister’s kids watch my baby girl wriggle from my arms and crawl away from the shelter, so that the raindrops from a sudden summer storm could douse her. And that that moment was made all the more meaningful, for me, at least, because my dad and his sister aren’t here anymore. No one called us to to give any guilt trips, or to suggest someone’s feelings would be hurt if we didn’t show. We came because of that invisible thing, specific to family, that requires our presence, and because we wanted to capture it, if only for an afternoon.

Change

For over a year now, Andrew and I have held a membership to Stone Mountain Park, just outside Atlanta.  The Rock, as we like to call it, just twenty minutes from our house, is heavily wooded and surrounded by a fresh lake in which our dog Ivy loves to swim.  The Rock, itself, which stands at the center of the park, is a humpbacked granite slab resembling a somber whale or a planetary hemisphere.

We love the place’s peacefulness – the view of local crew teams gliding across the lake’s early morning glimmer in conjunction with ducks in low flight is truly soul-settling – and we love that it gives our little family a taste of the great outdoors in the midst of a bustling metropolis.

But we also love and are intrigued by Stone Mountain’s irony.

The Rock is of sad history.  In 1915, hooded men in white robes revived the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) atop the lovely granite monolith, burning a cross in celebration.  This “reincarnation” of the Klan was led by a man named William J Simmons, and featured Nathan Bedford Forest II (the grandson of the KKK’s original Imperial Grand Wizard) administering oaths.  The group had permission of The Rock’s owner to hold all its rallies there and in 1924 commissioned a stone carving of the South’s Confederate heroes on its mountainside. (The KKK supplied half the funding for the artwork; the US government supplied the rest of the money.)

Today, however, few signs of the hatred and fear that characterized Stone Mountain for so many years remain.  The carving is still there, of course, and throughout the summer the park puts on a campy laser show to which tourists flock and clap along to the tune of Dixie.  The Confederate memorial, which details information about Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, is also there but rarely highlighted and does not appear to draw any crowds at all.

Far more prevalent than signs of bigotry at Stone Mountain are the African Americans who use the park grounds as a meeting place for cookouts, who bike, walk and run the trails surrounding The Rock, who fish in the lake and let their dogs run free through the woods. They have claimed Stone Mountain for themselves, not any more or any less than the rest of us, but equally, in light of forgiveness, in light of progress.

The juxtaposition of these two entities – proud Confederates and those they fought to oppress – is just downright bizarre. But it is also because of this juxtaposition that it feels as if the spirit of Stone Mountain has been set free, as if something very wrong has been righted there.

Earlier this summer, Andrew and I saw a group of young black boys – maybe between the ages of seven and ten – chasing one another up the sidewalk by the park grounds.  They were laughing and squealing and running as fast as their little legs could carry them. And I was so glad for them to be out of the city, to know the feel of fresh air, however hot and humid, to be assured for them that times do change, and that they have.

I saw in the boys’ faces the joy that I hope for our country, a country that may, indeed, be at the cusp of electing its first African-American President.

If Obama is not our nations hope – the leader of a revival forced from hard times – he may still be the hope of all the little black boys sprinting full speed through the trees at Stone Mountain, an iconic figure for the future America.

The future America.  What will it be?  I pray for a place, like The Rock, that can overcome its history; for a place that seeks justice and loves mercy; for a place that makes those who live in it healthier, happier, and freer in both mind and spirit.

Until then, we will seek refuge among Stone Mountain’s ironies, waiting, patiently, for change.

Oxford American Magazine – A Review

Be faithful to that which exists within yourself.
-Andre Gide

The quotation above appeared at the top of a freelance job posting email I received this morning. I found its presence there slightly ironic, because the sort of work that appears on this email list often begins with, “Do you want to write about cars?” and ends with, “Compensation: $10/story.” (I have found I may be keeping the subscription for the quotations alone.)

“That” which exists within me isn’t driven by compensation (if it were, I wouldn’t be writing at all), but since I’ve made more than ten dollars an hour working RETAIL – nevermind the Master’s degree – accepting ten dollars for a story (even if it is about cars) seems to be the most unfaithful thing I could possibly do with myself. As a writer of creative nonfiction, I might quite enjoy describing an electric blue T-top Camaro (in another life I dated a driver of one, after all …), but probably not for a publication that doesn’t appreciate the work it takes to put the reader in those vinyl bucket seats.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If a select few magazines and/or online journals wanted my writing but could pay me nothing for it, I would consider it a gift – and might even write the editor a thank you note. The Oxford American (OA), a magazine for and about the South aimed at publishing solidly written narrative nonfiction, is one of those.

My mother, who could have made good money discovering big talent for literary agencies or record companies (she is always surprisingly ahead of the trends) gave me my first issue of the OA when I was in college. She thought the magazine’s music issue was neat, and that the writing was better than most – and it was. But not enough people knew about the mag, or maybe not enough people cared, and it foundered.

The magazine, recently resurrected as a registered nonprofit, is now housed by the good people at the University of Arkansas. I love the Oxford American not just for its excellent writing, but for its humor. The magazine embraces the South’s quirkiness, revealing and exploring personalities and cultural phenomena that usually defy the Southern stereotype. I rejoice in this defiance because it is done so cleverly and with such playful curiosity.

The Oxford American‘s writers take their readers by the hand and lead them through the South on old, forgotten trails, aimed not at shallow industry or fad or stereotype, but at getting to the everyday oddities that make us and our region so interesting.

In this way, the OA is a magazine both for those who are Southern and those who are not. In the current issue, I’ve read a story about Merian C. Cooper, the high-flying Southern renegade who created King Kong, as well as a more serious article about the esteemed historian John Hope Franklin – an African American man embittered and empowered by the Civil Rights movement to write the South’s unvarnished history. The Oxford American‘s identity as a magazine about the South is clear, but it is for everyone interested in back stories, quirky personality, and true-to-life narratives that read like fiction. To learn more, or to subscribe, www.oxfordamericanmag.com

Gourmet Goes South

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“There is something about the South that stimulates creativity in people, be they black or white writers, artists, cooks, builders, or primitives that pass away without knowing they were talented.” – Edna Lewis, “What is Southern?”

Thanks to the internet and the graciousness with which epicurean magazines publish their recipes online, I have come to think of buying foodie mags as a real luxury. I don’t aspire to be a food writer so that’s not a good excuse to shell out $4 per cover, but I gravitate towards the publications’ alluring photos and delicious-sounding recipes, to which the Internet does only partial justice. Once I’ve bought these precious pubs, I keep them for a long time – much longer than necessary – the way unseemly old men keep copies of Hustler and Playboy, stashed away for future feasts and (epicurean) fantasies.

So, like any addict who knows the danger of giving in to her weaknesses, I try to practice restraint in the cooking magazine aisle. But something about Gourmet gets me. I love the swirly, Coca-Cola-like cover-title writing, the luscious-sounding feature recipes, the impression of myself as a very-accomplished-cook-indeed upon execution of the pub’s more complicated dishes. Still – I try to keep my distance. I remind myself that I have a problem, that I own plenty of cookbooks, that I recently gave a truck load of (cooking) magazines away to the American Kidney Fund.

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But this January’s issue of Gourmet – a “Special Collector’s Edition” featuring both Southern cooks (Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock in particular), and Southern writers (Ann Patchett – an old fave) – sent me completely over-the-top.

The writing in this issue is especially good, alive with colorful prose and the sort of Southern delicacies that must make all those New York foodies (who actually subscribe to Gourmet) seriously consider carpet-bagging. The cover photo pays homage to the perfect biscuit and sumptuous blackberry jam; inside, Hoppin’ John, Baked Tomatoes with Crusty Bread, and creamed collards (or winter greens) highlight the best of the South, conjuring, for me at least, the American pinnacle of food-as-experience, food-as-memory.

I come from a long line of wonderful cooks and cooking influences, all of whom are (or were) Southern and who embrace(d) the region’s culinary offerings with zeal. My grandmother, Doll, made the best homemade rolls South of the Mason-Dixon line – and taught my mother to make the same; Stell, the lady who kept me when I was just barely old enough to reach the kitchen counter, made sweet, warm, hand-squashed grape jelly that still makes my mouth water; my father cured his own country ham and sausage, and people from one end of Virginia to the other claimed they’d never tasted any better.

But the thing about all this food – like any good food – is its transcendent quality. In our house, the food and its preparation became dinner table conversation. Analysis of what did or did not go into certain dishes could entertain my family members for an entire meal. And thus, it became a memory made. It became experience shared; a generous gift to guests, hand-made and carefully measured. It became an outpouring of more than just flour and sugar, but of heritage and heart-felt celebration.

I love to cook, and to read about cooking, not just for the deliciousness of the food, but for its deeper meanings and its meaningfulness. A lot of chefs believe in food science, and I’m sure I could learn a lot from them, but in the South it seems we may be more about food-poetry, or food-religion.  I remember reading Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and, thanks to my Southern roots, recognizing something universally true about the Latin American book’s magical realism; for me, cooking has always been tied to a sort of unavoidable emotional outpouring and it seemed perfectly rational for a cook’s emotional turmoil (and cuisine) to affect his or her dinner guests for better or for worse.

In January’s Gourmet, there appears an essay by Edna Lewis called “What is Southern?”. From time to time she references Southern writers (Truman Capote, Carson McCullers) and artists (Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith), but her most memorable passages embody with down-home eloquence the food she spent a lifetime perfecting. “Southern is a great yeast roll,” she writes, “the dough put down overnight to rise and the next morning shaped into rolls and baked. Served hot from the oven, they are light as a dandelion in a high wind. Southern is a sun dog – something like a rainbow, or the man in the moon – on a late summer afternoon. Southern is a mint julep. A goblet of crushed ice with a sprig of mint tucked in the side of a glass …”.

In Miss Lewis’ words and her passion for good Southern food is deference to and admiration for the culture that created her. Reading her essay makes me wish I’d known her, or that she’d written more, and it gives me new-found respect for Southern hospitality.

Southern hospitality can sometimes conjure images of white-gloved ladies, lots of sterling silver and general insincerity. But when paired with down-home Southern food, those gloves come off. (After all, who can eat fried chicken while wearing white gloves?) The combination of Southern hospitality and Southern food is a cook’s sincereist form of flattery to his guests; there is nothing more to-the-point.

I’ve gone on too long here (maybe I’m an aspiring food-writer after all!), but – you have to admit – there’s something about Buttermilk Cookies and pimiento cheese that is just downright laudable.  Take my advice and go get January’s Gourmet before it leaves the newsstand. Heaven knows I won’t let you borrow mine.

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Time Out

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Since so many of you offered me helpful feedback on my manuscript/book proposal, I thought I’d take a little break from my travelogue to give you the latest update on my agent search.

Prior to leaving for Italy, I sent four chapters of my much-revised manuscript to JW in New York City. For those of you who don’t have the pleasure to experience this, sending out a manuscript feels a little like sitting in a quiet room while watching someone else read writing you’ve bled onto the page. So, I decided that abiding the silence while in Tuscany was one of the best lines of defense ever. If JW hated my newest batch of writing, it wouldn’t hurt so much to hear about it while in, or shortly after returning from, Europe.

As it turns out, I didn’t hear from JW during the two weeks we were gone, but got a lovely email upon my return to the States. He’s not interested in selling the Bluebird, but he is interested in my writing and would be interested in working with me on something else – if the muses stirred. A mixture of relief and slight (really only slight, much to my surprise) disappointment washed over me when I read his email.

If JW had decided to sign me up and shop the Bluebird around to publishers, I’d begun to wonder how I would get the writing done, and if I would, in the end, be a huge disappointment to him and to myself. Plus, with the impending arrival of Baby Kintz in February, and at least 4 or 5 months more of reporting and research to do on the Bluebird as a whole, time felt incredibly slight. In the face of all this my energy for the project was beginning to lag, and I wondered if I’d be able to revive my passion enough for a publishing deal.

Don’t worry – I have had moments when I’ve felt my writing career might be over, and that I’ve already written my one good idea … I’m not that abnormal. But there’s also a part of me that’s keen to embrace the possibility of a new adventure with my writing, and my hope was buoyed by JW’s affirmation of my work as a writer, if not the “salability” of my idea. Now, if only those Southern muses would stir!

Gradually, I am learning that this thing I’m doing takes more faith and passion than it does ambition, and since I can’t seem to do anything else with my life other than write, I might as well keep at it …

Curious

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As many of you may (or may not) know, for the past two years, I’ve been working on a manuscript about songwriters in Nashville. It started out as a thesis for my MFA program, but since I graduated I’ve been thinking of it more along professional lines. I haven’t mentioned it here because I tend to be fairly quiet about such things, and because it makes me nervous.

The inevitable rejections a writer faces privately are tough enough, so you’ll rarely hear me or any other prudent writer I know touting the fact that she has just sent out seventeen book proposals to agents. The truth is that I tend to be pretty hesitant to send anything out (nothing’s ever perfect, you know) – which means that I’m often spared rejection, but also sparsely published. But, this summer, at the urging of a persistent advisor, I wrote a book proposal for Bluebird (see Jupe’s awesome book covers!) and sent it to one agent.

I got an email from him the day the FedEx hit his office in NYC. He asked me for three weeks’ exclusivity (pretty normal, from what I understand), to which I happily agreed. After his deadline was up, JW called me and asked me on what I imagine as the literary world’s equivalent of a second date. He said he liked my writing and that he liked the manuscript’s subject, but that he wanted to see a different chapter excerpt – preferably something more character based.

Now, because I was so sure that JW was simply going to send me a letter that said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” that he asked me out on a second date felt nothing short of miraculous. But, as second dates go, anxiety and intimidation set in; I realized that to give JW what he really wanted meant having to rethink the structure of the whole manuscript – 225 pages of which I meticulously stitched together over the course of my two-year graduate program. For reasons I won’t bore you with, I believe that taking the whole darn thing apart is the right thing to do. But I have been stalling, unsure of how to proceed.

This week, however, I gave myself an October 1 deadline. Whether JW wants the second date by then or not – he said there was no rush – he’s getting it. Otherwise, Bluebird will never be heard from again.

Now – I’d like to ask a favor of you. I’m curious to see if any of you would read the attached document (lorna-revised.doc, below) and tell me – honestly – if you’re intrigued. I need this thing to jump right off the page; I need you to be hungry for more of the story. If it doesn’t, and you can’t get past page two, please tell me. Thanks!