Happy 1st Year: Into the Woods

photo by L.L. Barkat

This is the third in my series of posts counting down the days to April 1, the one-year birthday of  The Joy of Poetry.

Before the book came out I did something that probably served me better than any marketing seminar with a catchy title about how to sell books. I didn’t do this thing with an eye toward how it might help me navigate the book’s release, but it turned out to be essential. I was in a community theater production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

I have been a theater fangirl since I was a child, when my mother took me to see a production every year for my birthday. After I got married and had children, our daughter became involved in theater, thus turning both my husband and I into the kind of people who plan their New York City trip around shows. In 2014 my husband and daughter were in Fredericksburg Theater Company‘s production of Les Misérables, playing several chorus roles. For Into the Woods I played the back half of Milky White, the cow, (and Snow White in the finale). Our Milky White was on wheels, and she could sit down or tip forward. My co-cowhand and I worked her like a giant puppet.

What does this have to do with writing a book? Not much. What does it have to do with promoting a book? Everything.

I am quiet, sometimes shy. I’d much rather interview you than have you interview me. I don’t like to draw attention to myself without good reason.

A show is a good reason. So is a book.

We rehearsed for four months. I got to work with a cast of 20 talented people and together, along with the directors and crew, we put on a great show. I am proud of all nine performances, including the one when the cow broke and we went on with the show so well that the director didn’t realize what had happened until someone told him. For those three weekends I got used to being in public. I got used to applause. I invited folks who were only acquaintances to come to a musical about fairy tales, and a handful came just because I was in it. That, my friends, was humbling.

It was also great training for what was to come, after the book published. Suddenly, I was put in the position to invite acquaintances to check out my book, and not something fun like a mystery or a romance. No, I was offering poetry. Sometimes I felt like I was offering chocolate, and all they could see was broccoli.

When you’re in a show or have a loved in one, you know how much work goes on behind the scenes to pull it off. It’s the same with getting a book published. At a small publisher like TS Poetry Press, fewer people wear more hats, but I’m aware that a book doesn’t happen without the equivalent of a director and crew.

Every person matters. Everyone who wrote an Amazon review or a blog post or hosted an event for me went out of their way. They spent time and their own hard-earned cash. It’s no small thing.

Sometimes I wish I could be doing this book thing from that familiar stage in Fredericksburg. I wish the house lights were dim. I wish Ryan was in the crow’s nest, directing the music with his glow stick. I wish I could look to the left see Jim, taking notes. I wish I could hear Donna laughing from the audience. I wish Heidi and Julie and Will — aka Jack’s family — and all my cast mates were close by. But it’s just me and my little book with a yellow flower.

And it’s okay. Because I’ve done this before.

Happy 1st Year: poem permissions

photo by Michelle DeRusha

This is my second week to count down the days to The Joy of Poetry‘s first birthday. One thing I haven’t mentioned in previous posts — and frankly, something not enough people have asked me about — is the process of obtaining poem permissions .

The Joy of Poetry contains 30 poems by people other than me. In order to print them in a book that would be sold for profit, I had to get permission from the author and/or the publisher. I began sending requests through emails and letters in the summer of 2014. I did not finish until fall 2015. There are some publishers I never heard from at all.

Imagine my book as a giant tray of assorted cookies. I wanted to share poems that had meant something to me personally. Some of those came from established poets, some came from ones with day jobs, one came from a middle-schooler. I had to get permission for each one, and my publisher had to see the documentation.

Now, I don’t have a problem with poets being paid for their work, especially since there is essentially no money in poetry, whether you’re terrific or terrible. But I am sincerely sad that many poems I wanted to share are not included because I couldn’t afford them. That’s why there is nothing from Billy Collins or Mary Oliver. Also nothing from Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, John Berryman, May Swenson, and Kevin Young — all of whom had poems on my original list.

This is the economics side of poetry, and it works both ways. If someone reads my book, likes one of my poems, and wants to use it in a different book to be sold, then he or she would have to contact TS Poetry Press.

The responses from publishers varied so widely as to be arbitrary. The publisher of one U.S. Poet Laureate said yes and sent a contract to sign, no fee required. Another publisher wanted to charge $1,080 for a single poem. And then there was the publisher of a poet, one who passed away recently enough that his work is not in the public domain, that said, “Pay us $200 and then we’ll ask the estate.” Wait, I have to pay to find out if I can play? I rewrote the chapter.

I did include some poems old enough to be in the public domain and from some poets who published with smaller presses. Many of them said yes immediately. In most cases the fees were nominal, and I was happy to pay.

I sent a maximum limit of $100 for a single poem. Obviously, I couldn’t do that for every poem, but I needed a guideline. The only poem I paid that amount for — and actually I paid a bit more — was “Write About a Radish” by Karla Kuskin, who died in 2009. I had such a lovely back-and-forth with her publisher, who was thrilled to see the poem used. It felt like we were working together to bring her work to the world after she had left it. Her representative told me, “That one is widely permissioned — a word in my trade.” “Permissioned.” I learned a new word. That was worth the price of admission.

There were many other lovely exchanges. I received a handwritten note from Shoestring Press in the UK, which published Helena Nelson’s “With My Mother, Missing the Train,” that read, “Dear Megan Willome: Thanks for your letter of 30th July. Yes, of course, you have my permission for Nell’s poem. Hope the book goes well.”

Contrast that with this email I received from a permissions editor at a medium-size publisher here in the States. The title of the poem had four words, two of which are prepositions. I thought I had capitalized correctly, but I did not. (My bad.) Looking back, I should’ve used the Look Inside feature at Amazon, something I used a lot after I received this email: “I’ll assume you’ve be checking the poems & titles against the original pages as part of the process, but I wanted to bring that to your attention.” That was my first response to a request for permission. I was so discouraged I wanted to give up. I’m glad I didn’t. I never heard back from that editor on the poem I requested.

But I cannot say enough good things about Holly Amos, acquisitions editor at Poetry magazine. She helped me get in touch with Daniel Handler’s agent and contact the correct family member who handled the estate of Stuart Mills.

I’d also like to give a shoutout to Maureen Doallas, who helped me locate contact information for Joyce Sutphen for a poem that at that time was only printed at The Writers’ Almanac.

And then there was my correspondence with Dana Gioia. I had an in with him because one of our writers at the Wacoan magazine interviewed him several years ago. After he said yes, he wrote, “Good luck with the book. I hope you make some money!”

I replied, “Very funny. It’s a poetry book. I am definitely keeping my day job at the WACOAN. :)”

“Hope springs eternal in human breast!” he wrote back.

He didn’t even charge me. I sent him a copy of the book as a thank you.

There were so many other kind words from poets you may or may not have heard of. Some would ask, “Is there anything else you need?” When I told Claire Bateman, who wrote “Woman at the Stoplight,” the story of what her poem meant to me, she wrote back, “And your message means a lot to me — I’m always on the edge of ‘Why do I do this; what difference does it make?’ So THANK YOU.”

No, thank you. Thank you all.

Happy 1st Year: Bosom Buddies

photo by L.L. Barkat

April 1 will be the one-year birthday of  The Joy of Poetry. Like the birthday of a person, a book’s birthday deserves to be celebrated. So that’s what I’ll do here for the next month, sharing a few more stories about the story — how it came to be, where it is now, where it might be going.

I chose this photo, the one that highlights the dedication page, “For Merry Nell,” because on Monday I spoke to the Christ-centered breast cancer support group she started in Austin, Bosom Buddies. Actually, she was the co-founder, along with Hazel Miller. Both women have since passed away.

Not long after her first round with cancer, Mom was invited to join a breast cancer support network. She didn’t like that she wouldn’t be able to share Bible verses and talk about Jesus, so she started her own group. It was just an Austin thing. It still is.

The group meets at Westlake United Methodist Church at noon on Mondays. Want to feel humbled? Have a bunch of Bosom Buddies make you lunch.

It was my favorite talk I’ve given since the book came out. And it was different than all the others. This was the only one in which we could all dive into the Legend of Merry Nell. I always talk about Mom’s 29-year journey with cancer, but these women wanted details, dates, diagnoses. My dad was there as well, so we were able to answer questions as a team.

This group was also unusual in that they felt free to ask questions. Or interrupt me. Or veer the conversation. It was glorious.

Normally, I bring a poem for us to discuss as a group, to show people that all it takes is a few minutes with a few words to appreciate a poem. I’d brought Ted Kooser’s “Selecting a Reader,” but we never got to it. I’d considered bringing one of Jane Kenyon’s cancer poems, like “After an Illness, Walking the Dog,” but worried that the group might be sick of talking about cancer. I was wrong. If that were the case, they wouldn’t be Bosom Buddies.

Instead, they wanted to hear more of my cancer poems than I’d planned to read, especially the ones where I was struggling with Mom’s determination to keep fighting. One woman confided, “I think my daughter’s pretty pissed at me.” Another told a story of hurt feelings at a baby shower, when the grandmother-to-be came late and left early because that was all the energy she had.

I read from chapter 8 of The Joy of Poetry, the one that includes one of Mom’s emails and my poem “Still.” It’s the only time I pair her words with mine in the book. The purple flower she writes about goes well with the bluebonnets I describe in the poem. It was also a good choice for the day because the bluebonnets have been out since the last week in February, and I can’t see a bluebonnet without thinking about my mother.

If the talk was a chance for the women to learn about my mom from me, it was also a chance for me to learn more about her from them. If you’ve ever watched the TV show Big Bang Theory, you know Sheldon has a particular spot on the couch. No one else is allowed to sit there or Sheldon gets snippy. On Monday I learned that Mom had a particular spot on the couch in the church library where the group meets. The spot is, in fact, in the same position — far left (or far right, depending on your perspective) — as Sheldon’s spot. All the old-timers, whose who knew my mom, won’t sit there. Although, unlike Sheldon, they don’t mind at all if someone else does. Mom liked that spot so she could be the first one to spot anyone coming in late. Then she could also be the first person to say, “Welcome.”

Near the end of the lunch, a woman sat beside me to talk. She was in that room in 2007 when Mom announced that her cancer was back after a 23-year remission. This woman recalled being shocked at the news: That’s not supposed to happen.

“And then it happened to me,” she said, “after 18 years.” She was grateful for Mom’s warning. That’s part of Mom’s legend too, not only the blessing of the 23-year break, but the blessing of the warning that emerged when that season ended.

This poem is one of the 72 I wrote during Mom’s last three years, after that 2007 announcement. It’s not in the book, but it is here on the blog, with its sister poems that make up “My Mother’s Diary.”

Legend of Merry Nell

 

The Comanches tell the story

of She-Who-Is-Alone, the girl who

sacrificed her warrior doll, ended the famine,

was renamed

She-Who-Dearly-Loved-Her-People.
 

After the drought of Mom’s cancer finally

ended with her March death, we got better

bluebonnets than anyone could remember.
 

Even without her, I am not alone.

Everywhere I see a bluebonnet

— in a ditch, in an

emtpy field, in an alley —

I know that she still dearly loves her people.

 

 

 

Border

Two mornings ago I woke up thinking about scorpions. A friend had written a poem about them — creatures unfamiliar to her but common here, where I live. And immediately I thought of the handmade scorpions the Mexican artisans create and leave for visitors to buy at Big Bend National Park.

See the scorpions, made of wire and beads? Note the price list to the right. The soda bottle is where you, as a tourist, put your money. When my dad and I went to Big Bend six years ago — this very week — we saw these makeshift shops everywhere. We stayed at Chisos Mountain Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Want to see the creators of this folk art?

These two men are wisely sitting in the shade because even in February, it’s hot in the Chihuahuan desert in the afternoon. Presumably, in the evening they walk across the trickle that passes for the Rio Grande at that spot and gather their money, replace their wares.

This is what the border looks like, near the scorpion sellers. Can you tell which side is Texas and which side is Mexico?

Neither can I.

Big Bend National Park is 801,163 acres, making it the 15th largest national park but one of the least visited, due to its remote location. The border with Mexico within the park stretches 118 miles. On the U.S. side is the national park, and on the Mexican side is Maderas del Carmen, a protected reserve. The cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico has increased the migration of wildlife to and from both sides in an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

The park was officially established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 12, 1944. Look at that date for a moment. Do you know what event occurred only six days earlier? D-Day.

What made Big Bend so important that a President would shift his focus from a world in turmoil to the wilderness of southwest Texas? It was a noble purpose. To set something aside for future generations with the fate of the present generation still uncertain was an act of optimism in an uncertain world.”

Thank you, Mr. President.

 

 

“Far from a mere plank”

“Far from a mere plank in her husband’s platform, Katharina von Bora was an integral part of the entire foundation.”

That’s from Michelle DeRusha’s 50 Women Every Christian Should Know, in which Katharina von Bora was woman number 6. DeRusha has now expanded Katharina’s story in Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.

Katharina left behind eight letters, none of which were written to her husband. For a writer trying to bring a historical figure to life, that’s a pittance of primary sources. Somehow DeRusha did it.

She did have some of Luther’s letters to Katharina, sermons and treatises published back in the day, and more books on Martin Luther than she could ever hope to read.

But I know she wished for more of Katharina’s own voice. I sure did. And of course, that made me think of Eliza Hamilton.

“Unfortunately, she was so self-effacing and so reverential toward her husband that, though she salvaged every scrap of his writing, she apparently destroyed her own letters,” writes Ron Chernow in his biography Alexander Hamilton.

Any papers belonging to Katharina that may have remained following her death no longer exist. The remaining family documents were destroyed following World War II.

But oh, Katharina, what might you have written? About your father taking you to the convent school and leaving you there at age 6? About your 18 years in cloistered life? About your escape on Easter eve? About your thoughts regarding this renegade monk both before and after you married him? What about the loss of two daughters? Would you share your recipe for home-brewed beer? Why was Tuesday considered a lucky day for weddings? What did you think of the young men gathered around your table? Of the kings and noblemen to whom you turned for help when society shunned you once again?

The bits of Katharina’s voice that we have intrigue me, including this one: “More damage has been done to me by my friends than by my enemies.” Yes, said every woman ever.

Or when Luther encouraged her to read her Bible cover to cover, she argued, “I’ve read enough, I’ve heard enough. I know enough. Would to God I lived it.” I think her statement shows a profound understanding of theology. She was educated enough in Scripture to be a sounding board and confidant to her husband, Mr. Reformation, but she also knew reading and hearing and knowing isn’t enough. May I add my amen, “Most holy Mrs. Doctor” (one of the tender ways in which Luther addressed her in his letters.)

My favorite nonfiction historical book ever is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. She focuses on the stories of three people to tell the larger story of the Great Migration. In a similar way, DeRusha uses the story of Katharina and Martin Luther to tell the story of the Reformation.

“Luther saved Katharina. He rescued her from the convent, from a life she didn’t choose for herself, and offered her security, stability, and a place in a society that regarded her very existence with suspicion. … What history has largely failed to acknowledge, however, is that Katharina saved Luther as well. … The Protestant Reformation would have happened without the marriage of Luther and Katharina. But Luther would not have been the same Reformer without Katharina.”

As I finished the book on Thursday, while the plumber (who I’ve come to know on a first-name basis) installed a new water heater, I started writing this review. On Friday I slept and rose and did as many errands as I could to avoid finishing it. Finally I wrote, “So this is personal.”

Katharina’s story is personal to me because it made me wonder what other women in my life have not left a record.

I have only a few things written by my mom, mainly prayer letters to friends and family during her years with cancer. I also have a journal she wrote when she was pregnant with me, that she abandoned when real life required more attention. From her mother, I don’t have anything (although Nannie was more of a numbers gal). From my dad’s mother I have one letter.

Then there’s me. My children will have more writing than they’ll know what to do with. But even so, they’ll never see the poems I’ve deleted. I’ve burned letters. I have given great thought to what my writing journals say, should someone find them after I’m gone and choose not toss them in a landfill. I tweet with care.

Speaking of Twitter, while jotting notes for this review, I came across an essay by Rahawa Haile, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016 and read books by black writers along the way. She wrote, “That visibility is vulnerability, but that it also paves the way toward action for those who see themselves in you. That your existence, whether you see it or not, helps others be brave.”

Katharina lived in a time when she was already plenty vulnerable. More visibility might not have been wise for a woman who existed between the years of 1499-1552. I’m not bold enough to say I see myself in her, but I see in her the woman I want to be. DeRusha, in telling Katharina’s story, helps me be more brave.

‘Jitney’

Our last show on our last night was August Wilson’s Jitney. If you saw the movie Fences, that’s his too. Wilson wrote 10 plays on the African American experience in the 20th century, one for each decade. Jitney is set in the ’70s, and it’s the last of the plays to make it to Broadway. We saw it while it was still in previews, a week before it officially opened.

Wilson had a genius for character and dialogue. He also had the ability to surprise an audience, both with terrible turns as well as wonderful ones. Although it’s definitely a drama, the play was also funny, with jokes and teasing among these men who are long-time friends.

All good writing is specific and universal. Jitney tells a story that is about African Americans in a particular place and time, running a gypsy car service in 1977 that’s in business because white cabs won’t go to the black parts of Pittsburgh. The son, Booster, who gets out of prison for murder following a false, race-based accusation of rape. Those specifics are different from my life. But the universals? I know those. I’ve seen father-son conflict up close. I know about being young and in love and not having enough money. I’ve had friends who are closer than family, who encouraged and pushed me. I’ve seen my parents’ friends impact me as an adult in ways I never imagined when I was a child. I’ve seen a reputation change in an one unforeseeable instant. And I’ve dreamed big dreams that never saw morning.

This show is one I don’t know if you’ll get to see, so here’s a short video with comments from the cast. I can’t get enough of that groovy ’70s music!

 

 

‘Waitress’

I needed saving

and a good mistake needed making

—“I Didn’t Plan It”

That little couplet sums up this heartwarming show called Waitress. If you saw the 2007 movie of the same title, this is it, but with songs, so, better. (In my opinion, every story is better with songs.) It’s a story about what makes us human, namely, making mistakes.

It’s set in Joe’s Pie Diner, somewhere that sounds awfully Texan to me. The main character, Jenna, has made a series of mistakes including this one: “I do stupid things when I drink, like sleep with my husband.” He’s terrible, and when Jenna becomes pregnant, she dreams of running away from him, if only she could afford to. Her plan is to enter a pie-baking contest, where the prize would be enough money to buy her and her baby a new life. Because there is one thing she is really, really good at, and that’s making pies, a gift she inherited from her mama.

Each pie she creates is a slice of her story, concealed in a pie: Getting out of the Mud Pie, A Little Wild Wild Berry Pie, and my favorite, Betrayed by My Eggs Pie.

How does Jenna respond to mistake No. 1? By rushing headlong into mistake No. 2. Ultimately, her mistakes save her.

As does her kindness. She’s always kind to cranky Old Joe, who owns the diner and eats there every day. No one else will wait on him; Jenna does. It matters in ways she could never have foreseen.

The show, which centers around Jenna and her two female friends at the diner, has a feminine perspective. The music was composed by Sara Bareilles, and the film was written (and co-starred) Adrienne Shelly. This information about Shelly comes from the playbill: “…she conceived the film while pregnant with her daughter Sophie (Lulu in the film), for whom she wrote it as a ‘love letter’ in just two weeks.” Ultimately, the movie and the show are just that, a love letter. Shelly was murdered shortly after completing the film. The fact that this story, this tribute to motherhood, has gone on to the Great White Way, probably someday to a theater near you, well, it really is like something was birthed.

 

‘Hamilton’

(Notice how Hamilton‘s playbill is the only cover in color. Printing in color is more expensive, but Hamilton can afford it. A. Ham. would be proud.)

The entire reason we went to New York was to see Hamilton. I first listened to the entire cast album October 2015, shortly after it released and have listened to it ever since. I converted John the following January, and he surprised me with tickets for Valentine’s Day last year.

“We don’t do this,” I told him when I opened the gift. Meaning we don’t take big trips, don’t make extravagant purchases. We’re sensible. We give practical gifts, take family-oriented vacations. We don’t go to New York City for an entire week and make all our dreams come true.

Until we did.

During the year between buying the tickets and seeing the show, we listened to it often, especially on drives. One summer evening we took a drive down all our bike routes and sang along, for the entire two hours and 45 minutes. John would text me a lyric, and I’d text him back the next one.

Sure, I would have preferred to see the original cast—particularly Chris Jackson—but I think what would have been more incredible would have been to be someone like Jimmy Fallon, who first saw it at The Public Theater, before it went to Broadway. To ask fellow patrons, Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? 

John sat next to a couple who I’d guess were around 60. Like us, they bought their tickets a year ago. The wife trained at Julliard and teaches voice. She admitted she was skeptical of the hip hop, going in, but by the end of act 1, she was lovin’ it.

I did not expect the staging to bring so much to the story, especially through the choreography. The chorus was on stage for the entire show, and they served almost as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action through song and movement. Every gesture communicated. The men and women wore parchment-colored tights and sleeveless shirts with dark boots. That made it easy to put on a red coat or a blue one, to add a hat or a shawl for when a chorus member briefly became a character.

And while the choreography was complex, the stage itself was relatively simple. Nothing wheels on or off. It’s the same set throughout with a couple of concentric turntables surrounded by a balcony. No special effects. Nothing dropped from the ceiling. No pyrotechnics, unless you count Eliza setting fire to a letter. And they do more with pieces of paper than anyone since, well, the Founding Fathers.

Hamilton makes you believe in America. You see the flawed founders, and you love them. You get how radical this American experiment was then and still is. You consider the women, erased from the narrative because their words were not preserved. You understand how divisive slavery was from the beginning. You feel that this country should not have worked, but then again, how could it not? Who doesn’t want to turn the world upside down?

It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a show. It’s exciting and sad and heartbreaking and funny and rollicking and inspirational. There was so much the cast album alone didn’t give me, moments that needed to be seen as well as heard. At the end I was exhausted. I wanted to sit and sob, but we attended a matinee, and there was another show that night, so we made our way to a deli we liked, and just talked through it all. This whole thing went from something we don’t do to something we did … together. Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris; John and Megan will always have New York.

We’ve listened to and watched and read who knows how many interviews with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. We saw Moana twice and downloaded the music, and we can’t wait for Mary Poppins Returns, which he’s filming in London now. But I think my favorite moment ever with him was the Broadway edition of Carpool Karaoke before the Tonys. This, for us, is what musical theater is all about—folks in a car, belting out show tunes. Because we can always do that.

(Here’s the best 11 minutes you will spend outside of listening to Hamilton, I guarantee.)

 

 

 

‘The Front Page’

Our first night in town we had dinner at an Indian restaurant and then cuddled in bed and watched the Golden Globes. The second night we went to a Knicks game because we were in walking distance of Madison Square Garden. (Don’t tell, but I secretly rooted for the New Orleans Pelicans because they’re in the same division as the San Antonio Spurs. The Pelicans won.) Our third night and every day thereafter we saw shows. The first was The Front Page.

It was written in 1928 by a couple of Chicago newspaper guys who became playwrights, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (husband of Helen Hayes). The setting is the press room in the criminal courts building in Chicago, October, 1928. While a lot of particulars of life have changed from then until now, the basics remain unchanged: People are people. But the clothes from back then are vastly superior, for men and women. Fab-U-Lous! Most important, friends, all I did was laugh, through all three acts.

How could I not? John Goodman was the sheriff. John Slattery was the newspaperman trying to get out. And the unscrupulous editor? Nathan Lane.

“Appearing at around the same time as the shark appears in “Jaws,” Lane’s Walter Burns roared through the door of this thinly veiled version of Chicago’s former City News Bureau…” 

That great line is from Chicago Tribune reviewer Chris Jones. Nathan Lane was the shark. He sucked up every bit of oxygen on stage, and we begged him to take more. I’ve admired him on the large and small screen, most recently as attorney F. Lee Bailey in The People v. O.J. Simpson. But in person? He was unreal. There was a bit where he was trying to push a rolltop desk that wouldn’t budge, and he slowly slid all the way down until he was on the floor. Never underestimate the value of physical comedy.

This trip of ours? It was fun. We laughed. We walked our tooshies off. We ate at multiple corner delis, some of them multiple times. And we did what we love most—we saw shows.

When I met John, he wasn’t a theater guy. When we did a study abroad trip in London, he saw shows then, and I think, although he didn’t know it, he was bitten by the bug. A few years later one of our children got into theater, which led to us becoming season ticket holders at our fabulous local community theater, Fredericksburg Theater Company. We’ve since each been in a show.

There is nothing like live theater. It’s scripted, yet unpredictable. The Front Page we saw Tuesday, January 10, was different the following night in some small (or maybe large) way. I’d see it again anywhere. But I’ll never see it again with Nathan Lane.

Here Is New York

Once we had the dates set for our trip to New York City, I put them in my calendar. I did not write “vacation” or even “NYC.” I wrote, “Look around! Look around!” Because Hamilton.

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now

History is happenin’ in Manhattan and we just happen

to be in the greatest city in the world

in the greatest city in the world

—“The Schuyler Sisters”

That’s what we did all week, look around. notice people. Notice buildings. Notice parks. Most of my vacations have been more nature-oriented, more Mary Oliver: woods, mountains, rivers, beaches. This trip was E.B. White, who wrote “Here Is New York.”

He wrote this 7,500-word piece in 1949, and I found it still for sale all over New York in 2017. The man loved Maine with all his heart, and he also loved Manhattan. Meet E. B. White, greatest essayist of all time:

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is incomprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

New York is a poem. I second that. And poems are made of specifics, things you notice when you look around.

Here are just a few things I noticed during our little week on that crowded island:

  • More languages than I’ve ever heard in one spot.
  • I thought smoking was over, but a lot of people still exhale.
  • Every clerk, barista, bartender, waiter, doorman, driver, housekeeper, tour guide, security person, and usher was polite, if not friendly.
  • Merciful heavens, Central Park! Black rocks, bronze statues, trees glorious trees, winding paths, so many dogs and strollers, toddlers dressed for blizzards and playing in snowmelt, grownups on swings (including me).
  • Delis on every corner with good food, some with a specialty, like dumplings or felafel. Extra seating upstairs or down.
  • It doesn’t take long to adjust to walking at least 10 miles a day.

One moment I loved, that E.B. White would have too because he loved dogs, was when we ran into actor Tony Shalhoub in Central Park. He was throwing a ball for his dog, which landed at my husband’s feet. The dog came over to fetch the ball, his owner behind him. John didn’t want to make a big scene—here was a guy out walking his dog on a cool, sunny day, just like we walk our dogs. Here is New York. And here is Fredericksburg, and here is wherever you walk your dog.

(P.S. More about the trip in the next four posts!)